The Curse Between Us, Pt. 1

Cian's scream echoed through the trees, as raw and primal as any creature of the jungle. He was sewing his ankle back together, and it hurt like hell. As he bit the needle so hard between his teeth that the metal bent, Cian threaded sticky strands of boar sinew through the pinhead, and then repaired his bones as best he could. The process was slow, marked with errors and restarts, and the pain from his torn muscles was so intense that he barely kept conscious. When Cian could flex his muscles again, he wrapped them in bandages and carefully stood up, for the first time in two days.

Taking care of the ankles, excruciating though it was, didn't compare to the trouble of mending his broken arm, which he had seen to first. He imagined he looked properly ghoulish as the trails of his bandages fluttered in the breeze, and he grimaced with every step. He ought to have taken some time to rest, but while he played tailor to his body, he was tortured with images of Eulalia, Ingomar, and Linnaris, suffering at the hands (or whips, or daggers, or slow killing curses) of those crazy witches.

He knew, somehow intrinsically, where Eulalia and the others had been taken: the Scholomance. A loathsome, panicked desire welled in him, a compulsion to leave them there and forget all this, to run away. He dismissed it before it percolated and took hold of him, but Cian was disgusted with himself nonetheless.

The sound of dissipating arcane energy alerted him as he called for his horse. An'jin appeared a moment later, his demeanor casual.

"You have a habit of showing up just past the nick of bloody time," Cian scowled.

"Sorry, mon," An'jin said. "It's like I told you, I'm not stalkin' ya. I din't see dat ya was bein' followed by anudder until ya were already in da thick of t'ings."

"You mean, surrounded by demons and silithid, forced to watch as some of the only people who have ever pretended to care about me were kidnapped by a sadistic warlock?"

"Ya, mon. Dat's what I mean."

Exhaling in frustration, Cian said, "Are you going to be useful for once, and help me rescue them?"

An'jin bowed low. "Ya've guessed da exact reason for my callin' on ya."

"Great. Let's get going, then. How long d'you reckon it would take a wyvern to fly from here to the Bulwark?" Cian said, only half-sarcastic. Typically, wyverns refused to cross the Great Sea, but maybe if he paid the goblin at Marshal's Refuge a little more than the average fee …

"Why don't I jus' make us a nice portal ta Orgrimmar?" An'jin said, hands aglow.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Cian said. "I'm told all the undead are being detained in Undercity. D'you have any left in the capital?"

"Not many, no," An'jin admitted. "But I'll vouch for ya. It'll be fine."

Cian suspected a trick: though he was satisfied that An'jin was not an agent of the Socurge, Cian couldn't bring himself to trust the troll fully. His unruffled demeanor was off-putting somehow, as though he were privy to more than he let on, as though he'd glimpsed the end of the story and found it hilarious. And trolls were known for their macabre sense of humor.

"Also, I don't have time to report," Cian said. "I can't be chatting it up while … while those women are suffering."

"I think ya underestimate'em still," An'jin said. He gestured to the Orgrimmar portal. "But very well. Let's not be chattin', den."

--

Ingomar was used to the cold. Although she hailed from the Wildhammer clan, she had left the gently crisp climate of Aerie Peak for Ironforge not long after she came of age. Paladins were uncommon in the Wildhammer ranks: though they did not reject the Light, they cared for gryphons, for heavens full of clouds and stars rather than mysterious beings and intangible promises.

Ingomar knew, of course, that the Light was as real and true as any feather on the grass. She had heard it whisper to her, from the trees in the forest that surrounded the Peak, from beneath the snows that cloaked the sheer cliffs outside Ironforge. Its presence ran through her blood, sure as oxygen. Even here, trapped in a cell, stripped of all but her tabard and skivvies, the Light pulsed within her, and she was not afraid.

But she was thirsty.

"Couldna left a girl her booze, eh?" Ingomar shouted to the guards outside. One of them shifted nervously. "I ain't had a proper pint in hours. I'm nae liable fer me actions when I'm sober."

"Settle down," said the other guard. He turned his head, glaring at her. The guard was no more than a human boy, comparable in age to the group of necromancers Ingomar had met at the Marris Stead.

"Wot is this noo, a daycare?" Ingomar said. "You lot are all babies."

"We are students of necromancy, ma'am," said the nervous guard. "And this is our school."

"Aye, I know 'at. I jes dinnae recall so many kiddies runnin' round."

"That's because you're an idiot," said the sour guard. "The Scholomance is not merely the manor house of the Barovs. That's only the main campus. The bulk of the school is beneath Andorhal."

"Where you are now," said the nervous guard, helpfully, which prompted his friend to pinch his forearm.

"Don't talk to them like that," he hissed.

"Them?" Ingomar said.

"Yes, ma'am," said the nervous guard, rubbing his arm, "your companions are also in this cell block."

"Damn it, Jeff!" the sour guard said. "Shut the hell up before I summon a skeleton to kick your ass."

"But you failed last week's summoning exam," Jeff said innocently, which earned him another pinch. "Marshall, that hurts."

"You're so useless, man. I can't believe your parents are High Priests in the cult. They must have bribed Gandling with a wheelbarrow of prime sacrifices to get you in here."

"Just because I'm not mean to everybody all the time …"

Ingomar felt a headache pricking at her temples. She'd give a hair off Uther's chin for a jug of bourbon about now.

"Can you two dunderheads keep it down?" Linnaris's voice called from somewhere to Ing's left. "I'm plotting my daring escape, you see, and it's awfully hard to concentrate with all the racket."

"Insolent wench," Marshall growled. "I heard Lady Amarantha wants dinner with you tonight. See if you're so impertinent then."

Ingomar stuck her head between the bars of her cell and saw Linn sticking her tongue out, with her eyes crossed.

"What the matter? Too scared to shut me up yourself?" she said, kissing her hand, and then patting her butt.

Angrily, Marshall fumbled for his keyring, but Jeff touched the taller boy's wrist. "She's just baiting you, man."

Red flushed Marshall's sallow, thin cheeks. His face looked like a piece of parchment with tomato juice spilled across it, worn despite his obvious youth. Jeff looked positively healthy in contrast, with cheeks round as pumpkins and bright, evergreen eyes.

"This is so lame," Marshall grumbled. "I didn't know prison duty was part of the job when I signed up to be a resident assistant."

"Well, they are residing here," Jeff said. "For a little while."

The sound of echoing footsteps quieted them both. A high elf, with wispy limbs and no particular expression, appeared at the bottom of a long staircase.

"Lady Amarantha desires her dinner guest," the elf said dully, and raised a leaf-thin palm. Nettled, Marshall dropped his keyring onto the elf's fingers; the keys clanged together as the metal ring slid past her knuckles. She closed her palm into a fist and walked, staggeringly, towards Linnaris's cell. The two young guards watched her with a mixture of revulsion and desire.

"Come along," the high elf said to Linn, "you must be prepared."

"Gonna baste me?" Linn said.

The high elf didn't reply; only herded Linn from the cell. Her movements were truncated, unsure, as though she were not the pilot of her own body. Her voice, too, rang unnaturally to Ingomar's ears; it had no spark to it, no undercurrents, no inflections. And yet the woman was not dead—though her complexion was sun-starved, she inhaled and exhaled regularly, and her lips were pink.

Ingomar shuddered, and not because of the pervasive chill.

When the high elf and Linnaris had gone, the two guards blinked and shook their heads.

"Sometimes I think it is a good thing that Lady Amarantha is not interested in men," Jeff said.

"Sometimes?" said Marshall. "I thank the shadows for it every day."

"Thank the shadows? Man, who talks like that?"

"What! We're necromancers!"

"Well, no need to be so pretentious about it."

The headache knocked between Ingomar's ears again.

"Do you think she'll want this elf, too?" Marshall moved to the third cell on the block, which Ingomar realized belonged to Eulalia. "If not, maybe I can have her."

"Have me for what?" Eulalia said, and abruptly pushed most of her chin and cheeks though the bars, so close to where Marshall was leaning in that he jumped back. She grinned hugely, baring shark-sharp teeth. "I'm not good at most lady-things, you know."

Marshall flattened his robes in a way that made Jeff and Ingomar roll their eyes. "Well, uh, I could teach you."

"Aren't you in Feoh Feoh Ur?" Jeff said, with such sweetness that Ingomar wondered if he was feigning it, "The inscription on the last coffin in the East Crypt says that everyone in your fraternity is a virgin."

"Dude," Marshall said. "You know some jealous cock from Siegel Ac Ior wrote that like a hundred years ago. The only reason it's still there is because he used a cursed stylus to carve the inscription, and you can't get that shit out unless you've broken the stylus and freed all the souls trapped inside of it. Duh, man. Everyone knows that."

He straightened the collar of his robe.

Eulalia lolled against the bars of her cell, not seeming bothered by the frozen steel.

"Mind yer tongue, Eulie," Ingomar said. "Don't want tae get stuck tae nothin'."

She expected a crass follow-up remark from the sour guard, but he was mesmerized by Eulalia. Craning her neck as far as comfort would allow, Ingomar saw the night elf wriggling on the floor of the cell, the curves and muscles of her body rippling like waves in a pond.

"Ye allrigh', lassie?" Ingomar said.

"Just trying to warm up," Eulalia said cheerfully.

Sweat beaded on the foreheads of both guards as they gazed at her.

"S working for somebody," Ingomar muttered.

"I—I'll give you my cloak," Marshall said, hastily retrieving the keyring from where the high elf had dropped it at the base of the stairs.

"Isn't your cloak enchanted to amplify magic?" Jeff said.

"She's a hunter, man. They don't have any magic."

Marshall fit the key into the lock, but before he turned it, Eulalia's arms snaked out from between the bars and coiled around his neck.

"That is a nice offer," she said quietly. "But I like a good exercise better."

Marshall choked as Eulalia jerked him back against the bars, strangling him where he stood. He sputtered and tried to wrench free, but Eulalia held him fast. Jeff strode over to help, but Marshall was dead in seconds, and as Eulalia let his corpse slip from her arms, his stiff hand turned the key.

The door swung open, and Eulalia leapt on Jeff like a tiger on a rabbit. His incantation died on his lips, struck from him as he was thrown to the stone floor.

"You were right. I have magic," she said, her voice low, soothing. "Older than what you use. Older than what is written about in your books." She took hold of his head, one hand cupping his chin and the other, the top of his hair. "Which is just as well, cos I can't read." Then, she snapped his neck.

"Did yeh plan that, lassie?" Ingomar asked, while Eulalia browsed the keyring for the key that would open her friend's cell.

"Hmm? Plan?" Eulalia said. She found the required key and unlocked Ingomar's cell. "I saw his neck near to me, so I decided to seize the opportunity. As hard as I could."

"And yeh didn't expect him tae come near yeh on account of yer wrigglin'?"

Eulalia shrugged. "I was cold." She rubbed her arms. "Still am."

"Well, let's see if we can't sort out where they've stashed our armor," Ingomar said. "Then we can crash Linnaris's dinner party."

They combined their extrasensory perceptions for this task, with Ingomar focusing her mind on the location of any nearby locked chests, and Eulalia on what guard, living or dead, might be appointed near those chests.

"There is a human two floors above us," Eulalia said. "His name is Dean Mortuus. That name sounds pretty important, don't you think?"

"Aye, an' there's a chest near'im. Let's go 'ave a visit."

Eulalia could not perceive two types of beings at once, but the undead were surprisingly sparse down wherever they were. Humans, mostly young peasants in robes that looked far too menacing for their wearers, walked up and down some of the hallways; but, most of the population was gathered behind closed doors.

Bits of gruesome lectures escaped from these rooms and Ingomar paused when the sound of a lich berating a student for his failure to capture a dwarf filtered out from behind a classroom door; the shouting was so intense that the door shook with transferred fury.

Ingomar chuckled. Served'em right.

They moved carefully, though not stealthily, through the halls. Whenever Eulalia sensed an approaching student, they hid in one of the many recesses set into the walls, with Eulalia melded to the shadows and Ingomar crouched in whatever coffin or sarcophagus she could find. She knew now that the student guard hadn't lied—they were beneath Andorhal, in its vast network of converted catacombs. However, she had little notion of where the contact point with the surface might be, having scoured the ruin of Andorhal various times for various reasons and never come across the concealed entrance to its necropolis.

But perhaps they'd worry more about that once they had their clothes back on.

The stairwell offered no place to hide, and the two women raced up the cowebbed, bone-littered steps, hoping not to meet any opposition. Fortunately, they encountered only a lost neophyte, who seemed to assume that Ing and Euls were dressed for some kind of obscene ritual. The young man tittered anxiously as he asked for directions to his dorm room, which was apparently in the north wing of the south crypt. Ingomar directed him down several flights of stairs, and to the left; she then shoved Euls ahead of her before anyone could say any different.

Fortunately, the dean's office was the third room down the hall from the top of the staircase. Without any particular plan in mind, Ingomar barged in, fists raised, with Eulalia close behind.

Dean Mortuus looked up at them amiably, from behind a magnifying glass he was using to read a book bound in human flesh. The words were extraordinarily small, and blood oozed continuously from the book's gilded edges.

"Hello there," he said, not lowering the glass. A gray, wolfish beard surrounded his chin, tufted at the sides, but well-kept. His robes were the same black and blue as that of the average cultist, but crimson and silver cords hung around his neck, and a black hood rested on his back. A mortarboard covered his bald head. Mortuus was comfortably sanguine, and looked, by all accounts, to be a reasonable, welcoming figure. He had the relaxed posture of the self-assured and well-fed, though fed by what Ingomar couldn't imagine.

"Can I help you, young ladies?" Mortuus said.

"Aye, yeh can open tha' chest fer us," Ingomar said, nodding to the enormous, ornate trunk wedged against the back wall of the office. Their gear was in it—she could feel the enchanted metals calling to her.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," Mortuus said. He set down the magnifying glass. "You ought to've remained in your cells, my dears."

"Too chilly," Eulalia said.

"Ah, but wait til you have felt the absolute cold of death," Mortuus said, his voice deepening several octaves as he shed his human form and became a skeletal mage.

"Oi," Ing said. "Thought teacher-types were meant tae be smart."

"I have knowledge far beyond anything you are capable of grasping, little dwa—aaghh!"

Ingomar cut Mortuus off mid-insult, terrifying him with a shock of holy energy. He fled aimlessly around the office, knocking over shelves and vials, smashing the artifacts lined up on his desk (such as a skull with cruelly shaped teeth, its jaw smeared with a black, freshly glistening liquid). Eulalia caught him, and while he spasmed in uncontrollable horror at the Light's grace, Ingomar stole the pouches on his belt. Quickly, she found the key to the chest and opened the lock. Then, with joyful haste, Ingomar put her armor back on and tossed Eulalia's gear to her.

Mortuus's terror spell subsided just after Eulalia had refitted her breastplate (crafted from the dead carapace of an Old God) onto her chest. Slinging her quiver over her shoulder, she plucked an arrow from her stock and stabbed Mortuus in the neck. She jumped away as he grabbed for her, gurgling spells, and Ingomar summoned a pillar of holy fire to consume him. Augmented by the full power of her armor, the pillar reduced the Dean to ashes.

"Nice," Eulalia said.

"Thank ye," Ing said. "I do love the undead. It's so satsifyin' to watch'em burn."

Eulalia frowned at Mortuus's ashy remains. "Maybe sometimes. When they're real mean like that."

Thinking that this wasn't the time to persuade Eulalia about the undead's common, base nature, Ingomar did not argue. They divvied Linnaris's weapons and armor between themselves silently, and then faced the corridor.

--

An'jin kept his word: Cian did not yet have to justify his existence to Thrall, and they left Orgrimmar without event.

Cian let his muscles unclench during the ride to the Bulwark. When they arrived at the little encampment, An'jin said, "I know ya bin worried 'bout me, but da truth really is dat I wanna look out for ya. It's jus' dat I'm Vol'jin's man first, and so most of my time is occupied wit' whateva he's askin' for." He patted the heavy satchel around his waist fondly. "Or wit books an' so forth."

When he was a child, Cian's father told him tales of humans skirmishing with trolls, and of the latter race's great cunning. But he always framed it as a primitive rather than a learned intellect, and Cian felt slightly shamed that he had not recognized the book satchel. His mind had identified it as an overgrown voodoo pouch, or something equally ridiculous and misguided. He couldn't spare much energy for reflecting on his prejudices, though: the Scholomance was quite close, and they were at its entrance in short order.

"Got a key?" An'jin said, jabbing his thumb at the locked door.

Cian held up a set of thieves' tools, which included lock picks of various shapes and sizes. "Tons of'em."

As he set to work on the door, he tried to stave off the unsettling feeling of an invisible gaze on his back. No one was around except An'jin, and he was staring into the distance beyond Caer Darrow, perhaps to avoid thinking too deeply on the desecrated land surrounding them. Piles of aged, soot-black skulls sat in disarray beside the unearthly bonfires, and the moldering remains of once-thriving villagers were strewn across the Scourge's barbed metal cages, stinking still, rotten with worse than just fleshly decay. Only An'jin's imagination suggested the village's old life, but Cian had walked here in better times, and he was the more pained for it. Pointedly, he ignored the past whispering in his ear, the cries and pleadings of spirits both real and imagined.

Besides, it was not the innocent afterimages of Caer Darrow that spied on him, that marked his fumbling, normally expert work on Scholomance's lock. Something from inside the wicked manor watched him, waited for him.

At length, the lock ceded to his efforts, and the wooden door creaked open. Cian stepped aside while An'jin entered first, then slowly followed. The malicious presence intensified as they descended the steps into the manor proper. The chill of a hundred forgotten tombs sank into their bones; An'jin breathed out in frosted, ghost-white clouds. He cast a cloak of invisibility over himself, and Cian slipped into the shadows, but this only seemed to amuse the silent, unseen spy. The murmuring in the back of his head grew strong, until he heard a distinct voice, speaking in a low, grim whisper.

Welcome home.

--

The dress was sheer, crafted of a diaphanous fabric that was softer than silk. It was simple, sleeveless, with silver embroidery around the skirt and low, heart-shaped neck. Linnaris didn't like it, and she liked the soulless high elves who had forced it on her even less. Their bodies were alive, but everything else was dead, and the woman responsible was sitting across from her, running her tongue across her teeth.

"Aren't you hungry?" Amarantha said, and gestured to the table between them, which was covered with exquisitely prepared food. Bowls of strawberries encrusted with sugar, glistening cuts of meat garnished with golden, buttered potatoes, quivering dishes of cream and chocolate. Platters of fresh, sun-gold wheels of cheese, bottles of wine, and a cutting board topped with thinly sliced, gently steaming bread.

"Not in the slightest," Linnaris replied, trying not to look at the tantalizing banquet.

Amarantha picked up a strawberry and leaned across the table, holding the fruit delicately between her fingers. Gems of sugar glittered on its porous, ruby-red skin, and Linnaris could smell its ripe sweetness, along with a sickly musk—the fruit had a strange shine, as though coated in something. Linnaris recoiled.

High elven attendants flanked the couches, holding empty trays, their faces without expression, their bodies rigid. Linnaris would die before she joined them; she would bite her tongue and bleed to death.

Amaranth swabbed the strawberry over Linn's lips, and the night elf tasted the acrid poison that slicked the fruit. Flattening herself against the couch's pillows, Linn said, "Really not hungry, thanks."

Amarantha left her seat and crossed over to Linn's couch, perching on its edge, strawberry in hand.

"I must insist." Amarantha grabbed Linnaris's chin and yanked her forward with surprising force; her nails cut bloody crescents into Linn's cheeks.

Linnaris glared back at Amarantha and parted her lips slightly, with the intention of biting down on her tongue as hard as she could. But just before her teeth pierced the muscle, a commotion at the room's entrance startled them both, and Linnaris was released.

Two of the listless high elves were sprawled on the floor; their sheer dresses pooled around their thin bodies like lamplight. Cian and An'jin stood over them, looking, respectively, surprised and guilty.

"Didn't expect'em ta just be fallin' ova like dat," An'jin said, nudging one of the women with a thick, blue toe.

"Linn," Cian said. "Are you all right?"

Linnaris ran her tongue against the back of her teeth. Her cheeks stung, and her nose burned with the harsh, sulfuric scent of the poison that had almost crossed her lips. "Fine."

"This is a private dinner," Amarantha said demurely, though she crushed the strawberry between her two fingers, and its red flesh slid down her wrists like viscous blood. "Kindly show yourselves out."

Shadow energy gathered in her palm.

Swiftly, Linnaris kicked Amarantha in her mid-section, causing the warlock to choke on her incantation. Leaping from the couch, Linnaris flipped over the food-laden table and landed between An'jin and Cian.

"Let's go, before she can talk again," she hissed, and sprinted into the corridor, with the two men close behind. A furious scream echoed throughout the stone hall as they ran (or teleported, in An'jin's case), careening away from that sound and its maker, until they were deep enough into the manor's labyrinth to feel some sliver of safety.

"I … don't suppose … you two heroes have my armor hidden somewhere, maybe?" Linnaris panted, sagging against a bookcase; they had run into what was once a formal living room.

Old bookshelves, filled with older books, lined the room's perimeter, and the room lacked any other furniture save for a few disturbingly stained stone benches and tables. Cobwebs hung from the ceilings and laced the dark corners of the room, and the dried, cracked bones of the long and newly dead littered the entire space, in circles, in piles, scattered across the torn, bloody pages of books.

"Fraid not," An'jin said, sincerely.

"How'd you even know where I was?" Linn said.

"Didn't," Cian said. "We were just opening doors."

"Oh, brilliant."

"Worked out pretty well," he said, and shrugged. "Where are Eulalia and Ingomar?"

Linnaris shook her head. "They blindfolded me as soon as I left their little prison. I don't have any idea how to get back there."

They were in the manor house proper now, Linnaris knew that much for sure, as she recognized this room—they weren't far from the front door, actually.

"Did they take ya outside at all?" An'jin asked.

"No …" Linn said, slowly, "but the light source dimmed a lot during one part of the walk. I may have been led through a tunnel."

"Makes sense," An'jin said. "Whole 'nother part of dis place be existin' undaneath da ruins of Andorhal."

"I think that was brought up. But I might have been too busy concentrating on the guards' heads in hopes that they would explode," Linn said. "And so I can't be sure."

"Back to opening doors, then," Cian said, and began a resolute march towards the nearest one, which was across the length of the rectangular space.

"Now wait a mo," An'jin said. "Let's be thinkin' about dis for just one second here."

"What's to think about?" Cian said. "You saw what that insane woman was about to do to Linnaris. Who knows what they're doing to Eulalia? Or Ingomar? We don't have time to think."

"We certainly don' have time for all ya pacin' and frettin'," An'jin said, lightly. "Just t'ink of da main facts we got—dere are two campuses, and one a' dem is underground. Linn remembers bein' taken through sometin' like a tunnel. Thus, it follows dat …"

Cian finished picking the lock on the pair of ornate doors at the other end of the room and pulled them open. "It follows that you talk too much." He faded into the shadows and motioned for the others to do the same. The sliver of him that wasn't insane with agitation and worry knew that An'jin was behaving with perfect reason, but honestly, the troll could have just told them to watch out for stairs.

The soft, menacing voice needled at him with every step, muttering doubts and seductions, trying to bend his own will against him. He was on the Lich King's property, and could not easily shut out the presence of his host. And the feeling of unseen eyes ran down his exposed spine like a pack of spiders; the two problems combined were agonizing; he felt like a puppet resisting its strings while its master watched, chuckling.

A mantra of defiance repeated in his head, a litany of 'no' spoken silently over and over in response to the dark impulses encouraged by the voice, which demanded that he give up, that he stab An'jin and Linnaris, that he succumb to the truth of his nature. The voice promised him things: power, immortality, the fulfillment of his desires, what and whoever they might be.

But what he most wanted at that moment was to get the hell out of there, preferably with all of his traveling companions in tow and un-maimed. Even, he realized begrudgingly, that mouthy paladin. Better they end up killing each other than let her fall to the Scourge, despite the fact that she seemed to think he wasn't far divested from that fold.

"Does this place seem strangely desolate to you?" An'jin said.

"It's a school for necromancy," Cian said. "You expecting fresh flowers and sunny loveseats?"

"I meant," An'jin said mildly, "dat de room is a little empty. Where de students at, and their ghostly tutors?"

"Good question," Linnaris said.

"Maybe someone came and killed them when we weren't looking," Cian said.

"Then where are the bodies?" Linnaris said, looking at Cian as though he were mentally frail.

Scowling, he shrugged violently and motioned to the open doors. Just as they crossed the threshold, before they had time to make sense of anything, they heard shouting.

Familiar shouting.

"Get yer hands offa me, ya filthy cult scum!" Ingomar roared, as she was dragged before an assembly of students and instructors, all of whom focused their menacing gazes on their new guests—Eulalia, attended by four necromancers far too burly for their robes, was brought in directly after her friend.

Shocked, Cian surveyed the expansive space, which appeared to serve as a lecture hall—burning bone piles were arranged on the marble floors, marking places for the students to gather, and a raised platform to Cian's left was furnished with bookcases and a podium that probably doubled as a sacrificial altar. Standing on the platform was a group of high-ranking cultists, including the insane woman who had kidnapped Cian's companions in the first place. And beside her, smaller, fairer, her full lips curved into a smug pout, was Nina.

"Valiant escape effort," Nina said, in a tone that indicated she clearly thought otherwise, "but fruitless."

"Not entirely, my dear," said an older woman standing near her, with features identical to the grizzled crone who had begged Cian to search for Nina's pendant back in Ashenvale. She had a venerable look to her, a long, sharply angled face marred with the shadows of countless cruelties endured and done, and eyes as distant as the fathoms of an ocean. Her cheekbones arched high beneath the cold eyes, and her lips were dark and thin, evoking fullness lost to age and other ravages. Cian surmised that this woman was, in fact, Nina's mother, and was little surprised by it.

The woman lifted a hand, and a group of students dragged two corpses into the center of the room, then dropped them unceremoniously, one on top of the other. The students bowed before receding into the assembly, their faces blank despite the fact that the corpses were clearly their classmates.

"You have provided us with freshly terrified specimens," Nina's mother said to Eulalia, who was struggling ferociously against her (now six) captors, "and for that, I thank you."

A red sigil circle glowed to life beneath the corpses, bathing them in sinister light. The runes inscribed on the circle seemed to shift and move across the floor as Nina, her mother, and her sister chanted together, until thin but tangible tendrils of magic rose from the circle and snaked around the two bodies, sinking into their clothes, animating their rigid muscles. The two young men rose and hung as if suspended, like puppets on wires. Their limbs jerked in random, painful directions, as the women on the platform directed, much to the alternately nervous and exhilarated glee of their audience (excepting Cian and the others, who were struck dumb with horror). The bodies groaned in real pain as they were manipulated, and Cian thought he could hear them pleading for release.

"You'll be released when we feed you to the plagued hatchlings," Nina said, with a high-pitched giggle. Her gloating was interrupted by a cry of pain from Eulalia's guard; the night elf had successfully removed a sizable chunk from one of their hands, and was snapping her jaws for more.

"Gag her!" Nina said, and three students rushed forward, offering their sashes.

"You are doing wrong, miss! Very wrong!" Eulalia shouted, just before a thick black sash was looped around her head and yanked back into her mouth, stifling her speech.

"Well now, I'd say that's a matter of opinion," Nina said, smiling at Eulalia's dark, enraged face. "What are you going to do, you filthy brute? Make like a tomato and sic your flea-ridden tiger on me? Oh, wait, he isn't here …"

Frustrated by the warlocks' sadistic display and Eulalia's anguish, nettled by the insistent voices in his mind, and just plain unable to stand doing nothing anymore, Cian stepped forward with his daggers out and said, "But I am."

He wasn't being a hero. He was just sick of hiding.

Nina's smile curled. The entire room shifted focus to Cian. He stared them down.

"How kind of you to join us, Cian," Nina said. "Though I am disappointed that you apparently greeted my sister before me."

"Real sorry about that," Cian said, and threw a jagged star at her, which she dodged nimbly. The star struck and embedded itself into the spine of a book on the shelf behind her, quivering from the force of Cian's throw. Shadows poured like gas from the book, and Nina manipulated the energy, twirling it around her wrists and forearms like so many bracelets. Cian watched her uncertainly, and then the energy lashed out at him, quick as a jet stream, binding his ankles and hands together, yanking him forcefully to the platform. He stumbled and landed before her on his knees, bound by the dark, searing energy.

Linnaris made to step forward, but An'jin touched her shoulder and shook his head. "Not now, mon," he whispered. "Not when dey all be payin' attention."

Gritting her teeth, she nodded, but kept a ready grip on her weapons all the same.

Cian tried to grab for his own daggers, but the shadows bound him, rendering him immobilized, forcing him to kneel before Nina. She threaded her fingers in his hair and yanked his head back, so that he could look at nothing but her cold, satisfied face. He said nothing, only set his jaw and waited.

"Don't look so angry," she said. "I have a gift for you, see?" With her free hand, she set the metal cage containing his heart in front of him. Cian inhaled sharply. The heart was still beating.

"Take it," Nina said, softly, encouragingly. "If you can."

Cian tried to turn his head, to look back on the expressions of his friends for advice, but Nina's hold was rigid and unforgiving.

He crawled forward, touched the cage's door. He felt the pulse of his heart through the bars, felt it sync with the rush of blood in his body. His heart called to him, wanting reunion.

It was a trap. Cian knew that. But he had waited so long. He could grab his heart, and then vanish, and then plunge his daggers into Nina's back. The others could escape in the ensuing confusion.

He opened the cage door. The heart beat faster; Cian noticed that the cage was wet with fresh blood. His, somehow? Trembling slightly, while the whole room watched, he took his heart in his hands.

Before the sound and feeling of the heart beating in his hands overwhelmed his senses, Cian's last thought was that it was surprisingly heavy. After that, his awareness dimmed: he saw the heart push itself forcefully into his chest, felt it latch onto the long-detached nerves, watched as the veins in his body turned black and bulged, straining against his skin. He lost control of his thoughts, and his feelings turned to a black storm inside of him, crushing whatever vestige of reason he had left.

The pinch of flash powder that he had been holding dropped to the ground and spilled across his boots.

Nina kissed his cheek. "Now, go on, my darling. Take what you want."

He looked out over the room, snarling, his vision blurred, his body radiating shadows.

The necromancers let Eulalia go.

She screamed his name, and the image of her body sharpened in his eyes. Daggers drawn, he lunged for her, and the screaming continued.