Zomg, I know it's been forever--blame graduate school and playing WoW of course. But it's summer now and I am a bum, so expect moar soonlike! Thanks for the comments so far!
Fishing With Daggers
"Hey, Cian," Eulalia whispered. "Are we in trouble?"
"Yeah," Cian said. "We're in trouble."
The two guards glared back at them. The troll said, "When we landed, we were attacked by an Alliance raid. At least fifteen of them were waiting for us. These women and that traitor set us up."
"Oh aye, ye've caught us out, laddie," Ingomar snapped. "We created an elaborate ruse tae sneak intae tha city for tha sole purpose of luring two guards to Splintertree and an untimely death. Brilliant deductions!"
The orc spat blood. "These wounds didn't show up out of the void, wench."
"Look, Alliance raid that city all th' time," Ingomar said. The crowded court muttered. "Oh, button it, ye lot are always up in Astranaar makin' a mess as well."
"It's true, I have a second job guarding that place," Eulalia said seriously.
"What's your first job?" Cian said under his breath.
"General huntering," Eulalia replied with a smile, pleased to have contributed to the conversation.
"The point is," Ingomar said. "if indeed ya were attacked by Alliance, none of us had anything tae do with it. Why in the name of the Light would we slaughter an entire outpost and then break into its capital city?!"
"You tell us!" the troll said.
"We wouldn't," Ingomar growled.
"I find myself in a dilemma," Thrall said. "While I admit that I cannot fathom the logic behind your alleged actions, you're asking me to take your word over that of my trusted guard."
"I'm this close tae insistin' on it, actually," Ingomar said.
Cian cleared his throat. "Warchief, we were only passing through Ashenvale. We never would have entered the outpost if not for the massacre we encountered upon arrival. And the sole reason we came here was to meet with you and inform you of the situation."
"Liar," the troll guard shouted. "You tried to draw us to our deaths!"
"And, how exactly did you escape versus fifteen Alliance?" Cian said shrewdly.
The orc swallowed. "We … we ran very quickly."
"All the way to the Crossroads? With those wounds?" Cian said.
"Warchief, why are you allowing this traitor to speak?" the troll cried.
"I don't know," Thrall said. He turned his head slightly, and said to the nearest Kor'kron elite, "Please silence the traitor."
Cian tensed, and gripped his knives. To resist would perhaps confirm the untruth leveled against him, but he'd be twice-damned if he went down without a fight. Next to him, Ingomar and Eulalia assumed battle stances, and he felt sudden camaraderie with them. Whatever fate awaited them in the next five seconds, they bore it together.
The elite guard swung her heavy axe and decapitated the wounded troll. Before the look of surprise even formed on the orc's face, he lost his head as well. Eulalia gasped as the two heads rolled to a stop at Thrall's feet, their eyes bulging, their mouths open. Cian didn't relax. He stared at the Warchief and waited.
"Umm," Eulalia said. "I got to be honest, I didn't really catch what all you just said a second ago, but I'm pretty sure it involved not trust us over your trusted people … trolls … orcs … things."
"Indeed," Thrall said. "However, the two before you were not my trusted guards."
The Kor'kron elite peeled back the chest armor on the troll's body, revealing a Burning Blade medallion around his bloody stump of a neck: a picture of a sword engulfed in flames, carved into a golden circle.
"Pretty necklace," Eulalia said.
"More than that. It is a symbol of a rather unpleasant infestation from which this city has been suffering," Thrall said. "Though why they would be interested in framing you escapes me, except as a diversionary tactic …"
"Da Scourge and da Burnin' Legion have an interestin' history, you know?" An'jin said, from the back of the court. "Technically da Scourge are a rogue element of the Burnin' Legion's plans … but when a rogue's doins' support your forthcomin' goals, you'd support him, wouldn't ya?" He looked at Cian while he spoke.
"Seriously, I think he's got a wee crush on ya, laddie," Ingomar murmured.
Cian grunted. "Please."
"I agree, An'jin," Thrall said.
"Can we go now?" Eulalia said. "Cos we're innocent an' all and I got a quest and I'd like to get it done before Cian goes all crazy nuts and tries to kill us."
"You are a good friend, Eulie," Cian said dryly.
She beamed. "I know!"
"Yes, you may go," Thrall said. "With the proviso that you return here in three weeks' time with a progress report."
"Let me guess," Cian said. "An'jin will be checking in?"
The mage clapped a hand on Cian's shoulder. "Ya catch on pretty quick for a dead man."
Cian shrugged him off. "Come on, ladies."
"Ah ah," An'jin said. "It's not safe for ya to be walkin' around the city, even if on your way out. You've got everyone's blood up." His blue hands glowed with arcane energy, and in a moment a portal opened before them. Cian could see the pillars of Darnassus's Moon Temple reflected within the shimmering oval. "Hop in."
"Byeee everyone!" Eulalia curtsied before the court. The guards were impassive, Vol'jin nonplussed, and Thrall smiled—slightly. Eulalia flipped into the portal. Before she followed, Ingomar said, "Thanks for nae killin' us, yer Warchiefness."
Cian paused. "Why Darnassus?"
"You're going to Moonglade, aincha?" An'jin said.
"How do you know that?" Cian said.
An'jin shrugged. "I pay attention."
Cian shook his head. "Later."
"Count on it, mon."
Cian entered the portal and slipped into stealth as soon as the Moon Temple materialized around him. Whatever the propaganda surrounding night elves—that they were arrogant, foolish, insufferably asinine tree-hugging lunatics—Cian had to admit they built a beautiful city. A statue of Elune, the night elf goddess, loomed high over him, her stone arms upraised, lifting a bowl of overflowing water to the sky. The water spilled out over every side in multiple waterfalls, splashing into a pond of lilies at the goddess's feet. Priestesses of Elune—along with Sentinels—attended the statue, some kneeling in prayer. A winding ramp created a series of levels to the temple, and at the very top was Tyrande Whisperwind, legendary High Priestess of Elune. Cian wanted to say hi, but figured her reaction to him would be about the same as Orgrimmar's reaction to Eulie and Ingomar. And they definitely weren't dropping in on the Archdruid.
"I'd be rooted so fast my feet would pop off," Cian muttered. "Again."
"What are ye babblin' about, laddie?" Ingomar said. "We've got tae move quickly before yer spotted and we go through the whole 'Why are ye SPYIN' nonsense again."
"Sorry, your highness," Cian said. "But I can't go any faster unless you WANT me to be caught."
"We can just walk," Eulalia said. "It is a nice day."
The two women walked close to Cian and tried not to look directly at him—not that Ingomar ever liked that in the first place.
"It's jes tha' lookin' right at ya makes me skin start breakin' out in wee hives, ya ken?" she said.
Actually, Cian looked downright handsome in comparison to some of his fellow corpses. Nina carved his heart out with a dagger slicked in the Plague's liquid form, so he had risen for the Scourge right after his rigor mortis had subsided. Of course, there was the permanently gaping chest wound …
Eulalia handed him the orb of deception. "If you want, you could use this. It's really not that far to the gate."
Cian thumbed the orb's surface. If the spell wore off, he could simply vanish, so why not? He activated the spell. The orb's magic seeped into his bones, his flesh, the viscous ichor of his blood. Its transformative power was total. When the magic finished, he had become a night elf.
Eulalia clapped her hands excitedly, hopping from foot to foot with barely contained glee. "You look so nice! I mean, not that you didn't look nice before, but now you look really nice … I mean …"
"Now I don't look like a monster," he said. Even his voice was different, his echoing scratch replaced by something cool and smooth and prideful. He hated the cocky way male night elves spoke, but now that their voice was his, it didn't seem so bad.
Also, he was taller. Taller even than Eulalia. He liked that.
Darnassus was an airy, expansive city, but sparsely populated—many of the night elves who kept homes there spent most of their time in other cities, on other continents. Primarily young elves passed them, neophytes who wouldn't know what to do with a Forsaken if one tapped them on the shoulder. They reached the portal to Ru'theran without interference. Four and a half minutes remained of Cian's disguise.
"Now what?" he said.
"Now we get on the boat to Auberdine," Eulalia said.
"And then? I don't think the hippogriff master will let me buy a ride, and this disguise will be spent by then."
"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it!" Eulalia said. "Come on, or we'll miss the boat!"
She grabbed his hand and broke into a run, pulling him alongside her with an exuberant grin. Three minutes.
"Don' ye two look cute," Ingomar said. "I wunner if that magic stops yer fingers fallin' off, laddie?"
"A paragon of wit, as always," Cian sneered.
"Thank ye, I try."
"I think you look cute," Eulalia said. She touched his bearded chin. "Could do without this, tho'."
"Well," he said slyly, "I don't have it normally."
Her fingers were warm, tickling. He felt the gentle friction of skin and hair, a virtue of the orb's power. Two minutes.
They boarded the boat, and Ingomar sprawled out on the nearest hammock. "Time for a power nap. Wake me when we reach shore, aye?"
On any other day, Cian would have taken this opportunity to nick a stack of Ingomar's holy symbols and give them a new life as buried treasure, or at least shorten her braids (unevenly). But he had a minute and a half left of red blood and beating heart. He wasn't about to waste it.
He followed Eulalia to the ship's upper deck and sat down beside her, where she perched on a couple of boxes secured to the deck with nets. Thumping down on the planks, Cian folded his big hands over his knees. He could almost feel his muscles rippling, particularly in the joints of his knees and elbows. How he missed those. Eulalia hovered over him, rocking back and forth on her haunches, her ponytail brushing his bare shoulder.
"I always found it funny," she said, "that this disguise doesn't come with a shirt."
The evening breeze buffeted against his chest. "I don't mind. Do you mind?"
"If I didn't need stuff to protect me against other stuff, I wouldn't wear anything at all," Eulalia said, so earnestly that Cian was too surprised to blush.
"Don't look at me like that," she said. "Like you didn't know!"
"Listen," he muttered, "Whenever you went off for your frequent baths, I never looked at you, okay? Not once, not ever."
Thirty seconds. She slipped off the box, now directly next to him, and leaned back against his chest. "I would not have minded."
The enchantment began to fade. His body shrunk, his blood froze, and the soft thwump thwump of a heart stilled. Muscle and skin fell away and drained of color, his ears shortened, and his features became scarred and pale. "That was nice while it lasted," he said.
Eulalia exhaled and shrugged. She did not move.
When Hamuul Runetotem and Kieromaris returned to the archdruid's dwelling, a messenger was waiting outside. The young orc looked at Kiero with crossed eyes, trying to sort out the logic of her presence, but he hastily handed over his letter. Hamuul thanked him before unrolling the parchment, which bore Thrall's seal.
"It appears that our allies have been apprised of the situation," he said to Kiero. "Thrall is calling for a summit of Horde leaders in two days' time."
He paused. "Cairne is likely on his way to discuss this matter with me. You should be getting along, young druid. I am sorry that I was unable to assist you more fully with your quest—but perhaps that book will reveal something of use."
Kiero bowed before the archdruid. "Yes, I do hope so. Thank you for your hospitality."
She ducked behind Hamuul's tent and channeled a teleportation spell for Moonglade. Obviously, her friends had gotten out of Ogrimmar safely, but would she find them in Nighthaven? Preoccupied with this worry, Kiero finished the spell without noticing who was watching her.
From the shadows of her tiny hut, Magatha Grimtotem observed. The thin line of her mouth remained fixed, but her lidded eyes opened, subtly, subtly.
Although the boat itself wasn't guarded, a couple of Sentinels kept watch over the dock. Just as the vessel approached shore, Cian tromped into the berth and jabbed Ingomar's side with the pommel of his dagger. "Wake up, sunshine."
"Oh aye," she yawned. "In a minnit, lad."
"Last one to touch sand is a naga's egg," Cian said. Thus challenged, Ingomar sat upright in her hammock as Cian sprinted back onto the deck.
"That ain't fair!" she cried. "With yer roguish fastness an' all!"
"Less talk, more walk!" he shouted, and jumped off the ship's edge, into the icy bath of the Long Wash.
"Ooh, are we racing?" Eulalia said. She leapt off the boat as soon as it pulled up to the dock and ran, easily reaching the sand bank beneath the flight master before either of her friends. Cian spat out saltwater and seaweed and said, "Not fair."
Beside him, a dwarf fisherman dropped his line in abject terror and quaked. "Please don' shiv me, lad! I ain' worth nothin' to ya!"
Cian put a finger to his lips and faded into stealth. "Keep it down." To Eulalia and Ingomar he said, "Let's move on before this one starts screaming for guards."
"Aww, do we have ta?" Ingomar said.
"I don't relish the prospect of fighting off thirty Sentinels."
"But I relish the prospect of ye fightin' off thirty Sentinels," Ingomar said.
Eulalia called for her mount and beckoned for the others to follow. "I do not think we want that to happen. They would expect us to stay behind and pick up all the mess."
Cian waited until they were well outside Auberdine city limits to summon his skeletal horse. The three traveled swiftly down the road, passing a number of inexperienced night elves testing their mettle versus ghosts, bears, furbolgs and of course insane death cultists. But for them, the ride was peaceful, and peace invited thought.
Remnants of sensation from the night elf body lingered in Cian's bones, fresh enough that he still heard the echo of an artificial pulse. He missed his heart. Nina had carved it out carefully, whole and neat. The last image his living eyes had seen was her hand, smeared and dripping with blood, clutching his hot, glossy heart, its veins bulging as it shuddered to a halt. He wore a thin shirt under his leather vest at all times, to hide the wound that had never healed. Still, on that day when he threw off his armor in front of Eulalia, she hadn't even remarked on the gaping hole between his splintered ribs. She had seen it, he knew, by the look on her face—but as with the rest of him, it didn't bother her. Her expression then belied more simple surprise than disgusted horror—if Ingomar saw the wound, she would surely cluck her tongue and retort about the Light and abominations thereof.
Inwardly, Cian sighed. More than pumping blood, he missed the expansive feeling of filling his lungs with air, of feeling it disperse throughout his cells, missed that thoughtless, life-affirming action enjoyed by all the other mortal races. He still drew in air, of course. But that wasn't breathing. That was wind rattling a broken window.
Bitterness overcame him. Eulalia and Ingomar had fun with their disguises, both the magic wand costumes during Hallow's End and the glamours of the orb of deception. But they had gained nothing from them that they hand't already possessed, lost nothing that couldn't easily be returned.
The sound of a woman's agitated voice broke him from his brooding. They had just passed the border between Darkshore and Ashenvale, and an elderly woman blocked the road in front of them, pacing and speaking loudly to herself. "Come to Ashenvale, they said! It's enchanted, they said! Night elves are friendly! The beaches are tranquil! Naga? Oh, no one's seen them for a hundred years. Rubbish."
"Excuse me, ma'am," Ingomar said, "but are ye in need 'o assistance?"
The woman behaved as though she hadn't heard and went on, "Nasty fish people with their bloody tridents and stick you in place spells! A frostbolt to the face is no way to greet an old woman. And, and, they took …"
Here she began to cry, great halting sobs that pooled in the wrinkles of her cheeks. "They took it, they did, those awful fish men … my daughter's necklace … my dear, departed daughter …"
"Do you want us to get it for you?" Eulalia asked.
"We don't have time for this," Cian said. "Moonglade is still days away!"
"Aye, but it's gettin' dark. We oughter be able to slash up some naga right quick for this lassie before makin' camp again."
The woman perked up, her face suddenly dry and glowing. "Oh, you'd do this for me?"
"A'course, ma'am," Ingomar said, half-bowing on her saddle.
"Thank you, kind travelers … I can't tell you how much this means to me …"
"Any particular fellow have it?" Cian said impatiently.
"It was one of those sea-witches," the woman said. "She slithered off with it into those temple ruins down there."
"Blackfathom Deeps?" Cian said.
"Yes, dear, if that's what they're called."
"This could take a while …"
"We already agreed tae do it. Quit yer bellyachin' and let's get on with it," Ingomar said.
"See you soon, ma'am!" Eulalia called, while Cian grumbled, "I don't recall agreeing to anything."
"But since we agree, you agree by extension!" Eulalia said. "It'll be fun. The Deeps are pretty."
"Yes, quite a lovely place, if you disregard the fact that everything in there wants to kill us."
"Scared?" Ingomar said.
They pulled up to the ruins' entrance—a dilapidated staircase, half-submerged in water.
"Never," Cian said, and dove in. The ancient temple, once a shrine dedicated to Elune, had long ago sunk into the earth—but intact enough that various groups had moved in to use it for their nefarious purposes. Chief among the recent inhabitants were the Twilight's Hammer cult, a group associated with the Shadow Council and worship of the old gods, but naga, murlocs, crab-men, and even satyrs roamed its damp caverns and once-sacred halls.
Cian crawled out of the water and onto the moist floor of an underground cavern, lit by soft, electric-blue lights that swirled around thick roots sprouting from the walls. Eulalia surfaced next, followed by Ingomar, both belabored by their heavier armor. Ingomar unhooked her breastplate and dumped the contents onto the porous, mud-colored ground. Eulalia lowered her head and shook her hair out like a dog, spattering Cian and Ingomar with droplets from her ponytail.
Ingomar raised her shield and said, "Oi, watch yer aim, lassie. I'm right wet enough."
"Sorree," Eulalia said.
Something hissed and spat near Cian's ear. He faded into the shadows just before the sea witch rounded the corner, her multiple arms reaching, her clawed hands raking across the mossy stones that jutted from the cavern's walls. Her golden eyes, huge almonds set in a face as flat and sharp as an arrowhead, slit angrily at the sight of the intruders. Two of her six hands shimmered blue, and the air hummed with the sound of gathering frost. Cian crept up behind her and drove his two daggers into her back. Her casting stopped, she choked and gurgled, and then slumped over backwards onto her tail.
He searched the corpse for a necklace, but found nothing except a clam and a fistful of coins tucked into the naga woman's scales.
"It's never on the first one," he said.
"Where would the fun be in that?" Eulalia said.
They pressed on into the caverns, killing their way through the dimly lit passages, soaking the soil in black and red blood from the bodies of satyr and naga. Eventually, the cavern's ceiling opened up, when they reached the temple ruins proper. The cavern floors dipped into a deep pool, in which lay the fragments of the drowned sacellum's floor.
"I was kinda hopin' we'd find the necklace before we got tae this bit," Ingomar admitted, frowning warily at the cracked marble stones, which offered a precarious path to the next hallway.
"Suck it up," Cian suggested, leaping nimbly from block to block. Eulalia hopped back and forth like a rabbit fed sugar, trying to encourage her friend. "It's easy, see?"
"You're nae the ones wearin' plate," Ingomar said, but at length she breathed deep, stepped forward, and launched herself onto the first block of stone. She cleared the jump, but took a moment to rest, panting from nerves and exertion. Cian waited for her at the end of the obstacle course, but Eulalia's attention soon wandered. She delved deeper into the ruins, slinging arrows at whatever scuttled, slithered, or merely slunk quietly by her path.
"She'll have finished up this whole place by the time you get here," Cian said.
"So be it!" Ingomar shouted. "I've been known to take my time in life or death matters. Call it a weakness."
She inhaled and vaulted towards the penultimate stone, but the jump fell short. Grabbing onto a crevice in the rock, Ingomar dangled a few feet above the pool and thrashed in panic. "A lil help!"
Cian licked his lips. He bent down beside her, considering. She looked up at him, green eyes saucer-wide with terror. Beneath her, in the water, the crab-men gathered, their pincers clicking in anticipation.
Calling Ingomar his friend would be an overstatement, bordering on a lie. She was a self-righteous, crude, hammer-swinging midget, full of noxiously zealous ideals and booze. But those ideals had prompted her, at least in part, to heal his broken bones in the Ratchet inn. He could see past his instinctual dislike of her enough to understand that. And, frankly, she had treated him with more respect than many of her kind would or had. Whether it was on Eulalia's account or not didn't matter—people truly blinded by hate set aside all allegiances in order to satisfy that hate. Ingomar hadn't.
Cian snatched Ingomar's wrist and hauled her up, then said, "I'm tired of wasting time," and hefted her fully into his arms for the final jump. When his feet hit dirt, he dropped her, and prepared for a firestorm of indignant rage.
Instead, Ingomar patted down her hair, smoothed her cloak, and said, "Thank ye."
Gruffly, he said, "You're welcome."
And they moved on.
They knew Eulalia's path by the trail of prostrate bodies she left in her wake. When they caught up with her, she was finishing off two cultists outside the temple's sanctum.
"Hey guys!" she shouted, over the crunch of spine and spurt of blood as she drove her polearm through a geomancer, impaling him with the kind of carefree joy Cian associated with the cutting of birthday cakes. Her cat gnawed on the dwarf's arm after he fell, to be sure he was dead.
"Ach," Ingomar said. "I've got a cousin who wears 'is beard like tha'," she said, frowning at the body. "I hope that ain't you, Sammy."
"He cried something about gladly dying for the glory of the master just before I stuck him," Eulalia said. "Soo maybe he's happier now?"
"I don' think that's really him," Ingomar said. "Sammy's not the type tae go chasin' after esoteric knowledge. He can barely count tae three." She shrugged. "Swings a mighty fine axe, tho'."
"Eulalia," Cian said. "Did you find anything that might possibly resemble what we're looking for?"
"Uuum," Eulalia sat down amidst the gore and opened her bags. She took out a number of unopened clams, waterlogged weapons, vials of fish oil, and patches of scales.
"Mebbe this?" she said, holding up a necklace with a glowing dragon-shaped pendant.
Cian produced an identical necklace from a pouch on his belt. "That's your Drakefire Amulet, Eulalia."
"Oh. Damn," she said. "No, then."
"I wonder if that old woman was putting us on," Cian said. "You must have killed every sea witch in here."
He paced to the edge of the platform on which they stood, and stared thoughtfully at the water. The temple's sanctum had survived the sinking remarkably well, but much of the patch leading there was drowned, or at the very least surrounded. Waterfalls poured in from cracks in the earthen ceiling, spilling over the remains of pillars without a roof to support. The gentle splish of water against ivory created a deceptively peaceful atmosphere, one contradicted by the hostile cultists that congregated there.
Most of them were dead now though, except the few directly inside the temple's main shrine, the only part of the building that retained its roof. Cian wondered if the naga and cultists ever skirmished, and if, in such a fray, the necklace would have been stolen. He kept his eyes on the water as he considered this, and consequently noticed a curious movement just under the water's surface. Ripples of movement, but nothing to cause the rippling. A lithe body faded in and out. A glint of daggers. Another rogue? A cult assassin?
"Wait here a moment," he said to his companions. "I believe we're being watched."
"I don' see anythin'," Ingomar said.
"Exactly," Cian said. He slipped carefully into the water, then stealthed. Then listened.
He heard legs kicking through water, but where? Cian looked down and spotted a treasure chest near to one of their platform's support columns. He swam closer, observing. A figure faded into focus: a night elf, with blue hair and red markings on her cheeks. She scooped the gold and jewelry out of the chest excitedly, stuffing the money into her top and dropping the rings into an already laden bag. Cian swam up to her, hidden, and tapped her shoulder.
Startled, the night elf drew her bag close and stepped back, then vanished. Cian swam down deeper. Soon the woman would need to breathe. He, however, could wait.
A full minute passed, and nothing broke the water's surface. Cian frowned. Surely this woman wasn't fool enough to drown on his account.
He swam closer to the pillar, listening carefully for the whoosh of treading water, or the whisper associated with a cloaked target. Near the top of the column, he found her, floating as quietly as could be.
Before he could speak, a series of waves pushed them both back, in tandem with a loud splash on the surface. Eulalia's body and then her head appeared, turning wildly this way and that. The night elf rogue dropped her stealth and swam out from beneath the pillar, rising at last for air. Cian followed.
"Linnaris!" Eulalia cried, upon seeing the night elf's face.
"Hey, Eulie," Linnaris said, smiling.
"Linn!" Ingomar cried, rushing to embrace the rogue, squeezing her so tight that Cian heard the leather squelch. "Bit moist there, lass."
Linnaris reached into her vest and spread out her fingers, each with a coin between them. "Treasure down thar!" She paused. "Well, not anymore, I guess, as I took it all." Another pause, then, "Say, I picked up a stalker. You should watch out for him."
Cian rolled his eyes and climbed onto the platform. "I was investigating you."
"Oh, really?" Linnaris said. "Could've been a little less creepy about it, you think?"
"I didn't know who you were!" Cian protested.
"I will explain!" Eulalia said. "Cian, Linnaris is our old special friend. Linnaris, Cian is our old special friend. Done!"
"I see," Linnaris said, her smile curling into a smirk. "So you were trying to protect them from mysterious ole me, huh?"
"Well, I—" Cian stumbled. "Maybe."
"I'm just a good-natured gold digger," Linnaris said. "Nothing to fear here!"
"Right," Cian said. "How exactly were you able to hold your breath that long?"
"Umm …" Linnaris said. "Trade secret."
"We're of the same trade."
"Then you ought to know!"
"No," Cian said. "I know how I hold my breath, specifically the fact that I don't need to breathe."
"Showoff," Linnaris said, then, quickly, "Heey, so what's the happy haps, guys?"
"An old woman sent us to recover her daughter's necklace," Ingomar said. "Nae luck so far."
"And I've killed every naga I could find," Eulalia added.
Linnaris blanched. "You have …?"
"Why would you care?" Cian said.
"Oh, uh, no reason, just that, they are sentient beings, and I've always been known for my activism regarding malevolent sea creature rights …" Linnaris said. "Eheh."
Cian noticed a little smile tugging at the corners of Ingomar's mouth. These people weren't telling him something. Growling in his throat, he said, "Whatever. We're wasting time again. Let's see if these cultists took the damn thing."
He snuck up inside the shrine, dispatching two warlocks before his busily chatting companions even entered. While he systematically murdered the remaining cultists and their demon pets, Eulalia and Ingomar recounted their adventures thus far to Linnaris, who listened with enthusiasm.
Still, he found nothing.
"Would you ladies quiet down?" he said, gesturing to Kelris, lord of the Twilight's Hammer cult, praying before the altar in the center of the room. His eyes were shut and his body pulsed with moving shadows as he murmured arcane phrases to the statue erected on top of the altar. The statue appeared to be of a female night elf in transformation: her top half retained the plump cheeks and full lips of her original race, but her lower half was serpentine, and two extra pairs of slender arms grew from her torso. Her delicate fingers curled elegantly, her limbs angled and arranged as though she were about to dance. Four votive candles in brass saucers were placed at the corners of the altar, though none were lit.
A vague memory of these candles came to Cian, but the particulars were hard to draw out. Something about Eulalia and a pile of dead crabs. He shook his head.
"What's to worry about? He doesn't even know we're here," Linnaris said. She pulled a throwing star from inside her boot and threw it at Kelris's head. The orc crashed against the altar, the shadows dissipated, and his blood dripped off of the altar's edges. The statue seemed to smile.
"Guess that's one way to do it," Cian said. He rifled through Kelris's pockets, grinning when he touched cool metal. He held out the necklace for the others to see: it was a circle of silver, suspended from a heavy chain. Carved into the silver was an outline of an eye with a ruby iris that glinted as it twisted in the air. "I think we have a winner. Let's get the hell out of here."
"One sec," Eulalia said, as she lit the final candle. "I just thought these little guys looked unloved."
Green fire burned on the wicks, and Cian groaned.
"I don't think ye ought to've done that, lass," Ingomr said, as the ground rumbled. Several sets of monsters emerged from the dark corners of the shrine, aiming to converge on the delicious, meat filled party by the altar.
"Do you have a memory like a sieve?" Cian cried, hopping on one foot to avoid the grabby pincers of far too many angry crustaceans.
"What's a sieve?" Eulalia asked, as she thunked a snapping turtle on the head.
A serrated pincer cut into Cian's ankle. He seethed. "Your brain, Euls. Your brain."
Ingomar clapped her hands together and a swirl of holy light burst forth around her feet. The stone hissed as it burned, seared by the Light, and their attackers crackled in pain. Eulalia threw off two small but vicious crabs clinging to her arms and distanced herself from the fray. She drew a handful of arrows from her quiver and as she shot them, they multiplied from each other, creating a hail of arcane-powered arrows that pierced the assault of turtles, water elementals, and crabs with varying degrees of humanity. Linnaris and Cian cleaned up the remains with their daggers, until finally their enemies were reduced to so much seafood.
"This'll be tasty with a lil butter an' seasonin'," Ingomar said, as she stuffed any intact crabs into her packs.
"Yay, dinner!" Eulalia said.
Behind the altar, tall double doors began to open. The moons inscribed on the green marble flashed as they drew back, and Eulalia, attracted by the shine, inched towards the open doors.
"No," Cian said. "We're leaving."
"But there's an exit up there," Linnaris said.
"I don't remember an exit."
"Dunno why you would," Eulalia said. "You passed out in here, after all."
"What!" Cian cried. "Ridiculous! Why would I pass … out …"
Aku'mai, the hydra pet of the old gods, roared at the four interlopers in her chamber. Eulalia pointed at her. "She bit you really hard."
Steeling himself, Cian unsheathed his daggers and sidled up to the beast. "Time to return the favor, then."
But just as he raised his weapons to strike, three arrows landed in each of Aku'mai's throats. A shower of blood burst from the wounds, discoloring the shallow pool of water around them.
"Sorry, Cian," Eulalia said. "I got excited."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, of course. Let's just get back up top so we can call this done."
Another altar was at the the back of Aku'mai's lair, tucked beneath a small waterfall pouring between the rocks. The pedestal was no more than five feet tall, but it was topped with a pearl the size of Cian's head. Touching its iridescent surface teleported everyone back to the beach.
"That would've looked good in my bags," Linnaris said of the pearl, wistfully.
"Or stuffed in yer bra," Ingomar giggled.
Dear Dark Lady, Cian thought, please let the next member of our party be a man.
He strode ahead of the women on the way to the road, slowed as they were by renewed conversation. Their words buzzed around his ears like gnats, he couldn't catch a definite thread of discussion even if he stopped.
Night had come in earnest, darkening the shadows of the forest to ominous proportions. On the beach, the sand and sea reflected Azeroth's luminous moon, shimmering enough to see by, but the forest's canopy reduced the moon's illumination to thin shafts. Cian retraced their steps until he saw the night elven lamps dotting the path for travelers. The crone sat on the stones, her expression unreadable at a distance. As he approached, she leapt to her feet and clasped her hands in anticipation.
Cian dangled the necklace from his fingers. "Is this what you wanted, ma'am?"
The woman took the necklace and clutched it to her chest, stroking the ruby iris with her thumb. "Yes, dear, exactly what I wanted."
The eye began to glow, and Cian took a step back, but the woman caught his arm in a vice grip. Her nails shifted to talons.
"Damn it," Cian said. "I've just handed you your symbol of power, haven't I? You don't even have a daughter, do you?"
"Oh, no, dearie," the woman said. "I have a daughter, and this is her necklace. She'll be so pleased to hear you were the one to retrieve it. She thinks of you often, still."
Disarmed, Cian stopped struggling to free himself from the woman's grasp, enough his bones were cracking from the pressure. Wincing, he spat, "What?"
Eulalia and the others reached the road just as the woman pressed her forefinger against Cian's cheek, leaving an arcane sigil on his skin. "My daughter, Vivian. Or Nina, as you knew her."
"Hey, what are you doing to Cian?" Eulalia said. "This doesn't look like friendly talk."
With his free hand, Cian drew his dagger and stabbed the woman in the stomach, but his knife bit only air. Laughing, the woman released him, and a portal opened up behind her.
Sudden pain coursed through his body, and Cian crumpled to his knees. His vision hazed, the trees blurred, and the woman became an intangible swirl of cloak and skirt.
"Enjoy your reward, Cian—with deepest love from my daughter to you," the woman said, before exiting through the portal. Eulalia attempted to charge in after her, but the portal sealed itself immediately, leaving the night elf confused and frustrated.
"I think that nice old lady was not actually nice at all!" she cried.
"Possibly not even old or a lady, either," Ingomar said.
Cian's head throbbed. "I feel like I'm being pelted with hundreds of baby gnomes," he groaned, pushing the heels of his palms against his temples.
"Ouch," Eulalia said.
"Arms … like … noodles," he gasped, trying unsuccessfully to stand. "She cursed me …" He looked pleadingly to Ingomar.
"Sorry, laddie," she said. "I'm not able to fix those."
He sank down to his knees again, his muscles aching, his head swollen like a frightened bowfish. He bent over, hands flat, forehead against the road. Every nerve was strung taut, singing in agony. The sigil on his cheek burned fiercely, triumphantly.
"We need tae get to shelter," Ingomar said.
"There's an abandoned house just a little ways on," Linnaris said.
Eulalia picked Cian up by his bony waist and slung his arm around her neck.
"My turn to be carried it seems," he said, with a wan smile at Ingomar.
She didn't look at him. "What was that all about, eh?"
"It's a long story."
Eulalia set him down on a bed inside the vacant house. She perched on her haunches beside him, flanked by Ingomar and Linnaris.
"Let's have this long story," Ingomar said.
He moaned. I know you can't cure the curse, but can't you do something?"
"I dinnae ken," she said. "But I'll give it a shot." A sphere of holy energy formed between her palms, and a shower of cool, golden light washed over him. His suffering temporarily eased, he began to speak.
"Apparently, that woman is the mother of the woman who killed me," Cian said.
"What'd ye do to her daughter?" Ingomar said.
"Only saved her life." He retold the story he had shared with Eulalia, ending with, " … and then she drove a plague-coated dagger into my chest, carved out my heart, and left me."
"…I'm sorry, lad," Ingomar said.
"Yeah, that's a real bummer," Linnaris said.
"Your condolences are appreciated. But I'd appreciate another hit of holy light a bit more."
Ingomar cast the spell again, and he sighed with relief.
"So what does she want wi' ye still?" Ingomar said.
"I don't know. I don't understand why she killed me in the first place." He rolled over onto his stomach. "The moment before she stabbed me, she had this look on her face … like it was the happiest day of her life. How could I have known it meant the last day of mine?"
"Should've left her to burn," Linnaris said, nonchalantly.
Eulalia touched Cian's hair. "He's too nice for that."
"Too stupid, more like," he said.
"No, it's definitely nice."
Cian dragged himself off the bed. "Look, I don't sleep, so one of you take this thing."
"But you're ill," Eulalia said.
"Thanks for the offer," Ingomar said, already under the covers.
"Aww, bed hog," Linnaris said. "It's cool, I can just hang from the rafters like a bat."
Cian had the suspicion that tomorrow was going to be a very long day.