Title: The Freelancers -- A True Story That Never Happened

Author: Rowan Seven (Gorakinos)

Rating: PG-13

Teaser: The Freelancers learn that there are some contracts they'd be better off refusing.

Disclaimer: The following story is set in the world of Blizzard's Warcraft series. All characters, concepts, and environments are copyrights of their respective owners. I am not making any money off this piece of fiction. Information is used freely from the Warcraft games, books, and RPG series, and spoilers may be present in the following tale.

Author's Notes: The desire to write something about my main "World of Warcraft" character and the Freelancers guild on the U.S. Cenarion Circle server has been with me for some time now, and this idea suddenly appeared in my head with such intensity that I felt compelled to begin. To my fellow Freelancers, I hope you enjoy this tale. It has been a joy to play the game with you, and although the guild has since disbanded we had some pretty good times we can be proud of.

Addendum: I started writing this story in the Fall of 2005 (back when Zul'Gurub was relatively new content) and finished several months ago.

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The burning sun slowly rose over the horizon, but it made little difference in Silithus as of yet. Surrounded by rugged mountains and covered in sand and stone as the land was, the burning rays would not be felt for hours until the celestial orb was high overhead and transformed the barren desert into a sweltering wasteland. Silithus was an inhospitable abode, unwelcoming and unforgiving to nearly every species that was foolish enough to come to Kalimdor's last frontier, and few creatures managed to survive the land's harsh demands let alone thrive. In short, one would have to be insane to consider living there, which suited Vyral the Vile just fine. As a professional madman, he actually liked Silithus and affectionately called it home. True, the dredges could be annoying at times especially during their mating season, and you had to be careful to stay out of the occasionally wandering Anubisath's path unless you wanted to be stepped on, and the constant hum the crystal's emitted could become painfully grating after a while, but the villain reasoned that every place had its potential drawbacks, and when you thought about it was there really such a big difference between dark forces of unfathomable evil and a nosy next door neighbor?

The baleful overlord didn't think so as he stood outside in the biting cold of the desert's morning, torn rags of the day before replaced by a fresh set of Dreadmist garments and mask that did little to hide the scowl etched on his shadowed features. Gazing at him with expressions of alternately fear, confusion, and occasionally irritation at being awake at such a forsaken hour were row after row of cultists in neat formation, waiting to learn why they'd been told to gather here and what their orders would be. They wouldn't have to wait long.

"Today we repay the grievous insult that's been dealt us!" Vyral the Vile declared loudly, not even bothering to hide the anger in his tone. "Yesterday was a disaster that has sent the Twilight's cause back by weeks if not more than a month, and it was also an embarrassment! The Hammer's best and brightest...defeated utterly by a single foe! Consider yourselves lucky that the Abyssal Council refuses to acknowledge that yesterday ever happened! We must be avenged!" he shouted, becoming silent for a moment so he could hear the ensuing cheers and shouts of enthusiasm more easily. The moment turned into a minute as the sounds he expected did not come, and his scowl deepened. "Oh for crying out loud, don't tell me that the chance to obtain vengeance doesn't excite you and send your blood pounding through your veins...or your next closest equivalent bodily components for those of us who don't have veins or blood?" A few of the lesser elementals and non-humanoid members of the cult nodded their heads, glad they weren't being excluded. "Surely you're not hesitant to mete out our unholy revenge?" Vyral questioned, glowering crossly. The responses weren't what he'd been hoping for.

"We still need to recover from our injuries!"

"We should wait until we can summon reinforcements from the Abyssal Council again!"

"Let's consult with the other Twilight camps and stage a joint attack after a week or more of plotting!"

"Wasn't being beaten to a bloody pulp once already enough?" -whimper-

"Um...can't today, I'm afraid! I'm scheduled to raid Blackwing Lair with the Defias and the Dark Strand Cultists!"

As one, the assembled crowd turned to stare at the cultist who'd spoken, and the young fanatical human scratched the back of his head nervously with his right hand, laughing fretfully. "We are, really! We've even prepared the Greater Fire Protection and Swiftness Potions and everything else we'll need! All that's left is to meet outside Blackrock Mountain and assault Nefarion's fortress!" he protested unconvincingly, a weak smile on his face. "So...um, wish us luck?"

"SILENCE!" Vyral the Vile screamed, voice laden with vexation. "All of you should be ashamed! We're villains, not five-year-old kids who need their hands held! When someone insults us, we torture them! When someone threatens us, we strike them first! And when someone attacks us, we utterly eradicate them from this plane! For the pride and reputation of the Twilight's Hammer, we must punish those who've wronged us! I could care less about your injuries or summoning reinforcements or sharing our recent defeat with our compatriots or risking injury again or...'raiding' Blackwing Lair! All that matters now is vengeance!" He slammed his fist into the palm of his right hand for added emphasis.

One of the braver cultists tentatively asked a question. "But sir, how are we going to avoid another loss? We were no match for the brewmaster yesterday when we were at full strength, and we have nowhere near that number this morning!"

The sinister mastermind sighed tiredly. "Do you take me for a fool who would send his followers on a mission of almost certain failure?" he asked ominously. No one dared answer, and he continued on, tone filling with wrath. "Idiots! The brewmaster is insignificant, merely an accessory to the harm that has been inflicted upon us by those three mercenaries we imprisoned! The pandaren and his entire race will suffer when the rightful masters of this world are liberated, but for now they are irrelevant. That overstuffed bear attacked us to rescue those two Forsaken and their orc companion, and it is they who will feel our vengeance! We will march across all of Silithus if needed to find them, and when we do..." Vyral grinned grimly and turned to begin their journey, but another question delayed him.

"And 'hen we do...what next 'den?" queried a curious troll recruit, standing hunched over near the front of the crowd with a puzzled expression on his face.

"I deliberately left it ominously open-ended so your imaginations could fill in the unspoken silence!" the encumbered overlord yelled, conjuring a sphere of flame and hurling it at the unprepared cultist for good measure. As the scent of singed skin spread and smoke rose into the air, Vyral opened his mouth again and spoke with false sweetness. "Any more questions? No? Good. Now, move out! We have a lot of ground to cover!" He strode off, and the cultists -- relieved at learning that they weren't going to be fighting the pandaren again anytime soon -- followed.

------

Dear Diary,

I feel like I've been hexed, cursed, and then kicked in the stomach by a satyr, and for all I remember of last night I very well could have. I've tried asking Maggotface and Terminos what happened after I entered my trance, but their only answer is raucous laughter. At the very least, though, we appear to have been successful. Abitani and JuJu have joined our ranks now, and the troll hunter has come up with what he calls a 'cunning plan' that'll enable us to sneak by the silithid without any problems. How is still a mystery to me, but Abitani caught the first wyvern flight to Gadgetzan this morning and should be back any hour with the materials he needs to get started. Thankfully, he doesn't seem upset at being summoned halfway across the world to help us out. Apparently, he was thinking of traveling to Silithus soon anyway, and he claims that this'll give him a chance to scout the area before he returns to do more serious exploring once his business with the Zandalar Tribe is concluded. While waiting, we were able to retrieve our mounts who have fared about as well as a skeleton horse and timber wolf in a hostile desert can be expected to. Better than expected, perhaps, if you factor in there not being any bodies of water available for them to wash the sticky insect goo off themselves. Ew. I would write more, but I have a splitting headache and need to discourage JuJu from gnawing on Maggotface's leg before he actually has to use his 'trusty wooden leg'. Oh, the joys of being a Freelancer...

------

"That's your cunning plan?!" Gorakinos and Terminos spoke simultaneously, for once agreeing on something. On the warlock's shoulder, a surprised Noktog withdrew a miniature pocket watch and checked to see if it was time for the world to end. Reassured that it wasn't, the imp shrugged and chalked up the unusual concurrence as merely a random coincidence.

"Ja, dat be it," Abitani confirmed, returned from Gadgetzan and now standing on the perimeter of Hive'Ashi with his fellow mercenaries. Beside him, JuJu growled plaintively, impatient to get started and held back from charging in and taking on the entire nest himself only by the hunter's urgings for restraint. "Ju got a problem wid it?"

"It's the most ludicrous thing I've heard of, and I've been traveling with Gorakinos and Maggotface for over two weeks!" Terminos criticized, tone incredulous as he scowled again. "Tell me, is it now a guild requirement to be insane? I haven't seen anything recently to prove otherwise, I'll tell you."

The warlock threw up his hands in disgust and stalked off, and Gorakinos picked up where he'd left off. "Not to be rude, but I'm inclined to agree with our notably vocal associate. This plan of yours is ridiculous, even going by our usual standards! It's untested, completely unpredictable, utterly absurd, and-"

"Ish -hic- pure genius!" Maggotface exclaimed enthusiastically, clapping Abitani on the back once supportively with his mended hand. "Howsh you always come up with brilliant stuff like thish?"

The troll hunter winked conspiratorially. "I could tell ju, but den I'd have da kill you." He chortled for a moment before refocusing on the shaman. "I know it be an especially cunning plan, mon, but my cleverness not be something ju need da be afraid of. Jus' trust me, okay? Unless ju have some'ding better da propose?" This was asked with a half-challenging note.

Gorakinos grinned and swelled with self-importance. "As a matter of fact," he began in a shrewd voice, "I think we'd be better off if we made a detour to Un'Goro Crater, set a trap and lure a devilsaur to the hive, release a legion of captured bloodpetals to add to the chaos, and in the resulting confusion-"

"I've changed my mind! Abitani, your plan is the second most ludicrous thing I've heard and should work fine!" Terminos shouted hastily, unwilling to listen to any more foolishness. "Just please, for the love of all that's unholy, let's hurry up and finish this abysmal quest we're on!"

"Fine wid' me," Abitani replied confidently, looking around to see if there were any further criticisms of his scheme. Maggotface looked excited, Gorakinos appeared skeptical and slightly put out, Noktog gave the impression that he had better things to do with his time and was only hanging around to humor everyone, Terminos wore his customary frown again, and JuJu looked like he wanted to kill something...which was about normal. Convinced that there would be no more protests, the troll hunter spoke inquiringly, "Shall we begin, friends?"

Gorakinos sighed, Maggotface cheered, and Terminos scowled, but following Abitani's lead the three raised the potions that the troll had handed out earlier to their mouths and drank. A few seconds later, four humanoid skeletons, a skeletal bear, and a bony imp stood where the mercenaries had been.

"I still think this is a ludicrous idea," the shaman muttered, not even attempting to guess how Noggenfogger's Elixers worked their magic.

"Nobody will -hic- recognizesh me!" Mafo remarked cheerfully, having traded one state of undeath for another.

"We be skeletons wid' style, mon," Abitani cackled, looking unusually fearsome as he did so. A growl from an impatient and even more fearsome JuJu interrupted him, though, and the hunter shrugged nonchalantly. "Well den, time to be goin."

"About time," the Forsaken warlock mumbled, stepping forward and taking the lead to ensure that there would be no more dawdling. "The sooner this farce of a party achieves its objective and disbands the better, in my opinion. I've already been soaked, chased by large carnivorous animals, shadow bolted, imprisoned, and forced to endure more nonsense than even the rivalry between gnomes and goblins has dreamed up. I dread what'll happen next if this doesn't end soon."

------

"I fear what will happen if we don't end this quickly," Commander Mar'alith, night elven leader of the Cenarion Circle's military forces stationed in Silithus, spoke as he gazed intently at the desert's ominous landscape from his balcony. His face, already touched by lines of worry etched by time and grief, looked even graver than usual. "My scouts have reported that a powerful elemental of air has materialized to the northwest with a legion of lesser elementals under its command and is currently conscripting the native elementals of Silithus into its service. If not stopped, this elemental lord will soon have an entire army under its command, and with the Twilight Hammer's established ties to such primal creatures I fear that it is only a matter of time before these two forces unite and combine their strength to launch an assault upon Cenarion Hold.

The commander's gaze hardened, and he clenched his fists in anger and determination. "I fear no enemy and have nothing but respect and admiration for my soldiers, but against a twin elemental and Twilight attack I cannot guarantee that this crucial position will hold. The situation is dire, and delay cannot be afforded. We must act and act quickly, or all might be lost. There is only one thing for us to do."

Mar'alith's aide nodded his head matter-of-factly, as if he heard solemn pronouncements and gloomy assessments all the time which, considering that this was Silithus, he may very well have. Predicting his superior's orders, he inquired calmly, "Shall I offer seven or eight gold pieces to adventurers who handle this problem for us, sir?"

The night elf commander did not speak for several seconds, and in the silence that followed one could've heard a pin drop. Slowly, he turned and stared intently at his assistant. "Do you honestly believe I'd leave something this important to vagrants of dubious trustworthiness and questionable skills?" Mar'alith asked incredulously.

"...10 gold pieces and a choice between three superior items for those who have honored or higher reputation with us, then?" the aide suggested levelly, not looking up from his notebook and thus completely missing the expression of sheer exasperation that passed across the veteran leader's face.

"Elune's grace save us all," Commander Mar'alith muttered, shaking his head once in dismay as he solemnly marched towards the door. "Save your 'gold pieces and superior gear' for the troops because they'll need them soon. The Cenarion Circle will deal with this threat ourselves in an appropriate military fashion so assemble the soldiers and prepare to ride. Those are my orders."

"But sir, practically everyone except the Scourge outsources these days, and the Scourge only doesn't because they have the largest labor force in the known world! Just look at how successful the Burning Legion has been with outsourcing and-" The night elf finally caught sight of the commander's increasingly irate face and changed track. "Aye sir, I'll have a garrison fully equipped and ready to depart in 30 minutes," he replied quickly. "Best of luck to you in this campaign." The aide saluted once as his superior walked through the archway leading back inside, mumbling quietly under his breath when he was confident he was alone, "Only in the army would they assign an economist to a military encampment."

------

Abitani was a firm believer that the impossible was merely waiting to be done. Whereas most people would hesitate or scoff at the idea of slaying Onyxia, vanquishing Ragnaros, or finding a good deal at an auction house, the troll hunter assessed problems analytically and quickly approached the questions of who, where, when, and how. If he felt it was worth asking, he'd throw in a 'why' too, but he was a mercenary and in that line of work there were some questions one didn't raise.

Therefore, when questioned by Terminos if he had any bright ideas how the four of them (six if you counted Noktog and JuJu) could search a hive occupied by a swarm of intelligent, malevolent insects which were known not to take kindly to strangers without suffering grievous bodily harm or -- far more likely -- being killed, the Darkspear had not responded with something along the lines of, "You be crazy, mon!" as a normal person might have. Instead, he'd carefully considered the problem and come up with, as he liked to call it, a 'cunning plan' that might see them through.

Abitani's 'cunning plan' was clearly identifiable as something that someone with a hunter's mindset would concoct. The blue-skinned troll had taken a page from his own experiences when crafting this scheme which essentially boiled down to feigning death whenever a silithid patrol drew near. However, he'd reasoned, while a lone troll playing dead might not attract overly unwanted attention, expecting no one to take a second look at an orc, two Forsaken, a bear, a demon, and a troll lying on the ground was a mite unreasonable. The feigning would have to be taken to a more convincing level, which had led him to Noggenfogger and his elixirs. Six skeletons of an orc, two Forsaken, a bear, a demon, and a troll lying on the ground was a different story, especially in light of how dangerous Silithus was, and if it didn't work they could always fallback on fighting tooth and nail for their lives.

In other words, Abitani's plan was so crazy it might just work, and working it was.

"I still can't believe this is actually working," Gorakinos whispered again disbelievingly as the group of mercenaries explored the subterranean world of Hive'Ashi, carefully noting their descent through the eerie, maze-like tunnels so they could find their way out again quickly. They rounded a cluster of eggs each larger than a fist which glowed a luminescent orange in the darkness, and the shaman felt a chill run down his spine. There was a taint to these creatures that filled his mystical senses with dread.

"Don't look a -hic- gift horsh in the moush," the skeleton that was Maggotface the Glutton retorted amiably, adding after his mind had contemplated the saying a bit further, "Unlesh ya plan on eating the horsh, of courssssh. Then you wansh to look a' the moush and every other -hiccup- parsh of the beasht to makesh shure it doesn't have the plague becaush ta plague spoilsh the meat."

"Grrr," the four-legged bony ursine walking beside them growled, quite proud of its plagued condition and insulted by the suggestion that any part of him was of inferior quality. Besides, if anyone looked at JuJu in the mouth, it was pretty much guaranteed that that would be the last sight they ever saw in this world.

"Dun worry, da warrior didn't mean anything by it," Abitani reassured his pet in soothing tones. "Ju be da strongest bear in d'ese parts, and I'm sure dat your flank be one o' a kind." He chuckled good-naturedly as JuJu playfully tried to bite his skeletal hand off. "Ha, dat be da JuJu I know!"

"Incoming!" Terminos warned urgently, and almost immediately everyone dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead which, because they appeared to be skeletons, was about as easy as it looked. A few seconds later three verdant winged sentries flew by and, as hoped, didn't take a closer look at the deceptive pile of bones. The living held their breath until the patrol was out of sight, while the two Forsaken reminded what remained of their lungs and respiratory system that oxygen was no longer required so stop complaining and shut up already before we replace you with newer, healthier lungs purchased from the Royal Apothecary Society.

JuJu was the first to rise, and soon the party was back on its feet and moving through the tunnels of Hive'Ashi as quietly as six rattling skeletons can move. Terminos took the lead because he was only one he trusted to stay focused and not alert the entire hive to their presence other than Abitani, and the troll was busy keeping his ursine companion calm and not attacking anything that looked even slightly aggressive. JuJu took challenges to his authority rather seriously, and his mere presence in the Plaguelands was enough to send the usually belligerent, maddened animals of the decaying land fleeing to the Alterac Mountains, a testament to the enduring memory of the bear's early life.

Over an hour passed, and still the mercenaries' descent into darkness continued, with only the sinister glow of the increasing number of silithid egg sacs and menacing ambience of the hive to guide their way. The tunnels twisted and turned so often as they burrowed into the earth that it seemed impossible that group of adventurers hadn't retraced their steps, but each chamber was different and almost tauntingly beckoned them on. The party of skeletons was unusually quiet as they walked. The warlock's insults were for once absent, the shaman's musings were silent, Abitani kept his thoughts and observations to himself, and Maggotface felt no desire to sing. Hive'Ashi and its mysteries weighed heavily on the travelers, stifling their normally ebullient spirits and resenting any out-of-place noises. This was an alien world that races like orcs and humans were not meant to see.

Finally, though, they rounded a corner and at last spotted the object of their search. Sitting where it had been left on top of the pile of dead cultists with no signs that it had ever been tampered with was a small wooden chest decorated by Stormwind's crest. Seeing it, Gorakinos resisted to the urge to shout from sheer joy. The end of their quest was at last in sight.

Slightly suspiciously, Terminos walked over to the coffer and tapped it lightly on the side to make sure this wasn't a trap. After having spent so much time with his insufferable partners, he suspected anything that looked like his torment might soon be over. Nothing happened, and he released a sigh of relief. The dark arcanist's next words were barely above a whisper. "Gorakinos, grab this chest and don't get cocky. We still need to bring it back to Orgrimmar in one piece."

The orc shaman gazed at the warlock with mirth. "Don't sound so worried, Terminos. Finding the chest was the hard part. The rest of this journey should be easy."

An inconceivable distance away, an indescribable entity of incomprehensible power once again stirred, turned its attention to Azeroth, boggled at the natives' willingness to challenge fate, and performed the cosmic equivalent of turning up the volume. After all, why pass up what would surely be a good show?

------

The Windreaver sensed the approaching forces of the Cenarion Circle, their numbers and purpose as clear to him as the air he weaved through. The aspect of the elemental that comprised his intelligence sorted through various tactics to meet the oncoming enemy and swiftly chose a course of action. The logical thing to do would be to fortify this position and wait for the druidic order to come to him, but such a plan went against the very nature of Al'Akir's servant. Wind was not a patient element and refused to stand still. It rushed from place to place, going around what it could not go through, and, whether gentle or aggressive, embracing everything in its path.

Unhesitatingly, the Windreaver gathered his minions and rushed forward across the shifting sands of Silithus, leaving a storm in his wake. Very soon now, the sounds of battle would fill the air, and the elemental general's roaring gale reverberated with notes of pleasure and eagerness.

------

The Freelancers and their warlock associate reached the surface without mishap, the chest firmly held in the skeletal grip of Gorakinos. Finding their way out of Hive'Ashi had proved much quicker than finding their way through it, and the few patrols they'd run into continued to be deceived by their feints. All that stood in their way now was the hive's sentries operating above ground and the miles of hostile terrain that lay between them and the Cenarion Hold, and once they reached the friendly (unless you were Maggotface) encampment the return trip to Durotar should be a breeze. Naturally, then, it was at this moment that things took a turn for the worse.

-swish--swish--swish--swish--swish--swish--swish--swish--swish--swish-

Reacting on pure reflex, the party dived to the side and narrowly avoided the onslaught of arrows that flew through the air towards them. Constantly moving so as to evade a follow-up barrage, Gorakinos sequestered the chest under his armpit and slammed a Windwall Totem into the sands as Abitani sprang to his feet and performed a series of intricate side-steps as he reached for his bow. Terminos, less agile than his partners, stayed low to the ground and summoned his magical energies to counterattack with a fury of dark spells. Maggotface and JuJu were already moving forward in a zigzag pattern, retracing the trajectory of the arrows, and they simultaneously issued screams of unadulterated rage once they spied the lithe form of their attacker.

Standing at a comfortable 41 yards away was a sight that had taunted and antagonized countless warriors of the Horde on far-flung battlefields, a haughty, infuriating figure whose image had been painfully seared onto the minds of numerous orcs, trolls, tauren, and Forsaken. Bow drawn and already stepping backwards to keep a distance between them, the night elf hunter drew another set of arrows from his quiver as his giant white cat growled aggressively. Maggotface and JuJu, their vision turning red in response to this maddeningly familiar adversary, doubled their pace and covered the distance between them in a few swift bounds, much to the surprise of the unfortunate hunter who soon learned to his further surprise as the magic of Noggenfogger's Elixers vanished in response to the hostile actions that the two Scourge minions he'd shot were in fact not servants of the Lich King but an incredibly angry Forsaken and bear. Before he could issue an apology or even utter a word the furious duo were upon him and his pet, and much violence and pain ensued.

"Maggotface, JuJu, stop! We don't have time for this!" Terminos shouted warningly, running over to the scene and forcibly pulling the warrior out of the ruckus. Next to him, Abitani had a much easier time calming down his bear who'd released his frustration on the now unconscious feline. Gorakinos joined them and looked around worriedly.

"Let me at 'em! Thash elf deserves to die!" Mafo spat hatefully, struggling to free himself from the warlock's surprisingly iron hold. "Give me one goosh reason why I sshouldn't killsh 'im!"

In response, Terminos let go of the warrior and gestured expansively around them. "Take a look around and see for yourself! I can count over a hundred good reasons right now, personally!"

Despite himself, the undead mercenary followed his companion's advice and looked at their surroundings. As he did so, his sunken eye sockets widened comically. Drawn by the noise and sounds of battle, the silithid had converged on their location and what looked like a growing army of the sinister insects was gathering on a hill behind them. Their gold, green, and blue carapaces shined as the sun's rays reflected off their colorful shells, and for a moment Mafo was blinded by their numbers and brilliance.

"...Okay, yoush convinced me," Maggotface answered solemnly. A little more hopefully, he asked, "Gotsh any more cunning plansh, Abi?"

"Yah mon, jus one," the hunter answered smoothly. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and opened his mouth to shout. "RUN FOR JA LIVES!"

They did so, trampling over the hapless night elf as they fled. The silithid followed, those not in the air also barreling over the distressed kaldorei. The hunter, rather wisely, decided to feign death right then, a feat made relatively easy by the state of his battered, injured body.

------

"How long do you think they'll continue chasing us?" Gorakinos asked anxiously, clutching the chest with his left arm as he ran, powerful green legs enabling him to keep up with Abitani's innate speed and the Forsakens' undead endurance.

Keeping pace beside him, Terminos turned and scowled. "Maybe if you'd drop Earthbind instead of Stoneclaw Totems we'd have found that out by now, you idiot! Honestly, what are you thinking?!"

The shaman spared a look behind him and searched for the last totem he'd planted. As he watched, half a dozen silithid drones detached themselves from the pursuing legion and pounced on the Stoneclaw Totem, reducing it to splinters and shards in less than a second. "I suppose Earthbind might be a tad better suited for this situation," he conceded begrudgingly, raising his free arm and channeling the power of ice through his hand to Frost Shock one of the monstrous insects that was pulling ahead of the rest of the host.

"Less talking, more running and fighting mon!" Abitani shouted from behind them. Having mastered the art of sprinting backwards, the hunter was putting his skills to good use and firing arrow after arrow at the silithid whom he never took his gaze off of. In front of the fleeing party, JuJu was mercilessly and swiftly dispatching the desert's normal hostile denizens that threatened to get in their way such as spiders, dredge worms, and the occasional wandering Anubisath (Gorakinos preferred not to wonder how the bear had taken down something three times his size in a tenth of a second and was instead for now merely thankful). Maggotface brought up the rear with shield and sword in hand, facing their pursuers as he ran and doing an amazing job of deflecting their projectiles and slicing off the appendages of any that came too close for comfort. The imp Noktog was doing what he did best, standing on his master's right shoulder and staying as small and inconspicuous as possible while lobbing fireballs as his master channeled the powers of shadow. Had there been any observers present, they might have been impressed by the group's ability to coordinate their actions in retreat and cover each other's backs, but chances are that they'd be running for their lives too. The silithid weren't known for making distinctions between targets.

Still, through sheer panic, determination, and enough totems to trip a small army, the mercenaries began to pull ahead, and the rampaging silithid gradually receded from view. Seeing this, Abitani released a sigh of relief, but then his sharp ears pricked up as he heard a distant and unwelcome shout.

"There they are! Kill them all!"

The hunter turned so he was facing ahead and scanned the horizon. The barely discernable vision of a sea of purple and blue cultist robes approaching dispelled the ebullience he had begun to feel. "Change course! We got Twilight friends o' yours approaching us at 12 o'clock, mon!"

"Great! Today just keeps on getting better and better!" Terminos shouted sarcastically, veering to the left. What he saw drawing closer from that direction only added to his frustration. "By Kil'jaeden's horns! Turn around and go the other way! We've got elementals approaching!"

Now running from the silithid, the Twilight's Hammer, and the Windreaver's followers, the Freelancers and warlock who had decided to shadow bolt Gorakinos in the face the next time the orc asked him to go anywhere at all found their path blocked yet again by the approaching sight of a fully armed garrison of the Cenarion Circle's best soldiers riding panthers into battle under the standard of Commander Mar'alith.

The mercenaries came to an abrupt halt and looked around for a sign of salvation. It wasn't forthcoming. "If ju take da army on our left and Terminos the one to da right and Mafo da one behind ju and I take da one in front..."

They all looked at Abitani as if he was crazy. In response, the troll hunter grinned and practiced feigning death. Terminos sighed, soulstoned himself, and got ready to summon an infernal. Gorakinos reached into one of his pouches and withdrew an Ankh of Reincarnation, holding the reagent as if his life depended on it...which it probably did. Maggotface grabbed the canteen attached to his belt which he'd filled with a drink from Sinjo before the pandaren took his leave and imbibed its alcoholic contents in one swift gulp. Noktog and JuJu exchanged glances.

"That is so unfair!" the imp complained bitterly, phase-shifting and leaping onto the plagued bear's back which he figured was probably the safest spot he could be right now. JuJu, unafraid and appearing eager, roared and readied himself for combat, the only confusion he felt coming from wondering which foe he should attack first.

And then, heedless of anything except their targets, the four legions arrived from the north, south, west, and east. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Freelancers and their companions charged into what would soon become a chaotic battle of epic proportions and almost certain death.

And much mayhem and pain ensued.

------

"And den what happened?" the troll priest known as Golli asked inquisitively, listening to the story intently from where he was seated around a sturdy but slightly stained wooden table inside the Orgrimmar Legitimate Businessmen's Club. Sitting to the Darkspear's right was a dark tauren warrior who was tall even for his race, and to the troll's left was Ignus, a bald Forsaken mage with pale skin that was remarkably intact for one of the undead. Terminos and Gorakinos sat on the other side of the table, the warlock hunched over with his head supported on his arms on the wooden surface and occasionally emitting a groan of pain and the orc with bloodshot eyes and skin more blue and black than green. Noktog was standing on the table and quietly munching on pretzels taken from a nearby bowl.

The shaman shuddered, the motion eliciting several sharp twinges of agony in his bruised body. "What do you think happened?" he asked pointedly. "There were silithid to the left of me, mad cultists to the right, and there I was stuck in the middle with my erstwhile companions as two separate armies of night elves and elementals rushed each other! It was total mayhem, pure and simple, with everyone trying to kill everyone else and so many bodies everywhere that it was impossible to tell who was doing what! And then...it got even worse."

Ignus blinked. "Worse?" he spoke curiously, a note of incredulity in his voice. "How is it possible for a situation like that to become even worse?"

Terminos weakly raised his head and gazed at the mage grimly, twin orbs glowing with a penetrating, unholy light. "Nelson the Nice walked by," he answered simply. Then, exhausted, his head fell back onto the table with a loud thud.

"Nelson the Nice?" the tauren repeated questioningly, sounding slightly amused. "That doesn't sound so bad..."

"That'sssh -hic- becaush you've never met 'im, Drauka!" Maggotflace slurred, spinning around on the bar stool he was on to face the impromptu gathering. Behind him, Goremug silently refilled the Forsaken's glass, mentally adding another digit to the bill he was going to send to Ishtallah during one of her saner moments. The undead warrior tilted his head and his upper jaw curved upward in a semblance of a conspiratorial grin. "Yoush see...Nelshon tha Nice ish actually a demon! Ishn't that right, Abitani?"

Abitani, from where he was tiredly leaning against the sleeping form of a content JuJu in the center of the bar, nodded his head. The chest over which they'd worked so hard to acquire was on the floor in front of the plagued bear, the party having agreed that the ursine beast probably provided better security than even the club's safe. "Jah mon, dat be correct. Nelson da Nice also be known as Solenor da Slayer, a nasty dreadlord."

"So you got caught up in a battle between sinister bugs, rampaging elementals, crazy cultists, ardent kaldorei, and a demon?" the tauren, Drauka, summarized, holding back a laugh. "Dare I ask who won?"

As one, Gorakinos, Terminos, Noktog, Maggotface, and Abitani all turned to look at the slumbering figure of JuJu. Ignus raised an eyebrow. "I see," he remarked passively, adding with a sudden smirk, "but I take it the rest of you didn't fare so well?"

The shaman glared at the mage but lacked the energy to hold it for more than a second. "Your powers of observation astound me," the green-skinned mystic muttered tersely, sarcasm pointed enough to sharpen an axe. "I can tell that nothing escapes your incredible perception. Of course we didn't fare so well!" he shouted, voice coloring with anger. "We were surrounded and outnumbered on all sides with arcane, fel, and divine magics flying through the air! It's a miracle that we're still alive, let alone feeling well enough to talk to you!"

"Whoa dere," Golli interjected, raising his arms soothingly. "Let's not let our tempers get the better of us here, neh? After all, there's still more of the story to hear," he spoke calmly, faint Zandali accent barely noticeable. "Please, do continue."

Gorakinos took a deep breath and slowly relaxed. "It's not worth the effort to describe the battle once the demon showed up," he said at last, a glazed over and distant look in his eyes as he remembered the recent past. "So much happened so quickly that even I can barely make heads or tails of it, and I was smack in the middle of that chaotic mess. Suffice it to say, though, at the end of it JuJu was the only one still standing and even he looked like he'd seen better days. Afterwards, the rest of us somehow managed to alternately limp and crawl to safety, and once we'd patched ourselves up as best we could we found our mounts and rode straight to Valor's Rest."

"I wanted to go back to the Cenarion Hold and get proper medical treatment," Terminos grumbled sullenly, words slightly muffled by his sleeves, "but between what had just happened and Maggotface's less than stellar reputation with the Cenarion Circle we figured we'd be better off staying out of their stronghold in the interest of self-preservation."

"And it worked out well enough anyway," the shaman remarked after a moment's pause, sounding pleased for the first time since he'd started telling this tale. "As it turns out, Navigator and Napili were nearby in Un'Goro and decided to spend the night at the small encampment too. We met up there, and they graciously opened a portal to Orgrimmar for us. In another stroke of good luck, Sablehawk and Lorilei were in the Valley of Spirits when we got back and persuaded a couple people to help cart us back to the Club. And...well, here we are now, with splitting headaches and looking worse than an engineer's workshop after experiments with dynamite waiting for our client to show up so we can finally get rid of this parcel!"

As if on cue, the door to the Orgrimmar Legitimate Businessmen's Club swung open and a vision of eternal splendor entered. Threnody D'usque now wore a black silk dress instead of the skintight jumpsuit Gorakinos had first seen her in, but she was as mind-bogglingly beautiful as ever. Alabaster skin brilliant and inviting, alluring raven hair an irresistible temptation, azure eyes an ocean in whose liquid, mesmerizing depths one would willingly drown, blood red lips a luscious promise of pleasure, and figure an enthralling picture of the utmost sensuality, she drew all male eyes to her with more force than a celestial body's gravitational field.

The lovely Forsaken woman icily ignored the stares and catcalls directed at her from the corners of the bar as she sashayed over to shaman and warlock's table, a smile of dangerous knowledge playing across her entrancing features. "Well done, Freelancers," she said approvingly, leaning down over the table so she was at eye level with Gorakinos. Drauka, Ignus, and Golli, possessing more self control than many of the club's other patrons, stayed where they were and watched the scene unfold in silence. It wasn't polite to interrupt another's business dealings, after all. "I heard you recently returned with my chest in your possession. Before we discuss payment, though, I'd like to see it."

The shaman, lust drowned out by the aggregate frustration generated by his recent ordeals and aching body constantly reminding him of the abuse he'd taken to fulfill their contract, coldly pointed to where JuJu lay sleeping. A look of desperate hope crossed the lady's face as she turned, an expression quickly replaced by pleasure as she saw the mostly undamaged wooden box. Seeing this, the orc's curiosity grew, and he made a decision.

"I think we deserve to know what's inside the chest before we hand it over," Gorakinos spoke as Threnody turned startled eyes on him. "My friends and I went through untold agony, searched through the shifting sands of Silithus, and nearly died several times to bring this coffer back to you, and I'd rather jump through a portal leading to the Great Dark Beyond than accept this contract again. The least you can do is let us know what we risked our lives for. Isn't that right, Terminos?"

The battered warlock looked up with bleary eyes and slowly nodded his head. "That's right. If there's some sort of mystical artifact of unbelievable destructive power in there, I want to be the first to know so I can use it against Gorakinos and preclude any possibility of being asked to work with him again."

Almost too fast to see, Threnody's bewitching face went from surprised to angry and annoyed before finally resolving itself into an expression of amused cruelty. "You really want to know what's inside the container?" she asked with sinister mirth, smirking. "Fine with me. Bring it over here and I'll open it, but be warned that I don't think you'll like what you see."

"We'll be the judge of that. Abitani? If you would?" Gorakinos requested, now even more curious. The troll hunter, having listened to the conversation and also wondering what his party had retrieved, rose, very carefully picked up the chest in front of JuJu, and brought it over to the table where he set it down and assumed a guarded stance next to Ignus. Threnody wasted no time, reaching for her coffer almost hungrily and gently tracing its sides, tapping several indiscernible indentations in the wooden structure to deactivate the lock. As Gorakinos, Terminos, Abitani, and the others seated at the table watched and the seconds passed their expectations grew and their thoughts turned to treasure, jewelry, weapons, and magic. Surely something with such a complicated security mechanism would be valuable? Finally, with a quiet click, the lock came undone, and the Forsaken beauty turned the chest so it was facing the warlock and shaman and raised the lid.

Inside was a blue Tickle Me Murloc doll.

One could almost hear the atmosphere of anticipation shatter into a thousand shards. Abitani blinked furiously, trying to make sense of this new piece of information. Gorakinos was livid, pure and simple. "We nearly lost our lives for this?!" he screamed, outraged, slamming his fists against the table. Watching from the bar, Maggotface swallowed the contents of his glass in one gulp. Golli, Ignus, Drauka, and Noktog sniggered with varying degrees of restraint. Terminos, exhausted and with his breaking point so far behind him now that Outland was closer, glowered. "None of this ever occurred," he said direly, daring anyone to contradict him. "As far as I'm concerned, all of this has just been one very long nightmare. Our trip to Tanaris and everything that happened after that is a story that never happened, and I'll send anyone who mentions this contract again on a one-way trip to the Twisting Nether!" Outburst finished, the warlock decided to escape from the cruelty that was reality and fainted, head colliding with the table with another loud thud.

"I told you that you wouldn't like learning the truth," Threnody remarked haughtily, rising to her full height and gazing down at the mercenaries with a teasing smile. "Still, you have my thanks and thanks of my daughter too."

"Daughter?!" the orc mystic exclaimed, shocked for the second time in as many minutes. His beautiful client gave him a pointed look as if to say, 'What? With a body like this did you really think I was single when alive?' Gorakinos tried picturing what the woman might've looked like when she was still human and before her first pregnancy and had to fight to prevent himself from joining Terminos in unconsciousness. Some things were too glorious for mortals to behold.

"Yes, my daughter," Threnody repeated, tone darkening and eyes filling with a tortured madness. "My lovely daughter who, thanks to the plague, is still in her terrible twos more than two years after her second birthday! My cute sweetie who has since becoming undead not gone a single day without asking for her cherished Tickle Me Murloc doll! My precious child against whom all the horrors of the Undercity pale in comparison and who motivates me to take revenge against the Scourge for making me a single parent forced to endure this unending torment!" Realizing that she was beginning to rant, the Forsaken collected herself and smiled sweetly. "So...how much do I owe you?"

Gorakinos gaped, mind reeling from what he'd just learned. The time they'd spent, the sacrifices they'd made, the humiliation and pain they'd experienced...it had all been for one cute plushie for an undead whelp? Abitani, taking the news in much better stride than his less experienced partner, chuckled once. "We jus' need a moment da consult, madam. We be right wid ju." He grabbed the orc by his right arm and pulled him over to the bar counter where Magggotface was. Quietly, he asked, "What seems like a good price to ju two?"

Mafo shrugged and hiccupped, and Gorakinos remained unresponsive. The hunter sighed and contemplated what a fair price for retrieving a children's doll might be, but before he could suggest any numbers the orc bartender Goremug leaned over and joined the conversation. "I think I might have an idea," he interjected smoothly. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he said it, and vindictive smiles crossed the mercenaries' faces.

The Forsaken warrior acted first by spinning his stool around to face their patron. He leered lopsidedly. "Ashter careful -hic- conshider...der...ashion? Yeah, conshiderasssshion, my friiiends an' I only ashk that in a-kuchange for oush servishesh you paysh my tab."

"You want me to pay your bar tab?" Threnody questioned, frowning contemptuously at the drunken fighter. She considered this for a moment and nodded her head slightly. "Sure, why not? That doesn't sound so bad. How much is it?"

They told her.

"WHAT?!! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS?!!"

As the mercenaries and their client haggled back and forth, Goremug heard a string of unfamiliar guttural laughter coming from one of the club's many corners and turned to investigate. For the briefest of moments, he thought he saw a tauren clad in an assassin's leathers, but a closer inspection revealed nothing and he chalked it up to a trick of the imagination. After all, everyone knows that tauren rogues do not exist.

The end.