A/N: Thanks so much to everyone who's offered encouragement or criticism throughout the course of this fic (holy crap, over a year now, wtf)! Knowing that other people are reading has definitely helped keep me motivated, and writing this through to conclusion has been a great learning process. There are things in earlier chapters I'd probably write differently if I were doing it over again now, but on the whole I like the note this ends on. Hopefully you will too. I'll be sticking around the Warcraft section after this, though I haven't decided yet what I'd like to work on next. Maybe something involving canon characters, now that I've knocked some of the rust off my narrative skills. It's not out of the realm of possibility that I'd revisit some of these characters again for one more fic, but I'd want to make sure I had the drive to finish it before I started another of these monsters. If not, then this is really the last chapter.
Best of luck (until next time), and thanks for the ride!
Several weeks later, swirling the dregs of his beer around his glass in the salty-aired twilight of Booty Bay, Tun would muse on how Callista's "help" was nothing at all like he'd expected. He wasn't sure what he'd been waiting for – some disgraced cleric, half-fallen to the Shadow, perhaps, or maybe a fresh-faced young priest who hadn't yet absorbed the biases of his superiors – but the appearance of the finely-garbed old gentleman with the sour expression and the Northshire signet ring had been startling even at the time.
He'd ridden up on a dapple-grey mare that minced through the puddles and the driving rain, face partially obscured by his gold-embroidered hood. Callista's soaked and filthy form had looked strangely out of place behind him on the saddle.
"I gave you my word, Miss Dunhaven," he said as he gingerly dismounted, voice thick with distaste, "but to be wrenched from my bed and hauled through this torrent is hardly the treatment due – "
He paused, thin mouth slightly agape, as he caught sight of Na'rii and Kar'thol, and, Tun supposed, himself, kneeling at the troll's head, through the shadows and the pouring rain.
"By the Lightbringer himself, this is treason!" he gasped.
"Treason?" Callista snapped, as she slid off the saddle behind him. The horse snorted and gnashed at her arm with its flat teeth, not liking her smell of demon, and she swatted at its nose. "Better or worse than summoning imps in the Cathedral cellars?"
The priest's wrinkled face contorted as though slapped, and he shot Callista a look best described as desperate. Rain dripped off the gilded edges of his hood and the end of his aquiline nose.
"She needs help!" Tun said angrily. He could hear Na'rii's stilted breathing above the patter of rain and creak of branches, and her eyes were slitted in pain. "What sort of man of the Light – "
"An old one, who's chosen his family over his principles too many times," he said bitterly. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and the lines on his face seemed to deepen with weariness, though his bearing remained proud. "Very well. You aided me once, and I am not dishonorable enough to have forgotten it. Show me what's happened here."
"Her stomach. Look," Tun said, moving aside to show him. He and Kar'thol had stripped Na'rii of her heavy leather breastplate and bound the wounds as best they could with the torn strips of Callista's robes, but a dark spreading stain was evident even against the black fabric.
The priest glanced up at Kar'thol's hulking form with some alarm – "No worry, human shaman help now!" – before bending close and peeling the bandages back gently. He hissed at the sight, recoiling and twisting around to glower at Callista. "Did one of your abominations do this?"
"No," she said sharply, and her expression, as best as Tun could read it through the night and the storm, was irked. "It was a Legion creature, if that offends your holy sensibilities any less."
The priest only sniffed, but perhaps it did, because when he turned back to Na'rii his haughty gaze had softened a little. "Be still, child," he said, hovering his hands close over her torn flesh. "The wounds do not appear to be tainted, and I have seen far worse than this."
The rain turned to gold as his head bowed and soft radiance streamed from his palms.
A reluctant savior the priest may have been, but his skill as a healer was unquestionable. Tun set his glass down on the stained surface of the driftwood table, swinging his legs idly in the balmy air. Na'rii had been tired and weak for several days afterward, but trolls were a robust people, and now she sprang about as lithely as ever with not even a scar to show for the ordeal. It was a lucky thing – they'd needed to move almost immediately to avoid patrols by the Stormwind guard, and she had flatly refused to ride Callista's felsteed. He snorted slightly at the memory.
"Less broodin', more drinkin', mon!"
Na'rii's voice came from behind him, and he turned in his chair, flipping his glass over and shaking it so a few lingering flecks of foam spilled onto the sand. "You're already behind!"
Na'rii grinned hugely, tusks glinting white in the last rays of the sun, and jerked a thumb at Kar'thol. The ogre was standing at her side with a huge and alcoholic-looking barrel of…something (Tun couldn't reach the Orcish on the lid) tucked beneath one of his thick arms. "Don't ya worry, we be catchin' ya soon."
She slid into the chair next to him, while Kar'thol simply batted a wobbly-looking stool aside and plunked down on the sand, plopping the barrel down happily on the table. The legs actually creaked under the weight.
"What is that?" Tun asked, scrutinizing the sloppy black letters burned into the wood of the barrel. The bung on top was firmly in place, but the sharp smell of alcohol still wafted from it. "Goblin rocket fuel?"
"Dunno, but you can set it on fire," Na'rii said wickedly. "What did ya do wit' the warlock?"
Kar'thol planted a palm on the top of the barrel and yanked at the bung with the other; it came free with a low thunk and a strong smell of booze.
"Out emptying the rest of the liquor shops, I have no doubt," he said, wrinkling his nose at the odor. "She'll be here soon."
The murmur of many conversations mingled with the pleasant sound of the bay whispering back and forth over the white sand. It was a beautiful night; the sky glittered with stars and the breeze fluttered softly from across the water, bringing with it the tangy smell of salt. Some enterprising goblins had taken advantage by dragging their tables and most of the contents of their bar out onto the beach, lit by the greenish flame of a driftwood bonfire and several dozen enchanted tiki torches that floated where the shadowy jungle met the shore. The whole thing had taken on a festival atmosphere as members of Alliance and Horde alike caroused on the sand in every possible variation on drunk, under the watchful eye of several rough-looking ogre bouncers. Even a few Forsaken lingered on the edges of the crowd, eyes glowing like gold sparks in the shadows.
He caught sight of Callista, ducking around a cluster of tawny-pelted Tauren with a bottle dangling from each hand, and waved. She made a beeline for them, plunking her cargo down on the table with a flourish. "I like my liquor like I like my men," she announced impishly.
Na'rii picked up one of the bottles and turned it in her nimble blue fingers, examining the amber liquid inside the cut-glass container with a sly grin. "Elvish an' ten years old?"
Tun laughed as Callista perched herself on the stool at his other side with a snort. "I was going to say 'strong, dark and worth lots of gold,' but that's far more offensive."
Na'rii stood, reaching over to dunk a bamboo cup into the barrel of liquor, which turned out to be a pale greenish grog. She downed half of it in a swig before setting the cup down with a satisfied air. "Anytime, mon."
She leaned out of the way as Kar'thol lifted the barrel, sloshing its contents into a heavy clay mug that Tun could have used as a wash basin. "Gnome should try ogre-brew," he said, taking a drink and smacking his lips with obvious delight. "Grow big like Kar'thol!"
Na'rii chuckled. "Only if his liver swells big as his head, mon," she said with a wink, prodding Tun in the temple.
Tun dodged good-naturedly out of the way of her finger. "When does your ship leave?" he asked, snagging a new mug of Thunderbrew Lager from a passing tray and digging a few coppers from his pocket.
Na'rii took another swig before answering. It was still odd to see her without her customary leather armor – instead she wore a top that seemed to be little more than a strip of brightly-patterned fabric tied at the back and a coordinating skirt. He often found it difficult to judge the attractiveness of other races – most of them looked so terribly thin and stretched out to his eye – but he thought she looked quite pretty. "The Maiden's Fancy be sailin' at daybreak."
Tun just nodded. This was the real reason for their presence here – Na'rii and Kar'thol had wished to return to Kalimdor, and it hadn't seemed right to make them take the journey from Stormwind alone. He'd tried to convince them to stay on Azeroth for a while (the other continent seemed so far, and the thought of never seeing them again caused Tun a painful stab of regret), but a pensive, sad look had clouded Na'rii's eyes, and she'd made her excuses only vaguely. Tun had supposed it might have something to do with her broken communion with the spirits and hadn't pressed her any further. Callista, he suspected, hadn't even noticed. The two women had developed a kind of tolerant respect for each other, but he wouldn't go so far as to call it friendship.
"Look, it's those traders from Stranglethorn," Callista said, nudging him in the ribs with her elbow. She was tanner than usual after the weeks they'd spent outdoors, and the tip of her nose was sunburned. "If they come over here I'm setting their cloaks on fire and blaming it on the Horde."
Tun rolled his eyes, wiping the beer froth from his lips. "You are not."
"If you wanted to set them on fire, you would've done it in Stranglethorn."
"I don't want to set all of them on fire," she said ominously.
Na'rii cackled at her expression and leaned conspiratorially over the table, eyes wide with feigned innocence. "Ya can't burn the fires of his love, mon."
Tun almost choked on a mouthful of beer at Callista's look of disgust, which only intensified as Na'rii cocked her head, clacking her beaded braids together mischievously. "Maybe ya should sleep wit' him and see if he goes away."
Callista wrinkled her nose, eyeing the man in question over the rim of her glass and ducking so that Kar'thol's conveniently large silhouette hid her from view. "I'd rather kiss his felguard." She paused, then seemed to decide that hadn't been nearly contemptuous enough and tacked on: "Naked."
"I wouldn't, mon," Na'rii said sagely. "What if he be into that?"
"You are both disgusting," Tun observed, swallowing the last of his drink and sizing up Callista's bottle of elvish liquor. He wasn't sure why she'd developed such a swift and bottomless loathing for that poor fellow; to be sure, he was a good few years older than her, but for a warlock Aldric hadn't seemed half bad. Maybe that was the problem. Upon catching sight of Callista's felsteed in the sweltering jungle of Stranglethorn Vale, he'd immediately looked delighted, cornering her and launching into a passionate speech on Blood Elves and the useful and proper place of demons in a modern society. Her look of scorn would have withered a man less absorbed in his own argument, but Aldric seemed completely unable to distinguish her sincerely venomous remarks from playful flirtation. In his defense, Tun had known Callista for years and sometimes even he couldn't tell the two apart.
"Maybe I can convince him he needs a dreadsteed," Callista said, expression brightening wickedly. She stuck the tip of her tongue experimentally into a cupful of the green grog, which actually appeared to glow faintly in the starlight, then seemed to deem it drinkable and took a long swallow.
Tun groaned and flicked a broken piece of seashell at her head. It bounced off her nose and plopped into her drink. "If you ever say the word 'dreadsteed' to me again I'm calling the guards."
"I never did get one, you know…" she said, tapping her finger against her chin thoughtfully.
Kar'thol snorted in disapproval, removing his blocky tusked face from his bucket of grog long enough to glare at her. "Warlock summons any dread-demons and Kar'thol sits on her head."
Callista snickered into her drink, then stuck her finger into it to fish out the bit of shell. "If I ever tried that again, I think I might let you."
An hour or two later, the world had become pleasantly warm and blurred around the edges. Tun leaned contentedly back in his chair, cupping a glass of amber liquor in his hands and listening to the cheerful beat of a steel drum band that had dragged its instruments onto the beach. The music threaded easily through the increasingly raucous chatter of the partygoers and the night songs of the jungle birds and insects, and closer to hand he could hear the snoring of Kar'thol, who had nearly drained the barrel of green grog and then laid down on the soft white sand with his belly up like a huge overturned cask. Silvery moonlight winked from the surface of the sea, and Tun concluded that his previous opinion of Booty Bay as a dirty hole of questionable business dealings had been happily ill-informed.
He took another sip, enjoying the smooth burn of the liquor as he watched a Blood Elf woman who looked almost too drunk to stand topple against an orc, who simply rolled her eyes affectionately and hefted her small frame easily by the arm. Tun could get used to this kind of adventuring, he decided. Now if only Na'rii and Callista (who had not set anyone on fire after all) would come back with some supper.
He got his wish several minutes later, when the two women reappeared through the crowd carrying several heaping platters of steamed shellfish and a bowl of melted butter.
"Hey, mon," Na'rii said, prodding Kar'thol in the arm with a two-toed foot and setting her load down with a clatter. "Wake up or we be givin' yours to the fishes."
Kar'thol merely grunted something incomprehensible in Orcish and threw a tattooed arm over his eyes.
Na'rii chuckled, tossing a clam from hand to hand to cool it before scooping out the morsel inside and dunking it in butter. "He gonna be sick all the way to Ratchet in the mornin'."
A small pang disturbed Tun's haze of contentment at the reminder of his friends' departure. "Maybe we should all just stay here," he said with a slightly sloppy wave of his hand, only half-joking.
"Forever?" Callista said, laughing a little as she picked a scallop from the platter. "The Academy will think I fed you to a felhound."
"You almost did," he grumbled, kicking her playfully under the table.
She squinted appraisingly at him. "You are bite-sized."
Tun snorted, and might have thrown something at her again, but was interrupted by the sound of his name being called over the noise of revelry.
"Tun? Tunregar Weldicircuit?"
The voice was high and female, and tinged with something like disbelief. Tun recognized it immediately, and turned towards the source with a mixture of delight and a horrible sinking sensation. "Nissa?"
She stood behind him, dressed in an embroidered tunic with her purple hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. Her normally friendly brown eyes held equal parts suspicion and relief. "Tinkers and troggs, where have you been?"
"I, er, well…I was…there were…bandits?" he tried weakly, feeling terribly cornered. He'd known he would have to answer this question eventually, but he wasn't expecting to have it sprung on him by the woman he fancied when he was half-drunk and a hundred miles from home.
"Bandits?" Nissa echoed icily, crossing her arms. "You disappear for weeks without so much as a word, and the best you can do is bandits?"
Tun had never been very good at making up stories under the best of circumstances, let alone with his head fuzzy with drink and Nissa glaring like she might burn a hole in him that way. He'd forgotten how pretty she was. He shot a helpless look at Callista. "Nissa, I – "
"It was my fault," Callista said quickly, before he could dig himself any deeper. Tun felt a wave of relief at the interruption. Callista's concocted excuses were nearly always better than his, and besides, he thought with a stab of vindication, it really had been her fault.
"That doesn't surprise me," Nissa said, though her voice had warmed from glacial to merely cold. She and Callista had only met before on a few occasions, but had always found each other agreeable, both warlock and fire mage sharing a love of strong drink and more-or-less minor mischief. And maybe, he dared to hope, she didn't really want to be mad at him.
"One of my spells went wrong. Very wrong, actually," Callista said, making a face. "We were captured, and, well…" she shrugged, gesturing vaguely with a bitten-off shrimp tail still in her fingers.
It was a good line to take – Nissa had cast more than a few wayward spells herself, and was beginning to look just barely more interested than angry. She uncrossed her arms and looked at Tun. "Why didn't you just say that?"
"I think he tried," Callista said, before shooting him a slightly wicked sidelong look. "He really likes you, you know."
Tun felt heat rise in his face, and was sure he'd turned redder than the boiled lobster sitting on the platter. Somewhere behind him, Na'rii snickered. "Callista!" he hissed.
Nissa's ears had turned decidedly pink. "I…I think we need to talk."
"I think I need another drink," Callista said, utterly unrepentant. She snatched up her glass and wandered over to the rickety-looking bamboo bar, perching herself on a stool and leaning over to flirt with the stranger sitting next to her.
Na'rii stood up and winked. "Spirits be wit' ya, mon," she said before sauntering off.
Nissa looked startled, as though noticing the troll for the first time. "Who is that?"
"Na'rii," Tun said, rather unhelpfully.
Then they were alone, just him, Nissa, and Kar'thol's thunderously snoring bulk.
Nissa sat down in Callista's vacated seat, and for a long moment she just looked at him. His stomach flip-flopped a little as he noticed the way the torchlight played gold flecks in her eyes. "I thought you were dead, you know," she said reproachfully.
Tun squirmed a little in his seat. Why hadn't he even thought to warn her he might be gone? "I know," he said, beginning to feel rather wretchedly guilty. "I hope you'll believe me when I tell you I'm sorry."
He thought, just maybe, he saw the corners of her mouth twitch just a little. "I might." Her gaze flicked meaningfully to the upturned dome of Kar'thol's snoozing belly. "If you buy me a drink and tell me what you've really been doing."
"I think," Tun said, and he couldn't restrain the smile that broke across his face, "I'd like that very much."
Some time later, Callista leaned into her companion's side as they wended their way through the increasingly boisterous crowd, enjoying the warm solid weight of his arm around her waist. She was at a very agreeable stage of drunk; not yet sloppy, but buzzed enough that she was content to dwell on little beyond the breeze on her face and the sand that slid between her bare toes. The night was young, and by the looks of things it would take Tun awhile to explain things to Nissa's satisfaction. She hoped he managed – she quite liked the lady gnome, who was clever and lively and would make a good match for her friend, who had a tendency to coop himself up in the library tower for days if no one dragged him out of it. Until they worked things out, however, she'd just have to look after herself.
The tide was high, and soon they found foam-edged wavelets rushing around their feet. Some of the more exuberant (or drunk) partygoers had stripped off most of their clothes to swim in the moon-drenched bay, and their gleeful shouts and shrieks echoed over the water.
"Are you staying in town long?" the man at her side asked. He'd given her his name, and she'd promptly forgotten it. She'd never been good at remembering such things, especially when she'd been drinking and never expected to see the person in question sober anyway. Maybe she'd try to figure it out just so Tun couldn't tease her later. The man hadn't even asked for hers.
"A few days," she replied, skimming the sole of her foot playfully over the silvery water. "We're seeing some friends off at the port."
He nodded indifferently, pulling her more comfortably against his side. He'd told her he was a fisherman, and had the lean muscles and calloused hands to prove it, but his clothes were just a little too fine and his accent not quite provincial enough. A smuggler, maybe, if not an outright pirate.
"I hear Kul Tiras is launching raids from Crestfall again," she mentioned innocently, just to devil him.
The way his fingers tightened slightly against her hip told her she'd probably hit her mark. "They're teaching pretty girls naval maneuvers in Stormwind now?" he asked with a teasing grin.
"Oh, yes, and any number of other awful things," she said, pulling her face into a mock-serious frown. "Dreadful, really."
For a moment his handsome face looked uncertain as to whether she was joking or not, and she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was drunk or just thick. "I don't believe it," he said with a smile, choosing a safe answer.
She raised a brow archly at him. "Maybe I should show you."
He seemed to be on much firmer ground with flirtation, drumming his fingers against her hip and creasing his brow in poorly-feigned confusion. "You're going to riddle me with cannonballs?"
She laughed a little before shoving him away coyly. "Only if you ask nicely."
He grinned, lifting a dark bottle of rum that dangled from his other hand and taking a swig before offering it to her. She accepted it, tipping the bottle back and feeling the burn of the liquid in her throat as they wandered along the sand.
The jungle pressed closer to the water here, and the fronds of leaning palm trees mostly hid them from the revelers nearer the town, though music and the low hum of conversation still drifted on the night air. Callista allowed herself to be guided over a rough jetty of black volcanic rock, picking her way carefully through foam splashing up between its gaps, and onto a worn dock that floated in the deeper water on its other side.
The smuggler had pushed up her shirt slightly with the hand on her waist, tracing patterns on her bare skin with the pads of his fingers, but he let go in order to hop up onto the planks ahead of her, extending his hand.
She took it, feeling water flow about her knees as she jumped onto the dock, which was tethered to shore by a solid wooden post driven into the sand. Their damp footprints stained its weathered grain a deep brown as they walked to its edge and settled down with their feet dangling into the water.
"Prettiest bay on Azeroth," he remarked, resting a hand on the back of her neck and beginning to knead gently.
Jeron (or Jaron or Jerith or whatever he'd called himself) may not have been the sharpest sword in the armory, Callista thought, leaning into his touch, but he did have his better points.
And he was likely right about the bay. It was just cool enough to cut the heat of the jungle night, and still enough that the White Lady and Blue Child shone in it like scalloped coins, striking silver sparks from the minnows nosing at her toes. Blue phosphorescence trailed her feet as she kicked them slowly through the water.
She was just about to make a comment when the hand massaging her neck slid away, her companion slumping to the wood planks with his breathing heavy and even.
At first Callista made an amused sound, assuming he'd merely succumbed to the effects of the rum in hilariously abrupt fashion, but the hazily-glowing green fog that swirled about his face changed her mind.
Her eyes widened and then narrowed and she yanked her legs out of the water, turning around to face the shore and scrambling to her feet. "What do you want, demon?" she demanded of the shadow-hung jungle.
Nothing answered except the lyrical cries of night birds and the dull throb of the drummers further down the beach. Unsure whether to be alarmed, frightened, or simply extraordinarily annoyed, she added under her breath, "I'm busy."
"Your prurient interests are not my concern." Disdain laced Nerothos' resonant voice, sounding invisibly from the air a few yards away. Hawsers creaked and the dock settled slightly in the water as new weight was added to it, though his hooves made no sound on the softened wood.
"Obviously," she snapped, settling, momentarily, on annoyed. Her pupils shone green as she tried to fix his location, but they shortly went dark again as she gave up. Her magical senses always blurred even before her mundane ones when she'd been drinking, and she couldn't tell anything more than that a demon was somewhere in the area of the dock. That made her uneasy again. Her mind jumped unbidden to the way the bleeding gouges in Na'rii's torso had looked before Father Durant had mended them. What could he possibly want from her? "Shouldn't you be pushing a cartload of orphans off a cliff somewhere?" she asked, memory making her bristle.
Satiric amusement edged his voice. "I delegate."
She scowled at where she thought the demon was likely to be standing, mind shuffling through her options. Yes, she was sure he did. But he hadn't delegated this, which meant she didn't believe, truly, that he meant to kill her. Probably. She glanced down at the bottle of rum, which, fortunately, had remained unspilled when Nerothos decided to remove her companion from the conversation. She doubted she'd like whatever he was here for any better, and, at this point, she was certain that she was either too drunk to be dealing with him or far too sober. Conveniently enough, there was only one of those things she could do anything about.
She picked up the bottle and uncorked it.
"It has always escaped me why mortals squander their limited time and resources relieving themselves of what little reason they possess," Nerothos said. The dock bobbed slightly as he moved, presumably, closer.
"Then clearly you've never tried it," Callista said, lowering the bottle from her mouth and wiping her lower lip with her thumb. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to get around to what he wanted from her, and she wasn't in any hurry to make him – the longer it took for him to get to his point, the longer it would be before she told him to go to hell and things got unpleasant. On wicked impulse, she cocked her head, holding the bottle out at the empty air. "Would you like to?"
"No," he said, tone so thick with scorn she thought if she squinted she could probably see it. "I care nothing for your foolish mortal sanctions, and hardly need additional inducement to break them."
There were so many places to start with that, Callista almost couldn't choose, but she decided to go with the one that allowed her to be as condescending as possible. "You really haven't been drunk, have you?" she asked, looking almost pityingly up at where she thought his face ought to be. She still couldn't see him, but even tipsy she could sense the edges of the aura of unnatural magic that clung to him, raising the hairs on the back of her arms although the night was hot. "No one does anything drunk that they wouldn't have tried anyway. The charm," she continued, twirling the bottle in her fingers and cocking her head sardonically at the source of his voice, "is you get to do it without thinking so much."
"Is it now?" he asked, voice tinged with amusement and something else.
She'd already lined up a number of snide things to say, but something about his tone gave her pause. She hesitated, narrowing her eyes, and for a moment there was silence. Laughter and shrieks of glee wafted up from the swimmers at the party, and nearer to hand she could hear the even breathing of Jared – Joren – whatever his name was asleep near her feet, and it occurred to her (less shockingly than if she'd been more sober) how utterly weird her life had become lately. "What in the Nether are you doing here?" she demanded harshly.
If the sudden shift in topic fazed him, it didn't show. "Offering you a place among the victors of the inevitable conflict."
Callista nodded, neither very surprised nor impressed. It occurred to her, vaguely, that drunk and unarmed was probably not the best way to inform the dreadlord that they were no longer allies, but she was already too much of the former to be very bothered by the latter. "You have nothing I want," she said, crossing her arms and looking up at him steadily.
She felt a breeze ruffle the thin fabric of her shirt as he shifted his wings. "No?" he said. "Then you are curbing your imagination far too steeply."
"Even if I am, I know what your promises are worth."
"You did attempt to coerce me…"
"Oh, don't even! Like honesty would've changed anything with you."
"I fail to see what other outcome you'd desire." The position of his voice and the shadowy prickle of fel magic against her skin made her think he was standing closer than she would've allowed could she see him. "Any harm I may have caused was hardly irreparable, and you never cared for that creature anyway."
She actually liked Na'rii slightly better now, having spent a few weeks with her when she wasn't slinging around completely insulting (and true) accusations, and was more irked about what he'd done in hindsight than she'd been at the time. Even so… "You're missing the point," she said.
"Then enlighten me."
The point was, of course, that Nerothos was a demon, and sheer baseless malice she might not have held against him. Her own tamed fiends certainly had enough of it, and it was something with which she'd learned to deal. What he'd done had made it clear, however, that there could be no dealing with him. She'd bound him with the most potent spell she knew (save the one that tied warlocks to their familiars, and wouldn't have left her holding the leash) and he'd still manage to twist it. There was no power on Azeroth that could convince her to trust him now. Not that a demon would understand the import. "If you don't know, then I don't see what good telling you would do."
"Trust is not a condition of the deal I had in mind," he said, guessing her intent with his usual uncanny accuracy.
Callista eyed an innocent-looking patch of jungle scathingly, quickly becoming very tired of talking to the air. On an annoyed and half-drunk impulse she regretted almost immediately, she jammed her hand out in front of her. Even though it was exactly what she intended, she still managed to be startled when her fingernails rang softly off the steel of his breastplate.
Physical contact broke the illusion.
"It's not a condition, it's a prerequisite," she snapped, recovering herself now that she was sure where to direct her glare. "And that's irritating, demon," she added, meaning some vague combination of his former invisibility and his closeness.
She wasn't sure if she'd surprised him or not, but the fingers of his leathery wings spread a little more before he relaxed them again. The fel-green glow of his eyes was impenetrable, and looked even stranger amidst the lush tropical scenery than it had in the demon-ravaged wastes. "Your perversity is even more staggering intoxicated," he observed.
"I get that a lot, though usually in fewer syllables," she said, mollified slightly by his visibility. She supposed she had been a little inconsistent, swearing with all sincerity that she'd never trust him and then prodding at him. He hadn't removed her fingertips from his breastplate and so she left them there, partly so he wouldn't flicker out of view again and partly because the feel of cool black metal beneath the unsettling heat of demonic magic was interesting.
She was, she suspected, drunk.
Her mind was pursuing several lines of thought, all more or less tangentially related to what they were actually talking about, but she didn't much care for that topic anyway. "Do you know, I've always wondered," she said, looking up at him with her eyes narrowed thoughtfully, "what in the Nether do you plan to do if you actually win? If you've burned everything, on every world there is. Dissolve into the Nether? Eternal civil war in the ashes?"
"I have occasionally asked myself that question, and I have yet to find a satisfactory answer." The embellishments on his armor shone coldly, but the black metal beneath her fingers swallowed the moonlight that fell on it. He tilted his head, thin lips curling into a smile. "But it will be most fascinating to discover, don't you agree?"
Callista's head snapped up, because, from Nerothos, that had sounded dangerously like an offer.
"This world will fall, perhaps sooner than you imagine, and when it does there will be no mercy for the vanquished." His voice was velvety-smooth as he shifted his wings, stirring a breath of sea-heavy air around her. "We can give you everything. Or, you can perish."
She dropped her fingers from his breastplate and glanced over her shoulder, checking for any of Jorith's tumbled limbs before backing up a step, feeling around to prevent an impromptu plunge into the bay as she leaned against the barnacled pillar that anchored the dock at this end. Even from his veiled words, she could guess what he wanted from her – another pact, the only one she might believe and the only one she would never agree to make. She'd sworn it before, on the side with control, when she'd bound her own demons to her will. She wouldn't swear it again, not to him…even if she would live as long as he did. "An eternity of slavery? Sorry if I'm not leaping at the chance."
"A gross exaggeration," he said, closing the distance she'd left slightly as barnacles crunched under his hooves. He had not disappeared when she'd broken the contact, whether because he'd dropped his spell or simply encompassed her in it she didn't know. "You would need answer only to me."
She shot him a scornful look, setting the bottle of rum down at her feet (the dock was already beginning to bob slightly more than she thought was the effect of the water) and crossing her arms. His statement had nothing to do with her point and he knew it.
He cocked his head in amusement at her expression, moonlight glinting off the points of his broken horn. "This is not an ultimatum, warlock," (she fought an incredulous laugh) "and nor is it a unilateral offer. Effective immortality is not a favor to be dismissed lightly…and I do not believe you would find your existence unpleasant."
She uncrossed her arms, keeping a hand on the algae-streaked side of the pole to steady herself. She knew better than to trust him, of course, but despite all her sensible instincts the idea was not totally without a sliver of allure. Humans were a short-lived people, even among the mortal races. A Night Elf might live for a thousand years, and even Tun (Twisting Nether, he'd wring her neck if he knew where she was now) would only be middle-aged when she was wrinkled and grey. Callista was young, and the fact of her own death did not yet lay heavy on her, but she was uncomfortably aware that one day it might. If she refused him now (and she would refuse, she reminded herself sharply), she would likely never get another such offer. "No, but I bet I'd get tired of yours," she snapped, hoping for an argument to clear her head.
He didn't give her one. "Unlikely," he said, and she caught just a glimpse of vicious incisors in his smile. "I can assure you, you will never be so bored."
That was probably true (Nerothos was a great many things – mostly unflattering – but boring was not one of them), so she ignored it. She curled her nails into the salt-eaten post, eyeing him with ambivalent tolerance. She could see the slow rise and fall of his breastplate as he breathed, close enough to touch again if she'd been so inclined, and his proximity set her on edge despite the fact she was almost certain by now (unless it was just the rum thinking) that she could get away if she needed to. The water below the dock was deep, and Callista was as good a swimmer as anyone who'd grown up in a port city. Even felfire didn't burn very well in seawater, and Nerothos, a winged creature clad in more armor than she thought she could lift, was not very well equipped for fishing her out of it. "If you're looking for a housepet, try Jaedenar," she said acidly.
"No," he replied disdainfully, though it wasn't immediately obvious which part of her remark he objected to. "I have less tedious uses for my time than shepherding idiotic thralls." He stretched his wings, blotting out for a moment the fireflies that winked beneath the jungle eaves, then inclined his head towards her with a contemplative air. "You would be of little worth with your will shackled to mine, if that is what you fear. I am unsure I could turn the spell to that end, in any case."
"Even if you're telling the truth, I wouldn't stake my life on 'unsure'," Callista said aggressively. The mental exercise of working out whether she believed him or not didn't, of course, mean she was considering his offer. She concluded after a moment that the second part might not be entirely a lie. Such pacts were based on old, old magic, and hadn't had sinister purpose until warlocks and their ilk discovered they could be corrupted. Even now, they were only as evil as the difference in power between their participants was exploited. Her own demons had been too weak to even escape the Nether unassisted, and so they were totally enslaved; she did not believe that Nerothos, while powerful enough to trounce her in a fight, was as out of her league as that.
"There are few opportunities without risk, warlock." The smooth purr of his voice would have been almost pleasant, if she could forget what sort of fiend it belonged to. The felfire-burn of his eyes in the dark, however, made that unlikely.
She gave a skeptical snort, unconvinced.
Nerothos laughed softly. Instead of speaking again he drew the void-black claws of one hand sharply across the palm of the other, slicing three deep gouges. His blood was dark, oddly-so considering the pallor of his skin, and had already begun pooling in the creases of his hand as he offered it to her.
She must have looked mildly startled, because the sardonic twist was back in his smile. "My patience is formidable, but it is not limitless."
Callista narrowed her eyes briefly in response before returning her gaze to the sluggishly-bleeding gashes in his palm. The red gem on his bracer glowed with stolen moonlight, and upon closer inspection she noticed the faint greenish sheen to the spilled rivulets of blood.
She had been warned, many times, by those who knew what kind of magic she wielded, that if she wasn't careful she'd find herself choosing between her ambitions and her soul. She'd always suspected they were right, but she never expected to have the choice laid out before her quite so plainly.
She hissed in surprise as Nerothos' other hand locked suddenly around her wrist, yanking it up between them. He'd pulled firmly to counter her instinctive flinch, forcing her to brace her other hand against the barnacle-crusted post to keep from losing her balance (not what it was half a bottle of liquor ago) and toppling into him. If he'd tried to draw blood he would've found himself holding a fistful of corrosive magic, but since he simply slid his thumb up her palm, pressing his sharp claw lightly just below her fingers, he remained un-singed.
"Live a hundred years, warlock," he said, satisfaction in the fires of his eyes, "or whatever the limit for your ephemeral little race, but you will not find a better offer than mine."
She cocked her head in challenge, feeling the hard little knifepoint of his talon against her palm, but didn't wrench away. "If that's a promise, I'll believe it even less." Her gaze fell on his other hand, dark blood dripping slowly from between his fingers.
Every principle she'd ever held or heard of, versus the chance to live forever.
He tightened his grip, palm hot against her wrist, and she breathed sharply through her teeth at the shadowy burn of fel magic between their skin.
Whatever else, she thought, jerking her head up savagely to meet his gaze, it was an interesting proposition.