Disclaimer: While writing this story has been incredibly rewarding, I make no claims to any elements from the game World of Warcraft…all characters, with the exception of Jehann, belong to Blizzard & I make no money from this story.
Catch & Release
The human female lay curled in a corner of the cage, her breathing shallow. Her eyelashes flickered erratically as her eyes shifted from side to side under lids closed tight against her surroundings. She was painfully thin and ulcers marred her skin. Her hair, long and lank, was filthy, matted to her head and plastered to her face. It was none of these observations, however, that disturbed the man who had come to check on her.
It was the fact that it had been 3 days since she moved.
Apothecary Keever watched the human specimen worriedly. Her physical condition meant nothing to him, but she was the last of his human subjects, and she could not be allowed to die until he'd perfected his potion. Frankly, he'd been quietly pleased at her resilience thus far… he'd administered several variations of the draught over the past few months, all of which she'd survived. For her to go into this disturbing lethargy now could only mean one thing… her body was finally giving up.
He glanced to the corner of her cage where the last 3 days' worth of meals (if they could be called that) were growing mould. So… her body obviously was no longer looking for sustenance. Irritation and frustration flashed through him at the thought of her perishing when he was this close to seeing an end to all of his hard work. Humans, he reflected bitterly, were sparse these days… it wasn't as if he could simply go out the front gates and capture another one.
He wrapped bony fingers around one of the iron bars of the cage and snarled, twisting his hand. Rust flaked off the bar and fell unnoticed to the floor, staining his white palm a ruddy orange.
She didn't move at the sound, and with anger he wrenched himself away from the cage & stalked back out into the main room of the Apothecarium. "You!" he barked, pointing to a nearby priest. The other man flinched, startled, and hurried over. "Yes sir?"
Keever jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. "Get me a few more days out of that specimen," he snarled. "I'm almost finished my work, and I won't be put off by her stubborn attempts at perishing."
The priest lifted a brow and said nothing, moving past Keever and entering the specimen room.
One look at the girl, however, and he sighed silently, a thread of pity slipping through him. Humans, he reflected, were a race that held no allegiance for him, but nor did they hold much hatred, either. He was uncomfortable at the sight of anyone being made to suffer this way, no matter the race. It was with relief that he realized she was beyond his healing capabilities, and he turned on a heel to rejoin the other man.
He almost slammed into him and jumped… Keever could move far more quietly than he'd given him credit for, apparently. "Sir!" he gasped, startled, his glowing eyes widening. Keever glared. "Well? Get to it! I have precious little time to be wasted here!"
The priest swallowed thickly, suddenly hesitant to deliver undoubtedly bad news to the angry man in front of him. Nevertheless, facts were facts, so…
"My apologies, sir," he said thickly. "But her condition is far too severe for my abilities."
There was a pause, during which the priest could have sworn the room temperature dropped a few degrees. Keever sucked in a long breath, trying valiantly to hold onto his temper, before he barked, "What? Explain yourself, priest!"
The other man swallowed again. "My healing abilities are limited, sir. My strongest abilities lie in the shadow arts… not the healing ones." He paused. "I can make an attempt, but I hold little hope."
Keever snarled again, throwing a hand in the air. "By all means, priest," he drawled sarcastically, "take your time. Don't let me rush you." He gave the priest one last withering look & then spun on a heel, leaving him alone with the girl.
He sighed heavily, dragging a bony hand over his bare scalp, and unlatched the door, letting it swing open. It shrieked with rust, the hinges far beyond the point of working smoothly, and he stepped into the cage, carefully watching her still form. Humans were smart and resourceful, and he wouldn't have been altogether surprised if she had simply been baiting one of them into opening the door.
But no, it appeared as if she was genuinely dying, and he went to one knee, again feeling pity as he slid a hand under her head. She didn't stir. Her body was gaunt and damaged, and her smell was sour, the smell of fear and infection. He turned her head slightly, looking straight down into her face.
Her eyes were slits, all but vanishing in a swollen face. A gleam caught his eye and he lifted one of her eyelids, the torch on the wall reflecting on her dull eyeball. Her pupils were fixed and dilated, her eyes flat and unresponsive.
If it weren't for the fact that her chest was still moving slightly, he'd have sworn she was already dead.
He gently laid her head down and sat back on his heels, the hem of his robes trailing in the dirt. He couldn't save her, that much was certain. But he did have the ability to heal her wounds and give her a measure of comfort in her final hours. Closing his eyes, he reached inside himself to the core of power he carried within him, searching for & finding the healing light he needed. Murmuring an incantation under his breath, he lifted his hands, manipulating the space between them until a soft golden glow sprang up between his palms. Concentrating, he willed it to grow in strength, and as the faint glow quickly grew to a blinding ball of energy, he spread his hands over the prone girl & released the power into her still form.
He watched clinically as her back arched slightly, lifting her hips from the stone floor. Her skin was like a sponge, absorbing every trace of healing light he'd offered, and as he watched, veins of faint golden light crawled quickly through her body, healing her from the inside out. Her weeping ulcers closed, her twisted limbs straightened. As the light reached her chest she took a deep breath, her lungs cleared of the deep infection that had been eating her from the inside out, and her face narrowed out, the swelling bleeding out of her. As she relaxed against the floor, he realized with a start that he may very well have saved her life after all… her breathing was evening out, if only a little, and her skin had regained a little bit of its color.
He cursed silently, bowing his head. He'd intended to let her die in peace, free of pain. Instead, he'd simply prolonged her torture.
He was distracted by her faint, weak movements. Leaning over her, he watched, concerned, as her eyes fluttered open, her gaze vague and blank. Her eyes, flat and dull before, were blue. He reached out and brushed her filthy hair from her face as her gaze settled on him and tried to focus.
She licked her cracked lips with an equally dry tongue, tried to swallow, and whispered weakly, "Jehann…?"
He shook his head slightly, his lips curving slightly. She frowned slightly and lifted a hand, making a weak fist in the front of his robes. Drawing him closer, she lifted her head from the floor and for an instant, her eyes blazed with purpose. "Jehann," she croaked, her hand trembling. He caught his breath, understanding at last, and wildly he thought of the only person he knew with that name.
A mage of some recognition, Jehann Frostheart was well known among his people. Powerful and cold, he was a forbidding, calculating figure who spent most of his time alone. He spoke little and wore his solitude as blatantly as he did his armour.
What in the name of the Dark Lady would this wisp of a girl want with Frostheart? And for that matter, how did she even know him?
His mind whirling, he lowered his gaze to hers and reached up hesitantly. Laying his cold hand over her fist, he tugged, forcing her to release the wad of his robes she'd been clutching, and she fell back to the floor, exhausted. Her eyes, however, held his, deep and sad and beaten.
He paused, incredibly uncomfortable with what she was asking him to do and reminding himself harshly that he owed her, OR Frostheart, nothing. But as her eyes slid closed and she sagged into unconsciousness, he swallowed thickly and mentally started calculating just where the mage would be found at this time of day.
He rose, brushing off his robes, and left the cage, locking it behind him. He glanced once more at the girl in the corner and shook his head slightly, seeing her breathing evening out. Gritting his teeth, he turned and left her alone.
The mage in question, meanwhile, gazed with some distaste down onto the central hub of the city. His nose crinkled slightly at the familiar smell of the city so many of his kind called home and more than anything, he wanted to be anywhere else. Thankfully, he was almost ready to depart… another day or two within the stinking walls of the city and he'd go out of his mind.
He shifted in his saddle, his mount restless beneath him. He reached down, his hand resting on the horse's neck. His horse was as undead as he was, and so they were comfortable with each other… there were no questions from Echo, only acceptance, and thankfully, no annoying conversation. He tilted his head as the horse stretched its neck, enjoying the contact, and his lips curved in a rare smile. Yes, his horse was just about the only other creature he enjoyed these days, most especially among his own kind. He had little use for the other members of his race, and his dealings with them were as brief as he could manage.
He watched as a young priest, panting, came trotting around the corner below him and stopped, hands braced on his knees for support as he scanned the upper level with his eyes. The man was obviously looking for someone, Jehann thought, and was about to guide Echo towards the lift that would take him up to ground level when the priest's eyes met his and the man straightened, advancing. Groaning under his breath, Jehann lowered his head & pinched the bridge of his nose between the leather straps that adorned his face. I feel a headache coming on, he thought wearily.
Resolved, he lifted his head and levelled his gaze on the priest as the other man skidded to a stop beside him.
For once, the priest felt no intimidation by the older mage's obvious impatience, and reached up absently, scratching the horse beneath the bridle as he leaned forward, his voice low. "Jehann Frostheart. I have… an unusual tale to tell you. What you do with it once I'm done is, of course, up to you… however-"
Jehann lifted a hand, his black silk sleeve falling back, exposing the wrist bone. "Get to the point, priest."
The younger man faltered, then regrouped. "Of course, sir." He glanced around and then tilted his head. "I believe we would be better off a bit apart from the others, if you don't mind."
Jehann was about to scoff, but the man's face was set, his demeanour determined. Resigned, he sighed heavily and swung out of the saddle, jerking his head sharply towards a more discreet alcove out of the busy thoroughfare. Grateful, the priest followed as Jehann led Echo by the reins. Once they were removed from the main foot traffic, however, the older man turned and leaned back against the wall, regarding the younger man evenly. "Proceed."
The priest swallowed and plunged right in. "I…. I hope you'll forgive my presumptions, sir, but I believe I've just come across an… acquaintance…of yours." He paused, then continued. "…in the specimen lab down below."
Jehann frowned lightly. "Your point? I'm on familiar terms with all of the Apothecaries working for our Queen, priest."
The younger man sighed softly. "I'm afraid… this young woman is not one of the Apothecaries." He paused again, then said, "She's Keever's last human specimen."
The older man's face was blank for a few seconds, his mind turning the information over, before a terrible suspicion started to form. His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, grabbing the priest's robes. "Tell me everything you know," he said harshly, and the priest nodded, relieved that the other man was at least taking him seriously. 'O-of course, sir! Keever dragged me into the specimen lab about an hour ago, furious that his last human specimen was about to die and leave him with no way to complete his research. He ordered me to heal her, to give her another couple of days if I could… he's close to perfecting his work." He swallowed, wondering suddenly how wise this was. The older man's eyes were blazing with suppressed rage, the fist in his robes tightening, pulling him to his tiptoes. "I…. I did as he ordered, of course, though I honestly felt the poor thing was better off left to die in peace."
At this, Jehann growled, causing the priest to yelp. He rushed on. "She regained consciousness briefly once I'd healed the worst of her injuries… she's very weak, sir, but she managed to give me a message."
He paused, causing Jehann to yank him closer. The mage's breath was hot on the priest's face. "What message!"
The priest swallowed. "She gripped my robe, pulled me close, and spoke your name."
Jehann froze, staring at the priest as if haunted. His hand went limp, allowing the younger man to slide back to the floor, and with shock the priest saw the other man fall, boneless, back against the wall. "It cannot be," he whispered harshly. His eyes were blank, lost in the past, and the younger man straightened his robes with as much dignity as he could manage. "If I may say, sir," he said tentatively, "the poor girl is in very poor health." He paused, then rushed on. "Keever works in the lab most every nights until the 10th hour past noon. If you'd like to check for yourself, I would wait until he's finished."
Jehann's eyes shot to the younger man's, but the priest's expression was extremely neutral. He gritted his teeth at the thought of waiting the rest of the evening, but he knew the other man was right… Keever was an asshole, and he resented all things that distracted him from his work. He nodded once, sharply, and straightened. "I thank you, priest, for this information." He paused again, and his eyes narrowed. "Now forget you ever came across it."
The younger man's lips curved slightly in a smile. "Came across what, sir?"
Satisfied, Jehann nodded and swung back up into Echo's saddle. He paused, then looked down at the younger man, who was watching him impassively. "Why did you share this with me, priest?"
The younger man lifted a shoulder, his glowing eyes soft for a moment. "She… she is truly pitiful, sir. I had not intended to heal her as fully as I did, my intention being only to ease her pain as she died. In truth," he muttered, "I do not always agree with Keever's atrocities, and the thought of prolonging her torture at his hands was… distasteful to me." He met Jehann's eyes. "When she spoke your name, I felt it was a small thing to do for someone as wretched… and as doomed… as she."
Jehann processed this, his emotions once more under tight control, and finally nodded once more. "Walk safely, priest."
The younger man bowed at the waist. "And you, sir."
With a final nod, Jehann nudged his horse and took off at a trot, turning the corner and heading towards the elevator that led to the surface.
The priest let his breath out, suddenly trembling now that the older mage had departed. Leaning against the wall, he scrubbed his hands over his face, not at all surprised to feel a slight sheen of perspiration. While sweating was extremely rare, due to the fact that most of his pores no longer worked the way they were intended, it didn't surprise him that the older man could intimidate the few he had left into working. Sighing, he moved off, trying to remember what he'd been doing before this entire episode had begun.
Jehann, on the other hand, rode Echo out through the Undercity's front gates and then gave him full lead, urging him to a run. He was almost on the verge of panic, his emotions were so confused. Disbelief warred with rage inside him, and on top of it all, he was being swept back into the past with brutal efficiency, forcing him to remember things he'd tried for 7 years to forget. Her face, so carefully bricked up, was once more clear in his mind, and just as fresh as it had been 7 years ago, the memory of her threatened him in ways he'd never felt before. He had stood beside his comrades against foes of unbelievable horror and power and he hadn't quailed. He'd suffered injuries grievous to the point of damn near being fatal. He'd walked alone for years, loneliness a state he didn't allow himself to acknowledge. Through all of it, he'd stood bravely and hadn't faltered.
So why was the thought of facing her again able to reduce him to this?
The wind tore at his face, his hair coming free from the plaits he wore them in and streaming behind him. Echo responded to the agitation of his master and lengthened his stride, fairly flying over the ground as they rode aimlessly through the forest. Jehann didn't know where he was headed. All he knew was he was heading away from her…. and that he had to go back in a few hours' time. To see if it really was her.
And if it was… may the Dark Lady have mercy on him.
The Undercity, while busy through the day, was fairly quiet at night. Though his kind had little need for sleep, most chose to follow their own personal pursuits at the end of the day, retreating for the most part into their private quarters or returning to their own abodes outside the main core of the ruins. Wiping the back of his wrist across his forehead, Jehann was grateful… if his suspicions were right, this would be a meeting most definitely of the private sort. He guided Echo through the catacombs in the city's dark underbelly, winding his way towards the Apothecarium.
He'd returned to the city an hour before, having ridden his poor horse damn near to exhaustion. Undead steeds had stamina unseen in their living counterparts, but even they had their limits, and in return for pushing him so hard, Echo was now sulking, refusing to acknowledge his rider's attempts at placating him. With amusement, Jehann straightened in the saddle, watching as his horse devoured the lump of sugar he'd offered… and then resolutely returned to ignoring his master. Snorting, Jehann laid a hand on his neck and left him to his pout as they descended into the deepest part of the city.
The Apothecarium was an area Jehann avoided if he could. It was here that the Forsaken did their nastiest work. In these rooms, they constructed their guards, the hulking abominations that were nothing more than animated collections of various body parts. It was here that the Royal Apothecary Society, working directly for their queen, Sylvanas, worked night and day to perfect plagues and poisons of all types, under the unlikely banner of 'self defence'.
But what bothered Jehann the most about these rooms was the specimen lab. Apothecary Keever ruled here, in these rooms filled with metal cages, and tested his various plagues on unwilling subjects of various races. This was the biggest secret of the Forsaken… the atrocities committed here made many of even the most bloodthirsty Forsaken turn away in disgust and pity.
It was these rooms Jehann was headed for.
As he entered the main body of the Apothecarium, he was satisfied. Only a few workers remained despite the late hour, and none of them were working in the vicinity of Keever's private domain. Nodding to an acquaintance, Jehann proceeded past him and continued to the rooms in the back.
He stopped in the doorway, dismounting slowly, his eyes fixed on the last cage along the left-hand wall. It was the only one currently occupied by anything even remotely recognizable as humanoid, though the occupant was huddled in a corner. Carefully, Jehann advanced, his feet silent on the cold floor, until he was standing just outside the cage.
He studied the female closely, but the room was dark and she was tucked in the far corner. Resigned, he lifted the latch to the cage and slowly edged the cage door open far enough for him to slip in, wincing at the harsh grinding coming from the hinges.
He took a step towards her, then another. She was curled in a ball, her back to him, and she was as close to naked as she could get, wearing the filthy and tattered remnants of what must have once been her undergarments… a thin camisole and ripped breeches let the vast majority of her skin exposed. He wondered how she hadn't frozen to death down here, the only heat coming from the lone torch resting in a sconce beside the door. As he reached her and went down to one knee, he felt an odd sense of relief coupled with disappointment when he failed to recognize the woman before him.
He reached out, brushing her dirty hair from her face, not seeing anything about her that struck anything in him. The woman he'd known once had rich gold hair, not brown like this poor wretch… this woman was built wrong as well, lacking all of the vitality and muscle mass that his memories assured him that his old friend had had. From what he could see from her profile, even her features were all wrong… her nose was shaped wrong, her lips thin where they should have been full.
He was about to rise, feeling like a weight had lifted from his shoulders, when something caught his eyes. Frowning slightly, he leaned down, her shallow breaths the only sound in the room. Reaching out, he lifted a lock of her hair and inspected it.
There it was again… the torchlight was penetrating the dirt and grime that was all through her hair.
It was gleaming a dull gold.
His breath catching, he reached out and touched her again, this time with purpose. Turning her towards him bodily, he jumped when she limply rolled against him, her knees knocking together as they rested on his thigh, and saw her face for the first time. Before he could stop it, he heard his voice, groaning in anguish. "Mairwen…"
His breath caught, then held, as he felt pain pierce his chest. Emotion rendered him stunned and he was appalled to feel his eyes sting as he looked down on her pitiful visage, this ghost of a woman he'd once known. How she got here, he had no idea, but the facts were staring him right in the face: the only woman he'd ever loved was about a day away from dying at Keever's hand. Now that he was studying her fully face-on, his heart broke all over again to realize that her nose was shaped wrong because it had obviously been broken several times… her lips were not as thin as he'd thought but instead pulled tight against her face, her weight astonishingly low. She was trule emaciated, resembling a skull in the disturbing way her skin sat directly on the bones of her face. Her cheeks sunken and her mouth slightly open, any rememblance she bore to the woman she'd once been was slight… barely enough for him to confirm her identity.
As he sucked his breath in violently, trying to reclaim control over himself, he realized all over again just how long she must have been here, victim to Keever's whims. Jehann swallowed convulsively as the thought that he'd conducted normal business only a few levels above this room, never knowing she was here, made his stomach clench. He locked his jaw against the surge of vomit that threatened to rise in his throat, forcing himself to focus on the positive… he'd found her before it was too late. She was pathetically thin, yes… and she was weakened beyond anything he'd expected, yes… and she was absolutely filthy, he thought, wrinking his nose…but she was also apparently in one piece. He remembered the young priest's claim that he'd accidentally healed her more than he'd intended, and was shaken at how much worse she must have looked beforehand.
He released his breath slowly, wildly trying to decide his next course of action. Absently, his hand fell to her forehead and he smoothed her hair back, drinking in her features like a starving man. He was so distracted that he jumped when her eyes fluttered open.
He froze, holding his breath, hoping she'd pass out again. Her eyes were unfocussed, sweat standing out on her forehead despite the chill air. Blearily, she gazed around the room until she found his face.
Her brows knotted in concentration and she licked her lips, trying to swallow, before she whispered, "Jehann…. you're…"
He leaned down, breath caught. He'd heard that voice in his dreams for 7 years, and clutched her shoulders gently, watching her. It was a powerful moment, one they never expected would ever happen, this reunion, and he braced himself for the no doubt profound and deep statement she was struggling with.
Her eyes drifted closed again, resting, before she forced them open again. Her lips moved again. "You're… late."
Startled, he drew back, looking in her eyes, and was astonished to see a thread of amusement in them. He was saved responding, however, when she passed out again.
Shaking, he sat back, lowering her back to the floor, and scrubbed his hands over his face. He was shaking violently. All evening, he'd been tortured by her memory, the memories of her face, her hair. Her body. This reminder, however, was his undoing.
How could he have forgotten her sense of humour? Her spirit?
He sighed heavily, standing and removing his cloak. It was of extremely high quality, and it had taken him months to earn it, but it could have been burlap for all the notice he gave it now. Bending again, he wrapped her in it and hefted her into his arms, clicking his tongue for Echo as he returned to the main body of rooms.
He got a few glances from his compatriots as he passed, but no one paid him any attention. They wouldn't, he knew, until morning, when Keever arrived & went on a rampage, demanding to know where his test subject had gone. Only then would they most likely remember him leaving with a bundle thrown over the back of his steed… a bundle that he hadn't come in with.
He had a matter of hours to get well out of the line of fire before that happened.
As he carefully guided Echo into the sewers & out into the fresh air, he paused long enough to shift her around until she was propped up against him, out cold. Glancing down, he resumed their flight, able to move quicker now that she was more secure.
As he allowed his chin to drop to the top of her head absently, he found himself helpless against the memories, so long ignored, that were now flooding back. And so, as they turned west and gained more speed, he finally allowed himself to remember her.