A/N: Written for the Hardmode video game fandom Big Bang on Dreamwidth. This turned out pretty Horde-centric, which I suppose reflects my gameplay biases. Apologies.
Art exists by the most excellent WhatSubtext, but unfortunately strips out all my links. I'm JackOfNone on Archive Of Our Own, if you want to check out the story along with the picture that was created for it.
Chapter 1: Of All the Dungeons in Northrend, You Had To Walk Into Mine
Next time he went on a mission into vrykul territory, Asric promised himself, he was going to go in too drunk to notice the smell.
From a distance it hadn't looked so bad - rough-hewn dragon heads, crackling bonfires so large they were visible from a mile away, and a burnt-out spawning pit just outside the village for those snaggletoothed beasts they used as mounts. A quick in-and-out job on the way to New Agamand, he'd thought - one of the expedition higher-ups had put out a price for Vrykul scalps, and the half-giants laid their dead out in convenient rows before burning them on pyres or consigning them to the whims of the Scourge. A bit of footpadding, a bit of quick knife-work, and then trade the lot in for some easy money in New Agamand, where the Forsaken there would use them for who-knows-what. He hadn't expected the place to reek so strongly of festering flesh and sweat that it nearly brought tears to his eyes. Ah, well, he thought. It was probably vain to hope that a village touched by the Scourge should remain untouched by the Scourge's distinctive stench.
Asric ducked behind a stack of ropes as thick as his arm and paused to collect himself. The Vrykul men were stomping to and fro, tramping down the well-worn mud paths and yelling at each other in their harsh language; most of them seemed to be wearing what Asric suspected passed for finery in their barbaric culture. There seemed to be something going on. Good - that would keep their eyes occupied. After a moment's pause, Asric pulled his hood down over his face and slipped around the corner, sticking close to the wall at his right.
Whatever terrible celebration was brewing, it did seem to keep the Vrykul occupied. The roaring of the fires, the bellowing of captive drakes, and the raised voices of the Vrykul themselves easily drowned out the soft noise of Asric's careful steps, and none of the bearded giants turned to glance at the small shadow that flitted across the thresholds of their huts. Quickly as he dared, Asric crept down towards the grassy clearing where their fallen warriors lay, wrapped in mammoth skins and smeared with funeral oils that could be charitably described as 'aromatic'. He knew how burglars worked, and knew how they were caught - he was careful to avoid any ground that might take footprints, and to step gingerly over patches of gravel and patches of dry leaves and twigs. All in all, the Vrykul men seemed hardly concerned about potential infiltrators in their midst, especially light-footed elves less than half their size.
The bonfire in the middle distance lit up the night with an orange glow, and the low pounding of drums began to grow more urgent. Asric gritted his teeth, pulled his largest knife from his belt, and began the slow, cautious crawl up the hill to the Vrykul burial pyre.
Careful now, Asric, he told himself. Don't let them see you. Don't rush. He was close enough now to make out words in their chanting that he could not understand, and the heat from the bonfire was beginning to penetrate his fur-lined cloak and melt off the light dusting of snow.
They hadn't even put out a guard on their little funeral arrangement — unless the corpses themselves were going to sit up and throttle him, which was a distinct possibility. For a moment, Asric looked at the enormous bodies laid out on great wooden slats, all of them bearing the marks of battle, and considered scrapping the whole endeavor. That, however, would doom him to weeks of penniless sobriety among the largely heartless and charmless undead, which was not a prospect he fancied overmuch. Besides, even if he died here, his troubles probably wouldn't be over — from the way that indigo mountain of a draenei had glared at him in the World's End Tavern, Asric doubted that Oramus would let a little thing like death stand in the way of a good grudge. He could probably drag him back bodily from the netherworld for a good thrashing, Asric thought with a grimace. Nothing to do but go forward. Quickly, so as not to attract attention, Asric ducked down on all fours to scamper underneath the closest bier and come up on the other side, gritting his teeth for the short climb.
He knew he had made a mistake the moment his free hand seized the carved-and-painted wood and a foul-tasting jolt of magical backlash raced through his veins and struck him squarely in the heart like a physical blow. The world spun on its axis and Asric hit the frozen ground with enough force to knock the wind from his lungs. He choked on a breath of air that felt more like ice water, tried to move, and found that the merest effort was excruciating.
He should have known. He should have felt it.
Don't break circles, don't touch anything carved with runes, he could almost hear that man saying as the light from the bonfire started to dim. Really, Asric, were you born magic-blind? Well, at least you're not totally useless...
Then the darkness swarmed over him and took away the pain, the creeping cold, and the unpleasant memories all at once.
Asric had woken up with a crashing headache in a lot of strange places, but this was easily the most miserable. His mouth tasted like blood, his entire body shivered with a chill that had little to do with the climate, and a quick survey of his surroundings quickly showed that he had been tossed unceremoniously into a cage that had previously held an animal whose teeth had left gouges on the bars. Some enterprising vrykul had shoved an enormous rock in front of the cage door; either they were too primitive to understand the concept of locks, or they were specifically trying to neutralize his particular areas of speciality. He would put money on the former, but the end result was the same. He shoved experimentally at the door; the rock refused to budge, and the clanging of the bars against the stone only intensified the agony in his head.
Well, they hadn't killed him. The obvious question, of course, was 'why' — the Scourge ordinarily had little use for captives, only for mountains of corpses — but Asric preferred not to contemplate the myriad of equally terrible alternatives. The vrykul had possessed the presence of mind to take three of his knives, but the fourth…yes, the fourth was still in his boot, for all the good it did him. It was little more than a toothpick compared to the half-giant death-worshippers outside.
This was it, he supposed. He was going to die. Probably in pieces. Asric ran down the list of people who might actually care; it was depressingly short.
Outside the cage, something stirred. Asric crouched down, clutching his knife in his hand.
"You're awake?" a voice half-whispered, somewhere in the darkness. The words were in Common, heavily accented — if it was Scourge, it was very convincingly alive Scourge. Asric lowered his knife and crept cautiously towards the bars of his cage. "I had feared you would never wake up — " There was a screech of metal being dragged along stone, and more rustling. Definitely alive — Asric could hear him breathing, at least. The figure seemed to be burdened by something — injury, perhaps, or chains (if the vrykul were indeed capable of figuring out the concept of locks).
"Are you hurt?" Asric's throat was raw and he didn't exactly feel like talking or shaking his head, so he stayed silent. The other prisoner pulled himself closer to Asric's cage, seized the bars with a pair of enormous hands, and lifted himself into the thin torchlight filtering through the trapdoor in the ceiling.
Asric blinked. It seemed a little too early to be hallucinating, unless that blast of runic magic had done more damage than he thought.
"Please, if you understand me, give some—" The draenei's eyes widened to saucers as he took in the face of his fellow prisoner. "No, that's not possible. I must be dreaming."
Wonderful. Even his hallucinations weren't pleased to see him. "Jadaar?" Asric croaked, his voice dry and disbelieving.
"That's really you, isn't it? I haven't gone mad?"
"Well, I know I'm real," Asric said. "If we both think we're hallucinating, chances are we're both wrong."
"Oh, naaru preserve us," the draenei swore, slumping against the bars. "Just when I thought things couldn't get worse. Must you be present at every single one of my life's worst moments? Is it some kind of cosmic rule?"
"…I got your letter," Asric managed, blandly. "The one you left with the Peacekeepers."
Jadaar sputtered something in his own tongue, regained his composure, and leaned in. "It was not intended to be an invitation."
"Well, I'm not good at following directions." Asric squinted into the light to get a better look and found Jadaar a bit worse for the wear — his hair had come free from his customary braid and hung in a ragged mess down his back, and his face had taken on the sharp angles and dark hollows of the perpetually sleepless — but all in all, surprisingly fit for someone at the bottom of a Scourge prison cell. "Besides, your small army of siblings wouldn't give me a moment's peace. Is there a single draenei in Shattrath City you aren't related to?" Jadaar fixed him with a familiar dubious stare that had lost none of its potency. "What are you doing down here, anyway?"
"Rescue mission," Jadaar said. "They had half of a regiment confined down here. I came in with four men and two Sentinels, and I ended up covering their escape. I was rather hoping for the cavalry to ride in at some point." Jadaar looked Asric over from head to toe in a way that clearly indicated he felt that Asric was not up to the expected standards.
"Yes, well..." Asric rubbed his temples - the ache was starting to subside, thankfully, but he could do with a drink of water. "I don't think the cost-benefit figures work out to your advantage there. Well, be thankful you haven't been dismembered for parts or starved yet."
"I had some provisions on me; the giants did not bother to take them," Jadaar said. He shifted his weight to sit more comfortably on his hooves, with another unmistakeable clink of metal - yes, they'd definitely chained him.
"The Scourge doesn't usually bother with prisoners," Asric said. "I wonder -"
"Food," Jadaar interjected, before Asric could continue that line of thought. "At least that was the theory the Sentinels had. The giants here follow some kind of...some kind of undead creature that feeds on fresh blood. All this -" Jadaar waved his hands pointedly in the direction of up above, "- this is in preparation for his arrival. He is supposed to have some good news."
Asric thought back to his unpleasant arrival at Vengeance Landing - little sleep, absolutely no decent food, and an awful lot of hiding inside a hastily-constructed armory while a gaunt elf leading a pack of vrykul demanded to speak with the management. When Asric had been informed that the Scourge emissary had gone and it was safe to come out, he'd found the High Executor frowning over the reigns of his horse at the desiccated corpses of his honor guard. "Keleseth," Asric breathed, recalling the name that he had heard shouted more than once over the banging of hammers and the hoarse yells of new recruits. "Prince Keleseth, the Darkfallen. We're going to be some turncoat princeling's main course." The fact that the creature had been one of his own folk — a blood elf, even, by all appearances — added the unmistakeable tinge of insult to the impending injury.
"To think, I was so desperate to hear another breathing creature in this Light-forsaken pit…and now I find that not only am I going to die, the last thing I am going to hear will be your prattling." Jadaar sighed heavily.
"Well, there's nothing for it. We'll have to escape, because I absolutely refuse to die with you either."
"Escape? How do you propose we do that?" Jadaar said, kicking his hoof against the boulder in order to rattle the manacle that chained him to the spot.
"Can you move this rock?"
"Maybe with a bit of effort," Jadaar said, after testing it with his shoulder. "What about the chain?"
"Let me see the manacle." Jadaar gave him another dubious look. "I can pick locks," Asric explained. "Fairly proficient in it, actually."
"Oh. Of course. I suppose you would be," Jadaar said. His tone suggested the presence of a follow-up comment about miscreants and lowlifes and Asric's general kinship with that particular breed, but Jadaar did not say anything further.
"Can you get your foot or whatever it is in here?"
"Hooves, you idiot," Jadaar said, but he shifted around and stretched his leg out as close at it would go to Asric's cage, close enough for Asric to just barely reach it through the bars. The manacle was secured around Jadaar's hoof with a roughly forged iron padlock of obvious dwarven make, probably stolen. Asric hefted the lock in his hand, leaning down to listen to the click of the mechanism; Jadaar bit back a hiss of pain as the rough edge of the metal cuff dug into his already abused ankle. It occurred to Asric, as he unpinned the remains of his winter cloak and worked the pin into the keyhole, that Jadaar was taking this whole situation uncommonly well. Four days of imprisonment in a Scourge dungeon, even if they seemed to be keeping him scrupulously unbloodied for Prince Keleseth's soiree, was nothing to sneeze at. Most people would probably be reduced to begging by now — Jadaar, on the other hand, was simply complaining as though though all this mortal peril was about the same level of annoyance as a stack of unclean pots in one's kitchen. Asric, for his part, had long since given up worrying about his own life, but Jadaar…either Jadaar was being enormously brave, or he was feeling as hopeless as Asric himself. The thought was surprisingly bothersome, a bit like returning home to find that someone had removed an exterior wall.
It wasn't easy, picking a lock under the aggressively watchful eye of a trained Shattrath Peacekeeper, but Asric was soon rewarded with a tell-tale ka-chunk. He tugged on the padlock experimentally, and it popped open. Jadaar let out a breath Asric did not realize he had been holding and leaned down to inspect his raw ankle.
"Not bad," Jadaar muttered.
"Can you stand?"
"I would be touched by your concern if I wasn't absolutely certain you only wanted me to get to work on the rock."
"Yes, escaping being eaten alive is my top priority right now. I'm comfortable with admitting that. Can we get on with it?"
"Already working on it," Jadaar half-grunted, rising to his feet and setting his shoulder to the rock. He bent his head down and shoved, but the rock only stubbornly wobbled a bit before sliding a few scant inches.
"Is that it?"
"You could try helping."
Asric tried to arrange himself into a more favorable position for rock-shoving, but the bars proved a mostly insurmountable obstacle. Still, he did the best he could, and within a few minutes of heaving and hauling, they had slid the rock far enough over that Asric could shove open the cage door wide enough for him to contort himself through.
Asric's ears twitched.
"Someone's coming. Actually, make that two someones," Asric said, crouching down in his cage. Jadaar hastily scuttled back to his original perch by the wall, dragging the chain with him.
"Pretend you're unconscious," Asric hissed, palming his knife into his sleeve. "That way you can—"
"—catch them unawares, yes, I spent five years as a Peacekeeper, I am somewhat familiar with the methods employed by the desperate and incarcerated."
"Good to see we're on the same page for once," Asric said. "Don't screw this up, oaf."