06 August 2012

Part the Twentieth: Pain Don’t Hurt Much

Due to the graphic nature of this chapter, reader discretion is advised.  Post behind the jump.

30 July 2012

Part the Nineteenth: In the Belly of the Beast

I was never able to decide if it was a very wise or a very cynical man who first said, “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”  I tended to settle for assuming it to have been a very cynical, wise man, given my experience with how true those words are.  I say this because I woke up tied to a small, rather uncomfortable chair.  My ankles had been tied to the front legs and my arms had been tied straight down and to the back legs of the chair.  Not only was this amazingly uncomfortable, something I’m sure my captors were excessively concerned with, but it very effectively immobilized me from taking any kind of action to free myself.  I suppose I could have rocked the chair about, but it was a rather sturdy chair and I suspect that the only result that would have had would have been to add more bruises to my already impressive collection.

Those were the first things I noticed.  I must have been bashed about the head but good to have taken so long to get up to speed mentally.  My head throbbed as if I’d just spent a week-long, all-you-can-drink bender in Booty Bay.  Still, it didn’t take too long for me to notice the cold clamminess of the air or the fact that I could feel a lot more of it than I am normally accustomed to.  A quick glance confirmed that, yes, I was indeed naked as the day I was born.  Either the Twilights were trying to humiliate me or my legend was more impressive than I thought.  Personally, I was betting on the humiliation.

The fact that my skin felt cool and clammy was a pretty good indicator of how long I had been out and stashed in this…well, where the nether was I?  There was enough light for me to be able to see that I was naked, not that my healthy pallor made that very difficult.  I practically glow in the dark anyway.  Occupational hazard of working mostly at night.  I couldn’t see much beyond a few feet around me, though.  What little of the floor I could see was dressed stone, which would tend to indicate a basement or underground complex.  That didn’t narrow things down much, since both the Defias and Twilight’s Hammer like to operate out of underground areas.  I was reasonably certain I was dealing with Twilights here, if for no other reason than they had been the ones staking out my apartment.  I could hear the faint, slow drip of water off in the echoing distance, which led me to believe I was in some sort of converted cavern.  Again, didn’t narrow things down much.

There was little else I could do at this point but wait, so I did my best to relax and get as comfortable as possible.  I was still alive, so that was a plus.  I figured they had some use or need of me, else I would have been killed rather than lug me out of the city and into this place.  Since they had no obviously pressing plans to kill me, that gave me a little wiggle room if and when I finally saw someone.

I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear before or not, but I really, really dislike mages.  Really.  A lot.  Setting aside the fact that most of the mages I’ve ever met tend to worry less about whether or not they should do something and more with whether they can.  Normally, I applaud that sort of behaviour, as one never knows what one can do unless you try.  Now, when the individual in question is capable of hurling massive apocalyptic fireballs about like toys and warping the very fabric of reality to obey their whims, I get a little less forgiving.  This goes double for mages opposed to my goals and triple for mages that know that thrice-damned polymorph spell.

Maybe a little explanation is in order.  There was a mage back in the SAS.  Well, several mages, actually, but one in particular.  Burnfingers Bolander.  He did not, as his name suggested, specialize in fire magic.  Rather, he was a student of the arcane school.  My understanding is that “arcane” is really a catch-all that covers everything from pure theoretical magic to the basic utilitarian spells like creating food and water.  Burnfingers’ specialty was polymorph.  And he thought it was the funniest joke in the world to cast it on, say, a sleeping assassin who’d just returned from two months in the field deep behind enemy lines and hadn’t seen so much as a camp cot, let alone a real bed in that entire time.  Or, more often, said assassin’s favourite medick and lady-friend sleeping beside him.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pull my share of pranks on my fellow soldiers.  Everyone did, it was just another way to blow off steam.  And sure, once was funny.  Ha ha, you got me.  Twice, okay, you got me again, ha ha.  The joke quickly wears thin after the third through sixth time.  By the eighth, knives were being sharpened.  Honestly, I would have killed Burnfingers myself, but a patrol of ghouls backed by one of those creepy-ass Nerubians beat me to it.  Strangely, it’s hard to cast a useful spell when tomb beetles are devouring your body from the legs up and ghouls are munching on the rest of you.  I almost wish I’d been there to see it, if only so I could have had the satisfaction of putting him out of his misery, but you can’t always get what you want.

I’d like to say Burnfingers’ behaviour was an abberation, but unfortunately, almost all the mages I’ve ever met have been very similar.  Maybe they didn’t have the sheep fetish that Burnfingers did, but they all seem to be possessed of the same massive personality defect: a burning need to prove how much more powerful they are than the average schmuck.  Personally, I think it’s all the time spent with their nose in spellbooks.  Interestingly, I’ve found they suffer the same sort of weakness everyone else does, though.  A sharp knife delivered between the left third and fourth ribs kills them just as dead as someone without incredible cosmic powers.

But I digress.  I bring up my hatred of mages because that’s what landed me in this basement-cavern-place.  I was all set to assault my apartment.  I’d taken out the three watchers necessary to make my brilliantly stealthy approach to my front door.

Yes, I said the front door.

It’s not like I was getting in through the windows, they were all barred to prevent people sneaking in through them and I never felt the need to install any sort of secret entrance on account of keeping a very low profile as to where I lived.  The very few times I have been accosted in my own home were purely by chance and turned out very poorly indeed for the accostors.  Of course the front door was designed with security in mind and can easily withstand a small battering ram.  There is a quite impressive array of locks on the door, only half of which are locked at any given moment and the other half are designed in reverse so anyone trying to pick them will end up locking one set while opening the others.

Of course, I didn’t need force or lockpicks to open the door.  I have the key.

Just to be really difficult, the key doesn’t actually fit any of the locks, at least none of the visible ones, and the one it does fit opens all the others at once.  I should have hired a dwarf or gnome to design an actual mechanism for this, because, in retrospect, getting a tame mage to tether all the locks together with magic probably wasn’t the best plan, even if he did guarantee his work.  He would be getting a very strongly worded letter as soon as I got out of here, let me tell you.  I think it will be carved into his door with a very, very sharp knife.

Anyway, once I unlocked the door, I prepared a handful of flashbombs in one hand, always useful in a situation like this, and my sword in the other.  With my sword-hand, I opened the latch and pushed the door open just enough to disengage the latch completely.  One swift kick later, the door flew open, the flashbombs went off, I leapt into my apartment and landed with a very sudden desire to graze something.

The problem with being sheeped is that you tend to view the world as a sheep, so the large man with the very large, very knobbly stick coming toward me didn’t really strike me as threatening.  At least not until my legs turned to jelly from being wacked on the noggin with said large, knobbly stick.

Then I woke up here.  So now we’re all up to date.

I considered calling out, just to see if there were any guards who should have been paying attention for when the prisoner came to.  I discarded the idea almost as quickly as it had occurred to me.  I didn’t have anything like a plan yet and didn’t want my captors to know I was back in the world of the living again if I could help it.  The ropes securing me to the chair were tied very well, tight enough to keep me from using my hands and feet but not so much to stop blood from flowing.  They weren’t cheap hemp, either.  They felt like silk or possibly mageweave.  So.  I wasn’t going to wriggle my way out.  The chair was too sturdy to break by rocking about so that was out, too.  At this rate, I was going to run out of options I didn’t even have.

Well, nothing else for it, then.

“Hey!”  I yelled at the top of my lungs.  I waited a second while the echoes quickly faded.  I tried a second and a third time.  No one came running and there didn’t seem to be any response.  Anxiety started to set in.  It was entirely possible that I’d been left down here like this to slowly die, alone and in the dark.  Ha!  Shows what they knew.  As cool as it was and without any water, I’d be dead in just a day or two.  Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any better.

That slight chill was rapidly becoming very definite cold.  Before too long I would begin shivering.  Once that started, thinking would start to get difficult, nothing much at first, just a general sort of fogginess that would make it hard to concentrate.  It would quickly get worse from there, though and if something didn’t happen before that point, escape may well become impossible.

Perhaps that was what they were waiting for?

Well, no point waiting for whoever to show up.  Things weren’t going to magically get any better.

See what I did there?  Never mind.

I had just about enough wiggle room that I could shift my weight slightly forward.  It wasn’t much, but it was a start.  My feet were flat on the ground and my legs were tied about mid-shin.  If I could rock just enough, I would be able to lean forward and shuffle about.  It would be slow and painful, but I would be mobile.  I wasn’t sure how much of an improvement that would actually be, but it was better than nothing.

As plans go, it could have been a lot worse.  It could also have been so very much better.  Still, as I lay on my side, realizing just how cold the cavern floor was, I was able to comfort my bruised ego in that I had at least given it a try.

It was while I was nursing the latest set of bruises to my poor ego when things got worse.  The cold was really starting to set in when I heard the very distinctive tak-tak-tak of booted steps in the distance and getting closer.  There were two kinds of people who made that sound when they walked.  The first were usually soldiers or soldiers-turned-thugs.  In order to help keep their footing over loose or slippery surfaces, soldiers would put specially designed nails in the soles of their boots.  The added benefit of this is that the nails would come between the ground and the sole of the boot, making the sole, and thus the boot, last longer.  The second type were martially-inclined nobles, who would add a small strip of metal to the heel of their boots.  This wasn’t for any practical purpose, rather so that, when walking around, their steps would ring out with a clear, sharp crack, not unlike the sound of a horse’s hooves on stone.  Most of them probably thought it made them seem more intimidating, though any dog-faced soldier would tell you that it just made it easier to know when they were coming so they could clear away anything said noble would disapprove of.  Which was more or less everything that solders tended to get up to.

Judging by the rapid pace of the steps and the snatches of self-important echoes, I was pretty sure we were dealing with the second type.  I’d like to say I was pleased to be correct, but once the steps got close enough and I could actually make out the voices I was anything but.

Of course it would be Arkenhill.  The laws of the universe wouldn’t let it be anyone else.

“Well, well, well,” he sneered, “The one and only Khol Drake, brought to heel at last.”

I couldn’t see him from where I was laying, but that really didn’t matter much.  I put on my best bored expression and said, “‘Brought to heel?’  Do you people really talk like that?  I thought that sort of thing only happened in tawdry bard’s tales.”

“Ah, yes, the famous wit,” I still couldn’t see him, though I could hear him moving around behind me.  There was at least one other person in the cave, but they hadn’t done much more than breathe so far.  If the long, slow breathing was any indication whoever it was was quite large.  “We’ll see how witty you are once I we cut out your tongue.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, “Oh.  No.  Please.  Don’t do that,” I put on my most bored and put-upon voice, “Anything but that.  I’ll tell you anything.”

That earned me a swift kick in the ribs.  Arkenhill leaned down next to my ear in what was probably supposed to be a threatening manner but since I’d actually seen the man before, I really couldn’t be intimidated.

“Go ahead and laugh it up while you can, thief.”  He tried to growl, but it came out more like he had a sore throat and his voice was hoarse, “Once I’m through with you, your own mother won’t recognise you and you’ll be lucky if you can steal a crust of bread from the midden.”

“Oh?”  I asked pleasantly, “Are you going to talk me to death or choke me with your breath?  Seriously.  It smells like you’ve been eating Tauren pies.”  Before he could do anything else, I leaned forward and much as I could and slammed the back of my head into his nose.  There wasn’t the satisfying crunch I was hoping for, but he did shriek like a little girl and bounce backward.

“Greklar!  Set this…this…” he flailed for a word, his nose already clogging with blood, making his shrill voice even more comical, “Set him upright and fetch my tools!”

I didn’t particularly like the sound of that.  That sounded like it would going to become painful for me, very quickly.  Maybe the crack about his breath was a step too far.

I have this theory about nobles.  See, people who don’t have to worry about things like food or working or, really, even dressing yourself, there’s a certain amount of time in the day that must be filled with…something.  A decent human being might turn to working to improve the lot of others not as fortunate as themselves.  Nobles, on the other hand, seem to take it as divine right that they much indulge in every base impulse that skitters its fetid way across their putrefied little imaginations.  As a thief, I’ve seen the horrors that most of the wealthy and the nobility hide in their closets while presenting a public illusions of being decent human beings.  You come across a lot of that sort of thing while looking for valuables.  It would almost be a mercy to the rest of humanity, nether, to all of Azeroth to be able to exterminate the lot of them like so many roaches.

Wait, where was I?  Oh, right.

It hardly came as a surprise that Arkenhill had implements of torture.  I would have been more surprised if he hadn’t.  I didn’t expect them to have the tell-tale blue-green sheen of thorium or for them to be as ornamented as they were.  You can tell a lot about a man by the kind of tools his uses, no matter what his profession.  Low-quality tools that aren’t cared for and you can see his heart just isn’t in it.  Well-made, hard used but well-maintained tools are the mark of a dedicated professional.  Shiny, flashy, ornamented tools usually indicate that person regards themselves as an artist.  More often than not, a very poor one.  A proper artist knows that a ten silver iron hammer pounds nails just as well as a twenty gold thorium one and costs a whole lot less to replace.

Greklar turned out to be an orc and a rather large one at that.  He was naked from the waist up and his grey-green skin was a twisting mass of old scars.  Some, the older ones, were clearly battle scars.  Others, though, more recent, were very obviously the marks of a whip.  If I needed any more evidence he was a slave, the iron collar fastened around his thick neck would have cleared up any confusion.  He sat my chair upright without a word and about as easily as I might lift a small book.  I really hoped I wouldn’t have to tangle with him when I made my eventual escape.

If I made my eventual escape.

First I had to survive Arkenhill and his shiny, shiny tools.  Then I could work on escape.

Maybe.

09 May 2012

Intermission: Clever Title Goes Here.

What's black and white and hasn't been looked at in over a year and is finally getting some much-needed love?

Poll to the right...

24 October 2011

Eine Kleine Background Text or Those Who Fail to Learn from History are Doomed to Repeat it Next Semester.

It was in the late 1960s BIE (Before the Interstellar Era) that Mankind first hurled himself at the stars with any measure of success.  For years, decades even, science fiction authors and leading scientists dreamed of a time when Man would soar through the stars, claiming all he could survey (and occasionally fighting off remarkably unified and monothematic alien races in the process.)  Those first pioneers, Gagarin and Glenn, now the patron saints of explorers and other daft fools too brave to know they should be scared shitless, brought back the first inklings of what humanity could actually achieve when it truly bent its collective will to a task.

But that bit’s all ancient history and no one except history majors really gives two shits about it anymore.  Fast forward a hundred and fifty years or so and you get to where the real excitement starts.  See, that’s the point where some really, really smart guys came up with a whole new way of not only looking at the universe, but mathematically describing it.  Okay, so the maths part is about as exciting as watching paint dry and roughly twice as dense as duranium, but it’s very important to this part of the story.  See, these smart guys and their new way of thinking and describing the universe were finally able to crack the Big Nut and get at the tasty sciencey meat inside that allowed them to develop feasible faster than light travel.  Until that point, humanity had been more or less bound by Einsteinian physics and unable to even truly approach the speed of light, let alone exceed it.  Sure, there were colonies all through the Solar System, but travel between them took weeks, sometimes months, depending on gravitic conditions and the position of the start and destination points.  It’s hard to imagine now what it was like then since most systems take a day or less to cross in their entirety.

Anyway, the FTL cat was out of the FTL bag and pretty much all of humanity jumped off Earth and out of the Solar System faster than you can say, “Hey, everyone, let’s jump off Earth and out of the Solar System!”  Which is to say, it took forever.  As always, there were the first pioneers, who took those first giant leaps and damn the consequences.  Once that first human-habitable planet was colonized, though, that was all she wrote.  People couldn’t get off that ball of mud fast enough.  It wasn’t all a field of poppies, though, but then when has it ever been?  At first, only the super-wealthy were able to afford spots on the newly-colonized garden worlds to escape the rampant pollution, overcrowding and dwindling natural resources of Mother Terra.  Of course, once the super-wealthy realized that they would be expected to actually work to build and support the new colonies, they were suddenly very generous about paying for the other 99% of humanity to reach the stars.

Taking a page from ancient history, a wealthy individual would arrange a plot on a newly-colonized garden world and then pay for workers to go there and do all the hard work of getting it set up and ready for their eventual arrival.  In return, the worker would earn an insult of a salary and be worked nearly to death for a period of three-to-five years, depending on the terms of the contract.  In the ancient past, this arrangement was called indentured servitude.  In our new modern era, this arrangement is called a Contracted Resettlement Expense Debt or, more commonly, a CRSD or cursed.  Still, the arrangement worked fairly well for billions of people who otherwise would have had no choice but to slowly languish to death on the dying Earth.  As time went on and the expense of the cursed started to threaten the triple-digit percentage profit margins to merely double-digit, the number of cursed began slowly but steadily decreasing as the demand to get off Earth and out into the stars and a better chance at a decent life increased.  At first, just a tiny trickle, a few hundred thousand here and there, which rapidly became a raging torrent of people sold into slavery, either by choice or by cruel twists of fate.  Of course, they don’t call it slavery in polite society, but it amounts to the same thing.  There’s no contract, no fixed term of service, just poor bastard who have nothing selling off the only thing they truly own for that fabled chance at the brass ring: themselves. 

That was the first wave of colonization, in the early 1400s IE (Interstellar Era.)  Eventually, there were more people among the stars than there were back on old home sweet homeworld and the rush of colonization slowed significantly.  The colonies, both garden world and otherwise, moved quickly toward self-sufficiency so they could get to their real goal: growth.  With the massive amount of resources, both private and government, being poured into the colonial efforts, many colonies were able to become self-sufficient within only a few decades and able to help grow other colonies shortly afterward.  By the close of the 16th century IE, the majority of colonies were no longer mere colonies but fully-fledged nation-states, fully independent and self-governing, often with their own standing militias to provide for defense.

Remarkably, this massive and lengthy period of expansion saw very little armed conflict.  There were odd skirmishes here and there, but they tended to be localized to a single world and usually occurred between corporate security and raiders, rather and any actual military actions.  Historians have thought and pondered as to why this period of peace should have been so lengthy and there’s many and sundry theories but the simple fact is that for the first time, humans were presented with limitless resources that just had to be reached for and taken.  There was no need to fight over a particularly rich patch of resources because chances were, the next planet over was just as rich.  It was simply cheaper to just find another plant to rape than it was fight over one.

This period of peace came to an end in the mid 1600s IE.  Several of the oldest and largest colonies joined together under a common banner, forming the first interstellar nation.  Soon after, other colonies either joined or formed their own amalgamated nations.  Very quickly, an interstellar map that once looked like hundreds of grains of sand scattered across the Galileo Arm, each individual and unique, started seeing borders being drawn amongst the stars and large blocks of colour representing the new colonial nations.  Before long, the interstellar map looked like a child’s paint-by-numbers only without any kind of coherent picture filled in.  Of course, with borders, come border disputes, inevitably followed by wars.

At the end of the wars, not much actually changed but a new age of exploration was sparked.  Ships and probes and explorers went off in all directions to find new worlds to be colonized and exploited.  It was a singularly lucky probe that was able to find a navigable route through a treacherous region of space that had come to be known as the Brahe Traverse, so called for its tempestuous nature and the high likelihood of not surviving the journey across it.  On the other side of the Brahe Traverse, though, was a veritable cornucopia of worlds, all ripe for the exploiting.  Hundreds of garden worlds and thousands upon thousands of mining worlds all just waiting for Mankind to come along and put them to good use.  And come He did.

Despite the danger of the journey, the interstellar nations threw ship after ship after ship into the Brahe Traverse, hoping to secure as much of the tasty, tasty resources for themselves as they possibly could.  Colonies were set up.  Mining outposts were built.  The vast wealth of the Copernicus Arm began being extracted from the useless ground of hundreds and thousands of planets and steadily flowing back to the home nations.  Once again, workers were needed to bring the valuable resources from the Copernicus Arm, back to the Galileo Arm where they belonged.

Indentured servitude has become prevalent again, though slavery is starting to catch on once more.  Four major players are vying for control of the Copernicus Arm, which may actually be possible for one group to control the whole thing, what with the treacherous Brahe Traverse limiting all travel to and from the Arm.  The difficulty of travel has also led to a rise that wasn’t seen in large scale before: pirates.  The limited number of warships that are in the Copernicus Arm and have been able to make the journey, combined with the lack of facilities to build warships locally, and ideal environment has been created to give rise to clever opportunists who are able to take advantage of the lack of protection and make a fair few credits by plying the shipping lanes for richly laden cargo vessels bound back for the motherland. 

Not all of the supposed pirate attacks are as advertised, though.  With the lack of a proper military presence to protect against piracy, another age-old practice has become new again.  While there is a lack of proper warships, there is no shortage of vessels in the Copernicus Arm and armed with a Letter of Marque, a captain can become that most dreaded breed of pirate, a privateer.  The major powers began issuing Letters of Marque about a decade back and the program has been wildly successful, though not necessarily with the proper authorities.

Which brings my tale to the current date.  It’s 1756 IE and a new Golden Age of Piracy is in the making.  It’s an exciting time to a ship captain with a Letter of Marque these days.  There’s a fortune out there just waiting to be had, if you just have the courage to take it.  My name is “Gentleman” Jack Calico, I’m the captain of the light frigate Oceanborn and I am a pirate.

24 April 2011

Intermission: The Shattering: Disasterpiece

Sometime later, I’m not quite sure how long, time blurs oddly when you’re being beaten nearly constantly, I was being locked away in the Vault. I knew this because the guards were assuring someone that no one ever broke out of the Vault. I’m quick like that, even with my head full of fuzz and rattling marbles. As they were locking me away, presumably to throw away the key, Shaw entered my cell to have a lovely chat with me. I’m pretty sure there was tea and biscuits, but, like I said, it was kind of hard to tell the difference between what really happened and what was only happening in my head. Savage beatings, sleep deprivation and other general assorted maltreatment tends to muck about with the grey matter.

Where was I then? Oh, right.

“It’s your fault, you know,” I said, sipping tea through split lips. There was a trickle of blood in the rim of the cup as I set it down. If you looked quickly it looked like a woman’s lipstick.

“How do you figure that?” Shaw’s silhouette loomed against the light from the cell door.

“You know my history with the Twilights,” I said calmly, stabbing a quarter of cucumber sandwich at him for emphasis. The sandwich looked tiny and delicate in my purple, swollen fingers. “You know what they did to me. And you sicced me on them anyway. I know you, Shaw. You knew something like this would happen. Don’t act like this isn’t exactly what you wanted.”

Shaw steepled his fingers and peered at me over them, sitting across from me at the small table and tea set, “Are you quite certain of that? You’re certain that you aren’t just a monster? You do what you want to do; you always have. Presumably you always will. Don’t try to blame me for something you’ve been dying to do for the last five years.”

My shoulders slumped and the weight of the iron prisoner’s collar around my neck felt as if it weighed a hundred times more that it did. Maybe he was right. Light knew I hated Arkenhill enough. I knew there was that part of me that I didn’t talk about at parties. The part of me that enjoyed the hunting and the killing, the part that exulted in the spilling of blood and the rending of flesh. The part of me that had roared triumphantly as I stalked the halls of Arkenhill’s manor like the right hand of Death.

The part that had always made Saya just a bit wary of me.

If I wanted to be completely honest with myself, which I really didn’t, I had enjoyed the crap out of killing all those cultists and probably wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. But I wasn’t about to admit that. Not to Shaw and especially not to myself. I was the last person that needed to hear that.

Shaw tossed a scrap of cucumber sandwich to a filthy, rag-draped figure curled up in the shadows of the corner of my cell. I watched myself slowly uncurl and sniff at the sandwich before hungrily devouring it, eyes wild and alert for threats and challenges for my food.

I was starting to think that maybe this wasn’t really happening, after all.

“Of course this isn’t real!” Shaw thundered, suddenly growing a good thirty feet tall and sprouting horns, a tail and a very impressive set of bat wings. The Battle of Mount Hyjal raged all around us, all chaos and screaming, desperation and bravery. Eredar-Shaw spread his thickly muscled arms wide, taloned hands gesturing around to take in the confusion and fury of the wild battle all around the tiny little table and tea service.

“This is what is real for you!” Eredar-Shaw roared to be heard over the virtual wall of noise of the battle, “This is where you are alive!” A squad of dwarven riflemen were obliterated beneath a falling infernal, the giant demon of stone and fire in turn getting shattered by a passing orcish demolisher. “This is all you’re good for!”

I was in my armour again, the Bloodfang leather worn and broken in so well it fit like a second skin. My swords seemed to tremble in my hands, like eager coursing hounds baying to be loosed to chase the rabbit, eager to shed blood and take lives. A pack of felhounds surged my way, driven by a succubus pack mistress. I felt the feral grin twist my lips, bringing a new bright bead of blood from the split in them. I leapt for them, cutting and slicing away until the demon dogs and their mistress were so much twitching meat.

I was about to turn for more foes, when the succubus started to rise again, her component parts reassembling themselves along the lines of my cuts, still dripping dark purple ichor to hiss and spit upon the ground. She swept her mane of raven hair back from her face and Shannon stared back at me, her eyes at once accusing and inviting. Given that everything I was experiencing here was most likely taking place in my own mental landscape, this really said a lot about how I really felt about my erstwhile apprentice.

“Mr. Draaaaaake,” the succubus purred with Shannon’s sultry-innocent voice, “You’ve done a very bad thing. You need to be punished, you naughty boy. Come here.” She cracked the whip quite expertly over my head.

“Tempting,” I smirked, even as I was turning to run, “But we both know you’d enjoy that a lot more than I would.” I felt the crack of the whip at my back, licking the back of my cuirass before I was away.

I’ve no idea how far or for how long I ran. I don’t remember stopping. I do remember picking myself up off the floor of the Stormwind Cathedral, though. A young acolyte knelt at her prayers in an alcove nearby, the table before her coated in old wax and festooned with burning candles. More importantly, though, it was covered in a floor-length cloth. I dived for the table, scrambling under the cloth just as the heavy boots of the Watch pounded into the nave. I poked my head out just enough to wink, smile and put my finger to my lips, entreating the pretty young acolyte to not reveal me. Her surprise and awkward blush told me she wouldn’t give me away, though her eyes darted toward the Watchmen looking about the nave. Unwilling to disturb the smattering of priests and acolytes going about their business, the Watchmen performed a perfunctory search and departed. After the last one left, the cloth lifted and Sayessa knelt there, looking every bit as beautiful as she had the last time I’d seen her alive.

She silently helped me from under the table and sat me down on a nearby stool. A small incense burner filled the tent with a cloying sweetness, but also effectively covered the small of illness, injury and death. A dozen cots, all full, filled the rest of the field hospital. I was one of the lucky ones; I was only bleeding from a couple dozen wounds. It was a fight to stay awake, despite the sting of Saya’s needle and thread, deftly stitching up my hurts, and the pungent scent of her salves and poultices, keeping infection away.

“All of them, hm?” she said absently, her nimble fingers guiding the thread to close a cut on my arm.

“Every last one I could find. Every one who answered the passphrase,” my voice sounded hollow, distant. Oh, right, the incense was also mildly narcotic. That was why Saya wore that mask over her mouth and nose.

“And exactly how much closer are you to bringing me back, now?” She snipped the thread on the suture and moved on to the next one, a gaping hole over my heart.

“That would be stupid. I can’t bring you back. No one can,” I hissed in pain as she cleaned the wound and folded the skin back in place.

“Mm. Well, at least you realize that much.” I swear she smiled a little when I winced at her sticking the needle in me to start sewing again, “So, why? It’s been five years. Are you still so angry? Do you have so little self-control?” She stopped sewing and took my chin between her slender, blood-stained fingers, forcing me to meet her eyes, “Is that why you let yourself be caught?”

Shaw’s silhouette loomed before me again, framed once more in the light spilling in from outside the door to my cell. I was sitting at the table again, my swollen fingers clumsily holding a cup of tea, one eye swollen shut. A tiny trickle of blood dripped slowly from my chin from a fresh split in my lip. I was tired. More than all the beatings, all the mind games, my own guilt, everything was piled up higher and higher and finally came crashing down on me all at once and settled in as a singular bone-deep weariness that no amount of sleep can ever relieve. The kind of weariness that sets in after a few weeks behind enemy lines, weeks of being always alert, always running, adrenaline always pumping at full tilt, never coming down. When you finally get the chance to relax, it comes as a great crashing, crushing wave and there is nothing you can even think to do against it.

“Why, Drake?” Shaw asked again, stern, patient.

I sat quietly, considering the question carefully and studiously avoiding the answer that was staring me in the face, but I refused to admit. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to admit to myself why I had given myself up. I knew, deep down, that I was a monster. Wasn’t that enough? Why did I need to admit my failings to someone else? Why did I have to admit it to Shaw? Shaw! The last man on Azeroth you should give deep, dark secrets to.

The chains weighed heavily around my wrists and neck. The teacup looked so tiny and delicate in my red, taloned fist. So beautiful and delicate. Just as Saya had been.

I was so tired.

“You already know why, or you wouldn’t be asking,” I rumbled. My cell seemed tiny, stifling. My wings were cramped in this tiny space. If I could just lie down, stretch out. Rest.

Shaw’s silhouette peered at me over steepled fingers again. The gleam of his eyes the only indication he wasn’t just a creature of shadow, “Because you need to hear yourself say it. To admit it. Truly admit what you already know. To understand.”

“And then you’ll let me sleep?” I hated the pleading tone in my voice, but it couldn’t be helped and I was too tired to try to cover it up.

“As long as you like,” Shaw’s voice was almost gentle, paternal.

“I…

I needed to be stopped. I was out of control and I knew it. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. It was like being at a bar or a party or anywhere and watching yourself do something amazingly stupid. You know it’s stupid. You know when you start that it’s stupid, while you’re doing it that it’s stupid and afterward that it was stupid. But you can’t stop. It’s like an avalanche or an earthquake. There’s nothing anyone can do but watch you be stupid. And no matter how much you want to stop, how much you try to stop, you just can’t make the connections between wanting to stop and actually stopping. It was like that, for me, only I was killing people. I was angry. Too angry. Furious. Furious about the Twilight’s Hammer and their little plots and schemes. And the more I thought about it, the angrier it made me. So I started thinking, why shouldn’t I just kill them, then? I have the ability, why not use it? And that was all that that part of me that is a monster, that enjoys killing, needed to be able to take control. Only one is never enough, is it? Like any other junkie, I just needed another hit, another fix. Sure, it would start with just the Twilights, but how long until I was slaughtering anyone in the street who pissed me off? Oh, they were a threat to Stormwind the monster would say and that would justify it. How long before I was nothing more than a mad dog and needed to be put down? There was only one way to stop myself and that was to have someone else do it for me. And in the Vault, at least I’m among my own kind.

I could feel Shaw’s sneer, “How very noble of you, to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.”

“I was thinking more that I was saving my own ass,” I sniped back, “I may be a monster, but I rather prefer being alive to the alternative.”

Shaw let the barest hint of a smirk touch the stone of his face and turned to face out to the city again. I shifted in my chains to look out the battlements as well. SI:7 headquarters was a hive of activity behind us, but out here on the wall it was quiet, with only the buzz of the living city below us.

“Good, I was afraid you had taken a turn toward the altruistic.”

I made a gesture that told him exactly what I thought about that. Shaw actually chuckled and put his hand on my shoulder, giving a reassuring squeeze, “You’ll be okay, Drake. It’s going to take some time, but you’ll be okay,” he turned and looked back out at the city for a moment and said, “You should rest now.”

At those words, every bit of the exhaustion that had been dogging me since they dragged me from the gallows came crashing down on me and I slept.

* * *
“Well?” Shaw packed an awful lot of questions into that one word.

The dark-skinned draenei pushed a lock of smoky hair back over one of her broadly curling horns, “Your man is…very conflicted. He would make a fascinating study.” She set about collecting her implements: a small incense burner that gave off a cloying sweet smell and a small tea set.

The head of SI:7 and the Stormwind Assassins frowned. Most people didn’t care to see Shaw frown like that. It usually meant people were about to die. “That is less informative than I was looking for.”

The draenei woman could already feel the headache building behind her eyes. She could tell it was going to take quite a bit of opium to dull this one. Working mind magic of the intensity and detail Shaw had wanted always put an immense strain on her. “Wounds of the mind are difficult to recover from, at best, and your man’s are old and deep. It is a wonder he did not break long ago.”

“That much is understood, Ms. Trellen,” Shaw closed the cell door behind her on whisper-quiet hinges and led the way up the stairs and back out of the Vault. “What I need to know is if you can repair what damage he’s done to himself.”

Ms. Trellen fixed Shaw with her pale-eyed stare, the one that tended to unnerve humans. Shaw didn’t flinch. “One does not simply fix the mind, Mr. Shaw, as if it were a stopped watch or torn harness. It takes time, effort and, most of all, trust. Your man has never met me. You cannot expect miracles overnight.”

Shaw was silent as he signed both of them out, thinking of the best course of action. Hard times were coming. It was in almost every report, every note that came into SI:7 these days. Things were getting bleaker, more brutal, ruthless. Shaw wasn’t sure exactly what lay ahead, but he did know none of it was good. To make matters worse, while Varian Wrynn was a fair and just king, he was also reckless and intractable when it came to the Horde. If the rumours of Hellscream’s get taking over the mantle of Warchief proved to be accurate, there would soon be open war between the Alliance and the Horde once more. Shaw was going to need every capable hand he could get and he needed them sooner rather than later. Drake could be a valuable asset, even if he only trained new recruits, but only if he could be controlled.

“Of course,” Shaw said, sighing, “Do what you can, but, please remember that time is of the essence. I need him to be in control of himself again.” He would never say as much to Drake, but Shaw knew without a doubt that he could rely on the swordsman, thief and assassin to always work to protect Stormwind. That was the one thing they had always seen eye to eye on, even if they differed over the exact methods. Shaw knew that before long, he was going to need as many men and women he could count on as he could lay hands on. The other shoe was all set to drop and it wasn’t going to be gentle when it did.
* * *
Right, so where was I?

Ah, yes, the cell door.

Standing in the doorway, just as she had nearly every day for the last two years was the Priestess of the Shadow, Iriandra Trellen. She stood a full head taller than me and the horns and the tail were a little off-putting, but the rest of her was curved in all the right ways and in all the right places. Her dusky blue skin gave her an even more exotic look, as did the tiny fangs and solid white eyes. I’ve also been in prison for two years and she has been the only woman I’ve seen in that time. Which, I suppose, is better than most of the refuse in the Vault, who would be lucky to see another living being, let alone a beautiful draenei woman.

“How are you today, Khol?” she asked, her faint draenic accent giving her words a slight lilt. I wasn’t sure if she just had a very slight accent or if she had purposefully tried to eliminate it.

“Oh, just smashing,” I grinned, “I thought I might take a morning constitutional around the lake and then perhaps breakfast on the east veranda. I believe the cook is making poached eggs and fresh bacon, if you’d care to join me?”

She was kind enough to humour me with a chuckle and a genuine smile, “I am glad you are in good spirits. I know how much your confinement chafes.”

“Yeah, well, you can laugh about it or you can go mad, right?” I smirked, earning another genuine smile. To make her smile so easily twice in one visit wasn’t normal. Something was bothering her and she was taking every opportunity to be distracted from it. As much as she’d been mucking in my head, I couldn’t help but learn a bit about her as well.

As usual, I helped her set out the tea service and incense burner. I pretended I didn’t know that she drugged my tea and used the incense to keep me under and, by way of thanks, she pretended to not know that I knew. As this sort of arrangement went, it worked pretty well. I was broken and I knew it. If it took being drugged to the gills four days out of seven to be less broken, that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Besides, Iriandra used really good drugs.

There was the faintest tremor in her hand as she went about preparing the daily tea, almost unnoticeable, but for the tiny vibrations in the water. Something was very wrong. Looking closer, I could see the tension in the tiny lines at the corners of her eyes, the way her lips were imperceptibly turned down. I know she prided herself on the difficulty people had in reading her face and if not for the fact that hers had been the only friendly face I’d seen for the last two years, I might not have noticed either. I kept silent for the moment, though. Whatever it was probably wasn’t any of my business or even be related to me. Above all, Iriandra had made very clear from the outset that our relationship was strictly professional; though we had certainly become friendly, perhaps even friends, in the time we’d worked together. I wasn’t about to damage that relationship by pointing out her troubles.

Once I tasted the tea, however, I knew something was very, direly, wrong. It lacked the distinctive musky sweetness of ghost mushroom extract she used to put me into a stupor. The only reason I could think that she wouldn’t need the soporific would be if our work was done, in which case I would be due to be released. If I was to be released, I’d like to think she would be happy for me, not tensed up like the proverbial long tailed cat in the proverbial room full of rocking chairs.

“So what’s wrong?” I asked, taking a louder than necessary sip of the tea.

The shadow priestess looked blankly at me for a long moment before sighing and setting down her own teacup, “You’ve felt the earthquakes?”

I nodded, “Of course. We’re almost a hundred feet underground here. We’re lucky none of them have brought the whole place down. Last night’s was the worst of them all, though. I heard more than one man praying.” I didn’t bother mentioning that I had made a couple foxhole prayers, myself.

Iriandra took a steadying breath, keeping her hands flat on her thighs, as if she were trying to keep them from trembling, “Last night was not an earthquake. Stormwind was attacked.”

I found myself on my feet before I’d realized my brain had given the command to my legs. My stool clattered noisily. “Then I need to get out of here.”

“If only it were so simple,” Iriandra motioned me back to my stool and took a sip of her tea, “All indications are that it was Deathwing who attacked the city.”

That made me pause a moment, “Isn’t he dead?”

“Reports of his demise, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated,” Shaw said laconically, leaning against the door to my cell.

I didn’t realize how much I had suddenly tensed up until I felt Iriandra’s calm, warm hand over my own.

“I trust there won’t be another incident?” The glare Shaw fixed me with told me all I needed to know about what would happen if there was.

I looked to Iriandra for a moment and nodded once, giving her a warm, grateful smile, which she returned. “No, that’s not going to be a problem.”

Shaw grunted and tossed something onto my bunk and motioned to someone outside the cell. He didn’t stick around to say goodbye. Not that I was looking for a long, heartfelt reunion with him or anything. I was pretty sure that with Deathwing’s attack he was busier than a two-bit whore on nickel night.

Iriandra and I finished our tea while she filled me in on two year’s worth of news while we waited for my release to be processed. She’d been forbidden from talking about the world outside my cell with me and she seemed eager to share, like she would with an old friend. That thought was rather pleasant and distracted nicely from the other, darker, thought that lurked over on my bunk.

I paid full attention to Iriandra as she spoke, if for no other reason than to avoid looking at my bunk and the old noose that lay upon it. Shaw’s message had been received, loud and clear.