Part 16: Family strife

Ariciel looked down into the Gol’Bolar Quarry. Because of the infestation of Troggs, it had been a long time since anyone ever got stone out of it, but that was not what she was after. Hidden deep inside, behind some left-over boarding, was a tunnel that would take them south into the Searing Gorge. Surreptitiously, she looked at the Gnome that would lead them. She had doubts. The only reason he had for helping them, was Interalia’s attempt to rob Bannog. And some vague promises of gold. For all she knew, he’d lead them into a trap. But she had nobody else to take her where she needed to go. As for the Gnome girl, she kept a careful distance. Ariciel did not have many valuables, but those she had were dear to her.

“And here we are. Gol’Bolar Quarry. Sir Joran, you may observe a number of Troggs there. Do they meet your expectations?” Aquaregis pointed down.

Joran loosened his sword in its sheath. “If they bleed, we can kill them. Are they likely to attack?”

“Only if you go near them. As, I am afraid, we must.” The old Gnome coughed. “Perhaps this would be a good moment to demonstrate some of my abilities. Please follow me.”

He strode down into the quarry, a determined look on his wrinkled face. Interalia followed him, looking worried. Aquaregis regarded some of the Troggs.

“Hmm. I think a little corruption spell first, followed by Immolation. A few Shadow bolts should finish them off.” He raised his hands, mumbling words under his breath, fingers writhing. One of the Troggs started to spout dark clouds from its bodily orifices, It coughed horribly, then turned round to see his tormentor. Aquaregis’ voice changed in pitch, and dark yellow flames appeared on the Trogg’s skin. It screeched, and hobbled towards Aquaregis, who pulled out a wand and shot shadowy bolts at the Trogg, till it fell over. He finished it off with two more shots from his wand.

Ariciel gaped. She nudged Bannog, and whispered: “Remind me. We’re the good guys, right?”

“Apparently so. Incoming!”

The company drew weapons, to fend off the dead trogg’s companions. They were angry, but they were no match for them. Within minutes, all the troggs lay dead.

“Well, that was easy,” said Joran. He shook the blood off his sword and ran a cloth down the blade before sheathing it.

They made their way slowly into the quarry, fending off any Troggs that came in with ease. It gave Bannog no comfort to see how easy it was. He knew much worse lay ahead. Finally, Aquaregis stopped in front of some planks that had once been part of the tunnel’s shoring.

“This is the entrance to the tunnel, behind these planks. Let us remove them.”

“Easy enough,” said Bannog, grabbed the top of the boards, put his foot against the wall and pulled. With a great crack, the planks came down, revealing the mechanism behind, and a tunnel. Oh. Oh well.

Aquaregis looked at Bannog accusingly. “Well done, Sir Bannog. Now if you would be so kind as to close the door after we’ve passed, then I would be most obliged.”

“No problem,” said Bannog. He waited till everyone was inside, then put the boards back more or less where they came from. Well the whole mine was a shambles anyway. Some loose planks were hardly going to attract attention.

They lit a torch, and walked into the tunnel. It was surprisingly large. Ariciel could walk upright, and the Humans only had to duck occasionally. The tunnel looked like it was of natural origin, with the occasional spot where it had been widened. They walked on until the torch went out, and they sat down for a bit of rest, while Interalia lit the next torch.

Joran sat next to Aquaregis. “I didn’t know Gnomes went in for slavery. They were dead set against it, as I recall.”

The old Gnome smiled. “Oh, this is not the usual kind of slavery. I use no whips, nor have I taken young Interalia by force. But she could not thrive among her family, so I took her in. Because I am a Warlock, I was not allowed to take her as an apprentice, so instead it was agreed that I should enslave her. By the time we return, the crime of slave-taking will have expired, she will have her freedom back, and because all was done in mutual understanding, there will be no hard feelings.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Interalia. “Nobody asked me!”

“You were found in the Mayor’s supply stores, filling a sack with his precious foodstuffs. I assumed that you would prefer to escape with your life. If I was mistaken, please do tell.”

“Just you wait.”

“Ah, yes. I’m afraid she is gathering the money to buy herself free. As long as she breaks no laws doing so, there is nothing I can do against that.”

Bannog coughed. “And if she does?”

“Then, I am afraid, I will be responsible for her crimes. Hence my presence here.” Aquaregis stared into the dark. “I did hope I could teach her respect for other’s possessions, but progress is slow.”

“Pff. I only steal from those who deserve it.”

Ramoc laughed. “My sentiment exactly! The greedy bastards who keep good gold away from the general population are the most deserving kind.”

“Hey! No need to get sarky! I never steal from the poor!”

“Exactly. They have no money!”

“Oh sod you.”

“And people keep telling me I’m no good with women!”

Bannog got up. “Everybody rested? Let’s go!”

The sun was setting over the dry lands of Searing Gorge, when they emerged, blinking, from the tunnel. Searing Gorge was a desolate place. Not a sprig of grass would grow. The sand was black, with small rivers not of water, but of molten lava. The place stank of sulphur. This was not even rot. Rotting plants would imply living plants somewhere. Searing Gorge was a place of death.

“Well Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Searing Gorge. Please be careful not to drink from any stream here. It is not water. I think it is time to summon a little extra help.”

Aquaregis took a few steps forward, and started casting a Warlock spell. He raised his arms to the side, and glittering particles began to rise from them, meeting over his head into a globe of sparkling lights. Ariciel looked from Joran to Bannog, who shrugged.

“Why have you called me?” A dark, low voice rang out over the deathly lands. Ariciel slowly, slowly turned round. Behind them stood a large blue individual, vaguely Humanoid in shape. It overlooked even Bannog. It had massive arms, with long fingernails, but no legs. Its form tapered down to nothing. The creature hovered an inch above the ground.

Aquaregis smiled. A well-executed summoning. “Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Thuljuk. He is my voidwalker. He will help us in our quest, won’t you, Thuljuk?”

“I do not like this place.”

Ariciel had her staff out. One of her hands was already glowing with green light. She narrowed her eyes at the Gnome Warlock, not lowering her staff an inch.

“Do you you mean that… that is with us?”

“Indeed he is, my Lady. Bound to my will to do whatever I command him. You will learn to appreciate him, as he is a mighty fighter.”

Bannog closed his mouth. This quest was getting stranger and stranger. Still, any help, even giant improbable blue help, was welcome. Speaking of which…

“Ariciel, where is that blue friend of yours?”

“Mareva? She wrote she’d fly to Thorium Point.”

“She has been here before?”

“Apparently so. They wouldn’t take her here otherwise. The poor girl is being sent to all the nasty, diseased places in Azeroth. And would you believe that she still thinks it is an improvement on her previous job?”

“It must have its perks.”

Ariciel looked round at Bannog, an angry scowl on her face. “Oh shut up. I like her. Get over it.”

Bannog opened his mouth to say something, then couldn’t find anything to say. She was right. He closed his mouth again.

Joran looked from one to the other in the happy knowledge that none of this was his problem. “So how is she going to find us?”

Aquaregis spoke up. “That will not be difficult. The Grimsteel Manor is almost the only building between Thorium Point and this place. There is even a signpost somewhere. Do we wait for her before going in?”

Ariciel bit her lip. “That depends. We can’t stay here too long. If she’s not here before tomorrow, I don’t think we can wait.”

“In that case, I advise that we start moving.”

It was hard going. This land did its best to stifle all things living. They were very thirsty, but their water bottles had to last them, and perhaps more of them back to the tunnel. They had filled up last just before they entered the Gol’Bolar Quarry, in one of the streams under the ice. The temptation to drink more than they should was enormous. Bannog poured water into the cap of his flask, and drank from that. He knew exactly how many caps he had left in his bottle. As their guide, Aquaregis went first, taking large steps, followed by his large blue minion. Thuljuk glided effortlessly over the sand. If they walked along an incline, the voidwalker would stay at right angles with the surface, rather than obey the laws of gravity, which added to the disturbing quality of his appearance. Ariciel walked behind him (him? it?), and had to keep herself from poking him to see if he was real. Ramoc and Interalia walked far to the left and right, keeping a lookout for anything unfriendly, with Bannog and Joran bringing up the rear.

They walked for several hours in a Westerly direction, until Interalia called and pointed. To their left, a dustcloud showed the arrival of a group of armoured individuals. It was not possible to see who or what they were. Aquaregis ordered Thuljuk to stand by him, and prepared his magic. Ariciel stood behind the gnome, staff planted in the ground, hands bristling with her green energy. Bannog and Joran drew swords, Ramoc and Interalia went to ground.

It was clear that the new arrivals had seen them. Now that they came closer, it was plain to see their short, stocky forms, chain armour and helms. Joran raised his sword.

“Dark iron dwarfs. About a half dozen. Should be evenly matched.”

Aquaregis’ voice sounded grim. “I should think not. They face me. Thuljuk, attack!”

The blue giant’s voice rang out, coming from no visible mouth. “I obey.”

With a surprising turn of speed, Thuljuk floated towards the Dwarfs. With his great fists, he beat down upon chain and plate armor. The Dwarfs drew their weapons and laid into the Voidwalker. Aquaregis shouted.

“He cannot stand alone! Attack!” The old Gnome’s wand shot forward, pouring shot after shot into their enemies. Ariciel followed suit. Ramoc ran round wide, keeping a low profile. Interalia did the same, going round the other side. Bannog and Joran charged straight at the dwarves, dagger and sword in hand.

But the Dark Iron Dwarfs were strong, and well trained. They decided that the voidwalker was their worst threat, and concentrated their efforts on him, even after the other four wounded several of them. The voidwalker did not bleed, but they could see he was suffering by the way his large body started shimmering in and out of existence. It did not affect the strength of his attacks. His fists kept pounding the Dwarfs. Two lay dead at his feet. Joran and Bannog together slew a third, Bannog hewing the legs from under him, Joran stabbing the Dwarf in the face. Suddenly, Thuljuk gave a great shout, and his form seemed to collapse in on itself, until all that was left were his arm bracers lying in the sand. Four were left, and they were angry and well used to working together. Now that the voidwalker was gone, their next target was the Warlock who had summoned him. Staying close together, they charged at the old Gnome, who was casting spells as fast as he could speak, but could not repel them.

Interalia dropped out of hiding, and dashed at the largest Dwarf, dagger in hand. Taking a great leap, she thrust her dagger forward, between helm and neck guard of the Dwarf. The dwarf shouted, blood spouting from an empty eye socket, then suddenly collapsed, twitching. The dwarf running behind swung a war hammer, and knocked the Gnome woman out of the way. She landed hard, and could not get up, scrabbling feebly at the sand.

Grey eyes burning bright, Ariciel saw the remaining dwarfs approach. Her Green Fire did not seem to have its usual effect on the enemies. Or maybe it did, and the Dwarfs were tough enough to soak up the damage she was doing. There was a small sound behind her. Twisting around quickly, she saw… nothing. A new threat? She turned back to the approaching Dwarfs, letting loose another bolt. Her energy was running out, and she prepared to turn to her Bear form. Suddenly, she became aware of a low, rumbling noise, coming from her left. Daring to look, she saw a small gray cat sitting on the sand, sunning itself. It was purring! This was stupid. She shot another bolt of fire at the Dwarfs, and one stumbled and was jumped by Bannog and Joran. No tiny kitten should produce such a loud noise! She looked back at the Dwarfs. They had slowed down. The purring became louder, and louder, till the ground shook. Everything seemed to slow down. Her eyelids were heavy, and she had to struggle… to keep… awake. Ariciel fell to her knees. So sleepy. Must. Not…

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and opened her eyes, to see a tall, slender woman with long blonde hair bending over her.

“Awake, daughter of the Kel’dorei.”

Ariciel blinked. “Elune?”

She fell silent, but the woman laughed quietly.

“Our names may be similar, but I am no goddess. Awake. Your friends need you.”

Ariciel raised herself. Around her, her company was slowly waking up, as she was. The two remaining Dwarfs lay on the ground a way off, snoring quietly. She looked again at the woman, and suddenly understood.

“You are the Gray Cat. A Human shapeshifter!”

The Gray cat smiled. “Close enough. I have come to take my boys home.”

Joran walked up. “Hello Graycat. Mordor Central then?”

“Yes. You know what to do. I will open the portal. But first things first.” She pointed at the still shape of Interalia. “The little woman needs attention from one skilled in healing.”

Ariciel looked once, and ran to Interalia. She had had a hard blow to the midsection, and was lying on the ground, groaning with pain. Ariciel laid a hand on her forehead, and the Gnome opened her eyes. She struggled to speak.

“Aquaregis?”

“Ssh. He’s fine. Don’t try to talk.”

Ariciel took a deep breath, and let her healing magic flow. To save her master, Interalia had attacked, and defeated, a foe more than three times her own weight, even though she wasn’t really his slave. The injuries were large, but not complicated. A few broken ribs, and a broken arm. Ariciel kept up the flow of energy until Interalia sighed, and laid down her head. Ariciel dug in her pack for her sleeping fur, rolled it up and put it under Interalia’s head. She still did not like her much, and wouldn’t even consider coming within arms’ reach of her, but she could not deny that the little rogue had courage. She stood up, and looked at the others, who were standing a way away, looking at her.

“She’s alright. Just let her sleep for a bit, and she’ll be right as rain.” Her gaze drifted from the Gray Cat to Ramoc and Joran. “You’re leaving aren’t you?”

Ramoc smiled. “I’m afraid so. This place may be unhealthy for us, but the Gray Cat will not last more than an hour here. I’m sorry I won’t know how the tale ends.”

“Easy,” said Bannog. “Everybody goes home.”

Ariciel looked at him. Did he mean he was coming home with her, or that everybody went to their respective homes? She studied his face, but could not tell. She saw that both Joran and Ramoc were laying down their weapons and armour. Joran held his sword out to Bannog.

“I want you to have this. It’s a very good sword.”

Bannog gave him a look. “I know it is. It’s worth ten times as much as all my armour. I can’t accept that!”

Joran pressed it into Bannog’s hand. “That’s why I want you to have it. It’s no use to me where I’m going. It’d fall apart in a week. If I give it to you, you’ll put it to good use. Also, I need to lighten the load for the Gray Cat.”

Ramoc interrupted. “While we’re giving presents,” he pointed at a surprisingly large number of daggers, throwing spikes, small bottles and a short sword, neatly laid out on his cloak. “Tell the little girl to take from this what she needs. I’ve got another stash near Mordor Central. Oh.” He added a large silver coin to the collection, and grinned. “That will annoy her. It really will.”

The Gray cat raised her hands. “It is time to say goodbye.”

Bannog shook hands with Joran, then with Ramoc. Ariciel hugged them both. Without a noise, without any fuss, a portal opened in front of them. They could dimly see through it, a large building, standing on top of strange black rocks with white stripes painted on them. Ramoc waved, and went through. Joran followed him. The Gray Cat turned round to them, said a single word, “Farewell,” and turned into a small gray cat again. She hopped through the portal. The portal shrunk, disappeared, and they were alone.

Behind them, Interalia stirred, then got up. “What’s going on?” She realised. “I’m healed! Who did that?”

Bannog pointed at Ariciel. Interalia gaped.

“You don’t even like Gnomes!”

“You’re right. But I couldn’t leave you to die. That’d be littering!”

Interalia scowled. “Thanks, I suppose.”

“I can knock you over again if you prefer.”

Bannog stepped between them. “Right. We’re down one warrior, one rogue and one… blue thing. Where next?”

“Not for long,” said Aquaregis. From his pocket he produced a small bit of glass, and concentrated. The magic flowed again, dissolving the glass. Then, a voidwalker’s deep voice was heard.

“I do not like this place.”

Bannog stared. “My goodness! Another one just like the first one!”

“Not so. This is Thuljuk! Good as new!”

“But he was killed!”

“Only his hither form was destroyed. Thuljuk does not really exist in this place, but in his Daemon World. Think of it as putting your arm through a hole in the wall.”

“So this is his other arm?”

Aquaregis sighed. “Thuljuk has many… arms. This is where the analogy fails. Never mind.”

Interalia, meanwhile, had discovered the presents Ramoc had left for her, and was happily hiding knives and nasty sharp things about her person, until her eye fell on the silver coin. She stopped dead, and her hand went to her chest. She took a deep breath.

“My lucky silver piece! You bastard! Out of my bloody bra! I swear, if I ever see him again, I’ll cut things off him till he’s sorry!”

They set off again, directed by Aquaregis. Soon, they turned North into the hills, Aquaregis had been right. There really was a signpost. Ariciel suddenly smiled, dug in her pack and got out her Timbermaw feather. With a bit of string, she attached it to the signpost.

“There. If this place is as easy to find as our Learned Aquaregis says, then Mareva will know where we’ve gone.”

Since there was no other way, they nervously walked up the path. It was sure to be watched if the Yellow Hand was worth anything. Keeping their eyes wide open, they followed the path uphill till they saw the Manor lying in the distance.

Grimsteel Manor was built by Dwarfs, before the Searing Gorge became the desolate wasteland it was now. The view from the top tower must have been magnificent indeed. Aquaregis remembered it from when he was young. Green grass, rolling hills, all gone now. He stared ahead with a grim look on his face. He’d be the last to deny that his Warlock magic was… unpleasant, but at least he would never destroy a fertile valley so completely. The Manor was built into the cliff face, and would probably go on a long way into the mountain. For some reason, rich Dwarfs preferred cavernous halls, which enabled its current occupants to walk about the place without hitting their heads on the ceiling.

Ariciel could see three stories, but there was no telling how many levels were below. She also assumed that the manor would extend quite a bit into the face of the mountain. The front gate was twice the height of a man. She could see no guards, but that didn’t mean a thing. They could be hidden almost anywhere. Ariciel crept forward a bit further, trying see more details. All the windows in the front of the building seemed to be intact. The wood of the shutters was painted and kept in repair. Someone was maintaining this place, or the harsh climate would have turned the place into a ruin.

There was a hissing sound in the air, and arrows fell between them. A loud shout rang in their ears, and three enormous forms ran towards them. From the stories, Bannog recognised them as Ogre-warriors. They wore no armour. They didn’t need it. Their hides were inch-thick. In their massive arms were war hammers and swords. Far behind them a smaller form stood, shooting arrow after arrow at them.

“The shooter’s mine!” shouted Ariciel, and began laying a barrage of fire in the direction of the archer. Thuljuk surged forward, towards the ogres. There was something about the blue giant that made the Ogres want to attack him. Thuljuk wasted no time. His great fists struck the Ogres with incredible force, knocking them over. In his mind, Bannog thanked Joran for the gift of his sword, and attacked. The sword’s balance was superb, and it was razor sharp. While Thuljuk kept pummeling one ogre, Bannog slashed another. Unfortunately, that left one. The third ogre ran straight at Aquaregis, who was pouring his deadly spells into the creature. Interalia ran at it, stabbing with her knives, but the ogre ignored her. As Bannog’s ogre collapsed onto the floor, the third ogre slashed at Aquaregis, who was thrown across the road by the force. Bannog shouted, turned round and attacked the ogre from behind. Joran’s sword easily slid through the thick hide of the creature, and it fell to the ground. Far behind Bannog, the archer collapsed, burnt by Ariciel’s fire. Bannog looked round quickly. No more enemies for now. Ariciel was already on the move, and reached Aquaregis first.

The old Gnome lay on the ground, clutching his stomach. Ariciel kneeled by him. She took one look at him, and her face fell. This was beyond her. Mira might have been able to do something, but the Gnome had almost been cut in half. Aquaregis took one look at Ariciel’s expression. A sad look appeared on his weathered face for a split moment, then his face hardened. He turned his eyes to Bannog, and spoke.

“I regret, Sir Bannog, that I will be unable to fulfill my obligation to you.”

For a moment, Bannog did not know what to say to that. He swallowed.

“I can see that more pressing engagements draw you, Aquaregis. Please consider your obligations fulfilled.” He knelt beside him. “I will take care of Interalia,” he whispered.

Aquaregis smiled through his pain. “She is not bad at heart. Please call her to me, and leave us.”

Bannog looked behind him, where Interalia stood, and motioned her.

“Aquaregis?”

“My girl, I must leave you.” Aquaregis looked at Bannog, and switched to Gnomish. “I do not wish to return to life as one of the Lich King’s meat puppets. Will you do something for me?”

Interalia nodded, biting back tears.

“Can you take something from my pocket without the Big Ones noticing?”

Interalia sniffed. “Them? I could take you out of your coat and they wouldn’t notice.”

“Good. There are three small lead bottles. After I am gone, remember after, here is what I want you to do.”

Bannog kept a discreet distance while the Gnomes spoke together, Interalia holding Aquaregis’ hand. Bannog took a few steps back to where Ariciel stood, and they looked at each other. Ariciel bit her lip, and shook her head. When they looked back, Interalia stood facing them.

“He’s dead. Do you two mind sodding off for a few moments? There’s things I have to do. Gnome things.” Her face was sad, but determined.

Bannog nodded, and he and Ariciel took a few steps back. They both avoided looking, until Interalia joined them. Bannog went down on one knee and looked her in the eyes.

“Are you still with us? We won’t try to stop you if you want to leave. But I did promise Aquaregis I’d look after you.”

Interalia snorted. “I need you lugs to get me out of this dump. I’m still in. Let’s get on with it.”

A little way away, Thuljuk still stood, arms crossed. Interalia pointed at him. “Piss off then. He’s dead.”

“I obey.” The blue form shimmered, and disappeared.

“Right. Were we having a picnic here?”

Ariciel said nothing, and set off in the direction of the Manor.

“Where do you think they are?” asked Bannog.

“Any place that needs cleaning really. Or the kitchen. That’s if they are working as house servants there.” Ariciel swallowed. “Otherwise, the dungeons.”

“Right. How do we get in?”

“I could go ahead and find you an entrance,” said Interalia.

Ariciel gave her a look. “What if you get caught?”

“By a bunch of ogres? That’d be the day!”

“Ogres may not be all that’s in there. There may be Dwarfs or Humans.”

“And? Now if they had Gnome guards, I might be worried. But they don’t seem the type that would hire Gnomes. Bigger is better eh, Longshanks?”

Ariciel smiled sweetly. “There’s no such thing as ‘better’. Just more apt to sneaking about in other people’s homes.”

Bannog rolled his eyes and stepped between the girls. “Right. Interalia, would you be so kind as to investigate a possible entrance for us? Then we can continue this interesting discussion indoors.” He looked round to Ariciel. “Or perhaps not.”

Interalia snorted, and trotted off. Within ten seconds, she was nowhere to be seen. Ariciel looked where she had disappeared.

“I don’t like this. She’ll set the guards on us, or something.”

Bannog took a deep breath. “No she won’t. Whoever is in there, will like Gnomes even less than you do. She’s risking her life doing this.”

“Why are you defending her? She tried to rob you! She’s a thief, and all she wants is to get out of here.”

“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. I want to get out of here. Get into this place, grab your relatives, quick trip to Darnassus, and then home. See if the castle is still standing.”

Ariciel fell silent. She didn’t dare look at Bannog’s face. He was leaving then. She sat down with her back to a boulder, stared into the distance, and waited.

There was a very small noise, and Interalia appeared before them like a ghost. “I’ve found us a way in. Halfway up the mountain, there’s a window that leads to someone’s bedroom. Hasn’t been used for ages. All we need to do is climb up the wall a bit. Oh do be careful though. There’s lots of Ogres about, and a bunch of nasty Human wizards. Not the kind of face I want to see when I’m wounded.”

“Any Elves?”

Interalia smiled at Ariciel. “Would they get their fingernails dirty in a place like this?”

Ariciel grabbed her staff. “I really hope so. Bit pointless otherwise. Let’s move.”

Led by Interalia, they crept towards the East side of the manor, and climbed up the side of the mountain. Interalia stuck her dagger underneath the window and lifted it up. They found themselves in a dusty bedroom. Interalia walked quietly to the door and opened it a crack. She peered out into a long hallway with doors opening left and right. She wondered why this room was unoccupied, as it at least had a window. Hmm. Perhaps that was it. All the doors had heavy bolts. On the outside. Well, then this must be the place where the relatively harmless prisoners were kept. There was also a conspicuous absence of guards. Interalia looked over her shoulder, and whispered.

“I’m going to check out these cells. Back in a tick.”

She stole by the doors, half a dozen on either side. Possibly these were the original servants’ quarters. None of the rooms was occupied. Most of them weren’t even locked, except the last one. Interalia looked over her shoulder, then unlocked the door and peered in. She stared. There was one occupant, strapped into a chair in the middle of the room. He did not need rescuing anymore. A few bits of desiccated skin still clung to the skull, but otherwise the bones were completely bare. The skeleton was of Human size, but it could easily have been an Elf. There wasn’t even a smell anymore. Right. Interalia closed the door. She had very little reason to like lugs, but she didn’t wish this on anyone. Bastards. Quiet as a mouse, she stalked back to join the others.

“Nobody here along that corridor. Where next?”

Ariciel pointed. They went down the other corridor, with Interalia cringing every time the others made a noise. Did those stupid lugs have to make such a racket? They came to another door. Ah. A keyhole. Interalia stood on her toes, and peered through. Oh joy, another corridor. Quietly, she turned the doorknob. Locked. She sighed, and pulled out her rather nice lockpick kit. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any bolts on the outside. With a bit of effort, Interalia managed to open the lock while the Human and the Night-elf were looking at her fingers. At least neither of them told her to hurry up. The door opened, and Interalia sneaked through, looking this way and that for movement. Nothing. So far so good. To their left was a stairway going up. She assumed that the top floor would be reserved for the Lord’s quarters. That could mean that the servants would be up there as well. That Elf seemed to have come to the same conclusion. She pointed at the stairs and they went up. At the top of the stairs, there was another hallway going left into the mountain and right. There was nobody in the hallway, but there was also nowhere to hide if anyone came out of a door. Better fix that. Interalia motioned to the others to wait, and took a deep breath. She was not a magic user as such, but nevertheless she managed to make herself so inconspicuous that even Bannog had to make an effort to see her. Like a ghost, she drifted into the corridor. She stopped by one door, and waited. Nothing stirred inside. Slowly, slowly, she turned the doorknob. The door was not locked, which was good. Taking all the time she needed, she slowly opened the door, then looked inside. Nobody. Good. This room would be their hiding place to return to while they searched the other rooms. She looked up and down the corridor, then dropped out of stealth and waved the others in. Quiet, you bloody lugs! By the Light or lack thereof… You are in someone else’s home, you don’t live here! With the others in the room, Interalia closed the door and whispered.

“You are making too much noise damn you! Now I am going to check out this corridor. Stay here. Don’t even breathe loudly. I will be back.”

Asking herself why she bothered, Interalia crept along the corridor to where she thought the master’s bedroom might be, She found it easily enough, but apparently, it was not yet bedtime, as the room was empty. At least there were signs that this room was used regularly. Someone came round and cleaned it regularly. Now wouldn’t it be nice if that someone were Ariciel’s mum or sister? No, she didn’t believe it. The next room was empty, and the bolt on the outside was not even locked. The next room was strange. It was the standard type for Honoured Guests who might want to wander round the place unless stopped from doing so. From small scratches on the bolt, she could see that it had been used fairly recently. Still, it was unlocked now, and Interalia could almost feel that someone was inside. Holding her breath, she opened the door and peered in. The room was very large, and lit by a few candles in wall-sconces. A tall woman was sitting at a desk, back to the door, reading a large tome. Every few moments, she would hold out her hand, which would glow white. Then, the light would fade again. Interalia watched this for a few seconds. Who was this? The master’s favourite spellcaster maybe? If so, she might be able to tell them where the Night-elves were usually kept. Well, time to get the lugs in. She closed the door. After checking that all the other rooms were also empty, she went back to Ariciel and Bannog.

“I’ve found someone. Looks like a sorceress of some kind, practicing her spells. Rest of this floor is empty.”

Bannog grinned. “Well done, lass! We’ll grab the sorceress and see what she knows.”

Interalia led the way, annoyed with the amount of noise they were making. She scowled. Nothing to be done about it. Once more, she opened the door to the room where the sorceress was still studying her book. This time, Interalia sneaked into the room. Bannog tried to follow, but stepped on the wrong floorboard. It creaked. The sorceress looked up, then started to look round. Interalia rapped on the table with her knife, and the sorceress looked round at the noise. Bannog took his cue. He charged forward, dagger out, and grabbed the woman, putting his hand over her mouth and his dagger on her throat. Ariciel followed him into the room.

“Good afternoon, Lady. Do you like my dagger? It’s very sharp.”

The sorceress’ eyes turned to look at Bannog’s bald head and grim expression. She said nothing. Bannog pressed slightly harder with his dagger.

“I am looking for a pair of Night-elves who were taken here a while ago. My friend will tell you what they look like, and then you can tell me if they are still alive, and if so where they are.”

Ariciel’s voice came from behind. It was shaking. “Bannog, let her go.”

Bannog didn’t move. “What?”

The sorceress took a quick breath.

“Let her go,” repeated Ariciel. “This is Berciel, my sister.”

He looked round, then looked back at the Sorceress’ face. The family resemblance was there. He hesitated a moment, then took his dagger away and released Berciel.

Berciel took a step away, then put her finger to her throat and examined it. A small drop of blood was showing. Then she slowly turned her head round.

“Ariciel?”

“Yes.”

Berciel took a deep breath. “I thought you were dead!”

“I got knocked out and the bandits overlooked me.”

Berciel was shaking with emotion. She didn’t say a word. Bannog’s eyes narrowed. She was wearing a red dress. Her hair was bound in a ponytail. This was wrong. He’d expected either a slave girl pressed into service against her will, or a wrecked little heap of Elf, used for the entertainment of the troops. This woman was neither. She looked a picture of health. She was well fed, well clothed and not even locked in. Finally, she spoke again.

“That was two years ago. You took your time.”

Ariciel stared. “I’ve been searching for two years. And now I’ve found you.”

Bannog moved quietly towards the door, and listened. Slowly, he drew his sword. Interalia had not shown herself. Probably wise. He looked back at Berciel. She did not seem overjoyed to see her long-lost sister.

“You don’t look like you spent all that time searching. Oh, and you have a friend, too! Did you have much trouble getting him to come along?”

Bannog frowned. This went beyond normal Little Sister bitchiness. He glanced at Ariciel’s face, as she looked at him. She was blushing.

“Younger sister, I take it?” Ariciel gave him an uncertain smile, and nodded.

“They do grow up beyond the Infernal Pain In The Arse stage, or so I’ve found.” He shifted his gaze to Berciel. “If they have the time. Do we get her out now, or do we search for your mother first?”

“Don’t bother. Mother is dead.”

Ariciel’s head snapped round, and her face turned pale.

“Dead?”

“Yes. About a year ago, poor thing.” Berciel’s eyes burned. “They were not kind to her.”

“And… you?”

“They never laid a finger on me. You see, blood-mages need to be unspoiled when they make their first kill, for the best result. And I already had some talent, so they thought they’d make a Kel’dorei bloodmage of me.”

Ariciel took a breath and stared hard at her sister.

“And you went along with that? Why?”

“They made me, you stupid cow! What do you think? I had to do it, or they’d torture Mother! Of course, they first had to demonstrate the things they were likely to do if I didn’t cooperate.” Berciel’s eyes narrowed. She bent forward so her face was only a few inches away from Ariciel’s. “Shall I tell you some of the things they did to her? I bet you still think that Kel’dorei don’t get scars, do you? Well think again. Whip an Elf often enough and long enough, and the skin just gives up. Do you know why they hang you upside down when they whip you? You stay conscious for longer.”

Tears were in Ariciel’s eyes, and her jaw quivered, but Berciel had no mercy.

“The very first night, they threw her into a cage, and gave her a knife to kill herself with, if she wanted. But then they told her, if she did, they’d start on me. So she didn’t. Then, they told me to get to work, and if I didn’t finish in time, they’d take it out on Mother. Did I go along? Oh hell yes I did! I worked as hard as I could, but then it would be too late, and they’d torture Mother anyway. And they made me watch. A hundred lashes to either side. And any one I didn’t watch, didn’t count. Do you realise how much a hundred lashes is? When you’re done, there’s hardly any skin left!”

Ariciel was crying, tears streaking down her face, and still Berciel did not relent.

“Then, they gave her to the Yellow Hand. They are the healers. The trainee healers. They would repair her as best they could. Not very pretty, but alive. They always train on prisoners they have no other use for.” Berciel turned away for a second, then looked at Ariciel over her shoulder. “Well, re-attaching severed limbs is not something you want to get wrong on anyone important, is it?”

“They…” Ariciel’s breath came in short gasps.

“They chopped her arm off, then had some wannabe healer re-attach it. She was lucky, I suppose. She had the best in the class. Even in the end, she could still use her fingers a little. Meanwhile, I was cramming the spells into my head as fast as I could, trying to save her more grief. Only twice I made it!” Berciel turned round, facing Ariciel. “All my hard work, and it only got her one night of peace! The other night I made it, she attacked one of the guards with her knife!” Berciel looked at her sister’s face, her expression hard as stone. “They beat her to within an inch of her life. Then they healed her with magic. Then they did it again. And I had the spells ready! She would have had a night of sleep!”

Bannog quietly closed the door. All this shouting was sure to attract attention. Also, they could do this in the unhealthy fresh air, as far as he was concerned. Still, that sister of Ariciel’s would not shut up.

“In the end, you wouldn’t have recognised Mother. Probably gone completely mad by then. And then came the day of my initiation. The day of my first kill. I had to burn someone to death, some worthless prisoner. They made it quite clear what would happen to Mother if I failed. I didn’t disappoint them. I’d gotten good at this sort of thing. I toasted him, and then I was a real blood-mage.” Berciel’s eyes turned to Ariciel. “So then I’d made my first kill, and I no longer needed to be unspoilt. I hadn’t counted on that. Gul’Ruz decided to let his guards have some fun with me.”

Ariciel’s eyes opened wide. “Did you… did they…”

“Hah! The first one that tried, I sucked him dry of all his mana, then blasted his stupid head off. That’s when I found out how the Horde keeps their blood-mages from rebelling. Imagine all the headaches you’ve ever had, all at the same time. Couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t even faint. For all I know all the other guards did rape me. I couldn’t tell. That’s what happens if I use my powers against the Horde.”

“You sucked him dry of mana? How?”

“I can drain people’s mana, and I have a very, very large mana pool, thanks to Lady Iressa’s teachings. I could hold as much mana as she could, before Mother decided enough was enough.”

Ariciel’s breath suddenly stopped, and her expression changed from grief-stricken to… Bannog could not tell what. Harder. Grim. When she spoke, her voice was steady.

“Lady Iressa. You took lessons from her.” It was not a question. “You stupid girl. That sort of magic will get you killed. Mother knew that, so she tried to rescue us from the High-borne. Only to get caught here. If you had told Lady Iressa to get lost, then none of this would have happened.”

“Maybe. I wonder what Iressa would say if she could see me now.”

“Nothing. She is dead. They messed up something big and blew up the entire manor and surroundings. I went back there a few weeks ago. I met Lady Iressa’s ghost. I destroyed her with Moonfire. Your teacher is gone.”

“Oh. Well, I have better teachers here than that whiny woman anyway.”

Bannog tried to see where in the room Interalia was, but couldn’t. Then, he looked back at Berciel. His sword was in his hand, point downwards, partly hidden behind his leg.

“You’ve joined the Horde.”

“Oh well spotted. I can see that my sister likes her men to have a little brain. Just a little.”

Bannog let that pass. He realised that they might not be leaving with this Elf after all. Did Ariciel realise? One look told it all. her staff, which she had been leaning on, was now in her hand. Berciel hadn’t noticed.

“Anyway, Mother was there when I graduated. When I woke up the next morning, she wasn’t. Dagger straight in the heart. Stupid woman should have offed herself the first night, and saved herself, and me, a lot of grief. Once the Horde’s got you, there’s nothing you can do anyway.”

Bannog sensed that Ariciel was moving. He held Berciel’s gaze, keeping her attention distracted.

“I take it that you don’t intend to come with us then, even after everything they did to you and your mother.”

Berciel smiled. “Do you think a sword screams when it’s put to the fire? Do you think I’d be here now if I’d tried to resist? Oh, and the things I can do now! Back with those cretins in Darkshore, all I’d have been able to do is wash pots and sweep the floor! Tempting though that may be, I think I’ll stay here.”

“Right. Then I think we’ll be leaving.”

Berciel moved a few steps away, and raised her hands.

“What makes you think I’ll let you?”

Bannog sighed. “I’m big and strong. I’ve killed mages before. You are soft and squishy. You presumably want to live to see another day. We want to leave. Sit back down and we all live. Try to stop us and you’ll die.”

“Hah! You would try to kill me? My sister wouldn’t let you.” Berciel smiled sweetly at Ariciel. “She still hopes she can cure me.”

Ariciel’s face showed no emotion at all. “Try me. We’re leaving, sister.”

“Oh, I won’t try. Trying is for beginners. First, I’ll take care of that warrior of yours. It’ll be fun to watch you heal him while I break him. And then, when he is dead, I’ll hand you over to the Yellow Hand. I hear they are working on a cure for severe burns. Only it doesn’t always work properly.”

Right, thought Bannog. The fun is about to start. What do we do with mages? Without any warning, he charged at Berciel, planning to punch her lights out so they could leave in peace. Berciel was quicker than he was. Her hands shot forward, and Bannog was lifted clean off his feet and thrown back.

“You haven’t killed any real mages, have you? I can take care of you and a dozen more like you.”

Ariciel gasped. “Stop it! Don’t make me…”

“Oh please do. Remember, I have plenty of power and the mana pots to back me up if I need to.”

A small voice piped up behind Berciel. “Uh, correction. I have your mana pots. Oh Rici? Want a drink?”

“I’ll eat ooze before I drink anything made by those filthy Ogres here.”

“Suit yourself!”

As Berciel watched, Interalia’s hand moved quicker than sight. The little bottles smashed against the wall. Blue liquid dripped down. Berciel gave a shout and her hand shot forward. An invisible force picked Interalia up and smashed her into a cupboard behind her. It collapsed and fell on her. Berciel spun round, and a vicious stream of energy shot out towards Bannog.

Bannog cried out. Being a Warrior, he had grown accustomed to things hurting. Blades, arrows, blows. He could generally ignore those and keep fighting. This was worse. He could feel Berciel’s spell tear away at his armour, his flesh, his mind. He tried to get up, and endure the pain. The sister-thing just laughed, and redoubled her efforts. Bannog fell to his knees, crying out. All his strength seemed to have left him. He could not move, only suffer. Suddenly, he felt another influence. With his last strength, he looked up to see Ariciel casting spells of healing and protection on him. She was conserving as much of her energy as she could, to keep it up for longer. This was battle-healing. No finesse, no energy wasted. Just get your warrior back on his feet.

“Is that all you can do, sister? Let’s see if you can keep up!”

Berciel’s spell ceased for a moment, only to restart as an even stronger one. Bannog collapsed, falling down with his sword underneath him. His armour hung in tatters around his shoulders. The pain was now so intense that nothing else could enter his mind, too great to ignore, too great even to endure. He rolled round on the floor. His eyes met Ariciel’s. He thought of her in the hands of the Horde healers, being hurt and inexpertly healed, over and over again. Ever since the blood-spattered afternoon in Dun Modr, when he had looked into the eyes of a Dwarf Warrior waiting, longing, for death, he had known that some day, he would end up like that. He looked at Ariciel’s eyes. Today would not be that day. He did the last thing he could do.

He embraced the pain.

Rather than try to push it away, not feel it, he concentrated on it, analysed it in all of its aspects. The vicious air-waves that cut him like knives. The flame that blistered his skin, the cruel energy that seared his very mind. Then, he took it for his own. He could think. Rage burned in him. He became aware that his sword was still in his hand. The arrogant blood-mage hadn’t even thought to take it away from him. Still, he suffered, but the suffering had become a source of energy for him. He must redirect it at its source. Kill it. His eyes found Ariciel’s. Then, he looked in Berciel’s direction, and back at Ariciel. She nodded. Still keeping her eyes on him, she took a step back, preparing her most powerful Green Fire, as if to cast it at him. At the last moment, with a terrible cry, she turned round to the woman who had been her sister, and let fly. The bolt hit Berciel in the stomach, and she stumbled backward, looking at Ariciel, unbelieving.

“You shot me!” cried Berciel, touching her stomach. Her dress had been burned away and her skin was raw, but she stood. She still stared at Ariciel, who prepared another shot.

Using reserves he never knew he had, nor needed before now, Bannog got up on his feet. Raising his sword in both hands, he charged at Berciel, and slashed out. The blade connected between Berciel’s head and her shoulder, cutting diagonally down, through bones, spine and muscle. It left Berciel’s body at her waist. For a shattered moment, Bannog’s face was close to Berciel’s, her expression one of shock, unbelief that her own sister would betray her like this, a reflection of the sister Ariciel must have loved enough to chase after her all this time. Then, she collapsed in a bloody heap and was gone.

Bannog leaned on his sword, letting out a low groan. He could move, with difficulty. There were blisters on his arms, cuts on his chest. Hid head throbbed, but the spell of torment had vanished. He looked round at Ariciel, who had fallen to her knees, looking at the ground. Her long white hair hid her face. As Bannog watched, she raised her head and let out a long howl, a sound of pure agony and despair, utterly alone. Bannog stared at her, wanting to comfort her, but knowing that this was too much. Instead, he turned round and walked over to where Interalia was buried under the furniture. Muffled noises came from under the pile of driftwood.

“Bitch… bitch… bitch!”

Ah. Must be alive then. Bannog put his tormented muscles to the test, and heaved the cupboard off her, then picked her up in his arms as if she were a child.

“Put me down! I’m fine. Get your hands off me!”

“Everything alright?”

“Onkruid vergaat niet,” said Interalia.

“I’m sure.” He turned back to Ariciel, who was on her hands and knees, body shaking in great sobs. He kneeled in front of her, and put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him.

“We need to get out of here. Someone is sure to show up.”

Ariciel nodded feebly, and picked up her staff. Then, she put her hand on Bannog’s bare shoulder and concentrated, putting the last of her mana into healing spells. Bannog smiled.

“Thank you.”

Interalia was kneeling by Berciel’s corpse. Well, she must have some nice jewellery. Bannog was about to make a comment, when he noticed the small cloud of smoke that was coming from Berciel’s empty eye socket. Interalia was very carefully pouring liquid into the eye. She finished, then looked round at Bannog. Her voice was very quiet.

“Nobody’s rezzing this bitch.” She showed Bannog the bottle. “This is an Aquaregis special. Actual aqua regis, water of kings. It’ll dissolve a human body completely. This is just about enough to do a skull.” She threw the bottle away. “Rici won’t want to meet her again,” she said.

Bannog moved between Berciel’s corpse and Ariciel, and stared at Interalia. The Gnome had just poured the most corrosive liquid known in Azeroth into Ariciel’s sister’s eye. Amazingly, she’d done it to be nice. Not a bad girl, at heart.

“Aren’t you getting any of those rings?”

“She needs them more where she’s gone. Things are probably cursed anyway.”

He led the way, out of the door, with Ariciel following him, shoulders sagging, dragging her feet. As quickly as they could, they made their way back to the bedroom where they had entered the manor. As they shut the door behind them, they could hear running feet and voices in the corridor. Interalia ran for the window and leapt through. Ariciel simply stood, listening to the noise, until Bannog pushed her out. They ran back to the road, Interalia in front, Bannog keeping Ariciel in front of him, until they came to the mouth of a cavern. It had been closed up with planks, and a door was in it. Beside the entrance were banners on poles, showing a yellow ogre claw on red. Ariciel stopped dead. Slowly, she turned round to Bannog. She reached in her pocket and pressed some small bottles into his hand.

“You’ll have to do without healing for a while, I’m not in the mood.”

As she spoke, her magic was already flowing, and moments later, a bear ran towards the door, with that deceptive slowness of the large and powerful. Bannog motioned Interalia to follow, and ran after her. Bear-Ariciel ran towards the door, not even slowing down. It was a good door, but it had never been built to withstand the onslaught of the half-a-tonne of pure anger that was Ariciel. She charged straight through, splinters flying everywhere.

Inside, a lesson was going on. A luckless man was strapped to a chair, his leg tied to a peg in the ground. An ogre was standing over him with a sword, while all round, mages stood and watched as one of their number prepared to heal the prisoner. The prisoner stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes. All other eyes were on Ariciel, who slowly walked forward to the healing teacher. His eyes bulged, as he watched Ariciel’s teeth and eyes. He started to speak phrases of magic, protective spells, warding spells, incredibly fast.

Ariciel roared. Green light bristled on her fur, her eyes glowing a relentless white. The walls of the cavern echoed her voice. Then, she looked at the mage-healer, who had shrunk back, quietly whimpering. Ariciel raised herself on her hind legs, leapt forward and tore the mage limb from limb. The ogre stirred, and ran forward, sword raised, bellowing. There was a hiss, and the ogre fell dead, one of Interalia’s throwing knives sticking in his throat. Ariciel roared again, and charged at the rest of the trainee mages, blood spattering on her fur, dismembering any who came within the reach of her claws or teeth. When all the mages were dead, Bear-Ariciel raised herself on her hind legs, and roared again. Half way through, her voice changed, and the roar changed into the high-pitched yell of an Elf woman. She looked round at the carnage with a terrible look in her eyes, and wiped a bloody hand on her trousers.

“That felt good,” she said.

Bannog walked over to the prisoner, noting the many scars on his wrists, arms, hands, legs. Nothing on his face showed that he had even noticed what had happened. Bannog waved his hand in front of the man’s eyes. No reaction. He laid his hand on the man’s forehead, the other on his chin. Bannog closed his eyes, and his arms moved quickly. The tormented body sagged.

“May you find peace,” he said.

There was a noise at the door, and in stormed a group of the ogres of the Manor’s guard. They took one look at Bannog, and charged at him. Bannog shouted, and lashed out with his sword. Soon, he was surrounded. His sword swept round in vicious half-cirles, each stroke finding its mark with deadly accuracy. He knew he could not win, but he would take as many of these brutes with him as he could. With a cry, Ariciel charged in with her staff, but against the ogres, it was no use. One of them turned round, punched her in the stomach, then a fist landed on her head. She fell down and didn’t get up again. One of the ogres grabbed her by a leg and dragged her off. With a desperate cry, Bannog tried to follow her, but it was no use. A small, shrill voice rang in his ear.

“Get out! Run! You can’t help her if you’re dead! Run, you stupid lug!”

Bannog did not want to see the wisdom in this, but had to. With a cry, he turned and ran towards the exit, cursing himself as he went. Simply running away was all he could do. He knew it. Interalia was ahead of him, sprinting to the end of the path as fast as she could. Bannog overtook her, unceremoniously grabbed her around the waist and ran off with her, the two last ogres who could still move pursuing him.

The blue woman stared at the spectacle, stroking her chin with a red bird’s feather. This was most curious. A Human male running towards her, clutching a Gnome girl in one arm, sword in the other. Ogres pursuing them. Her head tilted to one side. She decided she didn’t like the ogres. Speaking words in her alien language, she touched her totems. Strength of Earth. Fire. Healing stream. Good. Her blue shining eyes narrowed as the fire totem started spitting bolts at the pursuing ogres, and she shot lightning bolts from her hands. The ogres did not let even that distract them from their chase, until they suddenly found they could not move anymore, and collapsed. The big Human set the Gnome on the ground, then looked up at her.

“Dyonis A’ka. My name is Mareva. I presume you are Bannog of Caer Bannog?”


Gul’Ruz watched two of his ogre guards enter. He could see they had been fighting. Between them, they were carrying a small, white-haired Elf girl.

“Healers all dead. This what we found.”

One of Gul’Ruz’ heads scowled at his guards. These miserable sods would need to be punished. Catch a small Elf and let the big Warrior escape? He walked forward, grabbed a handfull of white hair and pulled up the semi-conscious face of the Elf. His other head stared at her, considering. She could probably tell him many interesting things, as well as entertain him for hours. But much as he liked the song of the whip, the smell of the hot irons on skin, and the screams, he had not got to where he was now by having the wrong sense of priority. The Kel’dorei bloodmage was dead, and he who killed her had known how to do it. She was quite unsalvageable. Many of his healer-mages had also perished. He had no time for fun.

“Soften her up a bit, then put her in a cage. I will deal with her in the morning.”

Gul’Ruz took his war-hammer, then walked off to organise the hunt.


Copyright: © 2008,2009,2010 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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