Lay Me Low

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Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Fri Oct 11, 2013 3:40 pm

Prelude
Co-written by Annalea & Tarquin, w/ assist from Bricu

Summer

She’s mostly tuned the voices out. The window is open because it’s a fine summer day, and the breeze twisting through Hearthglen brings hints of green, growing things shoving their way out of the ground. Living green growing things, that is, not the rotters that clawed from the graves only a few years ago. The land is on the mend, the day is warm and the breeze is cool.

It’s a fine day for visiting neighbors, which is what’s going on below. Someone’s come to talk to Tarquin, by his carriage he must be one of the Argent Dawn officers. They’re jawing away about the town, business, and any number of other things. Tarq’s low Northern, hill-country burr rises and falls against the officer’s brisk, clipped Lordaeranian. Commoner and noble come together to talk about preparations for Hearthglen’s Fire Festival, and the amusing thing is, the officer defers to Tarq. Anna can hear it in the way he pauses for approval, or the slight rushed cadence when Tarquin makes an amiable challenge to a proposal.

If Tarq needs her, he’ll shout, but she’s content to let them haggle while she studies her newest prize from the south. The last few pub nights have been like Winter Veil, with Kyr slipping her artifacts she and Rhett have found in the ruins of Pandaria. The newest is a medallion chiseled from pale stone. The front held a gem once, but its setting sits empty. She’s taken a rubbing of it, and intends to ask Bricu to cut something that will fit. Runes cover the back, and Annalea sings softly as she fills their grooves with shadow.

Thud. Thud. Rolllllll.


The lump of darkness in the jar throws itself against the side. It does this often, when it thinks she’s not looking (she’s always looking.) She lets it knock the jar onto its side, lets it ooze its way around like one of those contests of strength at the Darkmoon Faire: men inside giant wheels, throwing their weight against the walls to roll it along. Only this is a piece of sha-essence, and rolling itself off the table to shatter on the floor is not an option. She stretches forward and plucks it up, gives the jar a shake. “The hell do you think you’re doing?”

It ignores her. Most times it will shape itself to her fingers, or collapse back into a sullen puddle. Now it takes the new height to yearn away from her. Towards the window.

A laugh floats up from below -- the men sharing a hearty chuckle.

Sometimes, when Harvey watches birds and squirrels playing outside, he’ll scrabble at the glass. The sha essence does much the same now, tendrils extending to paw at its prison.

They’re farewelling down there, as she brushes the curtain aside to see. Firm handshakes, a clap on the back, one last light-hearted remark. The officer’s insignia catches the sunlight; he’s an oft-decorated veteran. He’s just come back from a stint in the south, she knows, and watches as he leaves for clues to what this little bastard might be reacting to. Is he in the early stages of infection? And which? Anger and violence are the most likely candidates, though with the reports of Horde movements, hatred wouldn’t be a far stretch. Or doubt, if he fucked up a plan. She crosses fear and doubt off the list, at least for now. From this distance, he walks too easy for either of those.

Tarquin watches him go. He pitches the dogend of his cigarette to the ground and turns to come inside, a smirk playing about his lips. He glances up to where Anna stands and winks. “Awright, Annie?” he calls.

She’s about to say yes, to tell him she’s learned something interesting about his friend, there, when the jar trembles. Annalea glances at it, and her heart sinks. “You’d better come up here,” she says.

His smile is gone, replaced by that grim, cold expression he rarely lets anyone see. She’s seen it only a few times herself, when bad news breaks on him like a sudden storm. It’s the tight-eyed, thin-lipped face of the killer that he is, and then -- blink -- it changes. Serious, still, and worried at her tone, but there’s light in his eyes again as he heads for the front door.

In its prison in her hands, the shadow follows Tarquin’s progress through the house.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Fri Oct 11, 2013 3:40 pm

“Funny,” he tells her. “I feel na diff’rent.” He’s sat in a chair like he’s at the barber, head tilted back slightly, pond-water still. Much like the barber, actually; a place where someone puts a sharp knife to your neck to do delicate work and you have to trust them with it.

But it’s Annie, which makes all the difference. “You won’t. Nobody does, exactly.” She’s standing at her work-bench, hair pinned up, mixing something viscous in a small pot. “It’s not...possession, or anything like that. A demon on your shoulder whispering into your ear until you crack. Nothing so obvious.”

“I widna call wha’ happened wi’ Tymara subtle,” Tarquin points out. She doesn’t turn to look at him, and keeps her voice dry and dispassionate. Just explaining the facts, good alchemist that she is. It helps.

“Not in the end, no. But it’s not about subtlety. It’s about origin.” She drops something into the pot, and it hisses very briefly before she clamps a lid on it. “Lore didn’t see a difference in her anger and the Sha’s anger, because to her, there was no difference. So you won’t–”

“Annie, she lost her fuckin’ shite.” Trying to keep his tone light, just having a little banter while she gets to work, but he knows what he saw. Tymara was his damn project then.

Annie pauses and then turns around, holding a thin metal rod, blackened and pitted on one end from years of stirring deadly little mixtures. He wonders what her expression was for the few seconds before she turned round. “Here, try this.” She balances the stirring stick on one finger, where it wobbles up and down slightly. “The Sha got into her head and pushed her along, yeah? Threw her off of true.”

The stirring-stick slides up the groove of her thumb and forefinger, the blackened end wobbling crazily, only Annie’s light grip preventing it from falling to the floor. “I seem ta recall that, aye.” His sarcasm doesn’t quite bite; there’s something hypnotic in the wobbling bit of truesilver, or whatever it is.

“Until it took over entirely.” She gives the stick a little twist and whispers a syllable below the range of his hearing, and when she lets go it floats in the air, black end upright. “But it wasn’t pulling from the end. It was sitting in the center, do you see? Where Lore was.” Where you are, her eyes say, and Tarquin stares at her, turning it over in his brain, until he gets it.

“So yir sayin’ what the Sha wants me ta feel…”

“You feel as if it’s yours.” Annie snatches the floating stirring-stick out of the air. “It changes your fulcrum. From where you sit, Tarq, there’s no difference between your thoughts and your passenger’s.”

Tarquin chews on that, looking past his -- past Annie’s shoulder with glassy eyes. It might be the most insulting fucking thing he’s ever had done to him. He’s been jailed and blackmailed and tortured; had clerics crawl inside his brain and use him for a manikin; felt himself made helpless by circumstance and the actions of his enemies. But even at his most feeble, he’s been able to think. And now, he’s told, he can’t trust his own thoughts. Because they might not be his.

“Well.” He focuses, looks at Annie, fairly certain it’s not the Sha’s clever plan to make him think he’s going to think his way out of it. “What’re we goin’ ta do about it?”

Maybe it’s the thoughtless we, or the gormless look on his face, but that draws out Annie’s smile. Her smirk, actually, arch and crooked, a woman with a thousand crowns on the dice table and the certain knowledge that she’s coming up sixes. “What do you think, Tarq?” She cups him under the chin with gloved fingers, raises his face to hers. “We’re going to find a way to beat the little bastard.”
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Fri Oct 11, 2013 3:40 pm

Three weeks of piecemeal treatments, and it’s come down to digging around in his head. She’s gone through every trinket Kyr’s brought in, designed a few of her own. She’s gotten herself elbows-deep in sha-ling guts to tear out what passes for their hearts so she could chop them up and put them in a potion. They’ve all worked, to some degree or another, but it’s all mitigation and no eviction. It’s enough to make her scream, but she can’t let him see that.

She yanked the sha out of Lore, after all, did it while the woman was kicking the shit out of all of them in a cavern twisting beneath Darnassus. Tarq’s just sitting here, and though she knows the string he’s fidgeting with is deadly in those strangler’s fingers, the worst he’s doing with it is teasing the fucking cat. She’s better than this thing, hasn’t she proven that? Smarter than it, able to find it and root it out and keep it in a jar like a firefly that refuses to drop dead.

The essence in the jar vibrates beside her. Like it enjoys her frustration.

“Oh, fuck you,” she mutters.

Tarq lets Harvey have the string. “What wis that, Annie?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Lie back.”

He does as she asks, arranging himself on the cot as best he can while she ejects Harvey and shuts the door. They both agreed they’d rather not do this in their own bedroom. She knows from experience what a bitch it is to get blood out of a mattress; Elune only knows what sort of psychic stains sha residue might leave. She makes a mental note to burn the cot once this is done, maybe after asking Threnny to give it a good cleansing.

“Is it goin’ ta hurt, doctor?” He asks it playfully, but there’s real concern there. Mindfuckery is serious. Mindfuckery done wrong can leave echoes that don’t surface until years after the fact. Done extremely wrong, it can leave the target a drooling mess. (Or extremely right, she supposes, depending on the target and the reasons.)

But Annalea’s not a fuck-up, and while she’s a good alchemist and an outstanding fucking bard, this is her calling.

“It won’t hurt,” she says, and passes her hand over his eyes. “Besides, for most of it you’ll be asleep.” There’s a spell hidden in the word and the motion, a suggestion she planted this morning, while he slept for real. She’d buried it in a song, and she picks up that melody now as Tarquin’s breathing evens into the long, slow, rhythm of deep sleep.

The shadows come to her, her shadows, not these tainted sha ones, and she guides them as she sings. They become a net, a spiderweb, a shroud, and she drapes it carefully, tenderly, over Tarquin’s face. His breath makes the dark not-cloth flutter. She stands behind him, the notes of her song climbing an octave as she touches his temples. The song is as complex as the shadow-weaving, and someone who knew a thing or two about notes and their relationships might, just might, see those same patterns in the warp and weft of the cloth.

Then she’s in his head, in Tarquin’s head where he hides all his secrets, all the things he’ll never say -- to the Riders, to Bricu, to her, to anyone, and she thrills with it. She could go looking, she could know all those unknowable things, and he’d never be the wiser. She could do it, she could bury her tracks and no one would ever know, because she’s that fucking good, and --

That’s not mine. That’s not me.


It’s the pull of a snagged thread, the twang of a note just slightly off-key, and it tells her that thought wasn’t entirely her own. Oh, partly, sure. She is good, maybe even that fucking good. The temptation is real, too: one hundred percent Annalea al’Cair nosiness rearing its head. But the feeling is wrong somehow. Eagerness where she ought to feel anticipation, contrariness where there ought to be a twinge (just a twinge) of guilt.

This must be the sha at work, then, riding the connection between herself and Tarquin to see what it can twist. Maybe it’s still twisting to his psyche, though, and that’s why she can tell the difference. Doesn’t matter, really, not right now. Best act before it figures out it’s not fucking with Tarq and changes its tack.

When next Tarquin inhales, he sucks the shroud inward. In, and in, and in, until he’s swallowed the whole goddessdamned thing. Annalea sings it into place inside his head, chasing the sha’s tail through his thoughts until she can trap it in her strange little net. Images flash by -- people she knows, people she doesn’t, blood and schemes, the glitter of coin, the tug of a garrotte against an unknown throat, a flash of fingers twined in hair the color of leaves in summer. So many voices, so many faces, a tide of emotions, their currents changing too fast for her to interpret.

The sha throws open doors she wants so badly to peek into, but she doesn’t, she doesn’t; she chases it with the net of shadow in her hands, ready to throw.

In their spare bedroom, the shadows are so thick around them both, it might as well be midnight. The noonday sun tries to stream in through the windows, but it’s stopped by the darkness Annalea sings into being. The aria pours forth from her throat, though her eyes stare sightlessly ahead. On the cot, his head nestled in her hands, Tarquin sleeps on.

Within, Annalea chases the sha-ling into a bare little room in Tarquin’s mind, traps it in a corner, and sends the net sailing over it. It howls as it goes down in a tangle of limbs and tail and odd protrudling crests. She backs away and slams the door, throws every lock she can will into being, and hopes it will buy them both some time.

But Tarquin’s never met a lock he can’t pick, and this thing has been riding in his head for Elune knows how long.

It probably knows how to pick them, too.

--

The song comes to an end, the shadows melt away. Annalea comes back to herself first and slumps over the cot, panting. When she can stand again, she crosses to the mirror and composes herself, willing the fear out of her eyes before she turns back toward Tarquin. She hums another tune, passes her hand back the other way, and now he’s looking at her, instantly awake.

“Sun’s moved,” he says. “How long wis I out?”

“An hour, maybe. How do you feel?”

“Same’s when I went under, exceptin’ my mouth feels like I’ve been lickin’ a murloc’s arse. The fuck did yeh pour down my throat?” He holds up a hand before she can speak. “Nah, nah, dinna tell me.”

“I’ll go put some coffee on, then, so you can get rid of that taste.”

“Only tell me there’s whisky fir it too.”

“Fucking right, there is.”

He catches her hand before she goes. “Annie? Did it…”

“For now,” she says, and he nods, resigned. It’s tiring, all this delaying. The only reason she’s certain that neither of them have been infected by Despair or Doubt is that they keep fucking going. That they’re using the time being bought rather than giving in. Ruling out two of the sha is better than having all six in play, at least, but he has symptoms of none, and it makes no sense.

While the water boils, she sifts through the mail. Doings in Stormwind, mostly, Merchants’ Guild notices, invitations for both of them to North Corner gatherings, bills. She sets those aside for later and turns to the field reports: Kyr, Lore, and Bricu today, checking in with what they’ve learned down in the south. Kyr and Lore write of troop movements and skirmishes between Horde and Alliance forces. Bricu’s sent a few terse pages about the Shado-Pan, and what he’s learned about their last emperor…

Pride
, he’s written, and she can hear the sneer in it. Shaohao purged himself of all the other fucking burdens, and all that time was propping himself up thinking that he’d done good. When he severed Pandaria, he realized his mistakes, but it was too late to defeat Pride... So now we get to clean up the mess. Like usual.

She puts the letter down with shaking hands. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, hell.”
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Fri Oct 11, 2013 3:41 pm

Fall

Whenever Annie brings him out of the dark, something comes up with him; loose memories, floating on the surface of his mind like pond scum. It’s the book con this time, and wasn’t that a pretty thing? Silly wee game, made it up as he went along, but he cleared seven-fifty and pinned a real job to Bolfry without lifting a finger. Put one over on Tymara, too, which doesn’t happen every day. Aye, that’s why he’s in charge–

Tarquin shakes his head. “That’s loud,” he says. Meaning the little fucker curled up in his head, patting him on the back with his own hand, reminding him at every turn how much better he is at this than anyone else.

“Well, sorry.” Annie’s at her bench, clearing out the rubbish of whatever poultice has been putting him to sleep these last couple months. She can’t sing his passenger down anymore; it’s gotten too antsy, and so she gets alchemical. Truth be told, he hadn’t even noticed the noise of it.

“No’ – never mind it.” Tarquin sits up, grimacing at that hangover taste in his mouth, and reaches for the water. “How long?”

“Couple hours. I didn’t really keep count.” Annie sweeps used beakers and rods and spoons into a tub of some solution and turns, peeling off her gloves. “Six now, so – huh. Three hours, three and a half.”

Tarquin closes his eyes as he swills water around his mouth. “Damnit. Lot ay shite can happen in three an’ a half hours.”

“Yeah, you missed it. Fordring came by, with the Shado-Pan. Get your coat, we’re all going to prison.” Annie’s clever mouth, fair to say, is one of the reasons he was drawn to her in the first place. Just this moment the charm’s lost on him. They look at each other for a bare second and then he heaves to his feet with a groan.

“I’ll need an’ come up wi’ somethin’ soon, is all I’m sayin’. Hearthglen half the bloody month now, the unwashed masses’ll start askin’ questions.” He moves to the kitchen to put on coffee, raising his voice to call back to the lab. “Say naught ay wha’ they’re gettin’ up ta without me, either. Likely burn half the fuckin’ city down. Again.”

Annie says something back, he doesn’t quite catch, frowning in puzzlement at the coffee...thing. Something just happened, he wasn’t sure what. He was missing something, and it was on the tip of his tongue. “Bollocks,” he mutters. Annie’s footsteps come in behind him. “What’d yeh say?”

“Nothing.”

“Nah, I dinna hear yeh right, what’d yeh say?” He turns, coffee pot in hand. Annie’s standing the doorway with her arms crossed on her scuffed vest, looking tired as all hell. It’s still nagging at him, something he was saying, maybe, but he rips his mind back to the present.

“I said, nobody’s asking questions, but they know something’s going on. Probably figure it’s just work.” She offers a tired smile. “Davie was prodding at me the other day. Said he heard a rumor you’re training a secret army of cutthroats for Fordring, to take back Lordaeron by stealth.”

“Huh. David Langston, intelligencer.” He gets the water in the pot, strikes a match and gets it hissing. Clever little gnomish thing; sometimes he figures that coffee pot and good Westfall tobacco are all that stand between Stormwind and anarchy. Which is to say, coffee, smokes, and him...Annie’s still looking at him. “What?”

“It’s not getting any easier, Tarq,” she says, with some reluctance.

“Be a funny fuckin’ job if it did, huh?” She doesn’t get the humor, apparently. “Well maybe I shid ought an’ do it. See if Fordring’ll pay fir me ta mob up, move some Auld Town swells up here ta take the silver. Davie’s oan the inside track here.”

Forced smile from Annie, which digs at him, but that could be on account he’s still annoyed about whatever it is he forgot to say. Or did say. Which is it? “Tarq.” He grunts. “What were you thinking about when you woke up?”

“World domination? Or maybe coffee. One ay the twa.” Annie’s still looking at him, all hard-faced and grim like he bollocksed something up. “What the fuck, Annie?”

“Professional question, Tarq. About the fucking Sha.”

“Aw fir fuck’s sake–” He flings up his hands and turns. “The friggin' book deal, awright? The Lovelace shite, when I took Tymara an’ thim fir a ride! What’s it matter? Yeh want me ta go o’er again how friggin’ clever I am, or what?”

“Please don’t. Tarq, that was what the Sha was stirring around in. The thing I put down–”

“Aye, yeh put it down! What’re we even talkin’–”

Shouting over him. Over him! “Because that means it’s awake again! Listen to me carefully here.”

“Oh aye, fuckin’ careful! Like I canna follow yeh?!” The shrill siren of the coffee pot joins their chorus, and he grabs for it. “Hate ta tell yeh, yir friggin’ sciences dinnashite!” Hand on the kettle without gloves, searing his palm, he flings the worthless piece of shit on the floor and clutches his hand.

“Fuck’s sake, Tarq, give me your hand.” He sees that smug fucking smile on Annie's face now. Lets him torch his fucking hand a wee bit and then act like that makes her better than him.

“Get the fuck awey fra’ me,” he snarls, and kicks the thrice-damned coffee pot across the floor. Turns away, but not before he sees the hurt in her face – the hurt and the weariness. Like those words are something Annalea Al’Cair ought to have seen coming. He stares at the wall and just lets his mind dribble back to him, like the slow drip of coffee, letting the long silence unfold itself between them until he thinks he’s got it.

“Without us.” Tarq turns back and Annie, miraculously, is still there, her face carefully blank. Stays blank when she sees him, but at least she hasn't walked the fuck away from him right then. “I meant ta say earlier, what they’re gettin’ up ta in Stormwind without us. No’ me.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s right, Annie. Why I shiday said it, an’ no’...all that other shite.” He goes to her, too late to be sure, but she’s gotten used to waiting for him. Arms around each other's waists, his face buried in her hair, they stand there for who knows how long; his burned hand bumps against her and he winces. With a soft laugh Annalea reaches back and brushes her own hand over it. Healing’s not quite her expertise and all, but she can manage a cooking burn. “How much longer?” he asks when the soothing glow fades.

“It’s hard to say. I have to push deeper every time, and it comes awake quicker. I can try some other ways, but…I don’t think I can clean it out entirely.” She softens the words some with a squeeze of his elbow. “It’s not like Lore’s. It’s rooted deep.”

“Easy prey, me,” Tarquin says with a hollow laugh. Already something coils up in him at that; the Oathbreaker, easy prey? But it’s true, and never was a trap better laid – every time they make progress at a way out, he feels, well, proud of it. And the fucking thing buries itself deeper.

Annalea pulls away, but not far, just enough to look at him. “We’re making time, Tarq. Either it’ll get too far for me, or someone will find you out.” It’s killing her to say it, he can tell, because Sha or no Sha, she has her pride too. But these months, fleeing to Hearthglen to scrape and claw at the vaults of his soul, and then scrub up and smile wide and get back to business, are killing her faster.

“Well, Annie.” He kisses her on the cheek, steps back and retrieves the cooled pot, miraculously undamaged. “We’ll think better wi’ some coffee in us, will we no’?” Annalea steps up besides him with a raised eyebrow that speaks volumes and takes the pot away. Tarq musters a laugh, ignoring the raising of his hackles, the faint echo of outrage that she’d dare mock him, and just tries to enjoy the closeness and the warmth.

While he can.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Sun Oct 13, 2013 1:29 pm

Shado-Pan Monastery
For the Attention of Master Nurong and the Wu Kao


Know, O esteemed masters of the Way of the Hunting Hawk, that in these fallen times you are honored and respected beyond all measure for your service and sacrifice.

Know, O puissant underhand of the Last Emperor, that as your questing eyes turn to the tragedy of the Vale of Golden Blossoms, we who have the fortune to stand outside the weight of the Seven Burdens remain vigilant.

Know, O Watchers on the Wall, that even as a scurrying rodent may by mischance escape the talons of the keenest-eyed of birds, so too do malefactors continue their reckless violation of the Shado-Pan’s trust, in the opportunities afforded by your greater duties.

Know, O Sword In the Shadows, that the Human Tarquin ap Danwyrith, representative of the Grand Alliance, who professes friendship to the Shado-Pan, arrogantly conceals a Sha infection, and has for many days, in direct violation of the trust extended him by the Shado-Pan.

And know, O guardians of the unblemished night, that the Human ap Danwyrith ranges unchecked, fattening himself on the abused body of the Vale and the fruits of Pandaria’s generosity, while the Last Burden of Shahao feeds upon his prideful heart, waiting for an opportunity to grasp new corners of the world within its tainted clutch.

O Masters of the Wu Kao Discipline, I pray in the silent chambers of my heart that this warning arrives neither too late nor too softly, for as you battle the taint at the Heart of Pandaria, it threatens now to slip beyond the bounds of the Mists.


---

Chen-Xue’s arm would heal if he did not die from boredom. The legendary patience of the Wu Kao was challenged as Chen stayed behind in Setting Sun Garrison, dutifully serving the Shado-Pan. With the fall of the Golden Lotus, and the corruption of the Eternal Vale, the Shado-Pan were pulled in hundreds of directions: From stemming the sha to healing the land and monitoring erstwhile allies. Able-bodied warriors worked to save the Vale. Those not dying of their wounds were given other tasks.

He was not completely useless without his bow: Chen could read and write in a number of languages. With bow-arm wrapped in gauze, stinking of poultices and medicines, Chen did his duty: Read hundreds of reports, missives and ciphers from across Pandaria and sending responses. Most were routine. Description of Sha-corruption, reports on how particular healing or suppression strategies worked. Requests for more troops or supplies. It was routine, boring but necessary work. Shado-Pan reports were succinct, ciphered poems. Clever works of beauty in comparison to the Golden Lotus or Lorewalker volunteer novels that were being submitted.

It was no surprise, then, that Chen’s eyes glazed over as he read the first line of a report,

Know, O esteemed masters of the Way of the Hunting Hawk, that in these fallen times you are honored and respected beyond all measure for your service and sacrifice…

He skimmed the letter and prepared the standard reply. But a single word, a first name, caught his attention. A name that Chen recognized. A name that needed to be addressed.

Chen read the letter carefully, then cleared his desk to write a letter to recommending action to Master Nurong.
A hawk used to hunting by day
cannot find the rat skulking at night.
A crow must bring dawn
for the hawk to hunt.


Chen sealed the poem in a crimson envelope and had a runner bring this to Master Nurong. He composed a second letter--longer with more explicit details about methods and payment--while he waited the response.

Nurong’s white envelope came to him within an hour. Inside was a similar work.
Have the crow bring light
to the Rat’s world.
Red or black, it matters not.
The sun must shine to lighten
this last burden.


Chen called to a serpent rider, and gave the simplest of instructions: Give this to the crows in Ratchet and return with their answer. Days later, the rider returned with no envelope, but an answer all the same: Yes.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Sun Oct 13, 2013 10:19 pm

They said you could buy anything you want in Ratchet, for the right price, and maybe it was true. But if that was the case, then Ratchet put a high price indeed on clarity and comfort. Witness the Company of the Rook, packed in a dockside bar like herring in a barrel and twice as pickled, shouting and jostling and generally acting like undisciplined, randy, drunk children – in other words, sellswords. Only the presence of their sergeants, dead Fitzroy with his courtly airs and grizzled Weargauth, wolfish even when he was a man, kept them from devolving into open anarchy.

The adults in the room sat at a top-floor table, within shouting distance if needed, sparing little attention for their charges. Between the three of them sat an opportunity and a danger, in silk paper and calligraphic ink, that oustripped thirty-odd hot, drunk, pissed-off mercenaries by a fair margin. The scroll lay on the table like a warlock’s curse, or like the bomb that had apparated at the Underbelly Clusterfuck of its own accord. Like something nobody wanted to touch. But they were the head and heart and voice of the Crowfeeders, these happy three, so they had to at least consider it.

“My concern is this,” Wrakespur was saying. She didn’t enjoy the sound of her own voice like some, but it had always been her way to be plain-spoken, and clear, and say a thing twice to make damned certain it was understood. Being Second to the Rooks had only redoubled that habit. “How many of the Company has he harmed? Fend was sacked, Orson half-drowned and exiled, Muspel’s family ruined. Now Anrid and Bayle dead and Essande half-crippled by one of his. Just from being caught in his wake.”

“You forget Fitzroy and poor Darek. Before your time, that one, during the War in the North.” Ironteeth’s soft and pleasant voice somehow carried above the din, punctuated by the occasional clicks of what was now a silver jawbone. His fortunes had turned with the Rooks. Wrakespur gestured to the Captain, as if to say There you go.

“There you go,” she said. “More than one in five, fucked over by the Oathbreaker.”

The yellow lamps of the Captain’s eyes moved from the letter on the table to his second. “Some would say, then, we owe him a great debt.”

“Some would,” allowed Wrakespur. “But they’d be fools.” The Captain didn’t react to that. It was a rare privilege to even tiptoe around the possibility of calling him a fool and keep drawing breath (or keep not drawing breath, as with Ironteeth), but once you’d earned it, he wouldn’t revoke it. Nessebah Wrakespur, apostate of Silvermoon, had earned it. “Look at these all. None of them, not a one, were his target. They were just...caught up in his business.”

Ironteeth chuckled gently. “Caught up, to be sure. No, better to say tangled, Dame Joyful.” His grey fingers slipped out the sleeves of his grey robe, and began to weave a cats-cradle in air, in a glimmering silver thread that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Fate has brought we happy few together, and then brought ap Danwyrith in concert with us again and again. It seems we cannot take a step without treading on the trailing edge of his destiny.”

“And so?! We’re in the black business and so is he, Irasmus.” Wrakespur kept her temper sharpened to a fine edge, and used it when needed with as much skill as she used her other blades. “It’s not fate that brings us together; it’s that you can’t get too close to the Riders without getting caught up in their shit. Tarquin ap Danwyrith is a walking disaster and he collects other disasters like he’s trying to complete a set. The further we stay from them, the better off we’ll be.”

“Do you know what the Kaldorei say about a man like him, Dame Joyful?” Ironteeth’s cats-cradle had become a geometric marvel, and when Wrakespur shook her head he tugged it taut so that it opened into a fair approximation of a spider’s web. “They say He has spiders in his skull. Say you are right, and poor Anrid and stout Bayle and all the rest were victims of happenstance. Is the Oathbreaker then not thrice as dangerous, that he can do such harm to us by accident? Are we not bound to seek out such a threat, given the chance?”

A frown creased Wrakespur’s brow, as marble-smooth as most Sin’dorei. “Maybe. Or maybe we just tangle ourselves further.” She looked to the Captain again. “It’s not just about the trouble, Captain, the risk of bringing the Riders down on us. It’s about succeeding in the first place. The man’s made his name on slipping the noose; even for a payday, is this worth the risk?”

The Captain smiled. For a bare twist of the lips, mostly hidden by his drooping mustaches, Craed Bloodcrow’s smile was a terrible thing. It was something about the way his face creased around it, or maybe just a knowledge of what few black humors could inspire the master of the Crowfeeders to smile at all. “There is no risk. When we want the man in chains, he's ours for the taking."

Blood knight and priest alike gawped at that. Nessebah mastered her tongue first, while Ironteeth dismissed his collapsing spiderweb. "You don't speak out of confidence, Captain? You have a way?"

"I have a knife to the Oathbreaker's throat," said Bloodcrow, as jealous with his words as ever. "Sitting at his table. So worry about the risks of having done it, not of doing it."

Ironteeth suddenly laughed out loud, a shocking sibilant noise punctuated by the snap and tinkle of his repaired mouth. "Of course! I ought to have known - but when did you go to him, Captain?"

"He came to me. More than a year ago, seeking a way out." Bloodcrow looked at his Second. "Some people are not meant for this business of ours, Wrakespur."

"No, Captain." The elf had only a faint shadow of what the two dead men were talking about, but it didn't matter. If Craed Bloodcrow, as cautious and heartless a corpse had ever crawled from a yawning grave, said something was certain, then it was as close as anything in the misbegotten world. "So you say we can take him, and worry only about the consequences."

"About the flailings of a headless serpent," said Ironteeth with a shining smile.

"Then I say we do it, Captain." Wrakespur locked eyes with Bloodcrow. "We do it, and get damned ready for what comes when his people find out it was us."

The Captain nodded and looked to his chaplain. "Get Orson up here, to write a response to the Pandaren." Another rare smile escaped his seamed face. "He'll kiss their furry arses till his lips fall off, for a shot at ap Danwyrith."

As Ironteeth rose to obey, Wrakespur leaned forward. "Captain, you've had a man in the Riders?" The response was the featureless silence understood as assent. "For more than a year?" Still silence. "Then why only now?"

"Our man in the black and red asked me the same, not long ago. Why aren't you helping me? I've helped you." Craed laughed then, hoarse and hideous. "I told him the truth."

Nessebah smiled wryly. It always came down to the same thing. "Because nobody was paying us enough to do it."

The Captain closed his undamaged hand, in its red leather glove - dipped, as rumor said, in the blood of his enemies - around the scroll. "Until now."
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Mon Oct 14, 2013 12:35 pm

Used to be, they went to the house in Hearthglen to escape paperwork for a couple days, let it build up to a stack and then clear it out by way of bonfire. But all the time they’ve been spending up there, it’s had to follow them. Annie’s down Stormwind giving Lenny Bends with the guilds his monthly handout, so Tarquin keeps it simple, running numbers and taking notes. Doesn’t want to send any real letters without her there to check them over, make sure it’s him writing them; she took the business seal with her, and while he could probably forge one if he wanted to, so far he’s kept himself distracted enough he doesn’t need it.

So when he hears a knock on the door, he’s up out of his chair with what might be considered unbecoming eagerness. You never want to be too happy to see someone, let them think you didn’t have more important things to do, even if you don’t. Tarq doesn’t, but he takes his time anyway, makes sure his boot and sleeves and vest contain all the necessities of a night-time meeting, and ambles calmly down the stairs to peek through the knothole. Bit surprised when he sees who it is, but the moon shines down over the just and unjust alike, after all. He removes the chain and opens the door. “The hell’re yeh doin’ here, mate?”

His visitor looms in the doorway, armed and armored, washed pale by the moon outside. “I’ve news from my man across the pond. May I enter - boss?” That last word is clearly sour in the visitor’s mouth, and Tarquin revels in that for a moment; small of him, he knows, but some things never stop being funny. That moment done, he clears the door and steps back into his home.

“‘Moan in, then.” He nods towards a chair, or more or less in the direction where his chairs tend to be, without really checking. “Seat yirself if yeh like.” Tarquin does pride himself on hospitality -- ought to, what with the whole Pig and Whistle thing -- but his professionalism takes the occasional second prize and this is one of those times. He shuts the door behind his visitor and replaces the chain, but the twit just bulks there in the center of the room, all grim and resplendent in his big stupid-arsed metal shell. Guess he doesn’t like.

Tarquin circles round and seats himself instead, stretched out with what he sort of hopes is offensive offhandedness. “Well, yeh come all the wey up here, expect it’s worth the hearin’. Oan wi’ yeh.” But his visitor just stands there for another moment, looking at him, down that aristocratic fucking nose. Fifty generations of over-educated shitebirds with noses you can look down for days. Must be nice.

Right before Tarq can tell him to hurry it the fuck up, he finally comes out with it. "There's a price on your head, in Pandaria this time. It seems you've managed to infuriate even a race dedicated to calm and inner peace."

"Now that’s a wee bit bigoted, mate. Big oan the bevvy too, they are." Tarq's starting to see the shape of it, like some great ocean beast stirring the surface before it rises. "What'd I do?"

"Captain Bloodcrow didn't say, precisely. It has to do with...some Pandaren superstition or other. I expect you never concerned yourself with it." The visitor casually steps to his left, inspecting...some shit Tarq hung on the walls. It doesn't matter. The big beastie's close now, breaching the waves.

"Well yeh can see how that fails ta settle me any. Maybe yeh could think oan this whole dire warnin’, an’ sift it thra fir some detail as I could actually, truly, put ta some friggin’ usefulness?” He retracts his legs, plants his feet on the ground, and shifts his weight forward, watching.

“Details, you say? Ah, well…” Sir Jakob Balthasar stands there, thinking about it or just pretending to, and then finally turns with the practiced ghost of a smile on his handsome face. “Oh, I remember. Bloodcrow said he was taking the contract.”

“Huh.”

“Huh, indeed.” And then, when the knight’s eyes narrow in just the slightest warning, Tarquin makes his move. Bounds out of the chair, arm whipping around and sending a throwing knife at Balthasar’s perfect chiseled jaw, and skips to the side. There’s a metallic ping! and a faint clattering but he’s moving with no time to look, freeing the packet of Preparation Number Twelve from his sleeve, sparking it with his thumbnail.

It hits the ground and floods the room with blinding smoke, and he doubles back through the cloud, headed for a window. Halfway there, Balthasar barks out a couple hard and grinding words and the air around Tarquin goes wintry cold. It clutches at him with icy fingers, and when he’s fool enough to draw in a breath, his throat feels cold and dusty dry as a tomb. He takes a couple more clumsy steps and then manages to topple aside as the knight bulls towards him, clipping him with an iron-shod forearm. Coughing in the cold smoke, Tarquin rolls aside, clawing at the wall panels. He finds the panel he’s looking for as Balthasar wheels around, slams his open palm into the wood and whispers the word Genise wrote into the house’s heartwood for him.

And the walls spit fire, licking bright as suns across the room at waist height. Pressed to the floor, Tarquin’s spared the brunt of it; he keeps his face down, grits his teeth at the painful heat on his back, and crawls quick as he can. Distantly, he hears Jakob Balthasar curse and shout. The house itself is warded against its own defenses, but this is going to be hell on the furnishings. When the fire dies down, he comes to his feet, another throwing knife in hand.

Balthasar’s on his feet too, armor smoking, the sword in his hand lit from cross-guard to point. Or not exactly, on second look; it’s the runes that are lit up, ancient lessons in a dead language, telling the arrogant prick the secrets of their makers. “Now this is a fine thing,” Tarquin spits at his feet. “Guid auld Jak, bound by oath an’ honor ‘til he chooses elsewise. How much are they payin’ yeh, yeh shiftless nob cunt?” As he asks the question, he flings the knife and dances left, a third one coming to his hand. Again the knife snicks off the runeblade, but in that moment Tarq goes back right, whirling away like a footballer. He says a hasty sing-song prayer in Darnassian – more or less, Elune, you’re a fucking gorgeous goddess and I’d crawl five hundred miles to the privilege o’ putting my head between your thighs, so how’s about a hand – and pounds the wall again.

This time, when the house’s wards spit fire, Tarq’s running through the middle of it with the night wrapped around him like a swaddling blanket. He sprints right past Balthasar, who’s got his fucking runeblade up again to eat the magics, not feeling the heat or the sucking rush of air or anything but the shadow embrace of the goddess with whom Annie’s garnered him just a little bit of favor. In two heartbeats he’s at the window, and in the space of a third he’s in the air to go crashing through it and into the dubious safety of Hearthglen town.

It all happens in a hurry, Balthasar’s voice in the iron tones of the Old Tongue, the wrenching, immovable grip around his ribs, the way he’s ripped backwards through the burning air. Tarquin slams to the floor with Elune’s favor in tatters around him, the fire giving him a searing parting kiss before flickering out. Balthasar’s glowing runeblade digs up splinters in the floor, inches from his face, and the death knight reaches down and grabs him by the collar. “They didn’t pay me, you miserable thieving dog,” Jakob snarls between his even white teeth. “This is my pleasure.”

He raises his last knife, nearly buries it in Balthasar’s neck, but the traitor moves his head just in time and it gashes the side of his handsome face instead. Tarquin’s effort is rewarded with an iron gauntlet to the side of the head, and in the echoes of that blow he can dimly hear his own voice laughing. Sewn up, sewn up! Let him right in, never asked a question on it, let him right in. You clever little bastard. Sewn up.

Hauled up and held dangling, he scrabbles for purchase, hooks his thumbs and tries to dig them into Balthasar’s chilly blue eyes. The knight curses and wheels, flinging him bodily into the near wall. Dimly, Tarquin considers the questionable decision that led him and Annie to buy such a house, out of the way of Hearthglen’s daily business, and warn their neighbors not to intrude on any strange, loud noises. But that rue gives way fast to the pain in his face and back, the sharper cut of pain, and more than anything, the hissing, spitting rage of the thing in his head. The proud thing in his head, watching him -- them -- lose.

A blurry figure blocks his vision. “Balthasar,” Tarq says, and dribbles blood down his chin. “Sir Balthasar...yeh wait a – wait, only wait.” Can’t quite see the man’s face right now, but he’s probably smiling. Surely smiling. “Please. Please no.”

Please?” Jakob Balthasar repeats after him like he can’t believe what the fuck he just heard. Probably can’t. He hauls Tarquin up to a sitting position, with little care. “Light be good, ap Danwyrith, have some fucking dignity.”

“Jus’ –- tell me, yeh want –- I’ll make it. Happen. Ken I can.” Spitting out the words, fast as he can, searching for something to hook onto. “An’ yir lad, yir son – an’ Yva too, when Bric’ finds out–”

“Oh, well done. Bribe first, threaten my wife and child second. Like the cheap thug you are.” Jakob’s gauntleted fist fills Tarquin’s field of vision, and his head rebounds back into the wall with a rattling impact. A black curtain drops across his eyes, lit with sprays of color, the knight still speaking behind it in with a voice like molten iron. “You don’t mention my boy, Boss. I imagine you don’t even know his name, and he’s part of your -–” Balthasar spits on the wall next to his head. “Your family.”

“Aye. Family. The Riders.” Harder to focus, his vision still blurry, blood in his mouth. “Black an’ red, Jak, yir one ay us.” He feels more than sees the knight loom closer, breath hissing near his face. Warm, not cold, this death knight. Long story. Should’ve paid more attention to it.

“One of you? I knew you were a liar, ap Danwyrith, but I never thought you a fool.” Balthasar drags Tarq more or less upright again, and holds him at arm’s length, keeping him from slumping over. “You put your brand on me, like cattle, to be fed and kept and sent to the slaughter when you deemed it meet.” Hard to say what’s on Jakob’s face exactly. Blood dripping over one of Tarq’s eyes. But the voice is all satisfaction.

“Please, no,” Tarq mushes out, just barely. “Beg yeh. I beg –- dinna do it. Let me…” Can’t even finish what he wants Jak to let him. Doesn’t matter. The knight laughs coldly.

“Begging for mercy. I thought you were made of sterner stuff.” Balthasar lifts his chin and, carefully, presses a forearm into his throat. Hard to breathe, then, and getting harder. “Never fear, ap Danwyrith. You don’t die here. You’re bound for Pandaria, for there’s to be a trial. There’s to be some justice.”

Tarquin wheezes something incomprehensible, his vision darkening, tears leaking out the corners of his eyes. Images flash through his head, faces long lost, turning away uncaring or screaming in rage or laughing, mocking, gloating. He’s caught by the current, all that loss and shame and misery. Jakob Balthasar’s voice pierces through them. “And before the Shado-Pan put you down, the world will get to see you brought to bay at last.”

Breath buried in his throat, tasting of copper and defeat, he follows the long tunnel down into the dark. The last thing he feels is a weightlessness so complete he can hardly bear it, and then there’s silence.

---

It was no small thing to bring the Oathbreaker out of town, but the Argent guards had been trained well. Even men in Fordring’s colors, it seemed, could be swayed from their duty by a sly word and a full purse; don’t interfere in ap Danwyrith’s business. And what else could an Ebon Blade man, in the Riders’ colors, leaving his house with a heavy burden be?

Jakob met the sellswords where he had left them, down the Hearthglen road. Irasmus Ironteeth turned to face him with a soft smile on his unsettlingly boyish face. “Did you know,” he asked Jak by way of greeting, “The man you assumedly carry once fought a great battle here? In the colors of the Scarlet Crusade, they say, against his own.”

“I’ve heard that story,” said Jak as he tossed his burden in its web of ropes and sack-cloth to the ground. The shallow cut on his cheek ached dully, but it didn’t seem poisoned or otherwise tainted; apart from that, he was essentially unhurt. “And it didn’t surprise me at all that he turned his colors.”

“From black to red and back again.” Ironteeth chuckled. “All through the day, the Gilneans fought up this very road, while the Crusaders bled and died. When they cornered their prodigal, they say he pled for death, yet his master spared him, and bade him–”

“Irasmus,” Jakob interrupted. “I respect you as a soldier and a man of the cloth, but among the reasons I’m doing this for you is that I am heartily fucking sick of hearing about Tarquin ap Danwyrith and the insane ways he has chosen to spend his time. So kindly help me usher in this bold and blessed new era.” The priest laughed softly, with the eerie tinkle of his eponymous jaws, and fell silent. Jakob turned to Craed.

“So,” said Bloodcrow. They regarded each other, the living man and the dead. Bloodcrow had served Jakob well when they were dead together, lost half a hand in his service before they both fled the Undercity. Now, that so was probably meant to say, all their debts to one another were paid. Once you had spent enough time with the taciturn killer, you grew to speak his language.

“So,” said Jakob in return, and pulled the sack-cloth back from Tarquin’s head. It was, indeed, the Oathbreaker, bloody and bruised and unconscious. Bloodcrow nodded and Jakob replaced it. And that, it was quite possible, was the last Sir Jakob Balthasar would ever see of the man he’d had the misfortune to call a leader. He dearly hoped so.

“We’re for Pandaria. There’s a ship waiting. You coming with us?” Jakob glanced around at the handful of Rooks, one grim-faced Sin’dorei woman and the rest a gaggle of mismatched ruffians who were clearly Bloodcrow’s finest selection of skull-crackers, and shook his head.

“I shall miss your company dearly, but I’m for Stormwind.” Bloodcrow raised an eyebrow, indicating complete and utter shock, and Jakob smiled and turned to where he’d left his horse. “Not for long; I’ll be gone before the Riders understand what’s happened here.”

“Why take the risk at all?” Irasmus wondered out loud. Jakob kept going, and didn’t answer. Bloodcrow had done him loyal service once, but those days were gone, and these were his men, not Jakob’s. Nor would he want them. Not in the service of the House of Balthasar.

The House of Balthasar. He smiled again and hoisted himself up into the saddle. Aye, and not a moment too soon. There was only one thing missing, and he rode to reclaim it.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Wed Oct 16, 2013 10:45 am

They had a handsome house on a quiet stretch of street, well removed from the Mages’ Tower, a line of shrubs walling it off from passers-by. Just the kind of discreet place a country noble might choose for his stays in Stormwind. A husband, a wife, children, dogs, maybe an exotic pet or two what with the proximity of the mages. Not perfection, but rightness; you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the house of a man who had it all.

Even outside of Old Town, there was the odd Stormwind ruffian keeping an eye out for interesting sights, in the hopes that such report would earn a clipped silver and a favorable nod from the Wildfire Riders. So Jakob wore a drab cloak over scuffed and utilitarian armor; he looked like just another mercenary in search of paying work in Stormwind. He passed unmolested and, he hoped, unnoticed, to his own front door. With ap Danwyrith apprehended, the network of informers and urchins was likely just as panicked as the Riders proper, and in any case, this was something that had to be chanced.

Jakob steeled himself when he got to the door. This was the part that it all hinged on; had Yva heeded whatever summons her guild had put out? If she was home, then, well…No, Jakob told himself, she won’t be. If she ignored Bittertongue’s orders as well as she ignored my good sense, then none of this would be necessary. That was something else to say to her when he...when the hard part was over, and the time was right. He put the key in the lock, whispered the name -- Mirandella, a ghost become a charm -- that would pass him safely through the wards, and entered the house with an ease and confidence he didn’t come close to feeling.

Yva wasn’t home. The house was silent.

He passed through with renewed confidence, through foyer and parlor and up the sweeping staircase. Tapestries on the walls, plump cushions on the seats, everything well-made but lived-in. Domestic bliss. As long as you don’t look in the basement. Or on the bookshelves. Or, of course, under the child’s bed. That was the other hard part, and he knew better than to think the house was entirely empty of Yva’s touch. Things simply weren’t that easy. So when he entered Niall’s room and saw the familiar bulk occupying the space before his son’s bed, it wasn’t a surprise.

The daemon -- Flaadhun -- raised the grotesque beak of its head to regard Jakob as he stood in the doorway. Jakob wondered for a second what it saw in his face. Hatred? Fear? Guilt? It was monstrously perceptive, he knew. But Yva had taught it to heed him, so as to avoid an unpleasantness even she could not be blind to. “Hound,” he said, with his usual scorn. “Move aside.” It looked at him, and then, with a guttural whuff it shifted its ponderous bulk and waddled past him. Good dog. A sickening thought, even now. He had found a dog for his boy, a proper Lordaeronian wolfhound, the sort of companion a young lad needed. Yet the daemon had insinuated itself into Niall’s life, into all their lives.

He prefers it. Where had that treacherous thought come from? Jakob walked over and looked down at the boy. His boy, his son, the heir to the tattered fortunes of the Balthasars. Bloody but unbowed, as ever they’d been. Niall was deep in sleep, black curls blown back slightly from his forehead with every breath. His fists were clenched, spindly fingers biting into chubby palms. When Jakob reached down for him, he blinked his eyes open. Blue and bright as robin’s eggs, as if all the color and health that should have been in the boy’s pale little face was concentrated there. “Da,” he said, mutely, still half in the land of dreams. “I was sleep.”

“Yes,” Jakob told his son. “I know. It’s alright, Niall. Go back to sleep.” He held the boy for a long moment, feeling the crooked structure of his legs, fragile as bird bones. It did the usual injury to his heart, and this time, it was choked with something a little deeper. That he should be used so. That my son! -- the last Balthasar, the last! -- should be born sickly and crippled, under a cursed star. And that I should have let it come to pass -- but no, it wasn’t just him, was it? Whose womb had borne poor Niall, while her hands were washed in darkness?

And who, with cutthroat cheer, had led them both down this path? Because it was expedient? Because it was profitable? Because they didn’t, and never had, given a single stinking shit? Why, who else but the scum of Old Town, your friendly neighborhood degenerates?

Something in that trail of thought made Jakob look up; already still as his son drifted back to sleep, he stiffened. Flaadhun was still in the doorway, filling it with his bloated body, regarding man and boy with alien malevolence. “Hound,” Jakob snapped, louder than he’d intended. “Go from here. I am with my son.”

“Why?” He’d heard the daemon speak only a few times, more than he wanted; maybe lesser lights could be forgiven for calling it a bark, but there was nothing animal about that wet and grating voice. A mouth not meant for any human language, somehow forcing it. “Why, go?”

Jakob nearly gawped at the thing’s impertinence. “Because I command it, you fucking turd from the arse of Sargeras. You obese monstrosity. Get hence, before I lose my temper.” Niall stirred again in his arms, and Jakob rocked him, fighting the pulses of rage. Defying him, without its mistress even here – oh, you’ll learn a harsh lesson, hound.

“You. Command?” Flaadhun raised its head and snuffled like a chimney packed with mucus. “No. You smell wrong. Taste wrong.” It heaved its monstrous frame forward a step.

Jakob closed his eyes. Iron. I am iron, I am cold, I am the Balthasar. Too much noise might bring down attention on the house, and ruin it all -- and there was something more to consider. He carefully replaced Niall in his bed, pulled the covers up over his son’s wasted frame, with a delicacy that surprised even himself. It wasn’t just the care he took with fragile things when he was armored, but it was almost as if he recoiled from touching the boy. His own son.

No time to dwell on it. He swivelled back to where the daemon crouched, and with a quiet rasp of metal drew his sword from its sheath. “You’ll never know how I’ve yearned for this day, beast. For my wife’s sake, you’ve one chance to stand aside, and spare her the weeping when I break her favorite vile toy.” Nothing to the weeping she’ll do when she sees her husband and son gone -- but Jakob pushed that aside too. There’d be a time to make it all right, but first he had to show her how very wrong it had gone.

Flaadhun quivered and belched the hideous noise that it used to approximate laughter. “Chance is yours. Leave Young Master to Mistress.” Its jaws yawned wide. “Or eat shiny suit. Eat dead sword. Eat Master. Consume.”

“Do you know, I was rather hoping you’d say something like that. Beorga.” That last, the name of the north wind, sparked the runes along Jakob’s sword to life. They studied each other, the knight and the monster; each cognizant of the child’s slumbering presence in the room and, just as evident, the telling absence that made this fight possible. Then, with horrific speed, the tendrils adorning Flaadhun’s broad back lashed out. Just a flicker, a feint, a feeling out, and Jakob batted them both aside. The felhound’s muzzle split in a grotesque smile.

“No. Consume.” It waddled forward, the smile yawning open into a seemingly endless maw, and Jakob stepped forward to meet it. Then something tremendously unexpected happened -- Flaadhun recoiled, quicker than he’d ever seen it move, and whimpered. Exactly like a beaten dog. Jakob halted. Is this some trick? But the only trick he could imagine was one his own eyes were playing.

It looked for all the world as if, where his shadow fell across the daemon in the lamplight, pieces of it were caught between its teeth. Instants of wriggling darkness caught in that all-devouring mouth. Then they were gone, the beast backed up against the wall. “Wrong,” it growled mushily. “Taste wrong. Taste. Wrong!”

“Aye,” Jakob told it. “The wrong feast for you.” Images flashed through his head as he hefted his sword, contemplating the ruin he would wreak on this, the lowest and vilest of his tormentors. First ap Danwyrith, now the daemon. I’ve earned such delights. It would have to be quiet, though. He had to remember what he was here for, after all, to retrieve...his son?

Jakob looked over at the bed, where Niall lay in uneasy slumber. Niall Balthasar. Heir to Red Yasreic and Eberrah the Lioness. Heir to the King’s Hammer, to Sarai who killed the dragon, to Simeon Goldenblade. Heir to Jakob himself, twice slain and twice reborn, the man who’d saved the Balthasar line from the ruins in which his predecessors had left it. And this was his legacy, a half-crippled babe from the loins of a half-mad tavern wench, poisoned by fel magic and fed on the leavings of criminal refuse. This was the House of Balthasar reborn.

He approached the bed again, and Flaadhun snorted in pained warning. “Fight you. For Young Master.” Jakob looked over, incredulous. He was a soldier and a knight, a leader of men, and even in the daemon’s parody of speech he could hear the sincerity. This thing would fight and die for his son. Would throw what passed for a life on the altar, that it might protect Niall Balthasar, who had won its loyalty in the cradle.

A lord, said the writings of Asreic Balthasar, scribed in the vaults of Jakob’s memory, is no worthier than the least of those who are sworn to him. A man can be fairly judged by what others do in his name.

Jakob curled his lip and stepped away. “Then keep him,” he said to the daemon. “You and the witch keep him, and be damned together.” He rammed his sword back into its sheath. “I possess the anvil to forge more and better sons.” When he advanced towards the door, the felhound cowered from him; from the very touch of his shadow, even! He considered finishing the job and destroying it -- but no. The sort of companion a young lad needs. They were perfect for each other.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Tarq
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Tarq » Wed Oct 16, 2013 10:45 am

It wasn’t until he was a street away from his house that he apprehended the enormity of what he’d done. “My son,” Jakob said out loud, drawing a glance from a pair of passing students. I left my son there! In the care of a daemon! In the reach of criminals! He swiveled and clapped a hand to the hilt of his sword, planning to return posthaste, wondering what madness had possessed him to--

What madness indeed. Jakob stood stock-still in the middle of the Mage Quarter, attracting more attention in a bare sixty seconds than he had on his whole journey through the city, his thoughts tumbling and tripping over themselves. He’d had Niall in his arms, soothed him back to sleep and put him back to bed to kill Yva’s pet daemon to secure his passage. And something had...had tamed Flaadhun, sent him whimpering in retreat.

Me, of course. Jakob knew the thing was cowed of him, heeded his words like a whip. But that wasn’t right. Obeyed him, certainly, when he had no choice but to speak of it, but...the daemon had power. Yva’s borrowed power or its own, he had his suspicions, but it was a power of some kind, that much Jakob was certain. He’d never seen it give way without a fight.

But then, he’d never made to fight it himself before, in truth. Most foes, whatever their confidence, found themselves reconsidering when Jakob Balthasar--

Stop it.

Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. I need to get Niall. He turned about, headed ten steps forward before he realized he’d already turned, was now heading away from the house. But, of course, he was done with that place, that piddling little hovel for merchants putting on airs and southron courtiers. The tavern-wench could have it--

“Oh Light be good,” Jakob whispered. It was like a cold slap in the face, rocking him to his core. He’d thought many vile, petty things in the silence of his soul, some of them deserved. Even of Yva -- of her flightiness, her impatience, her refusal to see the consequence of dabbling in the black arts. It was those things as much as anything that had driven him to act at last, and betray the band of rogues who he’d stood with in the only war that really counted.

But never in his life had he sneered at his wife, the women he loved and had given his name to, for her birth.

Jakob kept walking, away from the house, away from his son, away from the legacy of House Balthasar. Because something was terribly, unspeakably wrong, so wrong even a daemon had fled from it. And for all it hurt him to leave Niall behind after all he’d done to secure the boy’s future, that was nothing compared to the idea of whatever had gotten into Jakob infecting his son too.

Besides, a voice eerily similar to Jakob’s own whispered, unbidden, you don’t really need him.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow

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Threnn
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Re: Lay Me Low

Postby Threnn » Thu Oct 17, 2013 11:34 am

Before the cleaning starts, Annalea has time to find the guards working the roads and have a chat with them. They’ve been paid not to see anything, of course, so blind eyes were turned all ‘round. The best they can give her is that they saw someone in the Colors and assumed it was none of their business. Like everything else.

It’s not much of a clue -- anyone can put on a tabard, though few would be stupid enough to -- so she delves into memories. Gently, of course. Subtly. But she needs a look.

Problem with memory is, it’s unreliable. She can feel the chill in the air, the guard’s grumbling belly as he waits for the runner to bring dinner to the post. The road itself is steady -- that rarely changes aside from fallen leaves or rain or snow. But faces coming and going? Ones you’re paid not to notice? Those flicker and jump, and the guard’s eye is drawn to the tabard, not the features anyway. Likely just the way this piss-stain wanted it.

She gets a sense of bulk, of a sword at his hip (was it a he?), but nothing that tells her who it might have been thanks to the guard’s studious disinterest. The gander gives her nothing, so she’s out of his head and on her way home to mull it over.

Plenty of bulky men with propensities for swords in the Riders: Bricu, Bosch, Daug, Jak Balthasar, Andrick Kaleigh. Hell, Chryste Kaleigh’s not a stretch, you put the right shoulder guards under a cloak that hides plenty. Or Cylinn, or Tare, or Kyraine. And who’s to say the sword’s not a decoy? Strap one on Rheugan or Than in his merchant spicer disguise. Same for Teeth, though really, why would Teeth even be spotted?

Besides, they’re all Riders. You have a beef with the boss, you talk it out. Or yell it out, as you like. You don’t turn him over to the fucking Shado-Pan.

So the tabard’s probably a decoy, too.

She considers people who’ve worn the colors and taken them off again for one reason or another. They didn’t exactly require anyone to turn in the Black and Red when you walked. Drachmas? John Errence? Brayden Vansen -- now there’s a name she hasn’t thought of in years. Even Galvan fucking Swiftblade had worn the colors once, technically, when you let things drift toward the convoluted. And any time Tarq meets with misfortune, Galvan’s one of the first names that ought to come to mind.

Plenty of people who might hold a grudge, but for any of them, why come up here and steal Tarquin away in the dead of night to hand him over to the Pandaren, like the kind messenger from SI:7 told Bricu this morning? No, any of those would have called him out in Stormwind proper. Or if they’d made the trek up here to Hearthglen, they’d have killed him and had done with it.

So no, no one in the Riders she can think of who’d do it this way, whether they’re still wearing the tabard or not.

That’s bullshit.

All right. Fine. There is one, but it requires factoring herself into this whole fucked-up equation, and she’s recoiling from the idea.

Haven’t heard from him in Elune knows how long. Figure he comes back to Stormwind, and someone lets slip the woman who used to be his is fucking the boss now. How does he take it?

It’s been years. We left each other. He fucked off up north and let me sit in Stormwind, waiting.


And there’s the flicker of something she usually keeps hidden, keeps tamped down and locked away: I’m not worth the fighting over, anyway.

But, well enough, say she was -- say she is. Fin seemed placid enough, usually was, but the man could hold his own. She’s seen him on the field, seen the solid, sure way he swung his blade. She could call up the weight of him and his armor atop her at Angra’thar, when he’d dragged her to the ground and kept her there until he was sure the terror was past. So had he come here with some misguided notion to protect her, to do what’s best for her, (like she’s a fucking child!) to argue that Tarq do the decent thing and go quietly, and it turned to blades and blows?

She tsks as she lets herself in the house, and considers the door. Whoever it was, Tarq let them in. The window glass is outside, something or someone thrown out, rather than in. Most of the names on that list, he’d never have slid back the lock when he saw them through the knothole. Most of them, he’d’ve been out the back window and into the forest before they even knocked a second time.

There’s not a lot of time to dwell on other suspects before she sees Lore slinking along the road with a gangly, chatty girl on her heels. Kost’s apprentice is followed by her entourage of enchanted broom and imp. The girl seems powered by ginger beer and sass, and Annalea can’t help but take a shine to her. Seems the fighting didn’t range too far into the kitchen, at least -- Thenia al’Cair’s daughter to the bone, Anna’s able to scrounge together a plate of cookies and biscuits and start a pot of tea.

Lore gets the rundown while Hex sweeps the front walk. The corners of the rogue’s mouth draw farther and farther down as Anna talks and they sift through the rubble, into a frown that would give Sister Thistlepix fits. “He didn’t even get on the box and ask for help, Annie.”

“Maybe he just didn’t have the chance.” Doubtful, really. She knows what’s been riding in his head. He wouldn’t have thought he needed help at all.

They set to tidying up, Anna’s buzzbox propped on the table and turned up high in case Bricu comes on with any news. He does, eventually, but nothing they can make much use of. “The Shado-Pan have him, Annie, like we knew. They’re not goin’ ta let anyone see him until they’re good an’ fuckin’ ready.” He sounds like he could chew rocks. He’s likely gone through half a pouch of tobacco by now. “Won’t even fuckin’ tell us where he’s bein’ taken.”

“Could see if I can find Diao,” Lore says. “Unless you need me here, Annie.”

Anna shakes her head. “No, I can do the rest. Thank you.”

“Oi,” says Bricu, “an’ the Grey Walker says ta send the wee pip home.”

There’s a groan from the window, and the women turn to see Hex’s head duck back down to eavesdropping level.

When they’re gone, Anna surveys the house. Lore and Hex helped immensely: it’s in slightly less of a shambles than the way she’d found it this morning; the couch bashed all to fuck, a pair of chairs beyond even the Bells’ expertise to repair, coffee table reduced to kindling, windows missing panes and the glass strewn all around the yard. They’ll have to get Genise up here again to reset the wards; the singed smell has yet to dissipate despite the broken windows letting the air in.

It’s neater now, though, splinters and shards swept away, other furniture dragged around to make the sitting room sittable again. She retrieves some tools from her lab upstairs, lays them out on a surviving scrap of the mantle, and sets to work.

She sings as she moves around the space. She can't quite tell the steps of Tarq's last violent dance here, but there's a resonance, the bitter taste of magic. Some of it's Geny's wards. Some of it belongs to the intruder, but it's all drowned out beneath the ghosts of the workings Anna herself has done these last few months. Maybe she'll do some scrying later, see what's there to see, but right this second she has a different target.

Where are you? Where did you hide?

It's hard to find, which isn't much of a surprise. What she's looking for is sneaky, sly. Concern sets in as she turns about the room: what if it didn't work? What if I fucked it up, after all that planning, and they haul him before the Shado-Pan and it's still there? They'll kill him, and it'll be my fault.

Or they'll wring it out of him, and when he gets home, he'll know I failed. Be done with me.


Funny enough, it's exactly what she's looking for. She snatches up a carved soapstone figure Kyr brought back from Pandaria. It's a Jinyu woman, wearing Waterspeaker's robes. Her fish face is downcast, and in one hand she holds, loosely, one of her holy relics. It's about to fall, caught in the moment where she literally loses her faith.

Anna sings the lurking shadows into it -- shadows of Doubt, a pun that amused her immensely when she described her idea to Tarquin -- and feels her own confidence return as they soak into the stone. It worked. "It fucking worked," she whispers, and she falls to her knees in relief and exhaustion.

She'd almost feel bad for the poor fucker who took Tarquin. Whoever they were, they couldn't have known the kind of trap they were springing. Tie a little Doubt to Pride's tail, and what's it going to do when its host starts losing?

What's it going to do, when it can feel the surge of pride -- of its weaker, lesser cousin -- in the opponent who surely, surely knows the ass he's kicking is that of the Oathbreaker himself?

What's it going to do, when it's afraid it might die with the man whose strings it's been pulling all summer long?

It's going to take wing.

"So let's see where you flew off to," says Anna. "Let's see where you go to roost."


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