The world came back to me slowly, in pieces.
My eyelids were too heavy to open, and so my other senses compensated.
First was my hearing. Hearing was paramount to survival, arguably more than sight. As someone who did most of their dealings in dark places, both figuratively and literally, you learned that the things that go bump into the night, go bump, in the night. At first, everything was distant and distorted, a single canvas of obtuse sounds, that became crisper as my hearing came into focus and I was able to filter individual sounds. The rustle of flapping cloth, the slightest creak of leather, the crackle of burning wood. The scrape of metal on metal.
Then my sense of smell. I had always had a keen nose, and in my particular brand of undeath I had found my sense of smell heightened to a predatory degree. I smelled soil beneath me, though it was dry. We’d clearly moved some distance from the storm. I smelled iron, next, as I breathed in, and then smoke. In another breath, I smelled beans, in a sickeningly sweet, sugary sauce. I smelled the distinct sting of alcohol. Then, I smelled meat.
There was something about undeath that made eating the raw flesh of the living more appealing, more palatable. It became something primal and satisfying, something you lusted for. Something that made you Hungry, with a capital “H”. I could smell the tang of his blood, the salt of sweat on his skin. And he smelled… good.
My eyes took some time to open, and they fluttered, struggling to bear their own weight. My vision was cloudy at first, uniformly white and unfocused, like fogged up window, a fuzzy opaqueness that slowly cleared away until it was just a shimmering at the edges of my sight to the dull drumbeat of pain in my head. A thump that pulsated outwards, like my mind was trying to expand past my skull to the point of bursting.
My mouth was dry and tasted like rot, a remnant of the necromancy that had disabled me.
All-in-all, it wasn’t the worst hangover I’d ever had. It was up there, though.
I was aware of my body, of a heat from the campfire. I was aware that I had arms and legs, but I certainly couldn’t move them yet, and so I focused on my claws.
They slowly sank into the dirt until they closed into a fist, and then they went slack again. I shifted to press my palm to the ground, and it worked well enough. I pushed until my arms went taut, and I managed to push myself up from the ground with a grunt, shifting my back against the iron bars that I had smelled just a few moments ago.
I looked up, and around. We were still in Stormheim, that much I could tell from the trees and the stars. The moon was high, but lower than it had been when I’d been taken. I must have lost a day to unconsciousness.
I had been stripped of my clothing, of my robes, completely and vulnerably bare. Smart enough.
The bars of the cage I was in were misshapen, but sturdy, clearly forged by someone that didn’t have much a talent for smith-work. They were also deeply uncomfortable on my bare ass. They were runed, intricately. Surprisingly intricately. Impressively intricately. There was a level of artistry in it that suggested an abjurer of some skill and talent, and as I examined them further, I began to feel my pulse quicken with irritation.
Irritation became anger, as I found myself standing up to shake at the bars, “Are you fucking KIDDING me?!”
“Anti-magic.” His voice was gruff and filled with gravel. He didn’t look up from his meal, punctuating his statement with another forkful of his beans.
My hand idly went to my stomach. I had usually kept a small reagent pouch tucked away in my innards in case I was ever stripped. Enough to conjure me away through the darker ley-lines to somewhere I could regroup and escape. Useless if I couldn’t cast anything.
At least there was room enough to stand and to take a few steps.
In the firelight, and without the aide of his enchanted cloak, he looked more like your typical elite hit-man. His leathers were finely made, but old and patched, in a way that you might be deceived into thinking it was second-rate. They had seen quite a bit of damage, as had he. Without his mask, I saw the scars on his face. I saw burns that covered the entirety of his jaw. I saw pock-marked skin where acid had touched him. I saw creases in his skin where time and trauma had touched him.
“Well, you fucking thought of everything, didn’t you? You’re a very clever boy.” I spat.
He grunted, in a vague acknowledgment of the sounds I was making, if not the words. His attention was largely on his meal, and he set his can down to take an unhurried swig from a skin of water. He cleared his throat and took a look around the small campsite and the woods around us and sighed, before taking up his can of beans and fork.
I took a look around as well. A tent of simple leather that looked like it had seen the elements, patched back to function with quality squares of replacement hide. A small fire, kept low, but warm, hot enough to boil the water that was in the pot over it. I didn’t see my things. I would be very upset if I found out he had discarded my kit and the horn I’d worked so diligently to obtain after I murdered him, here.
“Is there a reason you took my robes? Other than the obvious sexual tension that we have? You know, a man could freeze to death out here with no clothes on. Maybe we could snuggle for some body heat.” I smiled, too saccharine, too sweet.
He rolled his eyes, and his lip curled slightly, but I suppose even he wasn’t aware of the he glanced from his beans to the tent for a moment.
Good. My things were still there.
The cage I was in was heavy and iron, and judging from the way it had sunken into the dry earth, it had been here for some time. He had set up this camp up some time ago, which meant he’d known where I was and he wasn’t on the move.
I idly attempted to conjure something, anything, to my hand. Shadows, fel fire, hoarfrost, shapeless arcane energy. I felt nothing. When my hands moved to cast a spell, it was almost something palpable, there was a resistance, a presence that you could feel, almost like moving your hands in water or molding clay. There was nothing to manipulate, nothing to shape. It was almost torturous in itself, for an inveterate sorcerer of my ken. Magic was my impetus for being. So intrinsic to my unlife, it was like breath in my lungs, and I was attempting to draw breath in a void; gasping and gulping but finding nothing to sustain myself. I couldn’t blame any sorcerer for lashing out in a situation like this, but I had always had a cool head.
My spirits were gone, as well, unseeable, unreachable without my magic, lost in some ghostly limbo until I could conjure them back.
I idly took up a stick from the ground and pushed it past one of the slots of the iron cage, displacing earth as I started to idly draw in the dirt.
It had caught his attention, and he grunted with annoyance, setting his beans down to approach the cage, his eyes drawn to the lines I was pushing into the earth.
I smiled at him, “Hi, hot stu--”
He kicked three times. Once at the bars, once at the stick in my hands, swiping it away from me, and once at the dirty, wiping away my art project. His voice held the tone of someone who didn’t particularly like animals chastising a dog for pissing on the floor, “Not gonna get out, don’t try.”
I didn’t let his near-monotone negativity get me down, “First of all, rude. Second, you’ll get to see the drawing when I’m finished. Third, I’m naked, stripped of all my goodies, locked in a cage, unable to cast even the simplest of spells, with the mother of all hangover headaches from you trying to crack the back of my head open through the front of my face. What threat is a naked corpse passing the time drawing in the dirt with a stick to you?”
He eyed me, with all the scrutiny he could, and I did the same to him. I could see a lot in his eyes, and in the way he held himself around me. He didn’t seem to think much of me, as a threat, at this point. I could see his eyes go over a checklist of warning signs that I seemed to pass. Without magic, without tools, I was just a scrawny, ghoulish, and very handsome corpse to him, and he seemed to consider my artistic endeavor less an attempt at an escape, and more as some way to subvert his authority, judging from the way he sneered and parted from the cage with another kick. All things considered, it wasn’t an unfair assessment.
But his reaction showed me one key thing. He didn’t recognize the runic symbol I’d drawn. It was a simple, vrykul rune, like one of the ones I’d seen at Haustvald, and without magic, it was simply a jagged shape in the dirt, but he showed no reaction to even it’s potential threat.
It was clear this man had no knowledge of arcana. Those weapons, those crystals, that mask, that cloak, this cage. He had a benefactor, and his benefactor wanted me for something, otherwise he’d have dispatched me. And if he wasn’t on the move, then that meant that this benefactor might be meeting him, here. And if that benefactor arrives, judging from their resources, their ability, and their dedication to capturing me, then I needed to escape. My chances of getting away from a spellcaster as prepared as they are, were slim, at this stage.
I needed to get out of this cage. I needed my magic.
I watched him settle back into his spot by the fire, where he slid off his leather gloves and rolled up his sleeves to the elbow, holding his palms against the firelight to warm them up. He flexed his fingers.
A tattoo on his forearm. A lion head, a squad number. Seventh legion. Special forces. Old guard. Not the sort to idly give up any information without lengthy… interrogation.
“So, who are we waiting for? Anyone I know? Should I freshen up? Maybe fluff myself up a bit? I’d hate to make a bad first impression.” I pressed my face to the bars with a broad smile, one hand still idly drawing those pretty, little vrykul squiggles, the other gesturing idly towards my exposed package.
His eyes rolled, from the fire to me, where he sneered again, and rolled up his sleeves for more warmth. His voice was more grunt than anything, “Shut up.”
“Such a sparkling conversationalist. If you keep this up, I might end up falling for you. Is your spouse the jealous sort?” My voice was equal parts saccharine and sardonic.
His eyes snapped to me, this time, and he rolled his sleeves down and wrenched his gloves back onto his hands.
He grunted as he bowed his head down to enter into his tent, coming out a few moments later with a carbine and a bottle of what I assumed was some form of drinkable goblin fuel from the whiff I got of it. The former, he loaded while making very arousing, intentional eye-contact. The latter, he loaded into himself with an impatient swig after setting the rifle down beside him with a final threatening glance to me. His hand idly went to his neck while he drank, to a ring suspended on a sturdy chain.
I set down my drawing stick, and lifted my hands passively, unthreatened, grinning through my hand as I held it up to my face and used the other to cover my bits, “If you’re going to shoot me, just don’t damage my money-makers. A man’s got to make a living.”
He grunted, in his way. Classic. After all this time I’ve spent with him, it’s the little quirks you appreciate.
Old special forces, turned merc. No tan-line on his finger, even if a professional might take it off for jobs. Touchy. Drinks on the job.
I laid on a bit more charm, occasionally looking up from my doodling, “Was it the drinking, the port-whores, or the discharge why she left you?”
It never hurts to do your fishing with a shotgun.
It’s truly an impressive sight to see a professional do their thing. And the speed and the precision with which he lifted that carbine up and fired into the center of the circular drawing I was making. It speaks to a man’s ability to be able to perform so well, even when crippled by what I could only assume to be severe depression and high-functioning alcoholism.
The shot rang out, and so did my laughter, my eyes wide with it as I looked down at the earth and idly turned the bullet hole into a small addition to my drawing, “It would appear that you missed me. Someone never got their marksman medal. Maybe you should lay off the hooch, Staff Sergeant Shell Shock.”
Well, it was at least one of those three.
His hands were steady, and he continued to stare at my over the iron-sights of his rifle, barrel still smoking. His mouth was a distasteful line and growled at me, “Shut up.”
I laid my forehead against the bars, again, this time, with a louder thunk. I let some gravel into my voice, I leaned into the metallic timbre of some of that borrowed Ebon magic, “Do you even know who I am, Private Parts? I can count on one hand how many people have the means and the resources to capture me like this, to give you those trinkets you were playing with earlier. This isn’t some mission against the Horde. I scorch and salt the fucking earth when I am so personally assaulted. I’ll rain sixteen shades of shit down on whatever quaint little hamlet-shire your lion-loving ass was whelped in. When, and I mean when, I escape, do you think it will take me any amount of time to start crossing names off that list? Before I found out who hired you, before I find out your name. Your family, your friends, your wife’s name. Hm?”
He kept his eye on me, appraising me a second time, and grunted as he came to a similar conclusion to the last. He sucked at his teeth, dismissively, and cracked the breach of his carbine, letting the shell fall to the dirt. He sat down and laid his gun at his feet, taking up his bottle, again, “Good luck with that, … “Bones”.”
The name dripped with something toxic, and he said it like he was going to be sick if it stayed in his mouth.
I drew in a small gasp of excitement, I let out a little laugh, “Hah, you know my name! What a coincidence, so did your wife. She loved to scream it when you were out on mission.”
He took an idle swig of his drink, humming a vague confirmation as he stoked the fire, “Mm-hm.”
I’ll be honest, I was upset that line of taunting didn’t pan out. Whatever cinders of anger I had lit had rapidly cooled. I just didn’t have enough to go on, and he was too tight-lipped to give me much of anything to work with.
I continued drawing. Giving my gambit a funerary silence for a few minutes, while my captor got more comfortable with his meal and his drink. It gave me time to think. To prepare for my next gambit. For Plan B.
I was going to annoy him to death. My specialty.
“You know what this reminds me of, Field Marshal Fuckwit?” I smiled across the way, wanting to meet his gaze.
He did not, for some reason, turn to look at me, and idly poked at the fire, giving me no recognition.
“I did some time with military men, when I was still a young wizard out of Dalaran. I remembered, everyone was always so… gruff, but it was always at camp when everyone came alive, when I found everyone most personable. All the joking and all the laughter, the singing. The singing was my favorite. I was always told what I lacked in talent, I made up for in volume.”
He exhaled, sighing audibly enough for me to hear from the cage.
“Feel free to join in if you know this one…” I drew in a breath and belted out a parody of a mournful tune, gratingly out of key, with all the sing-song charm of a rusty chainsaw cutting through a chalkboard, “my voice carrying out into the woods, “Oh, soldier booooy… Your cock, your cock is weeeeeeping… From balls to tip… and down along your thiiiiigh!”
From the darkness past the treeline, around our camp, wolves howled along with me, or maybe out of protest, and that was when my captor took notice of me, again. Perhaps, we weren’t as isolated as he liked.
I suppose no one wanted to be caught with a naked forsaken in a cage, especially in vrykul country; imagine the scandal.
He turned to face me, “Enough.”
“What’s wrong, Admiral Alcoholic? Don’t know the words? Just listen in, you’ll catch on-- YOUR WIFE IS GONE… BECAUSE THAT WHORE LEFT YOUR COCK SEEPING! ‘TIS YOU, ‘TIS YOU… WHO DRINKS ALONE… AND CRIES!”
Another wolf howled for mercy.
He stood with his rifle, and set its stock to his shoulder and looked at me over the sights, again, his voice authoritative, with just a dash of irritation, “Enough!”
I cackled, loud as I could, manic as I could, “BUT COME YE BACK, WHEN THE RED LIGHTS ARE ON IN THE WINDOWS… WHEN THEIR BREASTS ARE FLUSHED, AND THEIR HEADS SINK DOWN TO BLOOOOW!”
He took a step forward, “SHUT. UP--”
I broke from my song with a bit of spittle flying from my mouth, just to make a scene, “Or you’ll do what?! You’ll kill me?! After all that work to capture me alive?! I can’t imagine your employer will be very happy! And if they’re anything like me, I’m sure they’ll snuff you out like a cigarette and they’re done with their lunch break!”
I shook the bars vigorously and slammed my head against them with a hard thunk, enough that it rocked my vision for a moment. But this was corporeal pain, something I could filter from my mind easily. I slammed my head into it again, and I felt the warm trickle of green ichor swell on my forehead above my eyes. An actor should always be willing to bleed for a show, “What are you going to do about it?!”
He seemed to consider it, with gritted teeth and a curled lip, and cracked open his rifle, as if to remove the temptation of firing at me. He growled and went into the tent, aggressively rummaging in a way it was visible from outside, and pulled out a pair of manacles, and a long strip of cloth.
My eyes went wide with excitement, “Oh, kinky! Was this what you got up to with all those tarts? Your wife a bit of a boring lay?! My safe-word is Bronzebeard, by the way!”
He pulled his mask up over his nose, and plugged his ears with those purple gemstones with a wince, still damaged from our initial encounter. Then, with one of those necromantic blades strapped at his hip, he trudged over to the cage.
He was prepared for a struggle, and he was going to get one. This was my only chance. I just needed to get out of the cage. Just for a moment.
The door swung open with a harsh, metallic squeal, and he tried to step into the cage quickly, but I met him with a full-body charge.
There was a distinct difference in body types between us. He had a half a foot and probably forty pounds on my very scrappy 5’8’’ and buck-fifty. But, undeath afforded a body a deceptive strength if you had the willpower and mindset to use it properly. My muscles took no steps to preserve themselves like a living body might, and could snap and tighten and rip themselves apart in effort. I felt little pain, as well, through my own self-discipline and the magics binding my spirit to the corpse I was in, and I threw myself at him with little regard for my own well-being.
It was enough, and he stumbled backwards with a foot. He pivoted and held me at bay, dropping the manacles and the gag to draw the blade.
It was like drinking from an oasis. Like drawing in a breath after being submerged in water. Outside the cage, I felt my power rush into me, this vulnerable emptiness given way to a sense of confident sturdiness. I could taste the magic on my lips as I bared my teeth to him, “COME ON, SOLDIER BOY! HIT ME LIKE YOU WANT TO FUCK ME!”
His eyes narrowed, and he grimaced with effort to push me back. I shoved at him again and took a chunk of flesh from his cheek, staggering him back to the other foot as he roared with pain. He brought the pommel of the blade up, and then down, making the world spin inside my head as I felt blood pour from my nose.
I cackled and hacked down to the dirt, spitting out both our blood and the chunk of flesh from his cheek.
He shoved me back into the cage, and I hit the bars at the back of it hard enough that something shifted out of alignment, and pain radiated outwards from my spine. I slumped against it with a smirk.
“I told you that you’d get to see it when I was done.”
He had taken a moment to hold his fingertips to his cheek, before he glowered at me, and then glanced down to where I had been looking with an excited smile.
The vrykul runes beneath him began to glow, as that offering of flesh and blood congealed and coalesced into a viscous fluid that began to spread out along the grooves of the circle. The dry earth began to crack with wisps of white smoke and the sound of whispering souls.
It took a moment too long for that confusion to process into panic, and his eyes went wide with it as those runes exploded with alabaster fire and the shrieks of the dead. It enveloped him, and his own shrieks were lost in the cacophonous torrent of white-hot profane power.
He fell to the ground, a collection of singed bones, leather armor, two crystals, a sword, a face mask, and a ring on a sturdy chain.
He had really done a number on my back. I stood with a groan of exertion, and tried to stretch backwards with a wince.
Outside of the cage, I felt my magic rush back to my fingertips, again, and tilted my head to either side with a pop and crackle of bone.
I found my gear inside the tent, and quickly made myself decent. I didn’t want to waste more time here than I needed to.
But, I needed to know something.
That cage had seemed familiar, even without my magical senses. The style of the sigils, the placement, the syntax, the intricacy of it. It smacked of nostalgia, of something unmistakably familiar, something that I couldn’t quite place.
The school of divination was a useful school, but often, an overlooked one. Augury and soothsaying were often easily muddled and too-often inaccurate, but scrying and psychometry were quite useful things to the discerning magus.
Identifying an object was easy enough, any spellcaster worth their salt could do it. But, really getting into the nooks and crannies of an object, getting into its magical guts, was something you needed a proper ritual for.
Once I had cleared away my former captor’s detritus, I dug another circle around the cage. Draconic and Darnassian sigils and runes worked well for straightforward, traditional, vanilla magic like this.
I always kept five candles with me, enough for any reasonable circle, each of them made with human tallow, misshapen with chunks of corrupted gemstones mined from desecrated ground that I had molded them around. I lit each of their wicks and placed them around the cage.
In a bowl, I added a base to my potion, my jailer’s cheap whiskey and my own blood, and in it, I ground pearls, the feathers of an owl, chunks of ivory, and some of the man’s bones. I was hoping his whiskey and his bones, his connection to the artificer, would be an adequate enough link to help me identify who this was.
I drank it down, and I felt the burn of the whiskey tasted the tang of blood. I drew in a deep breath from the candles, and closed my eyes, reaching out to touch the bars of the cage.
I could feel the matrices of power within it. Layers of protective and anti-magics crafted carefully atop one another like oil and water. I could sense wards against frigid cold, against the necrosis and decay of necromantic power. Warded against the ethereal, as well. My specialties.
But I needed to dig past that. That was where most magi stopped.
Beyond the mechanics of it all, I rooted around with my magic, to find a clue of who it was. A spellcaster of considerable skill would have an aura of considerable potency. I might not know their name, or where they were, but I would know their magic, and that was an important first step to identifying them.
It wasn’t a name whispered, it wasn’t a face seen, but when my magic touched theirs, my mind’s eye dilated, and I became… instinctually aware of them. Of her. Of--
My eyes opened, my hands fell to the dirt. I suddenly felt… tired.