The first thing to swim into focus was the sound of quickly scuffling feet. Her body ached. Her skin burned cold. Her mind throbbed with the feeling that someone dear to her was in danger. She opened an eye experimentally and saw wooden bars in front of her.
She pulled herself to a sitting position. The air was damp and smelled of mold. She opened the other eye and saw that she was in a small cage with shackles joining her ankles with her wrists. A shiver went up her spine as she realized that her gear had been stripped and lay in a heap in the corner of the rotting room.
"No door on this cage. Looks like it grew here," she thought.
The scuffling noise returned, accompanied by angry sounding growls and a frightened whimper. The door opened with a bang and a nightelf stalked in.
"Ahhh, my new plaything is awake. Lovely." The sweet voice dripped with malice.
"Where am I?" the gnome asked.
"Where are you? Well, let me grrrab a chairrr and I'll give you exact coorrrdinates and details about all of my plans. Oh... wait... Sorrry. I have a meeting to get to."
The nightelf walked over to a pile of filthy straw and pulled a limp shape from underneath it. It was small and its white hair was dirty and matted. The nightelf smiled at the caged gnome and moved to the pile of clothing and gear. She dressed the old corpse first in the handmade green shirt and grease-stained pants, then in the mismatched and slightly oversized armor. Finally, she picked up the muddy hat. Staring into the gnome's eyes, the elf slapped it roughly onto the corpse's head.
Nightshade smiled again and said, "Don't frrret. I'll be back. Verrry soon."
Talula awoke to snuffling sounds close to her head. She looked over and saw a large bear sniffing about. Blinking, she wondered if this was just some strange dream. The bear noticed the awake gnome and skittered toward the corner of the room.
"Hey bear!" Talula called softly. "You should be out in the woods. There's a druid that lives here that's fond of collecting hearts."
The bear seemed to focus on the sound of her voice. Maybe it belongs to a nearby hunter. Talula opened her mouth to shout when the bear swung its head toward the door then scampered out. There was a pause and then Talula heard the crashing sounds and angry roars of some vicious fight. There was a loud yelp and the door slammed open violently. She watched the druid change from lithe cat to bloody and burned night elf and wondered what had happened. Nightshade waved her hand at the wooden cage and the branches twisted away, leaving Talula free to escape. Timing is everything. The night elf leaned in and made a clumsy grab at a shackled arm. Talula ducked and made a break for the door.
Nightshade scrambled after the gnome, grabbing her ankle and causing her to trip. An iron grip grabbed around the small neck and began to squeeze. Talula clawed at the druid's long fingers, kicking and thrashing wildly. Nightshade leaned in close and Talula saw the angry tears streaming down the graceful elven face.
"What is it? Does that blond half-breed bitch have enough magic to keep you all in thrall? Is this the real reason your precious Master hates magic? Because it competes with his own spells? Tell me what it is! Tell me why you all cling to one another even from the darkest places! You are all weak and useless! Tell me! Tell me why does he stay with you?"
Fingers tightened around the gnome's throat as Talula scratched for breath. The wailing voice filled her ears. "Why does he stay with you when he didn't stay with me?"
The room spun and then all went black.
Nightshade sat in the mouldy straw in the cornder of the room. She rocked back and forth slightly, paying no attention to the small, shackled corpse lying in the middle of the floor.
A loud cawing outside snapped the druid out of her trance. The crows had returned and she hoped they would bring her news that put her back on track. She had underestimated the power the Tong held over its members and that had cost her.
The crows were waiting for her in the branches of the dead maple that once shaded the cottage. They hopped down until they were at eye level with the night elf. She stroked their heads, making sweet and soothing sounds.
"I am in a dance with despairrr, my frrriends. I hope you brrring news that can set me back on my path." She leaned in close, placing her forehead against the dark, feathered heads. "Tell me what you know," she whispered.
Sparks dazzled her sight and then she was flying above the treetops. A brown haired man with arms like a smith spoke with a dwarf in the jungles of Un'goro. The man slipped and found a tool half burried in the tar.
"They've discovered their gnome is missing," she thought as the vision blurred and her eyes came to rest on a pair of Forsaken. The smaller of the two had a hand rested on the other's shoulder. The crow had overheard the conversation and Nightshade had to concentrate to make sense of the bird's memory.
"We're gonna get the ... give it to Lazruth .... to cure your cousin." There was more conversation that she couldn't make out and then " Ben, you gotta tell me ... We're a team ... gotta trust..."
Nightshade spat as the bile rose in her throat. I hate them all. They are so pathetic.
The last vision came in a swirl of noise and flying rubble. He was there. Taking careful aim. Firing the gun. She watched him peel off his armor and jump into the lake. Do you remember our late night swims, Qal'Tirrin? Floating together in the warm waters of the south seas?
The vision shifted and she saw the Broken looting the camp. She watched as the night elf sprang from the lake, as he effortlessly killed the intruders. "So graceful," she thought. "So beautiful. So merciless. You should never have left me." She wondered for a moment if it was her face he saw when he pulled the trigger.
Nightshade leaned back, breaking contact with the birds. A plan was forming. She knew who the next target would be. All she needed was a little information.
The crows took wing as the druid went back into the shack. She was still injured and exhausted but there was enough power left in her to work the magic. The corpse was on the floor where she left it.
"I hate raising the dead," she said to it and began to cast the spell.
Lu chewed on the end of her cigar and fiddled with the tiles in front of her. The last eight hands had been pushes and tension had built to see who was going to finally win. Nora was good. She had managed to take what little coin the others had - not that coin meant anything here - and the dour and pessimistic gnome made sure to point this out.
"Don't know why we're still sitting here playing with these tiles and drinking like it's the Lunar fest," Nora complained. "The city's lost anyway."
Lu pounded the last of her rum and divided the four tiles, her face a mask of neutrality. She was all in at this point and eager to be done with the game, if only to get back to more sociable gnomes and more drinking. She closed her eyes. This is two pair. If it wins, we win the war. If it wins, we retake Gnomeregan. She looked back at Nora and flipped the tiles with an air of confidence, revealing a paired Mooy and mixed nines. The table erupted in good natured hoots and laugher as the older gnome threw her tiles on the table in disgust.
Lu gathered her winnings and another round was poured. Waving a worn and stained copper piece in Nora's face, Lu cheerfully slurred "This! This coin right here shows how much you know. As long as there are Gnomes in Gnomeregan, the city hasn't fallen and I for one am never leaving." She leaned in closer, so only Nora could hear her "And if I ever hear you question why we're here again, I'll give you to the troggs myself."
The laugher and noisy revelry died away as Talula returned to consciousness. Her throat burned and the dampness of the place was setting into her bones. She stiffly crawled to the far edge of her cage when she noticed Nightshade sitting over her, watching her dream.
"Mmmm. I see you smiling in yourrr sleep, gnome. Drrreaming happy thoughts of yourrr family? That's good." Nightshade's purring voice did little to soothe the apprehension building in Talula's stomach. The druid reverently laid a set of tools on the ground in front of the cage. Mallets. Knives. Hooks. She looked back up at the gnome with an evil grin. "I want them frrresh in yourrrr mind when you tell me all about them. Let's start with the one called Ben."
"Well you've been most uncooperrrative, gnome," Nightshade said, disappointment thick in her voice. The night elf looked down at the broken body and sighed. "No matterrr. By now, yourrr otherrr orrrc frrriend has been taken carrre of and the sad little Forrresaken with the sick cousin is next. They'll all fall, even if you didn't tell me anything useful."
The druid wiped bloody hands on her pants and stood. "Pity you won't live long enough to see it, but I have an unbeating hearrrt to claim and you're just not enterrrtaining enough to brrring back frrrom the dead a thirrrd time."
Talula heard the footsteps change from boot heels to padded paws and then she was alone. The damp air seemed refreshing now. She slowly raised her right hand to her good eye. So much for my engineering career. There was a faint buzzing sound in her ears. She closed her eyes and drifted off, her last thoughts full of regret that she lacked the strength to warn her family.
Rob had been in the swamp for nearly a week, with nothing to show for it but clumps of mud on his boots and a lost rifle (courtesy of a group of now mostly dead murlocs which had found his camp). He was now back in Stormwind to see if he could gather anything new and get a little rest.
There were two notes from Borin that had been slipped under his door. It seemed he had had a little more luck. The first note said he had left the the crater on the Tanaris side and, after sharing a few beers, had apparently become friendly with a Gadgetzan flight master named Bera. After mentioning to her that he was helping his friend track down a druid, Bera told him about a night elf woman that had been there a few days ago carrying an odd shaped sack and demanding an immediate gryphon flight to Theramore.
From Theramore all it took was a few coins given to the right people to discover that she had booked a boat to Menethil. "She paid enough for me not to ask questions," Ol' Salty said with a chuckle, "but not quite enough fer me to keep it to myself."
The second note indicated that Borin had been in Stormwind for a few days, but had decided to carry on to Menethil himself. If Rob hadn't heard back from him, he should meet him in the harbor.
Unsure of how long it had been since the dwarf had left the notes, Rob decided not to linger and started the long trip to Menethil.
"I can sleep when I'm dead," he thought.
The dream started like it did every night. The long slow procession of the relatives of all of the people he had killed. Each with that haunted look in their eyes as they asked him over and over Why? Why my brother? Why my Father? Why my daughter? Why my husband? "Excuse me.... could I get by here please?"
That last one startled Litto. He looked toward the distant part of the line, and saw his haunting shades milling in confusion. Then he heard the high pitched voice again "Hello... you the tall one.... could you let me by?" Now there was a definate change in things. His haunts all seemed to be looking back into the mass, none of them were asking him why anymore. The voiced piped up again, and he swore it was familiar "OK... ALL OF YOU... GET OUT OF MY WAY!" Suddenly, the sea of shades parted, and Talula came walking through.
She stopped in front of Litto, who could only stare at her in suprise. Turning to the mob she said "Excuse me please, I will only need him for a few moments, then you all can go on with your business." Talula then turned back to Litto and smiled "Hello Mr. Litto, good to see you." She pointed over her shoulder at the now patiently waiting mob of haunts. " You need to do something about that, maybe you could get one of those number dispensing things." Litto nodded to her, a bit confused.
"Anyway, its obvious you are very busy here, so I will get to the point.... Isn't there something you should be doing sir?" Litto looked at Talula and shrugged "Doing Lu? I dont understand?" Talula frowned. " You know Mr. Litto... something important... something you might have lost maybe?" Litto looked confused again "Lu, I dont think I have lost anything... maybe if you gave me a hint?"
Talula sighed, then motioned for Litto to lean down so she could whisper in his ear... "ME!.... YOU LOST ME!" Litto jumped back and stared down at Talula, who was now smiling at him again. "Is that a good enough hint Mr. Litto?" she asked with a twinkle in her eyes. Litto smiled back, now that he understood what she meant. "Yes Lu, it was a very good hint. I am sorry I waited so long. I will get on this right away."
Talula smiled and then turned to the mob. "You do that sir, I will keep this bunch occupied till you find me." Talula then proceeded to issue directions to the mass of haunts that normally occupied Litto's dreams "Right then, you all form one line, and put your hands on each others shoulders. When I say go, you start swaying and dancing as you walk. Its called a Conga line, and with a bit of practice you should be able to get it right." She turned to Litto as the dream began to fade out "Don't worry Mr. Litto, once they get tired of the Conga line I will teach them how to limbo. We Gnomes limbo really well...."
Litto sat up in his bed. He mind was immediately clear as it always was when he awoke. Rob had said something about Ungoro. There were three possible flight paths one could take out of there. One in Ungoro itself, the second in the Cenarian Hold in Silithus, and the last at Gaget in Tanaris. Tanaris was the closest, he would start there.
Litto had been in and out of Tanaris quite a bit lately. His studies in jewelry making required lots of metals and gems, and Tanaris had a lot of what he needed. He always smiled and had a word or two with the flight master, a nice Dwarvish female named Bera. He found, that if you were nice to people, they tended to be nice back, and Bera was no exception.
He explained that he was interested in news about a druid matching Nightshades description who might have passed through Tanaris in the last few days. Bera seemed suprised that he was asking, since, as she informed him, a nice Dwarvish hunter had been asking the same question, with the same description, not that long ago. This interested Litto greatly.
Bera told him what she had told the dwarf, that a druid matching that description and toting a very large sack had passed through a while back on her way to Theramore. After getting a description of the Dwarf hunter, Litto thanked Bera, complimented her on her lovely hair style, and caught a flight to Theramore.
In Theramore, Litto asked the flight master if he remembered seeing either the Dwarf or the Elf. The flight master didnt remember the Elf, but he did remember the Dwarf. He mentioned that the Dwarf had spent a good bit of time talking to Ol Salty Hudson, and pointed out where Litto could find him. After a few sips from the flask Litto carried for such occasions, and a bit of coin, Salty admitted to shipping both the Elf and the Dwarf off to Menethil. Litto arranged passage for himself there, then paid Salty a bit more coin to forget he had ever seen Litto.
As the boat departed the harbor for Menethil, Litto thought about what he knew. The Elf was going someplace planned, as from the sound of it, she was telling people what she wanted to do, rather than asking people for options. The Dwarf, was on her tail, though Litto could not be sure for what purpose. Lu was either dead or sedated, as none of the people questioned so far had mentioned any sorts of noises coming from the bag the Druid carried. Litto hoped for sedated. He wanted to see Lu alive again. After all, she was the first person in years to change his horrible nightmare into something better.
Litto stared off into the horizon as the boat began moving... "Dont worry Lu" he whispered to the wind "I'm coming." Back to top View user's profile Send private message
"It's about time ya got 'ere," a loud dwarven accent called out from somewhere in the crowded tavern. Rob stood in the entryway, looking for the source. He had just spotted Borin at the bar when an obnoxious man with with a mug of ale in one hand and a very intoxicated woman in the other pushed past him.
The stool next to the dwarf was occupied by a young sailor with a bandanna around his head. The sailor was sprawled out over the bar with his eyes closed, so with a nudge Rob helped him find a new spot on the floor. Sitting down, he took of his hat and ordered a pint for himself and one for Bor.
"It's not usually this crowded is it?" Rob asked.
"New recruits it seems," the dwarf responded. "Shippin' out to Theramore in the mornin'."
Rob smiled and nodded to the barmaid as she put the drinks on the table, then turned back to his friend. "Thanks for your help Bor. I appreciate everything you've done."
"You just get me those thorium ingots ya promised me an we'll be even," he replied.
"So, what's the word? Have you found anything here?"
The dwarf looked thoughtful. "Not really," he responded. "I only just got 'ere this mornin' an it looks like me lucks run out."
Rob sat quietly. He tilted his head towards various groups in the room, silently eavesdropping on their conversations. Next to the fireplace a group of local fishermen were playing a card game and talking about how wild the waves had been that day. An older man leaning on a rail was telling the barmaid how pretty she looked in that dress. At another table some men were laughing about that time Alan had slept in and missed archery training.
Then Rob caught a conversation of interest.
"I tell ya Nigel, people these days got no respect for nobody! Like that broad from Stormwind on the ship demanding we change course just because she was going to be late for some damn party."
"Tell me about it," Nigel said. "Why, just the other day some night elf was flying off the handle because they weren't letting her take this big bag on the gryphons. The flight master was telling her that she needed to get it shipped separately and she flat out refused to listen to reason. You know they don't want to be held accountable for people dropping stuff mid-flight into god-knows-where, but she..."
Nigel looked up and saw that Rob standing next to him. "What the hell do you want you overgrown son of a murloc?"
"Where was she going?"
"What!?" Nigel laughed and stood up. The top of his head barely reached Rob's chin. "Mind your own damn business you fish-brained mongrel!"
Rob knew the punch was coming. The man named Nigel had balled his hand into a fist before he had even stood up. He caught the hand before it had a chance to land against his face. Rob tightened his grip and twisted the wrist around, causing the man to fall on his knees. "I only asked where she was going. There's no need to be rude."
"You bastard," spat the man. "You can't do anything to me. I'm an official guard here."
Rob stared down coldly and tightened his grip. Nigel yelled when his ring finger made a loud snapping sound. "Where did she go?"
Between clenched teeth Nigel finally responded. "I think she was headed to Aerie Peak. Get off of me you stupid brute."
Rob released his grip on the man's hand. "Thank you," he said. "Come on Bor, we've got a flight to catch."
Outside the tavern it was dark. A cold rain had just started falling, making tapping sounds against the buildings. The lamps from the docks were shining through the fog.
"I can see why ya have so many friends," Borin said sarcastically.
Inside the tavern, Nigels friend mentioned how people these days don't have respect for anybody.
When the boat landed at Menethil, Litto made straight for the Flight Master. Like Tanaris, Litto had been in and out of Menethil quite a bit recently, and like Tanaris, he had always made sure he had a smile and a nice thing to say to the Flight Master. She was human, and while he didn't know her well, he hoped she remembered his good manners and was in a mood to talk.
It was obvious the Dwarf was on the same trail he was, so to confuse things a bit for anyone who might be following him, he asked the Flight Master about the Dwarf, instead of the Elf. She smiled at him and mentioned that a Dwarf of that discription had departed less than an hour ago for Aerie Peak with a very large human. Interesting, thought Litto, the Elf's tail grows larger. She provided him a fairly good description of the human, and Litto began to suspect that perhaps it was Rob. He hoped so, because he did not fancy dealing with the Elf a Dwarf and a Human all by himself.
Litto bought himself a flight to the peak, and as soon as it took off he keyed his comms unit. "Rob, this is Litto.... if your out there chime in, I think we are pursuing the same trail."
Rob was just settling in to get some much needed sleep. The Wildhammers had been kind enough to let them stay in one of the rooms of the keep without paying for board. The room seemed to have been set aside for visitors. The beds were plenty big enough, which was always a relief when it came to visiting dwarven towns. Most night elves would probably even be comfortable. Two levels of bunks circled the room, about sixteen beds all together. Tonight though, there were only two guests.
Rob was on his back on the top corner bunk. His dwarf traveling companion it seemed was already sleeping comfortably on the other side of the room with his face turned to the wall. From the carelessly piled clothes down on the floor a voice cracked over the com.
"Rob, this is Litto.... if your out there chime in, I think we are pursuing the same trail."
Borin murmured something from his side of the room and buried his head in the pillow. Rob's first reaction was regret that he hadn't turned the contraption off. Litto? He didn't really know the guy. Rob wondered if he was one of the new recruits. Tai must have sent him. He really did worry too much.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and dropped to the ground. He picked up the com and walked into the hallway, wearing nothing but a very loose cotton shirt and his undershorts. He didn't know what he should say.
"Whatever," he replied. "I'm at Aerie Peak now and I'm going to sleep. If you're here in the morning you can tag along."
From down the hall a guard with a lantern watched him quizzically. Rob hit the switch that he assumed disconnected his com and waved at the guard before returning to the room. He tossed it on top of the clothes pile and leaped back into the bunk.
"Litto! Rob! This is Phea, where the fel are you two?" The familiar voice crackled over chant between strong gusts of wind.
Phealea landed in the Wetlands and wrinkled her nose at the odd smell of the harbor. It brought back many good memories of sitting around a fire with many good friends and allies. A smile formed on her face at the memories. the smile was short lived as she mental scolded herself for drifting from the target at hand.
"I just hit the Menethil Harbor. I hear you two have a lead on Lula. I intend to go with you." She stated as she scanned the harbor for the two men.
Rob's response left little doubt in Litto's mind that he would be viewed as excess bagage in the upcoming search. Well, he could live with that if that was what it took to find Lu. If Rob was looking for the credit for finding her, more power to him. All Litto wanted was Lu back safe and sound.
Phealea's call brought him back from those thoughts. "Phealea, Rob is in Aerie Peak, following a fairly fresh trail. I am on my way there. Recommend you grab the next flight out and meet us there."
Phealea's response was short and to the point "Right, see you there."
Litto wondered how Rob would react to even more "help." Rob would certainly know Phealea well, which would probably make him more comfortable with her than with a new recruit he knew little about. Litto reminded himself that he would probably feel the same way about someone new who showed up to "help" him with a mission as well. "Oh well" he thought to himself "maybe one day I wont be the new guy everyone has to wonder about."
LItto arrived in the middle of the night. He was too fired up to sleep, so he decided instead to ask around a bit. The Windhammer Dwarves are a wild bunch, so even in the middle of the night there are a few to be found in the pub. One or two of those were even sober enough to answer a few questions.
Aerie Peak was unlike the other stops in the chase for several reasons. First, as an out of the way flight path, it didn't get nearly the traffic that the other stops did. Secondly, the Windhammers were a naturally suspicious lot, and kept a close eye on any strangers that came through. Litto had done a few favors for them in the past, and had earned enough of their respect to warrent a few begrugging answers.
Yes, they had seen a druid matching his description pass through the Peak a few days back. Yes she had been lugging about a fairly large bag. She had purchased some wards against the plague and had headed out through the pass that leads to the northwest. Beyond a doubt, the druid was headed to the Plaguelands. LItto sat at his table in the pub and thought about what the next steps should be.
Had Rob already discovered the information he had? Most likely, given the efficiency with which he had tracked the druid so far. That would mean a trip into the Plaguelands for them. He sent a note to the flight master via the Pub Owners son (along with a nice tip to make sure he got about it quickly). The note was to be given to Phealea when she landed. It told her what he knew so far, and requested she meet him in the pub. He broke out an old map he had picked up at the Eastern Plaguelands flight path and began to poor over it for possible places the Druid could have gone.
It was not long before Phealea landed at Aerie Peak. She shook the hands of a few of the Dwarves there who were still grateful of a few of the jobs she had done for them. She flashed them warm smiles but she did not dally long to make conversation. She was busy and sometimes appearances could wait. She clicked on her comes as she went and spoke low in Cant.
"Hey Rob, where are you? And where are we headed?" She asked.
She pushed her way along in the dwarven stronghold as she peered about for either man.
The Dwarvish lad had tried to get Phealea's attention when she landed, waiting his turn as his elders greeted her. Unfortunately, she stormed off down the path before he had a chance to hand over the note the human had given him. The human had paid him a gold, and he did not wish to give it back for failing to deliver the note, so he ran after the woman.
"Miss.... Miss..." he called after her. Phealea stopped and turned, staring the young Dwarf down. "What?" she said impatiently.
"This is for you miss. The human who wrote it is in my father's Pub. He said I should show you the way once you read the note." He then handed over the note watched her read it, and showed her to the table where Litto was waiting.
Litto greeted Phealea when she walked in. He took a few moments to explain what he had found out, and then pointed to the map on the table. "Best I can tell, she went through this pass into the Plaguelands. Rob may know more, but he is still sleeping. I am prepared to do what ever you two wish me to do."
...Somewhere in the Eastern Plaguelands...
Talula opened her eyes to see a familiar face close by. She managed a smile. "Hugo. 's good ta see you."
"Hey, Lu. You're looking a little rough there," the gnome answered.
She attempted to laugh. "Yeah. Been dead a few days. Had a bit of a rough patch just before. Hey, are mice building a nest in my thigh?" He smiled back at her and she asked in a more serious tone, "You come ta take me home?"
"Nah. You can't go just yet. You've still got stuff to do here," he answered smiling.
"It's all over, Hugh. We lost the war." Talula stood up and dusted herself off. "I killed most of my first family and who knows what's happened to my second. I got nightmares I can't remember and secrets I'm keepin' from folks I should trust. A gnome shouldn't be afraid of the people she loves. Besides," she added, gesturing down at the small, rotting body at her feet, "Look at it. 'sall broken."
"Sorry love. You know why you can't come with me yet."
Talula sighed. "Well, I can't go home and I don't think gnomes were meant to live with humans. Or elves or forsaken or orcs. They're all so passionate and beautiful and dangerous. It's like watching dragons in flight. It took 26 years for me to learn their language, and I so rarely understand them."
She chuckled then and said, "You know, they don't even play Pai Gow? Just some odd card game called Poke Her that I always beat them at. There's no challenge at all."
The two stood in silence for a long moment. Talula found her thoughts swimming with family, past and present, of promises broken and promises that needed keeping. After a while Hugo said softly, "It's time to go back."
Talula nodded, dreading the return and what lay ahead. "I miss you, Hugh."
He gave a wistful smile and kissed her cheek. The vision began to swim and the sharp pain in her arm turned to a dull throb. She opened her eyes and saw a bear peering down at her. Its fur was white and its eyes were strangely mismatched. A comfortable warmth radiated from the beast. Just before she fell into a peaceful sleep, she swore she heard a soft, musical voice in her mind saying over and over again "I'm so sorry."
Rob walked up to the table where Litto and Phealea were looking over an old map of the Plaguelands. The hair on the left side of his head arched upward, the way that it does after being pressed against a pillow for hours. Half of his shirt was untucked, and he was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his thumb and index finger. He had a large, but simple two handed sword strapped to his back. An eastern style sword was sheathed on his left side, and a dwarven axe hung from his right. He also had a pocket on his pants for a dagger and an ammo pouch for a missing rifle.
"Hey guys," he said groggily. He bit off a chunk of bread and only chewed a couple of times before asking with his mouth full, "You heading to the Plaguelands?" And without waiting for a response added, "Mind if I come along?"
A crumb of bread fell out and nestled itself in his beard.
Litto looked up from the map and smiled at Rob. "Hi Rob, good to see you. Miss Phealea and I were just trying to figure out how to search such a large area. She suggested we might want to cut the area in thirds and each take a section. Then if anyone finds anything he or she can let the other two know on comms."
Both Rob and Phealea agreed, so the three of them sectioned the map, and each prepared to leave Aerie Peak. They rode through the pass together, then each proceeded in their designated direction.
"I hope this works" Litto whispered to himself.
Phealea scowled. They had left before dawn and split up to cover more ground. Now, with the day growing short, they seemed no closer to finding their friend.
"Rob? Litto?" she called into her comm. "I'm not having any luck. Let's meet up at the western edge of Blackwood Lake. Just south of the scar."
An hour later the frustrated group huddled together over an old map, discussing their options.
"I'm starting to think we need to go further west. Maybe over by Darrowmere Lake," Litto suggested. Borin nodded in agreement. "Aye. There's also a network o' caves in that area. T'would be a good place for hidin' out."
As they headed back to their mounts, Rob called out "Hey! What's that over there?" All eyes turned to where he was pointing. In the shadow of giant cedars was the outline of a small building.
They approched cautiously on foot, alert for any signs of danger. Borin looked at the ground and pointed out the footprints in the mud. "Here, lad. Night elf and some kind of big cat. These fresh ones look like bear."
Phea heard a small qork and looked up to see a raven sitting high in the branches of a dead maple. With a graceful wave of her hand, icy winds engulfed the creature, freezing it in place. I wonder, can your mistress feel what you feel? She flicked her fingers, shattering the ice and sending black feathers flying in all directions.
Rob, Litto and Borin had all drawn their weapons and were poised outside the closed door of the collapsing cottage. Rob counted quietly One... Two... THREE. Litto pushed open the door and they burst into the small room.
The air in the cottage was damp and foul. A set of tools lay forgotten on the floor. Phea spotted a whisp of silvery hair poking up from beneath a pile of mouldy and stained straw and rushed over to uncover a battered and swollen Talula.
The mage held her breath as she checked for signs of life from her friend. A soft moan escaped the gnome's lips and she opened one eye to look up at Phea. It was a long moment before one side of Talula's mouth turned up in a small grin. Her head rolled heavily to the side as she worked to bring the faces of Litto, Rob and Borin into focus.
"Litto ni Rob Tong mira hroth hrats. Sint yel..." Talula paused for a cough that shook her body and added "Varicchyra voynik serg."
It took the group a moment to realize the strange bubbling sound coming from the gnome was laughter. Litto blinked and then began to chuckle too.
"What did she say?" Rob asked.
Litto's gnomish was limited, but he had picked up enough from working for Rocketfeller to understand. "She said something about knowing that we'd be the Tigers who found her, because she owes us both money."
Phealea's eyes went wide when she first spotted the silver strands of hair. She hoped with all she had that Talula was okay as she rushed over. She threw the debris from the her friend and held back a gasp as she saw the beaten and battered body.
Her eyes began to glisten with tears she would not allow to fall right now as she checked for a pulse. The moment seemed to stretch into infinity and Phealea's heart tittered on destruction. Then a beat and Phealea let out a small sigh of relief. It was then Talula let out a small moan and cracked open one eye and stared up at the mage. Phealea could only stare back and offer her a weak smile.
There was a long moment that passed in silence as the two stared at each other. In that glance a myriad of emotions passed in-between the two women.
Phealea was awashed in emotions that reflected in her eyes, while her face kept her weak smile. Talula however, saw the conflict inside of the young mage. Joy and relief showed plainly as day, however behind that showed her regret and her sadness. It was she who put Talula here and it was her actions that caused Talula to suffer so much. Talula read her friend like a book and gave her a small grin to help settle the internal battle being fought in her mind.
As Talula turned to speak to Litto and Rob, Phealea set her hand on Talula's forehead and let out another small sigh.
Lula, thanks. Phealea thought as she held back more tears.
Litto produced the healing potion he had been carrying for just this purpose, and coaxed Talula into drinking it down. In broken Gnomish he told her "Darn right you owe me money, so you dont get to die." Wrapping her wounds in the bandages he always carried, Litto turned to Phealea.
"Phea, how about one of those Portals you mages are famous for? I think Lu and the rest of us could use a quick trip to Stormwind and a visit to a capable priest." With that, Litto picked up Talula and waited as Phealea conjured up a portal. The three Tongs stepped through the magical door, carrying the fourth. Talula slept through it all, lulled to sleep by the warmth the potion spread through her battered body. A highly capable and discrete priest was found, and Talula's healing process began.
For the first time in two days, Litto's addrenalin level eased up. He headed off to a rented room, secure in the thought that Lu was being well cared for. He prayed his shades would give him at least a bit of the rest he so badly needed.
When Litto finally drifted off to sleep, he wasn't met with the usual sea of faces. Instead, they were paired up and seemed to be waltzing. Two of the shades stopped as he approched and began the questions.
Why my sister? Why my aunt?
A familiar squeeky voice called over to them. "No, no! You're supposed to be waltzing. Alright everyone! Thanks to Celeste and Timmy here, you will all run to that farmhouse in Westfall and back. No shortcuts Mikey!"
The shades stared at her.
"I mean it!" she barked like a drill sargent. "Go! Go! Go!"
One by one, they ran into the darkness and vanished.
"Vincent!" she called to a burly man dressed in the uniform of a Stormwind guard, "Make sure that Molly and Dwight go all the way out and back."
The ghost of Vincent nodded and took off.
One by one the spirits that haunted Litto's dreams vanished, until it was just the two of them in the dark.
"That's better," Lu said with a smile. "The certainly are a chatty group. How do you get any rest?"
"I really don't," Litto answered.
Talula nodded and said "You know sir, I just want to say that I appreciate the effort you've put in to tracking me down. I know that it's taken you away from more profitable ventures. You and I have only just met but you've put yourself at risk on my behalf. That's not something I'll forget."
"But Lu, this is just a dream. You aren't really here, are you?"
Talula just smiled and said, "It's a six hour run out to that house and back. I'd get some rest if I were you. It sounds like you could use it."
She turned to walk toward the darkness.
"Wait a minute," Litto called, "Do you have some kind of magic that lets you talk to people in their dreams?"
"Nope. Distinctly non-magical, much to the dismay of my mother." She waved at him without turning around. "Enjoy a peaceful rest before they get back, sir. Think of it as my gift to you."
In the morning, when Litto awoke fully rested for the first time in as long as he could remember, he whispered to the morning light "All debts forgiven Lu. Now I owe you."
Rob waited for the other tigers to step through the portal. Phealea and Litto would take good care of little Talula. He smiled, happy that his friends would all be resting safely tonight. He stood there, staring at the portal until it finally disappeared in a puff of glowing mist.
Bor stood by the broken in doorway of the cottage and took out his pipe. "Not goin' back with em?"
Rob shook his head and put his hat back on. "Don't need to."
"I'll send those thorium bars to your place at the loch," Rob added.
"See that you do," the dwarf replied with a grin as he took his leave.
Rob walked back through the dead forests toward Aerie Peak alone. Even traveling through there his spirits were lifted. It seemed to him like the sun shone a little brighter. A large raven perched on a branch near the road cawed loudly. Rob flicked a pebble at the bird.