- --by Krelle
Krelle nodded to Nargesh as she slid off her undead horse, leaving the mindless creature by the cave entrance. She'd never named it. Lu's mechanostrider had more personality - and required more maintenance - than her mount ever would.
Nargesh led her worldessly into the cave. Her eyes adapted rapidly to the darkness inside, picking out the silhouette of the wounded orc on the floor.
"Bind his arms behind him," she said emotionlessly in the Cant. Nargesh complied silently. The captive cursed loudly but couldn't thrash much - his broken legs made movement painful. The orc twisted around to spit in his captor's face. Nargesh growled, raising a huge fist to backhand him but was pulled up short by Krelle's sharp "Hey!"
Krelle smiled mirthlessly as her Vanguard looked at her. "You'll break his face, Narg. He needs his face to talk."
Nargesh grunted, wiping the spittle from his cheek as he stood. "You want a hand?" he offered, taking his cue from Krelle and speaking in the Cant.
She shook her head mutely. "I'll be fine. Watch the entrance."
Nargesh nodded once, giving the captive a kick in the knee by way of parting as he headed back towards the faint light of the Duskwood night.
The big orc sighed, stirring up the fire. He'd been trying not to listen to the screams coming out of the cave for the past hour, but there wasn't much else to listen to out here. He found himself wishing that someone would come to investigate the wails, just so he could distract himself with a fight.
He wondered when she would start asking questions.
The faint hints of dawn were touching the horizon when the small Forsaken finally appeared at the cave mouth. Nargesh stood up immediately, his hand going for his weapon, but she raised a hand to still him.
"None of it's mine, Narg."
He stood, unsure of what to say as she came and sank to a seat by the fire. Her hands and face where covered in blood, as though it had poured out of her mouth onto them. Drops of it had matted in her hair, and smeared her cheeks. Her knees were bloody too, and her arms, chest, and legs were spotted with the dark red stains. Her left hand still held her skinning knife. The big orc glanced towards the cave - the captive was obviously still alive, though his sobbing was growing fainter.
Nargesh looked back to the small silhouette by the fire, then shrugged philosphically and sat back down. He waited in silence, letting Krelle decide when to talk.
Eventually she spoke, not looking up from the embers. "They ambushed Nerrok," she said quietly, and Nargesh felt his hands ball themselves into fists as she continued. "Nightshade charged in, but there were ten of them. He wounded her badly and killed three others."
She shook her head. "He finally fell, and Nightshade swooned. Apparently he managed to poison her. Her men brought her back to her house. When she found out they had forgotten to cut out his heart, she killed one of them in a rage. She sent two others back to go get it."
Nargesh had to remind himself to breathe as she shifted her weight on the ground.
"They went back, seveal hours later. They couldn't find the body."
"They cut out the heart of one of the orcs that Nerrok had killed instead, and told Nightshade it had been his. They threw the others and everything they could find into the lake, hoping she wouldn't find out. She never did."
The two tigers sat in silence as the sun rose through the trees. After a moment, Nargesh noticed that their prisoner had fallen quiet. He was faintly relieved not to have to go back there to finish him off.
Eventually, Krelle sighed and stood up. Her leather creaked as she brushed herself off. "Guess I should wash up," she murmured.
He pointed helpfully to the south. "Stream over that way, hundred yards or so."
She nodded absently at him, staring off into the woods as though distracted. He stayed quiet again, knowing that she needed time to think. Eventually she shook herself slightly, and turned back to him. "Thanks for waiting, Narg." She nodded absently to the small metal pot by Nargesh's feet. "What'd ya have for supper, then?"
He lifted the lid. "Beans." There were still some left - he hadn't been that hungry, for some reason. "Want some?"
"No thanks," she said quietly as she turned away. "I already ate."
Krelle knocked softly on the closed-over office door. "Tai?" she called, poking her head inside.
Tai grunted and looked up from the paperwork at his desk. "Eh?"
"Got a minute?" she asked, slipping in to the room and closing the door behind her.
"For you? I'd better," he joked. He pushed aside the papers he'd been reading and cocked an eyebrow at his fellow Tiger Master. "What's up?"
Krelle seemed particularly subdued as she sank into a chair. "Well, I got some news. Only, I'm not sure if I oughtta make it general knowledge, so I figure I'll just tell you and let you decide," she said with a little smirk, trying to make a joke of it.
Tai sighed a bit, shaking his head ruefully, but nodded at her. "Fire away."
Krelle nodded, looking down for a moment as she gathered her thoughts. Tai frowned as he picked up her mood but waited for her to speak.
"After the Caravan, Murithi and Nargesh fanned back to look for any stragglers. Nargesh found some. He tends to kill people by accident, but he managed to catch one alive. Both legs broken."
"At least he wasn't going to run on you."
"Heh. Yeah...Narg told me and I asked him to hold off on killing him. I headed down to Duskwood. Narg had him holed up in a cave there. I asked him a few questions. The heart we got, with this…" she pulled out Nerrok's bandana. "It wasn't his, Tai. Ten of them ganged up on Nerrok in the fight, Nightshade with them. He wounded her, though, and she passed out. They left Nerrok for dead and took her home. She sent them back to get the heart, but his body was gone."
Tai remained silent, absorbing the news. After a moment he reached for the bandana and she handed it to him as she continued. "They took the heart of an orc he'd killed and pitched everything into the lake. Nightshade never found out."
"What about this?" Tai asked quietly, holding up the bandana. His fingers rubbed the rough material thoughtfully.
"They beat him in the fight, Tai - he left a lot of gear on the field. But... I'm not the only one who knows how to play possum," she said. Tai had seen her play dead before - quite convincingly - but it wasn't necessary to be Forsaken to pull off that trick.
Tai nodded slowly, frowning at the bandana in his hand. He took a deep breath before speaking, treading very carefully. "So… you're thinking…"
"It doesn't prove anything," Krelle interrupted. "He might have crawled off to die of his wounds, I know - It would explain why he hasn't come back to us. But, like I said, I won't take anything as writ unless I see the body," she said with a frown. "That's what caused this Nightshade mess in the first place."
"What caused the Nightshade mess was Nightshade. Period."
Krelle remained silent as Tai muttered a few choice oaths, carefully keeping her face blank. She didn't argue, recognizing the rebuke, but she gave no sign of agreeing with him either.
Tai took a slow breath, then handed the bandana back. Krelle took the cloth gravely, folding it back up and stashing it back in a pocket.
"I want him back too Krelle," Tai began, choosing his words with obvious care. Krelle kept her face a neutral mask as he spoke. "Thing is ...This is good to know. But does it change much?"
"No," she said simply. She already knew that.
Tai nodded. "We looked high and low for him. Blew his comm… Krelle, between you and me... I'm not sure either of us would believe it even if we saw a body," he said with a little shrug. Krelle's lips pressed together, but she didn’t voice her disagreement. A body was exactly what would convince her.
"We have to keep moving," Tai continued. "Tell me this. If we share this ... how does that help Nerrok, the Tigers ..or us?"
Krelle nodded at him. Clear enough. He thought she ought to keep it to herself. "That's all I wanted to know," she said, slipping off of her chair. She paused beside it as Tai spoke again.
"You ok?" he asked, obviously worried he'd said the wrong thing. It was a touchy subject.
"I'm fine," she said flatly, and felt a momentary pang of something. She realized she felt guilty for keeping her guard up around Tai. They were usually totally honest with each other - a rare thing to be able to do in their profession. She spoke again. "Of anyone, Taai is the only one still clinging to the hope he's alive, though. Aside, of course, from us," she said with faint irony. She looked up at him. "Do you think it would be ok to tell her?" Taai and Nerrok had informally adopted Krelle into their strange little family and Krelle felt a sense of duty to report what she'd found to her "mother." She knew that her own position might make objectivity impossible, however. It's why she'd come to Tai.
Tai stroked his mustache, still watching Krelle. "Honestly?" he asked. She just waited. "I think it's a mistake."
"She's a wreck already."
"If it was Kennia, would you want to know?"
Tai paused again, leaning his chair back with a creak. The silence stretched out for a long moment. That's what I thought.
"If it were me? I would willingly stick my hand into razors to grasp at anything that gave me hope," he admitted. "That doesn't mean it would be the best thing for me though." Tai pursed his lips as he thought. Krelle frowned pensivley, her thumbs hooked into her belt, looking down at her feet as Tai continued. "I'm a practical man, Krelle. I'm just looking at this in terms of what's to be gained and what the cost is. Taai's started to move forward, getting ready to have that baby…"
Krelle nodded slightly, not looking up. Tai let out a breath. "Whatcha' thinking? I've been wrong before."
"I dunno, Tai. I'm not an expert on manipulating these kinds of emotions," she said honestly. She'd had plenty of training in dealing with greed, anger, fear… but nothing about the dangers and rewards of continued hope. "Taai already clings to the idea he's alive, though. And I think she believed me when I claimed it might not be his, that it was a bluff from Nightshade. But.. everyone else has mourned him and moved on. She... talks to herself. I think she's afraid she's crazy, like she's in denial, to even cling to the hope. This... well, it would tell her she wasn't crazy. Maybe."
"But Krelle …" Tai trailed off as she looked up at him. He swallowed, then asked in a low voice "... what if he never comes back?"
"Honeslty?" She waited for his nod. "At this point I doubt he will. But at least Taai will know his heart wasn't ripped out, or his body desecrated. Maybe he crawled off to die. I'd prefer that version to Nightshade's. Personally I think one of his pets came and took him away. I doubt he could'a crawled far enough to get away from the two who looked for him." She shrugged. "But he hasn't come back. And it's been a long time."
"Maybe you know Taai better," he admitted. "My gut is that it's not the way she thinks Nerrok .. It's not the way Nightshade told us Nerrok died. It's that she thinks Nerrok is dead. She doesn't want to believe it... Say Nerrok comes back. She can be overjoyed," he said, trying a grin. "Say Nerrok doesn't come back …" Tai shrugged again. "Sharing this with her? Prolongs her agony."
Krelle frowned, uncertain of what to do. "Do you think it would be better if she thought he was dead then?" Should I lie? Say the heart was his? But then what if he did come back? Tai let out a slow breath but she spoke before he could "I'm not... I'm just trying to do the best thing," she tried to explain.
"I don't know Krelle. I prefer to work backwards from the worst case scenario."
"Maybe I just won't say anything, then," she said in a quiet voice.
"I want Nerrok to be alive," Tai said gently. "But right now?" He sat forward, leaning on his desk as he looked at Krelle. "Right now, I think we're all better off operating as if he's not coming back. You know why?"
Tai smiled softly, trying to ease the blow. "Yeah, I figured you might."
Krelle couldn't help but snort a bit at that. "I ought to." Operating like he's not coming back is my life right now.
Tai chuckled despite himself. Krelle let out a long sigh. It was decided, then. "Ok. Nargesh knows. You should proll'y tell Kennia - I meant to tell you both together, but Phealea walked in, and... stuff." Tai nodded slowly at her and she shrugged, feigning indifference.
"If you want to tell the others …I won't second guess you," he said carefully. Tai had made a point of never even appearing to order her around once she'd been officially promoted to the position of Tiger Master. She knew he had much more experience than her, though - especially with things like people. It was why she had come to him for advice. "If you decide to keep this to ourselves? You should know that you can always come find me and we'll head out to a rooftop, and we'll tell each other how we figure Nerrok pulled this off."
Krelle finally let her guard down, giving him a small, almost girlish smile. "I... would like that," she managed. She ran a hand through her hair, trying to shake off the indecision. She looked up, giving Tai a crooked grin. "I have my theories."
"These I have to hear. You know how he thinks, after all. I like the pet idea," he said with an answering grin.
Krelle made a wry face. "It's the one with the best odds so far. I give it 2:1 for being 'how he got out of the clearing'. The idea of magical faeries carrying him away has somewhat lower odds."
Tai snorted derisively. "I'm not putting money against you on this .. no way."
Krelle smiled at him as the tension slowly left the room. "My odds are perfectly fair, I assure you," she said in mock protest.
They fell into a momentary silence and Krelle rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. "I've got stuff to see to but, um. Thanks for the advice," she said as she took a step towards the door. She paused thoughtfully, then added "Y'know, Tai, I think Hakk would have liked you."
"I gotta hear more about this Hakk, then," he said with a wink.
Krelle smiled. "You might still meet him someday, Tai - I never found his body either." She waggled her eyebrows at him in her version of a wink as she opened the door.
"Heh .. alright."
"Phea's waiting. I'll talk to you later."
"Yeah. G'nite, Tai," she said, slipping out of the room and closing the door softly behind her.
Tai sat quietly for a very long time before getting back to his papers.