Lycaohn’s first thought upon leaping out of the Skyfire and shredding the soupy mists on his way down to the ground was he approached some sort of rainbow nightmare. Everything was garishly bright, like someone had turned up the color beyond the limits of visual comfort. The greens of the grasses and foliage were too green. Buildings far off to the north, though they were misty in the distance, were motley mixtures of red and gold and green. Even the trees seemed to be made entirely of too-colorful flowers.
The only sight soothing to his eyes was the conflict he landed in the middle of, the land battle between the Alliance and the Horde.
With a snarling smirk tugging at his grey-peppered goatee, the assassin melded into the shadows among the war machines and smoke, amidst the smell of blood, hot steel, and gunpowder. The acrid landscape both insulted and delighted his senses.
His skin itched with anticipation.
A Horde warrior charged a group of night elven archers standing near where Lycaohn had disappeared like a shadow in a lightless alley. Wasting no moment, the hidden rogue reappeared behind the bellowing orc, daggers flashing. As he sunk one blade into the orc’s kidney and the other into his left lung, Lycaohn howled, now a hulking, grey-furred beast with blazing orange eyes and jagged teeth lining a lupine muzzle.
The orc grunted in an obvious effort to keep from screaming in pain. The scream would only have caught painfully, as the orc fought to breath with one of his lungs a tattered mess.
The poisons were also doing their worst on the orc, but hardly quick enough for Lycaohn’s preference.
Trying to turn and face his enemy, the orc started to bring his giant axe around, but Lycaohn sliced across with both daggers, criss-crossing them along the orc’s throat in a spray of gore.
The corpse of the rogue’s enemy fell at his feet.
The night elven archers nodded warily at Lycaohn, thankful but obviously uncomfortable with his threatening presence, his blood-spattered visage, and his being a worgen.
Dissolving back into the smoke and shadows, Lycaohn quickly moved on, not interested in bearing the scrutiny of any of the other races. That included the night elves most, for with a silent snort he recalled they were the reason for him being the animal he was today. Allowing the displaced worgen and humans to stay in Darnassus hardly made up for the suffering they had caused the Gilnean nation. No amount of reconciliation was enough as far as he was concerned, despite the Alliance lapdog King Greymane had become.
Lycaohn only stayed because killing Horde was the one way to maintain his fragile sanity. He had more hatred for them, especially the cursed Forsaken, then he did the Alliance.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend… or at least a tolerated employer.
One day, he might feel his vengeance sated – both for fallen Gilneas and his lost love, Maeranda – but for now only the heightened beat of his heart, the blood pulsing in his ears, and the feeling of flesh and organs giving way to his sharp blades made him feel alive. His bloodlust quenched, the beast within was manageable. Without that, Lycaohn felt his last remaining bit of humanity would slip away like so many tiny grains of sand blown by the wind.
Back to work, old dog, he reminded himself.
He did not bother to switch back to his human form. The heat of his blood was up, and surely there was more fighting ahead. The thought pleased Lycaohn.
Silent as the shadows he melded with, the worgen made his way to the SI:7 engineer, a Dwarf named Sully. It was Sky Admiral Rogers leading the mission, and directing their transportation to the misty isles where the ship of the so-called White Pawn – who Lycaohn knew to be the codename for King Varian’s son, Prince Anduin – had disappeared, but it was SI:7 carrying out the ground missions.
“Eh?” Sully murmured, looking up from his tinkering and failing to see who approached him, but his trained ears had heard the rogue, regardless. He had not survived in SI:7 so long by being unaware.
“I am here from the Skyfire, Dwarf,” Lycaohn said quietly, still hidden in the shadows. “I seek further direction.”
Sully nodded, not at all perturbed by the worgen’s abruptness nor the fact he remained hidden from view. “Aye, quickly and quietly; that’s how SI:7 prefers to operate. That were the plan, at least,” the dwarf mumbled.
“That blasted elf, Rell, went ahead on his own and is already sneaking around inside Garrosh’ar Point over yonder. He be looking for signs of Admiral Taylor and the White Pawn, but it’s getting hot in there and he needs support. Last thing we need is him taken or anymore good men and women lost.
“Fight yer way through these dogs and find Rell!
“And while yer at it, lad, take me flare gun and do away with some of them there war wagons. They’re packing so many explosives, I cannae tell if the Horde is here to take over this continent or just blow it out’er the sea! We need to neutralize ‘em before they can leave Garrosh’ar Point.”
Lycaohn frowned. Creating explosions was hardly a stealthy way to make his way across the Horde encampment, but he had to agree, the things looked more devastating than was warranted for an exploratory expedition on an uncharted island.
Not that the Horde knew anything except destruction.
At that thought, Lycaohn’s frown turned into a growl.
“Get on now, lad. Rell won’t be getting himself out of his fix now, eh?” Sully muttered something about impetuous elves under his breath as he turned back to his tinkering.
Nodding, though Sully could hardly see it, Lycaohn crept his way carefully through the Horde’s camp.
Only the small of stature goblin engineers stood by their war wagons, and it was easy enough to pick them off as he set fire to their wagons. Most were nearly deaf from spending so much time around explosives and all wore awkward eye protection.
It was not until he was coming upon the last war wagon that a cry came up from the goblins there, noticing the destruction of their prized machines. Lycaohn dispatched both, but both a male and female orc guard heard the commotion and noticed him before he could slip away once more.
He hardly preferred to go toe to toe with the warriors, but he was not one to back down. He instead egged them on with a growl and a shift of his daggers.
Lycaohn dodged and feinted and surely frustrated the two, especially when he struck out and caught the male in the belly. The orc pulled away, throwing his hips back, just in time to not be eviscerated.
As Lycaohn pulled back to strike again, the female orc slashed with a two-handed axe, but sliced only air as the Rogue disappeared. He left only a wisp of smoke and the after image of his lupine smirk, then reappeared behind the female and stabbed with practiced accuracy into her vitals.
She crumpled with a gasp, and Lycaohn spun to his right, still supporting her limp form and using her as a shield before him.
The male orc snarled and held his axe above him, ready to attack at the first opportunity, but not willing to waste a blow that would not kill the offensive worgen.
They seemed to be in a standoff.
Lycaohn had more tricks, though. Before the male orc’s very eyes, the rogue faded away. As he did, the female orc’s body crumpled to the ground, no longer supported by her worgen assassin.
The male orc glanced around uneasily. He swiped his axe several times, hoping to catch the tricky rogue in a lucky strike.
But Lycaohn did not dance with luck.
“You think to catch me unawares, orc?” Lycaohn taunted. The orc spun and faced the direction of the voice, but the rogue was no longer there.
“Runaway, dog,” the orc snarled. “That is all your kind are good for! You mongrels fit in perfectly with your honorless Alliance!”
Lycaohn barked a sharp laugh and stepped out into full view. “What does the Horde know of honor? Deploying a plague to do your foul work. Hiding behind those wretched Forsaken! Killings thousands of innocents – women, children, elderly. Killing our whole way of life!”
The orc sneered, thinking Lycaohn showing himself gave him an advantage over the rogue, but even in anger, Lycaohn had not survived all his years by being careless. It was only in recent years Lycaohn had become an infiltrator and assassin for hire, but he had years of handling a farm and fighting off large predators, not to mention his more recently developed insatiable need for revenge against this orc and his kind.
Roaring a battle cry, the orc charged Lycaohn, his axe held high over his head. Lycaohn deftly sidestepped the fierce but clumsy attack.
A predatory smile pulled at the worgen’s lips as he spun around and pounced on the orc’s backside, too quickly for the warrior to recover fully. The red haze of his anger settled upon him like a warm cloak as Lycaohn sunk one dagger into the base of the orc’s neck, and sliced precisely with the other.
The beast was sated, for now.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rell Nightwind was crouched near the mouth of the docks, studying some barricades there as if planning his next move. If the night elf was surprised by Lycaohn’s sudden appearance, he gave no sign of it.
“Good to have you beside me, rogue. I’ve scouted the area and found no leads on the White Pawn or Admiral Taylor. We need to neutralize this area quickly, so we can continue our search elsewhere.
“Operations here are being led by an orc warlock, Ga’trul. He’s barricaded himself at the end the dock and appears to be conjuring a demonic circle to try and escape. We have to stop him.
“Put Sully’s flare gun to work again and blow up those barricades! I’ll cover your back and we’ll move in as soon as Ga’trul is vulnerable.”
The fire and explosions caused by Sully’s flare gun ignited did a good job of disorienting the orcs guarding the dock. It was quick work by the two rogues to dispatch the resistance between them and the chanting warlock.
“By our sweat and your blood, this land will be ours!” Ga’trul shouted.
They were seconds too late, and the orc disappeared into swirl of fel-colored smoke.
Rell growled. “He couldn’t have ported far – there must be another base!” The night elf pulled out a glowing device that appeared to be flashing and vibrating.
“Nightwind, report! What’s going on down there?” a voice spoke from the device. It sounded like Sky Admiral Rogers. Her always-angry voice was hard to mistake.
“No sign of our flagship, and no sign of Admiral Taylor or the White Pawn -” Rell replied.
“There are Horde troops swimming toward your position,” Rogers interjected. More muffled, to her soldiers on the Skyfire, she commanded, “Open fire at once!”
Lycaohn glanced into the water to see dozens of Horde swimming toward their position on the docks. He bared his teeth in challenge.
“But, Admiral – I think they mean to surrender. They’re not armed – they’re just trying to not drown!”
“You think they’ll hesitate to strangle you with their bare hands?” she hissed at Rell. Then, to her crew, she repeated, “GUN THEM DOWN!” The device crackled at the volume and vehemence of her voice.
Bullets and mortar were released from the guns lining the facing side of the Skyfire. The waters beside the dock ran red with Horde blood. The utter violence of it made even Lycaohn swallow hard, but he reminded himself there were no innocents here – only soldiers, only murdering Horde. Had they given anymore thought to the innocents killed in Gilneas? Or Theramore?
Rell seemed less persuaded in the self-defence of the act. He swallowed hard, and dropped to his knees. His voice was shaking with emotion as he said, “That’s not right… This is a massacre… They were unarmed – Ugh! I don’t… I don’t feel well…”
An ominous, inky smoke began to envelope Rell before Lycaohn’s eyes. It seemed to seep into him – or perhaps from him, it was impossible to tell. When he rose, Lycaohn noticed Rell’s hands had becomes twisted claws of swirling black and grey matter. The sinister smoke poured from his eyes and mouth as he spoke in a cold, cruel tone that was not Rell, “Maybe they deserved to die.”
Stepping back in surprise and gripping his daggers, Lycaohn did not strike, but positioned himself defensively. He was unsure what was going on – was Rell was possessed by some demon summoned by the fleeing warlock? – and the uncertainty made him cautious.
As if from nowhere, another figure appeared. Lycaohn quickly noticed it was a pandaren, one of the locals who had yet to approach either side of the conflict. The male, dressed in black and red and obscuring his face with a most strange style of hat and scarf, had descended from an ebony serpent moving snakelike in the air, supported by some magic as the beast had no wings.
With a threatening gesture Lycaohn had no warning to counter, the pandaren reached forward towards Rell. With relief, the worgen realized he was somehow drawing out the inky corruption that infected Rell.
With a snarl, a small fiend composed entirely of the smoke appeared – though Lycaohn could not tell whether it was indeed smoke or something more gelatinous. The pandaren dispatched the creature with his bare hands, seeming to know precisely where and how to strike. A shriek emanated from the thing as it collapsed, but the gel-smoke that composed it continued to writhe like a living mass.
Rell blinked, clutching his head with one hand and quickly holding out his other to stay off the Alliance soldiers moving forward to protect the SI:7 agent. “Stand down – this is one of the natives.”
Collecting himself, Rell nodded politely to the pandaren. “We are from the Alliance, and mean you no harm. Tell me, what was that shadow you drew out of me?”
The pandaren shook his head impatiently. “This is neither the time nor place to explain. In short, your own doubts were made manifest, as a consequence of your actions.”
“You don’t understand,” Rell stammered, “we’re fighting a war here…”
“Oh, I understand perfectly,” the pandaren replied icily. “I have eyes. But Pandaria is not like whatever land you come from; it lives and breathes. You should be careful what kind of energy you bring here. Now put those weapons away!” Without waiting for Rell to speak again, the pandaren leapt back upon the ebony serpent, and the two sped off to the north.
Rell frowned after the receding shadow of the mysterious pandaren, but turned to Lycaohn. “This whole place is going up in flames and the Skyfire is reporting more of those… shadows are crawling up out of the ground everywhere. We need to get our people out of here.”
Lycaohn gave a terse nod.
“Clear a path through the base on your way north. Head for the town. I will rendezvous with you there.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lycaohn rolled his stiff shoulders in a quick attempt the loosen the knotted muscles there. After driving back the foul shadow manifestations – which he learned were called Sha – on the beachhead, he had arrived in Pawdon Village to the uneasy hospitality of the locals. Now, he was back in his human form and seeking a place to recoup. A hot meal, a steamy bath, and a soft bed were all he cared about.
I must be getting old, he pondered. I didn’t used to feel this beat up at the end of the day. He stroked his greying goatee distractedly as he made his way through the village, looking for the inn.
All the buildings looked the same in their mad display of color.
Lycaohn passed Mishka for what seemed the sixth time, the Draenei woman still assisting the wounded from both the Alliance and the village after the Sha attack. Her thick accent as she soothed those in pain brought back memories of another. Lycaohn flinched involuntarily and attempted to rebury the thoughts – memories that should not sting, but did.
You knew getting involved with her was trouble before things ever began, he reminded himself.
A snarl that instead turned into a sigh escaped him as his thoughts drifted.
The affair had been intense and brief, like a flashfire. Lycaohn snorted an abrupt laugh at that comparison. Playing with fire gets you burned, he mused bitterly.
Then, something else broke through the unbidden memories, bringing him back to present. It drove all thoughts of his weariness and aches, both physical and mental, to the background.
It was a female native, simply dressed in loose-fitting clothes the color of the jade statues that decorated Pawdon Village. Her clothes complemented a serpent pendant resting on her chest, standing out in contrast against her reddish fur. The pendant was large and bright green, and in any other situation Lycaohn would have thought the jewelry gaudy.
Instead, he immediately realized the importance of the pendant, and the grace and strength of the one who wore it.
The pandaren woman made smooth motions that looked as if she were interacting with an invisible partner, only in slow motion. It seemed some sort of fighting routine, but was more like a dance. Her movement was sinuous and mesmerizing.
Before Lycaohn even realized how openly he was staring, the woman noticed him. She slowly brought her limbs back to a straightened upright position and stopped to study him. Though he said nothing to her, made no movements even, he felt as if she were dissecting who he was and why in the passage of a mere few breaths.
He could not convince himself to break her steady gaze.
“Why do you watch me, stranger?” the Pandaren woman asked, though Lycaohn felt as if she had already determined that for herself. She merely wanted to hear his explanation.
“I have never seen such movement before. It is more like dancing than any fighting poses I know,” he replied. There was no reason not to tell her this information she already knew. In another situation, or with another person, calling fighting poses a dance might have been taken as an offense in his experience, but he somehow knew she did not.
She nodded slowly. “The way of the Jade Serpent is one of balance between self and environment. Self and partner. Self and opponent. Your opponent moves and you move to match.” She paused, thinking. “I suppose it could be likened to dancing.” This thought made her smile, and the expression was beautiful and made Lycaohn’s gaze linger more.
“Moving the same as your opponent hardly seems a way to win,” Lycaohn retorted. He had doubts even as he said it. His sudden uncertainty was frustrating.
Amusement brightened the smile on her serene face. “Perhaps you should like to dance with me, stranger?”
She touched her palms together in front of her and bowed her head to him. Then, she took her staff in both hands in one smooth, flash of motion. The weapon was a long, hollow stick, with colorful baubles hanging from the end she held in front of her. It looked more for show than dealing a blow and quite fragile, especially against Lycaohn’s sharp knives.
I will make kindling of it, he thought, and once more, he had doubts. A second time! The thought almost made him flinch, but he refused to give the woman anymore information about him than she had already gleaned.
The pandaren woman waited, lowered into a strangely posed crouch. Her visage was one of peaceful readiness. She looked as if she would not flinch at a meteor striking the ground beside her, and the rogue believed that to be the case.
Her calm confidence rattled him in a way he could not explain.
Lycaohn drew his blades and stepped forward with more caution than he usually employed. For him, winning was usually about surprise and a reckless abandon that kept him on the dagger’s edge between gutting a foe and being gutted. It was a line he walked often, but one he always walked away from.
Strangely, he felt unlikely to win with either means here, against this strange woman.
She made no movements, patiently waiting for him to make the first strike.
And so he did, springing forward with both daggers raised.
And a second later, he was on his back, her staff jammed painfully against his chest.
Lycaohn fought to regain the breath that had been forcibly expelled from his lungs when he hit the ground. His blades had not even been close before she struck.
The pandaren woman pulled back her staff and stood straight. The weapon – for yes, it was a weapon and not just a decorative piece – she rested against the ground, but did not use it for support. She had not even broken the calm pattern of her breathing laying him out.
“Ahh, it appears you have much to learn as a dance partner,” the pandaren woman laughed. There was no malice in her voice, though. Her tone was pleasantly conversational. She leaned forward and offered him a hand up.
Lycaohn took it. Once on his feet, he peered at her, trying to trace the steps between his advance and his fall. As he fought to regain his composure, dusting the dirt of the street from his clothes, the red haze began to set in. Lycaohn growled from deep within, but he forced the anger down for once.
The beast would not win. He would maintain control of himself.
He said gruffly, his voice thick with restrain, “Hard to teach an old dog new tricks, I imagine, but I would learn how you did that.”
“I merely met you with the same amount of force you came at me with.”
“I certainly did not knock you flat,” Lycaohn mumbled.
“That is because you attack with anger. You attack to win. I struck only in defense, and turned your momentum back against you.” The pandaren woman’s face was a mask of calm as she studied him further. “As I said, I moved to match you.”
“You seem to have learned a great deal about me already,” the rogue said.
She bowed her head briefly in polite acknowledgement. “You give yourself away. Your face is one of a deeply rooted pain you seek to escape through battle. You fight on the offense, leaving yourself open to one paying attention.”
“My master says, you cannot truly learn about a person until you fight them,” she concluded.
“Yet, I still feel I know little of you,” Lycaohn replied.
“My name is Chiyu, and I am a student of the order of Monks,” she answered openly, bowing once more to him. Then, she gave another disarming laugh. “I am not a person of secrets.”
“Lycaohn,” the man said. Though he tried to resist, he felt himself returning her smile. Then, he added, with a measure of self-depreciating sarcasm, “I usually am a person of secrets. As a rogue, I am not used to being seen so well.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This story was originally published on Awaiting the Muse, on February 8th, 2013. All rights reserved.
Awaiting the Muse by Jamie Roman AKA Effraeti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at https://awaitingthemuse.wordpress.com/