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Dalaran Noir (Honorable Mention, BGWC '09)
Warcraft_Undead
efkelley
Blizzard has decided to let us post up our stories, so long as we don't try to make money off of them. Frankly, seeing as the story is written using their intellectual property, I'm not sure how anyone would expect to make a profit, but Einstein once said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe.”

So, with that, here's Dalaran Noir, copywritten by Blizzard in 2009 (yes, they want you to put that on there).


Dalaran Noir
By E.F. Kelley

*Raz Trencher.*
*Private Investigator.*
*Surveillance a Specialty.*
*NO ADVENTURERS!*

That's what it says on my door. It's a thick door, and the newest thing in this rathole called the Underbelly. The frame barely holds the weight. I'd wanted something to keep out all the noise that the old door let in. Instead, I should have gotten thicker walls. The door just gave people something to bang on.

As I woke up on what would become the most dangerous day of my life, I realized that the pounding wasn't just my head. Rent was due.

“Trencher! I know you are een, leetle man,” Bortis called in that alien accent of his. They're big, the Draenei; a fact that every blow of his fist on my door reminded me of. I opened it before the rotting frame gave way.

“No wonder your damn spaceship broke, Bortis,” I grumped. “One of you was trying to open a door, and got carried away.”

Bortis laughed out loud. I felt it inside my poor skull. “I knew I liked you for a reason, leetle man,” he said. “Yet all my warm regard does not change the date. Rent?”

“Give me a break, Bortie,” I went back to my desk and hopped up on my chair. I searched several drawers for my guaranteed hangover cure, but sighed at the empty bottle. Apparently it needed some rent too.

“That ees your problem. How can such a tiny man drink so much?”

“How much I drink doesn't change how many people come knocking on my door. You're my best customer of late, and you don't pay too well. If I charged you for every visit, I could sleep on a bed of silver.”

“Or perhaps not sleep een your office,” Bortis laughed at his own joke. “Well, friendship set to the side, I can no longer afford you on my cuff, light as you are. The goblins offer me much for the space, and you offer me nothing.”

Goblins again. They'd have deeds to the whole Underbelly before long. Soon you wouldn't be able to pass a copper from purse to pocket without a green hand helping out.

“Bortis, I won't lie. I'm broke. I didn't have it last month, and that hasn't changed. There's just not enough sin in this city. Maybe I should move to Stormwind.”

Bortis shook his head. “You've picked the wrong profession, my friend. What is eet again?” He glanced at the door. “Private eenvestigator. I still do not see what use this is een a city with a competent Watch.”

I shrugged. “Sometimes people want something checked out that isn't official. Or they want it officially checked unofficially, if you take my meaning.”

“Yes, but you exclude adventurers! They have monies! Money and more.”

“They solve their own problems,” I grumped, my head hurting worse. “Anything else you wanted, Bortis?”

“No,” Bortis firmed his mouth into a line. “Eet make me sad, but the rent ees due today. Further, I cannot go.”

He had the good grace not to slam the door. The room went blessedly dark again, a significant advantage of living underground with a hangover as a near constant roommate.

I needed food and a drink, not necessarily in that order. I didn't bother changing. My clothes still wore some of the night before, and the scent of cheap ale steadied me.

I clambered down the ladder made for big folk. I really didn't remember how I'd made it upstairs. I leaped at the bottom to avoid the drainage water below. Sure, it looked clean. Sure, it didn't stink. Sure, the wildlife drank from it freely. None of that changed the fact that the Underbelly was still a sewer.

Cantrips and Crows wasn't far. I'd have called it my favorite watering hole, but water had nothing to do with it. Narisa saw me coming, but when I sat at my usual table she didn't come over with my usual drink.

“I'd say it was early, Raz,” she said in her sing-song voice. “But then I know how late you were here.”

“Then you probably know why I'm back,” I said.

She smiled that smile, the one I adore. “I also know that Ajay cut you off. Your credit seems to have run a little dry. I don't suppose you can settle up? Just a little bit?”

My expression said it all. She sighed and walked to the bar. I watched her go. I couldn't not. Like most blood elf women, Narisa Redgold kept a figure to kill for: tall and gorgeous, the very incarnation of beauty. Narisa had more though. She worked for the seediest dive in Dalaran, but she did it because she wanted to. She could have done anything with her smarts and looks. Instead she was bringing me a flagon and a water.

I sniffed the flagon, and she sat down across from me. “Honey mead? No burnwine?”

“It's on me,” she said, which did nothing to pull my mind out of the gutter. The thought struck me as ironic. We were in a sewer after all.

I downed half the flagon in one go, and instantly felt better for it. “So, what's the occasion? You've never bought me a drink.”

“I thought it might be time to return the favor,” she said.

“No other reason?”

“Well. Maybe one other reason,” she smiled again.

“So, you'd finally like that tour of my office?” I didn't dare to hope.

“Actually, someone else is going to come by your office. I'd like for you to see her.”

I didn't let my disappointment show. Much. Oh, wait, had she meant: “Work?”

She nodded.

“A 'she', huh? In trouble, I take it?”

“People don't give you money if everything's just fine, do they?”

My turn to smile. “So, why go through you? My door is always open.”

Her gaze flicked behind me. Her expression soured. “Looks like someone already tried your door.”

I turned and suppressed a groan. “Hello, Mrs. Trencher.”

“That's Miss Silverbough to you, Raz,” said my ex-wife. Shara Silverbough: skin like moonlight, eyes like starlight, the figure of a goddess, and the voice of a harpy when riled. Today she was riled, and I knew why.

“You can save your breath, Shara,” I turned back to my drink. “I don't have it.”

“And I don't have any more patience.” She loomed over the table, easy for a night elf. She turned her gaze on Narisa. “Don't listen to his sweet talk, honey. He promises the world, but you'll only get lies.”

Narisa rose and fixed her emerald gaze on pure silver. “Honey, if you're asking for the world, you should only expect lies.” She smiled without warmth and returned to the bar.

I hid my grin in another drink. Shara started in. “Trencher, I've had enough of your dodges and enough of your smooth talk. Get it through that giant head of yours that I'm done with you, now and forever.”

“No one's disputing that.”

“Finish the dowry repayment, and you never need to see me again. Why do you keep me chained to you?”

“Look, we don't have any call on each other. Or is it something else that's got you in a mood for gold today? Pretty well dressed for eight in the morning.”

She rolled her eyes. “It's two in the afternoon.”

“Ah,” I put down the flagon and picked up the water. “So Rinnister hasn't asked you yet?”

“No, but he wants to,” she said. “Will you pay off your portion of my dowry or not?”

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. No wonder I was going bald. “I would if I could, Shara, but I can't. Don't look at me like that. You only came to me a month ago looking for the cash, and it had been two years since we saw each other. That kind of money hasn't gone my way since... well, since you. We both know where it went after that. You're as guilty as I am for spending it, and it's not very honest of you to pretend otherwise.”

She looked aside. Had I actually embarrassed her? “I'm not asking for all of it back,” she said. “Rian doesn't care about the total. It just has to be sufficient to please his family.”

“How very modern of him,” I returned to the last of the mead. “Especially for a young blood elf on the rise in the Citadel Judiciary. Especially for a family name that seems to hemorrhage money.”

That earned me a drink in the face. At least she wasted only water. “You say we're done, but you've been spying on me. The money. Soon. Or we'll see how a stay in the Hold takes you.”

“At least I'll have a roof over my head,” I shouted to her retreating back. I turned back to a proffered bar rag. “Thanks,” I took it.

Narisa didn't hide her giggle. “Go back to your office, Raz,” she said. “Someone will be along.”

I wanted to ask more, but I'd seen Narisa being mysterious before. I needed to change my shirt anyway. The water had ruined my carefully sedimented layers of grime.

No sooner had I changed and started searching my desk for my pipe than there came a knock at my door; a tentative knock, decidedly feminine. “It's open.”

Living in a city that exalts perfection should have prepared me for the woman silhouetted in my doorway. I'd have dropped my pipe if I'd found it. Instead it took old instincts against showing your cards that kept me from dropping my jaw.

Long legs, soft curves, and the same softly glowing eyes that Narisa had. “Mister Trencher? May I come in?”

“Please do,” I said. I kept looking for my pipe and that let me swallow hard and return moisture to my mouth without being noticed. Damn, I was a weakling sometimes. “So, what brings you by, miss–?”

“Shieldsplinter,” she said. “Mrs. Narinna Shieldsplinter.” She crossed the room, a short walk. Her robes and cowl were cut northern style, just like hundreds you might see above and below ground. I got the impression she wasn't trying to stand out. Hard to do for someone like her, especially down here at this time of day. A name like that sure didn't help.

“Of the Silvermoon Shieldsplinters, I'm sure,” I said. I tapped some leaf into my pipe.

“My husband's name,” she said. “He's from Orgrimmar.”

“That's unusual,” I said.

“That he'd be from Orgrimmar?”

“That you'd have his last name.” I searched for a light.

She snapped her fingers, igniting one of them, and held it out. I lit my pipe. “You should be the last person to look down on interracial unions.”

“Short jokes? Lady, you'll have to do better than that to get my goose.”

She laughed, deep and rich. A real laugh. It made me smile. “You're just like Narisa said. Witty and observant.”

“I'm afraid she didn't say much about you, though, Mrs. Shieldsplinter. I don't suppose you saw my door?”

“I did.”

“Then you know I don't work with adventurers.”

“Would you mind me asking why?”

“I never mind the asking.”

“But would you tell me?”

“You'd have to ask. So what is it that you wanted me for?”

“I want you to help my husband.”

“You just answered your question about me working with adventurers. Me? Help him? What can I do that you can't, lady?”

“You can go places I can't. You can ask questions I can't. From what Narisa tells me, you can even touch official records that I would never be allowed near.”

I tried to recall just how much I'd told Narisa over the years. That was like reading a book with every other page burned out: too many gaps. “She said a lot.”

“She had every confidence in your abilities. Also, she mentioned one more thing.” She sat on the edge of my desk and crossed her legs. She leaned in, and I could almost feel the power radiating from the woman. Had to be a mage. She was playing it down, but that kind of energy just hummed around those types. “She said you needed this.”

Despite the heady distraction of her closeness, I caught the coin purse she dropped. It didn't take a goblin to know gold when they heard it. I felt the weight. Quite a few coins. “I think this is a lot more than my usual fee.”

“And that is?”

“Twenty-five silver a day plus expenses.”

“Yes, it's quite a lot more,” she nodded. “I'm asking you to break with your own principles, so I think proper compensation is in order. Do we have a deal?”

I jingled the purse a few more times, considering. I set it out of easy reach on the desk and sat back. “It depends on what this help entails. My principles are in place to keep me alive. I don't intend to break with breathing anytime soon either.”

She considered me, and I couldn't have felt more like a mouse in the hypnotic gaze of a gorgeous cat. At least I didn't let that show. She stood and started pacing. She held her hands steepeled before her like so many other great thinkers I'd seen in this city. Definitely a mage.

“Mister Trencher, have you ever met a death knight?”

“Sure.”

“Did you have any friends that lost their lives prior to the Battle of Light's Hope Chapel and regained their lives after that day?”

“No.”

“My husband was such an orc.” Her eyes grew distant. “He was proud and strong and so very alive. When we lost him... well, when we thought him dead, I was beside myself. Then that day came, and he returned to me.”

“I'd imagine that changes a man.”

“You have no idea,” she resumed pacing. “Some death knights embrace their new existence. Others simply abide it. A few rail against it. To make it short, my husband and I will do anything to return his life to him.”

“Impossible, from what I hear.”

She shrugged. “Magic did it. Magic can undo it. I know a thing or two about magic. However, I know almost nothing of necromancy. That brought us to Dalaran. Did you know Archmagus Rokor?”

“Can't say we've been formally introduced.”

“He was a necromancer, one of the few uncorrupted by the taint of undeath. I'm actually surprised you never heard of him. He is– was the only orc archmage in Dalaran.”

“Never said I hadn't heard of him. I said we hadn't been formally introduced.”

She smiled thinly. “Very well. He was killed two days ago. Perhaps you heard about that?”

“Only in passing.”

“My husband stands accused.”

“Did he do it?”

She rounded on me, the first heat I'd seen from her. “No, he didn't do it!”

“Then why's he a suspect?”

“The circumstances. My husband was the last one to see Rokor alive. They'd been fighting.”

“No offense, sweetheart, but I think your story just sank. If an archie decided to erase your husband they'd have been scraping bits of him out of the mortar. Especially in the case of a necromancer versus a dee-kay.”

“I didn't say battling. They'd been arguing. Over me.” She sat in the chair across from me.

“I think that deserves a little exposition, Mrs. Shieldsplinter.”

“Intellectually, my husband is the same orc he always was. He remembers himself, his old life, all our memories together. Emotionally and physically, he's... changed.”

“Well, obviously.”

“I'm alive and breathing. I have needs and desires that, quite frankly, he can't meet. We have an understanding, and that's all I'll say about it.”

I'd let that pass by for now. “So why the fuss?”

“Rokor didn't see it our way. Discretion is important. My husband is a proud man, and Rokor was–”

“An archmage. Yeah I know the type. So you want me to prove your husband, the guy with the motive, means, and opportunity to off Rokor, didn't do it.”

She nodded.

“Is there any more to go on?”

“I think so. Rokor worked with several death knights. There was one named Therius who came to see Rokor very late one night. He practically broke into Rokor's chambers at the top of his tower.”

“How do you know this?”

She just looked at me, daring me to hear the answer I already knew.

“I withdraw the question.”

“We happened to still be awake. Anyway, I didn't hear what they were talking about, but Therius seemed angry. Actually, angry isn't the right word. Intense. They made an appointment for the next day, and Rokor came back to... his chambers. The appointment happened to be right before Bear's.”

“Bear?”

“Beargarak. My husband. The next thing I hear, Rokor is dead and the Violet Guard has Beargarak confined in the Hold. That's all I know. Will you help me?”

A few points came to mind, like how she happened to have a suspect that she couldn't get to. Like how she'd been having an affair with the very man her husband had supposedly murdered, no matter how much permission she might have had. And like how any one of the principals involved here could kill me with a glance.

“My dear, are you familiar with the term *bandu dorini*?”

She smiled and rested her chin on her hand. “I should be. It's my native language.”

“Sister, it's what you're made of.”

She laughed again. “I suppose you have a point. I'm certainly female, and I'm certainly fatal.”

“Hopefully, not to me.”

“Does that mean you'll take the case?”

I remembered why I don't deal with adventurers.

I remembered why I don't deal with women in distress.

I looked at the gold on my desk.

And I realized that I'm a complete sucker for long legs and shiny metal.

***

Mrs. Shieldsplinter had said she needed me to go places she couldn't. In Dalaran I could think of a half dozen places where a woman like her could go that would keep riffraff like me out, but only one place where the reverse would be true.

The Hero's Welcome had a storefront near the Eventide on Exchange Place. Beyond that it adjoined the Silver Enclave: Alliance territory in what the Kirin Tor tried to bill as a 'neutral city'. An embassy of sorts, though hosted by the Silver Covenant, a faction within Dalaran headed up by the Ranger-General Vereesa Windrunner. She and her rangers and mages might look like blood elves, but they call themselves high elves. I never really bothered with the difference. Getting it wrong tended to bring out the worst in either side.

My internal clock toned five as I wandered past a pair of mages standing guard right outside the Welcome.

Inzi saw me come in. They didn't miss much, her powder blue gazers. I counted on the fact. We gnomes get overlooked a lot. It's a mistake common to any species that prizes physical might over intellectual brawn. That's all of 'em. Except goblins.

She waited until I had a seat before coming over. She didn't bring a drink.

“So,” she said in our language. “I won't even ask about settling your tab. Did you get tired of that long-eared tramp down at the C-Two?”

I flipped a gold coin on the table. “It's not nice to call people names.”

She looked at the coin but didn't touch it. “You love her.”

“Sure, but I like you more.”

She caught the distinction, and a wry smile crept across her face. “I never could stay mad at you, Trencher.” She switched back to the common tongue. “What'll it be?”

“A brandy and about five minutes.”

“Should have known it was a case. You've got your hat and your special coat,” she referred to my double-breasted high-collared long coat. “You're the only one I know who wears something like that. We should name it after you.”

“Most jackets don't have enough pockets,” I pulled my pipe from one such pocket. “Otherwise it keeps the rain out and the warmth in. How about that drink?”

She took the coin and returned with a pair of brandies. She sat across from me and we touched glasses. Snowplums tasted like frostbitten earwax. How someone had thought they'd make a good booze escaped me, but they hadn't been wrong at all.

“Clock is ticking, Trencher,” she said.

“True enough,” I said. “What do you know about death knights?”

“Booze doesn't do much for 'em, but that doesn't stop 'em from trying. You wouldn't believe some of the tabs I've seen. Well, maybe *you* would. They don't sleep either, so by four in the morning the place is all glowy blue eyes and spiky armor.”

“Know one called Therius?”

She reflected for a moment and took another drink. “Sure. Night elf. Bad tipper. Got a spare pipe?”

I pulled out the loaner and filled it. She took the light gratefully.

“What's he look like?” I asked.

“Tall, even for an elf. Pretty serious. Has a pet ghoul that he keeps with him a lot. The girls don't like him much. He pays up fine, but, like I said, no tips. Given me a chill a time or two.”

That definitely meant something. “He ever talk with anyone?”

“No one in particular. Of course we don't make a habit of noting down our customers' comings and goings.”

“Not on purpose, but that beautiful mind remembers everything, doesn't it?” I winked.

She blushed and rolled her eyes. “At this point, honey, the smoke and cash is doing more than your sweet talk. So, what's your angle on this dee-kay?”

“I think he's rotten, no pun. How often does he come in here?”

“Pretty often. Maybe by ten. I take it you're settled in for a bit?”

“Maybe 'til ten,” I said and put another gold on the table. “Keep 'em coming would ya, doll? But a little slow. I need to keep my head clear.”

She took the cash and finished her drink. “For you a clear head means I should line up five right now.”

I spent the next few hours watching comings and goings. Prime time hit right after I arrived, and the place got crowded. The Welcome catered to adventurers, and adventurers returned the favor by drinking there after a hard day's tomfoolery or before a hard night's shenanigans. I kept to myself and watched the door. Not many spared me a look.

Close to midnight I caught the lull in the crowd. The tallest damned night elf I'd ever seen stepped in. He brought the cold with him and a gibbering little ghoul, the sight of which had become commonplace in cities from Stormwind to Darnassus.

I glanced over to where I'd last seen a pair of light purple pig tails bobbing through the throng. Inzi put a finger beside her nose. I nodded and waited. Everything went back to normal. Therius took a seat at the bar with his critter muttering to itself behind him.

Sometimes if you want to get a rat out of hiding, the best way is to make a loud noise.

I invited myself to hop on the stool beside him. “You know, I just don't get it,” I said to him, loud enough that others could hear if they chose to listen. “Your sort gets plenty of killing. Why go out for murder?”

He gave me an icy stare. I bet he couldn't give any other kind. “I don't know you.” His voice had that resonance, typical of his kind; like he spoke from several places at once and the echoes didn't quite click together.

“No, but I know you. Pretty well, too, but I can't quite figure the why. You'd have done it sooner, but when you went there late you found he wasn't alone. So you waited around and iced him the next day. See, I get the how.”

The air frosted around us. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

Oh yes he did. I didn't bother hiding my smirk. We had some attention from the room now. “Hey, buddy, don't try to play the patsy here. You sayin' this wasn't your idea alone?”

“I have nothing to say to you or that she-elf,” he said and rose.

“You know, I don't think I ever mentioned any woman,” I laughed. “Without somebody holding the leash, you're about as useless as your critter there, ain't ya?

The ghoul leaped from behind him and pinned me to the bar. I could smell the last ten things it had slaughtered in the grime beneath its claws. It gibbered a little giggle and leaned in. A shout from the door saved me. The Covenant mages charged through the gathered throng of armor and swords.

“I warned you about starting trouble, Trencher!” Inzi yelled from the end of the bar. She hopped up on the bar and rushed over, avoiding the half full glasses and goblets. “Call off your ghoul, death knight,” she commanded. “The guardians will toss him out.”

I could have kissed Inzi then, but the ghoul would have been an unwelcome third. It jumped off me when the mages got there. One picked me up by the scruff, and the other stood between me and Therius. “That's enough,” said the woman. “Therius, take your creature and go back to your room. As for you, gnome, you're out of here. Don't come back.” She snapped her fingers, and I appeared in the middle of Exchange Place with a headache the size of the city. I struggled to the edge of the curb, trying not to let the last few hours of drinking waste itself in the gutter.

“I always said you'd find your place, Raz,” said the haunted voice of my old friend. I didn't blame Mallister for sounding that way. The plague had gotten for him the same as it had for the rest of the Forsaken. It was just at this moment I'd sort of had my fill of the undead. “Going to be alright?”

A clawed hand touched my shoulder, but this one didn't dig in like the ghoul's had. “Yeah, Mal, I'm good. Where'd you come from anyway?” I turned around and saw his purple tabard, the one with the big unblinking eye. I also saw his partner and that unforgettable sneer. Jakaan Duskblade never did like me.

“You're done, Trencher,” said the night elf. “You can sleep it off tonight in the Hold.”

“I'm not going anywhere. I've got work.”

“It's not up to you, tiny man.” Jakaan reached for me, but Mallister waved him off.

“You feel like a drink?” he asked from under those glowing yellow eyes.

“When didn't I?”

The posh Legerdemain Lounge sat beyond my usual price range, but at least there I wouldn't run into someone expecting me to pay up on a tab. To my shock, Mal put down the silvers for three burnwines.

“Look, Raz, we know that Narinna Shieldsplinter asked you to look into this thing,” Mallister told me. “She's already been to us with this story about that Alliance dee-kay. It just doesn't check out.”

“So you had the assignment? Then you can tell me why Beargarak clicks and Mister Tall-Dark-Sinister doesn't.”

“They're all dark and sinister. It goes with the skin tone,” Mal grinned. It looked hideous without lips, but I'd gotten used to that. “We've got opportunity, means, and a nice plump motive.”

“So, you put it all in the oven and baked up a golden brown case. Only you didn't hear what we said to each other at the Welcome. Therius knew who'd hired me without mentioning any names.”

“Mrs. Shieldsplinter has been all over town for two days,” said Duskblade. “If a mage as powerful as her couldn't find anything, what chance do you have, Trencher?”

“Don't pin your shortcomings on me, Duskblade. How many adventurers did it take to fix that little incident in the Hold again? Just five?”

Jakaan narrowed his eyes but didn't bite. I swear the ends of his ears twitched. You don't marry a night elf and not learn the mannerisms, and the males of the species speak more through their ears than the women do.

Mal spoke up. “Look. Shieldsplinter has to drop for this. There's no other option. They're bumping things up, too. Trial starts at dawn,” he looked away. “He'll be taking the long walk by noon.” Yeah, he wasn't happy.

The long walk had become the Guard's most expedient method of execution. The condemned got their last meal, a last drink, maybe a smoke if they wanted, and then took a long walk down a short sewer pipe into the open air, sans mount. Those that might be able to stave off complete destruction from a plummet like that were silenced first. It kept red blood off violet hands, but only if they didn't get it wrong.

“Okay, convince me,” I said.

“We don't owe you anything, shortstuff” Jakaan said, right on cue.

“You know that I've got a client, and now I know I have a time limit. Unless you're sitting me out, and you've got nothing on me that'll stick, then I'm with this until the client says otherwise. Don't forget. I looked right at this Therius character. You didn't.”

Mal looked at me then. We'd worked together long enough to get a solid measure of each other. He nodded. “Okay. It's pretty well known that Rokor was an accomplished necromancer. He specialized in reversing the effects of the Scourge plague. He got it to about a twenty percent success rate on rats and such after he started working with death knights. Don't ask me the how's or why's. I'm not a necro. Anyway, we know that Rokor and Mrs. Shieldsplinter had a thing going. Both she and her husband admitted as much, and it doesn't take a lot of digging to find that dirt around town. For a dead guy he sure shows a lot of emotion when he talks about his wife. It's one of the only things that brings any color to his face. So we've got the motive.

“Timeline. Shieldsplinter goes for his appointment. The apprentices on the level below see him go in. They hear shouting and arguing towards the end of the hour. Shieldsplinter leaves, visibly angry. Smashes a statue on his way out too. Boom. One swing. Real tough guy. A couple of minutes later, the apprentices all get a vision in their heads of Rokor lying on the floor bleeding out. They run up to the lab, and find a corpse.”

“Was the place trashed?”

“Yes, it had been turned over nicely. Not much broken, but every drawer was opened, and no books remained on the shelves. Looked like Shieldsplinter caught him from behind. Death knights have a bunch of tricks for whacking those magic types. Also, if you're not ready for it, then a sharp blade or a smoking wand will end you as easy as a rat. I don't care how powerful you are. There's your means and opportunity.”

“Resurrection?”

Mal shook his head. “The priests called it 'his time'. Happens, I guess.”

“Yeah, I guess. Another round?”

“Sure, it's the end of our shift.”

I signaled Azuregaze, the bartender. Another round appeared, though Duskblade had hardly touched his. Prissy blue bastard.

“I admit, that's solid,” I said. “Not sure it proves his guilt though.”

“Nor innocence,” said Jakaan. “You jumped in before the punchline, rummy.”

“What's your girlfriend here getting at, Mal?”

Duskblade bristled predictably, but Mal ignored him and went on. “The apprentices heard the man's dying words in their vision. 'Filthy Bear'. He had some other things to say, but he just gargled blood at that point,” Mal took a drink, or, more like, poured it in. “That's that. Done. The dead orc named his killer.”

I took my shot and upended the glass. A few points stood out. “So these sharp-eared apprentices heard them arguing, but no fight?”

Mal shrugged. “They claimed not. Like I say, the place was turned over.”

“Like searched? Not wrecked?”

“With an archmage you want a quick kill.”

“Sure, but why sift it? Set that aside. The exact words were 'Filthy Bear'? Okay so the archie is dying, and he knows it. For some reason he can't call out or move while the killer searches his place. Maybe he didn't want his apprentices to get axed too. Whatever. He gets his brain together enough for a weak sending. So weak that it takes a minute to travel down one floor. He has three syllables to make his case. Shieldsplinter is three syllables. So is Beargarak. Why 'Filthy'?”

“Orcs *are* filthy,” said Rakaan.

“So's your nose from sniffing Rinnister's backside,” I said.

Mal put a claw on his partner's arm to keep him in his seat. “You're not helping yourself here, Raz.”

“He's not helping anything. Get him out of my face, or put his muzzle back on.”

Jakaan wrenched his arm clear of Mal and stormed out. I watched him go, then felt for my pipe.

“Don't be too hard on the kid, Raz,” said Mallister. “There's a big political dimension on this one.”

“Since when did politics trump justice?”

Mal snorted. “Like, *always*? Trencher, I know that things are a little different in the Underbelly, but up here in the city we've got two monsters held in cages without locks. Sure, the Sunreavers keep the Hordies at bay and the Covenant has a hand on the Alliance leash, but you and I both know the politicos outnumber the peacekeepers by fifty to one. The streets are lined with blasting powder. All it needs is a spark.”

Mallister had a point. Dalaran was what both sides called a 'sanctuary zone'. Which only meant that visitors agreed to be on their best behavior. I'd heard of the same thing a thousand miles away in Outland in Shattrath City. There, though, the sanctuary stemmed from the awesome power of the Naaru. Here, there was only the Council of the Kirin Tor: crazy powerful in their own right, but without the soothing overtones. They enforced the sanctuary by brute force, and the adventuring type usually resented brute force.

I lit my pipe. “A night elf death knight killing one of Dalaran's only orc archamages is a big spark.”

“Bonfire.”

“But if it's orc on orc, then no one cares?”

He shrugged. “That's how Rinnister wants it handled.”

“So, what'd Rokor's journal say?”

“Didn't find one.”

“What, not at all?”

“I didn't stutter, did I? I admit it's a hazard for a man with my medical condition.”

I swirled my drink. “Never met an archie that didn't keep a journal.”

“Me either. But his is hidden, or he just didn't keep one. Pretty sure the assistant magistrate doesn't need it for his case.”

“Yeah, but why would Shieldsplinter even ransack the place?”

Mal didn't look at me.

“It's weak,” I said.

“I know. Only thing I could figure was it had some unflattering things to say about Mrs. Shieldsplinter.”

“You already said that was pretty common knowledge.”

“I did. Rinnister doesn't care.” He finished his drink. “Anyway, you've met Mrs. Shieldsplinter. Seems to me that's a woman worth killing for.”

“Killing for, sure. Dying for? No.”

“Seems like he did that once already.”

“Kind of my point. I'm not done with this, Mal. I'll try to stay out of trouble, though.”

“Do that.”

“Thanks for the drink.”

“Anytime. By the way: 'Therius' is three syllables too.”

I stirred that pot for a while after Mal had gone. No journal. Filthy Bear. Ransacked lab, with no reason to ransack.

I wandered out into the brisk night. Beargarak could have found the journal and taken it. Still, would Rokor have hidden it? If it was valuable, sure. Yet Beargarak had bad enough luck to look in all the wrong places. Bad enough that with the necromancer dying on the floor, he had to rifle the whole damn place. To me, that meant the journal hadn't been found by the Watch or the killer, regardless of who murdered the archie.

I found myself pacing the streets and staring at Sunreaver's Sanctuary. Horde territory, like a dark mirror of the Enclave on the other side of town. The Sunreaver guardian mages pretended to ignore my presence. Alliance races, even us 'unaligned citizens' always got the eye when cruising Antonidas Avenue.

Filthy Bear. Why that turn of phrase? I wished I'd heard it. I put some different punctuation on the end of it. I even said it out loud like a dying man might. “Filthy... Bear... gurgle.” I actually said 'gurgle'.

Then, looking at the Horde zone like I was, and saying those words like I did, I remembered. The Horde tavern was called the Filthy Animal. Bears are animals. No journal... It hit me like a thunderbolt.

I needed to get in there. Mallister could just walk in, but it was two in the morning, and I couldn't think of anyone else who would even try to play my game. Mal had the politics nailed, and those nails would seal Shieldsplinter's coffin at dawn.

I checked my pocket of tricks. Yeah, the potions were there, but all my loitering had caused both the guardians to flick some sort of gesture at each other. It was a cinch they could counter my pots. I knew a back way, but it meant the wall. That oh-so-very very high wall.

I headed southeast to Krasus' Landing, doing my best to look like I belonged there. That meant not eyeing the Kor'kron thugs as I wandered past. Easier done than said. Their permanent stations had them watching the Skybreaker marines across the path. I slipped behind one of the tall potted standing trees so common around the city and waited a moment.

A mighty gust blasted the landing, swaying the trees and ruffling cloaks and hair. The mystic wind circled the city every minute or so. Adventurers not willing to leap their flying beasties over the edge needed only to wait for it and waft up into the night sky.

It would do the same thing to me with or without wings, and I blocked the end result from my mind. Silly, I know, but heights and gnomes don't mix. At least not for me. I buttoned my coat up tight and pulled my hat down. I scampered unseen up the tree and onto the outer wall. To my left lay the Sunreaver Sanctuary. To my right lay a very short patch of grass and gaping oblivion.

I counted the seconds. Forty left.

The only safe way down was at the far end of the outer wall where another tree grew close enough for me to leap at. Not the best jumpers, us gnomes.

My count kept dropping, but I had to go slow. I kept my feet pretty well, but the vertigo threatened to overwhelm me more than once. I got to five seconds and the breeze kicked up early. Of course. I'd been moving towards the blast!

I threw myself down and clung to the top of the wall with all my might. Fortunately I don't weigh much. Getting to the tree proved easy after that.

They didn't guard the back area. The Covenant and the Sunreavers both made the same basic mistake in thinking only the front ways needed guarding. From the cover of the potted tree I could see another one growing up to a landing just around the big stone wall to my right. No guards. I sprinted over. Clambering up proved just as easy as the other two trees, and I slipped over the wall to hide behind some barrels that reeked of whatever the Horde passed off as swill. The Filthy Animal was only two doors away. I could see the sign swaying in the night breeze.

I could also see the stirring cloaks from the two guardians standing in front of the Sunreaver Keep, up the sweeping stair to my right. I knew there'd be a couple in front of the Animal too, and likely others on patrol. I didn't even want to think about how many Hordies might be running around. The Sunreavers might just teleport me to the street with a headache and a gut ready to evict its bile, but the adventurers would swing first and never ask a question. It would only take one sharp stick to make this day my last.

I slipped the first of my potions out and took a deep breath. It tasted like bitters and iron going down. The world shimmered into a hazy rendition of itself. The pair of blood elves I'd seen walking not far away vanished, and I knew that I had vanished from their sight as well.

Invisibility had two edges. They couldn't see me, but I couldn't see them. I ran. Down the stairs in front of me past a couple of gaudy elf statues and around the left to the Filthy Animal. Ten seconds remained at best.

I nearly impaled myself on the horn of a dead rhino skin laying right inside the door. I cursed the thing, but kept my wits. Eight seconds. The gaping maw, big enough to crush my head, made me wonder just what sort of place I'd gotten myself into. And over what? An intuition?

My eyes searched the place with just four seconds to go. Just over by the fire, not twenty feet away, lay the skin of an enormous bear. Bingo. A Filthy Bear with a maw even bigger than the slack rhino mouth in front of me.

A straw? Sure. I grasped at it, but I was in up to my neck, and for a gnome or a tauren that meant the same thing. If I'd had more time, I'd have picked the safer route. I had none. I quaffed the second of my precious trio of invisibility potions and restarted my timer.

I ran to the bear and peered into the maw. Nothing. I jumped around on the shaggy pelt but my phased self really had almost no weight to it. Right next to this skin lay another rhino. Where there were two rhinos there could be two bears. Ten seconds.

Up the stairs I went. A glance brought me face to face with another rhino and a bit further on another bear. Five seconds. Yes! Tucked in the maw sat a leather-bound notebook: exactly like what I'd expect a journal to look like.

My grasping hands passed right through it. Bloody phasing. Three seconds later, I appeared in the nearest corner, trying to be as small as I could be. Pretty small, but by no means invisible. Fortunately the upper area seemed reserved for sleeping and... other things. Only one snoring Hordie lay in the hammock right next to me, an orc that smelled like he might be allergic to water. From the ruckus downstairs it sounded like Horde parties lasted a lot longer than what I'd find over in the Welcome. A shame.

I saw no one else, so I snuck over to the gaping bear head and reached in. The journal came free with the slightest tug. I flipped a couple of pages. Written in orcish. Good, I could read that. I'd feared a cipher of some sort, but the breaks had gone my way.

Until just then.

“RO'TH!” The howl sent my very brain scrambling for the back of my skull.

I whirled to see brown skin glistening in the firelight, arms thicker than my entire torso, and a bosom to make even an old lecher like me pause. All of these various features made up one of the largest orc women I'd ever seen. Her shout meant 'Gnome' and the startled silence downstairs meant I had exactly four seconds before I'd be the latest grisly trophy over the mantle.

I downed my last potion as I sidestepped the massive woman's swinging fist. I faded out, but the alarm had gone up. Down the stairs I ran, straight to the door. A blast of freezing cold rooted my feet to the floor. Suddenly, I could see the world again. A greenish troll with a wicked looking staff pointed my way and shouted in glee. It took me half a second to turn his glee to aggravation when I wriggled out of his icy prison. The dozen adventurers on the stairs saw me bolting through the door right past the Sunreaver Guardians outside.

The guardians rained down teleport bolts, but I'd had that happen one too many times to me this eve. A sewer grate lay to the left. I yanked up a corner and squeezed under, but found myself without handholds, staring into the blackness below. The vertigo hit me hard, like a kick in the head. I lost my grip on the edge and plummeted. I'm ashamed to say that I passed out before splashing down.

Yeah. Heights.

***

I came around with Angelo and Sebastian leaning over me. “Well, there's a sight to make eyes sore,” I muttered.

“Easy now,” said Sebastian. “I always said fishing in the sewer could turn up interesting things.” He grinned.

“Not much of a trophy,” I slurred. My head hurt. I must have hit it on the way down.

“You're not exactly the big one that got away,” Angelo agreed. “Hey, don't stand up too fast.”

“No time.” My voice sounded a lot steadier than I felt. “What's the hour?”

“Oh, about five, I'd say,” said Angelo. “I was just about to call it a night, actually.”

“Five!” Fatigue fled from adrenaline. “Okay, thanks, gents, I owe you big. Say, if anyone asks–”

“Fishing was bad tonight, right Angelo?” said Sebastian.

“Damn shame. My poor kids will go hungry!”

I smiled gratefully and then ran, not walked, to my office. Short trip, fortunately. I shut my door with my back and breathed a little easier. I'd half expected someone to be waiting for me. The room was clear. I pulled the journal from my inner pocket and started thumbing pages.

“What is that?” said someone from my chair.

I leaped out of my skin. Two huge scares in a night did nothing for my temperament. “Light curse you straight to the nether, Shara!”

“You're the one that kept *me* waiting, little man!” Her finger stabbed every other word.

I shook out my handkerchief and wiped my forehead clear. “Sorry. You startled me is all. Look, I don't have it yet. I'm really busy though.”

“You're hurt,” she said, her voice neutral.

I felt my head and noticed the blood on my kerchief. “It's nothing. Look, I have some reading to do.”

“The Shieldsplinter case? Yes, Rian told me about it. He's not happy that you're looking at it.”

“I honestly couldn't give two cogs what Rinnister is happy or unhappy about.”

“That book. Is it part of the case?”

“I'll know in a few minutes,” I flipped to the back few pages and started pacing and reading. The last two pages had it all.

“He didn't do it. They have the wrong guy.”

“What's that?”

“You said you were waiting for me. It's that shadow trick you do, right?”

She nodded. “I heard someone coming in so–”

“Yeah, yeah, invisible and all. Dammit I should have seen it! She saw the elf come in, but neither of them saw him go out. Dammit!”

“Raz, what in the hells–”

“Shara, I need your help. No, really. Take this journal to your boyfriend. Fast!”

“I can't just wake him up on your say so!”

“Shara, if we ever meant anything to each other, you'll help me out. Also, you'll be helping your boy. That night elf death knight we suspected is Scourge.”

“What!?”

“You heard me. The Lich King has agents inside the city walls. Rokor suspected it, and Therius killed him when Rokor found out how to prove it. You take this to your man. I'll go for the proof.”

“The proof? But shouldn't the Watch do that? Or the Guard?”

“They should, but there's no time. Therius tried to find it, but he couldn't. He'll try again. Maybe not tonight, but right now there's an innocent man being held for murder, and his trial is getting expedited for political convenience. Make sure Rinnister listens to you. Use that special paint-peeling screech of yours.”

Her face shifted into that obstinate expression I knew pretty damn well. I tossed her the journal and grabbed my spare hat, “Come on!”

We hustled up to the top of the Eventide tunnel near the Silver Enclave. “Get me some official backup as soon as you can. Mallister knows most of it, but don't listen to his damn partner. You remember Mal from the old days? Good. Oh, which tower was Rokor's?”

“From the Citadel entrance, third on the right. Raz. Be careful.” She looked like she wanted to say something else but she said, “I still need that money.”

I smiled and winked. “Love you too, sweetheart.” I tipped my hat and we parted ways.

The Violet Citadel always kept its doors open. Adventuring types came and went, most of them free to browse at their leisure or take what refreshment they could afford in the Violet Parlour at the top of the Citadel. I had other business.

Rokor's door had a Watch seal on it, non-magical. It had been forced. I considered the possibilities, but it could have just as easily been Therius or an official.

The journal said that Rokor had devised a wand. I didn't catch all the technicals, but any critter connected with the Lich King would collapse in a 'torrent of agony' under the wand's influence. Phrases like that can get a guy's attention, and if Therius was what I thought he was it'd sure get his attention and fast.

I cracked the door and crept in. I didn't bother closing it. Even going in represented a breach in the law. The place stank of rot and torment, both hallmarks of the necromancer. No wonder most of them went mad. The foyer held little of interest, not even depressions in the rich rug to mark the passage of an intruder.

I left my prints behind and traveled up to the first tier where the apprentices worked. The desks held a bunch of crap that any practitioner of the arcane might find interesting, but to me looked like the sort of stuff more suited to a morgue than a laboratory. Nothing of interest.

Up one more level, no one had taken the time to tidy up. Blood had ruined the lavish Darnassian carpet. The stains looked fresh in the dim torchlight from the ever-burning sconces set in the wall. Spilt vials and beakers of randomly colored fluids stained tables and desks alike. Only one desk remained unmarred, the rich one with its back to the wall. It looked like the place a man might do a lot of writing. The nearly empty inkwell spoke to that fact.

A minute of fiddling with the concealed center drawer popped open a long, hidden tray of wands. Five of them lay cradled in black velvet, but only one didn't bear a layer of dust. I picked it up and felt the smooth, black lacquered wood. The jewel at the tip glowed sickly green. The Scourge wand. A flick of the wrist at anything undead and the Lich King's presence would be revealed.

I never got the chance to try.

An icy grip closed around the wand and wrenched it away. I didn't even resist. How could I?

“The final piece,” said a ghosting voice. I heard a crack and felt a small green blast behind me. “And now for you, Mister Trencher.”

I turned the chair to look the enemy in the eye. Therius stood there with both weapons drawn. “Thought of everything?” I asked. “No, not quite. You got the archie and pinned the rap on a guy with a pretty good motive. You even used that damn elf trick to hide, what do they call it?”

“Shadowmeld.”

“Yeah, a shadowmeld, to wait almost a full day for your victim to find himself alone. Rokor got wise, and hid his journal before you could get your mitts on him. I'm betting you watched the two of them standing pretty much where you are now. They argued about the woman, and that suited you better than anything else. The orc left, you ambushed Rokor, tumbled his office in the few minutes you had, but missed this hidden drawer. When the apprentices ran up, you heard everything they said about the vision, but it made no sense. If it did, my hat's off to you, but you still couldn't go where you thought it might lead.”

“It made no sense to me, but my master shares my mind,” he said. “The ploys of mortals are but children's games to the Lich King.”

“Ah, right, His Royal Unpleasantness. So, I haven't been playing against just you. Well, he's not much better. Coming here is a pure confession. It also means you're running scared with plenty to fear.”

“Fear?” he laughed. “From you?”

“Yep. If you'd left it alone and just fled town, there'd have been nothing definitive. Sure there was the journal and the wand, but without someone to flick it at, there wasn't anything to prove. The archie was just as dead, and another death knight would take the long walk for your work, especially because he was an orc and couldn't be accused of a politically motivated assassination.” I was running out of things to say.

The dead elf smiled, showing me his fangs. “A pity you never did anything with your life. A mind such as yours could have been useful to the Lich King. Enough talk.”

“Oh, you think you've heard it all?”

“I care not. Death comes now.”

He struck at me, but I'd kept a hand on the desk. The chair spun to meet his strike, and I rolled into the empty space beneath the desk. I dashed out and made for the stairwell. I only got halfway down before his creature caught me. The restraint it had shown in the Welcome no longer applied.

Chunks of my precious hide started coming out in its claws. I held it by the neck and kept the chomping teeth from my face, but a creature has to breathe for choking to do any good. It'd have me in seconds. The chill came over me, and I wondered if it was what death felt like. Yes, death it was, and here he came. Death himself at the top of the stairs, descending with a pair of glittering runeblades in his cold hands and frozen fury oozing from his eyes.

“LOK'TAR OGAR!” Victory or Death, in the orcish. I hadn't imagined it. A chilling purple energy ripped the ghoul from my face, and I saw Therius bolt from sight deeper into the tower.

I rolled to my stomach in time to see an ashen orc in black enameled armor slice the ghoul in half. He started up the stairs and spared me a nod.

“Mister Shieldsplinter, I presume?” I croaked.

“Trencher.”

A silken touch on my brow caught my attention. I turned to see an angel. An angel of wrath, but sparing a kind look for me. “My thanks, Raz,” said Narinna. “You saved my husband. And also me.”

“Well, ain't you a sight for black eyes,” I said.

“Huroth,” she called the shambling tree at the base of the stairs. The thing gestured and swirling green energy eased my pain better than any bottle of sauce ever had.

She rose, and left a thick purse behind. “Your payment, Mister Trencher. The bonus is from my guildmates. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a death knight to hunt.”

I looked past the tree and saw a masked orc woman sharpening a couple of wicked knives and the shadowy hunched form of an undead man in priestly vestments. Yeah, they had some business alright.

“Madam, a pleasure,” I put my hat back on. “Slug him once for me.”

Outside in the council hall, I found an unusual gathering. Shara stood with her beau over by the boss man himself, Lord Rhonin. He raised his staff to me. I tipped my hat.

It surprised me to see Narisa here with Mallister, standing not quite with the others. Mal waved me over. “What's this I hear about a gnome breaking into the Filthy Animal tonight?”

“Wouldn't know anything about it.”

He grinned. “You know, he could have asked me to go look around. Or even his Hordie client. I bet he was the impatient sort.”

“Cranky too. A pretty disreputable character, I'm sure.”

“Good reading in that journal. Seems like the Scourge angle will defuse the politics pretty damned well. The wand?”

“Snapped by the bad guy.”

“A shame. Well maybe his lordship can make something similar from those notes in the journal. Quite a case you baked up.”

“Hey, pal, you baked it. I just added the sides. Speaking of which, you brought a real dish along. What's the word, sweetheart?”

Narisa bent down and planted one on me. I felt it all the way down to my toes. For once I didn't quite know what to say. She giggled and said “So Narinna never told you why I sent her your way? Her maiden name is Redgold. She's my sister.”

“So, uh.” I let myself dare to hope again. “That was in appreciation?”

She smiled. “I think I'd finally like that tour of your office.”

I took her by the hand. She led me back to where we belonged.

END

Followed you here from AbsoluteWrite.

eeee!

What a wonderfully crafted story! I think you did a fantastic job of weaving the recognizable aspects of Dalaran, with just a flavor of the lore to give it the right spice. Thresher's voice was a delightful read. I want to read more of him. You know...when you have time and all....

I could have kissed Inzi then, but the ghoul would have been an unwelcome third.

There were many screamingly hysterical lines but that one had me laughing out loud and startling my dog and making my SigO wonder what mischief I was up to.

This has been added to my bookmarks. Now to investigate more of your writing!

Thanks, Bearilou, I really appreciate the kind words.

I don't have much in the way of other writing available at the moment. Having just survived Viable Paradise XIII, I should have more to read 'soon'. If/When I get sales, you'll hear about them here and on Absolute Write's Bragatorium in the SFF sub-forum.

Thanks again for reading. :) Writing this was quite a hoot, if I say so myself.

An awesome read. That's quite a tale you've cooked up there. I love the mystery spin on it. It was a much needed refreshment from all other dragon slaying exploits.

Thanks, anonymous. I'm glad you liked it.

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