Friday, March 26, 2010

The Underbelly



((First, a quick note for people who are visiting my blog for the first time. This section is something of a direct sequel to Dalaran: Part 2, and will thus be difficult to understand if you have not read that chapter. Most geographic sections in the travelogue are standalone, but this is a rare exception. So if you're new, it you might want to read one of the older chapters first, or simply start from the beginning.

Also, I set up an original fiction blog. There's only one story at the moment. I intend to rewrite it at some point in the future, but I am curious to learn your reactions to its current iteration.))

*********

Dalaran’s Underbelly is nothing new. It was a point of pride in the old city. Kirin Tor artificers and engineers had designed the sprawling network of pumps and storm drains centuries ago, giving the citizens a level of sanitation that no other human city could rival until the First War.

The Dalaranese loved the Underbelly for another reason. The wide tunnels and reservoirs, designed to contain the springtime overflow of Lake Lordamere, gave convenient shelter to more dubious sorts. Criminals thrived in the Underbelly, as did rogue mages and diabolists.

The Kirin Tor could simply not let such a resource go untapped. Over the years their agents infiltrated the sewers, catching the worst miscreants (at least, the ones who did their deeds in Dalaran), and using the rest as an intelligence service. True criminals rubbed shoulders with informants in a shaky truce. Even the most depraved could usually be relied upon to inform on the warlocks, if for no other reason than to continue their own criminal activities without trouble.

I remember how the more daring students bragged of their exploits in the Underbelly, telling tales of late night debauchery. I am sure some of them were even true. Never an especially puritan city, the Dalaranese found the Underbelly to be the perfect place to satisfy their darker interests. A few sections nearly acted as public markets, catering to dissolute students and visiting nobles from staid Lordaeron. Rumor had it that the deeper areas offered corruptions unknown to the surface world.

I never ventured into the Underbelly as a student. As straitlaced as my countrymen are said to be, I found the idea distasteful. Besides, the academy would not show me, a foreigner, the same indulgence they’d grant to a Dalaranese student.

The Underbelly’s winding tunnels are among the only aspects of the old city to have survived the Third War, though the same cannot be said for the poor souls who tried to find shelter in its dank confines. Scourge armies had rampaged through the storm drains as the city over them collapsed, turning the sewer into an abattoir.

“You definitely want to watch your step here. No one bothers us, but that’s because we’re maintenance workers. The criminals don’t want this place breaking down around them.”

I was speaking to a man named Sauverin, his rough-hewn features made all the more brutal by the mix of shadow and torchlight. His crew is one of the four that goes through the Underbelly each day, keeping the place in working order.

“We reclaim as much of the wastewater as we can, use it to keep the trees green and the flowers blooming up on topside. What we can’t use is sent to some kind of pocket dimension. The modern Underbelly’s more of a filtration system than anything else,” he explained.

“I suppose you wouldn’t have much need to involve yourself in Underbelly politics,” I said.

“I should say not!” he guffawed. “Everyone here’s mad as can be. You’ve got agents for the Kirin Tor, the Horde, the Alliance, straight-up criminals, and people who inform on everyone. Some don’t even know who they’re really working for. Best stay out of it.”

I wished I had that option.

“I’m sure the Wrathgate Massacre has only made it worse,” I remarked.

“Right it has. Not a lot of Forsaken show their faces down here these days. There’s plenty here ready to avenge Wrathgate. Fine by me, I hate those deaders.”

“Could you tell me where to find a man named Prewitt Hartley?” I asked Sauverin.

“Never heard of him. Also, you won’t find anybody by asking for him. You need to ask for someone he knows.”

“How would I do that?”

“Friend, if you need to ask, you’re in the wrong place. Believe me, no good will come from involving yourself here.”

Sauverin began whistling as he marched up the dank tunnel, his cheery tune distorted by echoes. I stood in the darkness, a terrible sense of oppression on my shoulders. I should go back, I told myself, and tell Vard I was not up for the task.

Duty dragged my feet deeper into the tunnels until I reached the Circle of Wills. Vard had described the place as an arena where Dalaranese from all walks of life went to share a common love of violence. A crew of goblins ran the place, keeping the bets going and the fights non-lethal (though accidents did happen).

The sheer size of the place is astounding. The Circle of Wills is set up in a grand, vaulted cistern. Three raised platforms are spread across its length, surrounded by an ankle-deep mire of slimy water. Alchemical waste piles up along the walls, the noxious heaps giving off a stench the corrodes the nostrils. Flimsy wooden shacks stand on rot-blackened stilts at the ends of the cistern, held together by inertia.

Despite all this, the Circle of Wills was nearly empty when I arrived. Goblins gathered around abandoned crates, playing dice and cards. A motley collection of Azeroth’s worst leaned against the sagging walls of the huts, drinking from grimy mugs.



“No games today, friend. Come back tomorrow. Maybe the day after. Hard to tell, now,” whined a goblin in a suit that was all stitches.

I nodded, not really sure what to look for. The Circle of Wills reeks of menace, fitting for a place where respectable mages go to vent their worst urges. Added to this was a new level of fear, the doubt that comes from a world irrevocably changed.

“Talus? Talus Corestiam? Is that you?”

I turned to see a broad-shouldered human, his broken and lopsided smile unmistakably a pugilist’s.

“It is you,” he chuckled. “You probably don’t remember me, I don’t think we ever actually met face to face. My name’s Janson, born and raised in Lakeshire.”

He offered a coarse hand, which I shook. I did not remember anyone named Janson, but that was not surprising; I had played a relatively significant role in the Battle of Lakeshire, and was well-known throughout the town.

“Good to see you again! I just wish it was on a happier occasion.”

“As do I,” I said. “How does Lakeshire fare?”

“It’s safe and secure. Fighting the orcs woke something up inside of me, and I couldn’t settle down. Went up to Lordaeron, fought the Forsaken and the Scarlet Crusade, and then guarded some prospectors in Stonetalon for a while. Now I fight for a living!”

“Do you make good money?”

“I’m a top tier human fighter in the Circle of Wills! Bring them up, and I’ll knock them down!” he boasted. “Not much right now though. Actually, I’m thinking I might leave Underbelly and help out in the war effort.”

“Now’s the time for it.”

“Enough about that, what are you doing here? Gambler?”

“I need to speak with a man named Prewitt Hartley. Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure how to reach him.”

“What do you want with him?”

“He has some information that I need.”

“Talus, if you want anything down here, you need to have a good cover story,” laughed Janson. “I know you’re a good man—not many outsiders would volunteer to defend Lakeshire like you did—but goodness alone won’t get you far.”

“Perhaps you could help me then?” I suddenly wondered if Janson was really what he claimed. I had no memory of the man.

“I suppose I owe you a good turn. What does the Kirin Tor want from Prewitt?”

“Kirin Tor? I’m mostly independent, but at the moment I’m working with the Alliance.”

“That might be a problem. Prewitt hates the Alliance; he only works with criminals and the Kirin Tor. He’s got some connections in the Violet Citadel.”

“I did not know that.” Had Vard been mistaken?

“He might be willing to see you if you just pretend to be an independent. What do you need to talk to him about?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“Suit yourself, but I can tell you aren’t familiar with this place. Lying badly is a good way to get your throat slit,” he warned me.

“I can lie well enough when the situation suits me. Do you work with Prewitt?”

“No, I’m a pit fighter. I know a bit about the man, but I’ve only spoken to him twice. He’s strange sort; he used to be a Stormwind conjurer, but they expelled him from the order so he went up north to Dalaran.”

“Why did they expel him?”

“I have no idea.”

“I suppose the mages might have accepted him simply to upset the conjurers. I don’t suppose Mardera ever mentioned him?” I asked, referencing the retired Lakeshire conjurer who’d died in the battle. That, I figured, would be a good way to learn if Janson was genuine.

“Mardera, now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. She never told us much about her conjuration days. I gather they could do some pretty incredible things; she certainly showed that in the battle,” he sighed.

I nodded, feeling slightly less distrustful.

“I can tell you this much: Prewitt deals in information. I’m not in that business, but I know that trust is like money for them. Of course, all the brokers are also liars, to an extent, so they know the trust can’t go that far. At any rate, Prewitt won’t trust you.”

“Is there any way I can get to him?”

“Possibly with a gift.”

“What sort of gift?” I asked.

“He collects red market goods; anyone who goes to his shack brings one as a gift. Since he doesn’t trust you, you’ll need something spectacular, and even that might not do it.”

“Red market?” I’d never heard of such a thing.

“I’ll show you. It’s part of the Black Market in the northern Underbelly.”

“Wait, did you mean illegal black market items?”

“No, red market is different, though they overlap. Red market goods are shady, to be sure, but they’re not necessarily illegal. Come with me, I’ll explain on the way.”

I followed Janson out of the Circle of Wills and back into the tunnel. Fires smolder in the far end of the tunnel, their weak light revealing the huddled forms of the Underbelly’s scavengers.

“I bet there’s a few Forsaken down there,” commented Janson, pointing to the fires. “They dive straight into all that foul alchemy junk that collects in the sewers and sell the usable reagents. Then they use the money to buy information, since a lot of them are Horde agents. Not many others dare to search through those poisons.”

“Don’t the Dalaranese reclaim these waters?”

“For keeping the parks green, not for drinking. At least, I hope not! A few of those weird Outland bird-men, arakkoa I think, also scavenge the chemical heaps, though they do it to get food.”

“I didn’t know the arakkoa lived here.”

“A few families do. They haven’t hurt anybody, but I get the chills every time I see one. Can’t explain why they bother me so much. The bird-men actually tie in with the red market trade.”

“How so?”

“Well, not directly, but they both come from Outland. See, the red market is the name we use for the trade in fel arms and equipment. The Burning Legion left hundreds of caches hidden all through Outland, and people there can make good money smuggling the stuff into Azeroth.”

“Is this common?”

“Very. There’s red market trade in all the major cities in Azeroth except for Darnassus, Thunder Bluff, and the Exodar.”

“And it’s not illegal?”

“That depends. The Shattrath Accords state that fel items are not to be taken from Outland into Azeroth. But, once they’re through, the authorities don’t usually look into it. Basically the smuggler makes the delivery, the red market trader gives the very best cut to the local government, and sells the rest to mercenaries and partisans.”

“That’s incredibly dangerous! Fel weapons are inherently corrupting!”

“I know, but people use them all the same. Maybe they figure they won’t go bad, that they’ll sell it before the corruption gets too deep. The red market isn’t supposed to sell to open criminals, though plenty of that goes on. Like I said, most of the really dangerous stuff sells to the Alliance, Horde, and Kirin Tor. Not from loyalty, but the governments offer the best money.”

“Do these governments use these weapons directly?”

“No idea. I don’t deal in the red market myself, this is just what I hear.”

I felt a sudden and overpowering vertigo, as if I stood on some abyssal precipice. The sophistication and breadth of the trade astonished me, a smuggling network that spans worlds set up in little more than a year. I shuddered at the thought of these demonic weapons accumulating on Azeroth, the process aided and abetted by the world’s governments. Thinking on it further, however, I could only wonder how I did not anticipate such a development.

“Rumor has it that they’re working on creating smuggler’s portals, so that they won’t have to take everything through the Dark Portal. Don’t know if they’ll succeed though,” said Janson.

We followed a narrow northbound tunnel to reach the Underbelly’s Black market. Janson’s description had led me to expect a thriving den of crime, akin to Lost Rigger Cove in Tanaris. In truth, the Black Market is small and quiet. Smugglers and fences set up shop in an old reservoir half-flooded with murky water, where rot-festooned wooden walkways connect floating platforms weighed down with contraband.

“Not much actual buying goes on here,” said Janson as we stepped into the Black Market. “This is mostly where they show items and plan backroom deals. But you can purchase what’s on display if you have the money.”

“Even if the merchant doesn’t know me?”

“Like I said, Dalaran’s fine with the Black Market so long as it’s kept out of sight. The Kirin Tor use it as much as anyone else. The red market trader’s over there,” he said, pointing to a platform to our right.

We traversed the bobbing walkway, the soft and sticky surface seeming to mold itself to our soles. A Sin’dorei stood at the red market platform. Green eyes burned in his wizened face, and cracked veins sizzled under slackened skin turned gray by the cellular malaise of fel magic. He surrounded himself with implements of dark and esoteric sorceries: piles of skulls (some of them looted trollish soughans), proscribed books, and demonic ornaments.



“Good evening,” he said in greeting, his metallic voice audible before he moved his lips. I had the sudden impression of a quick and wrenching motion beneath his rotting robes. “Have we met?”

“I’m afraid not. My name is Ryzel. I’m looking to buy some red market items.” Janson went along with this new lie.

“I am Darahir. If I might be so bold as to make a presumption, you do not seem especially familiar with the goods I have here.”

“What gave me away?”

“Calling them red market items. But I enjoy having new customers; it’s dreary seeing the same faces, the same assumed identities, night after night.”

“Bring out your best, Darahir,” interjected Janson.

“And what’s your interest here, brawler?” inquired Darahir, his lipless mouth turning up in a rictus grin.

“This man’s done me a good turn, and I want to help. Sometimes it’s best to get to the point around here.”

“Of course. Many of my best wares are not safe to remove from their packages, and are beyond your price range. I do have some very fine goods, however. What kind of item do you want?”

“What’s a good way to impress someone who’s interested in red market goods?”

“Hmm, I did recently acquire the heart of Pentatharon, a dreadlord slain in the Netherstorm. It’s of little real use, but may be of great interest to a collector.”

“Dreadlords were common in Outland. Are their body parts really so rare?” I asked.

“This is Pentatharon's, mind you.”

“Who was Pentatharon?”

“The Waking Dream of Slaughtered Lambs, they called him. He sowed fear and death among the goblins, and among the draenei before that.”

“I’ve been to Netherstorm, and I never heard of any Pentatharon.”

If my revelation shocked Darahir, he gave no sign.

“Collectors of the demonic are usually rubes with poor taste. True, dreadlord body parts are hardly rare (though they are not common either), but such individuals take a childlike delight in possession of such artifacts. No matter, I do have items for a more discriminating palate.”

Darahir reached into a nearby crate, his atrophied hand folding around a black dagger. The weapon drooped from his loose grip as he held it up for display. It looked like typical Burning Legion material, perhaps the spare weapon of a felguard. Misshapen and bulky, it showed no craftsmanship or efficiency, just the careless brutality that is the hallmark of the demon armies.

“What’s so remarkable about this?”

“This dagger is called the Deliverer of Scarlet Gifts. Until recently it hung from the belt of a shivarran priestess, an implement of sacrifice. The Deliverer changes size according to the wielder, which is how you or I can carry it. If one takes it out in anger, the Deliverer will immediately go towards the opponents heart, and is sharp enough to gouge it out with ease.”

I paused, wondering if I dared buy such a weapon as a gift. A thought came to me.

“Can you control the knife?”

“No, not really. I would not recommend it for actual combat; the shivarrans only used it on the defenseless. Still, it is valuable. Only senior priestesses carried such an item.”

“I take it all the useful weapons go to those with connections?”

“Correct, sir,” smiled Darahir. “There is great demand for such things among Azeroth’s power groups.”

I looked to Janson, who shrugged. Sighing, I decided to pay for the weapon. We haggled briefly before settling on a price, amounting to almost all of the money Vard had given me for the mission. A visceral nausea shivered up the veins in my arm to settle in my heart once I touched the knife, and I almost flung it into the water.

Darahir gave a slight bow, the movement shifting his hood to the side and revealing the band of lime-green blisters running up the side of his head, his ear broken and dislodged by the swelling.

“Be sure to keep track of your names, Ryzel,” warned Janson as we went back towards the Circle of Wills.

“I will. I don’t have others to keep track of,” I lied.

“It’s one of the easiest mistakes a man can make down here, getting his identities mixed up. I don’t play the games of intrigue, but I know some who do. They say the trick is to lie to yourself until you believe it.”

“Right.” I tried not to look at the Deliverer of Scarlet Gifts. I could not shake the impression that corruption was worming its way under my skin as I held it. There’s an inherent wrongness to many demonic artifacts, and the dagger was no exception.

“Thank you again, Janson. I have one more favor to ask of you.”

“Certainly.”

“Show me to Prewitt’s home.”

*********

Lost in shadows, the denizens of the Circle of Wills cling to a marginal existence with the strength of desperate and dying men. Only a step above the rag pickers, they run errands for the bigger Underbelly players, who usually live outside of the sewer. Most, according to Janson, had tried and failed to make their names as agents, gamblers, and smugglers. By their standards, Prewitt was something of a success.

“Prewitt lives in that one over there,” said Janson, pointing to a mold-blackened house standing on stilts. “I’m afraid I can’t help you beyond this point, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Give him the knife and ask your question. If he doesn’t like the gift, you might be able to exchange it for something else at Darahir’s shop.”

“I see. Thank you again.”

Janson nodded before turning back to the Circle of Wills. I looked at Prewitt’s house, increasingly sure I was making a mistake. If Vard had been wrong about Prewitt being an Alliance agent, who knew what other mistakes he might have made?

Stronger yet, however, was my desire to be rid of the damned knife. I hated feeling its weight in my pack, the very thought of it burning into my mind. Did I really want to meet someone who actually desired such a malefic object?

Bracing myself, I walked up the partially collapsed staircase leading to Prewitt’s door, the wood mushy beneath my weight. The clapboard roof sagged at the center, weighed down by a glistening black forest of molds and fungi. I knocked on the door, and seriously considered tossing the knife inside once it opened.



“What do you want?” demanded a scratchy voice.

“A trade!” I shouted. Just let me get rid of this awful thing, I thought to myself.

“What do you have?”

“Something you want. Let me in, and we can discuss it!”

“Get in,” the voice barked.

I pulled on the door, which sluiced out from the soggy wall. Prewitt was confident, if nothing else. Inside, I could just detect the odor of sweat and neglected wounds.

Prewitt sat on a rickety chair at the far end of the room. An aging human, he had a provisional face that might have been sown onto his skull by a careless surgeon. His penetrating blue eyes stared out between strands of lank white hair. Once-fine clothes hung from his emaciated body, constellations of stains on the fabric.

“Well? Come on,” he demanded.

“I need information on the Apothecarium,” I said, deciding to be direct. “My employers think they had links in the Underbelly, which they used to obtain the reagents that killed so many at Wrathgate. In return, I have this.” I withdrew the dagger by its blade.

Feverish eyes looked up and down the length of the demonic weapon, Prewitt’s expression remaining neutral.

“That’s quite a prize. But first, I need to know who you’re working for. Alliance and Kirin Tor have already heard it from me.”

“I work for an independent party with a vested interest in Northrend.”

“Don’t insult me. Word to the wise: try to get by with a lie like that, and you’ll end up dead. There are no independent parties.”

“I’m not sure what my employer’s relationship is to the Kirin Tor; maybe they’re connected. He wants this information.”

“Tell him,” muttered Prewitt, turning back to a tiny desk littered with trash, “that he should ask the Kirin Tor.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t be sending me here if they were telling him.”

“So what, you’re trying to cross the Kirin Tor? I’m guessing your boss is either stupid or aligned with someone else. Looking at you, I’d guess Alliance, but I’m not going to rule out Horde.”

“What do you want in return for this information?”

“I don’t just give to any dumb grifter who floats into my place with red market junk!” he snarled, his sagging face suddenly animated. “Everything here’s connected! Wrong word to the wrong man, and that causes problems.”

“Look, Prewitt, I need to know this and I’m not leaving until I get it.”

I do not look very threatening. Still, authentic experience can sometimes make up for a mild appearance, and I saw Prewitt hesitate, if only for a moment.

“Who told you I collect red market artifacts?” he asked, after a long pause.

“Janson,” I said, hoping I wasn’t revealing too much. From what Janson had said, it didn’t seem as if Prewitt’s interest was a big secret.

“He’s Alliance,” he muttered. “You say you’re not with the Alliance, and I believe you; they’d have given you a better cover story if you were.”

I began to wonder if anyone in Underbelly knew who was working for what.

“Janson’s a hayseed, too honest to do well anyplace outside the ring. Unless he’s a much better actor than I think he is, he figured he’d do you a favor. Don’t know what he might ask in return—”

“Actually, he owed me a favor.”

“All right, that explains it. Let me see the knife.”

I passed the dagger onto him, and he ran a quivering finger along the edge of the blade. A terrible pressure lifted off my back the moment he took the weapon.

“Shivarran, I can tell,” he whimpered, raising the dagger to his bloodless lips.

For the first time I noticed the scowling demon statuettes crowded on a shelf at the back wall of his shack, their evil features carved with an obsessive attention to detail. I could see other artifacts among the squat figurines: bronze bells, devil masks, and bulbous metal instruments whose purposes I could only guess.

“Why are you so interested in fel objects?”

“There was a time when I loved the feel of mana coursing through my body. After a while, it was no longer enough. Fel magic though, it peels back your senses, forces you to look right into the burning heart of reality. Best way to remind yourself you’re alive,” he sighed, his words tinged with regret.

“You’re a warlock?”

“A demon summoner? You take me for a fool?” he growled, his waxen face twisting in anger. “Warlocks don’t control demons, it’s the other way around! I use fel magic for divination, information like what you’re trying to get. My rituals send eyes and ears through the Twisting Nether, so I can see or hear what I need.”

Janson had mentioned Prewitt’s history among the conjurers of pre-war Stormwind. More reckless than their northern kin, they often delved into the more sinister aspects of magic. They claimed to be experts at divination, though the cryptic answers and predictions that they gave to Stormwind’s kings often proved vague or unreliable.

“You’re continuing the conjurer tradition, then?”

“No. The conjurers could only offer their answers in the form of feeble riddles that obscured more than they revealed,” he snorted. “I made their methods work. For all their talk of tapping into the raw forces of dark magic, they were nearly as timid as the Dalaranese. I went deep into fel sorceries, and got exact answers. Through the haze of demonic eyes I could see the orc camps growing like cysts in the swamp.”

“That must have made you very valuable.”

“My peers thought me a warlock in all but name, so they took me to the king in shackles. I made my escape and went to Dalaran, the old one.”

“Why did they accept you?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.

“To spite the conjurers and prepare for the Second War. My visions let the Alliance intercept the raids of the Burning Blade savages, found the weaknesses in Blackrock Keep, warned them of Deathwing.”

“You’re a hero then, in a way.”

“Trying to ingratiate yourself? The Dalaranese treated me well enough after the war, gave me a good apartment. Wouldn’t let me use fel magic though, and that sucked all the joy out of life.”

“Did they let you resume fel magic in the Third War?”

“Anything to save their skins. I remember them scurrying around, trying to rebuild the ritual chamber as the living dead surrounded the city. Too late though. I escaped, went underground for a while. Didn’t do much else in the Third War, and finally ended up here. I wish I’d gone to Outland; closer to reality than this damned world.”

“How do you mean?”

“Like I said, fel magic peels away the illusions. You see things exactly as they are, not how you want them to be. Anyway, I’m done talking about me or my methods. You want information on who sold reagents to the Apothecarium, right?”

“Yes.”

“Goblin named Tyrigz Hulnum. The Alliance nabbed him though; he’s long gone.”

“Is Tyrigz aligned with the Horde?”

“No, just an alchemist without scruples. That sort of person can get far, down here.”

I nodded, disappointed and relieved at the same time. Though too late to do anything, I at least knew that the Horde hadn’t supplied the Apothecarium in Underbelly.

“One question: why did you not anticipate the Wrathgate?”

“Idiot question. My vision can’t be everywhere at once; I need to focus on a target first. I wasn’t spying on the Horde.”

“Who were you spying on?”

“We’re done here. Get out.” He went over to his collection of fel artifacts with a fanatic’s trembling devotion.

I turned to leave. As I walked out the door, I got a quick glimpse of an open vial on Prewitt’s desk, half-filled with a faded tan powder of exceedingly fine texture. Perhaps it was only a trick of the darkness, but it looked exactly like the powder that I use to hide the smell of undeath. I took a pinch of the stuff as his back was turned, and shoved my hand in a coat pocket as I left.



*********

Vard and I struggled up a ramp of trash and castoffs to reach an opening to the main tunnel south of the Circle of Wills. Chemical stains dotted the rubbish like Winter's Veil lanterns in the dark. I spotted Janson sharing a bottle of wine with a dwarf nearby, though he did not recognize me without my disguise.

My first mission to the Underbelly had paved the way for a second. At first, Vard had figured that the powder I'd found in Prewitt’s home only bore a coincidental resemblance to the variety used in my disguise. Vard nonetheless gave it to Lord Sunreaver’s personal alchemist, Elsarion Lightleaf, for analysis, along with a sample of my own for comparison (though he kept the knowledge of my disguise to himself; it is not information I am comfortable sharing, even with other members of the Horde). Elsarion’s research revealed them to be one and the same.

“Dammit, the entire world’s gone mad,” he had said. “This still doesn’t prove that Prewitt is undead. He may use it for some other reason.”

No one could guess what that reason might be, as the powder cannot do anything else. Already perturbed that he’d been wrong about Prewitt working for the Alliance, Vard took direct action. He rounded up some trustworthy people and brought us down into the Underbelly to get the truth from Prewitt. I went at his request. Like the rest of them, I donned a thick hood enchanted to shadow and distort my features. Some wore scarves over their mouths, though I did not go quite that far.

We only knew that Prewitt could not be a Horde agent; otherwise, Vard would have been aware. If he turned out to be a Forsaken himself, he would likely be allied to the Apothecarium or some other questionable group. If he was a Scourge agent, than he posed a danger to everyone in the city.

Elsarion, whom Lord Sunreaver ordered to accompany us, pointed out that Prewitt might be a Forsaken working for the Kirin Tor, which Vard acknowledged as a possibility. However, he could not take the risk of an Apothecarium or Scourge agent operating freely in the Underbelly.

Upon finding Prewitt’s shack empty, we split up into three groups, intending to reunite at the Circle of Wills after each group finished searching part of the Underbelly. Vard and I went south to investigate Cantrips and Crows, a seedy subterranean tavern. The idea of Prewitt visiting a drinking establishment struck me as incongruous, but I figured it best to take a look.

“Some of the Sunreavers mentioned Cantrips and Crows to me,” remarked Vard as we reached one of the main sewage arteries, reeking of burned glass and waste. “They told me it was a good place for orcs.”

“I’ve never been there, and I don’t know of any equivalent in the city’s previous iteration.”

“It was an insult, Destron. The Sin’dorei still think of us as uncouth savages. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll enjoy anything crude and debased.”

“Oh, I see.”

“And some orcs seem determined to prove them right. I feel as if I’m trapped in a nightmare. It was not long ago that Thrall was poised to lead us to a future of honor and glory. Now, his dream is collapsing all around us.”

“That’s why we’re here, is it not? To undo some of the damage done?”

“As much as possible, which I fear is not enough. It’s open war in Lake Wintergrasp now. Garrosh has vowed that the Horde will retake the Titan fortress, and is rallying a mercenary army to the cause. The dwarves are doing the same.”

“Is it safe to say that here? The walls have ears in this place.”

“It’s no secret, everyone knows about it already. Garrosh surely wants to send the Horde armies to the place, but the Warchief will not permit it. So far, the Alliance has also held back. But the dwarves want blood; they always thought it blasphemy that we reached the fortress before them.”

I again felt that awful and hopeless weight on my shoulders, the sheer enormity of the Apothecarium’s evil defying belief. Their actions also revealed the fragility of the world’s political situation. Both sides had been ready to strike; all they needed was a reason.

Cantrips and Crows is a ramshackle wooden structure spilling out over the edges of the wooden platform on which it is built. Its rambling profile dominates the cluster of huts and tents in the southern cistern, a dank town floating on spoiled water. Red lanterns cast garish light across the peeling wooden walls, while lean and dangerous sorts swagger down the elevated paths, bottles or daggers in their hands.



“A fine place for orcs indeed,” scoffed Vard. “How will we find Prewitt in this mess? Cantrips and Crows isn’t the only place here.”

“It might be a good place to start. Maybe I should have gone alone, in disguise.”

“If Prewitt is with the Apothecarium, he needs to be taken down. That will be easier if there are more of us. Come on, I’ll be able to scare some answers out of these sots if need be.”

We navigated a maze of groaning walkways to reach Cantrips and Crows. Some of the humans glared at me as I walked by, but Vard’s presence dissuaded them from causing trouble.

The parlor room at Cantrips and Crows is hardly inviting, exposed as it is to the rancid air. Too-bright lights cast shadows on the clapboard walls, bare save for a few dusty hunting trophies. Shabby patrons slumped in chairs, nursing cheap beer and bad wine. A human man stood behind the bar wearing elaborate clothes marred by stains and rumples. With deft hands he poured a glass of wine for a scarred blood elf before turning his attention to us.

“Welcome to Cantrips and Crows,” said the barkeep in a curt tone.

I nudged Vard when I spotted Prewitt seated by an uneven table at the other end of the tavern, near a closed door. His palsied right hand clutched a glass of some amber liquor as he stared off into space. The light revealed the full extent of his decrepitude, and I could easily imagine him as an undead. I wondered about my own disguise.

I ordered a cup of ale and took a table opposite Prewitt. The man looked exhausted, almost on the verge of collapse. His skinny arm shook every time he raised his glass, as if protesting the movement. I could almost see through the aged skin on his face, pulled tight over the flesh like something that didn’t belong.

While Vard and I watched, another human entered the tavern. Tall and wearing a well-trimmed black beard, he smiled at the sight of Prewitt and took a seat at the old conjurer’s table.

“Prewitt, good to see you here. You spend too much time in that miserable hovel of yours,” said the newcomer, his false jocularity not hiding the cruelty in his voice.

“Foolish thing to do,” retorted Prewitt. Anger crossed his face, only to vanish a moment later, replaced with hopelessness.

“Hardly, you need to keep this up. It’s healthy. Spend too long alone, and you’ll get even more sick. Here...”

The man’s voice lowered as he leaned in close to Prewitt, his white teeth exposed in a flawless smile. Vard growled in frustration as their voices dropped below hearing. I edged closer to no avail, afraid of attracting their attention.

The bearded man did not stay long. Prewitt gave him a bundle of papers covered in jittery handwriting. In return, the man gave Prewitt a small cloth satchel, after which he got to his feet.

“Good doing business with you, Prewitt. I’ll see you again.”

Prewitt said nothing, and only took a quick look inside the pack as the man left. I looked to Vard, who gave an almost imperceptible shrug. Prewitt’s acquaintance had carried himself like a Dalaranese mage, giving some credence to the belief that Prewitt himself was a Kirin Tor agent. Still, we could not be certain.

Finishing his drink, Prewitt lifted himself up and left the bar, the satchel clutched tight to his bony frame. We waited until he was at the door before getting up and following him. Prewitt made no attempt to throw us off; he was either oblivious, or leading us into a trap.

“The man he spoke to looked Dalaranese,” I said to Vard.

“I agree. Maybe Prewitt is a Kirin Tor agent.”

“Perhaps we should leave the matter to the mages,” I suggested.

“I cannot take that risk. If there’s even the slightest chance that Prewitt is working for the Apothecarium, we need to investigate. Remember, that powder you found doesn’t have any use beyond disguising the undead.”

“He could simply be a Forsaken agent working for the Kirin Tor.”

“If that proves true, we’ll apologize and leave him be.”

“Vard, think about this: the Horde cannot afford to anger the Kirin Tor. I think we should tell the Kirin Tor about our concerns.”

“The Kirin Tor have their own interests. If Prewitt turns out to be an Apothecarium agent, the Kirin Tor might turn him over to the Alliance. The Horde needs to control its own! Destron, the Horde is at its weakest. The slightest push could undo everything we've fought and bled for.”

“All right, you’ve convinced me,” I said.

Prewitt made his way across the rotting walkways, a lonely ghost in the depths. I wondered if he had much longer to live, assuming he wasn’t already undead. He dwelled in the sewers without a single friend, sustained only by his forays into demonic magic.



Back in the Circle of Wills, we saw that it had taken the first steps back to normalcy. Fists flew in the ring as two humans brawled for the crowd, the cheers reverberating in the stone vaults. They shouted for blood, going at it with the enthusiasm of an ascetic ending a long fast, though no more than a few days had passed since the last fight. Many were Dalaranese, the paragons of human civilization only too ready indulge their baser interests. The Underbelly was coming back to life.

The rest of Vard’s operatives walked out from the crowd, joining us in a loose group as we followed Prewitt. He steadfastly continued towards his hovel, blind to the world or pretending to be. Elsarion had brought a small vial whose contents would supposedly undo the effects of the disguise. All he needed to do was convince Prewitt to take it, one way or another.

We reached the sad assemblage of shacks behind the arena. An ancient woman, blind in one eye, sat on a rickety chair outside one of the shacks, a pipe-stem clenched in her yellowed teeth. Prewitt finally turned around, his face like a hunted animal’s.

“What do you all want? How long have you been following me!”

“We’re friends, Prewitt,” rumbled Vard. “We just need to discuss something.”

“Do I have a choice?” he shot back. “All right, follow me inside. No point in airing out all our secrets.”

“No, I think we’ll do it out here.”

“That’s foolish. Anyone could hear us.”

“We won’t be saying much. My friend here just wants to offer you a drink.”

“What, you’re trying to poison me?”

“If we wanted to kill you, you’d be dead. Unless you are already.”

My jaw dropped at Vard’s clumsiness. The whole operation had been done in a hurry; we should have had Elsarion create more vials. I feared the Horde was flailing about for any lifeline, and would only drown itself in the process.

“I’m old but I’m not dead yet. Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice. I can take a drink.”

“Put your hands in the air, Prewitt, and keep them still.”

Prewitt complied. What did he think was the nature of the drink? He seemed confident that whatever the potion did, it would not harm him. Elsarion handed the flask to Vard, who approached Prewitt. Two troll operatives went around the old man, placing cautionary hands on his shoulders. Vard opened the flask and put it to Prewitt’s lips.

“You need to feed me like I’m an infant?” scoffed Prewitt. “I’m not senile.”

“Just drink it.”

Prewitt complied, making a face as he drank the strange brew. Vard stepped back from Prewitt, observing him. Prewitt himself narrowed his eyes.

“Are you done? I half-figured you’d give me a mind control potion, but what you gave me was something else. Whatever it was, it didn’t work.”

Bleached whiteness spread across his wrinkled skin as he spoke. I could see the lines of wounds repaired by subtle stitching reach along his cheeks and brow. All the while, he continued to speak.

“Get out of here, I did what you asked. Believe me when I tell you that my associates will be informed of this. I always hated your damn Horde, and you’ve just given me another reason.”

The light in his eyes went out, their falsity revealed in dead sockets. Prewitt’s tongue went from red to black as we watched.

“Why are you looking at me? Have you—”

Prewitt stopped as he saw his left hand, shriveled and bloodless. He held it in front of his face, shivering as he did.

“What did you do to me? What did you do? You made me one of the damn undead! You’re with the Scourge!”

At once it dawned on us: Prewitt did not know he was undead.

The trolls grabbed Prewitt but he wriggled loose with surprising dexterity, the weaknesses of age suddenly forgotten. Howling he struck at them and broke free. I heard a door shut as the old woman fled inside.

“Do we kill him?” someone demanded.

“Not yet! We need to find out who he works for!” yelled Vard as he pursued Prewitt, who bounded towards his shack. Prewitt spun around and gestured at the ground. Three armored scorpids suddenly poured up from the flooded earth at his command.

“You bastards! I’ll kill you for this! I knew the Horde was up to no good!”

“Prewitt, you’re undead!” shouted Vard. “The potion just exposed what you really are.”

A sharp pincer gripped the leg of a troll warrior, crushing it with ease. The beast raised its tail to skewer the screaming troll. I cast a frost bolt, and saw lines of ice running up its segmented body, slowing it long enough for the wounded troll to take action. Instead of escaping, he grabbed an obsidian hand ax from his cloak and slamming it down on the scorpid’s head. The blade shattered even as it broke the shell, sending glass shards deep into the scorpid’s brain. It shuddered and went still.

“I’m a human! This is some Horde trick—Light, what have you done! I can hear him in my head!”

Prewitt roared and sobbed, clutching his head as he fell to the ground. The scorpids halted their attack, making them easy prey for the agents. Vard took slow steps towards Prewitt as the conjurer sobbed.

“Stop it, stop it, I can’t be receiving from him, not possible, stop it!” he choked. “I never died, I survived the Third War, I remember it!”

Prewitt looked up at Vard, trembling.

“Please kill me, I can’t be a part of the Scourge!” he begged.

Vard paused.

“Meet your death with honor, human,” he said.

Vard drove his dagger into the Scourge agent’s scalp in one swift blow. Prewitt dropped, his long-dead body completely limp.

5 comments:

  1. Destron, it was well written, but more importantly, well thought through plot-wise. I appreciated the long dialogues between Janson and Destron, and later with Prewitt himself, looking to tie in any loose ends and give solid plausibility to the story. Suspicion and fear were there and well illustrated. And you've really enriched the whole Sewers space yet again for the player, nevermind the few off-shoot notes in regards to transitional periods (i.e. bringing about your conjectures in regards to conjurers again and the description of the impact of contraband -- I loved it, always felt it was an issue that was ignored completely; societies dealing with the plethora of "unusual" items Azeroth is flooded with that is).

    Felt you limited yourself again, trying to keep to the travelogue's short format by the by. The Sewers description and its factions made me think of Cloaca Maxima crossed with ancient Rome's outskirts with its thugs, slaves, liberti and gladiators, moreso in the last part. Would've wished more narrative there, to have cut yourself loose in fleshing out more twists and detail, it always fell so well within your purview in the past.

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  2. Thanks. I actually didn't shorten this one at all, and managed to write pretty much everything I could think of regarding the Underbelly.

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  3. Loved the story, the twist with Prewitt being Scourge and not even knowing it was awesome. The one part I didn't understand is why Varg killed him so quickly without looking for more answers. Did he feel that since Prewitt said he could hear the whispers in his head it was enough proof that he was Scourge? And wouldn't they be curious as to how the Scourge made him? You'll probably be clearing all this up in the next chapter so I really don't even need to post this though. ^_^

    Oh, and I don't know if you ment to say Undercity or Underbelly in this part- "However, he could not take the risk of an Apothecarium or Scourge agent operating freely in the Undercity.'

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  4. Oi Destron,
    I was referring strictly to the Scourge agent's plot, which felt to have ended a bit fast. All the region-enriching-information was there, but as one of your avid readers I would've wanted to see this particular trail end into a bit more interaction with Underbelly denizens, perhaps Prewitt trying to seek refuge amongst some of the thugs he must've known or anything that would've not had him stumble into a clean execution. I enjoy Destron's observations a lot more than his "adventures", yet on this particular occassion, I felt it would've balanced an entry heavy in explanatory dialogue. I am sorry if I was unclear or seemed to analize your writing critically, I'm not in the position to do so, merely voicing a wish-list.

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