Venomspite,despite being built for and by the Forsaken, yielded to certain necessities. The need for warmth was one such. Dragonblight was not Icecrown nor even the Borean Tundra, but its climate adversely impacted tools of research and war. Then, too, the breathing races of the Horde stayed in what passed as Venomspite’s inn as a waystation to other points of interest or employment. As a result, most of Venomspite had braziers, fire and cooking pits, wall hangings with Undercity’s insignia, carpets of wool and fur.
Regardless, Chief Plaguebringer Middleton had noticed that many living seemed not to acknowledge Venomspite’s comforts. Such was the case with the pair seated in front of him on mammoth-skull stools. They still wore the heavy clothing Dragonblight required in winter, sealskin leather coats, leggings and boots, scarfs and gloves, all showing signs of hard use. The goblin sported a bear-fur cap, the earflaps dyed a bright red. The blood elf had pushed back her hood, but the frostweave knitted scarf was wrapped so many times around her face only her slanted green eyes were visible. The antechamber’s triangle of open braziers seemed not to affect them in the least.
“My terms are thus,” Middleton said, steepling his fingers. “Room and board, and seven gold a week as a research assistant. Should you be asked to take on more dangerous work – hunting, for example – you will be compensated.”
The goblin made a clicking sound, pursed his lips. Middleton could tell he was seething beneath this thoughtful façade. Seven gold a week was a pittance, and they both knew it. He leaned forward, but before he could make a counter-offer the blood elf spoke.
“I’ll take it.”
Middleton heard the goblin choke. “What? Candybabe, that’s – “
“I’ll take it,” the blood elf repeatedly firmly. “Shazzle, you know you don’t like this kind of work. I’ll stay here, and you can go on to Dalaran or even Argent Tourney. We’ll be fine.”
Argent Tourney, Middleton recalled, was the nickname given the Argent Crusade’s former tournament grounds. Since Arthas’ demise it had become a trading center of sorts for the most part, the remaining business folk salted with a hodgepodge of adventurers, treasure hunters, cloud-brained mystics, and even itinerant artists. A small detachment of the Crusade stood duty there, tacitly acknowledge peacekeepers.
The goblin huffed, and skewed a sidelong glance at him. Middleton smiled blandly, an expression that despite retaining his lips seldom reassured. The look shifted to the blood elf. She nodded firmly.
“Fine, fine,” the goblin muttered. “I’m gonna head out day after tomorrow. Where tdepends on who’s headin’ where. I’ll let ya know soon’s I get there.”
The blood elf nodded again. “Excellent,” Middleton said. “Shazzle, Candybabe, my assistant Levine will show you to your quarters at the inn…”
The blood elf laughed.
Middleton looked at her. “I said something amusing?”
“My name’s not Candybabe. It’s Hardkandy.”
Insipid name choices or no, the blood elf was an astonishingly good assistant.
She arrived promptly, worked right up until the noon meal, and picked up immediately after up until twilight. She performed the scut – cleaning, measuring, shelving and turning of jars and bottles without complaint. The same for the extra work, off-loading supplies from the windriders or procuring reagents from the surrounding forests. She knew her way around an alchemist’s laboratory. Middleton saw it in the way she handled the tools of the craft, and suspected she possessed at least a beginner’s knowledge. On her fifth day she proved him right, admitting her personal motive for accepting his offer: a method to open a pair of stubbornly sealed coffers.
Middleton examined them. The craftsmanship was nothing he recognized The locks of each were minute, possibly mere decoration or decoys from the true locking mechanism – the lids’ gold leaf spirals, perhaps. . “What have you tried?” he asked.
“Glue solvents, magic, jeweler’s rouge… engraving acids.” She sighed. “Nothing.”
“A puzzle indeed. Well, we’ll see what can be done. Our work here is pressing, but not urgent.”
Hardkandy smiled. “Thank you, Middleton!” She darted off to her measuring with a pat of his hand.
That, too, was a marked peculiarity. She didn’t seem to notice that Venomspite was inhabited by the undead; she treated all as if they still lived. Nothing untoward -- nothing as depraved as the degenerates who sought out Forsaken for sexual adventures. Simple inquiries into how one’s day was going, commentary on the weather, excitement over seeing orcas off the Forbidden Shore. Small talk.
As if the Forsaken cared about such matters.
There were other peculiarities. The blood elf would cut open a Scarlet Onslaught fanatic or scouting wolvar like a sailor filleting fish, but she wept over dead carrion bird hatchlings.
“Maybe she’s the blood elf version of a Mindless,” Bartlett, their quartermaster joked that evening, evoking snickers. Middleton laughed, too.
But in the back of his mind, the seed of an idea had taken root.
That idea sprouted a few days later. The afternoon gryphon brought a letter for Hardkandy. Middleton pretended to be busy with an infusion.
Hardkandy sighed. “Oh, Shazzle…Middleton, I need to go to Dalaran for a couple days. Two, maybe three.. maybe longer.”
“What is it?”
Hardkandy shook her head. “Money problems.”
“Surely either of your… fraternities… can handle the situation?”
Another shake of her head. “We don’t belong to any guilds,” Hardkandy said absently.
“Is that so?” Middleton reined in his eagerness. “Very well. You may leave tomorrow. Do try not to take too long.”
Throughout the rest of the day, Middleton slowly, subtly, drew more information out from the blood elf. Delicate questioning revealed the two were not, as he had assumed, lovers but merely working partners currently in the employment of a tauren village to search for relics in Ulduar, for some reason. They claimed no allegiance to any faction beyond the Horde proper, and even that was a matter of pragmatics, not the heart. Political matters past or present held no interest to Hardkandy, at least: she was as indifferent to the threat of Deathwing as she was ignorant of the regrettable Wrathgate. Neither had family living, or, it seemed, friends of any description.
In short, neither of them would be missed.
Which made them perfect for Middleton.
He was not at Venomspite merely to perfect alchemical aids for the Horde. The Royal Apothecary Society had assigned him a task completely off the books. No one at else at Venomspite knew about it, not even the High Executor.
The greatest challenge facing the Forsaken was not the annihilation of the living, but their own numbers. Many had been destroyed during the Northend campaign. The Dark Lady had some success creating more Forsaken with her val’kyr, and there had been ‘recruitment’ of the living who desired an eternity to pursue their personal goals by a handful of Forsaken. Neither method was swift, however. Moreover, the frenzied state of new Forsaken could not always be turned to an advantage, and they would have to be put down. Even more disturbing, the numbers of the risen remaining Mindless were rising.
This could not be allowed to continue. Middleton’s orders were to find a way to abort the Mindless state, to make new Forsaken fully cognizant and rational.
He believed he had created the means to do so. What he needed were test subjects, and any of the Forsaken at Venomspite were out of the question. Their unlives were too precious to the Dark Lady and Her cause.
Aimless vagabonds, on the other hand….
The goblin was too savvy, too clever. But the blood elf, with her childlike trust and naivete? A suitable test subject. There remained only the problem of how to persuade her to participate. Restraints and cages were a possibility if need be, but the results would be easier to judge if she were able to function as close to normal as possible.
The answer came when she returned. As always, the blood elf huddled near the lab’s braziers.
Of course. He should have seen it before.
“Hardkandy!” he said “I have excellent news.”
She unwound her scarf. “Why are there gnomes calling the hours?”
Middleton had forgotten the gnomes. They’d ceased to amuse him long ago, and he’d had his laboratory magically sound-proofed against their inane sniveling. In retrospect, he was surprised she hadn’t noticed them sooner. “It’s their job. Brote and Skrotee are well-paid for it.” With their continued existence.
Confusion flitted briefly across the blood elf’s features “Oh. What’s your excellent news?”
“Did you by chance ever see service at Tranquilien?”
“I worked there…”
“Ah. Do you remember the scourgebane draughts?” At her nod, he continued, “I’ve succeeded in adapting those formulae to insulate you from the cold. And protect you from the Scourge, of course.”
Her face lit up. As expected. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” Middleton curved his mouth in what he hoped was an honest smile. “We can begin the shots at once –“
“Shots?” she repeated faintly. “But scourgebane was a drink…”
“Drinks won’t work here. The adaptation must be delivered to specific areas of the body.”
Her shoulders sagged. “All right.” She looked at him hopefully. “But not today?”
He could be magnanimous in triumph. “Tomorrow, then. First thing.”
“Will they hurt?”
The question was muffled by layers of cloth, leather and fur. Hardkandy had balked when Middleton informed her the sites of the shots were her neck and spine, not her arms. He had won, of course, though the necessity of having to soothe her annoyed him.
“A brief sting, that is all.” He hoped that wasn’t too much of a lie. Middleton filled the syringe and stepped behind the blood elf. What was left of his eyebrows raised. Either the girl did have strange tastes, or chance had made her skin a canvas. “How did you get these burns?”
“Running from a fire.”
Random chance, then. “Indeed. Hold still…”
Three slow presses of the plunger, three muttered hisses. “There,” said Middleton as he disposed of the needles, “was that so bad?”
Hardkandy craned her neck around to try to see her back before tugging her clothes into place. “I guess not. How long until it works?”
“Soon enough,”Middleton answered. “Soon enough.”
Days passed, and Middleton despaired.
No change in the subject, except a tendency not to huddle at the braziers whenever possible. Middleton put this down to a placebo effect: there had been nothing in his shots to allay the cold. She continued as she always had, blithely unaware and blind to everything that, apparently, didn’t matter to her. Which entailed nearly everything of true importance. He continued with the experiment, renewing the injections a second time a week later. And then, a fortnight after this, Levine approached him.
“I think we’re rubbing off on her,” the woman said. “Or something. She caught a joke Jasric made about her.”
“What did she do?”
“Nothing, really. But from the way she stopped and looked at him, I could tell she knew he meant her.”
Middleton shrugged in a display of indifference that masked inner excitement. “Water can trickle through even the thickest walls.”
He pondered Levine’s story throughout the day, watching the blood elf covertly as she worked. So, his serum might be working. He couldn’t tell from her current activities; all her tasks today were routine.
Perhaps if they were not…?
The following day he granted her a portion of the lab and its resources to work on the problem of her coffers.
She was delighted, and offered the greatest offense yet – she hugged him. Middleton bore it stoically.
She dove into her personal project with fierce determination, turning to it as soon as the tasks required of her were finished. Middleton observed with growing fascination and triumph at her increased focus and attention. His serum was working!
In ways he hadn’t forseen. He found her pouring over his forumula for a particular experiment after her noon meal shortly after Levine’s observation. “I think you should reconsider,” she said, tapping a line with a finger. “Gromsblood is more potent, yes, but purple lotus is a more steady ingredient for magical emulsifiers. Not being fel-based, there’s less chance of a detrimental interaction with other reagents, particularly if they’re arcane-based.”
Middleton looked at her, and nodded slowly.
Days, a week, two weeks went by. More rounds of injections. His test subject continued to amaze him. Middleton prepared a report to the Society; he couldn’t send a complete analysis without long-term studies, of course, but he could send along his initial observations.
If her progress continued this way, the Forsaken would owe her a great debt, indeed.
Skrotee looked down at the milling crowd of incoming and outgoing Venomspite personnel, and wished for the courage to jump.
“Do it,” Brote urged. “Maybe you’ll take out one or two of them with you, Skrotee.”
Skrotee shot his brother a sullen glare and edged back from the platform. These staff changes were one of the few times they weren’t under constant watch. For all the good that did them. Even if they did get out of Venomspite, where would they go? Hills, wild animals and the bone-chilling cold lay between them and Wintergarde Keep. They didn’t have the clothes, let alone supplies, to survive the journey. Not to mention neither of them were in the best shape. The Forsaken fed them…barely.
A movement behind him. Skrotee squeaked. He’d never get used to how silently these damned corpses moved….
Oddly-accented Common, which their guards refused to use. Skrotee turned. The speaker was the blood elf who arrived a month or so ago. She carried a tray with… oh, sweet Makers…food. Real food. Bowls of strider stew, mugs of something steaming hot, rolls with butter, small squares of cheese. She set the tray down between him and Brote.
They grabbed the bowls, scooping up spoonfuls greedily. “Thank you,” Skrotee said in Orcish after his second mouthful.
The blood elf smiled. “You’re welcome,” she said in the same language. “You’re staying here, too?”
Brote snorted. “Like we have a choice?” He shoved a roll in his mouth.
“Ocourwedon!” Brote swallowed visibly. “We’re prisoners! Their cuckoo-clock slaves! Because my fool brother here convinced bigger fool me the Forsaken would want our expertise and make us rich!” He glared at Skrotee.
“Middleton said you work for Venomspite…”
Skrotee sighed. It figured—the blood elf was as dumb as she was kind. He picked up the mug, took a cautious sip. Goldthorn tea. With honey. “He lied.”
The blood elf looked at them. They looked at her.
“Oh,” she said, and left.
Middleton was exhausted.
Not physically, but mentally. “Shift change”, as some wag had named it, always did this to him. Ambition, boredom and unfortunate political or personal choices led to many Horde – not just Forsaken – looking for new and greener pastures. Never on a set, predictable date, oh, no. That would be too easy.
The Shadow was having a little joke on him.
The Chief Plaguebringer looked up from his invoice of new reagents for yet another New Plague. The blood elf. Of course.
“You need to let the gnomes go.”
Correction. The Shadow was having a huge joke on him. “Why do I need to do that?” he asked mildly.
She blinked at him in confusion. “Because they don’t want to be here.”
Middleton pinched the bridge of his nose and made the sound of a man suffering deep and abiding pain. “Hardkandy,” he began patiently, “the gnomes are our captives. Our living symbols of triumph over the Alliance, and everyone who would stand against us. Everyone.” Faint chance she understood the message there, but one could hope. “We cannot let them go. And we will not.”
Hardkandy looked at him.
“Oh,” she said, and left.
The following day, Fallers reported to him and High Executor Wroth the gnomes had been given food from the supplies set aside for the living Horde. The blood elf looked suitably chastised as Wroth verbally raked her over the coals and docked her a week’s pay. As she headed to the door, however, she gave Wroth and Middleton himself a look that Middleton couldn’t put name to. She would require watching, he decided.
But days passed without signs of further trouble. Between assigned work and her own projects, she had little time to foment any. Middleton guessed she was making progress on her quest for an ‘unlocking’ chemical; she’d taken to carrying her notes with her everywhere she went. Sometimes he wished his own proper underlings were so diligent. Levine, for example – the cursed girl was supposed to bring her new samples for his approval before dark. And here it was, the sun a disgusting glory of gold in the west, and no Levine.
Something fell against the lab’s door.
Levine, trying to bump it open with her hip. Again. Muttering, Middleton stalked over and yanked it open.
“Fool, you don’t have the flesh anymore –“
Middleton jumped back as a body fell forward. After an agonizingly long moment, he knelt by it. It jerked feebly.
No answer.No coordination in her limbs, no awareness in her eyes.
But how? She’d shown none of the signs –
Someone seized his upper arm, spun him around.
Middleton snarled at the blood elf. “What –”
She stabbed him in the neck with a syringe and shoved the plunger.
Numbness, cold and all-encompassing, flooded through him.
“You shouldn’t keep people as slaves,” Hardkandy said. The light around her flickered, faded. “It’s wrong.”
Hard, gem-bright green eyes were Middleton’s last sight as the darkness drank him down.
Brote heard shouting.
That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was along with anger, which was to be expected, he thought he detected… fear?
He inched forward, peered down, and sucked in his breath.
Something was wrong with a number of the Forsaken. They lurched along like… like zombies…paying no attention where they went or why. The rest were running in panic. Not that he blamed them. Blotches of stomach-twisting green and yellow slime dotted the ground, more than a few of them containing skeletal remains. He bared his teeth in a gleeful grin as a Forsaken slid into one, the undead wailing as he dissolved.
“Skrotee!” he hissed. “Come here!”
His brother scrambled over. “Why, what’s – oh, shit! What if that stuff gets up here?”
“Don’t be an idiot! This is our chance to escape!”
“Through all that? It’s spreading!”
His brother was right, Brote realized in despair. The goo coated the ground in ever-widening patches, too great for their weak, short legs to cross. He was about to argue they needed to try anyway when someone tapped his shoulder.
He bolted upright. The blood elf smiled at him and put a finger to her lips. Then she picked him up around the waist with one arm, Skrotee with the other, and retreated downstairs to the building’s lower levels.
She passed through its open main door, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing chaos and paused. “Where are you taking us?” Brote demanded. There was an ooze-glob not two feet away. It looked like it was moving.
“Someplace safe,” she said simply, and jumped over the ooze-glob. Then another, and another in a deadly game of hopscotch until they reached the wind riders. The beasts roared and flared their wings, panicky and confused. The blood elf made slung him and his brother over the saddle of the nearest, leaving them to cling to the rough mane. Brote gaped while she slashed its neighbors’ hitching ropes before jumping up behind them. She fastened the safety straps around them as the wind rider leaped up into the darkening sky.
How long the flight lasted Brote never knew. Long enough for sunset to deepen into night. No one tried to talk.. Questions he should ask flitted through his mind: Who are you? Why are you doing this? He didn’t. Not having to speak was a blessing.
At last a glow appeared on the horizon, increasing as they drew nearer. A building that in some ways reminded Brote of a human religious temple… except for the large dragons roosting along its upper floors. He swallowed, hard.
The wind rider alighted yards from the dragon-temple’s base. Wonder of wonders, he spotted a door, sized for one of the Talk Folk and in good condition set in the circular wall.
The blood elf unfastened the safety straps. “The red flight will help you,” she said, setting them down on the snow. Skrotee whined about the cold; Brote paid him no mind. She leaned down and pressed a full crocolisk-hide pouch into his hands.
The wind rider hunched down and jumped into the air.
Brote open the pouch and poked inside it. Coins clinked. He snorted hysterically.
His room’s door swung open.
Shazzle jumped, reaching for his knives. How had he forgotten to lock it?
He relaxed at the sound of a familiar voice and the sight of a familiar figure. “Candybabe! Wasn’t expecting you.” So he hadn’t forgotten to lock it, after all.
“Wasn’t expecting to come here,” Hardkandy replied with a wry smile. Her wind rider’s saddle bags hit the floor with a thump. “Mind if I sleep?” She closed and relocked the door behind her.
“Sure, sure.” The Legerdemain Lounge didn’t skimp on their furniture. “Bed’s big enough.”
Hardkandy nodded, peeling her clothes like an onion skin as she made her way to across the room. Shazzle’s brows dipped down. Hardkandy never took her clothes off in front of him. Or anyone else. Ever. “You must be really tired.”
“Yeah.” She yawned, crawled beneath the covers. “A little…”
She slept through the rest of the night, all of the following day, and woke up only the next dawn to use the necessary. She slept for three more days, waking only again for calls of nature, soaking in his suite’s tub while the maid changed the sheets.
Shazzle kept an eye on her when he could; he had Camp Mojache’s business and his own hustles to manage and couldn’t play nursemaid. He rummaged through her saddlebags, seeking some clue, and found only her notes and journals. He was reading through one of the latter when she finally awoke on the fourth morning, disgustingly alert.
“Shazzle? ‘M hungry.”
He snorted. “You ain’t eaten in days, you should be. I’ll getcha some food.”
The water was running in the bath when he returned. Shazzle set the tray down on the breakfast nook’s table with a martyred sigh and waited. Hardkandy emerged some minutes later, dressed in clean clothes and looking somewhat thinner.
“That bacon was hot when I brought it up,” he said pointedly as she bit the strip in two.
“It’s still warm. Thank you.” She attacked a stack of flatcakes with knife and fork.
“So, uh. How was work at Venomspite?”
“All right. Nothing exciting.” Hardkandy shrugged.
“Really? Nothing happened to make you sleep like that?”
“Well…I pulled some all-nighters the last couple days I was there.”
“Huh. So, you was workin’ on some big project?” Shazzle hefted the alchemy journal. “I know , I know, ya don’t like people pokin’ in your stuff, but I was curious.” He flipped to the last filled pages. “You do this?”
Shazzle wasn’t an alchemist, but he’d been around enough to spot complex formulas when they were shoved under his nose. The scribbling here was really complex, and beyond what he’d seen from Hardkandy before.
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Candy-babe, it’s your handwritin’, in your journal. You musta come up with it.”
Hardkandy blinked at him. “Let me see.” She took the journal from him, following the lines with her fork. “I…you’re right. This is my writing. But I don’t remember it at all!” She pursed her lips. “This is… no formula I’m familiar with. I can’t imagine what it would be for.”
She set the journal down on the extra chair, away from spills or stains, and speared more flatcake on her fork.
Shazzle watched his partner and closest thing he had to a friend as she ate. He’d heard a few rumors while she was zonked out to the Twisting Nether, rumors about Venomspite.
“Hey,” he said. “I got us passage to Storm Peaks. One step closer to Ulduar! You ready to leave?”
“Sure.” Hardkandy dabbed her lips with her napkin. “When?”
“Is after you’re done too soon?”