As Blogatelle so charmingly referred to, you may recall we had a long hiatus a while back, to work on our Blizzard Short Story entries. While I did indeed enter the contest, I can’t show you my entry, as it’s now Blizzard property and ergo it’s not mine to share. But my entry wasn’t my first attempt, either, and there is no reason I can’t share my first attempt with you. And to spice up our readership, we’re going to make this a contest. I didn’t continue with this entry, as I’ve noted. What I want you to work out is why. Post comments at the bottom of this entry telling me two three things:
- Why this entry couldn’t be submitted; and,
- How you’d fix it to make it a viable story.
- How you’d end it. (Don’t have to write the thing, but give me a nice juicy synopsis.)
Whoever gives me the answer I like the most will win 30 days of Warcraft game time, and maybe something else as well. (We need to work out if it’s doable.)
You can also just leave comments telling me if you liked the story.
Read the story after the cut.
It’s a still, beautiful starry night in Lordaeron; parting clouds giving way to the heavens. The kind of night you could lose yourself in. Just wrap yourself up in the shining stars and the cold stone, slick with the rain just passed. It would be easier, I’ll grant you, if I wasn’t being chased by orcs, demonic dogs, and (if my more cynical and bitter side knows what it’s on about) cross-breeds of the two. I dig my heel into the stone and turn hurriedly into a side-alley, silently backing into the wall, praying to the Light or any other celestial force that might have a kind word for me.
My name is Melissa Highcrown. Forgive me for not offering a more polite introduction, but I’m a little harried right now. And where are those damned guards, anyway?
Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
Report #1: Stormwind
Three weeks ago, I was in the briefing chambers in SI:7 headquarters, Stormwind. So was everyone else; unusual, but we weren’t having happy time there. We’d failed, twice, in the last week. Two of our worst failures. First of all, last night we’d let King Llane Wrynn the first, Good King (and perfectly adequate ruler) of Stormwind. May he rest in peace, because he didn’t die easy. An assassin ripped his heart out with a knife. That’s the bad news. The worse news is, we still don’t have a clue why.
Letting a King die on your watch isn’t good for company reputation, but not knowing why a King died on your watch is the sort of mistake that gets companies dissolved. My spymaster, Wilton Dunmoore, paced up and down behind this desk.
Things were a little on edge.
“Alright. We’re trying everything we can think of here. Every officer in the service has this exact same mission. Tell me what you’re planning to do. Garrick,” Dunmoore looked to Garrick, who answered rapidly.
“We think the assassin was Garona Halforcen, sir. An orc. I’m planning to visit the internment camps. See if any of the orcs there have any dirt on her; maybe trade some better conditions to some of the orcs there if they help.” Garrick sneered as he said it. I hated the guy and still do, despite what happened to him afterwards. There are plenty of emotions to show after the King has been murdered, but cocksure arrogance wasn’t one of them.
Dumoore seemed to consider this, but he continued in his stride. “Agreed. You’re dismissed, Garrick. Anderton. Your plan of action.”
Anderton was a reed of a man who should be knocked down by a strong breeze, but at least he lacked the presumptuous superiority of Garrick. “Sir, I was planning on consult – consulting with the mages. I figure if anyone can give us an answer without any clues to go off, it’s them.” His answer was delivered with a stumble, and I was thankful for that. Let me know I wasn’t the only one scared witless.
Not that I was going to let him know he was the only one scared witless. Holy Light, I had some class to consider here.
Dunmoore moved straight on after that, apparently unconvinced. “Get your money’s worth from those clowns. Dismissed. Highcrown, how are you going to find this assassin?”
I paused. Mostly for dramatic effect, I confess. I suppose I’ve always been a touch theatrical. Besides, I knew my answer was going to drop bombs into the room; why not enjoy it?
“Sir, I was thinking of having Guardsman Harrison beaten to within an inch of his life.”
The silent room exploded into a fit of “hushed” chatter, although a chatter is only really hushed up when it’s on its own. When you get enough chatters together they have a tendency to form gangs and rough up hushers in blind alleyways. Dunmoore had to wait until the room had gotten itself under some sort of control before he asked, “And what would be the purpose of that, Highcrown?”
I smiled back, and explained, “Sir. I can accept that the assassin snuck through most of the castle undetected. But to get to the King’s quarters, where he was assassinated, requires going through a bottleneck corridor by the kitchens. It is always guarded, and that night it was guarded by Harrison.” Quirking an eyebrow, I noted, “I don’t think he saw anything.”
“And you’d like to know how much he was paid to not do that seeing.”
“I just want him to tell me what he didn’t see.”
Dunmoore paused, even his pacing stopped. The room was silent this time, a good and proper silence unlike that hushed up stuff from before. You get a hushed room when people don’t want to be heard. You get a silent room, like this one, when people want to hear. And hell, everyone wanted to hear Dunmoore’s response on this one. Me included.
Finally, he conceded. “Don’t let him die. He’s a guardsman no matter what.”
I bristled a bit at that. Being a guardsman just drawing pay as a guardsman were two wholly separate things. “Sir, he’s a traitor.”
Dunmoore didn’t even look at me, the grim bastard. “That is yet to be proven. You’re dismissed, Highcrown. Barnaby. Give me some hope, mate.”
I didn’t bother to listen. Pushing back through the crowd of spies in the room, I made my way to the door.
Harrison wasn’t going to be hard. I wasn’t going to beat him myself, after all. As I said before, I had some class, and SI:7 prefers to keep one layer of removal from any actual action at all times, if possible. If you’re clumsy, or stupid, you can at least hire people to do those sorts of things. And if you were smarter (like myself), you could even make a bit of money out of it.
As I thought of how I was going to do this, I visited our ‘costuming department’. It’s nothing special. A wardrobe of various suits of armor and costumes designed to let us blend in to a number of groups. I shoved aside a suit of leather, similar to what the Syndicate bandits wear, and instead took down a suit of armor. Proper Stormwind Guardswoman uniform. Exactly what I needed. But not quite yet. For now, street clothes would do. I had a meeting with a broker.
Timmy “Shale” Endrick was the Old Town’s premier information salesman, and a good contact to have in the spy game. He’s one of the few people I told my true identity to, largely because I didn’t think for a moment I would be able to keep him away from it if he tried to find out. He and I had a good understanding – I sold him juicy chunks of information when it suited our purposes to do so, and he didn’t ask any more questions than what I gave him. Classy guy, exactly the kind of person I enjoyed doing business with.
The Pig and Whistle was our usual meeting point, and it didn’t take long to stroll there from SI:7 headquarters. I paid the barman ten times the going rate for a pint of Dwarven, so he nodded and pointed at the cellar. For that kind of a bribe, the innkeeper knew to keep his sticky nose out of our discussion. Shale was down there already, of course, so I put the Dwarven on a barrel near him and let him get a few sips in before I began talking.
“Good beer?” It was always polite to ask. Regicide is no reason to abandon manners.
Shale offered me a truly wicked grin in response. He was a nasty looking little man, slightly hunched, face scarred on his right side in a way that tugged him eye down slightly. He tried to compensate for this with expensive clothes and lots of hair oil in that sandy blonde mop of his. It didn’t work. He rasped back, “The best. Thank you kindly, Melly. How’s your kids?”
“As good as non-existent people can be,” I replied evenly, “Yours?”
“They’re doing alright. Danny’s teething.”
“It happens.” I shrugged. It seemed the best way to indicate complete utter disinterest without being too rude.
He took the hint, though. “So what do you know about the King’s assassination?”
I didn’t even bother to ask how he knew that was what this was about. We just had the King assassinated – What else would I be working on? “Not enough yet. But I have some information of worth for you. A target.”
He chuckled, a sick, horrible thing. He knew a wide variety of ground-level thugs who’d love an easy, profitable target. “How much is he worth?”
This wasn’t so easy a question to answer. I rolled a few words around my tongue before ruminating, “If you were a Stormwind guard, how much would you ask to turn a blind eye to a regicide?”
Shale whistled. That was a good sign. “Five hundred gold, at least. I might get more, but five hundred is what I’d guess I’d get.”
“He’s worth five hundred then.” I trusted him on that, too. Shale wasn’t one to low-ball for greater profit – Least not with SI:7. His continued value to us was worth more than any one job.
I told him who Harrison was and got paid twenty gold. He’d go on to sell that information for a hundred to a pair of thugs who’d come away with two-hundred and fifty gold each, if they got the money. Of course, they wouldn’t. That was my second part of the plan.
Impersonating a Stormwind Guard was a hanging offense, but we didn’t pay too much attention to those sorts of laws at SI:7. It wasn’t that they didn’t apply to us. It was just that we’d never be charged. Paperwork would be misfiled. I’d get off on a technicality. Not that it wasn’t totally cost-free – I’d be laughed at for weeks if I actually got caught. So I did this right. Standing in front of the mirror, I removed my make-up carefully with a sponge and a little earthroot solution. I always kept my hair long – It’s easier to cut it for a disguise in a hurry than find a wig – and I wasn’t ready to cut it now. I braided it and wound it up over my head, keeping it out of sight, and teased out an appropriate looking fringe. When I put a helmet over it, I’d look like just another Stormwind Guard.
I don’t know why, but I paused then, the same way I always do whenever I’m near a mirror. Just looked over my own face, mentally tracing the slender nose; my brown eyes; the black hair tied up just right now. A scar on my chin, just left of center. I don’t know why I do this every time. Maybe it’s a spy thing. I spend so much time as other people, it feels good to keep me reminded of myself.
But I’m short on time. I put on the helmet, and strap myself into the plates of steel that mark a Stormwind Guard. It was a simple plan, but it would work. I’d tail Harrison until the thugs came for him, catch them all with the filthy lucre, and make Harrison tell me what he was doing with all that gold. Guardsman solidarity and all that. Certain to work, as long as I could keep up the act. It was curtain hour.
An hour later, I was still watching Harrison. He wasn’t on duty, of course – He was a palace guard, not a street guard. No, just a man in the market doing his shopping and such with, I can only assume, some of the five-hundred gold coins he’d been paid for standing by while a King died. Oh, sure. I was assuming. None of this was proven… yet. Which is why, when I saw two bruisers tail him into Chapel Alleyway (a neat shortcut to the Cathedral District and an even better place to get beaten senseless with few observers) I didn’t leap to his rescue. Sure, he was about to get the beating of a lifetime. But if he were a street guard with any brains he’d known to never take that path. More importantly, those thugs needed him to lead them to his money, since he surely wasn’t carrying that kind of coin on his person. More importantly, I needed that money. To Harrison, it was they payoff. To those two thugs, it was their score. To me? It was the leverage I needed over Harrison to get him to cough up to me that it was Garona Halforcen who killed King Llane. That was my score. Getting Halforcen herself? That was the payoff.
I walked quickly, but not too quickly. Guards don’t run unless something is wrong. But I made sure I could see the far end of Chapel Alley when they all tumbled out of it, Harrison holding one arm stiffly and limping. No marks on his face. Smart thugs who knew how to avoid attention. Smarter than Harrison, I’m betting – Which was one of the risks here, I had to admit. Surely he wouldn’t be stupid enough to have hidden the money in his home where his wife and kids could find it, would he?
He lead them right to his apartment door – the stupid, stupid moron. That forced my hand. I couldn’t just happen to stumble onto a crime scene in his damned flat, could I? That might just look a titch suspicious, so I’d have to blow my cover and I didn’t put on all this awkward plate armor for nothing. There was no call for it. I’d just have to walk in now, ask them what was going on, and do some really clever wordplay to get him to admit to the money. It was then or never.
So why the hell didn’t I make my move then?
Because I knew he had two small children and a dog, and yet none of the three raced to meet their daddy.
Because the window to his flat was open even when the smell coming in from Stormwind Harbor was horrid at this time in the afternoon.
Because I’m an amateur and I froze.
I let him get all the way into his flat, and even close the damn door. And then I heard a tiny, muffled scream. That was finally enough to force me into action. Mustering all my will, I forced my legs to pump into action, ramming my shoulder hard into his front door and hurling it open.
When this plan started, the goal was to find the money – Proof Harrison took a bribe from Garona Halforcen to turn a blind eye to the King’s assassination. But seeing her over his bloody corpse, silencing the one man who could out her to us was, I had to admit, pretty much just as good.
I tensed up. Garona didn’t. She really is phenomenal. Unless she somehow (and I cannot see any way how) knew that I was coming along too, she would had to have been surprised by my appearance. Yet there wasn’t a single flinch in her face to betray it, and she moved instantly, fluidly, her lithe green form swinging her dagger from its place at her side toward me in a single sweep, aimed at my throat. It would be easy to say ‘instincts kicked in’ at this point, but that isn’t what truly happened. Instead, every move played quite rationally in my head, as if I had all the time in the world instead of a split second. I’ve never thought like that before, and I don’t think I ever will again, but at the time it was all very cerebral. My body twisted right, throwing the heavy plate shoulder into the path of the blade – That’s what armor is for, after all, and the knife bounced harmlessly off it.
My hands reached for my sword, but Garona was already thinking ahead. Even as the dagger bounced, her foot had been rising into a savagely powerful kick, the kind that brings the whole body behind it. It slammed into my midsection, hurling me into the wall of the narrow entry hall behind the front door. As my back collided into the cheap plaster, my head snapped back and pounded against it too, little lights dancing in my eyes from the pain. My arms flew backwards as well, one of my arm pieces falling off as the metal bent, clattering to the wooden floorboards with a clinking rattle. Garona didn’t bother following up her attack – I wasn’t her target. She bolted out the front door.
I had one shot at this. Seizing the fallen arm-piece, I scrambled to my knees and hurled the plate at her legs; adrenaline pumping through my veins giving me strength. The armor hovered a second in the air before bouncing right under her feet, an unexpected obstacle that rewarded me with the sight of her tumbling to the ground. It was barely four seconds before she was back on her feet and running again, but that was just enough time for me to make up a bit of distance and get a proper race going. By now I’d gotten my knife out of sheath and pondered for one tiny moment of throwing it at her. I didn’t. First, I’d probably miss. Second, if I did hit, I stood an excellent chance of killing her and then we’d never found out who hired her.
Instead, I sliced through the straps holding my breastplate in place, sending it and the remaining armpiece tumbling to the ground as I ran. Stripping away my armor would slow me down a little bit, but trying to chase someone in full-plate was going to slow me down even more in the long run. Hell, I usually wore nothing heavier than leather.
She looked behind me as the armor clanged against the stone, and I could see that she’d taken the time to draw a cloth around her mouth and nose; effectively concealing her identity to passersby. Of course, the fact that she was now being chased by a woman in her long underwear would give her some more attention.
Holy light if I didn’t catch her, I knew I was going to catch hell from the boys back at base for this. I’d be joked about for weeks
Garona turned left out of Ironcap Avenue and swung out onto East Street, a main drag alongside the canals. As she dug her heel in for the turn I bolted forward, lengthening my stride to get a sudden rush of speed. It was only a second, but it was enough. My hand closed in on her shoulder, my fingers digging into her skin, my fingernails drawing blood. She screamed, “Daru’gna!” at me as I did so, and dropped her shoulder as she turned, throwing me off balance. I tripped, my increased momentum dragging me forwards as she spun me, and crashed into the ground. This time, instincts kicked in. I rolled over as I impacted the ground, back on my feet in a flash, but that flash of time was all she needed. As she pelted ahead, her knees bent and her body rose upwards into a leap, vaulting over a dressmaker’s hanging shop window, and then she was vanished onto the roof.
I stopped running, heaving, desperately trying to draw air into my lungs. If I’d had any breath to spare, I’d have unleashed a string of curse words that would embarrass a warlock. Forcing myself to focus, everything went slow. She chosen to run for East Street. Right along the canals. That was away from the harbor and the main gates. The only way out of the city through the canals were the… the sewers! It was nothing more than a hunch, but I ran from the entrance to the sewers, just east of the Cathedral district.
Nothing but a hunch, but it paid off. My eyes caught a glimpse of her on the rooftops for a few short steps before she dove for the canal, and I dove too, tackling her right out of the air. Both of us landed into the water with a gaping splash.
Underwater, bubbles of air foaming around us, we scrabbled for position. My hand sought the cloth around her head, but the cloth came off without any resistance, leaving me without a handhold. Given one quick opportunity, Garona made the most of it; a feral kick caught the side of my face, leaving me reeling. It was enough, and I floated away too dazed to continue the chase as she darted into the drains. Somewhere in the back of my head, I mused that she must have had a potion or something to let her breathe water. Clever. She really planned ahead.
I caught hell from the boys back at the base. I did hear the jokes for weeks.
Report #2: The Swamp
Thankfully, it hadn’t all gone to waste. Despite having to suffer jokes about ‘reinstating my cover’ (and worse jokes as well) every time I stepped into base, we’d managed some excellent intelligence work for one night of hunting. Despite my unsuccessful chase, I’d pretty much sewn up the idea that Garona was our assassin.
(Oh, and for those worried about Harrison’s family? We found his kids and wife tied up in an upstairs room. I pretty much expected that from Garona, killing them wouldn’t be her style. Damn shame about their dog, though.)
In a surprise, Garrick’s research had turned up trumps as well. Garrick was an arrogant blockhead, but his idea of interrogating the orcs in the internment camps appeared to be a shockingly sensible move. Shocking, in that Garrick thought of it. I’d scoffed when he said he said he would interview the orcs, who weren’t even on the same side as Garona until very recently, about our hypothesized target. But then he’d had the brilliant idea of instead asking where the orcish leadership would be, guessing they’d be her paymasters. They all agreed that we wanted a location south of the Swamp of Sorrows. Since this was as good a theory we had as any right now, it seemed likely she’d be returning that way.
We set up a small watch team in the closest friendly location we had. They were to make daily scouting trips into the swamp, report back to us if there was anything suspicious, and in a little under two weeks, we’d found something suspicious.
One of the team was killed.
“Hey, can I have the telescope?”
Due to my success in hunting down Garona (if only for a little while) before, I was assigned to the team sent out to find out what had happened in the swamp. Because he was the one who got us this lead, Garrick was also in the team.
“You’ve been using it for five minutes and found jack. Give me a go, Mel.”
You can imagine my joy at this scenario. Garrick and I had been scouting out the Swamp, trying to see if we could find the body of our missing spy. So far, we’d had no luck. Garrick had decided to use our lack of success as an excuse to complain bitterly about my leadership, undermine my authority, and otherwise whine. Truth be told, I thought the reason we hadn’t made any headway was simple: It’s a big swamp with any number of places to hide a body, there were crocodiles in it who could eat a body, and while a telescope was both the only real method for surveying this kind of an area with any thoroughness, the whole process was so vague and our detail so thin that we had no hope of finding anything with it.
“Useless,” I muttered under my breath, putting away the telescope.
Garrick caught only that I said something, rather than knowing what I said, and immediately demanded that latter information with an eloquent, “Huh?”
“Just thinking about you, Garrick.”
At that point, we did both catch a sight of something, which was both unsurprising and a happy relief. Our third team member, Felicia Clockspring, scrambled up the rocky outcrop we were standing on. I liked Felicia – Hell, I suspect nobody seriously dislikes any gnome. But I liked Felicia a lot. Somehow I got a kick out of her green hair, cut short to prevent opponents getting an easy hand-hold in combat. It was like she had a nicely cropped lawn on her head, in the nicest way possible. And she had that chirpy can-do attitude so common to her race. Think about it: We’d been spending all this time in knee deep water, but it’s the one for whom that water is neck deep who’d insisted on heading down and checking out a few waterways personally.
“Felicia, I’m begging you. Tell me you found the body of our spy, and a really nice invoice from Garona’s Assassinteur Boutique, complete with signature for whichever bastard really hired her. I’m sick and tired of being out here, and ready to go home. Can you do that for me, Felicia?”
The little gnome looked suddenly deeply apologetic and sad, and I bit my lip internally. Gnomes were geniuses with devices and this little one – she was a mage – with spells, too. But they had real trouble humor sometimes. They tended to take everything so darned literally.
“No such luck, Ms. Highcrown. And I sincerely doubt Garona would call her service that, to be honest.” Felicia scratched that green fuzz on her head and noted, “There’s a cave to the north, though, which could make a decent hiding spot.”
It was a fair point. The swamp was not a friendly location. If Garona was here, as I now strongly suspected, then she needed somewhere safe to stay. “Alright. Felicia, you hold back. I’ll take point, you follow me, Garrick guar…. Garrick? Dammit, Garrick! Where are you?”
Garrick had vanished. A moment of sheer panic overtook me, imagining the worst. With any luck, he’d simply been seized by a rare swamp mountain crocodile. The worst was that he’d fled. Sadly, neither the best luck nor the worst panned out, as he suddenly hopped back up over a rock, spat blood onto the ground, and noted,
“Orcs, coming our way right damned now!”
“Damn! Garrick, hide. Felicia, c’mere, I’m giving you a boost.” I grabbed the tiny gnome and stuck her in one of the trees nearby, she’d blend nicely into the leaves and provide good cover to us when we struck. Garrick pulled a neat trick by dangling over one of the protruding rocks by his fingertips. I scurried under a bush and focused hard on my breathing, getting it down to a bare whisper, inaudible over the noises of the swamp. I forced my heartbeat to slow down until even it didn’t make a sound.
For a moment, laying there, it occurred to me that if Garrick had to hang there for more than, say, three minutes, he’d probably fall. Luckily for him, we didn’t have to wait that long. Three orcs, red skinned ones, clambered up over the rocks to our lookout point and began sniffing the air. That was useless. The swamp was so damned putrid I doubt you could make out anything in it. Since Garrick couldn’t see me, it would be up to me to land the first blow. I waited until I could see the filthy bootheel of one of them in front of me, and then suddenly jerked my hand out of its hiding spot, seizing his ankle and pulling it backwards. He cried out some foul, guttural orcish word as he collapsed. It alerted the other two orcs, but also Garrick, who swung his body over the rock elegantly and plunged his daggers into the second orc’s back. As blood flowed onto the ground, I ran forward and hard coshed the one I’d slammed to the ground. He wouldn’t be getting up soon after that.
But I’d forgotten about the third orc in my haste. With a furious battle cry, he loomed above me, swinging his axe over his head, and I closed my eyes in imminent fear of death. Like an angel of mercy, Felicia must have struck, because I felt a hot rush of flame course over my head, and when I opened my eyes again, one orc was a cinder. Garrick had filleted another.
Angrilly, I clambered to my feet, dusted myself off and looked down at the one remaining orc. Looking leftward to Garrick and rightward to Felicia (who climbed down from the tree) I asked, “Either of you speak orcish?” When both shook their heads, I grabbed the last orc’s hair, pulled him back, and slit his throat.
Then I threw a dagger into Garrick’s shoulder.
“You sneaky treacherous little cur!” I hissed, and kicked Garrick to the ground as he recoiled from the knife wound I’d given him, which had begun bleeding slowly. The dirt sprayed away from him as his back thudded against the ground. “You go missing, and all of a sudden the orcs know our location right as you so conveniently come back? Deceitful bastard!” In a rage, my foot lashed forward again, nailing him in the side. He whimpered.
All this time, his look was one of pure surprise, and I remember how disgusted I was when I saw that. It meant he never believed that I’d be clever enough to work this out, or that he was a very good actor. (Or, the possibility niggled at the back of my mind even then, that I may have been wrong. This was, of course, the truth. I didn’t find that out until later.) Garrick’s hand staggered up to his shoulder…
And that’s where my story ends. By this time, a major problem with it had become clear. Actually, there were several. Can you spot them?