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Arastel had taken over.
And Gurok liked it. For the most part, at least.
He couldn't walk two steps in the living room without kicking aside scraps of leather or half-finished boots, the sink was filled with linens that were being dyed, and dirty plates covered every available surface. His tin of bloodthistle helped disguise the odor of the trashpile before it got taken out, and his notes and sketches littered the room and provided ample reading material for the orc.
The elf wasn't here at the moment; true to his word, he spent most nights out ransacking the city and countryside and a better part of the day honing his craft.
He would arrive like a whirlwind, a flurry of action and eating and raucous storytelling. And when he was present, the house seemed alive in a way that it had never been, with tea on the small stove and pots of stew boiling and even the faint sounds of singing as Arastel began to set up his leatherworking tools up on the roof.
It was almost like living in an entirely new home- albeit one with all the same cracks and sagging walls and creaky support beams.
"Gurok!" the rogue said cheerily as he slipped in through the window.
"Arastel," the orc greeted with mild surprise. He took a slow sip of his coffee as he wondered if he was growing used to the elf's scent. He was even harder to notice now. "I didn't realize you were here."
"Oh, yes. Just up on the roof," he said as he wiped his hands on his breeches. "I've got set it up so I can tan up there now. The leather, not me. Well, I get a bit of sun, too, but that's just a pleasant side effect."
"Just keep a watch out for the places with the big cracks. I know you're light on your feet and all, but… still."
"Oh, oh. Of course," the elf mumbled, but he was already distracted as he rummaged through a crate of odds and ends.
Gurok sincerely doubted he had truly heard a word. "Uh, Arastel," he tested, clearing his throat quietly.
"Yes?" He was focused on comparing two lengths of twine, but tilted his head and cocked an ear to let the orc know that he was listening.
"I was hoping to ask you for a favor," the warrior mumbled, staring down into his cup. "All these errands and tromps through the wilderness have been murder on my clothes. My pants in particular. I only had a couple of pairs to begin with, and now they're… on their last legs," he said with a brief smile.
"I'd absolutely love to make you some," the elf said at once, straightening up and giving him a once-over. "I'd say I have enough leather for three pairs. Maybe four," he muttered, already stalking toward the orc.
Gurok was taken off guard by the intensity in the rogue's eyes, and even more so by his straightforward manner. Within seconds, Arastel's hands were at his waist, his thumbs hooked in the band as he felt the worn material.
"I'll, uh, ask an auctioneer about some leather," he said with an audible swallow. "I-I don't want to use up all of your-"
"Nonsense," the elf said with a snort. He continued to unabashedly tug and prod at Gurok's clothing, either oblivious of or unconcerned with how it flustered the large orc. "At auction house prices? The goblins would bleed you dry. I have plenty on hand and I can always get more." He smiled and glanced up. "You can always pay me back by coming on a hunting trip with me when I restock."
"If you'd like," the warrior said with a weak nod. It was difficult to look the elf in the eye with one of his hands practically down his pants.
"I would! It would be fun. Always better to have company when I'm mass slaughtering giant spiders," the rogue said with a shrug. "If nothing else you can stand there and look intimidating to keep the Alliance off of my back. Oh, wear your Kor'kron outfit- do you still have that? That would give us a wide berth."
"I still have some of my older pieces," the warrior said with a slow smile.
"You could look quite terrifying, then," the rogue said with a smile. "Especially with what you have going on here," he added, gesturing to his chin.
"Is my beard intimidating?" Gurok felt over the thick, sleek hair that now hung just below his jaw. He swept a hand across the top of his head and realized that a fair bit of hair had come in up there as well; he hadn't been keeping up with his habit of shaving since his departure from the Kor'kron.
"You look like you just shambled in from a life in the forest, raised by wolves," the elf murmured as he took the warrior's waist measurements.
"That doesn't sound so bad," the orc said with a shrug.
Arastel gave him a pained look.
"What? Wolves raise their young well," Gurok said defensively, a soft frown on his lips as the elf ducked and darted around his thighs with measuring tape.
"Orcs," the elf sighed as he jotted down numbers onto a spare piece of parchment. "I can pick up a few things I'll need from the bank on the way back. Does that sound alright?"
"On the way back from where?" the warrior asked as he moved toward the kettle and the tins that held their tea leaves and coffee beans.
Arastel huffed and gave the orc an impatient sigh. "My riding lessons? The day I've been dreading for almost a week now?" he reminded him.
Gurok's mouth formed a silent 'oh'. He stirred a measure of thick honey into his brew and took a long sip, watching a pouting Arastel expectantly.
"Gurok." The elf cleared his throat. "Gurok," he said much more sweetly, "won't you come with me? Just as… moral support. And maybe to punch anyone that laughs at me?"
"I… I would," the warrior said hesitantly. "But Betila has me running errands for her all across Orgrimmar today…" Silently, he acknowledged that he was worried that if he were to observe Arastel's attempts at riding, he would be the one laughing at the poor rogue.
"Please, Gurok? I can't show my face there alone," Arastel said with a grimace. "It's already so embarrassing… please?" he ventured, biting his lip.
The orc tipped his head back and groaned, and the elf knew well enough that that meant 'yes'.
"Look at them, Gurok," Arastel whispered, wonder and horror and secondhand embarrassment all drawn across his face. "They remind me of the time the neighborhood cat found a puddle of some Suntouched Special Reserve someone had spilled," he added with a sympathetic wince. "Poor thing stumbled around for hours."
The warrior was forced to shrug in agreement with that general impression.
The young adventurers milled about the kennel area in varied states of confusion. All were garbed in a mishmash of hand-me-downs and cast offs from whoever they had happened to run errands for; many were shoeless, for reasons Gurok did not quite understand, and few seemed to have any understanding of what weapons they should have been using.
"Who loosed them upon the world in this state?" he questioned in a near inaudible whisper. It was barbaric, letting such ill-equipped and untrained people set out into danger.
"Oh, watch out, that hunter looks like he just found his bow," Arastel warned, tugging the orc along with him as he sought cover.
"The good news is," Gurok began as they crouched behind a bale of hay, "you're certain to be at the top of your class."
The elf rolled his eyes in the most pained manner that he could manage. "Gurok," he said after a long moment's consideration. "You don't think…"
"We were that bad?" the orc finished for him, chancing a glance over the hay bale. One of the fledgling adventurers, a warrior with muttonchops so furry that they had to be crafted from a worg's pelt, kept hopping and spinning in circles, his wool robes flying up and out as he did. Gurok's eyes narrowed when he saw a healer's staff strapped to the young warrior's back. "Ancestors, I don't think so."
"Right? Right?" the rogue whispered conspiratorially. "Things were not like this before. No. I don't know about you, but it took actual skill to be a rogue when I went through my training," he said with a particularly pained sigh at the orc rogue that apparently thought he was stealthed and had begun picking his nose. "Light, I hope I do better than the rest of that lot. I'll never overcome the shame if I don't."
Gurok stifled a chortle. "You'll do fine," he assured the rogue; and, in one brief moment of daring, he reached over to give him a pat on the shoulder. A friendly gesture, he told himself. That was all.
The elf glanced pointedly at the green hand resting briefly on his pauldron. "Gurok. Did you just touch me? Willingly? You're not being mind controlled by that horribly confused tauren over there, are you?"
"I- of course. Unless- I didn't mean to offend," the orc said quickly, withdrawing his hand as if he'd been burned.
"No, no," Arastel said quickly, shuffling forward until he was inches from the orc. "I just meant- it seems like you try to avoid contact. Like it bothers you. I certainly didn't mean to deter you. I like being touched," he said simply. "You can do it more, if you want," he added with a matter-of-fact shrug.
"Oh. Alright," the orc said uncomfortably. Arastel continued to sit there, looking at him expectantly. He extended his hand once more and gave the rogue another pat on his shoulder. "Ancestors watch you," he said lamely.
The elf smiled silently and rose to face the challenge of the morning- riding lessons.
Gurok stood just beyond the fence, willing himself to be a supportive friend and not laugh at any and all misfortunes that befell the rogue. He did, however, allow himself to chuckle, snort, and guffaw at the so-called adventurers that preceded Arastel; several were obviously experienced riders, but the rest were sorely trying the patience of both their trainer and their mounts.
After the mutton-chopped warrior was bucked from his wolf for the third time, the trainer called Arastel forth and asked him to mount the large, dark brown beast.
Gurok's jaw clenched as he watched Arastel struggle to clamber up the big wolf's side, willing the small rogue to make it. He heard sniggering to his left and spied the dimwitted rogue and warrior muttering and gesturing at the elf; before he could storm over and give them both the boxing he felt they deserved, a sudden cry caught his attention.
Arastel had managed to swing up onto the mount as was smiling ecstatically, although he was now stuck perched atop it.
"Oh. Well, he's rather wide, isn't he?" the elf said with a wince as he attempted to straddle the massive wolf. "It's like trying to sit on a barrel," he muttered, feebly trying to bend his legs enough to reach the stirrups, which dangled hopelessly about a foot bellow his toes. "My wolf will be smaller than this."
Gurok caught his eye and nodded, earning him a grateful smile from the rogue.
"This one is for a proper orc," Gurok heard him say to the trainer. "Mine is a runt, more… elf-sized."
"Try and guide him through the course anyway," the trainer said, her stern voice taking on the barest edge of friendliness.
Arastel bit his lip and nodded weakly as he took tighter hold of the reins.
When it was obvious that he lacked the lower body strength to direct the wolf with his legs, the elf instead took to nudging his mount's shoulders in conjunction with the reins.
It was slow-going, compared to what a seasoned rider could do… but Gurok was proud to see small, inexperienced Arastel manage to command the large wolf- there were orcs that could not even convince the great, intelligent creatures to bow to their will, and here was an elf with half their strength competently guiding it through the course.
The trainer periodically barked out commands, offering better techniques on how to sit, to hold the reins, to move as the wolf changed speeds. After perhaps another hour of practice, she gave a decisive nod and called the elf back over toward her. With a pat on the rogue's shoulder, she announced her confidence in his skills and gestured for him to follow her back to the stables for a few last bits of advice.
Gurok headed in the same direction, smiling when he reached the shade of the kennel. He wiped the sweat off of his forehead and neck as best he could before approaching the two of them.
"-but half a deer every two days should be enough for the first year or so," the female orc was saying as she handed a few pieces of tack to the elf. "And I see that you are friends with someone that can help teach you," she said as she spied Gurok approaching.
The warrior nodded, as did Arastel.
"Yes, he's been terribly helpful. As have you. Thank you," he said with a low bow. "I, erm, wish you luck with the rest of them out there."
The trainer let her eyes flutter shut as she sighed. "That batch is actually better than normal. Farewell," she said with a nod.
Gurok's mouth split into a grin as soon as they were alone. "You did wonderfully."
The elf playfully hit him in the shoulder. "No, it was awful, but I was less awful than everyone else at least."
"Nonsense," the orc said at once. "You showed resolve and adaptability. You should be proud. I am," he said with a warm grin. "I believe this calls for a celebration."
"Don't you have a bunch of errands to be running for Betila?" the rogue asked with a raised brow.
Gurok ducked his head and fiddled with one of his bracers, looking abashed. "It's… really just one or two. My apologies."
"It's fine, Gurok. I understand. And I appreciate it- both your not wanting to witness my embarrassment and your coming along anyway."
"It is nothing," he insisted. "Now, in honor of your fine riding, I think-"
"Well, well, if it isn't Arastel Sunsworn," a snide voice said from behind them, interrupting the orc. "One would think that someone so used to spreading his legs would have had an easier time of trying to straddle that mount."
Gurok drew himself up as he turned around, insulted on the elf's behalf. He was no stranger to dealing with the sin'dorei- it was often enough glare or to spit in their general direction and watch them scurry away. The blood elves always seemed to tip-toe through the city, as if wary of coming into contact with the dust or dirt or any of its citizens.
"Hello, Valsann," Arastel said with a tight smile, putting a hand on the warrior's shoulder to calm him. "As loud as ever, are you?" he said through gritted teeth, casting his gaze around them apprehensively.
"I see you're still drawn to unsavory company," Valsann said sourly as he eyed the large orc.
Gurok's lips curled at the scrutiny, baring his teeth and tusks at the priest. A light squeeze from the rogue temporarily tore his thoughts away from grabbing the condescending elf by the hair and swinging him into the nearby pond.
"Charming Orgrimmar, as usual," the elf sighed. "Although I suppose I should just be grateful he didn't slobber on my robes."
"State your business quickly, elf," Gurok said harshly. He stepped forward protectively as he added, "Harass him any further and soiled robes will be the last of your worries."
"Harass? Oh, no, I'm only here to help him. Arastel and I go way back, you see. I knew him before he got chased out of Silvermoon," Valsann said with a haughty laugh. He gave the orc a conspiratorial look. "I could… tell you about that, if you like. I'm certain that Arastel hasn't said a word about what happened there. Not that I can blame him-"
"Val," the rogue interrupted, his normally bright eyes now narrowed dangerously.
Gurok frowned as Arastel hissed something in Thalassian. The flowing words meant little to him- the elves' tongue sounded like a stream of soft, elegant sounds, the syllables all running together into a musical sort of chatter- but the tone said it all. Even though the rogue was smiling, there was an edge to his words that might as well have been a blade against the priest's throat.
Valsann frowned and gave them both a curt nod. "Very well. Continue to keep your secrets from your… friend, here," the priest said with a nonchalant shrug. "I care not. It's his business entirely if he wishes to consort with murderers, liars and whores. Or, a murderous, lying whore. He really gets the whole package with you, doesn't he?"
"Valsann, are you going to tell me why you're bothering me? Or should I be left to conclude that my cousin has grown bored of your… skills and is no longer fueling your addiction? Is this your thistle-addled way of asking me for a fix?" he asked with false concern.
The scandalized look on the priest's face was, in Gurok's mind, almost as satisfying as it would have been to give him a right-hook.
"I'll have you know that Andorel and I are still very much together," the elf said with an indignant sniff. "Don't go about insinuating such indecency."
"How is dear Andorel?" Arastel asked listlessly, look more peeved by the second. "I worry about him from time to time."
"And yet you can't be bothered to make the arduous journey to Azshara to call on him," Valsann said with a roll of his eyes.
"Yes, I can't possibly imagine what would ever put me off of visiting him," Arastel responded with a pointed glare.
"He is fine. We continue to do our part for the glory of the Horde," the priest said with a grand sweep of his arm, "by slaughtering as many of the cretinous night elves trying to infiltrate Azshara as possible. It is our new hobby," he added with a pleasant smile.
"That is fascinating," Arastel said flatly. "Yet I still wait for the reason for your visit. Please don't keep me in suspense."
"Oh… yes, that," the priest said under his breath, suddenly sobering. "Andorel made me come tell you," he sighed. "Arcelia wants you back, apparently. And… it would seem she is quite insistent on your return," he finished, frowning and looking very slightly concerned.
Arastel drew himself up and then stilled. He shook his head, as if doubtful that he had heard correctly. "What? No. That is… done."
"Well, she doesn't think so," the other elf said quietly. "And really… isn't it what she thinks that matters?"
The rogue made no response- gave no indication that even would respond, his gaze settling somewhere beyond the priest and his shoulders slumping- and Valsann glanced at the orc and gave him a bleak look.
"I expect she will make her move soon. Just… be careful. For Andorel's sake," he added, his gaze sweeping up and down Arastel one final time.
Without another word, the elvish priest turned and made his way back through the winding, dusty streets of Orgrimmar.
"Who is Arcelia?" Gurok had waited to ask until they got home. The rogue had been unusually quiet and distant during their walk, his gaze never quite focusing and his steps heavier than usual.
"No one," Arastel said brusquely as he began gathering up dirty dishes from the living room.
"Unlikely," Gurok commented as the elf quickly made his way to the kitchen. "Considering that asinine priest specifically warned you-"
"It doesn't matter!" Arastel shouted, dropping the plates and cups into the sink with a resounding clash and clatter. He flung his arms up and stormed out of the room, hopping through the window and nimbly darting up to the roof. Gurok could hear him up there, his normal, feather-light steps exchanged for stomping and furious pacing.
"Arastel," the orc pleaded as he squeezed his bulky shoulders out of the window. "You're going to put a hole in the ceiling."
That at least got the elf to stop. There was no sign he would be coming down anytime soon, though, so Gurok sighed and pulled himself back inside.
He made a quick dinner by boiling smoked meat, greens, and a few potatoes; he poured the soup into two large wooden bowls and called Arastel down to eat, but was met with utter silence. The orc sighed and slurped his meal down alone as he thumbed through one of the rogue's thick, well-worn anatomy books by candlelight. It was dog-eared and annotated and supplemented with numerous sketches of beasts and various designs for clothing made from their hides.
He had finished his soup and was glancing over an illustration of the skeleton of a dragonhawk when the first sudden clap of thunder jolted him upright. Rainstorms were rare in Durotar, but when they did occur, it was often unexpectedly and with force.
He paused, listening intently- and there it was, the sudden woosh of the sky opening up and a torrent of rain dropping upon the city.
Arastel was slipping in through the window within seconds, already sopping wet and clearly agitated.
"Looks like the ancestors wanted you indoors," the orc commented as he grabbed a thick, rough towel from near the oven and passed it to the elf.
Arastel reluctantly gave the orc a look of thanks and accepted the towel. "I needed to think. I'm… sorry, Gurok. I'm just tired."
"Then you should rest," the warrior said with concern. "Eat, that soup is still good."
Gurok kept a watchful eye on the rogue as he silently stirred and sipped at his broth. The elf sat rigidly in his seat, consumed by his troubled thoughts as he ate. He did look tired- weary in the way that one gets from being on edge for too long. Gurok knew that look, that feeling. Thrallmar had festered with it in the early days, when it seemed that the outpost could be obliterated from the barren landscape at any moment.
The orc shifted restlessly, wanting to help the rogue in any way he could but uncertain of how to go about doing it. Arastel obviously wasn't going to be forthcoming with information, and Gurok doubted he would ever ask for aid.
"I don't really feel like finishing," the elf sighed as he looked down into his half-emptied bowl. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Gurok said as he stepped in to take the dish and put the rest into the small icebox in the kitchen. "Just get some sleep. Things will look differently at dawn," he said softly.
Arastel gave him a weak smile and a nod and began slowly climbing the walls and rafters until he reached his hammock. He plopped into the canvas material with a soft thud and then let out a long sigh.
Gurok watched, torn between smiling softly at the impish elf and frowning at his current predicament. Frowning won out when he noticed a quick flash of silvery steel- if he craned his neck a little, the orc found that he could make out the glimmer of a large dagger cradled against Arastel's chest.
His heavy brow furrowed. It alarmed him that Arastel was worried enough to sleep with his weapons; it disturbed him even more that the elf had made no mention of it to him. Who was he preparing to bare his blade against, and why would he not advise the orc to sleep with his axes near as well?
The warrior sighed to himself as he put out all of the lights and set buckets and old helmets out to catch any rain that dripped through the ceiling's largest cracks. His doubts and concerns would have to, for the time, go unaddressed.
Dawn came, and Gurok wasn't certain whether to be pleased or troubled by the elf's behavior. On the one hand, he was much calmer and more agreeable, which boded well for both Gurok and his roof; on the other, he seemed much more subdued, almost lethargic. Without a doubt, he was still unwell, and the orc was still at a loss as to how to restore him to his usual self.
He knew too little about the situation, about Arcelia… about Arastel. Or his past, rather. The most he could be certain of was that a woman named Arcelia wanted Arastel back, and the rogue did not seem pleased whatsoever by the prospect.
Very briefly, Gurok had entertained the notion that she was an old lover. He quickly dismissed the thought- why would Arastel be in such dread and turmoil over that?- and berated himself for having felt a smidgen of delight at the elf's quick rejection of her offer.
Pushing his thoughts aside, the orc set to making a large breakfast of porridge, bacon, and dried fruit. It was impractical, given their budget, and he knew that in two days' time he would be nursing a growling stomach and cursing himself for his irresponsibility, but he hoped to stir some sort of appetite in the elf, to cheer him in some way, and he thought that perhaps food might succeed where his words had failed.
He encouraged Arastel to eat well and indulge himself, and the smell of the hot meal did appear to rouse him slightly.
"Thank you," the elf said around a spoonful of fruit-topped porridge, his face briefly brightening. He ate slowly, carefully picking through the pieces of his meal, but frequently glanced up to offer the orc grateful looks.
Gurok grinned to himself and pulled open the news scroll, pleased to have helped improve Arastel's mood.
It was a short-lived victory, however, as an unexpected knock soon sounded on the door. The effect on the rogue was drastic- he blanched and stilled, eying the door as though a savage gronn lay in waiting just on the other side.
Gurok fought down the urge to hurry to the door and berate the unwitting cause of so much distress for the rogue; such a reaction would do nothing to help Arastel relax. Instead, he calmly put down the scroll and slowly rose from his chair. He gave the elf a brief nod- hoping it was reassuring- and unbolted the door before wrenching it open.
"Greetings," a tall elf with a long face said stiffly, his sharp eyes quickly darting around the entrance. His dark hair was pulled back in a regal-looking ponytail and his clothing was crisply tailored and elegant in the manner only elves could manage. "I am here on behalf of the Lady Arcelia. I mean to deliver an invitation to Arastel Sunswor- ah, there he is," he said brightly upon eyeing the thoroughly miserable looking elf that had silently come to stand at the orc's side.
"Arcelia," Gurok repeated, the edge of a question in his tone. His heart was already quickening; he could only imagine the effect this was having on Arastel. He briefly cast the elf a sidelong glance and noted that the rogue's face was perfectly blank.
"My former employer," Arastel said under his breath in way of explanation. He stepped forward, placing himself slightly in front of the orc.
"'Former'?" the messenger clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "That is not the case. The Lady is willing to overlook your… absence from her service," he said carefully, "provided you resume work immediately."
"I… I have not," the rogue said slowly, his glance flitting between Gurok and the messenger with increasing nervousness. He fidgeted, his thin fingers looking clumsy as he clasped and unclasped them together. "I-I don't understand. How can you ask this? After-"
"Circumstances have been unfortunate for you, yes," the elf said with a display of sympathy so brittle and fake that it made Gurok gnash his teeth. "But your contract is still intact, and you are in violation of it. However, all will be forgiven… if you will only return."
"Arastel?" the warrior questioned. Everything about the situation- this meeting, this messenger, this Arcelia- it all felt wrong. The distress in Arastel's eyes and brow only stoked Gurok's indignation at this intrusion.
"Are you mad? I have no more business with them. With her," he said bitterly, hot anger beginning to edge into his words. "I care not that she has suddenly dug up my old contract and decided I'm of use again- she broke it, utterly and irreparably. And you have nothing to offer me anymore," he added sharply, resolve clear in his stance.
"Not so," the elf said with a quick smirk. "Your mother still lives, Sunsworn. For the moment," he added as an afterthought.
Arastel bristled immediately, and Gurok took it as his cue. "Speak quickly, elf, and mind your tongue if you do not wish to join the ancestors," he warned, grabbing his nearest axe for good measure. He was rewarded with the satisfying sight of the messenger blanching and wavering slightly.
"Yes, well. Lady Arcelia has seen to it that she has been cared for and… protected in your absence. But for how much longer she will be safe, the L-Lady cannot specify," the blood elf said quickly, his gaze not-so-subtly shifting to Gurok's weapon. "O-of course, if you return to your tasks-"
"If anyone lays a hand on her," the rogue hissed venomously, stepping forward and somehow managing to stare down the elf that had at least five inches on him, "I will hunt them down as I do other mangy beasts, though I will not be nearly so quick or merciful with my killing blows. And you," he added, letting the tip of his index finger rest on the messenger's chest, "I'll save for last."
The blond elf was visibly sweating now. He gave them a nervous, quivering smile as he said, "T-there is a saying, about not killing the-"
"For Arcelia's messengers, for messengers that carry threats toward my mother," the elf spat, "I make an exception. You had better hope no one harms a hair on her head, or you'll find yourself rather painfully separated from your skin. Whether by flaying or acid… I haven't decided yet," he added with a quick sneer.
The elvish messenger swallowed audibly at the threat. "Lady Arcelia's patience will wear thin, Sunsworn. Soon," he added with a meaningful look. "For… for all of our sake's, I would advise you abandon your pride and return," he finished, wringing his hands and pointedly avoiding looking at Gurok.
"It's not about pride," Arastel snorted. "She's deluded if she thinks that I would ever slink back to her after what she did to me," he said, his voice growing louder with every word. "And you can tell her that! But make sure you remind her about that saying- the one about not killing the messenger- first," he added as he slammed the door shut in the elf's face.
Gurok gaped. Before he could even compose a thought, before he could form the words to comfort or reassure Arastel, the elf had darted out the window and up to his sanctuary on the roof. He paced furiously, his steps causing little showers of dust and dirt to fall from the ceiling.
The orc groaned and rubbed anxiously at his face, fearful both for his friend and for the structural integrity of his home. He kept an eye on the web-like cracks as he let Arastel's fury run its course…
Until an hour or so had passed and the elf's pacing turned into sporadic bouts of stomping. After one particularly frustrated thump on the roof- which sent one of the ceiling's cracks into splintering branches- Gurok grabbed the broom and prepared to make as much noise as possible to jostle the Arastel from his destructive anger.
Just as he drew back to whack the broom against the sturdier portions of the ceiling, he saw the dark flash of the rogue swoop in through the window out of the corner of his eye.
He landed as agilely as one of Stranglethorn's stealthy predators, already dressed in his dark, serious set of armor. "I need to go get a few things from the Cleft of Shadow," he said abruptly. "I'll be gone some time. If any other messengers-"
"The Cleft? Why?" the orc asked, his immediate surprise and confusion giving way to panicked urgency. "That place is… riddled with miscreants. Only the worst sorts go there. Can you not get what you need from the auction house?"
"No, I can't," Arastel replied sharply, an edge to his voice that did not sit well with Gurok. He tapped his foot and fidgeted without pause.
"I'll come with you," he said at once. He quickly tossed aside the broom and grabbed his cloak and axe.
"Why?" the elf asked, his glare immediate and dubious. "I don't need you," the rogue protested, looking cross.
"I insist," Gurok said quickly. He stood by the door, waiting on the sulking rogue.
"For Light's sake," Arastel bit out, a sneer in place as he snatched his cloak from the back of a nearby chair. "You want to tail me? Fine. Whatever."
The walk to the Cleft passed in silence, with Gurok following the elf as he cut a path through the crowds by force of his sheer sullenness. Merchants went silent as he passed, not even bothering to try and entice him to buy their wares, and adventurers subtly stepped aside for the briskly walking rogue.
When they reached the cave-like entrance, Gurok paused. He licked his dry lips as he stared into the shadowy depths beyond, the anxiety that had been slowly building suddenly hitting him full-force. Where Arastel ventured so casually, he dread to set foot.
The elf stopped in his tracks and looked back over his shoulder, giving the orc a look that he couldn't quite determine- it was hard, almost scathing, and mixed in was… distrust? A skeptical look, like Arastel was appraising him, judging him. That unsettled Gurok more than the Cleft of Shadow ever could.
"Scared?" the rogue asked caustically.
"No," Gurok bit back, the word coming out more severely than he had intended.
The rogue looked miffed at his tone, his lips twisted in a scowling sort of pout. He scoffed at the orc and proceeded down the darkened ramp, not bothering to look and see if Gurok followed.
But he did. The warrior sighed heavily and made his way down the winding, spike-lined path, barely able to distinguish Arastel's slender form from the dark mists and shadows that were a permanent fixture of the Cleft.
He lengthened his strides, feeling a vague terror clutch at his heart at the thought of losing sight of him. "Arastel, wait," he hissed, grabbing the elf's arm and spinning him around.
Eyes that glowed green with the fel turned upon him, and for a moment, Gurok was stricken with fear- he recalled demons, night raids in Hellfire, the eerie groans of the Fel Reavers.
"Gurok," the rogue muttered, his tone decidedly displeased. "I did not ask you to accompany me. Don't feel obligated to stay."
He wrenched himself free of the warrior and took a step back, apparently waiting for a reaction.
The orc took a deep breath and set his jaw. "No, I will stay." He straightened up, briefly thankful for the dimness of the cavern- his had little doubt that his face was dark with embarrassment, and it was better that Arastel not see.
The elf huffed and turned on his heel, and Gurok picked up the words "stubborn", "kodo-brained", and something distinctly Thalassian.
He lumbered after Arastel, always keeping within a few paces of the little elf, as he conducted his business.
Gurok didn't think he had ever felt so utterly unwanted, so thoroughly scrutinized. Within moments he felt clammy head-to-toe and his stomach flopped uneasily.
He had been in the Cleft of Shadow many times before, but only on patrol or as a last-resort shortcut when he absolutely did not have the time to take the path around. Lingering here in his simple clothing and light armor was far different than just passing through in Kor'kron plate and tabard.
During his brief forays into the den of Orgrimmar's undesirables, he had made it personal policy to see as little as possible. He'd moved quickly and purposefully, kept his eyes trained on the path in front of him, and ignored the noises of capering imps and demonic chanting, as all of Orgrimmar seemed to do. He had never made eye contact with anyone, never said a word.
But judging by the intense looks that he was receiving, they shady regulars here recognized him. The murmuring of the warlocks quieted as he passed, all of them silent and staring, and more than one sneering. He squared his shoulders and tried not to feel as though his every move was being watched by a dozen pairs of eyes.
Vendors discreetly swept merchandise off of the tables as they approached, eyeing him suspiciously, and more than once he heard Arastel sigh and try to explain to them that he was in no position to be reporting anyone to the authorities.
"Why do you need so much poison?" Gurok asked as the rogue handed him a few oddly colored bottles that he'd just purchased, bringing the total to at least two dozen vials. It was difficult to keep the distaste out of his tone. Poison was not an honorable way to fight- it was a weapon of convenience over skill, trickery over strength. This was one area in which Arastel did not strike him as an orc at heart.
"Do you really want to know?" the elf muttered, flashing the warrior a dark look.
"I suppose not," Gurok muttered, his gaze falling to the ground. He tucked Arastel's bottles away into pockets and the pouches on belt, looking anywhere but at the elf.
He waited patiently as they visited the next unscrupulous character, and then the next. He stood stalwartly by, trying to quell the rising sensation of nausea and remain attentive to Arastel's conversations at the same time.
The smell and taste of the purplish, faintly glowing haze that floated, stagnant, in the air of the Cleft of Shadow was bitter. It made it hard to take the deep breaths that Gurok found soothed his stomach, and he wondered at how the rogue could stand it. By the time they emerged into the city proper once again, the orc felt thoroughly sickened. Even the bright light and clean air couldn't cleanse him of the sensation of dark haze filling his mouth and throat.
"You look ill," the elf noted as they made their way back to the house.
"I feel ill, after that," Gurok explained gruffly.
"I see," Arastel said under his breath, doubling his pace and striding ahead of the orc.
"Arastel," the warrior groaned as he saw the rogue begin to edge away. "For the love of the ancestors," he muttered as he was left behind. He was in no mood to run after the elf- not with his innards still twisted tight from the Cleft of Shadow and not with Arastel's sour mood.
He grumbled his way back to his neighborhood. He could see smoke rising from the chimney of his home, but he held off any hope of Arastel making any dinner for him.
Gurok heard a shriek and a giggle, and he turned just in time to see a cart barreling toward him. The warrior leapt to the side, as did the few other pedestrians, pressing himself up against the sheer rock wall of the canyon and barely avoiding a run-in with the rickety wooden cart and the large goat pulling it.
He cursed as it rolled past at breakneck speed, the two young boys at the reigns howling and guffawing as they tore through the narrow street. A moment later Gurok saw two grunts and an older orc- possibly the ruffians' father- run past in hot pursuit.
The warrior pushed himself away from the wall and shook his head. With a weary sigh, he dragged himself the rest of the way home.
"You didn't buy more wood," was his greeting when he arrived.
The orc shut the door and bolted it, feeling more exhausted than he had in a long while. He wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest.
"-like you said you would," Arastel was saying. The elf prodded at the meager fire with the poker. "That's why I gave you the gold rather than getting it myself. You could have gone and gotten it while I was shopping. Would've been better than you trailing me."
Gurok couldn't even find the energy to speak. He wasn't certain why the rogue was so concerned about the fire anyway- the room felt far too hot, if anything.
The orc resigned himself to a displeased elf for the night; he also decided he'd prefer to skip dinner and go straight to bed, but soon found he couldn't muster the strength to even walk to the bedroom.
"Gurok, are you even listeni- Gurok? Gurok, are you alright?"
There was concern in the elf's voice, and that reassured the warrior even as the room began swaying.
He slumped against the wall, drained of energy, his legs weak and strangely numb. He felt feverish and dazed; the edges of his vision began to warp and blur unsettlingly.
Arastel's light hands seemed to be on him everywhere at once. He could feel his sweat-soaked clothing being torn away, and at some point he had ended up on the floor, staring up at the ceiling- or where the ceiling should have been, because in its place was a swirling mass of darkness that seemed to grow with every passing second, reaching and pulling everything toward it as though it was the inevitable end of all things. The maw of Deathwing, the void of icy death, the heart of the Twisting Nether; it was all of these things at once, as terrifying as his darkest nightmares and a thousand times more potent.
And then something cool and sickly sweet was crammed into his mouth, and green and gold filled his vision, blocking out the monstrous, spiraling shadow.
He felt his jaw moving, felt a light pressure on his throat that encouraged him to swallow.
Gurok wasn't certain of how much time had passed; the heat was slowly subsiding and his vision was beginning to come back into focus. Best of all, the ceiling was back- right where it should be, with cracks and cobwebs and Arastel's hammock.
His mouth felt dry and sticky, and he couldn't have lifted a limb if his life depended on it, but he was relieved that whatever it was had passed.
"Gurok? Oh, Gurok, I'm so sorry." Arastel was hovering over him, a damp cloth in hand to dab at his forehead and neck. "Are you alright?"
"Thirsty," the orc groaned.
"You can't drink anything yet. I'm sorry," he added, smoothing his hand across the warrior's damp, mussed hair. "Not until you've worked all the poison out."
"P-poison? I was poisoned?"
The elf made a pathetic noise. "Yes, and I feel terrible, Gurok. I- it's like I can't not ruin your life," he complained as he ran the blessedly cool rag across the orc's chest. "It looks as though one of the bottles must have broken while you were carrying it- a rather potent blend of purple lotus and nightmare vine extracts, with a bit of firebloom and blindweed as well. There was a streak of it all down the side of your leg," he explained. "I had to burn your clothes. Sorry. I'll make you new ones. A whole set. A wardrobe."
"Not your fault," the warrior rasped. "I… on the way back I had to dodge some brats with a cart. I probably crushed one when I threw myself up out of the way. Didn't feel it at all. But that comes with having thick skin," he said as he gave him a shaky grin.
"Yes, well, your thick skin only delayed the effect," the elf sighed. "I am terribly sorry you went through that. I save that particular concoction for clients who have decided to renege on contracts with me. It causes paralysis, hallucinations, blurry vision, burning fever- all very unpleasant, but not lethal... in the correct doses."
"Thank you for curing me," Gurok whispered.
"Don't thank me for fixing problems that I've been the cause of," he chided. "Your fever seems to have subsided. Are you seeing any horrible visions of the Twisting Nether?"
"Uh, not anymore."
"Good. I think you can have a little sip of water, then," he said with a quick pat on the orc's chest.
Gurok listened to the elf's footsteps and he ventured outside to the pump and soon returned with a pitcher of cool well-water. He knelt next to the orc's head and poured just a bit of water into his open mouth, wiping away the droplets that dribbled from the corners of his mouth with his thumb.
Gurok wished he could have appreciated that more, but his mind was occupied with other concerns. "So… you said that you burned my clothes."
"My apologies. But you needed new ones anyway, didn't you? I'll make you stuff that's twice as good. To, ah, make up for almost killing you," the elf said sheepishly as he stood, pitcher in hand.
"What am I wearing right now?" he asked apprehensively. The warrior tried in vain to lift his head enough to get a good look at his own body.
"Oh." Arastel stood awkwardly, looking down and scanning the orc from head to toe and back again. "Well, when I noticed the broken bottle, I was just frantic to make certain to get it all off of you, so... I just got rid of all of it."
"So I'm not wearing anything?"
"Nothing," the elf said. A tiny smirk began to pull at his lips.
The warrior groaned and let his head thump weakly back against the floor.
"Oh, Gurok. Don't be so dramatic. You have nothing to be ashamed of." He took a sip from the tin pitcher as he let his gaze drift to the side. "Absolutely nothing," he repeated quietly. He glanced down at Gurok and waggled his eyebrows.
"Ancestors," the orc muttered, feeling his whole body go hot again.
"Tell me, are all orcs so, er… prodigious in girth?"
"Arastel. Please." All Gurok wanted in that moment was to sink into the floor, or at the very least to bury his face in his hands so he could make believe that he wasn't so utterly exposed. But he couldn't even curl his fingers, much less move his arms, so he squeezed his eyes shut and sighed.
He heard the clink of the pitcher being set down and then the soft padding of feet. The orc then felt the light flutter of cool, soft fabric against his skin and cracked his eyes open.
"How much can you move?" Arastel asked as he tucked the edges of the silky smooth blanket underneath him. Gurok recognized it as one of the elf's favorites. "Fingers and toes?"
"A little, yes. I can sort of… flex," he frowned. His limbs responded weakly to his thoughts, moving the barest bit.
"I can't carry you to bed," the rogue stated simply. "Do you mind if I bring your stuff out here?"
"Please," the orc said quietly.
He let the elf cover him with a few furs and tuck a pillow under his head, and when the elf insisted on brushing his teeth and tusks, he reluctantly acquiesced.
"So," Arastel sighed as he made up his own bed on the floor beside the orc- Gurok thought it like a little nest, almost- and wriggled under the mass of red blankets. "I was a right prick to you earlier, and seeing you lying on the ground like that made me very much regret my piss poor attitude. I'd be… I'd be really upset if that rant had been the last thing you'd heard from me."
"I'll get the wood tomorrow," the warrior promised.
There was a soft 'whap' as the elf smacked Gurok's shoulder. "You'll do no such thing. I wasn't trying to remind you about the wood. I was apologizing for being so disagreeable. I was being an ass to you, and you didn't deserve it. You'd never deserve it. I don't know how I forgot that," he muttered, biting his lip.
"You have a lot on your shoulders-"
"No, no," Arastel said quickly. "I just… this business with Arcelia's got me all turned round. Like a hawkstrider with its head cut off. I'm sorry I doubted you, Gurok," he said, now biting his lip so hard that Gurok thought it must hurt terribly.
The rogue slid his hands over his face and through his hair as he groaned. "You've done nothing but help and support me, but at the first mention of her name I'm suspicious of everyone, from Betila to the auctioneers… to you. And Light knows you don't deserve that," he muttered, looking disgusted with himself.
The orc made a soft noise of comprehension. "Last night… you slept with a dagger because of me," he stated. That stung.
"I… I'm so sorry," Arastel said quickly, his voice uneven. "I'm being paranoid. And overly sensitive. About everything. I'm sorry, I really… I haven't got a handle on this yet."
Gurok clenched his jaw and made a low noise. It seemed that every passing day only strengthened his belief that this Arcelia needed an axe to the face. "So you were worried that I… worked for her?"
"No, that would be unlikely," the elf murmured. "Kor'kron don't usually fall into her hands. I was worried she'd get to you, or already had. That she would… tell you things about me. Things that would make you hate me, not want to be around me."
"I would never-"
"I know that most orcs don't rank rogues very highly in terms of honor," the elf said with a shrug, "and you just seemed so… so sickened by the Cleft of Shadow. By me. By what I do. I mean, you've mentioned how much you hate it, and I understand to an extent, being Kor'kron, and an orc, and a warrior, how that could bother you, but-"
"That's not why," Gurok interrupted.
"It's not like that," he said simply. "My behavior in the Cleft. It's… about me. Personal. Things of a personal nature," he mumbled, turning his head to the side.
Arastel made a small noise of understanding and sat back. "Oh… I'm sorry, Gurok. There I was, only thinking about myself. Again. I assumed you were disgusted with me. I didn't stop to think… you might have your own issues."
The orc shrugged weakly. "It is alright." His breath hitched for a second. "If I told you… would you consider telling me? About Arcelia?"
The rogue stiffened at the proposal. "I would consider it," he said reluctantly, his gaze slipping to the floor.
Gurok nodded to himself and stared straight up at the ceiling. "My father," he said quietly. "He was- he was a mage. We say he was a mage," he amended. "Because it is better that way."
"A warlock," Arastel clarified in a whisper. He shifted in his blankets, wriggling forward until he was closer.
The warrior nodded the barest bit. "Our people are wary of mages. But they despise warlocks," he said in soft tones. "Even after he died, there were still… a lot of rumors. And all it really takes is a rumor," he added.
"That sounds… difficult," Arastel said gently, his brow furrowed.
"It was at times," he agreed. He idly experimented again with how much he could move, frowning when his fingers only responding with slight twitching. "I imagine this is all silly to you, given how accepted magic is in Silvermoon."
The rogue shook his head. "It is embraced, yes, but there are still stigmas… warlocks don't seem very popular outside of the Undercity, to be honest."
"That is true," Gurok said with a quiet sigh.
"So what was your father like? If you don't mind my asking," Arastel said with a cautious smile.
"I don't mind," the orc answered. "He was… quiet. A thinker, my mother always said. He would often bring home flowers for her and little pieces of ivory for me to practice etching and carving. He knew how to handle daggers, so he taught me that. He was very kind," he added.
The elf smiled faintly at that. "I barely remember my own father," he said with a half shrug. "He died not long after I was born. My uncle taught me what I needed to know instead."
The warrior nodded. "My father also died when I was young. He was killed. By another warlock," he said quietly. "From what I understand, it was out of jealously. And very… malicious. There was no body left to bury."
"And what of him, the murderer?" the elf said darkly. "Surely he does not still live?"
"No, he was killed shortly after during a raid on a Burning Blade encampment," Gurok said flatly.
There was a subdued silence for a few moments before the orc spoke again.
"I'm convinced that place holds no happy fates for its adherents," he explained with a slight tremor. "So I strived to grow strong in my own right, to avoid that path. People were suspicious of me at first, but in time I removed myself from my father's shadow. And I was glad for it. But not all were," he sighed. "My childhood… friend, Ortok, resented me for it. He was always small, for an orc. Weak. I never minded it, because we were close. But he wanted all of the things that I didn't."
The warrior paused as he recalled the orc from his past. "One day, he stopped coming to training. I would see him walking to the Cleft of Shadow every day after that. He tried to convince me to go with him, but I couldn't, not after my father… Ortok wanted me to 'embrace what I truly am'," the orc muttered. "He thought that I was the coward for not joining him. Maybe it is so. Even now, I can hardly stand the place."
"I don't think it's cowardly to choose your own path, especially at the cost of a loved one. I think that could be one of the hardest things in the world, actually," Arastel said with a fond smile, tilting his head as he studied the orc.
"Thank you," the warrior murmured, glancing at the elf out of the corner of his eye.
"But if you're so… affected by the Cleft, why did you insist so stubbornly on following me there? You said yourself only the worst types go there," Arastel said in a gently teasing tone.
"It's true. I wanted to make sure none of them tried to hurt you," the orc said quietly.
"Oh, Gurok," the rogue said slowly, his expression of doubt and concern briefly turning into something much more tender and appreciative. "That's… so unnecessary and misguided, but so, so sweet."
The warrior grunted in response, pointedly refraining from meeting the elf's gaze. He felt his neck and face quickly grow warm, and suddenly the furs and blanket that covered him felt stiflingly hot. "Could you get me more water?" he asked in a croak.
"Absolutely, absolutely," Arastel said quickly as he nimbly hopped to his feet and grabbed the orc's cup. "Anything you want, Gurok. Anything at all, and I'll do it for you."
"Tell me about Arcelia?" he asked hopefully, his heavy brows lifting slightly.
The elf's breath hitched. A tired, dubious smile was faint on his lips. He finished pouring water into the small cup and carefully passed it back to the orc. "Anything but that."
"We're, uh, reporting to Betila," Gurok said to the pair of burly, dim-witted guards blocking the door. He glanced concernedly to the rogue beside him; Arastel had been on edge ever since the summons arrived. He was half-convinced that Betila had already become a puppet of Arcelia, and even now he seemed to expect a trap- the elf bounced on the balls of his feet nervously and appeared ready to grab his daggers at a moment's notice.
Gurok sincerely hoped the situation didn't escalate here. An anxious, trigger-happy rogue could do a lot of damage very quickly, and the last thing Arastel needed was more enemies. The orc was optimistic that even if Betila planned to distance herself from them in light of this situation, she might still at least be fairly neutral in the matter.
After all, how much could this mysterious Arcelia do all the way from Silvermoon? But Orgrimmar was where Betila's connections were, and if she was on Arcelia's puppet-strings… well, that would be problematic indeed.
"Nuh-uh, no see mean goblin. She not see anybody today," the slightly more intelligent of the two ogres insisted. He crossed his thick arms and frowned at the pair.
"We have orders from her," Arastel said with a heavy sigh, daintily extending the slip of parchment toward the pair and looking very much as though he'd rather be anywhere but here. "See? Her signature and seal and everything. And she's demanding that we come post haste to discuss some matter of moderate importance with her. Have a look for yourself," he offered.
Both of them leaned in and, after a moment, the one that had spoken before shook his head. "No trust twiggy little elf. Has beady eyes and seems desperate," he said to his burly partner.
"Excuse you, you great oaf," the rogue snarled. "I am most certainly not twiggy," he growled, accentuating each of his words with a hard poke to the ogre's protruding stomach, "and my eyes are-are-are luminous, and ethereal, and perfectly sized, and they are windows into my very soul, and they are not beady," he hissed, said eyes burning with a ferocious glare.
Gurok deliberately placed himself between the heaving, sneering elf and the pair of ogres. "You can't read, right?" he confirmed.
"Reading… dumb," the quieter of the pair announced, a deep-set frown on his heavy lips.
"This is a letter from the mean goblin," the orc explained, snatching the paper from Arastel. "See how angry the writing looks?"
"Yeah, that her writing," one said with a slow nod. "She make the little dots by stabbing the paper."
"And this writing tells us to be here right now, or else she'll have us beaten," Gurok continued in a slow, even voice.
"Uh oh," the larger one said with a concerned look.
"Yes, uh oh," the warrior agreed. "So if you don't let us in, we'll be in trouble. And you'll probably be in trouble, too. How mad do you think she would be if you ruined her meeting with us?"
"Real mad," they said in unison, their jaws slack as the scenario ran through their minds. "Okay, smart orc go inside," the ogre in charge said suddenly, stepping aside and waving for Gurok to pass him.
"Thank you. The elf needs to come with me. He's my friend." When that seemed insufficient to the guards, he gave the rogue an apologetic look and added, "He, uh, reads and writes for me. So I don't have to."
"Oh, that good slave to have," one of the ogres said matter-of-factly, suddenly eyeing Arastel interestedly. "Reading dumb, just get someone else to do it. That smart."
"He smart orc," the other ogre agreed. "You go see Betila," he said to the both of them. "No one want see her unless they have to… you must really, really have to," he reasoned, nodding to himself.
Gurok gave the pair of ogres a quick smile and ducked past them, Arastel in tow. Before he could talk himself out of it, the warrior reached over to give the elf's upper arm a squeeze that he hoped was reassuring.
Bright green eyes caught his and a pleased smile rounded the rogue's lips. Arastel placed his hand over the warrior's, running his thumb over the orc's knuckles and squeezing it gently... and then he took hold and guided it to the hilt of the hefty axe at the warrior's waist.
Gurok nodded, knowing that if this meeting went wrong in the worst possible ways, he would be holding off those two ogre guards as long as it took for the elf to make his escape. He briefly wished that he'd brought a bigger axe, or at least a shield, though it would have made them more suspicious.
They stepped through the entryway cautiously. Betila's little base of operations was as crowded and cluttered as ever, and for a moment, the warrior wasn't certain whether she was actually in at all.
"Oh, so you two made it past Dumb and Dumber? Can't say I'm surprised, exactly," a slightly grating voice piped up from behind a large crate. She slinked over to her desk and began to dig around in the stacks of papers. "But it's always good to test your employees from time to time. Pays to know the weaknesses in your security, too."
"Why did you suddenly post them out there?" Arastel asked, pursing his lips and running a finger across the back of a dusty chair.
"None of ya business," she said curtly as she fished out a crinkled piece of paper. She beckoned them both closer, and with an exchange of hesitant looks, they acquiesced. "I just wanted an extra buffer between me and all the people that wanna pester me," she explained giving them both an exaggerated glare. "I just need- whoa, whoa. What's the deal with your arm there?"
Gurok startled as the little goblin suddenly grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him down to her level. "I had it healed-"
"Yeah? And who did this bang up job?" she said caustically, grimacing as she peeled up the remaining bandages and saw the peaks of a large, jagged scar.
"I believe his name was Glark Spriteplug," Gurok mumbled, not really wanting to recall the less than satisfying experience.
"Oh, that guy? He's a hack! A total charlatan!" Betila scoffed, waving her arms in irritation. "I oughtta go stick him in some plate and toss him into the Southfury. See if levitation gets him outta that, huh?" she said with a fierce nod. "Seriously, the balls on that guy…"
Even Arastel smirked lightly at that. "I tried to patch up what the healer didn't get," he said with a frown, "but… bandages and salve only do so much."
"Ugh, you two…" he groaned as she massaged her temples. "Okay, listen up. I keep a couple of quality healers around for my people, okay?" the goblin continued, already thumbing through a stack of business cards. She pulled out a few and passed them to the pair. "You get hurt on the job and you go to them. Not some lousy shadow priests trying to pass as healers to get some coin. Alright?"
Gurok nodded and tucked the cards into a pocket on the shirt under his armor.
"Now… we have a few things to discuss," she said evenly, her large eyes coolly surveying each of them. She hopped up on her chair and leaned back, her fingers steepled. "Word is there's suddenly some bad blood between you and Arcelia of Silvermoon," she said to Arastel.
"Suddenly?" the elf asked, cocking his eyebrow.
"Well, a stoking of the flames, if you will," she said instead.
"I suppose," he murmured, licking his lips nervously.
"Arastel- I've known you for what, like a week now? And you don't trust me?" she asked with a dramatic sigh. "I'm hurt. Wounded. Honestly. Please relax with the knife, okay? I'm not about to sell you out to that thistled-out blood elf bitch. Pardon my Thalassian," she added as an afterthought.
Gurok's head swiveled toward the rogue, and sure enough, his hand had been hovering an inch from a throwing knife strapped to his thigh. "Arastel," he murmured, eyes narrowing as he realized that the elf had also slowly maneuvered until his back was against a wall and he could keep an eye on the entrance door.
"Can never be too careful," he told Betila with a shrug. He bowed his head slightly in apology.
"I understand that," she said easily. "You are fully entitled to be suspicious of me. I'm an up-front gal for the most part, though, so I'll lay it out. You're far and away the best rogue I've got- your work on that job in Booty Bay? Wonderful. Now, I'd very much like to extend our little contract, but this causes a few complications given Arcelia's recent interest in reacquiring you. However, I'm willing to deal with whatever messiness she causes, because in the long run… I think you'll help make me an even richer woman."
"Arcelia has a lot of wealth at her disposal," the rogue said tentatively, subtly shifting his weight. "Certainly enough to increase your fortune considerably."
"And every gold coin of hers comes with a string attached," the goblin said, her eyes intense. "I'm not interested in being anyone's pawn, much less hers. I don't need her to give me money when I have the means to take it," she added seriously.
"You're really going to take her on?" the elf asked with wide eyes, looking equal parts dubious and impressed.
Betila gave him a crooked smile. "I think she's been sitting at the top for long enough. Her monopoly on Silvermoon certainly doesn't help those of us trying to expand. So what do ya say? You can either handle her alone, or you can get someone in your corner."
Arastel stared at the floor as he considered. When he looked back up, it was with an expression that Gurok had never seen on him before. He'd often had a hard time imagining the elf as the battle-hardened, dangerous rogue that he doubtlessly was, but now… with that look, he could very much believe that Arastel was an efficient killer. The orc swallowed thickly.
"I don't want a repeat of what happened in Silvermoon," he said, deadly serious. "You understand?"
"Absolutely," the goblin said at once. "I respect that completely. You'll find I'm actually pretty tame compared to Arcelia, and I treat my guys and gals pretty well. I don't play the game on the same field that she does, either," she murmured. "And I'll keep Gurok on as well," she added, her gaze momentarily darting toward the orc, "because I think he's good for you."
"I… appreciate that," the warrior said quietly, carefully watching the elf and the goblin. Betila looked pleased as she set to writing up another contract, and Arastel… well, he didn't look quite as angry or nervous, and he wasn't still sporting that grim mask of an expression. His shoulders looked tense, but he was also visibly relieved at the quick resolution.
"Gotta crack some skulls," Betila muttered as she scratched furiously away at the parchment, leaning forward and bobbing her head menacingly.
Arastel chuckled and rolled his shoulders. "Yes, there will be plenty of that," he sighed.
"We'll see how things play out, won't we?" she said pleasantly. She jabbed the paper a few times with her quill and then turned it over to them for inspection. "Look it over. If you like it, sign it. If not-"
"More," was all Arastel said. He smiled charmingly as he passed the paper back toward her. "I know what my going rate is."
"You're all business now," the goblin noted, leaning back and giving him an admiring look. "I like it," she decided, amending the contract to increase his due pay. "And is this more to your liking, Sirrah Sunsworn?"
The elf smiled roguishly and gave his approval to the new contract. He signed with a flourish and then handed it to Gurok.
The orc sighed tiredly and began to scrawl his own name underneath Arastel's. His gaze drifted up the page for a moment and suddenly he stilled. "A thousand gold? A thousand per week?" he gaped.
"You're missing the part about the per diem, too," Arastel said, pointing to another section of the contract. "For expenses on the job. Your salary will only be half of mine, though," he said apologetically.
"Five-hundred a week? For me alone?" the warrior asked in shock. "I got that munch in a month in the Kor'kron," he said, disbelief still drawn across his face.
"Well, I'd say you've paid your dues," Betila grinned. "Consider it just another example of my respect and admiration for our boys and girls in the Orgrimmar tabard," she said with a wink. "But really, this place would be bedlam without you and the city guards, let me tell you. You don't get paid nearly what you deserve for putting up with the shit I've seen," she murmured as she affixed her own scratchy signature to the contract.
"No," Arastel agreed. "Hopefully this begins to make up for me ruining your life a dozen or so times over the last fortnight," he said with a half-grin, half-grimace. "And you taking me in and putting up with me and all that."
"You two livin' together now? That was fast," the goblin said with raised eyebrows. "I owe some people some gold, then. Well, nevermind- congratulations you two!" she said over Gurok's stammering. "I know you're gonna make it work. And I want an invitation to the ceremony- consider that included in this contract," she added, tapping the document with a long purple nail. "Let me just go get your assignment. I'll be right back, huns."
Arastel flashed the orc a wide grin.
"She thinks we're-"
"I know, Gurok, I was standing here, too," the elf laughed.
The orc inhaled deeply and shook his head. "And she made it sound like there was a bet going."
"It's not such an odd thing for people to believe," Arastel said with a shrug. "Two incredibly handsome individuals like ourselves constantly being seen with each other? I'd have suspicions as well."
Gurok had to laugh, if only at 'incredibly handsome' being used to describe him. A warm feeling settled into the pit of his stomach at the elf's comment. "And you don't mind that?"
"That. That they think that about you… and me."
"Of course not," the elf said bemusedly. "You're-"
"Here it is!" Betila said as she briskly returned. "It's a big one, too- you'll both need to go. First thing tomorrow, in fact."
"Where?" Arastel asked, seemingly oblivious to Gurok's stare as the orc waited with baited breath for the elf to complete his thought. Neither did he appear to notice the frown that settled over green lips as the warrior realized he would likely never know what the other had intended to say.
"Uldum. More Nefersest business," she said with a smile. "Dress for searing, burning heat and pack enough to last you two or three weeks- this one is a long haul. And make sure you visit the stables tonight and get a summoning spell done for your mounts, too," she warned. "Here, I have gold for you to buy supplies. Make it stretch, will ya?"
They each accepted a heavy coinpurse from the little goblin. "I want you both to be at the Earthshrine by dawn and through that portal, do you understand? Timing is imperative for this."
"Thank you, Betila," Gurok said as they prepared to leave, anxious to get started on preparing for the trip.
"Yes," Arastel agreed. "I very much appreciate this… new start."
"Not a problem, not a problem- oh! Gurok. Dear, sweet, ridiculously strong Gurok. Could you do me a favor and start earning your pay right now?" Betila asked slyly.
"Oh… certainly," the orc said, eager to work toward the salary he still didn't quite feel he deserved.
"I have about fifteen more crates like this one clogging up my storage room. I can't make them budge, of course, and I tried getting those two clods outside to help but they're stupid as… well, ogres."
Gurok grunted and nodded sharply. Brute strength was something he could do- he was finally in his element. "Of course."
Arastel made a thoughtful noise and tapped against the door handle. "It's almost noon and still so many errands to run… I'll go get started on them. I wouldn't be much help with this," he said, gesturing to the room, "anyway. Sort of your area of expertise."
"That's fine, babe. You just go take care of business. Gotta keep that throat-slitting hand in good condition," she added with a wink. "No heavy lifting for you."
The elf grinned and gave her a salute. "I'll start on dinner around six bellows of the horns," he told Gurok. "After you're done here, you should probably get the mount situation worked out and get everything you need all ready. I'll get food and supplies for us."
"Alright," the warrior agreed, waving as Arastel slipped out the door.
"Oh, you two," Betila said with a snort, slapping Gurok on the thigh. "You make me wish I hadn't sued my ex for everything he had." She sighed wistfully. "Anyway, let's move these big, stinkin' crates. Chop chop."
Betila directed the orc as he carried the heavy crates filled with questionable material, stacking and positioning them as the space would allow. It was hard work, and it made Gurok strain and sweat, but he was grateful. It felt as though he was earning his gold this way.
During a brief break when Betila gave him water and old dried biscuits to eat, he decided to fish for the information that Arastel was reluctant to give him. Betila seemed to have a much better understanding of the circumstances the elf was dealing with than he did.
"So who is Arcelia and why should we be worried about her?" he asked around a mouthful of food.
"Arcelia?" the goblin asked as counted out stacks of gold coins and updated her record books. "Oh, she's serious business. She has her hand in all sorts of shady dealings in Silvermoon. Theft, bribery, murder, extortion, counterfeiting, bloodthistle, prostitution- her ring runs almost all of it. They say that half of the nobles in Silvermoon are under her thumb to some extent. She's all about power and manipulation."
"So what would she want with Arastel?" the orc questioned, his thick brow furrowing slightly.
"Are you kidding? The same thing I want with him. That guy is a pro. And he's a Sunsworn. He's been blowing the rest of my guys out of the water. Truth be told, if I'd been cracking you two a fair deal, having him in my employ should have been plenty in return for those axes. The contract you two just signed didn't even do him justice, really. But I don't think he's all about the gold anymore."
Gurok digested that for a few moments. He'd seen the way the elven rogue moved; it left little doubt in his mind that Arastel was skilled as slipping up behind his enemies. Though Gurok had never dwelled on it- had purposely tried not to, he supposed- he had had enough hints as to the rogue's real area of expertise, and it only made sense that competing cartels and trade bosses would go to great lengths for a good assassin. "What do you mean, 'and he's a Sunsworn'?"
"Seriously, big guy?" she asked with a look of surprise. "Oh, that's right, I suppose most folk on the up and up around here wouldn't know… The Sunsworns, big name sindorei family. They're practically synonymous with the bloodthistle trade. I wanna say it's one of his uncles that pretty much runs their whole operation."
"Oh. Yes, he smells of it often. But I've never seen him smoke it," the orc said quietly.
"Yeah, I doubt he does," the goblin agreed. "That stuff packs the most punch for magic users. And part of the reason the Sunsworns have been so successful is because they're pretty good about not getting addicted to their own merchandise. Anyway, I can see why that Arcelia would want him back. He's got family ties to one of the biggest bloodthistle outfits in Silvermoon, and he's one damn good rogue when it comes to… certain jobs."
He made a thoughtful noise. "And here I was, thinking I was doing him a favor. Letting a down-on-his-luck rogue pick through Grommash Hold," the orc scoffed.
"Well, that place is a tough nut to crack for even a skilled assassin," the goblin shrugged. "And I can't think of any hired blade with the balls to try going after Hellscream, to be honest. For what it's worth, he probably was pretty down at the time. I don't think he'd taken on a single assassination or big heist until I started assigning them to him. But petty crime is sort of a waste of a rogue with skills like his, y'know?"
Gurok nodded and wrapped his arms around another crate. "Why come live in the slums here and turn to such mischief for gold if his family controls the bloodthistle trade?" he questioned as he hauled the box to the back of the room.
"I imagine that part of laying low involves not sending correspondences to old friends and family," Betila shrugged. "And not paying visits to the family bank vault. He obviously didn't want to be found very easily, even by his kin back in Silvermoon- why else would he come to Orgrimmar? The slackjaws here don't know half of what goes on with the elves. But I had an inkling that he was a Sunsworn when you two first showed up, y'know? I just knew," she said nonchalantly, her eyes fluttering shut as she gave a self-satisfied shrug.
"And how's that?"
"I got sources," she said in a secretive whisper. Her playful grin made the orc smile. "Heard from a friend that the runaway Sunsworn was somewhere in Orgrimmar a while back. I kept an ear out, but the last thing I wanted to do was hunt him down when he's obviously been keen on running free," she said with a thoughtful tilt of her head. "And miracle of miracles, you two just dropped into my lap during that whole ordeal with Hellscream's axes- he matched my friend's description of him down to the last freckle. What can I say? I'mma lucky gal."
"We're lucky, too, I suppose," he said before shoving a crate into place, grunting with the effort it took to slide it across the floor. "Finding you."
"Oh! You're sweet," she giggled, waving off the compliment. "No wonder he likes you."
"I-I don't…" The orc cleared his throat loudly and struggled to regain his grip on the heavy crate that had begun to slip out of his hands. Under Betila's watchful gaze, the red-faced orc returned to his task with single-minded devotion and absolutely no desire for any more chitchat.
It was dusk by the time Gurok made it home; just a bit past the sixth bellow of the horns. Before he even opened the door, he caught the scent of something unfamiliar and delicious wafting from within.
"Gurok!" the elf greeted as soon as he entered. From the rafters. With a wickedly curved dagger in each hand.
"Is this something I need to get used to?" the orc asked, gesturing to the rogue's upside-down form.
"Sorry, sorry," Arastel murmured as he tucked the blades back into their sheaths and swung down from the crossbeam. "Just… still a little wary. I'll be happy to leave the city for a while," he said, rubbing tiredly at the back of his neck.
"It will be a nice break," Gurok agreed. "Something you made smells wonderful, by the way," he commented as he put down the bags of supplies he'd gotten on the way back. "I could smell it outside."
Arastel grinned broadly as he trotted over to the kitchen area. "Roasted quail with wine marinated vegetables, smoked salmon crepes, and butter cake," he said proudly. "I figure we'll have orcish style cooking during the trip, so why not have an elvish sendoff?" he added with a shrug.
Gurok smiled and sniffed deeply. "I've never had real elvish cooking. I can't wait to try it," he said enthusiastically, already pulling plates and knives from the cupboards.
"Oh, should be almost done," the elf said as he slipped past to check the oven. "The cake looks- ah, son of a thrice-damned Amani," he hissed, a string of Thalassian curses following as he sucked on his burned finger. "Yeah, it's almost ready. You can start plating if you'd like."
"I don't think I have any forks," the orc said with a grimace. "These vegetables are chopped pretty small… will spoons be alright?"
"Of course," the rogue assured him, looking more concerned with tending to his baking cake.
"Is there a certain order or…" Gurok trailed off, his hand hovering as he looked to the blood elf for guidance as to which side of the plate the spoon belonged on.
"For the love of the Light, Gurok," Arastel laughed, "it's just food, I really don't care about the table manners that go along with it. What we've been doing is fine."
"You're certain?" the warrior asked skeptically.
"I like the occasional taste of home, that's all. I don't miss," he waved his hand around vaguely, "well… I guess I don't really miss much of anything else about it. Certainly not this bullshit with crime bosses there. Not trifling over salad forks and dinner forks and desert forks and soup forks-"
"Soup forks?" Gurok interrupted with a snort.
"Okay, I was exaggerating on that one," Arastel sighed. "But you know what I mean. I would argue that this entire meal could be eaten with our bare hands," he shrugged. "Why bother with silverware at all? Just more dishes to clean."
Gurok chortled, choking for a moment on the water he'd been drinking. "I agree," he said, picking up his quail and setting it on his plate. He daintily pulled off one leg and nibbled carefully at the meat.
"Gurok," Arastel said at once, looking scandalized. "Pinkies up, please. We're not savages," he chided as tore into his own small bird.
The orc chuckled as raised both his pinky fingers as high as they would go.
They ate in amiable silence, but as the meal wore on, Gurok could see more and more of Arastel's bubbly attitude dissipating. By the time they reached dessert, the elf was somberly slicing the thin, buttery, sugar-topped cake in half.
"You carry sorrow on your shoulders," the orc said plainly as he accepted the plate of pastry that was offered to him. "And on your brow. In your eyes," he added softly.
Arastel glanced up at him, his glowing eyes wide in surprise. His mouth opened and shut a few times as a response escaped him. "You're very observant," the rogue noted as he tore off a chunk of his dessert, his cheeks briefly flushing light red.
"I would help you carry that burden, if you would only let me," Gurok burst out, his hands curling into fists out of frustration.
"Gurok, you… you don't need to worry about me. I will take care of it," he said flatly, his long ears drooping as set the rest of his food down. He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. "I-I'm almost done with your clothes. I should go finish sewing," he said hurriedly.
"Arastel, please. Stop doing this," the warrior half-begged, torn between wanting to comfort the elf and wanting to shake the truth out of him. He rose to follow the rogue, not intending to let him slip away onto the roof again.
"I have dealt with her before, alone," he said, stressing the word, "and I would do it again."
"This isn't your concern! It's my problem, of my own making-"
"What?" The elf whirled on Gurok, long strands of his golden hair hanging wildly about his face. His chest heaved with rapid, heavy breaths as he waited for a response; his expression was muddled worry and loathing and fear, and that encouraged the orc to keep pushing closer.
"Who is she? What did she do to you?" he asked in a hushed tone, his dark amber eyes searching the rogue's face for some sort of answer.
The elf shrugged hopelessly. After a moment, he dropped himself into a chair, pulling his feet up onto the seat and slumping over so that he could wrap his arms around his knees. "I really, really, really don't want to talk about it, Gurok," the rogue said quietly. His gaze turned upon the warrior, pleading. "Please, don't ask me."
Gurok studied the tiny, curled up elf for a few long moments. "Alright. I will not pester you about it any further. I only ask that you come to me if things get out of hand. Know that you can always do that. Come to me, I mean," he clarified. "I would… I would aid you in a heartbeat."
"I know that," Arastel sighed, looking even more pained. "I know. That's why I don't want to drag you into this, Gurok. You're too good for it."
The orc shook his head. "You fear that if you tell me, I will hate you," he said as he looked down into his hands. He ran a thumb over the heavy creased that crossed his palms- the lines of fate that the ancestors left upon each of them, his mother had always said. "But I know you, Arastel. Nothing of your past could erase the person that I know now. You laugh at the warrior trainers with me. You keep me company. You listen to me babble about Outland and the Kor'kron. You know how much I hate the smell of lavender," he said with a toothy grimace.
A laugh broke free of the elf, but he quickly stifled it with a sharp bite of his lip.
"I will not hold anything against you. You have my word," he swore, setting his heavy jaw as he waited for the elf's response.
"It's easy to think of those light moments now," Arastel said sadly. "But I have been made such promises before," he continued, his voice tight. "I have witnessed the very moment in which someone that loved me- that had promised to do so regardless- began to view me as a monster. I think… I think once is enough. For a lifetime."
There was a finality in the elf's tone that sealed it for Gurok. He bowed his head, accepting the rogue's decision, however much the lack of insight ate at him.
Arastel's voice, barely audible over the crackle of the low flames in the hearth and the dry wind breezing past outside, made the orc glance up.
"I don't tell you because I- because of how much I need you. You're my friend. Possibly my only one," he said with a half-smile. He rose and slowly crossed the room to where the warrior sat. "Thank you for everything," he whispered, resting his hand on Gurok's shoulder.
The orc gave him a wan smile and sighed.
"Things will look better at dawn, won't they?" the elf asked as he slowly began cleaning up the table. He turned and arched a questioning brow at his companion.
Gurok nodded and stood to help, groaning and stretching out his back as he did. "I don't see how they could look any worse," he said honestly.