The air was acrid with Blight, burning his nose and irritating his throat. Again his chest hitched as his lungs desperately tried to cough, but he bit down on the side of his hand to suppress it. Tears sprang into his eyes, blurring his vision. He couldn’t afford to make a sound.
Jax had made this trip a dozen times in the period since Tirisfal had become uninhabitable. He’d learned the best way around the Blight Zone, along the outskirts where old farming villages had been abandoned. He’d found the easiest way to get in and get out with another month’s worth of exotic produce and a mild cough. In all the months since the dual tragedy of Teldrassil and Tirisfal, he’d never run into more than the occasional plague-mad beast.
They didn’t make a sound, but he knew they were there. Waiting. Patient. They had all the time in the world. And they would make sure that the threat was annihilated before moving on. Unfortunately, today he was the threat. As still and silent as Death, he couldn’t tell where they had moved to. Or if they had moved at all. They didn’t need to breathe, and though this area had been safe to move through in the past, they brought with them Blight canisters that spread the noxious green fog across the ground like a blanket of lazy doom.
In the past he hadn’t been too concerned about the Plague itself. The residual Light in his blood was enough to nullify small doses of the virulent disease, but immunity to the sickness was not immunity to attack. Jax strained his ears, struggling again not to cough, not to make any sound. His lungs ached and burned and itched, and the muscles in his chest hitched, desperate for relief. He had to resist.
“Come out and play, little roach,” came a purr finally. There was a soft crunching of dead, scorched grass underfoot and the elf stiffened. He felt his eyes strain in fear, the sounds of motion coming closer to the door. When he’d seen them, the three skeletal figures moving through the sickly mist, he’d announced himself as Sin’dorei. They hadn’t believed him. And it had only gone downhill from there. Now he was huddled on the floor of a decrepit farmhouse, his back pressed to the wall, hoping that the tips of his ears didn’t show over the windowsill, struggling to stay silent against the rebellious needs of his body.
“She’s not in there, Marlie.” Another voice said.
“I thought it was a male,” the first voice replied with a note of confusion. In the distance, a heavy thump, like a muffled explosion made the ground tremble slightly.
“It’s an elf,” a new one growled, the obvious solution eliciting snickers from his partners. “And in a minute it won’t matter. Lob a blight canister in there. If the rat’s hiding, that’ll make it scurry out.”
Jax swore under his breath, looking around for another exit. Another thump came, closer. The ground beneath him trembled and dust fell from the floorboards of the second level above him. He could hear the Forsaken outside, the soft clinks and clatter of their gear, and a soft, squeaking chitter. He frowned slightly. Even living in Brill, he’d never known gear to chitter. The sound came again and he looked up to try and find the source.
On the bannister, a brown and white rat stood on its hind legs, squeaking as it looked between himself and the door. Jax paused, ears pricked forward in confusion. Once it had his attention, the rat chirped and ran up to the second level, disappearing around the corner. In an instant it reappeared, chittered and disappeared again. The elf paused, carefully moving into a crouch. There would be no way to get up the stairs without being heard. But in a few seconds, that might not even matter.
Another thump, even closer this time. A strange sound carried on the air, deep and muffled, like the cry of an angry God. “FORE!” came a call from outside and the window above him shattered, raining glass shards down over his head and shoulders. The cantaloupe sized canister bounced and skid into the center of the room. With a twin pop the vents on either side started hissing deadly green gas. Jax was already halfway up the decrepit stairs.
Once on the landing he dropped to his knees, coughs wracking his body. Thick green phlegm caught in his throat and he gagged, struggling to split out the globs that caught there, each breath making his lungs rattle. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. His eyes burned and he tasted blood on his breath. Something sharp pressed into the skin of the back of his hand. Jax looked down and realized it was multiple somethings, the rat digging its little claws into his flesh, looking up at him and chittering urgently. The eyes that locked with his were oddly intelligent and had a faint glow of arcane. He blinked in surprise, but from downstairs he heard the crash of the door being kicked open. Scrambling back to his feet he darted into one of the second floor rooms.
“There ain’t no other way in or out. Wait for the gas to do its j–” The sky beyond the upstairs windows went white, the light squeezing in between the gaps in the wooden boards and filling the room, blinding him and invading his other senses. He could taste it, hear it as though it were a high pitched scream from another world. Another universe. It shrieked through his skull and left scars on his retinas. His ears rang from the sudden, intense silence. Below him, the floor felt …odd… in a way that he couldn’t quite place. There was a sinking, weightless feeling in his gut, and the world started to list lazily to one side. He wobbled, grasping for a wall to try and regain his balance, only for it to start to lean under his hand.
It wasn’t in his head at all. The building was collapsing.
Jax didn’t think. He scooped up the little rat and sprinted for the window. The floorboards cracked and slid beneath him, angling sharply down as the roof buckled inward. Furniture that was previously resting against the far wall lurched towards him and he adjusted his path. Though only a few dozen feet away, the window seemed very very far.
Clutching the rodent protectively to his chest, he lowered his shoulder and braced for the final crash through the window — and realized it wasn’t empty. Something massive and golden filled the entire portal. Unable to understand what he was seeing, he hesitated and lost his footing as the building fell. The floor was suddenly at a right angle, dropping out from under him, and with one free hand he grasped the windowsill and hung on. Feet dangling, he could see where the Forsaken had stood only moments before. There were no bodies. There was no dust, no fine pink mist, no residual ichor. Only three pairs of empty boots and one half of the pack that had been taken off to find the Blight canister a few moments earlier. Everything else was simply gone.
His body was jarred as the outer wall struck the ground, tearing away a layer of skin as it rocked the wooden sill from his grip, dropping him into the shattered chaos below, raining debris overhead. Jax curled into a ball, tight around the rat and braced against the rotting boards and spackle that bounced off of his back, burying him in rubble.
Jax had no idea how long he laid there under the destruction, feeling its weight pressing down on him from above, cutting up at him from beneath, with the rhythmic thoom… thoom… thoom… of the new golden terror outside rattling his bones. He could feel the rapid heartbeat of the rat in his hands and had to force himself to loosen his grip around the tiny creature. It wriggled and squirmed, then slowly, carefully, started to skitter free from the debris. After a moment it started to squeak, and Jax forced himself to pull free as well.
A new sound came, deafening and terrifying, as if its voice were a weapon unto itself. “HOSTILE COMBATANTS DISPERSED. SCANNING. GLORY UNTO THE LIGHT.” Jax yanked and pulled, nails and wood tearing through his clothes and raking his flesh as he birthed himself from the wreckage, turning to get a better look.
The creature was massive and bipedal, towering over the buildings and wholly unconcerned with the wreckage. It stepped on mechanical legs into the street, its bulk clipping an awning of a building and sending it crashing to the street below without seeming to even notice it. A blue and gold crystal glowed in its chest, and while it took Jax a moment to place it, he recognized it as Azerite.
A Lightforged construct.
Digging into his pockets, he found his scroll and pressed his palm into it, letting the Ren’dorei illusion creep over his skin. Tucking it away, he rushed into the street, limping against the pain from the fall. “Thank you!” He called to it. “Can you show me the best way out of the area?”
The construct stopped, its torso swivelling and turning to face Jax. “INVALID QUERY. PRESENT ALLIANCE MILITARY INSIGNIA.”
“Insigni– No, no I’m civilian! Civilian!”
“DESIGNATION NOT RECOGNIZED. PRESENT ALLIANCE MILITARY INSIGNIA.”
“Civilian!!” He yelled back, then cursed softly in Thalassian. “Wait, wait I’m Argent too, hang on.” Jax dug his hands into his pockets and started searching for the small, enchanted token.
“DESIGNATION NOT RECOGNIZED,” the construct bellowed in response. “SCANNING.” The light that washed over him was blinding, and Jax blinked away the spots as he started dumping his bag to locate the Argent insignia.
“CLOAKING MAGIC DETECTED.”
“What? What no! It’s not what it looks like, I’m just a civilian!”
“HOSTILE COMBATANT CONFIRMED.”
“ENGAGING. FOR THE GLORY OF THE LIGHT.”
Jax grabbed what was left of his bag and turned on his heel, bolting across the street as the construct sprung into motion. It moved with a deceptive grace for something its size, like a hawkstrider made of metal and death. Jax ran as fast as he could, ducking between buildings, moving to put as many obstacles between himself and the machine as he could. The sheer difference in size made him easy to lose, like a rat in a warehouse. But the construct moved easily through the streets with no regard for the chaos that rained down on either side of it as it bumped and crashed into the dilapidated houses.
A sign announcing the name of a grocer fell from the front wall of a store as the construct turned and scanned again, white light cutting through every gap in wood and every window. The crystal on its chest glowed and in an instant, the shop was decapitated, the building remaining upright only for an instant before it started to collapse in a mess of rubble and dust. Jax didn’t slow down. He ran blindly forward, putting everything he could between himself and the murderous machine, hearing only the thrum of its footsteps and the roar of its destruction.
He was looking over his shoulder, nearly free from the town proper when he slammed bodily into something firm. It gave slightly, and as he tried to draw back, it felt slightly sticky. A sickly sweet scent clung to his skin and he wrinkled his nose up, suppressing a gag. Wiping slime from his eyes, he looked up. Whatever he’d run into was big, wider than a door frame and pulsating slightly. The outside seemed almost organic, and it oozed a viscous fluid that made it both slippery and sticky at the same time. The stench was overwhelming, like sugar gone rotten. Gagging for a second time, he drew away to try and move around it, happy to let this mystery remain unsolved — when it turned instead to face him.
Jax realized a number of things at once. First, the pulsing, undulating outer layer was in fact mottled, bilious-green flesh. Second, it wasn’t so much slime as it was a sickly-sweet sweat that smelled of decay. And third, he had only run into its leg. The rest of the bulk turned to him and his neck craned back further and further to try and see the creature.
“Oh no…” Jax whispered. Behind him was the largest Lightborne Construct he had ever witnessed, making even the Detection Unit seem like a wind-up tin soldier. And to his front was the biggest Abomination he had ever seen. Its gluttonous bulk jiggled and swayed as it turned. Thick stitches, each as wide as his arm, held the creature together, but only barely. Yellow fat and putrid greening meat bulged from the sutures like rotting hamburger. Jax slowly started to back away, hoping that maybe, just maybe the big oaf hadn’t noticed him. Hoping that the magic that held it together had not provided it enough nerves to be able to fully sense him.
At the top of the gelatinous hulk sat what passed for a head, with four mismatched eyes of various sizes, peering at once in four different directions. One spotted him. And then the other three snapped down to join. There was a slit just above its neck that Jax had assumed was another piece of stitching, but now it turned upwards into a too-large smile. As it opened its mouth, green fumes leaked from further down its churning gut.
“NeW fRiEnD…” It gurgled. Jax’s eyes went wide and he turned to run.
With a horrific giggle, the creature lunged after him and Jax felt his feet leave the ground as meaty fingers looped around his torso. He kicked and thrashed, pushing his palms into the bulk, but instead of the firmness of muscle and sinew, what lurked under the skin sucked in around his hands disconcertingly. He was briefly reminded of the black mud near the bank of a lake, or a rubber balloon filled with pudding. He felt bile rise up in his throat and tried to squirm. The flesh of the gigantic creature’s hand wrapped around his body, the tepid flab conforming to his shape. In other circumstances, it might be quite comfortable, but the stench that accompanied it made it impossible to draw breath, and his lungs still burned from the damage of the Blight. His body ached and he shook his head to try and clear the sweat from his eyes, only to see specks of blood clinging to his hair instead.
The grip seemed to only be tightening, and each time Jax released his breath, the flab filled in tighter, not allowing him to inhale again. His chest started a new burn, more urgent and dire, and the panic started to set in. Like an animal, Jax started to fight and claw, struggling to loosen the digits enough to get free. Braindigger’s shaft bit painfully into his hip.
“FrIiIiIiEnD….” the abomination rumbled, it’s voice disconcertingly high pitched as it reached with one finger to pat the elf on the head. Jax’s vision was an explosion of pinprick stars, each new thump from the aggressive pats rattled his brain in his skull and sent a searing pain through his neck. And he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe!
Jax pounded his fists on the side of its finger, but the creature just gurgled with laughter and continued petting him. Each pull yanked his hair and momentarily dazed him. He needed air. His vision was dimming at the edges, his lungs burned and in desperation, he drew his head back and bit into the offending hand.
It felt like biting into a tire, thick rubbery flesh barely gave under his teeth. He could feel something wriggling and pulsing just under the skin. The grip around his torso was so tight he couldn’t have vomited even if he wanted to.
For one agonizing moment, nothing happened. And then the creature bellowed in rage.
“OwWwWwW!!! FrIeNd MEAN!!!” It roared. Jax didn’t release his grip with his teeth, despite the noxious gunk flooding his mouth. The grip tightened around him and Jax felt a series of cracks in his chest, then an instant, screaming pain. He released his bite, trying to cry out, gelatinous sweat dribbling down his chin. He struggled to get free — and suddenly found himself airborne. The world was moving around him again, the wind whipping his hair. The pain in his chest was intense, and he realized he had been thrown. And though he was moving very fast, time seemed to crawl. He could see the abomination, off balance from its own movement, slowly bringing a gargantuan finger up to inspect the miniscule bite with all four eyes. He had time to realize that some of his ribs had been broken. He had time to understand that very soon, his flight would come to an abrupt halt.
The realization came to instantaneous fruition, his back slamming into something hard and cold. It knocked the wind out of him, sending a renewed pain through his chest, but the something seemed to move with him. His flight stopped. But again his feet were dangling. Peeling his eyes open, he looked up into the dome of the construct. Through the pale yellow glass, he could see a slender horned figure, arms crossed over its chest. Fingers were curled into rigid claws, and the head was back, mouth agape in a silent snarl. It was impossible to tell if it was alive or dead, locked in the center of the machine. For a moment his pain was forgotten.
“…What the fel–”
“PRESENT ALLIANCE MILITARY INSIGNIA.”
“You already said that!!” Trying to climb to all fours in what equated to the construct’s hand, he looked up just in time to hear the scream of metal on metal, molten gold shards spraying across his face and neck, pelleting his skin and slicing him in three dozen places. Chips of Azerite and metal embedded themselves under his flesh.
“FrIeNd MEAN!” came the bellow as the Abomination groped around for another dilapidated cart to throw.
“DESIGNATION NOT RECOGNIZED. SCANNING.”
The construct shifted again, the awful light turning everything colorless for an instant.
“HIGH THREAT TARGET DETECTED. ENGAGING.”
Jax was struggling to position himself for a jump. Every movement of his arms made his ribs scream in protest, and one wayward cough almost caused him to black out from the pain. As he wobbled, the fingers of the construct closed around him again — and again he found himself weightless as he was flung unceremoniously into a nearby building, skidding on the hard floorboards and slamming his shoulder into a door frame. He stopped with another loud snap and a burst of fresh pain assured him that it was not the frame that had broken.
“OoOo ShInY!” came a rumble from outside, and he could feel the twin paces as the Construct moved into full stride to intercept the Abomination lumbering towards his new toy.
“NONE LIVE WHO DEFY THE ALLIANCE. COMMENCING PURIFICATION.”
Jax groaned in pain, struggling to his feet. His left arm hung limp and useless at his side. He was dizzy and every breath felt like flame. He had to get out. He had to flee. Clutching his arm, he staggered to the back of the building, wobbling from room to room until he found one with a rear exit. The door hung on one broken hinge and yielded easily to his push. From the road, he could hear the titans clashing, the scream of metal on broken cobblestones and the sick slap of wet blubber.
“PlAaAaAaAy!” the monster glurbled, the terrifying voice bringing memory of the wriggling under his teeth and the awful taste in his mouth. Nausea stirred.
“DO NOT RESIST. THE LIGHT DEMANDS YOUR TERMINATION.”
He had to get away. He had to get far far away. He hobbled as fast as he could, trying to find a balance between pain and speed when a building erupted into a shower of wood and debris. He hit the deck and covered his head with his good arm, just in time for the abomination to go flying past him into what used to be a storehouse.
“WeEeEeEeE!!” It screamed, hitting the ground with a mighty crash and the wet sound of a garbage bag filled with soup.
Jax was done. He wanted nothing more than to leave this awful, terrible place. From the corner of his vision, he could see the monster rising to its feet. Something had not so much cut the creature as pierced it, and it was leaking a fluid that seemed to slither of its own accord.
He was done. He was very very done.
Slamming his back against a wall, he struggled to catch his breath. The ground shook beneath him as the two giants reengaged. There was a flare of blinding light and the sound of something wet hitting stone, punctuated with a horrific, otherworldly scream and the stench of seared decay. Jax started to murmur, drawing a rune in the air before him. He didn’t care where the portal ended up, as long as it wasn’t here.
“UNKNOWN ARCANE SIGNATURE DETECTED. ENGAGING BRAVO CONTACT.”
“Are you fucking seriou–” The ground around him exploded with light, and yet again he felt himself launched. The intensity of the Light burned and he felt his body absorbing the magic. His heart raced and his blood boiled with an immense power he couldn’t control nor comprehend. The rune on his chest flared with the overload of energy. He was unstoppable. He was invincible. He would take out both of the behemoths on his own and then —
He hit the ground at an angle and his leg twisted in an unnatural direction. A previously unknown brand of pain dashed his confidence and he let out an exhausted groan. The impact jarred something from his breast pocket, and it skittered near his face. It was difficult to focus but as he reached out for it, he recognized its shape. His Argent insignia.
From the settling dust of the explosion, the Construct lumbered into view, graceful in its wanton destruction. It crushed the remains of an exterior wall under foot, and he could see the crystal’s residual glow. Gripping the Argent insignia in his hand, he closed his eyes and focused. He’d been told that in an emergency, the insignia could get him home. But only in an emergency. Jax’s eyes shut tighter. If this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was.
“COMMENCING PURIFICATION. DO NOT RESIST.”
He prayed. He prayed to the Light, to the Void, to the Ancestors, to Elune. To whoever would listen. And he willed the magic to work. He prayed, hoping with every fiber of his being that someone, something out there would hear him.
All around him the world went white.