"Let me get this straight," Ziya said, sharpening her daggers. "You want me to tell you a story?"
She sat with Arko against a cliff wall on the northern coast of Pandaria, sheltered from the worst of the wind. They couldn't risk a fire; the ten goblin plundersquads scattered across the continent had been raiding treasuries, temples, and armories for weeks now and were, for some reason, not popular with the locals.
Ziya's squad had seen better days. Luki was in the infirmary with a spineclaw wound in a… sensitive area. Zuzak's expertise with bombs hadn't extended to fuses. Strax had, against Ziya's orders, tried to rob a lone pandaren wanderer who turned out to be a Shado-pan monk with absolutely no sense of humor.
Arko, who kept lighting his robes on fire with his own spells, was the last survivor. Ziya had no idea how.
"Yeah!" the little mage said. "It's gonna be a long night. You've seen a lot, right? How about a war story?"
"Which war?" Ziya snorted. A chill wind swept off the ocean and hit her full in the face. With streaming eyes, Ziya glared at the distant, glowing, warm bulk of Trade Prince Gallywix's uberzeppelin above the dark waves.
Gallywix, to the surprise and outright horror of his goblins in Pandaria, had decided to personally oversee the Plundersquad Initiative and "inspire" his troops. The only thing he had inspired so far, as usual, was contempt. Even from here, you could occasionally hear the party music drifting over the water.
Shivering, Arko scooted closer to her along the wall, seeking warmth. Ziya casually sank a dagger into the sand between them.
"What do you mean, which war?" Arko said, staring mournfully at the dagger.
Ziya sighed. Even for a goblin, he was green.
"Let's see," she said, sheathing her dagger and counting on her fingers. "I've fought the Alliance. Twilight Cultists. Elementals. Undead. Mantid. The sha. A dragon, once. Oh, and Gallywix back when he tried to enslave us all—whoops, I ran out of fingers."
"It's gonna be a long night," Arko repeated. "Come on, Sarge."
Ziya rolled her eyes.
"Fine, but no war stories," she said.
"Because," she said, reaching up to twist the ring hanging around her neck, "those are personal. How about… You know the story of Rakalaz?"
"Surface kid, huh? I grew up in Pyrix, one of those Undermine sluicetowns no one's ever heard of—"
"I've heard of it!" Arko said helpfully.
"Great," Ziya said. "Stop talking and listen.
"A hundred years ago, Trade Prince Leeko was sending kaja'miners deeper than anyone had been before. You had to find a cart's worth of ore before your overseers would let you go home. Late one night, down in the dark, a miner named Miz broke through what he thought was a rock wall and found—"
Ziya paused. Arko hadn't spoken. Even the wind had fallen silent. But she thought she'd heard the whispered echo of her words a half-heartbeat behind.
"A hole. N-no," Ziya said, only now remembering that she had hated this story when she was a kid. "A void. And at the bottom, two moons, pale and round. The eyes of Rakalaz, watching him."
Surf clawed at the shore. Arko swallowed. Licking her lips, Ziya said, "It roared and started climbing up at—"
Ziya had leapt to her feet, both daggers curled against her forearms, before she even fully registered why.
The stars had vanished.
"What? What is it?!" Arko shrieked.
Despite herself, Ziya smiled. Arko probably thought that Rakalaz was attacking.
Cold crept up her spine.
The shore was gone, the waves muffled. The air was stale, oily, and familiar.
It was the smell of the Undermine.
On cue, a gigantic, pale, eight-fingered hand exploded out of the ground twenty feet away and gripped the sand. Rakalaz rose, its reptilian, lantern-light eyes tracking the two of them separately.
Ziya's mind screamed. Her body, however, hauled Arko up by the robes.
"Signal the zeppelin," she hissed in his ear. Struggling to get its leg free, Rakalaz swiped at them, missed, and howled, blasting them with breath like a thousand Undermine garbage dumps.
Arko whimpered but did not move.
"Arko!" Ziya shouted. "Tell the uberzeppelin we're here! Maybe someone there is sober enough to send reinforcements. Look out!"
She seized tiny Arko, whirled, and used his weight to haul both of them out of the way. Talons plunged into the solid rock where they had been and tore out a chunk of the cliff.
Wobbling, Arko was the first to rise. Planting his feet, he began chanting, calling an arcane beacon, calling salvation, into his cupped palms.
Then he made the mistake of looking at Rakalaz. It was reaching for him, thick black cords of drool running from its hanging jaw.
Arko squealed, flung the unfinished beacon into the air, and sprinted off down the beach.