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“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.”
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Something wasn’t right. That much was obvious.

So, why couldn’t they just wrap up that meeting and have someone DO something about it, already?

Right then, the Circle of Cenarion’s Council of Southern Kalimdor was listening to a report from a human homesteader who was describing an assortment of strange events assailing his and his neighbors’ farms in some desolate corner of Feralas: blighted crops, sterile livestock, and an increase in aggressive wildlife encroaching into their fields. Auroch Whitehoof, the High Druid presiding over the meeting, listened carefully to his translator as she retold the longwinded tale of woe. Rin’Seyi crossed his arms and heaved a deep breath. They’d been in the room for hours. Outside, daylight faded over Moonglade and he was growing impatient. Unlike Auroch, he’d learned to speak Common and having to listen to the same story twice was getting on his nerves.

    “Do you think you can help us?” a farmer asked one of the night elf druids.

    “We hope we can. It appears the balance in your lands has been upset. What you have described could very well be Fel magic poisoning…but, then, again, it could be that the elements are displeased with—“

    “When you send someone, could you make sure it’s…You know…” the farmer continued in a more hushed tone, his head tilting towards the concerned-looking elves conferring nearby.

Rin’Seyi smirked. He knew where that conversation was headed.

    “Hmm?” His naive colleague squinted.

    “You know…Not one of them. Those …Savages. The Horde,” the farmer continued bluntly. Another human nodded as if concurring.

To his credit, the night elf looked somewhat discomfited. So much so that Rin couldn’t help chuckling to himself silently.

As if on cue, Auroch finally looked up.


The troll straightened up from his usual slouch at the sound of his name.

    “The Circle can spare you for a few days to look into this matter,” the elderly tauren explained. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Practically an order.

    “Ah…Dat be debatable,” he countered, trying to subdue his irritation. “I need to keep records on Hive’Zora. All da wasps are coming out of reproductive cells and dat’s where I tink dey become corrupted with Fel magic.”

    “If it would help, I’ll take over for you, so you can go,” his friend and colleague, a big oafish tauren druid named Dean Mountainwind, offered.

Oo, ya fucker.

He shot Dean a peeved glare and the tauren understood too late that he had just made things worse.

    “That’s a good compromise!” Auroch announced, pleased. “You are, after all, one of the best when it comes to understanding Fel corruption and wildlife.”

The translator relayed this in Common and several night elves and worgen nodded in agreement.

    “Leafwing!” Rin’Seyi called out in an accented but fluent Common across the room to a slender night elf who had been reacting to the announcement. “Ya be close by in Feathermoon, yah? Why ya don’t go and look into dis?”

    “I would, but I lack your expertise, old friend. I can identify Fel corruption and fight its manifestations…but you are the one who can best revitalize and heal any original sources of infestation and infection,” the elf argued.

Oo, another fucker.

The pretty elf boy had even laid it on thick by lavishing him with an “old friend.”

One of the humans whispered something to the group of night elves, all while shooting him worried glances. Rin couldn’t make out the words, but if experience was to be trusted, he was willing to wager his entire gold pouch that it had something to do with the fact he was a red-haired and blue skinned troll.

    “We understand your apprehensions,” one of the elves began in an appeasing manner to the human. “But you must realize that the Circle is neutral and avoids involvement in political affairs. We are druids, first and foremost.”

    “An dat ‘brute’ dere,” Auroch’s translator, a feisty troll named Yuzula, interrupted heatedly as she pointed to Rin, “be one of da best scholars on Fel magic in Azeroth. An’ not only dat: he know how ta be speaking ya language, so watch ya words.”

    “Dis may not be such a great idea.” Rin contemplated the humans’ distraught expressions. “First, we don’t know if dis be Fel corruption for sure. Second, I might stir up trouble if I be showing up at a human settlement all alone.”

A human, his face wrinkled and cured by the sun threw his hands up in frustration and addressed his companions.

    “This is ridiculous! He’s not a soldier! He’s a druid! Unless you idiots are all willing to give up on your lands and go back to Stormwind in ruins to panhandle for a living or become cannon fodder, I suggest you stop all the nonsense and let this man…uh…troll…do his job and save our farms!” The man stepped forward to face him. “Silas Leighton,” he stated formally, extending his hand. “I pledge to offer you protection during your stay.”

Rin’s hand practically engulfed the man’s calloused one as he gave it a firm shake.

    “Pledge what protection? As if we already did not have to contend with Grimtotem incursions, ogres, and rabid wildlife!” one of the farmers complained.

    “Where exactly be ya farms in Feralas?” Rin wondered.

    “Northwest of Isildien.”

    “It’s unclaimed territory, has good farming land, and we’re doing everyone a favor by beating the ogres back into the ruins!” another human explained hastily.

Yah. A real favor. So altruistic, Rin scoffed inwardly.

    “I still tink I may not be da right one for dis. Old ruins wreak all kinds a havoc; there be old wards an’ spells lyin’ around. Everytin’ be out o’ balance—a good cleanse will only help so much,” he argued in Common as Yuzula translated to Auroch.

    “He does have a point,” poor Dean tried, a guilty expression on his face. “It’ll do little good to heal the land and wildlife if the underlying causes of the problem aren’t identified. This could be anything: a curse or even a shift in the elements.”

Once Yuzula’s voice faded, the entire room fell silent. Rin hoped he was off the hook. Not that he delighted in the tedious work he did in Silithius, but at least he could dedicate himself to his studies in peace. Even Alliance in the region knew enough to give the Circle a wide berth in appreciation for all its support. The work he was producing was also advancing his prospects and influence within the Circle. Few druids had bothered to study the strange, large insects throughout southern Kalimdor in such depth. Their markings, sizes, and temperaments varied so much from other species’. He preferred to be stationed there—not too close to the Echo Isles, but close enough— far away from the Eastern Kingdoms. What his fellow druid had stated, that druids were above the petty squabbling of warring factions, was true in theory…but very hard to put into practice. He often ran into the occasional Alliance knucklehead who’d storm him, brandishing a sword, screeching some deplorable battle cry such as “For the Alliance!” or “Die, Horde, die!” It was always a bad idea on their part, he thought. He was no warrior, no duelist, but he could more than hold his own. Humans seemed to be the most prejudiced. He’d wager they looked down even on their own allies, they were so suspicious and mistrustful of any race that wasn’t theirs…And of anyone who didn’t look like them.

But den again, I could be sayin’ da same about da Horde. He’d never admit it out loud, but the Forsaken chilled him to the bone. Just thinking of them made him shiver. They were anathema to his core beliefs: more notably, they defied the laws of nature, as all druids understood it, and the tenets of life itself. The one time he had gone to the Undercity to research the Plague, he’d felt sick and out of sorts for weeks. It had taken a trip to Echo Isles and some good ritualistic cleanses by his grandmother and her bundles of medicinal herbs to make him feel whole and balanced again. He was jolted from his pleasant memories of his grandmother’s recipe for seafood stew—a mix of roasted seeds, pounded tubers, spices, meaty Spearhead fish, grilled lowtide crawlers, and delicately steamed snails in a broth so peppery it cleared his sinuses by the first spoonful— by hushed voices conferring animatedly nearby.

    “Yuzula,” one of the night elf druids called out. “Could you please translate what we have to say to the High Druid?”

    “Dat’s what I be here for,” she quipped dryly. She tapped Auroch’s arm and directed his attention to the druids.

    “High Druid, I think I have a solution that addresses both of the Circle’s concerns regarding this matter: we can call on our friends at the Earthen Ring for aid. Shydral Nightsong has offered us the name of a shaman from the Earthen Ring, someone who is also interested in Fel magics and their impact on the elements. This shaman is a draenei currently in nearby Theramore and should be available to accompany Rin’Seyi.”

Approval erupted among the meeting’s participants, even the darned humans.

He had to concede defeat.

    “I’m sorry.” Dean’s big dark eyes looked at him dolefully.

    “Ya better do all dat work ya promised, an' ya better not complain’ ‘bout hatin’ bugs,” Rin grumbled.

As he packed his belongings, he went over his instructions. His draenei contact had requested that they meet up in Gadgetzan. That suited him fine; he was overdue for a visit to replace and repair some of his equipment and replenish some harder-to-come-by reagents. He actually liked visiting Tanaris. He’d lived there long enough as a student to know his way around and avoid trouble. He went over the little information he had about his contact, whom he was supposed to meet at Gadget’s auction house.

A draenei. A Shaman. Goes by the name “Sahar.”

Now, Rin’Seyi did not consider himself prejudiced against Alliance in general. He could distinguish between governments, politics, and mere individuals. Even when these individuals occasionally chose to attack him out of nowhere. Ironically, it was off-duty soldiers who gave him the least grief when he was in neutral cities wandering through Alliance-heavy neighborhoods. But as far as the different races went, he didn’t think he harbored any deep biases against anyone. For example, he had studied and fought alongside night elves early on, once he had been initiated as a druid.

Studied together…Fought together…And…Ah… Did a little more together… he mused, remembering all the bed hopping he’d partaken in early on with a couple of attractive night elves, freshly arrived from Darnassus, just as he had recently landed there from Echo Isles: all brand new apprentices at Moonglade. They had been young…and very intrigued about their former ‘enemies.’ Intrigued…An’ so curious an’ enthusiastic, he sighed longingly.

As far as the worgen went, he admired the Greymane druids—they shouldered a curse of druidic origin. Yet, they chose to embrace their animalistic nature and drew knowledge and understanding from it. He had a healthy respect for dwarves and had amassed many humorous anecdotes, some on the rowdy antics witnessed around the time of Brewfest.  Gnomes were quirky, interesting folk: they were as clever and innovative as goblins, except less tiresome when it came to bargaining and having to verify the accuracy of his change.

Humans were a mixed bag. The most hysterical of the bunch, in his opinion. He didn’t bother with them too much, one way or another.

But when it came to draenei… What was it about draenei, specifically? It wasn’t that he didn’t like draenei. According to his own logic, he should like draenei for similar reasons that he liked worgen: they had an animalistic essence, a connection to nature visible in characteristics such as their horns, hooves, and tails…But, by Cenarion! If he were being honest, they were just so…so…


He recalled a task he’d been given as a young apprentice. They had to trap and examine a few furbolgs to understand why they had been acting in a more warmongering manner than usual. His teacher at the time had explained that sometimes the Circle called upon priests or shamans to assist in their healing efforts. Rin’s Common was only so-so at the time, but his teacher, a reclusive and elderly tauren, who besides Taurahe could only speak broken Orcish, had made him the mission’s ambassador. Rin had gone to the rendezvous point in the thick of the Grizzly Hills, among furbolgs going berserk, to meet with their contact, a draenei priest. When he finally arrived, Rin’Seyi was shocked. He’d never laid eyes on draenei before and he did not know what to make of the one standing before him: he was robust like an orc, sported hooves, horns, and a tail like tauren, pointy ears and silvery eyes like an elf…but still…He appeared so alien to him. That one in particular had two fleshy tentacles dangling from his chin. He’d adorned them with golden cuffs that contrasted against his light lavender skin.

    “Khronokai khrystor!” he’d boomed at him cheerfully.

Still a bit shocked, Rin pointed to himself.




    “Say what?”

    “My name. Nice ta meet ya, Kreestor.”

The draenei burst into a deep, rumbling laugh that startled a small flock of birds nearby.

    “A-ha! I like you! You have spirit!” A giant hand whacked him heavily between his shoulder blades, causing him to stagger forward. “Oh, wait! NO, YOU DON’T! Spirit’s for priests, not druids! Gotcha! Ha ha!”

Right then, Rin would’ve gladly offered himself to be gnawed on by a pack of rabid furbolgs to get away from the draenei.

    “So what’s your name again? Jin…?”

    “No. RIN.”



    “Ah! Tell me again, son.”

    “RIN’SEYI!” he yelled, irritation overcoming him. His teacher quickly hobbled to their location, guided, no doubt, by the growing commotion.

    “Spell it out for me, will you?”

    “It’s very easy,” Rin growled between his teeth. “F-u-c,” he began.

    “Aaah,” the old tauren interrupted, picking up on his frustration. “Uku uku chi!” he issued a Taurahe greeting.

    “Excuse you!” the draenei issued playfully, before seizing the startled elder in a bone-crushing embrace. “Khronokai khrystor, Chief!”

The rest of the day had been productive, notwithstanding the priest’s exhausting congeniality and stupid puns (“Come on, Chief! No bullshit! Upfront attacks only! Ha ha! Get it? Bullshit? Come on, Sin-Reyi, tell him! Does it translate? No poo-poo-caca! Or would that be moo-moo-caca? Oh, Chief! We’re having so much fun! Ha ha!”) and tiresome double entendres (“The Chief and I can hoof it to the inn, but you will have to walk, son. Ha ha!”).

At the end of the day, they had figured out that the furbolgs’ water supply had been tainted by chemical runoff from a nearby ore-processing operation. They’d have to stay for the rest of the week to administer treatment to the furbolgs and then chase the tribe off deeper into the forest where they would have to establish a new camp near a more viable water source. His teacher had provided him with the only moment of levity in the long, miserable day. When they found themselves alone at the inn’s tavern, at last, the old tauren raised his eyes to the ceiling, shaking his greying head mournfully. The barmaid asked them what they wanted.

    “Jus’ water for me,” Rin requested. She glanced at his teacher expectantly.

    “Towa kashu,” the tauren stated with a sudden intensity. Rin did not speak much Taurahe, but he certainly recognized the words related to the four elements.

Fire water.

    The tauren indicated two drinks with his large hands, while pointing at himself and Rin.  

    “Our secret,” he’d said to Rin conspiratorially, casting a sullen glance towards the stairwell leading to the bedrooms, where the obnoxious draenei rested. “To help build strength,” he completed, lightly pounding a massive fist over his barreled chest. “And patience.”

The memory was still vivid in his mind as Rin’Seyi approached a terrace overlooking the lake in Moonglade. He was well aware that the encounter with the priest had shaped his impression of an entire race. It wasn’t truth, he understood. But it was hard to shake off, nevertheless. Hopefully, his new contact would prove him wrong and possibly update his ridiculous opinion of the draenei as a loud, obnoxiously chipper, and overbearing people. He adjusted his satchel so that it would not interfere with his wingspan once he stepped off the terrace’s parapet and shapeshifted into his flight form.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Rendezvous in Tanaris

"You're convinced that anybody who meets you for the first time will consider you a shit, so you take preventive action. Relax, boychick. When they get to know you better they will realize that they were right. You are a shit."
― Mordecai Richler

"Gadgetzan! Also known as the Jewel of Tanaris." The human mage pointed out the glimmering white city in the vast sandy landscape to his wide-eyed apprentice. "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." The young man, probably a recent protege fresh off the farm, gaped at everyone and everything at the end of the long road leading to the city.

"Will we have to mingle with the Horde?" he asked nervously.

Rin'Seyi rolled his eyes as he pushed past the startled lad towards the city gates further below. He strolled with a comfortable familiarity into the city, down its labyrinthine streets, the last sand storm having deposited a sprinkling of sand that shimmered like gold over the ground. A hot desert breeze brought no relief to the oppressive heat hanging over the city.

"Too hot to do business," someone mumbled as he walked by the bank.

"Never!" A goblin bruiser standing guard flashed a sharp, toothy grin.

Gadgetzan had been Rin's home for a couple of years. He'd lived there at the very beginning of his apprenticeship as a newly initiated druid dedicated to studying the properties of herbs under the tutelage of one bastard of a cantankerous troll called Zal'Jen, an infamous master alchemist who'd probably been coerced by the Circle to take on a pupil as part of some penance or probation. The Circle guaranteed all its initiates an education and guidance. It did not, however, deign to cover living expenses. Normally, younger druids lived with their teachers, performing household tasks and undertaking other errands in exchange for food and board. Zal'Jen, however, lived in a tiny, dingy room that barely afforded one person enough space. Instead, Zal'Jen worked him to the bone in exchange for his lessons and did not hesitate to turn him out before mealtimes. The miser would not even spare him the dust from a withered peacebloom leaf. His coin purse strings had been stretched to a tearing point in Gadget, a goblin city that preferred to cater to those able to partake in its high-stakes deals. He managed to earn a living in the inhospitable city by accepting tasks from the city's feared goblin dealbrokers. He procured items, chased away vermin, and delivered suspicious crates to Steamwheedle's port, all under a merciless blazing sun. It was a grueling, precarious existence. During more desperate times, he did not hesitate to toss his name in with those of other challengers in the prize fights held in the Thunderdrome's ring, under Dealwell's watchful and covetous gaze. Every night he managed to scrape just enough to pay for a hammock and buy a crock of slop at Zabeixle's Home Away from Home—a version of home he did not wish upon anyone. The bland and unappetizing food was often the only substantial meal he'd have during the long, arduous day. He also slept poorly: the hammocks were made of coarse rope that needled him all night. When he wasn't tossing in the hammock, his slumber was disrupted by a cacophony of snoring, or by the transient, suspicious characters prowling around in the dark for some unlucky fool's unguarded pack of possessions (he slept with his safely strapped over his chest). He'd learned to tune out inconsiderate latecomers who conversed loudly, frequent arguments, or even the occasional raid conducted by bruisers converging on a suspect lodging among them. That morning, as Rin passed his old neighborhood, he contemplated the lot where Zabeixle's once stood, the shabby inn having been condemned and shut down more than ten years before. It had been a miserable place, but he couldn't help remembering it with the pride of a soldier who'd successfully survived a legendary trial— a rite of passage of sorts.

He recalled his last night at Zabeixle's with an arch grin. A human woman in tight, dusty leather armor had wandered in one late afternoon looking to stay for the night. He should have known she was trouble when she so brazenly walked into an inn that catered mostly to a Horde clientele, in a Horde-heavy neighborhood, while nervously glancing over her shoulder. The pretty blonde blood elf Zabeixle had hired to run the front desk was very effective when it came to dazzling his patrons and enticing them to settle there for the evening, but she really didn't know how to do anything else. When she found that her interaction with a human deviated from her memorized script and that the woman responded neither to Thalassian or Orcish, Rin'Seyi had gallantly stepped in, and despite his limited Common at the time, helped her check in. She had reserved not a miserable hammock, like most patrons, but one of the inn's best rooms. The woman's relief at being able to secure shelter for the night was expressed in an invitation extended to him to share in some "fine rare wine". He should have known she was no mere traveler. He should have pieced it all together after he followed her back to her room, when the dusty bottle of wine she so carefully hoisted from her overstuffed pack, a red vintage listing "Caer Darrow" on its label, could only have been pilfered from the wine caves deep in Scholomance. He wondered if he would have cared, though, even if he'd known, since she was grinning and laughing at him so flirtatiously. She'd introduced herself as "Tara", but he believed that as much as he would have believed her if she'd declared her name to be Jaina Proudmoore. Once she'd begun openly staring at his broad shoulders and well-defined chest, he was having trouble of thinking about anything else that didn't involve his peeling off her tight leather pants.

"I'd love to learn more about you fierce trolls," she'd said in a husky voice when he got up to leave for the night, their wine long finished. "Won't you indulge me?" She'd pet the spot beside her on the bed. "There's room for two," she hinted.

He'd dropped his pack on the ground and soon his breeches followed.

"How do you kiss with these?" she'd wondered, running a finger along one of his tusks. They sprouted up from the edges of his lips, pointing upwards—not too small, not too large. Normally, it was his sharp, beaky nose that got in the way of such endeavors.

"Mm…carefully," he'd recommended, pulling her naked hips against his.

"Show me," she'd teased, pushing her soft, ample breasts against his chest.

Her moans and cries echoed loudly as she clung to him, meeting his thrusts with the same primal need, lighting his blood on fire. When dawn arrived, they finally collapsed over the bed tiredly, having kissed, licked, and sucked every tender inch of each other.

"Rin…that was…amazing!" she had panted incredulously as exhaustion gradually overcame him.

He'd still mustered enough energy to playfully swat her wandering hand off his cock as she stifled a giggle and he drifted off into the best sleep he'd enjoyed in a long time.

He awoke a few hours later.

"Checkout is in fifteen minutes!" an impatient voice announced outside the door. "Get your hides out or pay for another night!"

Of course, the space beside him on the bed was long empty. He was alone in the spacious room. When he swung his legs over the side of the bed, he was still emerging from a pleasant haze. As his dark amber eyes adjusted to the light flooding the room, he rose from the bed, intending to collect his belongings. He noticed she had taken his breeches off the floor and left them folded on the back of a chair. The gesture was sweet, he thought with affection. Except that, after some perusing, it became clear that it was the only thing of his she'd left behind. He realized with growing alarm that his pack was gone: all his books, hard-earned reagents, and meager coin pouch— even his few ratty clothes. She'd stolen everything. The empty wine bottle they'd shared earlier seemed to be mocking his gullibility. He groaned loudly and suddenly felt a splitting headache coming on. He pondered a few courses of action: he could try to track her, but he had the sinking feeling she was used to making a clean exit and would be hard to find. He could lodge a report with the city guard, but it was likely that if "Tara" were ever to return to Gadget, she would be doing so under a new alias. He was completely destitute, but in truth, it hadn't taken much to usher him to that state.

And damn, he decided, sighing heavily, it had been terribly fun getting there.

As he made his way out of the inn, he walked slowly, weighing his few available options: he could beg his teacher for aid and pledge his servitude until he got back on his feet, he could take a leave of absence and return to Moonglade, or, his least favorite: he could ask his grandmother, already burdened with the care of his younger siblings and cousins, for a small loan. It was then that the pretty blood elf behind the counter called him over, glancing about nervously. He examined her beckoning gestures warily. He half expected her to request payment for the room. It would have been the crowning moment of his complete humiliation. Instead, the elf had him approach the desk, and when he stood before her, thrust a medium-sized cloth package into his hands.

"I was paid to give this to you," she whispered. "It's from that human guest."

With nowhere to conceal it, he secured it against his chest with folded arms. "Did she tell you anything else?" he wondered.

The elf shook her head and shooed him away before they attracted unwelcome attention.

It was only once he was safely inside his master's home that he dared to unwrap the bundle. Inside, he found a note and something in the shape of a machete wrapped in more cloth. He unfolded the note and began to read.

"Dear Rin'Seyi, I hope you don't resent me too much for what I've done to you; I've earned my thieving reputation honestly and you cannot begrudge me for simply acting in accordance to my nature and seizing an opportunity when I see one. Please know that I am grateful—oh, ever so grateful!— to you for last night. For a few unforgettable hours you made me feel like I haven't in a very long time. Consider this gift restitution…and a memento from an appreciative (and most satisfied…) friend.

Ever yours,

PS- In addition to the breeches, I considered leaving you a tunic, too, but it would be a sin to cover up that chest, my sweet.
PPS- The dagger is from Zul'Farrak. I wouldn't recommend trying to return it to its rightful owner. The trolls there are nowhere as delicious or kissable as you. It might be worth something. It might not. I took a gamble. You should, too."

Once unwrapped, the dagger turned out to be an elegant bolo with a grooved steel blade, brass-shod handle, and guard spike. It was a ceremonial Sandfury bolo: probably worth a small fortune—worth far more than all his humble belongings combined. He'd blinked at the gift before tossing his head back and laughing heartily. He could still recall the perplexed expression on his master's face at his delighted outburst.

As Rin walked up the street, Zabeixle's old location fading away in the wake of his footsteps and thoughts, he had to admit that the human's con had been a turning point for him. He'd been forced to fend for himself—he'd had to learn how to find and make shelter out in the wilderness, defend himself and hunt, field dress and roast his prey, such as the large reptiles crawling on the shifting dunes. In the process he learned how to become self-sufficient and discovered a new appreciation for solitude. It had been a long time since that night and he'd experienced many a passionate and pleasurable evening with many different companions since then. But he'd be lying shamefacedly if he said he'd never searched for his roguish human in the crowded bazaars of Gadget, even years after, hoping to catch her cocky swagger and sly grin. He never did see her again and he sincerely hoped she hadn't met an unfortunate end treasure hunting in some cursed ruin. He kept the bolo among his belongings.

He never bothered selling it; it had been a worthy weapon.

At the entrance of the Auction House, the goblin bruisers surveyed the crowds for trouble. He knew better than to loiter at the entrance, inviting scrutiny and possibly some ill will. Instead, he bought a small pastry from a vendor's stand down the street and leaned against one of the sandstone buildings, seeking shelter from the beating sun. The morning light was piercingly bright and he watched the busy pedestrians hurry past him. He had worn lighter, non-distinct armor, trying not to draw too much attention to himself.

Sahar. Sahar, he repeated to himself, examining the passers-by. He nibbled on his pastry, willing it to last until he met his contact. He was distracted from his people-watching by a small commotion unfurling on the Auction House's steps. The bruisers were loudly—and coarsely, as was their custom— shooing a draenei woman down.

"Keep it moving, toots!" they shouted at her. "No loitering!"

The woman wore a simple cloth shift with a leather vest and some kind of fussy apron. She couldn't have looked more out of place than if she had fallen off a gryphon into the busy square.

"Is this really necessary? I am waiting for someone!" she protested, even as a goblin persistently pointed her the way down the steps.

"Not my problem! Move your tail out of here."

He watched her march down the steps with the indignant haughtiness of those attempting to feign indifference after public humiliation. She was a tall, dark-haired draenei. Her garb and her staff led him to believe she was some kind of priestess. She crossed the street and passed him, headed for the same vendor he'd visited minutes earlier. He noticed her hooves were decorated with tiny gems. In her wake, the warm, spicy perfume of mageroyal lingered in the air.

So much for forsaking vanity an' material entrapments, he thought of the priestess.

"I'll have one of those," she announced in a huffy manner, still smarting from her public chastising. "You know what? Make that two…No, THREE!" she decided after a moment.

He smirked.

"Don't be takin' it personally," he wanted to tell her. "Goblins are equal opportunity harassers."

Instead, he took another bite of his pastry deciding he was in the mood to mind his own business that morning. He quickly wiped his hands over his trousers when he saw a large, stately draenei walk in his direction. He balked inwardly: the draenei had come dressed to the nines, in full battle regalia— the enchanted mace strapped to his back cast an icy glow. As the draenei approached, Rin sought to make eye contact, but he simply walked past him, stopping at the vendor.

"Khronokai khrystor," he stated in a deep, melodious voice to the vendor. "Can you please refill my canteen?"

Rin blinked and cleared his throat.

"Sahar?" he asked, approaching the draenei. He ignored him, distracted by the vendor's pouring cold water into his canteen. "Are ya Sahar?" He stood beside the draenei, who managed to be at least a foot taller than he. The draenei turned his head, startling at being addressed by a troll. "I be Rin-Seyi. Da Circle sent me," he quickly explained, trying to make the startled expression on the draenei's face disappear.

"Are you talking to me?" he asked, bewildered.

Rin had a sinking feeling just then.

"Ya aren't Sahar?"

The draenei snorted.

"Sahar is a woman's name."

"Aah." Rin raised his hands apologetically. "That I did not know. Ya aren't Sahar, den," he concluded.

"No, I most certainly am not!" He grabbed his canteen brusquely and tossed a coin on the stall before stomping off.

Rin clicked his tongue, but before he turned back to his watch post along the wall, he became aware that he was being scrutinized by a pair of silvery eyes.

"Did you say your name is Rin'Seyi?"

He glanced to the side of the stall, where the draenei woman he'd been observing earlier stood. A light trail of powdered sugar littered her leather vest. Her tail twitched to and fro.

Oh, Cenarius. Don't be telling me…

"I am Sahar!" she announced excitedly, quickly swallowing the sweet she'd been chewing on.

Are ya sure? he'd wanted to ask, his mood plunging.

"Khronokai khrystor!" she exclaimed, taking a step, ebulliently, in his direction. At his look of utter dismay, she halted in place and attempted nothing further. "It is very nice to finally meet you!" she gushed.

"Okie dokie, he muttered, "We should go somewhere to talk," he stated, eager to get out of there all of a sudden. Eager to get that whole wretched assignment over with, in fact.

As they began to walk towards his inn, he turned abruptly towards her.

"Ya be a shaman, yeah?"

She nodded.

"Yes. Sometimes people think I am a priestess because…You know: draenei. Woman. It's just an assumption. But I am a shaman!" she said cheerfully. "And this is the uniform for my rank."

Rin pressed his thumb over the bridge of his long nose as if he wanted to rub out the thin jabs of annoyance assailing him just then.

"And what rank would dat be, now?" he asked in a strained manner.

"Ah! That." She appeared to freeze for a moment. He turned to face her, his eyes wide. She pressed her lips together nervously.

"Ya be a properly trained shaman, right?" he asked ominously.

She tilted her head, her tail swishing back and forth again in short bursts.

"So, when you say 'properly' trained, what do you mean, exactly?" she wondered.

Oo, fucking fuckers dem elves. Stick da noob with good ol' Rin, is it? Have Rin drag her along to help her gain some experience? Maybe get himself killed when she can't prevent da angry mob of humans from lynching him? he imagined angrily.

"What can you do?" He was going to write the Circle right then to cancel the mission and send her back to Azuremyst with a pat to the head and a large lollypop.

"Well, I can…can…Uh…I can lightning!" she began in a slightly frantic manner, her tail's swishing growing more agitated. "I mean, I can harness lightning and I can do a few things with fire. Also, I am working on mastering my earthbind totem—it's really good at slowing down attackers…At least I think it will be, because so far I was only able to test it on some murlocs. Have you ever tried to run from murlocs? I mean, they're slower on land than water, but they're not a pretty sight, flailing and gurgling—"

"Quiet!" he commanded sternly. "I need to tink!"

I can lightning, she'd blurted out.


So. The Circle had arranged for an inexperienced draenei shaman to accompany him on a sensitive mission to Feralas. She, in a cotton shift and fancy apron getup, holding a stick more suited for grilling sausages over a fire, was supposed to be an imposing enough presence to stop the human settlers from killing him on sight. She was supposed to understand the designs of the elements out in the wilderness. She was supposed to fight off any assailants in the field. "Very funny," he wanted to yell. "Waste of my time!"

"Lissen," he began, summoning all his calm. "Dis was a mistake. I can't be takin' ya with me to Feralas. I be needing a real…An experienced shaman. I have no idea what we might be facin' up dere. I know one ting, though: I have to be prepared. And so do ya."

She appeared so crestfallen at his dismissal that he was struck with a twinge of guilt. He grimaced.

"Look." He crossed his arms, struggling to find words other than 'go home.' "Dis is nothin' against ya, all right? I bet someday ya be harnessin' all da elements and doin' all kinds a heroic tings." His tone was gentler. She raised her almond-shaped eyes to him, their silvery gleam so cool and bright. "Maybe when ya be stronger, who knows- we could work together someday."

"All right," she agreed in a docile tone. "I'm very sorry." She gave him an awkward smile.

At least that hadn't been difficult, he thought, relieved.

"Sorry for what?" he asked more amenably. If anything, he blamed her superiors for making such a bad call. "It not be ya fault. Ya went where ya was told to go."

She nervously wrung her hands together.

"Actually…That's not quite it…You see, a month or so ago, the Circle sent out a call to the Earthen Ring seeking to update its roster of shamans willing and available to assist on various missions…And no one was really stepping up, so… I…I was merely supposed to deliver the roster to the druid…but…I added my name to the list." Her tail swished in a hypnotic way. "To the top of the list, you see. To be called first."

He groaned. Now what?

That had been a transgression. Clearly.

But she wasn't a druid. She was the Earthen Ring's problem.

Still…she had made an impulsive decision that could have had disastrous consequences. Was he supposed to discipline her?

I should have accepted her apology and simply walked away.

He stepped up to her crossly, backing her up into the wall. She was a tall woman, but he still had a few inches on her. He peered into her face, his nose almost touching hers.

"Did it ever occur to ya dat ya name could be chosen?"


"Did it ever occur to ya that ya don't have da proper trainin' to assist one of us on a mission?"

She said nothing.

"What was dat?" he insisted, at her silence.

"I just wanted to help. That's all. I just thought I could prove that…"

"Ya want to help?" His eyes narrowed. "Den go back to da Ring and work hard to earn ya ranks and training! Don't go tryin' to ride to da top, off someone else's abilities!"

He stepped away and rolled his shoulder with slight annoyance. Dis can be Auroch's problem. Let Leafwing get off his pretty bottom and go write us a preliminary report. I'll be going back to Silithius tonight.

Without a backwards glance, he walked away, leaving the flummoxed draenei behind.

Chapter Text

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.” 
― Isaac Asimov



The shadows had grown long by the time Rin checked out of his inn and made his way down towards the gates of the city. He preferred to travel by night, when the air had cooled and stars lit up the sky. After that morning's fiasco, he'd written succinct and scathing messages to Auroch and Leafwing, and intended to post both letters before he left Gadget. He planned on disappearing for a few weeks in the wilderness of Silithius long enough for that mess to blow over. He'd only mentioned Sahar's transgression in passing, squarely placing the blame on those in charge of supervising such matters at the Ring.

As he made his way down the dusty streets, strolling by animated vendors and colorful banners strung overhead, he noticed the atmosphere in the city had grown more…festive. A few streets away bright beams of light shot up into the sky and a booming voice echoed back to his ears.

Of course: it's da Thunderdrome. He looked down at his feet with a crooked smile, remembering. There's gonna be fights tonight.

He tucked away the giddy urge to go see what was in store for that evening's spectacle and tried to focus on the long flight ahead of him instead. He had to fly to Marshal's Refuge before dawn so he could rest a bit before undertaking the tiring trip over the mountains into Silithius. He stepped into a long line to purchase some postage to send off his letters. Behind him, two younger orcs were engaging in an animated conversation.

"Come on," one of the orcs pleaded.

"I don't feel like it."

"Come! The two-man bracket is perfect tonight: looks like all the other side managed to dredge up was a puny rogue and a wimpy mage! We can totally take them!"

"That's what you said last time! Took me a whole day to get the taste of grass out of my mouth after I was sheep'ed." The orc crossed his arms decisively.

"Trust me! I saw them myself—they were talking trash to Dealwell. They're just two scrawny Alliance recruits. From Goldshire, too!"

The orc grunted.

"Ugh. That place. Mouth breathers. Well…What's the purse for this week?"

"Accumulated! Last week's Amateur Night was a draw in the two-man!"

Ah! Rin grinned. Amateur Night! He'd often fought in the one-on-one tourneys. Cheers erupted further behind him and he was overwhelmed by nostalgic memories. He stepped out of the line, deciding to return later.

He was only going to take a quick peek.

For old times' sake.

Rin peered about his surroundings.

The stands are new.

Back in the day, he'd had to crowd in with the rest of the crowd of spectators vying for a good vantage point to view the fights. And there were always fights to attend at Gadget. There was the classic Faction Night—heavily supervised by Gadget's bruisers—where Dealwell played up the rivalry between Horde and Alliance. Beast Night was popular, too: originally, rare creatures from around Kalimdor had been brought in to combat challengers. That had quickly run afoul of the authorities, though, thanks to a few feisty escapees wreaking havoc in town (a popular but unverified story described how one gigantic reptile had run amok gobbling up goblin bruisers) and the increasingly threatening reproaches from the Circle regarding the mistreatment of the animals. Dealwell adapted: instead of wild animals, he encouraged druids to shapeshift and hunters to unleash their pets. How often had he prowled the giant cage in his cat form, he wondered, grinning slyly. At the Thunderdrome there were professional prize-fighter nights and class-specific contests.

And then there was the perennial favorite: Amateur Night, when anyone could step up and fight for glory…and a purse of coin.

Rin managed to find a spot to sit in, up and farther away from the large cage, but it was better than nothing. He wasn't planning on staying long, anyhow. He'd watch one, maybe two duels. He needed to get to Marshal's Refuge before dawn.

The ale was as watered down as he remembered and the meat skewers as fatty and salty. Everything was outrageously overpriced, of course, courtesy of Dealwell's official sponsor, the Steamwheedle Cartel. Down in the ring, an orc warrior roared menacingly at his opponents. His partner, a blood elf priestess, was swiftly being dragged by the ankles outside of the ring after collapsing from dark magic by a gnome warlock, his succubus, and his partner, a gnome death knight, being walloped at her.

"Da teams, they be mismatched. Da warrior needed to shield his priestess—even if he got hit, she woulda healed him." He pointed out the unfortunate orc to the stranger sitting beside him, a tauren warrior who was patiently putting up with his cheers, jeers, and play-by-plays. "Those two Alliance know if da orc be getting his hands on them, they be done, so he's not gettin' anywhere near them. Casters should aways attack da healer. Take 'em down. That's simple strategy. They be absolutely right. Now that warrior is gonna lose."

The tauren nodded politely. It was getting late and Rin dismissed the thought that he should have started his journey an hour ago.

Just one more match. Rin sat up straighter. One more match and then I will be goin', he decided, watching as the warlock's saucy succubus cracked her whip at the defeated orc being escorted off the ring.

Five matches later and Rin had grown hoarse from cheering. He was slightly buzzed and hoping the inn would still have a bed for him available later on. The last match of the evening had been announced: rogue against shaman. A skeletal rogue stepped into the ring, positioning himself at the far end. Rin tipped back his tankard of ale thinking that there was nothing more cliched than an undead rogue signing up for a duel at the Thunderdrome. Popularity had nothing to do with skill, he thought grumpily: it was fear. Alliance fighters were squeamish. Perhaps, he thought, eyeing the rogue out of the corner of his eyes, it wasn't completely unfounded in that case. His thoughts were disrupted by light cheering as the rogue's opponent took the ring. Already dizzy from drink, for a brief moment the horns and shapely figure made him think that the rogue was being challenged by a solitary succubus.

What's this? He tipped his tankard of crappy ale back and took a large swig.

The glint of a gemstone caught his eyes and his gaze slowly rose up from the ornaments on the shaman's hooves, and took in the silhouette consisting of rounded hips, a slender waist, and full bosom. He was rather enjoying the view until his appreciative gaze alighted on the shaman's face. The Alliance contender that night was no one other than Sahar.

He spat out his drink.


Miss "I can lightning" herself had claimed she could also do "some stuff with fire!" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, unable to avert his eyes from the impending disaster. Was her perky sassiness all she had in store against an undead rogue? He stared at her dowdy initiate's apron before examining the forsaken rogue who donned Undercity's tabard.

Yeah…This gonna be a slaughter. He hoped for her sake that Dealwell's men would pull her out before the rogue succeeded in really hurting her too badly. He exhaled heavily and fell into an expectant silence even as the people around him, all members of the Horde, erupted in loud booing once the two opponents stepped up to the referee. The referee muttered a few stern words before stepping outside the ring. The rogue and the shaman sized each other up, gradually stepping along the insides of the ring in a very familiar dance. The rogue flashed an unnaturally wide grin before dodging an awkward heavy swing from Sahar's staff. It had barely arced across the air when the rogue retreated into invisibility.

That's it, Rin thought, squirming restlessly in his seat, his mouth going dry. Game over. She be done for. His fingers gripped the tankard's handle so tightly his knuckles turned grey. I should be seeing her back to her quarters safely afterward, he thought sheepishly. She might barely be able to walk. It's da least I can do.

To his and the audience's bewilderment, instead of retreating, though, Sahar crouched and brushed her hands over the dusty ground. She closed her eyes and the crowd began to jeer loudly. The tauren sitting beside him leaned closer for the first time.

"What is she doing?"

Rin was about to reply that he hadn't the faintest idea, that everything he knew about dueling strategy dictated that she should shield herself from any strikes, that she should cast a spell to detect or reduce movement around her and allow herself opportunity to get out of the way. Instead, she sifted dirt between her fingertips, her eyes shut tight. The audience held its breath.

Rin saw it then: she had smiled faintly.

Oo…Where did she be learnin' dat? He leaned forward excitedly, recognizing what she was doing.

She splayed her hand out to the left and as she drew it up, summoned a strong gust of wind that whipped across the ring. The rogues whereabouts were revealed to the crowd as he toppled over and struck the cage's bars. He lay on the ground momentarily disoriented as chants of "Get up! Get up!" became deafening. The sky rumbled. Sahar paced slowly towards the rogue, who finally picked himself up and crouched low, aiming for her.

"Kagh!" he roared theatrically in Orcish. The crowd, consisting mostly of members of the Horde, several goblins, and a whole team of heavily armored bruisers, cheered him.

Unfazed, Sahar raised her arm and pointed the end of her staff at the rogue. The bolt of lightning she channeled through an extended and upturned palm barely missed the rogue's crotch. The rogue yelped furiously, and retreated, cursing in frustration.

This prompted booing and grumbles and Rin found himself unable to repress the smile plastered over his lips.

Not bad.

The rogue was buffeted again by another powerful burst of wind. When he tried to disappear, Sahar immediately raised both arms and summoned a dust cloud that whirled around the cage, revealing the rogue's position once more. Before he could react to her spell, she drew her arms down, and lightning forked down from the sky again. This time, the lightning left a plume of fire before the rogue, rising quickly and blocking his path. The referee blew his shrill whistle, calling the fight, and several goblins raced forward, buckets of sand and water flying over the flames. Overhead, the thunder continued to churn loudly. When the first droplets of rain spattered over the dry ground, the crowd rapidly began to disperse.

It rarely ever rained in Tanaris.

Despite the loud cheers from the modest Alliance crowd, Sahar sullenly stepped out of the ring. Behind her, the undead rogue argued with the referee, furiously displaying his singed sleeves.

"Tsk, tsk. Ya lost fair and square," Rin muttered under his breath, looking at him. Thunder boomed again, followed by lightning zig-zagging overhead. He was walking against the crowd and pushed through to the end of the stands. He could barely make out Sahar's solitary figure once she walked away from Dealwell, who was undoubtedly attempting to lure her into reinvesting her winnings into a future showdown.

When it began to pour in earnest, Rin was still trying to catch up to her.

"Sahar!" he called, over the din of the dispersing crowd and the roar of the rain pounding on the rooftops. "Sahar!" he called louder, the rain cold and sharp. She turned her head at last and appeared horrified when she recognized who was calling her.

"You? What are you doing here?" She panicked.

"I could ask ya da same, but dat would be an idiotic question now, wouldn't it?" A silvery flash of lightning lit up the night sky. "I'd rather be askin' ya sometin' else." He found himself almost yelling as water cascaded down the colorful awnings normally used to create shade.

"And what's that?" The rain had plastered her dark hair over her head and light grey horns.

"Ya weren't very forthcomin' earlier, miss shaman initiate. What I wanna know how is how a draenei can listen to da earth, talk to da wind, summon lightning and command fire like a seasoned orc shaman."

She wiped the water drops off her face. She peered around, the street quickly emptying as doors and shutters all around them slammed shut, and for a moment he thought she was going to suggest they go somewhere dry to talk. Instead, she cast him a hurt glare.

"I thought you washed your hands of me." She whirled around and began walking. "That's just a mystery you're going to have to live with."

His clothes were soaked through.

"Ya know, ya lightning spell still needs some work." She turned around, a "drop-dead" expression on her face. "Ya have to curb it a little. Look what ya done." He indicated the flooded square. She flashed him an obscene gesture. He chuckled.

"Tomorrow at seven," he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth.

She came to a halt just before turning down a narrow alley.


"At da gryphons."

The silvery glow emanating from her eyes briefly flickered as she blinked nervously.

"What are you talking about?"

"Feralas! We have a mission. Or did ya forget why ya came here?"

A small commotion crossed her expression.

"Feralas! You will? With me? That's…But…" she stammered.

"See ya tomorrow. Don't be late, or I will be leavin' without ya."

He turned and left, hoping his inn would let him back in for the night.

Chapter Text

"I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made."
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Rin surveyed the lush forest as they followed a small winding path deeper into the woods.

He'd always thought of Feralas as a treasure trove: in some ways, it had retained some of that rare, fierce wilderness of Azeroth's primordial forests. It bore the mark of great power, of creation itself, as it was the home of one of the Great Trees leading to the Emerald Dream. The region still possessed an ethereal air about it, in the way the light glowed over the hills and valleys. Still, it had not escaped corruption: Gordunni ogres, naga warlords, Grimtotem were just a few of the less desirable inhabitants of the area. Not to mention the gaping pits of corruption that several ancient Elven ruins, such as Dire Maul and Isildien, had become. Demons lurked in them, teeming with fel magic, clashing with restless specters, Satyr, and Shen'dralar cultists. On top of that, when not fighting those particular menaces, Alliance and Horde forces spent much of their time and energy trouncing each other in a bid for the area's bountiful resources.

After flying out of Gadget, Rin'Seyi had met up with Sahar late in the day, about a mile out of Thalanaar, beyond the mostly symbolic patrol of the handful of Alliance soldiers defending the tiny camp. They still had plenty of ground to cover before reaching their host. Were he alone, he would've simply flown to his destination, bypassing any lurking dangers along the road. But he was most definitely NOT alone. Regrettably so. His head was reeling from Sahar's incessant chatter since they'd met up. Almost as bad as her incessant prattling was how she did not offer him a chance to get a word in edgewise.

"It's quite beautiful despite everything, isn't it?" She looked about, admiring the brilliant green canopy. "It really is. I am sorry that we belong to opposite factions—if that weren't the case, we would be able to seek shelter for the night at Camp Mojache, wouldn't we? Most definitely. It really is such a shame, because the camp is so close by, and yet, here we are, trying to avoid it, aren't we? I do apologize for the inconvenience. I appreciate your bringing me along, despite everything. What is Camp Mojache like? Have you ever been? I would imagine you have. I have always heard that the tauren are resourceful and are experts at reusing—"

"Sahar, if ya keep talkin', ya will soon get da tour of a tauren jail," he scolded her. "And dere be precious little I will be able to do to guarantee ya safety."

She took this bit of information in as tall painted totem poles came into sight as they crested a hill. Under the sobering light of day, the previous night's impulsive invitation for Sahar to join him seemed less and less suave and heroic and more and more like a terrible idea fueled by piss-poor ale. When he'd awoken that morning in Gadget, he'd thought he had behaved rather foolishly the night before. He just couldn't trust himself when he was coming off the high of a good tourney. He'd held on to the tenuous hope that perhaps—just maybe—Sahar wouldn't show she had been there on time, ready to accompany him. They had traveled separately, and while soaring over Tanaris, he'd had ample time to contemplate his brashness.

Once they had put a comfortable distance between themselves and Camp Mojache, she started up her exasperating blabbering again—albeit in a quieter tone.

"Rin'Seyi, do you think we evaded the camp's sentinels?" she whispered loudly. He pursed his lips in irritation.

"I tink so—but we should still be on our guard. While it's unlikely we be runnin' into a sentinel here, we might be runnin' into a section or even a platoon of Horde soldiers coming back from an incursion against da Grimtotem or da Gordunni."

Far from quieting her, his announcement had only inflamed her curiosity.

"Can you explain something to me? I never understood the animosity between the Grimtotem and the Horde. I mean, aren't they tauren, too? Why are they fighting their own allies? It's perplexing." Before he could answer, she continued. "Speaking of perplexing, what is the difference between a section and a platoon? What about a squad? All these military units can be so confusing, don't you agree? I think so. And the Gordunni—"

"Sahar," he began in a low, strained voice.

"—should they be referred to as a clan? A tribe? Is there really a difference?"

"Sahar…" he repeated, a warning edge in his voice.

"Do you think it has something to do with being nomadic? Maybe at some point they used to wander—"

"Ya be drivin' me out of my mind!" he growled. "If ya gonna be talking, den talk about somethin' relevant to da mission!" He pushed through a cluster of bushes, stepping off the path. They would have to make camp that night in the wilderness.

"All right." She fell silent and Rin thought he would at last be allowed to focus on finding them a quiet and fairly safe place to pitch a tent.

They wandered further into the woods, leaving the trail far behind them.

"So! Are you married?" she asked suddenly. He turned to her in surprise.

He turned to her in surprise.

"Did I not make myself clear? Do I need to draw ya a picture?"

"This is a question relevant to the mission!" she argued. "Maybe I should be the one drawing the pictures for you!"

Feisty, he thought, trying to glare ahead, catching the agitated swish of her tail out of the corner of his eyes.

"How's a question like dat relevant to da mission? This I wanna hear!" he challenged her, dropping his pack down in a small clearing.

"Well…It's a question about you," she began slowly. "And you are leading the mission. Hence, it is totally a mission-related question!"

Feisty…an' a wiseass.

"We camp here tonight. Did ya bring a tent?" he asked, pulling a tightly rolled bundle from the top of his pack.

"No. I don't have one. But I don't mind sleeping in the open air."

"That be a bad idea in this place. Ya need a tent. We can share for tonight."

As he went over each step to piece together the small tent, he realized that perhaps all her chatter was because her nervousness hadn't dissipated yet. He watched her surreptitiously as she knelt on the ground and began to dig out a shallow fire pit. Something in him relented. She was as green as they came and had ventured off with someone from an enemy faction—a troll, no less. She wasn't acting half as cagey as some initiates he'd met. And he had intimidated her badly after first meeting her. It was a small miracle she hadn't clammed up or even resented him for it.

"No," he retorted curtly, tugging at the tent canvas.

She looked up from the small mound of kindling she had amassed.

"I'm not married," he clarified.

"Huh. That's interesting." She blinked slowly and returned to her task. "Then do you keep, like, a harem?"

He dropped the tent flap he'd been fussing with and reeled around to face her.

"A… harem? What ya be takin' me for?" he scolded. "Where ya be gettin' such an idea?"

She brushed some of her dark hair off her face.

"I meant no offense! It's just that I've never had the chance to really talk or spend time with a troll and I had always heard that trolls had many wives.."

"Ok: careful," he warned her. "There be trolls and then there be Darkspear. Each tribe can be very different from da other, and we don't like bein' lumped into one big cliché."

"I'm sorry," she quickly offered.

Why had that irritated him so much? He wondered about it as he inspected the tent he'd just pitched, making sure it would hold up during the night. He thought of his grandmother, the old seer, who should have been sitting back and resting during her golden years but was instead burdened with raising her sons' children. No, the Darkspear did not subjugate women like other troll tribes, they proudly boasted. They were more enlightened, they claimed. But they were a far cry from all that idealistic talk about being equal. No. No wives, he thought of his father, Sen'Beng, a warrior, cocky and indifferent; he was a troll whom he'd only met a few times and deeply disliked. Not one wife, even, that he would settle down with to raise properly all the children he'd fathered. Rin was lost in unpleasant memories of Sen'Beng during one of his rare visits to his grandmother's compound when he was younger. He'd arrived accompanied by his uncle, Zin'Jal, and the two men had joked noxiously as the children played in the yard.

"I don't even know which ones be mine and which ones be yours!" he'd roared with laughter.

Some great warrior, Rin thought, growing agitated by the memory. Anyone who can get his dick up can sire a whelp; it takes a man, tho', to be a real father, he concluded.

"So, in that case, it's probably not true that you're a cannibal?" Sahar interrupted.

His eyes narrowed and he was about to unleash a furious tirade upon her when he noticed the impish gleam in her eyes. She was teasing him. Her lips finally parted in a smile. He turned around again and huffed lightly. Cannibal…So ridiculous. He shook his head, a faint grin insinuating itself on his lips.

"How 'bout yaself? Ya have a husband?" he asked, unfurling his bedroll.

Her smile grew even broader.

"No. Not yet… But I have a boyfriend," she confided with ill-concealed delight.

"Oh? Is that so?" He began to slide the bedroll into the tent.

"Yes. He's a merchant on the Exodar. His name is Drannord and we've known each other for a long time. He's very handsome: he's very tall, and very strong, and he is so very funny, and he dances so very well, and—"

Aah, shit! Spare me, he groaned inwardly.

"Sounds real nice, Sahar. And does he know he is ya boyfriend?" he teased.

The smile on her face faded and was replaced by a furrowed brow.

"Not funny."

He chuckled as she sniffed indignantly, focusing on starting their campfire.

They sat around the fire finishing some of their rations. All around them, the forest teemed with sound. It was a good sign, he thought.

"It's when it be quiet that ya should worry," he explained between mouthfuls.

"It's actually pretty here." She stared up at the sky. It was a clear night and sorcerous ripples of green flashed across the sky overhead making the sky brighter. In the distance, they could hear drums reverberating through the valley. "Sounds like Camp Mojache is a lively place!"

He brushed his hands together, scattering some crumbs before reaching for his pack and searching one of the pockets for his pipe.

"That's not Camp Mojache; that be da Grimtotem. And those aren't celebratory drums: those be war drums."

Her silvery eyes widened. He couldn't help grinning as he filled his pipe's bowl with a fragrant blend of dried dreaming glory and fadeleaf.

"Don't worry, though; Grimtotem be always at war. I tink they'd be fightin' their own shadow if given da chance."

Sahar braced her knees tightly.

"This is rather new to me," she admitted.

"Which part?" he leaned back and rested on his elbows.

"Oh. All of it. I don't normally get to travel this far out…into contested territories."

He exhaled a cloud of thick smoke through his nose, contemplating her with hooded eyes.

"So ya tellin' me ya learned how to brawl like that in ya backyard? I had no idea Azuremyst was such a rough place…" He searched her face for a reaction. "Ya have power, Sahar. Why ya goin' about wearing initiates' clothes and signing up for prize fights?"

She looked away from him sullenly.

If only I had known dat to get some peace an' quiet all I had to do was ask her about her training…

"Does da Earthen Ring have ya trainin' with an—"

"The Earthen Ring has very little to do with me. I'm stuck training mainly with my draenei elders."

"They know ya toss ya hat into da fightin' ring like that?" he persisted.

"That's my business," she snapped.

"I see."

He sucked on his pipe and the top of the bowl glowed brightly.

"I used to be fightin' in da Thunderdrome when I was an apprentice," he offered. "I did it for da money."

She said nothing.

"Why ya do it, is ya business. I was just curious. Ya don't fight like no Alliance I've ever met."

Her head snapped up.

"And have you 'met' many Alliance fighters?"

He shrugged, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, obviously enjoying his pipe.

"Ya fight like an orc shaman, is all I meant."

She stared at him for a few moments in silence.

"You never answered my question: how many Alliance fighters have you 'met'?"

That was bound to be a very uncomfortable conversation.

He would make sure of it.

"Let's just say they only have da pleasure of makin' my fine acquaintance if they try to be blockin' my way."

"I thought you druids held a reverence for life and creation," she provoked.

"Oh, but I DO!" He began to blow large rings of smoke in her direction. She waved her hand in the air, trying to disperse the smoke. "Especially MY life, ya see. I don't go out seekin' trouble with no one, but if trouble finds me, then I be known' how to greet it properly."

"Have you ever 'met' any draenei?"

Yes. Definitely an unpleasant chat.

"Only when their weapons or spell castin' tried to meet me first."

"You are being intentionally obtuse."

"Hardly. For example, look at us—we be gettin' to know each other, right? It's been enlightenin'."

She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. I used to tink that the draenei were a loud, tiring, talkative people," he began. More smoke flowed out of his long, large nose.

"I changed that perception?" She tilted her head.

"Mmm…" He nodded, savoring the tingly rush he was getting from his pipe. "Now I no longer tink dat: now I be sure of it."

At her look of surprised dismay, a chuckle rumbled deep in his chest.

"Oh, come on—it not be fair of ya to ask me a question like dat. Anyone with some experience in da field has had to fight for their lives at one point or anotha. Ya can't blame someone for actin' in self-defense."

"You should know that before I put down my name on that list I gave my superiors, there were only two other names from the Earthen Ring on it. You know what that means, right?"

He lay down on the soft grass, one arm folded behind his head—his pipe dangling from his mouth.

"It means that my people don't want to support cross-faction initiatives. Because the Horde is too bloodthirsty," she revealed.

"Naaah!" He waved dismissively. "It only means that da Earthen Ring's vettin' procedure and security be lax if they be sending novices out to conduct their business."

Her gaze hardened.

"I may be a novice in formal rank, but I can fight. Just because I don't do things the way they want me to doesn't mean I don't know how to do anything. I will show them!"

He turned to face her, interested.

"Ah…So dis is what it be all about…Ya bein' a rebellious initiate?"

She blinked nervously.

"Ya know, da secret to mastering your skills isn't just havin' power. Power is just part of it. In fact, too much power without discipline can be dangerous. Ya be doin' yaself a favor learning to bend a bit to da will of ya teachers."

"I didn't ask you for advice." She rested her chin on her knees.

This is a sore subject. And now I have some answers. I have brought a very powerful and very undisciplined shaman on a sensitive mission. He stared up into the vast night sky, pinpoints of silver emerging in the firmament. He thought of his grandmother, casting his fortune for him before he left home, her knobby hand brushing over the glassy surface of her cowrie shells.

"Ya path be cloudy to da augurs, my doudou," she had revealed, calling him by the nickname she dispensed affectionately to all her grandchildren "— ya know what dat means."

"It means ya probably shouldn't be drinkin' before tryin' to divine da future," he'd teased her. She'd cackled, her eyes rheumy.

"Ya go to Cenarion, but don't ya forget where ya come from. Ya be a son of da crossroads. Ya be like da tricky Loa who rules ya head." She dared not utter the Loa's name, lest he take it as an invitation. "Ya will walk between worlds, ya will go down through paths unknown, even to ya Elders, and ya will invite great peril to yaself."

"Eeeh! Why can't ya ever just give me some lucky numbers for da bettin' game at Sen'Jin instead, old witch!" He had joked about it back then, but the truth was that her premonition had unnerved him.

He couldn't have "invited peril" more in that mission than if he'd printed it out on fussy card stock and mailed it.

"Ya didn't ask for advice, but I'm not givin' ya any. Dis is a fact: ya have to be knowin' da rules before ya go off breakin' them,' he reminded her.

"I will not be forced into being something I am not," was all she offered him.

He exhaled tiredly. This is not my problem.

"Then I hope ya enjoy wearing that apron." He jutted his pointy chin towards her dowdy uniform.

"What I wear hardly represents what I can truly do."

"It does represent what ya can't do." Why was he needling her so? Being feisty and a wiseass was fine—it was her stubborn pride that would be a problem in the long run. Or perhaps the fact that she wouldn't acknowledge that she didn't know what she didn't know.

"You have 'met' your share of Alliance…and I have 'met' my share of Horde." Her eyes shone back at him, cool and silvery. "I can hold my ground. I can take on a challenger."

He pressed his lips, no longer feeling as serene and relaxed. It was a pity, because he was almost out of the herb blend for his pipe.

"I don't be doubting it for a minute. I'm sure they all drop cold after all ya talkin' and boastin'." He gracefully rose to his knees, dumping the contents of his pipe into the fire pit. "I'll be goin' to bed now." When he looked at her, he caught her eyes lingering over his bare shoulders. Was she sizing him up? Perhaps plotting a backstabbing attack? He hesitated before getting up, a wave of uneasiness washing over him before she turned her gaze away, flustered that he'd caught her gawking.

"I should probably turn in, too."

He held up the tent flap for her after they'd put out the fire in an uncomfortable silence. He let her crawl into the tent first, catching a glimpse of her tail as she crouched down.
"I will lie in da opposite direction," he offered, trying to appease any misgivings she might've been harboring over sharing the tight space with him for the night. Who knew what nonsense she'd been hearing about the Horde from some more hawkish wings of the Alliance? He crept in, their lantern casting just enough light to reveal that she had hunkered down beneath her coarse blanket with only her head peering out. He tossed his pillow down so that he was facing her hooves. The moment he tugged off his ankle wraps, though, he saw her grimace.

"I would really rather not sleep with your feet close to my face."

He tossed the wraps in the corner.

"Ya know, I was doin' that for ya benefit. Didn't want ya to feel uncomfortable sharin' da tent with a stranger."

"I'm not worried; I can hold my own if anyone were to try anything," she warned him.

He reached toward the tent flap to tie it down. "All right, then." He grabbed the small pillow and placed it beside hers. "I hope you don't try anythin' on me, then. Unlike yaself, I can't do lightning," he teased slyly.

She rolled away from him, letting out a little exasperated grunt. Before he lay down, he ran his hands over the floor of the tent. He closed his eyes and began to whisper a spell, energy flowing from his fingertips into the dark earth beneath the light canvas. He could sense Sahar stirring, probably wondering what he was doing. Moments after he began casting, a low, rustling sound unfurled all around them, snaking slowly over the surface of the tent.

"What is that?" Sahar whispered.

Rin opened his eyes.

"I cast a spell so that vines and brambles grow over and around da tent, helpin' to conceal and shelter us. To anyone passin' by, da tent will look like a large bush. And larger animals won't bother with all da thorny brambles."

She ran her fingers over the canvas, feeling for the thick, rope-like vine outlines tangling over and around the tent.

"You did that with such ease," she finally said, with just a hint of admiration.

"It's a simple spell." He turned down the lamp until he'd extinguished the small flame. He settled into his bedroll, exhaustion weighing down his limbs at last.

"So the entire tent is covered?" she marveled in the dark.

"Yah." He rolled away, eyes shut, trying to move as far away from her as physically possible in the confines of a tiny tent.

"So, if I told you I needed to go outside to relieve myself, it would probably be a hassle, right?"

His eyes shot open and he sat up.

"Ya gotta be shittin' me, Sahar! After I gone and done all dat?" he cried.

His answer was her mischievous laughter. It grew louder when he dropped back down heavily into his bedroll, his back squarely turned to her.

Rin awoke at the exact moment night turned into dawn. It was as if his blood quickened once the energy in the wilderness shifted and changed, causing his own power to ebb and flow. The transition always awoke him, no matter where he was. It was simply one of the side-effects of being so attuned to nature, to the energies and forces coursing though the wilderness. He'd awaken briefly, barely, acknowledging it, and then drift back into sleep. That morning, however, he awoke to something soft brushing up against his neck. He felt warm skin nestled against his bare back, a clandestine arm braced tightly over his abdomen, holding him close. It took him a moment to remember where he was…and with whom. The realization jolted him awake as Sahar breathed softly against the nape of his neck, still in a deep slumber. He tried to move her arm away gingerly, but his attempt to remove it caused her to groan in protest and curl in closer to him. When her warm breath tickled his ear and she uttered a faint, breathy moan, he realized she was stirring up all kinds of pleasant sensations and making him hard. It was a very…intimately compromising position…Besides, he hadn't been with a woman in a long time…All of two weeks, he snorted. She squeezed him tighter and when he tried to extricate himself from her hold, she buried her face in his neck.

She probably be dreamin' she's with her lug of a boyfriend.

I can hold my own, she had threatened the night before.

But I'm not your own to hold, he thought peevishly.

"Sahar," he called out softly. Maybe if he just woke her enough…"Sahar," he insisted, turning his head slightly. He pat her arm persistently. She drew a deep breath and he felt her arm slide away and the bedroll shift somewhat as she turned restlessly, finally rolling onto the other side.

Good, he thought, closing his eyes, feeling his pulse slow down. That went better than I thought it would.

"I'm sorry," she offered sleepily.

"No harm done. Happens all da time," he joked.

"You're very warm," she sighed. "It was just so nice…"

" I don't think Drannord would appreciate that." He chuckled.

"Who?" she mumbled still in a stupor.

Oh, blazin' blazes—she was that gone.

"Ya boyfriend. Isn't that his name?"

She did not reply immediately.

"Oh, yes…He's very…very, " she agreed hazily. She said nothing else though, drifting back to sleep.

He willed himself back to sleep as well, even as the scent of mageroyal lingered on his skin.

Chapter Text

"Tired, tired with nothing, tired with everything, tired with the world's weight he had never chosen to bear."
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

They traveled west, down an overgrown road that had fallen in disuse but that coursed down the valley parallel to the main road. It was an uneventful trek, with the two walking alongside each other silently, absorbed in their own thoughts and a certain listlessness brought upon by too little sleep the night before. They had followed the winding trail until it merged into the main road leading towards a settlement further down. Rin let himself fall back as they approached the settlement.

"Ya lead da way. It'll make people less uneasy."

Silas Leighton's farmhouse sat at the edge of a large field a few yards away from a barn. As they turned the corner to follow up the path to the farmhouse, they noticed a sullen-looking young man scrubbing the side of the barn. The lad raised his head as they passed and dropped his arm once his eyes took in Rin. His mouth was agape.

"Khronokai khrystor," Sahar called out. "We are from the Cenarion Circle and the Earthen Ring and have come in response to your call for aid."

The young man couldn't stop staring at Rin'Seyi with an expression somewhere between awe and terror.

"You are a troll," he muttered, dazed. "A real troll."

And ya be rude, son. Real rude, Rin thought.

"We seek Silas Leighton," Sahar interrupted. "This is his farm, correct?"

The young man pressed his lips and looked past them to gaze over the field.

"Yes, it is. I'll show you in: Pa's expecting you."

It was only once the lad stepped away, dropping his brush into the sudsy pail, that Rin was able to see what he had been scrubbing at so vigorously on the side of the barn. The black paint had almost faded completely over the wood boards.

The word "Traitor" had been painted in large block letters on the side of the barn.

Under other circumstances, it would have been a comical scene:

Leighton's entire family and a few neighbors had assembled in the small parlor, reminding Rin of how troll clans received would-be-suitors. The similarities between the Leightons and troll clans ended there, though. No troll clan he knew of looked as somber as those humans. He and Sahar stood on one side of the room enduring the uncomfortable scrutiny of the humans during the short meeting.

"We appreciate your coming all the way here to help us," Leighton made sure to tell them both while staring at Rin more pointedly.

The heavy silence in the room made him think that not everyone in that room echoed Leighton's sentiment. When they prepared to venture out into the field, Rin couldn't help overhearing the agitated whispers behind them as they stepped out into the foyer:

"His skin is blue!"

"Did you see those tusks?"

"I don't care what the night elves said; I don't trust them, either. Trolls are monsters."

"Light save us all!"

"The only good troll is a dead troll."

He didn't realize Sahar had been speaking to him until she lightly slapped his arm.

"The field or the well?"

He blinked, momentarily disoriented.


"Which one do you want to check first?" she insisted.

He peered at the field. A sea of rust stretched before them.

Dat's winter wheat, he realized.

It was late autumn. The shoots should have germinated into the sturdy young plants that would remain dormant during the cold winter. That field should have been a rippling green…not the sickly, withered shade of light brown before them. Something was very wrong and the suspicion became even more niggling when he examined a rotted ear of winter wheat. The spikelets crumbled off the plant's head into a mealy dust at his touch. When he examined the stem at the point where it met the earth and uprooted a few stalks, his misgivings were confirmed. The roots were wizened, fragile and brittle. He knew for certain that was no natural plague he knew of. Whatever was afflicting the plants was coming from the soil itself, contaminating and afflicting the roots. He cast a spell of efflorescence as a last resort, hoping the plant would react. Sometimes old curses lingered in ancient grounds: warding spells, a trap or even a warning spell of territory demarcation. He hoped that was the case. Such magic was stubborn and temperamental; it was often a burden to lift as it was fussy and half forgotten by current-day casters. It required careful study and research: an incorrect incantation only strengthened it. But, unlike Fel sickness, it could be broken and cleansed.

Despite his spell, the plant did not respond. It remained withered, its drooping leaves occasionally stirring in the slight afternoon breeze. He tried several times, in various locations of the field, searching for a sign, for evidence that perhaps some areas simply had a higher concentration of magic and could, in the future, be avoided until fully cleansed. But in his heart he feared the worst. He felt a dull ache—a sadness for the field that had been poisoned and killed before it had been able to properly grow, bear fruit, fulfill its life cycle. He touched the ground, letting his fingers sink into the loamy dirt, sifting though the chunks of soil, hoping to find a contradiction, something to challenge his suspicions.

"Rin'Seyi?" Sahar followed him, her staff bobbing through the field. "What do you think?"

He peered around them, careful to make sure Leighton and the other humans were nowhere within earshot.

"I tink this mission just became even more dangerous."

Sahar's pretty face was fixed in a perplexed grimace.

"What do you mean?"

"I do not tink I am gonna survive bein' da bearer of bad news, Sahar. These crops never had a chance and it's possible nothin' will ever grow here again."

It gave him little comfort that she simply nodded.

"Are you sure?"

"Almost." He let his shoulders slump forward. They both stared at the farmhouse in the distance. Sahar dropped to the ground, her hands splayed and buried them slightly beneath the surface. Rin'Seyi observed her gently pat the dirt, searching for something, in the same way one might cup a hand over a loved one's forehead trying to sense a fever. After several minutes of that and being confronted with her expression of complete bewilderment, Rin'Seyi finally crossed his arms.


"It's strange…I don't understand what the earth is saying to me," she revealed.

"Da earth talks to you?" he wondered skeptically. That wasn't how such matters worked. He wondered if he had burdened her with a task too far over her abilities.

"Not like a normal conversation, no…But there is…something familiar. It's like…I cast my own magic, and that…It bounces back to me, like sound…And the earth's melody is very…solid. Consistent. This here is…dissonant?" she puzzled. "I don't recognize it."

All right. That makes more sense. She might not have had the training to decipher what she was sensing, but she knew enough, even intuitively, to grasp that something was skewed.

"It's not Fel magic, though," she announced.

He nodded in agreement.

"No. Not any manifestation of Fel corruption I've ever seen."

Sahar's determined expression softened.

"Then, perhaps, there is hope?"

"Too soon to say. Feralas is not like da rest of Azeroth. Da wilderness here still feeds off da power from da Great Tree—da Emerald Dream affects everythin' around this area. It is da only reason da Fel magic stays contained in Dire Maul and smaller pockets of da region; otherwise, this entire place would be as dismal as Shadowmoon Valley."

A girl began walking towards them from the house, her feet shuffling heavily, her hair almost as diabolically red as Rin's.

"We still need to explore da region. Make some comparisons," he concluded, watching as the girl approached them with a wary look in her eyes.

She halted a couple feet from them, her hands thrust in her work dress' pockets.

"Pa has invited you to dinner."

"That is very kind of him," Sahar quickly replied. "We gladly accept," she added, casting Rin a warning glance. Rin rolled his eyes. He wouldn't have minded bypassing all the awkwardness such interactions propitiated.

"What do you eat?" the girl called out to him brusquely.

He didn't know what was more comical: the shock in Sahar's face or the pinch-faced resentment on the girl's freckled one. He was sorely tempted to wreak havoc, to make her stumble over her clogs in a desperate run to the farmhouse, to embrace, at least in appearance, the nightmare humans liked making him out to be.

"What's ya name?"

"Inga." She avoided looking at him. Farther away, at the farmhouse's doorway, a stocky woman had stepped out and was watching the three of them in the field.

"What do I like to eat, Inga?" he asked mischievously, slinging the small satchel of reagents he'd brought out with him across his torso. She stiffened at his saying her name. "What do ya tink I like to eat, Inga?"

He could hear Sahar drawing in a deep breath.

"People," the girl accused, taking a few steps away from him to stand by Sahar.

The fierce look on the girl's face was so comical, he laughed.

"Eh…Don't worry, Inga. Even if I did eat people, ya don't have enough meat on ya bones."

"Then you better not get near Ma!" she warned him. He laughed harder.

"And ya better not let ya Ma know you be makin' such comments 'bout her meat and bones to would-be people eaters!"

The girl's eyes shifted to the farmhouse and she peered off sheepishly.

"What be on da menu?" he asked, starting to walk towards the farmhouse. Sahar followed, cautiously.

"Chicken stew," Inga muttered.

"I'll eat chicken stew. Tonight, at least…" he teased. Inga ran off with his reply to the woman awaiting her by the door.

"I'm sorry," Sahar offered. "If it's any consolation, I don't think these people know what to make of me, either."

"Why you be sorry for somethin' ya didn't do? Besides, we didn't come here to make friends, right?"

He held the door open for her. Inside, conversation was unfurling loudly and dishes clanked as a stack was moved by one of the women from the cupboard to the long kitchen table. The moment he stepped into the house, everything fell silent.

"My husband isn't here at the moment; can you wait outside?" Leighton's wife spoke, stepping forward, before the group of silent women. It wasn't really a question: it was an order. As Sahar turned to join him, Mrs. Leighton addressed her.

"You—we can use your help, if you would."

Rin'Seyi didn't check Sahar's expression—he simply pulled the door open, leaving the oppressive kitchen and taking a chestful of cool air. It was still light outside. He decided to check the soil closer to the woods, to see if there were any differences.


The words, although faded from the scrubbing earlier, were still visible, still legible on the barn's side even from where he stood.

Inside the house he could make out voices in animated conversation.

We didn't come here to make friends. He almost would have preferred it if they had charged at him with an assortment of pitchforks and clubs. He didn't know how long he would put up with that passive resentment before having to teach those ignorant folks a lesson.

"Rin'Seyi!" Leighton's voice startled him as he carefully examined the germinating seeds of fern-like plants edging the perimeter of the farm. "I hear you had the chance to examine my fields. Any news for me?"

"It be a bit too soon to say." He stashed away a couple of his tools and rose to his feet. He towered over Leighton, a short, stocky man. He did catch the alarmed look in his face when he rose to his full height.

"Well? Is it Fel corruption or not?" He scratched his head. "I thought these things were fairly straight-forward."

Rin could've explained how Fel corruption fell along a spectrum—there were things and places that were touched, tainted, or corrupted. There was contamination that was contained and contamination that was widespread. Some of it was runoff from another source. Some of it was a ticking time bomb. He could launch into a highly academic clarification that would make Leighton realize just how idiotic his "straight-forward" comment was, but decided he just didn't have that argument in him that day.

"It does not look like Fel corruption," he agreed. Leighton rubbed his hand over his face in evident relief. "But," Rin continued cautiously, "we aren't sure what it be, either. We still need to study this better."

"But it's not Fel corruption, right? Everything should be all right, then, right? Because it's the Fel corruption that poisons soil. We can recover from this still, right?"

It would be lovely if the world were as simple. If all the answers were "yes" and "no" and final, at that. People liked that kind of world much better. Corrupt soil is bad; therefore, it be dead. If it not be corrupt soil, then it be good! He grimaced. Horde fights Alliance forces, therefore all races in the Horde are bad. Simple thinking—quite effortless.

And deadly.

"That's what we be hopin' for. But we still don't know what this is and how it will affect ya farm."

Leighton appeared a bit crestfallen at the revelation.

"You don't think it's anything bad, though?"

Rin wished he could give the man more reassurance.

"I don't know yet. Give me time. I'll have an answer for ya."

Leighton appeared to take this in and nodded at last.

"All right, then. Let's head back to the house. I reckon Hilda has dinner waiting." At Rin's hesitation, he waved his arm. "Come!"

"I'm sorry, but your visitor is going to have to take his meal in the courtyard—there's no more room at the table!" Mrs. Leighton announced once Leighton and Rin, skulking behind him, entered the chaotic kitchen.

"He's not a visitor—he's our guest!" Leighton emphasized with strained cordiality.

Why do I have da feelin' I've been a hot topic of conversation between these two?

The couple exchanged charged glares in the kitchen before Mrs. Leighton wiped her hands on her apron and approached Rin hastily.

"You don't mind, do you? You can take a bowl, some bread, and some ale."

Before Leighton could interject, Rin replied.

"Just tell me where you want me to go for da night."

Another surreptitious glare passed between the spouses and they both replied at the same time.

"The guest room downstairs!"

"The barn!" Mrs. Leighton cried.

"Hilda!" Leighton yelled in disbelief.

She did peer back at him skittishly.

"We have guests—there's nary a proper surface in the house to sleep on with Josephine bringing the children with her while she helps me with Margret and her baby…"

Leighton insisted on walking him to the barn. He moved ahead in a sullen silence, obviously still stoking a heated argument in his head.

"I am sorry," he stated simply. "I am grateful you have come here to help us. I am of the mind that if a man can help another, it matters little what his race is." He lowered his head somewhat. "Obviously, not all my neighbors feel the same way."

"Dat explains da writing on da side of da barn," Rin noted.

"If I ever catch who came into my property and defaced my barn…" he fumed. Rin said nothing and wondered if Leighton would have to look much further than his kitchen. "There are some among our number who would rather lose their farms to some unnamed plague and go cry their miseries to the Light than get aid from the Horde. I don't understand it. I really don't. These farms…they are all we have. We've staked all our fortunes and futures here. I cannot believe they would rather cling to a…What should I call it? An…illusion! That's it! Of an idealized Alliance, of a past that never was—than to the opportunity to provide our families with security and a decent livelihood."

Rin had a few thoughts on the matter himself. Perhaps, under different circumstances, he would have been willing to sit down with Leighton and tell him how these beliefs were deeply ingrained. That sometimes the mere threat of challenging these beliefs threatened an entire identity…and the great fear was that there would be nothing else to put in its place. Of course, there always was. But that was hard work that could be painful. He wanted to tell Leighton that other than the use of a few nouns and some pointy tusks, his intolerant neighbors weren't too different from a disturbingly large number of Horde radicals that was growing more and more outspoken during Garrosh's recent ascent to power. Instead, he said nothing. He was tired. And a conversation with Leighton wouldn't change the world.


The barn was gloomy, but it would be adequate shelter. Had he been prideful, he would have taken his pack and camped in the forest. He'd actually contemplated the option, weighing whether it was more dangerous for him to remain at the farm or the forest. He decided he would stay put. Perhaps it was a streak of stubbornness, but he didn't feel like giving a few bigots the satisfaction of knowing they had run him out of town.

Leighton climbed a rickety ladder up to a smaller hayloft.

"You can hunker down here for the night." Leighton indicated the rustically framed window. "Best view, if you ask me."

The view outside the window revealed they were up on a hill and that the gently sloping fields yielded to a distant view of the Veiled Sea. The Veiled Sea was nothing like the South Seas—it was darker and colder. Far more foreboding and mysterious. In the moonlight it looked like molten steel.

"Can I get you anything?" Leighton wondered, surveying the tidy loft with satisfaction. Rin was about to tell him no, but his expression changed suddenly. "You have yet to eat something! Come back to the house- let's get you some food!"

He was about to protest, but Leighton was obstinate. He realized there was little he could say to dissuade the man: it was no longer about him, he suspected, but about Leighton's needing to assert control over his own household.

Good luck, he sighed, following the man down again.

Chapter Text

"I didn't know then what I wanted, but the ache for it was palpable."
― Sue Monk Kidd

The showdown at the house had been anticlimactic. Everyone seemed to be engaged in their meals in the dining room, so no one was there to object or at least cast dirty glances at them as Leighton ladled some stew from a large pot into a deep bowl for him. Although Leighton was beckoning him towards the dining room, even going as far as opening the door, Rin raised his hand in a dismissive gesture.

"I'll be takin dis back to da barn," he explained as the raucousness in the room died down at the sight of him standing in the kitchen, clutching a bowl.

"You are welcome to come join us. You are our guest," Leighton repeated meaningfully, more to his wife than to him.

"Much appreciated. Dis is plenty. I have to get back to my notes so I make da most of tomorrow," he apologized. The room had grown so quiet again he could hear a clock ticking in the background. "Good night."

He heard some low mumbles to his greeting and he began to walk out of the kitchen as Leighton disappeared into the house. Just as he stepped outside, the door creaked open behind him.

"I'm coming with you." Sahar stood beside him suddenly, her pack slung over her shoulder.

He looked at her askance, a bit miffed for reasons he didn't quite comprehend.

"Oh, so now dat it's time to do da dishes, we be buddies again?"

"What are you talking about?"

What was he talking about? She was a draenei- a member of the Alliance among other members of her faction. Why should he punish her for the behavior of others? And why should he expect her to fix all the wrongs of the world?

"Are you mad?" she asked, tilting her head and trying to catch his eyes while they walked to the barn.

"No," he lied. "Just tired."

Still, he couldn't resist needling her just a little bit…

"Why don't ya be goin' back to da house? I am sure they be havin' a nice comfortable bed for ya…and it's less likely someone will be aiming to burn da house instead of da barn."

Sahar snorted.

"You ARE mad! I'll have you know that while I was there, I stood up for you!"

"Did ya, now?" he teased, entering the barn and waiting for her to follow so he could lock the heavy door for the night.

"Yes. I even put in a good word for you."

"Ah, a good word? So ya be tellin' them how handsome old' Rin be?" he joked.

"You're not old," she retorted, oddly flustered. She was blinking nervously, her tail beginning to twitch. "Anyway, no. I didn't say any such nonsense. That would be blatant lying," she shot back coyly. He chuckled at that and she grinned as well.

She be pretty, he mused, struck by her lovely smile. For a draenei, that is, he quickly amended.

"I appreciate it, but again, don't bother on my behalf. I just want to be gettin' dis mission done. I don't really care about whether or not Mrs. Leighton will be knittin' me a Winter Veil scarf this year." He lit the lamp dangling from the hook by the door. "All kiddin' aside, Sahar. Ya don't have to stay here. Go get a good night's rest."

"They have enough room," Sahar revealed. "They could easily accommodate both of us."

"I don't really care. I'm more at ease here. Ya go: I honestly don't mind."

"I can't," she explained. "I won't stay there unless you do. I told them as much."

He shrugged.

"All ya doin' is savin' them da trouble of makin' up da guest room."

"I didn't do it just to prove something to them."

"Good for ya." He yawned.

"I did it because…We're partners, right?" she explained. "We're in this together. And…And we have each other's back."

She was disarmingly sweet, he thought, even as he gave her a curt nod in acknowledgment. He wondered how long it would be before she became jaded like everyone else who they made their way up the ranks. He sat down on a bale of hay and tried some of the stew. To his great annoyance, the rim of the bowl kept striking his tusks. He cursed lightly while Sahar fussed with her pack. He picked out some stringy chicken meat with his fingertips. Needs more spice, he thought.

"Where are we sleeping?" she wondered, looking around. He pointed at the ladder.

"Up there. Set ya pack down, if ya like. I'll be up soon."

She was staring at the ladder and he focused on his meal, trying to savor some of the broth by dunking the hearty dark bread Leighton had given him into the bowl. After a few bites, Rin looked up and saw that Sahar hadn't moved from her spot before the ladder.

"It's not an escalator," he provoked.

She turned her head, peering at him crossly.

"I KNOW that. That's not the problem." She looked down. "The rungs…It's hard to climb up these ladders with hooves."

"Ah." He tipped his canteen, washing broth and fat off his fingertips. "Come on, I'll be goin' up, too. I'll help ya." Adjusting his pack, he deftly climbed up and then positioned himself at the edge of the loft, holding the ladder firmly and urging her up.

"Ya can take my hand and I'll haul ya over."

She began tentatively, positioning her large, heavy hoof on the cylindrical rung. It scuffed the wood, sliding off.

"Come on, pull yasself up," he encouraged her. She scrambled a bit, gripping the upper rungs tightly with her hands and pulling up. When she was close enough, he grasped one of her arms. Just in time, too, for she slid off the ladder again, and ended up hanging vertically against it.

"Pheta vi acahachi…" she grumbled, gripping his forearm tightly while trying frantically to secure her footing.

"Here," he offered her his other hand. Her hoof slipped again and he was yanked forward, almost toppling over the edge of the loft. Grimacing from the effort, Rin began to pull her up. "It's really a shame you aren't a gnome," he grunted, tugging harder, until her upper body was finally over the ledge and only her legs dangled below the drop. She hoisted herself up after an awkward moment.

"Ya all right?" he asked casually.

She watched silently as Rin brought up the ladder for the night.

"I am thinking maybe I should go back to the house and take that room, after all…"

Rin startled.

"But I just brought up da ladder…"

The sly grin on her lips gave her away.

"Ah, Sahar! Ya always be messin' with me," he huffed, dropping down on the bedroll he'd left there earlier. She laughed—a warm, spontaneous sound.

"Just help me down tomorrow morning, all right?"

"Sure. I can give ya a good push," he teased.

They had both settled into their sleeping bags. He yawned loudly, tugging up his blanket to shield himself from the crisp nighttime air.

"I need to say somethin'" Rin began. He heard Sahar shift again on her bedroll to face him. "What ya did to come here on dis mission…It be wrong." She held silent. "But I appreciate that ya be willing to carry ya weight."

"All right," she said quietly.

"And thanks."

"For what?"

"For what ya said back there—about bein' partners." He turned to face the window, looking out at the stars spread out over the ensorcelled green sky. "Ya might not be a proper shaman just yet, but ya be a decent person, Sahar," he said in a gentler voice.

"Thank you for letting me come along—for giving me a chance to prove myself. I will not let you down," she assured him.

"Rin'Seyi?" she called out softly, after some silence.

"Mm?" he turned his head towards her.

"You mentioned Shadowmoon Valley earlier…Have you been there?"

He let out a low grunt.

"Was dere just last year. Some mage idiot claimed that the Dead Scar in Eversong Woods did not properly close or heal because it shared properties with da soil in Shadowmoon."

She propped up her pillow, interested.

"Well, both are corrupted by Fel energy."

"It be more than that! Shadowmoon, yes, be concentrated Fel energy—that, and da fact da temperature be inhospitable."

"The Dead Scar by Silvermoon is plagued with all kinds of monsters, isn't it?" she wondered.

"Yes, but undead! There be some concentration of Fel magic, but the true reason the Scar does not heal is because the land is dead."

"Have you been to Silvermoon?" she asked, completely ignoring the story he was more interested in telling. He'd confronted the arrogant mage during a report to the Kirin Tor in Dalaran. They'd almost comes to blows. He'd felt quite heroic and vindicated after their showdown.

"Yes. I studied da Dark Scar. Spent time in da area. It's kind of why da damn elves always volunteer me when there be suspicion of da demonic afoot."

Now it was Sahar's turn to yawn.

"So, what is Silvermoon like?" she wondered. "I've heard that its towers are resplendent—that the city is beautiful…Sumptuous…"

He smirked. It was a stunning city. Its ornate facades, gauzy curtains billowing in the breeze, lush, welcoming courtyards laid out with low-sitting tables and pillows barely concealed the fact it was all propelled by an over-reliance on magic and the constant mining of the arcane for power. "It be a sight to behold. I will say that much."

"It is a shame our people aren't on better terms. M'uru healed their Sunwell…" she noted sleepily.

"And ya'd think they'd never ally with trolls: da Amani be always attacking their outposts."

"Are the Amani any relatives of yours?" she provoked.

He grimaced and turned his back to her, under her light chuckling.

"I hope someday to see it with my eyes. Everything…it sounds marvelous," she sighed. "Who knows? Maybe someday our leaders will guide us in putting our differences aside and uniting us."

"Ya had too much wine," he grumbled, facing the window, staring out.

"And yet…There are those who see the good in working together: the Circle of Cenarion, the Argent Crusade…"

"Da Earthen Ring," he added.

"The Earthen Ring is still very Horde-dominated."

He furrowed his brow.

"Well, da tauren, da trolls, and especially da orcs have a longer tradition of shamanism. Ya people come to it through them."

She said nothing for a moment.

"Yet, our shamanistic practice is different. My teachers believe that communing with the elements is communing with the Light."

Rin shrugged.

"Whatever helps ya get there," he muttered.

"It is and it isn't." Suddenly, the sleepiness was gone from her voice. "My teachers would have me believe that the elements are subservient to the Light. But it's not…that simple. They think the elements bend to the Light, that they are moral entities. That there is some kind of hierarchy."

Oo, what have I done? I deserve this. I really need to learn how to shut-up.

"The elements are amoral! They're beyond good and bad. They are forces of creation and destruction and their only constant is change. To expect them to only act in service of the greater good is to impose a system of values and—"

"Sahar," Rin pleaded. "It be late."

"All I am saying is that it is unfair to impose such a narrow interpretation. Some of us understand what happened to Farseer Nobundo in a different way," she continued, agitated.

Rin took a deep breath, his eyes focused on a pretty ripple of deep green unfurling across the sky. All that was not his problem. She would have to sort it out, figure out how to work with her teachers.

"Just because I don't evoke the Light when I summon the elements doesn't mean I've turned my back on it! I have heard Farseer Nobundo speak—and everyone keeps trying to reinterpret his words, give it this other context. My teachers are stubborn. They just won't admit it."

Rin scratched his head.

"Admit what?"

"That some of us might require different training." She was definitely upset. "That some of us shouldn't be held back for doing things differently."

Rin said nothing. The ripple in the sky curled inwardly, its filaments of light reminding him of the ridged curve of a dragon's back.

"I've been training for a long time. But I am not allowed to progress because I don't do things the way I should. I am getting tired of being told to conform, to uphold a way that doesn't flow or come to me naturally. My teachers are kind, but I regret to say that partisanship, these ridiculous politics of faction, have infiltrated the draenei shamanistic schools."

It was inevitable. Everything ended up being tainted by it. Those looking for reasons to fight, to destroy, to jockey for power would always dredge up ample reasons to hate.

"And what do ya tink ya can do about it, Sahar?" he asked, his deep voice piercing the silence that had fallen over the barn.

She shifted restlessly.

"I don't know. Stay an apprentice forever," she huffed.

He cracked a grin.

"I'll put in a good word for ya to join da Horde," he joked.

She snorted.

"Only if I can train with Thrall," she declared. She sat up. "Have you ever met him?" she asked, suddenly excited.

He rubbed his face tiredly.

"A few times— though only briefly."

She actually squealed and suddenly the memory of her brushing her hands over the earth came back to him. It was an ancient, powerful gesture. One he had seen shamans do before entering a valley or a plain.

"Greeting the earth," he'd been told by a tauren shaman, during his travels. "We show her respect and in turn she guides our way."

Maybe her draenei teachers believed they needed to harness the elements? He knew that among his people the idea was that one surrendered to them. One did not command: one listened.

"What is Thrall like?" She sat up on her bedroll.

"Big and green. Now, for fuck's sake, go to sleep!" He even crossed his arms beneath the covers.


"I will tell ya tomorrow."

"All right," she finally mumbled, deflatedly.

He felt a stab of guilt.

Rin stirred from his sleep when he felt yet again a warm body huddled up against his back, an arm draped across his waist, and a soft cheek resting against his neck. He blinked sleepily in the darkness. The temperature had dropped and his breath materialized in the air as smoke.

"Sahar." He pat her arm gently. "Ya be gettin' confused again—I'm not Drannord."

"No…Not him…" she finally agreed, not budging from her spot.

"Sahar—wake up," he cautioned her, gingerly removing her arm from around his waist. "Ya need to stay in ya bedroll."

She did slide her arm off, but remained nestled against him, turning her face so that her lips grazed the nape of his neck. She sighed, and the feathery-light tickle of warm breath against his skin was exciting him too much; he was hard and straining against the front of his breeches.

"Come on! Wake up!" He was trying valiantly not to let the moment become even more charged while simultaneously wondering what would happen if he were to turn around, draw her up against him…

She rolled away at last with a sleepy grunt and turned her back to him.

"Sorry," she offered hazily.

He remained awake, listening to her breathing as she slipped back into a deep sleep. He winced lightly at last, burrowing deeper into his pillow, trying to dismiss the unpleasant ache between his legs and the peculiar yearning that lingered after she slipped away.

Chapter Text

"The expected always happens."
― Benjamin Disraeli

"Sahar, ya need to move ya bedroll over there," Rin informed his sleepy companion the following morning, as they prepared to descend from the loft. Sahar stared at him with bleary eyes before turning her head to glance at the opposite end of the loft, where a shallow heap of hay sat.

"Why?" She looked back at him incredulously.

"Because when ya be sleepin', ya keep tinking I'm ya boyfriend and I wake up feelin' like I am bein' held captive by an octopus, that's why," he joked, trying to make the profound awkwardness of their conversation less evident.

"You're nothing like Drannord," she stated quietly.

"Heh! He'd wish he could be as good-lookin' as myself." He was grinning cockily as he lowered the ladder, planting it firmly on the ground below. "But don't be tellin' him how ya be cozyin' up to me at night—I don't need some draenei seein' red comin' after me." He'd tried saying it in a lighthearted manner, but when he looked up, instead of a smirk or saucy grin, he found her to be frozen in place, an expression of helplessness on her face. He slapped both his thighs and sat back on his heels. "Ah, Sahar—it be nothin'. Let it go. I just be sayin' somethin' because all that…" He paused, searching for the words while remembering her curvy, warm body spooning his, her hand running down his chest to rest over his abdomen, her breath against his neck. "It be somethin' not intended for me."

"I'm terribly sorry." She nervously tucked a lock of her dark hair behind her ear. "My parents always said I was a restless sleeper. I've been told I tend to talk in my sleep." She bit her lip and averted her gaze. "I don't remember much after I wake up."

"Well, Drannord is a lucky man if ya be missin' him so. I take it ya aren't apart that often?"

She shrugged dismissively, still staring at the corner of the loft where he'd ordered her to set up her bedroll.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. "How unpleasant for you," she apologized, but he detected a curious tentativeness to her tone that invited a reply.

He didn't realize what he was saying sounded like until it came out of his mouth.

"Not unpleasant at all," he told her. "I can tink of worse things than having a beautiful woman embrace me at night."

She didn't seem to know what to do with herself. She stared down at her hooves, her tail lightly swishing to and fro.

Oh, shit, he thought inhaling deeply. Let's try to master this 'shut the fel up' skill. If she wasn't uncomfortable around him before, now she would be completely put off by him.

"I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry," he began, drawing in a deep breath. "All I am tryin' to say is: don't feel bad about it." He contemplated the dreary and gloomy barn. Daylight hadn't even broken yet. "We're doin' da best we can, is all." What the heck had that meant? He began lowering himself down the ladder. "We all right, Sahar?"

She seemed to gather herself at last and nodded faintly.

All right my ass. I should've kept my big mouth closed. She probably tinks I'm a creep, taking advantage of her while she's asleep. Make it right, Rin.

"If ya like, I can sleep down here," he told her, gripping the side of the ladder and looking at the bales of hay piled beneath the sleeping loft. "Or outside." She glanced up at last. "Or back in Orgrimmar? I can just go away," he offered playfully. He couldn't read her reaction. Suddenly she seemed so stoic, with her silvery eyes betraying nothing.

"That's not necessary." She peered at him, her expression hardening. "You want to leave that badly?"

"No!" he quickly interjected. "That's not what I be sayin' at all! But if ya do, that be fine. Ya can leave. I can always ask those clowns at Feathermoon for emergency aid because they owe me, for makin' me come out here… Or if ya want me to keep my distance, I will—and don't tink twice about sayin' so. I mean, we be workin' together. I don't want ya to be worryin' around me."

She glanced at the ladder and he thought she was probably choosing her next words.

"Just help me down the ladder," she ordered, squatting by the edge.

"How we be goin' to do this?" he wondered, stepping down a few rungs so that Sahar could position herself.

"You go first and then I'll follow," she decided, gripping the ladder tightly as she secured one hoof then the other over some lower rungs.

Great. If she falls, she'll fall right on my head, he sighed. Just as he had the thought, her hoof slipped.

"Ma-no icta," she muttered to herself, freezing in place. "This isn't going to work."

He halted as well, looking up and resting his gaze on her shapely bottom. He quickly glanced away.

"I can go ask Leighton for a rope. That might be easier for ya."

"I don't want to just dangle here, waiting!" she complained.

"Climb back up, then!"

She firmly planted her hoof on a higher rung, but as she did so, the wood cracked. She gasped and hugged the ladder. They weren't at a vertiginous height, but jumping down would likely result in something bruised, sprained, or even fractured.

"Rin!" she implored. He quickly hauled himself up to her.

"I have an idea." He assessed their predicament. It was a decent solution but it would make their earlier exchange all the more ironic. "Lean against me and we'll go down together, slowly." He didn't know why, but the thought of "together" and "slowly" was wreaking all kinds of mischief in his mind.

Get ya head out of da gutter. Ya be in enough trouble, he scolded himself.

"All right," she agreed, trying not to look down. She began to lower herself, her back leaning against his chest, her head resting against his left shoulder. He held the ladder for dear life as he leaned slightly outward.

"Okie-dokie…Now, put ya hoof over my foot."

She hesitated

"That's a bad idea."

He huffed.

"Just do it."

She shifted slightly and placed her heavy hoof over his bare foot.

"Aiie!" he cried out sharply. She nervously pulled her hoof up, losing her balance and almost sliding down, caught only by his own body shielding her from going any further.

"I told you!" she scolded him.

"Ya did. Ya did," he agreed, grimacing. "Now what?" he puzzled.

She smelled good—a clean, flowery scent. While he was trying not to enjoy her proximity and focus on their conundrum instead of her perfume, she appeared to be wriggling against him and the ladder, thrusting her arm this way and that, gradually rotating until she was facing him.

"I think this might be easier. This way, I can hang on to you as we go down." She slowly and deliberately draped her arms around his shoulders. Their faces were so close that if he leaned in a bit, he could kiss her.

He chuckled.

"What?" She searched his amber eyes.

He shook his head.

"I tink we be destined to be in awkward positions with each other. Ya just gotta laugh, is all."

She smiled and as she drew herself up, he could have sworn she had intentionally pressed herself up against him more than necessary.

"It might be easier if I…" She stopped, looking down between them, trying to sort out the angle. "How about if I just do this?" She raised one of her legs off the ladder and wrapped it around his hip. When she did so, she briefly pushed her pelvis against his groin. He grit his teeth, the sensation igniting his desire. "Do you think you can go down the ladder with me holding you like this?" she asked innocently.

He nodded, dazed. He could feel the throbbing begin between his legs. He had to move fast or she would realize what was happening and have every right to be disgusted.

Her other leg encircled him and she was wedged tightly between him and the ladder.

"Let's do this!" he announced, mustering some phony cheerfulness. She embraced him firmly, her breasts conspicuously pushing up against his chest. He descended the ladder, slightly trembling and not just because of the strain of carrying her. They were halfway down at last when she began to squirm. "What's wrong?"

"I need to adjust myself!" she complained with unexpected annoyance, staring into his eyes. She shimmied her hips, pushing up harder against him. This time he was quite sure the motion was anything but unintentional. She was hugging him tightly, her cheek brushing against his.

"Sahar," he groaned warningly. "This is gettin' out of hand." He was about to yank one of her legs from around his waist when she caressed his neck and nuzzled his cheek with her nose. "What ya be doin'?" he asked bewilderedly.

"What do you think I am doing?" she uttered in a low voice. "How daft can you be?" she huffed. She brought her lips close to his ear. "You said you found me beautiful…I just seized the opportunity to tell you I find you handsome as well." She kissed his ear and let her fingertips trail down his chest.

His resolve crumbled; everything she was doing felt too good. It was his turn to draw her closer against him. She let out a soft moan and positioned herself more directly against his poorly-concealed bulge. She faced him with hooded eyes.

"Can we kiss?" she asked, examining his tusks.

"Oh, yes," he replied. "Just don't move suddenly." He released one hand from the ladder to cup her face and tilt it at the right angle to kiss her. Her lips were full, soft and yielding against his. Her low moans, sighs, and the urgent way she rubbed herself against him was setting him on fire. All he could think of was getting rid of those inconvenient trousers they were both wearing to feel her properly against him. They kissed more deeply and their grinding against each other grew more intense.

Too intense, he realized too late, their enthusiastic make-out session displacing the ladder and causing it to veer forward so that they were falling backward. They both eyed each other with expressions of panic before toppling to the ground.

Rin winced, slightly raising his head. The hay on the floor had broken their fall somewhat, but he'd still had the wind knocked out of him. He grunted loudly, taking in the scene: Sahar was draped over him and the ladder had fallen by their side. After a few seconds, Sahar shook her head and looked up at Rin dazedly before pushing up over him in alarm.

"Are you all right?" she asked worriedly.

He paused before replying, taking stock of himself for a moment. He'd hit the ground flatly, but not that hard. He would be hurting later on, he guessed, and perhaps there would be a bruise or two, but he was not in any kind of worrisome pain.

"I tink I am all right," he declared, rubbing his shoulder where it had struck the ground. "How about ya?"

"You broke my fall." She graced him with one of her charming smiles. "If you'd like, I can help you ease any discomfort," she offered suggestively in a low voice.

He snorted lightly and ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. He shifted beneath her, spreading his legs further apart so she was positioned between them.

"So," he began, "what did ya have in mind?"

She was still smiling when she leaned closer and kissed him. It was a sweet, playful kiss and when she began to laugh, his own laughter rumbled deep in his chest—he didn't even know why. The laughter faded as they continued kissing, their caresses growing bolder, impatiently seeking contact with each other's skin. She slid her hand up and down his thigh, just grazing his cock and driving him wild. He slipped his hand past her trousers' waistband feeling her warm skin. She closed her eyes and gasped against his mouth when he squeezed her bottom and then let his fingers wander further, brushing over her underclothes. Sahar's breath hitched and he couldn't help letting out a low grunt when he stroked her between her legs, finding her promisingly wet against the flimsy fabric. She closed her eyes again and pushed lightly against his hand.

"Oh, Rin," she whispered breathily, her eyes still closed as he caressed her. She was so sensitive, so responsive, he thought, flushing with excitement. Her hand stopped rubbing his thigh and landed over the front of his breeches, tugging roughly at the laces. The promise of what was about to happen, especially once she pulled him and began running her hand up and down his aroused shaft, made him suck in his breath and close his own eyes.

"It's… so... blue!" she said with candid surprise after a brief pause.

He grinned, not opening his eyes. It was taking all his concentration to keep stroking her, making her melt against his fingers, and not lose himself completely to the delicious sensations her hand sliding up and down his cock was giving him.

And he was quite certain that's how Leighton would have found them—he with his hand down her pants, and she with his big blue cock in her fist— for all the world to see once the barn's doors were flung open.

Except that he had heard the warning footsteps over the gravel outside as they hurriedly approached the barn.

"Shit!" he cried, both of them breaking away rapidly. Sahar sprung up, running her hands through her hair to make it look neater, while he tucked himself back into his breeches, nervously doing up the laces. The door began to creak open and Rin seized Sahar's hand as if seeking to have her hoist him up just as Leighton emerged before them.

"Good mor—" Leighton's voice trailed off when he saw Rin rising from the ground with a grimace and the ladder lying flatly on the ground. "What happened here?" he asked with concern.

"We fell off da ladder," Rin explained. It wasn't a lie, after all.

"I might need some rope from now on," Sahar quickly added. Leighton appeared confused. She pointed at her hooves. "They're too big for the rungs."

Leighton nodded slowly.

"I didn't think of that."

"Don't worry!" She smiled broadly. Rin noticed with satisfaction that she was still flushed and slightly out of breath. "A rope will do nicely."

"I'll arrange it," he assured her. "You'll have some by the end of the day."

He pushed past them with two large tin buckets.

"I have to milk the cows today." He glared in the direction of the farmhouse. "Hilda is complaining about some indisposition," he confided.

Uh-huh. Her ailment's called 'troll in da barn.'

The dour-looking young man from the previous day wandered into the room. Rin and Sahar exchanged conspiratorial glances. It was a good thing they had stopped when they did.

Well, relatively speaking, he sighed faintly.

"You've met my boy Ahern," Leighton pat the boy's back as he walked by them with a curt nod, two different buckets in his own hands.

Ahern fetched a small stool hanging off a hook on the wall. Rin caught the longing glance he shot Sahar before trudging towards the stalls.

"What are your plans for today?" Leighton asked.

Rin cleared his throat.

"Today we be collectin' various samples of soil and testin' them."

"We have had the soil tested already. Sent samples of it to our herbalist in town."

"And what did da herbalist say?" Rin wondered, crossing his arms. Sahar was staring unabashedly at his bare chest and muscular arms. A twinge of arousal coursed through him. He held her gaze meaningfully.

"There was nothing wrong, as far as he could tell. He said he was even able to grow some seeds from it. There is no reason for our crops to be failing," Leighton complained frustratedly. A steady "phish-phish" sound came from one of the bays where Ahern was milking one of the cows.

"Who is this herbalist?" Rin asked interestedly. "I would be likin' to have a word with him."

Leighton rubbed his chin.

"Perhaps going into town is a bad idea. Folks are a bit jittery in these parts."

"Then let Sahar go," he suggested.

"No, no…Just…I can invite him here." Leighton nodded to himself, growing more pleased with his solution. "Yes: we'll have him over. I'll ask him to come here."

"In da meanwhile, I'll be conducting my own tests," Rin warned him.

"Of course, of course. Do you need any help? I can spare Ahern for part of this morning and Inga, after lunch." His expression hardened as a thought crossed his mind. "If her mother is feeling better and can spare her, that is."

"No need. Sahar can help me—we be fine."

Sahar nodded enthusiastically.

"Yes. Rin and I, we work together well." She shot him another sultry glance. "Very well."

Rin pressed his lips together to conceal his grin.

Ya little minx!

Chapter Text

"Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. "
― Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rin and Sahar made their way up a hill toward the fields. He waited until they were out of earshot.

"Ok, what was that all about, Miss I-Have-a-Boyfriend? Not that I be complainin', but I was not expecting this!"

She was walking ahead of him, her hips undulating before his appreciative gaze.

"Are you surprised? And here I thought you knew it would end up like this all along, Mr. I-Am-So-Good-Lookin'!" She turned her head halfway to glance back at him.

"I'm just curious about ya man back home. I was gonna say ya be cuckolding him, but he already has horns, yah?"

She looked away, flustered.

"I suppose I should explain myself."

He shrugged.

"I was jokin', Sahar. Ya don't have to. It's ya business."

"No, I don't mind." She took a deep breath. "Drannord and I…We are…taking a break. Living a little before deciding if we're really going to spend the rest of our lives together."

"Aah! So ya be sowing ya wild oats?" he teased her. "I heartily approve."

"He and I agreed we could see other people."

"Just see? We did more than just lookin', Miss."

"And I'm not finished lookin' at you, Mister." She checked into him playfully.

He laughed loudly, startling a small flock of quails nearby into the air.

"I just might accept Mrs. Leighton's invitation to use her washroom once we return," she revealed.

"Da pail and wash cloth in da barn no good for ya anymore?" he feigned surprise. "I suppose if I tried to do da same, that washroom will mysteriously be out-of-order."

"Well, make sure you only ask to use it after I'm done, all right?"

"So much for bein' partners, I guess!" He raised his eyebrows.

"You'll have to forgive me, but I have something important to do tonight."

"Oh? And what could you possibly be doin' out here in Nowhereland?"

"A certain troll…" She cast him a winsome grin and he felt a bloom of warmth spread over his chest.

"Tsk-tsk…What's a nice Alliance girl like yasself doin', consortin' with trolls?"

"I don't appreciate your discriminating against an entire people based on a few isolated incidents!" She wagged her finger in his face with hammy indignation.

He chuckled. "Actually, I could discriminate based on a whole bunch of incidents. Heh! My relatives alone would be enough."

"I'll have you know my particular troll is quite lovely."

"Your troll!" he cried. She grinned slyly and he played along. "And what is he like, anyway, this lovely troll of yours?"

"He is charming…but a little clueless! He didn't pick up on my cues at first!" She rolled her eyes. He couldn't resist. He quickly glanced over his shoulder to ascertain no one was around before grasping her around the waist and pulling her closer to him.

"I tink he had no idea ya be interested in him."

She slipped her arms around him.

"He is also intelligent, honest, and kind." The playfulness in her tone was gone—instead, she peered into his eyes with devastating sincerity. He blinked slowly, enjoying her words, her sweetness. "And the fact he is quite handsome doesn't hurt, either," she whispered, before giving him a kiss.

"Mm," he sighed, closing his eyes and thinking that the stupid soil samples could wait and what they should really be doing was scouting out a quiet nook where they could enjoy each other under the forest's canopy. He wanted to finish what they had begun that morning, and given the way she was kissing him, he suspected she did too. When they broke away from the kiss, his brow furrowed. "Wait…I need to be sure: this troll ya be talkin' about: it be me, right?"

She snorted before giving him a light punch to his shoulder.

The lightheartedness faded and their smiles froze on their lips once they crested the hill overlooking the valley. He gazed upon the rolling sea of death below—browned crops, all ominously brittle and dried out—and his expression hardened.

Ah, yes. I almost forgot why we came here, he thought dourly. Sahar touched his arm before pointing. A plume of smoke rose from one of the corners of the field.

"Let's go!" He followed the steep trail hewn on the side of the hill leading down. They hurried through the brown rushes, approaching a small clearing where the smoke was coming from. His arm shot out to block Sahar before she wandered into the clearing.

"What's wrong?"

"Don't go any further!" He crouched and touched the earth. "Feel it."

She humored him and crouched beside him. She raked her fingertips over the ground before burying her fingers into the dirt. Her expression immediately changed as she sifted the soil.

"This be some strong magic. I know a spell anchor when I see one," he announced, standing up.

Sahar closed her eyes, rapt in concentration. Rin looked up at the sky and after a moment, glanced at the surrounding woods.

All still. Not one bird in da sky. His eyes narrowed. Embers still glowed in the clearing, black scorch marks scarred into the soil, forming…a symbol? A rune? It was hard to tell from where they stood.

"What do ya tink?" he glanced down at Sahar, who hadn't stirred. She remained still, her fingertips firmly planted in the ground. "Ya gettin' anytin'?" he asked in a quieter voice.

Not the slightest breeze rustled the treetops.

He crossed his arms. It was too quiet.

"Well?" he persisted. Looking down all he saw was the top of her head, her short horns curving alongside her head. At her continued silence, he crouched down again. "Ya must be gettin' sometin'," he began. She did not respond. "Sahar?" He tilted his head. Her eyes were shut tightly. "Hey," he said more gently, grasping her by the shoulder. She began to move her lips, uttering unintelligible words breathily.

Sometin's not right.

"Sahar!" he shook her more brusquely, his panic rising.

Her eyes shot open, but instead of the silvery glow he was used to, he found himself staring into an inky blackness. Her lips were still moving rapidly.

Break her contact with da ground! he ordered himself.

He wrenched her hand off the earth.

The shriek she let out reverberated throughout the valley.

He carried her as far as he could—she was not a slight, petite woman. They were halfway back to the farmhouse when he had to stop and place her down by the fence. He sat her down and leaned her against the fencepost before reaching for his canteen. She was unsteady, confused.

He offered her water. "Here, drink some."

She pushed the canteen away, stirring against the fence post restlessly.

"We have to go! Now!" she insisted.

He nodded, holding the canteen back for a moment.

"All right. We be almost back to da farm," he reassured her before offering her the canteen again. She pushed it away more forcefully and he frowned. "Just have a sip—whatever that spell was hit ya hard."

She grimaced.

"That's just it, Rin! That's what you're not getting!" she cried. "That was not a spell! That was not a spell!"

He exhaled tiredly.

"Here's what I tink: someone is comin' into da fields and placing those spell runes on da ground. It's magic—strong magic—and it's causing all da problems with da crops, da livestock, and da wildlife. Now we have to find out who is behind it. Could be cultists or someone trying to scare da homesteaders off to reclaim these lands."

"No," she insisted miserably.

"Could even be da Horde…I wouldn't put it past them," he muttered quietly, recalling the sinister events that had been occurring since Garrosh had come into power. He brushed Sahar's hair off her cheek gingerly. He noticed with relief that the silvery gleam had returned to her eyes.

"You don't understand. It's not…It's nothing I've ever seen before." She was agitated.

"Ssh," he soothed her as gently as he could. The farmhouse was still a hike away. He arched his back, feeling a dull, stiff ache radiate through his muscles.

"There was nothing there, Rin," she continued, her expression grief-stricken. "The earth is always…It's alive. Even in the driest places—even in the deserts surrounding Gadgetzan. The sands shift and the earth's hum mixes with that of the wind…But it always…It always speaks. The sound is different everywhere, but it is always present." She turned her head in the direction they'd just come from. "It was silent there, Rin. There was nothing."

"It be a very strong spell," he agreed. "And we need to find out more about it and what else is goin' on here. This be over both of our heads." He was trying not to insult her, her relative inexperience, even as a feeling of dread took a hold within him.

"When I dug my fingers into the earth, there was darkness…and silence. I listened and I searched and the deeper I went, the more abyssal the nothingness below. And it is spreading, Rin. It's moving—like an inkblot in water, unfurling all around us."

He furrowed his brow. A curse? If it was all stemming from those markings in the field, then he'd better go disrupt them.

"I tink perhaps I should be goin' back there to disrupt those symbols." He scratched his leg while contemplating his thoughts. "Maybe we'll even succeed in luring out who be doin' them, in da process."

She gripped his wrist.

"You don't understand! It's not a spell! It's nothing like that!"

"Then what is it, Sahar?" he asked frustratedly.

"It was death."

Rin swallowed hard even as he smirked.

"Ah, but ya see—death itself is not an unnatural ting! It's intrinsic to life—ya know that!"

She winced.

"I know! I am having difficulty explaining it better. It's death… and it isn't."

"Ya be tired. Ya need to rest," he told her not unkindly. "Come on—I don't tink I can carry ya all da way back, but let's see how far I can—"

"Like an aspect of death!" she turned to him more animatedly. "That's it! Like an aspect of death. Not death itself, but… parts of it."

Rin shook his head, confused.

"The parts that are rage, violence and hopelessness," she continued. "All the despair and pain." She faced him. "It is death that wants to destroy and consume…everything. Me. You." She surveyed their surroundings. "This place." She returned her gaze to him. "The entire world."

He helped her to her feet, but she refused to be carried back.

"I'll walk," she told him.

He draped her arm over his shoulder.

The farmstead came into view after a long, quiet and halting walk.

"Ya rest at da farmhouse," he instructed her. "I'll be gettin' Leighton and da others to take down that mark."

"Don't bother." She limped with effort, discomfort manifest on her face.

"It won't be hard to do," Rin argued.

"The runes will simply come back."

"Then we can set up an ambush." It would be simple enough to do, especially if he concealed himself in feral form.

"You don't understand. Nobody is putting the runes there! No one will appear to brand the earth again!"

He was about to protest when she continued.

"The mark is coming from below. It's overflowing and seeping up to the surface from that…darkness. That cursed emptiness."

"Why not?" Leighton wondered, scratching his head.

Rin had found Leighton and Ahern working on a downed section of fence behind the farmhouse.

"We need to study it better." Rin looked at the pile of discarded wood—both from the fence and the large branches that had cracked off the old oak tree soaring up, just beyond the fence.

"All right. We'll leave that field alone. Not like we can cultivate it at this point anyway."

"Ripley mentioned they had some strange markings show up in their fields as well. Said nothing would grow around it," Ahern offered.

Leighton frowned and exchanged glances with Rin.

"Help me with that beam, son." The farmer pat the lad on the back and Rin watched them unload a heavy wooden beam off the nearby cart. They dropped it with a loud dusty thud on the ground. Leighton paced aimlessly about for a short while before turning to him.

"Is this sabotage?" Leighton was growing agitated. "Is someone out there deliberately trying to ruin me?"

Rin shrugged uncomfortably.

"I don't know yet. I have never encountered magic of this kind."

"Well, do you know anyone who has?" Leighton cried out irritatedly. "I mean, that's why we went to you all: to ask for help. You are supposed to be the experts!"

Rin did not appreciate the human's dig.

"If ya want to look around for a better expert, be my guest. But let me explain sometin' to ya: my sayin' that I have never seen anytin' like this shouldn't make ya question our competence; it should make ya concerned that a phenomenon unknown or unseen is occurin' here."

His reply did little to appease the farmer.

"Our herbalist said that it was likely some residual magic from the nearby ruins. Or maybe the work of some cultists! We know they hide in the woods! Perhaps you have never dealt with such circumstances before?"

Rin sneered and crossed his arms.

"That be somethin' you will not be finding out."

"Why is that?" Leighton straightened up menacingly and so did Ahern, who gripped the mallet he'd been wielding tighter.

"Because I be takin' my leave. Good luck to ya. Seems like ya be in good hands with ya herbalist," Rin concluded mockingly. "Perhaps he can concoct some ointment for ya field."

It would probably be the most half-assed report he'd ever written to the Circle, but he'd make sure to include everything he'd learned so far. He surmised it was enough to launch a bigger inquiry and assemble more of the Circle and Earthen Ring's minds to tackle the enigma. He just wouldn't be a part of that team anymore, he'd decided, walking away toward the barn. He was pondering what to do about Sahar. If she wanted to stay longer, he would have to let her. He didn't like that possibility at all. If she wanted to leave with him, he would have to find them safe haven for the night—perhaps for a day, while she recovered from whatever her drained her—not just physically, but mentally. He found himself hoping Sahar would choose to depart with him.

"Rin!" he heard Leighton approach him. "Rin!"

He kept walking briskly until Leighton caught up with him.

"Listen," the human began, rattled. "Look, that…Back there…I'm taking a big hit. I don't know if I'll be able to pay back my loan at the end of the season. I needed these crops to yield enough for me to break even. And now you are telling me…" He dropped his head. "It is not what I wanted to hear. Not what I wanted to hear at all. I know you are trying to help us. But please understand." He glanced at the farmhouse. "I could lose everything."

Rin watched Ahern, standing so still where they had been just minutes earlier, watching his father like an alert guard dog. Rin nodded at last.

"I was just hoping it would be something…easy." He exhaled heavily. "But just because I will it, doesn't make it so." He placed his hand firmly on Rin's shoulder. "I'm sorry." He squeezed his shoulder. "Will you stay? Will you help us?" Rin peered at the man's weathered face, his brown eyes peering back at him expectantly.

I be a fool.

"Apology accepted," Rin finally replied. "Now, I need ya to do two tings for me."

"Of course," Leighton offered more agreeably.

"I need to talk to ya herbalist."

"Yes. I can arrange that."

"And I need a list of da farms where these symbols have appeared."

Leighton waved his son over.

"Ahern!" he shouted sternly. "Come here—I need you to tell me exactly what Ripley told you about those markings!"

Chapter Text

"What I value is the naked contact of a mind."
― Virginia Woolf

Rin was informed that the herbalist wouldn't be available until the following day, but he had the directions to three farms where runes had emerged in the fields.

"I should go with you," Leighton decided. "Could be dangerous for you to show up alone."

"Nobody will even know I been there."

"But how—" the man puzzled.

Rin grinned knowingly, pointing at the sky.

The breeze ruffled his feathers as he soared over the fields. Golden light scattered, playing off the surface of the Veiled Sea, shimmering brightly, as the sun began to set. He'd been gliding over the homesteaders' fields for the better part of an hour, hovering over what he'd confirmed were runes of some kind. They were different in each of the fields, though. And none of the fields had been as afflicted as Leighton's. There were a few constants: nothing grew around the runes—the ground appeared arid, barren of any growth, even weeds. Another thing he made note of was a peculiar, disorienting low frequency emanating from each of the runes at different intensities. It interfered with his bearings, as if scrambling his senses. The unpleasant sensation was stronger, again, in Leighton's field, but it was also present at each of the sites. He understood why other animals, especially birds, avoided proximity to them.

He ended his flight further away from the farmhouse, wary of startling any of the humans.

If that Mrs. Leighton sees me come out of my flight form, she might insist I be kept in da chicken coop instead, he thought sullenly.

It was already dark when he returned to the barn, a pail of warm water in one hand, and a cheesecloth bundle filled with half a loaf of dark bread, a hunk of cheese, and some smoked meat in the other. He'd asked for Sahar back at the farmhouse, but Mrs. Leighton had shooed him off dismissively, stating that the draenei was resting and couldn't be disturbed.

The shrew wouldn't even let him enter the house to see her.

He was sure he could have turned to Leighton, had he been around, but he did not feel like dealing with further animosity that night. Besides, he thought, stepping into the barn, Sahar was probably better off in a soft bed. It was the one thought that consoled him when he recalled how helpless he'd felt as he carried her earlier in his arms. He washed off quickly in an empty stall, sponging the water from the pail onto his sore body. The water stung his flesh in the crisp air.

His thoughts kept returning to Sahar and he recalled her affectionate flirtatiousness earlier.

"Some promising evening," he confided in one of the cows across the way that was slowly chewing her cud. "This mornin' I had an armful of her. Now, I be all alone." He ran his hand through his thick red hair, shaking out the water. "But it's not her fault," he revealed, as the cow took another mouthful. "Whatever she felt out there…hurt her." He hung up the towel and dragged the pail with soapy water to a corner. "I don't know why I be tellin' ya all these tings!" He cast the cow a melancholy grin. "Ya remind me of my friend Dean." He sighed. "Ya two related?"

The cow mooed.

The odd runes bothered him. He didn't know what they meant, but he had the suspicion he had seen them before. He was lying in bed, sketching them in his journal the best he could, trying to find a pattern or anything else to render them more recognizable or trigger his memory.

Da thing about these runes, even if Sahar is correct about them not being put there by cultists, is that they will be recognizable. If they be a spell, a summons, or da ancient name of some entity, there will be a record somewhere. Da occult is always well established...and well documented.

He positioned the lantern closer, letting his gaze wander, for the umpteenth time, to Sahar's empty bedroll. He was fairly certain he'd been at his attempts to crack the runes for at least a couple hours. He was exhausted and his back hurt from the clumsy fall that morning, from the strain of flying…and carrying Sahar.

What I need to do is talk to a warlock, he decided, troubled. I need someone who knows more than I do about old occult texts. I don't reckon there be any warlocks living in town here…But maybe if I were to ask for help at Camp Mojache?

He shivered at the thought. On his list of people who gave him the willies, right below "Forsaken" would be "warlocks". Their curiosity and interest in consorting with the demonic made him apprehensive. There was a time when he was willing to overlook how macabre the whole relationship between warlocks and their minions was when he'd worked with an orc warlock who always showed up with a voluptuous succubus in tow. She was skimpily clad, fiercely devoted, and Rin had even envied the man when he had revealed that besides fighting tooth and nail to protect him, the succubus also pleasured him in the most salacious ways. It had all sounded wonderful until he realized the warlock did not seem as thrilled about the arrangement.

"It is only that: lust. One of the deadly sins. She feeds off it, off me and my weaknesses. Don't be fooled: If I were to let my guard down for one second, to feel an ounce of tenderness or affection, she would overcome and destroy me," the warlock had confided while they drank together one dark night. "I can't ever try to meet another woman: she would not allow it. She would, in fact, destroy anyone I grew close to. She's jealous and possessive."

"But don't ya control her?" Rin had asked in disbelief.

The orc had laughed hollowly.

"I wonder…I often wonder who serves whom."

He'd been filling in the outline of one of the runes he'd sketched in his journal, lost in thoughts and memories, when he heard the barn's door creak open below. He quickly dropped the journal and crawled to the edge of the loft.

"Who comes?" he asked in his most puffed up, menacing tone.

"It's me." Sahar stood below. He scrambled down the ladder immediately, the second he heard her voice.

"What are ya doin' here?" he asked bewildered, approaching her.

"I didn't want to stay there," she told him. "I'd much rather be here." Her expression softened. "With you."

When he gathered her in his arms, she buried her face in his chest.

"How do ya feel?"

She shook her head weakly. He felt a pang in his heart: she looked so exhausted and frail. He kissed the top of her forehead. "I tink ya need to take it easy."

She sagged tiredly against him.

"I do feel drained. I've never felt anything like it. Thank you for wrenching my hand away back there…I don't want to think what would have happened if you hadn't." She held him tighter and he reciprocated, pushing away the thought that she wouldn't have put her hands on the cursed soil if he hadn't asked her to examine the field in the first place. "I'd like to get some rest."

Leighton had made good on his promise and a thick rope dangled from a metal hoop hanging from the farthest edge of the loft's platform.

"Ya sure ya wanna be here? Ya might be more comfortable back in a proper bed," he suggested. The stern frown she gave him was as comical as it was endearing. "All right, all right," he said gently. "How we gonna get ya up there, though?"

She walked to the rope and tried to haul herself up but her arms began to shake before her legs could grip the length of rope. She tried a couple times, determinedly, before staggering off to the side.

"I could bring our tings down here," he proposed.

"It's too dirty down here." She eyed the ladder and then looked at Rin. "Maybe you could help me up?"

He leaned his shoulder against the wall while pursing his lips at her.

"Ya remember how that went last time we tried that?"

"Oh, I do." She grinned at last.

"No, no...not that part. Da less fun one, where I ended up flat on da floor."

"I'll hold on to your back," she suggested. He did not appear convinced. "And I solemnly promise to behave this time." Her raised hand sealed the oath.

He approached the ladder, crouching so she could climb onto his back. "I don't be normally agreein' to that behavin' ting, but… I'll be makin' an exception this once."

When she approached her bedroll, she paused for a moment, stealing a look at him. He decided she was just too adorable standing there all flustered, her tail swishing, obviously wanting to ask him about their sleeping arrangements, but not mustering enough courage to do so. He spared her the embarrassment and pat the ground by his bedroll vigorously. Without further ado, she dragged hers next to his and quickly slipped under the covers he held up, as he invited her into his outstretched arm.

"Did you discover anything?" she asked, curling into him and resting her head on his shoulder. They stared together at the journal he was holding up in his other hand.

"I be tinking…I have seen these symbols before. I just can't recall where or when. Cultists are usually involved anytime there be a manifestation of da demonic on this plane and they usually are able to anchor a portal or a rift by casting a spell sealed by a rune. I have seen so many different runes and symbols and crests and alphabets…It all feels like a jumble in my head." He glared at the cryptic runes until he felt a rustling under the blanket and Sahar's hand landed over his chest. He peered down at her, nestled up to him, looking interestedly at his journal while her fingers caressed his skin so soothingly.

It felt terribly nice—and not only in the usual way that made him want to pull off their underclothes. He definitely was not used to those kinds of intimate rituals—That type of closeness wasn't something he got to experience much. His partners all had, for the most part, been complicit in a tacit understanding that anything physical that transpired between them was to be of a purely sexual nature, should not interfere with other facets of their rapport, and that once the 'deed' was completed, there was no need to engage in any semblance of tenderness. "Friends with benefits," an attractive and ruthless blood elf had called it once. They'd been on an expedition, digging for artifacts near Kargath, in the blasted Badlands. During the day they engaged with each other professionally, almost indifferently. At night they went at it like rabbits. When they'd parted, they'd done so with little more than a smile and a handshake. Far from being disappointed, though, Rin had found the whole experience very enlightening. Especially since their orcish guide—a warrior woman who had been entrusted with traveling back to Durotar with him—was naked, waiting in his bed for him after that first day of travel.

"I heard from the elf you're good in bed," she had announced.

At the end of it all, he was accustomed to the goodbyes, to walking off alone.

And yet, there he was, snuggling under the blankets with Sahar, whom he hadn't even properly bedded yet, behaving like…

Her sodding boyfriend, who be probably pining away for her back at Azuremyst.

What ya doin', mon? he asked himself.

"I almost feel like I've seen this one in a book somewhere." Her voice startled him out his thoughts and he turned his attention back to the journal.

"Yah. Me too. But where?" he lamented.

"I wonder if they have a library in town."

"And if they do, ya really tink they be having tomes on da arcane? Grimoires?"

"Stranger things have happened." She huddled closer to him.

"I was tinkin' of going to Camp Mojache for help."

She raised her head in alarm at that.

"Without me?"

Her tone betrayed such indignation that he couldn't help laughing. He put the journal down.

"Lissen, ya don't have anytin' to worry about here. Da Leightons and da other humans be fine with ya. Feathermoon be close by if ya need any help, too. Da only danger you run into here be that Ahern's goin' around makin' big moon-eyes at ya."

At that, Sahar balked.

"Ya can't deny it: I seen how he be looking at ya," he teased, bumping his nose against hers.

"Now that you mention it, he has been very solicitous," she mused. "Are you sure you want to leave me here alone with him?"

"Should I be concerned?" He feigned great worry.

"I don't know if I can wait for you that long," she huffed playfully.

"Oh? Is that so? Well, good! Then ya can ask him to lug ya up and down da ladder!" He snorted.

She pinched him and they tussled for a bit, laughing. When they quieted down, they lay together in silence, he enjoying her closeness, her hand that stroked his chest so soothingly. He broke that comforting spell to turn off the lantern. When he settled back against his pillow, she raised her head and placed a feathery kiss on his cheek.

She be so very sweet, he thought tenderly, letting his guard down. "Hey Sahar."


He shifted, turning towards her.

"Don't move," he warned her.


"Because I want to kiss ya." He raised her chin gently, seeking out those soft lips.

Chapter Text

"I know I am but summer to your heart, And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear." –Edna St. Vincent Millay



Rin had slept soundly, only waking briefly right before dawn, as he always did. He awoke to find Sahar spooning him, just as she had done the previous nights. This time, he realized, he didn't need to shoo her away. The drumming of raindrops over the roof lulled him back to sleep. He was awakened soon after, though, when Leighton and Ahern trudged into the barn to milk the cows.

"Rin'Seyi!" Leighton called up later on in a raspy half-whisper as he prepared to depart.

Rin dragged himself out of bed and positioned himself at the edge of the loft. Leighton was wearing a large, misshapen rain-streaked coat and mud-coated boots.

"Thornton will be here later in the afternoon," he revealed.

"Who?" Rin puzzled, sleep quickly fading as he wondered if he had missed anything important during their previous conversations.

"Our herbalist."

Behind him, Sahar stirred beneath the covers.

"Ah. Good."

"What were you planning to do today?" Leighton crossed his arms.

"I have some samples of soil I want to be testin'."

"It's raining pretty hard," he announced. "I wouldn't recommend going out into the fields or woods."

Ahern stepped up to his father, the handles of two pails of milk in each of his fists. Leighton grabbed one and placed a lid over it. Ahern met Rin's gaze.

"Is Miss Sahar well?"

"She seems to be recoverin'," he explained, tilting his head toward the opposite end of the loft, pretending her bedroll was somewhere further. "She still be sleepin'."

"Come to the farmhouse whenever you want something to eat," Leighton offered, tugging at his hood in preparation to venture back into the deluge outside. Rin's expression clouded at the thought of Mrs. Leighton's sour face upon spotting him anywhere near her kitchen.

"Thanks. I still have da bread and dried meats from last night. We should be all right."

"But Ma baked pie last night," Ahern quickly informed him. "It was still cooling when Miss Sahar left, so I couldn't offer her any…"

Leighton gave his son a disconcerted glance since the lad would not budge in hopes of catching a glimpse of the draenei.

Rin felt a twinge of smug pride.

Give it up, boy. If only ya knew she be in my bed right now.

"Come on—we have work to do," the farmer grumbled, ushering his son out. "See you later," he called, before slamming the door to the barn closed.

Rin peered at the window, taking in the dismal weather before lighting the lantern and reaching for his satchel to pull out the samples of soil he had collected the previous day. He took out three containers, each taken from different points of the field.

Might as well start my experiments before da herbalist arrives. He opened his journal to a fresh page.

The rain poured heavily outside without any sign of abating. Rin rested his elbows on his knees contemplating the samples of soil. He'd succeeded in coaxing thin, tangled clusters of weeds and grass to grow out of two of them. The third container of soil contained a sample dug up from a deeper hole; it remained unchanged—nothing grew out of it.

Da herbalist was right about da soil bein' viable. All I had to do was sprinkle some water over it and cast regrowth. His pencil dashed over his journal page. The topsoil hadn't been corrupted. Any decay is caused from da bottom up; it has to be comin' deeper from da ground. Just as Sahar said it was. It's affecting the plants' roots—not leeching in from da top. He peered up from the journal to stare at the barren sample. This be a terrible control, though. I should have planted da same ting in each sample before attempting to cast da spell. He stretched his large arms forward, hearing a light crack from his bones and joints as he tried to ease the stiffness. He groaned lightly as the motion sparked pain from his shoulders.

"You should take a break." He startled at the voice and turned his head to find Sahar watching him from the bedroll.

"Some of us have to work hard, especially when our partners be lazy-heads," he provoked.

"That's very unfair!" she protested. She sat up and began to smooth out the blankets.

He began to chuckle, glad to have her company once again, but grimaced as pain tugged at his shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

He winced apologetically.

"Must be from da fall. Did somethin'. Hasn't been feeling right since yesterday."

"Oh, no—and you ended up having to carry me for that big stretch!"

He shook his head lightly.

"Well, not just that. I always be feelin' a bit achey after changin' into any of my feral forms. I must be gettin' old." He sighed, patting his chest.

He caught her staring.

"Maybe I can help!" She managed to offer, finally tearing her eyes away from him. "I know some healing spells!"

He hesitated. "I don't know."

"Why not?"

"It be already raining," he provoked. "I am afraid of what ya will cause if ya start spellcastin'."

The pillow smacked the back of his head squarely and he chuckled. Sahar got up and wandered to the window. She stood silently, contemplating the rain, lightly rubbing her arms to chase off the morning chill. He let himself admire her from where he sat. Sahar was a mixture of athletic strength and simple grace.

"Rin." He detected slight apprehension in her tone.


She let her hand trail on the windowsill, hesitating before speaking.

"What if…If?…"

Her tousled hair spilled over her shoulders and her luminous eyes were still filled with sleepiness.

So guilelessly beautiful, he thought, inhaling deeply.

"What if I really did cause this rain?" she wondered. It took him a moment to respond, so absorbed was he in admiring her pretty features.

"Ya caused da rain?" Maybe she wasn't feeling completely better yet? "Ya know, Feralas be lush—it be rainin' here a lot." She didn't seem persuaded. He recalled the storm that flooded the streets of Gadget and second-guessed himself. "How could ya have caused da rain?" he puzzled.

She walked to him, her hips swaying, and sat beside him on the ground.

"Yesterday…in the field. When I had my hands on the ground…I felt nothing…and that emptiness just grew, as if it were going to engulf me," she told him softly. "I summoned the elements to come to my aid, to help me…heal. I evoked…" She hesitated and he held still. "I called on…the spirit of water."

He furrowed his brow.

"Spirit of water?"

"Water is life," she said simply, toying with a long stalk of hay. "I thought I'd call on water to heal that void, to fill it up with… possibility. You see, every droplet of water is teeming with life…"

He looked at her pensively.

"But if ya cast the spell then, we would have seen sometin' immediately. I don't tink it was you. This rain is just…" He turned to see the rivulets of water coursing down the windowpanes. "Feralas weather."

"The spirit didn't answer," she revealed. "I called and called and it didn't come." Her voice quavered slightly and she turned her head away from him.

"Don't be so hard on yasself; it be a tough, intense spell. I don't know of too many shamans who call on the elemental spirits without some big ritual," he tried to reassure her.

"I know," she replied sadly. "But it's not that…Not so much that it didn't come. It was a desperate attempt, anyway…But when you cast something of that magnitude there is always…something. A sign. Even in the shape of a denial. Even a failed or interrupted spell fizzles or sputters." She lowered her gaze to the ground. "But yesterday there was no answer. And that isn't right, Rin. Something is very wrong." She let her gaze drop. "I'm scared."

He reached over for her hand, taking it between his big, hulking one, marveling at how fine and delicate her five fingers were in contrast to his brutish three.

"We don't know what is happenin' here yet, but there could be so many reasons why ya spell failed—"

"It didn't fail…there is something profoundly wrong here, something strong enough to absorb with or even thwart the power of the elements themselves."

He did not know what to say to that. His knowledge, both formal and instinctive, was limited to his abilities, his druidic training. He understood nature, he understood animals and plants and the magic he practiced was, like Sahar's, also drawn from the natural world. But shamanistic knowledge explored a different facet of nature, one that went beyond that of his druidic tradition—it was a communion with the demiurges that forged creation itself.

"We'll find da answers, Sahar." He squeezed her hand in his and she clasped it back. "I tink da sooner I get to Camp Mojache, da better," he decided. "I should probably be leavin' after we meet da herbalist."

She gave him such a dour look he didn't know if he wanted to smile or kiss her. Before he could make up his mind, she poked his shoulder blade sharply with her finger. He hissed and raised his hand to where she had prodded him.

"Why ya go and do that for?" he scolded her.

"Because you are in no condition to be hauling a heavy pack!" She yanked her other hand away from his and crossed her arms. "You are in pain and you shouldn't go anywhere until your pain is gone!"

He examined her with an amused stare.

"That's da best ya be comin' up with to make me stay?" he teased her.

She lowered her eyes, pressing her lips, trying not to smile.

"Did it work?"

"I have to go," he lamented, running his hand over her hair. "But I won't be long. And I will be comin' back soon—one, two days at da most. With some answers.' He pat his journal. I hope, he thought worriedly. That mission only got stranger and stranger.

"Can I at least cast a healing spell on your back?" she asked, resigned at last.

"Okie-dokie, but don't zap me or notin' of da sort," he warned her.

"Oh, you'll know when you deserve a zapping," she muttered, positioning herself behind him.

"Like now?" He turned his head halfway to glimpse at her. She had clapped her hands and was rubbing them together vigorously, summoning a charge of energy.

"Not yet, but keep it up and you will…"

She tugged lightly at his tunic.

"You have to take this off."

He shot her a sly glance.

"Ya tryin' to take advantage of me?"

She slapped his shoulder lightly.

"I just happen to be a really capable healer, all right?"

He faced forward and pulled off the tunic, tossing it in the corner. He leaned forward and waited.

"Should you take these off too?" she asked tentatively after a few seconds of silence.

He pursed his lips, entertained.

"What? My breeches?"

"NO!" she scolded him, her hand tapping impatiently over one of his armbands. He stared down at the woven strip of seed beads tied around his bicep.

"That one can never come off. But da other one can." He tilted his head towards the metal band on his other bicep. He helped her dislodge it and wriggle it off his muscular arm.

"How come that one can't come off?" She gently brushed her fingertip over the beads and the two small feather charms dangling from it.

"It be tradition among my people," he explained. "Ya earn this when ya be deemed worthy of bein' a member of ya tribe. Before then, ya just a child."

"It's pretty." She stroked the feathers. "What do the beads mean?"

He looked down, examining the armband he had worn for so many years with more attention.

"Da colors are da Darkspear colors, but da pattern be unique to my kin."

"They're little triangles." She was leaning in, looking closely. He smiled.

"Yah—my people be from Echo Islands. Those represent fish teeth: they be for protection and strength."

She raised her eyes at him.

"If you are from the Islands, then why the feathers?"

"Because I also be a druid—da feathers symbolize my ability to fly. Birds be da messengers between da Loa and my people."

"The Loa?" She had moved back and was rubbing her hands again.

"Ancient ancestral spirits," he explained. "We worship them." He peered down at his armband again—two small beads, black and red, held his feathers in place. "Every troll is born under the protection of a Loa."

"Which one is yours?" She had halted her hand rubbing and was listening, intrigued.

"I don't say his name unless I have to," he quickly replied. "Ya don't do these tings in vain. But…he be very powerful." A spirit of da ancestors, a spirit of our powerful dead. He felt a pang of guilt when he thought about how he hadn't been exactly honoring his traditions like he should. When was the last time he had made an offering? He smirked. Da old witch would yank me by da ear and drag me to da crossroads, he thought humorously, remembering his grandmother.

"And that one?" She pointed at the metal band discarded on the ground next to them.

He shrugged.

"It doesn't mean anytin'. I just like it."

"I like it, too," she told him.

Without any warning, she clapped her hands over his shoulders and he startled. The initial jolt caused him to clench his teeth as his muscles contracted. He grunted loudly but she hushed him.

"Just give it a moment."

Cool and tingly—a current of energy flowed from her palms and into his muscles.

As her hands wandered over his shoulders, he gradually relaxed and the sensation grew less alarming. After a while, the shock of pins-and-needles coursing through him even felt soothing. He closed his eyes, enjoying her steady touch. She worked diligently, never easing the pressure she applied as she pressed into his shoulder blades and then gradually down his spine, only to work back up, making sure she touched upon all the sore muscles.

When she finally withdrew her hands, it took him a few seconds to realize she had finished, he was so at ease.

"What do you think?"

"Mm," he purred, rolling one of his shoulders, realizing it no longer tugged and ached when he did so. He was still sporting a contented grin when he opened his eyes and happened to glance at the soil containers beneath the window.

All three were filled with lush growth. Even small flowers had burst from all three soil samples.

Including da previously barren one, he noticed, bewildered.

The revelation revived him from the comfortable stupor he'd slipped into. He leaned down and prodded gently at the container, noticing the vigorous young plant stalks.


"Sahar! Look at this!" he cried, indicating the sample with his outstretched hand.

She returned the metal armband to him and examined the three samples.

"These two, he explained, "grew a little after I cast a druidic spell on them…But this one…" He pulled on the armband, securing it in place against his flesh. "It was from a sample that came from deeper in da ground. It didn't bloom when I tried da spell on it—notin'—"

"But that's to be expected—I told you the corruption comes from further down." She touched the round leaves and rubbed them gingerly.

"Until ya cast ya healin' spell," he realized, turning to her with interest. "I tink that's worth explorin'!" It was fascinating to think that perhaps the spell that had healed him had somehow affected the soil samples. Rin rubbed his chin, his mind racing at all the ideas flooding his thoughts. "We should try this out in da field!"

"I don't think I feel comfortable casting any spells in—"

"What if we try away from da runes?"

"It's worth a try, but I'd still be scared of being drawn into the range of whatever is causing this."

He was excited. That was a good sign. The soil was not dead. The cause lay below. But that earth was not dead.

There was hope.

"Ya be right—it be probably too dangerous to interact with it so directly—but look at what happened! Ya spell was indirectly cast!"

She looked at the samples doubtfully.

"Yes, but the sample is just too small! You're talking about acres of land—that's a lot of power."

His mind was whirring with thoughts of conduits and spell projectors and perhaps he would have to contact some goblin engineers he knew, who did interesting work with large lenses—he wondered if the Circle would approve such a request if it came to that?

"It's sometin' to go on," he continued excitedly, reaching for his tunic. "I hope da herbalist comes soon—I need to get to Camp Mojache by tonight!"

It was only then that he noticed how crestfallen Sahar appeared. She sat on the ground, her legs tucked beneath her, her expression glum. He slipped his finger beneath her chin and raised her head to face him. "What's da matter? I told ya—I'll be back quick and we'll finally have some answers!"

"I know," she sighed. Her shoulders sagged.

"There be plenty to do here still. And I am sure da Leightons will keep ya entertained, whether they realize it, or not." He rolled his eyes, hoping to elicit at least a smile from her. "Just stay away from that Ahern," he stated gruffly. "He'd love to entertain ya, if ya know what I mean." She finally offered him a wan grin.

"I know…It's just…" she began shyly.

"Just what? Ya gonna miss me?" he teased.

She held his gaze with an intensity that made his heart begin to race. She remained tongue-tied and then laughed almost bashfully.

She might as well have shouted it, he realized, a warm flush climbing his neck.

She liked him. It was plain enough to see. And it wasn't just a case of lustful curiosity, either, if he thought of it. She genuinely liked him. His company. His presence. How rare, he thought, taken aback by the revelation.

"I suppose I could start scouting the nearby ruins while you're away," she decided.

They rose together, but before she could step away, his hand shot out, grabbing her by the wrist.

"Don't go yet."

He stepped towards the bedrolls.

"Come here," he invited her gently. She followed him. When he raised a hand to cup her cheek, her hand settled over his, holding it in place. "We don't have to be anywhere for a while, ya know."

"And it's raining," she whispered as he grazed his lips against hers.

"And we have unfinished business from yesterday morning," he murmured before engaging her in a deep kiss, her lips parting as his tongue sought hers. He gazed at her lustily, inhaling deeply when she placed her arms around his shoulders. He ran his hands up her back. "Ya all right with this?" Her eyes widened and he couldn't help grinning. "I just want ya to know exactly what ya be gettin' into."

"What do you mean?"

"Ya not afraid?" he murmured, brushing his nose over her neck, her scent and skin warm. He turned her head to the side, careful that his tusks not pierce her.

"Why?" she challenged. "Are you going to go full berserker on me?"

He blinked, taken aback, before howling with laughter. When he caught his breath, he slipped his hands down and he grasped her by the hips. "Only if ya want me to." He let his hands slide over and cup that full and round bottom he had been dreaming of since the previous day.

She stared at him for a moment and then her eyes narrowed.

"All right. You think you are so worldly compared to me, but do you know anything about draenei women? You know," she glanced about conspiratorially. "In the bedroom?"

"Mm." He kissed her again. "I can't wait to find out."

"Well, there are two things you should know about draenei."

He contemplated her with hooded eyes before releasing her and starting to undo his breeches.

"Only two?"

She was distracted by the bulge straining against the front of his pants and he snickered.


"Yes!" She snapped back to attention, trying to exhibit at least some semblance of cool composure. "Yes, well, you should know that these—here," she indicated the slender tendrils behind her ears. "These are very sensitive. But not in a fun way. Don't bite or pull on them."

He nodded in acknowledgement as he began to tug down his breeches.

"Can I kiss them, though?" he asked in a husky voice. She nodded, her eyes roving over his body, especially when he stepped out of his breeches and kicked them aside.

"Now, what be da second ting?"

"What?" Her gaze snapped back up to his, her voice louder and higher.

He bobbed his head, beckoning her to continue.

"Da second ting ya mentioned."

"My tail," she managed to say, as she quickly peeled off her tunic.

"What about it?" He moistened his lips. She wore no binding.

She struggled to articulate something coherent, especially when he grabbed her by her waistband and began to nimbly undo her breeches. Even as he focused on undoing the buttons, he let his eyes wander to her smooth midriff, her shapely breasts, her nipple buds pebbled. His cock began to twitch and the pulsing between his legs intensified. She kept staring at his erection dazedly as he quickly yanked off her breeches, leaving her clad only in a pair of plain white smallclothes.

"No pulling or biting?" he guessed, extending his hand to invite her onto the bedroll.

"What?" she asked breathily.

"Ya tail."

She shook her head.

"Oh, no," she managed to tell him. "By all means, give it a good tug. That really gets me…I mean, I really like it…" She grew flustered and her voice trailed off.

At that he burst out laughing again. She was beautiful and endearing, he thought headily, moving toward her as she settled on the bedroll. She was quicker and had other ideas, though, and reached for him, gripping his cock firmly. When he looked down at her, she was kneeling before him, staring hungrily at his rock-hard erection. Her dark lashes shaded her eyes and her tongue darted out, flicking his engorged tip. He tossed his head back, hissing with surprise and pleasure. Her lips parted and she began to take him in her mouth, her tongue tracing spirals around him so tantalizingly. He staggered forward, catching his balance and trying not to buck too hard into her eager mouth as she sucked and licked him. Rin let out a low groan before combing his fingers through her soft dark hair. She was making him delirious with that mouth of hers and if he didn't pace himself, he was going to spend himself too soon.

And he was nowhere near done, he decided, abruptly pulling his hips away. She peered up at him and the sight of her looking at him so needfully, gripping his glistening cock with her fist, was almost enough to make him burst right then.

"What's wrong?" she protested. He grunted before falling upon her, pushing her back into the bedroll.

"Don't move," he whispered.

"Oh, I know what that means: you're going to kiss me!" she retorted gleefully.

He couldn't help smiling at her accurate conclusion before angling his head and kissing her. He covered her body with his, resting his erection against her small clothes. He could taste himself in her mouth and it only excited him more. She was pushing against him and he moved to lie astride her, hooking a finger on the side of her undergarment, yanking it down. When she tried to take him in her hand again, he let out a low growl, and pushed her hand away. He wanted to tease her a bit, taking his time running his hands over her curvy body as they kissed, enjoying how restless she was becoming in his arms, eager for more contact against him. He was savoring her excitement at every pass of his fingertips over her thighs, carefully avoiding the tuft of soft hairs curling over her sex. He allowed his hand to ghost over it, just grazing the sensitive skin, causing her little shudders of anticipation. Their tongues brushed over each other and he could sense her impatience as she parted her legs further. She moaned plaintively against his mouth and he merely grinned before nipping at her lower lip.

"Rin," she pleaded, pulling away from his kisses. "If this is considered berserking among trolls, I'm afraid an army of bunnies could out-savage you…"

"Oh!" he pretended to be greatly offended. "That be very rude! Ya besmirch my honor!" he chided her, tickling her navel. "And ya must beg for forgiveness." He rested his hand over her stomach and didn't move. She tried to turn toward him and he pinned her down by the hips. He shook his head, his eyes dark with lust. "I told ya—not until ya beg."

He teased her, resting his finger over her aroused nub. She gasped. He sucked on her lip, swollen with their rough, messy kisses. "Beg for forgiveness," he ordered her. She let out a little mewl of frustration and he almost caved, feeling how enticingly ready she was for him.

"Please, Rin," she began breathily.

"Please what?"

"Really?" she complained. He punished her more, letting his finger gently rub her hardened clit for a few seconds only to remove his hand when she closed her eyes.

She winced. "You are so cruel."

"Just give me what I want," he whispered in her ear. He brushed his tongue over her earlobe and she let out one of her delightful moans. "Come on," he urged her.

"I'm sorry—"

"I'm sorry, Rin'Seyi," he dictated.

"I'm sorry, Rin'Seyi," she dutifully recited.

"I'm sorry, oh handsome and skillfull Rin'Seyi, you prince among men!"

She crinkled her nose at him over the dubious title and he couldn't resist, swooping down to plant a kiss on it.

"All right! I'm sorry," she continued. He mischievously resumed his tantalizing caress between her thighs. She bit her lip and squirmed.

"I be waiting…" he ordered, stopping again.

"Oh, and handsome!" she cried out in frustration. "—And…"

"And skillful," he scolded her.

"So skillful…" she moaned. "Rin'Seyi, you…you…I can't…Damn it!" she protested. "Please? I can't stand it anymore," she entreated him.

He agreed. He couldn't hold back much longer, either. He flipped her around on the bedroll.

"What are you doing?" She tried glancing over her shoulder. He paused for a moment to admire the sight before him- her enticing bottom bobbing up before him, her muscular legs spread across the bedroll so revealingly. Her sex was invitingly exposed to him and wet, the soft skin flushed a deeper shade from all his teasing. He lay down between her legs, carefully positioning himself so his tusks didn't hurt her thighs.

"What are you doing? Wait—" She began with surprise.

He didn't let her finish her sentence—he began lapping hungrily and steadily at her, noting how her breath hitched as he traced the tip of his tongue around her throbbing little nub, alternating between kisses and soft sucking. He reached up, giving her tail a small yank. She whimpered, shuddering again.

"Oh, Rin!"

He sensed the first wave of her release begin when she tensed. He slowed his pace down to coax every sigh and every tender quiver as she came hard against his tongue. When he finally sat up, she was still riding the last shudders of her climax.

"Now it be my turn," he rasped. She raised her head from the pillow she had been grasping. He was already aroused and ready; he merely gripped himself and aimed the tip of his cock to enter that soft, alluring warmth…

"No!" she cried out in alarm.

He froze in place, his racing heartbeat rushing in his ears, with his erection in hand. Before he could ask, though, she turned around and sat up to embrace him.

"Not like that," she said, pulling him down over her onto the bedroll. "At least not this time. I want to feel close to you," she whispered, lying beneath him, brushing her lips against his. He pinned her between his large arms, angling his hips against hers to ease himself into her. His breath hitched as he slipped inside her: she was enticingly tight. He pressed into her hard, giving in to the need to have her completely, pushing until was inside her to the hilt. She slipped her arms around him, holding him against her so tightly he could feel her heart pounding against his chest—it was as if she couldn't get close enough.

The world around him fell away as he thrust and surrendered to the eruption of bliss. He collapsed in her arms, relieved, spent. She kissed his face and lips with soft kisses that he reciprocated as his breathing grew less ragged.

He rolled to his side, tugging her next to him, bracing an arm around her firmly as he settled more comfortably against the bedroll.

That was…real good, he thought contentedly. They remained that way for a while, she tracing little circles over his arm and shoulder and he caressing her back.

"So," he uttered in a low voice. She raised her eyes to him. "Ya gonna include that in ya report to da Earthen Ring?"

She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue and a fresh twinge of desire tingled through him again.

"Hardly: I don't have enough for a thorough, complete report. Don't you think?" she insinuated.

He chuckled quietly before giving her bottom a bright slap. She let out a little indignant cry before rolling over him and pinning down his arms.

"You shouldn't have done that," she warned him with pretend sternness.

"Oh?" He liked the weight of her on him, the heat of her skin, her thick, perfumed hair spilling over her shoulders, tickling his face. She swept it back and nuzzled his jaw, her lips brushing and nipping lightly at his earlobe. "That feels nice," he whispered. She blew softly and a telltale stirring between his legs began. "Now look what ya done."

She grinned, giddily, reaching down between them and stroking his awakening cock.

"Again?" His eyes widened with delighted surprise.

She released him and seized his hand. Her expression was of pure mischief when she placed his hand squarely over her breast. He watched headily, palming it, rolling her nipple between his fingers, as her hand then coursed down between them again. He expected her to grip him. Instead, she slipped her fingers over her sex, positioning herself so that he could feel the motion against his erection.

She leaned closer.

"You tell me," she whispered breathily.

"Ya be a pervert," he scolded her in a half moan. Her fingers darted over the tip of his cock, spreading his own wetness around it, before caressing herself suggestively again.

"I think you like it when I touch myself for you," she teased in a low voice in his ear.

He hissed, giving in, hungrily seeking her mouth.

They lay quietly, listening to the rain drumming on the roof. They remained in each others arms, limbs lazily entwined, neither one wanting to let go of the other. They spoke in hushed voices, trying to rally each other to get up, only to become lost again in kisses and conspiratorial laughter. At one point her fingers laced between his and she examined them, much like he had done earlier.

"Is it hard not having the other two fingers?" she wondered pensively.

He smirked.

"I've always been like this—what do I have to compare it to?"

"True," she admitted.

"I could say that ya extra fingers only get in da way."

She shifted, sitting up a bit.

"They certainly do not!"

He folded an arm behind his head.

"Tink about it—do ya really use ya other two fingers?"

She peered down at her hand.

"When ya write, when ya hold a spoon or other tool—you only really need these fingers." He raised and splayed his hand.

"I hadn't really thought of it." She placed her hand over his. It was considerably smaller, her skin a light lavender shade against his blue.

"Want to hear sometin' interestin' about trolls?"

"Tell me."

He yanked one of his silver rings up, revealing a light, circular scar around his index finger.

"See this?" She nodded. "This be when I was a boy. My brother and I be playin' with a machete and da blade came down hard and chopped off my finger."

She brought his hand closer to her astonished face.

"How was it reattached?" Her fingertips worried the scar.

"It wasn't." He cast her a sly look. "So ya never heard?"

She paused her examination.

"It grew back."

"What?" she cried. "But how? How is that possible?"

"It's a troll ting. Our limbs grow back if cut."

She eyed him suspiciously.

"You are putting me on!" she accused.

He laughed.

"And here ya thought ya had me all figured out." He slid the ring back into place.

She closed her hand over his and brought his large knuckles to her lips, kissing them with a tenderness that made his heart ache.

"At the same time, though, don't you think it feels like we…the two of us…" Her voice trailed off and she lowered her eyes. She nuzzled his cheek, instead. He found that there was always a little awkwardness after such trysts as he and his partners sought to act casual, even aloof after sex. But there was none of that strangeness with Sahar. Instead, he was lying there with her, welcoming and reciprocating her touch, talking naturally.

It was intimate, he thought. In some ways, it was even more intimate than sex.

We be acting like…


At that heady thought, he inconveniently remembered that somewhere in Azuremyst, not too long ago, she had probably been engaging in a very similar exchange with that boyfriend of hers.

All right, he decided, trying to repress the surge of jealousy. Time to get movin'.

After a tiny kiss to her forehead, he sprung up, grabbing his trousers off the ground.

"Da herbalist be comin," he explained, pulling on one leg. "We should get ready."

"All right. If we have to." She sighed with resignation. To his enormous disappointment, she pulled up the covers over herself, concealing all her tempting curves.

Careful, mon, he warned himself somberly. It be easy to get caught up in an illusion.

Chapter Text

"Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance. Good-bye is short and final, a word with teeth sharp to bite through the string that ties past to the future."
― John Steinbeck


The herbalist reminded Rin of a vagrant: dingy clothes, a puffy face and ruddy nose—likely from drink, he surmised. Rin leaned against the wall, his arms firmly crossed; he was thoroughly uncomfortable in the Leighton's parlor. Sahar, the Leightons, and the herbalist all sat in the dining room chairs placed around a small coffee table where Mrs. Leighton had deposited a quaint tea set. The woman had been shooting him daggers with her glares from the moment he stepped into the house at Leighton's persistent urging. He'd chosen not to antagonize the woman further and picked a vantage point by the room's entrance, noting that Ahern skulked about nearby, peering into the room once in a while with a comically stern little nod, as if bewildered to find people there each time.

He be in a dither because Sahar be close by, Rin noted, slightly peeved at his would-be-rival. As he passed the room for the third time, Rin noticed the lad's hair had been combed back and the strong astringent smell of sweet pine meant he had gone as far as slapping on some cologne. He examined Sahar, sitting on the chair beside the herbalist.

He couldn't blame the lad for his attentiveness.

Sahar was just… somethin’ else, he thought, with a mix of affectionate satisfaction and lusty restlessness. Even in simple tunic and straight ankle-length skirt she cut a striking figure. She was so sweet, she made him laugh… and she enjoyed sex. Even better, she enjoyed sex with him. It flattered Rin that she had flirted with him so openly and had wanted him so…definitively, he remembered, grinning discreetly as flashes of that morning crossed his mind. As if summoned by his persistent gaze, Sahar raised her eyes to him. She shifted in her chair, a bit flustered at…being caught looking? Or catching him looking? The grin grew into a small smile and she rested her eyes on him a beat too long before returning her attention to the blathering herbalist.

Ah, this herbalist: he be meetin' all da criteria for bein' a fucker, Rin thought with a surge of crankiness.

He was planning his departure to Camp Mojache that afternoon and the longer the grubby man yammered about soil composition, using fancy technical jargon to describe plain dirt, the more definitively the window of opportunity for him to have one last romp with Sahar before leaving was closing. He wasn't saying anything Rin hadn't already verified.

The man spoke in an agitated, feverish way.

"As I said, the soil…The soil appears to be fine," the man repeated.

"And how varied were ya samples?" Rin wondered. "Did ya collect any from around da symbols in da fields?"

The man stared at him sheepishly before looking away. Rin couldn't tell if it was the typical discomfort humans often displayed in his presence or something else.

"What symbols?" he asked confusedly. "Where?"

"Where Leighton's lands end—east of here, by da forest. Ya go there. Ya take some samples and then ya tell us what happens."

"But…but when did these symbols appear?" the herbalist asked nervously, addressing Leighton.

"I can't be sure." Leighton plunked his teacup back on the coffee table. "But Rin'Seyi and Sahar discovered them yesterday."

"This is fascinating!" the herbalist announced, sitting up. "I need to go and check for myself."

"Be my guest." Leighton sat back, unimpressed. "But quite honestly, Thornton, while you go around and bury seeds into pots and wait for them to grow to tally them, I am losing money. My livelihood—my very home and family—are at stake here!"

At Leighton's outburst, Mrs. Leighton's hand flew up to her neck. She remained stoically silent, staring at the rug beneath them. Rin heard Ahern shuffling away with a heavy step further down the hall.

"This might be a fascinating experiment for all of you, but for me…this is my entire life, my family's prosperity! I need answers and I need a solution!" Leighton leaned forward, addressing the quirky herbalist.

"Ya can't be treatin' an illness before understandin' what it be. We be acting before we have an idea and we might end up destroying ya farm," Rin offered in a more appeasing tone. "It's in everyone's interest here to know what be happenin'. I have some ideas—"

"You…You DO?" Thornton cried out.

Rin's brow furrowed just as Sahar's eyes narrowed.

"Yah. And I be needin' to confirm a few tings before takin' action," he explained.

The man's nose twitched. Like a rat, Rin thought.

"So…What do you think is…uh… happening?" Thornton prodded.

All eyes turned to him.

"I don't want to say anytin' yet. But I am leavin' tonight to…" He paused, realizing how a mention of Camp Mojache would sound to that frazzled band. "…Visit scholars who will provide me with some answers…And perhaps," he turned to look at Sahar, "even find da right tools to help us implement a cure."

"You're off today still?" Leighton scratched his head.

"Just for a night or two. I won't be long," he assured him, his eyes returning to meet Sahar's.

"I will stay here," Sahar added. "And I have a few leads I wish to verify, too."

It appeared they had riled up the herbalist.

"Well! Then! Leighton…I would very much like to see those symbols in your fields…" Leighton nodded. "And…Uh… I would also…I mean, could we?…" He was stammering as he addressed Sahar. He took a deep breath in an attempt to compose himself. "Perhaps we could aid each other's research?"

Sahar's nod and grin were as polite as they were guarded.


"Ah. Yes. Yes, that would be good!" The man jumped to his feet, bumping into the coffee table and rattling the saucers and cups. "Very well! Good!" He patted and smoothed down his drab robe. "I am glad we had a chance to talk." He extended his hand to Leighton. "I will come by tomorrow, if you don't mind."

"Do what you must," Leighton said dryly, shaking the man's hand.

"Sahar, I will look forward to conferring with you tomorrow morning, then. I'm very curious to learn what you have…uh…understood about all of this." With that, Thornton furtively stepped out into the hall, took a wrong turn and colided with a wall.

Rin and Sahar walked together toward the barn as Leighton drove Thornton back to town in his cart. Muddy water pooled along the trail and a persistent mist would not cease despite the heavy rains earlier.

"When are you leaving?" Sahar wondered.

"I need to go in a little bit." He sighed, tilting his head toward her, wishing he could reach for her hand but wary of the possibility they were being watched from the farmhouse. "I be gatherin' some of my belongings and headin' out before it gets dark. I have to fly for a couple of hours and I want to be gettin' there before nightfall."

Sahar pushed the barn door open.

"Who are you meeting at Camp Mojache?"

"I don't know yet," he admitted. "But I know for whom I be looking."

She held the door for him, standing aside.

"I don't follow."

"I be lookin' for a warlock, specifically, " he explained. "I tink this here be very ancient, arcane magic—possibly linked to…" He hesitated; he didn't even like to say it. "Da Twistin' Nether."

A flash of pain crossed her face and he gathered she had remembered her ordeal the previous day.

"Ya all right?" he asked kindly, placing his calloused hand over her cheek.

"I don't think I can go back to that field." She tilted her face into his palm.

So soft, so warm...

His eyes darkened.

"Be careful with Thornton."

She examined him pensively.

"Did you get the sense there is something off about him?"

Rin scurried up the ladder.

"Yah!" he called down to her. "I did."

"I got the same impression, too!" she told him excitedly. "What was it that made you suspicious?" Before he could reply, she launched excitedly into her own observations. "First, he reeked of drink. It was practicaly oozing out of his pores."

He grinned as he began to collect a few belongings into his pack. He could hear her pacing back and forth below as she launched into her exposition. She had picked up on pretty much the same things he had: the man had been too cagey, digressed terribly, and was flat-out ineffective at concealing his curiosity and nervousness. "What did you notice?" she finally called up to him after a few minutes.

"From da get-go, he has a few tings countin' against him," he continued.

"Like what?"

"Well," he began, pulling the straps of his pack tighter. "For one: he is a human."

"Rin!" she called out crossly. He chuckled, casting the loft a parting glance before slinging the pack over his shoulder.

"Then, there be the fact he be Alliance." He began climbing down the ladder. "Who would ever join those losers?"

She let out a little cry of indignation. Once he reached the ground, he approached her. Her expression softened and she leaned back against the wall invitingly. He was learning to read her tells: she was up to no good.

"Do you really need to leave now?"

She looked so enticing like that; he felt a small flutter in his chest.

"Yah, I do," he lamented.

He stopped before her. "Ya know what I am going to ask ya now, don't ya?"

She puzzled.


"Hold still," he whispered, drawing closer for a kiss.

It was supposed to be a quick kiss, just a little good-bye kiss, but Sahar wrapped her arms around his neck tugging him closer and kissed him deeply, very insinuatingly. He gave in for a moment, letting his hand wander under her tunic, cupping one of her breasts. He was quickly losing track of the urgency of his departure and enjoying the feel of her hard nipple and soft skin between his fingers while their mouths clicked wetly with each kiss. Before he realized what she was doing, she hastily pulled off her tunic.

"Oh, don't be doin' that to me," he moaned in protest. "Ya know I need to go now…"

"You're going to leave me this way for one—maybe two—whole days?" She pouted coyly, clasping her hands behind her back while leaning against the wall. He was very sorely tempted to give in.

"Save that thought for when I get back," he told her, stepping away and adjusting his pack.

"Isn't there anything I could do to change your mind?" she continued suggestively. He snorted lightly.

"I'm sure ya could tink of sometin'," he joked, ordering himself to step away and finding that his legs would not budge. She was a vision just then.

He swooped down and collected her discarded tunic off the ground.

"Here—come walk me down to da beginning of da trail," he suggested, handing the garment back to her.

"Wait: what if I told you I am wearing nothing beneath my skirt?" She bit her lip, watching for his reaction.

A rush of desire overcame him.

"I'd say," he began, clearing his throat before falling silent and shaking his head. He stepped back from her, haltingly, before wandering to the barn door feeling like the biggest asshole on Azeroth for turning his back on a beautiful half-naked woman who was practically throwing herself at him.

"I'll see ya in two days, ya insatiable demoness," he joked gruffly.

"Rin," she called to him suggestively.

He should have known by the tone of her voice not to look back, but he did. He watched her in a lusty daze as she slowly pulled up the hem of her skirt, watching it slide over her shins, then past her knees, provocatively skimming her thighs before revealing the patch of soft dark hair between her legs, confirming that in fact she hadn't been wearing any small clothes. Her fingers very deliberately raked over it, her thighs parting slightly for his benefit. She leaned there like that, so defiant and inviting as she held his gaze.

Camp Mojache... can wait, he concluded, tossing the pack heavily to the ground. He walked up to her, pushing her roughly against the wall as he quickly undid the front of his trousers. He sought her mouth and kissed her hard.

"Ya be terrible," he scolded her. "This gonna have to be a quick one." He grabbed one of her legs and held it up against his waist.

She smiled with unguarded delight and he just couldn't help melting at her glee at having successfully lured him back into her arms. They kissed more, and he let his fingers wander lower, to her naked sex. His excitement heightened when he ran a fingertip against her velvety nub, finding her ready, wet and aroused, prompting her to moan and push against his hand. She eagerly reached for his cock, gripping it and rubbing him against her slowly. Their breaths quickened as he teased her with the tip of his cock, not allowing himself to enter her just yet. She began to grind against him with impatience, maneuvering her hips so that his next thrust slipped inside her. They both cried out from the raw, sudden pleasure. He let himself lean against her before slipping a hand between them, to stroke her clit and he began to pump his hips faster, gripping her leg tightly as she straddled him. He pushed her up against the wall harder, thrusting more forcefully all while keeping his touch very soft, very light, as he rubbed her engorged nub. He could tell she was moments away from her release when her eyes fluttered shut, and her brow furrowed in wrapt concentration, chasing the impending burst of pleasure both his fingers and cock were coaxing from her. It was driving him wild; he loved watching her like that, seeing her flushed with desire for him, knowing that he had put her in that state. It was making him dizzy, inflaming his own desire.

Kual, the Zandali word echoed in his head. Mine.

Each time he pushed into her, the dividing wall they were leaning against creaked noisily. It was the furthest thing from his mind until they were interrupted by a loud, plaintive moo from the stables. They halted immediately, startled for a moment, alarmed and disoriented until Sahar covered her mouth, erupting into relieved laughter. He chuckled as well, resting his forehead against hers breathlessly.

"Rin," she spoke to him in a hushed tone, between kisses, catching her breath. "You were right, you know—I'm going to miss you while you're away. I wish you didn't have to go."

Her words fanned his fire: he couldn't kiss her quickly enough to show her his approval. He began to thrust again, more gently this time, a delicious yearning tightening inside, overcoming him with a deep tenderness.

"Ira. Osta za, Sahar. Ira," he murmured breathily against her mouth, lost in his own heightening excitement. Come. For me, Sahar. Come, he at once encouraged and ordered her.

It wasn't just the sex, he realized headily, as her orgasm exploded, pulsing around his cock, throbbing against his fingertips as she held him tightly. It's this woman. What she be doin' to me, he thought, slipping away, swept up in his own approaching release.

"Ya behave, ya hear?" he scolded her gamely as she walked him down to where the path to the farmhouse and the road into the village met.

"And you hurry back." She reached out and hooked her little finger with his larger one.

"Ya be a pervert." He looked away, flustered for once, pretending he was cross at her stalling tactics.

"You didn't seem to mind back in the barn…" She craned her neck and quickly planted a tiny kiss on his nose.

"No," he finally agreed. "It be one of da tings I like about ya." He sighed happily. "I'll be lucky if I manage to fly to Mojache in a straight line anytime I tink of you with ya skirt hiked up like that…Mm…" He even shivered. "It's gonna be ya fault if I end up crashin' into a tree."

She had the audacity to blush at his words, under his appreciative gaze. He grinned, bumping into her playfully. She grinned as well.

Look at us: we be like two horny, idiotic younglins, he thought. We have da dazed smiles, awkward pauses, all down pat.

He squeezed her hand reassuringly and she squeezed back.

"Be careful," she pleaded, as he began to walk down the road.

"I will." He turned back and waved.

"Archenon poros." She waved back to him.

When he shifted and took to the air, once he glanced back he found her still standing at the road, watching him wistfully.

Chapter Text

"He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command."
― Niccolò Machiavelli

Fireflies wove between the trees in the surrounding forest as dusk fell over Camp Mojache. Rin wanted to enjoy his newly-found solitude, but he was distracted by the only two other diners at the communal table at the rustic tavern. The orc and the undead warrior had begun to squabble halfway through the meal.

"For fuck's sake!" the orc complained as a puddle of stew accumulated over the table. "Soup is dribbling out of your metal jaw, asshole!"

"If you don't like it, you don't have to look!"

"It's disgusting!" The orc was grimacing.

"I don't care. Move, if it's bothering you," the undead warrior stated defiantly.

"You can't eat like that among folk! You're making a mess! At least clean it up!"

"I'm a paying customer and I'll do as I please." He raked the spoon through the bowl of stew.

"Are those the house rules? Because if they are, let me remind you, I am a paying customer too and I can't WAIT to do what I please!" the orc threatened.

"The paying customers will be purchasing new furniture if a brawl breaks out!" the tauren barmaid warned from behind the bar.

Rin shook his head as he packed the herb blend he had just bought into his pipe's bowl.

"And you!" the tauren barmaid called out sharply. "No smoking."

"This be a pipe," he explained, a bit fed up with everyone just then. "It's different from just smokin'."

"No smoking! House rules!" she repeated.

He flipped the pipe over and emptied the bowl into his herb pouch. The orc and the forsaken snickered at him.

Misery loves company.

"There's no dessert tonight," the tauren announced sternly to the almost-empty tavern.

"No worries—ya be sweet enough." Rin teased. She met his jab indifferently. He tossed a few coins over the table as he left.

As he wandered around the village, he found that accommodations were harder to come by than he remembered. The Cenarion Circle had headquarters there: he just didn't know exactly where anymore. He didn't remember the camp being so crowded before: he could have sworn it had doubled in size since he'd last been there, over a year before. Since his arrival that evening, he'd found himself disoriented.

And there were grunts everywhere.

He couldn't imagine the purpose of having so many grunts in the area. It seemed like part of a bigger scenario: he'd been told Garrosh had been busy fortifying various Horde-held encampments and villages throughout Kalimdor. But Camp Mojache had always been a somewhat transient place— it had attracted an odd assortment of characters: treasure hunters, nature lovers, recently initiated druids, and thrill seekers. Mojache, with only two flight paths— to Thunderbluff and the Crossroads—had never been a terribly popular stop on most travelers' itineraries. It was disconcerting to arrive and find it so altered.

"Your best bet is the Plainstalker's Rest," Rin was informed by a tauren innkeeper upon trying his luck at yet another inn that had no room. He eyed a group of Orcish soldiers askew as they tromped up the rickety staircase.

"What be goin' on around here? It be like a convention of assholes."

"You mean it looks more and more like Orgrimmar," the tauren muttered under his breath, watching his rowdy patrons.

Rin chuckled, warming up to the man.

"I don't know what Garrosh has planned," the innkeeper went on, in a conspiratorial tone. "But his sending all these troops here is just…We can't sustain this indefinitely. I have to house and feed and provide lamp oil for all these soldiers because if I don't, I risk being accused of not showing enough loyalty to the Horde. Besides, this is antagonizing the Alliance in Feathermoon. Things weren't bad before: we had always managed to give each other a wide berth. Now thanks to all the soldiers stationed here, the Alliance has started sending reinforcements to Feathermoon out of fear of an attack. There have been more and more skirmishes outside the village. Now, you tell me: what do you think life's been like for people like myself—who have actually lived all their lives here? I can't go anywhere anymore outside the camp—not even to hunt in peace— without running into Alliance, Horde, Grimtotem, or Gordunni."

"Sounds like it be gettin' too crowded."

The tauren snorted derisively.

"I was telling my wife that the ruins of Dire Maul are probably quieter than this place these days," he complained.

"Then put up those guys in Dire Maul instead," Rin joked, jutting his chin toward the staircase.

"Two-night minimum." The tauren finally smiled.

Rin tossed his head back in frustration after following the directions back to the inn the tauren had suggested to him.

The Plainstalker's Rest was the inn attached to the shitty little tavern he'd just dined at. Even worse, he was told he needed to talk to the cranky tauren barmaid to find out about a room.

"Ya still have any room?" he asked, half hoping she'd tell him no.

"Yes. I have one room. There's a shared washroom down the hall. The outhouse is in the back." She thrust her thumb over her shoulder indicating the shit closet standing in the worn-down yard bedecked in chintzy goblin garden lights.

His room had little more than a plain sling cot with coarse bedding. He dropped tiredly to the edge of the cot, rubbing his sore feet.

Outside, a group of orc grunts had taken a table right beneath his window.

"Lok'tra! Lok'tra!" began the drunken chant.

Ah, fuck me, Rin thought, collapsing heavily over the bedding.

The cot, on top of everything, was shoddy and rickety—it tilted unevenly to the right once he was lying down. He stared at the ceiling he could barely see in the darkness, his arm draped over his head. Some lamentable caterwauling had begun outside, punctuated with rhythmic out-of-sync clapping. Although the tauren barmaid had reminded him about the no smoking policy at the inn once again, Rin grasped his pipe and lit it with a few persistent puffs. He inhaled deeply, the pungent smoke filling his throat and nostrils. As the smoke spiraled up to the ceiling, he found himself grinning, remembering the sight of his delicious draenei standing in her provocative pose in the barn that afternoon, beckoning to him so seductively.

She just can't get enough of this, he thought, pleased and proud. He found himself recalling the steamy sex just as often as he thought of other little things that were devastatingly endearing: her warm smile, the tender way she looked at him, how she snuggled up or hooked her little finger with his.

She be treatin' me like a boyfriend.

I know I'm not.

But it has been awfully nice to pretend, he reasoned. So: why not? I can just enjoy it for what it is—some hearty fun to make up for da rotten mission. We be havin' a good time and when da time comes, we be goin' our separate ways. No harm in that: I'll go back to Silithius and Sahar… be goin' back to... Drannord, he thought, his expression hardening as he tried to imagine the man who waited at the other end of the world for her to return.

I wonder what kind of man her boyfriend be. He snorted contemptuously, growing irritated. He took a deep puff and held the smoke in before letting it roll out of his nostrils. Eh—I don't wanna know. He's not my problem.

"The elders don't really welcome warlocks staying here," Nekem Dawnsong explained to him at the dark and cramped Circle's headquarters. "It's just not the tauren way."

Rin eyed the tauren druid in disbelief.

"What ya be talkin' about? I seen plenty of warlocks in Mulgore!"

"This is Camp Mojache. Here we still enforce our values and traditions," the druid explained coolly.

"So, no warlocks be allowed?…" he puzzled. He had to be honest with himself. He had never spent that much time at Mojache to verify whether that had always been true or if it was just some recent, quirky rule.

"No—that's not what I said." His patience was waning. "I said stay here, in the village. If they are merely passing through, as our Horde allies they are welcome. We don't, however, condone warlocks trying to settle or linger too long. Our shamans feel such demonic magic and energy are too inharmonious with our own natural, earth-based ones."

Fair enough, Rin thought.

"But you know, there was a warlock who came here a few weeks ago. He was looking for saronite deposits."

Rin's brow furrowed. Saronite was the stuff of malevolent legends: the "Black Blood of Yogg-Saron". It was said that those who dedicated themselves to mining the stuff went insane. He thought of the runes back at Leighton's fields and the memory of Sahar's eyes—all black and lifeless—returned to him. What if there was a connection?…

"And that didn't concern ya at all?" He couldn't believe his colleague would have simply shrugged his shoulders at coming across such a discovery. "Ya didn't try to dissuade him or ask why he be so interested in such a ting?"

"No," the Tauren replied unemotionally. "It really isn't my concern and it's not like he was going to be conducting any of his research here, at Mojache."

Oh, yah. As long as it wasn't done in da village, it all be all right. Take ya poor intentions somewhere else, Rin thought, annoyed.

"I think he's still around," the druid explained.


"In the woods? He established a camp somewhere not too far off. You really should ask around—the troll who sells reagents at the market might be able to tell you." The tauren stood up and walked to the door. "Now, if you don't have any other Circle-related business, I must be getting back to my work."

"Thanks for all ya help!" Rin stated sarcastically. The druid slammed the door behind him.

The only stall selling reagents was manned by a green-skinned troll who chatted animatedly with the vendor next to him. In his bins and trays were assorted dried herbs, glistening minerals, small containers filled with varied powders, and dark bottles filled with different concoctions. It was a decent stock. Rin approached the stall and in doing so, caught the eye of the troll.

"Eh, cousin!" the man called out good-naturedly. "What can I be doin' for ya today?"

Rin grinned at the greeting. He hadn't heard it in a while—trolls who'd spent enough time away from home no longer spoke that way. Back home trolls acknowledged the kinship among them: every troll was "cousin", or if good friends, "brother" and "sister". Elders were always "aunties" and "uncles".

"Ya got any dried fadeleaf?"

The man began to search through the many small pouches lining up the back of his stall.

"What ya be lookin' to do with it, if ya don't mind my askin'? If ya be plannin' to make decoctions with it, you might be wantin' to cut it with—"

"Dragon's teeth," Rin completed.

The man grinned widely.

"Aah, a discerning customer!"

"I just need some for my pipe. I be running low."

The man nodded and searched through a group of smaller pouches behind him.

"Bloodthistle, dreamfoil, grave moss—hang on, I be goin' too far—firebloom…fadeleaf! Here!" he handed him a fragrant burlap pouch.

"Sen'jin Village?" Rin risked. The man smiled again.

"Close—Den'tasi Village." Rin reached for his coin pouch and fished out a few coppers. "And yasself?"

"Echo Islands."

"What ya doin' so far away from home, mon!" the vendor continued jovially.

"Work." He shrugged. "And yasself? Ya don't miss home? Bein' out in this rainy place instead of da sunny beach?"

"I wish, I wish…I do better sellin' my wares here than back home. But I go back every few weeks to restock." He lowered his voice, slipping into Zandali dialect. "Ya been home lately? Visited da Isles?"

"Nah—it be almost five months," he admitted. "What's da news?"

"Vol'jin none too happy. Garrosh been sending his forces all over—and now to da villages—new outposts everywhere."

Rin crossed his arms, perplexed.

"What for? Even in Darkspear territory?"

The troll nodded.

"Why? We been takin' care of our region just fine."

"That's what we be sayin'! Vol'jin ordered da soldiers back to da capital and manned da outposts with our warriors instead. Don't ya know that Garrosh himself showed up in Sen'jin and overruled Vol'jin? Garrosh's forces be everywhere along da main road and coast now."

A wave of anger rose within Rin. What business did Garrosh have telling Vol'jin how to run Darkspear affairs? Not even Thrall, whose debt Vol'jin was in, would have overstepped his authority so brazenly. And speaking of Thrall, what had Thrall been thinking? Stepping down like that and sticking that arrogant, ignorant, power hungry asshole in his stead.

"Fine. Let them patrol our region. I bet they be havin' a big turnover," Rin scoffed.

The troll laughed.

"Yah—that's true. Orgrimmar want to be controlin' us? Hah! Good luck! A little walk through da Valley of Trials in southern Durotar in da afternoon sun should set them straight."

"Heh! Or even scouting da Isles! It would be memorable, for sure." Rin put the coins down on the stall. The man waved at them dismissively.

"On da house, cousin. Nice to meet ya so far from home." He extended his fist to Rin. "Jin'kai."

Rin gave it a firm bump with his own fist.

"Rin'Seyi. And thanks. Ya be a terrible businessman," he teased, pocketing his pouch. "But a good man."

"Let me know if there be anytin' else I can be doin' for ya," Jin'kai continued graciously.

"Actually, there be sometin' else ya can help me with. I be lookin' for a warlock—"

"Good luck in this place. Da locks be encouraged to leave as soon as they arrive," Jin'kai muttered.

"But is there a warlock who lives in da forest and comes into town often? "

"Oo, that guy…Haven't seen him in a few days. He be comin' by da village every once in a while for tools…some reagents. Yah."

Finally, Rin thought.

"Where can I find him?"

"He's not very chatty, but he trades with me. He said he be livin' out in da forest, when I asked."

Rin smirked.

"In da forest? Dat be all of Feralas, cousin."

"Yah, but he mentioned takin' over an abandoned ranger cabin near da lake…"

"Jademir?" Rin wondered, his stomach sinking at the thought of having to travel so far north.

"Nah! I'm guessin' just down da road to Wildwind."

Ah, that be much better. He thanked Jin'Kai again and headed to the village gates.

Rin followed the path of the small river down toward the lake, the camp growing more distant, but still in view as he flanked the rocky banks. The murky water snaked down over the rocks. He shuddered, thinking of what creatures lurked beneath the surface. He walked through the thick green haze to the mouth of the river, pushing past heavy vines still damp from the previous day's rainfall.

"A ranger's cabin near da lake," he muttered to himself, glancing about. Naturally, it would have to be sitting on the hillside. Rangers typically liked a better vantage point to survey territory. He was startled from his thoughts by voices quickly approaching. He backed into a cluster of bushes and listened.

"If you hadn't gotten up so late, we wouldn't have found ourselves stranded with no gryphons available and right now we'd already be in Feathermoon!" a feminine voice scolded.

"Ach," a thick burr responded. "Piss off. My head's still hurtin'. Just shut up and walk faster. This be Horde territory." A dwarf, Rin saw, was trekking down the main road toward the coast.

"It most certainly is not!" his companion, a night elf, responded. "They are just squatting here—this is my people's territory! Just look at the ruins! No race from the Horde was or is capable of building anything of such complexity." Rin bit his tongue, thinking of all the ancient troll pyramids and temples throughout Azeroth. "The Horde are just being the Horde: opportunistic and parasitic, exploiting resources that belong to my people!"

"Yeah, yeah—the only resource I'm willin' to fight for right now is a flagon of whisky." The dwarf rubbed his head before he was obscured by another bush growing alongside the road.

"You are an insufferable lush," the elf sniffed.

He waited until they were at a safe distance.

No race from the Horde was capable of building anything of such complexity. He sighed heavily. So much ignorance, so much prejudice. Opportunistic and parasitic? Why? It was as if Alliance members begrudged the Horde its very existence. Peace, he surmised, was truly becoming more and more an elusive goal. Anytime he was among members of the Circle, he allowed himself to consider the remote possibility of an end to hostilities. Being out in the field, though, often set him straight. Before his thoughts hardened further, though, he remembered Sahar's delicate hand over his. He recalled how she'd wanted to know about the Loa, about the significance of his armband. She was like that: genuinely curious. She listened and was open to learning about everything that was different. He respected that about her even if all her questions had driven him crazy at first. That was the attitude he wished most people, in both the Alliance and the Horde, had.

I guess I be missin' her too, he thought, with a squeeze to his heart.

Chapter Text

"Never was anything great achieved without danger."
― Niccolò Machiavelli

A dilapidated cabin sat in the small grove, shielded from a clear view from the other side of the lake thanks to a large tangle of wispy trees. Rin had only found it because of the plume of smoke spiraling up from the canopy. The cabin was a dismal sight: part of the roof had collapsed and two of the windows had been boarded up. The unhinged front door was propped carelessly against the door frame. He would have walked past the ruin without a further thought, except for the smoke. He approached the cabin warily, wondering whether he'd find the warlock or another unpleasant surprise squatting in the ruins. Anything, he realized, could be claiming shelter there and he was certain whatever it was, was nothing good. He unsheathed one of his daggers, stepping on a beaten dirt path that snaked up to the entrance. The moment the soles of his bare feet touched the path, a piercing discomfort rushed through him, causing the hairs on his neck to rise.

I just be triggerin' a ward. He gripped his dagger tighter. Da good news be that this be a warlock's doin', likely. He surveyed the eerie front yard. Da bad news is that da warlock might not care why I be here.

His unease only grew as the nearby brush rustled with movement.

I am bein' watched, he concluded.

"Who goes there?" he called out, cupping his hand by his mouth, hoping to catch sight of movement, some sign of activity. "Anyone home?" He tilted his head, trying to spy past the gaps in the door frame. The glow of a fire was visible from where he stood and he thought he had caught a shadow moving inside. Just as he took another step forward, he heard a high pitched, scratchy cackle. He stepped back, trying to glimpse what had made it. Two small golden dots stared up at him from the underbrush just as a bolt of fire hurtled toward him. He barely dodged the attack, which struck the bark of a tree with a shower of sparks before smoking out.

An imp. Rin frowned, springing toward the brush.

Another ball of red glowed in the bushes and he quickly cast a counterspell: moonfire was cold—so frigid it burned skin. Just as he coaxed a radiant beam of light to shoot straight into the bushes, the wooden door tipped slightly to the side, and a darkly hooded head poked out into the front yard.

"Ras gol, Zirak!" a deep, hollow voice commanded in Gutterspeak.

The silvery beam had already struck the bushes and Rin's intended target. The imp screeched furiously, hopping into the open, its glowing eyes trained on Rin.

"This was not in my contract!" the greyish creature groused, flashing its sharp teeth.

Rin raised his hands again, ready to unleash another ray when the deep, hollow voice addressed him in a condescending tone.

"I already told my minion to stand down. I'd appreciate it if you spared him."

"And I'd appreciate it if he stopped attacking people at random," Rin protested, not taking his eyes off the imp, who fidgeted restlessly even as he glared at the troll.

"This is hardly at random. You are trespassing. It is within my right to defend myself," the voice continued, in that deliberately slow, patronizing manner.

"I've been looking for you," Rin revealed, venturing a glance at the hooded figure. The hood was a rich velvety black with finely embroidered green trim. Two golden eyes, burning with the same infernal glow found in the imp's, examined him.

"Looking for me? Aah. I see." He appeared surprised. Or amused. Rin was too busy keeping the squirming imp in sight to pay closer attention. "In that case, by all means, Zirak: fire!"

It couldn't just be a warlock: it had to be an undead warlock: this just gets better and better! Rin grimaced. The imp made a guttural sound as it rapidly conjured a fireball.

"Hold ya fire: I just need to talk to an expert on da demonic," Rin tried, watching the dot of fire grow in the creatures oversized hands.

"Hmm." The warlock appeared to be rubbing his chin. "So when you said you came looking for me: did you mean me, specifically, or a warlock, in general?"

The fireball was growing larger.

"I don't even know what ya name be!" Ya crazy fucker. "I be looking for a warlock, but Mojache doesn't exactly have many lingering about. Troll at da market suggested I look for ya here."

"Ras gol, Zirak," he commanded once more.

The creature growled in frustration and Rin was sorely tempted to blast its ugly, leering mug with another burst of moonfire.

"You can both stop this nonsense," the man continued nonchalantly. "All of this is a needless hassle. If you die, troll, I'll have to go through the trouble of dumping you in the lake. If you kill my imp…" he turned his head toward the small minion. "I will be forced to summon a new one, and they're quite tiresome to bind and train. "

Rin only lowered his hand when he saw the imp hop off angrily into the bushes.

"Now: how can I be of aid to you? I believe our peoples' alliance compels me to at least feign interest and offer the semblance of aid." Upon closer inspection, Rin could see the man in all his rotting glory: a gaunt, unexpressive face pocked by decay, and ghoulishly deep-set eyes that stared at him coolly.

"Yes," Rin added, collecting himself and snapping out of the long stare he'd been giving the man. "War makes for odd bedfellows." He couldn't help grinning upon realizing whom else in his life that saying could apply to.

"Oh, good. You're the pragmatic sort. I have little patience for the more idealistic "Rah-rah-Lok'tar!" Hordie type. Although it is terribly fun to fear them off into a flock of vale screechers." His grin was a chilling sight: his gums were slick and black and his jagged teeth reminded him of flints of porous stone.

Rin sheathed his dagger as a gesture of good will.

"My name is Rin-Seyi." He nodded at the warlock.

"And I am Edward the Odd." The warlock nodded back.

"You most certainly are not," Rin protested, crossing his arms.

The warlock grinned once more.

"As far as you are concerned, I am whomever I please to be. And I suggest you go along with it. I was once named Edward. And I am considered quite odd by less discerning folk, which is practically everyone these days." He tapped his long, tapered index finger against his hollowed cheek. "So, I insist that for all intents and purposes, I be known to you as Edward the Odd."

"Ya look nothing like the man—unless you've lost some weight," Rin provoked, still standing a few feet away on the trail.

"Tsk…Denying a dead man such a simple joy." He stepped aside and indicated the entrance to the cabin. "Indulge me, won't you?"

"Fine," Rin agreed. "But I be makin' a small change. Ya be Edward the Odder," he proposed.

The warlock chuckled darkly.

A small, rusted cauldron sat over the fire, steam collecting on the fireplace walls, causing beads of moisture to trickle down. The wood inside the cabin had rotted. Rin entered the one-room cabin and waited, unsure as to where to go. A stool had been placed before a dirty table covered in soot and debris from the collapsing ceiling. There was nothing else in the room other than a rucksack and a few phials strewn over the floor.

"Forgive me: I am not in the habit of entertaining visitors," Edward the Odder explained. Zirak stood by the hearth shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

"How long ya be here?" Rin could see someone overnighting there in desperation, but not choosing to stay in that dank hovel voluntarily for extended amount of time.

"Long enough." He appeared to be surveying the cabin for the first time, letting his gaze linger on the hole along the side of the roof. "I suggest fewer questions." His tone grew less amiable. "Let us get to business, shall we?"

Rin agreed readily. He brushed some of the dirt off the table and placed his pack on the tabletop.

"I be with da Cenarion Circle," he began, "and have been asked to investigate some strange happenings on some farms southwest of here."

The warlock's eyes narrowed.

"Strange happenings? That could pertain to an awful lot of matters in my line of work, troll. I need you to be more specific."

Rin fished inside his pack for his journal.

"I will— like I be sayin', I be with da Circle and I specialize in da study of Fel magic—"

"I see! A fellow academic!" The warlock's eyes blazed brighter and the imp let out a high pitched squeal. "Tell me, any particular branch? Chaotic, corrupting, entropic—"

"Corrupting." The warlock's eyes did not move from him. "Ultimately all da other branches culminate in da corrupting branch. Corruption be da most visible effect of Fel magic, after all."

"Yes, yes…Well put." Edward the Odder watched as Rin paged through his journal before placing it open on the table. "What is this?" he wondered. With a wave of his hand the flame in the lamp hanging on a hook over the table sprang to life.

"When I arrived to investigate da farmers' complaints, I be tinking it be simply a case of determinin' how widespread and deep da corruption was."

The warlock crossed his arms, interested.

"What were the outward, visible manifestations?"

"Oh, classic," Rin explained. "Barren fields, aggressive and invasive wildlife."

"I see. Are there any ruins nearby? Any history linked to the land?" Edward stroked his mottled chin between his index finger and thumb.

"That's what I thought so at first, too. Da homesteaders settled fairly close to Isildien."

The undead man scoffed.

"Charming real estate choice. Idiots. Where do they go on holiday? Sunbathing on the Dead Scar, I suppose." The imp observed his master with a fierce grin.

"Wait—" Rin cautioned. "This is where it be gettin' complicated and why I need your aid." He explained to the warlock his findings in the fields, their inability to isolate the source of the strange corruption, as it did not appear to be concentrating over the soil or leeching in from a close by site. He described his experiment with the seeds and finding the runes in the field. He was more cagey about Sahar's experience, merely stating that the shaman he'd been working with had experienced a strong pull from what they could only describe as a gigantic void that did not mimic or respond to any of the elemental energies or forces. The warlock grew visibly agitated.

"Zirak! My spectacles," he ordered dryly, extending his hand downward and beckoning impatiently.

The imp hopped about the cabin frantically, finally halting before a stack of dry herbs. Edward lowered his hood and Rin gazed upon the large steel plate fused into his skull and slightly concealed by wispy black hair sprouting unevenly on his head. Rin averted his gaze just as the man took his spectacles from the imp and propped them on his aquiline nose. He peered down at the drawings in the journal and remained still for a long moment.

"Do ya recognize any of them?"

"Hmm…Where did you say you found these?"

"I spotted several runes when I flew over da farmers' fields."

"But do you have a scaled map?" the warlock insisted.

"They seemed to have appeared in random areas. They don't seem to follow any discernible pattern," Rin offered weakly, realizing that in his haste to identify the actual runes, he had neglected to chart their precise location to see if that yielded any valuable information. Shit, he chastised himself.

"Seem to isn't good enough."

"Well, do ya recognize da runes?"

"NO!" the warlock growled, plucking his spectacles off. "Which is precisely why I must go see these at once!"

Rin blinked, perplexed at the warlock, who'd begun to rummage through the cabin irritatedly.

"Zirak! Pack the reagents."

"I don't understand," Rin began, confused.

Edward reached for a leather-bound book on the mantle and tossed it at him. Rin picked it up off the dusty ground, trying to discern the coarse etchings in the gloom of the cabin. On the first page there was a detailed map of the area immediately surrounding Camp Mojache. At the westernmost corner, Edward had drawn a large circle and some coordinates. On the next page was a loose, hurried sketch of a rune. It looked nothing like his runes. But then again, none of his runes looked like each other.

"Ah, ya found one too? This be bad news," Rin grumbled.

"I'll say. I know every single major arcane symbol," Edward announced, scooping up his belongings and handing them to a flummoxed Zirak, who socked whatever was given to him into the quickly expanding rucksack. "If it is demonic, if it is shadow, if it is Fel: I know it. I know every symbol from as far back as the void lords: Arconus, Dimensius, Galaxius…Call it a footprint—or even better: a fingerprint. If any of those beings cross into our realm, they create an identifiable arcane signature, a trail that makes them identifiable. If someone well-versed in the occult transcribes that signature into a two-dimensional symbol correctly, it creates a seal that can either bind or create a summoning circle, depending on intent." Edward yanked his rucksack from Zirak's hands and slung the straps over his shoulders. "This—" His bony finger tapped the page of his journal angrily. "I do not recognize as any known demon's seal. And I know them all."

Rin rubbed his head.

"Could we be goin' about this da wrong way? What if these aren't seals and runes at all?"

Edward stepped closer to him, nose to nose.

"Know this: I've counted at least three of these symbols further north from here. Someone is placing these throughout Feralas."


"And I need to know who and why. They do not follow a pattern, nothing recognizable. Might as well be a pile of gibberish."

"But…?" Rin urged him, stashing away his own journal.

"It would appear that someone is going through a lot of trouble for nothing at all, doesn't it?" He glared menacingly. "But as any scholar of the arcane knows…" Edward paused dramatically. Rin sighed, indulging him.

"Nothing comes from nothing," he dutifully recited. Zirak snickered at him as he doused the fire.

"Precisely. And I know there is something we are missing. A pattern. A symbol. Even the space between the symbols might yield answers."

"What about the experience my partner had in the field? Does that tie-in in any way?" Rin wondered.

"I hope not," he muttered cryptically. "Can we go now?" He waited by the doorway peevishly.

Rin walked out, relieved to be out of the musty room. "It's not that simple: I can't just be showin' up with ya in tow!"

"I don't really need accommodations: it's not like I have to sleep or even bother with pedestrian matters such as eating, drinking, and emptying my bladder."

"I still can't take you to where I be stayin'."

Edward huffed.

"And why not? If I am to provide aid to members of the Horde, the least you oafs could do is—"

"Edward," Rin interrupted. "I told you I was here on business for da Cenarion Circle. Not da Horde."

Edward's eyes narrowed into thin slits of ghostly light.

"I see. Where were you proposing to take me?"

"Da farms in question belong to humans."

Edward hissed.

"And since when are trolls aiding the Alliance?"

"We are not aiding the Alliance. This is a matter that transcends faction rivalry. It has to do with corrupted ground that you now be tellin' me could be spreading throughout Feralas. It be sometin' that impacts everyone: Horde, Alliance, da wildlife here. And I be a druid—we follow da teachins of Cenarius, da heart of the land, who instructs us to use our gifts to protect nature."

Edward listened impassively, clapping slowly at the end of Rin's small impassioned speech.

"Helping humans sounds treasonous to me, troll…"

"Does it? Doesn't surprise me ya should be recognizin' it as such, given that ya Forsaken will fight alongside da Horde as long as it suits ya own interests."

"What did you said? 'War makes for odd bedfellows'?" the warlock provoked. "So a farmstead of humans is offering safe harbor to trolls: a druid and a shaman. Suddenly these runes seem like a lesser mystery." He prodded his imp forward with the tip of his slipper.

"I never said my shaman partner was another troll." Rin cleared his throat.

They began to head toward Camp Mojache for no clear, discernible reason, except that it was getting later in the day and Rin had planned to stay one last night there before heading back.

"Ugh, of course: must be a large flea-ridden tauren."

Rin forged ahead, saying nothing. His silence did not go unnoticed.

"Very well…An orc?"

Rin stepped forth faster, in a sudden rush to get to the village.

"Oh, oh, oh…" the warlock teased after a while. "I see: your shaman must be a loyal little envoy from the Earthen Ring much like you are a darling moppet of the Circle! You are working with an Alliance shaman, aren't you? How special! Your institutions just love to showcase how bi-factionally sophisticated you all are." The scorn in his voice was poorly disguised. "In truth, I find the draenei race profoundly disturbing. They resemble members of the Legion, but unlike demons, they are fairly useless and infinitely more aggravating—"

"All right: I'm really not very interested in what ya have to say about da draenei. You'll be coming along to share insight on runes, not Horde-Alliance politics."

"Hmph. Such a shame." They continued trekking toward the village. "So. Your shaman partner: do you think he'll mind if I occasionally try to fling him off the eventual cliff? The sound those big draenei make as they hit the bottom is most satisfying," Edward provoked.

Rin finally whirled around and marched into the warlock, his unexpected fury catching the undead man off-guard and causing him to stagger backwards.

"Ya won't be trying any such ting on her," he warned in a low, threatening growl. "I be tinkin' I don't need ya aid, after all. Ya know nothin'."

Instead of further confrontation, though, Edward erupted in blood-curdling laughter.

"Oh, dear! Did I hear that right? Her, is it? Your partner is a 'she'? And how valiantly you raced to her defense!" he cackled mirthfully, rubbing his hands. "Aah, this is becoming more entertaining by the minute!"

"Too bad. Ya not comin'," Rin decided. "This be a mistake." He picked up his pace, his heart suddenly racing at the thought of the warlock stepping anywhere near Sahar.

Edward feigned great disappointment, making a pathetic moue.

"Come, now. Let more sanguine dispositions prevail. I give you my word: I will do nothing…unprovoked, of course."

Rin was not swayed.

"Do reconsider. I need to see those runes. This is one mystery I have to get to the bottom of," the warlock insisted.

Rin kept walking.

"Here—how about this, then: I don't even need to reveal myself to the humans. I will stay hidden nearby, in the forest. You can go seek me whenever convenient."

His head ached. He'd never liked the undead—he found them deeply unsettling and unpleasant. Edward was making him deeply uncomfortable. What did he know about him? Edward the Odder certainly was not forthcoming about himself. But then again, he was out there on a similar mission, trying to learn about those runes, as well. He couldn't ignore that.

"Here be my conditions: if ya be joinin' us, ya be takin' orders from me, ya understand."

"Do I look like a vulgar minion?" Edward complained, pointing at himself.

"Make him sign a contract!" Zirak quipped in his feisty manner, under his master's withering glare.

"I will only take ya there if ya swear an oath to listen to me and not harm the humans, myself, or my partner."

Edward raised a thin eyebrow.

"All right. But… what if they attack me, first?"

"And why would they be attackin' ya?" Rin slowed down.

"I have no idea. None. I look at this handsome face in the mirror every morning and feel nothing but the tenderest feelings," he deadpanned.

"If ya be attacked—unprovoked, that is—then ya have every right to defend yasself. But other than ya life being in danger, there be no excuse for ya to go pulverizin' anybody, ya hear?"

"One, I am already dead, so this 'life' you speak of is a semantic redundancy. Two, we clearly have little in common, troll, but in all honestly, other than a few crude laughs, what would raining mayhem upon a few pathetic Alliance members do for me?" he surmised in that dangerously velvety tone of his. "Although, I cannot vouch for the imp's compliance," he warned in a mischievous tone.

Zirak screeched out in shock.

"Why do you keep doing this to me? What are you thinking? Do you pull this shit with Klazgar? Or with Azithia? I don't think you do! They wouldn't put up with this. Which is why you call on me all the time. Zirak do this and Zirak do—"

"Zirak, shut up," Edward stated coolly.

"All right. Meet me here at sunrise," Rin told them, turning his back to the unsavory duo and heading towards Mojache, not caring where they would go for the night.

He had a sinking feeling that he had committed a terrible mistake bringing the undead warlock on.

Chapter Text

"Lands of great discoveries are also lands of great injustices."
― Ivo Andrić

The patrol from Feathermoon marched down the trail with determination, their elven armor resplendent even in the hazy morning light. Rin saw them taking the bend in the road in time.

"Edward! Ya have to hide."

"I never hide from battle." The warlock stepped beside him with Zirak sniggering in tow.

"This doesn't need to become a battle if ya hide. I'm a druid: I have a safe passage letter from da Circle." At the warlock's hesitation, he insisted, "Now!"

The undead cast him a disapproving glare before retreating into the bushes behind them. Agitated voices erupted ahead: the patrol converged on him.

"Stop where you are!" one of them cried in Common.

Rin turned to face the small patrol: he found swords and nocked arrows aimed at him.

"It be a good ting I speak Common, yah? You might be wantin' to learn a few greetins if ya gonna be patrolling so close to Horde encampments," he stated calmly, raising up his hands to reveal he was not engaging in combat.

"This is Alliance territory," a young night elf soldier protested. "State your purpose."

"Okay. Here be an easy one, for starters: Mok'ra. That be a polite greetin'—try that instead, next time ya engage with da Horde."

The edge of a sharp blade slipped under his chin.

"I asked you a question," the night elf continued in a hostile manner.

"And I be askin' ya another in turn: what be your purpose, mon?"

The tip jabbed his flesh.

"Captain!" the soldier called out, turning his head slightly to the side just as a second patrol caught up to them. One of the tallest night elves Rin had ever seen paraded up to him, his face stern and cold.

"Search him." The night elf held his gaze.

"Don't forget to check behind da ears." Rin smirked. "Mine be bigger than yours." He winked at the soldier who approached him.

"My soldier asked you a question: state your purpose."

Rin sighed as the soldier began to manhandle him, tossing his pack to the ground so they could riffle through the contents. His belongings were unceremoniously fanned over the dirt ground.

"I be here on business for da Circle of Cenarion. I be a druid, ya see."

"Can you prove it?" The night elf eyed him suspiciously.

"Ah, sure. Ya can either read da letter you dumped out on da dirt over there, or I could be turnin' into a bear and maul ya." He grinned. "I suggest ya go for da letter," he whispered encouragingly. The soldier patting him down gave him a hard shove.

"What business is this you are involved with?"

From the looks of captain hard-ass, he suspected this was going to quickly devolve into a complicated matter. If it didn't just deteriorate into an all out "incident."

"Farmsteaders near Isildien called upon da Circle for its aid. They suspect corruption. I be an expert on da matter." At the unimpressed looks he received, he added glibly, "So? May I be on my way now? I have a letter of safe passage from da Circle."

Without breaking eye contact, the captain turned to one of his men and began speaking quickly in Darnassian. Rin's jaw tensed.

"You're coming with us to Feathermoon," the captain announced after the exchange.

"Ah! Now that be very inconvenient," Rin quickly declared, speaking louder and hoping Edward was within earshot still. "Because it will severely interfere with my travel plans. I still need to head southwest for another sixteen miles, and set camp within a mile north of Isildien's ruins!" he groused theatrically.

"Not my problem." The captain shrugged his shoulders. "Take him."

Rin tried to stay calm as the soldiers bound his wrists and took his daggers. One of them shouldered his pack. Rin tried to peer into the woods, hoping Edward had taken mental note of the directions.

"I really hope to be on my way soon," Rin explained loudly, a last-minute effort to dissuade Edward, in case he was plotting some fel-raising rescue effort.

"We'll see," the captain quipped dryly as they began to head down a trail toward the sea.

"May I know why I am being held even though I have done nothing?" Rin wondered after a few minutes of silence.

"You may be a person of interest." The captain marched ahead of him, his height and broad back blocking his view.

"Hmm, interesting in what way?"

"We are collecting information on a murder case," the captain informed him. "It's connected to the farmsteads in that area."

Rin's blood froze.

"Murder," he managed to utter. "Who was murdered?"

The captain turned his head to examine him, probably making a note of his ashen features. He smirked cruelly.

Things were becoming unexpectedly complicated.

Feathermoon came into view not too long after they set sail from the docks. Soldiers kept watch port and starboard, wary of naga attacks. The boat approached the island from the wooded coast, crowded with large, overgrown pines that soared into the sky. They bobbed over the waves as the boat angled itself over the choppy waters toward the dock. Along the shore, smaller fishing shells were moored. A group of people had congregated around something Rin eventually realized was the beached corpse of a large naga warrior.

I just be wantin' to get out of here.

He was marched passed curious gazes up a ramp into a room hollowed out from the base of a large tree. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkened room. He was pushed down onto a bench.

"You. Here. Wait," a female night elf soldier commanded him. She was young, Rin gathered, despite the heavy armor and fierce expression. Her Common was heavily accented. He cursed himself over the fact that the only terms he knew in Darnassian had to do with sexual acts. It was unlikely that whatever matter the elves were investigating had something to do with Leighton and that rotten rune business, he tried to reassure himself. After all, there were several farms, many people living in the farmsteads and the town. The likelihood that anything had happened at—

He winced, trying to keep nagging negative thoughts at bay.

I hope nothin' happened to Sahar. He finally exhaled loudly, tossing his head back with impatience. The mere thought of her in distress, in pain, in any type of peril, he realized, made him want to throw his easy-going caution to the wind and rage-fight his way out of the stronghold in classic berserker mode.

A soldier ran out of the building after conferring with the unpleasant captain.

Patience, he warned himself. He opened his amber eyes and sought the hulking figure of the captain. He did not know if there was a chance that his colleague Leafwing would be at Feathermoon and not off on some mission, but he had to try.

"Captain, if ya be holdin' me here, I would like to request that one of my colleagues from da Circle be notified."

"We are trying to corroborate your claims." He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. "We are trying to locate one of our druids."

"Who?" Rin asked hopefully.

The captain turned away from him.


He'd been drowsing. Rin awakened with a start as he caught his body lurching forward. It couldn't have been for long: the same group of soldiers, including the captain, remained in the room with him, speaking quietly in Darnassian.

I'm not the first, nor will I be the last troll to undergo such treatment by da Alliance, he consoled himself. And it goes both ways-I hear it not be much better da other way around. He glanced down at his bound wrists, the rope wound tightly, cutting into his skin. It could be worse, he knew. Much worse.

"How much longer…" Rin finally ventured.

No one answered him.

The shadows in the room had shifted, grown longer. He was not alone, but there were different soldiers stationed in the room. The captain was gone. He smacked his lips and tried to catch one of the men's attention.

"I be feelin' thirsty. Can I have some water?"

The soldier hesitated.

"I don't…You have to wait."

For what? He just wanted water. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. A brief regret surfaced: I should have attacked. With Edward, I could have downed da entire patrol. It was a short-lived regret. A wishful fantasy. The repercussions would have been disastrous. It would have affected him at the Circle—in the best case scenario, the Circle would cast him out like it did most druids who put faction over loyalty to druidic doctrine. The worst? Imprisonment.

Not that I be feelin' terribly free now, he thought wryly.

He let his head hang low, feeling tired, achey, and frustrated. He thought often of Sahar, her forehead pressed against his so affectionately.

I'm going to miss you while you're away. I wish you didn't have to go.

Me too, he answered her longingly in his thoughts. Me, too.

It wasn't until dusk that he became aware of a small commotion outside the room. His head snapped up, alert, and one of the soldiers craned his neck toward the door to watch what was unfurling.

"At once!" the voice boomed indignantly.

"You can hardly condemn us for our actions, given the situation!" Rin recognized the captain's voice. It contained an edge of defiance.

"I should have been informed at once! Rin'Seyi is an esteemed member of my order on a mission!"

Rin smiled wanly in the gloom. He'd know that arrogant, pompous tone anywhere. Leafwing.

What took ya so long, pretty boy? He inhaled deeply, a wave of relief washing over him as he sat up straighter.

Rin rubbed his raw wrists before gripping the goblet of fresh water Leafwing was offering him.

"I am deeply sorry, old friend," Leafwing quickly offered. "I would have come sooner, but apparently the latest trend here at Feathermoon is to convict suspects before even speaking to them!" He directed his simmering outrage to the captain, who stood stoically by the open window. "I was informed earlier a member of the Horde was impersonating a Circle of Cenarion member in connection to that ghastly Isildien homesteader business. They even told me to take my time; they were handling it. But I had an uneasy feeling. I'm glad I pressed them for more details. Besides, I am sure the naga off the Isle of Dread won't miss me too much."

"You perused my belongings, but failed to see the letter of safe passage granted to me?" Rin addressed the captain very deliberately.

Leafwing turned to glare at the captain as well.

"You didn't even acknowledge the letter? A letter written by the Circle? A neutral entity?"

"We must take every precaution. After the attack at Thalamar…"

"Perhaps ya be new to these parts, but I be a troll, not Grimtotem," Rin protested, standing up and rolling his shoulder.

"Why bring up Thalamar at all?" Leafwing puzzled, pouring out a goblet of water for himself. "I've lost count of the number of times the Grimtotem have tried to attack Thalamar. It's hardly news that--"

"This attack was different," the captain explained in his strained manner. "It definitely was not Grimtotem this time. The Horde's presence in Feralas is growing and it is behind a spate of attacks on our outposts and camps. The forgery of a letter of safe passage is nothing for the members of the Horde to pull off if it helps them achieve their goals."

Leafwing nodded.

"I understand and commend you on your precaution, Captain Whitewind, but there are laws, secured by treaties, regardless."

"This is war," the captain stated plainly, averting his gaze.

Leafwing glanced at Rin apologetically.

"Such are the times. What is Azeroth coming to?" he muttered softly before sipping from his goblet.

Outside the window, the first stars had emerged in the sky.

"You are free to go," Leafwing assured him, as if guessing his thoughts. "Were you planning on departing tonight? I was informed the boat will not attempt to cross until morning. It's too dangerous to attempt it with the naga about like this."

"I might fly out." He surveyed the sky: it was a clear, starry evening. "What be this business about da naga, Leafwing?"

The elf huffed tiredly.

"We have seen a disturbing uptick in Hatecrest attacks to our fortifications."

Rin couldn't help thinking of Edward.

"Honestly, I have to commend ya people on puttin' down outposts right next to Grimtotem encampments and to da Isle of Dread…Ya certainly like to live dangerously. Or was da real estate cheaper?"

Leafwing smirked.

"'Great location and bad neighbors' is a Darnassian saying." He acknowledged the captain sullenly standing a few steps away from them. "Elder Auroch wanted me to report back on what might be causing the Hatecrest to become more bold and aggressive."

"And?" Rin encouraged him. "Oh, and where be my pack?" he asked the captain. The elf stared at him, as if begrudging his impertinence before stepping out of the room.

"I am alarmed by the increasing number of attacks. These aren't the usual patterns we've come to associate with them, either. I have reason to suspect the Hatecrest are allying with other naga clans to mount bigger incursions. They tend to be very insular, so this is an alarming development. I wouldn't be surprised to discover outside forces have been meddling with the naga." He glanced at the door. "It'll be a matter of time before they breach the fortifications on the atholl at Sardor island," he explained in a lowered voice. "I don't need to tell you what the repercussions would be for this fortress."

Both men considered the possibility mutely.

"So, what is this murder business?" Rin finally asked. "I imagine it has nothin' to do with my case. Otherwise, ya be tellin' me right away. Right?" He watched the elf shrewdly. "Is my partner all right?"

Leafwing rubbed his head tiredly.

"We received a message from Stormwind three days ago—"

"Who's dead?" Rin insisted, the rising anxiety causing his chest to tighten.

"The communiqué stated that the relatives of an herbalist named Phinneas Thornton have not received news of him since he departed from Stormwind three months ago to accept a position as the herbalist to the homesteaders near Isildien."

That be a heap of bullshit.

"Uh-huh. Tell me another one. Like Stormwind be carin' enough about some lowly herbalist up Feralas' asshole. That be coded talk for 'where be our operative?'" Rin grimaced. "It was a message from SI:7, wasn't it?"

Leafwing hesitated. "That's classified."

Rin rolled his eyes.

"But yes," he whispered. "And you didn't hear it from me: it was an SI:7 communiqué. Blasted—they think they're so stealthy, but they might as well have Darkmoon Faire barkers in front of their headquarters."

"What if I told ya I was just with this Thornton guy recently?"

Leafwing's eyes widened.

"I intended to reach out to you for help about this. Exactly how long ago?"

Rin shrugged.

"Two days ago?"

"I'd say that's impossible."

"Don't believe me, ask my partner. Da man's alive and is such a bumbaclutter, I'd never be believin' he be one of Stormwind's finest."

"This is very alarming." Leafwing leaned forward. "You see, a few weeks ago, one of our patrols found human remains in a shallow grave near the bend on the road leading south from the Twin Colossals."

Rin was about to interject, but the elf raised his fingers in a gesture of patience.

"I know: clashes around here are not unusual. Not the first time we find remains. Nevertheless, we follow a protocol: we seek to identify the dead. The soldiers will seek to identify as much as possible."

"I presume that be for da Alliance? What do ya do when da remains are from races in da Horde?" Rin questioned.

He said nothing.

"I have little control over these things."

"Right: because we, senseless brutes, aren't even worthy of proper burial rituals." He ran his hands through his hair

"Look, you know I don't think like that; I'm a druid: we are druids. And although I respect life in all its forms, if I tried to approach a Horde camp with the remains of one of their dead, you and I know I wouldn't be feted as a hero."

He had to admit the elf was right.

"Go on."

"Most of the corpse's belongings had been stolen—he was found clad in stockings and a tunic. Our healer thinks the corpse is at least a couple months old."

"Cause of death?"

"Bludgeoned. The man had been sitting quietly before a campfire when he was attacked. Never saw it coming." He poured himself another goblet. "The thief stole the man's horse and most of his belongings, but he missed a letter of commendation from Stormwind for "Thornton" hidden in the man's stockings. An authentic fake, of course. Captain Whitewind might not be a pleasant host, but he's right to be suspicious of forgeries: he is well aware his own government is doing it."

"There must be some confusion then: I saw Thornton with my own eyes," Rin countered, unconvinced.

"You don't seem to understand, Rin: there is no Thornton. The man was made-up, played by an agent who was killed. Whoever you met has to be an impostor."

Just then, the captain returned to the room, tossing Rin's pack on the ground.

"Thank you," he muttered to the night elf. "Did ya put everytin' back nicely?" he teased.

"Your daggers will be returned on the way out." The captain made his way to the entrance and stationed himself outside the door.

"Hopefully not plunged into my back," he mumbled to Leafwing.

A powerful restlessness overcame him.

"I need to go," he announced.

"Why don't you stay at least until daybreak?" Leafwing looked out the window.

Rin was not interested—he collected his belongings and headed to the door.

"Whoever that Thornton be, I need to be findin' him. He may have some answers for me regardin' my mission."

That business only grew stranger and stranger. He thanked Leafwing, and under his watchful gaze, leaped over the rocks perched over the beach, the tip of one his conjured wings grazing the surface of the water before he gained momentum and soared over the sea toward the looming woods.

Da impostor was supposed to meet with Sahar yesterday.

He couldn't beat his wings fast enough.

I need to get to her now.

Chapter Text

"I have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life."
― Virginia Woolf


The owl drifted swiftly over the canopy, its wingspan casting a large shadow. Rin had sensed something off about that herbalist from the beginning. He should have trusted his gut instinct. The man was too eager to make his "expertise" obvious, yammering ad nauseam about soil types and other esoteric topics that only a scholar in the field would have followed. The impostor had wanted to demonstrate his knowledge beyond a doubt—to play his role appropriately.

Why had the man impersonating Thornton gone through so much trouble? Suddenly the man's nervousness, his need to know just how much they had gleaned about the runes became ominous.

I left Sahar all alone with a murderer.

If anytin' happens to her, I will never forgive myself. He flapped his wings harder, sweeping through the cool night air. He was trying very hard to focus on his trajectory, to enjoy the mild oblivion shapeshifting could afford him, but disastrous thoughts circled his mind predatorily, taunting him about his oversight.

My stupidity could be costin' us, he thought, with a heaviness in his chest.

Have some faith: Sahar can brawl. Besides, she wouldn't be havin' much to tell da man. He couldn't possibly be seein' her as a threat.

The uneasiness of not knowing hunted him.

Almost three hours later, he landed in the field behind Leighton's farmhouse. Despite his turmoil and the later hour, he was somewhat reassured by seeing that the farmhouse was still lit. He even caught a glimpse of Leighton through the windows, going about his usual business inside. It transmitted a sense of normalcy; it was a sign that all was well. He turned his attention to the barn, hurrying up the trail.


He found the barn dark. Other than the customary noises from the animals, all was quiet. He let his eyes adjust to the darkness and searched for the ladder leading up to the loft. As relieved as he was to find it in place, he wondered why Sahar hadn't pulled it up and stowed it away as he did every night.

He emerged in the loft area anxiously.

The impostor was gonna meet her to gather information about da runes da previous day.

What if Sahar had gone missing and no one had bothered to check? What if she was being held captive…or worse… and no one investigated her disappearance based on Thornton's word? His mouth went dry and his pulse raced. He climbed off the ladder and searched for the lantern he'd often leave by his bedroll. The moment his feet stepped forward, however, he was jarred by his body coming to an abrupt halt. His legs had become rooted to the ground. He couldn't move—neither forward, backward…or anywhere.

It's a trap. He grunted angrily.

And the spell was spreading through him, too. A prickling numbness coursed up his feet and ankles, locking his knees, and was starting to make his arms heavy enough that he wasn't able to hold them up—they hung limply alongside him.

A rustling in the corner of the room startled him—he caught movement out of the corner of his eyes.

"Who's there?" an angry feminine voice demanded. Two silvery eyes peered back at him.

Despite the gripping tightness of the paralyzing spell, he breathed a sigh of relief.

"It be me, Sahar," he called out.

The figure grew agitated and after some noisy fumbling, the lantern finally flickered on. It took a second for Sahar to reconcile what was happening before she reached forward to uncover a small stone object she'd concealed beneath some clothing. It emanated a soft golden glow, pulsing lightly.

"Earthbinding totem." Whether she was apologizing or explaining, he couldn't tell. He couldn't ask her either, as he could no longer move his facial muscles or mouth to utter a word. She held it in both her hands and closed her eyes—the totem pulsating stronger for a few moments before sputtering out.

The sensation that overcame him was like a head rush, but over his entire body. As the spell dissolved and lifted, he collapsed to his knees, exhaustion finally claiming him.

"Rin! You're back!" she cried, rushing to him, wrapping her arms around his neck tightly.

He embraced her, holding her close, ascertaining that she was, in fact, there, safe, unharmed, in his arms.

"Are you all right?" she asked at last, sitting back and contemplating him. She raised her hand to his cheek, her eyes worried, seeking his.

"All better," he managed to say, grateful beyond words that despite the mess that mission was devolving into, that aspect of it, at least, had not been damaged. He acknowledged her totem, discarded on the ground nearby, with a nod. "Not bad."

And there it was: that radiant smile he loved to see.

"I'm amazed myself! I have been working on it for a while, expanding its radius without compromising its strength," she began delightedly. " See, I started developing it because I didn't want any animals or bugs crawling up to me at night or—"

"Trolls?" he teased affectionately, a grin edging up his lips.

"Oh, I actually don't mind those as much…but I'd appreciate a little bit of warning!" she scolded him flirtatiously.

It was then that he noticed she was wearing one of his tunics. He reached out for the hem and tugged it gently.

"Ya paralyze me, steal my stuff…"

She glanced down at herself, patting the front of the large black cotton tunic. She averted her eyes, but she had a little grin on her face.

"It smells like you," she said very softly so he could barely hear her.

A flush of warmth spread through him— an intoxicating tangle of desire and something else: a tender ache.

"C'mere," he ordered her huskily.

"No," she said, scooting away from him and backing onto the bedroll. She was sitting up straight while facing him. He arched an eyebrow at her. "You come here," she beckoned. "I'm holding still: I think you know why."

Desire outweighed exhaustion. His entire body throbbed with pleasure as he lay on his back, sprawled over the bedroll, his legs splayed and Sahar between them, taking him deep in her mouth, her eyes occasionally glancing up to see his reaction to her licking and sucking. He caressed her, brushing his fingertips over her soft hair, the ridges of her horns. The delicious tightness intensified when he watched her pull those full lips back over the tip of his cock, the contrast of her light pink tongue lapping at the swollen blue head—the warmth, the pressure, the expression in her eyes, obviously enjoying her effect over him…

He groaned, trying to contain himself. He stopped her from continuing—as much as he wanted to watch that scene—to come in her mouth, feel that nimble tongue of hers lap him up until he had completely spilled himself, it would have to be at another time. He was risking having all rational thought slip away to yield to that impulsive, uncontrolled side of his: he wanted to be inside her, feel her body against his, claim her, possess her so completely that there would be no room for anyone else. No one else, he thought jealously, issuing a silent challenge to an unknown man half across the world. He pulled her up roughly, settling her over the bedroll before lying over her. Kual—mine, he thought defiantly, inhaling Sahar's warm scent before their lips crashed into each other, reciprocating and heightening the hunger they found in each other. He brushed his lips over her chin, trailing down her neck, her pulse throbbing lightly against his mouth and tongue as he kissed her, sucked on her skin. His hand caressed her breasts as he let his mouth roam over her collarbone, her shoulder. Her hand slipped down to grasp his cock and he let her—it felt too good to feel her gripping him, stroking him. He furrowed his brow and let out a deep moan. He seized her tighter, nuzzling her shoulder, overcome by the savage urge to mark her like his people once did —a mark that would warn onlookers that she already had a man and would reject any advances from others. He grazed the surface of the soft skin with his tongue, tasting the saltiness of her skin. He let his hand slip away from her breasts to tickle the coarse hairs between her parted legs and she tugged him harder, sighing softly, betraying all her want for him. He sucked on the skin of her shoulder, her steady stroking of his cock giving him shudders.

Just a light one—a small mark, he thought headily. He opened his mouth over the skin of her shoulder, sucking more intensely, letting his teeth lightly push into her flesh. He could quickly, easily break the skin if he—

What ya thinkin', mon?

He raised his head to glance at her.

"Rin?" she asked a few times before he blinked at her, finally responding.

"Yah," he replied, dazed.

"Are you all right?"

He glimpsed the red mark he'd left on her shoulder—he hadn't bitten her, but he'd done enough teasing to burst the blood vessels over the pale lavender skin. He exhaled heavily.

"I'm sorry." He ran his fingers over the fresh bruise as if trying to brush it away from sight. "I didn't mean to hurt ya," he told her earnestly.

She tried to peer down at the offending bruise, not able to view it from that angle.

"That? I didn't mind what you were doing," she revealed. "It's just when you pulled away and looked at me…"

He held still, warily waiting for her to continue.

"Your eyes…they looked so dark. You looked so fierce…" she continued, a hint of wonder in her voice.

"Yah…I should've warned ya: tings can get…intense," he agreed, sheepishly. "Are ya afraid?" he asked with concern, ready to stop, give her space if she revealed even the slightest apprehension.

"Of you?" She cracked her winsome smile, craning her neck to plant kisses over his cheek. "Never," she uttered. He closed his eyes at her touch. He let her kiss his face, her kisses at once sweet and playful as they pinpointed his forehead, nose, cheeks, even his tusks, as if offering proof that she hadn't been put off by him. He finally let out a gruff laugh, pulling away slightly.

"Where are you going? I'm not done kissing your nose!" she protested, her arms stretched out, hands still clasped around his neck.

"That could be takin' a while," he joked. "It be a big nose."

"Yes, but I love it, though. I love everything about you," she said tentatively, trying to gauge his reaction.

There, he thought. That— It stripped away all his defenses.

He swooped down, rolling over her, their bodies crushing against each other, their lips dissolving into deep kisses, hips grinding until he angled himself to enter her. She locked her legs around his, encouraging and meeting each thrust. He muffled her moans with his mouth, eager to convey with his lips, with his tongue, with his body, everything he could not bring himself to say to her.

At one point of the night, Rin gently pulled Sahar's arm off him. He pulled up the blankets, making sure she was covered, and slipped off the bedroll. He reached for his pipe in his pack and wandered to the loft's window. It was hard to open—it probably hadn't been cracked open in a long time. It creaked sharply as he wrested it half open and he held still when Sahar stirred in sleepy protest. He only lit his pipe when he heard her breathing grow deeper again.

He sat beside the window, blowing the smoke outside, letting the pungent herbs soothe him as they always did.

They'd have to be up early in the morning to confront "Thornton." He hadn't had a chance to update Sahar on the mission's developments. Then there was Edward the Odder. That was an interesting situation he'd gotten himself into. Maybe he should deal with the undead warlock alone—perhaps the man would be satisfied upon verifying the runes and leave to do whatever he had set out to do. If he was lucky, maybe the warlock had given up on him at his detention by the night elf patrol and decided not to follow him out there.

Movement from the bed caught his eye and he watched Sahar sprawl across both bedrolls, seizing his pillow and clasping it to herself. He drew deeply from his pipe and then chuckled quietly.

Ya perverted bed hogger.

He remembered the bruise mark he'd given her and peered into the darkness outside, blowing a plume of smoke out the window.

I almost lost control, he thought. That…Never happened. He'd grown up fully aware that he came from a people who surrendered to the pull of their most primal urges. It was something encouraged when they offered themselves as channels to the spirits and the Loa possessed them during their most sacred ceremonies. It was celebrated in the heat of battle, when they gave in to adrenaline and rage as berserkers, terrifying their foes with their fury. I almost gave in to that…in the heat of da moment, he thought, ashamed. Vol'jin had done so much to elevate the Darkspear, to have them overcome the perpetual violence other troll tribes could not seem to escape. The greatness of the Darkspear had been foreseen and favored by the Loa. They had to surpass those urges if they wanted to survive and thrive—and the only way to survive, it appeared, had been through an alliance with the Horde. Living in isolation, honoring those old, sanguinary ways made them weaker—not stronger.

He'd always been in full possession of his senses and been commended for remaining levelheaded when it really counted. It was required of him, as a druid, as someone who needed to understand where he began and ended, both physically and mentally, anytime he shifted into a new form. Sex had always been a welcome release—and he had enjoyed sex with partners far more worldly than Sahar, he reasoned, holding his pipe pensively. But as exhilarating and exciting as those encounters had been, why was it that she—a woman he had only met a few days earlier—had such a pull, such a powerful effect on him? He hadn't worried about losing control, losing himself like that since he was…a much younger man.

Most of his partners had been as emotionally guarded and solitary as himself—only seeking out a fleeting moment of pleasure—no illusions offered, no promises made, nothing hinting at anything greater than a well-spent evening, perhaps even a few days before moving on. Perhaps that was the secret. He'd been familiar with the chase when Sahar came onto him. Attraction and surrender…all those things were part of an old game. What he hadn't prepared himself for, though, was the emotional connection beyond sex. He wasn't prepared for her questions, her curiosity, her interest in him. He didn't know what to make of that playfulness they shared, that warmth and affection they exchanged. He'd had the occasional lover who had sought that tenderness as well as physical pleasure from their encounters—but it had always come across as false; he'd had the impression he'd been a stand-in for someone else or simply an accessory to combat someone's loneliness. He thought at first that maybe that had been the case with Sahar…But Sahar…she looked him in the eye. Trusted him. Wanted him.


I love everything about you.

We be playin' with dangerous tings, she and I. But it be too late now: we be wantin' each other too much to do anytin' about it.

He blinked at the spirals of smoke floating to the ceiling. Just a few steps before him, her huddled shape slept soundly beneath the blankets.

All of this between us gonna cost us, he thought warily. What would come of them, at the end of it all? He was Horde, she was Alliance, he was a troll, she was a draenei. And she was betrothed to another man…Besides, he loved his freedom.

Right? he asked himself in bewilderment when the statement failed to resonate within. He eventually finished smoking the pipe and closed the window. At the sound of the creaking wood, Sahar stirred from her sleep again.

"Sssh," he whispered soothingly, settling beside her beneath the covers. He kissed the top of her head and she snuggled into him sleepily.

"Rin," she mumbled softly, and nothing else, before falling asleep again.

Aaah, all of this…It's gonna hurt when da time comes, he accepted.


Chapter Text

"Unlike the puerile loyalty to a conviction, loyalty to a friend is a virtue - perhaps the only virtue, the last remaining one."
― Milan Kundera

If the previous evening had aroused tender feelings toward Sahar in Rin, the morning was having a decidedly different effect on him. Sahar was proving to be unreasonable…

And unruly, he decided, irritated.

"I go. Ya stay."

"It doesn't make any sense! You cannot simply go into town and confront Thornton alone!" Sahar argued.

"I be more experienced and don't forget I be outrankin' ya!" He rarely had to pull rank, but Sahar was sorely testing him.

"Well, all of that matters very little to a bunch of humans who will be terrified to see you walk into their town and threaten their herbalist!"

"I will be goin' with Leighton, then!"

"And if people attack? How is Leighton going to protect you?" she scolded, hands on her hips.

"Nobody's gonna be attackin' me. Not if Leighton be there."

"Ha! And what if Thornton uses the townsfolks' fear of the Horde against you. What if he begins yelling for help when you turn up? What are you going to do then? Rattle off your accomplishments to persuade them? Do you think the people are more likely to listen to Thornton, who for all intents and purposes, is a known figure? Or you think they're going to trust the troll they never wanted here in the first place?"

She was right, of course. But his plan called for discretion. He and Leighton would go into town—Leighton would wait outside the man's home while he'd…extract a confession? Find some evidence of culpability? The more he thought about it, the more complicated it became. Who would arrest Thornton? Imprison him? Did he even know what the laws were in that situation, among humans?

"Good. I am going," she declared, trusting that his silence meant defeat.

"No, you are not!" he growled, his arm barring the barn door.

"I am your partner: we work together."

"Only when I say it is safe to do so!"

"I believe any concerns about risk should be discussed with me, no? You are taking the front without consulting your partner."

"You are still an apprentice."

"In formal rank, only. You have seen me fight."

"This man murdered an SI:7 operative. He be dangerous."

"We will be on our guard, then."

"No!" he cried.

"You think I'm incompetent!" she accused, growing upset.

"I never said that!" He splayed out his hands to her in appeasement.

"Then give me one good reason!" she dared him, crossing her arms.

Rin exhaled loudly in frustration.

"If sometin' happens to ya—ya be an initiate. Ya be my responsibility. I would be in a lot of trouble."

The hard glare did not subside. Perhaps he needed to employ a different strategy…

"If sometin' happens to ya…I'd never forgive myself, Sahar." It was true. But he had to admit the timing of his confession was highly suspect. Her expression did soften, though. She finally stepped closer and embraced him.

"Oh, Rin," she whispered, nuzzling his cheek. "That's so sweet that you're so protective of me."

There, he thought, holding her against him. Simple enough.

"But," she continued. "You have to give me some credit. Besides, as you are so experienced, I doubt you'll let anything happen to me. How am I to gain experience if I am not given opportunities to learn in the field?" She stepped away from him briskly and adjusted the strap of her satchel over her shoulder. In her eyes, an indomitable defiance.

He was a bit crestfallen. He peered at her in disbelief.

"What?" She furrowed her brow. "Just because we are romantically involved doesn't mean I need to defer to your wishes, does it? Is that how troll men go about these things? Because it's how draenei men would LIKE it to be: but not on my watch! I believe in keeping our professional and personal lives separate, no?" She reached across, poking him lightly in the crotch. "I'd appreciate it if outside the bedroom you didn't think with this." She tapped his forehead. "Use this instead."

Loa's curse, what have I got myself into? Rin gulped, his hands blocking the front of his trousers from any further onslaughts. Still, he couldn't help a slightly mystified grin from emerging on his lips. She could have used many different terms to describe whatever they had: "Just because we have bedded each other, slept with each other, fucked each other, had sex with each other…" But she had used the very quaint and fluffy "romantically involved."

She squinted at him.

"Why are you grinning like that?"

He couldn't stop.

"All right, suit yourself—that's just…creepy!" she huffed, pushing past him and flinging the door open. He couldn't help laughing as she stormed down the trail toward Leighton's house.

So ya have it bad for old Rin, do ya? he chuckled, charmed.

It delighted him to no end.

Nothing had been resolved. They walked along the edge of the woods, parallel to the main road to the city to avoid any encounters with the humans. They spoke in hushed, but nevertheless animated voices.

"Ya have a problem with authority, ya know that?" He turned his head to face her, frustration beginning to wear him down.

"Maybe it's because it's always those in a position of authority that keep holding me back from progressing in my life!"

"I'm merely ensuring that ya continue to have a life that those authorities ya be so angry about keep interfering with," he provoked.

"You have NO idea," she continued, incensed. "No idea whatsoever what it is like to be told that who you are, how you are, is an affront to your people just because you have a different approach to what is widely accepted among them."

He shouldn't have let himself be dragged into that conversation, but he was cranky and in desperate need to assert some authority.

"Ya think ya know everytin' about me! How do ya know? It be very presumptuous of ya. Druids' loyalties be always questioned just because we be faithful to da Circle. Our own race may mistrust us!"

"Then you should empathize with my plight! If you know how difficult it is, why don't you act more supportive, then?"

Aah, fuck me! Rin screamed in his head. There was no reasoning with her.

"Ya know what I tink? I tink ya set yasself up to fail."

"No, I don't!" she cried out.

He cast her a stern glance and raised a finger to his lips. Her hand rose to cover her mouth as she nodded sheepishly.

"I don't set myself up to fail! I work very hard! I am the initiate who works the hardest among my fellow shamans. I am also the most talented, the most powerful! And why haven't I risen among the ranks all this time? Because I don't conform!" she stated bitterly.

"Ya know, ya talent and power are just part of the equation, Sahar. Knowing how to read and handle different situations—how to pick ya battles, so to speak—be almost as important. Otherwise, all those skills go to waste." She finally fell silent, as if taking his words in. "Ya know, when I was younger, I, too, had teachers I didn't agree with, or didn't like. I had one master back when I was just a lowly apprentice who was such an asshole, he would send me home before dark just to avoid feedin' me dinner. I had another master who was a world-class healer, but such a tiring person: he was always at odds with da Circle about the purpose of druids. He thought all druids should be trained for was healing. Sometimes I wanted to punch him in da mouth: he told me once that if I was attacked, I should just bear it and then heal myself afterward," he continued.

"But what if your beliefs are so at odds with those of your masters that to conform meant to betray some of your most deeply held convictions? What if trying to conform affected your powers? Diminished them? Made you weaker? Less?" she asked after some contemplation.

"E'chuta…" he grumbled. "Just what are da draenei shamans tryin' to do to ya?" he puzzled.

"We disagree—very deeply—on some fundamental issues," she explained. "And because I will not change my stance, I keep having my advancement delayed and denied. I don't understand why draenei even bother formally nurturing ties with the Earthen Ring. Everything is so fragmented, Rin, especially since Thrall withdrew from leadership. Perhaps it is too much to ask draenei to work alongside orcs as equals. Too much of the history still lingers. It's almost as if we draenei begrudge orcs shamanism, so we must alter it sufficiently to make it all ours…" She looked at him helplessly. "It is exhausting, Rin."

He did not know what to say to that. He didn't know that he had anything wise to suggest to her, either. He mumbled a few platitudes: "Ya have to pick ya battles," or something as uninspired, until they reached the outskirts of town. Hidden behind the thick foliage of the surrounding forest, they watched the town go about its morning business.

"So. What do we do?" He had to admit that his bravado from earlier had waned somewhat. The town was bigger than he had foreseen. Walking through the front gates would be as good as an affront, a declaration of intent to wage war.

"Let me go—perhaps I'll be able to lure him out and bring him here?" Sahar suggested. "He was supposed to meet with me back at the farm."

"He never showed?"

She shook her head.

"Sent word that something had come up and that he would contact me at another time. I can't say I minded too much."

"Neither can I," he said quietly.

"Very well: wish me luck!" She began to step away, toward the road. Rin seized her arm.

"No, ya don't. This be a bad plan. What if he doesn't want to come out? What if he tries to attack ya? I don't trust that man. Ya can't be goin' alone."

"But YOU can?" Sahar sulked.

"Actually, I would prefer not to be goin' alone. That's why I had suggested Leighton."

They both stared at each other, very aware of the impasse they had created.

"Ideally, we would be able to walk in together," she mused.

"Ideally. But that can't be happenin'," he lamented.

She stepped back and seemed to be pondering a thought. She glanced at him, her eyes focusing on his beaded armband.



"What animal forms can you take?"

"What?" He grimaced. "Now is not da time," he replied gruffly.

"What land animals?" she insisted.

"Ah, they be considered beast forms and I can summon da bear and da—" he paused, turning his head to her sharply. "Ooo, no. No, no, no."

Sahar had a wild grin on her face.

"Come on! You said so yourself: ideally we'd walk into town together. This is perfect. If I say you are my companion animal, what will the townsfolk say? What do they really know about druids or shamans? We can go into town, find Thornton, and once we are in his house, we can confront him together! I won't be alone: you won't be alone! It's a perfect plan! It really is!" She was bouncing giddily.

"No," he decided.

And it was all he had to say on the matter.

"Look at you!" she marveled, running her fingers through his thick red mane. He shook his head, shooing her hand away. He was incredibly annoyed at her—and at himself, for letting her persuade him to shift into his feline form to enter the village.

"So what is it like?" she continued talking to him softly, as they approached the town gates. "Are you fully conscious or do you find it difficult to keep track of yourself? I guess what I'm trying to say is, do you take on more feline characteristics emotionally, psychologically? Say, if I were to dangle some string before you, would you be tempted to bat at it?" she babbled.

He let out a low warning growl at her and she cracked a large smile.

"Ah, I recognize that reaction. It translates despite your cat form. I guess there's my answer."

The guards at the gate halted her. He sat beside her quietly, as she fished for her papers in her satchel.

"That's one big cat," the guard remarked, staring at Rin while his companion perused Sahar's identification documents. "What is it? A lion? A tiger?"

"He's one of a kind," she stated simply. "But a mix of different things," she concluded evasively. Rin simply blinked, his tail swishing occasionally.

"Is he a good hunter?" the guard continued, eyeing him with awe.

"The best. He's a very good companion. Has kept me safe in many occasions." She reached down and scratched his ear. It did feel wonderfully soothing. He tilted his head sideways to give her better access.

"Have you had him long?" The other guard chimed in, returning her papers to her.

"Not that long…but I don't know how I ever got along without him before!" She was replying to the men, but her words were for him. She scratched him beneath the chin and it pleased him so much, he craned his neck forward and closed his eyes.

"Well, just keep him under control. We don't want him mauling anyone."

"I'll have you know he's very intelligent."

Aah, Rin sighed contentedly. The scratching Sahar was giving him was just divine. He even began to purr softly.

"What's his name?"

"His name?" Sahar repeated. She paused for a moment and Rin opened his big eyes, looking at her with mild concern. "His name is…uh…Runn Tum!" she blurted out.

The two men began to laugh.

"Like the tuber?"

"Imagine that! Such a fierce animal with such a silly name!" The two men laughed gleefully and Sahar smiled.

What da fuck, Sahar. Dat's da best ya came up with?

"Let's go, Runn Tum!" she sang to him, patting her leg.

He sat there, unmoving, glaring at her, his tail whipping across the ground.

"Come on, Runn Tum!" She tilted her head toward the guards meaningfully. "Be a good kitty," she teased.

He followed her into the town, feeling like all justice in the world was dead.

"You're not going to sulk because I blanked when they asked me your name and came up with the first thing that came to mind, are you?" She walked close to him, her eyes sorting through the crowd. "I just thought…The name has a playful ring to it, don't you think?"

Rin let out a growl. He was startled from his gruffness by her hand dropping down to caress his mane.

"Aww! You're very cute like this. Even when you're mad." She chuckled. "I always wanted a pet cat. But back in Azuremyst there was no way we could feasibly keep one. My family lives close to bogs and I'd imagine it would be unsafe for a poor house cat." She rubbed his scruff. "But a nice big kitty like you," she cried, catching the attention of passers-by, "You could handle it, couldn't you, my Runn Tum Tummy?" She bumped her nose against his leathery snout. People slowed down to see the sweet exchange between what appeared to be a huntress and her pet. He shook his mane again, letting out a louder growl.

Ya gonna pay for this, he sulked.

Sahar stopped a woman and asked for directions to the herbalist's house. The woman pointed them down further into the town.

The modest cottage sat on a generous parcel of land—more than had been allotted to the other townspeople, presumably because the herbalist would be growing some of his own plants for his trade. Rin noted contemptuously that the plot was dry—nothing was growing. A few dried up tufts of something billowed ominously against the breeze.

Another clue that da man be a liar, Rin thought. The man had been all talk— his information probably parroted from books. He couldn't actually tend to a garden like a real herbalist.

When they approached the door, his whiskers twitched and he tensed.

He'd recognize that metallic odor anywhere, especially in his feline shape.


He stood before the door, blocking it, hoping Sahar would pick up on his cue. She, however, simply made a fist and rapped on the door. As the first rap went unanswered, she tried again, louder and more persistently. Rin let out a low roar and raised his heavy paw, raking it over her leg.

"Sssh, Runn!" she snapped, staring at the door.

He snorted crossly. Had she forgotten he was still a troll beneath his feline form? He wouldn't put it past her. She stood there looking very serious, her arms crossed, spine straight—trying very hard to look imposing. He pawed her leg again and she peered down at him. He growled more insistently and her brow furrowed. She leaned against the door and pressed her ear to the rugged wood surface.

"Thornton!" she called. "It's Sahar. I need to talk to you."

Nothing. She looked down at him again at a loss and he blinked back at her with those large yellow eyes.

"What do I do now?" she whispered, looking at him.

Get a guard. Get a guard, he repeated in his head, in vain hopes they would both spontaneously develop telepathic powers.

He turned his head toward a solitary soldier sauntering toward the town's square and let out another roar. Sahar followed his gaze and watched the guardsman turn the corner.

"All right." She nodded. "I get it: we need to break in, but not get caught!"

What? Nooo! He agonized. He let out a series of frantic, smaller growls, hoping she'd understand. He even went as far as walking away from the cottage, toward the soldier, hoping she would follow.

"Excellent plan! You keep watch while I figure out this lock so we can break in." She smiled broadly and winked. "What a good kitty you are!"

By all the ancestors, she be impossible, this…this noob! She appeared to be intensely concentrating on the lock. She closed her eyes and a bright spark of white burst over the door handle before he heard a loud click and the door creak open into a dark room.

"Hello?" she called out cautiously. No reply—she waved at him and stepped inside. Rin approached the doorway cautiously, the stench of blood flooding his sensitive nostrils. Just as he was focusing on catching the wisps of other scents mingling with the main, overpowering one, Sahar raced out of the cottage.

"This was a bad idea, Rin. We need to get a guard!"

No shit. He rolled his eyes. He noticed then that the tip of her hoof was stained with blood. He also saw she had begun to tremble.

"He's dead," she muttered in a low voice. "Thornton…Whoever he is. The man is dead."

Chapter Text

And I say also this. I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes."
― C.S. Lewis

Just turn into your feline form, Rin! It'll be great, Rin! he thought mockingly, as a flurry of guards congregated around the cottage.

He exhaled audibly, his yellow eyes searching past the crowd for Sahar. She was talking to a group of people: the constable, the mayor, and another whose role he didn't catch during introductions—this last man was clad in full plate armor.

Of course, Captain-in-a-Can was the only one who kept tossing shrewd stares at him. He wondered if the man suspected anything about his true identity. That excursion was turning out to be a phenomenally bad idea. If Sahar was under suspicion for anything, the fact she had entered town with a disguised troll in tow was not going to paint a pretty portrait of innocence. Rin decided to lie down, resting his chin morosely over his paws. There had been some excitement earlier, when the constable arrived and "Thornton's" body had been carried out of the cottage beneath a sheet on a stretcher. Sahar had been stuck dealing with the so-called authorities afterward… and he?…He felt his eyes growing heavier as he waited. He huffed, his tail whipping the ground one last time before settling over the grass. The armored man glanced back at him again and Rin blinked, followed by a big yawn.

Sahar and I should just stay in da barn all day havin' sex. That be da only place where tings go right. He let his eyes close for a moment.

"Get up."

A sharp pain coursed up his abdomen, right where the broad-toed sabaton prodded him.

"Don't do that! Don't you dare hurt him!" he heard Sahar shout furiously. His eyes shot open and he looked into the older warrior's face. He snarled at the man until he noticed Sahar further behind, her arms twisted behind her back by two guards.

What in da fresh fel is goin' on?

"Come with us. We have some questions for you."

Rin assessed the situation. The armored man, the constable, plus six guards. He could take the guards and the constable, but the armored man would be difficult to hold at bay while engaging in combat with the others.

"Come quietly," the man proceeded, indicating one of the streets, "and this might still end well for you."

The constable unlocked the heavy wooden door, granting them passage to a small, austere room. They all crowded into it, leaving him and the armored man at the center.

"All right—you can reveal yourself," the man announced.

The guards shoved Sahar down on a chair. She struggled to wriggle free as they bound her wrists with a thick length of rope behind the back of the chair. Rin did not move—his mind was racing, trying to devise a good plan to get them out of there. Before he understood what was happening, the room lit up in a fiery burst. The pain was bizarre—it was as if his bones were being stretched and the air forced out of his lungs. He became lightheaded for a moment and gasped for breath until he realized he was on all fours on the ground as a troll again.

Fuck, he thought angrily. That be a paladin bastard castin' some consecratin' spell to cleanse magic.

He heard gasps around the room and the unsettling scrape of swords being unsheathed.

"On your feet, troll," the man ordered, signaling to the soldiers to stand down.

Rin grunted, grimacing from the ache radiating though his body over being ejected so forcefully from one of his beast forms. Still, he pulled himself up, rolling back his shoulders, cracking his neck to the side.

"Hopefully you'll be more cooperative than this woman," the paladin indicated, jutting his chin at Sahar.

"I told you we are on business for the Cenarion Circle!" Sahar retorted.

"This is the first I've heard of it."

"Seems like ya not very well-informed," Rin stated coolly, quickly surveying the room. The paladin scowled at him.

"Then perhaps that makes two of us. Do you have any idea who I am?"

Yah. An asshole in plated armor, Rin thought scornfully. Sahar tried to lean forward and one of the soldiers seized her by the shoulders, ramming her back against the chair. His heart began to pound as he realized things were not going well.

As Rin said nothing, the paladin continued.

"I am Lieutenant Hugh Ridgewell, serving under Captain Gryan Stoutmantle, Commander of the Westfall Brigade."

"Westfall?…Did ya take a wrong turn somewhere?" Rin provoked.

One of the soldiers stepped toward him. The paladin flashed him a halting signal.

"Insolence? I've come to expect little else from your kind." He crossed his large arms over his armor. "I have recently arrived from the Grizzly Hills, where I've been teaching Alliance encampments to fend off attacks from you savages. The good people here have asked for my help in securing their town and homesteads."

"Is this da part where ya be explainin' how da Grizzly Hills really belong to da Alliance although ya have no history there and that ya have more right to extract resources from that land than da Horde because…Hmm…I can't think of one good reason. Yes, do explain. I'll try not to fall sleep."

Sahar's eyes were fixed on him almost pleadingly. He hated seeing her restrained like that—how could they treat members of their own faction in such a way? What had she done to incur their wrath?

"You seem to be under the impression you can call the shots here, son. But let me tell you: you and your accomplice are in a world of trouble right now. And unless you start explaining, I see no reason why frontier law shouldn't be applied to you."

"Is frontier law a fancy name in Common for gross violation of the Alliance's treaty with da Cenarion Circle?" He stood taller than the lieutenant and he hoped he came across as menacing.

Ridgewell stepped forward gripping Rin by the neck and pushed him up against the wall. Rin bared his sharp teeth and grasped his wrist tightly, weakening the man's grasp.

"Why did you and your accomplice kill Thornton?"

"Damned if I know," Rin rasped angrily, tugging at the hand squeezing his neck. "Since we didn't kill da man!"

"I think you did. I think you knew exactly what you were doing when you murdered this man."

Rin pulled harder and Ridgewell's arm began to shake.

"That man was not who ya think he be—he be an impostor and we be having' reason to believe he be da one behind an SI:7 agent's murder a couple months ago."

The lieutenant withdrew his hand and stared hard at Rin.

"How did you know?…"

"Don't believe me? Check at Feathermoon. Ask for da druid Leafwing. And make sure ya give my regards to Captain Whitewind." He rubbed his throat.

The constable stepped forward.

"It is plausible that the man was an impostor."

Ridgewell whipped his head around to glare at the constable.

"What do you mean?"

The constable shrugged.

"We never got Thornton's letter of commendation from Stormwind. He told us he had been robbed by an orc on his way to town. Said he would request a new one, but it never came."

"He was not a very good herbalist, either," one of the soldiers offered. "He could talk all day about herbs and their properties…But he couldn't tell the difference between river paw and silverleaf. We just figured he was the bookish sort with little field experience. Nothing grew in his garden. We all joked about it."

The room fell silent for a moment.

"Just what were you tasked with investigating for the Circle?" the lieutenant asked, stepping away from Rin.

"We be tasked with investigatin' Silas Leighton's fields. He be suspectin' fel corruption, but we discovered some strange runic circles that could be leadin' to sometin' else."

Ridgewell contemplated Sahar.

"And what did that man have to do with that investigation?"

Rin smirked.

"Notin'. He be da one interested in da investigation. He knew notin', but wanted to see da circles and learn what we knew about them. We came here today to ask him a few questions, see how he would be contradictin' himself."

"And then?" The lieutenant raised an eyebrow.

"I don't know," Rin replied sincerely, turning his gaze to Sahar. "We weren't sure what would happen. While I be quite familiar with ya…how should I put it? Protocols—or absence of any—when dealing with da Horde races, I don't know much about how ya be handlin' ya own suspects and criminals. We thought we'd deal with that after…But I can be assurin' ya of one ting: da murder was not what we expected, planned, or did."

"Then why did you come into town disguised as a beast? Don't you think that puts your credibility into question?"

Rin shook his head.

"Ya be absolutely right."

Ridgewell's eyes narrowed.

"What was that?" he stated sharply.

"It would have been far more convenient for ya if I had just walked up to da gates as a full-blooded troll, yah? Except that now, ya would have to be processing da paperwork for two corpses rather than one," Rin mulled. "Dat's just such a…hassle."

"Do you have any documentation that proves what you are telling me about yourselves?"

"Psst, let me offer ya a pro tip: usually ya ask for that first, before ya go chokin' and tyin' up people." Rin sneered, reaching into one of the pockets inside his vest. He pulled out a thrice folded sheet of parchment and handed it to the lieutenant. Ridgewell perused the document, written in both Common and Orcish, featuring a spell-imbued seal at the bottom.

His stern expression gave way to one of annoyance.

"Why didn't anyone tell me there were other investigations going on around here? This is the kind of thing you need to notify me about," he complained to his men, dropping his arm tiredly.

"Honestly, it didn't cross my mind—it seemed to be a unrelated matter, and not one in the town; we don't have any jurisdiction over the homesteads. It really just sounded like a farming problem—" the constable justified nervously.

"Shut up." Ridgewell rubbed his face. "From now on, don't think. Just assume everything is important." He cast his bleary gaze toward Sahar. "Untie her. Let her go."

Rin felt a rush of relief. He watched as the guards struggled with the tightly bound rope. She stood up quickly, rubbing her wrists, making her way toward the door.

"Come on, let's get out of here." She cast Ridgewell a resentful look.

"Ah-ah," the lieutenant quickly barred Rin's way. "Not you. She is free. You stay."

Both he and Sahar balked at that.

"Ya just read da letter!" he protested.

Lieutenant Ridgewell flashed him a triumphant grin right before he gripped the edge of his letter and unceremoniously tore it in half.

"What letter?" he stated softly. "You are being detained…Until we can ascertain you are who you say you are."

Rin lunged forward, cursing in Zandali, and two guards quickly stepped between him and the lieutenant.

"That's illegal!" Sahar cried out.

"Don't worry—I am sure this will be resolved expediently! We have a messenger we can send to Feathermoon. Where is Corporal Tynan these days?" Ridgewell tilted his head slightly to the side, while eyeing Rin with smug satisfaction.

"You sent him to Gadget," one of the soldiers replied.

"Ah, yes. He should be back in less than a week. Then we can have him verify your claims at Feathermoon."

"Why ya be doin' this?" Rin growled between his teeth.

"I don't like your attitude, son. You ought to learn some respect."

"You can't do this!" Sahar stepped closer, trying to stand next to Rin, but she was barred from approaching him further.

"I thought I told you you were free to go." Ridgewell raised his hand and waved his fingers at her. "Go," he mouthed. "Before I change my mind."

"I'm not going anywhere! He is my partner and this is very wrong!" She crossed her arms.

"Go, Sahar," Rin ordered her sharply. "It'll be all right."

If there was ever a time he needed Sahar to listen to him, it was just then. She contemplated him, crestfallen.

"But what if—"

"Listen to me: go," he stated meaningfully. "That be an order." He spoke firmly, but he faltered a bit at Sahar's pained expression. "Please," he added gently.

Without a further word, she pushed past the soldier guarding the door. As the door slammed shut again, Rin briefly closed his eyes, glad she had, for once, done as he'd asked.

"Constable, I trust you can arrange a cozy little cell for our guest here? He'll be staying with us for a while."

Rin bent down to collect the torn pieces of his letter quietly.

Ooo, but I don't tink so.

The small jailhouse was further out of town, up a hill, on the edge of a high and narrow crag. Below, the lush forest sprawled out until it hit the rocky shoreline. The wind buffeted the bushes around them and the sea further away was pocked with little whitecaps.


After he was tossed into a cell he could brush his knuckles against if he were to stretch his hands out or over his head, he endured a condescending speech by Ridgewell.

"You forced my hand, son. No one disrespects me before my men, period. I don't care who you are or who sent you. Do you understand?"

"Hmm…Could ya maybe draw me some diagrams?" Rin jabbed.

"Wiseass. Maybe if your people were more disciplined, more civilized, we wouldn't have to resort to all-out war."

"Yah. Truly. We should just stand aside and let ya plunder at ya heart's content."

Ridgewell's grin was hard and fierce.

"Listen, this is what I expect from anyone; it isn't anything personal…But you are sure trying to make it so."

After Ridgewell and his entourage left, Rin surveyed his accommodations. His room consisted of a hard wooden bunk with a coarse standard-issue blanket. A chamberpot with a mystifying clump of straw in it had been stowed beneath it. No windows. His jailor looked absolutely put out by having a charge. There were only two cells in the jail, and the other one was empty. Or rather, it held nothing except surplus furniture. Every once in a while his jailor would look up and stare at him. Rin eyed him back coolly. He lay down on the bunk and stared at the stained ceiling. The arrogance of the Alliance's lieutenant shouldn't have surprised him. He wondered briefly if his attitude had worked against him—but if experience were to count as a reliable guide in those matters, he knew he would have been in trouble whether he'd sassed the man or yes'sir-ed him. His main transgression had been entering the town undetected. That was, he guessed, what he really was being punished for.

He had to think and think carefully. There was no way he was going to serve his arbitrary sentence. If anyone needed a reality check, it was Ridgewell.

No jurisdiction, Rin remembered the constable uttering. He turned his head to the side and looked at the jailor scraping dirt from beneath his fingernails with a paring knife, a look of utter dejection on his doughy face.

No jurisdiction. All he had to do was get out of there. They wouldn't be able to pursue him without trespassing and setting an ugly precedent with the homesteaders.

The bars were too tough to move or bend. The jail, shabby though it was, had been built properly.

"Hey," Rin called out. The man startled and nicked his finger, hissing lightly.

"What do you want?"

"I've gotta take a piss."

"Go in the pot."

Rin didn't move.

"Go on. I won't look, if that's what you're worried about," he grunted with a sneer of disgust.

"Ya don't know anytin' about trolls, do ya?"

"No, and I don't really care to." The man turned his back to him.

Rin chuckled.

"If I be takin' a piss in this pot, every hyena, screecher, or chimaerok within a ten-mile radius will be at the doorstep fighting to barge in here to fuck what they tink is a female in heat," he stated. "I don't think ya want that."

"Not my problem what you do with wildlife in your own time." The man kept his back turned.

"Ah, but it should be. When they realize there be no female, they be gettin' real aggressive." He gripped the bars. "But these be sturdy, I guess. I'll be all right. I'll just enjoy da wildlife show from right here." He pat the bunk cheerfully.

Without further ado, he began to unbutton his trousers as he yanked the chamberpot out with one of his large toes.

"Just piss and leave the chamberpot by the door. When my replacement comes, we'll toss it over the cliff."

Rin concentrated hard. He had no idea what animals were lurking nearby. All he had to do was summon a big one close enough. He pretended to steady himself with one hand against the wall and cast the spell, watching it ripple in tiny webs up the wall, past the ceiling line. He cast it a couple more times; the spell would be emanating from the jailhouse like a small beacon and he hoped there was something larger than a rabbit that would respond to it. Rin whistled as he held himself in hand and began releasing a stream of urine into the chamberpot. He had barely begun when they heard a loud whoosh of wings overhead.

He halted midstream.

"What was that?" he asked, feigning panic.

The jailor turned to look at him bug-eyed, in a small frenzy.

"By the Light! By the Light!" he fretted. He peered out the window, bending outward. "Fucking fel! It's a stagwing!" he cried out. "Shoo!" he cried. "Shoo! Get off my roof!"

The creature screeched. It was young. It wasn't that large and terribly menacing, but it was perched on the roof when before there had been nothing, and right after Rin's tall tale, too. Rin grinned discreetly as he emptied his bladder. Thank you, he thought, resting his hand on the wall. Thank you for heeding my call, friend.

The stagwing screeched impressively and Rin couldn't help grinning again as he tucked himself away and buttoned up his trousers.

"Stop!" the man screamed at him. "Stop pissing!"

"I'm sorry—I really had to go."

The stagwing screeched again.

"Sweet Mercy, what's going to happen now?"

"He be callin' his friends to come over," Rin concluded.

"Shit, shit, shit!" the man bumbled about the jail, flustered. "What do I do?"

"It be real simple: ya take da chamberpot and dump it over da cliff—that way ya disperse da scent far from here."

The jailor nodded and reached for his small iron keychain with only three keys dangling from it.

"I'm going to open the door a crack and you slide the pot out, understood?" The jailor held the key hovering by the lock, awaiting confirmation. "Don't try anything sneaky or I will take you down."

As if to prove he meant business, the jailor unsheathed a long dagger as the keys jangled in his hand.

"Understood." Rin crouched before the bars, gently steering the pot toward the door.

The stagwing flapped its wings noisily, thumping against the roof. The jailor hastily turned the key in the lock and Rin listened carefully for the sound of the heavy bolt rolling back into the door.

"All right." The door cracked open and the jailor's hand reached for the edge of the chamberpot. Rin guided it toward him before seizing the door and ramming it completely open against the flummoxed jailor. He burst out, pushing the man to the floor and rushing to the door.

"Stop where you are!" the jailor shouted, scrambling to his feet and wielding his dagger. Rin quickly considered his options: if he ran down the dusty trail, he would find himself at the city's rear gates—there was no way to avoid it, coming down the cliff. Behind them there was the jailhouse…and the vast forest below a steep drop.

Rin didn't think twice—he veered to the side and ran to the back of the jailhouse. The jailor was in steady pursuit, hefting his weight with surprising spryness.

"Stop, troll!" he threatened, brandishing the dagger at him. Rin peered over the cliff. On the roof, the stagwing stared at him and without further notice, took flight into the sky.

"All right. Nowhere to go now. Be a good troll and come back quietly with me. If you listen, I won't mention this when my shift ends and there won't be the risk of prolonging your visit: what do you say?" the man tried to persuade him.

Rin turned around, hands raised in an appeasing manner, his back turned to the vertiginous drop below.

"How very generous! And I don't mention how ya opened da door and released me because ya be afraid of a little troll piss?" Rin teased. "Is that how da deal be workin'?"

"Fuck you!" he growled. "And now get back in that cell! There is nowhere you can go but down."

The jailor took a step forward.

"It's gonna look real bad if you have an accident. But I doubt anyone will mourn you for too long."

Rin took a step back, feeling his heels hang over the edge of the cliff.

"Whoa! Stop right there," the jailor continued, more cautiously.

"Ya really mean what you said? I thought we be bondin' here. That really be hurtin' my feelings…" Rin lamented, his eyes watchful of the blade waving before him.

"You blasted son-of-a-bitch—you're lucky if your chamberpot ever gets emptied again during your stay here, asshole." He reached out, trying to seize Rin's arm. "Now, come with me."

Rin pretended to ponder this.

"All right."

The man visibly relaxed.

"Good. Let's go."

"My answer is no, though."

And with that, Rin slowly let himself fall back into the open air.

The man let out a terrified scream and Rin smiled.

It was late afternoon when Rin landed behind the farmhouse, drawing in his wings, his muscles aching, as if on fire from all the transformations and exertion he'd experienced over the course of the past few days.

I have to lie low.

He dashed to the barn but Sahar was not there. He didn't have time to ponder where she was, hoping she was with safe with the Leightons, and began packing their belongings. He rolled the bedrolls up tightly, scanning the loft for anything essential they couldn't leave behind.

With his pack firmly strapped over his shoulders, he quickly made his way to Leighton's kitchen door, rapping on it firmly.

Leighton's girl opened the door—Inga. She peered at him crossly, her small freckled brow furrowing at the sight of him.

"Why are you making Miss Sahar cry?" she scolded him.

Oh, thank da Loa. She be here, he exhaled.

"I be needin' to see her and talk to ya father. Can I come in?"

"Ma says you are a filthy people eater."

"Inga, even if I were, ya ma would taste too tough and too bitter," he mumbled. "And I suspect ya taste like chipmunk. Now—I'm in a bit of a rush. If I'm to help ya family, I need ya to be a good girl. Can I come in?" He strained against his impatience.

"Don't touch anything. Every time you come into the house, Ma makes us wash everything you touch, everywhere you sit."

Rin looked up, offended, but the sting of her statement wore out quickly. Children weren't born hating—they were taught to hate. His expression softened and his hand shot out, tousling her bright red hair.

"Ooops! I guess ya have to be washin' ya hair tonight!" he teased.

Her eyes widened in surprise.

"You!" she cried.

He quickly poked her on the nose. She let out a little shriek. Next he gently poked her belly and she let out a squeal of laughter.

"Eww, Inga! Gross! Ya better be washin' up good."

She tentatively raised her finger at him as if she were wielding a sword and stabbed him in the arm.

"Ugh!" he cried, feigning disgust. "Get away from me!"

The girl's eyes lit up and she began assailing him with a volley of pokes.

"Aah!" he protested, trying to defend himself from the onslaught. "Get away from me, ya demonic ginger!"

She was laughing delightedly.

"What! But you're a redhead, too!"

"I don't want to catch all ya nasty little freckles!" he swatted at her playfully.

Their tussle attracted attention. He raised his eyes to find Leighton, his wife, and Sahar all peering at them.

"Rin!" Sahar cried, stepping toward him.

"Inga!" her mother interrupted sharply.

The girl's smiling expression crumpled into a sullen stare aimed at the floor.

"Go mind your chores," the woman stated dryly. "Now."

Inga cast him a parting glance before heading out. He pretended to be trying to rub something off his skin and winked at her. She gave him a furtive grin before disappearing out the door.

"Miss Sahar told us what happened. We were about to compose a letter to the druid at Feathermoon—Ahern was going to set off tomorrow morning, at first light, to deliver it!" Leighton told him. Mrs. Leighton sniffed and scowled at her husband.

"Ah…We might need to disappear for a couple days," Rin explained, indicating Sahar's pack, propped against the house outside.

"What?" Leighton rubbed his face anxiously.

"Write a letter to Leafwing explainin' that we cannot be returnin' here until we get a further guarantee of safety," Rin explained. "And if by any chance da constable comes lookin' for us, tell him you don't know where we went—only that we went to get aid from da Circle. That should get them to back off."

Leighton exhaled, frustrated.

"This is getting out of hand. First the business with Thornton: who knew he was an impostor?…A potential murderer living all these months among us…Now he's dead…And then this abuse happens…"

"Don't worry, Leighton—we have a good lead and we'll remain nearby. I tink I'll be havin' some answers for ya soon enough. Just…Don't let Ridgewell intimidate ya. Da constable said they be havin' no jurisdiction over da homesteaders."

"Damn straight!" Leighton stood taller. "They can't come dictating rules to us when they won't pick up arms and help us defend our lands!"

Good—that's da spirit, Rin thought.

"We'll be in da forest—and we'll check back in a couple days."

He directed an apologetic glance at Sahar.

"Come on—we have to go. I can't let you stay here when there be da chance they might arrest you for what I just pulled to get away."

She nodded, hauling up her pack.

"You will be back in a few days?" Leighton asked hopefully.

"Yes—and we'll have a better idea on how to proceed," Rin assured him. "I promise."

They were only a few steps out of the field and into the forest when Sahar turned to examine him.

"Care to tell me what happened once I left? I was worried sick about you!"

He told her about Ridgewell and the jailor. He described how he had cast the spell calling wildlife and the stagwing had heeded his call. She chuckled lightly at the jailor's panic.

"You are lucky you managed to get a stagwing. This may have had a very different outcome if the only thing you had managed to call was a band of fluffy little bunnies."

"Ha! Ya have so little faith in me? Ya keep associatin' me to da creatures, ya know," he laughed. "To be honest, I was worried about da same ting!"

"Great minds think alike!" she stated cheerfully, poking her finger at her own head. "But in our case, it's only coincidence," she teased, leaning close and planting a sweet kiss on his cheek.

He grunted but couldn't help smiling. She reached for his hand, clasping it tightly. He reeled her in closer, wrapping his arm around her waist.

They walked together beneath the trees, in the emerald gleam of the bewitched forest. He told her about his escape, how he fell backwards, arms spread wide open, from the cliff, and took his flying shape just as he fell through the tree line. Her arm slipped around his waist and she rested her head on his shoulder as they walked, their pace slower, more leisurely.

It felt so damned nice, he thought. So very good and right.

He sighed as he realized he would have to disrupt that cozy moment soon with his next revelation: they were off to find Edward the Odder.

Chapter Text

"And all I loved, I loved alone."

-Edgar Allan Poe

"What are we looking for exactly?" Sahar asked once they finished pitching the tent.

Not what. Who. Rin's eyes scanned the surroundings.

Given there was no sign of Edward the Odder despite their coursing up and down the perimeter of Isildien's ruins, he began entertaining the possibility that perhaps the warlock hadn't bothered to follow his directions.

"I was hopin' to obtain some answers," Rin stated evasively. "But I tink I need to be changin' tack now."

"Why?" Sahar shook out their sleeping bags, beating them lightly to air them out. The sun would be setting soon. Leighton had given them a few provisions for their dinner that night.

"I was just hopin'…I can tell you more about it tomorrow."

He placed the bundle of food wrapped in gingham cloth beside him and began to dig out a shallow fire pit. There was no reason to startle her with the revelation that he was searching for an undead lock wandering the woods. He admitted to himself sheepishly that she was likely to be upset with him, and if so, it would be nicer to delay the inevitable argument until the next day.

She stepped forward, her arms spread out, her head tossed back, inhaling the forest air. If the color green had a scent, it had to be Feralas' air: an earthy, peaty odor emanated from the woods. It reminded Rin of freshly tilled earth, the sweet sap from snapped flower stems, and cool rain. His hands scooped up more forest debris—dried leaves, pine needles, clumps of soil—as he prepared the pit. At the sight of Sahar in such an unguarded pose, he smiled faintly.

"It be very pretty here," he agreed, even though she hadn't spoken. She turned around and crouched beside him.

"It really is beautiful—it feels…primeval. Like I'm peering into the past…It's as if time hasn't passed around here."

"In some ways, it hasn't."

She brought her hand to his face, stroking it over his cheek pensively.

"I wish time would slow down a bit—for you and me."

He snorted, interpreting her statement in a more salacious vein, but at the sight of her downturned eyes, the melancholy expression on her face, he felt a pang in his chest and he raised her chin with his finger.

"Hey," he began softly. "We still have some time: we have a problem to solve—and night hasn't even fallen yet."

She sighed and sat down, bracing her knees, watching him go about his task.

"Do you need any help?" she finally asked as he was close to finishing the pit. He arched an eyebrow and feigned disbelief.

"Ya ask me now, that I'm done?"

She giggled and he gave her a light push on the shoulder.

"Ya be so helpful…" he teased.

He didn't like to see her sad or upset. He also did not want to create an opportunity to explore whatever had developed between them.

Da less we be talkin' about it, da better.

Her laughter was preferable.

"Are you used to sleeping in the open like this?" She rested her chin over her knees.

He shrugged.

"Not so much these days, but when I was an apprentice, I learned how to live in da wilderness."

She rested her head on her knees, eyeing him interestedly.

"That's pretty amazing."

He chuckled.

"Nah! I was broke—I didn't really find it amazing at all at first…"

"I never had to fend for myself like that. I don't think I'd really know what to do."

"Sure ya do! Shall we review our first night in da woods?" he joked, remembering their awkward night in the wilderness.

She laughed again, delighted. He distributed a few rocks at the bottom of the pit, hoping the ground's moisture wouldn't affect the fire too much.

"You were so grumpy that night," she continued, mirthfully.

"Hmpf…" He smirked.

"You know…I was attracted to you the minute we met at the vendor's stall in Gadget." A seductive smile parted her lips. "What did you think of me when we first met?"

He began to pile the kindling over the rocks.

"To be honest, I was surprised. Ya weren't what I was expectin'."

Her eyebrows rose.

"No? What were you expecting?"

He chuckled.

"For one, I thought ya were gonna be some big draenei guy."

"With a name like 'Sahar'?" she scolded him.

"How was I supposed to know that's a female name?"

"I hope you aren't too disappointed," she joked.

She was so easy to get along with, he thought. He always compartmentalized his affairs: sex, work, and his own private time…But with Sahar there was constant overlap. He genuinely enjoyed her company.

"I don't like bein' wrong about tings ordinarily, but bein' wrong about ya is becomin' one of my favorite mistakes," he declared without much thought. He immediately regretted being so candid, but she smiled, visibly delighted by his admission.

He quickly looked away and tended to the small fire he was trying to ignite.

"I never thought you'd be interested in me," she proceeded, sitting up and adding a few dry twigs to the nascent fire.

"Well…Ya know…Ya be attractive yasself…and ya was interested and willin'…" He cleared his throat, the whole conversation making him squirm. They locked gazes across the fire. "What male in his right mind would say 'no' to ya?"

"So, I can't help asking you this: how often do you end up sleeping with your partners on missions?" She asked as casually as she could, but he sensed he was treading on dangerous ground.

"Aah, I only end up sleeping with da ones that make me fall for them. Ya know: literally."

They both laughed lightly.

"These past few days have been so…intense. You are just… really incredible," she uttered softly. He stared at the fire he was tending as if it were the most challenging task he'd ever been given. How was it possible that her words filled him with such dread just as they made his heart beat faster? "How is it possible that you are still available?"

"That's not true: I'm not available," he retorted, glancing at her.

She tilted her head, puzzled.

"Ya picked me up, no?" He winked and she crinkled her nose at him, amused.

"No, really: how come you don't have a wife or a girlfriend?"

He inhaled deeply.

"There have been different women…at different times of my life. It's just that my work…my life…It can't really be settlin' down for long." It was somewhat true.

"Were you ever in love with any of them?" she asked quietly. He turned his head to glance at her, his pulse racing as he gazed upon her delicate features.

"I don't know," he answered honestly. They both blinked at each other, the silence between them begging to be broken. "I…thought I was, at least a couple times, but I'm not so sure now."

It was strange to admit he was electrified by that conversation, skirting on a hairpin turn of truths he wasn't sure either of them were ready for. It felt like a turning point: everything could change in an instant, depending on what was asked or revealed during that conversation.

"All right: who was your first love?" she asked coyly, as if she was interviewing him.

"Ah, we are playin' this game? Then I tink I should get to ask some questions, too!" he provoked.

"Fine!" she agreed. "But my question first!"

He cast her a doubting look.

"Ya already asked a whole bunch of nosey questions! I should get a turn now—"

"First love!" she demanded giddily.

Rin sighed and sat back on his heels, pursing his lips, staring at the horizon as if he were probing the past.

"Okie-dokie. Let's see…My first love…Aah…just beautiful. I dreamed of my first love every night until we were finally able to be together. And once we were together, we became inseparable. We were together every night."

Sahar settled beside him on her stomach, stretching over the blanket he had spread before the fire.

"Wow- sounds pretty intense. How old were you?"

Further ahead, beyond the small lake they'd settled next to and between the trees on the opposite shore, they could see the beginning of the blazing sunset.

"I was a young man... in my sixth year."

Sahar's eyes widened.

"Sixth year? As in six years old?"

He laughed amusedly.

"I'm sorry—did I miss something? Does six in troll mean the same thing?…"

"Ya asked about my first love—and that's exactly what it be. When I was six, all I wanted was my own fishin' spear with a proper flint head, just like da other trolls on da Isles. Few tings have made me as happy as gettin' that spear from one of my older cousins. My grandmother was furious—she was sure I was gonna hurt myself or end up stabbin' one of my brothers and sisters, but I had been watching da fishermen long enough. I remember havin' that spear next to me in bed and I held on to it until I fell asleep," he remembered warmly.

Sahar squinted at him and he laughed louder.

"I see. That's how it is. I'll have to be very specific. Well played."

Rin shook his head, still chuckling.

"Look at ya! Ya be da one lookin' for da lurid stuff, ya pervert. If ya lookin' for me to talk dirty to ya, just ask!"

"Ok, ok, so let me ask you this—"

"Aa-ah!" he interrupted, raising his hand. "Now it be my turn."

He rubbed his hands gleefully and Sahar tossed her head back in mock despair.

Tell me about Drannord, he was itching to ask her. What he be like?

He eyed her expectant face. She was cringing in jest.

Are ya in love with him?

"Since ya be wantin' to take tings in this direction, I have it: what's the oddest place ya ever have had sex in?"

She laughed, flustered.

"Well, it would probably have to say a barn!"

He laughed as well. "Really?" He felt a twinge of pride.

"All right! My turn!" she cried.

A soft golden light broke through the emerald glow of the forest as the sun began its descent into night.

"Who did you first have sex with?" she asked brazenly.

"Ah…da memories…" he mused.

"Come on, come on!"

"Ya really wanna know?" he asked. She faltered for a second.

"Well, not if that's too personal. If you're uncomfortable talking about it, then—"

"I'll tell ya: Miss Palmer," he murmured, eyeing her sideways.

Sahar blinked once.

"Miss Palmer…Sounds like the beginning of a forbidden romance…Was she an older woman?"

Rin howled with laughter.

"By da Loa, woman: how can ya be so perverted and so innocent all at once!" He reached for his canteen and unscrewed it.

"What? Am I supposed to know who this Miss Palmer is?"

He looked at her and raised his hand. He waved, wiggling his fingers at her.

"Meet Miss Palmer."

He deflected Sahar's playful slaps as she growled with bemused outrage.

"That's just…awful!"

"Oh, come on! I was a young troll stuck on an island—I'd say I was quite resourceful!" He tipped the canteen back and took a sip of cool water.

"Well, I suppose you just went from playing with one spear…to another," she zinged.

He spat his water out in a spray.

She laughed as he reached down and squeezed her waist, tickling her.

"Dat be terrrrrible! Ya be da awful one now…"

"Tell Miss Palmer to let me go!" She squirmed, laughing, trying to free herself from his grip. He chuckled, releasing her.

"All right! Now it be my turn again!" He watched her as she rolled onto her back, her silvery eyes on him.

"Is there anytin'...aah...special... ya would like me to do for ya?" he asked insinuatingly.


She fell silent and said nothing further.

"Come on!" he protested. "Ya have to be a little more specific!"

She smiled coyly.

"Ya gonna make me waste another question to find out, aren't ya?" he complained.

"There is one thing I want."

"Ooo!" he encouraged her.

"You." she stated simply. "Right here. Right now." She leaned back suggestively over the blanket.

His mouth went dry and he could feel himself grow harder.

"All right," he replied softly, crawling over her.

Her arms wrapped around his neck and she pulled him to her.

He found that whenever he took a lover for more than a one-night stand, he had to keep things "interesting". Sometimes the sex was downright acrobatic. It was, he'd convinced himself, what was necessary to keep the excitement alive—excitement his partners felt for him…and excitement he felt for his partners. It was inevitable that when they became more familiar with each other's bodies, with other's likes, the mystery and thrill all began to unravel…He had always been on the search for novelty. But with Sahar he found that it took very little to ignite desire. She felt good in his arms. If the Rin of a couple weeks before had been watching them go at it right then, he would have sniggered at them, finding them so very boring. He couldn't quite explain it, but everything about Sahar only mesmerized him, heightened his arousal. He loved the way her fingers dug into his back, and how she looked at him with such feverish want. Her lips parted and exhaled a soft moan as he bucked into her in a steady rhythm. Her pleasure inflamed his. He became lost in her.

He was learning to read her reactions, learning to read her body—she tensed and stretched beneath him and he slowed his pace, angling his hips so the tantalizing, constant friction and motion against her clit would push her over the edge. She let out another moan in approval and his own release approached.

"Rin," she murmured, almost a plea. "Rin, I…" He opened his eyes and met her gaze—it melted his heart.

He didn't let her complete her sentence. He knew what she was going to say and kissed her, instead.

Yes, he thought, the realization about his feelings bewilderingly clear when laid bare, I do, too.

He lay alongside Sahar, propped up on an elbow, running a finger over her skin, over her breasts, languidly tracing a spiral around her nipples. She sighed, satisfied.

"It's so beautiful here."

Dusk had fallen and fireflies wove among the trees, floating overhead. The first stars glistened in the sky.

"Mmm…" Rin tweaked one of her nipples. "I agree…Just beautiful."

She smiled and slapped his hand.

"No—come on! This place, it is just…"

"Everytin' is better outdoors," he teased, palming her breast and giving it a small kiss. She squirmed beside him.

"I'm getting a little cold now, though."

Rin stretched his arm behind him, reaching for his pack. He yanked out a folded blanket, shaking it open before carefully draping it over her.

"I'm gonna go wash myself." He nodded toward the lake.

"Isn't it too cold?" she wondered.

"Nah—not if I jump in now. It was a mild day—da water hasn't cooled off yet—da sun hasn't been down long enough. Ya wanna come with me?" He stood and offered her his hand. She clasped it, pulling herself up, dragging the blanket up around her. "Ah—no. No formal attire allowed." He yanked the blanket off her.

Rin sat crosslegged before the fire, in breeches, his towel draped over his neck as he watched Sahar, wearing one of his tunics, comb her damp hair. The forest had grown dark.

It was perfect, he thought. A perfect afternoon, a perfect evening.

There was only one thing that nagged at him.

"So, I be wantin' to ask ya a question."

Sahar pursed her lips at him.

"We're still playing?"

"Tell me sometin'…"

He mustered the courage to finally ask the question that had been fettering at him.

"What's Drannord like?"

She stopped combing her hair and peered at the ground.

"I see…Well. Ah…Listen, Rin…Could we not talk about that now?"

"Why not? At first, he was all ya wanted to talk about."

"I don't feel like talking about it, all right?" she pleaded.

"Well, we talk about so many other tings. What harm in talkin' about this all of a sudden?"


"Why did ya and he made such an agreement?"

She did not reply.

Her unresponsiveness unnerved him.

I bet it be a sore spot because it be Drannord who suggested they see other people.

"Ya gonna go back to him when ya go back home?"

She kept her eyes downcast, her lips pressed together.

There is my answer. He hurt her.

"Ya still love him?" He tried to sound casual, nonchalant, like a friend seeking to exchange confidences.

He was failing miserably.

To his surprise, Sahar stood up.

"I'd like you to stop: I told you I don't want to talk about it. "

He balked, too inflamed by his jealousy.

"I'm just…" He paused, struggling for the right words, the ones that wouldn't betray how much he wanted her for himself. "I thought we could talk about such tings. Ya asked me personal questions and I answered them."

Her eyes had narrowed into angry slits.

"And you didn't have to answer them if you didn't want to. I would not have pushed! Let me be clear: I don't want to talk about Drannord. Can you respect that? You've been so very understanding and solicitous about other matters—why can't you accept that?"


"No—end of discussion. I'm here, right now, with YOU. I don't want to talk about any of…that." She shook her head disdainfully.

He swallowed hard, dissatisfied, wanting to press further until she revealed the truth and quelled his unease.

"Fine," he replied curtly. "Forgive me for asking. I tink I know my place now."

Her expression softened.

"Rin— come on. That's not it…"

He raised his hands stopping her.

"We're done. Don't you worry. I guess I'm good for certain things, not others."

"Don't be that way," she pleaded sweetly. "It's been a long day—let's go to bed." She lifted up the tent flap. He stood and walked to his bedroll, next to his pack, and kicked it toward the fire pit.

"Ya go ahead. I'm gonna sleep out here."

She stood indecisively, holding the flap up. He began to unfurl the roll, feeling like a tremendous jackass for letting his temper get the best of him. His pride, too—he knew he was behaving childishly, yet it was too late to retract his hissy fit.

"Then I am going to stay with you," she decided.

"Nah. I'd rather be alone." He eyed her stonily, folding his arms over his chest.

"Rin: what's this all about? Why are you mad? We were having such a lovely time." She looked so hurt.

"Good night." He plopped down onto his bedroll in a sulk, settling under the covers stoically. He stared at the forest's darkness beyond the lake, a black wall of trees beyond the shore. The tent flap rustled softly, and then… silence.

If she refused to discuss Drannord, it was because she probably still felt their relationship was somehow off limits. At least emotionally. It was sacred…And Drannord? Beloved.

Rin had no idea he was able to despise someone he knew almost nothing about so completely.

He lost track of how long he stared into the fire. He just knew it was long enough to feel remorse over arguing with her, over how his boorishness was the reason he was lying on the damp forest ground instead of huddled up with Sahar.

At one point, while shooing away a pesky blood bug for the umpteenth time, he growled angrily at himself. At the world.

It's better this way, so get used to it, the harsh realization hit him. What did ya expect? She was never meant to be yours, from da beginning.

Chapter Text

"Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up."
― Neil Gaiman

Rin tossed and turned restlessly throughout the night as blood bugs irritatingly clicked by his ears. He slapped his cheek and forehead a few times trying to thwart their attacks. Every once in a while he eyed the tent resentfully.

It be my tent. And now Sahar be inside sleepin' peacefully, probably dreamin' of that Drannord.

Maybe, his mind fettered him cruelly, she dreams of him while awake, too. Like when we be havin' sex.

He realized he was being dramatic, but that did little to ease things: he was still prickly. While rolling over in a bout of agitation, his shoulder struck the ground painfully.

"Fuck!" he mouthed under his breath. He winced and rubbed his shoulder. Just then a blood bug landed on the back of his hand and when he slapped it, a mess of congealed goo splattered over his skin.

"Ah, Loa don't be testin' me now," he grumbled disgustedly. As he wiped his hand, though, with his occasional furtive glances toward the tent, a small part of him guiltily accepted that his misery was well-deserved.

When Rin awoke, it was early morning; it was still dark and the air was damp. He yawned and rolled over to check on the tent.

The moment he did so, he became aware that something was wrong: he'd collided into a hard mass, positioned alongside him.

"Well, well. Good morning."

Rin found himself face to face with the owner of a ghoulish grin. He recoiled as if stung and sat up.

Edward the Odder sat up as well.

"I'm glad you are finally awake now…We have much to do and I'm not getting any…How shall I put it? Fresher," he insinuated.

"How long were ya just lyin' there?" Rin wondered, spooked he hadn't perceived the undead warlock approach him.

"Oh? An hour? Perhaps two?" He steepled his fingers. "I didn't unnerve you now, did I?" His tone was completely and intentionally insincere.

Rin scowled.

"Didn't expect to find ya sleepin' beside me, that's for sure."

Edward prodded his loamy teeth with one of his sharp fingernails.

"And who said I was sleeping?" he remarked.

Rin rubbed his head.

From Sahar to Edward da Odder: from heaven to hellthis be pretty ironic.

"And where have you been?" Rin turned toward the dying campfire and reached across the pit for some wood he hadn't managed to toss into the flames the previous night.

"I could ask you the same!" Edward fussily brushed down his dark green robe with his long, spindly hands.

"All right. Since I last saw ya…I was detained by a Feathermoon patrol, then imprisoned for most of da day. Then I was released, flew back here, and then I went into da village to confront 'a person of interest'. Da person had been killed before I arrived, but that didn't matter: I was detained again and questioned because I successfully managed to sneak into a human village in my feline form and it turns out people don't like that kinda ting happenin' under their noses. I was sent to da local jail, I broke out of da local jail, and then decided to flee into da woods for a while. " Rin leaned closer. "How have tings been with you?" he challenged.

"Dull. Zirak and I have taken a room at one of the garrison towers south of the main road to Isildien."

"I thought that place be crawlin' with ogres."

"Not anymore." Edward smiled ominously. "Such a waste to see such fine ruins inhabited by ridiculous ogres." He contemplated Rin, who had started the fire up again. "So. Sleeping 'al fresco', are we? Your Alliance partner does not care to share her tent with a member of the opposite faction?" he mocked.

"Where's Zirak?" Rin turned his head over his shoulder and scanned the campground quickly.

A scream caused the fine hairs on his neck to rise. Edward chuckled and pointed at the tent.

"I am guessing….Over there."

Rin scrambled to his feet and hurried toward it.

A bright flash of light burst forth, causing the tent flap to rise. Sahar was yelling as she cast her spell.

"Edward!" Rin warned him sharply.

"Rin!" Sahar cried out. "There's an imp in here!"

Rin looked over his shoulder at Edward.

"Call him back now, or ya will be teaching ya new minion 'How to Imp 101' for da rest of da season!" he threatened, pulling out his dagger and moving forward.

Edward sighed with deep resignation.

"Ras gol, Zirak," he called out glumly.

Moments later, a loud popping burst revealed that Zirak had materialized beside Edward. The imp was snickering, fel energy glowing brightly around him.

"Hmm. I see you successfully avoided being incinerated," Edward addressed the imp with languid approval. "Bravo."

Rin rushed ahead and just as he lifted the flap, Sahar's disheveled head emerged, a bewildered expression on her face.

"Ok! Don't think this is a cheap bid for attention and sympathy: I swear there was a real, true-to-goodness imp in my tent!" she blurted out.

Before he could say anything, she caught sight of Edward standing by the campfire, his arms folded imposingly across his chest.

"There's an undead warlock behind you!"

She slipped out, pushing Rin aside forcefully. She stepped forward, protectively, and raked her hoof across the ground. The air swirled and bent around her hands as she pulled energy from the air itself.

"I believe now it is your turn to get your minion to back down?" Edward asked with saccharine sweetness, remaining immobile, watching the entire situation unfold with calm disdain.

"Wait!" Rin stepped between the two, raising his hand. "This warlock is not da enemy: he's here to help!"

Sahar blinked at him incredulously, her hand held up in the motion of interrupted spell casting.

"I see…You…Then, you actually know this—" she halted mid sentence, her face growing serious with unspoken reproach. "This warlock," she huffed. "This is the warlock you managed to unearth," she placed emphasis on 'unearth' and he was tempted to tell her he found it terribly clever of her, but would not give her any sign of appreciation because he was, well, still pretty pissed over her caginess and lack of trust the previous night.

"This is Edward da Odder," Rin indicated the undead man. "We met during my trip to Camp Mojache. He has been studying and tracking da same strange runes we have."

She eyed the man disapprovingly. "Come on, Rin! What's up with this guy? He let his damned imp into my tent!"

Damned imp. Heh! That be kinda funny.

Rin cleared his throat.

"Technically, it be my tent."

Sahar could not look more annoyed.

"Fine: your tent. You can have it from now on. Go ahead and…and eat it all up, for all I care," she snapped. "But let me get this right: you're okay with having someone who just harassed your partner join the investigation?" She was cross.

And he felt like a pile of shit… but a stubbornly prideful pile of shit.

"Tell him I want an apology or he and his imp can turn around and go to hell."

She be positively killin' it with her double entendres—does she even realize what she be doin'? Rin mused, longing to take her hand, soothe her anger. He came to his senses when she raised an impatient eyebrow at him.

"Well? Aren't you going to translate what I just said to him?"

Rin rolled his eyes and faced Edward again.

"She be pissed ya let Zirak in her tent. She be wanting an apology."

Edward was visibly insulted and incredulous at once—like a petulant child being told "no". "Tell her I did no such thing. The imp has a mind of his own. It's an itty-bitty brain, but it does serve a purpose…"

Rin nodded obligingly and turned back to Sahar.

"He be sayin' he be terribly sorry."

She eyed the warlock with flustered irritation.

"All right. Tell him not to let it happen again."

Rin kept his best bluffing face on.

"She be sayin' she understands and hopes we can all move forward now."

Edward flashed that bone-chilling grin of his, his teeth mossy and cracked, the tiny fissures stained and dark.

"Well, yes…As long as she understands that imps can be somewhat unpredictable and uncontrollable…"

"Which be complete crap because what kind of self-respectin' warlock be havin' no control over his minions?"

"Let's see…A somewhat unpredictable and uncontrollable warlock?" Edward teased.

Rin shook his head as he turned back to Sahar.

"What did he say?" Sahar jutted her chin confrontationally at the warlock.

"Oh, basically that you are very forgivin' and reasonable and he will abide by your request," Rin stated between his teeth.

"Fine. We should probably pack up the camp. What's the plan?"

"Edward wants to see da runes in Leighton's fields. I be tinkin' it may be a good idea to take him there."

At the mention of the runes, Sahar appeared uncomfortable.

"Does he know?"

Rin crouched down and began to pull up a tent stake from the soft grassy ground .

"Know what?"

"What happened to me?…Out there?"

"I didn't go into detail. That be ya story to tell, if ya want. I only told him da necessary."

He turned to the warlock again.

"We be takin' down da camp and eatin' sometin' before departin'. Ya can wait or start headin' toward da valley."

"I'd rather go with my newfound friends, please!" Edward clasped his hand in mock delight.

Rin turned his back to him, shrugging. Sahar had crouched down at the opposite end of the tent and was struggling with a well-embedded stake.

"When were you planning on telling me about him?"

"To be honest, I did not tink he would show up. We got separated when I was detained and taken to Feathermoon."

"I see. And he comes to you recommended by whom?"

Rin reached across, moving lithely between her and the tent and mumbled something just as he yanked out the troublesome stake.

"What was that?" She tilted her head at him.

"Ya know," he began slowly, considering his limited options with some urgency. "I tink we should talk about last night," he continued in a gentler tone. "I didn't sleep well."

The harsh expression on her face softened.

"I didn't either," she admitted. She followed Rin as he moved toward the back of the tent. "It's unfortunate that we ended the evening like that."

Success! Not only had he evaded the question, he was also on the way to making amends with her. She peered around the tent, and noticing that Edward was sitting with his back turned to them, before the campfire, she crouched down beside him and planted a tender kiss on his cheek. Rin's heart swelled and he reciprocated, sliding his hand over her face before drawing closer so as not to hurt her with his tusks. He kissed her softly on the cheek and then on the lips.

"That's better." He grinned.

She swiped her nose against his and smiled at him.

"I agree: much better."

"I'm glad ya came around about Drannord."

She grew still.


"You can tell me later on."

She wrested herself out of his grasp, an exasperated look on her face.

"Great Xe'ra! Can't you let it go?"

He was taken aback by her attitude.

"What's da big deal? Do ya not trust me?"

"It has nothing to do with trust!" she growled. "Why are you making it about YOU? I don't want to talk about it and that's that!"

"Oh, I see: I guess it be all right to take me into ya bed but not into ya confidence!" he complained huffily.

"Why does it even matter?" she cried out. "What's your obsession with that? It's…it's my past."

He shrugged, clearly peeved. The stakes flew out with ease.

"Is it?"

"Is it what?"

"Da past?"

She stared down again, a troubled expression flashing over her face.

"Yes," she replied.

"Aah-ah!" he yelled, pointing at her. "Ya hesitated!"

She squinted at him.

"Are you for real? What do you want from me?"

"Just straight answers—an honest conversation between two adults."

She raised her finger, pointing to herself and mouthed, "One," before looking around in puzzlement. He understood then that she was mocking him.

"I believe such a scenario would require more than one adult present!" she declared defiantly. "Besides, you should practice what you preach. You want forthcoming answers? Ha! Don't think I didn't pick up on your poor diversionary tactics!"

His eyes darted about nervously.

"Tell me where you found the warlock."

"I already told you—"

"How do you even know he is reliable? How do you know he is not going to murder us in our sleep? How do you know he is an expert in this field and not just on some eco-Hell thrill tour!" She was growing more impatient by each second. "Now, just answer me: who recommended him? The Circle? Horde leadership?" she demanded. "Who?"

"It was…" He swallowed hard. "First you need to understand that Camp Mojache has this policy that encourages warlocks not to linger in town, so—"


"No one! I found him in da woods." He inhaled deeply. "In an abandoned cabin in da woods."

She nodded.

"I see. A cabin in the woods. A solitary warlock. What stellar credentials! Did you also fall for those, 'Hello, friend! I am a goblin prince who needs to move 10,000 gold from my bank account—can I deposit it in your account for safekeeping?' schemes?"

Another surge of annoyance rose within him.

"Okay—just a minute now, Sahar. Reign in ya raptor. I be leadin' this mission and I be leadin' it for a good reason."

"Because you slept with your boss?" she provoked sassily.

Ooo! No ya didn't!

"Watch it," he warned coldly, standing up straight. "Ya be very close to crossin' a line with me, and like it or not, I still be ya superior in rank. We be talkin' about two different issues now. There be this." He pointed to himself and to her. "And then there be my position and my work. Ya better remember to respect that. I never played those kind of games to get where I be. Everytin' I am and have's all due to my own hard work." He delivered his speech calmly, unemotionally.

To his surprise, however, she did not argue with him any further. She clasped her hands before her, her head hanging low and her ears had drooped progressively as he'd spoken.

"I am sorry, Rin," she offered contritely. "I…I went too far."

He said nothing; instead, he began to collapse the tent. He wordlessly crawled into the tent and dragged out her bedroll and a few belongings: her pack and one of his tunics.

"Look, can we not fight anymore about this?"

He huffed loudly.

"Yeah." He pressed his lips tightly. "I be sorry, too. I don't understand why ya won't tell me about ya boyfriend and for some reason, that be botherin' me. A lot. Sometin' ridiculous, even." He crossed his arms. "I'm sorry, Sahar. It shouldn't matter, right?—But it be ripping me up inside." He struck his chest with his fist for emphasis.

Her face registered surprise at his words.

"Rin," she called gently. "I don't know how to make it clearer to you," she continued, sidling up to him. "I don't know how to explain it to you other than saying it right to your face."

He grimaced.

"Say what to my face?" His heart was in his throat. He braced himself for what he surmised was coming next.

That it is best we stop this:

Because it isn't going anywhere.

Because we shouldn't be doing this if we can't keep things lighthearted and fun.

Because I am marrying Drannord: he's the only man for me.

She raised her silver eyes at him and he was struck by how breathtaking she was. Had she become even more beautiful since they'd met?

"Rin…Can't you see? Isn't it obvious?" She extended her arms by her sides, in a gesture of helplessness.

He shook his head.

"You idiot," she stated very softly, a blush coloring her cheeks. "No one else matters. No one." Her eyes searched the ground for words or courage—perhaps both. She finally looked at him decisively. "You're the one I am in love with."