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"Not everyone is pleased with the decisions you and the King made, Your Majesty.”

Luciana sighed heavily and tossed the report onto her desk. Leaning back into her chair, she looked at her advisor with one eyebrow raised.

“Do you have any other precious nuggets in there, Dienekes?” she asked dryly. “Anything else I’ve yet to hear in my life?”

She couldn’t tell if his expression was different from his usual scowl. “Only warning you, Majesty, that some are angry enough to come over here.”

“All the way from Stormwind?” she asked. “They’d make the journey around the Maelstrom just to see me? I’m honoured.”

Now she could tell he was frowning. It was a harsh expression on his weathered face. “I know you’re frustrated, Majesty, but...”

“You don’t know,” she snarled, standing suddenly, sending her chair toppling back. “None of you fucking know. Are you me?” she demanded, rounding on her noble advisor Abria Lauden. She shrunk back into her chair, eyes wide. “No? What about you?” she said, glaring down at Dean Khand, the Captain of the Queen’s Guard. He stared back at her with a resolute, grim frown, a junior officer facing up to his displeased commander. “No.” Her nose crinkling, her lips curled to bare her teeth despite the old scars ripping down the right side of her jaw. “None of you know what it is to be me. I am frustrated, yes, but do you realize what it’s like to be frustrated when you want nothing more than to kill every single person in the room?” she asked in a voice that was a barely restrained snarl.

“Perhaps an hour’s recess, Your Majesty.”

Luciana turned her yellow-eyed glare on Leon, but after a moment of deathly silence gave a curt nod. Before the others could rise from their chairs she swept from the room, disappearing down the hall. Leon sighed, and looked at Glen.

“I’ve got it,” he murmured, nodding to Dean as he passed.

“I’m not sure she has the temperament for this,” Leodre Mulligan, the Queen’s arcane advisor, said quietly.

“It’s her temperament that’s gonna keep us from giving in to the Horde,” Dienekes countered. “She’s exactly what we need.”

Luciana only heard the first few words. She hurried away from the meeting room to her personal chambers, where she could have blessed silence for an hour. Hopefully it would last that long without being interrupted by some manufactured emergency or another.

Kain and Naemete were inside the room. With a wordless growl, Luciana dismissed them. The door closed behind them, and she stilled.

Silence.

She was alone. Still, she had to breathe deeply and slowly, control herself. It was hard. She wanted to smash the furniture, upturn it all, break everything, let out the feral scream she’d been holding in since yesterday morning.

“My Lady?” Glen’s voice said softly from behind her. “I’ll turn down the werelights.”

He knew her moods. He’d learned them quickly and how to assuage them. The lights dimmed around Luciana, her eyes quickly adjusting as she turned to look at Glen. His silhouette was obvious, and a moment later she was able to pick out the details of his clothes.

“Would you like to sit?” he asked. “I’ll send for tea.”

She grumbled low in her throat, not quite a growl but certainly a sound of displeasure. She unbuttoned her vest, yanked her shirt over her head, and flopped forward onto the bed. It smelled nice enough. Not like Anduin, but the scent wasn’t too strong and it was overall pleasant.

Glen took to the bed beside her. He traced the scars on her back with his fingertips, slow and delicate and soothing. She concentrated on his cool fingers and retook control of her breathing. She huffed a sigh. “Sing,” she muttered. He began to sing gently.

Luciana tracked herself through the past few months. Glen’s melodic voice provided an even, familiar ground to work from.

The remains of Amadeus Squadron and the ones she’d picked up in Darkshire and beyond had become her private guard, the Queen’s Guard. She had claimed the empty position of Commander in Chief of the Stormwind Imperial Armed Forces and affiliated forces. Alaric had been declared crown heir. There had been an official swearing-in of officers, the oaths of loyalty and cooperation from the noble houses, and the transition for social services had been smooth.

Varian had been declared Highlord of Stormwind - it had been the only way he would to let Anduin and Luciana take charge of the kingdom as a whole from the moment of their ascension. He had official charge of the defense against the invasions and the Legion, and he was not happy that Luciana was in Kalimdor.

But neither she nor Anduin had backed down on their intended negotiations with the Horde, and Varian had left her with the sense that he was both pissed and proud. Now she was in Kalimdor, while Anduin and her sons were in Stormwind. At the very least, she was closer to Freya and Enaeon.

The Prince’s Guard had made an Oath to Anduin to protect their charges, no matter the cost. Luciana had insisted. The surprise had been when Krino and Alkaros also made an oath to stand in as Prince’s Guards for the Prince’s lifetimes to be their protectors.

Luciana didn’t know why they’d do such a thing for humans, but they were under Anduin’s authority now. She couldn’t let herself worry about two draenei paladins, of all things. Perhaps they were following Enaeon’s example. Perhaps they didn’t want a repeat of Draenor, or wanted to prove themselves to be trustworthy allies. Perhaps it was the Light. Luciana didn’t know, and for the time being she didn’t care.

Anduin had wanted a reconfirmation between them, but there hadn’t been time. She’d persuaded him easily enough to wait until after the initial instability of the Legion’s return, when the city was smoothly operating as a proper war engine. There had been a spare moment for Varian and Audrey to have a confirmation ceremony. Anduin had also wanted that. Luciana thought it a good idea - what better motivation for Varian to stay alive and come home?

She’d hurried the move to the land the Prophet Velen had agreed to give her. Stormwind’s swiftest ships available, alongside a worthy skyship, had sped them across the ocean to Azuremyst. With Luciana’s small army on their way to Kalimdor, Anduin had quietly sent a messenger to the Horde. It consisted of a very carefully worded letter to Baine, whom Anduin had once called friend.

Vol’jin had quickly agreed to host peace talks in the Barrens under the banner of peace. He saw as well as they did the threat the Legion posed to all of Azeroth, and the troll warchief was nothing if not cunningly intelligent.

But things were not going well so far. Luciana was not patient, and she didn’t trust the Horde any more than she trusted Carill’s definition of ‘appropriately dressed’. Sylvannas was selfish, Vol’jin played dirty hardball, Baine had yet to speak, Ji and Gallywix had yet to appear, and Lor’themar... Well, he seemed to want to be there even less than Luciana.

It didn’t help that though four of the Horde leaders had been present at the talks, Luciana was the only Alliance leader there. She knew she could very easily call in Velen or Tyrande from their cities nearby, but she was reluctant to involve them. Velen seemed like he would be much inclined to riddle, and Tyrande had a legitimate but ultimately unhelpful grudge against orcs and trolls both.

Luciana groaned and rolled over. Glen stopped singing when she sat up. “Shirt,” she said, and he handed her the shirt she’d dropped. She pulled it over her head, not bothering to tuck it in. “You can stay here,” she said, and left her bed chamber.

Lars appeared to her right after a few strides, and Naemete trailed along behind. Luciana was supposed to always have a mage nearby in order to create a portal to safety if she was endangered. Most of the time, there was someone capable nearby. Most of the time, she wanted to snarl and throw them through a window for straying too close.

“We’re going to the Exodar?” Naemete asked when Lucy kept walking past the meeting room and down the inclined hall to the front gates of the compound. She didn’t receive an answer.

It wasn’t a far walk to the Exodar, and Luciana set a brisk pace. Naemete, much taller than her, kept up easily. Lars didn’t express any difficulty.

No one stopped or questioned them. Luciana was in plainclothes, a simple uncoloured linen tunic and doeskin pants. It didn’t matter. She was still the Queen of Stormwind.

Naemete trilled excitedly when Luciana headed for the ramp leading down to O’ros. Luciana hadn’t visited the Naaru much, but when she did she tended to leave the Exodar with a much less volatile temperament.

She stopped, as she normally did, before actually stepping out onto the clear crystal platform. She watched O’ros’ constantly shifting crystalline form, and listened to the soft sound of wind chimes that accompanied their Light.

Naemete had no reservations and bounded into the chamber like a deer, laughing as she reached a hand up to touch O’ros. The chiming swelled and Luciana felt the tension loose from her shoulders and neck. She lowered her head until her chin almost touched her chest.

She stepped out onto the crystal floor, taking an easy pace to O’ros. Welcome, their voice chimed in her head, clearing her thoughts for a blessed moment of silence. You are troubled.

“No shit,” she murmured, taking a seat on the dais beneath them. She leaned back, arranged herself relatively comfortably, and closed her eyes. Here, she could find silence. “Lars, tell me at ten to.”

“Sir.”

Ten minutes before she had to be back at the meeting room, Lars would alert her. Before then, though - before she had to return to being Queen, being a negotiator, being a courtier, being a clerk, being a peacekeeper - before then, she could be a warrior at rest.

She could be herself, and she could rest.

Luciana opened her eyes briefly to look up at O’ros’ brilliantly shimmering form. Tonight, she decided, she would stay with Enaeon. She would fall asleep with Freya on her chest and Snow or Yennifer a comforting heat against her thigh. One of the few nice things she could have in Kalimdor.

Chapter Text

Luciana backed away from Freya’s bed. Silently, she leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms.

“She will be fine,” Enaeon murmured from the doorway.

“There’s nothing we can do? Nothing you or any of the others can do?”

“I’m afraid not. We have tried many things, Luciana, but none of them provide more than a brief respite.”

“And you don’t know what’s doing it.”

Enaeon looked at her. His eyes glowed softly with the brilliance of the Holy Light itself. “No,” he said plainly. She appreciated his bluntness.

He moved out of her way as she strode smoothly from the room. She walked on the balls of her feet to avoid hitting the floor with too much force, possibly disturbing Freya’s delicate sleep. This lasted until she reached the door of Enaeon’s apartment, which she left ajar. She would have slammed it hard enough to crack the walls. Enaeon shut it behind her, knowing that she needed to be alone. Only Lars and one of the on-duty mages, who had both been waiting outside, followed her.

They followed her to her to the private quarters she’d been given in the Exodar. She could retreat behind the massive ship’s defense crystals in the case of an attack, and be safe here in privacy. More often than not she used it as an escape.

She slowed to a stop only after she’d walked right into the living room on the second floor. Breathing heavily, she turned to look at Lars - who quickly retreated, the mage in tow, when he saw the rage in her eyes.

Luciana thought of Anduin, tried to quell her fury even as the freshest memory of Freya - rocking on her bed, hands clasped over her ears, her shrill voice keening out in pain - made it roil like an ocean storm.

Bracing her fists on the back of a sofa, Luciana breathed slowly through her mouth. She wet her lips absently, closed her eyes, concentrated on the smooth leather beneath her fists. Leather. She would have preferred skin. She would tear it apart. Tear a filthy orc apart, the Lightless bastards, fuck them all with cacti up their stinking asses -

She screamed in wordless rage, digging her hands into the couch, ripping out a chunk of its leather hide and tearing into its wooden support frame and stuffed innards. So unsatisfying, where was the crunch of bone, where was the squelch of blood and organs between her teeth, where was the blood -

She threw it at the wall in pieces, roaring, shaking in her fury that demanded a broken dam when she only gave it a trickling tap. Her left fist was the next thing to hit the wall. The pain thudded up to her shoulder and she hit again, cracking her first knuckle and breaking into the wall itself. She kept hitting it, hunting for the stabbing pain, desperately seeking the blood her fury demanded.

With a final bestial howl she broke through the wall completely, shattering her first two knuckles, sending lances of crackling pain up her arm, through the marrow of her bones. Her snarl was low, drawn-out, wide-eyed, crazed. Panting heavily, she stared at the hole in the wall. Where was the bone. She wanted to see bone.

Lars would have sent the mage for a healer when he heard her howl. He was good like that. Never leaving her side, but getting her what she needed. Loyal, unquestioning, challenging, cunning. If she could clone him she’d have ten thousand of him throughout Azeroth. But there was only one of him. That would have to be enough.

“Your Majesty.” The voice reached through her swimming thoughts, tinted dark green in a sea of arterial red and stark bone white. “Shall I take care of your hand?” it creaked, growing an old oak that painted an island into her mind. She latched onto it, pulling herself out of the berserking fury that was trying to drown her. “It will take but a moment. Afnan can repair the wall at her convenience after I have healed you.” He spoke slowly, unhurried, unbound by time constraints of councils and courtiers and clerks.

“Isendir,” Luciana rasped.

“Your Majesty.”

Without looking at him, she held out her hand. A wordless agreement to his suggestion. The sensation of druidic healing magic was very different from Light. From Anduin’s Light, that she hadn’t felt in two months. She snarled suddenly, viciously. Isendir did not heed it, and Luciana calmed slowly, the sound of rustling trees in her ears.

“May I know what has set you off this morning?” Isendir asked calmly. Luciana had yet to find a single thing that could ruffle his feathers.

“Freya,” she croaked, trying to stare a second hole in the wall.

“Her sensitivity?” Isendir said. “I see. What about it troubles you so?”

“Everything. It all troubles her, so it troubles me.”

“Of course.”

“Sound and light bother her. How is she supposed to live like this? If she can’t even open her eyes?”

“Others have lives despite the same difficulties.”

“She’s a toddler.”

“True.”

“If someone uses any magic with her, she has a fit. Crying, flailing, that damned rocking. She scratched herself bloody again last night. She tried to take off her own fel-fucked ears,” Luciana choked. “She doesn’t even talk. The twins never shut the fuck up at this age. I haven’t heard more than one word from her since I got here.”

“Children do not develop at the same pace as each other, Your Majesty.”

“This isn’t about that. This is... It’s like she’s not there. She just, she goes quiet. Glazes over. She... She’s just a baby, Isendir. What’s she disassociating for? She goes wide-eyed, can’t focus, doesn’t talk, doesn’t respond to anything. Not even me.”

“It troubles you that she cannot be reached.”

Yes, it troubles me. There’s nothing wrong with her, Isendir. They can’t find anything wrong with her. Why is this happening to her?” Luciana shuddered. Her fury threatened to surface again, with or without permission, and this time it would have casualties. With a hand on her shoulder, Isendir calmed it with the slow, sleepy magic of the Emerald Dream.

“Is it perhaps her Light? She is much younger than is normal in a human to develop it. Perhaps this is what troubles her.”

“It’s not her Light,” Luciana said, shoulders relaxing as Isendir finished with her knuckles. “Not like Anduin’s Light is his. It acts on its own sometimes. She doesn’t feel the same way. I don’t think it’s that, anyway. Velen says it’s normal - it does this with young draenei, too. And O’ros would regulate it until Freya was experienced enough to do it herself. It’s not that.”

“Then perhaps it is the energies in her surroundings that trouble her.”

“Maybe.” Luciana sighed. “Maybe the Light she’s growing is making her overly sensitive, since she can’t control it yet. Maybe she’s just... sensitive. Like Alaric. Couldn’t sleep if there was any noise louder than the hearth.” She rolled her shoulders, hearing them crackle as she stretched them out. She raised her healed hand, flexed it experimentally. “Thank you,” she murmured to Isendir.

“Of course.” He nodded his head, graciously accepting her thanks.

“Have Afnan come up and fix the wall. I assume it was she that Lars sent to fetch you?”

“It was.”

“She should still be downstairs.”

Luciana left without another word. Lars broke off to follow her, leaving Afnan with Isendir.

“I’m supposed to stay with her,” Afnan argued.

“She has asked that you repair the wall, first.”

“What did she do to it, anyway?” Afnan sighed, quickly deciding that it was easier to go along with it than argue with Isendir. She followed him upstairs, figuring that if she finished with her magic quickly enough she could still catch up with the Queen’s quick pace. “It’s made ofenchanted draenite. I swear, if she broke another wall...”

Chapter Text

It sufficed to say that the situation in the Barrens was tense. Technically a Horde territory, it was full of remnants of Hellscream’s Horde and Luciana’s bad memories. She’d argued to have the peace talks here, between Durotar and Ashenvale. She regretted it now.

She could hardly hold in a snarl of animal rage as Dienekes again started a fight with one of Sylvannas’ champions. Again, Leodre had to restrain him with a hand on his arm, lest the fight become physical.

On her left, Tom glowered in silence at the Banshee Queen as Abria, sitting next to him, tried to get Luciana’s attention. One of Ahli’s enchanted quills scribbled frantically in the space behind Luciana’s head.

The snarl boiled in her gut. As Dienekes jumped out of his chair, hollering across the long room, it crawled up to her chest. With Tom’s low growl, a hint of his wolfish nature, it found its way into her throat. When the quill behind her doubled its pace, it ripped up into her mouth, and she slammed both fists onto the table, opened her mouth with teeth bared, and roared.

It trailed off and she huffed through her nose, meeting Vol’jin’s gaze squarely. Every one of her present advisors had fallen gravely silent, still in their seats save for Dienekes. He had flinched violently, and now stood crouched, watching her warily. She growled in her chest and the murmurs of the guards fell to nothing. Now, the room was silent.

“Are ye done?” Vol’jin asked dryly.

“Are we?” Luciana replied, the growl in her chest rumbling through her words. “Are we done playing peacemakers? Shall we return to our wars? Will I see you in the Arathi Basin, Warchief, or shall we once again return to our discussions?” she asked, turning her head to glare openly at Dienekes. “If our present advisors are quite done being children squabbling over the sweets, then I am not done.” Her gaze slid to Sylvannas’ champion, who had once again baited Dienekes into a needless argument over semantics. “If the pettiness must continue throughout this entire process and make it little more than a charade, then yes, I am done.” A clearly spoken threat.

“Sylvannas,” Vol’jin said. She lazily waved away her champion, who saluted in the fashion of the Forsaken and slowly left the room, bringing with him a wave of rotten air.

“I am now one short, Warchief,” Sylvannas said. “It would only be fair to…”

“Dienekes.”

“Your Majesty -”

Her leather glove creaked as she clenched her fist, and Dienekes shoved back his chair and stormed from the chamber. The door was slammed shut behind him by one of Vol’jin’s Siame-Quashi and one of Luciana’s Royal Guards.

Luciana raised her chin, still staring down Vol’jin. He kept an easy posture, a slow-blinking steady gaze, and she lowered her shoulders and leaned back into her chair. He had chosen to continue their discussion and move past the interruption, and she agreed to his suggested course of action.

“On the matter of Gilneas, we spoke last of the movement of Forsaken into land legally regarded as Gilnean and whether or not it is an invasion, as well as whether or not it was an act of war. Also, we discussed whether or not the continued presence of Forsaken forces, ruled by Lady Sylvannas Windrunner, is a continued act of war.” The succinct summary came from Lor’themar’s scribe, who had kept track of everything discussed thus far for their records, even as Ahli recorded her own copies for the Alliance.

“I move to label the matter as irrelevant, seeing as it is,” Sylvannas said.

“Once again, I move to deny,” Tom growled.

Lor’themar sighed quietly.

“All against,” Vol’jin said. Over a dozen voices echoed each other. “Ye be outnumbered, Sylvannas. Again. Movin’ on. I’d like ta move dat de original invasion be disregarded, as it be already ovah.”

“The movement,” Lor’themar’s scribe corrected.

“Yeah. De movement be done, already. Can’t be changin’ de past, now, unless ye be a bronze. I say we move to de current situation.”

“Agreed,” Luciana said curtly. She felt Tom’s burning gaze shift to her, as well as Vol’jin’s surprise. He was pleased, as well, but surprised she’d actually agreed with him. “The current situation is, as it stands in the view of the Alliance, that the Forsaken illegally occupy Gilean land which was acquired through aggressive means that were not agreed upon by Gilneas. Our view is that the Forsaken should immediately remove themselves from Gilnean land, or be removed, and should make amendments for the deaths caused by their… original movement into Gilneas, for the land damaged by their alchemy and their blights, for the native flora and fauna that have become endangered by those same machinations, as well as for the trauma suffered by the peoples forced from their ancestral lands, where their ancestors and recently dead family members are buried. And, of course, that those Gilneans resurrected as Forsaken be given the choice to remain an enemy of their own people, or return to their graves by the measure of their choice.”

“You expect us to surrender?” Sylvannas said before Vol’jin could even open his mouth. “This was an action taken before the Legion’s invasion, before these… negotiations. If we are regarding past actions as currently irrelevant then we should not be trying to correct them.”

“The Forsaken will remove themselves or they will be removed.” Tom’s gaze rested now on Sylvannas, a triumphant gleam in his eye as Stormwind’s Queen stood firm beside him.

“So you threaten violence while trying to gain peace?” Sylvannas countered. “I thought the Alliance held ideals, of honour and-”

“This be not what we be discussing,” Vol’jin said. “Ye got ahead of yeselves. We still be discussin’ de situation as it stands, not what we be doin’ about it.”

Luciana’s left cheek twitched, warning a snarl, but she nodded stiffly to agree. “We will hear the position of the Horde on the current situation regarding Forsaken presence in Gilneas, as the result of past actions taken by the Forsaken under Sylvannas.”

Luciana felt a burning hatred for negotiations even as Sylvannas began to speak. She hated the blood elf that had corrected invasion to movement. She hated the serpentine way that Sylvannas twisted her words. She hated that Light-fucked quill scratching at its parchment. She hated the smell of the Barrens and the low lighting in the negotiations chamber. She hated the sound of the table creaking and the knowledge that Leodre was there to teleport her to safety should something happen. She hated everything.

She wanted to scream again. But Vol’jin had been right to chide her. She had come to the table wanting to talk, to find some common ground, some way to agree on something. Anything. She’d been right to demand silence, he’d been right to chide her method of gaining it, and they’d both been right to dismiss the problems on their own side. She hated it all.

“I move to recess for the day,” Lor’themar said. His voice cut through the red fog gathering in Luciana’s thoughts. This was the first he’d spoken since they’d started the negotiations two weeks ago.

“Agreed,” Luciana said, and immediately stood. Her chair squealed as it was pushed across the stone floor.

“Hold on,” Vol’jin said, standing with her. He was naturally much taller than her, but only when standing straight. For now he kept the typical hunched posture of male trolls, approximately matching her six-odd feet of height. “Ye rush off now, and we can’t make a new time to meet again.” She wasn’t familiar with troll facial expressions but she could have sworn he grinned. “We meet again tomorrow, at de ninth hour in the de morning.”

“Agreed,” Luciana ground. “Anything else, or are we not recessing after all?” Needless aggression. It earned her a reproachful look from Leon. She ignored it.

“Nothin’ for now, Ya Majesty.”

“Warchief.” She nodded once, turned on her heel, and stalked from the room. Her Queen’s Guards matched her pace and the Royal Guards accompanied the advisors as they filed from the room.

A small compound had been hastily built to house them during the negotiations. Though she normally took portal immediately to her base in Azuremyst, Luciana turned down the hall to her own private chambers.

“We’re not heading back?” Tom asked, hurrying to catch up to her.

“You can go. I’m staying here for a while.”

He slowed, watching her yank open the door before her guards could do it. Without letting them check for explosives, traps, or spies, she walked into her sitting room and fell into the first chair she came across.

“Out,” she snapped. When she wanted solitude, only Lars and Glen were allowed to remain. As Glen was in Azuremyst, only Lars stayed with her as her guards shut the doors behind them. They were clearly not pleased at not being allowed to check the room, but she didn’t care.

“Wasn’t expecting Lor’themar to speak up.”

Luciana did not respond immediately. “I don’t know much of him, besides that he continuously refuses the title of King. Or even Prince. He remains the Regent Lord of a people without a living royal heir.”

“Could be he wants to be seen that way.”

“I don’t think so. He’s not duplicitous.”

“Or maybe he’s just really good.”

She snorted.

“Right. He doesn’t wanna be here any more than you.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“You like Vol’jin?”

“No. But I respect him.”

“You think he returns the favour?”

“Maybe. If nothing else, he respects my strength and the loyalty I command amongst my people.”

“Good enough.”

She hummed thoughtfully. “And Baine. I thought he’d be more involved, but he hasn’t said a word. He was the one to first receive our petition. He respects Anduin, and Jaina, and the tauren are generally peaceful. Their druids work ceaselessly alongside the druids of the kaldorei. Yet… he is silent.”

“Could be waiting for something.”

“What? For me to prove myself?” She snorted again. “If he’s waiting for me to act like Anduin, he’d be better off taking a vow of silence.”

“Influence, maybe.”

“Could be.” She worked her jaw, feeling it pop where it had long ago been shredded, nearly irreparably separated from her skull. “Influence is a powerful thing.”

“You still think…?”

“Yes. I don’t know, but I think.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

“Don’t act out on this,” she warned. “Only I have that right.”

“Cap.” The single word was his agreement. When he spoke it to her, it was practically a vow of obeissance.

“Any news on Varian?” she asked.

“He’s packed up the skyship. Far as I know they haven’t started out yet, but he’s raring.”

She sighed heavily through her nose.

“You’re worried.”

“He doesn’t have a good track record with ships sent out while the Alliance is negotiating. And with everything else…”

“I’ll send a messenger.”

“Tell him to be careful. If he dies I’m marching into the Void to drag him back out.”

“Right.”

Chapter Text

A gnomish record player crooned a soft piano melody. The low volume was not enough to drown out the scrawling of Luciana’s pen, nor the occasional creak of wood or groan of metal. Nor did it silence the regular swish of paper as Wrathion turned the page in the book he read.

“Interesting,” he murmured softly from where he lounged across her sofa. “Were you previously aware that the mating call of the Borean elk can be heard-”

“Yes.”

“And that stampeding wooly rhinos can actually-”

“Yes. I have read the book.”

“Hm.”

He fell silent and she continued to write. The margins of the papers were full of red ink as she corrected or suggested or flat-out refused a point that one of her advisors wanted to push in their ongoing negotiations with the Horde. She flipped over a report she’d finished with, adding it to the slowly growing pile to her right, and took a new one from her left.

Seeing that Dienekes once again wanted to pursue actions against the Horde for recently sinking an Alliance ship off the coast of Westfall while pursuing a Legion dreadnought, she sighed heavily through her nose and set about scratching red lines across the entirety of each and every page.

IT HAS ALREADY BEEN ADDRESSED. She wrote in bold letters across the first page. Frowning, she added another line. I DO NOT APPRECIATE BEING MADE TO FEEL LIKE A SCHOOL TEACHER WITH AN UNRULY STUDENT.

“Who has drawn your ire this time?” Wrathion asked.
“Who do you think?”

“Ah, the Sea Wolf. He does seem a bit… volatile to be a negotiator.”

“As do I.”

“Yes, this is true. But you are a hunter, blessed by the Ghost Wolf himself. Sir Merod is retired.”

She resisted the urge to sigh again, and flipped the paper into the pile on her right. She took a new proposal, this one neatly stapled and tucked into a file folder, from the left. Tom suggested that she pursue the subject of Forsaken in Gilneas, agreed upon by both Leon and Abria. Luciana opened the file.

The piano made way for a gentle string quartet, a bit grainy on the record player. Wrathion’s book kept him occupied well enough for Luciana to ignore the occasional curious glance he sent her way.

When his glance became a stare, she spoke. “I didn’t know you could be silent for this long at once. I’m half expecting your mouth to rebel and run away from your face.”

He saw the curl at the corner of her mouth and chuckled. He carefully rearranged himself on her sofa. As the door was locked and the room insulated again magic, his charmed pendant was left inert in the folds of his tunic. His natural eyes met hers, red flames against the abyss of a grey sky.

“It’s tempted,” he replied, flashing a crooked, fanged smile. “How shall I say you are when the dear King Anduin inevitably asks?”

“Fine,” she replied shortly. Her tentative smile fell flat. She turned back to her work, and Wrathion sat up.

“Well, now,” he said breezily, the knives in his gaze betraying him. “Trouble in paradise?”

She looked up at him, met his gaze squarely, and frowned. He leaned back.

“Don’t give me that look,” he complained.

“What look?”

“That one. That… disapproval. It’s disgustingly maternal.”

“Wrathion, I am a mother to three children.”

He scoffed. “Irrelevant, as I am not one of them.”

“You might as well be. How old are you? Eight?”

“Pardon? I am past my fifteenth. Eight.” He scoffed again.

“Oh, so you’re bigger than a dog now.”

He threw his hands up, purposefully over dramatic, and stood from the sofa to pace across the room. “A dog,” he muttered. “Bigger than a dog? Ridiculous. I am fully and completely a drake and you ask if I’m bigger than a dog.”

“Bigger than a horse, then,” she corrected.

“A horse! At least make it a large one. A Westbrook, perhaps.”

“Westfall Worker. Largest breed in the south. Actually, I think it’s quite close to the size of a drake.”

“Oh, really?” Wrathion perked up, facing her. “Fascinating. How do they get so large without collapsing?”

“How do you?”

“Different anatomy, my dear. Very different.”

“You’ve aroused my curiosity. Different how?” she asked, eyeing his crotch. He snorted a laugh and turned to walk across the room again, pacing idly.

“Have I aroused you?”

“Your smell hasn't.”

A knock at the door interrupted Wrathion’s reply. He frowned harshly at it, eyes burning darker as the flames turned to magma. He thumbed at the pendant. Luciana looked away as his appearance fluctuated like heat waves.

“Enaeon here to see you, Your Majesty, with Princess Freya.”

Eyebrows raised, Luciana glanced quickly at the clock hanging on the wall. “Lost track of time?” Wrathion asked, moving to open the door.

“No,” she said curtly, eyes snapping to him. His hand flinched from the doorknob as he turned to her, surprise evident on his face.

“You don’t want to see your daughter?” he asked incredulously.

“You. In the other room.”

“You trust me with your sons, yet banish me from your daughter’s presence?”

She raised her chin, daring him to challenge her. “I said, in the other room. Now.”

Freya heard enough, saw enough monsters that weren’t really there. She didn’t need to see what Wrathion really was. It would give her nightmares for the rest of the year - burning red eyes, fangs the size of her own arm, horns and a clubbed tail, spines climbing over his neck, down his back, all of it surrounded with an aura of intelligent, bestial malice. No, Freya saw enough of her own making. She didn’t need to see a real monster.

Eyes narrowing, he kept his unblinking gaze on her as he walked across the room to the bed chamber. He’d made the right choice - it wasn’t smart to challenge Luciana on the matter of her children.

There was a table, chairs, and books to read in there that he would use to occupy himself. More importantly the door was insulated like the walls, which would protect Freya from his innate magic should he lose control of himself or his emotions, allowing it to flare.

When the door shut behind him, Luciana turned to the door. “Enter, Enaeon.” She called to him directly, allowing him to open the door with a smile, both arms protectively encasing Freya, and his tail wrapped around the door handle.

“Luciana!” he crowed.

Freya wriggled in his arms, turning to gape at Luciana with her fist halfway into her mouth. It popped out and she smiled, tiny teeth flashing white. “Mama!” she cried, trying to escape Enaeon’s grasp as his tail pushed the door shut.

Lighting up, Luciana laughed and hurried out from behind her desk. “Hey, my little girl!” she crooned, taking Freya from Enaeon’s arms before she could wriggle out completely. Luciana kissed her cheek and her forehead, and pressed her nose into Freya’s hair. “Hello,” she said softly. “How’s my little one?”

“Mama!” Freya cried again, hands gripping at the raised scars on her neck and jaw. “Mam!”

“Yes, Mam,” Luciana said, leaning back to look at Freya. Balanced against her mother’s strong chest, Freya fearlessly reached up to clumsily touch the scars on Luciana’s face. Luciana playfully bared her teeth and snapped them at Freya, who smiled again and giggled.

“Mam teef,” she said. “Teef. Teef?”

“Yes, Mam’s teef,” Luciana said. Freya was talking. She didn’t care what Freya said, as long as she kept talking. “Teef like a doggy. You have teef, too. Teeth. Teeth?”

“Teef!” Freya squealed. “Teef! Teef! Mam teef Dowwy!”

“Almost there, sweetling,” Luciana laughed, moving back to let Enaeon into the room. He moved slowly, the slim tentacles below his jaw twitching like a cat’s tail. They belied his calm smile.

Keeping his innate Light from manifesting was a struggle for him, and Luciana met his eyes with a grateful smile that turned the crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. His eyes, normally aglow with the glory and joy of the Holy Light, were dim.

“Where is he?” Enaeon asked.
“In the bedroom. Behind a door.”

“Good.”

“How has she been?” Luciana asked, bouncing Freya idly as she grabbed at her mother’s ear.

“She is better today. This morning she watched me cook and asked what I was making.”

“She spoke in full words?”

“Yes, pronounced correctly.”

“She’s already regressed today?” Freya’s hands stilled against Luciana’s neck, and she smiled and kissed Freya’s nose. “Hey, little one!” she crooned. “Are you a good girl today? Did you eat all your breakfast?”

“Teef?” Freya asked, tentative and quiet. Luciana bared her teeth into her smile and snapped them again like before. Freya’s hand clutched at her left earlobe.

“Yes,” Enaeon said quietly. “Perhaps you will have a full hour, if there is no interruption.”

“It’s better than last week, at least.”

“Yes. Hopefully her slow improvement over the past month indicates an overall trend, but…” He trailed off, but she knew what he had meant to say.

“I know,” Luciana said quietly. “But it’s alright. It is,” she insisted, keeping her tone low and gentle even as her eyes burned into Enaeon’s doubtful frown. “She’s my daughter, Enaeon. I fought for her. I’m still fighting for her and as long as she’s alive I won’t stop. As long as she’s alive, it’s doesn’t matter how much she talks or how much she sleeps. Or if she rocks all day or screams at nothing. She is my child, I love her, and nothing can change that.”

Enaeon’s frown eased, and he smiled softly. “I know,” he said. “I am grateful that of all the birth givers in Azeroth, she was given to you.”

Luciana’s brow creased, but she kept herself from reacting any further. She forced her expression to smooth and looked down to Freya. “Do you want to play?” she asked. “Play? With choo choo train or blocks?”

“Blo,” Freya said simply.

“Blocks it is,” Luciana said. She moved to the toy chest in the corner, tucked away with a plush carpet coloured the most neutral grey they could find and an unpatterned cushion for Freya. Enaeon stood, rummaging in his pocket. He left a talkstone on the end table. It was inert, currently, but would activate when Luciana picked it up and spoke a word of power.

“I will watch the door,” he said as he moved to leave. “Oh, before I forget - how are your nightmares? Did the tincture help last night?”

“No,” Luciana replied, her tone almost neutral. It was all she could manage. “I had to call Anduin.”

“Did Glen not help?”

“Not really.”

“Was it the same one?”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps you should consult a Farseer,” he suggested. “It could be more than a simple dream.”

“Maybe. That’s for later. Thank you, Enaeon.”

“It is my honour, Luciana.” He smiled at her, knowingly, and she returned it easily. He moved to leave, pausing only when Freya called out.

“Enon?”

“I will not be far, Freya,” he said. “And you have your Mam, now. You are safe.”

Freya looked up at Luciana, blinked slowly, and turned to the block Lucy had put on the carpet in front of her. She reached out to touch it, hand clumsily running over the letter F embossed into its side.

“She knows,” Enaeon said quietly as he pulled the door open. “If nothing else, she knows that.”

Luciana inhaled slowly, blinking quickly. She looked at Freya, who was staring at her with wide blue eyes. “Blocks?” Luciana said, smiling crookedly. “Let’s play with your blocks.”

“Blo.”

Chapter Text

Glen woke slowly. He registered the movements of his own breathing, first, and then the soft pillow under his head. Then, the weight of the blanket. It took a few minutes for him to realize that the noise in the background was not, in fact, the air unit.

He inhaled deeply, struggling to roll over. He never had been one to wake quickly, but he needed to now. He managed to sit up, and reach over to twitch on the werelight on his side of the room.

The sound he’d first thought was the air unit was, in fact, a growl. Luciana, next to him in her massive bed, was snarling in her sleep. Her right hand had already torn open her pillow and her fingers were working their way quickly into the mattress.

“My Queen?” Glen murmured, gently pulling at the covers on her shoulder. He knew how to wake her safely, even when she was in the throes of a nightmare.

“My Queen, you’re having a nightmare. You are safe in bed. I am here, as well. My Queen? We are in the Exodar.” He kept speaking softly as he pulled the covers off of her, revealing her massive, scarred body. The sudden chill would wake her, more safely than if he had touched her. She would register his voice and tone as she woke, allowing her to situate herself.

Sometimes, he could calm her with his voice and scent before she woke. His was similar enough to the King’s scent that in her sleep, she might think it was he. This was not one of those times.

She woke with a loud, bestial snarl, swinging up as though to catch a foe that had pinned her. Glen saw her wide hand move, as though time had slowed, and let himself fall back into his pillows. Half hidden and out of the way, he watched as her body moved to defend itself before her brain woke fully.

When she stopped, suddenly and stiller than stone, he slowly moved. Her head snapped around and she watched him with wide amber eyes.

“My Queen, you were having a nightmare,” he said softly, sitting up slowly. He was not a target, he reminded himself. She knew him by now. She knew his scent and his voice. She would have no reason to attack him.

She sat up, looking around the room quickly as she flung the light bed covers off her legs. She stood, rifled through her things left haphazardly in the chair the night before.

“My Queen?”

“Stone,” she rasped, and her tone burned him as he hopped out of bed.

“I retrieved it last night. It’s under your light switch by the books.”

She turned and threw the books off the nightstand. One hit the wall hard enough to crack the spine. Glen ignored it.

With trembling hands Luciana brought the talkstone to her face. The moment it was lit, she snapped, “Anduin? Where is he?”

The stone buzzed shortly at her, signifying it was changing hands. “Lucy?” The King’s voice echoed strangely through the magic of the talkstone but it was his voice, and it made Luciana freeze. “Lucy, it’s four in the morning over there. Is everything alright?”

She was trembling again. Glen moved quickly and as she fell boneless to her knees, he caught the stone that fell from her weakened hands.

He kneeled next to her on the floor, pulling her head to his chest. She would hear his heart through her breathing, too quick and too shallow, and use his solid, sleepy body as a rock through her shaking. “It’s Glen, Your Grace,” he said to the King.

“Glen? What’s going on?”

“She’s had another nightmare, Sire.” Luciana whined pathetically, hands shaking too much to curl into Glen’s sleepclothes. He took one of her hands in his, smaller and finer-boned but solid enough for her to lean into. “I think it’s the same, again. She’s having the same reaction.”

“I see.” He could tell how tired the King was. “Can she talk?”

Glen held the stone away from his face. “My Queen? Can you tell me what you saw?”

“I wanna go home,” she said, her voice shaking worse than her body. Glen frowned, his brow creasing. “I wanna… Go home. Where’s Enaeon? Enaeon?” Her voice was abnormally high and she made to get up. Glen gently tugged her back down.

“I’ll call him,” he promised. Bringing the talkstone to his face, he spoke to the King. “Not yet, Sire. She just woke.”

“... Alright.” His sigh was heavy with worry. “I’ll keep the talkstone next to me. I left a meeting for this, anyway, so call me if something changes.”

“Of course, Sire.”

“Thank you, Glen.” It was sincere, but meant nothing. After all, Glen served his Queen, not her husband.

He let the talkstone fall inert again, and pulled the smaller one from the pocket inside his sleepwear shirt. It was local range, less powerful but more useful for him. “Enaeon, she needs you,” he said into the stone. It would deliver the message promptly to the draenei, who no doubt would rush over, leaving Freya with her human guards.

“I wanna go home,” Luciana said quietly.

“I know, My Queen.”

“I’m tired, I don't… wanna be here. Doing this. I’m tired. I wanna go home.”

“I know,” he soothed, running his free hand through her short hair. “Try to relax. Take your time. You have a few hours before you have to be anywhere.”

“Glen.”

“Yes?”

“I want Enaeon.”

“He’s on his way, My Queen.”

“I want Shauna.”

“You left her with your sons, in Stormwind. They are benefitting from having her.”

“I want her.”

“I know. He’s bringing Snow with him.”

Luciana fell silent, her shaking slowly easing as she relaxed in the aftermath of her nightmare. “I watched him,” she said. “He let them in. But it wasn’t him, I know it wasn’t him that did it. But I couldn’t move. They killed him.”

She only spoke of her nightmares to Glen when she was still shaking. Otherwise, she was mute when asked. Only Enaeon and Lars knew the details. Glen never asked, though he was always curious to know what she’d seen in her sleep.

He only quietly wondered, not wanting to push her while she was so delicate. He petted her hair softly, let her tuck her head under his chin. Though she was taller, wider, and stronger than he, she made herself small after her nightmares and tried to hide behind him. From what, he couldn’t say. But he was more than happy to oblige her.

It took only a short while for Enaeon to arrive. The Exodar was kept dark during the night, allowing its residents to sleep on a normal schedule, and Glen’s eyes burned when Enaeon turned on the main werelight in the bedroom.

Enaeon said something in Draenic, sounding pained as he hurried over to where Luciana sat hunched over, curled into Glen as best she could manage. Glen moved out of the way as Enaeon’s arm wrapped around Luciana, dwarfing even her.

“She said she wants to go home,” Glen said quietly. “She’s tired. She wants Shauna. Where’s Snow?”

“Slowly coming up the stairs.”

The old cat sometimes needed a hand getting up longer flights of stairs. Glen fetched her, picking her up under the chest and carefully arranging her delicate body in his arms. She purred the moment he touched her, always friendly and happy to receive attention after a lifetime of being a stray-turned-mouser on a Stormwind trading ship.

Her coat had been brushed to a healthy sheen, softer than a cloud and just as thick. Glen hurried her into the room, leaning over to let her drop onto the floor next to Luciana. The cat’s purring grew louder and she arched her back to rub against Luciana’s arm.

Luciana reacted slowly, uncurling just enough to let Snow worm into her lap. Warmed and contented there, Snow settled in, purring loudly enough to be heard across the room. She leaned over to groom Luciana’s bare leg.

“Hello,” Luciana said softly. “Hello, pretty girl.”

Enaeon’s eyes, glowing like beacons, met Glen’s gaze. Wordlessly he said what he had said so many nights before.

“I’ll be downstairs,” Glen murmured. “I’ll bring up some tea in a bit.”

Enaeon nodded. The slim tentacles under his jaw had already worked their way into Luciana’s hair and around the back of her neck. The sight made a shiver run down Glen’s spine. The draenei were their allies, staunch and trustworthy, but sometimes he saw things that reminded him how alien they were.

Still, whatever Enaeon was doing seemed to help Luciana. After so many years together he could only assume that Enaeon knew what he was doing. And Luciana trusted him more than anyone, save perhaps Lars. Glen could leave her with her paladin for a while.

He would make tea and talk to her Queen’s Guards stationed outside while she recovered. Maybe Marcellus, her cousin turned assistant, would be awake for a game of Squadron. He would ask him about the next test flight of the Exodar. He always seemed to know everything that was going on. Sometimes, Glen wondered if Marcellus ever found the time to sleep.

Chapter Text

Most nights, Luciana found herself waking suddenly. A nightmare, some sound or flash of light, or even her own body periodically waking itself to check for threats. She rarely, if ever, had a full night’s rest. She rarely needed it, as most bad nights Anduin soothed her back to rest with ease. Knowing he was near helped her to relax. Glen was good company, pleasant on the eyes and ears, but he wasn’t nearly as powerful as Anduin.

She’d tried sleeping with her Queen’s Guards near, but not even Enaeon, Lars, and Carill together helped. She’d tried patrolling, checking the grounds and ensuring the guards were all at their stations, and then trying to relax - but nothing worked. The only way she’d found to be able to relax enough to really sleep was to lay near O’ros and close her eyes, and let them soothe her.

Even then, she did not often sleep deeply. Her dreams were strange, disjointed, and oddly real. She wished only that she could remember more of them. She could ask a farseer, as Enaeon had suggested, but she was loathe to share any of it.

She had yet to visit them. She didn’t need them to translate her dreams for her - at least, not the ones she remembered. When she dreamed of Anduin, letting them in, she knew. She didn’t yet know what to do about it, but she knew what it meant. She’d asked for clarity from one much more powerful and old than even the ancient shamanistic farseers of the Exodar.

The things Luciana saw while under O’ros’ Light were less clear. Sometimes she saw gatherings of people who, despite the unsurety of dreams, she felt were like her. She knew. Fury-blooded warriors. She watched them travel, by foot or horse or wagon, though to where she was never sure.

Sometimes she saw where they came from, but she couldn’t picture any of it clearly after she’d woken up. No matter how many times she dreamed it, only the gathering of warriors stuck in her head. Only that, and the knowledge that they were travelling together for a distinct purpose.

She’d tried asking O’ros, but they obviously did not want to answer her. They deflected, or said something that only muddled her remembered dreams further. It annoyed her to have this unanswered question, but it was a price she paid for adequate sleep.

But the dream she’d had last night merited further questioning. It had started out the same as the others - a group of humans traveling together, some distinctly male or female but many others appearing as neither or both, or something else entirely. It had the same assuredness as always. They were traveling for some specific purpose, one that they all knew to varying degrees, and they were like Luciana.

It was the ending that bothered her now. They’d come to a halt somewhere that Luciana could recognize as holy, a place of worship. They’d stopped there, and Luciana had nearly been woken then and there by the intensity of emotion and warmth that had surrounded that place as the humans were bathed in Light.

Absolution. Luciana knew it only because Anduin had offered it to her many times before, of his own Light or through the Light of the Cathedral priests.

And, for a brief moment afterwards, when the Light had faded from the place of worship… She knew, just as surely as she’d known before, that some of them were no longer like her. That the Light had stayed within some of them, and that they would no longer be taking this journey with the others.

She wanted to think of them now as paladins, knowing that they had once been warriors and now were filled with Light. But she was loathe to put that label on them without knowing for sure if it was true. If only the Light saw fit to remain within them, to use them as its holy vessels, could a warrior become a paladin?

This was something for which she needed more information. However, Luciana was in no mood to find someone that might have the answers she sought.
She’d sequestered herself in her office for some time. Lars had come to find her twice already, and now even Carill had tentatively opened the door.

“Boss?” she said quietly, hiding behind the door. “Everything spiffy in there?”

Luciana groaned quietly t and lifted her forehead from her desk. With a flat glare directed at the door, she spoke. “Yes, Carill, everything is spiffy in here.”

“Eights. I’ll leave you be.”

“... Eights?” Luciana murmured to herself. As Carill shut the door, Luciana sighed. She heaved herself out of her chair, feeling heavy and ungainly. Before she could even step away from her chair the urge to stretch had her reaching her arms out to the side, every muscle in her body tensing and stretching to get the blood flowing quickly again.

She yawned, her jaw joints crackling from the force of it. Shaking her head out, she sniffled and rolled her tongue in her mouth. She’d dozed at her desk again, exhausted as she was, and it left a funny taste in her mouth.

Resolving to find something to eat, she lumbered out of her office. Luciana ignored the two guards that broke ranks to accompany her out of her private pavilion and into the compound. Lars, too, slipped out of somewhere to join her.

“Fresh elk in the kitchen,” he said.

She hummed, taking the familiar path to the mess hall. Some called it a cafeteria, others called it the eatery or the kitchens. It all meant the same thing - food.

Lars broke away and hurried off. He’d get there before her and have a plate heavy with meat ready for her. “Any news?” Luciana said, not facing her guards. They would realize she was addressing them.

“Nothing much, Your Majesty,” Bernard to her left reported. “They’re on their way to the Broken Isles, the Highlord at the helm of the Skybreaker with what I hear is an army of champions.”

“He’ll need it,” Luciana murmured. “Westfall? Dun Morogh?”

“In the cleanup stage,” Quan replied. “Westfall’s in a rough state, though. Moonbrook is roiling even with Helliah’s work to keep things calm.”

“To be expected.”

“The King’s working with her, but he’s also been sending SI:7 in all over the place to try and figure out the source. No news there yet, though I hear the Spymaster’s found a couple of promising leads.”

“Good. And my sons?”

“Very well, Sir,” Bernard said. “Both of them, I hear, are really bright. Though Prince Bolvar’s been having a hard time staying on one task, his head tutor’s found a couple of ways to keep him engaged. Says he learns more physically than Prince Alaric, who’s really better with… uh, auditory learning.”

Luciana’s mouth curled into a half-smile. She’d been expecting as much - Alaric liked to know what he was getting into before he got into it. Bolvar, on the other hand, would rush outside with his pants halfway on without a care.

Just as she sat at her favourite table, Lars returned to her with a warrior’s portion on a wide plate. Balancing it with a surprisingly delicate touch, he held a wide glass of mint tea in the other hand. Luciana sat back in her chair as he arranged it in front of her, gesturing for her guards to be dismissed.

Quan hesitated, and Luciana looked up at them with a quirked brow. “Can I not feed myself?” she asked, the joke clear in her voice if not in her expression, and they smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry, Your Majesty.”

Luciana nodded slowly, once, dismissing them again, and this time they left her be in good grace. They took up positions at the main door to the mess hall. They could see her, and she could see them, and they could see everyone else in the hall - but she had her privacy.

Lars sat opposite her, snagging a chicken leg and snapping it off with an expert twist of the wrist. In silence they ate, Luciana taking a slow, measured pace. She wanted to enjoy the food, even though she had been enjoying little else lately.

Her eye caught movement near the doors. Lars looked up for her, scanning for anything important. “Azuremyst peacekeepers,” he said. “Three of ‘em.”

“A paladin amongst them?” Luciana asked.

“Two.”

She wiped her mouth with a cloth napkin, the edges embroidered in flowing blue, and leaned back. Scanning over the heads of those seated before their own meals, she caught the eye of one of the servers and motioned them forward. With wide eyes, the teenage boy looked behind him, then to his sides. Looking back to her, he pointed to himself. She nodded and waved again, and he nearly dropped his tray full of dishes and cutlery to rush over to her. He frantically straightened his clothes and his apron on the way.

“Your Majesty,” he said breathlessly. He cleared his throat, and bowed low. “How can I serve?”

“The three peacekeepers that just walked in,” Luciana said. “You saw them?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Go to them, tell them I’ve invited them to dine with me while I’m here. I’d like to hear their tales of Azuremyst, or of the Exodar. Whatever they’d like to share over a meal.” While she spoke, she held her hand out to Lars.

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Luciana slipped the gold coin Lars had handed her into the server’s hand, and he stared down at his hand for a moment. Then, with a jolt, he bowed his head hurriedly and rushed to find the peacekeepers.

“Nervous sort,” Luciana commented mildly.

“Facing you down?” Lars said.

Luciana hummed, and turned back to her meal. They’d stuffed her chicken breasts with goat’s cheese, blueberries, and almond. A soft and pleasing flavour.

The clatter of armored hooves on stone floor came a moment before one of the peacekeepers came into view. “Queen Luciana.”

She looked up, and the draenei - a tall, lean male, likely a rangari - bowed at the shoulder, twisting his head slightly to keep eye contact. Human customs dictated he would break eye contact with her while bowing, to denote her importance. Draenei custom said that they were of equal import, and he bowed only to acknowledge her honoured position.

“Peacekeeper.” Luciana nodded slowly in return, turning her chin to the side, imitating the motion he’d offered her. “If you have the time, please, come and join me. I’ve been here months already and I’ve heard much less than I would like of the Exodar and its people. I’d be honoured if you were to share.”

With a slight, growing smile, he gestured to the peacekeeper beside him. “This is Fria,” he introduced. “A vindicator. We have been patrolling Azuremyst almost since the Exodar crashed. I am Abell.”

“A shaman,” Fria added. “A farseer.”

“Only just,” he laughed. Immediately, Luciana felt the familiar tension of politics loosen in her shoulders and legs. The stiffness fell away, and she relaxed into the chair. A slight, almost imperceptible difference that Lars caught with sharp eyes. Imitating her, he leaned away from the table, partially removing himself to make room for the newcomers.

“A pleasure,” Luciana said. “As you know, my name is Luciana.”

“Who couldn’t know?” Abell said with his ever-growing smile. He pulled a chair from the table with his tail and sat, at ease in her presence. “You sleep beneath O’ros some nights. The younglings like to do the same. It brings them peace.”

“Any human who finds peace in the Light is at home here,” Fria added, sitting beside Abell. “We wish you to know this.”

Momentarily silenced, her eyes darting between Fria and Abell, she could only nod slowly. Perhaps Anduin might have been able to respond more eloquently.

“I’ll get more food,” Lars offered. “Is your third joining us?”

“Hektor? No, he was just stopping for a snack. He’s still on duty.”

“I won’t be long.”

Luciana watched him go, then turned back to Fria. “You’re a paladin, yes?”

“I am.”

“And you, a farseer.”

“In training.”

“You finished your training.”

“You never finish farseer training!”

“Farseers study the history of the draenei, do they not?” Luciana interrupted smoothly. Abell looked at her, both eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Yes! Though not many know that keeping history is part of our duties.”

“Enaeon has told me some things he knows of your order,” she replied.

“Ah, the Lightheart!” Fria said. “You consider him a close friend. Was he really in your birthing chamber?”

“Yes. I asked him to be my birth partner.”

“Really,” Fria breathed. “And… I beg your pardon, but was he really there when you named your children?”

“Yes.”

Fria seemed to swell, her shoulders rising, her mouth smiling in an attempt to hold back joy that gushed from some source Luciana couldn’t identify.

“Really?” Abell asked, eyes wide.

“Yes, unless I was hallucinating,” Luciana joked.

Fria choked out a laugh. She slapped both hands tightly over her mouth, her Light-lit eyes wide.

“I know it’s significant,” Luciana said, half questioning.

“It is!” Abell insisted. “It is a mark of ultimate unity to have someone of another family within your birthing chamber. It shows that just as you bring new life into your family through birth, you also bring it in through bonds forged in life. It is very important. It means that the person invited into the chamber is very important.”

“I see,” Luciana said quietly. “And Enaeon would know this?”

“Of course!”

“Then I’m glad I had him as my birth partner. What I cannot say in words, I will say in deed.”

Fria exhaled explosively through her nose, pushing her hands against her thighs in a vain attempt to sit straight up, her smile battling itself as she struggled to contain herself.

“Fria?” Abell asked in concern, finally seeing the state she was in. “Are you alright?”

“Fine!” Fria squeaked.

“Forgive her, she’s young,” Abell joked. “Only nine when we landed on Azeroth.”

Fria told him in draenic to shut his mouth, pushing at his shoulder. Almost falling out of his chair from the force of her push, he hurriedly righted himself. Lars chose then to return with the food, distracting Fria from her shame at nearly causing a scene.

“Thank you,” Luciana said to Lars.

“Cap. I’ll get back to station.”

“See you later.” He disappeared into the crowds, and Luciana continued to eat slowly. “You’ve heard what Enaeon did for Freya when she was born?”

“Everyone has,” Abell said. “A miracle of the Light came for a human babe. It chose one of our vindicators to bring forth the Lightborn. Who has not heard of it?”

Bring forth the Lightborn. The words rang with a sour note in Luciana’s head. She hid her frown behind her tea. “What is special about a vindicator?”

“Not so much,” Fria replied. “It’s simply a title one earns at the end of one’s training.”

“And you are a vindicator?” Luciana asked.

“Yes!”

“Newly minted,” Abell added.

“So are you! And you’re older than I am.”

The tentacles behind Abell’s head, coming around to rest on his shoulders, twitched once. Luciana could see colour high in his cheeks. “Not that much!”

“You’re two hundred and three.”

“And our oldest are over ten thousand!”

“You’re still a lot older.”

He rolled his eyes and Fria made a face at him in return. “If only my guards could keep their humour as well as you two,” Luciana joked. Fria beamed at her.

“Thank you! My trainer always said I would get myself in trouble but usually I just make people laugh.”

“I trust you’d have the abilities to get yourself out of trouble, as well.”

“Of course. I am a vindicator now.”

“What makes you different from a priest?” Luciana asked. “I’ve heard many things over the years, being married to a priest, but I’ve never studied the Light nor tried to walk the path of the paladin. I’ve always been curious.”

“It’s simple, actually,” Fria said. “At least, when it was explained to me, it was simple. A priest studies the Light, for years and years, and through that study they try to emulate the Light within themselves. They create their own little Light that is a piece of the Holy Light itself, expanding it and also drawing it forth into their presence. A paladin agrees to take the Light within themself, containing it and acting out its will as its vessel.”

“I see. So, a priest has their own Light that is connected to the Holy Light, while a paladin is a vessel for the Light itself and acts out its will.”

“Yes, exactly,” Fria said, nodding enthusiastically. Luciana could see her tail twitching back and forth, much like that of an excited cat. “There are all sorts of little differences between the duties of different paladins, like how they are called to act - healing, or protecting, or avenging - and also how priests study the Light.”

“Through discipline, or observation of holy acts, or…” Abell trailed off.

“Or by studying the Void,” Luciana said when they both fell silent. “Is there something inherently wrong with that? I was led to believe that there cannot be Light without shadow.”

“No,” Fria said hesitantly. “It’s just that one must be…”

“Cautious,” Abell provided. “The Void can corrupt even the purest of minds. When studying it, one must remember to take shelter within the Light.”

“We are not meant to dwell in the Void,” Fria said. “I hear that humans do not like it at all, though we know it is part of everything. But we are not dwellers of the Void and should not try to become them.”

“Those who study it are brave,” Abell said. “Some are too reckless, and do not keep the Light in their heart while in contact with the Void, and they fall to its madness.”

“And that madness creates evil.”

Luciana nodded slowly. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” she said slowly. “This is… different, from our teachings of the shadow. I think seeing it this way is healthier for those trying to study the Void. Instead of dismissing them, or turning our backs on them, we should remind them to shield themselves within the Light.”

Fria swelled up again and Abell hastily shoved a sand pear into her hands. “Eat,” he said. “Don’t choke.”

“Okay!” she squeaked.

Luciana looked to Abell in askance. “Was it something I said?” she said with a wry smile.

“Sorry,” he replied, smiling in return. “We have heard much of you, Queen Luciana. It is so good to see that it was the truth.”

“What have you heard of me?”

“You follow the Light,” Fria said past a mouthful of pear. She swallowed, grimacing as it went down before being chewed properly. “That you aspire to be of it as surely as the Naaru themselves.”

That gave Luciana pause. She chewed slowly on a roasted mushroom. “I do follow the Light,” she said. “I think that there is little else to follow, for I am a warrior, and warriors are destined to die bloody and alone. But I wanted something else, something more. I wanted children, a family. I wanted to lead and protect those with whom I was entrusted. Alone, I am a single warrior. Powerful, to be sure, but a single warrior nonetheless. Within the Light, I am myself, and I am all those who went before me in the Light.”

“As are we all,” Fria replied in a moment of solemnity. Luciana thought that it was rare to see such from her.

“Did you want to hear more of our vindicators, perhaps?” Abell asked.

“Yes, please,” Luciana replied. “If you have time to tell it, I will eagerly hear it.”

Chapter Text

He tried not to think of her, most days. It hurt to think of her, to remember returning to their shared bedchamber after a long day to see her already sprawled out on the bed, gloriously naked and relaxed. Utterly unconcerned with the world, she would stretch and let out the most satisfied groan, reach out a grasping hand until he laughed and joined her on the bed. It hurt to remember that she wouldn’t be there when he went to bed that night, or the night after, or the night after that.

She left me, he would think, and then, You planned this together. You knew this was coming; it was your choice as much as it was hers. And then, inevitably, She abandoned you. You’re alone again, like you always knew you would be. She promised to come back but you know she’s not this time. She’d rather be there. Away from you.

He’d try to shake off those thoughts, but some days they were like tar. He knew that the more aggressive thoughts - she doesn’t love you - she’s never coming back - why would she want to come back to you? - you should have seen this coming - she’s a warrior, why would she ever stay with you, pathetic and stupidly optimistic - they weren’t really him. It was some nasty, vindictive voice that said them, and he could will them away. He’d been doing it for years.

She does love me. She’s proved it countless times over the years.

She will be coming back. Her sons are here, her home is here.

She is a warrior, and she is loyal. She will come back.

But now, the aggressive, intrusive thoughts were becoming harder and harder to banish. Sometimes they would come, and then fade, and take with them most of the afternoon. Swept from his mind, he was left in a daze, casting around his office for some hint of what he was supposed to be doing.

He knew something was wrong when that became frequent. Once or twice he could attribute to lack of sleep, stress, a headache, something external. But when he lost two days in a week, he’d realized that there was something more than stress and bad nights at work.

He’d called on a priest he was familiar with from his training in the Cathedral. Yuusuf, now almost seventy years old, had come to the Keep at Anduin’s request. In good humour, he took Anduin’s head in his hands and used Holy magic to gently poke through his mind. In his entire life thus far, Anduin had never felt a more delicate touch than his.

But, Yuusuf hadn’t found anything. “You should rest your eyes more,” he said. “They’re terribly strained.” But otherwise, he said, Anduin’s mind seemed healthy. Certainly not the mind of one who’d never seen hardships, but Anduin was doing well. “I can see that you’ve got plenty of healthy coping mechanisms, all sorts of different methods,” Yuusuf said with a proud smile. “Good for you.”

Anduin thanked him, and when the door shut, he frowned. There was something wrong, but he couldn’t place it, and Yuusuf hadn’t found anything. Perhaps it was, in truth, just stress. But...

The thing that bothered him most was how little he actually thought of Luciana. Certainly her absence bothered him, and so he avoided thinking about that. But more and more often, he’d found himself not thinking about her. It was as though she weren’t even in his mind anymore.

Some days, it was as though she’d… simply ceased to exist. He didn’t think about her, didn’t even see the things she’d left behind in their bedrooms, didn’t think of her when he was with their sons or talking to his father. When Varian brought her up, it would take a few seconds for Anduin’s mind to connect the name Luciana with his memories of her. As though something were blocking it, blocking her from his mind.

He knew something was very, very wrong. But he couldn’t think of it. When he tried it slipped from his grasp like a fish, the thought itself gone from his mind. The creeping sensation of disassociation would follow: like a fog rolling off the sea to blanket the city, muting it, his thoughts would become numb.

Worse was when he tried to follow his own thoughts to their source, only to have them suddenly cut off like meat on a butcher’s block. Graceless, abrupt, and alarming - except he couldn’t hold on to the alarm, because the fog would make him forget until the next time he tried to follow the thoughts.

In fact, it had happened again. This morning he’d been with the twins, and Bolvar had asked for Mama, and Anduin… The connection of “Mama” with Bolvar’s request hadn’t gone anywhere. His mind had drawn a blank, completely void of anything to do with Luciana. He’d gone still for several seconds, trying to draw something from the blankness that had ensued. Only Alaric’s echo of Bolvar’s request had cut through the fog, and thoughts and memories of Luciana had flooded Anduin’s mind.

He knew that there was something in his head. Some problem, some issue that had perhaps been smothered since childhood, triggered by recent stress. Except he’d never had memory issue quite like this, even in the days following Onyxia’s death. This was inexplicable, dangerous. He needed to find out what it was.

He couldn’t find it alone. Yuusuf hadn’t seen anything, either. He’d need to find some kind of specialist, perhaps one more familiar with the ways of the mind and its memories. It would take time, time spent writing notes to himself, reminding himself of his wife, of their life together, of her promises, of how many nights he’d spent sleeping peacefully with her arm over him, her breath in his hair, how many mornings he’d spent tracing the mottled scars on her skin.

Anduin could sense that there was something wrong in his mind, but he couldn’t find the source on his own. If he could just follow a train of thoughts, backwards instead of forwards, he might be able to find the problem. If he could just figure out why his mind was forgetting Luciana, why it was specifically forgetting her-

Anduin stared at the sea shell Alaric had picked out for him during their day on the beach. Yesterday had been fun. His sons had laughed and squealed at the cold touch of the ocean on their feet. It wasn’t really good weather to go swimming, but they’d wanted to see the ocean up close, and so Anduin had brought them with two of their favourite caretakers. He always brought two, at least, so that they’d never feel awkward being alone with their King. He’d learned that trick, somewhere. Someone had told him…

He looked up. He was missing something, again. Frustrated, his hands curled into tight fists, uncurling, purposefully relaxing. He was missing something, again, Light why was he forgetting things?

He looked at the balcony doors. Closed, to keep out the chill evening winds. Maybe it would be more pleasant to have the window open to let in just a bit of the chill, just the edge to cut the heat in the room. But the room was a pleasant temperature as it was. Maybe he’d bank the hearth fire, instead, he’d be kept warm...

“Lucy,” he whispered. “Fuck.”

He’d drawn another blank.

“Something is wrong,” he murmured. “Anduin, there’s something wrong with your head.” Sometimes, talking aloud helped him to keep his thoughts straight, keep them grounded. Otherwise they’d float away like kelp in the tide. “Maybe Father’s been through something like this? If it’s stress related. I’ll ask. Send him a letter by courier. I should… I should check in, on Luciana. Lucy. Maybe she’s having troubles, too. I should check in on her, anyway, how long has it been since I’ve spoken to her?”

He recalled, briefly, three nights ago when Glen had called him on Luciana’s talkstone. She’d had a nightmare, had called him in the middle of a court meeting for detailing war taxes on farmers with property that brought them more than a certain yearly income. He’d been annoyed at the interruption, abrupt with Glen, and even Luciana’s rasping voice hadn’t made him realize that his own partner was in distress. He could have offered her some words, or reminded Glen to get her some fresh mint to chew and peacebloom for her pillow. Instead, he’d been annoyed at being forced to interrupt a meeting.

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. Stars and fireworks exploded under his lids, the pressure blinding him for a long moment even after he opened his eyes and blinked owlishly.

“Light,” he swore softly. “I need help. Please, help me find someone who can figure this out. I can’t do this alone. My own mind betrays me. I need help.”

Semi-consciously, he called on the Light. It responded eagerly to him, racing up his skin in a tingling wave that ended in his fingertips. With the barest of thoughts, it sparked from his hands in a shower of light. At least he could still do this. Even if there was something wrong with his head, the Light responded to him as readily as always.

Comforted, he sighed and dropped his hands. He should open the window. Let the bite of the evening’s cold remind him of what he was missing, even when his mind erased the heat of her skin and the glint of grey eyes in the dark.

Guilt twinged in his chest when he thought of Dhavid. Not so long ago he’d welcomed Dhavid into his personal chambers, questioned him on his family and travels throughout the kingdom, eagerly learned of him and laughed with him. He’d even had Dhavid sleep with him on rough nights. When Anduin reached over and felt cold sheets where Luciana should have been, it stung. It hurt. He would not deny it, would not smother it only to have it burn down his defenses later on. He admitted readily that it hurt to be alone again. Dhavid alleviated that.

But one night Dhavid’s warm hand stung as much as Luciana’s absence, perhaps because of her absence, or maybe - more likely - because of the strange treatment his mind had been giving to his mental image of her. He’d snapped at Dhavid to don’t touch me. Get out. He hadn’t apologized yet, hadn’t even been able to talk to Dhavid. Without Anduin’s welcome, Dhavid hadn’t sought him out. He’d driven him away with five words. Dhavid would forgive him - people always forgave him, he was the once and future King, the priest-king, the hope of Stormwind - but Anduin knew he didn’t deserve it. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it, not yet. He’d have to make up for it, apologize properly, explain himself.

Explain that he was hurting. Why was he hurting? What did he have to hurt over?

“Light,” he murmured. “Something’s wrong. I need… I can’t figure this out, not this time. Please, help me find someone who can see what I can’t. I need help.” Hadn’t he just said that? He called on the Light - again, you’ve just been through this - and it rushed forward to fill him, and he screwed his eyes shut, mental pain manifesting in a sudden headache.

He had just done this. He’d repeated himself again. He’d forgotten. It’d been driven from his mind without even a thought of his own.

No one had noticed that something was wrong, because he hadn’t changed. He spoke the same, walked the same, loved his sons, wrote to his Father, listened to his Starred Commanders, wrangled his generals, sent orders to marshalls and field commanders. The one thing he forgot to do was write to Luciana, send orders for the negotiations. Thank the Light she didn’t need him to sign off on things, as would someone of a lower rank. Thank the Light she’d found the strength to manage this on her own, without him.

“You have to be better,” he muttered, absently rubbing his fingers over the smooth sea shell Alaric had giving him. It reminded him of the piece of shell Luciana had been given in her time in Pandaria, in the Jade Forest. She wore it around her neck or at her waist with her other tokens, or left it safe in the lockbox in her desk.

The shell. He could use it to track her. It would remind him of her shell fragment, worn smooth and carved with Jinyu lettering, which would remind him of her military career, of every time she’d gone and come back to him. Would remind him of the other tokens she wore. Of the wedding ring she wore on a chain around her neck, tucked safely under her breastplate, over her heart.

His gorge rose. He swallowed thickly. Crying wouldn’t do much. Sometimes it made him feel better to let out the tears and the emotion, but not this time.

He turned to his desk. There was a ball of twine, or string, or something in there. Something he could use to tie the shell to his wrist. He’d make it a permanent part of him, permanent like Luciana was supposed to be. Every time his mind erased her, he’d see her again when he saw his own hands. He just had to remember not to take off the shell.

Retrieving one of the throwing knives Luciana’s man Lars had left behind, Anduin dug the tip into the shell, delicately carving lines into it. He had to be careful - he couldn’t break the shell, not the one Alaric had given him. He carved an L into it, then stopped.

Cursing his own stupid rushing, he whispered to the Light to infuse the knife. Taking a moment to breathe, slowing himself in entirety, he thought of Luciana. Of her crooked smiles, open eyes, snarling teeth and hands gentle in his hair. Everything he could think of about her, about what she made him feel, he pressed into the knife. It shone with his Light, rippling like water and ripe with his emotional memory, and he slowly carved two more letters into it.

L A W

Looking at it, one would see it as a reminder to him of the importance of the law. Of law and order, justice and fairness. Worthy things for a priest to recall. In fact, it was a reminder of a more personal sort.

Luciana Amadeus Wrynn.

The name she’d had since they’d been married, years and years ago. The name she’d proudly carried all over Azeroth, spoken in hushed whispers through a crooked smile late at night as she delicately brushed hair from his forehead. The name she’d used when swearing to him that, when it was all said and done, when the Horde was either their ally or their enemy for good, when the Legion was being pushed from Azeroth and the Light prevailed, she would return to him. As she always did. Always would.

“Light,” he said. “Please, now more than ever, hear me. If I forget again, let me be reminded. Do not let me forget her.”

If he forget her, permanently, so much would fall apart. Half the kingdom would follow her without much more prompting than a hand wave. The negotiations with the Horde would amount to nothing more than wasted breath, paper and ink, and time. The plans they’d made for Westfall would fall through. He would fall apart, left alone for good this time.

“Westfall?” Anduin murmured. His eyes passed over the room, unseeing. “Westfall is... “ troubled.

You should go check in with the War Room, make sure the skyships are ready to proceed to the Broken Isles.

That was a good idea. He should make sure that his father’s army was in good shape. Make sure the volunteer champions were prepared for what was to come. He could finish this later. Finish… what? What had he been doing? Moving into a new room always seemed to mess him up.

Backtracking, he returned to his office and stared blankly at the desk. This wasn’t the room he’d been in. Shit. He looked down, picked up a pen from the desk. There was the shell, tied around his wrist with twine.

L A W. Luciana. Their plans.

Westfall.

It had stuck out for a reason. He didn’t know the reason, but he knew there was one. If nothing else, he knew the human mind and its workings. By association, it had connected his forgetfulness regarding Luciana to Westfall. That meant something. Quickly, he scrawled a note. L A W Westfall.

If he forgot again, he would remind himself.

“Your Majesty,” the guard greeted as he left the room. He slowed. When had he left the room? “Out for a walk again?”

“I… Yes, I need to clear my head. I won’t be leaving the grounds.”

“Of course, Sire. Is Lady Audrey coming again?”

“Audrey?” Anduin asked, looking down at Melaine. Shorter than he was, she was stout as a dwarven lager.

“Yes, Sire, to organize the books?”

He blinked at her owlishly. Yes, let her in. The twine cut into the corner of his wrist when he moved his hand. “No. As of today, no one is to enter my private quarters except for me, unless they are accompanied by me.” Never mind that. Let Audrey in. I trust her. The shell was haphazardly wrapped in twine. He’d need to find a more reliable way to keep it attached. He might be able to make it into something decorative. “If they say they have permission from me, have them detained. If they insist on entering the room, have them detained.”

“What about servants or cleaning staff?” she asked, not questioning his orders. These were strange times. Stranger orders had been issued. There was nothing to question.

“No. If I’m not in the rooms, or I’m not accompanying them, no one is to enter them. Not my father, not my paramour, not my children.”

Her brows drew down in her frown. “Understood, my King.” Her voice was hard. This was serious, now, and she saluted sharply.

Anduin looked at her partner. He didn’t know this one’s name, but he recognized their eyes through their helm.

“Understood, my Lord,” he said, his voice like gravel. “We’ll pass word along.”

“No one,” he repeated. Audrey can come in, only to organize the books. He could perhaps find a jeweler to make the shell into a bracelet, one that would not come off his wrist. Perhaps a leather cuff. Luciana would like that. “As for detainment, it applies to anyone and everyone.” L.A.W. “These are dangerous times, and there is sensitive material in my rooms. No one is to have access except for me.”

“Yes, Sir,” the two guards said sharply.

He glanced down the hallway, feeling the hair rise on the nape of his neck. “I need a mage,” he said quietly. “One I can trust, one that will keep quiet.”

“I know someone,” the male guard piped up. “He’s worked with SI:7 as a portal mage. You never hear a peep from him as long as he gets his pay.”

“That will be fine. Have him brought here tonight. Keep it quiet.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

Chapter Text

The great chamber was much the same as it had been for the past two months. Stone walls, werelights and wall sconces casting light over the great wooden table and the dozens of chairs surrounding it. The most notable feature of the room was the myriad assortment of peoples from all across Azeroth contained within its walls.

Luciana was not impressed by any of it. She had never been impressed, actually, but now she was decidedly unimpressed. Her advisors and faction representatives argued with those of the Horde, just as they had during the first week. And the second. And the sixth. And the eighth.

With a sigh, she leaned back into her chair. Casting about the room for something to look at, her eyes settled on the night elven Sentinel sent to represent Darnassus. She was spitting angry words in her native tongue at an orc across the table, one that Luciana recognized from previous meetings. Korgash Redfist, who was supposed to be here to argue for the Horde’s presence in Ashenvale but seemed more interested in fighting with Sentinel Mosstread and staring at Luciana.

She tried the other side of the room. Dienekes was actually arguing with Leodre, this time around. The two butted heads often enough that Luciana was prepared to let them simply fight it to a conclusion. Dienekes, Leodre argued, was hot-headed, impatient, and volatile, and would see the Alliance burn in order to set fire to the Horde. Leodre, Dienekes argued, was an arrogant little bastard with too many books shoved up his freckled white ass.

Her eyes came to rest on Vol’jin, who seemed to have come to the same decision as her. Just let them argue for now. Let them tire each other out. Then, maybe they could get something actually useful on the table.

Vol’jin saw her watching him and smiled, twisting his mouth up around his tusks and crinkling the outer corners of his eyes. Luciana blinked slowly at him. She had no quarrel with Vol’jin, really. He was a cunning and intelligent leader who truly cared for his people, and for the health of the Horde as a whole. More than that, he was honourable, and kept his word. Her only issue with him was that he let his people kill hers. In fact, he armed them for the express purpose of killing hers. Though it was only fair to remember that she did the same in turn.

She blinked slowly, and looked from Vol’jin to Lor’themar. The Regent Lord of Silvermoon. He’d hardly spoken at all in their negotiations thus far, and hadn’t raised his voice above the din even when his own speaker had thrown a fireball into the air as a threatening gesture.

Thankfully, Sylvannas wasn’t here today. The stale, rotten stench of her and her kin made Luciana’s lip curl.

“... And release those whom you still hold from Draenor!”

That caught Luciana’s attention, and her gaze flicked from Lor’themar to the Sentinel arguing with Redfist. Luciana wasn’t quite sure how they’d gotten from Ashenvale to prisoners of war in Draenor, but she picked it up all the same.

“I’d like to bring that to the center of the table,” Luciana said, her voice effectively cutting through the smaller arguments being thrown around the room. “Sentinel Mosstread, if you wouldn’t mind repeating your argument to the chamber?”

She stared at Luciana in surprise for a brief second. When she recovered it was with a vengeance. She snarled the number of Alliance prisoners of war still being held by the Horde in Draenor, listed their names - an impressive feat of memory, considering there were fifty-seven names in total - and then summarized by demanding their release.

“Dey be prisoners a’ war,” Vol’jin replied easily. “Taken fair an’ square, just as de ones ya took from us be fair game,too.”

“Dalaran has seven Horde criminals currently under lock and key from the Draenor campaign,” Leodre said, flipping through his record books. “And I believe Stormwind has another nine.”

“Criminals,” Dienekes spat. “Not prisoners of war!”

Vol’jin raised his chin slightly, a thoughtful expression on his face. Luciana stared him down, her grey eyes lidded, her expression unreadable. “No,” he said. “Unless ye be offerin’ sometin’ in return, we not gonna release our prisoners jest because ya want it. That’s not how negotiatin’ works.”

“How about this for negotiations?” Dienekes said, likely about to throw some particularly acidic insults at the Warchief of the Horde. Luciana spoke before he could open his mouth again, and he immediately fell silent to stare at her defiantly.

“I’ll remind you, Warchief, that I was prisoner of the Horde for some time.”

“I don’t recall havin’ ye in de prisons,” Vol’jin said, his tone deceptively light. His eyes were sharp as broken glass.

“I wasn’t in your prisons. I was in the desert, underground, with orcs of your Horde whipping me to death.” The room fell silent, and she smiled. With the scars tearing up and down and across her face, it was a horrible sight. “Yes, that’s right. I died in that desert, Warchief. Because orcs of your Horde caught me, held me for two months, and whipped me. I clung to my body by the grace of the Light, just long enough to make it to Teldrassil by hippogryph where my allies found and revived me over seven long months.”

“You were dead?” she heard Leodre murmur. “That’s impossible. How could you have…?”

“And I’ll remind you of the death of my brother, lured from his home by a man claiming to have been hired by the Horde. We found no evidence to contradict his claims, not even in his own mind. Shall I take all of this at face value, then? My torture, my death, my brother’s death, the Alliance people you hold unjustly in your prisons after their war is long ended?”

Vol’jin was not smiling anymore, and his eyes were hard.

“Might I suggest a recess?” Lor’themar said, his tone dry and mildly annoyed.

“Agreed,” Luciana said smoothly. She stood from her chair, took the leather satchel with her files from the table, and nodded her head to Vol’jin. “Tomorrow morning, Warchief? Nine o’clock?”

“Agreed,” he ground, and she turned and walked out of the room. She kept her pace easy, relaxed, even when Dienekes took to her side and began a long tirade about opening full war on the Horde for the offenses she’d mentioned.

“Dienekes,” she said.

“Sir?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

He fell silent, his angry glare clearing the way in front of him. Luciana let him go, turning away from the group of her advisors and Alliance representatives to return to her private room in the negotiations camp. The whole camp was a sort of metaphorical no man’s land, left unclaimed by either Horde or Alliance out of confusion and tension and mutual fear and hatred.

She waited an hour before leaving the unnamed no man’s land. Letting things calm down and giving everyone else the time to clear out first would let her leave unremarked. She took the established portal to the lands just outside the Exodar, of which both ends were carefully safeguarded by Alliance soldiers and Azuremyst peacekeepers. Though having such a large Alliance presence in the Barrens was obviously upsetting for the natives, Luciana didn’t care. They wouldn’t dare to attack her people, especially with Vol’jin’s approval for their presence. If they did, she would personally slaughter them all and pull out permanently from the negotiations, taking all of Stormwind with her.

A new rotation of guards awaited at her residence in her Azuremyst compound, and she took them into the Exodar. The walk allowed to her calm from the day in the Barrens before seeing Freya, whose sensitivity to emotion would have likely driven her to a fit with Luciana’s dark mood.

Though she knew it was a bad idea, Luciana stopped by her apartment in the Exodar and set down her satchel. It had some files pertaining to negotiations topics, but it also held letters that had been sent from home and received before the day began. She hadn’t had time to read them before the day’s meeting. Now, she sat down and carefully opened the first one.

Westfall. Officially in a state of civil war. Seventeen different groups, all with different leaders and faces. There were only three named ones, as the smaller ones appeared to belong to them. The Loyalists wanted Westfall to secede entirely. The Partitioners wanted Westfall to remain with Stormwind, but with provisions as to independent local government, taxes, land regulation, and the possibility of secession in the future, as well as a guarantee of continued reparations from Stormwind for the Defias and the abandonment of Westfall during the Dust Plains era.

The third faction was named only because of a prisoner taken and bribed for information. He was currently under lock and key in a very comfortable apartment, eating delicacies and waiting to be processed by the judicial system under the Stormwind informant protection program.

The Reclaimers wanted to retake Stormwind on behalf of the old King. They wanted to bring Stormwind back to its roots and uphold its most noble traditions, including strict laws enforcing the existence of only two genders, marriage only between said genders, the total annihilation of the Horde and any lesser races on Azeroth including gnolls and murlocs, and the purification of Stormwind’s streets. They wanted Gilneans to return to Gilneas and anyone who had direct descendance from two Lordaeron parents to return to their own ancestral lands. Despite, of course, the Forsaken occupation.
All of this said with the fanatical conviction of someone who didn’t actually have a clue as to how, exactly, his leaders were to going to achieve all of this, and what the aftereffects would be. Luciana carefully opened her hands and let the letter fall to the table. The sides were crinkled and torn from her grip.

“Bring me Marcellus. I have a message for Shaw and it requires the utmost secrecy.”

“Are you sure, Your Majesty?” her guard asked.

“About my cousin?” she said, the hint of a growl in her voice.

“I do not question you, my Queen,” the guard said. “But is he the safest choice?”

“Yes.” Her tone was firm. “Bring him to me, now. Keep it quiet.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

She took a minute to calm her heart. It beat like a thunderous drum through her entire chest, speeding her blood, sending a whine into her ears and an itch down her skin. She picked up the next letter.
It was directly from Anduin. He was handling Westfall with Helliah’s help. Varian was moving in by airship, directly attacking the Legion with the Horde moving simultaneously. Sylvannas led their forces, also by airship. Gilneas, led by King Greymane himself, stood beside Stormwind’s forces. Jaina led Dalaran’s warmages against the Legion.

Luciana swore under her breath, pressing her hands flat against the desk. Anduin’s letter said that Varian had only left Stormwind a few days ago. It would take the airship a week to get to the Broken Isles and they’d wait the extra day the Forsaken airship needed to get there from the Undercity. Nearly all of their most powerful heroes were on their way to the Broken Isles to be slaughtered and Luciana wouldn’t be able to stop them. Not if the last bit of news was true. Luciana couldn’t say she wasn’t surprised that Anduin hadn’t contacted her sooner. It had been nearly a week since she’d called him by talkstone, frantic after a nightmare.

Shaw has given me news that brings me no end of sorrow. Their only possible recourse was to war against the Horde.

“No, no,” Luciana murmured. “That doesn’t make any sense. You know we can’t fight them both at the same time. Why? Why are you doing this?”

She tossed the letter onto the table, turned on her heel and paced to the other end of the room. When she turned again she stopped, staring at the letter as though it were a ravager hatchling.

“What are you thinking?” she hissed. She turned away from the table. Resting one hand on her hip, the other absently rubbed at her lower jaw. Her thumb dug into her jaw scars, and she scowled at the wall. “What the fel-fuck is going on over there?”

“Your Majesty, Princess Freya is here.” The soft tone of her guard surprised Luciana, and she spun to see Freya half hidden behind the guard’s greaves. Snow stood beside her, eyeing Luciana curiously.

“Hello, little one,” Luciana crooned, getting down on her knees and gesturing Freya forward. “Did you come all the way over here to see your Mama?”

“Mam,” Freya said quietly. Her chin was tucked against her chest while one hand was buried in Snow’s ruff and the other hand gripped onto the cold metal of the Royal Guard’s greave.

“Mama’s not upset with you,” Luciana said. “I promise. Come on over here, let Mama give you a hug. Snow, come. Bring her here.”

Snow ambled over to Luciana, giving Freya the choice to lose Snow’s fur or leave the guard’s shadow. She whined in frustration before hurrying after the cat, stumbling into Luciana’s arms.

Luciana pressed a kiss to Freya’s hair, wrapping her arms protectively around the child. “Hello,” she whispered, brushing Freya’s hair back. “Hello, little one.”

“Mam is loud,” Freya said, only looking at Snow. “Mama is mad.”

“Mama isn’t mad at you,” Luciana soothed. “I promise. Mama isn’t being loud because of you and she’ll be nice and quiet for you. Okay?”

“Mama is loud,” Freya said.

“Sorry.” Luciana pressed her nose to Freya’s hair. “I know you don’t like it. I’ll be quiet, okay? Here, I’m starting right now.” Freya smelled soft and fresh, too much like her father to ignore. Luciana felt her gorge rise and swallowed thickly against the sudden rush of emotion. Breathing slowly, counting the seconds of her exhale and concentrating on the smell of Freya’s hair and the low rumble of Snow’s purring, Luciana calmed.

“Mama is loud today.”

“Mama is not,” Luciana started. She breathed in slowly. “Mama isn’t loud anymore. She’s nice and quiet. You’re okay. We’re good. We’re okay. Good little girl. My little one. My baby.” Luciana pet Freya’s soft hair, kissed her forehead and pulled her close until she let her weight brace against her mother’s chest. Her head leaned back until her ear found Luciana’s heartbeat, and then Freya fell slack, eyes staring into the distance as she listened to her mother’s heart. “There we go,” Luciana said softly. “Nice and quiet. Right? You’re okay. Mama’s here. I’ve got you, Freya.”

It could take hours to convince Freya that she wasn’t at fault for Luciana’s mood. Today had been easy. At times Luciana would have to give up and try again after she calmed the frustration that welled up at Freya’s stubborn, sad repetitions of Mama is loud. But Luciana forced herself to calm, forced her fury down and her frustration led to the urge to scream bloody murder and she swallowed that down, too, because she would not upset Freya anymore than she already had. Freya was her daughter. Her child. Luciana would do anything for her.

The letters sat forgotten on the table. Luciana didn’t want to think about it. She didn’t want to imagine what was going on in Anduin’s head to make him want to declare war on the Horde just as the Legion tore a hole into Azeroth’s skies. Freya needed her more.

Chapter Text

Wrathion stood opposite her. His disguise was dropped for the moment. The faint shimmer of magic in the air around him gave her a headache if she looked at it for too long. “You’re sure about this?” he asked. “Not a month ago you would have sooner strangled me than trusted me.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said.

“Then why ask me to do this?”

“Because you have no qualms with lying to Anduin.”

He smiled wryly. “I did earn that,” he said. “Alright. I’ll bring your messages to their intended recipients, safe and sound as only a black dragon can guarantee.”

She raised one eyebrow, accompanied with a flat look.

“True,” he said. “How about I guarantee it as one who is interested in the continued prosperity and unity of Stormwind?”

“Better. Get going. You’ll meet with the Trio on your way out of Azuremyst. I trust you can see yourself safely to the pickup point?”

He absently waved the rolled map in his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Yes, yes, I can keep myself out of trouble for a few hours,” he sighed. “I don’t see the necessity of an escort, though.”

“Locke, Keen, and Shrike are one of the deadliest and most versatile teams in SI:7’s entire history. I want the utmost security for these messages. It’s not for your sake.”

“I see.” He eyed her thoughtfully. The burning heat of his red eyes dug at her, and her lip curled to show her teeth in a mild warning. “Something is amiss within your House.” His words held a hint of a question. Luciana didn’t respond and his eyes flickered curiously. “Not to worry. As you said, I have no qualms in lying.”

“Does that mean you’ve been lying to me?”

“I have no reason to lie to you.”

“I wasn’t aware a black dragon needed one.”

“This one does.”

“Fair enough. Off with you, now.” She waved him away. “Take the passage out of my bedroom. It’ll bring you to the edge of the residential area and you can secret yourself away from there.”

“Have your agents been briefed fully?” he asked.

“They know enough. Whatever trouble you manage to attract, they won’t be surprised.”

Wrathion only chuckled in response before sweeping from her office. She sensed the whisper of his magical disguise as he left.

Luciana leaned back against her desk with a sigh. Arms crossed over her powerful chest, she looked over her spacious personal office with half her mind wandering elsewhere. The information she’d given Wrathion was more than sensitive. It could destroy Stormwind from the inside out if used properly - and he, of all people, would know how to use it.

She wanted to question her decision to trust him. But, she reasoned, he’d proven himself sincere at least in his conviction that Stormwind had to be unified in order to put its full force behind the battle against the Legion. Whatever else he had planned, Stormwind would be safe. Though that didn’t guarantee her own safety, her children were still young and could easily be turned against her, and he was fond of Anduin. Her kingdom and her family would be safe.

A knock interrupted her thoughts. “We’re ready for you, my Queen.” Khand, captain of her guard.

“Time for work,” she murmured to herself. Leaning back, she grabbed her coat from the back of her chair and slung it over her shoulders, shoving her arms in and shrugging it on. “A moment,” she called back, tapping her hand on the underside of her desk. A shrill, barely perceptible whine came from the spot she’d touched. The enchantments safely reinforced and sealed the desk, only to be unlocked when she returned. Someone would have to remove her entire desk to get at the contents.

As she left her office, she heard Lars’ voice from her right. “Ain’t no rest for the wicked.”

“If only,” she replied.

Chapter Text

Walking over the No Man’s Land between her compound and the negotiations buildings usually made her hackles rise. Luciana was used to it. Having preternatural senses, a gift from the wolf ancient, she could pick up sounds and smells that others could not.

She should not have ignored her instincts.

On her knees in the red dust of the Barrens, she cradled Daniel to her chest while the last stragglers of the attack force were taken down by her Queen’s Guard. She did not call for a healer. She could hear the breath rattling in Daniel’s chest, already - the death rattle. The last call of the fallen soldier.

“I’ve got you,” she said instead, hunching over him protectively. “Hush, now, Daniel. I’ve got you.”

He wheezed the form of a word. His hand trembled as he raised it up. It clenched around the fur mantle of her cloak like a vice. Dead man’s grip.

“I know,” she soothed. Her hands did not shake as she shifted her grip on his prone form so that she could brush his hair away from his face. His blood dripped from her gauntlets. “I know. I’ve got you. It’s alright, Daniel. You did good.”

He tried to speak again and she leaned her head down. He wasn’t being stubborn for nothing. That wasn’t his style.

“Keep… safe.”

She leaned back, met his eyes squarely. He stared at her unblinking, the most intense she’d ever seen him. “I’ll be careful,” she said. “I promise. You won’t die for nothing.”

At her words, he smiled softly past the swelling of his broken jaw. His body relaxed against her and she fought the urge to shake him awake. She listened to his lungs struggle and whistle plaintively. The cries of the wounded, the orders being flung about - she heard none of it. The whistling stopped.

“Your Majesty!” A draenei shaman fell to his knees in front of her, reaching for Daniel. “Give him here, quickly. I can save him.”

Too late, she wanted to say, but the moment she’d heard the flat crunch of a hammer hitting a rib cage, she’d known. Daniel was too far gone the moment the hammer had made contact.

“He’s dead,” she said instead. “Let him stay there.”

“No, I can…!” The shaman looked up at her. He couldn’t see her face past her helm, but the cold fury in her eyes was enough to make him freeze like a hunted hare.

“I said, let him stay there.” Her voice was even. Too calm, and the shaman knew it. He hurried away, backing up, nearly tripping over his own tail.

A shadow fell over Luciana. Without looking up, she knew that it was Lokaal. “Are you wounded?” he asked.

“No.” She stood, Daniel limp in her arms. “Take him to base. Have him prepped for transport to Stormwind for burial.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Lokaal’s typical sternness served him well here, and he went about following her orders without another word.

The next one to approach her was Lars, the only one who dared to come close when she stood so still, covered in blood, unmoving and silent. “Four dead, five more wounded. Two assassins were taken prisoner. I had Khand bring them to the Exodar for you.”

“Good.”

The single word of praise was all that Lars needed for his report. He nodded once, curt, and stepped away.

Luciana didn’t stop to check who was following her. Anyone in her proximity that had even a sliver of professionalism would drop what they were doing and rush after her the moment they saw her striding purposefully to her destination.

The two tauren warriors guarding the main doors stared at her bloody armor. One belatedly moved to open the door, but Luciana had already slammed it wide open. Some of her people hurried to get ahead of her.

“Clear up ahead!”

“Clear, three o’clock!”

“Clear!”

She ignored their calls and kept walking, up stairs and down halls. Finally, she reached the peace circle at the center of the neutral grounds. The sky was clearly visible, a perfect circle of blue over the peaceful pond and saplings that shaded their guests. “Where is your Warchief?” she asked, her voice even, still unsettling to any who heard it.

“He’s… busy,” an orc offered, staring at Luciana in a mix of indignant fury and primal fear.

“I heard de noise,” Vol’jin called as he entered the peace circle. “I hear, also, dat dere was an attack on ya party jest outside. I already be sending…”

“Save it,” Luciana said, turning her head smoothly to look at Vol’jin. His eyes were narrowed, suspicious, much like her own. “The next time you want to send assassins for my head, you’d best send an Ancient.”

“Dis was no plan of mine,” he said, his voice edged with a warning snarl. “No Horde would dare to move against ya while ya be here unda my protection.”

“They did,” Luciana said. “I’ve lost brothers to the Horde, Warchief.” The word curdled against her tongue. “I lost another today. You, your Horde, your allies… You’ve made your intentions clear. I see now that any hope I had of my husband’s wish for peace becoming reality was false.”

“I be telling ya now, Queen,” Vol’jin said. Her title sounded as sour as his had felt. “I promise ya, on de honour of my father’s grave. Dis was not de actions of de Horde. We had no’ting to do wit it. We did not know about it.”

“We, eh?” Luciana said. “Perhaps you did not. This wouldn’t be the first time your Horde moved without your permission.”

“Ah, ya situation in de Barrens,” he said. “I told ya den, and I’ll tell ya now. Dat wasn’t de Horde, either.”

“If I believed you now I’d be a fool,” Luciana snarled. “A dead one. The only reason I don’t retaliate now is because we are faced with an invasion from the Legion. If it weren’t for those demons, I would purge your Horde of its demons, since you seem incapable of controlling them.”

Vol’jin slowly straightened his back, showing his impressive true height. “De Horde did not dishonour our promise of safety to ya in dese lands,” he said in a dangerous low tone. “Dat ya dare to accuse us of dis, despite our participation in de talks ya own mate organized?”

“You dare to send assassins to kill me on my way to these talks you agreed to participate in,” Luciana replied, a flash of heat breaking through the cold fury squeezing her gut tight.

“It was not de Horde,” Vol’jin said. “And I gonna prove it to ya.”

Luciana snarled wordlessly, hands clenching around thin air for want of a weapon.

“Give him a chance,” she heard. A murmur from behind her, slightly to the left, masculine, soft and rich like velvet cream. “Give him some time to prove it. Everything you’ve been working for could fall apart if you don’t. If you do, and he finds those truly responsible and presents the evidence to you, it could strengthen the fragile peace between us and them. But only if you give him the chance. Only if you believe him.”

Leodre. Of course he would be the one to counsel her to reconsider when she was about to start a war. She snarled again, and glared at Vol’jin. He answered her expression with one of equal pride and fury. “Three days,” she growled. “Present to me absolute evidence of the Horde’s complete non-involvement or knowledge of this within three days, or I will retaliate with the full might of the Alliance.”

“How generous of ya,” Vol’jin said dryly.

“Don’t test me, Warchief,” she spat. “I lost a brother in arms today. Someone will pay. I don’t care who. You have three days.”

“Ya don’t care for justice?”

“No,” she said flatly. “I want to destroy whoever killed my people today.”

Vol’jin’s mouth curled into a smile around his tusks. “Ya be more like us than ya care to admit, Ya Majesty,” he said. “Alright. Three days. I be seein’ ya den.”

Luciana turned away from him. Her glare landed on Leodre, her arcane advisor. His face blanched, but he didn’t cower. He seemed confident enough in the advice he’d given her.

“At least one of you is doing your job,” she growled to him as she passed by.

“Your Majesty, let me open a portal to the Exodar for you,” he said, hurrying after her. “Your people here know what to do.”

“Do you really think I am the one who needs protection?”

“Yes, I do.”

She stopped in the middle of the hallway. She didn’t hide the incredulity in her expression, even taking her helm off despite the very present danger of a second attack in order to show her face. Leodre gave a sheepish grimace to her expression.

“I do,” he insisted, again surprising her with the stubbornness of his stance. “My Lady, you are the queen of Stormwind. One of the figureheads of the Alliance, and one of our heroes. If you fall, there will be chaos. Riots. Wars. People will lose the direction you are giving them and they will lose the strength you’ve inspired in them. I think very much that you should be protected, just as King Anduin should be.”

“Very well,” she said softly. “Open a portal.”

His sighed quietly in plain relief. “Thank you, Your Majesty. It’ll be easier outside, away from the wards."

"I'll meet you there."

Chapter Text

The light from the braziers danced with the shadows on the wall. Vol’jin watched them with half a mind. He could imagine the beating of ceremonial drums, the masked trolls dancing around the fire, whooping in excitement, the heart of the celebrations. This joy was absent in his alcove.

“Why does she tink I had her brudda killed?” Vol’jin asked, the question not directed to anyone in particular. “In Stormwind itself, of all de places ta have someone killed.”

Tulja answered him. “I heard a’ dat. Some male human went an’ killed de princess’ little brudda, right in de middle o’ da city.”

“Oh, dat crazy one dey executed?” Zulbaba laughed. It was a hoarse sound, the result of a punctured voice box that had never healed fully. He cleared his throat, took a slow sip of his drink. He worked his mouth around it, champing his tusks before swallowing. “Yeah, me spies brought me word o’ dat when it happened. He killed de princess’ brudda, a little thing even for a human. One o’ their cubs. She tried ta kill him in da streets.”

“As she should have!” Tulja interrupted. “What kinda freak kills a cub? He sick in de head?”

“I don’t tink so,” Zulbaba said. “Me spies say he accused de Horde of hirin’ him as assassin. Tryna cause confusion, spread de hate even more.”

“Why he gotta do dat?” Tulja snorted. “Dey already hate us. Ya see how de Queen treat our Warchief! She disrespectful, demandin’ tings of us dat we don’t got any obligation ta give ha! Tree days? Ha! She tink she in charge, here. Humans and dey pride.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe dey be in charge o’ anyting, let alone de Alliance. Dey Queen up in here, demandin’ shit from de Warchief, her equal.”

“She lost a brudda today,” Vol’jin said, stopping Tulja before she could steamroll into a tirade. “One who been wit her since her days in de Arathi Basin. She hurtin’, just like we be hurtin’ when we lose a warrior. Rememba dat.”

“Yes, Warchief,” Tulja said, slightly sheepish.

“Zulbaba, ye find out who hired him?” Vol’jin asked.

“We tink it was… well, otha humans,” he said with a shrug. “Dey got a bad ting goin’ down in Westfall, de old farmin’ land dey had. But dey abused it and it went dry. De people there, dey don’t like Stormwind. Maybe it was dem.”

“Find out,” Vol’jin said. “Bring proof. Even if we can’t find de perpetrators of de attack from dis mornin’, we can prove dat we not be de murderers of dey cubs. It will offset de Queen’s rage, give us a bit more room, a bit more time.”

“We don’t need ta be giving in to dem all de time,” Tulja snarled suddenly. Vol’jin growled, champing his tusks, and Tulja looked away, lowering her ears. “I just be sayin’, Warchief, dat dey not in charge o’ de Horde.”

“Dey sent us their treasured Queen to work out a deal while de Legion be invading,” Vol’jin said. “I promised her safety in our lands, and someone broke dat promise. I not be happy about dat. I wanna know who, I wanna know why. I wanna be givin’ Queen Luciana someone ta kill with her hands so she don’t be flashin’ her fangs at us no more over dis.”

“Ya will, Warchief,” Zulbaba said, bowing his head. “I see it be done.”

“Good. Tulja, ye be goin’ to de Eastern Kingdoms. Bring ya best people wit’cha, ta Westfall. Find out what be goin’ on in dere, who be thinkin’ what, who be doin’ what. See if we can get some good information for me to feed de Queen. She won’t like us spyin’ on her own lands, so be careful.”

“I do ya will, Warchief,” Tulja said, bowing her head. Her ears were pricked up again in interest. She loved a challenge. Sorting out the humans and their rebellions and self-destructive wars was a puzzle she couldn’t wait to start.

“Be off, you two,” Vol’jin said. “Leave me be. I need some quiet ta think.”

“Warchief.”

His alcove was left in silence when the generals of his Siame-Quashi were gone. They would bring his orders to their people, pick the ones best suited to the tasks at hand, split their forces three ways and see themselves to his will. Some would remain in his domain to ensure his safety, along with the Kor’kron and the Sunwalker guards Baine had given him in gesture of trust. The others would be in Westfall, and spread out in the Barrens to follow leads on the would-be queen killers.

Vol’jin stretched out with a satisfied groan, relaxing back into his lounge chaise. It smelled vaguely of the musk of the very lovely female who’d visited him that morning. He scratched his beard absently as he thought. Who would try to frame the Horde while they tried to kill the mate of the High King himself?

“Cult of de Damned,” he muttered. “Twilight’s Hammer. Anyone who be wishin’ chaos in Azeroth coulda done dis.”

He’d have to wait to hear back from his shadow hunters. With new information came new perspective, new possibilities. Until then, he would relax and keep his people in working order. The queen would no doubt form up her own hunting party and take off on the trail of the assassins who’d escaped her clutches earlier. With the reflection of Lo’gosh in her eyes, she wouldn’t have a problem finding them.

A shiver raised the fur over Vol’jin’s spine. To have the eyes of a furious wolf on him hadn’t been comfortable. He’d like to redirect them as soon as possible. It was much easier to get work done when there wasn’t a wild beast at your back.

Chapter Text

“One skyship is down, another badly damaged,” Luciana sighed. “It’ll be repaired, the other replaced.”

“In short order, yes.”

“And the Highlord?” Luciana asked. “How fare his forces?”

“No news yet on that front, Your Majesty,” Khand replied. The furrow in his brow belied his unease. “We should have heard from them earlier, but…” He trailed off.

“At ease,” Luciana murmured, more for his benefit than anything. He visibly relaxed at her words, and the reassurance that he hadn’t failed his duty. Some things were beyond even his control.

Still, she found it unsettling that they hadn’t received any reports from either Varian or Genn, or one of their multitude of officers and qualified personnel. Not even a courier had come to deliver news of their continued survival.

Luciana’s thoughts were interrupted when one of Khand’s officers – Terney? Tierney? – burst into Luciana’s war room, red-faced and completely out of breath. Khand immediately snarled a reprisal at the impropriety, but the officer ignored him. He had eyes only for Luciana, and what a frantic, terrified pair they were.

“Varian is dead,” he gasped.

The room fell silent. Khand’s reprimanding order of night guard duty for a week died on his lips. “Dead?” Luciana said. “Where does this report come from?”

“King Genn,” the officer said, gulping in air.

“Water,” Luciana snapped. She didn’t see who’d given the poor man her crystal water cooler. She gave him a few moments before demanding, “The full report.”

“They were in full retreat after the Horde called their own,” Tierney panted, letting Khand take the water and delicately put it back on Luciana’s desk. “A fel reaver, giant by the reports, fell from the sky and took hold of their skyship. The Highlord… He ordered the retreat continued and then fell onto it, driving Shalamayne into its head. That was the last they saw. King Genn says that he saw Varian perish by… Gul’dan’s hand,” he said, trailing off. Luciana hardly heard him past the ringing in her ears.

“Out,” she said. “All of you. Out.”

Her voice was deceptively calm. Not even Lars remained. That tone was a warning, the calm before the storm, and officer and guard alike hurried from the room. When the door was closed, Luciana braced her fists on her desk and leaned down. She closed her eyes, exhaled shakily, and tried to quell the tears of rage and confusion that threatened.

Emotion welled in her chest and blocked her throat. Swallowing thickly, her arms trembling, she leaned her weight further onto the desk. It hardly creaked, a testament to its quality make. She tucked her chin down against her chest and swallowed again, trying to tame the emotion clawing at her throat.

Unable to contain it alone, she opened her mouth and howled, a painful cry of sorrow and rage. It faded away at its end, its only remnant the trembling of her massive frame. Her war room was utterly silent, save only the ticking of the clocks on the wall. Each told time in a different region. She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, at the reminder of mortality that had come at the cost of Varian, the warrior who had become her father.

The door creaked open, just a sliver. “Luciana?”

“Enaeon,” Luciana murmured. “What are you doing here.”

“I felt your cry,” he said, his own voice thick with emotion. “As did Freya.”

That alone made Luciana stand straight. She breathed deeply. Her howl has released some of her emotions, all of them roiling together into an indistinguishable mess. Now she could tame them for a moment. “Come in,” she said.

The gap in the doorway widened. Freya was first into the room, hurrying forward with unsteady steps. “Mama!” she cried plaintively, her face blotchy, her eyes red and tearful. “Mama!”

“Come here, my little one,” Luciana said, coming around the war map’s great table to kneel before Freya. The child reached up, a clear demand to be picked up, and Luciana obeyed. She stood with some difficult, her limbs feeling uncharacteristically weak, and cradled Freya to her chest. Freya continued to make plaintive noises, not words but something resembling them, while Luciana rocked her gently.

Wordlessly and fearlessly, Enaeon approached her. He gathered them both up in his arms, wrapping himself around Luciana protectively. The tendrils around his neck and jaw wound around Luciana’s neck, gentle lines of pressure that tickled at her hair with their tips. Even his tail wrapped around the backs of her thighs, supporting a small part of her weight.

She allowed him to press her forehead to his shoulder, caging Freya safely in between them. The child wailed against Luciana’s chest, turning her head away from it in order to breath for a moment before once again stuffing her running nose into Luciana’s shirt. Her mother paid it no mind.

Luciana opened her mouth to speak. It took a moment for the words to come. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I don’t.”

“You must,” Enaeon murmured. “For it is truth.”

“How do you know?”

“Freya told me,” he said. “Not an hour ago, when we were playing with Snowball and Freya was enjoying her fur. She froze, and then cried out as though in pain. I knew that something was wrong not with her but with one to whom she was connected. I tried to console her, and I brought her here. I was worried that you had been harmed in another assassination attempt,” he said. One of his tendrils wound itself into Luciana’s hair, treating her as it would a draenei. She appreciated the gesture, one of calming, of closeness.

“It was her grandfather,” Luciana said quietly. “She wouldn’t remember him. She… never got to meet him properly.”

“It is a great loss,” Enaeon said. “She will mourn this lost opportunity.”

Luciana let out a shaky breath. She hushed Freya gently, petting and kissing her soft hair. “Be still, little one,” she murmured. “You are safe. It hurts, but it will pass.”

“They have also sent word to Stormwind,” Enaeon said. “Anduin will soon know.”

“I should.” Luciana stopped. “I should be there with him.”

“There is also a team, which Khand is gathering as we speak. They intend to return to the Broken Shore and reclaim whatever is left of your father.”

The word struck at her and she growled, pulling away from Enaeon. Her eyes were fierce, not yet gleaming with the yellow reflection of Goldrinn. “I should be leading them,” she snarled. “I will.”

“You should be resting, and reflecting,” Enaeon argued. “You have suffered a great personal loss, one that could break you if you are not supported.”

“Take her,” Luciana said, handing Freya to Enaeon. “Take care of her, as you have, as I know you will.”

“You are her mother!” Enaeon said, tail twitching in surprise. “You should be caring for her now.”

“I must go,” Luciana told him, moving to the door.

“Lucy!”

“I have to go!”

“You should be-!”

“I can’t!”

Enaeon stepped back at her outburst. Freya was silent, eyes glazed, and Luciana cursed herself for her carelessness. She’d allowed too much of her fury into her voice and it had struck at Freya. But she could not stop. “Luciana,” Enaeon said softly, surprised and disappointed.

“I can’t,” Luciana said. “I…” She gestured at herself helplessly. “I’m driven. To do this. I can’t not go.”

“What do you mean? By the wolf?” Enaeon asked. “Tell me so that I might understand you better, my friend.”

“I don’t know,” she gasped. Her breath came quickly, driving in and out in a rush, exacerbating an already precarious situation. “I have to go. He was my father. He took me in when… when no one else could help me.”

Enaeon’s tail lowered. “I understand,” he said softly. “Go, then. And feel no guilt. Your child is safe here, and she will understand - you both suffer because of this same connection.”

“Thank you.” Luciana rushed from the room, leaving it feeling empty without her frenetic presence. Only Freya’s hiccups broke the silence.

Two guards took to her side, jogging to keep up with her. “Khand!” she yelled. “Your force?”

“All here, minus the mages,” he said, startled at her sudden appearance but obviously willing to fall in behind her. “They’re preparing portals to the coast, where we will board our reinforced ships. A dozen or so draenei mages have volunteered to come along as shielding for the ships, as well as…” He looked down at a ripped piece of parchment in his hand. “Forty warriors, nineteen hunters, twenty-eight paladins, various others. The Prophet Velen has given us six of his own protectors, as well. We’ll be stocked to the gills with firing power and hippogryphs from Teldrassil. They started the flight about twenty minutes ago, and will be here just in time.”

“Good work,” Luciana said. The praise fell flat to her own ears but Khand’s chin lifted in pride. “We leave the moment they’re aboard.”

“Of course, Sir,” he said, and then paused. “You’re coming with us?”

“I’m coming with you.”

“With all respect, Sir, you should be staying here,” he said. Even he seemed surprised that he was arguing a superior’s words. “You recently had an attempt made on your life. We’ve lost the Highlord, one of our greatest heroes. The Alliance would suffer without you. Your people would be lost,” he said quietly.

“They have their King,” she said. “I’m going.”

He hesitated, and she looked down to him impatiently. “You have proven yourself a hero of Stormwind time and time again, Your Majesty,” he said, quieting his voice. “We respect, and love, our King... Make no mistake that we believe in him and will gladly follow. But he is not… proven, as you are.”

“Is that what you think?” Luciana said softly. Khand swallowed. “Yet you will follow him. And that is enough. We leave when the hippogryphs are aboard.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

She climbed the ramp up to the entrance of the Exodar. Whoever’s path she crossed made themselves scarce in the face of her frantic, furious visage. Lars’ arrival was heralded by the hurried clattering of his boots on the metal ramp.

“Cap,” he panted as he caught up to her. “Cap, I need to talk to you.”

“It’ll wait.”

“No!” he said, grabbing her arm. “I have info you need, right now.”

It took a moment for her to register his words. Her thoughts were jumbled and hurried and slow all at once, and even Lars lowered his gaze from her too-wide eyes. “On the ship,” she said. “Come.”

“Yessir.”

The portals waited for them outside, maintained by draenei mages as heroes and soldiers alike passed through them. Luciana followed their tracks, ignoring the respectful greetings thrown at her.

She stepped through and kept moving, half-jogging up the ramp to the first ship she came to. She found the captain’s office with ease, as it was a standard Stormwind warship, and with a gesture dismissed everyone, even the ship captain, from the room. Lars slipped in behind her and shut the door.

He faced her as she took the captain’s chair. “Your armour?” he asked.

“They’ll bring it.”

“Of course.” He took the chair opposite her, keeping the desk between them.

“Say your piece plainly,” she said. “I’m in a hurry.”

“I’ve been in with the whisperers - the Reclaimers - for a long time, feeding off their information channels, anonymously tipping off the necessary people,” he said plainly. As she had asked. She immediately regretted dismissing any preamble out of hand. “I had to prove myself to them. In Redridge. I knew you’d been betrayed. Knew it. But I found it went deeper. Even your mate’s been compromised.”

“I know,” she said numbly.

“I think this has to do with the skyship,” he said. “Might just be the paranoia talking. But I think the Highlord was misinformed on some key pieces. I think he was betrayed, too. There’s a rat in your house.”

Luciana was silent. She leaned back in her chair, slumping into it, her arms limp over the chair’s arms. Lars. The silence droned in her ears. Her Lars. Her six.

“I was right,” she said.

“You knew it before moving here,” he said.

“I know. But I didn’t want to believe.” She turned her head to look at Lars. He waited for her words patiently, keenly attentive to her, reading her face and eyes as only he had learned to over the many years at her side. Lars had known that she would need someone on the inside.

“I know enough to catch the assassins, track the people causing trouble in Moonbrook,” he said, seeing her attention return to him. “Weed out some of the lieutenants of the group targeting you. They see you as the key to causing chaos and war in Stormwind, and through us, the Alliance. I wanted to find out more. I can’t allow something that belongs to you to be infected.”

“Anduin?”

“Yessir. I don’t like seeing you confined. You should be out. So I’m giving it up now.”

“You know that you’ve forced my hand,” she said.

“Yessir.”

“I have to arrest you.”

“Yessir.”

She regarded him in silence for a long moment. He remained straight-backed, attentive. Waiting for her orders. “Why did you do this?” she asked.

“You needed someone on the inside.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“Have to fool your friends to fool your enemies.”

She nodded slowly. Her jaw clenched. “Lars Abelen, you are under arrest by order of Queen Luciana. You have the right to remain silent until a lawyer is assigned to you, should you not have access to your own. You will be tried in a court of law as appointed by the State. As traitor to Stormwind, you will receive a private trial for your own safety, presided by an official appointed to their office by the State as by their individual merits. The charge is as follows: treason against Stormwind. Do you accept this charge?”

“Yes.”

She nodded again. Standing was difficult – her legs wanted to give out instead of supporting her impressive weight. “You will be brought to Stormwind by Wardens of the law of the State, and kept in their care until your trial date.” As she spoke, she moved to the door. “Until you are found either innocent or guilty by the fair law of the State, you will be under their protection, which is an extension of the hand of the House of Wrynn.” She opened the door. “Queen’s Guard!” she called. “Get me a team of Wardens for escort.”

“By portal?” a voice she didn’t recognize called back. A moment later, a liveried Queen’s Guard – one of Khand’s new recruits – came around the corner. “It’ll be a hot minute, Your Majesty, but I’ll see them here in a hurry before we take off.”

“Good.” She closed the door, and turned to look at Lars. He was staring at her over his shoulder. “Lars,” she chided softly. “Oh, Lars. I needed you at my six today.”

“Sorry, Cap,” he said unapologetically. “But it couldn’t wait any longer.”

“I know. You’ve done well.” Knowing that he was patiently waiting for her approval, she rested a hand on his shoulder and looked down at him even as his keen eyes gazed up loyally to her. “You’ve done well,” she said again, softly. “I knew I could count on you to have my six. My knife in the shadows.”

“Always, Captain,” he swore quietly. Fervently. “I’m always at your six.”

She gave the back of his neck a gentle squeeze and he dropped his shoulders, allowing it fully. She rested her hand there while they waited for the Stockade Wardens: exerting her authority over him while also giving him her approval. “Tell Shaw everything,” she said quietly. “He can be trusted. Let him finish what you started.”

“By your will, Cap.”

A knock at the door heralded the Stockade Wardens less than five minutes later. “Your Majesty, Stockade Warden Lieutenant Azir!”

“Enter.”

Six Wardens filled the room, rifles out, swords at their hips. They took up position, guns up and pointed at Lars. “Queen Luciana, Warden Lieutenant Azir at your service,” Azir said, saluting her. “We were prepped for another prisoner move but this one takes priority." He saw that it was Lars in the chair, and scowled. He recognized him. "We’ll take the traitor.”

“Lower your weapons,” she said. It took a confused moment, but to a man they obeyed her order, lowering their rifles. “Lieutenant,” she said. “Highguard Abelen has served Stormwind and its Queen loyally for many years. Circumstances demand this procedure, but you will treat him with the respect owed to any veteran of the armed forces. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Azir said, but there was doubt in his eyes. Luciana turned on her heel and lashed out, catching his neck in her hand. He froze, staring at her with wide eyes. “Yes, Your Majesty!” he cried. “Understood!”

“No one is to harm him,” she said softly. Dangerously so. “Only I am allowed to do that. I expect him to be hale and whole when I returned to Stormwind.” She released him, his face pale, and he saluted her shakily. “Go,” she said. “And you, Lars. Behave yourself.” Lars stood and moved to the Wardens, holding his arms out in front of himself so that they could cuff him.

Luciana watched them leave. She was still for only a minute before calling for a courier. She scrawled a note quickly, folded it closed, and sealed it with wax from the captain’s desk. She pressed her royal signet into it, stamping it with the lion’s head of Wrynn.

She handed it to the courier. “To Spymaster Shaw,” she said. “With every ounce of speed in your body. If you must sacrifice discretion, so be it, but be sure this does not fall into any hands but his. This is of utmost importance,” she said. “Do this for me.”

“Yes, Sir,” the army courier said fiercely. “You can count on me.”

Chapter Text

The skies above the Broken Isles roiled. The intrusion of the Legion into their natural domain had them angry and thunderous, and the fel magic of the demonic ships tainted the clouds with a sickly green. Luciana stood at the helm of the deck of her own skyworthy ship, the newly anointed Stormwind Sky Ship Bastion, hands braced on the tall railing.

“We’re nearing the shore of the primary attack,” Khand reported, raising his voice to be heard over the winds. Luciana turned her head slightly to the left, more to acknowledge him than to hear him better. “As you asked, King Anduin has been notified of your movements. I haven’t yet received the reply but it should be forthcoming.”

“You remember what I told you?”

“Yes, Sir.”

She nodded, turning her head to face the isles once more. “Anything else to report?”

“Lars Abelen has been processed properly and is currently held at an unremarked location in Elwynn to await trial by Spymaster Shaw, as you ordered. They expect the… er, legal processes to take about week, ten days at most” Khand said, briefly glancing at the notepad in his hand. “Also, King Greymane has offered his assistance in our operations.”

“Thank him and refuse.”

“Yes, Sir.” She heard, briefly, the scratch of a pencil on paper. “I’ve contacted the Exodar regiment. Freya is still upset but Enaeon says she’s recovering. I’ve also sent your message to the Amadeus Manor. They should be receiving the courier soon. Meanwhile, the courier you sent to Shaw has returned with his reply.”

Luciana half turned and held out her hand. Khand stepped forward and pressed a small folded note into her gauntlet and then stepped back to a respectful distance.

Sir

I received your orders. I question them, but I follow them. You know his mind better
than I do. He’s compliant and willing to go through the full procedure. I’ll move on
his information as I see fit. Are you quite sure you don’t want to tell him? I didn’t
find anything.

Red

Shaw wanted to tell Anduin, because despite Luciana asking him to verify her suspicions, he hadn’t found anything. But he had his orders and Lars would give him the truth of the matter. Hopefully with this, Shaw would be able to find whoever was poisoning Anduin’s mind.

Luciana handed the note to Khand with a brief word to turn it to ash. “Any reply?” Khand asked.

“Tell Shaw that my orders stand. Nothing else to report?”

“No, Sir.”

“See to your men. I believe we’ll be in Legion airspace soon.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Luciana watched in vague interest as flying demons emerged from the hellish landscape to greet them. She heard the first of the shouted orders from her officers, the first order being to bring up the shields. Mages of various races hurried to the edges of the deck, hands raised and sparking with arcane power. All practiced professionals, they had the shields formed in mere moments.

Luciana’s eyes caught the movement of one of the Legion ships surrounding their citadel. The Tomb of Sargeras. Her lips curled into a cruel snarl. She whirled about and screamed her orders. “All shield mages to the deck! Reinforce the front bulwark and prepare for assault! Warriors, paladins - to me!”

Her orders took precedence over all others and people rushed to obey. The shield mages resting in their off period hurried onto the deck, filling the spaces between their on-duty comrades. Armored warriors were the first to her side and wide eyes, excited and ready for battle, watched her eagerly. When enough of the paladins were with her, she gestured outwards, towards the mages reinforcing the shields.

“Pick a mage! Brace them, grab onto the railing, and brace for impact! Move!

She turned to the mage nearest her, a young woman with a shiny Stormwind lion’s head pinned to her robes. Luciana forced herself to slow her movements when she was close, gently putting her arms to each side of the mage before grabbing onto the railing hard enough to dent it.

The magic around her hands was bright enough to hurt Luciana’s eyes, but she merely narrowed them against it. She leaned forward until the mage was braced against her wide, armored chest. In response, the mage faltered and looked up at Luciana, noticing that the Queen herself was with her. Two wide hazel eyes stared at Luciana, wonder and surprise in equal measure. “Get ready,” she warned the mage. “They’re going to hit us hard.” That snapped the mage out of her stupor and she grit her teeth as she poured even more magic from her hands into the shield. Luciana grimaced at the brightness of it, but held on tight.

The Legion ship was pointed at them now, and a horrible green fire was gathered between the two prongs at its front. Luciana turned her head and shouted over her shoulders. “Brace!”

A moment later, the fel flame bolt was hurled at their ship, and it collided with the arcane shield with enough force to push their skyship backwards and throw it entirely off balance. The impact rattled Luciana’s teeth in her skull and the mage’s weight was thrown against her, but she held onto the railing and kept them both standing well enough that the mage was able to keep channeling into the shield even as her arms began to shake from the strain.

Luciana heard cries of pain from behind her, orders for healers and defensive fire and hard on starboard to balance out the skyship that hung crooked in the air. Mages from the rear of the ship hurried to replace their exhausted comrades at the front, ones that had spent themselves against the Legion’s fel fire.

Luciana gently gathered the mage in her arms, inviting her wordlessly to lean against the warrior at her back, and pulled her away from the railing as a high elf arrived to replace her. Without a word, he took on the trailing threads of the arcane shield and wove his magic into it, bringing it back up to par.

Luciana let her mage down onto the deck, kneeling beside her protectively. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the mage panted. “I’m alright. Just need a break.”

“Good. You did well,” Luciana praised. “I’ll bring you down to the hold where you can rest for a moment.”

“Thank you.”

Luciana saw her to the doors of the hold, where a grizzled human paladin took the mage off Luciana. She hurried back up to the deck just in time to see a massive arcane bomb hurtling at the Legion ship. It exploded the moment it hit, dissolving their shields and eating away at the hull of their ship. The furious arcane energy crackled and burned. Luciana watched as it exposed the innards of the ship and cracked its armour, even reaching the engines and damaging them enough that the fel energy emanating from the ship’s core began to flicker. It leaned to the left, hanging awkwardly in the sky before keeling over and falling unceremoniously into the ocean below.

“Nice hit,” Luciana said, approaching the mage that had thrown the bolt at the Legion ship.

“Thanks, Your Majesty,” Afnan Siegebreaker responded, grinning ear to ear. “It’s a new technique I’m trying. Instead of packing it all into a neat little ball I layer a few folds over each other and then pump in as much unformed and wild arcane energy as I can. I call it arcane fury.”

“Very apropos,” Luciana said with a crooked smile. It fell when Khand approached.

“We’re above the primary attack point,” he said, eyes hard. “Wrynnfall is in sight.”

“Prepare the gryphons.”

“Yes, Sir. I had our stable master bring in Bluebeak for you.”

She only nodded in response. Her grand gryphon was ready in the belly of the ship, and she had a mission. No one dared to stand in her path, skittering out of her way or ducking away from her. A hunter pressed themself to the wall to make room for her to pass unhindered.

She heard Bluebeak before she saw him. He let out an indignant shriek when a stablehand tried to adjust the boot cinches. The gryphon spotted Luciana approaching and flared his powerful wings out, raising his head proudly.

“Hello,” Luciana greeted softly, bringing a hand up to gently rub under his eye. Gryphon purrs rattled loudly in the throat, and Luciana smiled when she heard it from him. “Good boy. Ready to fly?”

Bluebeak lowered his wings and shook his head, allowing the stablehand to quickly finish her work. “Your Majesty,” she said, bowing and stepping back.

Luciana hooked her sabaton into the boot cinch and swung ler leg over Bluebeak’s back, easily settling into the saddle and pressing her other sabaton into its cinch until it snapped shut. It would open when she pulled her boot out, or if she were to fall from her gryphon the weight would open it - but until then she could fly while knowing a simple maneuver wouldn’t dismount her.

“Gryphon riders, ready!” the wing commander cried. “We fly for Varian Wrynn! We fly with the Queen! Stormwind gryphon riders, away!”

The wing commander and their gryphon were the first ones to jump through the open gates at the belly of the ship. Wing one followed immediately, and then wing two, and then Luciana leaned forward and Bluebeak sprung forward, eager to join them in the skies. Wings three, four, and five followed behind.

The sky battle had already started as winged demons and felbats came forward with furious cries to defend their masters. Luciana screamed in rage as she urged Bluebeak towards an airborne demon and Bluebeak shrieked with her, throwing himself at the demon. He hooked his front talons into demon flesh and used his leonine rear paws to claw at his foe. He gutted the demon even as Luciana struck out with Oathkeeper, slicing halfway through its neck. Bluebeak kicked himself off the demon, maneuvering himself in the air in a complex twirl to point his beak downward. He swooped up, wings outstretched, and picked up speed even as Luciana leaned forward to ask for it.

She saw a gryphon fall from the sky missing a wing, its rider trying to pull their foot from a boot cinch burning with green fire. Grimacing, she turned away. There wasn’t much she could do for them short of potentially sacrificing her own gryphon to try and save the rider.

Bluebeak targeted a felbat next, slamming into it beak-first and tearing into it, wings battering at its emaciated body. It screamed and clawed at Bluebeak’s armor and Luciana once again used Oathkeeper to strike at her foe. Bluebeak’s claws kept it within range, and it died with enchanted metal buried in its eye socket.

Luciana let Bluebeak control their path. He knew better than she how to fly, and when he hooked his talons into an enemy she struck with Oathkeeper. In this way they fought through a sky thick with demons and screaming gryphons, their path leading inland - to Wrynnfall.

The area was heavily contested as demon reinforcements continuously poured forth from portals raised around the Tomb of Sargeras. Alliance fighters welcomed the gryphon wings and the destructive power of a fully manned skyship with cries of victory and swords and maces falling upon grounded demons with a vengeance. From the deck of the skyship, Afnan Siegebreaker and her cohorts rained pure arcane fury onto sky- and ground-borne demons alike.

A silver shaft sprouted from the felbat that had tried to take Bluebeard by the left wing and it fell from the sky. Luciana raised Oathkeeper to salute the hippogryph rider that had taken it out. She raised her bow in response before leaning away, her war hippogryph obediently veering away.

Bluebeak dropped suddenly, avoiding a doomguard. Luciana responded to the first hint of the movement, lashing upwards with Oathkeeper and cutting deeply into the demon’s flesh. She didn’t see where she’d wounded it, but she did feel the spatter of fel blood onto her armor and hear the agonized screech, and she bared her teeth in a grin.

The sickly green blood slid from her armor harmlessly, the metal of her arm guards more powerful that the doomguard’s felblood. Luciana laughed breathlessly when Bluebeak found his next target, a barrel-chest felbat that already had the red blood of another combatant on its fel-pocked skin. Her grand gryphon gave a battle cry and she matched it, raising Oathkeeper as Bluebeak dived to the felbat with wild abandon. His talons caught its flesh, one scrabbling for purchase on its rocky hide, leonine paws already kicking at its concave gut.

“Fuck you!” Luciana roared, hacking off the arm the felbat tried to strike her with. “Azeroth will never be yours!”

Bluebeak tore his talons into the felbat, cutting something vital - it fell limp and without Bluebeak’s support it plummeted from the sky.

The wing commander fought up to Luciana’s left, yelling to be heard over the cutting winds and the din of battle. “We’ve cleared the skies for landing! Wrynnfall is ours!”

“Keep it clear!” Luciana shouted back. “Send for the ground regiments!”

“Sir!”

“Let’s get down there,” Luciana murmured to herself, leaning down and using the boot cinches to help direct Bluebeak. He didn’t want to stop fighting yet, but she was his rider, and he angled his wings and tucked in his front talons and dived down away from the fray.

The ground came up quickly and Bluebeak flared his wings, swinging his back paws out to catch his weight. He transitioned smoothly to four legs on the ground, breaking out into a run even before he had his wings fully tucked down to Luciana’s sides. The feather whispered against her armour, the wings themselves hiding her almost completely. The grand gryphon’s massive wings could bear great weight, but on the ground they could prove indelicate.

“Queen Luciana!” A knight cried, raising their bloody sword victoriously. “Welcome to hell!”

“Knight-Champion Kharmeer,” Luciana greeted as Bluebeak came to a halt. The soldiers quickly surrounded her, forming a protective barrier around their queen and Commander in Chief. “You know why I’m here?”

“Yes, Sir,” they said, their shoulders falling slightly. “I can bring you to the site. It’s still not secured, though.”

“Not a problem,” Luciana replied, reaching into the small pack strapped to her right thigh. She pulled out a delicate runestone. Reaching out, she activated it and dropped it onto the ground. It rapidly formed a portal, magic spiraling outward to reveal the shimmering image of the inside of the Bastion. Leodre was the first one through, an icy barrier springing up around him. He moved aside and Khand came through the portal followed by his soldiers, and the rest of the Queen’s Guard followed. Naemete was the last one through, kitted fully in warcaster’s regalia.

“Queen’s Guard, reporting!” Khand said, saluting Luciana stiffly. “Ready for combat.”

“We take Wrynnfall,” Luciana said simply. “Move out.”

She stayed atop Bluebeak. He wasn’t a Westbrook Warrior - in fact, he was more dangerous. He was larger and stronger, and could take to the skies or use his talons and his beak to rend foes apart while beating his powerful wings to keep others at bay. He grumbled at being forced to walk instead of fly, but he was trained well and obeyed Luciana’s gentle directions.

They encountered resistance almost immediately, and Luciana was the first to roar a challenge. Felhunters were the first ones through and their mages moved away, preserving their magic while the warriors hacked away at the dog-like monstrosities. When felguards advanced, the mages raised their hands or their staves and sent out ice, fire, and arcane to destroy them and make way for the queen.

Bluebeak screeched when an eredar blinked past the guards, rearing up and tearing down with his talons before he could finish his spell. Long and bloody furrows cut lines that were several inches deep into his red flesh and he fell twitching to the barren dirt below.

“Press onward!” Luciana ordered, raising Oathkeeper to rally her fighters.

The fighting continued, and no other eredar was able to get past her soldiers as the mages on her side made sure to keep them distracted or dead. Bluebeak snapped out with his beak several times, catching an overeager demon by the neck or disfiguring their fel-wracked faces.

They came to the plateau of Wrynnfall, standing alone before the great fel citadel. The Bastion had already loosed a few volleys of fire bombs to the area, burning demons and much of the remaining sparse vegetation. It also served to neutralize much of the fel fire in the area with its polar opposite, arcane fire.

Luciana’s group took the plateau with fervor, but none strayed close to the center where a pool of green liquid laid in an irregular pattern. Luciana paid it no heed, not letting it distract her as she urged Bluebeak towards a massive elite felguard. WIth a tug at the reins and the press of her heels into his side he leaped up, shrieking his battle cry and clawing into the felguard’s chest. His talons dug into its flesh even as it thundered something in Eredun, the words sending a crawl of disgust and horror down Luciana’s skin. She howled and struck with Oathkeeper as Bluebeak used his rear paws to try and gut the demon.

It swept Bluebeak off its chest and tried to cut him down with its battleaxe, but Bluebeak was fast and leaped out of the way. He slipped behind the demon and leaped onto its back, using his sharp talons to climb up to the demon’s shoulders. He used his beak to tear at the armor covering its neck. Only Bluebeak’s talons dug into the felguard’s flesh kept him and his rider from being thrown off as the felguard struggled to grab the gryphon.

Luciana saw a sliver of flesh between two ripped armor pieces and stabbed Oathkeeper into the opening. The felguard gurgled something like words and wobbled, and Bluebeak tore his talons out of its flesh and pushed away. He used his wings to balance in the air and land on his paws, wheeling around with his wings out to intimidate. But the demon was already falling, almost dead on its feet.

Bluebeak leaped over its body and Luciana moved easily with him. They rejoined her soldiers even as they fought the last of the demonic defenders away from Wrynnfall’s plateau. “Wrynnfall is ours!” Knight-Champion Kharmeer cried, raising shield and sword to cheer. “For Varian Wrynn! For the Queen! For the Alliance!”

“For the Alliance!” many of the soldiers echoed.

Luciana dismounted finally, pulling her boots from the cinches and leaving Bluebeak free to rear up and screech victoriously, buffeting with his wings and jabbing his bloodied beak into the air. Fel blood dripped from it and Luciana wiped some of its away from his face with her gauntlet. He chittered curiously at her, poking at her helm with his beak. It clanged, making her flinch away and laugh breathlessly.

“Good boy,” she praised. He crowed a greeting when three war gryphons and a hippogryph landed on the plateau nearby, their riders bloody but whole.

“Guard Captain Khand reports a full success on the offensive front,” the lead gryphon rider reported. “The Bastion sustained minor damage on the front bulwark and is already undergoing repairs. Fourteen deaths counted so far and more wounded, but the healers are hard at work.”

Luciana nodded to the rider. Her gaze snapped to the left at a glimmer of magic, and Leodre materialized a second later. He brought with him four armored Highguards, of her own Queen’s Guard, as well as Lokaal and two Priestesses of Elune. The two kaldorei immediately found people to heal, as injuries were common in battle against demons. Lokaal came to her first, but finding no injuries, he set to the Knight-Champion instead.

“Your Majesty,” Leodre greeted. “Your forces are hard fighters.”

“Stormwind breeds the best,” she replied, turning to Kharmeer. “Are you injured badly?”

“Just a few bumps and bruises,” they replied.

“Broken nose, two broken ribs, a cracked femur and hip socket,” Lokaal added in his typical tone. “And a concussion.”

“I’m fine,” Kharmeer said firmly. “Majesty, my soldiers and I stand ready to bring you in.”

“Take care of the bones first,” she said. “And get some water.”

“I am already doing so,” Lokaal replied, holding up a water skin with one hand while the other worked Holy magic into Kharmeer’s left hip.

Luciana gave them a few minutes rest, leaning against Bluebeak’s side. When she straightened, the rest of the group followed suit. Leodre strengthened his icy barrier, Kharmeer gathered their soldiers about them, and the Highguards took to Luciana’s side in formation.

Luciana wanted to say something - let’s find his remains, perhaps, or let’s bring home what left of him. But she couldn’t summon the will to speak. She couldn’t see a body in plain sight and it worried her. Khand had suggested having an undertaker retrieve the remains on her behalf, but she wanted to do it herself. It was more appropriate, she felt. Warriors tended to their own fallen after a battle. They carried the bodies of their comrades on their own shoulders, replaced broken swords with those of the dead and took on the mantles left behind. She would do the same service for Varian.

My father.

She clenched her jaws, feeling her temples jump underneath her helm. “Let’s go,” she said quietly. Bluebeak chittered a question and followed behind her. War gryphons were trained to stick to their riders like glue when on the ground, always prepared to take to the skies - to safety - in a moment’s notice. In this case it was doubly important, as losing the Queen on the same ground that they’d lost their Highlord would make it seem cursed. It would destroy any moral their soldiers had on the Broken Isles. It was foolhardy of her to be here, but she had to do this. She had to.

The oddly shaped pool of fel liquid she’d seen before was in the core of a distinct emptiness. It occupied the center of the plateau, but it was the air of oppressive quiet that made the hair on the back of her hair raise. Something horrific had happened here and the air itself was trying to pull away from its memory.

Luciana slowed, her people fanning out to surround her and protect her rear. There was a skull, some detritus she identified as rib bones, and a boot within the fel liquid. A cracked bone stuck out of the boot. She knelt before it, reaching out with a hand that did not shake to pull the boot from the green mud. It sucked at it, trying to keep it within its grasp, but she hardly noticed the resistance.

Some flesh remained within the boot. “Oh, Light,” Kharmeer said softly.

“What happened to him?” Leodre murmured. He sounded ill.

Luciana’s hand clenched around the boot. It dented the metal shell with a creak and she snarled lowly. The sound of a cracking mountain came from her throat and her vision unfocused. The green glow of the fel pool dimmed in the face of her fury.

“Queen Luciana?” Leodre asked hesitantly. “Are… are you alright?” Are you still in there? he wanted to ask. It was obvious that something else was within her now. Her spirit raged and her fury dimmed everything around her, but it was what accompanied it that put a chill in the air and made her own soldiers back away. Even the powerul predator Bluebeak growled nervously, fluffing his wings and side-stepping away from her.

“My Queen?” Kharmeer tried. She hardly heard them. Varian’s skull stared up at her. What are you going to do? It asked.

I will hunt them like vermin,” she replied, her voice echoed by something else, something powerful and old. “My claws will curse ten thousand demons for each second of agony you have suffered.

She reached out and tore a single lion’s head stud from the side of the boot. Gripping it in her left hand, she stood with one smooth movement. The boot, still containing Varian’s foot and a cracked tibia, fell to the ground. When she stepped away from the fel puddles, Kharmeer lunged forward to grab the boot as one of the only remaining pieces of Varian Wrynn, once High King of the Alliance, once respected King of Stormwind, the Highlord of his kingdom and father to its king.

Leodre was the first to follow her. The respite from battle had been brief, and more demons were already congregating for an attack. Ten thousand for each second. She’d be here a while.

The battle restarted with the furious howl of the wolf Ancient. Though none of these demons had ever encountered him face to face, the fel in their veins remembered him. They cowered from the onslaught of the Ghost Wolf’s chosen even as she smashed her fist into the first demon she encountered, bloodying the lion’s head pin.

She howled again, sending tremors of ancient power through the air and earth. Her soldiers did not give battle cries - they only followed her howls into battle, an odd air of steeled determination about them. They didn’t know what was going on, why she had changed or what she’d changed into, but she was their Queen and their champion and they followed her willingly into hell.

A felhunter dared to snap its jaws at her and she used both hands to tear its jaws so far open that its maw extended to its ribcage. The pin stayed within her grasp, somehow, and she slammed her fist into the next felguard hard enough to send it sailing back. Where it landed, it stayed.

A bolt of frost stabbed into the right arm of the doomguard before her and she cut into its flesh, her hand tearing it open like the claws of a wolf though Oathkeeper stayed sheathed at her hip.

The skies above her howled, a response to the ones she’d already loosed from a throat she wasn’t sure belonged to her anymore. They crackled with lightning, driven to fight from the same force that empowered her, and through her the soldiers that fought with him. Fel energy was purged from the clouds and thunder rolled through them, singing a dirge for the Highlord.

You will suffer!” The words boomed from Luciana’s throat. “You will each suffer a thousand deaths!

“Another wolf comes to play!” The voice of Fel Lord, too smooth, too pleasant, echoed from behind the line of demons that fell to Luciana’s claws. She faced the demon that had spoken even as it laughed, a horrible sound that seemed to numb the sounds around it. She snarled and the skies thundered in agreement. “One wolf falls, and you send another to join it.”

You will pay testament to his strength on the Last Day,” she growled.

“I will attest to his begging for mercy, kneeling at the hands of Gul’dan,” the Fel Lord said with a slow grin. “I, Lord Kesheg, forced him to his knees myself. And what shall you do? You shall fall to your knees in the same place. You shall curse this ground with your blood and your Alliance shall fall upon it.”

Luciana screamed in rage, finally drawing Oathkeeper. It sang from the sheath and she struck out with it faster than Kesheg could respond, slicing open his abdomen and opening a hole in the muscle. Green, fetid guts fell out in ribbons. He paid it no heed, stepping around the offal that swung from his own flesh to sent his massive greataxe crashing into the ground where Luciana has stood a second before. She slashed open his thigh as she went, ignoring the hum of magic around her. Likely one of her mages had summoned a barrier around her.

The magic crackled even as she used her left hand to tear at Kesheg’s back, barely missing removing a section of his spine as he turned. He swung his axe in a slow, wide arc as he went, and she ducked beneath it, retreating a step to make room for the arc of her own blade.

The magic around her slowed her movements as it pulled at her. A teleportation spell. She opened her mouth to scream in rage and frustration - how dare you take me from the battlefield! - and it echoed oddly in her ears as the magic began to pull her through the Nether. She pulled at the rage underneath her own, Goldrinn’s fury surging through her and strengthening her anew. She fought against the magic, pulling away from the hole sucking her into the path woven through the Nether.

Her arm was still outstretched in the middle of her attack on the weak point above his hip armor. Kesheg had taken advantage of her slowed movements, bringing his axe in a cruel downward swing. Before she could use Goldrinn’s power to move away, the axe hit the magical field around her. The arcane warped around the fel energy in his axe and whistled like a kettle as the fel burned through it. Heat waves rose from where the axe met the portal magic, and then the axe hit Luciana’s shoulder. She managed to pull to the left just enough to avoid losing half her torso, but the weight of the axe and the strength behind the swing cut through her arm.

The force of Kesheg’s fel weapon hitting her armor released the energy of the trillium and ghost iron, and the magical portal snapped shut around her. It gave her just enough time to see her own arm, severed from her body, rattling like a child’s toy. Oathkeeper shattered, the hilt still in her hand.

The battlefield in Wrynnfall came to a halt as the last of the demons fell, leaving only Fel Lord Kesheg standing. Bluebeak came to his rider’s defense, too late, but the fury of the grand gryphon brought the demon to a knee where a soldier could reach his throat. It took him and two Highguards to cut through the demon’s unnaturally hard flesh, but he fell to the ground dead with Bluebeak vengefully tearing chunks off his body.

Leodre stood stock still with his hands outstretched, magic fading from them. Khand stared at the space Luciana had occupied a moment before. Bluebeak, satisfied, stepped off the demon. Wrynnfall was silent.

“Oh, Light,” Leodre whispered.

Khand turned on him, grabbing his neck. “Where is she?!” he screamed, shaking Leodre by the neck. “Where did you send her?!

“I don’t know!” Leodre choked. “The portal - it changed! Something - interfered,” he croaked.

“Release him!” Lokaal ordered, the powerful draenei easily pulling Khand away from the mage. Khand struggled, no longer able to speak from his frantic worry. “Leodre. What happened to the portal?”

“I was aiming… for the Exodar,” he said hoarsely, hands protecting his neck as he warily eyed Khand. “She pulled away from it. It changed. I think… the Ancient that blessed her. Must have interfered. She was too powerful for me… to contain.” He coughed raggedly, rubbing his neck gingerly. Lokaal sent a wave of Light into it with a gesture, healing most of the damage and easing the pain. “Thank you,” Leodre sighed. “I don’t know where she is. I… I was aiming for the Exodar.”

“You’ve damned her,” Khand snarled. “You’d better find her, mage,” he spat. “Or I’ll see you dead and Unforgiven. How can we be sure you're telling the truth?" he demanded. "You could be lying! You could have sent her anywhere! You could be a traitor!"

A Highguard gasped, and a murmur started. Leodre’s face drained of blood. “No,” he said weakly. "I'm not! I'm telling the truth!"

“You were the one who tried to teleport her in the middle of a demon-infested battleground!” Khand snarled. “You knew she was pulling on foreign magics and you knew the fel would interfere with your arcane and you still did it!

“Enough,” Lokaal said firmly. “Highguard, see to him.” He pushed Khand easily towards the Highguards still standing and they took him in hand, unsure of what to do with their own fuming Captain of the Guard. “Leodre. Can you trace the portal’s path through the Nether?”

“I… Might be able to,” he said slowly. “I can use her arm to-”

“Like hell you will,” Khand spat.

“... To trace my own magic,” Leodre finished quietly. “But I’ll need help.”

“You will have it,” Lokaal said firmly. “Return to the Exodar, now, and inform the Prophet of what has happened. He will send message to those who must know and see that you have the help you will be needing. Tell him what has happened - that Luciana called upon her Ancient patron when you opened the portal around her, and that the Fel Lord interfered further with his foul, cursed weapon. Take the arm with you, if you will be needing it. Her blade will be seen to Stormwind, as will the remains of their Highlord.” He looked over at the fel pool. “What little there is.”

Chapter Text

Lars was silent for the moment, watching Anduin closely. His arms and legs were bound to his chair, which was bolted to the stone floor and anchored with metal rivets. He didn’t bother trying to escape.

“Is it truly his loyalty to Luciana that is in question?” Wrathion murmured. He wore his illusory disguise, and Anduin had to remind himself again that it was him.

“He betrayed her trust,” Anduin replied. “Betrayed the power given him in the position of Queen’s Guard. His actions could have ended in her death.”

“Do you truly think his loyalty is so shallow that he would take the initiative to put himself in such danger, knowing it would only end in execution for treason?”

“Perhaps his plan failed.”

Wrathion scoffed and crossed his arms. “You know the truth, Anduin, yet you refuse to believe that his man could be loyal to the woman he’s been following for… how many years?”

“Nine,” Lars replied. “And six months.”

“Nine years,” Wrathion said, looking at Anduin with his brows raised.

“And six months,” Lars added.

“Yes, we heard,” Wrathion snapped. “Anduin. You know that his loyalty is not in question. His information must be accurate. Why do you only now doubt his loyalty? Who is it that you truly doubt?”

Anduin could only shake his head slowly. He was sure that, given time and blessed silence, he could figure out what to do with Luciana’s traitor. But his head was buzzing and he could feel Wrathion and Lars staring at him, and it burned him to be so slow. He could only think of Luciana, and the remains of his father sitting in a box on his desk. His father.

Emotion welled up in his throat and he turned away from Wrathion. He wanted to leave this room, leave the Stockades, go to his father’s room and see him sitting at his desk signing off on a report. He wanted to go to the rooms he shared with Lucy and see her lounging on the couch, the twins hanging off her, Shauna spread out in the sunlight that shone through the window.

But his father’s remains - some ribs, his skull, tiny fragments of armor and a boot with the foot still inside, the cracked tibia sticking out at an odd angle, and Light it smelled like cinders and rot - waited for last rites, and Luciana…

Luciana was gone. Sent through a portal that had been rent by fel and warped by the strange power she was reported to have summoned to fight the demons at Wrynnfall. He knew it was Goldrinn. But that knowledge couldn’t help them find her. In the meantime, he had the shattered pieces of her sword wrapped in purple silk next to Shalamayne and the box with his father’s remains, lying unused next to the Crown of Stormwind he refused to wear.

Her arm had remained in the Exodar, where they could both preserve it for reattachment and use the magic lingering in it to hopefully trace her whereabouts.

Reattachment. Anduin chuckled, smiling too widely. They had to find her first.

“Anduin?” Wrathion murmured. He could tell that Anduin was out of sorts. He’d gotten some bad news, but this strange behaviour coupled with the minute traces of foreign magic made Wrathion cautious.

“My thoughts are clouded,” Anduin murmured. “I need to meditate. I have too many other things to think on to decide to what to do with a single traitor. He’s in our prisons, already. We can leave him here and focus on other things.”

“Who is we?” Wrathion asked.

“I can’t deal with this right now. I have more important things to focus on.”

“Anduin, you’re speaking in riddles. Unbend your tongue, please.”

Anduin shook his head, a little too hard. It made him dizzy. “I need to meditate,” he muttered, eyes narrowed. He eyed Wrathion warily - was he using some kind of sapping spell to make Anduin tired? He was so tired, all of a sudden.

He looked down at his hand. He didn’t remember moving to the door, nor could he recall grabbing the handle.

The leather cuff was in sight beneath his sleeve. He turned his hand over to reveal the fragment of shell he’d carved into.

LAW

He brushed his fingertips over the cuff, briefly feeling a flicker of Light laden with emotion and memory. His head pounded behind his eyes, a horrible migraine forming within moments as something resisted the effect of the spell he’d woven into the seashell.

“I need to go,” Anduin murmured, stumbling from the room.

“He doesn’t look very good,” Lars said.

“I’ll take care of this,” Wrathion told him curtly. “I’ll tell Shaw that Anduin came to the decision to leave this matter to one of his advisors. I know one that can be trusted. You, stay here. If a Reclaimer tries to get to you they’ll have to get through the Spymaster himself.”

“What about that one asshole they’ve got locked up in a fancy apartment?”

“Fattening himself like a pig for slaughter, last I heard. He’s not going to risk his hide trying to find you.”

Lars shrugged and wiggled his fingers. “Can you untie me first?”

“I can’t hear you,” Wrathion said, closing the door behind him.

Lars sighed, and leaned his head against the back of the chair. “Cap,” he whined. “Can you come get me?”

In the center of the Trade District, a single herald stood next to the Hero’s Call Board. The Highlord is dead, he announced. The Queen is pronounced missing, presumed dead, and they would search until they found her or her remains.

In the Cathedral, the bell tolled fourteen times. Seven for Varian, seven for Luciana.

On the bed he shared with Luciana, Anduin laid in the dark, alone and malcontent. Something was watching him, but he couldn’t tell what it was.

Chapter Text

The Temple of the Jade Serpent was a peaceful place. It lay i the midst of the Jade Forest, where the wind blew through great bamboo forest and tigers lazed in the sun after their meal.

Initiate Ruan Zhu raised his nose to sniff idly at the breeze. It carried upon it the scent of fresh brew, made with honey and apple, perfectly sweet for the midday rest. He sighed happily, and then returned to the task at hand - sweeping the pavement. He was almost done! When he looked back over the entirety of his work he knew that he would be quite satisfied.

The wind grew fierce and blew some of the dust he’d cleared back onto the pavement. He allowed himself to be irritated for a moment before resolving to finish that, too, before midday rest. The wind whined through the bamboo shoots at the gates, singing a haunting melody that raised the fur on Ruan Zhu’s back and shoulders.

He shook himself out. About to ignore the odd feeling the wind gave him, he was surprised to see some of the Jade Serpent’s own disciples rushing forth from the temple in battle regalia. As one of the more advanced initiates, he set his broom against the stone wall and sprinted to catch up to them.

“Get back behind the walls!” Disciple Shi Xhou snapped at him.

“I can help!” Ruan Zhu insisted. “I may not yet be a Disciple, but I can help the wounded!”

“Very well. Stay behind us.”

The wind howled as they entered the dense bamboo forests. It was strong enough, now, to snap taller bamboo shoots and send them crashing into their neighbours. Past the bamboo forests, into the wooded areas, the trees shook violently. The skies greyed, gathering storms and rolling with thunder.

“What is going on?” Ruan Zhu asked.

“We don’t know,” Shi Xhou replied as the group slowed. “A monk alerted us to sha presence she sensed from this area. We are here to investigate.”

“I hope it’s not serious,” Ruan Zhu murmured.

A scream tore through the air, whipping the wind into a frenzy. It forced the temple monks to buckle down against the earth and cover their eyes. The ground shook below them, beating out a rhythm much like a heartbeat. An eerie howl loud enough to hurt their ears echoed through the trees.

“There!” a Disciple shouted. Ruan Zhu followed the line of his arm, and rushed forward, fighting against the furious wind and struggling over the rumbling earth.

He broke through the tree cover at a run, but stumbled to a halt at the sight before him. A seething mass of black and white energy - the sha! - roiled in a pile before him, expanding with every passing second. Pieces of it leaped into the air, snapping at it with the jaws of a rabid beast. The writhing sha howled again, furiously, and began to grow upwards into a true manifestation.

“Behind us!” Shi Xhou ordered. Ruan Zhu stepped back, taking cover behind a tree.

A secondary mass of sha was already forming, feeding off the first one. It formed a face, one that opened its rancid maw and laughed. The Disciples fanned out, ready to fight both sha manifestations with their own Chi already forming outside their bodies.

Ruan Zhu started violently when the first mass of sha lunged at the second, five distinct heads forming in the instant it took to make contact. Their jaws clamped onto various parts of the second sha, tearing off pieces that faded away the moment they were disconnected from the main body.

“Hold!” Shi Xhou ordered.

The first sha grew in height, a great beast’s head forming at the top. It looked vaguely like a tiger, with two glowing red eyes and two pointed ears and a mouth full of jagged, dagger-like teeth. The spines descending from its skull were certainly not feline.

This large head lunged at the second sha. It seemed to be trying to consume its foe, taking pieces and swallowing them whole even as they disintegrated. But this combat only fed the sha the beast was trying to destroy, and the battle grew in minutes as the wind raged and lightning burned the air.

Ruan Zhu looked on in awe. These two combatants, whether they were sha or something else that had only fallen into its trap, were godlike in stature. Taller, surely, than Black Ox himself, more fierce in battle than the White Tiger. The trees around them fell to the ground, broken and dead, as they raged on. They fed off each other, the sha growing and the writhing mess of beast-heads only becoming more frenzied in their feeding.

A gentle green glow took over the ever-widening clearing as the temple monks looked on helplessly. The Jade Serpent descended from the air, winding around the beast-headed mass like a constrictor snake. Her coils tightened around it and she secured her jaws around the mouth of the beast’s main head. It struggled viciously against her, even forming two new heads to bite at her neck. She allowed them to phase through her harmlessly, momentarily releasing her hold on the main head.

She again clamped her own powerful jaws around its head, this time keeping hold while allowing her serene presence to calm it. The wind was first to ease from its fury, the twisters forming in its clouds falling away to nothing. Then, the ground ceased to shake beneath the onslaught of the beast.

The sha, without anything to feed on, melted away like a fog before noonday sun. The Disciples eased from their battle-crouches, and Ruan Zhu emerged from behind their protection to gaze on in wonder.

The writhing, furious beasts eased their struggle last. As their form shrunk, Yu’lon eased herself from their form, allowing them to fall harmlessly to the ground. She released the head even as it disintegrated.

The black shadows fled from the form of the beast as its last small head fell away to nothingness. Yu’lon’s coils lay in a neat pile, hiding something as she lowered her head to inspect it.

Satisfied, she took to the air, hovering over the prone form of a single being. Black scales covered it - no, it was armor. A warrior lay on the ground, hopefully not dead. RUan Zhu was the first to break formation, hurrying forward with the medical pack he held always tied to his belt.

“Initiate!” a Disciple cried after him, but he ignored it. Blood was running a river from the severed limb of this stranger, which meant that they yet lived, and he could save them if he moved quickly.

He pried off the shoulder piece of the warrior. Its dark skin held no fur, but he ignored it. He was more concerned with the bleeding.

Summoning forth his own Chi, he pressed a paw to the back of its shoulder to begin the slow process of healing. With his other, he expertly unwound clean bandages and prepared a simple wound packing.

He finished his work quickly. The green glow of Yu’lon’s Chi descended upon him and the unconscious warrior.

“She is wounded in a way that you cannot heal, young one,” the Jade Serpent said to him. “It will take time and gentle perseverance, and understanding that none yet hold in Pandaria. I will give you the ability to understand her, until the day comes when she can understand you.”

Her Chi overcame Ruan Zhu for a moment, light as a feather and gentler than mist.

“She will need you in the days to come,” Yu’lon said. “Go with her, and take from your journey what you will.”

Ruan Zhu gazed up as the Jade Serpent flew away on winds made gentle by her presence. Then, he looked to Shi Xhou.

“We must get this warrior to the Temple,” he said. “Her wound needs more than I can provide.”

Chapter Text

It was quiet, when she woke. Her eyes did not want to open, and she let them stay closed while she roused herself. It was a slow process. She allowed it to be slow, enjoying the sound of rustling leaves through her window, the feeling of blessedly cool air on her skin. Sighing quietly, she turned her head slightly and yawned. It bared her teeth and stretched her jaw, tingling as it pulled at her scars. Idly, she reached over to touch Anduin.

The bed fell short and her hand met empty space. Her eyes flew open and she sat up. Thrown completely off-balance, she fell back to the bed in an undignified heap, trying to roll herself over and push herself up with both hands. Her left arm cooperated - her right did not.

She looked over at her shoulder. It ended abruptly, maybe two inches beyond the joint. Just enough of her arm remained that she could see movement when she flexed her shoulder.

Cold dread swept through her. My arm, she thought numbly. She tried to flex her right hand, feel the fingers move. Nothing. She sat up straight, even this simple task a struggle without her right arm to balance her weight. Using her left hand, Luciana gingerly touched her right shoulder, shaking fingers traveling down to the puckered, tight skin that was newly grown over where her arm had been cut from her body. She waved her left hand in the arm below it, trying to somehow sense what was not there. It wasn’t a cruel, illusory prank. She’d lost her arm.

Oathkeeper had shattered. She recalled her disembodied right arm rattling through the air with the misplaced force of the fel axe cleaving through arcane energy.

She looked down. Her armour was gone, replaced with a woven tunic and loose, dark pants of the same cloth. Her eyes swept the room, seeing her armor - less its right arm - on a stand in the corner. Her under-armor and empty sheath sat on the table next to it. The room itself was furnished sparsely, a chair being the only other piece of furniture.

The window was wide, the wooden panes thrown open to reveal an idyllic green forest beyond. The trees were familiar to Luciana. She stood with some difficulty, her body weak and worn out from the trauma of losing a limb and then being healed for its absence.

She walked stiffly to the window and looked out. Pandaren milled about the stone courtyard below, doing their daily duties. She recognized this place. How had she ended up in the Temple of the Jade Serpent?

The door opened, and she whirled around ready to defend herself. Her shoulder ached fiercely even as she tried to use an arm that was no longer there. Its absence again threw her off balance and she stumbled into the wall, bracing herself against it. Wild-eyed, she snarled at the pandaren who’d opened the door.

She shrieked and dropped the platter of food and hot tea, fleeing with the door still open. A shout came from down the hall and a moment later, a tall, wide pandaren male dressed as a Disciple of Yu’lon stood in the doorway. His hands were out in a placating gesture, but they also provided a defensive measure.

“Out!” Luciana roared, pushing off from the wall to stalk forward. “Out!

The monk backed away, too calm in the face of Luciana’s panicked fury. “Step back, please, Shi Zhou!” She heard hurried steps accompanying this new voice. Its owner, another male pandaren, this one an initiate by his robes, gently pushed Shi Zhou from the doorway. “You are exciting her too much! She must rest, not feel forced to defend herself!”

Shi Zhou replied in their native tongue, a harsh tone belying his unease.

“I understand,” the initiate soothed. “I will speak with her, and calm her. Please send for more tea.”

The initiate sighed as Shi Zhou left, taking with him a few curious onlookers. He looked at Luciana, still braced for combat, and he bowed at the waist. “Out,” she said, her voice a low growl.

“I understand that you wish for privacy,” the initiate said. “Please bear with me for a moment, and then you will have it.”

She eased out of her crouch, her heart thundering in her aching ribcage. It must have been bruised in the fall. She remembered, in a flash of pain in her head, falling from the sky and hitting the ground, Goldrinn’s fury spilling out into the world through her, and then… calming green, the wind singing to her, and her arm bleeding out into the grass.

“I am Ruan Zhu, initiate of the Jade Serpent,” he introduced. “The Serpent herself has asked me to care for you while you heal, and accompany you on your travels.”

“Travels?” Luciana asked, her voice scratchy. Her throat was dry.

“Yes. I do not know what you have planned, but I am eager to start!” he said with a toothy smile. “I have not often journeyed beyond the Jade Forest, and I look forward to learning more of my people in other provinces.”

Luciana’s eyes darted to the doorway, where the same female pandaren stood with a new tray, her head bowed in submission. Luciana eased her stance fully, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. She felt horribly off-balance, leaning to the left and then leaning too much to the right to compensate, unable to control the swing of her left arm. Already, her back ached.

“Thank you,” she said roughly. Ruan Zhu murmured to the pandaren female, who nodded and backed away respectfully before disappearing.

“You frightened her!” he chuckled, bringing the tray to the small table beside her bed. One she hadn’t even noticed, at first. “Please, sit and rest. I will pour the tea.”

Luciana moved cautiously to the bed as Ruan Zhu talked. His tone was light, amicable, friendly to the point of obliviousness. It was pleasant, though, and she let herself lose concentration. She was so tired.

“In essence, this tea will help you recover,” he finished with a flourish, offering her a steaming teacup. He smiled again, his teeth gleaming white, and it took Luciana a moment to remember that she couldn’t use her right hand to take the offering. Awkwardly, she took it with her left. She was almost ambidextrous with most weapons, but she’d never had the need to drink tea with her off hand. Ruan Zhu sensed this and his smile fell slightly. “No matter,” he said, removing the top of the stacked bamboo baskets to release the smell of steamed pork dumplings and plum sauce. Below, seaweed salad sat in a bright green heap, mixed with pickled radish and roasted nuts.

None of the food was foreign to Luciana, though it was a bit different than she remembered. She ate slowly, struggling with the chopsticks. Balancing tea and food was difficult, but when Ruan Zhu reached forward to help she growled low in her chest, making him jump back as though burned. He chuckled, laughing it off, but did not try again.

“Where are you from, friend?” he asked conversationally. “I must say, it was quite a surprise to find you underneath all that sha!”

“Stormwind,” she replied. If they didn’t recognise her, it might be safest to hide her true rank.

“I have never heard of it. Is it in Kun-Lai? Perhaps in the mountain range?”

“No,” she said slowly. “Within the Eastern Kingdoms.”

“I have never heard of those, either,” he said. “What is nearby to you? Perhaps I will know one of these.”

“Ironforge,” she said slowly, cold dread clawing at her chest. She stopped eating. “Gnomeregan. Black Morass. Arathi Highlands.”

“You must have come from far away!” Ruan Zhu said. “Do you have a map in your bag, perhaps? If you do, may I see it?”

Luciana stared at him for a moment, nearly uncomprehending. “Yes,” she murmured, slowly putting her chopsticks down on the tray. She stood with some difficulty, stumbling over her feet. She reached her bag and pulled out a weathered map, rolled tightly into a small, ornate scroll case. With it came her string of tokens, which fell to the ground as she tried to catch them with her right hand. Scowling, she stooped down to retrieve them. She tucked them safely into her small bag, struggling to close its flap one-handed.

“May I?” She handed him the scroll case. “Oh, how beautiful,” Ruan Zhu praised. He admired it for a moment before popping it open. “I do not recognize the art.”

“From Ironforge.”

“Oh, I see. Of course I would not recognize it!” he laughed. “Let me see… Oh, my.” He unrolled the map carefully. “Oh, my,” he repeated, eyes wide. “Perhaps, my friend, you could tell me what I’m looking at?”

He lowered the map, holding it flat. She pointed with her left hand. “Stormwind is here,” she said, pointing to the city. “These are the bounds of my kingdom. Ironforge. Gnomeregan, underground. Pandaria. Northrend. The Broken Isles. Kalimdor. The Maelstrom. Teldrassil.”

“Oh! I recognize that name,” he said brightly. “A World Tree, yes? Where kaldorei live.”

“Yes,” she said numbly.

“Yes, our travellers have brought back many tales of them,” he said, wonder in his voice. “Have you met any kaldorei?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful! Perhaps you can tell me stories,” he said with an eager smile. She wondered, briefly, as to his age. “But for now, you must rest,” he said. “The mistweavers healed your shoulder, but you are exhausted. But, if you do not mind, I have one or two more questions for you. Easy ones!”

“Sure.”

“I am pandaren. May I know what you are?”

“Human.”

“And what is your name?”

She thought for a moment. “Amadeus.”

“Amadeus,” he said, his mouth awkward around the word. “May I call you Ama?”

“Sure.”

“Wonderful! And, how should I address you?”

“... I don’t understand.”

“I am Ruan Zhu. I like to be addressed as a man, with he. How should I address you?”

“She.”

“Wonderful,” he said again. “I will let the others know so that they do not disrespect you in their ignorance. I will leave this,” he said, closing up the bamboo trays. “In case you wake up hungry,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “But you seem to be falling asleep in your tea, so I will leave you to rest.”

“Thank you,” Luciana said numbly.

“Simply lay down and rest for now,” Ruan Zhu said. “The Jade Serpent has offered you hospitality and healing. The Disciples will not doubt be able to help you adjust, as they do to all who suffer injuries likes yours. Do not worry about a thing, my new friend!”

“Thank you,” she repeated.

The door closed behind him. Luciana stared at the bamboo trays, stacked neatly to preserve heat and moisture. The urge to vomit welled up in her throat. How was she supposed to fight without her arm? She was missing a crucial part of herself. Her body was broken. Even if she returned to Stormwind, she was useless to them now.

“Anduin,” she murmured. Wrathion would have to help him, now. At the very least she knew he was clever and tricky enough to do it.

Her gut tightened and she hunched over. She couldn’t breathe past the pain in her chest, in her shoulder, in her head.

Her father was dead.

Her body shaking, she let out the cry of pain that had welled up in her throat. It was hard to breathe. She howled, left hand trying to rip at the bedding underneath her. Her right shoulder, absent its arm, clenched painfully as she sobbed.

Chapter Text

Ruan Zhu didn't recognize Stormwind. How could a pandaren of the Jade Forest not know of Stormwind by now? Of the Eastern Kingdoms? Oh, gods, where was she? When was she?

How was she to return home?

How would Wrathion handle Anduin without her authority behind him?

Would Shaw be able to follow her clues?

How would Freya take her absence? Her sons hadn’t seen her in months, and now she was gone. All the worse that they hadn’t been able to say a proper goodbye. Their mother and grandfather, both gone. Their father afflicted with some kind of mind control. Their kingdom at war.

Varian never got to see Freya in his Keep. Freya never met her own grandfather.

Anduin. Alone, ruling a people that did not believe in him as they had believed in his father, in his wife. Anduin trying to prove himself, not to his people but to himself, as her absence and his father’s death weighed him with guilt and loneliness, whatever whispers he was hearing taking advantage of his grief. Wrathion might handle it, but did she really trust the black dragon to do what was best for Anduin? For Stormwind? For two children who lost their grandfather and their mother in the same week? For Freya, all alone in the Exodar - no, she had Enaeon, but now she’d lost her mother.

Luciana struggled to breathe. She hadn’t felt like this in a long time, this stressed and tense and out of control. The cold stone floor was pleasant, though, and she leaned forward to press her forehead against it. Groaning, she clutched at her stomach with her left hand, her right shoulder tenser than a taut bowstring and the pain of it radiated into her chest and head.

“Oh! I am sorry, Ama. I did not know you were praying.” She ignored Ruan Zhu moving about the room, clenching her teeth hard enough to hurt to keep silent. “Ama? My friend, are you alright?” Ruan Zhu kneeled beside her, leaning over to peek at her face. Seeing it, and the expression upon it, he immediately jumped to his feet and hurried from the room. At least he hadn’t touched her.

The sound of their native Pandaren tongue reached Luciana’s ears but not her mind, not past the thick smog of pain and simmering rage and grief. The cool relief of healing mists eased the pain and some of the rage, but the grief remained. She snarled when she felt someone touch her, and would have lashed out had she still possessed her right arm. They’d chosen well to kneel at her right side - at the moment, it was much less dangerous. A weak point.

Weak.

She rolled over onto her left side, using her left leg and hip for balance. She kicked out with her right leg, feeling the impact of her heel into the mistweaver’s chest all the way up to her shoulder stump. The mistweaver grunted and flew back, rolling until they were on their feet. They stumbled to a stand, now healing their own likely broken ribs.

“Ama!” Ruan Zhu cried, his eyes wide in shock. “Why did you strike her? She is only trying to help!”

“I don’t want her help,” Luciana snarled, her voice echoed with a trace of Goldrinn’s own fury that lingered within her.

The mistweaver spoke to Ruan Zhu, her wary eyes on Luciana. “Yes, but…” Ruan Zhu murmured. “No. No, I think you are right. Perhaps…”

“What are you planning?” Luciana said lowly.

“Mistweaver Jiao suggests that you continue your healing within the Temple of the White Tiger,” Ruan Zhu said. “She says that you appear to express yourself best through the physical, though that may have been rhetorical…” He smiled awkwardly. “But I think she is correct. You are not like us, and so we cannot try to heal you as though you were. We must adapt our methods to best fit you.”

Luciana eyed him, leaning to the right and shifting her hips to bring herself up to a sitting position. She had to throw her left arm out for balance, and adjust to the lack of weight on her right, and her nose crinkled up into another snarl.

“Would you consider traveling to the north?” Ruan Zhu asked. “I have never been to Kun Lai, but I will be happy to accompany you. And anyway, if you cannot understand our tongue, you will need a translator!” he said, his bright mood quickly re-emerging like a sun through the morning fog. When Luciana did not respond, he jumped to his feet. “But you must be hungry!” he said. “Of course, no decision can be made on an empty stomach. Ah, I see you did not eat the dumplings… No matter, no matter, I will fetch fresh ones for you. One cannot heal on old food. And some cider, fresh from the orchards!”

The mistweaver left when Ruan Zhu did, likely not wanting to be there any more than Luciana wanted her to be. The door was left open, and Luciana struggled to her feet, stumbled over, and slammed it shut. For good measure she also slammed her fist into the thick bamboo door, creating an ominous thud that reverberated through the room and down the hall.

She lumbered over to the small bed in the corner beneath the window. She did not sit, merely stood next to it and stared out the window in a daze. Absently she tried to flex her right arm, only to send fresh pain stabbing into her back and chest. Even her neck ached.

Luciana did not want to languish in her pain. She refused to mope and be useless, and she would certainly not let herself waste away in this room. Either she would find a way home, or she would travel to the Eastern Kingdoms with one of the pandaren’s own voyagers and forge a legend in the history of the human kingdoms. Anduin would find her legend and her children would know of her, even if she was not there in person. They could have a part of her to guide them and inspire them.

She would not have them. But, at least, they would have a piece of her.

She looked at her armor. Until she readjusted to her new body, one with only a single arm, she would not wear it. It would be cumbersome and weighty. She remembered, then, the armor worn in the Military Academy - light, mostly leather, made for flexibility and support rather than protection. While they learned the limits of their bodies and trained to push past them.

Absently, she chewed on the inside of her cheek. She could leave the armor here, if they would keep it away from curious pandaren cubs. She could go to the Temple of the White Tiger and learn the same way she did as a knight in training. If nothing else the more combative windwalker monks would help her adjust to battle with uneven weight and one arm and a glaring weak point.

She knew, already, that the Celestials were not the same as the Ancients with which she was more familiar. Ancients were icons of the wild, of more primal things, of instinctive knowledge and the greater plan of the Wild. They rarely answered the calls of mortals, rarer still if the mortals in question did not bring offerings or something of interest. Celestials more readily engaged mortals and offered advice when asked sincerely. And who was more sincere than a mother desperate to return to her children?

Who was more sincere than a warrior with a broken body, looking for a path back to the battle?

Ruan Zhu poked his head past the door. It creaked, something it hadn’t done before Luciana had struck it. “May I enter? I bring food.”

“Yes,” Luciana murmured. He brightened and bustled into the room, setting a legitimate luncheon on the tiny table provided. “Ruan Zhu. I am… sorry for my rudeness.”

“I appreciate your apology, but it is not necessary. I understand that losing a part of your body can be very difficult. I have seen a farmer lose a leg to a plow and take years to recover! Not his body, but his mind.”

“It was unworthy of me to strike the healer.”

“She knows,” he soothed. “She is not bitter. Though you did break four of her ribs.”

“I thought I did.”

“You are quite strong,” he said, waving her forward. “Come, eat!” he insisted when she stalled. He handed her chopsticks and piled rice and dressed seaweed and a dumpling-like food she did not recognize onto her plate, and then placed a roasted golden carp fillet on top, and then laid strips of raw fish on top of that and fried noodles on top of that, gave it a dash of soy sauce, and then tucked roasted plums into the side of her dish, and then placed a mug of hot apple cider beside her plate. “Eat!” he insisted, so she started to eat. Slowly, as her stomach rebelled at the very mention of food, and after at least two days without, it would not take kindly to her rushing.

He let her eat in silence for a short while. She could see questions burning at him as he jumped between hurrying through his own food, blowing gently on his steaming cider, staring at her intently with his paws flat on the table, and muttering to himself about the lack of radishes in the meal.

Finally, when she was so full she felt ill, his mouth popped open to spill questions like a broken tap. She held up her hand, eyes wide. “Ruan Zhu, I am not able to answer seven questions at once.”

“Sorry,” he said, smiling sheepishly, his fangs denting his black lips. The fur around his eyes, she noticed, was patterned much like that of a raccoon. “Alright. The first question, then. You are quite strong.”

“That’s not a question.”

“It was a prompt,” he said.

“Yes, I am quite strong,” she agreed. “I have always been strong.”

“Are females of your race always so strong? Are they stronger than the males? Oh, wait… I’m not sure how it works with your people.” His ears tucked back, the pandaren version of a blush.

“Most of us are male or female, or at least aligned with one or the other,” she said. “Though we have seen some variations that tell us it is not a simple matter of one or the other. You have not offended,” she said, and his ears popped right back up.

“So?” he asked eagerly.

“Humans that are closer to the male end of the spectrum tend to be taller, and have more muscle. Those on the female side build fat more easily, because it is required to carry children.”

“I see,” he said. “Not so different from us, then, with males being larger. But, only one builds fat? That seems dangerous! Males must be quite delicate.”

“No,” she said slowly. “No, they’re fine. I’m not quite sure what you mean,” she said slowly.

“Oh, well, if you do not build fat, how does your body have what it needs? What if you do not have food for a few days?” he asked. “You must need to eat very often! How long can you go without food?”

“About a month,” she said. “Depending on your metabolism, how much fat you had beforehand, how much muscle you had, how strenuous of activities you are doing during that month…”

“A month?” he asked, bewildered. “Celestials and spring! How?”

She shrugged. “We are built that way,” she said. “Though without water, a human will generally die within three or four days.”

“Oh, that’s reasonable,” he said, nodding. “So, then, if you do not mind, are you larger than the males of your race?”

“Yes. I believe the last average of the Stormwind census bureau held that females are, on average, five feet and five inches tall, whereas males are an inch under six feet tall.”

“And how tall are you?”

“Six feet and six inches,” she said. “The last I checked.”

“Wow!” Ruan Zhu exclaimed, his cider forgotten with one paw still held around it. “Why are you so big?”

“I believe it is because I am a warrior with berserker blood,” she said.

His ears fell. “Oh,” he said slowly, understanding dawning in his voice. “Oh, I see.” Luciana tilted her head, questioning him without words. “Well, it’s just that we’ve noticed you are very expressive with your body,” he said. “More so than with your words, though we have not yet had the chance to hear many of them. And we have… sensed, I think, what must be your berserker blood. Shi Zhou, especially, seemed to believe it was the sha still within you. But the Jade Serpent cleansed you and so we know that you are free of their taint.”

Luciana blinked slowly. “Yes, well,” she said. “My father was… also quite tall,” she said softly.

“Was?” Ruan Zhu, sensing her mood turning sour. “So it is normal in your family, though not in your people,” he said, as though to finish that subject and move to another question.

“No. My family is average, or at least, close to it,” Luciana said. “The man I called father was actually sire to my husband.”

“Is your husband very tall?” Ruan Zhu asked.

“Tall enough.”

“Oh, I see that this subject is troubling you. I will ask no more on it. Tell me about warriors of your people, then.”

She smiled wryly. My father was a warrior. One of the greatest warriors we have ever known. “We are born warriors, or we are not,” she said simply. “But there are a rare few that find the fury sometime in their life. They are true warriors.”

“You are born warriors? Do you exit the womb with a sword?” he asked, humour clear in his eyes and voice.

“No. We grow more, we have more energy,” she said. “We are… more, somehow, in physical terms.”

“I see. So then, what happens if you are not born a warrior, but rather become one?”

“You adjust. Some, I hear, have fat that layers over their muscle to support and protect. The one I met, years ago, had a big belly. It was to protect his organs, as he had never grown the muscle we born warriors have. Others, their blood thickens to match what warriors like I have from birth. Some grow taller, others grow wider. Whatever their body must do to adjust.”

“Adjust to what?” Ruan Zhu asked.

“The fury.”

“What fury?”

Luciana eyed him oddly. “Do your warriors not have a fury that drives them?”

“Not that I’ve heard, no,” he said, his eyes wide and innocent. She again wondered how old he was. “They study the blade or the mace, or the shield or… Whatever weapon they choose, I suppose,” he shrugged. “They dedicate themselves to the art of war and strife. But I have never heard of some fury that they all share.”

“Human warriors,” she said slowly, “I know of most. I will not speak for other races, though I know orcs all have this fury whether or not they are warriors.”

“Then speak of your own race first, and maybe I shall discover a member of these orcs, or perhaps a kaldorei, on the shores of the Jade Forest next year! And I can ask them of their warriors.”

“Human warriors have a fury within us that drives us,” she said. “It demands blood, or battle, or… something that can relieve it. We must use our strength, or our fury will drive us to in ways we might not choose otherwise. But it does not rest for long, and so we do not either. It can drive us from our homes, from our families whether they are chosen or given to us by blood. And it can alienate them, as they cannot always understand our need for pain and bloodshed and the immense satisfaction brought by physical exhaustion. But we share with each other an understanding of the fury, and what it can do to us.”

“How did this come to be?” he asked softly.

Luciana shrugged. “We are descendant of the Vrykul. A race of giants, in Northrend and the Broken Isles, whose entire existence is dedicated to battle, to proving oneself a greater warrior than the rest. Some say that it is this blood that gives us warriors born of normal families. Others say the Light gives us warriors, though I am no priest.”

“You know the Light?” he asked brightly. “We have some priests of the Holy Light, here! Well, maybe not here, in this Temple, but perhaps at the Temple of the Red Crane.”

“Really?” Luciana asked, leaning back in her chair. She had to consciously relax her right shoulder, again. “How long have your people had practitioners?”

“Oh, many generations,” he said. “The kaldorei, I think, introduced us to its study, and it is not really so different from studying Chi as a healing energy. The energy simply comes from somewhere else. But, as you said, I am no priest!” he chuckled. “I can see you are tired, but perhaps one more question?”

“What is it?”

“Are you a matriarch? I know that some species have matriarchs, who rule their clan,” he said. “We do too, in fact. In the Valley, farming clans often have matriarchs. You seem the type.”

“What type?”

“A matriarch! A mother, perhaps to her own cubs, perhaps to her family, or even to her entire village!”

Luciana inhaled, held it a moment, and exhaled softly. “I am matriarch to my kingdom,” she said softly. “I am Queen, wife to the High King of the Alliance of Azeroth. And I have three cubs.”

“Ohh,” Ruan Zhu said slowly. “You do not look like royalty. You look more like a matriarch.”

“I cannot be both?”

“I do not know,” he said. “Royalty means… Ah, that is, to us, it means something very different than matriarch. But, I suppose it does not necessarily mean the same thing to you.”

“A queen is a ruler of her kingdom, and leader of her people, alongside the king,” she said. “I am queen, and so I have decided that to be queen of Stormwind is to protect its people, ensure their safety and the futures of their children, lead their armies, and recently, negotiate with our enemies to end senseless conflict in the face of a true enemy.”

“If you must differentiate between your enemy and your true enemy, perhaps your enemy is not truly your enemy,” Ruan Zhu said. “Does that make sense?”

“Does anything you say make sense?” Luciana said with a half-smile.

“Ah! You made a joke!” Ruan Zhu said triumphantly. “Gaisho owes me ten silver khun! Ha!” he crowed, clapping in delight. “I will let you rest now, my friend, and I will go and collect my khun, and if we ever journey to the Valley, I will treat you to a real Stormstout brew!”

“It’s a deal,” she said softly, bracing her left hand against the table as Ruan Zhu messily collected leftover foods and scattered chopsticks.

He left the room empty and silent, and Luciana sighed through her nose. Anduin usually meditated when his heart disagreed with his mind. Perhaps she could do the same.

Chapter Text

The woods were sparse here, so unlike Elwynn’s lush forests. The ragged trees did little to block the cutting, icy winds. Snow perpetually covered the ground, making it nearly impossible to move without show shoes. They were bulky and ungainly, and Ava felt awkward and exposed here.

Still, Shaw had given her a direct order, one that he said could mean the difference between life and death for the Queen. Ava had never been one to religiously follow the goings-on of the Royal Family, nor was she dedicated to them as were others - like the new agent Lynch, who had yet to actually meet the Queen but had already decided she was worth dying for.

Ava stumbled over a tree root hidden in a snow bank and cursed under her breath. It sent four little puffs of fog into the air. The person she’d been sent to find was, according to Shaw, where the garn were. This was a dangerous suggestion, because if she wasn’t here, Ava had to deal with the garn alone. But Shaw was rarely wrong, and he said that he’d known this woman for years. How many years, exactly, he hadn’t said.

“Amara Myers?” Ava called, hoping she hadn’t signed her own death warrant by being loud in garn territory. “Mathias Shaw sent me. He has an urgent message for you.”

A low howl started in the distance. Ava shivered, and she told herself it was just the cold. Garn, she’d heard, could travel extraordinarily fast even through six feet of snow. She looked around her. The snow here was piled high, but she was much shorter at the shoulder than a garn… “Amara Myers?” she called again.

A lupine growl rumbled through the thin, twisted trees. She heard the garn before she saw it, the thump of its massive paws in the snow preceding the appearance of two angry yellow eyes. Ava swallowed.

“Amara Myers?” she said, her voice wavering. The garn advanced slowly, watching her like a fox listening to a mice burrow beneath the earth.

“Why are you here?” a low, distinctly human voice said. Ava looked up - someone sat upon the back of the great black garn, hunched over its head. Two yellow eyes stared out at Ava, matching those of the garn.

“Shaw sent me.”

“I heard. Why did he send you to me?”

“He has an urgent…”

“Message for me. Yes, I heard,” the human said, getting impatient. The garn growled again. Ava shuffled backward, slowly, awkward in her snow shoes. “What is it, then?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “He… just gave me the order to retrieve you.”

“What, like a dog to a bone?” the human snapped. “Tell him to fuck off. I retired a decade ago. I’m staying that way.”

“You were SI:7?” Ava guessed.

“Was, not am,” Amara said. The garn made to turn, to leave, and Ava panicked. She always panicked in the cold. Something about the dead emptiness of the wind here made her feel… ill.

“Highlord Varian is dead,” she blurted. “And Queen Luciana is missing.”

The garn stopped, turned its head, and looked at her. “Dead?” Amara said, surprised. “I thought that bastard would never die. He’s survived so much…”

“Not this,” Ava said. “The Queen is rumoured dead, and people are hopeless, but Shaw believes that she’s still alive, and we can find her with the right team.”

“Equations. Red’s always trying to find the right equation.” Amara sighed. “Leave here, now. I’ll find my own way to Stormwind.”

“What should I tell Shaw?”

“Tell him to have meat for… what do you think?” Amara said quietly. Ava nearly answered, but the garn lifted its head to look at Amara on its back, and twitched its ears at her. “Right. Five garn. Meat for five garn. If he tries to bitch about it, tell him the garn are cheaper than my daily rate, and he should be grateful I’m not charging both.”

“Alright,” Ava said. “I’ll let him know.”

“Good luck getting back out to town, by the way. Storm’s about to hit.”

Ava’s face flushed as the garn disappeared into the forest. She knew there was a storm coming. That’s why she’d brought a portal stone. Some people were so rude.

Chapter Text

By the time Ava returned to Stormwind, one of the other retrieval agents told her Shaw had been in his office from the early morning until late night. He’d emerged, briefly, to find a few files from the upstairs cabinet, and then disappeared again, taking only a plate laden with food from someone about to settle in to eat. With the dark bags under his eyes and the tightness of his shoulders, they didn’t say a word, just stood to find more food.

He shut the door behind him, set the plate on his crowded desk, and fell back into his chair. He slumped over to the side, resting his weight on the armrest, and watched as Amara gingerly picked up a strand of seaweed from the salad.

“I never did get used to the Stormwind diet,” she said, dropping the seaweed with a grimace. She went for the chicken instead, eating neatly with her fingers. “So,” she said as she chewed. “You’ve lost Varian, and now you’ve lost Luciana, and you want me to find her for you.”

“I think you’re the only one who can, at this point,” Shaw said. “And I don’t need you to find her. I have mages for that. No, I need you to retrieve her.”

“I’m an assassin, Shaw, not a babysitter. The first and last time I tried a search and rescue I turned it into a seek and destroy.”

“You’re a hunter,” he said. “One of the most deeply connected hunters I’ve ever seen. And I’ve met plenty in my life.”

She hummed, shoving an entire chicken breast into her mouth. She chewed for a few seconds and then pushed a cherry tomato in with the chicken, her cheeks bulging. Shaw grimaced. She swallowed once, kept chewing, and swallowed again. “Well,” she said, working food out of the corner of her mouth with her tongue. “You’re right about that. I’ve forgotten more than the new kids have learned. You teach them how to hit things with an arrow and then you send them off to die. You don’t even teach them the aspects,” she said, aghast. “My gods, by the time I was fifteen I knew five aspects, and these new kids go off half-cocked with two. And they’re damned lucky if they pick up any more.”

Shaw sighed heavily. “Amara, I know you’re retired…”

“Sure as shit didn’t stop you from calling me back with your god-damned irresponsibility.”

“But,” he said firmly. “I truly believe you are one of the only ones with the knowledge and abilities to bring back the Queen.”

“Where is she, then?” Amara asked.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Best find out then, huh?” she asked, fitting her back teeth around a chicken leg and tearing off as much meat as she could in one bite. She chewed messily, almost losing a piece of meat out of the corner of her mouth. Shaw made a face of distaste. “Find out where she went, and I’ll go get her. But only,” she said, her tone a clear warning, “because Stormwind is dead without her.”

“You don’t think Anduin can lead?”

“He can lead fine. But he hasn’t proven himself. People don’t believe in him, Red,” she said, gesturing with the half-chewed chicken drumstick. “His father was a damned hero, and his wife was… is? Hopefully, she still is a hero in her own right. Varian and Luciana are what legends are made of. Anduin? He’s got it in him, but he’s never been pushed to bring it out. Not like they have. If he wants to lead Stormwind - all of us, mind - then he’s going to have to step up, and step out, like they did.”

“I see,” Shaw said evenly. “In the meantime, though, do you think you could retrieve the Queen?”

“Of course I can.”

“But will you?”

“For a price.”

“Name it.”

“I get assigned as guard to one of the kids.”

“What?” Shaw was visibly startled. “Why? I thought you hated kids.”

“I don’t hate kids,” she said. “I just. Hate being around them. They’re loud and destructive and don’t understand basic rules.”

“Like what?” Shaw snorted.

“Like, if you don’t want me to snarl at you, don’t screech in my fucking ear.”

“They’re kids, Amara. They don’t know yet.”

“And someone else can teach them. But I want that post.”

“Fine. Done. But the garn stay outside the city.”

“Why? They’re more polite than a brat.”

“They’re wild animals, Amara.”

“So is the Queen.”

“Yes, but she won’t incite mass panic in the streets.”

“Wouldn’t she? I thought people generally agreed she’s scary.”

“She is, but…” Shaw sighed explosively. “The garn stay outside the walls.”

“Fine, but I get to bring Elwynn wolves in.”

“One.”

“Five.”

Shaw glared at her openly. “Two.”

“Five, Shaw. Minimum for a good hunting party.”

“You’re not going hunting in my city!”

“The hell I won’t! There are some people that just need to be hunted. Like people who try to hurt a Prince.”

“Four,” Shaw said. “You can be the fifth.”

She considered the drumstick in her hand. There was very little left on it that could be considered edible. She tossed it on the floor, paused, and then looked down. “Whoops,” she said.

“Whoops?” Shaw said, a scathing glare pointed directly at Amara.

“Forgot you don’t have puppies around here.”

“You forgot?”

“Fuck you, Red,” she said, suddenly snarling at him. Her yellow eyes nearly made him flinch. “I’ve spent the last ten years at peace. With myself, with my world. All because of my pack. And you come in like a fucking freight train, send your agent to mess up the peace of my pack and spread her disgusting scent everywhere, and then ask me to find your lost charge at the cost of my peace. Fuck you.”

“You said you would help find her,” Shaw said, standing as she slid off the desk. He stood in her way and she growled low in her chest, much like a wolf who’d had enough of a pup’s raucous play. A warning. Shaw did not step away, though he felt cold sweat bead along the back of his neck. “Amara, I wouldn’t call you back in unless I needed you. Stormwind is on the brink of collapse. The Queen said…” Shaw hesitated, and looked at the door to his office - the only entrance or exit. The seam between door and wall was the only way someone could hear what was said. He lowered his voice, and his head, to whisper into her ear. “The Queen believes that the King is under the influence of arcane mind control. She’s urged me to be cautious in what information I share with him.”

“You’d betray your King?” Amara said lowly.

“No. I only stall, long enough for the Queen to find and fix whatever issue was plaguing their house.”

“Except she’s gone,” Amara sighed. “And there’s only so long you can stall.”

“Exactly.” Shaw straightened. His face was pale, eyes dark and saggy, and he had new stress lines at the corner of his eyes and in the deep furrow of his brow. “I need your help in this, Amara.”

“Alright,” she said quietly. “I’ll need a team.”

“I have some people in mind.” Shaw turned and opened the door, just enough to speak through it. “Bring in Lynch, Bane, and Sab.”

“Sab the Lion?” Amara asked, eyebrows raised. “You’re giving me some serious firepower.”

Shaw was not impressed with her joke. “He’s skilled enough in portals and familiar with time magic.”

“Why do I need time magic?”

“Reports from the Exodar team tasked with tracking the portal that took Luciana suggest that it was warped far enough that it touched the fourth dimension of teleportation.”

“What’s that?”

“Time.”

“What are the other three, then?”

“Space, intent, and order, I believe.”

“What?”

“Space, intent, order, and time. The beginning and end points of the portal, as well as the physical distance between the two. Intent would be up to the caster. Order is the control and flow of arcane that creates the pathway through the Nether, as well as the two doors. And time is, of course, time.”

“So she got sent back or forth?”

“Likely back,” Shaw said. “Traveling forward in time is… incredibly difficult for mortals. Even for dragons, it’s not easy.”

Amara snorted a laugh. “Right, then. Sent a bronze.”

“You think I have contact with them?” Shaw said, laughing as well. “No. You’re the best I have for this.”

“That’s kind of pathetic, considering I’ve been retired for ten years.”

“You’re R.E.D., Amara. Hardly useless.”

“Retired, extremely deranged?”

“Ha,” Shaw said flatly. A knock at the door interrupted him. He called for them to enter, and three people filed in, two humans and a night elf with a nasty scar down the center of her face. Amara could see a flash of white teeth and a single sharp canine around the puckered scar that pulled at the night elf’s lip. “Lynch, Bane, and Sab. You’ll be accompanying Amara on the mission you were briefed on earlier.”

“Finally,” Sab said. “You took long enough to get here. Spymaster Shaw says you’re the best. He’d better be right.”

“You can find her?” Lynch said. Amara blinked, eyes widening at the intensity of his gaze. He looked more deranged than she could ever be. That focus was… unnerving.

“Shaw says you are Wolf-friend,” Bane said, her voice deep and rough. “Where are your wolves?”

“Garn, actually,” Amara said, appraising Bane openly. She was tall, muscled thickly, with broad shoulders and a thick neck. Amara smiled crookedly. “You’re a survivalist, I see. Good to have you.”

Bane’s expression, harsh and distrustful, remained unchanged. “I’ll say the same when I see you with your wolves.”

“Fair,” Amara said mildly. “Beasts always know better than we do the truth of our hearts.”

Bane lowered her chin. “You have heard his words?”

“Any old hunter has.”

Her chin raised again, and the near-hate in her eyes was lessened. “Let me meet your wolves. Then, we’ll talk.”

“We should go,” Lynch said abruptly.

“Agreed,” Sab said. “I’ve already packed up what I need.”

“I will find what I need,” Bane said.

“Now,” Lynch said.

“Alright, alright,” Amara sighed. “Let me finish eating, and then we’ll go. Meet me outside the gates the near Thunder Falls. Oh, and if you find any corpses… They were highwaymen, I swear.”

Chapter Text

You rush headlong towards the fray without planning first what you will do once you reach it.

Shouldn’t I? I’m a warrior. It’s in my blood.

You would spill your heart-blood before reaching your goal should you enter the battle without a plan of attack. You have spent your life saving others from this fate, but you would wish for yourself a needless death?

What else is there for me to do? I have to move. I have to keep moving or I will stop, and for me, that is death.

Then do not stop. But you rush, and you miss opportunities that could, in the end, bring you greater results.

What opportunities? I am not in my proper time or place, and have no way to get back. All I can do now is leave behind a legend for my pups, and my mate.

You need only ask.

Luciana groaned when she woke. The first thing that greeted her, besides the sun burning her eyes behind their lids, was a dull pain that thudded in tandem with her heartbeat.

She rolled onto her left side, bracing her weight on her arm, and tucked her face into the thin pillow. Yawning hard enough to crack her jaw, she arched her back to stretch it. She held herself in that position long enough that she began to shake from the strain - too soon, compared to her usual. She was still so weak.

It had been almost two weeks that she’d been forced to rest within the Temple of the Jade Serpent. Only Ruan Zhu spoke Common here, though he said he’d never learned it. It had been a gift from the Jade Serpent so that he could speak with Luciana and help her. He seemed more eager than she to start the journey she was apparently supposed to be taking.

Luciana rested for a few more minutes, physically tired and very impatient with it. She’d had enough of this small room and the bed and the little table Ruan Zhu would fill with food five times a day. She was glad that pandaren ate so much, though. It matched her natural appetite much better than the regular human diet.

When she was standing, she stretched again. Carefully, she braced her left hand against the wall and turned until she felt the strain in her arm and shoulder. Satisfied, she turned her hand to stretch the underside of her arm. Next, her legs, and then her hips. Finally, she stood straight, and with a grimace already on her face, slowly rotated her right shoulder. The stump moved, and she had yet to be able to look at it without feeling completely shaken from her own body, but she kept it in her peripheral. Slow, she reminded herself. Recovery was a slow process. She was impatient, but the mistweavers here were wise. Some things could not be rushed.

Luciana sighed heavily and let her shoulder fall slack. It felt odd, as though it were still tense. She reached up with her left hand to rub at the right side of her neck. It pulled awkwardly, and hurt her neck in her sleep. She was past the point of overcompensating with her left side, but the right still ached and screamed when she moved the wrong way. No one could tell her why, mind, only that sometimes the body reacted strangely to losing a limb, and she would just have to ride it out.

Pain was not new to her, and she put it to the back of her mind. She opened the door to let the pandaren know she was no longer asleep, though she rarely got any other visitors beside Ruan Zhu or the odd curious cub. They would poke their furry little heads around the corner and stare at her with wide, dark eyes, little round ears perked to her, noses twitching. They never came alone, bringing strength and courage in numbers. They had yet to try and speak to her. She wondered if they knew she could not understand their language.

“Ama!” Ruan Zhu’s familiar voice called. It echoed from far away, down the long stone hall. She hadn’t left her room much except to pace the hallway in the middle of the night. She did not know where, exactly, he was coming from.

He did bring food, though, and she watched as he set it up on the wider table she’d been given for this exact purpose. He talked quickly, excitedly, as he set two places at the table and filled bowls with soup and noodles, vegetables, and meat. Her bowl was nearly full of meat. She smiled lopsidedly as she sat.

“Have you had any more thought about what you’d like to do, now that your recovery has taken off?” Ruan Zhu asked, tearing a citrus fruit in half with his teeth and offering her a piece. She took it, proud that she hadn’t tried to first reach out with her right hand, and shook her head.

“I am undecided,” she said. “I know where I want to be, but not how to reach it.”

“Maybe you should ask the Jade Serpent,” Ruan Zhu said. “She’d be able to advise you.”

“I would not bother her.”

“It wouldn’t be a bother! She loves talking to people,” he said. “Especially visitors from far away. I bet she’d love to meet you properly. I don’t think the first meeting really counted, considering you were… Well, whatever you were doing that manifested the sha.”

“Right,” Luciana murmured. She sucked some of the juice first, as the citrus fruits they grew here - she could not, for the life of her, remember the name - were juicy enough to burst all over her face and shirt if she wasn’t careful. Ruan Zhu beamed at her when she began to eat the fruit. The first few times he’d offered, she’d refused, finding it odd that he had torn it in half with his teeth. Then she’d observed two pandaren plucking one of the fruits from one of the trees in the courtyard below her tiny room and sharing it in the exact same way. There were likely many more of these cultural differences she’d have to get around in her immediate future.

In the meantime, she shared a meal with Ruan Zhu, who seemed delighted as always to be eating with her. She knew already that pandaren culture weighed heavily on food and drink and company, and figured that sharing a meal with someone was symbolic of the friendship or trust you had with them. As Ruan Zhu was the only one she could speak to, she was willing to extend that gesture to him.

“I will bring you tomorrow, if you’d like,” Ruan Zhu offered. “I know you are in a hurry, so we will not wait.”

“Why not today?”

“Today?” he asked, surprised. “Well, I thought you might appreciate some time to ruminate.”

“I have many hours in a day that go empty,” Luciana said. “I’d prefer to fill them.”

“But wouldn’t you like to rest?” he asked, puzzlement in his features. She was quickly learning to read pandaren expressions, though it was likely because Ruan Zhu was particularly open with them.

“I rest all night, and I am forced to rest for much of the day. I grow bored here, and impatient. It has already been eighteen days.”

“Really? Has it been?” he asked. “I feel as though you’ve only been here a week. Alright!” he said, clapping his wide paws together with a smile. “This afternoon, then, I will come and get you, and we will see the Serpent. And you can ask her to share her wisdom.”

Luciana considered it a moment, chewing slowly, and then nodded. Ruan Zhu nodded back, enthusiastically, and then returned his attention to his food.

It was a hard battle to pay attention during her daily appointments with Mistweaver Jiao. Since their first unfortunate encounter in which she’d tried to heal Luciana while Luciana was very clearly in personal distress, she’d learned than Luciana was normally quite calm. Hopefully she’d also learned that she shouldn’t touch a warrior in personal distress unless she - or her magic, or Chi, or whatever they called it - was known to them.

She left her room before Ruan Zhu came to find her. Her bones felt loose, somehow, and awkwardly light, and her left arm still swung too wide when she walked. She paced the hallway as she had the last two and a half weeks, trying to quicken her adjustment to her new lopsided weight. Growling at her left arm, she let herself fall forward and caught her entire weight on her palm. The impact hurt, from her wrist to her ribs, but she pushed past it and started doing one-handed pushups. She was slower than she wanted, even considering the pain. She was so weak.

That was how Ruan Zhu found her - snarling curses at herself, insulting herself like she would a soldier under her command in the midst of a training exercise, her left arm and her back shaking with strain, a handful of curious cubs listening and trying to repeat her words.

“Ama, I have come for you,” he said, squatting down next to her. “And please, stop swearing! You will teach the cubs to be rude!”

“They don’t know what I’m saying,” she growled, pushing herself up with a groan. Panting, she held herself in the air and looked up at Ruan Zhu. “I feel like an Academy brat.”

“What does that mean?” he asked, his head tilted in puzzlement.

“Weak.”

“Oh, I don’t think you are… Oh!” He leaned back and fell on his rear when she moved. She pulled her legs forward, getting her feet under her and standing in one motion. It wasn’t as smooth as she would have liked but it was fast, and she showed her teeth in a semblance of a smile as Ruan Zhu got to his feet. “Alright,” he said brightly. “Shall we go?”

“Yes, let’s.”

Luciana was likely the first human to be seen at the Temple of the Jade Serpent. Ruan Zhu walked next to her, so no one acted as though she were a threat, but they did stare. Some were curious, others cautious. Some of the older and clearly more experienced monks watched her with unreadable expressions, some from beneath the shadows of their straw hats. She did not acknowledge them for the most part, but she did not ignore them. Anyone could be a threat, and with one arm gone and her balance still off-kilter, she needed to be ready.

They came upon the great doors leading to the central chamber of the temple. They were closed for the moment, the monks standing before they holding guard. It seemed to be an honour guard rather than a security detail, as very few things would try to challenge a Celestial within their own temple, surrounded by their own followers.

She let Ruan Zhu go ahead and speak to the guards. They did not seem pleased to have her, nor did they seem displeased. She brushed past them, slipping through the doors before they were even properly opened. Ruan Zhu followed shortly, slowing as the soft green glow of the Jade Serpent was revealed.

“Greetings, Jade Serpent,” Ruan Zhu said, reverence clear in his voice. He clasped his hands before him and bowed low to Yu’lon. She lay in loose coils, taking up most of the chamber as she rested. She raised her head, sideways, and fixed Ruan Zhu with a single kind, emerald eye.

“Hello, young initiate,” she said, her voice flowing and soothing like a slow river. “And greetings to you as well, human,” she said, eye flicking to Luciana. “What brings you to my temple?”
Luciana sighed, exhaling slowly. “I wanted to first thank you for giving Ruan Zhu the gift of the Common tongue. Being able to speak with him has been a boon to me.”

“Good.” If wind serpents could smile, Yu’lon would be at that moment. Luciana ignored Ruan Zhu placing both paws on his chest in shock and happiness at her gratitude. “But, something troubles you.”

“Much troubles me,” Luciana admitted softly. “I am not in my place, nor my time, and see no way to return to where I belong. To the people to whom I belong.”

“I see,” Yu’lon said. “This is, indeed, a trouble. Yet you seem prepared to rush headlong to the fight.You rush headlong towards the fray without planning first what you will do once you reach it.”

“Shouldn’t I? I’m a warrior. It’s in my blood.”

“You would spill your heart-blood before reaching your goal should you enter the battle without a plan of attack. You have spent your life saving others from this fate, but you would wish for yourself a needless death?”

“What else is there for me to do? I have to move. I have to keep moving or I will stop, and for me, that is death.”

“Then do not stop. But you rush, and you miss opportunities that could, in the end, bring you greater results.”

“What opportunities? I am not in my proper time or place, and have no way to get back. All I can do now is leave behind a legend for my pups, and my mate.”

“You need only ask.”

Luciana did not respond immediately. She’d had this conversation before, she was sure… “Ask what?” she said, finally breaking the peaceful silence that had descended on the wide, airy chamber. “I cannot return home. I have to find a new place, and if I am a warrior, is the battle not my place, regardless of the time?”

“It is. But, should you not first gather your troops and arm them appropriately for the battle to come?”

“What battle?”

“You are warrior. Is there not always a battle?”

Luciana smiled wryly. “Always,” she said. “And where would I find these arms? Where do my soldiers await me?”

“Where all may find their strength of heart and arms,” Yu’lon said. She swung her great head around to point to the northern windows of her personal chamber. “Xuen will be glad to have a true warrior within his halls. One who understands strength is always welcome with the White Tiger.” She looked at Luciana again. “Do you know the true value of your strength, warrior?”

“I hope so,” Luciana answered softly. “And if what I know is not truth, then I hope that I am yet teachable.”

“You have come to me for advice, for words that might settle your heart and help you find your path, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then heed my words. Go to Xuen. What I cannot teach you, he will show you within yourself.”

“What is that?”

“Yourself, dear one. He will show you what has always been in your heart. You need only have the strength to bring it out.”

The words rang a familiar chord within Luciana’s memory. Long ago, she’d asked Varian what Anduin would pull out of her. She smiled, gently. She’d gotten her answer, and it had been a gift from the Light to have Anduin in her life.

Luciana looked at Ruan Zhu briefly, and he gave her a blinding smile. “I would love to go to Kun Lai!” he exclaimed. “I have never left the forest!”

“I have one more word for you, should you like to hear it,” Yu’lon said to Luciana.

“Of course, great Serpent.”

“Faith. Have faith, warrior. It matters not in what, or in who. It only matters that you might look upon the rising sun and feel the power of faith bring hope to your heart.”

Anduin.

“If that is the wish of your heart,” Yu’lon said, again giving the sense that she was smiling upon Luciana.

“Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Jade Serpent,” Ruan Zhu said, bowing. Luciana did not bow, and it was not demanded. She didn’t have any sense that she was meant to bow. “We will leave you now to your meditation.”

“Be well, Initiate Zhu.”

“And you, Jade Serpent.”

"And you, warrior. Go with my blessing." Yu'lon snaked her head forward, touching her snout to Luciana's head. The mists that permeated and surrounded the great serpent settled around Luciana, infusing her for a moment with cool, healing mists.

"Thank you," Luciana murmured, heartfelt.

As the doors closed behind them, shutting them off from the gentle, cooling mists of the Jade Serpent, Luciana paused. She’d heard that voice before, in her sleep, when her dreams were troubled.

“Will you go north?” Ruan Zhu asked curiously.

“I… Yes, I think I will. Yu’lon is right. If I wish to regain my strength, I should ask for help from one who understands it. She is right. If I am to face the battles to come, I must prepare my soldiers. I must gather my strength before joining the fight.”

“Oh, I can’t wait!” Ruan Zhu said, clapping his paws together. “I’ll go pack some supplies!”

Chapter Text

Luciana allowed Ruan Zhu to lead the way. Though she had the urge to push forward, leave the Temple now and find what she needed along the way, she forced herself to wait. To be patient. Ruan Zhu was allowed to take his time gathering supplies and asking more traveled monks for advice. Though she burned with impatience, Luciana remained silent and did not urge him to hurry. Whether she ended up in Arathi, forging a legend in blood, or ended up finding a way back to her time, a few days would not make much difference.

Speaking with the Jade Serpent had reminded her to think before acting. It was a lesson she’d learned years ago, but apparently it beared repeating. “Check the ground you’re about to step on” had featured heavily in her Academy training. One of the favourite ways of teaching it had been to hide pitfalls to catch unsuspecting students. She’d have to be careful, here, to avoid pitfalls of a less literal nature.

Such as accidentally disrespecting the locals. A very angry pandaren with grey about her muzzle was, Luciana was certain, swearing quite heavily at her. She had offered a jug of brew to Luciana and, not needing it, she’d slowly shook her head, put her hand over her heart, and bowed slightly at the shoulder. A polite no thank you. But, she’d forgotten how important an offered brew was to the pandaren.

Luciana could only try to calm the pandaren by again placing her hand over her heart and bowing, lower this time, wordlessly asking forgiveness. The pandaren shoved the corked jug at Luciana and stared her down with a fierce glare. Relenting, Luciana took it from her.

The pandaren harrumphed, turned on her heel, and stomped away. People moved out of her path. Apparently Luciana was not the only one to recently earn her ire.

She let out the breath she’d been holding, and then chuckled quietly. She looked down. The jug in her hand was well-made and appropriately sized for her hand. Made of baked clay painted with a green wind serpent wrapped gracefully around it, its hourglass shape would be perfect for wrapping a leather cord around it to tie it to her belt or her pack.

“Oh, did someone give you a gift?” Ruan Zhu asked when she returned to her quarters. He was already there, a pile of travel supplies and spare clothes built into the corner of the room for the past several days.

“Yes. Very angrily.”

“Why did they get angry?” he asked, heavy brows furrowed over wide green eyes.

“Well, I didn’t want it originally,” she said. “I thought I was quite polite when I refused, but apparently not.”

“Why would you refuse a gift of brew?” he asked, taken aback.

“I… didn’t need it?” she replied slowly. “I appreciate the gesture, but…”

“I don’t understand why you would refuse a gift given in good thought,” he said when she fell silent. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t need it now! It’s the thought that counts.”

“But I don’t need it,” she said. “It’s lovely, and I’m sure someone will drink it, but I don’t need it. I said… Well, I gestured a thank you. It only made her angrier.”

Ruan Zhu shook his head, confusion clear in his eyes. “You humans sure are strange. Refusing a gift of brew!”

“I find it stranger to get angry when someone politely refuses a gift.”

“It’s polite to accept,” Ruan Zhu said. “Especially when it’s brew. It’s a peace offering, or a gift given to wish you good fortune and strength.”

“I see,” Luciana said quietly. “In that case, if you see her before we leave, would you mind explaining to her that the tradition of gift-giving is expressed differently in my culture, that I meant no offense, and that I am very thankful for her gift?”

“Of course!” Ruan Zhu said brightly.

Luciana described in brief what the old pandaren looked like while Ruan Zhu finished packing what looked like ten pounds of fish jerky and tea leaves into the second bag. “Why are we bringing so much food?” she asked. “Are there no waypoints?”

“There are, but you should always bring food,” he said. “In case you get hungry.”

“I can go a long time without food.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to, so why should you?” he said. “We have more than enough at this Temple to bring enough for the both of us for the entirety of the journey. So, I will pack enough for half the journey. In case we get snacky,” he said.

Luciana nodded once to show her understanding. He did have a point.

She turned to the map laid out on her unmade bed. “Did you take a nap here?” she asked.

“Yes, I was quite tired after lunch.”

She hummed quietly. The map was artfully crafted, but seemed accurate from what she remembered. Not all the paths marked out matched what she knew, but the main roads seemed about the same except for a bend or a landmark here and there. The route they’d be traveling would take them from the Temple of the Jade Serpent to Kun Lai. They’d stop along the way at Dawn’s Blossom, and at the Monastery, before taking to the woods to travel more directly to the northern province.

Once within its borders, they’d stop for the night in Binan Village, possibly two or three nights depending on how long Ruan Zhu wanted to stay. While Luciana was in a hurry, he was excited to see new places and meet new people. Rushing him would only make him bitter. He was literally the only person she could speak with in Pandaria right now, aside from the Celestials. She did not want to make him dislike her.

“Have you ever spent time in the wild?” Luciana asked.

“Not really,” Ruan Zhu answered absently. He was inspecting some of the shirts given to Luciana, as they’d been taken in around the waist and widened at the shoulders. The stitching seemed solid. “I mean, I’ve camped with some of the other initiates, but there were always Disciples looking out for us. This will be my first time camping alone. Well, not alone,” he amended, flashing her a toothy smile. “But without any teachers. What about you?”

Luciana took a moment to think. “I’ve spent a lot of nights in the wild,” she said slowly. “With my squadron. Soldiers, a scout, a healer, and me. Roughing it, as we’d say. I know how to survive in the wild.”

“So do I. Find food,” he joked.

“Shelter first, actually,” she said thoughtfully. “If you’re lost in the woods, the likelihood of being found within the first two days and nights is quite high. Generally you can go without food or water for two days without much harm. It won’t be pleasant, but if you can’t hunt or you’re hurt, finding a place to keep warm and dry for a couple of days is of the utmost importance. After that, it’s clean water. If you’re not found within two days, you’re going to need it. Plus, it’s easier to identify clean water than safely edible food if you know little about survival in the wild.”

“Very true!” Ruan Zhu said. “Did you learn this in your warrior training?”

“No, my military training.”

“Oh, are you a soldier?” he asked.

“Officer.”

“How exciting! You must have many stories to tell.”

“Endless stories.”

He grinned outright at her. “Excellent! When we stop at the Monastery, you can tell tales at the table to pass the time and pay for our meal.”

She smiled crookedly. “Alright. How about the time I berserked and killed an entire war party?” she said. “Or the time I was captured and tortured for two months?”

Ruan Zhu opened his mouth, and it took a second to find his words. “Maybe not,” he said.

“I’ll keep to tales about the landscape,” she said. “I recall you being interested in the world trees.”

“Yes, that would be much better,” he said, laughing a bit awkwardly. “Wait, world trees?”

“Teldrassil,” she said. “Nordrassil. Vordrassil, and Shaladrassil. I’ve seen three of them myself, though I’ve yet to see the last one. Val’sharah is not a place I’d like to visit right now. Well,” she said. “Now being a relative term.”

“Why not?” Ruan Zhu asked. His eyes were wide, bright, and innocent in his curiosity.

“How old are you?” Luciana asked.

“What?” he said, startled. “I’m thirty. Why?”

“When do your people reach middle age?”

“At about sixty-five years. Why?”

“So you’re quite young, then.”

“Yes, I am. Why?” he asked, more insistently. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight, now.”

“You’re younger than me!” he exclaimed.

“Middle age for a human is forty-five,” she said. “In relative terms, I’m older than you.”

“Maybe, but in actual terms, I’m older!”

“You’re a teenager!”

“I’m a young adult!”

“I’m a mother of three!

“How dare you!” he spluttered, unable to refute her claim to maturity. She couldn’t help but laugh, her shoulders shaking with mirth. “You… You are younger than me!”

“Sure, but I’m also your elder, technically.”

“No!” he said, but he couldn’t come up with a justification as to why, and he harrumphed and turned back to the bag he was tying shut. “You… Respect those older than you!”

“Respect your elders, boy.”

“Not if you’re one of them!”

She barked a laugh. A sudden, fierce ache in her right shoulder sapped the mirth from her, and her face fell from a lopsided smile to a flat frown. Ruan Zhu, preoccupied with the overstuffed pack, didn’t notice. He continued to talk, but she hardly heard him, too busy trying to find the pressure point in the crook of her neck a mistweaver had shown her to alleviate the pain.

She found it, and she pressed the pad of her forefinger into it as hard as she could. The pain spiked before it faded each time the pressure point was used, and this time was no different. She teared up, curling forward and barely biting back a pained groan. She could only clench her jaws in an ugly grimace, keep the pressure, and wait for it to pass.

“Oh, no.” Ruan Zhu’s paws were on her back, rubbing soothing circles into her skin through her shirt. “I’m so sorry, my friend, I did not see you were in pain.” He gently stroked a wide, soft paw over her hair and down her back, offering comfort. “Do you need a mistweaver?”

“No,” she bit out.

“A brew?”

“No.”

“Tea?”

“No,” she snapped. His hands fell still, but after a moment he resumed petting her. She felt like a dog when he did it, but the mistweavers had done it too, and she chalked it up to the pandaren simply being pandaren. Besides that, it did feel nice.

“I’m sorry. I’ll stop talking while you recover.”

She wanted to say thank you but if she opened her mouth she’d snarl a horrible curse and possible scream in pain and rage. Instead, she grunted an acknowledgment, and dug her fingers into her shoulder around the pressure point she was pressing. The pain had already started to recede. With it would go the original pain. Like the high tide - the water would rise before it fell.

The only problem was that the high tide always returned, and she was not looking forward to a lifetime of pain. Physical therapy would help, and so would Anduin - Light, he’d probably be able to help before the pain even started. He’d always had the ability to ward off pain, even the ones he couldn’t see. But he wasn’t here right now.

Ruan Zhu was, though, and when she asked for tea, please through gritted teeth, he hurried away to find a herbal tea to soothe the pain of a recently lost limb. The tea would help the physical pain. Hopefully the warmth of the cup in her hand would help the rest of it.

Chapter Text

He’d put Bolvar and Alaric to bed not ten minutes ago. He always felt better when he was with them. Playing with them and hearing all the things they’d done that day with their tutors or their favourite guard, Gideon. Even just being in the same room as them would noticeably improve his mood. He sat straighter, the furrows eased out of his brow. Wrathion commented that he seemed to wake up when they were nearby.

They were in bed, now. Leaning against the unforgiving stone wall, Anduin watched over them as they fell asleep in their soft beds. He’d offered, just a few days ago, that they could have their own rooms if they wanted - but they’d both immediately refused. They wanted to stay near each other.

Anduin wasn’t surprised, really. They’d just lost their mother and their grandfather. It made perfect sense for them to want to stay near each other, make sure the other was still there.

Worse, sometimes Anduin felt like they were losing their father, too.

He leaned back against the unforgiving stone wall, crossing his arms over his chest. Bolvar mumbled and Anduin focused on him for a moment. But it was nothing, and Bolvar fell silent, his eyes closed, his breathing slow. Sighing quietly, Anduin tried to relax.

The room was so quiet. The hearthfire crackled behind its iron grate, too far into the wall for the boys to reach in and get burned. They knew better, though. Luciana had, once upon a time, taken a stick and poked it into the fire until it burned and crumbled. She’d warned them that their hands would burn just as easily. Fire, she’d said, would keep them warm in the winter, would keep them company at night - but if they tried to touch it, it would burn them. Just like if someone tried to touch Jillian without permission. The kids had laughed at that, but they’d taken it to heart.

Anduin’s chest tightened. He swallowed. It was hard and he could feel his gorge rising. Stubbornly, he resisted it.

He hadn’t had a moment’s rest since his father’s death, but with Luciana’s disappearance, he hadn’t even had time to catch his breath. Now, in the quiet stillness of his sons’ bedroom, it was catching up to him. He pressed his hand to his mouth, stifling whatever it was that had tried to escape. A cry of pain, a sob, a scream. It didn’t matter.

He hadn’t had a moment to grieve. His father was dead, and the compass the hero had given him today burned him through his coat pocket, and no one seemed to care. Bolvar and Alaric missed him, certainly, but they weren’t quite old enough yet to understand what death really meant. They understood that he was gone, but they didn’t seem to understand the permanence. The distance between him and them.

And Luciana was gone, too, maybe dead, but Anduin refused to consider it. The last time she’d disappeared, she’d come back. Stubborn, stupid warrior that she was, she’d fought Death and won, come back, and changed everything. She would come back this time, too. He felt it in his bones. No one would be bringing her back. She’d come back when she was good and ready.

She just needed a bit of time. She left, but she always came back. She promised.

But in the meantime, Anduin was alone. He had his sons, and in a way he had Wrathion - but he had few to call friend, few that he could welcome into his castle in a time of war. His father was dead, his wife gone only a day later. If he was honest with himself, Anduin was surprised that he was still on his feet and not crumpled into a mess on the floor.

The hearthfire popped loudly, startling him. He’d just given it new logs to feed on throughout the night, and the flames licked merrily along the craggy bark of the wood. Light, he missed them. Both of them. He’d never been without his father, not really. There had been emotional distance between them, and Anduin had spent time in the Exodar, away from him… But he’d never had to question if his father would still be there when Anduin returned. His father had always been there, an immovable part of Anduin’s life. The wall at his back. It was hard to think that he was gone, now. Truly gone.

The room was quiet, and still. Anduin tried to emulate it. He slowed his breathing, closed his eyes, concentrated on the sound of the fire. His chest loosened a bit.

Gods and Light, he could actually think now. His head always felt so heavy and clouded, like it was stuffed full of raw wool. It worried him, but he couldn’t figure out why he felt that way. It was likely just the stress of the war, mixed with the grief of… of losing his father. Without Luciana’s support, something he’d never had to question, he felt unsteady, like the ground beneath his feet could shift at any moment. Or fall out from under him.

He’d questioned that assumption, recently. Wrathion had been watching him closely, and Anduin felt that Shaw was hiding something from him. There were agents being sent on assignment without any official records, and when questioned, Shaw said “routine wartime patrols” and changed the subject.

Wrathion’s red eyes burned holes in Anduin’s back when he knew he was being watched. At first he’d thought Wrathion was going to lie to him again, betray the trust Anduin had given him. Stress had fed paranoia and sleeplessness had exacerbated his mistrust. He hadn’t told anyone, but he’d been close to banishing Wrathion, and if pushed, ousting him as a black dragon hidden in the court. He could easily imagine what people would have done, had this been revealed so crudely and suddenly.

But Alaric liked Wrathion. He calmed in his presence. He hadn’t eaten for two days despite Anduin’s desperate cajoling, but Wrathion’s arrival had Alaric in Wrathion’s lap, eating and talking excitedly and laughing - in Uncle Marcellus’ lap, actually - well, no, it was still Wrathion - but Alaric thought…

Anduin shook his head. His thoughts had run into a disorganized heap again, and it soured his mood. He looked at Alaric, sleeping soundly knowing that his father would protect him. The boys had never shown any hint that they questioned their safety. They’d known since birth that Mama was there to protect them. And Grampa Varian had promised, too, that if anything or anyone ever tried to hurt them, he’d stop it. He’d keep them safe.

Even with the warriors of their family gone, though, they still interacted freely with anyone that was allowed to approach them. Anduin knew it wasn’t fair to isolate them, but he had to be careful. They were so small, so innocent, so fragile… And if anything happened to them…

He shook his head again. The important thing was that they were safe, their guards were trustworthy, and they felt secure enough to laugh and play despite losing their mother only two weeks ago.
Anduin knelt beside Alaric’s bed. He’d been so worried when Alaric had stopped eating. He’d called in healers, he’d called in child-care experts, he’d called in Velen, and Genn and Mia - more experienced parents than he, certainly - and he’d asked Nancy, Luciana’s favourite Cathedral healer, and none of them had had any answer except stress.

Bolvar and Alaric were individuals despite their birth-bond. Bolvar was handling stress differently, perhaps better than Alaric. And when Alaric had stopped eating, Bolvar had started to worry about him, but he’d kept going about his usual daily activities of playing and learning social skills. Anduin, on the other hand hadn’t eaten nor slept for the entirety of those two days.

It was fine now, he reminded himself. Well, very few things were fine, but Alaric was fine. He was eating normally, he was playing with Bolvar and Deacon’s son Liam, he was making up stories about dragons and heroes with his Uncle. Wrathion, Anduin mentally corrected. But he thought he was really his uncle, so wasn’t he his uncle, then, because it was the reception of an idea that counted more than the intended meaning, and…

Anduin pressed his forehead to Alaric’s mattress. Light, sometimes his own head made him want to scream in frustration. He didn’t want to think about that right now!

“Papa?”

Alaric’s sleep-softened voice made Anduin look up. Alaric’s eyes were half-open, his mouth working slowly as he tried to speak.

“It’s okay, Alaric,” Anduin soothed quietly. He gently brushed his hand over Alaric’s hair. “Papa is here.”

“Where’s Mama?”

Anduin’s gorge rose. He blinked away the moisture in his eyes, swallowed thickly. It was a struggle to keep his voice even. “Mama isn’t here right now. But she’ll be back soon.”

“Papa?”

“Yes, my son?” The words trembled when they left his mouth. It was hard to say, sometimes - it only reminded him that he was no one’s son, now. But he loved Alaric. He loved Bolvar. And when Freya returned, he would show that he loved her, too, and he’d missed her. The intent behind his words was sincere - but hadn’t he just been thinking about…?

“Can you stay?”

Alaric’s voice cut cleanly through the fog rolling into Anduin’s head. “You want me to lie down with you?”

“Yes please, Papa.”

“Okay. Scooch over a little bit. There we go. You’re getting big…” Anduin shrugged off his coat, left his shoes on the floor next to it, removed everything except shirt and pants, and pulled Alaric’s favourite throw blanket up to his hips. It was soft and blue on top, with a little golden lion’s head of Stormwind carefully embroidered on a corner, and underneath was soft and woolly. Alaric liked to traced the embroidery and pet the underneath. It calmed him enough that he could fall asleep.

Anduin didn’t intend to stay the entire night. Just long enough for Alaric to fall asleep. He didn’t want Bolvar to feel left out. He’d always been closer to Luciana, somehow, always favoured her a little bit. With her gone, Anduin had to make sure he wasn’t favouring one child over the other. It was easy, when Alaric tended towards clinginess and Bolvar was fully willing to run naked through the streets without a care in the world. Anduin had to be careful with them. So delicate, easily broken... The insidious thought wormed its way into his head, the thought of their protection, of the possibilities, of the danger…

But, he reminded himself. This was why he’d studied holy shields. To protect people, to protect his loved ones, to protect the children he’d always known he would have, to protect the wife he’d been so lucky to have. That he was so lucky to have.

Alaric’s head rested on Anduin’s chest. His father’s arm was warm around his little body, and so Alaric slept, warm and safe. Happy, Anduin hoped, to have his father with him.

Anduin carefully, gently, slowly leaned over to kiss Alaric’s forehead. He sighed softly in his sleep, such a little sound. So trusting of his father. Trusting his father to protect him, to love and care for him.

And something was interfering with that. Something was trying to keep Anduin away from his sons, trying to convince him to keep himself away from them. He knew, now, that it wasn’t his own guilt and grief. It wasn’t just the occasional intrusive thought, or sleepless nights fogging his memory. It was happening too often, had been going on for too long. And the insistence with which it tried to cultivate paranoia, tried to isolate him, angered him. He’d spent his whole life trying to connect people, bridge the gaps between Alliance and Horde, between peoples. Now, to have someone try to separate him from his family… Now, he was angry.

Someone was manipulating him. It wasn’t shadow magic, or fel magic, or natural magics, or Holy, and Anduin didn’t know who he could trust, but he knew it was arcane in nature. And he would find whoever was trying to hurt his sons.

If she were here, Luciana would be able to help him. He’d never had to question his trust in her, and he knew he would never have to. Her ferocity, her fury, burned away anything that tried to control her. She could fight Death itself, and win. She could defy Fate and write history to her will. Goldrinn admired her for that autonomy so much that he’d given her a piece of himself. Just as he had admired Varian’s ability to tame his fury, and given Varian a piece of himself.

The wild god of the hunt, of primal rage, admired them so much he wanted to emulate them. And so he lent them his power in exchange for this exposure, this opportunity to learn and grow as only a mortal could.

Anduin didn’t have an Ancient Guardian, a wild god, at his back. He had himself, and he had the fierce, proud, gentle Light he’d been cultivating since that day in Ironforge.

He would find whoever was trying to hurt his sons.

And he would break them.

Once upon a time, standing guard as Luciana breastfed their sons for the first time, he’d promised her. If anyone tried to hurt their children, I will break them.

I didn’t know you were a shadow priest, she’d said, wonder in her voice, trust in her eyes.

He wasn’t. But there cannot be Light without Shadow. Perhaps now, it was time to let the Shadow do its work. Someone was hiding in the shadows and trying to control him, trying to get him away from his sons. Anduin would reach his hand out to the shadows, and ask them to do his bidding, and they would.

Whoever hides in the shadows has to learn that the shadows will not hide them forever. Sometimes the Light will pierce the veil. Other times, the shadows themselves would turn on them. It took a strong will to turn the shadows, but Anduin was strong.

Luciana had told him so, and if everything was a fever dream, his trust in her was real.

Chapter Text

Luciana sighed heavily. Watching Ruan Zhu try to set up a tent alone was frustrating, but the most she could do to help was hold something steady. Only one thing at a time. And there were a lot of things to hold steady.

“Ruan,” she said loudly, interrupting his struggle with the center pole. “Plant the poles first, then lay the cross beams.”

“But if I lay them, I can’t reach over them to pull the tarp over!”

“You don’t need to reach all the way across the tent, Ruan. Pull it over, here, and I’ll stand under and pull it to the next cross bar, and then you can pull it to the other side.”

“I see!” he said. He let go of the tarp, but it crumpled to the ground around his feet and he tripped. Luciana snapped forward, grabbing the back of his tunic and yanking backwards as hard as she could. He stumbled back a few steps and fell on his behind, staring at her owlishly. If not for Luciana’s lightning reflexes he would have impaled himself on a low corner pole.

“Be careful,” she snapped.

“I’m trying,” he replied, waving at the mess of poles and tarp helplessly. “But I’ve never had to do this alone! Normally it’s three initiates.”

“Why is this so difficult? This is entirely too many poles.” Luciana reached down and yanked a corner pole out of the ground. She perhaps used a bit too much force in it, as well as in her growl of frustration.

“It’s a challenge.”

“Fuck challenges. I’m hungry and tired.”

“You get quite irritable when you are tired.”

She glowered at him, and crumpled the pole in her hand. Ruan’s mouth opened slightly. “How did you do that?” he managed to say.

“Four tall poles, one center pole, four cross bars, tarp,” she said shortly. “Fuck the rest.”

“Good idea.”

He hurried to get the poles in the ground, bracing them with little pikes and tiger-gut twine. The cross bars, he laid out like a square, tying them securely to the corner poles. On the ground he laid out the yak-fur carpet meant to keep them warm at night.

It took a few tries, but he flung the tarp over the first two poles like a fisherman casting his net, and Luciana held it so it wouldn’t slide away while he hurried to the other side to pull it over.

Ruan Zhu tied the corners of the tarp down, adjusted the entrance flap until it was only slightly askew, and then stood with his hands on his hips and a victorious, toothy smile on his face.

“There!” he said, satisfied with his work. “Not as pretty as the others, but who cares?”

“It’s functional,” Luciana said shortly, yanking her tightly-rolled bedroll from the top of her pack. With a flick of her wrist she had it open, and it fell to the group with a puff of dust. “When’s the last time this carpet was cleaned.”

“Um…”

“Don’t answer that.”

She fell heavily to a knee, twisted on her way down, and fell on her back on her bedroll. It wasn’t exactly as comfortable as her bed back home - and it didn’t smell like Anduin - but it was padded enough that she could fall asleep, and that mattered more than anything.

“I will set a fire,” Ruan Zhu said. “By the time the sun sets, dinner will be ready!”

“I’d say that gives you… ten minutes.”

“Right after the sun sets, dinner will be ready!”

Luciana only sighed heavily, trying to settle onto the bed roll. They’d taken the first few days slowly, one step at a time, but there had been warm beds waiting for them by nightfall. But now they’d hit the forested area between Kun Lai and the Jade Forest, and it was rough going. And Luciana tired so quickly… Carrying the heavy pack was a burden on which she’d insisted, but she wished she didn’t have to.

She knew Ruan Zhu would carry it for her, but she was stubborn. She knew she had the physical strength for it, but whatever they’d done to her shoulder, it hurt. It didn’t feel right. At first she thought it was just the pain of losing a limb, and her body needed time to readjust. She knew her body, though: and just as she’d known something was wrong when her placenta had shifted, causing Freya’s early birth, she knew something was wrong now.

She didn’t want to worry Ruan Zhu, and she couldn’t even tell him what was wrong, just that something… something was off. Something wasn’t going the way it was supposed to and it hurt, and it sapped her energy like a bleeding head wound. Her shoulder felt lumpy and inflamed, and she worried that it had somehow become infected inside the stump. When they got to Binan, she’d seek out a healer. She wasn’t looking forward to another awkward encounter with a pandaren who’d never seen a human, but...

“Ready!” Ruan Zhu cried, flinging the flap open. Luciana was hit with a noseful of roasted meat and hot apple cider - Varian’s favourite, she remembered with a stab somewhere near her heart. “I hope you are hungry!”

She grumbled something unintelligible, sitting up by flinging her arm forward to shift her weight. Ruan Zhu narrowly avoided getting his knees taken out. With a graceful flourish he presented her with a wide, shallow wooden bowl full of tiger meat, long grain white rice, red sauce, and some kind of fresh green herb mixed into it. A single sprig sat on top of the slab of meat to decorate.

“Thanks,” she said, taking the bowl. She set it in her lap, positioning it carefully so it wouldn’t fall. Ruan Zhu waited patiently, and then handed her a spoon with little slots cut into it. She held it up for closer inspection. “Is there someone whose sole job is to carve sporks?”

“What’s a spork?”

“This is a spork.”

“No, that’s a kuat-jo,” he said, settling down on his own bedroll with food in hand.

“It’s a spork.”

“What is a spork?”

“Spoon-fork.” She turned it sideways. “Yep, it’s a spork.”

“It’s a kuat-jo.”

“It’s a spork.”

Ruan Zhu looked up at her, a strip of meat dangling from between his canines. In one wide paw, he held a large piece of tiger meat delicately between his claws. “It’s a kuat-jo.”

“What’s a kuat-jo?”

“That is.”

“Okay, but what is it? Is it a spoon? Or a fork?”

“It’s… a kuat-jo.” Luciana stared at him blankly for a good few seconds. Long enough that his ears went back. “It’s a kuat-jo!” he said defensively. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

She stabbed it into the tiger meat in her bowl. Using the spork-kuat-jo, she hefted the meat up to her mouth. “Nevermind,” she said, right before biting into the meat. Bloody juice dribbled down her chin, but she was currently suffering from a distinct lack of a second hand to catch it with, so she ignored it as it dripped onto her borrowed grey tunic.

She felt exposed without her armor. If she’d had both arms, maybe it would be different, but she was vulnerable right now. She’d left it with the monks at the Temple of the Jade Serpent, safe there until she could retrieve it. Or send them a letter to keep it safe in their storeroom for one of her descendants.

“Do you need a hand?” he asked.

“Was that a joke?” Chewing loudly, she looked at him over her shoulder.

His ears were flat against his head, his eyes wide and brows up. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I did not… I didn’t…!”

“Ruan. Breathe.”

He pressed a palm to his chest and, staring at her, breathed in deeply. “I am,” he said quickly.

“... Nevermind,” she murmured, turning away. She wished she was alone, right then. She wished she didn’t have to deal with Ruan Zhu’s apologies, which he’d be spouting at her for the next hour as he had in the Monastery. She didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to talk or be looked at.

But she needed him. He was the only person in Pandaria that she knew of that spoke Common, the same Common that was known in her era. If something attacked she might not be able to defend herself without him. And, Light, she couldn’t even get her pants tied properly with one hand.

But gods, she just wanted to be alone. She just wanted to be home.

“Ama?”

Ruan Zhu’s voice was quiet, and so soft Luciana almost didn’t hear him. “What?” she said.

“I am truly sorry.”

She clenched her jaws and felt her temples jump. She didn’t want to deal with his fucking guilt. She breathed in slowly. “It’s not you,” she said evenly. “It’s the fact that I’m missing an arm and a way back home. Not. You.

“I… I know. I’m sorry that I cannot do more for you.”

She lifted her head, breathed in slowly, held it for a moment. “Eat your food, Ruan,” she said, keeping her tone even, her voice low and quiet.

“... Do you need a healer?”

“Eat. Your food.”

She heard a distinct, purposefully clack of wood on wood. He chewed loudly. “Do you need a healer?” he asked.

She didn’t respond. She was so tired, suddenly, so worn out and tired and angry. She was tired of his incessant questions and endless chatter. And she knew it was the pain that was making her so angry at him, and she knew it wasn’t fair, but she didn’t have the emotional capacity anymore to resist it.

“I need you to be silent tonight, Ruan,” she said.

“I understand, my friend.”

He fell silent, and continued to eat. She was almost surprised that he’d listened to her so easily - respected her wish for silence without wanting to know why, why, why.

She would thank him, tomorrow maybe. She didn’t want him to feel that she was unappreciative. She was just… so tired. She felt drained.

Luciana leaned forward over her food. She wasn’t hungry anymore. Her appetite had fled. She forced some more food down. Drank some cider. Her stomach roiled and tried to rebel. The fire in her stump was spreading up into her neck, her head, down into her chest. Her back ached fiercely and being hunched over like a gargoyle wasn’t helping.

She stopped eating. Ruan Zhu held his hand out, offering to take her bowl out for her to store the uneaten food in one of his bamboo containers. She handed it up to him without looking up.

She just wanted to cry. She wanted to hunker down against Anduin in their bed and cry. She was so damn tired and everything hurt and her fucking arm was off and everything smelled strange and foreign, and she could only talk to one person, and she was tired.

Ruan Zhu entered the tent again a few minutes later, looked at her, and ducked back out. “I am going fishing,” he said loudly, facing away from the tent, and she heard his exaggerated footsteps moving away, far away into the woods.

“If you get lost I’m letting you rot out there,” she snarled, vicious suddenly. Unfairly vicious, so much so that it stung at her instead of him.

And she cried.

Chapter Text

The Broken Shore was aptly named. The land was shattered, scattered about like autumn leaves on cobblestone paths. But the ocean’s edge, here, was much less forgiving than the cobbled roads of Stormwind. Each passing day seemed to break the land more and more, unraveling its edges and sending the crumbled waste to the bottom of the sea.

The air was still and heavy. What wind there was came from the movements of the Legion ships hanging like fetid bones in the sickly green sky. Sickly sweet rot infected the ground, the air, the sea. If you set a fire on the Broken Shore, it’d be fel-green within the hour.

It was damp, too. Clothing stuck to you like tar, like bed sheets soaked in cold sweat and vomit. It made Anduin’s skin crawl. No amount of washing would salvage these clothes, he felt. He’d have to salt and burn them before going home. If he brought them into Stormwind, into the Keep, he’d likely bring some infectious disease with him.

Perhaps the worst part of the Broken Shore was the restless terror, the confusion and fear that came from waiting for something you couldn’t imagine. The dead lingered, torn out of their bodies, broken and eaten by fel horror. And then their souls captured and consumed by fel engines. Slowly consumed by fel fire…

Anduin shuddered. He could not imagine a worse fate. Your very soul being eaten, bit by bit, infected and rotting. Pain of the soul was infinitely worse than pain of the body. Within the soul engine, there was nothing to mute it.

No. The worst part of the Broken Shore was knowing that this was the last thing his father had known. Possibly, Genn had argued, the last thing Luciana had known. Anduin refused to believe that she was dead. Statistically speaking, she’d be back within a few months, and she was stubborn enough to survive anything Fate used against her.

But she wasn’t here now, and Anduin had to pick up the burden she’d been forced to drop. War leader, champion to her people, warrior, and hero. He’d seen the sacrifices made by his father, by Bolvar, by so many like them. Luciana had been prepared to give the same. He could do no less.

Shalamayne was heavy in his hand, but her heart sung loud enough to drown out the perpetual screaming of the sky’s fel wound. Light shone from her so brightly that the ground beneath Anduin’s feet turned brown where before it had been fetid and too-bright green.

“Anduin,” Velen said softly. His voice broke through Anduin’s racing thoughts. Racing. Not jumbled, not muddled or circular. He could see clearly now, see the path he’d stepped onto and where it would take him. Where he had to go.

“Genn. Thank you,” Anduin said, eyes rising from Shalamayne’s shining heart. The Light within its steel cast shadows on Genn’s aged face, but his eyes were light as the spring sky. Palest blue, as Varian’s had been.

Genn placed a heavy hand on Anduin’s shoulder, squeezing tightly for a brief moment. “We do what we must for the people we love,” he said softly.

Velen’s hand was light on Anduin’s other shoulder. “You must carry this burden, but take care that it does not consume you,” he said. Anduin’s hand tightened around Shalamayne’s hilt and her heart flashed in response, eager for his touch, eager to feel the fury rising from his heart. Not anger. Not wrath. Fury. At the injustice suffered by his people, by his allies, by any denizen of Azeroth, by anyone, at the hands of the Legion.

But Velen’s advice was sound. Anduin was a priest of the Holy Light. He’d cultivated his own Light, and he could feel it ever-present within his heart. It filled him with righteous fury, the burning need not to avenge these atrocities, but to protect what remained, to protect whoever was within his reach. To stop the Legion at any cost. To prevent suffering, to shield Azeroth from the burning fel skies and crumbling, dead ground that was the cost of the Legion’s arrival.

Shalamayne was a weapon of war. Though it responded to Anduin, so eager that it seemed to have been waiting for him, he knew it wasn’t his to bear. Still, it was his Light within her heart, his will that she found to match her own, his fury that she accepted, even encouraged. She would be his focus, then, a magical conduit for his wrathful and protective spells alike.

Her other half lay in the ground somewhere inland. He felt it tug at his mind, a gentle thing, like Alaric tugging his hand to ask to be picked up. So markedly different from the insistent pulling and pushing of the last few months. He turned to look inland, to find a path to take him where he needed to go.

“What do you see?” Genn asked, moving forward to take a defensive position to Anduin’s left.

“Her other half,” he replied. “It seems to be… somewhere else. There.” He lifted Shalamayne, her weight easy in his hand. It felt almost as though she’d picked herself up. He pointed with her, his Light shimmering eagerly within her heart.

“I will send a Tribius to find it,” Velen said. A protector, a healer, and an enactor of the Light’s justice. Three paladins would be able to sense Anduin’s Light within Shalamayne’s other half, and retrieve it safely for him.

“Thank you,” Anduin said quietly. Distractedly. Genn turned to him and for a moment, Anduin saw his father’s eyes, pale blue and keenly observant.

“We need to return to Stormwind,” Genn said, his gravel-and-sand tones so different from Varian’s clear voice. “It’s not safe here. We’ve lingered long enough - no doubt they sense you are here.”

As though in response to Genn’s words, a terrible, whining horn sounded from above. Anduin’s gaze snapped up to the Legion ship that hovered over them, watching as it turned to point away from them.

“We must leave!” Genn snapped, grabbing Anduin’s arm. He resisted, a frown creasing his brow.

“No,” he said, his voice hard. “Not yet.”

“My King,” Genn said through gritted teeth. He’d never quite adjusted to Varian being High King, not truly Genn’s equal, and now he had Anduin, a much younger and less experienced High King. But he paid respects all the same. “We must leave. They’ll be flooding this place with demons in mere moments!”

Velen added his voice. “He is right, Anduin. I know that you wish to avenge your father’s death, but now is not the time.”

“I don’t wish for vengeance,” Anduin replied. He squeezed Shalamayne’s hilt and she responded eagerly, like a cat pouncing for a treat. “This… This will be a demonstration. Step back.”

There was no room in his tone for argument. Reluctantly, Genn stepped away. Anduin felt his eyes burning holes in his dark robe. He ignored it.

To bring the wrath of the Light to bear was normally a momentous task. To ask the Light to judge was one thing. Justice was something that anyone could ask for. The total annihilation of a target was a matter entirely to itself, one not taken lightly.

But here, in the Broken Shore, surrounded by atrocities so terrible that no one dared name them, the Light filled him the moment he opened his heart to its glory. It surged from without, meeting the Light he held within, and poured forth until it permeated his entire being.

It branched out through his hand into Shalamayne, whose steel accepted it readily. Shalamayne was a weapon of war. Thousands and thousands of years had passed since her creation. But she held up to a torrent of holy wrath as though she were meant for it, as though her enchantments were fresh from the forge and her heart new as the dawn.

The sights and sounds of the Broken Shore faded away from Anduin. For a moment, all he saw was white. He felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nor smelled. A heavy hand landed on his shoulder.

“For the Alliance.” His father’s voice echoed in his head. He spoke softly, gently, as though fearing he would wake someone. “For Azeroth,” he said. “For my son.”

Varian had fought so hard to protect what he loved. Anduin could do no less, or he would dishonor his father, whom he loved. Despite Varian’s faults, despite his weaknesses, he’d tried his best, had learned how to be a father to Anduin, and had loved him more than anything.

“For you,” Anduin murmured, his voice nearly silent. For everyone, for everything, that the Legion wished to destroy, he would fight.

He raised Shalamayne, pointing her at the Legion ship that had moved into position above them. Already, fel bats swooped from its exposed innard, and flying doomguards prepared to leap from its metal embrace to blanket the land in fel magic.

Shalamayne’s heart surged with power and the Light’s righteous fury. Though the Light’s wrath was not easy to summon, it responded to Anduin immediately, easily, flowing through him so smoothly that he could not feel the barrier between it and him.

“For the Light,” he said, his voice echoing with the words of countless others who had stood their ground to defend what they loved.

Shalamayne’s heart surged once more, and as the Light within her faded, the clouds in the sky above the Legion ship and its flying demons yawned opened. Glorious, blinding light flashed down upon them, instantly incinerating anything exposed to its radiance. The ship dissolved in seconds, the horrible shriek of bending metal hardly reaching Anduin’s ears past the Light still radiating from him.

Only seconds passed, but to Anduin, it felt like an eternity. Memories that were not his own flitted through his mind, minnows in a pond, too fast to catch, there when they weren’t. He saw his own birth, he saw Elwynn and Stormwind before the sacking, he saw the Stonemason riots, he saw himself, so young and fragile and full of burning curiosity and hope. He saw Luciana sitting before him - she looked so small, and nervous, and he wanted nothing more than to help her - and he saw a gladiator ring, blood on his twin swords that weren’t actually his, and Broll and Valeera there by his side, and so much more.

He was sure that hours had passed while he stood upon the ground of his father’s death, but in reality, in the reality outside of his mind, only a few seconds more had passed. The sky was still bright, though it was fading quickly as the Light receded. The empty pocket of air where there had once been a great and terrible Legion ship had yet to be filled. The air still echoed with ten thousand shrieks, ten thousand dead demons. Genn had yet to react, and Velen…

Anduin lowered Shalamayne, and looked over his shoulder at Velen. His expression was unreadable, his perpetual faint glow smothered by Anduin’s Light, by its sheer power.

“Now, we definitely have to go,” Genn said. “As impressive as that was, the Legion will not let such a strong gesture pass without retribution.”

“We will go,” Anduin said. “Now that they know that we’re strong enough to fight back, I will return to Stormwind. There is something I must do.”

“A portal to Stormwind will open momentarily, and we may step through,” Velen said. A moment later, a draenei mage sprinted up the incline in the path and came to a rough stop in front of them. She was breathing hard, but her hands were already up and forming the promised portal.

“I saw you… arriving,” she panted, her eyes narrowed in concentration. “It’s too dangerous for you to linger here, Prophet, Your Majesties. Please. I am opening a portal to Stormwind. Please step through immediately! We cannot lose either of you! Not here, not now!”

“Thank you, Naemete,” Anduin said softly. “For everything you’ve done for her.”

“It was an honour to serve with her,” Naemete said, but she was distracted by her magic as its edges formed into a true portal. “Now please, return to safety!”

“Will you be safe?” Genn asked.

“The moment you are clear, I will teleport anyway. Hurry!

Genn glared at Anduin. “You, first,” he growled, knowing Anduin’s propensity of flight. Smiling gently, Anduin willingly went first through the portal.

He stepped away immediately, making room for Velen to come through a second later. Genn hurried through, and it snapped shut behind him, almost catching the tail of his cloak on the other side. Anduin saw a surge of fel as it closed, and he worried for Naemete, but he knew how skilled she was with portals. Teleportation would be a quick and easy affair for her, even in the fetid, fel-infected magical atmosphere of the Broken Isles.

“I’m going to make sure things haven’t fallen apart,” Genn said, his voice still holding a hint of the beast. He’d been prepared to shift, to fight, had Naemete not arrived when she had. “You,” he said, pointing at Anduin. “For the sake of all things holy, stay in the castle where you’re safe.”

“I’ll double my guard for the next few days,” Anduin promised, a smile rising unbidden on his face. Genn harrumphed, but accepted the apologetic gesture.

Naemete had always had a tendency to use the courtyard in the Keep for her portals, rather than the much more crowded Mage Tower. It afforded Luciana more privacy and ease of movement, as well as safety in landing.

In this case, it gave Anduin a quiet place to ease out of his heightened state. Velen stood with him, understanding his need for silence, for a moment to pause and let his head clear of burning, furious Light.

“You have grown so much in so little time,” Velen said, his voice low and rumbling like thunder in the distant clouds. “Your father would be proud, could he see you now.”

“I’m sure he can,” Anduin said quietly. He looked down at Shalamayne, whose heart glowed ever-burning with his Light. She was calm now, not satisfied or sated by blood, but content that her duty was done for the day. She’d served him, as she’d served his father, served as a tool for their ordering will to be done in a chaotic world. It was strange to think about. Eerie, too, that it was so easy to consider himself as an ordering authority in a world gone mad. Dangerous to think about.

Peeking out from beneath his sleeve was the leather cuff he’d had made to hold the fragment of shell Alaric had given him. L.A.W. stood out in thin, scratchy lettering. Luciana had known, perhaps always, how easy it was to fall into her authority, and she’d tempered it with a humility so extreme that she sometimes forgot her authority. But it had kept her in check. Anduin had to have a check, or many, for himself.

“Velen,” he said.

“Yes, Anduin?”

“I don’t ever want to become a tyrant.”

“Sometimes a tyrant is necessary to end chaos. It is what comes after the tyrant that decides whether it was for the best.”

Anduin breathed in deeply. The Keep’s upper courtyard smelled of sweet, musky flowers and fresh green grass. He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. “Then let me fall, if I become a tyrant.”

“You need not worry,” Velen soothed. “You will not fall to corruption. You are safe here.”

“Not from myself, Velen. It’s myself I’m worried about.”

“You have people around you that you care for more than you will ever care for power. They will keep you in check. Though you will at times find it necessary to execute your ultimate power over the Alliance, you will not be allowed to become who you are not. Your friends and family love you too much to allow this.”

As though he’d read Anduin’s mind, and perhaps he had seen a flitting thought or two, Velen eased Anduin’s worry. He and Genn, for one, would keep Anduin’s power in line, advising him away from extremeness in either direction. The other leaders, calling upon him when they needed the full might of their Alliance, would remind him of his full responsibilities. Tyrande and the dwarven council would never let him get uppity with them. Light, Tyrande was over ten thousand years old! Why wasn’t she leading?

“Remind me to ask Tyrande to take on Commander in Chief,” Anduin said, laughter in his voice. “I think she might have the necessary experience.”

“I shall write to her myself, if you’d like,” Velen responded, a smile on his old, ageless face.

“Thank you.”

“I shall leave you to your thoughts for tonight,” Velen said. “Perhaps… a visit with your children might help lighten your heart?”

“I think so,” Anduin said. “And then, I have work to do.”

“I know.” Velen’s voice gave it away. He’d seen, already, what Anduin was going to do. Anduin wanted to question why Velen had said nothing, done nothing, but… it was obvious. If whoever was behind it knew they were being searched out, Anduin could lose the only lead he had in the matter. And he wasn’t about to let this go. “I will see you tomorrow, then, my King.” He said it without bitterness or joy - it was simply a fact of being, to him, that Anduin was currently the highest leader of the Alliance. Before him was Varian, before Varian was Terenas. And after Anduin would be someone else.

But right now, he was High King, and it was high time he took the full weight of that role onto his shoulders. He knew he could bear it. And if he faltered in his inexperience, the other leaders of his Alliance would be able to help. Light willing they wouldn’t make too many jokes at his expense, but… he didn’t have to worry. None of Stormwind’s allies were in the habit of cannibalizing their friends. And this way, when Luciana returned, things would be in order. There would be something for her to return to, not a smoke crater in the bedrock.

“She’ll come back,” Anduin whispered to himself. A faint buzz threatened at the back of his mind. He clenched his hand around Shalamayne’s hilt and fancied that she hummed at him, her sentience sensing his disquiet. The leather cuff was warm around his wrist. “You’ll be back.”

It was the one thing he had to believe, the one thing he couldn’t question. The other tethers were rope, and could snap under too much weight. Hers was a mithril ring, and three sapphires, and a thin line of silver, and a daughter in a faraway land waiting for her mother to come back. And two sons at their dinner table, about to be surprised by a father so happy to see them that he could cry.

Chapter Text

The journey to the Temple of the White Tiger was hard on Luciana. Her shoulder ached and burned as though the wound were fresh, though the skin was unmarked and long since closed. The pain made her nauseous and furious in equal measures, and more than once she’d nearly lost her temper on an undeserving target. Ruan Zhu remained patient with her, but he’d taken to watching her warily when her silence went on too long. He tried to distract her, often, when they settled in for the night. Letting her think and ruminate was dangerous.

They’d fallen in with a group of travellers, an excitable mix of merchants and pilgrims wanting to sell their wares or ask for strength and knowledge from the Celestial in the north. Luciana had little patience for them. They were loud and boisterous, and her near-permanent migraine did not mix well with the atmosphere of the group.

Still, Ruan Zhu was ecstatic to be among so many strangers. They brought tales from all over Pandaria: from the Krasarang wilds came a merchant family who made regular trips north to south, bringing buyable wares such as exotic herbs and precious stones across the continent. Three brothers from the Valley of the Four Winds wanted to see the Temple of the White Tiger and learn to fight from the Disciples of the White Tiger. Strangers, now friends, came from the Jade Forest and even from beyond the wall to travel together.

And then there was Luciana. A stranger to Pandaria and its customs, her knowledge of modern-day jinyu and the Tushui pandaren of the Alliance helped her little. She could not speak to them or entertain them, and the amount of fat they consumed in their day to day food made her feel ill.

Worst of all, they stared. She could understand their curiosity, but pandaren stared as though it weren’t rude - and perhaps to them, it wasn’t. But it grated on her nerves and every time she was within range of their eyes and ears, Ruan Zhu would tap her good shoulder gently to remind her to ease her face out of the snarl it had taken without her knowledge. She’d already frightened away a good number of them. Ruan Zhu explained to them that her arm was a recent wound, but it could only do so much to ease her tension. Knowing she was wounded only made them more curious.

She found that self-isolation worked best. When she took to the farthest corner of the camp set up each night, sitting in solitary silence, they tended to realize she wasn’t in a sociable mood.

She couldn’t go far, mind. Luciana hated it, but she was no longer able to fight while her shoulder pained her with an invisible ailment. It ruined her concentration, made her dizzy and nauseous, and while she could correct her balance and movements enough for a short scuffle, she hadn’t yet had the time to retrain herself to fight one-armed, without a weapon, and could easily see herself stumbling in a crucial moment.

The only positive side to being in this group was, for Luciana, the cubs they’d brought with them. The merchant family had four young ones, one a single child for the moment, the others siblings, two of which were twins. They were completely without fear or caution around her, even when she snapped something in a language they didn’t speak when one touched her bad shoulder or squealed too loudly. She could warn them away from something she didn’t like, and they’d just move somewhere else. For instance, hanging off her good shoulder, or ducking around her legs to scramble after each other.

Ruan Zhu, at first, had tried to shoo them away, but Luciana had quieted him. “They’re bored,” she said. “As long as they’re quiet, I don’t mind them. Better they entertain themselves with me than wander into the wilds and get eaten.”

And they did entertain themselves with her. They touched her scarred face almost reverently, pulled at her rough-shorn hair, petted her furless legs and arm and made a game of hanging onto her when she stood. The one that could cling longest to her leg or back or arm won the round.

Mostly, however, they seemed fascinated with her face. More than once she showed her teeth when a brave cub stuck their furry paws into her mouth. The guilty cub would squeal and yank their paw away before laughing in delight. She had no idea what they said to each other, but… Well, they were children. The twins were nothing like Alaric and Bolvar but knowing they were near reminded her of the children she’d left behind. Yu’lon had hinted that there was a way back, that Luciana shouldn’t commit so soon to the path she’d chosen to take. If there was a way home…

She brushed the thought away. Not now. She had to find what was wrong with her shoulder before she could do anything else.

A cub’s paw scraped against her bad shoulder and she snarled suddenly, loudly, flinching to the left to instinctively protect herself. The cub shied away, and for a moment they were all silent before they teamed up on the guilty cub, perhaps to shame him for hurting Luciana. Before long they were back to their play, though now Luciana’s entire torso throbbed in time with her quickened heartbeat.

At least the pain would keep her warm. They’d already passed two waypoints and the air here was thin and bitingly cold. Not as cold as Stormwind, but she already felt so cold. She wondered if part of it was the dull hopelessness that had infected her somewhere between the Monastery and Binan Village.

The kids were called away when the last bit of sunlight was gone for the night. They rejoined their family, their parents and aunts and uncles, to huddle into their warmth for a good night’s sleep. Not all of the cubs were allowed near Luciana, a furless, fatless stranger with a harsh alien tongue and too many scars to count. They eyed her with burning curiosity, but they were good cubs and stayed with their parents.

Ruan Zhu came to her when the rest of the camp was settled in to sleep. “Come, Maneka helped me set up our tent. It should be nice and warm by now - I put some coals from the fire in it earlier.”

Luciana stood stiffly, grunting when she straightened her back. The cold did nothing good for her joints or her fiercely aching back, and this time Anduin wasn’t here to ease it.

Maybe she would lie on her stomach with a coal in the small of her back. It would be nicely warm by now, not too hot, and she’d be able to breathe. She wouldn’t wake up again, still still with sleep paralysis, unable to defend herself against the twisted, nightmarish orcs that clawed at her face, and the undead monstrosities that harvested her guts.

Ruan Zhu had learned long ago that for her, staring for more than a few seconds was rude. She’d snapped at him to commission a painting properly, then he’d be able to stare at it all day, and he’d jumped in surprise at the vehemence in her voice. They’d gotten over the misunderstanding as they had many others. But he couldn’t help looking when she pulled her heavy coat off, leaving her in a sleeveless goat-fur jerkin to sleep. The scars littering her arms were no doubt what drew his eyes in lines up and down and criss-crossing her dark skin. She paid him no mind as she carefully kneeled on her bedroll.

Light, keep us tonight as we lay down to rest under your warmth and protection. Guide us to pleasant dreams. Let us visit with those we have lost and ease the pain of our hearts. Tonight, let us remember that it is your glory to which we aspire. Remind us that your radiance is what gives us life, and fills our heart with hope with each new day. In the morning, let us wake with joy in our hearts, for our souls rest tonight with the Light.

The prayer seemed stale and repetitive. She’d said it every night so far before lying down to try and sleep. At least, every night when her mind hadn’t been dulled, swamped in medicine and pain.

Carefully, she laid on her front, turning her head away from Ruan Zhu. If he was staring again, at least she could ignore it. Her right shoulder ached the moment it touched the bedroll, but it was a familiar pain by now and she could almost forget about it if she breathed slowly and counted her exhales.

A fierce windstorm woke her in the middle of the night. It was rattling their tent poles like old bones and Ruan Zhu was already sitting up, blearily rubbing his eyes with the black palm pads of his paws. “Wha’s goin’ on?” he yawned, showing a black tongue and pink mouth.

“The wind must have knocked down some of their tents,” Luciana said, listening to the chaos outside. “You should go and see if they need help.”

“Right, I will,” he said, stumbling to his feet and shuffling out of the tent.

Luciana tried to listen to the voices echoing in her ears. She’d already learned some individual Pandaren words and could, if pressed, ask politely for food or brew or a bathroom. Or, alternatively, swear. But she was tired and the wind was too loud and the camp too chaotic for her to hear anything familiar.

Ruan Zhu’s sudden reappearance startled her, and she gazed up from the tent floor with wide eyes. “They’re packing up,” he said, wide awake now. “A trio of grummles came up to one of our watchers not ten minutes ago to warn of the snowstorm.”

“How long do we have?” Luciana said, easily getting to her feet. She marveled for a moment at how smooth her movements were. Hopefully she could achieve that sureness permanently, and soon.

“An hour, maybe. Hopefully.”

“Where are we going? Shelter, I presume.”

“There is a small series of caves not too far away that grummles use regularly on the path to the summit. If we hurry we can reach them.”

“That’s off our path, though.”

“Yes, but if we do not go, we may not survive. If it were the two of us, we might be able to huddle into a rock and last the storm. But all of us?”

Luciana bit back her reply - let them die, then - because she knew it was only bitterness and spite that made her think it. Instead, she held open her pack so Ruan Zhu could hurriedly stuff everything into it. Then she shrugged on her heavy woven coat, the right arm tied to keep the wind off her stump, and got the pack onto her left shoulder. Ruan Zhu had helped her tie a rope around her chest and waist to even out the weight without pressing a strap painfully into her stump.

The moment they stepped out of their tent four pandaren rushed to collapse it and pack it away with the others. They had goats to carry the heavier weights such as the tents and food supplies, and Luciana could see the merchant family’s adults expertly strapping everything onto the goats. Whether it belonged to them or not, everyone was packing up everything in the camp. Soon only the fire pits would remain, and even those would be emptied of warm stones and coals to carry the warmth.

“What can we do?” Luciana asked, unused to being on the sidelines of a busy group.

“Stay out of their way,” Ruan Zhu said, dodging as two people hurried past him. “The merchants have been traveling this area for many years. I think they know what they’re doing.”

Luciana hummed quietly, mostly to herself. Mostly just to feel the vibration in her throat, to make sure she wasn’t still asleep. Her shoulder hurt but she felt numb now, still cold not from the wind but from something inside. Absently she reached up to feel at her stump, feel the odd lumps. A new one seemed to have sprouted overnight. Maybe she wouldn’t live long enough to get home.

She dug her fingers, hard, into her stump, and bit back the howl of pain. Her eyes quickly filled with tears. How dare you? She asked herself, are you or are you not a warrior? Will you surrender like a coward, or will you fight?

Fight. The answer was always that she would fight. She dropped her hand, her fingers stiffened from the sudden pain into claws. She flexed her hand into a fist, several times, and they eased. She let the tears of pain fall down her face.

“Are you alright?” Ruan Zhu asked. “You are crying. Is it your shoulder?”

“I’ll be fine for tonight.” Her voice was normal, almost, and he let it go.

The group seemed to decide as one to leave their campsite, and suddenly Luciana was being swept up by a tide of moving bodies and yelling adults and bleating goats. A cub cried out, hurrying back and forth looking for someone. When he spotted Luciana, his eyes seem to lock onto her like a guided missile from an airship gun. He made a beeline towards her, dodging feet and hooves, and climbed up her pants like a monkey until he reached her pack. He settled on the top of it and started to scan the crowd.

Ruan Zhu spoke to the little cub. “He’s looking for his mother,” he said to Luciana. “But he can’t find her.”

“I’m sure she’s with us. No one was left at the camp.”

“I’m sure.” Ruan Zhu continued to speak with the cub, effectively distracting him. Luciana heard his nickname for her, Ama, a few times, and surmised that he was telling the cub something about her arrival. Pandaren loved stories, and she certainly had made a dramatic one.

They moved slowly as large groups were wont to do. Luciana briefly saw three grummles at the head of their herd, guiding the travelers like a lighthouse to safety. At least they knew where they were going. When the storm passed and the grummles moved on they’d take a few little tokens from the group as lucky-dos.

She remembered from her time in the Jade Forest the lessons she’d learned from the jinyu of the various denizens of Pandaria. Grummles were strange folk to them. They liked things with strong smells, which is why when buying yaks from them you’d have to make sure to give them a good wash first. And they liked tokens with strong meanings attached to them. They kept used incense sticks from successful trips for luck on future ones: they took little hand-made tokens from those they helped for prosperity and safety. The smellier, the better. No doubt they’d get something made with goat fur from this group.

The cub added a difficult weight to her pack, and her back screamed at her constantly now, but she stood as straight as she could and pressed on. The cub, she imagined, felt lost and near panic, but having someone he knew - albeit an alien to his lands - and someone to talk to would be soothing to the little one.

She almost laughed. Someone he knew, even though they were an alien. It reminded her of how she’d felt with Enaeon for the first few months. A real alien, from an entirely different world so far that they didn’t even share stars in the night sky, had been a soothing presence to her. They’d talked about little of import for the first little while, but it had been enough. Luciana hoped it would be enough for the little cub.

Time passed slowly, and the winds cut at them as the sky darkened. The grummles didn’t seem worried, though some of the adult pandaren were far from happy with the situation. They did reach the caves in time, but they were hardly large enough to fit everyone comfortably. So, being pandaren, they piled in practically on top of each other, quite comfortable and ready to snooze past the storm now that they were safe.

“Will you help him find his mother?” Luciana asked, bracing her weight with bent knees as Ruan Zhu helped the little one down from her pack. She could nearly taste the relief of the lack of weight on her back.

“Yes, she should be in here somewhere,” Ruan Zhu said. “I think you can find a spot clear of bodies somewhere if you go now, before it’s all occupied,” he said, smiling toothily at her. He knew already of the difference in sleeping habits of their two races, and he knew therefore that Luciana would rather shoot herself in the foot than sleep between at least three furred, warm, snoring bodies.

She did find a little spot to herself, tucked away in the back corner of the cave. The location bothered her, as it would be difficult to get out of in case a fight broke out. But with so many others nearby, a fight was unlikely. Those many were pandaren, and when a storm had them squatting in a cave they’d rather sleep and eat than fight and waste precious energy.

Luciana watched as the cub became increasingly frantic. He was one of the twins, she realized. “Ruan!” she called, her clear, commanding voice attracting more than a few curious pairs of eyes. “Is she here?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered, approaching her. The cub was now clinging to his leg, making it difficult to walk. And the cub was also crying, soaking trails into the fur on his round face. “And he cannot find his brother, either. No one has seen them.”

The cub wailed at Luciana, and she looked to Ruan Zhu for a translation. “He thinks it’s his fault. He was playing in the river not far from camp, watching the fish, when the storm came. His mother must have gone to look for him.”

“And brought the cub with her?”

As though in response to Luciana’s question, the cub’s twin brother latched onto Ruan Zhu’s other leg, also crying and wailing.

“Apparently not,” Ruan grimaced.

Without any preemptive thought, Luciana stood. “Keep them safe,” she said to Ruan Zhu.

“Where are you going?” he asked, eyes popping wide with surprise. “You cannot go find her! Not in your condition, and not alone in a snow storm!”

“Snow is no stranger to me,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I can move faster than a group and I have experience in tracking.” What she didn’t tell him was that already she could feel the ease of breath that came with Goldrinn’s influence. If she called on him he’d leap forward, giving her the strength and speed of an Ancient Guardian to find the cubs’ mother and reunite them. Family, she recalled suddenly, was one thing Goldrinn would never forsake. The drive to protect his pack was the same instinct that had Luciana protect her children. Of course he would lend his strength to her for this. “Trust me, Ruan.”

“Reluctantly, since I think this is a very bad idea,” he said, eyeing her. “But alright. I’ll let the others know, and one or two of us will stay up to watch for you.”

“Thank you.”

She kneeled down in front of the cubs, who sniffed almost in unison and watched her with sad, watery eyes. “I will find your mother,” she said softly. “I won’t be gone long. Be good.”

She heard Ruan Zhu translating her words even as she slipped away, limbs filled with a strength she hadn’t felt since the Broken Shore.

The cold nipped her skin. Curious, it seemed, of this stranger and her ghostly patron. Her stump was comfortable numb for the moment, maybe Goldrinn’s blessing, maybe the cold through her coat. She stood still for a moment at the top of the path, seeing it wind down like a serpent around stone and hill. Luciana could clearly see the trail they’d taken from their real path. It led down into the scraggy wilds at the southern border of Kun Lai, where they’d camped for the night before the windstorm had screamed warnings at them.

Then, she moved. She flowed over stone and hill, keeping the path in sight while she took the quicker route down the mountain base. She leaped over stones and ducked under low-hanging branches, reveling in the strength of her body. This was how it should be. This was what she’d been missing. And she would find what was keeping it from her.

But for the moment, her concern was finding the missing pandaren. She hardly noticed the distance disappearing beneath her, only slowing when the ground flattened and the trees and brush thickened. Not much time had passed, yet, and the snow was still ramping up to its full fury. She had time.

“Hello?” she called. “Wensho?” She yelled the polite greeting, hoping to catch her target’s attention. “Maimai?” The word for mother. “Are you there?”

She advanced further into the scrubby forest, following the tracks left behind by their goats and stamping feet. “Wensho? Maimai? Can you hear me?” She called out in Common, hoping that even if the mother couldn’t understand her, she would hear someone calling out and look for them for help.

But there was no answer. Luciana growled softly. If she could catch a scent trail from the camp, she might be able to differentiate between the group and the mother and hopefully find where they split.

She raised her nose and sniffed, quickly, like a hunting hound. “Wensho!” she kept calling. “Maimai! Your cubs are safe!”

It took longer than Luciana would have liked to find an individual pandaren scent that deviated from the mass of smells that their camp had left. The sky looked angry, now, black and grey clouds moving quickly, eager to lighten their load over Kun Lai. But Luciana doggedly followed the scent trail through scrub and brush and around gnarled, stiff-leaf trees.

“Wensho!” she called. “I’m here to help you out!”

The mother had gone to the river, it seemed, to look for her missing cub. Upon realizing his absence she’d hurried after the group, but she’d been too far behind and had taken a different path out of the thinning forest. She must have ended up in the ravine that ran along Kun Lai’s edge, deepening as the mountain rose.

“Shit,” Luciana said viciously. “Wensho!” she called, as loud as she could. “Maimai, wensho! If you can hear me, stay where you are! Fucking language barriers,” she snarled, sprinting towards the ravine. She hardly had to fight to keep herself balanced, and wished it was always so easy. “Wensho!”

“Ha mao?!” The voice was faint, but Luciana’s enhanced senses registered it before she even realized someone had yelled back. “Zai wanan kher?!”

“Where are you?” Luciana snarled. “Wensho?” she shouted, hoping the mother would keep yelling. It would make it much easier to find her, as Luciana could use sound as well as scent.

“Tan miao! Tatsu mai!”

Luciana came to the edge of the ravine, dust falling where her foot met the edge. A pleasantly fat pandaren woman stared up at her, wide eyed and surprised.

“Mao-hai?” she cried. “Di-na maoro ga?”

“I have no idea what you just said, but we need to go,” Luciana said. “Xiang?” Cub, child, little one, whatever it meant the pandaren woman brightened and nodded and spoke quickly, clearly asking
questions. “Xiang. Uh,” Luciana gestured towards the main path. “Safe. Tunto.” Tents, or maybe camp.

“Yi! Yi, xiang!” she said. Yes, yes, cub!

Luciana waved her up, and she immediately tried to climb the wall. She got a few feet up, started to slide down, and Luciana reached down and grabbed a fistful of the back of her coat and hauled her impressive weight up until she was standing next to Luciana, absolutely flabbergasted.

“Go!” Luciana said, pointing down the path to the caves. The woman asked something, and Luciana looked up pointedly. The woman looked up, too.

Then, she got the point. She hurried down the path and Luciana caught up easily. She could tell that the woman was hurrying, probably going as fast as she could despite a clear limp. Likely a twisted ankle. And the sky was making it obvious that they were almost out of time.

Luciana surprised her, and earned the flailing paw in her face and on her blessedly numb shoulder stumb, when she ducked down and wrapped her arm around the woman’s thick legs. Their hardness didn’t surprise Luciana. Pandaren weren’t all fat and gristle, and legs had to be strong to carry around that kind of weight.

But that weight was nothing to Luciana when Goldrinn was lending her his strength. She would regret it soon, hopefully after she got some rest during the storm, but for now she bore the woman’s weight on her back and shoulder and ran as best she could with a pandaren bouncing against her neck.

The woman clung to Luciana, and at one point - when Luciana leaped over a fallen tree - laughed and whooped like an excitable cub. Luciana didn’t spare the breath to curse her. Dammit, couldn’t she see this wasn’t a time for laughter?! But then again, anytime was a good time to laugh when you were a pandaren.

The snow started to fall and Luciana quickened her pace. She could see their destination, but it was still a ways away, and she couldn’t move as quickly as she had on the way out. Already she was flagging. Goldrinn wouldn’t be giving up either, but it was likely her own exhaustion that was just too great for him to fend off. She’d thank him later, if she survived. She wondered if Ancient Guardians liked sacrifices. Maybe prayer?

“Fuck,” she said quietly, nearly falling when her knee buckled on a step forward. She let the woman down, almost dropping her, and when her only hand was free she pointed to the caves. “There. Go!”

She grabbed the woman’s arm, bracing it over her shoulder, and carried part of her weight towards safety even as the weather turned on a dime and blew sharp snow into Luciana’s bare face. She snarled, pressing on as the wind fought her back. The calm was gone: now it was the storm.

“I’m from Stormwind,” she growled. “You think a little snow and wind is going to scare me? I’ve seen flurries heavier than you.” But cold was cold and it would eat her face if she didn’t hurry. And who knew how the woman next to her would fare the cold? Fat was a good insulator, but Luciana didn’t know enough about pandaren physiology to say she’d be okay.

They left the path, and Luciana wanted to scream in frustration. They were so close to the caves, but the wind had picked up and she couldn’t see past the snow.

“I am not going to fail,” Luciana snarled. “I refuse. I will not fail.” There were two crying cubs waiting for their Maimai and she was fucked by a felbat if she was going to fail.

“Ama!” The cry hardly reached through the wind’s howls. “Ama, I see you!”

The woman Luciana was half-carrying cried out and stumbled forward, and Luciana lunged to catch her - but one of the three brothers from the Valley had caught her instead, and was already carrying her to the caves. Ruan Zhu hurried to Luciana, his mouth opening to speak even as the last of her borrowed strength faded.

“I need to lie down,” she murmured, and then she lied down in the snow.

Chapter Text

The lands of Azuremyst Isle were quiet and peaceful, much like Elwynn’s lush forests. Here, though, it was not the sheer mass of vegetation that muted noise and bustle - it was the aura of peace that was practically visible as it radiated from the Exodar. The draenic ship sat comfortably in its hole in the dirt, and though Amara had heard that it was now airworthy, it seemed to her like a rock half-buried.

She and her strike team had been sent by portal by some guy that stank of roast beef and mana potions. Rendrink? Rentick? Rinnick? She’d recognize him by scent, certainly, and by the sound of his voice echoing from his vocal chords, but his name eluded her. Nothing new there - too many blows to the head in her youth.

She was still sharp, though, sharp enough to get along with garn, sharp enough to have Shaw recall her in desperation. Normally you wouldn’t want a R.E.D. walking around Stormwind unhindered, but he was smart. He’d given her the objective the moment she’d walked in and quickly sent her back out, before she had a chance to cause any chaos. No one ever said that reds weren’t smart.

Her strike team was sharp, too. You could see it in the quick movements of Bane’s eyes and ears, the swiveling of her head like an owl’s, and especially in the flash of literal fangs from behind the puckered scar running down her face, across her mouth. You could see it in the silence surrounding Lynch, what he seemed to summon to himself, and in the intensity of his eyes that bored holes in anything he looked at. And you could see it in Sab, he himself a weapon, the taloned gauntlets on his hands the least dangerous thing about him.

Amara was confident that they could get the job done. Her hand, buried in the rough outer coat of her favourite garn, only confirmed this. She had five Frostfire garn with her. Even creatures that didn’t know the garn would know to fear them. Almost eight feet at the shoulder, with powerful legs and shoulders that could drive them through seven feet of snow, and massive teeth like a saber - except their saber teeth were on the bottom jaw, better for gripping - they were not to be underestimated. And something about they way they stood, they way they watched, hinted at a keen intelligence. There was something sentient in their eyes, something almost human. Or almost orc, if you were comparing the two. Or almost tauren.

“Whatever,” Amara said to herself, shaking her head.

“What?” Sab asked.

“Not talking to you,” she said in a tone that suggested this was not the first time she’d said as much.

“Where are they?” Lynch asked. Not impatiently, as he had yet to show any actual emotion, but Amara could surmise that he was close to it.

“There.” Amara’s eyes, so used to gazing through blinding snow and darkness and unreliable reflections, spotted the mages with ease.

Four draenei, and one human. The human was Leodre Mulligan, who’d casted the portal spell that had taken the Queen to parts unknown. The others were the professionals, Amara assumed. They had with them bags of reagents, and a bare arm. It was magically preserved, but Amara could see, even from this distance, the fel rot that had started to eat away at the bicep.

“Ouch,” she said. “That’s gonna be nasty.”

“What?” Sab said. Amara growled in her throat and her garn did the same, lifting its head over hers to stare at Sab with large amber eyes. He didn’t shrink back, but he did hastily look away.

“Amara Myers?” Leodre asked as his group approached hers. He and the draenei kept a good bit of distance, though - the garn were interested in the newcomers. They’d already given Amara’s strike team a good sniff down, and had mostly allowed their presence, but these were strangers. They needed a sniff, too.

“Yeah, that’s her arm?” Amara asked.

“Yes.”

Even though a particularly tall and wide draenei woman carried the arm, it seemed a struggle to heft its weight. “Must be dense,” Amara muttered. “Knowing her?”

Sab looked at her, but didn’t ask his question, and she laughed. “What?” Leodre asked.

“Don’t,” Sab said. “Just don’t.”

“Let’s go,” Lynch said.

“We’ll set up the portal here, then,” Leodre said, gazing at Amara with something like caution in his handsome eyes. “Away from the interference of the Exodar’s core. Please stand aside.”

The draenei took first to drawing a circle with powdered chalk in the grass, with symbols of the arcane within it. Amara recognized a fel-diffusion sigil, a fel nullification sigil, and then portal runes drawn within the entirety of the circle. Some, she couldn’t identify.

“Going all out,” she muttered.

“That’s some intense rune work,” Sab commented.

“Yes. As we must accommodate for the fourth dimension of portals, this will require an extra layer that normally would not be touched,” the draenei woman with Luciana’s preserved arm said in a deep voice.

“But it’ll work?” Sab asked.

“Yes,” she said, sure of herself. “I have been creating portals and studying the flow of time for many millenia. Before I took a new name, even!”

One of the other draenei laughed at that. “Before I was even born,” he chuckled.

“I have forgotten more than you have ever learned!”

They switched to Draenic for a moment, exchanged some words or joke, and then laughed together. Lynch’s shoulder twitched, a minute gesture.

“Where did she go?” Amara asked. “If we don’t know when, at least we should know that.”

“We managed to triangulate her destination,” Leodre said. “She’s somewhere in the eastern end of Pandaria.”

“How’d she end up there?” Sab asked.

“When portal magic goes wrong…” Leodre said, and then sighed.

“Bears,” Amara murmured. She’d seen some pandaren in Stormwind, but she had yet to meet one. Or sniff it. Or taste it. Human meat was like pork, orc was tough and stringy like wolf legs, tauren had a distinct meat feel to it. Pandaren? She was curious.

“I’ll be able to translate,” Sab said confidently. “I, er, borrowed some spells from Afnan. She came up with a way to translate by intent, so it won’t be precise, but if we come across a version of Pandaren that we don’t know, I’ll be able to understand it. Hopefully I’ll be able to get it to you guys, too, but if not, at least I’m there.”

“And if you come across any actual bears, you hunters will be able to translate!” the draenei woman with the deep voice laughed.

“The portal?” Lynch asked.

“Yes, we’ve almost finished the base,” Leodre said. He opened the small leather pouch in his hand and reached in, bringing out a pinch of… hairs?

“Is that her arm hair?” Sab asked, an odd expression on his face.

“We had to get something,” Leodre explained. “But no one was willing to take a piece of her flesh.”

“Good,” Lynch muttered darkly. Surprised, Amara looked at him. There was a crazed sort of intensity in his eyes, and they were focused on the arm. It looked like he had rabies.

“Is it enough?” Amara asked.

“... We hope so,” Leodre said quietly.

“Here. I got this from some lady in the Keep.” Amara tossed it to Leodre, who caught it and then immediately yelped and dropped it.

“What is that?!” he cried.

“Half of her placenta,” Amara answered. Lynch took an instinctive step forward, but stopped short of actually going for it. “I smelled something funky, went after it. Found that on a lady in the Keep.”

“Must have been involved in one of the births,” Sab said, curiously eyeing it. “How’s it preserved? Not frost?”

“Good old fashioned tanning,” Amara said. “But it’s still good. I checked.”

“How?” Sab asked.

“Ate a piece.”

Silence descended upon the group, and seven pairs of eyes fell on Amara. “What?” Sab asked quietly.

“Ate a piece,” she repeated, like a patient school teacher.

Silence, again, before Leodre reached down and delicately picked up the piece of placenta. “Let’s… Um, move on, shall we?” he said, his face oddly pale.

“Good idea,” Sab said quickly, moving to the circle. “I’ll help cast. I’ve got a big mana pool. Not as big as Afnan. Still big. I’ll help.” He spoke quickly, and in short jerks of his voice. Nervous, then.

Amara slowly looked over her shoulder. Lynch was staring at her, his black eyes like two holes leading to the Void. Same as always, then. She looked away.

Leodre was using magic to piece apart the bit of placenta, placing the tiny pieces of dried meat-flesh around the circle. It would help them hone in on the Queen’s actual, current self. The self that was from their time. The one they were trying to find. It would help them accurately target the Queen they wanted to find, rather than one five or six years ago, one that was likely in Arathi, or safe in the Keep with Varian still alive.

With Sab in position around the circle, the draenei took their place. Leodre stood off-center, his hands already raised to channel the mana provided by the others into a working time-space portal. It looked more like they were getting ready to summon something big. Like a clefthoof.

“We like the meat,” Amara murmured. Her garn sniffed at her face, and she gently batted its nose out of her line of sight.

She didn’t pay attention to the casting, as she wouldn’t know enough about portal magic to get a good idea of the quality. Sab would do that. No, Amara would recall her garn, and watch for intruders, and when the portal was ready she’d step through first as strike team leader. Also, as a garn rider.

“Widen it,” she murmured. Garn needed a bigger portal than humans.

“Widen it,” Bane said loudly.

“Roger that,” Sab said, changing his position slightly, and the draenei mages followed suit. The magic surrounded them bubbled outward, stabilizing quickly. When the portal was fully formed, and Leodre and the draenei were maintaining it - it would only need two mages to do so, but better safe than sorry - Sab stepped away from the circle.

“It’s ready,” he said, not strained in the least. He did have a large mana-pool. Shaw had given Amara an estimate as to how large it actually was, despite Sab only ever using a part of it.

Amara rolled an r through her throat, and two of her garn pack paced forward. The mages, intent on keeping their portal as perfect as possible, hardly noticed the apex predators in their midst. The two were sucked through the portal, gone in half a second. Amara hopped up to her garn’s shoulder, pulled herself neatly into a sitting position on its back, and they walked through next.

The sight that greeted them was a shock of green, a shock of wet, and a shock of air. Greener than Elwynn, wetter than a loch, and thicker of air than Stranglethorn. Thicker in humidity, but thicker in oxygen, too.

“Jade?” Amara murmured to herself. The Temple would be nearby, then. A good place to start.

Bane walked through, a garn at her side. Lynch came next, a garn with him, too. And then Sab, and the fifth garn, the oldest and most experienced hunter of Amara’s pack. Not older than her, mind - garn usually only lived to about sixty, and this one was twenty-eight to her forty...

“Something,” she said out loud.

“What’s up?” Sab asked, coming up beside her. “Already spotted something?”

“No,” she said. “But the Temple should be near abouts us.”

“I know where it is,” Bane said. “If you wish to find it, come.” She spoke respectfully to Amara, now, a far cry from their introduction in Shaw’s office. She’d seen what she had wanted to see, though. She’d seen why the garn followed Amara so quietly, so readily, without complaint to the magic that would have upset or spooked any other intelligent animal.

“Mount up. The garn will have an easier time getting through this mess.”

“They won’t overheat?” Sab asked.

“They’re from Frostfire.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about. It’s a lot hotter here.”

“Frostfire, Sab.”

“... Yeah?”

“Every seventeen years it gets stupid hot for three or four years. You think they’d survive if they couldn’t handle the heat?”

“... What?”

Amara shook her head, and at some unseen gesture, her garn trotted forward to the lead. The others followed suit and Sab had only a few seconds to get up
on his garn’s back before the group took off. Lynch, somehow, had already settled into position, and Bane was quick. She’d ridden wolves before, then, and though garn were bigger,the movement of the hips to match the stride was the same.

Bane took lead a few minutes into their walk to better direct the pack. She seemed sure of herself, and Amara let it go for now. Sab, meanwhile, was muttering to himself in arcane words of power, arranging a translation spell that seemed to mix the traditional with whatever it was that he’d “borrowed” from Afnan.
“Stolen?” Amara murmured.

“Huh? Oh, no, I didn’t steal it. I just told her I was taking the spellsheet she’d written up. I gave it back!” he added defensively when Amara glanced at him.

It took nearly an hour, during which Amara stewed in her armor. The heat and humidity didn’t bother her garn, but it bothered her, and she was in a foul mood by the time the forest yawned.

The trees and bamboo thickets ended abruptly, and yet somehow no one noticed the transition from forest to field until they were nearly upon the walls of the Temple of the Jade Serpent. “We’re here,” Bane said.

“Yes, we noticed,” Sab said dryly. “Give me another minute, I’m almost done.”

Amara leaned to the right and her garn reacted appropriately, taking a few steps in that direction so she could see through the gates. There was no sign of alarm, no raised weapons. Or even eyes. There seemed to be a temple-wide nap time.

Except, of course, for the gate guards. And two pandaren warriors dressed in finery, standing before the closed gates of the inner temple.

“She’s in there, then,” Amara murmured.

“Ready,” Sab said. “I’ll translate for now. It’ll let me get a better hold on their language.”

“Alright, let’s…”

“Ho! Are you Ama’s friends?”

Amara’s hackles raised just as Bane raised her bow and Lynch somehow summoned three throwing stars to his hand. Sab didn’t react, not yet. Amara didn’t want to give him away until it was necessary to summon some serious firepower. Until then, let people underestimate him.

“Whoa, ho, easy!” the pandaren male laughed, raising his hands in surrender. His voice was cheerful and light. “You see, I know you are Ama’s friends, because she is the only human we’ve ever seen here! And so, who else could you be looking for?”

“Ama?” Amara demanded.

“You see, her name is a bit hard to pronounce for us, but I will try,” the pandaren said. “Loo...si-ana? Ama-day-us!”

“What?” Lynch said loudly, clearly surprised. “She was here?!

“Yes! You missed her, though, by quite a few-!” The pandaren was interrupted as Lynch leapt from the garn’s back, very clearly about to put the pandaren in a chokehold.

Amara snarled and the garn’s jaws snapped forward around Lynch’s form, not biting down, but holding him back like a disobedient pup.

“Bane,” she snapped. “Find the trail. Sab, find the other trail.”

Lynch didn’t struggle, but stared mutely at the pandaren. Amara slid from her garn’s back and stalked towards the male. His eyes were wide now, fairly cautious, and she held her head up, like a normal person would. “Our friend was here,” she said. “We’re wanting to take her back home, where she belongs.”

“You do not act like friends,” the pandaren said slowly.

“But we are,” she said. “She is our Queen. And we’ve been sent by her own spymaster to retrieve her.”

“She did not think anyone would find her,” he said. “She… well, she’s left.”

“Where?” Lynch demanded. Amara held up a hand to silence him, even as pandaren monks rushed to investigate the noise outside the temple.

“What is the meaning of this?” A tall pandaren male in monk’s habit approached the first male, and Amara was already baring her teeth in frustration. She forced her face to fall into a more approachable expression.

“We’re here trying to find our friend,” Amara said. “Luciana Amadeus. Apparently you called her Ama?”

“Yes,” the first male said. “Though I do not trust you. Ama told me… things.” He cut himself off, and Amara held up a hand before Lynch could even speak this time.

“How can we prove we are her friends, and not your enemies?” Amara asked the first male.

“Hm.” The first male worked his jaw as he thought. Amara heard it crick. “Tell me something only Ama would know.”

“Frederic was raped,” Lynch said loudly. “The scar on her nose is from when she walked into a tree. She hallucinates a lot. September 4th. She named her firstborn Alaric because she couldn’t think of anything else.”

“Enough, enough!” the first male said, eyes wide. The enter strike team had wide eyes, too.

“What was that first thing…?” Sab asked quietly, incredulous.

“I believe you,” the male said, and Amara hushed Sab.

“Who are these people?” the newcomer demanded. Amara ignored him.

“You,” she said to the first pandaren. “Tell me everything.”

Chapter Text

The bed Luciana was laying in was soft, and warm. The covers were heavy on her back, pressing her into the mattress. Hardly past the threshold into the waking world, Luciana could imagine for a brief moment that she was home, in her own bed, with Anduin still asleep beside her. She could imagine the furniture around her, the hearth left cool for the night, the morning sun barely peeking through the cracks in the drapes, the rich carpet waiting for her to wake and walk across it.

The fantasy didn’t last long. Luciana was loath to let go of it, but she knew that it would do no good to hold it longer than it wanted to stay. With a heavy sigh, she stretched her arms - arm - out to the side, stretched her legs out, and turned onto her left side.

Unbidden, a yawn opened her mouth wide enough to crackle her jaws. She shook her head out, her ears deaf for a moment from the hard yawn. She turned her nose up to sniff the air, her eyes content to remain closed.

Cold. It smelled like dry, sharp cold, and everything else could hardly get past it. She opened her eyes, looked at the mosaic of grey stones on the ceiling above her, and surmised that she was in the Temple of the White Tiger.

“Fuck me running,” she said quietly, and sat up. It was a bit of a struggle with one arm, but she managed by pushing up from her side and leaning the weight of her shoulders far to the left until she was able to twist a bit to the side and end up on her ass instead of her back.

“Someone must’ve carried me.” Her body still ached from her abuse of it, reminding her that she’d pushed herself harder than she had any right to. By the feel of it, she’d only been asleep for a day or two, and it wasn’t enough to recover fully. Drawing on Goldrinn’s raw strength to fight a blizzard in Kun Lai while half-carrying a pandaren with a sprained ankle wasn’t something Luciana had ever seen herself doing, and she didn’t know how much longer she’d need to rest.

“Guess I’m full of surprises,” she murmured. The cold air nipped and bit at her skin, some of it permanently numb underneath the scars of the whip. Luciana absently rubbed her left hand over her hard chest, feeling the bumps and smooth lines. No new ones. Her hand reached past her right clavicle and the pain that lanced into her chest and ribs from her shoulder made her entire body stiffen.

Fuck me sideways with a fel-addled cactus,” she swore, trying not to let the pain take her mind. “Light-fucking thrice-damned fel bat shit. Holy mother of pearl, that hurts. Oh, gods and Titans, fuck,” she whined, eyes swimming with tears. “What the hell did they do to my arm?! Oh, lords and ladies of the fucking Parliament, fuck me running you whore-ballasted cockmonger. Fuck! Oh, my fucking Light,” she moaned, curling into herself, leaning into her left shoulder. She did not want anything to touch her stump. It burned worse than any fire or poison she’d ever felt, and she’d felt her share and more of those. It stabbed into her chest and neck and even her stomach ached from the pain that spread like tree roots into her entire torso, all the way to her other shoulder, down her spine and through her gut, winding around her ribs.

She whined like a starved dog, hunched over, shivering - not from the cold. She wished it was just the cold. “Anduin,” she moaned. “Anduin, make it stop.” But Anduin didn’t answer. “Enaeon.” He wasn’t here, either.

She had to find out what was wrong with her shoulder stump. There was still enough of the joint left to have muscle to move, and when she tried to rotate it the sudden pain nearly made her black out. “Not a good idea,” she panted. “Not doing that again. Nope. Lucy, don’t do that again.”

Something else, then. “Get up, Lucy, get off your ass. Stand up, soldier.” A mirror, a glass table, anything that could show her the reflection of her arm. She could only see some lumps on the front of her shoulder, but she couldn’t see the back or the end of the stump. She needed a better viewpoint.

She stumbled to her feet, wove like a drunkard across the room to the little closet off to the side. There was a little round mirror, polished silver, hanging low over a wash basin next to an old-fashioned toilet hole. Luciana turned herself around, grabbed at her neck to press the pressure point because she couldn’t even see past the pain. It receded, in tiny increments, just enough for her to be able to blink away the tears that had collected in her eyes and dripped down her cheeks.

“Oh, no,” she moaned. “Oh, fuck, no.”

Sickly green and spindly roots grew from the end of the stump, crawling up her skin and flesh like a weed strangling a gourd. Fel infection spread over her skin, likely under it too, to the lumps that had been growing over the past two weeks.

Luciana licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry. She couldn’t rout the infection herself. She didn’t know enough about fel infections to instruct a mistweaver. The only other way to deal with infection was one she’d had to practice in the field, but never on herself. And never without someone else to hold down the one she was cutting into.

“Fuck,” she said softly. If she cut off the stump, there was no way to reattach the rest of her arm. But that was only if she could get home. And that was unlikely, but the Jade Serpent had told her not to get ahead of herself on that front. But if she didn’t cut off the infection, it would dig its filthy little claws into the rest of her. It was already too close to her heart.

“Fuck,” she whispered. Cut it off now, or show it to the mistweavers and risk them hemming and hawing it into her heart.

“Off it goes,” she murmured, her heartbeat throbbing in time with her headache. “Fuck me with a rusty garden trowel.” She didn’t even have an aid to hold pressure to the fresh wound after she cut it off…

“Ruan.” But would be really help with this? Would he be able to? She didn’t know what kind of wounds he’d been exposed to before. And she might chance infecting him with her fel-infected blood. Was that even possible?

“Best not to risk it,” she murmured, digging in the little storage basket next to the toilet. A shaving razor, made specially for pandaren beards so it wouldn’t shave all of the fur off. It was extraordinarily sharp, and about five inches long. Not long enough - she’d have to saw at her stump.

“Shit,” she said out loud. She was already shivering. The last time she’d had to do something like this was years ago, in the Basin. She’d dug three bullets out of her stomach and leg with her boot knife so the shaman could close the wound in the middle of a battle. At least then, the shaman had been able to somewhat mute her pain. Now, she was alone.

No, not quite. If she needed strength, she could call on Goldrinn. And if she prayed, even though she was a warrior, maybe the Light would answer, and let her hold the knife steady.

Was it really the best idea to do this alone? Quickly, Luciana reviewed her decision, and why she’d chosen not to call for help. “Yeah,” she murmured. They could cleanse the rooms afterwards, but if someone got her fel-infected blood on them, it could be deadly. Fel was insidious, but if it was lying on the floor or a wall, it could be cleansed without being touched. At least this way, it was contained.

She dug through the basket again. Bath salts. She tasted a piece - actual rock salt, with bamboo salt and rain poppy added to calm the bath-taker. But it was salt. It would slow the spread of fel energy. Luciana poured a thick line of salt at the doorway of the little wash closet, around the toilet hole, around the bath drain, and at the base of the window. Second-guessing it, she poured out the rest of the salts around the corners of the bathroom, effectively isolating herself in whatever was about to come out of her stump.

She would quickly saw off the flesh, going around her humerus. She’d have to pop the bone out of the socket, and then cut off whatever flesh remained around her shoulder joint. She had to make sure she took out whatever was infected, now, so that she wouldn’t have to do this again. So that it wouldn’t worm its way into her chest, and to her heart and lungs.

She swallowed thickly. She’d have to use the mirror to make the cuts. It would be clumsy, and painful, and she was shivering like a wet pup.

“Light, keep my hand steady,” she murmured. “I can’t cleanse the fel, but I can cut it out, and I will. I’ll cut it out of my own body. I will not hold this taint within myself.” Not after her father lost his life fighting it. Not after her kingdom had pledged itself against it. She would never let the fel near her children. If she had to cut it out of her own body, then so be it.

She licked her lips, stared for a moment at the stump. She would never again have her right arm.

“So be it,” she said. She tested the sharpness of the knife on the hair on her thigh. It was as sharp as Jillian’s tongue. It would do.

“I’m not stalling,” Luciana murmured, closing her eyes. She had to concentrate. She was not stalling, because she had already decided to do this, and it was something she had to do. But she had to calm down a bit. She had to keep her head and her hand steady.

She made the first cut quickly, and it surprised her with how deep the knife bit. It slid into her flesh and she whined high in her throat, but this was an honest pain, a visceral, fully physical pain, not the pain she’d been suffering before, the one that bit into her mind and her soul more than her flesh. This was pain she could deal with, pain she was familiar with. This was what she knew.

She drew the razor from the back of her stump to the top, cutting so deep that already she hit bone. She winced at the raw sound of metal on bone, but it was something she’d heard so many times before. She kept drawing the razor through her flesh, slicing through what was left of her artery. Blood poured from her shoulder, some of it dark red, some of it almost black. It smelled rotten and sick. She pulled the knife from her stump, reached over her shoulder, and continued the cut.

Her stump hung only because her humerus was still in her shoulder socket. It was a sick, gory sight, but she dug her fingers into the cut that yawned open, using what she saw in the mirror to angle her hand. She felt along the bone, hardly hearing the nearly continuous whine that came out of her throat with every breath, and when her finger felt the cartilage of the socket, she pulled.

It pulled a scream out of her throat, out of her chest, from deep inside her, a raw and animalistic scream of pain and fury. She let the disembodied chunk of herself fall into the wash basin, splashing her with cold, stale water and blood. It seeped into the lines between the tiles on the floor, but the blood stopped at the line of bath salt. It took entire second for it to get through it, but what managed to dribble through was red, pure red, human red. What remained behind was black, and then dark green, almost like vomit from a fel hound.

Luciana inspected her shoulder socket in the mirror. Raw, red flesh gaped at her. Red, not green, not black. Red muscle, white muscle, some cartilage, blood that flowed freely...

She yanked the towel from its wall hanger and struggled to fold it in half, eventually getting it into a wad that she pressed against the open flesh of her shoulder. She cried out in pain, she let herself cry out, and let the tears fall freely from her eyes.

Ama!

Ruan Zhu was outside her room, yelling for her. He was panicked, by the sound of it.

Ama! What is happening? Why do you scream?”

“Ruan,” she panted. “Ruan! Get a mistweaver!”

“What has happened?!”

“I cut off my stump! Get a mistweaver!”

What?!

The door must have been locked out of courtesy, because he wasn’t storming in to see what she’d done to herself.

“Now, Ruan! I’m bleeding out!”

She leaned her good side against the wall, slid down and hit the floor with a thud that reverberated into her socket. She moaned, leaned her head against the cold wall - so pleasant, that, and she realized she must be feverish now, her body trying to run on a high it couldn’t reach in the state it was in. Oh, but the pain was a good pain, familiar, raw, real and sharp against the sides of her mind, none of this foggy bullshit. This was a battle wound, gut-wrenching and real, and she could deal with this kind of pain a hell of a lot better than what the fel had been doing to her.

She inhaled deeply, stretching her lungs out, stretching her ribs, and sighed heavily. This was the kind of pain that cleared her head, cut out anything unimportant, let her concentrate on the only thing that mattered, the only thing that had always been there, always her goal, always the thing that drove her. Her nostrils flared, her eyes were wide, and her heart beat like a war drum in her chest. Oh, she’d missed this kind of pain. This clarity of thought. It had been too long since it had visited her.

The door to her room splintered and within a moment, a heavy monk was making to step over her salt line.

She opened her mouth and growled at him like Goldrinn himself, and the monk stumbled back, eyes wide with fear, and something else.

Awe.

Yes, this was what she’d been missing. The primal, the visceral, the cutting purity of it.

“Don’t step over the salt,” she said. “It’s containing the fel.”

“Fel?” Ruan Zhu asked, hesitantly stepping into sight.

“Demons. Burning Legion. Infection. Needs to be purified with Light or Wild, or nullified with arcane. That can be done later. It’s contained by the salt. Don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the floors. Don’t touch me. I need you to heal my shoulder.”

She twisted herself around on the floor, feeling tired and weak from blood loss and trauma, but her head was clear, and she could think, her mind racing like a diving gryphon. Oh, she’d missed this.

Ruan Zhu spoke with the mistweaver for a brief moment. It was hard to explain what he himself did not understand, but the mistweaver was a healer, and Luciana was hurt. Very badly hurt.

She removed the towel and the mistweaver made a sharp exclamation, probably a curse, and fell to his knees just beyond the salt line. He reached out, hesitant to near her shoulder after Ruan Zhu’s warning, but the soothing mists still wrapped around her arm, twin jade serpents of healing magic softly sinking into her flesh.

“He will need help,” Ruan Zhu said. “I’ll be back. And we will talk,” he said to Luciana, sternly.

“Don’t you fucking presume to talk to me,” she growled, eyes flashing, teeth bared with every word. “I know what I’m doing. Do you think I’ve never done this before?” she said.

“You nearly killed yourself!”

Luciana took care to breath evenly. She didn’t want to stress her body too much, now, not when it needed to relax and let itself be healed by the mists. “Take care how you speak to me, monk,” she said softly. Her voice was deceptively calm. “Do not presume to treat me as an irresponsible child.”

Ruan Zhu’s face fell into a frown, a displeased, hard expression. “Oh, how could I forget? You are a Queen!”

I am a warrior,” she snarled, and the mistweaver balked from her and the power of her voice that dimmed the light coming through the window. “And you dare to talk down to me?” She heaved herself to her feet, ignoring the mistweaver’s obvious pleas to calm. “You dare to question my decision, my will?

“Qin, shuu-zao! Geima, qin!” the mistweaver said, his hands held up in a placating gesture. Luciana’s gaze, however, was on Ruan Zhu, meeting the creeping terror in his eyes.

“I am warrior,” Luciana said. “My blood is death and my voice is fear. I am born for battle, my body built for war, my mind turned to conquest, and you dare to presume?”

Ruan Zhu swallowed thickly, audibly. “Why?” he said, bravely speaking past the fear gripping him. “Why did you do this to yourself?”

“Because of the fel,” she said. “I will not have fel in my body.” It was that simple. She’d made the decision, and she would bend it to her will. She’d made the decision and she’d seen it done.

She lowered her shoulders half an inch, loosened the tension in her posture, breathed slowly. “She-she,” she said to the mistweaver, bowing her head. Thank you. She turned her shoulder back to her, standing steady, feeling for the first time like she was in command of herself, truly and fully.

An oak will break in a storm-wind, and a reed will bend its spine, but the stone will not be moved, and the mountains are as mine.

She would be the mountain again. Nothing would bend her will. She was unconquerable, her will unbreakable. Her word was law. Her body was hers alone, and not even the fel would challenge her.

Oh, she’d missed being a warrior.

Chapter Text

The Temple of the White Tiger was peaceful, and cold, and snow blew in little flurries across the courtyard in front of the mistweaver’s pavilion. Luciana sat in a chair carved of stone and layered with tiger pelts, a heavy coat made of woven yak fur keeping her warm. She wasn’t fighting like the monks on the other pavilions, and so she wouldn’t be able to fend off the cold.

It didn’t help that she’d inflicted another injury on her already traumatized body. Cutting open her stump and then yanking the last few inches of her arm out of her shoulder socket had hurt, and her body was not pleased. But it was doing better than before. She’d ripped the fel right out of herself.

She had not seen Ruan in two days. Since hearing her scream in pain, only to find that it was self-inflicted, and after her reaction to his ill-expressed concern, he’d been avoiding the mistweaver’s pavilion where she’d been asked to stay. Asked, or forced, it didn’t matter, because she knew it was for the best for her to stay there at least for a few days following her impromptu amputation.

She’d been able to communicate, roughly, with the pandaren here. Some words she had picked up on the way out of the Jade Forest came in handy - thank you, no, yes, bathroom, hungry, water, the basics. Sometimes they had to resort to gestures and pantomiming, though it wasn’t as effective as one would think because of the cultural differences between them and her. But they managed, and so did she, and she was full of food and her head didn’t hurt anymore from the stump.

There was no more stump at all, actually, and no more fel. She worried, briefly, that she hadn’t managed to get it all - but she felt noticeably better within a day of the removal, and after only two she was able to go an entire day without a migraine forming at the right side of her skull. She could only surmise that she’d managed to rip out all the fel roots that had been creeping into her flesh.

Luciana did want to apologize to Ruan. He hadn’t caught her at a good time. While he did not have the right to speak to her so disrespectfully, as though she were a child and not a mother, a military commander, a warrior and Queen, he had only been worried about her, and she did appreciate that. Only, he’d caught her right in the middle of her fury, and she’d rightfully snapped at him as any injured warrior would. Still, she would apologize, and explain, and also tell him why she’d done what she had. She could fully recognize that she’d overreacted to his tone because of her fury and her injury, and she would apologize properly for that.

She knew that she didn’t need him. She could journey alone, survive, find the Celestials she needed. They could speak to her, and she to them. That was all she needed. But he was helpful, and good company most days, and he hadn’t deserved her full wrath. Perhaps only a part of it, but certainly not in such an intense method of delivery.

But she wasn’t quite able to get up and walk around the entire temple to find him, so unless he came to find her, the conversation would wait. As it was, she was ready to sleep again. After her fury had calmed and her wound had been sped on the way to its full recovery, her body had decided that rest was in order. She hadn’t yet healed from Goldrinn’s power when she’d removed her stump, and now she had that to recover from as well. She’d been sleeping a lot, actually. Eating, sleeping, and shitting.

She chuckled quietly to herself. She’d made a comment like that, a few years ago, when she was pregnant. To Anduin, if her memory served. “Like a baby,” she murmured, leaning back in her seat to look up at the sky. It was a beautiful day, cloudy and sunny, like the aftermath of a sea storm in her city. The sky calmed, the clouds were free of rain, the sun shone through them and warmed the stone of the courtyard below. Luciana stretched her neck out carefully. No pain from the fel, only from the freshly healed hole in her shoulder.

Oh, the wonders of pain. Her constant companion. She’d shunned it, for a while, but now it was back. Her mind was clear, and her body was healing as it should be.

She remembered calling out for Anduin when the pain had hit her that morning. Of course, he wasn’t there, and she hadn’t exactly been thinking straight. But it was a sharp reminder of her priorities. And just as she’d decided to remove the fel from her body, she would decide to return home.

“I will always come home to you,” Luciana murmured. “And nothing will stop me.” Nothing could. She’d already decided what she would be, what she would do. Everything between her and her goal would fall in line.

The muffled steps of pandaren paws caught her attention. A short, fat pandaren - male? Luciana couldn’t tell. She smiled at them, showing her teeth like a pandaren would, and they smiled back, showing off teeth and fangs and a warm greeting.

They spoke to her in unfamiliar words while they unwrapped the bandages on her shoulder. They’d had to wrap them all the way around her chest to keep the pressure, and when they fell from her chest she inhaled fully, revelling in the freedom from constraint. The pandaren gently ran the pads of their hand over her shoulder, behind and in front, and then very carefully poked at the concave skin left behind over her shoulder socket. In time, she knew, it would fill in as the surrounding muscle adjusted to the change of anatomy.

His hand only drew a short little stab of pain, a far cry from only yesterday when her entire right side ached. She smiled up at him. “She-she,” she said. Thank you. She bowed her head, showing respect as he was due. He offered her the same gesture and helped her to remove the bandages. The wound had finished closing overnight with the help of a powerful salve, and now the bandages were no longer necessary. He used a wad of them to wipe her skin clean, and she shrugged the coat back on. It itched against the hypersensitive skin, new and pink, but it would numb soon.

She settled back into her seat. Two trainees came racing up the suspended bridge to her pavilion, lit torches in hand. They were completing a challenge to bring the torch to the foot of the White Tiger’s own pavilion, past wind and flurries and snow banks that looked deceptively solid. Luciana had seen two of them trip and flail into the snow, extinguishing their torches, only yesterday.

Maybe tomorrow, she would try. It would be good to get moving again. And she always needed more agility training. Her strength was far above par, but she tended to rely on her ability to parry or block an attack rather than dodge. Training with monks, unpredictable and fast on their feet, would help her practice evasion. Anduin hated to see her hurt.

Thinking of training made her itch, not a physical itch but an internal one. Her mind buzzed. She wanted nothing more than to grapple and choke someone. That would wait a few more days, maybe. But what could she do now?

Take a walk. Taking a walk was always a good option. To clear her head, to ease her aches, to relieve the burning in her veins. She stood with a huff, made sure the coat was securely belted around her waist - it was big around the waist, just right at the shoulders - and started to walk. Slowly, at first, but when she was confident of her legs and her footing, she took to a more measured, stately pace. She kept her chin high. Keep your chin up, Tess’ voice said in her mind.

She walked across the pavilion twice before realising that it was also boredom that was driving her mad in her chair. So she walked across the suspended bridge to the neighbouring pavilion, and then across another bridge to the great temple at the heart of the summit. Four honour guards stood in traditional pandaren mail and leather armor, ignoring her as she slowly climbed the stairs to stand before the lit brazier. At least one of the trainees had made it, then. Good for them.

She walked around the brazier and into the temple. It was warm in here, nearly hot. Thousands upon thousands of candles, lit with prayers or hopes, lined the inside walls. The chamber was massive, nearly as big as the main wing of Stormwind Keep, and perfectly circular. At the back, at the northern side, there was a raised dais of sorts, extended from the side of the temple to form an alcove for a giant.

Within the alcove lay the White Tiger himself, Xuen, avatar of strength. He seemed hardly interested in the goings-on inside his own temple. Three monks were fighting a battle royale in the center of the great chamber, and he hardly looked at them. But such things could be deceiving. Luciana did not always seem interested in what her nobles were saying, but she was always paying attention to her surroundings.

But when Luciana entered his temple, he raised his great head and looked down at her curiously. “Ah,” he hummed. His voice reverberated through the walls and floor and straight through Luciana. “The wolf’s daughter has come to visit me.”

The wolf’s daughter? Did he mean Varian or Goldrinn? It was more likely to mean the wolf Ancient. How would Xuen, in this era, know of Varian long before he was even born? Luciana watched as Xuen stood and leaped from his alcove in one smooth motion, curling in on himself and shrinking and transforming on his way down to the ground. He landed gracefully as a human, electric blue eyes meeting Luciana’s gaze as he stood at the exact same height as her. An equal, then.

“Though I didn’t choose to be in this time,” Luciana said. “I offer my greetings, White Tiger. Thank you for allowing me to stay in your temple while I heal.”

“Any who seek true strength are welcome here,” he replied, closing the distance between them on foot. He reached her, and gently placed his hands on her shoulders. They were cold as snow, a relief in the heat of the arena in his temple. “But I see that you have known its value long before ever stepping foot in Kun Lai.”

“I’ve learned a lot in my life.”

“But there is always more to be learned.” He smiled, a very human expression, and Luciana wondered where he learned to smile like a human. If he was as old as the Ancients, then he’d met her kind before. “What do you wish to learn here?” he asked, dropping his hands from her shoulders. His eyes remained those of a tiger, slit-pupiled and curious, relaxed as only an apex predator could be.

“I’ve lost a part of myself,” she said. “I can’t get it back. I’d like to learn how to move without it, as well as I moved with it.”

He smiled again, crinkling the corners of his eyes, showing off tiger’s teeth in a human mouth. “Good,” he said, approval plain in his voice. “Then let us see what a wolf can do to a tiger. Shan-le!”

Luciana knew she wasn’t ready to fight yet. She needed a bit more rest, a bit more time to recover. But Xuen didn’t want to give her that time. And when one of his disciplines rushed her, she didn’t even consider telling him to wait, to stop, she wasn’t ready. She was a warrior, and when a warrior is challenged, they will never back down.

She turned to her foe and opened her mouth and snarled, buying her half a second with the surprise on his face. She yanked open the belt of the coat, slung it off her shoulders, and threw it like a fisher’s net at the disciple, startling him and catching him in it and buying her another two or three precious seconds. She crouched as he turned, leaned forward onto her hand, braced her weight on it - she didn’t have time to stretch, but she was warm already and her body was ever-ready for a fight - and launched herself forward with her powerful legs.

The disciple didn’t have time to brace himself, and she hit with her knees over his shoulders, her crotch at the back of his head through the coat. She twisted as he fell back from the impact of her weight, and they hit the ground together, her knees on the stone, his head under her. If she had twisted with more force she would have snapped his neck.

“Taran!”

Another disciple, this one with cold rage in his eyes directed right at her, rushed forward. But he rolled low right as she leapt, preventing the same move from being used. She landed lightly on the balls of her feet, half-turned to watch him, and laughed with her mouth open, absolutely delighted despite her exhaustion. He held a defensive position, hands out to parry, eyes hard.

Not one to wait for the battle to reach her, Luciana darted forward, towards his right. She was inviting him to target her weakest point, her missing arm, and he didn’t disappoint. Knowing the strike was coming, she ducked to the left, hit the ground with her arm bracing her weight, and used her momentum to kick her right leg out to trip him. He went down with wide eyes and outstretched hands, trying to grab and grapple her, but she had used the force of her kick to twist herself back onto her knees. Within seconds she was kneeling over him, clearly the victor.

“Break!” Xuen boomed, and Luciana leaned back until her weight shifted onto her heels, and she stood. She backed away from the fallen disciple, Taran, and bowed her head slightly to signify the end of the bout. That was something she remembered from her days in the Arathi Basin, taking instruction briefly from a travelling monk. “You do not move as a warrior,” Xuen said curiously. Luciana looked at him over her shoulder.

“I learned many different fighting styles in my youth,” she said. “From observation, from practice.”

“Good.” He nodded, again offering her his approval, and Taran growled something at her that she couldn’t understand. She looked at him, raised on eyebrow.

“Whatever your problem is with me, you’ll have to tell Ruan first so he can translate,” she said. Taran snapped something else at her, something that sounded oddly violent.

“The match is over, Taran,” Xuen said, eyes sharp on his disciple. Taran spun on his heel and stalked away from the center of the arena, clearly done. “Ah, he is full of anger. He will grow out of it in time.”

“Or it will grow in him,” Luciana said.

“Anger is something you understand, I take it,” Xuen said, and when Luciana looked at him he was smiling, clearly telling a joke. She sighed.

“Only a little,” she replied, and he laughed.

“I’ve exhausted you already,” he said. “Tomorrow, return when you are well rested. I have some things to teach you that will help you adjust your balance to suit your body’s new weight.”

“Thank you, Xuen,” Luciana said, meeting his eyes evenly as she spoke. “I truly appreciate your help.”

“As I said,” he replied. “All who seek the value of strength are welcome in my temple. You have already learned it, but now you must seek the balance that has evaded you until this point. I would be glad to see you reach it.”

“Thank you,” she said again.

Taran, it seemed, wasn’t done with her. He stomped towards her, shouting in pandaren, pointing downwards. Then to her head. Then down again. Did he want her to bow?

“I’m afraid, again, that I must ask you to find Ruan to translate,” she said. She could feel her upper lip twitching. You dare talk down to me?

“He is telling you to bow in respect,” Xuen said to her.

“Am I expected to be a pandaren?” she replied, looking at Taran as she spoke, unblinking, eyes hard, chin raised. “I am a human. We show respect by meeting the gaze of the one we thank. When I speak, if I look away, I am disrespecting those that hear me. If you expect me to bow, then it is not so that I show true respect. You want me to pay lip service, and disrespect Xuen while I do it.”

Xuen spoke to Taran, who growled at Luciana with his bear-like teeth. In return, she opened her mouth and did the same. When she growled, the light in the arena dimmed as Goldrinn made his presence known through her. It felt odd, somehow. She could feel the curiosity in him, a distance between them that hadn’t been there before. Was she calling on him, or his past self, who hadn’t yet chosen her as scion.

Her growl had had the desired effect on Taran, whose fur flattened to his body as he stepped back, startled at the raw fury in her voice. He’d never faced a warrior before if he couldn’t even deal with a growl.

“Enough,” Xuen said. “Go and rest for today, daughter of the wolf. Return tomorrow when you are ready to train.”

“Thank you,” she said to Xuen, nodding to him. She turned to retrieve her coat, but the other disciple, Shan-le, was holding it out to her. He smiled nervously. “She-she,” she said to him, smiling a pandaren smile, and he brightened immediately, smiling right back.

She needed to find Ruan. If Taran took issue with her, she would need to know what he was saying. She had no problem with apologizing when she was in the wrong. It was finding Ruan that would present a problem.

Chapter Text

The Queen’s Compound was quiet this time of day. Early morning, so early the fog hadn’t yet faded, so early that the birds were just waking. The regular paths were patrolled, the guards had a handle on their assigned stations. Guard Captain Khand stood at his own chosen station, a vigil over the compound left in his hands. He received reports here, holding the line until the Queen returned to her post.

Khand’s attention was taken from a SI:7 report by a sudden, thunderous racket down below. At the southern gate to the compound, someone was making a fuss. He carefully folded the report down the fold lines, putting it with the other information pertaining to the attempted assassination of the Queen in the Barrens, and stood from his chair. Her chair, technically. But he was holding the Queen’s Guard steady in her absence, and making sure the investigation took proper path to its end. As the person of highest authority currently in the compound, he felt it was right to sit in its seat of power.

He’d been so disappointed when the last two members of the original Amadeus Squadron had abandoned their post. Though they had every right to seek retirement from the forces, and indeed they’d more than earned a peaceful life away from the war, they were supposed to be loyal to the last. Loyal to their Queen. And yet one had ran with his tail tucked to Duskwood, and the other had slumped his shoulders all the way back to Stormwind. Disappointing. Khand had been expecting so much more from them.

He delicately straightened his tabard as he paced to the window. He opened it fully, allowing the smell of sea fog and healthy vegetation to permeate the office. “What’s going on down there?” he called out, and Lieutenant Kharmeer answered from their post at the door two floors down, directly below Khand’s station.

“A group of travelers, Captain!” Kharmeer cried back. “Looks like they’re giving the gate guard a hard time. Shall I go and handle it?”

“Yes, go,” Khand said, shutting his windows. Kharmeer was a capable and experienced guard. They’d handle it.

At the gates, however, Kharmeer’s presence proved ineffective in the face of an angered warrior.

“I went to the fucking Barrens,” she snapped. “The Barrens. Fucking hot as hell’s asscrack, dusty as old wolf shit. And she wasn’t there. They said she was here. So here I am! And where the fuck is she? Not here, you tell me. So where?”

“The Queen is currently missing,” Kharmeer tried to tell the warrior, but she rolled right over their words.

“Not here, is where! I hauled my ass all the way down from fuck-outta-nowhere Grizzly, and these crazy bastards?” She gestured vaguely to the seven massive men behind her. “I had to deal with them the whole way down. But I made it. I fucking made it to the Barrens, nearly died of heatstroke goddamn it’s hot over there, and then I came here and hauled my ass over the fucking ocean again in a thrice-fucked felbat scat fueled boat that smelled like shit from a zombie horse, and you tell me she ain’t here. Well, ain’t that grand?” she snorted.

“The Queen is missing,” Kharmeer said again.

“Yeah. I heard. When’s she back, then?”

“We…” Kharmeer shared a confused look with one of their guards. “We don’t know. That’s the thing. She’s MIA, not just on vacation.”

“Oh, well, fuck me with a pear,” the warrior said in a sing-song tone that grated on Kharmeer’s nerves. “I just thought she was on vacation, see!” The warrior was definitely mocking them now. “But noo! She’s missing in action! The fucking Queen of Stormwind is missing in action! I wonder how that happened?”

“If you take issue with us, the Queen’s Guard…” Kharmeer warned.

“What, you’ll draw ‘n quarter me?” she said in a horrid imitation of a Gilnean accent. She returned immediately to her normal Northrend accent, rolling her letters and sharpening their edges on her tongue. “I’m from Wolfcult, buddy, okay, anything you can think to do I’ve already forgotten how to. You got rooms in there, eh? I’ll stay here until she’s back. I came all that fucking way into the fucking Barrens. I am not leaving until I see her.”

“The rooms are for Queen’s Guards and official guests-”

“Then consider me a Queen’s Guard, because I ain’t no fucking official guest,” she mocked. She shoved her way past Kharmeer, shouting over her shoulder to the people that had followed her. Kharmeer couldn’t recognize more than half the words she said. She spoke an ugly, butchered version of Common, the kind they spoke in the north. However, it gave Kharmeer a chance to see that the tattoos on her face extended down to her neck, and likely to her chest and shoulders as well.

“By order of the Queen’s Guard, I order you to stand down,” Kharmeer said firmly.

“You ain’t got a Queen behind you right now,” the warrior said, swinging her head around to look back at him with a crazed, familiar glint in her eyes. She had berserker blood. Kharmeer could feel it in the prickle that raced down their spine when she looked at them. “Your authority hinged on her. Guess what? You don’t have any now that she’s gone. I’m staying here until she’s back. She can tell me to fuck off herself if she doesn’t want me here. Until then, get the fuck out of my way.”

She snarled her last seven words, a rabid wolf baring its teeth. Kharmeer didn’t even have to look at the massive two-headed battle axe strapped to her back, and the dual swords sheathed at her hips, and the handaxes tucked into her sword belt, and the knives poking their handles out of her armor, and her boots, and her bags. Without any of that, they realized then that she was dangerous in a way they weren’t familiar with. Certainly not familiar enough to fight with. Defeated, and realizing that they’d lost any semblance of authority the moment the warrior had stepped toe to toe with them, Kharmeer stepped aside.

“Notify the Captain,” they said to one of their guards. With a defeated sigh, they watched the warrior’s seven followers stomp in after her. Rough and burly men to the last, they seemed almost obsessed with the warrior. Even with this short exposure, Kharmeer had seen it in their eyes and the way they faced their bodies to her when she moved. Light help them.

Light help them, when Khand heard they’d let the warrior in. Not like she’d given them a choice.

In fact, she wasn’t giving anyone a choice. She pushed past anyone that tried to stop her with minimal effort, using the weight of her short, solid body to shove her way into the compound. “Find the kitchen, the barracks, the bathroom, and the Queen’s quarters,” she snarled in Northern Common, and four of her followers broke away to obey. They were kind of like rabid dogs most of the time, but they literally worshipped at her feet and had proven useful on more than one occasion.

“They have dogs,” one of the three left at her back said.

“I know that,” she snarled, and his shoulders jumped up to protect his head from the blow he knew was coming. Her knuckles hit the side of his head, not too hard - he needed those brains unrattled to follow her orders - but hard enough to make a point. “Get me a good room.”

“Yes, alpha,” he said, ducking his head in lieu of a tail to tuck between his legs in submission. Unfortunately, worgen didn’t have tails, but he made due and made an equivalent gesture.

With an explosive sigh, she turned to face the three guards that had come up in front of her. They shared an uneasy look between the three of them. The mere sight of her face was enough to give them pause.

“Well, move,” she said, gesturing impatiently. They shuffled aside, awkward in their confusion. She was clearly a figure of authority, but… they didn’t recognize her, or the authority she wielded. But she did wield it, and they did move, and she barreled through the rest of the outer ring of the compound until she reached the center.

A handful of mages were here maintaining or shifting portals to various places. One, she guessed, went to Stormwind. The others, she would find out soon enough.

“I’ve found the food,” Anatole said, coming up on her left.

“I’ve found the barracks,” said Demitri, coming up behind him.

“I’ve found the bathrooms and showers,” Maksim added, to her right now.

“I found the Queen’s quarters. The guard captain is occupying them now.” Piotr’s words made her turn and look at him oddly.

“Are you serious? What a fucking twat,” she said. “Couldn’t wait to warm his ass in the heat she left. And where’s Yakob?”

“He’s rearranging a set of rooms for you right now, and holding them,” Piotr said. “They didn’t like him claiming them for you. Said it stank.”

“Too fucking bad. He’ll stay there, and when I get there, they’re mine.”

She turned away from them, no complaints to be heard, and the six men turned to share an eager grin. They’d done well today, as she had nothing to say against any of their work.

“Alexei, find out where all these portals go. Yegor.”

“Yes, alpha?”

“Find me something to eat.”

With the last of her orders handed out, she paced around the courtyard at the center of the compound, searching for a shaded place to sit. Azuremyst was hotter than what she was used to, and the sun was already starting to burn away the sea fog that had been keeping the heat at a somewhat reasonable level.

And Katya refused to take her armor off until she’d established her dominance over this new territory. It was cobbled together with prizes taken from those she’d killed, and their blood still marked most of the metal and stained any leather visible behind it. Anyone who challenged her here would only add to it.

She didn’t need to take it off yet, anyway. Her pack would spread their collective scent and demonstrate her authority. With their influence, the rest of them would soon fall into place. With that, the Queen would have a proper guard to welcome her return. Katya knew exactly how to make it happen. Anyone that tried to oppose her, even that stuck up son of a bear turd Khand, would see the edge of her axe.

Or maybe they’d see her fist. Katya often found that punching someone was often more effective as a disciplinary action than cutting them. Something about being punched made them feel vulnerable and confused. It made it easier to assert her dominance. They were stupid, after all, and needed a bit of direction. They could be mighty useful, but only in the right hands.

Katya looked down at her hands, encased in her metal and leather gauntlets. She squeezed them into fists, hearing the leather creak, and feeling the sudden attention of her enforcers. Fight? their eyes seemed to ask her. Ready to fight. Give us the order and we’ll tear them to shreds. Nothing but ribbons of flesh and skin would be left if she but pointed at one of the mages present.

She didn’t. Starting with a firm, nonviolent hand was usually the best way. If they showed her that violence was necessary then she would gladly oblige them. But first, she would try the more practical way. Respect was first, fear second. If they would respect her authority, they would not have to see her resort to fear.

This was the same methods the Queen had been using. Be firm, and resolute, and show that you know that you are the absolute authority, and people would fall in behind you. Sometimes it was necessary to use another’s authority to back your power - such as the Queen using the name Wrynn, or the house of Wrynn using the will of the people, or her enforcers using the name Katya. Katya would soon be using the Queen’s name to help establish herself here, just as the wolf had used her to move the loyalty of the Wolfcult to where it truly belonged.

Katya smiled. The tattoos on her face moved with it, and a grisly wolf-smile showed over hers. She’d have this place in top form in a week, maybe. If Khand gave her any difficulty she’d see his reputation torn to shreds. If necessary, she’d personally cut him down. That would certainly help firm her position as alpha of her new territory.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, Theramore had been a bustling port city and a valuable asset of the Alliance. Mages had visited for the wisdom of their Lady Proudmoore, hunters and warriors had come to test their mettle against the swamp and its foul inhabitants. Rogues had passed through, sometimes members of the SI:7, sometimes not. They’d exported valuable sea merchandise, fish and pearls and thresher oil, and provided safe ports for ships in a storm. They’d seen their fair share of trouble, and those damned rebels had driven a thorn into their side, but Theramore had been good. It had been a true city.

Then, the Horde had attacked. They’d gone against every agreement Theramore had made with them, ignored the non-combative state of the city, gone after soldiers and civilians alike. They’d purposefully drawn as many important persons as they could to the city, and then they’d sacrificed their own soldiers in an honourless, impersonal bombing.

They’d stolen some kind of dragon artifact to create a vile manabomb, something that had completely ruined the ocean salt and soil of Theramore. Everything was dust: the air itself crackled with volatile mana. Nothing would grow there for years, for decades, maybe even centuries. So many lives had been lost, though Rhonin had managed to mitigate that loss by sacrificing himself. So many noble souls, lost, because of the Horde’s treachery. Dean would see them all burn for what they’d done, but especially the foul orcs that had led the Horde down such a dark path.

Tauren, pandaren, blood elves… They had the capacity for something better. Even trolls understood the concept of honour, and goblins could be reasoned with. Forsaken were abominations, and had to be annihilated simply to spare the world that horror. But orcs? Orcs chose to be vicious and honourless every time the possibility was offered to them. They attacked civilians, desecrated graves, betrayed their allies and bombed their neutral neighbors. And for what? For “glory”.

Dean snorted derisively. He shuffled the papers away from the center of his desk, drawing a clean sheaf of parchment from a desk and starting a note to himself. He’d been writing them fairly often, to remind himself of yesterday’s work or rewrite a guard shift to deal with their new arrivals. Katya. That atrociously dirty and loudmouthed warrior who had shoved past his guards and intimidated his mages and brought in those mangy dogs she called enforcers.

He had to admit that she knew what she was doing. Already half of his guard listened to what she had to say, and though they didn’t disobey his orders, and still called him their Captain, she had their ear. It was ridiculous. She had no reputation, no official training, no stake in their work, and yet she had their ear.

Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

But Dean knew better than to underestimate people like Katya. Tricky and cunning and strong all at once made them dangerous. And Katya had a look of insanity about her. Those tattoos, that crazed look in her eyes, the fanaticism in her followers… She was dangerous, and he couldn’t ignore her. No matter how much he wanted to.

No, he’d learned the hard way that you couldn’t ignore your enemies. The threats around you. They’d come to bite you in the back the moment you turned it to them, just like the Horde had bitten Theramore. A rabid dog.

Dean shook his head slowly. He’d have to move Kharmeer’s squad to the north side, away from Katya. They were getting a little too familiar with her. Getting close wasn’t a problem - you wanted to know your enemy, be close to their defensives, too close for them to drop a bomb on you. But you didn’t want to be familiar with them. That led to defectors and betrayals. That was dangerous.

He didn’t want to get rid of Kharmeer. They were efficient, and their guards were well-trained and disciplined. But he couldn’t chance losing Kharmeer to Katya.

No, Dean couldn’t lose anything or anyone. He had to keep this base in perfect condition. He had to. He couldn’t fail on any front. He couldn’t let the Horde get close, he couldn’t allow the investigation to flag. He had to find the assassins, and those behind them, and prevent another attempt, because if he flagged, if he failed, they’d lose everything. If they lost the Queen, they’d lose everything. He couldn’t go through that again.

Lieutenant Khand of Theramore had been lost with the manabomb, and Dean had lost his father - not to say that they’d been particularly close. His mother was still alive, living well in Stormwind with the revenue from her VetCen family care and Dean’s monthly payments on her apartment in the peaceful Cathedral District, close to her physical therapist and the cathedral itself, where she found peace. But she had yet to write to him, had yet to visit him or even talk to him when he returned to Stormwind for his off time.

But they’d lost Theramore, and they’d lost Lady Proudmoore. They’d lost so much and so many, and Dean had lost his father.

That was why he was occupying the Queen’s Quarters until she returned. He didn’t dare sleep in her bed or use her washroom, but he was there, filling the rooms with his inadequate presence, keeping them lived-in, not stale and musty like they would be without the Queen. They couldn’t lose her. She was one of the only things keeping the Alliance’s front lines intact, one of the few that could stand against four Horde leaders without any of her own allies and still dominate the room with her mere presence.

She would never back down from them, and if they tried to bomb Stormwind she’d kill their leaders herself, dismantle the Horde, and take any survivors who were worthy of being under her command. The blood elves, maybe. Varian had seen potential in them. The tauren, Dean thought, their leader was young still, and on good terms with Anduin, and their people stood on the same wild ground as the night elves. The others would have to be eradicated. Maybe the goblins could be turned to neutrality, away from the Horde, but the Forsaken would be purged from this world. And the orcs…

Dean loosened his grip around his pen. He’d nearly snapped it in half, and he certainly didn’t want to stain the Queen’s desk. He exhaled slowly, forced his shoulders to relax. He’d had the Queen’s chair moved to the side, and his own brought in from his Captain’s quarters. It was stiffer and less padded, and his lower back ached already. Good. The occasional stab of pain would keep him from getting distracted from his duty. Distraction killed good soldiers.

A knock at the door made him grimace. It was probably another complaint about Katya, but without using force to remove her and her enforcers, he couldn’t get her to leave. And resorting to force would set a bad precedent for guests.

“What is it?”

“Report from the Broken Isles, Captain.” Lieutenant Bahjor entered the Queen’s office, a veritable mountain of paper in his arms. “And the Legionfall forces. Stormwind, Darnassus, and Ironforge, as well as VetCen updates, Northrend updates, Ashran and Draenor, from Commander Thorn, from…”

“Put it all down here,” Khand sighed. Lords and Light, he’d never known the Queen had to put up with so much day to day paperwork. It was a never ending nightmare. He was surprised she’d ever had time for anything else.

But he had to keep up in her absence. He’d appointed two clerks to aid him and he was still falling behind. He was only now finishing work from two days ago.

“Absolute nightmare,” he muttered to himself, sifting through the papers for the Legionfall reports. Those were top priority. Then he shook his head. The Queen did this. He had to do it in her absence. And when she came back, he’d have an entirely new respect for her, and her ilk in the House of Nobility. Anyone who had to deal with this much paper, day in and day out, had good reason to be a little snippy.

Dean sighed softly. He let his hands fall onto the desk, papers with them, and let his chin drop to his chest. “Light, please, bring her home. We will fall without her.”

They would all fall without her. Fall to the Horde, fall to the Legion, fall to the naga… Stormwind could not keep up the fight without her at the helm to inspire them, to lead them through the hellish landscape of war and give them hope that it was all worth it. Without Stormwind, the Alliance would fall. And Light have mercy on Azeroth. The Alliance was the only stable fighting force in the world. The Horde was vicious and bloodthirsty and would make a good weapon, but they were divided, internally destabilized from so much infighting. Without the Alliance...

Without the Queen, Azeroth would fall. Dean had let so many people down in his life. He’d let his mother down, he’d disappointed his father and failed his sister - no, brother, she… He went by Gabriel now - but he wouldn’t fail the Queen. He couldn’t. If he didn’t do his duty, she couldn’t do hers, and they would all fall.

Gods, sometimes he hated his job. But he would never trust it to someone else. They wouldn’t have the drive he had. They wouldn’t have learned the same lessons, endured the same pain. They would give up, but Dean Khand would never give up. Not while Queen Luciana still marched after everything she’d suffered.

Stormwind had taken in nearly every single citizen of Theramore that had been displaced by the destruction of their home. He was Stormwind, now, they all were. He would never fail Stormwind, never fail his people. Not like Lady Proudmoore had failed them. She’d abandoned them, but the Wrynns had taken them in, given them all citizenship and homes and jobs and schooling for their children and medical care for their injuries and trauma.

No, Dean would not fail the Wrynns. Not after everything they’d done for his people.

Chapter Text

The Temple was quiet this time of night. The air was surprisingly still, calm after a day of whipping over the mountainous terrain and driving snow into unprotected eyes. Luciana had been forced to stay inside by a concerned mistweaver. She was relieved, now, to be outside, away from the pressing heat of the sealed pavilion where dozens of pandaren still lay dozing.

She looked back at them, over her shoulder. A handful of them lay in a cozy-looking pile, fur and fat keeping them warm while they wiled away entire hours with their eyes closed. Too relaxed, and too warm, and too intimate for Luciana. She turned away.

Though she had yet to find Ruan, who seemed to be quite good at hiding when the mood struck him, she was enjoying her time in the Temple of the White Tiger. She’d spent the last two days sparring, almost constantly in motion, relearning the way her body shifted, adjusting to her asymmetrical balance, and more than anything enjoying the satisfaction of thwacking a sparring partner over the head with a bamboo staff. It was designed not to break bones, merely to bruise, and as a result she could feel the impact reverberate back to her, up her arm, into her bones, and up to the crooked grin on her face. Oh, how she’d missed it.

She’d had another encounter with Taran, the pissy barely-grown monk who was trying to learn from Xuen. But Luciana couldn’t take it personally. She could all too easily see how all-consuming his anger was, the violence simmering beneath the surface. He would need more than a few months on a snowy mountain to tame it. She’d needed years, even with the unquestioning support of her squadron and unwavering faith from Varian and Anduin. Her family.

Her mood soured at the remembrance of her family, not because of them but because of the absence of them. She missed her husband, and she ached at the thought of her children, and… Oh, Light, she missed Varian, and she could only imagine how Anduin felt.

Luciana sighed heavily. Her breath fogged in front of her, fading away into the cold air that nipped at the tip of her nose. Then, she started to walk.

Though she had no specific destination in mind, and her feet took her on a very roundabout path to her destination, she ended up in front of the White Tiger’s massive pavilion. She hesitantly took one of the long matches that were left at the door, offered up more boldly than the hands that took them. She would light a candle inside, pray to the Light and hope it heard her more clearly than she heard her own jumbled thoughts. She would pray for Anduin’s well-being, and for her children’s safety, and pray desperately that she could be guided to the path home. She’d walk it herself, whatever the weight she had to carry across it, but she just needed a little nudge in the right direction.

She hated being directionless, hated feeling lost. But right now she was, and she was acutely aware of just how high the odds were stacked against her. Magic, she could understand - well, the basics. But she could work with it, maybe find a mage to open a portal with her guidance and working knowledge of ley line locations around Elwynn and its surrounding provinces. But time travel?

“You seem troubled. More so than usual.” Xuen’s voice did not echo quite so loudly as it did during the day, but the harsh white glow that emanated from him could not be tamed. Luciana did not look up, intent on lighting the candle while she still held the prayers in her mind.

When she looked up, the tiger’s great head was above her, but he himself was laying down, his back legs kicked out, his posture supremely relaxed. She smiled, despite herself. His right front paw was on its side, leaning back, curled inwards, clearly an unspoken invitation to sit on one of the ethereal pads of his paw.

Luciana approached slowly, and then leaned against his paw and took the invitation. He was surprisingly solid, and not warm but cool against her back, and she leaned her head back and smiled softly.

“What is on your mind?” Xuen asked, his heavy voice never quiet but still low tonight, private.

“I’m worried,” Luciana answered in the same tone, soft. She didn’t doubt he heard her clearly all the same. “I can’t see a path home.”

“Mortal eyes can rarely see so far,” Xuen said. “I do not offer guidance, human, only the strength to find it within yourself. But this time, I will make an exception. There are forces far beyond you. It is no wonder you feel adrift.”

“I’d appreciate anything you have to offer me, White Tiger,” Luciana said. “I don’t need to have my hand held through the dark. I just… need a little push, a little nudge in the right direction. I can do the rest myself. I just…” She trailed off. Light’s fucking balls she hated being lost. She’d always been able to find herself, before, and get to where she needed to go, no matter the interference. But this time was different.

“I know,” Xuen soothed. He understood what he was trying to say, and he knew. “Listen to my words, human. Do not speak, only listen.”

“My ear is yours,” she said when he paused.

“Your trials in Pandaria are not yet complete. But you have the tools to finish them. You are nearly finished in my temple. When you feel you have learned what you need from me, move on.”

“To where?”

“Your friend will know the path to take you there,” Xuen said. “You will guide him through his troubles while he guides you through yours. Is this not the essence of friendship?”

“It is,” Luciana said after a moment’s thought. “It’s also why friendships so often end when that trouble is over.”

“This is true, but a friend is never forgotten. Listen.”

“I am.”

“Move on from here, to the next trial, and then the next after that, and then you can move on,” Xuen said. “You will have gained what you need from your journey here, and you will find your path. You are far from it now, but Ruan will be your torch, and as you approach your path, you will see the trees thin and the ground become even, and your way will ease.”

He fell silent, and Luciana let it stretch a moment in case he had some other words for her. “Thank you,” she said, first, and then, “What is my next trial?”

“You have not quite yet completed this one.”

“When I do, will you tell me my next one?”

“I will tell you now. You have completed the trial of wisdom, and tomorrow you will complete the trial of strength, and then you will find Ruan and move on.”

Wisdom, strength… fortitude. And then hope. She had inadvertently started the Trials of the Four Celestials. Luciana snorted a laugh, couldn’t help the wry grin that twisted her face. “Of course,” she sighed. “I’ll have to butt heads with the Ox, then.”

The temple echoed with a rhythmic rumbling that left her ribcage hollow, and Luciana realized that Xuen was laughing. She looked up - his leonine mouth was open slightly, his ears back, his eyes half closed as he laughed.

“Who better than a warrior to butt heads with him?” Xuen chuckled. “I’m certain you’re stubborn enough to outlast his trial.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“It is not. It is perhaps the most difficult. To be tenacious, to keep going though every piece of you screams for rest… Though you may surrender, though you may not have the strength to stand up to the onslaught, you must keep moving. Do you understand?” he asked, tilting his head to look at her with one great eye. “Though your soul may be broken in the trial of the Black Ox, your body must keep moving. Your soul will recover, but you must first leave the circumstances that broke it.”

“I understand,” she said softly. “I’ve done it before.”

“He will use that against you.”

Luciana shuddered. She felt cold, suddenly, despite the heat still radiating from her skin. “I’ll survive,” she said. “I have to.”

“Remember those words, little one,” Xuen said, and his voice reminded Luciana quite starkly of Goldrinn’s. Little one. Little wolf, standing in the shadow of the alpha, never alone. “Remember that you have survived this, survived through it time and again, and you will survive it this time, as well.”

“Survive,” she said. “All I have to do is survive.”

“For now, yes.”

“And when I’m home, I can live again.”

“Yes. Never give in,” Xuen said, his voice fierce for a moment, a growl deep in his chest. “Never surrender to the darkness. Fight it, fight it tooth and claw, scream and thrash and struggle until it relinquishes its grip on you. Never give in to the darkness. Fight until your very soul is exhausted, until your throat bleeds and your bones ache, and then keep fighting until the darkness surrenders to you.”

Luciana smiled. “I’ve never been one to give up.”

“You will be fine,” Xuen soothed. Luciana felt the minute shift in his paw, and stood, and a moment later he did as well. When he leaned it back to stretch his neck, the tip of his snout touched the ceiling. The candles flickered when he shook his head, his mane echoing with wisps of pale fire. “Rest, for now,” he said. “Or don’t. You warriors have trouble resting, if I recall.”

“Only if it’s not preceded by a fight.”

He chuckled again, the sound echoing in her lungs and she laughed too. “Then, would you like to spar?”

“I’d love to.”

Xuen’s form shifted, and his white fur turned to wispy fog like Luciana’s breath in the night air, and in the place of the great tiger stood a human with stark blue eyes and tiger’s teeth in his jaws. And in his hands, two staffs, solid and tipped with metal. One was pure white, sparkling like fallen snow, a blue ribbon tied to the base of the blade on the top. The other was royal blue, tipped with gold, the blade patterned with a familiar wave in the metal. A royal purple ribbon flowed from the base of the blade, patterned with something Luciana recognized, somehow, from somewhere long ago.

“Naganis?” Luciana asked. The pandaren polearm was deadly in the hands of a master.

“If you are to protect yourself and Ruan in the land of the mantid, you will need a weapon worthy of a warrior,” Xuen said, tossing the weapon to her. She caught it easily with her left hand, giving it an experimental twirl. “First, move as though it is a staff, but remember the blade. Then, move as though it were a spear. And by the morning, you will move and flow with it as a nagani.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice quiet. “This is a true weapon.”

“Fit for a true warrior.”

She smiled then, a sharp, dangerous smile. She didn’t have to hold back against the White Tiger.

“Come, Luciana. Come, wolf,” he said, beckoning her forward. “Show me your teeth. Show me the Queen of Stormwind.”

Chapter Text

The Temple of the White Tiger woke at dawn, as it did every day. Monks began their daily rituals, trainees flowed from their beds to the lower training area, and Luciana continued her long fight with Xuen. She hadn’t meant to stay up all night sparring with him, but there hadn’t been any clear indication of an end to the fight, and being a warrior she’d been more than willing to keep fighting until her body was literally incapable of moving anymore.

She hadn’t yet reached that point, though she was close to it. Beyond that, though, a wide, toothy grin had twisted her face perpetually since sometime earlier in the night, and her eyes were wide and bright, her pupils blown wide. Her upper body was bared to the cold air that was allowed into the tiger’s pavilion, and her dark skin was steaming visibly.

And still, she fought. Xuen jabbed forward with his nagani, and she moved to meet his thrust, both weapons flowing to the side and then back to their wielders like a river around a sharp bend. She thrust forward next, retreated, thrust again, four time in quick succession, all aiming for different points exposed by Xuen’s movement to avoid the last blow. He was too fast for her to hit, and she relished the challenge, the burning push to be faster, faster, faster than before, push harder, thrust faster, be quicker on her feet as he intercepted a thrust and used the momentum against her even as she moved to rebalance herself, avoiding the razor edge of his nagani.

She twirled to a stop, now on the north side where Xuen had stood a moment prior. He stood where she had been, his nagani held point-down in a defensive stance, hers up and braced under her arm in a different defensive stance. She could hardly breathe at this point, exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and in absolute ecstasy. She’d never fought anything or anyone like Xuen, and it was a rush like nothing she’d ever experienced.

Luciana was fully prepared to go until her own body stopped responding. She would break her own body in a fight like this, and be happy to do it. But Xuen’s leonine ears twitched, and Luciana eased from her stance as he did. A few monks were entering Xuen’s temple, seeking guidance on their path to strength or a place to fight under the keen eye of the White Tiger.

Luciana sighed, yawned, and struggled to catch her breath. “I supposed I should eat something now,” Luciana said, and then laughed. Anduin would murder her in broad daylight in the Trade District if he ever learned she’d gone a full night without food or water, while fighting a Celestial in the cold without a shirt on. Good thing he’d never find out unless she told him.

“Yes, I think that is best,” Xuen said. “Be sure to stretch, like I showed you. It will help move the waste from your blood faster.”

“I will, thank you,” Luciana said, meeting his eyes evenly. There was a deep sincerity to her voice, and she knew he heard it, though he did not outwardly acknowledge it.

“May your nagani serve you well,” Xuen said. “Now that you know its movements, and it has learned yours, it will respond to you as your own arm once did.”

“It’s a wondrous weapon,” Luciana said, twirling it absently in her left hand. “It flows like a river around me.”

“And you are the source.”

Luciana bowed her head, slightly, and only for a short moment, but Xuen turned his head slightly to gaze at her with a single blue eye, and grinned a very human grin. She returned it easily, and turned to leave.

“One more thing,” Xuen said. “Now that I’ve exhausted your body, your mind will not be so distracted.”

She chuckled. He did know warriors, then.

“Gaze into nothingness,” he said. “As though you were bored. Let the nagani fall to the ground.” He nodded when she hesitated. She reluctantly let the nagani fall to the ground, hearing the beautiful weapon clang against the stone, and stood straight. “Feel your breath in your lungs. Feel it stretch your ribs. Feel the muscle and flesh around your bones, and feel your skin.”

She let her mind wander somewhere near the back of her head, quiet and buzzing without any fully formed thoughts. Light, she was exhausted, and it was wonderful. Her whole body buzzed.

“Let your skin chill like the air around it. Let it become indistinguishable from the air around you. Let your flesh become nothing in your mind. Let it numb.”

She closed her eyes. It was easier, that way, to let herself float in her own mind like she was swimming in the lake in the fall. It would numb her entire body, and she wouldn’t be able to tell where she ended and the water began. It wouldn’t last long, but it was blissful and quiet when the water filled her ears.

“Do not think, but feel. Feel where you stand in space. Feel the edges of your body, where you are in proportion to yourself. Where is your hand, in relation to your arm? Your arm, in relation to your chest? Your legs, in relation to each other? Control your breathing. Slow, and thoughtless. Feel yourself and visualize the space you occupy.”

She slowed her breathing. Luciana could hear her heart in her ears, feel it pound along every inch of her body, but it only served to help drown out the rest of the world.

“Good. Now, visualize the air in your lungs as it enters, and as it leaves. It brings into your body the air from outside, the cold. It gathers the heat of your body, gathers it about itself, and as you exhale, it rushes from within you, bringing heat and energy. Each breath you take brings into you the cold air that feeds your lungs. Each breath you exhale pushes your energy outward into the world around you. Feel this heat, this energy, as it gathers in the air in your chest, and as it leaves you. Quiet, thoughtless - do not see this energy, do not try to smell or feel it with your skin and bones. When you sense your body within a space, when you sense your body and where it stands in relation to itself, sense also this energy that moves within you, from within to without.”

With each exhale, Luciana tried to imagine without words, without forming specific images, what it felt like. She could feel the cold of the air biting her trachea, warming as it found her lungs. She could feel it rush from her as she exhaled, bringing heat from within her to without.

“Clench your hands into fists,” Xuen said. “Roll your wrists, slowly. Bend your elbow to lift your hands. Good. Feel the brush of the flesh of your forearm against the flesh of your bicep. Yes. Good, little wolf. Now, stretch your arms out to the side. Imagine the breath in your lungs as you exhale, as the energy brought forth expands within you, fills every inch of your body with revitalizing energy. Your own energy, that latent power that has filled you since your conception, the power of life, the power to grow and heal as only that which is alive may do. Imagine it filling your arms and legs, extending from your core to the very tips of your fingers. Your own life energy fills you fully, now, strengthened with every breath you take and every breath you give. Open your eyes, little wolf.”

Luciana opened her eyes, swaying slightly on her feet. Her entire body tingled with energy, as though she’d touched a live street werelamp socket. Almost as though Anduin had filled her with his gentle, loving Light.

She brought her hands into her sight, looked down at them, flexed her hands experimentally. Her left hand seemed as it did ordinarily, though perhaps a bit swollen from so many hours gripping the nagani. Her right hand was white-green, the energy that made it up flowing continuously, swiftly beneath the surface, a raging river contained in a skin formed of Luciana’s own life force.

“Chi,” she said softly. She’d read about Chi, seen it brought forth by mistweavers to heal or by brewmaster monks to made their bodies hard as stone. It was what allowed monks to control their bodies with their minds, and it was Chi that mistweavers brought forth in their patients to speed the natural healing of their injured or sick bodies. “I have Chi?” A ridiculous question - all living things had Chi. “Of course I do.”

“Of course you do,” Xuen confirmed. “I’ve merely helped you find its source in you. It seems that it comes from the same place as your fury.”

“My fury is me,” Luciana said quietly. She marveled at her right hand. Though it was made of Chi, she was aware of it as much as she was her left arm. She could sense where it was in relation to her body, could sense its movements. She could even feel the cold air of the temple grounds, which flowed into the tiger’s pavilion, as it brushed against her exposed Chi. Exposed, and formed into the image of her right arm as though it had always been so.

“This Chi,” she said, looking up briefly at Xuen. His eyes were keen on her, sparkling with some combined form of mischief and pleasure. “Was it once the energy of my right arm?”

“Yes,” he said, and she could hear the pleasure in his voice. Pleased, then, with his instruction of her, and how quickly she’d picked up his lesson. “Your body already knows how your arm should be. All you have to do is bring it forth.”

“It’s not permanent,” she said.

“No. But it is you, just as much as your left arm is. Just as much as your bones and sinew are you. Practice bringing it forth from within you. It will be easier each time you pull the Chi from within, to without, just as you did this time.”

“I understand,” she said softly, and then her gorge rose. “Thank you,” she said, her voice thick. It wasn’t her right arm. At least, not how she’d imagined getting it back. Before yanking the last bit of her shoulder out of its socket. It wasn’t her arm, per se, but it was her, and it was in the shape of her arm. It… well, it was her arm. It was weird. It would take some getting used to.

But she could fight at her true full capacity with two arms with which to wield her nagani. Two arms, one Chi, one flesh and bone.

And as she practiced bringing forth her Chi, she could also meditate, and practice control over her body, finer than before. She wasn’t a monk, but Chi was in all living things, and she was willing to learn anything that could help her. Learning more of Chi, especially of her own, could only benefit her.

“Thank you,” she said again, almost inaudible. The White Tiger had just given her a great gift, one that went beyond simply restoring a lost limb. Luciana had no doubt that she’d be discovering the benefits of this gift for a long time to come. This... She could sense the path it had opened to her. A path to understanding something primal, something deep.

“You are a good student,” Xuen said to her. “It was a pleasure to guide you.”

“Have I completed the trial of strength?”

“Yes. And I believe it’s time for you to-”

Xuen was cut off abruptly - Luciana saw the narrowing of his slit pupils, the tuck-back of his tiger’s ears on his human head, the curling-back of lips from a mouth full of tiger’s teeth - and the interruptor came forth like a thundercloud.

Taran made a violent cutting motion in the air before Luciana, almost cutting her face with his claws mere inches from her nose. As her body shifted from its resting state to one appropriate for a fight, her Chi arm dissipated, and that alone was enough to send her into a rage.

But this time, her fury paled before the fury of another. Xuen’s presence filled the Temple like a hurricane in a glass jar, pressing down on Luciana, pressing against her on all sides and compressing her. She could hardly breathe past it. It was a sobering reminder that she was not the biggest animal in the world. There were creatures much older and much stronger than her, and worthy of her respect and caution. Xuen was one of them.

“Taran Zhu, you have dishonoured me, my temple, and my guest,” Xuen boomed. His voice brushed stone dust from the ceiling and bits of stone clattered down around them as the dust filled the air around Xuen’s head, giving him a halo like the rings around the planet seen above Stormwind every autumn harvest. “You have allowed your anger to control you for too long. You have refused my lessons and allowed pride to blind you.”

Luciana had very little knowledge about what was happening. Taran, apparently, had had issues long before she’d arrived. They’d culminated likely by sheer happenstance while she was there. This, then, had little or nothing to do with her. She was simply a bystander.

With this realization, she was able to relax. And when she relaxed, she was able to breathe. Xuen’s presence was smothering, still, but not quite so extreme when she took a step back from the situation surrounding him. It made perfect sense. Luciana began to breathe at a measured pace, controlling her exhales, trying again to summon forth her Chi arm. The less she worried about Xuen and his wrath, the easier it was to breathe, and the less the air seemed to press against her skin with the intent to suffocate her.

She couldn’t outright ignore Xuen, though, not with her fury ever active somewhere in her core. It flickered like a newly-woken fire, ready to rise into her chest and up her throat, rise to the challenge. She kept breathing slowly, concentrating on the feeling of the air leaving her lungs and the heat it took with it. Heat was energy, energy was life - a simple idea, and enough to manifest her Chi in the shape of her right arm. It needed some solidity, still. She stayed calm, even as Xuen’s booming voice seemed to crack open the heavens outside, thunder rumbling along with his voice.

As the air in the temple finally let Luciana be, as it returned to how it had felt before - light and springy, crisp and fresh and almost friendly - the skies outside darkened and Xuen’s own Celestial form darkened to the color of a stormy sea. Luciana couldn’t understand the words he spoke, then. They weren’t Common, or Pandaren. They were in an ancient, unknowable language, one whose sounds whispered over her skin alongside the air and rushed into her lungs like water trying to drown her.

A single bolt of lightning crackled somewhere nearby, its thunderous companion crashing down half a second later, deafening Luciana painfully. Her head throbbed and she groaned, feeling it in her throat but not yet able to hear after that boom. She clutched her head with both hands, her Chi arm solidifying further by merit of being used, of its nature as Chi being forgotten as Luciana used it as she would an arm made of flesh and bone and blood.

The weather outside quieted. Xuen returned to his normal colour. Taran Zhu was on his hands and knees, the temple floor wet underneath him as though it had rained on him. His fur dripped with that same water. Luciana could see ice formed under it, spiking much of the fur on his shoulders and arms.

“You will learn,” Xuen said. His final words on the matter, now spoken in the same way as his words before. Luciana could understand them, and obviously so could pandaren, because Shan-le, the good-natured monk from before, gasped and covered his muzzle with both wide paws. “And until you do, you will live to see the lesson imparted unto others. Until you learn what I have been trying to teach you, Taran Zhu, you will live to see others surpass you in this lesson.”

Cursed, then. Xuen had cursed Taran… “Taran Zhu?” Luciana murmured. Not the very same… Oh. Oh, no. She felt like she’d intruded on something, just then, something she’d never been meant to witness. Some event that was meant to be private, recorded only in the annals of time, witnessed only by the bearer and the layer of the curse and the single shocked witness of the fact. Except now Luciana was also witness.

A single strand of unease wormed its way down her spine. Was Taran Zhu related to Ruan Zhu? Is that why she hadn’t seen Ruan since she’d snapped at him? True, he may have been avoiding her fury, but he’d seen it before and never balked, not like this.

“Xuen,” Luciana murmured. If he did not want to see her at that moment, he would ignore her, and she would wait a minute to try again.

“Yes, little wolf?” he said, tilting his great head to gaze at her with a single blue eye. Calm, again, like the foamy sea after the storm had passed.

“Thank you for helping me,” she said, pouring as much sincerity as she could into her voice. “I need to go find Ruan.” It was indeed a need, now, and it burned in her.

“Go,” Xuen said, his tone even. He acknowledged, welcomed, and dismissed her in a single word. A true professional. She nodded to him, once, and turned to hurry from the temple.

Behind her, Taran Zhu groaned.

But he wasn’t the Zhu she was worried about. Ruan Zhu was her priority, now. There was clearly more than one reason she hadn’t seen him in a few days, and if her suspicions were correct he would need her right now more than she’d needed him in all the past weeks combined.

The essence of friendship. Guiding each other. Something like that, anyway. Light, she was dizzy. And dehydrated.

“Water, first. Then Ruan. Then food. Food makes people feel good. Especially pandaren. Right.”

Water first. Then Ruan. Luciana hurried down to the lower pavilions. With a brief thought, she reached out with her Chi arm - she’d forgotten about it, but it was still there, moving with her swift steps in sync with her left leg - to grab a fistful of snow. She smeared it over her face. The next few fistfuls went into her mouth. Shit that was cold. Okay, now Ruan.

Chapter Text

Thunder rumbled in the far east, the remnants of the storm Xuen had brought to life. Luciana’s stomach rumbled to match it. So hungry she was nauseous, she made her way quickly down the stairs from Xuen’s pavilion. Taking them two or three at a time, nimbly dodging any pandaren that met her path, she hurried towards the pavilion where the food was kept.

Not only would she be able to take the edge off the rabid beast in her stomach, but she would also be able to ask if any of the pandaren there had seen Ruan recently. She knew enough of their tongue, at least, to ask where Ruan? And even as upset as he surely was, Ruan was a pandaren. They needed to eat every day to stay healthy.

Was he really that upset, though? Maybe avoiding Taran Zhu had also allowed Ruan to avoid most of the stress. Luciana wasn’t sure what to expect going in, which she disliked, but this wasn’t really a situation where she could avoid going in just because she didn’t have all the intel. It wasn’t a life-or-death situation either, for once, which was comforting.

She slipped on snow-covered ice more than once, but she was moving too fast for it to really matter. Her other foot found solid ground before the clumsy one could bring her down. The nagani’s ribbon snapped in a sudden gust of wind and Luciana felt the icy fingers of a snow flurry on her scarred chest. She moved the nagani to her right hand - the weight of it would help her keep her Chi arm active without conscious thought. By Xuen’s teaching, that was the way to keep it.

An incredibly fluffy pandaren yelped when Luciana appeared in the doorway, panting and wet from sweat and snow, razor-sharp nagani held in a hand made of life energy. “Dwo-kan Ruan?” she asked. Where is Ruan?

“Ruan Zhu?” the fluffy pandaren asked. Luciana could barely see her eyes past the thick tan fur on her face. “Ta wenda sheng-ya sha-me…” The pandaren trailed off. She smiled sympathetically at Luciana. “Ma wen,” she said. He’s ill.

“Mistweaver?” Luciana asked. She repeated the pandaren word for healer. The pandaren shook her head. “Teyi?” One’s private room. The pandaren smiled widely and nodded.

“Yi!” she said brightly. “Ma kan teyi!”

“She-she,” Luciana said, briskly moving past the pandaren to a wide stone table that stretched nearly the entire length of the mess hall. Maybe it had a proper name, but it looked too much like the mess hall back in Arathi to be anything else to her.

She picked up a basket from the corner of the table, obviously meant for people to take food out of the hall, and started grabbing whatever food was nearest. She resisted the urge to grab an entire bowl of rice, instead going for things that could be picked up and eaten with the hands. Dumplings, pork buns, sweet rolls, two giant crane drumsticks whose bones stuck out of the corner of the basket, what looked like fried seaweed, fish sticks, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. She grabbed a baked clay tea pot full of hot water, a tiny bundle of dried green tea leaves, and two mugs. Luciana made off like a robber, but no one looked twice at her haul. This was enough food to feed three, maybe four pandaren. Nothing out of the ordinary. She’d eat at least half by herself.

Luciana had an idea of where Ruan had been staying. There were a few places where Xuen’s disciplines slept, other places for mistweavers, and two squat buildings where visitors stayed. She’d check those, first. Ruan was a monk in training, but he wasn’t one of Xuen’s sharp-eyed students. He came from the Jade Forest, more open with his friendship.

If Ruan was telling others that he was ill, maybe he was upset. Perhaps he was using it as an excuse to hide? Or maybe he felt ill because of Taran Zhu. She’d have to find out.

Her legs burned as she hop-stepped up the stairs. Too fast, or too jerky, and the boiling water in the clay pot would splash out on her legs. She found a rhythm that leg the food basket swing easily at her side, never stopping to readjust her balance. She found it on the way up.

“Ruan Zhu?” she asked a monk digging in a snow bank. He replied, looked up at her, and understanding dawned on his face. Maybe she’s missed a cue? But he pointed up at the squat stone building, jabbing his finger up a few times. Up, up, up. Top floor. “She-she,” Luciana said, hurrying through the open doors.

Yet more stairs greeted her. What did they do with pandaren that couldn’t handle stairs? When she reached the top floor and slowed, listening closely for the sound of Ruan’s voice, she noticed an opening from which a ramp slowly descended in a spiral. “Helpful,” she murmured. She could only imagine how many cubs, or drunk initiates, had tried to sled down that ramp. The central pillar had a dent in it roughly the size and shape of a pandaren’s head. She snorted as she passed by.

Though she could have simply called out his name and quickened her search, Luciana didn’t want to disturb the peace of this place. It was still early, and many were undoubtedly still asleep. She probably wouldn’t hear him talking, but maybe she could sniff him out?

Nearly leaving the food and its many tempting scents behind at the ramp, Luciana paced down the hallway on the balls of her feet. Moving almost silently, she sniffed at the air, trying to catch a recognizable scent. One that wasn’t wet fur or beer.

A door ahead of her opened from the inside. She heard the murmur of voices, and a monk in beautiful journeyman’s regalia left the room after bowing low to its occupant. “She-she,” she heard from within.

Luciana met his eyes as he passed. His head turned slowly to hold her gaze, and then he looked down at the basket full of food. He smiled approvingly, and then took the ramp to leave. Luciana heard the clink of his wooden leg all the way down.

She looked up. Ruan was standing just inside his room, one foot in the hallway. “Ah, hello,” he said awkwardly.

“I’ve been fighting since last night and I brought food,” she said. Let him figure out that she was hungry. “Haven’t washed yet.”

“No matter!” he said, smile easing out of the nervous state it’d greeted her with. Did he really think she was upset that she hadn’t seen him? It wasn’t even a week yet. “You can wash here, if you’d like. I have a bath drawn, but I don’t think I will use it…” Or maybe he thought her upset because he’d left her without a way to properly understand the other pandaren.

“Thanks. Hot.” She handed him the clay kettle, the basket of food, and the mugs, and found her way into the washroom. Glorious clear water waited for her in the bath. She dropped her shirt, stripped off her pants, and stepped in.

“You brought me crane legs!” Ruan crowed from the other room. “These are my favourite!” Obviously his nervousness was short-lived. Hopefully the source wasn’t too serious, either. Though if it had to do with Taran Zhu… Family issues were complicated, at best, and could leave you an absolute wreck if left to rot under the surface.

Luciana let her head sink below the surface. She wouldn’t soak, she told herself firmly, no matter how much she wanted to. The heat seeped into her sore muscles, and her left hand ached pleasantly at it. Soaking would be nice. But she felt nearly frenzied, still, after her fight with Xuen and the discovery of her Chi arm and the realization that Ruan maybe needed her as much as she needed him right now. He was the only one here that she could talk to, the only part of her pack that was with her. If he needed help, Light have mercy on anyone that got in the way of that.

She sat up in the tub, letting water slough off her rough-hewn body. She quickly scrubbed her skin with a sea sponge left to sit precariously on the edge of the porcelain-lined stone bath, and then worked a bit of soap into her hair and dunked her head to rinse.

Satisfied, she stood in the tub, letting the water she brought with her run back down in rivulets shaped by her scars. She felt a sharp twinge in a particularly thick line that ran across her last right rib. The physical memory of the whip would never leave her, but it was mild this time and she could move past it. She took a deep breath, failed to bite back the yawn that resulted, and stepped out of the tub.

When she was dry enough to redress - though she left her torso bare, carrying her shirt in hand - she wandered barefoot back into the wide, low-ceilinged circular room that Ruan had been occupying these past few days.

“Ruan,” she greeted.

“Hello!” he said, voice muffled by a mouthful of pork bun. One crane leg had already been desecrated by fangs and powerful jaws. He offered her the other. She took it as she sat, cross-legged and opposite him on the thick yak-hair mat on the floor. “Thank you for the food,” he said.

“Yeah,” she murmured. Suddenly, her appetite was gone. She lifted the crane leg and tore a strip of meat from it with her teeth. Warm meat easily rekindled her hunger, and she took another great bite.

“You were fighting all night?” Ruan said.

“Yes. I was sparring with Xuen.”

“Is that where you got the nagani?” he asked, pointing at the weapon she’d dropped on her way to the bath. She hadn’t even noticed dropping it.

“Yes.”

“And the Chi?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a monk? An initiate?”

“No. I don’t think so,” she amended. Who knew, at this point?

“You must be tired,” he said.

“After I eat, I will sleep.”

“You can sleep here.”

“Thank you.”

“What brings you here?”

“I haven’t seen you in a few days,” she said. “Since we got here, basically. I was wondering what you’d been up to.”

“Oh! Have you missed me?” he asked, absolutely delighted. “I’ve been keeping busy. I’ve never been here, so I’ve been talking to the locals and training with the White Tiger initiates. I find it’s helpful to learn new things.”

She hummed an agreement, reached down to snag a sweet roll, and shoved it into her mouth. She had to bite it in half, and struggle to get it down with some hot tea Ruan had prepared while she’d been washing. The other half soon followed, along with some more meat. “I met Taran Zhu several times in the temple.”

Ruan’s fur flattened over his shoulders and even on his face. A sure sign of distress. “I see,” he said. “I hope he was not too rude to you?”

“He was appallingly rude,” Luciana said. “But I’ve dealt with much worse.”

“I’m sure,” Ruan said.

“He’s your brother?”

“I… Yes, he is,” Ruan said. “My younger brother.”

“How much younger?”

“Four years.”

“Why is he so angry?”

This seemed to catch Ruan off guard. Though he’d had long enough to adjust to her brusqueness, which was especially present when she was hungry, he was taken aback at her question. “It’s a long story,” he said hesitantly.

“If you don’t want to tell me, don’t,” she said. “Otherwise, answer me. I don’t ask questions like this to be polite.”

“You want to know?”

“I asked.”

“Yes, you did,” Ruan said. He sighed, and then smiled at her. It was a weak smile, but an honest one. “I was born, and my parents were delighted. I’m friendly, curious, strong enough to be an initiate of the Jade Serpent but not strong enough to travel too far. Except for recent events, I’ve never left the forest, and my parents were glad to have me close by.”

“And Taran?”

“My parents loved him, as they love me,” he said. “But he is not me. He was not always rude. But he was never friendly like me, or our parents. He was suspicious of newcomers and questioned every outsider. He never shared a brew or offered food or a place to stay the night. My parents were disappointed in him, as they were not in me.”

“He was jealous?”

“I don’t know,” Ruan said. Years-old frustration was in his voice. “He never talked to me about such things. I think he felt as though… as though he was a disappointment, rather than one who had caused a disappointment.”

Luciana offered Ruan a pork bun. He seemed to like them. He offered her a thankful smile when he took it.

“He wasn’t good enough for our parents, it seemed. I was, though I never really put effort into it. I was like my parents, and so naturally I made them proud. He… wasn’t. And he didn’t. It made him bitter. When he left, my parents were devastated. But they didn’t know how to tell him he didn’t need to leave.”

“I understand,” Luciana said softly. “I wasn’t what my mother wanted and my father never knew how to handle me. Feeling like an outsider in your own family is…” She trailed off. There wasn’t any specific word she could find that could sufficiently describe it.

“Difficult?” Ruan offered.

“At the very least.”

“Yes… Well, he left,” he said. “And never wrote us. My father wrote him, a few times, but when he didn’t respond, my father stopped. I knew he’d left for Kun Lai, because of what he’d brought with him, but I didn’t know he was here. I didn’t know he was a monk.”

“While you are still an initiate.”

“Yes.” Ruan sighed, clearly frustrated. “I am his elder, and yet I am an initiate while he is a monk.”

“Are you happy?”

“What?” Ruan said, startled. He looked up at her, dark brown eyes shining. Not quite tears.

“Are you happy being an initiate of the Jade Serpent? When you think of yourself as such, are you happy?”

“I… Well, yes,” he said.

“Except for recent events, have you ever felt like you’re wasting your time at your Temple? Or felt dissatisfied at your status there?”

“Er, no.”

“Did you enjoy your days there?”

“Yes?”

“Did you want to leave?”

“Maybe some day,” he said. “To travel.”

“But you were quite happy to stay there for the moment.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel as though you are a disappointment?”

“To whom?”

“Yourself, or your parents, or the Serpent, or a teacher.”

“No, not really.”

“Then what is the problem?” she asked. “You’re happy where you are. Why do you need to be something else?”

He blinked at her owlishly. “I suppose… you have a point,” he said.

“I wasn’t happy with myself,” she said. “Being a warrior. Having berserker blood. And it affected every aspect of my life. When I came to a place where I could confidently show my true self to those for whom I care, it stopped. And I grew.”

“I see,” Ruan said slowly. “It is like putting a saltwater fish into a freshwater lake. Of course it will not flourish! But put a saltwater fish into the ocean, where it belongs, it will thrive.”

“In simple terms,” Luciana said. “Except you can decide what kind of fish you are, and you can decide where to be. You’ve chosen to study under the Jade Serpent, and as an initiate, you were content. Now, maybe, it will change as you see more places that could be good for you. It happens.” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s for the best to change things. Like pruning an apple tree,” she said. “The tree wants to grow every which way. But some ways are healthier for it. You guide its branches, and it grows into them.” That was, she admitted privately, maybe not as relevant as she would have liked. But it seemed helpful to Ruan, who brightened considerably at that.

“I know apple trees!” he said, teeth flashing. “My parents grow them! Some soil is healthier for apple trees, though they will grow almost anywhere. And some mulch is better than others.”

“Trees branch off in strange ways,” Luciana said. “Have you ever grafted trees?”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “The most delicious cider comes from grafts.” Understanding seemed to dawn on his face. “Oh, I see where you’re going with this!” he said. “Travelling is like grafting trees,” he said. “New experiences are grafted trees! And the branches are the paths you can take! And some branches will be choked out of the sunlight, but others will reach out to a good place and grow delicious apples!”

“And then you get cider,” Luciana said. She chuckled. “Have some tea.”

“Yes, yes,” Ruan said, taking a gulp of tea. “Oh, that’s hot,” he said, opening his mouth. “Hot, hot, hot!”

“You drank it too quickly,” she said dryly.

“Yes, honoured teacher,” he laughed. “I can see now how you are a mother,” he said. “You are very wise.”

“Whatever wisdom I have comes from pain,” she said. “I’m too stubborn for anything else to work it past my thick skull.”

At that, he laughed from his belly, holding down its considerable girth with his hands. “I know! You are more stubborn than a dirty yak!”

Luciana grumbled, without any real heat, and then shoved some kind of pear-like fruit into her mouth. It tasted sort of like pear, too, but clearly wasn’t. “What is this?” she asked as she chewed.

“It’s a mountain apple,” he said. “It’s not actually an apple.”

“I can tell.” She took another bite. “Might give a nice accent to a cider, though.”

“You think so?” Ruan said, taking a mountain apple from the basket to nibble as much as a pandaren could.

“Are you okay?” Luciana said. “You must’ve gotten a shock when you realized Taran was here.”

“I saw him in the temple grounds for morning form practice,” Ruan said. “He looked so angry. And disappointed, in me.”

“He’s projecting his disappointment in himself onto you,” Luciana said.

“You think so?” Ruan said again, quietly this time.

“Yes. His problem is that his expectations of himself are so high that he can’t see past them. They’ve consumed him, and spilled out onto everything else in his life. He thinks that, because he’s disappointed his own expectations, he must have also disappointed your parents. Or his teachers. Or whoever else. He works harder, doesn’t reach the unrealistic goal he’s set for himself, and it gets worse. He starts to berate other people, too, because he is so angry at himself that he imagines other people must be the same way to themselves. I’ve met people like him before.”

“Have you spoken to him?” Ruan asked.

“No, but he’s yelled at me a few times,” Luciana said. “This morning, after my spar with Xuen ended and he showed me how to bring out… well, this,” she said, holding up her right hand. It glowed brightly, as she’d forgotten its true nature. Looking at it directly made it waver, so she looked up at Ruan and ignored it while she talked. She reached out with it to pick up her tea and it solidified again. “Taran interrupted Xuen while he spoke to me, and that pissed him off. I think… Well, I’m not sure, as I haven’t exactly had much experience with Celestials up until now, but I think Xuen cursed Taran. He said that Taran had something to learn and until he did, he’d be stuck watching other people learn it.”

“What?” Ruan said, fur flat again. Luciana frowned into her tea. That had been the opposite of her intentions here. “How horrible… Should I go visit him?”

“You’re asking me?” Luciana said.

“Yes. I am.”

“What are your intentions?”

“He is my brother,” Ruan said. “I want to help.”

“Would he accept that help?”

“... No,” Ruan sighed. “He would not.”

“Would he see this offer of help as a good thing?”

“I think he would find it insulting.”

“Were you close, as children?”

“Not really. Why?”

“If you were, you could find a way back to it. But it seems to me as though Taran does not really consider himself as part of a family.”

“But he is!”

“Does he see it that way?”

“Probably not.” Another heavy, sad sigh.

“Maybe it’s best to leave him be for now,” Luciana said. “He is under the watchful gaze of Xuen, who clearly has a path for him to follow. He can protect himself, at the very least. Without the burden of his familial responsibilities, maybe he’ll find a better way.”

“His family is not a burden!”

“From what you’ve told me, he seems to see it that way.”

Ruan’s ears were back, now, but he was chewing on something, so he clearly wasn’t too distraught. “You are wise,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“I don’t like it,” he said, and he sounded exactly like a petulant child. Luciana chuckled. “But you’re right. I think I should let Taran… go,” he said. “I think we should let him go. He was never happy in our home, or our orchards. Maybe he can find his own, in time.”

“You are wise,” Luciana said to Ruan. He looked up, startled, and she smiled crookedly. “You want to help someone, but rather than rushing in and insisting that they let you help, you think of what they would consider helpful. And since your offer would be seen as a insult, you withhold it. That is wise.”

Ruan smiled, his teeth showing in the typical pandaren grimace-smile. “Thank you, my friend,” he said happily. “You have lifted a burden off my back.”

“I’m going to burden you to take the basket and the kettle and mugs back to the kitchens while I take your bed,” she warned him.

He laughed. “That, my friend, is an easy burden to bear!”

“I’m glad to help you, Ruan,” Luciana said. “You helped me.”

“I did not do it to incur a debt.”

“I know,” Luciana said. She wanted to say something else, something nice maybe, but the hunger and the exhaustion had finally caught up with her and her eyes tried to close. Ruan smiled again.

“Finish your food, and sleep,” he said. “I’ll bring some water for when you wake. I imagine you’ll need it.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled, right before she fitted her teeth around the remaining meat on her crane drumstick and tore it right from the bone.

Chapter Text

Stormwind was not a stranger to war. At her essence, she was a stronghold, a bastion for humanity and their allies. Her capital, the city that housed her heart, she was stone and mortar build to outlast any battle, any siege that might befall her. Her bones were steel armor and mounted cavalry, her spine a line of Baraz-Bryn tanks. In her veins ran the blood of warriors past and present, the boiling fury of one born to fight - to win. Her kings had always embodied that spirit in some way. Most recently, Varian had himself been a great warrior. A true hero to his people. After him came Anduin, not a warrior himself but married to one, partnered to one so that she could rule alongside him.

But Stormwind’s heart, protected by great stone walls, was her people. And in her heart, in the hearts of all her people, Stormwind was steadfast and hopeful. Though they fought today, they looked forward to a tomorrow that would bring peace. Without war, one would ask, what was Stormwind?

Anduin had provided an answer. He’d signed the final orders based on what he and Luciana had agreed upon what felt like an age ago. The raw bedrock left behind after the Cataclysm would be transformed. What was once the park would be a great university, a great and thriving center for learning and nurturing the peaceful tomorrow to which all of Stormwind’s people looked towards. And at the heart of that university would be a memorial to all those that would never see that day come.

“Lion’s Rest,” Anduin said, his tone final. The city’s chief architect nodded once, solemnly. “Inscribe upon the base stones the names of all those fallen at the Broken Shore. All those who gave their lives for hope. For Stormwind, and her people.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” she murmured, bowing his head. She had taken over after Baros Alexston’s death in Draenor. Having been apprenticed to Baros for quite some time, and being one of the most reputable and creative mind in the stonemason’s guild, Thusilde Brightstone had been the first one considered for the massive project about to begin in Stormwind.

“I will remind Parliaments Major and Minor that we are not taking from the orcish clans,” he said, looking around the great meeting room, holding the gaze of a few key players in each parliament. “We are working to continue dismantling the Iron Horde and its remains. If, somehow, we exhaust that resource before finalizing the University District, then we will turn elsewhere. But we will not goad the orcs of Draenor into a war of survival. Understood?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Yes, Sire.”

An echo of similar agreements followed, and he nodded slowly. “Scaril Soulfire, likely known to you all, will be put in charge of cleansing any fel taint in the timber or metal we wish to claim. She will be working with several envoys from the Kirin Tor, and some members of our own Cathedral, and will also keep in close contact with chief architect Brightstone. Soulfire will also be investigating some of the fel blood gathered from Tanaan, in hopes of learning more about fel energy to aid in our war against the Legion. She has been assigned several assistants, who are not all warlocks and will aid in keeping her balanced, as was suggested by Parliament Minor.”

Some of the members of the Minor nodded along, pleased at the mention of their efforts.

“The Horde of Azeroth has sent some of their people to Draenor with similar goals. As previously discussed, we will each remain in our own areas, split not according to territory but according to the resources contained within. They will work alongside us in disassembling the Iron Horde’s remains and reutilizing the timber and metals within. Related to Draenor, as suggested by Parliament Major, an office for the organization of biochanics, biomages, and related artisans has been set up in the Cathedral Square. They have been given funding and instructions for their continued research and safe experimentation into replacement limbs for those injured in the Draenor campaign, and following battles.”

This time, present representatives of Parliament Major gave satisfied nods or quiet words of agreement.

“If there is nothing else to discuss today?” Anduin asked. He gave everyone a moment to bring up a question, but they were all silent. “Dismissed.”

Brightstone immediately excused herself and hurried from the room. She’d barely contained her excitement when she’d first been summoned for a royal audience. When she’d been asked to head the University District project, she’d been thrilled. However, when Anduin had personally given her the instructions for Lion’s Rest, she’d grown appropriately pensive. Still, Anduin could see the eagerness in her eyes. By her reputation, she didn’t do things by half-measures. Hopefully she would make this memorial as it had been envisioned - stately and grand, worthy of the names of the heroes that would decorate it, make it both solemn and inspiring.

Anduin gently excused himself soon after the city’s chief architect left. It was late in the afternoon, and though he’d spent the morning with his sons, he missed them already. Light only knew how Freya felt, alone in the Exodar, her mother never returned from her mission to the Broken Shore.

He sighed heavily while the Royal Guards opened the doors to the royal wing. Everything was sealed up these days, safety and privacy both driving Anduin to have the Keep partially locked down. He had yet to fall back into the stupor that had haunted him these past months, and he wanted to keep it that way. If that meant keeping everyone but the closest inner circle away, then so be it. Wrathion, Genn and his family, and a handful of castle staff and guards would see Anduin on a daily, or sometimes weekly basis. Though it pained him to shut himself away from his city, he knew that it was necessary.

Shaw, too, thought it so. He’d been the first to suggest these measures to Anduin - at least, out loud. Anduin himself had been considering them before the Spymaster had spoken to him. Caution, Shaw had said. Not paranoia. Caution. Well-merited, in these times. It had paid off. When Anduin had taken to his study, the newly commissioned painting of Varian on the wall behind him and Shalamayne on his desk, he’d given clear orders to remain undisturbed. With the Royal Crown of Stormwind in hand, Anduin had let his thoughts run down a dark path he rarely allowed them to take. Sometimes, he had realized, it was necessary to peer into the shadows and face what they held. Something Luciana had learned long ago, before he’d known her. You had to face your fears to conquer them.

Despite his orders, someone - a guard, one he didn’t quite recognize - had burst into the room, declaring that the war was over. Anduin’s shock had been real. After all, what other reaction could a statement such as that garner from the King of Stormwind himself? One who would know the war had ended, because he would be a part of that end? But Anduin had known immediately that this was an intruder. Because the only ones allowed in his wing of the Keep were people he knew intimately, people whose lives were intertwined with his own. He’d been ready when the demon had revealed itself, and so had Shalamayne been ready.

She went unsatisfied, but Anduin did not have need of her. She was the weapon of a warrior, a hero, of which he was neither. No, he wielded the Light, and the Light’s fury had torn the demon’s very essence into shreds thinner than blades of grass. Captain Rivers of the 1st Legion had come to check on Anduin at the commotion, but upon seeing the king’s own Light, he had taken his soldiers away. They’d been added to the Royal Guard during war-time to patrol and safeguard the public wing so that the guards themselves could be pulled into double and triple shifts in Anduin’s private wing. A measure he wished was unnecessary, but one he knew was inevitable.

None of these guards bothered him while he took the familiar route to his private chambers. Some greeted him, some saluted stiffly. All were quiet. Respectful of his own silence, they did not intrude unless he invited them in. They all sensed the disquiet growing in their king. They could see the hardness in his eyes. He’d been worried that they would find it disagreeable. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that when he showed his anger, so did they.

It was not a directed anger. He did not target a person, or a place, or even an enemy faction. Rather, he let his frustration finally blossom into true anger, into that hardness his guards saw in his eyes. It was time, now, to face the darkness. Anduin was relieved and glad that his guards seemed so willing to follow him into it. They would burn brighter together.

Anduin still wished that Luciana was here. She always seemed to sure of herself. Even when the footing was uneven and the shadows covered everything, she was always able to keep moving forward. When all seemed lost, she still had a path to follow, even if it wasn’t the one she’d originally set foot upon. And now, of all times, Anduin felt lost.

He absently rubbed the smoothed shard of shell at his wrist. His fingers easily traced the familiar carving. L A W. When he found the one responsible for the fog in his mind, he would bring the fury of the Light down upon them. They dared to control him, dared to endanger his children and his people. He was not a warrior, and so people did not fear him as they would otherwise. No, he was much more dangerous. He was a priest, patient and wise. You never wanted to anger a patient man. His fury was so much worse than that of a warrior.

Luciana would be proud of him. The thought hit him with a suddenness that reminded him of the fog that had hung over him for too long. But it was only his own mind. And he smiled, in the privacy of his own bedroom. Luciana would be proud of him. He was letting his anger be heard, but did not let it consume him. He put emphasis now on the martial strength of Stormwind and the power of her armed forces, but only to protect her people.

Perhaps most importantly, he had seen first-hand the devastation of his enemy, something any good leader would want to witness. To lead, you must know yourself and your soldiers, but you also must know your enemy and the weapons they brought to bear. He had traveled to the Broken Shore after spending weeks pacing and uselessly repeating the suggestions of his Starred Commanders. He had seen what the Legion was doing to his soldiers, to his allies. Even to his enemy, the Horde. Now, he could end it.

It would take time, and careful planning, and hope, and luck. But Anduin knew that it was possible. Maybe it wouldn’t end in his lifetime. Maybe his children would end it. Maybe their children would. But it would end. The Legion would be stopped, and balance restored to all of existence. And Luciana would come back to him. Soon, he hoped, before he was grey-haired and wrinkled. Though his hair was already showing a bit of silver. Stress, he reasoned.

Anduin slowly picked up the picture of Luciana on his desk. It was, in fact, a picture of Anduin and Luciana standing with Bolvar and Alaric between them. Anduin smiled softly. He’d add a picture of Freya to his desk. When she came home, he’d add her to all of their family pictures. Maybe between her brothers, or between her father and a brother… Surrounded by family, either way.

“I was lost in my own city, you know,” Anduin said softly to the picture. Though he and his sons were in it as well, he spoke to the image of Luciana. Her soft, one-sided smile gave him comfort, though it could not compare to the warmth of her arms around him. “I could not mourn, nor could I move forward. So I took vigil. I refused to eat, to sleep. A paladin in the Cathedral gave me some comfort when I went to pray in desperation. If only I could remember her name... I was not myself, you see. My mind was clouded, foggy. Her company allowed me to break free of that black fog, even if only for a few moments. But she inspired me. Gave me the strength to go to the Broken Shore. When I came home, I looked upon my sons, and my resolve grew firm. When I saw the despair, the destruction of the Broken Shore, I knew what I had to do. Seeing our sons, our city…” He swallowed. “Seeing my own home locked down and empty of your presence, I made my decision.”

Luciana would be proud of him. So would his father. Varian had always tried to show Anduin that true strength came from within. From the heart, rather than strength of arms. And though Luciana had never spoken to Anduin of facing the shadows, disappearing into the darkness and returning triumphant, he had seen her do it. He’d seen her fall and he’d watched her rise stronger than before, stronger than anyone else as she continued to face her fears as they reared their ugly heads to challenge her.

This was Anduin’s challenge, then. The all-consuming darkness of despair that the Legion had brought to his world. He would face the Legion, and he would struggle, and he would fight and suffer, and he would triumph. And when he was strong enough, he would lead Stormwind through the very same struggle. And if they needed him, needed a Light in the darkness, he would lead all of Azeroth. When Luciana returned, she would stand beside him. None knew that struggle better than she did.

“Please come back soon,” he murmured to Luciana’s face in the picture. He gently set the frame back down on his desk, and brushed a fingertip over the glass. “I miss you. And I could use your help.”
He could do it on his own, he knew. It would be so much harder without her, an immovable wall to his back, an unstoppable force at his command. But until she returned, he would do it. He was no warrior, but it was time to adopt their mantra. Never stop.

Never stop fighting. Anduin smiled, but it was a grim expression. His people needed him right now to keep fighting even when all seemed lost. To lead the way, to Light the path that would bring them to tomorrow. It was treacherous ground that they now tread.

They would need a champion. Someone who could lead them in battle, who could be a living legend, something unattainable and yet still inspiring to those who would fight, who could support their people or their soldiers, or even those whose own personal battles took precedent over the war in the Broken Isles.

Anduin would carefully consider this. Stormwind’s Champion had to stand up to those that came before. They would need to fit a long list of virtues, be able to combat their own list of faults, be worthy of respect even to their enemies, and hold the heart of Stormwind in their chest while their own heart was still beating. Who could bear such a mantle but the strongest among them?

And should they be only Stormwind’s Champion, or could they be a Champion of the Alliance? Could one person truly be all that they needed to be, to all people? Anduin frowned. Perhaps it was time to revive the Chronicle of Champions. Stormwind hadn’t used it in over three hundred years.

Perhaps one of each race of the Alliance. Or two, or even more, so that everyone - every race, every people, every class of adventurer could have their champion.

A knock came at the door. “Marcellus,” a guard said, their voice muffled.

“Enter.”

Wrathion slipped into the room, and the moment the door was sealed he yanked his pendant over his head and dropped onto a couch, sighing heavily. “All messages, received as intended,” he said. “And a rest would now be greatly appreciated.”

“Any news?” Anduin asked dryly. If he didn’t, Wrathion would never give him what news there was.

“Oh, right. This is from Shaw.” Wrathion offered Anduin a thick, sealed packet of papers. He took them, slowly opened it to reveal its contents. Each individual stack of paper within that envelope had a different title.

Trueshot Lodge

Halls of Valor

The Dreamgrove

“What is this?” Anduin asked.

“Class halls.”

“What?” Anduin murmured. He flipped through the first stack. A class hall… A place to gather with your fellow hunters, or warriors, or druids… He flipped through the other stacks, quick as he could without mixing the papers. “Amazing,” he murmured. Finally, he found it.

Netherlight Temple

A sanctuary for priests, of both the Light and Shadow. A place of balance, of study, hidden within the Twisting Nether itself, hidden away from the Legion for millennia. A Void God had been returned to the Light just days ago, according to Shaw’s report. Anduin swallowed. Priests of all races, of all kinds, were welcome here.

Anduin briefly wondered if Luciana would be interested in the Halls of Valor. “Of course she would,” he murmured with a smile. Odyn, a titan Keeper, watched over his Valarjar while they fought day and night, competing with each other for glory renown. Most were Vrykul, but recently, an influx of mortal warriors had been welcomed into the halls, led by two who had impressed Odyn so much that he had named them his own champions. Nayok Lonerage bore an artifact made of Neltharion the Earth-Warders own scales, and Shahk, an orc without a second name, bore the Warswords of the Valarjar - crafted by Odyn, cursed by another Keeper named Helya. Apparently the Valarjar were still searching for more artifacts. One expedition had returned empty-handed, to the disappointing of all involved.

There was so much information packed into the reports that Anduin simply set them down. He would read through them when he was rested. “Wrathion,” he said.

“Yes?”

“What do you know of Netherlight Temple?”

“The priest’s order meets there,” he said. “The Conclave, simply called. I believe the Prophet Velen has also traveled there, quite often if Shaw’s spies are to be trusted. Shadow priests are not uncommon there. They’ve uncovered a few artifacts, powerful weapons. One, I believe, was made by the Scarlet Crusade in an attempt to replicate the Ashbringer. A staff, called Light’s Wrath.”

Anduin felt a shiver run down his back. Light’s Wrath. He wanted to meet whoever carried such a thing.

“There’s a portal held by the Kirin Tor for ease of access, if I’m not mistaken,” Wrathion continued. “In Greyfang Enclave.” He looked at Anduin. “Are you planning to sneak out again?”

“Maybe.”

“Would you like some company? It’s getting quite stuffy in here.”

“Yes, I think I would.”

Anduin felt the ghost of a true smile. Perhaps one more quick adventurer before he buckled down. And it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time - he would be meeting with some very powerful priests, gathered to see the Legion’s Crusade to its end. And maybe he would lay eyes upon Light’s Wrath, and feel the flames that burned within.

He looked down at his hand, at his wrist. L A W.

“Oh, Lucy,” he said softly, barely a murmur.

Chapter Text

The night’s gentle breeze cooled Shaw’s face. He had smothered the hearth fire long ago and not even the candles were lit, leaving his office in darkness. The moonlight that filtered in through the window was the only source of light, and it was hardly enough to even shade the silhouette of the desk he sat before.

Yet Shaw could see clearly in such darkness. He could read, and write, and compile his report that he would present to King Anduin in the morning. He would leave out the names of his personal informants, as was necessary in such circumstances. And anyway, he knew who they were. He knew where they were. He knew, even, where they’d be by next week. If the information proved false, he would know by then, and he’d be able to personally ask them why.

He sighed heavily, and let his shoulders drop. Titans, but this work was tiring. He read through what he’d written, added a footnote, added a new page and re-numbered the ones that followed. He’d finally tracked down the trailing end of an loose thread that the Queen’s strange companion had told him of. He’d given it a good tug, and something on the other end had reacted. And he’d sent a few of his best spies to find out what it was.

They’d come back with dire news, something that King Anduin would want to know of immediately. Even if it distracted from the raging war against the Legion, this could not be ignored.

Westfall had been in shambles for many years. Too many cooks will spoil the pot, the humans liked to say. Well, in this case, too many farmers had spoiled the land. And then they’d spoiled the pot, and someone else had lit a fire under it, and now it was boiling over.

It had been frustrating beyond measure to have come up empty-handed so many times when trying to find that someone. But finally, Shaw had been quick enough on following a lead. When Lars had told him of what he’d learned while undercover, Shaw hadn’t wasted time questioning the man further. He hadn’t even questioned the validity of the information. Either it was correct, and his agents would strike metaphorical gold in Moonbrook, or it was wrong, and he would sacrifice his agents on another dead end. Praying to gods he wasn’t sure would hear him - if they ever had, in the first place - Shaw had dispatched a team with a Blackwing gryphon to each agent.

They’d landed outside Moonbrook in the late afternoon, cicadas screaming in the newly-grown trees. That noise had covered the wings of their gryphons. Blackwings weren’t skittish, and were quiet as owls in flight. Only their landings were noisy, as their claws scrabbled for purchase for a brief moment when setting down.

Once they were within range of the town, the agents had settled in for the night. They’d sent gnomish spy-bots first, rat-shaped contraptions covered in fur to disguise their robotic nature. Listening in, the team had determined that the building that had once served as an inn held people with information critical to what Lars had dubbed “The Reclamation”. More were thought to be hiding deep in the defunct gold mines, but they were unreachable past the mass of poor and destitute that had taken to Moonbrook to wallow in the dirt. They’d refused the generosity of the Royal Family, refused their attempts at reparations for something that had long since been rendered obsolete

No sane human would long refuse such richness of land and opportunity, even for a decades-old grudge. At the very least, they would send their children to take what was rightfully theirs from what was being offered of the royal coffers. Something else was at play. Something else had been at play for a long time, and Shaw had grown tired of this game of cat and mouse. Sending the Trio with his team had perhaps been overkill, but there were things that the King had to focus on now, and Westfall wasn’t one of them.

Keen had located four viable targets for her ground agents to capture. Unfortunately, one earned their death at the hand of Keen’s sniper rifle. The other three were taken in by Locke’s shadow magic, and Shrike took down the rest of the people in the building. Some of them had likely been innocent bystanders, but Shaw had no regrets in the orders he’d given the Trio. This was war. Death of the innocent was regrettable, but sometimes sacrifices were necessary.

He’d personally overseen Shrike’s interrogation of the three. One broke easily, joining his brethren in stuffing himself to bursting with food and drink the likes of which he’d never experienced. The hospitality of the Royal Court had seen to that, in exchange for cooperation. Absolutely no sense of loyalty, of cause.

Shaw snorted. The other two had been equally pathetic, really, but in different measures. One counted on blind faith to get them through the pain. It hadn’t. Shrike had gleefully tortured him to a slow, excruciating death once she’d figured out he had nothing to offer. Shaw, after all these years, had been forced to take a break from the interrogation room. Sometimes he questioned how a mortal race could produce something like Shrike in the very same generation as someone like Queen Luciana. But Shrike had her uses, and this was one of them. No hesitation when it came to pain, even on herself.

The third prisoner had been forced to witness everything done to her “friend”. When Shrike had finished with him, and the third prisoner had exhausted her tears, finished vomiting, and voided her bladder, she’d begun to talk. Her voice was hoarse and she was blubbering the entire time, shaking with terror and confusion, but she’d talked. Shaw had taken the information to Wrathion, then.

Marcellus was the name he went by. He didn’t know Shaw knew of his true identity. It was probably better that way. He would never trust Shaw if he knew that there were two of them in the court’s inner circle. But “Marcellus” was cunning and had the ear of the King, and the trust of the Queen. At least, some of it.

He’d verified what Shrike had wrung from the prisoners, and then he’d moved. Capturing more high-level targets would both provide more information on the details of their operations in Westfall and Stormwind, and would serve to destabilize their command chain.

He’d moved his second team out that same evening, and they’d returned by sunrise with nine prisoners by mage portal. Rennick had once again proved useful. And discrete, since he liked his memories right where they were.

With the information from those prisoners, of whom six unfortunately died under Shrike’s ministrations before they could be offered plea deals, Shaw could finally have the King move. Shrike had been able to wring quite a bit from them before their untimely deaths, and all that she’d taken from them was now written in Shaw’s own hand on thick paper. He hadn’t even bothered with coding it. If someone managed to take this from him, then they damn well deserved it, and whatever else they took from his corpse.

Shaw knew what this information would do. What fuse it would light. If he placed the explosives carefully, he could maximize damage and minimize Stormwind casualties. But this was necessary. Even without the concerns Queen Luciana had shared with him in confidence, he knew. Sometimes, to ensure the survival of the herd, something had to cull the sick and the old. Humans were not exempt from this. It just took a… different form.

Shaw would see King Anduin in the early morning, before he entered any meetings. It was best to catch the King with a fresh mind. His demeanor had changed recently, approximately at the same time that he’d begun to wear that leather wrist cuff, but exhaustion seemed to weary him more than usual and he would retire too early. But during the day his gaze was sharp, his tongue to match it. Something in his voice had hardened, as well. He’d learned how to fight off whoever was toying with his mind, without Shaw’s interference, and now he was angry. That would teach Shaw to underestimate the young lion.

That would teach someone else to underestimate him, too. Shaw was eager to find out who it was that would learn that lesson.

But until they found the traitor in their midst, King Anduin had to keep moving forward. The war against the Legion would take everything from him if he was not strong enough. The massive University undertaking could break Stormwind if not managed properly. And Westfall would poison them if they dropped their guard even for a brief moment. The best course of action was to keep moving so that any attempt to tie King Anduin down would fail.

Shaw did not sleep. He was not tired, that night. Instead he checked on the cleaners in the interrogation room, checked on Shrike - whose smile was a little too wide - and Locke and Keen, checked in on his patrollers and scouts, and sent word to his... allies in Northrend of his continued existence. They might not miss him too much, but if they thought him dead, they might do something unseemly. It was best to avoid that.

When the morning came, Shaw was already in the Keep. The guards knew to let him through and moved aside to allow him free passage wherever he stepped. He was one of the only ones to have the full trust of the Crown and it still surprised him, some days, that mortals could willingly give that amount of trust to one outside their kind.

The doors to King Anduin’s private chambers were the only ones not opened upon Shaw’s arrival. He waited in front of them, patiently, until he was called. And when King Anduin allowed him entrance, he slipped in quietly and waited for the two young children within to finished their farewells for the day and leave with their guards.

“Your Majesty,” Shaw said as greeting.

“Shaw. What brings you here so early?” King Anduin said curiously, straightening from where he’d knelt to receive the affections of his sons.

“Business, of course,” he sighed, holding out his report.

“Delivered by the Spymaster himself?” King Anduin asked, taking the papers and turning towards his desk. He sat before he started to read, and Shaw decided that maybe a warning was best.

“Westfall, Your Majesty. I believe we have enough to move forward.”

“What?” he murmured, his brow furrowing heavily. For a brief moment, he looked nearly identical to his father. Only the shade of his skin, and the color of his hair, kept the illusion from being complete. “Three factions… Lars gave you this?”

“He gave me the primary lead. I sent people to follow it, and what came after that.”

“This is… A lot,” King Anduin said slowly. “Dhavid, have the Seneschal clear my morning. And please come back after that. I think I’d like the company while I do this.” His brow was still furrowed - he was upset, then, by the implications of this news. He’d be moving against his own people. The Wrynns, as Shaw knew them, were hurt more by this than anything else.

As Dhavid passed by, Shaw gave the air a curious, covert sniff. He smelled as he always did, strangely close to Queen Luciana’s scent though they were not related. He didn’t smell of sex, but he had Anduin’s scent nearly embedded into his skin. They were close, then, but perhaps not intimately. It was only a matter of curiosity, for Shaw. Dhavid had been chosen by the Queen herself to give company to her mate while she was absent. It didn’t matter what kind of company he gave.

“Would you like me to stay for a moment, Your Majesty?” Shaw asked.

“Please,” Anduin said, quietly. He had begun to read the report. He wouldn’t be happy that Shaw had implemented physical torture as a means of extracting information, but sometimes it was necessary to cull the herd. Especially when someone like Shrike was on the payroll. She could get… Antsy. And when she got antsy, it spread to Keen. You didn’t want someone like Keen to get antsy.

Dhavid returned and took to tidying the room around King Anduin. He was quiet and unobtrusive, and provided a bit of life and movement to an otherwise empty room. Without Queen Luciana’s presence to fill it, it seemed to have deflated somewhat. King Anduin no doubt felt that, and while no one could compare to Queen Luciana, Dhavid was trustworthy, and of a similar breed to his Liege-lady. Shaw did not doubt that his presence eased the ache that Queen Luciana’s absence brought.

“Shaw,” Anduin said quietly.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“The Reclaimers must fall.”

“Agreed.”

“But we must be careful. Westfall is in a critical state. If we put too much weight on them, they’ll shatter. And the glass will cut Stormwind and her other provinces.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“An envoy,” Anduin said. “To one of the other two factions. The Loyalists will not agree with us, no matter what we do. They want to secede completely from Stormwind and exist as a separate state. Despite the weaknesses and turmoil that would bring. But the Westfallen New Age, as they call themselves…”

“You think that they will negotiate?”

“Yes. Though they want independence in political matters - understandable, really - they also want to retain a strong connection to Stormwind. If we can align them with our army and our state, then we can provide them with municipal independence but keep trade and movement of people active between us. Perhaps we can include a secession clause that will allow them to fully secede if ever they feel that the Crown has not kept its bargain…”

“Shall I find them, then?”

“Yes. Find out who leads them. Continue your raids on the Reclaimers. Keep them on high alert so that they cannot move against us. Find out more on the Loyalists, too. See if any of them can be turned away from their extreme stance, towards something more reasonable. If they knew how much it would weaken Westfall to truly be cut off from Stormwind, I think many of them would choose a more moderate approach to independence.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“One more thing, Shaw,” King Anduin said.

“Sire?”

“The team you sent to find Luciana.”

“What about them?”

“Do you truly think they’ll find her?”

“I do.”

King Anduin nodded once. He inhaled slowly, and counted the seconds on his exhale. Dhavid put a gentle, heavy hand on his shoulder. The tension in King Anduin’s brow eased a little. “Do whatever it takes, Shaw,” he said softly. “Exhaust any and all resources necessary to find her, and to bring her home.” He looked up, and met Shaw’s gaze, and his eyes were cold and hard. Like steel. Like Queen Luciana’s eyes. A shiver ran down Shaw’s spine.

“I understand,” Shaw said. “I have one contact, one favour. I will call it in.”

Anduin nodded. “Thank you, Shaw. You’ve always been loyal to my family. Sometimes I wonder if such loyalty can ever be truly rewarded.”

“I have what I want,” Shaw said. “And so do you. Don’t concern yourself about rewards.”

“Dismissed,” Anduin said quietly. “Return tonight.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Chapter Text

The invasion of the Exodar had passed quickly. Too quickly, almost, to feel real. But its effects were undeniable. Velen, once so peaceful, had war in his ancient eyes, and a naaru had fallen. Khadgar wondered how Anduin’s little daughter was faring without their guidance.

But he could not concentrate on either of them right now. Of a heavier concern was Light’s Heart, and the information contained within. Without O’ros, how were they to access it? It had been such a promising sight when the Silver Hand’s new Highlord had tracked it down for him, brought it to him in Aegwynn’s gallery. But now, it rested within their secret hall in the Plaguelands, the exact location of which not even he knew. It would be safe there, at least, until he could find a way to open it without O’ros.

And how he searched. Book after tome after scroll, magical artifact after Titan rune… Brann had sent him some promising finds from wherever he was in the Broken Isle, but none of it had given even a clue as to a secondary key to the information within Light’s Heart.

It was no secret that Khadgar was growing frustrated. Even Atiesh, normally unflappable, had pulled away slightly from the growing volatility of his magic. He was tired, and heartsore for Velen’s pain, and frustrated, and angry. None of it was helping his research. All of it was leeching what little patience and energy he had left. He was exhausted. And he couldn’t let it show, lest it bring down the spirits of all around him.

People had come down to the gallery to see him many times over the past week, especially after the invasion of the Exodar. He’d kept on a brave face for them, a smile, a hopeful sort of tired smile. It was enough to fool them into thinking that the Archmage may be tired, but he was nowhere near giving up, and neither should they be.

But now he was alone with his books and scrolls and ancient knowledge. Alone, and exhausted, and heartsick. He wanted to throw the book in his hands when it turned out to be as useless as the last, but he had more care for these ancient tomes, and gently put it down on the table already so full of books that it risked sliding right off onto the floor. Khadgar sighed heavily, shut his eyes, and let his shoulders slump. Just for a moment. Just a moment’s relief from the facade of indomitable, if tired, optimism.

Then, he picked up the next tome. It was sealed with powerful magic, and that alone made it seem slightly more promising. If it didn’t hold something that could help with Light’s Heart, maybe it could help with the countless other problems they now faced. It took but a few minutes to unravel the protective measures that had been magicked into the pages, but he was successful, and it fell open with a puff of arcane-infused dust.

The first third of the book contained little that Khadgar hadn’t already learned, though there was mention of some interesting theories on fel energy that he took note of. The pages were delicate in their age, and he had to take care not to crinkle them lest they simply crack open or disintegrate in his gloved hands. Knowing that it would have to be done anyway, he took the time to magically reinforce the pages and refill the mana crystal that had been inlaid in the spine to power the protective enchantments. They took little energy, and the crystal was perfect, allowing for a massive amount of mana to be stored. It was a simple matter to connect it to the magical reinforcement of the delicate vellum pages.

Khadgar was only halfway through actually reading the book when he was interrupted. A quiet murmur of his name, not his first name but his only name, sounded from the portal entrance of the gallery. “I’m down here!” he called back, forcing his voice to sound much, much cheerier than it was. He had practice with that tone, but it gave him a mild sting every time he had to use it.

He did not stop reading, figuring that whichever guard or champion that sought him would find him quickly enough. He flipped the page, and immediately began to layer the new page with magic to match what he’d already woven into the book. This page was particularly delicate, as it had been folded over when the book had last been shut. He carefully worked it open, smoothing the wrinkle that neatly bisected the page.

“Khadgar,” he heard, and this voice was very familiar. Gentle, too, and it seemed to know just how tired he was. He turned to look over his shoulder, letting the book lower in his hands.

“Celia?” he murmured.

And there she stood, the runes floating about her right knee illuminating the room they stood in. Her cloak was pinned back, revealing the strong leathers and enchanted clothes of her battle armor. Around her neck was a small snake, tiny really, black and olive in color, and its jaws fixed around the tip of its own tail.

“Oh, Khadgar,” she said softly, her brow furrowed in concern as she approached him. She brushed her hood back, revealing her greyed hair. He turned to face her fully, his shoulders falling in defeat, his hands falling to his sides with the book clutched by the spine in one of them. She took it from him, her touch gentle, her own gloved hand brushing against his, and she set the tome upon those already piled on the table. “Might need to reinforce that,” she joked quietly, and his mouth quirked up at the corner.

“Why are you here?” he asked her, his voice quiet. She answered by setting her head against his chest and wrapping her arms around his back, and he leaned into her, resting his cheek upon her hair and letting his arms settle around her.

“I thought you might need a friend,” she replied. “I heard what happened to Velen, to the Exodar. And though I’m not part of the Tirisgarde, they have kept in contact with me. They told me of Light’s Heart and asked if I knew anything that might help. Unfortunately I’ve never dealt with something like that, but I knew you’d be involved. I came to help.”

“Oh, Celia,” Khadgar whispered, turning his head to press his nose to her hair. Recently washed, it still smelled of mageroyal. Earthy, floral - her favourite scent. His gorge rose suddenly and he had to swallow thickly to keep from crying. She always seemed to know when he needed to lean on her. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m here for you, Khadgar,” she said. “Always.”

He tightened his arms around her for a moment before pulling back. He rested his hands on her upper arms, instead, not yet willing to let go of her. “How is your research going?” he asked.

“Well enough, though I have yet to find a way to reverse the effects of the spores,” she replied. “I did find a reliable way to remove them from the body, but it looks like the Zangar spores might leave permanent damage to the nerve center.”

“Better than losing its victims entirely,” Khadgar said, a real smile curling the corners of his mouth.

Celia returned it easily, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiled up at him. “Very true,” she said. “And that reminds me - I’m going to take you out of here before I lose you to a collapsed bookshelf. Come.” She took his hand and gave it a gentle tug. “Let’s take a walk, stretch your legs a bit. Atiesh, would you like to come?”

The staff did not reply, though it did let the light fade from the raven perched at its top. It had lit up to help Khadgar read, without him even noticing. He smiled sheepishly and took it up, clipping it into the harness at his back. “Let’s go, then,” he said, and Celia took his hand as they left the gallery.

It was late afternoon, judging by the sun’s position. Few people were out in the streets at this time, most taking dinner or getting ready to start the evening guard shift. Khadgar was left in peace to walk with Celia in silence. Her hand was a true comfort. Such a simple gesture was all it took to lift his spirits. The press of her magic was an even greater comfort: he’d come to associate the vague, dry heat of it with nights spent in his tower in Zangarmarsh, time gladly spent at her side, reading or talking or simply being, an extraordinarily rare luxury for Khadgar.

Celia slowed in her relaxed pace, nearly stopping, when they reached the Legerdemain Lounge. “It’s been forever and a day since I had their mulled cider,” she said. “Would you mind?” She looked up at him, hazel eyes questioning. He smiled.

“Of course not,” Khadgar said, turning towards the doorway. “Let’s go find a table. Preferably out the way - I’m not quite up to entertaining guests, I’m afraid.”

“I wouldn’t think so,” she said, her smile just shy of laughter. That was something he’d sorely missed about her. The ability to laugh about simple things, the easy humour she carried into almost any situation, that ease and mellowness that let things simply… slide off her back, like rain off a waxed cloak. He envied and admired her for it.

They found a booth in the far corner of the lounge, mostly out of sight. A waitress came to quietly take their order, and Celia eagerly asked for mulled cider. “Our most popular virgin drink,” she waitress chuckled.

“For good reason,” Celia replied, and the waitress smiled warmly at her. Celia had such a way with people. She put them at ease with few words and a smile, seemed to make them want to be friends with her. Khadgar envied and admired her for this skill. He’d never really grasped the finer points of social interactions, mostly limited as he was to comforting people during apocalypses.

Celia reached out to take his hand upon the table. He looked down at their intertwined fingers, briefly, before meeting her gaze. “Do you have a place to stay here?” he asked her.

“No, I gave up my old apartment. I hadn’t used it in years.”

“You can stay with me in the Citadel.”

Her crow’s feet crinkled again as she smiled. “I appreciate it,” she said softly. “But if you’d prefer to keep your privacy, the Tirisgarde would welcome me as a guest.”

“I didn’t intend to give it up,” he said softly. “Your presence in my home doesn’t preclude my privacy.”

Her smile deepened, though it didn’t seem to change. Khadgar could tell, after seeing it so many times. She gave his hand a squeeze and released it, and he missed already the warmth of her hand around his.

Her cider came first and she was delighted to take it in hand. “Oh, I’ve missed you,” she said to her mug before sipping it delicately. It would be hot, still, and she hummed in simple pleasure at the taste of warm apple and clove and roasted goldthorn. Khadgar sipped his mead - not too sweet, an extra hint of mageroyal as he liked it. The bartender remembered his order. He offered Celia a smile when she looked at him.

“You’re exhausted,” she said. She wasn’t asking, as she could tell just how tired he was.

“I’ve been busy,” he replied.

“How much more productive could you be if you weren’t so tired?”

“You’ve caught me there,” he said, and couldn’t help the little laugh that bubbled out of him at her crooked smile.

“I’ll make sure you rest well tonight,” she said. “And I’ll join you in the gallery tomorrow. It’s not good to stay inside for so long, staring at books. I know,” she said, holding up a hand when he opened his mouth to protest. “I know,” she said again, softly this time. “I know how important your work is. I know. But I will not stand aside and let your health erode.”

“We cannot ignore this threat,” he said.

“Nor did we ignore the Iron Horde. Nor will we ignore that you are human, and you need to rest, eat, sleep, and have company. You are only human, Khadgar,” she said, taking his hand again, and it was a relief to feel her warm and gentle touch again. “I learned the hard way that I am, too. You might be more stubborn than I am, in some things,” she said. “But I will make sure you take care of yourself while you work. And I will make sure that you do not lose yourself to it, either.”

Khadgar sighed softly, his shoulders drooping. Relaxing, even. He offered her a sad, soft smile. “Thank you, Celia,” he said, instead of the flood of protests and explanations he’d been about to offer. She would already know them, most likely. Would have already thought of them, because they were the same words she would have offered if their positions had been switched. Instead, he decided to be thankful that she was with him, that her company was so pleasant and warm, and that he could trust her. That there was not a single inch of doubt in the space between them, like there had always been in Khadgar’s myriad and complicated relations with people.

Celia only released his hand, this time, when their food came. She’d always been partial to seafood, being a born Kul Tiran, while Khadgar preferred simple roasted vegetables and grains. “Jade rice pilaf with garlic-roasted greens,” the waitress said, offering Khadgar his Pandaren-style dish. The new sous-chef downstairs was Pandaren, he knew, but her skill in the kitchen was more impressive than he thought.

“May I try?” Celia asked, eyeing his dish. Wordlessly, he pushed it towards her a few inches and offered her his spoon. “Oh, I love garlic,” she said around a mouthful of rice and bok choy.

They took their time eating. Khadgar enjoyed his meal, but moreso he enjoyed Celia’s company. He’d missed her terribly, but he was loathe to call her to his side like some kind of dog. She was her own person, with her own work and her own life. When she decided to visit him, though, he could never contain his joy, the simple pleasure that she brought with merely her relaxed, familiar company.

Though he wanted to return to the gallery after their meal, Celia was right in saying that he needed to rest. Instead, he offered to show her to his apartment near the top of the Violet Citadel. As an Archmage, she was familiar with the Purple Parlor and the other amenities within the tower. As Khadgar’s guest, however, he could allow her into the Council’s own library and quarters. When it came time to offer it to her, he would take special pleasure in seeing her delight. They kept the most dangerous and rare tomes and scrolls within their own library, mostly for the safety of initiates and new mages, but also to keep the information away from threats.

Celia was none of those. In fact, Khadgar knew that she would be most careful with any information gleaned from the Council’s library. She of all people would know the real power of information, especially of the arcane sort. She’d spent so much time at war on behalf of Stormwind, so much time as Commander against the Iron Horde… She would know. She could be trusted.

Khadgar remembered, halfway down the hall to his apartment, that he hadn’t cleaned in two weeks. A pink blush painted his cheeks when he opened the door to the mess, and Celia chuckled and shook her head.

“You really need to take a break,” she said.

“Yes, probably,” he said, laughing at his own embarrassment.

At least his guest quarters were tidy, if a bit dusty. He watched in fascination as Celia crafted a finest net of arcane threads, the spool held between her fingers, and tossed it over the room as a fisherman would his net. Slowly pulling it towards herself, she drew the dust that rested upon every horizontal surface towards herself. It collected in a ball, held together with her net, and when she had it all in hand she simply walked to the window, opened it, and tossed the dust to the wind.

“There,” she said brightly. “All done.”

“Could you show me how to do that?” Khadgar asked.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to get it quite so fine,” she said. “It’s not really a property of your magic like it is mine. But I can certainly show you how to net dust bunnies, if you wish.”

He chuckled, and opened his arms as she walked towards him with her intent clear. She nestled her head into his chest, cheek resting upon his coat, and sighed easily. “You smell lovely, as always,” she murmured. Khadgar hummed, a sort of question mixed with the simple satisfaction of having her in his arms. “Minty fresh.”

“I thought that you might’ve been sassing me,” he said.

“Oh, I would never,” she said, clearly sassing him. He laughed, kissed her hair and brushed hand through the ponytail she’d gathered at the base of her neck.

“I should start cleaning,” he said after a moment.

“Probably,” she agreed.

“Though you only just arrived,” Khadgar continued. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to relax and enjoy your company for a while. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sit down with a friend.”

“How about you clean the living room and then we relax?” Celia offered as a compromise.

“Seems fair,” Khadgar agreed. “Shall I send for your luggage?”

Celia laughed and pulled away. Already he missed her warmth. She held up her hand, a small marble held between thumb and first finger. “I’m a mage. Or have you forgotten?”

“Ah, the old marble trick,” he said. “Alright. I’ll leave you to unpack.”

He cupped her face, leaned down, kissed her mouth softly. She returned it eagerly, smiling when he straightened.

“It’s good to see you again, Celia,” he said quietly. “You have no idea.”

“I might have some idea.”

He smiled crookedly. “I think you might,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

It was a lovely afternoon in the Temple of the Black Ox. The proud walls stood tall, offering shade from the bright sun for the initiates to rest. Guards patrolled the outer perimeter in loose formation, their matching uniforms a wonder to behold. Ruan so deeply appreciated the opportunity to see them, when mere months ago he could never have even imagined travelling so far beyond the boundaries of the Jade Forest.

He sat beneath the shadow cast by the western wall, a cool green tea in hand. Some of the initiates had, upon learning that he himself was also an initiate of the Celestials, invited him to take second lunch with them. He had accepted, of course, with no small amount of delight. The Townlong Steppes was a beautiful and rugged place, quite different from the Jade Forest. It was also much more humid and warm than he was used to, and the shade and the cool tea and the pleasant company was quite a boon.

It was a distraction, as well. Ama had been sequestered within the halls of the Black Ox’s own temple for well over a week, and Ruan could not hide his growing worry. The monks had told him, the night before she’d entered seclusion, that it would normally take two, maybe three days. The longest trial, which they had written in records that went back to the very first brick laid in the temple, was eleven days. Ama was on her tenth already, and Ruan had not heard any news from her or the monks charged with her care.

Ruan sighed, and took a sip of his cool tea. The Black Ox initiates could sense his unease returning and tried to tell him a joke, but his laughter was lacklustre. They offered him a sweet bean bun, and he ate only half.

“What troubles you, Ruan Zhu?” Mao asked, resting a comforting paw on his arm.

“It is my friend, Ama,” Ruan said. “I worry for her.”

“I’m sure she is fine,” Mao told him, rubbing her paw over the back of his arm. “She is tough. She will come out soon, and you will welcome her back and take first breakfast or second lunch with her. And if it is evening, then we will all take third dinner together!” Fenzui Ma agreed heartily past a mouthful of rice, holding his mushan skewer high.

“I hope you are right,” Ruan said, but his ears belied his unease. Of all people to get into trouble, Ama was most likely to survive it. But that only worried him more. People could survive the Trials, but they could still be changed by them.

Ruan finished second lunch with the other initiates and took to wandering the length of the walls. Standing atop them, he could see far into the distance, and he took the time to admire the view. They were between mantid invasions, and so the landscape was peaceful. Clouds floated by on a warm breeze that ruffled his fur.

An unpleasant shiver ran up his back. He’d tried to reason away his unease. He’d tried to meditate, tried to find distractions with training or taking meals or brews with the Black Ox initiates. He’d sought advice from the elders here and helped cook and clean and he’d even taken a day to aid the lorewalkers in sorting their old records room. None of it could keep his mind off Ama.

He didn’t know why he was so sure that something was wrong, that she needed help, but he couldn’t shake it. His Pa had always told him to follow his gut, and his Ma had always told him to follow his heart. Sometimes they didn’t agree, sometimes they did. And right now, both told him that Ama needed help. That Ama needed a friend.

But she’d told him without any room for argument that she would complete this trial. Even if it killed her. Ruan grumbled uneasily. Giving voice to unease helped to soothe it. It was a sound that even a cub could recognize, and a passing guard gave him a sympathetic rub on the back. He nodded his thanks and the guard moved on, his impressive halberd held high. They weren’t expecting trouble, but it was part of their formation. The guards here were impressively disciplined, more so than even those of the White Tiger.

Ruan sighed, and grumbled again. He rubbed his belly, scratched behind his ears, even rubbed his snout with the palm pads of both paws. But he could not shake this feeling.

He could not shake it the next day, either. Ama’s eleventh day in the trial. Everyone he spoke to was sure she would emerge soon, as she’d reached the length of the longest trial on record. Ruan spent the day seeking work, food, drink, and distraction. He kept company again with the lorewalkers, paced the walls, even tried his hand at painting the scenery before him. But nothing brought him comfort from the growing worry gnawing at his heart. He went to the temple to meditate because he worried that its depth would cause it to manifest.

The next day came, and passed, in much the same fashion. Twelve days. No one had ever lasted so long under the will of the Black Ox. The initiates began to question Ruan on his strange, foreign friend. He could tell them little past his worry, but he also kept his silence because he did not feel comfortable telling Ama’s secrets. He told them that she was a mother of three young cubs, and a great warrior and hero to her people. He told them that she had a great heart, had suffered much before coming here, and perhaps this was why she was so strong of will. They whispered admiration and confusion in equal measure when they thought his attention elsewhere.

Then, the thirteenth day came. Monks began to speak of Ama in awed, hushed tones. Many of them had undergone this trial, as well. They knew what it entailed, and that Ama took so long within her seclusion impressed them greatly. The lorewalkers became excited, began to record everything that had transpired the past thirteen days, right up until the moment Ama had arrived. Then, they questioned Ruan. What had she done in Pandaria before coming here? What did he know of her? He told them little, apologized to be polite, and explained that he had only met her when she’d arrived in the Temple of the Jade Serpent. He could only speak to her because the Serpent had gifted him with her tongue so that he might guide her through Pandaria.

The fourteenth day came. A hushed, heavy silence fell over the temple. Neither Ama nor the Black Ox had been seen for two full weeks. Never, never had any other to enter this temple lasted so long against the Black Ox. There was something incredible, something extraordinary about this furless foreigner. There was the beginnings of a legend, they were sure.

The fifteenth day came. Ruan had not spoken since the thirteenth. He’d paced the walls in front of the temple, rested in his room, ate little, and drank less. The worry had consumed his heart and he spent many hours in meditation with the monks, trying in vain to calm his heart. He felt as though the sha might leap from his chest at any moment, his only consolation being that he was surrounded by valiant and tenacious monks trained under the shadow of the great Black Ox himself.

It was late evening of the sixteenth day when Mao found Ruan deep in meditation in the temple. “Ama has emerged from the trial,” she gasped. “I ran to come and find you. She is with the mistweavers.”

“Is she alright?” Ruan said, but knew immediately that the answer would be no.

“She is very weak,” Mao said, keeping pace with Ruan’s swift walk towards the mistweaver’s edifice. “She has not taken food since she entered the trial, only water every other day. They fear she…”

“She what?” Ruan asked, stopping. Mao stopped with him. “That she will die?”

“Yes,” Mao said quietly. “They are not familiar with her kind. Only ours, and the yaungol, and the grummles. To go two weeks without food is…”

“She has told me that her kind might go a month without food, so long as they have water,” Ruan said, picking up his previous hurried pace. “She is weak, but she will live. I hope.”

“I hope so, as well,” Mao said. Her breath still came fast, but Black Ox initiates had incredible stamina. “No one has ever lasted so long in the Trial of the Black Ox!” she said. “Sixteen days!”

Ruan did not respond. He only hurried to his destination. He thought, if the mistweavers will not let him in to see Ama, he would fight them tooth and claw. But it was not necessary. When they saw him they ushered him in, even allowing Mao passage to their inner chambers. Where only the most severe and traumatic injuries were kept.

Ama lay upon one of their examination tables. Her breathing sounded rough, and she looked weak and pale. But she breathed. And when Ruan cried out and rushed to her side, she looked up at him.

“Ama!” Ruan said, relief plain in his voice. He took her hand in his paws, rubbed it between them as he grumbled with worry. “You do not know how relieved I am to see you again. You were in there for so long…”

She offered him a weak, crooked smile, and he bared his teeth in a grin. “M’fine,” she rasped.

“She will need rest,” one of the older mistweavers said. She was all grey in the muzzle, tan around the eyes, but her posture was upright and stiff like any guard atop the walls. “And food. Good food, and thick brew, to get through this.”

“She has told me that her kind might survive a month without food,” Ruan told the mistweaver. Her brows raised nearly to her hairline.

“A month!?” she exclaimed.

“So long as they have water,” Ruan said, nodding. “I think she will recover quickly from this.”

“Physically, she will.”

The mistweaver looked up and moved aside to let the monk enter the private room. He was incredibly tall, and wide, and had a deep, rumbling voice. “Ietou Tao,” she greeted, bowing her head in respect. He returned it.

“Shema.”

“Iron Belly. It is an honour.” Ruan bowed his head deeply. He’d heard tales of the Iron Belly, of his incredible brews and his even more incredible combat prowess. He could stand still like a mountain before a raging mushan bull, they said, and even the pounding storm waves could not sway him.

“Please call me Ietou. No one does, though,” he chuckled, deep in his round belly. Ruan could not help his smile. “Ama is your friend, yes?” he asked Ruan. His brown eyes were friendly and warm, but Ruan knew that they would turn to iron the moment it was needed.

“Yes. I have traveled with Ama from the Jade Forest, to Kun Lai, to here.”

“Then you have seen some of her heart?”

“Yes. I have.”

“Good. You will need all of the wisdom you learned from the Jade Serpent, and all you have learned of Ama’s heart, in the days to come.”

“What did you mean when you said she would recover physically?” Shema asked.

“Her body is strong. It will heal quickly from its starvation,” Ietou said. “But her spirit may take much longer. The Trial of the Black Ox is not easy. He uses all of your fears, your regrets, your nightmares, to try and break you. If you resist, he grants his blessing. If you give in, he may still do so, but it will take a long time to recover.”

“How is it decided that the trial ends? From what you say, it could go on forever,” Ruan said.

“Normally the Black Ox decides that he has seen enough,” Ietou said, frowning. “I have never seen it take so long. Who is Ama?” he asked Ruan.

“She… is a warrior,” he began slowly. “A mother.”

“I am not asking for her secrets, young initiate,” Ietou soothed. “Regardless, I will leave her in your care, Shema. You have seen many of us through the last leg of our trials, and I am sure you will see Ama through hers, as well.”

“Ruan Zhu, I will need your help,” Shema said to him. “I have never treated a… what are they called?”

“Human,” Ruan replied. “Ama is a human.”

“Right. Now you, get your big belly out of here,” she said, shooing Ietou from the room. “Let Ama to her rest.”

“Yes, Shema,” Ietou chuckled, taking his leave.

Ruan watched as Shema brewed strong herbal tea for Ama to drink, to restore her body. He watched as she prepared herbs for deep sleep to aid in recovery. He helped Ama sit up to eat some small bits of fruit and cheese and bread. She did not speak after her two words to Ruan. He had never seen her so exhausted, not even when she’d fallen to silence on their way to Kun Lai.

Shema tutted at Ama’s shoulder socket and massaged oils into the skin to aid blood circulation. She rubbed oils also into Ama’s many scars, hoping to sooth any aches and pains that might have started during her seclusion. When Shema was finished her ministrations for the night, she left Ruan to stay with Ama. She told him of the sleeping mats stored down the hall, should he wish to stay the night.

The nightly sounds of Townlong crept in through the open window, along with a pleasant breeze. Ama could not seem to fall asleep upon the cot in the corner of the room, so Ruan sat up on the edge of the examination table they hadn’t removed yet and began to talk. He told her about the days he’d spent with the other initiates, learning some defensive positions and team formations they didn’t teach at his temple. He spoke of his attempt at painting, of the cooled tea they served to keep comfortable in the heat and humidity. He told her of the beautiful sunsets he’d seen, the horizon that dipped and wavered over mountainous terrain, of the great kypari trees in the distance and the islands barely visible out to sea. He talked and talked and talked, and his throat felt raw by the end of it, but he kept talking.

He kept talking, because it seemed to ease the tension out of Ama’s brow. She’d been laying still since she’d eaten, not quite asleep, but close enough to it that she would occasionally jolt and open her eyes open, breath fast, her nose flared for scents of danger. She would look at Ruan, pupils blown wide, and then slowly relax back onto her cot, settling down again to try and rest. When Ruan kept talking, she seemed to relax faster, rest a little more easily. Maybe it reassured her to have a friend with her.

But Ruan could not keep talking forever. Eventually he grew tired, started to yawn. He wanted to lay down and sleep, even on the hard examination table. But Ama looked so troubled. When she fell into true sleep her mouth grimaced and her eyes flashed under their lids, and she sweated and moaned in her sleep. Ruan did not want to let her nightmares go on, but he thought that even a little restless sleep was better than none at all. So he kept talking, yawning, snacking on the fruit left over from Ama’s small meal. He sat on the floor next to her, stood and stretched and paced the room so he wouldn’t fall asleep.

Shema returned when the sun began to rise. She couldn’t hide her surprise at seeing Ruan still up and awake, in the midst of pacing the room with tired eyes and a rasping voice. He’d been talking all night to try and ease Ama’s dreams out of the pit they’d seemed to have fallen into, and she chastised him gently while forcing a hot honey-lemon brew into his hands.

“You must rest your voice for today,” she told him. “Do not talk unless it is absolutely necessary! Especially since I imagine that you will want to do this tonight, as well.”

“Probably,” Ruan admitted, a little sheepish. “I did not want to stop. When I fell silent, Ama began to moan as though in pain… I was worried that her dreams troubled her heart. I thought it might help to hear a friend’s voice.”

“I think you are right,” Shema said quietly. “I do not know what she suffered in her seclusion. But I do know that having a friend can ease the most desperate troubles of the heart. Perhaps she will tell you of hers, when she has regained some of her strength. For now you should rest during the day. I will make sure there is someone with her. At night, you can return.”

“Thank you, Shema,” Ruan said, clasping his hand over his fist and bowing to her. “Please take good care of Ama.”

“I will. Go now, initiate. Eat plenty, take more hot honey-lemon brew, and rest.”

Ruan, exhausted as he was, went to the kitchens to eat a large meal before retreating to his guest room. He fell into a deep sleep almost immediately, but when he woke to take another meal, his thoughts immediately fell to worry over Ama’s condition. What had she suffered that made her heart so heavy, and her brow so wrinkled? Whatever it was, Ruan would do whatever he could to ease its passage into faded memory. She was his friend, after all.

Chapter Text

Disjointed voices echoed in the dark space to her left. Laughter sounded to her right, and she glanced over. Michael sat beside her at the mess table, eating with gusto as he normally did. He had some difficulty chewing, as his jaw was broken and his cheekbone was shattered and sunken.

He’s never going to eat enough, Luciana worried. The food will just keep falling out of those holes in his stomach.

She looked around. George sat opposite her, talking to Michael. He seemed relaxed, despite his slit throat. His voice warbled and sank like she was underwater. Luciana shook her head and looked down.

Frederic laid in her plate, his eyes staring up at her imploringly. His chest moved while he breathed, despite being sawed in half. She watched as his lungs filled and deflated, the rhythm matching her own slowed heartbeat.

It was awkwardly slow, like a badly tuned music player. She held her fingers to her neck, and then her wrist, trying to find a pulse point. There was nothing to be felt.

“This is what you wanted, right?” Lars asked, staring at her from across the table. “You wanted to die bloody.”

She looked down. There was a forest floor beneath her feet. She was armored, now, no longer seated at her mess table. Victoria laid on the ground before her, hacked to pieces and chewed on. Her legs were marching away absent their body, leaving bloody bootprints behind.

Daniel walked after them on his hands and knees, scrubbing at the blood with a rag. He left behind a messy trail of blood and mashed organs. His lungs dropped out of his chest, one at a time. His intestines left a long, rubbery trail that trembled with every movement.

Luciana turned away, feeling her gorge rise.

“They didn’t deserve you,” Lars said, standing to her four o’clock. His eyes were wide, bloodshot, dried out from lack of sleep. “I know. I’ve seen it.”

Poor Lars, Luciana thought. He’d had some cracks in his mind, but he would have been okay if he hadn’t been exposed to her for so long.

A whip struck her back and Luciana roared with rage, tried to turn to face her attacker. But with her hands bound above her head, blood dripping from her wrists rubbed raw by the ropes, she couldn’t move.

“Lucy,” Anduin moaned, strung up and half-dead. His face and body were bruised and broken. “Just tell them.”

“Don’t tell them anything!” Varian snarled, his genitals mangled, his chest peeled open to reveal a beating heart. It beat faster and faster, and Luciana worried that it would explode, and shower her with fel-tainted flesh.

She shook her head, groaning at the sudden nausea that assailed her. She opened her eyes slowly, blinking at the sudden light. Green fire lit the room around her and the far wall opened up to reveal the dead land of the Broken Shore. An oddly shaped puddle of fel bubbled just out of reach. A boot stuck out, as well as some debris and bones. The lion’s head buckle in her hand stabbed at her palm when she clenched her hands into fists.

She lowered her left arm, the pin of the buckle piercing her palm. Her arm ached, but it was nothing compared to the shrieking, burning infection in her right shoulder. She looked down at her bare chest to see veins of fel rot snaking into her skin, into her flesh. She felt it squeeze her heart, tighter and tighter, until she couldn’t breathe.

Luciana used both arms to shove the person off her. Abernath yelped and tumbled off the narrow cot and she shushed him - did he want them to get caught? Bad enough that Vania had tattled to her instructor after she’d spent the night with Luciana. Now she had that repulsing upperclassman Vance chasing her tail. How many people had Vania told? What had she said about how easy Luciana was?

Bad enough that Abernath was dead on the floor, stabbed through the chest with shrapnel from a goblin anti-tank landmine, his shield abandoned on the ground beside him. They’d have to melt down the chestpiece - it was useless with that many holes in it.

Luciana tried to tell Basil to run for help, but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Her lower mandible hung by a strip of skin and muscle. Blood mixed with saliva and dripped from between her teeth. The pain blinded her, and strange hands reached out to grab at her arms and her clothes and her neck to hold her down. She screamed in rage, garbled as it was, and fought to get free.

Frigid water was dumped over her head and she choked and coughed and spit up blood and dust. She gasped and panted, swallowed thickly past her painfully dry throat. “If you lied,” the old orc warned, holding her scarred chin in his massive, callused hand.

“I didn’t,” she croaked.

When he turned his back, her vision went dark. She’d let out the beast inside her, the one hidden beneath her fury, and now it didn’t want to go back into its cage. It took her for a ride, breaking out of the subterranean cell and clawing its way into Elwynn. Trees withered as it passed, and its scraping laughter hurt her ears. She was helpless, only able to watch as its smoky mass began to consume Goldshire. Everything it touched turned to ash, and people screamed as they were lost beneath the unstoppable cloud.

“This is your fault,” Desmond said, staring at her reproachfully from the main throughway. “You left us. You abandoned your family for fame and glory.”

No, Luciana wanted to say. I was protecting you from me. I did my best with what I had.

“You haven’t visited me in so long,” Bannister said from her left. He was crying. “You broke our family apart.”

“You had father send me away,” Dania said softly. She was kneeling beside Luciana, ignoring the blood that seeped from her whip-wounds. “What did I do wrong, big sister?”

“My death was your fault,” Frederic said, standing beside Dania with his hands behind his back. He rocked back on his heels, almost playfully. “That man hurt me because of you.”

“Am I not good enough for you?” Ophelia said from Luciana’s right. She and Bannister loomed over Luciana’s broken body, their faces blank of expression. “I’m not special like Dania. Bann and Des have each other. Who do I have?”

“What have you done to yourself?” Manarie said sadly, fanning herself while she stared down at Luciana. She wore a white dress, clearly in mourning after a recent death. Frederic gripped her free hand. “I told you, didn’t I? You would have been better off at home, where you belonged.”

“Our family would still be together if it wasn’t for you,” Bertrand admonished gently from beside her. “And it wasn’t even worth it. Look at you. Broken, just like the sword I gave you.”

I can heal, Luciana wanted to shout. I have before and I will again. But her mouth was sealed. Ophelia was using her sewing kit not to make a costume, but to sew Luciana’s lips together. Maybe Luciana was the costume.

She heard a familiar voice, a little one. But it was full of fear. She looked up, desperate to find the little one - but Freya was safely nestled again Enaeon’s chest, hiding her face. She shrieked and cried in fear, refusing to look down at the bloody mess her mother presented.

“You’ve frightened her,” Enaeon said. His tail twitched in anger. “Look at what you’ve done now.”

Mama!” Alaric cried. “Mama, you’re scaring me!”

“Mama, I’m scared,” Bolvar whispered. He was half-hidden behind Gideon’s leg. The guard stared down at Luciana, hatred in his eyes.

“You left us,” he said coldly. “You betrayed our trust and left us to rot.”

“Lucy,” she heard, and this was a soft and gentle voice, and she wanted to sob in relief. He would understand. Please, Light, let him understand. She turned her head to see Anduin, standing above her, smiling softly. Oh, thank the Light.

Slowly, he leaned forward, and then he toppled down, stiff as a board. His skin was pale and sallow, his eyes sunken, his lips blue - dead. Long dead. “You broke your promise,” he whispered, his jaw crackling and popping as it was forced to move past rigormortis. “How can I love someone who breaks her promise? I would have been better off with someone who stayed home with her husband and her children. Maybe I would have been happy.”

Luciana struggled to sit up. Anduin’s cold corpse slid off her with a whine - no, wait, that was the whine of a falling artillery shell. She tried to yell a warning, but her mouth was sewn shut still. It would have been too late, anyway. A soldier from another squadron trot by on his horse, his legs firm in the saddle. His upper half lay on the ground some ways away, the arms waving about in the air.

A set of legs fell to the ground in front of Luciana with a wet, almost comical plop. They kicked weakly as though they were trying to march. The upper half of the body was somewhere else, maybe in an artillery crater.

She felt her fury rise up from her gut to her gorge and she nearly vomited as it came out with a primal scream of rage. She beat her tiny fists against her mother’s legs, leaving horrible black bruises with the force of her anger. Her mother’s hand across her face brought that to a stop, but she glowered impressively at everyone and everything even as her mother dragged her by the arm back into the manor.

Just inside the door, they stopped. Luciana glanced around at her guest quarters in the Keep. They felt alien and empty. “Be gentle with him,” Varian said before closing the door and locking it behind him.
Anduin gazed at her from his place on the bed, wrapped up like a Winter Veil present. He trembled, from cold or from fear, and when she reached out to him and stepped forward, trying to speak to comfort him, he scrambled away from her, crying out for help.

No, Luciana wanted to say. No, I won’t hurt you. Never. Please come back. But her throat was empty of voice. She shook her head as nausea overtook her again. There were voices around her, echoing and murmuring, hurting her ears with every word dropped like a bomb.

“No,” she croaked, opening her eyes.

“Ama!” Ruan cried, falling to his knees beside her. “Ama, you are awake, thank the spirits!”

No, she tried to say again. It caught in her dry throat.

“Here, drink,” Ruan said softly, bringing her head up with his paw so that she could sip at whatever it was he was giving her. Cool green tea, it seemed. It soothed her throat, and she gasped on her inhale. He shushed her gently, letting her head back down onto the pillow. “Relax, Ama. That’s it. Breathe.”

A pandaren with a deep voice spoke from behind Ruan, and Luciana’s unfocused gaze traveled upwards. A massive male pandaren in the garb of a Black Ox monk stood over her cot, speaking slowly. Relaxedly.

“Yes, she will be fine now. Thank you, Ietou,” Ruan said, relief clear in his voice. Ietou, then, was the big pandaren. “Yes, if it comes back I will fetch you immediately. Thank you.”

An elderly female dressed like a mistweaver came forward with a steaming mug in her paws. She spoke to Ruan, who reached up to take it.

“Here,” he said to Lucy. “Dit ma fao. It will calm you after your nightmares.”

The mistweaver helped her sit up and propped pillows behind her, letting her lean back into them. Ruan helped her drink the first few sips. The heat of the brew seeped into her chest, easing her breath. It calmed the roiling fear and fury in her gut, and she took the mug in hand to drink more.

Ruan smiled at her. “Feel better?” he asked.

“Thanks,” Luciana said hoarsely. “When did I leave the temple?”

“Two days ago. You’ve been asleep most of that time.” He bared his teeth at her, stroking her leg through the thin blanket. His paw was heavy and warm. “I’m glad to see you awake. Much more so to hear you speak! That was a terrible nightmare. We could not wake you,” he said, his ears betraying his unease. “I had to fetch Ietou because the sha was beginning to manifest around you. Very weakly,” he hurried to add at her look of alarm. “Very weakly,” he said again, softly. “Ietou performed a purification ritual, and then we were able to wake you. He says you should be fine now, as long as we do not let you sleep too long after dawn.”

She nodded and drank the last sip of the dit ma fao. It was bitter and unpleasantly thick, but it warmed her and eased her breath, and smoothed the sharp dryness in her throat. She let her arm rest in her lap, mug in hand.

The room she had woken in was small. Her cot was against the wall, underneath a wide window. A second cot lay on the floor in the center of the room, absent pillow or blanket. A pandaren was staying there, then. Most likely Ruan. She offered him a weak smile and he bared his teeth at her again, perking right up.

“Are you hungry?” he asked her.

She wasn’t, but she nodded slowly and he jumped to his feet, chattering about the food they’d brought to her room in the hopes that the smell would encourage her to wake. He offered her roasted vegetables, mushan meat, mushrooms and amber-infused brew, some kind of seaweed salad - and that caught her attention, because it looked almost identical to the kind she ate at home.

It tasted different, but the texture was the same, and she chewed slowly while Ruan talked and talked and talked. “This will awaken your appetite!” he added hopefully. “We have enough to feed you, I think.” He laughed and picked a chunk of radish from her salad. It crunched between his teeth. She used her chopsticks to fish out another piece, and slowly brought it to her mouth. A little bitter, a little sweet from the dressing, but the crunch of a fresh, raw vegetable was at that moment satisfying beyond measure.

It sounded a little too much like the crunch of bone under a hammer, and Luciana suddenly lost all appetite. She let her hand slowly fall back to her lap, staring at the wall before her. She’d last heard that crunch when Daniel had been sent flying by a warhammer, his organs a mushy mess inside his shattered ribcage.

“Ama?” Ruan said softly. He resumed petting her leg through the blanket, this time also petting her arm with his other paw.

She looked down at the seaweed salad. “Meat?” she asked quietly. Her appetite hadn’t returned, but maybe if she ate a bit she’d feel better.

“Right away!” Ruan said brightly, jumping up to his feet. “Eat and eat as much as you want. I’ll bring you anything you wish for!”

Luciana watched him cross the small room. Somehow he was ignoring Daniel standing in the corner, his chest caved in. He watched Luciana with a baleful gaze. She looked down at her seaweed and swallowed. She knew, objectively, that Daniel was dead. And she knew that even if he wasn’t, she was in the past and he was in the present. Well, the future. He was on a different point in the timeline.

But he looked real. And she could smell him. And the blood on her hand looked real, too. She held her hand up so that it wouldn’t get on the blanket.

“Are you alright?” Ruan asked her, kneeling back down with a couple of mushan skewers in his paw.

"Thanks," she said, taking one of the skewers. Daniel's gaze made goose flesh prickle up and down her arm, and she tried to ignore him. Nightmares, Ruan had said. Manifestations of the sha. But it had all seemed real, smelled and looked and sounded real. The same memories had been brought up in the temple, during her trial. The pain of being whipped still lingered in her back, and her jaw ached fiercely when she opened her mouth to take a bite of food.

"Be careful," Daniel said.

"I'm trying," Luciana replied.

"Trying what?" Ruan asked curiously.

"Don't worry about it," Luciana said.

"Be careful," Daniel said.

None of it had been worth the pain. The Black Ox had refused to give his blessing, and Luciana had finally broken. She'd made the decision to move on without it. The blessings of three Celestials would have to be enough. It would be enough, because she didn't have a choice.

Chapter Text

When Luciana sat up to look through her window, it was dark out. The moon was just visible over the horizon. Almost morning, then.

She looked around the darkened room. Her eyes traced the outline of the furniture, the heap of Ruan’s slumbering body upon his bedroll he’d insisted on keeping next to her. Daniel stood in the corner, watching her with an unreadable expression.

“Be careful,” he said quietly.

“I know,” Luciana mumbled, no thought going into her words. She was numb, had been for a few days now.

“Come outside,” Devon said, gesturing her forward.

“When did you get here?” she asked. He didn’t respond.

She brushed the blankets off her legs and stood. Her knees were weak, her back ached from being in bed for so long, but she followed him. She followed the disembodied pair of legs that walked beside him, Vic’s dog whistle still hanging from the spring-loaded cord attached to the gun holster on her thigh.

“When did you get that?” Luciana asked, pointing at the holster. There was no reply.

“Be careful,” Daniel warned as she walked away.

“I know,” she said, partially to herself.

“Come outside,” Devon said, opening the door for her. She stepped out, and he left the door open. She had to step over a pile of bleached white bones to get outside. Each one showed evidence of a nerubian’s claws. The ground under her foot, when it landed, was soft. Blood squished up around her foot and between her toes. Luciana looked up, at Devon, and he gestured her forward.

Luciana tried not to look down when she felt Frederic grapple onto her calf. “Let’s go play knights!” he warbled through his ruined throat. Something warm and wet dribbled down to her ankle. Luciana swallowed thickly.

“I can’t walk with you on my leg,” she said slowly.

“Let’s go play knights!” was Frederic’s response. Devon reached around her with his short sword and stabbed at Frederic, who gurgled and let go of Luciana’s leg. His body fell to the ground in a tiny heap of limbs. She stared at his body, blinked slowly. Her heart did not jump to her throat, her gorge didn’t rise, her skin didn’t itch. Nothing. She watched as Frederic’s eyes blinked at her.

“Why did you do that?” Luciana asked Devon.

“Let’s go,” he said shortly.

“Be careful,” Daniel whispered.

“I know,” Luciana said, louder this time.

“Keep going,” George said, taking Devon’s place. “We need to keep going.”

“Go where?” Luciana asked.

“Keep moving.”

“Be careful,” Daniel said.

“I know!” Luciana snapped over her shoulder.

She heard a call, a word, an unfamiliar voice. A sudden wave of nausea washed over her and she stumbled, foot catching on a protruding rock. She caught herself before her head hit the ground, and she groaned as the nausea turned to a migraine. She let herself touch the ground, resting her head on the rock she’d tripped on. Her eyes screwed shut. Damn, that was bright. When had the sun come out in such force? Couldn’t the moon come back instead?

“Ama!” she heard. “Ama, where are you? Where have you gone?”

She groaned at the noise and covered her eyes with her left hand. “Too fucking bright,” she snarled.

“Ama!”

Stones clattered somewhere on the hill above her. Some fell past her, one hitting her leg on its way down. She hardly felt it. “Quiet,” she groaned. “Please, quiet.”

Ruan slid down the slope of the hill, digging in his heels to stop when he got close to her. “Ama, are you alright?” he asked breathlessly, scrambling over to her side.

“Quiet,” she begged. “Please.”

“Does your head hurt?” Ruan asked, quieting, panting hard. “Ama, why did you run off? When I woke and you were gone, and then we could not find you…”

“I went for a walk,” Luciana said.

“A walk?!” Ruan said. “Ama, you are miles away from the Temple! It is past noon!”

“Oh,” she said.

“What happened?” Ruan demanded. “Your feet are bleeding and you are pale as snow!”

“Oh,” she said, moving her hand away from her eyes. She leaned up and looked down and, indeed, there was blood caked on the sides of her feet. She looked up at the hill - a spotty trail of blood led to its summit and disappeared down the other side.

“Ama, please,” Ruan said, resting his hand on her bare chest. “Celestials and spring, you’re freezing!” He turned to yell up the hill in Pandaren, panic clear in his voice. “Ama, we must get you to warmth. You will freeze out here like this.”

“I’m fine,” she said, groaning when he tried to move her. Head swimming, she swatted at his paws. “Don’t move me,” she said. “I’m dizzy.”

Another pandaren came sliding down the hill, coming to a stop a few yards up from where Luciana lay prone. They carefully slithered down until they could reach her, and the soothing sensation of a mistweaver’s healing energy trickled down her numb skin.

“Why did you walk so far in this condition?” Ruan asked softly. “Ama, please. We are worried that something is wrong.”

“Devon asked me to come outside,” she replied.

“Who is Devon?”

“Old squadmate. Killed in action when we were helping out the kaldorei.”

“How could he have asked you to go outside if he is dead?”

Luciana squinted up at Ruan. “Dead doesn’t mean shit where I’m from,” she said. She let her head fall back down onto the rock. It should have hurt. “George was there, too. Told me to keep moving. So I did. Nothing’s wrong,” she said to the mistweaver, who gave her a look of confusion.

“Something is wrong,” Ruan said. “You are seeing people who are dead, first of all, and not there, secondly.”

“How would you know they aren’t there?” Luciana said. She winced when the mistweaver poked at her feet. That hurt, thankfully. “I’m fine,” she said.

“You are not fine, and you must stop insisting otherwise,” Ruan said firmly. “It is normal to react in strange ways to mental wounds. But you must allow them to heal, just as you would with a physical wound. Let us return you to your bed, and get some warm food into your belly. Then we will talk about these people who are telling you to walk around Townlong without a shirt or shoes.”

Luciana struggled to open her eyes. She shifted, weakly, and groaned. Her head still hurt, still ached and throbbed. And she was dizzy. Light, she hated being dizzy.

“Ama, you are awake, thank the Celestials,” Ruan said. And when she continued to struggle against her blankets, he put a paw on her chest and one on her arm. “Please, calm, my friend. You are fine.”

“Fuck off,” she snarled, bucking weakly in an attempt to get the blankets off of her body. And why was it dark again? What the hell was going on with the sun? “Get fucked,” she growled cruelly, kicking out with her legs. Oh, right, she was in bed. Inside. The sun was outside. Fuck, if she could just get her good hand on something…

Her head began to buzz, like the drone of honeybees in the spring. She grew weaker, and tired, and her eyes wanted to close. She let them.

“Be careful,” Daniel whispered from the corner.

“Fuck off,” she mumbled.

The blankets had been piled on top of her body. They were too heavy for her to move - or maybe it was just her. She groaned and tried to turn onto her left side. Her arm was in the way. “Fuck you,” she mumbled through a dry mouth, and turned onto her right side. Her back ached and screamed at her for lying on it for so long. “Fuck,” she sighed.

“Be careful,” Daniel said.

“Shut the fuck up with your goddamned fucking careful shit!” she screamed with her eyes closed.

“Ama?!” Ruan called in worry, rushing into the room.

“Get fucked,” she snarled. “Leave me be.”

“Ama, you were yelling at someone,” Ruan said slowly. “But there is no one else here.”

“He’s in the corner.”

“Ama, there is no one there,” Ruan said again.

“Well, I can see him. And hear him. And he’s fucking annoying.”

She heard that elderly pandaren mistweaver speaking to Ruan, but her name escaped Luciana’s mental grasp. Luciana, instead, groaned in pain and rolled back onto her back, and then tried again to roll onto her left side. The wall was to her right, and she preferred to have it behind her rather than the empty space of the room.

“Ama, Mistweaver Shema says that the Trial of the Black Ox placed too much strain on your mind,” Ruan said, returning to her bed to kneel in front of her. Luciana opened her eyes and glared at him. He raised his lips to smile at her hesitantly. “She says that memories must be resurfacing and this may be causing you to see and hear things that are not real. She suggests meditation and an elixir of clarity, to start the healing process.”

“How long?” Luciana asked.

“It might take a few hours for you to feel the full effect of the elixir,” Ruan said. “And when you meditate, how long it takes is up to you.”

“It’ll get rid of that fucking annoying asshole in the corner?” she asked, looking at Daniel and spitting her words at him.

“Er, no, not right away,” Ruan said awkwardly, looking over his shoulder. “Ama, there… is no one there.”

“I can see him,” she snarled, “and that’s enough.”

“O-of course,” Ruan stuttered. “Right. Well, Shema says it might take some time for your mind to heal properly…”

“How long,” Luciana demanded. Her head was starting to hurt again.

“She doesn’t know exactly…”

How long.” Her snarl echoed with a fury that was not her own. Ruan’s short round ears flattened against his skull. She hadn’t meant to call on that fury, let alone her own. She clenched her jaws, feeling her temples jump.

“Several months of rest,” he said quietly.

Luciana’s head swam. “Too long. Need to keep going,” she mumbled. Her eyes seemed to be turning on their own. She closed them, grimacing.

“Ama, you are in no shape…”

Luciana blinked groggily. Her eyes burned and her mouth was drier than a cotton ball. She turned her head - the window was covered. She reached up with her left arm, too tired to try and summon up her Chi arm. Her arm shook when she moved the curtain aside. Nighttime, again.

“Fuck me,” she groaned, struggling to sit up. Frederic’s weight in her lap made it more difficult, and eventually she resorted to pushing him off of herself. “Sorry,” she said automatically, not feeling an ounce of regret when he cried out, his head bouncing off the stone floor.

She sighed heavily, hunched over forward. Her back was permanently pained now from spending so much time in one position. Her neck ached, her shoulders ached, her legs were stiff. Luciana lifted her left hand. Ignoring the blood dripping from it, she squeezed it into a fist. When she opened her hand, the blood was gone.

It was alarming how little she seemed to care about the people around her. Though objectively she knew they weren’t really there - Devon was long dead and buried, Frederic too, and Daniel had died in her arms - she should have felt something. Some ache in her chest, some stab of pain, some regret, some sadness or grief. But there was nothing underneath the faint drone in her ears and at the back of her head.

“Fuck me running,” she murmured. What did she do the last time she felt numb? Drinking hadn’t done much, and Devon hadn’t let it stand for long anyway. Sex helped, briefly, but it wasn’t an option here. Fighting could make it worse if she didn’t control herself, and she couldn’t feel her fury when she was numb, so control was difficult. She couldn’t meditate in this state, and there weren’t any shadow priests here that she knew of that could help her with her battle fatigue, if nothing else.

The only thing left was marching, then. But she’d have to be careful - with herself, mostly, because numb was not a good state for her to be in. She was volatile.

The air in her little room felt stale, tasted bad in her dry mouth when she yawned, so she struggled one-armed out of her bed and walked stiffly from the room. She followed the hallway, alone this time, until she was outside. The air was fresh, crisp, and cold, and she could feel it being drawn down into her lungs when she inhaled deeply.

“Ama?” Ruan asked sleepily, standing in the doorway behind her. “What is it?”

"How long have I been in bed here?" she asked him.

"Well, it's been six days since you emerged from the Trial," Ruan answered hesitantly. "Why? What are you thinking?"

“We need to keep going,” Luciana said.

“To where?” Ruan asked, and then he yawned, exposing his sharp teeth and wide pink tongue.

“Where else is left?”

“There is one more trial to complete, if you wish,” Ruan said, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “Of the Red Crane.”

“Fine.”

“It will not be easy - the jungles are dangerous, I hear.”

“We’ll be careful.”

“Are you alright to travel?” he asked. “To face another trial?”

“I’ll make it.”

“That is not what I asked.”

Luciana turned to look at him. “I’m doing it,” she said.

He smiled at her, tiredly, sadly. “Then I will come with you.”

“Be careful,” Daniel’s voice echoed.

“I’ll try,” she promised softly. “I just gotta keep moving, right? That’s what you’re all trying to tell me. I have to keep going. But I have to be careful, too. Just like last time.”

Chapter Text

The strength of a warrior was rarely to be questioned, Ruan found. They could summon enormous physical power and stamina. No, it wasn’t Ama’s strength that was flagging. She had no apparent difficulty walking for hours and hours without food or rest, though she ate when Ruan put food in her hand. Though he often wanted to stop and take a short rest, she walked mindlessly forward, silent in her long march. Ruan struggled at the end of each day to keep moving with her, fearing that she would never stop until she reached the bottom of the ocean were he not there to stop her.

The only thing that could stop her was placing himself directly in front of her and putting his hands on her chest, pushing until she slowed to a halt. Even then she would seem dazed, confused, and would ask him why he had stopped her in such a way. He reminded her, every night, that she would not stop if he did not force her, and then she would ask again the next night.

Something, Ruan thought, had broken loose in her mind. Some critical piece that held her together, and without it she was a shell - she moved, and ate, and would no doubt fight if danger were to find them. But the sharp wit and commanding presence he’d seen at Xuen’s temple were gone. Faded, like a ghost. Like the people that haunted her every step after the Black Ox had broken her mind open like a melon.

Ama was a different person now. She'd spent their entire journey through the valley speaking to ghosts. Nightmares plagued her at night and sleep eluded her between them. Ruan worried for her. Worried that she would keep fading until she disappeared entirely, even her physical form gone to the bad memories that dogged her.

Punished her, too. Midway through their journey, she had woken Ruan with a scream in the night. Not a scream of fear, but one of rage. Ruan had been unable to act upon first awakening. Seething, roiling hatred came from her in waves. Her voice alone had frozen him to the ground, shaking like a wet cub, until her screams of fury had turned to words. As she mangled their tent poles and tore it down, she said something that still echoed in his mind and troubled his thoughts. He was my brother. What had happened to one so beloved that it turned her to mindless wrath, even in her sleep?

After that night they'd had to stop to find a new tent halfway through the silken fields. Everything, in fact, had become a target for her fury. Not even a cup or a wooden plate was left in one piece. She’s only stopped when all around her was ruins, collapsing into a heap and moaning brokenly. She’d fallen back to sleep soon after in a pile of debris, twitching and groaning as though in pain. Ruan wondered if she’d even woken up in the first place, or if some memory had seeped through the cracks in her mind and possessed her body.

They’d reached the Krasarang Wilds fairly quickly. Ruan attributed it to the unstopping motion of Ama’s body and hoped that it would keep going until they reached the Crane’s temple. Ama had become silent, completely unresponsive to words - only a touch or a poke could move her, and it seemed more muscle memory than actual cognition. They were so close, and yet Ruan feared that the ghosts that chased her would finally drag her spirit away in the night, never to return.

Nothing flickered in her eyes except in rare moments when something moved quickly in her peripheral. It seemed a faint flicker of a hunter lay beneath the warrior. It was not unlike the quick twitch of the head a tiger would give, ears perked at a sound or sight. It gave Ruan hope that she could recover, become at least something like the Ama he had once known.

“Come, my friend,” Ruan said, doubting that she could hear him and yet speaking all the same. He hoped that his voice, familiar, would bring some comfort to the wounded beast that lay within her. “We have one day’s travel, and then we will meet Chi-ji, and he will help you. Just one more day. I know you are tired,” he said, looking up at her bruised, baggy eyes. Human faces were strange, he decided, but delightfully expressive. Except, of course, for Ama. She was not expressive anymore. He frowned. “I know you are tired,” he said again. “We will rest soon. True rest. I promise, the Red Crane will help you rest. He can heal even the most deathly wounds.”

Hopefully the Crane could also heal the mind and soul, because Ama was damaged in ways Ruan had never seen, not even in Shado-pan sent home from the wall with the shadow of death in their eyes.

“Come on, then,” Ruan said, and he began to ramble. Apple cider, training with the other initiates, his father’s cooking. Anything he could think of, he spoke, filling the empty air with his cheery voice. Ama kept moving, facing forward, her feet finding good ground even absent her mind to guide them. He kept his paw firm on her left arm anyway, worrying that her footing might falter without her Chi arm to balance her.

Ruan was understandably startled when Ama stopped suddenly, jerking him to a halt. He looked at her in silence, brow furrowed. Her eyes were keen, the black pupils wide. Her nose flared on each inhale and if he could easily imagine that if her ears were mobile like those of a pandaren, or perhaps more fittingly a tiger, they would be perked or perhaps swivelling to catch echoes of whatever had caught her eye.

Ama’s posture moved smoothly into a crouch, a hunting crouch, and Ruan stepped away. She widened her stance and he was surprised to see her Chi arm manifest as she moved silently to cover herself behind the underbrush.

Knowing that even without her mind Ama’s instincts were sharp, Ruan followed her as quietly as he could. He could not disappear into the forest like she seemed to, but he could hide. His dark, mottled brown fur would provide excellent camouflage here in the dense jungle.

He wondered briefly if he should hand over the nagani that Xuen had gifted her, but it seemed that she would not need it. With a low rumbling growl, Ama slid through the foliage and disappeared. Ruan craned his neck, sniffing frantically, trying to spot her. If she was without him, would she eat? Would she even rest? Their journey so far would indicate that she would keep going until exhaustion and dehydration took her. He needed to find her, then.

Ruan had no reason to worry about finding her. He covered his ears with his paws and ducked his head when a horrifying, familiar roar shook the trees around him. That same hatred he’d heard a few nights ago sent shivers through his fur and down his back and he curled up in the underbrush into a protective ball, whining quietly. He knew it was Ama and he knew she would not hurt him, but the sheer emotion in her wordless screams hurt his very heart. There was violence in her that an outlet and it was filling the forest with savagery. Even the angry squawks of saurok were as leaves in the gale winds.

Silent was gradual. As Ruan heard the too-familiar gurgles of dying saurok and the scrabbling scrape of claws on stone, the last foe was killed with a snarl masking the wet sound of blood and bone. The venom in that snarl made him shake, made his fur flatten to his skin.

Silence took back its place in the jungle, but any insects or fauna seemed to have fallen prey to the same fear that gripped Ruan. Something echoed in Ama’s wrathful battlecries. The very same thing that darkened deathbeds and roiled in storm clouds now possessed her.

The question that Ruan again asked himself was, would she stop? If he was not there to halt her advance, would she stop before she destroyed herself, too?
Though he still shivered, Ruan let himself uncurl, leaning forward to put all four paws on the ground. He pushed himself slowly to his feet, leaning against a tree for balance. His legs seemed to want to shake and buckle.

“Ama,” he said weakly. He shook himself out, tried to fluff his fur out to its normal state, and tried again. “Ama, my friend, are you alright?” he called, trying to sound cheery. Normal. As though she hadn’t just jumped into fray with uncounted saurok, ambushing them like they would do to unsuspecting travelers and slaughtering them without second thought. In Ama’s case he wondered if there had even been a first thought. “Ama, friend, you have frightened me!” he said, forcing himself to laugh and emerge from cover. “Please, next time warn me that you have found danger. I thought perhaps you had seen another of your friends.” Another ghost to drag her away in the night, bloodying her feet and freezing her skin to her bones.

Blood was splashed on the stone beneath Ruan’s feet. So close to the cliffs, it was common for the jungle to live upon rock rather than soil. So fresh it ran free, the blood found cracks to fill as rivers, pooling into little lakes beneath Ama’s feet. It dripped from her clothes, and her hands, and even her teeth, as blunt and short as they were. Her face was coated in it.

She growled at him, a warning, and he stopped. She was half-crouched, leaned forward, head tilted to him. Almost curious. “Ama!” he crowed, feigning delight. “There you are. I was wondering where you’d snuck off to. Come, let’s find a little river or a pond to get you cleaned off. I wouldn’t want to introduce you to the Red Crane as the Red Warrior.” He laughed awkwardly at his own joke and approached her, trying to imitate his normal demeanor. She watched him, mouth still open, still dripping blood and saurok scales, until he touched her Chi arm. It dissipated under his paw like mist under a hot sun. Her shoulders slumped and he almost missed catching her when she suddenly collapsed.

A broken moan escaped her bloody mouth and Ruan whined. The sound cut into his heart and he ached for his friend. What horrible monsters lived in her that hurt her so?

He would carry her, then, and find some river or pond or little lake to clean the blood from her. He would pick the saurok scales from her mouth, the serrated little blades cutting into her gums. Maybe he would be able to find some seed-filled rain poppies to make a poultice, one that she would no doubt ignore even in her own mouth.

But Celestials and spring, Ama was heavy. She was much skinnier than a pandaren, not much taller than their average male. Perhaps it was the density of her muscle - fat, Ruan knew, was lighter than muscle, and it was why pandaren floated so easily.

He complained good naturedly while he hauled her dead weight over uneven jungle ground. He knew this area somewhat, having memorized the map they’d given him in the silken field just in case Ama again woke in a rage and tore this one, too. If he followed the cliff, he should find a river that would lead to a lake that was not far from the temple.

It took several turnabouts and some confusion, but he did find the river. It didn’t seem to wind the way it did on the map and he worried that he was not where he thought he was.

“We will figure it out,” he said to Ama, grunting as her weight left his shoulder. She slid into the water and the small, glimmering fish within slipped away like a drunken farmer’s thoughts. Her arm floated halfway in the water, limp, moving slightly with the slow current. No doubt the cold water would have delighted her, were her mind still where it was supposed to be.

Ruan rambled on as he used a cup to wash water through the fur on top of her head. He took care to wash her bald face, under her chin and behind her ears as the blood ran downwards. He rigorously scrubbed his paws over her clothed form, getting as much saurok blood out as he could without stripping her. He did not know how long this lethargy would last, and therefore did not know if he’d be fast enough to redress her before she started to walk again. She had the strange urge to “keep marching”, as she’d said days prior. He only hoped she would stop once she reached her destination.

Ama groaned and tried to sit up as Ruan took her chin in his paw. “No, no, not yet,” he said as soothingly as he could. “Just another minute. Let me get those scales out of your mouth. They will not heal, otherwise.”

She stopped moving again and he worked as quickly as he could, trying to use the tips of his claws to pull scales from her gums and the roof of her mouth and her bleeding tongue. Saurok scales were horrible, sharp and serrated at the edges, and he wondered how she could not feel the pain of them. He used chopsticks to pull loose the scales deeper in her mouth. One had nearly pierced her cheek and he again whined, feeling the phantom pain of that scale in his own mouth. He worked the tip of his tongue across the inside of his cheek, checking just in case a saurok scale had indeed manifested there.

“Alright,” he soothed, letting go of her chin. “Alright, I’ll try to get some rain poppy. Will you be alright? Will you bleed? I don’t know how fast your kind stops bleeding,” he said, ears drooping. “Oh, I hope it’s fast. We are still quite a ways from the temple.”

Ama again tried to sit up, struggling on the slippery riverbank. She made it to her feet, stumbled over her steps as she tried to regain her previous path.

“Oh, are we going?” Ruan asked, hurrying to pack up what he’d pulled out of his bag in his hurry to find chopsticks. “Alright, if you want. You are right, of course. You will find healers at Chi-ji’s temple. Rain poppy might not even be necessary!”

Ama did not reply. Sopping wet and shivering, she started to walk towards the southern ocean. Ruan’s shoulders slumped.

“Oh, Ama,” he said softly. “I hurt for you. I hope that the Red Crane can fix you. Did the Black Ox know?” he asked, moving to follow her. “Did he know that you were so damaged that his trial would break you?”

Ama was silent. Even lacking spirit, her body was resolute, adamant. Humans were frightening creatures.

Chapter Text

getup

Getup.

Get up, human. Keep moving. You are nearly there.

A groan of pain, of near agony, rumbled from her chest. Her hands scrabbled against the rocky ground and she managed to get a foot under her. It took everything in her to struggle to her feet. She had to keep moving. Her legs had to be forced to cooperate, and she did force them. Her body, her mind, her soul were all exhausted, but her will yet remained.

Keep moving. Your goal is within reach.

She had to keep going. She could feel nothing past the burn of air in her throat, through her dry mouth. The impact of her feet on ground was dull and echoed into her skull. She kept moving. There was no choice to be made, no hesitation, no other option. Only her will remained.

That’s it, human. Keep moving.

Her legs, heavy and weak from exhaustion, buckled under her. A firm hand caught under her arm, keeping her from cracking her face open on the ground. It helped her to her feet. She kept walking. Her will remained and it drove her forward, though everything else in her had ceased to fight. Her will did not surrender. It did not know how.

I sense my own strength within you, human. No adversary will hinder you.

All she had to do was keep walking. Her will would never let her stop. She had forged it herself, after all, to keep her moving even when everything else in her wanted to die. Through adversity, through pain, through combat. Through anything.

The jungle yawned slowly. “Look, Ama. The Temple of the Red Crane! We’ve done it!”

The hand - no, a paw, it was Ruan - was firm on her back. Warm, too. Luciana wheezed, stumbled again, hit a knee on the ground. Her hands clenched in the sandy soil, too soft a grip, too weak. She was so weak. Her body would no longer respond to the incessant push of her will.

“Come, Ama, we’re so close,” Ruan urged, looping a thick, furry arm under her armpit. He hauled her to her feet, supporting most of her weight. “Come on. We’re nearly there. Just a little bit more, Ama. Come on. You can do it.”

She groaned a complaint. Her legs didn’t want to move. In fact, her whole body was protesting. Sleep, it cried. Lie down and sleep. She was so tired. So, so tired. But her will pushed at her and her legs moved. They were weak and useless now, but they moved.

A cry of alarm pierced through the haze in her head. Guards? They were calling an alarm.

“Yes! Yes, we need help, please, my friend need helps!”

Two pandaren dressed in red leathers hurried to them. Luciana raised her chin a few mere inches, not even enough to meet them head-on, and let out a weak growl. If they attacked, she would die. She was just so tired. She felt no fury, no battle lust, stir in her chest. Dead, then. But she kept moving.

“Please, she needs help,” Ruan pleaded. “She needs to see Chi-ji right now. Please. She is very ill!”

A set of firm paws took her weight from Ruan, and then another took up her other side. The two crane monks supported her from either side, her arm over the shoulders of one monk, their partner keeping her up with an arm around her back. They carried her now, leaving Ruan free to run ahead.

Her head spun violently and she groaned. Her gorge rose in protest of the forced movement, but she was too weak to walk on her own, let alone fight off two monks. She closed her eyes, tried to keep her feet moving under her even though they wanted to drag. She would not stop. Could not stop. She was dead on her feet, almost literally, but she kept going.

“Ama. Ama, keep your eyes open. We’re here.” Ruan’s paws cupped her face and gently lifted her head. She opened her eyes. He was smiling toothily, but his ears were flattened against his broad skull. “We’re here. We made it. Look.”

He moved aside, dropping one of his paws so that she could see what was behind him. A gentle glow, a low red hum, emanated from the great Celestial that stood before them. The Red Crane. He watched them, ethereal feathers fluttering gently in the sea breeze. The great stones embedded in the ground, a pattern that covered the entire clearing between the temple buildings, glowed warmly beneath him.

“Oh, my,” he said. His voice was sweet and smooth as melted chocolate, yet clear as the Cathedral bell ringing through a fogless day. It reminded her of Anduin’s voice calling her to the waking world after a dream. Gentle, clear. “Niuzao did not take mercy on you. Unusual, for him. He does not normally push so far beyond the limits of the mortal spirit.”

The crane monks gently let her down to the ground, to her hands and knees, and stepped back. Ruan stayed with her, kneeling protectively by her side. It was the support of his strong, thick body that kept her from keeling right over. He gazed up at Chi-ji with awe in his eyes, one protective paw on Lucy’s back.

The Celestial approached them slowly. He lowered his long beak to gently touch Luciana’s empty shoulder. “Nor did you have mercy on yourself,” he said softly. His red glow soothed her bone-aching exhaustion into something gentler.

“Please, help her,” Ruan said. “She is so weak.”

“I will do what I can, young one,” Chi-ji said. “But she must be willing to fight.”

“She is a warrior. She will fight!” he said firmly.

The low red hum of Chi-ji’s essence made Luciana’s head hazy. Her eyes wanted to close. Oh, she was so tired. She wanted to be on the sofa in front of her hearth. To have Anduin under her so that she could bury her face against his chest and rest with his arms around him, his heart under her ear. She wanted to rest, to be at peace with herself again. Like she used to be, after the struggle of adjustment. Anduin would help.

“Her heart is so scarred.” Chi-ji’s sorrowful voice echoed in her ears. In her chest, in her ribcage, right into her lungs. Her breath flowed a little easier. “So wounded.”

Memories began call to her.

Tiny fists, beating against her mother’s legs, leaving horrible bruising and making the woman cry out in pain. The hand against her cheek.

The sordid touches, the knowing smirks of her peers. Hands where they shouldn’t be, broken soon after. She’d sought comfort in any way she could have it.

The wooden sword against her head. The screams - her own screams amidst the mess of voices. A single piece of paper. The betrayal of rumours.

Michael’s corpse. Oh, Michael. You deserved better than me.

The corpses littering the ground, the dead torn to pieces. The rattling roar of a crypt lord, the chittering language of the Nerubians. The whine of shells and the dull impact of mortar.

Devon. The memory of his gentle whispers, the warmth he shared with her - his own candle in the night, burning brightly with hers until it was snuffed out, leaving her in the dark.

Frederic.

The burning pain, the deep-seated aching burning searing pain cutting lines into her flesh. The hunger, gnawing at her stomach. The thirst. The pain.

Nightmares, keeping her awake. The aches in her body, the memories of her brother’s corpses. The feel of arrows piercing her, the dull throb from the shafts in her shoulder or her gut.

The screams of pain, overtaken by her own shouted orders. Desperation, fighting, falling.

The sound of ribs being crushed.

A pile of detritus, a boot with the foot still inside. A bone. A lion’s head pin.

Freya, alone. Her sons, missing a grandfather, a mother, all at once.

Anduin.

“Oh, you poor child,” Chi-ji said. His was was slow, low, sorrowful. Empathy, not pity. She felt the tears on her face being warmed by his presence. “Your mind has tried to adjust to the pain you still carry. It has fragmented, taking your own thoughts as the voices of your loved ones. It has tried to shield itself from the pain.”

“Please,” Luciana said. Her voice did not sound. “Please. I want to go home.” She wanted Anduin. He would understand. He would help her. He would shield her.

“You have been through such pain. I will do what I can for you,” he soothed. “Allow me to help you, child.”

“Please,” she choked. If she tried, she could recall the feel of Anduin’s Light fluttering under her skin, raising goose flesh along her arms and neck. Warm and cool, soft and so gentle. It would sink into her muscles and soothe aches from her scarred flesh. It meant that she was home.

Chi-ji’s red light was soft as down, fluttering along her skin, quieting the buzzing haze in her mind. Clearing it, making room for her memories to resurface.

“I see hope within you, warrior,” Chi-ji said. “But it is such a tiny flame. A single candle, surrounded by darkness. You have done well to protect it from the harsh storm-winds of your anguish.”

She just wanted to go home. She wanted to be safe, she wanted to lie down, she wanted Anduin. She could deal with all of it, all of the pain, all of the troubles, after she’d rested. After she’d returned. Just his presence made it all easier on her. Just knowing that he was near strengthened her.

“You will return to him, always,” Chi-ji promised. “You would never allow any other way. Your will is too strong. Allow me to to add my flame to yours, child. Let it strengthen your body and your spirit so that you can follow that will. We will burn brighter together.”

Please. “Help me.”

Warmth blossomed in her chest, as though she’d drunk hot cider on a cold winter morning. It spread down to her chest, through her stomach, along her limbs. She breathed in, let her shoulders relax, let her head lower. It was so gentle with her. Despite her strength, despite how much abuse she could take, had taken, this warmth and light was so careful with her. As though she were a precious thing. Just like Anduin’s Light.

She looked up, to the side. Daniel was gone. She turned her head - Frederic, too, had disappeared. Be careful echoed in her head, but it was her own thoughts. Her own voice. But Light, she was tired still, so weak and tired that she wanted to sink into the very ground. But she couldn’t. Anduin was waiting for her. She tried to gather her strength, force her body to move through strength of will rather than strength of body. She started to get up.

“Rest, child,” Chi-ji chided gently. “The sun will rise again. You must only stand to meet it when it does. We will speak tomorrow, after your body has rested.”

Luciana relaxed. Her head rested against the soft fur of Ruan’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I will stay with you, Ama,” Ruan promised. “Come. Let us find you a bedroll. You deserve some rest.”

Chapter Text

It was a rare opportunity that presented itself on a particularly cool evening. Anduin was loathe to spend it alone. To the surprise of his guards - though none objected - he asked for them to fetch Luciana’s cousin Marcellus. His duties, recently, had gone down in number. Luciana was no longer there for him to cart messages to and from, after all. He’d remained employed, so to speak, but in recent weeks he’d stayed in his quiet corner in the Keep. Apparently he’d been building up quite the collection of books and odd trinkets.

A hoard, Anduin thought with some amusement. Naturally.

His living room was comfortably decorated. Just off from his shared bedroom, currently unoccupied without Luciana’s presence to fill it. It had its own small hearth with iron grates and a set of pokers and a pile of pleasantly scented wood brought up from the store downstairs. Various armchairs, a long sofa, a reading corner with a table and three stuffed bookshelves. It was a quiet, pleasant room coloured in dark red and browns and creams. He only wished that Luciana was there to complete the portrait.

His thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the door. It creaked slightly, as it was heavy on its hinges. Wrathion, still disguised, slipped through the opening presented. The door shut behind him.
“You called?” he drawled with a wry face. Anduin looked down. In one hand he held an undecorated wooden box. In the other, a small tea tray.

Anduin smiled, though it was a tired, pained smile. “I did,” he replied quietly.

Wrathion hummed in response, the sound deep and resonant. He set the tea set and the box down on the low table in front of Anduin’s sofa, and then straightened and reached up to his own neck. He tugged the pendant over his head. Anduin looked away as the magic flickered and faded as Wrathion tossed the pendant aside. It landed in a heap on the reading table in the corner. Anduin looked up, and Wrathion’s reptilian red eyes stared back.

Anduin smiled. “Would you mind?” he asked.

“Not at all.”

Wrathion leaned down one more, this time to place both hands on the sides of the silver kettle. It took a long moment, but steam soon began to rise from its spout, and before long it was whistling in complaint. Wrathion offered him a fang-filled smile, a self-satisfied smirk if he’d ever seen one, before pouring out the water into the teapot.

He carefully opened the tea box with the tip of his claw, shiny and black like obsidian glass. A familiar scent wafted from it when he opened the tea tin.

“Is that… white jade tea?” Anduin asked.

“It is. I’m pleasantly surprised you remember it.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“You’ve been quite forgetful, as of late,” Wrathion said easily. He carefully portioned out two servings of the tea leaves with the bamboo scoop, dumping it almost unceremoniously into the teapot. “Though it seems to have improved recently.”

“Someone was in my head,” Anduin said quietly. Wrathion looked at him with an unreadable expression, but magma roiled slowly in his eyes. “And I’m not pleased.”

“I assume you’re going to find them,” Wrathion said.

Anduin smiled again. Sharp, this time. “I’m not pleased,” he said again, mildly, and Wrathion returned his smile.

“Good.” He said it simply. Nothing else, it seemed, needed to be said. Save, of course, for a single question. “Would you care for some tea?”

“Please.”

Wrathion poured his first, as was courteous. He again opened the box and took from it several accompaniments - Gilnean tea biscuits, Stormwind brie and grapes, sweet Pandaren rice flour treats - and laid it out casually on the King’s table. Lastly, he took golden sansam pods from a tiny clay jar. He rolled several between his fingers, the claws carefully avoided, and dropped one into both of their tea cups.

Then, he picked up the saucer underneath, and offered it to Anduin.

It was a strange mixture of Pandaria and Stormwind and Gilneas, but none of it clashed. In some ways it seemed more appropriate to have this variety of cultures on a single table. Anduin smiled ruefully and accepted the offering of tea,

He thanked Wrathion quietly, and lifted the tea cup to inhale the familiar scent of white jade tea. He must have had it imported from Kun Lai, as it was only made by the monks of the White Tiger’s temple with a specific type of tea leaf grown only on their mountains. Grummles had, so many years ago, brought some of it to the tavern where Wrathion had based himself. Purely by chance Anduin had been there on that day, and had inquired about the strange white tea. If he recalled correctly, they’d sat down to taste it much like they were right now, though without the tea biscuits.

“Has it proven nostalgia a liar?” Wrathion asked, watching Anduin take a hesitant sip. It was too hot to drink, but it was respectful to sip when it was handed to you. It was a gesture of acceptance to the hospitality provided in the offering of tea.

“Only a little,” Anduin said. “The sansam livens it up a bit.”

“Doesn’t it?” Wrathion hummed in agreement. He had his own tea in hand, perfectly comfortable with its temperature. It had to be hot to steep, cooled slightly to drink - unless, of course, you were a black dragon. Once you’d bathed in lava, hot tea was a triviality.

They sat in silence for a time, side by side on Anduin’s sofa. Several months ago it had still smelled of Luciana, but that scent had faded into nothingness. Light, he missed her. He felt a sudden drop in the pit of his stomach. Wrathion’s eyes were on him when he frowned harshly.

“Is it too hot?” he asked, trying to joke.

“I miss my wife, Wrathion,” Anduin replied quietly.

“Ah.” Wrathion nodded in the corner of his eye. The dragon leaned forward and used his claw to spear a grape. “Natural,” he said plainly. Simply a statement.

“I miss my father.”

“You loved him.”

Anduin swallowed thickly and sipped his tea. It burned his tongue. He set it back on its saucer in his lap. “I’m here alone, Wrathion,” he said.

“You have me,” was the response. The dragon was busy selection a cheese knife.

Anduin looked over at him. “Do I?” he asked.

“We are friends, are we not?” Wrathion said without looking up from the round brie he was meticulously cutting into triangles.

“I’m not sure.” Anduin sighed quietly. “We were, in Pandaria. When you showed up here again, I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t.”

“Do you trust me?”

Anduin blinked. Caught by surprise, it took him a moment to answer. “Well, yes.”

“There’s your answer.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?” Wrathion asked, finally looking up. He had his prize in hand - brie, and two more fat grapes stuck on his claws. “What do friends do, anyway?”

“They… they support each other,” Anduin said slowly. “They help each other. Use their strengths to compliment each other. They trust each other.”

“And what have we been doing?”

Anduin fell silent. He stared at the low fire behind the grate, his brow furrowed. “I suppose you’re right,” he said finally.

“Of course I am.”

“I’m so sorry to have doubted you,” Anduin said, only a little sarcastic.

“You are forgiven, my dear friend,” Wrathion said magnanimously, smiling. He offered Anduin a tea biscuit. “Biscuit?” he said unnecessarily. Anduin took it without a word. The expression on his face said it all. Wrathion laughed and settled back into the sofa.

They sat in silence for a while. Slowly, Anduin relaxed. He was right. He did consider Wrathion a friend. The corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile. He wasn’t completely alone, then.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“You’re welcome.” Wrathion sipped his tea, accompanied it with a crunching bite of a biscuit. Anduin watched as he worked his pointed teeth around it before taking that bite.

“Do you have horns?” Anduin asked suddenly. Wrathion, caught with his mouth full, looked at Anduin with both brows up high. He bark a laugh. “Sorry. I’ll wait until you’ve finished your biscuit.”

Wrathion took his time. He chewed, swallowed, chase it with some tea. “How courteous,” he said dryly. “For your information, yes. I have horns. Did you not see them when I arrived?”

“I meant in your mortal form.”

“I see. The answer remains the same. Though I wonder, what brought that question to mind?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without your turban.”

Wrathion glanced at him sideways with an odd expression. “I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “Have you, often?”

“Can’t say I have. More of a curiosity.”

Wrathion hummed. Anduin’s eyes wandered over his turban. He tried to imagine what his horns would look like - one set or two? Or even three? Were they quite small in his human form? How did they fit under the turban if they weren’t?

As though sensing his questions, Wrathion set his tea down and reached up to slowly unwrap his turban. It hung in silky ribbons over his hands and slipped between his gloves fingers. When it was loose enough it fell from his head into his waiting grasp, revealing two sets of horns that flowed back above his pointed ears and ended in sharp, upwards points. Graceful, like the wind in a river.

Anduin slowly reached up and ran the tips of his fingers over the higher horn. Wrathion kept his gaze straight ahead, allowing it. They felt like stone, ridged with growth and plated and warm. He took his hand back and returned to his tea.

They sat in companionable silence. The fire crackled and the tea filled the air with sweetness, the sansam warming it with spice.

“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth,” Wrathion said quietly. His words did not interrupt the silence so much as they flowed from it, flowed from the crackle of the hearth fire and the nearly imperceptible music Anduin had set into his player.

“For what?”

“For making your life difficult, in Pandaria and here when I first arrived.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Anduin said.

“I feel there is. And I’m sorry for your father. And Lucy.”

“Thank you, Wrathion.”

They sat in silence together. The sun had set long ago, and the twins were in bed. Freya, Anduin knew, was safe and content with Enaeon. His orders from the day had already been sent out and things were moving apace. And Shaw had some strings to tug on that would hopefully pull Anduin’s target from the shadows and into his furious Light. His father’s death would be repaid and his memory honoured. Luciana… was somewhere. Somewhen. But she would return, soon. He knew she would.

So for now, Anduin was content to sit quietly and drink tea with his friend.

“Wrathion,” he said quietly.

“Mm?”

“I need you to stay with me.”

“Of course.”

“I need you to be yourself again.”

Wrathion looked at him then. “Of course,” he said. “I’m irreplaceable.”

“I know.” Anduin smiled, a genuine, real smile. Fond, and happy. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Chapter Text

The journey from the Temple of the Red Crane was hard on Luciana. She was so drained, not yet recovered from her trial under the Black Ox, that by the end of the day every step threatened pain all the way up to her hips. But she persisted. Ruan made sure she ate during the day, and helped her pack up in the morning, and filled the silence until she asked him to stop.

They had only remained under Chiji’s care for a few days. He’d suggested to Luciana, gently, that while she did require rest, it would only do so much. The support of her family and friends would be what healed her. Rest would allow her to build up her strength, but it would not carry her further than that.

She came to a slow stop, stretched her back, and sighed heavily. “How much further?” she asked.

“We are quite close,” Ruan promised. “We had to take an extra day to return to the Valley, but it saved us from having to find a boat.”

“Will we arrive today?”

“If we hurry. Otherwise, we will arrive to the Serpent’s Heart in the morning.”

“Let’s go, then.” She sighed again. “I’d like to sleep there. Then it’s only a short couple of hours to the Temple.”

“Then we’d best keep moving!” Ruan replied cheerfully.

He found an apple tree on their path and while Luciana chided him for wasting time, he insisted on climbing the tree to get at the fruit on the top branches. “It’s always juiciest at the top,” he told her, confidently making his way back down the tree.

“You’re going to fall on your ass,” she warned.

“No I won’t. Climbing trees is easy!”

He brandished an apple at her, and she stared him down for a moment before reluctantly taking it. She could tell that he wasn’t going to move until she did.

“We can eat while we walk,” he said, “and enjoy our treats!”

She replied by taking a crunchy bite of her apple. Juice dripped down the side of her chin and she wiped at it with the back of her hand. She glanced over to see Ruan eagerly licking at the apple between bites. They kept walking, now in silence, even after they’d finished their apples and tossed the cores back into the woods.

There was a sizeable and permanent encampment at the Serpent’s Heart. When they arrived, tired and footsore, they were welcomed. The pandaren here were friendly and warm, quickly offering them beds in a sort of barracks house. “The workers sleep here,” Ruan said to Luciana while he followed a very chatty pandaren with a very bushy tail. “But they do not mind at all if we stay the night.”

“What are they building?”

“A statue. The Jade Serpent is reborn every one hundred years through a statue of jade.”

“Why?” Luciana asked. “Seems like a lot of work.”

“I… am not sure.” Ruan frowned. “I will ask the elder disciples when we return to the temple.”

Luciana only nodded, and her gaze returned to the writhing mass of pandaren that were milling about the base of the statue. “Have they only just started the statue?” she asked.

“It has only been a year, I think, since they started this new one. Each one takes one hundred years to make.”

Luciana turned her head to stare at him, both brows raised. “What?” she demanded. “That much work for a single statue on a never-ending cycle?”

“No, no, it’s not like that,” Ruan said, laughingly waving away her alarm. “They time it so that the work remains constant, so that there is no slack, but it is scheduled to end on the one-hundredth year.”

“I see. So that there is always work, they spread it out,” Luciana said. “Smart.”

“Yes, it takes lots of planning and careful mining. Only the best-quality jade is accepted for this project.”

“To be expected.”

They watched the workers for another moment, but the sun was beginning to set. Ruan clapped his paws together. “Come, let us find our beds, and then let us find the food!” Luciana let him take the lead. She couldn’t speak to the other pandaren, anyway.And if there was food to be found, he’d be the one to sniff it out first.

Though she sat with Ruan and the other pandaren while she ate, she did not speak. It was a far cry from her usual - she was normally the center of conversation, the center of attention. Here, she was little more than a curiosity. The pandaren stared and leaned over each other to look at her, but only for a few moments at a time.

Two seats down, a short, comparatively lean pandaren with a straw hat tied around his neck offered her a pork bun. He seemed hesitant, and he smiled slowly at her. Showing a toothy smile as the pandaren did, she dipped her chin and took the bun. Delighted, he returned to his own food. The stranger had accepted his offering, polite and friendly in a way that he recognized. His neighbor turned to talk to him, animated and bouncy.

She let Ruan chatter with his fellows. She wasn't always a good conversation partner with him and he deserved a break from her foul moods. Besides that, she was tired and her legs hurt to the point of being numb and she had a horrible headache beginning behind her eyes.

After eating her fill of meat and rice, she took a dark red apple from the bowl of fruit closest to her left arm. She paused, considered the apple, and leaned over to bump Ruan with her right shoulder. He looked at her, eyes wide with mirth, and she offered the apple. He crowed and slung his heavy arm around her, thanking her wordlessly by biting into the apple with abandon.

Luciana waited as long as she could manage, but eventually she had to nudge Ruan and tell him she was going to find her bed. Her head was pounding in tandem with her heartbeat and she wanted silence.

The barracks weren’t quite as quiet as she would’ve liked, but it was a far cry from the tables outside full of eating pandaren. It might as well have been a party for all the gusto that went into it. Her bag was where she’d left it, undisturbed. Pandaren had an appreciation for community and openness, but they also understood that certain things demanded privacy. No one had touched her borrowed belongings.

A heavy sigh escaped her, and she let her shoulder muscles relax. She knew that she still tended to tense up the right side, and it always made pain climb up her neck to her skull. Rolling her head slowly allowed her to stretch that out a bit. Lying down on her back with a soft feather pillow and a cloth over her eyes would hopefully take care of the rest. Ruan had a jar of wax earplugs in his bag somewhere. He wouldn’t mind if she went looking for them. Privacy had different rules with friends and traveling companions. He was also simply a kind person and would be more than understanding if she needed a pair of earplugs.

The thick material of the barracks tent muffled much of the noise from outside. What little filtered through the opening, the flaps rolled up for the day, she was able to ignore. Luciana concentrated on her breathing, counting the seconds, feeling the energy it transferred the way Xuen had taught her.

She felt a familiar tingle at her right shoulder socket. It turned into an odd sort of hum when she shifted her muscles. Her deltoids began to form and the hum spread downwards, like a trickle of cold water running down her skin. It formed her biceps and triceps, and she tracked its progress down her extensor and flexor muscles. She rotated her wrist, and clenched her fingers into a fist. The trickle had turned into a proper river, flowing from within her through her shoulder to her fingers and back up to her shoulder. A raging river, but a solid one nonetheless. She shifted the cloth with her chi arm, smiled proudly, and replaced the cloth. Now, she would rest.

Dozing contentedly with a full belly, Luciana looked forward. By tomorrow she and Ruan would be back at the Temple of the Jade Serpent. At this point she wasn’t sure if Ruan would stay there, travel abroad once more, or ask to accompany her to wherever her travels took her. With any luck she’d be able to find a boat to the Eastern Kingdoms.

Her breathing quickened and she slowly brought it back down. What an idiot! She’d forgotten about the bronze dragonflight. They were keepers of time - of course they’d help her back to her proper place in it. She only had to contact them.

So, if there was a way to Kalimdor from Pandaria, she could find their home in the southern deserts. Luciana felt a slow smile curl her mouth. There was the familiar tug of stiff scar tissue. She’d be able to get home with their help. It would take more time, first to find a boat - or, if they were already invented, a hot air balloon. Actually, if they weren’t yet made, she could simply make one. Ruan would no doubt be willing to help, or to find more sets of skilled paws.

She’d get to Kalimdor, then. If they left from the Jade Forest they would wrap around Pandaria, but boating around the continent was faster than walking through it. They’d land at the south-eastern cape in Tanaris. Gadgetzan would one day exist in its desert, and if she recalled correctly, the Caverns of Time were already there.

Desert travel was hard, but not impossible. They could remain on the boat until they had a good idea of where the Caverns were, and then set anchor off the shore. Or… whatever it was that pandaren ships did in this era. She’d let the sailors worry about that.

Once she found the caverns it would be a simple matter to reach them. If need be she’d introduce herself and explain her predicament. If they were already aware, then she would ask if they could bring her home. She couldn’t imagine what kind of payment they would want, if anything - she knew already that they would want her out of the past and into her proper time. And these dragons would be at their true power. This was before the fall of Deathwing, before the weakening of the Aspects. It would be easy enough for them.

Luciana frowned. If that was the case, then why hadn’t they already come to find her? She chewed her lip, thinking. If they were aware of her here, and weren’t moving, that meant that she was supposed to be here. Perhaps after finishing whatever it was she was meant to be doing, she’d be returned home somehow. Or she was meant to stay.

She growled, low in her chest. She couldn’t help it. Not even a dragonflight would keep her from returning to where she belonged.

A loud bang startled her from her meditative state. She bolted upright and flung the cloth from her eyes, looking around wildly, trying to parse together what had just happened. It hadn’t sounded like a construction accident - that would be multiple bangs and shouts and bumps. This was a single noise, like a gunshot, but there wasn’t any echo from the rocky landscape surrounding them.

The barracks were already empty, everyone outside to eat. She left the massive tent, slowing at the opening. It would provide partial cover, at least.

A wide circle of pandaren, some of them dressed in tough leather and mail armor, surrounded something or someone. They had polearms in hand, but not brought to bear. Luciana approached. She’d seen Ruan at the edge. “What’s going on?” she said loudly, catching his attention.

“Another stranger!” he replied, oddly delighted. Well, perhaps it wasn’t that odd. The last stranger he’d met was now his friend. The odds were in his favour.

Luciana looked over his shoulder, and then she muscled her way through the tightly packed circle. Ruan followed unquestioningly as she went to kneel beside the white-haired elf.

“Are you injured?” she asked lowly. If this was an elf from their time, not hers, then maybe they didn’t even understand Common. “Can you understand me?”

“Yes, past this blinding headache,” the elf groaned. He sat up, hand on his head. There was dust on his bright blue robes. He blinked blearily at her, and then grinned. “Well would you look at that! I found you!”

Chapter Text

Ruan managed to convince the pandaren workers to stay out of the barracks tent while the new stranger recovered from his unwieldy arrival. However, the entrance to the tent was always full as passerby peered in curiously. Some, Luciana saw, sniffed at the air, or had their ears turned straight towards them. She paid it no mind. She could understand the curiosity - some unrecognized sentient species who looked almost nothing like Luciana, let alone pandaren, had literally appeared out of thin air. With a literal, very loud bang.

Ruan had asked for a specific brew to be brought for the elf. Something to help with headaches, Luciana assumed. The elf had been whining about it for the last twenty minutes until his migraine started to fade.

“What is your name?” Luciana asked.

“Shazadormu,” he replied easily, slurping on his tea casually like he spent all his spare time sitting in a tent full of bedrolls surrounded by curious pandaren miners. “But you can call me Shaza.” He offered her a dazzling smile.

“Shaza,” she said slowly. “You are a bronze dragon?”

“A dragon!” Ruan exclaimed, clapping his paws together.

“Yes, I am!” Shaza said proudly. Luciana couldn’t help but think he and Ruan were quite similar. Excitable, no sense of danger.

“I would have expected a bronze dragon to find me earlier,” she said slowly. “If I am meant to be returned to my proper time.”

“Well, about that,” he said. “You see, Your Majesty, you are a total temporal anomaly.” He slurped his drink.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Lucy prompted.

“Oh!” he said brightly, like he hadn’t realized that the conversation wasn’t over yet but was excited to continue it nonetheless. “To explain it briefly, we have no idea where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing at any point in time. To be quite honest, not many of us were surprised you’d taken a jaunt down through the past as is relative to your proper place in the timeline, in relation to your time of birth.”

Luciana sighed. “Continue,” she prompted.

“Right!” That same expression of delighted surprise. “You’re an anomaly, as I said. You seem to be able to differ from the actual timeline, bringing many other people and many important events along for the ride, without any due consequence. That is, your actions have often changed this timeline, the main and proper timeline, without breaking it.”

She frowned thoughtfully, leaned her weight on her left hand braced on the edge of her wide wooden chair. “I’m able to change the timeline. As in, rewrite it. Does this mean I am able to challenge fate itself?”

“Exactly!” Shaza said brightly. And he slurped his drink.

“Is that all there is to say on the matter?” she prompted. Again.

“Oh, well, there are some that theorize all sorts of things, but the short of it is… well, you’re an anomaly.” He shrugged. “In our prior examinations of this timeline, His Majesty Anduin would not marry until long after his father’s death. You were meant to die in combat defending Westfall from the Legion’s primary invasions, I believe, without any involvement with the Wrynn family.”

Luciana felt a snarl at the base of her throat. She swallowed. “Yet here I am,” she said lowly.

“Yes, quite surprising. It caused quite a stir when the timeline changed from one routine examination to the next. Nozdormu himself attempted to right the timeline, but it would not revert back to what we’d known prior, as though it already was in its proper state. He decided to let it be, and watched you through the years and you continually changed the timeline simply by existing.”

“What other changes did I effect?” she asked slowly. The back of her skin and her left shoulder prickled with gooseflesh and felt oddly cold. She wasn’t sure if she liked what she was hearing.

“Well, Duskfall was originally supposed to host a number of traitors to the Alliance who had been drawn into the darker forces of existence. But because of your aid in regrowing their town into a minor city in its own right, in containing the undead and the worgen and bringing in all manner of new allies to the locals, that never even started.”

“And Westfall?” she asked quietly.

“I’m not quite as familiar with that one,” he said thoughtfully. And slurped his drink. “But I know that you’ve changed its future, as well. Not its past, of course. You seem to only change things going forward. It’s quite strange to see, really - as you move through time, you create ripples like a boat passing through still water. Those ripples catch others, creating more ripples, but those inevitably follow your course as well.” He slurped his drink.

Luciana leaned back. Her head hurt too, now. “Anduin?” she asked. “My family?”

“We don’t know yet. We’ve learned not to bother checking into the future when you’re directly involved, because you’ll no doubt change it completely. All we can really do with you is watch,” he shrugged.

She sighed slowly. Swallowed. Ruan put a comforting paw on her thigh, and when she looked at him he looked supportive while extraordinarily confused. She offered him a half smile. “Shaza,” she asked. “Why did no one find me earlier? No dragon, even?”

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “See, that’s the problem. When you continually change your future, and the futures of those around you, we don’t know what to expect. So we don’t know when to interfere. No one in the Caverns or beyond knew if you were supposed to return to your proper time, or if you were meant to stay here, and if so, how long would you be here…” He slurped his drink. Luciana reached out suddenly to snatch it out of his hands, and slammed it on the table next to her. Shaza stared at her, eyes comically wide and blinking owlishly.

“Who sent you?” she asked.

“Oh, well, I owed a favour, and he called it in…” he said. “It took a lot of tries to find you! I couldn’t track you through the timeline, you see, so I had to rely on plain old sympathy magic. I’m not particularly proficient in it. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve actually been forced to use it.”

“Who was it?” Luciana demanded.

Shaza hesitated. “I don’t know if I should… tell you,” he said slowly.

“Say a name,” she said. Her tone brooked no arguments.

“... Mendastrasz?” he tried hesitantly.

Luciana breathed in deeply and sighed, leaning back again. Relaxed, this time. “So he did find a way,” she said quietly.

“Who is this Mendastrasz?” Ruan asked.

“He’s a red dragon,” Luciana said. “They’re charged with protecting and nurturing life on Azeroth. In our world. He’s undercover, however. Disguised permanently as the spymaster of my kingdom. Mathias Shaw is his name. He’s been a outright gift to us these past years.” She sighed. “Did he alert you of any other people or teams he sent?”

“Nope,” Shaza said. “But knowing him, there’s a contingency plan. Or two. Or three. Or four. Or…”

“Enough,” Luciana said. “I get it.”

“Yes, he really wanted you found! I was pretty surprised when he asked me to track you down, but I guess it doesn’t matter what you do because you never seem to be constrained by… well, anything, really.”

“I have a hard head,” she said, halfway to joking.

“I know, I’ve seen you take so many concussions…” Shaza frowned. “That’s not good. You probably damaged something important, but I don’t know enough about humans to say what, exactly.”

“Don’t concern yourself with it.” Luciana waved his words away. “You’re able to bring me back to my time?”

“Yes, within a reasonably acceptable variation range.”

“What does that mean?” Luciana prompted.

“Could I have my tea back?”

“No. Answer the question.”

Shaza seemed to pout, almost, and Luciana had the urge to ask how old he actually was. “Briefly, it means that I won’t get you to the exact point you left, but within a margin of error that would still have you home around that time.”

“How wide is the margin?”

“Er, I can’t say, really,” he said apologetically. “It depends on you. Because I can’t track your movements through the timeline, I’ll be depending on you to let yourself be drawn to your natural point in time.”

“I’m the rudder on the ship,” she said understandingly.

“Exactly. I’m the wind in the sails, but I need you to guide me to our destination.”

“I am very confused,” Ruan said.

“What about?” Luciana asked.

“Why are we talking about timelines and time travel and boats?” Ruan asked.

“I was born in the future, and through a twist of bad luck and warped magic, I was sent back in time,” she said.

“Yes, by about two thousand years,” Shaza said casually. Like that was a normal thing to say to someone.

In response, however, Luciana looked at him with an unreadable expression and unsettlingly wide eyes. “What,” she said.

“You were-”

She cut him off with a quick gesture, and he frowned again, this time in confused. His ears twitched almost comically.

“Wow,” Ruan said in awe. “Things must be very different in your time!”

“They are,” she said. “Some of the main roads between the provinces are different. Some of the landscape in the Jade Forest, I’ve noticed, is completely different from what I know. Well, knew.”

“You’ve been here before?” Ruan asked curiously.

“When I was younger, I was in my kingdom’s army,” she explained. “As an officer of middling rank. I was sent with my soldiers to aid the pandaren and our allies in the jinyu tribes recover and resettle the land after a conflict with the Horde. There was a lot of problems with the sha, as we didn’t know about it when we’d landed. Our conflict seemed to summon them all.”

“You mean, the Seven Sha?” Ruan said quietly. As though he didn’t want to be heard.

“Anger, Fear, Doubt, Despair, Hatred, Violence… and Pride. The worst of them,” she said lowly. “Our soldiers, accompanied by venerated champions of the Alliance, some of them storied heroes already, slayed Fear after it infected the mantid Empress. A group of adventurers in the Shado Pan monastery exorcised the sha of Violence from… a leading monk, and destroyed it. Pride fell to Horde and Alliance alike, after the Warchief of the Horde let himself be infected with it.” She snarled her next words. “For a false vision of an empire of blood and skulls under his boots, he took the heart of Y’shaarj, an Old God, and planted it in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. He destroyed everything he touched. For pride,” she spat.

“I don’t think I like this Horde,” Ruan said.

Luciana looked at him, and took a deep breath. “The Horde itself wasn’t the problem,” she said quietly. “Many of them have histories of trauma and violence. The orcs were misled by demons and made to drink demon blood. It made them ravening monsters who wanted only blood and death. Without that influence, many orcs… many of them proved to be honourable, and loyal.” She sighed. “The Forsaken were cursed by a prince turned king of undeath. They were brought back to life, some of them once living infected with a plague that rotted their bodies. Many of them were driven insane, or lost to mindless hunger. Yet many of them fought to carve a home for themselves after being rejected by all living people. Many of them still have family that escaped the plague,” she said. “I feel for them. Their family lives on, new children born that they will never meet.”

“That’s horrible,” Ruan said emphatically. “But you are a queen, right?” he said, leaning forward to meet her gaze. His brows were furrowed heavily and his ears pinned back. “You could find these people! You could help them.”

“It’s not a simple thing,” she said. “They allied with the Horde, who’ve been enemies of the Alliance since the first day they stepped foot on our world as a bloodthirsty wave of demon-addled orcs. That first Horde razed my city to the ground,” she said softly. “Killed my mate’s grandfather and grandmother, traumatized his father…” She closed her eyes. “They even captured me, when I was younger, and held me for two months of torture. They killed my baby brother.”

“Why?” Ruan insisted. “Why would they do this? I mean, after the demons, the honorable orcs.”

“I… I don’t know, Ruan,” she said sadly. “Part of me believes that my torture and my brother’s death wasn’t done by the Horde. That maybe it was a small group of warmongers, or something more sinister. But the Horde has been a destructive force for far too long for me to simply dismiss their possible involvement.”

“You’re a queen,” he said. “How could you not know? You could investigate, have people investigate…” His muzzle had an odd twist to it, at the corners of his mouth. It was, Luciana guessed, an emotional tell. He must have been greatly upset.

“Unfortunately, there were… are more immediate problems in my kingdom,” she said. “One of our provinces has fallen to civil war over past injustices visited upon them by their own rulers. The king, my mate’s father, had been ensorcelled by a black dragon called Onyxia, along with much of his court. Their kind sows chaos and evil wherever they can, wanting little more than to eliminate all life on Azeroth. Now we must calm Westfall and find those who have riled it to infighting. And the Burning Legion had already begun an invasion of our world, seeking to burn away all life.”

“I don’t like this future you’re describing,” Ruan said thickly. Luciana, reciprocating his earlier gesture, put her hand on his thick, furry thigh for a moment.

“It’s not all bad,” she said. “There is much good, too. For the first time in generations, we have spoken and written agreements with the Horde on many subjects. We have an official peace with them, against a common enemy, and we fight side by side with those who have been hated foes for many, many years. We have, in my kingdom, advanced our methods of healing to the point where lost limbs can be entirely replaced with mechanical parts that imitate what was lost to an incredible degree. A province once lost to darkness and death… and undeath,” she added, “is now a center of trade and the exchanging of cultures. The Horde has a new leader, now, one who is clever and tricky but cares deeply for his people, and who would do anything to see them out of their dark past.”

“There is so many bad things,” Ruan said wetly. He swiped the back of his paw over his eyes. Luciana gave his leg a pat.

“There are,” she said. “But we find good things every time we bother to look beyond the bad. We have hope, Ruan,” she said softly. “I once thought that I was meant only to kill, and to die young on a bloody battlefield. Then I met who was to be my mate, and his father became as my own, and I learned to look up when I looked forward. To remember that there is so much more than me. That there are more possibilities than I could ever think of in my lifetime. There is hope,” she promised him. “Ruan,” she said, and he looked up to meet her gaze. “There is always hope,” she swore. “A wise man once told me that in the Light, we are all one. That we are all connected. If we try, if we hold onto hope even when all seems lost, we will move forward. Towards better days.”

Ruan sniffed, his muzzle crinkling when he did. “You sound so sure,” he said.

“I cannot tell you the length of my despair,” she said. “Nor the strength I hold, because of hope. I hope to return to my family, I hope that I will be a good queen to my people, I hope that I will be able to protect and guide them. I hope that I will raise my children to be good people, and great leaders. I hope that one day, if we work for it, Azeroth will finally see peace. I find that as long as I keep that close to my heart, even when my mind is darker than the bottom of the sea, I can still move forward.” She leaned forward to put her hand on his wide, soft cheek. Only for a moment, but it was enough for him. She’d never done that before. “We must hope,” she said quietly. Fervently. “In the darkest hour, hope will light our way home.”

He blinked at her slowly, and then his black lips showed the beginnings of a smile. “You sound so sure of this,” he said. “I will trust you, then. You are, after all, my elder.”

She breathed a laugh. “Respect your elders,” she said in return.

“Can I say something now?” Shaza said. “I didn’t want to interrupt because it seemed like what you were saying was very important.”

“What is it, Shaza?” Luciana said, sitting back and looking at him expectantly.

“We can go now,” he said.

“... What?” she asked, frowning. “As in, leave for home? My home?”

“Yes, most likely,” he said. “Though you might draw us to some other place that is very important to you.”

“... Teldrassil?” she said hesitantly. Shaza only shrugged, again. Luciana sucked on her tongue for a moment. “Then we’d likely end up either in my Keep, in the Exodar where my daughter lives with her uncle, or… in the manor where I was raised,” she said. “Even if we end up in Darkshire, or Teldrassil, I’ll be able to get home properly after that with relative ease.”

“Great!” Shaza said brightly. “Let’s get going, then.” He hopped to his feet and stretched his arms over his head. His silvery-white hair, the top half pulled into a topknot, flowed over his shoulders.

“You are leaving?” Ruan said, hurrying to his feet. “Now?”

“Everything I’ve done here is to return home,” Luciana said.

“But… So suddenly?” he said. “You won’t say goodbye? To the Jade Serpent, or to me?”

“You’re right here,” she said, but she hesitated. She could understand why he was so upset. His friend was going to leave, rather abruptly, to a place where he’d never reach. He would never see her again. She sighed. “Shaza, maybe you should rest,” she said. “You told us earlier that it took quite a while for you to find me here.”

“Yes, but I’m fine!” he said. “I’m young and spry!” He was far too chipper for Luciana’s tastes.

“We’ll wait for tomorrow,” she said. “In the afternoon, maybe.”

“Are you sure? We can go now,” Shaza said.

“I’m sure. You can stay here, if you want to sleep. Or you can find your own perch. I’m sure you can take care of yourself?” she half-asked.

“Oh, yeah, don’t worry about me.”

She nodded. “Then we’ll meet again tomorrow.”

“Okay, but we can leave now,” he assured her.

“Tomorrow.” Her voice was hard. She didn’t like having her orders questioned. Especially not to her face.

“Okay,” Shaza shrugged. “I’m going to get more of that... Whatever it was. It’s delicious.”

“It is called jagumen,” Ruan provided helpfully.

“Oh, thanks!”

And with that, Shaza was gone. Luciana looked at Ruan. “You don’t want me to go,” she said softly.

“No!” Ruan insisted. “I want you to go home. Where you are happy, and where your family and your friends will help you heal.” The outer corners of his eyes drooped. “I will just miss you,” he added. “You are a dear friend, Ama.”

“I know.” She slipped her arm around his back, under his arm, inviting him to put it over her shoulder. “I will miss you, Ruan.”

He brightened a bit at that. But the mournful look in his eyes remained. “I will never see you again,” he said.

“... No,” she said, and then she sighed. “Some friendships must end, Ruan,” she said softly. “Some are only meant to last for a short time, meant for two people to help each other. And when that help is no longer needed, they move on.”

“I don’t want to,” he pouted.

“I wish there was another way.” She hadn’t thought about it much, but now she did, and it saddened her. Ruan had been such a bright presence in her otherwise painful, and sometimes very dark travels through Pandaria. She would miss him. He’d been good company, taking her bad days with her good without so much as a single word of protest. He’d understood, somehow, that there was pain inside her that he would never see, and yet he’d have to deal with the symptoms of it. He’d taken it all in stride, in good humour, and she hated the thought now of leaving him behind.
Luciana squeezed him to her side. “Leave stories for me,” she said. “So I know you had a good life.”

“I will try,” he chuckled, swiping at his eyes again. “But I am not much of a hero.”

“You don’t have to be a hero to make stories,” Luciana said. “Be a traveler. Bring joy to everyone you see. They’ll keep your name alive long after you’re gone. You will be remembered. And I’ll hear all about you when I’m home.”

He leaned into her side, put his chin on top of her head. He had to angle his head up to do so. He was only a scant few inches taller than her. She could’ve sworn she was shorter than that when she’d first arrived... “I will miss you,” he said wetly.

“I know. I’m sorry that it has to end like this, so soon,” she said.

“Will you at least finish the journey with me?” Ruan asked from on top of her head. “We still need to return to the Temple. Your armor is there,” he reminded her.

“You’re right. I can’t leave until the journey ends,” she said.

Ruan freed her head from his chin, and smiled widely at her, baring bright teeth and fangs. “A story cannot be told until it has a proper end!” he said.

“So let’s finish our story properly,” Luciana said.

“Yes. And we will say our goodbyes,” he said, sobering quickly. “And exchange farewells.”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Ruan,” she said. “I can’t express how much your companionship has helped me.”

He smiled again, less enthusiastic but no less genuine. “I am so happy to hear that,” he said. “You helped me too, Ama. As you said, friendships are two people helping each other. You helped me leave my den and explore my world. I’ve seen so much, but there is more to be found. I am so excited to see it!”

She gave him another squeeze. “I’m glad,” she said. “How about a snack?” she suggested, to lighten his mood a bit. Food always worked.

“Yes!” he crowed. “A perfect time for a snack! And some beer.”

“Do you think they have some of that dark honey brew?” she asked. “The one that’s not too sweet, and a little dry…”

“Oh, I’m sure…”

Chapter Text

The following morning, Luciana woke groggily to the sound of pandaren miners already up and about. Blinking blearily, she looked about and tried to determine what time it was. The sun was shining brightly even through the thick yak-hide tent, so she knew it wasn’t early.

Rolling onto her left side, the tent wall at her back, she sighed. She’d been fighting through hell to get home, and now that the opportunity was presented to her, she felt oddly unsure. She knew that returning to Anduin, to her children, to her people was what must be done. But she was loathe to leave Ruan behind.

Luciana had been awake long into the night thinking of solutions, but there was in truth only two options - Ruan would stay in his time, and she could perhaps find remnants of his life in the Lorewalkers of her time. Or, he came with her and left behind everything and everyone he knew. Except her. If Luciana was in his position, she’d almost certainly stay behind. Merely the prospect of being dependant on one person rankled her, as it had nearly her entire journey with Ruan. And Light forbid they grew tired of you.

Thankfully Ruan was boundless in his enthusiasm for food, and his friendliness to people within his immediate vicinity. He found her before she could even sit up, a steaming bowl in one paw and a basket full of fruits in the other.

“I found some food for you!” he said cheerily.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, struggling to sit up and smacking her mouth. It tasted like death and she wanted nothing more than to brush her damn teeth.

“You look like you slept on an angry yak,” he commented brightly, snagging a stool with his foot and hopping over to her with it dragging along behind. He sat before her with a huff and reached his snout into the basket of fruit, emerging with some kind of pear between his teeth. His eyes were scrunched, clearly in a wide smile, and Luciana begrudgingly took the bowl from him. A kuat-jo was stuck in the side and she pulled it out. It had been stabbed with alarming accuracy into a juicy berry hidden under the white rice. She regarded it for a moment, and then ate it.

“I was up late thinking,” she said. The rice was mildly sweet, almost like the water that cooked it had been mixed with some honey. There were plenty of fruits and even some white fish meat mixed in. An odd mix, to her, but tasty and filling nonetheless. She began to eat with a bit of gusto.

“About what?” Ruan asked around a mouthful of pear. Or, whatever it was.

“My journey home.” She sighed, worked some rice together, and scooped it up to eat. “We’re close enough to the Temple that two or three hours of walking will see us there. Either I’ll wear my armor or Shaza will magic it away somewhere so that it can be retrieved after the fact. No one will be carrying that alone - it’s far too heavy.”

“It can’t be that heavy,” Ruan said. “You wear it!”

“Yes, but when I wear it the weight is distributed across my entire body. Carrying it in a bag, or a pack…” she trailed off. “It’s made of blackrock and trillium, with some mithril chainmail. It’s not meant to be carried.”

“Trillium?” Ruan asked, brightening. “That is a rare mineral, and very hard to use!”

“The armor was a gift,” she said, quieting. “From my father in law. It was made by the most experienced and talented blacksmiths in our kingdom. He wanted to make sure I was well protected when I was out fighting for my people.”

“I’m sorry,” Ruan said, sobering a little. “It must be very hard to think about him.”

Luciana swallowed thickly. “I’ll have to face it eventually. Not right now.”

“That’s fine!” Ruan said. “Sometimes it is best to wait until you’re ready. You cannot sow your harvest if you haven’t even plowed the field.”

She raised an eyebrow at him, some humor returning to her face. Fruit juice was dripping from the corners of his mouth to run down the fur of his muzzle, down his chin, and back onto the fruit in his paw. Seeing it, Luciana could do nothing but snort a laugh and return to her food.

When they were ready to depart, Ruan broke away to thank various people he’d spoken to during their brief stay in the worksite. Luciana, for her part, quietly made her way to where the site met the road. It would take them to the Temple of the Jade Serpent, almost a direct path because of the connection between the statue and what would one day be its occupant. Shaza found her there, teleporting to her side with a dazzling shower of arcane sparkles.

“Shaza,” she greeted evenly.

“Morning!” he returned, far too cheerful and far, far too loud. She grimaced and turned back to the road.

She waited for Ruan, while Shaza bounced on his heels and hummed and fidgeted. He was like a child not yet into their teenage years, curious and loud and not quite yet availed of any sense of danger or self-preservation. Granted, he was a dragon.

Ruan reached them sooner than Luciana expected. He’d perhaps rushed his goodbyes for her, which she appreciated. She let him swing a thick arm around her back and though she didn’t respond to his chatter, she did pay attention as best she could. He clearly wasn’t expecting an avid conversational partner with her, and was content to ramble away with a grunt of acknowledgement here or there.

Shaza took to whistling, walking with a skip, stopping to inspect plants, and telling Ruan about the intricacies of high-frequency chronal teleportation. Ruan, while Shaza spoke, had a thoroughly confused expression for the entire duration of that conversation. Luciana merely trudged along, tired and sore.

“Enough,” she said finally, directing it at Shaza. “Really, enough.” He deflated somewhat, elven ears lowering, and she sighed. “I just woke up with a headache like a banshee, I’ve been dragging myself across this continent much faster than I objectively should have, and I do not want to hear advanced arcano-temporal theorems right now.”

“What about later?” Shaza asked, perking right back up.

“We’ll see.”

Somewhat mollified, he returned to whistling. Luciana groaned quietly, but didn’t complain. At least it was better than complex magical bullshit.

Near the end of their walk, and the true end to their journey, Luciana straightened up. She began to control her breathing, and while she walked she slowly brought forth her right arm. What a gift it had been. Xuen’s aid had been invaluable. He hadn’t truly instructed her on anything save her chi, but he’d known what doors it would open for her. She felt more aware of her body than she had in a long time, aware of its pure physical power. Aware of the tightly coiled tension she could unleash like a panther vaulting from the shadows to fit its jaws around the neck of its unsuspecting prey.

Her Chi arm began to materialize smoothly from her shoulder, flowing downwards like a snowmelt brook in the spring. It formed the muscle and bone of her arm, something once physical now made of energy. Her own lifeforce made visible. She grinned crookedly as she brought her still-forming wrist up, inspecting the tiny eddies and flows of her Chi and they branched out from the center of her palm to become fingers. She clenched her hand into a fist, the fingers becoming whole as she flexed them.

She could see Ruan in the corner of her eye, watching with wide-eyed curiosity. To be expected - this was apparently one of the most advanced techniques a monk could learn. To manifest your own chi, let alone recreate an entire lost limb, generally took years of specialized training. But Luciana’s own familiarity with her body had allowed her to simply dig a little deeper and find within her what she would need. With Xuen’s guidance, it had taken very little time for her to learn how to shape her Chi within her. With practice, it would become instinctual.

What she wasn’t expecting was the high-pitched shriek to her right. It was loud and sudden, and it triggered an immediate reaction from her. She whirled to retreat into the cover of the forest brush, bringing Ruan with her. He helped, but his weight was as nothing to a warrior full of adrenaline and combat instincts.

She stopped mere feet into the brush but Ruan tucked and rolled away, a defensive measure for a less-experienced fighter to make room for the expert. He had some skill, but she was a warlord. The vicious snarl that ripped through the air was inhuman, thought it had come from her throat. Already her fury had reared its head, filling her with heady bloodlust. The pounding of her heart in her ears drowned out everything. Her eyes searched for threats, for enemies, for victims. She had her nagani already in hand, Chi arm roiling under its outer layer like a violent ocean tempest. Pupils blown wide, breath quickened, and heart pounding, she was ready to reave her way through an army.

But nothing stirred, and she quickly became aware of the distinct lack of foes. For good measure she raised her nose to sniff the air. There was little to indicate an impending fight. No sweat, no metallic tang of blood or the sour notes of fear. “Ruan,” she called, her voice rough and commanding. It seemed to reverberate in her chest and throat. She wanted to scream her rage, hear it echo through the forest into the distance. She withheld it.

“I didn’t see anything!” he gasped. “But you moved so fast! It’s no wonder.”

She slowly straightened from her aggressive forward posture, lowering her shoulders and allowing her body to relax. To coil its tension back into its resting state, so that it would be ready again when she released it. “I don’t smell or hear anything either,” she said. Her eyes were still sharp and picked out movements of tiny insects while she tried to spot the threat.

Luciana blinked, stared ahead, and then growled. Ruan’s ears twitched, but he knew her quite well by now and knew he wasn’t in any danger from her. “Shaza,” she said lowly. She inhaled deeply, and Ruan seemed to know what she was about to do because he flattened his ears and covered them with his thick paws. “SHAZA!”

A resounding shriek echoed between the richly green forest. She snarled this time, and stalked back towards the road. Ruan followed her fearlessly. It took less than a glance to spot Shaza hiding under a dense bush, his bright eyes staring at her from his hiding hole.

“Get out of there,” she growled. “Or I’ll pull you out.”

Shaza squealed and in his rush to exit the bush, he tumbled out backwards and brought a mess of leaves and twigs with him. Luciana was less than impressed by the dragon, and any respect she’d had for him was dwindling by the minute. He hurried back to the road, hastily plucking leaves and such out of his robes and his hair.

“What?” he asked breathlessly.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” she said lowly. “Shrieking in my ear like a fucking felbat.” She spat the words, fury still roiling in her gut like magma rolling from a volcano’s hungry mouth.

“I’m sorry!” he said emphatically. “You surprised me! I was surprised!”

“By what?” she said incredulously. “I’ve been walking next to you for hours!”

“That… that!” he cried, flapping his hand at her Chi arm. He was proving to be far too excitable and high-strung for her liking. “What is that?”

“Chi,” she growled. “Get a hold of yourself,” she grunted, before turning on her heel and stalking down the road. The Temple was in sight. The sooner she got her armor, the sooner this dragon whelp brought her home, the sooner she could be rid of him. At the moment, little else seemed so appealing.

She felt more than heard Ruan hurrying after her, a bounce in his step. So cheerful it sometimes made her teeth itch. She let him be. She could hear Shaza’s clumsy footsteps running to catch up her to long, swift strides.

The beautiful nagani was still in her right hand when they reached the gates of the Temple. Lucy slowed to a halt, breathed in deep, and when she exhaled she straightened her posture. The pandaren within had done nothing to earn her legendary ire. It would be remiss of her to redirect it to the undeserving.

Shaza caught up to her, panting lightly. Ruan agreed to go ahead and let them know they’d returned so that none of the guards would react to her very threatening presence. Her fury would roil until night fell, she felt, and she would contain it but she would not smother it. She was done hiding her fury, her rage. She was a warrior. A berserker. All that neared her would know, and give her due respect.

“Um,” Shaza muttered.

“What,” Luciana said flatly.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I startle easily.”

Her temples jumped. “So do I.”

“I’m not that old,” he continued. “Most of my clutch died in the Nexus War. I was one of the youngest. Magical flares startle me.”

She shut her eyes, breathed in deeply, and exhaled slowly. Undeserving targets, she reminded herself. “I’m a berserker who was tortured,” she replied.

Shaza nodded a few times, nervously. “Mendastrasz’ clutch-sister found me on the ground when I fell. My wings were broken. She was killed, too, so I owe him now.”

She raised her chin slightly to scent at the breeze. Warm bread, the heady scent of mulled apple, some sweat and hard wood mixed in. Likely from training monks. Only their paw pads sweated, so the scent of sweat wasn’t as invasive as it would be at the Warrior’s Conclave. Luciana frowned. “He’s asking much of you.”

“Not more than my life.”

She grunted instead of replied, not wanting to speak, not wanting to listen. Shaza, finally, grasped her mood and fell silent, hands clasped behind him as he rocked on his heels.

Not long after he’d disappeared behind the walls, Ruan cried out for Luciana to join him. He sounded cheery as always, so Luciana simply walked into the temple grounds, Shaza tight at her heels. Too tight. She growled in her throat at the invasion of her space.

No one else dared to approach her now, save Ruan who freely tossed an arm around her shoulders and guided her where the food was being served. Nearly constantly in service, the chefs behind the grills and the pots were more than happy to share the bounty. Luciana sat at a nearby table and the initiates who’d been seated at the far end cleared it in short order. When Ruan sat a wide and shallow bamboo bowl before it, she lightened a little. It was piled high with grilled meats and vegetables. She dug in with her hands, ripping into the meat with her teeth. Many pandaren did the same, and no one looked at her twice. In fact, no one looked at her once.

Ruan shared the excess of food he’d been given with Shaza, who picked through it delicately for tasty morsels he found acceptable. Mostly brightly-coloured fruit, a few bits of fish, a fat carrot with grill marks, and whatever else he deemed edible from this offering of mortal food.

After eating, Luciana led the way to where they’d stored her armor for her. She easily remembered the layout of this temple, recalling every corridor or room she’d traversed nearly three months ago. Her impressive armor was untouched, some dust settled on the pauldrons and helm. “Wow,” Shaza said quietly. “That is an impressive array of metals!”

Luciana approached her armor. Though it was set boot-to-ground, she stood some inches over it. “Fuck me,” she groaned. “I grew again.” She turned to Shaza. “Is there a way you can store this? Or send it forward?”

“Well, as long as one of us is touching it, it should come right through with us,” he replied.

“Every piece? Or just the one I’m touching?”

“Ah.” He opened his mouth, closed it, and frowned thoughtfully. “I’d assume all of it, because it’s one unit. But…”

“Other options,” Luciana said shortly.

“I could enchant a bag to hold the armor?” he offered. “And lighten it considerably. That’s a lot of blackrock.”

“Do it,” Luciana sighed. “Then find me at the inner chamber of the temple, where the Jade Serpent resides.”

“You’re not my leader,” Shaza said, miffed at her orders.

“You made me your leader when you followed me around,” she growled. Again, Shaza opened his mouth, closed it, and frowned. She was right, after all. He pouted, but pulled a fist-sized leather pouch from his belt to begin the enchantment.

“It will be good to see the Jade Serpent again,” Ruan said as he walked with her through the temple’s many adjacent buildings. “It is always good! Her presence is so peaceful that sometimes monks fall asleep while listening to her.” He laughed, and Luciana felt some of the tight rage in her chest loosen.

“I’ve had that happen to me,” she said. “But with a Naaru. A being of Light,” she summarized. “It was very quiet and peaceful, and I slept without dreams. I woke up feeling better than I had in a while.”

“It is exactly like that,” Ruan agreed. “You can’t help but relax.”

The doors to Yu’lon’s chamber were open, and she lay in a pile of soft white-green coils and wisps of mist that meandered along her spine and scales. She lifted her head when Luciana and Ruan passed her threshold, and slowly shifted her coils until her head was above them, peering down with kind eyes. “Welcome back,” she greeted warmly. “I see that you have found what you had lost,” she said to Luciana, turning her great head to meet Luciana’s gaze with one wide jade eye. It blinked slowly, like a cat, and Luciana felt her gut and shoulders loosen too.

She smiled up at the Celestial, a small thing but a smile still. “Thank you for your help,” she said sincerely. “It has been a rough journey, and it has… broken me,” she said. “In ways that cut to my core.”

“I know,” Yu’lon soothed. “And you have done well with those fragments. Are they not already forging something new?”

Luciana sighed slowly. “I think so,” she said, cautiously optimistic. She’d been feeling livelier the closer they’d gotten to the temple, a bit more aware, a bit more her. “Chi-ji helped me. Beyond measure.”

“He has a great heart,” Yu’lon replied. “It inspires all those touched by his presence.”

“My mate learned much from him,” she said. “In my past, your future.”

“Your mate is a kind man. You deserve that kindness. Do not let yourself be fooled, Luciana. Even a warrior must rest sometimes.” Her voice was serene, gentle, and Luciana’s smile grew.

“He had to get that through my thick skull,” she chuckled. Yu’lon hummed in agreement, something akin to laughter echoing from her.

“And now, your journey here ends,” the serpent said, lowering her head to rest it on a coil. She could see both Ruan and Luciana, and blinked slowly. The gesture was a supremely kind one. Ruan bowed his head to the serpent in silent respect. “You will return to your home, broken from your mold, growing once more into something greater still. The fragments within you will be reforged into a greater whole. Your scars will never fade,” Yu’lon warned gently. “But they will shine from within you.”

“Aurfaust,” Luciana murmured.

“Yes.” Yu’lon’s voice was full of approval. It felt oddly maternal. “Let it shine, warrior. Let out the light that burns bright within you.”

“I will try,” Luciana promised.

“You will succeed,” Yu’lon replied. “As you always do.” That seemed to amuse her, and she hummed another laugh and raised her head. “And so you complete the Trials of the Celestials. Wisdom, Strength, Fortitude, and Hope. These lessons reside within you, and will resound with each new lesson learned. Let them remind you of the power of your will,” Yu’lon said. “Let these memories renew your strength and remind you of what great things lay within you.”

She lowered her head until Luciana felt the soft caress of Yu’lon’s touch upon her forehead. It was such a delicate gesture, barely felt, and yet at the same time she felt it in her chest.

“Return home in victory,” Yu’lon continued, slowly retracting her head. Her coils seemed to shift slowly, endlessly, beneath her. They moved like slow clouds across a bright summer sky. “Become yourself once more. There are many trials that lay ahead, warrior, but you will face them all.”

“And I will triumph,” Luciana said. Her voice was quiet, but it did not waver. It was a fact that she would triumph. She always would, because to do otherwise would mean her death. It was the only way she would stop challenging those trials. And she would never let Anduin suffer her death.

“Then you are ready to face them,” Yu’lon finished proudly. “Go with my blessing, warrior. The blessing of the White Tiger, and the blessing of the Red Crane are within you.”

“But not of the Black Ox,” Luciana added. She was bitter. How could she not be? She’d been forced to relive every trauma, every horror she’d ever lived through, time and again. It had broken her. But she’d kept moving. She was determined to keep moving. But the Black Ox refused her, refused to acknowledge her tenacity.

Yu’lon retracted her head and let it rest on a coil somewhere to the side. Luciana sighed, assuming that the Celestial had said her piece, and turned to look at Ruan. Something else caught her attention. A tall, wide monk, a male with absolutely massive arms and legs, approached the chamber.

He greeted the Celestial, bowing low in respect. He spoke to her slowly, and she nodded her head at him.

“Of course,” Yu’lon said warmly, her ever-shifting coils moving across the floor in smooth motions to allow the monk to approach Luciana.

“This is Ama,” Ruan said, putting a hand on Luciana’s shoulder. “She cannot speak our tongue, but I can speak to her. I will relay your words.”

The monk bowed at the shoulder, and held it for a moment. He spoke assuredly, in a low, even tone.

“He brings a message for you, written on behalf of the great Black Ox,” Ruan told her. He looked down at her, a scant few inches between their heights. “He says he wrote it himself, and was honoured to be tasked with its delivery. Apparently it holds everything you need.”

She’d recognized his armor, but she hadn’t realized he was one of the higher disciples of the Ox. “Thank you. I will take it.” Ruan relayed her words, and the monk approached. He bowed again when he was in arm’s reach, and offered the scroll case. Luciana took it carefully, and watched him bow to her again, bow to Yu’lon, and then retreat from the chamber. She hummed thoughtfully, and looked down.

“Open it?” she half-asked, offering it to Ruan. He seemed absolutely delighted to open her mail for her, and expertly flicked open a latch and twisted this way and that until the end of the scroll case popped right open. He upturned the case and a roll of paper slid out. Luciana plucked it from his paw with a thanks. It was heavy and thick, and rolled open mostly on its own.

“It’s blank,” Ruan said confusedly.

Luciana scowled. And then, slowly, the tension eased from her brow. Then, she laughed. “Everything I need, huh?” she asked, looking over at Yu’lon. The Celestial seemed supremely amused. “Does this mean I have the blessing of the Black Ox?”

“He was quite impressed by your will,” Yu’lon replied, absolutely tickled. “He believes that you are the most stubborn mortal to ever visit Pandaria.”

Luciana snorted and laughed, and let Ruan retake the blank paper. “What a silly way to go about blessing someone,” he said, neatly rolling it and sliding it back into the case. “So much extra work! That poor monk had to travel all the way from Townlong!”

“I’m sure he enjoyed the journey,” Luciana chuckled. One last time, she faced the Jade Serpent. “Thank you for your help, Yu’lon,” she said, bowing her head respectfully. “I was damaged and hopeless when I arrived, without direction. Now I face my path with renewed determination.”

“You are a worthy student, warrior,” Yu’lon replied. “May we meet again.”

“I look forward to it.”

With that, the Jade Serpent returned to her previous position, sunning herself upon her balcony with her coils heaped about her chambers. Luciana breathed in deeply, and looked at Ruan.

“What a wonderful way to end a story,” he said happily. “With a good ending that promises good things.”

“I like when stories end that way,” Luciana agreed, following him from the chamber. “There are enough bad things in the world. When I hear a story, I’d like it to leave me with some sense of hope, or eagerness.”

“Yes!” Ruan said. “That is the kind of story I will endeavor to make.” He slowed, stopped, and she did the same, regarding him curiously. “I will miss you, my dear friend,” he said, his whole face drooping. He put his paws on her shoulder, one closer to her neck than the other. Her Chi arm had begun to fade, and he didn’t want to harm it. “I will miss you most terribly. But I will leave so many stories behind that it will take your whole life to read them all! And then it will be as though I am at your side for the rest of your journey.”

“Thank you, Ruan,” Luciana said. She brought her hand to his shoulder and squeezed it comfortingly. “I will not stop searching until I find every last word you’ve written. Every song you’ve sung.”

He smiled toothily even though his ears still sat low on his head, and pulled her into a gentle hug. “Thank you for your friendship, Ama,” he said, though his thick black fur muffled one of her ears. “Make sure you eat enough!”

“I will,” she chuckled. “And thank you for your patience. I know I haven’t been the most tolerable of travel companions.”

“Nonsense!” he said, leaning back to hold her at arm’s length. He seemed somewhere between amused, sad, and mildly aghast. “You were a wonderful travel companion. You know so much, and you are so wise, and you are so strong! You are everything I hope to be someday.”

Luciana’s chest tightened briefly. “You know, my mate once said the same thing to me.”

“Then he knows how lucky he is to have found you.” Ruan nodded once, approvingly, and then hugged her again. “I will miss you,” he said, more quietly this time. Luciana could hear the tears in his voice. She wrapped her arms around him, her Chi arm strengthening as she brushed it from her mind, using it as thoughtlessly as she once did her true arm.

“I’ll miss you too, my friend,” she replied. She squeezed him to her chest, and then slowly let go. His paws lingered on her shoulders, and he sniffed and blinked wet eyes, but he smiled.

“I will write your story first,” he said. “The Warrior from… What direction did you come from?” he asked.

“East,” she laughed. “I’m of the Eastern Kingdoms, northeast of Pandaria.”

“The Warrior from the East,” he said proudly. “She who came from strange lands to conquer the Four Trials, and clean out the pantry of every local she came across!”

“You’ve been eating more than I have,” she chuckled, her eyes crinkling up at the corners in a true smile. “Be good, Ruan.” She patted his upper arm, and he finally let go of her. “Be safe.”

“You too,” he said with a wet smile.

“I’m ready!” Shaza cried in the distance. Luciana sighed.

“He is young,” Ruan admonished with laughter in his voice. “Be patient with him.”

“He’s supposed to be able to drag me two thousand-odd years into the future without distorting me into a wall somewhere.”

“You’ll be fine! You seem very unlucky, and yet also very lucky.”

“You’ll need to explain that one.”

“You always find the worst of troubles, and yet you always survive! Somehow,” he added, sound somewhat mystified.

“Thanks for your confidence,” she said blandly, and then Ruan hugged her one final time. She returned it fiercely. He’d proven a fast and true friend, and she would miss him for a long time. She already did.

“I’m ready,” Shaza said when he reached them, panting. He held up his pouch with glee. “All in there! Except the right arm. Couldn’t find that anywhere… Oh.” He paused. “I’ve got a full set of armor, some of that delicious tea stuff, and we’re ready to go!”

“Jagumen,” Luciana reminded him. She sighed. Ruan seemed to be struggling with his emotions. Happy that she’d achieved her goal, that she was going home, but sad that she would be leaving him to reach it. She reached out and tapped the bottom of his chin with her knuckles. “Chin up,” she said. “The sun will keep rising. Just stand when it rises.”

“I will,” Ruan said with a watery voice. “Goodbye, my friend.”

“Goodbye, Ruan.” She smiled at him softly, and then turned to Shaza. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Chronoporting wasn’t Luciana’s favourite method of travel. It ranked under storm-tossed seas and spatial teleportation, but it won over falling from the sky to a target painted on the ground by a hair’s breadth. That had been an interesting training day in Arathi.

What she liked less was that in this instance, with this particular dragon, it seemed even less reliable than a canoe on a stormy sea.

Smoke had already begun to fill her lungs. She had a scrap of cloth from the bottom hem of her shirt, wetted in an abandoned water bucket, to hold over her mouth and nose. Her vulnerable eyes watered and she could feel pinpricks of heat all over her neck and arm as ashes swirled violently around her. It was a struggle to see, she couldn’t smell anything but smoke, and she couldn’t hear anything past the roaring of the great blaze in the throne room.

“Shaza!” she screamed.

“I’m here!” came the faint reply. She fought to find stable footing even as a heavy timber, exposed from behind the stone blocks of the Keep, came crashing down beside her. She stumbled to the side, barely missing its crushing weight, and forced herself forward through a thick cloud of smoke and ash.

“Shaza!” she called again.

“Over here!”

She ducked down, trying to get under most of the smoke to see. Shaza was directly ahead of her, but she couldn’t move forward unless she knew that the heat-cracked stones would hold her massive weight.

Though her eyes were for all intents and purposes shut tight, she managed to find her way to Shaza. He was huddled against the wall, covering his ears, curled into himself protectively. She reached out and grabbed his arm and the resulting shriek was barely audible. Glowing eyes looked up at her, widened in fear. His elven ears were tucked down.

“Get us out of here!” she ordered. He did not respond, overcome by panic. Should could, faintly, see his chest moving quickly with each breath. She knelt in front of him, wincing as her knee fell upon the splintered remains of a nearby door. “Look at me!” she ordered. “Look at me. Focus on my face. Look in my eyes.” He met her gaze and held it, wordlessly asking for reassurance from a less easily panicked ally. “Look at me. Ignore the fire. Ignore the smoke. We don’t have much time before the timbers in the roof collapse, but we have a minute. Maybe more.”

The old timbers of the Stormwind Keep were heavy and thick to support the weight of stone. More recent construction methods and materials made the new Keep sturdier, more resistance to earthquakes and slower to burn. Unfortunately, the more recent Keep was several decades into the future.

“Look at me,” Luciana ordered when his eyes strayed. “Look only at me. Concentrate on your magic, and get us out of here.”

She felt his shoulder shake under her Chi arm, the motion reverberating oddly through the limb. But he managed to get ahold of himself and his knowledge of time and magic, and chronoported them out of Old Stormwind.

They appeared some five feet above the ground and landed hard. Luciana barely had time to roll before she hit the dirt so that she would not land on her head and snap her neck. Shaza tumbled across her, face down and flopped over her abdomen.

“Get up,” she said quickly, not knowing what dangers they’d landed in this time. “Up, Shaza.” He scrambled to his feet, quickly trying to brush the dust and ash off his robes. His long hair was, of course, a mess.

Luciana looked about her cautiously, but nothing came at them. Sniffing the air wielded similar results. “Odd,” Shaza said. “We’re in what will be known as the Arathi Highlands… How did we end up here?”

“I trained and fought in the Arathi Basin for years,” Luciana said.

“But then you would have been pulled forward, not back.”

She glanced at him, frowning crookedly. “How far back?”

“From the point we left the first time… From Pandaria, I mean… I’d say about four thousands years, give or take a few decades.”

Luciana’s eyes flicked over his soot-covered form, and then to the rolling, grassy hills before her. In the distance, great trees loomed over the land and faint movement could be seen. Animals, she guessed. Or trolls.

“We should go before we run into more trouble,” she said, though she could move her eyes from those trees. They invited her, calling to the beast within her. In their midst she would be the ruler of these lands, the warden of life and death and rebirth. She could stay here, she thought, and be what she was meant to be.

It was painful to tear her eyes from the great, dark forest. Luciana didn’t know why they called to her so strongly, but she found it difficult to refuse. “We need to go now,” she said with a growl. Shaza’s attention quickly returned to her, and he blinked owlishly.

“Probably,” he said. “This is the time before humanity took over these lands. This isn’t the best place for us.”

“Get us out of there, then.”

“Right.”

He raised his hands, eyes narrowing as the glow within intensified. Bright bronze-tinted magic encircled them both, and with a flash and a faint echoless bang, they were gone.

The magic faded a second later. Disoriented from three consecutive chronoteleportations, Luciana stumbled to the side. Barely keeping her feet beneath her, she blinked and swore as she swiped at her eyes. Her ears rang and for a moment she thought she’d landed on a rocking boat. When the flashing of lights began to fade from her eyes, she looked about.

Smoke rose in massive plumes from the ground some two hundred yards away. The trembling aftershocks of an earthquake followed, nearly sending her to her knees. She stayed up, heard a thump and an exclamation of pain beside her, and rubbed her eyes again. “Fucking Light’s tits,” she swore. “What is that? Where and when are we?”

“Azuremyst,” Shaza coughed, stumbling to his feet again. He shook his head and blinked a few times. “I believe the Exodar just crashed.”

“As we appeared?” she asked incredulously.

“Just before, actually.”

Luciana looked again at the smoke and disturbingly bright ashes climbing towards the clouds. “There’s nothing we can do, is there?” she asked.

“Best not to try,” Shaza replied. “You weren’t here the first time, and though you generally have full reign over your timeline, it’s best not to interfere in events that have already passed. You affect the future, but you’ve never touched the past. At least, not after your jaunt through Pandaria… But I think that was far back enough that any memory of your or your actions there have faded.”

Luciana sighed heavily. She could, if she concentrated, hear screams of terror and cries for help. It made her chest tight, and she felt her gorge rise. Enaeon had been on the Exodar when it had crashed. If he hadn’t survived, if she hadn’t met him…

She growled violently and shook her head. “Try again,” she commanded. “Somewhere safe, this time?”

Shaza snorted. “Somewhere safe? With you in tow?” He laughed. “If it was safe before we arrive, it won’t be for long. Trouble loves you.”

She snarled at him wordlessly. The image of Enaeon, slung over heat-twisted metal and bleeding and burning, bore into her mind. “Now!

“Alright!” he squeaked. “Titans, who stole your sense of humour?” he muttered, likely thinking she wouldn’t hear. And she would have replied had he not sent them both through another chronoportal.

This time, thankfully, they landed on their feet on soft moss. Deep green brush and trees laden with bright leaves surrounded them. Luciana inhaled deeply and the feeling of life filled her with a near-frenetic energy. This forest called to her too, but it did not call for dominance. Simply, it called for her. This, she felt, was already her wild home.

Familiar scents began to stand out from the mass of initial stimuli. Sugarwood, silverleaf, wolf packs, and in the near distance, ocean waves and salt. She inhaled again. Deer, forest bears, seaweed, the electric scent of storm clouds and swift winds.

“This is Elwynn,” she murmured. But not the Elwynn she knew. There was no scent of people, no woodsmoke or metal or cooked food anywhere to be found. “When are we?” she asked quietly, not wanting to disturb the sounds of this place.

“Um…” Shaza seemed equally reverent of the quiet forest. It was bathed in bright sunlight that filtered through the trees, splashing the mossy ground with dancing lights. A breeze ruffled through, catching Luciana’s hair and teasing it with gentle hands. She shivered, remembering the depth of her longing for wild places. It had been smothered with recent events, the negotiations and the Legion’s invasion… Now, she was dearly tempted to remain where she belonged.

But where she belonged was at Anduin’s side. She sighed, and looked at Shaza. No matter how much she wanted to stay here, she knew where she was truly meant to be.

“About four hundred years before your birth,” Shaza said finally, eyes up in the trees as he tracked them on the timeline in his mind. “Maybe three hundred and seventy?”

Luciana’s gaze roved over the lush greenery before her. Her ears picked up the buzzing and chittering and crawling of all manner of insects, the birdsong that echoed all around her, the distant sound of ocean waves upon a rocky beach. It saddened her, somehow, that she would never truly know this place.

She sighed again, and looked at Shaza. “Try again,” she said softly.

“You look said,” he commented bluntly.

“I am. Now try again.”

He stared at her, as though trying to read her mind, and then shrugged and brought his hands up again. “I don’t know why this is so hard,” he murmured. “You should be pulled right back to your time, but you’re being tossed all over the place.”

“So far we’ve hit my home twice, and the home of my daughter and her uncle once,” Luciana commented. “It seems like the time is off, but the locations seem to match.”

“You’re right,” Shaza said. “But I’ll keep doing this until you’re back in Stormwind proper, or I’ll die trying, because I’m not facing Mendastrasz and telling him I left you behind.”

“Good idea,” she replied. “He’d skin you alive and use your hide to make armor.”

Shaza shuddered. “I know,” he groaned. Taking a deep breath, he used his hands to direct his magic and once again send them through time and space.

Luciana’s feet hit something that gave immediately, and then water closed over her head. For a moment she was still as she tried to orient herself - panicking was generally a good way to start dying. She was floating halfway in water, she realized, and it stung at her eyes. The water was bright and relatively clear, meaning she was close to the surface. She swam up slowly, not wanting to attract too much attention just in case a waterborne predator was nearby. She breached the surface, took a few breaths through her mouth and blinked seawater from her eyes.

“Shaza!” she called. Over the sound of waves and seafaring birds, she heard splashing. Luciana turned herself around, almost lazily treading water to conserve energy, and saw in the near distance a massive turtle with a complex harness wrapped around its belly. It swam slowly, and under the incredibly wide umbrella were just over a dozen pandaren chatting excitedly in their native tongue.

Somewhat confused, Luciana looked around to find Shaza. That was more important than looking at the gigantic dragon turtle as it swam away from her at a leisurely pace. “Shaza?” she tried again.

Suddenly, a panicked gasp and quick, irregular splashing caught her attention. She dove under the water to avoid being tossed about by the surface waves, and looked around through narrowed eyes. The salt stung, but she persisted.

A dense cloud of bubbles was some twenty yards to her right, and she surfaced to take another deep breath. Diving down again, she used her momentum to start her swim. Reaching the bubbles quickly, she reached out and felt for whatever it was.

As she’d thought, it was Shaza panicking and - oddly - upside down. She grabbed at whatever was under her palm and yanked it upwards hard enough to send herself downwards. But as she had wanted, Shaza went flying to the surface and then above it, landing on his back with a great splash.

After a few moments of struggle he’d managed to right himself, and Luciana surfaced again to take another breath. “What the fuck?”

“I’m sorry!” he yelled back, still somewhat panicked. “You’re the one who’s guiding us through time!”

You’re the bronze dragon!” she retorted. “Where are we?”

“The ocean.”

“No shit!” she cried. “What land is nearby?”

“Uh… Nothing,” he replied, blinking desperately around a very frustrated frown. “Not yet, anyway.

“Then what will be here?” she snarled. Light, but he was dense.

“Er, Vashj’ir, I think.”

“You need to try again before we get tired,” she said loudly, making sure she was heard over the waves. “We can only swim for so long.”

“Right, you’re right. Hang on…” He narrowed his eyes and stared at her. “I can’t… get ahold of anything. Not like this.”

“Then try something else.”

“I can’t! I need my hands!” he cried.

Luciana nearly sighed, but she had to close her mouth to avoid getting water in it. “Then stop moving,” she said.

“I don’t want to drown!”

“Listen to me,” she ordered. “You’re not going to drown in ten seconds. If you have a good grasp on me, you can let yourself float and hold your breath, and concentrate on your magic.”

“I don’t think I can do that!”

“You can,” she said firmly. “Whatever else you are, you’re a bronze dragon. Timekeeping is a part of you. Concentrate on it, stop struggling, and bring it out.”

He stared at her, panic written clearly on every part of him that Luciana could see. Then, he nodded fervently. “Okay,” he gasped. “Okay. Uh, grab my robe or something,” he said. “So I can extend the magic to you, rather than have it envelope you.”

Luciana swam closer and took a fistful of his robe in hand. “Got it,” she said.

“Can you… Are you able to keep my head above water?”

“I’ve got you,” she promised, and shifted her grasp to the front of his robes just below his chin. It wouldn’t be graceful, but he’d breathe clearly. “Tell me when you’re ready.”

“Okay.” He inhaled, swallowed, and nodded. “Ready.”

He was hesitant, and it took a few long seconds, but he let himself go limp in the water. Luciana redoubled her efforts to stay afloat, powerful legs circling under her to keep both her and Shaza over water. She could feel the stiffness starting already from the cold of the ocean water, but she persisted.

A faint bronze glow started below the water, strengthening with every passing moment. After what felt like an hour, Shaza opened his eyes to reveal the harsh white glow of magic, and the sensation of being swept aside overtook them both.

Solid ground welcomed them with a thump, only mildly painful, and Luciana panted slowly. She rolled onto her right side, covering her weakness and leaving her left arm free for defense. Shaza groaned somewhere near her boots as she quickly took stock of their surroundings.

The sound of approaching footsteps - boot steps, she realized, sitting up and looking towards the direction of the sound. Metal boots, leather boots, chainmail nearly silent underneath leather. She took to a knee, made sure Shaza was recovering properly, and looked up again. Whoever approached, she would be ready.

The first face out of the treeline was one she didn’t recognize, but it was human. Unfortunately, there was also a garn’s face beneath it. And a garn’s body. Incredibly large, and monstrously powerful, she knew garn to be the most dangerous predators in Draenor. She growled and stood, knees bent and hand open, ready to grab and tear whatever it landed on. Teeth, too, if she needed them. She would keep her right arm hidden until it was needed.

A night elf emerged from the trees, along with another human. He was dark-skinned with a neatly shaved head that complimented the knee-length crimson robe he wore. It was slit open at the sides and front, allowing for free movement of his legs. Luciana glanced at his hands - gem-encrusted golden gauntlets with clawed fingers and a dramatic flare-out from the elbow. She straightened from her crouch.

“Your Majesty?” Sab cried, and immediately rushed forward. He didn’t know what to do when he reached her, holding his hands out uselessly for a moment while he took stock of her with wide eyes. “... Why are you wet?” he asked.

“Long story,” she growled. “Can you dry me? It’s ocean water.”

“Oh, of course,” he replied immediately and eagerly. He wove his magic around the fingers and claws of his gauntlets, some sort of purifying spell, and it soon washed over her with a warm brush of air. The sudden relief had Luciana sighing. “Thank you, Sab.” At the sound of his name he gave a glowing smile and backed up a few steps to bow to her.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he said.

“I’m okay,” Shaza coughed.

“Oh, him too, if you don’t mind,” she said, gesturing to Shaza.

“Of course,” Sab said agreeably and set about cleaning Shaza of ocean water.

Luciana observed the two others warily. Obviously they were Alliance, otherwise Sab would not have accompanied them. “Names,” she said.

“Amara Myers,” the human that sat atop a garn said quietly. “R.E.D.” Luciana regarded her with a cool gaze. That code generally wasn’t good news, but if she’d come with Sab, Luciana would give her a chance.

“Bane,” the night elf said.

“I’ve heard of you,” Luciana said to Bane. “A tracker, and survivalist.”

Bane nodded brusquely. The thick jagged scar that ripped her face in two was quite impressive, as was the flash of sharp white teeth under her mangled upper lip.

“Spymaster Shaw sent us,” Sab offered, returning to Luciana’s side. “We had another, but he… well, I’m not sure where he got to. He’s a little… off.”

“Crazy,” Amara murmured to herself.

“Intense,” Sab corrected with a frown. It disappeared when he looked up at Luciana, replaced with near-reverence. “It’s a relief to see you safe, Your Majesty. I managed to get us to the Temple of the Jade Serpent with the help of several draenei mages, and your advisor Sir Mulligan. Unfortunately, we landed nearly a month after you left.”

“Have you been here long?” she asked him.

“Two days,” he replied loyally. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of the magical traces left behind by you and your… er, friend,” he said, looking at Shaza. He got a friendly wave in return. “But it was too faded. I was about to start experimenting with a vial of Sands of Time I’ve been holding on to, but we heard a bang from this direction and we rushed right over.”

Luciana heard another body approaching. The sound of pandaren paws grew closer, and she looked up to see Ruan emerge from behind the trees. She felt her face relax out of the frown it had been wearing since the first chronoport, and she smiled crookedly.

“Ruan!” she laughed.

“Ama!” he crowed, rushing forward with his arms open. Before anyone could react to defend the Queen, he’d thrown his arms around her in a tight hug. She returned it eagerly, hugging him close with her left arm, ignoring the fur and muscle that pressed her nose at an awkward and painful angle. He released her from his crushing grip to reveal a wide, tooth-filled smile. “I am so happy to see you again!” he said, and then hugged her again.

“Alright, alright,” she laughed, patting his back and then hugging him back. It was good to see him again. He was her friend. “I’m here. C’mon, now. Let me get ahold of what’s happened.”

Sab had taken a respectful step back, watching Ruan with some kind of newfound respect. Shaza was much closer, inspecting Sab from a foot and a half away. Sab turned his head and started when he realized how close Shaza was, and shuffled a step away. “You are quite powerful,” Shaza said brightly. “And those gauntlets are absolutely ingenious for a mortal.”

“Uh, thanks,” Sab said doubtfully.

“Ruan, you remember Shaza,” Luciana said when Ruan released her. She left her arm around his back, and his was over her shoulders. “This is Sab the Lion, an experienced warmage from Stormwind’s most powerful guild. Amara Myers, and Bane, a well-known tracker and hunter. Sab, that’s Shaza. He’s been trying to get me home,” she said, her tone turning dry. “But apparently it’s been quite difficult.”

“It has been,” Shaza agreed gravely. “You are a temporal anomaly, Your Majesty.”

“So you’ve told me.”

He looked at Sab. “Your Queen has been rewriting the timeline from a young age,” he said conversationally. “Even Nozdormu can’t get it to revert or correct.”

Sab glanced at Shaza, then at Luciana. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said with a growing smile. “Everyone knows how great our Queen is.”

She gave him an indulgent smile, and his smiled brightened considerably. “Sab, Shaza, maybe together you can get us all back to Stormwind, at a proper time?”

“Of course,” Sab said immediately, understanding that his Queen was giving him a soft order.

“Well, it might work,” Shaza murmured, inspecting Sab more carefully this time. Sab glared at him.

“We’ll get it done safely, Your Majesty,” he said to Luciana with a firm nod.

“I expect no less from a Glory Seeker.”

The faint sound of footsteps again caught her attention. For a moment, she thought that it was faint because of distance. Then she caught the slightest echo from a single tree trunk, and turned to watch them approach. No one else seemed to be able to hear them. She let Ruan turn to converse with Shaza, Sab returning to Amara to fetch his pack. She heard Bane murmuring to him as well.

Whoever it was stopped at the treeline, hiding in its shadow for a moment before emerging. A human male, his body tightly muscled and agile, with numerous hidden weapons that she could see and no doubt many more than she couldn’t. The stare from his eyes was intense, and though his face and scent were foreign, she recognized that stare. He approached in absolute silence, any sound he might have made being smothered completely by the faint rustle of leaves. He came to her side, facing her left arm, and pressed something surreptitiously into her palm.

She glanced down at the object. An old patch of hide with fur that had been white not too long ago, a faded spot of red paint in the center. It hung from a leather cord through a hole punched at the top. She blinked, slowly looking up at the man.

“Lars,” she whispered, almost silent. He tilted his head, almost a nod. She let him take the token back.

“Agent Lynch,” he murmured.

She smiled slowly, not bothering to keep the right side of her mouth still. “It’s good to have you back at my side,” she said quietly. “Where you belong.”

“Always,” he mouthed. He shifted away from her, standing far enough away to disabuse any onlookers of the notion that they knew each other. For now, it was best to be cautious. Lars would still be known as a traitor in Stormwind, his execution pending. And everyone knew how close he’d been to the Queen. For his protection, Luciana would distance him in public until the treachery was forgotten in lieu of more recent news.

“Alright, I think I know how we can do this,” Sab said, approaching Luciana. He jumped a step to the side, away from her, when he noticed that Lynch had suddenly appeared. “Oh, Light,” he swore, his next few breaths heavy while he recovered. “Warn a guy, would you?” Lynch didn’t respond, and Sab sighed irritably. “He’s been like this the entire time,” Sab grumbled to no one in particular. “Your Majesty, this is Agent Lynch. The Spymaster sent him with us.”

“I assumed as much,” Luciana replied evenly. “Tell me your plan.”

“Of course. Shaza will concentrate fully on the axis of time, while I use the leylines to locate an appropriate area to land. It’s best, I think, not to be too specific - leaving a larger area open for receival of teleportation allows the Nether to warp itself around obstacles. Unless a steady portal has already been established as a target of empty space, it’s better that way. We could use any of the portals already made in Stormwind, but none of them are properly stabilized for chronoporting. So it’s best to simply make a new, temporary link between here and Elwynn, both in time and space.”

“That seems logical,” Luciana said, and Sab beamed at her eagerly. “Shaza?” she asked, turning to him.

“It seems a sound theory,” he replied. “But we’ll need help to focus our point on the space axis. It could end up anywhere that any of you have been in your life, unless…”

“Unless I can cross-reference a single point between all of us,” Sab said thoughtfully. “That focus would also help…”

“With the time axis,” Shaza continued. “What’s a place that you’ve all been? Together, preferably, and recently. Well, recently in respect to the moment you left your time.”

Sab glanced at Amara. “Portal,” she said shortly. Sab frowned for a moment, and then realization hit him.

“Right!” he said. “Our group traveled through a portal in Azuremyst, in the open field in front of the main gate.”

“That makes sense,” Luciana said. “An open area, not much magical interference as it would be contained and absorbed by the Exodar itself. I often stayed the night there, as my daughter is there with her uncle.” She paused, regarding Sab and Shaza. “I have many memories of it,” she said. “If anything, more memories will make it easier to find.”

“Even better,” Shaza said. “All of you will focus on your memory… or memories of the fields outside the Exodar.”

“You’ve already made five chronoports for us both,” Luciana reminded him. “Some of them were fairly stressful.”

“I’ll be fine,” Shaza said.

“I can provide backup in terms of power,” Sab interjected. “I haven’t woven much magic at all in the past couple of days.”

“Good. I’ll expect you two to cooperate fully on this. We all want to return home,” she said, looking at Bane and Amara as well. “Our proper home. Getting back to the time we came from is the first step. You will all cooperate fully with Sab and Shaza.” Her tone was hard and brooked absolutely no argument, no disagreement. Lynch, she knew, would obey her. Sab was loyal, and Shaza wanted this to work out more than any of them because Shaw’s threat hung over his head. Bane, after a moment, nodded respectfully in acquiescence.

Luciana turned her gaze to Amara. The hunter visibly drew back from it. Luciana would let nothing stand between her and Anduin, not even the lives of others. Amara could see that in her eyes. She nodded once, even as the garn she rode shifted uneasily before the fury that lived within Luciana. If anything went wrong, she would find out the source and destroy it. Or them. She was not going to spend any more time away from her family.

“Great!” Shaza said, clapping his hands together. He was completely unaware of the sudden tension surrounding Luciana. “Let’s get started. I think a transmutation circle would be a good place to start.”

“Agreed,” Sab said quickly, eager to get started. The less Luciana waited, the less oppressive her presence would be.

While the two magic users started to carve the earth in shallow lines and circle, Ruan approached Luciana. “You will be leaving,” he said. “This time for good.”

“Hopefully.” She sighed and looked up slightly to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry we won’t meet again,” she said. “But I need to be where I can protect my people. My family.”

“I know.” He smiled, a hint of canine teeth showing. “It is only right that you return to them. To your home.”

Her eyes landed on Sab, who was jabbing points into the dirt in the shape of what looked to be a constellation. The dirt and forest humus slid off his gauntlets like water, leaving them gleaming in the sunlight. The dark red jewels embedded within the gold sparkled with flame and magic.

“I have been thinking,” Ruan said hesitantly. “For this past month.”

“Of what?” Luciana asked.

“I would like to come with you.”

She looked up at him again, and he met her eyes squarely. “What of your family?” she asked. “Your friends, and your training at the Temple?”

“I love my family. Even Taran,” he said, laughing ruefully. “I enjoy the company of my friends, and my experiences under the Jade Serpent. But they no longer feel like home.”

“So you want to come with me to find a new one?” Luciana asked.

“In less than three months you have filled me with wonder and curiosity,” Ruan said. “I want to see this world you know. I want to see all it has to offer, meet all of its people and hear all of their stories.” He was smiling now, brighter than before. “You spoke of many dark things, before, but you spoke also of good things. I want to be a part of them.” He turned his smile towards her and she couldn’t help but return it. It only seemed to make him happier. “I want to come with you to Stormwind, and meet your people, and try your food, and hear your songs,” he said, excitement starting to break through from behind his smile. “I want to learn more of your warriors, and the kaldorei, and the great tree they live in.”

“Then I will show them to you,” Luciana said. Ruan laughed happily and threw his arms around her for another hug. She felt Lynch’s gaze on her back, but was completely unbothered by it. Better his gaze than a blade she hadn’t seen coming.

“I am coming with you!” Ruan declared. “What should I bring?”

“We’ll have plenty of room and food for you,” Luciana laughed. “All you need is yourself, and if there’s something you own that has sentimental value, you can bring that too.”

“Right,” Ruan said, nodding firmly. “Let me fetch my staff, and my tea set. And the scroll case!”

“The one I left behind?” Luciana asked. “With the blank paper inside?”

“It’s a very nice scroll case,” Ruan replied seriously. “Given to you on behalf of the Black Ox himself!”

“Alright,” she chuckled, waving him off. “We won’t leave without you.”

Ruan beamed at her, and then at everyone else, and turned to rush back to the Temple.

Luciana turned to Lynch and he approached obediently. “How are things?” she asked quietly.

“They’ve found the traitor,” he murmured. “My intel was good.”

“Of course it was,” Luciana praised. His eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and she smiled. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. Someone with such extensive training, and experience… If you couldn’t find anything, I would have to go myself. I would doubt anyone else could manage what we do.” Lynch stared at her a moment longer, absorbing her praise like a dry sponge in water. She reached up to cup the back of his neck, and squeezed it lightly. “I left you behind,” she said. “I would’ve brought you with me if I’d known it was going to go this way. I know I can trust you at my back.”

“Always,” he murmured.

“But I have you now.”

He nodded slowly. Finally, he blinked. Quickly, so he wouldn’t miss her next words or the way her face and mouth formed around them.

“Shaw has the traitor?”

“They’re preparing a trap to catch her,” Lynch said.

“Wait until we’re safe,” Luciana said. “I’ll hear her name then.”

He nodded once, quickly.

“And the Reclaimers?”

“We have a reliable map of the first half of the gold mines they’ve been reforming in Moonbrook, along with most locations of their weapons and supplies. Shaw sent more spies to map the second half and find out what they’ve done with the cove. One of the other factions have agreed to work with you in exchange for control over Westfall.”

“Good. And my husband?”

“Angry.”

She quirked a brow. “At whom?”

“The traitor. The Reclaimers.”

“Good.” Luciana’s tone turned dark. “I’ll see them all flayed and burned for daring to touch my husband.”

Lynch matched her tone. “All of them.”

All.” Her face was a snarled mess of fury and scars.

Lynch exhaled slowly. “He’s waiting for you,” he said. “Needs you.”

She nodded slowly, looking up to watch Sab and Shaza work on the interior of their circle. It was cut into quarters, likely for the four dimensions of teleportation. Space, intent, order, and time. In this case, intent would be to bridge their memories into a single time and location, and order would make sure that they weren’t lost in the Nether when they all clearly belonged on the physical plane.

“I need him,” Luciana murmured.

She and Lynch stood together, waiting for an all-clear on the chronoport. When Ruan returned, she would bring him home with her. Anduin, she thought, would probably enjoy his boisterous company. And the twins would love such a soft and furry new jungle gym. The thought made her smile softly.