Chapter 12: Desperate Chase
A scream. Rhese raised his head, the stag’s long ears swiveling. He knew that voice, that startled sound, and he paused in his run, clopping to a halt on one of the sparse patches of cobbled stones along a larger street.
Nysse looked around, clinging to Rhese’s back. Finally, her eyes sighted a bit of silver in all the dust. “Rhese! Look over there! Silver hair!” She pointed towards a misshapen shadow, but it seemed to have a glimmer of hair similar to Rhoelyn’s.
She urged him to move. “Let’s go!” The huntress tightened her grip on him as he lunged forward towards where she had indicated.
The druid managed three wide strides before the creaking groan of a burning structure giving way echoed around and above them. In the swirl of fire and sparks and the gloom of billowing smoke, it wasn’t immediately clear what was falling until a great, awful shadow loomed over them.
“Rhese!” He was darting sideways before Nysse even screamed his name, hooves digging in and muscles bunching to shove their combined weight in an entirely new direction as the first pieces of a flaming tree that used to be a home started to crash down around them.
The sharp motion sent Nysse tumbling from his back, but she scrambled to her hands and feet.
“Keep going! I’m fine!”
The branch that landed next to her implied that she would be otherwise if she didn’t keep moving. The huntress shoved Tsume ahead of her while holding on to her tail. The next branch smacked her shoulder painfully, sending her sprawling.
Before she could react, an arm was grabbing hers and pulling her up.
Rhese growled, “This way.” He shifted into a cat as soon as soon as she was steady.
As more branches and timber fell, the path became a maze. Her instincts said they were heading away from Rhoelyn, but they didn’t have a choice. Their path was blocked by more burning timber behind them.
She had to press down on her stomach to get under the last branch when it creaked down after Rhese and Tsume. Nysse grimaced and squeezed herself under the burning lumber, trying to ignore the scrapes along her back. Once through, Rhese helped her up and away from the fallen building.
“Nysse, it was her! I smelled Rh-”
The druid had grabbed her hand and was just starting to tug her along behind him when something deep in the conflagration beside them popped loudly, and the entire tree dropped the last half-dozen feet lower. Rhese gasped under his damp mask, wrapping his arms around his mate and pulling her down into a crouch with him. Vines burst up in an arcing knot between them and the tree as a rushing wall of smoke, fire, embers and debris puffed out from beneath the final, groaning settle of its bulk and washed over them like a firestorm wave.
Nysse closed her eyes and pressed her head against her love’s shoulder, her arm wrapping around Tsume while the wolf crowded in close to them, her soot-covered tail tucking between her legs. The heat was intense, but the sudden, chokingly-thick smoke that wafted around them was the worst, the part that made their heads swim and set them all coughing and hacking and gasping for air.
Rhese mitigated what he could with the verdant glow of his healing magic as they waited out the chaos, healing burns and scrapes and bruises in the attempt to stave off the damage and the particles trying to find a seat in their lungs. But the effort and the lack of air left him reeling when it all started to clear, and he slipped sideways, dizzy, his shoulder bracing against the vine shelter.
Nysse tugged him towards her and put his hand on Tsume’s back. “Out, Tsume.” Her voice was hoarse and weak, but it was enough. The wolf took a tentative step, making sure that they stayed with her as she moved.
They weaved through the pressing debris and more than once had to shove something out of the way to continue. When they finally exited, Nysse slumped against the ground, the once damp cloth around her face was now dry and useless. “R-rhese… we… we need… fresh air…”
The desperate druid could no longer tell which direction was close to or farther away from where they’d seen their sister, and though it ripped at him, he knew that they could never help Rhoelyn if they succumbed themselves. First air. Then his first family member.
He nodded, coughing instead of speaking, and stepped away before his form folded back into the stag. His first mincing step was a bit of a stagger, but he swiveled his head back to Nysse, and she climbed back up on his back. He bayed to Tsume before he leapt forward, the huntress hunkering low over his back. The only oxygen to be had was whatever could be found in the spaces between the biggest pieces of the fire, so he rushed away from the fallen treehouse.
As they galloped, a shadow darted through the gloom a good distance ahead of them. He ignored it at first, but when it had passed, he caught one momentary whiff of a familiar scent. The stag’s face wasn’t capable of conveying Rhese’s feelings as he suddenly veered to Nysse’s surprise and tried to follow that fleeting, fading form through the smoke.
“Rhese!” It came out as a shocked whisper as she held on. A coughing fit stopped any other protests she might have had as he careened around a corner and saw the pink of the portal to the base of the tree.
Her eyes widened, and she was left wondering if that was the smartest idea as she noted the half collapsed wood around it. But the druid was locked onto the glimpse of silver that disappeared into it.
“Rhese! It’s too dang-”
He shook his head, unwilling to be dissuaded, and bolted forward. Together with Tsume, they raced into the portal.
The first thing she was aware of was the sudden breath of fresher air that she took. The second was the half-fallen post that appeared just in front of them as they twisted their location at full speed, the druid beneath her surging forward into what he expected to be an open road. He didn’t even dodge, just noticing in time to put his head down and slam into it with his hard forehead instead of his soft muzzle.
Their forward momentum stopped near instantly with two distinct, disturbing cracks ringing out, and the stag’s body skidded sideways, sending Nysse tumbling across Rhese’s shoulder to hit the ground and roll across the ash-dusted grass. Tsume rushed to her side, whining and nudging at her, while she reeled and the Rut’theran portal to Darnassus collapsed in a deafening cacophony.
Nysse groggily grabbed at Tsume when she howled. “Head. My head hurts.” The wolf grabbed her hand gently in her teeth and tugged her. The huntress mumbled, “Where’s Rhese?”
That’s when the realization finally clicked in, and she lunged up, sitting despite her dizziness.
Tsume released her hand and ran back to the collapsed gate, whining and yipping. The huntress stumbled to her feet and looked about for a moment before seeing a familiar limb, and she began yanking at the lumber on top on him.
Pieces of the once-proud portal fell away one at a time, and Nysse rasped his name to the too-still familiar form as she freed him. Slowly, it felt like, every stick and beam a lifetime to move. “Rhese! Rhese!”
He stirred with a little groan, his fingers clenching in the grass as she strained to shift a log about the width of her hips and half as tall as she was from across his back. The druid lifted his unsteady head, his glazed amber eyes blinking open.
“Don’t move, beloved,” she ordered, fighting back frustrated and worried tears. “I’ll get you out!”
“Rhoe,” he gasped out, ignoring her to try to push himself up on his arms. “N-Nysse, she’s…” He had to pause to cough and try to drag in more breath despite the weight making that difficult. “… s-she came through… the portal. Another scent…”
Her mate squirmed as she lifted the heaviest log up by inches until he managed to drag himself forward a bit at a time. “S-send Tsum-ah!”
His surprised bark of pain interrupted the order, and Rhese’s arms went instantly weak beneath him, sending him flopping back to his belly.
“Tsume! Pull!” The huntress knew she had no chance of holding the beam and pulling him out, but maybe…
The wolf found a section of leather armor and bit down, then slowly started dragging the larger night elf out. Time distorted as she waited, seconds feeling more like hours. Nysse’s arms trembled with the effort to continue to hold, but she refused to let go until he was clear.
When Tsume finally yipped, she dropped the beam and collapsed to her knees with it. Glancing behind her, she caught sight of a small boat in the distance. She crawled over to Rhese and rolled him onto his back.
“Sorry…,” she coughed, “beloved. We’ll have to track her on the shore.”
The druid growled in frustration and tried to shove himself to sitting, only to groan and settle back again, wrapping a hand around his ribs. He ripped the dry mask off of his face and tossed it away angrily. “No! N-no. We were so close!”
He fisted his free hand and pressed it over his eyes even as the other hand began a sputtering green glow against his side.
Rhese’s throat was thick as his muffled voice said, “I’ll fly us. We’ll catch them. Just… J-just give me a minute. Nysse, she’s with someone. A scent I-” he coughed, and the motion made him grimace. “I don’t recognize. It’s foul.”
Nysse nodded and tried to stand, only to stumble back to her knees as another coughing fit hit her. She gave him a pained expression. “Foul? Everything is… foul right now. At least… she’s not in the middle of the fire now. I can track better on Darkshore.”
The huntress clenched her jaw and clicked for Tsume, using the wolf to steady herself as she stood. “I’ll see if we can find something else to get across the water. I’m not sure you’re going to be able to fly in this smoke.” She ignored the tremble in her step as Tsume pressed against her legs.
Rhese nodded, his throat moving as he swallowed past the knot of emotions stuck there. He lowered his fist and watched Nysse stumble toward the burning docks with Tsume at her side. Her forehead bled from a cut there, and she was obviously dizzy.
“N-” his attempt to call out got interrupted by yet another cough, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Nysse!”
When she turned back, brow furrowed, he beckoned her over as he levered himself up on his elbows. “Let me heal your head,” he commanded, curt.
Nysse opened her mouth to protest, but, watching his expression, chose not to. She made her way slowly to him and lowered as gently as she could to her knees. The huntress leaned forward to allow him to reach more easily.
Her voice was soft as his fingers brushed her forehead. “You’re hurt much worse. I wish that you’d heal yourself more first, Rhese.” She looked him over with barely hidden worry, but she didn’t do any more to protest as her head cleared.
“I will, my lovely,” he answered, hoarse voice soft as he brushed her sooty hair out of her face. “But while I do, I need you to find us a way to go after them. And you can do that better if you’re not reeling.”
The druid finally dropped his hand and sighed, exhaustion lining his eyes. His attempt to give his mate a reassuring smile fell far short of convincing. “I’ll be fine, soon.”
“You’d better. You need to set a good example for the children.” She kissed his forehead and managed a weak smile that was no more convincing than his.
When she pushed to her feet this time, she didn’t need Tsume. Instead she ordered the wolf to guard Rhese as she set off toward the docks with a hurried stride.