Chapter 21: Diminishing Returns
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse hovers with the cup of tea. “Sister, if you won’t eat any more, would you please drink this?” She looks at the half empty bowl of stew.
**Araatris:** Rhoelyn looks between her sister and the mug, at first with an increasingly-common confusion. She blinks and grins softly. “Yes. Tea.”
**Rhoelyn:** She passes her sister the mug and settles down next to her. “How do you feel, sister?” Rhese and Leo talk a short distance away in hushed tones.
**Araatris:** The healer cups the warm drink, holding it against her stomach, and leans over to rest her head on Nysse’s shoulder. She answers the wrong question.
**Rhoelyn:** “They’re fine, Nysse.” The huntress sighs, tears welling in her eyes. She closes them and wraps an arm around the priestess. “Oh? That’s good.”
**Araatris:** Rhoe grins and gently chides, “My sister, your hugs are nice, but you will spill my tea.” Her eyes are clearer for the moment as she glances up.
**Rhoelyn:** Her sister chuckles and removes the arm carefully. “I should know better than to get between you and your tea. I’ll just stay right here then.”
**Araatris:** The smaller woman smiles and takes a sip of the drink, closing her dim eyes for a few heartbeats. “Yes. You should not have gone,” she murmurs.
**Rhoelyn:** “I shouldn’t have gone where, Rhoelyn?” Nyssera watches her, her face wrinkled with worry. She clasps her hands in her lap sedately.
**Araatris:** “To th-…” She pops her eyes open and straightens, blinking. For a moment, she looks at her sister, then she shakes her head with a little blush.
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse bites her lip. “It steals you away from us sometimes still.” She brushes her hand against Rhoelyn’s. “And it can’t be healed away…“
**Araatris:** Her sister sighs and rests her head back against her shoulder. “It is at times difficult to separate now and here from all the others. I am sorry.”
**Rhoelyn:** “There’s nothing that you can do about it, Rhoe. We… we worry. Or at least I do.” The huntress takes a deep, trembling breath. “And I’m scared.”
**Araatris:** Rhoelyn sets her tea mug on the ground, reaching over to clasp Nysse’s hands in both of hers. “I am as well, but Elune has a purpose in this.”
**Rhoelyn:** The huntress sniffles. “I feel like there should have been something I could have done to protect you. All those preparations and you still-”
**Araatris:** “Lived,” the healer interrupts gently, giving her hands a squeeze. “No one died, Nysse. If only you knew all the paths where that was impossible.”
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse asks tentatively, almost terrified to know the answer, “You… you died in the other paths?” She grips her sister’s hands more tightly.
**Araatris:** Rhoelyn closes her eyes and speaks softly. “If not me, then you. Or Leothir and Rhese and Fayrial. Can you see, now, why I am happy and not sad?”
**Rhoelyn:** The younger woman bites her lip. “Y-yes. I understand, but I can’t help worrying about my dear sister.” She smiles shyly and gathers Rhoe in a hug.
**Araatris:** Leo and Rhese watch from nearby as the smaller woman curls into her sister’s embrace, unconcerned when she spills her tea. The mage rubs his face.
**Rhoelyn:** “You can always tell when those two are struggling. They lean on each other, and I’m not just talking about the hug.” Leo tries a weak smile.
**Araatris:** The druid sighs. “They’re scared. We’re all scared.” He grips his forearm tightly, nervously. “It’s been two days, and she’s getting worse, not better.”
**Rhoelyn:** The sin’dorei sighs as well. “Take her to Bashal’Aran. Someone there has to be able to help her. Rel, Landrie, and I will… disappear for a bit.”
**Araatris:** Rhese considers that, watching as his mate mutters against his sister’s hair. “Will they? Faye said that in the other reality, Cori did this to her.”
**Rhoelyn:** Leothir grimaces and frowns. “Maybe, but do you have any way to contact a time traveling dragon? Because I don’t. I really wish I did.”
**Araatris:** The look his night elven brother gives him is tinged with despair. “So do I… Maybe… maybe you’re right. Bashal’Aran is the best hope we have.”
**Rhoelyn:** “It’s something to try before we head to Gadgetzan and start hunting for a dragon. Maybe they can at least ease it.” The mage pats his shoulder.
**Araatris:** Rhese nods, but his expression doesn’t lighten. “How will you keep yourselves safe? Where will you go?” Leothir scratches at his head, thinking.
**Rhoelyn:** “Well, Tanaris is neutral ground. I guess… I guess we could go dragon hunting?” The mage offers unsurely. “I’m not sure I have any other ideas.”
**Araatris:** After a moment’s consideration, the druid suddenly turns and calls, “Verune!” The elder druid looks up from cleaning up dinner. “A moment?”
**Rhoelyn:** His teacher sets down the pan and walks over to them. “Yes, cub? What do you have on your mind?” Verune settles down cross-legged by them.
**Araatris:** Rhese brushes a hand through his silver hair and shifts from foot to foot. “You told me you spent some time studying the Bronze after… Draenor.”
**Rhoelyn:** The master druid raises one bushy eyebrow. “Yes, I spent a considerable amount of time on it. Is there something specific you wish to know?”
**Araatris:** Rhese shares a look with Leothir. “Everyone knows the Bronze are fond of Tanaris, but it’s a big, miserable desert. Any idea where to look for them?”
**Rhoelyn:** Verune scratches his beard. “Hmm… Well, there was one place they mentioned. It’s called the Caverns of Time. Outside is a dragon graveyard.”
**Araatris:** “Well, doesn’t that sound pleasant.” The mage makes his joke out of habit, but the humor in his eyes dims as he looks back over at his mate.
**Rhoelyn:** The younger druid looks at Leothir. “Do you think that’s enough to go off of?” Leo frowns. “Did they mention where this cave might be, Verune?”
**Araatris:** The elder bear shakes his head, frowning. “Not precisely. The only references I found that hinted at its location were disappointingly vague.”
**Rhoelyn:** “Then I’ll have to make do. We’ll leave after we rest for the day so as to not distress Rhoelyn.” Leo glances at Rhese for confirmation.
**Araatris:** “Yes, agreed.” His bondbrother in turn looks at Verune, and the elder nods. “I will write down for you what I was able to find by way of guidance.”
**Rhoelyn:** “Thank you.” Leo glances over to Rhoelyn. “I think… I think I’m going to check on Rhoe again. If you’ll excuse me.” He sketches a quick bow.
**Araatris:** The druids both watch him go and crouch down beside the sisters. “I can’t lose her, Verune,” Rhese says softly, “and we all feel her slipping away.”
**Rhoelyn:** “I can go with them and scout the skies. Fayrial will accompany you to Bashal’Aran.” Verune sighs as Leothir takes Nysse’s place by Rhoelyn.
**Araatris:** “… tired again?” they hear him asking as she settles in his arms. Rhese rubs his hands over his face as Nysse brings the mug and bowl with her.
**Rhoelyn:** “She’s done with dinner.” Nysse speaks in a hushed, subdued tone. She gently presses the dishes into Verune’s hands. “I’ll check… something.”
**Araatris:** The elder takes it and wanders off, but not before giving Rhese’s shoulder a reassuring pat. Her mate looks at her and holds open his arms.
**Rhoelyn:** Without hesitation, Nysse steps into his arms. She wraps her arms tightly around him and buries her face against his shoulder. “I feel helpless.”
**Araatris:** Her love kisses her temple and holds her equally tightly. “I know. I feel helpless, too. I want to take her to Bashal’Aran. Maybe the healers there…”
**Rhoelyn:** “But what about-” The huntress raises her head and Rhese interrupts her with a light kiss. “They’re going to try and find Cori in Tanaris.”
**Araatris:** The druid frees a hand to brush his fingers in a soothing line along her temple. “Verune and Leo will get help while we keep her from drifting off.”
**Rhoelyn:** She nods and buries her face against his shoulder again. “We will keep her here with us, dalah’surfal. You know I’ll do whatever it takes.”
**Araatris:** Rhese cups the back of his wife’s head, bending down to rest his cheek against her hair. “I know, lovely. She’s equally precious to us both.”
**Rhoelyn:** Sniffling, the huntress mumbles her agreement. She whispers, “I miss our children. How were they doing when you left? Was everything alright?”
**Araatris:** Her mate nods and mutters by her ear. “They miss you, but they’re well. Yami and Sarren love spending time with the babies, and Alen inspires them.”
**Rhoelyn:** She attempts a giggle. “Someone has to inspire Rhy or he’d just eat and sleep.” The druid’s shoulder is cool and damp when Nyssera moves.
**Araatris:** Rhese brushes her hair back. “He’s still trying to catch up to Mirra on his crawling. But she also doesn’t think as deeply as he does about things.”
**Rhoelyn:** “That is true. He’s always watching. When he’s ready to try, he’s able to do it… more easily.” She sniffles then yawns with a tiny sound.
**Araatris:** Her mate kisses her cheek and starts to tug her toward where Rhoelyn yawns against Leo’s shoulder. “Our little moon with his steadfast light.”
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse follows easily, sleepy and compliant. She asks softly, “And Alen? Is he doing alright while we’re away?” Leothir looks up as they approach.
**Araatris:** “He misses his mother fiercely.” When Rhoe blinks up at him, drowsy, the druid kneels down and kisses her cheek with a smile. “He’s impatient.”
**Rhoelyn:** “Alen?” Rhoelyn confirms. Nysse nods. “It seems so.” The huntress lets Rhese guide her to sit next to the priestess. “Rhese, what are you doing?”
**Araatris:** The druid smirks. “Sitting with my family.” His gaze flits briefly to Leothir before it returns to Nysse. “Now that dinner is settled, I’m sleepy.”
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse blinks before ducking her head with a blush. “Ah. Sister, aren’t you tired? It’s been a long night.” She lays her hand on Rhoelyn’s.
**Araatris:** “Has it?” For a moment, the look she gets back is perplexed, but the healer glances away to the lightening night sky and nods. “Yes… I am.”
**Rhoelyn:** The huntress smiles gently. “Then rest. We’ll be right here with you.” Verune quietly deposits bedrolls by them. “A little something to help.”
**Araatris:** Rhese blinks, cheeks darkening when his sister blurts out, “Dear Verune. We never told you how much we adore you before it was too late.”
**Rhoelyn:** Looking a little alarmed, Nysse’s eyes open wide, “Sister, what do you mean before it’s too late? Nothing’s going to happen to Verune, will it?”
**Araatris:** The elder druid blinks and crouches down by all of them, resting his arms on his knees and looking a bit sheepish as Rhoelyn reaches for him.
**Rhoelyn:** He accepts the hug gracefully, managing a gruff answer. “Don’t worry, Nyssera. Nothing is certain in this world. It’s good to speak your mind.”
**Araatris:** Leothir gathers Rhoe gently back in as she sniffles and releases him, looking at the others with a blush. “F-forgive me. That path did not…”
**Rhoelyn:** Verune rests a hand on her head. “Don’t fret. When it is time, I will go to Elune with open arms. I’m glad that particular path wasn’t needed this time.”
**Araatris:** Rhese watches his sister as she forces a smile and wipes at her eyes, muttering, “As we all are.” He sighs and looks at Nysse, claiming her hand.
**Rhoelyn:** The huntress grimaces and leans against Rhese. She attempts her own smile. “Yes, what would we do without our papabear. Right, Rhese?”
**Araatris:** Exchanging uncomfortable looks, the two druids smirk at each other, and Rhese says, “Oh, of course. Who would lecture us?” Verune snorts.
**Rhoelyn:** “It’s not my fault you need a firm hand, cub. I’m grateful your mate can take on some of that responsibility now.” His teacher smirks at him.
**Araatris:** The huntress blushes and squeezes her love’s big hand. “He needs all the keepers he can get.” Rhoe rests against Leo’s shoulder, grinning.
**Rhoelyn:** “Hush, you. You’re supposed to be falling asleep.” Rhese grins and kisses her temple. Verune snorts again. “Yes, you all should be resting.”
**Araatris:** “Then I’d better lay out the bedrolls before we get spankings.” Leo chuckles and hands Rhoelyn off to Nysse before he gets up. She giggles.
**Rhoelyn:** The huntress wraps her arms around her sister. “I think everyone wants us to sleep, and I’m happy to comply.” Leo lays the bedding down.
**Araatris:** Before too long, as Nysse settles a quiet and yawning priestess in, he leans down by Rhese’s ear. “We’ll tell them the plan in the evening, right?”
**Rhoelyn:** His bondbrother nods and murmurs, “I told Nysse, but I doubt she’ll say anything. We’ll tell Rhoe once we’ve rested. You’d better get over there.”
**Araatris:** The mage follows Rhese’s gaze to find himself being watched by expectant eyes. He chuckles. “It seems I had.” Rhoe grins at him as he approaches.
**Rhoelyn:** The young druid follows him and kneels next to Nysse. “Are you ready to sleep?” His mate answers him with a large, toothy yawn. “Yes?”
**Araatris:** Her mate smiles and gives her a kiss once the yawn has passed. As they cuddle down together, he nuzzles her cheek and murmurs in her ear.
**Rhoelyn:** Nysse blushes brightly. “R-rhese!” She whispers a little too loudly. “How many times do I have to ask you not to say things like that when-”
**Araatris:** His devilish chuckle interrupts, and she smacks him on the arm. “You did that on purpose. You’re hopeless.” Rhese tugs her down beside him. “I know.”
**Rhoelyn:** “Why must you go out of your way to embarrass me, beloved?” His mate snuggles into his arms. “You’re lucky that I’m too tired to be annoyed.”
**Araatris:** “I am,” her mate admits, tugging the blanket over them. Rhoelyn already breathes softly beside Leo. “But you’re so adorable when you blush.”
**Rhoelyn:** She snorts softly. “I’ll take your word for it. Rest well.” Nysse closes her eyes, taking comfort in her mate’s presence as she falls asleep.
**Araatris:** That evening, Leothir’s long hair blows in the scouring wind when he turns back to the closing portal for one last glimpse of his tearful mate.
**Rhoelyn:** The mage flinches at the sight. “That… went well. Now to trek across a desert searching for a dragon.” Relare pats his brother’s shoulder.
**Araatris:** The paladin doesn’t say anything as Verune crunches past the pair of them, his boots sinking in the hot sand. “Time is fleeting. We go east.”
**Rhoelyn:** The blood elven brothers nod and move to follow. Galandrie walks past them. “I’ll stick with you all for now. I want to know how this ends.”
**Araatris:** Relare’s brows go up, but rather than question her, he just grins and shares a look with Leo. The mage smirks and bows, sweeping a hand out.
**Rhoelyn:** The trio follows Verune. It’s cold as they travel across the dunes, but it’s preferable to the heat. The mage struggles with the shifting sands.
**Araatris:** Nearer to dawn than sunset, Leo curses as he trips yet again, dragging his boot free. He grouchily plops down and yanks it off to dump sand out.
**Rhoelyn:** “I’m going to get blisters on my blisters at this rate. Why aren’t any of you having problems?” He eyes them as he dumps out his other boot.
**Araatris:** Galandrie pauses and turns back, resting her hand on her hip as Relare shakes his head. “Better boots, I suppose,” he dares, smirking. Leo gasps.
**Rhoelyn:** “My boots are excellent!” Landrie snorts. “The sand disagrees. Come on. We’ve got to keep going. Relare can tend to your tender feet later.”
**Araatris:** The mage’s glare heats her back in the silver-lit sand as she wanders on, leaving him to scramble. “Someone’s gotten quite comfortable, hasn’t she?”
**Rhoelyn:** The young woman refuses to look at him as she queries nonchalantly, “Whatever do you mean, Leothir? I’m just repeating Verune’s urgency.”
**Araatris:** “Mm-hm,” he grumbles, shooting his brother a long-suffering look when he dares to look amused. “Speaking of… He’s been on the wing for a while.”
**Rhoelyn:** Relare glances up. “He’ll likely come down closer to dawn. We should keep moving.” He offers his elder brother a hand to his feet.
**Araatris:** Despite his flippant attitude, the mage nods and takes his sibling’s hand, determination hardening his noble features. “Agreed. Sans sand.”
**Rhoelyn:** They start trudging once again silent except for the occasional curse at the desert. Landrie leads them, pausing every so often to check the sky.
**Araatris:** Around them, as the terrain hardens, appear odd spires that are nothing but shadows in the dark. Relare gapes up at the grasping, organic shapes.
**Rhoelyn:** “Those are massive. They’re like the desert version of mountains… and yet… they seem familiar.” Relare frowns, recalling meeting Cori.
**Araatris:** Landrie watches the pair of them quietly as Leo joins the paladin, turning a slow circle. “Familiar? It’s fuzzy for me. What are you thinking?”
**Rhoelyn:** Relare scratches the stubble on his chin. “I think we need to head more south.” The warrior raises an eyebrow. “You’ve been here before?”
**Araatris:** Leo looks over at his brother. “Once. When we needed to perform a particularly important ritual. You’re right, Rel. I recall these in the distance.”
**Rhoelyn:** “It does mean we’re getting close. Come on. It’s close to dawn.” The paladin moves in front to lead them forward. “Around that one there.”
**Araatris:** Galandrie falls in behind them, boots crunching in the sand… until suddenly one step makes a far louder crack and the ground collapses under her.
**Rhoelyn:** The brothers turn in shock. Relare is the first to react. “Landrie! Can you hear us? Are you alright?” He grabs Leo’s arm. “Don’t move yet.”
**Araatris:** Beneath their boots, the packed, dry dirt rumbles in a passing wave, as if something skitters underground. The mage grimaces and looks up.
**Rhoelyn:** Leothir waves to Verune and then the bird dives down toward the hole. Relare frowns, concerned by the lack of response. “Landrie?”
**Araatris:** His answer is a chittering screech and a thud as something slams against the ground from below. Leo grabs his brother and blinks away when a fissure (c)
**Araatris:** (c) splits the spot they were standing, more sand and rock dumping into the sudden cavern. They watch, horrified, as massive bugs crawl out.
**Rhoelyn:** The younger brother steps in front of Leothir. “Stay back, Leo. It looks like we’ll have to fight while we see if Verune can get Landrie free.”
**Araatris:** As if on cue, a familiar ursine roar echoes from below, and from the depth and breadth of the sound, the warren is massive. “Bugs hate fire, right?”
**Rhoelyn:** “Usually, yes. What do you have in mind?” Relare draws his sword as a bug crawls closer. The mage gives him an incredulous look. “Really, Rel.”
**Araatris:** The paladin slices at the first of the elf-sized nasties. “You’re not thinking to try that firestorm trick that dumped us into a barrow den, are you?”
**Rhoelyn:** Leothir snorts. “Oh? Do you have a better idea, o’brother of mine? There’s a few too many for one-to-one.” He side-steps a splatter of goo.
**Araatris:** The mage winces at another wet splat across Rel’s breastplate. “Well… no,” the paladin says. “But we have to get the others out of there, first.”
**Rhoelyn:** Making a sour face, Leothir nods. “I won’t set them on fire. Let’s burn a path.” Fire grows in the mage’s hands as he focuses on their next target.
**Araatris:** Having grown up fighting side-by-side, the brothers move into a smooth flow where Rel steps aside as Leo’s spells ready then covers him as he casts.
**Rhoelyn:** Down in the hole, Landrie curses in Thalassian the bug’s lineage as she smashes the leg of another insect. “They just keep coming, Verune!”
**Araatris:** The bear roars and charges at the entrance of a side-tunnel, barreling over a few more of the bugs rushing out of it and temporarily blocking it.
**Rhoelyn:** She brings her weapon down on her current opponent’s carapaced head and risks a glance up, then around at the network of tunnels. Landrie grimaces.
**Araatris:** Verune shifts and steps back, lifting his hands. After a brief flare of green magic, he frowns. “There is little to work with in this desert.”
**Rhoelyn:** “I was afraid you’d say that. No chance that you can just… fly us out of here, is there?” Landrie jumps at another large bug creeping closer.
**Araatris:** The elder druid shakes his head. “It is too tight. I cannot get enough lift f-” He dodges as a chittering silithid swipes a chitinous talon at him.
**Rhoelyn:** “Rot!” She dives over as he recoils with a bloody shoulder. “I’ll cover you while you heal. Come here you ugly-” The blood elf swings at their foes.
**Araatris:** Her sword rings against the bug’s hard shell, sliding along it until it catches in a seam and slices into gooey flesh. It screeches and yanks back.
**Rhoelyn:** She can see a flash of green magic from the corner of her eye. Then Verune shifts into a bear and charges the other bug, sending it flying.
**Araatris:** The blood elf is turning when a burning pain blossoms in her calf. She looks down to watch a smaller pupa-looking creature yank its stinger back.
**Rhoelyn:** Landrie blinks and stumbles a step back, but manages to slash the smaller worm. Then she sits down suddenly, her leg betraying her. “Verune?”
**Araatris:** It takes a moment for the bear to extricate himself from yet another enemy, and she can see the surprise on his ursine features as he glances back.
**Rhoelyn:** The warrior looks at her leg grimly, “I… You may want to head back to the other two. I’m not sure I’m going to make it very far. I don’t feel-”
**Araatris:** Growling, the druid shifts back to his native form as his companion wavers where she sits, going pale. He manages to catch her as she flops over.
**Rhoelyn:** “Why do I attract the stubborn cubs?” Verune grumbles at the limp form. “It seems it’s time to go on defense. Those two had better be quick.”
**Araatris:** The elder has a second to reach his magic into her blood and cleanse the toxin, but nothing more before the encroaching bugs force him into action.
**Rhoelyn:** “It sounds like we’re getting close. Once we’re there, do you think you can create a portal out?” The paladin asks as he yanks his blade free.
**Araatris:** His brother gives him a flat-eyed stare as yet another spell coalesces around his hands. Rel chuckles and steps aside. “Yes. That’s a yes.”
**Rhoelyn:** Leo comments dryly, “”Correct, brother, that’s a yes.” They turn the corner of the tunnel, wincing at the bright light from the opening above.
**Araatris:** “There!” Rel says, as a pained roar sounds from ahead. “Leo, hurry!” The mage’s fire turns to arcane discs as he rushes forward beside his brother.
**Rhoelyn:** The druid hovers over the blood elf, surrounded by bugs. Ignoring the bloody gashes in his fur, he roars and swipes at one reaching for Landrie.
**Araatris:** Two razor portals zip into the attackers closest to the prone elf, disappearing at first and then popping open and closed through their thoraxes.
**Rhoelyn:** The bugs collapse, trashing and screeching. The two sin’dorei dash toward them, jumping over the bodies. Relare gathers Galandrie in his arms.
**Araatris:** Leo tosses out a couple more razor portals to buy time, then steps back, muttering as the more mundane one gathers in his hands. It opens, crackling.
**Rhoelyn:** “Go!” The mage orders. Relare hurries through, followed by Verune. Leothir smirks as he gathers fire in his hands, tossing it up. “Let it burn.”
**Araatris:** The spell grows and feeds on itself until a storming inferno explodes above their heads, outward first and then down in an incinerating shroud.
**Rhoelyn:** Leothir leaps through the portal, closing it behind him. Relare looks at the flames rising up from the hole. “We should go and find shelter.”
**Araatris:** Verune straightens, wincing as a slice across his shoulder pulls. He shields his eyes against the morning sun as he searches the horizon.
**Rhoelyn:** The paladin lifts the unconscious woman in his arms. “Preferably close. We need to heal up.” His hands and eyes glow gold, checking on Landrie.
**Araatris:** “There,” their nightelven companion rumbles, pointing to a pillar not far away. “Ruins. We can shelter there from the day’s heat.” Landrie groans.
**Rhoelyn:** Relare nods. “Let’s go.” The paladin murmurs to Landrie, “It’s alright. You can rest for now.” Verune sets off at a limp, the others following.