Chapter 16: Found and Lost
Smoke clung to the forest like a morbid fog, preventing Rhese from getting a good scent trail. It’d taken longer than they liked to get across the water to Darkshore, and now they were reliant on Nysse’s tracking skills. The huntress was good, but the ground was trampled from troops and covered in ash. She knelt, brushing leaves from another spot to look at the print more clearly.
Nysse was used to talking to the silent druid when he was in his animal forms. It was his current impatient, tense pacing that put her more on edge. She stood, Tsume hugging her side, and began running again. She knew that Rhese hated being restrained by her speed, but she couldn’t move much faster without possibly losing the trail.
Still, he didn’t complain nor did he ever change from his feline form to rush her. He did sniff the tracks that she found as if to confirm for himself that his sister would be at the end of all of this. The night elven woman circled around another enemy camp, following the trail. Whoever was with Rhoelyn was avoiding the Horde camps. She (and this worried her) hadn’t see any friendly camps.
The other thing that she didn’t dare suggest was pausing for sleep or food. It was not only dangerous, but she had a feeling that Rhese would balk unless they were tripping over their own feet. She did make him pause and drink water occasionally. There were some things too critical to ignore.
“The tracks are getting fresher.”
The silver cat nodded, his tail twitching. He’d begun to pace, again, while she tracked, and now his prints were added to the story the forest floor told her. The heavy tracks of a tired saber, little drag-marks left where his claws had started scraping the mud because he didn’t lift his paws as high when he moved.
Nysse knew her tracks were starting to show the same; they couldn’t keep up the pace much longer after a long day of fighting and all that time in the smoky tree. Her stomach growled its loud agreement with the thought, and she winced as she turned and jogged away. Ignoring it would catch up with her eventually, if she wasn’t careful, but they couldn’t pause, yet.
The huntress sighed, rushing along through the trees, half of her attention on the ground and half on the brush they passed through. There was less ash in the boot prints she caught, now, and fresher sap on the broken branches. They were getting closer.
Behind her just a few paces, Rhese and Tsume both paused at the same moment, heads going up and both feline and canine ears swiveling.
Ever alert to her companions, Nysse froze a second later. She could hear a female voice not far away.
“Go ahead. It’s in the right direction. I’ll be right behind you.” Both cat and wolf burst past her, and the huntress turned to run after them.
She was grateful that Rhese couldn’t see her sloppy run through trees and brush, both abusing arms and thighs. It was the sudden roar that added strength to her legs, pushing her faster. She slipped her bow from her back as she notched an arrow.
A figure tumbled past her side just as she burst from the shrubbery. Rhese skidded to a stop to avoid hitting her, snarling as she blocked his path. Behind him, Nysse saw a familiar silver-haired woman shouting as a child wailed. The huntress grimaced at the noisy chaos and attempted to call out over the din, only to find herself betrayed by her lungs.
“Rhese!” Rhoelyn’s shout was barely better, her hoarse voice cracking as she struggled to be heard above Alen’s tears. “You mustn’t hurt him, brother!”
The saber ignored her, just snarling and trying to sidle around Nysse.
From behind her came a familiar rasping voice, growling, “Hurt me? Cat’s going t’get himself skinned, at this rate.”
The huntress spun, gawking as Quaed shoved himself back to his rotting feet, daggers gripped in his fists. She quickly stepped back to Rhese’s shoulder, pulling her bow up and nocking an arrow in one smooth motion. Tsume crowded her side, snarling.
“Quaed!” She managed to gasp out the Forsaken’s name and little else, coughs taking over her efforts to breathe. But her bow never wavered.
“I didn’t think you’d be far behind him, woman. Still terrified of my touch?” Quaed rasped, looking unconcerned about her aim.
The huntress managed a soft bark, “Rhese, hold! I… owe him.” She took a shuddering breath wondering if it’d ever feel easy to breathe again.
When the cat’s head swung to her with what felt like an incredulous expression, she sighed. “Pandaria, Rhese. We should at least hear him out. Go check on Rhoe.”
The druid stubbornly refused at first, hissing, but when his sister tearfully rasped out another, “Rhese. Please,” he relented, turning away as his form reverted. He rushed over and swept Rhoelyn and the child squalling in her arms into his embrace, tucking them both against him while she buried her face against his sooty chest, her shoulders shaking. Her voice was too weak for anything more than silent, wet sobs.
Nysse breathed a little sigh of relief, turning her attention back to the rogue in front of her. She wasn’t ready to lower her bow, yet, and he scowled at her for it.
“I don’t know how long it will take,” she managed, short of breath, “for Rhese to remember just how angry he is. You’d better explain quickly.”
“I owed someone a favor. I’m balancing it, but now she’s your trouble. Someone might want to shut the kid up before a patrol decides to check out the noise.” Quaed snapped.
Nysse narrowed her eyes as he moved. “Stay put. Who were you doing the favor for?”
The forsaken sighed, but stilled in that creepy way of his, “None of your business, girl. I need to get back.”
Behind her, Nysse could her the sobbing chatter as Rhoelyn attempted to explain everything and grimaced. Rhese was in no mood to be mediated, but at least he was still busy. She could feel her time running out. “It is my-”
Nysse’s eyes went wide at the familiar voice, and she gasped as a pair of figures burst through the brush behind Quaed. The rogue cursed and held out a restraining hand that forced Relare and Leothir to pause, equally wide-eyed and drinking in the scene before them, including the huntress’ arrow trained on them all.
“Nysse? Wha-?” Leo’s gaze flicked past the young mother to the silver-haired twins behind her as Rhese shoved Rhoelyn behind him, all but hiding his smaller sibling from sight. The unmistakable sound of a baby crying and the priestess’ soft murmurs filled the resulting moment of silence until the mage gasped, “Light! Rhoe!”
The huntress quickly snapped as a growl rumbled behind her. “Stay put!” She didn’t dare look at Rhese as she called over her shoulder, “Rhese, take them and get them someplace safe.”
Leo stared, wide-eyed at the glimpse of the child in Rhoelyn’s arms. The priestess seemed to be trying very hard not to look at them. “Nysse, we’re so glad that you’re fine! After Nataro locked us up, I didn’t think-”
“They’ll be safe as soon as we take care of these three.” The druid interrupted him, snarling out the words as he stalked forward, his glowing, amber eyes under the soot-darkened bear-head helm narrowed with rage. He didn’t even bother to grab the silver and blue-lit daggers off his belt. Who needed weapons when he had claws? Tsume crowded against Nysse’s leg, taking his cue and snarling at the pair of sin’dorei and their Forsaken companion.
The mage frowned at Rhese, his brow furrowing. “What are you talki-”
He was interrupted when he made to step forward by Relare grabbing his arm. His brother’s hand hovered near the hammer on his belt as he shook his head, watching the night elf warily. Quaed gripped his daggers, his stance wide and his body preternaturally still. And ready.
Leothir looked from Relare to Quaed to Rhese to Nysse and finally to Rhoelyn behind them all, her eyes downcast as the little toddler with the vibrant purple curls sniffled against her shoulder.
He snapped, “Have you all gone mad? We’re f-”
“YOU be quiet.” The night elf wouldn’t let him say the word, his expression thunderous. “If you’re lucky and you shut your big mouth, Leothir, you just might walk away from this place. Unlike Nataro and your other friends.”
Quaed blinked, taking a half-step back. “‘Taro? What about ‘im?”
Nysse answered, far more calm than Rhese, but matter-of-fact. “Nataro is dead, Quaed. He tried to kill us.”
Relare frowned, but nodded. “Then you did what you had to. Nataro had us locked up.” He stopped as Rhese snarled again.
The huntress regarded them evenly. “Rhese, stop. I want to speak with them. Please. Just guard with Tsume.”
The druid rumbled darkly, “We don’t need to speak with them, Nysse. Haven’t their actions said enough? Teldrassil is burning along with so many of our people, and you want to talk?!”
Nysse nodded. “Yes, I want to talk. I told you, they saved my life once. We fought beside two of them not long ago. What if they’re telling the truth?”
“And what if they are, Nysse? What difference does it make? We’re at war.” Rhese clenched his fists. “Lovely, you should go take Rhoe and the boy. Tsume and I can handle this.”
Quaed growled in answer, stepping forward, “No. You can’t.”
The paladin beside him held up a restraining arm, catching him across the chest with a sigh. “You’re not helping, Quaed. No one wants a fight.”
Rhese and the Forsaken snorted at the same time, glaring at each other, but it was Leothir who spoke, holding out a hand toward Nysse. “We’re not your enemies. I just need to speak with my… with Rhoelyn.”
The druid beside her snarled, talking before Nysse or the healer behind her had a chance to. “You stay away from my sister. Every last one of you.”
“Rhese, you’re my family as much as Rel. The second we found out what was happening, we were grabbed. Nataro knew we wouldn’t agree. I was terrified you’d be dead.” Leothir sunk to his knees. “Please. Let me speak with her. Please…”
Nysse’s arrow began to lower toward the ground. “Leo…” She took a step forward, but Rhese grabbed her arm, halting her.
Rhese snorted. “Don’t.” He ignored Leo’s request and jerked his head back towards Rhoe. “Get back, Nysse.”
“Rhese…” his mate said his name as an admonishment at first, but when she looked at his expression and the way he held himself, she bit back what she was going to say. There was a wounded grief behind the anger in his eyes that she could feel, and he had no intention of relenting.
Not until a slender hand came to rest on his shoulder and a soft, hoarse voice said, “It’s enough, brother. Thank you for protecting me,” – Quaed grumbled something under his breath – “but Leothir is right. He and I must speak before we go.”
The mage scrambled to his feet, hope lighting his face even as Rhese turned, pressing his hands over his twin’s shoulders. “Rhoe, he can’t-”
“I know, Rhese,” she murmured, as subdued as he was animated, cradling Alen in one arm, the boy curled against her chest with his thumb in his mouth. The priestess sighed and shrugged out of his grip, her dim eyes landing on the golden mage behind him. “I know. But still, I would speak with him.”
Nysse shrugged her bow over her shoulder and placed the arrow back in the quiver. “I’ll take the little one if you want.” She gave the others a sharp look and commented softly before turning, “Tsume. Guard Rhoelyn.”
Rhoelyn frowned and looked down at the boy. “He is only now settled, Nysse. He might fuss again if I release him. Maybe I shouldn’t.”
Sighing, the huntress put a hand on her hip. “Rhoelyn, if I can handle the twins, I’m fairly certain I can soothe him if he gets upset. I’m sure he’ll be fine with me.” She leaned down and smiled, even if it was a little tight, and talked to him in a soft tone. “You don’t mind staying with me for a moment, do you, little man?”
The healer relented with a little nod, resting a soft kiss against the boy’s forehead. “As you say, my sister.”
She spoke in Darnassian, well aware of Leothir’s sharp attention on her back as she turned fully toward Nysse, handing her the precious bundle in her arms. Alen whined and reached for her as they parted, only relenting when she merely shook her head and smoothed back a curl, stepping back. The toddler settled into the huntress’ embrace and stared up at her, owlish, and Nysse smiled, bouncing him lightly. Half of her attention stayed trained on the pair of sin’dorei and their Forsaken friend even while she soothed the child.
“He’s… you found Alen?” Leo asked the question quietly, daring to step closer to them and try to peer around the petite priestess’ form to the child. He ignored Rhese’s warning growl, only flicking an irritated look at the druid he considered a brother.
Nysse looked at her sister, watching as she drew a shaky breath and closed her eyes to take a moment to steady herself. Tsume crowded up against her leg, a warm and soft presence who knew as surely as any of them that the priestess hurt, perhaps hung by a thread. Rhoelyn rested a loving hand on the wolf’s ash-dusted head, not looking down, but thanking her nonetheless.
When she finally turned to face Leo, his love’s voice was matter-of-fact, her expression resigned and cool. “I pulled him from the fire, Leothir. From the home in Darnassus where his parents were already dead. He has lost them again.”
The mage’s grief at that was easy enough to read, and he swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment. The huntress thought he was stricken by more than just the child’s lost family, and when he recovered enough to speak, he confirmed her suspicions.
“He’s so young… I’m both glad and horrified that you were there to find him. The Tree… it’s… I wish we could have come sooner, my princess.” His emerald gaze slid over to Relare, a furrow in his brow. His brother just watched their exchange, quiet and still and troubled, his attention on Rhoelyn and his lips pressed into a worried line.
When she said nothing at all, Leo held out a hand to her, an invitation. “I’ve been worried sick the whole way here, Rhoelyn. We both have been.”
His brow furrowed more deeply by the moment as she stared at that offered hand, dull and quiet and unmoving. She simply rested her gaze on his lightly calloused fingers, his warm palm, her thoughts hidden, as he examined her in turn, perplexed.
After the past few days, Leo couldn’t summon any surprise that she barely looked like the priestess he knew. Her beautiful hair, usually so carefully styled, was tightly braided in one long plait and left draping over her shoulder and down to her waist. Her usual gown was gone, replaced by fitted trousers of a charcoal grey with icy blue and gold accents and a tunic of the same blue and a lighter grey. Odd, padded shoulders in the garment hung with undyed strips of rune-marked fabric that dripped down her back, and her boots were tall, a style she usually disliked that was fitted along her calves to near her knees. The dyed grey leather was decorated with more icey accents.
She looked more like a warrior, even without a weapon in her hand, than his soft, loving healer, his mate. His Rhoelyn. The mage shuddered, suddenly, feeling for just one moment as if he stared at a stranger, and her hoarse voice when she spoke didn’t help dispel the illusion in the slightest.
“Leothir…” The priestess kept her hands clasped in front of her stomach, almost as if she was terrified to ungrip them. She wanted to grasp his hand, but it wasn’t possible. “The world we wanted is nothing but a dream, and, as with all dreams, we must wake up to a harsh reality.”
The blood elf’s eyes widened, and he shook his head, denying her. “No, princess. It’s not. We can still live that-”
Rhoelyn looked away. “Leothir,” she lingered on his name once more. “You are a part of the people who destroyed our home and murdered our people. Each time you leave, you return to them as I am sure you will do again. There… there can be no life for us. Only for me. Only for you.”
“I don’t believe that.” Shaking his head, Leo surged forward and caught her hands, pulling them away from her stomach and wrapping them with his own. It let him feel how her fingers trembled, got him close enough to see how fast her pulse throbbed through the vein in her neck. And then she yanked away and stepped back, her troubled, wide eyes fixed on him.
He knew what she was doing, why she tried to keep her distance: she was trying to say goodbye. A farewell, a giving up, that he couldn’t accept. Her unacknowledged mate didn’t want her to pull away, especially not with all that pain deadening her eyes, those exhausted dark circles beneath them. But when he tried to follow her retreat, there was Rhese, his teeth bared and his grip on Leo’s arm bruising.
“Don’t,” was all the druid managed through a clenched jaw, shoving the smaller blood elf back hard enough to send him stumbling.
Relare caught him easily with a small step forward. “I understand that you’re angry at the Horde, but I can assure you that we haven’t had a hand in this. I’ve known too much war in my life, and I have no wish to see it happen again.”
It was the huntress that tentatively spoke. “I know, Relare, but this is a different time. If we speak right now, we could be seen as traitors by our people. I’m… I’m not sure what would happen, but I can’t risk the children. If there’s a way-”
The druid scowled. “Nysse, you can’t seriously be considering finding a way around this.”
“Rhese! They’ve been a part of our family-”
The druid shook his head. His eyes never left the trio. “No, they were a part of our family, and I won’t let them hurt us.”
Rhese addressed the blood elves and their undead friend directly, his sister silent behind him, his mate an exasperated and troubled presence beside him. His rage was white-hot and focused as he pointed an accusatory finger at them. “Today makes things very, very simple, Hordies. The past is as dead as Teldrassil, so I’ll tell you what the future is.”
He stepped forward, his rumbling voice evocative of the cat’s enraged growl. “You are our enemies. Horde. Fel, I don’t even know what you have to do with any of this, rotter, or why you went to get my sister out of Darnassus.”
The night elf speared the rogue with his glare, pointing straight at him. When both Quaed and Leo opened their mouths to respond to that, Rhese surged onward, cutting off what they might have explained with straightforward words.
“And right now, I don’t care. You and all your kind just stay away from my family. If I see any of you again, I’ll kill you.”
The announcement fell into a silence that was deep and mournful and wounded, one where only Leothir was stunned. Nysse watched her mate sadly as he delivered his ultimatum, the one she’d feared they’d hear and hoped they wouldn’t. Relare and Quaed took it with a level regard, resigned and unsurprised, perhaps even with a grudging understanding. But the golden mage eventually stepped forward, gasping, “Rhese…”
Rhoelyn was the one who interrupted him.
“Ilais.” The word she chose, the perversion of her own term of endearment, stopped him cold, the blood draining from his face. “Enemy” and “adversary”. Without the word “beloved” tacked on to soften it, he found it stabbed his heart and chilled him to the core. His wounded gaze swung to his love as she stepped up to her brother’s side, taking the druid’s hand in her own.
“There is nothing more to say,” Rhoelyn announced softly, her damaged voice as dull as her eyes. That dusky face that Leo adored turned up to Rhese and then swung to Nysse. “We must get ourselves and Alen somewhere safe. Please.”
Nysse nodded. She stepped over and passed Alen back. “I’ll cover us and our trail. Get going. I’ll be right behind you both.”
The huntress swung her bow off her back, readying it. When they hesitated, she leveled a frown at them. “Now. We’ve been here too long.”
Rhese gripped her shoulder. “Right behind us and not a moment longer, Nysse.” He shot the Horde a dark look, promising pain if anything happened to his mate.
The night elven woman nodded again. “I’ll be there.” She watched Rhese usher Rhoelyn off into the safety of the darkened trees before turning toward the trio. “I won’t attack unless you come after us. Get back to your own safety. I’d rather not see any of you fallen.”
Relare sighed. “Yes, that’s for the best. We won’t follow. Don’t worry.”
Nysse reached down to ruffle Tsume’s fur and showed them a stone she pulled out of her pouch, then dropped it in the grass. In a hurried, hushed voice, she offered, “It’ll only reach me. We… we got new stones.”
She clicked for Tsume and bolted after the twins without waiting for an answer.
Behind her, Leo burst into motion, dodging away from the restraining hand his brother tried to catch him with. “Wait! Nysse, please!”
When she ignored him, darting through the trees with her wolf at her heels, faster by far than he could ever be, the mage cursed and disappeared with an arcane flash, blinking right into her path. Nysse skidded to a stop, her gaze narrowing on the tall, lithe sin’dorei as she whipped her bow up, again.
“Rot! Are you trying to end up dead?!” Nysse snapped. “I don’t have long to catch up.”
Leothir flung his hands up. “N-no! I want to make sure you get out safely. I grabbed this from a quartermaster on our way here. I thought… we’d all use it. It must be one of the tauren druids’, but… it goes to the Moonglade.”
“Please… please stay safe.” He held out a scroll.
Nysse glanced over her shoulder at Relare and Quaed and back at Leothir. She lowered the bow and grabbed the parchment. “Fine! Just… just stay put this time.”
The mage sighed and let his shoulders droop, half from relief and half from distress. He brushed a hand through his hair and stepped out of her path, watching as she tucked the scroll into her pouch. His gaze flicked to his brother over her shoulder, the paladin picking the stone up from the ground where she dropped it.
“I won’t. I won’t follow you, Nysse.”
The huntress nodded and started to shove past him, but he dared to reach out and grab her arm. Tsume snarled at him as he added, “But I’m not giving up, either. We are family. Rhoelyn is my… I love her dearly. I care for all of you. I won’t lose my family to this war that I don’t want.”
Relare frowned, but he nodded behind her. Quaed just sighed and pressed his rotting palm over his face, shaking his head.
“Between us… I don’t think you should, but… they’re hurting, Leo. Give them some time. Things are fresh, even for me.” She glanced back at Quaed with a strange expression before shaking her head. “I’ve got to go.”
Leothir released her arm and watched as she bolted into the forest, the wolf on her heels.
She hadn’t gone far before a familiar cat fell in line beside her. Nyssera could tell he’d circled back around to check on her. She’d taken just a little bit too long, but she made it to Rhoelyn and Alen just the same.
The priestess sighed in relief. “Sister, I am glad you are safe. We still have a long way to safety.”
The huntress shook her head. “Not so far.” She pulled out the scroll. “We can get to Moonglade. As far as I know, that’s still safe for now.” Beside her, Rhese shifted into his natural form and looked over her shoulder with a small frown.
“… Nysse,” he rumbled, a displeased warning. But her mate said nothing else, just holding out his hand for the parchment with suspicious eyes.
“I know what you think, Rhese,” the huntress said softly, handing it over and resting her fingers on his arm as he unrolled the page and digested the magic there, his amber eyes taking on a silver-blue Arcane tinge. “But we’re all exhausted and in… a hostile place. Let’s just do whatever it takes to get safe.”
Rhoelyn cradled the toddler in her arms, watching in silent curiosity until her brother took a deep breath and re-rolled the scroll. He looked up at both of them, nodding and biting out, “Fine.”
The druid’s stern gaze landed on his mate, where it took a moment to soften, and he sighed. Whatever he thought, whatever he felt behind that gaze, he kept it to himself, instead just drawing Nysse and Rhoelyn behind him with a gentle, if possessive, grip.
When they reached a small thicket, Rhese clenched the scroll in his fist, holding it out in front of him while he fed mana into the portal spell scribed there. After only a moment, it ripped a hole through reality and back, opening the way to safety and showing them the tranquil, ancient trees and soothing blue skies of the Moonglade forest through its aperture.
He didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until all of the others were safely through, Rhoelyn cuddling the boy she carried and Nysse resting a hand on Tsume’s soot-streaked head as the both of them looked back at him expectantly. For just one moment, he paused and lifted his eyes to the canopy above him to remind himself one last time of the bloody glow of fire lighting the smoke-sickened sky.
The druid clenched a fist and made a little vow, watching the light surge and dim with the flames of the world tree. “They will pay for this, brothers and sisters. They will all pay.”
His words filled the space between the trees long after the portal closed behind him, falling as heavy and dour as the ash to the gloomy forest floor.