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Baern

Highmountain: Travels and Travails

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[[Thread for anyone that wants to share RP for characters questing in Highmountain. Spoilers, for those that haven't done the zone.]]

Baern Grimtotem stormed out of the tent, barely slowed when the fabric flap covering the entrance caught on his plate armor and ripped off. The air in Highmountain was as strong and bracing as Baern had ever experienced in his travels, and he momentarily considered leaving the burlap snagged on his shoulder there, if only to grant him a bit more warmth on Thunder Totem's Northern Mesa. His pride, however, won out and he snatched the cloth, yanked it free, and threw it into the wind to be carried to the rivers below. 

"Do not lie to my face, Warbrave. You say you offer me respect, as kin, and yet I'm meeting here with you. I must meet with the Chieftain. Once she knows--" Baern began. 

"I have offered you all the respect you deserve, Grimtotem Brave." The wide-horned Warbrave Otho shot back, matching Baern's anger with his own indignation. "But you are not entitled to an audience with the Chieftain, kin or no. Do you not see the devastation around you? She has no time for a few dozen villagers half a world away." 

"She does not even know about my village! You haven't allowed me to inform her!"

"Yes, as is my right. You wanted an audience, well, I'm the Tauren you need to convince."

"What more can I do to convince you? Have I not made the case for my people clear? Are you so willing to let them die?" Baern practically bellowed. He winced at his own echo when it bounced back into his ears. Other Highmountain Tauren were leaving their longhouses and tents to see what was happening in the middle of the bluff. His anger bled into shame as he realized he was soon to be judged by everyone in earshot. "Please... you don't understand. Before the Legion attacked the Broken Isles, they attacked my home, and now my village is defenseless. The Legion's corruption remains behind in the water we need for crops and animals and ourselves. I just need a small number of braves, some food, maybe, to help me bring them here where they can be safe."

"You've already explained this to me." Otho responded, letting his anger fade as well. "But you're asking far too much. Even if we could spare the braves, even if we could spare the food, we cannot spare the space. The Rivermane and Skyhorn tribes have lost their homes too, and with them in Thunder Totem, we are taxed beyond capacity. What you are asking of us, Grimtotem Brave, it cannot be done." 

Baern said nothing at first, letting the gravity of Warbrave Otho's words sink in before allowing himself the opportunity to respond. "The Grimtotem Tribe has no braves, Otho. I will take my leave." But just as the warrior turned to leave, Otho reached out to stop him. 

"You should know, there is one tribe in the mountains that we have not yet heard from. The Bloodtotem far to the North have always been... reclusive. They see war as a great test of their strength and they constantly endeavor to be the strongest. Perhaps... perhaps they could be of assistance to you." Otho shrugged as he spoke, belying the fact that he had no hope that this was a real solution. But Baern ignored his own pessimistic nature, and returned Otho a small, sad smile. 

"Perhaps," Baern said with a nod. When he did turn to leave the bluff, he did so dragging the eyes of seemingly every Tauren who'd come to witness the spectacle. He bristled at the wind sweeping through the bluff for the lowlands to the South and tried not to reveal his discomfort to any of the Tauren still watching him. Qianghan, the great white tiger he'd rode into Thunder Totem, waited for him just before the bridge to the Valley. Most of the other mounts avoided the Tiger as best they could, clumped in tight crowds as far away from him as possible, and it seemed that the Shado-Pan Tiger had responded by lying down in  the dust uncomfortably. Baern couldn't help but feel a sympathy for the beast. "I'm sorry, I should have taken your saddle and armor off." The tiger rose to his feet and shook some of the loose dirt from his fur. "At least you're built for this weather," Baern said bitterly. "I was raised in a desert and a jungle." 

They only rode for a few hours that afternoon, though Baern was cautious not to drive Qianghan too far in one day. The Tauren was a massive rider, but the tiger also had to bear hundreds of pounds of armor and weapons as well, often up the steep slopes of the hills and mountainous crags. Baern's real goal, which he wasn't very proud to admit to himself, was to put Thunder Totem as far behind him as possible. Every hour he spent away from Ashtotem Village was another that the defenseless Tauren there could be attacked by rival Grimtotem or Legion or worse. And wasting days trying to earn the favor of all three tribes based there only made him grind his teeth the entire ride from the mountaintop city. It was all the more frustrating because he understood precisely where they were coming from. Resources were tight and space was limited and soldiers were stretched too thin. 

Baern found himself replaying the conversation in his head, over and over, trying to think a way around what he said. He was no diplomat. Hell, he was no chieftain, either. Surely if Arahe or Maralah or Kex'ti had been the one to come to the Highmountain for aid, they wouldn't have stalled out talking to the personal guard of an advisor to the chieftain. 

It wasn't even sundown when he chose to stop for the night. The vast mountains hid the sun behind them to the west, however, and travelling this late at night didn't seem like the greatest plan. Even worse, the Grimtotem was starting to get the impression that he was not quite following his map as well as he might have hoped. On it, he could clearly see a set of inclines that should help him clear the ridge and make it into Bloodtotem territory, but when he translated that knowledge from map to mountain, he saw nothing of the sort. Was it an optical illusion? Perhaps he wasn't close enough to the cliffs to see the route North. Then again, perhaps he should cut his losses and use his hearthstone to return to Dalaran. A warm bed in Sanctuary's guildhall there? He could maybe find a bit of bloody meat for Qianghan, who more than deserved it. He didn't need to trek deeper into Highmountain, waste more time with more tribes that undoubtedly couldn't afford to be of assistance to him. 

And it was just as he was reaching for his hearthstone, ready to return to Dalaran, or at the very least ask Arahe or Maralah for advice, that Baern noticed Qianghan growling into the shadows of the pines. He furrowed his brow. Dalaran, he thought, will have to wait. He unclipped his massive black hammer from the magnets that held it in place on his back, swinging it in a few rough, wide arcs to get the weight of it back into his arm. 

"Show yourself," Baern threatened from behind the armored tiger. The only response he received were two fel-green eyes opening in the dark. 

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Qianghan let loose his own threatening growl, and almost as fast as Baern had seen the green eyes, now they seemed to belong to just any other Tauren. Walking out from under the shadows of the pine tree, a pair of native Tauren stepped into the waning sunlight. The Grimtotem Warrior found himself wondering: Had I seen what I thought I had? Was that just a trick of the light? 

"Hail, Traveler." One of the two Tauren said, as they spread out and began circling around. Baern knew they were sizing up him and Qianghan, so he didn't mind returning the favor. Both natives had the wide rack of antlers that were expected, but they carried long spears that he hadn't seen before in the region. Three sharp, angled flanges sat just below the thin, long tip and Baern grimaced as he considered the damage a weapon like that could do. This wasn't the tool of a simple killer. Those flanges were built to pierce into flesh and then shred it as it was removed. A hunter would want to keep the meat and hide as undamaged as possible, so these were the weapon of a warrior, looking to end combat with another warrior quickly and brutally. Neither wore much in the way of armor. Their chest was bare, though leather bracers, greaves and pauldrons kept the limbs safe. 

Content with his appraisal, Baern returned their greeting. "Hail," he said simply. 

"What is this beast? Some kind of saber?" The first native asked. 

"A Tiger. Like a saber, native to Pandaria." 

"Pandaria. That's where the fat bears live." The second native said more to the other than to Baern. "We turned away a pair of those bears not fifty yards from here."

"Are you here to turn me away?" The Grimtotem asked. 

"You are our kin, even if you are not of our tribe. What business do you have in Bloodtotem lands?" Qianghan growled menacingly at the first Bloodtotem, clearly unnerved as he tried to get in close to better inspect the beast.  

"My people are like yours," Baern began. "Strong and proud. But we are not above asking for aid when we need it. I'm looking for warriors to accompany me to my village and help defend against invaders and intruders, just like you're doing now." 

Both Bloodtotem smiled at first, but then began to snicker, and finally descended into full throated laughter. "Why would the Bloodtotem help you? Do you know our tribe in the slightest? You're right, we are strong and proud of it, but that strength doesn't come from defending weak villages," the first said. His laugh morphed into a sneer. "Where is your village, thin horn? Perhaps my tribe should burn it to the ground, show you a thing or two about strength." 

Baern grinds his teeth. "I don't care to be insulted or threatened, and I don't mind defending the strength of my people to yours if need be." He points the hammer at the Bloodtotem. "But I'm not here to trade barbs with you, I'm looking to meet Chieftain Torok. Either lead me to him or get out of my way." 

The pair brandish their spears in return. "You and all outsiders are not welcome on Bloodtotem lands. Turn back now and live. Attempt to bypass us? Die." 

Baern gripped his hammer and dropped into his stance. The titansteel head would make short work of them, he considered, but he knew they had reach on him with their spears, and if they got the chance to puncture him with the three flanges, it was over. Perhaps the answer was to get in close, then, where they couldn't angle their weapons to face him or get a good line of attack. His own hammer wouldn't be of much use in the kind of quarters he was suggesting, but the pommel had a 4 inch ghost iron spike on it that he could use. Typically, Baern had found the spike helpful for puncturing through heavy armor not uncommon among Alliance, undead or demons, but perhaps he could use it to finish this quickly. He took a step forward. 

"Fine, then. Show me the strength of your tribe." He said. 

Neither of the Bloodtotem hesitated, striking with piercing drives. It was exactly what Baern expected them to do, but they were faster and more precise than he had hoped. He batted the spears away with his plate gauntlet and hammer, hoping to open up the space he needed to strike back. But as they pressed their assault, they began to spread out. This, he knew, would be the end if they could flank him entirely. Baern had been fighting all his life, most of it against other Tauren, so he had the right instincts for this, but no amount of experience could keep both of them at bay if they could exploit is his blind spot. He needed an opening.

He had a tiger. 

"Qianghan!" Baern called out, and the dutiful armored tiger pounced for the smaller Bloodtotem who'd taunted him earlier. And it was all Baern needed to open up a distraction and strike home. Forgetting the larger Bloodtotem warrior, Baern put all his strength into his hammer. First, he snapped the wooden spear's haft, then crossed the hammer head straight into his target's arm. He tried not to grin as he felt the snapping bone through the haft of his hammer, but failed. Enough to keep him down, and prevent him from striking back at the tiger. Qianghan was courageous, but he wasn't trained for combat like this and the last thing Baern wanted was for his mount to get injured. 

But, of course, there was the matter of the spear lancing in from behind him. 

To his credit, the larger Bloodtotem didn't hesitate and the strike that Baern hoped his armor could weather was quicker and worse than he expected. The spearhead flew by his shoulder without even touching the armor, but the three flanges scraped against his metal plate all the way up. And as the Bloodtotem warrior pulled back on his attack, the flanges caught on the nips and folds in his armor, slicing into Baern's skin and bending the pauldron and gauntlet entirely out of place. It wasn't much more than a flesh wound, but the bent armor dug into his arm in multiple places causing him to lose the grin he'd just gained as he fought back the pain. Worse yet, his movement with that arm was entirely diminished and there was no way he'd be able to swing his hammer with both hands, now. 

He swung wildly at the Bloodtotem warrior, hoping to create as much space as he could between the two of them. The Bloodtotem, to his credit, mirrored Baern's defense earlier, batting away the black hammer with the tip of his spear, but always keeping it in range to be a threat. Baern felt his anger rising, and if this was another time, he'd have capitalized of his rage by lashing out even further. Instead, however, Baern fought back his fury, and chose to make his next move tactical. Slamming the hammer into the dirt beside him, he released his weapon and grabbed the top of his pauldron, throwing all his strength into the ripping the bent, broken pieces of his armor free. He ripped off the Pauldron, which took the rest of the plate on his arm with it, in one great fluid motion. And, watching the entire time as he did so, he hoped that the Bloodtotem would make the wrong choice. 

If the Bloodtotem spear lanced through his now-exposed arm, Baern was done for. The spear tip would clear the way and the trio of blades would filet the muscles right off the bone. It might take some time, but he'd bleed out entirely. If the bloodtotem spear went for any other section of his armor, he had a decent shot. As it would turn out, Baern had a decent shot. 

The spear came in straight for Baern's gut, and didn't even dent the thick plate protecting it. This kind of gut shot would make sense for other Bloodtotem, hell, it'd make sense for many Grimtotem raiders, who'd chided Baern's use of heavy plate to protect himself and frequently went armor free, even nude. But for someone wearing Titansteel and Obsidium, the spear just wasn't enough. 

Clearly surprised at his own failure, the Bloodtotem tries to pull back for another shot somewhere more vital, but Baern heads him off at the pass. He whips the hobble of bent plate at the raider to put him off balance, grabs his hammer and swings it with both hands, hard and fast, right into his opponent's chin. An unmistakably gruesome crunch accompanies the smashing blow and fat, flat Bloodtotem teeth spray out and clink off Baern harmlessly. He paused to regard his attack. The raider attempted to collect his shattered jaw, but it seemed far too painful, and he instead let it hang loosely off the bottom of his face. Baern narrowed his eyes, though, because it wasn't the brutal aftereffects that stopped him in his tracks. It was the swirling green blood that was leaking from the Tauren.  

He turned back to the smaller Bloodtotem, who hadn't moved from where Baern snapped the bone in his arm. And in the shadows under the trees, he saw the same, unmistakable fel green tint from before. The Grimtotem regarded both Bloodtotem raiders, looking from them, to Qianghan, whose threatening presence seemed to keep the smaller one at bay. They were infested with the corruption of demons. The same that Baern was offered and denied and freed his own village from. Perhaps he should just kill the both of them and be done with it. Return to Dalaran and eventually, to Ashtotem. But just as he began to focus on the hearthstone weighing down his pocket, he hesitated from grabbing it. Making an agreement with the Bloodtotem to relocate his people here was lost now. But could he just leave them to the fel tainted waters? Shouldn't he work to stop more of his people from committing the same acts again? 

He didn't have a good answer, but he did know what had to happen either way. Planting a hoof on the chest of the Bloodtotem lacking teeth, he carefully angled the Tauren's head to one side and plunged spike into neck. The same green blood began gushing out and over the hobbled foe, who blinked a few times to try and remain conscious, before fading into a corpse. With a scowl on his face, Baern turned to the smaller one. 

"You have the demon blood in you as well?" He asked, picking up the bladed spear at his feet. The Raider didn't speak, choosing instead to glare at Baern as his answer. Fair enough, Baern thought, slashing across the raider's chest to see what color the blood was. He didn't need to coddle any demon worshiper Tauren, even one that hadn't demonstrated the outward appearance changes that he expected. Both Baern and the raider patiently waited to see what color the blood dripping into the Bloodtotem fur was. 

Green. 

Baern planted the spear in his chest, and waited long enough to see his eyes stop blinking and become unfocused. It took some time, and neither Tauren enjoyed it, but the properties of fel blood weren't something that Baern wanted to leave up to chance. He watched and waited and as the time dripped by his expression bled from contempt to pity. When it was all over, he sighed and said simply: "I hope the Earthmother forgives you both." 

The sound of the wind dashing through the trees filled his ears and he drew the hearthstone once more. The Bloodtotem were of no use to him. And he had pressing concerns to tend to at Ashtotem Village. Sanctuary. A dozen responsibilities streamed into his head and only made him feel that much more guilt at coming on this fool's errand, anyway. But as he was tossing his own insecurities around in his head, something made its way through the wind and gripped his attention. Someone... calling for help? It was soft and weak, but it was someone. 

Baern and Qianghan followed the calls a mile, maybe, and found the Bloodtotem camp of his two recently felled scouts. They'd been here for some time, he could tell, probably stationed here to watch this side of the ridge and assure that no other travelers could interrupt their dark rituals on the far side. But near their scratchy woolen bedrolls, by the well burnt embers in a rock laced fire pit, there was a small, hogtied Drogbar clad in torn burlap cloth, lying with his face in the dirt. 

Baern considered the hearthstone weighing in his pocket for just enough time for the Drogbar to worry, and then sliced his bindings with a flat stone knife. 

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The red rocks of the Stonetalon mountains glowed fiercely in the light of the setting sun. The warm wind whipped Arahe’s mane about her face as the windrider beneath her galloped along familiar ground. She laughed as they leapt a small gully, wings spread wide to easily clear the gap in the rocks. The Tauren reigned her mount in, sliding off before she came to a full stop and running over to a small bush covered in bright yellow flowers. Plucking the largest flowers from the bush and adding them to a small bouquet forming in her hand, she presented them to the windrider.

 

“What do you think An’mani? That enough?” The windrider leaned forward and sniffed the flowers, letting out a small sneeze to the delight of the Tauren. “You’re right, as always.” She swung easily into the saddle. “Let’s go home.”

 

The huntress and her mount soon found themselves in Cliffwalker Post, though it was somehow different than she remembered it, although she couldn’t put her finger on how. Several spires of rock, connected by bridges attached to the main peak of the village, and familiar brown and black furred faces milled about happily. Arahe tried to shake off the feeling of unease and urged An’mani towards her family’s home. She grinned broadly as she approached.

 

ARE YOU SO WILLING TO LET THEM DIE?”

 

The voice was equally a whisper and a shout as everything around her burst into fel flame. The smoke of burning flesh choked her, making it hard to breathe, despite the fact that everyone around her seemed to have disappeared. Arahe ran to her family’s tent, flaming and empty.

 

“No. NO!” She screamed, sitting up from the hard wooden boards of Thunder Totem. Her heart pounded in her chest as she took a moment to orient herself to where she was. An’mani laid curled up against her side, head and ears perked up on high alert. A nearby shaman gave her a concerned glance, but continued tending to the injured Tauren around her. She looked out at the sprawling valleys of Highmountain far below letting her breathing settle in her pained chest. She patted the still alert windrider gently.

 

“Just a bad dream An’mani, relax.” She said softly, lowering herself slowly back down. Arahe noticed quickly that the windrider made no move to relax despite her reassurances, and sat back up, studying her mount. An’mani leaned her head forward, ears straining, nostrils flaring as if to catch a scent on the wind, but her body language read more to the hunter as excited than concerned. Arahe frowned, uncertainly looking across the totem to the north. “What is it?”

 

Sighing, she struggled to her feet, body aching. Arahe guessed that she had spent over a week in Thunder Totem under the care of their shamans, but her broken rib still hadn’t fully healed. An’mani stood up as she did, and began making her way over towards her fascination. The Tauren leaned hard on her mount as they walked slowly away from the makeshift infirmary.

 

“Where are you going now?” A sharp warning tone from the shaman currently in charge.

 

“Not far,” Arahe didn’t turn around as she answered. “Just need to stretch my legs.”

 

Arahe ignored the shaman’s harumph and made her way to lean on a thick rope further down the totem where she could look to the cliffs to the north. An’mani’s interested seemed to increase as they came in view of one of Thunder Totems bluffs. The huntress shielded her eyes and squinted in the direction of the windrider’s fascination. She could only make out the tents and longhouses and the vague shapes of a few tauren in the distance. A few seemed to be grouped looking at two large Tauren in the middle of the bluff. One of them turned to leave and Arahe’s eyes were drawn to the glinting of the sun off of his plate. She blinked. Black fur? Couldn’t be…

 

Suddenly her dream came rushing back to her, and the voice in it. Could Baern be here? She thought to her hearthstone, left in the bottom of some bag back at her basecamp somewhere out in Rivermane lands. Having only recently acquired it she had a nasty habit of forgetting it places, but this was probably the worst instance yet. She watched the armored Tauren closely, as he disappeared behind the tents and longhouses.

 

When the Tauren down on the bluffs re-emerged he was mounted. Arahe gave a wan smile, Qianghan, Baern’s great armored tiger, was unmistakeable from any distance. She watched Baern ride off to the north and idly wondered where he was going.

 

“Sorry An’mani, looks like he’s not coming our way.” The windrider squeaked out a somewhat upset noise as a response. “Come on, maybe we can find out where he went.”

 

Arahe made her way slowly to the bridge and down along it with her mount trailing behind her. A large, mildly frustrated looking Highmountain warbrave was making his way across the bridge in the other direction. She apologized, shuffling herself and her mount to one side to let him pass. He paused, glancing at her horns.

 

“Are you looking for the inn? It’s back on the main totem.”

 

She looked past him at the northern mesa. “No, I’m looking for someone, did you hear where that Tauren warrior that just left went to?”

 

Otho frowned at her. “The Grimtotem?” He sighed at scratched at his mane as Arahe nodded. “I suggested he go speak with the Bloodtotem to the north, I assume he’s heading there.”

 

Nodding slightly she thanked the Warbrave and turned to head back to the infirmary, awkwardly following him until the end of the bridge.

 

That night Arahe sat in the healing magic of the shaman’s totem, struggling with a pair of pliers to repair a few loose rings on her scale mail shirt. She wondered about how Baern was doing and what his mission was with the Bloodtotem. Her hand slipped, sending small rings bouncing across the floor, she raised her eyes to the sky, muttering a few curses. An’mani pounced on a bouncing ring, and proceeded to bat it around. The huntress hated this sort of work, but she supposed it was better than just sitting bored around the other groaning injured Tauren. She sat back and watched her windrider bat the ring from her shirt around.

 

There was a small commotion behind her and she inclined her head to listen. A voice pleading for help in Taur-ahe with a thick Pandaren accent. A pair of Tauren, including one of the shaman speaking in low comforting tones. Curiosity got the better of Arahe and she turned around to see two pandaren in the dim light, one trying to argue with the shaman and one of the braves while clutching the other. Arahe stood, motioning for An’mani to stay while she moved over to investigate.

 

“Please… help…peaceful…” The pandaren was sobbing, struggling with the foreign tongue. A wave of the stench of rotting flesh washed over Arahe as she approached. “Please... we…”

 

As she crouched beside them, she could see that the one Pandaren was dead, probably by several hours. She stared at them piteously. “Do you speak Orcish or Common?” She offered, slowly, in orcish.

 

The living Pandaren’s eyes widened, switching into orcish, a language clearly more familiar to him. “Please you have to tell them to help us.”

 

“What help do you need?” She asked quietly, fairly certain she already knew the answer.

 

“It’s my friend, my friend is hurt. She’s hurt and the shaman isn’t helping her.” The Pandaren said, panicked, jostling the corpse cradled in his arms. “Please I have money if that’s what they want, we just need healing.”

 

The Tauren shaman turned towards her and addressed her in Taur-ahe “We’ve been trying to explain to him that we can’t save his friend, because she’s already passed on.”

 

Arahe took a deep breath, steeling herself. She struggled with talking to people normally, let alone like this. “May I take a look at her?”

 

The Pandaren loosed his grip slightly, letting her get a closer look. Arahe gently ran her fingers along the bloodied bandages. The Pandaren had likely bled out, an animal mauling perhaps? The wounds seemed extensive and brutal. She rested her fingers along the neck, feeling for a pulse before placing her hand in front of the body’s mouth, testing for breath. “What happened?” She asked gently as she examined the Pandaren.

 

“We… we were on a peaceful mission. We wanted to spread the teachings of Emperor Shaohao around the world. I thought… we just…” The Pandaren started sobbing again. “We went to speak with the Bloodtotem tribe, they told us… they told us no outsiders and they.... We were peaceful… but they…”

 

Arahe felt her heart drop out of her chest and she spoke without thinking. “They killed her.”

 

The Pandaren stared up at her in horror. “No, no! She’s not dead! She’s not! She can’t be.”

 

“I’m sorry. The Bloodtotem killed your friend.” Her own words echoed back in her head as she staggered away, heart pounding. “I have to go.” She turned to the Highmountain Brave standing nearby and switched back into Taur-ahe. “The Bloodtotem did this, spread the word that they’ve banned outsiders from their lands with this as a warning. No one is to go to Bloodtotem lands.” She gestured at the Pandaren as she backed away.

 

“Wait, what?” The brave demanded as Arahe yanked her armor on over her bandages.

 

“I have to go, find someone who speaks orcish and have them stay with the Pandaren to explain. He’ll come to terms with his friend’s death eventually.” She was already saddling An’mani.

 

The shaman scurried over to her. “Where the fel are you going? You’re not fully healed!”


Arahe didn’t respond, she scooped up her spear and swung into the saddle, spurring her mount forward in one smooth motion towards the north.

Edited by Arahe

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It was worse than Baern thought. Egged on by their chieftain, as explained by the Drogbar in broken Taur-ahe, the Bloodtotem had given themselves to the Legion, even adopting the name Feltotem in solidarity with their new patrons. The Grimtotem stayed in the camp and listened to the entirety of the Drogbar's story, step by step. He didn't know all the details, but it was easy to relate the key moments. The Bloodtotem have always valued strength, obviously, and their warmonger warriors had to test a trial of blood in order to become members of the tribe. Outsiders had to pass the same trial to earn the tribe's respect, and everyone that failed to do so was banished or at least spit on by the villagers. The Bloodtotem had been warring with the Stonedark Drogbar tribe, who refused the Underking's summons after he stole the Hammer of Khaz'goroth. This one had been Stonedark, named Skome, and drilled through the mountain with stoneshaping shamanism to try and warn or garner aid from Highmountain, Skyhorn or Rivermane Village. He'd been captured along the way, though, and no doubt was to be executed on his return. 

None of this made Baern's grim unease any better. The idea of Drogbar fighting back against the Bloodtotem gave him a flicker of hope, but further clarification revealed the Stonedark leader Navarogg was captured recently, and Stonedark Grotto was next on the Bloodtotem's list. Night had fallen on the pines of Highmountain, though, and Baern knew that trying to ride back to Thunder Totem tonight was a mistake. He considered his hearthstone, but that would leave Skome alone and useless in the forest. The least he could do was escort him back to Thunder Totem, try and parlay what's happened to the Stonedark into some kind of benefit. Maybe the Highmountain Tauren will take him seriously if he returns with a willing ally from across the ridge? It seemed futile, but it was a plan. 

Baern cooked a small pot of Elderhorn and bean chili, something that he and Qianghan had grown accustomed to over the past few days. It was vaguely reassuring that he had a moment just to relax and wait. The Tiger, clearly worn from the day's ride and fighting, went to sleep first, followed by the Drogbar. The Grimtotem removed his armor and spent at least part of the night by the fire, making sure the rest of his armor that hadn't been ripped off by the Bloodtotem Spear was together. After cutting a few loose strands, and bending back bits of the metal so that it didn't cut into his shoulder anymore, Baern lay against Qianghan's belly and nodded off effortlessly. 

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The smoke drifted in the mountain air, swiftly dissipating, the currents continuing to carry on as if nothing had happened here. Riverbend was demolished, reports being that a Titan-forged relic in the hands of an unskilled barbarian was the culprit. Saphiara could believe it. The earth was smashed and buckled here, at times erupted into razor spires and strange orange crystals.

"Coward." She stood and dusted herself off. The Rivermane had been the most peaceful of the tribes here. They had been the ones to forge the link between the Tauren and Drogbar. Farmers, fishermen, mystics, diplomats - they had simply wanted to live with the land in peace.

And here they were, corpses, murdered by a world caring little for wishes of peace.

Was the very earth insane? Was the reach of the Old Ones so pervasive than anything living beneath the ground was doomed to madness? Neltharion was the most obvious example, but all of Khaz'goroth's creations seemed touched by insanity. Drogbar, gnomes, dwarves, qiraji, nerubians... the list went on. The flesh of Azeroth was cursed.

Her attention was diverted by a mental signal from Falore, flying in the mountains to the north. Another attack had been launched there, the drogbar assaulting a small village named Snowmane. She pulled out her remote and hit a series of buttons; nearby, her golem roared to life and opened up to allow her inside. She paused as she pulled herself up into the cockpit, sighing heavily at the destruction.

It was starting to feel like she could never retire, because at this rate the world would have nowhere left in peace.

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Baern was perhaps the easiest quarry the Tauren huntress had ever tracked. Arahe’s windrider, An’mani, knew his and his mount’s scents well, and the trail of a fully armored Pandaren tiger and his slightly oversized rider was clear to her even in the darkness. Which was almost a pity, since not having to focus meant that fearful thoughts wormed their way into her mind about the fate of her warrior friend. She rode hard across the cold landscape, heart heavy with worry.

Arahe’s breath caught in her throat for a moment when she first saw the lifeless body of one of the Bloodtotem in her path before immediately recognizing it wasn’t Baern. She had dismounted by that point, the proximity to Bloodtotem territory putting her on edge, choosing to pick her way quickly and quietly through the underbrush; An’mani a silent shadow at her heels. A few minutes pacing around the small clearing gave her a good idea of everything that happened there a few hours before.

It wasn’t long after leaving the grisly scene Baern had left that the huntress smelled the dying campfire, and cautiously approached the source. A massive wave of relief crashed over her as she spotted the Grimtotem warrior snoozing peacefully against Qianghan’s side. The drogbar in the camp caused her some amount of apprehension, placing a hand gently against her healing ribcage, but Arahe dismissed it, noting that Baern and his tiger didn’t show signs of distrust. 

Arahe didn’t immediately enter the campsite. Signaling with a flick of her hand, she sent An’mani to guard the sleeping group while she scouted the surrounding woods for danger. Satisfied, after an hour or so, she circled back to the encampment. It was the wee hours of the night at that point, and Arahe was cold and exhausted. Still, she decided her mount deserved to sleep first, and she would guard the camp for a time. She unsaddled the windrider as quietly as possible, pulling a few soft pieces of thickly furred runehorn hide she had collected weeks before out of one of the saddle bags. She wrapped one around her shoulders to guard against the cold. Frowning, she glanced over at Baern, before carrying another, larger piece over to the sleeping warrior. Qianghan stirred slightly but quickly recognized the huntress. Arahe laid it over the large Tauren as delicately as she could, attempting to not wake him before turning to watch over the camp.

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“I wasn’t expecting company.”

Arahe startled awake at the voice, immediately sliding her arm and spear out of her bedroll and propping herself up with her other hand. She had slept with it at the ready and in her armor, as she usually did in dangerous areas. Her eyes flashed around before stopping on Baern standing nearby, facing away and shaking off the stiffness of his sleep with a roll of his shoulders. She sighed out the tension of waking up suddenly with a small smile at the familiar sight.

“I figured as much. You were pretty out when I got here.” She replied, taking a moment to look around the campsite. Frost blanketed everything, sparkling in the pale light of dawn that was filtering through the pines. Even the furred bedroll Arahe was tucked into glittered in the cold. She had traded off guard duty with An’mani a few hours before, and she knew that in the woods nearby the windrider would be pacing around the perimeter of the camp.

“We had a rough day.” Baern said as he clanked his armor back on piece by piece, starting at his hooves. “Did you see the bodies?”

“Yes.” Arahe clambered out of the bedroll, the stiffness of her body shooting pain from her broken rib. The ride to the campsite hadn’t done the injury any favors. “I actually came here to warn you to stay away from the Bloodtotem, but I suppose I didn’t get here fast enough.” She grimaced against the thought and the pain. “The fel blood was a surprise.”

 

A soft silence hung in the air for a moment as Arahe watched the Grimtotem re-armor himself, his right arm remaining bare, the dried blood from a few scratches still visible. “I wish it were more of a surprise. Even after they attacked me, I tested them to make sure.” Baern finally answered bitterly. “The drogbar told me the whole tribe drank the felblood and are running amok on the far side of the ridge.”

 

Whistling for An’mani, Arahe began packing up the campsite as she considered his words. “Mu’sha’s light… the whole tribe?”

 

“As far as I know. I didn’t ask the question, really.”

 

Baern was looking toward the drogbar and Arahe followed his gaze. “I had been meaning to ask why you were camping with a drogbar.” She spoke with a small amount of distrust, rubbing a hand against her aching side. The pain had subsided as she stretched out, but was very much still there.

 

“He was their prisoner, told me what was happening. The Stonedark Drogbar are apparently being forced out, especially after they rejected the Underking.”

 

Any relief Arahe felt at the news that the drogbar wasn’t associated with the Underking was crushed under the news that there were more captives. She frowned. “They’re keeping prisoners? Do we know where?”

 

“Ask him.” Baern replies, almost dismissively. “I came out here for Bloodtotem, not Drogbar.” Qianghan sensed his frustration, nudging the warrior’s hand with his nose.

 

The huntress forced down a smile at the sight of Baern reluctantly scratching right under the edges of Qianghan’s Shado-Pan armor in response to the tiger’s attention. Arahe made her way around the fire pit, stopping before the drogbar and gently prodding him with the butt of her spear. “Time to wake up. It’s a fairly long ride to Thunder Totem from here and I have some questions for you first.”

 

The drogbar awoke with a start, immediately quaking in fear. “There are more! Black Bull do not let her kill me!”

 

“I am not going to hurt you.” She glanced sideways at Baern with a small smile and a raised eyebrow, trying to gently affirm their familiarity. “Right Black Bull?”

 

Baern apparently didn’t understand her attempt to establish their friendship to the drogbar, and Arahe worries for a moment that she may have offended him a bit with the nickname. Baern’s look is deadpan. The drogbar glances between them, still quaking and whimpering slightly. Arahe let out a small sigh before crouching down in front of the him. The motion sends a fresh wave of pain from her ribcage, and she winces, laying her polearm across her knees, letting her hands dangle overtop.

 

“Please do not be afraid. I am not Bloodtotem, I’m not even from Highmountain, see?” Arahe says as she taps one of her short, sharp horns. “The black furred one’s name is Baern, and we’ve known eachother for some time now. I am here to help.”

 

“...How can you help?” The drogbar asked warily.

 

Arahe considers the question for a moment, staring down at the backs of her hands. “I think I’m going to try and sneak some of the surviving prisoners out of the Bloodtotem camp, but I need as much information as you can give me about where they’re being held first.”

 

Baern speaks suddenly and forcefully from behind her. “Drogbar. Where are the prisoners being held?”

 

“In one of the grottos under the ridge! I was only able to escape because I can shape stone, but most of my people are trapped with the rebel Bloodtotem.” The drogbar squeaked out immediately.

 

Baern narrowed his eyes. “Rebel Bloodtotem? Who are they rebelling against?”

 

“The demonblood drinkers.” The drogbar answered.

 

“And they’re being held in the same grotto?” Baern asked. The drogbar nodded and he turned his attention back to Arahe. “We need to free those prisoners.”

 

The huntress cocks an eyebrow at Baern. “I was already planning to. You should take this drogbar back to Thunder Totem, and try to get reinforcements if you can.” She turned back to the Drogbar in front of her. “Can you tell me how well guarded the grotto is?”

 

“He can tell us on the way,” Baern says, cutting off any response from the drogbar and turning to begin wrapping up the camp. “He’s coming with us.”

 

Arahe took a deep breath of the cold mountain air, trying to force down her rising frustration. “Are you not listening to me?” She stood, turning toward Baern. “He needs to tell me now, I’m not coming back to Thunder Totem with you two.”

 

“He’s coming with us because I’m going to get these prisoners out with you. I may be missing some armor, but if you can fight with those bandages, I can fight with a bare right arm,” he says, gesturing to the black furred limb he was referring to. Arahe looked down at her own torso, thumbing where the small tear in her scalemail which remained unrepaired and hung loose, revealing the bandages beneath. “But he needs to come with us, because he knows where the grotto is. And, he’s going to burrow us a nice backdoor into it, aren’t you, Drogbar?”

 

“If the prisoners could escape by tunneling out, he could have taken them with him when he left the first time.” She responded flatly, looking back up. “Which makes me think that we’ll have to take them up over the mountains. Can you climb a mountain in that?” Arahe gestured at Baern in his full-plate.

 

“I could not take them!” The drogbar suddenly interjects fearfully. “I needed to find help, someone to stop Zudjgaz! If you don’t stop Zudjgaz, there is no escaping! Forming tunnel takes time. If I was not sneaky, if I was not alone, Zudjgaz would have killed me in one strike!”

 

Arahe glanced at Baern with a raised eyebrow before settling a concerned gaze on the drogbar. “Who is Zudjgaz?” She asked.

 

“The Fel Lord. He protects the cave from intruders. Kills any who attempt escape! I was the only to get free!”

 

“A Fel Lord…” Arahe frowned at the news for a long moment before turning back to Baern. “Take An’mani and the drogbar back to Thunder Totem. Trying to defeat a Fel Lord alone would be suicide, so sneaking them out is the best option if we want to save anyone right now. Hopefully you can get reinforcements to help deal with the demon.”

 

“I don’t doubt that you’re stealthy enough, but if things go south, you’re going to need backup. And in either case, you’re going to need the drogbar to tunnel in the back of the cave,” he said, not breaking eye contact with her. “I’m not going to let them turn more Tauren into fel slaves. If you want to take An’mani back to Thunder Totem, be my guest. But you will not convince me to walk away.”

 

Arahe held his gaze for a long silent moment, only the sound of the cold wind of the mountains passing between them. Finally, she broke eye contact with him to glance over at An’mani. She considered their options, the dangers, the risks at Baern’s life and the tragedy his loss would bring to his village, and promises she had made in the past. Her face softened a bit and her eyes drifted back to Baern’s. “You’ll stay in the tunnel then.” She folded her arms across her chest, regaining some of her audacity. “Your people need you safe.” She turned her attention to the drogbar. “I’m sorry, but we need you to take us to the prisoners.”

 

“I know how to keep my head down and my hoofsteps quiet.” Baern replies with a bit of indignity. Justifying it no further, he pulls out his hammer and gets ready to leave. “We need to convince them to return to the village with us. If we can free them from whatever fate awaits them, they can keep my people safe in Ashtotem.”

 

Arahe can’t help but crack a small smile at the warrior’s mild defense of his abilities. She nods as he outlines his plans. “It will be good for them to have a place to stay away from the fel corruption, and Ashtotem could use the braves. Let’s just hope they’re able and willing to bring protection back to Ashtotem.”

 

The Grimtotem warrior mounted a small hill to survey the back of the ridge they need to tunnel through, before looking back down at the drogbar, Qianghan, An’mani and Arahe. The sun glinted off his armor and short black fur, and the hammer clenched in his fist; the mountains spreading out behind his large, imposing form as he plotted a course to save both the Bloodtotem prisoners and by extension, his own people.

 

“The Grimtotem Tribe has no braves.” He said bitterly.

Edited by Arahe
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The process of making their way to the ridgeline and then through it was a silent one. Baern saw no reason to make small talk as they moved through the makeshift tunnel and Arahe didn't seem any more eager than he was. And, given that his gesticulations were the key to this rescue mission, the shaman kept quiet and focused more than either of them. It was frustrating, given their size and the depth of the cave they were creating, but the Drogbar seemed to be working to keep them as comfortable in the space as possible. More than anything else, though, he seemed to be moving quickly, waving his arms and hands about slightly as he beckoned the rocks to clear a path for the trio. Baern had asked that the their guide think more about the return trip than the departure, after all, they needed to get dozens of Bloodtotem prisoners out through this, but the request was not met to his satisfaction. It was one mile and change, maybe two, by Baern's estimation before the shaman needed to rest for a few minutes, and then another mile or so after that before he reported them getting close. 

The Drogbar seemed very enthusiastic about his work, all things considered, and tried to explain how the minute differences in the density of the rock and soil signaled that they were close to the cave. He was apparently doing something to the rocks around him to try and feel out the best possible route to the cavernous system, but Baern had less patience for that as well. They eventually realized they needed to do a wide spiral to get deeper into the earth, but once that was complete, the hours long journey was finally at its end. Across no more than a foot or two of rock were the prisoners they sought, and the Drogbar was slowly, as silently as possible chipping away at that barrier to break into the cave without alerting Zudjgaz. 

It was only a few minutes, but the anticipation of the process dragged time to a standstill for Baern. As the last few clods of soil and clumps of stone were being pulled away, Baern whispered to Arahe: 

"I want you to wait in the tunnel. I'm going to speak to the prisoners, and when you see me give this signal--" he raised his right fist into the air, "--an agreement has been reached. Start freeing everyone," he finished, glancing quickly at the shaman. "Especially any Drogbar that can tunnel out of here." 

The first beams of light not pierced into the almost pitch black space before the Drogbar softly crumbled everything into the walls of stone and gave his passageway an entrance. By this new light, Arahe nodded. The cave was dark, but illuminated with bioluminescent cave paintings of the Drogbar. Soft mist covered the floor, which was strangely not wet. Sitting in circles, bound by thick black chains, were the Drogbar and the rebel Bloodtotem, ten to twenty in each ring with their chains all pinned to the floor by another thick black spike, which glowed softly with fel green magic. Baern took his time scanning the room, looking for any guards, but there were none. Nothing but prisoners, maybe a hundred, maybe more for all that he could see. In fact, most of them barely seemed to notice the group come out of the wall. 

Cautiously, but deliberately, the Grimtotem stood in the cave and regarded the group. He needed a leader. Someone to negotiate with. Someone who could guarantee him the Bloodtotem's aid. In hushed whispers, he began asking each ring. "Who is your leader? Who organized the rebellion? Who can I talk to? Any of you?" He was met with silence. Mostly silence. Whatever draining power the chains and the spike had on the tauren, they were too weak and confused to even speak. But for one, a white furred Bloodtotem spirit walker, frailer than all the rest, and yet with milky white eyes, stronger too. 

"Our savior..." he said softly to Baern as he passed. "The chainbreaker... A longhorn." 
 

"You can speak?" Baern asked quickly, the first lead he could find. "Who are you?"

"The ancestors empower me, longhorn. These chains may drain my life, but they cannot drain the life of those who speak through me. There is barely a thought in my head, but them? It would take far more fel magic than this to shut them up." The Spiritwalker chuckled softly. "If you pull the spike from the ground you will free us. Once all the spikes are pulled, you will free us all."

"I will free you once I have your word, Spirit Walker. I need warriors for my village. Defenders who can keep my people safe, away from here, across the sea. If you agree to serve my village and protect my people, I will free you all right this moment." Baern got to his knees to regard the ghostly presence, showing enough reverence with his body language if not his words. 

The Spirit Walker spat in Baern's face. "You would extort us? Doom us to the service of the Legion if we did not comply with your request? You are bold, longhorn, but unwise and foolish. The pride of the Bloodtotem will not shatter, even as we are bound by chains." 

Baern didn't flinch. Instead, he got to his hooves, stepped past the Spirit Walker, and ripped the black spike from the ground. In its place, however, he threaded the spiked pommel of his hammer beating the hammerhead twice with his fist to root it right back into the ground. Almost immediately, the others in the ring began to come to. He wiped the spittle from his face. 

"Keep your voices low and your heads down. Spirit Walker, I'd like to try this once more. Yes, Spirit Walker, I will leave all of you to death or slavery or worse  from the Legion if I must. Because if I don't get warriors to protect my village, they are condemned to the same. Now, would you like to explain to all these imprisoned here that their pride is worthless if they're pawns of the Legion like the Feltotem are?" Baern kept his eyes on the Spirit Walker, but raised his voice just a bit to get across to the groggy Bloodtotem their predicament. 

A few moments passed. The milky eyed elder said nothing. Then, the youngest of the ring spoke. 

"None of us will follow you, Longhorn. Even if you free us. We will fight for our people and our homeland, even if it ends with us back in chains. You've taken no Blood Rite, sacrificed nothing to the Bloodtotem and you will not use us as the Legion plans to!" He hissed softly.

"If you will not follow me, who will you follow? Who leads this rebellion?" Baern asked. 

The youngest pointed to a brown haired Bloodtotem with trimmed horns ending in fat stumps. "Orrack. He is the one who recruited us, trained us, and led us to fight the Feltotem. He is-- No, don't!" Baern, with the information he required, pulled out his hammer and tapped the felspike back into place. The spirit started draining from the group almost immediately, silencing the young one, though Baern couldn't help but recognize the fierce anger and vengeance that burned in his eyes just before they drooped into a stasis. He considered trying to remember the face, but decided it was too dark and would take too much time. If Zudjgaz was the only guard and jailer these prisoners needed, it wouldn't be long until he made some kind of round or patrol. Plus, there was a certain confidence to being a tauren killer like he was. There was nothing to fear from a brave, stupid upstart. 

Crossing to Orrack, Baern repeated the process with the spike and the hammer, but regarded none of the drowsy tauren except the clipped rack of Orrak. 

"Are you Orrak? The leader of this rebellion of Bloodtotem?" Baern asked looking straight into his rapidly dilating pupils as they refocused on the world around him. It took a few moments, but eventually they locked in on Baern. 

"I am Orrak, yes," he answers, caged. 

"And do you lead these Bloodtotem? Do they follow you?" Baern needed this confirmation, and wouldn't let him dodge the question. 

"Yes. I led them into a Legion trap. Most of us were... we surrendered to preserve our lives. But they follow me in the fight against our demonic kin." 

"Good, I am Baern Grimtotem, and I want to free all of your people," Baern began. "But before I can do that, I need you to agree to return with me across the ocean, to where my village is. They need defenders and--"

"Wait," Orrak interrupted, the wooziness of the spike almost entirely faded by now. "You want us to leave Highmountain? These slopes and ridges and valleys are our home. I will not walk away from them, and none of my people will follow me if I do." 

"I don't care what your people want. My people need protection! We are ripe to be devastated by raiders, thieves, bandits, and I need your warriors to protect them. In exchange for their freedom, they will serve as guards for my village." 

"No, they will never agree to that," Orrak protested. 

"You are their leader, they will follow you to--"

"They just followed me into the trap that led them here!" Orrak realized how loud he was being, and hushed himself. "Even if you could convince me, they would abandon you in a heartbeat." 

Baern met that response with only silence for a time. "I know this fight. The Legion came for my village too, it's why we've been left defenseless. But I led rebels just like you against them, killed a Dreadlord in single combat to free them from chains just like these. Please. My village needs help, and your people need freedom. Don't make me leave you all here..." 

Orrak answered immediately. "Don't! Don't, just-- listen. If you know this fight, you know how badly we all want to retake our lands from those traitors. You wouldn't have walked away from that, right? You can't ask us to do the same." 

Baern's frustration led him to his first instinct. He had all the leverage! All the pressure. The fulcrum of this decision was his, and if he wanted the Bloodtotem to defend the village, then they must! But he did not follow that instinct. He got down to his knees once more and regarded Orrak at his level, his legs sinking into the mists on the cave floor. "How about this... My village houses your people. You come to live with us in our longhouses and teepees, and while you are there, some of you guarantee its defense. But, under my leadership, the rest will come with me here and fight the Feltotem. With time, we'll try and take back some of this land, create a new village or camp, and use that as a base to fight back. Do you agree?" 

"Under my leadership, longhorn. You have completed no Blood Rite. Any Bloodtotem that follows you is committing a great dishonor. You and I will make this agreement, but we will be equals. Allies. Partners," Orrak offered sternly. Acutely, Baern was aware of this one's natural leadership instincts. He may be in a loincloth, but he clad himself in the same reasonable pride as the very best Grimtotem leaders Baern had ever met, save Magatha herself. He nodded. 

"Partners, then. Now, let me--" Baern paused as a long shadow rolled over the mists just near him. He tracked its distorted, spiked form, turning his head slowly to the entrance to the cave in the far distance, sunset orange pouring in and framing the silhouette of a massive demon, easily fifteen, maybe twenty feet tall. He made now sound, and neither did anyone in the cave for a handful of tense, anxious moments. Then, a young tauren woman in the same ring as Orrak screamed. 

Baern pulled his hammer free, but stepped on Orrak's chain meeting his eyes once more. "You swear? My village will be safe whether I live or die?" The others prisoners in the ring scrambled to their hooves and darted across the cave, parting the mists as they ran. 

Orrak swallowed heavily. "I swear." He pulled against the chain. 

Before Baern released it, he issued orders. "Get to the woman over there, her name is Arahe. That tunnel will lead you to the safe side of the Ridge and you can follow her to Ashtotem village, my home." He stepped off and Orrak immediately stood up. "I will buy you as much time as you can to get out of here." 

Baern brandished his hammer and gave Arahe the signal. "Consider this my Blood Rite." 

He charged. 

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