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Derecho: Twist

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((Edit to add: This story is past tense for the past month or few, and is not happening currently in-game, it has occurred))


Kerala fell.

Hissperak was there. The basilisk glared, his mantle half-raised, but it wasn't an expression of anger. The lizard was steadfastly loyal, with a caring personality more akin to an orc's wolf than the indifference of his scaly cousins. The druid found such a thing remarkable. She'd fought many basilisks over the early years, and remembered vividly seeing them all around the waterfalls of the Cenarion wildlands later.

Perhaps that was why he'd chosen one.

Kerala breathed slowly, in, then out. She heard Hissperak's characteristic whistles beside her, the sound of his own vocal breathing indicative of his name. He waited impatiently. The druid stayed on the ground, focused on the splay of her fingers in front of her face, and the feel of a small pebble trapped painfully in the hollow of her kneecap against the stone. She concentrated on the reality of being stationary on solid ground, and tried hard to ignore the other sensations that threatened to overwhelm her.

It wasn't real. She was on all fours on the floor of Sirocco's cavern, not plummeting through space. 

The sensation of falling was nearly constant now, as was the ache deep in her bones and in her head. Kerala vividly remembered the old shaman woman braced against the tremors, her face taut with the pain of them, and so she tried instead to be more fluid. She let the quakes flow through her, fighting the instinct to tense and stifle them. She was getting used to it. She was adapting to the timelessness and the confusion. She was becoming remarkably unconcerned with finding herself suddenly in another place, at a different time than only just a moment ago. This was how things were now.

Hissperak grumbled deep in the chambers of his chest and nuzzled Kerala's arm. He didn't like it when she became silent like this. The druid crooned a response, but she didn't yet trust herself to rise. She'd only fall again, she knew. She stayed on the floor, patiently waiting. She shook.

Kerala knew what was coming, even if Sirocco could not accept it. In her increasingly fleeting moments of lucidity, she knew. She didn't blame him for trying. She believed he was lying to himself and to her, to fight it, but it was his right to do so. There was a chance, she supposed. It was too late now to regret. Despite everything, she did not want to be alone. It pained her to put him through this, but it frightened her too much to face the end of this journey on her own.

The tumbling sensations faded somewhat, enough to give in to the basilisk's surly-sounding prods to lean on him. She basically rode the creature back to her pile of furs, for all the ability she had to organize the shaking lengths of her limbs. What a mess.

Was it autumn already? The summer had vanished so fast. Nights were becoming cooler. Sirocco was encouraged by this latest extract, the reason why Kerala had just managed to mostly accomplish the basest of bodily functions on her own. She laughed at herself, at the irony in how peeing without wetting oneself was a such a monumental triumph. The benefits of losing one's pride so early in life, she supposed. Everything was easier without that illusion. 

Kerala rolled from Hissperak's back onto the soft pad of furs. They were tamped down flat, smelly and in need of a good beating to refresh them, but she certainly wasn't up to task. She would care about that about as much as she cared about the growing stalagmite spatter of wax beneath the candle throwing shadows on the cavern wall in it's makeshift sconce, or the trail of ants that took advantage of the sweet spill of medicine from days ago. The insects endlessly carted the sugary bits away with a single-minded industry that the druid had watched in fascination for hours. She couldn't worry about such things beyond her ability to control. Kerala's strength had to be conserved, even mentally.

The view outside, even though everything had been shrouded in inky darkness, had been a rare treat. Fresh air tasted sweet to her. The stars above were uncommonly beautiful. She closed her eyes and imagined she could still see them. What month was this? She tried to puzzle it out. For half an hour, the druid pondered. She could see the constellations, and she could almost remember their formations, but the meaning escaped her. She couldn't link what she had observed to the memory of what it should match. She sighed. Maybe October?

Going with this best guess, Kerala was overcome with a wave of sadness. October meant Hallow's End, and while the holiday meant very little to her, she knew it celebrated the day of the Forsaken breaking away from the Lich King and becoming free. Freedom was important. Freedom was all-important, to Kerala. She knew several Forsaken of which she cared very deeply for, and this anniversary was worth celebrating. Kerala's thoughts circled the concept of Hallow's End. She thought of pumpkins and bats and skeleton bones. She thought of how the traditions had changed over the years, so that masks were worn and tricks played and treats given. Children loved Hallow's End.

Kerala had vowed not to regret the decisions she'd made to end up here. Zaetar was dead. What was done was done, but it didn't make it any less difficult when her thoughts turned to the things that had almost been. A mate. A family. Almost. 

Lupinum had his drinks and his Grim. Lomani had her faith. Then there was Aziris. The Forsaken girl was strong, of course, and would move on, but she was special. Kerala thought of the girl she'd resurrected, and of the way she'd just abandoned her. Kerala had almost been like a mother, and now, just like once before, that possibility had been ruthlessly stolen from her. Was the girl being taken care of still? Or was she alone? Did she hate Kerala? Was there anyone who would think to take her trick-or-treating?

The more Kerala thought of these things, the more agitated she became. She wanted to be sure her daughter was safe. She wanted more than anything to just see her one last time. She'd agreed with Sirocco that shifting was dangerous, that the form wasn't helping, but once the idea entered her mind, there was no dismissing it. The time was fast approaching when choices would no longer be possible. Freedom was precious. In that moment, she could feel the iron grip of inevitability slowly walling her in, and the animal instinct within her surged, rebelling. Kerala decided. This last thing, she would do, while she had enough strength to choose.

The druid took a deep breath and started the shift. The shadows cast against the cavern wall began to twist.

Edited by Kerala
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Aziris stirred the cauldron mechanically. Her mind was elsewhere, thinking of the costume. She still had scales to add, some more construction to do on the googly eyes... She was pretty sure she had the crouch perfected, and the little hops to make it really authentic. She was going to be the best gorloc Oracle ever, and hopefully win the contest prize. But she wasn't going to win anything if this stupid concoction didn't hurry up and boil!

The little alchemist returned her gaze from the thousand-yard stare in order to critically eye the bubbles forming. Did that count as boiling yet? It had to boil before she added the next ingredient, Coqui said. Aziris knew that precise variables had to be met in order to get the desired results, but WHY did this recipe have to take so long to make? She sighed, and stirred. There was still time. 

An hour later, Aziris had carefully poured the pretty mixture into flasks and sealed them. They would cool slowly in the crate packed as they were, and this was the perfect way to finish them. Hot for too long, the mixture destabilized and spoiled after a week or so in storage, and if cooled too fast had a tendency to cause stomach upsets. Not that she'd claimed THAT particular error. No, she'd merely helped Lomani care for the raiders after they all came back puking. What a terrible night. No way was she going to tell those bloodied fighters she'd accidentally messed up their potions and that she, not residual disease from some pestilent dragon adversary, was the cause of their illness! She tried to be honest, but Aziris was not stupid, or particularly suicidal. So it was that she was packing up her equipment when the shadow fell across her, thankfully cutting some of the glare of the afternoon sunshine.

"Oh ay," said a friendly voice. Aziris looked up from two dirty pairs of toes to a duo of tusks framing the smile of a troll woman.

"Hello," she answered politely.

"Wat ya be cookin?" The troll had turned her face to survey Aziris' belongings, especially the small cauldron pot. 

"I was brewing." Aziris corrected. The woman blinked at her, obviously not processing that answer, so she added, "Alchemical flasks, for friends of mine."

"Oh..." said the troll. And then her stomach gurgled.

Aziris laughed. "Are you hungry?"

The troll nodded solemnly. "Always, I be, ya. I were hoping ya share ya pickynick..." she trailed off.

"Um, well if you want, I have some tea cakes and a skin of peacebloom tea. It's kind of bitter 'cause it sat all day, but you could have it."

The troll woman crouched, watching Aziris intently as she continued placing things away in her packs. The seriousness of the attention was slightly unnerving. The troll's eyes followed each individual item from the ground through the air until it vanished out of sight. At the offer of tea  and cakes, however, she grinned and the impression vanished.

"Really?!" she exclaimed. "Ya be so nice! I be loving to share ya tea wit ya."

This made the undead pause. She hadn't meant to waste time with this stranger. She had sewing to do! "Oh, I don't..." and then the empty stomach growled again. The expression that flickered in the troll's eyes was something needy tinged with desperation, and she stopped. She looked at the woman again.

The troll was barefooted, of course. She wore knee-length britches and a short vest. Studded guards strapped to her shins matched a helmet topped in what was probably once a striking white plume. Shoulderguards of bone were not an uncommon sight on a troll, but these looked homemade. The armor was shabby, and everything was dirty. The woman was also very thin.

"I don't need to eat, but a picnic sounds lovely. I would be honored if you would join me." she smiled. The troll licked her lips and nodded, overlooking the obvious change in intended words. 

Aziris switched packs and began unloading the tea party she'd forgotten about earlier. She'd planned to go into the hills and play, and then maybe feed the groundhogs, but she'd messed up the first batch of brewing with impatience, and so had to start over. She was doing a good job, she thought, of retrieving everything but then the troll, who had been watching again with that intense hawklike stare asked "Wat be dat?"

Aziris feigned innocence. "Hmm?"

"Dis." the troll reached and, before Aziris could stop her, snatched the object in question which she'd been dodging. The troll stared at it a moment, turning the doll this way and that, causing limp arms to flop. Aziris was torn between wanting to object, demanding her doll's return, and the desire to hide as she had always done, and play the role. The troll smiled at her before she could choose. She extended the doll back to Aziris, smiling. 

"I be Derecho. And dis," Aziris snatched for her doll and the troll reached immediately into the cuff of her glove. "Dis be one of ma dollies." Derecho removed an obviously handmade doll. Pathetic, it was, with a bulbous too-large head and drawn Xs for eyes. A rend had been stitched in the thing's belly. It had tiny curved claws stuck through the fabric from the inside to serve as horns. A tauren doll for a troll? Aziris frowned.

Derecho frowned. She looked down at the doll in her own hand, then the one clutched in Aziris'. "Uh. Well, mah dolly.... he be a druid, see, so he be not having clothes..." The troll's gaze darted to the napkin full of small cake rounds. Aziris could see the calculations. This, more than anything, set her at ease. Derecho was more concerned about the potential loss of a meal than anything personal about the undead herself. 

"Derecho, it's lovely to meet you and your friend on such a fine day. My name is Aziris. Emily and I would very much like it if you would join us for tea."

Derecho grinned.

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My neck twists, lips grinning, as I survey our grand picnic gathering.

The Forsaken has the one doll, some holdover from a lost daughter or maybe her own living childhood. It is ragged now, but has the hallmarks of expert craftsmanship. The thing had once been lavishly expensive. Like everything, though, time has dulled the painted face, faded fabric colors and applied miniature scars of scrapes and scratches. The hair is bleached white. Perhaps once it had been yellow? She calls it Emily.

I introduce her to the bear. I have no name for him, only hatred. In my head I can almost hear his voice condemning me. As always, the memory of that sound is elusive and I don't bother with the attempt to chase it down. That voice and all the rest is the stuff of nightmares and best left alone. It's enough for me to know he deserves what's coming to him. I feigned embarrassment at his lack of clothing, playing on the emotions of a human mind. The truth is that I do not know what the tauren druid looked like except as a bear, or a bird, and hadn't bothered to craft clothes for him. It seemed to work, and the undead set up the tea table. 

At the stump covered by her thin blanket, the dolls sit. Emily and my own created tauren. On their makeshift table is a miniature tea set of cups, saucers, and snack plates painted with delicate pink and yellow roses. It's just about the most ridiculous thing I can think of at the moment. What purpose does it serve to sit here and serve real food to pretend people? I'm a real person, let me eat all the food. Like the undead said, she doesn't need it.

She really got into the act with very little prodding from me. I giggled in the right places, manipulated my effigy in a pantomiming of what I imagined to be a gentlemanly way, showing the ceramic-faced Emily to her seat and ensuring her comfort before trudging him over to sit opposite. Aziris is an attentive host and pulls me into the game instead of letting me merely play the doll's part. To my surprise, I actually start to have a little fun. 

"Ah, I believe I hear steam from the kettle," Aziris says in her play-voice, acting the hostess. She excuses herself to the kitchen to prepare the tea tray, which means she scoots off the blanket to arrange the picnic in better readiness for serving. She begins arranging tea cakes on a serving platter, and I notice that she has quite a few more than she actually sets out.

My stomach growls. Is she going to feed us in courses, like a feast meal, or, more likely, will she be the conservative lady and set out just enough for the four of us? I had asked for a picnic of free food, not all this tea party mess. Now it threatens to lead to real human habits of old-fashioned politeness and stupidly dainty portions. I don't have time for this, I'm hungry! An idea occurs to me.

"Lady Emily," I speak for my druid friend, "this be a fantastic-enough gathering, and ya friend be such a gracious hostess... ya be minding if I be inviting a few odda friends to be witness to ya hospitality? Dey never gonna believe I been meeting such lovely ladies like yaself, ya be seein..." More plates on my side of the table equates, in my mind, to more share of the tea cakes.

Aziris pauses in her careful stacking of the little biscuit rounds. Her faces briefly blanks as her eyes scrutinize my doll again, lingering on the belly stitching in particular. I thought she had accepted my story of the doll's poor care and the need to play doctor to fix him up again, but I'm beginning to think the girl is a bit smarter than I've given her credit for. A troll with a homemade doll? That's not the least bit suspicious is it? Too late now. I've already admitted that I have more dolls, and besides that I'm hungry. I was already nearly caught by a bluffwatcher about to make off with a pair of plucked and hung striders. Only my own paranoia and a third quick scan kept him from actually witnessing a theft. Damned tauren. The tea cakes are my most immediate and certain source of calories for the moment, and having actually seen them now, it's really hard to not need them.

"Be forgivin my presumption, nice lady. I only be meaning if ya have enough fo sharin...?"

Aziris blinks away whatever thoughts lurk behind those glowing eyes and smiles at me. She picks up the tray of treats and moves it a few inches closer, as if she is returning from a faraway kitchen. "Emily, did I hear we are to have more guests? Why yes, dear Azi, Mister druid here was just askin if it would be alright to invite them to sample your delicious baking. Of course they are welcome! Bring them in, by all means! The more the merrier..." Aziris looks at me expectantly. "Please show them to the table, Derecho?"

Something in her expression makes me believe that I have erred somehow, revealed something about myself that I hadn't quite meant to share. What secret have I lost? She sets the heaped serving tray down and picks up the abandoned stack of dessert saucers from earlier table-setting, waiting patiently to set a plate for each new arrival. I cannot help myself.

I bring out T'suro the third. I introduce him, making the doll bow with a gracious sweep of his tiny little stick spear, and set him at the table. Aziris smoothly plays the role of hostess and sets a plate for him as she speaks for both herself and Emily.

My second Lilliana joins the tea party, her fireweed hair is no longer scarlet but dried out and brownish. The plant strands crumble easily, and this doll is soon nearly bald from the rough manipulations of removing it from the cuff of my glove and setting it at the table. The second hidden face on the back of the head, with angry slitted eyes and slanted scheming mouth suddenly seems like a poor design choice. She peers at me. 

Aziris smiles again, and this time the impression of superiority is unmistakeable. Something she suspected has just been confirmed. She chooses that moment to begin serving, and my thoughts instead gloss to the pondering of what those little round cakes will taste like. Will they be dry and crumbly? Buttery? Does she have jam to go with them, or just the tea? How many will each puppet get to have? What about the real people?

Aziris greets Lilliana and Emily compliments her dress. The undead splits the cakes in half and serves the rounds open-faced, one half to each puppet at the table. She places two cakes on the plate for me and as she passes it back, nonchalantly asks if there are any more guests that might like to arrive? She is well aware that Sanctuary and The Grim are quite large guilds. It's such a treat to be able to see them acting so amicably...

I'm not quite sure how it happens, but the picnic blanket is soon filled with every random doll I have thought to create. Julilee with her driftwood shield. Kexti holding his stick topped with a snailshell jug of medicine. The monk doll's face is completely absent, instead having concentric circles, like a target. There is another paladin with both arms ending in tufts of yellow feathers. His name is Cerryan, though I don't know why I know that. A green doll with a giant heart stitched over most of the area of the torso and an angry face I recognize as Shokkra. Along with this one is another, very similar and plain except for the head, where the same yellow feathers stick out of the mouth along with a single red one. Is that supposed to be fire? Then there is the eyeless half-doll, missing it's legs and pudgier than the others with zigzags drawn over every inch of it's black-and-white form. 

Aziris watches as I pluck these from every nook and cranny of my armor. The dolls emerge from pockets, from under flaps beneath the bones caging my shoulders, from inside my bushy hair. I retrieve them from my vest, betraying the utter lack of breasts actually padding the garment. I refasten the studded leather guards against my shinbones after unpadding them with dolls.

If the Forsaken is surprised by the number of my targets represented, she hides it well. She insists on having each one introduced by name if I'm able, and then directs them to their seat at the table as if she really were a grand hostess conducting an epic social event in her home, instead of a silly girl playing dolls on the edge of a bluff behind a bunch of tents. With each new arrival the stack of tea cakes becomes smaller and soon enough there are no more plates. Each additional doll gets a napkin and a biscuit in their lap. We end with only two unclaimed treats, which she adds to my plate with the smooth excuse that the person who had made her tea party such an extravagant affair should rightfully receive an extra portion. She invites us all to please enjoy our tea, blowing gently on her own tiny cup as if to cool it and then sipping.

I'm ecstatic, surveying my little army of dolls each with half a tea cake. Along with the tea, this will be an excellent meal. I proceed to eat and drink happily, occasionally voicing a different character. "Oh miss Aziris, dis be de bestest party I eva been to. Ya be so nice to be hostin it. Pfft, less talkin and more passing o de sugar, firefly. Shokkra, bein nice to our lady host! No demonkilla weapons at de table. Be eatin some o dat sugar, ya, improve ya attitude. Miss Emily, ya must be sharin de name o ya tailorin guy, Julilee always be wearin de armor, see, and if she be having a dress she be lookin mighty fine, right? Lilliana, no flingin o de crumbs at ya Sanctuary, now, we all be here nicelike..."

The Forsaken gradually quiets, contributing less and less to the pretend as I find myself swept up in the story of it. I nibble at every doll's tea cake for them, doing my best to be dainty about it and take small bites after my own biscuits vanish. This is a lot more fun than I had thought it could be. It's nice to have someone just sit with me and be friendly. It makes me miss that bartender. Everyone has gone to the new islands. I wonder if perhaps it is time for me to follow them.

I don't see Aziris fold her arms, watching me. She discreetly inserts a hand up one sleeve, finding something hidden there. As she sits, watching me eat and play nice with her doll and the crafted representation of everyone I wish to see dead or maimed, her thumb rubs a small oblong device between her fingers, activating it. When I glance to her to smile, still happy at this whole picnic thing and cheeks full with doll food, her own lips twist upwards in response. 

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Lomani froze, pins pressed between her lips and fabric held in place. After a moment, the bride-to-be noticed and tried to twist to peer at the seamstress. Lomani had done her the honor of agreeing to sew a special dress for her wedding ceremony. Seeing the faraway look in the seer's eyes, however, she politely excused herself to come back some other time. Lomani let her make her escape, despite the momentary distraction having nothing to do with visions or the Earth Mother. This was a far more mundane worry. 

The silver seer snatched up her mace as she exited the tent. She heartily disliked the weapon, but thanks to regular sessions she was at least proficient with it. The seer relied more upon the gifts of light granted by the Earth Mother. 

She waved to a bluffwatcher, ever vigilant, and requested a runner be sent to fetch the elder shaman Anura from spirit rise. At this time of year, with the weather turning colder, it was a sure bet the old healer was taking refuge in the naturally heated springs within the rise. Lomani was young, very much so in comparison to the elder, but even she could often feel the beginnings of weather sense between her horns. She held sympathy for the elderly and their aches and pains. The bluffwatcher surprised her by immediately going himself. Perhaps he was bored and longed for the exercise.

Lomani paused, a hand on the pendant hanging from her neck. The source was much closer than she expected when receiving such a summons. 

Like a hearthstone for communication, Skytotem healers often created warding charms for those they chose to care for. Coqui made dozens of them, and gave them out liberally to all the children she interacted with. If Chanchu ever gifted one of her wards with a jar of her homemade preserves, there'd be a little peach pit charm tied with ribbon to it. While she never officially claimed a ward, Lomani had crafted a trinket for her niece, the small Forsaken that Kerala had taken a liking to. It was this charm being activated that had caught her attention. Aziris needed help.

Sure in her destination, Lomani strode for the flight tower. She ascended the ramp to the next rise and made her way to the back of it. The Bluff's residents all nodded greetings to her or called briefly, but did nothing to waylay the purposeful seer. Lomani turned abruptly between vendors, stepping among delicious scents of roasted kodo ribs and stew and the distasteful odor of this morning's lake catch hung for drying. The entirety of the shu'halo people were busy bringing in harvests and stocking up for winter and so there was a lot of this mingling of celebration for the present and solemn preparation for the future. 

Lomani eased carefully around a pile of bones stacked carefully on the outside of Kaga's cooking tent and paused, listening. The Mistrunner vendor, for all her curiosity, did not bother to poke her head around to see what the crazy seer was up to, though surely she was itching to, if only for a story to relate later around a cozy fire. The ways of the Earth Mother's chosen were their own, and were mostly respected. If she called, there would be a formidable force assembled within moments ready to assist her. 

"...ain't had no pa like ya had, to buy nice tings fo me." someone was saying.

"I would have rather had him close, to spend more time with him. Presents are great, but they aren't a very good substitute for a parent." Aziris replied. She didn't sound distressed in any way. Lomani stayed back, confused. The two must be just ahead beneath the pine trees talking. Aziris' companion hacked, gasped, then coughed more usually. "Are you alright?"

After a moment, "I be okie. Be not drinkin and breathin wit de same tubes, it be not workin out so well!" She coughed again. "Ya be mad at ya daddy, fo bein gone?"


Lomani shifted quietly, leaning slightly to see around the tents she stood between. Aziris sat facing her, and the undead met her gaze briefly in that uncanny way of always knowing who was around her. 

<Hello, Lomani.> the little priest's voice whispered inside Lomani's head, soundless. The girl's companion, a troll, crouched with her back to the spying tauren. She continued speaking on the topic of absent parents and material things while another conversation took place at the speed of thought. <I'm not in any danger, probably, but I really thought you should see this.>

Lomani looked. <What is it that I am seeing?> she asked, confused still.

<This troll and I are having a picnic. She spotted Emily and brought out one of her own dolls. And then dozens more. All the major guilds are represented, and many of them are people we know and are friends with. I didn't know what to do.>

A hexxer in the middle of Thunder Bluff? Voodoo, as far as Lomani knew, was an actively discouraged practice. That a witch woman was here, freely brandishing their effigies? The troll was either extremely powerful... or perhaps touched. <...give me a moment.>

Aziris nodded. "Right," she said to the troll, "and having Emily close helps to remind me of him."

The troll cocked her head. "If ya want, I can be givin ya a dolly of ya momma."

Lomani blinked hard, willing herself to See with the gifts given to her by the Earth Mother's grace. It was like a forceful refocusing of the eyes to supernatural. The world changed in her vision. Everything living became multi-hued and luminescent in glowing prisms of color that were almost painful to behold. It was chaos and it was beauty. The seer peeked around the now pale white barrier of the tent wall obscuring the sight of her adopted niece and the stranger sitting with her. She frowned.

There was no one there.

<Where did she go?>

The slim rainbow form of Aziris regarded her, the emotion center low in her abdomen swirly with patterns of confusion and anxiety. <She's sitting here.> the mental voice whispered tightly.

Lomani grimaced, a hand to her temple as she bid her vision to return to normal. A passing bluffwatcher paused, eying her. When she shook her head slightly then raised it to see him, she beckoned. "Brother, I need you." 

He jerked his chin in the direction of the longhouse as he stepped between the tents without question to aid her. "We're with you." The hand gripping his ax was deceptively loose, but Lomani had seen the watchers at their practice. She knew the kind of assistance he was ready for, the kind she was afraid she needed. The use of the collective 'we' reassured her too.

With the guard at her back, the silver seer tried to calm her panic. There could be a perfectly logical reason why a troll woman would be carrying around a plethora of little dolls. Maybe she sold them for a trade. Her heart didn't buy the logic her mind tried, and too she could not ignore the overwhelming fact that the woman had been invisible to her Sight. Myths and legends abounded with tales of the creatures hidden from the Earth Mother's eyes, none of them good. 

Lomani burst from between the tents to confront the troll that was not a troll at all.

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In one moment, Aziris sat with a perfectly normal and playful troll. Three-toed, moss-skinned, with tusks and a characteristic laid-back smile. For all their easy postures and languid attitudes, though, there was an equal and opposite ferocity, and Azi had never quite understood how such a thing was possible, until just now. It was as if some illusion had just been instantly and thoroughly dispelled.

Lomani and a bluffwatcher dwarfing her appeared from between the row of merchant tents, while Anura ran up opposite. The old shaman came from the cobbled path on four ghostly paws with tongue lagging from her mouth in an easy wolfish smile, until she saw the picnic laid out. Then she growled, and hackles raised.

Derecho was no longer smiling either. The troll was backed off a bit from where she'd been sitting, facing the newcomers equally. She was crouched incredibly low to the ground on the balls of her feet with her weight on all fours, balanced between her knees. She reminded Aziris of a sleek jungle panther. Or a snake, maybe.

"Child, come away from there," Lomani the Silver Seer ordered, in the sort of tone that automatically expected obedience. The sort of tone that made Aziris' teeth set and her back straighten, but this was no situation in which to argue.

Aziris stood slowly. "Derecho," she said calmly as she stepped back a few paces, "this is Lomani Greydawn and Anura Skysong. They are family to me."

"Oh ay," the trolless agreed. "An' dey be right pissed off 'bout someting. Whatchu want?" she called to the tauren.

"I want you to explain this, right now." Lomani indicated the picnic sheet with dolls strewn over it's surface. 

Derecho spared a brief glance down, then her gaze darted to each face present, returning to Aziris' before she answered. The troll tilted her head. "Well boss-lady, ya don't gotta be pointing weapons just fo havin a chat. We been having a picnic. She done gave me de food, I been not taking it! Tell dem," Aziris nodded. "See?"

"And these?" Lomani stepped up to the blanket with the dolls. 

Derecho shifted, but stayed in place. "Be mah dollies. Well, dat one dere be hers. De rest be mine. We been playing make-believe."

"Make-believe? These look like they represent real people."

Derecho grimaced. "So? De kids in Orgrimmar be playin wit fancy dolls o de Grim folks be looking just like 'em."

Lomani squatted down slowly, reaching for a few particular dolls. "The Grim did not create theirs from hair and bone. The Grim did not make their dolls with rent injuries stitched up again, and targets for faces. Who is this? And this one?" Lomani grasped two of the tiny dolls into her palm. The seer handled them with care. One doll had concentric rings on the surface where nose and eyes and a mouth should be. It had a stick sewn into it's hand with a snail shell jammed on top. The other, with simple bobbed hair drawn onto it's head in black ink, held a piece of wood on it's arm and a cactus thorn sword. That doll had a rather large heart shape stitched over half the torso. Another target? Aziris knew who they were and suspected Lomani knew it as well, especially when the seer chose those two together.

Derecho's lips pressed together in a thin frown. Then it disappeared, and instead she shrugged casually. "Dere be lots o warriors in de Horde. Some o dem be having ugly mugs dat de monstahs like to be punching, seems like. Or even not monstahs! Ask de Cantina bartendah sometime, he be telling ya. Dey always goin fo his nose! An dem be his paying custom! If ya be wanting a doll all pretty and nice-like, may it be ya could be donating me some fancy buttons or some such, okie? Fuck de Grim an dere fancy dollies."

Lomani's eyes narrowed. "You mean to tell me that if I were to call Kex'ti Dalendala and Julilee Liene here right now, and if I were to... I don't know, smash this doll right here and stick this one, that my very dear friends would be entirely unharmed?"

Derecho grinned. "I like to be seein dat. Ya be callin dem ovah, okie? Dat elfie done made me a good meal, we can be feastin an havin a good laugh at ya and ya silly head missing a bit more den just de one horn."

Aziris frowned. "You didn't answer the question," she pointed out.

The troll openly scowled at her, but whatever retort or insult she might have spat was interrupted by a clacking sound, loud and insistent. Everyone turned to see Anura next to a pine tree. Her face was furious. The shaman held in her hands a staff, thicker at the base and spiked with thorns. The sound repeated when she rapped the weapon against the trunk of the tree. A skull adorning the top of the staff clunked with a dull thud three times on the bark. The angry shaman pointed at Derecho and then let the staff drop as she smashed her hands together at Lomani, her fingers held in stiff and quick-changing positions. 

Derecho reached for the staff. "BAH!" She had to snatch her hand back instead to keep it from being crushed beneath Anura's hoof as the old woman stomped down. There was a tense moment of quiet in which the only sound was the slamming of the shaman's hands together as she communicated.

"What is she saying?!" Aziris demanded. 

Lomani ignored her. The seer's attention was raptly on the other healer's rapid hand movements. Aziris' forced herself to stay calm. The weapon lying on the ground belonged to her mother, she would recognize it anywhere. Kerala would have never simply given the staff to anyone, which meant something was very wrong. 

The troll crouched, wisely staying still. She was so motionless she could have been a statue. Everything seemed poised on the edge of potential. Something bad was about to happen. Something bad had happened already. 

Edited by Aziris
To add the link referencing Grim dolls.
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I know what the old shaman is saying.

Her fingers twist into shapes and configurations, instead of her lips and tongue. It makes no difference. I've been here before countless times. There is a reason why I avoid cities.

My best guess is that the stick I found belongs to someone they know. I can't quite discern from the other tauren if it is someone they like or not, but the undead... the expression on her face is telling. Her yellow eyes drift from me to the stick and back again. Given our previous discussion of absentee parents, I can fit two and two together to come up with the conclusion that I'm in deep shit. 

I don't know if I can talk my way out of this one. Orcs and trolls and goblins and elves, they are easy to dupe, if you know how. Tauren can be swayed with the appearance of respect or honesty, maybe pity especially. They are generally a good people, and if they have doubts they usually choose the moral high road. But these tauren are mad already, and that changes things. 

What the hell did I do now?

Against my better judgment, I open my mouth. "Look, I been findin de stick, I been not knowin it were yours. Ya can be havin it back, I just kept it 'cause it were pretty. I can be leavin it wit ya and go on me way..."

Before I can even think of taking a step, the Seer points a thick finger at me. "You will stay here, and if you value your life, you will remain very, very still." She had never even glanced in my direction. She was still watching the other lady 'talk'.

"I be tinkin dere be some misunderstandin here, boss-lady. I done no ting wrong!" I protest. The bluffwatcher takes a step in my direction. I shut up. I can recognize an intimidating tactic when I see one. He's reminding me that I'm not in control here, that silver bitch is, and he'll enforce her directives. He's also wisely beyond easy reach of me, but I can tell by the way the ax sits his hand that he's pretty confident in his throwing ability. 

The old one finishes her ridiculously long finger speech with a snort of air through her nose. Lomani turns to me. "Where did you find this?"

It's almost automatic to lie. The urge to make up something, anything to get them to let me leave, is strong. Immediately, I discard the idea. I don't know what it is the old woman knows, and if I'm caught telling falsehoods, that would guarantee more trouble. "I been walking de foothills, huntin. I can be pointin?" I ask permission, then indicate the direction. "Ova dat way. It were just layin dere, an no one be around, so I pick it up."

Lomani looks at Anura, who nods. "There was an attack up there, are you aware?" The silver cow asks me. I shake my head. "There have been a great many battles. Demons encroaching from the sky, infiltrators sneaking their way into cities-"

"I be no demon!" I shout, interrupting her.

She glares with those creepy pale eyes of hers. "What exactly are you then?" she murmurs quietly. It's a question meant for me to hear, but perhaps no one else. The shaman frowns. I glare back, keeping my mouth shut now. Louder, she says "The scouts found evidence of an ambush against one who could change her shape. My sister. There was quite a lot of blood spilled there. Hoof marks, claw marks, boot prints... and too, evidence of one who remained back, on the rocks so as to leave no prints."

"So? Why ya be tellin me dis? It weren't me." 

"You must admit, the circumstances are quite suspicious."

My mouth blurts out loud the thought in my head. "No, it be really poor fuckin luck, is what it be."

The silver seer glanced at Aziris sharply, and the two locked eyes for a moment. She turned back to me. "You maintain innocence, and I do not believe you. Would you consent to a reading of your thoughts?"

"If I be sayin no, ya keep tinkin I done it. If I be sayin yes, den ya let me go?" My stomach begins to cramp. Tea biscuits are delicious, but a meal they do not make. With all the rest of this going on, it would figure it couldn't wait a while more. Poor luck indeed. I need to go.

"I promise, if you let me see the truth, that you didn't harm my family, you can leave." Aziris tells me.

I don't like it. I don't like it at all, but, it's either let them poke and prod, or... well I don't know what, but I know I don't want it. "Okie. Ya," I point at the undead. "Ya can. I be not doin what ya tink I been doin. See fo yaself."

I'm not certain what to expect. Aziris stares at me. I'm afraid. Will there be pain? Can I hide things from her, or have I just given permission for that girl to go wandering anywhere she pleases? I don't know what's in here. What will she find? I expect it should hurt, somehow, to have one's privacy violated, so that's what I brace for.

Nothing happens.

Several long moments pass. The Forsaken stares at me without blinking. Everyone else stares at me or her. My stomach growls, and I try to ignore it. I wait.

"I can't." she announces.

What? That's not right. "Ya can. I said ya can! Be doin it so I can be leavin, please." 

"I said I can't. I'm no shadow priest, I can't force my way in. You've either lied and not truly given permission, or there is some other barrier blocking access. I. Can't." Aziris' tone is a degree colder. She thinks I'm lying.

"Well be callin one who can, den. Being quick about it, I be havin places to go an people be seein, ya know. It be not fair ya keepin me here when I want to be leavin!"

Anura claps her hands together to draw attention, and then she does her twisty hand thing at Lomani. The seer make a face. The shaman repeats herself, I recognize the pattern of the gestures. The younger woman sighs and apparently acquiesces to the elder. She nods. The old woman takes a few steps back and levers herself down onto her knees with the aid of a pine tree trunk.

My curiosity temporarily overrides the sense of gravity for the situation I'm in. "Wat she be doin?"

"She's calling someone."

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"Okie. ...Ya. Good." said the troll. The gangly woman seemed to settle somewhat, accepting that her request was being honored. She slowly pulled her feet beneath her to crouch in a more conventional posture, balanced now on her toes to wait. Lomani watched Anura press four totem spikes into the earth around where she was knelt, and then she bowed her head. Everyone waited. 

And waited.

Derecho brought her hands into her lap and clasped them in a patient manner. Then she scratched at her head. She shifted weight from one ankle to the other. Then back again. After a few more minutes, the troll abruptly let herself fall backwards onto her behind with a sigh. Her movements were haphazard in the way of a fidgety child, mostly telegraphed and exaggeratedly careful in deference to the weapons aimed at her, but almost as an afterthought.

"Be still," Lomani ordered. 

The troll obeyed, mostly. She sat quietly in the grass and occupied herself with nibbling long pine needles, choosing them one at a time with one hand while the other gripped her bare feet. The silence broke in a long, low rumbling sound. A gurgling gut. She propped her chin on her fist and her elbow on her knee. Her gaze reflexively swept over to the abandoned picnic blanket strewn with dolls before she directed it somewhere else. "It be takin long?" she asked. Her voice was loud and held a whine to it. An attempt to draw attention to direct it elsewhere?

Aziris noticed the glance to the dolls, however, and she was not the only one. Lomani did too, and her eyes hardened. She waited patiently on the outside for her counterpart healer to complete her task, but inwardly, the tauren was frantic. Anura had found the staff propped against the pine tree. Anura remembered the details of the scout's report and made the connection. The older woman had a much clearer head than Lomani herself did right now, but it was Lomani's sister. The thought of her being hurt somewhere alone, or possibly even dead already... the seer had heard rumors of attempted murders even in the public crowd of the Cantina. Those rumors spoke of hexxers and dolls. She was not in the mood for any trollish games.

The seer glared at Derecho. "Demon or not, a promise has been made to you. Against my better judgment, I intend to follow it, as such words are not used lightly in this family." Behind Lomani, Aziris flinched. "You will wait for this witness to arrive, and we will hear the judgment regarding your involvement in my sister's disappearance, possible injury, or even death. -IF- you are innocent as you claim, you may leave Thunder Bluff immediately, and I would recommend you do. However it will be without these gruesome 'dolls'."

"Wat!?" Derecho protested. She was going to continue hollaring, but Lomani simply kept talking without raising her voice at all. In the interest of hearing the quiet words, the troll had to shut up again. 

"If the witness indicates otherwise, you will be confined for the duration of time necessary to investigate my sister's absence, the nature of these dolls, and if they were used in other recent attacks of horde members and dear friends of mine. If I find out that you had a hand in any of these occurrences, I will personally ensure that atonement for these crimes be satisfied by the surrendering of your life."

The little clearing beneath the pines became rather silent. The short little silver seer had just stunned everyone with this very serious declaration. Lomani had not said it aloud, but in her heart, it was a sort of promise too. She meant every single word.

The troll, for once, had nothing to say after that. 

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Aziris watched the situation unhappily. She wanted Anura to hurry up and summon her witness, probably an elemental of some kind. Did rocks have eyes to be able to identify people with? Maybe it was more like hearing. Or taste.

She inwardly berated herself on her own idiocy. She'd forgotten all about those rumors of voodoo attacks. People tried to kill each other every day, why should the invasion of a demon legion change anything? People were stupid. She was stupid. Here's a troll laying out doll after doll and she'd just gone and promised the woman that she could walk off if only Kerala was safe. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Again, the priestess cast her thoughts out toward Derecho. The woman was picking up little trios of pine straws and then eating them. She'd put the end of one in her mouth and then feed it further through her teeth with grasping pinches of her lips, like a rabbit. Or a horse. She looked precisely the opposite of any spellslinging murderer Aziris would have imagined. Then again, just a moment ago her posture had been so full of calculated poise that Azi thought of vipers. She knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving.

Aziris' questing mind came up against the same thing as before. A barrier, smooth and dark and impassible. The troll continued to nibble without concern or any indication that she was aware of the priestess trying to infiltrate her head. 

Frustrated, Azi retreated again, wishing she had greater aptitude for the Shadow magics. She resolved to spend more time learning. Everything was about balance anyway, wasn't it? She needed more darkness. All too often people associated Light with goodness, and Shadow with evil, when she knew better. She felt useless.

The priestess bent and began gently gathering up the edges of the picnic blanket, tying corners together to make a bundle that could be carried. She figured this would be better than stuffing the dolls into the dark interior of a pack. She didn't know how these things worked. What if she suffocated one by piling others in on top of it? That would be so much more terrible than merely fast-chilling a batch of flasks and upsetting a few tummies.

A clapping noise drew everyone's attention. Finally, Anura was done with whatever communion she'd been working at. A tiny little spirit hovered timidly beside her, the essence of it's body swirling like vapor. Where it's head would be, instead there was an ethereal bird mask etched in flowing blue swirls.

"Spirit!" Aziris cried. Elation flooded her to see the little creature, Kerala's ever-present shadow. Spirit seemed happy too, it raised it's arms in a cheer gesture at her, then cast a nervous glance at the others in the clearing. She knew it was thinking that this was no place for games.

Lomani's expression was vague. If she was happy to have the elemental here, she wasn't showing it. Spirit looked at the silver seer shyly, and drifted a smidgeon closer to Anura's skirts, like a small child sheltering in its mother's shadow. Aziris wanted to hug it.

"Spirit, we called you here to ask about our friend, Kerala. Your friend too, right? Do you know Kerala?" Lomani asked it.

Spirit's bird face cocked to an angle for a moment. It nodded slowly.

"Spirit, she's been gone away a long time, and we are worried for her. We don't know where she is or if she's alright. Can you tell us?" This time the elemental took a minute to answer. It's solemn eyes surveyed each person in the clearing, one at a time, for several seconds each. Spirit looked at Derecho last. Then the little creature heaved a great big sigh and rose up to head level. Its head bobbed forward and back. Yes, it could tell them.

"Is she alright?" Spirit looked very sad. His head swung left and right. No.

Aziris' heart sank. "Please show me where she is!" Spirit hesitated a moment, looking from Lomani to Aziris and back again. It looked up to Anura, who smiled, as if to encourage it. The little elemental did not seem to be reassured, though. Reluctantly, a vaporous arm lifted.

Spirit pointed at Derecho.

"Shit," said she.

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Everyone twists to stare at me, of course.

I'm still sitting on my butt in the dirt, leaning over my feet with a pine straw hanging from my lips. They all jump to their conclusions, and I can see the leaps reflected in their expressions. The little undead girl hates me now. Lomani wants my head on a silver plate, probably. The bluffwatcher is prepared to try and give it to her. The old shaman merely gapes at the empty space where her little summoned creature just disappeared. Neat trick, that. If only my own escape could be so easy.

It's remarkable how such supposedly nice people turn ugly. Do all evil monsters start out good? Do they lose their way somehow, and become nasty hateful creatures that way, or is it some flaw in the design that dooms them from the start? More importantly, are they truly evil? I see these people look at me, and I know they believe I am. 

I don't particularly care what they believe. They might be right, but that doesn't mean I'm going to lay down and surrender. I didn't do whatever it is they think I've done. Plenty of other things, sure, but not this one. I don't think...

The moment of shock seems to pass. The shaman peers at me. Lomani starts to open her mouth, and the bluffwatcher's arm twitches with his ax.

"APAPAP!" I warn, "Ya best be settlin now." I say casually. I withdraw my right hand from where it has lain the whole time over the gap between my big feet. Nestled there is the only doll that I cannot identify. From the brief description Aziris gave of her adoptive mother, I can only assume that this doll's name is Kerala, the missing person and loser of my pretty thorny staff. 

I don't recall making this doll. 

The stitching is better than I have bothered with for the others. There is an actual shape to it, easily recognizable as tauren from more than just a suggestion of horns and mane and a tail. There is a real snout structure, and even flap ears. The hair is made of bits of rope carefully uncoiled so that there are twisting spiral curls actually sewn on. The eyes are tiny green seeds. The body is stuffed loosely with a dry light-colored sand that doesn't smell a bit like brine. 

There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's a regular doll. There is nothing inside it to break, no stitching to rip open, no obvious target to aim a pin at. Before all these added guests had appeared, I'd been about to give it to this sad girl and go on my way with a belly briefly occupied by a few tea cakes. Seemed like a good trade to me.

Now? Now I kind of want to stab it, watch the sand spill out, and then set it on fire. An idea sparks into being.

"Wat ya tink be happening if I were to be ripping dis dolly's head off?" I let them look at my bargaining tool, and shift their mindsets from offense to defense. While they take a minute for that, I reverse my knees, swinging my ankles behind me so that I can rock back up onto them. I reach into my trouser pocket, seeking a gift. The smooth metal square is warm to the touch.

The bluffwatcher looks to Lomani for direction, and the stiffly held hand at her side is flat toward him, withholding. The other is curled into a fist. Of everyone here, that one I think is the greatest danger.

"I think you had better not do that," she tells me.

"An I tink we be done here, okie? Ya got de stick, ya got my dollies. Thiefs and betrayahs, all. Ya be a good match fo each otha! Keep dem. An here, dere be anodda ting ya been not takin from me yet. I be leavin it wit ya fo free!"

I snap the flint on the lighter and hurl it at the picnic blanket with the dolls without waiting to see if the thing worked. For once, my aim is nothing short of amazing. The silver square trailing a thin ripple of flame neatly disappears in the teardrop-shaped gap between ties.

Chaos erupts. 

Several people shout at once. The bluffwatcher's ax hurtles at me. I try to leap back, but the ground is covered in pine debris. There's needles everywhere. Instead of providing purchase, the slender things slip and slide on each other, and I end up falling hard on my face and belly.

I throw the doll at the smoking bundle, right to Aziris feet.

A blaze of heat makes me flinch and look up toward the shaman. A huge and terrifying boil of magma screams toward me, blotting out any other sights. I panic. I twist to the side at the same time that I let loose a burst of magic. 

A billow of air snaps through the entire clearing. The ball of magma is deflected at an angle, and everyone is knocked to the ground with me. Another ax thuds into the ground by my elbow. I yank my arm closer, pulling myself into a smaller target, and take a moment to survey what I've done.

Aziris is scratching at the dirt, struggling to get back upright to attend to the burning pile of dolls.  Lomani is slower, perhaps partially stunned from the fall. Anura's lava is splashed across half the picnic pile, scorching through fabric and earth even as it begins darken into rock. The smell is horrific. A totem is laughably spitting water still. I'd guess only the drenching of its initial downpour is what has saved some of the contents of the blanket from becoming ash already.

I start to climb to my feet too, but a tremor ripples through my muscles. For a moment I have absolutely no control. Fantastic. Sure why not? This is turning out to be a day for shitty luck anyway, why not start shaking now? I'm going to need more time. 

I decide that getting away is more important to my survival than being stingy with my energy. If I escape, then I'll worry about the other things. One step at a time. First: get the fuck away from here.

The shaman leaps for my throat, all transparent fury and snapping teeth. I'm already on the ground, so I brace, catch her and then body slam her wolfish form into the dirt beside me. Her momentum helps tip me upright, and I lean my elbow into her soft middle as I let loose another spell.

Roots erupt from the ground, bursting in a targeted attack to snare everyone I can see. The old wolf gurgles as I hold her down for a snaking tendril to capture her head and pin it down. She whines when the thorns sprout. The guard immediately starts hacking at the plants grasping his legs with a hatchet. He has two, but is reserving his throw until I'm clear of Anura, I bet.

A great big shining bubble appears over the smoldering bundle of dolls. Aziris is casting while stuck in place, trying to save the dolls from further damage rather than stop me. I'm fine with that. 

I gain my feet. I can hear shouts from the other side of the line of tents. Very soon this place is going to be too crowded for my tastes. I run for the edge of the rise and leap.

The bluffwatcher's ax splits the tuft of my jungle flower hairdo and thuds into the totem trunk I'm aiming for. I can hear him spit some kind of shu'halo oaths behind me. I grab at the handle of the hatchet, using it's embedded head as an anchor. My grip is too weak. I have to use both hands to pull myself up and get my feet braced. Then I shove off and let myself fall onto the taut blue-stained roof of the longhouse on the lower rise. In another moment, those fighting to free themselves will be, and while my smoking distraction worked for the healers, it won't stop the Bluff's guardians.

The roof bounces beneath me. I lose my balance and windmill, then curse myself as my toes skid along the leather. The angle is too steep! I race, clawing with hands and feet both at the roof as I scramble for the edge. I can hear Lomani's voice. Frantic to stop whatever cast she might be attempting, I let myself slide for the brief moment it takes to focus on her form and aim my own spell. A violent gust of air envelopes her. 

My feet hit a support beam hidden beneath the longhouse roof. I nearly fall right then from the sudden stop, but I'm close to the edge now. I leap for it, throwing my weight as best I can in that direction instead. My fingers hook around the thick wooden beam and find solid purchase in the texture of twine wrapped around it. 

Securely anchored now, it doesn't matter that I'm falling. I let my legs slide the rest of the way off the roof. I swing over the edge and twist to bring myself around. I drop almost neatly onto the bridge platform like I planned it. Ha! 

The tauren standing there fires his rifle point-blank.

Edited by Derecho
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The terrorist, gangly and thin, was blasted off her feet. The bluffwatcher's shot caught her in the middle, but off-center. The troll twisted like a wobbling top and, like the child's toy, crashed against the platform's rail. Anura's wrinkled fingers on Lomani's arm was the only thing that kept the furious seer from trying to get down to them, or from trying to cast the same spell again to make the murderous woman burn in holy fires of her own.

There was enough already in ashes.

Lomani let the old shaman turn her from the sight of her brother guard standing firmly over the crumpled form of the troll, rifle aimed and ready. The entire clearing around her was bare The force of the troll's wind gusts had scoured the ground. Pine needles piled in an eery ring around them all and new dark soil dotted the circle where grasping thorns had sprung up. Smoke leaked in sinuous lines still from the wreckage of what had been the entire collection of the witch's dolls.

"Mother have mercy. What have I done?" 

Aziris was crying. The Forsaken pulled figure after blackened figure from the ruined blanket. Many were too delicate to withstand being touched, and crumbled into fragments at the handling. Her movements were frantic, bordering on panicked. Anura covered her mouth with both hands, staring. 

Lomani had an idea of the trauma in the old healer's mind. This had not been at all what was supposed to happen. Were the dolls active? The possibility that they had just let this witch incinerate every friend they knew, and possibly aided in that, was staggering. It threatened to overwhelm her, except that's exactly what Aziris was going through. This was no time to fall apart. 

Lomani put her hand gently to Anura's elbow, making the old healer turn to see her. "Go help her. Try and see if you can determine if..." Lomani couldn't put voice to the thought. She trailed off, but Anura nodded slowly, understanding the request. She went to Aziris.

Lomani turned to the nearest tauren. "Send the longrunners to the guilds Sanctuary, Borrowed Time, and The Grim. Make the Forsaken open portals if necessary, but go with haste. Take a healer. See if they are alright." The bull put fist to heart and then sprinted for the tower.

The silver seer gestured to two others. "Come with me." Her neck twisted as she glanced over the edge of the rise. The troll was still down, still safely beneath the gaze and trigger finger of the watcher and his rifle. She hurried along the path to the longhouse, not entirely certain what she would do when she got there.

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It's one of the miracles of the world, how much abuse a body can take, and is designed to take. If you have a minor ache, it's meant to be a signal. Hey dummy, you overworked yesterday, remember? Take it easy for a couple days, it'll fix right up. Small cuts, minor burns, or scrapes, bruises. Those things can be lingering annoyances that present right away But the big things. The important things. They don't hurt, at first.

I don't even recognize immediately what happened. I felt the impact. It felt just like getting punched. I knew I'd been hit, but it wasn't much different than taking a blow from fist or a foot. Punches and kicks don't tend to launch you like that, though. 

That's the first thing that makes my dizzy brain realize something is wrong, as I lay there suddenly on the deck gaping. It certainly isn't from the pain; there isn't any yet. I can't pull in a full breath at first. That's also to be expected from a blow to the belly or ribs. They don't like getting hit, and they'll make things difficult for a minute until a primitive reflex can reassert itself. Air in. Air out. Air in. Panic settles. See? Not dead yet. 

Scarlet fluid on the boards says otherwise. It's gorgeous. Splattered in a random pattern, bright red spots are already starting to darken and disappear, sucked into the grainy texture of the wood. There's  more though, spreading. It has to be mine. I twist, slowly, and put a hand to my middle. I can't feel the touch of my own own fingers. I feel the hotness of my belly, and the sticky-slick wrongness of a raw gaping hole where soft mossy skin should be. It's a bad wound, I realize. Really bad. 

It's at about that point that initial shock protection begins to wear off, and sensation, wholly unwelcome, starts to clang every internal alarm and sensor it knows. My breath hitches still again in an unconscious attempt to stave off the overwhelming pain, to somehow keep it from worsening. When that of course doesn't work, air whooshes back out with involuntary vocalizations. Gods, it hurts!

This is going to ruin my whole day.

For a good long while, it's all I can do to lay there, moaning when I can't help it, and writhing too. The bull who shot me issues some order in a slow deep voice. The words are orcish, but I can't quite manage to comprehend meaning just yet. Ow.

It takes far too much time to come back around to something resembling coherent thought. In the next few moments I entertain and reject half a dozen potential courses of action. I can't kick his hooves out from under him and take his gun. He's too heavy to do anything but break a foot off on. By the same token, I can't sweep him off the platform. Both of those options put a great deal of faith on the unknown capabilities of my lower limbs. I can still wiggle my toes, so nothing is paralyzed. I stare over the edge of the platform, not quite feigning a complete lack of will to continue fighting, or move, for that matter. An aerial guard wings by on patrol.

I writhe a little more, testing slightly my capabilities, stiff for the agony it causes. The bluffwatcher might have sensed ulterior motive there, for he repeats the command to not move. I glance at him, or try to. I end up looking straight on into the barrel of the rifle he has trained on my face. He's not messing around, I think dully.

Well, neither am I. I'm sure I've lived through worse. The realization that I can't seem to think of worse at this moment is a bit tiresome. Whatever. I am not going to stick around so some holier-than-me cow bitches can call me thief one more time. Movement at the fringes of vision catches my attention, and immediately I have my way out.

I can hear the thunks of at least three more tauren ascending the inner ramp of the longhouse as I lay bleeding on the deck staring down the barrel of a gun reflected in the shiny surface of my own blood pool. All I do is lay here on my hip and shoulder, breathing shallowly, trying and mostly failing to ignore the hurting. I'm staring to feel cold, too, but I'm aware that the trembling that comes and goes is mostly not shivers. 

The reflection shifts slightly, and I take the gamble I'd already committed to, assuming the bull guarding me has briefly twisted his neck to look at the approaching seer and whoever was coming with her. The distraction is almost perfect. I release a burst of magic against the wall of the longhouse at the same time that I try to raise myself and reduce friction. My own harsh voice sounds in agonized counterpoint to several tauren exclamations of surprise.

I don't manage to rise up on knee and point of elbow for more than a few seconds, but it's long enough. Without the friction of the whole length of me against the wooden boards, and maybe due to the fact that they were lubricated with my life's fluid, my spell works as hoped. The blast of air scoots me away, under the railing, off the platform. 

I fall through the air, vision suddenly blurry. Is the world spinning? The inner sensation of tumbling doesn't match the wind direction, and it took much more effort than I expected to do that maneuver. I wonder if now I'll faint and just splat uselessly to the fuzzy ground below.

I don't faint. I blink my eyes to clear them, stare at the strangeness of the two creatures rising toward me, and cackle hysterically at the ridiculousness. Which one do I aim for?

I choose the left one, as if there is still any choice in the matter now that I am a living projectile, and at the last minute the two images resolve themselves back into one. The left one. Yay. My falling body slams into it.

The wyvern screeches. We all plummet several hundred feet before it can recover, but there is no saving it's rider. Who ever looks up for danger? The terrified tauren grabs at his mount. It's no use. As fast as my momentum has stalled, he has been shoved. The windrider becomes short two large tufts of mane as the tauren slips from the saddle. He screams. The mount screams. We all scream. 

The windrider promptly tries to attack me. It's deadly stinger whips forward, as I grab for it's reins. The barb stabs viciously into the leather of the saddle. I can feel a friction burn on my neck from the tail. Rude! I use my leather handhold to haul myself into a slightly less precarious drape over the creature's back, pinning the tail. I loop the reins once around the deadly stinger and twist, feeling rather resourceful.

The wyvern barrel rolls. I am snatched up out of the saddle. All my weight jerks hard against the wrist threaded through the loop of rein, and there is a loud cracking noise and a moment later a stab of pain. I'm crying now, unable to see and unable to stop. 

We finally turn right side up once more. I slam back down onto the saddle. The creature screeches anger at me, having failed to throw me off or free it's tail. I whack the mount over the top of his head. "Shut up and be flying straight!"

Perhaps it understood the command. Perhaps it realized the danger we both were in, aloft without the security of the rudder tail or the ability to accurately see with the way it's head was snatched up and back. The wyvern's flight stabilizes.

We're headed west into the setting sun. 

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The windrider chafed at it's restraints. Mount and troll conqueror crested the western ridge together and descended into Desolace under an orange sky quickly turning pink. Winds aloft over the desert expanse were decidedly chaotic, volatile and therefore dangerous without the stability of a tail to counteract. The creature glided ever closer to the ground avoiding gusts. It instinctively did not like the fuzziness of the far horizon, either. 

On high alert, the windrider sensed easily when the troll atop it began to weaken. The creature suddenly plunged downward to the dunes, hit hard and then bounded sideways to throw it's rider. It worked. The woman tumbled off and hit the sand in a heap. The wyvern roared triumphantly and turned to attack, raising it's freed tail to strike. 

The wyvern paused. It sniffed the air, scenting blood. The person on the ground didn't move. She presented no threat to it anymore. The animal roared again in defiance and leaped away, intending to go home. 

The wyvern's head snapped back toward the troll. It was tethered! Furious, it gnawed at the reins restraining it and backed away. It dragged the troll across the sand by her wrist, yanking and growling, for several yards. Eventually it's tugging managed to unwind the reins. They came loose from the troll suddenly, causing the windrider to lurch and sit down. Freed, it promptly turned and dashed across the sand, wings pumping. The creature abandoned her there, swiftly winging back toward Thunder Bluff. 

On the ground, the troll groaned, a soft and utterly bleak sound. 

The sky began to darken. Winds increased, gaining strength enough to begin picking up small streams of sand from dunetops and playing with them. The troll squinted up at the ominous haze, realizing the same instinctual danger as the windrider had. Sandstorm. She had to move. Where?

The troll's head lolled, trying to see around her. There was an odd spike in the rapidly descending gloom that might be shelter. If she didn't move the winds would scour flesh from her bones, and then grind those into smooth obscurity.

She rallied, curling knees and elbows inward until she could rock up onto them. She braced an arm against the ground and unfolded, then managed to lever upright with much wobbling and frantic replacement of feet. Most of her surface was crusted with a layer of sand grit embedded in oozing jellied blood. The wind tried to knock her down again. She staggered, splay-limbed and uncertain as a newborn strider. The sudden cessation made her reel again. 

The troll doggedly made for the spike, a rough stack of stones thrust up through the desert grit. She tripped over boulders that tired shut eyes never saw, used those same rocks to climb back to her feet and start again. She couldn't tell anymore if her lurching was due to the numbness and tumbling equilibrium inside, or the fickle gusts on the outside. All of the above.

She never made it. 

The troll staggered and fell to a knee, shaking uncontrollably. She tried mindlessly to get back up and keep going. She crawled another body's length before strength abandoned her completely. One arm folded beneath her weight and she plowed to a stop, face smashed and open mouth half filled with grit. Sand began sifting down onto the fallen form as she lay gasping. 


Soquili watched the odd shadow moving closer in the slipstream, spear ready to defend the shelter from who dared think to share it. When the creature collapsed, he grinned. Not centaur, and not even a fight! He licked his dry lips. Gauging the storm's strength, he decided a light scouring was worth the potential meal. The centaur grunted to his companion and mentor, jerking a thumb to indicate his departure. The glare that met such a gesture was reproachful. One did not simply dance with the deadly torrents of Desolace. But the half skull mask flashed dimly as the Collector jerked his chin up, granting permission. The shelter rattled with the soft hollow noises of the gesture as it caused hundreds of tiny bones decorating the ancient Magram to clack against each other. 

Soquili dashed out of the small shelter at a canter, eager to be out and back before the sands flayed him too badly. He reached the half-buried lump, a humanoid, and hooked the barb of his speartip in it's clothing. He dragged it into the lee of the entrance, his coat shivering to divest it of clinging dirt.

The Collector gestured for Soquili to bring the thing to the fire for butchering, the eyes greedy behind bone. The younger centaur did so, the flickering light and shaking off of desert revealing the derelict form of a gravely wounded troll. Her eyes were dull, lolling up at him. Soquili lifted a hoof over that gaze, intending to step the rest of life from their dinner, when the Collector barked at him. "Stop!" He obeyed, immediately lowering the hoof back to stone as the troll's eyes closed. He cast a curious glance at his mentor.

The older centaur kicked his forelegs in front and then lurched to his hooves, filling the alcove with rattling. He picked up his own spear and prodded the troll, poking bone spaulders, vest, and then strapped britches. His browsing elicited a soft moan. He ignored this. He pointed at the wound in the woman's side, indicating something Soquili should have seen already. The younger centaur was perplexed. He was even more confused when his mentor cast a thin finger toward their supplies. Obediently, he maneuvered to retrieve a waterskin. 

When he trotted back it was to find the Collector on his knees, the troll gathered into his embrace. Her head lolled, senseless. A superior gleam shone when the Collector turned a toothy grin up to the younger centaur. "Watch," was all the old one said. 

Soquili watched. The troll's limp body morphed. Like most druids without conscious thought to hold them in form, she began to revert to nature's intended design. 

To see it occur so slowly and unguided was sickening.  Soquili averted his gaze higher to the wall, watching the shadows instead. They twisted to a soundtrack  of pops and crunches, with squelching and silky soft swishing. Only after it silenced did he dare lower his gaze again.

Soquili couldn't quite believe his eyes. He jammed a knuckle against his vision and looked again. The Collector cradled a familiar fuzzy tauren in his arms. "She...?"

The older centaur nodded, setting all his bones swinging to their clacking music. "Yes." he confirmed. "After storm, hunt the Sirroco. Bring." He reached up for the waterskin to begin cleaning Kerala's wound. "Say to him. Say 'The Derecho home'."

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