The next morning they rose bright and early before the sun had even dared to begin showing its face. The sky was just fading to grey and pink and some stars still lingered overhead as "Ace" packed up the camp. Not long after that, Runeclaw was being strapped into the harness that would keep her from flying off the back of a water strider. She wasn't entirely happy with this mode of transportation, but it was either this or swimming and who knew what was floating around down there. She still had nightmares sometimes about the whale sharks in Vashj'ir.
Luckily, the trip across the sea was wholly uneventful and even somewhat boring as endless expanses of water stretched to the horizon in all directions. Eventually, the hazy apparition of a small island shrouded in mist appeared before them. As the shore came into view so too did the hulking figures of direhorns along the beach. The pair made landing carefully. "Ace" checked his gear while Runeclaw worriedly paced along the shore. It wasn't that she was a coward… Ok, yes, she was a coward and these dinosaurs were over twice the size of the ones in Un'Goro Crater. The ground quaked as the creatures plodded about their business, and her claws flexed apprehensively in response. Predictably, the hunter thought this meant she was in a hurry to get to work.
"Don't look so bad now, eh? Just dinosaurs," he grinned while speaking in a low tenor. He looked as giddy as a calf during Winter Veil. It was in moments like these that Runeclaw had to remind herself to be just an animal. What she really wanted to do was turn and clobber him over the head to knock some sense into her friend, but the moment she did that the jig would be up, as they say. She couldn't even roll her eyes at him.
After that, she had little time to ponder his insanity as she was kept busy dodging gigantic dinosaur feet and horns. They worked their way toward the center of the island, picking and choosing their prey carefully. These were powerful creatures so they hunted only the young and those that seemed to be suffering illness. It took a long time to harvest the skins, meat, and other choice pieces from the supersized creatures, so their progress was labored and slow. Later, "Ace" would sell or use nearly all of it for trade back on the mainland. He was mentally calculating the worth of what they had gathered so far when he spotted a devilsaur in the distance. His breath caught in his throat. The beast was magnificent! It was even decorated in rune-dappled stone armor. The trimmings alone would be enough to finally buy a quiet piece of land and build a more permanent residence.
He checked his supply of arrows and spent a moment tightening his bowstring. Runeclaw split a worried glance between her friend and the devilsaur. Sometimes, he had a bad habit of biting off more than he could chew. She had plenty of new scars on her backside, all earned by running away from some his more harebrained ideas. A noise burbled up in the back of her throat and she turned back toward the beach. Perhaps, he would take the hint and follow her for once.
"Not that way, Nakila. Just one more. We can handle it." He spoke confidently despite their numerous failures that had started out with that exact phrase.
Oh how she wanted to argue with him! Instead, she turned back toward the looming monstrosity and shuddered. He had the easy job, just stand back there and fling pointy sticks at the beast. She was the one trying to avoid getting smashed into a pancake or thrown halfway across the island. Not for the first time, she considered just how unfair this partnership seemed to be. Did unlimited supplies of popcorn really make up for this kind of treatment? Her mouth watered and her stomach rumbled. She supposed maybe it did.
At his cue, she was off and running across the bone-littered landscape. Her claws gripped the earth to propel her forward, tail flying straight out behind her as adrenaline flooded her limbs. She felt alive! She hoped she didn't soon feel dead! She ran straight up to the devilsaur and took a swat at his foot. A single toe was as big as she! The big animal completely ignored her. She was no more noticeable than a gnat landing on a boot. She tried biting it, but the leathery hide was so thick and tough that her jaw creaked in protest. It just kept standing there, doing nothing. Was it sleeping? She tossed a look over her shoulder at "Ace" who seemed to shrug in the distance and then motioned at her to try again.
With a sigh, she backed up quite a ways and then ran full tilt toward the beast. Her strong limbs thrust her into the air, and she managed to snag the leather strips wrapping the creature's lower legs. She didn't pause to contemplate what that leather was made from because she was pretty sure some of it was "Orc Green" and "Night Elf Blue" (two of her favorite drawing colors). Instead, she focused on scaling the animated mountain until she reached its plated back. "Ace" was really going to owe her for this one. Maybe she would demand something sweet from the little village. They didn't let her enter anymore after the "rice incident," but he could still buy from them, at an inflated cost.
The hunter watched his pet make her way across the devilsaur's lengthy back. A niggling of concern was prodding the base of his skull, but he was trying to ignore it. Just how much damage did he think he was going to do to something that didn't even notice it had a full-sized lion biting, clawing, and climbing on it? Still, the allure of the prize if he succeeded outweighed his more rational concerns. He pushed them aside and nocked an arrow, bow still pointed toward the ground. He would aim for the throat if he could get a good shot. The hide would be softer there and it was unprotected by the stone armor.
Runeclaw finally reached the head and perched upon the creature's brow. She looked around in confusion at the huge helmet the thing was wearing. Idly, she wondered if maybe the devilsaur had stuck its head through a temple somewhere and gotten stuck, the remains of the building forever encasing its cranium. She ambled over to one side and then poked her head through the hole where one yellow eye was socketed away.
"Rawr?" she experimented.
The beast's answering roar set all her fur on end as claws desperately dug for purchase in the stone. It shook its head back and forth, and when that failed to dislodge her, it ducked down and tried to swat her away with its stubby arms. She could hear arrows plinking uselessly off the armor as she jumped and dodged and clung. With a thud that made her teeth rattle, the monster slammed its head against a tree and she found herself falling gracelessly toward the ground. She never had mastered that whole landing on your feet thing, and so she hit the earth hard on her side. Pain wracked her ribs and lungs as her breathing froze. Panic swarmed her senses as her mouth gaped and throat convulsed but no oxygen would enter.
"Ace" sprinted the distance between them, still firing arrows as the beast turned toward his pet. One huge foot crowned with gargantuan talons lifted into the air and descended toward her. A growl of desperation exploded from the hunter as he wasted precious seconds to stop and load three arrows. He drew the string back until his biceps threatened to tear from the strength needed to hold the line, and then he released. The missiles hit the beast's exposed eye and it reared back in agony. Off balance, it toppled to the ground and bits of trees, rocks, and bones exploded into the sky.
Runeclaw felt herself being hoisted up and finally a ragged inhalation convulsed through her pulmonary system. Her vision was blurry, but it was hard to miss the devilsaur big enough to eat Thunder Bluff getting to its feet and mad as all get out. She wiggled to get down and run on her own four paws. They were moving too slow with "Ace" trying to carry her, and the beast's long strides were closing the gap at an alarming rate. He let her go, trusting that she could keep going, and they raced toward the beach side by side.
They crested a dune and a herd of direhorn unfolded in front of them. Runeclaw skidded through the sand and tried to swerve. Instead, she ended up rolling and tumbling down the other side of the dune. She was shaking sand from her ears and sneezing when the herd collectively picked up their heads and the roar of the devilsaur ripped through the air. The concussive sound stirred the sand into a whirlwind as encompassing as any Tanaris sandstorm. Runeclaw's head swung left and right as she tried to locate her friend through eyes narrowed against the gritty wind. Finally, she spotted him caught between the direhorns and the devilsaur. He was half crawling and half running toward her when the two opposing forces collided and sent him sailing through the air. He hit a tree, hard, and slid limply to the ground.
Runeclaw didn't stop to watch the reptiles engage in combat. Any other time, she might have sat there in stupefied fascination, but now she was overwhelmed with terror as she reached her friend's inert form. Her broad nose nudged his shoulder. He flopped over onto his back without so much as a groan. A sinking feeling of dread washed over her. His chest did not rise and fall, and when she put her ear to it there was no telltale thump of a steady heart. Sadness clogged her throat, but she could not cry in this form and so could only whimper and whine and mewl her distress.
She placed a splayed paw upon him and gazed down at her friend, her best friend, and saw her claws flexing and peeling at his chain armor - claws, not fingers. She realized it was finally "the right time."
The Tauren form came to her easily for the first time, perhaps due to the adrenaline surging through her veins or just the desperate resolve that permeated her mind. Her brain sifted through old spells like the pages of well-loved book until finally she recalled the one she would need. After placing both hands over the hunter's heart, she sucked the power from the earth and trees and sky around her. She did not gently ask for Nature to aid her but ripped from it what she needed and threw it down into "Ace's" body with enough wrenching force to jolt him from the ground. His muscles clenched and flexed as his body seized and twisted and then arched into the air and slammed back to the earth. A puff of dried dirt floated upward as he sucked in a ragged breath. She sat back on her heels, panting and sweating with the exertion of her effort.
His eyes opened slowly and he became aware that every bone in his body felt broken, every muscle felt inflamed and swollen, and his nerves were firing off painful twinges that left him grimacing every few moments. A bedraggled female Tauren came into focus kneeling next to him and looking as exhausted as he felt.
"Nakila," he croaked in a whisper. "Where is my Nakila?" He tried to sit up but fell back after only moving a few inches. "What happened?"
Runeclaw pulled the waterskin from his belt and held it to his lips to silence him. As she watched him sip the refreshing liquid, the Taurahe language tumbled around inside her mouth. She rolled the words over her tongue as if sampling a new food. She had not spoken in a long time.
"You died," her words were blunt, economized because she could not fathom how to put them all together yet. "I saved you."
"Thank you, stranger," he replied as she lowered the leather canteen. "But have you seen my Nakila, my lion? If she is hurt…," he trailed off, unaccustomed to asking for help. "If she is hurt, you can make her well?"
Runeclaw could see the panic beginning to bloom behind his eyes and in the way his fingers were scrabbling at the ground as he itched to get up and find her.
"I have seen her." The words came easier now but still haltingly as she carefully strung them together like charms on a bracelet. "She is well. She is here."
He did manage to prop himself up this time onto his flexed elbows and swung his head about as he looked for her. Each moment that passed eased his aches and pains, but he was frantic to get to his feet and see her for himself. Finding no sign of his companion, he swung his gaze back to the woman beside him. Her fur was the brownish-red of brushed bronze and her horns swept back in a graceful arc from her forehead. The tips of her braids held the last vestiges of teal dye. Her expression was anxious but determined as she looked down at him, and her eyes clouded with vulnerability and anxiousness as she waited for him to say something.
"You…," he whispered as he dragged himself into a seated position to lean against the trunk of the very tree that had killed him. One of his hands clasped the end of her braid lightly as he stared at the pale coloring left in it. He shook his head in disbelief, vehemently denying everything his gut told him was true. He released the braid.
"You should bring her to me. I'll wait while you go get her." He was giving her an easy way out. Everything could go back to the way it had been if she would just take the offer he was extending. They could go on pretending as if nothing had changed, but Runeclaw knew that everything had already changed.
"My name is Runeclaw," she told him and he shook his head again as he tried to stop her words from reaching his ears. "I am a Druid, a rather terrible one." The ghost of a smile touched her lips but her eyes were still darkened with the burden of truth. "When you found me, I had forgotten…"
"Stop. I don't want to hear anything more. No. More." Unspoken accusations hung heavy in the air between them.
"If I could just explain," she countered with heat in her voice. After everything they had been through together, everything she had done for him, he owed her the chance to explain, didn't he? "I just saved your life," she blurted combatively.
His jaw worked as his own anger bubbled to the surface. How long had she been keeping this a secret from him? The whole time? Was he just part of some kind of bizarre game Druids played with hunters? Didn't she trust him after everything they had been through together, everything he had done for her? Didn't she owe him that?
"Thank you, again, for saving my life," the words barely forced their way past his clenched teeth. "I don't want to hear your explanations…Runeclaw." He spat the name at her as if saying it aloud how somehow befouled his very soul.
Runeclaw's expression became turbulent as several emotions warred their way across it. Determinedly, she got to her feet and resisted the urge to stomp her foot like a petulant child.
"Fine. Fine then," she cast about for some kind of properly insulting whammy to make her dramatic exit upon but found herself lacking as usual. Verbal sparring had never been her strong suit. "Fine!" she shouted and then did stomp her hooves quite ineffectually through the shifting sand as she left. There had to be a flight master somewhere on this stupid island that could help her. All her worst fears had come true. Popcorn would never be the same.
Ace's head fell back against the tree as he watched her stumble and list back and forth while trying to speed-walk down the beach. Gingerly, he got to his feet as well and made his way back to his water strider so he could return to the mainland. He felt hollow inside. He had just lost his sister all over again. Nothing would ever be the same.