Well, I don't own the franchise or any bit of it.

Ashenvale Adventures

Across the Plains

The sun burned down from a clear sky the soft color of peacebloom leaves. Not even a whisper of wind stirred the tufts of stubborn grass growing across the flat, sandy plains and the air was still and hot. Far to the west, the land rose in orange and red mountains, blurred by the shimmering air. To the east and north, the land stretched in a tan sheet that was only broken by the odd hill, until it met the blue dome of the sky. To the south, directly ahead, a large, lonely hill broke the horizon.

Maurus breathed deeply, feeling his chest swell with the familiar air and savoring the scent of dry earth. The sun's rays warmed the fur on his upper body and he was glad he'd put the leather and mail shirt he usually wore away. With each step he took, the lion carcass he'd slung over his shoulder bounced against his bare back and he was only just keeping himself from breaking into the relaxed jog he usually adopted when he traveled across the Barrens. It was an urge that grew harder to resist each day, but he doubted his companions would appreciate having to keep up with his long strides.

On one side of him, Mathias was stoically bearing the heat, hunched under a grey robe that covered most of his body. With his every step, the cloth rustled against him, an unpleasant and slightly worrying scratchy sound.

"We need to go further east." Arianna's voice held an edge, but she sounded much less irritated than she had been the first day. Maurus couldn't help the small smile his lips formed when he glanced at her. She walked on his other side with her usual grace, head held high and every step a smooth movement, but the elegance was completely at odds with how sweat poured down her face, which was reddened both by sunburn and by the sheer heat. What hair that wasn't hidden under the cloak he'd finally convinced her to wear after the first day in the sun was sodden and clung to her head and her eyes were squinted against the harsh glare of the sun. Ash, summoned again days ago, loped alongside them, as energetic as always, unbothered by the heat.

Maurus shook his head. "We're going a little further south," he said and pointed towards the hill ahead. The ruddy brown of the land and the hill was separated by a line of dark green, which danced and wavered in the haze. A thin line of almost white bordered the green, but Maurus knew they couldn't possibly see the water from here.

"This better be worth the delay," Arianna said, putting away the obsidian shard of horn she'd been using to track their quarry. Maurus let his smile fully appear on his face.

"Trust me, it will. It's time we get out of the sun. We won't catch anything if we collapse from exhaustion out here," he said. He could almost smell the scent of the palm trees and the water of the oasis. "And with the centaurs driven back to the mountains, the only thing we have to look out for is the wildlife."

"You had me at the promise of shade," Mathias said, shielding his eyes with one hand as he looked into the distance. He lowered the hand a moment later and quickened his pace. "Let's hurry up, I'm parchment dry here."

They passed into the shelter of the trees late in the afternoon and Maurus' companions let out twin sighs as they passed into the shade. Almost from one moment to the next, the air turned damp and rich with the smell of flowers and the slight, stale stench of algae. Maurus could feel the earth beneath his hooves grow moist as they made their way through the thigh-high grass, the strands of green whispering against their legs as they moved. Somewhere above them, a bird shrieked and insects buzzed quietly ahead.

The clear water shimmered in the sunlight like precious gems and the sight of the lake was as beautiful as he remembered it. The oasis was even larger than last time he'd been here, three wide pools shining in the sunlight, surrounded by lush greenery that was sprinkled with splashes of scarlet, violet and blue. It seemed the druids might be right. Maybe the debacle with the Wailing Caverns hadn't been a complete loss.

Maurus muttered a quiet prayer to the spirits of the oasis. Even after the tauren had mostly relocated to the more verdant Mulgore, the respect and appreciation of oases was something deeply ingrained in their culture, from the days when it was a reason to rejoice when an oasis came into view. He dropped the lion and his backpack a short distance from the water, making sure the lion rested on a thick layer of grass and turned to the water, beginning to loosen his pauldrons.

Mathias had sat down, leaning against a tree, his cloak and backpack discarded in a heap beside him. He'd opened a small jar and was smearing it's contents on his face and hands. It looked like fat, but when Maurus had caught a whiff of it a few days ago, he decided that it definitely wasn't just that. When he'd asked what it was, Mathias had just said it kept his skin from cracking and Maurus had decided that was enough information.

Arianna took off her travelling coat and wiped her forehead. "Void take this heat," she said, dropping her backpack unceremoniously onto the ground and pulling her traveling cloak over her head.

Maurus pulled his pauldrons off his shoulders and laid them on the ground beside him. "How on Earth did you manage to get to the Shattered Peak?" he asked. Unless she'd come from the west, she would have had to go through the Barrens to get there and it seemed unlikely she had come from the west.

"The caravan at least provided shade," Arianna said as her cloak joined her backpack on the ground. She pulled locks of sodden hair away from her face and added: "And you can easily travel through the Stonetalons without ever getting into direct sunlight. At least if you avoid-"

Maurus looked over at her when she abruptly stopped speaking. Her expression had frozen mid-word, mouth slightly open, when she'd looked at him. "What are you doing?" she asked, her tone flat.

"Take a wild guess," Mathias said. He'd put away the jar of weird paste and rested his head against the trunk of the palm tree. He looked like he was preparing for a nap. "Why do you think my eyes are closed?"

Maurus shrugged as Arianna looked over at Mathias and tugged off his trousers before walking down to the water. His hooves sunk into the mud, pleasantly cool, as he waded out into the water till it reached his navel. His ear twitched and his tail flattened a fly that had settled on his back as he stood for a moment, enjoying the contrast between the hot air and the refreshing water lapping against his body.

"Savages," Arianna muttered behind him and he snorted before he let himself fall forwards, arms out to the sides. The water closed around him in a soothing, cleansing embrace and he relished the quiet that enveloped him, enjoyed the feeling weightlessness. He reached out and dug his hand into the lake bed, feeling the slick mud against his fingers, his eyes searching the water for any sign of blue and bone. Even though the water was almost pure bliss against his body, it hadn't driven caution from his mind. Finding nothing, he turned onto his back and looked back over his belly at the shore and called: "I'm a savage? Why?"

"Shall I count the ways?" Arianna answered. She'd lain down on the grass and was looking up into the greenery above her. Ash stood in the mud, lapping up the water with a long, red tongue, the brown beard-like fur beneath his head soaked through.

"Just the most pressing one," Maurus said, sinking down to sit on his knees in the mud and beginning to rub his arm slowly, cleaning out filth, dust and old sweat. He sighed as the water around him lost its crystalline clearness and turned slightly cloudy. It had been too long since he'd had the chance to really get clean.

Arianna waved a hand in his direction. "You have no shame."

Maurus raised a hand from the water and studied his fingers and the dirt that had caked under his nails. "I'm a little ashamed about how filthy I've gotten. I blame your civilization for that shame," he said wryly. "Then again, you two are as bad as I am." He looked up from his fingers just in time to catch Arianna's glare and grinned. It was oddly gratifying getting a rise out of her, though he found that he was a little disappointed she didn't have a retort.

"You're saying no to an opportunity to get clean and I'm the savage?" he asked. Ash was now rolling back and forth in the shallow water and Maurus once again found the behavior of the demon disturbingly puppy-like. Arianna caught his gaze again and she sniffed contemptuously.

"Cleanliness is not a sign of sophistication. Even beasts clean themselves."

"They don't exactly do it with this fervor," Maurus replied. He noticed the dead lion behind Arianna and smirked. "Though some do it with considerably more limberness."

Arianna looked over her shoulder, then back at him. After a moment, she got it and rolled her eyes. "You are a crude creature," she said loftily.

"Crude but clean," he answered lightly. He scrubbed and scratched and slowly his fur turned from the dirty, light brown-grey to its natural dull white. With skin feeling slightly raw from the bath, he finally rose and waded back to the shore. He hadn't felt so good in weeks.

Arianna had gotten out needle, thread and the robe the succubi had shredded. Maurus hadn't even realized she'd changed clothing before he spotted her repairing the garment two days ago. Both of his companions had found some humor in him not noticing at all that she'd exchanged a robe that had practically exposed her entire back because of the shredding for a fresh one.

He shook himself violently as he passed her, showering her with droplets, a lazy smile on his muzzle. She half-turned her head to him, seemed to change her mind and groaned irritably as she returned her attention to her needlework.

"Shaking yourself like a dog does not support your claim that you're no savage," she said.

"But it works. Why are you so against practicality?" Maurus asked as he crouched next to the lion and slipped his skinning knife from the sheath at his belt. It slid easily through the skin of the dead cat and immediately, Maurus' free hand got soiled with blood.

"Should have done this first," he muttered, without any heat. He felt altogether too light and rejuvenated to mind getting the order of his two tasks mixed up.

"What was that about being practical?" Arianna asked, her neutral tone wholly unconvincing. "And would it kill you to get dressed?"

"Being practical is letting the sun dry me," he said. He looked at the heap of clothing and armor at his right and mused jokingly: "It would be even more practical washing my clothes now."

Arianna let out a long suffering sigh behind him. He smirked as he set to work, expertly skinning the dead beast.

"Fine, just as soon as I'm done with this. There is enough blood in my clothes already."

He was running, stumbling alone through the darkness. The walls were closing in, so slowly that he was almost tempted to think they weren't moving but he knew it was a futile hope. He couldn't see anything but the rock beneath his hooves, yet he knew, with complete certainty, that the tunnel was narrowing. There was a low, dull groan that throbbed in his ears, the only sound aside from the pounding of his heart and his heaving breath. The air felt thick and heavy, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't push out enough air to get another proper breath into his lungs. He was running, but it was like he was moving through water and his muscles were leaden and numb.

He turned a corner, certain of the movement despite being unable to see any part of the walls, and became aware of the sound of hooves echoing through the tunnel. He couldn't hear his own hoofsteps, but the distinct clack of hoof on stone drifted through the air behind him, unhurried, yet coming closer all the same. He looked behind him and for the first time saw color. Twin slits of green fire looked back at him and for a moment he felt relief, before a mouth under the eyes opened in a smile, revealing needle-like teeth that glowed white in spite of the darkness.

He stumbled and fell, slamming into the rock, but hardly feeling pain. He got up on his hands and knees, but when he made to rise to his hooves again, his back hit the ceiling. He couldn't breathe, but he scrambled forward, his back brushing against the ceiling, his arms scraping against the walls. He crawled and it felt like he was dragging his limbs through thick mud, the darkness seeming to cling to him, slowing him down.

He came to a stop when a large, coal black hoof appeared in his vision, larger than his own. He raised his gaze, eyes gliding over pale skin and obsidian armor to look up into a cruel smile and eyes glowing with fel fire and dark amusement. He was paralyzed as a hand, tipped with claws like daggers, reached out for him.

He woke with a gasp, his eyes snapping open to look up into a sky full of silver stars, a vast dome which was an immense comfort to him. His heart was beating as hard as it had in the nightmare, but his senses felt sharper and the feel of grass and earth beneath him, his clothes brushing against his fur and the ease with which he managed to sit up, was a far cry from the fuzzy sluggishness he'd felt while he slept. He greedily gulped in lungfuls of air, his lungs finally working again.

After a few moments of simply sitting there, breathing, he brought a hand to his face and rubbed his forehead, groaning quietly. Since they'd made it out of the tunnels, not a single night had passed without at least one such dream. He was no stranger to interrupted sleep, but it had been a while since his nightmares had been so vivid. Though if it wasn't for how terrifying they were, he would have welcomed the simplicity of nightmares where he was the victim.

He looked to the side and saw Ash standing between him and the trees, gnawing on a length of lion bone, but still watchful for anything that might sneak out of the greenery. The lion skin hung in on a branch some feet away, the meat long since packed away and the bones thrown out into the jungle. Instead of burning or burying the offal like he used to, Maurus had given it to Mathias, who'd eagerly scarfed it down, much to Arianna's disgust. The forsaken in question was lying a few feet away, his arms actually crossed across his chest, looking like a corpse shabbily prepared for a funeral.

Arianna's bedroll looked unused and her staff lay unattended on top of it, which was odd, considering she usually let Ash keep watch for her. A quiet splash drew his gaze down to the water, cast silver in the moonlight. Arianna was sitting with her back to him, the water reaching up to the small of her back. Her hair was out of its usual ponytail and spilled down past her shoulders, a shade darker than her skin and she was running her fingers through the damp locks, straightening out tangles and cleaning out the grime and dirt of the Barrens with handfuls of water. She looked tranquil, a graceful, pale figure rising from the glittering water.

Her serene bearing seemed at odds with the state of her back. It was a map of pain, lined with long, thin stripes of rougher skin, round bumps and angry bulbous bits of scarring. They all interweaved in a way that told Maurus the injuries had happened over a long period of time, scars on top of scars. It seemed she had been more literal than he expected after their run-in with the succubi, because there were both old and new marks from whips.

She sighed as she squeezed the water from her hair, much like Maurus had when he'd been bathing, and something in her posture made him realize she was about to turn.

"Are you keeping an eye out for snapjaws?" he asked, a little hurried, feeling a pang of guilt when she stiffened. He hadn't felt a need to cover himself and he'd stopped her from exposing herself further, but this much might be bad enough by her standards of modesty. "They can take a foot if you're unlucky," he added, keeping his voice light. "That's permanent unless you have troll blood."

"I am always careful about the places I bathe," she said, voice colder than he'd expected, beginning to scrub her arms. "I learned that the hard way."

"So did I," Maurus said, looking down as he rubbed his thigh. He could just barely feel the crescent of small dents. "At least I got the croco bastard. Tasted pretty good too, after a few hours over a fire."

He glanced up to find Arianna looking back at him over her shoulder. The luminous green eye was disconcerting after his previous dream, but the smile she gave him was genuine and without teeth. It seemed he hadn't offended her terribly. He smiled back.

"If I had followed your example, I would have nothing to say to the eating habits of our friend over there," she said, tilting her head in in the direction of Mathias. Her smile got a little harder. "As I recall, I did roast them though."

Maurus' gaze again drifted down to the patches of skin that looked like they had melted and set.

"You ought to take better care of yourself," he said quietly. He wasn't even sure she could hear him.

"I'm-" she began, one hand tightening into a fist.

"-used to it," Maurus finished for her. "Is that normal? Most dedicated practitioners I know stay back and let people like me take the brunt of the damage."

"I lead a very active life," she said. Her smile faded and her mouth twisted. "And some things are unavoidable."

"Starvation isn't," Maurus said, deliberately keeping the words light, as Mathias' jabs at her skinny body came back to him. He couldn't quite disagree now. "You should eat more, I can count your ribs." That wasn't quite true, but her ribs were pronounced enough to be noticeable.

"Please don't. In fact, please go back to sleep," she said mildly, her turning her head forward. Maurus lay back down and closed his eyes.

"I think I'm gonna make you eat more," he said amiably, closing his eyes. "Enjoy your bath, it'll be the last in a while."

"I will," she said and Maurus could hear the small smile in her voice. With the sound of regular, soft splashes and the occasional whisper of a stirring leaf in his ears, he fell asleep again and found no nightmares waiting for him.

The next morning they left the oasis and continued, traversing the sea of dirt and golden grass for days, seeing nothing but wildlife: kodos, lion, skittish deer and the occasional raptors. Though Maurus had found it fortunate that the lion had suicidally attacked them, he was glad that the animals kept their distance. A coordinated attack from raptors or lions could become a problem. He decided they probably didn't like the smell of Mathias or Ash and considered his suspicion confirmed when he left the group to gather more food and only had to search for an hour before he was attacked by a lone raptor. He didn't mention it though. He doubted they would appreciate being told that that the animals shunned them.

Arianna slowly began guiding them more east than south and Maurus got a niggling suspicion of where they were headed, but whatever trepidation he felt about their apparent destination was forgotten when Arianna began getting a fainter and fainter sense for the dreadlord. One morning they woke to find that she'd lost him completely.

"Plague and pestilence!" Mathias swore, the words filled with icy fury. He hurled his shield and sword to the dirt and took a heaving breath, his fingers curling into claws ready to rip or strangle. Somewhere in the back of Maurus' mind he found the heaving breath the most startling but the thought was forgotten almost immediately, lost in his own frustration. He crossed his arms and took a deep breath, making an effort not to grind his teeth as Arianna tried her spell again.

She was still gripping the piece of black horn tightly in one hand, her eyes closed. Her staff pulsed once more with flame as she mouthed a steady stream of quiet words that had become familiar, if no less understandable, over the days. She opened her eyes and crouched to let Ash study the horn. He sniffed the obsidian shard, prodded his skull-like snout against it, before turning in a circle around himself and tilting his head to the side. She rose and shook her head.

"Are you sure there isn't anything?" Maurus asked, glancing at Mathias, who looked like a lion ready to pounce. He tried to keep his tone neutral, but the frown that appeared on Arianna's face told him he failed.

"Of course I'm sure," she said irritably, putting the horn fragment away.

"You almost look relieved," Mathias accused. He picked up his weapons again and inspected them, running a finger along the edge of his sword. The impression was that of someone on the edge of violence, but Maurus doubted it would actually come to that. Mathias was a furious fighter, but he didn't seem like one who'd attack allies. Arianna looked to be of the same opinion. She didn't seem impressed.

"I admit it would be a relief to give up the chase of the dreadlord," she said levelly, her eyes narrowed to slits, "but I don't abandon what I begin."

"And how are we going to find him now?" Mathias spat the words, but stopped looking like he was ready kill something.

"The regular way. We search," Maurus said, with more confidence than he felt. He saw only a slim chance of success. The dreadlord simply had too much mobility with the ability to fly and the intelligence to use it. As things stood now, they could end up searching the entire continent without finding him.

"It's odd how the trail faded. It seemed so strong in the beginning, despite the distance" Arianna said. "Then it faded with more and more speed."

"How does that help us?" Mathias asked bitterly.

"With the lead he already had, it would be odd if it was just more distance that made the trail vanish like that," Arianna said. There was a slight hint of lecturing in her voice, mostly hidden in her flat irritation. She clearly didn't care for Mathias' hostility. "The trail didn't vary at all the first week, despite our target likely increasing his lead very quickly."

"Like an animal suddenly gaining more speed?" Maurus asked. He wasn't sure he followed, not exactly an expert on magic, much less warlock magic, but he thought he could see the similarity to his usual hunting.

"More like if you kept pace easily before and then it just doubled its speed each day for a week," Arianna said.

'That does sound weird' he thought, frowning, before shrugging. Whatever the case, standing around wouldn't be of any use. "So we follow our last heading and hope for the best," he said firmly. "Let's get going."

No more needed to be said and they set off. It became a long, miserable day in the sun. Disheartened by losing their track of their target, none of them felt like talking and the sun was as merciless as always. The heat was no worse than the previous days, but in the oppressive silence Maurus found none of the enjoyment of the previous days. It wasn't until late in the afternoon, as Maurus began to recognize landmarks, that a word was spoken. Mathias shielded his eyes with one hand as he looked slightly south of their chosen route and asked sullenly: "Do you get sandstorms here?"

In the distance Maurus saw dust rising far into the air, a murky curtain stretching from west to east that muddled the pure blue sky. He shook his head. "Not here. You need to go further south or to Desolace for that. And you aren't in doubt when a sandstorm is looming." He frowned and added, baffled: "This is traffic."

The wide road of beaten earth was usually quite busy, being a major trade route, but the usual traffic paled in comparison to what they saw now. The road was completely lost beneath the river of people traversing it, a wide mass of people that were ten times as wide as the road itself. Wolves and raptors carried their riders with great speed along the edges of crowd while kodos pulled wagons through the center of the migration. A large part of the crowd, at least a third, were made up of professional soldiers, marked by the dull red armor of the horde.

They were all moving east and Maurus realized that the road and their own path would intersect behind a familiar line of hills, behind which he knew the land dipped towards the ocean. The pall of smog that was visible over the hills removed any trace of doubt about where they were headed.

"That makes no sense," Maurus said. "What would he do in Ratchet?"

"How would he do anything in Ratched?" Mathias asked. "Even Varimathras doesn't walk around freely and he has our Lady's confidence."

Maurus looked at Arianna as a horrible thought occurred to him. "Can dreadlords change their form?"

Arianna gave him a curious look, seeming a little impressed, but more surprised. He let out a disgruntled sigh. "About a tenth of my tribe is as comfortable on four feet as on two," he groused, "and tricksters are abundant in our stories. So?"

"I've never heard of it," she said, eyebrows knitted in thought. "But knowledge on the Nathrezim is scarce and that is a secret I suspect they would guard jealously."

"A year ago, the deathstalkers took a scarlet crusader off the hands of a soldier I know," Mathias said grimly, his expression darkening into a murderous glare. "The crusader was raving about 'the terrible truth' and screaming that the Grand Crusader was a demon. Varimathras is in charge of the deathstalkers."

"I haven't heard of this," Arianna said dubiously. Maurus swore he saw her ears perk with interest. Or maybe it was just the tilt of her head.

"Of course you haven't. No-one took it seriously, the scarlets are lunatics," Mathias said impatiently, "but it supports the theory."

"Bringing us back to what the dreadlord might have come here for," Maurus said.

"Ten coppers say it is related to this migration," Mathias said. For the first time all day, he straightened slightly and his steps became more energetic as he quickened his pace. "Let's find out what is up with this crowd."

The air became thick with the smell of beasts and travelers as they approached the column and the din quickly became deafening. The travelers shouted at their beasts, barked, talked and laughed at each other while the beasts snuffled and grunted and bellowed. The hundreds, if not thousands, of feet beat out a dull roar that enveloped it all. Maurus noted with surprise the abundance of blood red and gold in the stream of Horde. The blood elves were still vastly outnumbered by the trolls, orcs and tauren, but they made up a significant part of the crowd. He knew the blood elves had come to Kalimdor, but he hadn't appreciated just how many there were before this day.

They fell in along the crowd, the only ones paying them any heed a wolfrider that had to swerve to avoid hitting them, shouting a curse at them as he passed and a few that gave Ash and Arianna wary glances.

"Use your eyes, kodo dung!" Maurus shouted after the retreating figure, before something occurred to him and he quickly turned to Arianna. Thankfully, she didn't seem inclined to actually curse the wolfrider. Instead she'd fallen back a bit towards a group of blood elves. She patted one of them on the shoulder, a woman clad in red-lacquered armor, over which she'd thrown a thin red cloak with a hood. The elves nodded at her and intoned greetings in a melodic language Maurus didn't understand. He joined them just as Arianna asked:

"Why is everyone going to Ratchet?"

The elf raised an eyebrow and her mouth turned up in a smirk Maurus found decidedly conceited. "Where have you been, sister, to be so uninformed?" she asked. There was an amused lilt in the way she spoke the words, like she found it funny to use them. Her gaze fell on Maurus and Mathias and comprehension flashed over her face. She wrinkled her nose for an instant, almost too quickly to see, before she added, tone deceptively light: "Ah, running with the savages."

Maurus' jaw tightened, but he forced himself not to clench his fists. There was no reason to plant his fist in the face of the stupid little elf and the fact that she could likely heal herself didn't make it a more sensible action. Arianna ignored the comment and asked again, slightly more insistent: "What is going on?"

The woman's smirk widened into a full smile and her eyes shone with eagerness. "Our Prince is within reach again," she said reverently. "The Dark Portal has opened!" Arianna simply stopped. The blood elves chuckled and didn't seem inclined to do the same, so Maurus put a hand on Arianna's shoulder and pushed her so they could keep up.

"And why is everyone going to Ratchet?" Maurus asked, when it didn't seem like Arianna would pick up the conversation. The blood elf looked at him like he was an imbecile and hesitated just long enough that Maurus could tell it was deliberate.

"The horde is mobilizing, to secure Draenor and aid us in reaching our kin." She sniffed. "That is, after all, our entire reason for joining you."

Maurus forced his annoyance down and asked, deliberately talking slowly, like he was speaking to a child: "But why are people going to Ratchet and not Orgrimmar?"

"The orcs lost a lot of ships to sabotage, a fortnight ago," the woman said, the slightly lifted chin telling him she wasn't pleased with being addressed like that. Her tone dripped scorn when she added: "The army was out stopping demons, allowing troggs and warlocks from the Cleft of Shadow to burn a third of the ships. So now the Horde is relying on mercenaries for a good part of their transport."

With that, the blood elves seemed to decide they had had enough of the conversation, because they quickened their steps. Maurus didn't feel like any more of their company and didn't make any effort to match their pace, allowing them to go on ahead.

"That is some news," Mathias said. Maurus nodded and looked at Arianna, giving her shoulder a light squeeze. She looked up at him, fel fire eyes wide. It was hard to be sure, but he thought her eyes looked a little moist. An orc bumped into Maurus' shoulder and grumbled at him, but Maurus hardly registered the words.

"Our people may be united again," Arianna said. Maurus had to strain to hear it over the noise around them.

"If they are still there," Mathias said bluntly. "If what the orcs say is true, Draenor is practically a stepping stone between where the Burning Legion are and Azeroth." Arianna turned a hard glare on him and Mathias glared back with equal intensity, adding: "Besides, we're on a mission, remember? Unless your word is not as solid as it seemed."

"Watch your tongue," Maurus said lowly. Under his palm, some of the tension seeped out of Arianna's shoulder.

"I will not abandon this mission," she said coldly. "You will just have to excuse my interest in people we feared lost forever."

"As long as it doesn't distract you overmuch from our real objective," Mathias said as Maurus removed his hand from Arianna's shoulder.

"It won't," she said flatly. Then she added, a pleased note seeping into her voice: "In fact, this might be the lead we need."

Mathias immediately gave Arianna his full attention, his gaze eerily intent. "Yes?" he demanded.

"Ratchet has only one thing our quarry might want. Transportation, and we have his likely destination now."

Mathias' gaze grew suspicious. "This isn't just an excuse to go to Outland is it? Because I will be vexed if that is the case."

Maurus sighed. He might have been too hasty when he decided that his two companions didn't hold some resentment for each other. Then again, Maurus could see why Mathias was so volatile about his quest for vengeance and the days in the sun didn't seem to become either of them. 'Soft westerlings,' he thought, before shaking off the thought. They had been anything but soft during their trials in Ashenvale.

"It's no excuse," Arianna said. "If he is traveling by ship, it explains why the trail grew cold. The ocean disrupts my magic far better than distance. And he just threw away his army to impede the war effort; he would want to return to his masters."

"If you are wrong, we will be going a thousand leagues in the wrong direction," Maurus said hesitantly. He did have faith in her, but this was a huge gamble.

"I'm certain," Arianna said. There was no doubt in the look she gave him, but the seriousness vanished almost immediately when she shrugged and added, voice deceptively nonchalant as she echoed Maurus' earlier thoughts: "It's either that or scouring this continent blindly."

Maurus looked at Mathias. "I think this is our best bet."

Mathias was silent for a moment. His posture changed a little, and a stiffness Maurus hadn't really noticed before bled out of Mathias. For the first time since morning, he stopped glowering.

"We check Ratchet for any leads first," he said. "If that turns up nothing, we go overseas."

Maurus nodded. "Agreed."

With that, they descended the slope towards the sprawling, smog-cloaked clutter that was the metropolis of Ratchet.

Well, another chapter uploaded within the fortnight schedule I established. I'm really proud.

Yeah, I'm playing fast and loose with canon by now, but I'm going with the idea that the blood elves joined the Horde for support against their enemies and to get help with reaching Kael'Thas, either through activating the Dark Portal or finding some other way. And it will probably only get more pronounced. Consider this AU soon, because, well that expansion should have had more focus on the Burning Legion, considering the title and I have already made my opinion on Illidan and Kaelthas clear. I will however, endeavor to be respectful of all characters, my own and canon.

Now, don't be alarmed by the completion tag. I'm really getting into this now, but, well, the title is Ashenvale Adventures, and that was a good beginning fic. Keep your eyes peeled for the next one, tentatively titled "Chasing through Hell". Get ready for Ratchet, seasickness and much complaining about unpleasantness. And lots and lots of demons. Maurus will be thrilled.

And for anyone worried about the other characters? Well, for one, think of all types of bombs that might be in Outland.

Hope to see you again in my next one and please review. I will begin the next one soon and probably have it out in two weeks, at most three.


Well, now Anistrianna is called Arianna. Please mention it if I missed it somewhere.