A/N: Well, truly sorry for being gone like...a year! I feel horrible, you have no idea...literally. This story has never been forgotten, I just kept putting it off because I had so many other things! And I'm currently working on two large cosplay projects, as well as a blog, and working 9-11 hours a day with 1 day off. Ya ya, excuses lol! Still, terribly sorry. Does anyone even know I exist anymore hehe? PS: I cherish and read every single one of your amazing and uplifting reviews. Seriously, it just...it makes me emotional to read them ok? So thank you very very much for every word ever left! Oh, and apparently I misplaced my writing program, so this was uploaded with notepad, so I'm terribly sorry if it ends up looking weird! Please, let me know what you think! :) Enjoy!

Chapter 26: There Can Be No Victory

Ana noted distantly that the jungle was causing sweat to prickle along her back. The thought jolted her conciousness back to the here and now and she blinked, somewhat dazedly, becoming aware slowly that she was still in feline form. Not only that, but she was crouched over the mauled, bloody corpse of a troll. The cloying scent of blood permeated her senses, nearly overwhelming every other scent, simultaneously making her nauseous and causing the savage inner spirit to purr contentedly. Drying blood clung to her still unsheathed claws and bedecked her whiskers. Anaiya could only explain her uncontrollable slaughter of the troll with shock.

Shakily she performed the instant spell that would transform her back to her normal bipedal self and felt a bit wobbly. A low moan from across the clearing had her whipping her head around so fast she was surprised she didn't get whiplash.

"Owww." Said an obviously not dead Keyanomir. Ana quickly spun completely in his direction and was at his side in an eyeblink. She slapped his hand away as he moved to touch the shaft of the spear that pierced his torso like a macrabre flagpole. Taking a deep breath to calm her panic, she inspected the wound herself, trying not to let her worry show on her face. From Key's expression, she wasn't doing that good of a job. His face was ashen and his pupils were wide and unfocused, blinking rapidly up at her. Her hands were trembling so badly that she was hesitant to touch anything in fear of jostling the spear and making it worse. She let her hands hover rather uselessly over the wound. She wasn't an expert on anatomy by any means. Her training had been more of the line of maiming and slashing rather then healing, but she could tell this was very bad. The spear had hit him right below the ribcage, nearly dead center, and she cursed the troll's accurate aim. And here she was, yet again with nothing to help in the situation.

"I don't know what to do!" She all but wailed out her thoughts in frustration. She would have pulled at her hair if her hands weren't bloody. Tentatively, she reached out and tried to pull the fabric of Key's tunic away from the spear, but a pained grunt from the paladin had her jerking back as if scolded.

A skid of dirt and pebbles behind her forced Ana's attention sharply to the right to face the new threat, her shapeshifting magic suddenly and easily leaping to the forefront of her mind. She nearly growled in protective fury. A tall, dusky colored troll in different attire from the Skullsplitters landed cat-like a few feet from her position, having leaped from the top of the pit. Ana leaned toward Key's injured form by reflex, wanting to protect him from further harm. The troll straightened, eyes shrewdly taking in Ana's threatening stance. He frowned and cocked one furred eyebrow.

"I gotta say mon, I not be terribly surprised to be seeing you like this, paladin." The troll said, a thick, nearly incomprensible accent making his words incredibly difficult to understand. Ana glared fiercly at the troll.

"Get away from us!" She barked sharply, and could veritably feel her fingers lengthening into deadly claws. Key gave a sudden wheeze that sounded like a chuckle, and muttered something about no good allies. Ana glanced down at him, confused. What? She looked back at the troll, then down at Key. The paladin didn't look too alarmed at the troll's presense. The troll grinned at Key, displaying yellowed tusks, and Key gave a weak impression of an irritated scowl, before wincing and panting lightly.

"It's...alright. Ana." Key stuttered, having to take short gasping breaths after each word. "He's...an ally. I guess." Ana felt her worry come back tenfold and she gazed at the spear. What to do! If she pulled it out, she was sure it would just cause more harm, since troll spears were barbed, but she couldn't leave it in either, since it obviously caused injury. She wasn't sure exactly what she could do. She'd never even learned first aid techniques in Darnassus, having been so busy studying her new druidic calling. She turned a glare up at the troll, who was just standing there now, stupid thick eyebrow raised unhelpfully and his large, oddly shaped hand clutching a sceptor.

"Well, can you do anything useful to help him or are you just going to stand there?!" She snapped. Part of her was shocked at her own audacity, but a larger part would do what it took to keep her friend alive.

"I cannot be healin' him." The troll admitted after a silent moment of staring Ana down. The words were like nails in the coffin of her hope. She felt her shoulders slump. Wait...duh! "Key! You're a paladin! Heal yourself!" She exclaimed eagerly, clutching at Key's tunic. "Come on, that's what paladins are good for right? Holy magic and the light and ...stuff." She finished lamely, shrugging. She didn't really know anything about paladins. It's not like the other races visited Darnassus after all, and night elves had no interest in taking up the oaths of the paladins. Key concentrated for a moment, his eyes taking on a faraway look, before he scowled in frustration.

"I can't...my magic...it's doing what it...can, just to...keep me alive now. That...bloody curse!" He spit out in weak frustration. Oh right, that affliction, the reason he'd come to Moonglade to begin with. It drained his paladin magic, which meant he didn't have the magical strength to heal himself. Just enough to sustain him...maybe that would be enough until they could find someone who could heal him.

"We need ta leave here." The troll spoke again, this time turning to scan the rim of the pit with narrowed red eyes. "It won't be takin' long for those heathen Skullsplitters to organize and descend on us. Ah weak lil druid such as you mon, won't be standin' a chance a'holdin dem off." Ana felt her cheeks flush in indignation and anger.

"Well, obviously I'm not leaving without him." She replied frostily, gesturing to Key. Blood had begun to well up around the spear and stain his tunic a vibrant red and she felt like a spike had been driven into her heart. How could things have gotten so out of control? Just a short while ago it seemed her life had finally been heading in a positive direction. She was following her heart's calling, training to be a druid. She had friends who cared for her, and her family was ok with her choice of nature magic. Now it felt like everything was just unravelling, and the more she tried, the faster it unravelled. It just wasn't fair. The troll silently stepped up beside Ana's kneeling form and leaned down over Key. Ana glanced at him anxiously, hoping he was planning on helping. Key's fair featureswere so pale and gray that he looked like he was already dead. If it wasn't for his loud gasping breaths and the hand tightly fisted near her knee, she would have thought he was in truth. This was very bad. He needed a healer, immediately. But they didn't have one.

"Should we pull it out?" Ana demanded/asked, biting her lip.

"...Ana. I can't...walk. You should...go. Without me." Key gasped. He looked up at her earnestly, worry for her safety in his eyes. He was worried about her? She nearly laughed.

"I'm not the one with a spear through the gut." Ana shot back. She gazed into Key's fel green eyes, not seeing a member of the Horde; a faction to be feared and even hated, but a friend who'd shared an adventure with her. "I'm not leaving you behind." She repeated, determination steeling her voice. Key gave her a half smile, before groaning in pain. He blinked, and stared somewhat dazedly at the spear shaft, lifting weak fingers to touch it gingerly.

"I don't...think. Removing...it...at the moment. Would be...a good idea...at the moment." He said, voice barely above a whisper. He sucked in a deep breath and his eyes went wide with sudden agony from the movement. "Oww." He added.

Suddenly the troll reached down and used the bladed end of his sceptor to swiftly and cleanly break the spear's shaft several inches above the wound. His motion was s ofast that Ana didn't even get a chance to voice a protest against his aggressive action. Key winced at the flaring of agony the movement caused and glared at the troll accusingly.

"Wait!" Ana cried belatedly after the fact. She gave the troll a glare of her own. "That was stupid! You could have...it could have..." She trailed off as her voice took in a slightly higher pitch and she raised her face to the sky, blinking rapidly. "Whatever, it's done." She said after a moment. The troll tossed the broken spear shaft behind him. He tugged a thick piece of fabric from around his shoulders, what looked to be some kind of shawl or cloak, and leaned down again. Ana tensed. The troll packed the cloth around the remaining jagged end of the spear to avoid causing further injury. "Oh." Ana murmured. "Thanks."

'Why didn't I think of that?' She scolded herself. 'Even a troll knows basic first aid.' "What's your name?" She asked softly as the troll worked, feeling more forgiving and very thankful towrad the troll now. As much as she mistrusted him after her recent experience at the hands of the Skullsplitters, she was very grateful for his help. His work finished, the forest colored troll leaned back on his haunches. To Ana, this seemed like more of a natural position than his standing. It made him look more savage, which suited his features and color. He reached out a three-fingered hand and let it hover over the wound. Violet colored shadows danced along his fingertips and he frowned, not even glancing at Ana.

"Zan'kaja." He said finally in his gruff voice and it took Ana a moment to realize that he was responding to her quesiton.

"What are you doing?" She asked next. Key suddenly scrunched up his face at the same time as the violet energies playing about the troll sharpened and grew more distinct. "Hey!" She grabbed at the troll's arm, yanking him away from Key. He glared at her.

"I cannot heal da wound,, but I can be helpin' remove da infection dat be in the flesh. Dat can kill just as good." Zan'kaja said, his face truly frightening from a few scant handbreadths away. Ana flinched back slightly, than squared hershoulders and raised her chin. A weak chuckle made her reluctantly take her eyes from the troll's tusked visage. Key was giving her a a somewhat watered down version of a smirk.

"Be...nice...you two." He said, than coughed, clutching at his chest painfully. Ana felt like crying in despair when she saw red staining his teeth. She shakily scrubbed her face, unknowingly smearing blood down one cheek.

"You'll have to help carry him." She said to Zan'kaja, finally making a move to stand. They couldn't stay here, the troll was right. They needed to get away from the Skullsplitter territory before the tribe rallied and realized that they were just three individuals and one of them severely wounded. Her heart felt so heavy in her chest, strange and aching. 'We can do this,' she told herself firmly. She cast her eyes around hastily for some kind of weapon to defend them, before scoffing. She herself was a weapon, in her alternate form. Just thinking about it seemed to call up the feline from wherever it lay dormant, leaping easily to the forefront of her thoughts, just within easy reach. Well, that was one good thing out of this whole mess, she supposed. Interesting, she could sense another shape now, just at the corners. It echoed with strength and protective instincts, of muscled mass and heavy paws. An ursine form! Her mind connected to that shape nearly as easily as the cat, which was very strange seeing as how she'd never even studied the bear form. It was an advanced shapeshifting ability. But it seemed right for her. It fit her protective feelings and the sense of loyalty and concern she was feeling right now. She knew, if she reached for it, she could activate the ursine form right now, shapeshifting into a massive bear with thick inpenetrable fur and a wide jaw. Something she'd think about later. Right now, they needed to get out of here.

"Don't worry, I'll keep any of the trolls at bay, you just get Key to safety." Ana growled, her voice already low and animalistic. It reminded her of aunt Ver, which gave her hope. She knew her aunt was out there, and they were bound to run into each other. And then either Shana or Bessany would heal Key and everything would be alright again. She had to believe that. Zan'kaja gave her an odd look, his expression one she couldn't interpret. Then suddenly she thought of something that totally left her mind in the wake of Key's grave injury. "The soulgem!" She gasped, desire to have the object back in her hands suddenly flooding her senses and nearly making her ill with need. She whipped her head up, already scanning the sides of the pit for the best way back up to the top. She'd last seen that Skullsplitter chieftain standing there at the edge, gloating about her impending demise. Last she knew, he had possession of the soulgem. "Mine!" She crowed and before either of the other two could say anything in protest, she darted toward the edge. Yes, it was tragic that the paladin was injured but she needed her soulgem. Normally crawling back up the steep sides of the muddy, spear-lined pit would have been impossible, but Ana lunged up the muddy bank with a fervor that alarmed her. All of her thoughts were now focused on one thing. The gem. In fact, if that troll hadn't stolen her gem, none of this would have happened to begin with. She hoped the filthy thief had died in agonizing pain for daring to steal from her. Maybe if she had the gem in her possession, she might even be able to use its power to heal Key. That's it, that must be the answer! Desperation and determination lent her strength she normally didn't have. When she reached the line of spears, she clung to one of them while trying to yank out the other.

"By de ancestors' spirits, girl, what you be doin?" Zan'kaja's irritated voice drew her attention for a moment and she glanced down to see him half holding Key, one of the paladin's arms slung across his wide shoulders. Key's state, slumped only semi-concious, almost made her hesitate. But she had to have that gem. To save Key. Right. With one more decisive yank, she pulled the spear out of the sand and threw it down, making sure it fell away from her erstwhile companions still below. She could see them now struggling for the more shallow end of the pit, opposite her position, although Key kept lolling his head back to eye her position with obvious concern.

'I'm fine,' she muttered to herself, feeling irritation rise for no reason. Finally, with a last grunt of exertion, she hauled herself up and over the top of the pit Despite being out of breath, she immediately started looking for her precious soulgem. The troll chieftain's inert body lay a few yards away. There wasn't any obvious injury about his body but she could sense a dark magic dancing around his mouth and eyes and it felt similar to the aura that surrounded Zan'kaja. Ah, a shadow priest then. That explained his comments and actions with Key's injury.

"Where is it?" She muttered crossly, searching the body. Any other time, she would have hesitated to touch a corpse like this, especially one tainted with shadow magic, but she really needed to get her gem back. She'd been parted from it long enough already. She couldn't believe she'd forgotten it earlier! Finally, her fingers brushed a pouch tided across the body'd chest. The second she touched the leathery skin of the bag, it seemed that darkness surged up before her eyes, covering everything in a filmy black haze. She could hear a distant roaring, like a great angered beast. Her mind seemed to stretch out to meet the darkness, and she couldn't help feeling fascinated by the power roiling within the green nightmare. Such power...

"Didja find yer trinket, elf girl?" The voice shook her out of whatever transe she'd been absorbed in. Oh right, that would be Zan'kaja...who was with Key...who was gravely injured and could be dying! Suddenly she jumped up, making sure to snatch the pouch off the corpse as she did so. No way was she leaving her soulgem behind again. In fact, she wasn't letting it out of her sight. She clutched it tightly to her chest, and a strange tingling worked its way through her fingers for a brief moment. They needed to leave now! A new sense of urgency built within her, seeming to center in her chest, where her fingers were curled around the pouch, securing it between her breasts. Now that she was touching it, she could feel a menace, very real, lurking in the far corners of the jungle, that was eagerly searching. For what, she didn't know, but she suspected.

Before she could move, a troll charged at her from seemingly noewhere. She gasped as he barreled into her, a large crooked dagger with a wooden handle raised high. Oh Elune! Quickly, she tried rolling to the side, reluctant to release her tight hold on the gem, but knowing she had to defend herself. The knife came down, the troll's eyes filled with a mad lust that seemed out of place. Caught between survival and keeping her grip on the gem, Ana desperately raised both hands, slapping them around the flat sides of the dagger to prevent it from stabbing her. She strained briefly, arms shaking, to keep the weapon at a safe distance from her chest but the troll was much stronger and the dagger was slowly but steadily dscending toward her heart. She struggled in earnest and managed to get a knee up under the heavy body on top of her and kicked upward viciously with all her might. The troll grunted in surprise and his concentration wavered, allowing her slighter form to squirm out from his clutches. Panting with the effort and shaking the strain out of her hands, she spun so that she faced the much larger man, crouched on the balls of her feet as her aunt had showed her. The cat inside leaped to the front of her mind, demanding to be let out to teach this troll not to mess with a druid. Gratefully, she embraced the change, and seconds later she met the troll head on, her lithe, agile form slamming into him as he lunged at her, claws and fangs now ample defense against his brute strength and crudge dagger.

She darted out a paw, hooking two claws around the edge of the dagger and swiftly swatting it out of range, while her fangs went for the kill. The troll sensed the danger and kicked and beat at her pelt with his fists and feet. With a wicked sense of satisfaction, she sank large canines into the troll's throat, crushing cartiledge and vessels with ease. Fear flashed briefly over the troll's face, before it slackened in death and his eyes rolled upward. His body went slack and slid to the sand with a dull thump. Ana leaped away from the dead body, wrinkling her whiskers. Somehow, this kill didn't bother as much as the others. She wasn't sure if that was because she was becoming used to death, or because it had been in defense of her life, and she wasn't sure she liked her reaction, but there were more pressing things to worry about. Casting about with her inner senses, she was satisfied to note that the pouch containing the soulgem was still with her...somehow. She'd managed to keep hold of it the whole time and when she shapeshifted, the strange metaphysical magic that allowed her to keep her clothes also allowed the pouch to cling to her person and she was confident she'd still have it when she shifted back. A sharp pain in her paw as she set it down caused her to gaze at it in confusion.

She hadn't even realized that the troll had managed to cut her. Sure enough, there was a long, but shallow gash through the pads on the bottom of her front left paw. Tentatively, she sniffed the wound, then licked it. It didn't seem too bad, so she chose to ignore it for now and turned, lifting her head to take in deep breaths. The scents in the air were easily distinguishable and she was easily able to pinpoint where her two unlikely friends had headed. She was relieved to smell that they had nearly reached the edge of the Skullsplitter village. Good. The sooner they got out of here the better. She didn't need any more thieving vermin getting their unworthy hands on her gem.

She caught up to them fairly quickly despite her injured paw. As far as they'd gotten while she'd been busy, she easily caught up with the ground eating bounds she was able to perform as a panther. The gash stung slightly when she put too much pressure on her paw, resulting in a slight limp, although it was infinitely better then being dead. She felt so much more relaxed and in control of herself now that the soul container was finally back in her possession, where it belonged. Just the idea that someone else would take it made fury rise within her. A fury that seemed to be edged in darkness. She welcomed it. It gave her strength. It gave her confidence to do things she wouldn't have considered before with such ease. Like take a life. The troll's dead eyes came to mind, but she felt nothing now. Only satisfaction that it hadn't been her. She slowed as she came nearer to Key and Zan'kaja, trotting up Key's side and nudging his dangling arm with a concerned nose. He gazed down in startled bemusement.

"How...nice of you...to join...us." He croaked out, making an effort to put sarcasm into his words. Ana gave him a flat look. He should be conserving his strength, not speaking pointlessly. He looked like death warmed over, and even through her warm fur, his fingers were like ice where she nudged them. Her heart gave a funny tingle as she looked at him through cat eyes. A small frown formed on his sweaty forehead as he noticed her slight limp. "Are...you...alright?" He asked. He coughed weakly, while still managing to convey that he was more worried about her. It would have made her laugh (or cry), were she in her natural form. Instead, she gave a long, sigh like grunt.

Zan'kaja adjusted his hold on the paladin and turned slightly to stare down at Ana in her cat form. He seemed to be judging her for her earlier behavior over the gem and her ears flattened. His look conveyed eons of words as he slowed to give her his full stare. 'You're in over your head.' the look said. 'You don't know what forces you're messing with.' It said. And the most horrible of all, 'If we don't do something soon it will be a corpse I'll be lugging around instead of a man.' Ana swallowed with difficulty, her confident attitude drying up faster then a moonflower in the desert.

All her worries slammed back into her as if by magic, and she felt a sour taste behind her large canine teeth. Of course, how could she even act so selfish! Why on Azeroth would she run off as if the soulgem was more important than a friend's life. Because it wasn't. Right? They needed to find a healer. Where was her aunt? Ver said she was coming. They needed to get to the main road that the goblins of Booty Bay used to transport goods to and from the harbor city. It would be much easier to find and be found by the rest of the party if they were in a more cleared area. Not to mention, less dangerous. They just needed to get to the road, find Ver and the rest of the group, force Shana and Bessany to heal Key, by whatever means necessary, and everything would be perfect. Good plan. She wouldn't dare take anything less then their full efforts at saving him. They had better do it...but he needed to be alive for that to happen, and he wasn't look too good. She raised her head and scented air, before it occured to her that she'd never even been to Stranglethorn Vale so she had no idea how to identify the scents or directions here. She hated this jungle with a passion. She didn't know her way around the jungle, and she didn't even know which part of the jungle they were even in. If only...wait! The troll! This was his jungle, obviously. He was dressed like a native of the area, and walked through the undergrowth with confidence. And even if he wasn't a native to the jungle, he no doubt had more experience in this kind of climate before. Everyone knew that the trolls favored the more tropical climates.

Even though it was exhausting to perform so many shifts so close together, Ana concentrated on her elven form, drawing on her druidic magic to mold her flesh back into that of a humanoid being on two legs. It was harder then she'd experienced before and left her feeling drained and woozy. In moments, instead of a cat smoothly prowling, a young elf girl walked in slightly shorter strides. She staggered mid step, before continuing to walk to keep pace with Zan'kaja's slow shuffle. Her sense immediately felt less sharp, for whcih she was somewhat grateful because now she didn't have to deal with the constant lingering metallic taste of blood on the back of her throat. She glanced to the side again to check on Key anxiously, trying to guage his health. Ha, that's funny. His health. He's dying, idiot. Her inner voice seemed to mock her, making her cringe. Key gave her a trembling , blood stained smile, as if trying to put on a brave face for her. This made the dread in her stomach sharper. This was her fault. She needed to fix it. It was only a matter of time before the paladin's latent holy magic was drained dry by trying to sustain his life against his greiveous injury as well as fight off the curse inflicted him all those weeks ago, and then...she firmly veered away from those dark thoughts.

Giving her attention to the troll, she firmly grabbed his bare arm, halting his foreward movement. He gave her a cool look and she withdrew her hand. FOr the first time it occured to her to wonder why he was even helping them. From where she could see, he didn't stand to gain anything, and she knew that complete strangers, natural enemies in fact, did not just randomly help out in a situation like this unless they had something pretty major to gain. She was also curious as to how Key had met up with him...and how Key was not laying unconcious on the jungle floor, come to think of it. But she pushed all those troubling questions out of her mind. Right now, that was not the issue they needed to deal with.

"You know your way around the jungle right?" She asked the troll, staring up at him, although she deliberately phrased it like a statement. Zan'kaja blinked at her, then slowly gave a slight incline of his head and when he did nothing else she decided to take that as affirmation. "We need to find the road through the Vale. The one that leads to Booty Bay. Obviously it's not the king's road to Stormwind in quality or safety, but its the best chance we have of being found by my aunt and...our friends. We need to find that road or my aunt will never find us." She glanced significantly at Key and Zan'kaja nodded. Ana wondered briefly if he hadn't already thought of heading for the main path through the jungle.

"That be true, mon. I be knowing mah way around dis jungle. Da road be dis way." Sure enough, he pointed in the direction they'd already been walking. Ana squinted, as if she looked hard enough, she'd be able to make out the road from their position.

"How long" She asked. Zan'kaja didn't respond, just gave her a grim look. She gulped down her worry and fear. "Well...we better get going." She said after an uncomfortable moment.

"Wait." Key's shaky voice drew their eyes to him as they both slowed to a stop. He pushed feebly against Zan'kaja, who carefully lowered him to the ground. Ana wanted to protest. They didn't have time for this! Key was...he was...they needed to move! She knelt down by the paladin's side and drew in a sharp breath. His entire midsection was saturated in blood. The cloth that Zan'kaja had packed around the wound was soggy with it. "Oh no." Ana moaned. His breaths were coming faster and seemed to hitch. Ana glanced around desperately, as if hoping that a miracle would spring out of the flora and present itself to her. She noticed that the trio had only made it a small distance past the edge of the Skullsplitter village. She could still see a few of their ramshackle dwellings through the treeline. A tickle began in her nose. The kind of tickle that lets you know you're seconds away from full out, messy, heartbreaking tears. She gritted her teeth so hard she was surprised they didn't crack. There had to be something! Anything.

"I...don't think I can...go any further." Key admitted, and choked. Blood dribbled down his chin. Ana barked out a harsh laugh.

"Of course you can!" She exclaimed sharply, a litle louder then she had intended. "It's not much farther. And then that sourpuss Shana can heal you up good and you can go back to being your witty, charming self!" She gave hime a weak grin. Key took the effort to raise one ridiculously perfect eyebrow.

"You think...I'm...charming?" He asked. Ana huffed.

"Well, you have your moments." She confessed. Truthfully, though she would never admit it, she kind of liked having the attention of the male elf. Have to keep it together, she chanted to herself. Tentatively, she presssed down on the blood soaked fabric wrapped around the spear, in the hopes of preventing further blood loss, but the slight touch made Key gasp, a strangled sound she never wanted to hear again in her life. His eyes rolled up and his head thunked on the ground. "Key! Hey, Key, come back! You can't do this to me! Remember, you promised to help me with this saving the dragon consort thing! You can't just abandon me now...that's just...ungentlemanly!" She reached over and lightly slapped his pale cheek, shuddering at how cold and still he looked. She shook his shoulders gently and his head rolled limply. "Key!" She leaned over, fiercely staring into his half closed eyes as if she could will him back to her. He gave a small cough and his eyes lazily blinked open. Relief washed over Ana so fast she nearly swooned.

"You...ha ha, you scared me there." She said weakly and he gave her a sad smile. Then his eyes travelled downward, and a smarmy look stole over his fine features. What on Azeroth...she followed where his eyes were looking and realized that, in the position of leaning over him to try to wake him up, her shift fell away from her body, giving the paladin a close up view of her bosom. Equal parts scandalized and despairing, Ana lifted her hand to her chest and straightened up slightly, giving Key a mock outraged look.

"If you weren't at death's door, I'd slap you, sir." She said. "Oogling a poor damsel who was just trying to help you." She made a show of sniffing and was rewarded by a small sparkle returning to Key's dulling eyes. "So come on, we can do this, we just need to get to the road. You can't let some little old spear get to you, you are the great Keyanomir Sunblade!" She plucked at Key's tunic. "Right?" She added, turning pleading eyes to the shadow priest hovering nearby. Damn him, didn't he have any compassionate bone in his worthless troll hide? Zan'kaja was standing impassively, glancing around at the jungle undergrowth as if expecting a herd of enemies to leap out at them at any moment. He turned cold eyes on her, then gravely looked the paladin over. He pursed his thin lips then turned his hard stare on Ana as if to say it was a lost cause. Obviously, despite his willingness to help them, he couldn't find it in himself to care what actually happened to them. Ana found that rather suspicious. Just what were his motives anyway?

Ana blinked rapidly and looked down at her fingers. She was surprised to see them covered in sticky red blood. More than she expected. She took in a deep breath and tried to think around her mounting despair. There had to be something they hadn't thought of yet. Anything. She would literally do anything in her power to make this better at this point. This was all her fault. If she hadn't been so foolish and curious in Everlook as to step onto that stupid translocating device...thing. If she had only listened to Key. If she had only been more experienced in combat. In protecting herself. If only she'd reacted faster when that troll had attacked her. When she'd been kidnapped, Key had done whatever he could to rescue her, and save her. He could have let the troll kill her, and washed his hands of the whole thing. It would have been no small feat to find his way to the road and from there, travel to Booty Bay, find a druid or a shaman to cure his affliction, and then go back to his own city. He didn't have to do what he did. And now he was paying for it. She would do anything to return the favor.

'Anything?' A voice whispered. Ana jerked her head up and looked around. That sounded like...Eranikus, the dragon trapped in the soulgem. But that was impossible. He'd never been able to directly contact her mind before. He'd never initiated any sort of conversation, especially one that wasn't full of mad ravings. She shook her head and eyed Zan'kaja. "Did you just say something?" She asked, just to be sure. The troll raised a rough eyebrow.

'You know who I am, little druid.' Said the voice again, the dark voice drawing out the words like tantalizing secrets. Yes, that definitely sounded like the mad dragon consort that was trapped in the Emerald Nightmare. The whole reason she was doing this. To free his soul and find a way to prevent the Emerald Nightmare from taking over. But he sounded...less mad. She couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. In reflex, she dropped her gaze to the pouch containing the soulgem, now securely tied to her belt. She hadn't even been aware she was squeezing it in a death grip until she forced her fingers to relax. She reached out with her thoughts, somewhat unsure of how to contact him, and even if she should. She knew he was dangerous, despite being a member of the dragonflight. He may be Ysera's prime consort and beloved, but he was obviously corrupted. The dark tendrils of the dragon's soul greedily wrapped around the questing fingers of her concious and she sent a mental question.

'How are you...uh...sane?' She asked, trying and failing to find a delicate way to voice her question. She was wary, but she could feel the great pulsing potential oozing from the dragon's astral form, the kind of power that promised anything, if she only put her mind to it. Anything like...healing.

'You wish to save this mortal's life, do you not?' The voice asked, dark amusement lacing the tones. Ana wondered if her mental self could frown. He hadn't answered her question. That seemed to happening a lot recently, come to think of it. 'I possess the raw power to bring this mortal paladin back from the brink. His soul is moments away from crossing into the other. Do you wish to save him?' Ana felt her heart plunge and than leap at this information, the surge of hope that shot through her almost a physical sensation. Her whole self sang with the word "YES".

Putting as much force behind the mental words as she could, she said 'What do I have to do?' She didn't even consider the consequences of allowing Eranikus access to her mind, or to channel that kind of raw power through her. This was her friend's life after all. What wouldn't measure up to the life of a friend? The dark voice of the dragon literally purred with satisfaction.

'Very good, stu-delightful little mortal.' Ana felt a small clutch of uneasiness. Maybe...maybe she shouldn't do this. Really, Ver was probably on her way right now, and Key wasn't that close to...the edge. Right? As if through a mist, she peered at Key's form. She was alarmed to see he didn't even seem to be breathing anymore. His eyes were now shut, riduclously long lashes fanning across his eyelid. He looked as if he were merely sleeping, if not for the copious amounts of blood saturing his middle and the trickle of red leaking out of the corner of his mouth.

'Well?' Came the somewhat impatient tones of Eranikus. 'Simply hold the trinket that has captured my essense and allow your mind to stay connected to mine. It might be somewhat...uncomfortable. This is the power of a dragon after all, not something a mere mortal is used to experiencing. But it will heal your lover.' Ana mentally protested. He was certainly not that! Not even in his wildest dreams...well maybe that, she admitted. She suppressed her doubts and quickly grabbed up the pouch, ripping open the drawstring and drawing out the soulgem.

As if from a great distance she heard Zan'kaja give a strangled sound of shock and pain and registered that the troll had dropped to the ground and seemed to be clutching his head. But her focus was now fully captured by the entrancing power of the soulgem. She gazed into it, and it gazed back into her. The reptillian, vibrant green eye of Eranikus looked out at her, and she felt herself being pulled into his catlike pupil. She needed to do this, there was no choice! She knew her aunt was out there, scouring the jungle for her, she could practically sense the druidic kinship ties that she shared with her aunt becoming sharper and more defined. But she literally didn't have the time to wait. Key was dying now, if it wasn't already too late (a thought she refused to entertain) and there was no other option open to her. Finally, she could make a choice to do something right and good. She could save Key like he'd save her! And it would be a great story to tell later, and they would continue on their journey to glory and conquest. Er, rather, to redemption and purifying of the Emerald Dream. That's what she meant to say.

Before any more doubts could shake her conviction, Ana embraced the dark tendrils that seemed to hover expectantly at the gates of her mind, as if waiting for her signal to rush in. She left bloody fingerprints on the gem as she gazed into it, but she didn't care. Ana gave Key one last, hope filled glance. Before her eyes, the gem began to pulse with a dark green glow, growing brighter with every beat. In fact, it did vaguely remind her of a heartbeat.

'I wonder who's it is?' She wondered in some far, echoing corner of her mind. The defeaning, yet whispered roar of a full grown male dragon suddenly filled her ears, her eyes, her very mind. An uncomfortable pressure began to build behind her eyes. It kept growing until it was painful, like a headache. And still, the pain grew. Her fingers tingled strangely, then began to burn. Her hair began to lift off her shoulders and she gasped, eyes wide.

She saw as Key's eyes flew open and his face filled with alarm. He tried reaching for her, shaking his head and trying to form words. He ended up hacking wetly instead. Somewhere off to the side, Zan'kaja was laying unnaturally still, eyes staring at her with a stare that chilled her to the bone, eyes that held the ancient knowledge, ruthlessness, and power of something that was beyond her comprehension. Those eyes were snake gold and flat, empty of a soul. And beyond that, as if in a dream, she heard her aunt's voice.

"Aunt Ver?" She asked in wonder. Or rather, thought she'd asked. She felt her lips move, but heard nothing over the sound of the dragon's triumphant roar. By ths point, she could see nothing beyond the darkness.

She couldn't see that her eyes had turned black, her hair had suddenly grown in length and turned white. Her fingertips had blackened and charred, and her teeth had sharpened.

She couldn't see as what can only be described as green lightning arced from the stone and struck Key in the heart. He glowed a brilliant veridian, and when it faded, there was not a mark on him. Not even the lingering presense of the deadly curse inflicted so long ago remained. It was as if he'd been remade.

She didn't see when a green female drake landed in the suddenly too small space, or how Zan'kaja had suddenly sprung to life, moving like a puppet. He channeled shadow magic that would otherwise be impossible, and a tear in space opened up. Through it, one could make out a large, sandstone dais that seemed to reach to the sky. Dozens of tiny serpents lazily swarmed the dais and at the top was a creature that had never been seen before on Azeroth except by the few unfortunate souls who dared to venture into the deadly temple city of Zul'Gurub in search of promised treasure and the glory that came of slaying one of the few remaining Old Gods.

Ana couldn't hear as a great resounding shriek issued from within the portal, the shriek of victory. Feathered blue wings that seemed to swallow the sky stretched out, and a long coiling tail curled in on itself.

Of course, Ana didn't see this either. All she saw was darkness.