“You really don’t need to do that,” the tauren insisted, hovering helplessly while the orc changed and re-fluffed his sleeping pallet.
“Nonsense,” she told him matter-of-factly, giving the pallet a satisfied pat. “Whenever you go to a new place, if you do nothing else you should at least set up a place to sleep.”
Rolling his eyes in defeat, he watched her bustle around the room, giving it a final once-over for anything useful she could do. Finally, she came to stand before him, grinning cheekily at his long-suffering expression.
“I’m not an invalid anymore, you know. Besides, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve been injured on the job,” he joked. When the orc’s expression became pinched, he immediately regretted his words.
Lips pulled in tightly, she lifted her chin, managing to look down her nose at him despite the height difference. “Just because it’s happened before doesn’t mean it gets any easier.”
“Er,” he muttered apologetically, ears fluttering against his skull. “Sorry. I know that. It’s not exactly a party for me, either.”
Satisfied at his contrite pout, she headed for the door. “I gotta get to work. It’s not like I have any excuse to be missing time.” She gently punched his shoulder. “Looking forward to seeing you back in your usual spot tomorrow,” she said.
He smiled. “Me, too. Try not to kill anyone at work today.”
With a smirk, she closed the door behind her, leaving the tauren to his dusty quarters. Although the druids who had cared for him had determined him fit to go back to living unassisted a week ago, the orc had insisted he stay with her until he was ready to go back to work. Finally, she had agreed to escort him back to his long-neglected apartment.
He poked at the few possessions he had kept with him throughout the ordeal, intending to put his things back in order. From the bundle the orc had brought with them (she had refused to let him carry it, to his amused embarrassment), he began to remove the efficiently-packed contents. First was the gear he had been wearing when injured, now cleaned and repaired to the orc’s exacting standards. Following that were the handful of shirts and trousers she had fetched for his stay in her quarters. And finally, earning a surprised laugh from him, was the collection of tauren children’s stories that the orc had picked up Earthmother-knows-where.
Smiling to himself, the tauren began to slowly put his quarters back to rights. While he worked, he mulled over the weeks to come. After intensive rehabilitation, he was much closer to his original strength and speed, although it would still take more training and drills to get back to his best fighting ability. Hopefully he would be declared ready sooner rather than later; as much as he appreciated the orc’s attentiveness, he was eager to return to the easy banter they had when on the job.
“I’ve gotta say, this is one of the more relaxing gigs we’ve done in a while.” The orc stood casually, surveying the grassy plateau stretching out from the rocky overhang where they took shelter.
Thunder rolled overhead, providing a percussive background to the constant hum of rain. Despite the location, they were warm enough in the wet. Once again, the tauren gave silent thanks for the unusual climate of Sholazar Basin.
The pair watched as a streak of lightning arced through the air, charring the earth and leaving behind a tiny, glinting shard.
The orc strode out into the rain, habitually adjusting her gloves in preparation to collect the sizzling shard. The tauren followed close behind, eyes roving constantly over the quiet field for signs of any stray elementals on the plateau. Although the elementals were erratic in their movement, they sometimes made their way up to this secluded field where most of the star shards fell.
With a practiced ease, the orc scooped the glimmering, hissing shard into a padded rubber bag, where it fizzled harmlessly, awaiting shaping in their workshop. The metal would remain white-hot until the final quenching, after which it would be affixed to a delicate circlet. The orc had expressed her displeasure at the final design, arguing that the druids diving into the thick of battle would need something more durable for headgear, but the tauren remained a staunch advocate of the dainty crown. He had even tried the finished product on once or twice – when the orc wasn’t around, of course.
They retreated to the overhang to await another lightning strike. “This is almost like a vacation,” the orc mused. “Not that I’ll turn down the hazard pay, of course.”
“We’ve still got a few days to go before we meet our quota,” the tauren responded. “We might see some interesting action before the end!”
The orc sighed wistfully. “Yeah…at least the potential for that beats sitting around in the workshop for another month. I was beginning to think we had fallen out of favor with the druids for a while there.”
Another bolt of lightning lanced down into the earth nearby. Grinning triumphantly at the tauren, the orc once again stepped into the rain, making her way towards the pitted earth where another star shard waited, smoldering.
This time, the tauren noticed a crackling aura making its way up to the edge of the plateau. The elemental hadn’t noticed them yet, but he knew it would likely be very cranky when it did. “Heads up,” he called to the orc, hefting his mace and putting himself between her and their foe.
“Yep,” the orc replied, tying the bag to her belt and raising her axe in preparation.
By now the elemental had taken notice of the strange fleshy creatures invading its territory. It gave a gusty shriek and unleashed a tiny whirlwind that zipped across the space between them, driving rain into their eyes and whipping mud into a clinging sludge around their feet.
It followed its attack by charging at them. The tauren went to meet it, ensuring that he would be the first to engage.
As its body was made primarily of mist, the tauren would have to be very precise in his strikes to hit the energized rock fragments that made up the only substantial part of its torso. He swung his mace, hoping that even with his relatively slow swings he could make the one powerful hit necessary to take out the revenant. His first swing missed, and he ducked down to follow the mace as the elemental slashed at where his head had been.
Against protocol, the orc circled around behind the revenant to add her own attacks. Not only was she supposed to leave the main defense to him, but she was also potentially in the way of his mace as well.
“Move!” the tauren shouted, not waiting before he swung his mace again, this time catching a chunk of the revenant’s body. It let out a shriek reminiscent of wind whistling through a small crevice and darted away, disappearing over the lip of the plateau.
The orc pushed back her hood and rubbed her gloved hand vigorously against the smooth skin of her head. “Hate those little pests!” she commented.
“Hate them all you want, but just remember that it’s my job to deal with them,” the tauren chastised sternly. When she opened her mouth to argue, he cut her off with, “I know your job is boring this time around, but you have to at least let me have priority when it comes to these guys. Otherwise I’m getting paid for nothing!”
They glared stubbornly at each other until the moment as disturbed by a low-pitched roar carried on a violent gust of wind. This was closely followed by the appearance of an enormous elemental making its way onto the plateau. It dwarfed the other revenants they had seen so far by two or three times, and appeared to be equally as incensed. When it noticed them, it let out another piercing cry and began to lumber towards them.
“Time to go,” the tauren remarked, scouting behind them for an escape route.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” the orc replied, stubbornly planting her feet and motioning as if to challenge it.
The tauren grabbed her bicep and propelled her in front of him. “You obviously didn’t read the dossier on the Terrace. Even if we could take that thing, the Oracles would be pretty upset if we killed one of their revered spirits.”
Sighing in resignation, the orc began to lope along beside the tauren. The revenant, upon seeing its quarry running away, responded by whipping up the storm. The swirling wind and pelting rain lowered visibility and turned the ground into a slippery swamp, slowing their progress. The orc stumbled, falling to one knee in the thickening mud. As he ran past, the tauren grabbed her elbow, using his height advantage to pull her to her feet. The bag of shards, stuck in the mud, gave a weak squelch and ripped from where it was tied to the orc’s belt.
Cursing, the orc turned to retrieve it, but the tauren shoved her ahead of him. “I’ve got it! You head for the path into the Maker’s Perch!”
She spared a glance at the revenant gaining on them before turning to obey. Sighing in relief, the tauren wrenched their precious cargo from the sticky clutches of the mud gathering around his ankles and took off after her.
The walls of the Maker’s Perch jumped up suddenly from within the curtain of rain. The orc immediately put her hands to the stone, searching for the tiny path they had found that led into the titan-engineered stronghold.
“Left, left,” the tauren instructed, glancing over his shoulder at the revenant. It vented its frustration by flicking a whip-like tendril of wind at him, snapping dangerously just short of his cheek.
“I got it!” the orc’s disembodied voice floated to him from within the jagged crack amidst the stones.
“Don’t just stand there; get inside!” He made to follow, only to discover that the width of his shoulders was at odds with the parameters of the crevice.
“Come on!” the orc shouted from within, not yet realizing the problem. From without came another vicious crack of wind, this one catching him above the elbow and slicing neatly through armor and skin. The tauren grunted.
Having noticed the tauren’s halted progress, the orc rushed back to him, grabbing his wrist and tugging. He felt the stone scraping across his chest and back as his partner slowly but surely tugged him into the safety of the cave. Tucking his head to protect his horns, he dug in with his hooves, running in place and kicking up a spray of mud behind him.
The whirlwind outside was a roaring frenzy now, and he could feel rain and debris pattering against his still-exposed side. With a final panicked groan, the orc pulled with her entire bodyweight, bringing the tauren through the diminutive hole in the wall and into the wider cave beyond. He toppled forward, taking her down in the process. As they fell he twisted, so as to keep himself ready for any attack from the elemental outside.
Shrieking in frustration, the elemental predictably sent a final assault as its foe escaped, this time in the form of a crackling bolt of lightning. It struck the tauren square in the chest, knocking the breath out of him with an uncomfortable whoosh.
Still trapped beneath him, the orc began to shout in alarm, frantically struggling to free herself so she could assess the damage. Roaring in frustration, she finally managed to disentangle herself and reach for the tauren, cradling his head between her hands and scrutinizing his face.
“Are you all right?” she practically screamed, pulling on an eyelid to check his pupil.
He wheezed out a laugh, then hissed as something hot brushed against his finger. “I’m fine. It didn’t hit me.” He glanced down. “Well, not directly.”
Together they looked at the bag of star shards he had unwittingly held against his chest. The center was blackened where it had absorbed the full force of the lightning strike, and on top of that lay a perfect, glimmering star shard.