Actions

Work Header

The bite that binds the gift

Work Text:

Khadgar’s not usually one for finger-pointing in times of crisis. It is, he thinks, a waste of time better used for coming up with a solution.

That being said, their current crisis is absolutely Gilneas’ fault.

It's not that the Alliance don't appreciate the help at the time; Gilneas, perched on a broad peninsula below Lordaeron, is one of the strongest human nations. It is also old, proud, wealthy, and isolationist to the point where Khadgar is amazed they haven’t built a giant wall around the whole country yet. It would never have occurred to them that any other nation in the Alliance could solve the problem of the orcs.

To their credit, at first it seemed their mage Arugal had solved it. Khadgar doesn’t know where Arugal summoned his beasts from - no one does, that knowledge died with Arugal - but it works. The enormous, bipedal wolves the mage called ‘Worgen’ were nearly as big as the orcs, and what they lacked in bulk they made up for in teeth. While no one the Alliance had been happy with the idea of summoning more monsters to their world, they could not deny the results. They stop losing villages, they stop losing battles, and it hardly matters that the Worgen will not take orders from anyone but Arugal. If you keep them ahead of the soldiers and point them at the orcs they do the job.

It had all been going far too well. They’d gotten lazy, and they’d been blind, all of them. Khadgar had not seen what was wrong with Medivh until it was nearly too late. Even worse, Khadgar hadn’t realized what was wrong with the Worgen. Not even when Lothar was holding Khadgar up in Medivh’s empty font with half a dozen of the beasts prowling at their feet, teeth washed red in the Guardian’s blood. Arugal’s bony hands had been too tight on their shoulders, cold air whistling around them from where the golem had gone through the wall. That Khadgar had barely been conscious at that point, dazed with the rush of the Fel out of him, was hardly an excuse. He’d had ample evidence and hadn’t heeded it, and now Azeroth pays for his carelessness.

Khadgar remembers the days running up to the last battle very clearly. How he had been Lother’s shadow in those days, both of them stunned with the loss of Medivh, from what he had become. They’d walked through the camp, the towering frame of the orc's portal loomed over what would be tomorrow’s battlefield, threading between the cages of leashed worgen.

“I don't like this,” Lothar had said.

Khadgar folded his cloak a little closer around himself but didn’t respond. He hadn’t needed to. Lothar’d said the same thing since Arugal first summoned the worgen, and he knows Khadgar agrees with him. The camp around them was a field of glowing eyes, that Khadgar knew the worgen were securely caged and muzzled hardly mattered. It didn't ease the fact that he’d stood in the dark, in a field of predators. Khadagr had kept very close to Lothar. One of the worgen rattled the bars restlessly, and the answering growls spread into the night like ripples in a pond. Lothar had put his arm around Khadgar’s shoulders, his other hand on the hilt of his sword.

“It’ll be over tomorrow,” Lothar said, and his tone had not been as relieved as it could have been.

Khadgar doesn’t remember what he'd said in response, but he remembers Lothar’s arm across his shoulders, and the flat animal shine of eyes in the dark. The Worgen made Lothar uneasy because they were more unknown monsters summoned to his world, a weapon he couldn’t control or set down. They made Khadgar uneasy because there was something wrong with them. Even back then he hadn’t been able to convince himself they were merely natural beasts from another world as Arugal had claimed. There was an unnaturalness that sat on them like a slick of oil on water.

Khadgar wishes he had been less stupid, less complacent. That he had backed Lothar more thoroughly against the use of the Worgen at the beginning of the Alliance, when there had been only a bare handful of the beasts. He’s paying for his crimes now. Khadgar has not spoken to Lothar in six months, not since that last battle, down in the shadow of the dark portal.

In the end, Guldan had managed to open his portal again only to watch his army flee back through it. They’d left behind them Garona and the Frostwolves, and the general devastation of the southern Eastern Kingdoms. Despite Arugal's best efforts half the Worgen chased the orcs right through the portal, running hand over paw like animals, their muzzles foamed with blood. Good riddance Lothar had called it after the battle, solving both their problems at once.

Khadgar had been about to say something, probably about how it wouldn't be that easy, when Lothar turned and cut him off with a kiss. They hadn’t even been properly off the battlefield, and Lothar's armor had pinched and smeared orc blood onto Khadgar’s clothes. When Lothar dropped him, clapped Khadgar on the shoulder with a grin and stomped off to check on his troops, Khadgar had been wobbly on his feet. He'd staggered back against Lothar’s warhorse, ground-tied and already dozing, her faceplate and fetlocks caked black with blood.

“I really wasn’t expecting that,” he said to her. The warhorse just sighed in response, her ribs heaving under his back.

When Khadgar needs to dwell on those memories, he leaves his cottage and grooms Rooster until she gets sick of it and starts biting at his shirtsleeves. It’s not quite the same. The sunlight in Gilneas is thinner and greyer than it is in the south, and Rooster is a farmhorse, not a warhorse. Still, the sweet, dusty smell of her is the same, and it gives him something to do with his hands.

Stormwind rebuilt. Her farmers went back their farms, the tattered ranks of her army began to pull together and, slowly, her citizenry began to relax. Even Khadgar, pulled between Stormwind, Karazhan, and Dalaran, began to hope. Sometimes he’d even slept through the night without being awoken by dreams of the Fel.

Then, in a terrible repetition of history, reports of attacks started to come in: people mauled by Worgen. At first it’s only a few and only in the outer villages, and so they’d thought it was only stragglers from the war. Stormwind had increased patrols as much as their reduced army could manage and sent messengers up to Arugal’s keep on the borders of Gilneas to remind him to keep his pets in line. Before they had time to miss those messengers, the wounded began to turn. It started with fever, then temper, restlessness, and then the transformation. Khadgar had been right: the Worgen were not natural beasts. They were an infection. Their bite is transformative, and the newly turned rampage through the abbeys they’d been recovering in.

Priests of the Light are not completely helpless, but the attacks take them by surprise and most of the new-made Worgen escape. And when they are out in the world, they bite. By the time the remains of the human army have mobilized, the curse has spread.

After that no one in Stormwind wants to accept Gilneas’ aide, but there are precious few resources available to them. The elves have already pulled back to the golden city of Quel’thalas, and when the dwarves and gnomes hear of what happened their stretched friendship finds its limits. The doors of the subterranean cities of Ironforge and Gnomeregan shut and all attempts at contact are ignored. The one saving grace seems to be that these new Worgen are less clever than their progenitors. They can be hunted, they can be trapped, and once word spreads of exactly what the bite does, the bitten turn themselves in in droves.

They don’t kill them. How could they? They haven’t done anything wrong. Quarantine is the only solution they have, and someday Gilneas will need to explain why the hills of their country are honeycombed with prisons big enough to hold dozens. But for now hunting parties range across the Eastern Kingdoms, and iron cages roll on wagons into the mountains of Gilneas as priests, mages, and scholars work to find a cure.

Even Khadgar had gone to Dalaran to assist, for all the good it did any of them. At the time it had seemed the best chance to help; Dalaran’s libraries are vast and varied, and there are mages there who have lived for hundreds of years. None of that did them any good. Khadgar hadn’t the least idea what he was looking for, or even where to start.

Then, the worst thing. Khadgar was in the library, exhausted, his eyes gritty and sore even with Atiesh hovering over his shoulder, providing soothing golden light. He’d forgotten how long he’d been in the library, he wasn’t sure when he’d last eaten or slept.

He remembers talking to himself, then wincing from how loud his voice was in the silence.

“This would be so much easier if I had the slightest idea of what to look for.”

And then the unexpected reply.

“How fortunate, then, that you only need to look for two things.”

When Alodi had spoken next to him, Khadgar had fallen off his chair. Atiesh had clattered loudly against the table above him as he’d scrambled back in confused shock. Alodi regarded him calmly. He remembers how pale she was, nearly translucent at the edges, and the scarring around her eyes had looked worse.

He’d felt such a shameful sense of relief, like a child in a terrible situation spotting an adult at last. But all she’d given him was a riddle:

“There are three things that cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moons, and the truth. Seek these last two, and you will find your cure.”

When he’d told her he didn’t understand, she just shook her head, and the book had toppled to the floor at her feet and slid towards him. Khadgar knows the cover well enough by now he could draw it with his eyes closed: Azeroth’s moons, the White Lady waning, and the Blue Child cradled within her crescent.

Khadgar had tried to get her to explain, but she’d cut him off.

“You need to go, now, to Lordaeron, what you seek will not be found here. Lothar has been bitten,” she said, and was gone.

Khadgar doesn’t remember picking up the book from the floor, or Atiesh from the table, but he must have, because he has the book and he had not left the Violet City on a gryphon, but as a raven.

By the time Khadgar arrived in Lordaeron, Lothar had taken himself to the camps where the bitten can turn themselves in and wait for the change to come before they were taken to the prisons. The guards don’t let Khadgar into the camp, but they let Lothar come to the gates and were polite enough not to stare when Khadgar clutched at him through the bars. Khadgar remembers the linen shirt Lothar was wearing, how unnerving it was to see the man with no armor on at all, and the fresh, white bandage on his forearm.

“Find a cure, Khadgar. If anyone can, it’s you,” was the last thing Lothar said to him, his hands fever-hot on Khadgar’s face. That was the last time he saw Lothar. Khadgar does not count seeing the pale brown worgen, its muzzle shot with grey, straining and snarling against its chains as the wagon drew deeper into the foothills of Gilneas and the prisons waiting there.

Khadgar took over a cottage with a small garden in front and a few neglected looking sheep out back - some small farmer’s home once, abandoned for its proximity to the worgen prisons, full of over-dramatic Gilnean architecture, but the basement is deep and sturdy and the neighbors far away. He’d tried not to think about how his life resembled that of some serial killer in a penny dreadful. He still tries not to think about that, as the similarities have only gotten worse.

The first thing he’d done was open Alodi’s book. What she’d told him was on the second page. Khadgar gave her points for not burying the lede.

Though they may seem ponderous, even slow, the Tauren are in truth a people with a great well of patience - as you might be if you stood ten feet tall and weighed nearly half a ton. There are few forces that can move them if they are unwilling, and when they come to something their strength cannot overcome their fortitude lets them simply outlast it. A saying among them, applied when things went bad or dragged on, is: "these three things cannot be long hidden: An'she, Mu'sha, and the truth.” * I find it a philosophy not without merit.

* Tauren tribal names for the sun and the moons, respectively.

Taken whole, Khadgar had recognized that quote from the larger work, a rather rambling treatise on the Tauren of Kalimdor by a Night Elf, Anren Shadowseeker. It was not a very popular book, nor a respected one. Shadowseeker was considered one of those researchers who was too romantic about their subject; no one believed the depth of society he’d described finding in a bunch of half animal savages from the wilds of Kalimdor. Whoever illustrated the book definitely hadn’t believed it--their drawing of the Tauren looked a giant horned kobold with teeth like a crocolisk. Still, Alodi thought Shadowseeker had something of merit to say.

He’d flipped through the book but found no more mention of the Tauren. Looking back, Khadgar is ashamed at how one-track his numb, exhausted mind had been. It had taken falling asleep over the thing, then eating something that wasn’t conjured bread, for him to realize what he’d been given wasn’t even a book, really, it was more like an advertisement. A product of one of the goblin cartels, meant to tempt adventurers into paying to take the cartel’s boats or zeppelins across the great sea. The excerpts from longer works, all of them about or by the Night Elves, are interspersed with excitably punctuated copy offering guided trips featuring everything from hunting to archaeology.

Khadgar remembers the feeling of betrayal. How would goblin ad copy aide them? What did Night Elves have to do with Worgen? As far as he knows, no human has even spoken one within Khadgar’s lifetime. But faced with no other recourse, Khadgar had opened the book again, and began to take notes on anything that stood out to him.

And he’d found it, first in a very dry piece on druidism written by a man so rude and dismissive of his subject that Khadgar is still amazed that no one murdered him during his studies:

when a druid changes its shape, it is not merely becoming an animal, as this does not account for the severe physical differences between a true bear and a shapeshifted druid. In addition to the worship of their moon goddess Elune that all Night Elves participate in, druids also engage a sort of pagan worship of what they call “ancients” or “wild gods". It is this worship that gives them the ability to change their shape, as they claim to be taking on a small aspect of a particular “god” when doing so. My guide was not terribly forthcoming on how the “deaths” of some of these “wild gods” affect this sect of shapeshifters. He would only say that some forms are lost to them now, or forbidden.

In an essay about the War of the Ancients said to be translated from Shandris Feathermoon’s own writings:

Goldrinn’s fury served him well that day. Countless soldiers of the burning army fell to his fangs, but his frenzy was not without price. The fel flames of the enemy burned him too terribly, and the pain and torment drove him mad. The White Wolf fled the field that day and has not been seen since. The druids say Elune has turned Her eye from him, as he can no longer bear her regard, and his power is lost to them, perhaps forever.

In a section of an adventurer’s journal, someone who’d aided a Night Elf and been given a gift, a glimpse into the Emerald Dream – that echo of the primal world:

I cannot rightly tell you how big that tree was. I just don’t have the words for it, only that I know why these fellows call them “world trees.” We stood there for a while, looking out across an Azeroth never touched by any hand but nature’s.They told me this was Daral’nir, though what that should mean to me I have no idea, as the best I can do in their language is apologize, and ask for the facilities.

After I had looked for a while it seemed to me that there was more to that tree, something living around the bottom of it, but they didn’t much like me mentioning it. All they would say was some fancy phrase about the roots of the tree containing the madness of the wolf. Now the Night Elves are good people, and if you’re sensible and polite they won’t kill you for wandering into their forests, so I won’t hear a word against them, but Light above they are a dramatic lot. It’s probably where they buried gran’s cranky old dog.

Khadgar remembers thinking: oh surely not. But it was there in almost every story, over and over. The druids and the moon goddess. The wild gods and corruption. The wolf.

Khadgar thinks now what he thought then: Light help them all, what did Arugal summon?

The guards at the pit were not pleased when Khadgar showed up with papers from Dalaran, authorizing him to take a worgen for testing. They were even less happy when he demanded they get him a specific one, one of Arugal’s originals, smarter and more dangerous thant he others. Khadgar assumes they’d be absolutely furious if they’d known those papers were forged, but what they don’t know can’t hurt them.

He’d secured the worgen in his new basement, in stocks sunk deep into the earth, and gotten to work. He’d had no idea what he was doing, and it took him weeks, and then months to get here, steadily depleting his little flock of sheep to keep his captive fed, and hoping, desperately, he wasn’t doing something awful and pointless.

A few weeks in, he lost half the flock to a mountain ettin. He’d frozen one of its heads, then blasted the confused thing off the nearby cliff. Khadgar’s not sure if the fall killed it or just knocked it out so it drowned in the sea. He wasn’t in any state to check, afterwards, too busy leaning on his broken fence and having what, in hindsight, was a mild panic attack. The ettin had been taller than his house.

The next morning a young man had shown up riding one horse and leading another.

“For your help,” he’d said solemnly, and indicated the hastily fixed fence and the blasted ground around the cliff. That particular ettin had been a nuisance for a while, apparently. Khadgar doesn’t remember the particulars of the conversation, only that when the man smiled at him his teeth were very white against his dark skin, and it made his long, dour face quite handsome. That was the first person he’d seen in a month, never mind spoken to, and in the end Khadgar had been left holding the lead rope of a genuine Gilnean mountain horse.

She was such a bright chestnut she looked like she could burn away the fog in his yard, with three white feet and an off center white snip between her eyes. After the third time she woke him up whinnying for food at dawn, he started calling her Rooster, and never bothered to think up a better name. He’d put her in with the sheep, and they seemed to like each other well enough, and if Khadgar still spent all day and most of the night inside researching a cure, then at least he went out morning and night to feed his horse.

It must be moonlight, Khadgar had decided early on. Alodi had told him to find the moon, and over and over, the one name mentioned in connection with the Night Elves was the moon goddess, Elune, always in regards to purity and cleansing. There were children's stories of Elune cleansing the brood-matron of great silk-making spiders, and cautionary tales of those who spurned Her and became twisted and unnatural. She's everywhere in their culture and it's always the same: to turn from Her light is to become corrupt, to accept it again is to cleanse yourself, and they seem to mean that quite literally. Then he’d come to the description of a moonwell, and Khadgar had thought he knew what he needed to do.

Of course there hadn’t been anything in the books so helpful as instructions for making a moonwell, but Khadgar has always been good at improvisation. Khadgar had known, deep down, that he was doing the same thing he’d done when he’d gone after Medivh, a bare idea of a plan and a lot of hope. He knows that trying to get the attention of whatever Elune might be is stupid and dangerous and he has every chance of making this worse, or of accomplishing nothing but his own death. But he also knows it could work. Besides, they said Magna Aegwynn could call the dragon Aspects down to speak with her, and while Khadgar is no Aegwynn, the Council thought he had potential, even if they also thought him dangerous.

Khadgar takes a deep breath, mutters ‘Elune help me’ with honest hope, and casts.

Khadgar’s ears are full of slow, chiming music, and his hands are full of moonlight that flows like liquid between his fingers. The worgen’s ears are pinned so tightly to her skull that she looks like a weasel and her eyes are flat green disks, reflecting the light. She snarls at him, low and warning. Khadgar ignores her, cupping the light in his hand and holding it up to shine fully on the captive worgen.

“Oh,” Khadgar says.

He can see it. The moonlight casts a shadow over and into his captive and illuminates everything that had eluded him before. Khadgar can see the Fel corruption coating her like oil on water, and beneath it, something human - or Elven he supposes - curled up, asleep and untainted.

It's a shell, a prison. Khadgar is sure that it’s the shape that holds the madness, and if he could cut her off from the worgen form, he could... Khadgar steps closer and the basement rings with snarls. Why couldn't he see it before? Fel corruption doesn't hide itself like this-- it’s obvious, it turned the orcs green, for Light’s sake. Khadgar reaches for more power, his eyes flat white, and the basement throbs with light. He thinks of Lothar and the moonlight flowing between his hands shapes itself into blade. He steps closer again and the worgen roars at him, spit flecking his shirt.

“No,” Khadgar says absently, “it's okay, I've got you.”

Khadgar grabs a fistful of skin and fur under her jaw and shoves her head up against the top of the stocks to keep her teeth away and slits her throat. The worgen shrieks and thrashes, one hind leg lifted and braced on the wood as Khadgar watches, his eyes full of light. The corruption around her shrivels away like paper tossed in a fire, and the blade melts away, pulled out of Khadgar's hand, into her. With its loss, Khadgar loses his grip on her and staggers back, suddenly clumsy.

They both freeze, a moment of shared stillness before moonlight lances from her skin, from her forehead chest and belly, from her palms and the soles of her feet. She screams as the stocks shatter, and she lunges at him. Khadgar goes over backwards and only has time to feel a ridiculous spike of worry about who will feed Rooster before everything goes black.

Khadgar comes to beside a naked woman, which is definitely a first. He scrambles upright and instantly regrets it as his head throbs sickeningly and the world sloshes. He squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his teeth and swallows until he no longer feels like he might vomit if he breathes wrong. Feeling at the back of his head reveals a lump, but no blood, and Khadgar, very carefully, turns his head to look.

The worgen is no longer a worgen, and Khadgar stares in fascination. He has never seen a Night Elf in person, only seen illustrations. Her skin is a dusky purple, her hair pale teal. She's broader and taller than the High Elves he is used to, with stronger features, and her long ears slant back rather than up. She's also completely naked. Khadgar cringes.

“Oh sweet Light. Shit. I'm sorry, I definitely should have considered that clothing would not spontaneously appear if I changed you back.” He babbles, eyes locked on the top of her head.

Khadgar hurriedly yanks off his doublet, deeply grateful he’s wearing layers today, and holds it out to where she’s kneeling, just out of arm’s reach. Well, his arm’s reach, her arms are longer. Her shoulders are broader too. He’s going to have to find her some better clothes. When she slips his doublet on, it doesn’t even close in the front, but it’s better than nothing.

Then she asks him a question.

“Well, that’s a problem,” Khadgar says.

He doesn't speak her language. But the elves live a very long time, and hopefully they have memories to match, so maybe -

“I'm sorry,” Khadgar says in Thalassian, “I don't speak that language. Can you speak this one?”

She gives him a disgusted look, then says, grudgingly, that she can.

“Oh thank the Light,” Khadgar sighs in relief.

“I think I should thank you,” she says, “but first please tell why I shouldn’t kill you.”

Khadgar thinks this is a valid request for someone who is naked and locked in a root cellar with a stranger.

“We need a cure,” Khadgar says, slumping on the dirt floor in the shattered remains of the stocks and gingerly holding the back of his head. “You were brought here, you bit people and they turned,” he gestures at her, “to that. To what you were, the wolf-monster. Worgen.”

The woman's eyes go wide. They’re white, he realizes, sclera, iris, and pupil, with a faint glow he only notices in the flicker across her cheekbones when she looks away and blinks rapidly. She turns back to him and asks tentatively, “These people, they are like you? They are not druids?”

Khadgar shakes his head, an action he promptly regrets. “Human, like me,” he says after several deep breaths, “but not mages. Warriors, farmers.”

She blows out a long breath and runs her hands through her hair, then makes a face.

“We have much to discuss, mage. But first I think I would like a bath, and food that isn't raw sheep.” She holds her hand out to him, “I am Jay.”

He takes it. “Khadgar.”

Khadgar ends up needing that hand to help him stand, and then to walk up the stairs. The pain in his head has settled into a steady nauseating throb and the world is a slightly doubled and blurry around the edges. She doesn’t seem at all afraid of him, though she hardly has cause at the moment, since she’s a foot taller than him and at least fifty pounds heavier, and right now Khadgar couldn’t magic his way out of a wet sack.

She drops him in a kitchen chair and leaves him there. While she bathes, Khadgar manages to stand up. He digs through the little house, finding pants and shirts left by the previous tenant that are too big for him but might do for her. Better than her walking around barely in his doublet, anyway. He also gets so dizzy he has to stop and hold onto the furniture four times, and vomits twice. His guest finds him with his head on the kitchen table, trying not to make it three times. He waves at the pile of clothes without opening his eyes or moving his head.

“Thank you,” Jay says, and then hauls his chin up and pries his eyes open. Khadgar hisses in protest and pain.

“You are sick,” she says, sitting down across from him, damp and still naked as she picks up the underwear and regards them skeptically. “You have a - a- shit, an’athalas in caradin va ...I don't know the word in this stupid language - a bruise, inside the head?”

“Concussion,” Khadgar says resignedly, eyes on the ceiling beams. He’d suspected as much.

Jay nods, standing to button up the pants. The hems hit about mid-calf; there are not many seven foot tall Gilneans around. She sits back down and gives Khadgar’s hand a brief comforting pat before taking a comb to her snarled hair.

“Good work I’m here then. I’ll make sure you don’t start having fits, or falling down and forgetting your own name,” she says decisively, putting down the comb and starting a braid. “When you’re better you will explain things to me, and I will walk the Dream, and get us help.”

Khadgar tries to process that but trying to think feels like trying to see through a wool blanket. He just wants to sleep.

“How do you know I’m not evil?” he manages to ask, slowly, and it’s not quite what he meant to ask, but Jay seems to be taking this very well.

Braid done, Jay looks up from lacing up the borrowed shirt and glances around the cheery cottage, shelves full of preserves and crockery, doors and windows propped open to the spring sunshine. They can see a corner of the weedy garden through the front door, and hear one of the sheep bleating. She looks back at Khadgar doubtfully.

“You are very bad at it, if you are.”

*

Lothar doesn’t notice much these days. There is not much to notice, only other worgen and dirt walls and the occasional appearance of meat. But he had noticed when the mage came, the sharp smell of arcane magic cutting through the smell of too many worgen in too small a space. Lothar had slunk closer to the bars, not too close - there were blades and fire waiting for those who show too much interest in the door – but close enough to get a sense of power like the sun coming up over the horizon.

There is an echo in Lothar’s mind. The man he was knew this mage and so does the worgen, but they’re not the same. The worgen knows that there is power there, and he wants to sink his teeth into the mage and watch Goldrinn’s gift sweep through him like fire.

Lothar sways longingly towards the door and the mage behind it. He bares his teeth in invitation, but the mage does not come, and he does not let Lothar out, only indicates one of the others, and leaves.

They take her away with a lot of fuss and noise, but Lothar doesn’t pay attention to any of it, just paces and scents the air until the smell of the mage is gone entirely, while something like hunger gnaws at his full stomach.

*

“You’re taking this very well. Not that I’m complaining, mind you,” Khadgar says again, slumped at his kitchen table.

“I panicked for a little time in the bathtub,” the elf says cheerily, poking at the bread she’s frying to check the underside, “but you were vomiting and I don’t think you heard me.”

It has been three days since Khadgar pulled Jay from the worgen form she was trapped in. The world has finally stopped going double at random moments, and Khadgar is finally hungry instead of nauseated.

“I can help, you know,” he says, for the second time, feeling restless; he has done little but sleep these past few days.

Jay waves the spatula at him threateningly. “What, am I a child to need someone to cook for me? Besides, who knows what you people think is good to eat. I don’t recognize half what’s in your pantry,” she says with a little sniff of disdain.

“Fry bread,” she continues flipping the piece in the pan, the underside golden brown and sizzling a little with fat, “is perfectly good for someone who has eaten nothing but tea and broth for three days.”

Khadgar’s stomach growls and he lets it go--he is tired still, and feels weak, shaky in his joints. He rubs a hand through his hair and winces anticipatorily before he realizes there’s no longer a lump on his head. He feels around a little, wondering; he has a clear memory of startling awake from the pain when he turned in bed and accidentally pressed on it.

Jay glances over, rolling and stretching another ball of dough. “I healed that, you don’t remember?”

He doesn’t, and he gives her a startled look. “Are you a priest?” he asks, sounding a bit more doubtful than he means to.

Jay snorts with laughter, bending over the pan until Khadgar is worried she’ll get spattered. “Goddess no, though my mother must have prayed for it enough. I haven’t the temperament.” Her grin is toothy and wry, her canines large and sharp.

“Did she, uh, not approve? Of your, uh…“ Khadgar trails off and makes a vague gesture at her. He knows nothing of Jay beyond worgen, basement captive, and houseguest.

Jay drops the plate of fry bread in front of him and sits down opposite, leaning her chin on her hand. Khadgar fans his bread to cool it and reaches out to warm the coffee pot with a touch. Jay takes a refill and tips her mug at him in thanks.

“Oh, not really, I suppose. I was a good enough child, but you know, first-born daughter and all that.” Jay waves her hand, encompassing cultural moors Khadgar knows nothing about. He nods anyway.

“Naturally my mother wanted me to be a Sentinel, I suppose, or follow in her footsteps and be a hunter. She’d have settled for the priesthood happily.” Jay smiles fondly.

“She tried to teach me to shoot, you know, for years she tried. But I shoot like a boy. I only hit the target when it was on accident.” She shrugs. Khadgar tosses a bite of fry bread from hand to hand until it cools, and groans happily when he finally gets it in his mouth. Jay looks pleased.

“I kept sneaking off to the Druids whenever I could. I never wanted anything else, and eventually she accepted it even though it wasn’t the most respectable calling for a woman. It helped that my brother took up a craft to support her like a good son. He's a very accomplished weaver.” Her smile falters. “Or he was. I was in the Dream for a very long time. I don't know if they're still alive or not.”

“I'm sorry,” Khadgar says, unsure of how to comfort someone in this situation. He is very bad at families.

Jay shakes off her melancholy, broad shoulders hunching up around her ears briefly. “Enough moping,” she says. “I am not mad or still asleep in the Dream. Elune help me if I cannot be grateful for that.” She drains her coffee cup and focuses her odd white gaze on Khadgar. “What about your family? You kept saying a name in your sleep. Who is Lothar?”

Well, that’s humiliating. Khadgar shoves more frybread in his mouth to give his embarrassment time to cool. Jay gets visibly more anxious as he chews.

“You’re alone here, was he - I mean, please tell me I didn't kill him,” Jay says all in a rush.

Khadgar swallows too fast in his rush to answer and ends up with a doughy lump lodged somewhere behind his breastbone, he coughs.

“No, no, gods. You -no. He was bitten after you were captured,” he manages, before washing the weight in his chest away with coffee. He refills his cup to kill time, he has no idea how to explain Lothar to Jay, he barely knows how to explain Lothar to himself.

“He’s a friend. We fought together, in the war that brought you here. I think they meant him to be my handler,” Khadgar said with a short laugh. “They were not really sure what to do with a mage in their midst, and my circumstance were ...odd.” He’d broken into the royal guardhouse to inspect some corpses; he supposes that’s an odd first meeting.

Jay nods seriously. “Before, they said our mages often had companions like that. It helped them, I think. They go badly when they are only around themselves. You are a very smart mage.”

Considering what they knows about the banning of arcane magic among the Kaldorei, Khadgar is not sure that’s a compliment. He rubs a hand over his chest uneasily. He doesn’t think the Guardian contains enough power to cause another Sundering, but he doesn’t know for sure. If he’d taken the power, would he know how they did it? The first Guardian was a high elf-- was he there when the continents split and the Maelstrom swallowed half the world? Khadgar looks across the table at the race that broke the world and never, ever wants that knowledge. He jumps when Jay speaks again.

“So Lothar is who you are trying to cure.”

“I’m trying to cure everyone,” Khadgar says, too fast, too defensive, he knows as soon as he hears himself.

Jay shakes her head and her ears twitch down as the muscle in her jaw tightens. “No,” she says carefully, “I have seen the - the groups, the ones who want answers. There are many of them, all in one place. Here there’s only you, out in the woods,” she says, fixing her gaze on her coffee cup. “I am not complaining about your results, but this is personal. Who did we take from you?”

Khadgar breathes deep and shoves down the anger prickling up his spine. It’s not her he’s mad at-- his anger is wider and far more selfish, a drumbeat that fades in and out but never goes away.

“I love him,” he says, looking at the scuffed table top. “I think he loves me, and the last thing he said to me was that if anyone could cure this, I could.”

He hears Jay sigh and shift and she reaches across the table to put her hand on his arm, her dark purple skin almost glowing against the white linen.

“Then you have made a good start, yeah? Eat, I am done prodding at your wounds today. Tell me how you freed me so I can tell my teachers, and we will cure your Lothar.”

*

Lothar is bored. He is tired of this little cave, and of eating sheep, and the other worgen in this little cave eating sheep with him. When they deliver the week’s food, he does not move, letting the others wrestle and snap over the best skulls and offal. Lothar keeps his eyes and ears turned towards the door; it’s too well-guarded for escape, but there is fresh air, a glimpse of deep woods and light and the idea of living things to sink his teeth into. He hears the clatter of the wagon rolling away and heaves a sigh, waiting for the click of the latch.

It never comes.

He hears the creak and jingle of armor, the low meaningless conversation of the guards, and still the latch does not click. A shiver goes through Lothar, making his fur spike. He rolls carefully to his feet and eases closer. There is a thin, wavering line of light around the iron door that has never been there before.

It’s always quiet at feeding time, and the day is hot. The guards are speaking together in a slow, meandering conversation to hold off the boredom when Lothar hits the door with all his weight. One guard stumbles sideways, clipped in the shoulder, while the other is trapped behind the heavy iron grate of the door. Lothar rips the throat out of the first one with his teeth, the other with his claws, as he cannot get his muzzle through the bars of the door holding the man with his sword and gun trapped. It is all over very quick, then Lothar stands there with blood cooling on his face, free for the first time.

He should let the others free, they should run through the world, biting and turning as they are meant to. More and more of them until the worgen cover the world, so when the burning army returns they will be there, they will be ready.

Lothar looks back at his brothers and sisters still occupied with eating. His mind is not a person’s but he’s not stupid. He thinks of the noise of them, how the men will hear them faster, find them faster. He thinks of the mage, of not reaching him, of some other worgen reaching him, and bares his teeth at the thought. Lothar places both paws on the door and pushes until the latch clicks.

*

Khadgar wakes late, and to an empty house, the quiet ringing against his ears. It’s unnerving, how fast he got used to Jay and her noisy sprawl across his life. He tries not to consider why - it’s uncomfortable to think of himself as that lonely. Dangerous, too.

Khadgar pads outside barefoot, in shirtsleeves and trousers, to find Jay running through some kind of stretching exercise on the lawn. He sits on the low stone wall around the garden and watches her. It looks a bit like the stretches Lothar does before he does any weapons or weight training, though far more involved. Jay is at least a head taller than Lothar, but has little of his bulk, long and lean in all her impressive muscle.

She does a backbend that puts both her hands and her feet flat on the ground facing in opposite directions, and Khadgar winces.

“Now you’re just showing off.”

Jay pushes the backbend into a handstand.

“Nope! Just preparing. Good morning, Khadgar,” she says, slightly muffled where her shirt has slid down “You should join me.”

Khadgar snorts as the handstand becomes one handed for a long moment. Muscles from wrist to back standing out smoothly from her dusky purple skin.

“I could sprain something even thinking about doing what you’re doing.”

Jay flows back upright, flushed and grinning. “You shouldn’t knock it, good muscle control is very important for a shapeshifter. You can’t imagine the cramps you can get, coming in and out of your skin like that.”

“Not a problem I’m likely to have,” Khadgar points out. Almost entirely truthful; Atiesh’s raven form is not precisely shapeshifting. He does feel a slight tug of envy; what is it with him and falling in with these over-muscled types?

“Still, exercise never hurts,” she says, immovably cheerful. “Come for a run with me.”

“There are easier ways, if you want to kill me,” Khadgar said flatly, eying the length of her legs, and Jay laughs.

“Take that red beast of yours then,” she says--While the high elves raised horse breeding to an art form, there is no word in Darnassian for ‘horse’, and Rooster is an alien fascination for her. “Maybe she can keep up.”

Jay bounces on her toes, swinging her arms, and the fading bruises from the stocks catch Khadgar’s eye. He sighs and agrees.

Later, when he’s walking Rooster to cool her - the mare had been pleased enough with the outing and the company to stretch herself into a heavy gallop – he brings it up again.

“Preparing for what?”

Jay, for once actually breathing hard and sweating, looks at him sidelong.

“Do you remember what I said to you, when you woke me? That I would need to walk the Dream?”

Khadgar tries, but the time after he freed Jay from the curse is a fragmented jumble of memories. It's what he gets for nearly cracking his skull, he supposes. He shakes his head.

She bites her lip thoughtfully “I don’t know how much of this I’m going to need to explain. Do you know what the Emerald Dream is?”

Khadgar nods. He does, just a little, as it was not the sort of alternate dimension most mages were concerned with. “A reflective dimension, the primal image of Azeroth, untouched by civilization.”

Jay tilts her head back and forth, neither nod nor shake. “Better than I expected. It's the dreams of the sleeping planet.”

Khdagar blinks. Overly poetic, but yes, he supposes.

“Druids can walk there. We are the guardians of that place since great Ysera gave us that duty.” Jay smiles softly.

“And that takes preparation?” Khadgar asks, fascinated. He has only read about mages who touched other dimensions; it's not often done.

Jay’s face goes solemn, and she doesn’t answer for a bit. Khadgar touches between Rooster’s forelegs and behind her ears to make sure she’s cooling, and waits.

“Have you ever met something that required your total respect?” Jay asks, low and rhetorical, “Not because it could think, not for any mortal reason, but because it is so much more than you are that if you make a mistake it would kill you and never even notice?”

Khadgar considers that. His first thought is the Fel, but that’s wrong. The Fel had needed him, wanted him quite badly. Even the higher elementals want something. He shakes his head.

“I have,” Jay says. “The deep ocean is like that, some of the greater Aquir were like that. And the Dream. All druids must learn to walk it, but that doesn’t make it a comfortable or safe thing to do.”

Khdagar’s head snaps towards her when she says ‘Aquir’, he stumbles over a tree root and barely notices.

Jay glances at him. “You know of them?”

Khdgar nods, “A bit. Your people’s records of the War of the Shifting Sands are some of the only information we have on fighting the Aquir.”

“Pray you never need that knowledge,” Jay says grimly. “Trolls may be savages who do nothing but destroy and murder and eat your dead if you don’t take them from the battlefield, but it was their armies who first stopped the advance of the Aquir across Kalimdor and kept them back for generations. I respect that.”

Khadgar’s spine prickles with shivers in the heat. He has not been to Silithus and the Light willing he will never need to. But he has seen the mage-maps and heard the stories, of the hives reaching into the sky, the corpses of bronze dragons scoured bare, and what you think are hills until they tremble and pulse. Nothing but sand and ruin and the constant, inescapable droning. The vast Aquir empire is a sullen, wounded might behind the Scarab Wall.

“If it's that dangerous, is there another way?”

“None that won't take a month on a boat,” Jay sighs. “And I have no idea how to help you. And I must help. Your mage may have pulled us out of the Dream but it was our teeth that turned your people, our foolishness that let this curse into the world.”

Jay looks away from him for a while. Rooster is cool and dry but Khadgar stays on the ground, walking alongside her. It’s only partially due to their topic of conversation. Gilnean horses are deep-chested and more well-sprung in the barrel than Khadgar finds comfortable in a mount.

“To explain it properly, you must know the whole story. There were always practitioners of nature magic, shapeshifters, too. Cenarius spread his teaching to us, and the Tauren, but there was nothing in the world called a druid until he found Malfurion, a student who could master everything he taught. And Malfurion taught us,” Jay says, her gaze on her feet. “When a druid changes their shape it's not really becoming an animal. We couldn’t do half what we can if it were.”

“What is it then?” Khadgar asks.

“Borrowing a small part of the essence of an ancient. Malorne, Aviana, Ashamane. Ursol and Ursoc.”

“But some of them are lost to you now,” Khadgar murmurs, remembering the little moon-stamped book. It felt like a very long time ago. It has been just over three months.

Jays nods. “Not death, death doesn’t kill a god, but corruption can –“ her throat works briefly. “There was a battle, long ago. An invasion, and the ancients fought beside us against the burning legions of our foe. One of them was Goldrinn, the wolf, an ancient of fury and of temperance. He killed scores, but they burned him until he went mad from it. He fled, and after there was no more of mercy in him, only rage.”

“And now you can’t touch his power,” Khadgar says, things clicking into place in his head.

Jay nods. “Not even Malfurion could control the anger that came with the pack form. He tried to kill Cenarius the one time he attempted it, Goldrinn’s madness was too strong, even after all that time. So he forbid its use.” She sighs enormously. “He was the first and best of us, and we thought we knew better than him.”

Jay tips her head back, looking through the trees. “If we can be forgiven at all, we did it because we were at war, and some of us thought the strength of the pack form outweighed the danger. One of us moulded it, moved it closer to our born forms, to try and cut the effects of the corruption. The worgen are the result.” Jay looks down at her hands, turning and flexing them, as if she was still seeing paws.

“It didn't work,” Khadgar says, trying to swamp the bitterness he can hear in his own voice. What can he say to her? When his own people used the worgen for the same thing? When she has paid for it with ten thousand years dreaming?

Jay’s mouth twisted bitterly, her white teeth gleaming in the dim light. “No, it didn't. We turned on our own armies. I hardly remember it, there is a clarity to a rage that powerful but my mind was not a person's. I wanted only to bite, and I did.” she takes a deep breath. “We were banished, of course. Malfurion could have put us to death, but instead he placed us at the root of Daral’nir, physically within the Dream itself, and hoped that would heal our rage in time.” She sighed, looking out over the forest.

“That was thousands of years ago. I see it was not quite long enough,” she says wryly.

Khadgar lets out a short, unhappy laugh. He doesn’t know what to say to that.

“I don’t know why it should affect you humans, but I know my masters will be able to help. That's why I need to walk the dream. I have to go to Moonglade in Kalimdor, where the druids gather and summon help. I’ve seen your maps; my wings are strong, but I cannot fly across the great sea.” Jay’s voice shakes a little, at the end.

They walk all the way back to the cottage in silence.

For all her worry, it’s not very dramatic. The next day Jay lays down on the bed in the morning and tells Khadgar to give her a good shake if she stays out more than two days, then falls asleep. Not even a full day passes before Jay opens her eyes in the growing twilight and beams at Khadgar.

“They’re coming,” she says, joyful.

In the morning, not long after the sun rises, Khadgar feels the flare of magic miles off, like a flash of light seen out of the corner of the eye. He goes inside to wake Jay and try to find clothing that doesn't make him look like he's been living in Rooster’s stall with her. By mid-morning Khadgar looks presentable and is so anxious he can’t sit still. Then, finally there are four storm crows touching down in his yard, three with dark purple plumage, and one russet. It’s an impressive entrance, Khadgar has to admit, their wingspans significantly longer than he is tall.

He steps forward to greet them but stumbles to a stop halfway there. There are three night elves straightening their clothes in his garden, and a fourth, who stands up and doesn’t stop. Ten feet tall without counting the spread of his horns, the Tauren masses larger than all three of his companions put together. He does not, Khadgar thinks, remembering the illustrations, look like an overgrown kobold, nor does he look like an upright cow. He looks entirely like himself. The Tauren shakes out his massive shoulders and the heavy arch of his neck and meets Khadgar’s wide eyes with clear amusement. Khadgar’s throat clicks dryly as he swallows and he makes himself take a few more steps towards them.

One of the night elves, who looks older in no way Khadgar can put a name to, steps forward after a long silent moment and Khadgar takes her offered hand automatically.

“Khadgar, it is good to meet you. I am Velinda Moonwarden,” she says in very passable trade tongue. “These are Thisalee Crow, Itharius Gladewallker, and our student, Hamuul Runetotem.” She gestures to the Tauren last, and Khadgar nods at all of them, trying desperately not to stare.

Itharius nods back, expressionless. Thisalee waves cheerily, and Hamuul spreads his hands and bows from the waist. The horns make it a very dramatic gesture, and his arms are a thick as Khadgar’s waist. Jay at least could have warned him.

Khadgar swallows a few times, and has just managed to respond to Velinda when Jay comes down the steps, buttoning her shirt.

“Are they really here? Already? That was –“ and she breaks off with a little choked noise. Khadgar turns to look at her, and behind him Thisalee sucks in a sharp breath.

“Thisalee?” Jay asks, soft and uncertain, and then they both running across the yard into an embrace that nearly tips them over in its enthusiasm. Jay is holding Thisalee’s face and speaking rapid, choked Darnassian. The elves and tauren smile indulgently, but Khadgar looks away awkwardly. When Itharius steps forward and takes his arm to lead them away from the personal moment and into the house, Khadgar could kiss him.

“Come, they will be a minute, and we have much to discuss,” Itharius says in a deep, smooth voice.

It ends up being more like half an hour. By that point Khadgar has been fortified by coffee and no longer jumps every time Hamuul moves. They know how to cure it, and Khadgar’s relief is so great he feels like he could weep and then sleep for a week. The only stumbling point is that they’ve never had to cure a human of the curse; they are different species, the flow of magic in them is different. Khadgar sees what they are talking around immediately and waves them off.

“No, I have forged the papers allowing worgen to be removed before,” he says, gesturing at Jay. “I can do it again. That’s what you need, yes? You need a test subject, to try it on before you give it to everyone.”

His guests all look varying degrees of relieved. They needn't have been worried. Dalaran has been doing the same thing so regularly they’ve nearly empted the southernmost prison. Khadgar did the same thing with Jay. He had hoped with all his heart for a cure, but he might have killed her just as easily. Velindra knows that--when he’d told her how he freed Jay she’d stared at him in shock. Crude, but effective, had been her words, and she’d gone on to describe a few of the ways in which he could have been killed, killed Jay, or blown them both up. It was educational, and in hindsight, Khadgar can’t believe he’d pulled it off.

“I’ll go in the morning,” Khadgar says in the end, light fading from his eyes as he waves the magical seal to cool and set it. “I’ll have to rent a wagon and by then it’ll be too late. No orders will make them try to remove a worgen after dark.”

His company looks grim; whether at his use of magic or the danger, Khadgar does not particularly care. They have the cure for the worgen curse and so they can disapprove of him in his own house all they want as far as he’s concerned.

The next day Khadgar rises early, makes coffee quietly and eats yesterday's bread standing in the kitchen. His guests aren’t visible, but he feels their presence, the low level of magic like a hum under his skin. He’d been embarrassed that he had nowhere to keep them in his little house, but Thisalee had assured him this was not the first time they’d slept in their feathers. Khadgar’s roof is very crowded, and the druids look ridiculous, fluffed up balls crowded together with their heads tucked into their back feathers.

Khadgar has his head turned to check on them when he steps outside, until a noise from Rooster catches his attention and he turns to look. The mare is pressed against the far side of the fence with the sheep crowded around her legs, and her copper coat is dark with sweat in the cool morning air. Lothar is standing in his yard, his breath rolling out in little clouds from a muzzle dark with dried blood.

Khadgar sucks in a sharp breath, freezing on the stairs. Lothar growls, low and eager, and takes a step forward before stopping, his face wrinkling in a snarl.

"Khadgar," Jay says quietly behind him, "is that him?" Khadgar licks his lips and nods hard, not taking his eyes off Lothar.

“Can you hold him?”

Khadgar eyes the distance between himself and the worgen, and considers how fast they can move. Maybe fast enough to save his life, but probably not fast enough to keep from getting bitten. He shakes his head.

"If I distract him can you bind him?"

"Yes," Khadgar says. “Be careful, please,” and then adds, pleadingly, "Don't hurt him," his ears burning.

Jay just puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. Lothar snarls and straightens from his cautious crouch, shifting forward on his paws. Jay swears and yanks Khadgar back and to the side. There's a rush of air and a skin prickling flare of magic and the early morning air fills with roaring. Rooster shrieks in mindless animal fear and tries to batter her way through the fence as the druids on the roof fling themselves into the air, cawing hoarsely.

Khadgar scrambles upright in time to see a bear with fur the color of Jay’s skin charge across his lawn and slam into Lothar.

Druid, right, he thinks, light flooding his vision, power gathering between his palms.

It's over very fast. Jay on all fours is still nearly tall enough to look Lothar in the eye, a massive wall of muscle and fat, and when they collide she drives him halfway across the yard. Lothar doubles over with a wheezing yelp and Jay sets her teeth in his thigh, drags him to the ground and stands on him. When Lothar tries to bite at her chest and throat she backhands him so hard his head rebounds off the ground and he goes limp and dazed, claws scrabbling weakly at the dirt. Jay looms over him broodingly and only shuffles back warily when Khadgar binds Lothar nose to ankles, the magic is solid, even if Khadgar has to sit down when it’s done.

Hamuul tries to help Khadgar up but his knees won’t lock, and eventually the Tauren leaves him on the ground and goes over to soothe Rooster, who’s foamed and trembling, still making little animal grunts of terror in the corner of her pen. He pats Jay on the shoulder as he passes, and says something to her in his low voice.

Khadgar presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, breathing hard, and Jay wanders over and sits close to him. There's blood on her teeth and she smells like a wild animal, musky and strong and really kind off-putting, but she's his friend and the slow, deep rumble of her breathing helps settle his nerves. After a few minutes he gets up, steadying himself against Jay’s shoulder. The elves and Hamuul are standing around Lothar, waiting patiently. Jay stays next to him, rumbling warningly at the world in general, and props her heavy muzzle on Khadgar’s shoulder; her hot, bloody breath washes over his neck and he has to lock his knees against the weight of her head.

“Do you have a place to secure him?” Velindra asks, patiently.

“Downstairs, that’s where I-” he glances at Jay’s unfamiliar face. “It’s safe, that’s where we can keep him,” Khadgar says, grateful he’d thought to rebuild the stocks.

Hamuul picks Lothar’s bound form up, slinging him over his shoulder one-handed. Khadgar follows him into the basement with Jay following him through the house. Her fur makes an odd hissing scrape when she squeezes through the doorways and she grunts unhappily at the basement stairs, but she does not turn back to an elf until Lothar is secured in the rebuilt stocks. The others follow them down, where it’s a tight fit. Khadgar concentrates on unraveling the bonds from Lothar.

“This is him?” Starsong asks, looking not at Khadgar, but at Jay. Khadgar nods, and wipes at his mouth, not looking away from Lothar, half conscious and growling softly.

Velinda sighs, “I’d rather a less ...charged test subject, but needs must, I suppose.”

Khadgar tenses and Jay leans against his shoulder, a much lesser weight than a bear, still comforting. Velinda makes a gesture and says something in Darnassian and Lothar sleeps, then more words and pale green light suffuse him, and the bite wound in his thigh closes up. Tiny white flowers bloom in the basement dirt around Lothar’s feet and wither as the light fades.

Velindra turns to Jay with a frown. “While I’m grateful for your quick reaction, I am not sure you had to crack his skull for him.”

Jay looks away. “I was afraid of being bitten,” she mumbles. Thisalee rubs her shoulder, hovering over Jay while she hovers over Khadgar.

Back upstairs Itharius makes tea while Jay goes to rinse the blood out of her mouth.

“Do not concern yourself over my colleague’s comments about test subjects, Khadgar,” he says, his tone light and his face calm, “The cure is well tested over the centuries, we merely must make sure none of the ingredients are toxic to your kind.”

Khadgar nods gratefully, hands cupped around the warm mug. “I’m alright,” he says, “it was just a shock. I haven’t seen him since he was bitten.”

Itharius nods. “I know, Jay explained it to us.” He laughs, not unkindly, when Khadgar flushes, remembering just what he’d said to Jay.

“My husband and my sister-in-law were taken by the curse, in the early days. I would not lie to you, or raise your hopes falsely, young man,” Itharius says, a small smile on his face, and he claps Khadgar on the back bracingly.

Khadgar ducks his head over his tea and thanks him. The emotional whiplash is making him light-headed. It’s not the aide that confuses him-- Arugal may have loosed the worgen on the world, but the night elves made them in the first place. He understands that particular feeling of responsibility in their desire not to see the curse spread again. It’s the kindness that confuses him. This is not how the Kirin Tor would have handled things.

*

Lothar watches him, yellow eyes glowing in the dim basement. Khadgar sits against the opposite wall, watching him back. Four months of work, and now Khadgar is left with nothing to do but wait on other people. The druids bustle around with reagents and scrolls, speaking together in Darnassian. Khadgar has never been good at idleness. He sighs, and shifts against the dirt wall. It’s not Lothar watching him from those eyes-- there’s no sapience there, but there’s something. Lothar growls softly, that same low, crooning rumble he’d made in the yard. Khadgar swallows, fear spiking cold in his belly, and he stands up. He wasn’t afraid of Jay like he is of Lothar. He was afraid, of course, he’s not stupid, but it just meant he was careful, took precautions. He is less careful with Lothar, and that makes him more afraid. Khadgar doesn’t know why he’s like this with Lothar; it’s not that he thinks the worgen that was his friend won’t hurt him.

Khadgar steps closer, within arm’s reach, but outside the reach of Lothar’s teeth. Lothar sniffs audibly and doggish, and his jaw drops slightly as he leans into the stocks. Perhaps. Khadgar thinks, as he slowly lifts a hand, it’s just that being near Lothar always makes him want to do something foolish, shout, brag, explain some complex arcane thing, blow something up. Be noticed.

Khadgar misses him so much. It’s worse, with Lothar so close but not present. Khadgar slowly runs his fingers over the short fur on the top of Lothar’s muzzle. Lothar is very still, his growling more a vibration than a sound. Khadgar strokes up between his eyes, following the paler fur and longer guard hairs over the eye, down to his cheek where the fur gets longer and softer. The jaw under his fingers shifts. A hand clamps down on Khadgar’s shoulder and he jerks, startled, as Jay yanks him back and Lothar snaps, tearing away a piece of Khadgar’s sleeve, savaging it to trailing threads in his frustration.

Jay drags Khadgar upstairs. For a moment, he thinks she's going to hit him, she's so angry, but instead Jay shakes him hard, once, hisses something in Darnassian and stomps out of the house. Khadgar’s skin prickles, and a doe the color of old bone leaps the garden wall and vanishes into the woods. The four druids around his kitchen table are silent. There’s a staff leaning against the wall and Hamuul is sitting on the floor, a bowl of glowing water on the table in front of him.

The low murmur of their voices starts up again when Khadgar slips out the back door and slumps on the back steps, feeling like an idiot. After a while he feels the ground shake with Hamuul’s approach.

“We have done poorly by you, young man,” the Tauren says, lowering himself to the ground beside Khadgar.

Khadgar looks at him; it’s odd to look at Hamuul’s face on his level. The Tauren’s eyes are gold ringed with green, his fur pale, somewhere between tan and grey.

“How so?” Khadgar asks.

“We have the cure ready, it was only a matter of retrieving an item from the mage who began your whole problem,” Hamuul says evenly. Khadgar’s head whips around and he stares at the druid, but Hamuul is staring out over the woods. “We said nothing because it is more complicated than a simple cure, and we have never before dealt with an outbreak this big, it changes things,” Hamuul continues, his gaze shifting to Khadgar’s. “What did Jay look like to your mage-sight when she was infected?”

It takes Khadgar a moment to adjust to the subject change. “A skin. It was – like a suit, a coating of wrongness containing what she was. Why wouldn’t you tell me? What do you mean it’s not that simple-“

Hamuul speaks over his questions, his voice a steady rumble. “Yes, that matches what we have seen. If you were to look at her, or one of us when we were shapeshifted you would see much the same thing, minus the corruption, of course.”

“Fascinating, but what does that mean for Lothar?” Khadgar snaps.

“Lothar is not a Druid,” Hamuul says. “He did not take the form, he was taken by it. Thus, it is not a skin, it is inside him,” Hamuul shifts and points south. “There, Khadgar, do you see that tree, the one that stands far above its fellows?”

“Yes, what of it?” Khadgar snaps, not looking. He knows the tree, deep in the Blackwald; you could fit half a town in the width of its trunk.

“We knew of it before we came here, and it is how the Worgen came to be in your world. It is Tal’doren, and it is the physical echo of the World Tree the original Worgen were placed under,” Hamuul continues. “We have retrieved the Scythe of Elune, and water and herbs from the moonwell at Tal’doren’s roots. This is what will restore your friend and your people to their proper balance and their right minds.”

“But?” Khadgar says warily.

Hamuul heaves a sigh, a very large gesture. “They will never lose the shape they were infected with.”

Khadgar sucks in a sharp breath, his mind spinning with repercussions. Stormwind will have to take refugees; Gilneas would never allow them to stay, looking like that. As the crisis drags on, they’ve had their hands full just keeping the Gilnean militia from shooting the turned on sight.

Hamuul rests a hand on his back. “It is not as hopeless as it sounds. The Scythe will unbind what was not meant to be bound, and their souls will master the beast, rather than the beast master the soul. Balance will return to them, and they will be able to change their forms to what they once were, but it will be just that, a shapeshift. They are Worgen now, mage, even when we return their minds to them.”

Khadgar drags in a shaky breath, then another. That is not so bad, he supposes. Not when compared to hundreds of people living their lives as beasts in a cage. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, hard and brief. It has been a very long four months. Hamuul pats him comfortingly.

“Alright then,” Khadgar says, “what are we waiting for?”

*

It’s a much less dramatic event than what Khadgar did. The Scythe – and Khadgar has never seen anything besides Atiesh that gave off such an aura of age and power – holds Lothar as placid as a pet. Hamuul manhandles him from the stocks and Lothar drinks when the bowl of glowing water is held up to him. For a long minute nothing happens, then Lothar’s eyes roll back and he goes limp in Hamuul’s grasp.

“It is done, then,” he says with satisfaction, lowering Lothar gently to the ground. Khadgar fidgets anxiously, watching Lothar’s still form.

“Be at peace,” Itharius says to him. “We have done this before. He will be fine.”

At last, Lothar moves, pushing himself half upright with a groan, and it's not an animal noise at all. When he lifts his head Khadgar sees, for the first time, a man behind those yellow eyes.

“Khadgar?” Lothar says, his voice gravelly with disuse.

Khadgar's moving before he makes a conscious decision to, yanking away when someone tries to grab him, and flings himself at Lothar, who rises to meet him.

Khadgar throws himself into Lothar's arms without hesitation and buries his face in Lothar's neck even though he smells like a wolf locked in a pit for months. He can feel claws against his skin but he’s not afraid; it may be a different body, but this is just Lothar, and Khadgar isn’t afraid of him.

“Knew you'd figure it out, bookworm,” Lothar says.

Khadgar’s laughter is cracked and a little hysterical, he digs his fingers into fur and holds on. “Well,” he manages, “that makes one of us.”

Eventually they separate, and a grinning Jay thumps Khadgar on the back so enthusiastically she almost knocks him over as Lothar speaks seriously with Velinda and Hamuul.

Upstairs, Jay looks at Khadgar, looks at Lothar, and chivies the rest of the party outside, chattering too brightly about, something, he doesn’t know. He knows he should stop them, as they have so much to discuss still. Lingering effects from the curse, how to mass distribute the cure, the inevitability of the Kirin Tor sticking their noses in. Khadgar doesn’t care about any of that right now, though; he’s just grateful, and he’ll have to remember to do something nice for her later. Lothar watches them go, eyes bright and fur dull in the light, then he shudders, staggers as the Worgen form falls away from him like shadows, and it's just Lothar, standing naked and dirty in Khadgar's kitchen.

“I was afraid it wouldn't work, that I’d just stay like that,” Lothar says, looking down at his hands, turning them over. “Stupid, I suppose.”

“Yes,” Khadgar says, staring. He should stop - he’s being very rude - but it’s his Lothar and he looks the same as before, only the bite scar is new.

"You need to stop looking at me like that until I’ve had a bath," Lothar says.

Khadgar nods. “You’ve got ten minutes.”

It turns out Lothar only needs seven before he’s back, clean and wet, and backing Khadar up to his bed, then down onto it, his hands on Khadgar’s ass.

“We have some things to discuss,” Lothar says, breaking their kiss, pressing on Khadgar’s shoulders to keep him down.

Really,” Khadgar says, fighting Lothar’s grip, “I swear, I could kill you.”

“That’s sweet,” Lothar says, grinning like the asshole he is, and the thought of never seeing that smile again makes Khadgar’s throat close up. “But first I thought I’d suck your cock,” Lothar says, hands moving from Khadgar’s shoulders, unlacing his pants.

“Well if you think it will help our discussion,” Khadagar snaps, “who am I to st- fuck.”

"Yeah," Lothar says, not bothering to lift his head out of Khadgar's lap as he shifts down the bed, "get these off so I can get at you."

Khadgar has never gotten his pants off so fast in his life. Lothar slips one hand under him to squeeze his ass and uses the other to lift Khadgar's cock off his belly so he can kiss the head, then down the shaft. Khadgar grabs the sheets in one hand and twists the other into his own shirt, he wants to put his hands in Lothar’s hair but doesn't trust himself not to pull.

The noises Khadgar makes when Lothar takes him in his mouth is embarrassing, too high, too desperate but he is desperate. Khadgar spent months thinking he’d never even get to speak to Lothar again. When Lothar goes down until the head of Khadgar's cock hits the soft back of his throat and sucks, Khadgar can’t seem to shut his mouth.

“Ah yeah, suck me, please, you're fucking gorgeous and you owe me, you’re so stupid. What were you doing, you left me, you bastard.” Khadgar hisses, he's pretty sure he pops a seam in his own shirt when one of Lothar’s spit-wet fingers slip behind his balls to press into him.

“Fuck me, fuck me,” Khadgar demands as he twists on the bed, shaking his hair out of his eyes and trying to push himself further onto Lothar's finger without being rude and shoving his cock down the man's throat. Lothar makes a considering noise and lets Khadgar’s cock slip out of his mouth.

“You want that, do you?” Lothar asks, licking the shaft before taking Khadgar in his mouth again.

“Are you kidding,” Khadgar grits out, “you are definitely fucking me. Do you know what I, oh, I'm -” Khadgar’s words break off with a squeak in the back of his throat He shudders, the rough wool blankets rubbing against his ass and the sweaty small of his back where his shirt is riding up, gripping the sheets so hard his hands ache as he comes.

Khadgar fumbles blindly, sweat in his eyes and tugs at Lothar until the man leaves off mouthing at Khadgar’s oversensitive cock and moves up so Khadgar can kiss him, clumsy and panting, Lothar's mouth is bitter and slick.

"Right, I might forgive you,” Khadgar says. He pats Lothar on the shoulder, and Lothar laughs, bright and loud, as he wraps his arms around Khadgar and rolls them over.