A/N: Welllllllll I'm still alive! *cringe* Ugh so sorry. I've had this story sitting already done in my notebook for the longest time, but I didn't even know where it was. I finally dug it out and uploaded and I'm so sorry it's taken a whole year! The reason? Well...to make a very long story short, I was going to upload it months ago, but there was a forest fire, followed by a flash flood, followed by an evacuation, followed by my trip to BlizzCon (already bought flight and hotel, couldn't back out!) followed by Christmas, and...ya...I had to move out of my apartment in 1 day. Think of that! I had 1 day to pack up 6 years of my life and move somewhere else, so everything was in chaos and I didn't know where my notebook went and I just spent months living in the new location, thinking I'd be able to move back and re organize everything, but it didn't happen and I'm STILL waiting to move back and finally I was like ugh, I can't wait any longer, I feel horrible, I must upload! So here it is! If you want all the sordid details of my past year, send me a message.

For those of you still hanging on, and who keep commenting/reviewing/following, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! You get me through it all lol! 3 Anyway, enjoy and I'm sorry if it's somewhat nonsensical. I wrote most of this at work.

Chapter 27: A Game of Sceptors

Ver was so shocked by the sight before her that she let the reins of her mistsaber go slack, allowing the great to turn its head and give an interested sniff to the pony next to it. Before she was even aware of her actions, Ver had vaulted neatly out of the saddle. She had no idea what was going on here, but from the looks of things, it couldn't be good. The paladin was lying on the ground, incongruously looking as if he was merely taking an innocent nap, except there was blood all over his clothing and copious more staining the ground around his still form. If she hadn't seen his chest rise a breath she would have guessed he was dead. True, she'd feel a pang of...something at his demise. Remorse at a waste of life, at least. Despite being a blood elf and a member of the Horde he was brave and honest and as far as she knew, he hadn't made any unwanted moves on Ana. A more disturbing sight was the male troll collapsed on the ground a few feet away from Key, twitching occaisonally. Since her neice wasn't reacting to the troll in any hostile manner, he must be an ally that they picked up somewhere along the way. No doubt that would be an interesting tale all its own. Speaking of Ana...the young night elf hadn't reacted to Ver's shout, hadn't even so much as glanced up as Ver and the rest of the group finally arrived in the clearing. What was even more worrying was the strange supplicating stance she was fixed in, kneeling by the paladin's head, hands clasped together in front of her chest as if pleading to the gods. It didn't take much imagination to guess what, or who, she was pleading for. She had that damn soulgem clenched tightly in her upraised hands and Ver felt a surge of concerned frustration when she spotted the thing.

It wasn't until she was halfway across the clearing, intent on reaching Ana to see what she could do to shake the younger druid out of whatever trance she'd fallen into that Ver even noticed the portal. She paused midstep, eyes wise in surprise. It wasn't a mage portal, that much was obvious. And unfortunately, it didn't hold a view as innocent as a city or a port. No, from within this magical gateway, Ver had a clear view of what looked like ancient stone ruins, bronzed from the sun and the ages. The jungle striving to overtake the ruins made it obvious that the portal was somewhere still within Stranglethorn Vale. Crowded around the inside edge of the portal, dozens of trolls were arranged in a haphazard semi circle, all staring raptly at something she couldn't see off to one side. These were not the trolls she was used to coming across in her travels when she'd clash with members of the Horde, or occaisonally have a drink with in the tavern of a neutral city. These trolls were incredibly large and savage looking. Whatever their unseen leader was saying, the trolls were becoming increasingly restless and excited, stamping the ground and thrustig spears into the air.

"Well, that can't be good." Ver muttered dryly as she stared. As pressing a concern as she knew that was though, she needed to first sort out Anaiya. The girl hadn't moved or blinked, and Ver was dismayed to see that her eyes were glowing a strange, twisted green. Almost like the green eyes that blood elves were famous for. Ver gasped as she knelt down in front of Ana. Her eyes definitely were glowing a brilliant green. Shockingly, her hair was also longer.
"Oh Ana, what did you do?!" Ver exclaimed, glancing from her neice to the comatose blood elf nearby. She turned back and waved her hand in front of Ana's blank face. "Hey. Can you hear me? What happened Ana?" she cried. She reached out and grasped ahold of Ana's shoulders, intending to shake her out of whatever trance she was in. She hesitated with her fingers hovering in the air. What if disturbing her made whatever this was worse?

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the others had all dismounted as well and were now crowded uncertainly at a respectful distance away. They seemed to be waiting for her to decide what to do about this whole situation. Ver heaved a sigh. She wasn't great at making decisions, especially when it came to leading. She'd only reacted so far, which she supposed wasn't exactly a good thing. Who made her the leader of this group anyway? The dry sounds of Shana's bones as the forsaken priestess entangled her staff from her robes seemed unnaturately loud suddenly. The others seemed to take this as a sign and also pulled out their various weapons, shifting nervously around her. Ver cast another quick glance at the sinsiter looking portal and gasped as she saw that it had actually widened since she'd last looked and the trolls seemed about ready to step through it. That was definitely not good.

"Uh, we're going to be in a spot of trouble here if we don't do something." Umber spoke up from her left as he moved closer. Ver glanced at him, noting the grim set of his mouth and the way his hands hovered over his two daggers sheathed at his hips, and nodded reluctantly. There was no way they'd be able to fight off that troll army, even if all them were at their best. That reminded her...

"I agree, can you go see what's the deal with that troll over there? I think he's with us. I think.." She shrugged to indicate she wasn't sure what actually the story was behind their newest ally, then slowly stood up herself. Her knees gave a slight pop from the postion she'd held herself in. She moved over to inspect Key. The paladin was completely out of it, not even a twitch of an eyelid to betray his state of mind. He was also incredibly pale, even for a blood elf, and the smell of blood was overwhelming as she knelt by him. Ver wrinkled her sensitive nose. Ugh, as soon as they had a moment to rest, he was so getting a bath. She looked him over, noticing a tear in his clothing along the abdomen, which was also were the most blood was saturated, and winced. He'd obvously suffered some kind of serious injury and Ana, being the good hearted person that she was, had done something foolish to try and save him. Ver nudged his boot gently and got no response. She jostled his arm sharply; same result. Aware that at any moment the rather large portal was going to start disgorging trolls by the handful, Ver finally grew annoyed with his lack of response and reached across to shake im roughly by the shoulders. He looked thinner and mor eworn without the armor and she felt a pang of almost motherly concern and sympathy as he groaned. His brow furrowed and his eyelids fluttered. He even had blood on his face, of all things. His ridiculously long lashes swept up, adding to the confused look he gave her.

"Huh? What time izzit? I thought training didn't start till tomorrow?" His words were rough and slurred. He blinked a few times up at Ver's face, before apparently his eyes finally focused on her. Ver opened her mouth to say something when his expression changed to one pleasure. She frowned, and a large smirk grew across his face, making him look coy. "Why hello there beatiful. Didja have a good time?" He offered in a in a smarmy, if weakened voice. Before she could react, his questing fingers reached out and rubbed her breast and all empathy Ver had been harboring dried up faster than the Moonwell. She slapped him across the face, stood up, and stomped back over to Ana's position. A muttered "Ow" came from behind her. Umber chuckled as he helped the hapless paladin sit up. She noticed that the troll had apparently recovered from whatever fit he'd had and was now staring in horrified dread through the portal.

'For that matter', Ver thought, 'I would really like to know where these trolls are all coming from and what they hope to accomplish by ambushing us like this. We are hardly a big enough threat or challenge for such a large army.' Somehow she had a sinking feeling that it was the soulgem the dragon's soul was trapped inside that they were after.

"Ana! Anaiya! You need to snap out of it so we can get the hell out of here!" Ver cried, her attention torn between watching the portal widen and become more solid with horrified fascination and staring in frustration at her niece, who continued to stare into oblivion. The portal was growing larger as well. Sensing they might have a serious fight on their hands, the rest of the group had all drawn their various weapons and had moved closer to Ver, surrounding her and Anaiya in a small protective circle. Ver had to admit she was impressed and touched by the level of loyalty they all showed by staying to offer aid in a fight that, to be honest, most of them had no stake in.

"Bessany? I need you, come here." Ver impatiently waved a hand at the Tauren girl and she quickly ran over. "I'm not any good at the healing arts, can you figure out what's wrong with her?" Ver demanded, hovering anxiously as Bessany nodded and knelt by Ana. Her large but gentle hands began to glow with green healing energy as she drew on her magic. A torrent of irridescent leaves cascaded around Ana, whirling with an invisible wind, and sank into her skin.
"Well?" Ver asked, trying to keep her tone normal when the green magic finally faded from Bessany's fingers. The Tauren frowned and leaned closer to Ana, squinting into her face. "It's odd." She remarked softly, almost to herself. "There's nothing actually physically wrong with that sleep can't cure...well except for one strange thing. My magic tells me she's aged quite a few years in just a short span. This must be from whatever spell she's cast recently. I don't know the spell, sorry." She added the last as Ver opened her mouth to ask the question. Bessany's eyes tracked toward Key, before focusing back on Ver. "But there's something...wrong...with her mind. It feels dark and twisted. Like theere's an evil presense there, a dark shadow crouching in a corner. It's very strange." Bessany shivered, and her large ears waggled. Bessany climbed back onto her hooves, moving gently and swiftly for such a large being, and gave Ver a genuinely regretful look. "I'm sorry I can't be of mor help. I think this is something she needs to fight alone." Ver nodded absently, still studying Ana intently. She felt her shoulders slump in resignation and felt a pang of anger. "When will she ever learn to think of consequences! It's as I feared then. She's done something with the dragon magic locked in the soulgem and shomehow that corrupted dragon has gotten ahold of her mind. This is definitely bad."

"Verfie, what's the plan of action here?" Umber asked grimly. He had both daggers in hand and was facing the portal.

"I..." Ver glanced around the clearing, as if hoping for something to present itself as a solution. Suddenly, Ana gasped and the gem tumbled out of her stiffened fingers. Without thinking, Ver darted forward to catch her swaying niece.

"Ana? Ana, what happened? Are you alright? Is that you in there? Wake up, we're about to be overrun by trolls!" She shook the younger druid gently, feeling like she might at the absurdity of this entire situation. Slowly, as if just discovering movement, Ana turned her head and stared at Ver. Her eyes were wide and unseeing, and still glowed with that bright unearthly green light. Ver wondered idly if that was a permanant side effect of what she'd done. If that were the only side effect, she'd take it. "Ana?" She called again, more hesitantly. The other druid was really starting to make her uneasy the more stayed silent. Ana was usually never silent. Ana's face was blank and expressionless, empty as a doll's. She slowly tilted her head down and to the side, staring. It took Ver a moment to realize she was staring at Ver's hand, grasping onto her shoulder. Seconds later, Ver felt a strange energy gather in the air. The hair on the back of her neck prickled and her feline senses sent alarm bells ringing. Ana slowly lifted her back up back and stared at her. Ver became aware of a tingling sensation along her fingers. The feeling escalated quickly from uncomfortable to pin and needles to all out shooting pain and with a sharp gasp, she instively jerked them away from Ana's arm, rubbing them as she glared at Ana. The second she was no longer in physical contact with Ana's body, the pain stopped as if it had never been and feeling swiftly returned to her fingertips.

"What in the nine hells was that?!" Ver exclaimed. "Ana, whatever this is, we don't have time to mess around. You need to fight the corruption and wake up." Ver had never personally encoutered the corruption of the Emerald Dream before, but she'd heard about it, and if she was truthful, she wasn't sure if Ana was a strong enough individual to overcome it. Which felt like a traitorous thing to even contemplate, but from what she'd seen so far, she didn't hold out much hope of Ana coming out of this unscathed.

'She's broken and I don't know how to fix her' Ver's unhelpful mind supplied to her.

"I'm sorry, but we don't have time to fix this right now." Umber murmered from the side. Ver glanced at him and nodded. "I know. I doubt those trolls on the other side of that portal are here to welcome us to the jungle." Not for the first time on this journey, Ver cursed herself for bringing that damn soul trinket back from the Sunken Temple to show off as a fine reward for her efforts. How foolish! She normally tended to avoid just these kinds of sticky situations for just these reasons. Ver made an impatient come-hither motion at Ana, hoping to encourage her to get up and move away from the portal. She carefully didn't go anywhere near Ana's physical person. She'd rather avoid a repeat of what happened moments ago. Ana blinked, and life seemed to finally seep back into her eyes. She swivelled her head, seeming to regard the large swirling portal floating between two large leafy trees. Her calm exterior slowly melted into disdain and the young druid huffed.

"We are not afraid of him and his army of slaves." Her voice was soft and cold and Ver nearly recoiled in shock at it. That voice was definitely not the voice of the Ana she knew. It sounded unnatural. Sinsiter and powerful. Ver glared down at the soulgem, still lying where Ana had dropped it, and considered what would happen if she smashed the delicate container. Chances are that like any spell, the link between the corrupted dragon and Ana would break or fade. Before she could even think of putting this plan into action, Ana turned suddenly and snatched up the soulgem, tucking it back into the pouch it normally rested in. Ver blinked. Ana narrowed her eyes at Ver accusingly, although Ver noted that the green glow seemed to dim with the soulgem safely contained in the spellworked pouch.

"The soulgem belongs to us. I mean, to me. I control it's power and I will keep it contained. I'll be able to protect you all with it, don't worry. I know just what to do. We have to destroy any that oppose the well being of Azeroth. They can't be allowed to gain possession of the sceptor." Ana practically spit the words, although her expression betrayed confusion as she spoke, as if she wasn't sure why she was saying that. Ver flicked her eyes over the portal. She opened her mouth to ask what Ana was talking about, and what sceptor, but Ana continued speaking, pulling herself effortlessly to her feet as she did so. "We...I can feel his greed. His wrath. He wants the keys to the prison, he wants all that power for himself. How foolish we were, thinking this merely an issue of one soul." She laughed, and it sounded broken. Ver swallowed.

"What?" Ver said. It was more of a statement of her own confusion over this entire turn of events rather then her need to clarify what Ana was actually ranting about. "I don't even...what are you?" She took a deep breath, organizing her thoughts. "You know what, we can deal with-" She made a vague gesture toward Ana in general "this later. Right now, let's focus on getting away from uh...him." She walked a few paces away, glad to be moving away from the portal, but stopped when Ana didn't follow like she'd been hoping. The younger woman was still frowning, darting uncertain glances around her. Her face plainly showed that she was struggling internally with something. Ver knew that something was the corruption of Erannikus's influence on her mind, corrupting her natural druidic talent. Ver felt a kernal of hope. Maybe Ana's will was stronger then she'd thought. Carefully, Ver chose what to say to motivate Ana.

"Look, I know you're probably really confused right now. There's some crazy powerful forces at war inside you right now, but don't give up hope. Don't give in to the corruption. I know you can fight this Ana. Just come with us now, we'll head over to Duskwood like we planned, go to the Dream Gate there and use it to enter the Emerald Dream and free Eranikus from corruption. Then we'll see about this big bad monster who wants the sceptor to take over the world." Ver knew she was oversimplifying the issue, but she just wanted them out of Stranglethorn as quickly as possible, away from whatever menace had created the portal. She had a feeling of dread that this being was also behind all the strange attacks and random ambushes they'd dealt with along the way.

Ana's head bobbed, slowly, reluctantly, but it was enough for Ver. Finally! She glanced around, ready to round them all up and make themselves scarce, but her heart sank when saw the rest of her group standing, facing the portal with weapons drawn, all looking grim and serious. Feeling dread claw at her, Ver turned her head toward the portal itself and gasped in dismay. Well, it was too late to make a run for it now. She'd been so focused on getting through to Ana that she'd forgotten to keep track of the stabilizing portal. It was now definitely fully active. Trolls were eagerly stepping through the shimmering gateway as she stared, mouth dry. The tall, hulking creatures stood haphazardly in front of the portal on this side of the clearing as if waiting for a signal. They sneered at her small group of adventurers, waving crude weapons about and shouting words in a strange, gutteral dialect. Ver swallowed. They would soon be vastly outnumbered. She quickly scanned the clearing, looking for any inspiration, disgarding half mad ideas. They would never be able to just make a run for it. Their mounts were at the edge of the clearing, too far away to reach and gain distance safely before they were taken down by the massive trolls. Even if some of them made it, that would be beyond abhorrant a choice to make. They didn't have any form of defense or barricade they could form, obviously, so their only option seemed to be a frontal assault, which was suicidal in a normal situation. Outnumbered as they were, it would be slaughter. Morbidly, she comforted herself with the fact that at least they'd spare Ana since they apparently wanted some sceptor from her. Or rather, from Eranikus. Her eyes lit on their mounts. She wasn't sure abou the other animals, but an elven great cat was always given combat training in case its rider came under attack. Ver gave a sharp whistle, a specific call to defend taught to sabers, and the cat immediately stiffened, tail lashing. It scanned the clearing, intelligent eyes surveying the situation, before loping over to crouch next to Ver, following her scent. Large claws dug into the soft earth as it shook its head. Ver reached out and patted her mount on the wide forehead in reassurance. The other mounts milled around uneasily, but didn't react to the whistle like the saber did. Well, it was worth a try at least.

"We're so dead." Laris stated in dry, bleak tones somewhere off to her right. Ver scowled at him, while their new dwarven friend Krom murmured something to the gnome in a gruff voice. Laris threw up his tiny arms and huffed. "Well, what do you expect me to say? We're outnumbered, stuck in the middle of the jungle, and about to be killed and possibly eaten by a horde of savages. It's not like some great miracle is going to just fall out of the sky or something!" His usually high pitched voice reached new levels in frustration. Movement drew Ver's eye back to the portal before she could make some morale boosting remark. At last, whatever the trolls seemed to be waiting for happened. A large, blood red snake creature slithered through the portal. As soon as its long tail had cleared the opening, the portal flickered and winked out of existence. Laris looked impressed by the length of time the enemy was able to hold the portal open. No doubt whichever mages had held the gate open were now depleted and exhausted. Portal creation required a lot of energy. Or so Laris had lectured to them during one of his many long winded speeches on magic and spell casting. For some reason he never seemed to get the hint that no one in the group was really interested in how magecraft worked. Somehow, Ver's mind caught on that irrelevant thought as the rest of her froze up in shock at the sight of the giant red nightmare that settled its gigantic coils behind its troll army. The others all gasped and Shana took a step back, her face going even whiter than normal.

"What in the Sunwell is that?" Exclaimed Key, sounding more outraged than afraid, for some reason. As if he resented that some giant monstrous beast dare put itself in their way. Ver continued to stare at the giant...thing. She's never seen or heard anything like it before, although it slightly resembled the red wind serpents she'd slain in the temple where she'd found that accursed soulgem. But only so far as you'd say a house cat resembled a fully armored battle cat. Ruby scales glistened wetly, covering the creature from its fanged snout to its spiked tail. Brilliant blue feathered wings sprouted proudly from its back and instead of arms, it had long, wicked black pinchers that were longer then her legs. The creature had to be three times her size. Ver swallowed, feeling dazed. How on Azeroth were they supposed to fight that thing?! Beside her, Bessany whispered something in her own tongue, but the tone was unmistakable. Yep, Laris was right. They were so dead. The gigantic snake creature reared back its head and fixed a beady eye on their small group. It surveyed the clearing and it seemed like everyone was holding their breath, waiting. The utter incongruity of the giant winged snake coiled up in this tiny little clearing in the middle of the jungle was so surreal that Ver couldn't even think of a proper strategy. Was there a strategy against that monster? She sneaked a glance at Ana, and found her niece eyeing the monster with narrowed eyes full of disgust and fear, but not as much fear as she expected. Ver shook her head. This was sheer madness.

'I would like to wake up now.' She thought dryly to herself.

Everyone was so stunned and horrified by the monstrous snake and his army arrayed against them that when the trees to their right suddenly shook and bent, waving in crazy angles, everyone just turned and stared blankly. And then Ver let loose the laugh she'd been holding back and it sounded half hyesterical. A large green drake careened through the foliage, the wind from the powerful strokes of her wings knocking several of the enemy sprawling. Ver strained to keep herself in a confident pose. The drake hovered over the scene for several tense seconds, as if debating something. With a flick of her long veridian tail, she settled to the ground just behind Ver's party, who all swung around to stare open-mouthed at the new arrival.

"Sure, why not. This fight was lacking in dragons." Shana quipped into the solid silence that followed the dragon's landing. Even the troll army and their sinsiter leader seemed astonished by the dragon's arrival. Ver hesitantly gave the drake a smile, unsure of its purpose. The Green Flight belonged to Ysera of course, who fought to protect the mortal races and the land true, but their very quest proved that even the great dragonflights were susceptible to the corruption of the Emerald Dream. This dragon curled her long tail over sharp claws and looked down upon the group of mortals, seeming to grace them with a reptilian smile.

"Greetings, young mortals." She spoke in a gentle yet powerful voice. "I have been tasked by Ysera with watching the progress of your quest. I was instructed not to interfere with your journey, but I cannot sit idle and allow the Blood God to gain a crucial piece of the Sceptor! It would be the end of everything we know." The dragon hissed this last with fury, lifting her head to glare at the large red snake. The creature flared its sapphire wings and roared in response. The trolls tensed, unsheathing weapons, looking at their god.

"Please be brave, mortals." The green drake continued quickly. "Your journey, and indeed your lives, are precious, as well as that of the wayward dragon soul you carry. I have called for the aid of my flight, but we must survive until they arrive. Take heart heroes, for evil never holds sway for long." She lifted her wings up carefully, preparing for battle.

"Yea, sure. Piece of cake." Key muttered sourly. Ver raised an eyebrow and turned slightly to glance at him. She noticed that his usually immaculate hair was in disarray, matted with blood and sticking up at odd angles. Smudges of grime and dirt marred his fine features and even the armor he'd hastily donned to fight was dull looking. Despite all this, he looked tense and battle ready, shield gripped tight on one arm and double bladed sword in the other.

"What do you mean 'Blood God'?" Umber spoke up, frowning. He pointed a long black dagger at the red snake and shook it. "What's a Blood God? And if he's a god, how are we supposed to even last a minute against him, let alone until help supposedly arrives, whenever that is!" Ver rolled her eyes at him. "I really don't think it matters what exactly a Blood God is right now, don't you think dear? He obviously isn't here to offer us a hearty good luck on our mission." She snapped at him. Umber pouted at her.

"The druid is correct, that story must be saved for another time." The green drake said. She stood tall over their group. "Know that his name is Hakkar and he is an old god that has lived on this world since before the time of the elves." Another roar from the creature, Hakkar, prevented any further speech. The trolls, as if waiting for exactly this moment, lunged forward across the clearing.

"Here we go." Umber muttered grimly. Ver reached for her magic, transforming from elf to cat between one breath and the next. The cat let out a savage roar of her own, and she instantly grasped onto her innate feline abilities, weaving into the shadows to become unseen to the enemy. With a final wink and a nod at his companions, Umber also seemed to disappear from view, stalking his prey with expert stealth. The trolls rushed foward in one thundering mass. Without thinking, Ver's group stepped away from each other, each making sure they had room. Key rushed forward himself, swinging into the throng of trolls. Blood flew from the first arcing cut of his sword and he quickly made it apparent that the trolls would take him down with great loss of life themselves. Laris spread his small arms apart and intoned a low spell. Instantly the ground in a circle around his form frosted over, glittering from the sudden instant drop in temperature. It was so cold that the first troll to step onto the frozen patch instantly froze solid, allowing Laris ample time to shoot another spell, blasting apart the frozen troll violently. Frozen chunks flew away from him.

"How barbaric your magic is." Shana sniffed, as she herself lit up with a golden nimbus. Bright holy light swirled around her fingers and shot forward like a shooting star, immolating enemies in front of her in a fire so pure and holy that the trolls never stood a chance. Laris gave her a telling look in return, which she didn't even notice, concentrating instead on dividing her attention between bolstering Key's abilities with holy magic and raining holy fire down on any troll that ventured too close to her. Short and sturdy Krom had no trouble whatsoever slicing and hacking into thighs, knees and bellies as he calmly rolled through the masses, augmenting his two axes with powerful elemental magics. Even their newest ally, the troll shadowpriest, was taking down the enemy with deadly tendrils of dark magic, weaving shadows into the minds of the trolls and confusing them, tricking them into attacking their comrades, or running in frightened disarray until someone finally slew it. Ver kept her companions in sight as she prowled the edge of the battle, pouncing on trolls and tearing them to shreds with her razor sharp claws before they could even realize they were under attack. She ferociously bit into the shoulder of one after ripping across its back. Blood flew in a crimson arc and her fur was tinged red, but she kept her focus. They couldn't afford to think about their actions, only survive against the onslaught. Their dragon ally was fast and agile, not at all hindered by being grounded, and several dozens of trolls met their end on her wicked claws and snapping jaws. Ver's saber cat, sensing the threat to its survival, whirled and fell upon a hulking troll headhunter that had been creeping up on their group. The troll gave a strangled yell as it was slain. Among the thickest group of trolls, Ver occaisonally caught hints and flashes of Key's large shining shield as he swung it about, smashing and slicing through the mob of enemy trying to take him down. He made such an obvious target in his large gold and red armor that it seemed half the troll army had converged on his location. Despite his skill, Ver knew he couldn't survive at that pace for long and glanced around. She spotted Umber, not far from her side with his black daggers dealing out swift death. She growled at him and Umber immediately finished off his opponent and ran to her side. Speech in this form was difficult, so Ver pointed a large paw at the mass of trolls surrounding the paladin. Umber nodded, grasping the situation quickly. He winked out of sight and appeared moments later in the midst of the mob surrounding Key, immediately putting his daggers to work in thinning the ranks of trolls trying to take Key down. The blood elf spared Umber a tired nod before turning back.

Ver grinned toothily as she ripped into the spine of a burly troll aiming to attack Krom from behind. Even Ana joined in the fight wholeheartedly, although Ver was shocked to see that when Ana completed her transformation spell, she became a large, thick furred bear instead of the lean agile cat she'd always been. She spared a moment to wonder if Ana was finally finding her true calling as a Guardian druid, or if it was the influence of the corruption of the soulgem driving her instincts. Regardless, Ana seemed confident in her new form, charging in and bashing enemies left and right. Trolls went sprawling from her, unable to match her stamina and strength.

Despite the dozens of trolls that were slain by claw and sword and magic, more kept coming and Ver became aware of her the burn in her shoulder muscles warning her that she was tiring. Grimly, she kept swinging her paws, swiping and slashing wherever she could, but she conserved her energy, making every attack count. She noticed the others doing the same as they slowed down from exhaustion. Even the dragon wasn't swinging her head around or swiping her paws quite as dramatically.

"They just keep coming!" Bellowed Key from somewhere in the thick of the trolls. She could barely make him out anymore. "We can't keep this up forever!" Laris yelled in answer. His arms shook from the strain as he cast spell upon spell at their foes. An arch of lightening crackled through the air and Krom rolled into view, leaving a charred pile of crude weaponry in his wake. He rested his axes on the ground for a moment, panting heavily with sweat on his forehead and dripping into his thick beard.

"Aye, I'm afraid me strength's almost spent." The dwarf said gruffly.

"Speak for yourself, dwarf!" Ana growled in a deep voice as she mauled a large troll. Ver actually winced at the violence. Ana would normally never act that violently in battle. "Hakkar is no threat to my true might." As she finished speaking, Ana let out a loud taunting roar of her own and barreled into three more trolls, swatting and swiping at them as if she'd been training for years in combat. Ver felt her jaw drop.

"That's my girl!" Key commented proudly, having finally won free of the mass of trolls harrying him. He slammed his shield into the face of one. "She's not your girl, fool!" Ver snarled out around her fangs. "Guys! Focus, hello!" Shana yelled, gritting her teeth as she continued to cast spells to heal their injuries and keep them free of curses from the enemy. Ana swung her head around and gazed at Key thoughtfully. Her eyes seemed to dim as she considered, and she shook her head. "I refuse to lose. It's my sworn duty to protect the Sceptor of the Shifting Sands! I mean...it's his sworn duty. Eranikus, not me...Arg!" The deep voice she aqcuired upon shifting to the form of an ursine seemed to waver with confusion and Ana reared back on two paws and shook her head. The dark corrupted aura that had pulsed around her weakened and Ver felt a surge of relief. Finally she was coming back to herself. Of course, it had to be at the worst possible time.

"You can fight the corruption Ana. Force it back into the gem and we'll deal with it." Ver growled out. She lunged back to avoid a decapitating blow from her adversary and nimbly leaped out of range of the troll facing her. Umber quickly came to her defence, slicing into the hamstrings of the troll. When it bellowed in pain and collapsed forward, Umber quickly slit its throat. The others instinctly drew closer to Ana's location, forcing the enemy to attack them instead of her as the young druid faltered, trying to focus her mind. Her form flickered and she shifted back to her elven form, kneeling in the churned up earth.

"The power, it's so tempting." Ana whispered. She dug her nails into her palms and green tears leaked from her glowing eyes. When she stood up, she looked more herself and glanced around as if seeing everything for the first time. Her eyes lit upon the giant snake god and she gasped in horror and stumbled away. This brought her closer to their undefended flank and Hakkar, who had sat back at the edge of the clearing and watched, lifted his wings and hissed. Immediately, the arm of trolls redoubled its efforts, and to Ver's horror, she realized that the trolls were trying to seperate Ana from the rest of them. Ana was obviously too drained for another shapeshift effort and cast several wrath spells and entangling roots to keep them away from her, but it was as if the trolls were driven mad, pushing through despite all their efforts and surrounding the younger druid. Ver actually lost sight of Ana's dinstinctive green hair among the all the green troll bodies.

"Ana!" Key cried out angrily, and Ver was impressed by how quickly the paladin moved to try and reach the beleagured girl. Despite their efforts, it was impossible to reach Ana's position and Ver was shaking in fury as she watched helplessly while the trolls overcame Ana's defense and brutally knocked her to the ground. Ver raked and slashed at the throng of troll bodies, but they held fast, quickly having others fill in any gaps that she and her allies created by slaying them. The bodies just added to the difficulty of getting through. Sensing victory, Hakkar gave a loud hiss again, and the trolls instantly formed a barrier between the group that had captured Ana and Ver's group. The knot of trolls was so thick it would suicide to try to break through them. Ver couldn't bring herself to order her friends to leap into the line of trolls, as much as she wanted to. They were all beyond weary and exhausted. Shana wavered where she stood, leaning heavily on her staff. Bessany's magic was a muted green glow that barely outlined her form and Umber's arms sagged at his sides. And now the trolls, secure in their final victory, were willing to sacrifice as many as they needed to keep Ana. They shuffled her further and further from Ver, dragging her kicking and flailing to the waiting coils of Hakkar. Ver screamed her frustration, prowling in circles and looking for any opening. She'd been such a fool, thinking they might have been able to stand a chance if they just held out until the dragons arrived. But all along, Hakkar had no intention of dragging the fight out. He threw as many troll lives away as he needed to to ensure they were too exhausted to fight back when he made his move. He'd deliberately spread them out so they were too far away to reach Ana when he struck.

"We have to do something, we can't let him take her!" Key argued. He staggered forward, and Umber yanked on his arm, almost pulling the slighter man off his feet. Key glared at him accusingly.

"Use your head, moron! We can't get to her now, that would just be throwing away our lives for nothing. Look at him, that's what he wants us to do." They all watched as Hakkar ignored Ana at his feet and instead was staring at Ver and her friends with idle interest, as if daring them to try and rescue the young druid. Key yelled curses and tried to pull free of Umber's grip, but the rogue held on tight. Key stepped slightly into Umber's personal space, confusing the rogue, and Key violently shoved him back. Umber went sprawling from the unexpected attack, but was on his feet in seconds and tackled the paladin. They scuffled briefly before Umber cuffed Key upside the head hard enough to stun him. Umber sat still for a moment, before grunting in annoyance and standing up.

Laris stepped forward and held out his arms. "Stop it, both of you!"

Suddenly an ear shattering roar sounded out over the clearing and shadows crossed the sky. There was a brief stunned lull as everyone, defenders and attackers both, stopped to glance upward. Ver nearly sagged with relief to see four vibrant green drakes hovering over the clearing. They were smaller then the one on the ground, but still formidable opponents.

"Finally." Krom said.

As if the sight gave them renewed strength, her teammates all stood straighter. Umber reached down and offered a hand to Key, who glared loftily while getting to his feet unaided. The paladin sniffed as he made a show of tidying blood coated hair and Umber sighed grandly. "It's about time you lizards got here!" Key called up to them. "Go rescue Ana!" He pointed across the clearing to where Ana lay in a dazed heap in front of Hakkar. The snake god had ignored the arrival of the dragons and was speaking to Ana, but it was so low, Ver couldn't make out what was being said. Whatever it was, Ana looked increasingly upset, and glanced back at them in concern. Their eyes met and Ana seemed to be trying to give her a message with her expression. The drakes, who either didn't hear Key's demand, or took insult at his imperious tone, wwere hurtling arcane balls of fire into the tightly massed army of trolls, whos only job now was apparently being a hindrence to rescuing Ana. Ver grit her fangs. Or maybe there was no room for them to land safely and they didn't want to risk incinerating Ana and the precious soulgem with their arcane attacks. Whatever the case, the army of trolls was steadily declining, but it seemed to be taking an eternity to Ver. She rushed at the wall of trolls herself.

"Come on, come on, just get out of the way!" She roared as she pounced and wove between struggling bodies. Several blows landed on her back and sides, but she ignored them, focusing on trying to get through. "We don't have time for coordination." She called to the others, who quickly followed her lead in trying to break through the enemy line. Ahead, Ver could easily see the giant figure of the snake god. He spread his magnificant wings and they seemed to block out the light, they were so immense. He lifted his head high and issued such a tremendous roar that the whole valley shook. The roar echoed and echoed, and Hakkar twisted his scaled head to gaze intently at four large female trolls in dark violet robes who lingered by his side. He said nothing aloud, but the four turned as one and raised their arms in a chant. Ver redoubled her efforts, feeling dread clench her insides. To the side, Key was using both shield and sword as weapons, tearing viciously into the trolls like they were butter, and his ferociety was twice as strong as before. The four female trolls finished chanting and a new portal flickered into existance. This one was smaller and stabilized almost instantly. The amount of magic it would take to sustain such an instant portal was apparently too much of a strain and even as Ver watched, one of the females slumped to the side, mouth slack. Hakkar wasted no time and snatched Ana up in his ruby coils and darted through the portal into the old sandstone ruins.

"No!" Ver roared. Another of the female trolls slumped down, and when Hakkar was fully through the portal, the remaining two released the spell. The portal collapsed. Hakkar and Ana were nowhere to be seen, whisked away by magic. The remaining troll army in the little valley stared in dismay at the spot where their god had abandoned them, as if coming to the realization that they were nothing but expendable fodder in his grand scheme. Bleakly, the remaining jungle trolls turned back to fight off Ver and her allies, but they were no match for their efforts now that they were up against five drakes. When the battlefield was finally still, with bodies littering the area, Ver instantly transformed and stalked over to the first drake that arrived.

"Where did they take her?" She demanded.

"He took her! That damn giant worm took my girl!" Exclaimed Key in the background as he stomped around ensuring all the trolls were actually neutralized. Every once in a while he would glance over where the portal was and mutter about getting her back. Ver ignored him and focused on the drake.

"Tell me everything. I know there's something else going on here and I want to know what it is. What is this Sceptor of the Shifting Sands, and what does it have to do with us?"

The drake eyed them all with a sad, distant look, before nodding. "Yes, I see that it is time you know about the War of the Shifting Sands and the events leading up to this very moment. There is much you need to know before we asault Zul'Gurub to get back the soul carrier." Ver narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. Zul'Gurub? That's where Ana was? She'd heard of that poisonous temple city. And she knew it would be no easy feat to just go in and rescue Ana. This required strategy and reinforcements. She felt her shoulders slump and Umber came up and put his arms around her from behind.

"Don't worry Verfie. She's a tough one, Ana. And they wouldn't dare kill her when she's so closely tied to the soul gem. They need her if they want their sceptor piece. We'll get her back and I'll make a nice pair of snakeskin boots for her to wear as a souviner. Actually, there's probably enough for us all to have a pair." Ver couldn't help a chuckle at that.