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   "Y'evah notice," Grifton yanked his sword from the rotting corpse he'd just impaled, "that ev'ry assignment we're given has someone that needs savin'?"

   "No one knew Fordragon were here," his cousin wiped his sweaty forehead.

   Armod grunted, the wound in his side closing with Saora's heal, "Or even alive. How'd he survive the plague? An’ the dragon's breath?"

   "Does it matter?" Dhaja towered over a few mercenaries, casually tossing them heals, "The Highlord is a great champion for Stormwind and the Light. It is our duty to assist him."

   Saora swallowed, careful to keep from drawing the draenei's attention. She'd always looked up to Bolivar Fordragon. She admired his quiet nobility and the guidance he'd given Stormwind's young prince. When King Varian disappeared, Bolivar became a voice behind the throne, his kingdom's safely always his first concern. Saora met him once when he gave her a mission to take back Stratholme from the Scourge. He was a good man, an honorable soldier. Highlord Fordragon, he didn't deserve this fate.

   Movement across the room caught her eye. Verita paced furiously, a stark contrast to Kasino’s still and massive frame. She was all rage and emotion, bickering with her general in quiet tones. He was control and strength, an immovable mountain. In every other situation, every other battle Saora had fought with her, Verita had been the calm one, the one never hampered by emotion. The change was unnerving. And, looking at some of the Zodiac members, the priestess wasn’t the only one affected.

   The few words Saora caught told her the elves were arguing over the army's pace. Kasino liked to push hard. This was their first stop in nearly six hours. They'd cleared three floors, eliminated two of the Lich King's monsters and suffered minimal casualties. Even so, it wasn't good enough for Verita.

   "Then, leave them behind," the elf snapped as Saora edged closer.

   Kasino's eyes narrowed, "Splitting off from the bulk of the army is a bad idea. What's wrong with you? You're better than this."

   "Our pace would make a tortoise impatient," growled Verita, her strange accent thicker than ever. "The wounded and weak will do no good come the final battle. Have an escort take them back to the entrance and let us continue with not another delay!"

   "We're going faster than anticipated and you know it. I won’t tolerate this behavior, especially not from one of my commanders. Don't make me sideline you, V."

   The threat shocked Verita so much she finally stopped. Zodiac's general held her gaze, his body language speaking volumes. He wasn't bluffing. He was pulling rank. Saora held her breath. Verita never backed down from anything. But if she didn't...

   The hunter's body shook, her teeth clenching. With a loud growl, she spun on her heel and stomped to the temporary forward post where Endy waited. Kasino sighed, his body relaxing. Only then did Saora realize the warrior's hand had been on his sword's hilt.

   His eyes lit on the priestess and widened, "Oh...Saora, right?" The priestess nodded shyly and shook his outstretched hand.

   "Verita and Guider speak highly of you. And I knew your husband, Jaybird, during our younger years. Pleased to meet you.”

“The honor is mine, general.”

“Kasino, please. Always hated that title. Are you able to spare some of your healing magic? I'm afraid I hit one too many things with my shield."

   The priestess blinked, "You what?" She glanced at the warrior's shield arm and gasped.

   Gingerly, he unstrapped the shield, revealing his bruised and broken skin. What once had been smooth and muscular was now bumpy and misshapen. Nearly every bone in the elf's forearm had been broken. This damage happened over a period of time, not just one hit. Anyone else would've passed out from the pain.

   "I can't believe you waited so long to get help," Saora said, rushing to gather enough Light.

   "Waiting is not my strong suit," chuckled the warrior. "Others needed attention more than I, and I wanted to keep the pace up."

   "You're as mad as my husband."

   "That's a compliment."

   She scoffed but couldn't help the grin that stretched across her features. Light coated her hands and spread to Kasino's crushed arm. His skin smoothed and the color evened. As the Light faded, he closed and opened his fist, testing the muscles.

   "And that's done," he restrapped the heavy shield. "Was there something you needed, priestess? You approached me after all."

   "Oh no, not me, sir. Kasino, I mean. I...well, I was...worried about...You wouldn't really leave Verita behind, would you?"

   Those gold eyes narrowed, "She’s lost her head. She’s usually one of the calm ones, never lets pressure break her. But this recklessness could affect morale, not to mention the mission, and we cannot allow that in these circumstances. It’s not like her."

   His eyes flicked to the mercenaries and soldiers nearby. No one met his gaze, but Saora knew they were trying to listen. She knew they’d seen one of their commanders beginning to break. Looking back at the Zodiac general, Saora felt the same unease and frustration in the lines of his stoic face. She realized with a start that the general’s emotions mirrored Verita’s. He was desperate to get to the Lich King, to save Bolivar, to save his people. And someone he trusted was breaking down. Twice,  he’d called her V, a nickname only allowed among her friends.

   Saora swallowed, "Verita -- V...is just upset...about Fordring. She’s a solder. She won't let it interfere. You know she won’t." Kasino’s jaw tensed at the nickname.

   "Will you?"

   "W-will...what?"

   "Will you allow your history with Arthas to get in the way of the mission?"

   Blood drained from the priestess's face. She tried to protest, tried to deny any emotional connection to the assault. The words wouldn't form. She could only stare, blankly, at the elf as her nightmares pressed against her memory. She saw Arthas, then Stormwind's golden prince, storm into Stratholme, her hometown. She saw him pass the order to execute everyone within the city's boundaries. She watched him cleave a sobbing townswoman in half before turning to her children.

   A strong, plated hand gently squeezed her shoulder. Saora looked up to see Celesi, Zodiac’s second commander, smiling at her. The same pain weighing on Saora's heart reflected in the paladin's eyes.  Celesi turned to her superior, her long golden locks parting just enough for him to see her pained expression.

   "Stratholme survivors cannot put aside the horrors of Arthas's crimes, Kasino," she said, her voice quiet. "But that will only make us stronger. You will need our motivation in the coming battle."

   Saora squeezed the paladin's hand gratefully, tears sliding down her cheeks. The warrior nodded and checked his armor. When he raised his head again, Saora saw a quiet resolve, almost an aloof arrogance, holding back his emotions like a wall. He was, again, an impassive mountain, and she wasn’t sure he believed them. With a quick signal to Guider, Kasino turned to the forward post. The brief rest was over. They had to press on.
More hero worship for my Zodiac friends.

Kasino was, for a casual server like ours, brutal when it came to pushing through raids. He didn't let us waste time screwing around, and rarely took part in the chatter while we cleared trash between bosses. It was his drive that nearly broke the guild before he was guild leader. The idea of pushing for four/five hours, five nights a week with minimal breaks didn't sit well with the casuals. Those that wanted more of a challenge stayed. The casuals abandoned ship, including the former guild leader (Kasino's ex-girlfriend) and her cousin. He was an exacting leader, didn't put up with bull from anyone, and was more arrogant than the Kasino I've created for the story.

This chapter means a lot to me. I learned things about myself while writing this. Saora (gina-su) asked me if Kasino was my friend. I don't think he was, not in the traditional sense. We didn't gossip or hang out or share our histories with each other. But if he appeared on my doorstep tomorrow, asking for help, I'd give it immediately. I trusted him, still do, and I don't trust easy, not that completely anyway. Maybe that's a different type of friendship. Maybe it's closer to a brothers-in-arms thing. Not sure. Never looked at it closely before this chapter. Something worth considering.

You'll learn more about Celesi later. For now, I'll just say she was cool as hell and I miss her.

You can see Verita's losing it a bit here. It's not a story if I can't torture my characters mentally ;)
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July 14, 2014
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