After hearing the report of her homeland’s condition and studying the plant samples the following morning, Srengal decided her tribe would winter in Kun-Lai summit and return to Townlong Steppes in the spring. As soon as Yiun heard this, she called her people together, and within moments they were all busy gathering the trade goods previously negotiated. Bolts of cloth, spindles of thread, tubs of butter, metal in forms and sizes from large-bore leatherworking needles and hinges and clasps to ghost iron bars and tent poles filled the pandaren’s wagon. Everything had to be arranged just so to ensure not just the wagon held as much as possible, but to balance the weight for the yoke of yaks that would pull it.
Dinpik watched from the doorway of the headquarters tent, sipping the last of her tea. Aside from Tamia’s pancakes, breakfast had been surprisingly light, given the trip to the yaungol camp and back would take most of the day. Zyobak, the pandaren who was going to be driving the wagon and could have easily packed away three times what he’d eaten, rumbled laughter when she commented on his lack of appetite. “Saving it up for later,” he said, tying the last corner of the wagon’s protective tarp. “No sense wasting all that delicious food on this leg of the journey!”
“Oh,” was all Dinpik could think of to say. Dinpik had the distinct feeling she was missing something, a feeling only strengthened by Zyobak’s laughter at her confusion. Must be a pandaren thing, she mused, accepting his cupped hands as a step-up to boost onto the wagon’s seat.
Zyobak was good company. He didn’t ask about the Alliance or Dinpik’s own life, which surprised her. Instead, he talked about his fellow villagers and Kun-Lai, and about Pandaria itself, a little. Dinpik was pretty sure he was spinning tall tales into all of it, but she didn’t mind; he told a good story. He did find her guildstone interesting; Dinpik had turned it back on as they left Westwind proper. “Useful, very useful, when you’re so far away from the rest,”he said.
“Yup,” Dinpik agreed. Hearing the Empire’s chit-chat and discussions-cum-arguments (Xandric and Averila were bickering about …something, as usual) was a relief after so many days without it.
The day wore on. The wagon bounced and jolted along the ground – Zyobak didn’t always keep to the path. The noon sun beat down on them as they neared Srengal’s tribe’s camp. “Are we expected?” Dinpik asked, suddenly aware they were two non-yaungol without any real proof of their good intentions.
“The chieftainess sent a runner out as soon as you arrived last night.” Zyobak shot her a knowing look. “We’re farmers and herders, not bumpkins.”
Dinpik reached down to unnecessarily tighten her boot laces to cover her blush.
Their goal was a half-circle of tents of various sizes in varying condition, and an even dozen of yurts. Beyond the camp a herd of roughly thirty yaks grazed. The stench of an open latrine greeted them even before Zyobak halted the wagon. From the yak herd, Dinpik guessed. No doubt the yaungol were used to it.
The tribe swarmed the wagon as soon as Zyobak peeled off the tarp, emptying the wagon within minutes. Dinpik glanced at Zyobak; he was looking at the yaungol camp itself, his expression a mix of resolve and..humor?
Yaungol trickled out from behind the tents, pushing short, roughly-made barrows, or touting bulging burlap sacks, or oversized wooden buckets. At first Dinpik couldn’t tell what, exactly, they carried. As they drew nearer, her sense of smell informed her all too well.
Dinpik watched in a kind of stupefied horror as the yaungol filled the wagon with their herd’s leavings – fresh, old and all stages in between. “This …. This is a joke, right?” she whispered to Zyobak. The pandaren shook his head.
“We need to prepare our fields for the spring. And, if we’re lucky, get in a crop of winter barley and sheng grain. We need the sheng to survive this winter.” Zyobak called out, and two yaungol bulls ran up to help him tie down the tarp. A third ambled over with two racks of half-tanned hides, and fastened them to the tarp’s ropes.
Dinpik didn’t ask why they wanted to plant barley now instead of in springtime, or what sheng grain was. At the moment, she didn’t care; she was too busy trying to wrap her head around the hours-long return trip.
If this was this diplomacy, they could keep it.
Zyobak laughed. Dinpik blinked, not realizing she’d spoken aloud. “Trust me,” he said kindly, helping her onto the wagon seat. “It won’t be that bad.”
It was that bad.
Flies buzzed around them constantly. The tarp did little to fend off the stench. Simple manure alone might have been bearable, but whatever the yaungol treated their skins with the situation much worse. Dinpik held out as long as she could, but they had barely been on the move for half an hour before she was leaning over the side of the wagon and puking into the bushes. Zyobak unhooked his drinking gourd from his belt, expertly uncorked it one-handed and passed it to her. Dinpik took a long swig of the homebrew soju, swished it around and spat. She passed back the gourd, closed her eyes and gripped the seat with both hands, willing her stomach to behave.
Twice more it rebelled, each time a less stringently than before. The third occasion was during what Zyobak called the home stretch. Dinpik pulled her legs to her chest and rested her head on her knees. Her stomach hurt, and she was a little woozy from accidentally swallowing some of the soju that last time. Would this make a good drinking story? Emi would find it funny. Yulia might, too, though she hadn’t really drunk with Yulia before. (Did Yulia drink? She couldn’t remember.) Ketani certainly would and Barn –
A yak bawled in panic. Zyobak shouted something she couldn’t understand. Dinpik opened her eyes.
“Yaungol,” the pandaren growled. “From the fire camp we’re passing. Don’t think they liked you watering their bushes. Hang on! Hyaaah!” He snapped the reins and the yaks broke into an all-out run.
Dinpik kept a death-grip on the wagon seat. She could hear shouting, glimpse the sullen brown and black forms of yaungol behind and to their sides. Something thunked against the wagon’s body. Fire-lit javelins skimmed over the team, singeing fur. The left yak bawled in pain and bucked. The wagon surged ahead, rocking wildly side-to-side. Its wheels skidded across the path and hit rock. The wagon leaped up, crashing down with bone-jarring force.
Dinpik lost her grip and was flung through the air.
She landed on her side. She couldn’t breathe; her vision blurred and her entire body shrieked in pain. At last she could gulp in air; she scrubbed pain-tears from her eyes with her hand and tottered to her feet. She looked around for the wagon.
It still careened down the path, far away and growing more distant, too far for her to catch up, even if she ran in demon form.
A raucous bellow echoed painfully in her ears. Three yaungol bore down on her.
Dinpik turned and ran.
Ran right past the clay huts of the fire camp, past the oil drills and barrels of oil. The ground was slick with oil and scree. Smoke and the stink of rendered oil filled the air. She stumbled, regained her feet and ran faster through the fire camp, more outraged yaungol on her tail.
A slight incline ahead, to her right. Dinpik aimed for it, following it to a rough-cut path to a higher ledge. Dinpik scrambled up, rounding on her yaungol pursuers, and howled.
The yaungol fell back in terror, fleeing blindly back to their camp. Dinpik choked back a sob of her own fear and slew around for a way down and away.
No way down except the path she’d come up. It was narrow enough that the entire camp couldn’t charge after her. Small comfort – at least two could. Her spells would let her—
Her spells. Nearly all her spells used fire. Except her fear-spells, and those wouldn’t last long. She started to summon Vinikzekeel, and stopped. She’d had his weapons enchanted with fire last month. Cattnys’s whip cracked hard enough to strike sparks, just what she didn’t want here. Her imps used nothing but fire, her voidwalker could handle one or two attackers but not numbers waiting below, and her fel hound simply wasn’t strong enough.
Dinpik unbuttoned the belt pouch that held her guildstone and took it out. It was scuffed up, but apparently undamaged. She raised it to her mouth and spoke.
It was broke. She was stuck. She –
-- ducked as a javelin clattered past her.
“Dinpik? Are you all right?”
Pralea’s voice. Thank you, Tinox! The stone worked.
“Um, no. I’m trapped at a fire camp in Kun-Lai. On a ledge above it. There’s too many yaungol and I can’t get down!”
“Do you need help?”Pralea asked.
A stone clipped her ear. “OW! Yes!”
“Dinpik, were you riding on a wagon I saw earlier?” Niala’s voice. “I’m in Kun-Lai, I thought that was you –“
“Where’s the fire camp, Din?” Pralea cut in. “Can you use your magic to distract them?”
“Umm…West of Westwind. And no – there’s too much oil all over.”
“’l’ll be there soon,” Niala said.
“I’m at Westwind. I’m on my way.”
“Senator, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Xandric’s voice.
Dinpik gaped. Was he saying what she thought he was? That she didn’t deserve help? “Why not?” she demanded. “I’m a Citizen, aren’t I? And Pralea’s in the Military, isn’t she?”
“Xandric. I’m going.”
The paladin heaved a heavy sigh. “Very well. We’re enroute, Citizen.”
If her rescuers said anything else, Dinpik didn’t hear. Another javelin thudded into the dirt at her feet; a yaungol roared a challenge as he stomped up the path to her ledge. Dinpik’s fear-spell sent him cowering back to his comrades. Dinpik crouched down, her back to the mountain, trying to present as small a target as possible. Her attention swung between the angered yaungol and watching for any sign of her fellow Imperials.
A gleam of white feathers, and two gryphons landed only yards from an oil derrick. Their riders dismounted. The tallest raised an arm, and brilliant golden light shot from his hand, struck a yaungol and riccocheted to three others. All four charged the pair.
Dinpik watched with a sense of rising panic. The other yaungol were going to notice the fight soon, if they hadn’t already. And there were more than four yaungol here, eight at least, maybe as many as twelve. Pralea and Xandric couldn’t handle that many on their own. And where was Niala?
Something landed with a rumbled “mrumph” next to her, something large and white and spotted. Dinpik grabbed for Solarity’s neck as the cat bumped his muzzle into the gnome’s chest. The cat licked her face and crouched down, craning to stare at Dinpik with eerie glowing eyes. Acting on a wild hunch, Dinpik clambered onto the cat’s back.
“Solarity has her,” Niala said over the guildstone. “Dinpik, hold tight!”
Dinpik dug her fingers into his fur. The cat crouched down further, then jumped off the ledge. He raced through the fire camp in three huge bounds, past Pralea and Xandric’s gryphons, halting at the talons of a glowing crimson phoenix.
“She’s out.” Niala’s shout echoed from Dinpik’s guildstone.
“Understood,” Pralea said. The gryphons shot into the air, diving at the yaungol bearing down on the paladin and the warrior and scattering them like minnows in a pon, then landing to allow the pair to mount up.
At Xandric’s “Clear,” Niala lifted Dinpik off Solarity and onto the phoenix’s saddle, jumped up behind her. “Dinpik, you’re bleeding-- you smell awful.” The night elf raised an eyebrow. “What barn have you been mucking?”
“Stone hit my ear,” she mumbled. “And – the wagon.” Was Zyobak all right? “I was escorting it -- have to find it.”
The night elf raised an eyebrow. “So that was you. Where were you going?”
Dinpik thought a moment. “Near Muskpaw Ranch.”
She heard Niala say something over the guildstone as the phoenix rose into the air – she wasn’t sure what. Her head ached, and the rest of her was announcing its displeasure with her recent adventure as well. She tried not to think or pay attention to anything at all until Niala tapped her lightly on the arm and asked, “Is that it?”
Dinpik looked down. Zyobak and his wagon were off the path, within sight of a tiny village of half-built wooden buildings and sturdy tents. Pandaren were running from the village toward the wagon. Dinpik nodded, and the phoenix glided into a graceful landing on the path.
“Surveyor!” Zyobak waved. “You made it!”
Dinpik managed to wave back as she slid down from the phoenix’s saddle. “Yeah. Used the guildstone. Asked for help.”
“So I see!” Zyobak’s gaze rose past her. Dinpik heard the flap and ruffle of feathered wings as Pralea and Xandric’s gryphons came to rest behind Niala.
“Citizen. ” Xandric said, approaching her, “are you… all ... right…” He stopped.
“Dinpik…” Pralea held her hand in front of her nose. “You..uh…”
Zyobak chuckled. “Nature of the job,” he said ruefully. He jerked his thumb at the wagon. “The smell does wash off, however.”
As one, the two humans and the night elf stared at the wagon, then at Dinpik.
“Citizen,” Xandric said slowly, “do you mean to tell me you were guarding a load of shit?”
Xandric’s face twisted through several indecipherable expressions. “I’m going home now, “ he said at last. “Just – going home.” He stalked back to his gryphon.
Pralea and Niala looked at her. Then, slowly, Pralea began to laugh.. Niala bent forward, shoulders chuckling. Dinpik stared at the two women for a long moment before collapsing into hysterical giggles herself.
A good drinking story, after all.
She’s on her way to Four Winds tomorrow. Not at all what Tamia and I expected. No problems being away from her minions, and she’s the least egocentric warlock I’ve ever met. I think you’ll find your search for corruption withering on the vine, Sarafel.
For the Crusade,
Dihaldrin Tree walker
In the Light’s name,