The druids were exhausted. They had spent themselves so much that several would not likely be of help for any further casting for days. Their combined might had fed and fed Teldrassil, but with no visible success.. .at least so far as Hamuul could tell.
As for the tauren himself, he had become a pariah to most of the others, although officially there had been no censure, no condemnation by Archdruid Fandral concerning whatever Broll had done. Fandral had not even informed Hamuul just what the missing druid had done. He had merely eyed the tauren disapprovingly, doing so long enough that the others understood that Hamuul had lost favor.
Naralex and a few others defied the shunning, but Hamuul did his best to steer clear of them out of concern that they, too, would suffer. The aged tauren was willing to shoulder his responsibility in enabling Broll to go unnoticed long enough. He trusted his friend. Fandral had a right to be angered, though.
The lead archdruid had insisted on keeping them at Teldrassil's base, far from Darnassus. Only he had thus far returned to the city.
Each time he returned, Fandral pressed the druids in some new fashion. He assured them that they were making progress, that the World Tree was healing.
Hamuul had to assume that he was not an adept-enough archdruid to sense what Fandral did.
The tauren sat cross-legged a bit distant from the rest. The druids were meditating, trying to regain their strength for Fandral's next spell. Hamuul had never felt so drained in all his life, not even during the weeklong hunt that had been part of his rite of passage from child to adult. That had required fasting during the entire trial.
I am getting old...was his first thought. Yet none of the night elves appeared any stronger than him. Thus far it seemed that the lead archdruid's plans had done little more than bring every member to the brink of ruin.
Thinking again of Fandral, Hamuul looked for him. However, the other was nowhere to be found. The tauren could only suppose that Fandral had perhaps again returned to the Cenarion Enclave to consult some ancient text. Hamuul hoped that it would provide them with more tangible results than they had achieved thus far.
Finding himself unable to meditate, the tauren rose. Seeing that none of the others paid him any mind, he strode toward the World Tree.
Even though Hamuul had not been one of those in favor of a second such giant, he could not only appreciate the majesty of it, but also Teldrassil's effect on the world. As a tauren, Hamuul very much believed in the balance between nature and the lives of the various races of Azeroth. That had been why he had sought out Malfurion Stormrage in the first place and asked to be instructed in the druidic arts. And even though Hamuul had only been a druid for a few years, he believed that he had proven himself well. Otherwise, he would not have risen to become one of the few archdruids and the only one of his kind.
The tauren wished there was more he could do beyond what he had done for Broll. He still felt that Broll's choice was somehow the right one, despite how it crossed Fandral's good purposes. Standing just before Teldrassil, he looked up into the clouds where Darnassus lay. If the portal had been very near, Hamuul might have been tempted to just walk through it. As it was, his only other choice was to fly.
With a grunt, he leaned with one hand against Teldrassil. There was more he needed to do. If Broll—
Someone was whispering.
Hamuul stepped from the tree and looked for the speaker. However, the whispering immediately ceased.
His thick brow wrinkling in thought, the archdruid neared the trunk once more.
The whispering started up again. Hamuul stared at Teldrassil .then looked down at his foot. There, the side of his right foot touched one of the World Tree's roots.
The whispering filled his head. Hamuul could not understand it. It was not any of the tongues spoken by the intelligent races of Azeroth. Rather, it reminded him of something else, something the tauren should know well—
"Shakuun, guide my spear." he murmured, blurting a tauren oath. Shakuun had been his father's father, and tauren called upon their venerated ancestors, who watched over them. The oath as he spoke it was not to be taken literally; Hamuul was asking his grandsire to help him come to grips with what he had discovered.
The archdruid was listening to the voice of Teldrassil.
All druids knew the language of the trees, although some understood it better than others. This was not the first time that Hamuul had touched and listened to the World Tree, but this was the first time he had heard these whispers. The voice of the World Tree was usually heard more in the rustle of its branches and leaves and through the coursing of the sap that flowed as blood up and down the vast trunk. It could be heard as a whisper, but one with understanding.
But Hamuul could make no sense out of what he heard now. The whispers were without proper rhythm, without form. As the archdruid continued to listen, they went on and on as if—
"What is it you do, Hamuul Runetotem?" Fandral's voice suddenly said.
Smothering his startlement, the tauren turned to the lead archdruid. He had not sensed the night elf approach, which said something for Hamuul's present state of mind. As a tauren, he prided himself on his belief that his people were the only ones who could truly sneak up on one of Fandral's race.
Hamuul chose to be honest. This was something Fandral of all druids should know.
But how to explain it best? "I fear...Archdruid Fandral, will you listen to Teldrassil for a moment? I fear that things are worse than we thought! When I touched my hand to the trunk just now—"
The night elf did not wait for him to finish. Fandral placed his palm flat against Teldrassil. He shut his eyes and concentrated.
A few breaths later, the lead archdruid looked at the tauren. "I sense nothing different than before. Teldrassil is not yet well, but there is improvement."
"'Improvement'?" Hamuul could not prevent himself from gaping. "Archdruid, I sensed—"
Fandral, his expression sympathetic, interjected, "You are weary, Hamuul, and I have been remiss in my treatment of you. You have a loyalty to a friend who must answer for his recklessness, I fear. It was beneath me, though, to show such disappointment with you when he is to blame."
Fandral raised a hand. "Hear me out, good Hamuul. I have just returned with some knowledge of interest. It will make for a new and stronger attempt to cure what still ails Teldrassil. You, with your strong spirit, would be of tremendous value in that effort, but you need to recoup your strength more. If you fear that there is something more amiss with the World Tree, then this is surely good news to you."
Bowing his head, the tauren replied, "As you say, Archdruid Fandral."
"Excellent! Now, come with me. I would tell you more about our next effort. It shall be very exerting. It may take more than a day's meditation to recover from it."
Fandral started off. Hamuul could do nothing but follow. Yet even as he listened to the night elf begin to explain, he also looked back at the area he had touched. He had heard the incoherent whispering and he knew that it was the voice of the World Tree. Had not the lead archdruid also investigated, the tauren would have been even more anxious than he was. Still, enough of a concern remained that Hamuul continued to wonder.and worry.
To Hamuul Runetotem, the whispering meant one and one thing only.
They did not enter the portal immediately, although that had been their intention. Eranikus and Alexstrasza cautiously probed ahead, their powers reaching deep within to see if there still lurked some trap by the corrupted Lethon and Emeriss. Only when they were satisfied that there was not did the dragons agree it was safe for Eranikus and the night elves to proceed.
"About damned time," Broll muttered. Tyrande nodded, mirroring his opinion. They were both filled with an urgency to find Malfurion. One particular thing that disturbed both was the missing Lucan Foxblood and this mysterious orc. The orc was likely an accidental intruder, and yet.
"You do not yet comprehend the full threat of the Nightmare," the green dragon responded with some bitterness. "Be not so desiring of entering it without all preparations made."
"Time is of the essence."
Alexstrasza dipped her head in agreement. "So it is, Broll Bearmantle, but if I am correct and Malfurion Stormrage has somehow been trying to help guide you, then he would want matters thought through first." The dragon smiled grimly. "And we have done that now."
"I am ready," Eranikus declared.
"Are you certain?" asked the Aspect.
The bitterness grew more evident. "I am. I owe it to my Ysera.
The Life-Binder bowed her head. A warm, comforting glow radiated from Alexstrasza. It touched the trio. The night elves smiled and even Eranikus looked thankful.
"May my blessing keep you safe and guide your hunt to success," the Aspect declared.
"We are honored and thank you," Tyrande replied.
Eranikus took a breath, then stretched his wings. "I will go ahead ...to guard the way."
The energies within the portal swelled up as he approached. To his credit, the green dragon did not hesitate. He stepped into the portal.
And then he was gone.
Broll and Tyrande strode up to the portal.
"You should stay here," he said to her.
"I have remained apart from Malfurion much too long already," she retorted.
Before he could say anything else, she had leapt through.
Broll let out an exasperated sound, then followed.
The sensation of physically entering the other realm was akin to the feeling that one got just before falling asleep. Broll had not had time to think about that when Lethon had attacked them, but now he recognized it. It was far different from sending his dreamform here. When he did that, it was as if he had cast off a heavy weight and was finally free of all his worldly problems.
Not so now. More than ever, he was aware of what the Nightmare could hold, even if at present he could only see the thick mist ahead. The Nightmare had not entirely departed after all.
"We cannot travel like this," Eranikus proclaimed. The dragon fluttered just above the night elves, his wings beating in slow motion. He looked as if seen through the ripples of a rushing river, something else that Broll had not had time to notice during the desperate struggle. The same could be said for Tyrande and even the druid himself.
The dragon arched his back, then breathed upon the mist. A soft spray of what appeared to be speckles of emerald light touched everywhere ahead.
"Elune, protect us! " the high priestess gasped as the way cleared.
At that moment Broll would have gratefully accepted the aid of any deity or demigod. Even the company of a dragon did not at the moment seem enough.
Before, the Emerald Dream had been a place that was the world of Azeroth as seen as if no races such as the night elves had ever existed. Its hills and mountains had been perfectly shaped, for erosion did not exist here. High grasses and beautiful trees had spread across a rolling landscape. The fauna had been unafraid, peaceful. To druids, it had seemed a paradise.
But now no name was more apt, at least for the area before them, than that by which Eranikus called it... Nightmare.
The land was draped in a wet, festering substance that bubbled. The beautiful emerald shading had become the putrid color of rot. What trees there were had become deformed parodies of themselves. Their leaves were black, sharp, and filled with poisonous stickers. Small dark vermin crawled over the scabby bark, often pausing to dine on the thick, odorous sap dripping from cracks in the trunks.
"Cenarius, preserve us." the druid rasped. Still eyeing it all in disbelief, Broll took a step forward. A crunching sound beneath his feet made the druid look down.
The ground was covered in small green-black scorpions, sinewy millipedes, finger-sized cockroaches, spiders with bodies as large as fists, and more. A thick, sticky tar now coated the underside of Broll's sandal, the results of crushing several of the creatures with his step.
"They are everywhere," Tyrande breathed. "They cover the ground for as far as the eye can see."
"Not for long," the green dragon responded with much determination. He breathed over the ground. It was as if Eranikus had exhaled flames. The crackle of thousands of tiny bodies burning to a crisp filled their ears, and even the dragon shuddered at the sound.
The land Eranikus had razed was now charred black. He nodded at his handiwork.
But from the crusted forms there came movement. Out of one burnt roach carapace burst a number of segmented legs. A new cockroach as horrific as the last emerged from its predecessor.
And to the dismay of the three, the act was repeated from every ruined corpse. Whatever Eranikus had destroyed was replaced.
Tendrils of mist played around the macabre scenery, as if seeking to regain the air Ysera's consort had cleared. The green dragon let out another burst, which pushed the mist away again .for the moment.
"It is monstrous." the high priestess said, trying without success to carefully pick her steps. Each footfall was followed by more crunching and the sound of the thick tar oozing from the shattered bodies. Worse, the moment that she stepped away, the hideous rebirth of her victims began.
"This is only part of it." Eranikus muttered, the gleam of his eyes muted in this place. "I sense that the Nightmare has strengthened, worsened more than I could ever have believed."
And as he spoke, they all became aware of movement at the edge of the mist. Shapes that were almost seen.but not quite.
"The shadow satyrs have returned," Tyrande decided.
Eranikus said nothing. Instead, he exhaled again, bathing the closest of the vaguely seen forms. As with the fiendish creatures beneath their feet, there immediately came the sound of burning.
But then, frantic and pleading shrieks all but deafened the trio. Stunned, the green dragon quickly cut off his attack. Broll and Tyrande clutched their ears at the terrifying sound. These were not the cries of monsters vanquished.
"May Ysera forgive me!" Eranikus managed as the mist burned away and his victims lay revealed.
They were—or had been—night elves, humans, orcs, dwarves .members of all the mortal races. What remained after Eranikus's merciless attack were charred bodies that continued to quiver, that sought to reach out for help or at least an end to their suffering.
Ignoring the vermin, Broll raced to the nearest, Tyrande at his side. Eranikus remained where he was, the green dragon clearly shaken by the harm he had done.
"The sleepers." Broll realized. "These are the sleepers."
"I may have slain all of them in Azeroth as if I had stood over the bed of each and scorched them with fire!" Ysera's consort growled. "Unable to escape their dreaming, they would have suffered as they have here! "
"You don't know that," argued the druid. "You don't—"
The brittle bones of the night elf over which he had been kneeling shifted.
A blackened, fleshless hand gripped his wrist and a skull with two ruined eyes bent up toward him.
The ruined corpse shrieked its agony again. It reached with more ravaged fingers.
Broll tugged as hard as he could. "I can't free myself!"
Tyrande readied the glaive, then hesitated. Instead, she prayed.
But other victims renewed their mournful cries. Tyrande continued her prayer, using one hand to spread the power of her patron across the visible landscape.
The ravaged bodies disappeared. Only when the last had gone did the high priestess cease her efforts. By then, she was shaking.
Broll and Eranikus were not much better. "They were suffering!"
the druid spat. "They were really suffering!"
"I did not know!" the dragon retorted defensively. "I would do no harm to the innocent! It is the Nightmare," Eranikus reminded them. "It knows what hurts you the most, what you fear the most.and it feeds off that."
Tyrande took some hope from that. "Then, is this all illusion that we face?"
"No.the greatest nightmare that the Nightmare offers is its growing reality."
That settled it for Broll. "We must find Malfurion and quickly." He looked into the mist, for the first time realizing the enormity of what he suggested. "But.which direction?"
"I will find where he is," the high priestess declared with utter conviction. She looked haunted. "No one, not even you as a fellow druid, know him as I do, Broll."
He did not deny that fact. "But I have a thought as to how to search, also. I—"
The landscape abruptly shifted. The night elves were tossed to the infested ground. Eranikus chose to rise up over the trouble. However, even there he was buffeted.
At last things calmed. Tyrande pushed herself up, quickly wiping off those millipedes and other carrion creatures that still stuck to her. Broll murmured a spell, but the vermin would not listen to him. They were not like the fauna of Azeroth. Like the high priestess, he resigned himself to brushing them away.
Eranikus alighted. The high priestess eyed him reprovingly. Surprisingly, the green dragon looked away in guilt.
"What happened now?" Broll asked Eranikus. They were now in a hillier region, with ominous, shadowed paths that disappeared into the infernal mists.
"This is the Nightmare; ask me not the reason for anything that occurs here save that it is not something we should want! "
Tyrande peered ahead. "There is a castle or some structure ahead. On that third hill."
Both the green dragon and Broll shook their heads, the druid saying, "There're no buildings anywhere save the Eye."
"Then whatever I see must be part of the Nightmare." Before she could add more, there was yet again movement in the mist. The high priestess did not waste time, illuminating the vicinity with the Mother Moon's light.
But what she revealed was not what any of them expected.
"You!" Broll rumbled. He seized the human before anything could separate them. Lucan stared at him with eyes as wide and as hollow as death, but was clearly no phantasm.
"You're real." he whispered. A faint, somewhat mad grin flickered across his drawn face. "It's you." He looked to Tyrande and his grin grew a little calmer. "And you." Then he saw what loomed behind the night elves and his growing relief vanished.
"We are all your friends," Tyrande reassured him.
Lucan settled down. "Real.all of you." His eyes darted to the side. "I tried to leave, but something held me here.I tried to leave, but something wanted her to keep on."
The druid seized hold of the last part. "'Her'? The orc, you mean? A female?"
"You know as well as I do that there is little difference between a female and a male orc when it comes to battle," Tyrande pointed out to Broll. "One should never underestimate either."
"I wasn't thinking that. Just wondering who she might be and why she happened to be here."
"Her name is Thura," Lucan offered almost tonelessly. "She came to kill him. She came to kill your Malfurion Stormrage."
The pronouncement made even the dragon gape. Tyrande seized Lucan by the throat, but Broll managed to calm her.
"Hear him out, my lady! He's not to blame!"
"He said that she wants to slay Malfurion! He brought her here to do it—" But Tyrande finally caught herself. "Against his will, though...I know that...Lucan...I am sorry."
Lucan gave her a nervous smile. It was clear that he liked the high priestess.
Broll brought him back to the subject. "The orc! She came to kill Malfurion.why? How would she know how to find him? Did she say?"
"The visions.she babbled something about visions.she said that.. .that they led her to me.. .that they showed her the path to him piece by piece.the visions were helping her avenge her kin and save Azeroth, too, she said."
"An orc blood oath," Tyrande muttered. "I know them well. She will not stop until she either is slain or succeeds." The high priestess shook her head. "The second part.it must be madness."
"Whatever the case, something wants her to succeed," the druid added. To Lucan, he asked, "But the first thing.she thinks Malfurion slew one of hers? What of it? Orcs understand death in battle."
The human concentrated. "She said—she said that he was a 'base murderer.' That he betrayed his friend and killed him when his back was turned in trust.I think."
It was more than Tyrande could stand. She brandished the glaive, which made Lucan step back in concern. "Lies! All of it! A threat to Azeroth? Ha! Truly madness as I said! And even the declaration of betrayal—Malfurion would never do such a thing! As proof of that, he has rarely even had the opportunity, for the number of orcs he could claim as comrade could be counted on one hand!"
"It was only one time she mentioned! She said a name! Bruxigan .Broxigan—"
"Broxigar?" The high priestess staggered back. She dropped the glaive. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Brox!" Tyrande shouted to the others. "An orc who lived before his time! As a novice, I befriended him when he was captured by my people! He fought the Burning Legion and Azshara's servants alongside us"—she swallowed—"and he died holding the way, so Krasus has affirmed, against the demons' dread lord himself, Sargeras!"
The druid's gaze sharpened. "It must be him who she speaks about."
"But he was Malfurion's friend!" the distraught high priestess went on. "They never fought with one another, and Malfurion honored him with me when it was all over! You must remember, Broll! Our people raised up a statue to him, the only orc ever to be given homage by us!"
"I recall it.now." Broll frowned. "Then if it's him she speaks about, she's been tricked.and the Nightmare sounds like the cause."
"For what reason, though?"
"Isn't it obvious, my lady? Because he's a threat to the power behind it even now. It gives us some hope at least, then. It means he must have some ability to fight for himself."
Tyrande seized on that hope. Eyes drying, she said, "Then we must hurry to him! Lucan, when you escaped, did you pay attention to which direction she went? I know the mist is everywhere, but there is that.castle." The high priestess pointed at the distant shape. "Do you know in relation to that?"
He straightened, looking a bit more confident. "Yes, yes, my lady! It.it's my calling to know locations and directions!" The cartographer pointed to his left. "That way."
"We would fly," offered Eranikus, "but I fear he would not be able to direct us from above. The mist would be too thick to see."
Tyrande had already taken Lucan by the arm. "Then we move now." To the human, she commanded, "Lead us!"
Nodding, Lucan walked a step ahead. Tyrande kept her glaive ready. Broll took the man's other side and the dragon rose just above the trio.
"This orc still bothers me," the druid said. "I fail to see what danger she holds for my shan'do."
The green dragon sneered down at him. "And you are correct! An orc is hardly a menace in a place like this! Even if the Nightmare guides her, your Malfurion Stormrage is first among you druids! His deeds are honored among my own kind! No earthly weapon would be a danger to him."
Lucan swallowed. "She has an ax."
Tyrande looked at him, her expression wary. "The orc carries an ax?" She spun him to face her. "Describe it to me!"
"It was an ax with two edges. A battle ax."
"And how made? Was the head of iron or steel? Quickly! Tell me! "
Broll moved to calm the high priestess, but she waved him back. Tyrande waited breathlessly for Lucan to answer.
"Not iron or steel," he finally answered, his face screwed together in concentration. "I think.it looked as if it was all made of wood." The human nodded. "Yes, wood! I've never seen an ax head made of wood before! Doesn't sound very practical unless it's really sharp, and even then it's likely to break—"
"'Made of wood,'" the female night elf whispered in clear dismay. She looked to the other night elf. "You don't know! You weren't there when Cenarius himself made it for Brox!"
"I remember hearing something about that," Broll replied. His expression mirrored hers now. "Forged from wood, blessed by the demigod...and so powerful it is said to even have cut Sargeras..."
"And she hunts Malfurion with it," Tyrande added. The high priestess stared into the mists, especially at the half-seen structure —the only structure. "Lucan, did you really escape her?"
"No.she said she didn't need me anymore. She was near."
"Near." Eyes widening, Tyrande gripped her glaive.and suddenly rushed into the mist.
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