Malfurion felt the shadow loom over him and knew what it meant. A new torture was imminent.
The dark emerald lines spread further over him, at first seeming to form jagged, bony fingers that turned out to seem instead the silhouette of a vast, macabre tree that dwarfed that which the archdruid had become. Yet even as limited as his field of vision had become, the night elf knew that though there was a shadow ... there was no other tree.
Can you taste their dreams? the Nightmare Lord taunted. Can you taste their fears? Even your dearest are not immune to it ...
Malfurion did not respond, though he knew that his captor could still sense his emotions. In that regard, the archdruid continually sought to focus inward. The more calm that he could bring to himself, the better his hopes for the others.
And the better that the Nightmare Lord did not know of his true efforts. His captor believed the spells surrounding the night elf prevented Malfurion from reaching out to his beloved Tyrande or anyone else and, for the most part, that was true. But the archdruid had not trained hard over ten thousand years to be utterly defeated. He could not, and dared not, reach out to Tyrande or certain others, but there were paths of communication, though they required delicacy and complicated paths. If the Nightmare Lord even suspected once ... then Malfurion was surely lost and with him perhaps all else.
The shadow grew and twisted, almost as if the sinister tree slipped around to better view its prey. Malfurion himself suddenly twisted anew, the tree of pain that he had become taking on a new, more vile aspect. From his boughs, the leaves sprouted black flowers. Each flower's birth was as a needle thrust into the night elf's eyes. There were hundreds, soon covering most of his upper torso.
From each blossom there suddenly swelled an emerald egg. Malfurion wanted to scream, but, of course, could not.
Out of one of the eggs burst a thing with tentacles and wings. As it moved, it oozed pure terror.
A second fiend burst free, followed by a third, and more. They crawled over Malfurion, scraping and biting as they moved.
At last the horrific multitude left the archdruid. They flowed over the small patch of space that he could see, as if awaiting commands.
The shadow moved nearer, as if caressing them. Wrought from your own fears, stirred by my desire ... they are beautiful to behold, are they not?
As if by some unheard signal, the swarm spread out in different directions. They quickly vanished in the deep, dank green fog that surrounded all but Malfurion's immediate vicinity.
There are more and more sleepers, my friend, more and more of those susceptible to these pets and those before them ... their nightmares are feeding me through you and the others
Malfurion did his best not to acknowledge this truth, that his own abilities were aiding in the spread of the Nightmare beyond the Emerald Dream, yet concern did creep in. Concern that, unfortunately, his captor could sense.
Yes, my friend, you have betrayed your people, your world, and your beloved... you know the truth of it...
The archdruid's form twisted more. Another silent scream echoed through the night elf's mind, but it was insufficient to stifle all the pain. Despite his training, despite his skills, Malfurion could not hold back the torture completely.
Go mad, Malfurion Stormrage ... go mad ... but know that even it is no refuge ... I know... I will be there waiting for you ... there is no place within where you may hide ...
The shadow of the monstrous tree receded from Malfurion's sight, but the archdruid could still feel its nearby presence. Even as new, gnarled branches sprouted from what had once been his arms, Malfurion remained aware that the Nightmare Lord had only just begun to use him. The night elf was key to the creature's plot, for Malfurion was a powerful link to both this realm and Azeroth.
But he was not the only key. Malfurion knew that all too bitterly. The evil that was the Nightmare had snared others more powerful in their own way than him ... and while the night elf had been granted a particularly horrific fate, those others served in a more accursed manner. They were now willing followers of the darkness, helping to spread it, eager to see it engulf the mortal plane.
The Nightmare Lord had dragons to do his bidding. Green dragons .
There is something unspeakable seeking dominion over the world, the cowled figure thought as he perused a series of floating globes before him. Seated upon a chair carved out of a stalagmite, the gaunt, almost elven figure studied the image within each globe. At his will, they reflected images of places all over Azeroth.
He wore the violet robes of the Kirin Tor, though his current course of action was his own. Indeed, there was much about his activities that they did not know—not even their leader, who had been his pupil and who understood the truth about him. The figure, who oft watched over the younger races, now had to focus on the various dragonflights, for after so many centuries of consistency, the great winged creatures were in flux. That was a concern that would have been important to many, but especially to Krasus.
After all, he was one of them.
In appearance, he was lanky, hawklike of features, and had three long, jagged scars running down his right cheek. His hair was mainly silver, with streaks of black and crimson. The silver did little to bespeak his true age though. To learn more of that, one had to peer into his glittering black eyes—eyes of no mortal creature. The eyes and the scars were the only hints of his true identity as the great dragon Korialstrasz.
He was also chief consort of the queen of the red dragonflight and the Aspect of Life, the glorious Alexstrasza, and, as such, was her principal agent when it came to protecting Azeroth.
And such was his role now, for a situation had arisen that touched upon both his great concerns: Azeroth and his own kind. There was an evil spreading not only through the mortal world, but one that greatly touched the Emerald Dream, too. He had tried contacting Ysera, but she was not to be found. Indeed, he could not contact any of the green dragons save one . and Krasus would have nothing to do with that particular figure.
He did not have to ask just who was truly responsible. For anyone else, the question would have had no definite answer, but Krasus knew. He knew with all his soul the evil behind it.
"I know you, Destroyer," he whispered as he viewed another globe. "I name you, Deathwing ..."
It could only be the black dragon, the crazed Aspect once called
Neltharion the Earth-Warder. Krasus rose. He would have to act immediately—
Familiar laughter echoed throughout his mountain sanctum, a hidden place situated not all that far from where once fantastic Dalaran, city of the magi, had once stood. However, now a gaping crater marked what even Krasus had been forced to admit was one of the most astounding—if potentially catastrophic—spells ever cast. Dalaran's absence meant that few had reason to come to this desolate place . unless they sought the dragon mage himself.
Krasus leapt to his feet. He instinctively waved his hand to dismiss the images from the globes—then saw with dread that they all bore one vision. It was an eye, the burning eye of the Destroyer
Even as he blurted out the black dragon's name, the globes exploded. Savage shards flew throughout the chamber, striking stone walls, limestone outcroppings, and, most of all, Krasus. The spell he cast to shield him from them proved useless and the force of the shards' attack sent Krasus flying back against the stone chair.
Though he appeared mortal, his body was still more resilient than that of any elf or human. The stone cracked and both Krasus and the chair went tumbling. However, Krasus paid the collision little mind, the agony caused by the many shards embedded in him far worse.
Yet still he struggled to his feet and prepared a counterattack. While not as powerful as an Aspect, Krasus was among the most versatile and cunning of his kind. Moreover, Deathwing had dared attack him in his sanctum, where a number of elements existed that would serve Alexstrasza's consort.
But the moment he summoned the energies needed for his spell, the shards glowed bright. Shock ran through his body.
Those pieces that had struck elsewhere around the sanctum tore loose of their places. Registering this, a pained Krasus hunched over. His body began to swell and his arms and legs twisted, becoming more reptilian. From his back burst two leathery, vestigial wings that immediately began to grow.
Deathwing's laughter filled the sanctum. Again the shards glowed. Krasus, midway through his transformation into Korialstrasz the red dragon, faltered.
The other shards reached him. However, instead of striking Krasus as the previous had, they began adhering to his body. Krasus sought to burn them off, even shake them off, but to no avail.
Then, those in his flesh pressed hard. The dragon mage could not move. To his horror, he found that the shards were compressing him. They crushed him into a smaller and smaller thing, as if he had no bones, no substance.
And as the shards utterly encased him, Krasus found himself trapped not in a globe, but a golden disk.
A monstrous face peered at him from outside. The scarred, burnt visage of Deathwing. "Korialstrasz ..."
In response, the dragon mage attacked his prison with all his magical might. Yet instead of weakening the disk, his efforts only made it glow brighter.
"Yes," mocked Deathwing. "Feed my creation ... it's only fair ... you destroyed the last ."
Krasus shook his head. "This is not possible ."
"Oh, yes," the black behemoth returned, his grin growing toothier. "You will feed my creation forever ... you will be the heart of my new Demon Soul ..."
The dread disk flared. Krasus shrieked from pain—
And then, for a brief moment, he saw himself—or rather, his true self, Korialstrasz—asleep in the mountain sanctum. Overwhelmed by the pain, the vision was gone in an instant, yet Krasus had a revelation. He had wondered how he could have so poorly expected this confrontation. More to the point, he doubted that Deathwing would re-create the foul artifact in such a manner.
Krasus knew the truth.
He was dreaming.
His real self was the sleeping dragon. He was caught in a nightmare such as he had never experienced.
With that knowledge, Krasus fought against what was happening. His prison was not real. Deathwing was not real. It was all illusion.
Deathwing laughed, his face contorted through the side of the disk. "I will conquer your queen and make her my mate! My children will rule the skies and Azeroth will be scorched to a cinder, eradicating the short-lived vermin you love so much!"
This is only a dream, a nightmare! Krasus insisted. A nightmare!
Yet, though he knew that, though he began to understand the reason for it, Krasus could not wake ...
The hippogryphs waited uneasily near the shore, the winged beasts unfamiliar with the terrain here. They were used to flying to Auberdine, but the severity of the situation had meant the party needed to land close to the Moonglade.
One of the males—a frayfeather with rich blue and turquoise plumage—reared up on his equine hind legs. Named after the highlands from where they came, frayfeathers were excellent flyers. A priestess next to the hippogryph quickly murmured soothing sounds. The male dropped back down, the talons at the end of his avian forelegs digging into the ground. The antlered head—akin to that of a huge bird of prey—bent down to be petted.
The Sisters of Elune were alone, the druids having flown on ahead using their miraculous shapeshifting abilities. Tyrande had not pushed for them to wait, and she knew that Fandral had been eager to depart. That suited her needs.
She studied the Moonglade for a moment, then said to her everfaithful guards, "I wish to walk alone for a moment. Please wait here."
They clearly did not care for her suggestion, but they obeyed. Tyrande turned from them and headed back to the wooded area from which they had but recently emerged. She entered, savoring both the moonlit night and the calm of the forest.
Despite the serenity of her surroundings, the high priestess still found herself yearning for the peace of the temple. She had never felt comfortable as ruler of her people, especially in regard to decisions that could endanger others' lives. Each life was precious to her. Yet she recalled how the night elves' previous ruler had willingly let her people be slaughtered for her own glory. To Azshara, the people had simply existed to live or die at her whim.
"But I am not Azshara ... I will never be Azshara ..." the high priestess growled not for the first time to herself.
"You could never be her, mistress ... you're a far more worthy ruler."
Tyrande turned, her frown growing. "'More worthy?' Her most devoted followers probably gave her similar praise, Shandris."
The newcomer wore armor from the neck down, including a form-fitting breastplate, shoulder guards, and padded metal and leather leg guards running from her hips down to her matching boots. Most of her armor was of greenish hue, though trimmed with a violet that was akin to the skin color of most night elves.
"At least you earn that praise." Shandris Feathermoon removed her gauntlets. She came unarmed to the high priestess, as was custom back in Darnassus . a custom that the general of the night elves' army herself enforced with vigor. Her features were even sharper than those of most of her kind, and there was in her ever-narrowed eyes an almost zealous determination. Tyrande knew that zealous determination was all due to her, that Shandris Feathermoon in many ways felt she existed only to serve the high priestess.
Tyrande recalled the orphan whom she had saved during one of the Burning Legion's horrific advances during that terrible war some ten thousand years past. The innocent, fearful eyes were so different now. Shandris had become the daughter Tyrande had never had ... and like none she would have expected.
Shandris stretched her neck, which was protected by a leather and metal collar. Below her eyes, the jagged tattoos that marked an earlier rite of passage now seemed to mock Tyrande, for they added to the younger elf's fearsome look. The high priestess had never wanted to turn the frightened young orphan into a war machine, but she had.
"We will not debate the issue, Shandris," the high priestess remarked dourly, referring to her general's lofty opinion of her.
"Good, because I'm right." Although she paid her savior every respect, Shandris was the one person who also spoke plainly and bluntly to Tyrande. Changing the subject, the general asked, "I came separate and in secret to this place, as you commanded before you departed the island. Now, perhaps you can tell me why. I assume from our proximity to the Moonglade that it has something to do with the druids." The younger night elf paced back and forth as she talked, in many ways her movements reminiscent of a nightsaber, one of the great toothed cats used as both ground transport and a heavy weapon by the Sentinels.
"Yes, it involves the druids ... and Malfurion, in particular."
Shandris nodded, her expression unreadable.
"We must find a way to bring him back to us, Shandris. For many reasons. Whatever is going on in the Emerald Dream not only involves the druids, but I believe that it is touching Teldrassil . and perhaps other parts of Azeroth as well ..."
The general's eyes narrowed to slits. "There were some vague reports . mostly scattered and uncertain at first . from the human and dwarven lands. They mentioned in part something about those who can't wake up. Something like Malfurion's situation, come to think of it ."
Tyrande glanced at the moon for reassurance. Then, putting a hand on the other's shoulder, she murmured, "Elune indicated to me that Malfurion is dying. I expect you know that already."
The general gazed into her eyes. "I do. And I'm sorry. So sorry."
Tyrande smiled sadly. "Thank you. But Elune also indicated that this is beyond my own personal concerns and that I must look to absolutely whatever must need to be done for the sake of Azeroth itself ... and that is why I have summoned you."
Shandris Feathermoon immediately went down on one knee. "Give whatever command you must of me, mistress! I will do what you say, go where you say. My life is yours ... always!"
The old guilt returned. "I have a tremendous favor to ask of you. A favor, not a command ..."
"You know of Broll Bearmantle."
"More warrior than druid, that one, mistress," Shandris said as reply.
"Broll is heading to Ashenvale in the hopes of rescuing Malfurion. You understand how?"
In her desire to be the best commander possible, Shandris had created a network for gathering information that stretched far beyond Darnassus and the night elf lands. Thus, Ashenvale, a part of the latter, was easily within the province of her studies. Shandris's expression tightened, but there was also a hint of approval.
"It's daring. Dangerous. And the only hope at this point, I'd say."
"I do not intend for him to enter alone."
"I suspected you had something in mind, so I prepared in advance for a longer journey!" The other night elf's eyes glowed with anticipation. Shandris leapt to her feet, her fist pressed against her breast. "I can depart immediately from here! I know the danger and the necessity of this mission! It cannot be entrusted to just anyone—"
"Exactly." Tyrande straightened, determined that she speak now as ruler. "And that is why I shall be the one who will join him."
Her words struck like lightning. Shandris stumbled back a step. She gaped at the high priestess.
"You? But Darnassus needs you! I am the one who must go—"
"Elune has shown me that I, as her high priestess, am best suited. This task will require the full teachings of the Sisterhood and as its head I could ask no other to do this. In addition, no one knows Malfurion as I do . no one is bound to him as I am. If his dreamform can be found, I am the one who will be able to do it." Her gaze was strong. "And while saving Malfurion is of the utmost desire for me personally, he may also be Azeroth's only hope. As high priestess I must be the one who accompanies Broll ..."
Shandris finally nodded. But though agreeing, the general still had questions.
"What does Fandral think of this?"
"I do not answer to Fandral."
"Sometimes he seems not to understand that." There was a brief moment of humor in Shandris's eyes. She was one of the handful aware that he and her mistress did not always see eye to eye on matters of how Tyrande governed, especially when her decisions affected the druids and his sphere of influence. Then, growing serious again, she continued, "And Darnassus?"
"Darnassus must be yours to guard, Shandris, as you have done when I have had to leave it for other matters of state."
"This is hardly the same ." Still, once more the warrior went down on one knee. "But I will protect the city and our realm as always until your return."
Her pointed emphasis of the last word was almost a demand that Tyrande make certain that she would come back. The night elf ruler reached out and touched Shandris on the cheek.
At those words, the hardened warrior leapt forward and wrapped her arms around the high priestess. Shandris buried her face in Tyrande's neck.
"Mother ..." she whispered in a voice that sounded exactly like that of the frightened orphan of so long ago.
Then, just as quickly, Shandris pulled back. Other than a tearstain down one cheek, she looked again like the seasoned commander of the Sentinels. She saluted Tyrande.
"I've just the mount for you," Shandris said. "As I said, he's ready for a long journey. Also, there is no finer. He's not far away. Just follow me."
Shandris turned crisply and led her deeper into the woods. Neither spoke, but both were deep in thought.
After almost five minutes Tyrande heard the shuffling of a large creature. As Shandris did not show any concern, the high priestess was content to follow.
A moment later they confronted a large male hippogryph tethered to a massive oak. His plumage was more striking than those animals ridden by the group, the feathers darker and more dramatic, with crimson lines across the ebony wings and slight turquoise markings on the upper edges. Crimson feathers also lined the otherwise blue-black head. The hippogryph also wore a protective helm over his head and some body armor. Although all hippogryphs were powerful, this one was of a species especially adept at war.
"He and I have flown into battle together often. You may trust him as you trust me," the general said quietly. "His name is Jai'alator."
"'Noble blade of Elune,'" Tyrande translated. "A proud name that.
The hippogryph bowed his great head. The winged creatures were not simple beasts. They had an intelligence and were considered allies, not servants. They allowed themselves to be ridden.
"I am honored to fly with you," Tyrande told the hippogryph.
Shandris undid the reins and handed them to her mistress. "He answers to 'Jai.' If you fly just above the trees, the others won't see you depart. I'll join the party in a few minutes, then delay them some more."
Nodding, the high priestess took the reins. "Thank you, Shandris." Tyrande recalled one last thing. "Shandris ... be on alert."
The general's eyes narrowed. "For what?
How to explain what she had fought against? "For that which the light of Elune must melt away ..."
Shandris frowned at the explanation, but said nothing. She saluted once more, then whirled around and marched off in the direction of the other priestesses.
The high priestess wiped moisture from her own eye, then turned her thoughts to her imminent journey . not the least problem of which would be convincing Broll Bearmantle to take her to Ashenvale.
To the Great Tree.
And to the portal into the Emerald Dream.
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