Gathering The Host

Tyrande, Lucan, and Thura found themselves deposited in a murky valley. Around them, they heard the incessant shrieks and cries as the Nightmare's victims both suffered and served at Xavius's will. The ground crawled with the dark vermin of the Nightmare.

"See what I've brought you..." Lethon said to the mist.

A huge portion of the mist melted into the putrefying figure of Emeriss. The other dragon grinned at the prisoners he displayed.

"So wholesome..so untouched.." she cooed. "Won't it be fun twisting them?"

"You know what the master desires."

Emeriss did not look pleased with being reprimanded. "Of course I do!"

Tyrande listened to all this with growing dismay. Yet her concern was more for the others and for Malfurion, wherever he now was. She was certain that he was doing what he could to battle the

Nightmare, although with Alexstrasza now also a slave to Xavius, the chance of victory seemed nil.

Or was the Life-Binder truly a slave? Tyrande recalled the image and also recalled the deviousness of the Nightmare. The vision had been too fleeting. Why hide it from them? Why quickly obscure Alexstrasza from their sight?

Unless...the image of the imprisoned red dragon had been an illusion designed to drain her and the others of hope?

The high priestess clenched her fist. Not for the first time, she had fallen prey to the Nightmare.

"The ax first," Lethon ordered.

The corrupted dragon's words caught Tyrande's attention and she found herself wondering why the weapon had remained in the orc's hands this long. More important, surely Xavius should have taken it from Thura as soon as the group stood before his shadow. After all, being what he now was, the Nightmare Lord would surely not want any of his foes to wield it near him.

Again, Tyrande thought of the vision of Alexstrasza. Everything was designed to create despair in the defenders.perhaps in great part because of this very weapon.

Emeriss stared at the orc. Thura tightly gripped the ax, clearly unwilling to part with it. She brandished the blade at the dragon, who, it was interesting for Tyrande to note, made certain not to come within striking distance.

It has to be! the high priestess decided.

"That little plaything will not help you!" Emeriss hissed. The dragon continued to eye Thura, whose hands began to shake.

"The ax is mine!" the warrior growled.

"No longer..." Lethon interjected, joining Emeriss in staring at Thura.

The orc's eyes shut. Trembling, she dropped to one knee. Her hands shook violently, but still she did not release the ax.

The high priestess knew what they were doing to Thura. They were assailing her with the dream-based abilities of their kind. Thura was suffering personal nightmares over and over, all in an attempt to get her to release the weapon.

The weapon.

"Lucan...the ax." Tyrande quietly urged.

He glanced at her, saw the direction of her gaze and, despite a hint of uncertainty, moved.

Tyrande reached into her heart and prayed to Elune, touching upon what had made her first desire to become one of the Mother Moon's acolytes. She remembered the softness, the beauty of the moon's light upon her and how she knew that with it she might be able to help others.

The silver glow materialized above her.

"Little fool!" Emeriss hissed at her. Lethon snarled and also turned to the night elf.

Lucan grabbed Thura. The orc understood immediately what the human intended.

Man and orc faded away as Lucan pulled them both from the Nightmare to Azeroth. Yet, just before they did, the shadow of a branch passed over them. None, not even the high priestess, noticed it.

Tyrande still remained. She had never had any notion of escaping with the others. She had needed to remain the distraction for the other two. The dragons had been too confident in their power and too focused in their desire to strip Thura of the ax. Those had both been in her favor in seeking freedom for the orc and Lucan.

But a terrible force struck her. Tyrande fell among the bugs, who quickly swarmed over her. She batted them away, only to then find Emeriss's pus-covered head looming before her.

"Thank you for doing your part..." the monstrous behemoth chuckled.

Lethon joined her in their sinister merriment. As Tyrande pushed herself up, she saw that while her companions had indeed made good their flight, something had been left behind.

"Your effort was invaluable!" Lethon mocked. "The distraction broke the ore's concentration and loosened her grip just enough at the right moment...when she and the human were between realms..."

Half-covered in eager vermin, the ax that had once belonged to Brox lay a few yards ahead of Tyrande.

And over it hung the shadow of a skeletal branch.

No one protested Malfurion's decision. All trusted in him. What they did not entirely trust was that which lay before them, that which had been crafted at their ignorance.

The portal rose from what had been the back of Fandral's lair. It was not as huge nor as intricate as those others created to reach the Emerald Dream, but the fantastic energies swirling within marked it as functional.and thus a ray of hope as far as Malfurion was concerned.

"How could he have had this made without us knowing?" demanded one druid.

"There was much to distract all of you," Malfurion said with apology, thinking of all that his search in the Emerald Dream had caused. "But be thankful for one thing; the portal is still open."

Broll eyed it warily. "But will it stay open for what you intend?

Even Malfurion was astounded to hear the Life-Binder announce this. Even more surprising was how Alexstrasza now appeared. She strode among the druids in her elven form, small licks of flames darting from her long, crimson tresses. She walked as a queen and as a mother, giving looks of trust and faith to the druids as she passed among them. Though Ysera was their patron, Malfurion and the rest acknowledged without hesitation their respect for Alexstrasza.

"Great Life-Binder, this is not—" Malfurion began.

"Do not question." The fiery figure stepped toward the portal. "Even now, the Nightmare senses that the portal of its pawn is discovered."

Alexstrasza did not stop until she stood before the swirling energies. The Life-Binder stared into the portal.

The fiery glow about her body intensified. It shot forth into the portal. There was a flash of flame within and all there were aware that if something had stood on the other side, it would have been utterly incinerated.

"Nothing will come through and nothing will seal up this last portal from the other side," she declared in a tone that did not brook disagreement. "The portal will stay open, Malfurion Stormrage...I will see to it. It is that important."

The archdruid nodded grimly. "Then, there's no more reason to hesitate! Hamuul! Your help—and yours, also, Broll—I think I'll need! As for you others, you know what you must do."

The druids began dividing up for their appointed tasks. Many gathered near the portal. Others took to swifter forms and quickly departed the enclave.

Malfurion sat down in the midst of the druids' grove, with Hamuul and Broll kneeling on each side of him. Malfurion shut his eyes, but before he began his meditation, he said to the pair, "I will need all your strength and your wariness. I apologize for the danger I may put you through."

The tauren snorted and Broll growled, "I fought as a gladiator for years, but rather would I fight at your side like this!"

Grateful for their loyalty and sacrifice, Malfurion withdrew into himself. He needed to reach out to some of those others who might stand with them—assuming any were left. It would demand another tremendous sacrifice from each and possibly only make the Nightmare's victory that much more complete.

But there were no choices left now.

It was not difficult for Malfurion to reach the state he needed, despite the stresses upon him. The archdruid felt the ties between his dreamform and his physical body all but unbind. There was little strain when he pushed free his mortal form and rose up above Broll and Hamuul.

Although they could not see him, by instinct the two gazed up. Malfurion reached out with his thoughts, informing them of what he intended and seeking what guidance that they could give him about certain aspects.

Then Malfurion tried something that he had never done before. It was his best hope of reaching all those still able to help Azeroth. The archdruid reached into Teldrassil and through Teldrassil into Azeroth, using the fact that, no matter where someone could be found, it would be a part of the world.

And Teldrassil and Azeroth gave him what he sought.

Malfurion let out a tremendous gasp as he suddenly saw everywhere in the world at the same time. It was almost too much. Had it been any other mortal than him, Malfurion understood that they would have gone insane as their mind fragmented into a million bits and more. There were things he had never known existed and things on the periphery that filled him with dread, ancient evils locked deep within the world that had a familiar hint to them but were pushed back as thousands of other things demanded his attention. With so much from the great to the very tiny assailing him, even he had to fight at first to maintain both his focus and his sanity.

Again, it was the World Tree and Azeroth from which he drew his strength. The danger of becoming forever lost faded. Malfurion looked upon his besieged world and found those for whom he was seeking.

They were not nearly as many as he hoped, but among them, he found those essential to his plan.

Varian eyed his beleaguered force. He knew that there were still pockets here and there throughout the capital and possibly beyond, but they were shrinking fast. That came as no surprise to him, for weapons were useless. Mostly, he and his men had to flee, an ignoble course, if necessary.

Fire seemed to slow the horrific throngs—at least somewhat. The newest wave of terror—the sleepwalkers—on the one hand presented an even greater shock to the mind, but they were also a foe that could be physically battled. The only trouble was that there remained the inherent hesitation to do harm to an innocent, even if that innocent was wildly attacking.

But desperation had caused more than one of Varian's dwindling force to bloody their weapons and he himself had had to strike hard blows.

Varian ...king of Stormwind...

It was only due to the calm and comforting tone of the voice that Varian knew he was not falling to the Nightmare's power. The Nightmare offered no reassurance; it seemed to drag its victims immediately into their fears.

Varian...comrade to Broll Bearmantle...l am Malfurion Stormrage...

He immediately straightened. Although Varian had not met the famed archdruid, like many leaders in both the Alliance and Horde he knew of Malfurion's role as leader of the druids. The efforts of the druids had been critical in winning the Battle of Mount Hyjal and, consequently, the Third War. Varian had not been on Kalimdor at the time, but had heard the tale in great depth.

That the archdruid now spoke in the king's head was not so surprising. However, as welcome as Malfurion's presence was in some regards, Varian had little time to give him. Matters were becoming even more desperate.

"Whatever you want, better speak it fast." the lord of Stormwind muttered low so as not to have his soldiers worry that he was talking to shadows.

Varian, l need you to lead those that will attack the Nightmare where it is most vulnerable...to attack it within the Emerald Dream...

"I won't abandon Stormwind!" Without realizing it, Varian raised his voice. Some of his soldiers glanced at him, then went back to their frantic struggles.

Everyone must abandon what they cherish, if they hope to save it...

Varian gritted his teeth. "Damn you.but how do we get out of here and where do we go even if we make it?"

There is no need to leave...allyou have to do is simply follow my instructions...

A screaming figure lunged at the king. It was one of his personal servants. The man's eyes were shut and his face was drawn in such a terrible cry that it looked as if his jaw had become unhinged. What he was screaming about, Varian did not pay attention. The sleepwalkers all suffered individual nightmares in which they tried to strike back at their tormentors—who were always the defenders.

Varian attempted to strike the wild-maned man on the side of the head with the flat of the blade. The sleepwalkers could be downed that way, although it generally took more than one blow.

But the servitor suddenly shifted position. Rather than the flat, Varian cut him deep with the edge.

Blood poured from the wound. The stricken sleepwalker collapsed onto the king. One of the soldiers immediately tore the dying man from Varian, but the lord of Stormwind did not notice. All he knew was that he had finally slain one of his subjects, another nightmare to add to those he already suffered.

"Whatever you want to do, do it, then!" he snarled at the unseen Malfurion. "And do it quick!"

The archdruid told him what to do. Varian looked incredulous, then surrendered to Malfurion's suggestions.

"Lay down your arms!" he shouted to others. "Sound the call to stand down!"

I will have to use some force... Malfurion added. I will need to start with you, the better so that you can touch the rest...

"I hope you know what you're doing! We've been taking a potion to keep from—"

That will not matter. My work will override all...

The king grunted. As his stunned supporters watched, Varian reluctantly shut his eyes.

And immediately went to sleep.

High above the rest of northern Mulgore—situated on the high bluffs near the Stonetalon Mountains—lay the chief city of the tauren. Until the building of Thunder Bluff, all tauren had lived a nomadic life. Only in recent times, with the expulsion of the centaur marauders from their lands, had Hamuul's people finally established a settlement comparable to Orgrimmar, Stormwind City, and other capitals of Azeroth.

Four mesas made up Thunder Bluff, with the largest and most populated in the center. The great totems of the tauren stood tall over structures that drew much from the race's past as perpetual wanderers. Even the great houses were built like the long, wooden structures once used by the tribes for the winter seasons, while the smaller domiciles surrounding them were fashioned after the pointed, wood-and-animal-skin tents which had for generations served the daily purposes of the nomads.

The tauren had chosen the location for strategic means, the mesas giving them great defense against most enemies. However, even the bluffs were of no protection against an enemy that was much a part of oneself.

This, Baine Bloodhoof, son of the great tauren chieftain, Cairne, understood too well.now. Ax in one hand and a short, thrusting spear in the other, he stood at the forefront of a band of warriors blocking the bridge leading to Middle Rise, where the tradeskill area had, until recently, thrived. Middle Rise was all that was left somewhat defended in the northern and eastern part of Thunder Bluff. The horrors had overtaken the rest, though there were a few tiny spots of resistance.

Cairne's son thrust with the spear at a staggering figure just a few feet ahead, trying to fend him off without killing him. Baine knew the other tauren, a former comrade named Gam. They had fought centaur side by side. Now Gam, eyes shut tight and mutterings concerning the four-legged marauders slipping from his mouth, tried to kill Cairne's son as if he were a centaur.

Gam kept coming. In the end, Baine had no choice. His dark brown coat and black mane already matted with blood despite the protective leather over his shoulders, hump, and arms, Baine drove the spear into Gam's chest.

With a grunt, the sleepwalking tauren dropped his weapon, then fell off the rope bridge. His body plummeted to the plains below, fortunately disappearing into the accursed mists and thus saving Baine from watching his friend's body shatter.

The lifts were not far, but there was no point in descending. The scouts that Baine had sent earlier had not returned, even though they should have reported long ago. That likely meant that they had been taken and were now part of the threat.

The bridge shook as more sleepwalkers surged forward.

"What do we do?" one of his warriors asked. Tauren were stoic of nature, but this struggle had them all staring worried and wide-eyed.which only served to better show the redness due to a lack of sleep.

Would that you could guide me in this, Father, Baine thought. But elderly Cairne had been among the first of the sleepers and Baine could not help but think that had happened for a reason. Most tauren could not imagine life without their venerable chieftain, especially Baine.

Snorting, Cairne's son came to a decision. It only bought a little time, but there was no other true choice. He said a prayer for the innocents whom he was about to send to death.

"Cut the ropes!" Baine commanded.

"The ropes?" The other tauren looked dismayed.

"Cut them!" Baine repeated, raising his ax above the rope nearest to him.

At that moment, a voice touched his thoughts.

Baine Bloodhoof...I am the archdruid Malfurion Stormrage, friend to Hamuul Runetotem...I offer a chance of hope.for us

Baine thanked his ancestors, then, without care what the others might think, spoke to the voice. "Tell me.. .and hurry."

A question that had long bothered Malfurion was also explained in his reaching out to the far recesses of Azeroth, the question of what was happening in Dalaran. His first glimpse of the realm of the magi startled him, for the entire kingdom of Dalaran was not where it should have been. Rather, it now floated in the sky.

Night elves in general did not hold magi and other arcane casters in the most favorable light, but Malfurion, who knew the magi better than many of his kind, had in the past dealt with them with cautious trust. Encouraged by this display of their incredible abilities, he sought to reach those within—especially Rhonin, whom he had known some ten thousand years past—only to discover that even Dalaran had fallen prey to the Nightmare.

In fact, Dalaran had particularly fallen to it. Malfurion's first glances at the grand, magically illuminated streets of the flying city revealed nothing but emptiness shrouded in mist. As he entered the various oddly shaped structures, he came upon the first of the sleepers. They lay there by the scores, some in their beds, others where exhaustion had taken them.

And in one of those beds he found not only Rhonin, but the archmage's mate, the high elf Vereesa. Though Malfurion had not met her, he knew of her through Rhonin's words. They had been caught in their slumber. Their faces even now revealed that their sleep was, like those of all the other victims, caught up in the horrors of the Nightmare.

There were no sleepwalkers, though Malfurion sensed that many of the victims were at the edge of doing so. But some spell held them where they were...and finally he found its source in the Violet Citadel.

The mighty structure rose above all else. Its basic form was a huge tower with cone-shaped additions flanking its lower sides. Far above the rest of the city, the sharply pointed tip was surrounded by a circular array kept in place by powerful magic spells.

Ignoring this and the countless purple-tipped spires below, Malfurion touched those within. One name came to mind immediately, an elder female mage by the name of Modera. The image of a strong-willed figure with short, gray hair and a faint, perpetual frown came to Malfurion. She was clad not in the elaborate blue and violet robes that marked the ruling committee, the Kirin Tor, but rather gray and blue armor.

The archdruid... she responded back with much exhaustion.

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