Hamuul Runetotem was not alone. Naralex, with whom Shandris was familiar, stood with the tauren.
His presence was enough to confirm the general's suspicions that they were the ones responsible for her imprisonment. She slipped out of Hamuul's grip and drew a dagger.
But Hamuul moved swiftly and surely against her attack. He thrust a hand out and deflected the dagger's path, but not without some injury to his extremity.
Ignoring the blood, the tauren barreled into her. As he did, he said under his breath, "You must stop this or he will certainly notice us, Shandris Feathermoon!"
"Who?" she quietly demanded.
"A traitor in our midst! A traitor who threatens all Darnassus and beyond!"
He stopped. Hamuul and Naralex peered at one another in grave concern.
"He knows ..." the night elf druid muttered.
"Quickly! Stand between us!" Hamuul ordered Shandris. As some inner sense warned her to obey, the two druids began to transform into birds.
From the ground erupted long vines that sought to ensnare the trio. Shandris severed two with her dagger, then fended off more.
Hamuul had sought to fly up, but the tauren was caught by two other vines. As they snared his wing, what at first appeared as flower buds sprouted from the tips.
The buds opened...revealing wicked thorns that acted like teeth.
The tauren would have been bitten, but Naralex used his beak to bite through the vines. The tops dropped, yet the respite was only momentary, for, as with those that Shandris had cut, these two grew new roots.
Hamuul squawked something to Naralex. The transformed night elf immediately seized Shandris by her shoulders and carried her aloft.
But as they rose, something else fell upon them from the branches above. They were shadowy forms that seemed to sprout from the leaves themselves. Naralex, intent on bringing his charge to safety, flew right into their midst.
One of the shadow creatures thrust an ethereal hand into Shandris. She shrieked as a chill touched her very soul. The Sentinel commander lost her grip on the dagger. Her body shook.
Whatever her suffering, though, Naralex's was far greater. The shadow creatures swarmed all over him, tearing at the storm crow with wild relish.
Naralex's flight faltered. He tried to shake off his attackers, but when that failed, the druid veered toward the ground closest to the path out of the enclave.
He released Shandris from his talons the moment that he was close enough to avoid her being harmed by the drop. Still reeling from the horrific chill, she dropped to her knees.
A roar echoed in her ears. Hamuul, once again in his true shape, had seized several vines and with his great strength now tore them loose. However, rather than toss them aside, he threw them up into the air.
An emerald sheen surrounded them. Each snapping tendril shrank rapidly.
A moment later the seeds to which they had reverted dropped harmlessly around the tauren.
Unfortunately, as this happened, the shadow creatures also converged upon Hamuul. The tauren thrust a hand into one pouch and then flung the contents at the nearest.
Although his attackers seemed without substance, the brown powder the archdruid used landed on them as if the fiends were solid. Moreover, it had a devastating effect. The shadow figures twisted and contorted. They began to shrink and change shape. Their doom was accompanied by a chorus of monstrous hisses.
Hamuul's eyes widened. The shadows had been reduced to leaves. This had not been the intention of his spell. The tauren could only fathom that the leaves represented the true nature of their attackers.
"No." he rumbled. "It cannot have gone that far."
But his distraction cost the tauren. Another of the shadows thrust its hand through his back. As the horrific cold encased his soul, another shadow struck through his chest.
The tauren fell to his knees. His eyes glazed over.
Shandris saw him fall, but could do nothing. She started to throw her glaive—
Branches reached down and seized her. Some tore her weapon from her. The rest bound her tight.
Another, heavier branch struck the Sentinel hard on the back of the head, knocking her out.
Naralex let out a mournful squawk as he collided with the ground. At first glance, it appeared that he was being physically shredded to pieces, but each bit that the shadows tore away faded as they flung it aside.
The night elf resumed his normal shape. Gasping, he collapsed and lay still.
From the trees calmly emerged another druid. He stared at the frozen tauren, then at the stunned Sentinel.
"I'm sorry," Fandral Staghelm honestly told them, though they were not conscious enough to hear him. "You must believe me that I am."
The lead archdruid walked among the shadows, who moved respectfully out of his way. Fandral went to Naralex, who lay unmoving.
Leaning down, Fandral touched the other night elf's neck.
Rising, Fandral eyed the party with disappointment.
"Something will have to be done with you." He considered, a smile coming to his face. "Valstann will know just what! My son will have the answer."
He started back to his sanctum without another glance at
Shandris, the tauren, or Naralex. The shadow creatures surrounded the trio but did not touch them. Instead, the branches that held the priestess drew her up among the dark, leafy crowns. Others seized Hamuul and Naralex and carried them after her.
When that was done, the shadow creatures straightened. As one, they dissipated, their essence also rising up among the trees, where they reverted to their dormant form...the very leaves of Teldrassil.
The mists extended out even far into the sea. Malfurion could not believe its thickness. He beat his wings harder as the wind began to pick up. A gale was brewing, a gale that the archdruid was certain was taking shape only due to his presence.
Malfurion did not know what he planned—not completely—but some sense drove him toward the island where his people had chosen to make their new home. There was an urgency building within him that there was at least one key to the catastrophe engulfing two worlds.
Despite his awareness that it was brewing, its full intensity startled even Malfurion. He was thrust back as if he were nothing. Lightning raged, some of it striking perilously near. The archdruid found himself hurtling away from the still-shrouded island.
More bolts nearly struck him. It was not by luck that they did not. Whatever power had forged this fury desired to hit Malfurion; only the night elf's instincts kept that from happening.
His anxiety swelled with the tempest's strength. Each passing moment led Azeroth and all those he loved, especially Tyrande, toward doom. Yet, try as he might, Malfurion could barely save even himself. Again the archdruid wondered at Ysera's seemingly foolish sacrifice. She thought him more valuable to both realms than her—
Although Malfurion did not believe as Ysera had, at that moment he did recognize one thing. Once again, he had played into the Nightmare's hand. His uncertainties had fed into his own dark dreams again.
That was not to say that the storm was not real—the Nightmare's master now had that terrible power—but its intensity was magnified by the night elf's mind.
The fury lessened. Fueled by that fact, Malfurion focused on his destination. He beat his wings faster and faster.
The storm did not break; it simply ceased. Malfurion soared through the mists, aware that he had won a small battle. Overconfidence was as dangerous as fear.
Something loomed ahead, something so huge that even at the height he flew, Malfurion could not see its top. He knew what it was, even though he had been a prisoner since before its creation. Fandral had so often spoken of the need to create it, to bring back the immortality and glory of their race.
The second World Tree greeted his wary gaze. It was impressive. It was imposing.
And as he studied it more, Malfurion knew that it was also tainted by the Nightmare as nothing else on Azeroth had been.
The archdruid banked, his eyes ever on the gargantuan tree. Outwardly, what he could see appeared normal; yet his senses told him it was infested with the evil that had spread from the other realm.
How could they not see that? Malfurion wondered about the other druids. What were they thinking? How could Fandral let this come to pass?
As he drew near the island, he detected great activity below. Many druids were down there and they were all casting some coordinated spell. His hopes rose at first; the others had come to realize the World Tree's taint and were fighting it.
But no.a mere breath later, Malfurion realized it was just the opposite. The spell was a powerful one, but instead of cleansing the tree, it was inadvertently feeding the taint. He could feel it and was astounded that the others could not.
Without hesitation, Malfurion dove. At the same time, he sought to reach out to the other druids and warn them of the terrible thing they were doing.
Yet something blocked his attempt to contact the casters. It came as no shock to Malfurion, but it meant that he had to reach them with all due haste. The World Tree's taint, combined with Ysera's capture, all but promised the Nightmare triumph.
A mind suddenly touched his. At first he thought it one of those below, but then he determined that it instead came from above. More important, its way of thought was so very distinct, even despite the fragmented attempt to communicate, that he knew exactly who it was.
Hamuul Runetotem? In response to Malfurion's question, there was a fragmented response. It was as if the tauren were not entirely conscious. However, Malfurion did sense an urgency from the tauren, an urgency and a warning.
It was a warning so intense that the archdruid veered skyward again. He soared up, finally sighting the crown.
All looked as it should, but Malfurion could sense that the taint was as widespread up here as in the trunk. The archdruid approached the first branches with trepidation but necessary swiftness.
He passed the first boughs without any sign of threat. Indeed, deeper within, he even saw signs of fauna in the form of birds and squirrels. Was he wrong about the taint?
Higher and higher the storm crow rose. In one respect, Malfurion knew what he would find. Even before his disappearance, the discussions concerning the building of the new capital had been going on. Its location had not been decided then, but Malfurion had no doubt that he would find Darnassus atop the World Tree.
Which meant thousands of lives unaware that their very home had become something sinister.
Malfurion decided that he had no other choice but to plunge into the crown and enter Darnassus from underneath. It was the most direct path to where he sensed he would find the tauren.and possibly the secret of the World Tree's foulness.
Despite the size of his storm crow form, Malfurion darted with ease through the huge crown. He eyed the World Tree with some sadness, not only due to the taint, but also because of memories of Nordrassil and what it had once been. If only they had waited! Nordrassil could be restored. ..with time...
The foliage grew thicker and thicker, at last forcing Malfurion to slow. He could feel that he was nearly at his destination—
His path was suddenly a thick jumble of branches and leaves. Malfurion veered.
They shifted, again barring his way.
The archdruid tried to avoid them, but it was too late. He collided.
The foliage enveloped him. It sought to constrict his wings, to bind his beak, and twist his body until his bones would break.
Malfurion felt the familiar and dread presence of the Nightmare Lord. It was not direct, but rather as if the evil force had left a part of itself here.
Gibbering laughter filled Malfurion's mind. The leaves seemed to take on faces, shadowed faces that almost but not quite coalesced into awful creatures.
Transforming to his own shape only momentarily caught the smothering foliage off guard. The leaves immediately began shifting, becoming more and more hooved shadows eager to reclaim the night elf.
Regaining his breath, Malfurion concentrated. A powerful wind erupted in his vicinity. The huge branches were whipped back as if blades of grass, and the changing shadow creatures were blown away like the leaves from which they had arisen.
The night elf scrambled upward, then changed again. As the storm raged, he flew with all his might. More leaves followed up in his wake, seeking to catch him, but they were too slow.
There were two things that he instantly noted. One was the city itself. It spread proudly over the huge branches. His brethren and those others who had helped shape the new night elf capital had truly created a masterpiece.
But the second thing that Malfurion noted was that the city appeared utterly ignorant of all that was not only affecting Teldrassil, but the rest of Azeroth. He saw movement in buildings and even heard music from one direction.
How could they not know? How could they remain so ignorant?
The answer was simple. Someone wanted them that way.
Still, it was odd that the Sentinels were not at least informed to a point. Malfurion knew Shandris Feathermoon very well; in some remote fashion, he was almost like a second father to her. She would not have left the city quite this unsuspecting.
But he had no time to find out what the Sentinels did or did not know; Hamuul's desperate contact had come from another direction.
Malfurion made his way toward that direction, avoiding all contact with other night elves, even druids. For their own safety, he did not want anyone knowing of his presence. For whatever reason, the Nightmare Lord had no desire to attack Darnassus just yet. It was a precarious situation and Malfurion did not like his choices, but so it would have to be.
He knew even before he reached it that he had arrived at the new Cenarion Enclave. This place of meditation and gathering in the proposed city had been long discussed. Malfurion himself had suggested many of the details that he now saw standing in bloom before him. But his heart was sickened when he sensed that the taint was strong here as well.
Malfurion alighted, his form shifting in the process. The area was silent, much too silent for a place where birds and other fauna should be in evidence day or night.
There was little choice but to avoid the trees lining the enclave. The archdruid knew that they were like the branches against which he had fought.
A suspicion that had long been growing in him stirred. The attack had all but verified it, although Malfurion still wanted to deny the possibility—
The thought was interrupted by a brief contact by Hamuul. It was stark in its need for haste. Malfurion tried to reach the other archdruid, but to no avail.
But he knew from where Hamuul had contacted him. Malfurion headed toward the structure that was center to the enclave's design.
It was also where he who had come to lead the druids since Malfurion's absence had chosen to make his new sanctum.
Malfurion neared the building—and stopped short in horror.
There were three figures bound in the vines that covered the sanctum. Their limbs were stretched tight and pulled to the side as much as possible. One was Hamuul Runetotem. The second was Naralex. The third was none other than Shandris Feathermoon. They all appeared to be unconscious...or worse.
Which meant that Malfurion had been tricked into coming here.
"So the legendary shan'do returns to grace us with his undeserved glory," the voice of Fandral Staghelm declared from all around Malfurion. "Always the only one who can save the world, because he deems himself the only one. I sensed you coming long ago and prepared a proper welcome."
Malfurion did not turn to seek Fandral, aware that this was what the other desired. Instead, he spoke toward the building. "What's happening here, Fandral? Why are you doing this?"
"Is it not obvious?" the voice replied. "These three are a danger to our people! To all Azeroth!"
"These three?" Malfurion subtly sought Fandral's true location. In his mind, the Nightmare Lord had clearly played tricks on the other archdruid's mind. If Malfurion could confront Fandral, then he might be able to snap his brother druid out of the spell. "Shandris is a staunch defender of our race and Hamuul is an honest, worthy member of our calling as is Naralex—"
"Lies, lies, lies!" The words reverberated through Malfurion's head. "They seek to bring down everything! They seek to tear us apart! He has told me so!"
Who, Fandral? Who?
A section of the vines not being used to hold the pair in place suddenly curled around. They formed a thicker and thicker mass as tall as Malfurion.
Fandral Staghelm stared at his former shan'do. "You would want to know that, would you not? It is clear to me that you are a traitor, too!" His expression was one of honest grief—tinged with madness. "But you are too dangerous! The female, Naralex, and the beast—they're misguided. But now they sleep and dream. They will awaken refreshed, as everyone else will!"
Malfurion took a step toward Fandral. "No one will wake! The Nightmare extends beyond the Emerald Dream now! Everywhere save here is under siege by its evil and that evil fills this World Tree! "
"You still dismiss the need for my Teldrassil!" the other archdruid snarled, a sudden ferocity overcoming him. "But I have done so much with it! It has helped reshape not only our race, but all of Azeroth as well!"
"Teldrassil is tainted, Fandral! The Nightmare Lord infests it! Can't you feel that? Look into yourself and touch Teldrassil's heart!
Fandral stared down his nose. "I know Teldrassil's heart better than you or anyone! I have given it my heart in turn and for that sacrifice, it gave him back to me."
Only then did Malfurion note a shadow hovering behind the other night elf's left shoulder. It was one of the foul creatures that had attacked him on his way here.
But even though Fandral looked at the shadow, he did not seem bothered by its obviously sinister presence. Instead, Fandral smiled with familial affection at the fiend.
"Teldrassil has given me back my son, Malfurion. My son! Is not Valstann as proud and handsome as ever?"
He is consumed by his madness, Malfurion sadly realized. He is beyond reach...
And that meant that Malfurion had only one recourse. He concentrated—
Fandral frowned, his expression as sad toward his former shan'do as Malfurion's had been toward him. "I had hoped otherwise. That was your last chance, my teacher."
The shadow that pretended to be Valstann laughed darkly, though only Malfurion appeared to hear it.
There was a terrible rumble. Malfurion was thrown to the ground. Only the spot where Fandral stood appeared stable.
The ground erupted and the trees bent down as if seeking to uproot themselves. A dark dread filled Malfurion as he sensed the taint swell within Teldrassil.
"I advised him that we should wait!" Fandral shouted. "But it seems Valstann spoke the truth! You, Darnassus.all of it.must be cleansed! Valstann and I will show our people the way and they will be the better for it! Teldrassil will be the instrument of a new, glorious Azeroth!"
He continued to babble on, heedless of the awful truth around him. Malfurion fought to regain some balance, but the ground burned like fire. Before his eyes, it blackened. Monstrous leaves as dark as night and with savage thorns sprouted everywhere.
The trees shook with more violence, some of them finally ripping free. They bore a rot that had not been evident before. From their shaking crowns fell hundreds of smaller thorned leaves.
The leaves began changing into the shadow creatures.
For the first time, Malfurion also heard shouts and screams from without the enclave. Darnassus had finally joined the rest of Azeroth. The terror of the Nightmare had arisen, if in a different and in some ways more frightening form.
The night elves' very home—Teldrassil—was their enemy.
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