Ahead, the mist suddenly did a new and disturbing thing. It receded. Not all of it, but a fairly wide path more than sufficient for the pair to move side by side.
And Thura, of course, headed right into it.
"Hold back!" the druid called.
But she ignored him, instead picking up her pace. "There it is!"
Broll, more concerned with their lives—and their spirits, should the Nightmare take them—did not at first understand what she wanted. Then he saw the ax.
The magical ax. Small wonder that Thura wanted it. With the weapon, she could confront the shadows and nightmares.
But the druid doubted that regaining the ax would prove so simple as merely picking it back up.
Thura reached for it.. .and the ax flared emerald green.
At the same time there was a sound of rage. Broll spun, for the rage came from all around them. At first he feared it some new manifestation of his own, old rage, the raw fury that he had fought and defeated only by great effort during a previous journey into the Emerald Dream. However, almost immediately, the druid knew that the rage had a different, more terrible source. The Nightmare Lord was angry.
He could not understand why. The orc appeared either unable or unwilling to touch the ax now. That surely benefited the unseen evil.
"What's wrong, Thura?" he muttered. "Is it that you can't pick it up? You won't?"
The orc shook her head. She glanced back at the night elf, revealing an expression of deep confusion. "I—I don't know, druid .„I don't...know..."
And even as she revealed that, the mist closed about them. Broll sensed the Nightmare Lord's anger focus upon them. Even though it had clearly been able earlier to strip the ax from Thura, it evidently could not use it. Thus, it had waited for someone it had expected would be able to do so.
"You will wield it yet, orc," came a voice that made the druid shudder, for he knew who spoke. "And through you, this ax will become our weapon instead..."
A great fist materialized out of the mists, a thing covered in festering bark. Carrion bugs crawled over and into it. It struck Broll hard in the side. He went tumbling from the orc.
Gnarl stepped forth from the hungry fog. The corrupted ancient grinned. His eyes were the madly shifting colors of the Nightmare. Jagged branch growths jutted all over his body and the wicked leaves that Broll had seen in his early visions—Malfurion's attempts to reach out—now covered much of the creature.
"I won't use such a weapon for you!" Thura roared defiantly.
"You will..." he responded, in a voice that was as much the Nightmare Lord's as it was Gnarl's.
The ancient reached for her. Thura sought to move, but the ground was again awash in the carrion bugs and the orc lost her footing. As she fell, what first appeared to be black worms burst from the ruined ground. Yet they were not worms but, rather, the shadows of roots.
The roots of a skeletal tree.
But even though shadow, they sought to bind the orc as if strong rope. She struggled.
Broll rose. He had constantly been expecting attack, though not from Gnarl. That had enabled him to be in part ready. Still, the strike had momentarily knocked the air out of him.
He threw himself at the ancient, transforming in his leap to cat shape. Even still, he was a small foe against Gnarl.
The corrupted ancient sought to swat him again, but Broll was more dexterous. He twisted as he approached, sending himself lower than the huge fist. Simultaneously, the druid raked his foe's nearest leg.
Gnarl bellowed in pain and anger. Forgetting Thura, he turned to where the cat landed.
"The Dream and Azeroth will soon belong to the Nightmare..."
Gnarl/the Nightmare Lord rumbled. "And for you, night elf, there will come a particularly dread, eternal vision..."
Shadow figures began to converge on the cat from all directions. Broll peered past them to Thura. She kept one hand free, a hand that was just within reach of the ax. If she could only take it—
No! Broll would have realized the truth then even if he had not just witnessed one shadow root avoid the lone free hand. The Nightmare wants her to seize it without thinking!
The Nightmare could not for some reason take the weapon itself, nor could any of its corrupted. However, it clearly thought that it could make use of the ax through Thura once she had it.
He tried to warn her, but the shadows became satyrs who swarmed him. Broll was buried under their evil. His last view was of Gnarl turning to watch what Thura would do.
Shan'do! the druid called out in his thoughts. Malfurion!
Malfurion heard Broll's warning and tried to respond, but only a terrible emptiness greeted his attempt. At first, he feared that Broll was dead.or, worse.but then the archdruid understood that the Nightmare Lord was seeking to keep the two from contact. That could only mean that Xavius had divined much of Malfurion's original intentions, which put what was left of the night elf's ultimate plan in jeopardy.
But then, Malfurion was not even certain if what remained had ever had any hope. It had relied in part on the assumption that Ysera would be there to coordinate it. As a student of the druidic teachings and a seeker in the Emerald Dream, Malfurion had been like the rest of his brethren in seeing in the Mistress of Dreams the ultimate guiding force when it came to the intertwined natures of the two realms.
Ysera was still unconscious, though, and Malfurion knew that it was not by any fault of her own.
Tyrande and the guardians continued to present an impenetrable defense against the satyrs, whose bodies lay piled three high in some places. Yet both she and the guardians glowed far less now and some of the ethereal priestesses were very transparent.
She was relying on him to save them. They were all relying on him to save them. And though they did not understand it, he was relying on them every bit as much. They were all needed if he was to succeed, if he was to save Azeroth. Malfurion gritted his teeth and reached out to one last hope.
He touched Alexstrasza's thoughts, but any hope that she might be of aid faded immediately. The dragon was under siege. Fearsome energies assailed the portal from the other side, and for brief moments a part of it sealed off, only to be opened anew by the straining dragon's efforts as she fought back the attempt by the
Malfurion wondered why sealing this last portal still mattered so much to Xavius. It seemed a small thing now.
The Life-Binder all but threw her thoughts at the night elf. The attack here has come with more and more fury! The Nightmare Lord needs the portal sealed! It takes all my power to keep it from succeeding! I can do nothing more for you!
He had not yet even asked, but she had known why he had reached out to her. Confronted by yet another setback, Malfurion's resolve weakened.
The red dragon said something more, but now other voices in his head were demanding to be heard. King Varian and his army were in terrible straits, their physical selves falling more and more prey to the Nightmare's slaves on Azeroth. Broll's fate was still a mystery, and Hamuul managed only a brief alert that corrupted servants of nature—ancients, dryads, and more—were pressing the druids and Lucan, who stood willing to fight under the tauren's guidance.
Xavius—and the true lord of the Nightmare—were poised for triumph.
And a more immediate aspect to that horrific possibility was represented in Tyrande, who, in seeking to protect the one she not only loved but believed was essential to Azeroth's survival, was now harried as never before. The high priestess dropped to one knee as she fought to keep three satyrs from ripping her to shreds. As she struggled, first one, then a second of the moonlight guardians faded like so many of Malfurion's hopes.
With savage abandon, the satyrs surged forth to take both Tyrande and Malfurion.
The catastrophe overwhelming Azeroth and the Emerald Dream was forgotten. Malfurion saw only that Tyrande was doomed unless he did something. Nothing else mattered. In fact, at that moment, he cared not a whit whether Azeroth, whether everything survived, if it meant that she who he loved perished.
Guilt swelled up within him, guilt such as he had not felt before. Not for the first time, Malfurion saw in his mind all the trials through which he had put Tyrande and how over and over she had stood steadfast in her support of him. He also recalled those few precious times when they had been allowed peace and seclusion. Malfurion especially treasured the building of the night elves' first new capital after the War of the Ancients. Through his druidic skills and her prayers to Elune, they had fashioned a great, living pergola at the center outwardly honoring their peoples' new beginning, but also secretly marking their own deep relationship. The oaks had been encouraged to grow intertwining with flowered vines circling around each part, then Elune's power, through her high priestess, had gifted them with a soft, white-blue glow that made the pergola radiate a sense of calm to whoever passed underneath it.
It was a small thing, a minor thing in the measure of their titanic struggles through the ages, but perhaps that was why Malfurion cherished it so much. It was something they had done together for simple, pure reasons. They could have done much, much more together, if not for him. She should have forever rejected him for all the long absences he had so callously taken over the many millennia...but she had not. Despite all her other duties—and they were extraordinary—Tyrande had always been there waiting.
And now she would die because once again his duties had taken precedence over her.
"Not this time." the archdruid rumbled. "Never again!"
Hands clenched, Malfurion summoned up as best he could the innate forces that he and Ysera had together gathered to help her escape. A maelstrom of energies rose up from the ground, while others descended from the hidden sky.
The ground swelled. A forest of green burst up, enveloping both the front lines of the satyrs and Tyrande. However, where the fiends were swallowed up, the high priestess was softly carried aloft by the sudden growth, then guided by sprouting branches toward her love.
In devouring all he could from the land around him, Xavius had left small dried seeds from his many victims, things so inconsequential that the Nightmare Lord had not even noticed them. But Malfurion's druidic powers had found them, no matter how deep or long they had been buried. The archdruid had not only resurrected their potential, he had unleashed it.
Where the forest had been gentle with Tyrande, it had dealt sharp, harsh death to many of the satyrs. Dozens hung pierced, impaled, for Malfurion had no time for niceties. They had perished swiftly; that was the best he could give them.
Yet still more came and Malfurion, fearing that they would still reach his beloved, asked of Azeroth more of its power. He reached out to Teldrassil and even Nordrassil and, to both his relief and tremendous gratitude, they, in turn, gave as he needed.even though Nordrassil still struggled to recover from the last war with the Burning Legion.
Trebling in intensity, the wind shrieked loud and long. A score of satyrs were blown into the deadly forest, joining their fellows. At last their ranks hesitated. This was not the easy victim that their "god" had promised; this was the accursed one in strength as they could not believe.
But in Malfurion's eyes, this hesitation was not enough. They had threatened Tyrande. He swept them back from where they stood and brought Tyrande nearer.
But at that point the high priestess called to him, "Worry not about me! The others need you more! "
Malfurion did not lessen his efforts to protect her, but he understood her meaning. Indeed, the very fact that he had considered her life and hers alone of the most importance filled him with a renewed sense of his own life, not the one that he had dedicated to his world. He had found new strength in protecting that thing most precious to Malfurion Stormrage the night elf, not the great archdruid of legend.
As he had done with Azeroth, a steeled Malfurion now extended his will into the Emerald Dream and sought to draw more of its essence in order to help stave off the Nightmare. When the Emerald Dream gave to him as he asked, he was relieved. With its added energies, the archdruid swept back the mists before Varian's dreamform army. The green fields grew anew.
Yet, of more significance, not only did the shadow creatures fighting Varian's force fade as the mist did, but so, too, did the dream slaves. No longer did the defenders also battle the images of their former comrades and loved ones. Like the shadows, it was as if they had never existed.
A sensation coursed through Malfurion as the last happened, a sensation of utter calm. He knew its source, knew that Tyrande prayed to Elune to let the high priestess's love in turn act as not only shield for Malfurion, but also new resolve to aid him further. The calm and the love with which Tyrande touched his heart gave Malfurion the impetus to push even further beyond what he had expected to be his limits. This time the archdruid extended his will into Azeroth and the Emerald Dream simultaneously.
It worked. With Tyrande's presence and power reassuring him within, rather than feel overwhelmed, the night elf actually found himself stronger and more refreshed as the two realms added more to his attack.
He could not also help but finally turn his thoughts to Ysera, certain that she also remained an integral part in enabling him to cope with such power. But, to his astonishment, the gargantuan dragon was still in a dangerous state of exhaustion and pain and certainly not aware enough to have been of any aid.
The discovery jolted Malfurion. The revelation meant that it was only he and Tyrande who kept the Nightmare at bay here. That should have been impossible—
The thought vanished as the ground under his forest churned. The new trees and other remarkable plants that he had urged to fruition were undermined.
Gargantuan red roots tore at the area, heaving up trees and satyrs alike. Several of the trees went flying toward the archdruid.
Transforming to cat form, Malfurion nimbly leapt to avoid the deadly rain. As he moved past Tyrande, she jumped atop. Although the high priestess was very weary, she continued to use Elune's gift to protect them as best she could. Moonlight blinded the satyrs pouring through the gaps made by the roots and kept the nearest of the roots themselves at bay, if for a few critical moments.
The archdruid brought her to a place of temporary safety, then reverted. "You need to leave."
"Be sensible! Where would I go? All Azeroth is under siege! If the end is to come, then, by Elune, I will be with you at the last! We have lost too much time together!"
"And all of it my doing," agreed Malfurion.
The ground thundered again. More roots shot up near their feet. Tyrande quickly threw her glaive, which sliced the nearest root. The effort left her gasping, but she did not falter.
Malfurion reached into his dwindling stock of herbs and powders. He cast a fine spray of green spores at the encroaching roots.
As the spores touched, the archdruid encouraged their activity. Small, burrowing tendrils blossomed from each. The spores began drilling into the roots.
The roots writhed as hundreds of holes developed. One root dropped. From several of the holes dripped the thick, bloodlike fluid.
But that same fluid filled the holes in the remaining roots. The tiny, parasitic plants were cast out, their forms now shriveled.
Futile...it is all futile... Xavius echoed in his head. Everything is becoming Nightmare...
It was true. No matter where Malfurion sought out some hope, some help, he found none. King Varian's army was losing. Broll could not be found, and lost with him was the orc. Ysera was unconscious, and Alexstrasza's control over the one portal was slipping. The Nightmare was everywhere, both in the Emerald Dream and Azeroth. It was all lost—
Malfurion let out a roar.but one of anger, not despair.
"You nearly had me again, Xavius!" he shouted at his devious foe. Despair and fear were the greatest weapons of the Nightmare. Xavius—no doubt with the power of the ancient evil to reinforce his will—had fed Malfurion's uncertainties well. "But no more! "
Tyrande gripped his shoulder. Her love amplified Elune's gifts to him. Glaring at his unseen foe, the archdruid called upon the two realms, seeing if they could grant him just a bit more strength.
He felt the additional energies flow into him. Malfurion focused his will.
The sky crackled with lightning, which struck the upturned soil. The roots slithered back into their holes.
In Stormwind City, Orgrimmar, and other embattled capitals, the winds picked up with a directed force, striking those that were a threat and leaving untouched the sleeping fighters made defenseless by Malfurion's need for them in the Emerald Dream. Yet the archdruid did what he could to protect those victims of the Nightmare who now unwittingly served it. They were buffeted together, packed so tight that they could bring no harm to each other.
Yet the shadow satyrs, the mists, and the corrupted still assailed the dwindling defenders. And even though the living puppets had been pushed back, their nightmares had substance in the Emerald Dream and even upon the mortal plane. Xavius's power had grown that terrible.
Sweating from effort, Malfurion fought against all those aspects of his foe. Winds arose everywhere, even the Emerald Dream. Whether shadow or corrupted, the Nightmare's servants were held from advance.
"It will never end unless I go to him!" Malfurion informed Tyrande. "I must strike at the heart of the darkness.Xavius is the key.. .without him, even the ancient evil behind his foul work cannot hold the Nightmare together."
The high priestess eyed the satyrs and the roots, which had not given up their attempts to reach them. Only Malfurion's constant efforts kept them at bay. Tyrande hefted her weapon of moonlight. "Very well.let us begin."
"You are not coming with—"
"I will follow you. You cannot do this alone and you know that. It is beyond merely you."
She had the truth of it. It was not for him alone to either save the world or fail. Surrendering, Malfurion turned to face their enemies.
"I do not deserve you."
"No, you don't," she replied with a forced chuckle.
Inhaling, the archdruid stretched forth a single hand.
Wind and lightning attacked. Now rain also joined them.
The satyrs retreated. The roots sought in vain to avoid the lightning and three were left burning hulks.
"Now!" Malfurion became a cat again. Tyrande mounted. The archdruid raced on at breakneck speed, leaping atop and over the ruined landscape. Satyrs lunged, only to have claws, entire limbs, and even heads lopped off by the skilled priestess's flying glaive. Malfurion trampled others who sought to bar his path, clawed those who stood their ground, and bit through the torsos of yet more.
Roots constantly sought for his legs or to snag Tyrande from his back. Malfurion twisted out of their reach and Tyrande severed more than one grasping tip. The path grew slick, but his claws better caught purchase than the satyrs' cloven hooves. The landscape sped by.
And, finally, something ominously familiar broke through the mist ahead. It was still far from the pair and yet so gigantic. Indeed, Malfurion realized that it was far taller than most normal trees and that its branches, seemingly empty of life from this distance, stretched along the horizon. It was not Teldrassil nor any of the Great Trees...but it was a thing of titanic proportions.
And as twisted as the shadow had been, it failed to fully reveal the dread majesty of the true tree. There were hundreds, thousands of smaller branches, all as wicked as the great ones and as the pair approached, they were at last able to perceive that there were leaves. Yet unlike the World Tree's corrupted leaves, these were long, arched, and to Malfurion's heightened gaze, very much shaped like a reaper's sharp sickle. Moreover, as Malfurion brought himself and Tyrande nearer yet, it became evident that both the leaves and the tree itself were not black, as first it had seemed.but the same deep red color of the "sap" that flowed through.
It was not the tree into which a much younger Malfurion had transformed his adversary thousands of years ago. That one had been a symbol of renewal, something that would bring life where Xavius sought death. Malfurion had meant to return to it after the war in order to see to its growth, but then had thought it lost with Zin-Azshari.
But how did this abomination remain hidden from us? Malfurion wondered, then thought of the ancient evil lurking behind Xavius. It surely had extended much of whatever power it had in Azeroth to shield the tree from everyone's senses.
The dark force behind the Nightmare Lord must have been able to reach Xavius shortly after Malfurion had left the new tree, for what it had become had surely taken many millennia. It showed the insidious patience of not only the former counselor, but his monstrous master. Only when it had been powerful enough, dread enough, had there been no more concern for hiding the truth of its presence.
As if a tremendous wind gusted, the branches suddenly moved as one toward where the pair raced. Despite the great distance still separating the tree from them, the branches stretched closer and closer.
Malfurion sensed the ground move again. Growling a warning to Tyrande, he threw them to the side. The roots shot up just where they had been, spearing so high that they nearly collided with the foremost branches.
A sinister swishing sound cut through the air. The archdruid twisted in mid-jump. More than a dozen smaller branches passed within inches of them, each covered in the long sickle leaves. Malfurion did his best to avoid all, but two caught him.
The leaves sliced into his skin and he heard Tyrande gasp.
The cat spun. The path behind briefly filled his gaze. There was now a wall of roots cutting off the two from any escape and satyrs were eagerly spilling through the one gap left.
Xavius had wanted them to come to him.
"Beware!" Tyrande shouted. Her glaive sliced through three branches before the deadly leaves could touch the duo.
Malfurion made a decision. He was still in contact with the others, still trying to guide them. The strain was tremendous, but the archdruid knew that he needed to do even more.
With a growl, he warned Tyrande of his need to change form again. The high priestess expertly slipped off while still using her whirling glaive to cut at whatever branch snagged at them.
Once again himself, Malfurion looked into both Azeroth and the Emerald Dream. He had to seek deeper this time, both within the two realms and himself.
The sky roared. It roared not just above them, but all over Azeroth, all over the Emerald Dream/Nightmare. Malfurion straining more, paid it little mind.
Yet his attack was not focused on his enemy, not directly. Rather, Malfurion concentrated on the ones he needed most.
This time, he could sense them. This time, he could feel the other druid's struggle to keep them from falling to the Nightmare.
Shan...do... came the weak but still determined response.
The time is now...the tools are in place...the branch I gave you, this is the truth about its origins and what we need to do .Malfurion showed him.
Broll drank in what was revealed and to his credit accepted it immediately. He trusted in the archdruid completely. I am. ..ready...
It was all Malfurion needed to hear. Over the continuous rumble, he shouted to Tyrande, "Take yourself from here! I must end it now! I cannot promise—"
"No! We live or die together!"
He knew better than to argue. The archdruid looked within himself one last time.
And suddenly...the storm stirred again.
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