You will do as I command

Having expected what was about to happen, Malfurion leapt. In his wake, the green glow that Remulos had used on both the dragon and the satyrs struck where he had been standing. However, now there was a strong dark touch to it, one very much akin to the evil aura surrounding the ax.

Malfurion faced Remulos.but not the Remulos he knew. The limb was still withered, no doubt, as the forest guardian had said, the result of having confronted Emeriss earlier.but Cenarius's son was now a vile, twisted version of himself. The foliage in his beard and hair consisted of thistles and black weeds. His face and form had a skeletal semblance to them. His skin was now the white of death, and his eyes were the macabre, madly shifting colors of the Nightmare.

He had been corrupted. His new master had clearly worked very hard to shield the keeper's transformation and for a few seconds after Malfurion had spoken with Remulos in the enclave, the archdruid had thought that his old friend had indeed returned injured but with mind intact.

But Remulos had been too eager to separate him from his companions, too eager to focus only on the ax and not so much on Tyrande. The Remulos that Malfurion recalled would have been greatly concerned for her, even before dealing with retrieving the ax.

Corrupted, it appeared that Remulos could no more wield the ax than his master. The Nightmare was everything unnatural, the opposite of Cenarius's creation. That was why Malfurion had been needed, and why only Emeriss and the shadow satyrs had been here to guard the weapon and Tyrande.

As for Tyrande, she had been bait to ensure that the archdruid would come this far, just in case the ax proved insufficient.

Malfurion had come to understand the truth shortly after arriving. Too many things seemed too convenient. Xavius and the Nightmare had underestimated him this time.

They had also underestimated his deep bond with his beloved.

All this flashed through his thoughts in but the space of a single breath. At the same time, the archdruid prepared to meet his former friend in battle. The hooved figure charged Malfurion, who shifted into the form of a dire bear. Claws clashed with talons. The natural energies flowed around the archdruid, but the foulness of the Nightmare fueled Remulos. Their battle became a standstill that Malfurion could ill afford.

Then Remulos's expression shifted. His voice changed. Worse, his eyes became the deep, black orbs with the ruby streaks running across them that, after ten millennia, were still all too familiar to Malfurion.

"There is no hope for your struggle this time."

The voice sent a shiver through Malfurion. He knew it very, very well. Almost without thinking, the archdruid reverted to his true form. "I was too kind to you, Xavius."

" 'Kind'? I lived trapped, tortured for more than ten millennia!" Xavius/Remulos roared, spitting on his foe. "Watching and waiting and screaming for release! I burned when the land burned, only to have my bark heal and my branches grow anew! What you suffered was but a minute expression of what I lived through over and over and over! "

"I'm sorry, then." Malfurion replied, truly meaning it. He had done his work too well. Xavius the Nightmare Lord was as much his creation as the counselor's. "I would go back and change it, if I could."

Xavius/Remulos laughed harshly. "But I no longer desire it changed! All that suffering, all that waiting.now it has all been worth it! Azeroth will be remade anew and everyone will suffer agonies only my own long, endless torment could have allowed any to conceive! It will be glorious!"

The talons raked Malfurion's chest. The night elf cried out in pain but did not falter. He sought out Remulos in his foe.

But there was nothing to find of the keeper within the menacing figure before Malfurion. Cenarius's son had either been utterly consumed by the Nightmare or was buried so deep within his soul that there was no hope of freeing him.

"I'm sorry," Malfurion murmured.

"Still the mournful fool!" Xavius mocked through his host.

But the archdruid was not apologizing to him. Reaching into a pouch, Malfurion drew out what he sought. He immediately rubbed the contents of his hand against the body of Remulos.

Cenarius's son roared. His skin began to harden, to take on the appearance of thick bark.

It was a unique variation of a spell used to strengthen a druid's own skin against attacks. Malfurion had developed it to use against the Burning Legion. Long ago, he had come to the realization that every spell could have a reverse—and, in this case, adverse—reaction from that originally intended. The powder had been ground from the hardest of barks.

Remulos stiffened. He now was more statue than living. The rage still in his eyes was clearly that of the Nightmare Lord. The irony of the spell was not lost on Malfurion; he had transformed Xavius into a tree and now he did virtually the same to poor Remulos. A part of the archdruid wanted to stop what he was doing, but a tearful Malfurion knew he had no choice but to complete the horrific spell.

A wordless cry escaped Remulos before even his mouth would not work. One hand sought to throw the spear, but failed.

Stumbling back, Malfurion ignored his handiwork. He took one short glance at the ax, knew it could not be touched by his foes, and then raced not toward the shadowed figure of his love, but rather to the place where he had originally sensed her.

That, more than anything, had verified his suspicions concerning Remulos's "quest." He had realized that he was being led away from her, that the false image existed purely to lead him toward the ax.

Shadow satyrs jumped from the mists, flinging themselves upon him. Malfurion shifted to cat form and tore through them.

He came upon Tyrande at last. Both a thrill and a stirring of tremendous fear filled him as he stared at her. She hung in a position identical to what the false image had displayed. Her eyes were shut. That she was alive, he had known; whether she was at all corrupted, the archdruid could not yet tell.

Still a cat, Malfurion leaped. Although Tyrande hung some distance in the air, it was but a small gap for his powerful form. As he neared her, the archdruid shifted into his true shape. At the same time, he saw that her body glowed a slight but consistent silver. There was no doubt of the purity of Elune's power covering her. Captured she had been, but they had not yet had the chance to corrupt her.

She fell free as soon as he touched her. Malfurion briefly shifted to dire bear form, catching the high priestess in his mighty arms as they landed.

Reverting, Malfurion openly wept as he caressed her cheek and her hand, so grateful was he for the knowledge that she was alive and whole.

But he also finally noted that she still lay motionless, almost as frozen as he had left Remulos.

The clatter of hooves made him straighten. Worse, in their wake

Malfurion also heard the beating of wings.

He had failed to stop the corrupted keeper.and now Malfurion suspected that Emeriss, made aware that the trap had not worked, was returning, too.

Remulos reared up before him. Parts of his body were still encased in bark, but he moved with great swiftness nonetheless. He glared down at the night elf and threw the spear.

Malfurion quickly cast a spell, but one aimed at himself. He not only felt his own defenses heighten, but his strength and agility also increased. The druids called it the mark of the wild, and Malfurion had learned it from Cenarius. Now he was forced to use it to protect himself against his shan'do's son.

Although he also did his best to evade the spear, Malfurion was only partially successful. The physical weapon but grazed him, yet that was enough for its potent energies to sear the archdruid to the very bone despite his spellwork. Still, he managed to use his own power to knock the spear to the ground beside him.

Struggling with the pain, Malfurion dropped to his knees. The act was all that saved him from Remulos's flashing hooves. The edge of one struck the tip of Malfurion's antler. The tip cracked off, flying away.

The night elf looked up into the scowling visage. He could not sense Xavius inside, anymore, but neither could he yet find the true Remulos.

Again the hooves came at him. Like the spear, they flared with tremendous dark energies. Malfurion spun to avoid them and saw that the broken tip from his antler was now a twisted, bony mass. He could well imagine what would happen to him if those hooves struck directly.

Reaching into another pouch, Malfurion sought out a particular powder. He prayed to the spirit of Cenarius to forgive him for what he intended.

With expert aim, he threw the powder at the keeper's face.

Remulos's hand thrust toward the flying powder. Most of the powder burned black, then vanished. A few bits managed to get through.

The keeper sneezed.

"A last, truly desperate attempt—"

But Remulos's arrogant remark transformed into a howl of pain. He looked down at where Malfurion now shoved the point of the keeper's own magical spear into his chest. The night elf had merely sought the least of distractions in order to obtain the spear from where he had knocked it.

The weapon burned his palms even despite his protections, but Malfurion did not release his hold. He shoved the spear deeper.

Remulos clawed at both him and the weapon. His chest was afire with crackling veins of energy.

Then, the corrupted keeper finally let out a gasp.and collapsed.

Malfurion pulled the spear free. Remulos still breathed, but whether he would recover was another question.

"I'm so sorry." the archdruid whispered. "So—"

He was buffeted by a tremendous force. A monstrous roar filled his ears.

Emeriss picked him up in her paw as if he were some tiny plaything. The corrupted leviathan flew up into the air.

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