Authors: Richard A. Knaak
There remained only one recourse. To better conserve his strength, he sat down and folded his legs. Then, taking a deep breath, Krasus studied the surrounding glade one last time…and spoke to the air.
“I would talk with you.”
The wind picked up his words and carried them into the forest, where they echoed again and again. The birds grew silent. The grass ceased waving.
Then came the wind again…and with it the reply.
“And so we shall talk…”
Krasus waited. In the distance, he heard the slight clatter of hooves, as if some animal had chanced by at this important moment. He frowned as the clatter grew nearer, then noticed a shadowy form coming through the woods. A horned rider atop some monstrous steed?
But then, as it drew up to the flowery guardians and the sun, ever shining, caught it full, the dragon in mortal form could only gape like a mere human child at the imposing sight.
“I know you…” began Krasus. “I know of you…”
But the name, like so many other memories, would not come to him. He could not even say with any certainty whether he had faced this mythic being before and surely that said something for the scope of the holes in his mind.
“And I know something of you,” said the towering figure with a torso akin to a night elf and a lower half like that of a stag. “But not nearly as much as I would like…”
On four strong legs, the master of the forest strode through the barrier of flowers, which gave way as loyal hounds would to their handler. Some of the flowers and grass even caressed the legs gently, lovingly.
“I am Cenarius…” he uttered to the slight figure sitting before him. “This is my realm.”
Cenarius…Cenarius…legendary connotations fluttered through Krasus’s tattered mind, a few taking root but most simply fading back to nothing. Cenarius. Spoken of by the elves and other forest dwellers. Not a god, but…almost. A demigod, then. As powerful in his own way as the great Aspects.
But there was more, so much more. Yet, strive as he might, the dragon mage could not summon any of it.
His efforts must have shown on his face, for Cenarius’s stern visage grew more kindly. “You are not well, traveler. Perhaps you should rest more.”
“No.” Krasus forced himself up, standing tall and straight before the demigod. “No…I would speak now.”
“As you like.” The antlered deity tilted his bearded head to one side, studying his guest. “You are more than what you seem, traveler. I see hints of night elven but also sense far, far more. Almost you remind me of—but that’s not likely.” The huge figure indicated Rhonin. “And he is unlike any creature to be found within or without my domain.”
“We’ve come a long distance and are, frankly, lost, great one. We know not where we are.”
To the mage’s surprise, this brought thundering laughter from the demigod. Cenarius’s laughter made more flowers bloom, brought songbirds to the branches around the trio, and set into motion a soft spring breeze that touched Krasus’s cheek like a lover.
from far off! Where
could you be, my friend? Where else could you be but
Kalimdor. That, at least, made sense, for where else would one find night elves in numbers? Yet knowing where he and Rhonin had been deposited answered few other questions. “So I suspected, my lord, but—”
“I sensed an unsettling change in the world,” Cenarius interrupted. “An imbalance, a shifting. I sought out its origin and location in secret…and while I did not find all I searched for…I was led to you two.” He stepped past Krasus to once more study the slumbering Rhonin. “Two wanderers from nowhere. Two lost souls from nothing. You are both enigmas to me. I would rather you had not been in the first place.”
“Yet you saved us from captivity—”
The forest lord gave a snort worthy of the most powerful stag. “The night elves grow more arrogant. They take what does not belong to them and trespass where they are not wanted. It is their assumption that everything falls under their domination. Although they did not quite intrude upon my realm, I chose to make them do so in order to teach them a lesson in humility and manners.” He smiled grimly. “That…and they made it simpler for me by bringing what I desired directly here.”
Krasus felt his legs buckling. The effort to keep on his feet was proving monumental. With determination, he stood his ground. “They, too, seemed to be aware of our sudden arrival.”
“Zin-Azshari is not without its own abilities. It does, after all, overlook the Well itself.”
The dragon mage rocked, but this time not because of weakness. In his last statement, Cenarius had said two words that set fear into Krasus’s heart.
“Aye, mortal! The capital of the night elves’ domain! Situated at the very shores of the Well of Eternity! You know not even that?”
Disregarding the weakness he revealed to the demigod, Krasus dropped to the ground, sitting in the grass and trying to drink in the staggering reality of the situation.
The Well of Eternity.
He knew them both, even as perforated as his memory had become. Some things were of such epic legend that it would have taken the complete eradicating of his mind for Krasus to have forgotten them.
Zin-Azshari and the Well of Eternity. The first, the center of an empire of magic, an empire ruled by the night elves. How foolish of him not to have realized that during their capture. Zin-Azshari had been the focal point of the world for a period of centuries.
The second, the Well, was the place of magic itself, the endlessly deep reservoir of power spoken of in awed whispers by mages and sorcerers throughout the ages. It had served as the core of the night elves’ sorcerous powers, letting them cast spells of which even dragons had learned respect.
But both were things of the past…the
past. Neither Zin-Azshari nor even the wondrous and sinister Well existed. They had long, long ago vanished in a catastrophe that—that—
And there Krasus’s mind faltered again. Something horrible had happened that had destroyed the two, had ripped the very world asunder…and for the life of him he could not recall
“You are not yet recovered,” Cenarius said with concern.
“I should have left you to rest.”
Still fighting to remember, the mage responded, “I will be…I will be all right by the time my friend awakens. We—we will leave as soon as we can and trouble you no longer.”
The deity frowned. “Little one, you misunderstand. You are both puzzle and guest to me…and so long as you remain the former, you will also remain the latter.” Cenarius turned from him, heading toward the guarding flowers. “I believe that you need sustenance. It shall be provided shortly. Rest well until then.”
Cenarius did not wait for any protest nor did Krasus bother with one. When a being such as the forest lord insisted that they stay, Krasus understood that it would be
to argue otherwise. He and Rhonin were guests for as long as Cenarius desired…which with a demigod might be the rest of their lives.
Still, that did not worry Krasus so much as the thought that those lives could be very short indeed.
Both Zin-Azshari and the Well had been destroyed in some monstrous catastrophe…and the more the dragon mage pondered it, the more he believed the time of that catastrophe was rapidly approaching.
“I warn you, my darling counselor, I adore surprises, but this one I expect to be quite, quite delicious.”
Xavius but smiled as he led the queen by the hand into the chamber where the Highborne worked. He had come to her with as much graciousness as he could command, politely pleading with her to join him and see what his sorcerers had accomplished. The counselor knew that Azshara expected something quite miraculous and she would not be disappointed…even if it was
what the ruler of the night elves had in mind.
The guards knelt as they entered. Although their expressions were the same as always, like Xavius, they, too, had been touched. Everyone now in the chamber understood, save for Azshara.
For her, it would be only a moment more before the revelation.
She eyed the swirling maelstrom within the pattern, her tone dripping with disappointment. “It looks no different.”
“You must see it up close, Light of a Thousand Moons. Then you’ll understand what we have achieved…”
Azshara frowned. She had come without her attendants at his request and perhaps she now regretted that. Nevertheless, Azshara was queen and it behooved her to show that, even alone, she was in command of any situation.
With graceful strides, Azshara stepped up to the very edge of the pattern. She first eyed the work of the Highborne currently casting, then deigned to set her gaze upon the inferno within.
“It still strikes me as unchanged, dear Xavius. I expected more from—”
She let out a gasp and although the counselor could not see her expression completely, he made out enough to know that Azshara now understood.
And the voice he had heard before, the voice of his god, said for all to hear…
I am coming…
he Ritual of the High Moon had been completed and now Tyrande had time for herself. Elune expected dedication from her priestesses, but she did not demand that they give to her every waking moment. The Mother Moon was a kind, loving mistress, which had been what first drew the young night elf to her temple. In joining, Tyrande found some peace to her apprehension, to her inner conflicts.
But one conflict would not leave her heart. Times had altered matters between her, Malfurion, and Illidan. They were no longer youthful companions. The simplicities of their childhoods had given way to the complexities of adult relationships.
Her feelings for both of them had changed and she knew that they, too, felt differently about her. The competition between the brothers had always been a friendly one, but of late it had intensified in a manner Tyrande did not appreciate. Now it seemed that they battled each other, as if vying for some prize.
Tyrande understood—even if they did not—that
was the prize.
While the novice priestess felt flattered, she did not want either of them hurt. Yet, Tyrande would be the one who would hurt at least one brother, for she knew in her heart that when it came time to choose her life mate, it would be either Illidan or Malfurion.
Dressed in the silver, hooded gown of a novice priestess, Tyrande hurried silently through the high, marble halls of the temple. Above her, a magical fresco illustrated the heavens. A casual visitor might have even thought that no roof stood here, so perfect was the illusion. But only the grand chamber, where the rituals took place, was truly open to the sky. There, Elune visited in the form of moonbeams, gloriously touching her faithful as a mother did her beloved children.
Past the looming, sculpted images of the goddess’s earthly incarnations—those who had served in the past as high priestess—Tyrande finally strode across the vast marble floor of the foyer. Here, in intricate mosaic work, the formation of the world by Elune and the other gods was depicted, the Mother Moon of course illustrated most dominantly. With few exceptions, the gods were vague forms with shadowed faces, no mere flesh creature worthy of envisioning their true images. Only the demigods, children and assistants to their superiors, had definite visages. One of those, of course, was Cenarius, said by many to be perhaps the child of the Moon and the Sun. Cenarius, of course, said nothing one way or another, but Tyrande liked to think that story the truth.
Outside, the cool night air soothed her some. Tyrande descended the white alabaster steps and joined the throngs. Many bowed their heads in deference to her position while others politely made a path for her. There were advantages to being even an initiate of Elune, but at the moment Tyrande wished that she could have simply been herself to the world.
Suramar was not so glorious as Zin-Azshari, but it had a presence all its own. Bright, flashy colors filled her gaze as she entered the main square, where merchants of all status plied their wares on the population. Dignitaries in rich, diamond-sequined robes of sun red and fiery orange, their noses upward and their eyes only on the path ahead, walked alongside low-caste elves in more plain garments of green, yellow, blue, or some mix of the colors. In the market, everyone made an appearance in order to show themselves off as best they could.
Even the buildings acted as displays for their inhabitants, every color of the rainbow represented in the view Tyrande had. Some businesses had been painted in as many as seven shades and most had dramatic images splashed across every side. Torchlight illuminated most, the dancing flames considered a lively accent.
The few non-night elves whom the novice priestess had met during her short life seemed to find her people garish, even daring to say that Tyrande’s race must be color-blind. While her own tastes tended to be more conservative, albeit not so much as Malfurion’s, Tyrande felt that night elves simply appreciated better the variety of patterns and shades that existed in the world.
Near the center of the square, she noted a crowd gathered. Most gestured and pointed, some making comments either of disgust or mockery. Curious, Tyrande went to see what could be of such interest.
At first, the onlookers did not even notice her presence, certainly a sign that whatever they watched must be a rare marvel. She politely touched the nearest figure, who upon recognition immediately stepped aside for her. By this method, she managed to wend her way deep into the throng.
A cage just slightly shorter than her stood in the midst of it all. Made of good strong iron bars, it evidently held a beast of some strength, for it rattled harshly and now and then an animalistic growl set the audience to renewed murmurs.
Those directly in front of her would not move, not even when they discovered who had tapped them on the shoulder. Frustrated and curious, the slim night elf shifted position, attempting to see between one pair.
What she beheld made her gasp.
“What is it?” Tyrande blurted.
“No one knows, sister,” replied what turned out to be a sentry standing duty. He wore the breast plate and robes of one of Suramar’s Watch. “The Moon Guard had to spellcast it at least three times to bring it down.”
Tyrande instinctively glanced around for one of the hooded, green-robed wizards, but saw none. Likely they had ensorcelled the cage, then left the secured creature in the hands of the Watch while they went to discuss what to do with it.
had they left?
It was no dwarf, although in some ways its build reminded her of one. Had it stood straight, it would have been about a foot shorter than a night elf, but at least twice as broad. Clearly the beast was a creature of brute strength, for never had she seen such musculature. It amazed Tyrande that even with spells cast upon the cage the prisoner had not simply bent the bars aside and escaped.
A high-caste onlooker suddenly prodded the stooped figure with his golden staff…which caused renewed fury within. The night elf barely pulled his stick out of reach of the thick, meaty paws. The creature’s squat, round-jawed face contorted as it snarled its anger. It likely would have managed to snag the staff if not for the thick chains around its wrists, ankles, and neck. The heavy chains were not only the reason it stayed stooped, but also why it could never deal with the bars, even supposing it had the strength and resolve.
From horror and disgust, Tyrande’s emotions shifted to pity. Both the temple and Cenarius had taught her respect for life, even that which seemed at first only monstrous. The green-hided creature wore primitive garments, which meant that it—or
in most probability—had some semblance of intelligence. It was not right, then, that he be set up for show like some animal.
Two empty brown bowls indicated that the prisoner had at least been given some sustenance, but from his massive frame, the novice priestess suspected it was not nearly enough. She turned to the sentry. “He needs more food and water.”
“I’ve been given no orders for such, sister,” the sentry respectfully replied, his eyes ever on the crowd.
“That shouldn’t require orders.”
Tyrande was rewarded with a slight shrug. “The elders haven’t decided what to do with it yet. Maybe they don’t think it’ll need any more food or drink, sister.”
His suggestion repulsed her. Night elf justice could be very draconian. “If I bring some sustenance for him, will you attempt to stop me?”
Now the soldier looked uncomfortable. “You really shouldn’t, sister. That beast’s just as liable to tear your arm off and gnaw on that instead of whatever fare you bring. You would be wise to leave it alone.”
“I shall take my chances.”
But before he could try to talk her out of it, Tyrande had already turned away. She headed directly for the nearest food merchant, seeking a jug of water and a bowl of soup. The creature in the cage looked fairly carnivorous, so she also decided upon a bit of fresh meat. The proprietor refused to charge her, a benefit of her calling, so she gave him the blessing she knew he wanted, then thanked him and returned to the square.
Apparently already bored, much of the crowd had dissipated by the time Tyrande reached the center. That, at least, made it easier for her to confront the prisoner. He glanced up as the novice priestess approached, at first clearly marking her as just one more jaded gawker. Only when he saw what Tyrande held did he take more interest.
He sat up as best he could considering to be his chains, deep-set eyes warily watching her under the thick, bushy brow. Tyrande judged him to be toward the latter half of his life, for his hair had grayed and his brutish visage bore the many marks and scars of a harsh existence.
Just beyond what she calculated to be his reach, the young night elf hesitated. Out of the corner of her eye, Tyrande noted the sentry taking cautious interest in her actions. She understood that he would use his spear to gut the creature if it made any attempt to harm her. Tyrande hoped it would not come to that. It would be the most terrible of ironies if her intent to aid a suffering being led to its death.
With grace and care, she knelt before the bars. “Do you understand me?”
He grunted, then finally nodded.
“I’ve brought you something.” She held out the bowl of soup first.
The wary eyes, so different from her own, fixed upon the bowl. She could read the calculation in them. Once they flickered ever so briefly in the direction of the nearest guard. The right hand closed, then opened again.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he stretched forth the hand. As it neared her own, Tyrande saw how huge and thick it really was, massive enough to envelop both of hers without difficulty. She pictured the strength inherent in it and almost pulled the offering back.
Then with a gentleness that surprised her, the prisoner took the bowl from her grasp, placing it securely in front of him and eyeing her expectantly.
His acceptance made her smile, but he did not respond in kind. Slightly more at ease, Tyrande handed him next the meat, then, lastly, the jug of water.
When he had all three safely tucked near, the green-skinned behemoth began to eat. He swallowed the contents of the bowl in one huge gulp, some of the brownish liquid spilling over his jaw. The piece of meat followed, thick, jagged, yellow teeth ripping away at the raw flesh without hesitation. Tyrande swallowed, but did not otherwise show her discomfort at the prisoner’s monstrous manners. Under such conditions, she might have acted little better than he.
A few onlookers watched this activity as they might have a minstrel act, but Tyrande ignored them. She waited patiently as he continued to devour his meal. Away went every bit of meat on the bone, which the creature then broke in two and sucked on the marrow with such gusto that the remainder of the crowd—their fine sensibilities disturbed by the animalistic sight—finally left.
As the last of them departed, he suddenly dropped the bone fragments and, with a startling deep chuckle, reached for the jug. Not once had his eyes strayed from the novice priestess for more than a second.
When the water was gone, he wiped his wide mouth with his arm and grunted, “Good.”
To hear an actual word startled Tyrande even though she had assumed earlier that if he understood, then he could also speak. It made her smile again and even risk leaning against the bars, an act that at first brought anxiety to the sentries.
“Sister!” cried one of the guards. “You shouldn’t be so near! He’ll tear—”
“He’ll do nothing,” she quickly assured them. Glancing at the creature, she added, “Will you?”
He shook his head and drew his hands close to his chest as a sign. The sentries backed away, but remained watchful.
Ignoring them once more, Tyrande asked, “Do you want anything else? More food?”
She paused, then said, “My name is Tyrande. I am a priestess of Elune, the Mother Moon.”
The figure in the cage seemed disinclined to continue the conversation, but when he saw that she was determined to wait him out, he finally responded, “Brox…Broxigar. Sworn servant to the Warchief Thrall, ruler of the orcs.”
Tyrande tried to make sense of what he had said. That he was a warrior was obvious by his appearance. He served some leader, this Thrall. A name in some ways more curious than his own, for she understood its meaning and therefore understood the contrary nature of a ruler so titled.
And this Thrall was lord of the orcs, which Tyrande assumed must be what Brox was. The teachings of the temple were thorough, but never had she heard there or anywhere else of a race called the orcs. Certainly, if they were all like Brox, they would have been well remembered by the night elves.
She decided to delve deeper. “Where are you from, Brox? How did you get here?”
Immediately Tyrande realized that she had erred. The orc’s eyes narrowed and he clamped his mouth shut. How foolish of her not to think that the Moon Guard had already questioned him…and without the courtesy that she had shown so far. Now he must have thought that she had been sent to learn by kindness what they had failed to gain by force and magic.
Clearly desiring an end to their meeting, Brox picked up the bowl and held it toward her, his expression dark and un-trusting.
Without warning, a flash of energy coursed into the cage from behind the novice, striking the orc’s hand.
With a savage snarl, Brox seized his burnt fingers, holding them tight. He glared at Tyrande with such a murderous gaze that she could not help but rise and step back. The sentries immediately focused on the cage, their spears keeping Brox pinned to the back bars.
Strong hands seized her by the shoulders and a voice she knew well anxiously whispered, “Are you safe, Tyrande? That foul beast didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“He had no plans to do me any harm!” she blurted, turning to face her supposed rescuer. “Illidan! How could you?”
The handsome night elf frowned, his arresting golden eyes losing some of their light. “I was only fearful for you! That beast is capable of—”