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Authors: Richard A. Knaak

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BOOK: The Well of Eternity
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Even as he stirred, Rhonin’s hand clamped over his mouth. Early in his long, long life, such an affront would have made the dragon teach the mortal creature a painful lesson in manners, but now Krasus not only had more patience than in his youth, he also had more trust.

Sure enough, the clink of metal again sounded. So very slight, but to the trained ears of either spellcaster, still like thunder.

Rhonin pointed upward. Krasus nodded. Both cautiously stood, trying to see over the slope. Hours had clearly passed since they had fallen asleep. The woods were silent save for the songs of a few insects. If not for the brief, unnatural sounds they had heard, Krasus would have thought nothing amiss.

Then a pair of large, almost monstrous shapes materialized beyond the slope. At first they were unrecognizable, but then Krasus’s superior vision identified them as not two creatures, but rather
four.

A pair of riders atop long, muscular panthers.

They were tall, very lean, but clearly warriors. They were clad in armor the color of the night and wore high, crested helms with nose guards. Krasus could not yet make out their faces, but they moved with a fluidity he did not see in most humans. Both the riders and their sleek, black mounts journeyed along as if little troubled by the darkness, which made the dragon mage quickly caution his companion.

“They will see you before you clearly see them,” Krasus whispered. “What they are, I do not know, but they are not of your kind.”

“There’s more!” Rhonin returned. Despite his inferior vision, he had been gazing in just the right direction to catch another pair of riders approaching.

The four soldiers moved in almost complete silence. Only the occasional breath from an animal or metallic movement gave any sign of their presence. They looked to be involved in an intense hunt…

Krasus came to the dread conclusion that they were looking for Rhonin and him.

One of the foremost riders reined his monstrous, saber-toothed mount to a halt, then raised his hand to his face. A small flash of blue light briefly illuminated the area around him. In his gauntleted hand the rider held a small crystal, which he focused on the dark landscape. After a moment, he cupped the artifact with his other hand, dousing the light.

The use of the magical crystal only partly bothered Krasus. What little he had seen of the hunter’s scowling, violet countenance worried him far more.

“Night elves…”
he whispered.

The rider wielding the crystal instantly looked Krasus’s way.

“They’ve seen us!” muttered Rhonin.

Cursing himself for a fool, Krasus pulled the wizard with him. “Into the deeper woods! It is our only hope!”

A single shout echoed through the night…and then the woods filled with riders. Their fearsome yet agile mounts leapt nimbly along, padded feet making no sound as the beasts moved. Like their masters, they had gleaming, silver eyes that enabled them to see their quarry well despite the darkness. The panthers roared lustily, eager to reach the prey.

Rhonin and Krasus slid down a hill and into a thicket. One rider raced past them, but another turned and continued pursuit. Behind them, more than a dozen other riders spread out through the area, intending to cut off their quarry.

The two reached the denser area, but the lead rider was nearly upon them. Turning about, Rhonin shouted a single word.

A blinding ball of pure force struck the night elf square in the chest, sending him flying back off his steed and into the trunk of a tree with a resounding crash.

The powerful assault only served to make the others more determined to catch them. Despite the harder going, the riders pushed their mounts on. Krasus glanced to the east and saw that others had already made their way around the duo.

Instinctively, he cast a spell of his own. Spoken in the language of pure magic, it should have created a wall of flame that would have kept their pursuers at bay. Instead, small bonfires burst to life in random locations, most of them useless as any defense. At best, they served only as momentary distractions to a handful of the riders. Most of the night elves did not even pay them any mind.

Worse, Krasus doubled over in renewed pain and weakness.

Rhonin came to the rescue again. He repeated a weaker variation of the dragon mage’s spell, but where Krasus had received for his efforts lackluster results and physical agony, the human wizard garnered an unexpected bounty. The woods before their pursuers exploded with hungry, robust flames, driving the armored riders back in complete disarray.

Rhonin looked as startled at the results as the night elves, but managed to recover quicker. He came to Krasus’s side and helped the stricken mage retreat from the scene.

“They will—” Krasus had to gasp for breath. “They will find a path around soon! They know this place well from the looks of it!”

“What did you call them?”

“They are night elves, Rhonin. You recall them?”

Both dragon mage and human had spent their part in the war against the Burning Legion near or in Dalaran, but tales had come from far off of the appearance of the night elves, the legendary race from which Vereesa’s kind was descended. The night elves had appeared when disaster had seemed imminent and it was no understatement to say that the outcome might have been different if they had not joined the defenders.

“But if these are night elves, then aren’t we allies?”

“You forget that we are not necessarily in the same time period. In fact, until their reappearance, it was thought by even the dragons that their kind had become extinct after the end of—” Krasus became very subdued, not at all certain he wanted to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion.

Shouts erupted nearby. Three riders closed on them, curved swords raised. In the lead rode the one who wielded the blue crystal. Rhonin’s flames illuminated his face, the handsomeness typical of any elf forever ruined by a severe scar running down the left side from near the eye to the lip.

Krasus tried to cast another spell, but it only served to send him to his knees. Rhonin guided him down, then faced the attackers.

“Rytonus Zerak!”
he shouted.

The branches nearest the night elves suddenly clustered, forming a weblike barrier. One rider became tangled in them and slipped from his mount. A second reined his protesting panther to a halt behind the one caught.

Their leader sliced through the branches as if cutting air, his blade leaving a streak of red lightning in its deadly wake.

“Rhonin!” Krasus managed. “Flee! Leave!”

His former student had as little intention of obeying such a command as the dragon mage would have in his place. Rhonin reached into his belt pouch and from it drew what first looked like a band of glowing quicksilver. The quicksilver swiftly coalesced into a gleaming blade, a gift to Rhonin from an elven commander at the end of the war.

In the light of the wizard’s blade, the haughty expression of the night elves’ leader transformed into surprise. Nonetheless, he met Rhonin’s sword with his own.

Crimson and silver sparks flared. Rhonin’s entire body shook. The night elf nearly slipped from the saddle. The panther roared, but because of his rider could not reach their foe with his razor-sharp claws.

They traded blows again. A wizard Rhonin might be, but he had learned over his life the value of being able to fight by hand. Vereesa had trained him so that even among seasoned warriors he could hold his own…and with the elven blade he stood a good chance of success against any one foe.

But not against many. Even as he kept both night elf and beast at bay, three more riders arrived, two manipulating a net. Krasus heard a sound from behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see three more coming, also bearing a huge net.

Try as he might, he could not get the words of power out. He, a dragon, was helpless.

Rhonin saw the first net and backed up. He held the sword ready in case the night elves tried to snare him. The leader urged his mount forward, keeping Rhonin’s attention.

“B-behind you!” Krasus called, the weakness overcoming him again. “There’s another—”

A booted foot kicked the weakened mage in the side of the head. Krasus retained consciousness, but could not focus.

Through bleary eyes, he watched as the dark forms of the night elves closed in on his companion. Rhonin fended off a pair of blades, chased back one of the huge cats…and then the net caught him from behind.

He managed to sever one section, but the second net fell over him, entangling Rhonin completely. Rhonin opened his mouth, but the lead rider moved up and struck him hard across the jaw with his gauntleted fist.

The human wizard dropped.

Enraged, Krasus managed to pull himself partway from his stupor. He muttered and pointed at the leader.

His spell worked this time, but went astray. A bolt of golden lightning struck not the target in question, but rather a tree near one of the other hunters. Three large limbs ripped free, collapsing on one rider and crushing both him and his mount.

The lead night elf glared in Krasus’s direction. The dragon mage tried futilely to protect himself as fists and boots pummeled him into submission…and finally unconsciousness.

 

He watched as his subordinates beat at the peculiar figure who had, more by chance than by skill, slain one of their own. Long after it was clear their victim had lost all sense, he let his warriors take out their frustration on the unmoving body. The panthers hissed and growled, smelling blood, and it was all the night elves could do to keep them from joining in the violence.

When he judged that they had reached the limits of safety, that any further beating would jeopardize the life of their prisoner, he gave the command to halt.

“Lord Xavius wants all alive,” the scarred night elf snapped. “We don’t want him disappointed, do we?”

The others straightened, fear abruptly appearing in their eyes. Well they might fear, he thought, for Lord Xavius had a tendency to reward carelessness with death…painful, lingering death.

And often he chose the willing hand of Varo’then to deal out that death.

“We were careful, Captain Varo’then,” one of the soldiers quickly insisted. “They will both survive the journey…”

The captain nodded. It still amazed him how the queen’s counselor had even detected the presence of these unusual strangers. All Xavius had said when he had summoned faithful Varo’then was that there had been some sort of odd manifestation and that he wanted the captain to investigate and bring back anyone unusual discovered in the vicinity. Varo’then, ever sharp-eyed, had noticed the slight furrowing of the lord’s brow, the only hint that Xavius was more disturbed about this unknown “manifestation” than he hinted.

Varo’then eyed the prisoners as their bound bodies were draped unceremoniously over one of the panthers. Whatever the counselor had expected, it surely did not include a pair such as this. The weak one who had managed the last spell looked vaguely like a night elf, but his skin was pale, almost white. The other one, obviously a younger and far more talented spellcaster…Varo’then did not know what to make of him. He was not unlike a night elf…but was clearly not. He looked like no creature the veteran soldier had ever seen.

“No matter. Lord Xavius will sort it all out,” Varo’then murmured to himself. “Even if he has to tear them limb from limb or flay them alive to get the truth…”

And whichever course the counselor took, good, loyal Captain Varo’then would be there to lend his experienced hand.

SIX

I
t was a troubled Malfurion who returned to his home near the roaring falls just beyond the large night elven settlement of Suramar. He had chosen the site because of the tranquility and untransformed nature around the falls. Nowhere else did he feel so at peace, save perhaps in Cenarius’s hidden grove.

A low-set, rounded domicile formed from both tree and earth, Malfurion’s simple home was a far contrast from those of most night elves. Not for him was the gaudy array of colors that bespoke of his kind’s tendency to try to out-shine one another. The colors of his home were those of earth and life, the forest greens, the rich, fertile browns, and kindred shades. He tried to adapt to his surroundings, not force them to adapt to him as was his people’s way.

Yet nothing about his home gave Malfurion any sense of comfort this night. Still fiercely clear in his mind were the thoughts and images he had experienced while walking the Emerald Dream. They had opened up doors in his imagination he wished desperately to shut again, but knew would be impossible.

“The visions you see in the Emerald Dream, they can mean many things,” Cenarius had insisted, “no matter how true they might look. Even what we think is real—such as your view of Zin-Azshari—may not be so, for the dreamland plays its own games on our limited minds…”

Malfurion knew that the demigod had only been trying to assuage him, that what the night elf saw had been truth. He understood that Cenarius was actually as concerned about the reckless spellcasting taking place in the palace of Azshara as his student was.

The power that the Highborne had been summoning…what could it be for? Did they not sense how stressed the fabric of the world had grown near the Well? It was still unfathomable to him that the queen could condone such careless and possibly destructive work…and yet Malfurion could not shake the certainty that she was as much a part of it as any of her subordinates. Azshara was no simple figurehead; she truly ruled, even when it came to her arrogant Highborne.

He tried to return to his normal routine, hoping that would help him forget his troubles. There were but three rooms to the young night elf’s home, yet another example of the simplicity of his life compared to that of others. In one stood his bed and the handful of books and scrolls he had gathered concerning nature and his recent studies. In another, toward the back, was the larder and a small, plain table where he prepared his meals.

Malfurion considered both rooms nothing more than necessities. The third, the communal room, was ever his favored place. Here where the light of the moon shone bright at night and the glistening waters of the falls could be seen, he sat in the center and meditated. Here, with a sip of the honey-nectar wine so favored by his kind, he looked over his work and tried to comprehend what Cenarius had taught him the lesson before. Here, by the short, ivory table where a meal could be spread out, he also visited with Tyrande and Illidan.

But there would be no Tyrande or Illidan this evening. Tyrande had returned to the temple of Elune to continue her own studies and Malfurion’s twin, in what was another sign of their growing dissimilarities, now preferred the raucousness of Suramar to the serenity of the forest.

Malfurion leaned back, his face agleam in the light of the moon. He shut his eyes to think, hoping to calm his nerves—

No sooner had he done so, though, when something large moved across the field of moonlight, briefly putting Malfurion in total darkness.

The night elf’s eyes snapped open just in time to catch a glimpse of a huge, ominous form. Malfurion immediately leapt to the door and flung it open.

But to his surprise, only the rushing waters of the nearby falls met his tense gaze.

He stepped outside, peered around. Surely no creature so large could move so fast. The bullish Tauren and ursine Furbolgs were not unknown to him, but while they matched in size the peculiar shadow, neither of the two races was known for swiftness. A few branches rustled in the wind and a night bird sang somewhere in the distance, but Malfurion could find no sign of his supposed intruder.

Simply your own nerves,
he finally chided himself.
Your own uncertainties.

Returning inside, Malfurion seated himself again, his mind already caught up once more in his troubles. Unlike his phantom intruder, he was certain that he had not imagined or misread anything concerning the palace and the Well. Somehow, Malfurion would have to learn more, more than the Emerald Dream could at present reveal to him.

And, he suspected, he would have to do it very, very quickly.

* * *

He had almost been caught. Like an infant barely able to walk, he had almost lumbered right into the creature’s lair. Hardly a worthy display of the well-honed skills for which a veteran orc warrior was known.

Brox had not worried about his ability to defend himself had the creature caught him, but now was not the time to give in to his own desire to meet a glorious finish. Besides, from what he had seen of the lone figure, it would hardly have been a good match. Tall, but too spindly, too unprotected. Humans were much more interesting and worthy opponents…

Not for the first time his head throbbed. Brox put a hand to his temple, fighting the pain. A swirling confusion reigned in his mind. What had happened to him in the past several hours, the orc still could not say with complete certainty. Instead of being ripped apart like Gaskal as he had expected, he was catapulted into madness. Things beyond the comprehension of a simple warrior had materialized and vanished before his eyes and Brox recalled flying around in a swirl of chaotic forces, all while countless voices and sounds had assailed him almost to the point of deafness.

In the end, it had all proven too much. Brox had blacked out, certain he would never wake.

He had, of course, but it was not to find himself safely back in the mountains or still trapped in the insanity. Instead, Brox discovered himself in an almost tranquil landscape consisting of tall trees and bucolic rolling hills for as far as the eye could see. The sun was setting and the only sounds of life were the musical calls of birds.

Even had he been dropped into the midst of a horrendous battle rather than this quiet scene, Brox could have done nothing but lay where he was. It had taken the orc more than an hour to recover enough to just stand, much less travel. Fortunately, during that anxious waiting time, Brox had discovered one miracle. His ax, which he thought lost, had been swallowed with him and deposited but a few yards from the orc. Not yet able to use his legs, Brox dragged himself to the weapon. He had not been able to wield it, but clutching its handle had given him some comfort while he waited for his strength to return.

The moment he was able to walk, Brox had quickly pushed on. It did not pay to stay in one place when in a strange land, no matter how peaceful it looked. Situations always changed even in the most peaceful places and, in his experience, generally not for the better.

The orc tried to understand what had happened to him. He had heard of wizards traveling by means of special spells from one location to another, but if this was such a spell, then the mage who had cast it surely had to be insane. Either that, or the incantation had gone awry, certainly a possibility.

Alone and lost, Brox’s instincts took over. No matter what had happened so far, Thrall would want him to find out more about the inhabitants of this place and what their intentions might be. If they were responsible by accident or design for reaching out with magic to the orcs’ new home- land, they posed a possible threat. Brox could die later; his first duty was to protect his people.

At least now he had some notion as to what race lived here. Brox had never seen or heard of a night elf before the war against the Burning Legion, but he could never forget their unique looks. Somehow, he had landed in some realm ruled by their kind, which at least opened to him the hope of returning home once he gathered what information he could. The night elves had fought alongside the orcs in Kalimdor; surely that meant that Brox had merely ended up on some obscure part of the continent. With a little reconnaissance he was certain that he would be able to figure out which direction the orc lands were and head to them.

Brox had no intention of simply going up to one of the night elves and asking the way. Even if these were the same creatures who had allied themselves with the orcs and humans, he could not be certain that those of this land would be friendly to an intruder now. Until he knew more, the wary orc intended to remain well out of sight.

Although Brox did not immediately encounter any more such dwellings, he did note a glow in the distance that likely originated from some larger settlement. After a moment’s consideration, the orc hefted his weapon and pushed on toward it.

Barely had he made that decision, however, when shadows suddenly approached from the opposite direction. Pressing flat against a wide tree, Brox watched a pair of riders approach. His eyes narrowed in surprise when, instead of good horses, he saw that they raced along on swift, gigantic panthers. The orc gritted his teeth and readied himself in case either the riders or their beasts sensed him.

But the armored figures hurried past as if determined to be somewhere quickly. They appeared quite comfortable traveling in little light, which made the orc suddenly recall that night elves could see in darkness as well as he could see in day.

That did not bode well. Orcs had fair night vision, but not nearly as good as that of the night elves.

He hefted his ax. Perhaps he did not have the advantage in terms of sight, but Brox would match himself against any of the scrawny figures he had so far come across. Day or night, an ax in the hands of an orc warrior skilled in its use would make the same deep, fatal cut. Even the elaborate armor he noted on the riders would not long stand up to his beloved weapon.

With the riders out of view, Brox continued on cautiously. He needed to find out more about these particular night elves and the only way to do that was to spy on their settlement. There he might find out enough to know where in relation to home he now wandered. Then he could return to Thrall. Thrall would know what to make of all this. Thrall would deal with these night elves who dabbled in dangerous magic.

So very, very simple—

He blinked, so caught up in his thoughts that he only now saw standing before him the tall female figure clad in silver, moonlit robes.

She looked as startled as the orc felt…then her mouth opened and the night elf cried out.

Brox started to reach for her—his only intention that of smothering the scream—but before he could do anything, other cries arose and night elves began appearing from every direction.

A part of him desired to stand where he was and fight to the death, but the other part, that which served Thrall, reminded him that this would achieve nothing. He would have failed in his mission, failed his people.

With a snarl of outrage, he turned and fled back in the direction he had come.

Yet, now it seemed that from every huge tree trunk, from every rising mound, figures popped into sight—and each let out the alarm at the sight of the burly orc.

Horns blared. Brox swore, knowing what such a sound presaged. Sure enough, moments later, he heard feline growls and determined shouts.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw his pursuers nearing. Unlike the pair he had hidden from earlier, most of the new riders were clad only in robes and breast plates, but that hardly erased them as a threat. Each was not only armed, but their mounts presented an even more dire danger. One swipe of a paw would slice the orc open, one bite of the saber-toothed jaws would rip off his head.

Brox wanted to take his ax and sweep across their ranks, chopping away at rider and mount alike and leaving a trail of blood and maimed bodies behind him. Yet, despite his desire to lay waste to those who threatened him, Thrall’s teachings and commands held such violence in check. Brox growled and met the first riders with the flat of his ax head. He knocked one night elf from his mount, then, after dodging the cat’s claws, turned to seize another rider by the leg. The orc threw the second night elf atop the first, knocking the air out of both.

A blade whistled by his head. Brox easily smashed the slim blade to fragments with his powerful ax. The night elf wisely retreated, the stump of his weapon still gripped tightly.

The orc took advantage of the gap created by the retreat to slip past his pursuers. Some of the night elves did not look at all eager to follow, which raised Brox’s spirits. More than his own honor, Thrall’s pride in his chosen warrior continued to keep Brox from turning and making a foolish last stand. He would not let his chief down.

But just as escape looked possible, another night elf materialized before him, this one dressed in shimmering robes of brilliant green with gold and ruby starbursts dotting the chest. A cowl obscured most of the night elf’s long, narrow visage, but he seemed undaunted by the huge, brutish orc coming up on him.

Brox waved his ax and shouted, trying to scare off the night elf.

The hooded figure raised one hand to chest level, the index and middle fingers pointed toward the moonlit sky.

The orc recognized a spell being cast, but by that time it was already too late.

To his astonishment, a circular sliver of the moon fell from the sky, falling upon Brox like a soft, misty blanket. As it enshrouded him, the orc’s arms grew heavy and his legs weak. He had to fight to keep his eyelids open.

The ax slipping from his limp grasp, Brox fell to his knees. Through the silvery haze, he now saw other similarly clad figures circling him. The hooded forms stood patiently, obviously watching the spell’s work.

A sense of fury ignited Brox. With a low snarl, he managed to push himself up to his feet. This was not the glorious death he had wanted! The night elves intended that he fall at their feet like a helpless infant! He would not do it!

Fumbling fingers managed to seize the ax again. To his pleasure, he noted some of the hooded figures start. They had not expected such resistance.

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