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Part 1

THÓRRA'S SHADOW


FOR THORADIEL LIGHTRIDER, the sun no longer rose. It had been months since he last saw the golden haze of Quel'Thalas, and longer still since it had properly shone on him. It was morning now in Brill, but in Brill, morning is indistinguishable from any other time of day: the murky skies over the remains of Lordæron do not change colour.


Today might change that. His superior, Father Cartwright, who had taken rather good care of him since his posting to Brill some months ago, had told him yesterday that he was being sent to Orgrimmar, where healers were needed behind the lines against increasing Alliance activity in the Barrens. As the young priest dressed himself and came downstairs, the zeppelin horn sounded in the distance. He stepped outside to the sight of blood elves and forsaken steaming toward the tower atop Brill, forming a long river of people up to the waiting zeppelin.


The journey was mercifully brief — only a few hours — and Thórra was perhaps unprepared for what awaited him in Durotar. The first thing he noticed was the sheer burning redness of it. After so many months in the dark, the reflection of the sun off the hot earth was almost intolerable. As he and the other elves made the short walk from the zeppelin tower to the gates of Orgrimmar, the heat and the light suddenly began to get the better of him. He felt weak in the knees and light in the head. Just before everything went dark, the red earth suddenly seemed to ignite: the last thing Thórra saw was a purple sky, above a world illuminated golden before him. He hit the dusty path with a gentle thud.


***


"I've been expecting you."


The low voice of the old Tauren vibrated in Thórra's bones and jarred him out of his daze. He looked up from the hammock, and there, clutching a staff, filling his vision, stood Ekhan Wildmane.


"Where am I?" started Thórra. He lurched up, but the dizziness caused him to flop back into the hammock immediately.


"You collapsed by the farmstead. We brought you into the inn to rest."


"Who are you? Why were you expecting me?"


"Peace, Thórra. I am Ekhan Wildmane. We will talk later. For now, you are exhausted, and somewhat overwhelmed." The druid — a larger creature than Thórra had ever seen — was somehow soothing. He fell back asleep.


***


When Thórra finally awoke, he was alone on the bottom floor of an inn somewhere in Orgrimmar. Outside he could see rain falling in torrents. Which must happen rather seldom in this part of Kalimdor, he thought to himself. Suddenly, he remembered the Druid. Thórra ran to the innkeeper. "The druid that was here. Where did he go?"


Gryshka looked at him in absolute bewilderment. After a pause, she managed to eek out some mangled Thalassian: "What you say?"


"Druid." Thórra's Orcish was not what it had been at the magister's school. "A druid was here. Where he went?"


Gryskha grinned a mostly toothless grin, probably at Thórra's pronunciation. "I didn't see any druid."


Thórva ran out into rainy Orgrimmar, unsure really of where to go. He began asking official-looking Orcs desperately; none of them had any idea what he was talking about.


Finally, in the Horde Embassy, a Tauren at one of the desks suggested he should fly to Thunder Bluff if it was a Tauren he was looking for. And so, that evening, the young priest found himself in another nondescript wigwam in Thunder Bluff, the scent and the skeptical gaze of a massive Tauren filling his face. Rain was falling through gaps in the hide roof. It was getting dark.


"Ekhan Wildmane," said Thórra, "do you know where he is?" Seven hundred pounds of Bluffwatcher looked at him blankly for a second before stating matter-of-factly, "No one has seen him for years."


Thórra turned and stepped back out into the soggy street. As he made his way down the rise in search of an inn, the young priest began to let discouragement get the better of him. Passers-by regarded the sight of an elf with suspicion: conversations stopped as he walked past; the innkeeper greeted him with a nod and a snort. As he squeezed the water out of his hair and flopped onto a hammock, exhausted, visions of the barely believable events of the past few days began to replay in his mind.


"Thórra, what would you ask of me?"


For the second time in as many days, Ekhan Wildmane woke him with a jolt.



Part 2

WARLOCK'S PROGRESS



THE RAZORMANE BEASTS had managed to surround him. And here he had thought that he could take them all on ... no, they had left him for dead. As he lay at the foot of the mountain, on that desolate plain, he remembered one night, months before. Despite the pain of his wounds, he smiled. It was a good memory. And yet ... he supposed now he had not truly done anything worthy of even a jingle or a child's rhyme. As he thought he saw the carrion birds circle overhead, he allowed himself to slip into the memory ...


The wind blew hot and strong across the rocky field, whistling in the craters and hollows. The orc that emerged from the cave did so calmly and slowly, a dark look having fallen across his face. He stood at the mouth for a time, watching the sun hover low over the mountains in the distance. The quiet was broken by a shrieking laugh. The small green creature that joined the sombre magician was full of glee. His teeth glistened.


"Again, again!" the imp cried.


"Silence. No." At Zalmoxis's stern reproach the demon fell silent, but continued to fidget. "Calm yourself, or I will send you back into your own realm until I need you again." Cowed, the imp obeyed.


By the time the two reached the orc settlement in the Valley of Trials night had set in. Around the fire most of the others had gathered to drink and boast about the tests they had bested that day. Even some of the trainers had joined in, allowing themselves to step out of their place in the hierarchy for a moment. The warlock did not join them. He had, once, a few days ago, and though no one had been overt about it, it was obvious that the presence of a trainee of such powers was not welcome. They feared what he desired to master. It was that fear, he thought, that kept them from being truly powerful.


"You are back late." Nartok had emerged from his lair and sat in the shadows, smoking a short, deep pipe that smelled of sulphur.


"Those cultists were ... more resilient than I had expected." The comment seemed to remind the imp that he had something stuck in his teeth.


"Mm. Never mind. Did you find the medallion?"


"I did." Zalmoxis held it up for the older orc to see.


"Very good." Nartok took another long drag on the pipe. The younger one's face must have betrayed emotion he thought hidden, because then the trainer said, "you are asking yourself that question aren't you?"


"What question?"


"If they are right, those others over there. If they really should fear us. Hate us, even. After all, we wield the powers that once enslaved almost all the Orcish clans. It's the same sort of powers you fought against this very day. How are we different?"


"We do it for the Horde. We serve no masters. We are defending ourselves with whatever tools we can find."


"Yes. Always for the Horde. You, however, do serve a master: me, until tomorrow morning. You are finished here, I think. The trolls in Sen'Jin have sent word that they need help. Master Gadrin wants me to send you. I think you are ready.


"Imp." The demon looked at Nartok with fear in his eyes. Nartok grinned. "Go watch the edge of the camp. I don't want any of our drunk revellers to wander off and get stung by a Scorpid." The imp hurried away. Nartok began to clean his pipe. "Get some rest. And do not be ashamed of their fear. It is a sign that you may yet do great things."


Zalmoxis began to head back to the inn. "For the Horde, Zalmoxis," came the call from behind, "that is how we know that what we do is right."


The healing touch of the druid woke him. His mouth was dry, and even as the bleeding began to abate, he felt the pain in sharp bursts. The claws were still being subsumed into a Tauren hand as it was proffered. Zalmoxis took it, standing slowly.


"Thank you, brother." As the two sat and shared a canteen of warm, brackish water and a haunch of meat the Tauren cooked, they spoke only a little. The druid was a little younger than the warlock, but seemed strong and honorable. He had just come to the Barrens from Mulgore, and was on his way to the Crossroads.


It was not a long journey back to Taurajo, but it was slow, as the orc was still weak. He would need a day or so to recover, even with the help of one of the more practiced denizens of the camp. The savannah air was still, and the sun beat down harshly. As they came to the Southern Gold Road, Zalmoxis looked down it, and perhaps the euphoria of the healing spells had not passed, perhaps it was the loss of blood but ... for a moment it seemed as if it was not a brown and dusty road, but a golden path, a path at the end of which they would find a great fortress nestled in a mountain pass. And on the far side of the pass, protected from the world by impassable peaks would be a green and lush land, and in that land he would find all the races of the Horde living in the peace and protection of the Earth. A peace to last a thousand years or more.


When the vision passed, the Tauren was helping Zalmoxis up. Though he would have been ashamed at such a collapse ordinarily, that thought was pushed to the back of his mind.


"Iah, I have just had a vision." The druid did not seem skeptical, but waited patiently. "I just saw ... I saw a glowing path ... I saw ... I saw a future, a future for ourselves and our people. Come, let us get back to camp, I will explain it all along the way."



Part 3

THE WANDERER



Ekhan's earliest memory was of the plains. They stretched or groaned outward in every direction, the endless miles of brown grass and the earth of Kalimdor, in which graceful things with hooves browsed for food and swift predators occasionally hunted. There was always the wind, too; the wind of the plains. It gathered in the mountains and the valleys and by the time it touched the Barrens it swept everything before it away, lifting dust and leaves into the air, making travelers bend and shield their eyes from the debris. And the sun, of course. The hot and omnipresent sun that beat down and covered the wadis and the dry lake beds and the old roads and the rocks, always the rocks, with not a scrap of shade or the faintest hint of the sound of water.


What do the other races of the world know of the land? Ekhan asks himself. They exploit it or destroy it, or are cut off from it, or have fallen in with those who do. How can they ever find the straight road?


The plains of Kalimdor offer no shelter and no relief, and Ekhan was born on those plains to a tribe that had wandered them since the nativity of the world. As a child he had watched them roll by riding on his father's kodo; as an adult he had trod them underneath his hooves. And though the traveler just passing through or one who knew little of their windblasted miles might see them as so many things rolled up into one, a union of heat and land and sere vegetation and predators and prey, Ekhan had spent his life on the plains and knew them to be only three things: the horizon, the wind, and the sun.


I have watched them run to and fro, he thinks to himself. They preoccupy themselves with short lifespans, not long aeons, when there are things that have dwelt in the kingdom of the world as long as it has existed. How can a span of a hundred years compare? How can they know, who think thoughts of brief lives?


When he found the way of the druid later in life he wandered through many lands: drier lands covered in dunes, green and wet lands, verdant lands and cold lands, but Ekhan always had been and would always be a creature of the plains. He could remember when the Horde came and his people chose to settle Mulgore. He had spent a night in Thunder Bluff. In the morning, however, he saw the sun rising over the unbroken, unclouded horizon, and his hunger for the emptiness could not be denied. He never spent the night in civilization again. Only on the plains, he decided, could one really know oneself. Only the spare and stark badlands gave you the clarity of thought to abandon all pretense and all identity and relate to the world with your soul.


But it is clear, he knows. It is all there before him, and he feels it to be true. Not with the loud voices of crude visions of the future, or with the scheming energies of arcane magic. It is like the course of the river or the flow of sap in a tree: it simply is and the way that it is is the way that it must be. His friend Iah was right. It was the only way forward, and it was utterly unthinkable.


Ekhan has dreams about the plains. Always the same dream: he walks through the plains as they once were so long ago none alive can remember, or so far in the future none alive today could hope to see them; or maybe in another time and place entirely, like the dream of the dragon queen. The plains are as flat and endless as ever but they are green and teeming; there are no scattered ruins and no old scars; the Barrens is greener than Mulgore is now, and Desolace is a jungle thicker than Feralas. He knows the green places stretch on forever, in every direction, that the things sleeping in the ground beneath the plains have woken from their dreams, and everything is as it was always meant to be once again. Great and ineffable things move through the land again, majestic and without flaw or malice, but he could not tell you what they are; they are always just over the next hill. The heat is not unbroken here; there is shade; there are trees in the distance; there is the sound of flowing water. Then he wakes, and the dream is gone, and there is only the wind, the sun, and the horizon.


But this time, he feels something sleeping beneath the ground.



Part 4

THE DRAGON'S TAIL



The troll shaman stirred the sand on the floor with her long, purple fingers, tracing patterns within patterns deftly and quietly. The air was smoky and thick, and the smell made the elf drowsy. The only sound was the throaty, toneless hum of the shaman and the low voice of the wind in the crags of the city. It was the middle of the night, and Thórra had to struggle to stay awake. The journey that day had worn him out, and Ekhan had refused to stop until they reached Crossroads, and all he wanted was a bed, or a hammock, or even just a flat rock.


"So the Earth is a talkin' and a you wanna listen ..." the words refocused the priest's attention. They had stopped at some sort of settlement, and Ekhan was following a bent, old troll Shamanka into a cramped hut.


"I know the ways of the Earth, Sian'tsu," grumbled Ekhan. "I'm asking for your guidance, not--"


"Sh-tsh-sh-shhhhh. Keep your ears open, Tauren. Keep your ears open." Sian'tsu wiped the patch of sand flat and closed her eyes. Placing a finger in the sand, it began to trace a winding spiral. "There be a long path ahead of you ... it twists and it winds through some dark places, yes it does ... it goes through valleys ... between mountains ... and at it's end ... there is ... there is ..."


"What? What is at the end of the road?" Thórra was growing impatient. The stuffy room made it hard to breathe and he had little patience for rambling. But neither of him companions responded. Ekhan leaned in close, over the smoking bowl before him, his eyelids heavy, his dilated pupils watching the finger in the sand.


"There be a dark, dark place in the center of the storm ... there be a cold and hateful eye that the path circles around ... it will test you, yes, and it will hurt you deep ... you may never escape it, no ... many are lost near the end ... many surrender to the cold and dark ..."


When Ekhan spoke, his voice did not seem his own: the rough edge of the experienced druid was gone. It was somehow ... at peace. "But there is a place beyond the dark. There is a way through, a way to the shining fortress and the valley beyond. There is a road through the darkness marked by the flames of the righteous."


"Yes, yes ... I see it now, but ..." the hand clenched tight around a clump of sand until the knuckles were a pale green. And in a moment, the hand went limp, and the sand spilled into a mound in the center, and then was crushed flat. Sian'tsu's eyes opened wide.


"Terrible things you cannot imagine block the way. No, no, no!" As she inhaled, all the remaining air seemed to be sucked from the place, and Thórra was gone.


The small grassy knoll he found himself on was in the middle of a large, wide valley, ringed in mountains. A young Tauren looked up at him and reached out his hand.


"Have you come to join us? Have you come to play with us?" Beyond him was a crowd of children of all sorts, watching him expectantly.


"I don't ... how am I ... what?" The air was cool and breezy, the smell like summer when he was a boy, before the war. Before his parents grabbed their weapons and ran off in the direction of the smoke coming from Silvermoon.


"He cannot join you children. He helped forge this place, but he cannot stay here." The voice, at once familiar and horrible, came from behind, but Thórra was afraid to look.


"But I am here. Look," insisted Thórra.


"No, Thórra, you look." Thórra turned, slowly. "The warriors and the killers do not have a place in Paradise." From the high skeletal horse, his own face, grey, torn, and twisted, looked down upon him, the crackling voice emitting a toneless groan. "Look at what you became, look at what your righteousness has bought you."


The scream and the bright light came together. He was back, lying on the floor of the shaman's hut, the door flung open to the midday sun that shone through the crags above. Ekhan's form filled the frame.


"You are awake. We must go. We have to make the Crossroads by nightfall. I have paid for us to travel by Wyvern." The tauren turned to go, but stopped. "Bad dreams, my young friend?"


"I ... yes. Bad dreams, nothing more."


"Mm. Indeed. Meet me at the flight master when you have collected your things." Ekhan left Thórra alone. It was several minutes before he finally rose and took his bag and staff in hand. "Yes, just a dream ..."



Part 5

CROSSROADS



The attack was sudden, and no one had much time to react. The Alliance forces had hidden out in the savannah overnight and struck at first light. The horn that sounded from the watchtower woke guards and travelers alike, everyone who could wield a sword to fire off so much as a spark rushed out to meet them. By noon the fires had been put out and the human and dwarven bodies left for the prowlers and birds to dispose of. The elves burned their cousins in a pyre on the nearby peak. Black smoke rose high in the sky all afternoon. The wounded had been dragged back into the barracks and lay on the bunks and floor, some silent, some softly moaning. Druids and priests and anyone who knew how to tie a basic bandage would probably be busy well into the night. Zalmoxis had not been hurt badly, and found himself in the middle of the settlement late in the afternoon, feeling useless. He had no knowledge of the healing arts, and though he felt he had fought well, the long looks some of his fellow orcs had given him after the fight ... well, it seems they did not know what the power of a Warlock truly looked like.


He did not kill swiftly with a blade, it was true. He had never been as strong as his brothers, but magic he knew. And he knew how to make those who would hurt his allies wish they were dead long before the merciful relief finally came. Mezztast, his minion had been, well, it was easy to see why not everyone had the nerve to put the powers of the Nether to use. He had to admit, it was not every day you saw a man detached from his appendages so ... slowly. At first it had made him ill, but now, now he barely felt a pang of regret. The worst, he supposed, was the relief at his own indifference. No matter.


It had been dark for some time when Iah came out of the barracks. Blood that was probably not his own matted the fur on the back of his hands.


"You fought with honor today, Zalmoxis." The words surprised the orc.


"Thank you. You as well." Iah had not been the epitome of mercy himself, either. His great bear claws were powerful tools.


"Come, I have promised some fellow-travellers a meal." The group ate outside, under the stars. The fire threw their faces in sharp relief.


"Ekhan, Zalmoxis. I am sorry, elf, I do not know your name." The priest's robes still smelled of the pyre.


"I am Thórra. Much pleased to meet you both well." Zalmoxis grinned at the stilted Orcish, but said nothing. After all, he knew no Thalassian. They ate quietly, and it was not until after the meal that they began to tell each other of themselves and their travels. The elf was as far from home as the orc felt. The tauren were stoic, but seemed to long for something as well. When the silence fell, finally, it was Thórra who spoke first.


"I think, friends, we are as the stars of the Great Dark. Lonely points shining down on a distant land below, together unaware of our seperate-ness, unaware of our same goals."


"But the stars trace their fixed paths in the sky, never meeting. And here we are, around this fire." Ekhan seemed to enjoy supplying the contradiction.


"Yes, and perhaps on our own fixed path. Unknown to us, but fixed all the same ..."


"Yes." Iah said. "Like your glowing path, Zalmoxis. Like your vision."


"Your vision?" Thórra was instantly curious.


"I-- an idea came to me. A couple of weeks ago. It is a long explanation."


"Please. Explain. We have all night." Zalmoxis did, timidly, but Thórra hung on every word.


"Yes, yes," he said, when Zalmoxis had finished. "A path marked by the fire of the righteous, just as Sian'tsu said."


"A path of light."


"A luminous path."


"No, friend, the Luminous Path."


They forged their pact that very evening, just as the moon began to rise. Under it's watchful eye they sealed their brotherhood with the mark and the oaths, devised by Iah. Of Ekhan they asked his experience to guide them, to Thórra they gave their loyalty.


The elf was the last to turn in, left standing over smoking coals, the night breeze on his face. For a moment, his dream of himself as an undead warrior came back to him, but he pushed it from his mind. He could not let any doubts stand in their way. There was much to be gained, and far too much to be lost. •