Seeing the wilderness of north Kalimdor from on high, spread out in its tapestry of lush greens and immaculate whites, one cannot help marveling at how much Azeroth has changed. I remember the land as beautiful and terrifying all at once while on foot, the primeval forests triggering an ancestral fear of darkness and danger. From above, flying in the very icon of modernity, the land is just as stunning but in a far different way.
I signed on with a rickety cargo plane hauling special deliveries to Everlook. Trade with other groups had been strictly regulated back on Kezan but the difficulty of frontier life forced the Bilgewater to take a more liberal stance. So long as a small bribe is paid to the authorities, goblins trading with the Steamwheedle or the distant Consortium will not face any censure. Only dealing with the Alliance is prohibited (and is thus very lucrative and popular).
My pilot spoke little but warned me ahead of time that Bilgewater planes were not welcome in the skies of Mount Hyjal. If I wanted to get there, my best bet would be to hire a Steamwheedle airplane or zeppelin.
“Turns out if you occupy a chunk of foreign land and tear out half the forests, the natives get upset. I’m as surprised as you,” he said.
We landed in Everlook without incident. The icy town had changed little since my last visit. Znip’s daring observatory still looks up into the sky, and is now under the care of a gnome named Vrig Lenscribber. Vrig continues his predecessor’s work, though says he’s not heard from Znip since his move to Area 52 in Outland. While in Everlook, I went to the frigid telegraph office and sent a message to Daj’yah explaining that all had gone well. I did not expect to find available telegraphs on Hyjal itself.
No planes flew directly to the Hyjal summit though I did find a Darkshore-bound zeppelin willing to let me off at the peak. Darkshore had been hit hard by the Cataclysm, and it was with great sorrow that I learned of Auberdine’s destruction. The old town had held a curious and tragic beauty. To have survived so long, only to be destroyed by Deathwing’s madness, is another in a long list of tragedies.
My pilot was a middle-aged but still adventurous Alteracine human by the name of Besslar Marnok. Born during the Second War he’d come of age in the streets of Lordaeron before making his way south a few years prior to the Third War. Since then, he’d worked for the Steamwheedle Cartel in varying capacities.
“There was a good number of Hordelings going up to Mount Hyjal for a while, but seems like most of them have stopped,” he said, as we made the steep ascent.
“Why is that?”
“Mostly because the war’s over. Also, when you see what’s going on in Ashenvale, I can’t say I’d blame the elves for being less than hospitable.”
Our climb revealed the progress of Ragnaros’ servants. Char and dust swirl between the skeletons of trees on the lower mountain passes, the soil burned away to bare rock. This ruination stretches for miles. Only later does the victory of nature become apparent, shoots of new growth piercing through the layer of ash to receive the sun and the air.
Nordrassil, the World Tree of legend, had nurtured itself back to health on the purified corpse of Archimonde, its roots reaching through the earth and its branches through the air to give life anew to a world in need. Connected to the skein of nature, it made a tempting target for Ragnaros, who had burst forth from his elemental prison after the Cataclysm. Had he destroyed Nordrassil, the world might not have been able to recover, so the Horde and the Alliance cooperated under the auspices of the Cenarion Circle.
News from Hyjal had been sporadic back in Orgrimmar. At times Gur’krom Redknife would announce glorious victories of Horde partisans on its green slopes. He downplayed Alliance efforts to the point where one might easily think that the Horde alone defended Nordrassil. Warriors returning from Hyjal told a different story. However much they might hate their enemies, the orcs respect valor, and each came back expressing admiration for the Alliance fighters.
Ragnaros’ armies buckled under the onslaught and the Cenarion Circle established a beachhead in the hellish Firelands, the elemental plane that it ruled. Daring Alliance partisans sallied out from this foothold and brought an end to Ragnaros. Many believe that if an elemental lord dies on its home plane, it will truly be destroyed, though there’s no precedent for such an act. Whatever the case, the Firelands is in chaos and will not pose a threat to Azeroth for some time.
Rising higher still, we saw more green spreading across the scorched earth, ancient trees breaking the charred line that marks the limit of Ragnaros’ thrust. Only a few skirmishers and shock troops had battled past the line, and nature swiftly healed whatever damage they wrought. Flowers abound in meadows of tall grass, verdant despite being well above the snow level.
The branches of Nordrassil unfurl over the mighty granite ridges, the grand stone seeming to shrink away from the manifestation of Elune’s grace. The World Tree fills the mind in a way that its larger cousin, Teldrassil, cannot. The age-old glory touches all with its subtle strength. The entirety of nature is suggested in its form: deserts in the stretches of bare bark, forests teeming in the moss and leaves, lakes spreading in the form of dew drops.
Kaldorei histories speak of a satyr army that tried to lay siege Nordrassil in the century after the War of the Ancients. Their steps faltered as they neared, one after another falling to the ground as flowers burst from their bodies, each praising Elune as he fell.
This miracle did not repeat itself in the Third War, leading some to question its veracity. The Kaldorei point out that Archimonde’s presence likely bolstered the demons’ defenses. As for why it did not affect Ragnaros and the Twilight’s Cult, Nordrassil’s current state of relative fragility or its enemies’ elemental physiologies may have been at fault.
Opalescent water cascades down from the summit in a hundred brilliant rivulets, reeds growing in profusion along the banks. These streams course down from Lake Ashanaral. Elune had emerged, whole and perfect, from the lake’s waters in eons past. In its soothing embrace, she birthed Azeroth and all its life. Some of the water she flung into the sky, to form the stars. Other droplets formed Lake Elune’ara in Moonglade, the first part of Azeroth to be created.
A schismatic group of Kaldorei, called the Lenanorei, believes that Lake Ashanaral is itself the mother of Elune and deserving of worship. Distrusted though never persecuted, most of the Lenanorei died defending the sacred waters in the Third War. The sect’s continued existence is in doubt and their numbers declined even further during the Elemental Invasion. Nonetheless, those who survived have taken heart at the sight of Nordrassil rejuvenating in the waters of Ashanaral.
My senses sharpened as we neared Nordrassil, my world suddenly lit up with a sense of life and its possibilities. I imagined the tremor of a heartbeat and the sound of blood rushing through my veins as Besslar circled ever higher. Light pours out from the arching branches, intensifying the green of the leaves and setting the entire sky ablaze. At once I saw Nordrassil as the font of life, the beating heart of the world spoken of by the Kaldorei.
Besslar landed in the soft grass beneath the colossal roots that arch up from the rock to lift the trunk above the shining lake, the grandeur of a cathedral sanctuary magnified and replicated in living wood. A second wave of sensation hit me when I stepped out from the airplane and onto the vivid grass, the colors bright and forever new. Trees, vines, and ferns all flourish beneath Nordrassil, its shadow as nourishing as the sun’s light.
“I’ve a delivery to make, so I’ll take off. The Hall of Rejuvenation is just to the north, but be careful, Destron. I have heard that the night elves as no longer as accepting of visitors.”
I barely heard him, the zeppelin looking unreal and comical next to the undeniable reality of Nordrassil. I gave him a feeble wave and turned away as the ungainly vehicle made its ascent.
I staggered to the shores of Lake Ashanaral, the world spinning around me. Falling to my knees in the soft soil, I remembered the Temple of the Moon in Darnassus, how the moonwater brought the pain of life. Did I dare touch Ashanaral? Heedless of the risk I dipped my right hand in the drink, the water warm against the fingertips.
At last regaining some composure I spotted the Hall of Rejuvenation farther down the shore. Made in the traditional open-air night elf style, thick and mossy roots touch down on the earth around the building. Unwilling to cut down trees, the Kaldorei grow their structures, their halls and homes as alive as the surrounding forests.
Opalescent blossoms reaching up to four feet from petal to petal grow in the darkened relam beneath the roots, ghostly beacons in the night. Light from Lake Ashanaral pierces the dew droplets on the petals, in turn reflecting a mottled glow onto the darkened wood. I felt as if I walked inside a god, almost embracing the desire for self-annihilation that such awe inspires. Why fear death, when rotting into the soil brings immortality beyond consciousness?
For thousands of years, the Hall of Rejuvenation offered rest and shelter to the Kaldorei pilgrims who made the journey to Nordrassil. Nearly as famous were its keepers, the Sisterhood of Bounteous Green, who traveled Kalimdor on beams of moonlight to kill or abjure the most stubborn demons. Three-quarters of the sisterhood fell in the Battle of Mount Hyjal, and the survivors relocated to Darnassus. More recently, the Hall of Rejuvenation acted as an infirmary for those defending Nordrassil from Ragnaros.
Smaller versions of the wonders growing in the soil, white flowers bloom on the eaves and stone floor, a clear mark of the departed sisterhood’s influence. The flowers’ sweetness lifts into the air, an aroma conjuring images of unending growth. I almost didn’t see the Kaldorei druid in his robe of moss, its shape kept by gnarled branches interwoven through the surface.
“The battle for Hyjal is long over, Hordeling. We no longer have any need for volunteers.”
“All of Azeroth was relieved to hear of your victory. I only came to visit.”
“The Cenarion Circle cares for Nordrassil now, through the Guardians of Hyjal. Since you are not one of our number, there is little here for you.”
“May I come in? I’ve had a long flight—“
“No. We see no reason to let Ashenvale’s enemies—or those who poison the forests of Lordaeron—into the Hall of Rejuvenation. If you wish to learn, Hordeling, the rest of Hyjal may still be open to you. This place is not.”
Taking my leave, I walked until I stepped out from beneath Nordrassil, the familiar sun made alien in such a primal realm.
The fiery invaders linger on as obsidian boulders scattered across the lush stretch of land called the Verdant Thicket. Swift white streams tumble down the meadows, their banks laden with dense clusters of pallid flowers.
Ruined palaces sleep beneath eons’ worth of moss, their marble pillars swathed in green. The ancient Kaldorei saw Mount Hyjal as a challenge to be bested. To curry the favor of their beloved queen, Highborne wizards built grand manses on the then-frozen slopes, and with arcane might fashioned bubbles of heat and breathable air around such sites. For thousands of years such icebound oases testified to the victory of the magical over the natural. The greatest of these was the city of Lar’donir, where arcanists used the heavens as a canvas for artistic abstractions of subtle color and detail.
Seeing the pains that the Kaldorei took to reject (though not deny) their avaricious past, it is hard to believe that they’d even consider experimenting with the arcane a second time. Nonetheless, Horde troops in Ashenvale have reported night elf mages blasting them with ice and fire. Highborne remnants in Dire Maul, the Shen’dralar, are credited with starting this arcane renaissance, though others say that the Quel’dorei of Theramore or the draenei bear greater responsibility.
Evening was stealing across the sky when I met Nahonah Runetotem tending a small campfire at the edge of a stream. Upon meeting him, I warned him that the Kaldorei did not always appreciate campfires, as I’d found out in Teldrassil years ago.
“Ah, I welcome your concern, but the Guardians of Hyjal bear no ill will to the spirits of fire so long as they do not overreach their bounds,” he chuckled.
A druid, Nahonah wore a kodohide robe decorated with bold geometric patterns of white and turquoise. One of his gray horns ended in a stump, a memento of a fight against the centaur. Middle-aged, patches of gray dotted his brown fur.
“It is not often that war feels right, but I felt the ancestors calling me to battle on these slopes. A fearsome sight it was, the land below consumed in advancing flame, the twisting elemental spirits at the forefront. Yet we stood as one and triumphed! We will not see the likes of it again for some time.”
“You make me wish I’d been there,” I said, more out of politeness than genuine sentiment.
“Consider yourself lucky to have known peace. I praise only the rightness of our cause and the camaraderie in the air, not the battle itself.”
“Why are you still on Mount Hyjal?”
“The Runetotem elders wanted a few Horde druids to remain and observe the healing of the land. I am collecting samples of the earth in this place and will bring it down to Shrine of Aviana for study.”
I related my experience at the Hall of Rejuvenation. Nahonah sighed, his face grave.
“The Guardians of Hyjal—and the Cenarion Circle—see those who destroy the forests as enemies. The orcs leave a wasteland of stumps and mud in their wake. We Shu’halo have fought and bled to defend our lands from invaders, and I cannot fault the Kaldorei for doing the same.”
“Is the Cenarion Circle still a neutral organization?”
“For now. The defense of Mount Hyjal proved a boon to them. Do you know of former Archdruid Staghelm?”
“I do.” Staghelm had been the Darnassian archdruid during Malfurion’s absence. A staunch nationalist, he’d alienated the Cenarion Circle with his attempts to restore Kaldorei immortality. Long a troubled soul, the sentinels arrested him upon learning of his efforts to keep Malfurion trapped within the Emerald Dream. Twilight cultists freed him from prison and he joined Ragnaros after his escape. The radio in Orgrimmar had used this as proof of Kaldorei inconstancy.
“His betrayal galvanized the Cenarion Circle, as did Malfurion’s return. Darnassus and Nighthaven are now working more closely together. The druids of the Horde find themselves with no choice but to apologize for the actions of the orcs and the Forsaken, and we do all we can to persuade the Cenarion Circle to stay its hand.”
“What do you tell them?”
“I am not involved in this, but the Horde druids in Nighthaven try to convince the elder druids that the orcs will retreat once they are given lumber. But their words falter and lack strength, for many fear that Garrosh will not stop until he rules all Kalimdor. The warchief is an honorable man, but he must make his intentions clear if we are to help the Horde.”
Actually, Garrosh has made explicit his desire for a continental conquest. By tauren standards, him doing an about face and claiming his earlier plan to be a misstatement would be the only way to save face, and he would still be expected to step down. In orcish society, such an act would be condemned as betrayal.
“All know that many of the elven Cenarion defenders have resigned from their posts with the circle’s blessing, and now aid the sentinels in Ashenvale,” he continued.
Voices on the radio had once gloated over Horde victories in Ashenvale and Stonetalon, but such announcements grew sparse over time. Warriors returning from the front told of endless delays in the dark forests, and of elven wrath severing supply lines with ease.
“And what of the Ancients? I remember hearing that Goldrinn, the Wolf Ancient, had returned to defend Hyjal. The orcs are fond of wolves; perhaps the Horde could use to its favor,” I said.
“Goldrinn’s paws indeed walk again upon the earth. I would not pretend to know what Goldrinn thinks of the orcs, though he has a long history with the elves. There are stories that say he is somehow attuned to the king of Stormwind.”
Demigods of nature, the Ancients had devastated the demon armies of times past. Entire fiendish cohorts perished before the hooves of Malorne and Goldrinn’s howl could topple a dozen fel reavers. Certainly the Horde armies are far more competent than the Burning Legion, but I imagine they will still find the Ancients difficult foes.
“Cheyowattuck, whom you call Cenarius, also lives. He has not forgotten at whose blade he fell during the Third War.”
“Is the Cenarion Circle planning to use the Ancients against the Horde?”
“The Ancients follow their own counsel, but they bear no love for those who destroy the forest.”
“Why do have they not already intervened?”
“Beceause their souls live in the Emerald Dream. There are currently limits as to how often they can manifest on Azeroth. None lost their physical forms in Hyjal’s defense, so they will need only a little time to rest. For now, the Kaldorei make sacrifices in their honor and water the forests with orcish blood. It grows late, and I do not wish to speak of ill tidings any longer. We can talk more when An’she reveals the day’s picture of the Earthmother’s glory.”
Agreeing, I lay down on grass softer than any bed. I looked up at the stars, close and bright, a few perhaps girdled by the orbits of inhabited worlds. Do they also suffer from endless strife?
Hyjal’s altitude makes it an astronomer’s dream, and should also preserve it as peak of frozen rock, like it was before the War of the Ancients. Nordrassil alone makes it habitable, the warmth and air exuded from the branches preserving the land in an endless summer (as artificial, in its own way, as Azshara’s eternal autumn).
Nordrassil’s destruction at the end of the Third War threatened to render this holiest of places into an icy wasteland. The air began to thin out, orcs and humans falling to their knees as they struggled to breathe. Druids watched in horror as snow filled in valleys once blessed by constant warmth.
The Horde and Alliance troops rapidly vacated Hyjal for the warmer lowlands. However, the damage never spread beyond a few locales. As the snowfall slowed and came to a halt, the druids got their first inkling of Nordrassil’s stubbornness.
Blessed by the Dragonflights, Nordrassil had been the source of Kaldorei immortality. Creating the blighted tree of Teldrassil (supposedly since healed) had been Staghelm’s misguided reaction to this loss. According to druidic reports, the regrown Nordrassil will not grant eternal life to the night elves or anyone else.
We awoke early the next day, beams of sunlight playing through Nordrassil’s distant boughs. My glum mood lifted as I relished the invigoration of the pure mountain air.
Nahonah told me more about his time defending against the Elemental Invasion. His picture of cooperation between factions still revealed fault lines. Many Kaldorei saw no meaningful difference between the orcs and the elementals.
“How did the orcs respond?”
“They found it burdensome, but did not complain. Like me, they understand why the elves are angry. Both had a sacred task to fulfill, and put their energies to good use.”
“There was never any violence between the two?”
Nahonah made a rumbling sound deep in his throat.
“Not that we have seen. The Hyjal Truce has not been revoked; neither is it still relevant. Mount Hyjal is great in size, and who can watch all of its hidden groves and valleys?”
The Guardians of Hyjal had fought a grudging retreat up the slopes. Engineers rerouted streams to block the burning advance only to see entire lakes worth of water boil into vapor. Druids called for rain, their need drawing ponderous stormclouds from across northern Kalimdor, yet their downpours only slowed the consuming flame. The weather change caused a terrible drought in the Northern Barrens that raised food prices in Orgrimmar and was indirectly responsible for the terrible fire that wiped out several ranches east of the Crossroads. A necessary sacrifice, but it is difficult to think that the Guardians of Hyjal did not relish it in some way.
Partisans and select troops rallied to Hyjal’s defense, making lightning strikes into the Firelands to shut down the enemy’s operational capacity. Their greatest contribution was the reawakening of the Ancients, whose decisive actions saved the world. It was the work of Horde partisans that brought Malorne and Goldrinn back to the world. One wonders how these warriors now feel, knowing that they put such formidable weapons into Kaldorei hands. They had no other option, and I can only hope that the Horde is farsighted enough to refrain from punishing them.
We walked for several days through the Verdant Thicket, the skies clear and the air warm. Nahonah and I parted ways at Wolf’s Run, where burned patches still mar the greenery. The druid was headed to the Shrine of Aviana, while I intended to continue my journey down the slopes. Before we parted, I asked one more question.
“Nahonah, I would be much obliged if you told me, frankly, what the general consensus is among the tauren regarding the Horde?”
“The Horde? Do you test me?”
“No, I’m only curious. Besides, you’re a tauren, you can tell me whatever you wish. No one will take my word over yours.”
He looked at the ground, and I feared that I’d embarrassed him.
“We gladly pledge ourselves to the Horde. Thrall saved us from annihilation at the hands of the centaurs and quilboar, and aided us against the Grimtotem Tribe. These are not debts we can quickly repay, nor does Cairne’s death absolve us of our duty. Thrall implored our wise ones to teach the orcs the ways of the spirits, and we will continue to teach those who will listen.”
“I hope more will heed your words.”
“Only so long as our words are true and worthy. Many are fearful for the souls of the Forsaken. Your Dark Lady has done foul things in the Horde’s name. She raises the dead into slavery, just—“
“What did you say?”
“The Dark Lady has embraced necromancy.”
“No, she would not do such a thing.”
“I repeat only what I have been told by those who have seen it happen. How else are the Forsaken to replenish their numbers—“
“That is a damned lie! I hate Sylvanas; I hate where she has led my people, and what she has done to the Horde. I hate her plagues and cruelties. But—I promise you this—no Forsaken will ever tolerate necromancy.
“Did you know that the Scourge necromancers feared the Forsaken more than any other? They knew what we would do to them for vengeance’s sake. What we suffered, you cannot imagine! Sylvanas would never inflict undeath on another. It is the one line she will never cross, because for all her sins, she delivered me and all my kindred from the Lich King’s grasp, and she will always be my liberator!”
I shouted the last words, made rattling echoes by the surrounding cliffs. His eyes wide, Nahonah stepped back.
“Forgive me, Forsaken. It is easy to become confused in battle. Perhaps these reports were in error. Yet it is telling that this rumor would be so easily believed by so many. There seem to be few evils that your Dark Lady is unwilling to commit.”
“Yes. Mistakes are easy to make. And I can see why people would think it. Please don’t think I’m any supporter of Sylvanas. She is a criminal, and needs to face justice. But she would never commit necromancy. Of this, I am certain. I’m sorry, Nahonah; I like you, and I’d rather we didn’t part on such a dark note.”
“You have faced many trials in your undeath, and I think you have come through them wiser. So long as your curiosity remains undimmed, the spirits will favor you as much as they can.”
Saying our last goodbyes, I followed a road hugging the cliffs, ferns and scraggly trees gripping the rock face. Looking over my shoulder, I could just see Nahonah’s bulky figure walking south.
The statue of Goldrinn shows the Ancient in a state of guarded watchfulness, its stone eyes searching the surrounding valley for prey and threat alike. The woods are silent in that place, not daring to contradict the menace imbued in the very air. A strange vitality is evident in the statue, its carved fur seeming to move in the wind, the tumbled and mossy pillars around it accentuating the hint of divine natural might.
Pilgrims once traveled from shrine to shrine to perform sacrificial rites in honor of the distant Ancients. Goldrinn’s took the form of a freshly slain game animal, ideally a stag, hunted down by the petitioner. I’d come an empty-handed monstrosity. Nahonah had told me that Goldrinn would not expect an offering from someone unable to hunt, and that bringing him a quarry caught by another would be disrespectful. Reverence was supposedly enough, though I couldn’t help fearing that my curiosity ventured on insult.
Examining the statue, I became aware of a strange unease pinpointed on the center of my back. A sudden dread consumed me, the forest darker and wilder than before, nature revealed in all its savagery. Goldrinn’s sightless stone eyes, forever fixed on the southern ridge, urged me to take in the world around me. Preparing myself for some unknown horror, I turned around to see my fear.
I fell back as if physically struck. A fantastical army stood in the forested valley, perhaps 50 Kaldorei garbed in hides and still-living flora, streaks of red and blue painted on predatory faces. Some held icons, complicated arrangements of twigs and sticks, and more than half bore weapons. A woman stood at the front, her jaw painted crimson, feathers and claws tied to her tangled green hair. Challenge in her silver eyes, the woman’s face set itself in an expression of mixed contempt, disbelief, and pity.
“Why are you here?” she demanded in harshly accented Orcish.
I tried to think of a response, still trying to comprehend my situation. Armor made of living roots enclosed a woman standing next the speaker, the tendrils sharpened like stakes around her hands. I saw a man, naked from the waist up, toting a slain stag on his broad shoulders, runes painted in blood on his chest. Getting a closer look, I realized that some whom I’d taken to be elves dressed in furs were not elves at all; worgen shadowed the crowd, their golden lupine eyes recreating Goldrinn’s.
“Answer the question, undead.”
“I wished to pay my respects to Goldrinn,” I said, forcing my voice to stay clear and steady. I remembered the evils that my kind had inflicted on the Gilneans and prayed that the worgen I saw would not seek vengeance on the account of fallen countrymen.
“Lies. You have no gift for the Ancient. You insult him by treading on this holy place with rotten feet!”
“A wise druid told—“
“Do not lie about druids, for none would tell you to come here.”
“My lady, I speak truly when I say I wished to pay my respects. I am no hunter, and can only offer my reverence to this Ancient, so recently reawoken by the orcs.”
I spotted one of the worgen pushing through the crowd to reach me, teeth bared. The elven woman’s lips inched up in a cold smile, the red pigment glistening in the sun.
“Clever words, monster. Get on your knees.”
Still watching the worgen, I obeyed, trying to maintain an appearance of respectful deference. Part of me had never fully divorced the Kaldorei from an image of elves based on their decadent eastern cousins. Only then did I truly appreciate the difference, and realize why so many orcs dread Ashenvale.
The worgen stopped while the speaker stepped towards me. Seeing the crescent moon pendant dangling from a silvery necklace, I realized that she was a priestess. With fingers like iron she grabbed my jaw and forced my face upwards so that I looked at her directly.
“A few of your wretched breed aided in the defense. Why, I do not know. I would welcome annihilation if cursed like you. Nonetheless, the Hyjal Truce holds, and though I am a servant of Darnassus and Holy Tyrande I will heed its bindings. We will not kill you.”
With that she pulled me up to my feet, clasping my shoulders in a parody of solidarity.
“But neither can we allow this insult to go unpunished.”
Turning to the crowd, her Darnassian words thundered to cries of assent from the pilgrims. The back of her right hand slammed into my face, my head snapping back from the force. I had not yet recovered when the root-armored elf struck, jagged wood tearing open my right sleeve and taking off a bit of skin. That too, was only a prelude.
One blow fell after another, fists striking with frustration borne from years of setbacks and humiliations. I tried only to stay on my feet, my deadened nerves allowing me to weather the attacks. Something snapped in my chest as a scarred elven woman propelled her knee into my ribcage, worgen claws gouging my sides. Those too far to hit me reached out and grabbed at my flesh.
Hope faded with each blow, my clothes in rags, dead flesh further pulverized. The worgen attacked with the most relish, one of them snapping viciously at my throat before the elves, determined to fulfill the letter of the truce, pulled her back.
At last they ejected me from the crowd. Pain reverberated through cracked bones and I fell to the ground in exhaustion, curling up in shame; my body is more visibly dead than is my face. Hearing footfalls near me, I prayed they’d make it quick.
Instead, I saw a man grab my backpack and lift it into the air. Undoing the cord, he dumped its contents onto the ground: extra clothes, some money, and the notes I’d taken on Hyjal. Reaching down, he picked up the notes and, without looking at them, ripped the paper into shreds. Other elves grabbed the spare clothes, noses wrinkling in disgust as they handled the apparel, soon throwing it to the ground. The coins they left in the grass.
“Now you know our displeasure. You may continue your existence, but you must stay where you lie until we are done here. Since you wished to pay respects to Goldrinn, we will let you see us pay our respects instead.”
She called out in Darnassian, the pilgrims falling silent. Slow and solemn, a pair of elves began to beat their snare drums while others blew into wooden flutes that forked into two prongs at the mouthpiece. Atonal and hypnotic, the music carried a suggestion of the infinite in its discordant notes. The multitudes stepped to the side as the elf I’d earlier seen carrying the stag made his slow progress to the shrine.
The priestess raised her arms over her head, chanting to the Ancient in a voice strident and passionate. The bearer of gifts threw the corpse at the wolf’s feet before genuflecting.
Beheld through the lens of shame and exhaustion, I saw wild beasts take the place of the elves, the antlers and furs they wore suddenly made parts of their bodies. Shrill cries erupted from the pilgrims, and I heard too the howls of the worgen. Their voices shook the mountaintop, and I shivered in dismal fear. I saw nothing of Goldrinn himself, and imagined the wrath of the Loa that I’d once seen in Zul’drak, loosed instead on the Kaldorei.
Wild ritual dancers stormed the shrine, night elven bodies twisting in ways seemingly never meant for mortal bodies as the harsh music played faster and louder. Worshippers heaped more offerings before the shrine, slain birds as supplements for the main course. The Kaldorei can keep near-perfect track of the number of animals in their forests, knowing precisely how many to cull without harming the ecosystem. I had no doubt that each sacrifice was measured in full.
Wisps swirled through the masses as the sun set, elves leaping high into the chilly air. Some pantomimed the hunt, elven women in wolfskins prowling the grounds as men with antlers tied to their brows laughed and ran. They played for some time in the spectral light before moving in, mock cries turning into hearty laughs and sighs as they disappeared into the tall grass.
I smelled wine on the evening air, sweet and heady in the Kaldorei manner. Bowls of the stuff made rounds around the celebrants, each drinking deep. My head ached from the noise and commotion, the festivities like a knife in a wound.
The night wore on, and I wondered how the elves kept from collapsing. Instead they drove themselves into greater heights, exulting in a maddened joy. Their gods had returned and Nordrassil again lived. With this glee came the righteous anger of the victim, ready to repay cruelty with blood. Ancient lords of the world, they’d again reclaim it.
The elves ended their revels as the moon’s lurid glow dulled in the light of the rising sun, retiring from the dances to settle on the grass and sip from bowls of wine. The priestess staggered down the steps, her eyes betraying none of the exhaustion visible in her movements, something heavy hanging from her closed fist. She walked to my side, her cruel grin visible in the darkness. Holding up her right arm, I saw what she held: the severed head of an orcish woman, her eyes and tongue torn out. I recoiled at the sight, at last feeling the welcome heat of anger.
“Do not be so quick to defend it. This is no Horde warrior, but a Twilight cultist we found the other day. It was not a fresh kill, so we did not make it our main offering. Besides, Goldrinn detests this alien meat, though I find myself appreciative of its strange flavor.”
The priestess licked her lips, and laughed.
“We will never try your flesh, foul thing. But nightmares of ancient days are returning to defend their land. One day soon we will dance in the streets of Bilgewater Harbor, of Orgrimmar. Undercity will fall to the worgen, and a new eternity will be upon us.”
She threw the head at my feet and I winced when I heard the impact, heavy and wet. I loathed the priestess and her arrogance even as I understood the source of her rage. But the night elves had already had their chance to rule the world, a victory they obtained by attacking the trollish empires older than their own…
“Leave, now. If I see you again, I will kill you. Take your coins, if you wish.”
I tried to stand up, dead limbs resisting my will. Wrapped in clothes, I could pretend a humanity I no longer possessed. Naked, I was nothing but a corpse. Still, I forced myself to return her gaze, even as my body shook. Finally I broke, turning around and limping away, shamed beneath the morning sky.