The monotone beating of the axes resounded through the woods. Elduin could hear it well. The sounds of steel on bark and splintering wood seemed to enter his ears and seep through the core of his being. He endured it like physical pain, like the axes were striking into his body instead. The Greenskins who had killed Cenarius, they still had the audacity to come into their woods and cause even more mayhem. Elduin grit his teeth as the grip on his staff slowly tightened. The pain was slowly becoming unbearable. The druid's amber eyes searched the trees and he tried to concentrate on something different than the woodcutting orcs in the distance. He failed.
Elduin experienced a seldom loss of patience. It was an uncommon experience for a timeless being like him to lose his patience, but ever since the death of Cenarius, he was becoming more and more prone to it. Where in Elune's name was Ishrien? The renegade sentinel was supposed to have returned by now. This wasn't like her. She was one of his best. The girl was headstrong and sometimes stubborn, but nevertheless resourceful and reliable. He just hoped he hadn't lost her like he had lost so many others already. The numbers of his followers were dwindling, and they had virtually no allies left.
The druid fought to keep his anger under control, and failed. Why? Why had his own people condemned him? For the survival of the race, the druid and his scarce followers had embraced darker powers, powers that had made their way back to Azeroth together with the demonic Burning Legion. If their enemies had access to such powers, why would the night elves have to hesitate to use them against their enemies, when the power was in reach? The survival of the race was at stake.
Elduin remembered the discussions he had held with the inhabitants of his hometown, the one he had abandoned. 'They are demon-spawned wretches and must be purged!' he had bellowed. 'They stood with us against the Legion and did not bow to them willingly' the reply had come. 'The curse is in their blood, the rage is. Even with the pit lord Mannoroth dead, the orcs are nothing like the peaceful shamanistic people they claimed they once were. If allowed to live, they will become a threat to all we hold dear. We must claim all the power we possibly can and eradicate their kind before we suffer the fate we wish upon them,' Elduin had pleaded with them, but it had fallen on deaf ears like so many times before. His people were always much too confident, too confident in a good outcome. Elduin dared not say it out loud, but his kind was well on the way to becoming complacent. Their last words still rang in his ears. 'If you continue on this path you desire, you will eventually become as lost in rage as so many of the forest creatures who came in touch with demonic energies before you. Our traditional strength has withstood countless challenges for thousands of years. It will not fail us now.'
So outraged he had been that he had turned his back on his fellow night elves and announced with a final snarl: 'I will not let ignorance guide my path, or allow it to lead my people to ruin. Anyone who has the will to truly save our people, follow me.' Fewer than he had hoped had followed, even though more had joined him recently. Many of those had already fallen. Elduin suppressed the longing he felt to return to those simpler days, to his village. His jaw tightened. No, he didn't long for them at all. He did what had to be done, why could they not see? The new Warchief, that senseless brute Garrosh, should be more than proof enough. If half the things the eyes and ears in Elduin's service had told him were true, his worst fears were beginning to take shape.
A faint rustling only his night elf ears could catch broke the druid out of his worried thoughts. Just to be on the safe side he momentarily fixed his powerful grip on his staff, until the face he had been expecting to see appeared before him. Ishrien never wasted a lot of time with formalities. In a way her attitude almost reminded him a little of the humans he had seen her take so much interest in. Elduin eyed her up briefly. Although Ishrien had no doubt made haste, she showed no signs of fatigue. 'The corruption' his night elf brethren called it, but she had embraced the new ways as he had and there were no signs about her that would identify her as being 'corrupted', not one. Elduin had several faint, thin black streaks running over his forearms, but he was more reliant on his magic than any of his followers, and that slight change to his appearance still did not put him on the same level as for instance a satyr, naga, or any of the bastard races for that matter. Elduin had convinced himself he would never be truly corrupted as long as he upheld his righteous cause.
"Shan'do Elduin, it is as we feared," the girl announced worriedly. "The orcs have set up another lumber camp. They have constructed watch towers and set many sentry wards to guard against our approach. I had trouble getting close to them."
That came as no surprise, but it still displeased Elduin. He and his followers were among the few who had reached for darker powers, but they were by far not the only ones willing to protect their homeland or punish the murderers of Cenarius. It was only natural that the orcs had grown more cautious. His question was simple and brisk:
"Too many, Shan'do. They have brought over three hundred of their ilk, and many of them are warriors."
Three hundred, Elduin thought, his scarred face remaining expressionless. Against so many his small band of renegades could achieve very little. The lowly peons were of little concern, but if he wanted to assault a fortified camp, even their spears could prove troublesome if they chose to hide in their burrows. Elduin's warriors could always try to pick them off one by one, but that would never be sufficient to get rid of the entire camp.
"Too many," Elduin repeated, be it grudgingly. The druid muttered the words again and again as he was sunk in thought. It was too late to turn back now. His people would never accept him again. They'd have to carry on with what they were doing or die trying. If Ishrien perceived his doubt, she ignored it.
"Too many, or rather, too few of us. We can smash their nests as many times as we like, Shan'do, but we will never be rid of them as long as we don't break them at their core," Ishrien said with the calm and cool, but uncalculated confidence only youth could provide.
That caught Elduin's attention. It was a mad thought, but somehow still appealing. To sneak deeply into orc territory and put an end to the Warchief himself or perhaps devise a grand plot to decimate the orc population... It seemed like it was worth the risk. One final blaze of glory to prove he was right, be it with a small chance of success, could mean he hadn't thrown the purpose of his life away. Embarking on this venture sounded like a death sentence, but if he died as a martyr while achieving something grand, perhaps it would prove those who had condemned him wrong, and inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
"Are you suggesting that we should fight the orcs on their own ground, child?" When he said it out loud, the plan suddenly didn't seem as brilliant anymore.
The smile on Ishrien's beautiful face was as faint as a winter sun.
"It's not their ground, and besides, there are others," she said, a mysterious twinkle in her eye.
"The Horde has many enemies, none of which will drive them out of Kalimdor any time soon, if my informants can still be relied upon," Elduin said.
Ishrien was as playful as a dryad. He could tell she was hiding something.
"Not all of the Horde's enemies are currently committed to fighting them. There are others, like the humans who encroached upon their lands when their nation had only just emerged. The Kul Tiras marines."
The eyes and ears in Elduin's service had told him enough about those humans. A small number of them remained on the shores of Durotar, the rest of them had succumbed to the leadership of Jaina Proudmoore and were no longer committed to fighting the Horde.
"Your optimism is commendable child, but this is sheer folly. The marines you speak of were crushed, destroyed by the savages. What little remains of them is barely a threat to the orcs at all. I hardly understand why they would still oppose the Horde."
"Duty. Honour," Ishrien said, deadly serious. "The same reasons I follow you."
That left Elduin momentarily speechless, but his young consort waited patiently for his reply. She knew him well enough to realize she had caught his interest, he could tell, but nevertheless Elduin was not yet convinced. Far from it, even.
"They're likely all dead by now. What good would such a small force do us?"
"There are more of them," Ishrien continued confidently.
"More?" Elduin repeated the word distrustfully before his young consort could continue. The idea of finding an unoccupied army of humans who hated the orcs would be like finding a village of Night Elves in the middle of the woods that would suddenly agree to follow his ways and become devoted to his cause. Highly unlikely, and too good to be true. Something he dreamed of, but never truly held possible. The younger Night Elf was untouched by his doubt. She nodded.
"More. While I was in Durotar, I came by Tiragarde keep. It seemed unwise to approach the humans directly, so I listened in on them to learn anything about the orcs in the area. Their men spoke of one 'Lieutenant Alverold', whose return they awaited. Apparently this lieutenant had been sent to map Kalimdor's shores, while their Grand Admiral led the assault against the orcs. They contemplated sending someone after the expedition to inform him of the fate that had befallen their admiral and themselves. The marines seemed convinced that this Alverold would turn his sails and return to help them in their fight if he learned about their situation. One of the men contemplated that it wouldn't be possible to find them or even gain on them... lest you had wings," Ishrien said, and her eyes sparkled once more.
She smiled briefly. "I have to admit, the contents of their kitchens were another source of my interest and reason for my presence." A guilty look crossed her face. The girl was far too curious than was good for her, and had a hard time keeping her hands off of anything that piqued her interest. A lot of his things had disappeared after Ishrien had first started working for him, only to reappear in different places shortly after he'd asked her about them.
Elduin remained silent as he pondered on her words. Good news was something he hadn't had in so long that it seemed alien to him at first. He had sent Ishrien to spy on Durotar, but he'd never expected it to yield such results. "You could have told me this before," he said, perhaps a little bit too harshly.
Ishrien shuffled her feet and crossed her arms behind her back innocently. "It never crossed my mind to share this with you as it seemed insignificant and nothing of our concern, but now that the odds are stacked against us as they are..." she said apologetically, blushing a little.
It was obvious for Elduin what his audacious consort was hinting at. He could soar above the clouds and travel safely and with a good chance of tracing this lost fleet, but none of his followers would be able to come along. Besides, it felt like running away, something he hadn't ever done in all his life. The druid shook his head.
"I cannot abandon my task here, Ishrien. You are in too much danger as you are already. Without me, you'll surely perish."
"Your task no longer lies here, Elduin. It is our task to inflict as much damage as we can upon the Horde, through any means we may seek to seize. You are the only one of us who can do this, Shan'do. You may yet exact the vengeance you desire, even if it should happen through others."
"So I am to scour the seas for a supposed fleet of human ships and convince them to turn their sails to destroy the Horde... And abandon all of you to your fates?"
Ishrien realized full well what would become of Elduin's tiny band of renegades without the druid to guide them. She was strangely calm.
"All night eves will suffer the same fate if the Horde is allowed to march upon us unchecked. You have a duty to your entire people, not just those of us who chose to follow you," she said.
Elduin weighed up his options. He had already given up so much on his quest to destroy the orcs
but still he doubted whether he could give up this, his warband, the last family he had. A sudden sound off in the distance, in the direction of the lumber camp, broke him out of his thoughts. Ishrien had noticed it as well.
"Fandu-dath belore?" the girl called softly. She kept her voice low and soft to make sure only elven ears would pick up its sound, and definitely not the wretched Greenskins. Being the renegades they were, it would not guarantee their safety if it was a band of night elves heading towards them, but at least then there was a chance they could avoid a fight. Suddenly they heard raw voices and the splintering of wood further up. The orcs were not masking their approach. Once they would perhaps have sent out the more cautious dark trolls ahead of them in an attempt to surprise them, but no more. Those times were gone. The Horde had changed, and not for the better. What they had given up in caution they had made up for in brutality, Elduin figured.
Dogs tend to take a likeness to their masters, the druid thought bitterly as he envisioned a hideous image of this new Warchief, the wretched brute Garrosh, before his mind's eye.
"Not night elves," he growled. "Orcs. We've been discovered."
It was not like him to let his guard down. Perhaps they had spent too much time talking. Ishrien's tale had captivated him more than he would like to admit. The raw voices quickly grew louder, coming closer. As he prepared himself for battle he felt the presence of his magic rising to its boiling point within him. It made Elduin more sensitive to the magic around him as well, allowing him to discover just what is was that had given them away. There, hidden in the undergrowth, was an orcish sentry ward. A miniature totem with a magic eye on top, it was shrouded by magic, and its presence meant whoever had placed it was able to see them.
"Tor ilisar'thera'nal!" Elduin exclaimed, frustrated that his earlier assessment on the Horde had been proven wrong so swiftly. He swung his staff in anger, and the purple magic blast that flew from the edge of his staff exploded the sentry ward in a million fragments without leaving even the slightest impression on the undergrowth.
"They are coming! Bandu'thoribas!" Ishrien called as she drew her knives, no longer bothering to keep down her beautiful voice, which was rich with power and conviction. Even though Elduin admired the girl's zeal, he took her by the shoulder and pulled her back.
"This is no mere scout party. Surely if they already knew we were here they will be coming in greater numbers. We must run to fight another day. Perhaps if we can lure them with us, the brutes' noise will alarm our sisters in time and allow them to set an ambush. Come!" he called, pulling the girl with him.
She sheathed her weapons and reluctantly followed, noticing Elduin was not running at his fastest possible pace. As they left the small clearing, the first green brute burst from the tree line with a cracking of branches. The steel of his axe was stained with old blood. Ishrien stopped for just as long as it took for her to ascertain he could see her, and then sprinted after Elduin.
Allowing the orcs to follow them soon proved to be a mistake. She'd already thought they had spent too much time being watched, that she'd heard footsteps all around them, but she had been too caught up in trying to convince Elduin of her plan to pay much heed to this. Furthermore she had trusted in Elduin's senses. That, too, had been a mistake. The branches to Elduin's left suddenly shattered, and out burst a warrior clad in red hides and armour plating. On the monstrous arm that held up his axe the silhouette of a screaming face had been tattooed in blood red ink: the sign of the Warsong clan. Elduin tried to pull his body back but his speed worked against him, and his staff would be of little use in such close quarters. As the orc brought his axe down one of Ishrien's throwing knives disappeared in his eye socket, the force with which it penetrated his skull and brain knocking his head backwards. His body soon followed, fallen branches cracking loudly in protest as they got crushed under his weight. The warrior's axe only missed Elduin by a shred.
"Make haste! They've nearly surrounded us!" Ishrien shouted without pause as she sped past the druid, her senses driven to their peak. She could hear the stomping of oversized feet, the snapping of branches and the grunting of orcs all around them.
The brutes were close. Two to her left, one to her right, speeding through the wilderness in an effort to keep up with her. As they ran the warriors made no effort to avoid the foliage that got in their way, smashing through everything that got in their path, apparently doing as much damage to the woods as they could. They growled at her and shouted obscenities as they dragged their axes across tree trunks and cut apart branches, leaving deep carvings. It was almost as if the warriors were trying to taunt her into standing her ground and facing them. Ishrien knew better than to give in to the brutes. If she made it in range of their crude, vengeful axes, she would be doomed. But that didn't mean they were just going to get away.
"Taste the wrath of the Goddess, wretches!" Ishrien exclaimed as she threw another knife to the one at her left, piercing the orc's gut. He crashed down heavily even though he was not dead yet, but another grunt quickly trampled over his comrade in his haste, the weight of his foot burying his comrade's face in the ground. The sheer bloodlust in the creature's eyes was terrifying to behold even to her, who had faced so many of the creatures already. Their bloodlust enhanced their ability to run, and the orcs followed both of the swift Night Elves for several minutes in a haphazard chase in which both parties had to watch out not to trip or slam into a tree. The Warsong orcs did not gain ground, but neither did they lose any. Ishrien realized that surely the slowest orcs must have already fallen behind by this point, but there were still more than they could handle in a stand-up fight.
My sisters, where are you? Ishrien thought as the lead orc burst from the treeline in front of her with bared teeth, swinging his massive axe at her midsection with both his hands. Ishrien reached up, caught an overhanging branch and flipped over the warrior, her heels hitting into his back and knocking him down as she came swinging around. She wasted no time and swung around again, letting go at the exact right moment to send herself careening through the air. For a few brief moments the young night elf could imagine how Elduin must have felt every time his wings had carried him through the clouds. She sailed through the air gracefully and landed with an equal amount of control. Ishrien allowed herself a smile as a storm crow passed over her shoulder and she saw how much her jump had put the orcs behind her. Without hesitation she ran on and on, following the storm crow flying before her. By the way Elduin had slowed down his pace - she knew the druid was capable of far greater speeds in his animal form - she could tell he was still hanging on to his original plan of luring the orcs into an ambush. Whether that was wise was beyond her, but there was no time to discuss it with Elduin right now.
The decision turned out to be a mistake, again.
"Merciful Goddess," Ishrien whispered as they came upon the camp Elduin and his followers had established mere days ago. Bodies of Greenskins and Night Elves alike were strewn across the area, and the fallen leaves that covered forest ground were wet and slick with blood. Elduin had arrived slightly before her. He was crouched down in his night elf form, his head hanging low. The druid seemed a broken man.
They had noticed the stench of death before they reached the site, but only realized it now. So fixed on their pursuers they had been, that neither of them had even wanted to consider that this could have happened to their comrades in arms while they were out. The Greenskins were still close behind them, and more burst from the shambling tents.
It's a trap! the girl realized with a shock.
"COME!" Ishrien called instinctively, driving her sadness and despair to the back of her mind and pulling Elduin up by his arm. Adrenaline guided her actions and gave her the strength she needed: Elduin had never felt this light. Against his will, it seemed, the druid followed after her.
"We still have a chance! The Fallen Ancient!" she called at Elduin, hoping her zeal would invigorate him, but he did not answer. The way he looked, she was already glad he didn't stop to wage a futile battle, or drop to the ground and deliver himself to the orcs.
The Fallen Ancient was exactly what the name suggested: the remains of an Ancient who had not survived the Warsong clan's first passing into night elf territory. The greater part of the creature had been cut apart and taken by the Warsong to resume its existence in the shape of an orcish settlement, but part of it still remained. Even in death, the skeleton - if one could call it that - of the ancient still served the night elves. He had collapsed against the cliffside behind him, right next to a majestic waterfall. The remains of his body could serve a ladder to the more agile creatures of the forest, providing easy access to the plateau above. The night elves were among the creatures nimble enough to climb it. Most orcs however, were not.
Arriving upon the small clearing on which the Fallen Ancient stood, Ishrien's heart immediately sunk to her stomach. Their path of escape had been cut off. The remains of the ancient had been cut to bits as a final insult to its memory, or rather a smart tactical decision by the orcs. Naturally. She stole a sideways glance at Elduin. The look in the druid's eyes told her he was enduring the same sense of despair she did. Death was not something to be feared, but it was different to those whose task was so far from being completed. They ran until they reached the cliffside and only then stopped, as if they had to get this close to believe the ancient was truly gone. They were both sick of running, being hunted on their own ground. To the left, the current cut off their escape, and the grunting and pounding of feet told them the orcs had been smart enough to flank their escape rather than go straight after them. They stopped dead in their tracks, ready for the end.
Even though they managed to kill Cenarius we still underestimated the Warsong, and it seems we are going to pay for it with our lives, Ishrien thought as she reached for her knives, the war cries behind her terrifyingly close now.
The young night elf turned, determined to give the first orc to appear a face full of throwing knives. She didn't have to wait long. Her feelings were too turbulent, and the skilled warrior caught the dagger on his bracer easily, drawing back a small axe for a throw without slowing his advance. The subsequent blast of magic however, did not leave anything but his smouldering lower body standing: this time his armour had been shredded like it had been made of paper. Ishrien's breath got stuck in her throat as Elduin stepped in front of her. She was amazed at the vigour he displayed, at the symbol of power he had once again become.
"Come you wretches! Even being struck down by the lethal grace of a Druid of the talon is too good a fate for your kind, but I shall bring it upon you nonetheless!" he defied his adversaries, even as the number of green-skinned shapes breaking unto the clearing made clear there was no hope for either of them.
Two more orcs charged and got dangerously close, but they were caught in a swirling cyclone that pulled them up into the air and then spat them out, sending the both of them hurtling into the trees. The cyclone stopped the others from advancing briefly, but the orcs were clearly not afraid of the druid, charging forward again the moment it subsided. Ishrien's last knife was wasted as the orc who caught it in his shoulder only stopped to pull it out.
When all hope seemed lost Ishrien suddenly noticed the familiar feel of moonlight kissing her skin. She looked up to see the eternal friend of any night elf to walk Azeroth appearing in the sky, and her despair suddenly subsided.
"Shan'do!" the girl shouted as she moved to block the druid from the approaching warriors. Elduin's staff was pointed at them threateningly, the tip bristling with magic. Having witnessed what had happened to their comrades, the orcs chose to spread out, encircling the night elves further and looking to take the druid out by surprise as Elduin's staff kept switching targets, but every time he pointed it at another orc the others would draw one step closer. Ishrien saw the conviction in his eyes and in that instance realized it would be difficult to make him back off from this fight.
"Elduin!" she called. "Remember what I said! What we talked about! Your destiny! Your duty! Remember! Do it! Do it for all of us! For all those who fell, and those who are to fall! For all those who have had their fates splintered by the fury of the Horde! Ash Karath!"
Ishrien perceived a change in her teacher. It happened slowly, but it was most certainly there. She knew him far too well not to see it: he was going to honour her wish if it was the last thing he did. He, who had been willing to throw away everything from the sanctuary of his village, to his age-old friends, he who had discarded his own personal safety and perhaps even his very own soul, all in order to avenge Cenarius and save their people from the Horde. Then with a flash he was gone and moments later a storm crow flew vertically up along the cliffside to safety, making an escape that was impossible for one such as her. Ishrien closed her eyes, content in knowing her task was done. With the threat of the druid's magic gone, the grunts roared and charged forward, content with taking out their frustration of letting Elduin slip through their fingers out on his consort. The brutes did not concern Ishrien. Her final thought before it happened went out to Elune.