Dark Forest

A jolt stirred her, but she fought to remain asleep, warm and safe from what awaited, but another stronger jolt made her eyes flutter open. She was laying on something soft, something warm, and she felt movement and heard sounds of grinding wheels among the chaos. Then everything suddenly came back to her, and Jaina sat up quickly looking around. Gasping as her sore and battered body screamed in protest she saw all the people around her, refugees, warriors and priests. She almost shrank back in fear as a big green warrior turned towards her with a wide grin that exposed large sharp teeth.

"Ah, you're awake!" Roka said in relief and grabbed her. Thrall and the massive Tauren Chieftain Cairne were beside her.

"Hold on, Lady Jaina," Thrall said with a note of respect in his voice. "We only have a few more hours to go."

"What- what happened? I can't remember," Jaina stuttered as her eyes looked around. There were no more burning stars falling, although the air combat was still going strong, with what appeared to be flying horses with people on their backs having joined the fray. Looking down at herself she noticed she was only in her nightshift, and anything it didn't cover was wrapped in bandages, even her face. Embarrassed she pulled the blanket around her.

"Oh Jaina, you were fantastic!" Roka said excitedly. "Everyone saw you fighting that demonic thing all by yourself right in the middle of the supply wagons! It was amazing!" As Roka went on and on Thrall put a hand on her shoulder, silencing her.

"Apparently from what I saw and was told, you teleported in alone, with your squad running to catch up," he said in his military report style. "I have not seen such a thing!" he said, slipping into excitement himself for a moment. "With a massive shield of water and a big hammer of stone you held it back long enough for the warriors to bring the civilians away."

"The children? Are the children okay?" Jaina asked with her heart in her throat, not really believing the grand picture that both Thrall and Roka painted of her 'grandeur'.

"Yes, everyone is okay," Thrall said with a note of sadness in his voice. "Anyway, as you were destroying the demon, another fell from the sky, right on top of you."

"What? Then why am I still alive?" Jaina said in disbelief.

"The Earthmother protects her children," Cairne said in his slow and stoic way, and Thrall shot him a look.

"True it is, the spirits were with you on that day, Jaina," he said with faith in his voice.

"That day? How long have I been… lying here?" she asked in confusion.

"Two days, sister, two days," Roka said and put a hand on her shoulder. "It was a miracle of the Spirits that we saved you, that and your warriors," she smiled sadly.

"Yes, where are they? We need to keep going," Jaina said firmly as she got her legs under her trying to get off the cart. Thrall firmly pushed her down again.

"They are no more, Jaina. They gave their life fighting the demon so we could get you away," he said with sad pride. "Braver souls are hard to find."

"The Earthmother keep them and shelter them from the storm," Cairne said warmly. Wearily Jaina closed her eyes as the tears ran, then opened them wide as a horrifying shriek coupled with an unearthly roar came hurtling towards them. Almost crying out in fear she turned to look and saw what looked like a Siege Tank screech to a skidding halt as it turned around, streaks of fire erupting from the roof and heading up into the sky. Moments later a hatch was flung open and a bluish head with a red Mohican hairdo shot up followed by strong shoulders and arms gripping some sort of lever. Turning the lever quickly several tubes started rattling and then the creature went back down, shutting the hatch as the strangely altered Siege Tank almost jumped forward and weaved away in a billowing puff of smoke.

"What the hell was that?" Jaina burst out in horrified amazement. Thrall chuckled.

"The daredevil pilot that brought us the message earlier, and one of the Troll alchemists…"

"Ach! I told ye, at what position is it?" Quarterjack almost yelled over the roar of the engine.

"East, I says east!" Vil'Jin yelled frantically, waving his arms through the small opening that served as windows in the cramped Siege Tank hull. Quickly Quarterjack pulled one lever and pushed another, making the vehicle turn with a screech of spinning wheels.

"I taught you the clock, you damnable Troll, that way was 2 o'clock from where we were!" he yelled irritably. Then he reached for another lever as the way was blocked by a supply cart. A massive blast came from a horn and the people in front of him almost jumped. "Out of the way humans!" he yelled excitedly as he slammed both steering levers forward, making the engine roar with power. Quickly they scattered, although he still nicked the corner of a cart, making the tank rock on its wheels.

"Beer for fuel, not drinking!" Vil'Jin yelled at him as he put a hand to the gash in his forehead where he had bumped against a protruding lever.

"Shut up and get ready, I got the beast in my sights!" Quarterjack shouted as his hand went to the 'rocket launcher pulley' rope. A hard yank and the tank shuddered as another 'Na-Palm Spear' shot from the roof. The name was Trollish, but that was okay, Quarterjack mused as Vil'Jin threw the hatch open and manned the two Gatling guns they had scavenged from wrecked Gyrocopters. The tank itself was a rebuilt Siege Tank with Dwarven beer powering the worn out engine, no siege cannon, but a prototype rocket launcher on top and the twin Gatlings both connected to the same lever. Having given up on his jet powered flying engine he had worked with Vil'Jin and come up with the smaller single-use rockets instead. A warhead of clay with dual chambers filled up with the 'Na-Palm' mixture turned them into devastating anti-air weapons. The crackle of the twin guns made his ears hurt, but the new prototype Anti-air Tank was worth it.

"Turn 6 o'clock!" he heard Vil'Jin yell, and he yanked the levers in opposite directions making the tank spin around, and the chatter of the guns filled the small space of the tank again.

"Got him?" Quarterjack yelled as the chatter stopped.

"Got him!" Vil'Jin yelled with a big grin as he ducked down, closing the hatch behind him.

"Right, how many NPS' do we have left?" Quarterjack asked as his eyes scanned the sky through the slots of the tank.

"What?" Vil'Jin asked.

"Na-Palm Spears! How many left?!" the Dwarf roared irritably.

"We have six!" Vil'Jin yelled back.

"Right, hold on tight, coming through!" Quarterjack yelled in warning a split second before he slammed both levers forward for max acceleration, sending Vil'Jin backward with a bunch of non-friendly Trollish curses.

Again the Burning Blade was on the move, with Geir struggling to keep up. After the brutal body-combat session he wanted to just lie down and rest, but Jubei was relentless. They had a mission to scout ahead of the others, and the Orcs were dead serious in carrying it out. The training was important, but secondary. As they plunged further on, the air felt… odd, and even though it was just past noon the shadows deepened around the trees, as if it was close to sunset. Geir felt a growing sense of unease, and the all-too familiar fear he always carried with him sparked up, but he ignored it as he always did. When Jubei called a halt he almost smiled in relief at the chance of resting his sore legs, but he kept his face still. As the others went past him and gathered around Jubei, Geir felt the unease grow. Their shapes seemed more threatening, almost… menacing.

"We cannot go any further," Jubei muttered in Orcish, his eyes searching the shadowy forest. Not understanding the words, Geir still flinched at the vicious growl in Jubei's voice. Something held him back from joining the others, the sense of dread growing with every second. Omu, his hand clenching the hilt of his sword stepped forward.

"Getting scared in your old age?" he challenged harshly, and Jubei looked at him.

"I said we will not go further!" he growled in reply, also reaching for his blade. Geir stared as the other Orcs moved back. Before he had time to ask what was going on, swords were drawn so fast he couldn't see who started it. Jubei fought with his customary flair, but Omu seemed more out of control, wilder than Geir had ever seen him, and after just a few clashes his sword went flying. Jubei stood there, the tip of his blade just touching Omu's throat. Geir gasped as he saw what the older soldiers had spoken of long ago, the things that had haunted his nightmares ever since. Their eyes… their eyes were burning red, and looking around at the others he saw the same thing in their eyes. But wasn't the Demon curse lifted?

"That is what happens when you lose control, my brother," Jubei admonished the still raging Omu. He slowly lowered his sword. "Do not let them control you again." Omu shivered as the raging fire in his eyes simmered down to red embers. Falling to his knees he bent his head in shame.

"I… I…" he whispered, but Jubei grabbed him by the arm and helped him back on his feet as the others gathered around, showing their support and acceptance.

"What's going on?" Geir asked uncertainly as he approached the apparently calm Orcs. Red eyes turned to face him, and he took a step back.

"We will stop here and wait for the main force to reach us," Jubei said calmly, "we cannot go any further." Geir blinked a bit at that.

"Is it… the curse?" he asked, and the Orcs looked away in embarrassment.

"Yes," Jubei said stonily, and Geir let the subject go. Looking around the darkened forest Geir swallowed deeply.

"In that case, I will continue alone. Kiniea depends on us to find a safe route," he said with more bravado than he felt. The Orcs stared at him open-mouthed. Struggling a bit to remove his left arm-brace he turned to Jubei. "Give this to her… if I don't come back," he said, his resolve wavering a bit. As Jubei took the bracer, Geir steeled himself and started running onward.

"Wait!" Omu called after him, and Geir stopped, turning to face them. "Do you have the bowl, master?" Omu asked Jubei in a low voice. Jubei and the others stood amazed for a moment, and then small nods came from the others, and finally a nod from Jubei. It was unheard of to share the ritual even with Orcs from other clans, and almost unthinkable to share it with a human, but there was something almost 'right' about sharing it with Geir. The others went down on their knees in a close circle as Jubei took the bowl out of his pack and reverently unfolded the protective cloth around it. Geir came walking back, wondering what was going on, and was waved down on his knees by Omu.

"Just do as we do, and no talking until you know it is the right time," Omu explained as Jubei polished the worn old bowl.

"And when will I know?" Geir asked a bit confused. The burning red eyes of the Orcs still worried him a bit, but he kept calm.

"You will know," Omu smiled and patted his shoulder as Jubei made the cut and let his blood drip into the bowl before passing it on. One by one the others followed suit, until the bowl reached Geir. He hesitated for a second or two, looking at the others and their encouraging eyes, then made a cut in his arm and joined his human blood with that of the Orcs'. Jubei made a small gesture, and Geir passed him the bowl, staring in amazed horror and maybe a little revulsion as Jubei took a drink, passed the bowl on, and bent his head in silence.

By the time the bowl had gone around full circle back to Geir, the idea didn't seem all that bad, and he reverently finished the last sip from it and bent his head like the others. Their blood was bitter, but not foul as he had imagined. After a few moments of wondering what would happen next, strong feelings of sadness, regret and guilt filled his heart, almost too strong to bear. Pain and grief, and then a sense of duty and honor tempered in steel, so strong it lifted him up and supported him. The moment was now, and the words were on the tip on his tongue as a burning, all-compassing rage overcame him and urged him to kill, to fight and hurt his enemies. Unable to hold it back he sprang to his legs and roared his rage and hate to the sky. Drawing his blade he opened his eyes and saw enemies all around him, staring at him with their ugly green faces. Hungering for the killing he sprang forward, blade flashing down.

"Maybe this wasn't a good idea," Jubei said in Orcish as they wrestled the raging Geir to the ground, seeing the blue eyes transformed into red globes of hellfire. The unfamiliar taste of fear in his mouth worried him as they let Geir struggle the rage out of his system.

"Control yourself! They are not master, you are!" he kept telling the senseless human, and little by little the fire weakened in Geir's eyes, the roars became angry curses and promises of what would happen when he got loose, until all he could do was breathe heavily. Relaxing their hold, they let him get up on his feet, and he angrily shook the dirt off.

"Touch me again and I will kill you!" he threatened darkly.

"That is the curse talking, Geir," Jubei admonished him.

"What the hell are you talking about? Mannoroth is dead, the curse is over!" Geir sputtered, still fighting to keep calm as the rage burned inside him.

"Not for us, Geir," Jubei said sadly, and the others hung their heads. "And now you know what it is like. You will fight stronger, harder, and longer than others, and pain will be as nothing. But if you are weak, you will lose control and one day the blood of your loved ones will drip from your blade."

Blood and Bone

The vile scent of the accursed Satyrs was still strong upon the wind, and Elondar was still following the small band that had come through his grove. They had been a lot more daring and brash lately, never before had any been foolhardy enough to venture into his domain. The creatures of the forest had told him of new and strange creatures appearing, and the Sentinels were on the march. The great forest spirit had vanished, Elondar could not feel the presence of Cenarius anymore, and there were things even more disturbing. Darkness was spreading through the forest, and the ancient Treants, the protectors of the forests were turning wicked and foul. Some of his brothers were missing, and their domains blackened.
Perhaps he had been too reclusive, too unaware of what was going on, Elondar mused as he guided his Treants forward carefully. The musky scent of a Dryad tickled his nose, and he smiled briefly. The beautiful women had been gone for some time, and he missed seeing them and hearing their laughter. He frowned when he realized that the scent was in the same direction of his prey, and started to trot forward, leaving the slow and cumbersome Treants behind. There was blood on the wind now, blood and some unfamiliar scent he had not experienced before. Galloping towards Stargaze Hill he raised his right arm, the twisted Root-Claw ready to strike.
"Who is there? Go away!" he heard a young Dryad's voice cry out in fear, and he stopped dead in his tracks, staring in surprise at the scene. Bodies of the accursed Satyrs lay scattered around, and a young Dryad was kneeling beside a strange body covered almost from head to toe in torn out grass, twigs and leaves. What he could see of its face was hideous and grotesque, with a massive jaw and large tusks, and the whole thing was a deep shade of green. After a moment of examination Elondar turned his attention to the Dryad, who was still piling leaves on top of the body. Her face was disfigured by a large sash wrapped around her eyes, and dark stains of dried blood ran down her cheeks. Her head turned back and forth as she tried to listen, and she almost jerked and cried out when the Treants caught up, clomping through the forest on their massive stumped legs.
"What happened here, sister?" Elondar said in a soothing voice, and the Dryad turned her head towards him.
"Oh, I am so glad you are here!" Nini cried out and tried to stand, but her legs were numb from sitting on them for so long. Laying over on her side she tenderly stretched them out as Elondar slowly approached, intrigued by the creature she had tried to cover over.
"What is this?" Elondar asked as he kneeled beside Torg and brushed off some of the leaves, looking at the Orc.
"Oh, he's… He… I can't find the herbs to heal him," Nini burst out crying again as Elondar removed the leaves. The thing still breathed, albeit slowly, and it seemed as the wounds and gashes had stopped bleeding. A wicked scimitar was still clenched tight in a green hand, and Elondar commanded his Treant guard to carry the body as he reached for Nini and helped her up on her hooves.
"Come with me, I will take care of you," he told her soothingly as he led her down the hill towards his grove, Treants in tow.

"What? I am cursed now too?" Geir burst out angrily, staring at Jubei and the others. "Why the hell did you do this to me?"
"Probably not. For you, it will be gone in a few hours, I think," Jubei answered him. "You have only bonded once." He waved the obviously relieved Geir to sit down, and the others also sat down.
"Ages ago, long before the curse, before we came to Azeroth all Orcs were one people, one spirit, and one heart." The others nodded, lost in their thoughts as Geir settled down, listening to the old master. "We all shared the rituals, the rites of bonding, the rites of mating and the rites of Honor. We fought and traded with the Draenei who also lived in our world. It was a good time, both for the warrior and the hunter, with herds of animals moving around, and small wars with the Draenei, where young Orcs grew strong, and honor could be won." Jubei bent his head for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Then a great rift came among our people. Some of us spoke of other powers, not of the blood, but of the wind and sky, fire and earth. They were called shamans, and they spoke of spirits all around us, who would help us and guide us, if we would only let them. At first things were good, we were grateful for their aid, and we learned much from them. But the shamans started to speak against the blood rites, saying that we had no right to part take of another creature's spirit, we could no longer feast upon the heart of the wolves to give us speed and skill in battle, we could no longer share the strength of our enemies, and we could no longer bond with each other and our mates. They said that it was wrong to take of another spirit, for that would leave them less, as if the spirit was a water skin and there was only so much to be drunk," Jubei huffed.
"You drank your enemies' blood?" Geir said aghast. "That is…" he mumbled into silence as the Orcs stared at him. Jubei nodded.
"Not for thirst, or to scare those who live, but in honor," he smiled. "If warrior really strong, really tough fight, it is honor that enemy wants to share that strength, it is honor for the fallen, so that their spirit live on in this world. It is respect." Geir nodded uncertainly, and Jubei continued.
"As the shamans spoke against the blood rites, some of us would no longer bond with the rest of us, and our people were divided. We still lived in peace, but we grieved for those who would no longer be bonded with us, like losing family, see? Cannot feel them in our spirit or heart. As years went by, the shamans turned our brothers further away from us, telling them that bonding was evil, that we stole children to eat, that we fought and killed not for honor, but to drink blood. That we tried to steal their spirit for ourselves. We tried to tell them the truth, explain the rites they had forgotten, but they turned us away, and went to war with us," Jubei whispered. "For the first time, Orc fought Orc, brother against brother. Every one of us that fell in that war was a dagger in the heart of our ancestors, for even though our estranged brothers had not bonded in hundreds of years, still their spirit was within us. Even the shamans came to stand against us, but their calls were unheeded by the spirits, because their cause was dishonorable. They had told falsehoods about us so that their people would not return to us. The legend tells that the false shamans were all destroyed in fire and lightning, for so angry were the spirits with their war against us. The legend tells that our people, the blooded, moved far east, to avoid further war with our lost brothers, and that in our absence they began to fear us, the stain of the fallen shamans' lies took root, and they would not speak to us. Even so, they still kept parts of the old rites, even though they forgot what they meant. Mothers still fed their young of their own blood, and mates sealed the pact with a sip of each other's blood," Jubei smiled, and Geir chuckled. "As time went by, hundreds of years worth, the lost ones forgot about us, we became a threat when children did not obey, if they do not go to bed, the blooded will come in the night and take them. New shamans came forth, humble and good of heart, but it was too late, we turned away from them as they did with us before, and would not speak with them. For generations we did not hear from our fallen brothers, but during that time, an old shaman called Ner'Zhul turned away from the spirits and looked elsewhere. He was the first to call the Demons and receive their dark gifts. His servant, Gul'Dan came to us, trying to convince us of this new power, but we had heard of new powers before and would not heed his words. He stayed with us, learning of our rites, but would not bond, since his power would not accept it." The others growled menacingly, and Geir remembered hearing dark rumors of this Gul'Dan from Grikk.
"We were fools then, he lured us with words of a bonding, that he would speak to the other shamans of our strength, our rites. We learned that our lost brothers had split into different clans depending on where they lived, and that they occasionally made war on each other over land and hunting grounds. This saddened us, but we could imagine how, since they did not bond like us, their spirits were shattered and lonely. We longed so to bond with them, to make them whole again and stop the senseless killing. Gul'Dan returned a year later, and spoke of a meeting, asking our leader to come with him to a bonding where the leaders of the clans would again be brothers, and our people would be one." Geir looked around in amazement at the tears running from Jubei's eyes, and the wetness in the others' eyes also.
"Well do I remember that day, Geir," Jubei looked at him. "I was five years old, and my first bonding was for our leader as we wished him a safe journey and awaited his return. Our clan was in an uproar of joy and happiness, for at long last our lost brothers would come back to us, and the wars would stop, and there would be peace among us. It had been our dream all those generations. How wrong we were."

The spirit of Ner'Zhul raged at the icy prison it was trapped in, always searching for some weakness, some glitch, but finding none. So many years of planning and preparations to get his grip on Arthas, and a few words by a mere human girl had come horribly close to tearing him out of his grasp. It was pure luck that the boy's hand had brushed against the sword, and only a massive surge of power had brought him back. After that incident the Lich King had kept Arthas far away from the human survivors so he would not jeopardize his carefully laid plans. Frostmourne should have left nothing of Arthas' soul, leaving just an empty shell, but this thing called love seemed to withstand everything he had thrown at it. Only by using massive force could he suppress it, but never destroy it. It was always there, making the boy ponder things that could not be, and would not be. What pathetic creatures these humans were, so close to both darkness and light, there were those so honorable and just that you could not imagine them being the same race as those who danced in the shadows, so full of hate and evil that they went beyond even Gul'Dan's poison. And even Gul'Dan had a motive of sorts to justify his treachery. Ner'Zhul shuddered as he thought of the Dark Knight Agnon. At first his desire for elven women had been amusing, and easy to play on. After all, the basic instinct of breeding was common to all creatures, although humans seemed to place a lot more weight on it than Orcs did. How the human thought breeding with a different race was something worth selling his soul for was beyond Ner'Zhul, but it was a way to control him and turn him from the light. However, as Agnon grew in power, sucking the very essence out of the elven women Ner'Zhul watched the unspeakable horror of evil beyond imagining. While torture was useful to obtain information, or to terrorize others into obeying, Agnon seemed to enjoy it for its own sake. Ner'Zhul had never seen souls twisted and destroyed for the sake of hearing the screams, or breeding by force just because the human knew it was the most horrible thing imaginable for any female of any race. Ner'Zhul had even felt a small sting of unfamiliar pity for the victims, so much that he had forced Silvanas to offer herself in their place, but without the twisted enjoyment of inflicting pain and suffering Agnon had no interest in her cold dead body. No, Ner'Zhul had not sold his people to the shadow, and he would not waste the elven women for nothing. They could still be useful as the dreaded Banshees, but after Agnon had taken them they were destroyed, denied even the peace of death as their wrecked spirits were thrown into the ether, unable to find their way to peace. It was a good thing to get rid of him, and also useful in that it woke the Moon Goddess Elune up to choose her champion. Every piece on the board had their purpose, and with a few more careful moves Arthas would ascend the throne and don the frozen armor. Frostmourne had taken almost everything of his soul, and Icecrown would take his mind, letting Ner'Zhul take full control of the body. Only a few more moves left…

"When Gorash, our leader returned, we noticed his eyes, and how angry he seemed," Jubei continued. "We thought something had gone wrong, that there was no bonding, but he spoke of a great spirit that had shared its blood with them all, and had asked them to spread his words to all of our people. This spirit, which was Mannoroth, fed our leader with lies of how he wanted all Orcs to be as one, to serve the spirits as they served us, and Gorash, still believing in our ancestral dream drank of that vile blood." The others growled again, muttering orcish curses under their breath.
"At first we didn't realize how the welcoming bonding affected us, we thought the red eyes was a sign of the spirit's blessing for us. Bonding after bonding spread among our clan, until all of us had shared Mannoroth's blood. Our anger grew for every bonding, and by the time the first killing happened, it was too far gone to stop, and we didn't try to. We bonded over and over again as we fought each other over the smallest thing, we argued over the weather and there would be blood on the ground. By the time Gul'Dan's warlocks came to bring us into the fold, we were already like animals, thinking only of two things, to bond, for not even the cursed blood of Mannoroth could take that need from us, and to kill."
They chained us by magic and forced us to join the others. By a dark twist of fate, our dream had come true. All the clans were gathered into one big Horde, and there was no killing allowed among ourselves. However, the others were not as taken with the curse, and they were able to obey. We were not. After we destroyed one of the other clans, Blackhand, the leader of the Horde ordered that we be put in pits so that we would not kill more of our brothers. The others laughed at us, threw us scraps of food and watched us fight and kill each other for it, like dogs in the street. But they could not stop us from bonding, and the curse grew stronger, until they had to separate us in single cages, where we snarled and fought against the bars so we could kill more. We could not even bond, and as time went by, our souls hungered for our brothers and sisters, and grew lonely and afraid in the dark pits."
"First the Horde destroyed the Draenei, we murdered them like animals, no honor, no mercy, until all of Draenor belonged to the Horde. After that, they brought us through the portal to Azeroth and kept us chained to use us against your people. One day Gul'Dan's Deathknights bound us in magic and brought us to what we call the pass of Freedom-"
"Deathknights?" Geir interrupted in surprise. "I thought Arthas was the first Deathknight, and that didn't happen until long after the second war?"
"No, not living knights turned to the dark side, but the corpses of knights from the first war taken by the murdered spirits of Gul'Dan's warlocks," Jubei explained. "I do not know how it was done, but they were living again, using the dark powers of death to weaken us and control us, until we came to the Pass of Freedom. A large group of old men, women and children were escaping the war and coming through there, escorted by over a legion of knights and footmen. Our clan, which once was about half of the Orcish people had been reduced to less than four hundred from all the killing." Jubei looked at Geir with his head bent. "We killed them all, the warriors, the old and the young. In our cursed blood-rage we then turned upon each other, unable to stop the killing. When the day was over, there were thirty-two of us left, too tired to fight anymore. For some reason, the curse was weak in us by then, and we could see what we had done, and what we had become. We would never be controlled again, never fight or kill unless by our own will, and we bonded there, among the fallen, among our brothers dead by our hands, and swore that this would never happen again. But still, we have lived with the blood of Mannoroth for so long that it is part of us, it is in our bones, our very spirits. The curse will never be over for us, and now, as we come closer to the demons, the dark power of it grows also. This is why we fear to go further. Not because we fear death, but because we may lose ourselves and become the animals we once were, only fit to keep in cages."

Dissension

Elondar led Nini and the unconscious Torg down to the small stream in the middle of his grove. He ordered the Treants to gently lower the Orc into the water and leave him there with only his mouth and nose over the waterline. Then he turned to Nini, who hesitantly stood there, tilting her head trying to hear what was going on.
"Lay down sister, and let me have a look at your eyes," Elondar told her gently. Clumsily she almost dropped to her haunches, and Elondar reached out carefully and removed the sash covering her eyes. She gasped as the sash was pulled away from the scabs, as the blood had almost glued it to her skin.
"I see," Elondar muttered as he looked at the mangled eyes and deep cuts in her forehead.
"Can… can you do something?" Nini asked in brittle hope, and Elondar smiled and nodded before he realized she couldn't see him.
"Yes, sister," he murmured softly. Reaching out he put his arms under her flank and lifted her up, carrying her to the small stream. Laying her down he caressed her face. "Lay your head back into the water so your eyes are in it, but keep your nose and mouth up so you can breathe," he told her, and she did, struggling a bit and snorting at the water that splashed into her nose. After a few false tries she just held it shut with her hand as the water flowed over her head, loosening and washing off the dried blood. Elondar moved closer, shoving his twisted Root-Claw into the ground beside him as he knelt by her, and gently put his good hand over her eyes, covering the gashes in her face.
"Mother nature, who care and provide for us, may you restore the broken and return this child to her true form," he whispered reverently as he braced himself. Nini heard only garbled mutters through the water as the hand on her face warmed up until it almost burned, but she held still as Elondar channeled the immense power of nature into her. After a few seconds the hand moved away from her face, and she lifted her head, hesitantly opening her eyes again, and the light from even the shadowy grove made her eyes water and blur.
"I can see!" she burst out happily, and before Elondar had a chance to react she almost tackled him to the ground with a strong embrace as she laughed and cried at the same time.
"I can see!"

"And what about me?" Geir asked the Orcs around him. "If you cannot go further because of the curse, and I just bonded…?" Kenji smiled and put a hand on his shoulder.
"You have strong heart, Geir," he spoke in his crippled accent. "Spirit full of fear, long time, yes?" he asked awkwardly, not wanting to insult the human.
"All my life," Geir nodded after a few seconds. They could sense that from the bonding? What would they think of him now, he wondered silently.
"Fear is curse for you, and still you fight, still no run," Kenji smiled approvingly, and the others nodded. "Fight curse every day, yes? Same thing, control anger, control rage, choose no fight, yes? Already you have strong control."
"Be careful, Geir," Jubei warned him. "Fear often leads to anger, and it is your fear that makes the rage so strong inside you. Do not lose control when you face your enemy in the dance, or you will strike too hard, reach too far, and you will be undone." Geir looked briefly at Omu, who smiled sheepishly, and Jubei chuckled warmly.
"Geir, if you are still set on going on alone, it is time for your last lessons," Omu said as he stood up. The others followed suit. Geir picked up the practice stick, but Kenji waved it off, and Geir dropped it.
"Hands like this, in front of your chest," Omu told him, showing a pose that was very similar to the one the Elven Priests used for prayer. Geir did as told.
"Now, rage is free in your body, flowing with your blood, understand?" Omu explained, and Geir nodded. "We will control it, both in our mind, and our bodies, use its power when we need it. First you must breathe as we taught you, and with every breath in, imagine the rage flow from your arms and legs to your stomach, here," Omu said as he tapped just below Geir's belly button. Every time you breathe out, imagine rage flowing back into your arms and legs." The others were already breathing, and Geir closed his eyes, trying to focus, imagining a dark flow of anger moving like water in his body.
"Very good," Omu said after a little while, and Geir opened his eyes again. "Now, move arms like this," he showed, holding an imaginary sword as he pulled it back with every breath in, and slowly thrust it forward with every breath out. "Imagine rage flow into stomach with breath in, then all of it into your hands going out," he explained, and again Geir closed his eyes, repeating the movement. Trying different strokes and imaginary swings, he felt his hands slowly getting warmer, until they almost burned, and he opened his eyes, looking at them. They were definitely reddish, and tingled.
"Who is this human? This is not possible," Kenji murmured to Jubei in Orcish as they saw Geir's hands redden. This was too fast, too powerful. Things that had taken them decades to learn and train were coming to Geir in minutes.
"It has to be the blade, his blood is upon it now," Jubei muttered back as the somewhat shaken Omu continued to instruct Geir. Their blood had graced the blades with every bonding, until the swords themselves bonded with the spirit of the owner. Akama's spirit was as strong in the blade as Jubei's was in his. And now Geir's spirit was on the blade as well.
Geir stood with the practice stick in hand, staring at the massive trunk of a giant oak as Omu stood beside him.
"Now, gather rage in stomach, and instead of slow, exhale fast and thrust the rage through the stick as you strike," he instructed, and Geir looked at the oak for a moment, then looked at Omu in disbelief.
"You are serious, right?" he asked with a half smile. Omu nodded. Geir turned to the oak again, slowly pulling the stick back for a thrust, and thrust it slowly forward, measuring the distance and trying to focus the rage into it. The others watched in silence, not quite expecting anything to happen, but unsure of the strange skill that Geir seemed to have. After a few slow movements they saw him move into the broad stance, the stick held ready and muscles tensing up for the strike.
His focus was absolute, a tiny point of the tree almost burning under his stare, and he felt the rage curled up into a ball inside his stomach, like a beast ready to spring. The stick shot forward as a yell burst from his throat with the unleashed rage and hate. Blinking his eyes he looked around in amazement at the others, and then back to the stick. It was embedded into the trunk, at least five inches, and he released the grip of it, leaving it sticking out.
"What… what happened? The stick was old dry wood, it should have shattered!" he burst out in disbelief as his eyes moved from his hands to the stick and back again. To his surprise the Orcs slowly sank onto their knees, bending their heads in respect.
"Eh? What? What are you doing?" Geir stammered in embarrassment. "I just did what you told me?"
"We do not know who you are, or where you come from, but you are no ordinary human, Geir," Jubei said respectfully. "Akama was right in giving you his blade." Geir stared.
"Eh? I am just like everyone else," he said off-handedly. "It's just luck or something," he said and patted the stick.
"Maybe luck, maybe something else," Jubei half smiled. "But we would be honored if you bond with us, so that we may share this luck." The others nodded. What, again? Geir thought. These Orcs, the most deadly of any warriors he had ever met wanted to share his spirit? It was unbelievable!

The second time he tasted their blood and bent his head, he still felt the grief, regret and rage, but beyond that, he felt them, their spirits, their moods and feelings, getting closer to them than anyone else he had ever known. He felt the worries of Jubei, the concern over the last remaining brothers and what would happen to them, the carefree and happy spirit of Kenji, the stern and brooding spirit of Omu, and the others among them. He finally understood how the clan could have turned away from the shamans, not wanting to give up something as sacred and deep as this, and sadness that he had never felt anything like this before, how much he had missed out on. Then the moment was upon him, and as the others spoke in Orcish, he knew what they said, because he said the same in Human himself: "We are one."

The Renegades moved swiftly through the woods, led by Kiniea, Grikk and Anea. An urging to hurry up had come upon them all, and they ran onward, pushing themselves hard. While the encouraging song of Grikk and Anea's feeble attempt to copy it had raised their spirits, the nature of their seemingly suicidal mission had hardened their resolve, and they pressed on with grim faces. Even more so as Grikk felt the dark stain of the demons upon the wind.

"I feel the shamaness dancing in your heart, brother," Omu smiled as they rose to their feet after the bonding. Geir blushed as the others chuckled. Waving it off he adjusted the sword in his belt and got ready to continue. Jubei's hand on his arm stopped him.
"Courage and determination are good things, Geir, but foolishness is not. If you go alone, you will not return," he said grimly, and Geir turned. "We will wait here for the others, then we can plan better. Besides," he grinned, "your spirit may be strong, but you are still weak with the sword," and the others chuckled.
"You sure?" Geir asked, trying to hide his immense relief, as he hadn't been all that keen on going ahead anyway.
"Come, let us practice," Jubei said and the others pulled back, giving them room as Geir stared.
"Against you? I stand no chance," he chuckled sheepishly, but Jubei just motioned for him to step forward. Geir turned towards the stick buried in the tree-trunk.
"No sticks. It is blades this time, you cannot really learn without using a real blade."
"Oh, okay," Geir replied uncertainly, remembering the discussion about armor earlier. Almost timidly he stepped up to face Jubei, and put his hand on the hilt of the blade, as Jubei did. So it would start with the draw-strike? Remembering everything he had learned he waited for Jubei to start the dance. At the first glint of Jubei's blade leaving the scabbard his own flew out, and the blades clashed over and over again so fast they shimmered in the air. Trying his best, Jubei still forced him on the defensive, and almost before he had time to think the battle was over, a tiny cut on his chest left both of them standing.
"Again," Jubei said sternly as he sheathed his blade, and Geir followed suit. Again the dance began, with Geir trying everything he had learned, shifting positions, even the inventive feinting spin that had beaten Kenji, but for everything he tried it seemed as if Jubei was a step ahead, and another little scratch appeared on his chest.
"Again."
After the third cut Geir lowered his blade, grinding his teeth as he felt the anger rise.
"This is pointless, I stand no chance and you know it, master," he growled.
"Omu, count," Jubei raised a hand, still looking at Geir.
"Seven, twelve and fifteen," Omu answered promptly.
"What? What are you talking about?" Geir asked irritably as he sheathed his blade.
"That is the number of times our blades met," Jubei told him. "Do you remember the armor? You only parried once before every hit, and that was the slide move I used. A few days ago. Now you both parry and attack, fifteen times."
"Yeah, well, I still lost," Geir muttered. Jubei laughed.
"I have danced for over twenty years, brother, and you only two days. You are a very fast learner. Come, watch," he led Geir to the side before turning to the others. "Oshi, Kenji," he said, and the two Orcs stood up to face each other, hands on their swords. "Now watch, learn," Jubei said to Geir as the dance began.

The group of Renegades halted as they heard angry yells and clash of metal up ahead. The voices sounded Orcish, with a higher pitched human voice, and the group raced forward, weapons drawn and ready, thinking the scouting force had met enemies.
"What the hell?" Grikk exclaimed as he caught the first glimpse of the Burning Blade in full battle among themselves, every one of them fighting everyone else, with Geir in the middle of it all, fighting like the rest. Kiniea and Anea stood gaping beside him as they watched.
"Geir!" Kiniea called out as she urged Starsong forward, but Grikk put a hand on her arm, holding her back.
"What?" she turned to look at him, surprised at his reluctance as Geir and the Burning Blade halted their fight and sheathed their blades, looking at the newcomers.
"We leave now," she heard him say with a tremor in his voice as he pulled her backwards. She nudged Starsong to turn and follow to avoid being pulled off.
"What? What are you doing?" she said irritably, looking back at Geir and the advancing Orcs. Geir walked differently, and in the shadowy gloom of the forest, he seemed… menacing. Starsong growled in her throat, and Kiniea felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rising.
Anea watched Grikk and Kiniea as Geir and the Blademasters approached, seeing Grikk's obvious unease and Kiniea as her shoulders pulled up almost defensively. Something deadly was coming for them, she felt it, and so did her panther. A look over her shoulder confirmed it, the others felt the same unease.
"Don't argue, Kini," Grikk said in a low voice as he took a few more steps backwards. "Look at their eyes!" Kiniea stared aghast at Geir's blood-red eyes, and now she saw dark stains on his mouth, and various cuts on his chest, and more vivid cuts on his left arm. Grikk's hand on her arm tightened, and she saw anger on his face. Suddenly he took a step forward, releasing her arm.
"What have you done?" he growled in Orcish at Jubei as he moved right in front of him. Jubei just looked at him. From the corner of his eye he saw Geir's hand reach for the hilt of his blade as he stood in front of the shocked Kiniea.
"No!" Grikk yelled as he leaped in front of her, axe up and ready to defend. He braced himself and then stared in disbelief as Geir dropped to one knee, drawing the blade and laying it reverently on the ground, bending his head.
"At your service, Priestess," he said in his joking manner, looking up with a big grin on his face. Grikk looked back at Kiniea, and saw the corners of her mouth turn up.
"Still doing the Knight in shining armor? Don't you need to actually wear some armor for that?" she joked back as she got off her wolf. Grikk stared for a moment, then he turned back to the silent Jubei.
"How could you use him in your evil rituals? He was a good man!" Grikk yelled in Jubei's face. He saw the other blade masters move closer, grim looks on their faces, but Jubei gave a wave with his hand, and they stepped back.
"I am sorry you think so, brother," Jubei said sadly, but the angry growl was still in his voice.
"You are sorry? I see your eyes, 'brother'," Grikk growled, and then shoved Jubei backwards, too angry to care that Jubei could kill him in an instant. "What demon do you serve, now that Mannoroth is dead?" He could feel Anea coming up behind him, supporting him even though she could have no idea what was going on. As he quickly glanced over his shoulder he saw the other night elves with weapons at the ready.
"Do not touch him again, lost one, or your head will hit the ground before your body," Omu growled threateningly as he took a step forward, hand on the hilt of his sword. Jubei grunted and raised his hand in warning as his eyes looked over the Night elves behind Grikk. Then he looked at Grikk and bent his head in a nod.
"You are more cursed than we ever were, Grikk," he started, "maybe Geir can change your heart." Then he gestured to the others, speaking in the old tongue. "Come, we are not wanted here and cannot go further in any case. We have a sword to retrieve from the Deathknight called Arthas." Then he turned to Geir, who was oblivious to everything but the deep look he shared with Kiniea. "Geir, protect the shamaness with your life until we return."
"Huh? What? Yes, master, of course!" Geir bowed, and then stared as Jubei and the others faded from sight until they were invisible. "Hey, you never taught me that!" he said in disbelief as he saw the underbrush move with their departure. Then he turned as Grikk gripped his shoulder almost painfully hard.
"What did they do to you?" Grikk asked him as he turned him around, staring at his twice cut arm, and his chin where the stains of dried blood still remained from the rituals. Geir smiled, still a bit amazed at the memory of the Bonding, and how he still felt their spirits in his heart.
"They let me share their spirits, and asked me, they asked me to share mine," he said reverently.
"What does that mean?" Kiniea asked nervously as Grikk cursed and turned away.
"He drank their blood, Kiniea, and let them drink his," Grikk growled in disgust.
"You WHAT?" Kiniea turned to Geir, who just stared at her. "You drank Orc blood? That's sickening!" she wrinkled her nose and swallowed hard to control the gag reflex. Geir's face fell.
"Jubei said you wouldn't understand, Grikk," Geir said sadly, but the note of rage was still in his voice. "The curse is in their souls and blood from the bonding, as it is in mine, now," he continued. Grikk turned as Kiniea stared, not understanding.
"If you hurt her, I will kill you," Grikk warned in a low voice so Kiniea couldn't hear as he stood within arms length of Geir, axe in hand.
"Go ahead, try it," Geir answered, feeling the blood-rage growing inside him, struggling to control it as his hand went to his sword, ready for the draw-strike.
"No!" Kiniea said as she moved in between them, her hands on theirs as she pushed them backwards away from each other. She felt her knees tremble as she felt Geir's arm, the tremor of tense muscles ready to spring. Looking from one to the other she frowned. "I expected grown men to act better than little boys arguing all the time!" she scolded them. After a moment of surprise Geir laughed, and then bowed.
"As you wish, Priestess," he grinned and took his hand from the sword. But Grikk looked into Kiniea's eyes as he leaned towards her.
"Remember what I told you earlier?" he whispered, giving Geir a dark look before looking back at her. "The chance is gone. His heart will never be yours now." Then he turned and walked away. Kiniea turned and looked at him.
"Grikk? What's that supposed to mean? Grikk?" And then her whole body shivered as Geir took her hand, and she didn't care what Grikk meant anymore. Turning she smiled shyly at the happily grinning Geir.

Dancing with the Devil

It was a final stand without honor, without glory. There were no proud banners flapping in the wind, no noble knights in shining armor, no courageous warriors steadfastly holding the line. There were just a motley collection of humans, high elves, orcs, trolls and dwarves, already broken, defeated, and pushed ever onward by the pursuing Burning Legion. They had reached the wall, they could go no further. There was no rest for the refugees, no solace to be found, for the enemy was fast approaching and none would sleep easy. Even so, Thrall would not concede failure, would not lie down and die. He had acquired a Dire wolf from one of the Raiders, a big black monster steed that carried him and his armor easily, and was patrolling the encampment alongside Jaina and the Night Elf leaders Tyrande Whisperwind and Furion Stormrage. Tyrande and Furion had finally marshaled all their forces, and the refugees were strengthened by a thousand Archers, three hundred Huntresses, and the druids of both Claw and Talon some two hundred strong. Even massive tree-like creatures had appeared, big as houses, walking ponderously on trunk-like legs. Drum-bearing Kodos were moving among the defenders, the Orc drummers pounding out a rousing rhythm, and Cairne Bloodhoof strode among the men, his Tauren warriors bellowing heartily to hearten the weary defenders. It would not be enough to stop the Burning Legion, but they just might be able to hold them back until Furion could set his plan in motion.

A tormented scream pierced the air in the distance as Jubei and his brothers ran towards the wrecked outpost where they had encountered Arthas. It was a scream full of rage, pain, suffering and grief, and as one the Blade masters turned towards it, running faster. The scream sounded almost human, it certainly was no Orc or Dwarf, the voice was lighter than that. They all skidded to a halt as they burst out of the forest surrounding the small lake where the Renegades had rested earlier, staring in astonishment at the thing kneeling by the water's edge. From what they had seen of the Night Elf women, this appeared to be a Night Elf male, bluish skin and all, but it was horribly disfigured, hooves instead of feet, jagged and torn bat like wings sprouted from its back, and curled horns seemed to have broken through it's forehead, like a horrible mix of Elf and Demon. They could all feel a dark emanation from it, which brought back memories of old, memories of… Gul'Dan. The thing was sobbing, seemingly in both rage and grief as it tore its hands through the water, splashing it all over its face and chest.

"What the hell [i]is[/i] that thing?" Omu whispered, but all they could do was stare. As they slowly approached, the thing raised its head, as if sniffing the air, and Jubei cleared his throat as the Blade masters emerged from the Wind walk.

"Demoni!" the thing almost snarled, and before they had time to react it grabbed two weird looking weapons and charged them. Omu barely had time for the draw strike as the thing made a horizontal slash with its right hand, and as it spun around for a backhand horizontal slash the jagged edges of its crescent shaped blade tore Omu's sword sideways, opening for a vicious rising slash with its right hand. Omu would have been gutted like a fish from belly to throat if he hadn't thrown himself pell-mell backwards, escaping with just a jagged cut as the blade rasped against his chest bone. Kenji yelled and came in from the flank, but the weird movements of the thing stumped him and he was forced to give ground to the furious flashing of the twin crescent blades.

Illidan chuckled grimly as he again changed opponents, having dropped one and pushed another on a clumsy defense. He had never seen these creatures before, but the stench of demons were on them, and they had to be killed. His next target seemed to carry two swords on his hip instead of just one like the others, and was probably the leader, so Illidan went in both blades slashing. Just as the blades would have torn the demon in half the green thing took a quick step backwards, one of the blades coming out and crashing against both his own hard, stunting him a bit, but a quick sidestep and dodge brought his crescents in for another lethal slash, again parried hard before his opponent made a furious counterattack, the blade flashing in a flurry of slashes and thrusts, forcing Illidan to step back, his crescents whirling to parry. A quick glance at the other demons astonished him. They actually stepped back, even helping his first opponent to stand as they made a loose circle around him, as if watching. Their blades were even at their hips! So, single combat then? Illidan snarled as he gave himself some room, his crescent blades held ready in front of him. The leader calmly stepped forward, still holding just one of his two swords.

Jubei studied the half-demon carefully. It had cut Omu and pretty much defeated Kenji in a matter of seconds. Surprise counted for a lot, but it was still very quick and lethal, and Jubei doubted that Omu would have defeated it on a level field anyway. Looking at the bizarre crescent blades the thing wielded Jubei grinned. This could be interesting… Advancing slowly he held his blade in the middle position, opting to test this creature and get a feel for his style. He almost dropped it when he noticed the sash covering the thing's eyes, and Illidan, sensing the momentary weakness lunged forward. Using the same combination he had taken down Omu with, he was surprised when Jubei followed the pull on his sword from the backhand slash with a step sideways instead of letting his sword be dragged out of control. The following rising slash hit nothing but air, and Illidan was forced to duck and sidestep the counter aiming for the back of his neck. Jubei pushed the advantage with a horizontal slash at the legs, rising crosswise slash towards the shoulder and then across the throat. He hit nothing, but got slapped by the edge of one of Illidan's wings as he whirled and dodged Jubei's blade. Jubei held back for a moment, seeing the hoof-work of his opponent, and then stepped in for another assault. Several strikes were dodged or parried by the almost impossibly nimble half demon, and the counters barely parried by Jubei himself. It was very unsettling. All fighters had their own rhythm, a distance they were most comfortable with that could be used and controlled to bring the fight into your own favor, but this half-demon didn't seem to have any, shifting his tempo randomly like a dancer who couldn't hear the music. That made it frustrating and eerie to fight him. Combinations and movements that begged for a follow up didn't get one, and situations where strikes would be awkward didn't seem to bother Illidan in the least.

Blades flashed in attack and defense, and Jubei was getting more and more frustrated with this enemy he couldn't lock down. A vicious attack dodged led into a crouching sweep, and Illidan's blade flashed down just as Jubei's foot swept his legs aside, making him fall. As he quickly sprang back on his hooves Jubei stepped back, watching the little cut on his shoulder shedding a few drops of blood that ran down his arm. He grinned as he heard the stifled gasps from his brothers. None had cut him besides Akira for years. (He chose not to count the Satyr who struck when he was not ready for it, of course.) Finally someone worth dancing with!