Trial of the Tiger
Somewhere within the Emerald Dream
Laronar had long since stopped keeping track of time within the Dream. Mostly because any attempt to do so, was pointless. One could feel it pass, if one entered as a spirit, but when one walked the dreamscape with their physical body, their sense of direction and time eventually became muddled to the point of total uselessness. The three elves were lucky though, for they had a guide. Whenever they ventured off course, the ashen furred panther, their patron Wild God, would guide them back to the right direction. South. Always south.
Traveling with a pair of sisters had gone about how Laronar expected it to. Naria had...warmed to him rather quickly, which made Saria irritated with both of them, and her irritation was only compounded by their patron when, upon being told of the elder druid's sexcapades into the dream foliage, she had shrugged, licked a paw, and claimed to have expected that such things would happen. That her 'chosen' as she'd called Laronar, had a persuasive scent that females who followed her sometimes had trouble ignoring. Others, for whatever mystifying reason, seemed entirely immune to the pheromones his changed body gave off.
For their part, the two had agreed that casual was the best way to keep things, though as the 9500 year old druid reawakened muscles he hadn't used in quite a few centuries, he found not falling for the Ashen female was becoming more and more difficult, when there was little else to do while they rested. Their journey was supposed to take several years, according to their guide, as they were going on foot. The use of her form sped things along, but with nothing to hunt, that wouldn't last forever.
What the dreamscape offered in the way of food was, for druids like them, less than filling. The Ashen were one of the few, if not the only, branch of the circle that actively hunted big game, seeing the act as crucial for nature, provided it was done correctly. Thaon had told him once that he'd taken a tip from the Dryads, and used every part of the kill. Evidently, he'd taught their students to do the same, but in the Dream, hunting was not really an option. The animals were long deceased and none of the three wished to anger them, and disturb their rest. Berries, which varied between poisonous and delicious, always left them craving something more for their stomachs to digest.
They continued on though, for each desired to see their destination. Laronar had, in retrospect, realized that his friend Liu was likely long gone by now, along with many of the other shorter lived races he had, from his perspective, recently befriended. Only Bjaldi would still be alive, but Laronar had no idea how long had passed in the waking world while they traveled. Dwarves, for all their foul humor, love of alcohol, and no small amount of racism, tended to live for a few hundred centuries at least, and in Bjaldi, Laronar had sensed a connection to the world. He would live longer, as was common for those who tied themselves to natural magic, but eventually, the cycle would claim him, too.
As the three druids continued to travel, spar, and learn, eventually they stumbled upon something best left alone. The presence of many, many Wild Gods. In Laronar's experience, only Hyjal had felt so crowded, by comparison. Some of the Ancient minds were larger than the others, and yet in the weaker presences, he felt a strong instinct to not underestimate them. Deciding that curiosity was harmless, while their physical forms rested in the Dream, the druids settled into a meditative triangle, and sent their spirits to the waking world, traversing the realms with ease, as they had been taught.
When Laronar's vision straightened, and revealed the waking world, his companions were not beside him, and the hairs on his neck were rising, slowly. He turned around, and looked upwards as a pinch of salt and soot drifted over his dream form. He spied what was making his instincts, even in an incorporeal form, rise to action. It was a Zandalari Troll, one beefy arm dangling, while the other and his feet gripped the branches of one of Zandalar's massive trees. "Hello 'dere, elf mon...you be walkin' in places you aint welcome."
He leapt down from the tree, and approached Laronar, who was staring at the troll with increasing disbelief. In this form, he could sense much of a person's mind, and the power the troll was radiating was very similar in nature to his own. He was as equally muscled, had dark blue skin, and long tusks bearing many carvings. "Mm...because you be one of Cenarius', I won't be sendin' ya to Bwonsamdi today. But not all my bruddas and sistas be so kind." He chuckled, and looked the elf over. "Now I see ya...I be thinkin' we aint so different, ya?"
Laronar nodded. His voice came out distorted but intelligible as he replied, "You are a druid, then? Interesting. I did not think the trolls had such magic...the tribes in Feralas and Tanaris do not."
The troll laughed again, and then crossed his bulky arms as he finished. "I be no jungle troll, or sand-dwellin' savage, mon. I am Zandalari. We have worshiped de Loa longer den anyone."
Laronar smirked. "That's a common claim. As far as I know, the Tauren were first, by all accounts, though early Kaldorei had ties to nature as well. Legend suggests that those ties were much...closer, than the ones a druid makes." The troll arched a hairless brow, and Laronar elaborated. "They say those who embraced nature in those ancient days became living trees, tenders of the forest directly under Cenarius. Perhaps it was before the Well changed us. Nobody was certain, even when we had records on such ancient events."
"Dat is de way it has always been wit history. But I 'ave little time fo' such tings. It does not matta who came first. Ya'd make a worthy enemy. Dat's what mattas. Ya best be goin' back ta da Dream, elfy. Before one of de Loa gets ya scent." The troll actually made a waving motion, and Laronar suddenly got the impression he hadn't just been hanging around here for fun. He looked around, and his eyes widened as he sensed a familiar presence he'd felt only once before, and in the heat of war at that.
"I...spoke with one of your Loa, once. I think. Ashamane called him the Lord of the Hunt. He helped our people by sending saurians to aid us against the bugs of Silithus."
"Aye. Ya mean Gonk...yes...he been keepin' an eye on de remnants of de Aqir for many an age, all across de world." The troll nodded, and then the hairless brow arched again as he saw Laronar's confusion.
"What...is an Aqir?" The incorporeal druid asked, genuinely curious now. As far as he knew, elves and trolls had never spoken this long without devolving into combat, but here at least, was a fellow guardian of nature. Like Laronar, he seemed not inclined to start a fight, mostly because it was impossible to do so.
The troll laughed. "Aye, de histories said it was before ya people rose...a great war, de greatest de Trolls ever fought, a uniting of all de tribes, all de Loa, against a t'reat as old as de world. Intelligent bugs, mon. Dey t'reatened ta swarm de world at one time, but now, dey are all but gone. We knew of de hive in Pandaria, but...Silithus ya called it? Neva' 'eard of it."
Laronar then began recounting the elve's conflict with the Qiraji, and the aid they'd gotten as they did. The troll seemed more impressed that he'd run with dragons and Loa, than anything the elves had done militarily, though even Laronar had to admit that particular conflict had seen them out-maneuvered multiple times.
The troll's previous insistence on his leaving earlier, had all but vanished after he mentioned Gonk, and though he sensed the Loa was close, he didn't seem inclined to reach out. Laronar too hesitated, for he had nothing to ask of the Lord of the Hunt, and didn't really want to bargain, as the trolls did. He was either occupied, or sleeping, and Laronar knew better than to poke a sleeping Ancient.
It was not long after his recounting, and the troll's sharing of a few war stories on the island, that he returned to the Dream, only to find the sisters still meditating. Suddenly finding himself with free time, he did as he always did when he had a minute alone, and brought out the cat-shaped pipe.
They had chosen a spot surrounded by trees for a reason, and Laronar sat below one as he began his form of meditation. His body had connected to the life of the Dream flora around him, and he was already levitating slightly in the air, supported by a warm, persistent breeze that wisely stayed away from his pipe.
He lost track of time, but to his slight annoyance, it was Saria who returned first, dashing his hopes of sneaking off into the bushes before they again moved southward. A look of disdain crossed her features as she eyed the druid, and Laronar wondered if she might finally challenge him. He'd been expecting it sooner. He heard her steps as she walked towards him, and he could almost smell the irritation, radiating off of her.
"Where the Fel were you? Do you have any idea what I just experienced?" Laronar opened an eye, and examined the woman's posture. All hostile, hands on hips, nostrils flaring. She wasn't quite angry enough yet...but he knew how to push buttons.
"Let me guess...you ran afoul of one of the Loa." He exhaled a cloud of smoke while he kept his eyes closed. That it flew in her face was entirely coincidental. "I came out near Gonk, but he was sleeping. Did you forget the first lesson of talking to Ancients, Saria?"
He opened his eyes in time to see her nails coming towards his face, but there was no intent to actually strike. He remained still, and her frustration only grew, as her feint failed and she pulled her hand back, curling it into a fist. "That's not...I didn't...you would've woken them too, okay? It was a tiger Ancient. I couldn't pass up the chance to learn something you don't already know."
Laronar chuckled. "I know not to wake a sleeping Ancient, especially a tiger. The few I have spoken with favor the trolls, though they didn't show me outright hostility when we spoke. This is Zandalar though, which means it was...Kimbul? Mm. I think that's the name. Not the most friendly, towards our kind."
"No, really?" The younger of the sisters huffed, and gave the elven equivalent of an eyeroll. It was about that point she finally noticed, the druid was floating. She shook her head, and looked back to her sister. "You should check on her."
The floating druid, sitting cross-legged upon the persistent breeze that kept him aloft, raised one lengthy green eyebrow. "Me? Why not yourself?"
She fixed him with a glare from her amber eyes, which were not so uncommon in Val'sharah. "Escaping Kimbul took much of my energy. And you aren't busy."
Laronar stared her down as he floated past her, and towards her sister, where she still remained cross-legged, and slightly droopy. The body was asleep, but the mind was elsewhere. He frowned as he watched her for a moment. The sleep seemed uneasy.
He dropped to the ground after packing the pipe away, and once more traversed the boundaries between the Dream and reality. The hair on his neck rose, as his perspective shifted, and he suddenly felt himself under the eyes of a predator. For some reason, it felt akin to the few but memorable times he had managed to irritate his patron.
Near this unsettling presence, he sensed Naria, and as he took in the sight of her, he quickly glanced around. Whatever was making his instincts demanding he fight or flee, was not visible. All he saw was what appeared to be stone walls, deep under the earth. An old temple, in an old swamp, buried very deep, but still reachable, to those Zandalari who sought her power.
"Another of my sister's...my my...you are no novice...you must be one of the claws. Moon or Storm?"
As the booming, feminine voice inadvertently made clear the balance of power, and even fighting style, between Thaon and himself obvious, Laronar smirked. Thaon had always preferred the arcane, and he the wild magic of nature. Only now, did he notice the dichotomy Ashamane had likely set up entirely on purpose. "Storm. You must be Bethekk...tell me, panther goddess...why is your temple so low in Zandalar's crust?"
He couldn't help but wilt as the furious roar bore down on him. "As if you do not know, Kaldorei! It was your arrogant race that Shattered the World!"
That, the ancient druid rose to. He stared into the darkness, focusing, and he felt Ashamane guide him, as she always had. The smirk widened, as his eyes focused on the hidden panther Loa, who snarled in irritation, and melted from the shadows as she realized she'd been spotted. "Believe me, we did not...desire that. Those who summoned the demons did so before anyone even knew what was coming...and banishing them exacted a heavy price. Had my people not fought them, there would be no world left at all."
The panther growled low, as she took in the druid's words. Her eyes narrowed as he spoke again. "Perhaps I can help atone for my people's crime against you, and your temple. I am here, and in this form, I can influence the earth. Swamps are easy. Let me return your temple to the surface. It will need cleaning...but I can't really help with that." He waved a ghostly hand for emphasis.
The panther looked around, as she considered his offer. "And in return?"
"You let me and my fellow Ashen leave, in peace."
"I will...consider your request. Raise my temple to the surface, first. Then we shall see if it is worth giving you my newest plaything."
It was Laronar's turn to narrow his eyes, and as he eyed Naria closer, he noticed she was asleep even here, floating beside the ghostly form of Bethekk. Even drawn from the shadows, she was hard to see. He scanned the surrounding area, as well as the area above, with his senses.
He drifted towards the altar in the subterranean chamber, and then raised both hands. Both Bethekk and Naria were before him, but he put them from his mind for the moment, as he reached out to the earth. Even the land was stubbornly against him in this place, but after gentle coaxing, and explaining that it was a temple to a Loa he was helping, the reluctant stones, mud, and other swamp detritus parted for him, as the earth below the temple surged upwards.
Having no physical presence there, he didn't not feel it quake or tremor as the ancient stone building, a tiered pyramidal design, rose through the relatively soft swamp, and into the foul air of Nazmir once more.
He was sweating, that much he could feel, but once he was done, he looked at the panther expectantly. Rising mud had filled much of the chamber, but it was now solidly perched atop earth that, unless meddled with, would not sink again any time soon.
"Not bad at all...Stormclaw. I can see why Ashamane favors you. Your bond with nature is strong. Take your lover, and depart these lands. In peace."
The ghostly panther, who reminded him less and less of his patron the longer he spent in her presence, smirked at him as she spoke the last few words. His dream form gathered up Naria's, and in short order, he dragged her back to the Dream, where she woke slowly, and then returned to her body.
Laronar paused for a moment in the Dream, half expecting one of the native Loa to appear and try for their physical forms, but none did. They seemed more preoccupied with their Zandalari worshipers, and though he did not know it, his act of helping the sunken temple to the panther goddess had earned quite a bit of good will among Zandalar's Ancients. At the very least, they would not attack him outright should he ever pass by again. It would need to be cleaned, but now at least, Bethekk could find a priest and guide them to her.
Saria was eager to move on once they returned, but before they could, Ashamane appeared before them, and directed Naria and Laronar away from the impatient younger sibling. Once they had moved far enough to be out of earshot, she spoke, her concerned amber eyes focused upon Naria.
"You are perhaps the first of your kind to run afoul of my sister, and not be slowly torn to shreds, dreamform or no."
"Laronar did all the work...I didn't think to try raising the temple. I was too shocked from realizing you have a sister! And one that favors the Zandalari no less." Laronar smirked as Naria spoke, and Ashamane had a similar expression.
"The trolls have appealed to many Ancients over the millennia, and my fellow Wild Gods have grown arrogant and greedy upon their singular worship. There are many spirits, and bears, cats, and birds are no strangers to the Zandalari. Though they prefer their saurians above all."
"I prefer our methods." Laronar said, stepping forward slightly. "No bargains, no blood pacts, no dark sacrifices...just a treasured bond, and power, shared in the defense of Nordrassil."
Ashamane chuckled at his words, and even that sounded different from Bethekk's. He began to wonder if they were sisters in species only, for the two seemed quite different. "You should be glad we do not limit you as the Zandalari Ancients do. But we agreed, when Nordrassil rose atop Hyjal, that singular worship would ultimately make you weaker defenders of nature. Should you ever test yourselves against the Zandalari, we shall see whose method proves stronger."
"What of you, Archdruid? Did you encounter a Loa as well?" Naria shifted her focus to him, something Laronar did not mind in the slightest.
He shook his head. "I came near the den of Gonk...but the Lord of the Hunt was sleeping, or otherwise preoccupied. So I let him be. I didn't require a bargain with him, and poking a sleeping Ancient is a very bad idea. I did speak to a Zandalari though. A druid, like us."
The two females seemed interested in that, and he recounted what he and the troll, who hadn't given his name, had spoken of. Ashamane faded into incorporeal spirit essence after he finished, and gave him directions once more towards their destination. Suddenly alone, and rather far from Saria, the two Kaldorei locked eyes, and decided the younger sister could wait a few more minutes.
A few minutes ultimately became several hours, and by the time they returned, Saria was in a particularly foul mood. They departed all the same, claiming, despite their slightly tousled hair, that Ashamane had held them up. Saria didn't seem to buy that, though neither of the two older druids seemed to care, as they once more began heading south. Zandalar was close to Pandaria, closer than Val'sharah at any rate, which meant their journey would soon be at an end.
Laronar did not know how much time passed between their foray into Zandalar, and arriving in Pandaria, but he did know they were rather close once the Dream itself became laden with a heavy mist. As always, Ashamane guided them, and the druids stayed together in the thick mist until it finally parted, and they were granted a view of Azeroth's southernmost continent, as it had been at the dawn of the world.
Ashamane directed their gaze, and her motherly tones filled their heads all at once as she guided their eyes towards the tallest peaks on the western side of Pandaria. "That, is where you will find the one each of you seeks. They will send you back to the Dreamway when your training is complete. From here on, I must leave you. Stretching myself so far is...taxing, and the mist is repelling me. Good luck, my druids."
They had decided not to fly thus far on their trip, as doing so would potentially draw flying predator spirits, like Chimeras, to test them. Though they had refrained from hunting, many former hunters in life had no qualms about consuming other spirits in death.
As they took their flight forms, the pair of storm crows led by a black feathered owl began ascending towards the thunderous peaks that, the closer they came, seemed to blend with the real world. It took Laronar quite a while to realize there were Ancients here, as well...and easily on par with Goldrinn in strength. One presence in particular had a familiar essence, and he was not surprised that it was that presence Ashamane had pointed them towards.
He sensed the fear of the crows, as their nature attracted the lightning of the area's skies, but Laronar flew on, unfazed, even when one such bolt aimed for him, as well. He let his form's instinct guide his dodge, and continued on towards the temple that had melted out of the mist and cloud of the upper atmosphere.
The green tint around them faded, as a gong sounded, and the trio of birds shared a look. Being what they were, they knew when their bodies were, and were not, within the Emerald Dream. Whatever power they had been seeking had just transferred them through realities with naught but sound. A voice echoed in all three of their heads, as they flew over the courtyards before the main temple building.
The black and white figures below seemed obese, and looked unthreatening, but Laronar had seen just how good Pandaren were at combat. He and Liu had sparred several times as they'd roamed Feralas, and the adventurous bear had moved with surprising swiftness. The Pandaren below, moved completely differently, and in a series of attack poses that, being a war veteran, he recognized as practice drills. Whatever they were practicing was likely considered an art form, and again Liu's knowledge helped. He had spoken briefly and vaguely of what had freed his people from the rule of whatever a Mogu was.
Liu had also spoken of the beings who helped them learn this 'martial art'. It was this knowledge that had made him the speaker for their trio, as advised by their patron. As the birds flew into the largest building, they paused at the entrance to the massive chamber, and as they retook their elven forms, they moved to the center of the chamber and bowed in the elven style.
Several of the black and white forms thinking themselves hidden in the shadows murmured as they did, and only Laronar rose as the white tiger did, tracing a familiar glyphic symbol in the air. With the power the Ancient before him was giving off, he did not require components. "Hail, Great Tiger of the August Celestials. We three come from Ashamane, seeking your wisdom."
"Ahh yes...Stormclaw. She's spoken highly of you...and your ancestors were not unknown to me. They too, once stood before me, as you do...but you are far more...connected to the world, than they were. It seems the Kaldorei have come far, since breaking the world."
Laronar chuckled. "Again with this...without us, we would not have a world to argue upon. No civilization is immune to corruption. Ours just happened to border the greatest source of mana ever discovered. There is no timeline where our civilization's fall was going to be a quiet decay. We were playing with forces we did not fully understand. The results of testing the boundaries of the arcane have always been...explosive. It's a large part of why we mostly stopped using it, but we have found over these long millennia that when balanced with natural power, these spells can be truly...impressive, and focused, on small areas."
The white tiger seemed to huff, not unlike how Ashamane did when he said something that made her chuckle. "I know well the role your people played. You are correct. My own kind intervened far too late in the conflict, and there were not so many demons, this far south. But that is not what is important. Did you fight, in that conflict?"
Laronar grimaced. "As much as a juvenile elf on his own could. It helped that I had a ferocious thousand pound cat by my side, but even he wasn't fully grown. I've fought in every conflict since, leaving a...larger impact."
"I see. We have heard of your people's trials over the millennia. Satyrs. Silithid. Centaurs. I am curious, Children of the Stars. Why do you fight?"
The sisters, now addressed, rose and stepped up beside Laronar. He answered first, as he'd figured this answer out the deeper he'd delved into the Dream. "To defend the world...as the Dragon Aspects charged us to. As long as Azeroth lives, we have hope against the forces of the Burning Legion."
The White Tiger nodded. "The Demons are indeed a threat. But there are darker forces that have darker fates for the planet…" The tiger's blue eyes flared and sparked with electricity. "The Seven Breaths of Y'Shaarj are one such threat, and they are not the greatest. We shall speak of these matters more, you who would defend the world." He turned his eyes to the other two expectantly.
Naria spoke first, when Saria did not. "To protect Nordrassil. The World Tree is what has been healing the land for the past nine millennia...without it, I expect our world would not have survived being sundered." When the tiger seemed to wait for more, she continued after a brief pause. "Naturally...that includes those who live in and around Hyjal as well. We are tied to the World Tree, as a species. To protect it, is to protect every Kaldorei." She smirked towards Laronar. "And the world, I suppose."
Saria sighed, and the sparking blue eyes turned towards her. "And from the youngest?"
Saria bristled at the Ancient's words, but kept herself from disrespecting him. "You asked why we fight...most would say they fight for the planet, but when it comes down to a choice between nature and a loved one, I think most of our people would choose their family first. It's true that by protecting one, we protect the other but...some choices are not so easy." She glanced at her companions. "If it came down to the world, or each other, could you really choose the world?"
The two older elves shared a look, and their features saddened, but they both nodded at her. Laronar spoke again. "We must. It is our charge as druids, and the price for the power we wield. But take heart...rarely does such a situation occur, and our allies," He gestured at Xuen, "Would not willingly put us in such circumstances without dire need."
Xuen nodded at his words, and then his eyes moved up above them, to seemingly empty air. "What do you think, Yu'lon?"
"I will take the youngest." The feminine voice echoed from seemingly nowhere and everywhere, as a green mist appeared in Xuen's sight line, and coalesced into a massive jade dragon, though she looked like no dragon Laronar had ever seen. Every Padaren lurking in the temple knelt at once, in the presence of two August Celestials. "There is much I can teach her of the ways of healing. The other two already possess similar knowledge, and are better refined by you, Xuen."
"I understand. Very well. Take the youngest, and send her home when she is ready." The eyes fell back on Laronar and Naria. "I will handle these two."
Saria gave her sister a look, and then after Naria nodded, she followed the jade serpent out of the temple, and into the air again, as they headed in a south easterly direction.
"Now...why have you sought me out, followers of Ashamane?" The white tiger returned to a lying position, head resting upon his paws as he examined the elves before him with what seemed like interest.
Laronar spoke first, after glancing at Naria. "I lost much of my memory, when I offered my body as Ashamane's avatar for a few centuries. In fact...I don't recall any of it. I'd like to, and she suggested you could help."
The tiger regarded the elf with slightly more respect, as he knew the Zandalari could do something similar, and take on their patron's aspects. This, sounded different. His spirit had been so in sync with the ashen panther's that she'd been able to possess him, and manifest on the prime plane once more. That only left one question.
"Why? Explain to me the events that led to this...possession by a Wild God. Mortal bodies usually cannot handle such stress."
The druid allowed himself a small smirk, and shrugged. "The bronze dragons did...something to me, and a few others, when we defended their caverns beside them, in the War of Shifting Sands. My body doesn't decay, and while that's not unusual for our kind now, it barely changes at all. It remains as strong as it was during that war, and only gets stronger...come to think, I was holding her Fangs in that conflict...maybe that's why…" He thought for a moment, and then shrugged once more. "As for what led to the need for such an offering...I found myself in a confrontation with one of my contemporaries...Ashamane urged me to shift forms as he made an attack that likely would have snapped my neck, had it stayed elven. The blow did offset me though, and with the sudden shift, my...rage managed to burn out of my control. Made me into something resembling a cat, and an elf. Ashamane managed to fix me, but the price was a few centuries of letting her roam Azeroth in my shell. It seemed a fair trade to me, but from my perspective I went to sleep letting her in, and the next thing I knew, I was six hundred years out of date, in a strange land."
The white and blue tiger regarded him as he listened with the patience of a hunter. "I see. We are no strangers to anger and rage in this land. In Pandaria, our finest warriors purge such emotions. Unfocused rage makes you weak, but once purged of it, you will become strong. I can teach you this, if you use what you learn to defend the world, as you have so far."
Laronar bowed again, fist to palm in the elven style. "I would be honored, White Tiger."
Xuen's eyes shifted to Naria then, who was processing the story as well. She had heard Fandral Staghelm had dueled with another Archdruid within Nighthaven, sending him into the wilds when Remulos broke it up, but it seemed there was more to the story. They only got so much news, in Val'sharah. She'd never considered that it might be fake, or untrue, that members of the Circle would lie and willingly subvert the truth to sway opinions to Fandral's side...and yet, that's exactly what had happened. Even in Val'sharah, the Archdruid was held in high esteem. She made a mental note to visit the Moonglade to see for herself how changed it had become, at some point.
"And what of you? Why have you sought me?"
Naria smirked. "I wish to become a better warrior...to be a Sharpclaw. Ashamane suggested I train with Laronar, and you. He has shown me...much. I am ready to learn more, White Tiger." She bowed as well, and Xuen regarded both of them again, before speaking.
"Very well. My finest student will show you the secrets of our fighting technique, and once you know them, we will incorporate them into your Nightsaber forms. Find Shin-Zu in one of the courtyards below. He will show you what you need to know. Return to me, when you have mastered the basics." As the tiger watched them go, he huffed to himself, wondering how the immortal Night Elves would be taken by his finest pupil. He was of the opinion that the Pandaren were the strongest species around, and that mastering one of the fighting styles of the August Celestials made one nearly unbeatable. It wasn't entirely inaccurate, but seeing immortal masters of the dexterous arts in action would be a good sobering reminder for the Pandaren, that many races were naturally faster, and he needed to train all the harder to hope to match them.
The two elves bowed again, and departed. Asking around, they soon found Shin-Zu leading an entire group of Pandaren in a series of martial strikes focused on repetition, and the perfection it brought. The panda leading them raised a paw, and the students all stopped, at once, and gawked at the unfamiliar strangers in their midst. "Om nom, nom nom nom om. Om nom om nom?"
Laronar held up a finger in the universal sign for 'wait' as Naria looked at him with mild amusement and confusion. He once more traced a J shaped symbol in the air, and then a pinch of soot and salt covered the pair of elves. "Now, we should sound like we're speaking om nom, to them."
Naria found that amusing, and giggled as Laronar strode forward a few paces among the ordered lines of students, and bowed. "Master Shin-Zu. The White Tiger bid me and my fellow Night Elf here to seek you out. We come from Val'sharah, and we wish to learn the White Tiger's style of combat. He said that you should be the one to teach us."
The elder Pandaren leapt with seemingly little effort, flying through the air with an impressive flip, and landing just before them. His bulk was deceptive, it seemed, and hid mostly muscle. His deep baritone and heavily accented elven filled their ears as he looked them over. "Night Elves...interesting. I have never trained an elf before. Come. We shall see what you already know, and go from there." He gave a nod to another Pandaren by the dais upon which he'd been leading the exercises, and said Padnaren stepped up, continuing the class as his master guided the pair of elves to a courtyard that currently was not in use, and had training equipment all over it.
He quickly determined that neither of them had any real experience with martial arts, and though the training was trying on their nerves, their teacher quickly showed them what they wanted to learn. The fast movements, the explosive strikes, the devastating power of a blow with the force of their entire body behind it, was exactly what they had been looking to master. Their bite attacks, especially as Nightsabers, were powerful already, but Ashamane had told, and shown, that they could be even stronger. She wished for all who followed her to eventually master this, but for that to happen, someone needed to perfect it. Saria had a different mission, and had found the 'correct master' as Ashamane had called her.
As the master of the White Tiger Style taught the elves, he remarked, and lamented, at how quickly they absorbed his knowledge. It was, from a Pandaren's perspective, absurdly fast. They mastered each movement with unnatural speed, and their natural dexterity made up for their errors as they sparred, and practiced new sets. Neither of his new students had tired by the time the sun had risen, and thus, he kept training them. They did pause when the smell of his dumplings caused the male's stomach to roar, not unlike Xuen.
By the arrival of the next night, Shin-Zu declared that they had the basics down, and at that point, only repetition could perfect them. He sent them back to Xuen, who lifted his white head as they approached, and bowed.
"Ashamane said you had promise...but even I am impressed." The sparking blue eyes focused on the male of the pair. "It is time we drew your rage from you. Take your strongest form."
The druid paused, as he debated between the Wolf and the Nightsaber. He asked for her guidance, as he pondered, and she simply repeated Xuen's words, with what seemed like a sigh. Given Goldrinn's pride at that comment, Laronar felt that even the Ancients knew who was the stronger. Ashamane had other strengths, and he would always prefer his cat form, but the tiger had asked for his strongest, and the wolf of Hyjal was eager to test one of his kind who thought rage was a hindrance. It was an old argument between them. Goldrinn intended to let the druid use as much of his power as he wished, to prove his point to the old tiger.
Thankfully, Xuen knew the source of the druid's pause, as Goldrinn's blessing was obvious upon his leather kilt, and was thus not surprised when he shifted before him, into a massive, black furred, amber eyed wolf. The druid had impressive control of it's rage, but Xuen saw hesitation, as the wolf god's primal fury manifested in Pandaria.
From the massive black wolf's body came a creature of pure shadow, rage, and anger. It resembled a Worgen, and its eyes burned red as it focused on Laronar, who was rapidly wondering if he'd bitten off more than he could chew. He felt Goldrinn's rage surge, and he lashed out at the creature, but it dodged him, easily, and Xuen's voice echoed around him, as he noticed Naria seemed to have vanished. He was alone in the chamber, facing down the shadowy being with scythes for arms.
"This, is a Sha of Anger, a manifested breath of the Old God, Y'shaarj. Conquer your anger, your rage made manifest, and you will become stronger. You must not let it overpower you, and weaken your strikes."
Goldrinn seemed to ignore the advice, and Laronar soon realized he was not as in control as he assumed. He lunged at the being, missing, but dodging when it retaliated. Back and forth they went, the slashing scythes coming ever closer. Then, something changed in the way the creature fought. He let the wolf's instinct for survival completely take over the dodging required for survival, as he focused his power. Dark gray bark sprouted from the fur, surrounding the wolf, and not slowing it. Then, came the thorns.
The Sha, as Xuen had named it, found itself damaged, rather badly, when it tried to slice into the wolf, and as it went on the defensive, more and more of its shadowy essence was ripped from it with the savage fangs and claws Laronar was using to great effect. Yet it did not die. Xuen's eyes narrowed. The druid, skilled as he was and empowered by Goldrinn, should have killed the creature seven times over by now, and yet, the manifestation was not dying.
Eventually, the thorn covered wolf began to slow, and as it did, a scythe knocked it away, even as it was impaled by the thorns. It seemed not to care, as it grew bigger. It fed upon the rage of not just the druid, but also of the Wild God currently aiding him. The powers at work in Pandaria could not pass up the chance to corrupt Goldrinn, and have yet another agent close to the World Tree. The Wolf God would ensure their eventual hour of victory.
Shadow radiated from the being, and Xuen snarled. "You DARE to infest My domain? Before my very eyes!?" The white and blue tiger began sparking. Evidently, the remnants of Y'shaarj needed a reminder as to who now ruled in Pandaria. Or at least, this part of it.
As Xuen grew in size to match the threat, Laronar and Goldrinn remained on the defensive, and each scythe blow that landed on them tore away more and more of the bark skin defense. Finally, Laronar reached out to the wolf Ancient from within, where he'd essentially taken a back seat. "We need to change our strategy."
He felt the wolf god snarl, and his irritation grew. "Listen to me, Goldrinn! We need to change strategies, or we're going to fall. And you will fall with me. Whatever this thing is, it's tethered itself to you, now. Your rage, your savage nature."
Finally, the white wolf humored him with an answer. "Then what do we do, Kaldorei?"
Laronar grinned within the wolf form, and after he explained what he'd learned from the tiger, the important aspects of the style Goldrinn would understand, as well as the harnessing of one's inner energy, or Chi. Once the elf explained how, the wolf smirked as well. Xuen, who had been about to step in, paused as he saw a shift in the fighting style of the druid.
Size didn't seem to matter to the pair, as they began zipping around his temple leaping with impressive speed, from pillar to pillar and soon, they were little more than a very sharp, very thorny black blur racing through the air. Now all they had to do was hit. And then, they did. Claws and fangs tore through shadow as the bark covered wolf leapt through it, landed on another pillar, turned, and leapt again. More shadow was torn away, and a scythe arm slashed at the wolf, but he was already gone, landing, turning, and launching again.
Seeing this, Xuen changed tactics, and instead let the druid draw from his power as well. Blue lightning sparked over the shifted wolf, and each time they struck, it jolted into the Sha, making it smaller, and weakening it. Finally, the druid focused their unified spirit, as best he knew how after a single lesson, and the final bite made the Sha dissipate entirely.
The enlarged form of the white tiger looked down at the wolf, and although Goldrinn assumed it was with smugness, Laronar calmed his anger. It was not smug superiority, but pride in the tiger's eye. The same pride he had for all who managed to take the first all-important step on the path to learning his style of fighting.
The wolf gave a slow nod to the white tiger, and then, the form faded, leaving the dark purple Kaldorei panting, exhausted, but victorious. He stared up at Xuen then, as Naria melted from the shadows to rejoin them, by his side. She had moved at Xuen's request, more of a warning really, and had regretted not being able to help him as he fought off...whatever a Sha was. She had a feeling she would fight something similar.
Laronar panted heavily, but he managed to speak despite the lack of breath. "That...creature...I've seen others touched by a similar power...the stone guardians of Silithus...they radiated a similar black aura. You seem to know what the source of it is, White Tiger...tell me...what you know. Please."
The August Celestial of Pandaria's northern territory eyed the two elves, and then growled, not with irritation, but as more of a sigh. Enlightening them to the real enemy of the world, the oldest enemy, the one that was unified in its evil and its plotting, would take time.