Nialls trod up the mountain. Plumes of ash and crunching charcoal marked his footfall which persisted even in the rejuvenated lower forests of Hyjal. Every now and again he had to shake himself to rid his fur of the dust and ash, which only became more and more exhausting as the journey went on.
The summit never appeared to come closer, the World Tree never seemed to move; the supposed lack of progress was nearly maddening. His thoughts swam in recent events, making the day’s trek long and sour. Dannelor’s scolding words and disappointment as well as Nialls’ shame proved yet another burden along with the thinning air and his weakening legs. He was on the verge of collapse; it was as though the air had become lead in his chest and on his body.
He needed a moment to rest.
He stumbled towards a nearby boulder and leaned on it, closing his eyes and letting the sounds and smells of Hyjal fill him. It amazed him that this was once a blistering inferno and he was delighted that it was healed again. Nearly. Even though scents flowering plants, herbs and pines floated on the breeze, the smell of sulfur still permeated the air, stinging the sinuses. There was still some way to go, but the progress so far was encouraging to him.
Nialls suddenly flicked his ears as a new sound faintly made its entrance into the soundscape. It was… Someone. Someone humming. He pushed himself off his resting place and began trudging towards his new heading, a new drive pushing him forward with the promise of warmth, food and maybe some company.
The song grew louder and louder as Nialls pressed on, giving off new information that couldn’t be heard previously: it was male, jovial and interlaced with bright chuckling. Nialls gazed skywards, spotting a column of wispy smoke rising above the canopy. A camp! And soon enough an orange glow began to poke through the trees.
Nialls broke through the brush into a meek little camp populated with little more than a fire, a crock pot, a sleeping mat and a lone Kaldorei tending to his dinner.
The elf took a double take a Nialls and beamed, raising his hand in greeting, “Ishnu-alah, friend!”
He had purple skin, silver eyes, dark blue, top-knotted hair and stubble covering his face. He had his fair share of scars on his face and uncovered arms, though he looked rather youthful – then again, Nialls could never tell very well with elves. The elf was dressed in simple leather clothing and had a bo staff beside him.
Nialls stared blankly in his state of exhaustion though quickly remembered himself and dipped his head, “Greetings.”
“Come, come! Join me; rest!”
Nialls quickly complied, grunting as he collapsed in a heap on the ground.
“Long hike, hm?”
“Hmm, yes. You get used to it. Is this your first time up the mountain, master… Erm…?”
“McGregor. Nialls McGregor. And yes, first time.”
“Aaha! A newbie.” The elf chuckled. “I am Lanathiir Moonstorm. Headed anywhere in particular?”
“The Shrine of Goldrinn.”
Lanathiir eyed Nialls up and down and flicked a wry grin. “A silly question, perhaps. Well, it just so happens I’m heading that way myself! Perhaps we can make the rest of the trip together?”
Nialls pursed his lips, hesitant to answer, though he was quickly met with the elf’s chuckling and a dismissive wave of his hand. “Oh, it’s quite alright if you wish to make your own way; I take no offense. I just prefer the company is all.”
“No, no! I would be honoured to make the trip with you.”
“Wonderful! Care for some stew?”
Nialls shook his head. “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly take your food.”
“Oh, don’t be daft; it’s no trouble at all. I have more than enough! Here…” Lanathiir prepared a spare bowl and filled it with the meaty broth. He handed it over to the worgen, the simple wooden bowl dwarfed by his large, clawed hands. Nialls nodded appreciatively and tucked in. Lanathiir smiled softly and began his own meal.
“So, mister McGregor, are you a fellow pilgrim?”
Nialls cocked his head and thought for a moment. “Not exactly.”
Nialls suddenly went reticent and Lanathiir caught on quickly. “Oh! Forgive me, it’s not my business.”
“No, no… It’s fine…” Nialls glanced down and sighed gruffly. “I’m seeking help.”
Lanathiir pursed his lips, setting down his stew and his joyful demeanour with it. He clasped his hands together and set a sympathetic look onto the worgen-boy, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Nialls took a moment. “I am so quick to anger; I’m having trouble controlling it and this form brings out the worst in me. I thought making the journey in it might help.” He snorted. Lanathiir only smiled, allowing Nialls to continue;
“I’m on-edge all the time - The drive to hunt, chase and kill is constantly nagging at me. Whilst I fight I slowly begin to lose myself. When I’m with others I don’t feel I can laugh or enjoy myself. I’m hesitant to use my cat form nowadays because of it all. Recently I lost my temper. Badly. I disgraced myself and my master – I’m fortunate he’d even keep me with him. I don’t mean to return until I’ve learned to control myself.”
Lanathiir strokes his chin idly. A warm smile soon finds its way onto his face. “It takes a lot of substance to admit when you’re wrong and to seek help. Perhaps I and some of my friends can help.”
Nialls glanced at the elf with a quizzical frown. “You would help me? A stranger?”
Lanathiir shrugged a shoulder. “We’re all brothers and sisters of Goldrinn, my friend.”
“I… Don’t know what to say.”
“All you need to say is ‘yes, please’. Do you want seconds?”
Lanathiir abruptly stood and brandished his ladle, his joyous grin finding its way home again. He swiftly refilled Nialls’ bowl with stew and laughed heartily. “Go on! Eat! Eat! You need your strength for tomorrow! And don’t stay in your worgen form; don’t sweat that stuff until we start the real work, hm?”
Nialls nodded and smiled (as best a worgen could), slipping into his human form. Lanathiir blinked as the large, rumbling beast became the soft, small little human-boy, and laughed. “I never did get used to seeing that!”
Nialls grinned wryly. “Maybe you will, when we’re through?”
Nialls and Lanathiir gazed down from the ridge into the valley below. It was a quiet place – strangely for its namesake – where deer and other prey animals roamed freely. A lake, sparkling as the stars did in the heavens, nestled within the centre of the valley with a white stream feeding it from higher up in the mountain. From the water rose a grassy islet, upon which a stone pagoda lay in ruin as the land began to reclaim it. In the eastern corner, a great wolf stood tall and proud, overlooking its valley in perpetuity, resplendent as the moonlight kissed its pale marble, the nearby campfires and braziers appearing as mere specks in comparison. However, this place had not gone untouched: the southern part was burned, trampled and overturned. Violent, choking spires of strange metal rose from the earth.
“Welcome to the Shrine of Goldrinn!” The elf beamed. Nialls was lost for words. It was, indeed, beautiful but the damage screamed for his attention and it pained him. Lanathiir followed the human’s gaze and sighed. “Yes, the Twilight’s Hammer has scarred this land. It’s possible it may never fully recover. But the cultists have been wiped out. We’re seeing progress; new growth here again! That’s something to be happy for, no?” Nialls furrowed his brow and nodded, still unable to shake the sadness and anger of the sight. “Yes. Yes, you’re right.” “Now, before we make our way down, young Nialls, know this: everyone is equal at the Shrine; there are no prejudices or acts of violence that belong there. Act as you would in the Moonglade. Got it?” Nialls nodded. He knew the drill. “Excellent! Let’s go and find the others then.”
The pair leisurely made their way down to the valley and into the camp. It was a hive of activity, even for such a small place: People of all races were sat with each other by their fires revelling in songs and stories, masters taught their apprentices, hunters returned with the day’s bounty, wood was being carved and leather was being worked – all in celebration of the great wolf Ancient, Goldrinn. Nialls was awestruck. “Is this some sort of festival?” Lanathiir chuckled. “Nope! People come all the time to revere and make offerings to the Ancient. Some just like to stick around for the company.” The elf peered around and grinned. “Aha! There they are. Come on!”
They approached a curious couple: One was a tauren woman. She was tall and bulky, and carried a large totem pole with her. Her kindly face was scarred and one of her horns must have been lost to a battle long ago and was now capped with bronze. The other was a young orc with red hair and eyes to match. His large arms were wrapped in cloth and folded across his bare, tattooed chest. At his waist he kept two axes amongst the various reagent pouches. Lanathiir gestured to the duo, “Nialls, I’d like you to meet my friends, Chuuna Ragetotem and Dreggan. Everyone, this is Nialls McGregor.” Dreggan narrowed his eyes and muttered something in orcish only to receive a quick clap around the ears by his tauren companion. “Behave, you.” She snapped with a scowl and a flare of the nostrils. Her expression quickly softened as she turned her attention to Nialls, “Apologies for him. It is a pleasure to meet you, Nialls.” Dreggan merely grunted and offered little else save for a curt nod. Nialls inclined his head and smiled softly but not without a wary glance at the orc, “Likewise.” The orc quickly shot a wry smirk at Lanathiir. “Picking up little human boys in the woods, Moonstorm? You’ll earn a reputation.” He grunted loudly as he received another clap around the ears. “I said behave!” Chuuna growled. Lanathiir merely chuckled and delivered a sly grin of his own, “Now, now, Dreggan. There’s no need to show off in front of the new guy.” The orc glowered at the elf who simply regarded him with smugness. Chuuna rolled her eyes with a sigh and looked at Nialls, returning a smile to her face. “So what has brought you to the Shrine, Nialls?” Nialls pursed his lips and hesitated. He begins to respond but is cut short by Lanathiir. “He is here for training. Isn’t that right?” He gives Chuuna a cryptic ‘look’ which she seems to understand. “I see. Where will you be staying?” Again, Nialls hesitated, realizing he hadn’t really thought about it, but once again Lanathiir saved him. “I have invited him to stay with us, if that is alright?” Dreggan quickly protested with a snort. “We’ve only known him for a minute and you’re already inviting him into bed with us? Pah!” “Oh, stop being such a drama queen, Dreggan. You’ll get to know him well enough in due time.” “I don’t have any interest in this runt.” Nialls clenched his hands into fists and directed a heated scowl at the orc. His jaw clenched and his nose twitched irritably. He inhales, preparing to speak, however Lanathiir was to stop Nialls a third time. The elf’s demeanour became uncharacteristically stern. “You will make an effort, Dreggan.” The orc narrowed his eyes and rumbled, conceding with a grunt and stomping off. The storm swiftly passed from Lanathiir just as quickly as it had arrived. He grinned impishly at Nialls. “Well, you managed not to bite his head off – that’s the first test passed.” “Don’t mind Dreggan.” Chuuna sighs. “He’s just stubborn; He’ll warm up to you eventually. But never mind that for now. We should get some food and rest.” “Excellent!” Lanathiir cheered, pulling an uncomfortable-looking Nialls close to him eliciting a quiet snigger from Chuuna. The three went off to their fire to fill their bellies and learn about each other, and their voices joined the merry chorus of the camp far into the night.
Nialls savoured the moment of respite and revelry. He knew full-well the real work was about to begin.