I followed the elf as she moved gracefully into the darkness. Soon, we were off the dignified bark trail and back onto its twisted, viney underlayment. I stepped gingerly: walking on the matt of tangled branches gave an unpleasant, just-barely-secure feeling to my footing. The mat began to slope downward, and the light from the Drassi began to fade behind us. The slope and the darkness made footing even more treacherous, and before long I was digging my hooves in carefully with each step and falling behind my guide. She stopped and turned, her eyes glinting with the distant city light, now nearly disappeared behind the tree’s shallow horizon.
“Having trouble?” called the elf. I grunted. “Think,” she said.
Trouble climbing a tree, I thought. Ahh.
I closed my eyes, concentrating, pulling my limbs in, forcing my hands into paws and the bones of my fingers into claws, shrinking my head and pointing my teeth and, as always, fervently, futilely wishing my horns away. It was good enough: I flexed my spine and dug my claws into the branches. Tyrande turned again into the sloping darkness.
Above and behind us, the light from the Crown’s Crown disappeared entirely, and my guide stopped. She turned again and motioned me forward. I obeyed, and the ground leveled out and my paws fell upon suddenly soft ground. I bent my head down and sniffed: where the vines had smelled woody and subtly unpleasant, here the grass smelled moist and alive. I breathed in and let my body revert back to its natural state. Still on all fours, I wiggled my hands in the thick, dew-covered grass. It was only a few feet wide, and when it dropped off again, the tree’s woven canopy sloped too steeply even for my savannah-cat claws. In the center of the green patch was the shadow of a low, thick bush: alive and healthy.
I stood and turned to Tyrande. “What is this?” I said.
She smiled sadly in the waning moonlight. “Is it so surprising that there is a small patch of unblemished life on a tree planted by the children of Elune?” I made to answer but she made to interrupt me. “It was rhetorical,” she said. Her golden eyes stared up at the white moon. “Sit,” she commanded. I sat.
“This isn’t the tree’s only patch of uncorrupted life,” she began. “The remaining druids have saved a few spots. You saw the green tree growing from the center of the Drassi – nurtured by Malfurion himself, and uncorrupted. Nature has the power to heal what greed has stained,” she finished quietly.
I nodded. “Malfurion,” I repeated, “your leader, right?”
The elf smiled fondly in the darkness. “Our Archdruid, yes,” she said.
I looked at her as she spoke, at her smooth skin and her pointed ears, her gently-glowing eyes. “The nature-healing thing,” I said, “is that why you’re not…” but I trailed off, and for a moment wished I hadn’t spoken.
But the elf smiled. “Why I’m not withered and twisted? No,” she answered. “I stand straight because I don’t drink from Teldrassil.” Her glowing eyes turned towards me. “I’m not immortal,” she said. Her voice changed as she said it, and I couldn’t tell if it was with pride or regret. “I had the choice,” she said, “to immerse myself, coerce myself with that magic. I chose a good life and eventual death, as few have.” Maybe it was pride and regret together, I thought.
There was another moment of silence. Then my stomach growled. “I’m hungry,” I said instinctively.
Tyrande narrowed her eyes. “Good,” she said, and her voice had steadied. She rose gracefully to her feet and raised an arm over her head. I tensed. “Empty your mind as well,” she said quietly, and a subtle green light began flickering about her hands, and then, without warning or ceremony, she thrust them together towards me and a green light, like the one with which Katy M had once struck me down, lanced across the space between us, tearing through the small bush – without disturbing so much as a leaf.
Then it slammed into my body and shrieked through my mind like a wind, like a blinding light, like a great, terrible, crashing wave. It propelled me backwards off my hooves and off the edge of the flat space, onto the sloping treetop. Dazed and with the wind knocked out of me, I tumbled for a moment before being resurrected to full consciousness by the sudden and terrifying realization that I wasn’t coming to a halt. As I flipped head over hoof towards some distant precipice, I inhaled, then yelled, then forced my body into the shape of a lion. My claws flicked out, and as I flipped head over paw I sunk them into the thinning and widening branches.
I jerked painfully to a stop, hissing as my shoulders were wrenched nearly out of their sockets. The shadow of a watchful eagle passed over the moon. I flexed my spine and began hauling myself back up.
By the time I regained the green grass, Tyrande was again sitting on the uphill side of the small bush, her legs folded beneath her, her golden eyes closed and a subtle green light playing across her body. I scrambled up and onto the platform and collapsed, a bull again.
The green light winked out. “What just happened?” she said serenely.
“You hit me with nature magic and almost knocked me off the top of a gigantic tree,” I said crossly.
She opened her eyes. “True,” she said. “To put it another way, I channeled the wrath of nature from the dream of pure life through your body and mind, which, ill-attuned as they are to that dream, were ill-prepared to receive it.” She inclined her head towards me. “You felt the result.”
I stared at her for a moment. Then I said, “I didn’t understand a single word of that.”
She smiled and nodded towards the grass at my hooves. “Sit,” she said. I sat.
“Do you know what you are?” she said.
Horse, I thought. Ashva, or whatever they were calling me here. A bull. A member – it was still too new a thought to come without emotion – of the Order of Sarvavidh. I shook my head.
“You are a body,” spoke the elf, “made up of parts, working together, each carrying out its task, not knowing of or caring about the actions of the other parts. Your ears hear, and your eyes see. Your nose sits atop your face and smells, at least until it has an itch – and then your arm, feeling that the time is right, reaches up and scratches your nose, which gratefully accepts the gesture and then goes back to simply smelling. Your tongue speaks words which strike it as important: it neither knows nor cares what the words mean or where they come from. It cares only that they are spoken correctly. And so the whole of you comes together, from uncaring and unknowing parts acting together as a harmony which they cannot comprehend and about which they could not possibly care less. Your whole,” she said, “is greater than the sum of your parts.” She looked intently at me, and I stared back. I don’t feel like a bunch of dumb parts working together, I thought. Then, without quite meaning to, I scratched my nose. In the darkness, the elf smiled.
“So is the world,” she continued. “It is a living, breathing system made up of all of the unknowing creatures, the plants and animals and air and water: all things are connected, and in that connection is the greatest of living systems. Nature is alive,” said the elf, her voice distant. “Nature has a will, as real as yours and far, far greater.”
I blinked. “The world is alive?”
“The living child of Elune,” she replied.
“Elune?” I said. She’d said the name several times now.
“Goddess have mercy!” cried Tyrande. “Elune brought the world into being. She is its mother, and we, with few exceptions, are her children. She is the world’s guardian goddess, and shame on you and shame on the world for not knowing her name.”
“The moon-mother,” I said quietly, and the pieces clicked together. Long ago, spoke my old mentor Hokato in my memory, Mu'sha the moon-mother birthed the world and reared all of us as her children.
“The white moon,” nodded Tyrande. “You do know her, then. Forgive me.
“Elune has abandoned us, though,” murmured the elf quietly, almost to herself, looking up at the waning moon. “She left for grief when the blue moon hid its face, and if she is going to come back, then she has not yet done so.” Her voice was deeply sad.
We sat in silence for a moment longer.
She turned back to me. “The world,” she said, “is indeed alive. She heals herself when she is wounded, and if she is attacked she strikes back. She moves slowly, sometimes – the ills and cancers of our bodies perceive us as glacial behemoths – but she moves undeniably, and inexorably. And like our smallest fingernail or claw, the birds and the beasts and the plants and the oceans are miniscule, unwitting organs in her greater whole.
“But into nature’s great living web, intelligent organs have been inserted. Some of her parts – we, the thinking beings of the world – have the ability, whether learned or earned or granted by a higher power, to understand nature, to feel and test and discover her being. And being a part of it, we can tap into her power. Where she is angry, we can channel pure wrath. Where she is at peace, or when her sad yearning for peace is strongest, we can move her energies through ourselves and others, and heal afflictions, wounds and illnesses, no matter how dire. We can move the winds and the rains, we can call the roots of the trees out of the ground to do our bidding.” She paused for a moment. “When you learn to feel and understand your place in nature’s great web, and when you learn to control it – and let it control you – then the wrath which sent you flying a moment ago won’t hurt you at all. You’ll know its source and its quality, and you’ll know your place in its universe and its place in you, and it will simply flow through you.”
The stories of my childhood, Hokato’s religion and its metaphors, had been right, I thought with shame. But this was different: Tyrande did not seem to be speaking in metaphors, and her words rang true in my mind. “Teach me how,” I said, and for the first time in a decade, I meant it.
Tyrande smiled. “You already use that energy,” she said. “You tap it every time you turn into a cat. Whoever taught you how to do that taught you more than most students of nature ever learn.
“Merely rearranging your bones and sinews is a trifle, though, one which requires no knowledge or mastery of the power into which it taps. Without the merest thought, nature’s power molded the minds and bodies of monkeys and made Men – of base ruminant cattle and made Tauren. Channeling her energy in its pure form, though,” she said finalistically, “takes mastery.”
Mastery leads to power, I thought: the power I need to face down Varimathras. The power of nature against the power of evil. “Teach me,” I said.
Tyrande laughed. “A student of the ways of the druid spends years perfecting control over his own body before he can control anything beyond its confines. If you want mastery, you need to first learn to lose your horns.”
It was an unfair jab. “I’ve tried,” I replied hotly. “I’ve been trying since I first learned my cat form. I tried every day for a year!” After I ran away from home because of it, I added silently. Anger was suddenly surging through me. “I tried,” I gritted.
She looked at me silently for a moment, faint surprise on her face. My anger was quelled with sudden shame: it hadn’t been a jab at all, I thought, and my outburst was weakness.
“You have already studied for years,” said the elf serenely. “You can form an imperfect cat – what else can you form?” I made to speak, but she shook her head. “Show me,” she said.
I stood, my back to the distant ocean, facing her seated form over the low bush. I closed my eyes and inhaled, and, limb by limb, by rote memory, I forced my body into the round, thickly muscled form of a bear. My horns, testament to my imperfection, stood out from either side of my bear-head. Katy M’s bear doesn’t have horns, I thought petulantly.
Then I breathed again, and tossed my bear-head like a horse’s. My hooves grew small, my legs skinnier. Muscles stretched against bone; the hair on the back of my neck grew into a mane; and I could feel my face grow long and slender. I opened my large grown eyes and looked across the diminutive bush at the elf, now a proud, gray stallion. I whinnied and tossed my hornless head.
I pulled myself back into a bull. Tyrande smiled at me. “You learned well,” she said. “You have natural ability, and you must have had dedication and a masterful teacher.”
“Just a masterful teacher,” I said, abashed. “I can’t even make my horns go away!” I added. Why the high praise?
“You can,” she replied soberly. “Your horse was magnificent.”
I paused. “The horse has always been easiest for me.”
“Your name is a word in the Common language,” she said. “Your name among my people is Ashva, which means the same in our language. Was it the same in Taurahe, when you were born?”
I nodded silently.
“Describe for me,” said the elf, now with the air of a patient teacher, “the process by which you turn into a bear.”
“Well,” I said slowly, “I know what a bear looks like. It’s got four legs and no arms, and claws in its paws, and it’s really strong, and furry. So I just kind of make myself look like that.”
“Describe for me the process by which you turn into a horse,” said the elf.
I paused. “It’s different,” I said. “I just kind of think of what it’s like to be a horse, and I can just slide into it. And my horns disappear,” I added.
She nodded. “You don’t think of your body as a body shaped like a horse: instead, you think of yourself as a horse. Your other forms, they are merely shapes. You push your body into the poor bear-mold which your mind has crafted. In order to become an animal, you must seek to understand the animal, to seek out and inhabit its place in the web of life.”
Its place in the world, I thought. Not just its shape. I nodded.
“Show me,” said the elf.
I looked at her, and the ideas came together in my mind. I stood, and closed my eyes, and breathed. I’m a bear, I thought.
I’m a bear, I thought harder: I eat roots and berries and sometimes meat. Even though I can beat up all the other animals, my favorite thing in the world is honey. And, I can run really fast even though I have short legs. They’re big thick legs, though, and they can beat up all the other animals. And people! I can kick ass – I can take axe-blows to the side and walk away – I can run into the middle of crowds of people and scatter them! My place – my place is to be strong, to be a good bear, and to bring more bears into the world.
I opened my eyes. I had succeeded.
The transformation had been different than the previous ones – it had felt natural. I felt more wholly a bear. I breathed in deeply, filling my enormous bear-lungs – before, they had always, somehow, still been bull lungs – with cool night air.
But my horns remained.
I shifted back into a bull. Tyrande looked impassively across the darkness at me. “Try again,” she said. I nodded.
I’m a bear, I thought. I love honey, and warm meat, and I’m huge and if something pisses me off I get really, really angry, because I can. Because I’m huge. And for the love of god, I hate horns.
And suddenly, I felt it. I hate horns, I thought, because horns are a weapon. Horns are sharp, and hard, and they poke me when I’m trying to kill things or defend myself. Horns have no place in my world – they’re very, very, very bad. Horns suck.
And like that, they were gone.
A powerful joy coursed through me, bubbling up through the years. I opened my eyes and reared up on my back paws and roared. Then I turned back into a bull, breathless and smiling.
Tyrande stood and bowed. “You bring great honor to your old teacher,” she said airily, “and great wonder to me. Sajjaneshta said that time would be short when you arrived. I should not have worried.”
“Sajahooie?” I said.
“You call her Katy M,” said the elf. “Katy means ‘chosen’ in an ancient dialect of Common, and Sajjaneshta means the same in our language. She has been my friend since I was a child, more than a century ago. She hasn’t aged a day,” she added fondly, shaking her head. “Four years ago she came to me, and asked if, at some point in the near future, I would teach a rash bull by the name of Ashva. When the time came, she said, I might have only a few months to train you, and I laughed at her, but I agreed. As I said,” and she bowed again, “I should not have worried.”
Wow, I thought. Thanks. “I had a lot of training already,” I said, just a bit embarrassed.
“And you have a lot more to go,” she said, suddenly stern again, tucking her legs back beneath her body. “Bear form!” she cried.
* * *
For long hours she watched me, calling out like a drill instructor as I forced my mind into the mind of a bear, faster, with less and less effort. When I’d finally mastered it, I could lower my head and be a bear, hornless and complete, in the blink of an eye.
Without respite, the elf began calling, “Cat form!” I was starving and exhausted, but I pressed on: I am a cat, I thought. I like chasing things and then eating them. I like sleeping in the sun. And I hate horns.
Then, as the blue moon sank towards the western horizon and the white moon waxed bright again, Tyrande stood, and I pulled my hornless cat back into a bull. I grinned through my exhaustion – the feeling of being so in control of my body was exhilarating, and I said so.
“These forms are easy,” Tyrande replied stonily.
“Easy!” I cried, a little hurt. “I’m about dead!”
“You have come unthinkably far in one night’s training. But a bear and a cat and a horse are much like a bull: they have four limbs, and they eat and they breathe in much the same way, and they are all bound to dry land. You must have full mastery of your body before you can progress in your training – and your three forms have not yet given you that.”
I sighed. “What’s next?” I said, fervently hoping that the answer was, sleep.
“A journey,” she said. “You must learn command and mastery of the water, and for this, you need the help of a magical pendant. You must travel to the western coast of the dead continent of Lordaeron. There,” she continued, speaking now as though by rote, “off the coast of Silverpine Forest, you will find the remains of an ancient shipwreck. Due west of there, where the ocean floor drops into the abysmal deeps and the strongest swimmers begin to fatigue, you will find a small silver box. Within the box is an amulet in the shape of a sea-lion – put it on, and it will give you the knowledge you need to survive in the deep watery places of the world. In your new form, your breath, nearly exhausted, will become sufficient. If you fail…” and she paused, a little dramatically, I thought, “you may drown before you can return to the surface.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s not an easy challenge,” she said. “Mental and physical dexterity will be critical to your success. But when you succeed, you will have taken another great stride towards mastering your body and its variable places in the great world.”
No problem, I thought: just head off to the lightless land, dive to the bottom of the ocean, find a magical necklace and learn how to transform into a sea lion before I drown. “Okay,” I said. Maybe I’ll get to see Rhy again, I thought.
Tyrande smiled mistily. “For now,” she said, standing gracefully and stepping aside, “come sit here.”
I obeyed, settling onto the spot which the elf had occupied for the whole of the night. Beyond the edge of our lonely patch of green lay steeply sloping vines and then wide open space, empty wind for thousands of feet, and then the glittering ocean. The great mist wall rose from it in the distance, obscuring the horizon and the lowest ranks of stars.
“This bush,” she said, gesturing to the diminutive shrub at the center of our little island of pure green, “is my meditation bush – the conduit through which I reach out to nature from this cursed place. Sit now and concentrate on it, meditate on its place in the world, and by extension, your own. Listen for the voice of nature, feel for its will. You will not understand it tonight, but you may discover its first shimmering glimpse.
“You will begin your journey when the sun rises. I will see you once you have completed it.” She stepped back, and for a moment her smile was a grin. “Good job tonight,” she said. Then she bowed, and in a rush of golden feathers she was gone.
I turned to the bush. Normally, I would have felt a little foolish, but I was still flush with the night’s successes. I closed my eyes, and breathed in, and held it, and then breathed out. I focused on the bush, listening for its voice, for its place, and prepared myself to take a first, hesitant step out along the mysterious, willful, living web of life.
Moments later, I was asleep.