There are those who refer to death as “The Final Rest.” Or perhaps “The Big Sleep.” The idea behind these phrases is that the body is done, it will no longer move, and the spirit can take a break from the world and enjoy an eternal slumber.
This was not true in Ald’s experience.
The very moment that his eyes rolled into his head and his body slumped to the stone ground of the Icecrown Citadel, he felt a jolt near where his stomach would be, and he was whisked away. It was an odd experience. His mind was still cranking away, and his senses were still transmitting to it, even without neurons blasting and ear bones drumming. He could still hear, see, feel, and smell. He could even taste the acidic flavor of the deadly potion in his mouth.
But these were not experiences of his body. These were experiences of his soul.
Ald was dumbfounded as his spirit was thrust away from Azeroth. He watched in awe as he left his body and his friends on the ground below. His spirit moved faster than the Deeprun Tram as he soared towards the broken sky. Within mere seconds, the people standing on the ground below were the size of motes.
He looked down at himself. Actually, he was very much the same person as before. Sure, he was a bit more translucent, and maybe a tinge bluer, but he was still wearing the same clothes he had died in.
Ald didn’t consider himself a philosophical Pandaren, and he was glad for that at the moment because the implications of his current situation may have broken his mind. Instead, he consciously relaxed his spiritual body and enjoyed the ride to the top.
As he left Azeroth’s atmosphere, there was a loud pop followed by the crackle of electricity. The smell of burnt fur met his ghostly nose, and Ald realized he had breached the barrier between planes of existence. He had left the very real plane of Azeroth, and he was traveling through some sort of in-between.
He was trucking across some sort of ghost highway, following a long line of electricity. He could see no end to the line, and a quick check behind him confirmed that he couldn’t see where he had started his journey either. It was as if he were traveling within an obscuring cloud of smoke.
Another loud pop later, and Ald could finally see a structure. A giant tower of gold and marble loomed into his vision, and he was traveling at an alarming speed straight towards it. He looked around him and could also see others by his side. The spirit of an elderly dwarf with a long silver beard was soaring on his right. A young goblin with burn marks on his arms and face flew beside him on his left. All three were moving along the same invisible path.
As Ald approached the tower, he felt his trajectory change. He (and those who were accompanying him) flew above the tower and then turned sharply down to fly straight through it. On top of the tower, there was no roof. Instead, it was wide open as if the large building were some sort of pipe. Near the top, spirits started coming from all directions and combined into one swirling, gaseous breeze of souls.
They swirled and swirled as they entered. And Ald found he was right. This place was a pipe. The souls entered into the top, combined into one current, and streamed through the bottom at an even faster speed than before. The wind from all of this swirling whipped around his clothes as he looked upon his destination.
It appeared as if Ald was about to enter a storm. Reddish clouds swirled over the entrance, and visions of fire and brimstone filled his senses. The group he was with started wailing and screaming just as they entered the atmosphere. After several seconds, Ald realized he was screaming as well. This place he had just entered was not one of fluffy clouds and aromatic flowers. There truly was fire and lava, stone and metal. The immense sense of dread emanating from this place was palpable, and it resonated with his spirit more than was comfortable.
The group he was with swirled together as one, and Ald found he was moving in a giant beam of souls. Wailing, screaming, and crying echoed around him. His vision became distorted as he noticed tormented souls, vicious dogs, and demons stomping around the wailing ghosts. Ald went under a dark stone bridge and only then did he realize he was flowing through the area as some sort of river. A river of souls!
Ald tried to drag himself out, but there was nothing to grab onto. He looked around with wide eyes at the ground and sky swirling past him, and he knew he was stuck.
For what felt like an eternity, Ald was swept through the barren landscape amidst crying and torment. He passed under bridge after bridge, and he silently wondered if these were different structures or just the same bridge over and over. He couldn’t even tell if he was circulating in a wide oval or if this river went on forever. Anything seemed possible. And everything seemed bleak.
That was until a hand reached into the river, grabbed the cloak on Ald’s soul, and yanked.
His ethereal body raked against the stones on the river bank. The physical pain helped ease the ache of his head as the shock to his body loosened his mind. Even though he was only a spirit, his knees were scraped, and his hands had small cuts from landing hard on the rocky ground outside of the river. Still aching, he looked up into the eyes of his savior. A wizened Draenei with a large grimace plastered to his face.
“You seem dead, sir,” he said.
Ald was still gasping for breath but managed to let out a chuckle before rolling onto his back. “Nothing ever did escape your astounding powers of deduction.”
Giles folded his legs and sat on the ground next to Ald. Like the rogue next to him, the draenei was a blue ethereal color. Ald could see right through him. “How did it happen, sir?” he asked, his eyes downcast.
Ald found the strength to sit up. The last thing he wanted to answer was how his death had come from drinking poison. “That doesn’t matter, old friend. How are you? Where are we?”
Giles looked up and out at the landscape surrounding the two of them. The area was mostly desolate, decorated only with swirling spirits and stone spikes. Ald could still hear the wailing of the spirits in the river near his feet. “This is the Maw,” Giles replied, his face expressionless. “The home of the Jailer.”
Ald blinked slowly. “Who?”
“The Jailer, boy. I see you still don’t listen. Make me repeat myself again, and I’ll throw you back in Gorgoa.” Giles waved towards the river of souls.
Ald looked at the river named Gorgoa. Spirits weaved in and out, back and forth as they continued their wailing. “Speaking of, how did you find me? There are so many spirits in there.”
Giles’s face broke into a sheepish grin. “That was my third try actually,” he said. “I kept missing you as you swept past. It was easy enough to spot you anyhow. You are glowing so brightly, we’re lucky the Jailer hasn’t visited us already.
That name again.
“Glowing? I’m glowing?” Aldineri stood and looked down at his body. He didn’t appear to be glowing. His spirit was the same pale blue color as the other spirits in the Maw.
“You are indeed glowing. Honestly, you’re a bit hard to look at directly. Like you’ve been covered in sunlit mirrors.”
A puzzle piece fell into place in Ald’s mind. Covered. The ashes from Icecrown. Those ashes must have included bits of the Helm of Domination as he had suspected. Back at Icecrown, he had surmised that any pieces of the Helm would serve as an excellent tracking device. It seemed there was an unforeseen effect. Although Ald couldn’t see it himself, he was apparently lit up like a Winter Veil tree.
With this realization, Ald looked around and noticed that the other spirits in the Maw were avoiding him. Instead of flocking towards him like moths to a light, they shunned him, giving him a wide berth. Giles had said that he was hard to look at. Giles had also said that such a glow may attract the attention of the Jailer.
“Who is this Jailer, Giles? Honestly, his name doesn’t sound pleasant.”
Giles let out a short sigh. “May I suggest we move from this area before answering zillions of your silly questions? Seriously, sir, only you would think it wise to jibber jabber out in the open like this.”
Some things never changed. Ald smiled and gestured for Giles to lead the way. The little ethereal Draenei started moving quickly. The two wound their way across the stony ground. Ald noticed that the other spirits were shifting out of the way as they traveled. He felt like he was in the center of a magnetic field as the spirits were repulsed around him in a bubble.
Every now and then, Giles would turn his head from side to side as if he were making sure they weren’t being watched. At one point, Giles stopped for a moment, and Ald nearly ran into the back of him. “I think we’re being followed,” the old draenei said. “Let’s lose our tail.”
The paranoid guide led Ald around a small circle before they both ended up right where they were before. “Good. I think we lost them.” Ald put a furry paw to his face and shook his head.
After a short distance, Ald spied the entrance to a cavern. Its mouth opened from the side of one of the rocky cliffs in this zone, and Giles was headed straight towards it. “What’s in there, Giles?” he asked, pointing in the direction they were moving.
Giles chuckled. “I believe you mean ‘who’ is in there, sir.”
The two entered the cave, and Ald nearly fell over in shock.
“Aldineri? Is that you?” asked a young man dressed in regal armor.
“King Anduin,” Ald breathed. He stopped following Giles and immediately knelt upon the stone floor of the cavern. Standing around Anduin were other familiar faces. Jaina Proudmoore, Thrall, and Baine Bloodhoof. Giles had somehow found the kidnapped Alliance and Horde leaders!
“Stand, Pandaren,” Anduin said. “You don’t kneel in a warzone.”
Ald obeyed and found his feet. In answer, Anduin chuckled and wrapped his arms around Ald in a tight hug. It was Ald’s turn to chuckle. “Do we hug in a warzone, Your Highness?”
Anduin let out a hearty yet strained laugh and released the embrace. The King looked Ald up and down. As he did, his smile turned into a thoughtful frown. “My friend. Are you…?”
The King couldn’t finish the sentence. Jaina did it for him.
“He is dead, Anduin. He is the color of the spirits around here. Yet different somehow.”
Ald gave Jaina a curt nod. The two of them had never gotten along. Ald’s first experience with the powerful mage had been in Dalaran soon after Ald had signed up with the Alliance. In a fit of rage, Jaina had wandered the streets of the floating city with a large patrol. She forcibly purged Dalaran of all Horde members. There was much bloodshed as many Sunreavers refused to be vacated from their homes. Ald had been part of a small group of Alliance members who chastised Jaina’s decision. He argued that she was not thinking with her head but acting on pure emotion. She had never forgiven him for it.
Even during the recent war when the Alliance had raided Dazar’Alor, Jaina had covered their escape from the palace, making it clear that she was doing so because Ald was incompetent at getting his own troops to safety.
“The mage is blunt, yet correct, King Anduin. It was my only path to find you. Another group had taken the only other available route.”
“I fail to see how a mere spirit can help us out of our current predicament, Anduin,” Jaina said to the King. “The souls of those who are trapped in the Maw have absolutely no chance of escape. It seems I’m not the only one who acts on pure emotion,” she added, throwing heaps of venom into her final sentence. Thrall placed one of his large green hands on her shoulder as if to steady her.
Anduin ignored the two of them. He was lost in thought. No matter how dire things seemed, Ald knew that the King was not one to admit defeat. But things were looking exceptionally dire right about now.
Ald turned to Thrall and Baine, the two most level-headed Horde leaders he had ever known. “What happened to the group who came before me? Did they find you?”
Thrall nodded. “They led us to this cave. They lost half their number finding us. The remaining members went back out to secure passage out of the Maw. That was several hours or perhaps even days ago. Time is…unusual here. They have not returned.”
“Did they have something with them? An item?”
A chuckle bellowed from Baine’s throat. “Ah. That is why you are different, old friend. You have bits of the Helm on you.” The Tauren moved to the back of the cavern and picked up a bundle of cloth. He carefully unwrapped its layers to reveal half of the Helm of Domination. Ald was able to stare at the piece with no consequence, but he noticed that Giles had visibly stepped back, shielding his eyes as if he were staring straight into the sun.
As Baine approached with the shining helmet, Giles stepped further back. Ald put out his paws, and the tauren dropped it into them. A collective gasp arose from all in the cavern.
“How are you able to touch and carry this, Aldineri?” Anduin asked. “No other spirit was able to grab it. In fact, most seem to avoid it.”
Ald raised his eyebrows but his eyes never left the Helm in his paws. “I have to admit that I have no idea.”
Suddenly, the ground inside the cavern shook. The walls of stone crumbled a bit, and pebbles fell from the ceiling. All of those within the cavern exchanged fearful looks as a deep, menacing voice echoed from the mouth of the cave.
“I’VE FOUND YOU…”