Chapter Eleven: Escape from the Maw

“It’s him,” Giles squeaked. “It’s the Jailer! He’s found us.” The draenei shivered and curled up into a ball near the side of the cavern wall.

“We need to leave now,” Jaina said, her voice resolved. Ald may not have liked her much, but even he had to admit that she was one of the strongest and most fearless people he knew. She had been speaking specifically to Anduin, but every person in the cavern nodded in agreement. Except for Giles who was still shivering in a ball.

“But where will we go?” Thrall asked. “There is nothing but stones and spirits out there. There is no place to run to outside of this cave.”

“We shall figure that out on the way,” Anduin said. “I agree. We need to leave immediately. Together.”

Jaina gestured towards Ald. “Surely, we’ll need to separate from the Pandaren. With his glow, he’ll attract the Jailer’s attention. He has likely led the Jailer to us already.”

Anduin turned forcefully towards Jaina. “I said ‘together,’ Jaina Proudmoore.”

Jaina looked taken aback by his sudden strength, but she nodded all the same. “As you wish, Your Highness.”

The group gathered together tightly. Baine removed the Helm from Ald’s paws and wrapped it in the cloth again. While he did so, Ald yanked the shocked Giles from his place on the ground and thrust him between the other members of the party. 

“I’ll take the Helm, Baine,” Anduin said. All of the faces in the cave turned towards Anduin. They all knew what this meant. If the Helm was indeed drawing the attention of the Jailer, Anduin was ensuring that he was the one who drew that wrath. Baine hesitated but relented. He handed the cloth to Anduin and gave the Alliance king a deep bow of respect.

Together, they walked slowly towards the mouth of the cavern, warily looking around. As they peered across the landscape, they could see no sign of an enemy awaiting them. 

“There’s no one here,” Thrall said.

“But there is someone coming,” Baine replied. The Tauren knelt and placed one hand on the ground at their feet. Sure enough, Ald could feel something as well. Vibrations. Footfalls. As the seconds ticked by, Ald could feel these vibrations growing in strength. Something large was indeed headed their way.

“Let’s move!” cried Jaina.

Spurred by her words and tone, the group broke out into a run towards Gorgoa, the river of souls. Almost immediately, a cry rang out from the air. Jaina raised her staff and created a glowing blue bubble shield around their heads just as a winged beast swept down, trying to crush the group. Ald hazarded a glance at the creature and recognized it immediately. The drawing in Caldmaster’s sketchbook was uncannily similar to the creature now hovering above Ald. Long angelic wings held the creature aloft, and a skull shaped mask covered the creature’s face. The creature was darkened as if covered in soot, and in its arms, it held a long spear, tipped with a menacing sharpened point.

After several failed attempts at breaking through the bubble shield, the creature landed next to the group and leveled its spear at Ald’s head. “Halt, prey! You are to wait here so the master may attend to you.”

Jaina let out a fiendish growl. “Remove yourself from our path, Mawsworn. Unless you’d like me to show you what I did to the others who stood in my way.”

Even though the Mawsworn’s face was covered with that hideous skull mask, Ald could feel the anger rising from him. His stance tensed, and he slammed the point of the spear into the bubble again. The tip bounced off, and Jaina let the shield drop. With no hesitation, every member of the group fell on the Mawsworn. Blades flashed for a mere second, and the creature lay on the ground, black blood streaming across its stony surface.

A deep, angry scream bellowed from all around the group. The Jailer was getting closer. They looked at one another quickly and wordlessly broke out into another run. As they did so, other Mawsworn were falling upon them from the skies. Ald glanced up and jumped to his left just as a Mawsworn crashed into the ground beside him. The creature had evidently been planning to use Ald’s furry body as a cushion for his landing. Instead, he crashed upon the ground in a heap. Ald couldn’t tell if it was dead or not since he had no intention of stopping his run to poke him with a stick, but the Mawsworn was not standing up from its fall.

All around him, his partners were doing the same. They were keeping eyes on both the sky and the ground before them, avoiding falling Mawsworn and tripping hazards. Giles did trip on a small stone for one moment, but Thrall grabbed his arm, and they continued moving forward without really ever stopping. 

“To the bridge,” Anduin called. Ald looked ahead of them and saw a long stone bridge crossing over Gorgoa. He hazarded a glance behind him and saw nearly a dozen Mawsworn chasing the group on foot. For some reason, he felt a sudden sprint in his steps.

Ald was the first to reach the bridge. He turned to make sure the rest of the party made it there unscathed. He whipped out his ethereal daggers, not really knowing if they would have any effect on a living, breathing entity. But he needn’t find out. As soon as the entire group had made it to the bridge, the Mawsworn pursuers stopped their pursuit. Most let out cries of rage before every single one of them took to the air..

Jaina let out a whoop of triumph at the Mawsworn’s retreat. She looked around at the group surrounding her, but she saw only grimaces. Baine knelt again, placing his hand on the stone bridge.

Ald focused on the vibrations again. Not only were the footsteps still approaching, there was something new. Something constant. Like a torrent of water. A torrent of water right below the bridge.

The whole bridge shook as a giant emerged from the “waters” of the river of souls beneath them. Except it wasn’t a giant. Ald immediately recognized Helya, the ruler of Helheim. The fallen goddess bared her giant pointed teeth at the entire group and stared at them with her milky white eyes. The wreckage of a wooden ship decorated her shoulder, and she brandished long fingers that ended in sharp claws. A menacing laugh escaped her lungs as she stared down at the heroes.

“Your wretched souls will feed the coming darkness!” she bellowed. She extended one claw towards the group.

Jaina began to power up her shield again. “Wretched”? I heard you were soundly beaten by a force of ‘wretched’ champions, witch!”

Helya’s eyes narrowed, and she let out an angry scream. Ald slapped his paws over his ears to block out the shrill cry. “You will pay for that insult! The skies of your world will be darkened by the wings of my Mawsworn!”

Her Mawsworn?” Giles mumbled. “But the Jailer…”

Before he could finish his thought, Thrall let out a cry of “For Azeroth!” and threw his axe at Helya’s approaching claw. She let out another earsplitting shriek, and she pulled back her claws, lowering them below the bridge. With a straining effort, Helya pulled up an entire wall of souls, a churning piece of the river below.

“Drown! Drown among the souls of the damned!” she cried as she unleashed the wave of souls toward the heroes on the bridge. The wave crashed against them. Ald felt himself being swept back into the current, and the same feelings of dread and torment filled his spirit. The strength of the torrent had pushed all of the heroes off the bridge and down into the wailing waters of Gorgoa below.

Just as Ald felt himself again being pulled along with the other souls in the river, Thrall’s green hand grasped his ethereal cloak. The orc waded through the spirits with a pained yet determined gait. They broke through to the bank of the river, and Thrall released Ald whose head was still swimming.

From the banks of the river, Ald looked around to see if everyone had survived. Anduin, Jaina, Thrall, and Baine were all standing at the edge of the bank. “Giles? Where’s Giles?” he asked, looking around and behind the people who were standing there.

Thrall’s face fell, and he looked at his feet. “I tried, Aldineri. I could not grab onto him. For some reason, his spirit ripped through my fingers. I was only able to grab you.” Ald made to turn and jump back into the flowing souls of Gorgoa, but Thrall grabbed his cloak again.

“I will not lose him again!” Ald yelled, glowing tears falling down the fur beneath his eyes.

Anduin stepped between Ald and Gorgoa. The King knelt down to Ald’s level and placed an armored hand on the pandaren’s shoulder. “We will come back for him, Aldineri. But we are not safe here. And I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself when we’ve come so far.”

Ald knew that Anduin was right, though he resisted admitting it. He gave a loud sniff and used a paw to wipe the tears from his face. “Yes, Your Highness. By your order, I will stand. We will return for him.” Ald stood. “Also, I don’t believe we are supposed to kneel in a warzone.”

Anduin arched an eyebrow and let a small smile slip onto his face. “Come,” he said. “We must go now.” Ald could still feel the approaching footsteps. He jumped up, and the group took off running again away from the bridge and toward an area of fire and lava. The brimstone that Ald had felt while he had been hurtling down toward the Maw must have been from here.

On this side of the bridge, the heroes were again assaulted by Mawsworn. Ald kept an eye to the sky as they ran, jumping from side to side to avoid their divebombing. Other Mawsworn creatures were patrolling the area around the fires and lava. They, too, joined the chase. The heroes began running up a slope, and their ragged breaths were becoming as audible as their footfalls.

“We won’t be able to last much longer on the run,” Jaina said to the group. Though no one verbally agreed with her, their breathing became louder than before. Oddly enough, Ald didn’t feel tired. Perhaps being a spirit had its advantages. 

Baine and Thrall stopped running and turned towards the oncoming Mawsworn. “Keep running,” commanded Thrall. “I will hold them off.”

“As will I,” bellowed the deep voice of Baine Bloodhoof.

Jaina turned to argue, but her voice couldn’t be heard over the rumbling of the ground around the Horde leaders. Thrall was waving his arms rhythmically and chanting under his breath. The stone beneath his feet was cracking, and from a narrow fissure burst a large wall of rock and lava. Elemental creatures spewed from the fissure as well and began engaging the Mawsworn in battle.

Anduin pushed both Ald and Jaina, and the three of them continued running up ahead. As they reached the crest of a large stone mountain, the weight of their armor slowed their ascent again. Jaina entered a defensive stance, and Ald looked back towards the fighting Horde leaders. His eyes widened in shock.

Approaching both Thrall and Baine was a tall humanoid figure. What appeared to be a bald man with spiky armor, the Jailer was nearly as tall as a mage tower. His skin was dark gray, and he nearly blended in with the drab landscape of the Maw. In the center of his chest where his heart should be, there was nothing but an empty hole. Ald felt a shiver of fear run through his spirit.

The Jailer approached the wall of elemental forces, which were attempting to keep the Mawsworn off the backs of their leaders. The Jailer lifted one hand, and the elementals faded. They didn’t fall down dead. They didn’t return to the fissure in the ground. They just vanished.

Both Thrall and Baine stopped their fighting and just stared in awe at the Jailer’s power. With both hands, he reached out and grabbed them around their waists. He lifted them high above the ground and surveyed them with his glowing blue eyes. “Pitiful mortals,” his voice boomed. Ald felt the voice all around him as if the Jailer were everywhere at once. “I find your spirits…unworthy.” The Jailer dropped both Thrall and Baine from up high. They landed heavily upon the stone ground, and the Mawsworn swarmed them like ants upon a piece of candy.

“Thrall!” yelled Jaina. Her scream must have echoed to the bottom of the ridge. The Jailer looked up and swept his blue eyes over the three heroes at the top of the stone walkway. A smile crept across his face, revealing pointed teeth.

“We must go,” Anduin said. He grabbed Jaina by the hand, and the three of them ran a few more steps. They came across a large obelisk jutting from the earth. The obelisk was not natural. It was inscribed with deep runes, and as the group approached it, it began to emanate a light blue glow.

Anduin approached the obelisk and tentatively placed his right hand on it. The obelisk continued to glow but nothing else happened. “I feel this is our way out,” he said absently. “I’ve never seen markings like this before. I don’t understand what has activated it.”

Without warning, a flying Mawsworn landed on the ground next to Ald. He had been so engrossed in the obelisk, he had forgotten to watch the sky. Ald jumped back in a disengage that would have made Keb proud. An instant later, the Mawsworn was frozen solid into a block of ice. Ald looked over and saw Jaina’s staff directed at the Mawsworn. “You can thank me later, pandaren,” she said smugly. Her eyes flicked over to Ald and then grew to the size of gold coins.

Ald turned and noticed that he had inadvertently touched the waystone when he had jumped back. It was now glowing with a blinding blue light and had begun to hum a faint tune.

“This obelisk is a waystone!” Anduin said, realization etched upon his face. “It’s reacting to your presence, Aldineri. Would you attempt to fully activate it?”

Ald nodded, though he wasn’t sure what he could do. He faced the obelisk and placed both paws on its surface. The humming grew in volume, and Ald could feel a lightness that wasn’t there before. A screeching sound interrupted his channel, and he looked around to see that the Mawsworn had made it to the trio. Both Anduin and Jaina were locked in combat.

There was no time to lose. Ald refocused his efforts on the waystone. The humming had become a steady vibration as the stone began to fully power up. Suddenly, a loud booming voice filled his senses. “Death comes for the soul of your world! All that you see–all that you know–will be undone!”

Ald removed his paws from the waystone and slammed them around his ears. He turned and there stood the Jailer with his advancing army of Mawsworn. “Nothing escapes the Maw!” he shouted, the sound reverberating through Ald’s soul. The Jailer reached out his arm, and Jaina zipped to his open hand. She struggled against him, but his grip was solid. He studied her struggles and the same knowing smile touched his lips. He casually shook his head and – with a flick – tossed Jaina over his shoulder, forgotten like a broken toy. Ald couldn’t see her land behind the army of Mawsworn, but he could hear their snarls and screams as they swarmed over Jaina’s fallen body.

Anduin turned to Ald who was frozen with terror. The King shook the ghostly Pandaren’s shoulders. “Listen to me. Aldineri, listen. Take this,” he said, shoving the cloth into Ald’s arms. Ald could feel the rough corners of the Helm of Domination’s broken piece. “Take this, use that waystone, and return for us. Return for Giles.” Ald began to argue, but Anduin clapped a hand over Ald’s mouth. “That is an order from your King.”

Ald slowly nodded, and Anduin stood. “The light is with me,” he said, facing the Jailer with a look of determination. “Even here.” Anduin raised his hand into the air, and a giant sphere of light surrounded the area. It glowed brilliantly, causing Ald to avert his eyes. As the edge of the sphere reached the advancing army of Mawsworn, those caught by it were bounced off of it as if the sphere were made of electricity. They screamed in pain and writhed on the stone ground around the Jailer.

The smile on the Jailer’s face grew into a fevered grin. “Interesting…” he said, eyeing Anduin with a renewed curiosity.

Ald turned, tucked the helm under his left armpit, and extended his right paw. As soon as he touched the waystone, it rang out in an eerie clang. He felt it tugging at his soul, and he instinctively knew that he was about to fully activate the obelisk. “I’ll come back for you,” he breathed, and with a pop, he was gone.

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