Chapter Fifteen: Back in the Maw

Ald awoke to the poke of a dull wooden stick jabbing into his ribs.

He slowly opened his eyes to find himself on the cold stone ground of the Maw. A dull ache throbbed in his arm, which had apparently taken the brunt of the landing from his long fall. Now awake, Ald winced as the stick had poked him again, this time in the stomach. The quick jab elicited a small cry of pain from the Pandaren.

“Ah. The visitor lives, after all,” said a heavily accented voice above him.

Ald saw a flash of flames and stripes as he was lifted easily from the ground and thrown over the shoulder of a tall being. He tried to protest, but his throat was dry, and he found it much easier to just close his eyes.

He awoke again in a covered area. The throbbing of his arm had vanished, and Ald quietly thanked his spirit form for being more resilient than his actual body had been. With a quick glance around him, he noticed that while this area was under the cover of the same jagged stone that made up the landscape of the Maw, he was not in a cave like he had been in his first visit with Anduin. This area was a wide, open space with multiple branching exits.

“Hey! The boss man awakens!” said a familiar voice behind Ald. The Pandaren turned and saw Anth, grinning from ear to ear and wearing his remarkable pink goggles. “You know, you sleep a lot for a dead guy.”

Ald’s jaw dropped open, and his eyes widened. Questions flooded his brain. Why was Anth in the Maw? Had he died in Bastion? Was he thrown into the swirling vortex by the Mawsworn? Was the rest of the team safe?

Anth must have sensed the increase in Ald’s panic level. He chuckled and put his hands up in a placating gesture. “We’re fine. Everyone’s fine. Calm yourself down so I can explain.”

Ald sat up with a little difficulty. That had been quite the fall, after all, and the Pandaren was starting to realize that pain was not exclusive to the living. He glanced behind Anth and saw a tall creature in striped pants. It was bowlegged, and its fiery blue face was covered with a mask similar to the ones used by the Overseers in Oribos. Ald leveled a caustic stare at Anth. “What the hell is going on?” he asked, his throat still dry.

Anth chuckled again. He crouched down towards the ground at Ald’s eye level. “Welcome to Ve’nari’s Refuge!” he said cheerfully. He threw a thumb over his right shoulder towards the tall mysterious creature. “That would be Ve’nari. She’s helping us. Or we’re helping her. Or something like that.”

“Us? Who is ‘us?’” Ald interjected.

Anth rolled his eyes. “The Humpday Heroes, of course! And don’t interrupt – I’ve been practicing what I was going to tell you. Anyhow, about five minutes after you, Tommy, and Kobai flew off to Revendreth, we had a slight accident. And by slight, I mean it felt like it was pretty major at the time. Should have been catastrophic honestly. You know the funnel of souls that flows straight down through the middle of Oribos?”

“I’m mildly aware,” Ald said thickly, remembering his first trip to the Maw.

“Did you know that a mortal can fall in that funnel and end up here in the Maw? Well, Emma found that out the hard way.”

Ald slapped a furry paw to his face.

“Yeah, we were panicking for sure,” Anth continued with a chuckle. “Until a few minutes later, she shows up back in Oribos! Turns out, the waystone you activated when you escaped the Maw is still active. The entire team is looking around the Maw for you right now. I just happened to be closer to the Refuge and got Ve’nari’s message first.”

A working portal in the Maw was an absolute game-changer. The Humpday Heroes would be able to rescue the leaders of Azeroth and stop the Jailer’s plan from his own home turf. They’d be able to rescue any lost soul from the Maw. Even Giles! 

Sire Denathrius would never have flung Ald back to the Maw if he had known the waystone was still functioning.

“Wait a minute,” Ald said suddenly, his brain finally catching up to what Anth was saying. “Why were you looking for me here?”

“Oh, that,” Anth replied. “Once you were tossed over into the Maw, Tommy used this amazing ability he can do. I know you’ve seen it. He can cover himself and anyone near him in a really dark haze. Just pure darkness. Bet you wish you had something that could do that!”

“Uh-huh,” Ald said absently.

“So, he drops this darkness around him and Kobi, then he leaps off the side with Kobi in his arms and glides to safety. They flew back to Oribos and told us what had happened in that castle. So, we’ve been combing the Maw for your location, knowing we can use our newly discovered waystone. Ve’nari here found you first.” He turned to make sure she wasn’t listening. Ve’nari was bent over, rummaging through a large knapsack and apparently talking to herself. “She’s a bit kooky.”

Ald eyed the creature with the striped pants. “Can she be trusted?” he asked.

“Probably not. Hopefully, we’ll find out more about her. This is only our first day in the Maw, after all.” He paused and looked around at the barren stone, fiddling with his pink goggles as he did so. “Really charming place she’s got here, right?”

“Says the guy in rose-tinted glasses,” Ald replied, which elicited another chuckle from the paladin. There was one thing to be said about Anth. He always saw the positive in any given situation. Ald wished he had the same outlook. Especially now.

Ald’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud voice coming from one of the entrances to Ve’nari’s Refuge. “Hey, Anth! What do you call a gnome mage-psychic who just escaped from the Jailer?”

Anth grinned broadly. “I don’t know, Fuzzy. What would you call one?”

“A small medium at large,” Fuzzy replied as he walked into view. The Worgen Hunter was wearing a shockingly purple mail armor set. Ald wasn’t sure if he was trying to outdo Anth’s pink goggles or if Fuzzy had gone colorblind since Ald’s death.

Anth bent over in laughter, grabbing his stomach with one hand and his knee with the other to stop himself from hitting the stony ground. Ald let out a large sigh and rolled his eyes. Fuzzy stood near the two of them with his hands on his hips and his long snout twisted into a wry grin.

“Good to see you, Ald,” the worgen said as he lowered his rifle from his shoulder and approached the two on the ground. “The others should be back soon. I shot off my flare a few minutes ago.”

If the group thought Ve’nari had not been listening to their conversation, they were sorely mistaken. At Fuzzy’s words, the strange being zipped over to the Worgen in one smooth motion and grasped him firmly around the purple collar. “YOU DID WHAT?” she screamed at him. “YOU’LL LEAD THEM STRAIGHT HERE!”

Anth leapt up and pulled Ve’nari off of Fuzzy who was staring in shock at the screaming creature. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, backing away slightly. “I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night,” he retorted. “I shot off the flare in Zovaal’s Cauldron. It’s just a signal. Our people will be heading towards the waystone.”

Immediately, Ve’nari’s stance changed. Her shoulders relaxed, and she calmly turned from the three of them. “Oh, okay. Sounds good,” she added casually as she sauntered back to the knapsack on the ground. 

All three of them looked at each other, and Ald was sure they were all thinking this creature was as kooky as Anth had admitted. They remained silent for some time before other members of the guild showed up to greet them. Opie and Anda had been searching together. They were chatting animatedly as they entered the Refuge. Tommy and Kobi entered, both of them clapping hands on Ald’s shoulder. He muttered apologies, which Ald shrugged off. After all, it hadn’t been their fault that Denathrius had done what he had done.

As even more members arrived, Ald looked around at them. “Where’s Keb and Cald?” he asked in quiet tones to Anth.

“They were both a little more worried than the rest of us. They assumed you had been taken into Torghast, the Tower of the Damned. It’s the Jailer’s prison for certain souls. As the one who turned on the waystone, we think that he will put you there if he catches you.”

“Speaking of,” Fuzzy interrupted. “I think you need to have a chat with Keb, Ald. Something’s not entirely right with her recently. She seems a bit more worried about you than usual. Not that you’ve been making it easy for her. With you dying and Maw walking, of course.”

Ald frowned. “I will, Fuzzy. I will. But how do we send word into this Torghast that they can leave?”

In answer to his question, six people walked through one of the nearby portals into Ve’nari’s Refuge. Cald led the way, followed by Kebechet, Bastian, Trelander, Thiccsnack, and a Venthyr that Ald had not yet met. They were all worse for wear with burns on their clothes and small cuts and scraped over their faces. The Venthyr in particular was in a bad state as he had no shirt, and Ald could see his emaciated form as if he’d been starved for weeks.

“About time you showed up again,” Keb snapped. She walked past Ald without any proper greeting. She was angrier than he thought she would be.

Cald stopped in front of Ald, his weary face relieved. “Glad to see you are still in one piece.”

“For now,” Ald replied. He gestured towards the Venthyr who collapsed to the ground of the Refuge. “And who is your new friend?”

“Ald, I’d like you to meet Prince Renathal, the Dark Prince, Harvester of Dominion, and recent escapee from the Tower of the Damned.

***

“And so, I would be greatly obliged for your aid. And the aid of your friends, all of whom have already proved their worthiness,” Renathal finished. He and Ald were walking around the circular base of Oribos. Renathal was already greatly improved, decked out in traditional Venthyr garb which Kah-Delen had brought to him upon their recent escape from the Maw.

“I believe we are already committed to helping,” Ald replied. “Given Denathrius’s recent actions, he has proven that he is one of the primary sources of your anima drought.”

Renathal nodded. “The Master hoarded anima, lied, and threw me into the Maw! All of that I can respect, but setting the Jailer free?” The Venthyr let out a low tsk, tsk. “That is much too far.”

Ald nodded. “We will help your cause. What is your current plan?”

“My home of Darkwall Tower is lost. The Master saw to that. I will gather my allies and form a new home near the Sanctuary of the Mad.” At Ald’s raised eyebrow, Renathal smiled, his sharp fangs protruding over his bottom lip. “Not everyone there is insane, of course. Though we will have our share. No, there is a sanctum within the sanctuary that I will use as a base of operations. The rebellion we form can thrive in Sinfall. And we can take the Crown from the Master.”

“I appreciate what you’re saying, Prince,” Ald said after a little thought. “But my team needs a more neutral location. We’ll have representatives from all of the other covenants in the Shadowlands. And if I’m being honest, you’ll want a bit of separation from some of our more raucous and…adult-themed members. Is there some nearby location we could use as our own base?”

Renathal put his hand to his chin in thought as the two continued their pace around the circular floor. After several silent moments, Renathal snapped his fingers and smiled again.

“There is one potential location, Maw Walker. A small keep is connected to the Sanctuary, though it has recently fallen into disrepair. However, I feel Dawnkeep may be a fine location for your Humpday Heroes.”

Ald stopped walking, and Renathal mirrored him. “Thank you, Prince Renathal. I’m glad that we’ll be working together to take down Denathrius.”

Renathal smiled, and the two shook hands.

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