"We have much to discuss, Wind-Reaver," said Klaxxi'va Pok.
Kil'ruk hefted his two new blades, forged from the purest kyparite available at the empress's order. They gleamed in the daylight. Only her favored could claim such an honor. "We can talk once the lesser creatures are destroyed."
"We will not delay you long."
"The empress has ordered the deaths of all the lesser creatures," Kil'ruk said. The look in the elder mantid's eyes was strange. It was almost as if he was disappointed that Kil'ruk would not put aside the empress's commands. "Any delay is unacceptable."
"Very well," Klaxxi'va Pok said quietly. "Be careful. I believe the lesser creatures will do everything they can to prevent you from achieving your potential. They may yet have more vile weapons like the honeycomb. They will use them against you."
"Good. I will destroy those as well."
Warlord Gurthan gently kneaded the forehead of the young quilen sitting patiently at his side as he watched the lone mantid dive toward the distant battlements. Thin, dark arrows leaped up to meet it but missed. The mantid disappeared behind the edge of the wall, and Gurthan could no longer see the fighting. Judging by the screams drifting across the camp, his defenders weren't faring well.
"Tell me again, Hixin," Gurthan said, keeping his eyes on the Serpent's Spine, "why did Xuexing fling himself into battle without my permission?"
"He seems to have been overconfident in his own skills, Warlord," Hixin said. "I, of course, begged him for weeks to notify you the moment the huatang was ready so you and he could formulate a proper strategy—"
Gurthan didn't say a word. He simply reached into his pocket and withdrew a small scrap of parchment, holding it at arm's length. Hixin instantly went quiet.
One of the junior advisors, Fulmin, took the scrap and looked at it. His expression grew puzzled. "This has your seal on it, Warlord."
"Indeed it does," Gurthan said.
Hixin shifted uneasily behind him.
The ambersmith had done well. The twin amber blades felt balanced and deft in Kil'ruk's hands, and the armor fit perfectly without restricting his ability to fly or kill.
Kil'ruk cleaved a path into the defenders' midst. They had sent their best today. That was good. Today he would prove their best couldn't stop him.
Even from such a distance, Warlord Gurthan could see dark crimson dripping off the mantid's blades. The sight of a single mantid cleaving a swath through the defenders was infuriating. Humiliating. This is what the huatang was meant to stop.
"Do you know where that parchment was found, Hixin?" Gurthan asked.
"I do not, Warlord."
"A pandaren boy turned it in. One of your slaves, I hear. He said you told him to dispose of it after you showed it to Xuexing. He seemed to think he might find a less cruel master if he exposed your treason," Gurthan said.
The reaction was instantaneous and vehement. "Lies," Hixin spat. "Bring him to me. We will see what he has to say when—"
"The child is dead." Warlord Gurthan's words froze Hixin's tongue. "Any slave that touches an official Clan Gurthan seal must of course be executed, but I assure you, Hixin, he was… encouraged… to speak the truth before he died."
Hixin's eyes darted nervously. "Warlord, you cannot trust the dying words of a slave—of a child! I have served you faithfully for years."
"I remember this parchment," Warlord Gurthan said. "'Display your potential by nightfall.' I enchanted those words more than three years ago. I believe I was addressing one of my junior beastmasters, asking for a demonstration of his skills in training battle quilen. Circumstances made the document redundant and it was never delivered, so the seal wasn't broken and it was sent to my archives. I have made inquiries since Xuexing's demise. It seems the parchment was stolen recently."
"You served me as my chief archivist for years, did you not, Hixin?"
Hixin dropped to his knees, sputtering out an apology he would never have a chance to finish. Warlord Gurthan pursed his lips and whistled twice: one long tone, one short. The quilen at his feet leaped for Hixin's throat. The advisor—the former advisor—let out a strangled cry of fear.
The unpleasant noises lasted only a short time, and the quilen trotted back to the warlord's side, licking blood off its chops. The other advisors seemed unable to take their eyes off the mess.
"I should not," Warlord Gurthan said to them all, "have to learn the truth from the wails of a dying slave."
He turned back toward the wall. "Every hundred years, the mantid attack. Every hundred years, we fight them to a standstill, and they retreat into their lands as though they never intended to fight us in the first place. Nobody has ever known why."
Gurthan let his voice drop to barely above a whisper. "I did not seek command of the Serpent's Spine to settle for another stalemate. Xuexing's weapon was a chance to change that, to finally establish control of the land beyond the Spine and finally launch an attack against the mantid. That opportunity has been sabotaged. It will take time to build more huatang. What else can we do?"
The advisors remained silent. Most still stared at what was left of Hixin. Finally, Fulmin cleared his throat. "Warlord, the relic."
Warlord Gurthan gave him a flat look. The relic was a project Xuexing had studied years before the mantid swarm; it was a fascinating object of arcane origin, but no experiment had managed to produce anything more useful than an irritating hum. "The relic is not a weapon, Fulmin."
"And yet it may serve as one."
"How? I understand it was once meant for communication." Gurthan paused. An interesting idea occurred to him. "Are you suggesting we could negotiate with the mantid?" Perhaps if they could be convinced to join Clan Gurthan…
"No, Warlord. The relic uses sounds we do not have the ability to hear. Xuexing experimented with it long ago but found no use for it. When he tested the relic with an abundance of arcane energy, he described the effect as a 'wall of sound' beyond our hearing," Fulmin said. "He didn't see a purpose for it, given the dangers of using the relic at all."
"What is your point?" Gurthan asked.
"Xuexing's experiments took place in the vale. We are much closer to the wall now. I suggest we continuously overload this relic with all the energy we dare. I want to try out the 'wall of sound.' If I am correct, the arcane energy won't facilitate mantid communication; it will prevent it altogether."
It took several moments before Warlord Gurthan understood. "You're speaking of an unproven theory."
"That the mantid empress gives orders and direction to her swarm from a distance. That she can speak into their minds."
Gurthan let the implications play out in his head. "You believe there is a connection, that the relic and the empress communicate in the same way. What exactly would the relic do if overloaded? Overwhelm her words?"
"Essentially, Warlord. Perhaps we can drown her out. At the very least, the relic might make the mantid confused. At best…" Fulmin shrugged. "I'm not certain. The effect could be dramatic. I suspect that it will provoke a tremendous reaction."
Warlord Gurthan scratched the quilen on the forehead again. "If you're wrong, we gain nothing."
"If I'm wrong, we lose nothing," Fulmin said.
Warlord Gurthan smiled. "Except you. I've been told the relic is unstable. It once magnified a small amount of energy by a hundredfold and sent it back into an arcanist. Very unpleasant. Very messy." He glanced down at the remains of Hixin.
Fulmin inclined his head. "I'm willing to take the risk."
"Find the relic. Bring it here."
Kil'ruk left the Wall in his wake. His arms and forelegs ached with the pleasant glow of a productive day. A tiny cut on his right leg pained him slightly, but he had otherwise slaughtered the lesser creatures without receiving a single significant injury.
"Empress, were you watching?" he muttered. Kil'ruk let the empress's song fill his mind, and—
There was a terrible noise. A horrible, awful, overwhelming noise. And then it was gone.
She was gone.
Just like that.
Kil'ruk blinked and fell from the sky. "Empress?" he said. His wings stayed still. The ground rushed to meet him. "Empress?"
She's gone. Panic surfaced. Where the voice of the empress had once sung, only a dead hum remained. Total silence. "Empress!"
Kil'ruk remembered to fly before hitting the ground. He hovered numbly, straining to hear her voice.
She is gone. Why is she gone? What happened to her? Is she...?
The sudden silence from the west hung in the air. For a few moments, all mantid sounds ceased. Then shrieks of agony, terror, and grief rippled across the land.
A smile spread across Warlord Gurthan's face.