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VI

"Keep that mushan away from the house," Lyalia called out.

"Dooker not listening!" Mung-Mung shouted back, holding on to Thunder's neck for dear life. The ghostly wolves had been an illusion, nothing more, but the bucking mushan was utterly terrified. At least the beast was moving away.

The sound of wood bending and snapping drew Lyalia's attention. She saw Vindicator Maraad exit the Mudclaw home at a dead run.

"He is loose!" Maraad turned to face the door. "How many left?"

"Just those two," Lyalia said.

"This is it, then!" Maraad gave a quick glance to the pandaren. "Help if you can."

Two orcs emerged. Zertin was stumbling, a hand pressed to his jaw as though he had taken a heavy blow. The other was Mashok. The former prisoner raised his arms. Thick vines of snakeroot tangled around each of the Mudclaw home's support beams. The roots flexed once. The home shattered, collapsing into ruin.

"Roots. Are we sure he isn't a druid?" Lyalia said. Maraad sighed.

More roots broke through the earth beneath Lyalia's feet. She danced away. The ground heaved. She could see Maraad's hammer glowing as he dodged a different patch of roots.

"Ideas?" she yelled.

"Do not fight the spirits. Fight them."

Lyalia noticed he hadn't smashed any of the roots flat. "Good. I was worried this would be easy," she said. It had been only moments since the orcs had stepped into the open. Every passing heartbeat would make her job harder. She dashed forward, ducking and weaving, resisting the urge to cut a path through the looming roots. I hope you know what you are doing, Maraad. A chasm in the earth suddenly yawned beneath her feet, and she barely managed to leap over the gap. She saw the angry red glow of magma far below.

The two dark shaman slowly backed away as she advanced. Chunks of rock jutted upward between her and them. Snakeroot reached for her neck. It was impossible to close the distance.

A shape darted toward the orcs from the rear. Gina. Lyalia expected her to try a quick attack, in and out, but the pandaren female leaped on Mashok's back, tearing at his ponytail and locking an arm around his throat.

The other orc, Zertin, hesitated. Another shape closed in from the side. Farmer Fung. Lyalia and Maraad charged in. Mashok threw Gina off his back only to be bowled over by Haohan. Zertin dodged Fung's slashing shears, stepping into Lyalia's reach. The night elf swung her moonglaive once, twice. Zertin ducked the first swing, took a wound to an arm on the second.

"Enough!" Mashok was flat on his back, but he clapped his hands together, and suddenly Gina and Haohan were lifted, roots wrapped around their throats. More snatched at Fung, catching him by the ankle.

"Indeed," said Vindicator Maraad. His hammer whistled through the air. Mashok cried out and tried to roll away. The hammer still landed solidly on the orc's right thigh. Lyalia heard bone splintering.

An instant later, three sharp root tips pierced Maraad's abdomen, cracking his armor. He fell with a grunt, dark blue blood dripping to the dirt.

Zertin roared with rage, but his mouth clicked shut as a pandaren's open paw slammed into his chin. Hillpaw. Zertin dropped to his knees. Two roots punctured the older pandaren's shoulders and dragged him to the ground.

"Hillpaw!" Lyalia furiously drove one of her moonglaive's blades into Zertin's chest. Five, she thought. Before she could make another move, she felt a loop of root settle around her neck and pull tight. Thorns stabbed deeply into her flesh as she was yanked off her feet.

Five for me. Nine out of ten between us. Not bad.

***

Mashok lifted his hands and clenched his fists. The roots tightened, pulling the pandaren onto their backs, leaving them hopelessly entangled. Only the hozen was left free, and Mashok could hear his outraged hooting in the distance as he struggled to bring the mushan under control. The night elf yanked against the plant around her throat while the draenei breathed slowly, clutching his middle, the roots still embedded in his stomach.

It was done. The spirits wept and wailed in the orc's mind, a fitting victory song. Zertin gasped a final breath a few paces away and went still, joining the other dark shaman in death. It wasn't a terrible loss, Mashok decided. His underlings had always slowed him down.

"Now," Mashok said, savoring the cold pleasure of the moment, "I keep my promises." With a twitch of his fingers, the roots brought Vindicator Maraad to a kneeling position. "You and the night elf will die last. After I've dealt with every one of these farmers you failed to protect."

"Doesn't matter." The biting words came from Old Hillpaw, blood trickling from his shoulders and mouth. "You're alone. The land itself knows you are its enemy."

"Good." Mashok smiled. "You've spent generations tending this land? Hear me well: I will salt this earth. I will make the spirits pay for your stupidity. I will leave this valley barren." He looked down on the pandaren with contempt. "They will know you chose to fight me, and they will know that they are being made to destroy everything you have ever worked for."

"They already know. You mean to end them. We stood against you," the draenei said, his voice slurred and pained. "They know."

Mashok ignored him.

The land went quiet. The spirits went still. They no longer called for mercy. They no longer tried to escape. They no longer wept. Finally, submission. There was only a slight rustling in the fields behind Mashok. He didn't turn around. The hozen was still hollering at the top of his lungs far in the distance. Not a threat.

"I will cover your lands in ash. Fire will seek out even the bugs and mites that crawl through the dirt. Nothing will grow on this soil again. And then, and only then—"

"Not even carrots?" Farmer Fung asked. He could barely force the words past the roots around his throat. Mashok fixed his gaze on the immobilized pandaren. "Not even carrots will grow on this soil?"

A long moment passed. "Even now, you mock me?" the orc asked softly. "Even now—"

"It's a simple question," Fung said. "Will carrots grow here again?"

"No!" Spittle flew. Mashok's words echoed across the land. "Nobody will ever grow carrots here again!" Why was the farmer smiling? Mashok tightened the roots around the Tiller's neck until the thorns broke through his flesh. "I think I will kill you first," the orc said.

Abruptly Mashok paused. The spirits were still. Too still. Too obedient. The rustling in the fields had ceased.

He turned around.

A sea of red, glowing eyes greeted him. Virmen. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Simply standing, watching.

The rustling in the fields... The spirits had given Mashok no warning. A rodent stepped forward from the pack. It was the one with white-streaked fur and an oddly hooked front tooth. He sniffed the air. Mashok moved his hand in a scornful gesture. "Leave. Now," the orc said.

The virmen with the hooked tooth cocked his head but did not retreat. "You... kill carrots?"

Mashok bared his teeth. "Leave." The land shook at the word. The spirits of the earth, at least, knew to obey him without question.

The mass of virmen swayed with the earth's trembling, but their unsettling red eyes did not waver. "You say you kill carrots," the hook-toothed virmen said. "Why kill carrots?"

This was absurd. They need an example. Coldly Mashok told the earth to swallow the lead virmen, to open a chasm beneath his feet.

No, the earth said.

Mashok squeezed one of the spirits. It shrieked in agony, but still it refused. Every moment of your existence will be pure pain if you do not obey me, Mashok told the spirit. He sent the same thought to the rest of them. Do not dare to disobey me again. Give in.

"Other tall ones grow carrots," the hook-toothed virmen said. "They make big carrots. You no kill carrots. You no kill tall ones."

Sear them to ash, Mashok commanded a spirit of fire.

No, the spirit said, and screamed.

A spirit of wind didn't wait for a command. I will not obey, it said.

Nor will I, said a spirit of water.

Mashok slammed his will into theirs, flogging them with his mind, inflicting untold suffering. And yet they did not yield.

They didn't fight us, said the fire spirit. We will not help you.

The roots loosened around the pandaren and the Alliance members. The draenei grunted as the sharp tips finally pulled free of his flesh.

"No," Mashok whispered.

"You no kill carrots," the hook-toothed virmen said again. Throughout the mass of virmen, the words were repeated.

"No kill carrots... No kill carrots..."

"You will bend!" Mashok roared aloud. He knew the spirits would hear. "Or you will break! Nothing can resist forever!"

We don't need to, the spirits replied in unison. We only need to resist for a few moments.

Mashok only glimpsed a flash of light before something smashed into the side of his head. His cheek in the dirt, Mashok saw Vindicator Maraad's radiant hammer falling to the ground.

The virmen surged forward. "No kill carrots!"

Mashok cried out and tried to ward off the wave of teeth and glowing eyes descending upon him.

***

Sounds of agony emerged from the center of the hellish, squirming mass. The orc was fighting, but each virmen he sent flying hopped back into the fray within moments. Haohan watched from his knees, breathing heavily. "Always knew those rodents were good for something. Are you okay, Gina?"

His daughter waved off the question, but he could see blood beginning to mat her fur.

The draenei caught Haohan's eyes. "Can you stop them?" Maraad asked. He stood in obvious pain, hands clamped over his stomach wounds. He limped to Old Hillpaw and knelt down. The Light glowed around him, and the pandaren hissed in surprise. The gashes in his shoulder vanished.

"Stop the virmen?" Haohan took another look at the chaos in his fields. It appeared that the dark shaman was still alive, struggling, but being dragged toward a nearby warren hole. "Why would I want to? He destroyed my house."

Lyalia slowly walked to Haohan. "Believe me, I understand the feeling," the night elf said. "But no matter what he deserves, it is better if we take him alive."

"Justice?"

"He is a dark shaman," Lyalia said. "Few have been taken alive, and few are as strong as this one. Anything we can learn from him will help." After a moment, she smiled, adding, "Justice, too."

Haohan rubbed an aching shoulder and shook his head ruefully. "You're right. This is too easy an end for him." With a groan, he stood and stumbled into the mass of wreckage that was once his house. "Now where was...? Ah," he said, pulling aside some of the roofing and revealing the open entrance to the cellar. Even in the darkness before dawn, the rows of giant carrots were visible. "Gina, would you make the invitation?"

Gina grimaced with pain and cleared her throat. "Carrots!" she yelled.

The virmen instantly went silent, glowing red eyes turning toward her.

"Here are our carrots! With thanks! So much for our harvest." She muttered the last.

Haohan pointed toward the cellar and gave an exaggerated nod. "All of our carrots! Here you go!"

The creatures hesitated, looking at each other, at the orc, and back at the pandaren. The hook-toothed one abandoned the dark shaman first. Hundreds followed suit.

Vindicator Maraad waded against the tide of virmen. Not every one of them had given up beating and gnawing on the orc, and the draenei gently pushed those that remained to the side. They grumbled but soon gave in to the temptation in the cellar.

Mashok's eyes were wild. The rest of him looked like ground meat. Maraad knelt next to him, preparing to heal him. "I suspect," Maraad said, "that did not end how you imagined it might."

Dawn broke.

The Untamed Valley

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