His essence raced headlong through the leagues and leagues of earth that unfurled around him. He moved through the sun-baked soil of Durotar and then to the muddy banks of the Swamp of Sorrows. All the lands, no matter how remote or distinct, were connected in a way that he had never comprehended.
Apart from the areas he knew, Thrall encountered other places and oddities in Azeroth of which he had been ignorant.
Somewhere in the Great Sea was a mysterious island shrouded in mists...
Beneath the Eastern Kingdoms, a presence stirred in the mountains of Khaz Modan. The spirit there was strong, but it was not an elemental. It was, strangely, like Thrall: a mortal who had transcended the bounds of flesh. The unknown being patrolled the ancient earth of the region as if it was keeping a silent vigil over the land. It spoke in a dwarven accent that echoed across Azeroth.
"For behold, we are earthen, o' the land, and its soul is ours, its pain is ours, its heartbeat is ours..."
Thrall also saw that the deep places of the world were riddled with molten lesions and other wounds. What gave him the most pause was immense caverns, cold and unnatural, scattered throughout the globe. They were pockets of lifelessness that even the earth elementals were hesitant to approach.
One of the voids sat far below Mount Hyjal. Thrall directed his spirit toward the subterranean hollow. Unlike the rest of Azeroth, what lay inside the cavern was hidden from his sight. As he moved closer, a single voice surged out from within the chamber, bristling with unfathomable power.
It thrummed along the orc's spirit as if Azeroth itself was speaking to him.
Thrall was drawn toward the source, compelled to seek it out. His essence circled the outside of the chamber until he found an opening in the cavern's seemingly impenetrable walls. As he pushed his spirit into the void, rocks and soil entered with him. The debris coalesced into legs, a torso, arms, and a head; two multifaceted crystals served as his eyes. His new form resembled his true physical body save that it was made of earth.
"Who are you?" Thrall called out in a sharp clatter that sounded more like stones grinding together than a coherent language.
Pools of roiling magma offered the room's only illumination. The walls and floor were coated in a rough crystalline substance so black that it appeared to consume all light around it.
"Here," a reply came from the center of the subterranean hollow. "Here lies the truth of this world."
Thrall lumbered deeper into the chamber, enticed by the authority of the words. His connection with the rest of Azeroth and his body on Hyjal grew thinner with each step he took. In the middle of the cavern stood a humanoid figure, its features shrouded in a strange, almost tangible darkness.
He plodded closer until two eyes opened on the statuesque being, burning the color of molten rock.
Thrall stumbled back as the shadows veiling the figure dissipated, revealing a grotesque human male. A massive piece of metal in the shape of a jaw was bolted to his ashen face. Jagged horns curled up from his shoulders, and his fingers ended in dagger-like claws. Veins of magma coursed across his chest.
The orc did not recognize the human, but he sensed his identity: Deathwing in his mortal guise.
"The arrogance of shaman never ceases to amaze me," the black Aspect rumbled, his voice like two immense boulders shattering against one another. "You seek to tame a power that by rights is not yours to command... a power beyond your comprehension."
Thrall bolted toward the wall where he had entered the cavern. Plates of black crystal ripped up from the floor and slammed over the exposed earth. The orc rammed his shoulder into the barrier, pleading with the elemental spirits to part before him. The vile substance did not heed his calls as the rest of Azeroth's earth elementals did.
"Intriguing, is it not?" Deathwing growled behind him. "The blood of the Old Gods does not answer to your whims, for they are not of this world. Only the chosen hold true sway over it."
Thrall whirled toward the Aspect, expecting an attack, but Deathwing had not advanced.
"I have been awaiting your arrival, watching your spirit stumble blindly through the slopes of Hyjal," Deathwing said. "I had presumed you lacked the courage to journey beyond the mountain, but your progress proves what I have suspected... The other Aspects seek to grant you my powers. They wish to replace me with a mortal."
The meaning was lost on Thrall. Although he now possessed enhanced abilities, Ysera and her comrades had told him that he would never become an Aspect or, by extension, the Earth-Warder.
"They had no part in giving me these powers." Thrall edged along the cavern wall, groping for a crack or weak spot between the plates of Old God blood. "And the decision to use them was mine alone."
The chamber trembled at Deathwing's laughter. "So you have been led to believe. I have eyes in many places, shaman. I know that the other Aspects have stayed in Hyjal to scheme and that you are with them. Like cowards, they have lured you into this fate without your knowledge, intent on making my curse your own."
"What you were given was a gift, not a curse," Thrall said. He had learned much concerning the titans and the Aspects in recent times. Long ago, the titan Khaz'goroth had imbued Deathwing with dominion over the world's earthly expanses and charged him to protect them from any harm. However, this duty had made him susceptible to the influence of the Old Gods shackled within Azeroth. The trials and tribulations that had afflicted the Aspects throughout history, from Deathwing's betrayal to the impending Hour of Twilight, were all part of the Old Gods' grand scheme to scour life from the world.
"A gift?" Deathwing snarled. "You are as misguided as the other Aspects, too fool to recognize that the charges imposed upon us are nothing more than prisons."
"The titans gave you a purpose," Thrall retorted. His connection with Hyjal was more distant than ever. He sensed that the soil he held in his physical hand leagues away was running through his fingers.
"There is no purpose to what they do." Deathwing stomped toward Thrall, each step thundering through the chamber. "Azeroth was an experiment to the titans. A plaything. When they were done, they turned their backs on us all, indifferent to the broken world that they left behind."
"It is broken because of what you have done, because you forsook your gift!" Thrall roared.
"It is not a gift!" Deathwing's body quaked with rage.
Thrall noted that his words were having an effect. He continued goading the Aspect, hoping that he would reveal some kind of weakness. "The gift you did not have the strength to bear. The gift—"
"Silence!" Deathwing commanded. "If you insist on calling it a gift, so be it. Know then what it is to be me, to be given this gracious gift... to feel the fiery heart of this world as your own."
Pain flared deep within Thrall's earthen chest. The ceaseless flames that blazed in Azeroth's core churned inside his spirit. His stone skin hissed and steamed, glowing a dark and angry red.
"Know what it is to feel the weight of this dying world on your shoulders."
Thrall's legs trembled as every rock in Azeroth pressed down on him. His body splintered and cracked. It was beyond physical agony; his spirit was unraveling, suffocated by the unfathomable load.
"Does the gift taste as sweet as you thought it would?" Deathwing asked in amusement. "This is what the other Aspects wish: to chain you to this world as I have been. To damn you to a life of eternal torment."
Through the blinding pain, Thrall realized that he now possessed incredible strength. The weight of Azeroth was his to command. Was Deathwing so arrogant that he had given him this advantage?
The orc didn't question his intuition; this was the lapse in his foe's judgment that he had been awaiting. In one swift movement, Thrall channeled the burden of Azeroth into his fist and lunged toward Deathwing. The power was intoxicating. He felt as if he could crack a mountain in two.
The black Aspect stood motionless as Thrall approached. An instant before his fist plowed into Deathwing's chest, the weight of Azeroth—and all of its might—was ripped away from the orc's grasp.
His hand slammed into the Aspect's human form, and Thrall's arm shattered into a thousand pieces up to the elbow. He sank to his knees and howled in agony as magma boiled out of the broken limb.
Far off in the distance, near his physical body in Hyjal, he sensed the earth tear asunder.
There were mortal magi, even members of the blue dragonflight, who held that the rules of arcane magic were absolute. Yet where they saw limits, Kalec saw only the potential for new discoveries. For him, magic was not a rigid system of cold logic. It was the lifeblood of the cosmos. It was boundless in its possibilities. It was the closest thing to beauty incarnate that he had ever known.
When Ysera had come to him, speaking excitedly of the Dragon Soul and the role it might play, he was immediately consumed with the puzzle of overcoming the impossible. Deathwing had not imparted his essence into the weapon as the other Aspects had, and the question of how it could be employed against him was a difficult one. Of equal concern was the belief that any dragon who used the artifact in its original state would be irrevocably damaged by its powers. The Dragon Soul had even torn apart Deathwing's body, forcing him to bolt his raging form together with metal plates.
Despite the challenges ahead, Kalec viewed the artifact as an opportunity to validate his place among the other Aspects, beings to whom he had always looked for inspiration. He had become the Steward of Magic at a time when the blue, green, bronze, and red flights were threatened with extinction. The miraculous powers bestowed upon his late leader, Malygos, by the titan Norgannon were now his own. The blue dragons—the heart of the entire flight—had chosen him, had put their faith in him. He wouldn't let them down.
"The Dragon Soul cannot be turned against Deathwing, for it does not contain his essence," Alexstrasza said, although there was a hint of uncertainty in her voice. After Ysera had told Kalec of her discovery, the two Aspects had convened with the Life-Binder at their meeting place in the Cenarion refuge to discuss the plan's merits.
"True," the blue Aspect stammered. He felt the eyes of the other Aspects boring into him as if they were judging his every word. "We would need his essence. Unfortunately, the blood samples we acquired, while valuable in their own right, are devoid of this. But with enough arcane energy, it might be possible to alter the Dragon Soul's properties so that it would affect him... in theory, at least."
"In theory," the Life-Binder repeated.
Kalec winced inwardly. The artifact was, admittedly, a risk. Much of what he knew concerning how it worked had been gleaned from the writings of Kirin Tor magi, in particular the human Rhonin. He had handled the weapon himself and discerned some of its attributes, and his treatise on the subject was an invaluable source of information for Kalec. Still, very little was proven.
"We have no other option." Ysera stepped forward, much to Kalec's relief. "I know it pains you, but it feels right. It was this weapon that started everything... that broke us apart. This dark era in our lives must end how it began."
Alexstrasza cast her eyes down. Kalec saw the turmoil raging in them. In truth, he had been concerned about what the Life-Binder's reaction to the ploy would be. He was aware of the artifact's sordid history. At the end of the War of the Ancients, the blue, green, bronze, and red Aspects had found and enchanted the weapon so that neither Deathwing nor any other dragon could wield it again. Millennia after that, it had fallen into the hands of the Dragonmaw orcs, who had then used it to enslave the Life-Binder and her brood. Many red dragons had been forced to act as mounts of war during that harrowing time.
"This is the answer we have been waiting for, Lady Alexstrasza," Kalec reassured her.
"I know..." The Life-Binder sounded forlorn. "I will depart to inform Nozdormu, then. Continue your research."