Everything hinged on the Timeless One. Even if Kalec found a means to alter the artifact, the Aspects would need to call upon Nozdormu's aid to retrieve it from the timeways. The Dragon Soul no longer existed in the present. Much of it had been destroyed over a decade ago by Rhonin. Thereafter, the black dragon Sinestra had collected the weapon's remaining shards—by then largely devoid of their power—and used them to her own ends. Those last fragments of the Dragon Soul had eventually been obliterated as well. Bringing the artifact back was an impossible thing to ask of the Timeless One, yet Kalec, Ysera, and Alexstrasza knew it must be done.
After the Life-Binder left, Kalec returned to a small table in the Cenarion refuge. Scrying orbs, which he used to communicate with his agents in the Nexus, were scattered across its surface. He plucked one of the devices up and rotated it in his hand, mulling over the Dragon Soul's hurdles.
Ysera padded to Kalec's side and opened her mouth to speak when the earth wrenched, nearly knocking both of them to the ground. Screams began drifting in from the base of Nordrassil, where the Earthen Ring and Cenarion Circle were camped. The blue Aspect exchanged a wary glance with Ysera. Quakes had been common since the Cataclysm, but this one had felt as if it originated right beneath their feet.
The earth heaved again, more violently than before.
"It cannot be..." Ysera's eyes widened as she braced herself against one of the druidic structure's wooden walls. There was a mix of fear and understanding in her voice that made Kalec uneasy.
"Is it Deathwing?" A sliver of dread crept up his spine. "Is he here?"
The green Aspect rushed out of the building without answering. Kalec followed on her heels as she raced toward Nordrassil's base.
Numerous fissures had opened around the World Tree. The shaman and druids there were pulling their comrades who had fallen into the chasms to safety. Ysera, however, did not stop. Much to Kalec's confusion, she continued past the World Tree and up through a line of trees encircling a tranquil clearing. Sitting at the center was Thrall, absorbed in meditation, from the looks of him. His mate, Aggra, was at his side, shaking the other orc's shoulders.
The brown-skinned female turned to Kalec and Ysera when the two Aspects entered the clearing.
Ysera knelt by Thrall. The male orc looked as if he was in extreme agony, his face contorted in pain, but there were no visible injuries on his body. "It is him, then..." the green Aspect said.
The Awakened scrutinized Thrall's left hand. It was empty, from what Kalec could see. This gave the green Aspect pause. She quickly scooped up a handful of soil and placed it in the orc's palm.
"Is there a connection between Thrall and the earthquakes?" Kalec asked.
"He has communed with the earth in a manner that no other shaman has before. The earth is a part of him, and he a part of it. Something has trapped his spirit. These fissures... these are his wounds."
"There must be a way to free him," Aggra pleaded.
"If his spirit has not traveled too far from Hyjal, there is a possibility." Ysera stood and beckoned to Aggra. "We must assemble the shaman and the druids. Much work lies ahead of us."
Thrall's mate hesitated. "I cannot leave him like this..."
"You must trust me if you wish to save him." Ysera's voice was barely a whisper, but it filled Kalec with an overwhelming sense of urgency.
Aggra must have experienced it too. Slowly, the orc joined the green Aspect.
"Lady Ysera, is there anything I can do?" Kalec felt woefully out of place. Thrall's predicament lay in the realm of the elements, a domain over which the blue Aspect had no power.
"Stay by his side and, whatever happens, ensure that there is always soil in his hand."
With that, Ysera and Aggra departed, the latter glancing back over her shoulder in worry.
It was not the answer Kalec had hoped for, but he complied. Briefly, he wondered if Ysera had given him this menial task because she did not think him worthy of something greater, but he knew that the Awakened was not one to judge others in that way. There was no hidden meaning in her words. He was needed here. That was all.
As he sat down next to Thrall, Kalec realized that perhaps he had been trying too hard to find a means for himself to defeat Deathwing, thus overlooking other, more viable solutions. If Thrall had truly managed to combine his essence with the earth, and vice versa, did it signify that this mortal held a portion of Azeroth within his spirit in the same fashion that Deathwing did?
The blue Aspect pulled a scrying orb from a pouch at his side. After a moment, the cloudy mist within the device faded away, revealing the face of Narygos, a member of his flight.
"Kalecgos." The other dragon bowed his head.
The blue Aspect returned the gesture before speaking. "There was a short-lived being who once wielded the Dragon Soul against the red dragonflight, correct?"
"The orc named Nekros Skullcrusher," Narygos replied. "A most despicable creature."
"Yes, yes. He was the one. How badly was he damaged by the artifact?"
"From what Rhonin documented on the subject, not at all," Narygos stated. "The Dragon Soul does not negatively affect short-lived races in the way it does our kind. It is quite unique in that respect, in fact."
"Thank you, my friend. That will be all." Kalec slipped the orb back into its pouch.
Thrall, a mortal who has tapped into the essence of the earth, the blue Aspect pondered. Not long ago, the orc had helped bind Earth to Kalec, Ysera, Nozdormu, and Alexstrasza, allowing them to combine their powers and stave off an attack by Deathwing's servants. At that time, the shaman had acted merely as a conduit to Azeroth. Now, however, he was much more than that. He was the answer... the fulcrum by which the Dragon Soul could be turned against its maker.
Kalecgos added soil to Thrall's palm and watched the orc's face twist in pain, fearing that the only hope the Aspects had for completing their venture was on the verge of being lost forever.
Deathwing raked Thrall's chest with a clawed hand, tearing another gash in the orc's earthen skin. The shaman's body was riddled with molten gouges, but not one of his foe's attacks had been a killing blow.
The black Aspect longed to break Thrall's will, to mold him into an agent of the dragon's own design. That was the only explanation the orc could find for why his adversary had not yet destroyed him.
Deathwing had almost succeeded. Trapped within the cavern, Thrall's spirit had become numb to Azeroth save for its pain. If he had been in this situation mere weeks ago, when his doubts, fears, and anger still ruled his heart, he would have given in. He would have lost himself to this prison of isolation. Yet now he had never been surer of his purpose as a shaman.
"The titans believed that you had the strength to endure," Thrall said. His power was nothing compared to the Aspect's, and so the orc used the only weapons he could: his words. "They trusted you. Was it fear and doubt that caused you to fail and align with the very beings who seek to end all life on Azeroth?"
"Your loyalties are misplaced, shaman. If so inclined, the titans would exterminate your kind and the other lesser races without a second thought. The Old Gods know the futility of the titans' works. They have pledged to break the shackles of my charge. When that day comes, I will purge every remnant of the titans' presence and reign over this world from on high. Azeroth will be born anew."
Deathwing drove his knee into Thrall's chest, sending the orc crashing back into the cavern wall. The shaman was struggling to rise when he heard a series of voices reverberate through the earth outside the chamber. It was the Earthen Ring: Muln Earthfury, Nobundo, and... Aggra.
Through the spirits of the elementals, the shaman were searching for him. Thrall reached out for his physical body and, to his surprise, felt a fresh pile of cool, damp soil in his hand. His connection with the leagues of earth between Hyjal and the cavern flared to life. The orc focused all of his concentration to mentally shout a reply to the elementals just outside the chamber.
He was preparing to call out again when energy surged through him, and his earthen body began to heal. The shaman were also sealing the chasms in Hyjal, he realized. As they did, his wounds were mending. The orc sprang to his feet, reinvigorated.
"You didn't answer my question," Thrall said. "Was it fear and doubt that caused you to fail?"
Deathwing's eyes blazed crimson. He lunged forward and caught Thrall by the throat, hauling him into the air. The black Aspect drew one of his vicious claws across the orc's stomach.
"In a system flawed to its core, the only failure is blinding yourself to truth. However many wretched beings you and the other Aspects deceive with your erroneous cause is of no consequence. Victory will always prove elusive so long as you throw your lives away for a hopeless future."
Thrall's stone skin was melting where the black Aspect clenched his throat. Deathwing tightened his grip, his fingers sinking through the orc's neck. His connection with Hyjal wavered again.
"No..." the orc snarled as he thrashed against Deathwing's hold. "We will triumph... because we face our challenges... together. You failed... because you chose to... bear your burden... alone!"
The earth around the cavern began trembling in what Thrall attributed to a manifestation of Deathwing's anger. Yet rather than press his attack, the black Aspect suddenly cast him aside.
Deathwing thrust his hands out, roaring in fury. Massive boulders of the Old Gods' blood wrenched up from the cavern floor and moved to a high corner of the chamber, forming a thick barrier of the crystalline substance. It took a moment for Thrall to put the pieces together and find the source of the tremors. The roots of Nordrassil were hurtling toward the chamber, burrowing through stone and soil at incredible speed.
The Earthen Ring—and the Cenarion Circle, it seemed—had found him.
Thrall charged forward and plowed into the Aspect, knocking him to the floor and interrupting his spellwork. Deathwing scrambled up, seething. His body pulsated, tendrils of lava slithering out from the cracks in his breastplate. The black dragon was beginning to move toward Thrall when one of Nordrassil's roots exploded through the cavern wall in a shower of crystal shards.
Deathwing planted his feet as the World Tree's root careened into him. For a short time, he held his ground against the living battering ram, its width greater than a kodo beast's girth. Three other roots followed soon after, bursting into the cavern and driving the black Aspect through the bottom of the chamber.
A fifth root slowly entered the hollow. It wrapped around Thrall's waist and pulled him out of the void. Once outside, the orc's connection with his physical body solidified. He felt the earth as it was, as it was meant to be, without the influence of the Old Gods. All of the pain and agony that he had experienced, the spirit-rending feelings that were Deathwing's entire existence, melted away.