Tales, Comics, Videos

Unbroken

by Micky Neilson

It was a mistake to come here. Nothing has changed. You are still Krokul?you are still Broken.

No. They would listen. He would make them listen. There was, after all, the epiphany. Nobundo forced his eyes from the gathered assembly to the fountain in the center of the small plaza. From that water he asked for clarity.

He felt his thoughts resolve into focus. He thanked the water and, leaning heavily on his stick, forced himself to meet the sea of disapproving gazes below. There was a moment of awkward silence.

“This is nonsense,” he heard someone whisper.

When at first he tried to speak, his voice sounded small and hoarse, distant to his own ears. He cleared his throat and began again, louder. “I have come to… to talk to you about--”

“We are wasting our time. What can a Krokul have to say to us?”

More voices of dissent joined in. Nobundo faltered. His mouth worked, but his voice was lost.

I was right. This was a mistake.

Nobundo turned to depart, and looked up into the placid eyes of the prophet, their leader, Velen.

The seer fixed Nobundo with a critical gaze. “Going somewhere?”

***************

Nobundo sat atop one of the cliffs overlooking the scorched lands. They had not changed much in the last… how long had it been since he first ventured out here? Five years? Six?

When he and the others were sent away to the new camp for Krokul, as they had finally come to be called, Nobundo was angry, frustrated, and depressed. He went to the farthest spot possible in the only direction he was allowed. He had always meant to investigate the hills bordering Zangarmarsh, but at the base of those hills were camps of the “unaffected", a region now off-limits to “his kind".

And so he ventured here through the blistering heat, to the peaks high above the most desolate wastes on Draenor: wastes that had been lush glades before the orcs’ policy of hatred and genocide, wastes created by the warlocks and their twisted magic.

At least the orcs presented less of a problem these days. Some wandering orcish parties still patrolled, and they still killed the draenei on sight. The orcs were fewer in number, however: many of the green-skinned savages had departed through their gateway years ago and not returned.

As a result Nobundo had heard that his people were constructing a new city somewhere in the marsh. No matter, he thought. It is a city I will never be welcome in.

The changes in Nobundo and the others continued. Appendages appeared where before there were none. Spots and warts and strange growths spread across their bodies. Their hooves, one of the draenei’s most distinctive features, were entirely gone, replaced by things that now resembled misshapen feet. Nor was such change limited to the purely physical. Their brains struggled more and more to maintain higher functions. And some, some became lost completely, turning into vacant shells that meandered aimlessly, conversing with audiences that existed only in their minds. Some of those Lost Ones would simply wake up one day and wander off, never to return. One of the first to do so was Estes. Now Korin was left with only one of her companions with whom she had shared that dark time at Shattrath.

Enough, he thought. Stop putting it off. Do what you came here to do.

He put it off because part of him knew this time would be no different. But he would do it anyway, just as he had done every day for the past several years… because somehow, someway a part of him still maintained hope.

He closed his eyes, forced all extraneous thought from his mind, and reached out for the Light. Please, just this once… let me bask again in your radiant glory.

Nothing.

Try harder.

He focused with every ounce of concentration he had left in him.

“Nobundo.”

He nearly jumped out of his skin, his eyes snapping open as he put out a hand to steady himself. He looked around, up at the sky.

“I found you!”

He turned to see Korin and let out a deep breath, shaking his head.

You should have known better than to think the Light would favor you again.

She came and sat down next to him, looking worn and weathered and somewhat confused.

“How are you?” he asked.

“No worse than normal.”

Nobundo waited for more, but Korin simply stared out over the harsh vista.

Unseen by both of them, a figure peeked out from a nearby cluster of jagged stone, watching. Listening.

“Was there something you wanted to tell me?”

Korin considered for a moment. “Oh yes!” she said at last. “New member came to camp today. Said the orcs were… regrouping. Getting ready for something. They are led by some new… what are they named? The ones who make the dark magic?”

“Warlock?”

“Yes, I think that was it.” Korin stood and stepped forward, standing just a few inches from the edge of the cliff. She was silent for a long moment.

Not far away, the figure behind the stones departed as silently as he had come.

Korin's eyes were distant, as was her harsh voice when she spoke, as if she were not entirely present. "What do you think would happen if I took a few more steps?"

Nobundo hesitated, unsure whether or not she was joking. "I think you would fall."

"Yes, my body would fall. But sometimes I think my spirit would... fly? No, that's not the word. What's the word... to go up and up, like flying?"

Nobundo thought. "Soar?"

"Yes! My body would fall, but my spirit would soar."

Days later Nobundo awakened, his head aching, his stomach empty. He decided to venture out and see if any fish remained from the previous night's meal.

As he made his way out of the cave, he noticed that the others were gathered, staring upward, eyes shielded. He walked out from beneath a giant mushroom, raised his eyes, and was forced to shield them as well. His mouth fell open.

A rift had appeared across the early-morning crimson sky. It looked as if a seam had opened, tearing through the very fabric of their world, allowing dazzling lights and some kind of raw, unspeakably powerful energy to intrude. The rift wavered and danced like an immense, slithering snake made of pure light.

The ground began to quake. Pressure built up in Nobundo’s head, threatening to explode from his ears. Electricity crackled in the air; the hairs on Nobundo’s body stood up; and for a brief, maddening second it seemed as though reality itself was coming undone.

As Nobundo watched, for the briefest second the gathered Broken separated into multiple mirror images: some older, some younger, some not Broken at all but rather healthy, unaffected draenei. Then the illusion was gone. The ground shifted as if Nobundo were standing on the back of a cart suddenly spurred into motion. He and the others were flung to the mud, and there they stayed as the trembling continued.

After several moments the shuddering slowed and finally came to a stop. Korin was staring wide eyed at the rift, which was now resealing itself. “Our world is coming to an end,” she whispered.

Their world did not end. But it had come close.

When Nobundo returned to his familiar spot atop the mountain peaks the following day, he looked out onto a horizon gone mad. Smoke billowed into the sky, casting a black cloud over the land. The air burned his lungs. At the base of the cliff where he stood, a giant fissure had opened. Steam poured out, and when Nobundo leaned over, he could see a faint glow from deep within the earth.

Large chunks had been ripped from the desert floor and were inexplicably floating high in the air. And portions of the sky itself looked almost like windows to… something. It seemed as if Nobundo could glimpse other worlds in those windows, some distant, some seemingly nearby, but whether it was real or some trick of the catastrophe Nobundo could not say.

And everywhere, everywhere a palpable silence pervaded, as if all the creatures of the land had either died or scurried off to some remote hideaway. Even so, Nobundo felt as if he was not alone. For a brief instant he thought he caught furtive movement out of the corner of his eye. He scanned his nearby surroundings, half expecting to see Korin.

Nothing. Just his addled mind playing tricks.

Nobundo cast his eyes once more to the nightmarish vista before him, and he wondered if the near future would bring an end to all he had come to know.

But time passed and life, such as it was, went on. Reports filtered into the camp that entire regions had been utterly destroyed. Yet the world survived.

Battered, twisted, tormented… the world survived, and so did the Broken. They ate nuts and roots and what few fish they could find in the marshes. They boiled their water and sought shelter from storms the likes of which they had never seen, but they survived. As the seasons wore on, animals returned. Some of them were species that had not previously existed, but the animals did return. When the Broken were lucky enough to have a successful hunt, they fed on meat. They survived.

Most of them, at least. Just days ago Herac had disappeared. He had been distant and confused for many long months, and though Korin would not speak of it, both she and Nobundo knew that he had been close to joining the ranks of the Lost Ones. Herac was the last of Korin’s defenders from Shattrath, and Nobundo felt for her loss.

And though Nobundo would not speak of it, he wondered if he too might someday lose all control of his sanity and set out into the unknown, never to return, becoming little more than a memory, if that.

He continued his daily vigil, making his pilgrimage to the remote mountaintop, somehow maintaining hope that one day, if he had served his penance and earned its grace, the Light would shine on him once again.

Every day he returned to camp disappointed.

And every night he suffered the same terrible nightmare.

Nobundo stood outside Shattrath City, pounding his fists against the closed gates while the screams of the dying shattered the night air. In his waking mind he knew that this was yet another dream, another nightmare, and he wondered absently if this one would be the same as all the others.

He pounded repeatedly against the wood until his battered hands began to bleed. Inside, women and children died slow, horrific deaths. One by one the screams died out until a final, tormented wail remained. He recognized that cry: it was the voice that had echoed through the woods of Terokkar Forest as he had made his escape from the city.

Soon that cry faded also, and there was nothing left but silence. Nobundo stepped back from the gates, looking down at his frail, deformed, useless body. He trembled and wept, awaiting his inevitable awakening.

There was a creak as the gates slowly parted. Nobundo looked up, eyes wide. This had never happened before. This was new. What could it mean?

The massive doors revealed an empty Lower City, the inner walls and ramparts lit by a single large fire just inside the inner ring.

Nobundo stepped inside, drawn toward the warmth of the flames. He looked around, but there were no bodies, no sign of the carnage that had transpired beyond a few discarded weapons lying several feet in a radius around the fire.

There was a soft roll of thunder, and Nobundo felt a drop of rain hit his arm. As he took another step forward, the giant gates closed behind him.

He heard sounds then, shuffling noises emanating from beyond the firelight, drawing closer. He carried no weapons, not even his walking stick, and the knowledge that he was dreaming did nothing to diminish the danger he felt. He prepared to grab a cord of burning wood from the fire when he saw a female draenei step into the light.

The sporadic rain persisted.

At first he smiled, delighted to see that one of them had survived, but his smile quickly disappeared as he saw the bloody gash across her throat, the bruises on her body. Her left arm hung limp and useless at her side. She stared at him vacantly, yet something in her demeanor was… accusatory. As she drew nearer, he saw that it was Shaka. Soon she was joined by others, scores of them shambling forward from both sides, their eyes cloudy, their bodies bearing gruesome wounds.

The wind picked up, stirring the fire. The rain became a steady drizzle. One by one, the women bent down, retrieving the various weapons from the earthen floor, advancing. Nobundo grabbed a torch from the fire.

I wanted to save you! There was nothing I could do, he wanted to shout, but the words would not come. His movements felt slow, restricted.

The wind again grew stronger, blowing out the torch Nobundo held. The slain women drew closer, raising their weapons as the fierce wind whipped the flames of the campfire until it too died, leaving Nobundo in complete darkness.

He waited, listening… trying to hear sounds of their approach through the pouring rain.

Suddenly an icy grip closed around his wrist. Nobundo screamed….

And awoke. He felt drained, more tired than when he went to sleep. The dreams were taking their toll.

He decided the morning air might do some good. Perhaps Korin was awake, and they might converse.

He stepped out to where some of the others were gathered for their morning meal and enquired as to Korin’s whereabouts from one of the newer members.

“She left.”

“Left? Where? When?”

“Moments ago. She did not say where. She behaved strangely… said she was going to--what was the word?”

The Broken paused, thinking, then nodded in recollection.

“That is right. She said she was going to ‘soar’.”

Nobundo ran as quickly as his legs would carry him. By the time he reached the mountain peaks, his lungs were on fire; he was coughing up thick green mucus; and his legs shook uncontrollably.

On the plateau leading to the cliff he saw her, standing at the edge looking down.

“Korin! Stop!”

She looked back, offered the slightest hint of a smile, then turned and pitched forward silently, disappearing into a thick cloud of steam.

Nobundo reached the edge and glanced over, seeing nothing but that faint glow far, far below.

You were too late.

He had failed once again, just as he had failed to save the women of Shattrath. Nobundo closed his eyes tight and called out to the Light with his mind: Why? Why have you abandoned me? Why do you continue to torment me? Did I not serve you faithfully?

Still no response. Only a gentle breeze drying the tears on his cheeks.

Perhaps Korin was right. Nobundo knew deep down exactly why she had done what she had: she had not wanted to become like the Lost Ones. Perhaps she had found the only way out.

This world had nothing left for him. It would be so easy to take those final steps, to walk off the edge and put an end to the misery.

Not far away a figure stepped out from behind jutting rocks, preparing to call out….

But even now, cast out by his own people, ignored by the Light, tormented by the souls of those he had failed to save… Nobundo found that he could not give up.

The breeze turned to a gush then, scattering clouds of steam and pushing so forcefully it backed Nobundo away from the edge. In its rushing he distinctly heard a single word: Everything…

Nobundo strained to hear. Surely his sanity had reached its end; surely his mind was playing tricks on him.

The figure near the rocks took cover again, maintaining its silent watch.

The wind picked up once more. Everything that is…

More words. What madness was this? This was not the work of the Light. The Light did not “speak": it was warmth that pervaded the body. This was something new, something different. A final blast of wind rolled over the plateau, forcing Nobundo to take a seat.

Everything that is… is alive.

After all these years of pleading, Nobundo had finally received an answer; an answer that came not from the Light…

But from the wind.

Nobundo had heard of orcish practices that dealt with the elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. His people had witnessed some of the powers wielded by these “shaman" before the orcs’ murderous campaign, but such things were completely foreign to the draenei.

Over the next several days Nobundo returned to the cliff, where he heard whispers carried by the wind: reassurances that he was not alone, promises, and tantalizing hints that a wealth of knowledge awaited him. Sometimes the voice of the wind was calm and placating; at others it was insistent and forceful. All the while, a nagging doubt still lingered in Nobundo’s mind that perhaps he was going mad after all.

On the fifth day, as he sat near the cliff’s edge, he heard a rumbling sound like thunder, though the sky was clear. He opened his eyes and witnessed a great column of fire erupting beyond the cliff’s edge, rising from the fissure below. The flames spread out, and in their flickering dance he could see shifting, nebulous features. When the fire spoke, it sounded like a great and powerful storm.

Go to the mountains of Nagrand. High among the peaks you will find a place… where your true journey will begin.

Nobundo considered this, and answered: “To go there, I will have to pass through the camps of the unaffected, where my kind is forbidden.”

The fire expanded rapidly, and he could feel the heat on his face. Do not question the opportunity you are being given!

The flames subsided.

Walk with your head held high, for you are no longer alone.

Not far away, Nobundo's longtime observer ducked back behind his concealment. And though he could not hear the elements as Nobundo could, he had seen the flames, seen their dancing features. Not surprisingly, if Nobundo could have looked into the eyes of the watcher, he would have seen absolute astonishment.

Over the next two days Nobundo made the arduous trek with the wind always at his back, always whispering in his ear. He learned that the orc shaman communed with the elements, but that their connection was severed when the orcs turned to practicing fel magic. He could have learned more, but many times it was difficult for Nobundo to understand, as if the communication was being filtered or dampened.

At several points along the route he thought he heard footsteps somewhere behind him. Always when he looked back, he sensed that whoever or whatever was following him had just ducked out of sight. He wondered if maybe it was the elements. Or a fabrication of his mind.

When he came at last to the camps of the unaffected, the sun had long since left the sky. Undoubtedly the watchmen had observed his approach, however, for two guards awaited him as he reached the camp perimeter.

“What is your business here?” the larger of the two guards asked.

“I mean only to pass through to the mountains.”

Some of the other camp members had emerged, eyeing Nobundo warily.

“We have strict orders. No Krokul are allowed in the camps. You will have to go elsewhere.”

“I do not wish to stay in your camp, only to pass through.” Nobundo took a step forward.

The larger guard thrust out his hand, shoving Nobundo backward. “I told you--”

There was a deafening clap of thunder then, and a black mass of clouds appeared where clear skies had been only seconds before, releasing a sudden deluge of rain. The wind that had gently urged Nobundo forward now gushed with fantastic strength, forcing the two guards backward. Most incredible of all, the wind and the stinging rain both moved around Nobundo to hammer against the two guards, who fell in the slick mud.

Nobundo witnessed the events, eyes wide in wonderment. “So this is what it is like", he mused out loud, “to have the elements on your side.” He smiled.

The camp members sought shelter in the caves. The guards stared up at Nobundo in fear. For his part, Nobundo simply proceeded forward, leaning on his staff as he made his way slowly through the camp and finally to the foothills on the other side, leaving the residents of the camp shocked, scared, and confused.

The figure that had followed Nobundo stepped out from his hiding place behind one of the giant mushrooms. He dared not proceed for he was, after all, Krokul.

But the events that Akama had just witnessed planted a seed within him. Ever since he had awakened from his long sleep, he had felt nothing but despair and a needling dread of the future. But to see what this Krokul had just done, to see the elements rise to his defense stirred a feeling in Akama that he had feared long dead.

He felt hope.

With that newfound hope he turned and slipped quietly back into the marsh.

Many hours later, racked by fatigue, Nobundo scaled the upper reaches of the mountains and began seeing signs of fresh, verdant vegetation. When his pace slowed due to exhaustion, the wind pushed him on, and the very earth beneath his feet seemed to lend him strength. And though the rain continued, it seemed to land everywhere but on him, and it provided flowing streams from which Nobundo eagerly drank.

As he neared the peaks, he heard competing voices in his mind: one low and persistent, followed by the familiar sound of the wind, and finally the occasional rumbling of a fire. The voices seemed chaotic, clashing in their haste to commune with him, building to a cacophony that forced him to stop. Enough! I cannot understand all of you at once.

Nobundo summoned what little strength he had left and crested a hill that opened onto a lush vista. Here was Draenor as it had once been; fertile and serene, a beautiful garden-like refuge of cascading waterfalls and vibrant life.

You must forgive them: it has been too long since they have felt the tempering influence of the shaman. They are angry, confused, still reeling from the blow dealt to them.

“The cataclysm,” Nobundo said as he stepped farther into the tranquil setting. He knelt and drank from a pool of water and felt immediately rejuvenated. He felt his mind open up, his thoughts becoming a part of his surroundings as the surroundings in turn became a part of him.

The voice that answered him was at once clear and soothing, strong and robust. Yes. I was perhaps the least affected, but it has always been this way. It is a necessity that I adapt quickly, given that I provide the very foundations of life.

“Water.”

He felt more than heard the affirmation.

Welcome. Here in this quiet refuge the elements coexist in relative peace, and so our discourse with you will be easier, especially in the early stages of your journey, before you have learned to feel our intentions without thinking. True knowledge and understanding will take years, but if you stay the course, in time we will be yours to call upon… but never to command. Yet if you respect us, and your motives remain unselfish, we will never abandon you.

“Why have you chosen me?”

The cataclysm cast us all into turmoil and uncertainty. For a time we were lost. In you we sensed a kindred spirit: confused, neglected. It took time for us to recover sufficiently to reach out once again, but when we did, we hoped you would be… receptive.

To Nobundo it seemed almost too good to be true. But what of the Light? Was he forsaking it if he chose this new path? Was he turning his back on it? Was this a test?

The risk would be worthwhile if…

“Will I be able to use these abilities to help my people?”

Yes. The relationship between the elements and the shaman is one of synchronicity. The shaman’s influence helps to calm and unite us, just as our influence enriches and fulfills the shaman. When you have completed your training, you will be able to call upon the elements in times of need. If the elements deem your cause just, we will assist you in any way possible.

True understanding, as Water promised, took years. In time, however, Nobundo gained an understanding of the life-energies around him. From the largest creatures on Draenor to a single, seemingly insignificant grain of sand, he was keenly aware that everything in existence was alive with a vital energy, and that these energies were linked and dependent on one another despite geographic location and opposing forces. What was more, he could feel these energies as if they were a part of him, which as he now understood, they were.

The elements kept their bargain, and aspects of their nature were bestowed upon him. From Water he gained clarity and patience: for the first time in so many years, his thoughts were unclouded. From Fire he gained passion, a renewed appreciation for life, and the desire to overcome any obstacle. From Earth he gained resolve, a steel will, and unshakable determination. From Wind he learned courage and persistence: how to dig deep within and press on in the face of adversity.

Still, there was a key lesson that eluded him. He felt it, sensed that the elements were holding something back, something that he was simply not yet ready to understand.

And… there were still the nightmares. They had eased somewhat, but night after night Nobundo still found himself pounding on the gates of Shattrath while the screams of the dying rang in his ears. And now when he went beyond the gates and stood by the fire, when the reproachful dead appeared, they were accompanied by Korin.

He felt the soothing tone of Water: We sense that you are still… conflicted.

“Yes,” he answered. “I am haunted by the spirits of those who passed at Shattrath. Can the elements assist in this?”

The conflict rests not with the spirits of the departed, but within you. It is a conflict you alone must resolve.

“Will this inner struggle prevent me from realizing my true potential as a shaman?”

A sense of mirth radiated from the pools around him. Of all the elements, Water was the most lighthearted. Your conflict is reflected in the sky above, in the ground beneath you, in me, and especially in Fire. It is a reflection of nature’s eternal struggle to achieve and maintain balance.

Nobundo thought for a moment. “No matter how far my journey takes me, I suppose true understanding lies in the knowledge that the journey will never end.”

Good… very good. The time has come for you to take your next step, one that may prove to be the most important of all.

“I am ready.”

Close your eyes.

Nobundo did. He felt the earth seemingly fall away beneath him, felt the elements withdraw, and for a single terrifying second his mind was back in Shattrath, abandoned and left in the dark.

Then he felt… something. Something very different from the other elements. It felt immense: cold but not hostile. And in its presence Nobundo felt very, very small. Then, he felt this presence speak with a multitude of voices, both feminine and masculine, a harmonic symphony within and all around him.

Open your eyes.

Nobundo did. And again he experienced that sense of diminution, of insignificance as he witnessed a dark, never-ending expanse filled with myriad worlds. Some like Draenor, some great balls of ice and frost, some covered in water, some lifeless and barren.

And suddenly Nobundo understood… something seemingly so simple, yet a concept that had completely eluded his mind: there were countless worlds beyond. This much he had known, as his people had traveled to many worlds before settling on Draenor. But what Nobundo had failed to comprehend was that the power of the elements stretched far beyond as well. Each world had its own elements, its own powers to call upon.

And there was more. Out here in the void was another element, one that seemed to bind the worlds together, one composed of unspeakable energy. If he could call upon this one--but he knew immediately that he was far too inexperienced at this stage of his journey to commune with this mysterious new element. This was just a glimpse, a gift of understanding…

An epiphany.

Unbroken