One of the most shocking lore reveals in Mists of Pandaria was the eventual revelation that the mantid were actually former servants of the Old Gods, specifically the one known as Y'Shaarj. When Kil'ruk the Wind-Reaver tells you this, it's shocking and ominous, especially when he adds that if Y'Shaarj ever did return, the mantid would stand at his side. I loved how he only told you this after hitting Exalted with the Klaxxi. Considering what we know about the mantid and their opinions of other races, it's a very touching, significant display of respect.
Of course, as we all know, Garrosh has gone and dug up the Heart of Y'Shaarj, and sure enough, the Klaxxi have stayed true to their word and thrown in with him. But that's the end result. How did they arrive at this point? Was it a difficult process? What about the cycle?
These questions (and feelings of sadness, knowing I would soon be fighting my beloved mantid friends) only intensified as I read the Kil'ruk short story, Death From Above, and then listened to the Siege of Orgrimmar audio files for the Klaxxi Paragons boss fight.
So I decided to write a little story about them, tie up some loose ends, and answer a few of those questions. And while I was at it, I thought I'd examine a certain someone who's been largely absent all expansion, and speculate on what he or she might have been busy doing all this time...
I highly recommend reading the Kil'ruk story first if you haven't yet, mostly because it is amazing, but I also expand on ideas, terms and characters it introduces. And while all of the Klaxxi audio files are interesting, it is Korven's in particular that I focused on - his gravelly voice and powerful, bold statements really hooked me. If you like, you can hear only his audio clips here.
So yeah, I hope you enjoy this, and I hope it keeps you entertained while we're waiting for the servers to come back up! It was a lot of fun to write.
- The Dread Wastes. Now. -
Korven the Prime stood absolutely still beneath the dead branches of Kypari Zar, scanning his surroundings. His eyes swept across the rolling plains, seeking any movement, any sign of life, but found nothing. The Wastes were quiet.
Satisfied, he turned and started to carefully pick his way through the snarl of thick, blackened roots and underbrush that smothered the base of the giant. For thousands of years, priceless amber had flowed thickly through its veins, but the sha had infected the majestic bark, twisted and corrupted its limbs, transforming the once-beautiful kypari into a lifeless, desiccated husk.
Korven's mandibles clacked together once in anger, but like the tangle of leaves and vines that blocked his way, he pushed the emotion aside. He was not here to lament the loss of the ancient tree. His objective lay beneath the withered roots, in the hidden corridors buried deep below, under the dirt and stone, and those who awaited him within.
The Dread Wastes were littered with dozens of such hidden subterranean chambers, some of Virmen creation, others excavated by Saurok claws, and of course, many constructed by dozens of hard-working mantid drones. Such work took years of back-breaking labor to complete; Korven remembered this well, though it had been countless centuries since he had last served as a drone and not a warrior.
He had hurled himself into his grueling duties without complaint, for no work was unimportant if it benefited the mantid empire. The only thing that mattered was obeying the will of the Old One, and servings its needs.
"Independence breeds weakness," Grand Empress Nezzat'var had whispered into Korven's mind, so many years ago. "But in unison, there is power. The lesser beings fear our ferocity. The amber grants us life, and the Old One grants us strength. But discipline, young one...discipline is what holds us together. And together, we are mighty. Remember this for the rest of your days."
Korven paused. That had been then. Now, the current empress had gone mad with paranoia and had disrupted the cycle, sending the swarmborn at the wall years ahead of schedule. The land itself had turned against them, emanating twisted, corrupting energy and fouling the sacred kypari trees. And for the first time in history, lesser creatures had not only been permitted to venture past the wall into the Wastes, but were actually working with and assisting the Klaxxi!
And then there were Korven's new allies, awaiting his arrival in the tunnels beneath his feet.
"Discipline..." Korven muttered, shaking his head. He tugged past the last clinging branches and began his descent into the earth.
- Months Earlier -
"We are nearing the cave," called Kil'ruk, shouting to be heard over the wind rushing past and the deafening hum of his wings. He carried an unusual load upon his back - a paragon.
"Good," grunted Korven, clutching tightly to the Wind Reaver's harness to ease the flyer's burden. The elder mantid had never enjoyed being carried through the sky by his winged brothers. The air was their domain; the ground, his. He was not afraid -never that- but being hefted about like a piece of meat felt unbefitting for one of his status.
Still, sometimes it was necessary. It would have taken Korven hours to make the trek up to this rocky outcropping on foot, so far from Klaxxi'vess. Better to swallow his distaste and endure a few minutes of unpleasant flight, so that they might immediately deal with Kil'ruk's surprising discovery.
"The clearing in front will suffice," said Korven as they neared their destination. "Sweep the area before fetching the Poisoned Mind." The flyer nodded and tucked his wings behind him, sending them into a slow dive.
Korven flexed his claws as the dirt and stone rushed up to greet them. He carefully let go of the harness with one hand, sliding it through the straps of a thick, heavy wedge of petrified kypari bark. The ancient shield had been lacquered in hundreds of amber coatings over the years, and was now harder than the strongest kunchong shell. The broad kyparite sword hanging at his hip could wait - too much risk of its razor edge accidentally severing a limb while landing.
A dozen feet above the ground, Kil'ruk spread his wings, catching the wind and straightening into a horizontal glide. Korven released his grip and plunged to the ground, his strong legs flexing as they easily absorbed the impact. He rolled with the momentum of the fall, keeping the shield before him, and drew his blade as he rose into a low crouch. His forelegs unfurled, ready to lash out at a moment's notice. Overhead, he heard Kil'ruk's powerful wings beating the air as the flyer returned to the skies.
Korven tensed, wary and alert. If they were flying into a trap, better that it only ensnare one paragon, leaving Kil'ruk and Xaril free to strike from above or escape. However, no ambushers leapt out from behind the trees, nor did a horde of mantid lackeys swarm out of hiding to be butchered. The clearing was still, as was the cave a few paces away.
Korven found the silence unnerving. This area is secluded indeed, he thought, if I cannot feel the thunder of her majesty's war machines smashing against the wall. While Klaxxi'vess' sonic towers blocked the empress' infectious song, they could do little to prevent the constant tremors that shook the land itself, courtesy of Shek'zeer's forces marching to war not so far away. Korven was surprised to find he had grown somewhat accustomed to the ever-present rumble beneath his feet.
Patiently, he maintained his defensive stance until Kil'ruk dropped lightly to the ground beside him, his curved swords at the ready. "All is clear, Prime," said the flyer, his eyes performing their own quick search of the area. "The outsiders I spoke of said they would await us within."
Soon a third mantid drifted down from the sky. Xaril's wings were thinner than Kil'ruk's. While they allowed the alchemist to fly, it was at a slow, leisurely pace, nowhere near the Wind Reaver's speed or maneuverability. Xaril wore a bandoleer of flasks and vials strapped to his chest, but wore no sword - in his skilled hands, the acidic mixtures he carried were as deadly as any kyparite blade.
Korven would not normally have brought Xaril out into the field, as his poor fighting skills and inferior flight made him a vulnerable target. From what Kil'ruk had told him, however, the elder paragon expected that they would need Xaril's alchemical expertise before the day was over.
Korven straightened and relaxed, though he kept his armaments ready. "Come then. Let us speak with your guests, Wind Reaver. You two guard the entrance, but remain close. Your wings will be of no use inside."
As Korven entered the cave, his antennae twitched, detecting a familiar odor. Flesh, but laced with decay, like the winds wafting down from the wall after a period of swarming. The smell of rotting flesh, and death. It was heavily masked and barely discernible, but few species possessed olfactory senses as keen as the mantid.
No blood, Korven thought, probing the air for the expected metallic scent. Not a recent kill, then.
The cave was small, maybe a dozen paces wide. In its center, a small pile of tinder had been gathered and lit, the feeble flame coughing out a dim luminescence. The light was faint, but enough for Korven to make out the two figures standing across from him, leaning against the far wall. Though both were wrapped in traveling cloaks, their silhouettes told Korven they were humanoid, not mantid. They stirred as the paragons approached.
"I am Korven the Prime," he said, halting before the fire. "You wished to speak to the Klaxxi. I speak for the Council. What do you want, outsiders?"
The pair stepped into the light. Both wore dark leather, more suitable for stealth than combat. One reached up and drew back her hood, revealing an angular face and pointed ears. Her hands were empty, but Korven took note of the short blade at her hip, and the intricate longbow hanging at her back.
The other was a male, who remained behind his companion, glowering at the paragons with undisguised suspicion. He too carried a bow, but his was strung and already in hand. A full quiver hung at his side, as did a pair of gleaming axes.
Korven was mildly surprised to sense not a trace of fear in these outsiders. Most lesser creatures cowered like mogu slaves when face-to-face with mantid warriors, even those permitted to assist the Council. But not these two. He wondered if they were more powerful than they appeared, or merely foolish.
Or perhaps the reason they were not afraid was because they were already dead.
The most interesting of all the creatures that had made their way over the wall were undoubtedly the reanimated, sentient undead. Mantid society utilized sonic energy and alchemy, but utterly disdained sorcery. As a result, necromantic magic was something entirely outside their expertise.
Granted, mogu warlords had occasionally reanimated legions of dead slaves and sent them into the Wastes, but these pathetic forays had been crushed with ease. Mindless, shambling husks were no match for true mantid warriors. But though the attacks failed, they did serve to accomplish one unintended result - they piqued the curiosity of the Council.
Klaxxi intellectuals carefully studied the reanimated bodies, and began conducting experiments of their own. Eventually they discovered that precise sonic energy employment could allow one to remotely manipulate and control a corpse. However, this required a tremendous amount of concentration and resources, and the body's motions were stiff and awkward, entirely unsuitable for combat.
More importantly, many mantid had begun expressing misgivings about the research. Death was an integral component of the sacred cycle, and circumventing its finality was to reject the cycle itself, an unthinkable crime.
In the end, the Council had dictated that reanimation directly opposed the cycle, and forbade any further study. The research data was sealed away, and those involved in the experiments were executed. Mantid society had to be protected, and this was the only way to ensure their knowledge could not be spread to others.
Still deep in his amber slumber, Korven had not witnessed these events. He had read of them, however. Since being awoken, he had spent countless hours studying the Council's records. As the eldest Paragon and creator of the amber preservation ritual, his words carried substantial weight. After all, the paragons would not even exist to stand against Shek'zeer today if not for his foresight so many years ago. It was only natural that the Klaxxi would rely upon his wisdom in these difficult times.
The only problem was...Korven had no idea who his people were, anymore.
So much had changed since his preservation! When he had last walked the Wastes, the Klaxxi had been but a handful of learned advisors, not a separate organization. His foes had not been mogu or pandaren, but the other Old Ones and their minions, and then, the Usurpers. And the land...well, the land had been one grand, mighty continent, not a series of shattered fragments.
The mogu empire had surfaced, risen to power, and fallen. The great wall had been constructed, and the cycle created in turn, their symbiotic roles slowly integrated into mantid society. Thousands of years, with thousands of stories and lessons. All while Korven had slept, buried far underground.
Now, he spent every free minute in Klaxxi'vess' archive chambers, hungrily poring over the scrolls and tapestries depicting his people's history. The Council believed him to be researching battle tactics to use against the empress, and he did not disappoint them, unearthing dozens of long-forgotten stratagems that would prove invaluable in the weeks to come.
It was more than that, though. Centuries of battle had changed the mantid, strengthened and evolved them. Korven desperately wanted to know what his people had become. He needed to know.
"Greetings, paragon," said the female. "I am Sylvanas Windrunner, Ranger-General of Silvermoon, sovereign ruler of the distant lands of Lordaeron, liberator and leader of the Forsaken people. To them, I am known as the Dark Lady. To my enemies, I am the Banshee Queen. As a fellow warrior and commander, Korven, I greet you." She bowed deeply.
"As for what we want? As I told the one behind you earlier, we have a proposition for you. We have fought alongside your forces for some time now, and we have noticed the alchemical bombs used by your flying brethren - or rather, noticed how weak and ineffectual they are against other mantid."
Korven's eyes narrowed, but he waited for her to continue.
"My people can assist you in this matter," she continued. "We are highly skilled in the use of toxins, and my apothecaries have developed a strain of disease unsurpassed in potency. Exposure will spell the immediate end of any living creature, be it mogu, saurok...or mantid."
She smiled, a predatory grin gleaming in the gloom. "We would be glad to share this knowledge with the Klaxxi, to aid in your battle against the empress. Obviously, however, we would expect something in exchange. It would only be fair."
"Obviously," remarked Korven dryly. "And what is that?"
"Paragons of our own. Forsaken ones."
Korven's eyes grew wide, and he heard Kil'ruk and Xaril gasp. "Ridiculous. Surrender our most sacred secret? For some poison your lackeys brewed up in a lab? You insult us with this so-called offer, Lesser Queen," he snarled.
The female held up her hands and gestured soothingly. "I understand your reluctance, Prime. But we are not asking for your research. Just your...assistance in subjecting a few of my soldiers to your process. I have heard quite a bit about it from my people, how the amber sustained you paragons for thousands of years...how it kept you strong. This is what I seek."
"Besides, mantid, can you really afford to refuse us?" she continued. "I have monitored your efforts against the empress. You are losing. They outnumber you on every front, and for every warrior you slay, ten more take its place. You need a weapon. You need an edge. You need us, Prime, or you will lose this war."
"Share your knowledge and survive, or keep it secret and be annihilated. To me, it does not seem like a difficult choice."
Korven considered her in silence. He hated her in that moment, for her arrogance, and because she was right. It galled him to admit it, but the Klaxxi were losing. Shek'zeer's forces were too numerous, her armies too vast. The paragons were powerful, but they were few. The Klaxxi needed something else to tip the scales in their favor, and they knew it.
One thing at a time, Korven decided.
"Your 'request' aside, I find your words hard to believe," Korven grated. "You would arm us with this knowledge? With a weapon so deadly? What if we betrayed you, turned this poison against your trusted allies? You are a fool."
The male undead growled, and his hand edged toward his quiver. "Hold, Blightcaller," said Sylvanas. "As always, I appreciate your zeal, but there is no need for that." She glanced over at Korven. "...yet."
The Prime's antennae waved in dark amusement. If nothing else, these strangers were certainly bold. Worthy of a modicum of respect. He would enjoy killing them, if they forced his hand.
"You misunderstand us, mantid. We trust no one," said the Banshee Queen, having reined in her subordinate. "We simply choose to work with those whose goals happen to mutually coincide with our own. For now."
She leaned forward and gave him a meaningful look. "From what my peers have told me, it seems we are not alone in this regard."
Korven said nothing. He glanced over at Kil'ruk. Chastised, the younger paragon ducked his head, but then stepped into the cave, crouching and baring his neck in submission.
"Prime, perhaps I overstepped when I told the Wakener of our past. But it is done, and I do not regret my decision. These outsiders have proved their value to the Klaxxi. They have fought beside us, have died for our cause. They have earned our respect. They deserved to know the truth." Kil'ruk rose, nodded at the outsiders, then returned to his post at the cavern entrance.
Inwardly, Korven sighed. The Wind-Reaver was a fearsome terror in combat, but he had served as a warrior from the day he hatched. Some paragons, such as Xaril and Korven himself, were accustomed to long years of slow, methodical research, carefully measuring and studying all available facts before making decisions.
But Kil'ruk could afford no such luxuries in the heat of battle, where a moment's uncertainty would purchase him only an ignoble end at the tip of a Mogu blade. Passion and instinct were the songs that now guided him, speed and decisiveness his weapons as much as the twin amber blades strapped to his back.
No mercy. No fear. No hesitation. This was the Wind-Reaver's path. It was really no surprise he had not waited or conferred with the Council before telling the Wakener about the Old One. It was not his way.
Korven turned back to the creatures standing before him. Their offer had some appeal, he was forced to admit. Traditional incendiary rounds were as lethal as ever against the defenders manning the wall, but this time the enemies were not pandaren or mogu, but fellow mantid. The acidic, poisonous bombs, so deadly when employed against foes of flesh and blood, were not nearly as effective against targets armored in sturdy carapaces, who did not need to breathe.
Korven thought of the ranks of elite Klaxxi flyers who had been forced to abandon their bombing runs, instead now serving as messengers or common infantry, a terrible waste of their unique talents. Regaining the ability to once again rain chemical death down upon their adversaries would be an incredible advantage, especially if Shek'zeer's swarm could not retaliate in kind.
And inwardly, secretly, he was curious to see what effect the amber would have on another species. Subjecting a lesser being to the amber hibernation was something that had never been done, not once in the thousands of years since Korven had developed the process. The greatest honor in mantid society, granted to an outsider? And not only that, but a reanimated one?
The idea was beyond preposterous. It was blasphemous.
It was brilliant. No mantid would have ever dared suggest such a thing. But an outsider…
Who knew what knowledge the Klaxxi might potentially gain from this exchange? What effect would the rejuvenating, life-giving amber have on a being that was already dead? The more Korven thought about it, the more intriguing the idea became. It might simply be a fascinating opportunity to learn more about these creatures and their unique physiologies, yes. Or it could lead to vast improvements in the preservation ritual itself, something that would benefit the Klaxxi for generations to come.
"Poisoned Mind," he rumbled. "Take a sample of their poison. Test its potency."
"Prime, you are not considering their offer? The Council will never agree to such a trade, no matter what they might promise us."
"This may be," replied Korven, watching the reanimated male pull a small metal vial from his pack. "But before we can reach a conclusion, we must verify the facts. Be cautious."
Xaril looked skeptical, but bowed. "As you wish." He reached out and gingerly accepted the vial, cradling it warily.
"Wind Reaver, accompany him," added the elder paragon. "Locate one of her majesty's patrols. They will be no match for the two of you. Spare one drone, and see if these outsiders' plague is as powerful as they claim."
The pair nodded and ducked out of the cave. Within moments they were gone, the echoing hum of wings the only lingering evidence of their presence.
Korven waited calmly, forelegs resting on his sword, shield hanging easily at his side. Sylvanas noted his calm and cocked her head in curiosity.
"You would remain here alone, without aid?" she asked, a skeptical look in her eyes. "What if this was a ploy to lure you here, away from your kin? What if we were to attack now, before your friends returned? You are outnumbered and far from reinforcements. Who is the fool now?"
"I am the Prime," replied Korven simply.
Soon, a sonorous buzz thickened the air, announcing the paragons' return. Moments later Kil'ruk dropped from the sky and slid nimbly to a stop, his clawed feet carving furrows in the dirt. His blades were drawn, but lowered after a quick gaze around the cave revealed that all was as he had left it. Xaril landed a few moments later, and rushed into the cave, his face alight with excitement.
"They speak the truth, Prime," said the alchemist, his antennae dancing eagerly. "Their toxin is deliciously virulent, far beyond the chemicals used in our rounds. My poisons attack the flesh, burning and scalding, but this brilliant concoction seems to attack the subject's very vitality itself. I have never seen anything quite like it. Agony was immediate, with death following soon after."
Xaril shuddered, his mandibles twitching eagerly. "It is a horrible, beautiful creation, Prime. I would dearly love to study its composition in closer detail."
Korven nodded, unsurprised at the results. He turned back to the outsiders, who were clearly pleased with the Poisoned Mind's testimony. The Council would be incensed, but they would understand, in time. He was the Prime. Ultimately, it was his decision, and his alone to make.
"Lesser Queen. Like all inferior beings, your kind is weak. You war over inconsequential faults, over meaningless allegiances, your lives ignited, burned and snuffed in but a single breath of the mantid empire. You are here today. You will be gone tomorrow. But we will remain. We are eternal."
He held up a hand, cutting off her surprised protests. "And yet, your minds are devious, frantically at work in the short time allotted you. Your Wakener has displayed impressive perseverance and commitment, for one outside the cycle. And my alchemist believes that your toxin will be of value to us."
Slowly, he lifted his sword and sheathed it at his side. "On behalf of the Klaxxi, I accept your terms. Give us your plague, and we will give you your paragons. It seems there is much we can gain from working together."
And there is so much we might learn in the process, he thought.
- The Wastes. Now. -
Korven picked his way carefully down the rough, bumpy ramp, watching for loose stones or recesses that might betray his footing. Sloppy construction, he thought, watching loose dirt cascade down into the darkness. The lesser races cannot even dig a hole in the ground properly, it seems.
Naturally, the underground passages built by Korven's brethren were far superior to those of the lesser races, and much less prone to deterioration or sudden collapse. Painstakingly hand-carved, each load of dirt and stone properly relocated and disposed of, and every surface coated in amber for strength and stability, mantid burrows would last for hundreds of cycles. One of these would have served quite nicely.
However, such halls were frequently utilized for important mantid rituals - swarmborn hatching rites, Klaxxi naming ceremonies, even the occasional coronation of a new empress - and Korven had been loath to surrender a site of such cultural significance to his new allies.
Instead, he had spent days combing the Wastes to find a suitable alternative, exploring every nook and crevice of her sprawling, endless reaches for a cave or burrow that would not be stumbled upon by curious wildlife, or more importantly, Shek'zeer's forces.
Eventually, he had settled on a location he knew as well as his own name - Kypari Zar, the ancient tree he had himself planted, so many centuries ago. It was a horrible, nightmarish landmark blotting the land, one that no wild creature would willingly approach. And since it was dead, drained of amber, its wood too rotted to serve any useful function, it would be wholly and totally ignored by the empress' harvesters.
Korven stroked one of the massive roots tenderly as he walked, taking note of the blackened streaks of corruption staining the wood beneath his talons. Months earlier, the Wakener had helped him dispatch a vile sha-tainted beast making its home under the ancient kypari, freeing the tree from its torment. After the animal was dead, Korven had noticed a series of smaller tunnels descending further underground, and guessed the massive predator had likely chased away or devoured the cavern's previous inhabitants.
The grieving paragon had thought nothing of it at the time, expecting never to return. But sometimes the will of the Klaxxi led in unexpected directions.
"It is appropriate, Prime," Xaril had said, upon hearing of his decision. "The gift of amber life, bestowed upon those who are neither truly dead nor alive, all in the belly of a dead kypari who sustained us for so many years. It is a cycle of its own, in a way."
The alchemist had grown quiet, gently setting down the vials he was manipulating. "I am reminded of a mantra my former apprentice used to say, before my preservation: 'From death comes life, and from life, death.' He was rather undisciplined and timid for an assistant, but his words seem rather fitting now."
Korven made his way deeper and deeper into the ground, lost in thought. Though he would never share this information with anyone, not even the Council, he was secretly glad to return and visit the ancient kypari. It seemed to be one of the only things that was still around from his own era.
When he had awoken, Korven's empress was dead. His brothers-in-arms, long forgotten. The world had changed, leaving him behind in its wake, a grain of sand stranded far, far adrift. Everything he remembered was gone.
Everything, that is, except Kypari Zar. Like him, it had endured.
"You served us well all these years, old one," said Korven quietly, nearing the bottom of the slope. "We now ask one last favor of you, before your eternal rest."
A lone figure stood guard at the base of the ramp, wary and alert. "Welcome, Prime," called Kil'ruk in greeting. "The others are inside, completing their preparations. I believe they are nearly ready."
"Good. Have you the fork?" asked Korven.
"Indeed. Will you be waking the champions yourself?"
"On the contrary, Wind-Reaver. Paragons do not typically assume the role of Wakener. But you have done so in the past. It was also your discovery that led to this experiment. I believe the honor should be yours."
"As you wish, Prime."
Korven stepped into the large chamber, looking around approvingly. Eight hollows had been carved into the dirt walls, circling the room, each of appropriate size to comfortably hold a paragon's amber prison. Before each alcove lay a polished tray of preserved bark. Xaril was making his way around the room, carefully pouring small chunks of dried kypari sap onto the trays. A freshly wakened paragon was weak and helpless, and the small meal of nourishing sap would allow them to recover their strength.
Two other paragons stood in the center of the room, and one who was neither paragon nor mantid. The Banshee Queen was conversing with Kaz'tik and Rik'kal, who had been placed in charge of the procedures. "Manipulator, Dissector. Lesser Queen," said Korven in greeting. They nodded in his direction, but continued their discussion.
While Korven may have originally created the amber preservation process, it had undergone thousands of refinements over the years as each mantid generation improved upon their predecessors' designs. Kaz'tik and Rik'kal had both studied the notes of those that had preceded them, and had each contributed significant breakthroughs before being preserved. They were unquestionably more knowledgeable and far more suited to maintain this experiment than he.
It wasn't long ago that Korven would have worried about gathering so many paragons in a single location, leaving Klaxxi'vess unguarded. But things had changed. Over half the Council was dead, slain in a brutal ambush at the hands of the empress herself. Shortly after, one of the Klaxxi's most fearsome paragons, Malik the Unscathed, had fallen in battle during the initial strike upon the Heart of Fear, Shek'zeer's palace. Things had appeared quite grim.
However, much to Korven's surprise, the outsiders that had been scurrying about Klaxxi'vess had followed the Klaxxi into battle, hurling themselves relentlessly against her majesty's forces. Hundreds of the lesser creatures fell, but Korven had watched in stunned surprise as slowly, inexorably, the vast sea of swarmborn was driven back to the gates of the Empress' fortress.
The Klaxxi had quietly withdrawn from the field, allowing the humans, elves and pandaren to bear the brunt of Shek'zeer's fury. That was the point of fodder, after all. Korven actually found the entire situation rather amusing. The outsiders would mindlessly smash against the empress' defenses, and many would perish for their efforts. The strong would survive, return and be lauded for their accomplishments. It was all so familiar.
Korven had left the other paragons behind to guard Klaxxi'vess and the surviving members of the Council, but he doubted there was any real threat. The empress had her hands full with the surprisingly capable outsiders, who were even now besieging her citadel, and showing no signs of slowing. Though they were still inferior beings, Korven had learned not to underestimate their tenacity. He suspected it was a lesson Shek'zeer would soon discover for herself, and that her madness would not threaten the mantid race for much longer.
Deep beneath the roots of Kypari Zar, Korven chuckled. How noble of the outsiders to fight our battles for us, allowing us to pursue other...interests.
While his fellow paragons finished their final arrangements, Korven wandered around the chamber, following Xaril's path. The elder mantid stopped at each amber sphere, inspecting it closely. He laid a claw gently against one, and could sense the steady, sluggish vitality of the one inside, their mind stirring at his touch. Good, he thought. Alive - so to speak - and alert. A positive sign. He did not know who was interred within. He had not been present when the outsiders had been preserved.
The others had fallen into step behind him. "The amber appears strong, full of life," observed Korven. "Any complications?"
"None, Prime," said the Dissector. "I expected some difficulty because of our guests' reanimated condition, but their dry flesh and empty veins seem to have eagerly accepted the infusions. Unlike our paragons, who are simply held in a state of stasis, I believe these creatures may have actually absorbed the amber into their very bodies, the sap pulsing within them like a pandaren's lifeblood. It will be most interesting to see what emerges."
Korven arrived at the eighth and final alcove. It was empty. Korven looked at Sylvanas, curious. Their agreement had called for eight champions.
"She could not be convinced," she muttered, her tone sour. Korven waited for her to elaborate, but it quickly became apparent that no further explanation would be forthcoming.
He shrugged. It didn't really matter to him. "Perhaps it is just as well. Seven is a good number, Lesser Queen. A strong number. It has...significance."
It was time. "Wind-Reaver, we are ready," called Korven. "Do not worry about your vigil. All is quiet up above. Perhaps the land itself is waiting to see who emerges victorious from her majesty's foul nest."
Kil'ruk sheathed his swords, drawing forth a small metal implement. The tuning fork was made of steel, one of the only metal devices used by the mantid, and its twin prongs were polished to a brilliant sheen. When struck on a paragon's amber, the fork's tone and sonic energy would resonate through the crystallized prison, awakening the one preserved inside. For obvious reasons, such relics were heavily guarded by the Klaxxi, and greatly treasured.
Kil'ruk stepped up to the first prison. He held the fork up, studying it. Korven suspected the flyer was thinking back to the previous paragon he had awakened, a respected mantid tactician named Ninil'ko the Bloodcaller. Together the pair had thwarted an insidious mogu assault, likely saving the entire mantid race, but Ninil'ko had not survived.
Korven thought of the brothers he had fought alongside thousands of years ago, nothing now but dust and half-remembered memories. He let the Wind-Reaver have his moment of reminiscence.
Kil'ruk lifted the fork above his head, and brought it swiftly down upon the amber. The steel prongs sang sharply, leaving a single note hanging in the air, beautiful and pure. It echoed gently throughout the enclosed cavern for many long seconds.
Kil'ruk reversed his grip and held the base of the fork against the amber, so the tone was transmitted directly into the sphere. Eventually, it faded away, replaced by a faint scrabbling as the figure encased before them started to break its way free. Slowly, large chunks of amber fractured and fell to the ground, traces of sap oozing from the cracks.
Soon a pale humanoid lay gasping on the ground, his clothes and hair coated in sticky resin. His eyes gleamed as he spotted the tray lying before him, and he fell upon it hungrily.
The paragons leaned in, intrigued. The first non-mantid to ever undergo the paragon preservation appeared to be faring quite well. A faint warmth returned to the creature's complexion, and Korven could smell the sweet scent of amber beneath the sunken flesh as it began to lazily flow.
"You have met this one before, Prime," said Sylvanas, equally captivated by her soldier's recovery. "Allow me to reintroduce you to my first champion: Nathanos the Blightcaller."
Hearing his name, the creature struggled to his feet. The mantid took a step back. Tradition dictated that paragons rise unassisted, their weakness ignored and unacknowledged.
"I feel...strong," rasped the Blightcaller, staring down at his body, still encrusted with tiny amber crumbs. He plucked up a chunk of amber, and effortlessly crushed it to a fine powder, marveling at his newfound strength. "Rejuvenated. Alert. I can feel the sap on my skin, the amber in my veins. I can smell the dirt and grass overheard. It feels almost like..." He paused, and looked at his queen, wonder and amazement written upon his face. "...like I am alive once more."
Sylvanas' eyes narrowed slightly, and her hand crept silently to the short blade at her belt. "Welcome back, my champion," she said silkily, her voice devoid of tension. "Tell me...who do you serve?"
The Blightcaller immediately knelt and ducked his head obediently. "Only you, Dark Lady. As always."
"Good. Good..." she whispered, relaxing.
Korven watched the play in silence.
After the other paragons had concluded their observations, Kil'ruk continued on, freeing another male from his amber prison, followed by a female dressed in gleaming metal armor. "Helcular the Undying, and Lynnia, the Fallen Hope," recited Sylvanas, watching with approval as they regained their strength. Like the Blightcaller, they seemed amazed at the sensations flooding through their bodies.
The fourth champion to be awoken surprised Korven. Even for one of the reanimated, he was wasted and brittle-looking. He wore ragged robes, the limbs beneath bent and contorted in awkward angles. It was clear that many of his bones had been broken, perhaps even shattered. Leather straps were wrapped around his face, and Korven could see terrible scarring underneath. One side of his head was hairless, exposing a ghastly head wound that made even the hardened paragons wince.
A failure? Korven wondered. But this damage was inflicted before he was preserved.
"Putress the Unforgiven," explained Sylvanas, seeing his confusion. "Do not let his appearance fool you. His body may be broken, but his intellect is the true prize. His genius is responsible for the plague bombs you have been employing against your enemies."
Xaril stepped forward, bending low and pushing the tray closer so the crippled creature could partake of the kypari sap. "My greetings," said the mantid respectfully. "I am known as Xaril the Poisoned Mind. Your alchemy is most impressive. I am pleased to meet the one who developed such a fiendish toxin."
The one known as Putress took a ragged, wheezing breath. "All...in the name...of the Banshee Queen..." he intoned, his voice dull and emotionless.
Korven clicked his mandibles as he examined the huddled figure. "His wounds. Sustained in battle? He was a warrior as well?"
Sylvanas shook her head. "His thirst for knowledge was great, but his thirst for power was stronger. His selfish ambitions caused us...problems, and his attitude required some correcting before he could once again properly serve the Forsaken cause."
"I see," Korven replied, inspecting the many injuries with new understanding. "A wise decision. Independence breeds weakness."
Though it was uncommon, paragons did occasionally rebel against the will of the Klaxxi. But the Council did not have these rogues beaten, or otherwise attempt to steer them back onto the correct path. They were executed.
Lesser races. So merciful, Korven thought with amusement. So weak. So predictable.
Twin chimes resonated in the cave, and the elder paragon joined Kil'ruk at the next amber spheres, already cracking apart and disgorging their inhabitants. One immediately leapt to his feet, though he collapsed moments later, hacking and retching. He devoured the amber shards greedily, scooping them up with both hands, pausing every now and then to peer closely at his outstretched fingers.
"This body is magnificent, Dark Lady!" he cackled, rising again. He began poking and prodding his pallid flesh, eager fascination written upon his face. "I can actually feel this! Most intriguing. I must perform some tests immediately. Where are my tools?"
"Calder the Corpsecrafter," interrupted Sylvanas. "Cease your prattling. I am pleased your enthusiasm has not diminished during your slumber, but you will limit your experiments to other subjects. No grafts. No replacement parts. I will not have you ruining your new body for the sake of satisfying your own curiosity."
"Very well, my queen," he sighed reluctantly, bowing low to the ground.
They turned to the other figure, who was kneeling obediently, waiting. Korven was surprised to see a large sword slung across this one's back, as weapons were not usually included in the preservation process. The sword was old, the metal battered and notched, but it gleamed with a dim white radiance. Korven could see sigils faintly etched into the blade, though he had no idea what they said.
"Arise, Galen the Kingsbane," ordered Sylvanas. "He wears Trol'kalar, Troll Slayer, an ancient weapon of great power that will prove invaluable in our fight against the Thunder King and his Zandalari allies." She cocked her head toward Kaz'tik and smiled. "That one attempted to separate Galen from the sword before he was entombed, and nearly lost an arm for his efforts. The Kingsbane lost the sword once, you see, a failing he does not intend to repeat."
Korven glanced over at Kaz'tik, who did not seem nearly as amused at the memory of the incident. The elder paragon was glad that Kovok, the Manipulator's ferocious kunchong companion, had not been present. The pet was extremely defensive of its master, and Korven suspected it would not have stopped its frenzied rampage until every outsider in the cave lay in bloody pieces in the dirt. Which would have been a regretful waste.
Giving the Kingsbane a cautious berth, Kil'ruk approached the final amber shell. He lifted the fork, preparing to free the final champion.
"Hold, mantid," interjected Sylvanas, stepping forward. "I have watched your procedures carefully. I wish to wake this one."
The Wind-Reaver looked to Korven for direction. The elder paragon shrugged. "Very well, Lesser Queen. Strike the fork against the amber. Focus your will, and compel your champion to throw off their slumber."
"Remember that you are not merely freeing the one within," added Kil'ruk. "You are restoring them to life, bringing them back into the world. Being preserved is like death. Being awakened, like rebirth."
The Banshee Queen took the implement and strode up to the amber. She turned the metal instrument over in her hands, running her fingers along the smooth, polished prongs.
"I am more familiar with this concept than you may realize, mantid," she said softly. She seemed lost in thought for a few moments, then frowned and shook her head, banishing whatever troubled her.
"It is time, my champion," she called to the inert figure before her. "Your former life is at an end. Starting today, you serve only the Forsaken cause. Today, and forevermore, you are mine."
She rapped the fork lightly upon the amber. The pure, harmonious chime resonated in the cavern, ringing as the amber shuddered, then began to crumble away.
The pale figure that spilled out into the dirt was thin and weak-looking, like all of the Lesser Queen's minions. But Korven spotted some minor physical differences in this one. Compared to the others, he seemed...more whole, as if decay had not yet began to ravage his flesh. No bones protruded through his skin, and Korven could see no gaping wounds or injuries upon his body.
Likely her strongest warrior, guessed Korven. No wonder she wished to wake him herself. He squinted, spotting another oddity. Or, perhaps they are kin? They have the same ears.
The creature still coughed and hacked on the floor, but reached out with trembling fingers for the chunks of sap laid before him. Soon he had recovered enough strength to stand, though he wobbled slightly as he found his balance on the uneven dirt floor. He opened his eyes. They blazed with a cold, azure light.
"Paragons, I present to you my final champion," said Sylvanas, a triumphant grin stretched across her face. "The Deathweaver. Or as he shall now be known, Koltira the Reclaimed."
Korven watched the Forsaken slip away into the Wastes, dark shapes swallowed by the shadowed horizon. He could feel the amber in their veins gliding swiftly away from Kypari Zar, a faint scent that was soon lost in the breeze.
Satisfied, he rejoined the other paragons below the earth. Rik'kal and Kaz'tik were deep in discussion, while the others were busy collecting the shattered amber fragments that lay scattered around the burrow, burying those they deemed too small to be of any future use.
"A most interesting experiment, Prime," said Rik'kal. "Probing the limits of their dead flesh with microsonics proved most enlightening. And as you theorized, preparing their bodies for maximum amber absorption had impressive results. Perhaps one day we might be able to utilize my findings to strengthen our own warriors. Without them being dead, that is."
Kaz'tik nodded in agreement. "As you requested, I studied the Council's limited notes regarding reanimation beforehand, and found that what our ancestors had discovered did not apply to these creatures at all. Very little focus or sonic energy was required to manipulate their unconscious forms. Perhaps this was because of their unique state, or possibly their total immersion in amber beforehand, which we know amplifies sonic transmission. I cannot be certain."
"Good, brothers," said Korven. "I am pleased with your results, but we must not waste time. Construction of more amber shells will begin immediately, in the caverns beneath Klaxxi'vess. Not a mere seven. Dozens."
"More paragons, Prime? I...do not understand," said Xaril, frowning. The other paragons gathered around, their confused expressions echoing the alchemist's words. "Who is to be interred?"
Korven surveyed his fellow paragons, and steadied himself. "Many of us...but we shall start with Malik the Unscathed."
A heavy silence fell over the burrow, as the paragons exchanged cautious, wary looks.
"Prime…" began Xaril, trailing off. He looked at the others, then clacked his mandibles together in determination. "Prime, the Unscathed is dead. Surely you remember this. You are not actually proposing we infuse our dead with amber and...reanimate them, are you?"
Around him, Korven felt his brothers tense, their hands slipping slowly to weapon hilts. Korven forced himself to remain calm. This was the most dangerous moment. He had to proceed carefully. Everything depended on it.
"I am," he replied. He didn't flinch as a twin set of kyparite blades shot out and tapped lightly on his chest.
"Explain yourself, Prime," snarled Kil'ruk, his eyes glinting dangerously. "What you suggest is forbidden. It goes against the cycle! Why would you even consider such a thing? Tell us, now."
Korven stared down the length of the amber swords at the younger paragon. "Tell me, Wind-Reaver. What is the purpose of the cycle?"
"You are not the first one to ask me this, Prime. I will tell you what the Bloodcaller taught me, so many years ago. You would be wise to respect his wisdom," Kil'ruk said with a scowl. "The purpose of the cycle is to learn. To grow. To cull the weak, so that our people may grow ever stronger as the years pass."
The other paragons had backed away from Korven, well aware of his martial prowess. They nodded silently in agreement.
"You are correct," said Korven. "And now I ask you, Wind-Reaver. How long will the cycle last? Forever?"
Kil'ruk seemed surprised at the question. His arms twitched, lightly scoring Korven's thorax. "No," Kil'ruk recited. "Eventually, the day will come when we need swarm no more."
"Is this what the Bloodcaller told you?"
"He was wise," murmured Korven. He took a deep breath, ignoring the blades hovering at his chest. "Listen well. All of you. I dare go against the cycle, to break our most honored tradition, because the Wind-Reaver is correct. The cycle is not eternal. It has served us well, but like Kypari Zar, like everything, we will one day no longer have need of it. It will have fulfilled its purpose."
He looked at the others. Suspicion and anger radiated from each of them, but they were listening.
"My brothers, that day has come."
"No!" spat Kil'ruk. "You are wrong. We need the cycle more than ever before. The empress' madness has decimated our ranks. We must rebuild."
"With what, Wind-Reaver?" demanded Korven. "The Council is dead. The empress will soon fall, and we have no new female to replace her! The swarm is in tatters. Any assault upon the wall will not result in matured, hardened warriors returning to us and replenishing our numbers. They will die. They will all die."
Korven slowly reached up and pushed aside the swords, which had begun shaking.
"Then this is the end. Of everything." Kil'ruk whispered. His hands fell to his sides, the blades thumping softly to the dirt. "We are lost."
"Wait," interjected Xaril softly. "Prime, if we are doomed, then why would you have us preserve our dead? What purpose would this serve?"
Korven did not answer. Instead, he knelt and picked up one of Kil'ruk's swords. He studied its razor edge, the meticulous craftsmanship. He held it aloft for the others to see.
"I did not have weapons like this in my time," said Korven, angling the weapon gently back and forth. "Our swords were primitive pieces of stone or obsidian. Our few amber blades were marks of prestige, reserved for only our most honored warriors. They were also heavy, blunt, and ineffective."
"But look at what I now hold," he continued. "Look at what thousands of years of learning has produced Lightweight. Balanced. Deadly. How many ambersmiths honed their craft before a blade of this quality was possible? How many ambersmiths have improved even further upon this process in the years since?"
The other paragons did not answer. Korven had not expected them to.
"I walked this land before the wall. Before the cycle. Before the mogu and the pandaren. I fought for the Old One against others of his kind, and later at his side against the usurpers. And I watched him succumb to their treachery, breathing his hatred into the land as he fell."
Korven closed his eyes in painful remembrance. "We were distraught...but not for long. We knew the Old One would one day return, for how could a god ever truly be destroyed? We did not know how long it would take, but we vowed to be ready when that day came. And so, the cycle was created."
"The cycle? Then…" whispered Kaz'tik.
"Yes, Manipulator. Its purpose was as the Wind-Reaver said. Knowledge. Growth. Power. But why? So that when the Old One returned to unleash his terrible vengeance upon this world, we would be waiting for him, the strongest, wisest of our race, the result of countless generations of evolution."
Korven turned to face the others, his jaws twitching in anticipation. "My brothers, that time has come. The Old One has returned." He laughed, seeing the blank looks on their faces. "You know his legacy, but you do not recognize his growing shadow upon your mind. How could you? You have never known his touch. But I have. And I remember it well."
"Do you now understand why the Old One allowed the empress to wreak such havoc?" he asked. "It was a final purge, to eradicate the weak and leave only the truly strongest among us standing. A final cycle."
Korven lifted the sword, which glinted in the darkness. "Brothers, the Old One has returned, and we are his blades. Time has tempered us, sharpened our instincts, honed our cunning. Time has made us strong. We are the finest our empire has to offer, and we shall be the extensions of his hatred."
"Yes, I see now," said Rik'kal, his eyes gleaming with excitement. "The cycle has ended. And we will use what we have learned here today to reanimate our fallen, because…"
"Because the cycle no longer matters," finished Kaz'tik, deep in thought.
"You are correct," said Korven. "Always have we refrained from destroying our foes, that we might continue to learn from their struggles. But our goal has changed. Now we have but one objective: victory."
"And this is why you had us secure the bodies of the empress' fallen lieutenants," added Rik'kal. "Her Imperial Vizier, her Wind Lord. You did not want to study them. You wanted to use them!" He cackled approvingly. "Cunning, Prime."
Xaril laughed, tapping lightly at his bandoleer. "The lesser beings will stand against us. I suppose we may have to let them taste the Lesser Queen's plague bombs."
"And should her 'paragons' face us in battle, their amber blood will be an excellent medium for sonic manipulation," added Kaz'tik, a devious look spreading across his face.
Kil'ruk rose, scooping up his swords. He studied them closely, the polished kyparite surfaces smooth and unmarred. "I now see your wisdom, Prime," he whispered. "First, I was the empress' talons. Then the Klaxxi's. And now, the Old One's." A shiver ran through him. "Old One, are you listening? Do you hear your loyal servants? We await your return, Great One. We will not fail you!"
Pleased, Korven leaned back against the chamber wall and watched the others secure their equipment for travel. He was exhausted, but he felt a deep sense of purpose fill his body, setting his mind and body at ease. He didn't know this world, its people, its traditions. Not really. But waging war in the name of the Old One? Reminding his brothers of their destined roles in Y'Shaarj's plans? This was familiar. This he knew.
"Come, brothers," hissed the Prime, his eyes shining. "The Old One's whispers are growing stronger every day. It will not be long before he resurfaces, and we must be ready. Soon, this world shall belong to the Old One, and the mantid."
"We are called to serve."