About a week into my mostly-relaxing stay in the Vale, I received a missive from Taran Zhu.
I have heard the great words of the Vale, and your actions in defending it. The Steppes are secured, and the time has come to move into the Dread Wastes themselves, home of the mantid. Fear will not wait for us. I have arranged transport by kite to the Serpent’s Spine on the border between the Vale and the Wastes. Upon arrival, you are to report to Bowmistress Lin, who will direct you where she sees fit.
Good luck, and remember your training. Even in the face of total defeat, remain bold and courageous, for you fight Fear itself.’
After gathering supplies and doing a quick bout of training, I took a kite to the Serpent’s Spine, where I met the guard-captain, Bowmistress Li.
‘A volunteer for duty in the Dread Wastes? I think that’s a first. Pleased to meet you. Walk with me.’ Li walked around the immediate area of the wall hurriedly, pointing things out. ‘It’s bad enough trying to hold off the mantid, but now we’ve got spiders swarming up from the ruins below. One of my best marksmen got a blast of webbing caught around his leg – and he got pulled straight down. We think he’s alive, but we don’t have the manpower to send anyone down after him – until you arrived. You can use the rappelling ropes all over to go and look for him. I hope you’re not afraid of heights. Or spiders. But if you need to do some damage, take one of these.’ The captain passed me a dragon gun, and I headed down.
The Dread Wastes are almost supernatural forests of huge green and blue trees, like the Ghostlands but far brighter and more twisted. The mantid swarms were ever-present in the sky, and I hurried through the terraces of Gurthan, killing the large spiders there and destroying eggs. The place was covered in webbing – apparently the mogu did not want to reclaim these ruins.
But the lower terraces had been claimed by something else entirely. Telltale black-and-white smoke signalled sha corruption at a cave in the rock, and not far from it was the missing marksman, Lann.
‘They sent someone after me! Thank the winds. The fall didn’t hurt at all, thanks to the spider corpses. I did what I could, but arrows are far less effective, as you can see.’ I helped Lann out of the sticky webbing he was encased in. ‘You aren’t going to believe what I saw. Two mantid fighting each other, whipping some serious magic back and forth. One didn’t look like any mantid I’ve ever seen. Completely different colour and dress to him, like some kind of… oracle or something. The other one was a total psycho, splashing sha energy around like it was a keg of Stormstout Special. Look, I gotta get back up the wall, but those two are still fighting in that cave. You should check it out.’
I pointed Lann in the direction of the ropes, and hurried into the cave.
Sha corruption littered the place, and in the cave an extremely tall mantid fought with pure, glowing energy against a sha-corrupted one – a second sha-corrupted one was already dead. I did not want to aid either one, mantid being mantid, but the sha was far more threatening, and I aided the oracle, who was quickly losing.
‘What’s this? Now they come over the walls to oppose us? The fools!’ I killed him, and the other was stunned, almost tired.
‘Mage… approach me…’
I headed over to the severely wounded mantid, intent on finishing him off.
‘Hold, elf…. we are… not your enemy.’ The mantid gasped, spitting out blood. He was not long for the world.
‘Take… this…’ The mantid passed me a humming, golden fork with thin prongs and an ornate handle. ‘Awaken… the Wind-Reaver… It is the only way to end… the swarm…’ With that, the mantid collapsed, giving in to his wounds.
I was unsure what he meant, but I took the fork outside, and it began to hum with an increased pitch as I moved. I was getting closer to something. I followed the sound through the terraces, until I found a giant chunk of amber, twice my size and echoing the sound of the fork. It became beautifully resonant in a held note as I approached, and began to shake the closer I got. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the prong back and struck.
The note vibrated around for minutes, becoming louder and louder until little cracks appeared all over the amber, and with the end of the chord it broke apart. My ears rang, and a mantid fell out and knelt upon the ground.
‘I… have returned…’ He must have been the Windreaver the oracle had spoke of!
‘The Klaxxi… Call to me… But my head swims… I am not… myself yet. You will forgive my current state – I have slept for many years. A Klaxxi’va should have been here to attend my wakening with Kypari sap, but… you will have to do. I sense the buzzing of the sapflies in the south. They gorge on the sap I need. Bring them to me.’ The mantid shook his head briefly and continued. ‘I can hear them howling in rage… the spirits of the Gurthani mogu I slayed so long ago. They wander this ruined terrace, seeking vengeance. If they find me in this state, I will not have the strength to fend them off. Draw their attention and strike them down. Finish what I started, and I will tell you who I am.’
I proceeded even lower into the ruins, where mogu spirits raged at sleeping quilen and the sapflies buzzed all around. I fought as many spirits as I could, but they activated the quilen when near and I was at a disadvantage, especially with the spiders around. Fortunately the sapflies proved easier, as a single firebolt could take out a whole swarm. As I fought my way through the terraces slowly, I realised that it was raining. It had been consistently raining since I got here, like in Krasarang – the sha corruption already went far deeper than we realised.
I hurried back to the Windreaver, and gave him (him?) the sapfly bits.
‘Quickly, without nourishment I will die where I stand. These will do.’ He spoke as he ate. ‘I saw how you fought those mogu spirits. It appears we have a common enemy. And perhaps others. We shall see.’ Nourished, he stood up to his full imposing height, in ancient regalia with pristine, muscular limbs.
‘I must report to the Klaxxi. They would not have woken me unless the situation were dire. You have not been entirely useless, little one. For that, I will spare your life. The council may find a use for you. If you are so curious about we mantid, I will explain on our way to Klaxxi’vess.’ With that, the great mantid snatched me up onto his back and flew into the air.
‘I am Kil’ruk, a warrior from an era long passed. In my time, this was a mogu stronghold. It was my honour to paint the walls with their blood. For my deeds, I was named a Paragon. A hero to be preserved in amber for a time when the empire would need… correcting.’ We flew south, until the great path caused by the endless swarm could be seen, a black, sha-infested blight cutting right through the land. It reminded me of the Dead Scar – but it spread outwards, affecting everything. It was so much worse. Beside the March, a great kypari could be seen, blackened, twisted and fully corrupted. ‘Wakener, what power is this that burns our lands and corrupts our trees?’
Kil’ruk turned suddenly, heading southwest, towards a great set of spires built out from the largest kypari in the Wastes.
‘The palace! This is… not our way. I see why the Klaxxi have been forced to act.’ Two-thirds of the amber spires that formed the palace were entirely corrupted, spewing sha energy and a dull, dead grey in colour. Kil’ruk turned before we were noticed and headed back inland. ‘The Klaxxi are a council of our wisest cultural leaders. They serve to check the power of the Empress. Should the Empress ever fall to corruption or endanger our civilisation, the Klaxxi are sworn to unseat her.
There are others like me. Paragons of each era, frozen in time and buried safely beyond the whispers of the Empress. We answer only to the council. And we rest only when their will is done.’ Kil’ruk landed in a place I assumed to be Klaxxi’vess, the place he had mentioned earlier. Ancient amber structures were attached to even older stone walls, in the shadow of an inhabited kypari that glowed blue in the twilight. Around a pillar in the courtyard, members of the Klaxxi council were involved in… some ritual. The mantid in the area, servants of the Klaxxi, eyed me warily, as though they might call me an ally and eat me in the same breath.
‘This is a sacred meeting place for the Klaxxi. It would be wise of you to let me do the talking.’ The Klaxxi leaders began to talk upon seeing us.
‘Wind-Reaver. You have awakened. What of Klaxxi’va Tik?’
‘And what is this filth you have brought to our sanctuary?’
‘The Klaxxi’va you sent has fallen to an adjunct of Her Majesty. This… “filth” defeated the adjunct and saw to my Wakening.’
‘We do not need help from the lesser races! Dispose of it!’
‘Right away, Klaxxi’va.’
‘No. The Wakener may prove useful. One way or another.’
‘As fodder for the swarm, perhaps.’
The council fell into silence, and I gained the impression that they did not want me here, but felt a kind of grudging obligation for my saving of one of their Paragons. The Klaxxi’va were behemoths of mantid, easily three times or more the size of regular mantid. Kil’ruk spoke to me afterwards.
‘The imperial clutches have become an abomination! Clutch-keepers rush the development of new swarmborn, saturating them in this vile “sha” energy before sending them away to the wall! Newly-hatched mantid only wish to kill and feed, but these swarmborn are tainted, born into shadows and darkness. Driven by terror, not hunger. They all must be purged, and the clutch-keepers too, if we are to stem the swarm. I will fly you to the Clutches of Shek’zeer when you are ready.’
Before I left, I was given more tasks by lower-caste Klaxxi, eager to load off their own work on their new servant. I was beginning to dislike them, even if it was only an alliance of necessity. As well as retrieving blades from the mantid soldiers, I was to fix a broken resonating tower by the Heart of Fear – the name allocated to the former palace. The ritual the Klaxxi’va participated in was whispering to the tower – the tower carried the whisper to all the other towers, and the nearby mantid and paragons, and then went back. Through the towers, the Klaxxi could see everything – when the towers functioned.
Kil’ruk took me to the Heart of Fear, aiding me in fighting through to the inactive relay. I quickly socketed it, and it activated, singing into my mind.
There was a nearby Paragon, in the clutch east of the tower. The clutch-keepers were trying to corrupt it. The Klaxxi would whisper through me to break him out.
I hurried east into the Clutches, where I found inside a clutch an amber crystal identical to that I’d seen in the Terraces of Gurthan. I quickly placed my hands on it after I cleared the area. The crystal broke open with the combined whispers of the Klaxxi’va, and the area was suddenly beset by swarmborn, intent on devouring him. I split into mirror images, barely fending them off, but he Wakened.
‘I am returned! I heed the call of the Klaxxi!’ He flew off towards Klaxxi’vess, and I fought my way back out, but found a strange sha-corrupted focusing crystal on the ground and took it with me. We headed back east into Klaxxi’vess, or rather, I did, since Kil’ruk had accompanied the other Paragon back to make sure he Wakened properly.
The crystal I had found was in fact amber, the most common material in all the Wastes, but is was polluted with fear. The mantid made a great deal of this, chittering in their own language, and I could not understand what it meant. It was not until afterwards that I learnt that amber was used to give life to all mantid, and that the ‘dread amber’ I had obtained meant that all new swarmborn were held too tightly in the grip of the Sha to save. The Klaxxi would decide on a proposal for disposal once they knew more – which meant my obtaining more of it.
For now, however, the matter at hand was the new swarmborn.
‘These eggs should have basked in the warmth of the sun and the song of a million wings for ten more years. The Empress will pay for her crimes.’
‘When the dust settles, the traitors shall be fed to the Kunchong.’
The Paragon I had freed was named Malik the Unscathed, and he spoke bluntly of the sha-infested nightmares he had begun to suffer before being freed. As well as this, I learned more of the swarmborn – the desire to feed was inbuilt from birth, and as such all mantid young were hatched at the same time – the massive swarms every century. The participation in a swarm was not just cultural, but part of physical maturation, as only the swarmborn who survived the swarm developed into fully-aware mantid, able to use their intelligence and strength for more than the next feed. It was for that reason that the older a mantid was, the stronger but less dangerous it became.
I listened to the conversation between the Klaxxi’va and Malik.
‘Malik the Unscathed. Never a glancing blow laid upon you, but countless foes cut down by your halberd.’
‘And countless more to come, Klaxxi’va. It is my honour to serve in our time of need.’
‘And serve you shall. Arm yourself at the quartermaster. The drones here are at your disposal.’
‘Right away, Klaxxi’va. This soft one should serve well. Come, Wakener.’
Malik led me to the quartermaster, and while I knew that it was insulting to be a servant to these mantid (or rather, they viewed me as lesser) I could not help but get the feeling in being the accidental Wakener of two Paragons, I was committing one of the great honours in their society.
‘The Klaxxi see far and hear much. They have shared with me their insight. The Vor’thik embrace the sha, using its power to fuel their march in this false swarm. Their warriors consume tainted amber and call themselves dreadsworn. There is no future for them. They are waste which needs disposing, something you will help with at Kypari Vor.
At Shek’zeer’s command, the great kypari tree of Kypari Vor was twisted into a totem of horror. Like those outside of the palace, the clutch nearby is being used to corrupt the swarmborn. You must recover the eggs before they are tainted. We shall raise them here, where they will be the citizens of a new empire, free from the sha.
And finally, the last piece of knowledge. The Klaxxi’va hear another paragon, north of Kypari Vor. He is crying out in pain and fear – he cannot be saved. The Klaxxi do not wish his memory to be tainted in the swarm, and so we will put him down.’
I headed north into the Wastes, and soon reached Kypari Vor, a devastated Kypari tree, blackened with sha energy pouring from it into the sky, turning the blue clouds black. I fought my way through, and the two Paragons flew back and forth, ferrying uncorrupted eggs. Soon, we found ourselves in the middle of the clutch, facing off against Qi’tar the Deathcaller, slowly being corrupted by the sha.
‘Please… Stop this nightmare!’ He fought against us, but it was not by his will, as fear was overtaking him. We gave him a quick death and the Paragons left, carrying their fallen brother to the Klaxxi’va for a proper end. I continued through the corruption, destroying fear-crafters who were imbuing sha into the young, and collected the dread amber they used. Soon, I had cut a swath through their troops, and headed back to Klaxxi’vess.
I was informed that we had been lucky that Qi’tar the Deathcaller had not been fully awakened, because he would have been near invincible if he had. I doubted it. Often legends are the things we hold most faith in. But the Klaxxi and I settled into a sort of unease amongst each other – they no longer regarded me with outright disgust and suspicion, and… well, I was still quite disgusted. They were insects, after all.