Varian could see the Earthshrine from the keep’s vaulted terrace. The Earthen Ring had erected a circle of stones on the little island and transformed it into a sacred space from which to conduct their farseeing rituals. Portals to important, embattled areas around Azeroth had also been established there; their cool glow illuminated the lake around the keep, mixing with the rising moonlight, casting shadows over the dark water. Varian watched these portals, these shaman, and these shadows with a troubled mind. He had permitted the Earthen Ring’s presence because he was not a fool: to ignore their insight on the matter of Deathwing, especially after the terror and destruction the beast had wrought on Stormwind City, would be arrogant folly.
The Earthen Ring’s members were not bound to factional conflicts, and Varian knew this. But he also knew that the Horde’s former leader, former Warchief, was now part of the allegedly neutral organization.
“If you’re that worried about it, you can see the vision for yourself.”
Varian set his jaw and turned to face the woman that had appeared beside him, quite suddenly, as though her body were hidden in the air itself and she only now chosen to draw back the veil. Given the way she looked at him, he suspected that such was exactly the case. “Don’t sneak up on me, Jaina. I’m liable to accidentally run you through.”
“I trust you not to act with undue haste,” she replied, her tone gently teasing.
Varian grunted. “Have you looked into the waters? What have you seen?”
Jaina gestured to the Earthshrine with one hand and touched Varian’s shoulder with the other. “I think it would be best if you heard the message personally.”
“I’m not sure how I would react to what I might hear. I’ve little interest in the propaganda that orc might be feeding my people.”
Jain sighed; withdrew her hand. “I can assure you that recruitment for the Horde is not the Earthen Ring’s intent.”
“Scrabbling around in the dirt is Horde business,” Varian said. “Stormwind is a city of Light.”
“Our draenei allies seem open to both paths, and it’s served them—and the Alliance—well enough.” Jaina spoke evenly, but Varian could sense the undercurrent of frustration in her voice. As a diplomat, she was unparalleled: she chose her words precisely, knew when to be firm and when to yield, and he did have great faith in her counsel. But she harbored too much sympathy for their enemies, and for Thrall in particular. She did not understand orcs the way Varian did; her pacifism blinded her.
“I realize that. Why do you think I allow them to congregate at all?” Varian said. “I simply dislike the idea that their ears are now bent to the monster that, until recently, controlled absolutely the entire breadth of the Horde!”
Jaina took a few moments to answer. To her credit, she kept her emotions masked; her eyes barely widened at Varian’s insults to Thrall, though perhaps that was due to her familiarity with her king’s opinions.
Finally, she said, “Go to the Earthshrine and experience the vision. Now is the perfect time—it’s dark, the people are asleep. You would be largely undisturbed.”
“Do it for a more assured night’s sleep, if nothing else,” Jaina said, and smiled at him. He felt the tension in his muscles ease as he took her hand. He couldn’t quite pinpoint why her words were able to calm him so well. Something about her relaxed posture, her lack of condescension, her fastidious restraint. All of that and more—but there wasn’t time to dwell on it. The moment his hand clasped hers, she cast a spell, and when his body and mind reassembled themselves he was standing on the shamans’ island.
“Pleasant evening, your highness,” Naraat the Earthspeaker greeted him with a slight bow. If he felt apprehensive about Varian’s presence—if he felt any reaction at all—it was well-hidden by his ponderous, careful speech. Even the most vigorous of the Broken tribes exuded exhaustion to Varian, and Naraat was no exception: he gazed at the Alliance king with lidded, inscrutable eyes, his mood as implacable as the lake around his island. “A very clear night. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” Varian said. Behind Naraat, a bowl of shimmering water sat suspended between two massive slabs of stone. Glowing bubbles rose from the bowl and popped noiselessly into the night air, and as Varian approached, he saw the water in the bowl swirling madly. He was so transfixed by the tiny maelstrom and the blurry images reflected in the water that he did not notice Naraat lighting a fire in an inconspicuous brazier. The fire sent pungent fumes to curl around Varian’s legs and throat; he breathed deeply, expecting the brisk evening wind to fill his lungs but instead catching a mouthful of Naraat’s incense.
Varian coughed and his eyesight dimmed beneath a film of tears. The heady, spicy scent of burning dreamfoil and purple lotus and whatever else the shaman had used in his poultice assaulted Varian’s senses. He stumbled forward slightly and grasped at the stone slabs, using them to regain his balance. Dizzily, he stared down into the glowing whirl of water in the bowl. He wanted to cry out in rage over the manipulation, but his feelings were dulled by the incense; his mind felt soft, stuffed with wool.
“I’ll be waiting for you, Varian,” Jaina said, just before the vision took hold of him.
His spirit disengaged from his body then—he could feel the separation, though not painfully; it was like removing the lid from a pot. At first Varian perceived nothing aside from a formless void, but then shapes and sounds came rapidly into focus, and he realized that he was standing on a precipice of land that overlooked the real, actual Maelstrom. Thrall stood beside him.
“Welcome,” the orc said, though he did not move a muscle—his arms were raised and his stance was taut, his attention focused entirely on the calamity in front of him.
“What is this!” Varian exclaimed. “What trickery—”
“It’s only Farsight,” Thrall said. “Naraat sent your spirit here so that you might fully understand the present circumstances.”
He had to shout to be heard over the enormous waves that crashed relentlessly against the rocks. A roiling storm thrashed just below them, and Varian could see lightning-shaped beams of red light bursting from the Maelstrom’s center, as well as numerous floating pieces of earth. It seemed that at any moment Thrall would be overwhelmed by the rift’s violence, that he would either be struck down by the escaping chunks of rock or swept away by the massive tidal waves breaking against the cliff.
“The message I deliver to your people is only this, King Varian,” Thrall said. “We are at war, and it is not with each other.”
Varian Wrynn had endured and seen many things in his relatively short life. But, although he had marshaled his awe at the Maelstrom and his confusion over what had happened to him and although he was no shaman, he could feel the pain here. It resonated in his spirit-form, pushing against him, trying to force him back to his body.
“I work to maintain what little order there is here,” Thrall went on.
Varian scoffed. “If this is order, I would hate to see how you define chaos.”
“Yes,” Thrall said. “You would.”
Frowning, Varian stared into the Maelstrom. The agony of the sundered earth bore into him, thrumming throughout his every living fiber.
“This doesn’t change anything,” he said. “The Alliance will crush the Twilight’s Hammer. We will destroy Deathwing. And your Horde won’t get in our way.”
Thrall clearly had neither the patience nor the energy to spare for delicate diplomacy. He snarled. “Varian, if you and Garrosh cannot come to an accord, you will ensure this world’s destruction! This is not a battle for honor and glory. This is a battle for our very existence! Deathwing will turn this world to ash.”
“No,” Varian said. “I won’t let that happen.”
Thrall’s eyes narrowed, but he did not falter in his channeling. “Your strength alone is not enough. The Horde’s strength alone is not enough. I understand the root of your prejudice, Varian. I share it, after all.”
“We are nothing—”
“—no,” Thrall interrupted him, and Varian wished he weren’t a spirit so that he could lash out at the orc. “We aren’t alike. I’m willing to let the past go in favor of the greater concern. All of the past.”
That gave Varian pause. SI:7 agents had informed him that Thrall was leaving Orgrimmar for an important mission and that his ship would be crossing into deserted—and therefore vulnerable—waters. The goblins of Kezan had ruined that operation.
The cliff trembled as a particularly strong tidal wave shattered against it. Varian looked back into the Maelstrom, and then at Thrall’s face. He could see that the orc was struggling to maintain his spellcasting.
“This was the task I delayed you from?” Varian said.
“This and others,” Thrall grunted.
Apologies were not in Varian’s nature and he wasn’t about to offer one now. He viewed Thrall as a threat, and he still did.
“I cannot make promises,” Varian said. “My people will defend themselves—from anything. I would never deny them that right.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Thrall said. “I am only saying that, when the time comes, this world will either stand together or it will fall, divided, into the abyss. That time may not be right now, Varian … but it will be soon. And it’s your choice that the Alliance will follow.”
The cliff shook again, more violently, and Thrall nearly lost his balance. Varian reached to steady him, but his hands passed right through the orc’s chest.
Thrall chuckled. “Much appreciated. I think you had better return to your physical form—you’ve strained it enough.”
As if on cue, Varian felt a pull on his spirit. The colors of the scene around him became liquid, melting together and fading.
“Wait—” Varian cried, but Thrall and the Maelstrom disappeared. He awoke on the stone floor of the Earthshrine with a vicious headache and a nauseated stomach. “Hnnh.”
Jaina kneeled beside him, holding a flask of conjured water to his lips. “Drink this.”
He obeyed, though his insides were churning.
Naraat looked on serenely. “It is almost morning, your highness.”
Varian barely registered anything after that. He was semi-aware of Jaina teleporting him back to his chambers, of her promise to return in the morning. Servants washed his face and set him to bed; at some point his armor was exchanged for night clothes.
The vision swirled in his mind. He hadn’t made promises. But as he stared at the ceiling of his bed chamber, thinking of the conversation and of the terrifying energy that Thrall held at bay, that he stood against alone—
Varian wished, a little, that he had.