Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kuma's Song

They ran through the golden grass, and behind them the hunting horns blew with the piercing shriek of warped bone. There was pain now, the ache of old muscle and flesh, but Kuma of the Ragetotem clenched his teeth and ran faster still. The centaur sentry had spotted them from over a league away. Kuma had fought the temptation to stand and fight; instead, he had shouted for his party to flee immediately. Mulgore belonged to the tauren once again, but the Barrens were still dominated by the horse-men.

Kuma glanced up. The peaks in the distance were tall, majestic, silent. The overgrown path they followed led to a defile through the mountains and into Mulgore. Safety. . . if they could reach it in time. He forced himself to concentrate on the immediate ground. The earth here was treacherous, and the slightest depression could catch his hoof and lead to that fatal fall.

A whistle sounded in his ear. Kuma ducked and staggered as an arrow struck him from behind. Already? The horse-men were catching up faster than he thought possible. Kuma thanked the Earth Mother that he had decided to strap his shield against his back. Its weight was substantial, nearly ruinous when combined with his weapon, the gigantic war totem cradled against his chest. But he was Kuma, he was of the Ragetotem, and in the service of battle he was strength incarnate.

The arrows dropped faster. To his left, Hika ran on in grim silence, white braids swinging as blood flowed down his arm. Kuto and Taksch were laughing to his right, arms spread carelessly wide, dancing through the rain of missiles. The old and the young, Kuma thought. Everyone was still on their feet. That was good; all six of them might yet all live. But the horns were growing louder, and now there was thunder as well, and not from the cloudless blue sky. Kuma did not spare a glance behind; the vibrations from the ground told him the numbers of those in pursuit, and they were not few; twenty or thirty. The exact count made no difference. The only thing the tauren could do was run.

The grass had changed. It was shorter and sparser here, growing through loose soil and rock. Kuma looked up again, his breath fire in his throat. The mountains loomed directly in front, and Kuma thought he could see the narrow cut that led to salvation. So close!

A crude weighted net spun through the air and wrapped around his arms and head. Kuma dropped his war totem as he crashed to the ground. He struggled to get back on his knees and saw that Hika and Nako had been trapped as well. The others were returning to protect their comrades. “No,” he shouted, or tried to. “Go! But all that came out was a hoarse wheeze.

There was no choice now.

Kuma gripped the net in two hands, flexed his muscles and tore it apart. He stood and hauled his war totem up from the ground, fingers tracing the carved runes. The lead horse-men had stopped, shooting their curved bows as they waited. Behind the skirmishers, the dark mass of the hunting party filled Kuma's vision. The centaur picked up speed as they prepared for the final charge. Hika and Nako were back on their hooves, breathing heavily.

The tauren braced themselves. Kuma brushed aside one last volley of arrows with a contemptuous swing of his weapon. Without taking his eyes off the approaching enemy, he took a deep breath, feeling the cool air cleanse his lungs.

Kuma opened his mouth and roared.

The sound filled the air, a low, rising rumble that spoke of defiance and will, of strength and war. His companions added their voices to his, and the mountains echoed their music and reflected it a thousandfold until it seemed as if the earth itself sang with them.

The horse-men did not slow.

With a wild shout, the lead centaur crashed into him, jabbing wildly with a crude spear. Kuma had set his hooves into the earth, war totem held defensively across his body, and after the impact the centaur simply crumpled to the ground. Kuma laughed, then stepped forward and swung his weapon in a wide arc. The enemy around him reared back, and he took another step forward and struck upward, an uppercut blow that pulverized the head of the centaur in front of him. A fine red mist settled in the air, and Kuma breathed in the scent of battle as he moved and fought. The song was in his blood now. It sang of battle and a life that was made all the greater by the constant dance with death.

The horse-men were not a clever people, having never learned that one simply could not charge a set line of tauren. The initial advantage belonged to Kuma and his men - but that advantage slipped away as the battle devolved into chaos. They were all surrounded now. Kuma's leather armor and thick hide protected him from the spears and axes lashing at him from all sides, but each sting sapped a little more of his strength. A pair of hyenas snapped at his hamstrings. A downward strike crushed the skull of one and the other jumped away, snarling. Kuma saw Kuto flailing away with his maces; he saw Hika being borne down, his mass of white braids slathered with red. He moved to clear a path to them.

It was then that a centaur struck him in the back of his head. Black spots blossomed in his vision. Kuma shook his head, spinning desperately and swinging his war totem wildly. He bellowed, struggling to make contact with his totem, but his movements were slow now, and the horse-men dodged out of the way with ease. The blows were coming faster and faster, each one doing more damage than the last. It would not be long now; soon the tide of the centaur would drag them all under. The dead would be the lucky ones, their bodies savaged and skinned. The unlucky ones would face the slow terror of being dragged back to camp, there to await the fires and the cooking pots.

This was how it had been ever since Kuma had been a child; it had been the fate of his mate, and it would be the fate of his people. The tauren tribes huddled alone in the night, their lives like the dying embers of a campfire. It was the ending that all had seen long ago, the small pathetic deaths that spelled oblivion for an entire race. . .

A howl rose into the sky, piercing the noise of the battle like a thunderbolt.

. . . until now.

The hyena backed away, whining with its tail tucked between its hind legs. Combat stopped. The centaurs looked around uncertainly, uneasy confusion spreading. Those tauren left on their feet lowered their weapons, shoulders heaving. They knew what was coming.

The horse-men on the outer fringe of the melee gave a panicked shout, but the trap had closed with deadly spped and there was no escape. The giant dire wolves lept into the fray with a silence made all the more terrible for what was left in their wake. Centaurs screamed and died as they were shredded by tooth and claw. Those that survived the initial strike tried to flee, but the wolves had riders, small green-skinned orcs that screamed in triumph as they added to the slaughter with hooked knives and serrated blades.

The battle did not last long after that. A single horse-man disappeared into the distance. Kuma checked on the other tauren as they rose slowly to their feet, breathing heavily as the fire in their veins cooled. Miraculously, no one were dead, although all were wounded, one seriously. Kuma knelt by Kuto's side.

"That. . . that was glorious," Kuto whispered. The young tauren's first battle had left him covered with cuts and bruises, none serious except for the deep, bloody gash on his head. Kuma said nothing, merely squeezed his son's hand. Kuto closed his eyes, his breath uneven. Kuma touched him once more on the cheek, tenderly.

"That one will live," said a guttural voice. "The young are strong." Kuma looked up.

Gazrog stood above him, wearing black leather armor splattered with blood. A pair of axes hung from his belt. "A gift," the orc commander said, and tossed down a severed head. “Apologies for coming late. We thought they'd catch you nearer to the pass.”

Kuma shrugged. War was not a predictable business. He lifted the head of Barak Kodobane and studied the face. The centaur warrior had died with a snarl. This custom of decapitating dead enemies was savage, but Kuma remembered Chitsa and could not – would not - deny his satisfaction. He smiled and stood, tossing the head back onto the ground, and now he was the one looking down at the orc. "We thank you," he said. "Cairne will be pleased. With the Kodobane dead, we can finish the fortifications at Camp Taurajo. Mulgore will be safe."

"Safe," Gazrog agreed. A twisted grin split his face as if he had heard a bad joke. "Aye, safe," Gazrog said again. The black birds were circling high above, dark specks in the noonday sun. Kuma heard faint cries as the orcs walked among the bodies and finished off the wounded. "Safe, and ready to join the Horde in full."

"We know," Kuma said, an edge in his voice. "We do not forsake our vows."

"I know that. Thrall knows that." The orc eyed the tauren and his gigantic war totem. "And hells, we're all glad! The look on those human faces the first time they see the likes of you - I wish I could be there to see."

Kuma said nothing, but Gazrog's words brought the future to the fore. Cairne would honor the treaty, there was no doubt of that. Tauren warriors would be sent to reinforce the Horde all over the world, there to meet new enemies. . . and for new enemies to meet them. Kuma's blood quickened as he thought of new lands and new foes, new allies and the new battle songs that they would sing together. . .

Something of his thoughts must have showed in his face, for Gazrog reached up and clapped him on the shoulder. While they had talked, Hika had bandaged Kuto's head, his old fingers moving with experienced dexterity. Taksch and Nako had built a makeshift stretcher out of leather and wood, and now they lifted Kuto onto it.

The orcs were mounting up, preparing for their ride back to Ogrimmar. Kuma said his farewells, and the tauren turned towards Bloodhoof Village and the healers there.

He was not an imaginative tauren, and so Kuma was utterly and completely unprepared for the horror that was The Thundercaller.

The large wooden bucket was full. Kuma squatted behind it, and when the zeppelin dipped again, he leaned forward and vomited. Nothing came out; his morning meal had long since deserted him.

“Cairne must know.” The floor shook as Hika dropped besides him, retching. “Someone must tell him.” Kuma nodded weakly. There were other options. The goblins commanded ships at Ratchet, and although sea travel turned a journey of one day into ten, anything was better than this.

A group of orcs lounged on the opposite side of the hold, pointing and laughing. With them was a party of trolls, their eyes dark, their faces without expression. Kuma thought briefly of the impression he was making as the representative of his race and discovered that he did not care. I am no coward, but this. . .

It wasn't the height he feared; the tauren lived in the mountains and were raised to dance in the peaks. It wasn't the unsteady, lurching motion either; the swinging rope bridges that connected the rises in Thunder Bluff trembled worse than this.

The real source of terror was being so far from the Earth Mother. The Thundercaller was a tomb, burying them alive far up the air. They were gone from the realm of mortals into the unnatural realm of the spirits. The song of the earth had been replaced by the empty blasphemies of the sky, and to live in such a fashion was not to live at all.

Or so Kuma believed. The truth was, not all of the tauren were afflicted.

Cairne had let Kuma pick his own warriors for this, the first expedition abroad. “Choose carefully,” Cairne had said. “The reputation of our entire people depends upon this.” Not knowing what would be needed – youth or experience? strength or wisdom? - Kuma had decided on a mix of the old and the young. And only the elder warriors were sick now, although the others still sat quietly apart from the other races, uncertain as to their place.

There was one exception, and that was Taksch. Even now, the youthful tauren was cavorting above decks, running to and fro, constantly asking questions of the annoyed goblin crew, and leaning over the railing to study the clouds. Does he not feel the absence of the Earth Mother? Kuma asked himself. Would Kuto have been the same? Kuto had begged to come despite his wound, and was bitterly disappointed when told that he would have to wait. There was great honor in being chosen, and those selected had accepted with eagerness and gratitude. Only Hika had hesitated. Kuma remembered the odd deliberation and the strange light that had flicked in the ancient tauren's eyes. Hika had opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and simply nodded.

Kuma leaned back against the wall, trying not to think of the emptiness on the other side. He reached a hand out and touched his war totem. He had hewn the weapon himself long ago, and it still held a touch of earthen life. It was his only comfort aboard The Thundercaller.

"Landing soon!" Chief Officer Coppernut came down into the hold and screeched her news. The goblin ignored Taksch, who was jabbering and following close behind. The orcs and trolls stood, gathering their packs. Kuma and the others stayed on the floor. Eyes closed, he waited for the salvation was close at hand. Soon, he would be back on the ground where he belonged; soon, he would return to the world of blood and glory.

The night was bitter cold. Glimmerings of light penetrated the shroud of trees and sparkled off the tiny ice crystals forming in Kuma's beard. Captain Galvangar had told them to sleep while waiting. Wrapped in their thick furs, the orcs and trolls did just that. The two tauren in the raiding party had not been as prepared for the Alterac winter, and now Kuma and Taksch huddled together behind the tallest pine, trying to ignore the biting chill.

It was miserable within Alterac Valley, but any place was preferable to the plague-ridden lands of the Forsaken. The tauren had all heard what had happened to Lordaeron, but none of them had understood what the stories meant. They had disembarked from The Thundercaller into a world of rot and fading life. Skeletal trees towered above, sparsely covered with brittle leaves. The skies were a noxious grey, the air warped with a heavy miasma that tainted every breath they took.

They had stumbled out of the zeppelin tower coughing and choking, and the Frostwolf delegation sent to meet them rushed forward in concern. "We. . . cannot. . . stay here," Kuma gasped, and instead of quartering in Lordaeron as planned, the party had started their journey to Alterac.

The pain in their lungs had started to fade when they entered the forests of Silverpine, and was soon nothing but a dull ache. There was still pain, though; the older tauren could feel the wrenching agony of the Earth Mother, manifesting itself as a weariness of the spirit. We will fight this, Kuma had thought, lifting his war totem up and onto his shoulder. We will fight this enemy and destroy it.

“How much longer?” whispered Taksch. The words broke Kuma out of his reverie. He snorted in irritation. They had all been briefed on the raid back in Iceblood Garrison; the attack would start right before dawn while the Stonehearth sentries changed shifts. “I don't know,” Kuma replied. This strange land threw off his sense of time.

Taksch stirred again. In the dark, Kuma could not tell whether the young tauren was opening his mouth or simply shifting position. It didn't matter; a warrior in ambush should never be restless. Kuma leaned over, a rebuke ready on his lips. . . then he stopped.

Taksch stared at him as he brushed back his hood and cocked his head. Then he heard it too and lowered his hood as well. The wind blew snow into their hair, and their breathing steadied and slowed as they listened in wonder. Neither of them said a word.

The flute was soft like whispered silver. The wind muted half the sound, yet every note of the minor melody played clearly in Kuma's head. It was a song, but not of battle; it spoke to him, but not of rage and blood. The plaintive music swirled in the air, and in it, Kuma heard loneliness and a quiet despair, a yearning for something that could never be found.

Kuma closed his eyes. All the weight of his life suddenly settled into his bones, all the pain and grief that he had endured and could not forget. He thought of Thunder Bluff, the quiet in the break before dawn when the skies were flushed with faint pinks and purples. He felt Chitsa's soft embrace as she rested her head on his shoulder; he remembered the pride he felt when he first held Kuto, his infant son squalling and kicking in his arms. Suddenly, he wished nothing more than to return to that time, to live in a frozen moment forever.

Solid tears marked his cheeks. Kuma dreamed, and in dreaming, fell asleep.

He was shaken awake. “It's time,” said Taksch. “Something's wrong.” His voice quivered with excitement and nerves.

It took Kuma a moment to remember where he was. The music was gone, and he wondered if he had dreamed it. It took effort to loosen his limbs; his body was like stone. A faint fire burned in the area where the orcs and trolls were encamped. Kuma looked up and frowned. The sky was still pitch black. Dawn was still far. Something had gone wrong.

Galvangarr walked into the small clearing. “Up! Everyone up! Quick!” The captain did not shout, nor did he keep his voice low.

They were all on their feet and marching within minutes, five orcs, three trolls, and two tauren. Kuma gripped his war totem tight. His heart beat fast just like it had before his first battle, decades ago. You have been a warrior for over thirty years, he chastised himself. This will be a fight like any other.

The forest broke up ahead. Kuma could see faint light in the open space beyond. Galvangarr motioned for the raiding party to stay put and moved ahead to the last line of trees. Two figures slipped out of the shadows and joined the orc. They conversed for a while; then Galvangarr came back and gestured. Together, the raid moved forward.

Kuma could see their target now: twenty paces away, a squat, ugly stone tower stood at the end of a road that led north, up and higher into the valley. Braziers burned up top, illuminating a large blue banner that Kuma recognized as the standard of the Alliance. Archers above looked blankly out into the dark, unable to see beyond the range of their fires. The only visible entrance was a reinforced oaken door. Two human sentries stood guard outside.

“You and you. You.” The orc captain pointed at two orcs and a troll. His finger moved to the tauren, hesitated, then stopped at Taksch. “And you. Guard the road between the bunker and the main Stonehearth garrison. Other than that, the plan's the same.”

Kuma looked at the two strangers that had been waiting for them. They were crouched down low, making muffled sounds as they moved in place, fast and frantic. Like insects, Kuma thought with disgust, and one looked up with a sudden jerk of the neck. Kuma stared, shocked, at a dessicated face, pale and smeared with blood. A Forsaken. The undead opened his mouth into something that might have been a grin. Its eyes were jet black and held nothing inside.

Galvangarr made a sharp sound. Both Forsaken hissed as they stood. They looked small in their oversized armor, and unlike the rest of the raiding party, they wore a tabard – blue, with a stylized golden “L” covered by crimson stains. “Quick,” the orc captain whispered. “Before they realize that their scouts are gone.”

The undead pulled their hoods over their faces and moved out of the forest and towards the bunker.

The Alliance sentries were lax; no one spotted the approach until the Forsaken were halfway to the tower. Then a shout came from up above. The sentries turned their heads, saw the disguised Forsaken, and shouted a challenge.

Everything happened quickly then. The Forsaken lurched towards the door, yelling and stumbling as if wounded. Together, they collapsed at the feet of the men outside, and one sentry pounded the door. The other bent over to help, and a blade sliced his throat open, releasing a spray of blood.

The Forsaken jumped to their feet, and the other human died with surprise on his face. An archer from up above shouted a warning, but it was too late. The door opened.

And Kuma burst out into the open, hooves pounding through the snow as he strained to reach the bunker in time.

“Go!” shouted Galvangarr, but the command was unnecessary; he knew what to do. The Forsaken were trying to force the entrance open, but the men on the other side pushed with inexorable force. If they succeeded in barricading the door, the entire raid would be left exposed, no longer the hunter but the prey. An arrow flew at him; Kuma did not dodge, and the wind lifted it up and off target. The door was closing. He reached deep within himself, looking for any last reserves of strength and speed. The door was almost closed. . .

The Forsaken moved aside at the last second. Kuma leapt through the air, leading with his shoulder. The door exploded, and Kuma tumbled through in a shower of wood. He was defenseless for that one moment. . . but the men inside were stunned, and then the moment was gone. Kuma gripped his war totem and stood. Three dwarves and a human stared at him, terror in their eyes.

Kuma roared. His blood caught fire, and he crushed two of the dwarves with one sweep of his weapon. The rest of the raid were pouring in now, and the remaining defenders went down.

Up!” screamed a voice. “Up!

Kuma looked up. There were stone stairs ascending to the roof of the bunker. A human in shiny plate looked down, frozen in place. Their eyes met and the human fled, running up the steps. Kuma followed and heard a thud as a heavy trapdoor closed above him.

He could hear yelling and muffled thumps; the Alliance were attempting to seal themselves in. He changed his hold on his war totem and struck vertically. A loud crack rang through the air as the trapdoor splintered. The yelling grew louder. He hit the trapdoor again and it fell apart. Kuma jumped through.

The first arrow bounced off his leather armor. The second and third struck him in his shoulder and knee. He bellowed in pain, but part of him was glad. The men down below had not fought back; true glory would be found up here.

The arrows had come from his left, his right, his front. Kuma made his choice and stepped to the left, leading with his weapon. He felt the impact as his weapon found meat and bone. He turned to face his enemy, raised his totem to finish the enemy. . .

. . . and stopped.

A human lay below him, staring up, fear in his eyes. His chest was shattered; Kuma could see white bone poking through the broken flesh and armor. The human was small and smooth-faced. A boy. Blood bubbled on the boy's lips as he whispered something, over and over again. And although Kuma could not hear the words, he somehow knew that it was a plea.

He lowered his weapon. His veins filled with ice. “Help,” he croaked. Kuma knelt down, reached for his hand, and the boy jerked it back, his eyes rolling around in their sockets as they searched for mercy. “Please,” Kuma whispered. “Help.” This time, he took the human's hand in his own. “Help.”

He repeated the one word over and over again. No one heard. The slaughter continued all around them. “Victory!” someone roared, and others took up the cry. Kuma looked up and saw Galvangar cut down the Alliance banner. The boy's hand trembled once more in his own, and when Kuma looked down again, the boy was dead.

The world outside exploded with red and orange light. The bunker shook and a wave of heat washed over him. There was something underneath his knee. Kuma lifted his leg and saw something long and silver. It took him three tries to pick it up; his arms were shaking badly. Another explosion. The voices around him were changing; now there was panic. Someone was shouting at him. He opened his hands and saw a flute.

The final burst of flame detonated almost right next to him. Kuma tumbled through the air, burning, and welcomed the oblivion that came.

He opened his eyes a week later. He was lying in bed, the walls around him were cold stone. His entire body, his entire being was sore. I dreamed. . . he started, and then stopped. None of it had been a dream.

It was a struggle to sit up, to fight the rust in his muscles. When he was done, he saw that Hika was there. The ancient tauren looked different, but Kuma could not have said how. “The Alliance counterattacked,” Hika said, without being asked, “and they brought their magi with them. The raid could not stand against that.”

“I'm alive.” Kuma looked down at his hands.

“You are a hero now,” Hika said. “Galvangarr speaks of how you single-handedly stormed the bunker and broke down their defenses. The Horde speaks of us with awe and respect.” Hika walked over to the window and looked out. “Your war totem is gone, but you have accomplished everything Cairne could have wanted.”

Kuma said nothing. Hero, he thought. I'm a hero for killing a boy.

A boy. Kuma jerked his head up. “Taksch – how. . . ?”

Hika did not look at him. “The rearguard was overwhelmed,” he said. “None of them survived.” He turned, and Kuma saw that the old tauren was crying. “And our scouts say that a rotting bull head now adorns the top of Stonehearth bunker.”

The words made no sense to Kuma. Adorns? What. . . ? And then he realized what Hika was saying, and then he laughed.

He laughed because it was funny; he laughed because it was meaningless; he laughed because he did not know what else to do.

And when he was done, Kuma smiled through his tears. “Hika,” he said. “I must go home.”

Hika nodded. “Cairne must know,” he agreed.

“The others -”

“- will stay. We cannot all leave, and besides.” He took a deep breath, and now Kuma saw how small Hika looked, how his spine curved and how his shoulders drooped. “Besides, the others enjoy it here.”

There was nothing left to say. Kuma lay back down and closed his eyes. He heard steps come near him. “They say you were holding this,” Hika said. The old tauren pressed something long and metallic into his hand. Then he left.

“Tell me,” Cairne said.

They sat outside in the sun. Kuma rolled the silver flute between his hands and tried to answer Cairne. He thought of The Thundercaller, the blight around Lordaeron, the winter in Alterac Valley. There was so much to say. And so Kuma said nothing.

Cairne waited, and after awhile, the tauren chieftan stood. “Walk with me,” he said. Surprised, Kuma obeyed. Together, they walked down the windrider tower, where a procession of shaman were preparing to leave for Ogrimmar. The Lower Rise was moving with a speed and energy that Kuma did not remember. The smell of baking bread filled the air. Smiths were hammering away at their anvils, forging weapons and the new metal armor that the tauren would wear. A few trolls wandered about, looking around in wonder. A group of children argued nearby. “I don't want to be a gnome,” cried a little girl. “I want to be an orc!”

They stood together, watching life unfold before them, and after a while, Cairne broke the silence.

“We were a doomed race until Thrall saved us, but there is a cost.” Cairne looked at Kuma. “There is always a cost.”

Kuma did not reply.

“The old boundaries have all been broken,” Cairne said. “If we do not change, we will be broken as well. The Earthmother knows the truth: the wheel of life and death does not stay in one place, but rolls ever onward and into the future.” The tauren chieftan stopped. “Do you understand me?”

Kuma stared at Cairne, confused.

Cairne leaned forward and whispered into his ear. Kuma struggled to make sense of the words. Then his eyes widened. “I cannot. . . how?”

“The old boundaries have all been broken,” Cairne repeated. “Something in you has died; let something new grow in its place.”

Kuma said nothing. Then he nodded.

Kuma was the first to make the choice, and he was branded as a coward by many. These accusations came loudest from within the Ragetotem, and no voice was louder than that of his own son. Other tauren started to question the wisdom of joining the Horde, and the arguments threatened to shatter the unity of the tauren tribes. Only Cairne's wisdom and steady hand preserved the peace, and in time, his people accepted the changes that had been made.

Against the backdrop of this turmoil, tauren warriors continued to travel out into the greater world, to Alterac and Stranglethorn and Silithus and the Plaguelands. All who returned were changed, although each in his own way, and the tales they brought back were related to rapt and curious audiences who took away their own individual interpretations of each lesson and moral.

And of course, many who left never came home. The absence of their voices told a story of its own.

Kuma was not present as the tauren nation underwent its painful birth throes. The night after he met with Cairne, he walked from the Middle Rise and across a swaying rope bridge. He stopped once and looked up at the full moon. The wind blew through the hollows of the bluffs, and he thought he heard music, a minor melody that haunted his dreams.

The tents at Elder Rise were all dark, but someone was waiting for him nevertheless. “Let us go,” said Archdruid Runetotem. The druid hummed beneath his breath and a doorway bloomed into existence, leading to a twilight land of verdant green.

Kuma stepped forward. . . and then he stopped. He heard whispers through the portal. They spoke to him, saying. . . what?

It was as if the Archdruid read his mind. “What you hear are the murmurs of the true song,” he said. “It is the song of life and death, of balance and restoration. It is the true voice of the Earthmother.” He spread his hands. “Will you not listen? Will you not learn to sing?”

Kuma hesitated one moment more. Then he nodded.

They stepped through together, and the portal closed behind them.

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