The draenei’s descriptions hadn’t prepared Ringo and Beli for the reality of the Exodar. It was not a “ship,” nor a “palace,” nor even a “temple,” as the dwarves thought of those terms.
“That’s a bloody big crystal, that’s what that is,” Beli breathed, when the glowing bulk of the Exodar finally came into view against an overcast sky.
“My people know much of the lore of crystals,” Ganaar said with a grunt, spurring his elekk forward. All the draenei seemed reinvigorated by the sight of their fortress erected on Azeroth.
The draenei might not be eredar, but as Beli and Ringo rode their mechanostriders down into the Exodar, it was very clear the draenei were alien.
They rode on what appeared to be wafer-thin translucent ramps that floated in a massive amount of empty space. Dwarves carved their homes out of the living rock of Azeroth, and large open spaces either occurred naturally in dwarf settlements — such as the lava tubes of Ironforge and Blackrock Mountains — or they had some other sort of significance, like a throne room. The draenei, in comparison, clearly believed in the majesty of scale, but to a degree that made human cathedrals look like modest shacks.
Frostmaw whined nervously, and Ringo and Beli silently agreed, just as discomfited as the bear.
But the architecture of the Exodar was nothing compared to what awaited them. The dwarves and their draenei escort — clearly thrilled to be back home — rode between projected images of draenei heroes and several apparent members of the Alliance previously thought lost beyond the Dark Portal.
“Like the Titan memory disk in Uldaman,” Beli murmured in Dwarvish to Ringo, frowning, thinking furiously. “What does this mean?”
Before Ringo could offer his lack of guesses — he was as befuddled as his wife — he spotted Ganaar and several others looking at Beli in concern. Speaking in Dwarvish around their hosts was probably unwise so soon after attempting to kill them.
“Just commenting on yer impressive mineralogy,” Ringo grinned in what he hoped was a placating way. “If there’s one thing dwarves admire, it’s good mineralogy.”
He was met with dark looks and grumblings in Draenei and, he noted grimly, several hands of their “hosts” now rested on the grips of their weapons, rather than on the reins of their elekks.
One thing that did feel right and normal to the dwarves was their continuing descent into the earth: As a child, Ringo had stumbled into the sealed-off Old Ironforge beneath the current capital of Clan Bronzebeard. His mother was furious with worry when his father had eventually found him and brought him back home, but Ringo had found those enormous structures of crystals and rock bridges over lava far below fascinating and thrilling and, more importantly, they spoke to him in a deep way that he had never been able to articulate. He had felt at home deep within Ironforge Mountain. This was before the Explorers’ League had discovered the true origins of the dwarves; it was entirely possible that Ringo’s ancestors had been formed out of the earth of Ironforge Mountain itself.
Now on the bottom level, they were motioned to dismount, as the draenei around them were, and they were wordlessly herded toward a large crystal with one open face and a ramp leading up inside it. Outside were the night elves they had arrived with on Azuremyst. The expression on the elves’ faces suggested the dwarves were a marginally less welcome sight than a vomiting leper gnome would be.
“Keep your mouth shut and try and not start any wars!” hissed one, before her fellows could shush her.
Ringo looked at Ganaar and blushed.
“About that …”
“Mistaken identity,” the draenei said, with a shrug. “I would have done the same, Comrade Flinthammer.”
“Let’s hope Prophet Velen feels that way.”
“He will. He will rely on the judgement of the Naaru, never fear.”
“Naaru?” Beli mouthed at Ringo, who shrugged, equally in the dark.
At the top of the ramp, silhouetted by a light coming from inside the crystal, stood an old bearded draenei. Somewhere, Ringo thought he heard the sort of high-pitched singing humans seemed insistent on linking with religion. With a word, Prophet Velen parted the crowd on the ramp, meeting slight resistance only from the knot of Kal’dorei, who looked as though they still hoped to run off the dwarves before they could embarrass the elves.
“Nice robes,” Beli said, as Velen stepped down to the floor level with the dwarves.
“Thank you. The Kal’dorei gave me these robes, those of an exalted high priest, as a gift upon their arrival here in the Exodar.”
“And a recognition of his station!” the night elf who had spoken before yelled meaningfully. Velen just smiled beatifically.
“Well met, son and daughter of Clan Bronzebeard,” the Prophet Velen said, as he bowed before the two startled dwarves. Ringo and Beli bowed back a moment later. “You are as fierce and proud as your cousins of Clan Wildhammer have told us. I pray that you will prove as noble.”
“Well, thank you, yer … prophet … prophetalness … prophethood … prophetship?” Ringo stammered. “We’ll answer any questions ye might have about that wee bit of misunderstanding in the woods earlier.”
“No, you mistake me, sir …” the prophet paused, waiting for the dwarves to introduce themselves.
“Flinthammer,” Beli interjected. “I’m Beli Flinthammer and this is me husband, Ringo Flinthammer.”
“Well met, Beli and Ringo Flinthammer,” the prophet said, beaming down at them. “As I was saying, it is not for me to judge you. O’ros will do that, and we shall abide by his decision.”
Ringo looked around for Ganaar.
“O’ros? I thought you were the shiniest rock in this cave.”
Velen appeared to translate this idiom a moment before speaking.
“Yes and no. Beli, I believe you serve the Light?”
“I am a prophet of the Titans, but I believe that the Light shines within them, yessir.”
“Excellent. Then you should probably meet O’ros first.”
Ringo tensed and behind him, his bear growled slightly, but Beli silenced them both with a glare.
“Point me at him.”
The crowd parted once more and Beli and the Prophet Velen ascended the ramp and into the crystal. Ringo was unable to follow them: The crowd had formed again behind them, and a pair of tall draenei in yellow armor stood at their forefront, silently looking Ringo up and down. The dwarf, uncomfortable with all the attention, crossed his arms and scowled back at them as he waited.
It was perhaps only a minute later, although it seemed much longer before his wife stepped out into the opening. Even from below, Ringo could see the tears shining on her cheeks. This time, nothing could stop him from ascending the ramp, no guards, no crowd and certainly not any damned floppy-eared Kal’dorei. He shoved them aside in his headlong flight, Frostmaw pounding along at his heels, until he reached her at the top, where he found Beli grinning ear to ear, the tears still flowing down her cheeks.
“It’s OK!” she said, stroking his face, starting to giggle. “Go inside!”
Confused and worried he was walking into some sort of trap, Ringo stepped forward carefully, seeing only the Prophet Velen standing beside some sort of glowing crystalling glyph, which was twisting slowly in the air.
“Where’s this O’ros, then?”
“I am O’ros.”
“No, you’re not, you’re a bloody crystal!”
“I am Naaru, an angel of the Holy Light.”
“Go on, pull the other whisker; it’s got bells on.”
“It would be easier to simply show you …”
And with that, light filled the crystal, washing everything else away. It resolved itself into a ball of brilliant yellow light in a black void full of stars. Then Ringo found himself whirling away from it, toward the stars. After a moment, he saw a blue-green globe filling his vision and as he raced toward it, he realized after a moment it was a world. Then he was on the surface, racing just above the ground, whirling past strange beasts, flying toward a hilltop surrounded by distant crystal cities like the Exodar.
Atop the hill was a much younger Velen, bloody and bruised, weeping as he observed his world from the mountaintop. Familiar green streaks were falling from the sky as the Burning Legion rained infernal soldiers down on the surface of the planet. Ringo could see pinpricks flying through the sky, as the draenei race fought back somehow. But even from here, he could see what looked like rival groups of ground soldiers fighting one another. This world, it was clear, was in the midst of a civil war, with one side apparently fighting on the side of the Burning Legion. And Ringo had a sinking feeling that the side opposing the Burning Legion was losing.
The younger Velen was praying for his people’s salvation in their time of greatest need.
And his prayers were answered.
O’ros, and other crystals above him, suddenly filled the sky over the mountaintop. Velen rejoiced and turned to look down the mountain, where refugees fleeing the demonic invasion huddled. And as one, the men, women and children, rose into the air, surrounded by light, and with a flash, streaked into the sky over their homeworld, never to return.
The vision passed, and Ringo fell to his knees, weak from the experience.
“You have had visions of the Burning Legion returning to Azeroth,” O’ros said simply.
Ringo climbed to his feet, looking at the much-older Prophet Velen with new eyes before turning his gaze back up to the Naaru floating above him.
“You are not incorrect. The Burning Legion’s return is close at hand. There are mere weeks before the Dark Portal yawns open once more. But the Naaru can help you, just as they have helped the draenei, ‘the exiled ones’ of Argus.”
“No offense, Velen,” Ringo said, “But dwarves don’t run. We’re just not built for it. But we kicked Archimonde in the fork last time he tried it, and some of us are just itching for the chance to do the same to Kil’jaeden.”
There was a tinkling sound above Ringo’s head, and he wondered if this was the Naaru laughing.
“No, the time for running is at an end. The draenei make their stand on Azeroth and we hope the Alliance, who have always followed the path of the Holy Light, will welcome them.”
“We will be accompanying you east as harbingers … ambassadors,” a voice behind Ringo said. He turned to see the two draenei in gold armor he had thought were guards standing there. “I am Ennarth. My brother and I would like to meet King Magni Bronzebeard and entreat him for entry into the Alliance.”
Ringo looked from one draenei to the other, and to the irritated Kal’dorei beyond. He could easily imagine that lot marching the draenei directly to Archdruid Staghelm if Ringo rejected the plan out of hand, and what the druid would do with power like the Exodar and Naaru represented.
“I don’t know that an army of eredar marching up to the front door of Ironforge Mountain would get quite the reception you might be hoping for,” Ringo said, ignoring his wife throwing axes at him from her eyes as he turned the draenei away from his people’s mountain. “But the Cathedral of Light is in Stormwind, and we would be pleased to escort you there. If nothing else, I’m sure there’s some theological-type discussions they’ll be wanting to have with you lot.”
“Very well, Ringo Flinthammer, Knight-Captain of the Alliance, the draenei expedition to the Eastern Kingdoms will travel with you to Stormwind. We will keep these delegates here in the meantime, so that we may learn more of the current state of Azeroth.”
Seeing the mob of angry night elves about to spill into the Naaru’s chamber, Ringo spoke quickly.
“In that case, they won’t be needing their ship at the moment. Would you happen to have a sea captain handy?”