<...you sent me to Rodoria to test me?>
<Yes! I had to see if you were able to peacefully intermingle with the assorted peoples of the world’s assorted lands! Aside from that whole ‘lohk situation’, I’d say you’ve performed most admirably my young and fierce ally! You’re picking up the native tongue relatively quickly, you haven’t eaten anyone important yet, and you haven’t garnered the immediate attention of anything that could kill you with but a hateful gaze! You even made a few friends, too!>
Boa’Noktus had magically transported the both of them to a secluded clearing within one of Malkor’Kurz’s many ancestor forests. Such forests were held in hallowed regard by the land’s northernmost cultures due to their perceived status as the ultimate resting place of del’korm dead. Here, the souls of the deceased were believed to assist La’Khan in defending the Reach from foreign invaders by taking up residence within the material composition of such woodlands, infusing them with the ability to dynamically perceive their surroundings and react to threats in an active and aggressive fashion.
Aside from finding their current location eerily peaceful, Claw’s del’tes hostess had also apparently elected to bring him to this particular forest because of its affinity for upholding secrecy in all its myriad forms. Widely known as the Whispering Wood, little sunlight penetrated the thick, weighty branches and overlapping leaves of its tremendous oak trees, while sound seemed to somehow remain localized near its origin point.
<And now that you’ve passed my little assessment Ajanok, I think you’ll make a very fine addition to the little plan that I have in mind!>
It wasn’t fear but a mild feeling of apprehension that coursed through Claw’s veins upon hearing Boa’Noktus utter the word ‘addition’. Frankly, he didn’t trust her at all; the thought of being some component in whatever plan or scheme that she had in mine unnerved him greatly. Why was she so interested in him of all people anyway? As far as he could figure, Boa’Noktus was nothing short of a physical goddess, one who was gifted with unnatural bodily strength and the capacity to ferry herself to far-flung locales within a single blink of an eye. To Claw, it made no sense why someone who could do so much would have any interest in someone as mundane as he.
And using the Whispering Wood as a secret meeting place? Claw was convinced that was a lie or at the very least a gross act of insanity on her part. Knowing her, she could’ve just waved her claws above her head in some cockamamie way and conjured fourth a mystical field of otherworldly magics that prevented any interlopers from prying into their conversation.
In fact, why even exchange spoken words at all? Why hadn’t she just injected them directly into his mind just as she had done back when he still resided upon Rodoria’s soil?
<Because none of that would be as immersive, Ajanok,> Boa’Noktus answered aloud nonchalantly, her shimmering eyes fixed upon her del’korm guest. She floated aimlessly in the air, claws lazily laced behind her braided and bejeweled head, her body extended in such a fashion as if it rested upon an elongated sofa. She looked incredibly comfortable.
<There are many things that I could do with magic, but you remove yourself from many of the pleasures and sensations that the world has to offer when you overindulge in the utilization of sorcery.>
Ajanok blinked. Boa’Noktus feet were on the ground now, the del’tes standing comfortably to his right, her hands neatly folded behind the small her back, tail idling sedately behind her.
<Walk with me.>
Claw, still mentally reeling from all that had transpired within the last hour or so, did as he was instructed, and accompanied the del’tes in silence as she navigated a worn path that led deeper into the Whispering Wood.
<Ajanok, I took interest in you because you have a particular knack for acquiring more allies than you do enemies. You also seem to do well with new experiences. You’re not easily offended, you tend to maintain your composure when under stress, and you’re eager to learn new things. Most del’korm don’t have what you have, and therefore wouldn’t last three moons in Rodoria because they would be unable to properly get along with your average Rodorian.>
Boa’Noktus plucked a small flower from the ground mid-stride, its former life guaranteed by a single plain ray of sunlight that pierced downward from the forest ceiling and on to a patch of vegetative growth that once played host to the small plant. She turned it to and fro in her grip for a few moments, seemingly taking in all of the contours and angles of its whole, before letting it fall slowly to the ground.
<Because you’re so adept at handling foreigners, and because you are still scarcely known throughout much of the world beyond our shores, you are the perfect candidate to function as my eyes, ears, and my instrument of action. Through you, it is my hope to begin the process of ensuring a future for my people...and by extension yours as well.>
Claw stopped dead in his tracks. <You talk like there’s something out there that means to do us harm, Boa’Noktus.>
<Not one thing, Ajanok,> Boa’Noktus clarified. She spun to face Claw directly, an unbecoming look of seriousness and urgency etched across her face. <There are many, many things that exist that could do us real harm if left unchecked. Perhaps I should elaborate further?>
Boa’Noktus and Claw engaged in conversation for several hours, the del’korm assailing her with a barrage of questions and concerns and the del’tes adeptly countering his inquisitive assault with answers, counterpoints, and an effective helping of motherly reassurance. They spoke of things that Claw was certain were reserved for those who were far above mortal kind, things that made him consider rejecting the del’tes’ proposal outright and firmly requesting that she find someone else to champion her cause.
And yet and still, he found himself slowly being swayed to her side. While she was stringent in reiterating that the risk of death was great should Claw elect to take up her cause, any fear of his passing was sufficiently nullified by his own potent adoration for adventure and power, and Boa’Noktus had ensured that he would enjoy vast quantities of both if he decided to align himself with her.
Claw had also asked her how she was able to go to a location without going through the effort of physically making her way towards that location. According to her, traveling in such a manner was made possible by something that she referred to as a “Grace”, a sort of self-sustaining magical ‘talent’ of virtually immeasurable potential and power that was affixed to her very soul. “Rifting” Boa’Noktus had called it—a power she allegedly manifested during the Age of Woe and honed to nigh-perfection some time after La’Khan’s victory over the dri goddess Ori.
While she declined to disclose the foundational workings of these “Graces” to Claw, she did gift him with an extremely compressed and straightforward explanation of how hers functioned. As far as Claw could surmise from her somewhat confusing yet strangely direct explanation of how Rift worked, simply having a comparatively vague notion of where she desired to go, and an overwhelming desire to reach that destination, was sufficient to send her there immediately.
Claw was already somewhat familiar with this exceptional sorcerous craft. He knew that it was canonically known as “teleportation” by the various peoples who lay beyond Malkor’Kurz’s shores, that very few people practiced it, and even fewer still could proclaim mastery of it. Claw had even gleaned a theoretical understanding of how it functioned from a paltry collection of novel passages conceived by a paltry subset of eccentric yet brilliant southern del’korm scholars who had been tucked away within the Roaring Vale for ages.
The people of the Vale did not part with their prized knowledge freely, however. Taking it by force was out of the question at the time (their numbers were too great and their aptitude for destructive magic was far too refined), so Claw had instead opted to trade for it: their information in exchange for his authorization of their entire group’s incorporation into the Gelid Union. He was hesitant to accept their condition at first—partially on account of his deep uncertainty at how La’Khan would react to one of his Echoers granting two-hundred mentally disturbed del’korm permission to siphon magical power directly from his soul—but also at the potential consequences of permitting such a large congregation of unpredictable mages to easily utilize virtually unlimited quantities of magical reserves whenever they needed it.
Luckily for Claw, LaeKhan did not seem to mind the newcomers much at all, and the Vale dwellers as a whole did not cause too much damage with their brand-new gift.
After securing what he desired, Claw enthusiastically committed the next two decades of his mortal life to the relentless pursuit and voracious consumption of any and all knowledge pertaining to the vaunted art of teleportation. It was his hope that learning such a craft—and being one of the few entities on Malkor’Kurz capable of reliably utilizing it—would place him a cut above the rest, earning him glory, prestige, and his pick of any female that he fancied. It became a compulsion before long, compelling the young del’korm to commit immoral acts that he had once considered himself incapable of performing prior to committing himself to this lifelong goal.
But nothing came of his efforts. Try as Claw might, he never did manage to develop the ability to do what Boa’Noktus could do. Even moving a few loose pebbles several inches away from his person proved to be an impossibility. It wasn’t long before he considered his dream to be wholly unattainable.
But Boa’Noktus’ sudden debut into his life had changed everything. Now, many of the former goals that he failed to meet were now within his immediate grasp.
With her, Claw’s life could change forever for the better.
With her, Claw could be something more.
<So do we have an accord?> Boa’Noktus asked, her clawed hands tucked behind the small of her back and peering down at the shorter Claw. She wore a maniacal toothy grin upon her visage, her tail erratically swishing back and fourth in giddy anticipation for the del’korm’s answer.
Claw pondered her question intensely. She had reassured him that declining her offer would not provoke her godlike wrath, and that she would merely find someone else who satisfied the behavioral and intellectual requirements that her grand vision demanded. He would be returned to where she first found him roughly one year ago, and that he would have no recollection of having met her or anyone else from Rodoria.
He could put all of this behind him today if he responded with a ‘no’. He could return home, catch up with his sister, and perhaps even smooth things over with his estranged mother. He could go back to his old life, back to the Cerise Sons, and reestablish his station as their strongest and most prized Echoer.
But she had also warned him of the peril that was sure to follow him should he decided to get involved with her. Death, both for him and for anyone else that was close to him, was a very real possibility. His connection to the Gelid Union would also be forfeited, but it would be replaced with a direct link to Boa’Noktus’ own vastly powerful soul, robbing him of his ability to Echo, but substituting it with a sizable spread of new abilities granted to him by his new del’tes master.
Boa’Noktus shouted with great mirthfulness, eyes blazing with excitement and magical power. She sprung to her full height, whipped her claws from behind her back and up high above her head with an elaborate flourish, and let loose a rapturous laugh that ripped through the interior layout of the Whispering Wood. Claw could only watch wide-eyed as two great spheres of cackling light winked into existence, each one engulfing both of Boa'Noktus' hands.
<Fantastic, Ajanok!> she exclaimed. The spheres around her hands grew larger and louder, their visual and audible report exponentially growing in intensity with each passing second. <Congratulations are in order, for you my young friend have just secured the honor of being Boa’Noktus’ first ever champion! Her first ever favored! Oh, this is going to be so much fun!>