Dezco clutched a lock of his dead wife's hair and waited for the ritual to begin.
The Shrine of Two Moons loomed behind him, dark and silent in the night. Even the mountain city's normally bustling Golden Terrace was quiet. For that, Dezco was thankful. He and his Dawnchaser tribe had the great stone platform to themselves. Now was no time for distractions.
A gust of warm air flowed over the terrace, rustling the white plainshawk feathers and small earth-toned wooden charms tied to Dezco's horns, wrists, and leather vest. He eyed the ceremonial trappings, disappointed. If he'd been back home in Mulgore, he would have worn proper ritual garb. But here, in the strange and distant land of Pandaria, he was forced to make do with the resources at hand.
Dezco shook away his worries and stared out from the terrace, down across the moonlit hills and wooded thickets blanketing the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Even at night, the place was mesmerizing.
"A crucible for change," Leza had called it. "A valley golden with blossoms, filled with the hope of peace."
For months, she'd dreamed of the vale. Dezco and other tauren had seen visions of it as well, but they'd been strongest in Leza. Without her, the tribe would've never succeeded on its arduous voyage to find Pandaria and, from there, the vale hidden deep in the heart of the continent.
The search had been brutal. Violent storms had destroyed three ships filled with members of Dezco's tribe. Friends. Family. When the last remaining vessel made landfall in Pandaria's sweltering coastal jungle, more death followed. The fact that Leza was pregnant made Dezco increasingly worried about the dire situation. Then, his wife contracted a fever that, despite the tribe's best efforts, seemed incurable. Through it all, Leza always remained steadfast, a beacon of hope as every Sunwalker strived to be.
"It's still night," she'd say, "but the sunrise is near. I can feel it just ahead."
When she finally went into labor, the strain proved too much for her ailing body. She died weeks before the tribe would ever find the vale, still believing the hardships were almost over. Dezco remembered that dark day with biting clarity: his wife's last tormented cry as the fever sapped the life from her veins, his failed attempts to spare her from death, and later, the smoke and fire that roiled up from her funeral pyre…
"The Bleeding Sun!" one of the tauren behind Dezco shouted, bringing him back to the present.
Dull light pushed away the darkness, painting the vale in shades of violet and gold. It was the moment before dawn, that fleeting time of the day when An'she, the sun, remained hidden but somehow a glimmer of his light managed to spill across the world.
"Bring the children." Dezco motioned with his hand, keeping his eyes to the east.
Leza's cousin, Nala, quietly approached, holding two infant tauren in her arms. Ceremonial feathers and beads dangled from their tiny horns. The first was called Redhorn, and the second, Cloudhoof. Dezco handed the lock of his wife's mane to Nala and then scooped Leza's final gifts to him into his arms.
"Begin!" Dezco commanded. Without hesitation, twelve tauren sitting behind him pounded their fists against small leather drums. The beat was quick, a warrior's heart on the eve of battle.
As Nala braided Leza's hair into Dezco's mane, he leaned into his sons. "Watch closely, little ones," he whispered. They were too young to understand what was happening, but it felt right telling them. His children yawned and stared forward with half-open eyes.
"Every morning, An'she bleeds," Dezco continued. "He sacrifices part of his light to let us know that dawn is coming. But he doesn't do this alone. The yeena'e help him. Your mother helps him."
Yesterday, the twin moons had appeared during the day for the first time since Leza's death, signaling that her spirit had finally joined the yeena'e, "those who herald the dawn." She was in good company now, alongside all those other great ancestors who had died in the process of saving lives or, as with Leza, making new ones.
The drumbeats slowed as An'she peeked over the vale's impassable mountains. Sunlight shimmered across fields of honey-colored grass. Gold leaves rustled in the breeze on tall ivory trees. Dezco had seen the sunrise here many times, but he was still amazed by how brilliant An'she's light was. It was as if his gaze were fixed on the vale, and all other lands merely basked in a reflection of his light.
The beauty of the place was cruel in a way. Things were supposed to have gotten easier once Dezco and his tribe reached the vale, but they hadn't. Battle was raging. Horde politics had become a daily annoyance. Dozens of refugees from the war-torn lands north of the region streamed into the shrine morning and night in search of food, shelter, and respite from the strife.
And then, just days ago, his boys had taken ill, crying and refusing to eat. Dezco and Nala had tried to puzzle out the sickness with no success. By An'she's grace, Redhorn and Cloudhoof seemed normal this morning. Perhaps the ritual had healed them somehow, Dezco pondered.
"Look." Nala stepped forward, pointing down into the vale.
Dezco peered over the terrace railing. A cluster of figures moved along one of the well-worn stone-and-dirt paths leading to the shrine. In the dawning light, their shadows reached across the ground like outstretched arms.
"The Golden Lotus," Dezco said, recognizing one member of the group who was different from the rest. Mokimo the Strong's gait was unmistakable even from afar. Like all of the hozen race, he had long muscular arms that nearly dragged along the ground when he walked. Dezco couldn't make out the other Lotus, but he was surprised that so many of the vale's ancient guardians were coming to the shrine. Normally they kept to the Golden Pagoda, their meeting place nestled in the center of the land.
"Do you think this has anything to do with the rumors?" Concern tinged Nala's voice.
"Never put faith in rumors," Dezco replied. He'd heard the talk: stories about the vale's caretakers meeting in secret and visiting locations throughout the region for some unknown purpose. As the ambassador between the Lotus and Dezco's people, Mokimo would've been able to explain what was going on, but he'd been away from the shrine for over a week. Regardless, Dezco didn't see any reason to worry. The Lotus were a mysterious order, yes, but they were also his trusted allies.
"I know." Nala nodded slowly. "But I'm more concerned about the younglings. We aren't sure if the sickness has passed yet. Visitors might make it worse." She stroked Redhorn's cheek. Ever since Leza's passing, her cousin had become fiercely protective of the children. Dezco sympathized with her. This far from home, the infants were some of the only family she had.
"Take them inside while the Lotus are here," Dezco said, and then added, "after the ceremony."
With that, he turned back to the rising sun. Loud voices and heavy footsteps began echoing across the terrace as early morning risers flooded out of the shrine's catacomb halls. Merchants groaned as they set up rickety stands. Refugees huddled together and shared food. Orcs, blood elves, and other members of the Horde who had followed Dezco into the vale mingled on the platform.