Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Badlands



A faint cloud of red dust hovers over the tremendous archaeological site of Uldaman, where towering columns of ancient green masonry rise up from tangled forests of scaffolding. Except for the larger scale, it is similar to Ironband’s excavation in Loch Modan.

The difference lies in the excavators. Even a cursory glance shows that much less care was put into the effort than at Ironband’s site. In one corner there lay a pile of what looked like pottery fragments. Pragmatism and efficiency ruled their search. They had no interest in ornamentation and very little in history.



The diggers are the Dark Irons which the dwarves of Ironforge hold in such loathing. They had seized Uldaman (the portion that I saw was called the Maker’s Terrace) and used it for their own ends. The Dark Irons look as if they had all suffered terrible burns, their gray skin so dark as to be nearly black. Their dark flesh is in harsh contrast with the fiery red hair common to their kindred.

As one can surmise from the name, the Badlands have never been heavily populated. A thousand years ago, a small mining town run by humans (often criminals) serviced the lonely dwarven prospectors who searched for gold in the dusty hills. The prospectors themselves frequently came from the Unwanted caste. The town faded from existence soon after the prospectors mined out the valuable ores, and nothing now remains of the ramshackle wooden houses.

The Badlands’ adjacency to Dark Iron territory has long made it a place of interest to the Bronzebeard military. In the Second War, the orcs of the Horde found the arid region to their liking and turned it into a staging area. Most of the Horde troops in the Badlands were recalled to Blackrock Mountain near the end of the war, so few battles were actually fought in the rocky fields. The dwarves built Angor Fortress after the conflict, mostly for the purposes of keeping an eye on the Dark Iron threat.

I had heard about the First and Second Battles of Angor, sometimes from actual participants. Not long after the troggs took Uldaman, the Dark Irons made a surprise attack on Angor. As the Angor garrison was relatively small, the defenders fled the fortress though not before killing some of the Dark Iron advance scouts. The Second Battle was an attempt to retake Angor and is considered one of the great embarrassments of dwarven military history. I have already transcribed the interview I had with a tank pilot of the Second Battle of Angor, so I will only say that the Dark Irons still hold the fortress.

Despite the obvious dangers, I decided to try and learn as much about Dark Iron society as possible. The Dark Iron Empire is relentlessly suspicious and hates the Horde only slightly less than it hates the Alliance. When I returned to Thelsamar I contacted the Dark Iron exile Brant Cloudbeard to ask him for information. He proceeded to spend the next two hours trying to convince me not to go.

He finally saw that I was determined and explained that despite the Dark Iron’s paranoia, they are also desperate for allies. They are engaged in a fierce battle with the remnants of the Old Horde for control of Blackrock Mountain. If I passed myself off as a member of a powerful organization interested in an alliance, it would be possible for me to survive. Brant did not know that I had a nearly perfect Scourge costume.

Brant explained that Uldaman was a high security area for the Dark Irons and that I would be killed on sight if I approached. He then suggested I try Angor Fortress or one of the smaller dig sites in the Badlands, though he cautioned me that was still no guarantee. Finally he gave me one last warning.

“Remember this: Every word that is spoken there is a lie. Even worse, it is a lie that the liar believes with all his heart.”

I bypassed Uldaman, heading into the dusty, rock-strewn plateau of the Badlands. I was still at a high elevation, only slightly lower than Loch Modan. The land carries a feeling of antiquity and emptiness, at first unnerving but eventually rather compelling. I traveled alone in the desert, the heavy sound of nothing in my ears, and gazed at the majestic towers of stone. Peculiar examples of flora occasionally enliven the sere landscape. Stunted trees with clusters of sharp, spike-shaped leaves grow amidst the endless sage. Some travelers say that the Badlands look like a piece of Kalimdor mistakenly placed in the Eastern Kingdoms. I saw few animals, though at night the ridges echo with the howls of coyotes. I was also happy to abandon my human disguise, which had begun to grow odious.



I was aware that my plan to infiltrate Dark Iron society was probably foolhardy in the extreme. I did take precautions. I intended to find a small patrol and announce myself as part of the Scourge. If they did not believe me, they would hopefully be few enough that I could make my escape.

On the third day of travel I spied a group of five Dark Iron soldiers marching in my direction. I walked ahead, drawing myself to my full height, expressing a confidence that bordered on arrogance. I wanted to impress them with a show of power; at the same time, I knew I could not afford to frighten them. Rather than actually cast a spell, I merely prepared to summon an arcane blizzard. An icy blue nimbus infused my rotten hands. I called out to them in Common, hoping it would not provoke them to attack.

“Soldiers of the Dark Iron! I am Khal Deathfrost, a humble servant of the mighty Lich King. My master has been suitably impressed with the power displayed by your people, and believes you may be worthy allies.”

The patrollers stared at me, four of them raising rifles. I was about to reiterate in Orcish when the leader motioned for his men to stand down.

“You say you are a Lich?” he asked, keeping his tone carefully neutral.

“I am but one of many.”

“That is quite impressive. Though I do not doubt that you are as you say, times are very uncertain for us. We must drive back our enemies on countless fronts, and we cannot afford any mistakes!”

“Question me if you will. But know that the Lich King never forgets an insult. Fearsome though I may be, I am the least terrible of his liches, and I do not even dare look upon the countenances of my masters.”

“Then please, let us be friends with one another! I will go to the commander, and inform him of your arrival. I am sure he shall be most enthusiastic.”

The leader turned to his subordinates and barked something in Dwarvish. Then he looked back to me.

“My men shall demonstrate the skill with which the least of our troops conduct their business. I shall not be more than a few hours. Welcome, my northern friend, to the Dark Iron Empire!”

The leader turned back, practically running to the squat fortress that I saw in the distance. The four other soldiers assumed the positions of soldiers on parade and began marching back and forth, their faces impassive. At the behest of who I assumed to be the highest-ranked soldier there, they would break or change formation. Minutes stretched into an eternity as I watched their dull routine.

Finally their leader returned. He had left on foot and came back with three steam tanks, a wing of four flying machines, and 40 ground troops marching in perfect unison.

"I hope this demonstration has met with your approval," he said, a wide smile on his rough face.

“An impressive display to be sure."

“Thank you, my lord. There is no Dark Iron that would not happily die a hundred times over for his brother, or a million times over for our Emperor! I am pleased to say that Commander Stonefuse is honored to have an emissary of the mighty Lich King, and hopes that this can be the beginning of an unbreakable bond between our peoples.”

With much fanfare, the officer led me to Angor Fortress.

*********

In appearance, Angor Fortress could pass for any Bronzebeard military installation save for the ubiquitous emblems of the Dark Iron Empire. It is the culture of the inhabitants that make it a perverse mirror-image of Bronzebeard society. The same drive for order and labor is present, but instead of the skilled craftsmanship praised by the Bronzebeards it is more a constant stream of pointless work. None of the soldiers or functionaries ever make any objections, and obey their orders with a frankly unsettling enthusiasm.



Commander Stonefuse was a bald dwarf with terrible scars visible on his blackened scalp. His dour face was fixed in a fanatic’s stare, though his voice sounded reasoned and stable.

“Again, I offer my humble thanks to the great Lich King of the north, and his noble representative Khal Deathfrost.”

Necessary though it had been, I felt slightly embarrassed for choosing a name as ostentatious as “Deathfrost.”

“Your gratitude is noted.”

“Please, allow me to show you the armaments that we even now produce in the workshops and foundries of Shadowforge City.”

He took me to a vast chamber in the center of the fortress. Some of the vehicles that came to greet me earlier were there, resting in the darkness of the interior.

“Are these not Bronzebeard designs?” I asked. I could not imagine why the Dark Irons would use a griffin motif for their steam tanks.

“Only the chassis is similar in appearance. Yes, we did commandeer these from the enemy. However they are a thousand times improved! Our engineers have incredible skill, and have literally transformed these machines into the terrors of the battlefield. Shall I demonstrate for you?”

“That will not be necessary.”

“Then please, allow me to show you another of our weapons, one of the elemental variety.”

Stonefuse led me to the subterranean bottom floor. There, a stone giant stood in a vast room furnished with numerous icons of the Dark Iron Empire. The giant resembled a statue of an exceptionally stylized brute, yet it moved its crushing stone fingers with dexterous ease. Slowly, the ground shaking at every step, the giant turned to face Commander Stonefuse.

“An interesting trinket,” I said, successfully concealing my amazement.

“And there are a thousand more like it! Our elementalists craft the powers of earth and flame to create these War Golems. The Lord of Fire is our god and it is his power that animates our army.”

“What more can you tell me about your Lord of Fire.” Histories on the War of the Three Hammers mention the fiery entity accidentally summoned by Thaurissan, which proceeded to destroy him as well as most of the Dark Iron army.

“It is through his power that the Dark Iron Empire has risen to its great height. In his wisdom, our founder, Emperor Thaurissan, called upon the Burning Lord Ragnaros for help against the cowardly armies of the enemy. Ragnaros burst forth from beneath the ground, heeding the call of Thaurissan. Flame fell from the skies, turning the mountains into piles of molten rock. The enemy could do nothing but flee back to the north to hide within their caves.”

“An impressive entity. Have you seen this Ragnaros?”

“I regret to say I have not, Lord Khal Deathfrost. Few have had the privilege of meeting Ragnaros, though I one day hope to.”

Stonefuse then gave me an excruciatingly dull demonstration of his troops’ discipline. He then asked me about the “legendary armies of the Scourge, that have scattered the pitiful soldiers of the enemy in the north.” I simply told him what I knew of the Scourge’s armies, which was actually a fair amount.

At no point was I left alone. Stonefuse subtly insisted on being next to me at all times and gave continual demonstrations of Dark Iron power. His obsequious nature grew nearly intolerable. Stonefuse was actually quite strange, radical zealotry tempering every fawning action. His words dripped with praise to his emperor and to his god. I was never able to speak with the common soldiers, and would not have understood them anyway as most could only speak Dwarvish. Nonetheless, I think Stonefuse’s behavior revealed much more about Dark Iron society than he realized.

I finally got some privacy in a small room that had been given to me. I was well aware that guards stood immediately outside, to watch for any “incursions of the enemy, who might inconvenience your eminence.” Someone had placed a small book on my cot, written in Common. Titled “A Spirit of Flame,” the book presented flattering biography of Emperor Thaurissan. Sketches of Dark Iron symbols and written phrases filled the pages, themselves made of a cheap and pulpy paper. The writer put great emphasis on the inclusiveness of the Dark Iron Empire. “There are no Unwanted in the Empire!” it proclaimed. I noticed that a few pages had been carefully removed from the book.

Commander Stonefuse came to greet me the next morning. I inquired about the missing pages.

“Missing pages?” he responded, looking genuinely confused.

“Yes. Several have been removed.” I opened the book to one of those positions, a tiny remnant of the page visible.

“My apologies, Lord Khal Deathfrost. Angor Fortress is somewhat remote, and we do not wish to trouble the Empire with constant requests for resupply. As a result, some of our books are rather old. Pages decay and fall out.”

“These appear to be ripped out.”

“Yes, they were, because they had decayed and become illegible.”

“This does not look to be a very old book however.”

“It may have seen some use, for the Spirit of Flame is the most beloved book in our Empire, greater than all others. Every Dark Iron alive has memorized sections of it; those who have memorized the entire book are inducted into the Order of the Flame, the priesthood of Ragnaros.”

“How do they function?”

“They are the ones who act as exemplars of the Emperor’s, and by extension Ragnaros,’ will. These heroes not only inspire those around them, they continue to perform their ordinary tasks as well. Thus, someone of that rank may also be a smith, or an engineer, or an administrator. I cannot tell you how many times that a group of Dark Irons have faced a seemingly insurmountable task only to complete it with a recitation of the Seven Declarations of the Emperor!”



We spent the rest of the day observing painfully repetitive demonstrations. The Dark Iron soldiers always act eager, hastening to do any task given to them by their officers. The dwarven work ethic is not absent from this disreputable nation. They perform many rituals throughout the day, usually in honor of the emperor or Ragnaros. A few ceremonies focus on their hatred of the Bronzebeards who are usually referred to simply as the Enemy. The Enemy has a somewhat fluid definition. Though it most often means the Bronzebeards, it can also refer to the Alliance in general, and both the old and new Hordes.

In the evening, half of the garrison assembled in the bottom room where the living statue still kept watch. They stood in silence while Stonefuse and I observed from a mezzanine. Then a Dark Iron walked to the top of the staircase and turned to face the crowd, his face covered by a large and cumbersome metal mask forged in the likeness of Thaurissan.

“Here we remind ourselves of the sacrifices made by our fathers, and affirm our loyalty to the Emperor!” whispered Stonefuse, his voice filled with gushy expectation.

The priest flung his arms wide and began to speak in a hollow voice. The following is a translation of what was said in parts of the speech, and I must thank the Dark Iron translator who did this for me.

“Loyal soldiers of the Dark Iron Empire, we stand at a crossroads in history! Our Emperor points the way to glory after our long and valiant struggle with the Enemy, yet many challenges remain! The path to glory and dominion is before us, where we may rule all the lands once led by the great and beneficent Thaurissan. With Ragnaros’ favor there is little the Enemy can do to stop us!”

“Hail the Emperor!” shouted the crowd.

“Yet we must be wary! For though the Enemy is weak on the field of battle they are a crafty and treacherous foe. They would not hesitate to exploit the loyal and faithful personality of our race to further their own foul ends. For too long have we allowed their saboteurs and spies to hamper our efforts. No more, I say!”

He went on like that for almost an hour. I watched the reactions of his audience who stood in rapt attention. At the end, the priest violently arched his back, his mask glowing with a dark red light.

“I come across to you from ages past! You shall bear the glory of this Empire to the very ends of the world. With our armies of stone and flame we shall destroy the foes of justice. So speaks Ragnaros!” The voice behind the mask fumed with impossible intensity, sounding like the crackling of flames approximating words. The crowd erupted into a frenzy of reverence, beating their chests and shouting what Stonefuse said were oaths of eternal fealty. Then the soldiers filed out, and the other half entered for a repeat of the speech. The priest took off his mask between sessions and I caught the faint odor of burnt flesh. As the soldiers marched in I met eyes with one of them. An expression of abject terror flickered across his coarse features.

The next morning I was surprised to be awoken by young dwarf who introduced himself as Commander Flintfinger.

“Where is Stonefuse?”

“Commander Stonefuse has been called away on urgent business in Uldaman. I am managing things in his stead.”

Commander Flintfinger questioned me, somewhat awkwardly, about the Scourge’s intent with the Dark Irons. I simply told him what I figured he wanted to hear. Flintfinger frequently spoke of the efficiency of the imperial army, particularly in regards to logistics and supplies.

“There is nothing that we could ask for that would not be delivered with the utmost haste!” boasted Flintfinger.

I remembered that Stonefuse had earlier said that he was reluctant to ask for unnecessary supplies.

“You will find no stronger mortal nation on this world than us, Lord Khal Deathfrost!”

I decided to leave that day, as I surmised I had learned everything I could from Angor Fortress. In truth, I was sick of the place. At the time, I could not help but wonder if the authorities had actually punished Stonefuse for implying that the supply system was stretched. Though it seemed outlandish, future encounters with the Dark Iron have only given me more reason to believe it, though I still cannot claim to truly know what became of Stonefuse.

*********

I moved carefully for the next few days, wishing to ensure that no one followed me. Though slightly anxious about being observed, the great expanse of the Badlands still brought an intoxicating sense of freedom. I traveled south and passed through the stark beauty of the Valley of Fangs, named for the packs of coyotes that roam the desert.

It was with some doubt that I went on my journey towards Searing Gorge, the heartland of the Dark Iron Empire. Part of me was tempted to return to Ironforge and simply take the tram to Stormwind. As it always had in the past, curiosity propelled me forward into danger.

I met a goblin researcher gathering reagents in the Badlands a few days after leaving Angor Fortress. We spoke briefly, and he told me that there was an outpost of the new Horde in the northwest extremity of the Badlands. I had no idea that the place existed. I duly thanked the goblin and went on my way, eager to at least find some respite before entering the Searing Gorge.

For seven more days I walked through the seemingly endless land. My memories and concerns receded into the distance while traveling alone in that rocky landscape. The desert became my universe. This sensation was by no means unpleasant. I had never before traveled for such a long time without seeing any trace of sentient activity or life.

On the seventh day I spotted a tattered Forsaken ambling through the wastes below the southern Khaz Mountains, where the rock is the color of burnt sienna. The Forsaken, who was covered in dust and in a bad state of decay, waved when he saw me.

“Hello. Are you here to join the Kargath Expeditionary Force?” he asked.

“No, I’m simply traveling to the Searing Gorge. I would like to rest in Kargath for a little bit, if possible.”

“That will not be a problem. I’m Delmont. I can’t remember my last name anymore.”

“My name is Destron Allicant, an itinerant scholar. What are you doing so far out here?”

Delmont shrugged.

“I like to go for long walks out here. It’s very peaceful. It puts everything into perspective, I think. Also I sometimes find things that are useful for Kargath.” I noticed the miner's pick strapped to his back, and a gold pan hanging from his belt.

Delmont guided me to Kargath, a small outpost tucked between a titanic mesa and the steep cliffs of the nearby mountains. A rickety watch tower guards the northern pass to Kargath. Though the architecture of the buildings is orcish, the population is quite mixed, with trolls, tauren, and a few Forsaken all living in the same area. I got a room in a large building that served primarily as an infirmary, secondarily as an inn for the handful of travelers in the region.



The leader of Kargath was Warlord Goretooth, who fought alongside of Kargath Bladefist, the warrior in whose honor the town was named. Goretooth was apparently unwilling to speak with visitors, so I ended up interviewing one of his lieutenants, a youthful orc named Vaska.

“I was surprised to even learn of this outpost’s existence,” I said.

“We try not to advertise ourselves. If someone were to make a serious effort to destroy us, we could not expect reinforcements. We do not shy away from battle but there’s an important difference between cowardice and stupidity.”

“That is a good line of reasoning. Why was an outpost built here, of all places?”

“A number of reasons. Despite what you might think, we aren’t here to conduct war on the Bronzebeards. We’re here to observe the activities of the Old Horde in Blackrock Mountain.”

“What exactly is the situation in Blackrock Mountain?”

“Bloody. An endless battle without honor, blood-lusted orcs clashing with Dark Iron fanatics. At the moment they seem to be deadlocked but the Warchief is wise to be wary of the situation. The Blackrock orcs are not truly orcs any longer. They are demons, and must be treated as such.”

“Are there plans to make more official moves against the Old Horde?”

“Not yet. We’re here to see if more plans are necessary. Lady Sylvanas even sent a small contribution to the expeditionary force, though she’s only trying to gather more ingredients for some foul plague,” he snarled. “Is that why you are here?”

“No. I do not support the Apothecarium.”

“Good. I have respect for some Forsaken. Delmont, whom you have met, is an honorable man, if a bit eccentric. I can hardly blame him for his long wilderness excursions though. This is a beautiful land. Have you been to Durotar?”

“No, though I plan to go there eventually.”

“The Badlands are not as good a place as Durotar but it still has the elements that stir orcish blood. I cannot believe that the Bronzebeards abandoned this land. They have grown too soft, I think.”

“I rather like it here myself.”

“So do the ogres unfortunately. The Dustbelcher Tribe of ogres set up their camps here after the Second War, especially in the south at Dustbelcher Grotto. They haven’t given us too much grief. At least, not yet.”

“This outpost is named after Kargath of the Shattered Hand Clan. Is Kargath still alive?”

“No, he died along with Draenor. I myself am not of the Shattered Hand Clan. The Shattered Hand was stranded on this world after the closing of the Dark Portal. The humans and dwarves at the time were hunting us like game, and much of the clan had already been killed by Alliance soldiers. The clan elders vowed to maintain the ways of the warriors that carried them through so many battles. Others adopted a more stealthy approach. Make no mistake, they were still honorable fighters. They simply changed their style due to their circumstances.”

“Of which faction is Goretooth?”

“He remained faithful to the old ways, and is one of the last. Nearly all of the first faction, the warriors, died. Only a small remnant still lived when Thrall revived the Horde. Most of the Shattered Hand that survived live in Orgrimmar, now acting as the eyes and ears of the Warchief. As there are no more clans, they call themselves the Shadowswift Brotherhood.”

“An intelligence agency of sorts?”

“Bah! They are not the cowardly spies employed by humans. Make no mistake: though they may stay in the shadows, they fight as fierce as raptors when needed.”

“I would expect no less.” In truth, I did not see how that was any different from the behavior of human spies.

I spent four days in Kargath, making myself useful in small ways to the Expeditionary Force. I found that most of the people there do not have the same degree of animosity towards the Forsaken shown by Vaska. While the handful of Forsaken are not entirely accepted, they are tolerated. It helps that a fair number of the troops in the expeditionary force had once fought to defend Tarren Mill against human mobs.

Kargath presents something close to the social ideal of the Horde. Located in a harsh land that nurtures strength and culls the weak, the races of the Horde work together in relative harmony. A strong spiritual element is present, the shamans communing with the entities of stone and wind that dwell beyond mortal sight.

Interestingly enough, the shamans liked Delmont. Both shared a love and appreciation for the Badlands, and Delmont claimed he could feel the spirits on his lonesome walks, though he'd never presume to try and speak to them.

"Unless one asked me to, I suppose," he said.



On the third day, one of the guards at the watch tower alerted the town to an approaching column of unarmed Dark Irons. Upon hearing this, Vaska’s expression turned grim. Mounting his wolf, he and five of the more imposing warriors rode out to meet the visitors. He reluctantly allowed me to accompany them.

The lead Dark Iron was an aged dwarf covered in scars. Tired men, women, and children huddled behind him. He spoke pleadingly with Vaska in Dwarvish, making frequent gestures to the wretched people in his group. Vaska’s face was impassive, and he rumbled threateningly in response. The old man grew frantic, eyes searching Vaska for some sign of mercy.

“Forward!” ordered Vaska.

The soldiers of the expeditionary force advanced on the Dark Irons, who shrank back in dread. The elder continued to beg but Vaska raised his hand and bared his teeth in warning. Finally the dwarves slunk back into the desert, a cloud of orange dust marking their path. Vaska headed back to Kargath, tears brimming in his eyes.

“What happened?”

“Those were dwarves trying to escape the Dark Iron Empire. So many of them come here for sanctuary that we cannot give.”

“You do not have the resources to support them?”

“I have no doubt that if they lived among us, they would produce their own resources. We have a tenuous agreement with the Dark Irons, Destron. If they discovered that we were sheltering the refugees they created through their evil, they would descend upon Kargath and tear it apart. We could do nothing to stop them, and any refugees we harbored would be massacred or enslaved.”

“Do refugees come often?”

“Every few months, though that is far too much. Technically, the Horde is at war with the Dark Irons, yet we are not here to fight them. We do not have the numbers to do so though any one Horde warrior is worth ten of theirs. They leave us alone if we stay out of their affairs. All I can do is give the refugees some water if they need it. That group was well-stocked.”

“Will they continue on their journey?”

“Yes! They cannot go back. Their only option is to try to go over the mountains. The main pass by Uldaman is a deathtrap. I have no love for Ironforge but I hope they make it there. I do not expect them to. One day, we will cast down the Dark Iron Empire. Not now, but one day. I owe no less to my honor and to my Warchief. And to them.”

“You have done the right thing Vaska. You must protect the people of Kargath before you protect others.”

“Perhaps. Nonetheless, I think that my honor is bleeding away from me. Wouldn’t it be better to die, defending what is right and honorable? In dreams I hear my ancestors cursing my name for following these orders. I’m acting like a human!”

“You are doing what needs to be done.”

“Do not tell me what needs or doesn’t need to be done, undead. You were a human in life, so I have no doubt that this is completely beyond your understanding. I suggest you leave my presence.”

Leaving Vaska to his torment, I returned to the inn to prepare for the Searing Gorge.

2 comments:

  1. Absolutely brilliant analysis of the dark iron empire!

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  2. Powerful stuff with that ending, your writing for and handling of the Dark Iron Empire is utterly inspired and I loved the cast of characters you created, making the Badlands feel so much more alive, Delmont is great and it really does feel like an intense and beautiful place to be

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