Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Barrens

The boundless savannah of the Barrens stretches out as far as the eye can see, a veritable ocean of grass. The sun blazes bright in sky's infinite dome, and the air shimmers in the sweltering heat. Aside from the tall grass, yellowed from constant exposure to the sun, the only other vegetation consists of skinny and gnarled trees whose branches end in cloud puffs of leaves. The curious animals of the Barrens have become a subject of much interest in the east, and I was glad to finally see them. Packs of zhevra travel the grasslands, looking like the unicorns of myth save for their black and white stripes. More startling are the giraffes, which graze on tree leaves with the aid of improbably long necks.

Traveling alone for days in such a vast expanse has a strange effect on the mind. I had experienced it before, in the Badlands, but the sensation is much stronger in the Barrens. You begin to suspect that you are totally removed from your peers and society. All that matters are the powerful and indifferent actions of the natural world. Distant gods glare down from on high, and the voices of spirits call out on the wind. My concerns fell away, turning insignificant as I walked.

While the Barrens are considered to be the Horde's territory, that faction’s control over the southern section is questionable. The dwarven excavation site of Bael Modan is nestled in the mountains just west of Dustwallow Marsh. Bael Modan is a flagrant violation of the Horde’s territorial integrity, though the Horde has not taken any military action against the dwarves. It is funded by the wealthy and aggressive Stormpike family, whose private army fights against the Frostwolf Clan of Alterac Valley. The Stormpikes are the driving force behind dwarven archeological adventurism.

The south is also the stronghold of the quilboar race. I knew little about them, save that they are a primitive society of anthropoid boars, and are long-standing enemies of the tauren tribes. The fortunes of the quilboars declined when the orcs came, but they still hold their capital at Razorfen Downs. Very few non-quilboars have seen Razorfen Downs and lived. Stories describe it a sprawl of crude huts beneath a canopy of giant, thorn-covered vines. Thrall attempted to make peace with the quilboars, perhaps seeing some common ground, but all offers were summarily rejected.

Two days after leaving Dustwallow I came to the Gold Road, a long passage that meanders across the length of the Barrens. To the south is the rugged land of the Thousand Needles, while going north takes one to the heartland of the Horde.

The first day on the Gold Road ended in a spectacular sunset. I stood transfixed for what felt like eons, marveling at the beauty wrought on nature’s canvas. Thousands of glittering stars lit up the dark night sky, one by one, as the sun sank. In the distance I saw a small campfire. Venturing closer, I found it tended by a lone troll. Seeing me, he jumped to his feet and grabbed a spear, perhaps thinking me a human. I convinced him that I was Forsaken, though he was still wary of me. Named Zham’ay, he was a hunter of the Darkspear tribe. With him was a tamed lioness that he called Jhe, who had been lurking unseen in the tall grass.

“The Horde sent me down here to see what the quilboars are up to. They’ve been getting mighty fierce, and they make raids on the caravans that come through," he said.

“How much do you know about the quilboar?”

“They be attacking anyone they see, and they cannot be trusted. The pig-men are the old enemy of the tauren, and the tauren are friends of the orcs. My tribe is forever indebted to the orcs, so any that raises their hand against the tauren must also answer to our spears.”

“Your loyalty is admirable,” I said.

“Ah, but what do you know about loyalty?” From the way he asked it, I sensed it was a genuine question.

“In life we served our kings. In death, we serve the Horde.”

“But the humans all live in great cities, where no one knows each other," he said, shaking his head. "Now that you are undead, you still do whatever you please. At least, that is what I have seen.”

“You’ve met other Forsaken?”

“Some. They plot and brew poisons that they say will help us in battle. Those are not weapons of honor. Are you an apothecary?”

“No. I am no friend of the Apothecary Society.”

“So you are not loyal to them? The masters of your kind?”

“I am loyal to the Forsaken as a whole, and to our Dark Lady.” In retrospect, I must question the truthfulness of that statement. After all, my journey was mostly to fulfill my own curiosity.

“That does not make much sense to me. Still, I know that human societies are very strange. We trolls used to be like that, long ago, or so the priests say.”

“The Gurubashi and Amani Empires, correct?”

“Yes, the Twin Empires. Have you seen the ruins?”

“I have.”

Zham'ay thrust his fists over his head. “Then you know how mighty we once were! But the stories say we grew selfish. Priests and lords schemed for power, and we consorted with strange gods. That is why our cities fell to ruin.”

“Is there still scheming in the tribal system?”

“There is some. But tribes be small. It's hard for a troll to turn against one whom he knows, and has hunted beside. Only the worst coward would do that, and he would be shamed if caught.”

“What of the Zandalari? They still live in cities.”

“The Zandalari be different. They are walking under the smiles of the Loa, and stay above such wickedness. The rest of us are not so lucky. Even the other jungle tribes fell, returning again to the embrace of a blasphemous god.”

“What do you think of Orgrimmar? Many trolls live in that city, do they not?”

“Many do. Perhaps we will again be punished. The Loa have their ways, and their way is the world.” He gave a fatalistic shrug. “Maybe the Scourge was the punishment for the humans, and the Loa keep it around to throw on us if we become wayward.”

I felt a momentary surge of anger, but repressed it. Getting angry would accomplish nothing, and would also be unfair to Zham'ay.

“Why would the Loa allow the undead to rule the world?" I asked. "I was told that they despised undeath.”

“The Loa are the great ones; they do as they please. Sometimes they have a strange sense of justice, and the Scourge might be proof of that.”

“Do you really think they would allow the Scourge to destroy the trolls?”

“The Darkspear? Maybe. The tribes that worship the Soulflayer? Most certainly. The Zandalari? Never.”

Though Zham’ay permitted me to sit at his campfire, I sensed that my presence discomfited him. I thanked him and took my leave, camping several miles to the north.

A week of travel brought me to the modest tauren village of Camp Taurajo. The tauren have lived as nomads since at least the Sundering. The unpredictable climate of the time made sedentary culture an impossibility. A nomadic lifestyle also enabled them to better avoid vicious attacks from centaurs and quilboars.

The need for constant movement only ended with the establishment of a tauren homeland in Mulgore. Many tribes continue the traditional ways, but several more-or-less permanent camps have been established across Kalimdor. Camp Taurajo is one of these. Most of the structures are hide tents that can be packed up at a moment’s notice, but a handful of large, wooden houses also stand, symbolizing the camp’s permanence. Camp Taurajo is the gateway to the Barrens for many tauren, and sees a constant stream of traffic. Experienced hunters find the Barrens an ideal place to further hone their skills. Commercial travel is also frequent. Of particular note are the kodo drives from Mulgore to the Crossroads, which always pass through Camp Taurajo.

The mighty kodo beast is the linchpin of tauren society. When a kodo dies, the tauren utilize nearly every part of its body in some way. Skinners take the leathery kodo hide and use it to make tents and clothing. Bones provide ornaments, and in some cases building material. The only part of the kodo that is inviolate is the heart, which is buried beneath the ground (or under a makeshift cairn if on rocky terrain) where the kodo died. While alive, the kodo pull the carts in which the tauren carry their supplies. Thousands of years ago, the tauren created a smaller breed of kodo that warriors and scouts use as personal mounts.

While the tauren hold the kodo beasts in high esteem, they do not worship them (as was claimed by an ignorant Forsaken that I had once met). The tauren say that the kodo have spirits that deserve respect, which the tauren believe to be true for many facets of the natural world. The importance of the kodo inspires the tauren to give them particular veneration. Yet the tauren are not averse to selling kodo to the other races of the Horde.

Tauren are less willing to sell to the goblins, though the rare individual goblin who has proven himself may be allowed to purchase kodo. The utility of the kodo beast is such that some goblins capture and tame wild kodo in the Barrens and in Desolace. While unhappy about it, the tauren do not interfere with the goblin kodo herders as long as they stay out of Mulgore and do not interfere with tribal herds.

At the inn I met a traveling shaman named Shaya Windhorn who was headed into the Barrens to further her familiarity with the spirits. We spoke at the inn, which is a large wooden hall with a hide roof. Over a cup of strong earthroot tea, she explained the place of the kodo and the spirits within the natural world.

“Have you heard of the Earthmother?” she asked me, her voice gentle.

“Yes. The creator of the tauren.”

“More than just the tauren. She also made the sky, the grass, the kodo, and all the land you see." She gestured as she spoke, pointing above, to the side, and then sweeping her arm all around. " The tauren are Her firstborn, but any race born from the natural world are in some way Her children.”

“Even the centaur?” I asked. The tauren despise the centaur.

“My tribe taught me that the centaur are Her terribly misguided children. Other tribes believe that the centaurs are aberrations.”

“What of races not from this world, such as the orcs?”

“Draenor is also one of Her creations, one in even more need of healing than Azeroth. She loves Draenor too, and wishes its wounds to be healed.”

“So where do the spirits fit in?”

“The spirits are the wind, the rain, and the ancestors. We need these things to survive, so we honor them.”

“Are there evil spirits?”

“No," she said, shaking her head. "The spirits are embodiments of the Earthmother’s creation. Nothing She has made is inherently evil, though the possibility for corruption exists. A normal spirit could not be evil any more than a tree could be evil. Spirits can be harmful, but never out of malice.”

“A harmful spirit would be, say, a deadly lightning storm?”

“Yes. We are the beloved of the Earthmother, but the spirits are not beholden to us. They are the world in which we all live, and we must respect them.”

“So what does it mean if there is a harmful natural phenomenon?”

“That is for the shamans to find out, if they cannot prevent it. Maybe the spirits have been blinded with rage by cruelties committed against, and no longer distinguish between friend and foe. Or the tribe has failed the Earthmother and its ancestors in some way, and is being punished. Perhaps one tauren in the tribe has done something wrong. In those cases, the wrong must be rectified.”

“What about hostile shamanistic races, like the quilboar? How would they be able to use the spirits against you?”

“As I said earlier, the spirits are not beholden to us. That the spirits help the quilboar tells us that all races are in some way the children of the Earthmother, though there are wiser shamans than I that would disagree. We tauren depend on the spirits even as they depend upon each other. The Earthmother made all things interrelated so that we will care for each other. Sometimes that is not possible, and we must be violent. Her wisdom is the greatest in the end.”

“That’s actually rather similar to the human belief of the Holy Light,” I said. “What about ancestor spirits? Are they different form nature spirits?”

“Yes. The ancestors who served the Earthmother live on, and watch over us. They teach us the right ways of the world. This is where we differ from the centaur and quilboar, for they do not revere their ancestors.”

We discussed comparative theology for the rest of the day. I still wanted to learn about the quilboar, and I tried to find out if there were any tauren who knew more about them. I was directed to the tent of Echekayuk Swifthoof, an aged warrior who survived three months of quilboar captivity.

Echekayuk distrusted outsiders, and I would only be able to have an audience with him by invitation. I spoke to an influential elder by the name of Sanuk Wintersky who was on good terms with Echekayuk. He deemed my purpose a noble one and entered the tent to speak with the troubled warrior. A short while later he emerged, saying that Echekayuk consented to see me. Thanking him, I went into the man's tent, a dim and comfortable refuge decorated with tapestries bearing abstract patterns.

At first I thought the tent empty until I spotted Echekayuk sitting on a pile of zhevra skins in the shadows. The tortures of the quilboar were evident on his body. Both of his horns had been snapped off at the source, and his right arm was missing beneath the elbow. Scars covered his body, and half the teeth in his mouth were missing. He gripped a bone cup full of tea in his remaining hand.

“What happened to your eyes?” he inquired, his voice hovering just above a whisper.

“They have rotted away. I can nonetheless see.” I tried to sound nonchalant.

“I’m sure there is an explanation why you can, and I suspect I do not wish to hear it, so do not tell me. What I do want you to tell me is why you would learn about the quilboar.”

“I wish to learn about our enemies.” This angle provided a pragmatic justification for my curiosity.

“So that you may poison them with arcane magic?”

“I do no business with the apothecaries of Undercity. I would like to learn about them so that I may better serve the Horde in an honorable way.”

He snorted, and was silent for a while. I feared he would send me away. “What do you wish to know about the pigs?” he finally asked.

“How are they organized?”

“They live in three tribes that I know of. The Razormane Tribe lives in Durotar and the northern Barrens. The Bristleback Tribe dwells in Mulgore and the area around Camp Taurajo. It was they who imprisoned me. Finally there is the Boar’s Skull Tribe, also known as Death’s Head, the greatest of them, who build huts beneath the thorns of the Razorfens.”

“How are the tribes organized?”

“Do you know of Aggamagan the Ancient?”

“I do not.”

“He was the Great Boar, the Pig-Father. The Earthmother gave life to him, and where his hooves fell the quilboar would rise. He was surly and foul, or so the legends say, and quarreled with all those who came near him. His children followed suit. In the War of the Immortals he raised his tusks against the Burning Legion that again threatens this world. He fought bravely, but was overcome and died in this very land.”

Echekayuk took a deep breath before continuing. “Giant vines with deadly thorns sprouted from the spots where his blood met the earth. Thorns are his sign. Ever after, the quilboar build their dwellings at these sites. There is one just north of here, the village of Agama’gor.”

“Have the tauren ever tried to uproot the thorns?”

“The spirits would be displeased if we did, for Aggamagan was great among them. The centaurs once burned the thorns to the ground, but they grew back within days.”

“Who rules the quilboar?”

“A tribe is ruled by a conclave of shamans. Sometimes, a shaman of particular ability becomes a singular leader, though this is rare. A tribe’s power comes from the number and size of holy sites it controls; the thorn vines are the most important things in the world to the quilboar. The pig-shamans say they can hear the blood of Aggamagan gurgling beneath the earth, and that the blood speaks, giving prophecy and guidance.”

“With that they exert control over the quilboars?”

“That is how they guide them. When I was a captive of the Bristlebacks, one of their shamans boasted of Aggamagan’s power and told how the Earthmother would fall beneath his tusks. He spoke of Aggamagan’s return, that it would be heralded by a great outpouring of blood from where the thorns pierce the earth. The blood will rise and rise until the Barrens become a sea. For the quilboars, the blood will taste like milk, and they will float upon it, but all other races will drown. The flesh of the drowned will merge together into a giant boar, becoming the vessel for Aggamagan’s spirit and then the rest of the world will die beneath his hooves.” Echekayuyk’s voice grew agitated as he spoke, and he trembled as he finished.

“I’m very sorry, I did not mean to alarm you. But surely the Earthmother would protect Her children from this horror?” I said, in an attempt to comfort the old tauren.

“I do not believe the prophecy," he rumbled. "Yet spending days under the sun with little food or water, the harsh squealing of quilboar always in my ears, it became hard to think. The shaman spoke with crude words, but those words had power. It would not be so terrible if my dreams were not filled with thorns and blood.”

“What have the tauren shamans said?” I asked.

“That my fears are in vain, and that I must be brave. They have given me medicine, and charms to bring about restful sleep. I even undertook purification ceremonies. Memories still haunt me sometimes.”

Echekayuk went silent, and would not respond to further inquiry. I left his tent and informed Sanuk of what happened. Sanuk said that I had done nothing wrong, and that it was difficult for anyone to speak with Echekayuk. He then went into the tent to check on the warrior.

A kodo drive rumbled into Camp Taurajo the same day I arrived. It numbered 24 kodo beasts, and was guided by a group of eleven warriors and a shaman. While the central Barrens are reasonably sedate, caravan raids are still a very distinct possibility. Most of the guards are enthusiastic young tauren braves. They travel at the behest of tribal elders, who deem the kodo drive a good way for young tauren to step into maturity.

The kodo beasts are easy animals to manage. More than capable of defending themselves, even the fierce raptors and lions of the Barrens cannot easily take them down. That, combined with their great size, may explain why they are much less prone to panic than cattle in the Eastern Kingdoms. Guards are still needed in event of an organized quilboar or centaur raid. Neither of those two races has much use for the kodo beasts, and will happily kill them to inconvenience the tauren. I offered my services as a guard, and they accepted. We left early the next day.

The earth trembled at the feet of the kodo and it was difficult to hear words over the din of their movements. Boisterous creatures, the kodo make ear-splitting bellows to the laughter and cheers of the braves. Our passage kicked up great clouds of dust that obscured our sight of the bright Barrens sun. Arahan Earthseeker, a tauren shaman, accompanied us, and in a penetrating voice would call out to the spirits to request a safe and quick journey. It was a strange and thrilling experience to go across those vast savannahs in such company. The braves trained all their lives to march for long stretches without rest, and we made good progress.

We passed the quilboar village of Agama’gor, inhabited by the Bristlebacks. In early years they presented a real threat to travelers on the Gold Road. In response, a Horde task force cut through the village, killing many of the warriors. Agama’gor was resettled, but is no longer aggressive. Even the fanatical quilboar shamans realize that their foothold in the region is precarious at best. This is not to say that the quilboar of Agama’gor are at peace with the Horde; they will kill without hesitation any tauren or orc that comes into the village. The quilboar simply stay away from the road. I was told that their patrols had grown more frequent in recent months, and that the Taurajo elders were considering a preemptive strike. Luckily, we moved on without trouble.

The days passed and I fell into the bustling rhythm of caravan life. The Barrens became my world, and it was sometimes easy to forget that anything lay beyond the grassy savannah. Clouds almost never appear in the sky. A brave told me that while storms in the Barrens are rare, they are fierce and spectacular sights.

The western skies of the Barrens turned pink with the setting sun as we made camp on the fourth night. Some of the braves herded kodo beasts into a single area, where they fed on the tall grasses. The shaman placed a handful of totems into the ground around the kodo. These totems acted as mediums with the spirits of air and wind, and would call out if something unwelcome came too near. In addition to the totems, a few keen-eyed guards watched over the drowsing herd.

I was looking up at the stars, thinking of Znip Bazzleprog’s unorthodox theories about interworld travel, when the distant shouts of the guards caught my attention. Getting to my feet, I went over to the commotion.

In the light of the braves’ torches were three corpses: two tauren and an orc. The bodies were bloated and in a bad state of decomposition, bound upright by rough vines growing from the earth and studded with cruel thorns that gouged into dead flesh.

Arahan came to the bodies, visibly dismayed. He explained to me that the quilboar would often kill captured tauren by binding them in vines and leaving them to the elements. I helped free the bodies from the thorns, a difficult task. The thorns were exceptionally sharp and tough, one of them slicing open my arm. When it was done, we buried the orc and laid the tauren bodies out on the grass after Arahan performed a short ceremony. Tauren bodies are normally left outdoors (often on raised platforms), so that their souls will have an unobstructed path to the Earthmother. The tauren consider themselves obliged to leave their bodies for scavengers, as a form of repaying nature for the gift of life. Many scavengers, such as vultures, enjoy respected and positive roles within tauren iconography.

We got to a late start the next morning, as Arahan communed with the spirits for guidance. He was concerned that the possibility of quilboar interference implied that the spirits were somehow dissatisfied. The shaman conducted a rhythmic dance along with a few of the braves. He appealed to the ancestor spirits, who were more personable than the nature spirits. When that was done, the caravan set forth with a renewed sense of caution.

The caravan crossed a long, dry riverbed the next day. A great forest covered the Barrens (though reports differ as to the ancient forest’s density) in the millennia before the Sundering. Dry riverbeds are a reminder of those times. It was also a good sign to the caravan; most of the major quilboar holdouts lie to the south of the riverbed.

I almost didn’t hear the wail of the alarm horn over the rumble of kodo feet. A guard to my left gave the call, pointing to the fields. He blew again as the guards readied their bows and rifles. I prepared myself for combat though I could not see any threat. I reasoned that the tauren, blessed with the keener eyesight of the living, had seen something I had missed. When I first joined the caravan, Arahan urged me to be extremely cautious when using fire spells as it would be all too easy to inadvertently create a wildfire. Complying with his wishes, I reminded myself to only use arcane and frost magic.

The tauren spoke in urgent voices. I began to realize that they could not see anything, though the alert guard still gestured into the distance. I called out to a guard standing next to me, in hopes he could explain what was going on.

“Keochak said he saw trouble. Quilboars in tall grass,” he explained.

“Do you see anything?”

“Not yet.”

Then a guard on the other side of the caravan shouted in distress and we turned to the right. As we did so, a piercing squeal rose from the grass as swarms of squat quilboar warriors rushed out, wielding crude spears. Sharp wooden bolts buzzed through the air as unseen quilboar archers unleashed a volley. A brave gasped horribly as a bolt punched through his neck.

The suddenness of the attack and the horrible squeals of the quilboar disturbed even the stalwart kodo. The tauren formed a half-circle around the kodo, acting as a wall against the incoming raiders. The thick hides of the beasts minimized the damage caused by the arrows, sometimes blocking them entirely.

Arahan chanted loudly and quickly in Taurahe, imploring the spirits for aid as he threw totems to the ground. Brooding lights of green and blue wreathed the totems as his chants intensified. I sensed a great and primal power in the air. Something slowed the movements of the quilboar, their feet barely able to rise from the ground, as if held by invisible hands.

I knew I had to summon a blizzard on the quilboar archers in the distance, a task made difficult due to the masses of shrieking warriors. Though an area of effect spell would have killed many of our attackers, it might also have taken down some of the kodo and tauren. I fired bolts of arcane energy and frost into the quilboar, though I took care to conserve enough energy for a blizzard.

The tauren brave nearest me fell back with a wail, his legs bleeding from many wounds. His attacker squealed in hate, blood staining the bristling, gray spines from where they had pierced the wounded brave. The quilboar wore a yellowed tauren skull over his head, and I heard awful snarls from within. Turning to me he struck with a spear. I dodged to the side, losing focus with the spell I was in the midst of casting. An intense flash suddenly blinded me and a scorching heat blasted my skin. When my vision cleared, my assailant was at my feet, a singed and lifeless corpse. Spirits of air and lightning had struck the quilboar down at Arahan’s petition.

I did not even notice the chaos erupting behind me, where some quilboar broke through the tauren lines and began assaulting the kodo, slashing at the beasts’ tender throats and bellies with their knives. Their daring attack gave me room to go forward. I could see the heads of the quilboar archers in the grass as I got closer to them, trying to stay low to the ground. They focused on the tauren, unaware of my presence. I opened a conduit to the Twisting Nether, unleashing a ferocious blizzard onto the archers. Soon enough, shards of ice plummeted into the dry grass and the arrow volleys stopped.

The loss of some of their archers combined with melee casualties destroyed the quilboar's confidence, and they quickly fled. The wrathful tauren scored a number of kills by firing at the retreating warriors, and a few braves had to be restrained from pursuit. We paused to take stock of the catastrophic situation. Ten kodo lay dead on the grass, their throats cut by the quilboar. Of the guard company (numbering thirteen including myself), six had died. Arahan had called up a healing totem during the battle, but even magical healing has its limits.

We were startled by a high-pitched, panicked squeal coming from a badly wounded quilboar trying to drag himself away from the carnage. One of the tauren approached the bleeding quilboar, his features impassive. He raised his war club, and with one swift stroke brought it down, crushing the quilboar’s head.


The Crossroads is the great bazaar of Central Kalimdor. The town’s resident population is small, but the constant influx of travelers makes it the equal of a mid-sized human town. A stout palisade rings the Crossroads, defending it from the outside threats that are never too far. It was not that long ago that mobs of humans and dwarves would gather in Ratchet, and from there raid the Crossroads. It was the work of independent partisans, not sponsored by the Alliance, but it did little to help relations between the two powers.

Within the Crossroads is a mix of kodohide tents and more permanent orcish structures. The largest building is the inn, looking more like a fortress than a place of rest. Horns of great beasts stick out from the corners of the building, the Horde’s crimson banner on prominent display at the top.

The interior, a vast and dim common room, is only a little more welcoming, though my discomfort stemmed mostly from the fact that I grew up with the human conception of the inn. An orc or troll would feel right at home. A cooking fire roars in the middle, tended to by an aged tauren. Beds, hammocks, and cushioned alcoves line the walls, many occupied by weary travelers. The place is usually quite lively, strangers and friends alike talking of the day’s events. The lack of individual rooms, while unpleasant for me, does inculcate communication between the peoples of the Horde.

I saw members of every race of the Horde at the inn, as well as some from neutral races. Most of the latter were goblins, but others were also present. A tattooed ogre sat with his back against the wall, contentedly gnawing a haunch of nearly raw meat. I was quite surprised to see a quilboar sitting on a rug, casting suspicious glances around the room. The only Horde language he could speak was Taurahe, but an orc patron explained that the quilboar came from the Snarlsnout Tribe. Weak and reclusive, the Snarlsnouts maintain a meager thorn colony in the foothills of the Stonetalon Mountains. The most accurate way to describe the relationship between the Snarlsnout and the Horde is that of a non-aggression pact. Snarlsnouts dislike orcs and tauren, but appreciate them for fighting back the stronger Razormane and Bristleback Tribes. Snarlsnouts are a rare sight in even the Crossroads, as the other quilboar tribes intensely hate them.

I sat cross-legged on a hide rug, sharing a table with Arahan. The attack we survived was actually quite large by quilboar standards and was of great interest to the local warlord. We gave a detailed report of the events before going to the inn. Arahan was disheartened; the death of so many of his companions weighed heavily upon him. He did not speak until late in the evening, as the fire died down and the room fell into shadows.

“I wonder why the spirits did not tell me of the ambush,” he said. “Did we displease them? It is hard to say.”

“Do spirits usually warn of such things?”

“In dreams and visions, they may. It is entirely possible that they simply chose not to; their ways are strange to us. Yet so many young warriors dead...”

“You should not trouble yourself Arahan. You are not to blame for this in any way.”

“I am still young. When I return to Mulgore, I will try to find out what the spirits want.”

“Which spirits would be responsible for warning you?”

“The ancestor spirits, the ghosts of our mothers. Some wise ones say that we displease our ancestors by trading kodo. They say that the kodo are sacred beasts, and must not be treated as disposable. But we know that. It is why we only let the honorable orcs and trolls take them. Still, maybe they are right; the kodo should not be brought here. What do you think?”

“I hardly know anything about this. Personally, I think you performed admirably. I doubt we would have survived had it not been for your totems.”

Surprisingly, Arahan laughed.

“When I was a mere stripling, I thought that our tribe’s shaman knew everything. He was the wisest man in the world as far as I was concerned. When he took me as his student, the first thing he taught me was that shamans do not have all the answers. Shamans are just the ones who ask the questions.”

“Very wise.”

“He died a few summers before the orcs came. I think he would have liked them.”

We spent the next day selling the kodo beasts to the local kodo master, an old orc named Thalurg. Kodo are regarded as too important of a resource to be made freely available, so all deals outside of tauren lands must be made with an orcish kodo master. Thrall personally appoints each kodo master. The title is only given to esteemed warriors too old or wounded to fight any longer. The problem with such an arrangement is that combat skills do not necessarily translate into kodo management skills. Fortunately, Thalurg seemed to know what he was doing.

After honoring us for killing quilboar and offering condolences for the fallen braves, he inspected the surviving kodo. The healthiest would be sent north to the battlefield of Warsong Gulch. Most of the others would go to the hardscrabble farms dotting the Barrens, or stay in the Crossroads. A few would be sent to the Stonetalon Mountains. The tauren refuse to allow any of their kodo to be sold in the goblin city of Ratchet, to the east. Goblin merchants interested in buying kodo must go to the Crossroads to do it. The merchants must then convince the tauren that they will treat the kodo in a humane manner. Should a merchant lie to the tauren and behave brutally towards the kodo, he will be barred from all Horde settlements. However, given the size and variety of the Horde in Kalimdor, I am not sure if this punishment is easily enforceable.

Arahan and Thalurg spent some time negotiating. The value of the kodo beasts is not the only determinant; perhaps not even the main one. The tauren pride themselves on taking excellent care of all kodo and consider most to be equal in value. The exceptional ones (the ones that go to the northern front) fetch the highest price, but Thalurg disputed the fee by stating the Horde’s need for such beasts. Arahan politely disagreed by reminding Thalurg of the kodo drive’s bloody cost.

“We have already paid honor.”

Arahan ended up the victor of the dispute. I do not think that Thalurg was trying very hard to win, due to the suffering endured by Arahan and his braves. Arahan was relatively young and comfortable with the concept of money, which was unfamiliar to the tauren prior to the arrival of the orcs. In addition to the handsome financial sum, he received raptor skins, rare herbs, and a number of weapons. His tribe would also gain honor in the annals of the Horde, as would he himself. Arahan explained to me that most of the material rewards would be given to his tribe upon return, as he had no real use for so much money. Outside of Thunder Bluff, tauren tend to barter when dealing with their kind. Money is more useful for doing business with outsiders, which is usually done by and for a tribe, rather than an individual. The other items were shared with his surviving companions, and I ended up getting a very well made pair of raptor skin moccasins.

The Crossroads are a fascinating place and one could easily devote an entire book to the town. Some consider it the true capital of the Horde, since so many different people meet there. Even the Forsaken maintain a small presence. Many are warriors and freelancers, eager to spill the blood of new foes. The orcs do not completely trust these Forsaken, but respect their fury and tenacity. The most interesting Forsaken I met was a rogue named Vyl, who had fallen in love with the stark landscape of the Barrens.

“When I came here, all I could think about was making night elves suffer as much as I did. After some months though, all my anger seemed unbearably pointless underneath this great sky.”

Farmers from outlying agricultural settlements are common in the Crossroads. Only a race as extraordinarily tough as the orcs would consider farming in the Barrens. In truth, the ground is not as infertile as the region’s name suggests; after all, the Barrens are primarily grassland. Yet other factors make the farming situation very difficult. Orcs, while omnivorous, are physically unable to subsist exclusively on grains or vegetables. At least some meat is required. Thus, farms must support a large number of pigs, the staple of orcish diet. The pigs often fall to predators, and attacks from quilboar and centaurs (and in at least one incident, Alliance partisans) take their toll in farmers' lives each year.

I earned the trust of an orcish farmer named Drub, who was in town to sell pork and buy supplies. He kindly allowed me to visit his village, a day’s journey to the west. We set off across the golden savannah the next day, and Drub told me about his life.

“I could not make it as a warrior, though my heart was strong. That is why I came here. The Warchief said that there is honor in labor, and that those who can survive in the Barrens are nearly as strong, in their own way, as warriors.”

“What do the warriors say about this?”

“Most agree. We do not go on the field of battle, so it is only fair that we are less honored. But we are esteemed in the Horde, more so than the peons in Durotar. And I have fought; the pig-men twice attacked my village, and I raised my spear against them both times.”

I thought I detected a bit of resentment in Drub’s voice when he spoke of the warriors.

“Are there any avenues besides being a Barrens farmer that allow a peon to gain honor, while still being a peon?”

“Some. Even at this late date I could somehow prove myself. But I will not leave this farm until my last breath! I have heard that the peons in the Warsong Lumber Mill get some respect. And there’s always the Stone Brothers.”

“Who are they?”

“They are the orcs that build and use the catapults. Peons have always managed siege engines, even during the First War. The warriors back then were too demon-addled to be trusted with machinery, so the strongest and cleverest of the peons took care of the job. The great human cities were ground to dust by our rocks,” he laughed. “My apologies Destron, I do not know if you would take offense at that or not.”

“It’s fine. Even then the Stone Brothers were revered?”

“Hardly. They were tolerated. The Warchief has taken great pains to elevate their stature.”

“Do any of the warriors object to this?”

“I’m sure some do. Most accept it. Thrall is the great shaman and warrior after all. Every orc must honor him.”

We came within sight of Drub’s village as dusk fell over the Barrens. Fields and mud wallows, watered by an underground well, surround an enclosure containing nine stout stone buildings made in the hexagonal orcish style. Peons saluted Drub when he entered, and gave me odd looks.

“Destron, you have been an honorable companion. But we know what the Forsaken do in the depths of Undercity. One of their apothecaries resides in the Crossroads, committing crimes against nature with his poisons. You are wise, so I am sure I do not need to tell you this, but I shall anyway. If you cause any trouble, you will be warned once. Then, you will be killed.”

I nodded. I hoped his definition of trouble was not too strict.

The villagers held a small, celebratory dinner for Drub’s return. He was something of a leader to the five families living there. They did not seem comfortable at my presence, but left me alone out of deference to Drub. My appearance terrified one of his younger sons, who looked at me fearfully from behind his mother.

“Grom! You are nearly of age, you must be brave, lest you dishonor your namesake!” his mother scolded.

Grom nodded, and strode towards me. I tried to think of what, if anything, I should say. Tensing himself, Grom spoke, deepening his voice for effect.

“I am not afraid of you, dead man! Honor me!”

Approving laughter went up from the farmers, though Drub seemed a bit less pleased.

“That was brave, Grom. I think you are learning courage, but you must still learn of respect, and caution, before you can call yourself an orc,” he said, in a stern but loving manner.

“I see. I am sorry, father.” Grom turned to me. “I am sorry, dead man.” His fear seemed to have returned.

“You acted boldly, Grom, and I think you are off to a good start in regards to respect,” I said. I looked to Drub for approval, and he gave a slight nod.

“The Forsaken undead are not our enemies. So long as they do not dabble in poisons, you are to give them the same respect that you would give a tauren or a troll,” lectured Drub. Grom bowed his head in respectful apology, before retreating to his father’s side.

I slept in Drub’s house, using a lion skin as a bed. His is a typical orcish house with the bottom story consisting of one large room, containing a kitchen and a parlor. A ramp winds around the walls, leading to the second floor where the family sleeps. There are two bedchambers on the second floor, one for the children and another for the parents. Orcish families with three generations beneath a roof would sometimes hold three such rooms, but Drub’s parents were long dead.

Like farmers everywhere, the village awoke at dawn and assembled outside for a communal breakfast consisting of thick porridge and generous portions of seasoned ham. As we ate, the brilliant light of the sun rose over the Barrens. They quickly went to work in the fields while I tried to stay out of their way. I offered my services, but the orcs declined to accept. They knew that the Plague of Undeath was spread through contaminated food, and even though the Forsaken are not vectors for the disease, they were reluctant to let me work.

I was given a chance to help just before noon, when a young swineherd accidentally disturbed a nest of ground wasps. The wasps of the Barrens are large and fierce, and a whole swarm of them soon menaced the poor orc. The swineherd fled, suffering painful welts on her legs and feet. I cast a simple flame burst spell at the nest, eliminating the problem. The orcs, despite their distrust of arcane magic, were impressed.

The routine of village life received a welcome interruption in the form of Ona Wildmane, a tauren druidess operating out of the Crossroads. Ona was a Druid of the Wild, and concerned herself with studying the condition of the Barrens. She often came to the outlying farms and bolstered the growth of crops with natural magic, so long as she could do it without harming or destabilizing the surrounding environment. With her was a troll warrior named Ka’lok.

Ona spoke with Drub until evening, when she joined us for dinner. She greeted me in halting Gutterspeak.

“I spent a year in Silverpine Forest, trying to restore it,” she explained. “I was not able to do much, but the earth will survive.”

“Is that what you are trying to do here in the Barrens? Restore the forest?” I asked.

Her eyes widened, and she emphatically shook her head.

“No, actually. Some of the druids wish for that to happen, but I do not think that is nature’s way. Have you met Turak Runetotem in Thunder Bluff? He is a proponent of returning the Barrens to their once verdant state, and often speaks of it.”

“I have not, though I recall hearing that the Runetotems are the premier druid tribe.”

“They are, and for good reason. Before the Time of Peace, all tribes held the Runetotem shamans in reverence. The spirits favored them, and it was no surprise that Hamuul Runetotem, their chief and head shaman, became the first tauren to rejoin the Cenarion Circle.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but what is the Time of Peace?”

“The years after the coming of the orcs. I understand that it seems a strange name, but the time before the orcs was much bloodier for my people. Now we are preserved from the quilboars and centaurs.”

“I see.”

“Yet, while I honor the judgment of Hamuul, the Runetotem Tribe, and the Cenarion Circle, it is more important that I serve nature. The elves love their forests, as indeed they should. I fear that they do not bear similar love for the plains and deserts of the world.”

“So you would consider yourself the preserver of the dry lands.”

She laughed.

“I would not go so far as to call myself the preserver. After all, I am not the only druid to do this. I am one of several, and I am not yet fully trained. I do not know why the elves, who still live so long, are so reluctant to see change in nature. For that is nature’s way: the winds of time cast new seeds into the earth. This land was a forest once, but why should it be again? The zhevra and the plainstriders would not thrive in a dense forest. Zhevra, as far as I know, live nowhere else in the entire world!”

The plainstriders are a species of large, flightless birds native to parts of Kalimdor. Some varieties actually do live in forests, though the ones in the Barrens would probably not be able to adapt to them.

“You make a good case. What have the other tauren druids said?”

“They say that we must follow the example of the elves. Even though Cenarius the Hunter first came to us, we have essentially forgotten the arts of druidism and must heed the advice of the elves. But nature would not stand for the animals of this land to be displaced, would it? In thousands of years the Barrens may again be covered in forest, but should that not be at nature’s behest, not the whims of druids?”

“I think I agree, though I know relatively little about druidism. Have you talked to any of the elves about this?”

“Most dismiss me for my inexperience. A few think these ideas worthy, but only a few. The shamans of the Horde see merits in my quest. That is why my companions and I created the Amber Circle. We are druids and shamans devoted to protecting the dry lands from the forest.”

“Is it an official branch of the Cenarion Circle?”

“No, but Hamuul Runetotem gives us protection, if not support. I think he loves the great prairies of Mulgore too much to want them turned into a forest. What I say is not meant with disrespect, but I believe that the Kaldorei, for all their wisdom, see themselves as the masters of nature. It is like a young child or a baby to them. We tauren know that it is we who are the children of the Earthmother.”

“People have explained the difference to me before, but how would you define the difference between druids and shamans?”

“Shamans listen to and speak with the elemental spirits. As druids, we are entrusted with nature’s powers, borrowed from the source.”

“I was told that the spirits were the embodiment of nature.”

“A surface embodiment, Hamuul says. The life of this world is the life of the Earthmother. Through Cenarius, we are charged with using it wisely, to protect nature. In all of its forms.”

“This is widely held amongst tauren druids?”

“By all of us.”

We conversed for a while longer. Ona revealed that she was on a journey to the Lushwater Oasis, one of the three spots of greenery in the Barrens. The druids had long wondered about the phenomenon, and investigating it was one of Ona’s duties. I asked if I could come along and she happily granted my request. We departed early the next morning.

Ona took a more charitable attitude towards the Forsaken than most druids. She simply regarded us as being ill and in need of healing, not as abominations against nature.

“Not all Forsaken would consider themselves ill,” I told her as we walked.

She looked puzzled.

“Even though your flesh is decayed? Too tainted to even attract flies?”

“It has advantages. Heat and cold, hunger and thirst, exhaustion and fear... such things rarely trouble me now, and when they do it is easy to remedy.”

“Undeath is unnatural.”

“Yes, it is.”

Ona went silent, and I wondered if I had hurt her feelings somehow. I tried to think of something to say, but she spoke first.

“My apologies, Destron. As a servant of the Earthmother, it is my duty to heal that which is hurt. I did not want to cause offense, however. I’m aware that we tauren can sometimes come across as condescending to races that do not embrace nature.”

“You need not apologize. My tone may have been uncivil.”

“I’m not going to apologize, because I didn’t say anything,” said Ka’lok. We looked at the lanky troll, who was smiling, and the three of us had a laugh.

The Lushwater Oasis comes as a shock after traveling through the sere magnificence of the Barrens. The grass changes from dry and yellow to damp and green, and graceful palm trees grow tall under the brilliant sky. As the sun sets, the air buzzes with life as insects and birds call out into the approaching dusk. Flocks of bold-colored parrots fly over the oasis’ glistening waters.

Not far from where we stood, a tapir contentedly nibbled at a fern. Ona smiled at the creature. Tired from their jounrey, Ona and Ka’lok set up camp on a grassy slope overlooking the oasis waters. Ona’s work would begin the next day.

In my dreams that night I wandered through nightmarish seas of green life, a mockery of my undeath. My skin bloomed into flowers, each growth an agony. I awoke into darkness as a ghostly wail echoed out over the oasis.

Ona gasped in pain, her prone body trembling. Ka’lok was still getting his bearings so I went over to Ona’s side and called her name. When that had no response, I shook her arm.

Ona’s eyes shot open and she screamed, a sound lost in a second eerie groan from deep inside the oasis. For a moment she stared at me as if transfixed, and then her features relaxed.

“What happened?”

“It was a nightmare—the spirits perhaps? I do not know,” she whispered. She stood with some effort, her brown mane blowing in the chill wind.

“I had bad dreams too,” reported Ka’lok.

“Something is wrong with this place. I can feel it in the earth. The spirits aren’t the only ones crying out, it is the Earthmother also. She weeps for this place.”

Ona raised her arms, which suddenly twisted in their sockets. Her body folded over, the short tauren fur giving way to a thick black pelt. Before us was a regal-looking puma, the two short horns the only sign of her true form. Ona took a few hesitant steps forward before looking back and nodding her feline head. I took it that we were to follow.

“Man, I will never get used to that,” stated Ka’lok.

Ka’lok and I followed Ona’s path, the troll’s tracking expertise proving invaluable. Ka’lok said he had never seen Ona behave in such a fashion. More of those strange cries echoed through the swamp. I was uncomfortably aware that the sounds of natural life had completely stopped.

The night sky slowly brightened as we bounded through the thicket, the dense foliage only a mild hindrance to our progress. The mysterious groans grew louder as we pressed forward. We finally arrived at a large clearing next to the rocky slopes of a steep hill, in which a cavern’s mouth yawned.

Ona changed back into her true form and cautiously stepped towards the ominous cave, her body tensed as if to flee. I heard hisses and the raspy sighs of unseen serpents coming from within. Then another wretched wail sounded out, loud enough to cause Ona to jump back. There was no longer any doubt as to the source of those cries.

“Ona, what’s happening?” asked Ka’lok. “I say we should get out of here, the spirits aren’t happy.”

“Did you dream?” she demanded, turning to us.

“I did, though they would better be described as nightmares,” I said.

“Me too,” concurred Ka’lok.

“There is evil in this cave—quite possibly beyond our ability! Look at these.”

Ona pointed to floor of the cavern entrance. A number of rounded grooves were set into the stone. To me, it looked like wheel tracks of some kind. Ka’lok clarified their nature.

“Those look like serpent tracks,” he said.

“I believe you are right. This place is corrupted!” exclaimed Ona.

“Aren’t serpents also part of the natural order?” I asked.

“Of course. The serpents aren’t the problem. But I have never seen any that could leave tracks like this.” She stopped as another cry resounded from the cavern depths. “When I dreamed, I saw the Barrens, great and glorious. But the ground shook and terrible vines reached out from the ground and strangled the earth, replacing it with a nightmare garden.”

“Mine was similar. Do you think that your dream was more than just that?”

“I cannot be sure. Yet if we all had such visions—no, I am certain it was a warning. An awful thing lurks beneath this land, a gateway from a place of infinite corruption.”

“Are infernal energies responsible?”

“I do not think so. This is different.”

“Should we leave?”

“You may leave if you wish. You too, Ka’lok. Neither of you are under any obligation to stay.”

Ka’lok shook his head.

“I said I would aid you, and I stand by my word,” he said.

“I do not mind staying,” I stated.

“Thank you. We will not have to be here much longer. I only need to get a better idea of what is happening. I suspect that this oasis is not natural. Do not drink the waters here. There’s no telling what might happen.”

“The animals here must be drinking it,” said Ka’lok. “I do not think they’re sick.”

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

We left the eerie cavern and trudged back to camp. The sun rose in the sky as we did so, and the sound of normal life returned to the Lushwater Oasis. We walked to the water’s edge after collecting our supplies. Thick layers of moss carpet the shores of the lake, dotted with blue mushrooms that reach as high as a man’s waist. Ona began taking samples from the area: water from the pool, clumps of moss, fern fronds, and others. Ka’lok sat down on a large, flat stone and sharpened his spears.

“Ona, what was that group of druids you were telling me about earlier? The ones who wanted to make the Barrens a jungle again?” asked Ka’lok.

“The Order of the Fang.”

“You think this is their doing?”

“No, that could not be.”

“We did see those serpent tracks, back at the cave. Snakes are their totem animal, you said,” reminded Ka’lok.

“I know. But druids would never create this. The Order of the Fang is a small order. One of their leaders, Naralex, went to the Barrens to rejuvenate them. I don’t know what part of the Barrens. For all I know he could be in the Razorfen Downs.”

“Suspicious, don’t you think?”

“A druid would never do this. Naralex had an idea of entering the Emerald Dream, and directing some of its energies to the Barrens. What I sensed last night—what we all sensed—could not have come from the Emerald Dream. Something else is afoot here, and I’m actually a bit afraid to find out what.”

Sitting next to the calm blue waters of the oasis, it was difficult for me to feel any sort of anxiety. Ona, as a druid, saw much more in the nature that surrounded us, details lost to me. The verdant ferns around us looked healthy, but could sicken from unseen corruption.

When Ona finished, we packed up and quickly left the deceiving tranquility of the Lushwater Oasis. Ona said she would report her findings to senior druids, who would take action against the darkness growing beneath the Barrens. Ona’s previously cheery demeanor vanished, replaced by visible dread. She had been badly disturbed by what she had detected in the Lushwater Oasis.

Ona explained that she would take a wyvern flight to Thunder Bluff, and there inform her brethren of her findings. Though she wanted to leave immediately, Ka’lok convinced her to spend the night in the Crossroads. Flights on living creatures like wyverns are tiring affairs, and all manner of accidents can happen to exhausted fliers.

We spent the night in the Crossroads inn. Ona drank strong tea, looking a bit more at ease. My concept of what happened was still frustratingly vague, but I thought it prudent to avoid discussing it with Ona. She herself was uncertain about what she sensed, knowing only that it was a manifestation of evil.

Ona left the next day, after thanking me and embracing Ka’lok. The troll said he would wait for her in the Crossroads, as they did not have enough money to rent two wyverns. I spoke with Ka’lok for a bit after she left. He said that they had met soon after the Battle of Mt. Hyjal and became fast friends. Tauren and troll friendships, while not unheard of, are not very common. The trolls regard the tauren as distant allies, while the tauren view the trolls as savage. Recent years brought the races closer together, but a gap still exists.

With that, I set off on the well-traveled road that led east. My last destination in the Barrens would be the sprawling goblin port of Ratchet.


“Hey, move out of the way!”

I nimbly hopped to the side, avoiding collision with a goblin-pulled cart precariously stacked with crates. Around me churned a sea of people, mostly goblins and Horde races with a smattering from the Alliance. They shouted, bartered, and argued in a ceaseless babble. The sun shines pale and distant through the cloud of dust that clings to the city, the result of so much movement.

The orcish capital of Orgrimmar, to the north, owes its existence to Gazlowe Spriggenak, a goblin engineer with a history of working with the Horde. He had long been an ally of Thrall and even helped the Warchief escape from the human internment camps. Upon Orgrimmar’s completion, Gazlowe became more ambitious and decided to establish a trading city on the coast of the Barrens. His dream was to create a gateway to Kalimdor, a place where the continent’s boundless resources could be traded for all kinds of goods from across the sea.

It would not be accurate to say that Ratchet was founded. Rather, it simply exploded into existence. Clusters of cheap wooden houses and warehouses appeared almost overnight. The coastal location could not completely overcome the dry, hot winds of the Barrens, and the city of Ratchet burned down twice in three months. The profit loss from those disasters inspired Gazlowe to enforce some basic building standards in the town. Construction has never stopped in the city. When I arrived, I saw dozens of half-complete buildings already being used as houses and shops. Contrasting with the commercial scene are the graceful palm trees that somehow escape being harvested for lumber.

Companies own and manage most goblin cities. Ratchet is different in that a single person owns it: Gazlowe. In his early years, he worked for Lordaeron Export Enterprises until that company’s dissolution. He performed well enough to support himself independently, and securing the contract for Orgrimmar made him quite wealthy. It was a simple matter for him to create a town. Ratchet enjoys favored trading status with the Steamwheedle Cartel, but is an independent city for all intents and purposes.

Ratchet definitely possesses a rougher edge than Booty Bay. While the metropolis of Stranglethorn has (to an extent) gentrified itself, business is the only concern in Ratchet. Representatives from scores of different goblin companies viciously compete with scrappy independent traders of all races. While the ubiquitous goblin bruisers keep watch over the place, it is best to exercise caution while in Ratchet, especially for members of the Alliance.

“Now, I want you to understand that there’s no way a goblin will turn down a customer on basis of race. You have to remember though, we’re right next to Orgrimmar. Not only that, Gazlowe and Thrall go way back.”

The speaker was Nozbok Miggshibek, a goblin construction foreman who had been in Ratchet for two years. We were drinking piping-hot goblin coffee bought from an outdoor cafe on the beach. The cafe bar was actually the toothless jawbone of an giant shark. In a small enclosure adjacent to it were six rickety tables, shaded by umbrellas.

“So Ratchet is biased in favor of the Horde?”

“Sort of. Thing is, if Gazlowe’s going to offend somebody, he’d rather annoy the Alliance than the Horde. Maybe there’s some sentiment at work there too. Now, this doesn’t mean the Horde has license to do whatever they please. If an orc starts pummeling a human, the bruisers will make that orc feel pain. The typical merchant will charge a troll the same as he would a gnome.”

“That sounds rather even-handed to me.”

“It’s subtle. See, if a beat-up human accuses a orc of assaulting him, the bruisers aren’t likely to believe him.”

“In a case where there are no goblin witnesses, the authorities will favor the Horde?”

“Pretty much. Another thing is that there are a lot of goblin veterans of the Second War here. Gazlowe encouraged the veterans to settle here, and many did. Some of them don’t like the Alliance very much. And then there’s all the ruckus the Alliance causes around here. Well, I shouldn’t say the Alliance, because they’ve never ‘officially’ done anything bad in Ratchet.”

“Such as the attacks on the Crossroads?”

“That was really irritating. The damn humans came in here like they owned the place and started attacking some of our best customers. It got to the point where Gazlowe forced all incoming Alliance visitors to turn in their weapons at the port. Some of them didn’t like it, and it got kind of bloody for a few days.”

“Do Alliance visitors still have to turn in weapons?”

“Not anymore. Ratchet’s too big to enforce that, and no one’s made any attempt to raid the Crossroads in a good long while. Besides, it might be best for humans to have some protection in case they get waylaid in an alley. We still have a problem with humans though. The ones in Northwatch Hold open fire on ships that don’t bear Alliance flags.”

“I’ve heard about Northwatch.”

“The bastards have made a name for themselves. Horde ships don’t go down that way very often, but Northwatch has sunk a few neutral merchantmen. We tell them to stop, they don’t listen, we bribe them, and they don’t care. Everyone here knows that they’re in league with the Southsea Pirates. We’ve been seeing more of those freebooters on the coast south of here.”

“Are the Southsea Pirates a major threat?”

“Hard to say. We don’t like them though, that’s for sure. The real danger is that they’ll interfere with trade.”

“Why doesn’t Ratchet simply clear them out?”

“A month back we hired a human privateer to do just that. He hasn’t done anything though! He and his bosun spent the last week swilling grog! Believe me, he’s as good as fired. His contract runs out next week, and we’ll tell everyone else on the eastern coast how useless he is.”

The local tension between the Alliance and the Horde became more evident as I explored the city. Alliance sailors wander the streets in packs, their swords, blackjacks, and belaying pins at the ready. They survey the world around them through eyes of drink and distrust. More common are the gangs of Horde warriors confidently swaggering down the alleys and quays. They are mostly orcs and trolls. I witnessed a confrontation that showed relations between Ratchet and the Horde may be rockier than Nozbok’s description led me to believe.

A goblin junk dealer had set up shop in a narrow backstreet. His threadbare cloak and location hinted that he had not been turning a profit. When I saw him, he was arguing with an old but fierce-looking orc over the prices.

“What treachery is this?” exclaimed the orc. “I am an honored warrior! My ax has tasted the blood of the Horde’s enemies, and I am to be told by you, a puny scavenger, that this nail costs three copper pieces?” There was a cruel playfulness in the orc’s manner. I suspected that he did not actually care about the price, and only wanted to scare the goblin.

“Hey, I have to make a profit here. And I don’t care what you did for the Horde, right now you’re in Ratchet.” The merchant put on a brave front, but was clearly terrified of the angry brute before him. I then noticed a second goblin standing next to the orc, a mean smile on his face.

“Do not trick me with your words,” roared the orc.

“Come on, you go to the other traders here, they’ll charge you four coppers for a nail. Five, even. Three’s a good deal!” pleaded the merchant.

“Look kid, the orc’s just trying to get a good price for himself. Can’t say I blame him; with this shoddy outfit you’ve got going the damn nail will probably break,” said the second goblin.

He and the orc laughed uproariously.

“You can’t go around threatening me! I have rights—”

“He’s not threatening you! Are you threatening him Gok?” asked the second goblin.

“I am simply negotiating,” replied Gok, in a hurt voice.

“Exactly. Simply negotiating. It’s not Gok’s fault you’re too scared to deal with him.”

Gok laughed again, while the merchant gritted his teeth.

“Both of you, get out of here before I call the bruisers!”

“The bruisers? It’s your word against mine kid, and me and Gok both fought the humans back in the war. Aw, come on, Gok, let the kid go broke. He’s not cut out to sell here anyway.”

“You have no honor,” jeered Gok.

The pair went the other way, laughing and talking. Seeing me, the merchant waved his arms.

“Hey, you need anything? Because if you do, I’ve got it or can tell you where to find it!” he called out. I admired his ability to get back on his feet. I surveyed his assortment of wares, trying to find something I actually wanted. I conversed with him briefly and he said that such encounters were a necessary evil of dealing in Ratchet, but did not happen all that often.

“I know that the old Horde used to deal with demons a lot, and I think some of the goblins that fought in the Second War might have gotten a bit of the infernal stuff rattling around in their brains. Not all of them; my uncle’s fought in the war and he’s fine. Just some of them. Combine that with a particularly unpleasant orc, and you get people like the ones you just saw.” I purchased a mining pick out of sympathy.

During the three nights I spent in Ratchet, I stayed at the imaginatively named Ratchet Inn. While not the only establishment of its kind in the city, it is the largest and caters to travelers who want to avoid spending much money. The inn is built around a large, grimy common room usually filled with inebriated sailors and toughs. Beds and hammocks carelessly litter the recesses of the parlor. The noise in the place is such that (for the living) sleep is often impossible without the aid of alcohol. There are a few private rooms on the second story, but that entire floor is off-limits to those who do not reside there.

The only time the Ratchet Inn is ever quiet is at sunrise, and even then not for long. Despite it’s raucous nature, the Ratchet Inn is fairly safe by the standards of that chaotic city. A few bruisers ensure that violence never gets out of hand. Their presence reassures, for the possibility of a brawl is never distant in a Ratchet tavern.

“Do you see the dwarf over there?”

Even I found the din of the parlor that night obnoxious. I sat with a trio of orcs. The eldest orc, Brakan Bladesong, was a resident of Ratchet. The other two were young warriors waiting for the transoceanic crossing to Booty Bay. Horde (mostly orcs and trolls; I saw only one tauren and not a single Forsaken besides myself) patrons gathered on one side of the tavern, and the Alliance customers drank themselves to sleep on the other. It was difficult to tell to whom Brakan was pointing through the shadows and fumes. At last my eyes settled on a grizzled dwarf wearing an eyepatch, surrounded by rough-looking companions.

“I think so. Who is that?”

“Stark Flinteye. He organized the raids against the Crossroads. His lackeys would come in the night, like the dishonorable cowards they are, and kill our people. Try to kill, I should say. Their raids did not always turn out so well for them.”

“They were a rabble, not worthy of my blade. I’ve had more honorable kills in quilboar country,” sniffed Sketa, one of the other orcs at our table.

“I thought Gazlowe expelled or executed all the Alliance raiders,” I said.

“Only the ones that refused to back down.”

“Thrall did not object to him sparing some of the raiders?”

“Ah, you still think like a human. An orc must be able to defend himself—”

“Or herself,” interjected Sketa.

“Er, yes.” Brakan rolled his eyes before continuing. “Any orc that runs to the Warchief every time there’s trouble is not worthy of being in the Horde! If the Alliance makes war on us, we shall respond, but it is not worth it for gangs of criminals and pirates. Anyway, some of the raiders have come to well-deserved ends here in Ratchet.”

“Would the Alliance be upset if Gazlowe arrested the raiders?”

“It would not surprise me. They are like children. The only humans I respect are some of the paladins from the old days, and the Forsaken warriors at Tarren Mill, who aren’t really human any longer. As for Stark, he lives here in this tavern, destroying himself with cheap wine. He dares not leave, even with his minions. The minute he left sight of the bruisers, a warrior would have his head.”

“I gather the authorities would not be terribly unhappy if he were killed?”

“I’m not sure about that. The problem is, Stark does have allies; all through the day he holds council with miscreants, many of whom look to be deadly men. Someone who killed Stark would probably not be punished by the authorities, but would almost certainly become the quarry of Stark’s compatriots,” told Brakan.

“Don’t tell me our warriors fear his thugs! Death is a small price to pay for the honor of killing that dwarf,” scoffed Sketa.

“Death’s a steep price if you’re the one paying for it Sketa. A living orc can do much more in the way of honorable deeds than a dead one. Besides, if someone did kill Stark, and Stark’s minions retaliated, it could start a small-scale war here in Ratchet. Gazlowe doesn’t want that.”

“So we should just let this murderer live here?”

“Calm yourself, Sketa. His dishonor will catch up to him one day.”

Sketa snarled, but did not respond. The parlor grew noisier as the night went on, and a brief scuffle erupted at the other end between a human and a dwarf. The bruisers quickly knocked out both combatants and dragged them outside. Had it continued, the dwarf would have probably been the victor. Finding the place tiresome, I left the inn and went for a walk. I reasoned that, as a Forsaken, I would be safe enough in Ratchet.

It is easy to get lost in the twisting byways and alleys of Ratchet. Buildings come and go so quickly that no one can create an accurate map of the city. Ratchet does not stop at night, and the more desperate traders come out under the cover of darkness to sell wares of questionable quality and morality. Very few things are illegal to sell in Ratchet, and unsavory characters buy those few illicit goods with ease if they know where to look. Brakan mentioned an underground market selling items infused with infernal power. The goblins have so far turned a blind eye to it.

Interestingly enough, there are not very many thieves or pickpockets. There are enough employment opportunities in the city for nearly anyone to get a job. It would not be true to say that goblins have an unusually strong aversion to thievery; merely that they prefer to swindle using legal means. The sketchy laws of goblin society make this a relatively easy thing to do. Stealing from travelers is rarely profitable, and can be punished by a harsh application of debt slavery laws. Debt slaves in Ratchet are usually sold to the highest bidder, and the treatment of debt slaves by independent merchants varies from lenient to atrocious.

The crowds thinned out as I went north, and I was surprised to stumble upon a nearly empty street. Sagging houses lined the path, making me wonder how strictly Gazlowe’s building codes were enforced. Oil torches cast garish lights on the dirt road, and the warm night air heavy with menace.

I almost did not notice the dead orc in the street, partially concealed by a stack of rotting crates. His throat was slashed, a bloody dagger lying a few feet from his corpse. He had not been dead long, and I went to inform an authority of the crime. I found a pair of bruisers the next street over, and told them what happened. They followed me to the body. After talking to each other for a while in Goblinish, the lead bruiser turned to me.

“Thanks for bringing this to our attention.”

“It seemed the right thing to do.”

“We’ll take him to HQ, see if he was anyone important though I doubt it. But unless someone sees and reports the killer, I don’t think there’s much we can do.”

“Why not?”

“Ratchet’s a big city, and stupid people don’t live long here. The orc was probably doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. Maybe a local did him in. Could have been some angry Alliance raider, a pirate, another orc, a Venture thug... the list goes on and on. You need a witness to get anything done with this sort of thing, and you didn’t actually see it happen. Sorry if that doesn’t suit you, but it’s the way things work in Ratchet.”

Ratchet is like a dark, mirror image of Booty Bay. While the Stranglethorn metropolis is a testament to goblin freedom and ingenuity, Ratchet is a sinkhole of iniquity. I suspect that the Steamwheedle Cartel’s enforcement of the rule of law is one of the major reasons for Booty Bay’s success. The indifferent attitude held in Ratchet contributes to the criminality. Yet questions of why one place is better than another can rarely be answered easily, and I’m sure there are many more factors at work.

I bought passage on a small goblin merchantman that sailed between Ratchet and Sen’jin Village. I departed two days after the discovery of the body, feeling relief at leaving the city. The ship was small, with only two crewmen and a captain. They sold coffee and molasses to the trolls of Durotar. Redok Nazelob, the captain of the vessel, shared my opinion of Ratchet. He planned to move to Steamwheedle Port or Booty Bay once it was feasible for him to do so. Redok said that he basically lived on his ship. His love of profit was matched only by his passion for the sea, and he went about his job with alacrity, a quality he spread to his crew. At night, the vessel carried on the warm waters of the Great Sea, he played cheerful tunes on his cavaquinho, a sort of tiny goblin guitar.


  1. I am a first time visitor to this site and have copied the URl and sent it to some of my best friends. I have just read The Barrens. As a Gamer, and spending so much time in the Barrens I found this story REMARKABLE. I love it, A Super Read. I can't wait to have time to read about other areas and of other adventures.

    Thank you very much for making this a FREE read!!!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy it so much. Thanks also for passing it along to your friends.

  3. I absolutely love the artistic license taken with druidic beast forms!

  4. Do I sense a reference to how it feels to go through 20 levels in the same area?

    Though IMO the Barrens is second only to Stranglethorn Vale as the prettiest WoW location.

  5. I also think the Barrens are quite lovely, which is one of the reasons I introduced the character of Ona Wildmane. Sure, forests are great, but there are other biomes too.

  6. I personally found the prairie-loving Druid to be a cool and suitable idea. A lot of love infused into this one.

  7. As always a magnificent piece, you capture the grandeur and majesty of the Barrens and create a fascinatingly diverse place, with the quilboar raids & allies, the Tauren Kodo transports, Ratchet's corrupt den, the mixing pot and raiders of the Crossroads and even working in big time canon plot points and creative rich, lived in lives and characters, kudos!