Sunday, October 7, 2007
The Burning Steppes
A rain of ash drifted down from the smoke-poisoned sky when I left Blackrock Mountain. I stood on a great stone bridge that crossed a seething lake of lava. An ancient causeway on the other side led to the devastated land below me.
I made my way across the tormented landscape, the surface of the ground molded into strange curves and whorls like a stormy sea frozen in time. Ragnaros’ entry into the world flooded the entire region in an ocean of molten rock. It then cooled, leaving the twisted surface on which I walked.
I came across the site of an old battle on my third day in the Burning Steppes. Blackened skeletons and shattered weapons litter a plain of ash. The skeletons are mostly of orcs and ogres though I saw a fair number of humans bones tangled in the debris. I was sure that the soldiers there had fought and died in the Siege of Blackrock Mountain.
The Horde leadership knew their doom drew near as Alliance troops encircled Blackrock Mountain. The trolls and goblins had already left the fight, seeing the defeat that awaited their onetime allies. The ogres abandoned the Horde in droves, only a few brutish clans pledging to fight until the end. Only the orcs, reeling and depleted in number, stood their ground. They spent so much of the Second War on the offensive that they forgot how to defend. The ailing Horde foolishly weakened their position by sending troops out of the confines of Blackrock Spire. Entrenched Alliance forces made quick work of these desperate forays.
The Siege of Blackrock Mountain was one of the most celebrated stories of the war. It occupied a firm place in the psyches of my generation as the decisive battle of our fathers. On that burning field, the Alliance paid back the destruction of Stormwind and Southshore in full. The advantage was with the Alliance, yet victory was not assured, for the savagery of the Horde was compounded by their desperation. Some of the Alliance nations were already losing interest in pursuing the conflict, no longer seeing the orcs as a threat.
We knew by heart the events of the two-month long Siege. The death of Lord Lothar, Danath’s heroic defense of Smolder Ridge, the doomed charge of Huruk Deadeye against the elven rangers, the thunderous exploits of Kurdran Wildhammer; all of those and more were endlessly reenacted on the playgrounds of Lordaeron. It was sobering to actually see the remnants of a nameless and forgotten skirmish that had been a part of the Siege. A hot, sulfur-tainted wind blew across the land, carrying flecks of ash and bone.
The invasion of the Scourge dispelled my romantic notions of war. I could not maintain belief in epic heroes when the greatest soldiers of my nation returned from the dead to slaughter their comrades. Yet the world was bleak and terrifying for the soldiers of the Second War as well. People today easily forget how close humanity came to extermination in those dark days. No matter how much we praised the soldiers of the Alliance, we all knew that the Horde only failed because of the betrayal of one of their own.
They fought on as soldiers do, even in the hellish lands around Blackrock Mountain. Though my allegiance was to the Horde I nonetheless gave a lonely salute to the forgotten Alliance dead of the Burning Steppes.
Walking through the Burning Steppes is less taxing than traversing the Searing Gorge, despite the treacherous footing. The land is mostly level (though not flat by any means), even if the absence of notable landmarks makes navigation difficult. Clouds of smoke bleed out from the earth in spots. When I first saw this phenomenon, I edged closer and prodded the ground with my foot. The shell of ash crumbled to reveal a smoldering fire beneath. Needless to say I went around the smoke-spewing patch. Demonic imps bask in pools of lava throughout the wastes, their harsh laughter audible over rumbling flames.
I was surprised to reach a road winding its way through the Burning Steppes. Smears of ash cover parts of the road, the other portions pitted and charred from the heat. I reasoned that the Dark Irons had built it. The humans of Stormwind never laid claim to the miserable region, and the orcs of the Old Horde were not known for building much in the way of infrastructure. More curious (or troubling) was the fact that the road clearly saw a fair amount of use. Ash would have completely smothered the road if it were abandoned for any length of time.
The rain of ash endemic to the Burning Steppes deserves some explanation. Much of the ash is the remnants of the original eruption in the region, when Ragnaros first emerged onto our plane. There is no place for the ash to go. The winds blow the loose grit up in the air, endlessly moving it across the wastes. Because of the slow burns all across the region (frequently stemming from the large veins of coal running through the ground), the filth steadily accumulates in the air.
I remember one of the youthful summers I spent helping my uncle Welfred in Andorhal. During this time, I became acquainted with a baker who was a patron of the tavern. The baker was a fierce man named Halicus, who loved to regale people with gruesome stories of his wartime experiences. He was in the thick of the fighting during the Siege of Blackrock Mountain, and spoke often of the ash that covered men and mountains alike. The black dust often spooked the horses, especially when the beasts were singed by hot embers. He himself was a footman assigned to suicidally dangerous missions in which he retrieved knights who’d lost their horses behind enemy lines. Halicus nurtured a deep hatred of knights and other elite troops, something he tried to spread to others if he’d been in his cups for a while.
The ash had a deleterious effect on humans and other races. The elves were particularly vulnerable to it, and the vaunted archers of Quel’thalas were rendered nearly useless towards the end of the Siege. Fortunately, the handful of remaining trolls in the Horde (the appropriately named Smolderthorn and Firetree tribes) were in equally poor condition. Only the dwarves, orcs, and ogres seemed able to withstand the harsh environment. I met several in my life who suffered from a debilitating respiratory disease as a result of their time around Blackrock Mountain.
As bad as the ash is, the Burning Steppes are still more habitable than the Searing Gorge. The Gorge is where the apocalypse wreaked by Ragnaros never ended; the Burning Steppes are only the desolate aftermath.
I followed Hanachakay’s advice and drank water more often than usual. I walked for a long time without seeing a soul, though I sometimes heard strange, keening cries to the south. They reminded me uncomfortably of what dragonkin were supposed to sound like. For once in my undeath, discretion won out over curiosity.
I came across the savage contingencies of the Old Horde a little less than a week after leaving Blackrock Mountain. The first sign were clusters of soot-blackened huts where pigs rooted in the ash. I soon saw the downtrodden orcish peons that carried the Horde through their bloody wars. None of them noticed me.
The Orcish word for peon is mog, which is more strictly defined as a laborer. The humans attached the word peon to those unfortunates for the simple reason that it was entirely accurate. The peons were abused by their masters and often fell victim to the bloodlust of the warriors when there weren’t any humans to kill. Thrall vastly improved the station of peons, though most warriors still hold them in contempt.
Traveling further along the road, I encountered orcish patrols headed to the north. I avoided the first by hiding in a convenient ditch next to the road. The next day I came across another. There were four of them; too many for me to risk fighting. When they saw me I teleported a few yards off the road and began running into the trackless wastes, the savage howls of the grunts close behind me.
I first thought I’d easily outrun them. Though the orcs are a very energetic race, Forsaken endurance is greater still, and I was already ahead of them. After a mile or so, consternation replaced confidence for the orcs still ran in dogged pursuit. Making matters worse, they were slowly gaining on my position.
“Kill the human!” one of them roared. They had not gotten close enough to discern my true nature. However the Old Horde hated the new one even more than they loathed the Alliance, and they would not show mercy to a lone Forsaken.
I considered slowing them down with a cone of cold but I would have to wait for them to get closer before the spell would even reach them. A pyroblast would take out one or two, but it took so long to cast that the survivors would be upon me before I could take any other action. Since they were running towards me, a blizzard would only briefly delay them.
Fortunately the will of the dead saw me through yet again. Even driven by the remnants of demonic bloodlust, they were still mortal, and could only run so far. I heard a terrible wail from behind me as the orcs finally began to fall back. Risking a backwards glance, I was astonished to see an orc dive to the ground, furiously attacking it with his ax and screaming in a blind rage. Somehow it was both terrifying and pitiful to see a thinking creature so possessed by anger.
I traveled parallel to the road after that incident, but not on it. Given the flat terrain of the Burning Steppes, doing so was only marginally helpful. Still, I managed to avoid any further detection.
The orcish settlements grow larger in the central Burning Steppes. It is not unusual to see two orcs, both of the Blackrock Clan, engaged in mortal combat to the cheers of their fellows. The buildings there are done in the old orcish style, haphazard and irregular. For the first time it dawned on me just how thoroughly Thrall had reformed the orcish people. If one ignores the orcish figures walking through the ash-swept pig farms and burrows, those towns might easily be the work of an entirely different species.
A day later, the orcish structures spread out and became less frequent until I was again in the fiery wilderness. I caught sight of a giant figure on the horizon. Getting closer, I was stunned to realize it was the great monument to Lord Lothar, built to commemorate his valiant life and death. I scarcely believed it still stood, and I could not fathom why the orcs allowed it to exist. Yet exist it did, Lothar defiantly pointing his blade towards Blackrock Mountain.
After the death of King Llane and the fall of Stormwind, Lothar led his scattered people to the north, at last finding shelter in the lands of Lordaeron. His arrival had a certain symbolic importance in the minds of the humans. When Falonur Arathi, the last emperor of Arathor, founded Stormwind he hoped for the Arathi line to continue its rule. House Arathi ruled for a century but eventually lost the throne. The crown passed briefly to the venal nobles of the Cardhein family before being secured by House Wrynn, which has ruled ever after.
Anduin Lothar was the last known descendent of the Arathi Emperors, the first rulers of humanity. Just as Thoradin Arathi of old united the human tribes against the forest trolls, his distant descendent Anduin would unite the human nations against the Horde. When he was slain by Orgrim Doomhammer during the Siege, the cruel warchief hoped that Lothar’s death would splinter the Alliance. Instead it galvanized the Alliance armies, leading them to shatter the orcish stronghold.
Eventually the road bifurcated: one path going to the north, the other winding to the southeast. I knew that the northern path went to the ancient and ruined Dark Iron capital of Thaurissan, named after their emperor. Though not originally part of my plan, I impulsively decided to take a look.
The surface slowly rises in elevation the nearer one gets to the jagged peaks flanking Blackrock Mountain, eruptions of flame indicating that Ragnaros’ fury is still in full force. It took only a day to reach the ruins of Thaurissan. The ruins are something of a disappointment. The destruction of Ragnaros and the even more thorough force of entropy have left nearly nothing of the metropolis. The only signs of the city are charred foundations and the occasional chimney or section of wall.
I have no doubt that a trained Ironforge archaeologist would find much of interest in that gloomy spot. As a layman in such matters, I was unable to glean any information other than that Thaurissan used to be quite large. The sheer arrogance of naming a city after oneself astounded me, and seemed to sum up all of the problems of the Dark Iron Empire.
The Dark Irons have not completely abandoned their old home. Small groups of dwarves march around the place. I only saw two at the edges of the city, but they became more common the further I walked. They finally grew too numerous for me to evade, and I left Thaurissan. I do not know why the Dark Irons maintain a presence there. Perhaps it is some vestigial trace of the dwarven respect for lineage.
Years spent in the Burning Steppes either kill or harden a man beyond belief. Lars was firmly in the latter category, a soldier of Stormwind whose skin was forever stained black with soot.
“To tell the truth I’m not all that sure how long I’ve been here. At least seven years though,” he said. “That’s the damn problem with wars nowadays. No one ever bothers finishing them.”
Lars was but a youth when Stormwind City was rebuilt, and like many of his generation he embraced the patriotic fervor of victory. The fall of the Horde probably meant more to Stormwind than to any other nation in the Alliance. After the debacle of the Alliance Expeditionary Force to Draenor, the army of Stormwind needed new soldiers to fill in the gaps, and Lars was an enthusiastic volunteer. His first few terms of service were relaxed and uneventful, consisting of patrolling a countryside that scarcely needed it.
“I was all set to make my life on the path of the sword. Then we start hearing about orcish activity up in the fiery lands. Nothing too dreadful, right? They sent us up here to keep an eye out, and I’ve been here since.”
“The Blackrock Clan looks to have firmly reestablished itself.”
“It sure has. There’s no way we can take Blackrock Spire so we just try to watch the border and try to keep orcs out of Redridge. That and make sure the ogres don’t become too much of a danger. I tell you, every ogre is bad but the Firegut Tribe is the worst of the bunch.”
We camped on the slope of Dreadmaul Rock, a rocky hill rising solitary from the charred plains. A tribe of ogres made their home on the hill some time after the war. While not truly a threat to the Old Horde, they possess a firm grip on what territory they do control.
I more or less stumbled upon Dreadmaul Rock when leaving Thaurissan. At the time, I was ignorant as to what lived there. I was considering an investigation when a basalt boulder smashed into the ground a few feet away, the impact throwing me to the ground. I looked up just in time to see a red-skinned ogre raising another stone to throw. I rolled away at the last moment and the stone crashed into the rocky surface next to me. The creature issued a throaty sound, somewhere between a growl and a laugh. It picked up another boulder but I was ready for it. Tapping into the arcane I polymorphed the ogre’s massive body into the form of a small sheep. Without the ogre’s strength to support it, the rock fell and crushed the transformed anthropoid.
I smiled in triumph and then caught sight of a two-headed ogre-mage scowling down at me, spellfire flickering on his great hands. I activated a mana shield, to transfer the damage from my body to my arcane connection. A sphere of flame exploded around me and I the powers of the Twisting Nether receded in my mind.
I was not idle while that happened and had found shelter behind a jagged rock spire. The ogre-mages have powerful magic but they lack finesse. I was reasonably confident that I would win. Suddenly I heard a bloodcurdling yell, that of a human. Looking up at the ogre-mage I saw a small, dark figure hacking away at the ogre’s calves with a long sword. He hopped forward as if to attack, but it was merely a feint and the ogre’s staff whistled harmlessly through the air. I still had enough mana for a lesser spell and used arcane missiles so as not to accidentally hurt the human fighter. The glowing bolts dove into the ogre’s muscled bulk, and a cyclopean head turned to glare at me. He raised his left arm, again consumed in spell fire, while the right tried to swat the human.
The ogre-mage let loose a scream of pain and I saw the human drive his sword to the hilt behind the ogre’s left knee. The human got out of the way of the ogre’s falling body, the limbs flailing wildly. Too savvy to get close to the thrashing ogre, the human took out a short bow and cocked an arrow, aiming with care. Three shots killed the ogre-mage. That was how I met Lars.
The encampment where Lars and the other soldiers live is a group of tents called Morgan’s Vigil, three days’ journey from Dreadmaul Rock. In actuality, Morgan’s Vigil is more pleasant than Lars led me to believe. The camp is at a high enough elevation to enjoy relatively clean air. Perhaps an even more important factor is its proximity to the untainted lands to the south.
The people in Morgan’s Vigil were understandably wary of me, having learned to not fully trust anyone coming in from the wastes. As was made clear by the burnt husks of houses and the ruined tower, a village once existed in that spot. Lars said that the ruins were present when the expedition first arrived. No records mentioned a human settlement in the region, and the reason behind its destruction remained a mystery. The most likely explanation, said Lars, was that squatters, itinerant miners, or even bandits built the hamlet. Morgan’s Vigil got its name from the original leader of the expedition, Morgan Langsfracht, who died of exhaustion and poor health. His successor was Marshal Maxwell, a stern soldier who keeps tight rein over Morgan’s Vigil.
“Sir,” said Lars, upon reporting to Maxwell.
“Sergeant. What is your report?”
“The Firegut Tribe has not made any changes since the last observation. They continue to be defensively-oriented, in a large part due to the dragons to the east and the Dark Irons to the west. To the best of my knowledge their numbers have not increased. I also have to report that I was spotted by a warrior and a mage. I killed one, and our guest killed the other.”
“You’re sure no one else saw you?”
Maxwell sighed and shook his head.
“We’re still going to have to double patrols out in the passes. Lars, you will lead them. It will be a typical gamma pattern patrol. Palan will lead the patrol tomorrow while you rest. After him, it’s all yours.”
Lars’ shoulders slumped as he went to his tent.
“Why did Maxwell punish you with patrol duty?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh, there’s a chance I might have earned us the attention of the Firegut Tribe. We only survive because no one really knows about us. I mean, the ones we killed... their comrades will probably assume the Dark Irons did it. Still, we have to be careful. Patrol duty is a real misery I’ll tell you, but it’s only fair that I do it.”
I ended up staying in Morgan’s Vigil for four days. Though there was scarcely anything there, it still felt like the first good rest I’d had since leaving Kargath. After spending my entire first day in repose I did some odd jobs around the camp. It was the least I could do. Despite their initial caution I soon became the center of attention as soldiers scrambled around me to ask questions about the parts of the world that were not on fire. Many of them, I learned, had not actually been in Morgan’s Vigil for very long. While there was a small cadre of older veterans who stayed on, other soldiers had simple three-year tours. They said that the only way Maxwell would leave Morgan’s Vigil was through an orcish ax. Lars, on the other hand, stayed because he had grown too used to it. Unfortunately, due to the difficulty in travel and (from what I gathered) some sort of communication breakdown with central command, the current batch suspected they would have to stay considerably longer than three years.
I spoke with Maxwell on the third day as he rested from his labors.
“When we first got to this infernal land we made our base far to the west, near the Pillar of Ash which is the orcish town you went by. Dragonkin eventually discovered us, killed half our number. Commander Langsfracht, Light preserve him, led us here,” he explained.
“Is your mission still to defeat the Blackrock Clan?”
“Of course. That’s the ultimate objective. Right now we cannot do that. Because we’re so close to the Redridge Mountains, we do our best to watch for orcish activity. At this point there is not any way we can fight off even a small orcish army. What we can do is warn the people to the south.”
“Have there been any incursions?”
“There’s one happening right now. A month ago they started filtering into Redridge, making a camp north of Lakeshire. We sent a messenger to Stonewatch Keep to let them know what was happening. So far they have not done anything.”
“Is it a very large incursion?”
“Not particularly. These things have a way of getting bigger though. Once a few orcs get in, the entire Horde won’t be far behind. They’ve stepped up defenses in Stonewatch and in Lakeshire, but I keep telling them it will not be enough. I’ve done everything I can. If they fall, there won’t be any blood on my hands.”
“What has the government’s reaction been?”
“I sent our griffin rider to Stormwind City with the news, and he came back with a vaguely worded promise about reinforcements to Lakeshire. Anyone’s guess as to whether or not they’ll actually arrive.”
“I’ve heard something about an insurgency in the kingdom. Do you think that might be why?”
“There’s no insurgency, just some bandits,” he said. “I believe that it’s because they’re busy fighting the New Horde, too many concerns for them to worry about a backwater like this. I’m not saying that what they’re doing is foolish. But if they will not protect their own towns from the Old Horde, there will not be a nation left to protect!”
I was not the only one who stayed on at Morgan’s Vigil in an unofficial capacity. Because it is so badly undermanned, they generally accept anyone who will remain to help. The most interesting visitor was Kadalon Icebrook, a night elven warrior who had participated in an ill-fated attack on the Pillar of Ash. A paladin who sought to cleanse the Burning Steppes led the raid. Kadalon was the only survivor, and had ridden his nightsaber tiger across the Steppes and eventually to safety. His nightsaber was a truly magnificent beast.
“It is a noble cause to which these soldiers devote themselves. I can still fight evil alongside them,” he said to me.
“Do you think you will ever return to Kalimdor?”
“Perhaps the winds of time will carry me again to the forests of Ashenvale. Perhaps not. I think it is more important that I use what time I have for good; eternity is no longer mine.”
He was referring, of course, to the lamented loss of immortality that the night elves recently suffered.
“Would you care to see what I have done for this land? It is not much, but it is something.”
A stream of bitter water runs through the mountains next to Morgan’s Vigil, supplying the soldiers with water. Kadalon effortlessly bounded up the steep incline, his feet barely touching the ground. After a few minutes he stopped at a bend in the stream, and pointed.
Next to the stream was a small garden where leafy plants sprouted from the volcanic soil. Ripe, red tomatoes hang from stems, a sense of life blessing the site with wondrous tranquility. At the center stands a healthy orange tree, its branches spreading out like delicate fingers. It was clearly no secret; one of the soldiers was gathering oranges from the tree. He saluted Kadalon and I.
“This garden isn’t what feeds us, of course. Mostly we get supplies from Lakeshire. Still, this adds variety and sweetness. Personally I cannot stand bread. The tying together of grain seems strangely loathsome to me. So I made this.”
“It’s beautiful.” It was the first natural green I had seen since leaving the Badlands, and it had been in short supply there.
“It is nature. Even here, in this dark land, there is regeneration. Even Ragnaros could not destroy the land, for in its destruction are the seeds of renewal.”
I thought about Kadalon’s words as I left Morgan’s Vigil the next day, eagerly headed to the south. It was true that volcanic activity provided an agricultural boost. Yet it seems doubtful that much can ever grow in most of the Burning Steppes. There is more ash and rock than soil. Nonetheless that tiny garden provides a ray of hope, however slim.