Monday, October 8, 2007
Deadwind Pass lives up to its name. The narrow road is flanked by towering cliffs, as gray as the perpetually overcast sky. A stale wind blows fierce from mountain peaks lost in cloud and shadow. Terrible cold grips the dead landscape, a wintry chill that would be more fitting in the Alterac Mountains than in the warm regions of the south.
Older humans still remember the land when it was called Greenvine Canyon. Then, the gray mountainsides were covered in thorny vines bearing vibrant and strange-smelling flowers. It was a hot land, and during the summer the inhabitants rested in the shade of trees, the air heavy with the scent of a thousand blossoms.
Though possessed of an exotic beauty (that can still be seen in paintings and a few goblin daguerreotypes) the Greenvine Canyon was never more than a sparsely populated hinterland in Stormwind. Even those familiar with the area could lose themselves in the maze-like ravines, where they often fell prey to exposure. Stormwinder settlers told dark tales of the Ralmanni bands that roved through the land, attributing to them all manner of sorcery and deceit, though the fault likely lay more in Stormwinder paranoia. Many of the Ralmanni in the canyon were descendents of those driven out from Southwood. Only a few violent incidents ever took place between the two cultures in Greenvine, yet the distrustful relationship did not make for a comfortable atmosphere. The rocky ground lacked any agricultural worth. Finally, Stormwinder and Ralmanni alike distrusted the curious flora endemic to the region. Some of the flowers gave scents that drove humans to delusion and madness.
Whatever the problems of the old Greenvine Canyon, it was still a better place than Deadwind Pass. The road inclined steeply as I walked, and I soon came across the dried husk of a great tree. Three decayed corpses hung from the branches. More inexplicable was the flickering campfire at the side of the tree. Aside from the fire, I saw no signs of recent activity; the dust on the ground was completely undisturbed. A battered sign post stood before the tree, though nothing was written on the pitted surface. I quickly moved on, wanting to leave that eerie place.
The most direct route through Deadwind Pass is across a natural bridge called Deadman’s Crossing. Though it would have allowed expedient passage to the Swamp of Sorrows, I decided to take a circuitous route around the Pass. My goal was to see (from a distance, if necessary) Karazhan, the former dwelling place of Medivh. My readers will no doubt roll their eyes at my nearly suicidal curiosity. In response, I can only justify it as part of my quest for knowledge.
Stone arches, carved by wind and sleet, appear with strange regularity over the winding mountain road. I reasoned that I was in an area of great evil. Much like the Plaguelands or the volcanic wastes surrounding Blackrock Mountain, a perverse force has destroyed the normal laws of reality in Deadwind Pass. Perhaps this same taint has spilled over into Duskwood.
The howling wind is an almost constant nuisance as I traveled south. Below me lay the Sleeping Gorge, the great ravine that runs through Deadwind Pass. Spires of rock jut from the cloak of mist blanketing the ravine. Beneath that run the cold gray waters of the Bittertooh River, which flows down into the hot fens of Stranglethorn. Fierce gusts of wind can strike without warning, on one occasion managing to knock me down. Sleet sometimes falls from the dark clouds, though never for very long.
Forests of dead trees slowly calcify on the sides of the road. The twisted whorls in the trunks bear an eerie resemblance to faces. It is difficult to believe that anything had ever lived in Deadwind Pass. Some of the people in Darkshire claimed that a few Ralmanni bands still dwelled in the place. After two days in Deadwind Pass, I began to strongly doubt that. The land is not arable and the plants are all dead. Incongruously, fiendishly large vultures roost on the lonely bluffs, circling the gray skies on their heavy wings. It only follows that animals of some kind must exist to provide carrion, though I did not see any.
I worked feverishly to undo the knots binding the Ralmanni woman’s hands. She was in a miserable state, covered in filth and shivering from terror and the cold. I whispered calming words to her, though I did not know if she understood Common. She was blind, which may have been a mercy. Around us were the grisly signs of fresh slaughter. Human limbs dangled from chains attached to a desiccated tree, and dried blood formed strange images on the canyon wall. Then again, the poor girl could almost certainly smell the charnel stench, mixed with the stink of ogres.
Freeing her, I brought her to her feet. She wobbled, clutching me for support. She muttered something in the Ralmanni tongue. Then I became aware of a presence, vast and ponderous, moving through the gloom. The ogre, or ogres, had returned.
I grabbed her and ran up the road, demon faces laughing in the mist. There was a terrible roar as the ogre searched for his prize. Due to their sheer bulk, ogres are always terrifying opponents. The nightmarish atmosphere of Deadwind amplifies this menacing quality.
I proceeded carefully, trying not to make any noise. Hopefully, I thought, the ogre’s heavy footfalls would give it away.
“Where have you run off to?” inquired a rumbling voice.
I paused. Had the ogre spoken? The ogre-magi had superior cognitive abilities to their normal brethren, though their command of Common was usually quite limited.
“You do not, heh, care for my hospitality? The others with you, they made good company. Why not yourself?”
The ogre paused. The Ralmanni woman was nearly paralyzed with fear, and I could only barely coax her to move.
“Your brother was he? His screams were delicious, though not as much as yours were. I hunger to hear them again. Human women are such perfect creatures when in the throes of fear, far better than orcs or draenei. Will you deprive me of that beauty?”
The woman’s face contorted and she grasped for something she could not find.
“I know you hear me, I can smell your dread. Come out, come out little creature. There is such art I can perform with your flesh.”
A bright green flame darted through the sky, and paused, hovering over us. I saw the oily black pupil in the flame, marking it as an Eye of Kilrogg, the infernal spies employed by the ogre-magi in the Second War.
“What is this? Some knight errant in this dead land? This is no longer your home, human! Oh, this is a glorious day for me, such trophies I shall take from you both!” he exulted.
I cast a spell of frost armor over the woman, who had collapsed in a whimpering heap. I reasoned that a polymorph on the ogre would be effective and I prepared the arcane energy to do so. Then I saw a flash in the mist, and a great force knocked me to the ground. A strange burn flared in my chest when I landed.
I tried to get up but my limbs failed me and I fell again. I could at last see my opponent, his massive form visible in the fog.
“To hear your bones snap... your flesh tear... your screams,” he rumbled.
A low snarl came from the mist behind me and an ogre warrior strode into view. A disgusting litany of grunts and bellows flowed from his mouth, mixing with a hideous laughter. Oozing sores covered the bodies of both ogres, and the warrior’s head was twisted askance by a raw tumor growing from his neck.
The ogre warrior lifted his club and I forced my numbed body to move out of the way. The ogre-mage laughed at my actions. Thinking quickly I cast a mana shield on myself and ran to the Ralmanni woman, who was almost catatonic. As I ran I cast a flame burst at the feet of the advancing warrior, frightening it enough to create a short delay. Another of the ogre-mage’s lightning bolts struck, but the shield lessened the effect on my body and I was able to keep running.
My hope was to outlast them long enough to reach the Sleeping Gorge. Then I could attempt a slow fall spell to jump into the depths without getting myself or the Ralmanni woman killed. This of course assumed that there wasn’t something worse waiting at the bottom of the canyon.
The Eye of Kilrogg again flew over us, trailing our path in the filthy air. I was sorely tempted to strike it down with a spell, but could ill-afford to with my mana at such low ebb.
Ogres are surprisingly fast creatures, and I knew that they would soon catch up to me. I paused and set the woman on the ground while readying a polymorph. Then the rumbling footsteps halted. I could only see a wall of mist, and the Eye of Kilrogg hovering hatefully above. The mage had directed the ogre warrior to stop, realizing I was planning something.
“Foolish human. You shall repay me only in your pain when I strip the flesh from your bones. Where will your magic be then?”
The voice boomed out from right beside me and I turned to the source and unleashed a fire blast. It burned nothing but the empty ground. At that moment the ground shook with the approach of the warrior. Something heavy whistled through the air and I hopped to the side to avoid the club’s blow. The weapon missed me by inches. The fog seemed to hinder the ogres (the warrior, at least) as much as it did me.
Using a frost nova I managed to temporarily immobilize the fighter. A lightning bolt struck the ground where I stood the moment before. Scooping up the prone woman, who was unconscious, I ran as fast as I could. I let out a silent cheer when the canyon walls opened up, revealing the crumbling rock arch spanning the Sleeping Gorge. Running to the edge, I cast slow fall and leapt.
We drifted slowly down through the mists, which parted to reveal the river's slate-colored surface. The warm and slimy water enveloped me as I landed. From above I heard the shouts of the ogres. I reached the bank, carrying the unconscious Ralmanni woman. I put on my human disguise; evidently I looked alive enough in the fog that the ogre had not recognized me as one of the undead. With that done, I walked north for a while, not really having any idea where to go. The Ralmanni woman coughed suddenly, and opened her sightless eyes. She said something I could not understand.
“Do you speak Common?” I asked.
“Where are the ogres?” she demanded, her voice hoarse.
“Far behind. You were the only surviving human in the area.”
“I know. They all murdered, veneshti na sudat vae Najaru.” She began sobbing. “My family is near, on river bank. Where we are? Not near Karazhan?”
“No. We’re north of the bridge leading to the ogres. Can you understand-”
“Yes, I understand. I cannot speak well, but I understand. My family should be somewhere north, Light willing. Go there.”
“What is your name? I am Talus.”
“Davitri, of the Avishna Band.”
As Davitri had said, I soon found myself within sight of nine brightly painted wagons circled around a large campfire. The Ralmanni grew agitated upon seeing me until Davitri spoke to them. With grim faces, they went and took her from my arms.
A little while later I was sitting next to the blazing campfire, eating a bowl of watery fish soup. Most of the Ralmanni can speak at least some Common, and the older ones (who fought alongside Stormwind and the northern nations in the Second War) are fluent. An elderly and powerfully built Ralmanni came over to me. His gray beard was neatly cut, contrasting with his huge, unruly moustache. Like most of the Ralmanni men I saw, he wore a short cylindrical cap with a flat top. His hat, however, had long black feathers sown into the bottom that hung down to his shoulders.
“Talus, you have the thanks of the Avishna. I am Rav Anjor, the Headman of Avishna,” he said by way of introduction.
“I am sorry I could not do more.”
“Ihlrar had already been murdered, there was nothing you could do.”
“How is Davitri?”
“Her physical wounds will heal. Beyond that, it is up to fate. Davitri and Ihlrar were separated from us in a rainstorm, and the ogres captured them.”
“How much of a presence do the ogres have here?”
“They’ve occupied a section of the pass called the Vice. We have traditionally roamed the stretches of the southern river, but perhaps we shall move north.”
“How many Ralmanni bands live here?”
“When it was resettled, we numbered seven bands. Three are left; the Gan wander the northern reaches and the Sihld have retreated far up into the mountains where no one else would go.”
“Perhaps you should move to Darkshire. They would appreciate the help.”
“That comment would have gotten many angry responses a few years ago. Now, we may do just that.”
“Why do you choose to live here? I was under the impression that the Ralmanni and Stormwinders got along.”
“The Stormwinders are a brave people, but they are not our people.”
“Many Ralmanni live among them now.”
“I am well aware of that! It is not so simple as you might think. My fathers fought the orcs for this land before the men of Stormwind ever took arms against the Horde, and I fought in the cold lands alongside the others. It was for this place, even though it is nothing like what it once was!”
Rav sighed, and lowered his head.
“I am sorry, I should be more hospitable. I have spent time with Stormwinders, perhaps why my manners are not as good as they should be. Will you forgive me?”
“There is nothing to forgive.”
“Yes there is,” he insisted.
“Then I forgive you.”
“Times are very difficult. For all I know, the Avishna, Gan, and Sihld are the last Ralmanni that follow the Life of the Wheel. It is our fate though; we shall accept it.”
“Do any in the band wish to leave?”
“Some do. But until the majority of the Avishna wish to leave, none shall. We all stand together. That is the law.”
A Ralmanni headman should not be confused with a king. A headman rules only with the consensus of his band. However, the nomadic Ralmanni are still very conservative and communal.
Davitri herself was a figure of some importance, a seer in training. To learn more about the seers I was invited into the wagon belonging to Velni Rasnar. The interior of her wagon was a place of astounding beauty. Great tapestries hung on each wall, portraying representations of Ralmanni legends and painted in vibrant colors. A picture of a Najaru dominated the back of the wagon. The Najaru was a slender, anthropoid figure standing in a column of white flame. He had two pairs of arms, held in a rough X formation. Each delicate hand bore a brilliantly hued flame: red, blue, green and violet. Three pairs of wings arched out from the Najaru’s back, and his face was set in transcendent serenity.
The interior of the wagon smelled vaguely of spices. Much like Davitri, Velni was blind. Quite old, she nonetheless seemed healthy, perhaps the inevitable result of a life on the move. She smiled at my entry.
“You have my gratitude Talus. We all mourn the passing of Ihlrar, yet we are thankful to still have Davitri. I was told you have questions about the seers?”
“Yes. I know very little about them, though by the name I would assume you deal with some sort of prophecy?”
“Many think that, but it is not the case. Prophecies are vague things Talus, and it is not wise to put too much stock into them. The thinking beings of this world, whether they be Ralmanni, Stormwinder, or troll, have a way of going against what is predicted.”
“What do you do then?”
“The Light connects you and I, Talus. Likewise it connects all of us. It is not easy, not exact, but in the heights of prayer a seer’s piety can sometimes reveal the soul of humanity, and where it is headed. Before the northlands fell to the dead—yes, we are rather better informed than you might think—I sensed the darkening in spirit. People became bitter and sought eternal life for themselves on the mortal plane. Disappointed perhaps, with the results of the war.”
“But we won the war. I’m assuming you mean the Second War.”
“Yes, we won. But while we fought our souls foresaw a great paradise in the future. After all, were not elves and dwarves, Stormwinders and Ralmanni, all fighting under the same banner? Yet it did not turn out the way we hoped, and there was anger about that in some quarters.”
“The Cult of the Damned.”
“What do you see now?”
“It grows confusing. I can see the Light in strange places, and I see it missing in places stranger still. I think we live in a very chaotic time. That is exactly why prophecies should not be taken literally, and why they are always written in a vague fashion. Sometimes I can see possibilities in the future, but I cannot be completely certain.”
“How do the others react to an uncertain prediction?”
“I react to it by prayer and ritual. I burn incense, I cast bones, and I seek the wisdom of the Najaru. It is always possible that I will misinterpret it; that is why a seer must never grow too proud. In the old days, all the seers would meet in regards to matters of great import. The last time that happened was in the First War, though the orcs found us and killed as many as they could.”
“What exactly are the Najaru? They are not gods, I take it?”
“They are close to gods. More importantly they are emissaries of the Light that binds us all.”
Velni gave a dusty sigh.
“I believe that the time of seers is over. I do not see any possibility that we shall ever return to our former numbers. I shall help my people as long as I am able.”
“Are all seers blind?”
“It is necessary for us, yes. If you look at the sun too long, it blinds you. It is much the same when looking into the Light. There is an herb that grows here, hard to find these days, that takes away outer sight if prepared correctly. Those who wish to be seers must take it.”
“Forgive me if this seems obnoxious, but the priests in Lordaeron did not blind themselves.”
“They did not see the possibilities ahead either,” laughed Velni. “I always admired how Northmen could ask the most astounding questions without any concern for tact!” She smiled fondly at that comment.
The Ralmanni warned me that Karazhan was a haunted place, and quite dangerous. I was adamant in going however, so they simply wished me luck. As a parting gift, they presented me with a painted wooden amulet of the Scarlet Raven. I still carry it today. Velni said that she would remember me in her prayers.
I thought it unwise to return to the Vice so I took a treacherous route along the river. Along the way I encountered strange balls of light that attacked me with surges of arcane energy. They could not take much punishment though, and did not pose any real threat to me.
The great tower of Karazhan has always been an enigma. No one knew who built it; even the Ralmanni said that it stood there before they arrived. Conjurers first explored the tower, but made little headway in uncovering its mysteries. Strangely enough, the Brotherhood of the Horse, Stormwind’s old knightly order, elected to make the tower their headquarters. The knights wished to be close to the kingdom's frontier, both to expand its borders as well as to defend from any potential threats. Many in those days believed that troll empires still reigned in the depths of the eastern swamps. Apparently, the Brotherhood of the Horse's leaders reasoned it would be more cost-effective to use the existing tower, in spite of its sinister reputation.
When the knights came to Karazhan, settlers soon followed. Sinister though the tower was, most people felt safe under the protection of the knights. A town sprung up around Karazhan and thrived, turning into a point of departure for expeditions into the Swamp of Sorrows. At the time, Stormwind had every intention of colonizing the mire.
In Karazhan, I stood in a fogbound street, surrounded by the moldering hulks of abandoned houses. Entropy has warped the dimensions of the town, so that angles and beams sag under the weight of decay. Considering that the town was abandoned a little more than 200 years ago, it actually should have been even more ruined than it was. Some unnatural force kept it in a state of perpetual rot.
I entered one of the houses with a sense of trepidation. Filthy human bones lay piled in dusty corners. Dark stains had been splattered on the walls, somehow visible through the dirt. Water soaked the floor, and the boards sank like a sponge beneath my feet.
The mysteries of the tower finally overcame the knights of Stormwind. One rainy night, the Armsman of the Brotherhood of the Horse, Giaran Carvatti, emerged from the lower reaches of Karazhan. No one knew what he had been doing there. He went straight to the dormitories occupied by the youthful squires and slaughtered them as they slept. Still undetected, he set fire to the stables. Burning horses spread the blaze to the rest of the town.
Some of the other knights confronted Giaran. In a seemingly impossible feat he killed seventeen knights before he was slain. The Brotherhood of the Horse abandoned Karazhan after the incident. The inhabitants of the town slowly trickled away, until none remained. Plenty of cities had seen disasters, yet the madness of Carvatti seemed to drain the soul of the people. Years later, rumors spread of foul cults and secret caverns beneath the town, though they were never verified.
I left the awful house and returned to the streets. The area grows darker in the jagged streets closest to the tower. The last inhabitant of Karazhan was the sorcerer Medivh. History now recognizes him as having been mad and controlled by demons. The fact that he would move to such an bleak location might have been proof enough of his condition. The actions of Medivh are well known, so I shall not repeat them here. Suffice to say, he too met his end in the tower, courtesy of Lord Lothar. There have been stories, some from reliable sources, saying that he returned to aid our world in the invasion of the Burning Legion. Perhaps he was attempting to atone for his earlier deeds.
The tower might have been beautiful once. Engravings decorate the surface of the massive stone structure, the turrets capped with oxidized copper domes. Yet time and a dark history have taken their toll, and Karazhan seems like a curse upon the world made physically manifest.
Fallen chunks of masonry cluster around the tower in heaps. Ghostly white flowers grow from the ruins, exerting a sickly-sweet aroma that I could sense if I went close to them. The sky darkened further and rain began to fall. For a moment I confused the smell of rain with the coppery stink of blood.
I walked behind the tower, where there stands a decrepit church and a small graveyard. A momentary spell of dizziness struck me and I leaned on a nearby fence for support. I gasped as I looked back at the base of the tower. A multitude of phantoms gathered there, ghostly images frozen in poses of death, floating in rigor through the oily air.
Seeking an exit, I made my way towards the river, passing more empty buildings infested by spectral growths of alien appearance. I took one last look at the haunted tower. A pale creature, with ropy limbs and a head that looked like a fleshy tube filled with impossible teeth, shambled into view. It stood there in the rain, scanning the place with its eyeless visage. Fortunately it did not see me, or if it did, took no action.
The sky lightened and the rain stopped as I went farther north.