Saturday, October 20, 2007
The nightmare of Felwood grows worse with each step. It is hard to think that a land cursed with such hideous corruption could have ever resembled Ashenvale. Felwood is the antithesis of all that the Kaldorei love.
Great trees loom dark and warped, the limbs shrouded in oily black leaves. Brittle brown grass barely survives on the forest floor, and the sickly red weeds I saw in Darkshore erupt from the ground in abundance. Felwood is inundated in an acrid stench, reminding me of the highly corrosive alchemical mixtures I'd once smelled in Dalaran’s alchemy labs. One senses that acid is burning out the entire forest. The darkness of southern Felwood makes it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. This changes after a day of travel, when the dome of the sky turns into a bright and burning green.
No birds sing in the poisoned canopy. No feeling of life exists. The animals that survive are twisted and mutated by infernal energies. A day after I arrived, I came across the carcass of a huge bear lying in the road. Patches of skin and fur were missing, revealing the blackened muscle and bone beneath. Glistening tumors had bloomed all over the bear’s body while yellowish fluids seeped from huge sores. There were much fewer carrion feeders than I expected for a creature of such size. I only saw clusters of bloated and wingless white flies feeding on the decayed mass.
When the Burning Legion made its march of destruction to Hyjal’s summit, they used the forest called Ellonara as a temporary base camp, quickly destroying the small elven hamlets in the area. Sentinels reported a demonic presence blanketing the entire region, and spoke of satyrs flocking there to serve their masters. Infernals, a type of demon best described as burning engines of destruction, fell to the world at the Legion’s command. They devastated swathes of forest and glowing craters still mark the lifeless earth where they landed. The by-products of the demonic influence are harder to dispel than the source. As I witnessed in Darkshore, they are spreading.
During the day, a surreal white sun boils in the emerald sky, emanating a painful and prickly heat. It is a dry heat, more akin to a desert than any normal forest. Not long after I found the corpse of the bear, a bedraggled figure stepped out from the thicket, stumbling towards the road. He was a night elf; as he got closer I saw the hideous trauma on his body. White blisters massed on his right arm, covering his right hand to a point beyond recognition. Oozing growths crusted the wounds on his shredded feet.
“Help me,” he begged, in Common. I was wearing my disguise at the time.
I wondered what I could possibly do to help him. Without any other options, I conjured up some water and gave it to him. He drank it greedily.
“There are... druids to the north. Not far. Take me... to them,” he said, his words struggling to escape his swollen tongue.
“Can you walk?” Though I would have been able to carry him, I must confess that I was reluctant to touch him.
“For a little while longer.”
“What is your name?” I asked.
Serion’s condition grew worse as we traveled. His breathing became more labored and rivulets of fluid began to run from his eyes, nose, and mouth. I made an attempt to speak with him so that he would stay focused, but most times he did not even hear what I said. Occasionally he mumbled to himself, and I feared he was hallucinating. I offered to carry him but he refused, saying that any physical contact would be agony on the infected portions of his skin.
We had not gone far when Serion collapsed to the ground, dead. I elected to reach the druid encampment and inform them of Serion’s death, so that they could properly deal with the body. As it turned out, the druids found me. A pair of them walked down the path; a Kaldorei male and a tauren female. I informed them of what happened.
“Ah, Serion. I feared this would happen,” lamented the elf.
“Was he a druid?”
“No, but he lent his aid to us. He had not been with us long though, and was reckless. There was no one with him?”
“I did not see anyone.”
“Then I fear we have two dead on our hands. Go north, you will reach the Emerald Sanctuary before nightfall. We shall take care of our fallen comrade. I am sure you do not need to be told, but stay on the road no matter what!”
I soon reached the relative safety of the Emerald Sanctuary. It is not a particularly heartening sight, consisting of a few elven houses and tauren tents barely holding out against the corruption. There is no sign of renewed health in the forest around it.
The Emerald Circle, a special division of the Cenarion Circle that works to heal Felwood, maintains the Sanctuary. Only the strongest druids, in both physical and psychological terms, are initiated into the Emerald Circle.
“We cannot even muster enough druids to sufficiently protect this little patch of forest, so we must rely on volunteers,” explained Irudan Wintersong, a grave-looking Druid of the Talon.
"Are there any attacks on the Emerald Sanctuary?"
"No directly, but the Jaedenar satyrs roam the wild, tormenting our agents."
“Do you think the standards are too high?”
“No, that isn’t the problem. The requirements are stringent for a good reason. I mean, look around you! Really, it’s that there are not enough druids. Many of those who are capable of joining the Emerald Circle work at other tasks.”
“Do you get volunteers from both the Horde and the Alliance?”
“Correct. I do not care to admit it, but the Forsaken really are the best suited for this task. Though regrettably, very few have any interest in helping.”
I could have revealed my identity safely, but I chose to remain in disguise in order to be polite. Irudan began describing the woes afflicting the Emerald Circle.
“As druids we must revere nature, but when you spend so long in such a poisoned land it becomes hard to do so. Felwood is not our enemy. The corruption is. But seeing so much degradation weakens the spirit. Everything here is poison. Food and water must undergo extensive treatment before they become safe to consume. Have you noticed the red grass all over the place?”
“Yes. I have seen it in Darkshore as well.”
“It’s called felgrass, and it spreads far too quickly for comfort. It is not from this world, so no animals here can eat it. There was an orc warrior who helped us a year ago. A pack of satyrs ambushed him, forcing him to flee. He hid from them in a meadow of felgrass. When he returned to us, his skin was peeling apart! Nothing we did could heal him, and we were forced to amputate both of his legs and an arm.”
“What happened to him after that?”
“He was sent back to Splintertree Post. I do not know what became of him since. It’s worse than just the plants; even the air is harmful. The druids who grew the Emerald Sanctuary began coughing blood after a few weeks. The insides of their throats hung in ribbons! They had to leave the place, and three of them died.”
“How did the Emerald Circle return?”
“Tea brewed from the leaves of peacebloom negates the effects. Everyone here must drink it daily; the tauren must drink it twice a day, because of their size.”
“Where do you get the peacebloom?”
“None grows here, but the Cenarion Circle hired a goblin merchant to ship it to us from Teldrassil. He has one of those odd flying boats, a dirigible I think he calls it. Goblins are offensively indifferent to the natural world in most cases, but I think seeing Felwood has made him understand the importance of our cause.”
A druid usually stays in the Sanctuary for a half-year, and then moves elsewhere to recuperate. For a race as attuned to nature as the Kaldorei or tauren, Felwood is a truly abominable place. Even the burning green sky is harmful to the eyes of the living. Some druids can never bring themselves to return, and a few have suffered total mental collapse from their experiences.
In the center of the Emerald Sanctuary is a small elven house with an underground chamber. There, an enterprising gnome named Flix Teletoggle set up a series of enchanted canvas screens that show verdant and healthy areas of the world. The screens can be set to “Ashenvale,” “Mulgore,” and “The Hinterlands.”
“Druids come down here so that they can see what a normal forest looks like. Some of the druids want me to shut this down. They say that they hate the ‘falsity’ of the images. But there isn’t a single druid here who hasn’t gone down there at least a few times. Once some night elf went mad and broke a bunch of the screens. Took me a long time to fix it, and when I did there was pretty much a line waiting to get in,” said Flix. He did not seem to like the druids very much.
“Do you get paid for this?”
“I’m actually employed by the Gnomish International Relations and Goodwill Committee. They want to make a good impression on the night elves, and I speak Darnassian so I was a good choice.”
“Why did you learn Darnassian?”
“Curiosity. Honestly, I like the night elves. But this place is getting to me. Look, when nature gets out of balance, the druids aren’t afraid to get violent to clean it up. The best way to fix Felwood would be to burn the place to the ground. Start with the most badly infected areas, and move on from there!”
“Would the destruction of Felwood end the corruption?”
“The druids tell me that the source of contamination is deep underground; that’s how it gets into the rivers and spreads to Darkshore. But if you got rid of the forest I think it’d make it a lot easier to clean. The founders of the Emerald Circle were mostly elves who lived in Felwood back when it was called Ellonara, so they’re stupidly sentimental about it.”
Later that night, I did witness an amusing argument between a human and an elf over whether Felwood or the Plaguelands were worse. Personally I would vouch for Felwood being worse, though my undeath may have mildly desensitized me to the Plaguelands’ horrors.
The two druids I met the other day returned with Serion’s body early the next morning, unable to find any trace of his partner. Serion’s corpse would be delivered to Ashenvale as soon as it became convenient. It would be wrong, said the druids, to bury anyone in such a foul place if it could be helped.
I left the Emerald Sanctuary shortly before noon. The blackened trees grow closer together north of the Sanctuary, which at least blocks out the terrible sky. The narrow road is revealed by the sickly light of corrupted lamps that flicker green and ghastly in the dark. Great rents scourge the trunks of larger trees, bleeding glowing green sap. Deformed animals scurry through the underbrush, mangy creatures that bear little resemblance to their original forms.
I again had reason to be thankful for my undead state. This is not to say that the Forsaken are immune to the poisons of Felwood. Rather, we can only be affected by the strongest and most virulent. The air that scars the throats of the living is barely noticeable to my kind. Nonetheless, I purchased some of the peacebloom tea used by the Emerald Circle as a precaution.
After four days I came to the Bloodvenom Falls, a series of rapids that horizontally bisect Felwood. Its source is a great lake of viscous green liquid that was once water. A putrid stink hovers over the lake, thick bubbles forming and popping on the scummy surface. Some of the worst poisons in Felwood flow in the liquid of Bloodvenom Falls. Exposure to it causes a massive and sudden growth of tumors on the body, quickly immobilizing and killing the host. A druid told me that, when first befouled by demonic energies, the shores of Bloodvenom Lake were covered in the putrid slag of the animals that sampled the fouled water.
A rickety bridge gives dubious passage over the corrupted flow. A collapsed pier sinks into the muck at the other end. Elven villages once thrived on those shores. Much as in the Plaguelands, civilization exists only as a memory in Felwood.
Nightfall brought me to a sere and broken landscape known as Shatterscar Vale, where incandescent green flames burn in empty craters. It was there that the infernals crashed into the world, each one bringing more fel taint.
I noticed the light of a normal fire coming from a grove of petrified trees. I cautiously went towards it and saw an elderly orcish woman seated at a campfire, warming her wrinkled hands. A voidwalker, a type of shadowy demon favored by warlocks, hovered next to her in a distinctly menacing stance. At first, I did not think she noticed me.
“I see you, human. Step up to the fire if you want, I would not mind the company,” she said, her voice friendly.
I revealed myself.
“Thank you for showing yourself. I may be a warlock, but I bear no love for those who destroyed this land, so you needn’t fear. My name is Augra.”
“I am Destron. I’m not actually a human. This is merely a disguise. Please, don’t be alarmed when I remove my eyes.”
“A Forsaken! You are a long way from home. But your kind is better suited for this place than I.”
I took a seat opposite of Augra, and asked what she was doing in Felwood.
“Atoning for a dishonorable life.”
“Ah. Would you feel uncomfortable explaining it?”
“I would, but I shall anyway. The lies of the Shadow Council did great damage, so perhaps honesty is best from now on. I was a young girl when the orcs first came to this world. My sisters and I were chattel, nothing more than potential rewards for the heroes of the Horde. My sisters accepted it, but I hated the idea of becoming a trophy-slave to some foolish grunt, and looked for escape. I summoned an imp one rainy night, having learned how from secretly reading the warlock tomes. I only had him for a few minutes before he returned to the Burning Hells.”
Augra gave a low chuckle.
“A meddling necrolyte found me and reported me to the warlocks. They planned to skin me alive for my transgression. But Gul’dan was in Stonard that night and went to see me. You cannot ever forget the first time you see Gul’dan; I’ve stared into the eyes of demons, but even there I have never seen a look of such profound hatred. Apparently my gall had impressed him. Gul’dan cared nothing for the customs of the Horde. He agreed to initiate me into his Shadow Council.”
“You were actually a member of the Shadow Council?”
“A marginal one at first. And if my membership in that terrible group offends you, you may shun me with my blessing. It would have been better for my soul if the warlocks had killed me back in Stonard.”
“You are contributing to the cleansing of this world, you should not be so hard on yourself.”
“Ah, Destron, if you knew what went deeds were done in the Shadow Council you would not say that. I went with Gul’dan to the Tomb of Sargeras, where he met his well-deserved end. The Stormreaver warlocks that survived set sail to the west on a tattered fleet. We arrived in Kalimdor 24 years before Thrall.”
“But you were not able to gain as strong a foothold as Thrall.”
“There were not enough of us to do so. Most of the Stormreaver Clan was dead. A few of the Twilight’s Hammer Clan went with us, but they were lunatics and we banished them from our presence. A goodly number of ogres also came with us, though they did not stay at our sides. They left and formed their own tribes all over Kalimdor.”
“Who came to replace Gul’dan?”
“Fel’dan. He’s an ambitious warlock, though clumsy and crude with the powers of Hell. When we first landed we met with the quillboars and centaur but could form no lasting alliance. It was fortunate for Thrall that we never encountered the tauren, though we knew of them. We only survived because of the satyrs. They long thought they were alone in serving the demons that once wreaked such terror on the land. We were a boon to them.”
“Did you ever fight the night elves?”
“No. We did not become bold enough to do so until the Burning Legion returned during the Third War. Even then, we preferred to stay out of the battles. Unlike most orcs, we had no compunction against letting others spill blood in our name.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Disgust and exhaustion. Without Gul’dan, the Shadow Council no longer seemed like dark masters who would rule all worlds. They became like children playing with fire. When I first heard of Thrall, I knew I had to leave.”
“So you joined the New Horde?”
“The Horde will not have me. Actually the Forsaken probably would, but I have no intention of returning to Lordaeron. I assist the Emerald Circle in their efforts to reclaim Felwood. It is an honorable mission.”
“I was in the Emerald Sanctuary several days ago, and they spoke of a group called the Jaedenar. Do you know of them?”
“Yes, they are the arm of the Shadow Council in Felwood. They are the most powerful branch of the Shadow Council, to the best of my knowledge. Fel’dan has direct control over the Jaedenar. You see, Fel’dan could never hope to command the loyalty that Gul’dan once did, so he split the Shadow Council into different groups. This lets trusted underlings manage some of the more quarrelsome sects. The Burning Blade in Desolace, the Shadowsworn in Stormwind... there are probably others.”
“I have met the Shadowsworn.”
“I am sorry to hear that. They are a strange group, even by our standards. The Jaedenar seek to become like demons, to conquer all worlds at the side of the Burning Legion. They even named themselves after Kil’jaeden, the Lord of the Burning Legion, in hopes of becoming more like him! Meanwhile, the Shadowsworn grovel at the hooves of the Nathrezim, wanting only to please the dark whims of their masters.”
“They certainly acted in an unbalanced manner. Do you think that the destruction of the Jaedenar will be a major step to Felwood’s recovery?”
“I do not think it will ever recover. The Burning Legion is mightier than these druids know. My goal now is to redeem as much honor as I can, and to help kill Fel’dan. I long for the day when I hear that reckless upstart has breathed his last, and his soul becomes the toy of the demons he pretended to rule.” A sinister grin spread over her wrinkled features.
“So you primarily give information to the Emerald Circle?”
“Yes. I just returned from tracking down a group of satyrs in the north. When it comes to demons, warlocks are the best trackers.”
“The orcs are known for their stamina, but I must say I find it remarkable, and impressive, that you are able to survive here at your age.”
“When you have spent as much time with demons as I have, it changes you. Your mind and soul darken, and the body toughens. I must still take great precaution in this land, but less than most of the living.”
Augra sighed, suddenly looking mournful.
“I have done much dishonor in my life. Even if Thrall himself were to forgive me, I cannot accept it. In many ways, I still have the soul of a demon. Do not be deceived by my words, Destron: though I may speak of making up for misdeeds, my greatest desire is simply to destroy Fel’dan and his minions, to prove that I am more powerful. There is great joy in cruelty and power, of knowing you can ruin those who displease you. Once this glory is known, it cannot be forgotten.”
The road through Felwood begins to rise steadily at the northern reaches. I was actually traveling on the spiraling path to Mt. Hyjal, though the beauty of that legendary place cannot be seen from the dying forests. The land worsened as I walked, the forest tortured into grisly new shapes. On more than one occasion I saw stone bodies wreathed in pillars of flame wander through the desolation, infernals that remained from the Third War. Their original purpose thwarted, they content themselves with random destruction. At night, the air is rent by the cacophonous festivals of the satyrs, dancing in their withered glades.
Despite the demonic presence, Felwood is the home of some of the last uncorrupted furbolgs in Kalimdor. Making their base in the subterranean tunnels of Timbermaw Hold, the Timbermaw furbolgs jealously guard the passes connecting Felwood, Moonglade, and Winterspring. Turned bitter and paranoid by the chaos of the Third War, the Timbermaw Tribe attacks all who venture into the Hold without their express permission. I would either need to find a way to gain safe passage or climb over the mountains.
South of Timbermaw Hold is the tiny elven village called Talonbranch Glade. Established long before the Third War, the elves abandoned it like they did the other settlements in Ellonara. Uniquely, it was reclaimed. Mylini Frostmoon, who once fought under the banner of Ravencrest before the Sundering, headed the small group of elves in Talonbranch Glade. She was motivated by the desire to again see the summer woodlands of Ellonara.
According to Mylini, the Timbermaw Tribe grants passage to those who help them in their battle with the corrupted Deadwood Tribe. The only other option is to go with a member of the Cenarion Circle. The furbolgs respect the Cenarion Circle as their allies and give them free use of the tunnels. I chose to wait for the druids.
Talonbranch Glade is located a half-day’s journey south from the road leading to Timbermaw Hold. Thus, I could only wait in the wilderness for a messenger or emissary of the Cenarion Circle. I knew for a fact that both Alliance and Horde are welcome in Moonglade, so I was at least able to abandon my human disguise.
I waited for two dreary days before encountering a party of Cenarion Circle members. They came in a group of five, led by an elder Druid of the Claw named Amnelus Stardream. He traveled with his ward (a sort of druidic apprentice) and three Nighthaven Defenders. Unlike the rabble that constituted most of the old elven militias, the Nighthaven Defenders have long been a respected fighting force, the military arm of the Cenarion Circle. They are the only city militia that still exists today, all other guard duties having been assumed by the sentinels. Amnelus was teaching his ward and the defenders about the ruin of Felwood. Many in the Cenarion Circle undertake training in Felwood. Those who do well get the chance to join the Emerald Circle.
“Why do you wish to go to Moonglade, undead?” asked Amnelus, his voice stern. His compatriots eyed me with suspicion.
We debated until nightfall. I tried to persuade him by mentioning how important it is for the world to know of the Cenarion Circle’s work. He countered by saying that Moonglade is a place for the preservers of nature, and that plenty of people were already aware of it. I think my persistence amused him.
“You certainly are determined. Most humans would have given up by now.”
“True, though I am not a human.”
“You are merely an altered one. Very well. There is no prohibition against non-druids entering Moonglade, though you must take care to observe and respect our ways.”
With that, I followed them on the steep ascent to Timbermaw Hold. The gate to the hold is an immense bear’s head set into the mountainside, frozen in an eternal roar. Small, brightly colored wooden totems stand all along the sides of the road leading up to it. Amnelus explained that the furbolgs made them in order to ward off evil spirits.
A towering furbolg guarded the entrance. He lowered his head when Amnelus approached, his demeanor reverent. The furbolg spoke a few words in a deep, snarling tongue. Amnelus responded, pointing towards me. The furbolg nodded and beckoned us to enter.
“You are not the first Forsaken to go through here. A few have even earned the trust of the Timbermaw by fighting the Deadwood and Winterfall furbolgs,” explained Amnelus. “Stay close to us nonetheless; you are no friend of the Timbermaw.”
I entered the rough-hewn tunnels of Timbermaw Hold, instantly surrounded by comforting warmth. The evil of Felwood is absent there. Vibrant mosses and flowers grow in profusions around the wooden posts built into the sides. Our shadows danced on the walls under the torchlight.
We saw more and more furbolgs as we descended the carved steps. I could not learn much from such a brief observation. Due to their thick fur, the furbolg race has little need for clothing. A few wear headdresses of drab feathers, along with necklaces of bone and polished flint.
“Did the furbolgs build this place?” I asked.
“Yes, over the course of a thousand years. After the Sundering, we Kaldorei could do little to protect the furbolgs who were hunted by satyrs and other demons. The tribes of the area began building safe houses in the mountains, their great claws perfect for digging. Over time, they connected these safe houses.”
“Did the satyr ever attack this place?”
“The power of the satyrs was broken by the time the furbolg completed the Hold. The furbolg were loath to let the Hold go to waste, so they would occasionally meet here to exchange information, give gifts, and so on. They also ensured that the tunnels stayed in good condition.”
“And it provided a sanctuary for them when the Burning Legion came?”
“Yes, it did. The demons could have easily overwhelmed the Hold. For whatever reason, they chose instead to climb the mountains. The Timbermaw were the only tribe to see that the furbolgs were falling victim to a terrible malady. These, and a few other Timbermaw furbolgs in Azshara, are the last of their race in this continent.”
“Why did the taint not spread here?”
“No one knows for sure. The furbolgs say that the ancient spirits of their ancestors dwell in these halls, keeping the place pure. I can neither refute nor prove this theory, though I suspect its truth.”
I noticed thick roots descending from the cavern ceiling. Clean water dripped from their wooden bodies, gathered by the furbolgs and stored in skins. I also saw a number of underground springs bubbling in the relaxing darkness.
“I can see where they get water, but where do they get food?”
“The animals in Winterspring and Moonglade can still be safely eaten. They must be careful not to over-hunt, however. In here, they have berries and lichens that offer limited sustenance. There is a goblin in Winterspring who gives meat to the furbolgs in exchange for hides. We tried to chase her off, but the Timbermaw appreciate her for some reason.”
“It sounds like they are content with the trade.”
“The furbolgs are not familiar with the goblins, or with the concept of trade. I would rather protect them, but the Cenarion Circle has no say over the Timbermaw. We can give suggestions, but it is not our place to control.”
We reached the center of Timbermaw Hold, a great cavern filled with an ursine congregation. They roared in their own language, deeply involved in a discussion. A wooden bridge spans the cavern, terminating at the passage that leads to Winterspring. A steep staircase goes to the floor where another tunnel winds its way north to Moonglade. Amnelus stopped, and the furbolg council fell silent.
A great black furbolg stood up, his headdress bristling with dun-colored feathers. Evidently a furbolg of some importance, he spoke with Amnelus for a time before returning to his fellows.
“Who was that?”
“The lorespeaker. The lorespeaker shoulders the task of remembering the great ancestors, of keeping track of the spirits. Though not the leader of a tribe, no chieftain would ever dream of ruling without the lorespeaker’s aid. It is the lorespeaker who usually acts as the consul to the outside world.”
“How much power does a chief hold?”
“Not much. The chief is merely a great hunter whose piety and skill has impressed the shamans and elders. When tribes quarrel or meet, it is the chief who act as the voices for their tribes. Yet if he is foolish, the elders will rebuke him, causing him to lose face. Furbolgs do not tolerate incompetence.”
Nor could they. With sorrow, I realized I was possibly looking on the last remnant of a once-vibrant race. The path began to rise, and I saw Moonglade's sacred light glimmering at the end of the tunnel.