Saturday, October 27, 2007
Swirling dust spirals into the tents of Valor’s Rest, carried by a low and howling wind. I stood next to a pile of crates, each marked with the sigil of the Cenarion Circle. With me was Metak Ragetotem, a tauren warrior. Under normal circumstances he would have been a truly imposing figure. That day, he looked more like a lonely desert apparition than a fearsome warrior, gray dust coating his face and arms. Metak spoke constantly, repeating phrases when he ran out of things to say. At first, I thought it just an idiosyncrasy.
“I apologize Destron. I imagine you have grown quite tired of my voice. But when you stop speaking, you hear them calling again, and I cannot abide that,” he mourned.
A harsh insect buzz quivers endlessly in the searing air of Silithus, rasping on the ears like a metal file. The song emanates from the hives, those wounds in the earth stretching miles across, each filled to the brim with silithid warriors and workers. The awful sound goes on through night and day, a choir of thousands upon thousands of arthropod monsters. Even the most hardened warriors lose their nerve under the constant noise.
“We now welcome the sandstorms, for only they can drown out the sound of the silithids.”
Ja’gahn and I had stumbled onto Valor’s Rest after a grueling two-day journey up the crater’s slope. Valor’s Rest is a small outpost of the Cenarion Circle. There they receive the troops ferried over the mountains by zeppelins. These zeppelins avoid silithid flyers by rising to a higher altitude, where the wasps cannot reach them.
“The goblins who made the zeppelins said that the air at that level would be too thin to breathe. Yet the shamans of the Skychaser Tribe came, and dwelled in the mountains for two days and two nights. There they beseeched the Spirits of the Air for aid. The spirits bear no love for the goblins, but they despise the silithids. Finally, the spirits said they would bring air up to the zeppelins, so long as the goblins planted trees in the Stonetalon Mountains.”
“Ingenious. The goblins have fulfilled their part of the bargain?”
“They are moving up to Stonetalon. The goblins tried to pay us to do it for them, but they only betrayed their poor understanding of the spirit world. I do not know if they can undo the damage done by their kin, but it is at least a step towards reconciliation.”
I have heard mages theorize that shamanism is merely a “step” to arcane mastery, something to be discarded with a sufficient level of magical understanding. I have not seen any evidence to support this. No mage could have done something like provide breathable air for high-altitude zeppelins. Both shamanism and sorcery have their place; the trolls, after all, use both.
The ribs of a great beast (most likely one of the bronze dragons that had fought in the War of the Shifting Sands) stick out from the ground near Valor’s Post. The Cenarion Circle the ribcage a fitting place to bury the dead, marking the mounds of the fallen with small, hovering obelisks that are carved from the immense geodes found all over Silithus. When a piece of a geode is removed, it will float of its own volition. The druids are at a loss to explain it, and some doubt the wisdom of using such a strange stone as grave markers.
Ja’gahn joined me as I examined the strange cemetery.
“Thank you for taking me here. I expect you are going to return back to Gadgetzan?” I asked.
“I think so. I might try to find myself a new job.”
“You’re a fine guide, Ja’gahn.” I had attempted to pay Ja’gahn the total fee, but he steadfastly refused. I realize that giving him the full amount would only make him unhappy.
“I led you right into the silithids. No guide should do that.”
“Do what you think is best, then.”
“I have to be as canny and tough as I say I am. If I’m not, I’d best be finding a new line of work,” he said.
“Shall I recommend your services as a guide?”
“No. I don’t think I can live up to your words. It’s a big world out there, as you know, and there’s many other things I can do. Take care of yourself, Destron; these are dangerous lands.”
“You too, Ja’gahn.”
I left Valor’s Rest early the next morning. Metak told me it would take around five days of steady travel to reach Cenarion Hold. I had not gone far before the squat tents of Valor’s Rest disappeared from sight.
It is impossible to escape the song of the swarms, which grows louder in the deeper deserts. The landscape is harsh and alien, weighed down by an oppressive sense of age. Before dwarves, before elves, before even trolls, this was the land of monsters. Great scorpions and bloated spiders skitter across the desert beyond the road, standing as tall as men. Equally threatening are the giant, armor-plated worms sifting through the sand. These monstrosities avoid the road (which is a new construction, made of consecrated dwarven stone) but are ubiquitous elsewhere. This is in spite of the fact that Silithus should not be able to support any life form larger than a small lizard.
Later, a druid would tell me that the monsters exist in a sort of food cycle. The worms feed on the scorpions, who in turn hunt the spiders. The spiders lay webs that entrap the worms, enabling the arachnids to feast. Even this is not a satisfactory explanation; the ecosystem is simply not viable. I can only conclude that, like the Eastern Plaguelands and Felwood, corruption has defined its own reality in Silithus.
Clusters of geodes puncture the level sands. Naturally purple in color, the harsh light of the sun gives them a dull orange sheen. During the day, the surface gets hot enough to burn bare skin. Black cyclones undulate as they snake through the deserts, their eerie moans still audible through the eternal buzzing. Millions of smaller insects fester underfoot. Tiny mites scurry beneath the sand, the top layer quivering like water from their motion. Swarms of stinging sand wasps build tubular hives on rocks, and hover noisomely about them.
The morning sky is the color of burnt amber, and the first rays of the sun blast the festering wastelands with scorching heat. In Silithus, the rising sun confers only a sense of despair. That thought came to me as I trudged through my sixth day of travel; Mekot had underestimated the distance between Valor’s Rest and Cenarion Hold.
The buzzing became maddening at that point. I could not shake the impression that the sounds came from inside my skull; that colonies of mites had somehow crawled into my head. By noon I collapsed in the dust, too disoriented to continue. I grabbed a large rock next to the road and slammed it into my scalp. My thoughts were of the relief that would surely be mine once the swarms of insects poured out of my head. The idea of silencing their mechanical drone intoxicated my feverish mind.
Then my senses returned and I cast the rock aside. I’d triumphed against the whispers of the Scourge, and I refused to succumb to mere insects. I elected to walk faster, so that I’d arrive in Cenarion Hold before I did something else so foolish. My brief madness is apparently common to solitary travelers in Silithus.
In the bloody glow of sunset I spotted a steep, stone hill to the southwest, a solid stone tower perched on the summit. I had at last arrived at Cenarion Hold. Hurrying towards it, I was intercepted by a mounted Cenarion patrol headed out into the desert. The soldiers were all Kaldorei, riding majestic nightsabers. The leader was a lean night elf with a feral mane of green hair, which contrasted with his well-trimmed beard.
“Are you representing the Forsaken?” he inquired, his tone polite but brusque.
“I am an independent scholar.”
“Ordinarily I’d say that this is no place for scholars, but since you managed to get this far I supposed you can take care of yourself.”
“I have some arcane ability which I would be happy to lend to the cause.”
“Fair enough. You may proceed.”
Thanking him, I was on my way. Most of the soldiers there are Cenarion Protectors. I had learned a little bit about the Cenarion Protectors while in Moonglade. Unlike the sentinels, the Cenarion Protectors specialize in melee combat, for which they use azzinota blades to great effect. Azzinota blades are a variant of the curved swords favored by demon hunters. People say that elves are the only race with the dexterity to use them effectively, though I suspect the trolls could do a good job of it.
Another difference with the sentinels is the fact that the protectors accept male soldiers. If a male Kaldorei youth commits a minor crime of violence (such as brawling), the local authorities will often enlist him into the ranks of the protectors. The idea is to give him an acceptable way to work out aggression. Women have little reason to join the Cenarion Protectors. Some are failed sentinels. Occasionally, female protectors become wardens, but this is quite rare. Most wardens are still drawn from the sentinel ranks. The protectors also boast a few tauren braves—all from the Runetotem or Wildmane Tribes—among their number.
Blessed silence welcomes visitors to Cenarion Hold. I stood on the main path leading up the hill, marveling at the cessation of the insect song. The gnomes have set up arcane loudspeakers all around the perimeter of Cenarion Hold. These devices emit sounds identical to the buzzing, and can even compensate for shifts in pitch and intensity. The sound waves cancel each other out, which is a great relief to the inhabitants.
“When we first came to this place, in the War of the Shifting Sands, we used earplugs. They did not work very well. You could still hear the silithids all around,” explained Eselreon Leafwhisper, a Druid of the Talon.
“Did you ever expect to come back?”
“Only in my worst dreams,” he sighed.
Cenarion Hold is not a cheerful place. Even the greatest druids found it difficult grow buildings out of the barren rock, forcing the Kaldorei to make most of the structures out of stone. There is an ominous aesthetic to the structures of the Hold, the poor quality of the masonry creating a sort of barbaric atmosphere.
The war against the silithids and the Qiraji turned out to be more complex than I'd thought. A wispy druid of the talon named Seleon Windsong helped to educate me. Seleon had spent two years defending Light’s Hope Chapel in the Eastern Plaguelands. During that time, he had befriended Leonid Barthalamew, and was tolerant of the Forsaken (though he bore no love for Undercity).
“You say you studied in Dalaran?” he asked.
“Did you ever come across mention of the Old Gods?”
“Not to my recollection. Unless you mean the gods of the Arathi pantheon.”
“These are different. The legends of many nations make veiled references to the Old Gods. The Arathi myth cycles are no different, though their description is subtle, found in the names of certain demons. Kothan was one, I believe.”
“I see.” Kothan had been a monstrous sea demon, father of the Arathi sea god Dakon. Sigrun, a legendary culture hero, had imprisoned Kothan in a stone tomb many fathoms deep after best him in combat.
“The trolls call them the Insect Gods, though that seems to be a combination of the Qiraji and the Old Ones. The dark whispers that corrupted the ancient tauren are another example. We Kaldorei call them the Demon Mothers—our belief is that they ultimately spawned the demonic races. I still believe this to be the truth, though I no longer think there is any meaningful communication between the two. The dwarves have probably the most concrete example. A few of the artifacts retrieved by Ulduman make reference to terrible, primordial beings defeated by the Titans in the ancient past.”
“I take it the defeat was not permanent?”
“For whatever reason, the Titans only imprisoned the Old Gods. No one knows their number; it could be three, five, or a hundred. Some may even be dead; the Master’s Glaive in Darkshore might be the corpse of an Old God. The Old God buried in Ahn’qiraj is called C’thun. That is really all we know.”
“Did you encounter C’thun in the War of the Shifting Sands?”
“No. There were hints of a greater power behind the Qiraji, but we assumed the insects were the only threat. Insidious words now underly the buzzing of the swarms, adversely affecting our more sensitive druids. The Bronze Dragonflight has also told us of this threat. I wished they had told us the first time around,” he sighed.
The main contingents from the Alliance and Horde had already settled into the camp. Most of the Alliance soldiers are dwarves. The warriors of Ironforge are eager to take the battle to the ancient enemy of the Titans, and act with a nearly religious fervor. The humans troops at Cenarion Hold usually come from Theramore, the nation wanting to show its interest in aiding the people of Kalimdor. Darnassus did send a small number of sentinels to Cenarion Hold, though they let the Cenarion Circle do most of the work. There is a bit of friction between the sentinels and the protectors, the former regarding the latter as an army of rank amateurs and dangerous thugs.
“The protectors are for those who have failed the sentinels, or for criminals who avoided punishment,” sneered one sentinel. I did not speak with her myself; I merely overheard her conversation with a Theramore footman who nodded in response to her words.
Cenarion Protectors, on the other hand, do not hold the same level of animosity towards the sentinels. More than one protector pointed out that the fighting style of the sentinels, while perfect for the forests of Ashenvale, is less helpful in Silithus.
Orcs, trolls, and tauren make up the majority of the Horde force. The orcs love the idea of a great battle against a new foe, and nearly all of the tauren tribes issued braves to the Silithus campaign. Trollish warriors of both the Revantusk and Darkspear came, keen to fight their ancient foe. The Forsaken, on the other hand, only spared a few deathguards due to the threat of the Scourge in the home territories.
Most interesting of all are the forces of the Zandalari. A handful of these revered trolls led an army of many different tribes. The Frostmane, Shadowpine, Witherbark, Amani, and Shadowtooth Tribes all heeded the call of the Zandalari. Their hatred of the Qiraji suppressed the age-old tribal differences. The non-Horde trolls keep to their own kind, much to the relief of the other races.
The Dream House is one of a handful of grown buildings in the hold. Even there, the withering heat and dry air takes its toll; the wood is faded and the edges have already dried out. The purpose of the Dream House is to accommodate visiting emissaries from the Horde and Alliance, but they ended up camping with their respective armies. As such, the Dream House turned into a sort of rest area for high-ranking Cenarion soldiers. Quite crowded, the Kaldorei and Shu’halo warriors have more decorum than the fighters of other nations, allowing it to stay in decent condition.
The glaring sky darkened into the cold pinpricks of night. I stood in the second floor of the Dream House, speaking to a Cenarion Protector named Feruel. Feruel was a mere 300 years old, and a devoted follower of the Cenarion Circle.
“These momentous events in Silithus may be what brings Kalimdor together,” he said, after a draught of pear wine. “Night elf and tauren are natural allies, and even the orcs are not too far from our ideals.”
“Could it not be seen as a way to bring the Horde and Alliance together?”
“To an extent. I’m not sure how heavily we should deal with the Eastern Kingdoms. Please don’t take offense—I’m not singling out the Forsaken. I do not find the Forsaken nearly as problematic as the dwarves. The goal of the Cenarion Circle is to preserve nature. The East has no interest in this.”
“You see the people of Kalimdor as more in sync with nature?”
“It’s obvious, is it not? Kalimdor is defined by life and nature. The Eastern Kingdoms are represented by death and sorcery. The Cenarion Circle needs to stop caring about the Horde and Alliance. We should shun the Eastern Kingdoms, which may already be too far gone to truly help, and save Kalimdor. Our friends are those who share our goals. And Forsaken, gnomes, humans, and even dwarves who share these views should be welcomed. But the majority will probably never see it our way.”
“How do you feel about Darnassus being a part of the Alliance?”
“Pah! Darnassus is a lie, and Staghelm is a fool. They say he lost his mind when his son was killed by Qiraji, and while that is tragic, it is no excuse. Mark my words: more Kaldorei are turning against him each day. The elves will soon choose if they follow the Cenarion Circle, or Staghelm’s lunatic greed. To answer your question more directly, I think it is foolish for Darnassus to put the convenience of joining the Alliance over preserving the world. I’m surprised Holy Tyrande has not taken a more direct stance against Staghelm.”
“You don’t mind the Alliance being here in Silithus?”
“I think the Alliance is a very flawed, but they are far less of a threat to the natural order than the Qiraji. Or the goblins,” he added darkly. “I know this is an opportunistic attitude to take, but we must do whatever necessary to save Kalimdor.”
“You say you think there is kinship between night elves and orcs. What is your opinion on the Warsong lumber operation?”
“It is regrettable, and the orcs must be made to leave. It is atypical behavior for the orcs, however. They used to honor the nature spirits, according to all of the histories, and are only now returning to it. What most do not realize is that while they have thrown off their demonic corruption, they have not completely shorn themselves of human corruption. I tell you truly that the mass logging of Ashenvale is something I would expect from a human or dwarf, not an orc.”
At this point in time, the Cenarion Circle should be considered a nation unto itself. Feruel’s sentiments were more zealous than average, but still indicative of the general attitude. The Cenarion Circle’s belief in Kaldorei and Shu’halo unity is well intentioned, but it strikes me as naive. Members of both races in the Cenarion Circle get along because they have shared interests. This is not necessarily the case with the majority of night elves and tauren.
During dusk and dawn the soldiers test themselves in drills. The heat in the daylight is too strong for most warriors, forcing them to stay inside their tents. I visited the Horde encampment early in the second morning. It is set up across the road from the Alliance base on the western slope of Cenarion Hold.
After dawn training, the warriors take breakfasts of pig and kodo meat. Swarms of sand wasps buzz about at ankle-level during meals, scoring small but painful bites on the calves of the warriors. Sand wasps are a source of torment for orcs and tauren.
“Your Apothecaries made a salve that keeps away the sand wasps, but we must save it for combat. At the moment, it is an annoyance we can tolerate,” grumbled Shurn Bloodblade, an orcish officer.
“How are the preparations going?”
“Have you forgotten who these warriors are? They’re the Horde! They’re always prepared!” he laughed. “They’re eager for insect blood, and I imagine they’ll get their share of it.”
“How do you feel about working with the Alliance?”
“I think it’s necessary. We’ve fought alongside the Alliance before, and I suspect we’ll do it again. I do not think there is much honor in fighting against the Alliance.”
“Did you fight in the Battle of Mt. Hyjal?”
“No, at the time of that grand battle I was in Stonetalon. It’s one of my few regrets, though there’s nothing I could have done about it. I truly thought we had forged a bond with the Kaldorei and the humans, but it was not to be.”
“Was there any difficulty getting warriors here?”
“No. Once Thrall decreed that battle be done in Silithus, many warriors were quick to volunteer, especially from places like Stranglethorn and the Badlands. They have grown bored in those places, and wish to do battle. We had to turn many of them down; if they all left, the Horde’s position in the east would be jeopardized. Independent warriors have also flocked to our banner.”
“Do the warriors mind working with the Alliance?”
“Most care not. How could they? A great and honorable battle is on the horizon.”
The Horde and Alliance maintain a working peace in Silithus. The same cannot be said for the Zandalari camp. Those tribal warriors hate non-trolls, and look down on their Darkspear and Revantusk brethren. The Zandalari priests try to keep them in line, but it grows more difficult each day. I witnessed the aftermath of a violent altercation while walking up the steep path leading to Cenarion Hold. An enraged forest troll and an equally angry human were both being restrained by protectors.
“Damn you, beast! My father killed plenty of your wretched number, and I’ll continue the tradition!” shouted the human, speaking in a Stromgarder accent. The troll snarled back in Zandali. Despite the human’s heated rhetoric, the troll (a Witherbark warrior) had started the problem by punching the human. The troll’s motivation was unclear, though the human had not said anything.
I did not wish to press my luck by visiting the Alliance camp. Up in Cenarion Hold, I spoke with one of the handful of sentinels doing Darnassus' bidding. Her name was Shadriselle Eveningstar. We spoke in the evening at the highest point of Cenarion Hold, from where one can see miles across the festering desert.
“This is not my first time in Silithus, sad to say,” sighed Shadriselle.
“You fought in the War of the Shifting Sands?”
“I did. When the war began, I had been a sentinel for no more than a hundred years. I was thrilled to finally be able to do something other than fight the odd satyr band. No glory here though; just dust and death.”
“Do you not wish to speak of it?”
“I am unhappy about my experiences here, but I accept them. Today is just like the early days of the War of the Shifting Sands; brave warriors from all over Kalimdor expecting a quick and epic victory. Tauren and trolls stood by us back then too, though the trolls were mostly from Zul’farrak. Our armies met at Southwind Village, which fell to the silithids mere weeks later. We retreated to Cenarion Hold after that dark day.”
“Tauren fought in the War of the Shifting Sands? I don’t think I have ever heard tauren mention it.”
“That war was thousands of years ago. A long time for mortal races. For them, it passed into legend. Only a handful of tauren braves came here in the War of the Shifting Sands. There are many more today.”
“How long did the war last?”
“A year and a season. I lost nearly every friend I had to the insects. Their bones still lie in the sand.”
“I admire your fortitude in returning.”
“Fortitude has nothing to do with it. The life of a sentinel is all I know, and I’m content to do as ordered. Have you heard tell of the Battle of Staghelm Point?”
“That is where many druids fell.”
“Yes. Staghelm Point was—is, actually, it still stands—a tower northeast of here. A large reinforcement of druids was coming through the mountains to Silithus and they were to stop at Staghelm Point before continuing to Cenarion Hold. We did not think the Qiraji knew of the tower, but they swarmed in the night without warning.”
“Were you there?”
“I was. I had seen the silithids before, but fighting them in the darkness of the mountains is the stuff of pure terror. That accursed spot has haunted my dreams ever since. We fought hard, but it not hard enough. Many were killed or separated from the tower, and the silithids moved in, slaughtering the druids almost to the last. My father was among the fallen.”
“I see.” I was not sure what to say in response.
“Later that year, the Order of the Mandible turned against us. All seemed lost, until the Bronze Dragonflight came to our aid. Even then, a long and bloody road awaited us. And now it’s returned. Darnassus does not wish to involve itself with Silithus. That fool Staghelm was reluctant to send even this token force. Most Shifting Sands veterans are elsewhere, in Ashenvale or Stonetalon. These protectors are young and inexperienced. I fear it will be their undoing.”
“What can we expect from the Qiraji forces?”
“A nightmare beyond reckoning.” Shadriselle closed her eyes and grimaced, choking back tears. “I should return to my sisters-in-battle. They may be worried.”
She walked away, quickly disappearing into the darkness. I remained seated, deep in thought.
No one in Cenarion Hold can completely ignore the Swarming Pillar. Gnomish ingenuity blocks the sound, but the eyes are always tugged back to that abomination, hypnotic in its horror.
The Swarming Pillar is an infested mountain just south of Cenarion Hold. Tendrils of slick bone strangle the rock, a blanket of flesh shuddering on the surface. A great mass nestles in the mountain’s cloven summit like some hideous heart. Flying silithids swarm around the peak at all times, packed so densely that they form black rings.
The pillar overcame my feeble resistance, and I was studying it yet again when the Twilight’s Hammer came to Cenarion Hold. Their entry began with a commotion among the orcs, who recognized their regalia as that of the traitorous Twilight’s Hammer Clan of old who had followed Gul’dan into darkness. Yet they also held emblems of peace, and the warriors restrained themselves.
Three cultists walked up the road towards the Hold, all dressed in ragged and faded purple robes. Their human leader wore a tarnished copper mask, fixed in a serene and regal half-smile. To his left, a wizened orc leaned on a cane, and to his right stood an emaciated night elf. A swarm of insects hovered around the elf, and as he got closer we could all see mites crawling in and out of holes in his exposed flesh.
Kedrian Rootsong, commander of Cenarion Hold, rushed out of his office with four protectors by his side. He strode out to meet the representatives of the Hammer, his silver eyes blazing with fury. The inhabitants had informed me of the Twilight’s Hammer Cult, madmen living out in the wilderness worshipping the Old Gods. They had evolved from the remnants of the old Horde clan, who had come to Silithus after ravaging Feralas, picking up dark legends and lore along the way.
“What do you want here, blasphemer?” demanded Kedrian.
“I only come here to see the forces of the Cenarion Circle. I am called Niharalath, by some. The orc is Urd, once a warlock of the Twilight’s Hammer Clan. He serves a greater master now. The elf has never given his name to me, but I know he is one of the last Druids of the Mandible. He bears you no hatred for expelling his Order from the Circle.”
“Do you wish to negotiate, Niharalath? The only terms acceptable to use is the utter destruction of the Qiraji threat.”
“Negotiations? No, I have no interest in negotiations.” Niharalath removed his mask. I had half-expected to see an insectoid monstrosity behind it, but his face was human, almost handsome, with an olive complexion and jet-black hair.
“Kill him!” ordered Kedrian.
Yet Niharalath raised his hand, and the protectors halted in their tracks, seized by an unseen force.
“No, not now, Kedrian. There is much for you to learn. You, and all the others around you.”
I heard a thin whistling from somewhere far off, a wrenching nausea forcing me to my knees. There was no warning, no hint of what was to come; I, along with several others, including Kedrian, found myself in the middle of a silithid hive. We stood ankle-deep in scummy water, an island of pink flesh in the pond's center, quivering bone tendrils growing like trees from the ground. Oppressive heat crushed down on the gruesome scene, our senses shaken by the maddening whine of a thousand insects.
An elven priestess who had the misfortune of being too close to Niharalath began to run, only to collapse into the shallow pool. Bloated insects scuttled out from hiding spots in the living earth, and the priestess screamed. Figuring we were all doomed, I elected to go down fighting. Before I could cast a spell, a silithid claw had gutted the elf, her death announced in a spray of violet gore.
“You will surely die if you run,” announced Niharalath.
“What have you done?” demanded Kedrian, panic in his voice.
“I have done nothing. You are merely in the center of Hive Regal. We are not that far from Ahn’qiraj.”
While Kedrian shouted and screamed to be heard over the sound of the silithids, Niharalath’s voice rang clearly in our minds. Two of the protectors rushed Niharalath, their blades at the ready. Instantly they dropped, cancerous growths erupting from their bodies, tendrils dropping from wounds. In less than a minute he'd reduced the protectors to piles of pulsating flesh. Kedrian cried out in dismay.
“Kill me, then! Let the others go!”
“No. There is too much for you to learn. You may as well al learn it, those of you that are still alive.”
The earth shuddered beneath our feet.
“Even now, C’thun stirs.”
“Are you the leader of the Twilight’s Hammer?” asked a dwarven warrior who had also been plucked from Cenarion Hold.
“I am the soul and messenger of its masters.”
Endless streams of silithids burst out from the earth, creeping over ridges of meat and marrow tubes, gathering in a miles-vast swarm. I felt something akin to blind terror, but forced myself to remain calm. I had died once before; I could at least face the second time with dignity.
“I have brought you here to demonstrate the powers with which you are dealing. The silithids are beasts, and the Qiraji nearly as deluded as yourselves. You all live in an illusory prison, one built eons ago by the Titans. Reality is much different; a place of chaos, madness, and oblivion. It is not an empty void; that was Cho’gall’s mistake. It has everything, and it all means nothing.”
“Do not speak this nonsense to me. Do what you will and be done with it.”
“I shall take you someplace more hospitable.”
Again, the distant whistle, and we found ourselves on a rocky hill. The sky above that place was dark, though a hideously bright sun glared from the firmament. Twilight’s Hammer cultists were everywhere, working beneath the strange crystals floating in the desiccated air.
“The is the Twilight Base Camp. You shall wait here for a while. I make no promises for anyone’s safety, save for Kedrian’s. I left one of your soldiers in the Hive. The silithids are intelligent enough to know of cruelty, and I did not wish to deprive them of blood.”
Sure enough, one of the surviving protectors was missing, leaving only one. The survivor fell to his knees with a despairing wail. Besides Kedrian and his guard, there was the dwarf, an orcish woman, and myself.
“I will let you keep your weapons, simply so you realize that there is nothing you can do,” said Niharalath, before walking away.
Words cannot adequately convey the horrific squalor of the Twilight Base Camp. Intertwined with the insectile chorus that fills the land are the insane utterances of the cultists. They sit in the hellish heat, covered in weeks of dirt and untended sores. Shelter exists only in the form of crude lean-tos. I recalled Belgrano’s words in Northshire Abbey, of the Twilight’s Hammer never creating buildings when it could be avoided. A glowing crystal obelisk floats in the center of the camp, attended to by mumbling petitioners. At times, sounds issue from the crystal: rumbling stone, rushing water, howling air, and crackling flame.
The Twilight’s Hammer has a uniquely loathsome method of getting food. At noon, when the sun’s heat makes it impossible for the living to walk or think, black specks appear in the shimmering air somewhere to the south, turning into a swirling cloud as they grow closer. These locusts descend on the cultists, their plump, insect bodies crawling over disease-ridden skin. With shaking hands, the cultists pluck the locusts from their bodies and bite into them. The sickening feast goes on for some time before the cultists eat their fill. Bits of locusts litter the rock afterwards, and the cultists smile with ichor-stained mouths and black tongues.
“Do you see what I am writing?”
The question came from a human youth with red and peeling skin. He looked to be near death, and his eyes glittered with fever. He knelt on the ground. A parchment was spread before him, upon which he had drawn a large glyph in red ink. The glyph was a mess of twisting angles, the sight of it inspiring vertigo and disgust.
“You can see it, yes?”
“I can.” I looked away, still dizzy. “What is it? A rune of some sort?”
“No mere rune. It has the appearance of one. I made it. We do not write words; this ‘rune’ as you put it, is a window. Its geometries let the viewer pierce the veil of reality. This alone is not enough to illuminate the truth to the unenlightened, but it is a start.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
“I shall keep it with me always, gazing into it. I will also make copies for my masters and they will give it to the Twilight’s Hammer in Stormwind City. There, my brethren will draw the portal into books, paint it onto walls, scratch it into trees. Other types of portals will be made; the cumulative effect will bring more into the fold. Not many at first, probably only a handful. Still, it is a beginning.”
A blissful look came across his ravaged face as he stared at the parchment. The orc from Cenarion Hold grabbed my arm, and accosted me.
“I am a mere scout, but this waiting rankles me!” she snarled in Orcish. “These lunatics will kill us anyway, let us at least go down with their blood on our hands! Come on, Forsaken, let us show them the fury of the Horde.” Her voice was a mix of rage and dread, the former battling the latter.
I concluded that she was right. Whatever the Twilight’s Hammer had in store for us, it was certain to be nefarious.
“I can speak Common; let me relay your suggestion to the elves and the dwarf.”
“Good. What is your name? I want to know the name of he who dies alongside me in battle.”
“I am Destron Allicant.”
“And I am Skorra Blackax, of the Bloodeye War-pack. Well met.”
I nodded gravely, and spoke to the others. I kept my voice low, to avoid attracting attention. In truth, the Twilight’s Hammer cultists were so far gone in their rituals that I doubt they would have even cared. The protector blanched at the idea, too shaken by the deaths of his comrades. Kedrian grabbed him and they conferred in Darnassian. At the end, the protector nodded, gripping his blades and taking deep breaths.
Defeat was a foregone conclusion, but we nonetheless planned to inflict as much damage as possible. Skorra and the remaining protector would start the battle by attacking the nearest cultists. As others came to join the fray, Malkor (the dwarf) and I would fell them from a distance with bullet and spellfire. Kedrian would go into his ursine form and destroy those who tried to take us down.
We moved quickly. Skorra rushed towards the seated cultist who had spoken to me earlier and slashed his throat open with a broad-bladed dagger. The protector was less subtle, charging two nearby Hammer servants with a wild Darnassian warcry. It was not long before the cult responded in kind.
A howling tauren charged towards us, carrying a massive warhammer in each hand. Malkor and I opened fire, and it took three bullets and a frost bolt to fell the attacker. More followed. Twilight geomancers summoned black stones and propelled them towards us. One hit Skorra, obliterating her head. The protector made a hasty retreat towards us, only to be cut down by a sword-wielding cultist. Our rebellion appeared to be at an end. Malkor and I stood close to Kedrian’ bristling flanks as he snarled at the advancing foe. Then the cultists stopped.
“As you can see, we have no fear of death.”
Niharalath’s voice came before he did, though he soon stood before Kedrian. The air solidified around us, preventing movement. Kedrian transformed back into an elf, though it did not seem to be by his own volition.
“You are clearly impatient, and I have already conferred with my abyssal friends. We can go on to more important things now.”
The camp vanished, and we stood before a ruined elven village. It was built in a similar style to Cenarion Hold, though further eroded by sand and the hot desert wind. Insects hum around its crumbling towers and sand wasp hives grow in deserted streets.
“Now you bring us to Southwind Village?” laughed Kedrian.
“This was the site of a great defeat for your people. The death of Fandral’s son.”
“It will take more than a history lesson to break me, wretch! I was not even born in that time!”
Niharalath nodded, his face impassive.
“Get a sense of the place. We shall be going deeper in.”
We plunged headlong into nightmare, a buzzing and screaming tempest of wings and sharp legs. I dropped to the ground, trying to orient myself. A bloated, pink sac of flesh hung from a roof of petrified wood, wreathed by a storm of insects.
Kedrian had not lost faith, even then. He shouted invective at Niharalath, standing firm even in that awful infestation.
“All you have proven to me today is that your armies are weak! The silithids are mindless, the Qiraji quite mortal, and your cultists are pathetic! They’re nothing more than gibbering fools, scarcely worthy of our blades. Now you try this pitiful assassination, and what will come of it? Nothing! Another druid will come in my stead.”
“So you believe you shall win?” inquired Niharalath.
“We will have victory, just as we did a thousand years before. And this time we will finish the job. Mark my words: C’thun will die.”
“Holy C’thun may well be destroyed. It is much weaker than it was before; in fact, I daresay that your side will probably succeed. In a year, months, perhaps even weeks, C’thun will be no more.”
This was not the response Kedrian had expected.
“Are you admitting defeat?”
“No. Kedrian, you and your kind—all of the younger races—think like the Titans. You see the world as a series of maps and timelines, bound as you are by their dictates.”
“What nonsense is this? Kill me or let me go, do not—”
“Yes, you shall probably destroy C’thun, but what of it? C’thun exists today. C’thun existed yesterday. Destroying C’thun does not change that. The fact that It existed at some point means that Its influence will spread, both into the past before C’thun’s inception, and into the future, long after Its death.”
“You lie. Then why bother fighting at all? Why bring your rabid lackeys to this place?”
“The goal of the Twilight’s Hammer is not to defeat you in combat. You’ve well proven that to be impossible. Instead, we shall speak the truth into your ears and your dreams. Even if you destroy all of us, C’thun’s message shall be reawakened in another. Perhaps it will be transmitted through stories, or books... or it will form in the mind of someone else. The Old Gods created this world and all the others, and everything has a bit of Them within. Even you, Kedrian.”
“Cho’gall, the Hammer’s illustrious founder, misunderstood the nature of oblivion. It is not absence; it is substance. The world of the Old Gods is one without rules, without value, without meaning. An oblivion through plurality. Time and space are the intolerable constraints of the Titans, imposed on this universe. But they shall fall. The world can be imprisoned by them, but the Old Gods are reality. The veil is already breaking. Five thousand years from now, the Old Gods’ reality is infecting the multitudes, even if They are all long dead. It goes into the past, subtly reworking events. We have won.”
“Give... give it up Niharalath. I will not believe your lies.”
“I have never lied. We have never lied. Open your eyes, and see.”
Niharalath extended his hand, and clasped it around Kedrian’ face. The scream that emerged from the druid’s mouth was more terrifying than any other I have ever heard.
Kedrian did not recover. Niharalath returned us to Cenarion Hold with a wave of his hand, and Kedrian screamed Niharalath’s words to the astonished warriors. Few could make any sense of it.
Malkor and I were placed under guard and interrogated for two days. Neither of us were members of the Cenarion Circle, and were thus under suspicion. We explained what happened to the best of our ability and they finally released us.
There are a number of good reasons to think that Niharalath lied about the Old Gods. Niharalath implied that he had shown Kedrian an ultimate truth, but we have no way of knowing if that was really the case. The attack on Kedrian lowered morale, and was probably designed specifically for that purpose. He has been replaced by a Cenarion druid named Mar’alith, who appears able.
Ultimately, it does not matter. If Niharalath was correct, we have already failed. Thus, we must assume that he lied. Even if the victory of the Old Gods is inevitable we should all heed the fallen Skorra’s words. It is better to go down fighting, and I think it is the natural impulse of thinking beings to do so. This is why I chose to remain in Cenarion Hold to help fight the Qiraji.
Five weeks passed as the armies of the world made preparations for the inevitable battle. The storehouses and tents of the Cenarion Hold soon filled to bursting with accumulated supplies sent from the great cities of the Horde and the Alliance. I took the time to put my writing and notes into some semblance of organization, in case I die in battle.
At last, the army marched through the weird landscapes of southern Silithus to the basalt gates of Ahn’qiraj. The breakdown of reality is most apparent here, as geode fragments and Qiraji obelisks float in the air. Gnomish sonic counter-measure devices go with the army, though they seem less reliable in the field.
We traveled at a fast march for ten days. The nights are fraught with peril, as silithid probes and Twilight’s Hammer cultists attack the fringes of our camps. So far, we have lost few. We now ready ourselves in the dusty field before the squat, hexagonal entrance to Ahn’qiraj. Twisted, glowing roots grow around the gate, the last remnants of the seal placed upon it. Towering black citadels rise up behind the massive walls. Ahn’qiraj may be the oldest city in the world. Part of me wished to enter and converse with the Qiraji, but I knew that to be impossible.
No one is really sure how many Qiraji are behind the gate, though they are undoubtedly numerous. We can only hope we have enough soldiers. The leaders of the war effort say that the gates will be opened when the Scarab Gong is rung by one bearing the Scepter of the Shifting Sands. This artifact, created by Anachronos the Bronze Dragon, was shattered by Fandral Staghelm in a fit of pique at the end of the War of the Shifting Sands. Yet it has been remade. As I write this, the bearer of the scepter is riding south to Ahn’qiraj. We are breaking the seal in order to defeat the Qiraji before they are truly ready.
I write this from a pavilion adjoining the command tent. My magical ability, though above average, is less useful than my knowledge of both Common and Orcish. I help coordinate efforts between the Alliance and the Horde, a task that I am honored to have. Still, when the war starts, I shall be lending my arcane talents to the fray, just like everyone else.
In these final days before the insect armies of Silithus are unleashed, I think back on my travels. I am glad that I left Undercity to see the world. I am no longer one of the Forsaken who dwells in darkness, thinking only of bitterness and vengeance. I have learned much, but all that I have learned is miniscule compared to that which I do not know. Even for one such as myself, it is impossible to speak to every person and learn every story. If I could, I would still need to separate truth from fiction, and belief from fact, and no one can do that without error.
The events of history and the world look simple from a distance, but the closer you get to them, the more complex they become. The idea that the world is defined by the competing power blocs of the Horde and the Alliance is ludicrous. What do the besieged farmers of Westfall, or the druids of the Emerald Circle, to name a few, care for the Horde and Alliance?
The world is shaped by a myriad of local conflicts, struggles, and debates. To claim that everything is decided by Horde and Alliance, or the Scourge and the Free Peoples, is to blind oneself to reality. These major factions certainly have an effect, but there are many other factors.
Categorizing the world provides comfort, making a simple picture out of a complex one, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Similarly counterproductive is the tendency to be misled by hindsight, to see stories in history where none exist. So much of history is shaped by random events that no one could have foreseen. The Opening of the Dark Portal came as a total surprise to Stormwind, as did the rise of the Scourge, or the Twilight’s Hammer attack on Feralas. The information hinting at these events was all there, but none could identify it. This is not to say that these events were inevitable; far from it. Randomness and accident work both ways. That which you ignore, or don’t know about, may turn out to be more important than anything else. It is my belief that very, very few things in this world are inevitable. We are free, which is both our curse and our blessing.
The cooperation of the Horde and the Alliance gives me hope. I do not think that the two factions can merge, but there are too many threats for them to waste time fighting one another.
I exercised great care in assembling this travelogue. That said, I am sure there are errors. I have never lied to the reader, but I am doubtless mistaken about the reliability of some information. There are probably cases where I have confused opinion with truth. An ironic fact of life (and undeath) is that the absolute truth is impossible to find. Yet still we must strive for it, just like the followers of Cassian strove for virtue. Always unattainable, and always necessary.
Before sundown, I will entrust this last portion to a messenger returning to Cenarion Hold. He will place it with the other parts for safekeeping.
Azeroth is a terrible world; it is also all we have. Defending the goodness that does exist is a worthy cause for all people. There will be no glory in this upcoming war; those who have seen war know that it is a terrible thing. We can only take comfort in the conflict’s necessity.