Monday, October 22, 2007
The Stonetalon Mountains
Ghosts and atrocities are all that now remain of Camp Aparaje. The small and bustling trading post of the mountain tribes is no more. Smoke still clustered around the ruins when I came upon the site. The raid was nothing less than an attack on the Horde itself, and a daring one at that. The kodohide tents were black with ash and spattered blood, yet for all the signs of chaos I could not find any bodies. I began to think of Scourge necromancers, though I could not figure out how they had penetrated so deeply into Kalimdor.
“Hey there! Forsaken!”
I turned to see a lanky, blue-skinned Darkspear troll standing next to the Aparaje totem pole, which stood mysteriously unscathed. He gripped a spear in one hand.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“Massacre. We found a survivor, we’re going to take her back to Malaka’jin. You better come with us; it’s not safe here.”
“Who did this?”
“The survivor said it was the spirits of the mountains. She’s been bloodied though, and might be thinking strange thoughts.”
I met up with the scouting party of trolls, six in number. Two carried a grievously wounded tauren woman on a makeshift stretcher. We departed the ruins, the trolls casting nervous backward glances as they walked. Pines, rooted in the rocky mountain earth, loomed over us like sentries as we traveled up the road. At sundown, the trolls took a nearly invisible path that wound through the rocks to a heavily forested box canyon. I had arrived at the tiny outpost of Malaka’jin.
The trolls placed the wounded tauren in a cave where the local witch doctor made his home. Then, the rest of the village gathered at a small shrine to Ula-Tek, the serpent Loa of war, where they conferred in the Zandali tongue. It was similar to the meeting I had seen in Sen’jin Village, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Darkening reds and purples filled the sky when the meeting dispersed. A cold wind blew in from the east, whispering through the pine needles. I stood at the edge of Malaka’jin, looking down at the narrow pass below.
“Say there, Forsaken man, Holy Jin’zil wants to speak with you.”
I turned to see the troll that had called out to me earlier, pointing to the cave at the back of Malaka’jin. Thanking him, I walked past the bonfire where a crowd of trolls cooked a stag’s haunch for dinner.
Refused littered the ground in front of the cave and a swarm of flies buzzed madly at the entrance. Inside, a corroded iron cauldron squatted above a blazing fire, sickly steam rising up from the foul brew and clogging the eyes of haphazard skull piles leaning against the walls. Interestingly, only a few were trollish soughan skulls. Some were animal skulls, and many were fakes made of wood. Jin’zil stood next to the cauldron, a bony figure dressed in tattered robes that stank of grime and rotten meat, a crude wooden mask hiding his face. I saw the wounded tauren resting on a mat of woven grass towards the back.
“Ah come in, come in, this cave is like your home. I admire fighters, and the Forsaken are fearful good fighters! But say nothing against the Loa, my friend, for if you do they shall strike you down through me!” he shrieked. Jin’zil then collapsed into high-pitched laughter.
“Thank you. How is the tauren?”
“She will recover, old Jin’zil’s mixtures are good for the body and soul.”
I was concerned that the filthy interior of the cavern would infect her wounds, and I cautiously suggested that she be taken outside, saying that the open air might do her some good. To my surprise, Jin’zil readily agreed. He ambled over to the cave entrance and blew on a bone flute. Three troll warriors soon ran up to him. He directed them to take the tauren to a storage tent, which they did.
“How was Malaka’jin founded?” I asked.
“Through the will of Ula-Tek! I am a great witch doctor, the greatest of all the Darkspear. Ula-Tek has always favored me.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but I was under the impression that it was the priests, not the witch doctors, who conferred with the Loa.”
“Ha ha ha! Yes, you are a smart one. But crafty Ula-Tek knew I was the right one. I do not talk to him, but he shows me things. In Orgrimmar I dreamed visions that the Darkspear would do a great battle in his mighty name. A battle against the night elves,” he spat.
“What did you do to fulfill these visions?”
“I preached to my tribesmen. Some scoffed, because I am a witch doctor, one who heals and strengthens with the herbs of the world. Beloved of Shadra, not Ula-Tek. But I tell you, as I told them, what is a warrior without healing? When the fighter’s blood nurtures the earth, it is the witch doctor who heals him!”
In fact, trollish battlefield medics are usually priests, who wield faster and more effective forms of healing magic. Witch doctors typically use herbal mixtures to mend deep wounds and purge poisons, though they are capable of some magic. Horde forces in the Third War made heavy use of witch doctors. Since then, however, military witch doctors have largely been replaced by priests and shamans.
“Did you fight in the Third War?” I asked.
“I did, and fought well. I was there when the elves crept out of the forest and rained death upon my orcish brothers. Grom did the right thing in communing with the demon spirits. The elves value trees more than trolls, or humans, or anyone else! I saw too many good warriors die that day to ever forgive them. When I was healing myself, later, I first heard Ula-Tek.”
“So were you successful in attracting followers, back in Orgrimmar?”
“Some, yes. The wise heeded me. At first the priests doubted, but then High Priest Zayus told me to follow the will of Ula-Tek. He interpreted my visions, unnecessarily perhaps, but who am I to turn down a priest? He said Ula-Tek wanted me to go far away, to a place near the elves. I already knew this, of course. That is how Malaka’jin came to be! I and my followers prepare here for the great battle. In ancient times, the elves destroyed our empires with their wicked magics. Now, our might shall destroy them!”
“Ula-Tek told you to specifically go to the Stonetalon Mountains?”
“Yes indeed. It was this spot that I saw in the visions, clouded with a million twisting snakes and singing coatls. I guided my followers as if through a fever, and the fever did not lift until I arrived here. That is how I knew this was the spot.”
I stayed in Malaka’jin for the rest of the night. Jin’zil appeared to spend most of his time in his cave. The only time I saw him leave was late at night, when he went to check on the tauren, who slept near a small campfire outside the cavern. A younger troll named Tan’bagh acted as an intermediary between Jin’zil and the others. Tan’bagh spoke almost no Orcish, but I was able to discern that he was a fervent minion of Jin’zil’s.
I suspect that Jin’zil became a thorn in the side of Orgrimmar’s trollish priesthood. They would certainly not care to have a mere witch doctor claiming to be the chosen of Ula-Tek. Perhaps it had been more politically expedient to send him off to the frontier than to publicly chastise him. Jin’zil hatred of the night elves may conceivably lead to open conflict with the Alliance, but the Horde will probably distance themselves from the witch doctor if something like that happens.
The Cloudmane Tribe came to Malaka’jin early the next morning. A lookout spotted them walking down the mountain slopes and the entire village soon assembled for their arrival. The Cloudmane are one of the six mountain tribes. The tauren of Stonetalon are hunters rather than pastoralists; the environment of the mountains simply cannot support large herds of kodo. As a result, none of the mountain tribes are very big.
Despite their lack of numbers, the mountain tribes were instrumental for tauren survival during the Centaur Wars. An inter-tribal society of shamans existed in Stonetalon, called the Iron Ring. Through extensive meditation and punishing physical rituals, the shamans of the Iron Circle (called Ironseekers) convinced the earth spirits to bring small deposits of iron to the surface. This allowed the tribes to collect the ore and forge them into weapons for use against the centaur tribes.
To this day, the mountain tribes are known for making and wielding remarkable weapons imbued with the power of the elements. Metal can only be raised to the surface in a few sacred spots found in remote areas of the mountains. The Ironseekers still protect these locales against intrusion.
Groaning voices lifted into the air as the Cloudmane Tribe approached, singing a dirge for the lost. Families from each mountain tribe had lived in Camp Aparaje, and their loss was a great blow. The elderly Cloudmane chieftain conversed with Jin’zil upon arriving. According to the chief, another Cloudmane survivor had made it to the tribe’s camp in the adjacent wilderness. The perpetrators of the event now known as the Aparaje Massacre were none other than the Grimtotem Tribe.
At noon, I spoke with Mahalas Cloudmane, an old shamanness of the tribe.
“We knew the Grimtotem were wary of the United Tribes, but never would we dare think they would commit violence against us,” she lamented.
“Do you know why they attacked?”
“The trolls. When Jin’zil moved here, we accepted him as part of the Horde. But the Grimtotem demanded that they leave, saying that their presence offended the spirits of Stonetalon.”
“I did not think the Grimtotem were a mountain tribe.”
“They are not. They come from the northern Barrens, but they abandoned their homeland when Thunder Bluff was built. A few went to Stonetalon; most went to the southern lands. Yet they still claim to speak for the spirits of their new homes. Such pride is unbelievable.”
“I take it there will be war against them now.”
“Many of our own tribe say that we acted arrogantly in ignoring the Grimtotem Tribe, revering new and unproven friends over our own kind. Our feelings are no longer important. The Grimtotem have killed tauren of the Cloudmane and they must be punished. And to think they would attack now, when the spirits are already enraged!”
“The spirits are angry?”
“The goblins of the Venture Company descended on the mountains like a pestilence late last year. They burn and shred the forests until only ash remains. The earth spirits no longer speak to the Ironseekers. The air spirits only scream their rage to us. Water hides itself among the rocks, and the spirits of fire are so twisted by hate that they turn to the elementals. The balance of the Stonetalon Mountains has been shattered.”
“Has anything been done about this?”
“We were preparing to go on the warpath against the Venture Company. But now the Grimtotems slaughter our people, and the ancestors cannot abide that. They seek justice for their children and we must obey.”
Chance had again conspired to throw the Venture Company in my path. I finally chose to try and learn more about that rapacious organization. By all accounts, the Venture Company is unscrupulous enough to make deals with the Scourge. Accordingly, I again donned the guise of a lich. I chose a suitably turgid name in the form of Sycoran Bleakheart.
The Venture Company made its headquarters in a place called Windshear Crag, about five days north of Malaka’jin. For most of the journey I saw nothing amiss. I admired the stark, dry beauty of the Stonetalon wilderness. Fierce winds periodically whip through the gullies and canyons of the Stonetalon Mountains, scattering pebbles and fallen pine needles. Sparse woodlands struggle for life in the rocky valleys, water always in short supply. It is a harsh and difficult land, suitable only for those who can tolerate solitude.
Great battles raged through the Stonetalon Mountains during the middle part of the Third War. A handful of embattled Alliance outposts clung to the rocky precipices and ridges, holding out against the warriors of the Horde. Most of the victories in Stonetalon went to the orcs, largely due to the aid of the mountain tauren. The local tribes revealed secret paths and hiding spots to the Horde grunts, who used them to great effect. Sporadic fighting continued throughout until Thrall and Jaina agreed to put aside their differences and unite against the Burning Legion.
The treaties signed after the Battle of Mt. Hyjal forbade the humans from colonizing the Stonetalon Mountains. Given the poor quality of the land, few humans were bothered by the prohibition. The night elves created a small base on Stonetalon Peak a year or so after the Battle of Theramore, wanting to keep watch over a barrow den in the area. Though Stonetalon Peak is of some interest to the druids, it is little more than an observation post for the Alliance.
Since then, the Horde has exercised loose control over the region. Many shamans hold a deep fondness for the rugged peaks, considering them one of Kalimdor’s exemplary landscapes. Beyond that, it is of limited use to the Horde. The iron deposits so beloved by the mountain tribes are not really that extensive, and the Ironseekers are reluctant to give permission for others to mine them. The region’s nebulous political state may have created a fine opening for opportunistic entities like the Grimtotem Tribe and the Venture Company. The Horde (or even the Alliance) may soon be forced to exert more control over the mountains in order to maintain security.
I saw the first signs of Venture activity a week after I left Malaka’jin. Initially, Windshear Crag appears to be more verdant than other parts of the Stonetalon Mountains. Yet all too soon the clear mountain air turns hazy with free-floating particles of sawdust. Stumps begin to replace trees until the forest line ends altogether, revealing a landscape of ruin. A veritable tent city carpets the muddy grounds of Windshear Crag, overseen by tremendous harvesting machines. Clouds of swirling dust choke the air, obscuring the sawmills and mines built by Venture operatives. Everything has a slapdash appearance and looks ready to be abandoned at any moment. Near the tents lie haphazard piles of lumber that look ready to collapse from the slightest provocation. Muddy streams criss-cross the land, flowing sluggishly amidst the activity.
“Hey! Hey! There’s a zombie of some kind!” screeched a panicked goblin voice.
Two goblins and an ogre ran towards me, axes raised high. I lifted my hand and summoned a blizzard from the clear sky. The sight of icy shards embedding themselves into the ground scared the goblins, and they ran in the other direction. Only the ogre kept charging.
“Clubber, you idiot, he’s going to kill you!” shouted one of the retreating goblins. Clubber, the ogre, halted and looked back in confusion. He then turned to look at me, his expression baffled.
“I will kill all of you if you keep running!” I roared. I made a show of preparing a frost bolt, my hands enveloped in an icy blue light. The goblins halted and looked fearfully in my direction.
“I am Sycoran Bleakheart, servant of the Lich King. My master wishes to have dealings with the Venture Company and he sent me to examine your operations in this place. I cannot say I am impressed, but my master is willing to grant your organization a chance. I must speak with your leaders. If you do not, the Scourge shall descend on this place and destroy all that lives.”
The two goblins looked at each other, and then back at me. I sighed inwardly, feeling embarrassed.
“Uh, all right. I’ll get someone in charge. Boss Zyzzylgib is the top man here, he’s over at the saw mill. Do you want us to get him?”
“Yes, sir! Come on, Clubber, we got new orders.”
“We not smash zombie?”
“Sorry, Master Bleakheart. Don’t mind Clubber, he’s just an ogre is all.”
The trio hurried off towards a squat lumber mill in the distance. As could be expected, Zyzzylgib’s eventual arrival was loud, ostentatious, and energetic. He came to welcome me in a shredder—one of the ambulatory, lumber-harvesting machines beloved by the goblins. It hissed and clanked as it pounded across the scarred landscape, puffs of black smoke shooting out from the filthy pipes growing like branches from its body. A pack of bruisers escorted the shredder at a safe distance.
Zyzzylgib pulled a lever and the shredder jerked to an awkward halt. He nimbly dismounted from the machine and gave a grandiose bow.
“Welcome, Master Bleakheart, to the Venture Company’s Windshear Crag Operation! I’m in charge here, and I’ll be happy to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Assuming you care about comfort.” For a split-second, he looked at me in utter dread, but almost immediately regained his composure. “Please allow me to say, for the entire Venture Company, that we are honored that the Lich King would grace us with his august presence. Follow me, if you will. The camp is yours.”
Zyzzylgib whistled, and one of the bruisers hopped into the shredder and piloted it towards a nearby copse of trees. Zyzzylgib guided me to a large pavilion which acted as his office, all the while telling me about the benefits that could come from dealing with the Venture Company.
“Now, Windshear Crag is a big place, so I have to move around a lot. This is just the center for the current lumber harvesting operations. We also have a mine further east, and a water mill to the west.”
“With whom do you trade?”
“We trade with the best outfits anywhere! The Venture Company just came off of a big deal with the Defias Brotherhood—do you know who they are?”
“I am familiar with them,” I said.
“Anyway they wanted a big ship, and we helped build it for them. Right now we mostly sell to the Southsea Pirates, and some to the Bloodsail Buccaneers, the Dark Iron Empire, the Shadow Council, and whoever those trolls in Zul’gurub are. We’re on our way up! Now, lots of folks think that the Steamwheedle Cartel is the best goblin organization, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Steamwheedle is afflicted with backwards thinking; the Venture thinks forward. This is technically Horde territory, so the Cartel’s too afraid to start any operations without Thrall’s permission. We don’t let some dumb orc tell us what to do. As far as we’re concerned, if it’s not guarded, it’s up for grabs.”
Zyzzylgib went on like that for some time. I was much more interested in examining the society of the Venture Company. Unfortunately, my disguise as a lich also made it impossible to really observe the daily lives of the officers, bruisers, and laborers. I tried to learn as much as possible, but I am not completely confident in the accuracy of the following information.
The life of a Venture employee is a difficult and brutal one. Nonetheless, there are ample opportunities for advancement, reflecting the Venture Company’s goblin leadership. Wages seem generous, but the employee must spend a great deal purchasing food, shelter, and water from Venture commissaries.
The savagery of the society lies in the complete lack of security or law. An employee’s wages will always be paid, but once this is done he will be in danger of having his money stolen or extorted by his peers. As a result, large protection rackets thrive in Windshear Crag (and this is apparently typical for any Venture operation). Favors are another form of currency, perhaps an even more important one.
Venture Company bruisers exist to keep the peace, but in reality they are vicious louts who do nothing of the sort. Most bruisers are ogres and gnolls, and are a far cry from the ultra-professional bruisers employed by the Steamwheedle Cartel. Ambitious employees will often pay the bruisers to act as personal bodyguards, or as a means to bully other employees into giving up their money. Every now and then the managers will execute a particularly cruel and inept bruiser, but as long as the company enforcers leave the management alone, they can largely do as they please.
The atrocious custom of debt slavery thrives in Windshear Crag. Unlike employees, debt slaves have their needs met by the company (though the food they get is barely edible). This is not the blessing it might seem. Debt slaves are looked down upon by all other employees, who frequently steal their food. They are not paid, so they cannot bribe anyone into helping them. Even worse, only the most absolutely desperate Venture employees would stoop to owing favors to a debt slave. In the past, debt slaves had attempted to form their own protection gang but it had fallen apart due to a murderous bruiser attack, and a lack of charismatic or competent leadership.
Those in leadership positions are still not in a very enviable state. There is constant backstabbing and politicking in the administrative levels. It’s really the same as it is with the labor force, the only difference being the amount of finesse involved. Low-level workers with enough ambition can easily replace existing managers. Such replacements are almost always lethal for the current tenant. I asked if Zyzzylgib was worried about being killed by an underling.
“That’s just how we do it in Venture. Only the best will survive. Anyway, I am the best, so no one’s ever going to replace me!”
The Venture Company has employed and enslaved individuals from all over the world. The goblins barely hold a plurality among the labor force. There are many gnolls, usually taken in slave raids. While not technically debt slaves, individuals captured by the Venture Company are still considered as such, and are required to pay off the grossly inflated costs of their own kidnapping.
Humans and trolls are also common sights in Windshear Crag. I was surprised to see Dark Iron dwarves in the labor force. Zyzzylgib said that the Dark Irons there are all former inmates of the hellish Dark Iron labor camps in the Cauldron. The empire sold them to the Venture Company in return for vital resources.
The Dark Iron slaves are at a particular disadvantage. They are not familiar with the ruthless competition needed to survive in Venture camps. They attempt to curry favor with the bruisers by reporting their fellows’ misdeeds, earning the contempt of everyone. Dark Irons are frequently murdered by other slaves or employees. Zyzzylgib said that the Venture Company no longer plans to use Dark Irons as slaves, due to their high death rate.
One laborer with whom I was able to speak was a gaunt human named Faldrow Cooper. He was an unskilled worker who did low-level maintenance the Super Reaper 6000, a metal monstrosity that acted as a mobile lumber processor and harvester. It had been built by a gnomish engineer. Though the rivalry between gnomes and goblins goes back for centuries, the goblins never let prejudice stand in the way of profit, and there are several gnomish engineers and arcanists in Venture’s ranks.
“With all respect Master Bleakheart, I can’t imagine how my story would be of any interest to you,” said Faldrow, who examined me anxiously.
“My reasons are for me to know.”
“Fair enough. I used to live in a little hamlet down in Westfall. I’m not sure how much the Scourge knows about Westfall; I’d guess quite a lot, so you most likely know about the Defias and what they did.”
“I am familiar with the Defias.”
“My family and I were pretty lucky. We held up in Moonbrook for a little while, but we knew that the town was going to be destroyed. The fields were swimming with Defias thugs. The Venture Company had set up shop in Moonbrook and were hiring people left and right. We were all pretty desperate. My eldest son and I managed to ourselves employed, and the rest of the family shipped to Ratchet. Now we support them up here.”
“Where is your son?”
“The Company sent him down to Mulgore. I pray every night that the tauren haven’t murdered him. And I’m now aware that the Venture Company sells to the Defias. I don’t like it, but I have to take care of my own. Stormwind certainly couldn’t do it.” Faldrow took a draught from a beer keg and gave a bitter sigh.
Most of the workers, even the skilled ones, came to the Venture Company by fleeing warfare and desperation. The hired workers strive to make money, for themselves, for families, or for a cause. The motivations of some workers are quite noble, even though they must be utterly ruthless in order to fulfill them. But as one might expect, many employees are simply thugs on the run from the law. The goblins that work in the Venture Company are usually less capable than their counterparts in the Steamwheedle Cartel. The draconian management of Venture ensures that only the desperate will seek employment there. This is one reason why the Venture is so heavily dependent on slaves.
I spent a mere three days at Windshear Crag. On my final day, Zyzzylgib took me on a tour of the Cragpool Mill Facility, a truly monumental structure. Located in the northwest corner of Windshear Crag, the facility is a series of platforms that tower high above the ground along the sides of a sheer cliff. The centerpiece is a huge mill wheel, turned by the crashing energy of a great waterfall that plunges into Cragpool Lake.
“Now this here gives you some idea of what the Venture Company is capable of doing,” bragged Zyzzylgib. We ascended a wooden ramp leading to the mill as Venture employees worked all around us.
“What is the purpose of this mill?”
“The mill amplifies the kinetic energy of the water to power a mana battery. Once the battery gets sufficient charge, it’s placed in the Super Reaper 6000. We produce more batteries than we can use, so we sell the extras to the highest bidder. I’m telling you, we make great profit off of this and it’s all thanks to Gerenzo Wrenchwhistle, the same fellow who built the Reaper. It’s tough for a goblin like me to admit, but sometimes those gnomes have some damned good ideas.”
The noise of the crashing water and grinding machinery is deafening. The misty white spray of the falls lifts up into the air, and no one can stand there without quickly becoming drenched.
“We also take a lot of this water,” shouted Zyzzylgib, “and put it in pumps around the crag. I don’t know if you heard about this, but some of our earlier Stonetalon operations were lost to fires. You know, when you have all this lumber lying around, in the dry mountain air, some really fierce fires can flare up. The worst was in what’s now called the Charred Vale way over to the west. We had a lumber mill there early this year, but a fire broke out and totally destroyed most of the usable timber. That’s why we’re here now. By the way, I replaced the goblin managing it; nothing like that’s going to happen under my watch because I’m smart enough to keep water in constant supply.”
I was quite impressed in spite of myself. It truly requires great ingenuity to build such an elaborate structure with so few resources. The existence of the Cragpool Mill Facility is possible because neither the tauren or the night elves have made any serious attempts to drive out the Venture Company. It is only a matter of time until they do.
Something large and heavy crashed into the back of my head, the world roaring into chaos as I fell to my knees and Venture operatives rushed around me. I could just make out someone behind me shouting in rage.
Still disoriented, I turned to see a human Venture employee pinned to the ground by goblins, his face twisted with hate. A hammer lay at my feet; I realized that the human had thrown it at me.
“Damn you! You killed everyone and it’s still not enough! Let go of me you fools, he’ll kill all of us! I lost everyone and everything I had because of the Scourge, and you let him in here? He’s tricking you! He’s going to turn you into undead slaves, just like he did my family!” the human roared.
“Master Bleakheart, are you all right?” demanded Zyzzylgib, who looked terrified. “I am so sorry! That human’s an employee, but throwing tools at honored guests ends his contract. If you want, we’ll give him over to you, you can do whatever you want with him.” His words ran into each other in his attempt to apologize. I saw the human being dragged to the edge of the platform.
“Stop!” I ordered.
The goblins holding the human halted, looking at me and then at Zyzzylgib.
“Master Bleakheart wants the human, let him have the wretch—” began Zyzzylgib.
“I do not want the human. However, I expect you to not punish him in any way for his actions.”
“Do not punish him! The Lich King respects the warrior spirit, and this human has a great deal of it. He may prove to be quite useful to you, and if you harm him, my master will take it as a personal insult. Do you understand?”
“Yes! You’re sure about this?”
“My master does not suffer from any doubt. I have seen enough of this place. If the Lich King is interested in pursuing an arrangement with the Venture Company, another emissary shall arrive. Do not make any attempt to contact the Scourge.”
The goblins still held the human, who struggled fiercely to get free. Finally he gave up and began sobbing.
“Why did you kill my daughter? She never did anything to you! None of us did. We just wanted to live...”
I looked at his grief-wracked face, and momentarily longed to share my own hatred of the Scourge.
I left the Cragpool Mill Facility with a heavy heart and departed from Windshear Crag the next day. Zyzzylgib continued to advertise himself to the very end, heedless of the danger the Scourge represents to the entire world.
The world’s chaotic state allows entities like the Venture Company to spawn like maggots on a corpse. Opportunistic and amoral, they enable groups shunned by both the Alliance and Horde. If they are willing to trade with the Scourge, there is clearly nothing that is beneath them. Disputed and largely uncontrolled areas like the Stonetalon Mountains are a perfect locale for the Venture Company and its ilk to plunder natural wealth with which to finance the worst villains in this world. I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the night elves or tauren take permanent measures to drive out the Venture Company. The Grimtotem Tribe’s attack has only delayed the inevitable.
Regrettably, a fair number of the Venture employees are victims of circumstance, who do not deserve the cruelty they have suffered. I can only hope that they will surrender and be shown mercy.
For two weeks I traveled the lonely Webwinder Path, the main pass through the Stonetalon Mountains. The path earns its name for the giant green spiders who make their home in among the thin pines. They are dangerous, but generally stay away from the main road.
Sun Rock Retreat is a Horde town built around a crystalline mountain lake where graceful willow trees grow on the banks. It is located in a mountain cleft, with several serpentine canyon paths going into the peaks around the town. These trails are fantastic places, covered in ancient trees and brooding, massive rock formations that defy belief. Waterfalls tumble down from high mountain precipices, the white streams of water glinting in the Kalimdor sun. Sun Rock Retreat is a place that eases the heart and mind.
“Even the bravest of orcish warriors sometimes grow weary of battle. Perhaps they have seen too many friends die, or begin to slip into the bloodlust of old. So they come here, where they can remember their connection with the primal spirits of the world.”
I was taking tea with a tauren shamanness named Tammra Windfield. As Sun Rock Retreat is devoted to spiritual healing, it is no surprise that there are more shamans there than in a typical settlement. In fact, it has become something of a meeting place for the sometimes disparate shamanistic schools of the Horde.
“Have any Forsaken ever come here to recover?”
“Forsaken have been here, but not for that purpose. Mostly they are just passing through to Desolace. Sadly, the purpose of the Retreat has been foiled. The spirits are enraged. We can still soothe the souls of our warriors, but it is growing more difficult.”
“I take it you refer to the Charred Vale disaster?”
“That is only one. Now the goblins ruin Windshear Crag, and before the Charred Vale they cleared out another great forest to the west of here. The Vale is the worst though; the spirits have been tormented to the point where fire elementals wander freely through the ruins. Fortunately, other spirits have protected this spot, which they love, but by itself it is not enough.”
“How do you now heal those who come here?”
“The time-tested ways. Our patients are not usually physically wounded, though we have a few that have been crippled in battle. Those who are able walk the rough lands. It is hard, but it brings them closer to the spirits of nature, and it strengthens them in soul and mind.”
I can easily see why battle-weary soldiers would enjoy Sun Rock Retreat. It is one of the most pleasant locales I have encountered. I wish I could have somehow experienced it while alive.
Lovely though it is, I had arrived at the Retreat during a difficult time. Runners from the Flathoof Tribe (a mountain tribe) had brought word of the Aparaje Massacre. When combined with the spirits that seemed to grow more enraged by the day, the shamans were understandably nervous. In addition to the normal rituals of greeting the sunrise and witnessing the sunset, the tauren shaman of the Retreat also sang eerie laments to express their solidarity with the spirits.
Their desire to aid Stonetalon goes far beyond mere chants. Shamans are actively involved in attempting to heal the devastated Charred Vale. The authorities in Sun Rock Retreat have even gone so far as to lend some indirect aid to the elves, who are apparently more active in the fight against the Venture Company.
Bizarre alliances can be made in such uncertain times and a perfect example of this was presented by a water elemental called Tsunaman. It was watched over by Morragal Stonehoof, a grizzled tauren shaman who had spent his youth fighting the centaurs. The two of them dwelled in a tent in the rugged cliffs south of the Retreat. Morragal did not relish his job.
“I was told that the shamans hated the elementals,” I said.
“We do. Believe me, it is not the will of any tribe that Tsunaman be present. We are obliged to shelter it for the time being, though the spirits grow restless and upset. We all had strong doubts but the ancestors came to us in a vision, and said we must tolerate it for a little while.”
“What do you owe him?”
“The valley to the west was set ablaze by the goblins two months ago. The great flames swirled through the dry wood until it became a terrible fire storm. A tower of smoke bled up from the flames, reaching as high as the sun. There was not much vegetation on the slopes but the fire was spreading up to the Retreat and there was nothing we could do, until Tsunaman arrived.”
“I did not know the fire was that terrible.”
“It was worse than what any of us could have imagined. The goblins must pay for this crime, and I say the Horde should cease all dealings with the entire race. They are not the children of the Earthmother, and deserve oblivion!”
“How did Tsunaman come to this world?”
“The shamans of the Retreat conducted a ceremony, imploring the spirits to end the flame. Something went wrong; even now I don’t know what. In the middle of the ceremony stood Tsunaman, who towered over us at the time. It spoke to us in a voice of crashing waves, saying that he had come to do battle against the fire. Tsunaman threw itself on the slopes, extinguishing many of the flames. The fire burned on but the Retreat was safe. Now he remains, claiming to be an emissary of Duke Hydraxis, some water elemental of great power.”
Morragal glared at Tsunaman, who stood in the distance, a roughly anthropoid figure of swirling water jets.
“It and its master both wish to drown everything that lives. Yet he saved the village so we must hear him out. The people want me to watch him, as I have seen many years pass by and they say that makes me strong and wise. I only hope that the Earthmother will protect me from the machinations of this monster.”
Tsunaman splashed over towards us. As it approached I felt a tightness in my chest as if I were drowning. Dizzying thoughts of terrible abyssal depths filled my mind as I looked at its ever-shifting body.
“I am Tsunaman, the Douser of the Mountain Flame and Faithful Servant to the Aqueous Duke Hydraxis, It-Whose-Surface-Ripples-With-Imprisoned-Air. I have given up much of my essence to aid the peoples of this world, and am currently incapacitated as a direct result. The minions of fire still dwell in the Charred Vale below. You should destroy some while I recover. With fewer fire elementals, there shall be more room for water, and all would greatly benefit. Please consider this offer.”
With that, it left.
“I get to put up with that, through day and night,” muttered Morragal.
“Have you told the authorities in Thunder Bluff about this?”
“Yes, and they told me to let it stay. I have faith in them but I fear my own resolve is weakening. At least I can still hear the spirits, unobstructed. Though what they have to say is not encouraging in the least—”
A noisy splashing sound interrupted Morragal. We turned to look at the source, and we saw Tsunaman slamming itself into the earth, turning it into mud.
“He hopes to erode the mountain into nothingness someday,” sighed Morragal.
I spent my nights in the local inn, an airy and comfortable tauren guest house. It gets relatively few visitors, so newly arrived patients sometimes stay there until more permanent lodgings can be arranged. Seven soldiers crowded around a fiery brazier when I first arrived, swapping war stories. Six of them were orcs. I asked them about their lives in Sun Rock Retreat.
“I’ll admit I had my doubts at first,” stated Rog Razorflint, an orcish grunt, “but this is a good place for a warrior. We get up with the sunrise and spar until breakfast. Then we might do a tough hike, more training, scouting... every now and then the shamans have us think on the spirits. It isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I understand its importance.”
The soldiers in Sun Rock Retreat are not really off-duty. They are all expected to do their part to guard the village from any threat. Most patients are orcs; battle-weary tauren usually return to their tribes. The tauren who were sent to Sun Rock Retreat are often hadoham misfits. I spoke to one named Mohoro Wildmane, who had suffered a grievous head injury in Warsong Gulch.
“The shamans thought it might be a good opportunity to help me connect with the spirits of the world,” he said. It was later in the night, and we stood outside to avoid waking the others. Mohoro said he found the nocturnal wilderness inspiring.
“I am still blinded to the spirits. I used to be very ashamed of that; a year ago, I would never have told you. Ever since that dwarven mace hit my skull though, I no longer care so much. My tribe knows, and I am still one of them. That is all that is important.”
“In what sense are you blinded to the spirits?”
“I cannot hear the ancestors. I was not a very good son, though I think I am better now. And I have goblin friends! I quite like Ratchet, though I can only stay there for so long before I get overwhelmed.”
“What are the methods the shamans use to help you?”
“Meditations, sweat lodges, strong tea... the honored methods. I’ll be going back to the front soon enough anyway. I do not much like battle but I cherish the brotherhood of warriors and the new sights. This is a lovely spot, but I am bored here. I appreciate all that the shamans have done for me, but I am simply too far gone. Perhaps I will always be this way, but I am no exile. I am a Wildmane, and a warrior of the Horde. I can be content with that, and I think the ancestors would approve.”
There is something rather sinister about the attempt to “heal” the hadoham. The shamans would, of course, argue that they are trying to ease the pain and isolation of their misfit brethren. They say that the tauren need unity more than ever, to withstand the challenges of the new world. Others might argue that the tauren are more in need of innovation.
I fell asleep to the noise of chirping cicadas. Though the Forsaken no longer physically require sleep, it is of a great psychological aid to us. This is why I attempt to maintain a regular schedule even in undeath.
Someone shook me awake and I heard a woman's strangely accented voice in my ear.
“Arise my champion! The bull-men and orcs won’t listen, but I know you will, you were once human. Remember when human and elf stood together against the tides of darkness? Now my inferior forest brethren plot to—”
“Braelyn! Get out of here!” ordered a voice.
The figure at my side nimbly leapt to her feet and ran off. I tried to ask what had happened, but the innkeeper told me to sleep. I found out more the next morning.
“Braelyn Firehand. If it were up to me, I’d kill her,” snarled Jayka Grimjaw, the proprietress of the inn.
“I’m amazed that Sun Rock Retreat tolerates a high elf.”
“She’s a blood elf. Apparently that’s quite different from a high elf. Braelyn’s completely insane. That maniac Jin’zil brought her over here and she hasn’t yet left or fallen off of a cliff.”
“I’ve met Jin’zil.”
“He warned us that Braelyn was a bit ‘touched in the head,’ as he put it. If even Jin’zil thinks you’re crazy, you truly are mad.”
“How did he find her?”
“I’m not entirely clear on that. Neither Jin’zil nor Braelyn had stories that made much sense. Braelyn claims to be part of the Shadow Council though Jin’zil said that was just part of her madness. Frankly the claim alone should be enough to warrant execution, but I do have to say that I do not think she is or ever was a member of the Shadow Council.”
“Why is that?”
“If she were a member, why would she advertise it here? She talks about great demons, but when a visiting grunt demanded that she summon one, Braelyn got down on her knees and tried to mimic an imp’s voice. Pathetic.”
“I think I see why Jin’zil wanted to be rid of her.”
“Ha ha ha! Maybe it was too much madness for one village to take. He said that Braelyn would be an invaluable ally. We keep her around to humor him. The problem is, she keeps trying to get people to go up north and kill night elves. I bear no love for the Kaldorei but there are worse things in these mountains. I fear it’s only a matter of time before some battle-eager stripling goes up to Stonetalon Peak and gets himself killed on her advice.”
I met briefly with Braelyn Firehand and I must say I agree with Jayka’s assessment. Braelyn claims to have been a princess of both Quel’thalas and a mysterious demonic kingdom beyond this world. At the same time, she is also an executor for the Shadow Council in Felwood, or sometimes Desolace. She alternated between the two regions during our single conversation. She’s become the laughing stock of Sun Rock Retreat.
I prepared myself for Desolace after five days in Sun Rock Retreat. The Charred Vale lies between the Retreat and the gray deserts. A grunt warned me to watch out for the harpies who have taken up residence in the vale.
It took a day of treacherous, downhill travel to reach the Charred Vale. From my vantage point on the cliffs I could see an ashen waste covered in a pall of reddish haze. Though the fire is long gone, its elemental emissaries maintain the Charred Vale’s hellish environment.
Things are even worse on the ground level. Clusters of blackened, skeletal trees dot the landscape; in fact, I was surprised by their number. Fields of swirling ash and dust stretch between those charred mockeries. The place feels like a furnace and it is hard to believe that life still exists there. I am no naturalist, so I cannot fathom how the basilisks and chimerae (much less the harpies) are able to sustain themselves. I was reminded of the environmental impossibilities that I had seen in the Plaguelands, Felwood, and elsewhere; perhaps the Charred Vale is another example of such.
I occasionally passed the nests of harpy matriarchies, which I gave a wide berth. The harpies have lived on Kalimdor for a very long time, but even Kaldorei records are vague as to their origin. Most believe that they were once the handmaidens of the elven Queen Azshara, and were cursed to become avian monstrosities for some great sin. Exactly why they were singled out (instead of turning into satyrs or naga, as did most of the Highborne) is unknown.
As if to spite their nature-loving cousins, the harpies deliberately pollute and ruin in every land they choose to roost. The signs of their presence exist in slaughtered yet uneaten wildlife and stripped trees. The night elf sentinels exterminated most of the harpies in northern Kalimdor, but the ones in the south had little real opposition.
There are two reasons the harpies have never risen to great numbers. One is because their culture is based upon plunder and destruction. They never live in one place for very long, as they will inevitably make it uninhabitable. The other is that all harpies are female. They breed by capturing male elves (recent records indicate that human and troll men are also targeted) and keeping them as stock. The victims never survive for very long.
Matriarchies cull themselves when they become too populous, the older harpies slain by the younger. The matriarchy will then fly off to ravage some other region. While they are sentient, they produce little in the way of crafts, perhaps an indicator of their aristocratic heritage. They only thing they will build are crude nests that hang from the branches of large trees. These are reserved for eggs and the matriarchy leaders; the others must rest in the branches.
The harpies have terrible hygiene. Orcs complain that you will smell a harpy nest long before you see it. Their brightly colored feathers are stiff and heavy with encrusted grime. While they can fly, they are not really good at it. Harpy faces are fixed in strange, rictus grins, creating the overall impression of a long-dead jester.
Two days of walking took me through the Charred Vale, and into the vast wasteland of Desolace.