Saturday, October 27, 2007
The domed, sandstone buildings of Gadgetzan swelter beneath a perpetual blanket of black smoke, the heat of the desert sun trapped in darkness. Pushers, peddlers, and charlatans pack the crazily twisting streets and alleys, driven on an endless quest for wealth. Machines hiss and ring, their cacophony shaking the structures that hold them. Gadgetzan is one of the most energetic places I have ever seen; it is a city of motion, of opportunity, of commerce, of desperation, and of ingenuity.
As is the case with any goblin settlement, there is at least a smattering of every other race in the world. Some of the races more closely tied to nature, such as tauren or night elves, have difficulty adjusting to the sooty air that bites as one breathes it. Most get used to it, after a time.
The water tower is symbolic of Gadgetzan. Constructed by the Gadgetzan Water Company, these rickety structures stick like needles into the darkened sky. A profusion of spidery copper tubes spring from the reservoir of each tower, supplying running water to the more important buildings. All the water in Gadgetzan comes from a vast lake beneath the surface. Though symbiotic with the Steamwheedle Cartel, the Water Company is not actually a subsidiary. They wield great power over local politics.
Gadgetzan is a disorienting place to the first-time visitor. I searched for an inn, the sound of machines and chatter ringing in my ears. Lost, I asked for directions. The goblin I questioned smiled through a face pitted with tiny scars, his gray suit and fedora as shabby as his loose yellow teeth. He directed me to the Gadgetzan Visitor’s Rest, just a few streets down. I then noticed a dusty badge pinned to his jacket, emblazoned with a number: 0067. I asked him about it.
“Oh this? Every Water Company employee gets a badge. The number doesn’t signify anything in particular, until you get into the single digits,” he said. “So are you new here? The Company is always looking to hire people; there’s no shortage of work to be done.”
“What sorts of jobs are available?”
“A Forsaken like you could make himself pretty useful. We’ve got a couple undead who work as surveyors and explorers out in the desert; no one does it better than you fellas. Double if you’re a mage, which I’m guessing you are.”
“An astute guess,” I said.
“To survive here, you have to be sharp.”
“Could you explain the relationship between the Cartel and the Water Company?”
“The Company finds water. We have certain technologies that allow us to do this. All the water's deep underground; too deep for traditional dowsing methods. The entire colonization effort in Kalimdor depends on us.”
“Does the Water Company maintain control over the towers?”
“You bet! This hasn’t made the Steamwheedle bigwigs very happy, but there’s not much they can do about it. The contract stipulates that we’re in charge of all towers. And just to be on the safe side, most of the bruisers in Gadgetzan are Water Company employees, not Steamwheedle goons.”
“The relationship sounds a bit adversarial.”
“That’s always how it is with us goblins.”
“I’ve been told that Gadgetzan is the Cartel’s headquarters in Kalimdor. Is this true?”
“Sure it is. Their local influence is just a bit limited.”
“How much do you charge for the water?”
“We keep it cheap. We have to; otherwise no one would want to do business here. A silver per barrel for normal folk, 50 percent off for Steamwheedle employees and independent business owners, and free for anyone in the Water Company.”
I thanked the goblin (whose name was Znag Slyzzilgib) for his time. As I left, he called out to me over the din of the crowd.
“Think about getting a job here, buddy! You won’t regret it!”
I reached the sprawling Gadgetzan Visitor’s Rest in short order. A cramped portal leads to a vast common room that offers refuge from the punishing heat of the outdoors. Beds and hammocks line the walls, and a long table runs from one side of the parlor to another. At first glance, the table seems to be laid with appetizing dishes, but a closer look reveals that the glazed hog and bowls of fruit are mere replicas. The actual meals consist mostly of dried meat. The inn does have a number of underground private rooms, but these are extremely expensive.
The buzzing electric lanterns are shut off during the day, plunging the Rest into dusty shadow. The mood is not entirely welcoming; though the patrons are polite enough, there’s a definite wariness about the place. Water Company bruisers are ubiquitous, leaning against the walls and sipping coffee at all hours.
I met a few friendly faces in the Rest. One was Te’bahn, a Skullsplitter jungle troll who had fled Stranglethorn. He had done well for himself by acting as a hired spear for the Water Company.
“You see man, there’s water beneath the sands here. Not just this spot, but all over the desert! That’s why when you go east, you see all the water towers poking up, finger bones out of the sand. The problem is, some bandits set up camp there.”
“Who are these bandits?”
“Call themselves the Wastewander. The Wastewander showed up a year ago, taking over some of the out-of-town water towers. They’re coming from the Southsea Pirates, but the pirates don’t like them too much. The Wastewander consort with demons, you see.”
“Demons? They’re not part of the Shadow Council are they?”
“I never heard tell of a Shadow Council, so I can’t say. There was a captured Wastewander who told us they had their own ship once, but the other pirates feared them and forced them out into the desert.”
“Because of the demons?”
“Could be. All I know is, I go out with my band and we kill Wastewander warriors, and take their water pouches back to Gadgetzan as proof. We’ve killed thirteen bandits.”
“Just how many Wastewander bandits are there?”
“I don’t know. Security Chief Bilgewhizzle, he says that the Southsea Pirates don’t like the Wastewander, but the pirates help them by sending more cutthroats. I guess they want the Wastewander to put Gadgetzan out of business. Not much chance of that though.”
“Does Gadgetzan not have enough water, then?”
“Oh, it sure does. But if it’s going to get bigger, and it will, they’ll need those extra towers. The Company built them early to stake their claim to the water.”
“Why doesn’t the Water Company send out its bruisers?”
“They're fearing that Steamwheedle will try to take the town away from them. I don’t think that will ever happen, but I’m not going to complain! This is how I have a job!”
The sun dawned murky the next morning, barely visible through the patina of smog and dust. Not far from the inn was a bustling construction site; a nearby sign proclaimed the future site of “Gezzilk Imports.” Foremen barked orders as enthusiastic goblins hammered posts and made measurements.
The water tower presented another scene of activity. Every morning, one can see a long line of goblins laden with barrels and skins waiting to get access to a large spigot. Each goblin fills his or her container with enough water for the day. Running water is beyond the financial means of most goblins.
Rizzi Figgelmog was a middle-aged goblin woman who had found an opportunity in the high price of running water. I spoke to her in the foyer of her office.
“Believe me, when I first got to Gadgetzan, the place stank! Regular people only took baths once every few weeks. Anything else was too expensive. Goblins don’t like being dirty, but they’d rather be dirty than poor, you know? So I got here and looked at the price of setting up an establishment with a lot of running water—it isn’t cheap, but it’s not prohibitive as long as you can get something back.”
“Thus the creation of the bath house.”
“The first in Gadgetzan! Dirt cheap to wash off the dirt! I had a line out the door after the first week, I’m proud to say! Now, anyone with a few coppers to rub together can clean themselves up for an interview.”
“How many bath houses are in the city?”
“Three at the moment. Two belong to me, the third belongs to that imitator, Zebbin,” she snorted. “He only pays for fresh water every other day; all the stuff in his baths ends up sitting there for two days. It’s cheaper than mine, but the bad reputation will cost you a lot more in the long run.”
“It’s an ingenious business plan. Are you independent from the Cartel and Water Company?”
“Completely. Well, I have to pay for the water, but they don’t own my business, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s a situation where everyone profits—especially me!”
Like all goblin settlements, Gadgetzan is a bewildering contrast between wealth and squalor, creation and entropy. At around noon, when the sweltering heat becomes too much for all but the desperate, mad, and undead, I found myself walking down a narrow street littered with debris. As near as I could tell, the goblins used the place as a scrap heap. Unidentifiable pieces of machinery and building materials lay half-buried the sandy ground. A centipede as long as my hand rested on a cast-off gear.
“I got salvage rights here, friend, so you should probably back off.”
I turned to see a ragged goblin gripping a mallet in his right hand.
“I’m not challenging your salvage rights,” I said.
“Good. I’d hate to have to hurt you.” He disappeared behind a pile of refuse, sorting through it with astonishing speed. “The Gadgetzan Charter says that salvage rights are based on first come, first serve.”
“How long has all this stuff been here?”
“Since yesterday. Some mug out of Kezan was going to set up a big shop here, and then he got run out of town for cheating the Water Company. He tried to escape with his stuff, but mostly he just broke it. The workers scavenged the shiny parts, but there’s still plenty left over for anyone clever enough to use it,” he boasted.
I was able to arrange an interview with a Steamwheedle manager named Worrig Rivetslink the next day. I met him in his office, which he kept dim throughout the day. A fat, bronze-colored scarab explored his cluttered desk as he stood up to greet me. He walked with a limp, and I soon saw that he had a wooden peg in place of his left leg.
“I got this building the water towers,” he explained, tapping the peg.
“I thought the Water Company built the towers.”
“They did. I was a debt slave to them at the time. The Gadgetzan Water Company doesn’t treat debt slaves as well as the Steamwheedle Cartel. My leg got crushed when a wooden beam fell on it, and the Water Company was ready to ship me to debtor’s prison. Lucky for me, I managed to convince the Cartel to purchase and then free me.”
“The Water Company seems to be a rather shady organization.”
“You could say that. Or you could just say that the Steamwheedle Cartel is softer than most. Still, for the time being we’re dependent on the Water Company. The issue is, we don’t know exactly where the water is located. The towers are connected to this underground lake—some say sea—via pipes. Now, the towers don't stand right above the lake. Neither does Gadgetzan. The water comes from somewhere else, and the Water Company can shut off the flow whenever they want.”
“Is this common knowledge?”
“Sure it is. They have a legal claim to the water though, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. Goblins don’t like to be controlled. And we’re not pleased with the Company controlling all of the water.”
I then asked Worrig about the history of Gadgetzan.
“Steamwheedle wanted to get a piece of the action in Kalimdor; figured the best way to do this would be to colonize the southern tip. After all, no one lives here except beasts and that weird troll cult over in Zul’farrak. The cartel built Steamwheedle Port, but found out there was no source of fresh water. They would’ve set up a desalination plant, except those things are expensive and inefficient. Then some independent trader named Grink Bilgewhizzle says he found water in the desert, entire lakes of it. He insisted on getting all these rights to the water, but the cartel was getting a bit desperate at this point so they went ahead.”
“Bilgewhizzle founded the Gadgetzan Water Company?”
“He did. Filled a lot of top ranks with family members too, which is strange behavior. For a goblin. I know humans are in love with nepotism, but most of us look down on it. Anyway, we had a regular water source, but it was far from the port. So Gadgetzan grew around some of the water towers. Most of the people here work on infrastructure and maintenance; Tanaris is a rough place.”
"What happened to the port?”
“It’s still there, though it’s a dinky little burg. We don’t actually get much maritime trade anymore because of the Southsea Pirates. The Pport’s also heavily defended, but there’s not much in the way of plunder there. In other words, it’s not worth raiding.”
“How powerful are these Southsea Pirates? I’m surprised the cartel doesn’t just destroy them.”
“They have a big base in Lost Rigger Cove, and there was a time where we could have taken it out. The cartel lost most of its fleet to naga raiders, just after the Third War. That’s why we cut the deal with the Blackwater Raiders over in Booty Bay. We needed ships, and fast. Of course, they’re busy defending Booty Bay. In time, they might send someone here. Truth is, we don’t get much maritime trade, so it’s not even worth it right now.”
“How do you get supplies?”
“Steamwheedle freight carriers dock at Steamwheedle every two months. Independent merchants pay good money to get their products on a freighter. These ships are giant, like you wouldn’t believe, and they always get a complement of escort ships.”
“Have the pirates ever tried to attack them?”
“Not yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. It’s entirely possible that they’ll pull it off. The thing is, we should be getting lots of maritime trade from places like Theramore or Ratchet, but we come up empty-handed. Private ships don’t stand a chance in these waters. If we did get trade from non-Steamwheedle sources we’d be at least twice as productive as we are now.”
Even the most cursory examination shows that Gadgetzan is a booming city despite these difficulties. To facilitate its growth, both the Steamwheedle Cartel and the Gadgetzan Water Company have gotten more aggressive and proactive in dealing with external threats. It is unlikely that the Wastewander, the Southsea Pirates, or the Zul’farrak trolls will be able to terrorize the goblins for much longer.
Gadgetzan’s atmosphere grows more sinister at night. The smog and darkness turn the air pitch black, and the lamps glow dim in the smoky air. As is the case with every goblin city, Gadgetzan is just as active at night as it is in the day. The bruisers keep the peace as best they can, but the dark makes it easy for petty thieves to make a steal.
I saw the Gadgetzan Cage the night after I met Worrig. The Cage is a common subject of conversation in the city, so I already knew a fair amount about it. A ramshackle arena built in the center of a large and disorderly plaza, the Cage is where contestants fight each other to the cheers of the crowd. Electric lights flood the arena with their blinding glare, though the audience stays lost in the surrounding shadows.
A match had just begun when I arrived. Bruisers roped off the area around the Cage, and I had to pay two silver pieces to get in. The crowd thrilled with anticipatory chatter as two goblin fighters circled each other. I stood next to a pair of cackling Water Company employees. I saw only their grinning mouths, jagged teeth on proud display.
“Hey, pal, you have anything on this match?” one asked.
“Do you mean wagers? No, I’m just observing.”
I witnessed three fights, each one of astonishing brutality. The fighters agree on rules and victory terms before the match; there are no house rules for the cage. So long as the rules of the match are unbroken, anything is fair game. Fights to the death are permitted, though not common. The winner of a fight is paid by the Cage manager while the loser gets nothing.
A charismatic and wild-looking human named Henri won the second and third matches. Judging by his name, he had been born in Dalaran, though he was obviously not a mage. A Water Company employee explained that Henri was once a Wastewander bandit. He put up such a good fight during his capture that he was sold to the Cage manager to use in fights. Henri had so far won every single bout, and had beaten one human to death.
I found the Cage to be distasteful and boring, so I did not stay long. An idea came to me as I walked to the inn. I had been hearing much about Lost Rigger Cove, the infamous headquarters of the Southsea Pirates. The Wastewander bandits were, by all accounts, an offshoot of the pirates. I wondered if Henri could tell me about the Cove. I made up my mind to talk to the Dalaranese about his former comrades.
I did not meet Henri until my fifth day in Gadgetzan. I spent most of the fourth day asking for his whereabouts. During the third day, I had become distracted by a bookseller from whom I bought a compilation of Fil Kaydik’s “Infinite Portal” series. The rest of the day was devoted to perusing this fascinating work of speculative fiction.
Henri had been able to purchase his freedom half a year before my visit. He continued to get most of his money from Cage matches. While still a fearsome brawler, some said that his skills were gradually declining. He spent his days in the Shady Sand Market, an subterranean bazaar in southern Gadgetzan. Reports described him as eternally drunk, and nearly broke despite the money he made in the fights.
The market is easy to find, entry given by a steep staircase plunging deep into the earth. Even I could detect the odor wafting up from the entrance, the smell of packed bodies, filth, and incense.
I stepped down into a cavernous bedlam of noise, traders crying shrilly for their wares. The floor is packed with goblins seeking shelter from the sun, their numbers rendering the market nearly as hot as the outdoors, and far stuffier.
The bank and the auction house are the two mainstays of the Shady Sand Market. Beyond that, the population changes every day. Sellers are usually travelers or bottom feeders who lack the time or resources to build a stand on the surface. Many work through the auction house, though some prefer to sell directly to customers.
Items sold at the market are rarely of high quality, though every now and then someone tries to sell an enchanted weapon or shield. Stolen items are often fenced in the shadows, pushed by dubious characters. Exotic animals are another frequent commodity. I saw a haggard human trying to sell a ruffled and despondent owl of the breed common to Teldrassil. It would be inaccurate to say that contraband is sold there, because very few things are illegal in goblin society. Bruisers push their way through the crowds, maintaining the place with salutary neglect.
I spotted Henri sprawled on a stool, his back to the wall. A mug dangled from a gnarled hand. Near him stood what appeared to be a crude bar; three great barrels (with taps) maintained by a one-eyed goblin. Henri did not notice me until I looked him in his eyes, which were bloodshot from drink. Henri recoiled, a brief look of horror on his face.
“What the hell was that about, you damn zombie?” he slurred. “What, you’re one of those damned Forsaken, are you not? Pah! I left the east to get away from your rotten kind yet you lurch over here—”
“Calm yourself, Henri. I merely noticed that you’d run out of ale. Here, take a few silvers. After your fights earlier this week, I’d say you earned it.” I offered two silver coins. His eyes lit up.
“Hm. I suppose if you’re giving it to me, it wouldn’t be grave robbing, huh? Ha ha ha! I wouldn’t drink anything you brewed but I’ll take your money. The beer here is awful, but it’s cheap. You don’t get much money on the fight circuit, not really.”
Henri rose to his feet and handed the mug a silver piece to the goblin at the barrels. The goblin nodded and wordlessly filled the mug with beer. Henri took a greedy draught.
“Light, this stuff is awful!” he exclaimed after finishing.
“So why do you keep buying it?” inquired the goblin, a cruel grin on his face.
“What else am I supposed to do in this hellhole, huh? What’s your name?” he asked me.
“Lordaeronian, I see. Lordaeron was a decent enough nation. I used to own a farm just outside of Dalaran, but I had to flee because of the Scourge. Those damn mages did not do a thing to help me. The only thing I hate more than mages are warlocks and Stromgarders! So I found myself in Menethil Harbor, that stinking city, without a coin to call my own. I signed up on a privateer, and that’s how I became a pirate.”
“How long were you a pirate?”
“Four years or something? Does it matter? Life was all right I suppose. Nasty bunch, pirates, but it’s a nasty world. A fellow can’t afford to be too picky, eh?”
“How did you end up with the Wastewander Bandits?”
“I beat the captain of my ship at a game of cards. He accused me of cheating! Instead of tossing me off the plank they sent me to live with the Wastewander wretches. I wish they’d killed me instead.”
“I hear that the Wastewander used to be Southsea Pirates.”
“That they did. The pirates needed some mean folk to harass the water supply of Gadgetzan, and they sent over the meanest. The Wastewander meddle with demons too, did you know that?”
“No. Are they part of the Shadow Council?”
“Shadow Council? I don’t know what that is. I don’t think they are part of anything like that. Then I got captured, went into debt slavery instead of being hung from the scaffolds. Now I’m here!”
“You should start a business here.”
“I’d never make it. These goblins do nothing but cheat you. A simple farmer like me would end up totally broke in no time.” He sighed, and took another drink.
“What goes on with the pirates? People say that there’s a big pirate base on the eastern shore.”
“Heh, you be careful of who you say that to! Company men don’t like strangers trying to get to know the pirates. Are you trying to join them?”
“No, I only want to learn about them?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Well I won’t pry into the affairs of the undead; I can’t imagine your reasons are anything I’d like to hear about. The pirate base is called Lost Rigger Cove, a stretch of beach surrounded by mountains. Messy place, and very busy. Everyone goes there to do business with the pirates: the Venture Company, the Defias, the Syndicate... bunch of others I’m too drunk to remember right now.”
“A trade meet for the villains of the world?”
“You could say that. To get in you have to know somebody on the wrong side of the law—a fellow who goes up to them uninvited will be cut down like that,” Henri said, making a slashing motion.
“I’m curious about seeing the cove for myself. Do you know if there’s anyone here who could get me in?”
“Ha ha ha! Be careful, if a company goon hears you say that you’ll be swinging from the scaffolds. At least, if the undead can even choke to death. I heard people have to burn or decapitate your kind, ha ha! I know a fellow though, Jiddig Spazzelgrog. We know each other, I might be able to put in a good word for you. If I see him; hard to keep track of friends in this hateful city.”
“Any effort on your part is appreciated,” I said, handing Henri ten silver pieces.
“Ah, come back here at sundown. Jiddig will be here, and you two can discuss matters.”
I thanked Henri and wandered about the city for the rest of the day. As the smoky air dimmed into black, I returned to the Shady Sand Market. Henri sat on the floor, totally inebriated. Next to him stood a fidgety goblin holding a large coffee cup full of water brew. I spoke with him long enough to arrange transportation to Steamwheedle Port, and then to Lost Rigger Cove. We would reach the port by signing on to a water caravan. After that, Jiddig would escort me personally to my destination.
Two days later, I arose early and signed out of the Gadgetzan Visitor’s Rest. I met Jiddig at the northern gate of the city, where workers loaded up the caravan. We were soon on our way, leaving behind the city's sprawling chaos. As it started its way through the trackless sands, the caravan passed a gallows just outside of town. Blackened nooses dangled from the post, swaying in the quiet wind.
“Quite a sight, eh?” remarked Jiddig. “This is where they hang pirates. Have you ever seen a hanging, Destron?”
“I have not.” Both Lordaeron and Dalaran had disdained the practice of public execution. It was thought to be barbaric and contrary to the dictates of the Light.
“You need to see it. Standing back in the crowd, you can look at the poor sap being strung up, and you feel like you’re on top of the world. No matter how clever he was, you’re smarter because you’re still alive.”
The living have an entirely natural fascination with death. Some suspend their dread by attempting to familiarize themselves with oblivion. Jiddig’s love of execution was certainly unsavory, but perhaps not so surprising. I could not bring myself to completely trust him.
Steamwheedle Port is a world apart from Gadgetzan’s noise and motion. Cool ocean breezes dispel the desert heat, and there’s not even a touch of the smog that inundates the port's larger neighbor. Time slows to a standstill. Palm trees and stone buildings laze out on the white sand, overlooking the bright blue waters of the southern seas. The waters around Tanaris are saltier than normal, a fact responsible for their intoxicating hue.
Jiddig considered Steamwheedle Port to be a dull town not worth his time, so he insisted upon leaving the day after we arrived. Even though I knew I would probably return to the Port while en route back to Gadgetzan, I tried to learn as much as I could on the first visit. The pirate blockade has created an unwillingly tranquil place. One can go out at midday and hear nothing but the cries of seagulls. Fishing boats line the quays. Most are run by goblins, though a significant percentage is owned by trollish refugees from Stranglethorn. Their age-old tribal songs lift into the air when the trollish boats return from a day’s work.
“At first I thought I’d go mad here, but I found I liked it,” said Kepperik Nozgoddle, a goblin who ran an angler’s supply store.
“It’s a very relaxing place.”
“Sure, I suppose. Point is, you can do a lot of good business here. Aren’t as many opportunities as Gadgetzan, but if you keep your eyes open you can do well for yourself. If I was a young man I’d want to be in the city, but now that I’m old I’ve come to enjoy a bit of security.”
“Do you think this town will grow?”
“Definitely. Sooner or later, the Southsea Pirates are going to be driven out. Then there’s going to be an expansion here. I don’t think it’s going to be like Gadgetzan though. With beaches this nice, it’ll probably be more gentrified, a resort of some kind. Heh, I guess I do like the relaxation aspect.”
We left early the next day, trekking south along the serene beaches. My enjoyment was hampered somewhat by Jiddig’s endless stories and boasts. Jiddig made me think of a coiled spring of energy. He claimed that he would soon be leaving the Steamwheedle Cartel, describing them as “a bunch of slow-poke yeggs.” Jiddig said he had sailed with the pirates for a while, and still worked for them in an unofficial capacity.
A day-and-a-half of walking led us to a great cliff jutting out into the sea. Jiddig led me along the rocky face, stopping at the entrance to a small cave. Bowing grandiosely, he congratulated himself on his knowledge and expertise before motioning for me to follow him inside.
The interior is a dry, sandy tunnel that goes on for about a mile. We soon reached the terminus, which opens out onto a beach similar to the one on the other end.
“You better let me go out first,” said Jiddig. Complying, I stayed back in the darkness. Jiddig put two fingers to his mouth and gave three sharp, short whistles. A shadow suddenly blocked the sunlight as a heavily tattooed ogre stepped up, his face a scowl. A pair of humans flanked him, one on each side. Dense stubble darkened the faces of both humans, and one had a constellation of red sores spattered up his cheek and across his brow.
“What’s your business today, Jiddig?” asked the diseased human.
“I’m bringing over a prospective customer. He’s with a new protection racket up in Everlook.” Jiddig and I had decided upon that as a cover story.
“Everlook? I heard Everlook was pretty small.”
“Small, but growing. This newcomer is profitable. I’ll show you.” Jiddig tossed a bag of coins at the guard.
“So I see. Bring him in.”
“Thank you. Oh, just so you know, he’s a Forsaken. If he looks rotten it’s only because he’s supposed to be.”
“Huh. As long as it isn’t a Scourge, take him in.”
Under Jiddig’s protection, I passed by the suspicious eyes of the pirates. A look of revulsion and hatred came into the face of the unmarked human when he saw me.
“A lot of the humans here are refugees from old Lordaeron—especially from the parts that folks now call the Eastern Plaguelands. They don’t like the undead too much, so watch where you step,” warned Jiddig.
Jumbles of tents and lean-tos crowd the beach like so much driftwood. Many of the Southsea Pirates spend their days in these dilapidated camps, gambling, drinking, and fighting. Black smoke from dozens of burning refuse piles fouls the air, and rickety barrel-laden wagons teeter through the beach selling cheap grog to the locals. Red-faced drunks flock to any stopped wagon, their mournful demands echoing down the beach.
Lost Rigger Cove itself is a collection of ramshackle buildings within a wooden enclosure. Three ships were docked at the Cove at the time of my visit, their sails colored in the bold red and black favored by the Southsea Pirates. More alarming were the shipwrights busy building a pirate frigate near the shore.
Lost Rigger Cove reeks of menace and barely-restrained violence. Thieves and murderers swagger through unutterable filth, their faces stamped with perpetual sneers. Many were visibly ill, their sickened bodies displaying signs of viral illnesses that priests cannot cure. Pirates are rarely very old, but their hard and self-destructive lives ages them prematurely. Humans, gnolls, goblins, and trolls predominate among the rogues, though a few of nearly every race can be found.
Jiddig led me to a dank, barracks-style structure that serves as an inn. Important guests are allowed to stay in luxurious private chambers, but everyone else must make do with a messy common room. The barracks are packed to the brim with people at all times of day, both visitors and residents. Water and spilled rum has warped the floor, while dirt and graffiti coat the walls.
“Basically, Destron, there aren’t too many rules here. This can be a good or a bad thing depending. Just stay sharp. So long as you don’t bother anyone important, and don’t let yourself become a victim, you should be all right. If you want to make a deal, a bit of grog is the best way to get things started,” said Jiddig.
Sunset was near by the time we arrived, and Jiddig felt quite weary. Thus, I postponed my explorations until the next day. Sleep is an acquired skill in Lost Rigger Cove. The inhabitants are out at all hours, drowning their miseries in grog. Hideous laughter and off-key singing fill the barracks most evenings, and it takes until at least midnight (usually longer) to quiet down.
I got up early the next morning as the first rays of the rising sun illuminated the bright blue sea. The cove slumbered in a drunken haze. A half-awake pirate lay on a collapsed bed near the door, tears streaming from his crusty eyes.
There was some activity in the outdoors, as the pirate “professional” class got to work. These are the shipwrights who maintain and build the ships of the Southsea Fleet. I observed them at work for a while, and I was astonished to see five Dark Iron dwarves among them. Unlike the cowed Dark Iron slaves in the Venture camp up in the Stonetalon Mountains, these dwarves exuded confidence. I spoke to one as he took a short break from his labors. His name was Singni Stonebrow.
“The Dark Iron Empire never sold slaves to the Southsea Pirates, for whatever reason. All the Dark Irons you see here are escapees from Shadowforge City or the Cauldron.”
“Why didn’t you stay in Ironforge? There’s a thriving Dark Iron community there.”
“Ironforge wasn’t an option for us! The northern routes were quite dangerous, and have only gotten worse in recent years. We followed the passes through the western mountains. Fewer Imperial patrols in that damnable place. The Thorium Brotherhood runs a transfer point at the coast, where they do business with the pirates. They sell their fine weapons to this merry band of brigands.”
“Are you a member of the Thorium Brotherhood?”
“No, no, I’m merely a shipwright. But some of the money I earn goes towards the Thorium Brotherhood. Everyone here wants to see the Empire destroyed, you see. We want to put the emperor, and all of his priests and overseers in the Cauldron, where we shall make their agony the stuff of legend!”
“Who actually designs the ships?” I found it doubtful that the landlocked Dark Iron Empire would offer training for that job.
“A bunch of goblins handle that.”
“Do all of the Dark Irons here sponsor the Thorium Brotherhood?”
“Certainly, certainly! That’s part of the deal, you see. They provide us a place far away from the Dark Iron Empire, and we give them a bit of our money. The Brotherhood are not fools; they do not give charity. Only the strong may survive. In fact, we dwarves do a lot better than the humans here. We do not waste our days killing ourselves with drink!”
In an ironic touch, the Southsea Pirates are a key trading partner of the Venture Company, which in turn trades with the Dark Iron Empire so hated by Singni. Some of the materials harvested from the Venture Company’s illegal operations in Kalimdor are sold to the Southsea Pirates, who use it to build or repair ships. The pirates may sell some of the resources to independent smugglers and traders, the precise amount depending on the state of the fleet. Venture Company goods are regarded as contraband by the Horde, the Alliance, and the Steamwheedle Cartel. However, there is really no way to trace the origins of goods once they changes hands.
Lost Rigger Cove essentially functions as a smuggler’s haven. After a successful piracy campaign, the Southsea cutthroats sell some of their ill-gotten gains to interested buyers in Lost Rigger Cove, who often purchase it to resell elsewhere. Local rules state that ten percent of every transaction goes directly to the Southsea coffers. In reality, the pirates often charge more by demanding exorbitant bribes. This has put a damper on business, but the fact remains that Lost Rigger Cove is the best place for illicit transactions.
Emissaries from criminal organizations also keep Lost Rigger Cove in business. They buy up supplies in Lost Rigger Cove and then hire Southsea privateers to transport these purchases. The Syndicate, the Defias, the Blackrock Clan, the Burning Blade Cult, and Zul’farrak all have representatives there. These organizations are unable to create a resource-gathering infrastructure, and can only do business with groups as unscrupulous and vicious as they. The Thorium Brotherhood also trades with the Southsea Pirates, but only to a limited degree. The Brotherhood gets most its supplies from sympathetic Dark Iron refugees in Khaz Modan.
The slave trade is easily the most loathsome of the Cove’s industries. The slaves are captured in raids, either directly by the pirates, or by the Venture Company who then sell the slaves to the pirates. Sometimes these unfortunates end up on pirate ships, but most are sold to become cheap labor for the worst the world has to offer. The largest buyer of slaves are the trolls of Zul’farrak.
However, the heyday of Lost Rigger Cove may be coming to an end. I learned about the Cove’s situation from a rheumy-eyed goblin pirate named Murig Sniddlegob. He spent most of his time on land, his obesity and poor health making sea travel difficult. We spoke as he sat beneath a palm tree, drinking cherry grog from a grimy mug.
“Two reasons. The first reason is that the Steamwheedle Cartel’s going to beat us here, eventually. We tried to stop their growth with the Wastewander Bandits, but those damned landlubbers aren’t going to have any great effect.”
“What’s the other reason?”
“We aren’t getting as many customers as we once did. Some of them might not be around for much longer. They’ve made a lot of enemies, and the tables are turning against them. I hear that the Defias have been losing their grip on Westfall, and that the Burning Blade is falling to the orcs of the Horde.”
“What will the Southsea Pirates do if this happens?”
“Tighten our belts for a bit. The world’s a great slaughterhouse, and as soon as the Defias or Syndicate are wiped out, some new bunch of killers will take their place. As for us, there will be plenty of ships to plunder. We’ll set up a new base too. The Venture Company has offered us a safe harbor on the Isle of Kezan. Or we might merge with the Bloodsail Buccaneers. I don’t care for the Bloodsail—they're not professional at all—but one can’t afford to be too picky in this line of work.”
I spent the rest of the day learning about the details of a pirate’s life. As expected, it is a laborious and dangerous existence. Despite lucrative stories of plundered wealth, very few pirates ever become rich.
“The only way to get any money at all as a pirate is to be very good at what you do.”
I was speaking with Anwic Dacius. Much better-dressed than most pirates, Anwic took pains to cultivate an urbane and civilized air. In fact, he claimed to be the eldest son of House Dacius, a family of minor Lordaeronian nobility whose estate now molders in northern Tirisfal. When I met him, he served as a senior crewman aboard The Black Barge.
“Where does your skill lie?”
“Swordsmanship. I was trained by the best old Lordaeron had to offer. As such, I get a sizeable percentage of the plunder, or of the ship commission if its not a raid.”
“Not a raid?”
“Smuggling, escort, and every once in the while we do legitimate transport!” he laughed. “Money’s not too useful on the ship; food and water are all that matters. Coin is grand when you’re in port though.”
“Do you save up the money you earn?”
“There’s no safe way to do that. When I first joined this scurvy lot I planned to depart to Lordaeron as soon as I got enough money to raise an army to retake my homeland. But after a while it grew hard to remember my old home. All I knew was that I could die at any moment, so it seemed wiser to spend money on wine and harlots.”
“Is your aristocratic heritage a problem with the rest of the crew?”
“At first, but I proved myself quickly. No one dares question me any longer, and I’ve been on The Black Barge long enough to make life unpleasant for any who do.”
“How does rank work on a pirate vessel?”
“Each crew has its own way of handling things. The captain runs things, but if he’s a fool he’ll quickly be replaced. The crew can oust the captain, and elect a new one from among their own number.”
“The Southsea Fleet does not punish mutinous crews?”
“Obviously not. If the captain was imbecilic enough to allow a mutiny he deserves his fate, which is usually death. Pirates don’t respond well to hierarchy or rules.”
“How does the captain maintain order?”
“Charisma and brute force. The captain will usually have a cadre of loyal toughs to keep the swabs in line. Then again, bodyguards are not as loyal as they seem. If they hear mutinous whispers among the crew, they’ll side with the mutineers. It’s a tricky thing, to be a captain. You have to make sure your crew fears you, but doesn’t hate you.”
“Who leads the Southsea Pirates?”
“I don’t actually know. We’re more of a loose federation than a fleet really. Whoever is in charge is smart enough to realize that the Southsea Pirates will fall apart if he tries to force things his way. Just let the pirates do as they please, so long as they don’t interfere with our customers to any significant degree.”
“Thank you for your time.”
“You’re welcome. I’ve grown to enjoy the company of coarse murderers, but every now and then it’s pleasant to talk to an educated man, even if he is undead. All I really have to say is that, provided you’ve a good sword arm, piracy is the most entertaining way there is to kill yourself. Because make no mistake: if the sea or other sailors don’t kill you, drink and disease will.”
The low-ranking pirates (called swabs) to whom I spoke gave accounts that generally agreed with Anwic’s in regards to the basics. The swabs appeared reluctant to give a negative description of shipboard life due to loyalty and fear. I got the impression that, while camaraderie does exist on board, there is a distinct pecking order that is enforced without mercy.
“See here, if some lily-livered fool prances on deck with nary a scar on his mug, the crew will tear into him. Until he, by hook or by crook, gets into the good graces of the crew, or gets a friend with some real salt, he’s doomed to suffer. That’s how you become a pirate, all the weakness gets beat right out of you,” described a gap-toothed human pirate who called himself Scrim. Scabs covered his pink face. He only spoke with me after I offered to buy him a bottle of rum.
“Many of the humans here are refugees. Are you one?”
“I fled the law, not the Scourge, heh! Though when the undead did come to Lordaeron, the criminals had to escape too. Pirates were a fine way to get out of town. Others, good honest folk, were tricked into signing onto a pirate ship. They became pirates soon enough. Those that didn’t now lie on the ocean floor!” he giggled.
It is difficult for me to even fathom the horror undoubtedly felt by such tricked refugees, who had fled one nightmare only to find another.
There are not many spellcasters among the Southsea Pirates. Those with command over supernatural elements (whether they be shamanistic, druidic, arcane, or divine) are rarely hard-pressed to find roles in mainstream society. Spellcasters that fall to corruption are more likely to end up with the Shadow Council or Defias than with essentially opportunistic groups.
Most magic users in the Southsea Fleet are shamans, often of gnollish or trollish descent. These shamans usually joined the Southsea Pirates at the behest of their tribes, and provide invaluable healing to the corsairs. I found only one priest in Lost Rigger Cove, a human cleric who had been captured in a raid. He believed the dictates of the Light compelled him to heal sick or wounded pirates. I pointed out that these pirates would probably go on to cause more misery to others. The priest grew offended at this, and terminated our conversation.
Arcanists are of less interest to the pirates. Mages demand high pay, and tend to earn the ire of the crew. A troll pirate explained it to me thusly:
“Some scrub comes aboard, we kick him about, but if he’s good with a sharp knife we call him brother. With a wizard, it never matters. He has great power, but he does not fight like a warrior!”
The advent of cannons made the shipboard wizards of old less useful. This is because an attack spell typically has less range than that of a cannon. There are specially trained mages with the ability to project spells over long distances, but they are only found in various national navies. The vaunted arcane-marines of Kul Tiras are an example of such.
Shipboard mages still have some utility, generally in intimidating the crew of the opposing vessel if close combat becomes necessary. Contrary to popular belief, a mere fireball spell is very unlikely to set a ship ablaze. The fireball expends most of its energy on impact. They are not hot enough to set fire to a strong wooden hull. A pyroblast spell can do damage, but is really not much better than an incendiary shell from a cannon. A blizzard is the most effective anti-ship weapon, as it shreds the sails and does not usually damage the cargo, though steam engines will likely reduce the spell's efficacy.
Lost Rigger Cove also has an auction house of looted goods, informally called the World’s Wealth. While low-grade items are sold by fences, objects of value are sold in the World’s Wealth.
“If something of value is looted from a ship’s hold, there’s a good chance it’ll end up here!” boasted one pirate.
The World’s Wealth is a barracks-like structure with a flamboyantly gaudy interior. Paintings carelessly hang on the clapboard walls, all of them original works looted from private collections, at least according to the auctioneer. Most of the items for sale are costly but tasteless, designed with an excess of gold and jewels.
The patrons are mostly pirate captains and high-ranking criminals, all doing their best to act like nobles. Since most noble houses were founded by glorified brigands, this may not be such a stretch. I saw Jiddig speaking to a human dressed in a frilly red long-coat and silk breeches that looked both expensive and fifty years out of date. The foppish clothing contrasted with the wearer’s scarred face and brutish mannerisms. A harlot in a decaying violet gown clung to him with calloused hands. Powder plastered her face, failing to cover the boils that marred her aged features. She smiled crookedly, her eyes hard and desperate.
“It’s good to buy the stuff of kings and nobles!” proclaimed Rossol, the pirate in the ridiculous coat. “You put it up on the ship, makes it look special. We’re the lords of the sea, so it’s only right that we act the part.”
“Does it impress the crew?”
“Sure it does! Sometimes at least. With this, we look almost legitimate!” he laughed. He leered at the harlot, who hoarsely giggled in return, the stump of her tongue wagging in a mouth full of broken teeth.
I spent the night with Jiddig in the barracks. My interest in the Southsea Pirates had faded, and I was eager to return to Gadgetzan. Jiddig was playing a card game with two other goblins and a human with an orange Syndicate scarf draped on his neck. They were all quite drunk. The tumult of Lost Rigger Cove raged in full height around me, and I took care to stay in the background, observing the petty fights with (I must confess) a bit of weary amusement.
A sudden commotion at Jiddig’s table caught my attention. Jidding was backing away, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture to the obviously infurated players.
“I swear, that card was from another game, I had no idea—” babbled Jiddig.
“You cheated! You all saw him, right up his damn sleeve! I bet hard cash on this game and you cheat!” screamed one of the goblins.
I stood up to intervene.
“Hey, I’d never cheat! I wouldn’t want to cheat a couple of sharp fellows like you, and I’m sure not stupid enough to try a stunt like that, honest!” he protested.
“You say that, but I saw that king slip out of your sleeve,” pointed out the human, who seemed to find the situation funny.
Then one of the other goblins stepped up and slit Jiddig’s throat in one smooth stroke. An arterial mist sprayed over the room and Jiddig fell back, clutching his wound. He turned to me, his eyes pleading, gurgling pleas sputtering from between his teeth.
“Is there a priest here?” I shouted. I doubt anyone even heard me over the din. Jiddig’s killers went back to their card game, and paid no attention to me. I picked Jiddig up, though I knew he was as good as dead.
I carried him outside into the balmy night air, as he choked and gasped, trying to say something in Goblinish. He died a few minutes later.
“A problem here, mate?” inquired a dwarven pirate who had just stepped out of the World’s Wealth. He held a tankard of beer in one hand, but seemed mostly sober.
“This goblin was killed in a gambling dispute. I attempted to get aid for him.”
“Oh, that’s Jiddig, is it not?”
“Aye, no surprise. He’s not a member of anyone’s crew, just a small time rogue. I wouldn’t worry yourself about it if I were you.”
“I see. What should I do with the body?”
“Dump it here! Or there! Just don’t put it in my bunk!” he laughed.
I placed Jiddig’s body on the sand next to the barracks, throwing a tarp over the miniscule corpse. I felt a brief bit of pity for the goblin, but there was nothing I could have done. I chose not to dwell on the matter, and surmised it would be wise to leave as soon as possible.
The lands west of Gadgetzan are places of dream and memory. Few have set foot in the terrible deserts and steaming jungles. The Kaldorei ventured south in the War of the Shifting Sands, but did not stay long, shunning those lonely regions for the northern forests. Going back even farther, some trollish codices speak of their imperial armies marching west to battle against cruel insect lords, the Azi’aqir of obscure legends. But in the time since, it has become difficult to sift fact from legend, and even the trolls are unsure as to what really happened.
Recent times have again brought explorers to these regions, though the lands remain shrouded in mystery. Adventurers in Gadgetzan tell of crossing the jungles of Un’goro Crater to the awful realm of Silithus, though these are often mere boasts. I also heard news of both the Alliance and Horde sending soldiers across the mountains of southern Feralas for reasons unknown. Rumors spoke of an ancient evil returning to Azeroth in those remote lands.
I was quite lucky in finding a guide, a crafty troll adventurer named Ja'gahn. After meeting him, I asked around Gadgetzan and received confirmation that he had actually gone through Un’goro Crater.
Ja’gahn spoke Orcish with nary an accent, though his vocabulary was limited. His familiarity with southern Kalimdor came from a youth spent in Zul’farrak. Ja’gahn explained that he had been born in Zandalar, the illegitimate son of a Sandfury priest and a Zandalari servant woman. His mother raised him until he was ten, at which point his father took him to Zul’farrak. Ja’gahn remained in Zul’farrak for seven years, before returning again to the South Seas where he worked at a variety of different jobs. For the reasonable price of three gold pieces (half-paid in Gadgetzan, the other half to be paid upon completion), Ja’gahn offered to take me to the edge of Silithus. Once in Silithus, I would meet up with Horde forces in the area.
When I told him that my goal was knowledge, he asked if I would like to visit Zul’farrak. At first I was incredulous, considering the troll city’s implacably hostile reputation. He assured me that I would be safe as long as I stayed with him and wore a basilisk-skin mantle.
“With the mantle my kinsmen will know you are a guest, and not a slave,” he said.
Ja’gahn further explained that he wished to pay respects to his father, who had recently died. I agreed to the visitation. We found a cheap basilisk mantle in one of Gadgetzan’s bazaars, for which Ja’gahn insisted on paying.
I departed Gadgetzan in the dark, pre-dawn hours. A few stubborn stars lingered in the cold sky as the eastern horizon lightened. We were able to travel light; Ja’gahn did not greatly enjoy conjured food, but was more than willing to partake of it in order to save money. Our route hewed close to the mountains. Central Tanaris is best avoided. Stories speak of dunes that reach as high as mountains, decorated by the bones of ancient beasts. In some areas, the sand is so loose that those who tread on it will sink to their deaths.
Ja’gahn said little through our journey, though he did elucidate on the strange history of Zul’farrak. Ages ago, the city had been the western jewel of the Gurubashi Empire. Tanaris was still a desert in those days, but it had been a more forgiving one. Oases dotted the landscapes and the northern mountains held great reserves of water.
The Sundering destroyed the glories of Zul’farrak. The continental rift led the desert trolls to think themselves the last remnant of a great civilization. Over the years the oases vanished, buried by the endless sand. Shifts in geography rerouted water from the mountains, and some sources vanished entirely.
“My ancestors believed that the Loa had abandoned us, so we followed Theka the Martyr instead.”
“Who exactly was Theka?”
“Some say a god. Others say a liar and a madman.”
“Do you believe in him?”
“No. I follow the Loa.”
Ja’gahn declined to speak much of Theka. The subject appeared to be a source of obscure pain for him. He did say that the Cult of Theka had long since taken root when the Zandalari at last reestablished contact. Learning of the misfortunes suffered by the Gurubashi and Amani only strengthened the heresy. Yet Zul’farrak was not really in better condition, growing ever more insular and bound in ritual.
We traversed the empty sands for three days before reaching a cluster of hide tents out in the desert. A few rickety watch towers stood among them.
“Is this Zul’farrak?” I asked, surprised.
“No. This is Sandsorrow Watch. It is where those who have failed Theka are sent. Zul’farrak lies to the north. We will go here first, and I will see about getting into the city.”
I followed Ja’gahn to a pool of water, next to which stood a pair of tents and a lookout post. Five trolls, with the dusty orange skin and red hair common to the Sandfury, approached us. They spoke with Ja’gahn for a while. The trolls conversed in quiet tones scarcely above a whisper, making the proceedings feel a bit ominous.
“Come with me,” Ja’gahn said. “They will send a messenger to the city. We shall find out if we can enter tomorrow.”
I followed Ja’gahn into the bare and musty interior of a hide tent, the sandy ground covered in leather mats. An aged troll who huddled in the back of the tent, his milky eyes gazing sightlessly forward.
“These trolls do not seem to object to my undeath,” I mentioned.
“The Sandfury say that all the Loa save for Ula-Tek are dead, and Ula-Tek is the servant of Theka. They care not for the ancient laws.”
Ja’gahn grew increasingly melancholy as the day continued. Eventually he excused himself, saying he would return during the night. He warned me not to go far from the tent.
I tried to learn as much about the Sandfury trolls as possible. Ja’gahn’s laconic responses frustrated me, though I suspected he had a good reason for his attitude. Not knowing Zandali, it was impossible for me to learn very much.
The Sandfury trolls, at least the ones in Sandsorrow Watch, are very undemonstrative. Three trolls, a woman and two men, entered the tent after sundown to have supper. They ate thin corn soup from bowls of mud, though it would have been impossible to grow corn in Sandsorrow Watch. The woman spoon-fed the elder troll, who mumbled quietly throughout the evening. They rarely spoke, and avoided looking directly at one another, throwing only an occasional glance my way.
Ja’gahn returned, and apologized for his absence.
“I had to see some people I had once known,” he said.
“That’s fine. The Sandfury trolls are not very talkative.”
“Indeed. Like I said, the trolls of Sandsorrow Watch are pariahs. Most were sent here for blaspheming against Theka. Speech is the surest way to blasphemy, and so it is discouraged. Both here and in Zul’farrak.”
“I see. Where does Sandsorrow Watch get its food?”
“From the farms in the mountains around Zul’farrak. Every year the output of the farms grow less, as our people dwindle.”
Ja’gahn sighed deeply, and went silent. A messenger returned late the next morning, and exchanged some words with Ja’gahn. My guide nodded in response.
“We may go to Zul’farrak. What is more, Theka wishes to see you.”
“Theka is alive?”
“He is undead, like yourself. That is why he is interested. Because you are not a Sandfury, you will have some leeway in your words. But I pray to the Loa that you will choose your words carefully, and let Theka do most of the speaking.”
“Can he speak Orcish?”
“No, but he has powers that will let you understand him.”
The glaring sun at last settled into the west as a spectral wind sifted the yellow sands. I finally spotted the gates of Zul’farrak. It is similar to the troll ruins of Stranglethorn in design, the style monumental and possessed of a foreboding grandeur. Unlike other troll cities I have seen, Zul’farrak bears signs of recent construction. However, this only serves to accentuate the gradual degradation of the metropolis.
The lower portions of the building are made of weathered and pitted stones, obsessively filled with bas-reliefs of Gurubashi warriors, priests, and supplicants. The upper parts are made of newer stone, and are of a distinctly shoddy construction. The trollish phobia of empty space is still apparent, but the new art is poor in quality. The images are simplistic and unformed, outlines rather than finished products.
“Only the foundations of the original city remain,” intoned Ja’gahn.
I stuck close to Ja’gahn as we walked through the sand-filled boulevards of that dying city. The new masonry has already begun to crack in places. Crude tents squat in the shadows of rotting citadels, inhabited by sullen trolls. If the city-dwellers are any more lively than their rural brethren, they do not show it. In one dust-laden gallery I saw malnourished troll artisans picking away at a block of sandstone. An elderly overseer watched them from on top a fallen spire, a whip hanging limply from his hand. Ja’gahn told me that they the artisans were slaves. Their manner was half-hearted, and even the overseer appeared indifferent to their efforts.
The steep mountains that ring Zul’farrak are festooned with concave huts, perilously clinging to the cliffs. I could see no convenient way of getting to or from the huts, nor did I see any signs of habitation.
We trod through the silent city until nightfall, when we came to a long but narrow street. Ja’gahn stopped in his tracks.
“Here I must leave you. I will go and pay my respects. Walk down this path until you come to a plaza with ruined stones and tablets heaped in the center. That is where Theka will meet you.”
I quickly reached the plaza, deserted save for immense scarabs picking at the sand. Piles of skulls surround a junk pile in the center, though they are not decorated in the manner of the soughan. Basins line the walls, filled with ashes.
Rustling shadows in the gallery ahead heralded the arrival of the Martyr. His withered and mummified body sat cross-legged on a scuttling tide of scarabs that brought their master towards me. The sands of the once-empty plaza came alive with the motion of a hundred clicking beetles.
Theka was still, and I wondered if he was truly dead. Then came the faint stirring of undeath. With aching slowness he rose to his feet, puffs of dust and spice falling from stitched wounds. Beneath the starry night, he examined me with the brightly painted stones that served as his eyes. Theka raised his hands to my face, and I saw two scarabs leap out from his wrists. The insects flew into my eye sockets, and I shuddered.
Visions of painful brightness and bleeding colors inundated my memory. Around me I witnessed the death of the land, as water vanished into the swirling sands. No more would the trolls be guided by the resplendent Thousand-Feather Throne of the Gurubashi Empire. I made my way, fearful and weary through streets choked with terrified trolls. From their temples the priests made sacrifices; first of gold and livestock, and then of their own kind. Never had the Loa demanded trollish sacrifice, but the world was dying and there was nothing to lose.
As Theka, I alone saw that the Loa would never heed, for they were dead. The foul moon goddess of the elves had struck them down as her light split the world in twain. Finally, I spoke the truth. The people turned on me in rage, and I felt the stones break my ribs until the mob drove me into the dunes. Soon I lay dead in the sand.
There’s no way to ascertain the reliability of Theka’s memories. In his recollection (which had become mine) the voice of Ula-Tek spoke to him. The Loa of War alone had survived, but would never again be a god. The laws of the ancients, he whispered, were dead. Nothing was forbidden. Secrets were revealed, and an undead Theka returned to the city in awful triumph a year later. With him rampaged a hideous avatar of Ula-Tek, the three-headed aspect of slaughter. Gore poured down temple steps as the god cut holy men down at their altars, and their petitioners shriveled into the cursed and lowly form of the scarab.
No more, spoke Theka, would the trolls receive succor from Elawi or Loa. Death would bring utter annihilation. Necromancy alone could give salvation. Where were the Loa to forbid the dark arts? Only Ula-Tek, who bowed his gargantuan visage to Theka’s hunched form.
Humble servitors came to me, praying with the zeal of a new faith. What of our souls? they inquired. I felt Theka’s dead lips curl into a smile. Their souls, he said, would be absorbed by his own. Such was the new way.
“Let the faithful receive their reward!” Theka decreed. “Those who I deem worthy shall join my soul. Upon death let their bodies be consecrated, preserved for eternity. Any body prepared this way can be a vessel for me. If this withered form that I now wear is destroyed, there will be thousands of others. In them you shall live as me.”
So it was that Zul’farrak became a city of the dead. When a Sandfury troll died in the good graces of Theka’s cult, the body would be prepared according to the Martyr’s rituals. Then the faithful would place it in one of the cliffside huts overlooking the fallen metropolis. The corpses of countless generations sat there, all ready for Theka’s use. Indeed, Theka’s first body had long ago been destroyed by a surviving priest of Bethekk. This desperate act only proved his words in the eyes of the Sandfury.
“I have been destroyed a thousand times before, and will be destroyed a thousand times again. Always I shall return,” whispered Theka in the alcoves of my mind.
More visions came. As the Sandfury dwindled they brought slaves in to maintain the city. Every passing year hastened the victory of decay. Memory littered the streets, and was ignored by all. Theka’s priests traveled throughout Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, burying sacred bodies in protected locations. Zul’farrak might fall, and all the bodies within destroyed, yet Theka and the Sandfury would still have unnumbered spiritual anchors to the material world.
“When all else dies, the Sandfury will remain in me. Together, I shall wait for the end of all things.”
I came to my senses under the glare of the morning sun. A troll looked down at me; Ja’gahn. I saw no sign of Theka, and I soon realized I was out in the desert, some distance away from that accursed city.
“Are you all right, Destron?” asked Ja’gahn.
“A bit disoriented, but I’m otherwise unharmed.”
“My apologies. But there was no way we could have refused Theka. He told you of Zul’farrak’s history?”
“His version of it.”
Ja’gahn gave a bitter laugh.
“Do not believe his lies. Something gave him power over the spirits of the dead, but it was not the Loa. I have seen the so-called avatar of Ula-Tek that serves him. It is not a god; merely a great beast. They feed it with the bodies of dead slaves.”
“The idea of the Loa serving him did seem unlikely,” I concurred. Though I do not believe the Loa to be true gods, I was nonetheless reassured to hear that they are not subservient to Theka.
Three more days passed as we traveled south from Zul’farrak. On the way, I inquired about Ja’gahn’s own visit to Zul’farrak, but he declined to say very much. I intuited that his adolescence among the Sandfury had been exceedingly miserable.
A nightmare now grows beneath the worn mountains of the west. The dunes come to an abrupt end at a shallow basin teeming with abominable life. A slick carpet of bruise-colored flesh covers the surface, and quivering spines rise like towers over the ground. Dripping wounds cut deep into the earth.
I was dumbfounded upon seeing this obscenity. Then I noticed the immense insects crawling through the morass. They came in countless forms, skittering and flying across the diseased land.
“What is this place?” I gasped.
“The Noxious Lair. I was trying to lead us around it, but it has grown! It has expanded far to the north in just a few months! Let us leave this place Destron. Evils older and greater than Theka dwell here!”
I saw no reason to argue with Ja’gahn, and we moved to the east until we lost sight of the Noxious Lair. Ja’gahn uttered Zandali prayers as he walked, and I found his fear contagious.
“What were those insects?”
“Silithids. Do you know of the war once fought between troll and insect? Tens of thousands of years ago?”
“Only a little.” In Moonglade, I had learned they were servants of the Qiraji, but I wanted to hear Ja’gahn’s explanation.
“The silithids were the most numerous minions of the Insect Gods. We always knew some had survived in Silithus and Tanaris... but to see it grow so fast is indeed a dark omen for this world.”
“Do you think this is what the Horde and Alliance are fighting against in Silithus?”
“I have little doubt. Let us pray that they fight well.”