Saturday, October 27, 2007
The Thousand Needles
For all of the strange and fantastic sorceries and nations I have seen on my travels, simple nature still has a way of surpassing even the wildest imagination. Such were my thoughts when I arrived in the Thousand Needles. The region is, in the most basic terms, a deep and wide canyon of exceeding heat and dryness. A salty inland sea flooded these lands in ancient times. At some point (no one knows exactly when, though apparently before the Sundering) the sea dwindled into nothingness. Gargantuan pillars of rock now jut up from the sere ground, the remnants of islands.
Yet to actually see it! I had seen the rugged mesas of the Badlands but never had I even dreamed something like the Thousand Needles could exist. I stood in silent awe before the grand mesas that dominate the landscape. Equally incredible are the smaller spires of rock that poke out between the large rises, creating a metropolis of living stone. Boulders balance precariously on some of these lesser spires, tempting gravity with their existence. For thousands of years, these huge rocks have stayed in their place, even as the hot and rarified winds eroded their supports.
Travelers have said that the Thousand Needles is one of the most beautiful areas in all of the world. However, this beauty is coupled with extreme harshness. The Thousand Needles is bone-dry. Water can only be found in rare artesian springs or in the caverns dotting the canyon walls. Rain is practically nonexistent. Food sources are similarly scarce, and the ground is solid rock in most places. This stark ecology is milder in the center of the Needles, where larger water springs break the rocky floor. The tauren of the land are nomadic, taking small herds of desert kodo from one water hole to another. The desert kodo is smaller than the breed seen in the Barrens, but larger than the riding kodo and rather less intelligent than either.
I enjoyed a spectacular sunset, followed by clear night sky alive with a thousand brilliant stars. At night, the looming mesas take on a new, stranger countenance. They become homes to the spirits of tauren lore, neither benevolent nor malignant, but simply existing.
The Thousand Needles remain one of the more obscure areas of Kalimdor, though this will probably change with increasing goblin activity in the lands to the south. While I knew that three tauren tribes called the Thousand Needles their home, I had been unable to learn much about the land’s history, save that the war between tauren and centaurs came late to the Needles. I also knew that the Thousand Needles was the one place where the tauren consistently held the advantage over the centaur armies.
Tauren records are vague, but the stories agree that after countless generations of bloody stalemate, the centaurs scored a decisive victory in Mulgore. Their warriors swept out into the Barrens, inflicting particular brutality on the people of the southern savannahs.
A handful of tauren fled to the unexplored Thousand Needles, with the centaurs in hot pursuit. But the spirits aided the tauren in their battle, and in the end the centaurs reeled in defeat. I did not yet know exactly why and how the tauren won. The tauren far to the north also broke the centaur advance, and the war returned to a stalemate. Attrition favored the centaur clans until the arrival of the Horde.
Towards evening on the second day I spotted a pair of tauren traveling towards me. With them traveled a sleek desert cougar that padded softly alongside the taller of the two braves. Both tauren were well-armed, and the shorter one wore a headdress of white feathers. The big tauren waved when he saw me, and I returned the gesture.
“Hail, wanderer. As the spirits have brought us together, I shall introduce myself. I am Moshoc Blackhoof. My companion here is Hotoma Stonetotem, who is Tracking the Cliff Runner’s’ Hoofprints. He is not currently permitted to speak. Both of us are of the Skyhoof Tribe. Our feline friend here is Shuwe; fierce and cunning she is. And your name?”
“I am Destron Allicant, of Undercity. I’m a student of lore.”
“Good, good! Perhaps you already know, but tauren love history, and respect those who know it. There is not a tauren alive who does not know the history of his tribe. Are you headed to Freewind Post?”
“I am. I’m hoping to learn about the Thousand Needles on the way.”
“If I may impose the offer, would you care to warm yourself by our campfire tonight? My tribe taught me well, and I think I could answer at least a few of your questions.”
“I would be honored.”
The two tauren quickly set up camp on a flat slab of rock and started a fire. For fuel they used the branches of a thorny bush native to the region. Hotoma smiled at me, but remained silent. Shuwe slinked off into the darkness in search of a meal. Moshoc rested his bulk down on a worn mat as a thin column of smoke spiraled up to the rosy dusk sky. He asked me about my own experiences, which I related. I then inquired about how the tauren had beaten the centaur in the Needles so long ago.
“When we first arrived, some counseled that we stay on the ground to fight the centaurs, so as to be close to the Earthmother. After much discussion, we decided that the Earthmother could better defend us from on top of the mesas!” he chuckled.
“How did you get up there?”
“With great difficulty. It was not until generations later that Leshowe Plainstrider, of the Cloudmane Tribe, crafted the lifts that make it easier to get to the top of the mesas. Those lifts that lead to Thunder Bluff, if you’ve seen them, are based on his idea! But I digress. Upon scaling the great rocks, we saw the black tide of centaurs filling every bit of space between the towers, a snarling morass of cruelty and barbarism.”
“Is there water up on the mesas?”
“Not a drop, not a single drop. Yet we survived. The shamans danced and prayed and the storm spirits heeded our call. Great rain came onto the mesa tops which we gathered in skins, while no water fell to the centaur masses below. All the while our best hunters rained arrows down on them, killing scores. We always remember that which the sky spirits did for us.”
“Were the centaurs able to maintain their supply lines?”
“No, and soon they began dying in the fields. When they fled to the canyon walls, we followed. Our braves showed them the same mercy they had showed us. Half of the Kolkar Clan, and nearly all of the Galak Clan came to the Needles to destroy us. Only the Galak Clan remains, and they are completely severed from their allies.”
“So your people were able to secure the Thousand Needles?”
“I’m not sure I would say that we secured it. Even after the siege, many centaurs remained, and they located underground lakes for water. The quilboar are another threat; they sometimes make raids into our territory. And the spirits here are mighty. They protected us, but we may not call ourselves their masters.”
As the night wore on I asked about Hotoma, whose anxious eyes looked away from the fire and into the night. Shuwe returned in silence, carrying a dead hare in her jaws.
“Do you know of the suttaqua?” he asked.
“Yes, the rite of passage in the Barrens and Mulgore tribes.”
“Correct; Hotoma is undergoing his own rite. After sixteen years have passed in the life of a young tauren here, it comes time for him to prove himself. The great hero of our three tribes is the Cliff Runner. To Track the Cliff Runner’s Hoofprints is to become an asset to the tribe.”
“Is the youth always accompanied?”
“Yes, by another of the tribe who is not a direct relation.”
“And what must the youth do to prove himself?”
“Why, he must kill a centaur,” grinned Moshoc. “Or a quilboar or harpy; any is acceptable. The more kills the better, but only one is needed.”
“What if he fails?”
“Fails in what way? If he falls to the enemy, we mourn his passing. If he returns without the head of the enemy, we send him back to do it again. The companion, in this case me, may only guide the youth to the challenge. I may not actually interfere once the fight begins.”
“Who was the Cliff Runner?”
“The greatest of all tauren who lived. You see, even after the centaurs were defeated, we were far from safe. We were stranded in a strange land with many wicked foes still about. Then the Earthmother blessed us with the Cliff Runner, the great warrior and trickster.”
“From which tribe did he come?”
“None know for sure but it does not matter. He is considered to have been a full member for every tribe, as his actions benefited each of us. He is the protector of the Thousand Needles. Even now, his spirit bounds from mesa to mesa, carried aloft by the headdress of which Hotoma’s is a copy. While he lived in the flesh, he tracked centaur war bands from the mesa tops and could throw down ten spears in a single leap. Each one would hit its mark.”
I was instantly intrigued by the Cliff Runner, who seemed much more aggressive and warlike than most tauren heroes. He was almost like one of the bloodthirsty heroes from the Arathi myth cycles.
The night grew late, and the two tauren retired. Both needed to rest to prepare for the rigors of the next day. We awoke with the dawn and I wished them success on their journey.
“We shall have it if the Cliff Runner is with us,” intoned Moshoc.
The road forks three days east of the campsite, one section going north and the other south. North leads to the Great Lift, a rope-and-pulley elevator providing entry to the Barrens. A small number of tauren are always present at the Great Lift in order to facilitate travel.
Going the southbound route, I soon came across a great totem standing next to a clearly marked path winding up the side of a mesa. I was not aware of any permanent, mesa-top establishments outside of Freewind Post, and wondered if the Horde had expanded its operations in the Thousand Needles.
I approached the path but suddenly felt an ominous twinge that I could not quite explain. The top of the mesa was far beyond my view, though the totem clearly indicated tauren habitation. The wind suddenly picked up, a blast of warm air that disturbed the tiny stones scattered across the ground.
“Why do you trespass on holy land, undead? Are not the fields of Tirisfal enough for your people?”
I whirled around, suddenly face-to-face with a giant tauren. He gripped a hefty ax in one hand, and black dye darkened his fur in the manner of the Grimtotems. Though startled, I stood my ground.
“I am only passing through. What interest do the Grimtotem have in this region?”
“This region is part of Kalimdor, so it is for the Shu’halo. We serve the Shu’halo. We do not go to Lordaeron uninvited, so why do you come here?”
I tried to think of a response that would not result in me being attacked.
“My people have built no cities in Kalimdor. Your own chief, Magatha Grimtotem, invited us here. We do not come to do any harm, nor will we stay for long. I was under the impression that hospitality was a virtue among the tauren.”
The tauren paused. I readied a spell, in case of attack.
“Forgive me. I accosted you in pride, which I should not have done.”
“Consider yourself forgiven,” I said, hiding my surprise. “I did not know that the Grimtotem had a presence in the Thousand Needles.”
“It is recent. Our village is called Darkcloud Pinnacle. Many of our finest braves and wisest shamans live within. We thought it best to live far away from the prying eyes of the Warchief, so that we may begin to reclaim Kalimdor in earnest.”
“Would I be permitted to enter?”
“I would have to speak with Arnak Grimtotem and the local elders first. I do not think it likely. We bear no grudge against your people, as you do not claim to own our land, but it would be arrogant for us to let non-tauren walk upon sacred ground. The spirits would not approve, and we are nothing without the spirits.”
“Darkcloud Pinnacle is sacred?”
“All of Kalimdor is sacred, but the pinnacle is especially blessed by the Earthmother. The tribes here revere it greatly for both spiritual and practical purposes.”
“Practical for the protection it gives?”
“Mostly for the water at the base of Darkcloud Pinnacle. The natives call it the Lake of the Spirits, and it is an apt term. The spirits within are deadly and restless. At all times of day the water is hot, and great pillars of steam burst forth from its surface. You are free to see it if you wish, though do not venture too close. The spirits that protect the place are wrathful.”
“So these spirits attack non-tauren?”
“They will attack all who are not shamans of the Grimtotem. The Cloudmane Tribe discovered that when they attempted to take water from the lake without our permission. We still mourn the Cloudmane brave that was killed in the process, boiled to death.”
“But the spirits could not have always been protecting the water. Otherwise the lake would have been useless to the natives.”
“The spirits rose to defend the waters when we arrived. We saw it as proof of the Earthmother’s approval. The Horde lies, and claims that we have been deceived by water elementals, but the Grimtotem know this is not so.”
“Do the local tribes object to your occupation of Darkcloud Pinnacle?”
“They are indeed wrathful, and they accuse us of claiming the water for ourselves. In truth we do no such thing. The Grimtotem work for the good of all tauren. It is for the benefit of the tribes that we partake of the waters here, for it helps the Grimtotem fulfill the mission of the spirits.”
Before I left, the Grimtotem warned me that the tauren of Freewind Post were proud and untrustworthy. I told him I would be careful.
Long ago, before even the time of your father’s father, the tribes of the Thousand Needles were persecuted by the wicked harpies. The harpies swooped down on the camps of the Shu’halo, demanding food and water. What they could not get through intimidation they seized through force, and the rocks grew red with tauren blood. Three wicked hags of terrible power guided the harpies. These hags made their homes on three narrow pillars of stone, and from there they cast their cruel gazes down on the hapless tauren.
Finally, the Cliff Runner, the wisest and strongest of all the tauren, decided to do something. He knew that the three hags were exceedingly vain and proud of their appearances. They were actually extraordinarily ugly, but the other harpies had flattered them for so long that the hags thought themselves beautiful.
The Cliff Runner spoke to the spirits of the earth. He had served them in the past, by slaying the corrupt stone monsters of the Galak Clan, and the spirits always honor a favor. The spirits of the earth brought three plates of obsidian to the Cliff Runner, and told him to polish and shine the stones until he could see his reflection in them. This he did.
Taking the mirrors, the Cliff Runner went to the three hags and said he had come to pay homage to their legendary beauty. The hags cackled in glee, thinking of the fun they would have with their suitor. The hags ordered the harpies to carry the Cliff Runner to their homes. The Cliff Runner sang long and epic odes to each hag, and told them that he had a gift that would let them see their own beauty. But, he urged, they must wait for the morning sun to look at it. Only then would the glory of the hags be made manifest.
When at last An’she, the golden eye of the Earthmother, lifted her gentle gaze from the east, the three hags greedily took the mirrors and stared at them. The realization of their ugliness was so overpowering that all three instantly turned to stone. There they remain to this day. Though the harpies have troubled the Shu’halo since then, they never again posed a serious threat.
Much like the three rock spires still called the Three Hags, the mesa-top town of Freewind Post is also rooted in legend. It was here, the lore-keepers say, that the Cliff Runner convinced the tribal chieftains to make an eternal pledge to stand against the centaur menace. Ever since, Freewind Post has been a sacred sanctuary for the local tauren. In times of trouble, the three tribes gather at the post to plan a course of action. Permanent habitation has only recently come to Freewind Post, a result of the Horde’s arrival in the land.
“I was surprised that the local tribes were so willing to let us use this place,” stated an orcish merchant named Turhaw Blackblood. “They say that they’ve always seen the post as a place of unity, so the Horde’s presence here is, ah, spiritually consistent with the mesa’s history.”
“Do many of the local tauren live here?”
“There’s always a few Cloudmane tribals here. They roam the lands around Freewind Post. Mostly it’s northern tauren and orcs. The Darkspear don’t care for this town; I think the air’s a bit too dry for their liking. I love it though. Nothing like seeing the sun rise over the desert in this place.”
Being at the top of a mesa, Freewind Post is not the most convenient spot for a settlement. There are two ways to get there. One way is through the lift. It was in Freewind Post that the first lift was built, many generations ago. The lift is primarily used to bring cargo to the top, and the platform is pulled by a pair of small kodo via a rope-and-pulley system. Most travelers take the second, longer route, which is a lengthy path that goes up an adjacent mesa. A suspension bridge connects this mesa to Freewind Post.
An underwater spring at the base of Freewind Post is the source of water for the community, and three great barrels are brought up the lift every morning. The inhabitants are expected to bring their own food. The relative scarcity of food in the Thousand Needles has forced the Horde to send regular supply caravans to Freewind Post. These caravans also carry lumber, which is difficult to obtain in the region.
I spent four days in Freewind Post. The village is a quiet place where time stretches out beneath the blazing sun. The inhabitants spend the day talking and working at their crafts: making tools, bowls, and other items. In the nights, they gather around a bonfire and listen to the shaman tell tales of the Cliff Runner. The Cliff Runner has an almost godly status in the Needles culture. The Earthmother is still the prime focus of worship, but She is seen as a more distant entity. For daily troubles, the people will often look to the Cliff Runner for guidance.
Freewind Post’s idyll may not last much longer. The Grimtotem Tribe’s seizure of Darkcloud Pinnacle was old news by the time I’d arrived in Freewind Post. I spoke to several tauren there, and they all said that a state of unofficial war existed between the Horde and the Grimtotem Tribe.
“The northern tribes first said that we should not bring war to the Grimtotem,” remembered Tomo Stonetooth. “They did not want to make war against their brother tribe, even when the Grimtotem were prideful enough to claim exclusivity over a sacred spot. They restrained our braves, even though it would be an insult to our ancestors to allow the Grimtotem to take the water. Then we heard tales of the Aparaje Massacre, and the northern tribes agreed to treat the Grimtotem as an enemy.”
“If the northern tribes continued to refuse your tribe’s requests to attack the Grimtotem, would you have obeyed them?”
“No. I do not wish to speak arrogance, but the northern tribes do not know of our ways. Only the lowest sort would ignore the ways of his ancestors. The friendship of other tauren is not an acceptable excuse for ignoring the tradition of one’s own tribe.”
Tomo Stonetotem was a hunter who was delivering a message to Freewind Post on behalf of his chieftain. I told him of my encounter with Moshoc and Hotoma, in the western Needles. It turned out that Tomo was related to Hotoma by blood, being brothers in the same family.
“He’s strong and clever. Hotoma will be a great boon to our tribe, and perhaps to the Horde as well.”
Tomo also explained the tribal politics of the Needles tauren, which has significant differences from that of the northern tribes. Much like the other tauren, the Needles tauren have participatory government within the tribe. However, individual accomplishment is much more important in the Thousand Needles.
“Everyone in the tribe gets to have their say in decisions. Each tauren gets one vote by default. Those who have done great deeds for the tribe can have more than a single vote. I myself am a skilled hunter who has brought game to the Skyhoof Tribe on many occasions. Three centaurs have also died at my hands. For this, I am given three votes. There are other examples: a shaman would have more than one vote, a good mother would gain more votes, and so forth.”
“Do the different members of the tribe compete for votes?”
“Not really. We all wish to have our voices heard so as to best help the tribe, but the point is to help the tribe. No tauren would seek votes for his own glory.”
“If a tauren has extra votes, can they be revoked?”
“It has been known to happen. The votes can be regained if the tauren in question undergoes a rite of redemption, which involves hunting one of the cloud serpents.”
The cloud serpents are a species of winged snake that are a common sight in southern Kalimdor. It is also the totem animal of Atal’hakkar, the dark Loa of the trollish pantheon.
While the spirit-blind exist in the Needles Tribes, they are not classified and marginalized as are the hadoham in the north. An elderly shamanness of the Cloudmane Tribe, Chem Sunhoof, described the role of the spirit-blind in the Thousand Needles culture. She rested in the shade of a totem pole, letting the afternoon heat warm her bones.
“None of us are perfect. Some tauren are born a bit slow of hoof, or dim of eye. The ones who have a hard time seeing the spirits are no different really. At times they act in strange and prideful ways, but they can be corrected.”
“There is no stigma then?”
“Not as such. It is a flaw. The difference is that our elders do not consider it to be so much worse than other flaws. The stories say that the Cliff Runner began as a spirit-blind youth. His elders despaired of ever teaching him the proper ways. But the Cliff Runner was determined to help the tauren, and he tried bold new methods no one else had ever imagined. It was not long before he did so much in our benefit that the spirits granted him sight of the spirit world. He who was once blind could see better than any other. The spirit-blind are taught to follow the Cliff Runner’s example in that helping the tribe will enable them to see.”
“Has this been successful?”
“Yes, very much! Leshowe Plainstrider, the builder of the lifts, was also a spirit-blind youth who became wise in the way of the spirits.”
“What do the northern shaman say about this?”
“They have not known of any hadoham gaining sight of the spirits. The shamans of the north are also very wise, and it would be arrogant of us to dismiss them. Perhaps the spirits in the Thousand Needles are different. At any rate, the spirit-blind born here can overcome their flaw.”
I did speak to a visiting northern shaman, who seemed a bit skeptical of Chem’s statements. He was reluctant to directly contradict the local beliefs, but stated that the Cliff Runner and Leshowe Plainstrider were exceptions. He cited the case of Sesquan the Kodo-Tamer, a culture hero of the Barrens tribes who is widely believed to have been a hadoham. While Sesquan connected with the spirits of the kodo, no stories ever say he overcame his spirit-blindness in other areas.
The northern tauren regard their Needles counterparts as being dangerously individualistic, which is ironic as the Needles culture still strikes other races as very communal. Even so, the elders of Thunder Bluff would not make any attempt to impose their traditions upon the Needles tribes. They simply regard the Needles tauren as eccentric, slightly mad cousins.
I myself did not see a significant improvement in the treatment that the hadoham receive among the Needles tauren. While they are more accepted, they are still expected to fit in and to lose whatever gifts they gain from their condition. Considering how many of the Needles heroes were hadoham, this attitude struck me as surprising.
A sharp contrast exists in the naming customs of the Needles tauren. As the reader has already observed, the Needles tauren do not adopt the tribal name as the surname. Family names are used instead, though tribal allegiance is always declared when meeting a stranger. Families sometimes extend beyond tribal lines; Tomo Stonetotem explained that his sister had married into the Cloudmane Tribe. Because family lines are matrilineal, her husband had taken the Stonetotem surname. Thus, by introducing himself as a Stonetotem, Tomo could claim support from both the Cloudmane and Skyhoof tribes. This is done in honor of the Cliff Runner, who stressed the importance of unity between the tribes. Just as the Cliff Runner is considered to be a full member of each tribe, a Needles tauren could potentially claim kinship among all three tribes.
Two days east of Freewind Post, the traveler comes to white land shorn of life, a place where the air dances beneath the blazing sun. The ground is neither sand nor stone but hard-packed salt. Wanderers unfamiliar to the desert die of thirst in less than a day, mummified by heat and salt. In a cruel contrast, the nights are bitterly cold.
The land I describe is called the Shimmering Flats, a strange and terrible basin in the eastern Thousand Needles. It is known to be the lowest part of Kalimdor. Upon arriving, the stone spires of the Needles end without warning, replaced only by the endless white of the salt.
The tauren know the Shimmering Flats as the Place of Silence, or the Blinding Land. Stories describe it as haunted by centaur ghosts and malign spirits, or even elementals. Not even the Cliff Runner dared to venture long into the Shimmering Flats.
Despite the foreboding reputation of the place, my companion through the wastes was a tauren named Nokam Windhoof, of the Cloudmane Tribe. Nokam was well-traveled, having recently returned from the battlefields of Ashenvale. The Needles tauren are greatly valued by the Horde thanks to their martial spirit. While northern tauren do not entirely trust the Needles tauren, some orcs seem to prefer them. The Ragetotem Tribe’s braves are still considered the masters of melee but the warriors of the Thousand Needles use better tactics, and are nearly as fierce.
Nokam’s destination was the Mirage Raceway in the middle of the Shimmering Flats. It is inhabited by the only races ingenious or mad enough to wish to live there: gnomes and goblins. Nokam’s task was simply to observe the activities in the Mirage Raceway and then report back to the tribe. I intended to stop there for a bit before heading south to the city of Gadgetzan.
We halted at the cusp of the Shimmering Flats just as the noon sun reached its apex. Nokam insisted on waiting until evening, citing the need to conduct the appropriate rituals. He laid out his tools, weapons, and ornaments in a circle around him while he chanted prayers to the ancestors, to the Earthmother, and the Cliff Runner. He also promised that he would not trouble or anger the spirits of the Shimmering Flats. He told me that the Shimmering Flats spirits were more apt to be offended by certain Taurahe words and thoughts than by actions done by outsiders. This was why I, as a Forsaken, was not required to perform any rituals of sanctification.
Finally we began our trek across the flats, as the roasting air slowly cooled in the dusk. Nokam, who had been talkative while in the Thousand Needles, spoke only when necessary, observing his surroundings with fearful anticipation. We rested during the days, keepng out of the sun under a small lean-to that he’d brought. I made sure to conjure enough water to avoid dehydration. Nokam had brought his own sustenance, as he (like nearly all tauren) distrusted the arcane.
We navigated by the light of the north star, which Nokam called the Cliff Runner’s Spear. In times past, said Nokam, the Cliff Runner had flung a marvelous spear into the sky to help wandering tauren find their way. We spent two days trudging through the Flats before finally arriving in the Mirage Raceway.
The Raceway first manifests itself as an incongruous series of metal buildings quivering in the hot air. One’s first impression is of a mirage or hallucination. Closer in, the details become more apparent: mushroom-shaped gnomish structures stick out from a multitude of tents and great piles of mechanical parts. Farther down, goblin machine shops fume and hiss with their labors.
Gnomes, goblins, and members of a few other races scurry about in constant activity, though the work is always done in the shade. The sighing and clanking of strange machines creates an unearthly chorus for the desert. Even after stepping foot in the Mirage Raceway, I was not quite sure if it really existed.
I somehow became separated from Nokam. I felt anxious about being undisguised among so many gnomes. Fortunately Mirage Raceway is a firmly neutral territory and I was not bothered. I soon spotted a bizarre contraption that resembled a small mining cart, its frame supporting a decidedly unsafe-looking rocket.
“That’s one of our new models!” piped a high voice in accented Orcish. The speaker sauntered up to me, a gnome wearing an elaborately curled bright green beard. He’d jammed a broad-brimmed hat on his bald scalp, and wore dark goggles to protect his eyes from the sun. Offering his hand, the gnome introduced himself as Tazel Blastswitch.
“This is one of the vehicles you race?” I asked him. After finding out I spoke Common, we switched languages.
“We haven’t raced this one yet. Mostly we’re just testing the rocket until we can get a better model. As you can tell, the chassis is not at all aerodynamic. Have you any interest in machines?”
“I have some interest in nearly everything. So the gnomes and goblins test devices out here?”
“That’s the idea. It’s a good place for it; no chance of smashing into a tree. Not the nicest climate in the world, mind you, but you learn to live with it.”
“Where do you get supplies?”
“From Gadgetzan. This is a joint investment from the Steamwheedle Cartel and the Gnomeregan Court-in-Exile. Gnomeregan pays the Cartel to make sure that the Cartel sends supplies to everyone here. It used to be there were so few people here that the mages could conjure food and water for everyone, but that’s no longer the case. Just as well; arcane food is not at all delectable.”
“How did Gnomeregan and Steamwheedle come to this agreement?”
“We both wanted a place where we could do cutting edge studies into arcane-tech. The gnomes and goblins here are in competition, but it’s impossible for us to avoid learning from each other. Everyone benefits!”
The Mirage Raceway has attracted people other than tinkerers, mages, and artificers. Curiosity-seekers and fugitives also inhabit the dusty campground, termed squatters by the founding inhabitants. These misfits are not covered by the supplies reserved for the Raceway, but goblin caravans carry extra portions of food and water to sell to the squatters. To get money to buy food, the squatters perform some of the more laborious tasks for the engineers and mages.
One such squatter was Simsee Fizzwobble II. He was a gnome who lacked any technical or arcane aptitude. This was why he was the second to bear the Fizzwobble name; as I had learned back in Ironforge, only gnomes who have failed to accomplish any great feat are called “the Second.” Simsee showed no distress or shame over this however. In fact, he had a commanding air, and the other squatters deferred to him.
“Gnomes will mock you if they do not think you’re clever enough,” he growled. “So I had to be strong. Every day, as a youth I strained myself to the utmost until I was as strong as a dwarf! I made myself pretty useful during the trogg invasion. The machines and spells of Gnomeregan were failing all around us, but my muscles never stopped pumping. My hands were red with trogg blood before the day was out.”
“How did you get here?”
“I was getting tired of Tinkertown so I headed out to Kalimdor. Figured I’d make a name for myself, and learn some things doing so. I had a scuffle with some bastard goblins in Ratchet. I came out on top, but I wasn’t welcome there anymore so I drifted down here. Now I’m in charge of the Squatter’s Union.”
“Of course! I’m not the smartest gnome around, I’ll admit that, but I can still organize things. Also, I’ve beaten down enough other squatters of greater size that they respect me. The truth is, Mirage Raceway depends on us. If we all left, this place would fall apart in a week.”
“The squatters do most of the basic labor here, correct?”
“That would be correct.”
“How have the raceway authorities reacted?”
“Not happily, but I’ve got them where they don’t have a choice. The gnomes don’t want to hire Steamwheedle laborers, since they’re still competing with the goblins. And the gnomes will not allow debt slaves to be used. Nor will the Squatter’s Union, mind you. Both sides know they have to work with me and it’s no stretch to say I’m the most important man in Mirage Raceway.”
“What does the Squatter’s Union want to gain?”
“Easier access to supplies and a voice in local politics. We have the latter already, thanks to me, and we’re getting close to the former.”
A pair of arguing gnomish engineers scurried by, and Simsee snorted in derision.
“No one respects the gnomes. And don’t pretend that you do; I know you don’t. Why should you? Gnomes are just the little helpers, the funny cousins of the dwarves. Tinker this and tinker that, all damn day long. I’m going to change that. We lost Gnomeregan so we’re starting to learn that we need to be strong. A true gnome ought to be able to punch at least as well as he can cast a spell. We’re small, but our muscles are nice and dense, like the dwarves'. We just have to work at it.”
Without warning, Simsee jumped up and grabbed my shirt with his tiny fist. Before I knew it I was lying face down on the alkali, a gnomish foot pressed firmly on my head.
“No offense, Mr. Allicant. I was just proving my point. Here, buy yourself some sparkwater; it’ll do you a world of good.”
He lifted his foot off of my head and flipped a silver coin towards me.
“Forsaken don’t weigh much, so that was easy. But I did the same thing to an orc, just to show him who was really in charge around here.”
I was skeptical about his claim of pulling down an orc until I met the orc whom he’d bested. Named Ukar, he was one of Simsee’s most enthusiastic supporters.
A race took place the next day between the latest goblin and gnomish models. The ungainly gnomish rocket that I had seen earlier was on the track, undergoing last minute checks. The goblin entry, a rickety chariot connected to two rockets, was ready to go. Squatters and a few of the engineers made bets on who would win. Gambling is a big business in the Mirage Raceway. Ten percent of any squatter’s winnings is supposed to go directly to the Union.
As soon as the announcer said the word, the two carts blasted into life and vanished into the distance. Surprised by the speed, I looked down the oval-shaped track, which circumnavigates the camp. It was not long after that the gnomish car came back into view, skidding to a stop, the rocket glowing red with heat and firing off sparks. The driver hopped out, yelling and waving her arms. She had not gone far when the rocket bulged out and then suddenly imploded into a twisted hunk of metal. A nervous silence reigned briefly, before the driver jumped up in enthusiastic triumph.
Squatters retrieved the goblin driver in the evening. The left rocket of his cart had somehow disconnected, sending his vehicle spinning into the flats. He had been lucky to escape with nothing worse than a broken arm.
A supply caravan was headed back to Gadgetzan the next day, and I hired myself out as extra security for the merchant, one Zanod Skingrix. The Shimmering Flats are too hostile to support a bandit population, but the white-scaled basilisks that roam the desert can be very aggressive.
Zanod traveled with a junior trading partner and three other guards, all goblins. The caravan itself consisted of two covered wagons pulled by a pair of kodo beasts. Just as Nokam did, we traveled during the evening. We reached the rounded mountains that mark the border of Tanaris after three days and nights.
The caravan stopped just as the sun started to rise over the parched expanse, quickly heating the dry air to intolerable levels. The others in the caravan took shelter in the wagons while I rested on one of the kodo, marveling at the incredible solitude of the place.
Looking to the east, I was surprised to see the ruins of a tauren camp. I could not fathom why the tauren would make a home out in the Shimmering Flats. It was impossible for me to tell for how long the camp had been abandoned; the dry and scorching heat preserved what would normally have rotted away. A lone basilisk sunned itself in the ruins, lazily swishing its great tail. A small lake lay next to the abandoned camp, definitely too salty to serve as a water source.
Zanod ambled out of the wagon, shielding his eyes with an upraised hand. With his other hand he lifted a canteen from his belt and took a deep draught.
“Say, are you all right out here, Destron? I’m not paying you to dry up in the sun.”
“I keep myself hydrated.”
“Suit yourself, but we’re not paying to fix you up if you turn into a mummy. Those ruins there used to be called Camp Tahonda, in case you were wondering.”
“I was meaning to ask you about that. I did not think any tauren lived in the Shimmering Flats.”
“Tauren lived here when caravans first started passing between Gadgetzan and the Raceway. They seemed decent enough, though none of them could speak anything except Taurahe. They learned a few basic Goblinish words, but I never find out what they were doing here.”
“They weren’t one of the Needles tribes?”
“The Needles tauren denied any knowledge of Tahonda. A friend of mine said they were a band of tauren exiles, but I don’t think so. Exiles are almost always crazy. As far as I could tell, the Tahonda folk were sane—at least as sane as you could be living out here. They weren’t part of the Horde either. I’m still not sure where they got their water.”
“What happened to them?”
“No one really knows. One day the camp was just abandoned.”
Zanod went silent for a few moments, looking out at the lonely remains of the settlement.
“That’s the thing isn’t it? No matter how far you go, you never really get all the answers. There’s always something that’s a mystery. Though considering how far you must have traveled, I’m guessing you already know that.”
“Travel is a sure way to learn that fact,” I laughed.
“Heh, definitely. I’m going to go in and get some shuteye before dusk. We ought to be in Gadgetzan in a few days.”
Zanok went back into the darkened confines of the wagon. I turned my eyes back to Camp Tahonda and wondered what might have been there in the past.