Tuesday, October 2, 2007
The Western Plaguelands
The air changes the moment one steps into the Plaguelands. Heavier and laden with unseen foulness, it becomes a labor to breathe. The climate is damp and bitterly cold through night and day. Despite the frigid weather, it never snows, though in better times the northern reaches could receive impressive snowfall in the winter months. The cold stays steady throughout the year as does a faint and ghastly yellow fog.
The scouting force that had been kind enough to let me tag along was led by a Forsaken woman named Renia. She was every inch the professional, managing her ragtag troops with discipline and efficiency.
On the first night we camped by the road, not lighting any fires for fear of attracting Scourge or Crusade. This was fine by me, though the five living members of our group (three orcs and two trolls) found it uncomfortable. Given the hardiness which the orcs and trolls are known for, I think their discomfort arose more from being stuck in the darkness with the living dead than from a lack of campfires per se.
“How long have you been leading expeditions here?” I asked Renia. While she generally stayed fairly aloof, she consented to a brief interview though she reserved the right to refuse any question she chose.
“This is my first. I was assigned to this because I am the best they have.” She did not speak boastfully. She simply stated it.
“What is it like, leading the Forsaken forces?”
She gave me a quizzical look.
“It is an honor,” she said, after a pause. “Why would it be anything else?”
“Do you view this undeath as a curse?”
At first I thought she would refuse to answer my question, but when she spoke there was strong conviction in her voice.
“However difficult undeath is, it could be worse. We could still be part of the Scourge. Do you wish to go back to that? I’m sure they’d love to have another mindless bag of bones marching about this place, just as I’m sure it’s much easier than having to worry about responsibility. In life I was nothing, a sick street girl. But now? Now I am strong, I have freedom. Always remember that Destron. That is the greatest gift the Dark Lady gave us.”
Her irritation was clear and I felt rather abashed. Taking my leave I walked off to the edge of the camp. I traveled to learn more about the world, and the place of the Forsaken within it. I was convinced it was not the terrible damnation so many of us thought. Yet to hear another agree, and so strongly, was oddly unsettling. Undeath gave us a second lease on life (of a sort) yet I couldn’t imagine it as really being an improvement over life. The faded senses, the slight chill that never goes away, the dull pain from wounds that never truly heal; these are surely the signs of a curse.
We set off early the next day, before the sun’s weak rays filtered through the noxious cloud cover. The road through the Western Plaguelands was relatively safe thanks to hard and bloody campaigning on the part of the Forsaken. The Scourge held the south and the Scarlet Crusade had the north, yet the middle passage belonged to the Horde. This is not to say it was uncontested. A shambling Scourge patrol crossed us early on the second day, and the Deathguards made short work of it.
Suddenly, a little after noon that day, one of the orcs fell to the ground, coughing and choking. He was noisily sick.
“Damn this air... I can’t breath this!” he wheezed.
“It only gets worse from here on in,” chuckled one of the Deathguards.
“We’re near one of the cauldrons. We’ll pass it soon enough,” explained Renia, giving a stern look to the Deathguard who had spoken.
Four great cauldrons belch poison into air above the Western Plaguelands. The Cult of the Damned, the living servants of the Scourge, built the cauldrons in the Third War. In those days, the land was still known as the breadbasket of Lordaeron. The resulting toxins tainted the grain that was shipped from the region.
We passed one soon enough at the remnants of a farming village, now called Felstone Field. The cauldron sat on a gilded dais, spewing death into the sky. Even I could detect the stench.
“Don’t worry man, you get used to it,” said one of the trolls, trying to comfort his nauseated orcish companion.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he answered, between coughs.
We saw no Scourge guards around the cauldron. Renia assured us that they lay in shallow graves, waiting for intruders. The cauldrons are not as important as they once were, as nearly everyone in the region has already succumbed to undeath. They still serve as a particularly grisly type of scorched earth tactic. The poison spread into the air drifts down on the fallow fields of the Western Plaguelands, there to fester for centuries. It is possible, with much work, to purge this infection. Yet the cauldrons continuously release contaminants, making such efforts futile. In a bitter twist, the prevailing winds prevent the poisons from reaching the Scarlet Crusade’s headquarters in the north.
The rapid percussion of a galloping horse rang out in the diseased air ahead, and the soldiers readied their weapons. We could tell by the sound that the rider was alone, and probably not much of a threat.
An armored knight riding a skeletal steed burst from the yellowish mist. The corpse-mount reared, and the rider gripped the reins with rotted hands. His armor was mismatched and rusted, a relic of better times. The sigil of old Lordaeron was carved into his shield and painted on a filth-encrusted tabard.
“Hail, Lady Renia!” he greeted, in a hollow voice.
“It’s good to see you’re still fighting the Scourge here, Sir Averlome,” greeted Renia. I detected a note of sarcasm in her voice.
“You as well. How goes the patrol?”
“Relatively quiet so far. And your quest? Have you found the rightful king?”
“Not yet, regrettably. But I shall search onwards. Time is something I do have on my side,” he chuckled.
The rider’s name was Lentz Averlome, of House Averlome, a small aristocratic family whose name I had heard mentioned a few times. Lentz was a ragged knight errant, striking down minions of the Scourge and the Scarlet Crusade. Though not part of the Deathguard, the Forsaken regarded him as a useful, though odd, helper in the war. No one objected to him staying with us through the night. Shortly before the living drifted off to a restless sleep, Lentz marched to the edge of the camp and knelt down in prayer. Behind him came faint snickers from the other Forsaken. I waited until Lentz was finished before introducing myself, and asked about his quest.
“To restore the kingdom of Lordaeron to its rightful place.”
“I see. I take it you were a knight in life?”
“I was. Even while my kin hid behind the walls of the palace I sallied forth into the armies of the living dead. So many fell to my blade. I can still remember it.”
“How do you intend to resurrect the kingdom?”
“Do you scoff at me, Destron? Many Forsaken do. Not truly loyal subjects, I would think.”
“I do not mock your quest, Sir Averlome. I am merely curious as to how you intend to do it. Surely you’d agree that it’s a daunting task, even for one of your abilities.”
“This is true. I have faith, however. A year after I broke free from the Lich King, I saw the true king in a vision—King Terenas Menethil, radiant in glory! At the time I was a wretch, weeping of my lost life in the wilds of Tirisfal. My fears fell away at the sight of his majesty. I felt happy again. After so long, lost in darkness, I saw the Light.”
“He gave you this quest?”
“My liege spoke in the voice of a god. Lordaeron will exist again, blessed by the Holy Light. All it needs is a king! That, he said, was my duty. To find this king in exile—and I do not mean Arthas! I speak of the king’s nearest blood relation. He lives somewhere in this cursed land, and I shall know him by the sigil of Lordaeron that floats over his head.”
“Can all see this symbol?”
“I doubt it. Otherwise someone would have found him already!” he laughed. “Only I can see it.”
“Would this new Lordaeron be a nation of humans, or of the free dead?”
“Both. When I find the king, I shall take him to the throne. There, he will call out to the subjects of Lordaeron, living and undead, and they shall flock to his banner. We the undead shall protect the kingdom. In the new Lordaeron, all the great warriors shall be raised after death to serve their liege from beyond the grave.”
“Don’t you think some would object to that?”
“Tell me Destron, why do you think most Forsaken hate their state?”
“I’d say there are many reasons—”
“There is one. The Forsaken have no purpose. With a king, they shall again have a purpose. I do not mean to say that the common folk will bear the burden of undeath. Only the nobles and protectors of the kingdom shall undergo the process. We serve the king, so we are obliged.”
“I see. What about Sylvanas?”
“She will rule with the new king. It seems strange, I know, but I have faith. She is our Dark Lady, and she will always watch over us.”
“What of the Horde?”
“As long as the orcs do not interfere, the kingdom shall have no quarrel with them. It is the men of Lordaeron that are my concern, living and dead alike.”
“Many Lordaeronians fled to distant lands. Would they all come back?”
“They have no choice! Lordaeron shall follow the grace of the Light, as it always has, but obligation to the king remains. We began to forget that after the Second War, I think. The Lordaeronian subjects who do not return are traitors, and will be treated as such. Nor shall I show mercy to the cowards in Gilneas and Stromgarde, who did nothing while Lordaeron died. This continent is ours by right, and soon, very soon, my blade shall be stained with the blood of villains. One cannot always walk in the Light to fulfill its goals. Rest assured Destron: Lordaeron shall return.”
Lentz left early the next day. I do not imagine he shall ever succeed in his quest.
The first sign of Andorhal was a ruined watchtower standing over the detritus of a once-thriving city. Many people saw Andorhal as the heart of Lordaeron, a city without the urban woes that afflicted Stratholme or the capital. There, honest farmers from all around the land sold their grain to local merchants before retiring to a clean tavern, taking a few drinks with old friends. A simple and pious city, where noble, merchant, and commoner alike would meditate on the precepts of the Holy Light and do good to one another.
This rosy picture was not the exact truth. This is not to say Andorhal was a terrible city masquerading as a good one, simply that no place is perfect. I spent several summers in Andorhal while alive, helping out in my uncle Welfred’s tavern. Andorhal had a dark side, perhaps better concealed than those in other cities but inarguably present. The good farmers were not so good when drunk, and painted women (and some men) wasted away beneath the street lamps in lives of debauchery.
“When I was a child, the farmers would usually sell the grain they harvested in the great cities, go directly to the buyer. They usually had one of the more reliable farmhands do it; after all it was a long journey. But when those damned orcs came in the Second War it was too dangerous, the grain caravans would be torn to pieces! Then Andorhal began shipping the grain for the farmers, at a price of course, using hired swords to make sure the grain got to where it was supposed to be.”
That was the explanation of Varm Colerid, a Deathguard in our group. As one might guess from the story, Varm had been the son of a farmer in the nearby village of Dalson’s Hope, now called Dalson’s Tears.
“Did this hurt the farmers?”
“At first. More our pride than our purses, though that’s enough. The merchants didn’t overcharge us too much, though when I had to move to Andorhal after I got married I vowed to hate the city with all my heart,” Varm laughed.
“How did the farmers cope?”
“We still got by. The Andorhal merchants were definitely a shady bunch, but they got the grain to places where it was badly needed. This was never more than a sideshow in the Second War anyway. The orcs razed Caer Darrow but they never got much farther than that. After that we had a more effective distribution system. I don’t like to admit it, but we did.”
“Why did you move to Andorhal?”
“Reasons of career. My brothers and sisters were more than enough to keep the farm running. Actually my youngest sister is one of us now, heh. My mother was determined that I should join the Lower Council and speak for the peasants. My father wasn’t so keen on the idea, but he eventually came around, so I married my sweetheart and joined Andorhal’s civic administration.”
“What happened then?”
“I never joined the Lower Council. It was too difficult and no one liked a bumpkin with ambition. Small loss really, as they didn’t have true power. Also I ended up liking the city more than I thought I would, in spite of them. Andorhal had a sort of frenetic charm. Everyone in the capital (which I did visit twice) thought we were a bunch of peaceable rubes, but when you’re the grain distribution center for entire northern half of the kingdom there’s going to be a bit of ruckus. Then the Plague happened and you know the rest.”
“Why did you become a Deathguard?”
“Because I could finally nurture my ambitions! I want to destroy the Scourge, you see, and I want the Forsaken banner to fly all over Lordaeron. If the living think they can get away with persecuting us they’ll be proven wrong. Sylvanas, our Dark Lady, gave me this spark. Have you seen her?”
“Only from a distance.”
“Same here, but couldn’t you feel her presence? Like a dark and terrible goddess? She gave us power and freedom! I was a clerk in life, now I fight in the Great Company of Death. I’d have never dreamed it, not in a thousand years!” he exclaimed.
“What’s your ultimate ambition?” I asked. Less than a minute ago his voice had been calm and level.
“To advise, to make myself useful to our cause. I’ve learned many things as a Deathguard. Take for instance, that Alliance camp to the south of here, Chillwind Camp. You know of it, right?”
“Only a little.”
“That’s all you need to know. Those fools think they are driving back the Scourge, yet they’re only helping it! Tell me, how do you think the Scourge replenishes it’s armies in a place where every corpse that can be reanimated already has been?”
“Precisely! This Alliance heroes come in, get killed, and walk with the Scourge the next day. The Argent Dawn and the Scarlet Crusade too. I have reason to believe that the Crusade is in league with the Scourge. Frankly, if it weren’t politically expedient to have them, I’d want the orcs and trolls gone as well.”
“But don’t you think that their benefits outweigh the drawbacks? A single Scourge zombie isn’t all that much—”
“There’s more than a few of them here if you haven’t noticed!” Varm retorted.
“I’m not done yet! And this is merely for the sake of argument, please do not take it as an attack. If a troll warrior kills, say, three ghouls and is in turn killed himself, wouldn’t that be a victory for us? After all, the Scourge might have recouped the loss of one, but not all three.”
“If we were the only ones in this battle the Scourge wouldn’t be able to recoup anything,” he shouted. One of the orcs looked in his direction, and Varm flinched. Lowering his voice, he continued.
“The undead can’t be resurrected twice. If it were just us we could basically force out the Scourge. The orcs are only a stepping stone for us. Once the Dark Lady rules over this land we’ll finish what they were foolish enough to start back in the First War”, Varm gloated. “Oh, you can see the spire of the town hall from here, look.” He pointed to the distance, and I could barely make out a thin tower, the top long since crumbled.
“I used to work there!” he exclaimed.
Varm’s attitude towards the orcs is a common one amongst the Forsaken. Too many of us lost friends and family to the orcs during the Second War to ever really trust them. Regardless of what the Forsaken think, we need them more than they need us. The Forsaken only truly control a small portion of old Lordaeron, and we are still beset by the Crusade, the remaining human nations, and the Scourge. Perhaps the orcs saw some common ground between our two peoples. They once were driven by demonic forces, which they expelled only with great sacrifice. Many of us are tormented by personal demons from our past, and the orcs may seek to help us exorcise those.
After passing the perimeter of Andorhal we crossed the Andorhal River into the wrecked town of Sorrow Hill. Unlike many of the towns in this region, bearing dark names to reflect their cursed nature, Sorrow Hill was actually always called Sorrow Hill. Local folktales described it as the site of a tragic death of two young lovers whose families did not want them together. One was killed, and the other pined away until death.
In many respects, Sorrow Hill had been part of Andorhal. It acted as a place for quiet and peaceful contemplation, away from the noise of city life. The people in Sorrow Hill were mostly tradesmen and merchants whose skill allowed them more comfort and financial security than the other townspeople. Many were veterans of the Second War, who looked forward to raising families in a time that promised a brighter future than previous generations could imagine.
Now it is a place of death. Houses once fine and well-tended turned into edifices of decay. Sorrow Hill was the scene of brutal pitched battles against the Scourge in the first years after Sylvanas’ revolution. The battles eventually moved away from Sorrow Hill, and few now go there. Some ghouls and skeletons still haunt the place though in only a fraction of their former numbers. Since Scourge troops have no concern with self-preservation, the only way to make them leave is to strike down each and every one. Much of the credit for the victory here would go to the Alliance troops so despised by Varm. Their base at Chillwind Camp is less than a day’s journey south of Sorrow Hill.
At the south end of Sorrow Hill is another landmark, the Tomb of Uther the Lightbringer. My entire generation grew up listening to tales of Uther, the founder of the paladins and all-around hero of the Second War. Unlike so many other heroes of the Second War, he had still been alive and well in the subsequent era of prosperity, a living monument to the power of the Holy Light. He died in the Third War, murdered by Prince Arthas, a man who had been like a son to him.
In the dark days following his death, a few of the remaining paladins made a simple tomb for his body. Paladins, by virtue of their inner faith in Light, were the only ones immune to the Plague. Hence there was no need to burn Uther’s corpse. Years later, when the Alliance returned to the Western Plaguelands, a trio (some versions say a quartet, others simply a pair) of knights stumbled upon the tomb. The knights were grievously wounded and near death, but were heartened to see that the tomb had not been desecrated. Then a great light, bright as the sun, emanated from the tomb and healed their battered bodies in an instant. The faithful quickly moved to build a more proper mausoleum. There have been no confirmed reports of healing since then, but the site acts as a sign of hope for the embattled Alliance.
It might seem strange for a Forsaken like myself to be familiar with the tale, yet we too had admired Uther at one point, and a few continue to do so. Some were enraged, believing that the healing of Alliance knights was another sure sign of the world’s hatred for the Forsaken. Others felt hope that such a blessed relic of better times could survive in the Plaguelands.
A band of nine Forsaken ran into the sanctuary soon after its completion, hoping that Uther’s body would cure their condition. They shouted prayers as they ran. The priests on watch cut them down without mercy.
I like to think that, if he were alive today, Uther would not hate us for what we cannot help.
The tomb has been quiet since then. Guards remain, and for good reason as there are many Forsaken who seek to avenge their slaughtered brethren, and a number who simply want to defile the tomb. Those who wish to pay their respects can only wait for peace.
I could just make out Caer Darrow’s silhouette through the yellow murk hanging over the lake. The Deathguards worked to set up a temporary camp on the poisoned shores of Lake Darrowmere. The name “Lake Darrowmere” is actually redundant. However, no one still uses the old word for lake, which was mere.
“From here, all we’ll do is see if there’s any Scourge activity. Sylvanas and her generals already know that the necromancer’s school lies beneath the isle; what we don’t know is how much of a part it plays in the Scourge’s efforts these days,” explained Renia. Though she still seemed to somewhat dislike me, she was willing to explain the purposes of her mission.
“I think I’ve heard of this before. It was called the Scholomance?”
“Correct. Where the Cult of the Damned dabbled in the dark arts.”
“Wouldn’t that be a very important part of the Scourge’s plans here?”
“Not necessarily. It’s possible that they have moved their training facilities to another place. Also, there are more than enough necromancers in the area to raise any dead Alliance. It’d be a bit shortsighted of them to not maintain the numbers, but it might be the case.”
“What if they go across the lake from the north or west, by boat?” I asked.
“We have other people watching the shores over there.” She gave a cold smile. “We don’t intend to miss a thing.”
“Good”, I nodded.
It was nearly time for me to take my leave. I somewhat regretted not talking much with the orcs and trolls, but reasoned that I would meet plenty of others on my journey. Truth be told, I was still somewhat fearful of them.
Before leaving, I accompanied two Deathguards on a reconnaissance mission to the island itself. The leader was Deathguard Cardon, whose appearance nauseated even me. He had obviously been quite obese in life. Greasy sores covered his arms and the faint sunlight shone off of the glistening fat protruding from countless wounds. I could barely see any features in the collapsed mass of flesh that was his face. Fellemer (the other Deathguard) and myself followed the shore of the lake west for a while. After getting far enough from the camp, we lashed together some wood to make a crude raft. Barely water worthy, we proceded with care. Renia did not want to risk being discovered by crossing the bridge. If we saw any Scourge, we were to retreat to the shore without engaging in combat. Then we would slowly make our way back to headquarters.
“So, mage, have you been to Caer Darrow before?” asked Cardon. His voice was surprisingly rich, even in death. I wondered if he had been a minstrel in life.
“Was born there. Me and Fellemer both, actually.”
Fellemer nodded. His body had also deteriorated quite badly, greenish skin hanging in tatters from the exposed bones in his forearms and lower legs. Looking closer, I noticed what his hood concealed: he had no jaw.
“Were you alive when the orcs attacked it?”
“I was. I don’t actually remember it at all, but I know I spent all my life in Caer Darrow, and I was middle aged when the Plague came, so I must have been alive. No point in keeping the bad memories though, that’s what I’ve always thought.”
Fellemer made a grunting noise, though whether in agreement or contention I could not tell.
“Were you and Fellemer friends in life?”
“We didn’t know each other. He can’t talk much, but I do know that he was one of the household servants of the Barov family. You know the Barovs, right Destron?”
“Certainly. They owned quite a lot of land.” The Barov had long made their home on Caer Darrow. Originally they were from farther east, and if one goes back far enough in history they were one of the few eastern human tribes to side with Lordaeron in the Great Expansion. The king arranged for the island to be their own personal fief, though their influence stretched far beyond.
“Fellemer doesn’t know much about what went on with the Barovs. They’re the ones who let the Cult of the Damned build their school beneath the city.”
I had heard that before, though only in rumor.
“Are the Barovs still there?” I asked, as we came into view of the ruined keep at Caer Darrow.
“Maybe. Some fled, not liking what the rest of their family was doing, or maybe just too afraid of it. Nobles are damned cowards, every last one of them,” sighed Cardon.
“Eh-hei”, groaned Fellemer.
“What’s that? Oh, right, Alexi. Yes, Alexi Barov’s a Forsaken, spends all his time in the Bulwark trying to get people to retrieve things from Caer Darrow for him. Like I said, a coward.”
“Ehl-oh. E’en ur”, said Fellemer.
“By the Light, I hope you get enough money to buy yourself one of those goblin prosthetics,” laughed Cardon.
Fellemer retorted with a series of unintelligible sounds.
“There was another survivor named Weldon, he’s over with the humans though. He was a coward too, but at least he was sharp enough to escape. I used to be a constable, so I’m not afraid of a few scratches.”
The boat arrived at the island and we spent some hours searching through rubble and empty buildings. I saw nothing suspcious in Caer Darrow, at least not above ground. Strangely, this was even worse. Had there been Scourge skeletons about, we could have understood the threat.
Despite the fact that we hadn’t seen anything, we still took the raft to the banks as agreed. After stepping off, I bid farewell to the two Deathguards. Fellemer seized my hand, shaking it roughly. He pressed a scrap of parchment into my palm as he did so. I waited until after they left to examine it. A barely legible message was scrawled on the parchment. It read:
"I am Fellemer Barov! I was there when Kel’thuzad himself came to my family, promising them wealth even though they had plenty! I was a good man, though the Light abandoned me! I tried to tell other people about the undead, but Alexi caught me and Weldon killed me! They destroyed all records of me, which was easy because I was still young! Their fortune is mine, and I will kill every Barov who still walks!"
It was obviously either a lie or a delusion. I don’t know why he even gave it to me. The fact that he did would suggest madness. Perhaps he simply convinced himself that it was the truth. Even in death, some commoners still wish to be nobles.
Lordaeronian nobility was sinking into obsolescence by the time of the Second War. Most caroused their lives away in the luxuries of the capital. They fulfilled their duty to the king by serving in his army, though most secured safe positions that demanded minimal responsibility. I later discovered that Alexi had been a decorated veteran of the Second War. Of course, in that conflict, all but the most selfish nobles agreed to fight. When Lordaeron first arose as a nation, King Alnean Menethil gave titles to the greatest warriors under his command. Anyone with a sword could be a noble landowner if he fought long and hard enough. Eventually, too many people became nobles that way and there was no longer enough land to go around. Thus the noble lines solidified, though one could still become a Hero of the Realm through faithful service. No land came with this position, but such heroes did receive a generous stipend with which they could buy land from cash-strapped nobles. The title also came with a great deal of prestige. The nobles tended to despise Heroes of the Realm, regarding them as uncouth upstarts. Time moved on though, and the former masters became less and less important.
The corruption in the land increases with every step taken to the east. Slowly but surely, I was inching towards the diseased heart of the Scourge in Lordaeron.