Saturday, October 27, 2007
Swirling dust spirals into the tents of Valor’s Rest, carried by a low and howling wind. I stood next to a pile of crates, each marked with the sigil of the Cenarion Circle. With me was Metak Ragetotem, a tauren warrior. Under normal circumstances he would have been a truly imposing figure. That day, he looked more like a lonely desert apparition than a fearsome warrior, gray dust coating his face and arms. Metak spoke constantly, repeating phrases when he ran out of things to say. At first, I thought it just an idiosyncrasy.
“I apologize Destron. I imagine you have grown quite tired of my voice. But when you stop speaking, you hear them calling again, and I cannot abide that,” he mourned.
A harsh insect buzz quivers endlessly in the searing air of Silithus, rasping on the ears like a metal file. The song emanates from the hives, those wounds in the earth stretching miles across, each filled to the brim with silithid warriors and workers. The awful sound goes on through night and day, a choir of thousands upon thousands of arthropod monsters. Even the most hardened warriors lose their nerve under the constant noise.
“We now welcome the sandstorms, for only they can drown out the sound of the silithids.”
Ja’gahn and I had stumbled onto Valor’s Rest after a grueling two-day journey up the crater’s slope. Valor’s Rest is a small outpost of the Cenarion Circle. There they receive the troops ferried over the mountains by zeppelins. These zeppelins avoid silithid flyers by rising to a higher altitude, where the wasps cannot reach them.
“The goblins who made the zeppelins said that the air at that level would be too thin to breathe. Yet the shamans of the Skychaser Tribe came, and dwelled in the mountains for two days and two nights. There they beseeched the Spirits of the Air for aid. The spirits bear no love for the goblins, but they despise the silithids. Finally, the spirits said they would bring air up to the zeppelins, so long as the goblins planted trees in the Stonetalon Mountains.”
“Ingenious. The goblins have fulfilled their part of the bargain?”
“They are moving up to Stonetalon. The goblins tried to pay us to do it for them, but they only betrayed their poor understanding of the spirit world. I do not know if they can undo the damage done by their kin, but it is at least a step towards reconciliation.”
I have heard mages theorize that shamanism is merely a “step” to arcane mastery, something to be discarded with a sufficient level of magical understanding. I have not seen any evidence to support this. No mage could have done something like provide breathable air for high-altitude zeppelins. Both shamanism and sorcery have their place; the trolls, after all, use both.
The ribs of a great beast (most likely one of the bronze dragons that had fought in the War of the Shifting Sands) stick out from the ground near Valor’s Post. The Cenarion Circle the ribcage a fitting place to bury the dead, marking the mounds of the fallen with small, hovering obelisks that are carved from the immense geodes found all over Silithus. When a piece of a geode is removed, it will float of its own volition. The druids are at a loss to explain it, and some doubt the wisdom of using such a strange stone as grave markers.
Ja’gahn joined me as I examined the strange cemetery.
“Thank you for taking me here. I expect you are going to return back to Gadgetzan?” I asked.
“I think so. I might try to find myself a new job.”
“You’re a fine guide, Ja’gahn.” I had attempted to pay Ja’gahn the total fee, but he steadfastly refused. I realize that giving him the full amount would only make him unhappy.
“I led you right into the silithids. No guide should do that.”
“Do what you think is best, then.”
“I have to be as canny and tough as I say I am. If I’m not, I’d best be finding a new line of work,” he said.
“Shall I recommend your services as a guide?”
“No. I don’t think I can live up to your words. It’s a big world out there, as you know, and there’s many other things I can do. Take care of yourself, Destron; these are dangerous lands.”
“You too, Ja’gahn.”
I left Valor’s Rest early the next morning. Metak told me it would take around five days of steady travel to reach Cenarion Hold. I had not gone far before the squat tents of Valor’s Rest disappeared from sight.
It is impossible to escape the song of the swarms, which grows louder in the deeper deserts. The landscape is harsh and alien, weighed down by an oppressive sense of age. Before dwarves, before elves, before even trolls, this was the land of monsters. Great scorpions and bloated spiders skitter across the desert beyond the road, standing as tall as men. Equally threatening are the giant, armor-plated worms sifting through the sand. These monstrosities avoid the road (which is a new construction, made of consecrated dwarven stone) but are ubiquitous elsewhere. This is in spite of the fact that Silithus should not be able to support any life form larger than a small lizard.
Later, a druid would tell me that the monsters exist in a sort of food cycle. The worms feed on the scorpions, who in turn hunt the spiders. The spiders lay webs that entrap the worms, enabling the arachnids to feast. Even this is not a satisfactory explanation; the ecosystem is simply not viable. I can only conclude that, like the Eastern Plaguelands and Felwood, corruption has defined its own reality in Silithus.
Clusters of geodes puncture the level sands. Naturally purple in color, the harsh light of the sun gives them a dull orange sheen. During the day, the surface gets hot enough to burn bare skin. Black cyclones undulate as they snake through the deserts, their eerie moans still audible through the eternal buzzing. Millions of smaller insects fester underfoot. Tiny mites scurry beneath the sand, the top layer quivering like water from their motion. Swarms of stinging sand wasps build tubular hives on rocks, and hover noisomely about them.
The morning sky is the color of burnt amber, and the first rays of the sun blast the festering wastelands with scorching heat. In Silithus, the rising sun confers only a sense of despair. That thought came to me as I trudged through my sixth day of travel; Mekot had underestimated the distance between Valor’s Rest and Cenarion Hold.
The buzzing became maddening at that point. I could not shake the impression that the sounds came from inside my skull; that colonies of mites had somehow crawled into my head. By noon I collapsed in the dust, too disoriented to continue. I grabbed a large rock next to the road and slammed it into my scalp. My thoughts were of the relief that would surely be mine once the swarms of insects poured out of my head. The idea of silencing their mechanical drone intoxicated my feverish mind.
Then my senses returned and I cast the rock aside. I’d triumphed against the whispers of the Scourge, and I refused to succumb to mere insects. I elected to walk faster, so that I’d arrive in Cenarion Hold before I did something else so foolish. My brief madness is apparently common to solitary travelers in Silithus.
In the bloody glow of sunset I spotted a steep, stone hill to the southwest, a solid stone tower perched on the summit. I had at last arrived at Cenarion Hold. Hurrying towards it, I was intercepted by a mounted Cenarion patrol headed out into the desert. The soldiers were all Kaldorei, riding majestic nightsabers. The leader was a lean night elf with a feral mane of green hair, which contrasted with his well-trimmed beard.
“Are you representing the Forsaken?” he inquired, his tone polite but brusque.
“I am an independent scholar.”
“Ordinarily I’d say that this is no place for scholars, but since you managed to get this far I supposed you can take care of yourself.”
“I have some arcane ability which I would be happy to lend to the cause.”
“Fair enough. You may proceed.”
Thanking him, I was on my way. Most of the soldiers there are Cenarion Protectors. I had learned a little bit about the Cenarion Protectors while in Moonglade. Unlike the sentinels, the Cenarion Protectors specialize in melee combat, for which they use azzinota blades to great effect. Azzinota blades are a variant of the curved swords favored by demon hunters. People say that elves are the only race with the dexterity to use them effectively, though I suspect the trolls could do a good job of it.
Another difference with the sentinels is the fact that the protectors accept male soldiers. If a male Kaldorei youth commits a minor crime of violence (such as brawling), the local authorities will often enlist him into the ranks of the protectors. The idea is to give him an acceptable way to work out aggression. Women have little reason to join the Cenarion Protectors. Some are failed sentinels. Occasionally, female protectors become wardens, but this is quite rare. Most wardens are still drawn from the sentinel ranks. The protectors also boast a few tauren braves—all from the Runetotem or Wildmane Tribes—among their number.
Blessed silence welcomes visitors to Cenarion Hold. I stood on the main path leading up the hill, marveling at the cessation of the insect song. The gnomes have set up arcane loudspeakers all around the perimeter of Cenarion Hold. These devices emit sounds identical to the buzzing, and can even compensate for shifts in pitch and intensity. The sound waves cancel each other out, which is a great relief to the inhabitants.
“When we first came to this place, in the War of the Shifting Sands, we used earplugs. They did not work very well. You could still hear the silithids all around,” explained Eselreon Leafwhisper, a Druid of the Talon.
“Did you ever expect to come back?”
“Only in my worst dreams,” he sighed.
Cenarion Hold is not a cheerful place. Even the greatest druids found it difficult grow buildings out of the barren rock, forcing the Kaldorei to make most of the structures out of stone. There is an ominous aesthetic to the structures of the Hold, the poor quality of the masonry creating a sort of barbaric atmosphere.
The war against the silithids and the Qiraji turned out to be more complex than I'd thought. A wispy druid of the talon named Seleon Windsong helped to educate me. Seleon had spent two years defending Light’s Hope Chapel in the Eastern Plaguelands. During that time, he had befriended Leonid Barthalamew, and was tolerant of the Forsaken (though he bore no love for Undercity).
“You say you studied in Dalaran?” he asked.
“Did you ever come across mention of the Old Gods?”
“Not to my recollection. Unless you mean the gods of the Arathi pantheon.”
“These are different. The legends of many nations make veiled references to the Old Gods. The Arathi myth cycles are no different, though their description is subtle, found in the names of certain demons. Kothan was one, I believe.”
“I see.” Kothan had been a monstrous sea demon, father of the Arathi sea god Dakon. Sigrun, a legendary culture hero, had imprisoned Kothan in a stone tomb many fathoms deep after best him in combat.
“The trolls call them the Insect Gods, though that seems to be a combination of the Qiraji and the Old Ones. The dark whispers that corrupted the ancient tauren are another example. We Kaldorei call them the Demon Mothers—our belief is that they ultimately spawned the demonic races. I still believe this to be the truth, though I no longer think there is any meaningful communication between the two. The dwarves have probably the most concrete example. A few of the artifacts retrieved by Ulduman make reference to terrible, primordial beings defeated by the Titans in the ancient past.”
“I take it the defeat was not permanent?”
“For whatever reason, the Titans only imprisoned the Old Gods. No one knows their number; it could be three, five, or a hundred. Some may even be dead; the Master’s Glaive in Darkshore might be the corpse of an Old God. The Old God buried in Ahn’qiraj is called C’thun. That is really all we know.”
“Did you encounter C’thun in the War of the Shifting Sands?”
“No. There were hints of a greater power behind the Qiraji, but we assumed the insects were the only threat. Insidious words now underly the buzzing of the swarms, adversely affecting our more sensitive druids. The Bronze Dragonflight has also told us of this threat. I wished they had told us the first time around,” he sighed.
The main contingents from the Alliance and Horde had already settled into the camp. Most of the Alliance soldiers are dwarves. The warriors of Ironforge are eager to take the battle to the ancient enemy of the Titans, and act with a nearly religious fervor. The humans troops at Cenarion Hold usually come from Theramore, the nation wanting to show its interest in aiding the people of Kalimdor. Darnassus did send a small number of sentinels to Cenarion Hold, though they let the Cenarion Circle do most of the work. There is a bit of friction between the sentinels and the protectors, the former regarding the latter as an army of rank amateurs and dangerous thugs.
“The protectors are for those who have failed the sentinels, or for criminals who avoided punishment,” sneered one sentinel. I did not speak with her myself; I merely overheard her conversation with a Theramore footman who nodded in response to her words.
Cenarion Protectors, on the other hand, do not hold the same level of animosity towards the sentinels. More than one protector pointed out that the fighting style of the sentinels, while perfect for the forests of Ashenvale, is less helpful in Silithus.
Orcs, trolls, and tauren make up the majority of the Horde force. The orcs love the idea of a great battle against a new foe, and nearly all of the tauren tribes issued braves to the Silithus campaign. Trollish warriors of both the Revantusk and Darkspear came, keen to fight their ancient foe. The Forsaken, on the other hand, only spared a few deathguards due to the threat of the Scourge in the home territories.
Most interesting of all are the forces of the Zandalari. A handful of these revered trolls led an army of many different tribes. The Frostmane, Shadowpine, Witherbark, Amani, and Shadowtooth Tribes all heeded the call of the Zandalari. Their hatred of the Qiraji suppressed the age-old tribal differences. The non-Horde trolls keep to their own kind, much to the relief of the other races.
The Dream House is one of a handful of grown buildings in the hold. Even there, the withering heat and dry air takes its toll; the wood is faded and the edges have already dried out. The purpose of the Dream House is to accommodate visiting emissaries from the Horde and Alliance, but they ended up camping with their respective armies. As such, the Dream House turned into a sort of rest area for high-ranking Cenarion soldiers. Quite crowded, the Kaldorei and Shu’halo warriors have more decorum than the fighters of other nations, allowing it to stay in decent condition.
The glaring sky darkened into the cold pinpricks of night. I stood in the second floor of the Dream House, speaking to a Cenarion Protector named Feruel. Feruel was a mere 300 years old, and a devoted follower of the Cenarion Circle.
“These momentous events in Silithus may be what brings Kalimdor together,” he said, after a draught of pear wine. “Night elf and tauren are natural allies, and even the orcs are not too far from our ideals.”
“Could it not be seen as a way to bring the Horde and Alliance together?”
“To an extent. I’m not sure how heavily we should deal with the Eastern Kingdoms. Please don’t take offense—I’m not singling out the Forsaken. I do not find the Forsaken nearly as problematic as the dwarves. The goal of the Cenarion Circle is to preserve nature. The East has no interest in this.”
“You see the people of Kalimdor as more in sync with nature?”
“It’s obvious, is it not? Kalimdor is defined by life and nature. The Eastern Kingdoms are represented by death and sorcery. The Cenarion Circle needs to stop caring about the Horde and Alliance. We should shun the Eastern Kingdoms, which may already be too far gone to truly help, and save Kalimdor. Our friends are those who share our goals. And Forsaken, gnomes, humans, and even dwarves who share these views should be welcomed. But the majority will probably never see it our way.”
“How do you feel about Darnassus being a part of the Alliance?”
“Pah! Darnassus is a lie, and Staghelm is a fool. They say he lost his mind when his son was killed by Qiraji, and while that is tragic, it is no excuse. Mark my words: more Kaldorei are turning against him each day. The elves will soon choose if they follow the Cenarion Circle, or Staghelm’s lunatic greed. To answer your question more directly, I think it is foolish for Darnassus to put the convenience of joining the Alliance over preserving the world. I’m surprised Holy Tyrande has not taken a more direct stance against Staghelm.”
“You don’t mind the Alliance being here in Silithus?”
“I think the Alliance is a very flawed, but they are far less of a threat to the natural order than the Qiraji. Or the goblins,” he added darkly. “I know this is an opportunistic attitude to take, but we must do whatever necessary to save Kalimdor.”
“You say you think there is kinship between night elves and orcs. What is your opinion on the Warsong lumber operation?”
“It is regrettable, and the orcs must be made to leave. It is atypical behavior for the orcs, however. They used to honor the nature spirits, according to all of the histories, and are only now returning to it. What most do not realize is that while they have thrown off their demonic corruption, they have not completely shorn themselves of human corruption. I tell you truly that the mass logging of Ashenvale is something I would expect from a human or dwarf, not an orc.”
At this point in time, the Cenarion Circle should be considered a nation unto itself. Feruel’s sentiments were more zealous than average, but still indicative of the general attitude. The Cenarion Circle’s belief in Kaldorei and Shu’halo unity is well intentioned, but it strikes me as naive. Members of both races in the Cenarion Circle get along because they have shared interests. This is not necessarily the case with the majority of night elves and tauren.
During dusk and dawn the soldiers test themselves in drills. The heat in the daylight is too strong for most warriors, forcing them to stay inside their tents. I visited the Horde encampment early in the second morning. It is set up across the road from the Alliance base on the western slope of Cenarion Hold.
After dawn training, the warriors take breakfasts of pig and kodo meat. Swarms of sand wasps buzz about at ankle-level during meals, scoring small but painful bites on the calves of the warriors. Sand wasps are a source of torment for orcs and tauren.
“Your Apothecaries made a salve that keeps away the sand wasps, but we must save it for combat. At the moment, it is an annoyance we can tolerate,” grumbled Shurn Bloodblade, an orcish officer.
“How are the preparations going?”
“Have you forgotten who these warriors are? They’re the Horde! They’re always prepared!” he laughed. “They’re eager for insect blood, and I imagine they’ll get their share of it.”
“How do you feel about working with the Alliance?”
“I think it’s necessary. We’ve fought alongside the Alliance before, and I suspect we’ll do it again. I do not think there is much honor in fighting against the Alliance.”
“Did you fight in the Battle of Mt. Hyjal?”
“No, at the time of that grand battle I was in Stonetalon. It’s one of my few regrets, though there’s nothing I could have done about it. I truly thought we had forged a bond with the Kaldorei and the humans, but it was not to be.”
“Was there any difficulty getting warriors here?”
“No. Once Thrall decreed that battle be done in Silithus, many warriors were quick to volunteer, especially from places like Stranglethorn and the Badlands. They have grown bored in those places, and wish to do battle. We had to turn many of them down; if they all left, the Horde’s position in the east would be jeopardized. Independent warriors have also flocked to our banner.”
“Do the warriors mind working with the Alliance?”
“Most care not. How could they? A great and honorable battle is on the horizon.”
The Horde and Alliance maintain a working peace in Silithus. The same cannot be said for the Zandalari camp. Those tribal warriors hate non-trolls, and look down on their Darkspear and Revantusk brethren. The Zandalari priests try to keep them in line, but it grows more difficult each day. I witnessed the aftermath of a violent altercation while walking up the steep path leading to Cenarion Hold. An enraged forest troll and an equally angry human were both being restrained by protectors.
“Damn you, beast! My father killed plenty of your wretched number, and I’ll continue the tradition!” shouted the human, speaking in a Stromgarder accent. The troll snarled back in Zandali. Despite the human’s heated rhetoric, the troll (a Witherbark warrior) had started the problem by punching the human. The troll’s motivation was unclear, though the human had not said anything.
I did not wish to press my luck by visiting the Alliance camp. Up in Cenarion Hold, I spoke with one of the handful of sentinels doing Darnassus' bidding. Her name was Shadriselle Eveningstar. We spoke in the evening at the highest point of Cenarion Hold, from where one can see miles across the festering desert.
“This is not my first time in Silithus, sad to say,” sighed Shadriselle.
“You fought in the War of the Shifting Sands?”
“I did. When the war began, I had been a sentinel for no more than a hundred years. I was thrilled to finally be able to do something other than fight the odd satyr band. No glory here though; just dust and death.”
“Do you not wish to speak of it?”
“I am unhappy about my experiences here, but I accept them. Today is just like the early days of the War of the Shifting Sands; brave warriors from all over Kalimdor expecting a quick and epic victory. Tauren and trolls stood by us back then too, though the trolls were mostly from Zul’farrak. Our armies met at Southwind Village, which fell to the silithids mere weeks later. We retreated to Cenarion Hold after that dark day.”
“Tauren fought in the War of the Shifting Sands? I don’t think I have ever heard tauren mention it.”
“That war was thousands of years ago. A long time for mortal races. For them, it passed into legend. Only a handful of tauren braves came here in the War of the Shifting Sands. There are many more today.”
“How long did the war last?”
“A year and a season. I lost nearly every friend I had to the insects. Their bones still lie in the sand.”
“I admire your fortitude in returning.”
“Fortitude has nothing to do with it. The life of a sentinel is all I know, and I’m content to do as ordered. Have you heard tell of the Battle of Staghelm Point?”
“That is where many druids fell.”
“Yes. Staghelm Point was—is, actually, it still stands—a tower northeast of here. A large reinforcement of druids was coming through the mountains to Silithus and they were to stop at Staghelm Point before continuing to Cenarion Hold. We did not think the Qiraji knew of the tower, but they swarmed in the night without warning.”
“Were you there?”
“I was. I had seen the silithids before, but fighting them in the darkness of the mountains is the stuff of pure terror. That accursed spot has haunted my dreams ever since. We fought hard, but it not hard enough. Many were killed or separated from the tower, and the silithids moved in, slaughtering the druids almost to the last. My father was among the fallen.”
“I see.” I was not sure what to say in response.
“Later that year, the Order of the Mandible turned against us. All seemed lost, until the Bronze Dragonflight came to our aid. Even then, a long and bloody road awaited us. And now it’s returned. Darnassus does not wish to involve itself with Silithus. That fool Staghelm was reluctant to send even this token force. Most Shifting Sands veterans are elsewhere, in Ashenvale or Stonetalon. These protectors are young and inexperienced. I fear it will be their undoing.”
“What can we expect from the Qiraji forces?”
“A nightmare beyond reckoning.” Shadriselle closed her eyes and grimaced, choking back tears. “I should return to my sisters-in-battle. They may be worried.”
She walked away, quickly disappearing into the darkness. I remained seated, deep in thought.
No one in Cenarion Hold can completely ignore the Swarming Pillar. Gnomish ingenuity blocks the sound, but the eyes are always tugged back to that abomination, hypnotic in its horror.
The Swarming Pillar is an infested mountain just south of Cenarion Hold. Tendrils of slick bone strangle the rock, a blanket of flesh shuddering on the surface. A great mass nestles in the mountain’s cloven summit like some hideous heart. Flying silithids swarm around the peak at all times, packed so densely that they form black rings.
The pillar overcame my feeble resistance, and I was studying it yet again when the Twilight’s Hammer came to Cenarion Hold. Their entry began with a commotion among the orcs, who recognized their regalia as that of the traitorous Twilight’s Hammer Clan of old who had followed Gul’dan into darkness. Yet they also held emblems of peace, and the warriors restrained themselves.
Three cultists walked up the road towards the Hold, all dressed in ragged and faded purple robes. Their human leader wore a tarnished copper mask, fixed in a serene and regal half-smile. To his left, a wizened orc leaned on a cane, and to his right stood an emaciated night elf. A swarm of insects hovered around the elf, and as he got closer we could all see mites crawling in and out of holes in his exposed flesh.
Kedrian Rootsong, commander of Cenarion Hold, rushed out of his office with four protectors by his side. He strode out to meet the representatives of the Hammer, his silver eyes blazing with fury. The inhabitants had informed me of the Twilight’s Hammer Cult, madmen living out in the wilderness worshipping the Old Gods. They had evolved from the remnants of the old Horde clan, who had come to Silithus after ravaging Feralas, picking up dark legends and lore along the way.
“What do you want here, blasphemer?” demanded Kedrian.
“I only come here to see the forces of the Cenarion Circle. I am called Niharalath, by some. The orc is Urd, once a warlock of the Twilight’s Hammer Clan. He serves a greater master now. The elf has never given his name to me, but I know he is one of the last Druids of the Mandible. He bears you no hatred for expelling his Order from the Circle.”
“Do you wish to negotiate, Niharalath? The only terms acceptable to use is the utter destruction of the Qiraji threat.”
“Negotiations? No, I have no interest in negotiations.” Niharalath removed his mask. I had half-expected to see an insectoid monstrosity behind it, but his face was human, almost handsome, with an olive complexion and jet-black hair.
“Kill him!” ordered Kedrian.
Yet Niharalath raised his hand, and the protectors halted in their tracks, seized by an unseen force.
“No, not now, Kedrian. There is much for you to learn. You, and all the others around you.”
I heard a thin whistling from somewhere far off, a wrenching nausea forcing me to my knees. There was no warning, no hint of what was to come; I, along with several others, including Kedrian, found myself in the middle of a silithid hive. We stood ankle-deep in scummy water, an island of pink flesh in the pond's center, quivering bone tendrils growing like trees from the ground. Oppressive heat crushed down on the gruesome scene, our senses shaken by the maddening whine of a thousand insects.
An elven priestess who had the misfortune of being too close to Niharalath began to run, only to collapse into the shallow pool. Bloated insects scuttled out from hiding spots in the living earth, and the priestess screamed. Figuring we were all doomed, I elected to go down fighting. Before I could cast a spell, a silithid claw had gutted the elf, her death announced in a spray of violet gore.
“You will surely die if you run,” announced Niharalath.
“What have you done?” demanded Kedrian, panic in his voice.
“I have done nothing. You are merely in the center of Hive Regal. We are not that far from Ahn’qiraj.”
While Kedrian shouted and screamed to be heard over the sound of the silithids, Niharalath’s voice rang clearly in our minds. Two of the protectors rushed Niharalath, their blades at the ready. Instantly they dropped, cancerous growths erupting from their bodies, tendrils dropping from wounds. In less than a minute he'd reduced the protectors to piles of pulsating flesh. Kedrian cried out in dismay.
“Kill me, then! Let the others go!”
“No. There is too much for you to learn. You may as well al learn it, those of you that are still alive.”
The earth shuddered beneath our feet.
“Even now, C’thun stirs.”
“Are you the leader of the Twilight’s Hammer?” asked a dwarven warrior who had also been plucked from Cenarion Hold.
“I am the soul and messenger of its masters.”
Endless streams of silithids burst out from the earth, creeping over ridges of meat and marrow tubes, gathering in a miles-vast swarm. I felt something akin to blind terror, but forced myself to remain calm. I had died once before; I could at least face the second time with dignity.
“I have brought you here to demonstrate the powers with which you are dealing. The silithids are beasts, and the Qiraji nearly as deluded as yourselves. You all live in an illusory prison, one built eons ago by the Titans. Reality is much different; a place of chaos, madness, and oblivion. It is not an empty void; that was Cho’gall’s mistake. It has everything, and it all means nothing.”
“Do not speak this nonsense to me. Do what you will and be done with it.”
“I shall take you someplace more hospitable.”
Again, the distant whistle, and we found ourselves on a rocky hill. The sky above that place was dark, though a hideously bright sun glared from the firmament. Twilight’s Hammer cultists were everywhere, working beneath the strange crystals floating in the desiccated air.
“The is the Twilight Base Camp. You shall wait here for a while. I make no promises for anyone’s safety, save for Kedrian’s. I left one of your soldiers in the Hive. The silithids are intelligent enough to know of cruelty, and I did not wish to deprive them of blood.”
Sure enough, one of the surviving protectors was missing, leaving only one. The survivor fell to his knees with a despairing wail. Besides Kedrian and his guard, there was the dwarf, an orcish woman, and myself.
“I will let you keep your weapons, simply so you realize that there is nothing you can do,” said Niharalath, before walking away.
Words cannot adequately convey the horrific squalor of the Twilight Base Camp. Intertwined with the insectile chorus that fills the land are the insane utterances of the cultists. They sit in the hellish heat, covered in weeks of dirt and untended sores. Shelter exists only in the form of crude lean-tos. I recalled Belgrano’s words in Northshire Abbey, of the Twilight’s Hammer never creating buildings when it could be avoided. A glowing crystal obelisk floats in the center of the camp, attended to by mumbling petitioners. At times, sounds issue from the crystal: rumbling stone, rushing water, howling air, and crackling flame.
The Twilight’s Hammer has a uniquely loathsome method of getting food. At noon, when the sun’s heat makes it impossible for the living to walk or think, black specks appear in the shimmering air somewhere to the south, turning into a swirling cloud as they grow closer. These locusts descend on the cultists, their plump, insect bodies crawling over disease-ridden skin. With shaking hands, the cultists pluck the locusts from their bodies and bite into them. The sickening feast goes on for some time before the cultists eat their fill. Bits of locusts litter the rock afterwards, and the cultists smile with ichor-stained mouths and black tongues.
“Do you see what I am writing?”
The question came from a human youth with red and peeling skin. He looked to be near death, and his eyes glittered with fever. He knelt on the ground. A parchment was spread before him, upon which he had drawn a large glyph in red ink. The glyph was a mess of twisting angles, the sight of it inspiring vertigo and disgust.
“You can see it, yes?”
“I can.” I looked away, still dizzy. “What is it? A rune of some sort?”
“No mere rune. It has the appearance of one. I made it. We do not write words; this ‘rune’ as you put it, is a window. Its geometries let the viewer pierce the veil of reality. This alone is not enough to illuminate the truth to the unenlightened, but it is a start.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
“I shall keep it with me always, gazing into it. I will also make copies for my masters and they will give it to the Twilight’s Hammer in Stormwind City. There, my brethren will draw the portal into books, paint it onto walls, scratch it into trees. Other types of portals will be made; the cumulative effect will bring more into the fold. Not many at first, probably only a handful. Still, it is a beginning.”
A blissful look came across his ravaged face as he stared at the parchment. The orc from Cenarion Hold grabbed my arm, and accosted me.
“I am a mere scout, but this waiting rankles me!” she snarled in Orcish. “These lunatics will kill us anyway, let us at least go down with their blood on our hands! Come on, Forsaken, let us show them the fury of the Horde.” Her voice was a mix of rage and dread, the former battling the latter.
I concluded that she was right. Whatever the Twilight’s Hammer had in store for us, it was certain to be nefarious.
“I can speak Common; let me relay your suggestion to the elves and the dwarf.”
“Good. What is your name? I want to know the name of he who dies alongside me in battle.”
“I am Destron Allicant.”
“And I am Skorra Blackax, of the Bloodeye War-pack. Well met.”
I nodded gravely, and spoke to the others. I kept my voice low, to avoid attracting attention. In truth, the Twilight’s Hammer cultists were so far gone in their rituals that I doubt they would have even cared. The protector blanched at the idea, too shaken by the deaths of his comrades. Kedrian grabbed him and they conferred in Darnassian. At the end, the protector nodded, gripping his blades and taking deep breaths.
Defeat was a foregone conclusion, but we nonetheless planned to inflict as much damage as possible. Skorra and the remaining protector would start the battle by attacking the nearest cultists. As others came to join the fray, Malkor (the dwarf) and I would fell them from a distance with bullet and spellfire. Kedrian would go into his ursine form and destroy those who tried to take us down.
We moved quickly. Skorra rushed towards the seated cultist who had spoken to me earlier and slashed his throat open with a broad-bladed dagger. The protector was less subtle, charging two nearby Hammer servants with a wild Darnassian warcry. It was not long before the cult responded in kind.
A howling tauren charged towards us, carrying a massive warhammer in each hand. Malkor and I opened fire, and it took three bullets and a frost bolt to fell the attacker. More followed. Twilight geomancers summoned black stones and propelled them towards us. One hit Skorra, obliterating her head. The protector made a hasty retreat towards us, only to be cut down by a sword-wielding cultist. Our rebellion appeared to be at an end. Malkor and I stood close to Kedrian’ bristling flanks as he snarled at the advancing foe. Then the cultists stopped.
“As you can see, we have no fear of death.”
Niharalath’s voice came before he did, though he soon stood before Kedrian. The air solidified around us, preventing movement. Kedrian transformed back into an elf, though it did not seem to be by his own volition.
“You are clearly impatient, and I have already conferred with my abyssal friends. We can go on to more important things now.”
The camp vanished, and we stood before a ruined elven village. It was built in a similar style to Cenarion Hold, though further eroded by sand and the hot desert wind. Insects hum around its crumbling towers and sand wasp hives grow in deserted streets.
“Now you bring us to Southwind Village?” laughed Kedrian.
“This was the site of a great defeat for your people. The death of Fandral’s son.”
“It will take more than a history lesson to break me, wretch! I was not even born in that time!”
Niharalath nodded, his face impassive.
“Get a sense of the place. We shall be going deeper in.”
We plunged headlong into nightmare, a buzzing and screaming tempest of wings and sharp legs. I dropped to the ground, trying to orient myself. A bloated, pink sac of flesh hung from a roof of petrified wood, wreathed by a storm of insects.
Kedrian had not lost faith, even then. He shouted invective at Niharalath, standing firm even in that awful infestation.
“All you have proven to me today is that your armies are weak! The silithids are mindless, the Qiraji quite mortal, and your cultists are pathetic! They’re nothing more than gibbering fools, scarcely worthy of our blades. Now you try this pitiful assassination, and what will come of it? Nothing! Another druid will come in my stead.”
“So you believe you shall win?” inquired Niharalath.
“We will have victory, just as we did a thousand years before. And this time we will finish the job. Mark my words: C’thun will die.”
“Holy C’thun may well be destroyed. It is much weaker than it was before; in fact, I daresay that your side will probably succeed. In a year, months, perhaps even weeks, C’thun will be no more.”
This was not the response Kedrian had expected.
“Are you admitting defeat?”
“No. Kedrian, you and your kind—all of the younger races—think like the Titans. You see the world as a series of maps and timelines, bound as you are by their dictates.”
“What nonsense is this? Kill me or let me go, do not—”
“Yes, you shall probably destroy C’thun, but what of it? C’thun exists today. C’thun existed yesterday. Destroying C’thun does not change that. The fact that It existed at some point means that Its influence will spread, both into the past before C’thun’s inception, and into the future, long after Its death.”
“You lie. Then why bother fighting at all? Why bring your rabid lackeys to this place?”
“The goal of the Twilight’s Hammer is not to defeat you in combat. You’ve well proven that to be impossible. Instead, we shall speak the truth into your ears and your dreams. Even if you destroy all of us, C’thun’s message shall be reawakened in another. Perhaps it will be transmitted through stories, or books... or it will form in the mind of someone else. The Old Gods created this world and all the others, and everything has a bit of Them within. Even you, Kedrian.”
“Cho’gall, the Hammer’s illustrious founder, misunderstood the nature of oblivion. It is not absence; it is substance. The world of the Old Gods is one without rules, without value, without meaning. An oblivion through plurality. Time and space are the intolerable constraints of the Titans, imposed on this universe. But they shall fall. The world can be imprisoned by them, but the Old Gods are reality. The veil is already breaking. Five thousand years from now, the Old Gods’ reality is infecting the multitudes, even if They are all long dead. It goes into the past, subtly reworking events. We have won.”
“Give... give it up Niharalath. I will not believe your lies.”
“I have never lied. We have never lied. Open your eyes, and see.”
Niharalath extended his hand, and clasped it around Kedrian’ face. The scream that emerged from the druid’s mouth was more terrifying than any other I have ever heard.
Kedrian did not recover. Niharalath returned us to Cenarion Hold with a wave of his hand, and Kedrian screamed Niharalath’s words to the astonished warriors. Few could make any sense of it.
Malkor and I were placed under guard and interrogated for two days. Neither of us were members of the Cenarion Circle, and were thus under suspicion. We explained what happened to the best of our ability and they finally released us.
There are a number of good reasons to think that Niharalath lied about the Old Gods. Niharalath implied that he had shown Kedrian an ultimate truth, but we have no way of knowing if that was really the case. The attack on Kedrian lowered morale, and was probably designed specifically for that purpose. He has been replaced by a Cenarion druid named Mar’alith, who appears able.
Ultimately, it does not matter. If Niharalath was correct, we have already failed. Thus, we must assume that he lied. Even if the victory of the Old Gods is inevitable we should all heed the fallen Skorra’s words. It is better to go down fighting, and I think it is the natural impulse of thinking beings to do so. This is why I chose to remain in Cenarion Hold to help fight the Qiraji.
Five weeks passed as the armies of the world made preparations for the inevitable battle. The storehouses and tents of the Cenarion Hold soon filled to bursting with accumulated supplies sent from the great cities of the Horde and the Alliance. I took the time to put my writing and notes into some semblance of organization, in case I die in battle.
At last, the army marched through the weird landscapes of southern Silithus to the basalt gates of Ahn’qiraj. The breakdown of reality is most apparent here, as geode fragments and Qiraji obelisks float in the air. Gnomish sonic counter-measure devices go with the army, though they seem less reliable in the field.
We traveled at a fast march for ten days. The nights are fraught with peril, as silithid probes and Twilight’s Hammer cultists attack the fringes of our camps. So far, we have lost few. We now ready ourselves in the dusty field before the squat, hexagonal entrance to Ahn’qiraj. Twisted, glowing roots grow around the gate, the last remnants of the seal placed upon it. Towering black citadels rise up behind the massive walls. Ahn’qiraj may be the oldest city in the world. Part of me wished to enter and converse with the Qiraji, but I knew that to be impossible.
No one is really sure how many Qiraji are behind the gate, though they are undoubtedly numerous. We can only hope we have enough soldiers. The leaders of the war effort say that the gates will be opened when the Scarab Gong is rung by one bearing the Scepter of the Shifting Sands. This artifact, created by Anachronos the Bronze Dragon, was shattered by Fandral Staghelm in a fit of pique at the end of the War of the Shifting Sands. Yet it has been remade. As I write this, the bearer of the scepter is riding south to Ahn’qiraj. We are breaking the seal in order to defeat the Qiraji before they are truly ready.
I write this from a pavilion adjoining the command tent. My magical ability, though above average, is less useful than my knowledge of both Common and Orcish. I help coordinate efforts between the Alliance and the Horde, a task that I am honored to have. Still, when the war starts, I shall be lending my arcane talents to the fray, just like everyone else.
In these final days before the insect armies of Silithus are unleashed, I think back on my travels. I am glad that I left Undercity to see the world. I am no longer one of the Forsaken who dwells in darkness, thinking only of bitterness and vengeance. I have learned much, but all that I have learned is miniscule compared to that which I do not know. Even for one such as myself, it is impossible to speak to every person and learn every story. If I could, I would still need to separate truth from fiction, and belief from fact, and no one can do that without error.
The events of history and the world look simple from a distance, but the closer you get to them, the more complex they become. The idea that the world is defined by the competing power blocs of the Horde and the Alliance is ludicrous. What do the besieged farmers of Westfall, or the druids of the Emerald Circle, to name a few, care for the Horde and Alliance?
The world is shaped by a myriad of local conflicts, struggles, and debates. To claim that everything is decided by Horde and Alliance, or the Scourge and the Free Peoples, is to blind oneself to reality. These major factions certainly have an effect, but there are many other factors.
Categorizing the world provides comfort, making a simple picture out of a complex one, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Similarly counterproductive is the tendency to be misled by hindsight, to see stories in history where none exist. So much of history is shaped by random events that no one could have foreseen. The Opening of the Dark Portal came as a total surprise to Stormwind, as did the rise of the Scourge, or the Twilight’s Hammer attack on Feralas. The information hinting at these events was all there, but none could identify it. This is not to say that these events were inevitable; far from it. Randomness and accident work both ways. That which you ignore, or don’t know about, may turn out to be more important than anything else. It is my belief that very, very few things in this world are inevitable. We are free, which is both our curse and our blessing.
The cooperation of the Horde and the Alliance gives me hope. I do not think that the two factions can merge, but there are too many threats for them to waste time fighting one another.
I exercised great care in assembling this travelogue. That said, I am sure there are errors. I have never lied to the reader, but I am doubtless mistaken about the reliability of some information. There are probably cases where I have confused opinion with truth. An ironic fact of life (and undeath) is that the absolute truth is impossible to find. Yet still we must strive for it, just like the followers of Cassian strove for virtue. Always unattainable, and always necessary.
Before sundown, I will entrust this last portion to a messenger returning to Cenarion Hold. He will place it with the other parts for safekeeping.
Azeroth is a terrible world; it is also all we have. Defending the goodness that does exist is a worthy cause for all people. There will be no glory in this upcoming war; those who have seen war know that it is a terrible thing. We can only take comfort in the conflict’s necessity.
Only a naturalist can truly do justice to the steam-laden wilds of Un’goro Crater. Traversing the rocky path down to the crater is akin to entering a different world. The scorching desert sun vanished behind the deep green of the forest's canopy and its masses of water vapor.
Ja’gahn laughed as we stepped into the warm mist, sounding immensely pleased.
“I never much cared for the desert,” he said. “The jungles are much more to my liking.”
Un’goro Crater is nearly an axiomatic jungle. Around the great trees whose limbs block out the sky are tangled thickets of smaller trees. Drooping cypresses and mangroves grow from the murky waters of the Marshlands, the sodden region in the southeast crater. Dense ferns cover the muddy ground, and the constant chatter of birds and amphibians drowns all other sounds.
The Marshlands are a treacherous area. We spent three-and-a-half days going through the swamp, a good portion of that time spent waist-deep in water. Before going in, Ja’gahn covered himself with an oily substance that would repel leeches. I had bought some at his insistence, but (as I had suspected) a short experiment proved that the leeches had no interest in my dead flesh.
Raptors of alarming size stalk through the reeds of the Marshlands. They hunt at night, and we were kept awake by their fierce bellows echoing in the jungle dark.
“Raptors are clever beasts. They are speaking to each other,” Ja’gahn said.
“Pack predators sometimes do have forms of vocal communication,” I agreed.
I doubt I would have been able to navigate through Un’goro Crater without Ja’gahn’s help. Years of experience had given him the uncanny ability to spot quicksand and avoid the raptor hunting grounds. His mood improved visibly as we put Tanaris behind us. Ja’gahn told me stories of his years as a fisherman on the Isle of Kezan, and of his time as an explorer in the Steamwheedle Cartel’s service. That was how he had first come to Un’goro.
“Are you still employed as an explorer?”
“My contract expired. I might renew it someday, but for now I want to do things on my own. Life isn’t much fun when you always have to report your doings to some goblin manager.”
I told Ja’gahn of my own travels. He took special interest in my stories about the Hinterlands.
A defining aspect of Un’goro Crater are the tremendous lizards that crash through the jungles. While raptors can be found all over Azeroth (and, according to some records, even in Draenor) Un’goro also plays host to beasts like the diemetradon, stegadon, pterrordactyl, and devilsaur. Ja’gahn was emphatic about the danger posed by the devilsaur, a great bi-pedal carnivore that has the uncanny ability to sneak up on travelers despite its tremendous size.
Diematradons are a common sight outside of the Marshlands. The beast's general build is similar to the basilisk’s or crocolisk’s, though the most notable feature is the single great fin that rises from each diemetradon’s back. They are carnivorous but Ja’gahn said that they would leave us alone provided we not get too close to them.
Stranger still are the lashers, ambulatory flowers that reach up to six feet in height. They slither through the jungle on fleshy roots, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. As far as I could tell, they gain sustenance the same way as any other plant.
Un’goro has barely been touched by the hands of any intelligent race. Kaldorei histories for the War of the Shifting Sands mention that the Qiraji were unwilling or unable to field their insect armies in the area. The elves never found out why this was so, though they had many theories.
“Did you know the dwarves even sent an expedition here, three years ago? They stayed in the Marshlands, collecting bones and dirt. A goblin told me they were looking for cities of metal giants," said Ja'gahn, one morning.
“Ah yes, the Titans.”
“That’s what he called them. Have you ever seen a Titan?”
“No. I don’t think anyone has.”
“The goblin said that the dwarves thought Un’goro Crater was where the Titans tested life. That’s why there are so many strange creatures here; leftovers from the giants’ magic.”
Torrential rains lash the forest canopy of Un’goro on a daily basis. No one is entirely sure how Un’goro is able to get so much rain, since it is surrounded by deserts. Dwarven scholars have theorized that the Titans had somehow sealed off Un'goro from the surrounding climate.
Neither of us were prepared when the forest floor suddenly gave way, causing us to tumble head over heels into the earth. I only caught flurried glimpses of strangely lit caverns before crashing into a warm and spongy surface. Ichor coated my skin, but astonishment soon surpassed my disgust.
Walls of hardened resin flushed in dark and mottled colors surrounded us, coiling in tumorous masses. Globules of slime clustered on the ceiling, dripping ooze onto the ground. I heard Ja’gahn gagging in revulsion behind me, probably sickened by the alien stench inundating the caves.
The two of us had landed in some kind of fleshy tunnel that stretched a great distance in both directions. An immense insect clung to a nearby wall. In appearance it resembled a grotesquely enlarged firefly, its bloated body alight with orange phosphorescence. Streams of viscous yellow liquid dripped from its belly.
Ja’gahn and I had stumbled into a silithid hive.
“Destron! Do you have any magic that can lift us out of here?” demanded Ja’gahn.
“I do not.”
“Damn, this is not good. I’ll get the rope; keep an eye out for bugs.”
I heard them before I saw them, a sharp clicking echoing down the oozing caverns. A quintet of silithids, looking like freakish crosses between beetles and spiders, scurried into the chamber where we had fallen. I readied spells, though the insects made no hostile motions. They hurried around the room in a state of confusion.
“Destron, kill them!”
“They aren’t attacking us—”
“They will! Go, you fool!”
Ja’gahn grabbed a rope and grappling hook out from his backpack while I fired off an arcane explosion amidst three of the silithids, killing one and immobilizing another. The third had lost two legs in the burst, and tottered in to attack on the remainder. It was far enough away for me to slow it with a frost bolt, and finish it off with arcane missiles.
Ja’gahn flung the rope upwards. The grapple landed on solid ground but failed to hitch on to it, falling back into the pit with a thud. Ja’gahn cursed and I heard a note of panic in his voice. The two remaining silithids fled the scene, but the clicking sound grew louder, accompanied by hoarse and rattling bellows.
The bladed legs of the silithid warriors enable them to run at fantastic speeds. I barely had time to react to the first warrior that charged into view. Claws, razor mandibles, and a vivid yellow carapace created the impression of a dreadful war machine.
The warrior lashed out at my head, missing it by inches. Rolling to the side, I saw a field of moving yellow bodies farther down the tunnel. Getting to my feet I saw Ja’gahn gripping his spear, jammed deep into a crevice of the warrior’s shell. The insect hissed and shrieked, spraying pale green blood from the wound.
Ja’gahn jumped off and grabbed the rope, which he must have thrown up a second time when I dodged the silithid. Clambering up, he yelled at me to follow. The legs of the wounded silithid slashed reflexively and I barely jumped over the jerking blades. Enraged silithids filled the tunnel, claws clicking in frustration as we escaped the nest.
We ran as soon as we climbed to the top, and continued to do so until we’d reached a considerable distance from the hive. Ja’gahn fell to the ground, breathing heavily.
“How did you know where to strike the warrior?” I asked.
“I didn’t know. Dumb luck, that’s all it was.”
After a brief rest, we moved on at a slower pace. We saw no signs of pursuit, but we remained on guard just the same. Ja’gahn apologized for blundering into the trap.
“Did you know the hive was there?” I questioned.
“Then you need not apologize. You did a remarkable job getting us out of there.”
“Like I said, that was luck, not skill. You thank the Elawi spirits or the Loa for getting us out of there. I did not guide that spear. I will not accept the rest of the payment for this job. I don’t deserve it.”
“It is not an issue. I have little need for money—”
“No, this discussion is finished. I am not like other trolls, for there is no tribe that will call me honorable. Zandalari and Sandfury alike consider me a stranger. I must make my own honor in this strange world of ours.”
I tried a while longer to convince him to take the rest of the payment, but he steadfastly refused. Ja’gahn was quite serious about his role as a guide.
I suspected that Ja’gahn had been exaggerating when he warned me of the devilsaur’s uncanny stealth.
He was only being accurate.
The jungle thins out a little bit in southwestern Un’goro. Great boulders are strewn across the soggy landscape, and the tall grasses conceal bogs and pools of mosquito-infested water. The dinosaurs are completely dominant in this part of the region, and terrible roars sound across the humid plains day and night. Ja’gahn said that they came from great lizards called stegadons. I never saw any, though they allegedly look like reptilian kodo beasts. Raptors are mostly (and mercifully) absent, yet diemetradons are ubiquitous. We twice ducked under the ferns for cover when screaming pterrordactyls soared overhead. The winged reptilians (supposedly) do not hunt humanoids for food, but they are extremely territorial and aggressive.
Ja’gahn’s almost supernatural calm served as a testament to his abilities. Even I began to feel anxious and frazzled in that lizard-haunted wilderness. There is no avoiding the ominous signs of massive predators: flooded claw-prints in the muddy ground, and gargantuan bite marks on the trees.
“I do not wish to hurt you, but you should know that I have a rifle trained on the Forsaken’s head,” announced a reedy voice, speaking in heavily accented Orcish. Ja’gahn grabbed a spear, his sharp eyes seeking the source of the voice.
“As I said, I do not want to kill anybody. But you have to tell me what you are doing here.”
I motioned for Ja’gahn to stand down.
“We are traveling to Silithus,” I announced.
“Ah, a lot of people are going that way. For the war effort?”
“I go to learn about Silithus, though I will probably aid the Horde forces stationed there. What about you?”
“My name is Zilbir Sparklarm. I’m a researcher and adventurer with the Marshal Expedition, which I am badly hoping is not destroyed.”
Judging from the voice and name, I deduced that we were dealing with a gnome. The voice came from a clump of reeds about fifteen feet away.
“I’ve not heard of the Marshal Expedition.”
“A research team that went to Un’goro. We had some, ah, trouble with the native fauna. It’s a combined Horde and Alliance effort; that’s why I’m making some attempt to be diplomatic here.”
“A prudent decision. We do not mean you any harm. From you words, I judge that you do not wish to hurt us either.”
“I would prefer that did not become necessary. I am going to reveal myself; however, my weapon will be trained on you. Please make no sudden movements.”
A bedraggled gnome rose up from the reeds. His clothes hung in tatters, but his rifle was in remarkable condition. Zilbir’s face suddenly came alive with terror.
“Get down on the ground and stay very still!” he yelled, before disappearing back in to the foliage.
Not knowing what else to do, Ja’gahn and I followed his lead. I felt faint tremors as I pressed my body into the earth.
A clawed and colossal foot stamped into the ground in front of me. The foot (easily six feet long) came at the end of a white-scaled leg, itself a pillar of muscle and sinew. The devilsaur stood so tall that I could not even see the top of its head. My vision ended at the impossible jaws that looked able to crush stone.
The devilsaur paused, making a kind of snuffling noise. It roared, an unbelievable sound that shook the very earth. A few more minutes (though they felt more like hours) passed in dreadful silence. The devilsaur let out another cry before lumbering off to the west. I did not get to my feet until I was quite certain that the beast had passed.
“Are you still alive? Or undead, as the case may be?” inquired Zilbir.
“Yes, we are. Thank you for the warning. I don’t know how it managed to sneak up on us like that.”
“The stealth of the devilsaur is both uncanny and biologically improbable. I doubt that the explanation is supernatural, though I cannot rule it out,” commented Zilbir, who was remarkably nonplussed.
Ja’gahn was reluctant to have Zilbir as a traveling companion, but I convinced him that we had nothing to lose. Perhaps his perceived failure with the silithids made him reluctant to take a stand against me. Zilbir deemed us trustworthy, and offered to take us to the Marshal Expedition, assuming he could find it.
“There’s a ridge in the mountains to the north that we decided would act as a safe spot, if the animals became too much of a problem. I have a lot of tracking experience, so I will probably be able to find it,” he explained.
Zilbir was an interesting man, somehow managing to be both a sheltered academic and tough adventurer in equal degrees. His mannerisms were almost stereotypical for a gnomish researcher, yet the fact that he had survived on his own proved his strength. Zilbir knew the dangers about as well as Ja’gahn.
“Why did the Marshal Expedition set up camp in the Terror Run?” I asked one night, as we sat around a flickering camp fire. Terror Run was the name Zilbir had given to the dinosaur-infested southeast.
“Because it’s a wealth of biological information, of course. The varieties of flora are distributed fairly evenly around Un’goro. This is not the case with the fauna. Furthermore, our position enabled us to examine the silithids.”
“Ja’gahn and I had an encounter with them.”
“They are exceedingly dangerous. One of the major sponsors of the expedition was the Cenarion Circle. We could only receive the funding if we investigated the silithid problem. I was at the silithid hive, the Slithering Scar, when the camp was destroyed.”
“Why didn’t you have defenses against the beasts? Seems foolish, I think,” grumbled Ja’gahn.
“A lack of defenses would have been quite foolish, but we had an arcane field that repelled the dinosaurs. It was gone when I came back; whether something broke it, or it simply failed, I do not yet know. The field was never as reliable as we hoped, so I suspect the latter.”
“What did you learn about the silithids?”
“I made two expeditions to the Slithering Scar; one successful, with Hol’yanee Marshal, and another that was less successful. I went with a Cenarion warrior who did not escape alive. I was able to learn about silithid life in both cases.”
“What do the silithids eat?” I asked. The question had been bothering me for some time.
“Did you see the big glow-bugs that were clinging to the walls of the hive?”
“You might have noticed that they were oozing a sort of yellowish sap. It’s a mix of sugar and various essential proteins that I’ve called ‘silicose.’ Silithids eat that. The luminescence of the bug is a by-product of the silicose creation process.”
“They’re almost like cows then?”
“In a matter of speaking.”
“And what to the glow-bugs eat?”
“I do not know yet. It must be something that’s very common and easy to obtain, however.”
“How many different kinds of silithid exist?”
“At least five: workers, flyers, tunnelers, reavers, and larva. I think larva can turn into any of the other forms, depending on the needs of the hive. This is just a theory though, I have not yet been able to prove it,” he cautioned.
“I saw one form that looked like a cross between a beetle and a spider. They made no move to attack, and came when we fell through the ceiling of the hive.”
“Those would have been workers. Workers can fight, but not very well. Reavers and flyers are the warrior castes.”
“They act as a midway point between workers and warriors. They use their claws and a corrosive spray to create the tunnels. After they make a tunnel, workers will coat it with a fleshy substance that they excrete after eating silicose. This strengthens the tunnel.”
Ja’gahn made a disgusted sound.
“The tunnelers are capable of fighting?”
“Quite. Some tunnelers also carry larva with them; I do not know why.”
“Is there anything like a silithid queen?”
“We did not find one, but I suspect there is one.”
“Would you say the silithids present a threat?”
“A major one; potentially worse than the Scourge. Potentially. There is also some evidence of extra-normal powers spurring the silithids to war.”
“That would be the Qiraji,” noted Ja’gahn.
“Yes! The Qiraji, several of my colleagues have been trying to get information on them. The records are pretty scant. The night elves fought them back in the War of the Shifting Sands, but they did not seem to actually bother learning about them,” complained Zilbir. “Battle tactics and a few remarks on their cyclopean cities; that’s about it. What could you tell me about them?” asked Zilbir.
“I know little; I’m not a keeper of lore. I know they were monsters that were old before the elves were born.”
“I see. I don’t suppose there’s a specific record of their first appearance? We have read some of the codices, but even the Zandalari histories are fragmented about these Qiraji.”
“The Qiraji worship the Old Masters. Dark things come from them.”
“Not for me to know,” muttered Ja’gahn, clearly uncomfortable.
“Could you refer me to someone who does know? It would be helpful if I manage to escape the Crater.”
“Perhaps on Zandalar, but they do not take kindly to non-trolls.”
“Hmm, well I might be able to contact a few trolls through my associates in the Cenarion Circle. Thank you for your time.”
The next day brought us to the outskirts of Fire Plume Ridge, a mass of great igneous blocks thrown carelessly together in the midst of the jungle. As implied by the name, the mountain is volcanic. It simmers in a state of constant readiness. Rivulets of lava ooze out between citadels of dark rock, while plumes of smoke bleed up from the ground.
“I’m not a geologist, so I do not know too much about Fire Plume Ridge. But it’s been in a constant state of low-level activity since we arrived. We almost considered abandoning the crater because of it,” explained Zilbir.
“You were worried that it might be a prelude to a massive eruption?”
“That was the concern, yes. The other thing is that the level of smoke that constantly leaks out into the air should have had a very deleterious effect on the region. I mean, the skies should be black by now. Somehow, everything beyond the reach of the volcano is fine.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
“Given how little is actually known about volcanoes, there’s probably just something we’re missing. On the other hand, it is entirely feasible that there is a supernatural explanation. I’m not going to hazard any theories right now. Ringo, our geologist, said the place was infested with fire elementals, so that might have something to do with it.”
We passed Fire Plume Ridge in a few days, returning again to the trackless jungle. The dense undergrowth proved a severe impediment to our progress. Ja’gahn took the lead, cutting a path with his machete. This task restored some of his confidence. After a day in the thicket, the trees cleared and we stepped into a vast plain. Ferns and tall grasses covered the ground and the entire place reminded me unpleasantly of Terror Run. I commented on this to Zilbir.
“We’re near the Lakkari Tar Pits. The dinosaurs are not so common in this place. If they get stuck in tar, they’ll get sucked down. This applies to us too, by the way, so be careful.”
We soon came across the first of many tar pools. Some of the tar pits are quite large, ranging up to a hundred feet across. Slick, oily bubbles slowly form on the surface before popping. A sulfurous stench pervades the hot, tropical air of Lakkari. Zilbir and Ja’gahn both gagged at the smell, and I found it unpleasantly distracting. Bleached dinosaur bones rest mired in the tar, serving as a grim reminder of Un’goro’s ubiquitous danger. Not even the great devilsaurs are completely safe in that place.
Un’goro is as full of surprises in Lakkari as it is anywhere else. The tar pits have spawned shambling creatures made from muck and oil. Zilbir warned us to keep our distance.
“It’s only a matter of time before a mage casts a fireball at one of these tar pits and causes a disaster,” muttered Zilbir. “Then again, maybe it’ll be like Fire Plume Ridge and not have any effect.
Four days of travel through the sweltering tar pits brought us to the northern edge of the Crater. We walked east for a little while before Zilbir stopped at a great boulder.
“Here it is!” he exclaimed.
Pointing ahead, we saw a crude path running up into the mountains. We had arrived at Marshal’s Refuge.
“We’re lucky to be alive.”
Night had fallen, and the ragged survivors of the Marshal Expedition gathered around a large campfire. The 21 surviving researchers maintained reasonably good spirits despite their many setbacks. Food sources in Un’goro are plentiful enough for those who know where to look, as is water. They greeted Zilbir’s return with enthusiasm. Ja’gahn and I were accepted more reluctantly, until I assured the researchers I would provide food for the two of us.
Expedition leader Williden Marshal explained the events that had forced them to flee the Terror Run camp. Zilbir had already told me that an arcane field protected the camp from the dangerous beasts. Unfortunately this field was difficult to maintain and consumed a great deal of mana. Finally, it just died one morning. The resultant dinosaur attack killed eleven researchers, and three more perished on the way to the Refuge. There was also the Cenarion warrior who had been killed by silithids during Zilbir’s exploration. Four people were still missing.
“Frankly, we would have had to abandon the camp anyway. We all knew that the field was going to die on us eventually,” sighed Williden.
Everyone in the Marshal Expedition came with extensive knowledge of how to survive in the tropics, which perhaps accounted for their strong morale. The Expedition mostly consisted of humans, dwarves, goblins, and gnomes. Three orcs and two tauren stood in for the Horde.
“The shamans had heard strange things of this land. They wished to learn, so they sent us,” said Kocham Runetotem, one of the tauren.
“Who among you are shamans?”
“Myself, and Varm Redmoon,” he replied, pointing to a fierce orc who was sitting near the campfire.
“How have you gotten along with the Alliance?”
“Well enough. I had concerns, but I am happy to say that they are groundless.”
“I know that the expedition is being sponsored by the Cenarion Circle and the shamans. Who else?”
“The Earthen Ring is another supporter.” The Earthen Ring is a loose affiliation of orc, troll, and tauren shamans. It wields a great deal of influence in Horde policy, but very little in the way of direct control. “To answer your question, the Royal Archaeologist’s Society and the Explorer’s League of the dwarves are sponsors, as is the Gnomeregan University-in-Exile, and the Stormwind Exploration Corps.”
“I’m surprised the Apothecarium did not send anyone,” I remarked.
“I believe that there may have been some disagreement or misunderstanding between the Apothecarium and the other organizations involved,” described Kocham. He spoke in a very diplomatic manner.
“I despise the Apothecarium, and I commend your sponsors for not inviting those poisoners.”
“I see. Yes, the dwarves and humans both protested the inclusion of the Apothecarium.”
Politics are an understandably dicey subject in Marshal’s Refuge. Williden had explicitly forbade political discussion in the Refuge. I only spoke a little to Williden, but I was impressed with his leadership ability. Some of his success could probably be credited to the outside threat of the dinosaurs. Aside from occasional pterrordactyl flights, dinosaurs usually avoid the mountains, but the researchers cannot afford to let up their guard.
The importance of Marshal’s Refuge lies in more than the accessible sources of food and water. There is also an unusual cave that winds some way into the mountains. Within its earthen confines are clusters of softly glowing crystals that grow from the rock, colored in yellow, green, blue, and red. The light is soft, but still strong enough to make torches unnecessary.
Because the Refuge had been so recently established, the researchers never found the time to really investigate the crystals. This was not the their first encounter with the curious stones; several reported seeing identical crystals set in the jungle's loamy soil. The Crystal Cave (as it had been imaginatively named) is refreshingly cool compared to the sticky and torrid air of Un'goro. The researchers nonetheless set up their camps outside, so as not to disturb the crystals more than necessary.
An intense gnomish woman named Jindra ‘Collie’ Coilyoilspringer was the only researcher to have devoted much time to studying the crystals. When not helping to set up the Refuge, she spent her time in the innermost chamber of the cavern, which the Researchers call the Chapel. She permitted me to walk through the Crystal Cave, though she warned me not to touch the crystals.
Jindra sat down on the stone floor, looking simultaneously tired and fascinated. After some small talk, she began to describe the crystals.
“They are actually all over this crater. Somehow, a lot of people have a hard time noticing them. Except for dwarves and gnomes.”
“Any idea as to what they notice it?”
“Probably because we’re shorter. I’d like to test some crystals, but I’d rather not damage the ones in this place. Later on, once we’re settled in, I might try to get some from the jungle.”
“You are not worried about damaging those?”
“I have to find out one way or another, don’t I?” she protested with mild indignation. I nodded.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I think they might have something to do with the Titans. Have you heard the theory about the Titans in Un’goro?”
“That this was where they experimented with life?”
“Correct. There are some very strange aspects to the climate here in Un’goro. As you probably know, it’s usually raining here. If it isn’t raining, it’s getting ready to rain. At the same time, it’s pretty deep inland and surrounded by mountains and desert. Odd, wouldn’t you say?”
“Quite,” I agreed.
“Here’s the—actually, let me show you. Follow me, please.”
I followed Jindra outside, where the muggy air carried the scent of ozone. Dark clouds brewed overhead, and thick drops of rain had already begun to fall.
“Oh, do I ever miss the snow of Dun Morogh. Anyway, take a look up there. Where are the clouds going?”
“They appear to be going south. Curving south, in fact.”
“Indeed they are! If we were standing in the western part of the crater, the clouds would be moving east. In the east, they’d be moving west.”
“So clouds and rain are drawn to this place?”
“It is. Plenty of researchers have already remarked how unusual it is for a coastal desert like Tanaris to be so big. Or how Tanaris and Silithus are on the same latitude as Stranglethorn, but are as dry as bones. Un’goro sucks in all the rain.”
“Right now, the working theory is that the Titans did it. We do not really know. Some of the dwarves are very keen on this idea, but I want to find out a little bit more. The dwarves have a hard time staying objective about anything involving Titans.”
“What happens after the rain falls?”
“The clouds dissipate. Presumably there is also a mechanism that lets some of the vapor escape.”
“All storms are drawn down here?”
“You know, it might be selective. Like I said, we don’t know much. All that we do know is that clouds seem to move here.”
A fierce downpour struck that night and lasted into the next day. Morning revealed a sea of mud around Marshal’s Refuge. No lasting damage had been done. Towards the evening, the researchers discussed their next course of action. They decided to send four of their number (including Zilbir) to Gadgetzan. Their goal was to try and get regular supply shipments from the goblin metropolis. The only problem with that idea was the expense.
“Here’s the thing Williden; whether we try to get supplies via overland, or by air, it’s going to cost a lot,” said Spark Nilminer, a goblin.
“I know, I know,” mused Williden.
“We need to figure out something besides money that we can offer the goblins,” suggested Spark.
“Money is all they ever want,” grumbled Varm, the orc shaman.
“Varm...” warned Williden.
“Hey, it’s almost accurate,” interjected Spark. “Anyway, there’s war brewing in Silithus. Most of the troops are coming over the northern mountains via zeppelin, but there might be a few soldiers of fortune or adventurers who come in through Un’goro. The mountains north of Silithus are nearly impassable, and it’s not like most of them can afford zeppelins of their own. We can make this camp a resupply point.”
“No, no. Armies tramping through here could do irreparable damage to the Crater’s ecology,” disagreed Williden.
“There won’t be that many of them. Anyway, I think the ecology is more likely to do damage to the travelers. Hell, we’ve all seen what those devilsaurs are like.”
There were some murmurs of assent.
“I just think if we provide a rest point for travelers through Un’goro—and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot of them in the near future—Gadgetzan will be more inclined to help us. We may have to split some of the profits, but since profit isn’t the goal of this Expedition, I can’t see how it would be a problem.”
The shamans both made fierce protests to the idea, and Williden adjourned the council until the next day. I would not be there to see it. I departed Marshal’s Refuge with Ja’gahn as the sun rose over the unspoiled greenery of Un’goro. Ahead of us waited the insect realm of Silithus.
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.”