Monday, December 22, 2008
What divine grace preserves Nagrand? Known as “The Place of the Winds,” orcish shamans had revered its memory as a land of natural resplendence, where wind-sculpted trees grew on the banks of meandering rivers. Few believed that Nagrand had survived the Breaking, predicting it would be a desert similar to the Hellfire Peninsula. To see Nagrand in all its fabled beauty came as a most wonderful surprise.
This is not to say that Nagrand somehow avoided the Breaking; it is still very much a part of Outland. Faded veins of mana branch through the sky. Islands of earth and stone, some graced by picturesque trees, float high above the rolling plains. More evidence exists in the form of absence, for the land now called Nagrand is only a quarter of its pre-Breaking size.
“There is truly more to Outland’s glory than mere relics,” exclaimed Pazshe, observing the endless grasslands.
Nexus-Prince Haramad had appreciated the aid I'd offered to Pazshe’s diplomatic efforts. In return, the ethereal leader permitted me to use a trade gate to the tiny Consortium outpost of Aeris Landing in southwestern Nagrand. A journey of months was reduced to mere seconds. Unota also used the trade gate, finding it a convenient way to shorten her return trip to Shattrath. Pazshe joined us, having earned a respite from its numerous duties.
The Consortium chose a marvelous location for Aeris Landing. The ideal of beauty is never far from the ethereal mind. A modest array of machines work in a peaceful glade. The twisting limbs of Nagrand’s trees provide a welcome shelter from the hot savannah sun. Aeris Landing overlooks the glittering expanse of Sunspring Lake to the north. The clear and placid waters practically invite the traveler to jump in for a swim. Nagrand certainly boasted the cleanest water I've seen in Outland.
“It seems that noble Pazshe has honored us with guests of high caliber. Please, make yourselves at home in Aeris Landing,” welcomed Gezhe, the Consortium’s local overseer.
“What is the purpose of Aeris Landing?” I asked.
“None other than storied Oshu’gun. Are you familiar with it?”
“I know a little about Oshu’gun. It was the mobile temple used by the draenei before they landed in Draenor.”
“Your knowledge is greater than ours when we first came. Never before had we discovered such a relic! The size and power is nearly unparalleled in Consortium—indeed, ethereal—history. Reclamation began immediately and stopped after a single week.”
“Because it belongs to the draenei?”
“Oshu’gun actually belongs to the Naaru. Our esteemed master ordered us to stop work until more could be learned. A painful sacrifice, but also a necessary one. The Consortium does not insult a world’s natives with theft. Besides, befriending the owners may lead us to more relics in the future.”
“Why do you still maintain Aeris Landing?”
“The Naaru may permit us to harvest a portion of Oshu’gun in the future. We stay in hopes that this possibility becomes reality. There is plenty for us to do in the meanwhile.”
“How do you keep yourselves busy?”
“Aeris Landing protects goods delivered from other Consortium operatives; these gates connect with more than just the Stormspire. Nagrand’s also an excellent place for our mnemonic synthesizers.”
“Artists of great skill. Every nexus employs a few, and the Consortium’s number is greater than most. They capture single images and combine each with ambient sound. This is then mixed with the synthesizer’s own emotional interpretation of the vision, as well as choice memories if any are applicable. For instance, a synthesizer might find this verdant splendor reminiscent of a time when it attained great respect for accomplishment in its chosen field. These memories are packaged in devices called holocubes and sold to other ethereals.”
“This is common, you say?”
“Quite. I myself have an extensive collection of holocubes created by none other than Old Master Quaddar.”
“Is Quaddar a Consortium employee?”
“No, the great old master works for the Bazaar of Xarod, a nexus of well-deserved esteem.”
“May I try one of these holocubes? If you have any around.”
“Those who wear flesh seem unable to utilize it. Feel free to try,” he said, picking one up from the ground. The object was a tiny, oblong glass box that fit in its palm. “Use your will to interface with it, guide your thought processes to the mnemonic receptors.”
“Hmm, what is the fleshling equivalent, I wonder?”
Gezhe took the next few minutes trying to explain how to use the holocube. I finally told it not to worry.
We only spent a day in Aeris Landing, as our interests lay in Oshu’gun. None of us had seen it, though Unota knew the sacred vessel’s importance to the draenei.
Oshu’gun is rooted in the center of an enormous basin called the Spirit Fields, leagues across, just south of Aeris Landing. We spotted Oshu’gun even from the northern rim, a bright twinkling speck far and away. The shining draenei artifact perfectly matches the boundless green plains and blue sky around it. The three of us stopped for a moment, gaping at the sight.
We spoke little on the day-and-a-half journey through the Spirit Fields, each of us lost in a sense of awe. Maybe this feeling rose out of the abrupt transition from Netherstorm to Nagrand, but I suspect there was more to it. Oshu’gun had carried the draenic people on their millennia-long journey, making only brief stops on dead or desolate worlds. The draenei kept their faith through those trials. Perhaps seeing Draenor felt like confirmation.
Nor is Oshu’gun an exclusively draenic site. Until the rise of the Horde, the orc clans treated the Spirit Fields as a holy place. Oshu’gun itself is an orcish name meaning “Mountain of Spirits.” The vessel’s original Eredun name was Jaikoob.
The orcish clans used to meet at Oshu’gun for the kosh’harg festival. The orcs held this event twice a year, though they placed special importance on every tenth kosh’harg. All clans were supposed to attend, though only the orcs of Nagrand and Terrokar could really make the trip. The distances and rough terrain made it impractical for the more far-flung groups. The shamans declared a moratorium on all inter-clan wars during Kosh’harg, and the festival presented a perfect opportunity for enemies to make peace without losing face.
“You cannot see it down here, but there are big symbols cut into the grass around Oshu’gun,” said Unota. Twilight’s dusky violet colored the sky over our heads and a gentle wind blew in from the east.
“Oh?” No one had said anything for a long while, and Unota’s statement caught me by surprise.
“One of the collective mothers told me about it. No one knows who made the runes; the orcs say the spirits did it. They might be right. The orcs respected this place even before we came and their shamans performed holy rites at the symbols. That is why K’ure, the Naaru in Oshu’gun, decided to land here.”
“Then in a way, the orcs brought the draenei to this place,” said Pazshe.
“To Nagrand, yes. Maybe they laid a trap for us? But no, that is unlikely. Holy K’ure already found Draenor. We might have landed somewhere else were it not for the runes.”
Oshu’gun grew brighter and bigger as the hours passed. The diamond hull of Oshu’gun is exceptionally cloudy, though this is probably for the best; a clear diamond could easily blind everyone in the Spirit Fields. Pazshe took us on a brief detour up one of the narrow scarps lifting up from the plains, its rocky form like a ship’s prow breaking the waves. Standing at the tip grants one an unforgettable view of Oshu’gun, and I could even make out the abstract markings seen by K’ure, long ago.
“The Oshu’gun you see is only the top. Most of it is deep underground,” explained Unota.
“What a sight it must have been on its final descent,” marveled Pazshe. “Truly Outland is a place of many fantastic things; I shall forever lament not seeing it in happier times.”
We reached Oshu’gun as night darkened the sky. A few Consortium agents were packing up the last remnants of their camp before returning to Aeris Landing. They welcomed us, asking Pazshe if it brought word of the nexus-prince’s decision regarding Oshu’gun. They betrayed no disappointment at Pazshe’s answer.
“The terms of the agreement, approved by our finest advocates and lawyers, permit us to at least visit Oshu’gun. We must only stay our picks and carving tools,” said an ethereal security expert named Zerid.
“What have you learned about it?” I asked.
“Infinitesimally less when compared with that we do not yet know. This artifact guards its secrets with care. No ethereal has ever seen anything quite like it. In truth, I would be satisfied if the Naaru simply explained the workings of this grand apparatus.”
“I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you.”
“One would hope. Do you intend to enter?”
“I was not aware you could go inside.”
“There is a gateway on the northern side though we’ve had little time to investigate. I should warn you—I have already informed Pazshe—that the Consortium is not the only Nexus interested in Oshu’gun. An envoy from the Nether Union visited us yesterday, telling us that Nexus-Prince Vir’aan intends to take Oshu’gun through whatever means necessary.”
“A small nexus with a poor reputation. The early days counted them as among the Network’s richest but the Great Collapse turned them into a nexus of paupers. Having never been especially righteous in their dealings they embraced banditry like an old friend.”
“Are you going to protect it?”
“To some degree, but I lack the resources to decisively expel their forces. The Consortium is not required to protect Oshu’gun, and I must look after the well-being of my subordinates. The Vir’anni raiders will wait until we leave for Aeris Landing but I cannot guarantee your safety if you come across them outside of our company.”
“Do you know if the Naaru attempted to bargain with the Nether Union?”
“Nexus-Prince Vir’aan would not care. It regards no law beyond its own, and holds theft in higher esteem than trade. A sad state of affairs, to be sure.”
I could not ignore an opportunity to walk the holy halls of Oshu’gun. Zerid said I could enter though it warned me that the Consortium scouts had only visited the outer passages.
“We do not know what, if anything, resides in the center. Remember that many years have passed since the Breaking, and neither orc nor draenei kept vigil over this place.”
“I’ll leave at the first sign of trouble.”
Pazshe and Unota followed me through the diamond hull’s rough entrance. Past the portal is a short earthen tunnel, studded with rough gems the size of a giant’s forearm. The tunnel quickly opens up into a grand metallic hall. The walls expand as they went up, supported by airy interior buttresses. The passage curves to the left, following Oshu’gun’s perimeter. Dim and gentle light suffuses the chambers, seeming to emanate from the distant metallic ceiling. We stopped for a minute, keenly aware of the site’s sanctity.
“We must be near the helm,” whispered Unota, looking around. Her calloused face hinted at melancholy.
“How well do you know this place?” asked Pazshe.
“I have not gone here but we all saw the diagrams of Oshu’gun as children. Most of the sleeper chambers and storage rooms are down below, very deep. The helm is where K’ure the Naaru guided the ship through the Twisting Nether.”
We walked down the hall, our footsteps faint echoes in that mysterious place.
“What exactly happened to K’ure?” I asked.
“Two Naaru on board Oshu’gun: K’ure and D’ore. They gave Oshu’gun the power to travel between worlds but they became tired. Even prayer not enough to save them. K’ure found Draenor with the last of its power, a place far away from the demons. D’ore died during the landing, while K’ure started to fade.”
“Naaru can die?” I felt a stab of disappointment.
“Yes. When Naaru dies it becomes a vacuum, absorbs souls into itself and produces void demons. Very dangerous. That is why we buried D’ore far to the east and set protective wards around the remnants. Difficult task for us. We thought we would have to do the same to K’ure until the orc shamans found Oshu’gun. Somehow K’ure reached out to them and their reverence and spirits sustained it. K’ure was still weak, but not dead, and not a danger.”
“It has been some time since any orcs performed rites here. Would that not make K’ure a hazard?”
“If K’ure were truly dead all the Spirit Fields would be a void. It is still alive, in some sense.”
“How long would this take, Unota? I must warn my compatriots of this,” said Pazshe.
“Not for a while. D’ore died because it gave up its energy to shield Oshu’gun during the descent. Most Naaru die very gradually, over centuries. Should be safe for some time.”
“I see.” Pazshe did not sound entirely comforted.
Immense barely begins to describe Oshu’gun. I tried to imagine how it looked when it still traversed the Nether, in days when robed draenei chanted sacred words in the halls. I doubted I would get to see the deeper levels where most of the race had once lain in suspended animation.
The outer passage stops at a dead end, forcing the visitor to go right through an elaborate gate built around a sloping ramp. No bolts or welding marks mar the surface of the gate's brilliant blue metal. Beyond is another passage, parallel to the first and leading in the opposite direction.
“How far do these halls reach? The aesthetic inspires great wonder but I am curious about other parts of Oshu’gun,” asked Pazshe.
“You saw how big it is outside. Oshu’gun carried all draenei who followed Velen. Even though most slept, it still needed to be big. It takes a long time to reach the deeper levels.”
“Begging your pardon, Unota, but I think it best to heed caution. It may be reckless to go so far into strange territory.”
“You went into Ethereal base without worry!” she protested.
“That is true, but the Ethereum, though despicable, is a known quantity. Oshu’gun is rather more obscure.”
“If you want to go back, we can go. This place interests me but is not that important. Destron?”
I thought for a moment.
“I suppose Pazshe is right.”
“Wait, do you hear screaming?” asked Pazshe.
At first there was only silence. Then I found it at the very edge of hearing. A chorus of wailing from everywhere and nowhere, only half-audible but impossible to ignore. Unota’s hands flew to her rifle and she pointed it wildly, her jaw set. A long shadow reached from behind the hallway’s curve and we all gasped upon seeing the source.
Inspired by their elegant monstrosity, scholars of the Burning Legion wrote lengthy paeans to their might and grace. Such was their purpose as the heralds and priestesses of Sargeras. Esoteric histories tell of these towering demons who compelled the Legion’s armies to ever greater heights of evil. I knew I was at last seeing one of their number: the terrible shivarran priestesses. The shivarran demon looked nearly human, though much too tall and imperious. She carried wicked blades of gold and steel in each of her six hands and her headdress of burning souls cast a fearful light. She beheld the world through a face of beatific cruelty, the assured smile of one who has no doubt of her rightness and inevitable victory.
Unota shouted in Eredun as she blasted the approaching demon, which was nearly three times my height. The Broken’s aim was true but no mark appeared on the shivarran’s skin and she did not break stride. The screaming grew louder and my vision distorted. I was preparing a fireball when Pazshe rushed into the fray, its gleaming blades ready for battle. The ethereal did the same trick it performed on the eye demon back in Netherstorm, teleporting mid-charge to reappear behind the shivarran.
Luck did not favor Pazshe that day. The demon’s swords swung back and cut into Pazshe the moment it blinked back into existence. The ethereal fell back with a bright flash, light bleeding from its wound.
I abjured the fireball when I saw Pazshe’s attack, replacing it with the more precise frostbolt. A tendril of flame lashed out from the shivarran’s crown as the bolt shot forward, evaporating my spell in an instant. Unota fired again and again, her mind focused on killing the age-old enemy.
The shivarran was close and Unota refused to budge. I blinked forward, putting myself just in front of the demon’s feet. A quick frost nova spell froze her bejeweled feet in place and I felt the wind as one of her swords slashed above my head.
Pazshe struck like quicksilver, its blades darting and parrying the demon’s strikes. I cast a frost bolt at the headdress. My spells could not extinguish the inferno, but they could at least weaken it.
The size and multitude of the shivarran’s swords took their toll. Pazshe went on the defensive, barely warding off the endless blows. Not once did the demon’s expression change, the same fixed smile glowering over us through the battle. Still, she was not invincible. Rivulets of black blood trickled down her body, Unota’s attacks finally succeeding.
My mana fading, I cast one last frostbolt at the joint of the shivarran’s upper right arm. The spell had the desired effect, making the limb’s movements ponderous and predictable. Pazshe was not yet safe; the five blades were still more than it could handle. Then the ethereal did something extraordinary.
Pazshe released both of its swords, but they did not drop. Instead they slashed and blocked of their own accord as their wielder stepped back, taking out a glowing dagger. While the swords distracted the demon Pazshe dove at her left foot and slit the heel.
Blood gushed from the wound and she began to lose her balance. The screams intensified, the souls in her headdress struggling in their fiery prison. The demon fell with a ghostly cry and her impact shook the hall. Unota rushed forward, still shouting. She was too late, for Pazshe’s blades had already finished the job.
“We must leave! If a shivarran lived here there’s sure to be more demons!” urged Pazshe. Sparks dripped from the tear in its cloth though the cascade was slowing. Ethereal wounds tend to heal very quickly.
Regaining her composure, Unota slung her rifle and ran to the outer passage. I kept close behind, occasionally looking back for signs of pursuit. I momentarily wondered if there was anything Pazshe couldn’t do with those swords.
My mind soon turned to demonic presence in Oshu’gun. I reasoned that they had arrived before the Consortium, but had not yet established a major presence in the ancient vessel. Otherwise I’m sure the ethereals would have detected them. I was more alarmed by the Legion’s goals in such a place. According to Unota, a dead Naaru presents a physical and spiritual catastrophe. Draining the last of K’ure’s energy would be an obvious tactic for the Burning Legion.
We immediately told Zerid of what had transpired. Clearly disturbed, the ethereal still stressed that its obligations lay elsewhere. Zerid did promise to alert the Naaru in Shattrath, as well as the various peoples of Nagrand.
I parted ways with Pazshe the next day. It informed me that Nexus-Prince Haramad had need of its services and that it would not do to keep its master waiting.
For Unota, home lay in the refugee sanctuary of Shattrath, not far to the east. The most direct route was to cut northeast across the plains, but that would necessitate passing through central Nagrand, a hotbed of violence between Horde and Alliance partisans. The two factions viciously compete for the abandoned draenic town of Halaa and travelers cannot expect safe passage. Knowing this, Unota chose to go east until reaching the Shattrath Mountains, and from there go north to Windyreed Pass.
She planned to make a brief stop in the Broken-held town of Telaar, located in southern Nagrand. Curious to see this place, I asked if I could accompany her.
“Hmm, you are Horde, yes?”
“Telaar is Alliance. The Broken there have made friends with the Pure Ones under Velen. I do not think it is safe for you.”
“I have a disguise that allows me to pass as human. Would you object to joining my deception?”
“Ha! The Telaar Broken are called the Kurenai, but before that many of them were the Murkblood Tribe. My tribe was the Wastewalker, and the Murkblood did nothing but kill my people. I spit on the Kurenai.”
We walked southeast on the old draenic road, preserved by arcane force. The road’s purpose once allowed the draenei quick access to Oshu’gun, should it ever be needed. At first, the draenei made regular visits to Oshu’gun in order to ensure that the orc shamans maintained D’ure. These visits stopped over time.
I took note of the land’s fauna as we traveled. Befitting its wide open spaces, Nagrand is home to some truly gargantuan creatures. We passed a herd of clefthoofs on the fourth day, the beasts rumbling down to the Spirit Fields in search of greener pastures. The clefthoof is a grazer twice the size of a kodo beast, and half as intelligent. Infamously ornery, their formidable bulk makes them a very real danger to the unprepared. Only the orcs could ever manage them. The clefthoofs formed the economic basis for the southern pastoralist clans. They look a little bit like the rhinoceri of Azeroth, though larger and with more compact frames. The head seems to stick out from the body, lacking a neck.
Unota told me more of the Murkblood and Kurenai as we traveled.
“Back in the Horde War there was a vindicator named Tasuur, very respected. When the war started he led a small army into Nagrand to destroy orc supply trains. Tasuur put eastern Nagrand to the torch, killing herds and warriors where they stood! Not enough though, in the end. That did not stop him; he kept on fighting even after Shattrath fell. Killed every orc he could find, even though most clans had already left Nagrand.”
“Is Tasuur still alive?”
Unota shook her head.
“He died, but his people kept fighting. They all became Broken or Lost, maybe their souls saw too much war. The leaders named their tribe the Murkblood. After the Breaking they claimed Nagrand as their own and killed anyone not of their tribe, even other Broken. Their warriors went across the forests and attacked my own people!”
“What happened to these Murkblood?”
“They’re still around, but not so many now. Murkblood don’t produce many children, you know? Always fighting. They say that the world is already dead and that there will be no other generation. But some of the Murkblood stopped their war. They call themselves Kurenai, think they can be like the Pure Ones again.”
“Do you think they will succeed?”
“Who knows? Me? No! I don’t hate Kurenai, but I don’t like them either. I think they are still Murkblood, deep down. Maybe you will see.”
“Are all the Kurenai former Murkbloods?”
“Might as well be. Some from other tribes, even a few Wastewalker. Still, the leaders are Murkblood.”
It’s hard to imagine Broken raiders burning their way through Nagrand’s plains, but this idyllic land is a place of constant strife. The orcs fought plenty of inter-clan wars before the creation of the Horde. This violence has a curious reflection in the topography. Steep ridges and deep ravines cut through the rolling grasslands. Nagrand’s various power groups all spend time and effort building suspension bridges across the chasms, though Unota said that few of those bridges survived longer than a few months. I remembered the old joke of the dwarven combat engineers: "Truth and bridges are the first things to die in a war."
The journey to Telaar lasted a week and a day. Unota told me that the draenei built Telaar to act as a supply station for the agents who periodically checked on K’ure’s recovery. The town’s population decreased along with the frequency of these missions, until only a staff of fifteen temporary residents remained. The Horde histories do not even bother mentioning Telaar.
The town is architecturally quite impressive, built on a rocky hill surrounded by deep gullies. Buildings, done in the classic draenic style, stand tall in the rugged landscape. Telaar is ringed by the floating islands common to Nagrand, adding a fantastical quality to the place. I smiled when I saw the draenethyst tips glinting in the afternoon sun.
Unota presented me as Talus Corestiam as per my instructions. Kurenai notables stood in a circle around me, their faces unreadable. After a brusque introduction, Unota marched up to Telaar's care center. The Broken looked at me for an uncomfortable moment before nodding and returning to their business.
Nearly every Kurenai is armed in some way, a sensible precaution given the political climate. A few of them carry traditional draenic weapons, well cared for despite the difficult situation. Others keep simpler weapons cobbled together from tools.
Telaar gets its water from limpid pond fed by a mountain stream. At midday, most of the older Kurenai gather on the banks to wash clothes. Young Broken children play near their elders, making for a charming domestic scene.
Only a few Kurenai could speak Common and nearly none of them could do it with much proficiency. I had better luck with Orcish. I was hesitant to use that language but the Kurenai did not object. At least, the ones who actually conversed with me had no problems with it. Even some of the Kurenai familiar with Orcish refused to say much of anything, their demeanors guarded and distrustful.
“We Kurenai have hard lives, stranger,” said Otonbu. He came up to me unannounced, explaining that he was a shaman. “Trust does not come naturally to us. It used to, when we were like the Pure Ones. Then we changed as the orcs murdered us. After that we were the terrors of Nagrand, the Murkblood who none dared oppose! Now we must make up for it and fight those Murkblood we once called brother and sister.”
“Were you part of Vindicator Tasuur’s original force?”
“No, I was a priest in Shattrath City. I am not sure how I came to Nagrand—the fog in my mind obscures more than just the Most Holy Light—but I fell in with Tasuur’s group.”
“I was told Tasuur attacked other Broken.”
“Later, he did. I am not proud, but what else could I do? With Murkblood it was like being in a collective again. Not as good, certainly not as holy, but the closest I could get. I would not oppose them.”
“What inspired you to leave?”
“The Light, in a sense. While I was blinded to its eternal glory I could still hear it in the earth and sky. I know now that other Broken heard it too. Truly the Light is merciful to give us another chance.”
“You mean the spirits?”
“Yes. Nature works in balance and harmony for the sake of the greater good. It is not the same as the Most Holy Light. Nature is ruthless while the Light is merciful. Yet we could at last see ourselves as part of a greater whole, almost like the old days.”
“Were you the only one who heard the spirits?”
“Poli’lukluk was the first Murkblood to hear them. None here is wiser than he, and that was true when we lived among the Murkblood. Nine Broken including myself heard the spirits.”
“How did the other Murkbloods react?”
“First thing we did was tell Musel’ek. After Tasuur died, his lieutenant Musel’ek took over. At first Musel’ek laughed, and then he listened. He ordered us to cleanse Nagrand in the name of the spirits. Poli’lukluk had doubts, and so did I. We needed to know more. Musel’ek grew angry and declared us traitors. Poli’lukluk and four others refused. The rest fell to the ground pleading forgiveness, promising they would purge Nagrand.”
“Is that when you founded the Kurenai?”
“Not yet. Musel’ek saw fit to let us live but we were the most hated of the Murkbloods. The warriors threw scraps for our food. Two of us broke and went over to Musel’ek. Yet Poli, wise Poli, kept the faith. His body shrunk, covered in sores and starved near death as he meditated in absolute serenity!”
Otonbu’s mouth flecked with spittle, his hands gesticulating as he described his mentor’s suffering.
“The Light shone through him! Other Murkblood came to him, asking questions, and he answered. So many came to him, Brother Talus, that not even Musel’ek dared to move against Poli’lukluk the Wisest. We thought we had won. Then the Ashtongue came, bearing evil promises from Illidan,” snarled Otonbu.
“Another tribe of Broken. They were the first to follow Illidan’s banner. With their help, Musel’ek forced us out. Some counseled vengeance but Poli’lukluk said ‘No more!’ We would redeem ourselves.”
“After that, other Broken joined you.”
“Wastewalkers and Wrekt; we have a few Dreghood too. The Broken of these other tribes live as slaves, refugees, or as Kurenai.”
“How did the normal draenei react to you?”
“They approve! Many Pure Ones live among us, I am sure you will meet some. They help us get closer to the Holy Light though I think Poli’lukluk has done enough for us.”
“You do not think you need the Pure Ones?”
“Oh, no, I don’t mean that. We are Broken, after all. I say only that we have come a long way. Velen is the prophet of the draenei, and we think the Holy Light made Poli’lukluk the prophet of the Broken.”
“I take it you want other Broken in your ranks.”
“Our way brings redemption. Remember though, Brother Talus,” laughed Otonbu, “that nature teaches us. We do not cry over being ruthless when necessary. Found some Murkbloods a week ago, me and the warriors. Killed them and threw their limbs around the plains. Evil bodies rot and feed the earth, nature rejoices with the Light!”
Otonbu’s words sounded troubling, but were not really so strange in context. The Broken have as much a right to defend themselves as anyone else. I began to suspect that Unota’s hostility stemmed mostly from bitterness towards those Wastewalkers who joined their sworn enemy.
I followed the trail up to the care center as the sky darkened. Otonbu had shown me around Telaar, even introducing me to the esteemed Poli’lukluk who appeared to live up to his reputation. From him, I learned that many (though by no means all) Kurenai had given up their old draenic names in favor of new ones given to them by the spirits. For instance, Poli’lukluk used to be called Koro.
“If we are to listen to the spirits, and live in harmony with them, should we not take names they find pleasing? I think this is wise,” he said.
The Kurenai, like all Broken, lack the intense communalism of their unmutated brethren. Unlike most other Broken tribes, they still maintain a strong community. Groups like the Murkblood or Wrekt are held together through fear and hate. The Kurenai have achieved something closer to the ideals espoused by the draenic priests. Though their interpretation of the Holy Light is more aggressive and primal, it remains true to the religion’s core precepts. I actually found the Kurenai much less alienating than the normal draenei. In fact, I think that properly acclimated Broken could act as ideal liaisons between the draenei and the other races, though I doubt the draenei would embrace such an idea.
Telaar’s care center is a two-story building. The first floor is a large, circular parlor room. Squat tables encircle a tattered purple rug in the center. Two ramps cling to the sides as they ascend to the second floor. The caregiver is a normal draenei named Isel. I found her deep in discussion with an armored male draenei. Both turned to me as I entered.
“Welcome to the Care Center, Brother Talus. Your friend Unota is already resting upstairs. Please, make yourself at home,” offered Isel.
I was about to go up one of the ramps when Isel called out to me.
“Brother Talus, begging your pardon but may we have a moment of your time? We wish to know the human opinion in regards to wine.”
“Wine? In truth, that depends on the person. Most humans consume wine and other alcoholic drinks regularly. A few advocate temperance, some avoid alcohol because they cannot control their intake of it.”
“But what is the collective human opinion?”
“There is none.”
“Remember, Isel, the humans have many different groups. There is Stormwind, Kul Tiras, Theramore, and others. Each of those may have its own interpretation,” said the other draenei.
“Even then it largely depends on the individual or the local community,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“The Kurenai are very fond of Telaari wine. They drink it all the time and even sell shipments of the stuff up in Shattrath. They insist that I keep barrels of it in stock,” said Isel, pointing to the wooden casks stacked against the wall.
“The Telaari vineyards are in the mountains just south of here,” explained the other draenei.
“As long as they control their intake I would not say there is a problem.”
“The wine does seem to make them happy, which is true to the Most Holy Light. I simply fear that they will come to rely on wine rather than on prayer. Cestuum and I both like the wine, somewhat, but we drink it very rarely.”
“The Kurenai do not have time to become dependent, they are too busy surviving,” said the one I took to be Cestuum.
“I know, I merely fear for their future. They cannot let wine hamper their journey back into the Holy Light,” worried Isel.
“Keep an eye on it I suppose. I don’t think there’s any harm in it for the time being.”
I chuckled as I thought back to the Joyous, that dwarven religious sect based around gleeful inebriation. I went up the ramp to the sparsely furnished guest room on the second story. The original architects had engraved abstract designs into the walls, which are partially covered by faded blue curtains. The Kurenai had installed a few lumpy mattresses for visitors’ convenience. Unota sat on the floor, her back to the wall. She drank deeply from a clay vessel, pink wine trickling from the corner of her mouth.
“Ah, you are back. How do you like these Kurenai?”
“They seem like a decent bunch.”
“You would not say that so easily if you met the Murkbloods. Light damn any Wastewalker among the Kurenai! I will say that their wine is not bad,” she conceded with a burp.
“Does the Wastewalker Tribe exist as a distinct entity?”
“As a tribe? No. Murkblood killed many of us, and we could not fight back against Ashtongue Tribe. Most Wastewalker rounded up, taken north to Zangarmarsh. Don’t know why. Anyone left ran to Shattrath or Telaar.”
“The Ashtongue is aligned with Illidan, correct?”
“I hear Illidan’s name all the time but no one knows what he is. A demon, maybe? Some say he is an elf, which are those humans with pointy ears, right?”
“He is what my world knows as a night elf, though he may have demonic attributes.”
“Great big demon ruled Outland before Illidan. Old Horde before that. Don’t think I want to know who comes after Illidan. More demons, I think.”
“Eh, hope if you want.”
Unota’s head dropped and she started to snore. I quietly tucked myself into bed, not wishing to disturb her.
The next day I witnessed a Kurenai ceremony known as the Spirits’ Call, itself based on the much older draenic ritual of Light’s Call. Assorted Kurenai congregated around the large draenethyst crystal in the center of town, a gift from Shattrath City. Even Unota joined us, blinking wearily in the bright sunlight. The unmutated draenei stood at the edge of the crowd with expressions of restrained ecstasy.
Poli’lukluk chanted in Eredun as he stepped towards the draenethyst shard. He spoke for some time in that sing-song voice. I later learned that he was retelling his own discovery of the spirits. As he told his story he placed four totems around the draenethyst. Each totem flared to life with elemental power, and the crystal glowed in response.
Poli’lukluk raised his scarred hands in the sky and fell to his knees. His rough voice produced a strange hymn and the Kurenai joined him in song. A blustery wind rushed in from the south as choppy waves cascaded across the pond. The earth rumbled in satisfaction, its voice punctuated by the crackling of distant flame.
Everything went quiet. Then the Kurenai cheered. Broken children ran and tossed wildflowers around the crystal as Poli’lukluk collected the totems.
When I first reached Telaar, I learned that the Consortium sent a messenger to warn the Kurenai about the demonic infiltration of Oshu’gun. Pazshe ordered this at my request. While I could have explained it myself, I did not want to risk exposing myself as a Forsaken. A messenger with a scripted message offered an easy solution to the problem.
I discussed this with the senior draenei at Telaar, a taciturn vindicator named Byros. I met him just after the end of Spirits’ Call.
“Sin and darkness dwell in the wilds of southeast Nagrand,” he rumbled. “The Kil’sorrow are a cult, a holdover from the demon-worshippers of the old Horde. They serve the Burning Legion. We have been aware of them for some time. Kurenai warriors have intercepted cultists making the trek to Oshu’gun. I am not surprised to hear that some got through.”
“Do you have any plans for retaking Oshu’gun?”
“Eventually. The Most Holy Light emphasizes unity and brotherhood more than anything else. While I would like to lead the Kurenai warriors to Oshu’gun, that would leave Telaar undefended. I cannot let these Broken die at the hands of the Sin’dorei or Murkblood. Do not worry, K’ure will take some time to fully decay. By then, we will have reached a solution.”
Though well aware of procrastination’s dangers (a familiarity achieved in my student days), I was nonetheless impressed by Byros’ dedication to his charges.
The Spirits’ Call worked to rouse Unota from her gloom and she spent the day visiting her former tribe. I caught her deep in conversation with a Kurenai warrior as evening fell.
“Des—Talus! This old Broken was a neighbor of mine. He has some spirit name now but he used to be called Somot.”
Somot gave a cautious smile.
“He speaks nothing but Eredun. Good with ax though, back in the old days. The Kurenai are lucky to have him.”
Unota said goodbye to Somot and accompanied me back towards the Care Center.
“Such a strange time. I remember when it was just draenei and demon, than draenei and orc. Even after that it was Wastewalker and everyone else. These days, not even tribe means anything. Some Murkblood still murder while others say they are my friends. Some elves follow Illidan, while others are with your group, and others still live in Shattrath. Too many for me to understand.”
“I know how you feel, actually. When I was young, my people saw the world through the lens of Alliance and Horde.”
“Hm. Maybe things were always this complicated. Maybe things only look simple if they happened a long time ago.”
“You speak wisely,” I told her.
The lush hills of southeast Nagrand possess a distinctly foreboding quality. The traveler gets the impression that malign forces stare out from the thickly forested slopes. A trail of sorts cuts through the wilderness, offering at least some convenience. My goal was to reach the orcish village of Garadar. There, the Kurenai told me, lived orcs uncorrupted by demonic forces. Observing them would provide a valuable insight into traditional orcish culture. Unota had stayed behind in Telaar, citing exhaustion from her visit to Netherstorm.
I was especially curious about the history of the orcs prior to the Horde. Constant war and migration made it difficult for the orcs to know much of their past. Records from the time of the Old Horde are rightly viewed as unreliable, and draenic histories largely overlook the orcs.
The clans lived in a relatively static environment for at least a few thousand years. They traveled across the grasslands with their herds of clefthoofs and talbuks, occasionally fighting each other for grazing rights or stubborn pride. The arrival of the draenei jolted orcish culture out of its complacency. The northern clans (who later formed the nucleus of the Horde) adopted agriculture before the Ogre War. These same clans were the ones who sent their own warriors to fight and die in the Blade’s Edge Mountains.
Orcs still sing epics of the Blood River War, a grueling conflict between the southern nomads and northern farmers that took place 37 years after the Ogre War. The epics mostly focus on the exploits of great warriors, but sometimes reveal facts about the war’s context. Krogarg the Crimson Hand, chief of the Bladewind Clan, united the southern orcs into a force called the Stampede and attacked the north for reasons that remain unclear. Some say he was avenging a son (or father) killed by the northern clans, while other tales emphasize his contempt for farmers. The Stampede won but Krogarg never consolidated his power and his barbaric kingdom did not long survive him. Nagrand soon returned to something resembling its pre-war state.
The draenei knew of the Blood River War, but had trouble deciding if they wanted to get involved. They eventually made a half-hearted attempt at supplying the north, though this made little difference.
While Krogarg’s reign was short-lived, it created many repercussions. The brutalized northern clans desired vengeance against the south and resented the draenei for not doing more to help. Ner’zhul, the founder of the Horde, found many enthusiastic supporters among these orcs.
A great source of information came in the form of an elderly orc named Lokon. Weathered and stooped, he had spent his youth as a peon. I met Lokon as he led a small caravan packed with bags of grain. Orc porters rode on elekk-pulled carts, swineherds following close behind. Lokon dismounted from the lead elekk when he saw me coming in from the east.
Lokon initially thought me a death knight of the Old Horde. He relaxed visibly when I explained I was not.
“I sent both my sons to Shattrath City, so that they may join your warchief,” he said.
Lokon hailed from a tiny farm village to the southeast where he lived with other former peons. He said many such villages dotted the area, inhabited by the forgotten and dispossessed.
“Mostly orcs, but there are some Lost Ones, and even a few humans who ran away from their Alliance masters.”
Sadly, these victims of history live under the Kil’sorrow Cult’s oppressive rule. Based in the stronghold of Kil’sorrow Fortress, these demon worshippers enact harsh tribute from the surrounding villages. The cult collects tribute at the Nagrand Trademeet, held twice a year in Kil’sorrow Fortress. Lokon’s caravan was headed to that year’s second trademeet.
“What do they offer in return?”
“Protection. Everyone hates the orcs for what we did. The uncorrupted orcs hate us, the Broken hate us even more. I spent years on the move, going from one ruined land to the next. Only the Kil’sorrow protect us.”
“The Kil’sorrow take a percentage of your crops?”
“Souls, too. They take one sacrifice from each village at the year's first trademeet. I lost my daughter that way. Kurm over there,” he pointed to a younger orc, “lost his brother.”
There was a resigned acceptance in Lokon’s voice that pained me to hear.
“The Horde and Alliance are both enemies of the Burning Legion and its followers. I am sure they would be happy to destroy the Kil’sorrow Cult.”
“That would be great, but they must then protect us from the Kurenai and Mag’har. And Illidari,” he added, with a growl.
Lokon was not yet born when the Blood River War was fought but his father told him many stories of that conflict. Lokon’s father, Grenk, had also been a peon.
“The Stampede did not have peons. They were all warriors except for the women, and even they were fierce,” he said.
That did not come as a surprise; social stratification usually requires an agricultural society. Despite their egalitarianism, there was little worth admiring in the nomads. Grenk spoke of fleeing burning villages, and the piles of skulls the nomads left at each victory.
“Chief Kash’drakor of the Dark Scar Clan tried to strike back at the nomads. He gathered the finest warriors of three clans! They raided into the south, thirsty for vengeance. Nothing greeted them but the empty grasslands. He campaigned there for nearly a year, his supplies dwindling and his men dying as the north burned. Kash’drakor finally turned back. The nomadic Redwalker Clan killed him and all but five of his warriors as they crossed north across the Blood River. The war ended with Kash’drakor’s death cry.”
“How did they make peace?”
“At the next Kosh’harg the northern clans agreed to let the Stampede clans rule the grasslands. We feared that their clefthoofs would ruin our land, but Krogarg died before very many herds reached us. His successors destroyed his empire in trying to rule it, freeing us.”
“Why did the Stampede attack your people?”
“My father always said that Krogarg did it for power, but the nomads tell a different story. I found out in the early days of the Horde, when some of the weaker nomad clans first agreed to join. Their reason lay to the south, in a cold poison desert called Yellowblight that steadily consumed their pastures. The shamans suspected a malign influence but could do nothing to stop the encroaching wastes.”
“What happened to the nomad clans in the Horde?”
“Ner’zhul told us that the draenei were responsible for the Yellowblight’s march, that they set orc against orc. That after the fall of the north, they sowed discord in the south. Whatever the Warchief’s words, we still hated the southern clans and they never held a very important position.”
“Did all the southern clans join the Horde?”
“I heard that a few refused. If so, they were too weak and remote to matter. Forgive me; I am a peon and know little.”
“On the contrary, you seem to know quite a lot.”
“Only by listening to what the warriors said as they feasted after battles. It is not my place to know.”
I traveled with the caravan for a few days as it inched towards Kil’sorrow Fortress. I was curious to see it firsthand, and told Lokon I could disguise myself as a human if a free undead would attract too much attention. The orc frowned, doubtful of the idea.
“That is a big risk. The Kil’sorrow will kill both of us if they find out your true nature.”
“I have walked unnoticed in the capital cities of the Alliance. I certainly won’t bring any attention to myself.”
“The Nagrand Trademeet will be well underway by the time we arrive. I suppose you would not seem too remarkable as a human.”
“Do not feel obliged. I understand if you refuse. Either way, I shall inform the Horde of your plight.”
I finally convinced Lokon, who in turn persuaded his fellows. Not all of them showed enthusiasm towards joining the Horde but they reasoned that the destruction of Kil’sorrow would at least let them escape to Shattrath.
A human traveling with orcs was unusual, but would not attract any particular attention at the crowded Nagrand Trademeet. Just in case, Lokon developed an alibi in which I would pose as a human peddler separated from his village. Lokon suggested that I carry something with which to bribe the Kil’sorrow guards. I took out the pendant that the Ethereum diplomat gave to me back in Netherstorm. I was looking for an excuse to get rid of the thing.
Bleak Kil’sorrow Fortress surveys its holdings from on top a lonely hill. Wooden watchtowers lean crooked behind rough walls, the squat buildings within covered in metal spikes. The architecture marks it as a creation of the Old Horde. The Bleeding Hollow Clan built the fortress after fleeing back through the portal, hoping to secure Nagrand from pursuing Alliance soldiers. However, the Alliance never got anywhere close to Nagrand and the Horde abandoned the fortress a few months before the Breaking. It remained empty until the taken by the remnants of the Horde’s Shadow Council.
Two hulking orc guards stood the gate, their armor rusty and mismatched. They wordlessly inspected Lokon’s cargo, grabbing anything that interested them. I noticed that each carried a sack, already bulging with confiscated goods.
“Go on in,” barked a guard.
Shoddy carts and tents filled the outer court, mostly manned by dispirited orcs. A quartet of Lost Ones huddled around a smoldering fire, their plangent wails audible over the chatter. In one tent, an emaciated human boy studied me with dark and joyless eyes.
Lokon first took the wagon train to a crumbling stone building near the gate. A robed orc stood at the entry, a grim smile on his face. His skin was exceptionally dark and looked almost blue. I’d never before seen such coloration in an orc.
The gatehouse was where merchants unloaded the foodstuffs designated as tribute. After that, the traders could barter with people from the neighboring villages, usually for tools, building materials, and animals.
Besides food, the Kil’sorrow authorities also demand the dignity of their subjects. We knelt before the robed orc, Lokon praising the might and ruthlessness of the Kil’sorrow warriors. A noxious smirk emerged on his face as he looked down on Lokon.
The porters finished unloading the carts and Lokon went to set up shop at the base of a watchtower. He assigned his neighbors to various tasks (buying sickles, purchasing talbuks, and the like) while he and a few younger orcs put the pigs on display. The scene reminded me a bit of the farmer’s markets I used to visit as a child in Andorhal. The differences were still glaring. Lordaeronian farmers after the Second War lived in a time of unprecedented wealth and contentment, nothing like Nagrand’s hardscrabble desperation.
I went from stall to stall, chatting with the farmers. The humans were more talkative than the orcs or Lost Ones.
“I hear that the Alliance is back in Draenor,” said one, a stick-thin human named Elswort. “I don’t suppose you’re from them?” he asked.
“No, I escaped from Kirin’var, found my way down here, just like you,” I lied.
“Everyone here’s been wondering about it. We’re hoping they won’t hang us all for desertion.” He gave a mirthless chuckle.
“You think they would?”
“Who knows? I did what I had to do. There was no future in Honor Hold. I’m old anyway and I don’t much care for serving these orcs. As long as they don’t hold my little ones guilty for my crime, I’ve no complaints.”
“I hear some people send their children to Shattrath.”
“My children aren’t old enough for the journey. Especially not now. Ogres are fighting up in the north, and when they fight, everyone suffers.”
The human villages tend to be more successful than the others. This is because many of the deserters have useful skills like blacksmithing. Almost any metal tool in the Nagrand Trademeet has its origin at a human smithy. The orcs, in contrast, come from unskilled peonage while the Lost Ones can only do the most menial tasks.
Unfortunately, human success attracts unwanted attention. The Kil’sorrow leaders force the humans to give up a greater percentage of their crops. Many humans feel that they are being singled out on a racial basis. I was surprised by how open they are with complaints. Kil’sorrow’s rule is odious but not particularly intrusive.
Some of the guards got drunk at nightfall and began to wreck the shop of a hapless orc farmer while his fellows looked on in pity. Most Kil’sorrow troops are the sons of the Old Horde’s warriors. Unlike most orc fighters, they never underwent any real trials to attain their position. Not particularly skilled or well-equipped, they act more like bullies than actual soldiers. I wondered why the Kil’sorrow leaders showed such indifference to the orcish warrior tradition.
I wanted to learn more about the Kil’sorrow Cult but this proved difficult. No cultist would deign to speak with me and the traders knew little. Most of the cultists stayed in the inner courtyard, which is off-limits to the uninitiated. A token few watch over the Nagrand Trademeet and ensure that the cult gets its tribute. I did overhear an interesting conversation between two cultists.
“Each trademeet is more worse than the last,” complained one.
“We shall only have to endure a few more. Perhaps this shall be the final one.”
“I hope. But we thought the same when Magtheridon ruled, and we’re still here. I hate Nagrand. I hate these humans, these orcs, these draenei—”
“Do not question the Burning Legion, brother. Keep the faith in the eredar. They will send us home to Argus when we are ready.”
Argus was the ancient homeworld of the draenei. Currently held by the demonic eredar (themselves draenei warped by demonic energies), I found it telling that the Kil’sorrow Cult viewed Argus as a home. I thought it indicated a great deal of arrogance on their part. As it turned out, the truth was more complicated.
I told Lokon of the conversation and he explained the context.
“Many of the Kil’sorrow high priests are half-draenei, half-orc,” he said.
“Really?” That would explain the blue-tinged skin I’d seen in some.
“That is what they claim. The Horde did not care for half-breeds, and even we peons spat on them. Most died, but a few were taken in by the Shadow Council and made warlocks.”
“Now they openly declare themselves as half-draenei?”
“That is where it gets confusing. They actually say they are half-eredar, but we all know they are actually half-draenei.”
“Draenei and eredar are two branches of the same race,” I explained.
“Hm, I have never seen an eredar but aren’t they demons? The draenei are not demons.”
“The eredar became demons. The two were once the same.”
“Oh! That makes more sense, I suppose. Anyway, the cultists all think that their eredar or draenic blood makes them greater in the eyes of the Burning Legion. That it gives them great power. I do not believe them myself. True orcs hold their kind in contempt, and the Kil’sorrow only rule us because we no longer have warriors of our own.”
“Why do the full-blooded orcs here cooperate with them?” I asked, swallowing my distaste at Lokon’s unfortunate bigotry.
“Power, maybe? I do not know.”
“Do any other half-draenei exist elsewhere?”
“Probably. Some of the ones not sent to the Shadow Council survived. You might find a few in Shattrath City.”
I nodded, making a mental note to look for them.
Though the cultists claim power, I doubt that their petty theocracy shall survive much longer. Their subjects hate them, and their soldiers are an undisciplined rabble. Thinking about the mixed human, orc, and Lost One population, I wonder if sectarian violence would erupt with Kil’sorrow’s fall. I do not think it likely, mostly due to the relatively passive local culture, but I cannot dismiss the possibility. More alarming is the chance of another loathsome proxy war between Horde and Alliance over the region. Such a matter needs careful handling.
I decided I would try to get a message to Eitrigg, Thrall’s advisor in Orgrimmar. His wisdom can find a way through such difficulty. The Horde’s commanders in Outland tend to aggression, and I doubt their ability to deal with such a delicate situation.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
A flight of birds lifted up from the trees, bursts of bright color in the foliage. Choirs of insects chirped unseen in the tropical heat, hidden by leafy foliage. Broad green leaves and thick branches create a mighty canopy over the ferns and vines of the lower levels. I could have closed my eyes and thought myself back in Stranglethorn Vale. The teeming jungle of Eco-Dome Midrealm looks much like the an Azerothian rainforest. The only difference is the glowing violet shell around the jungle. Sections of the dome brighten and fade as time passes, creating an artificial day and night. The ethereals had even set up a water cycle that bring torrential downpours each day at noon.
I was sitting on a mossy stone in front of Selvedar’s grave. An ethereal who professed knowledge of “fleshling biology” attempted to heal the elf, but to no avail, and he died the night of my arrival. I felt no guilt; only sadness at his passing. I took some comfort in knowing I’d done everything I could.
“Forgive this uncouth interruption, but the current of time calls us to Stormspire. The caravan is ready to disembark.” The Stormspire to which the speaker referred is the regional headquarters for the ethereals.
“Thank you, Pazshe.”
Pazshe clasped its hands and gave a sinuous bow. Pazshe was the first ethereal I met, and it certainly came as a shock. The goblins had described them to me as beings of solid light, which is mostly accurate. The ethereals lack a fixed form, and are able to reshape and even resize their bodies at will. Those in Outland take on an anthropoid aspect to make their customers more comfortable, and garb themselves in white linen wraps in order to accentuate their frames. Bright light shines through the wrappings, making it impossible to mistake the ethereals for anything else. Many also wear robes and vests dyed in lush, dark colors.
Pazshe was an emissary for a group called the Consortium, a guild of arcane traders with major investments in Outland. When I met it, Pazshe was escorting an orc shaman and her apprentice out of ethereal territory. Overjoyed to meet a Forsaken, Pazshe invited me to return with it to the Stormspire.
“This universe is rich in memory and experiences. I am sure that you and your people have many tales to tell, and desires to fulfill,” it said.
Ethereals possess the uncanny ability to broadcast their thoughts in the language of those around them. Whatever tongue they use, the ethereals favor flowery descriptions coupled with elaborate formality. This trait usually comes across as either charming or unctuous. Pazshe happily fell into the former category.
I did meet with the shaman earlier, and she helped me bury Selvedar. Named Mura Ragefang, she’d been one of the first women to follow the shaman’s path in Thrall’s Horde. She labored as a peon during the Second War, her scarred face speaking volumes on the Old Horde’s brutality. I told her the story of Selvedar’s death and Kael’thas’ betrayal.
“Magic shall lead these elves to a bad end. I do not much trust the Forsaken, Destron, but you did a brave and honorable thing risking your existence to save Selvedar’s,” she said, looking down at his grave.
“I did what was needed.”
“Just as a warrior would say. I am going back to Thrallmar. Once there, I shall tell General Nazgrel of Kael’thas’ crimes. I will tell too him of your heroic actions.”
I followed Pazshe down to Midrealm Post, an array of metal poles and canopies. Boxes of glass or metal are placed in neat stacks, the glass variety holding bright electric currents that twist wildly in place. The living say that approaching ethereal encampments makes the hair on the back of the necks stand on end, and jolts the mind with a sense of elation and optimism. This is apparently a byproduct of the refined energies used by the ethereals, a mix of electricity, mana, radiation, and even stranger elements.
The boxes had been loaded into a pink sphere made of pure force that somehow suspended its cargo in place. A few goblins from Area 52 were looking at the strange devices with a mix of wonder and envy.
“Here in Eco-Dome Midrealm is where we conduct much of our business with the good merchants of Area 52. This caravan holds the results of our latest trade, precious minerals taken from the depths of B’naar Island.”
“Why do the goblins not go directly to the Stormspire?”
“Time, my friend. These jungles are not easy lands to traverse. The great minds of the Consortium also find Midrealm a fine venue in which to study the nature of reality.”
The caravan followed a narrow jungle trail. No beasts of burden pulled the containers; like the crates used by the Sin’dorei pilgrims, ethereal cargo is self-propelled. Two ethereal warriors accompanied us, each wielding an elegant scimitar.
“Does this eco-dome somehow recreate old Farahlon?”
“It is our humble attempt, though the eco-dome’s facsimile is imperfect at best. Consortium world-artists had little with which to work. Myriad plant and animal species thrived in the forests here, yet we could only regenerate a paltry few. The rest, I fear, are lost to time.”
“The eco-dome is certainly an improvement over the rest of Netherstorm.”
“Your words warm my soul, good Destron. Offering sanctuary from the eternal storm is only the least we could do. After all, if one is to create a marketplace, it must be safe before it is anything else.”
“Do your people need the safety of the eco-dome?”
“Not at all, it is purely an attempt to attract visitors from Outland and your Azeroth, which I hope one day to see. To further answer your inquiry, the ethereals make their homes in the many nexuses scattered across the Twisting Nether. We are not strangers to unusual conditions.”
“The ethereals originated in the Twisting Nether?”
“We did not, but our homeworld is no more. We called our world K’aresh, an airless realm of energy currents powered by the suns Algo and Betlezsju. The Void destroyed it, alas.”
“The Void? As in the voidwalkers?”
“None other. Darkness and light are forever enemies and they found us a most tempting target. Let us turn our attention to less dreary things, shall we? Tell me of your world, with its crimson deserts and white glaciers. I hunger to learn more!”
Eco-Dome Midrealm is a large place and it takes five days to cross from end to end. Much of this time is spent hacking away at the undergrowth that inexorably strangles the road. Pazshe explained that the properties of the eco-domes tended to accelerate the natural growth of both plants and animals.
Though the animals are plenty in number, there is very little in the way of diversity. I saw no more than three different species of birds in Midrealm. Brilliant blue moths flutter in the upper canopy and pale crocolisks lounge in the lakes. Pazshe said that many species of animals were irretrievably lost, and some of the salvageable types could not be reintroduced.
“The beasts of the forest and creatures of the waters are connected in a grand skein, you see. Stability is ever a harsh lord, and Midrealm’s natural portfolio cannot integrate many of the larger species. Renewing the crocolisks was an immense risk, and many esteemed world-artists argued against it.”
“I was wondering what they ate.”
“Fish and talbuks. The crocolisks are becoming a bit of a strain. Master World-Artist Samaa intends to wipe them from Midrealm if their population does not soon attain equilibrium.”
“You would still be able to recreate them in the future, correct?”
“But of course, my friend. The world decrees a time for all things; if it does not currently favor the majestic crocolisk, it may do so in the future.”
Another Naaru bridge spans the void past the edge of Duro Island, creating a path to Farahl Island. Farahl is the largest landmass in Netherstorm and the only one without a Manaforge (though one does exist on the small Ara Island, adjacent to Farahl). Three monstrously-sized eco-domes shimmer on Farahl’s edge, merged into each other. The Stormspire stands at the center, surrounded by miles of trackless jungle.
Just as I told Pazshe of my experiences, it in turn told me the story of its life. Pazshe’s words painted a picture of a society both strange and magnificent. Despite sharing a commercial propensity, the ethereals have little in common with the goblins aside from some basic similarities in social organization.
Pazshe had served the Consortium with distinction for millennia. Most ethereals are born (or created) into the rank of enabler, essentially the slaves caste of a nexus.
“The sworn duty of the enabler is to serve the innumerable merchants, warriors, and scholars of a nexus. A difficult and wearying task, though hardly dangerous.”
An enabler must choose between slowly rising through the ranks or striking out as a wind trader. Ethereal wind traders are independent merchants. Unlike the scrappy free traders of goblin society, wind traders generally seek to build up substantial wealth and skill in order to attain a higher station at the nexus of its choice. Pazshe had elected to return to the Consortium where it eventually earned a prestigious ambassadorial position.
“So is a nexus a political unit, or a place?” I asked.
“It is both. A nexus is a sprawling network of eco-spheres suspended in one of the Twisting Nether’s rare calm spots. The greatest servants of a nexus dwell in these eco-spheres, each filled with the life and culture of a dozen worlds. Connecting the spheres are the swarming corridors in which most of my kind reside. Ah, Destron, a sojourn in a nexus would truly be the adventure of a lifetime. My regret is that they are not hospitable to fleshlings—pardon me!—non-energy beings, yet I am sure magic or engineering can take us beyond such petty difficulty.”
“I would like to see a nexus.”
“The nexus heart especially. The heart is the central eco-sphere of a nexus in which burns a remnant of K’aresh, our home forever lost. The Consortium's nexus heart is the most wondrous in existence, or so say the well-traveled. Our heart calls out to clerics and sages of even the most remote nexuses who come to study its perfection.”
“Clerics? What is the nature of your religion?”
“Religious discussions tend to be indelicate. I shall tell you, if you insist, though decency obliges me to preface such a description with ample warning.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“As you wish, my friend. K’aresh is the soul of all ethereals, the Endless Illumination. Just as light reveals the world around us, the Endless Illumination decrees that each ethereal learns its place, serves with honor, and deals in honesty.”
“Good traits for any merchant.”
“Indeed, a fundamental truth revealed by the Endless Illumination. My sad duty is to tell you that not all, or even most, ethereals fulfill these obligations. The Endless Illumiantion offers forgiveness for even the most inveterate of sinners. Unfortunately, this sometimes inculcates wickedness.”
“My experiences show that no one is immune from sin.”
“Your experience speaks wisely. Our holy texts mention forgiveness in only vague terms. There is a group of clerics, of great standing within the Consortium, who argue that dishonesty cannot be forgiven and that we must shun nexuses that engage in deceit. These clerics are called the Steadfast.”
“What is your opinion on this?”
“Ah, there are many Pazshes. The thoughts of one are not necessarily the thoughts of another. My facets tend towards a middle ground.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Forgive me, this is a strange concept for many. The Pazshe with whom you speak is only one. A Pazshe, subtly different in mind, conferred with a fellow enabler named Maldarim. Another Pazshe confers with the wise Nexus-Prince Haramad. Do you comprehend?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Imagine that you and I were to interact for a long time, decades perhaps. Over that time, my personality would grow and evolve.”
“As would mine, hopefully.”
“Yet your growth would be an addition to your total. For me, it would be an entirely new Pazshe, one born from the interaction between you and I. If such an interaction were mutually favorable, as I have no doubt it would be, this Pazshe would have a positive psyche. Were it tense, the new Pazshe would be less friendly.”
“An entirely new personality?”
“New, though still based on the old.”
“However, wouldn’t your original personality be influenced by the development of this new one?”
“Only to a degree. That which is known by one Pazshe is not necessarily known by another. This trait proves most useful in delicate or confidential business dealings.”
“I hope this does not cause offense, but such a nature hardly seems conducive to honesty.”
“If the original personality is honest, the subsequent ones will likely be the same. A new personality will not violate the deep ethics of the original. This is why young enablers are brought up so strictly; a corrupt ethereal quickly becomes a hundred corrupt ethereals, though in a single form.”
My mind struggled to process this information.
“Among my kind, experience is one of the determinants of personality. Is this not the same with the ethereals?”
“Experience plays a part, to be sure. Experiences resulting from interactions with the environment or a broad segment of society influence the core personality, and indirectly influence those that grow from it. Experiences derived from long-term interaction have a more limited effect.”
“Wouldn’t that make it difficult to learn from mistakes in previous dealings?”
“Quite. Remember, new personalities only develop after fairly substantial interaction. At the moment, you are meeting the basic Pazshe. I do not know you well enough for a new Pazshe to arise from our discussions. That which we learn from short-lived interactions tends to affect the core personality.”
“When you meet another ethereal with whom you are familiar, does the appropriate personality spontaneously take over?”
“Precisely, the shift is effortless.”
“What happens when you meet more than one at a time?”
“That changes according to the nature of the group. In most cases the older, more developed personality takes reign. If a group meets often enough, each ethereal will develop a new personality appropriate to the group.”
I think I have good reason to consider myself worldly and cosmopolitan. Pazshe’s description of the ethereal psychology made me reconsider. I still struggle to comprehend the ethereal mentality, and I doubt I’ll ever succeed. It should also be said that the ethereals find the races of Azeroth and Outland equally puzzling, not understanding how we can switch emotions and attitudes while retaining the same basic personality. The often contradictory nature of the human (or orcish, or trollish etc.) mindset is also strange and even a bit disturbing to them.
Some consider the ethereals inherently duplicitous, citing that race’s multiple shifting personalities. This is inaccurate. Honesty is a prime virtue among the ethereals (even if it seems to be losing ground in some of the more peripheral nexuses). Most personalities of a single ethereal will be honest, even if they do not always agree. Honesty is not the same as the truth; one can be honest while still being in error. Dishonest personalities can arise if the core personality was not properly socialized. Also, when an honest ethereal meets one who is deceitful, the decent one may find itself subtly corrupted. Alternately, the deceitful individual may grow less so. The result depends on the strength of the individuals involved. This is also why ethereals tend to be very careful in choosing long-term associates. A real risk faced by wind traders is having to partner with an unscrupulous ethereal. This can usually be avoided by staying in a reputable nexus, though Pazshe said that many of those are sinking into decadence.
Hacking through the jungles of Eco-Dome Skyperch was a time-consuming process. Pazshe made a note to inform the world-artists of the unexpected regrowth levels. The entrance to the Stormspire proper is rather inconveniently located on the northern end, forcing us to take a circuitous route through the forests.
The Stormspire is actually an abandoned draenic fortress called Zelsur. Zelsur’s originated in the chaotic years after the Ogre War. Though an allied force of draenei, orcs, and arakkoa succeeded in breaking the ogre armies, mobs of ogre warriors terrorized rural Farahlon. Bringing peace to the land proved a grueling and often bloody process.
The draenei built Zelsur to protect Farahlon from future attacks and to aid in their pacification campaign. Construction went slowly; the draenei were overzealous and made it much larger than necessary. The ogre bands had mostly been eradicated by the time of its completion.
Zelsur could still act as a forward defense against future invasions, so a small garrison remained in the fort. A strong camaraderie developed among the soldiers there and Zelsur gradually developed a monastic quality. The vindicators soon adopted the site as one of their bases, attracted by its combination of piety and martial discipline.
Zelsur fared badly in the Horde War. The orcish armies moved faster than anyone expected and quickly encircled the regional capital to the northeast. Zelsur’s fame had not brought it a larger garrison, and the soldiers stationed there realized the situation was hopeless. The revered Vindicator Tona led the Zelsur troops in a doomed attack against the Horde forces. Tona sought to relieve the besieged soldiers in the city of Farahlon but her brave actions only delayed the inevitable. Orcish catapults broke Farahlon’s walls a week after Tona’s attack and the warriors slaughtered everyone inside.
In jungle clearings one can see the massive Stormspire peeking over the dense canopy. A massive structure built on elevated ground, it dominates the landscape. If Zelsur had only maintained a larger garrison, the fortress would have been a major stumbling block for the orcs of the Horde War.
Two ethereal guards welcomed us to the Stormspire. Pazshe took me to a circular platform at the Stormspire’s base. The platform lifted off from the ground at Pazshe’s command, behaving much like the elevator I'd ridden back at Telredor.
A wealth of greenery abounds at the summit, where flowering vines stretch between broad-leaved trees growing in and around the plaza, and ferns grow thick on the flagstones. Guided by a fine aesthetic sense, the ethereals only clear out select portions of the vegetation. The Stormspire combines an ancient ruin’s exotic splendor with a marketplace’s convenience. The buildings are all draenic in style though mysterious ethereal devices buzz and hum in the corners.
“This is the seat of the Consortium in Outland. From here, the trade masters confer with the honorable Nexus-Prince Haramad. From here do lesser merchants go forth to seek new deals and bargains,” effused Pazshe.
A building on the Stormspire’s western edge serves as a guest house for visitors. The ethereals had installed little in the way of furniture aside from some draenic-style beds and curious apparatus, giving it a somewhat unfinished appearance. Plenty of visitors stayed there, despite the lack of amenities. A visibly bemused night elf spoke with a robed ethereal in a side room, while a pair of sharp goblins held a whispered conversation near a metal pole flushed with electricity. The main room opened out to a grand balcony on which stood an elaborately-dressed dwarven woman listening to a pair of ethereals. I was the only Horde citizen.
“The grace of the Nexus-Prince extends to all those willing to bargain. The Consortium’s soul is a gloried bazaar, where folk deal in gold and silver, not steel or spellfire," said Pazshe.
“A noble sentiment.”
Pazshe excused itself, saying that it needed to oversee the unloading of the caravan. I got into a conversation with another ethereal named Samej. A pair of triple-bladed weapons glinted on its belt, resembling larger versions of the moonglaives favored by the Kaldorei. The vest of green metal on Samej’s chest painted the picture of a warrior, rather than a merchant.
“Nexus-Prince Haramad is of a peaceable mind though Outland does not always reciprocate. To the north paces an army of demons, burning in rage,” he said.
“Such is the nature of demons.”
“Some of the first nexuses crafted deals with the Burning Legion. Most came to regret it, for the demon’s tongue is made of lies.”
“What of the blood elves? Do they trouble you at all?”
“The blood elves have not raised their blades in anger against us though the traders say they are demanding and difficult customers. The worst of all are the other nexuses who have come to Outland: the Nomad’s Market of Nexus-Prince Razaan, and the Memories of Worlds, ruled by Nexus-Prince Shaffar.”
“Is not competition part of trade?”
“Entirely true, my friend. These nexuses are of that growing and lamentable breed who love power but hate the challenge of obtaining it. They steal from the ruins of this world, do no business with either its natives or its visitors, and freely attack those they deem threats.”
“What do they steal, precisely?”
“Has noble Pazshe told you of what the ethereals value?”
“Not in any great detail.”
“Our race deals in many things, but the finest prizes are artifacts of great magic power. Mana undergoes changes when stored in physical objects. When such objects are brought into contact with the piece of K’aresh that shines within each nexus, the mana is released and increases a hundred-fold in power. This maintains the existence of the nexuses.”
"Does this destroy the artifact?"
"Only on some lamentable occasions, when the mana is integral to the artifact's structure. In most cases, we place the physical piece in museum, so that others may receive its beauty."
“Trade, then, literally fuels your society.”
“Correct. My kind has no real interest in the coins and luxuries valued in this world and many others. They are but means to an end.”
“Interesting. Is this why the Stormspire appears so sparsely furnished?”
“The aestheticians of the Consortium even now work to make it more pleasing to the eyes of our clients. Yet you speak in truth, for we have little use for luxury goods. We seek energy to feed the nexus, which echoes our will and memory and art across eternity.
Duty called and Samej departed to make another scouting expedition on Forge Camp: Oblivion, a demon base to the north. I knew I was only getting the barest glimpse of ethereal society. This is the problem of learning about groups markedly different from one’s own. While tantalizing in the extreme, it is also quite frustrating. There is still so much I do not understand about the ethereals. My only hope is to one day visit the Consortium nexus, as Pazshe recommended.
Meeting some of the other Consortium employees at the Stormspire further opened up their culture to me. Samej claimed that the ethereals cared little for money, but this did not seem entirely accurate. The traders all seemed very interested in a good bargain.
“The art of the trade is the great joy of this worthless fellow, and I am forever thankful that the Consortium has retained me as a lowly servant,” said one. “I am also thankful to you, my magnificent customer.”
The merchant’s words (though smarmy) did reflect something else that Samej mentioned: the challenge of obtaining power. Making successful trades is very nearly a cultural lynchpin of ethereal society. The merchant did not exaggerate when describing it as an art.
The accumulation of money (and other means of exchange) increases an ethereal’s prestige. Its peers will regard such an individual as a wise cosmopolitan. Continued success usually translates into higher rank within a nexus. Money still serves a material function, of course. Having financial resources makes it easier to find and obtain the relics that the ethereals crave.
Pazshe returned the next morning to tell me that Nexus-Prince Haramad desired an audience.
“This is a marvelous opportunity for one such as yourself, noble Destron. I think you shall find the Consortium’s unparalleled nexus-prince a wonderful conversationalist.”
“The nexus-prince is actually here in the Stormspire?”
“No, but we have a direct line of communication to the Consortium nexus. The nexus-prince has already spoken with Mura, the shaman you met in Midrealm. It is quite impressed by the Horde’s brave warriors and wise seers. The nexus-prince is also, of course, quite curious about the Horde’s other half.”
“I hope I can live up to its expectations.”
“Have faith, my friend! Great Haramad simply wishes to ask questions about Azeroth and the Forsaken.”
“Most Forsaken are rather less personable than I.”
“Then I am sure you will offer a most fascinating overview.”
I followed Pazshe to the largest structure on the Stormspire. Perched on the southern edge, it had most likely been the old city’s main temple. The nexus-prince holds court in a clean and bare sanctuary, occupied by a few ethereals who bowed upon seeing Pazshe. A small metal platform at the far end of the room holds up a robed ethereal much taller than its fellows: Nexus-Prince Haramad.
Pazshe introduced me to Haramad and then stepped back to let his liege lead the conversation. Haramad proved to be polite and urbane, first inquiring about my opinion of the Stormspire and the Consortium. It was happy to hear that I was very impressed.
The nexus-prince then began ask about Azeroth. I answered its questions to the best of my ability. Haramad explained that both the Alliance and Horde spoke of possible military pacts, though it had declined both offers.
“Violence is a doubtful path to success,” it said.
Haramad did express interest in selling eco-domes to the Cenarion Circle. A visiting druid from the Cenarion Expedition (named Aurine Moonblaze) had told the nexus-prince about the environmental disasters afflicting parts of Azeroth.
“Eco-domes do require great effort, but Aurine suggested that the druids would be willing to part with some of their relics.”
The nexus-prince finished the interview with questions about the Forsaken economy. If disappointed by the results, it gave no sign. Haramad bowed and thanked me for my time.
A lack of features defined Unota's face. Her thin black line of a mouth looked cut into her calloused face, and a pair of hard blue eyes stared out from deep sockets. The draenei are hardly a vain people, though the grotesque physical mutations suffered by the Broken and the Lost could not be considered anything other than traumatizing. Many say that the Broken are effectively a new race. This may be true, but they have not existed long enough to have grown accustomed to their new bodies and faces, or to find them attractive.
Still, Unota was in better condition than many of her kindred. She worked as an agent for Shattrath City’s All Souls Sanctuary, more commonly known as the Lower City. Shattrath City is probably the only safe place in Outland, controlled and protected as it is by the Naaru. Unota came prepared for Netherstorm’s dangers, carrying with her a fearsome metal rifle and all manner of blades.
“Already plenty of ethereals in Shattrath City. Some from the Consortium; they try to get permission to excavate the ruins here in Netherstorm.”
“Have the draenei allowed them?”
“Sure, why not? The Pure Ones say the Light goes beyond any old relic. Besides, the orcs probably took everything of value back in the war. Plenty of orcs in Shattrath, that’s why it’s called All Souls Sanctuary. I do not always trust them, but most seem decent enough. Not too many undead though. Maybe that will change.”
“What brings you to the Stormspire?”
“I was born in the city of Farahlon. Thought I should take a look at the place. I had many friends there, all dead now. Wanted to say goodbye. The Pure Ones, they say that all people are brothers and sisters in the Holy Light. Maybe this is so, but the ones I know are special to me.”
“Did you always feel that way about them?”
“Not sure. Seems to happen to a lot of us Broken though.”
Three days passed in the Stormspire before Pazshe came to me with a request. Nexus-Prince Haramad had assigned him to act as an envoy to a pair of newly arrived ethereal groups on Ultris Island, to the east.
“Our new visitors have not responded to the nexus-prince’s greetings. My master has seen fit to send me as an emissary. We ethereals are a people impressed by cosmopolitanism. The presence of non-ethereal guests would give my words more impact, and I thought you might be interested in accompanying me. It is entirely your choice.”
“I would like that. Is nothing known of these newcomers? You said that some of the nexuses tended to violence.”
“The nexus-prince has given me his emblem,” said Pazshe. The ethereal opened its hand and a swirling glyph of light rose from the palm. “They shall at least hear us out and let us leave in peace.”
“When do we leave?”
“Ah, always the adventurer! Tomorrow or the next day. I would like another non-ethereal to join our party. Doing so would advertise the success of the nexus-prince in this shattered world.”
The other non-ethereal turned out to be Unota. Pazshe’s route would take us past the ruins of Farahlon and the ethereal agreed to give Unota some time to say her goodbyes. We left at noon the next day. Our lack of heavy cargo made jungle travel easier, though it still took us the better part of two days to reach the edge of the eco-dome.
A single step returned me to the cold emptiness of Netherstorm, where mana currents pour through the sky and shine their baleful light on the desert. North of the Stormspire coils a shroud of living darkness, birthed from the black smoke that belches forth from innumerable green flames. Samej told me of the demons, but I had not known there were so many. Unota shared my alarm.
“The demons, do they see us?” she asked.
“Carry no fear in your heart, good Unota. The demons seem entirely disinterested in the eco-dome. They shall not harm us so long as we keep our distance.”
“What is their purpose?” I asked.
“Who can fathom a demon’s mind? The nexus-prince has sent many of the most perceptive scouts to the demon camps. Have faith, for the truth cannot escape them.”
Despite Pazshe’s assurances I think we all felt quite relieved when the forge camp fell out of sight. Ahead of us extended the empty stretches of Farahl Island. The center of the island is an uneven plateau, formed by the Breaking rather than any natural tectonic activity. The remnants of Farahlon are at the top.
Unota told us stories of her youth as we made the journey. She was among the first generation of her race born in Draenor. Once of age, she married a vindicator named Cormus and helped to form a collective called Rising Faith Triumphant.
“We lived right up there, where you can see the buildings,” she said, pointing at the ragged silhouettes in the east. Unota did not express any great emotion while discussing her past. I suspected she was simply too tough to break down.
“I was a seamstress. Each day I joined the others at the little workshop next to the temple. We prayed as we went, a sacred word for each stitch of the needle. Now my fingers are too thick and big for tailoring. But they can do other things.”
Unota also told us about the Laughing Skull Clan, that obscure orcish culture native to Farahlon. Fragmentary Horde records all hold the Laughing Skull Clan in low regard. Many orc warlords wished to simply exterminate the clan, though Gul’dan prevented this.
“I don’t like orcs, but the Pure Ones say we should not hate people. I suppose that is why they are pure, no? Cormus was very happy when we first found the Laughing Skull Clan in the jungles. He thought they would embrace the Light even though the other orcs would not.”
“Did you agree with his assessment?” I asked.
“We all did. The Laughing Skull orcs went from place to place hunting talbuks and other animals. They didn’t build any towns, like the orcs to the south did. Very scrawny for orcs, never had enough food. We met with them for many years, a century maybe. Always giving them food and telling them to be kind to each other.”
“They behaved in a cruel fashion?”
“I used to think so. Now I am not so sure. But my mind is Broken, like my body. Maybe I am confused. Anyway, I made cloaks for the Laughing Skull, and the priests delivered food and wisdom.”
“How did the orcs react to this?”
“They were afraid, at first. I think now that the Laughing Skull were not so cruel, but they were very greedy. They always wanted food since they never knew when they would next get any. Once they got used to our gifts, they began to demand more. The worst was when the great summer rains hit; then the orcs came to our cities seeking shelter.”
“What happened then?”
“We welcomed them. Cormus said we were honored to have them as guests. But the orcs were a plague! If they saw food, they grabbed it and ate it! If they saw a metal tool, they’d steal it. The worst was what they did to the temples. Laughing Skull men always carried rotten fruit with them, they’d eat it and go mad. Always their shamans took them into our temples to gorge on the fruit. They vomited all over the sanctuary, and cared nothing for how we felt!”
“What did the draenei do?”
“The priests tried to explain why their behavior was wrong but the orcs just grew angry. I remember them accusing Cormus of hypocrisy. This hurt him greatly.”
“That sounds like an untenable situation.”
“Oh yes, very much so. Finally the city held a troika meeting, and we decided to build orc shelters outside the walls. That way they could get protection and food without causing trouble. My kindred and me, we spent months building it. Put so much effort into it! Some priests said it was contrary to the Light to exile them, but we had no choice!”
“Did the orcs accept these shelters?”
“We all thought they would, and at first it seemed like we were right. For a week or so, the orcs stayed in the shelter. But then they’d go back into our homes looting and arguing. There were fights, even! We asked the Laughing Skull orcs to stop and the orcs tried to hurt us! Can you believe it? Then we found out that orcs had killed three draenei in the city of Enkaat, to the south. Once we learned that, our soldiers drove them out of our city. My husband led the effort and he wept all night for what he had to do.”
“Now it seems like the right thing to do, but I was very sad for the orcs at the time. Don’t know why though.”
“Did the draenei maintain any contact with the orcs?”
“The priests wanted to help the orcs in their own environment, but the Laughing Skull robbed those we sent to them. Finally we decided to let the orcs stay in the wilderness. It was either that or kill them, and none of us wanted to do such a thing.”
The clash between Laughing Skull orcs and draenei is a tragic case of noble intentions gone awry. There’s still not really enough information to construct a cohesive history for the event. The most likely case is that the draenei failed to properly explain the Holy Light to the orcs. Instead of learning the importance of harmony and cooperation, the orcs began to see the draenei as nothing more than givers of food.
This probably came as a huge culture shock for orcs accustomed to a marginal nomadic existence, and the draenei never realized how damaging their attempts might be to the clan. Whatever the sins of the Laughing Skull, the difference in power between the two groups likely precluded any real harmony. Perhaps the Laughing Skull orcs came to resent the draenei. Alternately, they may have just grown dependent on the draenei without contextualizing their teachings. Laughing Skull leaders may have also feared that the draenei’s gifts would undermine their traditional authority.
Whatever the case, the Laughing Skull Clan allied with the ogre mobs left in Farahlon after the war. The ogres managed to bully the orcs into some semblance of organization. Many of the Laughing Skull turned to pastoralism, finding the relatively open plains of western Farahlon ideal for this purpose.
Nursing their hatred for all this time, the Laughing Skull proved convenient allies for the Horde. Those of the clan who stayed as hunter-gatherers knew the best routes through the jungle, enabling the orcs to outmaneuver the city-bound draenei.
The Horde was satisfied to leave the Laughing Skull to its own devices after the conquest of Farahlon. Mogor, the ogre leader of the clan, continuously tried to increase his standing in the Horde. One such attempt led to the attack on the Mok’nathal. Mogor’s efforts never amounted to any significant gains, and served to increase the alienation felt by the Laughing Skull. Some even say that it motivated them to give aid to the Alliance Expeditionary Force when it arrived in Draenor.
The Laughing Skull Clan realized that the Breaking would soon render Farahlon uninhabitable. The clan quickly took their belongings and trekked south, eventually settling in Nagrand. Almost nothing of their culture remains in Netherstorm.
Mana storms rumbled overhead when we at last reached the ruins of Farahlon, where broken shells of homes and temples watch over empty streets. The Breaking wrecked the city and left only the smaller structures behind. The temple's tower lies in pieces across a wide boulevard. No one had been there for a very long time, and I wondered if the Consortium would find any relics in the place. Only dust and memory lived in the houses.
“A melancholy sight,” said Pazshe. “Where do you need to go, good Unota?”
“Center of the city. Just need a few minutes.”
Draenic histories say that Farahlon was the largest city in the northlands, and the fourth-largest draenic city overall. Only about half of the city still exists. The rest drifts somewhere in the Twisting Nether. Unota stopped when we reached a large, circular plaza.
“I will go ahead now. You stay here.”
Unslinging her rifle, she walked out towards the ruined temple on the other end. At first I thought she meant to enter the crumbling structure, but she contented herself with kneeling just outside of it.
“A wondrous place Farahlon must have been, a nation of faith and prayer. How terrible for Unota to lose it all,” mourned Pazshe. Farahlon had revealed a gloomy aspect to Pazshe’s normally cheerful personality. I wondered if the ruins made the ethereal think of its lost homeworld.
We waited for what felt like hours before Unota finished. She was halfway across the plaza when a beam of light lanced out from an alley, missing her by inches. Unota raised her rifle and fired before diving behind a pile of rubble.
Pazshe lifted a hand, cautioning me to stay behind though I didn’t need to be told. I craned my neck, trying to see the source of the attack. A nightmare drifted out from an adjoining arcade, an orb of flesh sporting a beard of tendrils. A violet eye ringed by six smaller ones glared out from the body while a great mouth gnashed beneath the eyes.
Flames blazed in my hands as I prepared an attack. I raised my right arm, unleashing a fireball. The burning orb streaked halfway towards its target when Unota popped up and fired another round. The creature’s main eye collapsed when the bullet hit, yellow blood spraying out from the wound. It recoiled and screeched in a child’s voice. The sudden movement fouled my attack, which burst harmlessly against a wall.
Even as the monster convulsed in its final throes, its fellows came to join the fray. Two more evil eyes floated into the plaza. My second attack met with more success; a pair of frost bolts temporarily disabling one of the attackers.
Unota kept firing, shouting in Draenic as she did. The Broken scored a number of hits on an advancing monster but failed to stop it. The second attacker regained control of its faculties and flew towards me. I welcomed it with a burst of flame lifted up from the flagstones, the beast’s momentum carrying it through the searing flames and crashing into a ruined home.
Pazshe chose that time to do something extraordinary. The ethereal suddenly floated half a foot into the air, hovering in place without effort. Pazshe unsheathed its twin scimitars and sped towards Unota’s attacker, leaving a trail of afterimages in its wake.
Catching sight of the new combatant the evil eye turned to face Pazshe. Already going at incredible speeds, Pazshe made a flying leap towards the monster. The ethereal’s swords glinted in the half-light, razor edges seeking the monster’s flesh.
The ethereal vanished in midair only to instantly reappear behind the evil eye. Pazshe had somehow made a complete turn while teleporting and keeping all of its gathered speed. The swords plunged into the back of the evil eye and Pazshe launched a flurry of quick, cutting strikes while balancing on the beast’s thrashing form.
I watched in dumb fascination as the ethereal diplomat made short work of our assailant. A scraping sound from behind caught my attention and I spun around to see my earlier target rising from the ground. Viscous yellow blood oozed out from its eyes, four reduced to pulpy sockets. I launched another fireball before it could recover, killing it.
The three of us reassembled at the opening of the alley. Unota was unhurt aside from some scrapes while Pazshe was actually laughing.
“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“Every Consortium diplomat receives training at the expert hands of the death masters. After all, honeyed words alone will not ensure one’s safety.”
“An impressive feat.”
“A trifle, really. I am but a bumbling child compared to those who taught me. Now, I think it best we leave this place. The Burning Legion uses evil eyes as advance scouts. More are sure to follow.”
Heeding Pazshe’s words, we left the ruins as soon as possible. I looked to Unota, trying to see if she felt anger or sadness at the demonic intrusion. Her face was as impassive as ever. She had made peace with her loved ones, and that was enough.
Anticipation coils around Ultris Island, a hungry beast in wait. I sat on a ridge next to Unota, the Protectorate Watch Post stretched out below. Ethereal soldiers scour the intricate networks of metal, glass, and lightning. Immune to Netherstorm’s environmental extremes, the Protectorate does not bother setting up much in the way of shelter; a few tents serve as a token gesture. The camp is a far cry from the Stormspire, though still possessed of a certain style.
Pazshe did not seem surprised when it learned of the Protectorate’s presence. After speaking to Ameer, the local commander, Pazshe returned and told us about the Protectorate and its eternal foe, the Ethereum.
“This tale hearkens back to K’aresh, lovely and forever lost. King Salhadaar ruled that world with wisdom and subtle force. Yet even our king could do little against the armies of the Void. The king’s failure destroyed the throne’s reputation. The innumerable nobles and officials of the royal court dismissed Salhadaar as useless and went their own ways. Those few who stayed said that Salhadaar obsessed over its failure, seeking some way to make restitution. Thus was born the Ethereum.
“The promise of vengeance invigorated Salhadaar. K’aresh would again live, it said, once he annihilated the void armies. The king dreamed of all ethereals banding together under its command. At that point, however, millennia had passed since our world’s destruction. None of the nexus-princes had any interest in following a disgraced monarch into battle. Salhadaar had been known for steadfast determination in better days, and that trait remained unchanged. The nexus-princes would not support it, so Salhadaar looked elsewhere, taking in the deceivers and traitors of the nexuses. As you have probably already guessed, the resulting army had a definite cutthroat mentality. The Ethereum even began to interfere in the trade operations of its rivals.”
“Was the Ethereum a major threat?”
“Salhadaar’s raiders posed no physical danger to any nexus, but trading posts became a choice prey. The deeds of the ethereum inspired anguish and lamentation in the nexus markets. The Protectorate formed in response, an army of the greatest ethereal warriors and sorcerers. Salhadaar’s child, Nexus-Prince Kassim, founded the Protectorate and rules it to this day.”
“The Protectorate is an ally of the Consortium?”
“Ally is perhaps too strong a word. Just as the Ethereum will stop at nothing to defeat the Void, the Protectorate recognizes few scruples when it comes to destroying the Ethereum. We appreciate the Protectorate’s efforts but my master wishes they used more finesse. Ethereals and clients sometimes get caught in the crossfire.”
“You mentioned that Kassim is Salhadaar’s child. May I ask how the ethereals reproduce?”
“Do you recall how ethereals develop new personalities?”
“Yes, by meeting and interacting with other ethereals.”
“A scholar indeed! Reproduction is the next step in that process. If the friendship lasts long enough, and has sufficiently strong emotional content, the created personality of the psychologically stronger ethereal becomes an ethereal in its own right.”
“Does it maintain its parent’s client personality?”
“Naturally. We ethereals do not go through a helpless, infantile stage. This is not to say that we are born fully grown; newborn ethereals still lack experience. However, the basics of communication are understood from the moment of generation.”
“Would a child even need parents to raise it?”
“Not at all. In fact, newborn ethereals go directly to the creche where they begin training as enablers. The parents have little to do with the child. Granted, the situation is slightly different with royalty.”
“What happens to the parents? Do they continue their interaction?”
“Remember, the relevant personality of the stronger ethereal is gone. This makes the weaker ethereal practically a stranger. They may renew their friendship, though this may prove difficult. The weaker ethereal’s emotional turmoil may be off-putting to the stronger one’s.”
Ameer came to greet Unota and I a while later. More accurately, it came to recruit us.
“The Ethereum and Salhadaar have shown they will stop at nothing. By helping our cause today, you may play an instrumental part in saving your own world.”
Unota and I came from different worlds, but neither of us corrected Ameer. We declined as politely as possible, and the commander did not press the issue.
“The decisive battle may be here in Netherstorm. Nearly the entirety of Salhadaar’s forces are arrayed on the western end of the island. The nexus-king itself leads this assault.”
“Why did the nexus-king send so many?” I asked.
“Because Dimensius the All-Devouring, Master of the Void, has chosen this forgotten wasteland as its home. Up there at the top of that mountain is a manaforge. The ones you call elves made it their home, until their magic attracted Dimensius’ attention. The elves are gone; only Dimensius remains.”
“Does Salhadaar hope to confront Dimensius here?”
“There is no doubt. Dimensius is less important than the nexus-king realizes. The ethereal race has long since recovered from the void armies. We are greater now than we were in K’aresh.”
Though ethereals have no faces, I got the distinct impression of anger from Pazshe when Ameer made that comment about K’aresh.
“Our duty, as decreed by Nexus-Prince Kassim, is to make Salhadaar pay for its crimes. Then we shall kill Dimensius, completing that great quest once and for all. It is a pity that the Consortium is not more eager to help,” remarked Ameer. “Your nexus sent troops in our aid, once.”
“The swords and spellfire of my humble nexus can only do so much, my good Ameer. They require a great deal of finesse to be truly effective, though they are wondrous when properly used.”
“I see Haramad has not forgotten the Battle of the Clouds. Nexus-Prince Kassim had hoped it would be most educational for your master.”
“And it was, but the student does not always learn the lesson intended by the teacher.”
I am not entirely sure what to make of the Protectorate. From the account of Pazshe and other ethereals, the Ethereum had inflicted terrible damage on the Nexus trade network. The Protectorate were those ethereals who struck back, certainly a valiant position to take. Their bloody work did much (exactly how much is a matter of great debate) to preserve ethereal society.
So why is it that the Consortium and many other nexuses take such a critical opinion of the Protectorate? Pazshe’s complaint was that the Protectorate had weakened the Ethereum without destroying it.
“Why does Salhadaar still live, thousands of years after the Protectorate raised its swords? I do not wish to speak ill of Kassim’s character, but the facts must be faced. The Protectorate once had great wealth. Some of it was loaned by other nexuses, but much came from Kassim’s trade policies and wise rule. Today? That fortune is nearly gone. Salhadaar is the only thing Kassim has left. Kassim may indeed defeat the Ethereum. The nexus creditors that follow may not be so easily thwarted,” said Pazshe.
“Does the Protectorate owe much to the Consortium?”
“Nexus-Prince Haramad was among Kassim’s most loyal supporters. Two-thousand Consortium soldiers followed the Protectorate banner on the world of Ilzenzir, where stalks of living glass pierce an eternal layer of yellow clouds. Kassim promised to deal the Ethereum a decisive blow in that lovely world. Those 2,000, brave and true to the last, marched to their deaths. Kassim will need to give many relics to repay the Consortium for those lost lives, and we are far from its only creditors.”
“Is the Ethereum rich? Perhaps the Protectorate could loot the Ethereum holdings after a victory.”
“The Ethereum has less power than the Protectorate. The two factions have crippled one another.”
Yusik, an ethereal who only recently joined the Protectorate, gave a rather different account.
“I fear that Pazshe and its noble master forget that the Consortium would not even exist without Nexus-Prince Kassim. I take it you have not learned the histories of the Great Collapse, the term given to the era when Salhadaar plundered at will.”
“I have not.”
“Calling it the Great Collapse has become inconvenient for political reasons, but the name is apt. It was a time of terror. We had just finished a new world in the Twisting Nether, our great Nexus Network. As Dimensius had done to K’aresh (may that world be long-remembered!), Salhadaar threatened to do to the Network. The ethereals have still not recovered from Salhadaar’s raids! Why do you think so many have turned to banditry and wickedness? That was the only way for them to survive; to strike quickly and without thought of righteousness. The nexuses who relied on legitimate trade did so at great risk, though they deserve much credit for doing so.”
“From what I have heard, the objection seems to lie more with Kassim’s performance rather than its motivations.”
“A fine statement,” it scoffed. “Who else among the nexus-princes even had the courage to take arms against Salhadaar?”
“The Consortium did lend troops,” I pointed out.
“They did, only to stop once they met real opposition. None deny the Battle of the Clouds was a disaster, one of several. Such is the nature of war. I fear that the nexuses forget that war is an ugly business. If you send your subjects to fight, you must expect some casualties.”
“That is true. I take it that, were the Protectorate to abandon its efforts, the Ethereum would again become a danger?”
“Without us, Salhadaar will surely regain its strength. The Great Collapse could well happen a second time.”
My access to ethereal history is very limited. That said, most records agree that Kassim’s planning was often poor. The Battle of the Clouds was just one of many catastrophic losses. At the same time, there seems little doubt that Salhadaar came very close to destroying the Network. Though many ethereals try to downplay the effects of the Great Collapse, one does not need to read between the lines to realize the devastation it caused. Even Pazshe acknowledged that the less scrupulous nexuses became that way largely due to the Collapse’s impact on ethereal society.
I hesitate to offer analysis of this situation, as there is still a great deal I do not know. I suspect, however, that the Protectorate would be of greater benefit if the reputable nexuses exerted more control over the war effort. Regrettably, the nexuses do not seem to really care. Yusik’s criticism was valid; the nexus-princes were and are perfectly content to let the Protectorate do all of the work.
Kassim still bears a great deal of the blame. That nexus-prince developed a reputation for unpredictable and erratic behavior. This, combined with its poor strategic acumen, gave its peers good cause to distrust the Protectorate. Those that might have been inclined to work with Kassim found themselves repelled by the Protectorate leader’s obnoxious behavior.
This may ultimately be a moot point. The Protectorate still holds the upper hand against the Ethereum and will probably destroy it in the (relatively) near future. Some ethereals are concerned with what the Protectorate might do after its victory. Kassim commands an army of battle-hardened soldiers. These warriors care little for the mercantile ethos that guides normal ethereal society. If Kassim or the other nexus-princes integrate the soldiers into normal life, things shall proceed smoothly. If they fail to do this, the suddenly purposeless Protectorate army may well pose a danger to the Network. The orcs might face a similar problem if the Burning Legion and Scourge are ever defeated. Warrior societies often end up seeking conflict, to the detriment of all involved.
I was surprised to learn that Pazshe next intended to speak with Ethereum representatives.
“From what you and Ameer have said, it sounds like the Ethereum would attack you on sight,” I said.
“Have no fear, Destron, for Salhadaar has not completely forgotten etiquette. My presence is merely a courtesy from Nexus-Prince Haramad. I would besmirch my master’s good name if I left without saying hello. If it eases your concern, know that even the Protectorate made a brief exchange with the Ethereum upon their arrival here in Netherstorm.”
The Ethereum Staging Grounds are not far from the Protectorate Watch Post, and takes about a day to reach. The storm intensifies along the road. Strange lights flicker on the edge of the island as the wind, heard but not felt, turns into an ear-splitting moan. Ultris Island is the worst affected by the storm’s effects, and may not exist for much longer.
As we neared the western portion of Ultris, Pazshe extended its right arm and conjured its master’s sigil. This, it explained, would let the Ethereum know that we came as emissaries. We had not gone much farther when a pair of sword-wielding ethereals floated out from the shadows behind a massive boulder. I could still see their natural incandescence through their wrappings, but they glowed dimmer than any of the other ethereals I had seen. Pazshe raised the icon as a precaution and our greeters stopped, hovering in front of us. They studied us for awhile before turning around and beckoning for us to follow. We soon arrived at the ghastly Ethereum Staging Grounds.
My experience in the Stormspire and the Protectorate Camp led me to think that the ethereals placed a high priority on aesthetics. Their settlements use the sparse layout to great benefit, creating scenes of elegant minimalism. This is not the case with the Ethereum. Machines of every imaginable variety are scattered without order on the rocky shelf, shooting out little bursts of electricity. I began to develop a mild headache upon entering the area. I glanced at Unota to see her grimacing in discomfort.
Much of the Staging Grounds are covered in shallow pools of blue slime, ringed by similarly-colored piles of plasticine sludge. I could tell it was some kind of a mana byproduct, though I could not tell what kind.
“Pazshe, you said this place was safe!” hissed Unota. “My skull is going to break open!”
“Servants of the nexus-king, your attention please! My friend is feeling ill; may I take her away from your base?” inquired Pazshe.
The guards did not even turn back to acknowledge its request. Pazshe tried again, sounding quite surprised. After a failed third attempt, it turned to Unota.
“I fear they are deaf to our need. My apologies Unota; I did not know the Ethereum base would be in such disarray. The energies in the air here are only dangerous to flesh-friends after weeks of continual exposure. I promise you that we shall leave as soon as possible.”
“I should just leave on my own then. My gun protects me.”
“You are a skilled fighter, but I do not now how the Ethereum will react to you leaving. Not even your skill can defeat them. Please, I beg you. Stay here with us. I shall make appropriate recompense for this disgraceful incident.”
The soldiers took us to a quartet of stone spikes in the center of their camp. Strands of violet light crossed between the points of the stones, glass crates set in stacks on the ground. I gathered it was some kind of storage area.
“Strange behavior,” mused Pazshe.
“Have you ever met the Ethereum before?” I asked.
“I have not, but no one else has been received in this way.”
Fortunately, we did not have long to wait. A robed ethereal approached us, flanked by a pair of soldiers. Just like the first Ethereum minions we saw, they gave off noticeably less light than normal. The robed ethereal genuflected, and Pazshe returned the gesture.
“How privileged are we that unknowable chance has delivered you to our holdings in this lost realm. We can see that the Consortium has made many friends in this land already; I, Ibar, lowly servant of Nexus-King Salhadaar, offer a humble welcome,” announced one of the ethereals.
“The privilege is mine, noble servant of the illustrious nexus-king. Indeed, my only sorrow is that this encounter must come at a time of so much strife. I am Pazshe, Consortium ambassador in the service of the wise Nexus-Prince Haramad. My brave companions are Destron Allicant of the Forsaken, and Unota of Shattrath City.”
“Many welcomes to you, fleshlings. As dictated by the ancient laws of reception, we welcome you to our fortress though only for a short time. Even the best of the old laws must be suspended for the war that exists between our nations.”
“My respect to you for steadfastly maintaining this fine tradition. I regret to say that Unota is taking ill, so I must conclude my business here as quickly as possible.”
“The nexus-king sends its regrets to your fleshling companions. I shall not keep you waiting. However, my master does not receive any visitors who are not of the Ethereum. Simply inform me of your master’s wishes and intentions, and I shall relay the message to the nexus-king.”
“Oh.” Pazshe seemed momentarily at a loss, but it soon recovered. “Nexus-Prince Haramad, Trader of the Far Regions, Guardian of the Ways, and Friend to the Flesh, mourns that it cannot call your great master, Nexus-King Salhadaar, Supreme Lord of the Ethereal Race and Glorious Light Eternal, a friend. Cruel obligation forces the nexus-prince to regard your master, that most noble of souls, as an enemy. As such, any further encounters between our two peoples shall be on the field of battle.”
“Alas! The nexus-king laments this sad turn of events. Yet my master must also serve the whims of history, and has no choice but to accept Nexus-Prince Haramad as a most worthy opponent.”
The two ethereals bowed again.
“The truth is known, and our business is done. I shall tell my master of this sad news, as well as the gracious hospitality offered by its enemies,” said Pazshe.
“I fear, good Pazshe, that I must delay you but a little while longer. I must report your words to my own master—merely a formality. However, it must know all that happens in this camp. Wait here, and I shall return with gifts.”
Ibar bowed and left with its guards.
“What is this? My head hurts worse than ever, and you stand here making fancy talk with the Ethereum! I do not want to see Ibar’s gifts!” shouted Unota.
“Nor do I. Unota, I promise that I shall do everything in my power to return you safely. To do any less would be an insult to my master. Let us wait a little while longer. I still do not think the Ethereum will take hostile action against us. If they do, I will fight to the death to protect you. Nexus-Prince Haramad promises protection, and I shall fulfill that promise through any means necessary.”
Pazshe’s musical voice seldom revealed any emotion besides wry amusement, but those words burned with sincerity. The ethereals take duty to an art form. In that sense, at least, they are not so different from the blood elves.
Ibar’s short wait ended up lasting quite a long time. Unota sat on the ground, closing her eyes and massaging her temples. Her pain was real but did not seem to be the sign of a serious condition. An agitated Pazshe stalked around the enclosure, its inner light glaring brighter than normal.
“This is very strange behavior,” said Pazshe again.
“What’s gotten you so disturbed?” I asked.
“It is the pleasure and right of all ethereal leaders to meet new people and learn from them. Guests like ourselves should be speaking to Nexus-King Salhadaar, not waiting here. I cannot imagine why it would not wish to see us. It should at least want to see you.”
“Perhaps it fears us? I doubt we pose a real danger, but monarchs are susceptible to paranoia. Salhadaar seems like it might even have some justification for such an attitude.”
“That may actually be the case, though perhaps not in the way that you mean.”
“Then in what way?”
“What Salhadaar may truly fear is encountering new viewpoints. The typical ethereal makes a point of cultivating as many personalities as possible, but perhaps Salhadaar only wants a few. To one as single-minded as itself, Salhadaar might view other personalities as an unwelcome distraction from its endless quest.
“Think of it, Destron!” Pazshe continued, “Ibar even said that few in the Ethereum could speak to outsiders. Salhadaar does not wish any of his followers to develop new ideas. Instead they simply recycle the ones they already possess, not bothering to analyze or refine them!”
“But what of Ibar?”
“The nexus-king keeps a few normal ethereals on hand in order to facilitate dealings with other nexuses, but no more than absolutely necessary. Admittedly this is just speculation, but it explains many of Salhadaar’s actions. Isolation breeds madness. What Salhadaar has done, if this theory is true, is to isolate the entirety of its nexus. Monstrous! I could not imagine a more absolute betrayal of ethereal culture.”
For the ethereals, Salhadaar’s refusal of visitors was a total inversion of their most cherished values. A terrestrial equivalent might be if Warchief Thrall suddenly advocated the virtues of cowardice. There was real horror in Pazshe’s voice.
Ibar at last returned to us and apologized for the delay and said we were free to depart. Pazshe inquired as to why Salhadaar did not wish to meet in person. Ibar excused its master, citing the many duties of royalty. The Ethereum henchman also delivered the gifts it earlier promised: three necklaces that appeared to be made of violet lightning, though with a silken texture. Each carried an immaterial pendant of green haze.
Ibar escorted us away from the Ethereum Staging Grounds. It bowed one final time at the edge and left us for good. Unota sighed in relief.
“The pain is gone.”
“Nevertheless, you still deserve compensation. We can arrange for a suitable reward once we return to the Stormspire. You as well, Destron, for your forbearance.”
“I did not mind at all, I found it very interesting.”
“As did I, though I took no pleasure in it. At most a sort of horrified fascination. How can an ethereal lose all interest in others? I have not seen anything like that in all my years. Even the most deceitful and capricious ethereal knows the importance of interaction. Some scholars warn that the ethereals have reached a moral nadir. Perhaps though, it can get much worse.”
“The Ethereum is weak, is it not?” I pointed out. “They shall soon be gone, and their attitude condemned. Besides, you have behaved in accordance with your traditions. As long as there are ethereals such as yourself, the race will thrive.”
Pazshe turned to me. I like to think that, if it had a face, it would have smiled.
“Ah, well I shall not burden you with my dreary concerns any further. In the Consortium, at least, honor and wonder still rule. Let us begin the journey back to the Stormspire, and we shall trade stories of the worlds we have traveled.”
“A magnificent idea.”
On that joyful note, we began the journey back to the eco-domes.