Thursday, April 3, 2008
Unseen forces pushed our boat towards the mournful shoreline of the Ghostlands. A misty drizzle fell, obscuring our view of the beach. My compatriots cheered when they saw the ruined grandeur of Windrunner Village, its graceful manses and gardens overtaken by the spectral forest.
A centuries-old elven vessel had picked me up from the rotting northern shore of Tirisfal, along with twelve other Forsaken. Called the Dawn Defiant, the ship carried us through the chill waters of the Northern Sea. Like all things elven, arcane energies powered the Dawn Defiant. The captain of the ship, Kelisendra Noonblaze, had welcomed us aboard. Her family had once been retainers to House Goldenmist, the previous owners of the ship. That lineage had been slaughtered to the last by the Scourge. Portraits of the fallen nobles graced the hold, and Captain Kelisendra uttered a blessing before them each day at dawn.
The boat came to a stop on a thin strand of beach. Our Dark Lady had once sprinted down those sands as a youth, racing her sisters Alleria and Vereesa. In those days, the Ghostlands were called Summer’s Grace, a fitting name for the verdant sylvan paradise. A strange place for so much death to occur. Now, white trees spread heavy limbs beneath a gloomy sky. Oily black leaves weigh down the branches, though some are bare and skeletal. Glowing green molds mottle the trunks, and bloated mushrooms burst from the roots.
“These are blessed lands. Our Dark Lady once ruled here, and here she shall rule again!” intoned Ulsar-of-the-Night.
Ulsar was a priest of the Cult of the Forgotten Shadow, the leader of four robed and babbling acolytes. The Shadow had risen in Undercity, acting as a dark inverse to the Holy Light that had once ruled Lordaeron. This faith preaches that the individual can attain great power, and in so doing change the world to suit his own desires. While probably preferable to the hopelessness felt by many Forsaken, the Shadow lacks the redemptive qualities that a religion should possess.
The Cult of the Forgotten Shadow embraces disunity. There can be no heresy, for there is no orthodoxy. Ulsar-of-the-Night led an influential sect that very nearly deified Lady Sylvanas Windrunner. They saw her as a path to power followed by the wise and strong. Through blackened lips, Ulsar gave paeans to his mistress’ might.
One of the elves raised his hand and fired a brilliant arcane light into the air. The purpose was to alert a quartet of farstriders who would escort us to the besieged elven town of Tranquilien, deep within the Ghostlands. They watched from somewhere on the beach, waiting for their decaying charges.
The farstriders appeared soon enough, melting out from the shadows. Unlike the ostentatiously styled Sunhawks I’d encountered in Bloodmyst, the farstriders dressed in practical forest garb. A pair of tamed lynxes accompanied them, their golden eyes examining us with suspicion.
“We are honored to host the followers of Lady Windrunner,” said the leader. “I am Belistus Highstar, a lieutenant of the farstriders. I’m afraid we must leave this place now; the Scourge still holds Windrunner Village. Please, follow us.”
Weeds and toadstools grow from the soft soil in the forest dark, barely visible under the canopy of diseased branches. The farstriders led the way, cutting a path with enchanted machetes. Remnants of glory sink into memory all through the Ghostlands. Lithe marble statues crumble in the grip of vines and cracked foundations drown in the cold earth.
The corruption grows more pronounced beyond the shore. Lines of green phosphorescence wind through the forest floor like fouled streams, collecting in viscous pools. Glowing fungal mounds accumulate in and around these ponds, casting a sickly light on the dead surfaces. The tainted leaves sometimes rustle as if in a breeze, but the damp air is completely still.
We came to a road and the farstriders stopped for a quick head count. Everyone had come through safely, though the path ahead did not look inviting.
“Do not tarry; we are still in dangerous lands. We shall reach sanctuary soon enough.”
We had not gone far before the forests cleared and I saw Windrunner Spire stark and black against a full moon, high up on a rock promontory. The moon shone bright and the stars glittered in the night sky, and I heard Belistus gasp.
“The stars... I have not seen them in so long. They do not often shine in the Ghostlands. Perhaps this is a good omen,” he whispered.
Two smaller towers flank the main spire, each topped with crystals of faded luster. My liberator first drew breath in that place, brought into a world of light and glory. Whatever my differences with Undercity, I shall never forget she to whom I owe my freedom and my soul. Looking around me, I saw all the Forsaken kneeling. I realized I was doing the same.
“Lady of Darkness!” bellowed one of Ulsar’s followers. The charred shadow priest murmured a prayer.
“Ulsar-of-the-Night, let us enter the spire and retake it for the Dark Lady,” urged an enthusiastic acolyte.
“Windrunner Spire is haunted, it is quite dangerous,” warned Belistus.
“Pah! The Dark Lady shall protect us—”
“The Dark Lady will protect those who are worthy of it. Those who are strong and wise. Fools are not worthy of her attention. If you go up that path, I assure you that you will meet your final death, and we will be well rid of you,” hissed Ulsar.
The acolyte froze, and then lowered his head, revealing the leather patch stitched over his scalp.
“Of course. I will gain power over time.”
“We shall see. Continue, Belistus.”
The farstrider nodded. He led us again into the forest, where dead branches obscure the stars and light comes only from the phosphorescent molds and streams. We walked through the night and all the next day. The farstriders are rightly famed for their endurance. During the Second War, they’d track orcish warbands across leagues of wilderness, kept awake and alert by pure willpower.
I observed my companions during our journey. The elves were silent, their faces set and determined. Though the eastern elves had long ago lost their immortality they still live considerably longer than humans. Barring accident or murder, a blood elf will usually live a bit beyond 300 years. Aging takes little toll on their appearance, the result of the magic that has long inundated the race.
Most of the Forsaken on the journey hailed from the various Undercity factions. In addition to Ulsar and his followers walked a pair of alchemists from the Apothecarium and a trio of Deathguard warriors. The Apothecarium had long been eager to gain access to the herbal wealth of Quel’thalas, and ardently supported incorporating the blood elves into the Horde. The Deathguard was similarly interested to learn of new methods with which to fight the Scourge.
The other two Forsaken served their own interests. Marten Ogilvy had been a soldier in life, and continued his service in undeath, acting as a contract warrior for Undercity and the Defilers. He sought work in Quel’thalas. I spoke with him while we were on the ship, but I found that hatred tinged nearly every word he spoke. Conversation with Marten quickly became tiring. The last was a gangrenous woman named Tylvia Fletch, of whom I knew little.
A deep melancholy pervades the haunted forests of the Ghostlands. Something in the air stifles conversation, perhaps the knowledge that one is surrounded by millennia of lost wonder. Unlike the noxious Plaguelands, signs of former beauty still adorn the pale forest, making its ruin all the more poignant. Generations of elves had devoted their lives to tending and beautifying the groves. The slash-and-burn campaigns of the orcs in the Second War had never extended far beyond the border. What the old Horde failed to do in five years the Scourge accomplished in less than a month.
The farstriders finally paused for a brief rest. We camped in a copse of trees near the twisted wreckage of a Scourge meat wagon. Biscuits and dried meat provided sustenance for the Farstriders, who ate it in darkness. There was no real need for a campfire.
I forced myself to break the silence, asking Belistus if the elves had any plans to restore the forest.
“We have plans aplenty. Yet we cannot put them into action until we cleanse this place of the Scourge and the trolls. Though Lady Windrunner has assured my masters that the Apothecarium may be able to help in this area.”
“This was once her homeland, as you know. She longs to see it restored, as do we all.”
“We shall do our part, when the time comes,” replied the lead apothecary, his flayed visage grinning horribly. The apothecary was a Forsaken named Joam Hartfel. He had skinned his own face to show mastery over undeath.
“I know that the Cenarion Circle has worked to cleanse Felwood and the Plaguelands. Perhaps they could also be of assistance.”
“Their restoration attempts have gone on for years, and both those places are still ruined. Besides, the Circle is ruled by night elves and tauren. To them, our forests are an abomination.”
“Because of the use of magic?”
“That is precisely why. Though considering how terrible it is now, you would think the Circle would be more willing to lend aid. A verdant magical forest ought to be preferable to a dead magical one. But they have their ideals, and we Sin’dorei have our own.”
“There is no need for the blood elves to deal with such simple and barbaric creatures. The Apothecarium shall do its utmost to serve our new friends,” said Joam.
Belistus nodded, eyeing the alchemist’s ruined face with some trepidation. Joam snickered, and returned his attentions to an alchemical manual.
The elves went to sleep while the undead kept watch. Most simply fastened their empty eyes beyond the camp’s perimeter, though Joam and Marten played a silent game of backgammon. Leaning against a tree I tried to dispel the nameless sorrows that had been weighing down on me since my arrival.
In such cases, I found it helped for me to think of Orgrimmar. I guessed it would be late morning in the Valley of Spirits, and Daj'yah was doubtless studying some ancient codex while Uthel’nay taught a novice wizard. Strange that a trollish suburb would become a new home for me, but I found myself quite satisfied with it.
Specks of gray ash drifted down on my shoulders. The green illumination of the fungi faded, replaced by a choking darkness, broken by a dull and flickering red light. In the distance, voices screamed in terror. An intangible force slowed my movement, like in a nightmare. Then I saw an impossibly beautiful elven woman running in my direction, casting fearful glances to the burning forest behind her.
Not seeing me, she knelt down and produced a glimmering amulet from her cloak. She held it briefly to her lips and whispered a prayer, before digging a small hole in the earth. Carefully placing the amulet within, she quickly buried it. Tears streamed from her eyes and she again looked back.
Then she faded, as did the flames and the cries. I stood in the damp and dying forest, alone with its pale necromantic lights. I looked down to where she had buried the amulet. I sifted aside the damp earth, but came up with nothing.
When Belistus awoke, I asked about what I had seen.
“You have seen the curse on this realm. The Ghostlands suffer from more than mere physical corruption. The spirits of the fallen rush through this land like a fel wind. Listen closely and you shall hear their lamentations. They forever live their last moments.”
“The woman I saw buried a keepsake, an amulet.”
“You saw Fyllendria, a daughter of House Silverbough. Their estate was in this area, and all were slain in the Third War. The amulet was a gift from her husband, who is buried in the graveyards of Silvermoon. We have known of this haunting for some time.”
“The amulet was never found?”
“On the contrary. A kindly magister placed the amulet on her husband’s grave. Yet her spirit still refuses to rest. The Ghostlands are full of such tales. Each haunting brings a message, or a task. But fulfillment brings no end to the torment of the fallen.”
“The sorrow here is too great. When the Sun King returns to this land and dispels the Scourge, they may at last rest. Until then, we must ignore them and keep our eyes set on victory.”
We continued marching through that tragic land. I did not see any other hauntings, but at times I heard lonely Thalassian susurrations in the air. When we again stopped for a camp, I spoke with Tylvia for the first time since Tirisfal.
“I was a child of ten when the orcs burnt Southshore to the ground. An elf saved my life. Hyrelle Dayborne was her name, a magistrix from Tranquilien. My entire family fell to the Horde—I still find it hard to believe that the orcs are truly our friends—but she set me up with a human mage couple in Dalaran. Even then Hyrelle came to see me; I looked up to her like a glorious sister. She stood with me when I married my dear, fallen Colston.”
“Is Hyrelle in Tranquilien now?”
“I do not know. Whether she is or not, I feel I owe the elves. Do you see their strength, Destron? Misery surrounds them, but still they strive for victory. They say that an elf can be either your best friend or your worst enemy, and the Scourge may have no greater enemy than they.”
“I also think if anyone can cure us of our malady, it shall be the elves. I hope I find Hyrelle though. When I was a child I dreamt of being a beautiful magistrix like herself, the first human to join the Conclave of Silvermoon. I soon found I lacked the talent to be any kind of mage, but Hyrelle never looked down on me for being a mere seamstress.”
“If I find her on my travels I shall tell her that you are looking for her.”
“Thank you, Destron. I truly appreciate that.”
She smiled, her ragged face shifting and exposing her carrion flesh.
Three days of travel brought us to the Dead Scar. This blighted strip of land marks the path Arthas’ forces took through Quel’thalas. The bones of two armies litter a blackened stretch where nothing can grow. Belistus ordered a short stop before crossing the Scar; he warned that Scourge drones always attacked those who set foot on it, and that he wanted the farstriders to be rested before making the attempt.
“You know, Belistus, perhaps we should simply go across. If any of your subordinates fall in battle I’ll be happy to resurrect them,” snickered Joam.
“Your offer is... appreciated. However, to be a farstrider one must be alive.”
“Suit yourself.” The apothecary laughed again when he saw Tylvia glaring at him.
From our vantage point I could make out the dark outline of a Scourge ziggurat. These grim structures were once ubiquitous throughout Lordaeron, though the Forsaken and the Scarlet Crusade razed many of them. The ziggurats were mere outliers of the main Scourge base to the south, a terrible place called Deatholme.
“When Arthas first went mad and burned Stratholme, the survivors fled to the north, where Quel'thalas gave them sanctuary. Those refugees were the first to die when Arthas began his campaign. Now it is the home of the Traitor,” explained Belistus.
“Do you refer to Dar’khan?”
Dar’khan had once been a powerful elven magister. His name was known in Dalaran, and there was even a plaque dedicated to him in the College of Enchantment. Dar’khan’s reasons for betraying his people remain obscure, though most say that he was driven by resentment and arrogance. None know precisely why he would resent Quel’thalas; perhaps he was simply a narcissist.
Deatholme has been mostly silent since the Third War. Death cultists still go forth from its gates to gather carrion, but Dar’khan has made no notable efforts against his former kindred. Even the Scourge’s recent incursion to the northlands brought little change to Dar’khan’s policy.
The greatest harm wrought by Deatholme is its continued poisoning of the land. The lines of green sludge meandering through the Ghostlands all start in Deatholme. Later on, I would obtain a photograph of the Scourge base from a farstrider. It is indeed a place of nightmare, where skull-topped temples and abattoirs loom over a lake of roiling necromantic slime.
Belistus finally stood up, ready to cross. Setting foot in the Dead Scar came as physical shock; a freezing cold gripped my heart as if I still lived. A quick look around revealed similar reactions in my companions. My vision dimmed and my feet felt heavy.
“Do not let the curse distract you, run!” ordered Belistus.
He did not need to tell us. Looking to up and down the Scar, I saw no Scourge presence, and began to hope we would get through without trouble.
A farstrider ahead of me shouted in alarm as a skeletal hand erupted out of the ground. He hacked it in two with his blade, as the air filled with the sound of skittering corpses. Vomited forth from the earth, the Scourge made its attack.
“Stay close together!”
Empty eyes stared at me from a plague-sloughed face, echoing hopeless groans. Three drones marched towards me, their hands outstretched. I countered with a simple fireball, the kinetic force enough to break their fragile bodies. When they fell, I noticed that their bodies sank into the ground, the dirt burying them with astonishing rapidity.
The deathguards hissed vengeance and went to work on their hated foes, cutting them to pieces as they arose. Yet I quickly realized that retreat was the only option, as more and more of the dead surfaced. With a cry, one of the farstriders fell to a pack of skeletons that had managed to separate her from the group.
“Keep moving, we’re nearly there!”
A lynx yowled in death as a skeleton’s ax split its head. One of the deathguards went down besides me, spitting curses as skeletal claws tore him apart. I aimed my spells at the larger groups shambling towards us, quickly taking them down though a few proved surprisingly resilient.
Ichor sprayed across my face. To my right, Marten had cut down a zombie that had somehow passed my notice.
Rather than ascending the slope to safety, the farstriders continued fighting to let us through. I took the rear of the column, casting the most destructive spells I had at the advancing corpses.
I feared that the Scourge would pursue us into the forest. However, the assembled Scourge halted when the last of us left the Dead Scar. They stood for a chilling moment, before collapsing into bones and viscera, burrowing back into the earth.
Two farstriders, a deathguard, and one of Ulsar’s acolytes had fallen in the dangerous crossing. Belistus was visibly shocked.
“I have never before seen so many,” he stammered. “Perhaps Dar’khan is plotting something.”
Though naturally shaken by the loss of two experienced farstriders, Belistus did not forget the purpose of his mission. He apologized for the two dead Forsaken, though Ulsar assured him that no apologies were necessary.
“They were weak. It would have happened sooner or later anyway,” he replied.
The Deathguard captain turned to Ulsar.
“Speak for yourself priest. But every Forsaken blade that falls here is one less that can go to Northrend. Even the weak may grow powerful,” he retorted.
“I beg your pardon, but this is not the time and the place. My friends did not die so that you can bicker!” shouted Belistus. I found myself nodding in agreement, though I had found Ulsar’s comment to be incredibly distasteful.
The necromantic energies in the southern half of the Dead Scar are so strong that they can effectively reanimate the skeletons and zombies slain on its surface. Scourge troops are cut down again and again, only to rise up for another attack. Only by physically removing a carcass from the Scar can it be truly removed from the Scourge's reserves. The common theory is that Dar’khan used the latent magical energy of Quel’thalas to act as a sort of undeath generator. The Dead Scar provides a grim testimony to the horrors of the Scourge.
Lanterns of pink glass floated above the assembled guests in the mansion of House Dawnwhisper, casting the sumptuous interior in a gentle light. Drapes of rich red silk hung on the walls, all proudly displaying the reborn phoenix of Silvermoon. Elegantly robed Sin’dorei nobles and retainers rested in cushioned divans and chairs throughout the room, speaking in gentle sighs and whispers, while an elven cellist played a melancholy song in the center of the room. His eyes closed, the musician lost his soul in the melody.
Lord Tersinial Dawnwhisper, an aged elf with carefully combed silver hair, got to his feet.
“It is my honor to house the servants of Lady Windrunner. However I regret to announce that the festivities must end for tonight. There are many tasks that must be performed tomorrow, and I must rest.”
I sighed, already knowing what would come next. Lord Dawnwhisper took a deep breath and raised his hands. The light from the lanterns dimmed, just as the tapestries blackened and disintegrated. Bits of quickly rotting red cloth drifted to the floor like rose petals. Reality plucked the sound from the attendants’ lips, and they too faded away.
The chamber was a far cry from what it had just been. The painstakingly crafted tables and seats were reduced to cobwebbed rubble piled beneath tattered black banners. A flickering, blood-red jewel radiated a weak and sooty light through the shadowy chamber, revealing the vines and weeds snaking across the cracked floor. Lord Dawnwhisper began to collapse and was caught just in time by Dame Auriferous Dawnwhisper, his daughter.
“Forgive my father. It was quite taxing for him to maintain the illusion. I shall take him to his personal chambers. In the meanwhile, you may rest where you choose,” she said.
Whispering in Thalassian, Auriferous put her father’s trembling arms around her shoulders and disappeared into the darkness beyond the room.
Even the most jaded of the Forsaken had been astonished at the luxury still apparent within Dawnwhisper Manor upon arrival. Tersinial was every inch the impeccable and urbane host. He almost immediately told us that it was all an illusion, and he spent most of the evening attempting to maintain it. We watched the images of dead Quel’dorei at play for hours, carefully recreated from Tersinial’s memory.
I woke early the next morning and wandered the deserted walkways of Tranquilien. The center of the town is dominated by a delicate-looking spire and a statue of two dancing elf maidens. Both showed signs of age and neglect. I spotted a pair of Forsaken in Deathguard cloaks conversing with an elven magister; the two Forsaken were not among the ones who had arrived with me.
“Both our peoples have had our civilizations ruined by the Scourge. It is only fitting that we work together to drive it out once and for all,” explained a deathguard named Ristlin.
The Forsaken presence in Tranquilien can actually be seen as the continuation of a long tradition. Quel’thalas had always looked down on the human kingdoms to the south. The isolationist elven nation jealously guarded its borders, only allowing entry to emissaries, visiting aristocrats, and a few traders. The Conclave of Silvermoon flatly forbade the merchants from entering Eversong Woods or Silvermoon City, so the human traders would do their business in Tranquilien. House Dawnwhisper, which owned Tranquilien, was one of the few elven lineages favorably disposed to humans.
While many elven villages hid in the forests, Tranquilien thrived with visitors and new ideas. Local elven artists studied the paintings and crafts brought by the merchants, and even invited a few of the more notable human artists. This resulted in the ‘Tranquilien school,’ a mix of the colorful human aesthetic and the ultra-detailed elven style. Sculpture, music, and other mediums also blossomed under the welcoming dominion of House Dawnwhisper.
Some of the merchants became almost like accepted members of the community. There were pragmatic reasons for this. Human merchants were not permitted to sell their goods in Silvermoon City. As such, Tranquilien could buy their products at a bargain and then resell it for a profit in the capital. Given the peculiar vagaries of the Quel’dorei economy, this was not quite the advantage it would have been in a human nation. Still, it helped. As a result of this intermingling, Tranquilien held the largest population of half-elves in the world until the Third War. Marriage between a human and an elf was regarded as somewhat questionable even there, but it did not meet with the outright condemnatory attitude seen in many other lands.
Unlike the rest of Silvermoon, Tranquilien maintained its ties with the Alliance after the Second War. The Dawnwhispers cited a familial obligation to continue aiding the Alliance, giving the house a legitimate reason for going against Quel’thalas’ departure from the same. A good number of the priests and sorcerers that stayed in the human kingdoms after the war hailed from Tranquilien.
Today, Tranquilien stands as a testament to its residents' resolve. The elves abandoned the town during the Scourge invasion, and a high-ranking necromancer briefly commandeered it. The Sin’dorei retook Tranquilien after a short and bloody campaign, and the town now serves as the Horde's base of operations in the Ghostlands.
Ilsenverine Skyblade was a veteran of the battle to retake Tranquilien. He was a spellbreaker, a type of elven soldier trained to combat arcanists. The Sin’dorei desperately sought ways to sate their addiction to magic after the Sunwell’s corruption. The spellbreakers, who satisfied their needs by draining hostile mages of their mana, quickly became numerous. Their stylized red armor and graceful equipment has made them icons of the blood elf race. I accompanied Ilsenverine as he made his daily patrol through the lower slopes of Sungraze Peak.
“The Aegis was reluctant to let me fight under the banner of House Dawnwhisper. Most thought Tranquilien was not worth the trouble. Even today we must continuously prove ourselves to Silvermoon.” The Aegis is the name for the blood elf army.
“I thought they would be very keen on retaking these lands,” I commented, stepping over a mushroom-encrusted log.
“The Great Houses of Silvermoon turn their gaze to Outland, where they shall soon join the Sun King. I tell you truly that my kin have little interest in this world. The shock of seeing their paradise destroyed in less than a month was too much for them.”
“What of the other houses with estates in the Ghostlands?”
“Most of those families lie under the earth—if they were lucky. Too many wander this land as slaves of the Lich King. Only Dawnwhisper and a few others wish to rebuild Quel’thalas.”
“Surely you’ve done an important task in protecting Eversong’s southern border.”
“Dame Dawnwhisper has devoted herself to it, and so have I. That is why she sought the aid of your Lady Windrunner. Alas, the elves of Eversong are fleeing from the past. Few supplies ever get here.”
“If the departure to Outland occurs, will you leave?”
“The Skyblades have always served House Dawnwhisper. My obligations lie to both the House, and to the Aegis. To the Sin’dorei as a whole, as well. I shall seek to stay here as long as I am able for this land is still dear to me. However I can never forget my masters.”
“Which would have precedence; the Aegis, or your House?”
“Before Arthas, my loyalties were to House Dawnwhisper first and foremost. Now, it is less clear. So many have died, Destron. The great lineages are gone, their bloodlines thinned. It is not proper to replace them directly, so we turn to the great institutions that have guided us.”
Quel’thalas had always appeared a very stable nation, but Ilsenverine’s reports of competing power groups suggested a more chaotic truth. I asked about this.
“The elves have great discipline. Each house served the nation that it helped create, even as it watched over and protected its subject families. We did not always agree, but we Highborne vowed to never set one house against another, back when we first came to this land. This discipline is starting to fade. All we think about is restoring our connection to the arcane. The old ways die as we hunger.”
A dense fog wreathed the village on my third day when I visited the Tranquilien cemetery. The graveyard has expanded in recent years. Like most elven graveyards, it is divided into several family plots. Each plot consists of one large marble gravestone, decorated with a blazing sun of pure gold and red-painted thorium, flanked by smaller markers.
As a student in Dalaran, I had a peculiar fascination with the magical embalming techniques practiced by the elves. This process slowed and altered the normal decay undergone by a corpse. Instead of the carcass decomposing, the practice works to dehydrate and disintegrate it over the course of centuries, until only a fine powder remains.
The coming of the Scourge made this beloved tradition impossible. More than one Tranquilien inhabitant had already told me how necromancers uprooted the ancient cemetery and reanimated the corpses within. The elves now use chemicals to reduce the body to dust upon death. This is considered supremely disrespectful, but even the most conservative Sin’dorei acknowledge its necessity.
Dame Auriferous Dawnwhisper stood alone at the graveyard. Flickering lights from countless memorial candles peeked through the mist. I stood there in silence, and was about to turn and leave when she called to me.
“You are Destron?”
“The servants of Lady Windrunner are welcome here. Come closer, if you would like.”
I walked in, giving the tombstones a respectfully wide berth.
“Each family that lies here is one that dates back to my peoples’ arrival on this land. Throughout all the challenges, House Dawnwhisper protected the Lightsong, the Sunstream, the Everflame... and others. Until we failed.”
“I take it House Dawnwhisper maintained a close relationship with its subject families?”
“All of the Great Houses do. Each Quel’dorei—or Sin’dorei—is of noble blood. The Great Houses are above the rest, but we never disregard our subjects. Doing so would be a betrayal of all we stand for.”
Yet, I would soon find that Dame Auriferous’ idyllic description was not entirely accurate. While the relations between Great Houses and their Subject Houses remained strong in Summer’s Grace, such interfamilial obligations had begun fading in northern Quel’thalas before even the First War. It must be remembered that the southern forest was not as safe as Eversong; the elves never succeeded in removing the pockets of trollish resistance along the eastern border. The greater stresses of the region worked to create a stronger community. Ironically, the human visitation in the south may have inspired the local Great Houses to hold more strongly to their ancient traditions, so as to avoid a loss of culture. While Tranquilien was relatively open to non-elven visitors, they were quite conservative in regards to their social hierarchy. These two seemingly contradictory elements probably both played a significant role in the town’s post-Scourge survival.
It would be inaccurate to say that the Highborne elves were ever egalitarian. Each family had its place in the hierarchy and could only really advance through extraordinary effort or marriage. The high elves also used their nobility as an excuse to isolate themselves from the other races, a foolish move with disastrous consequences. The lack of a strong human-elven front against the Scourge was a significant reason for the relative ease of Arthas’ victory, and the Second War was probably prolonged through early elven inaction. Even the treaty with the Horde came about mostly because of Sylvanas’ ancestry, though Sin’dorei desperation certainly played a part.
The elves have only recently reclaimed Farstrider Enclave from the forest’s grip. The last records of the place describe a refugee camp for Quel’dorei fleeing from Scourge raiders. The forest trolls, seeing an opportunity for revenge against their ancient foe, attacked and killed nearly everyone within. Parts of the compound lingered in a state of disrepair at the time of my visit.
“We have few resources, so we are forced to make do with this ruin,” lamented Belistus.
I had accompanied him into the wilderness of the eastern Ghostlands. The Scourge taint is less apparent here, but it is not without its share of dangers. Mutated bats and hunger-maddened lynxes prowl the forests, and the eternal threat of the trolls still hangs over the region.
The Farstrider Pact has a long and proud history. Though the main armies of the Amani Empire were successfully routed by the Aegis and Arathi warriors, the elven forces had great difficulty in protecting their nation from smaller troll warbands. The origins of the farstriders lie in the village militias, who soon became quite skilled in repelling troll attacks. It was only a matter of time before the farstriders were officially established as the scouting arm of the Quel’dorei defenses.
The disciplined Aegis soldiers had always looked down on the fierce but disorganized human fighters. The farstriders, who had learned much about the Lordaeronian forests from Arathi and Dromascoi trackers, came to respect humans. Patrols of elven rangers kept watch over the entire continent during the period between the fall of Arathor and the establishment of Lordaeron. They quickly struck at potential threats for the sake of Quel’thalas’ security. More than one human village owes its existence to elven aid.
“We loved the forests; the men of the Aegis would mock us and say we were low-born Kaldorei at heart, but we cared not,” said Maranelle Swiftbeam, an older farstrider. Like many elves, she had aged well, and was still in active service.
“I have heard that some farstriders even participated in the First War. Is this true?” I asked.
“Ha! I’m glad to hear that some still remember our contribution. My companions and I stalked through the Swamp of Sorrows, slaying every orc we came across. We were few in number but we did our part,” she laughed.
“I’m honored to meet a veteran of such a conflict.”
“We were not there on any official capacity, but we realized the orcs were a threat. After the First War, the Farstrider Pact petitioned the Conclave of Silvermoon to commit themselves to the Alliance. Instead, they told us to concentrate on the trolls, whom we were already fighting! None conceded our wisdom when the orcs at last laid waste to the forests here.”
The farstriders devastated Horde supply lines in the Second War. Alleria Windrunner, sister of our Dark Lady, was the greatest of these, but many other heroes arose in the conflict. After the war, the Conclave and most of the Great Houses ordered the farstriders home. Maranelle’s family had been retainers of the fallen House Fairbreeze, who were among the most inward-looking of the Great Houses. Like many Sin’dorei who had lost their Great House, she had chosen to devote herself to a neutral organization, in her case the Farstrider Pact.
When the cold chill of night falls over the Farstrider Enclave, one realizes how badly their numbers were thinned out by the Scourge. The cavernous and overgrown interior feels much too big for the handful of rangers within. A great fire in the center reveals tarnished golden statues of farstriders past. Once, magical light would have brightened the grand room. Now, the Sin’dorei make do with burning wood.
“All the arcane energies here are devoted to maintaining the perimeter,” explained Belistus. In his hand was a rococo goblet filled with sweet elven wine. I had never liked the famed wines of Quel’thalas; to me, they taste more like soured punch.
“A magical shield. I’m sure you already realize how damnably indefensible this building is.” He lowered his voice slightly. “Before the war, I was lucky enough to visit Loch Modan. I know, Sin’dorei are supposed to hate Bronzebeards, but they have some fine hunters of their own. Anyway, I’d feel much safer in a dwarven fort. I suppose I’m being disagreeable though. My apologies.”
“On the contrary, I think you are quite perceptive.”
“Thank you. But such opinions are not popular here, though you are not forbidden from voicing them. Still, I suggest caution. The farstriders are more tolerant, yet the lords of Silvermoon are quite suspicious. They act that way for the good of the race, but it can be bothersome.”
He finished the wine and made a face.
“I also confess that I rather miss dwarven beer.”
Breakfast for the farstriders consists of fruits and meat imported from Eversong. Food from the Ghostlands is not always safe for consumption. That fact, more than any other, has strained farstrider operations in the area. The other vital import are the mana tablets. These violet pills sate the mana addiction suffered by elves, and are used by those who (like the inhabitants of the Ghostlands) are too far from the mana generators of Eversong and Silvermoon to benefit from them. Most elves can get by with one a day, but arcanists must take two or even three.
I saw Belistus conferring with another farstrider, whose medals suggested high rank. Belistus looked tense as he spoke, and he pointed to me. He came to me a short while later.
“Is something the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing terrible. Obnoxious perhaps. Some time ago, my patrol encountered a motley crew of bandits operating along the shores of Lake Elrendar. I established a sort of truce with them. Their leader sent a messenger last night; they wish to confer with me.”
“You’re their liaison here?”
“Only by fate’s whim. You may come with me if you wish; I would like to have an arcanist with me.”
“I will gladly accompany you, though I am curious why you do not take a magister.”
“You are the only mage at the enclave, currently. We must depart soon; the bandits are camping out on Sungraze Peak, and I’d prefer to get there before nightfall if possible.”
Two other farstriders accompanied Belistus and I up to Sungraze Peak. Though I’m quite clumsy in comparison to elven rangers I was at least able to keep pace as we marched up the misty slopes.
Sungraze Peak had been one of the last Amani strongholds west of the mountains. The forested hills hid ancient tombs which the troll warriors swore to defend. After Zul’aman fell and Quel’thalas sequestered itself from the rest of the world, the elven people fought a long and difficult battle to clear out the mountain. The elves found little succor in victory, and abandoned Sungraze after pacifying it. The trolls returned after the Third War. The Scourge necromancers had never bothered to plunder the tombs.
Belistus told me of his contact, a human brigand named Budd Nedreck.
“Budd is a very dangerous man. However, his interests lie in the trollish ruins. He is a looter. The truth is that the Sin’dorei have a weak grip in this region, and we cannot refuse help.”
“There is no political difficulty in regards to his being a human?”
“Budd is no friend of the Alliance. If he ever returned to human lands he’d doubtless swing from the gallows. Do not do anything unless I give the order. Budd has no reason to turn on me, but his kind cannot be trusted.”
I nodded in agreement.
“We’re nearly here.”
Belistus pointed to a cluster of wooden huts, covered by branches and leaves. For a moment, I thought it was a bandit camp, but a closer inspection revealed it to be a troll outpost. The inhabitants were dead, their corpses piled in a moldering heap.
“As I said, a dangerous man. He makes his base in a tomb near here.”
One of the farstriders whispered to Belistus, pointing down below. To my shock, I saw a tauren emerge from a copse, followed by two humans. Belistus took out a small silver horn and let out a brief, clarion call. Standing up from the brush he hailed the bandits.
“You speak Common?” demanded one of them.
“I can. We are here to see your master.”
“Right. Get down here and we’ll take you to him.”
We were guided through an intimidating corbel arch chiseled into the mountainside. There, in an ancient tomb thousands of years old, a gang of toughs drank and caroused. Their filthy bodies brushed up against exquisite bas-reliefs of jade and turquoise. Some of them took the time to chip off the gemstones.
I bear no love for the cruel Amani berserkers that terrorized the Alliance during the Second War. However, I have deep respect for history, and words cannot describe the disgust I felt when seeing Nedreck’s thugs ruin such a priceless treasure.
The bandits were indeed a mismatched bunch. I even spotted a trio of wildly tattooed jungle trolls; their markings identified them as being of the Bloodscalp Tribe. The corridor went silent when we entered, countless cruel faces studying the newcomers.
“They’re friends, no need to worry,” came a voice from the back.
A muscular human with a carefully trimmed red beard strode out of the darkness. A battered gold circlet of Amani make rested upon his brow.
“Sir Nedreck,” greeted Belistus.
“Belistus, I appreciate you taking the time to come up here.”
“I suspected your summons would be important. What is it that concerns you?”
“Very little concerns me!” he laughed. “But there may be something here of concern to you. The Amani tribes are on the move. The old cities boom with war drums. They’re planning something. I know they’ve become restive in recent months.”
“There have been encounters between our forces.”
“I’ve always admired the Quel’dorei talent for euphemism,” Budd chuckled. “They say Zul’jin is leading an army of trolls from the mountains and the forests beyond. Hundreds of warriors in Zul’aman, screaming for elven blood.”
Budd was clearly trying to discomfit Belistus. If he was succeeding, Belistus gave no sign.
“We are well aware of this, Sir Nedreck. A few hundred trolls pose no threat to Silvermoon.”
“I’m sure, forgive me, I just wanted to make sure. Would I be right, though, in saying you would not want to be bothered by these trolls?”
“That would be accurate.”
“I thought as much. I have friends coming up here who can help with this problem; you won’t have to dirty your hands with it. They’re a good bunch, quite capable when it comes to combat. I wanted to inform you of this.”
“I do not make decisions for who can or cannot enter Quel’thalas. You’d best try Silvermoon for that.”
“Silvermoon knows; I have contacts all along Murderer’s Row. I’m just telling you for the sake of common courtesy. I thought you’d find it a bit of a treat to come up here and see what I’ve done with this place. The Amani are vicious, but they won’t win this fight.”
“What is your ultimate intent with this makeshift army?”
“We’re going to sack Zul’aman. There’s lots of wealth still in there, not to mention items of great... juju, I think they call it.”
“The Farstrider Pact appreciates your information.”
“I don’t imagine that my men will ever cross paths with yours. Of course, you’ll be leaving for Outland soon enough. I hope that goes well for you, by the way.”
“I do not know when we will be leaving. It may not be for some time.”
“Then perhaps I’ll again experience your inestimable company,” snickered Budd.
The two went off to another room, so that Belistus could examine some of Budd’s plans. In the meanwhile, I explored the tomb, hoping to see what I could before the robbers degraded it any further.
Very few written records exist of imperial Amani culture. The elves destroyed most of the codices, and those few that survived were often burned by the trolls themselves. There was apparently some sort of backlash against literacy and urban Amani culture after the Troll Wars.
The violent tendencies of the modern forest trolls are not so different from the ways of their ancestors, who were always more aggressive than their Gurubashi cousins to the south. The Amani emperor was an absolute leader whose whim was law. The Thousand-Feather Throne of Gurubashi, on the other hand, had to heed the words of priests, warriors, chieftains, and scholars.
The Amani interred their vaunted warrior priests in cyclopean mausoleums, such as the one seized by Budd’s men. I marveled at the precise designs carved into the walls and ceiling, every inch engraved with symbols. Religious iconography is ubiquitous. The Amani had worshipped the same Loa as the other trolls, but they had tended to revere specific aspects, with animal totems more suitable for the north. Their Hireek was an eagle, their Ula-Tek a dragonhawk, their Bethekk a lynx, and so forth.
I noticed another tauren guard, staring off into space. Curious, I asked him how he had come to the Ghostlands. He gave no response.
“The bull-men don’t say much, you’re wasting your time,” shouted a goblin.
“How did they get here?”
“The bulls? Ah, the Venture Company found some tauren exiles. Exiles are kicked out of their tribes, and they’re usually insane. The Venture people gave them some potion that settles the craziness. Makes them stupid, but they can be pretty vicious when they’re told.”
That was a lie. Exiles are incredibly rare; too rare and far apart to have been gathered by even the Venture Company. I am certain that they were normal tauren kidnapped from their tribes.
I brought this to Belistus’ attention as we left.
“Destron, I cannot do anything about this. I despise Budd, yet I have no choice but to tolerate him. Perhaps if the tauren send their braves over here to help, we could get rid of him.”
I also wondered how the Revantusk Tribe would react to news of Zul’jin leading an army. Though the Revantusk are of the Horde, there is no question that the old Amani warlord is an enemy. His berserkers and hexxers pose a threat to all the Horde. Furthermore, he is a despicable killer. Zul’jin slaughtered elven families and skinned human prisoners alive. The world will be a better place if Budd Nedreck and Zul’jin manage to kill each other.