Monday, August 18, 2008
Zangarmarsh: Part 2
Eight days of unbroken Zangarmarsh wilderness made me forget what it felt like to be dry. I have always enjoyed the rain, but I was getting thoroughly sick of it after marching through the constant deluge. Though less odious than Hellfire’s demon stink, Zangarmarsh was starting to wear on me.
The warriors of Thrallmar made mention of a troll village called Zabra’jin, deep in the swamps. Reaching it would pose its share of risks. Central Zangarmarsh is a dangerous place, almost untouched by civilization. Wild beasts, Lost Ones, and naga roam at will through the mushroom forests. I was particularly disturbed to hear rumors of skirmishes between Horde and Alliance militias. They allegedly fought over the Twin Spire Ruins, a graveyard for draenic warriors who fell in the Ogre War. Luck was with me; I did not encounter a single partisan from either faction.
My long trek gave me ample opportunity to see some of the land’s strange denizens. I had a close encounter with a predatory species called the marshfang. Notable in being one of the few non-fungal life forms, these flying creatures dart between the mushroom stalks. They have a manta ray shape similar to the sporebat, though without the hypnotic lights and vivid colors.
The marshfang diet consists of carrion and small creatures (both fungal and animal), and they are highly territorial. This results in occasional conflicts with sapient races. A marshfang slammed me off the road on the fourth day of my trek. There was a confused flurry of sharp fangs and swishing tails before I got a good look at my attacker. A frost nova dropped the creature, and I made my escape while it lay immobile.
I was nine days into the thirteen-day journey to Zabra’jin when I saw a brilliant sphere of light shining through a fungal thicket. At the time, I was in the middle of crossing a decaying bridge. The light bobbed in and out of sight a few times before coming around the bend of the stream.
Dubbed the King of the Swamp, the marsh walkers live up to the title. Standing as tall as towers, these majestic fungal creatures stride slowly and deliberately down the innumerable streams of Zangarmarsh. The marsh walkers ambulate on three delicate and elongated legs, on top of which is an organ-like structure that holds its primitive brain. Their telltale light emanates from an incandescent stub at the front. Lengthy tendrils dangle from the body, snapping into the waters to grab prey; mostly plankton, fish, and the occasional frog.
I hurried to the edge of the bridge as the marsh walker stepped over it, not deigning to notice me. The marsh walkers attack any large animal that gets too close, including other walkers. Keeping one’s distance assures safety.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I at last heard the driving beat of trollish drums booming in the dark. Sure enough, I reached Zabra’jin the next day. Zabra’jin is a ramshackle village built in a copse of large zangarstalks. The trolls had assembled plank huts that clung tenaciously to the stems, connected to each other by suspension bridges.
I waved to a pair of troll warriors at the entrance. They responded with icy glares.
“Hello warriors. I’ve come a long way to get here; don’t the Darkspears respect hospitality?” I spoke in Zandali, hoping my studies of that ancient tongue would carry me through.
“For sure, but what are you? Some corpse that jumped up out of its grave?” snarled one. I was quite confused.
“I am Forsaken. You know that.”
“Cha! You go on in then, but remember this: we are far away from Orgrimmar. Here in Zabra’jin, you live by our rules and our rules alone. Tread carefully if you want to stay undead.”
“I always take care to respect the wishes of my host,” I said as I entered. I was puzzled and, to be honest, a bit hurt. Such a reaction was not what I expected.
Beyond the palisade are the crude but sturdy huts in which the trolls make their homes. Trolls wandered to and fro, nearly all carrying spears or axes. There was not a friendly face to be seen. Having spent so much time amongst the relatively cosmopolitan trolls of Orgrimmar, I had forgotten that the jungle tribes loathe undeath. Even in Orgrimmar, only the trolls of the Darkbriar Lodge truly consider me a friend. The rest just politely tolerate me. While those in Sen’jin and Shadowprey Villages had been civil enough, they may have acted that way only out of obligation.
The Zabra’jin trolls allowed me to stay in the village’s common house, as per jungle troll custom. Scowling idols of minor Loa flank the bridge leading to the rambling structure. I felt like I was stepping back into a primal and atavistic past. Smoke lingers in the darkness of the common house, inhabited by a pair of trolls sitting near an active fire pit. They scowled when they saw me.
“Dead man!” one said in Orcish. “Dead human! If you know what’s good for you, you won’t be going up to the second floor. Shadow Hunter Denjai is there, and he won’t want to see you unless you have reason to be there. Do you hear me?”
“I’ll stay on the ground floor,” I replied.
I sat cross-legged under a weird wooden mask mounted on the wall, disheartened and soaking wet. The trolls chatted in Zandali, too quickly for me to understand. A third troll came in after a little while. As he got closer to the fire I was surprised to recognize him as Tobra’nay. Tobra’nay had been one of the apprentice mages at Darkbriar Lodge. He had attended a few of my lectures. I did not know him very well, though he had told me of his reassignment to Outland with great pride.
“Yes, Tobra’nay! I’m glad to see you again.”
“Uh, as am I, Destron.” He cast a nervous glance at the two other trolls in the room. They stared at him in return. “I saw you come in to the village. Some of us would like to see you. If you would follow me?”
Curious, and happy to escape the common house, I did. Back in the rain, Tobra’nay walked to a zangarstalk with a small hut attached to the stem. He climbed up a rope ladder hanging from the side of the hut, and motioned for me to do the same. Once I was seated comfortably within the bare interior, Tobra’nay explained the situation.
“The politics here in Zabra’jin are none too friendly, I fear. They’re happy to receive orcs and tauren, but Denjai hates the Forsaken and the blood elves.”
“I’m happy to see you’ve kept your senses at least.”
“That’s what they taught me to do back in Darkbriar,” laughed Tobra’nay. “Not everyone here is happy with Denjai. No one planned it this way, but most of Denjai’s friends live on the ground, while those who don’t like him so much live up here. They call us mushroom trolls, because they say our heads are soft like mushroom caps.”
Tobra’nay took me to another hut, connected to his by a bridge. This was the home of Shoraka, the de facto leader of the so-called mushroom trolls. A wise female shaman, she stressed that she and the other mushroom trolls followed Denjai’s orders.
“Tell me, Destron. What do the orcs say about us in Thrallmar?”
“I never heard much mention of Zabra’jin.”
“General Nazgrel said that Zabra’jin was to be built on the northern bank of the Lagoon, many miles to the east. But Denjai, he say that the spirits guided him here. Who are we to argue with a shadow hunter?”
“Nazgrel has accepted this?”
“He’s got his hand in other problems right now. To make things right with old Nazgrel, wily Denjai sent some trolls to built a base far to the east, Swamprat Post it’s called. Everyone there is a mushroom troll, glad to have put Zabra’jin behind them.”
“Do you think Denjai had an ulterior motive for building Zabra’jin so deep in the west? Or did the spirits really tell him to do it?”
“Shadow hunters can better hear the spirits of the dead than can we shamans. Those were the ones Denjai heard. I deal with the swamp spirits, and they don’t much care where we live. Denjai has his own plans, and he makes no secret of them.”
“What is that?”
“A new homeland for the trolls, with Zabra’jin as its heart. Denjai is a brave troll, driven by mad passions. He studied under old Rokhan himself. Denjai respects the orcs, but he fears that his people will become like the orcs. You ever been to Sen’jin Village?”
“Actually I have.”
“After Zalazane threw the Darkspear out of the Echo Isles, some wanted to stay in Durotar, others to go back. Denjai was thinking we should return to the islands. No reason to live so close to the orcs. But the sages spoke and decided to remain in Durotar.”
In fact, I was present during one of the debates over that very subject. Had Denjai been in the audience?
“Do you support this effort of a troll homeland in Zangarmarsh?”
“To live here? Yes, I am for that. But we should not distance ourselves from our friends.”
Shoraka and the mushroom trolls seemed generally content to stay, satisfied that they were at least helping the interests of tribe and Horde. I spent four reasonably pleasant days in Zabra’jin, generally staying to the upper levels. The departure to Swamprat Post had vacated a number of the mushroom huts, giving me a place to sleep. Though cramped, it was preferable to the menacing common house.
Tobra’nay had progressed admirably in his arcane ability. He said that Outland was a harsh and effective teacher. Though proud to be serving in Outland, he clearly missed Orgrimmar.
From talking with the trolls on the upper levels, I soon learned that Denjai lurked behind every word and action. Though not always comfortable with Denjai’s actions, Shoraka and her faction all held him in the highest regard.
“After Denjai learned all he could from Master Rokhan, he sailed the seas back to Stranglethorn. This was when the war drums beat fierce in the jungle night, and the holy men of Zandalar said ‘No more!’ to the Soulflayer’s bloody priests,” sang-spoke Shoraka, early in the second evening.
“Denjai made himself a grand terror to the tribes there, that much is for certain. And as they feared him, some grew to love him. When Denjai returned to Durotar he brought seventeen fierce hunters with him; Bloodscalp, Skullsplitter, and even a few blaspheming Gurubashi. They followed his banner.”
“Are they still with him?”
“Two died in Hellfire. Four more have died here. The rest live. The Darkspear weren’t much respected by the other tribes, but so great was Denjai that they forgot their scorn.”
Praise followed every criticism. The criticism certainly seemed valid. Zabra’jin’s planned location to the east would have made it much easier for it to receive supplies. No ready supply of it exists in the marsh.
Zabra’jin’s also in the middle of hostile territory. The trolls there must contend with ogres, naga, Lost Ones, and the occasional Alliance partisan, not to mention hostile fauna. Though the valiant troll warriors are up to the task, their efforts would be better spent elsewhere. The people of Zabra’jin must go on constant patrols in order to forage and maintain security.
However, I believe that Denjai knew that building Zabra’jin so far west would be quite risky. He was willing to deal with these obstacles in order to achieve his stated goal of a new troll homeland. Denjai believed that he and his followers were capable of surviving in such a treacherous land, and so far he’s been proven right. At the same time, this does not negate the criticisms against Denjai. Though beneficial to his faction’s political aims, the fact remains that he is not helping the Horde as much as he could. This might not be so terrible under different circumstances. However, since Outland is primarily a military operation, military discipline must hold sway.
Unfortunately, the Horde’s warrior ethos serves to silence most complaints. Orc and troll alike would be impressed with Denjai’s accomplishments. Certainly it’d be impractical to demand Zabra’jin’s relocation at this point in time. The whole issue does underline the problem of warrior worship prevalent in some parts of the Horde. The social arrangement of Zabra’jin is atypical for trolls. The village populace consists mostly of warriors, a fair number of whom hail from different tribes. These people are more likely to support a character like Denjai. The more diffuse and democratic structure in normal troll villages is absent.
I did not actually see Denjai until the third night. It is not an experience that I shall ever forget. That night, a crashing downpour drowned out the usual Zangarmarsh drizzle. Just before dusk, I heard a cheer rise up from the village beneath my hut.
Going out the door, I looked down at the gates from where the sound originated. A mob of warriors was filing into the village, their bright red facial paint visible through the rain, raising their arms in the air as if in celebration. Most were trolls, though I spotted a few orcs. The people of Zabra’jin shouted and rejoiced around them.
Tobra’nay had also gone out to see what was happening.
“What’s the occasion?” I called out to him.
“The Raptor Fangs. They’re, uh, warriors. The Raptor Fangs aren’t officially part of the Horde defenses here. They go out to the Twin Spire Ruins, hunting around for Alliance mercenaries.”
I sighed, suddenly quite disappointed.
“The Raptor Fangs are led by Denjai’s personal bodyguards. You know, Bloodscalps and the like. Very fierce warriors, and some have powers of the spirit. Never ever cross them!”
An ecstatic drumbeat rattled up from the village. A horn blew shrilly from the shadows. The entire town filtered out of their huts, forming on the sides of the Raptor Fangs who’d begun to dance in a procession towards the common house.
Tobra’nay said that such an occasion demanded the entire town’s presence. I figured I wouldn’t be welcome, so I went back into my hut. No more than a few minutes had passed when I heard Tobra’nay’s voice from below.
“Destron! Master Denjai says he wants you in the village. This is for all the Horde to see.”
I hurried down. A bonfire in the center belched smoke into the stifling common house. Dozens of trolls crowded in its confines, their feral visages scowling in the half-light. The Raptor Fangs thrust red fists in the air, their movements in tune with booming drums.
I took a seat near the entrance. The air shook with sound. Bright yellow smoke suddenly billowed from the flame and the trolls stopped their shouts. Yellow: the color of death, the west, and Ula-tek, the Loa of War.
The yellow haze burst as a monstrous figure leapt into sight. The trolls gasped as one and the Raptor Fangs dropped to their knees. The figure surveyed the common house through the sockets of a grotesque raptor skull. Bone fetish icons hung from his belt, clicking together in the sudden silence. So fantastic was the scene that I almost thought him a messenger of the Loa. Soon enough, I realized it was none other than Denjai.
A Zandali shout, and Denjai moved, pointing at faces in the crowd with raptor claws tied to his fingers. He chanted while the Raptor Fangs bowed their heads and shook madly. The crowd moved with Denjai’s snarls. Feverish entreaties erupted from the trolls, each one silenced by a clawed finger.
The ritual proceeded like a nightmare, myself trapped at the back and hoping Denjai would not single me out. Fear was a living thing in the common house that night. Denjai’s shouts grew in rage until the two Raptor Fangs farthest from the fire lifted a great box up from the ground. Everyone paused in anticipation. They lowered the box and wrenched off the lid. Reaching inside, a Raptor Fang took out a severed dwarven head.
I gasped, hoping it was just one of the Alliance mercenaries. The Raptor Fangs passed the gruesome memento around before laying it at Denjai’s feet, followed by more heads, until Denjai stood over a pile of four.
The Raptor Fangs withdrew into the crowd while Denjai surveyed the prize. A harsh whisper blew out from the mask, steadily rising in crescendo. Dark shadows enveloped Denjai’s hands as the whispers grew into chants, which grew into shouts. Unseen forces pulled the heads into the air until they rotated around the dancing shadow hunter. Drums started up with a quickening tempo, the cries of the village getting ever louder. The music and motion increased until there was nothing else.
Denjai yelled wordlessly and the room plunged into darkness. The flames burst into life moments later, and the shadow hunter stood unmasked before his followers.
“Now the festival shall begin!” he proclaimed.
The scene abruptly changed, dread replaced by merriment. The Raptor Fangs mingled with the crowd while Denjai flashed a beneficent smile. The common house emptied. Outside, some trolls set up a serving table under a zangarstalk’s protective cap. Women brought out cauldrons and built cooking fires under shelters. Mushrooms and fish dominated the layout though Denjai had the cooks tap into the red meat reserves.
I still felt shaken. The ritual had reenacted an old trollish legend of Ula-Tek demanding the death of his enemies, a task fulfilled by his priests. Denjai obviously stood in for the Loa, and the Raptor Fangs for the clerics. It served to further cement Denjai’s control over his people. It’s also the sort of behavior that tends to spark international incidents. While the Alliance turns a blind eye towards partisan squabbling, I fear it’s only a matter of time before the Raptor Fangs kill official soldiers or, worse yet, civilians. Though the Alliance has not made any official claim of ownership towards the Twin Spire Ruins (largely because they lack the resources to really secure it), there’s no question that it ultimately belongs to them. Zangarmarsh is free of demons, but the naga are a real threat, and the Free Peoples must created a united front against them. Denjai prevents this from happening.
The trolls can be just as savage as any other race. For the first time in thousands of years, they have the opportunity to rebuild their civilization. Trolls can finally transcend the barbarism with which they are associated. Before most of the Azerothian races even existed, the trolls were the builders of empires and cities, the writers of treatises and epics. Yet many trolls reject their civilized heritage in favor of bleak savagery.
I pray that the race does not follow Denjai’s lead.
Zangarmarsh has a long history of barbarism. Tobra’nay told me about the Bonechewer Clan the morning after the rally. The cannibalistic Bonechewer orcs long ago made their home in the swamp, away from the other clans. Their village lay a few miles south of Zabra’jin, though nothing of it remains today.
“No one really knows where the Bonechewers came from. Most figure they couldn’t survive in Nagrand; too many other clans there. Anyway, they somehow ended up in the swamp. Not a good place for an orc, as I’m sure you know,” said Tobra’nay.
“Not enough meat.”
“And that right there is why they became cannibals! The Bonechewers raided northern Nagrand, striking quick as lightning. Their warriors would pillage and then run back to the swamp, carrying captive and cattle to the cookpot. Bonechewers even, ah, chewed the bones of their own dead. Nothing insulting in it, to them.”
“Were they able to get enough meat this way?”
“I do not know for sure, but I do not think so. The Bonechewer warriors could only win by making ambushes. They were poor warriors when it came to drawn-out fights. Maybe they weren’t strong enough.”
“Why did the Horde accept the Bonechewers? It seems like the other clans would hate them.”
“That they did, but I guess Gul’dan had his own uses for them. The orcs sent the Bonechewers up north. They killed ogres for a while, with the help of the Thunderlords.”
“What happened after the ogres joined the Horde?”
“They weren’t much use. When Ner’zhul became Warchief, he forced the Bonechewers—the entire clan—to move south to Shadowmoon Pass. There they stayed until he finally got rid of them.”
“Interesting. Puts their savagery into context.”
“That it does. Swamps can do strange things to the mind too. You start seeing a monster behind every tree. Every mushroom, in this case!” he chortled.
“Do you think the swamp has an affect on Denjai?”
“Ah, come on now. Denjai’s not going to be driven mad by some old swamp. Trust me, he knows what he’s doing.”
Not even the mushroom trolls were very disturbed by the partisan fighting endorsed by Denjai. I understood, to an extent. The victims had been mercenaries. Even so, I could not help thinking it a prologue to open war.
While in Zabra’jin I heard stories about a race of mushroom people living in the wilds of western Zangarmarsh. Both the Horde and Alliance had apparently made contact with this race, called sporelings, but neither seemed very interested in establishing a real political relationship. None in Zabra’jin had made any attempt at meeting their neighbors, and Shoraka said that the sporelings had little to offer the Horde.
The road near Zabra’jin branches off into a poorly-maintained track. No Wrekt roads lead to the sporeling town of Sporeggar, which probably factored into the race’s survival. Though its deteriorated state made the path difficult to follow, I reached Sporeggar after four days of travel.
Sporeggar is best described as looking simultaneously alien and domestic. Tidy houses with dome roofs (actually hollowed-out mushrooms specially bred for the purpose of shelter) stand around a lush fungal garden. Bright glass-cups decorate the top of each home. Decaying polypores stick out of the walls, often holding clusters of small, brightly colored mushrooms, like the wooden planters one sees in human towns.
The sporelings are certainly distinctive. About the size of an adult human, their vertically ellipsoid heads are nearly as big as their torsos. The bent legs and long arms of the sporeling make them look smaller than their actual sizes. Patches of colorful phosphorescence dot their backs, arms, and heads.
Shoraka had earlier informed me that the sporelings could not speak Orcish or any other language. Thus, I would have to limit my interaction to observation. Shoraka assured me that the sporelings were passive, and would not object. Indeed, the sporelings took little notice of me. Most of the sporelings I saw were tending the fungal garden in the village center. A strange, fleshy orb hovers over the surrounding mushrooms in the center of the garden, tethered to the ground by a thick cord. I thought it simply a strange mushroom, but it is actually a spore sac. I shall explain this in more detail later.
Soon after my arrival, I saw a Forsaken woman step out of a fungal hut, her tattered hand gripping an umbrella. I caught her attention with a wave and she quickly walked towards me. Her waxy, death-puffed face bore a distrustful expression.
“Fancy seeing another Forsaken here,” she said. “Are you with the Apothecarium?”
“I am not.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Curiosity. I’m a scholar, my name is Destron Allicant.”
She pursed her peeling lips.
“My name is Irianne Hallisworth. You’ll pardon my suspicion; these are dangerous times, and nowhere is that more true than in Outland. The sporelings are beset by enemies on every side. The last thing they need are those damned poisoners.”
“I am no friend of the Apothecarium.”
“Good. I will admit that your reasons for coming surprise me. Precious few Forsaken have any interest in the sporelings.”
“I have interest in many things. I take it that you’ve befriended these people?”
“To an extent. The sporelings are sorely in need of friends. They do not hate me for being undead. In fact, I’m not at all sure they even comprehend our state.”
“How do you communicate with them?”
“Msshi’fn, the Sporeggar Primus, enabled me to do so. I imagine she’ll do the same for you.”
“Is the primus their leader?”
“She’s more of a village elder or record keeper than a leader per se. I’ll be frank, Mr. Allicant; to communicate with the sporelings, you must let them implant spores into your head. It’s quite harmless.”
“How are they implanted?”
“It’s simple, you just need to put it in your ears. The resulting fungus allows one to understand the sporelings’ speech.”
“Very good. Let’s see if Msshi’fn is at her home. Msshi’fn is not actually a she; sporelings are asexual. However, I am not comfortable with referring to a sporeling as ‘it.’”
I do not consider the pronoun “it,” to be disrespectful, so I shall refer to the sporelings this way in my writing.
Irianne took me across the village and to another fungal house. Two sporelings flanked the entrance of Msshi’fn’s house.
“Excuse me, I’d like to request an audience with the Primus. I have someone who may be of aid to the village.”
The sporelings said nothing, though I thought I heard a faint whistling sound.
“Very good.” She turned to me. “Msshi’fn will see you.”
I followed Irianne into the primus’ chamber. Inside sat a lone sporeling, whom I took to be Msshi’fn. A furry, bright green moss served as a sort of carpet. Elongated polypores acted as shelves, while brightly phosphorescent mushrooms emitted a comfortable glow. Sporeling homes are actually quite cozy, albeit in an exceedingly odd fashion.
Irianne greeted Msshi’fn and talked with her for a while. She explained that I could help make others aware of the sporelings' plight. Msshi’fn ambled over to a cluster of pink mushrooms growing next to the wall. It uprooted a pair, and then went to me, holding out its hands. I saw tiny motes of yellow powder on the caps.
“Put the powder in your ears, Destron,” said Irianne.
Suppressing my doubts, I did. Nothing happened.
“Very good. The spores should finish growing tomorrow. Then you’ll be able to understand the sporelings. Thank you, Primus Msshi’fn.”
Irianne took me to a small guest house where I waited for the spores to take effect. The sporelings make houses by shaping large, malleable mushroom species into buildings. It is similar to the way a night elf shaper turns a tree into a lodge. Fungal houses are still viable, but their spores do not grow into new houses. They simply mature into the unaltered mushrooms from which the house was shaped. The Cenarion Expedition may want to consider training sporeling druids.
A Kaldorei warrior named Temoril Dewleaf also resided in the guest house. He appeared less than happy about having to share a room with yet another Forsaken. Temoril spoke only the most basic Common, leaving us unable to communicate with him.
As I had suspected, Irianne was descended from the Hallisworth line. The Hallisworth family had ruled the hamlet of Northdale in what is now the Eastern Plaguelands. Irianne said that she was the last of her family, the rest having perished or been turned during the Third War. Her demeanor certainly suggested of aristocratic upbringing.
“How did you come to Sporeggar?” I inquired.
“Mere happenstance, Mr. Allicant. Those savages at Zabra’jin mentioned it, and I believed it warranted investigation. I think I’ve made a good impression on them, on behalf of myself and for the Horde. I really am mortified by the uncouth behavior of the Horde races. We’re damned lucky that Alliance adventurers aren’t any better in that regard. The tauren are the only Horde race that I would trust with the sporelings, but there are few of them in Outland.”
“There are many tauren in the Cenarion Expedition.”
“Yes, and I’ve informed them of my concerns. It will be some time before there’s any official backing of the sporeling people. The Tribes may not even have enough braves to truly protect my new friends here.”
Morning came, and I stepped out of the guest house. I did not feel any different. Yet soon enough, I began to hear the sporelings conversing in Gutterspeak.
“The translator fungus is truly one of our greatest creations.”
A sporeling had sidled up next to me. I realized that I was not exactly hearing it. Rather, I heard the words in my mind, spoken in my voice.
“Truly,” I agreed. “Pardon me, but are you Msshi’fn?”
“I am. No need to worry, I understand that we all look the same to you. You said you wanted to learn about the sporeling people. Would now be a good time to start?”
“It would, thank you.”
I followed Msshi’fn into its home. I reasoned that Irianne would have heard the primus in her own voice, hence the female designation. The primus took a wooden bowl full of compost, which it explained was a midday meal.
“Our diet is as it has always been; rotting mushrooms and fish. Ingestion creates the phosphorescence on our bodies, the color changing according to the composition of the meal.”
“Food seems easy to come by here in Zangarmarsh.”
“Starvation is one problem we never need to face. So where shall we begin?”
“I’d like to know the history of the sporeling people.”
“It’s a good deal more extensive than just Sporeggar. Our legends speak of a race called the Shapers, who raised the world from primordial muck. They charged us sporelings with maintaining the mushroom jungles.”
The story was reminiscent of the dwarven race’s faith in the Titans. It is conceivable that the Shapers are the Titans, though it could easily be coincidence.
“Did other sporelings live in different swamps?”
“Not to our knowledge. But Zangarmarsh was twice its current size back when the world was still whole. Our first colony was called Sporekish, and it grew far in the west, where the ocean met the land.”
In my mind’s eye I suddenly saw a towering cluster of blue mushrooms, reaching even higher than Telredor. Gossamer bridges connected the caps and stems while dense fungal gardens filled the ground below. Sporelings walked everywhere in the scene, hundreds of them in the city.
“Did you just send me an image of Sporekish? Mentally, that is?”
“It’s a side effect of the translator. Certain terms spark images. The one you saw was given to me by the primus of Sporenai, who received it from its own predecessors. In that way, we remember the past.”
Another picture flashed in my mind, a town similar to Sporeggar but on a rain-lashed island in a cloudy lake.
“That was Sporenai. It is my own memory.”
“Are there any specific memories of the Shapers?”
“Sadly, no. That happened before Sporekish, before we truly learned to think.”
“So from Sporekish, your people expanded?”
“Very slowly, over the course of millennia. We sporelings live in perfect balance with the swamp. We only grow new sporelings to replace those who have fallen. The race was content to stay in Sporekish, but the beasts of the swamp became a menace. To defend ourselves we grew more sporelings than ever before. A single sporeling has very little strength. Unlike orcs or draenei, we lack muscles and bones. Numbers are our only hope. Anyway, after surmounting such challenges, these excess sporelings needed a place to live. We continued to grow in this way, and we eventually controlled 22 colonies throughout Zangarmarsh. We even established a few in the Blood Tropic, a deadly swamp north of the Blade’s Edge.”
I saw a mental image, a fleet of fungal balloons drifting across a jagged mountain range. I gasped, marveling at the sporeling ingenuity.
“Sporeggar is the last real colony. We tried to make a few more after the fall of the Wrekt, sending one south and another far to the east. The first was destroyed by draenic mutants and the second is besieged.”
“Have you sent any reinforcements?”
“We are trying to grow new sporelings for that purpose, but it is difficult. Sporeggar itself is barely surviving.”
“Did the sporelings communicate with any other races?”
“A draenic ambassador once visited Sporekish, a little over a hundred years before the Breaking. The sporelings liked her, but she had to return to Shattrath for some reason and no replacement was ever sent.”
“What about the orcs?”
“Irianne tells me that the orcs here called themselves the Bonechewer Clan. They were our enemies, but it was rare for us to actually fight.”
“The Bonechewer Clan had a reputation for savagery and violence.”
“No doubt. Yet we sporelings had nothing they wanted. Besides, the Bonechewers were well aware that more of us lived to the west. If they became too much of a problem, they knew we would destroy them. One sporeling is weak, but a thousand? Ten thousand?”
“What about when the Bonechewer Clan joined with the Horde?”
“We began to worry when more orcs started to arrive in Zangarmarsh, but all the Bonechewer warriors went north.”
“Then the Horde never made war upon the sporelings?”
“Not in any official capacity. It’s a good thing too. We would lack the advantage of numbers against so many clans. You can probably guess what happened after the Breaking. A single day saw the destruction of ancient Sporekish and most of my race. We did not expect to survive, but somehow we did.”
“Do any sporelings live outside of Zangarmarsh?”
“Some do in Shattrath City. In fact, we established the eastern colony in order to better communicate with them. The climate in Shattrath is too dry to establish a colony, and it lacks a spawning glen. Zangarmarsh is the only hope for our race.”
“How do you govern yourselves?”
“Govern? The sporeling exists to ensure the health of the colony, and the colony exists to perpetuate the species. As primus, I am a record keeper. The primus is born with greater mental capacity than other castes but we are not really leaders. I do not have what Irianne describes as personal ambition.”
“What are the other castes?”
“The harvesters grow mushrooms and maintain the compost, and preservers defend and forage. We used to have seers, who developed new types of fungus. None survived the Breaking, and we cannot yet make new ones.”
The sporelings perfectly adapted to the demands of the marsh. Perhaps too perfectly. Unable to reproduce outside of the swamp’s confines, they do not have the option of escaping to safer lands.
Juff’wup merrily traversed the swamps, its eyes looking out for glowcap mushrooms. I asked Juff’wup about its role as a preserver, but its answers tended to be laconic. It declined to give anything other than very basic descriptions. Juff’wup lacked any real opinions, and did not always seem to understand my questions.
“Do you think that the preservers should attempt to expand Sporeggar’s sphere of influence?” I once asked.
“We collect many glowcaps,” was its response.
Juff’wup’s limited understanding stemmed from the sporeling caste system. As a preserver, it had no need for more developed thought processes. Juff’wup’s youth was another factor. Young sporelings within a caste are essentially mental clones. Even a young primus is nearly identical to the senior primus whom it will eventually replace. With age, a sporeling begins to develop personal attributes. Some never get beyond the basic level of their castes, but others actually become individuals, capable of opinions and new ideas. Harvesters rarely ascend to this state. It is somewhat more common among preservers, and inevitable for a primus. Sporelings that do evolve into individuals are considered the most important parts of the community.
“Here is a glowcap!” exclaimed Juff’wup.
It zipped over to a brightly glowing orange mushroom at the base of a small zangarstalk. Its large hands quickly scooped up the glowcap, dropping it into a bag made of universal veil. The glowcap is a type of mushroom that increases the viability of sporeling spores.
The sporeling reproduction process is immensely complex, and demands its own book. I shall do the best I can to sum it up in a few paragraphs.
Sporelings develop inside seed-like objects called spore sacs. The difference is that a seed has food stored in its body while a spore sac does not. As such, it is less likely to survive. For this reason, sporelings have developed a symbiotic relationship with a biological entity called a spawning glen. These immense organisms are actually submerged networks of fungal fibers that can stretch for miles. Currently, only one exists.
The spawning glen provides nutrition for spore sacs. Though it does not guarantee a successful maturation, it greatly increases the likelihood Spawning glens get their nutritional stores by absorbing airborne microbes, dead animals, and failed spores.
The sporelings say that a spawning glen lives for thousands of years. The last one is middle-aged. Four times in its life, a spawning glen propels clouds of spores into the air. These drift across the land, in rare cases creating new spawning glens. The primus estimated that the nearby spawning glen would have two more reproductive cycles in its lifespan.
Spawning glens are not essential for sporeling reproduction. However, successful reproduction is very difficult without one. Spore sacs cannot easily get the nutrition they need from the soil of Zangarmarsh. Glowcap supplements alone will not do the trick, but greatly help spore sacs implanted in a spawning glen. Considering the current attrition rate suffered by sporelings, they cannot afford to go without the help of the spawning glen.
When a sporeling buds, it essentially creates a clone of itself. The sporelings hope that individuals with personalities will produce other sporelings that are also capable of psychological evolution. For this reason, developed sporelings use glowcaps to make their offspring more likely to survive. The glowcaps provide extra fuel for the growing spore. Prior to the Breaking, sporeling colonies would even use glowcaps as a form of currency. Though mostly self-sufficient, they still traded on occasion.
This ties back to the spore sac I saw in the center of the village. The sporelings were experimenting with raising a spore sac on a compost heap, hoping it could gain sufficient nutrients. They hoped to reduce their dependence on the spawning glen. The harvesters think that the spore sac looks quite unhealthy, but it is still viable. Only when it hatches will they know if the experiment was successful.
Msshi’fn said that only a primus spore was assured of developing a personality. The children of a developed sporeling may be more likely to gain personality traits, but it is not a certainty. Likewise, children of normal sporelings are known to attain personalities. According to Msshi’fn, the sporeling race had long attempted to increase the number of individualistic sporelings. To some extent, it claimed, the breeding program had worked.
The spawning glen has become quite dangerous in recent years. Irianne told me of the fungal giants, who march down from the mountain valleys to feed on the developed spore sacs. The spore sac quickly encapsulates a developing sporeling, and starts to grow. Some sacs reach as high as a healthy oak. As the sporeling matures, the sac deflates. When it shrinks to the size of a large melon, it means that the sporeling will soon hatch. This is when the giants prey on it.
The fungal giants were never so aggressive in the past. Msshi’fn theorized that something had disrupted the normal food source for the giants. Whatever the reason for the attacks, the spawning glen requires constant protection. The preservers, already overworked in defending the village, need every bit of help they can get.
Accompanied by Irianne, Temoril, and five preservers, I journeyed south to the spawning glen. Rain fell in cascades from boiling clouds, steam rising from rivers and bogs.
“Thank you again for joining us, Mr. Allicant. It means a great deal to everyone in Sporeggar,” said Irianne, raising her voice to be heard over the rain.
“It’s the least I could do. They’ve been very good hosts.”
Our goal was to gather up as many developed spore sacs as possible, as well as any spawn that had escaped predation. It was Irianne’s fourth such expedition, and Temoril’s second. Irianne was proficient in frost spells, making her quite useful to the retrieval efforts.
Cold lights shone out in the fog, the searching glares of marsh walkers. Tendrils and legs took shape as they moved with sinister calm.
“The walkers stand and wait all around the spawning grounds,” said Irianne. “They wait for hatched spore spawn who escape the giants. The marshfolk call them kings, but they’re nothing more than vultures!”
We gave the marsh walkers a wide berth and reached the spawning glen without incident. I stepped into a forest of spore sacs. Distinct from the specimen in Sporeggar, the sacs in the glen are bright and vibrant. Golden pustules dot the surfaces, pulsing with life. Vents in the sides of the sacs periodically exhale streams of orange gas.
A pinkish glow suffuses the spawning glen, pale vapors of the same color rising from the ground. This is a by-product of the glen’s nutrition manufacturing capabilities. The vapors are actually a mild poison. A sporeling can actually withstand a significant amount, but long-term exposure is dangerous. The spawn in the spore sacs are insulated from the toxin. This is why Sporeggar is so far from the glen.
Keeping my balance on the slick ground proved difficult. Shiny, bubbling blue flesh carpets the spawning glen, run through networks of purple veins. Firm in some parts, it gives way in others. The sporelings had no trouble with it, while Irianne and Temoril had sufficient experience and agility, respectively. I stumbled around like a drunk.
The glorious thing about traveling is that, no matter how far or long one travels, there are still places that inspire wonder. All of Zangarmarsh possesses this quality, and the spawning glen is its acme. Utterly alien and still weirdly beautiful, I count myself fortunate to have seen it.
Irianne reached into her pack and withdrew a silver priest’s censer and a small pouch. Opening both, she took a handful of violet mulch from the pouch and placed it inside the censer.
“Sporeling spawn often wander the glen, not knowing where to go. The sporelings created this formula which will attract them to us.”
Getting back to her feet, Irianne swung the censer forwards and backwards. She began to sing, her hollow voice carrying the words of an old Lordaeronian lullaby. I’d heard it frequently as a child, one of the few memories I retain from my first years. The clear yearning in Irianne’s voice gave her singing an eerie quality, compounded by the strange environment and her decayed state. She had to know that the sporeling spawn would be unmoved by the sound, but I found the effort touching.
“There is a mature spore sac here,” announced one of the sporelings. It pointed to a pink, fleshy globe that was very nearly a sporeling’s size. Reaching down to the shrunken stem, it gave a sharp pull. The sac came out with a loud pop. The preserver had to hug it to hold on to it. A wagon would have made transporting the sacs much easier, but the slippery terrain made wheeled constructs impractical.
Hours passed in that dreamlike place. Six sporeling spawn came out of the mists, drawn to us by the formula. Looking like miniature sporelings, the spawn operate on basic instinct. The full-grown sporelings will implant them with memories and have them practice the skills of their caste. Upon attaining proficiency (which takes anywhere from five to six years), they are considered mature.
As evening approached, everyone in our party carried one matured spore sac, except for Temoril who carried two. I cradled mine as best I could, peering at it in hopes of seeing the sporeling spawn within. K’tosh, the lead preserver, said it was time to return.
Temoril abruptly stopped in his tracks, looking to the east. His silver eyes scanned the mists and he uttered something in Darnassian.
“Temoril senses an intruder. So do I,” said K’tosh.
Motion pulsed through the ground. Under K’tosh’s directions, we grouped the spore sacs in a shallow depression. Irianne herded the spawn together and moved to the sacs, along with two preservers. Temoril nocked an arrow to his bow while the remaining three preservers readied their spears. Sporelings coat their weapons in a toxin that deadens fungal giant flesh.
The giant barged into sight by the time we finished our preparations. It beheld us with four shining eyes, set above a mouth resembling a fleshy grill. Thick bunches of fungal stalks infested its rough shoulders and huge tendrils dangled from its arms. Phosphorescence glimmered through layers of creeping moss and fungal symbiotes.
“Remember, use ice and aim for its head!” urged K’tosh.
I answered with a frost bolt. The icy comet hurtled towards the giant, spreading white rime across its crown upon impact. A second frost bolt streaked past me, the work of Irianne. Temoril, his arrows enhanced with the same chemical as the preservers’ spears, unleashed volley after volley, his hands a blur. Black spots soon dotted the fungal giant’s head as ice and poison did their work.
“There is another coming, from the south!” reported K’tosh. “Keep firing at the first one.”
The wounded giant picked up speed. Up close, I realized the actual size of the monster; I barely stood past its knees.
“Destron, Irianne, open fire on the second giant! We shall finish the first!”
Frost spells simply don't do enough damage. Though the damp bodies of fungal giants aren’t especially vulnerable to flame, I reasoned that a pyroblast’s kinetic impact would do enough damage.
Arcane energies swirled in my hands, agitated by heat and motion. The giant loped towards us. Temoril’s battle cry resounded from behind, drowned out by the giant’s whooshing grunts. My target drew closer, a cloud of spores suddenly bursting from its head.
I unleashed the pyroblast. Carried by its momentum, the giant crashed into the burning sphere. The detonation boomed out across the Spawning Glen. I knew I missed the head, but I hoped the bodily damage would kill it.
The giant reeled, a gaping crater in its abdomen. Fibers spooled out from the wound along with cascades of ichor. Incredibly, the giant still stood. Lacking much in the way of real internal organs, it is difficult to deliver a critical hit upon these foes.
A green cloud suddenly enveloped me. I realized it was a gas unleashed from the giant, acting as some form of ranged attack. Merely annoying to Irianne and I, it was debilitating for Temoril and the sporelings. The night elf fell to his knees, hacking and coughing. A swung tendril slammed into a preserver named Sfim, disintegrating the sporeling’s body.
The first giant suddenly stumbled, its lower legs black and rotted from sporeling poisons. The giant literally slid off its calves, falling into a pool of water. Covering his mouth, Temoril jumped on the giants body and ran to its head, plunging his sword deep into what served as its brain. The monster shuddered once and went still.
The gas cleared, only to reveal the second giant nearly upon us. Yet the fibrous strings dangling from its wound wrapped around its legs. Halted by its own innards, the giant fell to the ground. Raising her hand, Irianne summoned a blizzard over the giant, destroying it.
The battle done, we took stock of our situation. The first giant had killed two preservers. Temoril felt dizzy, but said he was able to continue. No one else was hurt but we did have a problem with transporting the spore sacs. To make up for our losses, Irianne and I each carried two. Though awkward, it was our only option. K’tosh took a handful of spores from each dead preserver. These, he explained, would be put to rest in Sporeggar.
We returned to Sporeggar without encountering any hostile elements. The sporelings who met us gave thanks, but there was no formal welcoming party. I do not mean to say that the sporelings were ungrateful. It is merely that spore sac retrieval is considered a routine (if dangerous) task. Retrieval is usually undertaken by preservers, who are simply fulfilling the roles of their caste. Most sporelings assumed that we foreigners were doing the same. The unhatched spore sacs and the spawn were sequestered in separate huts. Once that was done, Msshi’fn conducted a ceremony for the two dead preservers.
The Sporeggar graveyard lies in a grove of zangarstalks on the banks of Sporewind Lake. Mounds of earth dot the ground, marked by blue lantern-cap mushrooms. I was surprised to see ornate stone urns and benches lining the cemetery, crafted with Kaldorei motifs.
“Temoril made them. We sporelings do not work with stone, but he said he had great experience working on something called the Temple of the Moon. I have not seen it, but I’m sure it is quite impressive,” said Msshi’fn.
“It is,” I confirmed. I looked at Temoril, standing alone at the cemetery entrance. I wondered what had brought him to Outland and to Sporeggar.
We observed a simple and elegant burial ceremony. Of the sporelings, only Msshi’fn and nine preservers attended the funeral. Mourning is mostly limited to members of the deceased’s caste, specifically those with whom it was familiar. Msshi’fn described how the essence of the departed would return to the swamp, nourishing it and ensuring a home for future generations. In this way they would be immortal.
When finished, Msshi’fn sprinkled the spores into a small pit which it then filled. The mourners walked back to the village without a word. I lingered for a while before going to the guest house, troubled by a sense of melancholy.
Afternoon passed into evening. Temoril slept soundly on the guest house’s cushioned floor. Irianne was not present. Outside, life in Sporeggar continued as normal. I hoped that the sporelings would prevail in their fight for survival. Forgotten by most of the world, they must rely on the mercy and dedication of outsiders.
Restless, I stood up and walked around the village. A steady rain fell from the night sky. Quite by accident, I ended up at the nursery holding the sporeling spawn. A lone preserver standing outside gave me a cheerful greeting.
Curious to see how the infants were doing, I looked inside. Unlike human infants, the spawn do not cry or demonstrate any other emotion. Such things must be taught by the elders. Until then, they can do little.
Irianne sat at the back of the nursery, her scarred arms gently cradling a sleeping spawn. The expression on her face was a strange mix of happiness and regret. She smiled upon seeing me, but remained silent. Treading carefully on the mossy ground, I sat down next to her.
“Do you want to hold her for a while?” she whispered.
“I’d love to.”
She slowly handed the child over and I gratefully took the sporeling into my own arms. I felt a great peace and a great longing as I held the infant’s tiny form.