Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Netherstorm: Part 2
A flight of birds lifted up from the trees, bursts of bright color in the foliage. Choirs of insects chirped unseen in the tropical heat, hidden by leafy foliage. Broad green leaves and thick branches create a mighty canopy over the ferns and vines of the lower levels. I could have closed my eyes and thought myself back in Stranglethorn Vale. The teeming jungle of Eco-Dome Midrealm looks much like the an Azerothian rainforest. The only difference is the glowing violet shell around the jungle. Sections of the dome brighten and fade as time passes, creating an artificial day and night. The ethereals had even set up a water cycle that bring torrential downpours each day at noon.
I was sitting on a mossy stone in front of Selvedar’s grave. An ethereal who professed knowledge of “fleshling biology” attempted to heal the elf, but to no avail, and he died the night of my arrival. I felt no guilt; only sadness at his passing. I took some comfort in knowing I’d done everything I could.
“Forgive this uncouth interruption, but the current of time calls us to Stormspire. The caravan is ready to disembark.” The Stormspire to which the speaker referred is the regional headquarters for the ethereals.
“Thank you, Pazshe.”
Pazshe clasped its hands and gave a sinuous bow. Pazshe was the first ethereal I met, and it certainly came as a shock. The goblins had described them to me as beings of solid light, which is mostly accurate. The ethereals lack a fixed form, and are able to reshape and even resize their bodies at will. Those in Outland take on an anthropoid aspect to make their customers more comfortable, and garb themselves in white linen wraps in order to accentuate their frames. Bright light shines through the wrappings, making it impossible to mistake the ethereals for anything else. Many also wear robes and vests dyed in lush, dark colors.
Pazshe was an emissary for a group called the Consortium, a guild of arcane traders with major investments in Outland. When I met it, Pazshe was escorting an orc shaman and her apprentice out of ethereal territory. Overjoyed to meet a Forsaken, Pazshe invited me to return with it to the Stormspire.
“This universe is rich in memory and experiences. I am sure that you and your people have many tales to tell, and desires to fulfill,” it said.
Ethereals possess the uncanny ability to broadcast their thoughts in the language of those around them. Whatever tongue they use, the ethereals favor flowery descriptions coupled with elaborate formality. This trait usually comes across as either charming or unctuous. Pazshe happily fell into the former category.
I did meet with the shaman earlier, and she helped me bury Selvedar. Named Mura Ragefang, she’d been one of the first women to follow the shaman’s path in Thrall’s Horde. She labored as a peon during the Second War, her scarred face speaking volumes on the Old Horde’s brutality. I told her the story of Selvedar’s death and Kael’thas’ betrayal.
“Magic shall lead these elves to a bad end. I do not much trust the Forsaken, Destron, but you did a brave and honorable thing risking your existence to save Selvedar’s,” she said, looking down at his grave.
“I did what was needed.”
“Just as a warrior would say. I am going back to Thrallmar. Once there, I shall tell General Nazgrel of Kael’thas’ crimes. I will tell too him of your heroic actions.”
I followed Pazshe down to Midrealm Post, an array of metal poles and canopies. Boxes of glass or metal are placed in neat stacks, the glass variety holding bright electric currents that twist wildly in place. The living say that approaching ethereal encampments makes the hair on the back of the necks stand on end, and jolts the mind with a sense of elation and optimism. This is apparently a byproduct of the refined energies used by the ethereals, a mix of electricity, mana, radiation, and even stranger elements.
The boxes had been loaded into a pink sphere made of pure force that somehow suspended its cargo in place. A few goblins from Area 52 were looking at the strange devices with a mix of wonder and envy.
“Here in Eco-Dome Midrealm is where we conduct much of our business with the good merchants of Area 52. This caravan holds the results of our latest trade, precious minerals taken from the depths of B’naar Island.”
“Why do the goblins not go directly to the Stormspire?”
“Time, my friend. These jungles are not easy lands to traverse. The great minds of the Consortium also find Midrealm a fine venue in which to study the nature of reality.”
The caravan followed a narrow jungle trail. No beasts of burden pulled the containers; like the crates used by the Sin’dorei pilgrims, ethereal cargo is self-propelled. Two ethereal warriors accompanied us, each wielding an elegant scimitar.
“Does this eco-dome somehow recreate old Farahlon?”
“It is our humble attempt, though the eco-dome’s facsimile is imperfect at best. Consortium world-artists had little with which to work. Myriad plant and animal species thrived in the forests here, yet we could only regenerate a paltry few. The rest, I fear, are lost to time.”
“The eco-dome is certainly an improvement over the rest of Netherstorm.”
“Your words warm my soul, good Destron. Offering sanctuary from the eternal storm is only the least we could do. After all, if one is to create a marketplace, it must be safe before it is anything else.”
“Do your people need the safety of the eco-dome?”
“Not at all, it is purely an attempt to attract visitors from Outland and your Azeroth, which I hope one day to see. To further answer your inquiry, the ethereals make their homes in the many nexuses scattered across the Twisting Nether. We are not strangers to unusual conditions.”
“The ethereals originated in the Twisting Nether?”
“We did not, but our homeworld is no more. We called our world K’aresh, an airless realm of energy currents powered by the suns Algo and Betlezsju. The Void destroyed it, alas.”
“The Void? As in the voidwalkers?”
“None other. Darkness and light are forever enemies and they found us a most tempting target. Let us turn our attention to less dreary things, shall we? Tell me of your world, with its crimson deserts and white glaciers. I hunger to learn more!”
Eco-Dome Midrealm is a large place and it takes five days to cross from end to end. Much of this time is spent hacking away at the undergrowth that inexorably strangles the road. Pazshe explained that the properties of the eco-domes tended to accelerate the natural growth of both plants and animals.
Though the animals are plenty in number, there is very little in the way of diversity. I saw no more than three different species of birds in Midrealm. Brilliant blue moths flutter in the upper canopy and pale crocolisks lounge in the lakes. Pazshe said that many species of animals were irretrievably lost, and some of the salvageable types could not be reintroduced.
“The beasts of the forest and creatures of the waters are connected in a grand skein, you see. Stability is ever a harsh lord, and Midrealm’s natural portfolio cannot integrate many of the larger species. Renewing the crocolisks was an immense risk, and many esteemed world-artists argued against it.”
“I was wondering what they ate.”
“Fish and talbuks. The crocolisks are becoming a bit of a strain. Master World-Artist Samaa intends to wipe them from Midrealm if their population does not soon attain equilibrium.”
“You would still be able to recreate them in the future, correct?”
“But of course, my friend. The world decrees a time for all things; if it does not currently favor the majestic crocolisk, it may do so in the future.”
Another Naaru bridge spans the void past the edge of Duro Island, creating a path to Farahl Island. Farahl is the largest landmass in Netherstorm and the only one without a Manaforge (though one does exist on the small Ara Island, adjacent to Farahl). Three monstrously-sized eco-domes shimmer on Farahl’s edge, merged into each other. The Stormspire stands at the center, surrounded by miles of trackless jungle.
Just as I told Pazshe of my experiences, it in turn told me the story of its life. Pazshe’s words painted a picture of a society both strange and magnificent. Despite sharing a commercial propensity, the ethereals have little in common with the goblins aside from some basic similarities in social organization.
Pazshe had served the Consortium with distinction for millennia. Most ethereals are born (or created) into the rank of enabler, essentially the slaves caste of a nexus.
“The sworn duty of the enabler is to serve the innumerable merchants, warriors, and scholars of a nexus. A difficult and wearying task, though hardly dangerous.”
An enabler must choose between slowly rising through the ranks or striking out as a wind trader. Ethereal wind traders are independent merchants. Unlike the scrappy free traders of goblin society, wind traders generally seek to build up substantial wealth and skill in order to attain a higher station at the nexus of its choice. Pazshe had elected to return to the Consortium where it eventually earned a prestigious ambassadorial position.
“So is a nexus a political unit, or a place?” I asked.
“It is both. A nexus is a sprawling network of eco-spheres suspended in one of the Twisting Nether’s rare calm spots. The greatest servants of a nexus dwell in these eco-spheres, each filled with the life and culture of a dozen worlds. Connecting the spheres are the swarming corridors in which most of my kind reside. Ah, Destron, a sojourn in a nexus would truly be the adventure of a lifetime. My regret is that they are not hospitable to fleshlings—pardon me!—non-energy beings, yet I am sure magic or engineering can take us beyond such petty difficulty.”
“I would like to see a nexus.”
“The nexus heart especially. The heart is the central eco-sphere of a nexus in which burns a remnant of K’aresh, our home forever lost. The Consortium's nexus heart is the most wondrous in existence, or so say the well-traveled. Our heart calls out to clerics and sages of even the most remote nexuses who come to study its perfection.”
“Clerics? What is the nature of your religion?”
“Religious discussions tend to be indelicate. I shall tell you, if you insist, though decency obliges me to preface such a description with ample warning.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“As you wish, my friend. K’aresh is the soul of all ethereals, the Endless Illumination. Just as light reveals the world around us, the Endless Illumination decrees that each ethereal learns its place, serves with honor, and deals in honesty.”
“Good traits for any merchant.”
“Indeed, a fundamental truth revealed by the Endless Illumination. My sad duty is to tell you that not all, or even most, ethereals fulfill these obligations. The Endless Illumiantion offers forgiveness for even the most inveterate of sinners. Unfortunately, this sometimes inculcates wickedness.”
“My experiences show that no one is immune from sin.”
“Your experience speaks wisely. Our holy texts mention forgiveness in only vague terms. There is a group of clerics, of great standing within the Consortium, who argue that dishonesty cannot be forgiven and that we must shun nexuses that engage in deceit. These clerics are called the Steadfast.”
“What is your opinion on this?”
“Ah, there are many Pazshes. The thoughts of one are not necessarily the thoughts of another. My facets tend towards a middle ground.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Forgive me, this is a strange concept for many. The Pazshe with whom you speak is only one. A Pazshe, subtly different in mind, conferred with a fellow enabler named Maldarim. Another Pazshe confers with the wise Nexus-Prince Haramad. Do you comprehend?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Imagine that you and I were to interact for a long time, decades perhaps. Over that time, my personality would grow and evolve.”
“As would mine, hopefully.”
“Yet your growth would be an addition to your total. For me, it would be an entirely new Pazshe, one born from the interaction between you and I. If such an interaction were mutually favorable, as I have no doubt it would be, this Pazshe would have a positive psyche. Were it tense, the new Pazshe would be less friendly.”
“An entirely new personality?”
“New, though still based on the old.”
“However, wouldn’t your original personality be influenced by the development of this new one?”
“Only to a degree. That which is known by one Pazshe is not necessarily known by another. This trait proves most useful in delicate or confidential business dealings.”
“I hope this does not cause offense, but such a nature hardly seems conducive to honesty.”
“If the original personality is honest, the subsequent ones will likely be the same. A new personality will not violate the deep ethics of the original. This is why young enablers are brought up so strictly; a corrupt ethereal quickly becomes a hundred corrupt ethereals, though in a single form.”
My mind struggled to process this information.
“Among my kind, experience is one of the determinants of personality. Is this not the same with the ethereals?”
“Experience plays a part, to be sure. Experiences resulting from interactions with the environment or a broad segment of society influence the core personality, and indirectly influence those that grow from it. Experiences derived from long-term interaction have a more limited effect.”
“Wouldn’t that make it difficult to learn from mistakes in previous dealings?”
“Quite. Remember, new personalities only develop after fairly substantial interaction. At the moment, you are meeting the basic Pazshe. I do not know you well enough for a new Pazshe to arise from our discussions. That which we learn from short-lived interactions tends to affect the core personality.”
“When you meet another ethereal with whom you are familiar, does the appropriate personality spontaneously take over?”
“Precisely, the shift is effortless.”
“What happens when you meet more than one at a time?”
“That changes according to the nature of the group. In most cases the older, more developed personality takes reign. If a group meets often enough, each ethereal will develop a new personality appropriate to the group.”
I think I have good reason to consider myself worldly and cosmopolitan. Pazshe’s description of the ethereal psychology made me reconsider. I still struggle to comprehend the ethereal mentality, and I doubt I’ll ever succeed. It should also be said that the ethereals find the races of Azeroth and Outland equally puzzling, not understanding how we can switch emotions and attitudes while retaining the same basic personality. The often contradictory nature of the human (or orcish, or trollish etc.) mindset is also strange and even a bit disturbing to them.
Some consider the ethereals inherently duplicitous, citing that race’s multiple shifting personalities. This is inaccurate. Honesty is a prime virtue among the ethereals (even if it seems to be losing ground in some of the more peripheral nexuses). Most personalities of a single ethereal will be honest, even if they do not always agree. Honesty is not the same as the truth; one can be honest while still being in error. Dishonest personalities can arise if the core personality was not properly socialized. Also, when an honest ethereal meets one who is deceitful, the decent one may find itself subtly corrupted. Alternately, the deceitful individual may grow less so. The result depends on the strength of the individuals involved. This is also why ethereals tend to be very careful in choosing long-term associates. A real risk faced by wind traders is having to partner with an unscrupulous ethereal. This can usually be avoided by staying in a reputable nexus, though Pazshe said that many of those are sinking into decadence.
Hacking through the jungles of Eco-Dome Skyperch was a time-consuming process. Pazshe made a note to inform the world-artists of the unexpected regrowth levels. The entrance to the Stormspire proper is rather inconveniently located on the northern end, forcing us to take a circuitous route through the forests.
The Stormspire is actually an abandoned draenic fortress called Zelsur. Zelsur’s originated in the chaotic years after the Ogre War. Though an allied force of draenei, orcs, and arakkoa succeeded in breaking the ogre armies, mobs of ogre warriors terrorized rural Farahlon. Bringing peace to the land proved a grueling and often bloody process.
The draenei built Zelsur to protect Farahlon from future attacks and to aid in their pacification campaign. Construction went slowly; the draenei were overzealous and made it much larger than necessary. The ogre bands had mostly been eradicated by the time of its completion.
Zelsur could still act as a forward defense against future invasions, so a small garrison remained in the fort. A strong camaraderie developed among the soldiers there and Zelsur gradually developed a monastic quality. The vindicators soon adopted the site as one of their bases, attracted by its combination of piety and martial discipline.
Zelsur fared badly in the Horde War. The orcish armies moved faster than anyone expected and quickly encircled the regional capital to the northeast. Zelsur’s fame had not brought it a larger garrison, and the soldiers stationed there realized the situation was hopeless. The revered Vindicator Tona led the Zelsur troops in a doomed attack against the Horde forces. Tona sought to relieve the besieged soldiers in the city of Farahlon but her brave actions only delayed the inevitable. Orcish catapults broke Farahlon’s walls a week after Tona’s attack and the warriors slaughtered everyone inside.
In jungle clearings one can see the massive Stormspire peeking over the dense canopy. A massive structure built on elevated ground, it dominates the landscape. If Zelsur had only maintained a larger garrison, the fortress would have been a major stumbling block for the orcs of the Horde War.
Two ethereal guards welcomed us to the Stormspire. Pazshe took me to a circular platform at the Stormspire’s base. The platform lifted off from the ground at Pazshe’s command, behaving much like the elevator I'd ridden back in Telredor.
A wealth of greenery abounds at the summit, where flowering vines stretch between broad-leaved trees growing in and around the plaza, and ferns grow thick on the flagstones. Guided by a fine aesthetic sense, the ethereals only clear out select portions of the vegetation. The Stormspire combines an ancient ruin’s exotic splendor with a marketplace’s convenience. The buildings are all draenic in style though mysterious ethereal devices buzz and hum in the corners.
“This is the seat of the Consortium in Outland. From here, the trade masters confer with the honorable Nexus-Prince Haramad. From here do lesser merchants go forth to seek new deals and bargains,” effused Pazshe.
A building on the Stormspire’s western edge serves as a guest house for visitors. The ethereals had installed little in the way of furniture aside from some draenic-style beds and curious apparatus, giving it a somewhat unfinished appearance. Plenty of visitors stayed there, despite the lack of amenities. A visibly bemused night elf spoke with a robed ethereal in a side room, while a pair of sharp goblins held a whispered conversation near a metal pole flushed with electricity. The main room opened out to a grand balcony on which stood an elaborately-dressed dwarven woman listening to a pair of ethereals. I was the only Horde citizen.
“The grace of the Nexus-Prince extends to all those willing to bargain. The Consortium’s soul is a gloried bazaar, where folk deal in gold and silver, not steel or spellfire," said Pazshe.
“A noble sentiment.”
Pazshe excused itself, saying that it needed to oversee the unloading of the caravan. I got into a conversation with another ethereal named Samej. A pair of triple-bladed weapons glinted on its belt, resembling larger versions of the moonglaives favored by the Kaldorei. The vest of green metal on Samej’s chest painted the picture of a warrior, rather than a merchant.
“Nexus-Prince Haramad is of a peaceable mind though Outland does not always reciprocate. To the north paces an army of demons, burning in rage,” he said.
“Such is the nature of demons.”
“Some of the first nexuses crafted deals with the Burning Legion. Most came to regret it, for the demon’s tongue is made of lies.”
“What of the blood elves? Do they trouble you at all?”
“The blood elves have not raised their blades in anger against us though the traders say they are demanding and difficult customers. The worst of all are the other nexuses who have come to Outland: the Nomad’s Market of Nexus-Prince Razaan, and the Memories of Worlds, ruled by Nexus-Prince Shaffar.”
“Is not competition part of trade?”
“Entirely true, my friend. These nexuses are of that growing and lamentable breed who love power but hate the challenge of obtaining it. They steal from the ruins of this world, do no business with either its natives or its visitors, and freely attack those they deem threats.”
“What do they steal, precisely?”
“Has noble Pazshe told you of what the ethereals value?”
“Not in any great detail.”
“Our race deals in many things, but the finest prizes are artifacts of great magic power. Mana undergoes changes when stored in physical objects. When such objects are brought into contact with the piece of K’aresh that shines within each nexus, the mana is released and increases a hundred-fold in power. This maintains the existence of the nexuses.”
"Does this destroy the artifact?"
"Only on some lamentable occasions, when the mana is integral to the artifact's structure. In most cases, we place the physical piece in museum, so that others may receive its beauty."
“Trade, then, literally fuels your society.”
“Correct. My kind has no real interest in the coins and luxuries valued in this world and many others. They are but means to an end.”
“Interesting. Is this why the Stormspire appears so sparsely furnished?”
“The aestheticians of the Consortium even now work to make it more pleasing to the eyes of our clients. Yet you speak in truth, for we have little use for luxury goods. We seek energy to feed the nexus, which echoes our will and memory and art across eternity.
Duty called and Samej departed to make another scouting expedition on Forge Camp: Oblivion, a demon base to the north. I knew I was only getting the barest glimpse of ethereal society. This is the problem of learning about groups markedly different from one’s own. While tantalizing in the extreme, it is also quite frustrating. There is still so much I do not understand about the ethereals. My only hope is to one day visit the Consortium nexus, as Pazshe recommended.
Meeting some of the other Consortium employees at the Stormspire further opened up their culture to me. Samej claimed that the ethereals cared little for money, but this did not seem entirely accurate. The traders all seemed very interested in a good bargain.
“The art of the trade is the great joy of this worthless fellow, and I am forever thankful that the Consortium has retained me as a lowly servant,” said one. “I am also thankful to you, my magnificent customer.”
The merchant’s words (though smarmy) did reflect something else that Samej mentioned: the challenge of obtaining power. Making successful trades is very nearly a cultural lynchpin of ethereal society. The merchant did not exaggerate when describing it as an art.
The accumulation of money (and other means of exchange) increases an ethereal’s prestige. Its peers will regard such an individual as a wise cosmopolitan. Continued success usually translates into higher rank within a nexus. Money still serves a material function, of course. Having financial resources makes it easier to find and obtain the relics that the ethereals crave.
Pazshe returned the next morning to tell me that Nexus-Prince Haramad desired an audience.
“This is a marvelous opportunity for one such as yourself, noble Destron. I think you shall find the Consortium’s unparalleled nexus-prince a wonderful conversationalist.”
“The nexus-prince is actually here in the Stormspire?”
“No, but we have a direct line of communication to the Consortium nexus. The nexus-prince has already spoken with Mura, the shaman you met in Midrealm. It is quite impressed by the Horde’s brave warriors and wise seers. The nexus-prince is also, of course, quite curious about the Horde’s other half.”
“I hope I can live up to its expectations.”
“Have faith, my friend! Great Haramad simply wishes to ask questions about Azeroth and the Forsaken.”
“Most Forsaken are rather less personable than I.”
“Then I am sure you will offer a most fascinating overview.”
I followed Pazshe to the largest structure on the Stormspire. Perched on the southern edge, it had most likely been the old city’s main temple. The nexus-prince holds court in a clean and bare sanctuary, occupied by a few ethereals who bowed upon seeing Pazshe. A small metal platform at the far end of the room holds up a robed ethereal much taller than its fellows: Nexus-Prince Haramad.
Pazshe introduced me to Haramad and then stepped back to let his liege lead the conversation. Haramad proved to be polite and urbane, first inquiring about my opinion of the Stormspire and the Consortium. It was happy to hear that I was very impressed.
The nexus-prince then began ask about Azeroth. I answered its questions to the best of my ability. Haramad explained that both the Alliance and Horde spoke of possible military pacts, though it had declined both offers.
“Violence is a doubtful path to success,” it said.
Haramad did express interest in selling eco-domes to the Cenarion Circle. A visiting druid from the Cenarion Expedition (named Aurine Moonblaze) had told the nexus-prince about the environmental disasters afflicting parts of Azeroth.
“Eco-domes do require great effort, but Aurine suggested that the druids would be willing to part with some of their relics.”
The nexus-prince finished the interview with questions about the Forsaken economy. If disappointed by the results, it gave no sign. Haramad bowed and thanked me for my time.
A lack of features defined Unota's face. Her thin black line of a mouth looked cut into her calloused face, and a pair of hard blue eyes stared out from deep sockets. The draenei are hardly a vain people, though the grotesque physical mutations suffered by the Broken and the Lost could not be considered anything other than traumatizing. Many say that the Broken are effectively a new race. This may be true, but they have not existed long enough to have grown accustomed to their new bodies and faces, or to find them attractive.
Still, Unota was in better condition than many of her kindred. She worked as an agent for Shattrath City’s All Souls Sanctuary, more commonly known as the Lower City. Shattrath City is probably the only safe place in Outland, controlled and protected as it is by the Naaru. Unota came prepared for Netherstorm’s dangers, carrying with her a fearsome metal rifle and all manner of blades.
“Already plenty of ethereals in Shattrath City. Some from the Consortium; they try to get permission to excavate the ruins here in Netherstorm.”
“Have the draenei allowed them?”
“Sure, why not? The Pure Ones say the Light goes beyond any old relic. Besides, the orcs probably took everything of value back in the war. Plenty of orcs in Shattrath, that’s why it’s called All Souls Sanctuary. I do not always trust them, but most seem decent enough. Not too many undead though. Maybe that will change.”
“What brings you to the Stormspire?”
“I was born in the city of Farahlon. Thought I should take a look at the place. I had many friends there, all dead now. Wanted to say goodbye. The Pure Ones, they say that all people are brothers and sisters in the Holy Light. Maybe this is so, but the ones I know are special to me.”
“Did you always feel that way about them?”
“Not sure. Seems to happen to a lot of us Broken though.”
Three days passed in the Stormspire before Pazshe came to me with a request. Nexus-Prince Haramad had assigned him to act as an envoy to a pair of newly arrived ethereal groups on Ultris Island, to the east.
“Our new visitors have not responded to the nexus-prince’s greetings. My master has seen fit to send me as an emissary. We ethereals are a people impressed by cosmopolitanism. The presence of non-ethereal guests would give my words more impact, and I thought you might be interested in accompanying me. It is entirely your choice.”
“I would like that. Is nothing known of these newcomers? You said that some of the nexuses tended to violence.”
“The nexus-prince has given me his emblem,” said Pazshe. The ethereal opened its hand and a swirling glyph of light rose from the palm. “They shall at least hear us out and let us leave in peace.”
“When do we leave?”
“Ah, always the adventurer! Tomorrow or the next day. I would like another non-ethereal to join our party. Doing so would advertise the success of the nexus-prince in this shattered world.”
The other non-ethereal turned out to be Unota. Pazshe’s route would take us past the ruins of Farahlon and the ethereal agreed to give Unota some time to say her goodbyes. We left at noon the next day. Our lack of heavy cargo made jungle travel easier, though it still took us the better part of two days to reach the edge of the eco-dome.
A single step returned me to the cold emptiness of Netherstorm, where mana currents pour through the sky and shine their baleful light on the desert. North of the Stormspire coils a shroud of living darkness, birthed from the black smoke that belches forth from innumerable green flames. Samej told me of the demons, but I had not known there were so many. Unota shared my alarm.
“The demons, do they see us?” she asked.
“Carry no fear in your heart, good Unota. The demons seem entirely disinterested in the eco-dome. They shall not harm us so long as we keep our distance.”
“What is their purpose?” I asked.
“Who can fathom a demon’s mind? The nexus-prince has sent many of the most perceptive scouts to the demon camps. Have faith, for the truth cannot escape them.”
Despite Pazshe’s assurances I think we all felt quite relieved when the forge camp fell out of sight. Ahead of us extended the empty stretches of Farahl Island. The center of the island is an uneven plateau, formed by the Breaking rather than any natural tectonic activity. The remnants of Farahlon are at the top.
Unota told us stories of her youth as we made the journey. She was among the first generation of her race born in Draenor. Once of age, she married a vindicator named Cormus and helped to form a collective called Rising Faith Triumphant.
“We lived right up there, where you can see the buildings,” she said, pointing at the ragged silhouettes in the east. Unota did not express any great emotion while discussing her past. I suspected she was simply too tough to break down.
“I was a seamstress. Each day I joined the others at the little workshop next to the temple. We prayed as we went, a sacred word for each stitch of the needle. Now my fingers are too thick and big for tailoring. But they can do other things.”
Unota also told us about the Laughing Skull Clan, that obscure orcish culture native to Farahlon. Fragmentary Horde records all hold the Laughing Skull Clan in low regard. Many orc warlords wished to simply exterminate the clan, though Gul’dan prevented this.
“I don’t like orcs, but the Pure Ones say we should not hate people. I suppose that is why they are pure, no? Cormus was very happy when we first found the Laughing Skull Clan in the jungles. He thought they would embrace the Light even though the other orcs would not.”
“Did you agree with his assessment?” I asked.
“We all did. The Laughing Skull orcs went from place to place hunting talbuks and other animals. They didn’t build any towns, like the orcs to the south did. Very scrawny for orcs, never had enough food. We met with them for many years, a century maybe. Always giving them food and telling them to be kind to each other.”
“They behaved in a cruel fashion?”
“I used to think so. Now I am not so sure. But my mind is Broken, like my body. Maybe I am confused. Anyway, I made cloaks for the Laughing Skull, and the priests delivered food and wisdom.”
“How did the orcs react to this?”
“They were afraid, at first. I think now that the Laughing Skull were not so cruel, but they were very greedy. They always wanted food since they never knew when they would next get any. Once they got used to our gifts, they began to demand more. The worst was when the great summer rains hit; then the orcs came to our cities seeking shelter.”
“What happened then?”
“We welcomed them. Cormus said we were honored to have them as guests. But the orcs were a plague! If they saw food, they grabbed it and ate it! If they saw a metal tool, they’d steal it. The worst was what they did to the temples. Laughing Skull men always carried rotten fruit with them, they’d eat it and go mad. Always their shamans took them into our temples to gorge on the fruit. They vomited all over the sanctuary, and cared nothing for how we felt!”
“What did the draenei do?”
“The priests tried to explain why their behavior was wrong but the orcs just grew angry. I remember them accusing Cormus of hypocrisy. This hurt him greatly.”
“That sounds like an untenable situation.”
“Oh yes, very much so. Finally the city held a troika meeting, and we decided to build orc shelters outside the walls. That way they could get protection and food without causing trouble. My kindred and me, we spent months building it. Put so much effort into it! Some priests said it was contrary to the Light to exile them, but we had no choice!”
“Did the orcs accept these shelters?”
“We all thought they would, and at first it seemed like we were right. For a week or so, the orcs stayed in the shelter. But then they’d go back into our homes looting and arguing. There were fights, even! We asked the Laughing Skull orcs to stop and the orcs tried to hurt us! Can you believe it? Then we found out that orcs had killed three draenei in the city of Enkaat, to the south. Once we learned that, our soldiers drove them out of our city. My husband led the effort and he wept all night for what he had to do.”
“Now it seems like the right thing to do, but I was very sad for the orcs at the time. Don’t know why though.”
“Did the draenei maintain any contact with the orcs?”
“The priests wanted to help the orcs in their own environment, but the Laughing Skull robbed those we sent to them. Finally we decided to let the orcs stay in the wilderness. It was either that or kill them, and none of us wanted to do such a thing.”
The clash between Laughing Skull orcs and draenei is a tragic case of noble intentions gone awry. There’s still not really enough information to construct a cohesive history for the event. The most likely case is that the draenei failed to properly explain the Holy Light to the orcs. Instead of learning the importance of harmony and cooperation, the orcs began to see the draenei as nothing more than givers of food.
This probably came as a huge culture shock for orcs accustomed to a marginal nomadic existence, and the draenei never realized how damaging their attempts might be to the clan. Whatever the sins of the Laughing Skull, the difference in power between the two groups likely precluded any real harmony. Perhaps the Laughing Skull orcs came to resent the draenei. Alternately, they may have just grown dependent on the draenei without contextualizing their teachings. Laughing Skull leaders may have also feared that the draenei’s gifts would undermine their traditional authority.
Whatever the case, the Laughing Skull Clan allied with the ogre mobs left in Farahlon after the war. The ogres managed to bully the orcs into some semblance of organization. Many of the Laughing Skull turned to pastoralism, finding the relatively open plains of western Farahlon ideal for this purpose.
Nursing their hatred for all this time, the Laughing Skull proved convenient allies for the Horde. Those of the clan who stayed as hunter-gatherers knew the best routes through the jungle, enabling the orcs to outmaneuver the city-bound draenei.
The Horde was satisfied to leave the Laughing Skull to its own devices after the conquest of Farahlon. Mogor, the ogre leader of the clan, continuously tried to increase his standing in the Horde. One such attempt led to the attack on the Mok’nathal. Mogor’s efforts never amounted to any significant gains, and served to increase the alienation felt by the Laughing Skull. Some even say that it motivated them to give aid to the Alliance Expeditionary Force when it arrived in Draenor.
The Laughing Skull Clan realized that the Breaking would soon render Farahlon uninhabitable. The clan quickly took their belongings and trekked south, eventually settling in Nagrand. Almost nothing of their culture remains in Netherstorm.
Mana storms rumbled overhead when we at last reached the ruins of Farahlon, where broken shells of homes and temples watch over empty streets. The Breaking wrecked the city and left only the smaller structures behind. The temple's tower lies in pieces across a wide boulevard. No one had been there for a very long time, and I wondered if the Consortium would find any relics in the place. Only dust and memory lived in the houses.
“A melancholy sight,” said Pazshe. “Where do you need to go, good Unota?”
“Center of the city. Just need a few minutes.”
Draenic histories say that Farahlon was the largest city in the northlands, and the fourth-largest draenic city overall. Only about half of the city still exists. The rest drifts somewhere in the Twisting Nether. Unota stopped when we reached a large, circular plaza.
“I will go ahead now. You stay here.”
Unslinging her rifle, she walked out towards the ruined temple on the other end. At first I thought she meant to enter the crumbling structure, but she contented herself with kneeling just outside of it.
“A wondrous place Farahlon must have been, a nation of faith and prayer. How terrible for Unota to lose it all,” mourned Pazshe. Farahlon had revealed a gloomy aspect to Pazshe’s normally cheerful personality. I wondered if the ruins made the ethereal think of its lost homeworld.
We waited for what felt like hours before Unota finished. She was halfway across the plaza when a beam of light lanced out from an alley, missing her by inches. Unota raised her rifle and fired before diving behind a pile of rubble.
Pazshe lifted a hand, cautioning me to stay behind though I didn’t need to be told. I craned my neck, trying to see the source of the attack. A nightmare drifted out from an adjoining arcade, an orb of flesh sporting a beard of tendrils. A violet eye ringed by six smaller ones glared out from the body while a great mouth gnashed beneath the eyes.
Flames blazed in my hands as I prepared an attack. I raised my right arm, unleashing a fireball. The burning orb streaked halfway towards its target when Unota popped up and fired another round. The creature’s main eye collapsed when the bullet hit, yellow blood spraying out from the wound. It recoiled and screeched in a child’s voice. The sudden movement fouled my attack, which burst harmlessly against a wall.
Even as the monster convulsed in its final throes, its fellows came to join the fray. Two more evil eyes floated into the plaza. My second attack met with more success; a pair of frost bolts temporarily disabling one of the attackers.
Unota kept firing, shouting in Draenic as she did. The Broken scored a number of hits on an advancing monster but failed to stop it. The second attacker regained control of its faculties and flew towards me. I welcomed it with a burst of flame lifted up from the flagstones, the beast’s momentum carrying it through the searing flames and crashing into a ruined home.
Pazshe chose that time to do something extraordinary. The ethereal suddenly floated half a foot into the air, hovering in place without effort. Pazshe unsheathed its twin scimitars and sped towards Unota’s attacker, leaving a trail of afterimages in its wake.
Catching sight of the new combatant the evil eye turned to face Pazshe. Already going at incredible speeds, Pazshe made a flying leap towards the monster. The ethereal’s swords glinted in the half-light, razor edges seeking the monster’s flesh.
The ethereal vanished in midair only to instantly reappear behind the evil eye. Pazshe had somehow made a complete turn while teleporting and keeping all of its gathered speed. The swords plunged into the back of the evil eye and Pazshe launched a flurry of quick, cutting strikes while balancing on the beast’s thrashing form.
I watched in dumb fascination as the ethereal diplomat made short work of our assailant. A scraping sound from behind caught my attention and I spun around to see my earlier target rising from the ground. Viscous yellow blood oozed out from its eyes, four reduced to pulpy sockets. I launched another fireball before it could recover, killing it.
The three of us reassembled at the opening of the alley. Unota was unhurt aside from some scrapes while Pazshe was actually laughing.
“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“Every Consortium diplomat receives training at the expert hands of the death masters. After all, honeyed words alone will not ensure one’s safety.”
“An impressive feat.”
“A trifle, really. I am but a bumbling child compared to those who taught me. Now, I think it best we leave this place. The Burning Legion uses evil eyes as advance scouts. More are sure to follow.”
Heeding Pazshe’s words, we left the ruins as soon as possible. I looked to Unota, trying to see if she felt anger or sadness at the demonic intrusion. Her face was as impassive as ever. She had made peace with her loved ones, and that was enough.
Anticipation coils around Ultris Island, a hungry beast in wait. I sat on a ridge next to Unota, the Protectorate Watch Post stretched out below. Ethereal soldiers scour the intricate networks of metal, glass, and lightning. Immune to Netherstorm’s environmental extremes, the Protectorate does not bother setting up much in the way of shelter; a few tents serve as a token gesture. The camp is a far cry from the Stormspire, though still possessed of a certain style.
Pazshe did not seem surprised when it learned of the Protectorate’s presence. After speaking to Ameer, the local commander, Pazshe returned and told us about the Protectorate and its eternal foe, the Ethereum.
“This tale hearkens back to K’aresh, lovely and forever lost. King Salhadaar ruled that world with wisdom and subtle force. Yet even our king could do little against the armies of the Void. The king’s failure destroyed the throne’s reputation. The innumerable nobles and officials of the royal court dismissed Salhadaar as useless and went their own ways. Those few who stayed said that Salhadaar obsessed over its failure, seeking some way to make restitution. Thus was born the Ethereum.
“The promise of vengeance invigorated Salhadaar. K’aresh would again live, it said, once he annihilated the void armies. The king dreamed of all ethereals banding together under its command. At that point, however, millennia had passed since our world’s destruction. None of the nexus-princes had any interest in following a disgraced monarch into battle. Salhadaar had been known for steadfast determination in better days, and that trait remained unchanged. The nexus-princes would not support it, so Salhadaar looked elsewhere, taking in the deceivers and traitors of the nexuses. As you have probably already guessed, the resulting army had a definite cutthroat mentality. The Ethereum even began to interfere in the trade operations of its rivals.”
“Was the Ethereum a major threat?”
“Salhadaar’s raiders posed no physical danger to any nexus, but trading posts became a choice prey. The deeds of the ethereum inspired anguish and lamentation in the nexus markets. The Protectorate formed in response, an army of the greatest ethereal warriors and sorcerers. Salhadaar’s child, Nexus-Prince Kassim, founded the Protectorate and rules it to this day.”
“The Protectorate is an ally of the Consortium?”
“Ally is perhaps too strong a word. Just as the Ethereum will stop at nothing to defeat the Void, the Protectorate recognizes few scruples when it comes to destroying the Ethereum. We appreciate the Protectorate’s efforts but my master wishes they used more finesse. Ethereals and clients sometimes get caught in the crossfire.”
“You mentioned that Kassim is Salhadaar’s child. May I ask how the ethereals reproduce?”
“Do you recall how ethereals develop new personalities?”
“Yes, by meeting and interacting with other ethereals.”
“A scholar indeed! Reproduction is the next step in that process. If the friendship lasts long enough, and has sufficiently strong emotional content, the created personality of the psychologically stronger ethereal becomes an ethereal in its own right.”
“Does it maintain its parent’s client personality?”
“Naturally. We ethereals do not go through a helpless, infantile stage. This is not to say that we are born fully grown; newborn ethereals still lack experience. However, the basics of communication are understood from the moment of generation.”
“Would a child even need parents to raise it?”
“Not at all. In fact, newborn ethereals go directly to the creche where they begin training as enablers. The parents have little to do with the child. Granted, the situation is slightly different with royalty.”
“What happens to the parents? Do they continue their interaction?”
“Remember, the relevant personality of the stronger ethereal is gone. This makes the weaker ethereal practically a stranger. They may renew their friendship, though this may prove difficult. The weaker ethereal’s emotional turmoil may be off-putting to the stronger one’s.”
Ameer came to greet Unota and I a while later. More accurately, it came to recruit us.
“The Ethereum and Salhadaar have shown they will stop at nothing. By helping our cause today, you may play an instrumental part in saving your own world.”
Unota and I came from different worlds, but neither of us corrected Ameer. We declined as politely as possible, and the commander did not press the issue.
“The decisive battle may be here in Netherstorm. Nearly the entirety of Salhadaar’s forces are arrayed on the western end of the island. The nexus-king itself leads this assault.”
“Why did the nexus-king send so many?” I asked.
“Because Dimensius the All-Devouring, Master of the Void, has chosen this forgotten wasteland as its home. Up there at the top of that mountain is a manaforge. The ones you call elves made it their home, until their magic attracted Dimensius’ attention. The elves are gone; only Dimensius remains.”
“Does Salhadaar hope to confront Dimensius here?”
“There is no doubt. Dimensius is less important than the nexus-king realizes. The ethereal race has long since recovered from the void armies. We are greater now than we were in K’aresh.”
Though ethereals have no faces, I got the distinct impression of anger from Pazshe when Ameer made that comment about K’aresh.
“Our duty, as decreed by Nexus-Prince Kassim, is to make Salhadaar pay for its crimes. Then we shall kill Dimensius, completing that great quest once and for all. It is a pity that the Consortium is not more eager to help,” remarked Ameer. “Your nexus sent troops in our aid, once.”
“The swords and spellfire of my humble nexus can only do so much, my good Ameer. They require a great deal of finesse to be truly effective, though they are wondrous when properly used.”
“I see Haramad has not forgotten the Battle of the Clouds. Nexus-Prince Kassim had hoped it would be most educational for your master.”
“And it was, but the student does not always learn the lesson intended by the teacher.”
I am not entirely sure what to make of the Protectorate. From the account of Pazshe and other ethereals, the Ethereum had inflicted terrible damage on the Nexus trade network. The Protectorate were those ethereals who struck back, certainly a valiant position to take. Their bloody work did much (exactly how much is a matter of great debate) to preserve ethereal society.
So why is it that the Consortium and many other nexuses take such a critical opinion of the Protectorate? Pazshe’s complaint was that the Protectorate had weakened the Ethereum without destroying it.
“Why does Salhadaar still live, thousands of years after the Protectorate raised its swords? I do not wish to speak ill of Kassim’s character, but the facts must be faced. The Protectorate once had great wealth. Some of it was loaned by other nexuses, but much came from Kassim’s trade policies and wise rule. Today? That fortune is nearly gone. Salhadaar is the only thing Kassim has left. Kassim may indeed defeat the Ethereum. The nexus creditors that follow may not be so easily thwarted,” said Pazshe.
“Does the Protectorate owe much to the Consortium?”
“Nexus-Prince Haramad was among Kassim’s most loyal supporters. Two-thousand Consortium soldiers followed the Protectorate banner on the world of Ilzenzir, where stalks of living glass pierce an eternal layer of yellow clouds. Kassim promised to deal the Ethereum a decisive blow in that lovely world. Those 2,000, brave and true to the last, marched to their deaths. Kassim will need to give many relics to repay the Consortium for those lost lives, and we are far from its only creditors.”
“Is the Ethereum rich? Perhaps the Protectorate could loot the Ethereum holdings after a victory.”
“The Ethereum has less power than the Protectorate. The two factions have crippled one another.”
Yusik, an ethereal who only recently joined the Protectorate, gave a rather different account.
“I fear that Pazshe and its noble master forget that the Consortium would not even exist without Nexus-Prince Kassim. I take it you have not learned the histories of the Great Collapse, the term given to the era when Salhadaar plundered at will.”
“I have not.”
“Calling it the Great Collapse has become inconvenient for political reasons, but the name is apt. It was a time of terror. We had just finished a new world in the Twisting Nether, our great Nexus Network. As Dimensius had done to K’aresh (may that world be long-remembered!), Salhadaar threatened to do to the Network. The ethereals have still not recovered from Salhadaar’s raids! Why do you think so many have turned to banditry and wickedness? That was the only way for them to survive; to strike quickly and without thought of righteousness. The nexuses who relied on legitimate trade did so at great risk, though they deserve much credit for doing so.”
“From what I have heard, the objection seems to lie more with Kassim’s performance rather than its motivations.”
“A fine statement,” it scoffed. “Who else among the nexus-princes even had the courage to take arms against Salhadaar?”
“The Consortium did lend troops,” I pointed out.
“They did, only to stop once they met real opposition. None deny the Battle of the Clouds was a disaster, one of several. Such is the nature of war. I fear that the nexuses forget that war is an ugly business. If you send your subjects to fight, you must expect some casualties.”
“That is true. I take it that, were the Protectorate to abandon its efforts, the Ethereum would again become a danger?”
“Without us, Salhadaar will surely regain its strength. The Great Collapse could well happen a second time.”
My access to ethereal history is very limited. That said, most records agree that Kassim’s planning was often poor. The Battle of the Clouds was just one of many catastrophic losses. At the same time, there seems little doubt that Salhadaar came very close to destroying the Network. Though many ethereals try to downplay the effects of the Great Collapse, one does not need to read between the lines to realize the devastation it caused. Even Pazshe acknowledged that the less scrupulous nexuses became that way largely due to the Collapse’s impact on ethereal society.
I hesitate to offer analysis of this situation, as there is still a great deal I do not know. I suspect, however, that the Protectorate would be of greater benefit if the reputable nexuses exerted more control over the war effort. Regrettably, the nexuses do not seem to really care. Yusik’s criticism was valid; the nexus-princes were and are perfectly content to let the Protectorate do all of the work.
Kassim still bears a great deal of the blame. That nexus-prince developed a reputation for unpredictable and erratic behavior. This, combined with its poor strategic acumen, gave its peers good cause to distrust the Protectorate. Those that might have been inclined to work with Kassim found themselves repelled by the Protectorate leader’s obnoxious behavior.
This may ultimately be a moot point. The Protectorate still holds the upper hand against the Ethereum and will probably destroy it in the (relatively) near future. Some ethereals are concerned with what the Protectorate might do after its victory. Kassim commands an army of battle-hardened soldiers. These warriors care little for the mercantile ethos that guides normal ethereal society. If Kassim or the other nexus-princes integrate the soldiers into normal life, things shall proceed smoothly. If they fail to do this, the suddenly purposeless Protectorate army may well pose a danger to the Network. The orcs might face a similar problem if the Burning Legion and Scourge are ever defeated. Warrior societies often end up seeking conflict, to the detriment of all involved.
I was surprised to learn that Pazshe next intended to speak with Ethereum representatives.
“From what you and Ameer have said, it sounds like the Ethereum would attack you on sight,” I said.
“Have no fear, Destron, for Salhadaar has not completely forgotten etiquette. My presence is merely a courtesy from Nexus-Prince Haramad. I would besmirch my master’s good name if I left without saying hello. If it eases your concern, know that even the Protectorate made a brief exchange with the Ethereum upon their arrival here in Netherstorm.”
The Ethereum Staging Grounds are not far from the Protectorate Watch Post, and takes about a day to reach. The storm intensifies along the road. Strange lights flicker on the edge of the island as the wind, heard but not felt, turns into an ear-splitting moan. Ultris Island is the worst affected by the storm’s effects, and may not exist for much longer.
As we neared the western portion of Ultris, Pazshe extended its right arm and conjured its master’s sigil. This, it explained, would let the Ethereum know that we came as emissaries. We had not gone much farther when a pair of sword-wielding ethereals floated out from the shadows behind a massive boulder. I could still see their natural incandescence through their wrappings, but they glowed dimmer than any of the other ethereals I had seen. Pazshe raised the icon as a precaution and our greeters stopped, hovering in front of us. They studied us for awhile before turning around and beckoning for us to follow. We soon arrived at the ghastly Ethereum Staging Grounds.
My experience in the Stormspire and the Protectorate Camp led me to think that the ethereals placed a high priority on aesthetics. Their settlements use the sparse layout to great benefit, creating scenes of elegant minimalism. This is not the case with the Ethereum. Machines of every imaginable variety are scattered without order on the rocky shelf, shooting out little bursts of electricity. I began to develop a mild headache upon entering the area. I glanced at Unota to see her grimacing in discomfort.
Much of the Staging Grounds are covered in shallow pools of blue slime, ringed by similarly-colored piles of plasticine sludge. I could tell it was some kind of a mana byproduct, though I could not tell what kind.
“Pazshe, you said this place was safe!” hissed Unota. “My skull is going to break open!”
“Servants of the nexus-king, your attention please! My friend is feeling ill; may I take her away from your base?” inquired Pazshe.
The guards did not even turn back to acknowledge its request. Pazshe tried again, sounding quite surprised. After a failed third attempt, it turned to Unota.
“I fear they are deaf to our need. My apologies Unota; I did not know the Ethereum base would be in such disarray. The energies in the air here are only dangerous to flesh-friends after weeks of continual exposure. I promise you that we shall leave as soon as possible.”
“I should just leave on my own then. My gun protects me.”
“You are a skilled fighter, but I do not now how the Ethereum will react to you leaving. Not even your skill can defeat them. Please, I beg you. Stay here with us. I shall make appropriate recompense for this disgraceful incident.”
The soldiers took us to a quartet of stone spikes in the center of their camp. Strands of violet light crossed between the points of the stones, glass crates set in stacks on the ground. I gathered it was some kind of storage area.
“Strange behavior,” mused Pazshe.
“Have you ever met the Ethereum before?” I asked.
“I have not, but no one else has been received in this way.”
Fortunately, we did not have long to wait. A robed ethereal approached us, flanked by a pair of soldiers. Just like the first Ethereum minions we saw, they gave off noticeably less light than normal. The robed ethereal genuflected, and Pazshe returned the gesture.
“How privileged are we that unknowable chance has delivered you to our holdings in this lost realm. We can see that the Consortium has made many friends in this land already; I, Ibar, lowly servant of Nexus-King Salhadaar, offer a humble welcome,” announced one of the ethereals.
“The privilege is mine, noble servant of the illustrious nexus-king. Indeed, my only sorrow is that this encounter must come at a time of so much strife. I am Pazshe, Consortium ambassador in the service of the wise Nexus-Prince Haramad. My brave companions are Destron Allicant of the Forsaken, and Unota of Shattrath City.”
“Many welcomes to you, fleshlings. As dictated by the ancient laws of reception, we welcome you to our fortress though only for a short time. Even the best of the old laws must be suspended for the war that exists between our nations.”
“My respect to you for steadfastly maintaining this fine tradition. I regret to say that Unota is taking ill, so I must conclude my business here as quickly as possible.”
“The nexus-king sends its regrets to your fleshling companions. I shall not keep you waiting. However, my master does not receive any visitors who are not of the Ethereum. Simply inform me of your master’s wishes and intentions, and I shall relay the message to the nexus-king.”
“Oh.” Pazshe seemed momentarily at a loss, but it soon recovered. “Nexus-Prince Haramad, Trader of the Far Regions, Guardian of the Ways, and Friend to the Flesh, mourns that it cannot call your great master, Nexus-King Salhadaar, Supreme Lord of the Ethereal Race and Glorious Light Eternal, a friend. Cruel obligation forces the nexus-prince to regard your master, that most noble of souls, as an enemy. As such, any further encounters between our two peoples shall be on the field of battle.”
“Alas! The nexus-king laments this sad turn of events. Yet my master must also serve the whims of history, and has no choice but to accept Nexus-Prince Haramad as a most worthy opponent.”
The two ethereals bowed again.
“The truth is known, and our business is done. I shall tell my master of this sad news, as well as the gracious hospitality offered by its enemies,” said Pazshe.
“I fear, good Pazshe, that I must delay you but a little while longer. I must report your words to my own master—merely a formality. However, it must know all that happens in this camp. Wait here, and I shall return with gifts.”
Ibar bowed and left with its guards.
“What is this? My head hurts worse than ever, and you stand here making fancy talk with the Ethereum! I do not want to see Ibar’s gifts!” shouted Unota.
“Nor do I. Unota, I promise that I shall do everything in my power to return you safely. To do any less would be an insult to my master. Let us wait a little while longer. I still do not think the Ethereum will take hostile action against us. If they do, I will fight to the death to protect you. Nexus-Prince Haramad promises protection, and I shall fulfill that promise through any means necessary.”
Pazshe’s musical voice seldom revealed any emotion besides wry amusement, but those words burned with sincerity. The ethereals take duty to an art form. In that sense, at least, they are not so different from the blood elves.
Ibar’s short wait ended up lasting quite a long time. Unota sat on the ground, closing her eyes and massaging her temples. Her pain was real but did not seem to be the sign of a serious condition. An agitated Pazshe stalked around the enclosure, its inner light glaring brighter than normal.
“This is very strange behavior,” said Pazshe again.
“What’s gotten you so disturbed?” I asked.
“It is the pleasure and right of all ethereal leaders to meet new people and learn from them. Guests like ourselves should be speaking to Nexus-King Salhadaar, not waiting here. I cannot imagine why it would not wish to see us. It should at least want to see you.”
“Perhaps it fears us? I doubt we pose a real danger, but monarchs are susceptible to paranoia. Salhadaar seems like it might even have some justification for such an attitude.”
“That may actually be the case, though perhaps not in the way that you mean.”
“Then in what way?”
“What Salhadaar may truly fear is encountering new viewpoints. The typical ethereal makes a point of cultivating as many personalities as possible, but perhaps Salhadaar only wants a few. To one as single-minded as itself, Salhadaar might view other personalities as an unwelcome distraction from its endless quest.
“Think of it, Destron!” Pazshe continued, “Ibar even said that few in the Ethereum could speak to outsiders. Salhadaar does not wish any of his followers to develop new ideas. Instead they simply recycle the ones they already possess, not bothering to analyze or refine them!”
“But what of Ibar?”
“The nexus-king keeps a few normal ethereals on hand in order to facilitate dealings with other nexuses, but no more than absolutely necessary. Admittedly this is just speculation, but it explains many of Salhadaar’s actions. Isolation breeds madness. What Salhadaar has done, if this theory is true, is to isolate the entirety of its nexus. Monstrous! I could not imagine a more absolute betrayal of ethereal culture.”
For the ethereals, Salhadaar’s refusal of visitors was a total inversion of their most cherished values. A terrestrial equivalent might be if Warchief Thrall suddenly advocated the virtues of cowardice. There was real horror in Pazshe’s voice.
Ibar at last returned to us and apologized for the delay and said we were free to depart. Pazshe inquired as to why Salhadaar did not wish to meet in person. Ibar excused its master, citing the many duties of royalty. The Ethereum henchman also delivered the gifts it earlier promised: three necklaces that appeared to be made of violet lightning, though with a silken texture. Each carried an immaterial pendant of green haze.
Ibar escorted us away from the Ethereum Staging Grounds. It bowed one final time at the edge and left us for good. Unota sighed in relief.
“The pain is gone.”
“Nevertheless, you still deserve compensation. We can arrange for a suitable reward once we return to the Stormspire. You as well, Destron, for your forbearance.”
“I did not mind at all, I found it very interesting.”
“As did I, though I took no pleasure in it. At most a sort of horrified fascination. How can an ethereal lose all interest in others? I have not seen anything like that in all my years. Even the most deceitful and capricious ethereal knows the importance of interaction. Some scholars warn that the ethereals have reached a moral nadir. Perhaps though, it can get much worse.”
“The Ethereum is weak, is it not?” I pointed out. “They shall soon be gone, and their attitude condemned. Besides, you have behaved in accordance with your traditions. As long as there are ethereals such as yourself, the race will thrive.”
Pazshe turned to me. I like to think that, if it had a face, it would have smiled.
“Ah, well I shall not burden you with my dreary concerns any further. In the Consortium, at least, honor and wonder still rule. Let us begin the journey back to the Stormspire, and we shall trade stories of the worlds we have traveled.”
“A magnificent idea.”
On that joyful note, we began the journey back to the eco-domes.