Wednesday, November 19, 2008
A flight of birds lifted up from the trees, bursts of bright color in the foliage. Choirs of insects chirped unseen in the tropical heat, hidden by leafy foliage. Broad green leaves and thick branches create a mighty canopy over the ferns and vines of the lower levels. I could have closed my eyes and thought myself back in Stranglethorn Vale. The teeming jungle of Eco-Dome Midrealm looks much like the an Azerothian rainforest. The only difference is the glowing violet shell around the jungle. Sections of the dome brighten and fade as time passes, creating an artificial day and night. The ethereals had even set up a water cycle that bring torrential downpours each day at noon.
I was sitting on a mossy stone in front of Selvedar’s grave. An ethereal who professed knowledge of “fleshling biology” attempted to heal the elf, but to no avail, and he died the night of my arrival. I felt no guilt; only sadness at his passing. I took some comfort in knowing I’d done everything I could.
“Forgive this uncouth interruption, but the current of time calls us to Stormspire. The caravan is ready to disembark.” The Stormspire to which the speaker referred is the regional headquarters for the ethereals.
“Thank you, Pazshe.”
Pazshe clasped its hands and gave a sinuous bow. Pazshe was the first ethereal I met, and it certainly came as a shock. The goblins had described them to me as beings of solid light, which is mostly accurate. The ethereals lack a fixed form, and are able to reshape and even resize their bodies at will. Those in Outland take on an anthropoid aspect to make their customers more comfortable, and garb themselves in white linen wraps in order to accentuate their frames. Bright light shines through the wrappings, making it impossible to mistake the ethereals for anything else. Many also wear robes and vests dyed in lush, dark colors.
Pazshe was an emissary for a group called the Consortium, a guild of arcane traders with major investments in Outland. When I met it, Pazshe was escorting an orc shaman and her apprentice out of ethereal territory. Overjoyed to meet a Forsaken, Pazshe invited me to return with it to the Stormspire.
“This universe is rich in memory and experiences. I am sure that you and your people have many tales to tell, and desires to fulfill,” it said.
Ethereals possess the uncanny ability to broadcast their thoughts in the language of those around them. Whatever tongue they use, the ethereals favor flowery descriptions coupled with elaborate formality. This trait usually comes across as either charming or unctuous. Pazshe happily fell into the former category.
I did meet with the shaman earlier, and she helped me bury Selvedar. Named Mura Ragefang, she’d been one of the first women to follow the shaman’s path in Thrall’s Horde. She labored as a peon during the Second War, her scarred face speaking volumes on the Old Horde’s brutality. I told her the story of Selvedar’s death and Kael’thas’ betrayal.
“Magic shall lead these elves to a bad end. I do not much trust the Forsaken, Destron, but you did a brave and honorable thing risking your existence to save Selvedar’s,” she said, looking down at his grave.
“I did what was needed.”
“Just as a warrior would say. I am going back to Thrallmar. Once there, I shall tell General Nazgrel of Kael’thas’ crimes. I will tell too him of your heroic actions.”
I followed Pazshe down to Midrealm Post, an array of metal poles and canopies. Boxes of glass or metal are placed in neat stacks, the glass variety holding bright electric currents that twist wildly in place. The living say that approaching ethereal encampments makes the hair on the back of the necks stand on end, and jolts the mind with a sense of elation and optimism. This is apparently a byproduct of the refined energies used by the ethereals, a mix of electricity, mana, radiation, and even stranger elements.
The boxes had been loaded into a pink sphere made of pure force that somehow suspended its cargo in place. A few goblins from Area 52 were looking at the strange devices with a mix of wonder and envy.
“Here in Eco-Dome Midrealm is where we conduct much of our business with the good merchants of Area 52. This caravan holds the results of our latest trade, precious minerals taken from the depths of B’naar Island.”
“Why do the goblins not go directly to the Stormspire?”
“Time, my friend. These jungles are not easy lands to traverse. The great minds of the Consortium also find Midrealm a fine venue in which to study the nature of reality.”
The caravan followed a narrow jungle trail. No beasts of burden pulled the containers; like the crates used by the Sin’dorei pilgrims, ethereal cargo is self-propelled. Two ethereal warriors accompanied us, each wielding an elegant scimitar.
“Does this eco-dome somehow recreate old Farahlon?”
“It is our humble attempt, though the eco-dome’s facsimile is imperfect at best. Consortium world-artists had little with which to work. Myriad plant and animal species thrived in the forests here, yet we could only regenerate a paltry few. The rest, I fear, are lost to time.”
“The eco-dome is certainly an improvement over the rest of Netherstorm.”
“Your words warm my soul, good Destron. Offering sanctuary from the eternal storm is only the least we could do. After all, if one is to create a marketplace, it must be safe before it is anything else.”
“Do your people need the safety of the eco-dome?”
“Not at all, it is purely an attempt to attract visitors from Outland and your Azeroth, which I hope one day to see. To further answer your inquiry, the ethereals make their homes in the many nexuses scattered across the Twisting Nether. We are not strangers to unusual conditions.”
“The ethereals originated in the Twisting Nether?”
“We did not, but our homeworld is no more. We called our world K’aresh, an airless realm of energy currents powered by the suns Algo and Betlezsju. The Void destroyed it, alas.”
“The Void? As in the voidwalkers?”
“None other. Darkness and light are forever enemies and they found us a most tempting target. Let us turn our attention to less dreary things, shall we? Tell me of your world, with its crimson deserts and white glaciers. I hunger to learn more!”
Eco-Dome Midrealm is a large place and it takes five days to cross from end to end. Much of this time is spent hacking away at the undergrowth that inexorably strangles the road. Pazshe explained that the properties of the eco-domes tended to accelerate the natural growth of both plants and animals.
Though the animals are plenty in number, there is very little in the way of diversity. I saw no more than three different species of birds in Midrealm. Brilliant blue moths flutter in the upper canopy and pale crocolisks lounge in the lakes. Pazshe said that many species of animals were irretrievably lost, and some of the salvageable types could not be reintroduced.
“The beasts of the forest and creatures of the waters are connected in a grand skein, you see. Stability is ever a harsh lord, and Midrealm’s natural portfolio cannot integrate many of the larger species. Renewing the crocolisks was an immense risk, and many esteemed world-artists argued against it.”
“I was wondering what they ate.”
“Fish and talbuks. The crocolisks are becoming a bit of a strain. Master World-Artist Samaa intends to wipe them from Midrealm if their population does not soon attain equilibrium.”
“You would still be able to recreate them in the future, correct?”
“But of course, my friend. The world decrees a time for all things; if it does not currently favor the majestic crocolisk, it may do so in the future.”
Another Naaru bridge spans the void past the edge of Duro Island, creating a path to Farahl Island. Farahl is the largest landmass in Netherstorm and the only one without a Manaforge (though one does exist on the small Ara Island, adjacent to Farahl). Three monstrously-sized eco-domes shimmer on Farahl’s edge, merged into each other. The Stormspire stands at the center, surrounded by miles of trackless jungle.
Just as I told Pazshe of my experiences, it in turn told me the story of its life. Pazshe’s words painted a picture of a society both strange and magnificent. Despite sharing a commercial propensity, the ethereals have little in common with the goblins aside from some basic similarities in social organization.
Pazshe had served the Consortium with distinction for millennia. Most ethereals are born (or created) into the rank of enabler, essentially the slaves caste of a nexus.
“The sworn duty of the enabler is to serve the innumerable merchants, warriors, and scholars of a nexus. A difficult and wearying task, though hardly dangerous.”
An enabler must choose between slowly rising through the ranks or striking out as a wind trader. Ethereal wind traders are independent merchants. Unlike the scrappy free traders of goblin society, wind traders generally seek to build up substantial wealth and skill in order to attain a higher station at the nexus of its choice. Pazshe had elected to return to the Consortium where it eventually earned a prestigious ambassadorial position.
“So is a nexus a political unit, or a place?” I asked.
“It is both. A nexus is a sprawling network of eco-spheres suspended in one of the Twisting Nether’s rare calm spots. The greatest servants of a nexus dwell in these eco-spheres, each filled with the life and culture of a dozen worlds. Connecting the spheres are the swarming corridors in which most of my kind reside. Ah, Destron, a sojourn in a nexus would truly be the adventure of a lifetime. My regret is that they are not hospitable to fleshlings—pardon me!—non-energy beings, yet I am sure magic or engineering can take us beyond such petty difficulty.”
“I would like to see a nexus.”
“The nexus heart especially. The heart is the central eco-sphere of a nexus in which burns a remnant of K’aresh, our home forever lost. The Consortium's nexus heart is the most wondrous in existence, or so say the well-traveled. Our heart calls out to clerics and sages of even the most remote nexuses who come to study its perfection.”
“Clerics? What is the nature of your religion?”
“Religious discussions tend to be indelicate. I shall tell you, if you insist, though decency obliges me to preface such a description with ample warning.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“As you wish, my friend. K’aresh is the soul of all ethereals, the Endless Illumination. Just as light reveals the world around us, the Endless Illumination decrees that each ethereal learns its place, serves with honor, and deals in honesty.”
“Good traits for any merchant.”
“Indeed, a fundamental truth revealed by the Endless Illumination. My sad duty is to tell you that not all, or even most, ethereals fulfill these obligations. The Endless Illumiantion offers forgiveness for even the most inveterate of sinners. Unfortunately, this sometimes inculcates wickedness.”
“My experiences show that no one is immune from sin.”
“Your experience speaks wisely. Our holy texts mention forgiveness in only vague terms. There is a group of clerics, of great standing within the Consortium, who argue that dishonesty cannot be forgiven and that we must shun nexuses that engage in deceit. These clerics are called the Steadfast.”
“What is your opinion on this?”
“Ah, there are many Pazshes. The thoughts of one are not necessarily the thoughts of another. My facets tend towards a middle ground.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Forgive me, this is a strange concept for many. The Pazshe with whom you speak is only one. A Pazshe, subtly different in mind, conferred with a fellow enabler named Maldarim. Another Pazshe confers with the wise Nexus-Prince Haramad. Do you comprehend?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Imagine that you and I were to interact for a long time, decades perhaps. Over that time, my personality would grow and evolve.”
“As would mine, hopefully.”
“Yet your growth would be an addition to your total. For me, it would be an entirely new Pazshe, one born from the interaction between you and I. If such an interaction were mutually favorable, as I have no doubt it would be, this Pazshe would have a positive psyche. Were it tense, the new Pazshe would be less friendly.”
“An entirely new personality?”
“New, though still based on the old.”
“However, wouldn’t your original personality be influenced by the development of this new one?”
“Only to a degree. That which is known by one Pazshe is not necessarily known by another. This trait proves most useful in delicate or confidential business dealings.”
“I hope this does not cause offense, but such a nature hardly seems conducive to honesty.”
“If the original personality is honest, the subsequent ones will likely be the same. A new personality will not violate the deep ethics of the original. This is why young enablers are brought up so strictly; a corrupt ethereal quickly becomes a hundred corrupt ethereals, though in a single form.”
My mind struggled to process this information.
“Among my kind, experience is one of the determinants of personality. Is this not the same with the ethereals?”
“Experience plays a part, to be sure. Experiences resulting from interactions with the environment or a broad segment of society influence the core personality, and indirectly influence those that grow from it. Experiences derived from long-term interaction have a more limited effect.”
“Wouldn’t that make it difficult to learn from mistakes in previous dealings?”
“Quite. Remember, new personalities only develop after fairly substantial interaction. At the moment, you are meeting the basic Pazshe. I do not know you well enough for a new Pazshe to arise from our discussions. That which we learn from short-lived interactions tends to affect the core personality.”
“When you meet another ethereal with whom you are familiar, does the appropriate personality spontaneously take over?”
“Precisely, the shift is effortless.”
“What happens when you meet more than one at a time?”
“That changes according to the nature of the group. In most cases the older, more developed personality takes reign. If a group meets often enough, each ethereal will develop a new personality appropriate to the group.”
I think I have good reason to consider myself worldly and cosmopolitan. Pazshe’s description of the ethereal psychology made me reconsider. I still struggle to comprehend the ethereal mentality, and I doubt I’ll ever succeed. It should also be said that the ethereals find the races of Azeroth and Outland equally puzzling, not understanding how we can switch emotions and attitudes while retaining the same basic personality. The often contradictory nature of the human (or orcish, or trollish etc.) mindset is also strange and even a bit disturbing to them.
Some consider the ethereals inherently duplicitous, citing that race’s multiple shifting personalities. This is inaccurate. Honesty is a prime virtue among the ethereals (even if it seems to be losing ground in some of the more peripheral nexuses). Most personalities of a single ethereal will be honest, even if they do not always agree. Honesty is not the same as the truth; one can be honest while still being in error. Dishonest personalities can arise if the core personality was not properly socialized. Also, when an honest ethereal meets one who is deceitful, the decent one may find itself subtly corrupted. Alternately, the deceitful individual may grow less so. The result depends on the strength of the individuals involved. This is also why ethereals tend to be very careful in choosing long-term associates. A real risk faced by wind traders is having to partner with an unscrupulous ethereal. This can usually be avoided by staying in a reputable nexus, though Pazshe said that many of those are sinking into decadence.
Hacking through the jungles of Eco-Dome Skyperch was a time-consuming process. Pazshe made a note to inform the world-artists of the unexpected regrowth levels. The entrance to the Stormspire proper is rather inconveniently located on the northern end, forcing us to take a circuitous route through the forests.
The Stormspire is actually an abandoned draenic fortress called Zelsur. Zelsur’s originated in the chaotic years after the Ogre War. Though an allied force of draenei, orcs, and arakkoa succeeded in breaking the ogre armies, mobs of ogre warriors terrorized rural Farahlon. Bringing peace to the land proved a grueling and often bloody process.
The draenei built Zelsur to protect Farahlon from future attacks and to aid in their pacification campaign. Construction went slowly; the draenei were overzealous and made it much larger than necessary. The ogre bands had mostly been eradicated by the time of its completion.
Zelsur could still act as a forward defense against future invasions, so a small garrison remained in the fort. A strong camaraderie developed among the soldiers there and Zelsur gradually developed a monastic quality. The vindicators soon adopted the site as one of their bases, attracted by its combination of piety and martial discipline.
Zelsur fared badly in the Horde War. The orcish armies moved faster than anyone expected and quickly encircled the regional capital to the northeast. Zelsur’s fame had not brought it a larger garrison, and the soldiers stationed there realized the situation was hopeless. The revered Vindicator Tona led the Zelsur troops in a doomed attack against the Horde forces. Tona sought to relieve the besieged soldiers in the city of Farahlon but her brave actions only delayed the inevitable. Orcish catapults broke Farahlon’s walls a week after Tona’s attack and the warriors slaughtered everyone inside.
In jungle clearings one can see the massive Stormspire peeking over the dense canopy. A massive structure built on elevated ground, it dominates the landscape. If Zelsur had only maintained a larger garrison, the fortress would have been a major stumbling block for the orcs of the Horde War.
Two ethereal guards welcomed us to the Stormspire. Pazshe took me to a circular platform at the Stormspire’s base. The platform lifted off from the ground at Pazshe’s command, behaving much like the elevator I'd ridden back 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.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
“Is it safe to cross?”
I stood before a slapdash assemblage of planks and metal beams that the goblins called a bridge. I thought it looked more like an accident in the making.
“Trust me, it’s fine. The last mana storm messed it up a little, so we’re fixing it up. It’ll look as good as new in a week. Hey, I wouldn’t be working on it if I didn’t think it was safe!”
The goblins have a very liberal definition of safe. I looked to the storm-tossed desolation beyond the bridge, a foreboding wasteland of bruise-colored stone. Dark clouds crawl across the sky, veiling bright bursts of mana. Netherstorm may well be the most extreme environment known, an otherworldly mockery of normal reality.
I stepped onto the bridge, which felt more stable than it looked. Perhaps the goblin foreman sensed my relief.
“See? Not so bad.”
“I apologize for doubting you.”
“Hey, no need to worry. A fellow’s got to look out for himself. Do you know much about Netherstorm?”
“Not a great deal.”
“Same as everyone else then, ha! Follow the road until you get to Area 52. Keep a good pace, and you should get there in three to four days.”
“Area 52 is the goblin settlement here?”
“That it is. Don’t stay out in the wastes too long. There’s some pretty strange stuff in the air. Might not affect you, being undead, but it’s best to be careful.”
“What sort of strange stuff?”
“Beams of invisible mana that can slow-roast your innards without you realizing it, pockets of thin air that make you sick and confused, some other things.”
“Is there any way to avoid these hazards?”
“Sure, sure! You can take these little yellow pills that protect against mana exposure, and buy canned air to recover from disorientation. We’ve got lots here but we can’t afford to part with it. Buy it from Snang Grizzgog in Area 52; he’ll give you good bargain.”
“Will I be able to reach Area 52 without these pills?”
“No guarantees but B’naar Island is pretty safe, being close to the mainland and all. B’naar Island is the big chunk on the other side of the bridge, by the way. After that, you definitely want to take some precautions.”
Teams of goblins worked on the edge of the bridge, blinding light sparking on the tips of their welders. A boulder the size of a galleon lazily rotated in the air above them. My senses jangled as I felt currents of wild magic in the cold air, a wind that tugged my mind but not my body. Rivers of violet energy flowed through the impossible sky, surrounded by distant stars.
I reeled, suddenly comprehending the scale of what I saw. Netherstorm's shadowy clouds are more than clouds; they are springs of raw mana millions of miles across. Outland and Azeroth are simple dust specks in the Nether's endless expanse.
The foreman wished me luck once I got to the other side. I thanked him for his time and started walking along a path of lavender rock. Powerful mana currents had scarred the lifeless badlands around me, twisting rock formations like clay.
Netherstorm was not always like this. Called the Fields of Farahlon for much of history, the realm was a verdant and tropical land. Draenic records indicate that Farahlon was a subcontinent being pushed into the mainland; this pressure created the Blade’s Edge Mountains.
The Farahlon coastline was a narrow mushroom jungle connecting to Zangarmarsh in the south and the Blood Tropic in the north. The shoreline was uninhabited aside from a single draenic port called Luuko. Dangerous animals and a scarcity of good harbors made it an unappealing location.
Travelers going inland from any point on the coast would soon encounter a mighty escarpment. The lush plains of Farahlon proper spread across the tablelands past the cliffs. Grass and ferns grew as tall as draenei, and the mossy veeum trees gave shade. Though quite hot, most found the highland climate preferable to that of the torrid coast.
The draenei built many small cities in this green realm: Enkaat, Arklon, Saavedri, and others. Foremost among these was the mighty citadel of Farahlon. The draenei planned to use Farahlon as a staging point from which to explore the rest of the world.
Farahlon suffered terribly during the Ogre War. The surprised draenic armies made a frantic retreat to the Farahlon citadel, where ogre mobs pounded on its massive walls in vain. Fortunately, ogres lack the determination required for siege warfare. The invading army gave up and broke into roaming bands that plagued Farahlon for centuries to come. This is why the draenei were unable to keep watch over the Blade’s Edge Mountains after the war; they were too busy uprooting the remaining ogres. A few ogres joined the Laughing Skull Clan, an orcish culture group notorious for its treachery.
As the draenei of Terrokar fell to the Horde, many hoped that Farahlon would act as a sanctuary for civilization. Yet bad luck and a series of tactical blunders all but gave the subcontinent to the orcs.
I do not know how long I walked through B’naar Island before reaching the ruins, where cracked walls and bent towers lean on in each other in a jumble. I later learned that these were the ruins of Enkaat. I tried to imagine Enkaat when living draenei still prayed in its temples, but the surrounding desert seemed to sap my imagination. I could only see the city's carcass, a symbol of entropy’s victory in Netherstorm.
Several days passed on the road. I will go by the foreman’s estimate of three to four days. Netherstorm lacks any sort of day-night cycle, having only the cold twilight of the arcane storms. Cheered when I finally saw Area 52 in the distance, I hurried my pace. The town looks a bit like Gadgetzan with its cluttered array of domes. The main difference is the great metal tower needling the sky.
Inside Area 52, I found the reassuring chaos of goblin commerce. Though subdued compared to Booty Bay or Ratchet, plenty of merchants still hawk their wares in Area 52’s streets. Many of the buildings were only half-finished when I visited, their squat domes girdled with scaffolding. Work teams scrambled to finish their projects under the bellowed directions of their foremen. Not even Netherstorm’s bleak environs can dampen goblin optimism.
I soon found Starry Nights, a hotel in the center of town. The proprietress designed the guest rooms to be as small as possible to save on space. The builders had crammed the rooms, little more than coffins, around a parlor too brightly lit for comfort. The rates were at least cheap, a necessity due to a lack of guests.
“Things will pick up around here. There’s a lot of room for growth, believe me. It’ll just take some time,” said Remi Dodoso, the hotelier.
“Do the local workers already have company housing?”
“Who owns Area 52?”
“The Braintrust of Orbital Operations and Mechanics, also known as B.O.O.M. It’s a subsidiary of the Steamwheedle Cartel.”
“How do they plan to profit from it?”
“What, do I look like a Steamwheedle executive? I think the idea is to get lots of information about the Twisting Nether, see how it can boost existing arcane engineering. That sort of thing. Researchers can get great company housing at a pittance. You see the rocket yet?”
“Rocket? Like fireworks?”
Remi nearly fell out of her chair laughing.
“No! It’s the big metal thing in the town center. I guess it works like a firework. You ignite the fuel and it shoots up. The difference is you’re suppose to bring the rocket in for a landing at some point after exploring as much as possible. Everyone here is real excited about it. I’ve got 10 gold pieces riding on a successful launch by the year’s end!”
I left Starry Nights to see the rocket up close. It is certainly an impressive piece of work, a sleek metal javelin pointing to the heavens. A few workers and engineers tend to the launch site at all times. A goblin wearing a jumpsuit ambled over to me, wiping the sweat from his brow. Oil stains spattered his uniform.
“Hey there,” he grunted.
“Hello. How’s work on the rocket going?”
“What? Oh, it’s going slow. Too damn slow.”
“How much more do you have to do?”
“The rocket itself is mostly done but there’s been some last minute problems with the fuel mixture. The original formula was too volatile, and the alchs are busy cooking up something new. Now they just have us do daily maintenance on the thing. Ugly hunk of junk, but it should get us where we want to go.”
“How far can the rocket travel?”
“This one? Not too far. This is experimental. Right now, we just want to see if we can get something into the Twisting Nether and have it survive. It’s frustrating though, having to wait all this while. I’ve been keeping busy; started up this little venture on the side turning scrap metal into tools. I’m going to call it Nagzag Tool & Dye!”
I remembered my encounter with Znip Bazzleprog in Everlook. He had envisioned using a balloon to travel from world to world. The rocket seemed like an update of his ideas.
“Did you ever hear of a goblin named Znip Bazzleprog?” I asked.
“Old Znip? Sure, he lives right over there,” said Nagzag, pointing to a small house nearby. “I guess he made kind of a name for himself.”
I thanked Nagzag for his time and went over to Znip’s home. The place is small, even by goblin standards. I knocked on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Destron Allicant. We met in Everlook, years ago. You told me about your exploration plan. I thought I would visit while I was in the area.”
A venerable goblin opened the door, a wide smile on his wrinkled face.
“Destron! Sure, I remember you. Come on in.”
I ducked through the door frame. Books, tools, and charts lie scattered across the room, accumulating in piles that nearly reached the ceiling. A tiny cot and an even smaller desk serve as the only visible pieces of furniture.
“Not much room, you’re just going to have to find your own space. The joint’s still a lot nicer than that observatory. So tell me, where you have been?”
I gave Znip a brief description of my travels. Once finished, I asked him about Area 52 and his visionary plan.
“Well I’d sold my balloon idea to the Tinker’s Union, but they were pretty much sitting on it. Then one of the tinkers, Artz Cyklurk, writes some stories about powered vessels exploring the worlds beyond. Imaginative stuff, but all based on what we know. His stories grew real popular and Steamwheedle approached the Union about making it a reality. To make a long story short, some of the tinkers created B.O.O.M. and went out here to do it.”
“Lots of arcane energy, makes for a convenient fuel source. Mixing the fuel’s another matter all together; we’ve had some problems with that.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Actually I think the real reason is that Steamwheedle wanted to harvest the mineral wealth here. Anyway, Artz went up to visit me in Everlook—I had no idea any of this was going on—and invites me to go along! Says I was an inspiration!”
“That’s great! You must be quite proud.”
“What can I say, I’ve got a good mind.”
“Is it hard living here?”
“Not much worse than Everlook. Same shortages of equipment, but I can deal with that. Outland’s real dangerous, but the way I see it I’m going to keel over of old age any day now. If I’m going to take deadly risks, this is the time for it, right?” He snickered. “I could never figure out why old humans are so careful about things. Us goblins get crazier and bolder as the years go by.”
Life was grand for Znip. He seemed content to observe the rocket’s gradual construction, only giving occasional input. His position in B.O.O.M. was mostly an honorary one though his expertise certainly had value. The old goblin showed no resentment at being placed to the side.
“I’m getting name recognition and plenty of cash. Richer now than I was back in the North Kalimdor Company, that’s for sure!”
Znip offered to introduce me to Artz and I happily accepted. He said that Artz was currently in the wastes studying arcane phenomenon, but would return in a few days.
“As long as he’s alive, that is. What can I say? I love Netherstorm, but it’s dangerous.”
Visitors to Area 52 are sure to notice the massive trench bisecting the town. Weird blue light emanates from the rift and shaky platforms have been hammered into the sides. I visited this curiosity the next day. The trench is the most active spot in town. Sounds of heavy drilling rend the air while goblin engineers and merchants work on the overhanging platforms. I approached a middle-aged goblin woman carrying a ledger.
“About time you arrived! Your shift started—oh, you’re not Venzer. Only way I can tell you deaders apart is by your wounds,” she snorted.
“Don’t mind me, I thought you were someone else. Venzer’s one of the miners, a Forsaken like you. Are you interested in a job? It’s a good starting position.”
“I’m not planning on staying here long. What is it you do here?”
“Mine the trench. It’s not even supposed to be here, really. An excavator struck a mana node when were building Area 52. For a minute we thought we’d cracked B’naar Island in two!”
I walked to the edge of the platform and looked into the gap. The trench gleams with blue phosphorescence. Goblin workers chip at the sides with drills and picks, their heads covered by bulky, spherical helmets.
“Why do the miners need so much protection?”
“Lot of residual energies in the trench.”
“Does it pose a danger to rest of Area 52?”
“We thought it would but the energy dissipates once it reaches our level. Hey, look, I’m not an information desk! Get a job or get out!”
I decided to leave the irritated goblin alone. I saw a team of five workers seated on the edge of the trench drinking from canteens. Four of them were goblins while the last was a tattooed jungle troll.
I made a quick run back to Starry Nights and purchased a bottle of grog. I returned to the trench with the drink under my arm and offered it to the workers. Though a bit suspicious of my generosity, they eased up when I said they could give information in exchange.
“I’m Zobb, team leader,” said one of the goblins. Ugly red patches covered his sharp face.
“How’s the work here?”
“Pretty bad. I’m only in on this bum job because I trusted the wrong people. Used to be an independent trader, and I’m going to go back to that one of these days.”
“I hear mining’s a big business here in Area 52.”
“I think it’s going to be the main one for the region. You can spend a fortune on rockets without getting much more than coppers in return. The Sloggog Mining Concern runs this operation. They aren’t part of Steamwheedle, but they cut a deal with the Cartel.”
“Are you an employee of Sloggog or of Steamwheedle?”
“Sloggog, unfortunately. Most of the miners here, myself included, are on the run from debtors back in the old world. My plan is to get enough money here to pay them back. That way I won’t have to go into debt slavery for Barterbolt Enterprises.”
“I suppose Netherstorm’s isolation has advantages.”
“Definitely. Only problem is that Sloggog’s not entirely honest. This is real dangerous work.”
“Why doesn’t Sloggog use debt slaves?”
“Simple. We’re paid employees, meaning they aren’t obliged to feed us. We have to buy our own food, which makes it harder to scrape money together. A lot of folks trying to get out of debt slavery came here thinking they found a great deal. Joke’s on us as it turns out,” spat Zobb.
“What about the protective gear? Do you also have to buy that?”
“Obviously. Costs a lot of money too. Some of the miners thought they could tough it out with no suit. They regretted that decision when they started coughing up blood.”
“Because of the arcane energies?”
“Uh huh. Working in that trench is like being hit with an arcane blast spell, except that it hurts you over the months instead of in a second.”
“Do the suits provide adequate protection?”
“I don’t always feel so great but they seem to do the trick.”
The opportunities of goblin society come at a high price. Just as there are few limits to what a goblin can earn, there is nothing protecting him in the event of a fall. Nor are the goblins ever moved by the misfortunes of their fellows. That said, it is worth noting that poor or enslaved goblins rarely feel sorry for themselves. Zobb was totally convinced that he would soon be a successful independent merchant. I do not know if his confidence was well-placed.
The meeting with Artz went as planned. Znip took me to the B.O.O.M. offices, a rambling, two-story building in the west side of Area 52. The security personnel at the gate waved us in without questions. Beyond the door we navigated a confused warren where overstuffed filing cabinets teeter on the brink of collapse. Junior employees in threadbare suits noisily push tin carts overflowing with documents and appliances. The small size of the halls (though sufficient for goblin usage) increase the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Znip finally stopped at a small metal door. The whirl through the office left me utterly disoriented and I was not sure if I was on the first or second floor. The door opened at Znip’s rap, revealing a neatly dressed young goblin.
“Destron, this is Artz, visionary writer and inventor. Artz, this is Destron, a Forsaken traveler.”
Artz welcomed us inside. His personal office is little more than a cubbyhole, crowded but tidy. A model of a rocket in flight perches on his desk. Artz related the story of his career. By writing stories for Cutting Edge, a speculative fiction magazine, he’d gone far from his beginnings as a lowly valet.
“It’s amusing, actually. Area 52 is inextricably merged with popular literature. The rocket idea is my own, and the name itself came from an adventure serial called Frontier Chronicles,” he chuckled. Artz had surprisingly formal diction for a goblin. He explained that this was the result of working for displaced Alteracine nobles living in Undermine.
“Are the Chronicles any good?”
“As a joke, maybe,” scoffed Znip.
“They set out to entertain, and most people say they succeed. Znip here has rather high standards. Anyway, speculative fiction has often prompted the development of new sorcery and technology. The zeppelin’s a wonderful example of this, stemming from Voyage in the Sky written by Krig Skern eighty-nine years ago.”
“So ideas expressed in art sometimes become reality.”
“Well said. I think it stems from the fact that every goblin is trying to make money. That’s why an ambitious, or simply desperate, individual might seize upon the idea of making and selling a real version of a fictional device.”
“Does the original author get any credit?”
“Generally. Cutting Edge, for whom I still write stories, offers legal protection to writers who have successfully submitted three stories. Not all publications are so generous, but it’s growing more and more common. After all, good writers are a resource.”
“Do many writers end up in your position? Overseeing the creation of their own project?”
“That really depends on the writer’s technical knowledge. I have a fair amount, but this is not always the case.”
“There must also be instances of unsuccessful attempts to create these imagined technologies.”
“Hah, those outnumber the successful ones. Still, no matter how mad the idea, there’s a goblin crazy enough to try and create it. Sometimes the writers try to produce it themselves though they usually lack the resources.”
“Are the goblins the only race to have speculative fiction?”
“The gnomes have a bit. Not as much as one would expect, actually. I think they go straight from imagination to the drawing board, and don’t see a need for a literary middleman. I’ve seen some from humans, dwarves, and Forsaken. It’s a growing genre. I’m sure orcs and tauren will be writing it soon enough.”
“Not all of these cultures embrace technology to the extent the goblins do.”
“True, but speculative fiction is much more than just gadgets. Take Fil Kaydik, for instance, another goblin writer. He mostly explores how arcane evolution affects society. His work is really excellent, though it can get rather strange.”
“I’ve read some of his work actually, it is quite good.”
“Ah, a man of good taste, I see! I would also hasten to add that a writer’s visions do not spring from a vacuum. I wrote about rocketships only because I was inspired by Znip’s stellar balloon.”
We talked for a few hours longer, stopping only when a clerk asked Artz to review some fuel mix plans. I thanked Artz for his time. He gave me a small list of recommended speculative fiction writers before I left.
Netherstorm’s inimical environment inspired the Horde and Alliance to stay away. No one really wanted to support colonies in such a dangerous area. Netherstorm instead became a prime location for neutral parties, such as the goblins. The Steamwheedle Cartel is by no means the only non-aligned player in Netherstorm. The goblins had recently learned of the ethereals, a race of merchants and looters from somewhere beyond the Twisting Nether.
“We still know very little about them, except that they’re made of solid light—don’t ask me to explain it. The ones we’ve met aren’t hostile and they mostly live in the north anyway,” said Remi. We were sitting in the Starry Nights common room after I returned from the B.O.O.M. offices.
“Why are they in Outland?”
“Something to do with getting magical artifacts. We’ve only encountered two ethereals so there’s not much we can say about them yet. You seem like an explorer type, maybe you ought to go up there and take a look.”
“That is a good idea. What about the blood elves? Doesn’t Kael’thas live somewhere in Netherstorm?”
“Less said about blood elves, the better. They don’t like anyone poking into their business and they aren’t usually interested in trade. The Cartel struck a deal with them: they leave us alone as long as we return the favor. Of course, we still get those lousy pilgrims. A bunch of them arrived a week ago.”
“Is there any other kind out here? A bunch of them are camped outside the walls. I offered them great rates here, and I have enough rooms, but their leader—some fool named Tyrean Adjective-Noun—thought they were too good for it.”
I actually had noticed the elven camp, a collection of incongruously bright and airy pavilions. I was already planning to pay them a visit and did just that the next morning. A few Steamwheedle agents stood at the eastern gate, keeping wary eyes on the pilgrims. The elves numbered 34 in total, mostly retainers of provincial nobility seeking to rejoin their masters. Their numbers obviously rendered it impractical to rent rooms at Starry Nights.
I found Tyrean Brightstar sitting on a rock next to a small goblin cemetery. A large goblin statue overlooks the head of the graveyard, its arms outstretched like a priest in mid-sermon. The wide and rather unsettling grin on the statue’s face spoiled any attempt at reassurance. Remi’s description of Tyrean had led me to expect a cold and aloof character, but he was actually quite gracious.
“The nation of Lordaeron stood strong against the onslaught of the old Horde and it is my shame that Quel’thalas did not sooner come to your aid. That you continue to stand by my people, even in undeath, is not something I shall ever forget.”
Tyrean’s group had passed through Thunderlord Stronghold quite soon after I'd left, and made the long journey to Netherstorm while I was mired in Bladespire Hold. House Brightstar, of whom Tyrean was the middle son, had been a comparatively tolerant family that once ruled a fief in what is now the Ghostlands. Many prominent Brightstars joined the farstriders, though Tyrean served the Magisters' College.
“We leave for Manaforge Coruu in two days. The last leg of the journey was quite exhausting and I wanted to give everyone a chance to recuperate. Netherstorm is no land for the weary.”
“Where is Manaforge Coruu?”
“Around nine days to the east. Not as if this land really has days. Manaforge B’naar is closer, but royal messengers said we were to go to Coruu instead. I am not sure why.”
“What does the Sun King think of the Horde? Last I heard there was a bit of diplomatic confusion between the two.”
“Confusion? I was not aware of such. I will admit that contact between Silvermoon and its master has been limited, but we would know of it if the Sun King disapproved of befriending the Horde.”
“You said you received royal messengers.”
“A pair of homonculi went down to Thrallmar, directing all pilgrims to Coruu. That has really been the extent of it,” shrugged Tyrean. “Would you like to accompany us to Manaforge Coruu?”
I paused, weighing the risks and benefits. Doing so might reveal Kael’thas’ actual intent in the Netherstorm. Alternately, if my reception turned out to be anything like what I got in Bloodmyst Isle, such a venture could be very dangerous.
“If you would not mind,” I said.
“It would be my pleasure. I am sure that the Sun King will appreciate Horde guests.”
I smiled, hoping that Tyrean’s words were true.
The storm worsened with each mile. Thick clouds blocked the stars and flashes of silent lightning lit the desert. We all heard piercing winds howling in the sky above, even as the air on the surface stayed cold and dead.
Despite all this, the blood elves were happy.
The rich ambient mana of Netherstorm sparked their energies. Wan faces stretched in joy as the Sin’dorei at last felt satisfaction. Some were nearly giddy with excitement. It is a testament to Tyrean’s leadership that he kept everyone in line.
Before we left Area 52, I told Tyrean of my encounter with the Sin’dorei on Bloodmyst Isle and how they had tried to kill me. Tyrean accepted the news, and said that circumstances had forced his people to be suspicious.
“Please understand, Destron. That hostility is a thing of the past. The homonculi our master sent to Thrallmar proves that he is aware of our alliance, and that it does not offend him.”
The pilgrims kept their supplies in floating black cases moved by magic. Made of lacquered wood with gold trim, they made me think of stylish coffins. I remembered the walking wagons in Eversong Woods, designed to look like fanciful beasts. Such creations could not survive in Outland.
A glittering white bridge spans the gap between the isles of B’naar and Coruu. There was no doubt in my mind that the Naaru had built it; the bridge would not have looked out of place in the Exodar. Tyrean seemed impressed by the construct but we did not stay to admire its workmanship.
The other pilgrims were polite but distant towards me. They were nothing like the soft and pampered blood elves of popular imagination. Even the luckiest caravan will undergo great hardship when traveling Outland and they were no exception. Eleven of their number perished en route to Area 52. The survivors were a doughty bunch, carried along by an unbreakable camaraderie.
“This storm is a grand metaphor for the Sun King! Can’t you feel his power in this land?” exulted a young woman when we finished crossing the bridge. I said nothing, though I imagined everlasting noon would be a more obvious metaphor.
The pilgrims cheered when they caught sight of a sinuous pink energy vortex in the distance, a pulsing brightness that fought the darkness. Strands of glowing mana fell from the storm clouds, feeding the swirling tempest.
“We are nearly there. See? They are tapping the mana and purifying it. Here lie the seeds of our rebirth,” said Tyrean.
At the base of the vortex is the imposing alabaster citadel of Manaforge Coruu. Pointed towers buttress the energy stream and scalloped machines rise and fall in tempo. Transparent crystal pipes the size of rivers branch out from the lower levels, carrying mana to unknown destinations. The walls display Kael’thas’ personal flag, a red phoenix on a black field.
I looked away, dizzy from the light. The blood elves stood in expectant hope. Tyrean reached into a pouch tied to his belt and took out a tiny silver orb, throwing it into the air with practiced elegance. The orb flashed into momentary brilliance, a furious sunburst in the frigid waste. Pilgrims waited in anticipation until a similar image fired up in front of the Manaforge, showing Kael’thas’ beloved phoenix.
“They have seen us! We have made it!” shouted Tyrean.
Thirty-four pairs of arms shot up in victory without any pretense of restraint. These elves had suffered too long to disguise their glee.
Minutes passed as hours until a line of soldiers marched out from the Manaforge. Clad in red and black armor they lined up behind a crimson-liveried standard bearer. Tyrean smiled at their arrival, seeing an end to his trials. The soldiers reached us and the standard bearer gave a stiff bow which Tyrean returned. They spoke in Thalassian for a while, the standard-bearer's tone curt. A few of Tyrean’s followers also noticed this, and looked puzzled. The standard bearer’s green eyes suddenly flicked to my position. He flew into a rage, spitting at Tyrean and pointing to me. I realized that I had made a mistake in accompanying the elves.
Tyrean tried to talk through the standard bearer’s tirade without success. At last, the Sin’dorei noble’s eyes narrowed and he backhanded the standard bearer, accosting him and hissing in rage. It was grossly inappropriate for a mere soldier to talk that way to a member of a Great House. That the bearer did so with so little concern suggested that something was very wrong.
One of the other soldiers raised his hand and spoke to Tyrean in a quieter voice. Tyrean nodded, apparently mollified. The standard bearer went on one knee before Tyrean, apologizing without apparent sincerity. He then stood up and bade us to follow. I walked over to Tyrean.
“That brute is from a retainer house yet he saw fit to give me orders!” fumed Tyrean. “I was very patient with him; my father would have struck him down on the spot. I am sure that the Sin’dorei in this land are under great stress but there is no excuse for such behavior, none!”
“It is quite strange. He seemed upset at my presence.”
“I explained that you were not Scourge and that the blood elven race is a part of the Horde. I at least convinced the other soldier, who has not forgotten his station in life. It was a very peculiar beginning.”
Tyrean’s dark mood spread to the rest of the pilgrims, who looked markedly less enthusiastic. They had risked their lives trying to reach their brethren only to find that the Outland Sin’dorei had cast aside the most cherished customs. Granted, obeisance to nobility is hardly a desirable trait, but the lack of it in such a traditional race surprised me. I also doubted that this new confidence had anything to do with a belief in individual rights.
We passed camps of red and blue tents, sometimes holding blood-red crystals that I took to be mana storage devices. The manaforges loomed over us, their delicate appearance weirdly threatening in the half light.
We were guided past the manaforge to a rocky ledge near the surrounding abyss, where there is situated a fragile-looking structure of steel and canvas, surrounded by a barricade. The barricade's steel arches had been magically altered to look like wood, though the effect does not convince.
A trio of lean and predatory Sin’dorei archers stood guard inside the building. The soldier said a few words to Tyrean, bowed, gave some orders to the archers and left with the rest of his entourage. The pilgrims instantly began talking, trying to understand what just happened.
“This is Sunfury Hold. Captain Everwind—the one who just spoke to me—says that Manaforge Coruu is currently off-limits,” said Tyrean.
“Did he say why?”
“On order the Sun King. I suppose the situation is difficult. This is just not what I expected at all.”
Tyrean did his best to calm the pilgrims who began to set down their equipment and make the place as much of a home as possible.
“Captain Everwind said that you should stay with us at all times. He makes no guarantee for your safety if you leave Sunfury Hold without an escort,” warned Tyrean.
“Thank you for telling me.”
“I know that this is not an appropriate way to treat an ally. I can only assume that this is due to some unforeseen complication or communications error. Take this.”
Tyrean reached into a pouch on his belt and took out a polished signet ring bearing the red sunburst of his family.
“Wearing this places you under the protection of House Brightstar. Taking this ring does not obligate you to serve as a vassal, merely to be respectful, which you have already done. No one shall hurt you as long as you have this. Any who do, must answer to me.”
He pressed it into my hands and seemed to regain some measure of confidence.
“I am honored by your gift, Lord Brightstar,” I said, unsure how to react. I suspected that the blood elves of Coruu cared little for the Great Houses.
“I believe in the Horde, Destron. So do the Sin’dorei of Netherstorm; they just don’t realize it yet.”
I could only hope that Tyrean’s optimism was justified. The other pilgrims relaxed a bit as time passed, rationalizing their peculiar welcome.
The Coruu authorities came to visit us some time later. A man and a woman entered Sunfury Hold, each in magisterial red robes. They looked somehow unhealthy though I could not tell exactly why. I thought it might have been their pallor, though that would be a natural result of living in Netherstorm.
The greeted Tyrean with a bow and spoke in tones considerably more respectful than that used by the standard bearer. Just this tiny gesture lifted the pall of anxiety hanging over the pilgrims. The woman excused herself from Tyrean after a little while and came to me.
“You must be Destron Allicant,” she said, speaking in Orcish.
“That is correct.”
“I am Katria Dawnhearth. We do not see many undead here in Netherstorm. Lord Brightstar says that you are of the Forsaken.”
“Who are in turn part of the Horde.”
“We are aware of that fact. The Sun King is largely indifferent to your Horde. He does not bear ill will towards them. Nor is he keen on entangling himself with orcs and ghouls.”
“Silvermoon has chosen to do just that. Does he object?”
“Silvermoon must do what it needs to survive. It matters not; we expect the city to be abandoned within a few years. Netherstorm is the new Quel’thalas.”
“The Sun King would be willing to accept the Horde as servants provided they met certain conditions. At any rate, we shall treat you as a guest, if only due to Lord Brightstar’s voucher.”
“I appreciate your hospitality.”
“May I ask how you intend to integrate these pilgrims into your new society?”
“That is still being decided. Manaforge Coruu is full so they will most likely go to Tempest Keep, where our Master reigns in glory. They may stay here until a decision is made.”
“What is the purpose of a manaforge?”
“The distillation and purification of mana, the potency of which is increased tenfold after refinement. You cannot imagine what it is like to drink the energies here, undead. To think I once despaired after the corruption of the Sunwell! Let the Sunwell remain dark, for we have found something greater by far.”
“The manaforges certainly look spectacular. Did the Sun King create them?”
“He had no need. The Naaru built the manaforges to power the Burning Legion. We took them and the Legion now hails the Sun King as its new master.”
“The entire Legion?”
“There are a few stubborn holdouts, like those who follow Illidan the Betrayer.”
“What has happened to Illidan?”
“The Betrayer was never more than a means to an end. Why should the Sun King heed the words of a lowly night elf? We shall eliminate Illidan when it becomes convenient.”
“Demons still attack Horde forces in Hellfire Peninsula, and they do not follow the banner of Illidan. In fact, they wage war against Illidan. Do they fight the Horde in the name of the Sun King?”
Katria arched an eyebrow at my comment.
“Choose your words wisely, undead. It should be obvious that such demons are the minions of petty warlords. Rest assured that we shall soon destroy them. The reign of the Sun King shall brook no dissent.”
The magistrix’s words confirmed my worst fears about the Sin’dorei. Kael’thas’ quest for dominion will inevitably bring him into conflict with both the Horde and Alliance. The most pressing question was Silvermoon City: will they stand with the Horde, or with their mad king? The loss of Silvermoon would be a decisive political victory for the Alliance.
I no longer doubted that Kael’thas had joined the Burning Legion. I did not believe, even for a minute, that he had conquered the demon armies. Kael’thas is dangerous as a servant to the Legion. During the Third War, his keen tactical insights led him to many a victory against overwhelming odds. The elven king would certainly be a better tactician than the demon lords currently fielded by the demon armies.
I expressed my concerns to Tyrean once the magisters left. He only grew annoyed, and made convoluted rationalizations in defense of Kael’thas. I soon realized that my arguments were futile.
The pilgrims settled into a quiet routine, waiting for their deliverance. I tried to formulate some kind of escape plan that included the elves. Unfortunately, only three of Tyrean’s followers spoke any language besides Thalassian. The royal soldiers on constant patrol outside Sunfury Hold further complicated matters. Sounds of combat sometimes rang out in the wastes, never for more than a few moments. The Coruu magisters denied that any fighting occurred in their jurisdiction and said that the sounds came from the storm. I could tell that even Tyrean doubted their assurances.
Katria and her companion returned to us after what might have been two days. They offered a cursory greeting to Tyrean before turning to me.
“We have decided to reveal our true power to your Horde. We hope that this will provide an incentive to accept our guidance,” she said.
“Have you heard of Kirin’var Village? The name is misleading as the settlement was actually quite large. The mages of the Alliance Expedition Force made their home in this land, when it was still called Farahlon. The Sun King, in his generosity, offered safety to these wizards if they accepted his rule. Our master was willing to overlook the traitorous behavior for which humans are known. Moreover, there were also elves of good family living in Kirin’var.”
“I take it Kirin’var refused his offer?”
A look of annoyance flashed across Katria’s face, though she soon regained her composure.
“Quite perceptive. We shall take you to Kirin’var so that you may see the power of the Sun King. Remember, he is as a god.”
“I too would like to see this,” interjected Tyrean, his face grave.
“We would be honored at the presence of such an august personage as yourself. Very well, we shall all go together.”
“The excursion will not take long. Our command over the arcane energies of this place make travel much easier. The village ruins are quite far from here, but we will reach it in mere moments.”
Tyrean and I followed Katria outside. Black clouds engulfed Coruu Island, dusty sparks burning in the gloom. Katria raised her slender arms.
Light everywhere. That is the only way to describe it. Katria’s spell lifted us bodily into one of the mana ribbons winding through the sky, propelling our basic components miles to the east. Immaterial nerves grew in my extremities and I again felt alive.
We emerged from the current. Katria and the other magister stood laughing, eyes alight and veins shining beneath ashen skin.
“The Sunwell cannot compare!” exclaimed Katria.
Tyrean’s eyes were closed and his lips stretched in a distant smile. Hands shaking in bursts of motion, he looked to be worlds away from Outland.
The twisted ground rose in uneven planes and angles, shaken into new form by the Breaking. Empty homes stood in a staggered line, the remnants of Kirin’var Village. A solitary tower guards the ghost town.
“An archmage lives in that tower. We keep him alive so that he may ponder the foolishness that led him to this fate,” intoned Katria.
Tyrean seemed barely conscious. He sat on the ground, still shaking.
“Kirin’var posed a threat then?”
“None can stand in our way, Destron. Not even your Horde. This husked ruin could easily be Orgrimmar or Undercity.”
“All cities die eventually,” I remarked. “How did you destroy Kirin’var?”
“The power of the Sun King enables us to do many things. The energies we unleashed killed the residents and warped time. Parts of the town look the way they did years ago as if the inhabitants just left. Others have fallen into decay.”
“A powerful gesture,” I said, trying to hide my disgust.
The atrocity made it clear that the Horde had to divest itself of Kael’thas as soon as possible. Had the elves merely attacked and occupied the town, the aggression could be forgiven. Yet there is no defense for the wholesale murder of civilians. The people of Kirin’var defied orcs, demons, and disaster to establish a home. All that, destroyed in an instant.
A weird fog descended as I stepped closer. Katria placed a warning hand on my shoulder.
“Kirin’var is not a safe place. The residual energies coalesced into monsters and phantoms.”
“How many people lived here?”
“A few thousand. The Kirin’var mages did have skill; great as we are, we still acknowledge that. They fancied themselves masters of the realm. They somehow learned of the Breaking before it happened and created a great mana shield around their town. Inside there lived a little pocket of Farahlon; green fields and bright lakes. The rock on which you stand was once a farm. We undid all of that in an instant. The Breaking finally came to Kirin’var after all those years.”
I nodded, at last understanding how the town managed to survive in Netherstorm for so long. Rather than creating magic farms from nothing, they had preserved a bit of the old world. Knowing this, my anger only grew. Kael’thas and his followers viewed reality through a lens of untrammeled arrogance. Let the world be damned so long as they had their power. Such behavior was an echo from history, a repeat of Queen Azshara’s corruption. Just as she and her court mutated into the supremely cruel naga, I suspect Kael’thas will likewise turn into something new and terrible.
The purified energies of the manaforges had destroyed all inhibition among the blood elves. The stiff formality and endless rules were gone, replaced by a mentality that regarded whim as law. Seeing themselves as gods, nothing was forbidden to them. I looked at Tyrean, still insensate on the ground. A man of grace and courage turned into a delirious sot.
We returned to Sunfury Hold in the same spectacular way that we left. I guided the half-conscious Tyrean to his companions, who stood in alarm upon seeing their leader.
“We are here, my friends, we are here!” wheezed Tyrean.
Hours passed before Tyrean recovered. In the meantime, I pondered what I had seen and continued searching for an escape. Abandoning the elves would be unethical but I feared I had no other choice. Tyrean would never leave Netherstorm. Of the others, only three could speak any language besides Thalassian. Conversing with them would be risky. If their loyalty to Kael’thas were steadfast, they would probably report me.
I first tried to gauge their general reactions to the Coruu authorities. Only one showed any distrust or worry, a sad-faced woman named Perellea Sunweave.
“These are not the people I once knew,” she sighed. She came from a long line of retainers to House Brightstar.
“I fear that they are enemies of the Horde. Katria, the magistrix, as much as admitted it.”
Perellea bit her lip, her eyes downcast.
“I’ve long worried that the Sin’dorei were losing their way. You could see it in Silvermoon City, the carelessness and hedonism. I thought the defenders of Netherstorm would be different... we’ve come so far! My lord has suffered so much to get here.”
“Do not let such suffering be in vain. Perhaps we can escape—”
“I will not leave without Lord Brightstar. Even if all other Sin’dorei forget their obligations, I shall always remember mine. I am sorry.”
“Think of the other pilgrims! Do they know what is happening here?”
“Most do not care. I will not stop you from escaping. Tell the Horde of what is happening here.”
“If you escape with me, you can help rectify the sins of Kael’thas.”
“My place is by the side of my lord. Please do not discuss this with me any longer.”
The steel ship drifted through the eternal storm, carried by fel mists. Limp pennants drooped from the bejeweled prow and stern, and a circle of flame danced around the fanciful pagoda cabin in the center. Tyrean’s followers stood on the safety of the desk, gazing at the darkly mottled thunderheads that seemed ready to consume the vessel.
I had waited too long to make my escape. An imperious magistrix by the name of Maryana came to Tyrean back on Coruu, directing him to the manaforge on Duro Island. The alarming teleportation I’d earlier experienced did not allow for travel between islands. The Sin’dorei used enchanted ships for this purpose.
Perellea stood near the crimson pagoda, her shoulders slumped in defeat. I went to her, not seeing any other options. I had the distinct impression that Tyrean did not wish to be bothered.
“You missed your chance,” said Perellea.
“Perhaps. An opportunity may still arise on Duro Island.”
“My answer is the same as before. I have no choice.”
Her tone was decisive. If I were to escape, it would be on my own.
Too soon did I see Manaforge Duro in the distance. The pilgrims flocked to the ship’s prow in anticipation. Manaforge Duro looks no different from Manaforge Coruu, showing the same alien design.
The ship pulled up along a ridge on Manaforge Duro’s southern side. Blood elf soldiers and magisters stood at attention, their eyes cold and impassive. A velvet carpet unrolled from the starboard side and hovered in the air. Tyrean Brightstar adopted a regal demeanor and descended the carpet, every inch a lord. The pilgrims followed in single file.
A solitary magister marched up to Tyrean and bowed, though only slightly. Tyrean ignored the affront, nodding his head in acknowledgement.
We waited for a few minutes as the magister talked to Tyrean, presumably outlining the last leg of the journey.
“They will teleport us near Tempest Keep, the throne of the Sun King,” whispered Perellea.
The soldiers around me rendered escape an impossibility. I could only assume that Tempest Keep would be even more heavily guarded. A blinding flash hit me and my withered body flew across Duro Island.
I fell on my knees upon seeing Tempest Keep. Words cannot create a fitting description of that monstrous and beautiful citadel. Tempest Keep is a fusion of crystal and engraved metal, harmony made manifest. Ivory turrets line the circumference of the crown-shaped base, easily the size of Orgrimmar. An impossible tower, miles high, stands up from the center. Three crystalline satellites float around the main structure, identical to the Exodar in all but color.
Around me the pilgrims, mana-addled after the teleportation, sighing in rapture. The end of their journey had extinguished a raw need, and they cared for nothing else. Only Tyrean maintained himself, perhaps due to the previous exposure.
A quick look around revealed that not a single Sin’dorei soldier had followed us. Escape finally presented itself. I made one last attempt to reach Tyrean.
“Lord Brightstar, please listen to me! This is a trap These Sin’dorei do not uphold your race’s traditions.”
Tyrean blinked in confusion, slowly turning to face me.
“Why are you still babbling? Do you know how long we have hungered for this? Of course not, you and your rotting kindred cannot feel anything! I am at peace for the first time in years and you think to take this away from me?”
The aristocrat’s face twisted in rage. I barely recognized him as the brave leader I once knew.
“Listen to yourself, Lord Brightstar—”
“I have listened long enough.” He strode towards me, and grabbed my wrist when he got close enough. Tyrean lifted my hand and pulled off the signet ring. “You no longer deserve the protection of House Brightstar. Kael’thas will provide deliverance for me, but not for you. Leave, now!”
Tyrean’s fanatic eyes fixed on Tempest Keep. I had done everything possible, but still failed to dissuade him. My only choice was to leave the Sin’dorei to their fates.
I jogged towards higher ground and ducked behind a twisted rock spire upon reaching a safe distance. Dull violet crystals jutted from the sides of the stony growth. I could see the elves gathered below, ants in the distance.
A speck of burning light suddenly flared up over the dazed pilgrims, growing in size and intensity until it formed a miniature sun, brighter than Azeroth's. A shadow stood in the center of that awful light. For one frantic moment I thought it Kael’thas himself. The distance made it impossible to get a good look at anything. Four other shadows then appeared, two on each side of the first.
A commanding voice boomed in the distance. I did not need to know Thalassian to realize that the speaker was of a high position. All the Sin’dorei save for Tyrean knelt in reverence towards the figure. That could only mean that the shadow was someone other than Kael’thas. The endless storm grew still and quiet, the words more distinct. The voice carried a cruel edge.
The massacre took only an instant. Whips of green light lashed out from the central shadow, striking each of the assembled Sin’dorei. The elves collapsed to the ground without a word. The little sun around the dark figure blazed brighter and then winked out of existence.
I checked myself, wondering if I had truly seen that. While I knew Kael’thas’ followers were corrupt I never imagined they would murder their brethren. Such an action served no obvious purpose.
Pebbles fell in cascades as I ran down the rocky slope. Sin’dorei bodies lay scattered across the field, skin clinging tightly to bones. The carcasses smoldered with dull green flames giving off a fel stink. Death had warped their faces beyond recognition.
A gasp broke the silence. A lone blood elf stirred at the edge of the massacre site, groaning in shock and disbelief. I hurried over to him and found him nearly unscathed. I identified him as Selvedar Dawnseeker, one of Tyrean’s retainers.
“Can you walk?” I asked, hoping my Thalassian was understandable. Selvedar spoke no other languages.
The distraught elf ignored me, staring at his dead companions. He opened his mouth as if to scream but nothing came out. Selvedar collapsed, tears streaming down his face.
“Selvedar! Can you walk?”
“Yes,” he said, followed by words I did not know.
“Walk with me,” I said. I wondered if he had seen Tyrean grab the signet ring from my finger.
Selvedar shook his head, pointing at the bodies around him and yelling. He whipped a curved dagger from his belt and turned the blade towards himself. I seized his arm before he could do anything. Selvedar only struggled for a moment before again losing himself to tears.
“Look,” I ordered. I directed his attention to Tempest Keep. He stared at it through tear-filled eyes. Turning his head towards me, I drew one finger across my throat, and again gestured to the keep. My attempt at communication worked. Selvedar nodded and slowly got to his feet. His entire body shook with barely-repressed sobs.
Blood and night elves both form deep bonds to those in their communities and kin groups, a trait that stems from their longevity. The loss of such a relationship through death is a horrific trauma for any elf. Years ago, in the Blasted Lands, I had met a Kaldorei demon hunter who had sworn to kill a lord of the Burning Legion. His stated goal was vengeance for the life he'd lost in the Third War. Yet his true goal was death. Though skilled, he had no chance of defeating the demon lord in single combat. In vain I tried to convince him to abandon his quest, arguing that he could do more damage to the Burning Legion by serving in the Alliance forces.
I do not believe that vengeance is a worthy motivation. Too many of my own people have had their souls hollowed out in a pointless quest to pay back the world for what they had suffered. However, revenge is often preferable to apathy. Perhaps by continuing the fight against the Burning Legion and Kael’thas, Selvedar would discover a better reason to live. Even if he did not, he was obviously more useful alive than dead.
Selvedar and I followed the great mana conduit between Tempest Keep and Manaforge Duro. The manaforge was obviously unsafe but the conduit made for a convenient point of reference.
I did not know what lay beyond Manaforge Duro. Goblin maps showed a Naaru bridge connecting Duro Island with B’naar Island, so I could presumably get back to Area 52. Such a journey could take weeks and Selvedar lacked the stamina or equipment to survive that long.
Some inner resolve pushed Selvedar forward and he made surprisingly good speed across the wastes. I myself put on an air of quiet confidence, all the while knowing that the nearest sanctuary was very far.
Though the Breaking had destroyed all of Farahlon’s native life, the strange new realm it produced attracted new kinds of flora and fauna. Drifting in from the Twisting Nether, these creatures went to any mana source they could find, like moths to a light. Greatest among them are the warp stalkers, sinuous lizards the size of a basilisk. The warp-stalkers searche for prey through slit-like orange eyes set in flat triangular heads. Protected by a coat of razor-sharp scales, they are truly formidable beasts. Strangest of all is their ability to maintain a constant, natural connection to the Twisting Nether. With this ability they phase in and out of reality. I’ve heard some experts claim that, though warp stalkers only appear to phase out for a few minutes, the stalkers actually spend years in the Twisting Nether each time they shift. This is the state in which they supposedly do much of their hunting. It would explain how such large beings are able to find food, though solid evidence for the theory is a bit lacking. Others say that the warp stalkers are advance scouts of the Burning Legion, a fact supported by the fel energies found in their bodies.
The warp stalkers are far from the only alien beasts. Mana wyrms haunt the shadowed deserts, their pale translucent forms meandering through the air. Movements sometimes disturbed the corner of my vision and I would turn to glimpse a pale jellyfish no bigger than my hand, vanishing as soon as I focused my eyes on them. Weirdest of all are the ones called netherstriders, egg-like bodies supported on four spindly legs, each as tall as a barn. We did not see the netherstalkers, but sounds and smells in the open spaces conjured the mental images I described.
Plant life is less common, though solitary netherbloom flowers sometimes take root in the solid rock. At rare intervals, the tubular blossoms double in size for a single moment before returning to normal. I went to uproot one on a whim. I grasped the stalk and pulled. The plant abruptly lost solidity and my hand passed through it. Slightly disturbed, I decided to leave it alone.
We were somewhere in western Duro when Selvedar began to sicken. Red splotches spread across his cheeks and brow while his eyes glittered with fever. I went over to him when I first noticed Selvedar lagging behind. The elf could barely walk in a straight line. I took his shoulders and motioned for him to stop. Looking relieved, he sat down and promptly vomited. He fell on his side, groaning in pain.
I hurriedly looked through his pack. Selvedar had used up his supply of Snang’s pills, leaving him vulnerable to the hazards of Netherstorm. I cursed under my breath. My supply of the same was running low though I was not sure if I actually needed it. I had earlier searched the dead elves for their pills, but they had all been destroyed in the attack. I looked at Selvedar and tried to appraise his condition. Doing so was guesswork as I did not know what symptoms to expect. I could not even be sure his problems resulted from environmental exposure.
Giving him some from my own supply, I waited for him to get his bearings. An hour or two passed before he managed to force himself up. Though able to continue, he still looked quite ill. He thanked me in Thalassian.
We continued inching towards safety. The pills may have protected Selvedar from further injury, but did little to heal the damage he’d already suffered. I supported him when the pain and nausea became too much.
The endeavor took an air of futility, Selvedar steadily inching towards death. I knew we would never reach Area 52 in time. Abandoning him was the only logical course of action. Ruthless pragmatism is sometimes a virtue, and is one of the few that come readily to the Forsaken. Yet I forced myself to help him, perhaps hoping that doing so would bring me, in some way, closer to the Light. Too many undead lose themselves in cruelty and indifference, and I vowed to never become like them.
The western horizon brightened as we marched, a curious phenomenon that I first dismissed as part of the storm. Selvedar’s state grew worse: hair fell in clumps from his scalp and every cough carried blood. I knew he would not live much longer.
We finished struggling up a long incline to find a most unexpected form of salvation. An incandescent dome of violet energy stretched across the western half of Duro Island. I boggled at the size of the dome; it can easily hold an entire city. Stranger still is the lush jungle in the dome’s interior. The mighty trees are just visible through the energy’s haze.
I heard Selvedar gasp in surprise, momentarily forgetting his pain. Who built the dome? I wondered. A similar dome existed over the ruins of Dalaran back in Azeroth. Perhaps, I thought, some remnant of the Kirin’var was responsible. However, the Area 52 goblins would have probably known about a Kirin’var enclave. Then I remembered the ethereals, the strange race of traders mentioned by Remi back in Area 52.
The dome was not as close to us as its size made it look. We would still have to get through another stretch of desert.
“Ueredal!” exclaimed Selvedar, pointing to the north.
I looked where he indicated, and cursed. The purple rock turned black in the north and baleful green flames lit the desert. Ueredal must have been the Thalassian word for demons.
I guided Selvedar down from the ridge. He weakened rapidly, the skin on his face and neck taking on a boiled look. The man was falling apart next to me.
“Only a little farther,” I said.
Finally I chose to simply carry him, difficult but less so than having him walk. I took care to stay to the south, away from the demons. The dome shined just ahead, a tantalizing promise. In the back of my mind lurked a fear that the dome contained something just as terrible as fiends or Kael’thas’ elves.
A line of hunched figures marched in the distance. The emerald lanterns they carried revealed twisted faces frozen in sneers. They wore torn and blackened robes, and burns marked their flesh. I recognized them as the gan’arg, a race of demonic laborers. The gan’arg chattered in some debased language, occasionally interrupted by mirthless laughter.
I hurriedly put Selvedar down and pressed myself to the ground. I saw at least six gan’arg, far more than I could hope to defeat. I watched them until they returned to the northern shadows. I was astonished to see Selvedar getting up on his own, and succeeding in spite of his shaking legs.
We were very close to the dome. The terrain gradually rose as we got closer and Selvedar overextended himself in his efforts. He fell, and I again carried him. Selvedar would die unless the residents of the dome had great healing ability.
The light of the dome filled my vision. Ripples ran across the surface. Could I even get inside? Surely the dome had been designed to block intruders.
I finally stood at the base of the dome. Placing Selvedar down as gently as possible, I picked up a rock and tossed it in. The stone sailed through the energy field without resistance. Bracing myself, I took Selvedar and stepped into the unknown.