Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The Howling Fjord: Part 1
Veils of light danced across the morning sky as the The Brine Witch cut through the icy waters of the North Sea, bruise colored sails swollen with howling winds as the ship’s rotting crew prepared to dock. I walked on deck, trying to keep my balance on the water-warped surface as it swayed from side to side. Built just after the Second War, the ship now called The Brine Witch enjoyed a fruitful career in Lordaeron’s peacetime navy. Abandoned by its plague-ridden crew on Tirisfal’s lonely northern shore, the Forsaken gave a new life to the vessel.
Standing at the prow, I looked to the foreboding landscape passing by alongside us. Waves throw themselves on the sharp rocks jutting from the narrow beach. Beyond that extends the damp and drear plain called the Bleeding Vale. Ancient pines cling to the stony ground, needles drooping from the branches.
Watching the scenery, I caught sight of a caravel splintered on the rocks, the wind whipping a torn Alliance banner. I feared that the careless scramble for Northrend would lead to overlapping territories for the Horde and Alliance. I prayed that the two factions had not started fighting.
“They say the Hand of Vengeance will soon grip all of Northrend,” cheered the whistling voice of Olvern Stonam.
I met Olvern when I boarded The Brine Witch back on Quel’danas. An Andorhal burgher in life, he’d lost his entire family to the Scourge. He knew his children still walked in its decaying ranks. Swearing himself to the Dark Lady, he traveled north in order to join the Hand of Vengeance, a fearsome new army of the free dead.
“Of that I have little doubt,” I said. The Hand of Vengeance had appeared almost spontaneously, consisting of scarred veterans and lost souls whipped into a frenzy by a cadre of Shadow priests. Most of these agitators belonged to a once-obscure Shadow sect called the Retribution. Over the past year, the Retribution had swept through the Forsaken populace, gaining many followers in the Deathguard and Royal Apothecary Society.
Preaching the redemptive and unifying power of hatred, the Retribution promises a dark paradise where the Forsaken shall become masters of the world. They cite our ability to resist the Lich King’s will as proof of our right to rule. The Retribution strives (with some success) to ally itself with other major Shadow cults, like the Church of the Dark Lady.
While not unopposed, there is no unified front standing against the Retribution’s cultural dominance. Most Forsaken do not belong to any Shadow cult, indifferent to matters of the spirit. Fringe Shadow cults sometimes oppose the Retribution, as do those Forsaken who hold to the Light or follow other faiths. Also, while the Hand of Vengeance is influenced by the Retribution, no more than a plurality of its ranks actually follow that sect’s regrettable theology.
“Arthas cannot imagine what horrors await him,” said Olvern, his rigid features fixed in a mockery of a grin.
The pale light of noon saw us within sight of Vengeance Landing, the Forsaken gateway to Northrend. Many Forsaken simultaneously long for and shun the qualities of the living. Our home territories are proof of this contradiction. Though many Forsaken claim to hate life, they still surround themselves with mementos of better times: dwelling in rotting towns, wielding rusty weapons. The undead inhabitants of Lordaeron have created nothing less than an undead Lordaeron.
Vengeance Landing is different. New structures stand on the frigid beach, gabled coffins of stone and steel. Metal skulls leer down from the overhangs and stairways wrap around the houses like vines. Narrow windows of darkened glass stretch up and down the walls like old wounds. Everything in Vengeance Landing is grim and inhospitable, the dark reflection of a normal human town. The Forsaken here reject their old lives, though perhaps less completely than they would like. However twisted in appearance, the original inspiration is unmistakable.
Abominations stood on the dock, patchwork faces staring at The Brine Witch with dull curiosity. Work began as soon as we stopped. Crewmen carried the metal supply crates (carefully sealed) from the hold to the dock, giving their cargo to the abominations who took them into Vengeance Landing proper. The abominations tied the crates to their backs with the iron chains interlacing their corpulent bodies. A lone Forsaken directed them, himself a shambling ruin wearing a face made of red leather.
A din of activity batters the ears in Vengeance Landing as abominations move supplies and workers construct fortifications along the south end. For all the noise, there is an almost total absence of speech. The Forsaken labor in silence, fixated on thoughts of vengeance.
Dark structures lean around a pit in the center of Vengeance Landing, filled to the brim with the tools of war. Rickety meat wagons wait for action while weapon and armor racks offer the latest from Undercity’s forges.
“The Hand of Vengeance is far more than just an army. It is a belief. For too long the Forsaken wandered lost in darkness. Now, we lift them up from misery. Hatred is what we share, and we present the means to fulfill that hatred.”
Vias Cestelus was a clerk taking inventory of the new supplies. He spoke with the aid of a dented metal panel sown in place of a jaw.
“The Hand of Vengeance has a following in Undercity as well?”
“A large one. Logistics have never been the strong point of Forsaken armies, more from a lack of motivation than inability. We promise the Lich King’s death, and the people of Undercity will do everything to help us make that a reality.”
A sepulchral edifice next the docks acts as the command center for Vengeance Landing. The stone walls suck all the warmth from the air, a fog of cold rot hovering in the hallways. Lightless corridors and stairs careen throughout the interior. For wont of any other place to stay, many of the new arrivals in Vengeance Landing sleep in the damp coffins littering the basement.
Some of the newcomers congregate in a musty room laid out like a tavern parlor. Affectionately nicknamed the Grave, its macabre sensibility is hardly welcoming to the living. I spoke to a Forsaken woman recently arrived from Tirisfal, a web of congealed cuts masking her face. Named Ezri Havstead, she served the Hand as a scout though she was not an actual member.
“I hope the Hand of Vengeance understands what it faces in Northrend.”
“You doubt their ability?”
“I doubt everything. They’re quite competent, mind you. My only fear is that their enthusiasm will surpass their judgment. Northrend’s a very complicated place, from what I hear. Not only must we contend with the Scourge, there’s also the Alliance, remnants of the Scarlet Crusade, and all manner of natives.”
“My understanding was that the Scourge wiped out most of Northrend’s residents.”
“Most, but not all. Besides, some of them help the Scourge, like those Light-damned vrykul.”
“Imagine a cross between a human and an ogre. That’s a vrykul for you. Vrykul berserkers rampage all over Northrend, especially here in the fjord. Vengeance soldiers are fighting them on the bluffs to the west as we speak.”
“They’re not undead?”
“No. Well, some are, but not most. The Alliance is also here to muck things up a bit more.”
“I saw a wrecked Alliance ship on the way here.”
“North Fleet most likely. North Fleet’s really just a pack of sell-swords and partisans; not an official Alliance military presence. Think of them as a maritime Stormpike Army.”
“Have they caused any trouble?”
"Some. They boarded one of our supply ships a month ago, didn’t do much other than harass the crew. High Executor Anselm wanted to open fire on them then and there, but some of the soldiers cooled him down, said the vrykul were a bigger threat. And they are. Still, only a matter of time before someone attacks.”
At night, the Grave becomes a temple. His black robes clinking with inverted holy icons, the Revenant takes a stand on wooden landing above the tables, a preacher at his pulpit. Candlelight reveals his sloughed face, barely recognizable as human. A whip-crack voice listed the crimes committed against the Forsaken, crimes beyond forgiveness.
“No more are we the cowed sheep of Lordaeron. Your suffering refines you, makes each of you a unique and terrible weapon. Clutch the pain to your heart, use it transform the world around you,” he proclaimed.
Hollow sockets stare back at the Revenant, nursing thoughts of revenge. A leaden weight settled on my soul. Having spent so much time in Orgrimmar, I’d nearly forgotten the bitter soul of my race. The lunatic individuality of the Forsaken no longer dominated, supplanted by the Hand’s bleak vision. I winced as the Revenant manipulated his followers, appealing to the unique trauma at the core of their identities.
I would lie if I claimed his words had no effect on me.
Keeping to the shadows I left the room, going blindly through winding passages until I stumbled into a moldy library. A lone Forsaken in moth-eaten clothes flinched when I entered. I apologized for startling him, but he did not respond, turning back to the shelved books. He traced a withered index finger up and down the spines, his mouth contorting in silence.
I spent the night in the librarian’s dubious company. Obviously not in control of his mental faculties, he shook with rage whenever I touched one of his books, leaving me with little to do. Many of the books in the collection are philosophical treatises, a few of which I’d read in my student days. Later, I learned that the librarian actually worked as an administrative assistant, his mind able to sort figures but unable to communicate.
I returned to the Grave in the early dawn hours, the peeling floorboards soft and yielding beneath my feet. Voices came from an adjoining room, one of which I recognized as the Revenant’s. The other voice, spoken as if from a torn throat, belonged to a woman.
“I do not know if I can hate the Alliance, Father Revenant,” she said. “My son still lives, he fights in Stormwind’s army. I do not hate him.”
“Few things are greater than a mother’s love for her child. Have you met him, after undeath?”
“Many Forsaken hope to be reunited with their loved ones still among the living. I fear that this always ends in tragedy.”
“But he’s my son! I raised him, held his hand... he surely remembers it!”
“Of that I have no doubt. But he will not see you as the mother who worked so hard for him. He will see another undead monstrosity.”
“Even if he strikes me down, I cannot hate him. I am sorry, Father Revenant. I cannot.”
“Perhaps you do not need to hate him. It pains me to see you suffering over your son. I can tell that you were a truly dedicated mother in life. Indeed, I daresay this has not changed in undeath.”
“As I’ve said before, suffering refines the Forsaken. We alone understand our situation. Yet many still falter, burdened by isolation and misery. I know more than a few in the Hand of Vengeance who long for their parents, for a nurturing hand. For someone like you.”
“A mother to the Forsaken. Not all Forsaken are called on the path of hatred. Love still plays a part in the Retribution; the love of the elect for one another.”
“I am to offer this love,” she gasped.
“I believe this to be the case. Pain is what defines us. I will not lie to you by saying that the memory of your son will go away. But if you turn your thoughts to those here, some of whom were turned at such a cruelly young age, you may at least find an outlet for your compassion.”
“I see. Thank you, Father Revenant. You are not angry that I cannot hate the Alliance?”
“Of course not. You have many gifts, and what you lack in hatred you make up for in other areas.”
“I will do my best,” she promised, her voice on the verge of tears.
“That is all the Shadow asks, dear sister.”
Hide tents huddle together in the field behind the Vengeance Landing command center. Easily the most boisterous part of the settlement, it is in these tents that the living Horde warriors stay. An orc warrior sharpening his ax glared at me as I neared.
“Is there a problem here, undead?” he growled.
“No. I’m new here myself, and was just curious.”
“You have an entire town to be curious in. I suggest you fulfill your curiosity elsewhere.”
“Are you limited to this spot?”
“Vengeance Landing is not a place for the living. We tried sleeping in the Grave the first night. I can still smell the taint of decay, a week later!”
The orc grew more agitated, and I decided to leave him alone.
In contrast to many of his fellows, Edrin Vander held no hostility towards the living races of the Horde. Few would question his ability; he’d earned his place in the Hand by campaigning for years in the Western Plaguelands. I spoke with him along the southern wall, where cannons look out onto the wilderness. Carrion birds circle above the fields, anticipating violence.
“I fought alongside orcs, trolls, and tauren back in Lordaeron. Only a fool would ignore their ferocity.”
“Why do you think the Hand of Vengeance excludes them?”
“Because of the Retribution. I understand vengeance. No one hates the Lich King more than I. Yet the Retribution seems to think that only the Forsaken can be relied on to give that bastard his just punishment. What they forget is that the Alliance and the rest of the Horde also hate the Lich King. We must stand united if we are to defeat him.”
“Is there a clear line between the Retribution and the Hand of Vengeance?”
“Is anything clear when it comes to Forsaken politics? The Retribution takes care of morale and recruitment. They do not dictate strategy, but they do influence the generals.”
“Hardly a stable arrangement.”
“I should say not. There’s a power struggle going on as we speak, with the Retribution and the Apothecarium on one side, the Deathguard on the other. The Hand of Vengeance is really just the battleground.”
“Not to be too pessimistic, but most here seem to be willing followers of the Retribution.”
“Many are. Keep in mind, however, that fanatics tend to be noisy. It’s easy to overestimate their numbers as a result.”
“Quite true. What’s the Hand’s relationship with the Deathguard?”
“The Hand is technically part of the Deathguard. That’s why we operate with at least a bit of sense. Did you know that Father Revenant wanted to prohibit any non-Forsaken from coming here? Commander Renia put a stop to that, I’m glad to say. The Retribution wants the Hand to be a separate army, but the Deathguard has too many loyalists here for that to happen anytime soon.”
“Renia? Did she fight in the Western Plaguelands?” I asked, recalling the time I spent traveling with her patrol.
“She started there, and kept going east. Renia’s one of the best military minds in the Horde.”
“I was impressed with her. I’m glad to hear that she’s done well for herself. Where does the Dark Lady stand in this debate?”
“No one’s got the faintest idea. I pray she’s on ours.”
Lordaeronian fishermen had plied the coasts of the Howling Fjord in better times. Though dangerous and remote, those who made the effort were almost always rewarded with a bountiful catch. These daring anglers told stories of the lifelike dragon heads carved from the stone cliffs, as if ready to attack. Regarded with fear and awe, the fishers gave them a wide berth. If a boat needed to pass in sight of a dragon’s head the crew would go on shore and leave a few fish as an offering.
I felt a different sort of fear looking up at the scowling statue. Chains dangle from the maw like drool, moving with loud clinks as they pull wooden cages up or down the precipice. Recent events revealed the purpose of these dragon heads: lifting cargo.
Even the most well-made wooden structures are prone to decay. While some very old buildings are made of wood, they only stand thanks to continual renovation efforts. The wooden lift platforms of the Howling Fjord, located in one of the harshest and windiest environments on Azeroth, have gone without maintenance for at least 500 years. I could not fathom how they survived for so long, much less how they continued to operate.
One of the cages finished its descent with a loud thud. The Deathguard soldier in front of me yanked the gate open and beckoned me in with a lipless smile. I hesitated, only to be grabbed by my companion, Seguine Delestia.
“Don’t fear, Destron. I’ve ridden this many times, it’s completely safe. You can get a spectacular view of the surroundings, too.”
I nodded and went in, alarmed at how the wooden floor seemed to give ever so slightly beneath my feet. The door swung shut with an awful finality, and a breathless moment passed before the chains started up again. The movement was less severe than I'd expected, though I feared that the laws of entropy would soon reassert themselves.
Seguine was a scholar like myself, eager to explore Northrend. She saw the Hand of Vengeance as the safest way to do this, though she expressed doubt about her membership in their ranks. Though a mage, Seguine’s primary task was to analyze intelligence reports.
I forgot about our precarious position once we got high enough to see the Bleeding Vale stretch out beneath us, reaching all the way out to the sea’s dark waters, the sky aflame with the northern lights. Seguine must have heard me gasp and she gave a harsh little laugh.
“I told you! Not to distract you from the view, but do you see that little green panel up the corner?”
Seguine pointed to a small metal piece in the roof of the cage. Looking closer, I noticed an elaborate rune engraved on its slick surface.
“What is that?”
“An example of Northrend runic magic.”
“Don’t the dwarves use runic magic?”
“Quite a lot. This is different, much stranger, potentially much more dangerous.”
Our ride slowed, inching to a stop in front of the dragon’s stone teeth. A metal grate pulled up, giving access to a smooth tunnel that opened out into the northern wilderness. We stepped out before the lift started its descent. No mortal agency controls the lift’s machinery, making it of limited use in sending troops deeper inland. The Hand of Vengeance relies on zeppelins to transport supplies and personnel.
“What do you know about runic magic?” asked Seguine.
“Essentially, it’s a form of enchantment. Harder to use properly, but safer and more reliable. Dwarves use it for some of their weapons.”
“Right, typically engraved on iron or steel. The green metal you saw on the lift is called saronite. Few saronite deposits exist this far south, but it’s apparently ubiquitous farther north. Large amounts supposedly have a deleterious effect on mortal minds, but its harmless in small portions. Anyway, as you saw, the rune in question is quite complex.”
“I could barely follow its shape.”
“Now, this takes the enchantment a step further. Anything enhanced with this rune is put partway into another reality, so to speak. It’s no longer susceptible to normal time or decay. That’s why it works even after so much neglect.”
“Are such runes common?”
“You see them in just about everything built by the vrykul. Now, the rune doesn’t render a structure invulnerable. It might not decay, but it can still be destroyed by conscious effort. I almost have to think that the vrykul installed these as if they knew they would be going away for a long time, and wanted things in good condition when they returned.”
“Are there other types of runes?”
“Almost certainly. I doubt they’d limit themselves to just one. I’m sure you realize the potential implications of such power. Saronite must possess incredible properties to create localized tangent universes. No wonder people go insane if exposed to too much of the stuff.”
“Are there documented cases of this?”
“All on the Alliance side, as of yet. Mostly dwarven prospectors, but there’s no reason to assume we’re immune.”
“Now, my understanding is that runes are based off of Azeroth’s own leyline patterns. Is that the case with these vrykul runes?”
“They seem totally unfamiliar. I can’t be completely sure if they’re even runes, strictly speaking. That’s the preferred terminology for the moment.”
Stray cinders swirled in the choking air beyond the tunnel, tongues of smoke lapping at the horizon.
“We’ve been fighting the vrykul. It’s a shame, we could learn a great deal from them. Unfortunately, they haven’t given us much choice in the matter.”
“When did the vrykul appear?”
“Hard to say, but Horde scouts reported seeing them farther north as long as two years ago. The vrykul towns here in the Howling Fjord came to life earlier this year, in the dead of winter. No one expected the armies of berserk warriors to come pouring out of those dead villages.”
“Villages preserved by saronite runes?”
“Exactly. Northrend natives avoided the vrykul ruins, thinking them haunted. Nobody really knew what was inside, until now.”
“Has it been confirmed that the vrykul are allied with the Scourge?”
“Scouts have seen Scourge necromancers operating openly in their villages. Elsewhere their warriors march with the mindless dead, so I’d say it’s certain.” The Lich King has never been shy about using living auxiliaries in his armies.
A wide dirt path leads out from the lift, marked by the recent passage of soldiers and wagons. Primeval forests loom up on both sides, an ancient challenge to modern infrastructure. The forest breaks in places, giving way to wide open plains of tall grass. Rugged granite boulders stand like cairns amidst the trees and plains. I could still hear the winds that give the region its name, reduced to a ghostly moan.
We reached the front lines in late afternoon. Quiet when we first arrived, we saw a line of Forsaken troops at the top of a hill, crossbows at the ready. Meat wagons festered in the cold air, their toxic payloads too foul to attract flies. Abominations sat in the dirt farther down the slope, fresh blood drenching their pale bulks. Below us was palisade of sharpened stakes, surrounding a collection of rough-hewn halls and watchtowers that scarcely looked able to stand under their own weight.
Seguine stopped, looking down at the vrykul settlement. A look of regret flickered across her torn face.
“Are you the reinforcements?” demanded a Forsaken officer, his rotting features held together by twine.
“I’m headed to the main force, Destron here’s going to New Agamand. Do you need our help?” asked Seguine.
“What does need have to do with it? This is your opportunity for vengeance!” he spat. “We’re here to destroy Fort Rinnerjar and every single vrykul within, do it before they can flank our main force to the south. Vrykul are savage brutes, worse than orcs, but good fighters. That much I’ll grant them.”
“Do you need us or not?”
“Yes, we do. Artillery! Fire a volley, lets see if we can rouse the lazy bastards!” roared the officer.
The meat wagon operators jumped to their feet, untroubled by their gore-stained aprons. Noxious gases poured from the wagons as they filled glass capsules with corrosive rot, the grass around them blackening from exposure. Then they pulled the levers, launching chemical bombs towards Rinnerjar. Green pustules bloomed across the fort’s structure, sickly vapors snaking out from impact sites that sagged and melted. The officer’s mouth peeled back in a smile of horrific satisfaction.
When I heard the vrykul warcry, I thought the earth itself roared in anger. Furious voices shouted rage as warriors stampeded out from the gates of Rinnerjar. I shall never forget my first sight of living vrykul. None standing less than eight feet, they are a race bred for war. Tattooed bodies bounded towards the Forsaken lines, swords and axes gripped in mighty hands.
“Fire! Don’t let them get close!” shouted the officer. “Abominations, forward!”
Bolts raked the vrykul, barely even slowing their advance. Seguine and I joined the attack, casting spells of flame. I felt my knees weaken as they barreled through the spellfire, burned yet ready to fight. Then the abominations met them in melee, hooks and cleavers ripping vrykul flesh. The archers stopped and we watched with fearful expectation as the vrykul and abominations destroyed each other, their lightest blows enough to kill a normal man. Savage yells went up as vrykul swords struck undead skulls, the lumbering abominations quickly flanked by swift berserkers.
The mass of vrykul charged up the slopes before the last abomination even fell. Not waiting for orders, the archers let loose. I struck with arcane bursts and frost novas, all to little effect. How could any living creature be so impossibly strong? I thought about the saronite runes, and wondered if they played some part in vrykul toughness. Few can withstand the kinetic impact of an arcane burst, yet I’d failed to do more than bruise the vrykul. As they neared, I saw the arrows riddling their bodies and the wounds on their flesh. All that, and they fought like healthy men.
Forsaken swordsmen rushed out to intercept the vrykul. One died in an instant, his head sent flying by a vrykul blade. Its wielder, still running, slammed another Forsaken into the ground. Howling, the vrykul shook his bloody mane in defiance, animal eyes thirsting for blood. I realized then the danger of facing a vrykul in melee; with the race’s long reach, they’re sure to get the first strike in nearly any situation.
Artillerists filled and threw toxic globules at the advancing enemy, the apothecaries’ poisons achieving a more notable effect. Not even the vrykul could ignore that pain, though fury still carried some of them through. Acidic fog burning his flesh, one vrykul lashed out with raw arms and grabbed a nearby artillerist, screaming as he gripped the Forsaken to his poisoned body.
Despite this, the Forsaken acquitted themselves well against the vrykul. Swordsmen spread out, surrounding the vrykul warriors who too late realized the nature of the trap. They swung their swords and howled, the Forsaken nimbly stepping back out of range as archers peppered the vrykul with arrows.
I saw an ax-wielding vrykul roar in pain from the two bolts jammed into his skull, still flailing. With one hand he grabbed the head of a careless Forsaken soldier and flung him to the ground with enough force to snap his spine. Lunging with his ax he buried the blade halfway into another soldier’s torso before crushing his skull with a well-aimed kick. Then a third bolt plunged its way into the vrykul’s brain and he dropped like a stone.
I fired arcane missiles as the battle raged, not wanting to hurt my fellows with larger scale spells. I could tell we had won, though at a terrible cost. As the fog of battle cleared I saw that the number of vrykul was less than I had first thought, probably no more than thirty. The Hand of Vengeance numbered only a little more than 70 combatants at full strength, and all nine of the abominations lay dead.
The last vrykul perished with a bloodcurdling scream. I gaped as I looked upon the battlefield, amazed at the vrykul ferocity.
“Snap out of it, that’s how they win: by scaring you out of your mind!” barked the officer.
“Of course,” I said, too stunned to offer much else.
Metallic shrieks rent the air as the two remaining meat wagons launched a final barrage on the fort, which collapsed into a sizzling heap of liquefying wood. We retreated into the forest after Rinnerjar’s utter annihilation.
“A bad situation in Rinnerjar. We needed more troops. Guns, too, we needed guns,” complained the officer, whose name was Valken Cossus. His complaint was well-founded; while innovative in many respects, the Forsaken have been slow to adopt firearms on a wide scale. Even in the Third War, the Lordaeronian army relied on dwarven gunners.
“Do so many Forsaken normally die fighting the vrykul?”
“This attack was rushed. Most of the Hand is preparing to attack Baleheim, the main vrykul base in the northeast. They’re fending off constant raids, and could not afford to deal with Rinnerjar. So they sent us to take care of it. We did,” he snickered.
“Is there any aerial support?”
“Like everything else, there is, but not enough. The vrykul also have fliers; they ride these horrid beasts called proto-drakes, primitive dragons as fierce as their masters. Our bat riders are doing everything they can to keep the proto-drakes off our backs. They can’t spare any to help with the ground assault.”
“Can you get more support from the Horde?”
“The greenskins? They’re mostly in Warsong Hold.”
“I met a few orcs in Vengeance Landing. They were eager to join the fight.”
“I hope they do! Still, we can’t afford to lose Vengeance Landing. If they’re needed there, so be it. We’ll make do.”
Despite their losses, the Forsaken troops expressed little in the way of sadness. I asked Valken about this.
“Most of us are here to die, Destron. No one asked for this unlife. First, though, we’ll get a bit of vengeance. That is why I enjoy fighting the vrykul. Unlike the Scourge’s mindless dead, the vrykul feel pain. I can make them suffer. I will not live to see the Lich King die, but I can think of no better fate than dying to ensure the suffering of his followers.”
The Hand of Vengeance presents the Forsaken psyche at its worst. Free will confers responsibility, yet many Forsaken prefer destructive pursuits such as revenge. The ultimate problem with vengeance is that it does not stand for anything. As a motivation, it is obsessively focused on an outside entity. In a very real way, the Hand of Vengeance has willingly returned to the Lich King’s slavery. Certainly the Lich King must be destroyed. Nor do I think it unseemly to take joy in his destruction. Yet there is a world beyond the Lich King, a fact that too many Forsaken forget.
I spoke to Seguine before I left. The skirmish at Rinnerjar was not Seguine’s first experience with the vrykul. Nonetheless, they never failed to unnerve her.
“I hate fighting the vrykul. Call me naive—you wouldn’t be the first—but some part of me suspects that they are being used. When I see them kill my people like that, it makes me hate the vrykul, but I do not want to. Do you know of Utgarde Keep?”
“I’m sure you will see it. Utgarde Keep is a castle, bigger than any in Lordaeron. We know that the vrykul built it! They built other ruins too, like Gjalerbron. These are all ancient, done in the days of the troll empires. I know that incredible secrets must exist in those ruins, yet we cannot get to them.”
“Perhaps we will, in time. Secrets have a way of being learned.”
“This is true. I believe though, that it is important to understand the vrykul. I’m not the only one who thinks that they’re connected with humans in some way. If that is true, they’re also connected with us. I just pray we can find out how, learn more about ourselves. Maybe cure ourselves. Far-fetched, I know, but it’s worth investigating.
I wished her luck and set off into the forest the next morning. I tried to figure out the best way to reach New Agamand. With its dense forests and plunging cliffs, the Howling Fjord presents a challenge to even the toughest traveler. The fjord proper cuts through the landscape in the center. Some of Valken’s soldiers spoke of a bridge at the southern end of the fjord, but no one was sure if it still stood. I feared I had little choice but to take the long way around.
Valgarde’s continued existence defies reason. Built on a muddy shoreline, Valgarde's tents and steeply peaked houses are guarded by nothing more than a stout stone wall. Necessity forced its builders to choose the most remote and isolated location possible. Towering cliffs to the west and south prevent easy access, and only the stoutest ships dare challenge the cruel winds and icy waters of Daggercap Bay in the east. Utgarde Keep looks down on Daggercap Bay from the north, a mountain of carved stone. The Valgarde settlers thought the citadel abandoned, not realizing its hidden dangers. Now, vrykul savages spill out from its ancient catacombs, tearing through the marshy forests to do battle with the Alliance.
Cutting winds sliced down the bay when I arrived. Townsfolk hurried to unload the Northspear, an Alliance icebreaker bringing relief and reinforcements to Valgarde. I only reached Valgarde through a stroke of luck. Not long after leaving the Hand of Vengeance, I came across a gnomish pilot named Vink. I donned my disguise and told him that I’d gotten separated from my group. He readily agreed to fly me to Valgarde. Navigating the treacherous wind currents of Daggercap Bay with practiced ease, he landed in the town without incident.
Death could not claim all of the soldiers who followed Arthas into Northrend. Stranded on its icy shores and abandoned by their leader, the remnants of his army fought their way east to the Howling Fjord. Guided by the Kirovi (humans native to Northrend), they built a new home in this most inhospitable land.
“We really did not know if we would survive at first,” said Paolon Annister, one of the founding inhabitants. “Nothing here but rocks and trees when we arrived. Most of our number lay dead in the Dragonblight, and we were half-starved. All that, and the damned wind.”
“It is maddening,” I said. No more than a low whisper at that point, I still found the constant wind difficult to ignore.
“You have no idea. A friend of mine named Josias Wilder said he could hear the Lich King’s voice in the wind. He started telling everyone that Valgarde wasn’t safe, even convinced a few other soldiers. Commander Ettilon ordered Josias and his followers to stop, and they tried to mutiny. We hung them outside of town the next day,” he sighed.
“It had to be done. No one else heard anything in the wind after that, and we got on with the business of living. Once it became clear that the Scourge didn’t know about us, some of us ventured onto the bluffs to build farms. Most fished, and we did a bit of trading with the tuskarr out in Kamagua.”
“How much did you know about the outside world?”
“Precious little, until recently. No captain would sail up Daggercap Bay unless they had a damned good reason. We knew that Lordaeron had fallen, that the Alliance held in the south, and that the orcs were free. The Alliance found us a month before the vrykul did. Good timing on their part.”
“How often do the vrykul attack?”
“Used to be once a month or so, but they’ve been growing bolder. Heaven only knows how many live in Utgarde Keep, and there’s the vrykul of Wyrmskull Village between here and Utgarde. As much as I hate those Forsaken, they at least draw some of the vrykul away from here.”
Despite losses from the vrykul, Valgarde today is bigger than it ever was in the past, enlarged by new arrivals from Stormwind. The southern kingdom has made no secret about its territorial ambitions in Northrend, particularly in the Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra. Some reports suggest that the other Alliance member nations are less than happy about this development, but Stormwind is simply too integral for them to override. The idea of Stormwind taking control over the Howling Fjord is certainly a cause for alarm in Undercity and Silvermoon.
Tiny wooden houses line up along the stony beach shoulder to shoulder, separated from Valgarde’s center by a stretch of muddy ground. Bemused Stormwinders stand at narrow door frames, many of their supplies still unpacked. An army of vrykul stands in the way of these colonists, and no pioneer caravan dares to take the rugged path out of Daggercap Bay until Alliance forces secure the area.
“The Defias took my family’s land; we were lucky to escape with our lives.”
I was speaking with a hardy young woman named Stelle Landon. One of the colonists, she bore the frustrations of Valgarde with admirable stoicism.
“My understanding is that the Defias is all but defeated. Can you not reclaim the land?”
“Those who fought the Defias in Westfall feel little inclination to help those of us who fled. We Landons have a legal right to the land, but no money with which to hire an advocate. I don’t want to go back to Westfall anyway, so my husband and I chose to stake a claim here.”
“No, we don’t intend to stay in Valgarde for long. We’ll most likely settle near Westguard Keep or Fort Wildervar. I won’t take land from the Valgarders; they’ve more a right to it than I.”
“Sounds fair. How long have you waited?”
“A month. Small groups can take the path up the cliffs, but anything bigger is easy prey for the vrykul. Dalmont’s team made a go of it two weeks back, and only his daughter survived.”
“How do you get along with the Valgarders?”
“We don’t freeload, but there’s little for us to do besides help defend the town. We’re already a burden for our hosts. Thankfully, the Alliance isn't shipping in any more colonists.”
In fact, the land around Valgarde is promised to the town’s inhabitants. As such, the colonists pose no threat to the town’s future. Most of the colonists are from the packed streets of Goldshire and Stormwind City, though a fair number, like Stelle, hail from Westfall.
Valgarde Hall is easily the largest building in town, a cross-timbered structure more than twice the size of its neighbors. The wooden roof hangs down the sides of the hall, almost touching the ground. Northrend's brutal weather necessitates steep roofs.
Valgarde Hall is both a town hall and a tavern. Tables are arranged in neat intervals in the shadowy interior, lit by massive hearths at both ends. Hay covers the stone floor, and battered shields on the walls memorialize the fallen soldiers. Off-duty Valgarders often go to the hall to relax with friends and family. Valgarde still runs on a military schedule, with regular shifts keeping watch for vrykul incursions. An adjoining kitchen, run by a former griffin rider, ensures that patrons always have a ready meal.
Though close-knit, the Valgarders express no animosity towards newcomers. The inhabitants understand that the town’s future depends on Alliance aid. Fresh soldiers are welcomed into Valgarde Hall as soon as they see combat. Lordaeron and Stormwind maintained close ties after the Second War, and the Lordaeronian Valgarders do not mind accepting Stormwind’s leadership, at least for the time being.
“I don’t expect we’ll live to see it, but one day Lordaeron will again be ours,” predicted one inebriated Valgarder. “From here and Southshore it will start, and we’ll drive out the undead once and for all!”
I cannot say that the Valgarders have no claim to Lordaeronian land. They fought and bled for it. Many of my race fought and died for it. I think that a collaborative solution is the only fair one, but too few on either side are willing to make the effort. I fear that the Hand of Vengeance will only worsen matters.
Small rooms on the second floor give shelter to important guests, like royal officials from Stormwind. I took my rest in one of the tents outside Valgarde Hall, which I shared with a night elf druid named Felenor Shadowtree. He was one of the druid scouts sent by the Cenarion Circle to investigate the state of Northrend’s ecology. Felenor was pleasantly surprised with what he found in the Howling Fjord.
“Most of what we heard told us of another Plagueland on an even vaster scale. While many regions are deeply corrupted, others, like this one and the Grizzly Hills, are nearly untouched.”
He explained that the Cenarion Circle was spread too thin to send a large force to Northrend. Many still work in Outland under the Expedition’s auspices, and Archdruid Remulos invested much of the Circle’s resources in healing Felwood. Only a limited effort could be made for Northrend, though Felenor assured me that more druids would go north once it became feasible to do so.
Valgarde’s children get up bright and early each morning, marching in a neat line towards the gunnery range at the western end. The oldest no more than eight years of age, circumstances force these children into military training. Though they do not participate in fighting, their parents want them prepared should the vrykul break through. Many are of mixed Lordaeronian and Kirovi heritage.
Sharp bangs from light rifles fill the morning air in Valgarde, an explosive percussion to the wind’s piercing song. A stern dwarf sergeant, Oltus Flinteye, walks up and down the line of children, correcting and encouraging them as needed. Some of them are already crack shots.
“It’s a hard life they’ve got, but they’ll grow up to be right tough ones,” Oltus boasted. We retired to Valgarde Hall after the practice session, where we lunched on smoked fish. As a guest of Oltus, no one objected to a noncombatant like myself supping with the troops.
“I hope they’ve never had to fight.”
“No, Light willing they won’t have to. Sad to say, the Light’s none too strong here. Still, we can keep the vrykul at bay. No one’s ever seen a vrykul child, so the theory is that they can’t replenish their numbers.”
“Any idea why not?”
“Some of the gnomes and mages are working on it, I figure.”
“Do you have any children of your own?”
“Aye. Well, not here, but back in Khaz Modan. Just got a letter from my son, actually! He’s a senator’s aide in Ironforge. Lad’s got an eye for politics, and he’s angling to be a senator himself one day.”
“I’m right proud of him.”
Towards the end of lunch, I asked him if he thought that the children of Valgarde wanted to live in Lordaeron.
“Hard to say. Now, most of them say they do, hearing stories about their parents’ shining kingdom to the south. They’ve grown up as Northrenders though. Aside from the vrykul and wolves, this isn’t a bad place, and Lordaeron’s got more than its share of dangers. I think you’ll find some who grow up and go back, and others who stay here. Some of them are full-blooded Kirovi who see this place as their homeland, and haven’t got any interest in Lordaeron. I hope their right to Northrend doesn’t cause trouble with Stormwind in the future.”
I used to hear stories about the Kirovi, half myth and fancy, how they were the wild men of the north, a hardy breed that matched the orcs in savagery. Actual facts were harder to come by, though some Kirovi did live in the Seven Kingdoms. A complement of Kirovi light cavalry had even fought in the early days of the Second War, terrorizing the orcs until overwhelmed at the Battle of Sinion’s Ford.
No one knows how long humans have lived in the cold forests of Northrend. Bands of hunters stalked the wilderness since time immemorial, occasionally trading furs and pelts with those few southern merchants who dared enter. Over time, these hunters were joined by Lordaeronian misfits: criminals, prophets, and dreamers in search of new lands. Together they established the nation of Kirovar 200 years before the First War, though it never became very organized.
Probably more than half of Kirovar’s population now marches under the Scourge. Kirovar presented an ideal target for the Lich King, fresh from his triumph in Azjol-Nerub. News of the northern kingdom’s demise was slow to reach Lordaeron; indeed, Kirovar fell so suddenly that they never had time to request aid. Surviving Kirovi dispersed to the forests and mountains, with some sailing south to Lordaeron and Stormwind. These refugees brought stories of the slaughter in Northrend, but the details varied so wildly that the authorities could not decide what to make of it until the Plague was well underway.
I met a Kirovi survivor named Piroshkin Andaev on my third day. Standing at over six feet and with a sizeable paunch, he presented an intimidating figure.
“My village used to be in the forests just south of Winter’s Breath Lake,” he began. “We Kirovi did not enjoy the luxuries you had in Lordaeron. Very few Kirovi knew magic, and none of those who did know lived in the provinces. Nor did we get these gnomish gadgets. A hard life, and even that could not prepare us.”
“What happened to your village?”
“It all came on one awful night. I was getting ready for bed when I heard clicking sounds in the forests. I thought maybe it was a wolf spirit, and I said a prayer to the Light so as to preserve my soul. Then I heard it again, followed by a scream. I rushed outside and saw a nerubian spider demon, pinning Miro to the ground with its legs! I grabbed my ax, and then saw that the forest was full of them! Nothing for me to do but alert my neighbors, so I shouted as loud as I could.
“Only then did I realize that the nerubians had already seized most of the village, binding the houses in their webs! I gathered my family and fled to the next town, which had already met a similar fate. Later, we finally found some other survivors.”
“What did they have to report?”
“Most said nerubians were responsible, though others told of revenants and flying beasts. One of us, a learned priest named Fyoder, Light rest his soul, said it was strange that the nerubians would attack all the way in the Fjord. Still, we thought the spider-people responsible until many years later, when Arthas landed on our shores.”
“How long had you been living in the forest?”
“Two years. Most of us died the first winter. We knew the restless dead were somehow involved, but we still thought the nerubians behind the invasion.”
“Did you make any attempt to contact Kirovi authorities?”
“Some tried, but they never returned. Later we encountered refugees from Paskaron, our capital city, and they said it fell in a week, betrayed from within.”
“We face an enemy of great cunning and wickedness. Arthas’ men told us more of what happened, and we joined him for protection. When Arthas went mad, we guided his army here to Daggercap Bay.”
“Why did you not come here earlier?”
“Old stories say that this land is cursed by the spirits of demon warriors called vrygatyri. We only went here because we no longer had a choice. The forests could not shelter the Lordaeronians and us, and we wanted Lordaeronian protection, so we took a risk. Then, a year ago, it turns out the stories were true.”
“The vrykul are the same as the vrygatyri?”
“Close enough. Many still believe in the old stories, from before the Light came to this sorrowful land. Of how vrygatyri fought terrible monsters and each other, the clash of their swords ringing through the mountains. Of Yoshga the Deathless and how he drove the vrygatyri mad with an evil spell.”
“What do the legends say about these warriors?”
“You want to know how to defeat them? Ha! Well, so far bullets work very well, like they do with most anything else. I’ve already told the Valgarders everything I know. The vrygatyri are the children of Thrimbog, Maker of the World, and he sent them to perfect his creation. They did this by killing fearsome monsters, and no one was their equal until Yoshga the Deathless. Yoshga cursed the vrygatyri, turning them into wrathful ghosts. A few escaped, and their children became the Kirovi.”
“Thank you. Are there any Kirovi population centers left in Northrend?”
“Supposedly many still live in the Grizzly Hills to the north. The Scourge never reached that place. Now the Alliance stands guard over the corpse of Paskaron. They call it Wintergarde now, for some reason. My one surviving son fights alongside them.”
As evening descended I walked over to the walls, looking out to grimly looming Utgarde Keep in the distance. Below Utgarde are the rough halls of Wyrmskull Village. For many in the Horde and Alliance, Northrend is a new land. Yet in truth it is very old, with a long and bloody history that is sure to shape the war against the Scourge.