Sunday, August 9, 2009
The Howling Fjord: Part 2
The death factory of New Agamand sickens the southern reaches of the Howling Fjord, a metallic sore on the landscape. While the Hand of Vengeance rules with unquestioned authority in Vengeance Landing, the Apothecarium controls New Agamand. Blight inundates the sickly forests around the base, a yellow haze that clings to the rotting trees.
Discarded experiments putrefy in the mud of New Agamand, piles of necrotic sludge reaching up to the knees in some spots. For the living, the stench must be beyond belief. I arrived as abominations unloaded a zeppelin sent in from Undercity, laden with all manner of reagents. Trails of dried blood meander along the roads, another layer to the carrion rot untouched by any scavenger.
“Apothecaries aren’t much for cleanliness,” explained a low-ranking apothecary named Inrik Baston. He managed a small crew of abominations who worked to keep sludge off of the foot paths.
“How did they create so much waste?” I asked, sickened by the sight. I wondered what I would have thought had I come across New Agamand earlier in my travels, when I felt greater identification with the Forsaken.
“This is the largest RAS research center in the world. The Undercity lab’s practically empty now. Faranell and his associates still rattle around back there, but all the serious work is done here. More subjects, you understand.”
“Vrykul, which are better for our purposes than regular ghouls. I’m really more of a custodian, but I still know that testing on vrykul offers great versatility. After all, we’ve plenty of living enemies beyond the Scourge.”
“Is that a joke?”
“I’m wondering whom you consider an enemy.”
Inrik removed his goggles, the flesh around his sockets crinkling with suspicion.
“The Scarlet Crusade, for one. The Alliance. The rest of the Horde, even. They bear no love for us. We captured an Alliance spy last week, lurking out in the forests. He proved a valuable resource for our researchers. Does this disturb you, Destron?”
I left Inrik wondering if I’d crossed a line. New Agamand is a place forged by hatred, both against and from the Forsaken. I knew—vaguely—of the evils committed in the Apothecarium Quarter of Undercity. Words of warning from myself and other Forsaken dissidents went to the Horde’s highest authorities, though without confirmation they could take no action.
The Apothecarium operates without constraints in New Agamand. Inrik’s attitude is far from singular, and many of his peers also consider the Horde an acceptable target. If they feel they can perform such deeds openly, what horrors might they hide? Spies must be executed in a war, even an undeclared one, but there is still a limit to what one can do as deterrence.
The New Agamand lab is the centerpiece of the town. An immense machine, the lab is a staggeringly complex array of gears and steel supports. Moving metal arms clank along the surface, their claws gripping glass containers filled with toxins. Veins of lightning writhe at the top, capped by a skeletal crown of coils and metal spheres.
A narrow doorway leads to a sulfurous darkness lit by poison lanterns and gas torches. Metal desks line the walls, marked by lattices of chemical scars. Robed alchemists in various states of ruin work in frenzied silence, burned fingers sorting flasks and papers.
Undeniably grim, the lab’s interior is less horrific than its facade suggests. No bloody remnants litter the floor, for the simple reason that the workplace must stay relatively clean.
“Here we concoct the formulas necessary to our efforts in Northrend,” explained an apothecary named Steleer Tredentus. Almost completely untouched by decay, he nearly looked human.
“Entirely. New Agamand receives the full array of the Society’s resources, giving us remarkable freedom in our work.”
Only then did I notice the grisly materials on Steleer’s desk. Flasks of blood and bile crowded each other for space on the far end, while a fragment of skin was stretched out across metal webwork, the pale expanse covered in oozing yellow sores.
“What is this?”
“A sample of vrykul skin, kept alive via mana current. The wearer of the skin died after exposure to a mild necrotizing agent, one that causes fluids to pour out from weeping sores. Ideally, it will so ruin the body that the Scourge will find their corpses to be all but useless. The intense tissue damage serves another purpose as well. For all their savage behavior, the vrykul seem inordinately concerned with personal appearance. You should hear how our subjects scream about the storage conditions; it's enough to distract one from this momentous work. Keeping prisoners underneath the lab does have its drawbacks.”
“How many prisoners do you currently hold?”
“Only a few vrykul. Hopefully the troops will bring in some more vrykul or humans.”
“You must know a great deal about vrykul biology,” I said, forcing myself to look at his handiwork.
“We’re learning a great deal. Vrykul are very similar to humans, so what works against them may well work against our former friends, should it prove necessary. The really amazing thing about the vrykul is the density of their bones, which is one reason for their incredible durability in combat. This trait does make it hard for them to swim for very long, as tests demonstrate.”
“Most of the weapons we develop here are supplementary; things with which a soldier might coat his blades. I cannot say where the large-scale weapons are researched, but suffice to say they are not here.”
“Do the vrykul attack New Agamand often?”
“No, though they realize it’s important in some way. We take great pains to ensure that no one escapes, though I’m sure one will eventually. There’s still nothing here they would be able to fully understand, since their alchemical knowledge is basic at best.”
“Why are you an apothecary?” I’m not sure where this question came from. It welled up unbidden, an attempt to find some kind of answer.
“What an odd question! I worked as an alchemist in life, in Lordaeron’s army to be specific. Most of my skills survived the transition, and I quickly relearned what I forgot. The Apothecarium was an obvious choice.”
What I truly wondered, but was afraid to voice, was how he justified his actions. That he interpreted my question as purely utilitarian may have been answer enough.
Not all of the alchemists in New Agamand take such a clinical approach. Some are consumed by rage, and still others take a curiously self-righteous stance. One alchemist thrust a pamphlet in my hands, written by a Forsaken agitator. I will not bother to reprint its contents here. Suffice to say, it was a furious screed that confused justice with vengeance.
Perhaps the shock of undeath allowed Forsaken anger to remain in a contained state. The Defilers inculcated this rage, but their efforts were largely limited to the fanatics. Where they stopped, the Retribution cultists sowed more anger. Surely, I prayed, the Forsaken were too diffuse to ever be united under such a loathsome ideology. Many Forsaken despise the living, but outside of the fighters they seldom act on their hatred.
I left the lab, fearful and unsure. New Agamand proved what Vengeance Landing had suggested. I want to stress that I am no friend of the Scourge or its allies; peace in our world requires nothing less than military victory against the Lich King’s forces, living and undead. I only oppose the sickening hatred that holds sway in the Apothecarium. Whatever its proponents claim, we Forsaken are not alone. The Horde stands by us, and they see no need for such cruelty. Could not the resources spent on these weapons be better spent on improved equipment for the soldiers? Perhaps more aerial support?
Drab gray tents outside the lab shake in the wind, Forsaken flesh-crafters taking vrykul bodies and reconstituting them into new abominations. Saws and cleavers break bone and flesh, part of the day’s bloody work. Most abominations in the Forsaken homeland are leftovers from the Scourge, their pliable minds easily bent to the Dark Lady’s will. Northrend offers the Forsaken limitless fuel for new abominations. Now they do to the vrykul what the Scourge once did to us.
My feet took me to New Agamand’s headquarters, a clone of its counterpart in Vengeance Landing. I passed by the Forsaken in silence, seeing them through the eyes of the living. Rotted faces took on horrific aspects, as alien to me as they were when I first awoke. So easy, I thought, to descend to base impulses. Would I be any different had I stayed in Undercity?
Empathy for the living does not come naturally to the Forsaken, and we must struggle to feel it. Many do not even make the attempt. My hope is that the Forsaken will cast off the pursuit of vengeance, for each individual in the race to find constructive reasons to exist. The failure of the apothecaries to do this, the fact that they did the opposite, disappointed me.
In other words, I failed to be empathic. The experimentation on the vrykul and humans disturbed me less than the failure of the Forsaken to live up to their potential. Some part of me still regarded the living as irrevocably foreign. I only cared about the living insofar as it affected the Forsaken.
Is the Scarlet Crusade then correct? If, after all my travels and experiences, I still failed on this basic level, are the Forsaken truly damned? I tried to convince myself that humans often behaved in similar ways. Yet my misplaced priorities, a self-righteous indignation at the Forsaken not living up to my expectations, suggested a disturbing possibility.
I tried to imagine my friends in the Darkbriar Lodge falling victims to the apothecaries, and that at least sparked fear and horror for their fates.
Should I try to free the prisoners? I realized I could not. What right did I have to free an enemy who might kill my countrymen? I could not be sure that the prisoner would change his attitude because of such a gesture, I was not willing to risk the lives of Horde soldiers and civilians in order to test a moral point. The Horde had sheltered the Forsaken when no one else would, and we are as indebted to them as we are to the Dark Lady. Perhaps my desire to help the Horde was a form of empathy, though even the wicked appreciate those who help them.
I tried to console myself with the fact that rescuing prisoners (if any still lived in New Agamand), was impossible. Yet that was simply an excuse; to be honest with myself, I had to ask myself what I would do if I were capable of releasing them. Ultimately, I would not. Loyalty is a virtue, just as acceptance of cruelty is a sin. Nothing I could do was completely right.
I drifted to the deepest level of the headquarters, a barren candlelit cellar filled with empty coffins. I sat alone for a while, brooding. Later, I heard footsteps on the stairway and looked up to see a Forsaken in apothecary robes making his way down the steps, a metal cane supporting his broken form. Obviously an old man at the time of his death, war had further damaged his features. Not knowing why, I stood up and offered to help him navigate the stairs. A lopsided grin brightened his wrinkled face.
“I can make it on my own, thank you. Few Forsaken come down this far, and fewer still show inclination to help. You’re new here?”
“Yes, just came down from visiting the lab.”
“You look disturbed.”
“No shame in it. Any decent Forsaken would be disturbed by what goes on there. That’s why I do my work down here; the lab has no room for my research.”
“What research is that?”
“Improved healing techniques. I have no materials to work with, so I limit myself to sketching out my theories. My name's Enstam Morley, by the way.”
Enstam reached the landing and made his way to a tiny desk in the corner, his cane clinking on the stone floor.
“You know, our Dark Lady designed the Apothecarium to work towards two goals: defense and restoration. Over time, we forgot about restoration.”
“Grand Apothecary Faranell kept pushing us to research new plagues. Some of us objected, not wanting anything to do with plagues, but they were expelled or overruled. Varimathras backed Faranell on this, maybe our Dark Lady too. Hard to say, since she stopped visiting the Apothecarium once the Third War ended. Varimathras showed up on occasion.”
“So now Faranell runs the Society?”
“Not any longer. Faranell’s a strange and twisted man. He stopped researching real weapons, preferring to spend all of his time torturing Scarlet Crusade prisoners. I’m not sure if he even considers himself a scientist. Putress is in charge now, and he wants to destroy as much as possible.”
“No one works for restoration?”
“Some still do, mostly in Tranquilien.” I remembered the apothecaries I met in the Ghostlands, trying to heal that sorrowful realm.
“Why are you here?”
“They promised us unlimited resources. I didn’t realize they were all for war. I fully expect to be shipped back to Undercity any day now. Small loss, if you ask me. The other apothecaries and I don’t want much to do with each other. I’ve told my Tranquilien compatriots about what goes on here. Most of them are properly aghast; Putress has friends there too, though they’re in the minority. All we can do is tell others about the Apothecarium's crimes.”
“Has it worked?”
“Too early to tell. I’m not sure if it’s enough.”
I am not sure either.
My spirits lifted once I left New Agamand and entered the boundless prairies of the south. The world’s affairs pale into insignificance when compared to the vast dome of the sky and the gusty winds sweeping down from the north. The open quality in parts of Northrend’s landscape seems to promise freedom, a feeling similar to what a first time traveler might experience in Mulgore or the Barrens.
The shoveltusk reigns as the undisputed king of the southern plains. Resembling shaggy cows with outlandish tusks and bone crests, the amble across the landscape in groups of five to ten, each led by a stag. Aggressive and territorial, the stags endlessly compete for mates and grazing land. Charging into each other at astonishing speed during their disputes, the sound of the impact echoes for miles. Wolf packs working in concert can take down smaller shoveltusks, but a full grown specimen is more than a match for any local predator. This includes hunters, who often underestimate the tenacity of the shoveltusk. They now operate with more care when pursuing such dangerous prey.
Legends describe the northern storms in tones of awe, and I can say that they do not exaggerate by much. Black clouds rumbled over the peninsula two days west of New Agamand and torrential rains soon poured down from the skies. The crash of rain only served to invigorate me, and I felt cleansed of New Agamand’s taint. I resolved to help the dissident apothecaries of Tranquilien by alerting the Horde to Forsaken activities. Doubtless, many already know. I can only hope that another voice in the choir will help to convince those with more power.
I arrived at Westguard Keep hours after the storm ended, soaking wet and caked in mud. Situated on a windswept crag leaning over the ocean, Westguard Keep protects the Alliance interests of colonization and archaeology in the region. Cannons and barricades block the road leading into Westguard, manned by troops from Stormwind’s Third Legion and a few auxiliary militiamen.
“You there! Name?” demanded a middle-aged officer.
“Where did you come from?”
“Valgarde, and Menethil before that,” I answered.
“No, merely a mage doing research. I’m headed to Wintergarde, to help out in the war effort.”
“Very good. Sign at the registry once you get inside; we need to keep track of everyone.” He saluted me, and I returned the gesture.
I signed my name at the wooden gate house and entered Westguard Keep. The namesake fort watches the horizon near the edge of the complex, its parapets bristling with cannons. Work teams labor at half-built homes on the southern end of the enclosure, while the more settled north side is a teeming array of tents and wooden houses. Everything has a rough and ready feel, typical for a frontier settlement. Nearly everyone is armed, though they do not hold their weapons with much confidence.
Considering its frontier status, Westguard Keep sports a number of surprising aesthetic concessions. A heroic scale statue of Muradin Bronzebeard raises his hammer in Westguard’s defense. Sculptors were still chipping away at the base when I arrived. Muradin was the brother of Khaz Modan’s king, murdered by Arthas during the Third War. I talked to a human sculptor named Vistan, who was resting from his labors with a tankard of warm ale.
“Why all the effort for this statue?” I asked.
“Ah, well, Westguard Keep is actually a joint venture between Stormwind’s Valiance Expedition and Khaz Modan’s Explorers' League. Captain Adams wants this as a sign of our unity.”
“Captain Adams is in charge of Westguard?”
“He never lets us forget it,” smirked Vistan. “Don’t let the name fool you; he’s a dwarf. How he got a name like Adams is anyone’s guess. Plenty of rumors, but it’s not wise to speak of them in public.”
Though less well-known than Valgarde, Westguard Keep is easily the biggest Alliance settlement in the region, due in part to the colonists. Much like in Valgarde, they find their plans stymied by the local threats, which are not limited to the vrykul and Forsaken.
Lieutenant Enille Parston is a hard-looking woman, a Lordaeronian survivor of the Third War. Tasked with defending Westguard Keep, she told me about the Northsea Freebooters who sail the western coast in search of plunder.
“These bastards are more of a nuisance than anything else, but we can’t completely ignore them,” she snorted. “After the goblins started pushing in on Lost Rigger Cove some of the pirates made their way up north. Half of the fools died in the first winter, and their fleet’s barely seaworthy.”
“Do they attack the Alliance?”
“They murder small groups of settlers. Mostly they steal from vrykul graves and terrorize Kamagua, the tuskarr settlement.”
“How do the tuskarr fare against them?”
“All they can do is hold their ground. No one knows these waters like the tuskarr, but they only have a few ships of any size. Mostly kayaks, for fishing.”
“Is the Alliance helping them?”
“We will, as soon as we can. Right now they’re a second priority for us, what with these vrykul savages and deaders all around. It’s going to be a long while before we secure this place. We’ll do it, but not overnight.”
When not at work, Westguard’s colonist population congregates in the settlement’s unusually large inn. Many of them discuss their plans and hopes for Northrend. The colonists are officially part of the Valiance Expedition, but only receive lukewarm support from the expedition’s leaders.
“Security’s the first priority,” said Costan Merrel, a heavily built former cook who acts as the de facto leader of the colonists. “Not just for Stormwind, but also for the dwarves in the Explorers' League.”
“Do the dwarves play an important role in the colonization effort?”
“An essential role. Stormwind’s finances aren’t in the best shape. King Varian returned to the throne to find everything in complete disarray. Stormwind needs Northrend’s resources, and the dwarves are bankrolling our efforts.”
“What about rebuilding Stormwind’s infrastructure and opening it up to trade? Wouldn’t that also restore the kingdom’s prosperity?”
Costan’s brow furrowed.
“Why not expand?” he scoffed. “The Alliance needs more territory. We wasted a fortune trying to control Outland, and no one really benefitted from it. Northrend’s our only option.”
I rather doubt Costan’s assessment of the situation, though my perspective is biased. Varian strikes me as someone hungry for glory, more interested in ruling a far-flung empire than in maintaining and enriching his current holdings. Colonies are very expensive, and it remains to be seen if Stormwind’s Northrend efforts prove worthwhile.
I spoke with another colonist early the next morning, a Stormwind City native named Fuldor Ambersen. Short and wiry, he seemed an unlikely candidate for Northrend’s colonization, but his slight appearance concealed a determined personality. Born to refugee parents, he did not see Stormwind City until well after its reconstruction. After his parents died, he lived a hand to mouth existence on the streets of the Old Town, jealously guarding his few possessions. Northrend presented him with the opportunity of a lifetime.
“They told me that a man could get land up here, more land than the richest farmers in Westfall. We knew the risks of course, but no one thought we’d spend so much time waiting for permission to settle.”
“When do you expect to get permission?”
“I’ve no way of knowing. Recruiters told us tales about smashing through the Scourge alongside the Alliance’s best, but they mostly keep us in reserve. For the best really; I’ve been in combat up here a few times, and its not to my liking. I’ll fight when needed though. The big problem comes from the native humans, the Kirovi.”
“I knew about the Kirovi before, but most of us thought they were all but wiped out. Mind you, I’m glad that many are still alive. We need all the help we can get against the Scourge. But they claim much of this land!”
“They did live here for hundreds of years,” I pointed out.
“I know, I sympathize with them. But I’m risking my life up here, and the Alliance is the only hope the Kirovi even have for survival. I can’t go back to Stormwind, there’s nothing for me there except a life in the gutters. King Varian himself promised us land, and one way or another, we will get what we are owed.”
I do not know the Alliance’s stance towards the Kirovi. While a fair number of Kirovi fight alongside the Alliance forces in Wintergarde, most still conceal themselves in the wilderness. They will certainly not stand by and allow Stormwind to take their land after defeating the Scourge.
In return for sponsoring the Valiance Expedition, the Alliance forces are required to support the efforts of the Explorers' League. No one objects to this; the dwarves do more than their share of the work in the Howling Fjord. Most of the money for the Valiance Expedition actually comes from the private fortunes of wealthy dwarves, eager to learn more about their race’s history.
“I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but I can’t say I’m entirely happy about the arrangement.”
Annila Steelfinger handles the administrative aspects of the Explorers' League in Westguard Keep. Educated in some of Khaz Modan’s finest schools, she makes no attempt to hide her political ambitions. Nonetheless, she is a passionate advocate of the league’s efforts in Northrend.
“Why is that?”
“Our finances come with a catch, and a rather disturbing one at that. Ironforge’s most prestigious clans now want a stake in Titan lore, even though most of them didn’t give a thought to the Explorers' League before the Third War. Basically, politics is interfering with research, and if there’s two things that should never go together, it’s politics and research!”
“I agree,” I said, thinking back to the Apothecarium. “How do their political interests affect you?”
“Put simply, they want us to bring back proof that the dwarves are the inheritors of the Titan legacy, that we’re the rightful stewards of Azeroth. Funding for the Valiance Expedition depends on us telling them what they want to hear.”
“They won’t accept contradictory evidence?”
“It’d make them right mad if that’s what we found. They didn’t say this explicitly, but it’s there if you read between the lines. Something like the league’s goals including: ‘Revealing the cosmic mandate of the Titan-forged races.’ But no one knows exactly what, if anything, the Titans intended for us to do. Claiming a cosmic mandate seems a touch premature, wouldn’t you say?”
“Would they really stop funding if their theories were disproved?”
“They occupy about three-fourths of the senate, and the senate controls the treasury.”
“Wouldn’t the rest of the Alliance object to this?”
“I’m sure they would, and they could probably strong-arm the senate if they really tried. But that’s a political squabble we can’t deal with right now. I don’t think the senate really understands how dangerous the Scourge is.”
“What about the draenei and night elves?”
“Both of them run atypical economies, and wouldn’t really be able to fund a human expedition. And Stormwind’s all but bankrupt; they’re still getting their tax system back together. Point is, we can’t research freely until after the Lich King is dead. I know Brann Bronzebeard is right furious with the senate, but there’s only so much he can do. Then again, knowing Brann, he might just ignore them.”
“You’ve met Brann?”
“A few times, he’s an amazing dwarf. We need more like him in this world.”
“Earlier you mentioned something about the Titan-forged races. These would include races other than dwarves?”
“Well, the Senators who drafted our charter insist that it means dwarves first, humans and gnomes second. They’d stop funding us if it turned out that the trolls were created by the Titans.”
I thought back to my travels through Loch Modan, where the archaeologist Ironbrand had described a similar theory. While always a bit clannish, the Bronzebeard dwarves never before followed such an arrogant philosophy, and this new development is disturbing on several levels. Proof will probably not matter to the more fanatical senators; they have already made up their minds. If that is the case, what is to become of the races who are not “Titan-forged”?
I think that the dwarves will eventually return to form. Their practical and level-headed culture is not easily compatible with strange, race-based theories. However, the stresses afflicting the dwarven nation may change their culture in unforeseen ways.
I left Westguard Keep the day after I met Annila, heading east into the densest forests of the Howling Fjord.
Vyldra grinned, firelight dancing on her chiseled vrykul features, white teeth flashing in the gloom. Piercing eyes scanned the mists beyond the clearing, her hand never straying from the massive spear lying at her side. I could so easily see her as the idol of some ancient war goddess, her pride and ferocity obvious. The edge of that spear had been at my throat only a few minutes earlier, and I could not yet calm my fears. Nonetheless, I maintained the stoic facade that so impressed her, a task made easier by undeath.
For all her size, Vyldra caught me completely off-guard, whirling from behind a towering pine to pin me with her spear. I froze upon feeling its tip press down on my neck, wondering if I dared cast a spell. Quick as a snake she'd grabbed the front of my coat, removed the spear, and pulled me forward, complimenting me for maintaining composure. Introducing herself as Vyldra Bloody-Haired, Daughter of Vadrad, she took me to her campsite a mile south of the road. She lit the flames as wolves howled lonesome in the forest dark.
“You’re certainly the most personable vrykul I’ve met so far,” I said, after a long silence.
“Do not yet think me your friend, Destron. I spared your life as a hunter might spare a calf too young to offer sustenance. I care little for you or your kind.”
“I see. What exactly do you intend for me, if I may ask?”
“Doom approaches, both for me and for my people. Too long have we slumbered, and the world moves on without us. King Ymiron blasphemes against the All-Father, thinking his Death God will save him. Cowards deserve only death, and I shall have no part in his plans. I will embrace my doom like a lover, for there is no honor in long life. You will help me find what I seek.”
“Ymiron disgraces the throne of his father, the chill of cowardice grips his feeble bones! The Last Winter falls on the world and the doom of the vrykul is to die in glory, not to seek the false promise of unlife.”
I tried to make sense of what she said. Rumors spoke of undead vrykul, surely the doing of the Lich King. Did the vrykul serve the Lich King in hopes of achieving undeath? This tied in with what I heard about the vrykul not having any children. Clearly, some vrykul stood against the Scourge, though this did not make them allies.
“Forgive me, I am not familiar with any of this. Could you explain more?”
“Rest now, little undead, if you have need of it. We shall rise with dawn’s light and enter the hewn halls of Skorn, home of my father. All shall be revealed there.”
“Am I your prisoner?”
“You are a prisoner of yourself, bound by the promise of knowledge that only I can give. Few vrykul will share their secrets.”
“Am I free to go?”
“Yes. I can always find another.”
We let the fire burn itself out, dwindling to a single spark. When it faded, I thought I could still see Vyldra’s fierce eyes shining in the darkness.
True to her word, we started down the road just as the sun’s first rays strained through the trees. Vyldra bounded forward like a creature of the forest, each movement swift and sure, and I struggled to keep pace.
Vyldra explained her plans as we walked. Jarl Bjorn Halgurdsson ruled the Winterskorn Clan, the latest in a line of warriors stretching back to antiquity. Focused on leading his berserker vassals into battle, much of the social power rested in the grip of Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, a priest of the Death God. The only way to gain an audience with Bikurn, said Vyldra, is to offer a slave. Seeing my dismay, she quickly added that she had no intention of actually giving me to him. I would merely grant her access to Bikurn, whom she would then kill.
“I will deliver his gory head to Thorim. The blood of heretics is the sweetest of wine to the gods, and they shall well reward me for my faith.”
“Won't he have guards?”
“Bikurn remembers his gloried past, thinking himself strong as age withers his bones. He only permits a few lapdogs to protect him. Work your magic on whomever you wish, save for Bikurn, for if you kill him than your life is also forfeit. He must fall at my hands!”
“How will we escape?”
“Fear not, I know how we can escape Skorn. If not, then I shall die in battle, bathed in the blood of blasphemers. A fine doom for any warrior.”
Sunset found us on a ridge above Skorn, its ancient timber halls on the field below us. Implements of war hang over doorways and on walls in proud display, framed with the bones of fallen warriors. Dragon heads rear up from gables, eternally wrathful and watchful. Despite standing for over a thousand years, the houses in Skorn look temporary and improvised. This is most obvious with the roofs, which consist of irregularly sized wooden planks lashed together without much care. Refuse heaps burn in the meadows, creating a smoggy atmosphere.
Vyldra paused to tie my wrists with rope, saying it was a necessary precaution to complete the disguise. I did not object, for I could easily burn it off if necessary.
“If a coward’s heart beats within you, turn back now, for in Skorn there will be no escape,” she warned.
“I am ready.”
Descending the ridge we entered a light woodland, the vast field of stumps indicating the recent activity. Vrykul woodcutters chopped down the remaining trees, their faces locked in scowls. One put down his ax and his bearded head swiveled towards me, eyes alive with hate.
“What wretch do you bring us, Vyldra?” he growled.
“A new gift. Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, will throw this cur on the pyre and deliver his soul to skull-crowned Gjalerbron, ensuring a glorious doom for Winterskorn.”
“This puny thing is no worthy sacrifice!” He reared back and spat, a huge glob of the stuff covering my face. I raised my hands to wipe it off, only to be struck to the ground by Vyldra.
“Weakling!” she yelled. “The spit of Tygrif Shirt-of-Wounds is a greater honor than you deserve!” Vyldra turned back to Tygrif. “He is one of my sacrifices, and their blood will glut the rivers of hell.”
“While I squander my spirit on work made for slaves!”
“Only for a little while longer. The icy winds of the Last Winter gather in the north, and will soon break, delivering us to glory.”
“A good day that will be.”
“One that is soon to come.”
Vyldra walked me past the glares of the vrykul, as I began to wonder if they were really worth understanding. Tygrif’s mention of slave work suggested a society of warrior elites based off of slave labor. I wondered whom they had enslaved in times past: elves? trolls? other vrykul? Would not their formidable runic magic render slaves unnecessary? I took care to conceal my disgust at their haughty cruelty, lowering my gaze as vrykul woodcutters insulted me.
Damp and smoky air fouls the town of Skorn, where bearded warriors laze along the paths, sharpening swords and boasting in archaic Common. Garbed in layers of thick furs, they let off a penetrating reek that mixes with the stench of burning garbage. Half-wild wolfhounds gnaw on bones at their feet, sometimes quarreling over choice bits of flesh. Every vrykul carries a weapon, and there is no sign of a labor class. A wooden platform covered with ash and bone lets off faded tendrils of smoke in the center of Skorn, the structure ringed by carved dragon heads. I felt a chill when I noticed a blackened orc skull at the base.
Vyldra led me up a steep hill, towards a jumble of wood and stone, an approximation of a house. An old vrykul man appeared in the doorway, a braided gray beard reaching to his waist. Not stooped by age he threw his arms back in welcome, his ancient face bright and glad. Vyldra knelt before him.
“I return to you, father!” she cried.
“Come, come my bright and gloried Vyldra! My hall is as cold as the northern storm, and twice as cruel, in your absence.”
Vyldra stood back up, her cruel lips turned up in an unabashed smile. Unable to restrain herself, she rushed forward to embrace her father. Startled, I watched as they laughed in each other's arms. Finally disengaging, he ushered us both inside his home.
Weak light shone through the narrow windows, revealing a messy parlor room. Battered shields and swords on the shadowed walls peeked through the cobwebs plastering the ceiling. A darkened hearth yawned at the base of a ramshackle wall. Creaking bookcases lined another, holding only a few worn tomes. A squat table, roughly carved, ran the length of the cluttered hall.
Vyldra spent some time relating the story of her journey. I gathered she’d left Skorn two weeks before I encountered her, searching the forests for aid.
“This lone figure is enough? His arms are thin, hands too weak to grip a sword in battle,” boomed Vadrad, his doubt clear.
“Destron is a sorcerer, and death by magic is a fitting fate for Bikurn’s lackeys.”
“A sorcerer? He is no Kaldorei!”
“Sorcery is no longer the domain of elves. Many of the southern races practice those foul arts, mocking the gods with their cowardice. Destron is of the uncouth breed that Bikurn calls the Forsaken.”
“I know of the Forsaken, though I have not seen one until today. A weakling appears to stand before us, yet it is no mean feat to defy the will of the Death God, who bends even the proud vrykul to his dark power. Perhaps great strength lies within those ragged arms.”
“Come now, father, you know me too well to think I would choose poorly.”
“Forgive me, Vyldra, my heart only aches to see you take your rightful place as a storm-maiden, to hear the brave sing of your might as the Last Winter draws close to still the heart of the world. What fate brings you to the north, Destron?”
Vadrad’s eyes widened.
“You brave the land of ice and darkness to satisfy mere curiosity? Truly, Vyldra, you have brought either the bravest or most foolish of all Forsaken to this hall! Ha ha! Perhaps you are both of those. Rest your weary bones at my table, Destron, for my blood does not forget its friends, whatever form they may take.”
A bit confused, I did as he told, sitting down on a crude chair of wood and hide. Vyldra strode to a collection of upright barrels at the other end of the room. Gripping the lid of one, she twisted it free. As she lifted it, I saw the saronite rune attached to the underside. From the barrel she took a clutch of salmon that looked fresh from the smokehouse. Thinking back to what Seguine told me, I realized that the vrykul had used saronite to preserve their food during their long hibernation. That would explain how they managed to field small armies despite lacking farmland. Their stores would not last forever, probably only a little longer, but perhaps they did not care.
Vyldra set up a simple meal of fish, cheese, and mead. Vadrad told me to eat as I pleased, that an honored guest deserved no less. He explained the nature of Vyldra’s quest, her future inseparable from a mythic past.
“From his stone halls the call goes out, sounding thunder in the canyons of ice, as the All-Father readies for the Last Winter. On wings of light he sends the val’kyr, the Maidens of Battle, to collect the souls of the battle-born and bring them to his ranks. Vyldra’s doom is to ride with the val’kyr, the greatest honor for any woman. With Bikurn’s head she will gain entry to the All-Father’s court.”
“Bikurn speaks lies in the All-Father’s name, calling the false val’kyr down from death-gripped Icecrown,” added Vyldra.
“Pardon my ignorance, but how do you know that these val’kyr are false?”
“For the val’kyr of Bikurn’s god herald armies of the walking dead, and what use would the All-Father have for that? Blood must run hot in the warrior’s veins, and he must throw himself into the battle-rage!” exclaimed Vyldra.
“I can confirm your beliefs,” I said. “There is nothing godly about Bikurn’s deity. The peoples of the south call him the Lich King. He’s a powerful sorcerer and warrior, but not a god.”
“Faith needs no confirmation, Destron.”
“Are there other vrykul like yourselves? Are there others who do not believe in the Lich King?”
“A mere handful, though each of them bears the bravery of a thousand men. Some take their blades to the land of darkness, seeking the gods in hope of glory. Others, like us, wait to undo this deceit from within. A few took battle to the armies of the dead, teaching fear to the fearless. These few now feast on mead and honeyed meat in the stone halls of the All-Father,” said Vyldra.
“My understanding is that the Lich King awoke the vrykul from over a thousand years of magical slumber. May I ask why your people entered this extended sleep?”
Vadrad took a draught of mead and deep breath before speaking.
“The world has changed beyond all reckoning since the days I traveled the realm with sword in hand. Icebite Bay is now an ocean that girdles the northlands. Strange and puny races walk the lands once ruled by the thanes. How can I explain this, when the wisest vrykul understand no more than the littlest babe?
“For a thousand years we strode through the northlands as conquerors, feeding the forests with the blood of our foes. Soon, none here dared challenge us and we looked to the south, to the decadent temple cities of the Amani. We burned their villages and set those we spared in shackles, marching them north to build great citadels of our own, for a warrior is not meant to lift stone. Through the spoils of war we built Utgarde and Gjalerbron, Balagarde and the Underhalls, slaves creating in stone the visions of our bards.”
I smiled to mask the hate I felt for Vadrad at that moment. Societies based on slave labor almost inevitably stagnate, easy lives breeding stupidity and carelessness among the ruling class.
“Were all your slaves Amani?”
“Most came from Amani and Drakkari stock. Our warriors clashed against the elves, but that race makes for poor slaves, withering and dying in weeks. We are the children of the All-Father, and what is not ours to take? We are warriors, and should not a warrior be served by those of lesser blood? Our numbers grew as trolls worked the fields and rivers, bringing food to our tables, and we sang of war against the elves and earthen. Still I hear the songs of my battle-brothers as we drank the mead of Jarl Halgurd Norgisson, Beast-slayer, first among the Winterskorn.”
“What happened to end this idyllic life?”
“Bravery and blades cannot dispel all evils. An insidious curse took root in the bones of our race, our children born into the world small and sickly. We killed these abominations as they arose, but still they came. I wrung my firstborn boy’s neck when he gave his lusty birth-cry, too small and thin to come from a vrykul throat.”
“Did this grow more frequent over time?”
“The gods blessed me with brave Vyldra, yet she was one of the last vrykul born. Dark days fell on our race as slaves struck their masters, following priests who chanted strange words for stranger gods.
“King Ymiron declared it the work of the troll-gods, and we put a hundred-thousand slaves to death. Rune-seers dug saronite from the deep places in hopes of saving the vrykul. Through this, more younglings were born weak and small. Finally, Ymiron led a host of vrykul warriors to the south, to cast down the Amani temples. Never before and never again shall the world see such an army, and I marched with them! All vrykul of fighting age raised their weapons and rushed south for battle!”
“Still I lament being too young in those days,” sighed Vyldra.
“Great in numbers though we were, the trolls were greater still, joined in battle by their kindred from the dark southern jungles and escaped slaves. As numberless as the stars in the sky they surrounded our warriors. I saw Jarl Norgisson fall amidst the bodies of the brave, his skull smashed by a flint-edged club. Black with arrows the sky fell, ending the lives of thousands. Great was that day; greater were our losses.
“Few survived the battle, though all should have died that day. I followed King Ymiron back north out of loyalty, not because I feared death. Upstart slaves slaughtered vrykul families while we fought, and we found our homes in ruin. Nor did our punishment end, for still our bravest women could only birth weaklings. Why should one live or fight when the race cannot renew itself? King Ymiron spat in the face of the All-Father, saying that he abandoned the vrykul. The rune-seers said the time was not right for the Last Winter, that the omens were not yet fulfilled, but waiting for prophecy would bring only a slow and lingering death. As the throes of death gripped our race, Ymiron ordered us into the sleep of saronite, to await the final call to arms.”
Vadrad fell silent, his expression suddenly doubtful. He turned his attention to his food, tearing off pieces of salmon and shoving them into his mouth. I had never heard the elves mention vrykul when I asked them about the distant past. I could only assume that moments of contact were few and far between. Some of the still untranslated Amani codices show trolls doing battle with monsters resembling giant humans. Perhaps those were the vrykul.
“Tomorrow we shall bring death to the hall of Bikurn. Ready yourself, Destron, for I will not wait.”
“Of course. You’re not tired after traveling for two weeks?”
Vyldra gave me an odd look.
“Tired after a fortnight in the wild? Do you take me for an infant?”
“Perhaps his kind is not accustomed to such exertion,” pointed out Vadrad.
“Throw the armies of the Scourge at me and I will meet them in battle with a smile on my lips! I am more than ready for Bikurn.”