Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Grizzly Hills: Part 1
As if angry at me for fraternizing with their taunka foes, the spirits of nature conspired to halt my journey. A long-runner returned to Camp Winterhoof on my fourth day, bringing word of a terrible avalanche that had completely buried the mountain pass leading to the Grizzly Hills.
My options limited, I took a longer route around Frostblade Peak, going east towards the Broken Bluffs, those windswept cliffs pushed against freezing northern seas. I only encountered one other soul on my journey, a southbound goblin prospector who warned me to watch out for giants.
An arduous journey brought me to the frozen height of the Broken Bluffs, a snowy ledge battered by fierce winds. I inched along the narrow path, pressing myself against the icy rocks when the wind’s fury reached full force. I traveled like this for three days, battered by snow, sleet, and wind. When I finally began the descent into the Grizzly Hills, I fell to my knees in a feeling of deliverance, flinging out my arms as if to embrace the new landscape.
A long coastal plain called the Eastwind Shore goes all the way north to ancient Zul’drak. Verdant and rich in life, the Eastwind Shore is probably the most habitable portion of Northrend. Kirovi farmers had lived there for centuries, growing vast fields of beets and cabbages. Wooden towns dotted the coast, the largest being Sanktagrad, renowned for its churches and libraries, the greatest in all Kirovar. Little remains of these settlements today. The Kirovi here fell to Scourge ambushes, though the undead did not bother to consolidate their gains in the region. Those who survived fled into the forests or into the arms of the Alliance.
Though abandoned by the Kirovi, Eastwind Shore is by no means uninhabited. I saw the city on the second day of my descent, a network of metal towers lined up like teeth on Frostblade’s northern slope. Narrow windows survey the land like vertically slotted eyes, a cold blue light shining from inside. I stopped, astounded at the scope of the city. Who could have built such a thing, I wondered, on Frostblade’s snowbound crags?
I stepped off the path, trying to gauge my distance. Standing before a sheer cliff, I saw no way to reach the mysterious city on the mountain. As I examined the citadels, I noticed architectural similarities to the cities of Khaz Modan, though dressed in metal instead of stone.
Whoever forged the city had carved runes into the otherwise undecorated walls. I could not tell if they were the same as the runes in the Dwarvish alphabet. They looked vaguely similar, but they coiled in on themselves like undulating worms.
I walked for miles, trying to find some way inside. My enthusiasm ebbed with each step. Cold and foreboding, it taints the surrounding landscape, a metal cancer in the ice and snow. Though seemingly abandoned, it lacks a ruin’s sense of intangible promise and wonder. Instead, this city suggests bleak utility, a past without history.
Night fell as I forced myself to continue. Blue light glowed steadily in the windows, brighter than the stars. I could not bear even the idea of sleeping in sight of that awful place, and found shelter at the base of a cliff. Even in the darkness I felt its cold stare burrowing through the stone and into my thoughts. I conjured memories of warm Orgrimmar to dispel it, and met with only limited success.
Powdery snow fell from a steel-colored sky when I awoke. I sat in the snow for a while, wondering if I really wanted to enter the strange metal city. Forcing myself to my feet, I trudged a few miles through the snow, going around a ridge to get a better view.
Finally, I decided to forego or at least postpone further exploration. I could not bring myself to enter the place. My reluctance stemmed from something suggested, not from any concrete fear. Whatever shame I felt at fleeing from such a potential learning experience was outweighed by dread. Despair is inherent in the city’s architecture, in the black metal towers that absorb light as surely as they do hope and joy.
Heading down the mountain, I passed metal steles engraved with the same runes I’d seen in the city. My fear faded as I walked, my earlier decision striking me as foolish. Still reluctant to return, I decided to at least give the steles a closer look.
I yanked my arm back upon touching the surface, an icy shock running through my fingers. The frosted brambles shook as something trampled through them, and a line of white light cracked through the air in an instant, bright and blinding. Alarmed, I backed away just as a bedraggled dwarf burst from the thicket to my left, panicked feet churning the snow as he barreled down the slopes.
Before I could react his pursuer marched into view, a dwarven simulacrum made of pitch black metal. It moved with fluid motions, more akin to a living thing than to a construct, and blue runes glowed on its body. There was no mistaking the silvery gun in its hands.
I paused, every fiber of my being urging me to attack. Still, I could not be sure that the construct was hostile. If its quarry served the Alliance, the metal dwarf might even be an ally for the Horde.
It swiveled, cold blue eyes drilling into me. I jumped to the side as it raised the rifle and smelled ozone as lightning burned the air near me. I cast an arcane explosion at its feet. The gun snapped like a twig, while the construct did not move so much as an inch. Casting its ruined weapon aside, the dwarf slid open a compartment in its belly, taking out a broad black dagger as it advanced.
Moving backwards I cast a frost nova, ice forming and breaking around its metal legs. I followed with an ice lance, the cold blue bolt crashing into the construct. Unable to counteract its momentum, I narrowly dodged as it slashed at me.
I cast a blink spell, popping back into reality a few yards behind the dwarf. I prepared a scorch spell as it turned around, made ponderous by its weight, hoping fire would succeed where frost failed. Superheated gases flared to life as a tiny portal to the Nether opened beneath the construct’s feet. A wrenching sound rang in the dwarf’s mouth. I’d hurt it, at least, though I had precious little mana left.
Gunfire echoed on the slopes, from below the ledge where I fought. The construct immediately began to run up the nearby path, starting slow but quickly accelerating. I spent the last of my mana in another scorch spell. Black smoke started pouring out of the construct as it ran.
Figuring my rescuers were likely dwarves, I quickly donned my disguise. The dwarf I’d seen earlier came back into sight just as I added the color of life to my dead skin.
“Dammit lad, don’t stand there! We need to get out before more arrive!”
I followed the dwarf as he bounded down Frostblade Peak, his feet possessed of a nearly preternatural agility. From my brief glimpse of him, I’d noticed an Explorers’ League badge on his breastplate, peeking through his dishevelled black beard.
We ran almost until noon. Only then did the dwarf slow down, exhaustion catching up to him. Looking back at the slits of blue light on Frostblade’s side, he cursed.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I came up here from Fort Wildervar. No one ever mentioned this city, or its inhabitants.”
“The city’s called Dun Argol, and the inhabitants are iron dwarves—we call them metalbeards. Reason you never heard about it is because Dun Argol’s new, at least as far as we can tell. No Kirovi ever mentions it.”
“I’m amazed anyone could build something like that so quickly. I figured it was ancient.”
“These metalbeards are a breed apart. We still don’t know much about them, but they’re right fierce bastards. Good news is that they’re lousy trackers, so evading them won’t be hard. My name’s Grostan Tintooth, by the way.”
“I’m Talus Corestiam. Why were you in Dun Argol?”
“Keeping track of metalbeard movements. I didn’t actually set foot in that accursed place. Metalbeard bases sap a man’s spirit somehow. It takes real inner strength to go into one alone; not as hard when you’re with others, but we’re short on manpower here.”
Grostan still took pains to cover our more recent tracks. Once finished, he told me I was welcome to follow him to Prospector’s Point, the Explorers’ League camp.
“Titan ruins every which way, and each one full of enemies,” lamented Grostan.
“When did you first encounter these iron dwarves?”
“Please don’t call them dwarves.”
“Metalbeards, I mean.”
“Down in the Howling Fjord. We thought they were just constructs at first, but the metalbeards definitely have some kind of society. Brann never mentioned them, so they must have just gotten this far south, right in time to say hello. I hear they’ve got a huge city somewhere in the Storm Peaks.”
“Are they in the Titan ruins?”
“Oh, it’s worse than just that. I’ve seen them destroying Titan artifacts. Can you believe such a thing? No one knows why they do it. Light only knows how much knowledge we’ve lost because of them.”
“How do you fight them?”
“Heat seems to work best. We’ve been using phosphorous shells to cook the bastards.”
Grostan relaxed slightly once we reached the grassy expanse of Eastwind Shore. Frigid streams weave down the sloping coastal plain, feeding hundreds of small ponds. Shoveltusks graze peacefully on the thick grasses and eagles soar through the clear sky. Waves lap the shore in a gentle chorus. Only with great effort can one maintain a dour mood in such a place.
Grostan explained that the Explorers’ League established Prospector’s Point to spy on Dun Argol, while the main force defended the ancient city of Thor Modan. He described Thor Modan as a metropolis on the scale of Ironforge, created thousands of years in the past. Empty when the League excavated it, the iron dwarves had launched a full-scale attack a month before I'd arrived in Northrend.
“We’re barely holding on to Thor Modan. Ironforge cannot afford to give it up. The answers to... well, nearly everything might be in there!”
“Is that the only Alliance outpost in this region?”
“There’s a brigade of Stormwind troops, but they’re here to fight the Scourge. Load of nonsense! There’s not a single deader in the Grizzly Hills. Supposedly the brigade’s planning to march north to fight the Scourge in Zul’drak, but they’ve done nothing of the sort yet.”
“Can’t they help you?”
“Oh, I suppose they do. They keep us supplied. But they say the metalbeards aren’t a priority. See, the metalbeards only attack if you enter their territory, or if you start digging things up. Commander Stoutmantle even had the gall to tell us to stop digging. As if! I think he’s forgotten that dwarven money sponsors the war effort here.”
“Gryan Stoutmantle? He fought the Defias in Westfall, didn’t he?”
“Aye, that’s how he got his reputation. I shouldn’t be too hard on him; he’s a brave man, and a good one too. I’m just frustrated.”
Grostan stopped suddenly the next day, holding his hand out in front of me. Once I stopped, I became aware of the earth shaking beneath my feet. Grostan turned around, taking a battered spyglass from his pouch. He put it up to his eye and cursed.
“Another giant. Is there no end to them?”
“I was warned about giants in this region. What are they doing here?”
“We think they’re connected with the iron dwarves somehow. They just trample through the wilderness, always going north. Anything in their path gets pulverized, though they’ll leave you alone if you keep your distance.”
“Are we in the giant’s path?”
“Don’t know yet. We’ll keep walking, I’ll keep checking on the giant. We’ll move if need be.”
Grostan and I continued, the dwarf staying remarkably calm. Tremors heralded the giant’s approach and I could soon see it, a vast stone form given life. Trees grew from its rocky back, and roots coiled around the shoulders. I could soon see a face, wide and impassive, barely distinguishable from the rest of the body. Fortunately, the giant veered east, closer to the shore.
“What do you know about the giants in Northrend?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the commotion.
“That’s a good question; I wish I knew the answer. The bits and pieces of data we found in Uldaman say that the Titans made the giants to take care of the world. Doesn’t look to me as if the stone giants are doing much of that, but I really can’t say for sure. There are mysteries upon mysteries in this land.”
The giant soon passed us by and we reached Prospector’s Point shortly after noon. Nothing more than a bunch of tents and canvas-roofed cabins, Prospector’s Point was nonetheless swarming with activity when we arrived. A small dirigible was tethered to the ground near the camp, the Explorers’ League emblem proudly stitched onto the balloon. Grostan went right up to a worried-looking dwarf standing in front of one of the cabins.
“Raegar, what’s going on?” asked Grostan.
“Grostan! What did you find up in Dun Argol?”
“I’ll tell you after you answer my question.”
“All non-essential personnel are being taken to Thor Modan, to help with defense and, if necessary, evacuation. Things are bad up there. Now, what did you see in Dun Argol?”
“More metalbeards than I can count, but I don’t think they’re mobilizing. I also found this human fellow, Talus.”
“What were you doing in Dun Argol?” demanded Raegar.
“I didn’t know what it was, I thought I’d take a look. I never actually reached the city.”
“You’re not carrying any weapons; I take it you’re a wizard?”
“Hmm. Head up to Thor Modan if you feel up to it; they need all the help they can get against those metalbeards.”
Eager (if also somewhat anxious) to learn more about the iron dwarves and the ancient history of our world, I readily volunteered.
With nervous hands I clutched the rail of the dirigible carriage as it swayed in the wind. Dwarves and a few gnomes stood on deck, laughing and talking to stem their fears. The Scourge, for all its horror, was at least a familiar evil. No one knew the full capabilities of the iron dwarves.
I saw eleven more giants lumbering to the north during our flight. Everyone was convinced that the iron dwarves were behind the giants’ restless migration, though no one had proof. The dwarves traded wild theories about the iron dwarves. Some thought them demons, citing their destruction of Titan artifacts as explanation. Most believed they were the Titans’ misbegotten children, like a more advanced form of trogg. Dwarves are not normally given to wild conjecture, but the risk posed by the iron dwarves struck a raw nerve. At stake was not only the league’s reputation, but also the very history of the dwarven race.
We flew for two full days before reaching Thor Modan at noon on the third. A great escarpment towers over Eastwind Shore, jutting forward like a ship’s prow. From my position I could see the ancient redwood forests beyond the edge, growing tall on the green horizon.
A hush fell over the passengers when we reached Thor Modan. A deep cleft runs through the living rock in that place, curving gently as if part of a circle. Even from our height, we could see the murky canal at the bottom, spanned by steel bridges. Dozens of figures scurried between the ancient metal shops and temples, still partly buried by tons of earth. As we descended, I spotted two anchored dirigibles being loaded with boxes.
We disembarked immediately upon our landing, thrust into the chaos of evacuation. Teams of workmen packed metal artifacts into crates, while scribes made hurried engravings of the ancient runes. A terrific din filled the halls of Thor Modan, countless feet stamping on the metal floor, sending bone-rattling echoes up and down the dig.
I could almost imagine I was seeing some far-future version of Ironforge. The squat utilitarian buildings are unmistakably dwarven, though made of metal rather than stone. Unlike Ironforge, Thor Modan possesses a distinctly menacing quality. Though I felt nothing akin to the bleak dread I experienced in Dun Argol, one cannot feel entirely welcome in Thor Modan. Perhaps the presence of so many dwarves and gnomes, or the absence of iron dwarves, alleviated the effect. Yet even the thought of rune-scarred iron dwarves in Thor Modan, laboring at some inscrutable purpose, sends a chill straight to the heart. I imagined the darkness lit by hundreds of icy blue eyes and suppressed a shudder.
A red-faced woman marched up to the dirigible, shouting in Dwarvish. At her words, about half of the passengers raised their hands. Sensing my bewilderment, Grostan translated for me.
“She’s asking if you have any archaeological experience.”
“I do not.”
“Lucky you, you’re on guard duty!”
I spent the next hour trying to do what I was told. Kyra Flintnose (the dwarven woman who'd organized us) tried to get everyone to their jobs as soon as possible. My inability to speak Dwarvish proved a source of great irritation for her, and she finally switched to Common long enough to tell me to stand guard at Thor Modan’s gates.
Given the direction of the gates, I made my way through the metal city. Seemingly untroubled by the iron dwarf threat, the dwarves around me worked with a focused intensity. I learned that the League had given up any hope of holding Thor Modan, and planned to evacuate while salvaging as much as possible.
Leaving the city proper I entered a dark and narrow corridor, its metal walls untouched by rust. Sunlight from the outdoors shone through the gates, dancing along the surface of a metal statue of some forgotten dwarven patriarch. Its arms raised, a hammer gripped in each hand, the statue stood askew on a broken base. The scowling face warned against entry.
An iron dwarf base waits just outside Thor Modan, smaller than Dun Argol though similar in appearance. War golems patrol the compound, their bulky metal forms twice the size of a regular iron dwarf. Of the iron dwarves themselves I could see little. A few stood outside one of the structures, their dead blue eyes fixed on the hastily assembled wooden barricades blocking the entrance.
“I’d love to get my hands on one of those lightning guns the metalbeards use,” sighed Rinx Voltoggle. Perhaps the single tallest gnome I’d ever seen, Rinx was a sorceress who specialized in fire magic.
“I’m surprised that the metalbeards don’t become lightning rods with all that metal.”
“They can somehow direct the lightning in a straight line. We think it has something to do with the runes you see on their bodies, and on all their weapons. Fortunately only a handful of them are equipped with lightning guns.”
“How many times have they attacked?”
“Just the once. Hopefully we’ll be out of here before they try again.”
“Was this iron dwarf base here when you arrived?”
“No, actually. The metalbeards came here in little groups of four or five, along with war golems lugging these huge gray ingots, each about the size of a human coffin. The golems put the ingots in the ground, and then the metalbeards started casting spells or runes or something—we couldn’t tell exactly what they did. Then all these black tendrils wriggled out from the metal surface and it started to expand, like something living. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was horrible to see. Everything about it just looked so wrong. In less than a day’s time, those ingots turned into the buildings you see out there.”
“Are those buildings made of the same metal as Thor Modan?”
“We don’t think so. Thor Modan is made of a steel-thorium alloy, with very trace amounts of saronite. Doctor Blinkswitch managed to dissect a dead metalbeard, and found out that they’re made of an iron-saronite alloy; we think their buildings are similar. He found all kinds of weird things in the body. It turns out metalbeards have these soft organs and tissues throughout their bodies, filled with cold, clear fluid. All of those things carry traces of saronite, so the material is obviously important for the metalbeards.”
“What purpose do they serve?”
“No one knows. It’s not like any other creature in our records. Biologically speaking, sporelings have more in common with us than the metalbeards do! The soft parts make the metalbeards vulnerable to our weaponry. Heat up the metal shell, and you can roast their innards. Batter them enough, and they start to spring leaks.”
“Are the golems also like this?”
“No, those brutes are pure metal. We’ve downed a few; the trick is to destroy the runes on their bodies. Fire works pretty well, so does heavy impact damage. It’s hard to do, though.”
“Do you think the metalbeards can really be considered dwarves?”
“They’re not really any stranger than the earthen, who are made out of living rock in case you don’t know. The earthen are the ancestors of the dwarves, so maybe the metalbeards are earthen who simply went in a very different direction. The saronite is really what makes the metalbeards so strange. Frankly, saronite shouldn’t exist. Fascinating, though. I like things that shouldn’t exist!”
The only gnome stationed at the gatehouse, Rinx’s morale was noticeably higher than that of her fellows. The gunners were workmen employed by the Explorers’ League. The dwarven practice of universal conscription meant that they were trained to fight, though most lacked real combat experience. This is not to say that they were unprepared for danger; only a fool goes to Northrend expecting anything else. However, the unexpected ferocity of the iron dwarves troubled them.
I spent a full day at the gatehouse. A league official came to us towards evening, saying that Thor Modan would be evacuated the next day. Tense boredom reigned over the defenders. We saw little of the iron dwarves, though golems made frequent jaunts down the metal paths. Two guards kept watch at the narrow entrance at any given time, working in four-hour shifts. The rest waited deeper inside, passing the time with conversation or dice games.
“I was at Uldaman,” proclaimed one Tirfing Brasshands, an older dwarf sporting a braided orange beard. “You could feel the sanctity in that place. Our fathers once walked its hallowed halls, maybe speaking with the Titans who built it. There’s nothing sacred about Thor Modan. This place is a mockery!”
“You do not think it’s worth exploring?” I asked.
“Worth exploring? Sure. Worth protecting? No dwarven blood should be shed for this place. I sense nothing of the Titans here, neither does anyone else.”
“Just because the Titans didn’t built it doesn’t mean it’s unimportant,” protested Rinx.
“Do you want to die for this place, lass?”
“Obviously not, but I will fight for it. Hopefully we’ll be out of here before the metalbeards make another attack.”
“I hope so too, Rinx.”
No sooner had Tirfing gone silent than the sentry called out in alarm. I rushed to the gateway, leaning to the right to follow the sentry’s pointing finger. A horse galloped through the base, its brown coat streaked with blood. I could just see its human rider gripping the reins, directing his mount towards Thor Modan.
In an instant the golems snapped into action, no longer slow and ponderous. Two of them ran to intercept the rider, their metal feet clanging like smithies on the path. Dwarven guns roared to life, the guards firing phosphorous shells at the golems. White chemical flames dripped down the body of one golem, though too far from the runes to make a real difference.
Reaching their target, the golems struck with their colossal hands. The rider jumped from his mount at the very last moment, throwing himself to the ground as metal hands slammed into the horse, reducing the beast to a bloody mist.
Rinx rushed out of the gate, her hands burning blue with arcane light. She sent a magical barrage at the golems to distract them from the helpless rider. Her tactic worked, and the constructs turned to face the new threat.
Dwarven gunners scrambled out the gate, firing as they ran and spread out in a semicircle. Standing among them I cast a scorch spell at the nearest golem, focusing on the glittering blue runes across its shoulders. I lost sight of my spell’s flames as burning phosphorous engulfed the golem. The dying construct flared as bright as the sun, momentum carrying it past the dwarven line until it collapsed in a smoldering ruin yards away.
The other golem reached us before the dwarves could reload, killing one gunner with a careless swat. We hurriedly backed away from the construct, increasing our distance. Gnarled hands hurriedly reloaded rifles as Rinx and I bombarded it with scorch spells and fire blasts, only burning out a few runes.
Two shots fired, the shells burning on black metal. The remaining golem charged towards me, blazing shells lighting the ground where it once stood. I leapt to the right as it trampled past, narrowly dodging the golem’s outstretched arm.
Arcane explosions shattered the earth in front of the golem, causing it to stumble. The ground shook from its impact. Gathering my energies I unleashed a flame strike on its prone form, a pillar of fire bursting up from the golem’s body. Even as it burned the golem moved with a strange mechanical elegance, calmly attempting to right itself. In an instant, all power left its body and it sank back to the earth.
The iron dwarves never made their attack, even when they left their buildings to observe our fight against the golems. We spent hours at the gate, guns and spells at the ready. Tirfing spat curses at the iron dwarves, enraged at the death of his comrade. Rinx finally quieted him, afraid he would provoke them. Her concerns were baseless, for the iron dwarves soon returned to their buildings.
“The metalbeards probably know that we’re leaving. No need for them to make an attack,” surmised Rinx. How the iron dwarves would know, she could not say.
The dirigibles returned that night, having shipped the last of the artifacts to the comparative safety of the Westfall Brigade Encampment. Not waiting for morning, most of the remaining population of Thor Modan boarded the dirigibles that night.
I learned from Rinx that the rider was actually a Valiance Expedition scout named Fernon. He’d gone up north to check for Scourge activity. Instead, he found an army of stone giants and earthen warriors marching south. Fernon fled upon seeing them, as all previous encounters with stone giants had ended badly.
“What of the earthen?”
“Modern people have only run into them a few times. There are reports—unsubstantiated, mind you—of people seeing the ghosts of ancient earthen during the Lunar Festival. They say these ghosts are friendly, but like I said, no one’s sure about the accuracy. The league did encounter a few in Uldaman. Those earthen weren’t happy to see us.”
Fernon had tried to alert the forces at the Westfall Brigade Encampment, but was routed by an iron dwarf patrol. Chance led him to Thor Modan. His report shocked the Explorers’ League. One of the senior archaeologists even argued that the league should stay and greet the earthen.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity!” he argued.
Caution won out. Most everyone believed that the giants to the south were under enemy control, and were not willing to take a chance with this new group. Many, like Tirfing, simply wanted to leave Thor Modan.
I was not present for the events that I shall now describe. I cannot divulge the identity of the individual who told me of the interrogation in Thor Modan’s crafting chamber, as that would endanger said individual’s career and reputation. While I cannot personally vouch for this information, it is consistent with the data gleaned from subsequent contact with the iron dwarves and their culture.
Our rescue of Fernon was not the only skirmish against the iron dwarf forces that day. The guards at the top of the cleft spotted a patrol of three iron dwarf warriors in the forest. During the ensuing battle, one iron dwarf rushed the guards, a glowing blue ax raised high. Unable to support the weight of his metal skin, the earth gave way beneath him and he fell into Thor Modan, hitting the floor with a resounding clash.
Startled by his arrival, the league archaeologists stopped their work and rushed over to his battered form, the more prudent among them bringing weapons. Stretched out on the metal floor, his flesh dented concave from the impact, everyone thought him dead. The dwarves jumped back when he loosed a harsh metallic shriek. Showers of sparks burst where his twitching limbs scraped the floor, and clear fluid leaked from his mouth. When the shaking stopped, he at last studied the curious flesh dwarves around him, his glowing blue eyes wide open.
“Finish it,” he rasped in accented Dwarvish.
Thinking quickly, a senior archaeologist named Torthen Deepdig ordered that the paralyzed iron dwarf be taken to the crafting chamber. I had briefly seen this place when I first arrived in Thor Modan. Believed to be an ancient forge of some sort, it is a place of great interest for the Explorers' League.
Circular in layout, the crafting chamber is sparsely furnished and lit by narrow sheets of dimly glowing metal, placed at regular intervals on the walls. An empty metal cage stands to the right of the entrance. Next to that is a stack of sealed metal casks, looking almost like the beer barrels found in any dwarven settlement. With some reluctance, the dwarves had drilled a hole into one such cask and learned that they hold the same cold liquid found in iron dwarf organs. Completing the set is a table, littered with metal pieces worked to resemble arms and heads.
Workers rolled the iron dwarf into the frigid crafting chamber with a large cart originally used to carry loose earth. Torthen went inside with other high-ranking league officials and dismissed the workers, who closed the doors as they left. The iron dwarf lay in the center of the room, surrounded by his enemies.
“Kill me,” ordered the iron dwarf. “You have no reason to let me live.”
“On the contrary,” replied Torthen. “Dead metalbeards can’t answer questions. What is your name?”
After a long pause, the iron dwarf spoke.
“Why would I have a name?”
“So we know what to call you other than tin-brain!” raged Torthen. “All right, don’t have a name? Then—”
“Wait!” Interrupted a gnomish archaeologist named Evlink Chargomat. “Why would it be strange for you to have a name?”
“There is no need for me to have one. I am low in the Hierarchy.”
“Do any of your people have names?”
“Those who specialize in individual tasks, certain leaders. There is no need for me to have one.”
“Do you mind if I call you Halk?” Halk is a common dwarven name.
“Call me whatever you wish. It is not relevant.”
“Giving you a name makes things easier for us, Halk. Now, how old are you?”
“How is that relevant?”
“Oh, it isn’t. I’m simply curious.”
“I do not know, exactly. Titan’s grace, can you not see yourselves? You are disgusting!” roared Halk, his metallic voice echoing in the crafting chamber. “How can you live like this? Degenerate monsters!”
“What right do you have to speak of a Titan’s grace, metalbeard?” snarled Torthen. “Your wretched kind is destroying what the Makers built!”
“Only to keep them from further taint. I knew that the Curse of Flesh took root, but I never imagined it was this severe! No one in the Hierarchy warned us about you. We thought that nothing could be so corrupted and still survive. Why do you exist? Why?”
“Tell us a bit more about this Curse of Flesh. We’ve never heard of it,” said Evlink.
At this point, Halk shut his eyes, though he continued speaking.
“The Titans bring order to the universe. There are entities in this world, whose names I dare not mention, that prefer chaos. The Titans built us out of stone, but stone is vulnerable to the Curse of Flesh. That is why the Titan, Loken, turned us into metal. Now we are immune.”
“We’ve found soft tissues inside your peoples’ bodies. Doesn’t seem to be all metal.”
“Nor is it flesh. It is a synthetic substitute that improves our operational capacity. We are untouched by the Curse of Flesh.”
“What does the Curse of Flesh do, other than turn people into, uh, flesh?”
“Decreased cognitive capability and durability, along with increased fecundity. Victims forget the Purpose and instead fall prey to Impulse. That is why you do these things, ignorant of the Titans and their plans.”
“We’re trying to learn more about the Titans, actually. Maybe you could help.”
“You do not understand. Azeroth itself may be compromised by your presence. If truly you wish to serve the Titans, destroy yourselves! It may be the only way to save their creation. Please, I am so tired. I have fought the earthen heretics for thousands of years. I have died hundreds of times. The Hierarchy thought the earthen were the last obstacle, and now we learn of you. How much longer must I fight?”
“How can you die so many times?”
“Upon death, my memories return to the Forge of Wills. My body is melted into undifferentiated metal. The Hierarchy chooses which memories are most useful, and eventually creates a new body for them. I must continue doing this until the Hierarchy’s task is complete.”
Evlink walked closer to Halk, while Torthen fumed, too enraged to even formulate a question.
“Please do not touch me, please!” begged Halk. “Kill me, now!”
“I won’t touch you. No one will, as long as you answer our questions.”
“Your skin is so horrible,” muttered Halk, his voice trembling. “Blasphemies that walk, countless teeming monsters. Hierarchy have mercy on me, return me to the Forge!”
“Stay here for a bit longer. Tell me more about these earthen heretics.”
“I am tired, I only want to rest, you disgust me! The world shudders under your presence, worse than the Faceless. Let me die!”
Torthen shoved Evlink out of the way and swung a mallet into Halk’s face, denting it beyond recognition. He swung again, spitting on Halk’s beard and screaming insults.
“Let me show you what the Curse of Flesh can do, you miserable bastard! We did not come all this way to be turned back by you lot, and if we can survive the Horde we’re sure to make short work of you Light-damned metalbeards! We are the children of the Titans, not you! You can’t even imagine what we’ll do to you!”
Panting, Torthen stepped back from Halk’s twisted form, fluids leaking out from rents in the body. His eyes burning, Torthen turned to the assembled officials.
“None of what he said leaves this room, do you hear me? The metalbeards are liars, through and through. We cannot let them undo all our work.”
“Aye,” came the dwarven chorus.
“I have to disagree, Torthen,” countered Evlink.
Torthen turned to the diminutive gnome academic, a mixture of anger and disbelief on his face. Evlink stood his ground, the other gnomes offering silent support.
“Are you mad?”
“Torthen, I know that what he said was shocking. However, it is information—”
“Probably! However, analyzing those lies can help us understand the iron dwarves. We can learn about their weaknesses, their goals, and maybe come up with a way to counter them. Besides, most lies have elements of truth. We can cross-reference what he said with what we know about the Titans, and maybe learn something.”
“Gnomes and their theories,” scoffed one dwarf.
“The Mystery of the Makers is a theory!” retorted a gnome.
“Quiet down!” ordered Evlink. “This information may be vital to our mission.”
“Tell all this to the senate and they’ll cut our funding. There won’t be a mission, or even an Alliance war effort.”
“Then we won’t tell the senate. We’ll keep it among the Alliance academic community for the time being.”
“If the senate hears, tell them that you’re analyzing iron dwarf lies.”
“They aren’t lies per se. How about myths?”
“Torthen, you can’t let this get out there!” protested a dwarf.
“Evlink’s right. I’m sure his team of geniuses can figure out exactly how to prove the metalbeards wrong.”
“We will figure out the truth, or get as close to it as possible.”
“Everyone here knows the truth already. Your job is to go and prove it.”
My source made me promise not to reveal this to anyone outside of academia until more was known. Now that the truth (or something close to it) of the Titans and the Curse of Flesh is a known quantity, I think I can honorably disclose this information.
In some ways, I think the disagreement between Torthen and Evlink is just as informative as the words of Halk. As their argument speaks for itself, I will not say much about it. However, I do think the world would benefit if more cultures shared the gnomish desire for truth.