Saturday, November 14, 2009
Zul'drak: Part 2
Never before had the terse chatter of a military camp sounded so warm and welcoming to my ears. Facing the Scourge on one side and hostile Drakkari on the other, the Argent Stand teeters on the brink of destruction. Kept alive only by the faith and ferocity of its protectors, no one can say how much longer it will survive.
I had left the death knights at the aqueduct. Before going, Velluc told me about the Argent Stand on the second tier, only a few days' journey from our position. I scaled the broken aqueduct with relative ease, the damage presenting me with numerous footholds, and from there walked to Zul’drak’s second tier.
The dark forests of the first tier are replaced with a seemingly infinite city. Angular temples stab the sky, positioned to support other temples larger still. Gem-eyed idols stare down the broad causeways running all through the second tier. Thorny trees like those on the first tier break through ancient stone planters, their roots slowly overtaking the abandoned plazas. I saw no signs of recent violence. Whoever lived there had evacuated before the arrival of the Scourge.
I wandered like a ghost past those empty temples. For all its grandeur there is nothing comforting in the city’s architecture. Like the great staircase that leads to Zul’drak, the sharp-edged temples oppress rather than enlighten. Color plays no part in the Drakkari aesthetic, the buildings uniformly bleak and gray. The causeways never deviate from their rigid paths; the Drakkari had demolished any natural obstacles during their construction. There is an implicit sense of dominance in the design.
The few outside records describing the Drakkari portray them as base savages, a pale reflection of the Amani and Gurubashi to the south. Zul’drak appears to flout this description, at least on the surface. No southern troll city can rival it in size and splendor. More to the point is the seeming impossibility of its existence. How could any civilization create so much in such a harsh and unforgiving land?
The soldiers at the Argent Stand knew next to nothing about the Drakkari, though I can’t fault them for this. I arrived at the Argent Stand just as their fighters were driving back a Scourge incursion, holy blasts and gunfire repelling the undead for another day. The Argent Dawn in Northrend calls itself the Argent Crusade, though it’s essentially the same organization. Most of the Argents moved north after the tenuous pacification of the Plaguelands, which is now loosely controlled by the Brotherhood of the Light.
The Argent Crusade had chosen a vacated troll citadel as their primary base in Zul’drak. From there, they established a number of smaller outposts in hope of halting or at least slowing the Scourge advance. Unfortunately, the constant assaults and the grim climate were starting to weaken their morale.
“Exact numbers are unavailable, but there are at least 200,000 Drakkari still in Zul’drak. If the Scourge wins here and raises even half that number of trolls, all our efforts in Northrend are done for,” explained an exhausted-looking human crusader named Torellon.
“That’s what I do not understand. How can this environment support so many trolls?”
“Damned if I know. It should be impossible. This whole blasted place should be impossible.”
“Why aren’t the Horde and Alliance doing more to help?”
“They believe that it’s best to let the Scourge exhaust themselves fighting the Drakkari. Still, there’s no doubt that the Scourge will eventually beat them. Without our intervention, of course.” He said the last sentence as if he were trying to believe it.
“Please do not take this as an insult, but how can your small force hope to fend off the Scourge when the Drakkari cannot?”
“Modern tactics, sorcery, and technology. The Drakkari haven’t updated their strategic doctrines since before the Sundering by the looks of it. They attack in a disorganized rush, different warbands competing to see who gets the most kills.”
“Have you been able to communicate with the Drakkari at all?”
“No. All the trolls still on the second tier are at the north or south ends, not in the center. Without us, they’d be flanked in days.”
“How do you supply the Argent Stand?”
“A flotilla of zeppelins comes up here from Conquest Hold every month and a half. Many of them are piloted by the same goblins who airlifted supplies to Cenarion Hold during the Silithus campaign. They’re probably the best zeppelin pilots in the world.”
“Expensive too, I’d imagine.”
“Certainly. We’d be broke if it weren’t for Skring Grollup.”
“Surprising, isn’t it? Skring’s a very wise and persuasive man. He knows that if the Scourge wins, there won’t be any profit for anyone, ever again. Skring’s an executive in the Steamwheedle Cartel, and he convinced them to lend us the money we need.”
“Will you be able to pay it back?”
“I find it difficult to worry about that right now, to tell you the truth. Besides, he’s only charging a half-percent yearly interest. The Horde’s a bigger problem for us.”
“The leader of Conquest Hold, a lunatic named Krenna, tried to prevent our supply zeppelins from stopping at her base. She thinks we’re part of the Alliance—mind you, some in the Alliance say we’re with the Horde—and refused to help us in any way. I heard that the Warchief personally intervened in our favor. Personally I think he ought to put Krenna someplace where she can’t do any harm.”
One challenge faced by the Argent Crusade is the difficulty of training and managing new recruits. Thousands of volunteers flocked to the Argent Crusade at its formation, usually possessing more enthusiasm than experience. The Crusade established training camps near some of Azeroth’s major population centers at around the same time the Outland Campaign was nearing its end.
Some of the Argent Crusade’s leaders questioned the wisdom of accepting so many volunteers, but they eventually acknowledged there was no other way to match the Scourge. Led as it is by some of the most remarkable individuals of our age, the Crusade has actually done a reasonably good job of maintaining morale. Desertions are rare (though not unheard of), though the rarity partly stems from the hostility of the environment.
When not training or sleeping the Argent Crusaders spend much of their time in prayer. While founded by followers of the Holy Light, the Argent Crusade has adapted to those of other faiths. The rites of every major religion are conducted in the Argent Stand. The regularity of worship serves to boost morale, with the crusaders receiving assurance that their sacrifices make the world a better place.
“We pruned the new shoots who were never serious about this obligation,” explained a Kaldorei priestess named Shelunara Starbow, referring to the volunteers who were drummed out of training.
“I can see why you’d only want the most dedicated.”
“Northrend is a dangerous place, and Zul’drak is especially so. These haunted cities languish under darkness. Even so, Elune hears my prayers, sending us rays of moonlight in response. This keeps the Kaldorei crusaders fighting, even as they long to return to our forests.”
“Are there any Argent reservists?”
“There are troops still under the Argent Dawn, as well as a smaller crop of new volunteers. They will begin to cycle in at the end of the month, relieving the troops here. Many, like myself, will have to stay.”
I thanked Shelunara for her bravery. Most of the newer soldiers I talked to openly expressed their desire for relief. For all their training, nothing could have really prepared them for the rigors of campaigning in Northrend. This is not to say that they are shirkers. All are willing to fight, and often demonstrate it. Still, not even the best soldier in the world can fight indefinitely, and the crusaders have already done more than their share. No history can ever compile the heroism that they display on a daily basis.
Many in the Argent Stand believe that a solution to their problems lies in the Drakkari. Though both the Horde and the Alliance had failed to make peace with the xenophobic ice trolls, the Argent Crusade hopes that the Drakkari are in desperate enough straits to at least consider a temporary truce. Exactly how to best contact the Drakkari is a contentious matter.
I watched as the leaders argued over the best methods. The predominantly human command staff argued for rescuing refugees and other common Drakkari, thinking it would prove the Crusade’s good intentions. Some from the Horde (particularly a wildly tattooed Revantusk warrior) said that the Drakkari had no concept of noblesse oblige, and that it would be best to contact the warriors and priests. My ideals sided with the humans, my pragmatism backed the troll, and my mind noted that neither seemed to actually know much about the Drakkari.
The humans finally won the day, citing the previous failed diplomacy attempts that had targeted the ruling classes. The Argent Crusade elected to send a small task force to the Drak’sotra Fields. Several days south of the Argent Stand, the Drak’sotra Fields are one of the largest agricultural sectors in Zul’drak. Preliminary reports indicated that the Drakkari only held a portion of the fields, and that there were several groups of displaced trolls.
I volunteered to accompany the mission. Though I doubted it would do much to sway the Drakkari as a whole, I figured it might at least serve the purpose of saving some element of their civilization. On a more emotional level, I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent others from suffering undeath.
The rescue party numbered ten strong, including myself. Only half were full-fledged crusaders; the rest were visitors to Zul’drak like myself. Our leader was one Ven’gol, a shaman from the nearly defunct Mossflayer Tribe of forest trolls. He had joined the Argent Dawn for a total lack of other options and came to develop a fierce loyalty to that noble group. His past experience made him an ideal candidate, though he still expressed some reservations.
“The Dawn accepted me into their tribe when I was alone, surrounded by the walking corpses of my kin. But there are still many Drakkari, and battle rages in their blood. I hope they will listen. If not, we will kill them.”
I informed Ven’gol that some of his tribe lived in Shattrath City, having ended up there after following the orcs to Outland. Though glad to hear about it, he showed little inclination to join them, saying that many in the tribe had seen their departure as a betrayal. While Ven’gol no longer felt animosity towards the other Mossflayers, he considered the Argent Crusade to be his tribe for all intents and purposes.
Going through the second tier of Zul’drak is like walking in an immeasurably vast graveyard, the abandoned temples more tombstones than places of worship. This is furthered by the tendrils of mold creeping across these age-old buildings, encouraged by the cold and clammy weather. Despite all this, fires still burn on the roadside altars, as if tended to by ghosts.
In fact, the cold seems to be reclaiming the second tier, which should be too high and too far north to support so much plant life. Rime forms during the worst nights, killing leaves with its touch.
“None of the shamans can hear the spirits rightly in this place,” said Ven’gol, when I asked him about it. Around us, a frigid wind howled as it lashed through the ancient plazas and towers.
“What do you mean?”
“Not sure, spirits won’t be telling me. But I know they don’t want to be here. Spirits of storms and ice should rule this place, not spirits of trees and water.”
“Does that explain the fires?”
“They shouldn’t be burning without some mighty magic behind them, but there they go. I am thinking the Drakkari did something very strange with the spirits. Very bad.”
During our journey I became acquainted with an orcish woman named Zota. Her shaved head and brutish features gave her a menacing appearance, but in truth she was quite personable. She’d served with the Argent Dawn in the Plaguelands, and strongly believed in the Crusade’s mission. Like many of the orcs in the Argent Crusade, she joined to escape the status of peonage.
“I failed the trials, completely and totally,” she said as we prepared camp for the evening. Sleet had fallen intermittently through the day, and piles of cold slush buried the causeway in spots.
“There is an option to retake them, correct?” I asked.
“I did. And failed again. The elders saw no reason to give me another chance. I remember the shaman laughing when I applied for a third trial, and then shoving a quarry pick in my hands.”
“I find that surprising. You must be quite capable to have survived the Plaguelands and Northrend.”
“These lands are crucibles of the soul; the weak who survive have no choice but to become strong. I had to do it. My mother and father both did battle against the Scourge on the slopes of Hyjal. Though weak from giving birth to my brother, my mother fought all the same. She perished, but her name lives on in glory. Do you know the name Taga’kla? That was her.”
“I have heard that name. You must feel honored.” Taga’kla is almost a warrior saint to the female grunts, held as the epitome of orcish womanhood.
“I could not feel honor as a peon, even though our people—that is to say, the orcs—no longer dismiss the peons.”
“Did your father survive the battle?”
“He did, and he raised me well. He told me about the Argent Dawn and I joined as soon as I was able. I started as a cook but I proved myself in battle many times over. It turns out that I am more proficient with the bow and arrow than I am with the glaive,” she laughed. “My mother killed scores of ghouls with her glaive, teaching the Scourge that the Horde’s women are as fearsome as the men.”
“Many of the orcs here seem to come from the peon ranks. Is service in the Argent Dawn considered an acceptable substitute for being a warrior in the Horde?”
“Not quite, not yet. So much of the warrior’s identity is bound up in ritual: passing the trials, induction into a War-pack, completion of the first tour. Things are simpler in the Dawn, which is exactly why most orcs see it as second-rate. The former peons here usually plan to retake the trials if they return to Orgrimmar, or at least be assigned to the frontiers where they can prove themselves.”
“Is that what you intend?”
“I am not yet sure. I think I honor my mother by staying here, where I can do battle against the monsters who took her life. My father says I’d do better by returning to Orgrimmar and making another attempt at the trials, which I’m now sure to pass.”
“When is the last time you spoke to your father?”
“A year ago. He came to me, actually. I remember how amazed I was to see him in the Plaguelands, too fierce for age to hold him back! He was there on Horde business but he wanted to see me. I felt so proud standing there, my Argent tabard on display, a warrior at last. When he embraced me I knew I’d done well in his eyes.”
“So he respects your work here, but wants you to return.”
“He considers me a warrior, one who is too good to stay with the Argents.”
I have little doubt that Zota is more capable than most official orc warriors. The other crusaders looked up to her for reassurance, her skill and bravery inspiring even the most timid. As such, it’s easy to see why she’d be reluctant to go back to the Horde. Orcish culture tends to hero-worship, and Zota would find it nearly impossible to live up to her mother’s legacy.
I overheard two crusaders, a Sin’dorei and another orc, discussing Zota early the next day as we marched through the cold morning fog. One of their remarks was quite curious.
“She’s almost like one of the blood knights in the way she leads us. Not quite the same, but close,” said the elf.
“It’s in her blood. Zota’s the bishop’s daughter, after all.”
I asked Zota about this later in the day. Her eyes widened in surprise, and a flicker of embarrassment crossed her face.
“Hurok’gom, my father, is the Bishop of Orgrimmar.”
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Orgrimmar. I never knew that the city had a bishop.”
“Father suffered grave wounds at the Battle of Mt. Hyjal. While he recovered, he met a human priest helping out in the orc infirmaries. There were very few shamans at that time, so the Alliance lent some of their healers. This priest, Father Iltius Berend, befriended my father and converted him to the Holy Light.”
“How did the other orcs react?”
“No one would question his honor after the valor he showed at Mt. Hyjal. The warriors he told thought it odd, but father still honored the spirits, as an orc must. He simply added the Light to his religious concerns. Only after the Battle of Theramore did he have any trouble.”
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing, in the end. He had enough friends in the Warchief’s inner circle that all but the fiercest critics were silenced. Still, these friends made it clear that he had to keep his faith to himself, that young warriors would only be confused by the Light.”
“How many people are in the church?”
“When I was last in Orgrimmar, the orcish church numbered a 123 peons, and five warriors. Those five joined the church before Theramore, and were already respected. When I was younger there were nineteen warriors, but most abandoned the church once it became inconvenient.”
“Do you believe in the Holy Light?”
“I do. There is something divine in the camaraderie of warriors, a perfect reflection of the Exegesis. This essence is less obvious in other places, but it exists everywhere. Our souls are as one. Peons may not know the true glory of the Light, but they are a part of it all the same.”
I nodded, absolutely fascinated by Zota’s story. Her father’s interpretation of the Light was a uniquely orcish adaptation.
“Is this why your father wants you to become a Horde warrior? To increase the number of warriors in the church?”
“That and he misses me. But I do not want to be the only believer in my War-pack. I do not know if I would feel the way I feel here.”
“Is the faith spreading among the peons?”
“No. Peons are a suspicious and fearful lot. Most of the peons in our church joined in the early days. If our faith is to grow, it must be through warriors. A peon religion will never succeed in the Horde.”
“There’s no official persecution, however?”
“None. But if we anger and frighten enough peons, there may be some unofficial violence. Not against my father, but against those he guides,” she sighed.
Aqueducts snake across the Drak’sotra Fields, their stone forms bowed by the weight of age. Water pours out from spouts along the sides twice a day, feeding the miles of flooded farmland. Black stones poke above the water, radiating an inexplicable heat to keep the farms from freezing while thick steam rises up from the eyes of superheated metal idols standing at the corners of the plots. Water accumulates in the bodies of these petty gods, where it is converted to vapor. This elaborate infrastructure cannot solve the problem of neglect; drowned crops rot under a thick layer of algal scum. Once the greatest farmland in Zul’drak, much of the Drak’sotra Fields have become a swamp.
I tried to imagine the Drak’sotra Fields at their height, with thousands of trolls laboring at the crops. Drakkari farms appear to be communal, but how could any nation organize such a work force? We never went beyond the edges, but all reports describe the fields as continuing for days without end. Only aqueducts and idols interrupt the monotony. Like all things in Zul’drak, the Drak’sotra Fields drive the soul into insignificance.
A thick and swampy heat hangs over the fields, almost tropical in its humidity. The crusaders quickly removed their heavy fur coats though sweat soon drenched their bodies and clothes all the same, their woolen undershirts proving nearly intolerable.
We walked single file on top of the broad stone fences surrounding each plot to avoid wading through the sludge. Even there the cloying heat taxed each step, and our brisk pace slowed to a dragging crawl.
“That’s the problem with aerial scouts,” groused Zota. “They never really know what it’s like on the ground.”
The lack of large mammals in the Drak’sotra Fields also goes along with a complete absence of mosquitoes, granting a small mercy to travelers. However, the paucity of insect life is not the only absence. There are no houses, not even the ruined remains of such. Nor are there the tools that one expects to see on a farm.
“If they were peasants, they probably didn’t have long-lasting dwellings,” pointed out Felist, a human.
“There should at least be some remnant,” insisted Zota. “Does anyone know how common Drakkari live?”
No one answered.
“This cannot be right. The scouts talked about refugees, but refugees from where? No one can live in this place, there’s nothing here! Did ghosts tend the crops?”
She meant it as a joke, but no one laughed. Such an idea seemed all too plausible in Zul’drak.
Later that day we came across a section of wall shattered by some impact, the site filled with slimy water. Ven’gol knelt by the rubble along the edge and picked something up from the ruins. He held up a metal ornament roughly the size and shape of a pear, forged in the likeness of a scowling troll. Light reflected off its metallic surface, colored in saronite’s sickly green.
Not all of the crusaders were familiar with saronite. Those of us who knew explained what we could, which was not much.
“Maybe that’s why this place is so wrong. There’s saronite magic here,” suggested Ven’gol.
“Entirely possible. Do you think it was embedded in the rock?” I asked, thinking about the saronite runes embedded in the vrykul towns and preserving them through the ages.
“I do not know. I figure someone dropped it. If what you all say is true, than there’s mighty power in this trinket. Good for a shaman to carry.”
“Be careful about carrying that. Saronite has a strange effect on the mind,” I warned.
“Carry it? No! I meant Drakkari shamans. I’m not knowing these spirits, and I’m not planning to. We’re leaving it where I found it,” he said, placing it back amidst the rubble.
“The Argent Crusade might have a use for it—” began Zota.
“Zota, I respect you, but we’re having no dealings with this. It’s bad luck to deal with strange idols and stranger metals.”
Ven’gol reached into the pouch hanging from his belt and took out a tiny wooden figure, a grinning smile painted on its face in bright red pigment. He shook it over the idol a few times, muttering in Zandali as he did. Once finished, he put the figure back in the pouch and started walking.
I considered an attempt to retrieve the idol for further examination, but decided that would be inappropriate. Saronite is truly ubiquitous in Northrend, an ancient curse seeping up from the continent’s icy heart. Many of the local factions appear to depend on the metal. At that point I had seen it used by the vrykul, the iron dwarves, and the Drakkari. I also knew, from secondhand sources, that the Scourge used saronite as a material for their most powerful armaments.
Saronite is much more than just a weapon. Properly used it can preserve things indefinitely, and probably has a whole host of other uses that have not yet been exploited. It may be too useful to ignore. The Horde and Alliance are both investigating the material, and I would not be surprised if the goblins are as well. This alarms many, due to the negative side-effects associated with saronite, as well as the dark legends surrounding the metal.
However, it must be remembered that arcane magic is actually an insanely dangerous energy source. Nonetheless, many of the world’s most important nations rely on magic, socially and economically. Magic poses many risks, but has been fine-tuned over the course of millennia into something that is reasonably safe so long as certain precautions are observed. Still, some (particularly the Sin’dorei) are practically blind to these risks, which is another problem in and of itself.
I do not think it unreasonable to at least conduct more research on saronite. Properly used, it could be of immeasurable benefit to the world, improving quality of life and opening up new possibilities for advancement. Or, it may be a dangerous and corrupting mineral that should be avoided at all costs. No one yet knows.
The neglect becomes less pronounced farther south, the algal slime giving way to murky water, and then to clear water from the mountain heights. Still empty, the Drak’sotra Fields begin to show signs of a more recent abandonment.
The crops planted and harvested by the Drakkari grow in long rows across the watery fields. These plants are as strange as everything else in Zul’drak. Long stalks covered with round, dull green leaves grow in dense collections at the base, surrounding a central stem that can reach up to seven feet in height. These stems are capped by oblong blossoms, the waxy violet petals looking tiny compared to the strangely elongated sepals.
None of us could begin to guess what part of the plant was edible. Felist, who’d grown up on a Tirisfal farm, shook his head as he examined the crops.
“Something’s wrong here. I know trolls are stronger than us humans, but how could they harvest these monsters?”
“Maybe they just eat the stalks?” I ventured.
“Not enough there for a Drakkari, I’m thinking. Sure not enough for an Amani,” disagreed Ven’gol.
We stopped to rest as night fell, setting up camp near one of the ubiquitous heated idols. The crusaders sat on stone slabs, casting nervous glances as the dense rows of crops. Heat and confusion sapped their wills. Prepared to fight the undead, they found it harder to combat the much stranger Drakkari environment.
Offerings were piled high around the idol and I went in for a closer look, not without some trepidation. Deep red flames burned endlessly on either side of the idol, casting an unearthly light on the surroundings. Zota and Felist accompanied me though none of the other crusaders wanted anything to do with the grimacing statue. A determined look on his face, Felist yanked a stuffed burlap sack lying in front of the idol and darted back. Ripping it open he took out a reddish taproot the size of his head.
“This must be what they eat,” he said. “I don’t know how they’d uproot these plants though. It must take a lot of work on their part.”
“Are you sure it’s from the same plants?”
“Dammit, I’m not sure of anything in this place,” he cursed, flinging the root into the water.
I took a quick look at the other offerings. Earthen jugs stood next to the bags, holding acrid-smelling liquor. Worn troll skulls piled up at the base of the idol, some of them crumbling from age. Most troll cultures preserve the skulls of esteemed ancestors, using them as vessels through which the departed can speak. I do not think the neglected skulls in Zul’drak enjoyed such prominence. Scarred skulls looked down on us from poles, sharp light emanating from chipped sockets.
Sleep did little to ease the crusaders’ exhaustion. As weary eyes creaked open the next morning, Ven’gol declared that the expedition would turn back if no refugees were found by noon. This decision met with unanimous approval. I sensed an unspoken sentiment that perhaps the Drakkari were too alien to be saved. The shadowy fields with their strange plants reached to the horizon all around us like a silent confirmation of these suspicions.
The crusaders trudged forward all morning, shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. At times the Drak’sotra Fields felt like some malign illusion. Less burdened by the heat, I looked out for any refugees, or at least some workers. I finally found some towards noon’s hot darkness.
“Over there!” I said, pointing to puffs of black smoke on the other side of the plot, the source hidden by rows of crops.
Everyone stopped, looking at the smoke without saying anything, as if making up their minds as to whether or not they really wanted to go.
“Good,” said Ven’gol. “Zota, you go ahead and check them out. Stay hidden, make sure they’re refugees.”
Zota nodded and waded into the farm, soon disappearing amidst the crops. She emerged a while later, her expression uncertain.
“All the trolls at the camp are aged or children. I am not sure if they are farmers,” she reported.
“What are they?” asked Ven’gol.
“They may be farmers. I’m just not certain of the fact.”
“Let’s leave them,” said Felist. “I don’t think there are any farmers here. Just spirits. This damned place is haunted.”
“No, Felist! We have a mission here. Maybe they aren’t farmers, but they are victims. The Light demands that we help!”
“Zota is correct,” sighed Ven’gol. “So be it then. We will go towards them along the rims. That way they can see who we are, no secrets. I’ll go in front. Don’t make eye contact with them.”
Ven’gol took a tiny wooden canister from his pouch. He twisted it open to reveal cobalt pigment. Rubbing his fingers in the mix, he then smeared the pigment around his neck, muttering in rapid Zandali.
“Blue is the color of peace, of the east, of Nalorakk,” he explained in Common. “Now we get his favor on us.
The ritual complete, we walked towards the smoke in slow deliberation, our weapons sheathed. Some of the crusaders held food out in their hands. I asked Felist to lend me his hooded cloak, which I used to conceal my features. It would not do for the Drakkari to mistake me for a Scourge. I think we all questioned the wisdom of the venture by that point. Only a sense of duty, to the Light or to the Crusade, kept us going.
I soon saw the trolls resting around a smoldering fire pit. I counted fifteen, six of them children. The rest were immense ruins of trolls, weathered blue skin hanging from too-skinny limbs, gray hair clinging to scalps. Even the children exhibited the clear signs of malnutrition, their bellies swollen and movements listless.
The trolls shifted in their positions when they caught sight of us. At this, Ven’gol began speaking in a measured tone. I did not need a translator to know that his words offered hope and comfort. One of the aged Drakkari gripped a staff with his claw-like hands and used it to lift himself up. He stood with difficulty, his legs quivering from the strain. Ven’gol motioned for us to stop, and he went silent, giving the Drakkari a chance to speak.
Focused on the standing Drakkari, I did not see who threw the first stone. I only heard the splash when it hit the water. One of the Drakkari began to shout, his reedy voice tearing with hate. The others joined him, shouting as they scooped up rocks and debris, throwing them in a mad rush. Not even the children remained idle, overcoming their exhaustion to inflict their rage. Bloodcurdling yelps sounded from their tiny mouths as they hurled stones.
One missile, flung with more force than most, hit Felist in the head. He dropped to his knees, blood dribbling out from under his helmet. Zota grabbed him before he could fall in the drink though he quickly got back on unsteady feet.
“Retreat!” ordered Zota.
We turned away from the refugees, who still yelled curses on us from across the water. They looked barely able to walk, yet somehow still turned the force of their fury on a party of soldiers. What fanaticism could compel such fear? I wondered if perhaps they'd misunderstood Ven’gol, or if he’d somehow caused offense. Still, I could not believe that starving refugees would turn down food.
However badly we wished to rescue them, there was no way for us to deal with such astonishing savagery. The behavior of the Drakkari defied belief. More needed to be learned, but I could see no way to accomplish that through the Drakkari.
Felist’s wound was superficial and Ven’gol healed him once we were far enough from the Drakkari. We immediately turned back, eager to leave the ominous fields and hot, sodden air.
We at last saw the farmers of the Drak’sotra Fields towards the end of the day. No trolls harvested the crops. Instead, teams of shimmering water elementals used their power to uproot the massive plants, storing the tubers in their flowing bodies. In silence they obeyed the commands of elaborately robed masters, who stood on the rims with arms raised high, chanting with mindless fervor.
While we attempted to contact the Drakkari, a very different band of trolls met with the defenders of the Argent Stand. A pair of Zandalari emissaries awaited us when we returned, both wearing fur robes decorated in bright and bold abstractions. One of them, a powerfully built hexxer named Ubungo, greeted us shortly after our return.
“Your Argents are brave warriors to be sure, but they are not knowing the ways of the trolls,” said Ubungo, his voice sibilant. “Had we reached you earlier we would have warned you to keep away from them. Old Death did not snatch up any of your warriors, I am hoping?”
“No one died,” reported Zota. At Ubungo’s request, she explained what happened during our journey. Ubungo nodded when she finished.
Not even the Zandalari can offer much information about Drakkari society. Zandalar’s influence had waned as the Drakkari grew ever more secretive, and the ice trolls felt little in the way of obligation to the ancient city-state. Ubungo did explain some of the context for Zul’drak’s isolation, as well as the reason behind the Zandalari presence. His story was tied in to trollish lore and belief; for clarity’s sake, I will summarize our conversation instead of transcribing it.
Outsiders often find it difficult to define the troll gods known as the Loa. The identities of the Loa shift and change from story to story, and their spheres of influence constantly overlap. All interpretations agree that there are five Primal Loa, revered by all trolls (except for the heretical Sandfury). The identities of the Primal Loa is different in each region: incredible variety is seen in the names, totems, attributes, and genders of these five.
The Zandalari priests claim to follow the true essences of the Primal Loa, which they call the Holy Five. They do not discount the other versions, which are seen as different aspects of the Holy Five equally valid in their own way. This enables the Zandalari to maintain a degree of cultural hegemony. Other troll cultures usually give some deference to the Zandalari interpretation, even if they do not wholeheartedly agree with it.
The jungle tribes typically follow the Zandalari definition of the Holy Five, though they add a whole host of lesser Loa (themselves minor aspects of the Holy Five). Farther north, among the forest tribes and the Drakkari, the interpretations grow steadily more heterodox, though still valid under Zandalari theology.
Zandalari scriptures tell how the Loa commanded the spirits of Zandalar to serve the trolls living on that island, so long as the trolls served the Loa. This divine gift is one of the most important aspects of Zandalari, and indeed trollish, belief. It confirms the exceptional nature of Zandalar, and has been a source of pride for them even as they became weaker and more insular.
At first, the Zandalari took little notice of the massive Drakkari building projects that began shortly after the fall of the Amani Empire. Then came the reports: legions of spirits doing the work of farmers and laborers, and even holding back the forces of nature. Somehow, the Drakkari had duplicated (at least in part) the divine arrangements of Zandalar. Fury seized the hearts of the Zandalari priests as the Drakkari boasted of their accomplishment. Drakkari clerics said that the construction of 10,000 shrines in Zul’drak (built by normal ice trolls) had so pleased the Loa that they had recreated Zandalar for the ice trolls.
Though favored by the spirits and the Loa, the Zandalari must still do their own work. The divine gift only ensures a steady climate. Most of Zandalar’s trolls hunt and tend crops like trolls everywhere else. This arrangement is distinct from Zul’drak’s, which uses the spirits as slaves.
For a time, the trollish world trembled on the brink of war. Yet the Zandalari could never muster the scattered remnants of the Gurubashi and Amani Empires, and were forced to let the Drakkari continue. Though none of the southern tribes would confess any fondness for the ice trolls, there is little doubt that the Drakkari accomplishment eroded Zandalar’s stature. This undermining of culture is what led the Zandalari to define Zul’drak as a savage nation.
Elemental servitude enabled Zul’drak to create a society of warriors and priests. Not a single ice troll has worked as a peasant or artisan for hundreds of years. Spirit slaves kept building more and greater temples to the Loa, even in the icy highlands. At some point the Drakkari splintered into a myriad of competing warbands, though the priesthood somehow maintained cultural unity within the nation. From that point on the ice trolls fought each other constantly, the endless strife enabled by easily accessible food. Zandalar began to rest easy; even with their spirit slaves, the Drakkari proved violent and stagnant.
This changed when the Scourge brought its rotting armies to Zul’drak, breaking the seemingly impenetrable defenses. Then, the Drakkari priests committed the ultimate blasphemy: they killed their gods. Ubungo shuddered with rage when he described the Drakkari altars, desecrated by the spilled blood of their patron deities. How this was accomplished, he could not say. News of the deicide came as a series of disembodied screams within the Zandalari temples. The priests had no choice but to travel to Zul’drak and investigate.
“Here we will record the death of the Drakkari, so that other trolls will not follow their path,” stated Ubungo.
For every question Ubungo answered, there were more that he could not explain. He did not know what to make of the saronite idol that Ven’gol had discovered, and was almost totally unfamiliar with the metal. Ubungo assumed that the Scourge invasion and the death of the Loa had served to weaken the Drakkari control over the spirits, but he lacked conclusive evidence. It could well be another factor. He did state that the boundaries between the normal world and the elemental realms were weakening, which would probably erode Drakkari control even further.
Ubungo’s companion was a senior priestess named Mumbwe. She bore the elaborate mutilations common to the Zandalari religious caste. Tattoos of angular tigers prowled up her lean arms, and a labyrinth of ink gave her face the appearance of her god’s totem animal. Polished turquoise beads gleamed from the flesh of her forehead and cheeks. False teeth of sharpened jade lined her mouth, and obsidian nails adorned her fingers.
Though her appearance disturbed outsiders, Mumbwe was in many respects more approachable than Ubungo. She spoke nearly flawless Orcish and Common, despite having only once left the Isle of Zandalar. She told me of her life in Zandalar. Adopted from a rural family, she grew up as a ward of the Temple of Shirvallah. Through her devotion she rose up the temple hierarchy to become an Honored Mother, second only to the Aspect Priest.
Shirvallah is the Tiger Loa, lord of crafts, hunting, the color red, and the north. This Loa’s priests are the most vocal proponents of increased Zandalari involvement in world affairs. Mumbwe learned the ways of outsiders so as to further her temple’s goals.
“All over the world, the trolls fall into war and blasphemy. The Gurubashi turned to the Soulflayer, the Amani sought to enslave their gods, and now the Drakkari kill the Loa who have done so much for them. Through all this, one tribe prevails: the Darkspear.”
“Indeed, though they’re hardly the most traditional tribe.”
“On the contrary, dead one. They follow the traditions of the ancients, which we Zandalari have kept to ourselves for too long. Darkspears thrive in this world and in Outland, so the Loa must favor them.”
Knowing the Zandalari aversion to undeath, I was surprised when Mumbwe offered to take me to Zim’torga, their base on the third tier.
“The Loa deem undeath supremely abominable, but there is no denying the capability of some Forsaken. A few of the Forsaken aided us in Stranglethorn Vale.”
In fact, I’d seen some of those Forsaken when I went to visit Yojamba Isle, years ago. Mumbwe seemed pleased when I mentioned my visit. She also intended to take an Argent Crusade representative to Zim’torga, a human named Rothen Colembor. Competent enough with the blade, Rothen served the Argent Crusade in more of a diplomatic capacity. As such, he was an ideal choice for the mission.
Before going to Zim’torga, Mumbwe said that she needed to visit a place called Xuloc utl’Dapac, a Zandali name that translates as the Amphitheater of Anguish. Located on the second tier, it is a location of tremendous cultural importance to the Drakkari. She described it as a combination of a temple and a training ground for elite warriors. Specifically, she wished to know if it still operated in its original capacity. Since this was also of strategic interest to the Argent Crusade, a small contingent of soldiers went with us to investigate.
“Know that you will be under the care of Holy Shirvallah when you travel with me. My master is free, not dead like the Drakkari gods. I will ruin the souls of those who raise their hands against us,” she promised.
I reflected on the position of the Argent Crusade the night before we left. The Crusade has not achieved the same level of respect as the Argent Dawn. Critics cite their poor performance when compared to the spectacular campaigns waged by the Crusade’s predecessors. However, I think these critics fail to take a number of mitigating factors into account. The Argent Dawn was a small, dedicated force running a guerilla campaign. Many of their soldiers knew the terrain and could use it to their advantage. Furthermore, their small size and obvious integrity meant that the Horde or Alliance would not see them as a threat.
The Crusade is a drastic change from that state. The Argent Crusade is a full-fledged army invading a vast and unfamiliar territory. This presents staggering logistical challenges to the Crusade’s leaders (all of whom had previously led the Dawn). Considering that they can maintain regular resupply to distant posts like the Argent Stand, I’d say they’ve done an admirable job. Nor can they rely on the already battle-hardened veterans that made up the rank and file of the Argent Dawn. Instead, they depend on relatively inexperienced troops. Finally, they are large and influential enough for both the Horde and Alliance to eye them warily, each seeing the Crusade as a potential pawn for the other.
We left under the morning gloom, a cold mist wrapped around the crumbling pillars of the endless city. Numbering seven in total we followed Mumbwe to a flooded desolation north of the Argent Stand. Mumbwe explained that a large reservoir had dominated the region before the Scourge invasion. Violence or neglect had destroyed it, and the rushing waters swept away entire temples.
Now, piles of broken masonry stand like sullen guardians over the murky waters, sometimes occupied by ponderous basilisks whose long tongues dart into the lake to snare passing fish. Mold and fungi grow on overturned altars while drowned trees rot.
We soon saw the idol-topped spires of the Amphitheater of Anguish in the distance, another Drakkari construction of numbing magnitude.
“What more do you know about this place?” I asked Mumbwe.
“The blood of heroes flows like a river through Xuloc utl’Dapac,” she scoffed, her jade teeth glinting as she grinned in contempt. “If warriors still train there, it means the Drakkari may delay the Scourge a while longer. As I said, you are under my god’s protection. Even so, we will not enter if Drakkari or Scourge still guard it.”
A cold wind picked up, bringing a mountaintop chill to the ruined second tier. The Amphitheater of Anguish is a complex arrangement of towers and shrines, spread across miles of land. Stairways lead up to austere boulevards flanked by the statues of gods and heroes. Gusts fling dead leaves in circles amidst dank puddles on the stone floor. Mumbwe strode through the debris-strewn passage, fearless of any danger.
Her courage (or fanaticism) compelled the rest of us to follow. Tall and ghastly she led the way, a priest vindicated by the heretics’ failure. Even if the Zandalari do fade into irrelevance they can rest easy knowing that they outlasted the transgressive Drakkari. No living thing stirred in the shadowed halls and arcades of the amphitheater. Only castoffs remained, dropped by trolls fleeing to more defensive positions. There is not even the telltale taint of the Scourge.
“Lady Mumbwe, I do not think there is any hostile presence here,” said one of the soldiers. “Shall we turn back?”
“So soon? The amphitheater is vast. Surely you would not want to disappoint your commanders with such a halfhearted effort?”
At the center of the amphitheater is a rectangular pit, surprisingly small given the size of the surrounding complex. Along the rims are solid stone benches, arranged in a stadium fashion. Dark stains spatter the arena’s walls and sandy floor, the only remnants of battles past. A colossal stone gate at the far end of the pit houses a gong made of some slick dark metal, perhaps saronite. Black temples with pointed roofs occupy the upper terraces around the pit, the images of dead gods engraved on the stone.
Mumbwe smiled in grim satisfaction as she surveyed the emptiness. Satisfied that no significant Scourge or Drakkari presence held the Amphitheater, she turned as if to leave. Then she stopped, looking up at one of the temples.
“Show yourself,” she barked in Zandali, and I felt a brief thrill at understanding what she said.
I saw movement in the darkness as a lone troll emerged from the darkened sanctuary. Bent low despite his size, he walked down the stairs with trembling steps. The troll cried out in Zandali, his hoarse voice echoing through the ancient masonry. He slunk down the stairs and prostrated himself at Mumbwe’s feet, trembling as he spoke.
I could not understand the conversation between Mumbwe and the troll but we all understood the raw, clinging desperation in his voice. Groveling before the priestess he wept and begged. Tears falling from panicked eyes, the troll put his hand to his mouth and bit, tearing flesh from his palm. While on his knees he raised the seeping wound, a blood offering for Mumbwe. Less than pleased, the priestess slapped the gruesome gift away and commanded him to silence.
“Pitiful,” she scoffed.
“Who is he?”
“Breku. He says he is one of the Least, disowned by his warband and now shunned by the priests. Free to find a new master.”
“How long has he been here?”
Mumbwe relayed my question to Breku, and he mumbled a response, his head bowed.
“Since the Scourge invaded the first tier.”
“We should take him with us,” said Rothen. “He needs help, and he could tell us more about the Drakkari.”
“Your merciful soul may rest at ease, Rothen. I do not intend to abandon him. The temple always desires more servants, and he could be useful.”
“Destron, did you encounter anyone like this?” asked Rothen.
“The trolls we found were as sick and hungry as this one, but they attacked us.”
“They were warriors,” said Mumbwe.
“But Breku is not?”
“He says he is one of the Least. I do not know what a Least would do for the Drakkari. I will ask.”
Mumbwe conferred with Breku, who choked out his answers between sobs. Several minutes passed and Mumbwe looked slightly confused when she finished.
“Breku’s brain is muddled. He says that when a warrior shows weakness, or challenges his leader and fails, his warband hands him to the priests. Most of them are burned alive but a few become the Least. Breku claims that he owes his life and spirit to priestly mercy. From what he says, it sounds like the Least are the only ones permitted to go beyond Zul’drak’s borders.”
“Strange. Wouldn’t the Drakkari want to keep the Least in Zul’drak? Outside they could be free,” mused Rothen.
“If Breku’s devotion is typical, being forced to leave might well be seen as a terrible punishment,” I said. “What did the Least do on the outside?”
“If the priests needed something, the Least fetched it. Stole it, in most cases.”
Unbidden, a rush of mumbled Zandali spilled out from Breku, his emaciated form shaking in tune to the words. Mumbwe watched him until he finished.
“Breku says he went out to find rare herbs that the priests needed for their elixirs. Others of the Least stole gold, or even captured rare animals for the arena. Only the best were allowed to learn other languages, and trade with bandits and outcasts of other races. Breku never became that skilled.”
“Did any of the Least ever try to escape?”
She asked Breku, who mumbled a response.
“He denies it, though he says plenty disappeared. Maybe some ran away. If most sniveled like Breku here, they’d never be brave enough.”
“Did he know many of the Least? How many were there?”
Breku spoke for some length when Mumbwe relayed my inquiry.
“He says he only spoke to the priests, except at first. When a Drakkari becomes Least, he gets an older Least as a teacher; for Breku, it was someone named Drakuru. After that, no Least ever speaks to another, since filth should not congregate. They must stay with priests at all times, for a lone Drakkari will surely be killed by the warbands. Breku does not know how many Least worked for Zul’drak.”
“Was Zul’drak really so dangerous for its own people?” I asked.
“That I can answer,” said Mumbwe. “As I said before, nearly all Drakkari are warriors. They gather in warbands, roaming the cities and fighting each other. The strongest and cruelest are taken to the arena. If they survive the trials, they go on to defend the temples. They listened to the words of the priests, but beyond that there was no law, no rule. The Drakkari were savages.”
I quickly stopped my inquiries, moved by Breku’s visible distress. The last thing we learned from him was that a rival warband had captured and tortured him in his youth, pain forcing him to renounce his own chieftain. Instead of killing Breku, they returned him to his leader, who inflicted another round of torment before giving him to the priests.
Breku’s fear filled me with a sense of expectant dread. I looked to the east, imagining icy temples where the Drakkari still ruled. Builders, berserkers, and killers of gods, the ice trolls pose a contradictory and impenetrable enigma. The Drakkari had built an entire world, operating under a set of rules unlike any other in Azeroth. Thinking of the power and control they must have wielded to accomplish such an endeavor, I could not help but briefly share in Breku’s dismal fear.