Sunday, November 29, 2009
Zul'drak: Part 3
The pounding of kettle drums reverberated through the clearing, an echo of hot island nights far to the south. Fantastically garbed and mutilated priests paid homage to their gods as the drummers played. Even the warriors bedecked themselves in bright colors, their shoulders mounted with the painted skulls of savage beasts. Torches and firepits worked with divine magic to heat the air, creating an oasis of light in the cold fastness of Zul’drak.
Disoriented by all the activity I struggled to navigate the maze of flames and strange-colored smoke in Zim’torga. Though strange, I found the lively atmosphere a welcome change from Zul’drak’s austerity. Even so, there’s a definite edge of menace in Zim’torga. The Loa are not always kind gods, and the Zandalari reflect this. I enjoyed Mumbwe’s protection, but knew myself to be an outsider, one whose very state was an affront to the Loa.
I found Rothen seated at the edge of the clearing, taking bites from an immense pig’s haunch. I walked over to him, eager for conversation.
“What do you make of Zim’torga?” I asked, taking a seat next to him.
“I’ve never seen so many trolls in one place,” he shouted, straining to be heard over the religious festivities. “Mumbwe assured me that Zim’torga is protected, but it seems like a bad idea to make so much racket in enemy territory.”
“If what she says is true, the Loa will reciprocate.”
I actually shared his unease. Even Mumbwe seemed unsure as to how much the Loa really loved Zandalar. Though they doubtless held great dislike for the Drakkari, I was not sure if we could rely on them. When I brought this up to Mumbwe, she only laughed and said that I did not understand the nature of faith.
“Whether we live or die is the will of the Loa, Destron. I have faith in fearsome Shirvallah. But if I die, so be it. His ways are not for me to know.”
Ferociously painted troll acrobats leaped and twisted over the bonfires built around the central idol, actually a representation of a lesser local goddess for whom the base is named. Once a roadside Drakkari shrine, her temple fell into disuse over the centuries. Assured of plentiful food and resources, the ice trolls cared little for the minor gods. Since only the Primal Loa of the Drakkari had fallen to their petitioners’ sacrificial rites, the Zandalari thought it wise to curry favor with their surviving brethren.
We occasionally caught sight of Breku, who offered mechanical bows to any Zandalari who passed by him. He looked even more out of place than did Rothen and I.
The night’s festivities gave way to a gray and subdued morning. Warriors took their posts on the trees surrounding Zim’torga, nearly invisible among the thick branches. Camp followers brewed troll-style coffee in great cauldrons, as thick as sludge and with a taste to match. Mumbwe was recovering from the previous night’s rituals, so I tried to learn as much as I could about the other Zandalari. They were greatly amused at my awkward attempts to speak Zandali, and bore my inquiries with good humor.
“What did you do back on Zandalar?” I asked one of the camp porters, a short troll with a shock of blue hair the size of his head. His name was Ha’chac.
“Me? I was an angler. Lately the catches haven’t been very good, and they keep having to send warriors to deal with naga.”
“Are the naga a big problem?”
“Getting to be. The spirits of the ocean don’t like the naga any more than we do, but I guess the snake-men have some powerful magic on their side. I’m no shaman, but we can all tell that something’s bothering the spirits.”
“Do the shamans have any theories?”
“Plenty, but no one knows for sure. That’s why I pledged myself to this service. Every village and tribe sent a few of their kin to Zim’torga, so that the Loa would smile on us. The priests say that we’re doing divine work up here.”
Many of the trolls painted a gloomy picture of their homeland, describing an ancient city besieged by dark signs and omens. Trolls from hunting communities spoke of the local fauna becoming aggressive and erratic, while the farmers reported increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.
“The rainy season started a week late last year. We prayed, and the Loa fixed it, but it’s never been late before,” said one.
The behavior of the ruling castes is another source of apprehension. No Zandalari criticized the priests and warriors directly, but I could sense their doubts. Many wondered why some of the great families were sending their children to the Valley of Spirits in Orgrimmar.
“Is not Zandalar the heart of our race? How is Orgrimmar better?” complained a cook.
Of course, the upper castes defend themselves by citing the importance of maintaining an open line of communication with the increasingly influential Darkspear Tribe. Some of the more conservative temples (like those of Ula-Tek and Shadra) and their associated guards still express disdain towards the Darkspear. Even so, their protestations seem to grow ever more frantic, a sure sign of doubt and desperation. The Zim’torga effort may be, in part, an attempt to build unity among the five temples.
Zandalar cannot spare many warriors. Incursions of nagas and murlocs plague the coasts, while more obscure threats lurk in the jungles. The various temple guards only sent token forces to Zim’torga, though one should not underestimate the Zandalari holy warriors. They are among the most formidable fighters in all of Azeroth.
The Zim’torga Expedition bolsters their ranks with spiritual auxiliaries. These are created by specially trained shamans, who convinced some of the Zandalar spirits to accompany them to the north. Once in Zim’torga, the shamans gathered large rocks and marked them with sacred glyphs, allowing the spirits to use collections of swirling stones as bodies. Throughout the day the shamans performed simple rites to keep the spirit guardians satisfied. Not needing conventional sleep, the guardians instead rest for an hour or so each day in a large patch of Zandalari earth, bright blue flowers blooming at their presence.
I met with Mumbwe just past noon, the clouds as thick and solid as lead ingots. I asked her about Zim’torga’s defenses.
“The Drakkari know we are here. Blasphemers they are, but they still know better than to call down the wrath of the Primal Loa.”
“I’m surprised that they don’t consider you to be invaders.”
“Perhaps they do, but they know they cannot afford any more enemies.”
“Pardon me if this question is inappropriate, but why not help them fight the Scourge? After all, it poses a threat to us all. You might even sway the Drakkari.”
She shook her head and bared her polished teeth.
“No. Zul’drak rejected their gods, and our gods wish to return that rejection. Would you help the demons of the Burning Legion fight the Scourge?”
“I suppose not...”
“The Drakkari are like demons now, revering nothing save themselves! They must die, so that no other trolls think to do as they did. We are only here to record their demise, to confirm the wrath of the Loa.”
Rothen and I went to the northern edge of Zim’torga a bit later. A layer of ankle-deep snow covers the third tier, the white stained with grit and mud. Empty plazas crumble in the cold, guarded by snow-capped forts and temples, their windows dark as pitch. Groves of coniferous trees cling to life at the corners of some plazas, made incongruous by virtue of their familiarity. Stone idols drowse under blankets of snow, their petty altars devoid of offerings.
The crushing dread I had felt on the first and second tiers gave way to loneliness. I wondered if the Crusade’s belief of 200,000 Drakkari was just a gross overestimate. Only the wind attends the frigid temples of the third tier, whispering hymns in empty sanctuaries. Mumbwe mentioned that, much like the second tier, most of the population had shifted to the northern and southern extremities so as to reinforce their equivalents on the second. She also said that the death of the Loa had created a spiritual void in Zul’drak. I do not worship the Loa, but I found it hard to disagree with that statement.
“What do you think of the Zandalari?” I asked Rothen.
“Strange. I think it says something that I feel more comfortable talking to you than I do to them. Whatever your current state—forgive me if I cause offense—you used to be a Lordaeronian human. But these Zandalari are from another world entirely.”
“The closest thing I have to a home is the trollish section of Orgrimmar. Most of my peers are mages, however, and they tend to be less driven by their gods.”
“What sort of a god can be killed, anyway?”
“Only aspects were killed. Not the true forms of the deities.”
“I suppose. I wish the Zandalari took the Scourge more seriously. When Ubungo and Mumbwe visited us, we thought they’d offer reinforcements. Turns out they’re just spectators to a massacre. I do not plan to stay here long. As far as I’m concerned, the Zandalari might as well not be here.”
Satiated by the previous night’s rituals, the Loa permitted the Zandalari to rest easy that evening. In a way, mealtimes at Zim’torga reveal the full extent of the Loa’s influence on Zandalar. Laborers dig into consecrated earth and take out fully-formed cassava roots early each morning, while priests sculpt and flesh docile boars from mud.
Mumbwe explained that such ease is by no means typical for the Zandalari; earlier she’d stressed that the Zandalari work for their food, unlike the Drakkari. However, the circumstances of the Zim’torga Expedition had moved the Loa to provide some extra help. The trolls in Zim’torga do not need to rely on the stretched supply lines that so frustrate the Argent Crusade. When Rothen asked if the Zandalari could help resupply the Argent Stand, Mumbwe promised to discuss the matter with the gods and other priests. The tone in which she gave her promise suggested they would refuse.
The cooking fires were dying down to smolders when four guards bounded in from the perimeter, their long legs carrying them to the ornate priests’ tent. A few of the trolls nearby took notice though most were lost in their own affairs. Then, one by one across the camp, the trolls looked to the north, their faces alert. As the conversation ceased I heard a shrill wail carried across the lonesome plains. The cold, whining pitch burrowed into our ears as it grew louder and closer, heard but not seen. Breku fell apart, sobbing and wailing like a frightened child. He threw himself on the dirt, wriggling as if trying to burrow his way inside.
Mumbwe exited her tent, followed by her fellow priests. The priest of Shadra raised a conch shell to his needle-riddled lips and blew, momentarily drowning out the distant horns. Trolls throughout Zim’torga jumped to their feet, the warriors grabbing their spears and sprinting to the trees around the camp. Clambering up with practiced grace they ran along the branches to the north. Spirit guardians rumbled towards the priests, forming an honor guard of living stone. Together they walked to the source of the dizzying horns and disappeared behind the wall of trees.
The hollow percussion of drumbeats joined the crying horns, sounding out a swaying beat. First coming from the north, the music expanded until it seemed to emanate from the very trees around Zim’torga. One could not hear it without imagining a savage army on the warpath.
Then the horns stopped and the drums rattled into silence. Zim’torga was empty save for the camp workers, who’d already begun bowing to small idols of wood and stone, filling the air with their rhythmic pleas.
“Should we go to Mumbwe?” asked Rothen.
“I think we should stay for now. Our presence might provoke the Drakkari.”
“I’d say they’re already well provoked. Do they not know what’s happening in their own empire? The first tier’s all but rotted away, and the second’s on the verge of the same fate!”
We strained our ears to pick up the whistling of arrows or the clash of arms. We heard nothing beyond the quivering chants all around us. Rothen bowed his own head and mouthed the words of an old prayer to the Light. I joined him after a few minutes.
What seemed like an eternity passed before the priests returned, still accompanied by their guardians. Warriors shimmied down the trees, though fewer than before; many stayed on guard. One priest began to speak, his words eliciting calm from the Zandalari. Mumbwe walked over to Rothen and I.
“Three-thousand Drakkari stand outside, wishing to pay their respects,” she said.
“That’s all?” demanded Rothen.
“They await our decision, next morning. We Zandalari must send one priest of sufficient piety to Gundrak, the heart of this dying nation. So mad and arrogant are they to think we Zandalari will be swayed.”
“Swayed to what?” I asked.
“The sacrifice of our gods. I could hear Shirvallah laughing as the Drakkari delegate said this! Can the Drakkari not feel the living spirit we’ve brought, even as far as here?”
“That sounds like a trap.”
“If we do not send one, they will attack. So one must go. It will probably be me; the temple of Shirvallah often speaks in favor of learning the ways of the world, and I must stand by this. We will see. Rest yourselves for now, and do not leave Zim’torga for any reason. The Drakkari will kill you.”
Calm quickly came to Zim’torga, the priests guaranteeing safety from the Drakkari. Only Breku remained inconsolable, whimpering in the dirt even after a warrior kicked him in the side and cursed him as a coward. Other Zandalari spat contempt on the Least until he curled up under a tree, hiding his face with his arms. Though pained at his distress, I could not help but share the Zandalari trolls’ annoyance. Such open fear was hardly acceptable, and could spread if not checked.
Mumbwe came to me the next morning with surprising news.
“Destron, you are in love with learning of the world. How would you like it if I took you to Gundrak?”
“Me? Is that allowed?”
“Gul’khaj, the Drakkari general outside our camp, said that his guest could bring another. I saw Holy Shirvallah in a vision last night, his fanged mouth speaking in a veil of sacred smoke. I am to go to Gundrak, so that the Drakkari might attempt to impress me. Yet the Holy Five will not brook their arrogance, so I will mock them by bringing one of the living dead to their most holy temples.”
“So you want to use me as an insult?”
“In so many words, yes.”
“This does sound rather dangerous.”
“The Drakkari promised we would be unharmed, promised on their very souls.”
“Would that mean much to a nation that sacrificed its own gods?”
“Do you think me a fool, Destron? Fear not. We are under divine protection. I prayed to Shirvallah last night and made many offerings. Now I carry his idol.”
From the folds of her robe she withdrew a jade tiger statuette with eyes of porphyry.
“If we need aid, my master will act through this,” she said, pointing to the statue.
I thought for a minute, wondering if I dared venture into the core of Drakkari territory. Mumbwe believed us safe but I did not entirely share her faith. If the Drakkari were lying, it meant certain death for us. Then again, the wonders and dangers of Zul’drak would likely be most pronounced on the lofty fourth tier, where thousands of fanatical warriors guarded their bleak temples.
“I’m ready to go,” I said.
I felt scales slithering along my face as Xiuhc’lan, the Speaking Serpent, coiled her translucent body around my left ear. A head grew from both ends of her body, the colorless mouths framed with golden fangs. One mouth stayed near my own, her forked tongue grabbing my words and turning them into Zandali. The other hovered next to the ear, changing Zandali words into Orcish and whispering to me.
Gaining the favor of Xiuhc’lan was no easy feat, according to Mumbwe. Nothing less than a blood offering would coax her into aiding one of the living dead. My corrupted blood is hardly a gift to the spirits, so Mumbwe would slit a finger each morning and evening, nourishing Xiuhc’lan with fresh droplets. Mumbwe considered it a small price to pay, considering her race’s regenerative capacity.
The Drakkari warriors comport themselves with a severity that reflects their frigid home. They protect themselves with hardened leather, black and lacking ornamentation. Trollish adaptability has made the Drakkari resistant to the cold, so they have no need for winter clothing.
I soon learned that the warband is the preeminent social unit in Drakkari society. The host escorting us towards Gundrak was not an army in any sense of the word. There was little in the way of cohesion or unity in its movement, which more closely resembled a mob’s. Each warrior jealously kept to his own kindred within his warband. I mean kindred quite literally; a warband typically consists of three or four extended families. Under normal circumstances the warbands roam across Zul’drak in a state of endless war, fueled by the food handed out at temples and priestly safe houses.
Every troll in a warband fights. Adult men do most of the melee fighting, while women, children, and the aged throw stones at the enemy. Indeed, Drakkari children march alongside their parents, gripping slings and pouches filled with stones. Pregnant women are the only Drakkari exempt from combat, though they are still expected to participate if the situation becomes dire.
A warband rarely lasts longer than a single generation. Once attrition renders a warband too small to effectively fight, they perform a hujak, or Rite of Submission, to a larger warband. Here, the surrendering chieftain slits his own throat in front of the other chieftain. Then, the living chieftain decides whether or not he wishes to incorporate the weakened warband. The Rite of Submission is almost always accepted, since turning away free warriors would be quite foolish.
Mumbwe and I were placed under the guard of a warband called Bloody Leopard Paw, 39 trolls strong. They rarely spoke to each other on the journey.
“You won’t notice this with Xiuhc’lan, but these warriors barely know how to talk,” said Mumbwe.
“A limited vocabulary?”
“A limited vocabulary to describe a limited world. Their brains have all but rotted away. All they do is fight to shed blood for Zul’drak.”
“I asked why. They do not understand that question.”
We reached the stairs to the fourth tier after three days of travel. Over a dozen fortresses protect the path to the stairway, brutish stone buildings topped by beehive-shaped towers. Troll warriors watched in the hundreds from these citadels.
I decided to ask a nearby warrior about the forts’ defenders, wondering if they also belonged to warbands. The warrior looked at me a moment before turning away. Surprised, I asked again, still not receiving a response.
“Warriors cannot answer such questions, Destron. They know only what they need to know, which is very little,” said a shorter troll dressed in a cloak of black hide. His bright but deep-set eyes studied me with restless impatience.
“My apologies. I did not mean to disturb anyone.”
“Bloody Leopard Paw has never strayed far from the lands around the Altar of Har’koa. Not a single one of them has ever seen a non-troll until now.”
“Not even the Scourge?”
“No. The first tier is a distant world to them, and beyond that? Nothing, as far as they is concerned.”
“So not only do the Drakkari warbands stay within Zul’drak, they do not even know of anything beyond it?”
“Why should they? Everything is in Zul’drak.”
“May I ask your name?”
“Forgive me, I should have introduced myself. I am a priest, Ruk’zeb by name. Warlord Gul’khaj ordered me to mind our Zandalari guests. I will answer whatever questions you might ask.
“You were wondering about the warriors in these forts, so I shall tell you: when a warband becomes too large, priests take the best warriors from the band and test them at the Amphitheater of Anguish. Those who survive serve in the Holy Guard, the warriors charged with protecting the sacred places.”
“There is no longer any loyalty to the warband?”
“None. They are above the warbands. By writing their deeds in words of blood, they receive the supreme honor of ascension.”
“If children are born to parents in the Holy Guard are they assured of a position within its ranks?”
“The Holy Guard never have children. It is not permitted. Those who pass the ritual tests—many never qualify to attempt, and those who qualify usually perish—enter the highest circles of Zul’drak as warlords. These and only these may have children, so that their immortal spirits may live on and serve the system.”
“What role do warlords play?”
“They organize the Blood Games, where groups of the Holy Guard fight in ritual combat. The lifeblood feeds the spirits and ensures the continuation of Zul’drak.”
“Do you lose many Holy Guard that way?”
“We can always replace them. New Drakkari are always being born, and its a simple matter for a warband to grow too large. I understand that this is not done on Zandalar.”
“I’ve never been to Zandalar, though I don’t think they operate in such a fashion.”
“You haven’t? I thought that you came from there. But you are Mumbwe’s guest!” A frighteningly blank expression crossed Ruk’zeb’s face for a moment, though he soon regained focus.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Merely surprised. No one told me that you were not from Zandalar. I can tell you are not a troll, but I thought you might be a guest or a slave. A captured Scourge, perhaps.”
“I am one of the Forsaken.”
“Forgive me, I have never heard of your people. Are you from the lands of the Amani? Gurubashi?”
“The land where I was born once belonged to the Amani, thousands of years ago.”
“Interesting. Are the Forsaken an Amani client race?”
It dawned on me that Ruk’zeb knew almost nothing about the world outside of Zul’drak. Even Northrend was a cipher to him. He admitted no knowledge of the furbolgs or Kirovi, though I knew for a fact that the Drakkari had encountered both in times past.
“The Zandalari are wise, but they may be mistaken,” he said, after I asked about the furbolgs. “Drakkari warriors only fight other Drakkari warriors, at least until now. We never fought these furbolgs. Perhaps the Amani did?”
“Wouldn’t the Least have told you of them?” I asked. “I was just in furbolg lands; many of them live to the south.”
I paused for a moment, studying Ruk’zeb. I felt a vague unease when I realized he truly did not know about the Least. Either that or Breku had been lying to us.
“Oh, are the Least a kind of Zandalari? Perhaps you meant that?” he suggested, smiling as if proud of himself.
“In a manner of speaking.”
I went to Mumbwe and asked her what she thought about Ruk’zeb.
“He is just like the warriors here. Ruk’zeb knows exactly what he needs to know. I asked the little runt about the Loa, and he knows almost nothing. Only that the sacrifice was necessary.”
“What duties does Ruk’zeb perform?” I asked.
“He conducts the rites for the Holy Guard.”
“He did seem to know something about that.”
“That and nothing else. The Drakkari are too ignorant to fear the Loa. I could never imagine such a thing, but here it is.”
The horns started up again at the base of the final staircase, a high-pitched musical scream. Brutish hands slapped kettle drums to a measured and majestic beat. The warbands moved to the sides of the road, opening a path for the priests who soon stood in a line at the lowest step. I noticed how simple they looked compared to the scarred and bejeweled priests of Zandalar. Beyond the lack of weapons, it is difficult to distinguish priests from warriors.
Falling to their knees the priests bellowed the names of dead gods. Lowering their heads the warriors followed suit, a thousand rough voices chanting in a deep and mindless tenor. Mumbwe stood firm, unmoved by the display.
A troll warrior adorned in comparatively ornate black armor walked up to the priests. Teeth and finger bones dangled from the back of his helmet. I suspected he was the warlord mentioned by Ruk’zeb. Without warning he went behind a priest and grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking the head back to expose the neck. The warlord drew an obsidian knife from his belt and used it to tear open the priest’s throat. He shoved the suddenly limp body, hot blood pouring out of the wound and splashing on the stone.
“We have paid the restitution. The Sanctuary is open for us!” he bellowed.
He led the way up the stairs, followed by the priests and then the warbands. They walked over the fallen priest, his bones crunching under the weight of the marchers. Nobody showed any sign of surprise or alarm; the priest’s murder simply a part of life. Ruk’zeb later told me that holy blood must be spilled before strangers (meaning anyone not residing on the fourth tier) entered.
Mumbwe hugged herself as she set foot on the fourth tier, the bitter cold reaching through her thick robes. I could not help shivering myself, though more due to the bleakness of my surroundings. The fourth tier looks much like the third, an endless tract of gray temples and monuments built on snow-covered flats. Though built with religious intent, nothing in that place welcomes the spirit. If gods had made it, they would not be the sort of gods that deserve worship.
The music died, replaced by the wind’s hollow moans. I almost looked away, repelled by the utter desolation. A city that is not a city, Zul’drak is almost a parody of trollish civilization. Their great temples are superficial imitations of the ruins in Zul’gurub, grand in scale but without meaning or vitality. The population reflects these traits, entrenched in ignorance, only knowing their place in the machine.
The Path of Sanctification cuts past the icy temples and palaces of the fourth tier. Drakkari priests and their retinues perform rituals at roadside altars at all times, leading their acolytes in rumbling hymns. Others give blessings to stone jars filled with blood, which they then pour on rows of tiny saronite idols. Brilliant lights glare out from the trapezoidal windows of the larger temples while smoke billows out from the roofs. The thin mountain air holds a noxious and metallic taint, and the frigid winds carry the groaning chants of unseen congregations.
Despite the grave demeanor expressed by our Drakkari escort, Ruk’zeb still showed the beginnings of curiosity towards the outside world, a trait that I found endearing. I told him a little bit about Azeroth, though I am not sure he was able to properly contextualize it. Many times he insisted that I was mistaken, though he at least conceded his own ignorance in some areas.
“These are strange times, you understand. Never before has an army invaded. We did not even think it possible, and a few of the priests refused to believe it,” he said.
“I trust they’ve changed their minds?”
“We killed them over the course of two bloody days, their deaths decreed by the high priest himself! Have you ever seen the high priest of your nation, Destron? It was a truly momentous event when he stood before the idols of Zul’drak, knife in hand, ordering the destruction of the renegades.”
“Why not simply convince them they were wrong? Surely a visit to the first tier would have convinced most.”
“That is not what the high priest ordered.”
“Did he also order the death of the gods?”
“I do not know. As I said, I know very little about the sacrifice.”
“Forgive my rudeness, but I still find it odd that a priest would be so indifferent to the deaths of his own gods.”
“Their death was decreed and done. What more is there to say?” he protested, sounding offended for the first time. He really had no idea.
“Very well then. Why is there smoke coming from some of these temples? Sacrifice?”
“No, they are the forge temples, where the priests craft the likenesses of the Loa in metal. Great power is in those idols.”
“What sort of power?”
“Great power. No need to know more, I think.”
“Were your parents also priests?” I asked, changing the subject. I did not wish to offend Ruk’zeb.
“What else would they be? The children of priests are sent to the temple schools, where they learn the necessary rites and incantations. Some fail, and they are are killed.”
I suppressed a shudder at the thought.
“Did your parents also deal with the Holy Guard, or did their specialization lie elsewhere?” I continued.
“How would I know?”
“Did you not know your parents?”
“My parents were priests. This is how it must have been, or else I would be a warrior. I do not understand, how could you doubt this?”
“I am not doubting that they were priests. I am merely surprised that you do not know their specific duties.”
“Why would I?”
I paused, trying to find the best way to approach his question.
“Among my people, it is customary for the parents to play a significant role in the child’s development.”
“That is very strange. I have never set eyes on my father or mother, nor has any other priest. Only the temple raises us, from birth to death. How can it be any other way? Do the parents of your land teach children of the appropriate rituals?”
“Yes, though they are often helped by schools.”
“You knew your father and mother? Truly?”
“I did, though I cannot remember very much about them.”
“How did they teach you? What trials did you undergo?”
“Many small ones, though I was never at risk of being killed for failure.”
“That must change everything!” he gasped. “Forgive me, I must think on this. You speak of a very strange world indeed. I think you must be mistaken in some way, for I do not see how such a thing could possibly function.”
Nightfall brings no end to city’s ritual sounds: the death-tone of iron gongs and grinding chants. A terrible isolation grips the soul on the fourth tier, suffused as it is by a faith without light or hope.
We camped on the deserted path, pressed in by temples on both sides. Xiuhc’lan declined to translate the Zandali songs, which I suspect was for the best. I went over to Mumbwe, who stroked the jade tiger idol she’d brought from Zim’torga. Stress stiffened her jaw muscles, her piety unable to offer total consolation.
“Do you really think they will let us leave?” I whispered to her, mentally telling Xiuhc’lan not to translate my words. I did not want the Drakkari to overhear.
“The choice does not belong to them, Destron. Holy Shirvallah will choose. Do not fear: we will know soon enough.”
“When will they try to convince you?”
“So eager to leave? Ruk’zeb says we will reach the Temple of Zol’heb midday tomorrow. There they will make their attempt to share their evil with Zandalar.”
“Are you sure they won’t succeed?” I spoke without thought, fear gnawing at my mind. Mumbwe answered before I could apologize.
“You know so little of faith, Destron.”
After the interminable rows of grandiose temples, each taller and more ornate than the last, Zol’heb came as a surprise. Squat and sparsely ornamented it looks nearly primeval. Dwarfed by the grand citadels all around it, Zol’heb still possesses a kind of grim power, emanating an ancient cruelty. Lacking proper walls, the rough ceiling is supported by a forest of massive pillars. Torches burn dim in the darkened interior, unable to drive back the shadows.
“This was once their greatest temple,” scoffed Mumbwe. “The codices show ancient Zul’drak as little more than snow and ice. Drakkari priests expressed such pride at their little heap of blocks.”
I wondered if Zandalari condescension had played a significant role in Zul’drak’s strange course of development. For all their talk about being the leaders and founders of troll civilization, the Zandalari often do a remarkably poor job of it. Also, to what degree are the Loa themselves culpable? Why would they shower the Zandalari with so many gifts, while forbidding similar advantages to other trolls?
Ultimately, the Drakkari are responsible for the Drakkari. Even so, I can imagine the frustration they and other trolls must have felt when seeing the Zandalari, living in a paradise that they had not earned.
Surrounded by Drakkari, I was in no position to criticize my only ally. None of the ice trolls showed any particular reaction to the ancient temple. When I asked Ruk’zeb about it, he admitted no knowledge of the temple being older than any other, and the possibility of such did not interest him.
A black-robed troll emerged from the temple recesses, an iron circlet resting on his brow. Lean and aged he radiated a cold authority. Beside him were two Drakkari in orange robes, obviously subordinates. Suddenly, the two lesser trolls reared their heads back as plumes of fire erupted from their mouths, illuminating the temple interior.
The first troll raised his hands and the fire-breathers stopped, turning glassy eyes towards us. Warlord Gul’khaj kneeled before the trio and motioned to Mumbwe.
“Blessed One, I bring you the Zandalari so that you might show her our ways.”
“Your work is done. As for you, Holy Mother Mumbwe, why do you insult me with a Scourge minion? For one so enamored of the gods, you show precious little concern for their decrees. We Drakkari never broke the prohibition against the undead.”
“This one is undead, but he is no Scourge. There is much more to the world than you will ever know, Baj’agg,” she said.
“Zul’drak is the world, one we built from our brute labor. Something you would not understand.”
“Fine words from someone who lets spirit-slaves do the work!”
“Enslaved by the deeds of our ancestors. Come into the temple, you and the undead both.”
Mumbwe strode towards the temple without fear, her head held high. I wanted to ask how she knew Baj’agg, but stayed silent, intimidated by the darkness. The Drakkari priest led us into the temple’s impenetrable murk, his fire-breathing acolytes blocking our escape.
“How pleased the Loa were when we built Zol’heb. Stories told through the generations spoke of the gifts the Loa showered on us in return, happy that we labored to make a home for them in such a lonely place. Our fathers hoped they would show us the same favor that they do to the Zandalari. Yet still the winter winds withered our farms!”
The shadows at my right moved, and with surprise I realized that two more temple acolytes had slipped out of the darkness, guarding our sides. I looked to Mumbwe, her eyes shining with righteous disgust.
“And so we built more. Stone was placed on stone, held together by mortar of blood and tears. The Loa dispensed gifts of gold and jewels for every temple, yet our prayers for good crops went unheard. Zul’drak was not a place where the spirits would comply, they said.”
More trolls joined us, their bare feet slapping against the stone floor. I counted seven at that point, their mouths forming silent words as they walked through the maze of pillars. Lonely torches cast their ruddy light on the stone, the flames glowing sooty in the darkness.
“Our young ones died as we built greater monuments. The cold we could withstand, but not the hunger. The shoveltusk herds moved south to warmer climes and the farms froze over after the world broke. Some counseled escape, but the Amani would not allow it. Not for us savages, exiled to the north for the crimes of our ancestors.”
I had heard that the Drakkari were the first trolls to leave Zandalar, forced out for heinous though unspecified behavior. Presumably the Amani had perpetuated the exile to please the Zandalari. They may have also had more pragmatic reasons for such a policy.
“No one knows the name of the Drakkari who left an ingot of the green metal as a humble offering at the Altar of Quetz’lun. The Loa told the priests about the metal’s strange powers, how it could halt the flow of time itself. Immediately the priests went to work, forging the saronite idols that hum with power all across Zul’drak.”
Saying this, Baj’agg took out a round saronite ornament, forged to resemble a screaming troll. It looked much like the one Ven’gol had discovered in the Drak’sotra Fields.
“We placed the little gods in homes of stone, each one inscribed with words of power, written by the Loa themselves. One with heat written upon his body would make the land around him warm up, one with purity written upon his body would make the land pure. They forced our reality upon the churning world. The spirits never realized what happened, trapped as they were in the illusory saronite visions. Zul’drak bloomed in dark magnificence, roads of heated stone and endless farms tended to by the spirit-slaves.”
“Why do you go on about this Baj’agg? Your Loa resorted to trickery to manipulate the spirits, when my masters need only make their demands known,” said Mumbwe.
“Our gods are one and the same, oh Holy Mother! Different faces of the same being. Do you know why the Loa helped us do this? Because they wanted more temples. Their hunger for worship knew no end. Maddened need consumed them, each new monument sharpening their desire, each blood offering deepening their want. So they taught us the secrets of saronite.”
“And you killed them in return.”
“Our worship moved them to inscribe the words, the words compelled the spirits to work, their work allowed us to worship. If part of the system fails, it must be replaced, and the prayer-glutted Loa did nothing against the Scourge.”
“They were your gods!” shouted Mumbwe. Baj’agg turned to face her, his craggy face twisted in hate and fear.
“They were part of the system, just like the spirits, just like the trolls. By taking the mantles of the Loa we know the secrets of their inscriptions. Even now the word-priests create new runes to exercise more control over the system. The replacements gain power from spilled blood and prayers, the mechanisms for this already set in place long ago. We served them, they failed, we replaced them.”
I realized then that Zul’drak is not truly a civilization at all. Instead it is an elaborate control system, one without a true master. Lulled by worship, the gods simply worked to perpetuate it. Taking the gods out of the picture was not any sort of rebellion; it was merely an attempt to maintain the status quo. Their society abandoned the possibility of growth and development. Limitless resources only served to fuel limitless wars, the populace freed from the demands of cooperation.
We emerged from the confusion of pillars, stepping into a large chamber at the other side of the temple. Open walls exposed the room to the frigid winds that howled restless in the sanctuary. Broad steps descended to a square and shallow depression at the center, the floor there adorned with a twisting ideogram painted in electric green. Four iron torches around the symbol burned in bright green flame.
The temple priests filtered out of the darkness, taking positions all along the depression. I counted 27 of them, their blazing eyes fixed on the symbol. Baj’agg raised his arms and looked up to the ceiling, torchlight flickering on his ancient face.
“Here we made the runes that killed gods. As we speak, the lesser Loa are falling to the power of the word-priests: Zaba and Dundwo are dead, Akali and Zim’torga are soon for the grave.”
“Blasphemy!” spat Mumbwe.
She pushed Baj’agg aside and marched down the steps. Shock and fury rippled through the room, priests reaching for their daggers.
“Let the Zandalari walk!” ordered Baj’agg. Trembling with fury he drew himself up to his full height.
“We are prepared to offer a gift to you, Holy Mother,” he hissed. “To you and all Zandalar. To all trolls. Control your gods. Control your empires. Take the saronite and bring it to blessed Zandalar, see the wonders you can work with it. I have seen Zandalar, and it is grand, but a small place compared to Zul’drak.”
“Your empire is dying, Baj’agg,” retorted Mumbwe.
“Dying, but not yet dead. I heard the whispers of your priests when last I went to Zandalar. It is barely a secret: you fear the darkness roiling under the waves, beneath the earth. How much longer do you think Zandalar will stand? Saronite will set things in order.”
“Saronite destroys and corrupts. If it is time for Zandalar to die, than so be it. We shall die holy. You will die as blasphemers.”
“Then you make your own fate! Kill her and the undead!” shouted Baj’agg.
Hands gripped my arms in an instant, the scrape of 27 obsidian blades echoing in the temple. Mumbwe whipped out the idol of Shirvallah, holding it over her face. Something sent a pause through the zealous mob, perhaps the force of the Loa, or maybe a vestigial doubt.
“Now, face the power of a true god!” she screamed.
Sharpened jade teeth flashed in the darkness as Mumbwe bit down on her own outstretched tongue, severing it on the first bite. Still twitching it fell to the floor as blood gushed from the wound, drenching the idol in gore. Mumbwe laughed as she bled, and the idol seemed to move, muscles rippling beneath the jade shell.
Spectral drums boomed in a rapid fusillade as a thousand invisible Zandalari chanted the name of the god. The air whipped and coiled, stripes of shadow revealing the contours of a great tiger. Howling the Drakkari priests screamed their curses and lifted their knives even as ghostly claws gutted their ranks. Shrieks of pain filled the temple as Shirvallah took his vengeance against the ice trolls, painting their holy place with blood and flesh.
Shirvallah stormed through the clustered priests like an army, their cries of rage drowning in guttural chokes. Through this I could hear the shrill cackle of Mumbwe, her sacred blood still pouring onto the Loa. I threw myself on the ground, my mind straining for the words of a childhood prayer.
“Light bring my soul unto joy!” I whispered between clenched teeth, lying in a pool of blood. As I prayed, so too did Xiuhc’lan praise Shirvallah from around my ear.
“Destroy the blasphemers, holy one. Burn their cities, break their dreams, kill their hopes,” it hissed.
I looked up to see a slaughterhouse, a blood-spattered Baj’agg standing alone amidst his followers’ shredded bodies. Fear battled fury in the priest as the god growled, his form visible in the stones of the temple and the bodies of the fallen.
“I fear no Loa—” Baj’agg began.
With a wet tearing sound his head vanished. Baj’agg fell to the floor, one body among many. Only Mumbwe stood in the carnage, her scarred body trembling with joy and awe.
Then a strange and terrible force gripped my body, lifting me upright and raising me until my head nearly touched the ceiling. So too did Mumbwe float, blood cascading down her mouth. A savage roar shook the bloody temple. Then, carried on Shirvallah’s divine back we hurtled towards Zim’torga, the phantasmal tiger bounding across the dying empire, each step a mile.