Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Red pennants snapped lively in the crisp wind, held aloft by Sin’dorei standard bearers. Their haughty faces saw Nagrand and beheld another domain ripe for conquest. Five ebon cases floated in a line behind them, laden with food, tools, and weapons.
I was beginning to question my decision to visit Halaa, the contested draenic town in the heart of Nagrand. I meant to avoid the place, but circumstance gave me an opportunity. This happened at the Ring of Trials, a sprawling arena in eastern Nagrand. Orcish legend states that it stands on the spot where the ancient hero Val’gorg challenged and bested a monstrous giant who threatened the entire orc race.
While long a sacred place, the Ring of Trials was not actually built until the Blood River War. The northern clans used it as a training ground for their most promising warriors. Those who succeeded became the Blood Sword elite. Even though the north lost, the Blood Swords so impressed the southern clans that surviving Blood Sword warriors were sometimes offered small herds as rewards for courage. Most refused the offer, and some went on to form the Burning Blade Clan.
The Horde maintained the Ring of Trials in its early days, but the arena quickly fell into disuse. The Blood Swords were less effective in the large-scale battles of the Horde War, and the Burning Blade Clan soon grew too mad and corrupt to undergo the required training. Modern blademasters can make a reasonable claim to being successors to the proud Blood Swords.
I had expected to find an abandoned ruin. Instead, the Ring of Trials is astir with activity. Bright green tents surround the ruined base while goblin workers set massive wooden beams over the enclosed arena.
The lead foreman was an older goblin named Mig Razzpurk. Happy to answer my questions, he sat down for an interview over a pot of coffee.
“We’re doing this for Smoz Brogvak. You ever hear of him? I don’t think he’s too famous outside of Kezan.”
“I don’t know of him.”
“He’s just about the richest man not associated with any of the big trade groups. Got his start in commodities speculation and branched out into entertainment. Anyway, he’s got this idea of setting up arenas in Outland, get people to fight in them.”
“Like the arena in Gadgetzan?”
“You could say that, but on a bigger scale. He thinks it’d be a good idea to get places folks here will associate with one-on-one combat.”
“What do the orcs say about him using the Ring of Trials?”
“They’re all for it! I guess they don’t care about this old place. Besides, orcs are big on arena sports.”
Mig was right. The arena in Orgrimmar’s Valley of Honor continues to shame the city with its existence. Seldom used at first, the venue has recently grown in popularity, attracting those with an unsavory interest in blood sports.
“Seems an odd place. Who do you think will come here to watch?”
“Locals, people from Shattrath City. The Naaru have them pacified pretty well, but research says there’s definitely an interest. Maybe once they get out of town they’ll find combat more to their liking.”
“What are the rules?”
“Depends on the event. The main reason we picked Nagrand is to get a large pool of local talent. But between you and me, I think arena combat is sick.”
“Then why work on rebuilding the place?”
“Job’s a job. Someone’s going to end up doing it anyway, might as well be me.”
A small town now exists around the construction site, filled with independent traders selling their wares to the laborers. It was there that I met Illitria Dawnbreeze, who was leading a supply train and a reinforcement contingent to Halaa.
“The Horde has controlled Halaa for months. I think we can safely say that the Alliance shall never again set foot there,” she claimed.
Somewhat against my better judgment, I decided to accompany the Sin’dorei. As it turned out, Illitria’s statement appeared to be accurate. No one troubled us on our journey through the wilderness. We went at a fast pace, reaching Halaa in a week and three days.
Waterfalls plunge into the depths of Halaani Basin, turning to mist before reaching the vast lake below. A towering mesa soars up from the churning waters, looking almost too tall to stand. So arresting is the sight that one can almost overlook the battered draenic temples on the mesa. A suspension bridge offers precarious ingress to the town.
Illitria taught me about Halaa’s history during our journey. The arrival of the draenei was not entirely peaceful. The stress of Oshu’gun’s descent sheared slivers off of the hull. Clouds of glittering particles had spread through the air, gradually settling in the soil of Nagrand. The draenei built Halaa to study the effects of Oshu’gun crystal powder on the local ecology. The area’s natural fortifications provided a convenient way to avoid interference from the orcs.
Never a large settlement, the draenei quickly abandoned Halaa at the start of the Horde War. There was no way to effectively conduct a military campaign from Halaa, and few of the inhabitants had any martial prowess. Cut off from the rest of Nagrand, Halaa remained in isolation as the orcs ran rampant across Draenor. Today, the new Horde and the Alliance both desire the research facilities left behind by the original populace. The Old Horde never bothered to conduct a thorough investigation of the site, not thinking it necessary. A few Horde warlocks allegedly plundered Halaa after the fall of Shattrath, but found nothing that interested them.
Orc peons quickly and efficiently unloaded the supply wagons. All the Horde races had some presence in the Halaa garrison though the Sin’dorei dominated by a significant margin. The reality of the place completely defied what I’d heard about it. The black-armored elven guards looked more bored than anything else.
“All we had to do was knock the Alliance around a bit. They lost their nerve soon after that,” boasted one of the soldiers.
“What kind of presence did they have here?” I asked.
“Just some of those blue squid-goats. Their prayers were no match for our power.”
“How did you take Halaa?”
“Wyvern riders for the most part. They cleared the area with goblin-made incendiaries.”
Knowing Halaa’s vulnerability to aerial attack, the Horde took pains to station a number of windriders in and around the city. I sometimes spotted flights of wyverns soaring over the Halaani basin, their riders scanning the horizon for trouble.
Those Halaani not devoted to defense focused their efforts on research. Chief among them was a Forsaken named Modias Lauer. Tall and magisterial, he had sown dark glass lens into his eye sockets. He stood at the northern precipice when I met him, studying Nagrand’s wild beauty.
“Why does the Horde take so much interest in these crystals? Why does the Alliance, for that matter?”
“Weapons, security, other related matters.” Modias spoke in sharp croaks that sputtered from his ragged mouth.
“Wouldn’t the Alliance already possess this, however? It seems like the draenei would have a thorough understanding of the powder.”
“Not so. The powder comes from a Naaru vessel. The draenei know very little about it.”
“Couldn’t the Naaru just tell the draenei?”
“For whatever reason they have not. Perhaps they do not know. Knowledge about Oshu’gun is quite limited, but I have learned that the crystal powder has different properties from Oshu’gun’s hull. The environment changes them. We are attempting to learn more about that.”
“Did the original researchers leave any notes?”
“Some, unfortunately incomplete. The elements ruined most of the texts, and what little survives still needs translation, a laborious process to be sure.”
Sin’dorei magisters labor endlessly in the crystal labs, the results of their work glowing in the ill-lit chambers. Stacks of papers on the desks threaten to topple over, sometimes held down by weighted vials of gleaming shards. A team of translators worked around a long table, trying to make sense of the surviving draenic notes.
“These draenei were mad!” exclaimed one translator, an older Sin’dorei man. “These ‘scientific’ treatises spend half their time explaining how the Holy Light encourages such research and experimentation. This is not limited to some kind of forward, it takes up the majority of the text!”
“Can’t you just excise those portions?” I asked.
“Not easily. The notes are in such a disorganized state that I have to read through everything. Otherwise I might miss an important piece of data buried in religious justification. Why do they need to justify it? I’m no priest, but I don’t see how researching Oshu’gun crystal powder subverts the Light in any way.”
“Oshu’gun was a sacred vessel to the draenei. Perhaps that has something to do with it?”
“I suppose that’s likely. Still doesn’t make my job any easier.”
Researchers and soldiers inhabited two different worlds within Halaa, a bit like Toshley’s Station up in Blade’s Edge. Most of the defenders belonged to a private mercenary group called the Swift Blade Falling. The nature of this group is a convenient fiction. All of the soldiers were, until recently, part of the official blood elf army. The Swift Blade Falling formed when a battalion of soldiers left the service to work in the private sector. This allowed them to seize Alliance territory (Halaa) without sparking an open war between the two factions.
None of the fighters in Halaa were under any illusions as to their employment. They freely admitted to the deception when I spoke to them. Many of them found the idea of leaving the Aegis for “mercenary work” quite distasteful. However, they justified it as a necessary action.
“We shall return to the Aegis once the Alliance gives up trying to retake Halaa. The generals understand that we sacrificed our reputation on the altar of Silvermoon’s triumph. They promise us a great recompense for our troubles,” said Aethorion Skyblaze, a senior officer.
“Are the Alliance forces who attack also considered mercenaries?”
“I do not think so, for there is no need. They have a more legitimate claim to Halaa than do we. But legitimacy means little in war.”
The non-elves in Halaa fell under the classification of partisan, though generally with close ties to the Horde authorities. The Mag’har also sent a token force that spent most of its time hunting for infiltrators in the Halaani Basin. The normal orcs spoke of them with great regard.
The attack came on the second day. Alarm trumpets rang out at noon, accompanied by cries of dismay. As the troops rushed to defensive positions, I saw a swarm of black specks in the southern sky: griffin riders.
The researchers barricaded the lab doors. I stood outside, reluctantly steeling myself to defend Halaa. I never relish the thought of killing the Alliance, but I shall do so in order to defend the Horde. The warfare between the two is foolish and self-destructive. However, most in the Alliance would kill me without a second thought. The Horde has pledged to defend the Forsaken, and I am obliged to aid them in return.
Archers assembled at the south edge of Halaa, ducking behind barricades and rubble. A few magisters readied spells behind them.
“How many are there?” I hissed.
“I counted 21,” said a magistrix. “Where the hell are the windriders?”
No sooner had she said that when they appeared, speeding recklessly towards the invasion force. My spirits fell when I realized the windriders numbered six in total.
“Maybe the rest are somewhere else,” she said, clearly not believing her own words.
The aerial scuffle was quick and brutal; I am not sure if the Horde air strike felled any Alliance griffins.
“Hold your fire!” ordered the lead archer.
My mind rapidly cycled through the spells I knew. None seemed entirely right for the situation. I settled for a blizzard spell. I knew the griffins would quickly fly through the area of effect but I hoped the shards would at least wound them.
Sure enough, one of the riders broke off from the main force, his mount struggling to stay aloft. The magisters struck, expanding cones of cold to chill the air, a fleet of fireballs close behind. Most of the griffin riders banked away from the onslaught, sailing up and above though our attack destroyed three slower invaders and wounded a fourth.
Arrows whistled through the air. Detonations shook the town as the riders flung bombs on our position. Shrill screams suddenly filled the city as chemical fires consumed the Horde forces.
The soldiers around me broke formation, scrambling to find better angles of attack. Griffins circled in the sky above, the occasional arrow or spell hitting its mark. One of the beasts crashed into the ground a few feet away from me, screeching in pain as its bloody-faced rider tried to calm it. Two orc grunts rushed to the fallen pilot, hacking him and his mount to death.
“Where are the wyverns?” someone shouted.
Something must have delayed or destroyed them before the battle. Black smoke choked Halaa. Soldiers clung to the ground as fires raged and victims cried out for an end.
Would the attackers spare the researchers? Had the Horde shown mercy to the draenic mages when they first took the city? I did not know the answer to either question. I moved along the edges of Halaa, from blockade to blockade. The bombardment on the blazing streets slackened. I came across a Sin’dorei soldier lying on some rubble next to a burning building. His leg was a shattered ruin, panic writ large on his sickened face.
“Everyone inside is dead,” he said to me. “The fire, it cooked them.”
“Stay here,” I told him. “I’ll try to get people out of here.”
Easy to say, but I had no idea of how to actually do it. The world suddenly toppled, throwing me to the ground. Pinpricks of heat stirred me from my daze. An incendiary had exploded and the resulting fire already surrounded me. The only avenue of escape was over the precipice.
My frost spells did little to halt the conflagration, which grew ever larger as I tried to extinguish it. My mana connection dropped to the barest ebb. Somewhere in the distance I heard the clash of steel punctuated by gunshots. Facing the inferno around me, I realized I had only one choice.
Reaching into my pocket, I took out a downy feather. With that reagent I could cast slow fall, an enchantment with which I might survive the drop to Halaani Basin. Drifting slowly down made me an easy target for Alliance forces, but it was better than certain death.
Saying a prayer for my soul, I cast the spell and threw myself off the edge.
“The Mag’har kill cowards.”
Ordug’s face, lined with raw scars, filled my vision. Black eyes stared hatefully into mine.
“He was no coward, Ordug. Destron told us what happened.”
I looked to my defender, a tauren warrior named Sekatton Thunderhorn.
“All wizards are cowards by nature. Besides, he says he was surrounded by flame, but perhaps he fled as soon as the battle turned. The warlocks used to do that.”
“He has done nothing wrong, and we need all the help we can get,” argued Fienra Everlight, a willowy blood elf priestess.
“Fienra speaks wisely,” agreed Sekatton.
“Fienra is also a wizard, and they defend their own kind as long as it is convenient. Very well! I’ll permit this walking corpse to stay, but only out of respect to the Horde. If, Destron, you ever show cowardice to me, I’ll gut you on the spot!” shouted Ordug.
I first thought luck brought me to the Horde patrol in the basin. Subsequent events made the encounter seem much less fortuitous. Halaa was lost, taken in less than a day. No one had a ready explanation as to the wyvern riders’ absence, though most thought they were pulled out of Halaa by a feint.
The patrol I found numbered twelve. Six were Mag’har, led by the fearsome Ordug. The other half consisted of Sekatton, Fienra, and four normal orcs. The Mag’har all have brown skin, which is apparently how the orcs looked prior to their corruption. Having grown used to thinking of the orcs as green, this came as a bit of a shock.
We faced an arduous trek to the Mag’har capitol of Garadar. The Horde leaders chose Garadar as a place for their forces to regroup in event of Halaa’s capture. Our first challenge was to escape Halaani Basin. It’s easy to get lost in the basin. The one way to get out is through a few steep and rugged paths hidden in the wild. Only the best mountaineers have any hope of scaling the almost sheer cliffs that surround the basin.
Ordug led the way, being the most familiar with the region. The other Mag’har followed him without question. Decades of constant struggle forged an unbreakable camaraderie between their warriors. The four normal orcs enthusiastically supported Ordug’s every move, almost to the point of sycophancy. Sekatton, Fienra, and I were all marginalized to varying degrees. I am not sure why Ordug distrusted Sekatton, but their mutual loathing was almost palpable. Despite this, Sekatton refused to say a single bad word about Ordug, though his carefully worded compliments suggested disgust at the Mag’har’s behavior.
We traveled at night, trusting the stars to light our way. Everyone knew that we were as good as dead if spotted by griffin riders. Daytime was spent in nervous rest. The warriors ate dried rations in grim silence, casting anticipatory looks to the sky. We spoke only when necessary, and then in hushed whispers.
Dawn rose on the third day, brightening Halaani Basin. A team of nine ogres were carelessly looting spare parts from the nearby fallen bridge, little more than a pile of lumber on the basin floor. Looking through the screen of reeds that concealed us, I saw no scorch marks on the broken wood. The bridge had been cut, not bombed.
“We’ll have to go through them,” growled Ordug. “Ogres are always good kills.”
No hiding places existed beyond the reeds, and the ogres had a fine view of the terrain. Going through the lake’s dark waters would quickly get their attention.
“Wizard! Kill one with a spell. Let’s see if we can make you useful.”
I nodded, inching forward for a better view. Ogre warriors, holding stone hammers in each massive fist, stood around the wreckage. Most sat down farther away, building a fire out of the stripped wreckage. I looked to Ordug and pointed at the nearest warrior; he nodded.
Spellfire engulfed my hands as the mana took form. I launched it and immediately scrambled back into the brush. Hellish screams and burning flesh shattered the early morning calm, followed by the howls of savage warriors.
Mag’har warriors charged out from concealment, each armed with brutish swords or axes. A few stayed behind, throwing spears at the enraged ogres. Two spears punctured one ogre but did nothing to slow him, his hammers raised high and foam gushing from his mouth. He swung his hammers at the nearest Mag’har warrior, who ducked and splintered the ogre’s knees with an ax.
A boulder flew through the air and crashed into the spot where I'd been just a moment earlier. Inching back, I fired a barrage of arcane missiles at the nearest ogre. A Mag’har disemboweled my target while it was distracted by the pain, but still the ogre fought. A backhand strike shattered the orc’s skull as he tried to move away, and the dying ogre continued his charge, gripping his slit belly with a filthy hand. Sekatton aimed with his rifle and fired one, two, three shots. The last did the trick, and the ogre fell.
Ogres farther down heard the commotion and rushed to the melee. I cast a blizzard in front of them and heard their rage. I was sure two of them were shamans of some kind, judging from the lack of heavy armor and the tattoos sprawling across their red bodies. I launched three fireballs at one shaman as he came into range, and his protective spirits blocked all but the last. Wounded, but far from dead, he cursed and pointed at me. The world turned white as the shock hit from every direction.
I fell in convulsions, my extremities shaking. A hazy face looked down on me, speaking strange words. In an instant my vision focused and control returned. I recognized Fienra, her green eyes wide open.
I tried to get up and promptly collapsed. My numbed hands and feet refused to help. The sounds of battle still raged. Fienra suddenly got up and ran towards the combat. I managed to reach a sitting position from which I could see the fight’s progress.
Most of the ogres lay dead though I counted two orc corpses, one Mag’har, and one normal. The last three ogres made frantic strikes at their assailants, who spread out and waited for an opening. I tried to get close enough to cast a spell but Sekatton beat me to the punch. He shot the ogre nearest him, and the minor wound propelled the desperate ogre into a berserker fury. He leapt towards Sekatton as the tauren nimbly stepped out of the way. He landed on the ground and was finished off with a Mag'har ax.
The two survivors tried to make a run for it, barreling past their attackers. A lone orc ran to intercept and was swatted aside by the ogre, the force of the impact carrying him yards away. That ogre escaped, but his companion was not so lucky. A nearby Mag’har cut deep into the ogre’s ankles so that he tumbled backwards, as good as dead.
We did not stay long; Ordug said that the ogres would soon return in greater numbers. Halk, a normal orc, asked about burying the dead. Ordug replied that no warrior could ask for a finer burial than being surrounded by his enemies’ corpses. This seemed to satisfy Halk.
Our group did wait a little while for Fienra to heal the wounded. The Mag’har warmed up to her slightly, though I was still disliked. A shaman had accompanied them on the way to Halaa, but she had been killed in an earlier battle with the Boulderfist ogres.
“The Boulderfists have plagued our land since the Breaking. They attacked our herds and killed our families. Death is their only fate,” said Ordug.
Mag’har hatred of the Boulderfist was so deep that the warriors actually took the time to sever fingers from the dead ogres. Ordug said these would be taken back to Garadar, cured, and then attached to the warriors’ armor.
“Our brethren shall look upon us with pride, for we have killed the enemy.”
A Mag'har gave a few fingers to Sekatton, who accepted them with obvious reluctance. I do not think he found the idea palatable, but he did not wish to offend his hosts by refusing. Such grisly mementos probably reminded him of the vicious centaurs that had so recently tormented his people.
We marched on as the sun rose to its full height. Ordug reasoned we were far enough from Halaa to travel during the day, and that Boulderfist reprisals would be more worrisome than Alliance attacks. None of us had gotten any sleep since the previous day, but we accepted it without complaint.
Ordug soon found the path and we began the difficult hike out of Halaani Basin. The march took two days and we finished it in a state of near-exhaustion. Ordug permitted us a brief rest before traversing Nagrand’s plains. The landscape’s endless greenery seemed almost welcoming after ominous Halaani Basin.
We switched to a normal day-night cycle, though the Mag’har warned us to maintain our vigil. Pillars of black smoke darkened the eastern horizon on the third day. No one knew the source, but all thought it a bad omen.
That night we heard yells, war whoops, and the pounding of drums in the distance.
“Those are not Mag’har drums,” said Ordug, his eyes narrowing. “They are Murkblood.”
We first saw the Murkbloods under the brilliant noontime sun. Scarred elekks, eleven in total, lined up on a hill, one or two warriors per mount. Ordug halted in his tracks and ordered us to prepare ourselves. The orcs ran to the front holding broad wooden shields while Fienra and I went to the back. The priestess’ whispered prayers strengthened us, though I sensed her fear.
Time stood still, Mag’har facing Murkblood. One Murkblood rider trotted forward, his elaborate headdress indicating great prestige. A pair of Mag’har heads dangled from his saddle. The Broken raised a horn to his lipless mouth.
Trumpeting elekks and screaming Murkbloods drowned out the blast from the horn. The entire line charged towards us, their weight and fury shaking the earth. Murkblood archers loosed a flight of arrows and I dropped to a crouching position. Staying low, I cast two fireballs at the nearest rider. He dodged the first but the second blasted his chest and he toppled off his elekk. The archer behind him clambered forward and took the reins. I fired again, not allowing him a respite. The spell hit his mount’s head and the beast tumbled over itself, crushing the rider in its fall.
A Mag’har grunted as an arrow lodged beneath his chest, but he refused to falter. Orcish shields blocked most of the arrows. Some got through; a Murkblood projectile ripped through the throat of a Horde orc and he collapsed, gasping horribly. Fienra rushed to his aid and the Murkblood were upon us.
Clouded in dust I heard the steady percussion of their charge and their high-pitched screams. The Mag’har roared in response and jumped to the sides, though not all of them moved fast enough. At least one fell beneath the rampaging elekk, trampled into the ground.
Orcish axes cut into the flesh of elekk and Broken alike as Murkblood warriors struck down with massive hook-swords. A Broken rider grabbed an orc by the hair, lifting him bodily from the ground. The rider’s companion took a sword and hewed the orc’s head in two with a single blow.
Two charging elekks pounded towards us from the left, riders firing arrows into the fray. I cast an arcane burst in front of an elekk, shattering its front legs. Both riders went flying though they quickly got to their feet and joined the battle as the beast howled in pain.
The two Broken warriors rushed me, eager to avenge their mount. I immobilized one with a frost nova. The other Murkblood reached me and I barely ducked as he swung his hook-sword at my head. Yelling in Eredun, he kicked me and I fell flat on my back, the Murkblood jumping on me and holding me down. The warrior pressed on my chest with his great hand; pinning me in place he raised his sword arm for the finishing blow.
I twisted, delaying his strike just long enough for my hands to reach his face, gripping and clawing the thin flesh. Somehow, my thumbs found an eye and the warrior screamed, dropping his weapon. Blood poured from the punctured organ and he reeled back. I scrambled to my feet, grabbing the sword, lifting the cumbersome weapon and yelling as I drove it into the Murkblood’s face. He twitched, weird sounds emitting from the gaping wound.
Battle raged behind me and I turned to see Fienra held by two Broken raiders, screaming in terror. They aimed a blow at her head but she wriggled away and the sword’s edge slammed into her left arm, severing it with a snap.
I flung arcane missiles at her assailants, not even aware that it represented the last of my mana reserves. Ordug suddenly appeared, coated in gore, and buried his ax blade into a Murkblood’s back. Whipping out a dagger he tackled the other raider to the ground stabbing him again and again.
Four elekks, trumpeting in rage and fear, stampeded past me. The riders gave joyous cries as they disappeared into the west, dragging orcish bodies as they went. It took me a minute to realize that the battle was over. I dropped the ugly Murkblood sword, backing away from the weapon. Killing up close is nothing like murdering from afar with a spell, and I felt suddenly sick. The dead were all around, torn and trampled into the earth. Dying elekks bellowed their last to the uncaring sky.
Fienra still lived. She’d maintained enough presence of mind to heal her wound, newly grown flesh covering the stump. Her efforts stopped the bleeding but did little for the pain.
Sekatton was dead, his carcass trapped the gutted Murkblood who had delivered the killing blow. Only three orcs survived, two of them Mag’har. Of those two, one was dying. Ordug ordered Fienra to heal him, and she stumbled towards the wounded orc. The priestess stared at him without comprehension, deaf to Ordug’s yells.
“Fienra, breathe deep. Can you understand me?” I asked her.
“Can you heal him?”
“I can’t feel my arm,” she whimpered.
“You’ll be fine, can you heal him? He is dying—damn you, Ordug, stop yelling!” I shouted. Shocked by my sudden anger, Ordug went silent.
A flickering light surrounded her remaining hand. The long vertical wound across the Mag’har’s torso began to tie itself together, skin reaching across the gap. Suddenly he gasped, his eyes rolling back into his head. He was gone.
Fienra averted her eyes, trying to hug herself. She broke into tears when she saw her state, pleading that she’d done all she could.
“He lost too much blood, I was too late,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry!”
Ordug said nothing, and sat on the grass. The other orc, a young warrior named Turv, looked around in shock. Turv had come through without a scratch. Ordug permitted us no time to mourn the fallen. He swiftly cut trophies from the dead and gave one to each of us. Pressing a Broken facial tendril into my hand, he clapped me on the back.
“I saw you fight the Murkblood with your hands. You’re a better man than I thought,” he said.
Though repellent, some deep atavistic voice thrilled in my possessing it, the same voice that had guided my fight against the Murkblood. I put it in my pack, suddenly afraid to hold it.
Luck guided us to a tiny Mag’har encampment that night, where eleven warriors and a shaman kept watch over the plains. The leader, Skul’dor Bloodfist, greeted Ordug with a hearty embrace. Skul’dor was a warrior of great repute, and he explained they’d been attacked by a Murkblood raiding party a few days earlier.
“We slew fifteen of the Broken, but nine great warriors now roam the spirit realm.”
“The ancestors always fight alongside us, brave Skul’dor,” said Ordug.
Fienra, Turv, and I, huddled around the campfire. The priestess kept silent, her face ashen. I tried to think of some way to comfort her but nothing came to mind. The answer unexpectedly came from Turv.
“You healed us well. You’re a good priest,” he grunted.
She nodded, remaining silent. While arcane prosthetics do exist, most find them unsightly and even painful to use. This is especially the case for the Sin’dorei, who place great premium on physical appearance.
I was grateful that the night’s darkness cloaked Nagrand. The once beautiful land had become a place of terror in my mind, a realm whose empty plains offered no protection from violence. It occurred to me that I had participated in the battle without thought. I could scarcely be blamed for that; the Mag’har are allies of the Horde, and I am therefore obliged to them. Even so, the Mag’har attacked the ogres just as the Murkblood later attacked the Mag’har, without warning or mercy. Brutality is a fact of life, and I do not think any faction in Nagrand is truly innocent.
A little over two weeks went by as we made our way to Garadar. Skul’dor was returning from making a pilgrimage to the orcish ancestral grounds northwest of Oshu’gun. His caravan had twice been attacked by ogres of the Warmaul Clan on the journey there, and again on the way back.
“Dark times, but we are warriors nonetheless. We found a Warmaul camp on our return and killed every ogre we found, 23 in total,” he boasted. “My own blade felled seven.”
Our party stumbled across the moldering remnant of a battle on the fifth day. In the tangle of rotting bodies the corpses of humans, dwarves, and Broken mingled together. The Alliance dead outnumbered the fallen Murkbloods, and severed human and dwarven heads hung in ghastly clusters from a nearby tree.
“These humans are no fighters!” scoffed Ordug, spitting at the bodies.
I felt sick. Yet I also realized that the Mag’har needed to be hard in order to survive. Fienra looked on Ordug with an expression of utter disgust. She grew more withdrawn each day, rarely speaking to anyone.
I wondered what Turv thought about the Mag’har. Though young, he was no stranger to battle, having proven himself against the night elves in Warsong Gulch. I sensed that something was bothering him, though he refused to say anything. Perhaps it was simply the pain of defeat.
One of Skul’dor’s scouts brought word of a Boulderfist ogre gang coming down the road.
“I only saw seven of the brutes,” he reported.
“Good! Ordug, I think some morning exercises are in order!” joked Skul’dor, hefting his ax. Ordug laughed in response.
The warriors split up, hiding behind the hills on each side of the road. Ordug lay on the grass next to me, appraising me with a cold smile.
“Care to work your magic, Destron?”
“If you need me to do so.”
“Blast them with flame, that should kill one. The spearmen will finish off the rest.”
The ogres lumbered into sight, carrying huge hide bags that bulged with unseen contents. I turned my back to the ogres, conjuring a pyroblast. I did not want the fire to give away our position. Once ready, I turned around and hurled it at the ogres. The spell did not score a direct hit but exploded between two of the ogres, who shouted in pain and alarm.
Spears bolted through the air, thrown with Mag’har precision. The initial volley slew two ogres outright. Fear seized the Boulderfists as they saw how badly they were outnumbered, and they broke into a run. The Mag’har launched another strike, killing three more. Warriors intercepted the last pair and cut them down.
The assembled orcs cheered at this easy victory, a much needed morale booster after the constant attacks. A quick inspection of the ogres’ cargo revealed crude weapons, tools, and supplies. It would be inaccurate to call them civilians; all adult ogres are warriors. The battle disturbed me nonetheless.
We made camp on the banks of a swift-moving stream. Great trees grew all around and wild talbuks grazed peacefully on the tall grass. Nature’s beauty soothes the soul, as long as one does not look too closely.
In truth, the most tranquil meadow is merely another battleground in the eternal war between predator and prey. Mercy is the invention of sapient beings. In lands like Nagrand, it is all but forgotten.
Drums beat slow in the still air as smoke from the funeral fires stained the sky. Heavy weeping came from the wives and children of the dead Mag’har. Ornaments collected from the fallen burned in the fire, the best they could do without an actual body. Three elder shamans stood by the flames, their heads bowed in respect.
The Mag’har could ill-afford such losses. A dwindling and persecuted people, they are in dire need of aid. Though proud, they are no fools. They know that their future lies in the Horde. Ordug stood across from me, his face unreadable. The Mag’har do not consider open displays of grief acceptable among the fighters, quite different from the extremely emotional Horde orcs. Greater emotive expression is a curious side-effect of the demonic corruption. The Burning Legion’s influence had eroded the Horde's traditional values, and Thrall was selective in which customs he resurrected.
“Death is a brother to the warrior,” Ordug told me earlier. “Those who died on the plains still fight within our hearts and souls. To weep for them is to disgrace their memory. I have no need for tears. Instead, I shall take my ax and bring vengeance to the Murkblood and Boulderfist, from this day unto forever.”
The weeping stopped when Great Mother Geyah raised her voice in a lonesome dirge. The song lamented the slain and promised death to their killers. The funeral crowds dispersed at the end of the song, the shamans staying behind to tend the flames.
Garadar is a rambling collection of rounded mud huts and palisades, grown too quickly by the influx of Mag’har refugees. Though the construction methods sound rough, Garadar is actually a beautiful town. The huts seem a natural part of Nagrand and create an image of pastoral elegance. To the north is the vast Skysong Lake, beloved by spirits, and fast streams flow under Garadar’s wooden bridges.
Seventeen survivors of the Halaa raid had reached Garadar before me, and they busied themselves with plans to retake the town, helped by the staff of the Horde embassy. Most of them were orcs and Sin’dorei, neither of whom the Mag’har particularly liked. I heard Mag’har refer to the Horde orcs as “green humans.” The animosity lies in the origins of the Horde; the Mag’har see them as descendents of the worst traitors in orcish history.
The Mag’har themselves are a motley collection of clans and warbands, brought together by necessity. Remnants of the southern nomad clans mingle with the handful of northern farmers who avoided corruption. Each Mag’har fully realizes that they cannot afford to quarrel amongst each other, lest their innumerable enemies destroy them.
The Mag’har do not welcome strangers, portraying a coldly courteous front to Horde soldiers and emissaries. Most would have likely ignored me had Ordug not vouched in my favor. Ordug possessed a trove of scalps and skulls that garnered him much respect from his peers.
Picturesque windmills dot the edges of Garadar, each maintained and inhabited by a shaman. The Mag’har believe that the shaman’s rites convince the air spirits to turn the mills. The shamans paint ritual circles around the apparatus in pale blue pigment, and burn tallow candles each fortnight.
I spoke to a farmer named Korgo who was bringing grain to the windmill. An ancient orc, he escaped from the Blackrock Clan when he saw them falling to corruption. He'd managed a precarious existence in the remote valleys of the Shattrath Mountains before joining with the Mag’har.
“Chief Blackhand said I was to throw my father’s sword to the side. From then on I could only wield hatchet and pick. Disgraceful! I am a worker but I am also a fighter! I swung my father’s sword as it tasted the blood of my enemies, years and years before the Horde.”
“So you do not consider yourself either exclusively a warrior or a farmer.”
“That is foolishness. Some are skilled enough to live by the ax and nothing else; I salute them. They too work, though in the form of hunting rather than farming. I ask you though, how can a clan defend itself if its farmers do not fight? The Horde was insane. Your friends, the green humans, are still that way.”
“The lot of the peons has improved, though it still needs a good deal more,” I agreed. “I’ve noticed that not everyone here is a farmer. Some also keep herds. Of clefthoofs, correct?”
“They mostly herd talbuks. They came from the south, from those clans that never knew the Horde. Their fathers once made war upon us. Now they are our friends.” He did not sound entirely happy about that.
“Do they have enough space for their herds?”
“The land within three days of Garadar is relatively safe. The more distant Mag’har are still harried, but only the most powerful or most foolish would dare attack us in our home. My father’s blade waits for those who do, in either my hands or my son’s.”
Talbuks are more convenient than clefthoofs in the limited space available to the Mag’har. The herders also deal in talbuk manure, an essential product for the farmers. The herders now find the Horde another lucrative trading partner. Outland’s stretched supply lines serve to reveal the limitations of wolfriders. Though rightly feared for their combat prowess, wolfriders demand tremendous upkeep due to their diets. Horde authorities have all but declared that the talbuks will eventually become the mainstay of orcish cavalry, limiting wolfriders to elite units. Some find this disappointing, but I believe this will solve some of the Horde’s stubborn logistical problems.
Mag’har shamans wage a subtle conflict in Garadar, those from the northern clans debating with their nomadic counterparts. Like many doctrinal arguments, the differences are relatively minor. Shamans from opposing schools sometimes get involved in furious shouting matches in the town square. Humans or dwarves would find such things disruptive, though expressive rage is an accepted part of orcish society. These almost never break out into physical fights, and the results of those rare clashes are never serious.
A crisis of conscience weakens the northern shamans. They know full well that they failed in their duty to stop the corruption of the Old Horde. The nomadic spiritualists are fond of holding this fact against them. The nomad shamans share the staunch conservatism of their clans. Conversely, the agricultural shamans find themselves looking for new answers. They represent the single most pro-Horde faction within Garadar, and several of them even joined the Earthen Ring, the shaman organization headed in Thunder Bluff.
Sacred to the orcs since time immemorial, the Throne of Elements is situated in the foothills northeast of Garadar, across the rippling expanse of Skysong Lake. The shamans of the Earthen Ring meet there in a circle of standing stones set in the midst of the marshy plain. Brooks snake through the grass towards the lake, fed by the mighty cascades plummeting from the high cliffs.
A shaman named Urtag took me to the Throne of Elements on the second day of my visit. He rowed me across the lake on a leaky wooden canoe heavy with supplies. The shamans stay at the Throne of Elements for days at a time, conducting elaborate rituals to communicate with the spirits.
The journey took the better part of the morning. Young for a shaman, Urtag told me of his youth, spent in an isolated Shattrath Mountains farmstead. His parents were Frostwolf peons accidentally left behind in the invasion of Azeroth. Urtag joined the Mag’har after the Murkbloods killed his family. He presented a somber demeanor, unusual for a Mag’har.
“All who fight under the Murkblood banner are my enemies forevermore, but I do not necessarily hate the Broken. The spirits spoke to them before they returned to us, and we in the Earthen Ring look to the Kurenai for guidance,” he said.
“What about the Horde shamans? Can’t they help?”
“They only know the spirits of Azeroth. Things in Outland are different. You will meet some Kurenai at the Throne of Elements. This place is the only peaceful contact between our peoples.”
Disembarking from the canoe at noon, we were met by a pair of Kurenai shamans. Another Mag’har stood with them; she looked relieved to see Urtag. Tensions run high even with the spiritual truce in effect. The shamans started setting up a ritual amidst the stones. Urtag placed bundles of hide-wrapped animal bones at key places around the circle, while a Kurenai named Lo’ap etched dizzying whorls into the earth.
“The orcs of old shared a bond with the spirits unlike any other race. We lost that bond when the Old Horde embraced demons. We thought we no longer needed the spirits, and paid a heavy price for our arrogance. The spirits refused to help us after the Breaking and we died by the thousands. Even now, they only aid us in order to expel the demons from Outland. Our hope is that we can prove ourselves to them during these trials.”
“Why do the Kurenai help you?”
“The spirits believe that a united front will fare better against the Burning Legion. They told the Kurenai shamans to help us, teach us what we have forgotten. The Throne of Elements is a place beloved by the spirits. Here we can do penance, and learn what needs to be done.”
The ritual began at dusk with piercing howl from the shamans. The shamans danced in place, keeping their positions in the ritual circle. Moving in frenetic twists and jerks they chanted to the skies and sang to the earth. Over time, the Kurenai voices rose in volume, their motions and tones suddenly imploring. The orcs took thorny strands from their packs and scourged their arms and backs, a crude blood offering to the spirits they had so offended.
The ritual continued as the moon rose in the night sky. Tears streamed down Urtag’s face, mixing with the sweat and blood that drenched his body. Still they danced and sang though nature remained silent. I began to fear they would die of exhaustion. The Kurenai both collapsed at dawn, breathing heavily as they lay prone in the tall grass. The Mag’har lasted only a little bit longer. All four fell into an exhausted slumber that went for the entire morning. I sat on a nearby rock, anxiously waiting for them to awake.
Urtag was the first to regain consciousness, breaking out of sleep with a cry. He tried to stand up but promptly collapsed.
“Are you all right?”
“I saw the spirits in my dream,” he mumbled, drool falling from his lips.
“What did they say?”
“Nothing. But I did see them. We must do this again, later. Now, I rest.”
The shamans spoke little, their disappointment tempered by the barest sliver of hope. Urtag explained that they would rest for a few days before trying again with a different ritual.
Urtag said I was free to take the canoe back to Garadar if I wished. Shipments were regularly sent to the Throne of Elements, propitiation of the spirits being a major concern among the Mag’har. They would be resupplied in a few days. Rowing across the lake, I reached Garadar in the late afternoon.
Upon my return, I paid a visit to the Horde embassy. After advance scouts discovered a Mag’har outpost in Hellfire Peninsula, the Horde in Outland quickly established diplomatic ties with the untainted orcs. For the curious, the discovery of the Mag’har occurred around the time I was exploring western Zangarmarsh. Mor’gohn is the seasoned orcish warrior heading the embassy, hand-picked for the job by Nazgrel. I had briefly conversed with him when I first reached Garadar.
Fienra was the only person in the embassy when I visited that day. She fled to its confines the moment she reached Garadar, refusing to step foot outside. The maimed priestess studied me, her eyes swollen from tears and lack of sleep.
“You came back just in time for the show,” she said.
“These Light-damned savages, monsters. The good orcs are all at the commons, you can see them if you want.”
Fienra turned around and stalked to an adjacent room, refusing to say another word. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the Garadar commons where shamans and senior warriors meet under the guidance of Greatmother Geyah.
Stern Mag’har crowds waited just outside the commons, their voices low and faces unfriendly. I made my way past them, feeling increasingly anxious. The commons consist of a circular mud wall built around a massive wooden pillar. Canvas sheets connect the walls to the central column, providing shade to those within. Mag’har and Horde banners drape the walls in proud display. Baskets, weapons, and idols rest on thick rugs placed along the perimeter. Greatmother Geyah sat near the pillar, her eyes thoughtful. Most of the Mag’har shamans, nomad and farmer alike, stood at the far side of the commons.
Mor’gohn, the head of the embassy, waited near the entrance. With him was his aide-de-camp, a young orc woman named Grota. She held a bundle of cloth to her chest with one hand and gripped an ax with the other. A tiny brown arm suddenly waved from the cloth, accompanied by a high-pitched grunt. Perhaps seeing my confusion, Mor’gohn explained.
“Grota came across an infant while you were out with the shamans,” he said.
“A Mag’har infant, I take it?”
“The savages left this little one to die!” snarled Grota. She went to me and unwrapped the cloth. The baby’s twisted left leg ended in a clubfoot. “I found him miles from Garadar, probably just minutes after his so-called mother abandoned him! Is this what Thrall wants for the Horde? To abandon all those who are not warriors? There is no honor in such an action, no honor among the Mag’har,” she fumed.
“The Mag’har apparently still abandon their crippled and weak. Such behavior was not unique to the Old Horde.”
“This is not the orcish way, not any longer. I swear this as a warrior of the Horde!” shouted Grota. A loud wail came from the infant and Grota gripped him to her chest, gently swaying her arm.
“I take it the infant is the cause of whatever is happening here?” I asked.
“The Mag’har take offense at our actions. They believe that to let the child live would dishonor the spirits. The shamans demand that Grota return him to the wilderness.”
“Let them demand all they want. Talk is cheap! If they force the issue they’ll see the mettle of a true warrior!”
“What of the Earthen Ring shamans? They’re generally more friendly to the Horde.”
“Not in this case. They think that siding with the Horde will increase the influence of the nomad shamans. I fear the local Earthen Ring has cast their lots against us.”
Mor’gohn took me aside.
“This is indeed a damnable situation. I do not know the Warchief’s will, so I must use precedent and my own judgment. The Warchief believes that even the weak have a place within the new Horde, that they too have value. As a warrior, I am sworn to uphold Thrall’s laws. Yet we cannot lose the Mag’har as allies.”
“Where do you stand on this issue, personally?”
“The child should live. Greatmother Geyah will hold council; Grota and I must stand against the collected Mag’har elders,” he sighed.
“I’ll do what I can to help. I agree that the child deserves life.”
“Then stay silent. Mag’har distrust the Forsaken and I fear your words, however wise, will weaken our cause.”
I nodded. Though Ordug favored me, I was in no way part of the Mag’har community.
The Mag’har elders soon assembled, initiating the council with a wrathful invocation to the spirits. I stood in the shadows near Mor’gohn and others from the embassy staff.
Orcish discussions are never easy to transcribe. The arguments mostly consist of insults, emotional appeals, and threats. One has to dig deep to uncover the underlying logic, which is sometimes quite developed. Yal’hah, a Mag’har shaman aligned with the nomads, was the most vocal proponent in his camp.
“What insult is this? Strangers to our land, traitors to our ways, come and think to tell us what is right? The spirits do not permit the weak to live in Nagrand! To let this wretched thing live is to mock the spirits we revere!” he roared, the audience shouting in agreement.
“You tell us of spirits? Our Warchief speaks with them and he knows their will. Who among you is so arrogant and stupid as to think they know what the spirits have in store for this child? To give up on something the moment it has begun is the height of cowardice and dishonor!” growled Mor’gohn.
“Impudence! This is our way! Your mother should have abandoned you to spare us this foolishness!”
“You cling to your precious customs even as your people die off in droves, killed by lowly ogres and draenei,” scoffed Mor’gohn. “Something is clearly lacking amongst your kind: honor, courage, discipline, probably more than one of those.”
“Stupid greenskin! What can this child do? It is useless for both war and labor! Do you seek to nurture the weak? Then the weak shall surely overcome your precious Horde, creating a race of crippled imbeciles! Seeing you, that may not be far off.”
“Idiot!” yelled Grota. “Your world is a ruin, a fragment. Azeroth has more than your tiny mind can even comprehend! You only think him useless because of your staggering ignorance!”
The chamber erupted, enraged shouts drowning out all discourse. I still admire Grota’s courage and virtue in protecting the infant. She provides the Horde with a powerful example of the ideal warrior. At the same time, I wondered how the child would fare in Azeroth. Though what she said about our world is true, weak and deformed orcs face immense hostility. I recalled Harz Blacknail, the crippled orc warlock I’d met in Orgrimmar. Would Grota’s sterling behavior inspire the child to great things? The Horde provides many avenues for the physically weak, but these rarely lead to more than mediocrity.
Greatmother Geyah was silent through the proceedings. As the spiritual leader of the Mag’har, her word counts for a great deal. Aligned with pro-Horde elements, she still commands respect among all but the most hidebound nomads. I suspect that she knew the Mag’har could not win the dispute over the child. The Mag’har are not really in any position to make demands of the Horde.
I am less sure that the other shamans realized this. The arguments continued, rising in ferocity until Greatmother Geyah got to her feet. The entire chamber fell still as she stood, the crowd’s expectant eyes fixing on her.
“I have seen many years and my wisdom is great. You whelps shall argue until the end of the world without getting anywhere. Clearly, it is up to me. So I give you a solution; the wise among you will accept it. The ways of the Mag’har and the ways of the Horde are clear and opposite. We cannot suffer this pitiful thing to live, and they cannot let it die. Grota, your sentiment is foolish but I can tell you have a warrior’s ferocity in the way you defend that foundling.”
Grota nodded in cool acknowledgement.
“Take the child to Orgrimmar and raise him as you would a greenskin. You will most likely regret this when the child proves unable to do anything. Perhaps then you will see why we are right. It matters not. Tell this child that he may never set foot in Nagrand, for we will surely kill him if he does. A crippled Mag’har is nothing! The spirits of Outland and our people cast him out. He is now part of Azeroth.”
She sat down and the commons erupted into a storm of arguments. The heat quickly died down. Horde and Mag’har alike agreed that the greatmother’s solution was ideal. The debate ended late in the night and the participants returned to their homes.
I accompanied Mor’gohn and Grota back to the embassy. Fienra’s wan face turned up in a smile when she learned of the outcome.
Mor’gohn sat down on a wooden chair in front of a blazing fire. A tankard of bloodmead foamed in his calloused right hand. Grota and the child slept in the other room.
“These shouting matches make my head hurt,” he complained. “The ring of steel meeting steel is so much simpler. I suppose I am too old to do much of that any longer.”
“You performed admirably,” I said.
“Ha! I knew the Mag’har would capitulate eventually. I must admit that feel little commonality with them. Those terrible years of corruption are like an insurmountable wall. The Mag’har and orcs are very, very different.”
“Both share an appreciation for honor and courage.”
“Come now, Destron. You know as well as I do that their notions of honor are not the same as ours. There’s no need to be diplomatic with me.”
“Did the demons really change us so irrevocably?”
“I do not think it was the demons. It was the humans who changed your people.”
Mor’gohn paused, taking a long draught from his tankard.
“You are right. Perhaps the Mag’har speak the truth when they call us green humans. What does it say about me that I would rather be a green human than a true orc?”
A furious Horde orc stormed into the embassy the next morning, demanding to know why Mor’gohn and Grota had insulted the ways of their hosts. In fact, a number of the orcish Halaa survivors thought the Mag’har were right and that the weak should die.
Mor’gohn bullied the orc into leaving, but faced a dilemma. He did not believe Grota and the child would be safe in Garadar. As such, he granted her maternal leave. Grota would return to Shattrath, and from there secure transportation to Orgrimmar. She was to raise the child, or find someone else capable of doing it. Grota accepted this assignment with an eagerness becoming of a warrior.
The Mag’har practice infanticide due to the harshness of their world. This is not an excuse, merely an explanation. I have no doubt that the Mag’har will face many trials in the future, particularly regarding their culture. One possibility is that they remain an isolated enclave out of step with Horde values, a bit like the Forsaken or Sin’dorei on a smaller scale.
Alternately, they may become closely intertwined with the Horde. I suspect they will gradually change to accommodate Thrall’s values. However, some in the Horde clearly identify with the Mag’har culture. Will the Mag’har instead change the Horde? Or shall orcish culture undergo a new evolution, accepting elements of both?
Whatever the larger issues, we could take comfort in our small victories. This was certainly true for Grota.
“You deserve life, little one. You deserve to fight, my little Grom,” she whispered to the infant cradled in her arms.