Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The forest starts to die beyond the oily Skethyl River, the trees made barren by a corrosive eastern wind. Gloomy days give way to cold nights, lit only by harsh green bursts in the noxious skies over Shadowmoon. Ash falls in flurries, covering bare tree limbs and poisoning the earth. Normal ash is a boon to farmland, but the tainted cinders from Shadowmoon Valley offer nothing of benefit.
I returned to Allerian Stronghold after my visit to Geaak, telling no one of what I had seen. When I brought up the subject of Shadowmoon Valley, and my intentions of traveling there, they implored me not to go. I’ve made a career out of visiting places no sane person wants to see, so their warnings did little to convince me. Even so, my journey through ailing woodlands of eastern Terokkar made me think twice. Reports described Shadowmoon Valley as a warzone, like Hellfire Peninsula on a larger scale. The endless armies of the Burning Legion threw themselves against fanatical Illidari, while the Horde and Alliance tried simply to survive. The Sha’tar, Aldor, and Scryers also made their presence known, testing the Illidari defenses. Harder to confirm were reports of rogue Broken and mutant dragons.
A draenic road, its surface pitted from the corrosive ash, snakes through a narrow mountain pass leading to the valley. The air grew fouler as I walked, and the ashfall more intense. My mind went to what little I knew about Shadowmoon Valley’s history. Before me was the place where Ner’zhul unwittingly communed with demons and where Gul’dan damned the orcish race.
Nothing wholesome lives in the mountains around Shadowmoon Valley. Years of ash and smoke killed all the animals of any size; insects and rodents survive, though only with horrible mutations. Cinders collected on my tongue and nostrils as I walked. Nights are black as pitch, making travel suicidally dangerous after the day’s light fades. I could do little but sit in the suffocating darkness when night fell, hoping I would see another morning. The near-constant rain of ash smothers any open flame.
The first bombardment came at night, distant booms rumbling over the horizon. I shrunk deeper into my bed of cinders, not knowing what to expect. Louder bursts came in a rapid percussion, shaking the stones and embers. I stretched my hands out, hoping to find some kind of shelter. Detonations shook my bones and I threw myself to the ground, grabbing fistfuls of ash. Hideous green light seared the world, fel energies blasting through the sky, visible through the smoke. The light threw my surroundings into stark relief, revealing bone-littered cliffs and gullies. Sooty green flares melted out from the sky beyond the mountains, dripping down to the tortured landscape.
Darkness’ return hid the sights though dull explosions still rumbled overhead. The sounds continued for a long while before making a slow rattle to silence. I took a deep breath, running my hands along my body to ensure I was still in one piece. A sense of horrible vulnerability had gripped me during the attack, the kind I thought I’d never again feel. No place offered protection, danger approaching from all angles. I marveled that anyone could survive in such a land.
I rose at the first sign of dawn’s sick green light, forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other. I’d survived the Plaguelands, Netherstorm, and Silithus; I would not permit myself to run from Shadowmoon. The Horde and Alliance, most of their number more vulnerable to the elements than I, held their ground in Shadowmoon Valley. Retreat would be a disservice to both groups.
Another day passed before I reached the edge of the valley proper. Shadowmoon Valley assaults the eyes, a nightmare realm of blackened rock and poison flows. Some compare it to the Burning Steppes on Azeroth but this does not truly do it justice. Flumes of green vapors waft up from cracks in the ground, signifying the fel energy inundating the land. An endless march of demons, each fiend adding to the taint, creates a terrestrial hell. The constant ashfall blocks sight of the valley’s boundaries, rendering it infinite in the traveler’s vision.
Steeling myself, I continued on the road. I elected to make my first stop at Shadowmoon Village, recently reclaimed by the Horde. Though not really that large, the ruined town plays a seminal role in the Horde’s history as the place of its birth. Though most of the orcish armies hailed from Nagrand, it was in Shadowmoon Village that the shaman Ner’zhul first dreamed of conquest, inspired by the words of the demon Kil’jaeden, whom he thought a god.
Explosive barrages are unleashed day and night in Shadowmoon. They roar out from the darkness, bursting madly in the air and the ground, flinging debris across the land. There is no way to become accustomed to them, and when they hit the only recourse is to embrace the earth and pray.
I followed the road as it went south, bringing me to a mountain bathed in jade light. Sizzling green runes hovered in the air, spun into existence over pits of emerald flame. The ground shifted beneath the infernal lights as demon armies mobilized on the blackened slopes.
My mind reeled trying to comprehend the size sheer size of the army. Demons literally covered the mountain, packed together without thought for safety. I am sure that hundreds died every moment, trampled or pushed into furnaces and replaced by fresh soldiers from the Burning Hells.
How can Azeroth survive that onslaught? While I was intellectually aware of the Burning Legion’s size, nothing prepared me for actually seeing them in force. The numberless army I had seen around the Dark Portal was no more than a scouting party.
Not wanting to stay within sight of the Legion base, I left the road and struck out across the volcanic wastes. There is no chance for Azeroth and Outland to endure an all-out war against the Burning Legion. The Horde, the Alliance, the Illidari, and the Scourge put together would not be enough. Our only hope is to control the entry portals.
Strangely enough, the Legion base ended up helping me. The fuming deserts beyond the road lack any kind of landmark, and the volcanic clouds prevent traditional navigation. Fortunately, I could use the glare of the demon army as a sort of compass point. From a previous examination of the map, I knew that going directly east would bring me to the road leading towards Shadowmoon Village.
Going off the road does not guarantee safety. Demons comb the wastelands at all times, in groups five to ten felguards strong. Metallic Eredun chants echo across the desert, recited by the wrathguard captains. I took a torturous route, hiding in ditches and behind rocks, pebbles of black glass tearing my soles and palms to shreds.
Known for their careless frontal attacks, the use of forward patrols suggests a degree of strategic planning in the Legion’s efforts. I wondered if that was Kael’thas’ doing. Though possessed of immense arcane power, the Sun King’s military acumen is what really makes him so valuable to the demons. The patrols were careless, making no attempt to conceal themselves. They also proved that the Legion was finally learning from its mistakes.
Evading the patrols demanded a constant and paranoid vigilance. I used the jumbled terrain to my advantage, keeping to the craters and trenches. Ash covered every inch of my body at that point, helping me to blend in with my surroundings. The sound of distant Eredun hymns warned me of approaching fiends. I ran as fast as possible in the other direction upon hearing them.
Exhaustion had set in by the time I reached Shadowmoon Village. The rigors of the journey left me little more than a creature of nerves, jumping at sounds and shadows. The Horde town’s spiked towers looked welcoming after the wasteland. Letting out a cheer, I bounded towards the massive palisade, raising my arms to show peaceable intent.
My arrival came as a shock to the guards, who no longer expected visitors from the west. While resources are stretched thin in Shadowmoon Village, they allowed me some time to recuperate from my journey. I rested at the bottom floor of the central tower. The tower ostensibly belongs to the garrison spellcasters, mostly Forsaken and Sin’dorei mages, but they are not numerous enough to hold exclusive access to such a large structure. Arcane books and reagents share space with crates of weapons and tools. One Sin’dorei magister complained to me about the peons going in and out of the room, though most of the arcanists seemed indifferent.
Nothing of the original Shadowmoon Village survives today. Its namesake clan all but abandoned it after the conquest of Karabor, leaving the village in the hands of old peons and other outcasts. The military camp there today uses the architectural style of the New Horde. Shadowmoon Village is the single most expensive Horde outpost in Outland, and some doubt its utility.
“Even if you could get something to grow here, I wouldn’t want to eat it,” said a brawny peon named Torb. “There’s never enough of anything in Shadowmoon Village and we barely keep from using up what we do have.”
“How are you resupplied?”
“They warp in supplies from Orgrimmar at the Dark Portal, ship them overland to Spinebreaker Post, load them on a zeppelin and send them here. Zeppelins can only carry so much, and there’s not really enough of the balloon boats. One of the airship captains says that whole crates of food go to waste in Spinebreaker Post because there’s no room on the transports.”
“I suppose the demons make traditional caravans impractical.”
“That and the Alliance. I came here on a big cart rumbling out of Stonebreaker Hold, but we always intended to supply Shadowmoon Village via air. Only problem is that it turned out to be tougher to do than we thought.”
Logistical concerns are not the only problem. More significant are the measures taken to make the place remotely livable. Put simply, it is not possible for a normal town to survive in Shadowmoon Valley. Troll and tauren shamans conduct a perpetual rite in the center of town, chanting and offering appeasement to the spirits. In return, the valley’s sullen spirits cleanse the air and purify the water. The trolls go so far as to mortify themselves, claiming that their blood presents a most tantalizing reward.
Three shamans typically occupy the ritual circle at any time, though a fourth or even fifth may join in times of duress. Individual shamans cycle themselves in and out on a regular schedule so as to keep the participants fresh. As one might expect, this requires a large number of spiritualists. Shadowmoon Village boasts more shamans than any other Horde town in Outland. Some shamans are even ordered to leave their military units in Azeroth so as to reinforce Shadowmoon Village, a task which few look forward to doing.
The elder shaman was an aged and majestic tauren named Koyohanuk Runetotem. He agreed to answer some of my questions about the town, and the Horde’s goals in Shadowmoon. Koyohanuk sat across from me in a sooty tent, a clay cup full of hot water in his massive hands.
“Why are there no orcish shamans participating in the ritual?” I asked.
“The spirits here do not listen to their words. The orc shamans instead fight the demons that pollute this land, hoping to prove their good intentions. They also pray for the spirits of their brethren who fell to corruption in the Old Horde.”
“Do you think they shall succeed?”
“That is not for me to say, nor am I familiar with the spirits of Outland. They are wrathful, Destron, filled with anger from the corruption of their world. Speaking to them feels strange; they hold me in contempt, and it is all I can do to persuade them to help us. We promised to drive the demons from Shadowmoon Valley, or to die in the attempt.”
“How do you intend to expel the demons?”
“I leave that to the orcs, who are better versed in warfare than I. My duty is to support them in this endeavor.”
“I apologize if this question is imprudent, but you do not sound pleased with this arrangement.”
“My pleasure is irrelevant. The Runetotem Tribe expects this of me; we are in debt to the orcs, as are all the tribes. I will admit that Shadowmoon Valley troubles the soul. I am accustomed to meditating in the presence of the spirits, yet I cannot do this here. The spirits find me alien, and only tolerate me so that they may be rid of the demons. Dealing with such anger is never easy, even for those wiser than I.”
Koyohanuk then explained the purpose of Shadowmoon Village.
“For the orcs to achieve redemption, they must atone for the sins of their past. Here is where their ancestors committed the worst sins, so it is where restitution must take place.”
“The tauren consider it the obligation to help the orcs in this regard?”
“It is an obligation, and not only to the orcs. Why should Azeroth be the only world of the Earthmother? I still hear Her song here, however faint. The spirits in this place cry out for justice, and we cannot ignore that. Some shamans believe that healing the corrupted portions of Azeroth is of more pressing importance, but the damage here is much greater.”
“You could also argue that by controlling Outland, we can prevent this demonic corruption from spreading to Azeroth.”
“This is true,” he agreed. “Such a cause deserves sacrifice. But I do miss the blue skies of Mulgore.”
Shadowmoon Valley is truly hellish for a race as attuned to nature as the tauren. Most take it in stride as best they can, telling stories of their tribes in order to give purpose to the conflict. However, there is a pronounced division between the tauren and the other races in Shadowmoon Village. I think this stems from their shock at actually seeing the devastation wrought by the Old Horde. Some may wonder if it is really safe to have orcs as friends.
The combat that constantly threatens Shadowmoon Village ultimately keeps it together. Whatever doubts the tauren have about the orcs are cast aside when the demons make their fanatic assaults. Nearly all the attackers are infernals, lesser Legion constructs of stone and hellfire. Launched like artillery from demon bases, the infernals slam to the ground as dense spheres, their bodies emerging soon after impact. A powerful ward created by the local mages prevents them from crashing directly inside the town.
Cheap and mindless, the infernals are perfect tools for the Legion. They attack once or twice a day. I participated in the defense, launching frost spells from a platform behind the walls as daring grunts engaged them in melee. Spiritual energies offer a degree of protection from the infernals, though the warriors must kill them before this safety dissipates. The infernals are surprisingly fragile, a fact that works to the Horde’s advantage. Despite this, everyone knows that the demons will eventually win by sheer attrition, and that the Horde needs to strike a decisive blow against the Legion’s interplanar supply lines.
I learned about the history of Shadowmoon Village from someone who’d lived much of it: a dying orc named Algur. Crippled and nearly blind, he lived on the second floor of the central tower. Unable to contribute directly to Shadowmoon Village’s survival, the orcs still valued him as an informative resource. The clan’s elder shaman before the Horde, Algur fell victim to Ner’zhul’s ambition. Ner’zhul had demoted him to the status of peon, where he remained until the Breaking.
Thinking himself the only Shadowmoon survivor, Algur wandered to the foothills of the Skethyl Mountains and lived as a hermit. The Horde patrol that stumbled across Algur found him in reasonably good health and convinced him to travel to Shadowmoon Village. Algur began a rapid descent into senility once put in the care of the mages. Without the struggle for survival, he had little impetus to continue. He lay in bed when I interviewed him, his milky eyes staring through me.
Algur’s deteriorated mental state made him difficult to understand. As such, I’ve edited the following conversation for clarity’s sake.
“The shamans of the Shadowmoon Clan were once considered the spiritual heads of the orcish people. As elder shaman, you must have enjoyed great respect.”
“Chieftains came from far Nagrand to seek my wisdom,” he wheezed. “My mentor, Dulor’zhul, traveled far and wide to give his wisdom. When our shamans spoke, all orcs listened.”
“What about the other clans in the valley? Did they enjoy similar respect.”
“When you live in the forest, you learn the ways of its spirits. The voice of Shadowmoon Valley spoke to us in dreams and visions, and we followed them on the mystical paths, learning much. My clan was foremost, but the Twilight’s Hammer and the Ragestorm also possessed great power.”
The Ragestorm Clan eventually became the Dragonmaw Clan.
“There was a stronger spiritual element to the Shadowmoon cultures,” I said.
“All respected our wisdom. The arakkoa taught us much.”
“The ancient bird men made their dwelling place in the village of Sketh’lon. Our ways demanded that a shaman spend a year there as an apprentice. Ner’zhul did this, as did I, and Dulor’zhul before me.”
“What did they teach you?”
“Of the shadows, and the powers found within. There is more to the spirit world than trees and rocks, a truth the Nagrand shamans never fully realized. Not all our apprentices survived their encounters with the darkness. They lacked the strength, the courage, and the purity to be true shamans. How then, could we respect the Nagrand shamans, who never undertook such trials? I wrestled with the darkness and emerged a stronger orc, forces of shadow at my beck and call.”
As far as I can tell, Algur referred to the same nebulously defined shadow energies favored by some warlocks and priests. That the Shadowmoon shamans utilized its power was quite revealing. Though not warlocks, they were closer to that dark station than most of their brethren.
“What was it like in Sketh’lon?”
“Old knowledge, rotting meat, and endless nights. That is what I remember from them. I hate the arakkoa!” he suddenly yelled. He trembled from the effort, gasping for breath.
I decided to grant him a recess, and returned the next day. Algur looked even more shriveled than he did before, a wasted mummy. I spent some time coaxing him into a calm state before asking about the early days of the Horde. From his ramblings, I discerned that the Ragestorm Clan bore umbrage against the draenei for building the titanic edifice of Karabor on some of the best hunting land.
“Zuluhed,” he said, referring to the Ragestorm Clan’s leader, “preached war against the draenei. I knew we could not win such a conflict. But Zuluhed and Ner’zhul became good friends, and Ner’zhul listened to him. I remember tutoring Ner’zhul when he was no more than a whelp. Ambitious, powerful, yet without wisdom. I thought I taught him to control himself, but I failed in this. I know he saw the draenic town of Baa’ri as a child, and wondered why the orcs did not have such cities.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Orcs are not made for cities. It is not our way.”
“What about Zeth’gor?”
Algur laughed, a surprising sound.
“That only proves my point.”
I saw no reason to mention Orgrimmar.
“Did you try to stop Ner’zhul?”
“He disgraced me before he put his plans into action. I no longer hate Ner’zhul. He paid for his crimes. Have you ever met Gul’dan?”
“For all his foolishness and impatience, I understood Ner’zhul. He wanted greater things for his people, not realizing that we were already great.”
Algur took a long shuddering breath, his face crumpled as if in some obscure pain. A whimper escaped his throat.
“I do not understand Gul’dan. I do not know why he came here, what we did to deserve him. I ask the question over and over again. A demon lived in him. Perhaps that is why he called them here, though I think he hated the demons as much as he did us.”
“What was he like as a child?”
“I can only see him as a demon, even then. Why didn’t Dulor’zhul see his nature when he was born? His time at Sketh’lon darkened his soul further and increased his power. After that, he always knew what we wanted.”
“What do you mean?”
“He saw my heart, saw what it desired. I loved her, and Gul’dan saw it in my eyes. He called himself my friend, flattered me until my heart bloated with pride. Gul’dan helped me find her, to meet her where her husband would not see. Then he exposed us, telling Ner’zhul and the other shamans. Much is expected of an elder shaman, and the price of failure is great.
“They killed her, and would have done the same to me except that Ner’zhul pled on my behalf. As punishment he severed me from the spirits. I wondered why the spirits did not warn me when I was still elder shaman, but in truth they did. I simply refused to listen. Spirits give the truth, but Gul’dan offered me what I wanted. What could I do? I am only a man,” he sobbed.
I took my leave from Algur, not wanting to upset him any further. Pondering what he said, I left the tower and walked out to the ashen fields of Shadowmoon Village. I wondered why the normally reclusive arakkoa would teach any of their magic to orcish shamans. Perhaps they wanted to spread their delusions, or incorporate elements of orc spiritualism into their own fictions. Like so much of Outland’s history, it’s impossible to know for sure. The ruins of Sketh’lon can still be found in the burned out forests east of Shadowmoon Village, but no one goes there if they can help it.
Horde histories only briefly mention Sketh’lon, describing how Gul’dan destroyed it in a single night. Algur recalled his arakkoa mentors with fear and hatred, and I wondered if Gul’dan had felt the same way.
I do not think it is fair to hold the Sketh’lon arakkoa responsible for Gul’dan’s corruption. Algur and the other shamans also spent time in Sketh’lon, and did not turn to darkness. Even so, it is tempting to blame Gul’dan’s evil on an outside source. It is easier to imagine him falling under the sway of the dark sorceries. Many of history’s worst criminals became that way through blind idealism, desperation, or madness. More troubling are those without discernible motivations, completely indifferent to the suffering of others, caring only for themselves.
What is one to make of such a person, utterly lacking in empathy? The existence of such individuals almost seems to undermine concepts like the Holy Light. Priests describe demons as the result of fel energy twisting a creature’s body and soul, but what of those who mimic demonic behavior without ever encountering fel energy? Was Gul’dan’s depravity already there, forged in the first years of life?
Illidan’s dreams of conquest can still be seen in the twisted wreckage and squat fortresses east of Shadowmoon Village. Untold resources were poured into the construction of the so-called Illidari Bastion. Broken slaves quarried tons of stone under the eyes of naga and demon overseers. According to escapees, the resentful slaves fought back in their own way, adding deficiencies to the construction of the defenses.
Illidan abandoned his fortress as abruptly as he started it, leaving empty castle keeps scattered across the waste. No one knows exactly why Illidan ordered the project’s cessation, though a lack of resources, the bastion’s impracticality, and Illidan’s madness are all likely reasons. Today, the Illidari forces guard their master in the ruins of draenic cities and old Horde fortifications.
“The Burning Legion rules here now,” said Ivadria Dawncaller, her eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep. Raising a wasted hand, she pushed a strand of faded hair out of her face.
“I did not doubt, even when Illidan abandoned this site. None are immune to error, after all. Only later, when Voren’thal left and the Sun King retreated to Netherstorm, did I wonder.”
I had met Ivadria in Shadowmoon Village. A Sin’dorei warlock, she helped to conquer Outland in the Betrayer’s name. She fled from the Illidari just before the Dark Portal’s reopening, aided by an undercover Scryer agent, though she herself was not a Scryer. Declaring her loyalty to the Horde, she gave its leaders valuable information about Illidari defenses. We traveled together with the goal of reaching the Altar of Damnation, where Gul’dan killed the soul of his race.
“Where you involved in the construction of the Illidari Bastion?” I asked.
“Illidan would not waste my talents on mere labor. Instead I searched the surrounding region for elements of resistance. We numbered six total, called ourselves the Final Strike Descending. How we laughed in those days, raw mana coursing through our veins! A tribe of Broken once lived here and we uprooted them, as you would a weed. Some we killed, others we put to work.”
“Did the Illidari Broken object to your activities?”
“The tribes bear no love for each other, and it would not have mattered if they did. I felt so strong in those days! Then I began to sicken. Now I know why the magisters once warned us about fel energy,” lamented Ivadria.
Corruption had taken its toll on Ivadria, green and tainted veins visible through her fever-red skin. She benefitted from some resistance to Shadowmoon Valley’s deadly environment. Ivadria claimed that this strength stemmed from her overuse of fel magic, much like Augra, the orcish warlock I had met who was unaffected by Felwood’s corruption.
Heton, Ivadria's felguard minion, stood in contrast to her frailty. The demon hovered close to Ivadria at all times, like a vulture waiting for its prey to die. Staring at its master with undisguised hatred, it looked ready to strike her dead. Ivadria promised full control over the demon, but her worn frame and fearful eyes only inspired doubt.
Travel in Shadowmoon Valley is never easy, even on the crude paths that serve as roads. Volcanic glass ridges and shadowed pits fill the wastelands, making off-road travel hazardous at best. We walked in sight of the Hand of Gul’dan, the mammoth volcano rising from the valley’s center. Green lava bleeds from the peak, feeding the sea of molten rock at its base. Regular eruptions light up the area like an obscene sun, always followed by a ashen rain. Ivadria used the volcano’s glare as a navigational beacon, the same way I had used Legion Hold farther west.
“Why did you choose to serve Illidan?” I asked, as we walked.
“Our Sun King thought it best. You must understand my position as a daughter of House Dawncaller; for centuries we had served House Spellflame with undying faith. Nothing of House Spellflame survived the Third War, leaving us empty. How could I live as my father and mother, as their fathers and mothers before them? I devoted myself to the Sun King instead, and through him, Illidan.”
“What did you think of Illidan?”
“Doubt ran rampant through the ranks, until we met this Betrayer. Low-born though he is, Illidan Stormrage carries himself like a noble lord. His familiarity with the arcane also proved his worth, at least to some of us. Half of those Scryers only left because they could not stand serving a night elf,” she snickered.
“You thought Illidan worthy?”
“Less so than the Sun King, but more so than many.”
“I take it that the blood elves made up most of the upper ranks in the Illidari?”
“Illidan sympathized with our cause. As the Alliance had abandoned us, so too did his loved ones cast him aside. For millennia his wardens starved him of the mana he needed, yet still he forged himself into a being of power. We hoped to follow his example.”
“Does Illidan still rely on the Sin’dorei?”
“How can he not? Only the naga rival our skill in battle and magic, and they are of limited utility in Outland. Few of us remain in his service, though those who do are among the most deadly. He trains some as demon hunters. A wise move, though it will not save him.”
“How many receive this training?”
“A hundred? Two hundred? I do not know. Only a remnant of the former number still follows the Betrayer. Betrayer... that title grows less appropriate by the day. Betrayed by his brother, betrayed by the Sun King, betrayed by Voren’thal.”
Kael’thas’ defection to the Burning Legion was a known fact in Outland at this point. I found it interesting that she still refused to use his actual name.
“You seem sympathetic to Illidan.”
“I am, and I wonder if I dishonor my family by leaving him. Yet I realize that only fools still believe in the Illidari. The Burning Legion, the Alliance, and the Horde all oppose Illidan. In his own army the Ashtongue Broken rankle under his cruelty. His defeat is certain.”
“He treated the Broken like slaves.”
“Not at first. Illidan’s mind was never stable, and his defeat at Arthas’ hands rendered him completely mad. Before Illidan went to pursue Arthas and the Scourge, Akama urged him to wait. The Illidari army was not yet ready, he said, and the Broken was right. Illidan went ahead and lost most of his expedition in the snows of Northrend. Somehow, he decided this proved Akama’s disloyalty.”
Akama had been the leader of the Ashtongue Tribe of Broken, and one of Illidan's first followers in Outland.
“What happened to Akama?”
“He still lives, as far as I know. Illidan chose to punish him indirectly by enslaving the Broken tribes.”
“Wouldn’t that just give Akama more reason to be disloyal?”
“Like I said, Illidan is hopelessly mad. Akama does have reason to continue serving Illidan. Though his influence wanes, Akama can still protect his own tribe from the worst of the Illidari depredations.”
“What do you think of the Broken?”
“I know that their efforts carried Illidan to victory over Magtheridon, that he owes his empire to them. Still, I thought little of them until after I escaped. Illidan drove his warlocks to the very edge, and I saw the toll it took on me and my fellows. I can never return to Azeroth. The fel energies here in Shadowmoon sustain me, and I will die without them. As the Burning Legion altered the Broken, so too did it alter me.”
We reached the base of another incomplete construction, a vast pile of metal beams and platforms hunched over the landscape. The structure reminded me of the Dark Iron Empire’s slave-mining operations back on Azeroth, though more neglected. Building it must have been an extraordinarily draining task, and all the more appalling for not having any apparent purpose. It looks like a scaffold without a building, perhaps making it a fitting metaphor for Illidan himself; great power and potential betrayed by a disorganized mind.
The Burning Legion did not ignore the Illidari Bastion. Its abandoned tunnels and fortifications has given them a perfect place to dig in and establish a base. Subterranean engines absorb the fel energies bleeding out from the Hand of Gul’dan at all times, allowing the Burning Legion to power their infernals. Called the Deathforge, the manufacturing center churns out an endless line of constructs, launched into the air and landing around Shadowmoon Village, Wildhammer Keep, and Karabor. I learned about the Deathforge while in Shadowmoon Village, as the Horde decided how best to shut down the operation.
Ivadria stiffened, arching her back as green light seeped from her eyes. Heton growled, a low rumble that seemed to shake the ground.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded.
“Demons! Up ahead!”
This came as no surprise. While the Burning Legion mostly keeps to the Deathforge’s confines, demons on the surface are far from rare. Like most warlocks of any proficiency, Ivadria could read the presence of demons from a mile away. I relied on her senses to keep us safe.
“Five; I am not sure what kind. Quick, behind that ridge!”
She scrambled off the road, Heton close behind her. Following Ivadria, I lowered myself behind a ridge of black glass overlooking the path. My mind cycled through the demon types I’d seen, and my chances against them, pessimism turning imps into wrathguards. Heton lay on the jagged rocks next to me, its stitched mouth turning up at the edges into a predator’s anticipatory smile. I saw a more restrained joy on Ivadria’s corrupted features.
Hunchback demons trudged into view, gathered in a ragged line. Twisted and uneven legs gave them odd postures, their squat and tortured forms obscured but not hidden by ragged cloaks. Some toted packs of crude tools and glowing gems. A scratchy chittering went up from the line, presumably a form of speech.
“Gan’arg,” snorted Ivadria. “One of your relatives, perhaps?” she said to Heton.
“I’ve heard of them,” I said. “Workers, aren’t they?”
“The gan’arg are a mutation of the mo’arg, much like the felguards. Soldiers and slaves of the Burning Legion. I think I will teach these uncouth peasants some etiquette.”
A ragged scream burst from Ivadria’s lips as she sprang to her feet and pointed at the demons. Faster than I thought possible, Heton charged, blurring as it crossed the distance in seconds. Carried by the demon’s evil strength, Heton’s blade cleaved through the necks of two gan’arg, felling them instantly. The felguard howled in rage and joy even as a daring gan’arg raked its back with a clawed metal glove. Heton whirled around and slammed into the attacker, knocking it to the side. I fired a salvo of arcane missiles, the bright blue bolts impacting into a single gan’arg and taking it out of the fight. Bolts of shadow whipped out from Ivadria’s outstretched hand, corrupting the already tainted demons into nothingness.
The gan’arg lay dead. Heton bounded back up the slope in what seemed like a single move, its brutal form suddenly inches from Ivadria. Her wasted face betrayed no fear or surprise, only a challenge as her eyes looked straight back at the demon. Heton snarled, the sheer force of Ivadria’s will keeping it in place. Her hands twitched, though her cold smile never changed.
I stepped back from the two, preparing a flame burst in case the demon made a move. Heton lowered its head and slackened its grip. With almost contrite steps it returned to its position. Ivadria let out an explosive breath, and then laughed.
“Felguards sometimes lose themselves in the heat of battle. Obedience was the essence of the mo’arg race before their absorption, and I can still tap into that trait. You look surprised, Destron.”
“I didn’t expect you to attack so suddenly.”
“Would you rather let them live? Demons?” she fumed. It was as if Heton’s anger became her own.
“I never said that, Ivadria. You did not tell you were going to attack. Warn me in the future.”
“Your weakness will be your undoing, Destron.”
“Your reluctance is obvious. Only the cruel survive in Outland.”
For a moment, I considered telling her just how much I knew about Outland. I decided against it, and simply offered a noncommittal shrug. We walked towards the demon corpses on the road, Ivadria studying the bodies with an academic eye.
“We were fortunate that no true mo’arg accompanied them,” she said.
“Would Heton be an example of a true mo’arg?”
“Hardly. The felguards are mutations, just like the gan’arg. The true mo’arg bears only a passing resemblance to the original creature. Like everything the Legion touches, it is a cruel parody of its original self.”
“How do they look?”
“Corpulent, metal and machines soldered to flabby flesh. They are like Scourge abominations but with diabolical minds. The mo’arg act as the Burning Legion’s engineers. I have no doubt that the Deathforge is full of them. Do you know how they reproduce?”
“I do not.”
“Fel poisons nurture cancers on the skin of the mo’arg. These tumors fall from their bodies and start growing into copies of the parent. Legion soulsmiths snatch them up before they mature, turning most into gan’arg and felguards.”
“Do gan’arg and felguards clone themselves?”
“They appear unable to do so. The mo’arg always reproduced via budding. Very little is known about the pre-corruption mo’arg. Grimoires speak of mo’arg arcanists who could effortlessly shape mana into physical matter. Boundless metal cities encasing their world, billions of lesser mo’arg building greater monuments for the sake of their gods.”
“They had a theocratic social structure?”
“One can infer that, but there is no longer any way to know for sure. Some texts even say they built entire worlds this way, though I find that doubtful. Whatever their power, it paled to the Legion’s.”
“These mo’arg wizards, the ones who could turn mana into physical matter—do they still exist?”
“No, and we should count ourselves lucky for that. They killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the demons. Apparently there were never very many of these arcanists.”
Illidan’s brief alliance with the Burning Legion apparently gave him access to entire libraries of esoteric lore, some of which filtered down to the Sin’dorei warlocks in his service. The more Ivadria spoke about her time in the Illidari, the more I suspected that she secretly wished to return there. She described her duties with a perverse pride, whether it was distilling demon blood or defending Illidan’s domain.
“Ner’zhul destroyed this world with his portals, and keeping them closed was never easy. That is why the Betrayer charged us with closing those portals. We weaved the raw mana, sealing them off for the sake of our master. Then the Sun King departed with half of the Sin’dorei in Outland and there were no longer enough of us.”
“What did Illidan do?”
“By that point he thought himself able to defeat the entire Burning Legion. He assigned us to other tasks as Legion armies started to pour through the rifts in reality.”
“Do you think the demons spurred the Sun King’s betrayal for that purpose?”
“Not a betrayal, Destron. Simply pragmatism. He wished to ensure the survival of his people.”
“Yet you joined the Horde, not the Sun King.”
“This world is not so simple. I joined the Horde for lack of alternatives. I hate the Burning Legion, but that does not mean I hate the Sun King! Everything he did, he did for the Sin’dorei! Such is the case for every leader: Thrall, Malfurion, your Lady Windrunner. The Sun King only lacks their capacity for self-delusion. Is life as a demon worse than no life at all? Who are you, a walking corpse, to say otherwise?” she demanded.
“I was simply pointing out that you do not march with the Sun King’s armies,” I said, raising my hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“Because the only agent I could find in Karabor’s lightless hell was a Scryer saboteur! I knew staying there would mean my death. I ensured my survival, just as the Sun King did for himself and his most loyal followers. I only regret I was not chosen to join him.”
“Do you feel any loyalty for the Illidari as a whole?”
“Are you some sort of Horde inquisitor?”
“No, merely curious. You do not need to answer.”
“I respect what Illidan attempted. In him, I saw a rebirth for the Highborne. Sin’dorei and naga serving together under one of the greatest wizards to ever live! Outland is nearly drowning in excess magic, making it the perfect kingdom for our kind. We even had plenty of demons and mutants to act as loyal servitors. It fell apart though. Illidan went mad, the naga followed their own inscrutable agenda, the Broken found ample reason to hate us, and the fel orcs are useless for anything other than war.”
Ivadria’s shoulders slumped and she refused to say anything more that night. Her desperation and confusion were obvious. While she espoused a sort of ruthless pragmatism, her longing for Illidan’s vision seemed to suggest a desire for something greater. Looking over to Ivadria, I noticed Heton’s smiling face hovering behind her. The demon’s eyes met mine, and I quickly turned away.
A lonely path branching east from the main road leads to a singularly ruined stretch of land. Gul’dan’s magic twisted the black rock desert beyond all reason, turning it into a frozen ocean where waves of jagged black glass crest over abyssal ravines. Nothing lives there, the land purged of even the possibility of life. Ivadria’s boiled face shone with an unhealthy luster as we followed the twisting path.
“Sickening,” she said, her expression belying her words. “I do not even want to imagine what the demons would do to the remnants of Quel’thalas.”
Almost resembling the sanctuary of a human church, the Altar of Damnation commemorates Gul'dan's greatest sin on a husk of burned out land. The Hand of Gul’dan is clearly visible from the site, as is the sea of lava at its base. A silent audience of charred skeletons sits on stone benches, sockets fixed on the squat altar at the far end. Black pillars line the side, crooked and eroded from years of punishment. One can just see the outlines of the icons long ago carved on the surfaces, worn away by the constant ash.
Earthmenders Torlok and Gorboto, an orc and a Broken respectively, watched over the Altar of Damnation. Sorrow weighed their shoulders.
“The spirits chose me, most wicked of transgressors, to remind others of what happened here,” said Torlok. “It was not long past that I too screamed for the blood of draenei and humans. I cannot make recompense, so I exist to warn others. The spirits preserve me in this awful place so that I may continue to warn until I draw my last breath.”
“A noble task, Earthmender,” slurred Ivadria. She looked towards the altar with a sick hope. Ivadria wisely dismissed Heton before reaching the Altar of Damnation. The place’s effect on her was obvious. Clawlike hands trembled and spittle dripped from her mouth, teeth clenching and unclenching like a machine. Her state reminded me the blood elves in Netherstorm, and their reaction to the pure mana there.
“Now that Torlok has explained himself, perhaps you would care to do likewise? What brings you to this terrible place?” inquired Gorboto, his pale blue eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I wish to be reminded of the dangers inherent in demonic magic. A lesson I intend to teach my brethren.”
“Bah! I can smell the demons in your soul! You help no one but yourself.”
“What? No! I only want to see this place to remind myself of the dangers present in fel energy. Nothing more than that.”
“The fel energy you use each day? Look at you! Your pores leak corruption. Go back to your homeworld and make an Altar of Damnation there. You can do whatever you like with it.”
“Please! I implore you—”
“Enough! Leave this place. The dead man can stay if he wants, I do not care.”
“Gorboto, wait,” interjected Torlok.
“What is it?”
“Let her go to the altar. She will warn her people in the same way that I warn my own.”
“Hmph! Very well then, fel-grubbing insect, go see your altar.”
Ivadria scowled at Gorboto, baring her yellowed teeth. Unmoved by the display, the Broken pointed at the altar.
With stumbling feet she stumbled up the aisle, throwing herself on the altar’s rough surface. Her body shook, sharp green lines glowing on her neck and hands.
I walked towards her, Torlok falling in besides me. Spectral figures phased into sight, their ash-clad bodies standing in front of the benches.
“... do not do this!” they cried in a rush of whispers.
More appeared, tormented bodies rising from the cinders.
“I knew these orcs, the lesser warlocks of the Shadowmoon Clan. They bathed in draenic blood but balked at Gul’dan’s final plan. I helped Gul’dan herd them in this place, where he forced them to watch the damnation of their race.”
Inchoate screams filled the site, burned orcish ghosts writhing in anguish. Ivadria hugged the altar, her hands gripping the rough edges, totally unaware.
“What’s happening to Ivadria?” I demanded.
“She’s gorging on the fel power all around us. Fear not, she will soon finish. Are you her friend?”
“More of a traveling companion.”
“Demon blood flows in her veins. I do not think she can resist it for much longer. Death may be her best hope.”
Arms and faces formed in the ground, a churning mass of burned orc corpses. Dire warnings echoed through the foul air and I rushed forward, past the altar where Ivadria lay in a blissful stupor.
The ghostly storm left my senses, and I stood before the burning expanse of the Fel Pits. Torlok ran up to me, clearly alarmed.
“Careful! Those are just phantoms. They cannot hurt you.”
“I’m fine. I only wanted to get away from them.”
“Ivadria’s presence rouses the spirits, inspiring them to remind the world of our crimes. Look.”
He pointed back at the altar. A shadowy form knelt on the ground behind Ivadria, emanating waves of darkness. I immediately looked away, my heart chilled.
“That is Gul’dan, or the memory of him. Here he sacrificed his race to the Burning Legion, flinging an irredeemable insult into the face of the spirits. The very earth cracked open and I remember the Hand of Gul’dan shuddering into the sky, belching darkness as it grew. Storms of ash swept down the slopes, tearing the flesh from his enemies’ bones.”
Torlok buried his face in his hands.
“Fathers of Shadowmoon, what did I do?” he sobbed. “I laughed as this happened, stranger. Power blinded me, blinded us all. We forgot the ways of our ancestors. Gul’dan damned us, and I praised him for it. Why? I have asked so many: priests of the Holy Light, shamans of the Mag’har, and others. They offer many words, but no answers.”
I almost didn’t notice Ivadria standing next to me, self-loathing and satisfaction written plain as day on her features. Green phosphorescence leaked from her mouth and nostrils, remnants of her toxic feast. She turned to the sobbing orc, suddenly gripping his shoulders. Their eyes locked, a sliver of understanding passing between them.
Surrounded by damnation, Torlok and Ivadria embraced.
Ivadria and I went our separate ways a few days south of the Altar of Damnation. She headed east, to the Scryer outpost called the Sanctum of the Stars. I went farther south, donning my disguise in preparation for Wildhammer Stronghold, the Alliance’s regional headquarters.
Encircled by towering walls, Wildhammer Stronghold is a typical dwarven fortress: daunting and efficient. Work teams labor throughout the town, repairing years’ worth of neglect. I already knew that Wildhammer Stronghold had only been recently reestablished thanks to the efforts of Kurdran Wildhammer. Leaving behind the safety of Allerian Stronghold, he and his dwarves returned to the hellish Second War-era fortress in order to defend their new homeland from the Legion and the Illidari.
Few heroes of the Second War had captured the Alliance’s imagination quite like Kurdran Wildhammer. Raining death on Horde battalions from the back of Sky’ree, his griffin, Kurdran became a symbol of hope. He had an easier time living up to the mantle of heroism than did his fellows. In him was nothing of Alleria’s animosity, or Danath’s fury. Gregarious and friendly, he befriended conscripts and officers, elves and dwarves, and just about everyone else under the Alliance banner.
Kurdran convinced the isolationist Wildhammer dwarves to send a small force of their best warriors through the Dark Portal. Most of the dwarves in the Alliance Expeditionary Force marched under the banner of Ironforge, though Kurdran was so well-liked that they considered themselves honored to serve under him. Going into Wildhammer Stronghold, I noticed that nearly every dwarf there bore blue tattoos, like those seen in the Wildhammer Clan. Wildhammer dwarves use these tattoos as identifiers, each individual wearing tattoos that explain events from his or her life, as well as the person’s parentage.
“Born and bred in Ironforge, I was!” said Vengni Tinfist, a dwarf soldier with a bristly yellow beard that covered up half his face.
“Why did you choose to wear the tattoos of the Wildhammer Clan?”
“These aren’t really Wildhammer tattoos. Go up to Aerie Peak and you won’t see anything like this tattoo of dead rock flayer on my forearm here,” he said.
“So they’re tattoos unique to the experience of the dwarves in Outland.”
“That’s just it. Kurdran and his crew kept us going in the worst of times, suffered everything we suffered. Once things settled down, an Ironforge dwarf named Melhew Steelshoulders decides we all ought to get tattoos, a sign of camaraderie.”
I found this very telling. Ironforge culture is not much given to physical ornamentation. That a Bronzebeard dwarf came up with the idea of imitating the age-old Wildhammer custom demonstrates their immense respect for Kurdran.
“I take it his suggestion met with acceptance.”
“Heh, Kurdran, grand fellow that he is, said he wasn’t so sure. Didn’t want us looking up to him too much. Finally, Melhew goes up to him and says: ‘It isn’t that we’re looking up to you, it’s that we think you’re one of us! If we all have those markings, that means no one can tell the difference between a dirty old ground-pounder and a glorious griffin rider like yourself!’”
“What did Kurdran say to that?”
“He had a good long laugh and told us to go ahead. The first tattoos we got were sigils of our parents’ clans. Of course, most Ironforge clans don’t have sigils, but it’s not too hard to figure out something appropriate. Then we got more specific ones, for individual deeds in the war.”
“All of the dwarves decided to do this?”
“A few held back at first, but I think they all changed their minds at some point, went with the flow. Believe me, it really strengthened the bonds between us. Hurts like hell though, I’ll admit that.”
Wildhammer Stronghold boasts high morale despite the fact that it’s actually in a more difficult situation than Shadowmoon Village. Air quality in Wildhammer Stronghold is much worse, loaded with dust and grit. The inhabitants suffer constant coughing fits. Local mages operate an arcane processor that cleanses the air and water, but it works less effectively than the shaman rites performed in Shadowmoon Village.
Supplies are another problem. Wildhammer Stronghold depends on heavily defended supply caravans coming in from Allerian Stronghold. Unfortunately, demonic infestation in the west makes this increasingly difficult. Many advocate switching to airborne resupply, though the infrastructure for such a system does not yet exist.
The hardy dwarven constitution makes it easier for that race to withstand Shadowmoon Valley’s environmental pressures. Members of other Alliance races find adaptation difficult at best, though they struggle on as best they can. Many of them tend to favor the depths of the keep, like a Kaldorei druid named Vedonoras Greenleaf. He seemed quite embarrassed by this fact.
“I never once imagined that I would find the indoors preferable to the sky over my head. Then I came to Shadowmoon Valley.”
“Are you part of the Cenarion Expedition?”
“I am not a member of that worthy organization, though I have worked with Cenarion operatives in the past. I am researching Outland on account of Archdruid Staghelm.”
“How does Staghelm fare? He was not exactly popular last time I visited the night elven lands.”
“His victory at Silithus improved his standing. He’s still far from loved, but most now regard him as at least competent. Even so, he’s no Malfurion.”
“Has there been any fallout from Malfurion’s ties to Illidan?”
“Not as much as there ought to be. I do not mean to sound too critical; I can scarcely imagine raising a hand against my brother. Even so, by permitting Illidan to escape, Malfurion allowed the Betrayer to commit all manner of horrors here in Outland.”
“Such as the seizure of the Exodar, the enslavement of the Broken, and general warmongering?”
“Correct. I have met so many Broken who have lost their homes and families to Illidari attacks. Can you imagine? After first suffering so much at the hands of the orcs, only to lose it all again because of the Betrayer? I fear that it is too easy for the people of Azeroth to ignore what happens in Outland.”
“Perhaps these Broken should share their stories with others back in the homeworld. There’s a sizable population on the Exodar.”
“True, but I do not think that the draenei want them to dwell on past tragedies. Ha! If the Broken lived with elves we’d teach them how to do that better than anyone else,” he laughed.
“What is your opinion towards the current night elf leaders?”
“I respect Archdruid Staghelm, though I do not personally like him. I sometimes question the decisions of Malfurion and Tyrande, though no one must ever forget that they twice saved Azeroth from certain destruction. The release of Illidan does not sit well with me, however.”
“Illidan did help the world during the Third War.”
“True, but not everyone is convinced that he was indispensable to our victory.”
“Do you think Illidan is substantially worse than Magtheridon?”
“There is no doubt. Magtheridon was a monster, but a careless one. Illidan, on the other hand, cares very much. He is a man driven by thousands of years of loneliness, jealousy, and resentment. No crime is too awful for him to commit.”
Illidan is a widely loathed figure in the Alliance. Judging from my experiences in Shadowmoon Village and other places, the Horde has a more ambivalent attitude towards the Betrayer. Some even hold a misguided sympathy for Illidan. Warchief Thrall did consider sending an envoy to Illidan during the Horde’s tenuous early years. The difficulty of communicating with Outland, and his own misgivings about Illidan’s character, finally caused him to abandon this plan.
I will not claim any fondness for Illidan; I regard him as cruel, impulsive, and narcissistic. However, I and all other Forsaken are partially indebted to him. His strike against the Lich King weakened the bonds of control that held my race in servitude, making it easier for the Dark Lady to initiate her revolution. No one is completely sure if Sylvanas’ revolution was entirely dependent on Illidan’s actions, or merely helped by them.
“There’s an Illidari ambassador at the front gates!”
The cry rang out through Wildhammer Stronghold on my third day, taking everyone by surprise. Illidan had never before made any real attempt to communicate with the Alliance. I wondered why he would attempt diplomacy at such a late date. As it turned out, diplomacy was the farthest thing from the Betrayer’s mind.
I walked up to the corroded ramparts with a group of excited dwarves. Workers adding last-minute additions to the Stronghold’s defenses put aside their tools, crowding around the edges to get a better look at the ambassador and his escorts. Soldiers fingered their rifles, making joking bets on how many Illidari they could kill in how short a time.
Ten bestial fel orcs stood in a circle around a robed Sin’dorei and a felguard, the latter holding the black and green Illidari banner.
“Where is your thane, the legendary Kurdran Wildhammer? Is he too great to speak with a humble emissary?” demanded the ambassador, his mocking voice magically amplified.
“I’m on my way!” came the merry retort as Sky’ree soared over our heads, banking and circling before landing in front of the ambassador. Kurdran did not dismount, and the defenders cheered at his entrance. The ambassador drew himself up, and stepped towards Kurdran.
“I am Emissary Hosterian Fireblood, the official speaker of Illidan Stormrage, Lord of Outland, Master of the Black Temple, Defender of the Broken, Slayer of Liches, Avenger of Ancient Kalimdor, Enemy of Demons and Friend to the Humble, Conqueror of the Burning Legion in Outland in General and Shadowmoon Valley in Particular!” He said it with nary a pause.
“I’m Kurdran, though I guess you already knew that. What brings you here?”
“Illidan is a man of peace. He has no desire for war against your people.”
“Really? He’s already attacked our interests in Outland.”
“Only fools dwell on the past.”
“As I’m sure Illidan would know.”
“I shall put it simply: remove all of your forces from Outland. There will be no negotiation.”
“That’s a pretty big job; logistics are a nightmare. Here, why don’t we have some ale first! I just got a fine shipment from Dun Morogh, best I’ve had in years!”
“Do not insult me.”
“You consider ale an insult? Are you daft? Do you know anything about dwarves?”
The defenders laughed uproariously.
“I shall forget this mockery if you agree, now. Do otherwise, and I promise that Ironforge itself shall be but a ruin before the year’s end.”
“Lad, if you surrender to us and agree to fight the Burning Legion, then we can talk. We’re here to clean up the mess you made. Illidan’s gone out of his way to annoy every single group that might possibly help him. I mean, if you’d made good with us back when you first came, talked with the Naaru, and actually been a friend to the Broken, you wouldn’t be in this situation. Outland needs to be safe for Azeroth to be safe, and your people aren’t up to the job!”
“Very well. Do not ask quarter from my master, for his mercy is exhausted.”
“I’d never dream of asking.”
Jeers burst forth from the crowded ramparts, the collected noise not able to overcome Kurdran’s uproarious laughter as his mount took wing. Still laughing, the old hero hailed his troops as he flew back into the aerie. On the ground below, Hosterian and his entourage marched into the darkness.
Outland represents hope for the Alliance. The Holy Light survives—thrives, even—in this ruined and demon-plagued world. Once lamented as a tragic loss, the Alliance Expeditionary Force now stands tall against the encroaching darkness.
For the Horde, Outland is an ash heap haunted by the ghosts of atrocity. The orcish story in Outland deals more with making amends than with a great victory against the odds. Kael’thas’ recent crimes only worsen the situation. I do not doubt that the orcs are capable of redeeming themselves in the eyes of Outland’s spirits; few can surpass their courage and tenacity. But it will be a long and difficult process.