Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Howling Fjord: Part 3

I awoke to the snap of flint as flames came to life in the hearth. Getting up from the shoveltusk hide on which I’d slept, I turned to see Vyldra taking a single-bladed ax from its mount on the wall, cradling it like she would a child. She wore a look of serene expectation, a would-be saint awaiting confirmation. As red light from the flames pushed back the shadows, Vyldra spoke.

“This ax has drunk deep from the throats of trolls and monsters, and today it shall gorge on heretic’s blood. My father brought it into battle, honoring its maker, and I swear to one day place it at the feet of the All-Father.”

She placed the ax on the table, taking a scarred wooden shield from the wall and running her left arm through the straps. A metallic glint on the ax blade revealed an inset saronite rune, keeping it keen and sharp. Getting to my feet, I put on my coat and prepared myself for the upcoming battle.

“Where is your father?” I asked.

“Preparing our exit from Skorn. We now stand in the winds of fate, Destron. Blood shall flow and feed the thirsting earth, as it must. Do you still need time, or is the battle-lust already upon you?”

“I am ready.”


Before leaving, she again bound my wrists with a thick cord of rope, reminding me to play the part of a slave. The rope ran through an engraved saronite ring.

“I will enter the hall of Bikurn bearing a gift, and will leave bearing a much greater gift,” she laughed. It took me a moment to realize I’d just heard a vrykul joke. I offered a nervous chuckle, though she had already started to explain her plan.

“Bikurn has ears only for flattery, and I will praise his wisdom and prowess when I stand before him. Unleash your sorcery the moment I speak of the All-Father, not a second before or after. Destroy his guards but take no action against Bikurn, for his blood must be on my hands. Fight Bikurn only if he kills me, for you must then do what you need to survive. A false rune clasps your binds; others shall see it and think you helpless, but the rope is made to break with but a little force. Do you understand?”


Before we left, Vyldra placed bundles of wood all around the fireplace. She intended to leave no trace of her or her father’s time in Skorn, burning their ancient home as a gesture of contempt. I do not think she timed it to provide a distraction for our activities.

Morning’s cold light revealed Skorn’s full deterioration. I thought back to Vadrad’s story of trollish slave revolts in the waning days of the vrykul nation. Returning home, the vrykul had no choice but to rebuild their own villages, their knowledge of architecture atrophied by centuries of indolence. I was certain that no professional hand had ever touched the crude houses.

Tendrils of oily smoke rose up from rekindled refuse fires throughout Skorn. I was again reminded of their barbarism, how they were scavengers on the corpse of their own empire, and suddenly wondered if I could trust Vyldra. Her quest to achieve godhood by bringing a man’s severed head to a possibly non-existent deity did not inspire much faith in me. Even so, I had no hope of escape. Warriors roamed the streets, followed by slavering wolf-hounds.

A great house, perhaps better described as a disarrayed pile of wood and metal, stares down at Skorn from the top of a rocky hill. Crooked chimneys and uneven turrets stick out at seemingly random points from the structure, supported more by inertia than any structural integrity. Weapons festoon the walls, and I noticed a splendidly decorated Amani war club among them. I followed Vyldra to the tall and narrow doorway, a dwarven skull nailed to the top. No guards stood at the front, and we entered the shadowed hall without trouble.

Inside, Bikurn’s hall looked a good deal like Vyldra’s home, cluttered and neglected. A pair of vrykul men sat on the floor, dice clattering on the wooden boards. They jumped to their feet when we entered, drawing their swords.

“What brings you to the hall of Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, oh Vyldra, Bloody-Haired?”

“I bring more fuel for the fire, another soul for the Death God.”

Vyldra pulled me into the hostile eyes of the vrykul.

“No warrior’s soul dwells in this battered body, though the Death God craves the spirits of wayward slaves like this. We shall bring him to—”

“Do not think to steal my glory, Olf, with Sword Running Red! Only I will bring this sacrifice to Bikurn’s feet; stop me and your blood will wash the floor.”

Olf smirked.

“Very well, though Bikurn cares little for Vadrad’s bloodline. Perhaps he shall find you a better sacrifice, though I do not know what the Death God could do with your paltry soul.”

Vyldra said nothing as Olf and his companion banged on the closed wooden door at the other end of the room. A voice bade them enter and they opened the door. Vyldra strode into Bikurn’s chamber, free of fear, while Olf and the other guard stepped in behind us. Bikurn slumped on a rough wooden seat at the far end, clad in frayed furs and bones, his waist-length yellow beard splattered with ancient stains. A mass of weapons covered the wall behind him like a curtain. The death priest’s bushy eyebrows arched in surprise as Vyldra approached.

“Vyldra, Bloody-Haired, Daughter of Vadrad, Death-of-Foes. Your sight offers no pleasure, for I still remember the foolish words your father spoke before our slumber. Does he seek to make amends and, too cowardly to face my wrath in the flesh, sends his daughter? Or are you the gift? A sign of desperation from a man whose time has passed. I have wenches aplenty, all fairer than you,” he rumbled.

“My gift is for the Death God himself, one of his lost children sent as sacrifice.” Vyldra knelt, and her legs tensed as if preparing to spring.

“Perhaps you are wiser than your father, Vyldra, Bloody-Haired. Many nights yet shall pass before I again light the pyres, and many prisoners must we capture before an offering can be made, though the Death God’s servants at skull-crowned Gjalerbron always hunger for more souls.”

“Doubtless they need—damn this lie, my only gift to you is the wrath of the All-Father!”

Howling in fury she jumped to her feet and rushed towards Bikurn. His eyes widened in shock, but only for a moment, and he leapt off his throne, tearing a two-handed giant’s sword from its place on the wall. Vyldra slammed into him with her shield, the impact knocking him off balance and he lashed out in desperation, the sword cutting through the air.

Slower than their master, the guards drew axes and started forward. Ice lashed out at my command, frost gripping their legs and halting them in place. Startled, they did not realize that I was responsible. Taking advantage of their confusion I stepped back, detonating arcane bursts on the floor and flinging up a storm of jagged splinters that burrowed into vrykul flesh. Olf screamed, a shrill and horrible sound, blood gushing from his punctured left eye.

As frost lost its grip I fired a barrage of arcane missiles into the still-sighted vrykul, waves of blue bolts hitting his body. He fell dead as I spent the last of my mana reserves, leaving me to face a partly blinded but furious warrior without recourse to spells. Free of the ice, Olf bounded towards me, screaming obscenities. I ran to the back wall, thinking to grab a weapon though his great size let him catch up to me in no time at all. I threw myself to the floor as I heard the whoosh of his blade, not quite dodging the fist holding it. I felt a loud crack, the force of the blow flinging me halfway across the room like a rag doll. I landed in a heap on the floor. Too dazed to properly react, I lurched to the side when Olf reached my position, evading his attack by mere inches. Olf kicked me as his sword hit the floor, his foot as heavy as a mace.

Scrambling to my feet I grabbed a vrykul dagger from the armory, nearly the size of a sword for me, and clutched it in too-small hands as Olf swung his sword for the finishing stroke. Fast as I could I threw the dagger at Olf. Never trained in throwing weapons, my projectile hit his leg and fell to the ground without hurting him, but it did slow him for a split-second. I ran out of the way before he could compensate. Enough mana returned for me to cast a flame burst at Olf’s feet, and he snarled in pain and rage, though obviously far from finished.

“To the grave with you!”

Olf never saw Vyldra behind him, her ax cleaving halfway through his neck. The warrior’s remaining eye widened in shock as blood streamed down from the wound. Vyldra wrenched the ax free and watched him fall to his knees, trying to curse through the gore flooding his throat. Choking and gurgling he collapsed, the life leaving his body.

A cruel smile lit Vyldra’s face. Turning from the dying Olf, she went to Bikurn’s prone body. Kneeling at his side she hacked off the head in three quick strokes. She lifted the head up and examined it, finding it to her liking.

“A fitting gift for the All-Father. You did well, Destron, even when your sorcery left you. We can speak more later; now we must leave before the rest of Skorn learns of my glorious deed.”

Dumbly, I nodded and followed her out of Bikurn’s bloody hall, not sure what to expect outside. My wounds, which would have been crippling to a human, did little more than hinder me. Even so, I felt terribly vulnerable at that moment. I am sure Olf would have killed me if not for Vyldra.

I stepped out of the great hall and found myself staring into a golden eye the size of my fist. The eye belonged to a fearsome beast, a provisional dragon that walked on its wings like a bat. Bone spikes ran along its jaws and throat, and tiny, almost useless arms hung from its bulk. I remembered hearing about the proto-drakes favored as mounts by the vrykul.

In fact, two proto-drakes waited outside. Vadrad rode one, and a vrykul woman I did not recognize sat at the other. Both were cheering Vyldra.

“My golden girl, you have brought honor to those before you! Let the minions of the Death God quail in fear when they hear of your bloody work!”

“Bloody work indeed. Bikurn and his lackeys now rest in beds of gore, two felled by my ax, and another by the Forsaken’s sorceries. Speak of this later; now we must make haste. Destron, go to Hilgmar’s drake; she too remembers the old ways, and she will one day ride alongside me as a val’kyr. I shall go with my father.”

Before mounting the proto-drake, who hissed and rumbled like some dwarven engine, I grabbed the Amani war club from the wall. A stylized wooden eagle’s head capped the club, indicating a ceremonial purpose. I recognized it as a symbol of Mueh’zala, the eagle, the Amani psychopomp who is an aspect of Hireek, the bat, Loa of knowledge and magic in the south. Blades of polished obsidian ran down the club, three on each side, while a foreign saronite rune embedded in the handle preserved it.

Knowing the Darkbriar Lodge would have use for such an artifact, I slung it under my arm as I clambered onto the giant’s saddle. If Hilgmar thought my choice of armament odd, she gave no sign. With a fierce cry the proto-drake lifted itself from the ground with its muscled legs, wings flapping in the cold morning air. It loosed a bestial roar as it picked up speed, the dying town of Skorn falling into the horizon.


Frostblade Peak and Gjalerhorn rise miles above the ground, citadels of stone and ice standing sentry on the Howling Fjord’s northern border. The two mountains are visible throughout the misty forests north of Skorn. Hilgmar and Vadrad made good time on their proto-drakes, the beasts possessing levels of speed and stamina quite impressive for their size. The landscape below rushed by like a river, dense greenery giving way to scattered pine glades and rocky fields as altitude increased.

Hilgmar offered some context for Bikurn’s hatred of Vadrad. Both had claimed credit for killing a prominent Amani chieftain, and Jarl Halgurdsson had decided in favor of Bikurn. His social standing greatly diminished, Vadrad found himself marginalized among the Winterskorn, which I suspect helped shape his politics. As for Hilgmar, she had been a childhood friend of Vyldra’s, and held her in an almost religious awe.

Towards the end of the second day we landed in the foothills around lofty Frostblade Peak. Patches of slushy snow dotted the ground, thickening until it blanketed the earth a just few miles to the north of where we stood. Standing on winter’s edge, accompanied by mythic warriors and strange beasts, I felt as if I’d truly reached Northrend. A freezing eastern wind howled across the desolate highland. Vyldra was the first to speak, shouting to be heard over the wind.

“I am in debt to you, Destron, but no debt can take the place of the All-Father’s sanctity. Here we must part ways, for you will find no home in the All-Father’s hall until battle stills your breath. Even I may only enter after proving myself to Thorim, and the head of this heretic is but the first step on a long journey.”

“That is fine, Vyldra. Besides, there is more I want to see before I go to the north. Will you all be petitioning the All-Father?”

“Only I shall do so directly. Hilgmar shall rise to glory as my shield maiden, and will doubtless take her place among the val’kyr when the time is right.”

“And Vadrad?”

The old vrykul smiled.

“More must I do before I join the ranks of the All-Father’s army. I shall go with my precious Vyldra as far as the Storm Peaks. Then my doom must take its course. Mine is to take my sword into the wastes, where I will spill the blood of giants until my heart beats no more.”

“I wish you the best of luck,” I said, privately wondering if their time would be better spent helping the Horde or Alliance fight the Scourge. Still, I knew full well that they were beyond the point of persuasion.

“May the All-Father guide your path, Destron,” said Vyldra. “The eddas say that slaves who aid their masters in battle will find a place at the table of the All-Father. More than vrykul make merry in those glorious halls. Perhaps we shall again fight alongside each other when it is time for the Last Winter. Farewell!”

I watched the vrykul ride their proto-drakes towards the overcast sky, shrinking as they flew off into the north. I was alone, and free to go where I pleased. I decided to visit the Alliance outpost of Fort Wildervar, which I’d heard about in Westguard Keep. While not sure of my exact location, I felt reasonably confident of finding it.

Reaching it turned out to be harder than I'd suspected. Traveling through Winterspring was the last time I’d seen snow, and I forgot how much time it takes to slog through the stuff. Three days passed before I reached the shores of placid Caldemere Lake, the bright and distant sun reflecting off its frigid waters. I could see the rugged homes of Fort Wildervar on the other side, below the crags of Frostblade Peak. An aerial scout, mounted on a hippogriff, flew over the town’s peaked roofs as I watched.

I made my way around Caldemere, reaching a series of ramps leading up to Fort Wildervar. A trio of fur-clad anglers stood at the lake’s edge, near some soldiers in improvised-looking armor. Eyes all around lighted with curiosity when they saw me.

“Did Captain Adams send you?” demanded one.

“Captain Adams of Westguard Keep? No, he did not.”

“Thank the Light for that. What’s your business in Fort Wildervar, traveler?”

“I’m simply working my way north to help out with the war effort.”

He gave me a doubtful look.

“Supplies are stretched very thin in Fort Wildervar. We hate to be inhospitable, but this is a hard land. You can stay five days; longer if you serve the community in some way. Go to the town hall; you will know it when you see it. Register there.”

I assured him that I did not intend to stay long and that I could make my own food. Fort Wildervar looks almost idyllic at first glance. Stout homes offer light and warmth against Northrend’s cold. Forests of snow-dusted trees cover the lower slopes of grand Frostblade Peak, the icy mountaintop looking over the town like some slumbering god. In the town itself, everything looks new. Half-built houses stand on the periphery. The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pealed in the frosty air as I entered.

The inhabitants gave me curious looks, the more venturesome offering cautious hellos. They carried themselves with the quiet confidence that one would expect of homesteaders living in such a rugged environment. Fort Wildervar’s outer coziness is deceiving, for such places can only survive through the most strenuous effort.

I entered the narrow town hall and nearly bumped into a mule standing inside the threshold. Startled, it took a moment to amble off, its hooves clopping on the wooden floor. At the other end, I spotted a small pig dozing under the stairway, while chickens clucked in a tiny pen.

“Hello there, stranger,” greeted a dark-haired woman of middle age. “You must be here to sign the register.”

“That’s correct. I’m Talus Corestiam.”

“Christina Daniels. Welcome to the wild north,” she smiled. “Are you from Captain Adams in Westguard?”

“I did come from Westguard, but I was not sent by Captain Adams. Are you expecting someone from him?”

“Adams likes to think that Fort Wildervar is a satellite of Westguard Keep, so he sends an official here every two months, along with the occasional batch of colonists. Last time one of his lackeys got here was six months back; we figure the vrykul killed the last few.”

“Perhaps Adams forgot?”

“Adams never forgets anything,” she laughed.

“So what is the purpose of Fort Wildervar?”

“Wildervar’s an iron mine. We arrived here with the Fifth Legion and a team of dwarven engineers. They dug the mine, but were called west to reinforce the Seventh Legion, leaving us behind.”

“Are you able to extract ore from the mountain?”

“We’ve done precious little of it, none at all for the past year. Frostblade Peak lives up to it’s name, and we need to put all our efforts into getting food. We’ve sent an appeal to Westguard, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when supply caravans can get here regularly.”

“What brought you up to such a dangerous land?”

“The king promised us protection, money, and land to go north and mine ore. Most of us come from the foothills in northern Elwynn, where wealth is in short supply. Stormwind and the Horde emptied out more than half the mines in the First and Second Wars. My parents resettled there after the Second, and learned there’s scarcely any work to be had.”

Many hailed Stormwind’s resurrection as an outstanding success, but Christina’s story shows the deep scars left by the orcish invasion. Stormwind’s power is something of a facade. It has never fully regained the strength and prosperity it enjoyed prior to the First War. Problems like the Defias and the Blackrock Clan further erode its strength. Stormwind’s citizenry, hardened by these constant threats, may be its greatest resource. One wonders how long they will tolerate Varian’s wild-eyed expansionism.

I went outside to explore Fort Wildervar. Smokehouses line the northern edge, set up to preserve game and fish. While some food comes from the tiny farms at the forest’s edge, to the south, they do not yet offer enough to support Wildervar’s tiny population. The practical settlers are well-aware of their town’s tenuous existence.

“Unless we start getting more support, we’ll have no choice but to disperse,” predicted a man named Andron Hellus. I spoke to him as he took a break from chopping wood.

While I agreed with these sentiments, one must keep in mind that such immense logistical efforts are bound to suffer from poor planning. This is not to say that massive supply errors should be considered acceptable (as that would encourage carelessness); rather, that some are inevitable.

I spent the night in the town hall, sleeping on a hide rug tucked away in the back. Fort Wildervar lacks a proper inn, hardly a surprise given their circumstances. I dislike sharing quarters with animals, but I accepted the situation with grace.

Mountain winds blew a light sprinkling of snow over Fort Wildervar the next morning. The colonists went to work as always, braving the frigid climate to keep Wildervar alive another day. I spoke with a rangy woodcutter named Viktor Ostmann, who’d moved up to Fort Wildervar with his family. Poverty-stricken in their home, Northrend offered the best chance at a better life.

“No regrets on my part. Not to say I’m entirely happy about the way things are run here, but I never expected it to be easy. Only a fool would. I can hunt and fish as much as I need here, not like in Elwynn where a fellow needs permission for every little thing.”

“Were you a hunter back in Elwynn?”

“Not a professional. Nobles still own most of the wilderness, and you cannot hunt without their approval. I knew a quite decent man, named Gamel, who ended up in the Stockades for hunting quail when he wasn’t supposed to.”

“How does one get permission?”

“Request it from the local authorities. They usually grant it, but you can’t rely on them saying yes. Too many other folks hunting, they’d say. I used to work in the Jangolode Mine, but when they closed it down there was no way for me to get the money I needed, at least not regular.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, isn’t hunting up here somewhat different than it is in Elwynn? How did you adapt to the new environment?”

“The taunka.”

I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d really heard him say that.

“Excuse me?”

“Taunka are these great big fellows, look like tauren but shaggier and with shorter snouts. They’ve lived here in Northrend for ages and ages.”

“I’ve heard of them, but I thought they were part of the Horde.”

“I think they are now, but they weren’t when we arrived. We made a deal with the taunka; we gave them weapons and tools, they taught us how to live here. We got food from them, letting us work the mines, until Captain Adams ordered us not to speak with the taunka.”

“So your dealings with the taunka are a well-known fact.”

“No secret, though some people don’t like to talk about it. I’m not ashamed, the taunka are good people. Honest dealers. Fort Wildervar wouldn’t exist without them. I’m loyal to the king and Alliance, but a man needs to remember his debts. If a taunka got lost and wandered in here—not as if that would ever happen—we’d help him get to Camp Winterhoof.”

“That’s the taunka settlement west of here, correct?”

“It’s a good-sized one. Word has it they won’t be there for too much longer though.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Oh, some of the long-range trappers mentioned that the taunka were packing up their supplies.” He spoke quickly, his eyes turning down to the ground.

“Any idea why?”

“No one told me.”

The call to settle distant lands is typically answered by the desperate, the mad, and the ambitious. If they succeed in their efforts, the hardships of such a life nurture an independent and sometimes reckless breed. The citizens of Wildervar see no reason to fight the taunka, who aided them in their survival. Of course, if settlement increases, conflict will likely arise. Until then, the colonists are inclined to see the taunka as potential allies, politics be damned.

In establishing such far-flung domains, I wonder if Stormwind has created something it cannot control.


Descending the foothills around Frostblade Peak I came to the nameless valley between it and Gjalerhorn, a realm of snow-laden pines and frozen ponds. It is only marginally more hospitable than the area around Fort Wildervar. Wolves slink through the forests, pursuing the shaggy mountain goats that feed on the meager vegetation. Neither population is very large.

From talking to the inhabitants of Wildervar, I got a rough idea of Camp Winterhoof’s location. I longed to visit a Horde outpost not ruled by the Hand of Vengeance or Apothecarium. Stronger than that was my desire to learn about the taunka. A handful of the old Shu’halo legends reference “tribes of ice and snow,” guardians of the world north of the Kaldorei forests. Not specific in details, most shamans believed those tribes to be the spirits of Winterspring, in northern Kalimdor. The Horde made official contact with the taunka while I was in Undercity, en-route to Quel’danas.

I followed the road as it coursed its way through the dense forests on Gjalerbron’s slopes, the sky darkening above me. Passing a bend, I saw a campfire flickering on the side of the road, two massive figures seated nearby. Shadows hid their features, though I could see their shaggy heads, each with a pair of small horns growing from the fur. One stood to his full height, easily eight feet.

“Greetings, Forsaken,” he said, in accented Orcish. “By what name are you known?”

“I am Destron Allicant.”

“You are welcome here, as long as you heed our ways. I am Pahnuk Rimehorn, a brave of the Winterhoof Tribe. My friend here is Lomok Icerunner, of the same.”

The tauren of the south introduce themselves with the name of their tribe. For instance, an individual from the Skyhoof family in the Runetotem Tribe will give his or her last name as Runetotem, not Skyhoof. This is not the case with the taunka, whose family lines are a source of great pride.

“I’m glad to finally meet you.”

“Our lookouts saw you approach our lands. We came to greet you, for friends are hard to come by in the north.”

“The orcs say that your people hate the Scourge more than anything else, and may know best how to destroy it,” said Lomok.

“The Forsaken are working on a variety of methods, though with little concern for ethics.”

“Our ethic is survival. We will not insult our ancestors by dying in the snow, at least not until we kill twice our number,” threatened Lomok.

“Peace, Lomok. Destron is not yet familiar with our ways. Do you know of the Shu’halo, whom you call the tauren?”

“I have spent time in their lands. They are an admirable people.”

“If you wish to learn of the taunka, you must never think of us as the tauren. You would be hard-pressed to find two races more different.”

“I will keep an open mind.” In fact, as the Feralas and Thousand Needles tauren prove, there is a great deal of variety within the tauren race.

“Come, sit with us by the fire. Fire is what brings souls closer together, sparking the warmth of spirit in the endless winter.”

Pahnuk promised to take me to Camp Winterhoof the next morning. I spent the night asking about the taunka. Pahnuk bore my inquiries with grace.

“Is the Winterhoof Tribe nomadic?”

“Where our prey goes, we follow. Generations upon generations have hunted on these slopes, tracking beasts through the boundless forests and snowy wastes. We were an old people when the Kirovi humans came to these lands, staking their claims. Their braves now lie buried under snow and ice. Such is the price for challenging the taunka.”

“The Kirovi are your enemies?”

“Friends are few in Northrend. My ancestors have shed the blood of Kirovi, furbolgs, Nerubians, Drakkari, magnataurs, and others. Should the taunka survive, my sons shall shed the blood of many more races. Survival demands no less.”

“What of the Alliance? My understanding is that the Winterhoof Tribe has an amicable relationship with the humans of Fort Wildervar.”

“Wildervar has not offended us. They settle on Kirovi lands, and we are glad to see strangers take the lands of our ancient foes. Besides, the Winterhoof Tribe will soon depart these hunting grounds.”

“Where will you go?”

“To Camp Oneqwah, home of the Coldmane Tribe. Few from either tribe survive, so combining our forces is a simple matter.”

“Have you lost many to the Scourge?”

“More than half our braves lie dead in the forests to the south. Vrykul reavers slaughtered an entire band of taunka, and the ancestors demanded blood in repayment. Fifty of us trekked into the forests, a host of spirits at our backs. Three days we fought, taunka spear against vrykul ax. We killed more than our number, yet they never stopped. That is why we must leave the lands where our fathers hunted.”

“What of the Coldmane Tribe? How did they lose so many?”

“There the blame lies on the Kirovi. Even after their towns fell to the Scourge they persisted in their evil ways. As it is the eagle’s nature to fly, so too is it the Kirovi’s nature to be wicked.”

“Has there ever been peace between your peoples?”

“We set aside our differences to do battle against the magnataurs, though that was long ago. Sometimes we traded, yet always with doubt.”

“Were they unwilling to help you fight the Scourge?”

“Most were already dead by the time we realized the Scourge was a threat. Spirits of wind and air told us of enemy movements, but the Kirovi were caught unaware.”

“I see.”

Pahnuk and Lomok went to sleep, while I mulled over what I had learned. Northrend was a violent place long before the Scourge ever came to Azeroth. I did find it odd that the Kirovi would continue to fight the taunka after the Scourge decimated their kingdom. I could not help wondering if there was more to the story than what Pahnuk knew.

The taunka are certainly more aggressive than the tauren, yet I was not sure why. While Kalimdor is less hostile than Northrend, the tauren spent much of their history suffering persecution at the hands of the centaurs and quilboar. The tribes still bear great animosity towards those two races, but they seem less eager to advertise their hatred. All the talk of shedding the blood of ancient enemies made Pahnuk sound almost like an orc. Eagerness to learn more about the taunka kept me up for some time, before I finally forced myself to sleep.

We reached Camp Winterhoof just before noon the next day. Camp Winterhoof is a gathering of wooden huts on a rocky bluff, puffs of smoke rising into the mountain air. Surrounded by miles of icy highlands and forests, Camp Winterhoof is easy to miss. I could hear the wind’s hollow cry somewhere in the distance, though the air remained still. I figured it came from one of the gullies that furrow Gjalerhorn’s slopes.

A lone, white-furred taunka stood at the gates, really just two posts marking the entrance to Camp Winterhoof. Stretched hides hang from the posts, decorated with a harsh and angular script that bore little resemblance to the Taurahe pictograms I’d seen in Thunder Bluff.

“My heart is gladdened to see you again, Pahnuk and Lomok. I am also happy to see that our visitor has safely arrived,” he said, offering a slight nod.

I stopped, stunned, the moment I entered Camp Winterhoof. A tempest raged and howled in place, bright lights flashing through its cloudy body. Suspended over a pool of water, the storm’s movement did not send a single ripple across the surface. The sound of wind intensified, the storm twisting like a living thing in pain. Three taunka stood before the storm, two of them babbling and twitching as if possessed.

“What is this?” I asked, amazed at the sight.

“A storm spirit,” answered Pahnuk. “Our shamans heard him laughing in the north, ready to bring freezing winds and killing frost to our people. He has paid for his foolishness.”

“He’s a prisoner?”

“For now. We may set him free, we may harness his power to our own ends. We may even destroy him. The shamans will decide.”

The whirlwind reared back like a snake and lashed forward, bursting with lightning as it slammed into an invisible wall. Shrieking with rage it struggled against its bonds. I immediately barraged Pahnuk with questions, amazed at the difference from the reverent tauren, who would never seek to imprison a spirit.

“Please, Destron. It is not my place to speak of this. You should consult one of our shamans. I can arrange a meeting, if you would like.”

“I would appreciate that,” I said, my attention again drifting to the imprisoned spirit. I sensed the terrible power within, the full fury of a northern storm held in place by the shamans’ will.

Panuk led me to a dwelling of interwoven wooden branches, insulated by hide tarps. Four esteemed-looking taunka were at the entrance, their eyes on me. One of them, dressed in comparatively elaborate fur robes, bowed and introduced himself as Chieftain Ashtotem, leader of the Winterhoof Tribe.

“All friends of the Winterhoof are welcome here,” he said.

They left after a perfunctory exchange. Much as it is with the tauren, the arrival of a new guest is something of an occasion. This custom is more formal among the taunka, indicated by the presence of the tribal chieftain and elders. Undeath, in and of itself, does not appear to especially alarm the taunka. If anything, they respect the Forsaken for being strong enough to defy the Scourge.

I spent the day speaking to the taunka. Different from the Shu’halo in many respects, they share their southern cousins’ propensity for etiquette. I learned that no family within a tribe bears the tribal name. The Winterhoof name, said one, is of great import. To claim it would be the height of arrogance. While the taunka have an adversarial relationship with nature spirits, they are still deeply respectful of the ancestor spirits.

Taunka legends refer to the Times Past, an idyllic era when the land basked under long days and balmy nights. Few specifics are described, the Times Past devoid of great heroes or ancestors. Only the Earthmother is mentioned.

Like all golden ages, it ended in fire and death. Evil sorcerers enriched themselves with dark magic, and the Earthmother fled the world in shame and despair. Only her eyes remain, watching the world she so loves from her heavenly abode. When she departed, the spirits struck back in wrath, punishing the world with terrible cataclysms.

Here arise the great culture heroes of the taunka, the legendary founders of the tribes. Winterhoof the Firebringer, who crossed the tundra in search of warmth, was one. Cruel spirits of frost and snow mocked his quest, cursing him so that his hooves spread frost wherever he walked. Angry, he struck down the weaker forest spirits, chopping them asunder and building a pyre from their remains. Since then, even the simplest taunka could conjure the spirits of flame with flint and tinder. Such spiritual confrontations are common in taunka myth.

“Many did great wickedness during the Times Past, consorting with dark spirits. Yet not all of the ancestors committed such sins. So why were we punished? The Earthmother had already left, so the spirits did not act on her behalf. Spirits of nature are haughty and cruel, thinking they have the right to hurt whomever they please. Our ancestors taught us how to fight back,” said a young taunka woman named Kondas Chilltotem.

Descent is matrilineal in taunka culture, though they are not a matriarchy. However, the chieftain’s eldest daughter (called monghada, or blood-giver) wields great power in the tribe. When she chooses a mate, the leadership of the tribe passes on to the husband. Once the monghada comes of age, the tribe undergoes a week-long festival centered around competitions amongst the tribe’s unmarried braves. These include hunting, skinning, singing, and other skills. Male shamans are not eligible for this, since their control over the spirits would give them an unfair advantage.

Exactly who wins these competitions is a complicated affair. The monghada determine the best applicant based by how well he performs in all fields. This decision is not left to the monghada alone. She must confer with the other women in her family before coming to a decision. The chieftain has no say in the matter.

So as to avoid early romantic entanglements, the chieftain’s eldest daughter is discouraged from forming emotional bonds with the men of the tribe. Of course, complete segregation in such an intimate environment is impossible. Certainly the myths are full of taunka princesses who chose their mate based on a purely romantic attachment. Perhaps as a cautionary measure, these tales rarely end well for the couple. Still, their existence suggests that such behavior is known to occur.

Aside from the monghada, taunka tribes (at least in eastern Northrend), strongly encourage exogamy. Most marriages are held when tribes hold trademeets with their neighbors. Taunka of the Winterhoof Tribe typically marry into the Coldmane Tribe of the Grizzly Hills. In better times, they also married individuals from the now-defunct Bitterhorn Tribe of eastern Dragonblight, survivors of which now live among the Winterhoof. The husband always moves into the wife’s tribe.

At the time of my arrival, the only Horde citizens at Camp Winterhoof were a trio of orcs from Conquest Hold, a fortress in the Grizzly Hills. I spoke to one named Karrug Bloodblade, asking him about the Horde’s relationship with the taunka.

“I find I like them,” he said. He’d recently returned from accompanying some taunka on a hunt for rams, and was lounging in a hot spring just outside of camp. “They are brave, pragmatic: will be good additions to the Horde, I’d say.”

“They are not yet official members?”

“No. There’s no central authority for us to contact. Closest thing to that is the Icemist Tribe, and they only have influence in the east. Eastern and western taunka are like two entirely different peoples.”

“How so?”

“Eastern tribes, like Winterhoof here, call themselves the taunka’haga, or taunka of the hunt. The western tribes are more settled, and they call themselves the taunka’loba, taunka of the herd. They herd runty northern kodos, or sometimes woolly mammoths.”

“Herding does inspire a different culture.”

“The western tribes are also much bigger. I think the taunka’haga look down on the herders a bit. Not much—taunka still spend a great deal of effort trying to be polite—but the dislike is there.”

“Are there any tribes hostile to us?”

“None that we know. The taunka are in sore need of friends. Maybe you haven’t heard, but they even made some deals with Fort Wildervar.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Like I said, a pragmatic people. Anything that gets humans fighting humans is good, though I don’t think the Stormwinders are going to war against the Kirovi anytime soon. I think the time is ready for someone to unite the taunka. Each tribe knows it can’t survive on its own.”

“What do the tauren think of the taunka? The two races take very different approaches to shamanism.”

“Hard for me to say, though the tauren I’ve met all feel conflicted. I talked to a Runetotem shaman back at Conquest Hold, and she said that the taunka and the spirits both need to work towards peace. At the same time, she was obviously reluctant to make demands of the taunka, as that would be prideful and impolite. I doubt much will change with the taunka. They love challenging the spirits.”

I spent three days in Camp Winterhoof, learning as much as I could about the taunka. As Karrug said, the hunter tribes consider themselves a world apart from the herders. However, I do not think the attitude towards the herders is contemptuous. Most in the Winterhoof Tribe regard herding an acceptable pursuit, though only for the western tribes. As the Winterhoof ancestors hunted, so too does the modern Winterhoof Tribe.

Like the tauren, the taunka decorate their encampments with ornately carved totem poles. Larger and more complex than the tauren variety, these totem poles are considered anchors for the ancestor spirits. The main pole is the single most important artifact in any tribe’s possession, and the braves will do anything to defend it.

Pahnuk arranged for me to meet with the senior shaman, one Greatmother Ankha. He guided me to the Winterhoof totem pole, which stands nearly as tall as the surrounding trees. At the top is a rough taunka head, its ancient eyes watching over Camp Winterhoof. Smaller poles flank it, acting as additional spiritual conduits. Energy flows through that place, like ghostly words felt, not heard, in the cold air. An aged taunka woman sat next to a fire near the totem’s base. Taunka women do not look so different from their tauren equivalents, though they are larger and shaggier.

“Greatmother,” said Pahnuk. “I bring Destron.”

“Thank you, child. Return to your duties, and may the ancestors guide your path. Destron, please sit down. I am glad that you are so curious about our people. Few outside of Northrend even know of the taunka, from what I hear.”

“I seek to learn as much as possible,” I said, sitting down on a log. Ankha smiled.

“I am sure that you know how we differ from the Shu’halo. We see the spirits as adversaries.”

“Given the climate here, I can understand why.”

“Do you disagree?”

“My people can neither see nor feel the spirits. It would be deeply presumptuous of me to agree or disagree. For the time being, I am content to accept.”

“The tauren are a wise people, but I fear they are weak. The ancestors are silent when I ask them why the tauren were saved from the Spirit War; why they can live in peace with the land. Perhaps the ancestors prefer it this way, for it makes the taunka strong.”

“The tauren spent much of their history in a death struggle against the centaurs and quilboar. They’ve also suffered greatly.”

“This is true, and I do not claim otherwise. Yet they speak with the land, and the land sometimes listens. The spirits of the north do not care for us. In the spirit world, only the ancestors are our friends.”

“Do they aid you in fighting the spirits of nature?”

“We could not do it without them. Our fathers look out from the totem’s eyes. Wood rots, but the totem pole above us has lasted since we first set hoof on these lands. From here they speak, and lend us their power. That is how we captured the errant storm spirit you saw when you arrived. Even the greatest shaman could not do such a thing alone; only the spirits in this totem make it possible. That is why we guard it with our lives.”

“How does one become a shaman, if I may ask?”

“Taunka children who hear the voices more clearly than their peers are brought to the Greatmother or Greatfather—there is only one at any given time. The child is trained, and when they come of age, they go to the cruelest and most remote spot within the tribe’s territory. There they challenge the spirits, and no spirit will tolerate an insult from a neophyte shaman. Survival is success.”

“Is failure common?”

“A tribe cannot survive long with too many failures. Most among the Winterhoof succeed.”

“Pardon my ignorance, but could not the spirits simply gather and wipe out your tribe?”

“Such is within their power, yet the spirits rarely work with one another. The taunka do, and that is our strength. Storm spirits are especially arrogant, and fall prey to our wards.”

Later that day, as a vast red sun sank into the west, I saw Greatmother Ankha lead the other shamans in an age-old ceremony of ancestral respect. All five stood before the totem pole, Ankha swaying her arms while rooted in place. Her hands shook like an epileptic’s, eyes rolled back in her head as she sang in a shrill and quivering voice. Drummers seated along the perimeter started up a brisk beat. The other shamans shook their bodies in time to the beat, their low voices a growling chorus to Ankha’s ghostly lead. There was nothing comforting about the ritual. If anything, it sounded like a dirge.

Monday, August 17, 2009

State of the Travelogue ((OOC))

Hey, everybody.

First off, this isn't really an update. Now, before anyone gets worried, I promise to finish everything in Northrend. However, I'm starting to really doubt that I'll continue on to Cataclysm, for several reasons.

I'm sure most everyone has seen the rumors swirling around the Internet. Honestly, I feel pretty silly even speculating on them, since they are just rumors. That said, I'm inclined to suspect that this rearrangement of Azeroth's geography is going to happen, mostly due to the globes seen in the Halls of Lightning.

I just don't have much interest in returning to these zones, even if they are altered beyond recognition. Some of this stems from my sentimental attachment towards the zones in their current states; this probably comes from writing so much about them. Still, that's one of the risks of fanfiction. Someone once likened writing fanfic to playing in another person's backyard. To further this comparison, if the owner decides to tear out the flower bed and replace it with a swimming pool, there's not a whole lot the writer can do about it.

Here's the real issue: even if these rumors are completely false and Blizzard offers 100% new content, I'm not sure I should cover Cataclysm. I've been working on the travelogue since 2006. It's some of the most fun I've ever had in writing, and it's been great getting feedback from readers. At the same time, it's a bit limiting. I'm not sure how much more the travelogue can let me grow as a writer. My original fiction has fallen by the side, all but abandoned.

Now, nothing's set in stone just yet. Obviously, a lot depends on what's revealed in BlizzCon this weekend. A more conventional expansion might change my stance, to a degree. Still, I need to explore other kinds of writing, so if I do write about Cataclysm, it will probably be in a more limited capacity.

I don't necessarily think that Blizzard changing the old world around is a bad thing. It does make the setting more dynamic, and I think a lot of people like the idea. Ultimately, it doesn't sound like something I'd enjoy. Maybe I'll be impressed enough with the flooded Barrens that I'll continue, but again, probably in a limited capacity, with chapters that are shorter (though still of high quality).

Anyway, I wanted to let everyone know about what's in the future for this blog. If you have any comments or questions, please post them: I'll respond as soon as possible.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Howling Fjord: Part 2

The death factory of New Agamand sickens the southern reaches of the Howling Fjord, a metallic sore on the landscape. While the Hand of Vengeance rules with unquestioned authority in Vengeance Landing, the Apothecarium controls New Agamand. Blight inundates the sickly forests around the base, a yellow haze that clings to the rotting trees.

Discarded experiments putrefy in the mud of New Agamand, piles of necrotic sludge reaching up to the knees in some spots. For the living, the stench must be beyond belief. I arrived as abominations unloaded a zeppelin sent in from Undercity, laden with all manner of reagents. Trails of dried blood meander along the roads, another layer to the carrion rot untouched by any scavenger.

“Apothecaries aren’t much for cleanliness,” explained a low-ranking apothecary named Inrik Baston. He managed a small crew of abominations who worked to keep sludge off of the foot paths.

“How did they create so much waste?” I asked, sickened by the sight. I wondered what I would have thought had I come across New Agamand earlier in my travels, when I felt greater identification with the Forsaken.

“This is the largest RAS research center in the world. The Undercity lab’s practically empty now. Faranell and his associates still rattle around back there, but all the serious work is done here. More subjects, you understand.”

“Scourge minions?”

“Vrykul, which are better for our purposes than regular ghouls. I’m really more of a custodian, but I still know that testing on vrykul offers great versatility. After all, we’ve plenty of living enemies beyond the Scourge.”

“Like whom?”

“Is that a joke?”

“I’m wondering whom you consider an enemy.”

Inrik removed his goggles, the flesh around his sockets crinkling with suspicion.

“The Scarlet Crusade, for one. The Alliance. The rest of the Horde, even. They bear no love for us. We captured an Alliance spy last week, lurking out in the forests. He proved a valuable resource for our researchers. Does this disturb you, Destron?”

I left Inrik wondering if I’d crossed a line. New Agamand is a place forged by hatred, both against and from the Forsaken. I knew—vaguely—of the evils committed in the Apothecarium Quarter of Undercity. Words of warning from myself and other Forsaken dissidents went to the Horde’s highest authorities, though without confirmation they could take no action.

The Apothecarium operates without constraints in New Agamand. Inrik’s attitude is far from singular, and many of his peers also consider the Horde an acceptable target. If they feel they can perform such deeds openly, what horrors might they hide? Spies must be executed in a war, even an undeclared one, but there is still a limit to what one can do as deterrence.

The New Agamand lab is the centerpiece of the town. An immense machine, the lab is a staggeringly complex array of gears and steel supports. Moving metal arms clank along the surface, their claws gripping glass containers filled with toxins. Veins of lightning writhe at the top, capped by a skeletal crown of coils and metal spheres.

A narrow doorway leads to a sulfurous darkness lit by poison lanterns and gas torches. Metal desks line the walls, marked by lattices of chemical scars. Robed alchemists in various states of ruin work in frenzied silence, burned fingers sorting flasks and papers.

Undeniably grim, the lab’s interior is less horrific than its facade suggests. No bloody remnants litter the floor, for the simple reason that the workplace must stay relatively clean.

“Here we concoct the formulas necessary to our efforts in Northrend,” explained an apothecary named Steleer Tredentus. Almost completely untouched by decay, he nearly looked human.


“Entirely. New Agamand receives the full array of the Society’s resources, giving us remarkable freedom in our work.”

Only then did I notice the grisly materials on Steleer’s desk. Flasks of blood and bile crowded each other for space on the far end, while a fragment of skin was stretched out across metal webwork, the pale expanse covered in oozing yellow sores.

“What is this?”

“A sample of vrykul skin, kept alive via mana current. The wearer of the skin died after exposure to a mild necrotizing agent, one that causes fluids to pour out from weeping sores. Ideally, it will so ruin the body that the Scourge will find their corpses to be all but useless. The intense tissue damage serves another purpose as well. For all their savage behavior, the vrykul seem inordinately concerned with personal appearance. You should hear how our subjects scream about the storage conditions; it's enough to distract one from this momentous work. Keeping prisoners underneath the lab does have its drawbacks.”

“How many prisoners do you currently hold?”

“Only a few vrykul. Hopefully the troops will bring in some more vrykul or humans.”

“You must know a great deal about vrykul biology,” I said, forcing myself to look at his handiwork.

“We’re learning a great deal. Vrykul are very similar to humans, so what works against them may well work against our former friends, should it prove necessary. The really amazing thing about the vrykul is the density of their bones, which is one reason for their incredible durability in combat. This trait does make it hard for them to swim for very long, as tests demonstrate.”

“I see.”

“Most of the weapons we develop here are supplementary; things with which a soldier might coat his blades. I cannot say where the large-scale weapons are researched, but suffice to say they are not here.”

“Do the vrykul attack New Agamand often?”

“No, though they realize it’s important in some way. We take great pains to ensure that no one escapes, though I’m sure one will eventually. There’s still nothing here they would be able to fully understand, since their alchemical knowledge is basic at best.”

“Why are you an apothecary?” I’m not sure where this question came from. It welled up unbidden, an attempt to find some kind of answer.

“What an odd question! I worked as an alchemist in life, in Lordaeron’s army to be specific. Most of my skills survived the transition, and I quickly relearned what I forgot. The Apothecarium was an obvious choice.”

What I truly wondered, but was afraid to voice, was how he justified his actions. That he interpreted my question as purely utilitarian may have been answer enough.

Not all of the alchemists in New Agamand take such a clinical approach. Some are consumed by rage, and still others take a curiously self-righteous stance. One alchemist thrust a pamphlet in my hands, written by a Forsaken agitator. I will not bother to reprint its contents here. Suffice to say, it was a furious screed that confused justice with vengeance.

Perhaps the shock of undeath allowed Forsaken anger to remain in a contained state. The Defilers inculcated this rage, but their efforts were largely limited to the fanatics. Where they stopped, the Retribution cultists sowed more anger. Surely, I prayed, the Forsaken were too diffuse to ever be united under such a loathsome ideology. Many Forsaken despise the living, but outside of the fighters they seldom act on their hatred.

I left the lab, fearful and unsure. New Agamand proved what Vengeance Landing had suggested. I want to stress that I am no friend of the Scourge or its allies; peace in our world requires nothing less than military victory against the Lich King’s forces, living and undead. I only oppose the sickening hatred that holds sway in the Apothecarium. Whatever its proponents claim, we Forsaken are not alone. The Horde stands by us, and they see no need for such cruelty. Could not the resources spent on these weapons be better spent on improved equipment for the soldiers? Perhaps more aerial support?

Drab gray tents outside the lab shake in the wind, Forsaken flesh-crafters taking vrykul bodies and reconstituting them into new abominations. Saws and cleavers break bone and flesh, part of the day’s bloody work. Most abominations in the Forsaken homeland are leftovers from the Scourge, their pliable minds easily bent to the Dark Lady’s will. Northrend offers the Forsaken limitless fuel for new abominations. Now they do to the vrykul what the Scourge once did to us.

My feet took me to New Agamand’s headquarters, a clone of its counterpart in Vengeance Landing. I passed by the Forsaken in silence, seeing them through the eyes of the living. Rotted faces took on horrific aspects, as alien to me as they were when I first awoke. So easy, I thought, to descend to base impulses. Would I be any different had I stayed in Undercity?

Empathy for the living does not come naturally to the Forsaken, and we must struggle to feel it. Many do not even make the attempt. My hope is that the Forsaken will cast off the pursuit of vengeance, for each individual in the race to find constructive reasons to exist. The failure of the apothecaries to do this, the fact that they did the opposite, disappointed me.

In other words, I failed to be empathic. The experimentation on the vrykul and humans disturbed me less than the failure of the Forsaken to live up to their potential. Some part of me still regarded the living as irrevocably foreign. I only cared about the living insofar as it affected the Forsaken.

Is the Scarlet Crusade then correct? If, after all my travels and experiences, I still failed on this basic level, are the Forsaken truly damned? I tried to convince myself that humans often behaved in similar ways. Yet my misplaced priorities, a self-righteous indignation at the Forsaken not living up to my expectations, suggested a disturbing possibility.

I tried to imagine my friends in the Darkbriar Lodge falling victims to the apothecaries, and that at least sparked fear and horror for their fates.

Should I try to free the prisoners? I realized I could not. What right did I have to free an enemy who might kill my countrymen? I could not be sure that the prisoner would change his attitude because of such a gesture, I was not willing to risk the lives of Horde soldiers and civilians in order to test a moral point. The Horde had sheltered the Forsaken when no one else would, and we are as indebted to them as we are to the Dark Lady. Perhaps my desire to help the Horde was a form of empathy, though even the wicked appreciate those who help them.

I tried to console myself with the fact that rescuing prisoners (if any still lived in New Agamand), was impossible. Yet that was simply an excuse; to be honest with myself, I had to ask myself what I would do if I were capable of releasing them. Ultimately, I would not. Loyalty is a virtue, just as acceptance of cruelty is a sin. Nothing I could do was completely right.

I drifted to the deepest level of the headquarters, a barren candlelit cellar filled with empty coffins. I sat alone for a while, brooding. Later, I heard footsteps on the stairway and looked up to see a Forsaken in apothecary robes making his way down the steps, a metal cane supporting his broken form. Obviously an old man at the time of his death, war had further damaged his features. Not knowing why, I stood up and offered to help him navigate the stairs. A lopsided grin brightened his wrinkled face.

“I can make it on my own, thank you. Few Forsaken come down this far, and fewer still show inclination to help. You’re new here?”

“Yes, just came down from visiting the lab.”

“You look disturbed.”

“I do?”

“No shame in it. Any decent Forsaken would be disturbed by what goes on there. That’s why I do my work down here; the lab has no room for my research.”

“What research is that?”

“Improved healing techniques. I have no materials to work with, so I limit myself to sketching out my theories. My name's Enstam Morley, by the way.”

“Destron Allicant.”

Enstam reached the landing and made his way to a tiny desk in the corner, his cane clinking on the stone floor.

“You know, our Dark Lady designed the Apothecarium to work towards two goals: defense and restoration. Over time, we forgot about restoration.”

“What happened?”

“Grand Apothecary Faranell kept pushing us to research new plagues. Some of us objected, not wanting anything to do with plagues, but they were expelled or overruled. Varimathras backed Faranell on this, maybe our Dark Lady too. Hard to say, since she stopped visiting the Apothecarium once the Third War ended. Varimathras showed up on occasion.”

“So now Faranell runs the Society?”

“Not any longer. Faranell’s a strange and twisted man. He stopped researching real weapons, preferring to spend all of his time torturing Scarlet Crusade prisoners. I’m not sure if he even considers himself a scientist. Putress is in charge now, and he wants to destroy as much as possible.”

“No one works for restoration?”

“Some still do, mostly in Tranquilien.” I remembered the apothecaries I met in the Ghostlands, trying to heal that sorrowful realm.

“Why are you here?”

“They promised us unlimited resources. I didn’t realize they were all for war. I fully expect to be shipped back to Undercity any day now. Small loss, if you ask me. The other apothecaries and I don’t want much to do with each other. I’ve told my Tranquilien compatriots about what goes on here. Most of them are properly aghast; Putress has friends there too, though they’re in the minority. All we can do is tell others about the Apothecarium's crimes.”

“Has it worked?”

“Too early to tell. I’m not sure if it’s enough.”

I am not sure either.


My spirits lifted once I left New Agamand and entered the boundless prairies of the south. The world’s affairs pale into insignificance when compared to the vast dome of the sky and the gusty winds sweeping down from the north. The open quality in parts of Northrend’s landscape seems to promise freedom, a feeling similar to what a first time traveler might experience in Mulgore or the Barrens.

The shoveltusk reigns as the undisputed king of the southern plains. Resembling shaggy cows with outlandish tusks and bone crests, the amble across the landscape in groups of five to ten, each led by a stag. Aggressive and territorial, the stags endlessly compete for mates and grazing land. Charging into each other at astonishing speed during their disputes, the sound of the impact echoes for miles. Wolf packs working in concert can take down smaller shoveltusks, but a full grown specimen is more than a match for any local predator. This includes hunters, who often underestimate the tenacity of the shoveltusk. They now operate with more care when pursuing such dangerous prey.

Legends describe the northern storms in tones of awe, and I can say that they do not exaggerate by much. Black clouds rumbled over the peninsula two days west of New Agamand and torrential rains soon poured down from the skies. The crash of rain only served to invigorate me, and I felt cleansed of New Agamand’s taint. I resolved to help the dissident apothecaries of Tranquilien by alerting the Horde to Forsaken activities. Doubtless, many already know. I can only hope that another voice in the choir will help to convince those with more power.

I arrived at Westguard Keep hours after the storm ended, soaking wet and caked in mud. Situated on a windswept crag leaning over the ocean, Westguard Keep protects the Alliance interests of colonization and archaeology in the region. Cannons and barricades block the road leading into Westguard, manned by troops from Stormwind’s Third Legion and a few auxiliary militiamen.

“You there! Name?” demanded a middle-aged officer.

“Talus Corestiam.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Valgarde, and Menethil before that,” I answered.


“No, merely a mage doing research. I’m headed to Wintergarde, to help out in the war effort.”

“Very good. Sign at the registry once you get inside; we need to keep track of everyone.” He saluted me, and I returned the gesture.

I signed my name at the wooden gate house and entered Westguard Keep. The namesake fort watches the horizon near the edge of the complex, its parapets bristling with cannons. Work teams labor at half-built homes on the southern end of the enclosure, while the more settled north side is a teeming array of tents and wooden houses. Everything has a rough and ready feel, typical for a frontier settlement. Nearly everyone is armed, though they do not hold their weapons with much confidence.

Considering its frontier status, Westguard Keep sports a number of surprising aesthetic concessions. A heroic scale statue of Muradin Bronzebeard raises his hammer in Westguard’s defense. Sculptors were still chipping away at the base when I arrived. Muradin was the brother of Khaz Modan’s king, murdered by Arthas during the Third War. I talked to a human sculptor named Vistan, who was resting from his labors with a tankard of warm ale.

“Why all the effort for this statue?” I asked.

“Ah, well, Westguard Keep is actually a joint venture between Stormwind’s Valiance Expedition and Khaz Modan’s Explorers' League. Captain Adams wants this as a sign of our unity.”

“Captain Adams is in charge of Westguard?”

“He never lets us forget it,” smirked Vistan. “Don’t let the name fool you; he’s a dwarf. How he got a name like Adams is anyone’s guess. Plenty of rumors, but it’s not wise to speak of them in public.”

Though less well-known than Valgarde, Westguard Keep is easily the biggest Alliance settlement in the region, due in part to the colonists. Much like in Valgarde, they find their plans stymied by the local threats, which are not limited to the vrykul and Forsaken.

Lieutenant Enille Parston is a hard-looking woman, a Lordaeronian survivor of the Third War. Tasked with defending Westguard Keep, she told me about the Northsea Freebooters who sail the western coast in search of plunder.

“These bastards are more of a nuisance than anything else, but we can’t completely ignore them,” she snorted. “After the goblins started pushing in on Lost Rigger Cove some of the pirates made their way up north. Half of the fools died in the first winter, and their fleet’s barely seaworthy.”

“Do they attack the Alliance?”

“They murder small groups of settlers. Mostly they steal from vrykul graves and terrorize Kamagua, the tuskarr settlement.”

“How do the tuskarr fare against them?”

“All they can do is hold their ground. No one knows these waters like the tuskarr, but they only have a few ships of any size. Mostly kayaks, for fishing.”

“Is the Alliance helping them?”

“We will, as soon as we can. Right now they’re a second priority for us, what with these vrykul savages and deaders all around. It’s going to be a long while before we secure this place. We’ll do it, but not overnight.”

When not at work, Westguard’s colonist population congregates in the settlement’s unusually large inn. Many of them discuss their plans and hopes for Northrend. The colonists are officially part of the Valiance Expedition, but only receive lukewarm support from the expedition’s leaders.

“Security’s the first priority,” said Costan Merrel, a heavily built former cook who acts as the de facto leader of the colonists. “Not just for Stormwind, but also for the dwarves in the Explorers' League.”

“Do the dwarves play an important role in the colonization effort?”

“An essential role. Stormwind’s finances aren’t in the best shape. King Varian returned to the throne to find everything in complete disarray. Stormwind needs Northrend’s resources, and the dwarves are bankrolling our efforts.”

“What about rebuilding Stormwind’s infrastructure and opening it up to trade? Wouldn’t that also restore the kingdom’s prosperity?”

Costan’s brow furrowed.

“Why not expand?” he scoffed. “The Alliance needs more territory. We wasted a fortune trying to control Outland, and no one really benefitted from it. Northrend’s our only option.”

I rather doubt Costan’s assessment of the situation, though my perspective is biased. Varian strikes me as someone hungry for glory, more interested in ruling a far-flung empire than in maintaining and enriching his current holdings. Colonies are very expensive, and it remains to be seen if Stormwind’s Northrend efforts prove worthwhile.

I spoke with another colonist early the next morning, a Stormwind City native named Fuldor Ambersen. Short and wiry, he seemed an unlikely candidate for Northrend’s colonization, but his slight appearance concealed a determined personality. Born to refugee parents, he did not see Stormwind City until well after its reconstruction. After his parents died, he lived a hand to mouth existence on the streets of the Old Town, jealously guarding his few possessions. Northrend presented him with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“They told me that a man could get land up here, more land than the richest farmers in Westfall. We knew the risks of course, but no one thought we’d spend so much time waiting for permission to settle.”

“When do you expect to get permission?”

“I’ve no way of knowing. Recruiters told us tales about smashing through the Scourge alongside the Alliance’s best, but they mostly keep us in reserve. For the best really; I’ve been in combat up here a few times, and its not to my liking. I’ll fight when needed though. The big problem comes from the native humans, the Kirovi.”

“How so?”

“I knew about the Kirovi before, but most of us thought they were all but wiped out. Mind you, I’m glad that many are still alive. We need all the help we can get against the Scourge. But they claim much of this land!”

“They did live here for hundreds of years,” I pointed out.

“I know, I sympathize with them. But I’m risking my life up here, and the Alliance is the only hope the Kirovi even have for survival. I can’t go back to Stormwind, there’s nothing for me there except a life in the gutters. King Varian himself promised us land, and one way or another, we will get what we are owed.”

I do not know the Alliance’s stance towards the Kirovi. While a fair number of Kirovi fight alongside the Alliance forces in Wintergarde, most still conceal themselves in the wilderness. They will certainly not stand by and allow Stormwind to take their land after defeating the Scourge.

In return for sponsoring the Valiance Expedition, the Alliance forces are required to support the efforts of the Explorers' League. No one objects to this; the dwarves do more than their share of the work in the Howling Fjord. Most of the money for the Valiance Expedition actually comes from the private fortunes of wealthy dwarves, eager to learn more about their race’s history.

“I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but I can’t say I’m entirely happy about the arrangement.”

Annila Steelfinger handles the administrative aspects of the Explorers' League in Westguard Keep. Educated in some of Khaz Modan’s finest schools, she makes no attempt to hide her political ambitions. Nonetheless, she is a passionate advocate of the league’s efforts in Northrend.

“Why is that?”

“Our finances come with a catch, and a rather disturbing one at that. Ironforge’s most prestigious clans now want a stake in Titan lore, even though most of them didn’t give a thought to the Explorers' League before the Third War. Basically, politics is interfering with research, and if there’s two things that should never go together, it’s politics and research!”

“I agree,” I said, thinking back to the Apothecarium. “How do their political interests affect you?”

“Put simply, they want us to bring back proof that the dwarves are the inheritors of the Titan legacy, that we’re the rightful stewards of Azeroth. Funding for the Valiance Expedition depends on us telling them what they want to hear.”

“They won’t accept contradictory evidence?”

“It’d make them right mad if that’s what we found. They didn’t say this explicitly, but it’s there if you read between the lines. Something like the league’s goals including: ‘Revealing the cosmic mandate of the Titan-forged races.’ But no one knows exactly what, if anything, the Titans intended for us to do. Claiming a cosmic mandate seems a touch premature, wouldn’t you say?”

“Would they really stop funding if their theories were disproved?”

“They occupy about three-fourths of the senate, and the senate controls the treasury.”

“Wouldn’t the rest of the Alliance object to this?”

“I’m sure they would, and they could probably strong-arm the senate if they really tried. But that’s a political squabble we can’t deal with right now. I don’t think the senate really understands how dangerous the Scourge is.”

“What about the draenei and night elves?”

“Both of them run atypical economies, and wouldn’t really be able to fund a human expedition. And Stormwind’s all but bankrupt; they’re still getting their tax system back together. Point is, we can’t research freely until after the Lich King is dead. I know Brann Bronzebeard is right furious with the senate, but there’s only so much he can do. Then again, knowing Brann, he might just ignore them.”

“You’ve met Brann?”

“A few times, he’s an amazing dwarf. We need more like him in this world.”

“Earlier you mentioned something about the Titan-forged races. These would include races other than dwarves?”

“Well, the Senators who drafted our charter insist that it means dwarves first, humans and gnomes second. They’d stop funding us if it turned out that the trolls were created by the Titans.”

I thought back to my travels through Loch Modan, where the archaeologist Ironbrand had described a similar theory. While always a bit clannish, the Bronzebeard dwarves never before followed such an arrogant philosophy, and this new development is disturbing on several levels. Proof will probably not matter to the more fanatical senators; they have already made up their minds. If that is the case, what is to become of the races who are not “Titan-forged”?

I think that the dwarves will eventually return to form. Their practical and level-headed culture is not easily compatible with strange, race-based theories. However, the stresses afflicting the dwarven nation may change their culture in unforeseen ways.

I left Westguard Keep the day after I met Annila, heading east into the densest forests of the Howling Fjord.


Vyldra grinned, firelight dancing on her chiseled vrykul features, white teeth flashing in the gloom. Piercing eyes scanned the mists beyond the clearing, her hand never straying from the massive spear lying at her side. I could so easily see her as the idol of some ancient war goddess, her pride and ferocity obvious. The edge of that spear had been at my throat only a few minutes earlier, and I could not yet calm my fears. Nonetheless, I maintained the stoic facade that so impressed her, a task made easier by undeath.

For all her size, Vyldra caught me completely off-guard, whirling from behind a towering pine to pin me with her spear. I froze upon feeling its tip press down on my neck, wondering if I dared cast a spell. Quick as a snake she'd grabbed the front of my coat, removed the spear, and pulled me forward, complimenting me for maintaining composure. Introducing herself as Vyldra Bloody-Haired, Daughter of Vadrad, she took me to her campsite a mile south of the road. She lit the flames as wolves howled lonesome in the forest dark.

“You’re certainly the most personable vrykul I’ve met so far,” I said, after a long silence.

“Do not yet think me your friend, Destron. I spared your life as a hunter might spare a calf too young to offer sustenance. I care little for you or your kind.”

“I see. What exactly do you intend for me, if I may ask?”

“Doom approaches, both for me and for my people. Too long have we slumbered, and the world moves on without us. King Ymiron blasphemes against the All-Father, thinking his Death God will save him. Cowards deserve only death, and I shall have no part in his plans. I will embrace my doom like a lover, for there is no honor in long life. You will help me find what I seek.”

“King Ymiron?”

She snarled.

“Ymiron disgraces the throne of his father, the chill of cowardice grips his feeble bones! The Last Winter falls on the world and the doom of the vrykul is to die in glory, not to seek the false promise of unlife.”

I tried to make sense of what she said. Rumors spoke of undead vrykul, surely the doing of the Lich King. Did the vrykul serve the Lich King in hopes of achieving undeath? This tied in with what I heard about the vrykul not having any children. Clearly, some vrykul stood against the Scourge, though this did not make them allies.

“Forgive me, I am not familiar with any of this. Could you explain more?”

“Rest now, little undead, if you have need of it. We shall rise with dawn’s light and enter the hewn halls of Skorn, home of my father. All shall be revealed there.”

“Am I your prisoner?”

“You are a prisoner of yourself, bound by the promise of knowledge that only I can give. Few vrykul will share their secrets.”

“Am I free to go?”

“Yes. I can always find another.”

We let the fire burn itself out, dwindling to a single spark. When it faded, I thought I could still see Vyldra’s fierce eyes shining in the darkness.

True to her word, we started down the road just as the sun’s first rays strained through the trees. Vyldra bounded forward like a creature of the forest, each movement swift and sure, and I struggled to keep pace.

Vyldra explained her plans as we walked. Jarl Bjorn Halgurdsson ruled the Winterskorn Clan, the latest in a line of warriors stretching back to antiquity. Focused on leading his berserker vassals into battle, much of the social power rested in the grip of Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, a priest of the Death God. The only way to gain an audience with Bikurn, said Vyldra, is to offer a slave. Seeing my dismay, she quickly added that she had no intention of actually giving me to him. I would merely grant her access to Bikurn, whom she would then kill.

“I will deliver his gory head to Thorim. The blood of heretics is the sweetest of wine to the gods, and they shall well reward me for my faith.”

“Won't he have guards?”

“Bikurn remembers his gloried past, thinking himself strong as age withers his bones. He only permits a few lapdogs to protect him. Work your magic on whomever you wish, save for Bikurn, for if you kill him than your life is also forfeit. He must fall at my hands!”

“How will we escape?”

“Fear not, I know how we can escape Skorn. If not, then I shall die in battle, bathed in the blood of blasphemers. A fine doom for any warrior.”

Sunset found us on a ridge above Skorn, its ancient timber halls on the field below us. Implements of war hang over doorways and on walls in proud display, framed with the bones of fallen warriors. Dragon heads rear up from gables, eternally wrathful and watchful. Despite standing for over a thousand years, the houses in Skorn look temporary and improvised. This is most obvious with the roofs, which consist of irregularly sized wooden planks lashed together without much care. Refuse heaps burn in the meadows, creating a smoggy atmosphere.

Vyldra paused to tie my wrists with rope, saying it was a necessary precaution to complete the disguise. I did not object, for I could easily burn it off if necessary.

“If a coward’s heart beats within you, turn back now, for in Skorn there will be no escape,” she warned.

“I am ready.”

Descending the ridge we entered a light woodland, the vast field of stumps indicating the recent activity. Vrykul woodcutters chopped down the remaining trees, their faces locked in scowls. One put down his ax and his bearded head swiveled towards me, eyes alive with hate.

“What wretch do you bring us, Vyldra?” he growled.

“A new gift. Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, will throw this cur on the pyre and deliver his soul to skull-crowned Gjalerbron, ensuring a glorious doom for Winterskorn.”

“This puny thing is no worthy sacrifice!” He reared back and spat, a huge glob of the stuff covering my face. I raised my hands to wipe it off, only to be struck to the ground by Vyldra.

“Weakling!” she yelled. “The spit of Tygrif Shirt-of-Wounds is a greater honor than you deserve!” Vyldra turned back to Tygrif. “He is one of my sacrifices, and their blood will glut the rivers of hell.”

“While I squander my spirit on work made for slaves!”

“Only for a little while longer. The icy winds of the Last Winter gather in the north, and will soon break, delivering us to glory.”

“A good day that will be.”

“One that is soon to come.”

Vyldra walked me past the glares of the vrykul, as I began to wonder if they were really worth understanding. Tygrif’s mention of slave work suggested a society of warrior elites based off of slave labor. I wondered whom they had enslaved in times past: elves? trolls? other vrykul? Would not their formidable runic magic render slaves unnecessary? I took care to conceal my disgust at their haughty cruelty, lowering my gaze as vrykul woodcutters insulted me.

Damp and smoky air fouls the town of Skorn, where bearded warriors laze along the paths, sharpening swords and boasting in archaic Common. Garbed in layers of thick furs, they let off a penetrating reek that mixes with the stench of burning garbage. Half-wild wolfhounds gnaw on bones at their feet, sometimes quarreling over choice bits of flesh. Every vrykul carries a weapon, and there is no sign of a labor class. A wooden platform covered with ash and bone lets off faded tendrils of smoke in the center of Skorn, the structure ringed by carved dragon heads. I felt a chill when I noticed a blackened orc skull at the base.

Vyldra led me up a steep hill, towards a jumble of wood and stone, an approximation of a house. An old vrykul man appeared in the doorway, a braided gray beard reaching to his waist. Not stooped by age he threw his arms back in welcome, his ancient face bright and glad. Vyldra knelt before him.

“I return to you, father!” she cried.

“Come, come my bright and gloried Vyldra! My hall is as cold as the northern storm, and twice as cruel, in your absence.”

Vyldra stood back up, her cruel lips turned up in an unabashed smile. Unable to restrain herself, she rushed forward to embrace her father. Startled, I watched as they laughed in each other's arms. Finally disengaging, he ushered us both inside his home.

Weak light shone through the narrow windows, revealing a messy parlor room. Battered shields and swords on the shadowed walls peeked through the cobwebs plastering the ceiling. A darkened hearth yawned at the base of a ramshackle wall. Creaking bookcases lined another, holding only a few worn tomes. A squat table, roughly carved, ran the length of the cluttered hall.

Vyldra spent some time relating the story of her journey. I gathered she’d left Skorn two weeks before I encountered her, searching the forests for aid.

“This lone figure is enough? His arms are thin, hands too weak to grip a sword in battle,” boomed Vadrad, his doubt clear.

“Destron is a sorcerer, and death by magic is a fitting fate for Bikurn’s lackeys.”

“A sorcerer? He is no Kaldorei!”

“Sorcery is no longer the domain of elves. Many of the southern races practice those foul arts, mocking the gods with their cowardice. Destron is of the uncouth breed that Bikurn calls the Forsaken.”

“I know of the Forsaken, though I have not seen one until today. A weakling appears to stand before us, yet it is no mean feat to defy the will of the Death God, who bends even the proud vrykul to his dark power. Perhaps great strength lies within those ragged arms.”

“Come now, father, you know me too well to think I would choose poorly.”

“Forgive me, Vyldra, my heart only aches to see you take your rightful place as a storm-maiden, to hear the brave sing of your might as the Last Winter draws close to still the heart of the world. What fate brings you to the north, Destron?”


Vadrad’s eyes widened.

“You brave the land of ice and darkness to satisfy mere curiosity? Truly, Vyldra, you have brought either the bravest or most foolish of all Forsaken to this hall! Ha ha! Perhaps you are both of those. Rest your weary bones at my table, Destron, for my blood does not forget its friends, whatever form they may take.”

A bit confused, I did as he told, sitting down on a crude chair of wood and hide. Vyldra strode to a collection of upright barrels at the other end of the room. Gripping the lid of one, she twisted it free. As she lifted it, I saw the saronite rune attached to the underside. From the barrel she took a clutch of salmon that looked fresh from the smokehouse. Thinking back to what Seguine told me, I realized that the vrykul had used saronite to preserve their food during their long hibernation. That would explain how they managed to field small armies despite lacking farmland. Their stores would not last forever, probably only a little longer, but perhaps they did not care.

Vyldra set up a simple meal of fish, cheese, and mead. Vadrad told me to eat as I pleased, that an honored guest deserved no less. He explained the nature of Vyldra’s quest, her future inseparable from a mythic past.

“From his stone halls the call goes out, sounding thunder in the canyons of ice, as the All-Father readies for the Last Winter. On wings of light he sends the val’kyr, the Maidens of Battle, to collect the souls of the battle-born and bring them to his ranks. Vyldra’s doom is to ride with the val’kyr, the greatest honor for any woman. With Bikurn’s head she will gain entry to the All-Father’s court.”

“Bikurn speaks lies in the All-Father’s name, calling the false val’kyr down from death-gripped Icecrown,” added Vyldra.

“Pardon my ignorance, but how do you know that these val’kyr are false?”

“For the val’kyr of Bikurn’s god herald armies of the walking dead, and what use would the All-Father have for that? Blood must run hot in the warrior’s veins, and he must throw himself into the battle-rage!” exclaimed Vyldra.

“I can confirm your beliefs,” I said. “There is nothing godly about Bikurn’s deity. The peoples of the south call him the Lich King. He’s a powerful sorcerer and warrior, but not a god.”

“Faith needs no confirmation, Destron.”

“Are there other vrykul like yourselves? Are there others who do not believe in the Lich King?”

“A mere handful, though each of them bears the bravery of a thousand men. Some take their blades to the land of darkness, seeking the gods in hope of glory. Others, like us, wait to undo this deceit from within. A few took battle to the armies of the dead, teaching fear to the fearless. These few now feast on mead and honeyed meat in the stone halls of the All-Father,” said Vyldra.

“My understanding is that the Lich King awoke the vrykul from over a thousand years of magical slumber. May I ask why your people entered this extended sleep?”

Vadrad took a draught of mead and deep breath before speaking.

“The world has changed beyond all reckoning since the days I traveled the realm with sword in hand. Icebite Bay is now an ocean that girdles the northlands. Strange and puny races walk the lands once ruled by the thanes. How can I explain this, when the wisest vrykul understand no more than the littlest babe?

“For a thousand years we strode through the northlands as conquerors, feeding the forests with the blood of our foes. Soon, none here dared challenge us and we looked to the south, to the decadent temple cities of the Amani. We burned their villages and set those we spared in shackles, marching them north to build great citadels of our own, for a warrior is not meant to lift stone. Through the spoils of war we built Utgarde and Gjalerbron, Balagarde and the Underhalls, slaves creating in stone the visions of our bards.”

I smiled to mask the hate I felt for Vadrad at that moment. Societies based on slave labor almost inevitably stagnate, easy lives breeding stupidity and carelessness among the ruling class.

“Were all your slaves Amani?”

“Most came from Amani and Drakkari stock. Our warriors clashed against the elves, but that race makes for poor slaves, withering and dying in weeks. We are the children of the All-Father, and what is not ours to take? We are warriors, and should not a warrior be served by those of lesser blood? Our numbers grew as trolls worked the fields and rivers, bringing food to our tables, and we sang of war against the elves and earthen. Still I hear the songs of my battle-brothers as we drank the mead of Jarl Halgurd Norgisson, Beast-slayer, first among the Winterskorn.”

“What happened to end this idyllic life?”

“Bravery and blades cannot dispel all evils. An insidious curse took root in the bones of our race, our children born into the world small and sickly. We killed these abominations as they arose, but still they came. I wrung my firstborn boy’s neck when he gave his lusty birth-cry, too small and thin to come from a vrykul throat.”

“Did this grow more frequent over time?”

“The gods blessed me with brave Vyldra, yet she was one of the last vrykul born. Dark days fell on our race as slaves struck their masters, following priests who chanted strange words for stranger gods.

“King Ymiron declared it the work of the troll-gods, and we put a hundred-thousand slaves to death. Rune-seers dug saronite from the deep places in hopes of saving the vrykul. Through this, more younglings were born weak and small. Finally, Ymiron led a host of vrykul warriors to the south, to cast down the Amani temples. Never before and never again shall the world see such an army, and I marched with them! All vrykul of fighting age raised their weapons and rushed south for battle!”

“Still I lament being too young in those days,” sighed Vyldra.

“Great in numbers though we were, the trolls were greater still, joined in battle by their kindred from the dark southern jungles and escaped slaves. As numberless as the stars in the sky they surrounded our warriors. I saw Jarl Norgisson fall amidst the bodies of the brave, his skull smashed by a flint-edged club. Black with arrows the sky fell, ending the lives of thousands. Great was that day; greater were our losses.

“Few survived the battle, though all should have died that day. I followed King Ymiron back north out of loyalty, not because I feared death. Upstart slaves slaughtered vrykul families while we fought, and we found our homes in ruin. Nor did our punishment end, for still our bravest women could only birth weaklings. Why should one live or fight when the race cannot renew itself? King Ymiron spat in the face of the All-Father, saying that he abandoned the vrykul. The rune-seers said the time was not right for the Last Winter, that the omens were not yet fulfilled, but waiting for prophecy would bring only a slow and lingering death. As the throes of death gripped our race, Ymiron ordered us into the sleep of saronite, to await the final call to arms.”

Vadrad fell silent, his expression suddenly doubtful. He turned his attention to his food, tearing off pieces of salmon and shoving them into his mouth. I had never heard the elves mention vrykul when I asked them about the distant past. I could only assume that moments of contact were few and far between. Some of the still untranslated Amani codices show trolls doing battle with monsters resembling giant humans. Perhaps those were the vrykul.

“Tomorrow we shall bring death to the hall of Bikurn. Ready yourself, Destron, for I will not wait.”

“Of course. You’re not tired after traveling for two weeks?”

Vyldra gave me an odd look.

“Tired after a fortnight in the wild? Do you take me for an infant?”

“Perhaps his kind is not accustomed to such exertion,” pointed out Vadrad.

“Throw the armies of the Scourge at me and I will meet them in battle with a smile on my lips! I am more than ready for Bikurn.”