Saturday, October 31, 2009

Zul'drak: Part 1



Millennia of brute labor has reshaped the very landscape of Zul’drak. Unaided by sorcery or technology, the Drakkari built an empire on the backs of their people. Such were the origins of Jintha’kalor Passage, the steep three-mile long stairway that ascends to the dark home of the ice trolls.

I stood on the icy banks of the Dragonspine Tributary, a strange dread gripping my heart as I studied the awesome construction. My initial reaction was disbelief, even though Horde scouts in Conquest Hold had informed me what to expect. How could the ice trolls, dismissed as savages by their southern cousins, ever build such a thing? No frozen wasteland could support the thousands upon thousands of laborers needed for such an endeavor.

I walked to the base of the stairs, surrounded by the Scourge-gutted ruins of Drakkari shrines, ziggurats similar in style to the Amani temples in Quel’thalas. A stale wind blew down from the heights, the escaping breath of a dying realm. Above me, maroon clouds spread like veins through an oily sky.

In the world of symbols, the stairway represents connection, much like a road or an open door. Religious connotations give the stairway an element of hope. The climb may be arduous, but the reward is communion with the divine. It is a symbol of hope, of understanding, of progress.

Jintha’kalor Passage is the opposite. It offers no welcome, only a warning. The choice of stairs reveals much about its builders. Wheeled vehicles cannot reach the top, effectively blocking large-scale trade. An invading army from long ago would face a logistical nightmare trying to get its supply wagons up the steps. Seeing Jintha’kalor Passage, I understood why even the vrykul left Zul’drak to the trolls.

Even descending the steps would present a challenge for large groups. As the Drakkari shunned visitors, so too did they discourage their own from traveling beyond the nation’s borders. Their kingdom never extended beyond the small (though still impressive) temple-cities standing at the bases of the great stairways.

The scale presents a psychological challenge as well. If these trolls could build such an awe-inspiring project, designed to be difficult and placed at the very edge of the realm, what might await at the top?

I looked up from the base to the miles of steps, each one as high as my knee, rising before me. High stone walls demarcate the steps, blocking all sight of the surrounding mountains and countryside. The traveler’s view is forced up to Zul’drak’s murky skies. Battlements of angular spirals adorn the tops of the walls, the only concession to aesthetics.

I began the climb, a mite of rotten flesh against the godlike stones. The edges of steps are still sharp, barely worn by traffic or the passage of ages. Few had ever traveled this way, in either direction. Only now, in our age of airships and magic power, can Zul’drak’s defenses be bypassed. In a way, that realization proved equally disturbing, showing how time and change destroy even the greatest of achievements. Reports of the Scourge and Argent Crusade making headway in Zul’drak prove that it is inhabited by mortals, not gods.

Weariness pulled at my legs as I climbed. The uniformity of Jintha’kalor Passage makes all progress appear miniscule. The end looks no closer at the midway point than it does at the bottom, and the massive walls press against the spirit. This place is not for you, the stones seem to say. Gray steps stretch endlessly ahead; behind, the snowbound ruins of Jintha’kalor turn to distant specks of stone.

At long last I stumbled past the two stone pillars marking Zul’drak’s borders, worn down after a near-eternity of climbing. I can only imagine how taxing the living would find such an obstacle.

A low causeway leads out from the stairs. Unlike them, it shows signs of wear and use, the stonework crumbling at the edges. Tangled forests encroach on both sides of the disintegrating causeway. The trees growing there are unique to Zul’drak; I have never before or since seen anything like them. Dark roots twist like screws into the soil, feeding rough trunks covered with thorns the size of swords. Higher up, deep red leaves burst like flecks of blood from gnarled and blackened limbs.

The air in Zul’drak feels too damp and heavy to be so far north. While not exactly warm, it is still quite humid. The moisture helps explain the sheer density of the forest. I can scarcely imagine even an elf braving the tightly packed trees and thorns. Insects chirp and click in the underbrush, though their sounds are muffled as if afraid of attracting unwanted attention. Beyond that, there are no signs of animal life.

Seeing nowhere else to go, I followed the causeway after a brief rest. Smoke inundates the Drakkari borderland, rising in pillars from fires hidden in the foliage. I wondered if the Drakkari were burning the bodies of the dead. A charnel miasma grips the forest, sharpened by the trees’ ghastly colors. Though battle rages all through the forests, almost nothing stirs on the causeway beyond beetles and arm-length centipedes. At night, (which is not much darker than day) bats soar in flocks from their hiding places in the deep woods, chittering as they fly.



There are still many signs of the Drakkari presence, if not the Drakkari themselves. Gateways span the causeway, reaching as high as church spires. Much stranger are the offerings that burn on stone altars placed at intervals along the road, wreathed in sooty flames that never consume their fuel.

I paused at one such altar, the offered plants and meat charred but never destroyed. Were they even offerings? What use was a sacrifice if it remained in this world? Drakkari gods scowled in angular bas-relief across these altars, unwilling to share their secrets. Forests stretched around me for miles. I saw no home for a priest or attendant who might tend the flame.

I passed the grand entrance of Drak’tharon Keep two days after my arrival. A multitude of stone pagodas stick upwards from a monumental gatehouse, a vast torch-lit corridor visible from outside. An ancient stone head glares out from above the entry, a fearsome troll king or god wearing a crown shaped like the setting sun. Bones and trash litter the entrance. I walked over to an abandoned linen pack, perhaps dropped by a fleeing troll. Opening it, I found worn stone working tools: an awl and a small pick, among others.

Drak’tharon Keep is essentially a heavily fortified version of Jintha’kalor. The stairs inside lead down to the Grizzly Hills, not far from furbolg territory. Because so little is known about the Drakkari, much of their history (as far as the outside world can tell) is based more on conjecture than on fact. It seems relatively certain, however, that the Drakkari withdrew from Drak’tharon Keep as they grew ever more insular after the Sundering.



Previously used as a base from which to conduct raids on Grizzlemaw (exactly why the Drakkari did this is not known), the trolls continued to maintain it even after they stopped their forays. Only a small garrison occupied Drak’tharon by the time of the Third War, and they were quickly wiped out by the Scourge onslaught. Arthas’ expedition then wrested Drak’tharon from the Scourge and stayed there for one winter before abandoning it for good. The Scourge and Drakkari have fought over the ancient fortress complex since then. Now that the Scourge is crushing its way through Zul’drak’s first tier, it seems safe to say that the undead emerged victorious.

There is another causeway just past Drak’tharon Keep, this one aimed north. Thinking back to the vague maps I’d seen in Vengeance Landing, I recalled that going north would probably lead me deeper into the dying empire.

Signs of war grow more common in the north. Paths of tainted earth slash across the causeway, the ancient stones broken by the Scourge’s passage to the east. These paths branch out from the Scourge holdings in the forest interior. I first thought it odd that the Scourge would not immediately strike to disable the arteries of traffic.

What felt like three days passed as I wandered through the haze of smoke and darkness. Ruins abound, walls and ziggurats falling to pieces. Thorn-studded roots break and overturn the foundations, the forest reclaiming the land with an unnatural fecundity. Spread among these are the remains of lesser houses, burnt sticks poking out of the damp earth.

Something there struck me as sickeningly familiar. The emptied Drakkari towns brought to mind the ruins of Darrowshire, of Andorhal, of Corin’s Crossing, and all the other places where the people of my nation had once lived. Lordaeron fought until bled dry and all our sacrifices failed to prevent it from happening again.

The Drakkari are no friends to outsiders, yet I understood them on at least one level. They too suffered from the machinations of the Scourge, a worthless and destructive cancer on the world. I am sure that thousands of ice trolls now march under the Lich King’s banners, their dripping bodies forced to unspeakable deeds.

A cold presence pulled at my mind and I recalled scenes of burning streets and screaming children. These thoughts faded as soon as they came, probably no more than a vivid imagining of the Third War. I’d died in a refugee camp, after all, not in one of the cities. Cold and hunger had claimed me in the end. Only some unguessed willpower enabled the Dark Lady to liberate my body and soul from the Lich King.

I will hate the Lich King forever.

At least, that is what I fear. That by hating him I will give him the ultimate victory. But how can I, or any Forsaken, not hate him? I cannot forget what he did to me. The fear and dread remain, still binding me in some small way to his will. My undeath is a perpetual reminder of his evil. I look at my gray and tattered hands and think of how they felt, what they could feel, while I still lived.

It was in this dark state of mind that I found an instance of Drakkari victory. A shallow ash-choked pit open in the earth just off the causeway. The pit reached dozens of yards across, ankle-deep bone fragments covering every inch of ground.

I knelt by the edge for a closer look, ash trickling down from the rim. Necessity had forced the Drakkari to be thorough. Burning sufficed through most the Third War but is no longer enough to stop the Scourge. Enterprising necromancers developed new techniques after the war, reusing burned remains for their armies. Only breaking the body to bits will now dissuade them.

Bodies do not burn easily. Creating an open-air crematory oven, as the Drakkari must have done, would require immense power. After that, to whose lot did it fall to stomp the bones into dust? I wondered how much longer the Drakkari could hold out. If they lost most of their battles, the Scourge would become significantly larger.

A flame of cold white light suddenly pressed itself into ruined earth at the opposite side, followed by another. They burned without so much as a flicker, as still as death. I stood up to see the outlines of mounted figures, the hooves glowing pale in the darkness. Black armor wrapped around the bodies of rider and steed alike, bleeding into the shadows. Frosted eyes shone from inside the helmets, their cruel gazes cutting into my soul.

I knew them as death knights, the field marshals of the Scourge whose bloody work had brought a nation to ruin. They embraced the curse that their masters had thrust upon us, surrendering their souls for power’s sake. Possessing a sliver of free will, the death knights rejoiced in slaughter while we suffered in the shells of our bodies. Only the Lich King and his necromancers can equal their evil. They deserve no fate but death.

My fate would be the same, a fact I knew even as spellfire coalesced around my outstretched hands. A single death knight could wipe out scores of professional soldiers, their runeblades cutting through armor just as their magic cut through souls. To kill even one as my final act would end an undeath well-spent. Death knights still feel pain, conceivably still feel fear. I wanted them to know what I’d felt, to give them the awful end they so richly deserved. To hear a death knight scream would be a hero’s reward, and I’d wallow in his blood before following him into death.

“Hold, Forsaken. We are not what you think,” said one of the death knights, his cold voice echoing over the field.

I felt only a tremor of doubt. Lies, I was certain. They feared me, and I smiled at the thought. Then I gasped as a vise of bitter cold pressed on my mind. The spellfire vanished as I backed away, my vision frosting into white. Shouting a curse I dove back into the arcane current, relishing its feel as I prepared a new spell.

“We no longer serve the Scourge, fool!” bellowed the one who’d spoken earlier. Something in his voice gave me pause and I let the spell dissipate. The death knight dismounted and took of his helmet, revealing a corpse-white human face.

“Hardly a good use of your energies, Forsaken. There are better ways to find the vengeance you seek.”

“I... I do not seek vengeance. You startled me,” I said, the lies clumsy on my tongue. He only smirked.

“What are you doing here anyway? Armies clash all through these forests. Are you with the Argent Crusade?”

“I am not. Are you?”

“When it suits us. I am Velluc Elkener, who has served under the banners of Old Lordaeron and of the Argent Dawn. Now I fight in the Order of the Ebon Blade. My friend here is Festelle Ashsong, whose history is similar to mine, though she served the houses of Quel’thalas rather than Lordaeron. And you?”

“Destron Allicant,” I answered, suddenly weak. They’re lying, hissed an inner voice. But I suspected they told the truth. Had they really wanted to kill me, they would have already done just that.

“We are headed back to Ebon Watch, our headquarters in this wretched land. Feel free to accompany us, though remember we only do this because you’re no use to anyone when dead. Neither of us particularly cares emotionally if you live or die.”

“I would not expect you to.”

Velluc only smiled in response, the muscles in his face seeming to resist the attempt.

*********

I’d dismissed the rumor when I first heard it slurred to me, courtesy of a drunken soldier in Amberpine. The idea of death knights breaking free of the Scourge seemed absurd. Yet in Zul’drak I got the story from a death knight named Velluc, his icy voice giving his words an air of authority. When the Horde and Alliance began their campaigns in Northrend, so too did the Lich King prepare an attack on the Eastern Kingdoms, ordering his necromancers to raise the fallen champions sent against them. From the best of these, the Lich King had assembled a new cadre of death knights. He resorted to raising dead heroes because he could no longer find anyone willing to serve him, a fact I found comforting.

The Scourge tested the neophyte death knights in the fires of battle, sending them to finish off the remnants of the Scarlet Crusade. After the last Crusader stronghold in Lordaeron lay in ruins, they turned their attention to the Argent Dawn. The Dawn triumphed where the Crusade failed. Strengthened by the sanctified bodies buried under Light’s Hope Chapel, the Argent Dawn forced the death knight leader, one Darion Mograine, to surrender.

Velluc then said that an apparition of the Lich King had appeared amidst the strife, revealing that the death knights were no more than a ruse to bring Argent Champion Tirion Fordring out of hiding. Darion struck his master upon hearing this, only surviving the counterattack with help from Tirion. Upon the battle’s end, Mograine declared the creation of the Knights of the Ebon Blade, a task force of the Lich King’s deadliest weapons turned against him.

“We no longer serve the Scourge. Why should we, when they would sacrifice us so readily?”

“Than who do you serve?” I asked. I kept my distance from the two death knights. Warmth and light died in their presence. I could not even look at them without thinking of the Scourge and all its evils.

“The Ebon Blade, first and foremost. Some our kindred have been rehabilitated into their factions. I believe Festelle here still acknowledges the Horde...”

“I do,” said the alabaster Sin’dorei seated next to him.

“Our true loyalty is to the Scourge’s utter destruction. I suppose you Forsaken are the same way—though you’ve done precious little to see that goal become reality.” He said it as someone would state an obvious fact.

“Forsaken troops have fought and died long before your liberation,” I retorted. “We did not have so many advantages. The Alliance despises us, and the Scarlet Crusade threatened our very existence in the early days. We weakened them enough for you lot to slaughter the remnant!”

“You could have gone north directly to strike at the Lich King, leaving Lordaeron behind,” said Velluc with a metallic chuckle. “There are Forsaken in the Ebon Blade, you know. They say that their position gives them more perspective. The normal Forsaken fear death and cling to life, no matter how much they deny it. You create a parody of a human kingdom, even though it is not truly necessary for you to do so.”

“The Scarlet Crusade—” I started.

“Was in Lordaeron. A place where you had no reason to stay,” he finished.

“Not all of us found our faculties so quickly. We had no precedent for the situation.” I knew that any defense I gave would make me sound weak. As if realizing this, mirthless smiles spread across their faces.

I traveled with Velluc and Festelle for nearly a week in total, following the causeway north for three days until we reached another one perpendicular to it, at which point we went west. Curiously, Velluc knelt on the ground every morning to recite a short prayer, reciting in a voice without conviction. He explained that it was a habit he’d picked up in the Argent Dawn, which he’d served while alive.



Velluc insisted that I ride with him; it would not do to have me lagging behind. Not having much of a choice, I complied, hating him for it. Shame colored my anger, making my situation all the harder to bear. After all, was my reaction so different from the humans who killed the Forsaken on sight? The death knights were not friendly, but neither were most Forsaken.

I think my hatred truly stemmed from the fact they had served the Scourge as leaders, not as minions. Death knights had led me and my risen countrymen from one atrocity to another, relishing in the bloodshed. Even though these death knights shared an origin similar to my own, I could not help but see them as at least somewhat complicit. Like the volunteer death knights of the Third War, they had maintained some degree of personality and free will in their servitude. I followed the death knights to learn more about them. If I am to be honest with myself and the reader, what I truly hoped was to find a reason to hate them.

We passed through lands decimated by the Scourge, blight clinging to the dying trees. Velluc explained that the worst fighting had occurred in the north. The Scourge found the thick forests an ideal hiding place, and made short work of the Drakkari war bands roaming the wilderness. Larger armies were similarly repulsed.

We veered south after three more days, Velluc marching us towards a huddle of snowy foothills at the base of the Dragonspine. The forest all but disappears in that place, giving way to rocky highlands. The death knights seemed to grow heartier as the temperature dropped, their harsh white faces matching the landscape. My mind again turned to dark suspicions as we trudged through the gray snow. Why were the death knights so quickly accepted into the ranks of Horde and Alliance? I wondered. The simple answer is that they were simply too useful to shun.

Part of me, however, wondered if their appearance played a part. Velluc and Festelle bore no signs of visible decay, and could even be said to possess an eerie beauty. Would the Alliance have been so welcoming if the death knights returned as shambling monsters, as had been the case with most Forsaken? I forced myself to dismiss such thoughts. There were many reasons for the Alliance to reject the Forsaken. While I disagree with the Alliance’s decision, I also acknowledge that some of those reasons were (and still are) quite valid.

We came within sight of Ebon Watch a day later, the base no more than a rude set of black tents in a shallow valley. Velluc pointed at the camp from the top of a nearby hill, a joyless smiled etched in his face.

“Below us stands Ebon Watch, the Woe of the Scourge!” he said with mock grandiosity.

“How many death knights are stationed there?” I asked.

“Fifteen, including ourselves, though most are out on patrol at any given time. The numerical imbalance spurs us to fight at our best.”

“Be fair, Velluc. We do get help,” reminded Festelle.

“Reinforcements?” I inquired.

“You could say that we make our own. You’ll see, Destron.”

I understood what Festelle meant when I saw a ghoul squatting in the snow outside Ebon Watch, its spiny teeth nestled in a worn bone. The ghastly head whipped up as we neared. Then it gave a strange and high-pitched cry before returning to its snack. It looked just like the ghouls in the Scourge armies: hunched stature, bloody claws, exposed bone and sinew.

“Are these ghouls liberated from the Scourge, or raised by your own necromancy?” I asked.

“We plucked these specimens from the grave. A corpse is a terrible thing to waste, after all,” joked Velluc.

“What powers this corpse? The former owner’s soul?”

“Our necromantic abilities fall short of that. These ambulatory corpses are controlled by dark magic culled from the realm of shadow. Each is bonded to its creator. Even the most powerful of us can only maintain a handful of such servants. Not so dissimilar to the galvanized abominations that lumber through Undercity.”

“Are they at all intelligent?”

“Stray memories flit through their rotting brains, without any feeling. If such a minion survives long enough, it will attempt to develop a personality based on those foggy memories. Needless to say, they’re terrible conversationalists.”

A faint but frigid wind blew through the gloomy camp. The black tents sagged, seemingly devoid of life. Hideously rotted bodies sprawled on the snow, adding to the cold abattoir stink hovering over the place.

A pair of icy blue lights switched on in the darkness of a nearby tent, sharp like knives. As if on cue the dead began to stir, clumps of damp snow still plastered on their ragged forms. Velluc walked towards the nearest tent and knelt at the entrance, the dead eyes gleaming above him.

“The Scourge remains in the forests, Master Vadu. We only encountered a few patrols on the roads.”

“Interesting,” rasped Vadu. “Who is your guest?”

“Destron Allicant. We found him near the remnants of a battle.”

“Dismissed, Sir Elkener. Suffer well.”

Velluc lowered his head in respect before stepping back from the master’s tent.

“Destron. The Knights of the Ebon Blade seek no quarrel with the Horde. Many of our number serve your Warchief. As such, consider Ebon Watch your home.” Vadu walked to the front of the tent, revealing himself as an imperious human in scarred black armor.

“Thank you, Master Vadu. I am glad to see that you are on our side.”

“We are not on anyone’s side save our own. For the time being, our goals match those of the Alliance and Horde. This may change.”

“An ally is always appreciated.”

I spent three uncomfortable days in Ebon Watch. The death knights almost never speak, and when they do one almost wishes for them to keep silent. No kindness can be heard in the metallic scrapes that pass as voices. They converse in dead tones, nearly devoid of emotion. Much like the Forsaken, the death knights display little regard for comfort. I saw Velluc sleep in the snow, still entombed in his black armor. Only the weapons look cared for; everything else is an afterthought.

I reflected on what Velluc had said on the journey to Ebon Watch. He was correct in saying that the Forsaken cling to the memories of life. Conversely, the Ebon Blade demonstrates no desire to return to their former selves, at least not openly. What causes this? Did their closeness to the Lich King fundamentally alter their spirits? Or were they in some way seduced by the power granted to them?

I retreated into a shell for the rest of the first day, hating the death knights in silence. How could I feel any kinship with them? What they suffered is not what I suffered. They were the Lich King’s favored servants, the vessels of his cruelty.

Sooner or later, I had to grapple with the ugly fact of my own irrationality. Whatever I wished to believe, the death knights were allies against the Scourge. They had even allowed me into one of their bases. I could not support an intellectual basis for my hatred, though neither could I completely suppress the depths of my feeling.

A fearsome orcish warrior in life, Reg’vul looked even more imposing in death, his scarred face partly hidden in the shadows of his cowl. He’d fought and killed for the Horde’s honor in the Plaguelands, part of a small detachment sent by the Ebonflint War-Pack. Reg’vul’s expression almost never changed while we spoke, frozen in watchfulness.



“How much do you remember from your time under the Lich King?”

“I fought with skill and honor, as I did in life. Those few Scarlet Crusaders who still live doubtless speak my name in fear. We drove them from burning towns, the streets wet with blood.”

“An impressive deed.”

“An honorable one. No matter what, I did my duty as a warrior. I had no choice but to serve the Lich King. He did not control me as he did you, but he forced me to think like him. The only freedom I had was the freedom to fight like a true warrior.”

“Do you feel accepted in the Horde?”

“I live the warrior’s way. The Horde’s spirit rages within me, no matter what anyone thinks. Those who doubt my prowess are free to test it.” Even his threats came out in a cold and flat tone, spoken as if he’d forgotten the inflection.

“I agree with you.”

“Honor is everything to me. My only concern is to fulfill it. That is how I know I am an orc.”

“You fear you would forget otherwise?”

He was silent for a moment, his eyes staring into the snowy wastes around Ebon Watch.

“Arthas tried to imprint his coward’s soul on our spirits. His attempt... did not completely fail. I would not forget that I am an orc, but the sense of honor might fade. I live it, so that I might believe it. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“I doubt that. You Forsaken are different. It is easy for you to hate what Arthas did. For us, it is sometimes difficult. He gave us such power, and the freedom to use it as we wished, so long as it served his plan.”

“You consider your state a gift?”

“Not a gift. Not a curse either, not entirely. I still fight with honor, I still follow the precepts of our Warchief. I will gladly fight anyone who doubts me.”

Discipline is the goal of the death knight. Some of the Lich King’s essence remains in their spirits and they must constantly strive to suppress it. The Ebon Blade walks a tenuous line when adopting so many of the Scourge’s tactics. They hope to avoid corruption by maintaining strict self-control.

Their situation when under the Scourge was not really so different. Because Scourge death knights enjoyed a modicum of free will (though still heavily influenced by the Lich King), they required a great deal of discipline and training. With Darion Mograine’s defection from the Scourge, the freed death knights found a familiar routine waiting for them. Their loyalties to the Ebon Blade were only strengthened by the suspicious receptions they found the Horde and Alliance. For most, knighthood is their identity.

The other death knights had codes similar to Reg’vul’s. Distant and snappy to outsiders, Festelle observed an extreme form of Sin’dorei etiquette when dealing with her peers. Velluc followed the routines of the Argent Dawn, where he’d served for many years. They fulfilled their self-imposed demands with perfection, if not sincerity.

Contrast this to the Forsaken. Our Dark Lady freed us from utter mental and physical domination. The Lich King never bothered trying to change that which he could control with such ease. All we had left were the raw scraps of old identities, made seemingly irrelevant by our bleak new world. Undercity offered physical protection, but we were left to our own devices in every other respect.

I found it difficult to learn much from the Knights of the Ebon Blade, so focused are they on training. This rigorous existence is a key part of the Ebon Blade’s identity. They believe such efforts will help to eliminate all trace of the Lich King’s influence.

“Arthas forged our souls as weapons, but we will never permit him to use us,” said Vadu.

I spent some time talking to the Ebon Blade’s forgotten servants; the lowly undead who work as squires, though without hope (or want) of advancement.

The ghoul named Baneflight ignored me when I first talked to him towards the end of the second day, as black clouds blotted out the setting sun. Velluc and Reg’vul sparred nearby, the glowing runes on their swords painting currents of sickly color on the darkening world. I greeted Baneflight a second time, speaking louder to be heard over the deadening clang of swords. That time the ghoul looked up, his face no longer recognizable as human.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice a warbling hiss.

“What do you do here?”

“I do what Master Vadu wishes. I take care of their steeds. See?”

With a jagged claw he pointed to the bones neatly laid out in the snow, set in the approximation of a griffin’s skeleton. A black leather saddle lay next to each one.

“Bones mix, hard to put back together. I make sure they ready to go at all time.”

“Are you bound to Master Vadu?”

“His creation, yes.”

“Do you remember anything from life?”

“Much. Picked cabbages from the ground. Human woman and children my masters then. Sometimes, I was master of woman and children, but worked for them too. Strange.”

“Where did you live?”

“Many cottages. Farms. Cabbages and wheat. Hot sun.”

“Do you miss that?”

“Miss? Not understand. Same as now. I serve different master then. Now I serve Vadu.”

“How do you feel about Vadu?”

“Feel nothing.”

“Do you feel anything towards your masters in life?”

“Nothing. I do, not feel.”

I left Baneflight, a twisted sensation in my gut. Certainly the Ebon Blade’s undead minions are less abominable than the Scourge’s. The soul, after all, is gone. Baneflight’s words seemed to prove it. He does not suffer, and is not really much different from a gnomish automaton. Was I just unable to believe that he could remember without feeling? Such cherished memories seem like they ought to be sacred. Yet in the end, that form of undeath does not harm the victim. It feels deeply wrong, but I could not explain why.

*********

Two more Ebon Blade knights rode in early the next day, like some ill-omened wind from the east. In frozen voices they reported a violent battle at the edge of the second tier. There, corpse solders marched up the bodies of their own to breach the troll defenses, only to crumple under a rain of stones and arrows. The necropolis of Voltarus reeled in disarray, the necrotic swamp beneath it choked with battle.

“This presents a fine opportunity,” said Vadu.

The death knights walked over to Baneflight. Velluc, Festelle, Reg’vul, and both of the new arrivals (a dwarf woman named Kurresta and a human male named Iriol Storrant) pointed at the bones, which rose and whirled, fitting together like puzzle pieces until a row of skeletal griffins stood waiting.

“Destron. You’re free to do as you will, though I’d be surprised if a Forsaken passed up the chance to exercise his hatred of the Scourge,” remarked Vadu.

“How will I get there?”

Without a word he pointed at a collection of bones, assembling them by will alone.

“Take mine. My duty is to keep Ebon Watch standing.”

I felt as if he were reading my veiled hate towards the Ebon Blade. Use your hate as a weapon, he seemed to say, and find a deserving target. Do not deny it.

“Would I be useful to them? I am only a mage.”

“You’re skilled enough to have reached Zul’drak. Velluc, would you object to Destron going with you?”

“Not at all,” he replied.

“Kurresta?”

“A mage might be useful.”

“There you have it. Mages can do things that we cannot. This is hardly the first time we’ve used outside help.”

Every death knight looked to me, a challenge implicit in their silence. Or was I only imagining it? Did they, in truth, not care? The cold air seemed to press around me like a vise. I turned to Vadu.

“I would be honored.”

Baneflight stepped aside as I approached Vadu’s griffin, which stared ahead through sockets of blue light. Bound to their masters like the ghouls, the griffins require even more shadow energy, limiting their usage.

“Rotbeak is easy to manage, Destron. Simply get in the saddle and it will follow Velluc’s lead.”

Stiff clicks ran up the griffin’s spine as I lowered myself onto the saddle, its skeletal form shifting under my weight. Velluc glanced at me as his own mount spread its ragged wings.

Vadu’s griffin sprang into the air as if catapulted from the ground, tearing through the skies. I gripped the reins and lowered my body, the roar of wind almost deafening. The other death knights led the way as shadowy streaks. I noticed how the griffins seemed to shrink into themselves, the legs curling into the rib cage and the wings sweeping to the back, sharp beaks pointed forward like arrowheads.

We soared over the snowy hills with astonishing speed, faster even than the flying machines I’d ridden in Outland. By noon (or what passed for it) we’d already reached the northern forests. The limbs of the trees twist together in dense knots, completely hiding the forest floor. Pale gases seep up from the thorny canopy, coalescing on the upper branches. The rare clearings reveal scenes of utter devastation, of lifeless earth soaked with poison. On occasion I’d spot movement, shambling nightmares of dead flesh, but we moved too quickly for me to get a good look.

Driven by darkness, the death knights never stopped to rest. We flew night and day over rotting forests and blood-spattered cities. Hours lost themselves in the blur of time, trapped in the endless milieu of destruction.

The effort began to weigh down on me, more mental than physical. Like the death knights, Forsaken can go for long periods without any rest. However, I’d adopted a more human sense of time, which improves my understanding of the living. Because I was so used to regular sleep, forgoing it proved quite taxing.

At long last Voltarus itself appeared, an obscene blight of bone and rock blotting out the horizon. The necropoli of the Third War were trifles compared to Voltarus, its vast size comparable to a city. It floats above a haze of seething corruption, the skulls of giants glaring out in silent menace. My spirit quailed upon seeing it. No amount of firebombs or spells could hope to fell such a monstrosity. The necropolis radiates a sense of grim triumph, a tombstone for the world.

The griffins deaccelerated quite suddenly, legs and wings reaching out in a symphony of clicks. We descended into a forest of flayed trees where strands of ghostly phosphorescence spirals up the trunks and sickens everything in their path.

I dismounted upon landing, my feet sinking a full inch into the earth. Viscous yellow liquid oozed up from where I stepped. Plasticine bubbles swelled and burst, further putrefying the air with their contents.

Pale lights began flickering in the trees, which shuddered as torn white faces pushed out from the leaves and trunks. Gasping wails poured out from ragged mouths as the banshees became aware of our presence, a pale and screaming menace preparing to strike.



Velluc struck first. He raised his mailed left hand and gripped, tendrils of shadow coiling out of the earth in response. Rents opened up along the banshees’ ghostly forms, the forces of darkness tearing them to pieces. Our attackers at the edge vainly tried to escape, cords of shadow gripping and pulling them towards the Festelle’s and Reg’vul’s outstretched swords. Quickly skewered on the blades, the banshees dissipated, their haunting screams lingering in the foul air.

“Arthas trained us too well,” smirked Velluc. “Kurresta and Iriol have gone ahead to identify opportune targets. We’ll stay here at the edge of the blight until they return.”

A faded Scourge banner drooped from a standard of lashed bones, marking the undead occupation of the region. I still felt a bit of shock after seeing the ease with which the death knights had destroyed the banshees. Only a fool would turn away such a valuable weapon. At the same time, I could not help wondering what the Ebon Blade will do if the Lich King is defeated. Will the Horde and Alliance sympathizers within the order go to war against each other? Or will they maintain unity, perhaps turning their attentions to another target? It is not entirely amiss to describe the Knights of the Ebon Blade as a superweapon with a mind of its own.

“The Scourge we fight today is a different entity from what you once knew, Destron,” said Velluc. “Arthas is a monster, but he is no fool, and undeath has only sharpened his tactical sense.”

“In what way does the modern Scourge differ?”

“Arthas learned from his mistakes in Lordaeron. Do you remember Araj?”

“I’ll never forget.”

The name of Araj looms large in the annals of the Scourge. Among the most powerful liches of the Third War he presided over the butchery of thousands of refugees. He also refined the necromantic sorceries developed by Kel’thuzad, teaching them to a generation of acolytes. At some point after the war, he oversaw the local Scourge efforts from the ruins of Andorhal. There he met his end, his body destroyed and his phylactery shattered by Alliance operatives. That glorious victory occurred while I was in northern Kalimdor.

“I was there when Araj met his fate. All through Andorhal and even beyond, the Scourge forces fell to pieces without his guidance. Some died outright, some went berserk, and a few mastered themselves and went to join your Dark Lady. This event repeated itself in Stratholme.”

“The Lich King relied too heavily on intermediaries, in other words.”

“More than that, actually. Arthas did have to deputize his authority after Illidan’s attack; the Scourge’s recovery took much longer than most outsiders realize. Arthas realized his true problem after the Horde and Alliance victories in Lordaeron: not that he was too dependent on underlings, but that they were too dependent on him. This is why he has been granting some degree of free will to many of his underlings, even lowly ghouls.”

“Are you saying that the Lich King can now give drive to the souls he’s imprisoned?”

“Not precisely. It is more accurate to say that Arthas duplicates a fragment of his own spirit, and implants it so it exists in parallel to the victim’s original. This original soul still languishes in slavery.”

I tried to imagine having a sliver of the Lich King’s mind alongside my own, a gleeful participant in his crimes. It is another form of control, insidious and psychological. I consider myself deeply fortunate that I remember almost nothing from my time in the Scourge. Those Forsaken who recall their slavery in detail find it difficult to adapt, and are prone to morbid apathy or hatred.

Iriol and Kerresta returned a few minutes later. Her pale round face splotchy with rot, Kerresta gave a horrific smile as she described a whole row of Scourge siege weapons a mile away, guarded by a token force. Velluc nodded. Then, to my surprise, he got down on one knee, placing his runeblade in front of him. Eyes downcast, he began to speak.

“I pray now to feel the strength of our righteousness. Bound together by our wills alone, our unity is stronger than that of the Scourge. The Light resides within us, and we will defeat the darkness.”

Iriol and Kerresta joined him, while Festelle and Reg’vul maintained a respectful silence. Velluc stood back up, instantly returning to his normal demeanor, and ordered us to get back on the griffins.

Speed and power are the defining qualities of the Ebon Blade, enabling them to make lightning-fast strikes at key targets. Their model is a more advanced version of the mobility-focused strategies adopted by the Horde and Alliance on Outland. I am sure that generals in both factions are trying to learn all they can from the Ebon Blade.

I barely had time to register the ruined landscape below Voltarus. The land beneath the necropolis is an utter waste, where fetid yellow pools glisten like pustules amidst the rubble of a fallen Drakkari city, melted to its foundations by Scourge poisons. Scourge-built stone obelisks float over the ruins, belching diseased fog from ornamental skulls.

“Destron!” shouted Velluc, his griffin slowing mid-flight alongside mine. The cold and stinking air robbed his voice of its luster, making him sound weak and muffled.

“Yes?”

“Cast a spell that will hit multiple targets at once when we land.”

“Understood.”

I could just see our target through a curtain of choking vapors. Five bulky catapults were lined up in a row, guarded by the seeping bulks of abominations. Velluc had his griffin glide towards the ground, skeletal wings wading through the fog. Descending there felt like sinking into a frigid sea of liquefied meat, the almost tactile rot flooding eyes and ears.

Ragged ghoul packs scrounged at the feet of abominations, red tongues lapping up the bloody run-off from gaping wounds. I called a down a blizzard on their position the moment I landed. Shards of ice plunged down from the sky, lancing the diseased flesh of the Scourge guards. Immune to pain they rushed towards me, the ghouls twitching with gurgling laughter. Shadowy lines pulled bodies from the mob as the death knights went to work. Velluc and his companions hacked their way through the lesser Scourge minions, cutting them to pieces almost at leisure.

The nearest abomination barreled past the blizzard, frost clinging to the network of chains running through its bloated form. Lashing out with a hook-tipped chain it caught Iriol and pulled him from his mount, dragging the death knight through the cold dirt.

I cast a fireball at the abomination while Iriol struggled to free himself. The impact of the spell ripped the stitches running up the abomination’s left side, its arm and shoulder sliding off from the torso in a shower of pulped flesh. Diseased eyes rolled towards me and it turned, momentarily forgetting Iriol. Raising a cleaver with its remaining hand it charged, fluids still spurting from its wound. Surprised at how quickly it picked up speed I jumped from the griffin while casting an arcane explosion. The sudden movement disrupted my aim, causing it to burst harmlessly behind my attacker.

Needle-clawed hands suddenly grabbed at my legs. I fell backwards into a patch of earth that roiled with the undead, limbs and skinned faces erupting from the dirt. A frost nova spell slowed the churning chaos and I frantically pulled off the hands gripping my feet. Ghouls and skeletons clambered out from the ground, most running towards the death knights whose attentions were focused on the abominations.

“Look out behind you!” I yelled.

A trio of ghouls stood in front of me, clots of earth falling from scarecrow figures. They assessed me with quick, darting movements, almost like a bird’s. I dodged the initial attack just in time, the ghoul’s yellow claws slashing air. A second jumped in as I moved, the full force of the collision knocking me to the ground. I rolled, a flurry of claws and gnashing teeth on top of me. Ribs cracked as the ghoul’s hands slammed down on my chest. A frost nova saved me and I threw the chilled ghoul from my body. Continuing my counterattack I got to my feet and stomped the ghoul’s fragile midsection, worn down by decay to little more than a spine. Weakened by rot and frost, it broke under the third blow.

I spun around and depleted the last of my mana with an arcane explosion centered on another ghoul, who burst to pieces. Only one remained, made cautious by the quick deaths of its companions, but probably thinking I was spent, or close to it. The ghoul advanced in careful steps, the exposed muscles on its legs tensed. A single swipe from its claws could kill me. The ground beneath us shook as the abominations fell to the Ebon Blade’s assault. Could I afford to wait?

The ghoul struck, swinging its left hand at my head. I ducked, only to meet its right. Pure luck saved me, the claws scraping my chest without inflicting serious damage. The world slowed, the ghoul’s arms flung wide. Acting on instinct I grabbed both of those spindly limbs and kicked its shriveled belly with all my might. Something crunched beneath the thin layer of flesh and I released the ghoul, pushing it back as I did. It wavered for a moment and then fell apart in front of me.

I looked up just in time to see Velluc delivering the finishing blow to an abomination. The Ebon Blade had prevailed against the Scourge, despite being outnumbered. Their victory was not without a price, however. Festelle and Iriol were both dead.



It took only a few minutes to destroy the catapults. When done, Velluc ordered us to remount the griffins. Kerresta and Reg’vul tied the bodies of Festelle and Iriol to their griffins (the steeds of the fallen having collapsed upon the death of their masters).

We reconvened at the tumbled ruin of an aqueduct at the foot of the second tier’s wall. Even after the recent battle, my thoughts turned to the aqueduct. Had the Drakkari been maintaining the forest with water from the upper tiers?

Velluc took me aside when we landed. I saw no sign of wounds, though his armor bore the signs of intense fighting.

“You did well, Destron.”

“Thank you. Were we ambushed back there?”

“We walked into a trap. One set for the trolls, but sprung by us. Burying ghouls in the dirt is an old Scourge tactic, and we’ve all been trained to spot it. They’ve apparently become better at concealing themselves.”

He sighed, and looked to the mangled corpses of Iriol and Festelle being untied from the griffins.

“The Ebon Blade feels each loss. We are a limited army. Even now, the minions of the Scourge can sometimes break free and join the Forsaken. But I do not expect there will ever be another event like the Battle at Light’s Hope Chapel. Arthas keeps his death knights close.”

“I am sorry for your loss.”

“Such is our fate, to fight and suffer well. I wonder what becomes of us when we die? Are we redeemed, or will the shadows claim our souls?”

“I suppose those would be questions for a theologian,” I said, not sure how to respond.

“Plenty are already debating that fact,” he said with a short laugh. “Do the Forsaken ever wonder about this?”

“There are some who believe that their state renders them beyond redemption. Many more are lost in madness or indifference.”

“What about you?”

“I do not think that being Forsaken implies any sort of damnation in and of itself. Certainly, many Forsaken follow a dark path, but this is usually of their own choosing.”

“Perhaps Arthas instilled a love of power in the souls of his death knight,” Velluc said. “This supplants other, greater loves: love of another, love of country, love of the Light. For all the power we have, we cannot seem to put our desire anywhere else. I only hope that someday, a death knight will learn how to escape. How I would love to fight for a reason other than vengeance or power. Yet no matter how much I try, I can find no other motivation.”

The two fallen death knights were laid out on slabs of fallen masonry. Their runeblades were removed with great care and given to Reg’vul. When a death knight perishes in battle, his runeblade is taken to the Ebon Blade stronghold of Acherus in the Eastern Plaguelands. There it is put on display to remind other death knights of their own mortality.

“From death we emerged, and to death we return. Victory will assure that our sacrifices and valor will be remembered for all time. Failure will consign us to oblivion. May our enemies fear our power. May the Light rest our souls.”

Velluc bowed his head and raised his arms. Wisps of smoke slithered out from the armor of the dead. In an instant, brilliant blue fires bathed the bodies, bright enough to temporarily dispel the surrounding darkness. Seconds later the light faded. Where the bodies had once lain, only suits of battered armor filled with ash remained.

“Arthas put runes of self-immolation in our weapons, so that our enemies could not steal them. We removed those runes and inscribed them on our own bodies, so that he can never again use us,” intoned Reg’vul.

We stood there for a while longer, as the smoke from the bodies slowly dissipated into the surrounding darkness.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Grizzly Hills: Part 3



Lieutenant Dumont, the commanding officer of Amberpine Lodge, was a man prepared for many things. I do not think he expected the weary and stinking mob of Kirovi refugees who descended on the lodge late one afternoon. He and his men stood with bewildered expressions as Vanya, his haggard face shining with relief, thanked them for the hospitality of Stormwind. Not one to waste time, Dumont ordered his troops to set up a camp for the Kirovi, and the savory smell of lamb stew soon filled the forest air.

Though peaceful, the strain of the journey took its toll. Exhaustion claimed the lives of five older refugees. We buried them in shallow graves as Vanya blessed the departed, refusing to abbreviate the rituals. Supplies ran low towards the end, the remaining potatoes spotted with mold and bruises. The force of Vanya’s personality maintained morale but we were all gladdened upon seeing the pointed watchtower of Amberpine Lodge.

I spent a few days at Amberpine in order to recover from the difficult journey. Vanya and the Kirovi settled in as best they could, knowing they would need to leave for Westguard in a few weeks. Happily, Lieutenant Dumont promised them a modest escort and sufficient supplies.

Amberpine Lodge occupies a position of strategic importance on the cliffs overlooking the Black River, which is mostly valuable as a source of food and water. The Black River’s waters crash down a series of steep cataracts before reaching the sea, rendering it useless for travel. On a more aesthetic note, the sight of the mighty current flowing around a multitude of rocky islands creates a truly unforgettable backdrop, an image of the wild at its most vibrant. Amberpine Ledge is situated above the portion of the river just south of Stag’s Leap, the biggest of the cataracts. The sound of surging waters is a constant in the lodge.

A remote Kirovi hunting post until a year ago, Amberpine Lodge now acts as a bustling supply depot for northbound caravans. Nor is that its only purpose, as I learned from talking to a scout named Trina Oswalt.

“Why is it that wherever we go, it turns out the goblins were there first? Sure enough, when we landed we found out that the Venture Company had set up shop all through the hills.”

The rapacious Venture Company represents the very worst of goblin society. More interested in loot than in trade, they see the entire world as their own.

“What were they doing?”

“Mostly lumber operations, with some quarries and mines. None of the natives were organized enough to fight them off so they just infested the place. They cleared out by the time we got here, and now we’re fighting the Horde over the remnants.”

“Wait, fighting the Horde? Are we at war now?”

“Not yet, though we’re closer to it now than before. The rules of engagement say that no official fighting can be done outside Venture Bay to the south and the Blue Sky Logging Grounds up north.”

“But these are actual soldiers fighting, not partisans?”

“Correct. Like I said, we’re getting close.”

“Why now? This seems like the worst time to do it.”

“I agree. Tell that to Garrosh Hellscream. He leads the Kalimdor Horde’s efforts here, and keeps trying to provoke us. He threatens diplomats, impedes Alliance traffic... I’m sure there’s more.”

Troubled, I thought back to what I knew about Garrosh Hellscream. The son of the legendary Grom Hellscream, the Horde had found him in the Mag’har village of Garadar. He joined Thrall in Orgrimmar after the Warchief came to visit. While influential by virtue of his heritage, I never thought he would rise to such an important position so quickly. My understanding had been that Saurfang was to lead the Warsong Offensive. Thrall must have changed his mind after I left Orgrimmar.

While traveling with Vanya I learned that the reclusive furbolgs maintain a town in the depths of the Grizzly Hills. Called Grizzlemaw, this ancient settlement is built in and around the stump of a giant tree. Soldiers in Amberpine told me that Grizzlemaw was of great interest to the druids, and that one had just gone there to learn more about the furbolgs (who are neutral to both the Horde and Alliance). I resolved to travel there as well.

Vanya said goodbye as I prepared to leave Amberpine.

“I think we owe you our lives, Talus. Nothing I say can ever repay you, but know that you will always find a home among the Kirovi. Take care around the furbolgs: they are friendlier than the taunka, but not by much.”

I returned to the wild, following the narrow forest paths through endless redwoods. The forest’s loamy scent combines with the clear air to intoxicate the senses. Unbound wilderness rules the land more thoroughly than any nation could hope to. Cold and limpid streams trickle past ancient granite boulders that wear wigs of moss on their gray crowns.

A terrific rainstorm drifted in from the east on the third day. The downpour cleared on the night of the sixth, and dawn’s brilliant light revealed Grizzlemaw. A jagged stump reaches up to the sky from the center of a broad plain, surrounded by the hollowed-out logs the furbolgs use as homes. The shattered remnants of the trunk lie to the west, its size almost inconceivable even at a great distance. I wondered what sort of disaster could have felled such a tree.



Another day passed before I reached the wooden gate of Grizzlemaw. A lone furbolg walked towards the palisade, a string of fish thrown over his bulky shoulder. He stopped when he saw me, his posture betraying his surprise. Thinking back to what little I knew about the furbolgs, I lowered my gaze so as not to cause offense; a direct stare is considered a challenge.

“Who are you, human?” he growled in Common, his muzzle distorting the words.

“My name is Destron Allicant. I was hoping I could spend some time in Grizzlemaw, and learn about your people.”

“Hmm.” The sound came as a deep rumble within his furry chest. “You are not Kirovi.”

“No, I am not actually any kind of human. I am a Forsaken, one of the Horde.”

“We know of the Forsaken. You look like a human, somewhat.”

“I’m wearing a disguise. Please forgive me, but I was afraid you might think me a Scourge.”

“We can tell the difference.”

With some embarrassment I removed the glass eyes. Pretending to be human becomes odious when done for too long.

“You are free to enter Grizzlemaw, but you have come at a very bad time. My tribe, the Ragefang, stands on the brink of war against the Winterpaw. You should see the lorespeaker; she’s the one who most often deals with outsiders.”

A furbolg lorespeaker is the tribe’s face to the outside world, as well as the one who remembers the stories of the ancestors. Though not a tribe’s official leader, the lorespeaker generally has more power than the chieftain or the lesser shamans, who deal with nature spirits instead of ancestors.

“Where might I find her?”

“Her hut is by the river. Take care going through Grizzlemaw. Some of my tribe are not acting as themselves.”

I felt the furbolg’s eyes on my back as I passed through the wooden gates. Grizzlemaw looks much like any other furbolg village, though much bigger. It consists of about twenty fenced-in compounds, each holding two or three log huts standing around a communal work area. Small vegetable gardens and smokehouses can be found in each compound, among other signs of habitation.

I saw relatively few furbolgs outside, even though it was past noon when I entered. They cast suspicious looks my way as they worked at their chores. Each and every furbolg carried a weapon of some sort, stout flint spears being the most common. The growling sounds of Ursine conversation are absent, and the sense of animosity almost tangible.

The lorespeaker’s house stood next to a rapidly flowing river. Wooden charms dangled from leather strips attached to the entryway, and engraved ursine figures danced across the trunk.

I knocked on the wall above the circular portal, the opening blocked by an abstractly decorated curtain. The curtain moved to the side, revealing a compact furbolg with thick, reddish-brown fur, wearing a mantle of feathers to indicate her office. She gave a start, probably not expecting a Forsaken to appear at her door, but soon regained composure.

“I am honored to be visited by a Horde citizen. I am Grehn, lorespeaker of the Ragefang Tribe.”

“I’m honored to be so graciously received. My name is Destron Allicant. I was told that visitors should come to you.”

“Speaking with visitors is one of the lorespeaker’s many duties. Please, come inside.”

It took a moment for my vision to adjust to the dim light. The hut’s interior was actually quite cozy. A small fire in the middle of the hut heated a clay pot filled with thick stew, puffs of smoke floating up through a hole in the ceiling. A matt of woven grass covered the floor towards the back, thick enough to double as a bed. Neatly arranged wicker baskets were placed next to wooden planters bursting with brightly colored flowers. The most remarkable sight was a gently glowing beehive at the back wall. Bees flew among the flowers, their buzzing no more than a gentle hum.



“Grizzlemaw is full of strangers these days. I fear this is a bad time to visit.”

“The furbolg I met outside said that the tribes are on the verge of war.”

“We are, yet no one knows why. Ragefang and Winterpaw have never quarreled. We knew that the spirits meant this land to belong to both tribes. The Winterpaw roamed the slopes of the Big Snow Mountain and we hunted in the forests. Men from one tribe would move to another to take wives there.”

“Is Grizzlemaw shared by the tribes?”

“Each tribe has its own village. We usually come to Grizzlemaw three times a year: the first day of spring, mid-summer, and Winter’s Veil. Yet today we are not here to celebrate a sacred occasion; we are here to hold counsel.”

“You are not fighting over Grizzlemaw?”

“I do not know. That is why I am so grateful to outsiders like yourself. There is another one here, a night elf druid named Felderon Whisperbough. I know that the Kaldorei are friends with the furbolgs in Kalimdor, and—forgive me. I have not been a good host. But I cannot talk to my own tribe. The spirits and ancestors are reticent, and offer me little help. Please, sit and rest yourself.”

I nodded and sat down against a curtain of moss. Grehn fretted, her claws clicking as they ran against each other. For the first time I saw Grehn’s exhaustion, her tangled fur jutting in messy tufts from her head and arms.

“I cannot be so addled as to forget hospitality!” she growled. “Here, take the soup.”

She produced a wooden bowl from the stacked items at the back and ran it through the cauldron. Practically shoving it into my hands she returned to her pacing. I took a sip, tasting what I guessed to be venison stock.

“If I can help in any way, I’ll do whatever I can,” I offered.

“Oh. What brought you to Grizzlemaw?”

“I hoped to learn about the furbolgs.”

“I am not sure how much you can learn. Just last year all was well. The taunka and Kirovi kept to their parts of the forest, and we kept to ours. I could call on the ghosts of the ancestors to hear their wisdom, and they guided us well.”

“Did this stop suddenly?”

“Yes. One night I stood in the ritual circle, to call the spirits of furbolgs past and hear their voices in the flames. They never came. The tribe must have trespassed against them in some way, but I cannot imagine how. Time passed without success, and there were... accusations. Kruwl, a shaman, blamed the Winterpaw, because their braves hunt mountain rams, which the Ragefang do not hunt.”

“Are the mountain rams an important animal to the Ragefang?”

“Not at all! I thought Kruwl was insane; we are indifferent to the mountain rams. Yet his words gripped the minds of the young. I still work to limit his influence, but many listen to him.”

“Have the forest spirits said anything?”

“They rarely speak. The forest was greatly angered by the goblin intrusion. Both our tribes raided the goblin camps in the north and south, but we are few in number and could do little. I’m very glad that the Horde and Alliance chased those awful creatures away from here.”

“If you do not mind my asking, how well do the furbolgs get along with the spirits of the forest?”

“We are part of the forest, and give it much respect. Why would we do otherwise?”

“I was curious. The taunka have a much more adversarial relationship with the spirits.”

“That is because the taunka live in lands not meant for them. We furbolgs will never leave the forests here, for this is where we are welcome. Trespassing beyond this land will invite terrible suffering.”

“Departure is not an option?”

“We cannot leave this land! Better to die here, where we are close to the ancestors.”

I nodded, taking another sip. Furbolgs are tied to the spirits of their homelands, even more so than the tauren. This was why the Burning Legion’s presence in Kalimdor proved so deadly to them. Some druids argue that the furbolgs should really be seen as an extension of the forest, as much a part of it as the trees. While perhaps an oversimplification, this theory is not without merit.

A tiny furbolg suddenly ducked under the drapes and rushed into the hut, looking like a little ball of fur. A rapid stream of high-pitched snarls and growls came from the newcomer as he skidded to a stop at Grehn’s massive feet. Then the child saw me and ducked behind Grehn’s legs, suddenly nervous. She picked him up, cradling him in her massive arms.

“This is my son, Ferl,” she said. “My second child. He is only a few years of age, and is not used to strangers.”

“I didn’t mean to disturb him. Should I leave?”

“You may stay, Ferl must learn to control his fears.”

She placed Ferl on the grass mat, giving him a sleekly carved wooden deer. Ferl, still looking at me as if I were some dangerous animal, scooted towards the baskets while clutching his toy.

“Is your older child in Grizzlemaw?”

“She is. My daughter, old enough to marry, but more interested in killing the Winterpaw,” Grehn said. “Her name is Hrehk. I do not want her to die in this war! Her words undermine my attempts for peace. Among our tribes, only a mother can be a lorespeaker. What does it say about me when my own daughter ignores my words?”

“Does the father support you?”

“He died years ago, soon after Ferl’s birth. I planned to find another mate, but now is a most difficult time.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. What about the Winterpaw lorespeaker? Have you talked to her about this problem?”

“She also advises war.”

I spoke with Grehn well into the evening. None of the legends from either tribe made any mention of strife between the two. The lack of precedent made Grehn woefully ill-prepared to solve the problem. In search of explanation she darted from one theory to another. At last she apologized, saying it was none of my concern.

At sundown we went outside to share a meal with Grehn’s remaining friends. As lorespeaker, Grehn is exempt from hunting. Her only responsibility is to tell stories and seek wisdom. Recent events had eroded her authority; a shaman named Tohrhon was lorespeaker in all but name. Only a few hunters still supported Grehn.

A freshly caught deer served as dinner that night, eaten half-raw by the furbolgs. We sat around a blazing firepit in the compound of an older hunter named Hulruk. They spoke only a little before dinner, silenced by the looming threat of war. The communal meal became a sacred event, the last breath of a dying culture.

As the furbolgs finished gnawing on the bones, Hulruk took out a wooden pot the size of his head. Stylized bees decorated the surface. He passed it around and each furbolg dipped a paw into the gooey honey inside. They then licked their honey-drenched paws, still wet with blood from the deer. I took a small portion, though I was not entirely keen on eating it.

The furbolgs long ago domesticated the Northrend honeybee, a species capable of producing lambent honey. The Northrend honeybee is a remarkably docile species, and lacks a stinger. They are completely dependent on the furbolgs for survival. Honey is eaten about once a week. Most families own at least a single hive, like the glowing one at the back of Grehn’s home.

I later read an alchemical analysis of Northrend honey that stated it is vastly more nutritious than the regular variety. It may even regulate the ponderous furbolg metabolism. Such an astounding effect indicates the influence of extra-normal forces. Grehn explained that the spirits of the hive promised to strengthen the furbolg in return for protection.

Grehn told her story after the consumption of the honey, struggling to express a confidence she no longer felt. I could not understand her words, but I knew something was lacking. Her audience watched with sorrowful eyes as she went through the motions. When she finished, they scraped their claws together in the furbolg equivalent of applause, though no hope or joy lighted their faces. The gathering then dispersed, the hushed words of farewell barely audible over the sounds of the forest.

*********

Grehn took me to the tree’s grand carcass early the next morning, leaving Ferl in Hulruk’s compound. Standing between the Ragefang and Winterpaw sections of Grizzlemaw, the great tree offers an important neutral ground. Not even the most aggressive hunters, claimed Grehn, would dare take up arms in its confines.

A jagged opening among the roots leads into Grizzlemaw’s center. A lone night elf sat in the tall grass outside, dressed in a human forester’s garb. His silver hair, neat and close-cropped, furthered his unusual appearance. He looked up as we approached, the mild expression of puzzlement soon replaced by a welcoming smile.

“Good morning to you, Grehn. I see you have another visitor. Forsaken?”

“That is correct, Felderon. Destron, this is the druid I mentioned to you.”

“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said.

“Felderon is here to study the great tree, which he calls Vordrassil,” mentioned Grehn.

“Vordrassil? Does it have a history with the Kaldorei?” I asked.

“Yes, actually. The druids are partly responsible for its creation. It is still of interest to the Cenarion Circle, which is why they sent me to see how it’s fared over the millennia.”

“Why was it created?”

“The druids wished to see what could be done with altered trees. Little did they know that the spirits of the Grizzly Hills had called them here to make a home for their favored children, the Ragefang and Winterpaw Tribes.”

“These must be powerful spirits,” I said, a bit confused.

“Only a fool would doubt them.”

I found it difficult to believe that the Cenarion Circle would respond to forest spirits; they are druids, not shamans. However, I said nothing, not wanting to cause a disruption.

“Do you have any idea what might be causing such anger here?” implored Grehn.

“I regret to say that I do not.”

Grehn sighed. Her dark eyes looked up at Vordrassil’s shattered trunk as if hoping to find an answer on the ancient surface. Then, she told us to follow her inside.

A realm of woodland splendor lies beyond Vordrassil’s entrance, like something plucked from a child’s storybook. Vordrassil may be dead but its corpse gives birth to all manner of life. Lush ferns and flowers thrive in the holy tomb, and curtains of thick moss garb the wide pathways going up and down the walls. Red-capped mushrooms, growing as tall as a man’s knee, cluster along the lower levels. Softly glowing beehives hang like lanterns from wooden posts along the paths. Made beautiful by the eternal dusk, swarms of fireflies dance in a kaleidoscope of light over the vast central expanse.

Perfectly circular doors lead into the walls, looking like the portals to the furbolg huts outside. There are three levels of doors, going from the shadowed and moss-cloaked portals at the bottom to the brightly lit doors at the top. A large pit opens up at the center of the lowest floor, the branches of an unseen tree reaching out over the edge. I spotted a few furbolgs collecting honey from the hive posts. Some wore brown fur, others white. I asked Grehn about this.



“The honey grown in Grizzlemaw’s hut is the sweetest of all, enriched by the whispers of our ancestors. In visions I would see our mothers and fathers working through the bees. Peace still rules here, if only barely.”

“There does not appear to be any animosity.”

“Sadly it still exists, though the beekeepers are better at hiding it. The importance of their work keeps their minds and spirits occupied. These are the only furbolgs who take permanent residence in Grizzlemaw.”

“Do they live in these homes along the walls?”

“Those are not homes, Destron. Those are tombs. The doors are not meant to be opened until Ursoc again strides through the mountains.”

“Ursoc? The Ancient?”

“Father of all furbolgs. Our stories tell how he perished fighting the dark spirits in times past. The beekeepers here worship his memory and await his return.”

“When shall he return?”

“Soon, I pray. Only then will there be peace. Not just for the furbolgs, but for the world. I assure you that the Lich King could not survive a single blow from Ursoc’s mighty paws.”

Grehn excused herself, saying she wanted to speak to one of the beekeepers. I was left with Felderon, who told me a bit about himself. The task of investigating Vordrassil had been meant for another; it fell to Felderon only when the original charge was recalled to Outland.

“Right now the Cenarion Circle keenly laments having ever created the Cenarion Expedition. No one is entirely sure if the expedition falls under the authority of the archdruids. Neither the Kaldorei or the Shu’halo are inclined to legalism, so such matters tend to be vaguely defined.”

Felderon did speak Ursine, though he soon found that the Northrend dialect is very nearly a different language. He talked about his accomplishments with just enough enthusiasm to expose his insecurity. The fact he was the Circle’s second choice clearly rankled him. I actually thought he possessed an admirably cosmopolitan quality, and was not surprised to learn he’d spent three years in Stormwind City. There, he'd picked up a number of human mannerisms, explaining his clothes and haircut.

“Why didn’t you return to customary elven garb upon your return to Kalimdor?” I asked.

“I came to prefer the human style. I do not think this preference endears me to Archdruid Remulos, however.”

Felderon also explained Vordassil’s history in more detail. As I’d suspected, what he said to Grehn had been altered to spare her beliefs; the spirits had never summoned the druids. He did not enjoy lying to her, but realized that telling her the truth would only make her harder to reach.

“I am sure you know about Nordrassil,” he said.

“Yes, the World Tree of the Kaldorei that was destroyed in the Third War.”

“Correct. Nordrassil gave immortality to my race, as well as great power. Long ago, after the Sundering, a small group of ambitious druids wondered if a second World Tree would increase the might of the Kaldorei. They hoped to put all of Azeroth under our protection.

“These druids, led by one Endaral Nightwind, stole away from the Emerald Dream and took with them acorns fallen from the branches of Nordrassil. Braving stormy seas and frigid wastes they at last reached the Grizzly Hills, the perfect place for another World Tree. Planting the seed in the ground, they began the Ritual of Growth.

“As they hoped, a vibrant sapling grew from the soil. Growing larger as the months passed, the rogue druids rejoiced. Then they saw the black spots on the limbs, and wounds of oily sap that turned into metal.”

“Metal? What sort of metal?”

“Saronite, in all likelihood. Still, the druids did not want to abandon their efforts. Soon Vordrassil stood as high as Nordrassil, corruption seeping from its core. Only then did a druid named Golhine Starfall convince his fellows that Vordrassil had to die. They were forced to kill Endaral, who’d begun worshipping the tree, and used their energies to destroy Vordrassil.”

“What happened to Golhine and the others?”

“They returned, appropriately contrite. The Cenarion Circle did not execute them, since they were skilled and capable of realizing error. Instead, they were blocked from the Emerald Dream for 3,000 years.”

“Why did Vordrassil become corrupt?”

“There is an evil here in Northrend. It is older than the furbolgs, older than the Titans. Somehow, Vordrassil’s roots tapped into this darkness. The Cenarion Circle believes that an Old God resides somewhere beneath this continent.”

“Like C’thun?”

“One of C’thun’s brethren. I was sent to learn if this Old God still presents a threat.”

“What is your verdict?”

“I am starting to suspect that it is, though this is more from the behavior of the furbolgs. Something is stirring them to violence.”

“Were you among the druids who created Vordrassil?”

Felderon laughed.

“I should say not! I was born only five or so centuries ago. Besides, I see no reason that the Kaldorei should be immortal. Nordrassil’s fall released us from eternal bondage and ennui.”

“Do you enjoy being a druid?”

“Yes. Nothing forces me to be here, and the Cenarion Circle has no room for the unwilling. The idea of eternal service—since all Kaldorei are expected to serve nature in some way, even if most do very little—simply rankled me. I’m not alone in believing this, though very nearly so.”

“Does this have anything to do with your admiration for Stormwind culture?”

“Uh, perhaps. That’s an odd question, don’t you think? I admire some of Stormwind’s aesthetics, and never thought I needed a reason for it. Beauty is beauty. Anyway, there is something you may want to see at the lowest level of this place.”

I followed Felderon down the ramp to the deepest level of Vordrassil. A slender tree grows from the damp earth at the shadowed bottom layer. Though I’d noticed the upper branches from the entryway, I found it odd that a tree could grow with so little direct light.



“What is this?” I asked.

“It may be the source of the problem. Something is definitely unusual about this spot.”

“The tree doesn’t seem to have enough light, for one.”

“A good observation. There’s no way for me to be sure of this, but I cannot help wondering if this sapling is Vordrassil renewing itself.”

“What makes you think that?”

“The fact that it grows in shadow. Can you feel the pulse in the air here? The unwholesome warmth?”

“I do not feel anything unusual. However, my physical senses are somewhat limited. Wouldn’t the furbolgs notice something amiss?”

“One would think. The beekeepers are the only ones who live here, yet none of them claim anything unusual. It almost makes me wonder if—no, I could not believe that. Why would they regrow Vordrassil?”

“How would they?”

“That’s another question. Residual corruption, perhaps? Or maybe some lost seed exists in the forest? If I were fluent in the local dialect I might be able to learn more.”

“Can you test it?”

“I scraped off a sliver when the beekeepers weren’t looking. There’s certainly corruption in it, but I cannot glean any more information. I intend to take it back to Nighthaven for further analysis. I do not plan on staying here much longer.”

“What about the furbolgs?”

“I will see if I can convince Grehn to leave. She’s been quite kind, and I respect her ability to step back from the madness consuming her tribe. I do not think she will listen.”

Felderon accompanied Grehn and I back to her home in the mid-afternoon. We waited until sundown before trying to persuade the lorespeaker. She reacted as Felderon predicted, quite understandably demanding more proof of the druid’s theorized corruption. I could not fault her; I would also insist on more solid evidence. For all I knew, Felderon was completely wrong.

“I only want to help you. Dark times lie on the horizon for both tribes, surely you would not deny that,” urged Felderon. “Would you at least consider moving for Ferl’s sake?”

“You do not understand. You think yourself one with the forest simply because you are a druid? I’ve seen the magic you work; perhaps you protect the forest, but you are not of it the way my people are. Leaving this land is the worst thing that could happen to Ferl.”

“The relocation would not be permanent. Merely until things become more settled,” I said, my voice flat and without conviction.

“Destron, you know even less than Felderon. This forest and the spirits within is more than a home. It is part of us, and if I have to kill every Winterpaw to stay here, I will do just that!”

Her lips peeled back, sharp yellow teeth exposed in a horrible grin. Felderon stepped back, lowering his gaze and raising his hands.

“Forgive me, Grehn. I did not mean to offend.”

“Both of you, leave Grizzlemaw. You cannot help us,” she growled.

We left the ancient city that very night. Before we parted ways, Felderon and I could hear the deep wail of flutes calling out through Grizzlemaw, their tones grave and foreboding.

*********

Crossing the Black River leads to a gentler land, the rugged terrain made level and the forests less dense. Kirovi farming villages had once prospered along the now-overgrown road leading to Dragonblight, benefitting from the trade between Paskaron and Sanktagrad. Dispersed by the Scourge, the ruined houses now collapse in on themselves and violet wildflowers grow tall in the fields.

Conquest Hold is the Kalimdor Horde’s most important strategic asset in eastern Northrend. Its placement is something of an anomaly; the overall Horde strategy had put the east in Forsaken hands. I first learned about Conquest Hold from the Forsaken in Vengeance Landing, who described it as a last minute extension designed to disrupt the Alliance's plans. Wedged between Westguard Keep in the south and Wintergarde in the west, Conquest Hold is in an ideal position to interfere with Alliance supply routes, should open war ever break out. For the same reason, it is also quite vulnerable to a counterattack.

My imagination conjured up a simple frontier outpost, like the ones scattered across the Barrens. Instead, Conquest Hold is a massive fortress of stone and steel. Black basalt walls bruise the eyes, metal spikes running along towers and battlements. A steel gate with a pointed arch offers entry, though the blades and spikes lining the frame promise death to the unwanted. Thick black smoke wreathes the defense towers, their tops capped by iron talons pointing to sky.



For a moment I imagined myself a human in the Second War, so much does Conquest Hold resemble the cruel fortress cities of the Old Horde. The brutalized peon engineers who had built those fortresses understood the value of intimidation. So too did the designers of Conquest Hold. Every inch seems designed to cause harm, as if the entire complex is itself a weapon. I wondered how much the Horde had spent on building Conquest Hold.

The inside is no more welcoming. A dour black keep squats in the courtyard’s western end, like some beast growling over its meal. Wooden warehouses and tents cling to the keep’s base, made pitiful by the structure’s size. Horde banners are everywhere, but look somehow out of place, overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of the defenses. Opposite the keep is a wide pit, probably about 50 yards across and spanned by a web of wire and metal beams, surrounded by bleachers and faded Horde banners.

“We always send some warriors out on sorties to contest the Alliance’s claim to this land,” said Vurg Stoneblade. A young orc, he’d risen quickly to the rank of captain thanks to his actions in Ashenvale.

“What about the Scourge?” I asked.

“I do not think the armies of the dead—Scourge dead, that is—consider this land a target. If it does, we’ll meet them on the field of battle.”

“So the main purpose of Conquest Hold is to secure the Horde’s control of the Grizzly Hills?”

He shrugged.

“I’m just a warrior, Forsaken. My only desire is to find honor in battle, and satisfaction in victory. We all follow Conqueror Krenna’s orders.”

Every person I met in Conquest Hold made at least some mention of Krenna. Peons and many of the younger warriors hailed her as a bold example of the orcish spirit. Older warriors tended to hold a more neutral stance. Visitors often despised her.

“Don’t talk to me about her! I come here to trade, risking life and limb, and she makes me pay a tax to set up shop here. A tax in a frontier burg like this, can you believe it?” exclaimed a goblin trader named Glinkna Zgadgoz. She looked over her shoulder after her outburst, suddenly chastened.

“Trust me," she continued, "do not let anyone hear you saying bad things about her. I’ve seen folks end up in Conquest Pit for crossing Krenna.”

“Conquest Pit?”

“That arena over there,” she said, pointing to the sunken cage. “Blood sport is a big business up here.”

“How? How can they afford such a luxury?”

“It doubles as a training ground. Grunts spar, peons bet on the outcome. If you watch, you have to bet, and the house takes ten percent of the cut. Worse things go on in there though. They capture ice trolls from up north, put them in fights to the death against each other or against anyone Krenna doesn’t like.”

“You... you must be mistaken,” I protested. I did not want to believe this.

“Oh, you think so? Why don’t you go spit in Krenna’s face and see what happens! People die in there; I’ve seen it. Krenna throws in some poor fool and the peons cheer when his guts spill on the dirt.”

“Simply for crossing her?”

“Okay, I’ll admit you have to do something a bit more severe than just annoy Krenna. If she thinks you’re a threat though, you’re in, like it or not.”

“A threat to what?”

“The honor and morale of Conquest Hold, whatever that means. She decides what makes a threat, of course. I’ve barely made two coins to rub together in this place, and I’m leaving first thing tomorrow.”

I had almost told Glinkna that Krenna was breaking the law. Only at the last minute did I realize that there was not really a law to break. Arenas do exist throughout orcish lands. Though meant for volunteer gladiators, the use of slave warriors was tacitly accepted so long as the slave owners maintained a facade of legitimacy. Only recently has Thrall taken steps to end this shameful and abominable practice, and I fear that he has not done enough.

In Orgrimmar, the word of Thrall usually keeps the worst aspects of orc culture in check. He rules by virtue of his wisdom and courage, and no one doubts these qualities. Yet he does not rule by way of law. This concept is largely foreign to the orcs. Ultimately, might still makes right. It’s easy to forget this fact when living under the Warchief’s civilized reign. Krenna’s brutality is a terrible reminder of the reality of orcish politics. She rules as a warlord, and is celebrated for it.

I thought back to the horrors I’d seen at New Agamand, of the apothecaries and their nightmarish poisons. My plan was to tell the Horde authorities of what I’d seen, but would I find a single listener in Conquest Hold? From the hateful Forsaken, to the fanatic dwarves, and the savage orcs, it seemed as if Northrend drives its invaders to madness.

Wooden cages are at the rim of Conquest Pit, each occupied by a Drakkari prisoner of war at the time of my visit. Fearsome even in captivity, they sharpened their tusks with flat stones and spoke to each other in some Zandali dialect. I found their nonchalance odd, though I’d heard that the Drakkari were an exceedingly violent culture. Perhaps they considered it a fine fate to die in an arena. Only a few bored orcs guarded them.

I made up my mind to inform the Conquest Hold authorities about New Agamand. I would present it as a solely strategic concern, rather than a moral or political one. That struck me as the best way to raise awareness of the Apothecarium’s misdeeds.

Though I was unable to secure an audience with Krenna (which was perhaps for the best), the guards at the keep directed me to her senior adviser, an orc shaman named Hurn’mok. I found him seated near the Conquest Pit, a scarred hulk cloaked in wolfskin. Eyes closed, he basked as best he could in the wan northern sun, his mouth upturned in a smile as if realizing the futility of his efforts. He turned out to be easygoing and receptive, a welcome relief from the harsh mood of Conquest Hold. I explained my concerns, describing the apothecaries as indifferent or hateful to all non-Forsaken, and suggesting how their actions might lead to calamity.



“There is a darkness within the Forsaken heart. Thank you for telling this to me, Destron. I shall let the conqueror know as soon as possible.”

“And then she will relay it to the leaders of the Warsong Offensive?”

“I assure you that she will.”

“Thank you for hearing me out. While I do not expect the apothecaries will do anything truly damaging to the Horde’s cause, they do pose a definite risk. How do you like it here in the Grizzly Hills?” I asked, changing the subject.

“This is a good land, worth dying for. Even the Alliance agrees!” he laughed.

“It must be of great strategic importance to expend so much effort,” I said, choosing my words with care.

“Fighting is our way.”

“Excuse me?”

“Whatever their faults, the Alliance brings some of the toughest and craftiest warriors to the field of battle. It is good that our own warriors can test their skills in this land.”

“But there’s also a risk. If a promising warrior dies—”

“‘Glory comes with death in battle, and his brothers shall sing his name with pride.’ That’s from an old orc poem, centuries old. I can tell that you still think like a human. I do not mean to offend; you were once a human, so it is only natural. If anything, you should take pride in it. A culture is nothing without pride.”

“Fair enough, but Thrall learned a great deal from the humans, and adopted some of those lessons for the Horde.”

“And once I agreed with this. I served the Old Horde, and languished when the demon’s drive left us. When I heard this young shaman preaching honor and redemption, I knew I must follow him. I first started noticing the problems after the construction of Orgrimmar. We orcs were still like a people defeated. We used human words, followed human ideas, acted like humans... our minds were free, but our spirits remained shackled.”

“What is your opinion of the Warchief?”

“He saved the orcs, and I will always honor him for that. But more must be done. For many years I sought the wisdom of the spirits, but never found anything that helped. Only when I met the Mag’har did I realize that we must return to being orcs. Thrall saw the anger of the Old Horde, and told us to keep our souls in check, but I fear that he misunderstood the problem. The fury and passion of the Old Horde did not come from the orcish spirit; it came from demons. The Mag’har show us how our race is meant to be: a nation of gods and heroes. We do not hold back. When an orc rages, he rages with the power of a thousand storms. When he weeps, he weeps oceans of tears. Uncontrolled, savage, and glorious.”

“Cultures also change. The humans of today are not much like the ancient Arathi, who were actually closer to orcs in terms of culture.”

“Perhaps humans do, but they do not hear the voices of their ancestors. But the spirits of my fathers urge me to glory, and so too is it with the rest of my race. We are warriors.”

“What about the peons?”

Hurn’mok laughed again, louder than before.

“You Forsaken are clever. Your point is a good one though. Peons are what happens when orcs become too numerous. Still, we warriors and shamans are their heroes. We enrich their lives with our honor, and in return they serve us.”

“Since they serve you, and make it possible for you to fight, shouldn’t they also get some of their own honor?”

“No. Why would they? Peons work hard, but they do not fight. Who tells stories of construction projects?”

“The dwarves do.”

“Well, we are not dwarves, are we?” he scoffed, showing annoyance for the first time. “Stories are for heroes. We orcs are heroes, and the world is our saga.”

I wondered if Hurn’s arguments were really so different from those used by the demon-worshippers of the Old Horde. Some orcs hold up the Mag’har as examples of purity, immune to corruption, but they were very much a part of the larger orcish culture that did embrace the Burning Legion. Would it really be so beneficial to return to that traditional mindset?

Hurn said that orcs are orcs, and I agree. Certainly there are real, ingrained psychological differences between orcs and humans. But this does not mean that their cultures are immutable. Modern orcs are themselves divided among a number of different cultural paradigms, as are the humans and most other races.

I’d long looked forward to reaching Conquest Hold, hoping it would give me a comfortable and familiar example of the Horde at its best. Instead, I had only found bitter disappointment.