Sunday, November 29, 2009
The pounding of kettle drums reverberated through the clearing, an echo of hot island nights far to the south. Fantastically garbed and mutilated priests paid homage to their gods as the drummers played. Even the warriors bedecked themselves in bright colors, their shoulders mounted with the painted skulls of savage beasts. Torches and firepits worked with divine magic to heat the air, creating an oasis of light in the cold fastness of Zul’drak.
Disoriented by all the activity I struggled to navigate the maze of flames and strange-colored smoke in Zim’torga. Though strange, I found the lively atmosphere a welcome change from Zul’drak’s austerity. Even so, there’s a definite edge of menace in Zim’torga. The Loa are not always kind gods, and the Zandalari reflect this. I enjoyed Mumbwe’s protection, but knew myself to be an outsider, one whose very state was an affront to the Loa.
I found Rothen seated at the edge of the clearing, taking bites from an immense pig’s haunch. I walked over to him, eager for conversation.
“What do you make of Zim’torga?” I asked, taking a seat next to him.
“I’ve never seen so many trolls in one place,” he shouted, straining to be heard over the religious festivities. “Mumbwe assured me that Zim’torga is protected, but it seems like a bad idea to make so much racket in enemy territory.”
“If what she says is true, the Loa will reciprocate.”
I actually shared his unease. Even Mumbwe seemed unsure as to how much the Loa really loved Zandalar. Though they doubtless held great dislike for the Drakkari, I was not sure if we could rely on them. When I brought this up to Mumbwe, she only laughed and said that I did not understand the nature of faith.
“Whether we live or die is the will of the Loa, Destron. I have faith in fearsome Shirvallah. But if I die, so be it. His ways are not for me to know.”
Ferociously painted troll acrobats leaped and twisted over the bonfires built around the central idol, actually a representation of a lesser local goddess for whom the base is named. Once a roadside Drakkari shrine, her temple fell into disuse over the centuries. Assured of plentiful food and resources, the ice trolls cared little for the minor gods. Since only the Primal Loa of the Drakkari had fallen to their petitioners’ sacrificial rites, the Zandalari thought it wise to curry favor with their surviving brethren.
We occasionally caught sight of Breku, who offered mechanical bows to any Zandalari who passed by him. He looked even more out of place than did Rothen and I.
The night’s festivities gave way to a gray and subdued morning. Warriors took their posts on the trees surrounding Zim’torga, nearly invisible among the thick branches. Camp followers brewed troll-style coffee in great cauldrons, as thick as sludge and with a taste to match. Mumbwe was recovering from the previous night’s rituals, so I tried to learn as much as I could about the other Zandalari. They were greatly amused at my awkward attempts to speak Zandali, and bore my inquiries with good humor.
“What did you do back on Zandalar?” I asked one of the camp porters, a short troll with a shock of blue hair the size of his head. His name was Ha’chac.
“Me? I was an angler. Lately the catches haven’t been very good, and they keep having to send warriors to deal with naga.”
“Are the naga a big problem?”
“Getting to be. The spirits of the ocean don’t like the naga any more than we do, but I guess the snake-men have some powerful magic on their side. I’m no shaman, but we can all tell that something’s bothering the spirits.”
“Do the shamans have any theories?”
“Plenty, but no one knows for sure. That’s why I pledged myself to this service. Every village and tribe sent a few of their kin to Zim’torga, so that the Loa would smile on us. The priests say that we’re doing divine work up here.”
Many of the trolls painted a gloomy picture of their homeland, describing an ancient city besieged by dark signs and omens. Trolls from hunting communities spoke of the local fauna becoming aggressive and erratic, while the farmers reported increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.
“The rainy season started a week late last year. We prayed, and the Loa fixed it, but it’s never been late before,” said one.
The behavior of the ruling castes is another source of apprehension. No Zandalari criticized the priests and warriors directly, but I could sense their doubts. Many wondered why some of the great families were sending their children to the Valley of Spirits in Orgrimmar.
“Is not Zandalar the heart of our race? How is Orgrimmar better?” complained a cook.
Of course, the upper castes defend themselves by citing the importance of maintaining an open line of communication with the increasingly influential Darkspear Tribe. Some of the more conservative temples (like those of Ula-Tek and Shadra) and their associated guards still express disdain towards the Darkspear. Even so, their protestations seem to grow ever more frantic, a sure sign of doubt and desperation. The Zim’torga effort may be, in part, an attempt to build unity among the five temples.
Zandalar cannot spare many warriors. Incursions of nagas and murlocs plague the coasts, while more obscure threats lurk in the jungles. The various temple guards only sent token forces to Zim’torga, though one should not underestimate the Zandalari holy warriors. They are among the most formidable fighters in all of Azeroth.
The Zim’torga Expedition bolsters their ranks with spiritual auxiliaries. These are created by specially trained shamans, who convinced some of the Zandalar spirits to accompany them to the north. Once in Zim’torga, the shamans gathered large rocks and marked them with sacred glyphs, allowing the spirits to use collections of swirling stones as bodies. Throughout the day the shamans performed simple rites to keep the spirit guardians satisfied. Not needing conventional sleep, the guardians instead rest for an hour or so each day in a large patch of Zandalari earth, bright blue flowers blooming at their presence.
I met with Mumbwe just past noon, the clouds as thick and solid as lead ingots. I asked her about Zim’torga’s defenses.
“The Drakkari know we are here. Blasphemers they are, but they still know better than to call down the wrath of the Primal Loa.”
“I’m surprised that they don’t consider you to be invaders.”
“Perhaps they do, but they know they cannot afford any more enemies.”
“Pardon me if this question is inappropriate, but why not help them fight the Scourge? After all, it poses a threat to us all. You might even sway the Drakkari.”
She shook her head and bared her polished teeth.
“No. Zul’drak rejected their gods, and our gods wish to return that rejection. Would you help the demons of the Burning Legion fight the Scourge?”
“I suppose not...”
“The Drakkari are like demons now, revering nothing save themselves! They must die, so that no other trolls think to do as they did. We are only here to record their demise, to confirm the wrath of the Loa.”
Rothen and I went to the northern edge of Zim’torga a bit later. A layer of ankle-deep snow covers the third tier, the white stained with grit and mud. Empty plazas crumble in the cold, guarded by snow-capped forts and temples, their windows dark as pitch. Groves of coniferous trees cling to life at the corners of some plazas, made incongruous by virtue of their familiarity. Stone idols drowse under blankets of snow, their petty altars devoid of offerings.
The crushing dread I had felt on the first and second tiers gave way to loneliness. I wondered if the Crusade’s belief of 200,000 Drakkari was just a gross overestimate. Only the wind attends the frigid temples of the third tier, whispering hymns in empty sanctuaries. Mumbwe mentioned that, much like the second tier, most of the population had shifted to the northern and southern extremities so as to reinforce their equivalents on the second. She also said that the death of the Loa had created a spiritual void in Zul’drak. I do not worship the Loa, but I found it hard to disagree with that statement.
“What do you think of the Zandalari?” I asked Rothen.
“Strange. I think it says something that I feel more comfortable talking to you than I do to them. Whatever your current state—forgive me if I cause offense—you used to be a Lordaeronian human. But these Zandalari are from another world entirely.”
“The closest thing I have to a home is the trollish section of Orgrimmar. Most of my peers are mages, however, and they tend to be less driven by their gods.”
“What sort of a god can be killed, anyway?”
“Only aspects were killed. Not the true forms of the deities.”
“I suppose. I wish the Zandalari took the Scourge more seriously. When Ubungo and Mumbwe visited us, we thought they’d offer reinforcements. Turns out they’re just spectators to a massacre. I do not plan to stay here long. As far as I’m concerned, the Zandalari might as well not be here.”
Satiated by the previous night’s rituals, the Loa permitted the Zandalari to rest easy that evening. In a way, mealtimes at Zim’torga reveal the full extent of the Loa’s influence on Zandalar. Laborers dig into consecrated earth and take out fully-formed cassava roots early each morning, while priests sculpt and flesh docile boars from mud.
Mumbwe explained that such ease is by no means typical for the Zandalari; earlier she’d stressed that the Zandalari work for their food, unlike the Drakkari. However, the circumstances of the Zim’torga Expedition had moved the Loa to provide some extra help. The trolls in Zim’torga do not need to rely on the stretched supply lines that so frustrate the Argent Crusade. When Rothen asked if the Zandalari could help resupply the Argent Stand, Mumbwe promised to discuss the matter with the gods and other priests. The tone in which she gave her promise suggested they would refuse.
The cooking fires were dying down to smolders when four guards bounded in from the perimeter, their long legs carrying them to the ornate priests’ tent. A few of the trolls nearby took notice though most were lost in their own affairs. Then, one by one across the camp, the trolls looked to the north, their faces alert. As the conversation ceased I heard a shrill wail carried across the lonesome plains. The cold, whining pitch burrowed into our ears as it grew louder and closer, heard but not seen. Breku fell apart, sobbing and wailing like a frightened child. He threw himself on the dirt, wriggling as if trying to burrow his way inside.
Mumbwe exited her tent, followed by her fellow priests. The priest of Shadra raised a conch shell to his needle-riddled lips and blew, momentarily drowning out the distant horns. Trolls throughout Zim’torga jumped to their feet, the warriors grabbing their spears and sprinting to the trees around the camp. Clambering up with practiced grace they ran along the branches to the north. Spirit guardians rumbled towards the priests, forming an honor guard of living stone. Together they walked to the source of the dizzying horns and disappeared behind the wall of trees.
The hollow percussion of drumbeats joined the crying horns, sounding out a swaying beat. First coming from the north, the music expanded until it seemed to emanate from the very trees around Zim’torga. One could not hear it without imagining a savage army on the warpath.
Then the horns stopped and the drums rattled into silence. Zim’torga was empty save for the camp workers, who’d already begun bowing to small idols of wood and stone, filling the air with their rhythmic pleas.
“Should we go to Mumbwe?” asked Rothen.
“I think we should stay for now. Our presence might provoke the Drakkari.”
“I’d say they’re already well provoked. Do they not know what’s happening in their own empire? The first tier’s all but rotted away, and the second’s on the verge of the same fate!”
We strained our ears to pick up the whistling of arrows or the clash of arms. We heard nothing beyond the quivering chants all around us. Rothen bowed his own head and mouthed the words of an old prayer to the Light. I joined him after a few minutes.
What seemed like an eternity passed before the priests returned, still accompanied by their guardians. Warriors shimmied down the trees, though fewer than before; many stayed on guard. One priest began to speak, his words eliciting calm from the Zandalari. Mumbwe walked over to Rothen and I.
“Three-thousand Drakkari stand outside, wishing to pay their respects,” she said.
“That’s all?” demanded Rothen.
“They await our decision, next morning. We Zandalari must send one priest of sufficient piety to Gundrak, the heart of this dying nation. So mad and arrogant are they to think we Zandalari will be swayed.”
“Swayed to what?” I asked.
“The sacrifice of our gods. I could hear Shirvallah laughing as the Drakkari delegate said this! Can the Drakkari not feel the living spirit we’ve brought, even as far as here?”
“That sounds like a trap.”
“If we do not send one, they will attack. So one must go. It will probably be me; the temple of Shirvallah often speaks in favor of learning the ways of the world, and I must stand by this. We will see. Rest yourselves for now, and do not leave Zim’torga for any reason. The Drakkari will kill you.”
Calm quickly came to Zim’torga, the priests guaranteeing safety from the Drakkari. Only Breku remained inconsolable, whimpering in the dirt even after a warrior kicked him in the side and cursed him as a coward. Other Zandalari spat contempt on the Least until he curled up under a tree, hiding his face with his arms. Though pained at his distress, I could not help but share the Zandalari trolls’ annoyance. Such open fear was hardly acceptable, and could spread if not checked.
Mumbwe came to me the next morning with surprising news.
“Destron, you are in love with learning of the world. How would you like it if I took you to Gundrak?”
“Me? Is that allowed?”
“Gul’khaj, the Drakkari general outside our camp, said that his guest could bring another. I saw Holy Shirvallah in a vision last night, his fanged mouth speaking in a veil of sacred smoke. I am to go to Gundrak, so that the Drakkari might attempt to impress me. Yet the Holy Five will not brook their arrogance, so I will mock them by bringing one of the living dead to their most holy temples.”
“So you want to use me as an insult?”
“In so many words, yes.”
“This does sound rather dangerous.”
“The Drakkari promised we would be unharmed, promised on their very souls.”
“Would that mean much to a nation that sacrificed its own gods?”
“Do you think me a fool, Destron? Fear not. We are under divine protection. I prayed to Shirvallah last night and made many offerings. Now I carry his idol.”
From the folds of her robe she withdrew a jade tiger statuette with eyes of porphyry.
“If we need aid, my master will act through this,” she said, pointing to the statue.
I thought for a minute, wondering if I dared venture into the core of Drakkari territory. Mumbwe believed us safe but I did not entirely share her faith. If the Drakkari were lying, it meant certain death for us. Then again, the wonders and dangers of Zul’drak would likely be most pronounced on the lofty fourth tier, where thousands of fanatical warriors guarded their bleak temples.
“I’m ready to go,” I said.
I felt scales slithering along my face as Xiuhc’lan, the Speaking Serpent, coiled her translucent body around my left ear. A head grew from both ends of her body, the colorless mouths framed with golden fangs. One mouth stayed near my own, her forked tongue grabbing my words and turning them into Zandali. The other hovered next to the ear, changing Zandali words into Orcish and whispering to me.
Gaining the favor of Xiuhc’lan was no easy feat, according to Mumbwe. Nothing less than a blood offering would coax her into aiding one of the living dead. My corrupted blood is hardly a gift to the spirits, so Mumbwe would slit a finger each morning and evening, nourishing Xiuhc’lan with fresh droplets. Mumbwe considered it a small price to pay, considering her race’s regenerative capacity.
The Drakkari warriors comport themselves with a severity that reflects their frigid home. They protect themselves with hardened leather, black and lacking ornamentation. Trollish adaptability has made the Drakkari resistant to the cold, so they have no need for winter clothing.
I soon learned that the warband is the preeminent social unit in Drakkari society. The host escorting us towards Gundrak was not an army in any sense of the word. There was little in the way of cohesion or unity in its movement, which more closely resembled a mob’s. Each warrior jealously kept to his own kindred within his warband. I mean kindred quite literally; a warband typically consists of three or four extended families. Under normal circumstances the warbands roam across Zul’drak in a state of endless war, fueled by the food handed out at temples and priestly safe houses.
Every troll in a warband fights. Adult men do most of the melee fighting, while women, children, and the aged throw stones at the enemy. Indeed, Drakkari children march alongside their parents, gripping slings and pouches filled with stones. Pregnant women are the only Drakkari exempt from combat, though they are still expected to participate if the situation becomes dire.
A warband rarely lasts longer than a single generation. Once attrition renders a warband too small to effectively fight, they perform a hujak, or Rite of Submission, to a larger warband. Here, the surrendering chieftain slits his own throat in front of the other chieftain. Then, the living chieftain decides whether or not he wishes to incorporate the weakened warband. The Rite of Submission is almost always accepted, since turning away free warriors would be quite foolish.
Mumbwe and I were placed under the guard of a warband called Bloody Leopard Paw, 39 trolls strong. They rarely spoke to each other on the journey.
“You won’t notice this with Xiuhc’lan, but these warriors barely know how to talk,” said Mumbwe.
“A limited vocabulary?”
“A limited vocabulary to describe a limited world. Their brains have all but rotted away. All they do is fight to shed blood for Zul’drak.”
“I asked why. They do not understand that question.”
We reached the stairs to the fourth tier after three days of travel. Over a dozen fortresses protect the path to the stairway, brutish stone buildings topped by beehive-shaped towers. Troll warriors watched in the hundreds from these citadels.
I decided to ask a nearby warrior about the forts’ defenders, wondering if they also belonged to warbands. The warrior looked at me a moment before turning away. Surprised, I asked again, still not receiving a response.
“Warriors cannot answer such questions, Destron. They know only what they need to know, which is very little,” said a shorter troll dressed in a cloak of black hide. His bright but deep-set eyes studied me with restless impatience.
“My apologies. I did not mean to disturb anyone.”
“Bloody Leopard Paw has never strayed far from the lands around the Altar of Har’koa. Not a single one of them has ever seen a non-troll until now.”
“Not even the Scourge?”
“No. The first tier is a distant world to them, and beyond that? Nothing, as far as they is concerned.”
“So not only do the Drakkari warbands stay within Zul’drak, they do not even know of anything beyond it?”
“Why should they? Everything is in Zul’drak.”
“May I ask your name?”
“Forgive me, I should have introduced myself. I am a priest, Ruk’zeb by name. Warlord Gul’khaj ordered me to mind our Zandalari guests. I will answer whatever questions you might ask.
“You were wondering about the warriors in these forts, so I shall tell you: when a warband becomes too large, priests take the best warriors from the band and test them at the Amphitheater of Anguish. Those who survive serve in the Holy Guard, the warriors charged with protecting the sacred places.”
“There is no longer any loyalty to the warband?”
“None. They are above the warbands. By writing their deeds in words of blood, they receive the supreme honor of ascension.”
“If children are born to parents in the Holy Guard are they assured of a position within its ranks?”
“The Holy Guard never have children. It is not permitted. Those who pass the ritual tests—many never qualify to attempt, and those who qualify usually perish—enter the highest circles of Zul’drak as warlords. These and only these may have children, so that their immortal spirits may live on and serve the system.”
“What role do warlords play?”
“They organize the Blood Games, where groups of the Holy Guard fight in ritual combat. The lifeblood feeds the spirits and ensures the continuation of Zul’drak.”
“Do you lose many Holy Guard that way?”
“We can always replace them. New Drakkari are always being born, and its a simple matter for a warband to grow too large. I understand that this is not done on Zandalar.”
“I’ve never been to Zandalar, though I don’t think they operate in such a fashion.”
“You haven’t? I thought that you came from there. But you are Mumbwe’s guest!” A frighteningly blank expression crossed Ruk’zeb’s face for a moment, though he soon regained focus.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Merely surprised. No one told me that you were not from Zandalar. I can tell you are not a troll, but I thought you might be a guest or a slave. A captured Scourge, perhaps.”
“I am one of the Forsaken.”
“Forgive me, I have never heard of your people. Are you from the lands of the Amani? Gurubashi?”
“The land where I was born once belonged to the Amani, thousands of years ago.”
“Interesting. Are the Forsaken an Amani client race?”
It dawned on me that Ruk’zeb knew almost nothing about the world outside of Zul’drak. Even Northrend was a cipher to him. He admitted no knowledge of the furbolgs or Kirovi, though I knew for a fact that the Drakkari had encountered both in times past.
“The Zandalari are wise, but they may be mistaken,” he said, after I asked about the furbolgs. “Drakkari warriors only fight other Drakkari warriors, at least until now. We never fought these furbolgs. Perhaps the Amani did?”
“Wouldn’t the Least have told you of them?” I asked. “I was just in furbolg lands; many of them live to the south.”
I paused for a moment, studying Ruk’zeb. I felt a vague unease when I realized he truly did not know about the Least. Either that or Breku had been lying to us.
“Oh, are the Least a kind of Zandalari? Perhaps you meant that?” he suggested, smiling as if proud of himself.
“In a manner of speaking.”
I went to Mumbwe and asked her what she thought about Ruk’zeb.
“He is just like the warriors here. Ruk’zeb knows exactly what he needs to know. I asked the little runt about the Loa, and he knows almost nothing. Only that the sacrifice was necessary.”
“What duties does Ruk’zeb perform?” I asked.
“He conducts the rites for the Holy Guard.”
“He did seem to know something about that.”
“That and nothing else. The Drakkari are too ignorant to fear the Loa. I could never imagine such a thing, but here it is.”
The horns started up again at the base of the final staircase, a high-pitched musical scream. Brutish hands slapped kettle drums to a measured and majestic beat. The warbands moved to the sides of the road, opening a path for the priests who soon stood in a line at the lowest step. I noticed how simple they looked compared to the scarred and bejeweled priests of Zandalar. Beyond the lack of weapons, it is difficult to distinguish priests from warriors.
Falling to their knees the priests bellowed the names of dead gods. Lowering their heads the warriors followed suit, a thousand rough voices chanting in a deep and mindless tenor. Mumbwe stood firm, unmoved by the display.
A troll warrior adorned in comparatively ornate black armor walked up to the priests. Teeth and finger bones dangled from the back of his helmet. I suspected he was the warlord mentioned by Ruk’zeb. Without warning he went behind a priest and grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking the head back to expose the neck. The warlord drew an obsidian knife from his belt and used it to tear open the priest’s throat. He shoved the suddenly limp body, hot blood pouring out of the wound and splashing on the stone.
“We have paid the restitution. The Sanctuary is open for us!” he bellowed.
He led the way up the stairs, followed by the priests and then the warbands. They walked over the fallen priest, his bones crunching under the weight of the marchers. Nobody showed any sign of surprise or alarm; the priest’s murder simply a part of life. Ruk’zeb later told me that holy blood must be spilled before strangers (meaning anyone not residing on the fourth tier) entered.
Mumbwe hugged herself as she set foot on the fourth tier, the bitter cold reaching through her thick robes. I could not help shivering myself, though more due to the bleakness of my surroundings. The fourth tier looks much like the third, an endless tract of gray temples and monuments built on snow-covered flats. Though built with religious intent, nothing in that place welcomes the spirit. If gods had made it, they would not be the sort of gods that deserve worship.
The music died, replaced by the wind’s hollow moans. I almost looked away, repelled by the utter desolation. A city that is not a city, Zul’drak is almost a parody of trollish civilization. Their great temples are superficial imitations of the ruins in Zul’gurub, grand in scale but without meaning or vitality. The population reflects these traits, entrenched in ignorance, only knowing their place in the machine.
The Path of Sanctification cuts past the icy temples and palaces of the fourth tier. Drakkari priests and their retinues perform rituals at roadside altars at all times, leading their acolytes in rumbling hymns. Others give blessings to stone jars filled with blood, which they then pour on rows of tiny saronite idols. Brilliant lights glare out from the trapezoidal windows of the larger temples while smoke billows out from the roofs. The thin mountain air holds a noxious and metallic taint, and the frigid winds carry the groaning chants of unseen congregations.
Despite the grave demeanor expressed by our Drakkari escort, Ruk’zeb still showed the beginnings of curiosity towards the outside world, a trait that I found endearing. I told him a little bit about Azeroth, though I am not sure he was able to properly contextualize it. Many times he insisted that I was mistaken, though he at least conceded his own ignorance in some areas.
“These are strange times, you understand. Never before has an army invaded. We did not even think it possible, and a few of the priests refused to believe it,” he said.
“I trust they’ve changed their minds?”
“We killed them over the course of two bloody days, their deaths decreed by the high priest himself! Have you ever seen the high priest of your nation, Destron? It was a truly momentous event when he stood before the idols of Zul’drak, knife in hand, ordering the destruction of the renegades.”
“Why not simply convince them they were wrong? Surely a visit to the first tier would have convinced most.”
“That is not what the high priest ordered.”
“Did he also order the death of the gods?”
“I do not know. As I said, I know very little about the sacrifice.”
“Forgive my rudeness, but I still find it odd that a priest would be so indifferent to the deaths of his own gods.”
“Their death was decreed and done. What more is there to say?” he protested, sounding offended for the first time. He really had no idea.
“Very well then. Why is there smoke coming from some of these temples? Sacrifice?”
“No, they are the forge temples, where the priests craft the likenesses of the Loa in metal. Great power is in those idols.”
“What sort of power?”
“Great power. No need to know more, I think.”
“Were your parents also priests?” I asked, changing the subject. I did not wish to offend Ruk’zeb.
“What else would they be? The children of priests are sent to the temple schools, where they learn the necessary rites and incantations. Some fail, and they are are killed.”
I suppressed a shudder at the thought.
“Did your parents also deal with the Holy Guard, or did their specialization lie elsewhere?” I continued.
“How would I know?”
“Did you not know your parents?”
“My parents were priests. This is how it must have been, or else I would be a warrior. I do not understand, how could you doubt this?”
“I am not doubting that they were priests. I am merely surprised that you do not know their specific duties.”
“Why would I?”
I paused, trying to find the best way to approach his question.
“Among my people, it is customary for the parents to play a significant role in the child’s development.”
“That is very strange. I have never set eyes on my father or mother, nor has any other priest. Only the temple raises us, from birth to death. How can it be any other way? Do the parents of your land teach children of the appropriate rituals?”
“Yes, though they are often helped by schools.”
“You knew your father and mother? Truly?”
“I did, though I cannot remember very much about them.”
“How did they teach you? What trials did you undergo?”
“Many small ones, though I was never at risk of being killed for failure.”
“That must change everything!” he gasped. “Forgive me, I must think on this. You speak of a very strange world indeed. I think you must be mistaken in some way, for I do not see how such a thing could possibly function.”
Nightfall brings no end to city’s ritual sounds: the death-tone of iron gongs and grinding chants. A terrible isolation grips the soul on the fourth tier, suffused as it is by a faith without light or hope.
We camped on the deserted path, pressed in by temples on both sides. Xiuhc’lan declined to translate the Zandali songs, which I suspect was for the best. I went over to Mumbwe, who stroked the jade tiger idol she’d brought from Zim’torga. Stress stiffened her jaw muscles, her piety unable to offer total consolation.
“Do you really think they will let us leave?” I whispered to her, mentally telling Xiuhc’lan not to translate my words. I did not want the Drakkari to overhear.
“The choice does not belong to them, Destron. Holy Shirvallah will choose. Do not fear: we will know soon enough.”
“When will they try to convince you?”
“So eager to leave? Ruk’zeb says we will reach the Temple of Zol’heb midday tomorrow. There they will make their attempt to share their evil with Zandalar.”
“Are you sure they won’t succeed?” I spoke without thought, fear gnawing at my mind. Mumbwe answered before I could apologize.
“You know so little of faith, Destron.”
After the interminable rows of grandiose temples, each taller and more ornate than the last, Zol’heb came as a surprise. Squat and sparsely ornamented it looks nearly primeval. Dwarfed by the grand citadels all around it, Zol’heb still possesses a kind of grim power, emanating an ancient cruelty. Lacking proper walls, the rough ceiling is supported by a forest of massive pillars. Torches burn dim in the darkened interior, unable to drive back the shadows.
“This was once their greatest temple,” scoffed Mumbwe. “The codices show ancient Zul’drak as little more than snow and ice. Drakkari priests expressed such pride at their little heap of blocks.”
I wondered if Zandalari condescension had played a significant role in Zul’drak’s strange course of development. For all their talk about being the leaders and founders of troll civilization, the Zandalari often do a remarkably poor job of it. Also, to what degree are the Loa themselves culpable? Why would they shower the Zandalari with so many gifts, while forbidding similar advantages to other trolls?
Ultimately, the Drakkari are responsible for the Drakkari. Even so, I can imagine the frustration they and other trolls must have felt when seeing the Zandalari, living in a paradise that they had not earned.
Surrounded by Drakkari, I was in no position to criticize my only ally. None of the ice trolls showed any particular reaction to the ancient temple. When I asked Ruk’zeb about it, he admitted no knowledge of the temple being older than any other, and the possibility of such did not interest him.
A black-robed troll emerged from the temple recesses, an iron circlet resting on his brow. Lean and aged he radiated a cold authority. Beside him were two Drakkari in orange robes, obviously subordinates. Suddenly, the two lesser trolls reared their heads back as plumes of fire erupted from their mouths, illuminating the temple interior.
The first troll raised his hands and the fire-breathers stopped, turning glassy eyes towards us. Warlord Gul’khaj kneeled before the trio and motioned to Mumbwe.
“Blessed One, I bring you the Zandalari so that you might show her our ways.”
“Your work is done. As for you, Holy Mother Mumbwe, why do you insult me with a Scourge minion? For one so enamored of the gods, you show precious little concern for their decrees. We Drakkari never broke the prohibition against the undead.”
“This one is undead, but he is no Scourge. There is much more to the world than you will ever know, Baj’agg,” she said.
“Zul’drak is the world, one we built from our brute labor. Something you would not understand.”
“Fine words from someone who lets spirit-slaves do the work!”
“Enslaved by the deeds of our ancestors. Come into the temple, you and the undead both.”
Mumbwe strode towards the temple without fear, her head held high. I wanted to ask how she knew Baj’agg, but stayed silent, intimidated by the darkness. The Drakkari priest led us into the temple’s impenetrable murk, his fire-breathing acolytes blocking our escape.
“How pleased the Loa were when we built Zol’heb. Stories told through the generations spoke of the gifts the Loa showered on us in return, happy that we labored to make a home for them in such a lonely place. Our fathers hoped they would show us the same favor that they do to the Zandalari. Yet still the winter winds withered our farms!”
The shadows at my right moved, and with surprise I realized that two more temple acolytes had slipped out of the darkness, guarding our sides. I looked to Mumbwe, her eyes shining with righteous disgust.
“And so we built more. Stone was placed on stone, held together by mortar of blood and tears. The Loa dispensed gifts of gold and jewels for every temple, yet our prayers for good crops went unheard. Zul’drak was not a place where the spirits would comply, they said.”
More trolls joined us, their bare feet slapping against the stone floor. I counted seven at that point, their mouths forming silent words as they walked through the maze of pillars. Lonely torches cast their ruddy light on the stone, the flames glowing sooty in the darkness.
“Our young ones died as we built greater monuments. The cold we could withstand, but not the hunger. The shoveltusk herds moved south to warmer climes and the farms froze over after the world broke. Some counseled escape, but the Amani would not allow it. Not for us savages, exiled to the north for the crimes of our ancestors.”
I had heard that the Drakkari were the first trolls to leave Zandalar, forced out for heinous though unspecified behavior. Presumably the Amani had perpetuated the exile to please the Zandalari. They may have also had more pragmatic reasons for such a policy.
“No one knows the name of the Drakkari who left an ingot of the green metal as a humble offering at the Altar of Quetz’lun. The Loa told the priests about the metal’s strange powers, how it could halt the flow of time itself. Immediately the priests went to work, forging the saronite idols that hum with power all across Zul’drak.”
Saying this, Baj’agg took out a round saronite ornament, forged to resemble a screaming troll. It looked much like the one Ven’gol had discovered in the Drak’sotra Fields.
“We placed the little gods in homes of stone, each one inscribed with words of power, written by the Loa themselves. One with heat written upon his body would make the land around him warm up, one with purity written upon his body would make the land pure. They forced our reality upon the churning world. The spirits never realized what happened, trapped as they were in the illusory saronite visions. Zul’drak bloomed in dark magnificence, roads of heated stone and endless farms tended to by the spirit-slaves.”
“Why do you go on about this Baj’agg? Your Loa resorted to trickery to manipulate the spirits, when my masters need only make their demands known,” said Mumbwe.
“Our gods are one and the same, oh Holy Mother! Different faces of the same being. Do you know why the Loa helped us do this? Because they wanted more temples. Their hunger for worship knew no end. Maddened need consumed them, each new monument sharpening their desire, each blood offering deepening their want. So they taught us the secrets of saronite.”
“And you killed them in return.”
“Our worship moved them to inscribe the words, the words compelled the spirits to work, their work allowed us to worship. If part of the system fails, it must be replaced, and the prayer-glutted Loa did nothing against the Scourge.”
“They were your gods!” shouted Mumbwe. Baj’agg turned to face her, his craggy face twisted in hate and fear.
“They were part of the system, just like the spirits, just like the trolls. By taking the mantles of the Loa we know the secrets of their inscriptions. Even now the word-priests create new runes to exercise more control over the system. The replacements gain power from spilled blood and prayers, the mechanisms for this already set in place long ago. We served them, they failed, we replaced them.”
I realized then that Zul’drak is not truly a civilization at all. Instead it is an elaborate control system, one without a true master. Lulled by worship, the gods simply worked to perpetuate it. Taking the gods out of the picture was not any sort of rebellion; it was merely an attempt to maintain the status quo. Their society abandoned the possibility of growth and development. Limitless resources only served to fuel limitless wars, the populace freed from the demands of cooperation.
We emerged from the confusion of pillars, stepping into a large chamber at the other side of the temple. Open walls exposed the room to the frigid winds that howled restless in the sanctuary. Broad steps descended to a square and shallow depression at the center, the floor there adorned with a twisting ideogram painted in electric green. Four iron torches around the symbol burned in bright green flame.
The temple priests filtered out of the darkness, taking positions all along the depression. I counted 27 of them, their blazing eyes fixed on the symbol. Baj’agg raised his arms and looked up to the ceiling, torchlight flickering on his ancient face.
“Here we made the runes that killed gods. As we speak, the lesser Loa are falling to the power of the word-priests: Zaba and Dundwo are dead, Akali and Zim’torga are soon for the grave.”
“Blasphemy!” spat Mumbwe.
She pushed Baj’agg aside and marched down the steps. Shock and fury rippled through the room, priests reaching for their daggers.
“Let the Zandalari walk!” ordered Baj’agg. Trembling with fury he drew himself up to his full height.
“We are prepared to offer a gift to you, Holy Mother,” he hissed. “To you and all Zandalar. To all trolls. Control your gods. Control your empires. Take the saronite and bring it to blessed Zandalar, see the wonders you can work with it. I have seen Zandalar, and it is grand, but a small place compared to Zul’drak.”
“Your empire is dying, Baj’agg,” retorted Mumbwe.
“Dying, but not yet dead. I heard the whispers of your priests when last I went to Zandalar. It is barely a secret: you fear the darkness roiling under the waves, beneath the earth. How much longer do you think Zandalar will stand? Saronite will set things in order.”
“Saronite destroys and corrupts. If it is time for Zandalar to die, than so be it. We shall die holy. You will die as blasphemers.”
“Then you make your own fate! Kill her and the undead!” shouted Baj’agg.
Hands gripped my arms in an instant, the scrape of 27 obsidian blades echoing in the temple. Mumbwe whipped out the idol of Shirvallah, holding it over her face. Something sent a pause through the zealous mob, perhaps the force of the Loa, or maybe a vestigial doubt.
“Now, face the power of a true god!” she screamed.
Sharpened jade teeth flashed in the darkness as Mumbwe bit down on her own outstretched tongue, severing it on the first bite. Still twitching it fell to the floor as blood gushed from the wound, drenching the idol in gore. Mumbwe laughed as she bled, and the idol seemed to move, muscles rippling beneath the jade shell.
Spectral drums boomed in a rapid fusillade as a thousand invisible Zandalari chanted the name of the god. The air whipped and coiled, stripes of shadow revealing the contours of a great tiger. Howling the Drakkari priests screamed their curses and lifted their knives even as ghostly claws gutted their ranks. Shrieks of pain filled the temple as Shirvallah took his vengeance against the ice trolls, painting their holy place with blood and flesh.
Shirvallah stormed through the clustered priests like an army, their cries of rage drowning in guttural chokes. Through this I could hear the shrill cackle of Mumbwe, her sacred blood still pouring onto the Loa. I threw myself on the ground, my mind straining for the words of a childhood prayer.
“Light bring my soul unto joy!” I whispered between clenched teeth, lying in a pool of blood. As I prayed, so too did Xiuhc’lan praise Shirvallah from around my ear.
“Destroy the blasphemers, holy one. Burn their cities, break their dreams, kill their hopes,” it hissed.
I looked up to see a slaughterhouse, a blood-spattered Baj’agg standing alone amidst his followers’ shredded bodies. Fear battled fury in the priest as the god growled, his form visible in the stones of the temple and the bodies of the fallen.
“I fear no Loa—” Baj’agg began.
With a wet tearing sound his head vanished. Baj’agg fell to the floor, one body among many. Only Mumbwe stood in the carnage, her scarred body trembling with joy and awe.
Then a strange and terrible force gripped my body, lifting me upright and raising me until my head nearly touched the ceiling. So too did Mumbwe float, blood cascading down her mouth. A savage roar shook the bloody temple. Then, carried on Shirvallah’s divine back we hurtled towards Zim’torga, the phantasmal tiger bounding across the dying empire, each step a mile.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Never before had the terse chatter of a military camp sounded so warm and welcoming to my ears. Facing the Scourge on one side and hostile Drakkari on the other, the Argent Stand teeters on the brink of destruction. Kept alive only by the faith and ferocity of its protectors, no one can say how much longer it will survive.
I had left the death knights at the aqueduct. Before going, Velluc told me about the Argent Stand on the second tier, only a few days' journey from our position. I scaled the broken aqueduct with relative ease, the damage presenting me with numerous footholds, and from there walked to Zul’drak’s second tier.
The dark forests of the first tier are replaced with a seemingly infinite city. Angular temples stab the sky, positioned to support other temples larger still. Gem-eyed idols stare down the broad causeways running all through the second tier. Thorny trees like those on the first tier break through ancient stone planters, their roots slowly overtaking the abandoned plazas. I saw no signs of recent violence. Whoever lived there had evacuated before the arrival of the Scourge.
I wandered like a ghost past those empty temples. For all its grandeur there is nothing comforting in the city’s architecture. Like the great staircase that leads to Zul’drak, the sharp-edged temples oppress rather than enlighten. Color plays no part in the Drakkari aesthetic, the buildings uniformly bleak and gray. The causeways never deviate from their rigid paths; the Drakkari had demolished any natural obstacles during their construction. There is an implicit sense of dominance in the design.
The few outside records describing the Drakkari portray them as base savages, a pale reflection of the Amani and Gurubashi to the south. Zul’drak appears to flout this description, at least on the surface. No southern troll city can rival it in size and splendor. More to the point is the seeming impossibility of its existence. How could any civilization create so much in such a harsh and unforgiving land?
The soldiers at the Argent Stand knew next to nothing about the Drakkari, though I can’t fault them for this. I arrived at the Argent Stand just as their fighters were driving back a Scourge incursion, holy blasts and gunfire repelling the undead for another day. The Argent Dawn in Northrend calls itself the Argent Crusade, though it’s essentially the same organization. Most of the Argents moved north after the tenuous pacification of the Plaguelands, which is now loosely controlled by the Brotherhood of the Light.
The Argent Crusade had chosen a vacated troll citadel as their primary base in Zul’drak. From there, they established a number of smaller outposts in hope of halting or at least slowing the Scourge advance. Unfortunately, the constant assaults and the grim climate were starting to weaken their morale.
“Exact numbers are unavailable, but there are at least 200,000 Drakkari still in Zul’drak. If the Scourge wins here and raises even half that number of trolls, all our efforts in Northrend are done for,” explained an exhausted-looking human crusader named Torellon.
“That’s what I do not understand. How can this environment support so many trolls?”
“Damned if I know. It should be impossible. This whole blasted place should be impossible.”
“Why aren’t the Horde and Alliance doing more to help?”
“They believe that it’s best to let the Scourge exhaust themselves fighting the Drakkari. Still, there’s no doubt that the Scourge will eventually beat them. Without our intervention, of course.” He said the last sentence as if he were trying to believe it.
“Please do not take this as an insult, but how can your small force hope to fend off the Scourge when the Drakkari cannot?”
“Modern tactics, sorcery, and technology. The Drakkari haven’t updated their strategic doctrines since before the Sundering by the looks of it. They attack in a disorganized rush, different warbands competing to see who gets the most kills.”
“Have you been able to communicate with the Drakkari at all?”
“No. All the trolls still on the second tier are at the north or south ends, not in the center. Without us, they’d be flanked in days.”
“How do you supply the Argent Stand?”
“A flotilla of zeppelins comes up here from Conquest Hold every month and a half. Many of them are piloted by the same goblins who airlifted supplies to Cenarion Hold during the Silithus campaign. They’re probably the best zeppelin pilots in the world.”
“Expensive too, I’d imagine.”
“Certainly. We’d be broke if it weren’t for Skring Grollup.”
“Surprising, isn’t it? Skring’s a very wise and persuasive man. He knows that if the Scourge wins, there won’t be any profit for anyone, ever again. Skring’s an executive in the Steamwheedle Cartel, and he convinced them to lend us the money we need.”
“Will you be able to pay it back?”
“I find it difficult to worry about that right now, to tell you the truth. Besides, he’s only charging a half-percent yearly interest. The Horde’s a bigger problem for us.”
“The leader of Conquest Hold, a lunatic named Krenna, tried to prevent our supply zeppelins from stopping at her base. She thinks we’re part of the Alliance—mind you, some in the Alliance say we’re with the Horde—and refused to help us in any way. I heard that the Warchief personally intervened in our favor. Personally I think he ought to put Krenna someplace where she can’t do any harm.”
One challenge faced by the Argent Crusade is the difficulty of training and managing new recruits. Thousands of volunteers flocked to the Argent Crusade at its formation, usually possessing more enthusiasm than experience. The Crusade established training camps near some of Azeroth’s major population centers at around the same time the Outland Campaign was nearing its end.
Some of the Argent Crusade’s leaders questioned the wisdom of accepting so many volunteers, but they eventually acknowledged there was no other way to match the Scourge. Led as it is by some of the most remarkable individuals of our age, the Crusade has actually done a reasonably good job of maintaining morale. Desertions are rare (though not unheard of), though the rarity partly stems from the hostility of the environment.
When not training or sleeping the Argent Crusaders spend much of their time in prayer. While founded by followers of the Holy Light, the Argent Crusade has adapted to those of other faiths. The rites of every major religion are conducted in the Argent Stand. The regularity of worship serves to boost morale, with the crusaders receiving assurance that their sacrifices make the world a better place.
“We pruned the new shoots who were never serious about this obligation,” explained a Kaldorei priestess named Shelunara Starbow, referring to the volunteers who were drummed out of training.
“I can see why you’d only want the most dedicated.”
“Northrend is a dangerous place, and Zul’drak is especially so. These haunted cities languish under darkness. Even so, Elune hears my prayers, sending us rays of moonlight in response. This keeps the Kaldorei crusaders fighting, even as they long to return to our forests.”
“Are there any Argent reservists?”
“There are troops still under the Argent Dawn, as well as a smaller crop of new volunteers. They will begin to cycle in at the end of the month, relieving the troops here. Many, like myself, will have to stay.”
I thanked Shelunara for her bravery. Most of the newer soldiers I talked to openly expressed their desire for relief. For all their training, nothing could have really prepared them for the rigors of campaigning in Northrend. This is not to say that they are shirkers. All are willing to fight, and often demonstrate it. Still, not even the best soldier in the world can fight indefinitely, and the crusaders have already done more than their share. No history can ever compile the heroism that they display on a daily basis.
Many in the Argent Stand believe that a solution to their problems lies in the Drakkari. Though both the Horde and the Alliance had failed to make peace with the xenophobic ice trolls, the Argent Crusade hopes that the Drakkari are in desperate enough straits to at least consider a temporary truce. Exactly how to best contact the Drakkari is a contentious matter.
I watched as the leaders argued over the best methods. The predominantly human command staff argued for rescuing refugees and other common Drakkari, thinking it would prove the Crusade’s good intentions. Some from the Horde (particularly a wildly tattooed Revantusk warrior) said that the Drakkari had no concept of noblesse oblige, and that it would be best to contact the warriors and priests. My ideals sided with the humans, my pragmatism backed the troll, and my mind noted that neither seemed to actually know much about the Drakkari.
The humans finally won the day, citing the previous failed diplomacy attempts that had targeted the ruling classes. The Argent Crusade elected to send a small task force to the Drak’sotra Fields. Several days south of the Argent Stand, the Drak’sotra Fields are one of the largest agricultural sectors in Zul’drak. Preliminary reports indicated that the Drakkari only held a portion of the fields, and that there were several groups of displaced trolls.
I volunteered to accompany the mission. Though I doubted it would do much to sway the Drakkari as a whole, I figured it might at least serve the purpose of saving some element of their civilization. On a more emotional level, I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent others from suffering undeath.
The rescue party numbered ten strong, including myself. Only half were full-fledged crusaders; the rest were visitors to Zul’drak like myself. Our leader was one Ven’gol, a shaman from the nearly defunct Mossflayer Tribe of forest trolls. He had joined the Argent Dawn for a total lack of other options and came to develop a fierce loyalty to that noble group. His past experience made him an ideal candidate, though he still expressed some reservations.
“The Dawn accepted me into their tribe when I was alone, surrounded by the walking corpses of my kin. But there are still many Drakkari, and battle rages in their blood. I hope they will listen. If not, we will kill them.”
I informed Ven’gol that some of his tribe lived in Shattrath City, having ended up there after following the orcs to Outland. Though glad to hear about it, he showed little inclination to join them, saying that many in the tribe had seen their departure as a betrayal. While Ven’gol no longer felt animosity towards the other Mossflayers, he considered the Argent Crusade to be his tribe for all intents and purposes.
Going through the second tier of Zul’drak is like walking in an immeasurably vast graveyard, the abandoned temples more tombstones than places of worship. This is furthered by the tendrils of mold creeping across these age-old buildings, encouraged by the cold and clammy weather. Despite all this, fires still burn on the roadside altars, as if tended to by ghosts.
In fact, the cold seems to be reclaiming the second tier, which should be too high and too far north to support so much plant life. Rime forms during the worst nights, killing leaves with its touch.
“None of the shamans can hear the spirits rightly in this place,” said Ven’gol, when I asked him about it. Around us, a frigid wind howled as it lashed through the ancient plazas and towers.
“What do you mean?”
“Not sure, spirits won’t be telling me. But I know they don’t want to be here. Spirits of storms and ice should rule this place, not spirits of trees and water.”
“Does that explain the fires?”
“They shouldn’t be burning without some mighty magic behind them, but there they go. I am thinking the Drakkari did something very strange with the spirits. Very bad.”
During our journey I became acquainted with an orcish woman named Zota. Her shaved head and brutish features gave her a menacing appearance, but in truth she was quite personable. She’d served with the Argent Dawn in the Plaguelands, and strongly believed in the Crusade’s mission. Like many of the orcs in the Argent Crusade, she joined to escape the status of peonage.
“I failed the trials, completely and totally,” she said as we prepared camp for the evening. Sleet had fallen intermittently through the day, and piles of cold slush buried the causeway in spots.
“There is an option to retake them, correct?” I asked.
“I did. And failed again. The elders saw no reason to give me another chance. I remember the shaman laughing when I applied for a third trial, and then shoving a quarry pick in my hands.”
“I find that surprising. You must be quite capable to have survived the Plaguelands and Northrend.”
“These lands are crucibles of the soul; the weak who survive have no choice but to become strong. I had to do it. My mother and father both did battle against the Scourge on the slopes of Hyjal. Though weak from giving birth to my brother, my mother fought all the same. She perished, but her name lives on in glory. Do you know the name Taga’kla? That was her.”
“I have heard that name. You must feel honored.” Taga’kla is almost a warrior saint to the female grunts, held as the epitome of orcish womanhood.
“I could not feel honor as a peon, even though our people—that is to say, the orcs—no longer dismiss the peons.”
“Did your father survive the battle?”
“He did, and he raised me well. He told me about the Argent Dawn and I joined as soon as I was able. I started as a cook but I proved myself in battle many times over. It turns out that I am more proficient with the bow and arrow than I am with the glaive,” she laughed. “My mother killed scores of ghouls with her glaive, teaching the Scourge that the Horde’s women are as fearsome as the men.”
“Many of the orcs here seem to come from the peon ranks. Is service in the Argent Dawn considered an acceptable substitute for being a warrior in the Horde?”
“Not quite, not yet. So much of the warrior’s identity is bound up in ritual: passing the trials, induction into a War-pack, completion of the first tour. Things are simpler in the Dawn, which is exactly why most orcs see it as second-rate. The former peons here usually plan to retake the trials if they return to Orgrimmar, or at least be assigned to the frontiers where they can prove themselves.”
“Is that what you intend?”
“I am not yet sure. I think I honor my mother by staying here, where I can do battle against the monsters who took her life. My father says I’d do better by returning to Orgrimmar and making another attempt at the trials, which I’m now sure to pass.”
“When is the last time you spoke to your father?”
“A year ago. He came to me, actually. I remember how amazed I was to see him in the Plaguelands, too fierce for age to hold him back! He was there on Horde business but he wanted to see me. I felt so proud standing there, my Argent tabard on display, a warrior at last. When he embraced me I knew I’d done well in his eyes.”
“So he respects your work here, but wants you to return.”
“He considers me a warrior, one who is too good to stay with the Argents.”
I have little doubt that Zota is more capable than most official orc warriors. The other crusaders looked up to her for reassurance, her skill and bravery inspiring even the most timid. As such, it’s easy to see why she’d be reluctant to go back to the Horde. Orcish culture tends to hero-worship, and Zota would find it nearly impossible to live up to her mother’s legacy.
I overheard two crusaders, a Sin’dorei and another orc, discussing Zota early the next day as we marched through the cold morning fog. One of their remarks was quite curious.
“She’s almost like one of the blood knights in the way she leads us. Not quite the same, but close,” said the elf.
“It’s in her blood. Zota’s the bishop’s daughter, after all.”
I asked Zota about this later in the day. Her eyes widened in surprise, and a flicker of embarrassment crossed her face.
“Hurok’gom, my father, is the Bishop of Orgrimmar.”
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Orgrimmar. I never knew that the city had a bishop.”
“Father suffered grave wounds at the Battle of Mt. Hyjal. While he recovered, he met a human priest helping out in the orc infirmaries. There were very few shamans at that time, so the Alliance lent some of their healers. This priest, Father Iltius Berend, befriended my father and converted him to the Holy Light.”
“How did the other orcs react?”
“No one would question his honor after the valor he showed at Mt. Hyjal. The warriors he told thought it odd, but father still honored the spirits, as an orc must. He simply added the Light to his religious concerns. Only after the Battle of Theramore did he have any trouble.”
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing, in the end. He had enough friends in the Warchief’s inner circle that all but the fiercest critics were silenced. Still, these friends made it clear that he had to keep his faith to himself, that young warriors would only be confused by the Light.”
“How many people are in the church?”
“When I was last in Orgrimmar, the orcish church numbered a 123 peons, and five warriors. Those five joined the church before Theramore, and were already respected. When I was younger there were nineteen warriors, but most abandoned the church once it became inconvenient.”
“Do you believe in the Holy Light?”
“I do. There is something divine in the camaraderie of warriors, a perfect reflection of the Exegesis. This essence is less obvious in other places, but it exists everywhere. Our souls are as one. Peons may not know the true glory of the Light, but they are a part of it all the same.”
I nodded, absolutely fascinated by Zota’s story. Her father’s interpretation of the Light was a uniquely orcish adaptation.
“Is this why your father wants you to become a Horde warrior? To increase the number of warriors in the church?”
“That and he misses me. But I do not want to be the only believer in my War-pack. I do not know if I would feel the way I feel here.”
“Is the faith spreading among the peons?”
“No. Peons are a suspicious and fearful lot. Most of the peons in our church joined in the early days. If our faith is to grow, it must be through warriors. A peon religion will never succeed in the Horde.”
“There’s no official persecution, however?”
“None. But if we anger and frighten enough peons, there may be some unofficial violence. Not against my father, but against those he guides,” she sighed.
Aqueducts snake across the Drak’sotra Fields, their stone forms bowed by the weight of age. Water pours out from spouts along the sides twice a day, feeding the miles of flooded farmland. Black stones poke above the water, radiating an inexplicable heat to keep the farms from freezing while thick steam rises up from the eyes of superheated metal idols standing at the corners of the plots. Water accumulates in the bodies of these petty gods, where it is converted to vapor. This elaborate infrastructure cannot solve the problem of neglect; drowned crops rot under a thick layer of algal scum. Once the greatest farmland in Zul’drak, much of the Drak’sotra Fields have become a swamp.
I tried to imagine the Drak’sotra Fields at their height, with thousands of trolls laboring at the crops. Drakkari farms appear to be communal, but how could any nation organize such a work force? We never went beyond the edges, but all reports describe the fields as continuing for days without end. Only aqueducts and idols interrupt the monotony. Like all things in Zul’drak, the Drak’sotra Fields drive the soul into insignificance.
A thick and swampy heat hangs over the fields, almost tropical in its humidity. The crusaders quickly removed their heavy fur coats though sweat soon drenched their bodies and clothes all the same, their woolen undershirts proving nearly intolerable.
We walked single file on top of the broad stone fences surrounding each plot to avoid wading through the sludge. Even there the cloying heat taxed each step, and our brisk pace slowed to a dragging crawl.
“That’s the problem with aerial scouts,” groused Zota. “They never really know what it’s like on the ground.”
The lack of large mammals in the Drak’sotra Fields also goes along with a complete absence of mosquitoes, granting a small mercy to travelers. However, the paucity of insect life is not the only absence. There are no houses, not even the ruined remains of such. Nor are there the tools that one expects to see on a farm.
“If they were peasants, they probably didn’t have long-lasting dwellings,” pointed out Felist, a human.
“There should at least be some remnant,” insisted Zota. “Does anyone know how common Drakkari live?”
No one answered.
“This cannot be right. The scouts talked about refugees, but refugees from where? No one can live in this place, there’s nothing here! Did ghosts tend the crops?”
She meant it as a joke, but no one laughed. Such an idea seemed all too plausible in Zul’drak.
Later that day we came across a section of wall shattered by some impact, the site filled with slimy water. Ven’gol knelt by the rubble along the edge and picked something up from the ruins. He held up a metal ornament roughly the size and shape of a pear, forged in the likeness of a scowling troll. Light reflected off its metallic surface, colored in saronite’s sickly green.
Not all of the crusaders were familiar with saronite. Those of us who knew explained what we could, which was not much.
“Maybe that’s why this place is so wrong. There’s saronite magic here,” suggested Ven’gol.
“Entirely possible. Do you think it was embedded in the rock?” I asked, thinking about the saronite runes embedded in the vrykul towns and preserving them through the ages.
“I do not know. I figure someone dropped it. If what you all say is true, than there’s mighty power in this trinket. Good for a shaman to carry.”
“Be careful about carrying that. Saronite has a strange effect on the mind,” I warned.
“Carry it? No! I meant Drakkari shamans. I’m not knowing these spirits, and I’m not planning to. We’re leaving it where I found it,” he said, placing it back amidst the rubble.
“The Argent Crusade might have a use for it—” began Zota.
“Zota, I respect you, but we’re having no dealings with this. It’s bad luck to deal with strange idols and stranger metals.”
Ven’gol reached into the pouch hanging from his belt and took out a tiny wooden figure, a grinning smile painted on its face in bright red pigment. He shook it over the idol a few times, muttering in Zandali as he did. Once finished, he put the figure back in the pouch and started walking.
I considered an attempt to retrieve the idol for further examination, but decided that would be inappropriate. Saronite is truly ubiquitous in Northrend, an ancient curse seeping up from the continent’s icy heart. Many of the local factions appear to depend on the metal. At that point I had seen it used by the vrykul, the iron dwarves, and the Drakkari. I also knew, from secondhand sources, that the Scourge used saronite as a material for their most powerful armaments.
Saronite is much more than just a weapon. Properly used it can preserve things indefinitely, and probably has a whole host of other uses that have not yet been exploited. It may be too useful to ignore. The Horde and Alliance are both investigating the material, and I would not be surprised if the goblins are as well. This alarms many, due to the negative side-effects associated with saronite, as well as the dark legends surrounding the metal.
However, it must be remembered that arcane magic is actually an insanely dangerous energy source. Nonetheless, many of the world’s most important nations rely on magic, socially and economically. Magic poses many risks, but has been fine-tuned over the course of millennia into something that is reasonably safe so long as certain precautions are observed. Still, some (particularly the Sin’dorei) are practically blind to these risks, which is another problem in and of itself.
I do not think it unreasonable to at least conduct more research on saronite. Properly used, it could be of immeasurable benefit to the world, improving quality of life and opening up new possibilities for advancement. Or, it may be a dangerous and corrupting mineral that should be avoided at all costs. No one yet knows.
The neglect becomes less pronounced farther south, the algal slime giving way to murky water, and then to clear water from the mountain heights. Still empty, the Drak’sotra Fields begin to show signs of a more recent abandonment.
The crops planted and harvested by the Drakkari grow in long rows across the watery fields. These plants are as strange as everything else in Zul’drak. Long stalks covered with round, dull green leaves grow in dense collections at the base, surrounding a central stem that can reach up to seven feet in height. These stems are capped by oblong blossoms, the waxy violet petals looking tiny compared to the strangely elongated sepals.
None of us could begin to guess what part of the plant was edible. Felist, who’d grown up on a Tirisfal farm, shook his head as he examined the crops.
“Something’s wrong here. I know trolls are stronger than us humans, but how could they harvest these monsters?”
“Maybe they just eat the stalks?” I ventured.
“Not enough there for a Drakkari, I’m thinking. Sure not enough for an Amani,” disagreed Ven’gol.
We stopped to rest as night fell, setting up camp near one of the ubiquitous heated idols. The crusaders sat on stone slabs, casting nervous glances as the dense rows of crops. Heat and confusion sapped their wills. Prepared to fight the undead, they found it harder to combat the much stranger Drakkari environment.
Offerings were piled high around the idol and I went in for a closer look, not without some trepidation. Deep red flames burned endlessly on either side of the idol, casting an unearthly light on the surroundings. Zota and Felist accompanied me though none of the other crusaders wanted anything to do with the grimacing statue. A determined look on his face, Felist yanked a stuffed burlap sack lying in front of the idol and darted back. Ripping it open he took out a reddish taproot the size of his head.
“This must be what they eat,” he said. “I don’t know how they’d uproot these plants though. It must take a lot of work on their part.”
“Are you sure it’s from the same plants?”
“Dammit, I’m not sure of anything in this place,” he cursed, flinging the root into the water.
I took a quick look at the other offerings. Earthen jugs stood next to the bags, holding acrid-smelling liquor. Worn troll skulls piled up at the base of the idol, some of them crumbling from age. Most troll cultures preserve the skulls of esteemed ancestors, using them as vessels through which the departed can speak. I do not think the neglected skulls in Zul’drak enjoyed such prominence. Scarred skulls looked down on us from poles, sharp light emanating from chipped sockets.
Sleep did little to ease the crusaders’ exhaustion. As weary eyes creaked open the next morning, Ven’gol declared that the expedition would turn back if no refugees were found by noon. This decision met with unanimous approval. I sensed an unspoken sentiment that perhaps the Drakkari were too alien to be saved. The shadowy fields with their strange plants reached to the horizon all around us like a silent confirmation of these suspicions.
The crusaders trudged forward all morning, shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. At times the Drak’sotra Fields felt like some malign illusion. Less burdened by the heat, I looked out for any refugees, or at least some workers. I finally found some towards noon’s hot darkness.
“Over there!” I said, pointing to puffs of black smoke on the other side of the plot, the source hidden by rows of crops.
Everyone stopped, looking at the smoke without saying anything, as if making up their minds as to whether or not they really wanted to go.
“Good,” said Ven’gol. “Zota, you go ahead and check them out. Stay hidden, make sure they’re refugees.”
Zota nodded and waded into the farm, soon disappearing amidst the crops. She emerged a while later, her expression uncertain.
“All the trolls at the camp are aged or children. I am not sure if they are farmers,” she reported.
“What are they?” asked Ven’gol.
“They may be farmers. I’m just not certain of the fact.”
“Let’s leave them,” said Felist. “I don’t think there are any farmers here. Just spirits. This damned place is haunted.”
“No, Felist! We have a mission here. Maybe they aren’t farmers, but they are victims. The Light demands that we help!”
“Zota is correct,” sighed Ven’gol. “So be it then. We will go towards them along the rims. That way they can see who we are, no secrets. I’ll go in front. Don’t make eye contact with them.”
Ven’gol took a tiny wooden canister from his pouch. He twisted it open to reveal cobalt pigment. Rubbing his fingers in the mix, he then smeared the pigment around his neck, muttering in rapid Zandali.
“Blue is the color of peace, of the east, of Nalorakk,” he explained in Common. “Now we get his favor on us.
The ritual complete, we walked towards the smoke in slow deliberation, our weapons sheathed. Some of the crusaders held food out in their hands. I asked Felist to lend me his hooded cloak, which I used to conceal my features. It would not do for the Drakkari to mistake me for a Scourge. I think we all questioned the wisdom of the venture by that point. Only a sense of duty, to the Light or to the Crusade, kept us going.
I soon saw the trolls resting around a smoldering fire pit. I counted fifteen, six of them children. The rest were immense ruins of trolls, weathered blue skin hanging from too-skinny limbs, gray hair clinging to scalps. Even the children exhibited the clear signs of malnutrition, their bellies swollen and movements listless.
The trolls shifted in their positions when they caught sight of us. At this, Ven’gol began speaking in a measured tone. I did not need a translator to know that his words offered hope and comfort. One of the aged Drakkari gripped a staff with his claw-like hands and used it to lift himself up. He stood with difficulty, his legs quivering from the strain. Ven’gol motioned for us to stop, and he went silent, giving the Drakkari a chance to speak.
Focused on the standing Drakkari, I did not see who threw the first stone. I only heard the splash when it hit the water. One of the Drakkari began to shout, his reedy voice tearing with hate. The others joined him, shouting as they scooped up rocks and debris, throwing them in a mad rush. Not even the children remained idle, overcoming their exhaustion to inflict their rage. Bloodcurdling yelps sounded from their tiny mouths as they hurled stones.
One missile, flung with more force than most, hit Felist in the head. He dropped to his knees, blood dribbling out from under his helmet. Zota grabbed him before he could fall in the drink though he quickly got back on unsteady feet.
“Retreat!” ordered Zota.
We turned away from the refugees, who still yelled curses on us from across the water. They looked barely able to walk, yet somehow still turned the force of their fury on a party of soldiers. What fanaticism could compel such fear? I wondered if perhaps they'd misunderstood Ven’gol, or if he’d somehow caused offense. Still, I could not believe that starving refugees would turn down food.
However badly we wished to rescue them, there was no way for us to deal with such astonishing savagery. The behavior of the Drakkari defied belief. More needed to be learned, but I could see no way to accomplish that through the Drakkari.
Felist’s wound was superficial and Ven’gol healed him once we were far enough from the Drakkari. We immediately turned back, eager to leave the ominous fields and hot, sodden air.
We at last saw the farmers of the Drak’sotra Fields towards the end of the day. No trolls harvested the crops. Instead, teams of shimmering water elementals used their power to uproot the massive plants, storing the tubers in their flowing bodies. In silence they obeyed the commands of elaborately robed masters, who stood on the rims with arms raised high, chanting with mindless fervor.
While we attempted to contact the Drakkari, a very different band of trolls met with the defenders of the Argent Stand. A pair of Zandalari emissaries awaited us when we returned, both wearing fur robes decorated in bright and bold abstractions. One of them, a powerfully built hexxer named Ubungo, greeted us shortly after our return.
“Your Argents are brave warriors to be sure, but they are not knowing the ways of the trolls,” said Ubungo, his voice sibilant. “Had we reached you earlier we would have warned you to keep away from them. Old Death did not snatch up any of your warriors, I am hoping?”
“No one died,” reported Zota. At Ubungo’s request, she explained what happened during our journey. Ubungo nodded when she finished.
Not even the Zandalari can offer much information about Drakkari society. Zandalar’s influence had waned as the Drakkari grew ever more secretive, and the ice trolls felt little in the way of obligation to the ancient city-state. Ubungo did explain some of the context for Zul’drak’s isolation, as well as the reason behind the Zandalari presence. His story was tied in to trollish lore and belief; for clarity’s sake, I will summarize our conversation instead of transcribing it.
Outsiders often find it difficult to define the troll gods known as the Loa. The identities of the Loa shift and change from story to story, and their spheres of influence constantly overlap. All interpretations agree that there are five Primal Loa, revered by all trolls (except for the heretical Sandfury). The identities of the Primal Loa is different in each region: incredible variety is seen in the names, totems, attributes, and genders of these five.
The Zandalari priests claim to follow the true essences of the Primal Loa, which they call the Holy Five. They do not discount the other versions, which are seen as different aspects of the Holy Five equally valid in their own way. This enables the Zandalari to maintain a degree of cultural hegemony. Other troll cultures usually give some deference to the Zandalari interpretation, even if they do not wholeheartedly agree with it.
The jungle tribes typically follow the Zandalari definition of the Holy Five, though they add a whole host of lesser Loa (themselves minor aspects of the Holy Five). Farther north, among the forest tribes and the Drakkari, the interpretations grow steadily more heterodox, though still valid under Zandalari theology.
Zandalari scriptures tell how the Loa commanded the spirits of Zandalar to serve the trolls living on that island, so long as the trolls served the Loa. This divine gift is one of the most important aspects of Zandalari, and indeed trollish, belief. It confirms the exceptional nature of Zandalar, and has been a source of pride for them even as they became weaker and more insular.
At first, the Zandalari took little notice of the massive Drakkari building projects that began shortly after the fall of the Amani Empire. Then came the reports: legions of spirits doing the work of farmers and laborers, and even holding back the forces of nature. Somehow, the Drakkari had duplicated (at least in part) the divine arrangements of Zandalar. Fury seized the hearts of the Zandalari priests as the Drakkari boasted of their accomplishment. Drakkari clerics said that the construction of 10,000 shrines in Zul’drak (built by normal ice trolls) had so pleased the Loa that they had recreated Zandalar for the ice trolls.
Though favored by the spirits and the Loa, the Zandalari must still do their own work. The divine gift only ensures a steady climate. Most of Zandalar’s trolls hunt and tend crops like trolls everywhere else. This arrangement is distinct from Zul’drak’s, which uses the spirits as slaves.
For a time, the trollish world trembled on the brink of war. Yet the Zandalari could never muster the scattered remnants of the Gurubashi and Amani Empires, and were forced to let the Drakkari continue. Though none of the southern tribes would confess any fondness for the ice trolls, there is little doubt that the Drakkari accomplishment eroded Zandalar’s stature. This undermining of culture is what led the Zandalari to define Zul’drak as a savage nation.
Elemental servitude enabled Zul’drak to create a society of warriors and priests. Not a single ice troll has worked as a peasant or artisan for hundreds of years. Spirit slaves kept building more and greater temples to the Loa, even in the icy highlands. At some point the Drakkari splintered into a myriad of competing warbands, though the priesthood somehow maintained cultural unity within the nation. From that point on the ice trolls fought each other constantly, the endless strife enabled by easily accessible food. Zandalar began to rest easy; even with their spirit slaves, the Drakkari proved violent and stagnant.
This changed when the Scourge brought its rotting armies to Zul’drak, breaking the seemingly impenetrable defenses. Then, the Drakkari priests committed the ultimate blasphemy: they killed their gods. Ubungo shuddered with rage when he described the Drakkari altars, desecrated by the spilled blood of their patron deities. How this was accomplished, he could not say. News of the deicide came as a series of disembodied screams within the Zandalari temples. The priests had no choice but to travel to Zul’drak and investigate.
“Here we will record the death of the Drakkari, so that other trolls will not follow their path,” stated Ubungo.
For every question Ubungo answered, there were more that he could not explain. He did not know what to make of the saronite idol that Ven’gol had discovered, and was almost totally unfamiliar with the metal. Ubungo assumed that the Scourge invasion and the death of the Loa had served to weaken the Drakkari control over the spirits, but he lacked conclusive evidence. It could well be another factor. He did state that the boundaries between the normal world and the elemental realms were weakening, which would probably erode Drakkari control even further.
Ubungo’s companion was a senior priestess named Mumbwe. She bore the elaborate mutilations common to the Zandalari religious caste. Tattoos of angular tigers prowled up her lean arms, and a labyrinth of ink gave her face the appearance of her god’s totem animal. Polished turquoise beads gleamed from the flesh of her forehead and cheeks. False teeth of sharpened jade lined her mouth, and obsidian nails adorned her fingers.
Though her appearance disturbed outsiders, Mumbwe was in many respects more approachable than Ubungo. She spoke nearly flawless Orcish and Common, despite having only once left the Isle of Zandalar. She told me of her life in Zandalar. Adopted from a rural family, she grew up as a ward of the Temple of Shirvallah. Through her devotion she rose up the temple hierarchy to become an Honored Mother, second only to the Aspect Priest.
Shirvallah is the Tiger Loa, lord of crafts, hunting, the color red, and the north. This Loa’s priests are the most vocal proponents of increased Zandalari involvement in world affairs. Mumbwe learned the ways of outsiders so as to further her temple’s goals.
“All over the world, the trolls fall into war and blasphemy. The Gurubashi turned to the Soulflayer, the Amani sought to enslave their gods, and now the Drakkari kill the Loa who have done so much for them. Through all this, one tribe prevails: the Darkspear.”
“Indeed, though they’re hardly the most traditional tribe.”
“On the contrary, dead one. They follow the traditions of the ancients, which we Zandalari have kept to ourselves for too long. Darkspears thrive in this world and in Outland, so the Loa must favor them.”
Knowing the Zandalari aversion to undeath, I was surprised when Mumbwe offered to take me to Zim’torga, their base on the third tier.
“The Loa deem undeath supremely abominable, but there is no denying the capability of some Forsaken. A few of the Forsaken aided us in Stranglethorn Vale.”
In fact, I’d seen some of those Forsaken when I went to visit Yojamba Isle, years ago. Mumbwe seemed pleased when I mentioned my visit. She also intended to take an Argent Crusade representative to Zim’torga, a human named Rothen Colembor. Competent enough with the blade, Rothen served the Argent Crusade in more of a diplomatic capacity. As such, he was an ideal choice for the mission.
Before going to Zim’torga, Mumbwe said that she needed to visit a place called Xuloc utl’Dapac, a Zandali name that translates as the Amphitheater of Anguish. Located on the second tier, it is a location of tremendous cultural importance to the Drakkari. She described it as a combination of a temple and a training ground for elite warriors. Specifically, she wished to know if it still operated in its original capacity. Since this was also of strategic interest to the Argent Crusade, a small contingent of soldiers went with us to investigate.
“Know that you will be under the care of Holy Shirvallah when you travel with me. My master is free, not dead like the Drakkari gods. I will ruin the souls of those who raise their hands against us,” she promised.
I reflected on the position of the Argent Crusade the night before we left. The Crusade has not achieved the same level of respect as the Argent Dawn. Critics cite their poor performance when compared to the spectacular campaigns waged by the Crusade’s predecessors. However, I think these critics fail to take a number of mitigating factors into account. The Argent Dawn was a small, dedicated force running a guerilla campaign. Many of their soldiers knew the terrain and could use it to their advantage. Furthermore, their small size and obvious integrity meant that the Horde or Alliance would not see them as a threat.
The Crusade is a drastic change from that state. The Argent Crusade is a full-fledged army invading a vast and unfamiliar territory. This presents staggering logistical challenges to the Crusade’s leaders (all of whom had previously led the Dawn). Considering that they can maintain regular resupply to distant posts like the Argent Stand, I’d say they’ve done an admirable job. Nor can they rely on the already battle-hardened veterans that made up the rank and file of the Argent Dawn. Instead, they depend on relatively inexperienced troops. Finally, they are large and influential enough for both the Horde and Alliance to eye them warily, each seeing the Crusade as a potential pawn for the other.
We left under the morning gloom, a cold mist wrapped around the crumbling pillars of the endless city. Numbering seven in total we followed Mumbwe to a flooded desolation north of the Argent Stand. Mumbwe explained that a large reservoir had dominated the region before the Scourge invasion. Violence or neglect had destroyed it, and the rushing waters swept away entire temples.
Now, piles of broken masonry stand like sullen guardians over the murky waters, sometimes occupied by ponderous basilisks whose long tongues dart into the lake to snare passing fish. Mold and fungi grow on overturned altars while drowned trees rot.
We soon saw the idol-topped spires of the Amphitheater of Anguish in the distance, another Drakkari construction of numbing magnitude.
“What more do you know about this place?” I asked Mumbwe.
“The blood of heroes flows like a river through Xuloc utl’Dapac,” she scoffed, her jade teeth glinting as she grinned in contempt. “If warriors still train there, it means the Drakkari may delay the Scourge a while longer. As I said, you are under my god’s protection. Even so, we will not enter if Drakkari or Scourge still guard it.”
A cold wind picked up, bringing a mountaintop chill to the ruined second tier. The Amphitheater of Anguish is a complex arrangement of towers and shrines, spread across miles of land. Stairways lead up to austere boulevards flanked by the statues of gods and heroes. Gusts fling dead leaves in circles amidst dank puddles on the stone floor. Mumbwe strode through the debris-strewn passage, fearless of any danger.
Her courage (or fanaticism) compelled the rest of us to follow. Tall and ghastly she led the way, a priest vindicated by the heretics’ failure. Even if the Zandalari do fade into irrelevance they can rest easy knowing that they outlasted the transgressive Drakkari. No living thing stirred in the shadowed halls and arcades of the amphitheater. Only castoffs remained, dropped by trolls fleeing to more defensive positions. There is not even the telltale taint of the Scourge.
“Lady Mumbwe, I do not think there is any hostile presence here,” said one of the soldiers. “Shall we turn back?”
“So soon? The amphitheater is vast. Surely you would not want to disappoint your commanders with such a halfhearted effort?”
At the center of the amphitheater is a rectangular pit, surprisingly small given the size of the surrounding complex. Along the rims are solid stone benches, arranged in a stadium fashion. Dark stains spatter the arena’s walls and sandy floor, the only remnants of battles past. A colossal stone gate at the far end of the pit houses a gong made of some slick dark metal, perhaps saronite. Black temples with pointed roofs occupy the upper terraces around the pit, the images of dead gods engraved on the stone.
Mumbwe smiled in grim satisfaction as she surveyed the emptiness. Satisfied that no significant Scourge or Drakkari presence held the Amphitheater, she turned as if to leave. Then she stopped, looking up at one of the temples.
“Show yourself,” she barked in Zandali, and I felt a brief thrill at understanding what she said.
I saw movement in the darkness as a lone troll emerged from the darkened sanctuary. Bent low despite his size, he walked down the stairs with trembling steps. The troll cried out in Zandali, his hoarse voice echoing through the ancient masonry. He slunk down the stairs and prostrated himself at Mumbwe’s feet, trembling as he spoke.
I could not understand the conversation between Mumbwe and the troll but we all understood the raw, clinging desperation in his voice. Groveling before the priestess he wept and begged. Tears falling from panicked eyes, the troll put his hand to his mouth and bit, tearing flesh from his palm. While on his knees he raised the seeping wound, a blood offering for Mumbwe. Less than pleased, the priestess slapped the gruesome gift away and commanded him to silence.
“Pitiful,” she scoffed.
“Who is he?”
“Breku. He says he is one of the Least, disowned by his warband and now shunned by the priests. Free to find a new master.”
“How long has he been here?”
Mumbwe relayed my question to Breku, and he mumbled a response, his head bowed.
“Since the Scourge invaded the first tier.”
“We should take him with us,” said Rothen. “He needs help, and he could tell us more about the Drakkari.”
“Your merciful soul may rest at ease, Rothen. I do not intend to abandon him. The temple always desires more servants, and he could be useful.”
“Destron, did you encounter anyone like this?” asked Rothen.
“The trolls we found were as sick and hungry as this one, but they attacked us.”
“They were warriors,” said Mumbwe.
“But Breku is not?”
“He says he is one of the Least. I do not know what a Least would do for the Drakkari. I will ask.”
Mumbwe conferred with Breku, who choked out his answers between sobs. Several minutes passed and Mumbwe looked slightly confused when she finished.
“Breku’s brain is muddled. He says that when a warrior shows weakness, or challenges his leader and fails, his warband hands him to the priests. Most of them are burned alive but a few become the Least. Breku claims that he owes his life and spirit to priestly mercy. From what he says, it sounds like the Least are the only ones permitted to go beyond Zul’drak’s borders.”
“Strange. Wouldn’t the Drakkari want to keep the Least in Zul’drak? Outside they could be free,” mused Rothen.
“If Breku’s devotion is typical, being forced to leave might well be seen as a terrible punishment,” I said. “What did the Least do on the outside?”
“If the priests needed something, the Least fetched it. Stole it, in most cases.”
Unbidden, a rush of mumbled Zandali spilled out from Breku, his emaciated form shaking in tune to the words. Mumbwe watched him until he finished.
“Breku says he went out to find rare herbs that the priests needed for their elixirs. Others of the Least stole gold, or even captured rare animals for the arena. Only the best were allowed to learn other languages, and trade with bandits and outcasts of other races. Breku never became that skilled.”
“Did any of the Least ever try to escape?”
She asked Breku, who mumbled a response.
“He denies it, though he says plenty disappeared. Maybe some ran away. If most sniveled like Breku here, they’d never be brave enough.”
“Did he know many of the Least? How many were there?”
Breku spoke for some length when Mumbwe relayed my inquiry.
“He says he only spoke to the priests, except at first. When a Drakkari becomes Least, he gets an older Least as a teacher; for Breku, it was someone named Drakuru. After that, no Least ever speaks to another, since filth should not congregate. They must stay with priests at all times, for a lone Drakkari will surely be killed by the warbands. Breku does not know how many Least worked for Zul’drak.”
“Was Zul’drak really so dangerous for its own people?” I asked.
“That I can answer,” said Mumbwe. “As I said before, nearly all Drakkari are warriors. They gather in warbands, roaming the cities and fighting each other. The strongest and cruelest are taken to the arena. If they survive the trials, they go on to defend the temples. They listened to the words of the priests, but beyond that there was no law, no rule. The Drakkari were savages.”
I quickly stopped my inquiries, moved by Breku’s visible distress. The last thing we learned from him was that a rival warband had captured and tortured him in his youth, pain forcing him to renounce his own chieftain. Instead of killing Breku, they returned him to his leader, who inflicted another round of torment before giving him to the priests.
Breku’s fear filled me with a sense of expectant dread. I looked to the east, imagining icy temples where the Drakkari still ruled. Builders, berserkers, and killers of gods, the ice trolls pose a contradictory and impenetrable enigma. The Drakkari had built an entire world, operating under a set of rules unlike any other in Azeroth. Thinking of the power and control they must have wielded to accomplish such an endeavor, I could not help but briefly share in Breku’s dismal fear.