Friday, December 31, 2010

Rethinking Cataclysm

I know I've been waffling on whether or not to cover the Cataclysm zones, and I am sorry for this. The more I think about it though, writing about it just doesn't seem like a good idea. While I initially figured that grad school would be a good reason to continue work on the travelogue (since it's less taxing than creating stories out of whole cloth), that's starting to seem like too much of an excuse. That attitude perhaps stemmed from October when I tried (and failed) to write a good original story. In December of 2010, however, I wrote a story that I consider good enough to at least attempt to publish. This has made me a lot more confident.

I'm going to finish Icecrown and then put the travelogue aside. I need to work on original fiction. It's possible that I may write about some of the new zones when I'm going through a dry spell, but this will be mostly for my own sake. I am not sure if I will even add them to the blog. If I end up writing enough of these (and hopefully I won't), I may make them available via email request.

Cataclysm also represents a natural stopping point. As a friend pointed out to me, it's pretty much WoW 2 in the guise of an expansion. I'm not likely to find such a good stopping point in the near future.

Thank you all very much for your comments, support, and (especially) proofreading and criticism. I have immeasurably improved as a writer during this process, but I do not think I can expand any further unless I go on to new things. I apologize to those who have been expecting the Cataclysm updates.

If you want to discuss this in more detail, go here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Two Hammers

Hendris whispered a prayer to the faith of his living days when we at last stumbled out of the frozen darkness, the timid northern sun almost too bright to bear. The deathguard stopped when he saw me looking at him, his eyes narrowing. I smiled to show that I did not judge, and Hendris nodded, silently mouthing the rest of the prayer.

We walked for days, not stopping until we reached the edge of the Scourge’s blight. Freed of the earth’s confines, we wanted only to get as far from Azjol-Nerub as possible. We tried not to think of the fact that Azjol-Nerub stretches through most of western Northrend, and that one almost cannot avoid walking over it.

“What will the authorities do about Narotta?” I asked, as we finally stopped to rest. Hendris had set up a campfire. Facing the flames, he looked almost afraid to look up at the dark forest.

“They’ll gather up her research and take it back to Undercity. She’s not our concern, we did as we were told.”

“Did the Apothecarium pay much attention to her work?”

“I wouldn’t know. No one ever tells me anything. We were totally isolated in Agmar’s Hammer until after the Nexus War. All we did was protect Narotta. She was pretty sharp in a scrap herself, believe it or not; I suppose the freak got the jump on her.”

“Maybe now we can go up and fight the Lich King with everyone else,” groused another deathguard name Lytus.

We returned to Agmar’s Hammer and found it joined by a second fortress: the aerial battleship dubbed Orgrim’s Hammer. The orcs back Warsong Hold had talked of almost nothing else, their conversations on the subject so detailed that listening was like reading a blueprint. But they could not reduce the shock of seeing that hulk of pine and steel floating over the black parapets.

Myriad gun batteries festoon the ship-like hull. Rotating ball-turrets compete for space against the rows of heavy chain guns, one on each side. A figurehead forged in the likeness of a snarling wolf guides the ship from its prow, a great cannon emerging from its fanged maw. A pair of balloons in the dirigible style keep the vessel afloat, connected to the hull with a bewildering array of chains and supports.

Lytus cheered upon seeing the marvel. I will admit to also feeling a rush of pride, though I knew that the Alliance possessed a similar weapon. Airships have long played a role in warfare, but never before had they acted as dedicated combat platforms.

We found that the inhabitants of Agmar’s Hammer shared our jubilation. Off-duty warriors chugged tankards of bloodmead and cheep bear around roaring campfires, slurred voices belting out gruesome ballads. Peons fled to tents around the fortress, not wanting to get caught underfoot. The only sign of Agmar’s famed discipline were a handful of sharpshooters patrolling the walls.

I followed Hendris into the Forsaken quarter and stood with him as he recounted the events of our trips to Dr. Malefious, the head of operations in Agmar’s Hammer. Despite bearing the ostentatious title of grand apothecary (a rank he shared with the fallen Putress), he seemed to be little more than a lab administrator.

“Damn, of all the times to find such a wonderful resource! Think of the weapons we might synthesize from the faceless one’s flesh! No possibility of that now, with the orcs watching our every move.”

“Grand Apothecary,” said Hendris, bowing. “With due respect, I do not think the faceless one is safe to use.”

“I agree with Hendris, Grand Apothecary,” I added.

“I wouldn’t expect imbeciles like you to have any real vision,” he sighed. “It’s a moot point anyhow; there’s no way to conduct the research at this point in time.”

Once the briefing ended, I asked Dr. Malefious about the celebration.

“The frontline rabble is celebrating a victory against the Scourge and the Alliance,” he said, flicking his hand in dismissal.


“Typical that the orcs celebrate their most profound idiocy. The Alliance sent an army through the Decrepit Flow some time ago, planning to take the fortress north of that—Mord’rethar, the Deathgate, I think it’s called. A small Horde force attacked the Alliance and the Scourge. I will give them credit for cleverly capitalizing on the disorder, but all those savages have really done is give more troops to the Scourge.”

Murderers, monsters, savages: growing up in postwar Lordaeron, these were the words used to describe the orcs. I remember the firebrand orators who stood at the marketplaces of capital city, demanding to know why the kingdom’s treasuries were drained in order to keep the remaining orcs fed and sheltered. They’d have shown no mercy to us, went the argument, so why should we show it to them? We, who’d seen our towns razed, our families butchered, at the hands of the Horde.

These were cruel words, but perhaps they fit the occasion. The Old Horde inflicted unnumbered atrocities on the Eastern Kingdoms without any provocation. To think that at the end of the war, some of the bloodied human nations not only refused to kill the orcish survivors, but actually spent time and money trying to help them, is nothing short of astonishing. The unprecedented mercy is a testament to the most high-minded aspects of human civilization.

How has humanity been repaid? By betrayal and death. The massacre at the Broken Front proves right those bigoted agitators. How indeed is a nation to react to another that repeatedly shows itself to be incapable of coexistence? What is so frustrating is that the orcs are capable of peace and honor; they just choose to throw it aside. Some may boast of the Broken Front as a glorious victory, but any honest look reveals it as the rank act of cowardice that it is.

The orcish race neared extinction when Warchief Thrall had liberated the internment camps. The Horde owes its existence to the Warchief. So too do they owe their existence to human mercy. However limited the mercy shown, it allowed the orcs to last long enough to find new hope in the form of Thrall. Any Azerothian race other than humanity would have surely exterminated the orcs after the Second War.

I stumbled past the bonfires, burning red and garish in the darkness, feeling like a child next to the brawling orcish revelers. An acrid, alcoholic fog hung in the air, each exhalation adding to the stench. A mere two years ago such drunken excess would have been unimaginable in an orcish base. I wonder if the dark sights of Outland and Northrend have forced warriors to find a new means of escape.

I wandered into Agmar’s Keep without any real destination in mind, climbing the metal stairways to a bare stone room at the top of a tower. A peon dozed on a threadbare rug in one corner, shivering in his sleep. I began to remove my coat, thinking to put it on his shoulders as added protection from the cold. Then I wondered how much he knew; no one trusted the Forsaken any longer. He might well think it plagued, and only become frightened.

I left him to his dreams, going down to the bottom of the stairway and lying down on the cold floor, my coat giving me warmth that I did not need. Guttering torchlight threw its harsh glow against the walls, the ceiling almost lost in darkness. My senses numbed, I let sleep overtake me.

When I awoke, I brushed the dust from my clothes and walked to the dimly light main hall. Hearing Orcish voices echo down the passage, I paused, choosing to listen.

“They’ll be sober; standing guard through the pain of a hangover is almost a source of pride these days.”

“They should not be drunk! How does Blackscar maintain discipline if he lets his men drink bloodmead like water?” growled another orc, in a voice like scraping stones.

“Overlord Agmar, I respectfully remind you that Blackscar does not allow this save on special occasions. The triumph on the Broken Front, and the relative safety of your own mighty bulwark, make it appropriate.”

“Yes, a triumph,” he scoffed, “though the Lich King still rules in Icecrown, which is not really that far from my walls. Now I must watch for an Alliance attack on top of everything else! Not only that, he has the audacity to mock my rule! You saw what Blackscar said: he contradicted me in my own fortress to let the bloodmead flow! Discipline must be eternal on the battlefront! Let the drunkards and sots have their pleasure in Orgrimmar, not here! My warriors listened to him, not me.”

“Overlord, you do yourself an injustice. They did not raise their voices in exultation until after you agreed to what Blackscar said. You are their master; not him.”

“I suppose. Back to your duties, Gort. It gladdens my heart to know I can rely on your words.”

“For the Horde!” shouted Gort.

“For the Horde!” answered Overlord Agmar.

I stayed in the shadows, doubting that I was meant to have heard the conversation. Overlord Agmar’s words revealed much. Leaders of even the smallest orcish military camps tend to take great pride in their domains; these camps often end up reflecting the personalities of their masters. For an outsider, even one of higher rank, overriding a camp commander in the presence of his troops is a terrible insult. Only the most esteemed orcs can hope to get away with such behavior. As the commander of the Horde’s greatest weapon, Korm Blackscar may fall into that category.

I walked out of the keep a short time later, into a courtyard of orcs blinking bloodshot eyes in the morning light. Warriors still trained in groups, their movements just a touch slower, their yells a little wearier, than before. Heaps of rubbish befouled the icy mud, uncleaned remnants of the previous night.

I tried to think of the Broken Front through a purely strategic lens. Even then, the decision was foolhardy. As Dr. Malefious had said, it gave the Scourge a rich new source of corpses to replenish the losses they’d suffered in the battle. Perhaps Korm feared that the Alliance would take control of Icecrown, but that seems unlikely. Icecrown is too remote and inhospitable for anyone but the Scourge to occupy. It holds no resources other than saronite.

Then again, considering the dangers posed by saronite, can the Horde afford to let it to fall into Alliance hands? Saronite is so common in Icecrown that the Alliance could mine great quantities with only a token presence. Many in the Alliance hate the Horde, and I will even go so far as to say that the Horde has given them reason to do so. But the Horde, like any government, is obliged to defend itself and its people. At the same time, I cannot be sure if the Alliance intended to take the saronite; they may also realize its inherently corruptive properties. If the Horde did attack over the saronite, was it to prevent the Alliance from taking it? Or because the Horde desires saronite for its own arsenal?

Did a grand strategy guide Korm’s plan? Or did he simply attack without thought? Korm is a popular leader, though I question his strategic acumen if he thinks it acceptable to leave so many dead bodies at the Lich King’s doorstep. I know that he helped organize the aerial assault on the Black Temple, in which I participated, and that had been a well-executed operation. This suggests he had a solid reasoning behind the Broken Front.

There is so much that I cannot know.

I waited until after noon to ask the warriors about the Broken Front, not wanting to bother them when they were hung over. They all claimed to see the Broken Front as a glorious victory against overwhelming odds. Indeed, the Horde army on the battlefield had been considerably smaller than either the Alliance or Scourge forces, making for an impressive victory. More than a few believed it to be in response to some other attack initiated by the Alliance at Icecrown.

“Orcs do not fight without reason. The Alliance has screamed for our blood ever since Wrathgate, even though many of our bravest died on that accursed day. I have heard how humans and dwarves shed the blood of our battle-brothers in Icecrown. The Alliance must learn that we orcs avenge our own!”

There are no records of any Alliance attack against the Horde before the Broken Front. I took some solace in the fact that some orcs believed in this fiction; at the very least, they may not have been so enthusiastic if they knew the whole truth.

But the Horde does not consider the truth a secret. Perhaps some of the warriors will regret their enthusiasm when they learn. Misinformation being as stubborn as it is, some will probably never find out. Whatever the case, only the Scourge now stands against open war between the Horde and Alliance.

I also learned that Orgrim’s Hammer would begin its return to Icecrown in a week’s time. Some claimed it would spearhead the final push against the Scourge, though others were more pragmatic in their predictions.

Snow fell from heavy skies starting at noon, getting thicker as the day wore on. Goblin crew members worked to shovel snow off the decks of Orgrim’s Hammer, and down below we saw fresh powder falling from the sides in white cascades. A groaning north wind swept down on the fortress just before dusk. Red-eyed orc warriors hovered around campfires, shivering in their black armor. They knew a hard night was on its way.

I climbed the metal stairway in the freezing west tower, where peons on the dark bottom floor rubbed their hands to stay warm. Reaching the summit, I watched the snow’s steady fall on the bare and black trees stretching for miles in every direction. Flakes landed on my face and hair, the cold barely noticeable to me. I looked to the north, where ancient mountains stand shoulder to shoulder, bound in ice for all time.

I wanted to leave Northrend, to never again look upon its butchery and dead cities. Only Icecrown Glacier remained unexplored. How could I be so foolish as to tempt fate a second time? Death holds little fear for me, but I will not let myself be enslaved again. No Forsaken ever really escapes the Lich King. His touch marks the soul. Some break down after they are made free, maddened by the echoes of his voice.

All meaning falls to pieces against the Lich King’s power. I’d already lost so much to him. To lose everything I’d built after my liberation would be too much to bear.

Was it better to return to Orgrimmar, to hear the beat of war drums as a new generation prepared to fight the Alliance? Wrathgate and the Broken Front had simply nourished a much older hatred, the seeds of war planted long before the Northrend Campaign. If the Alliance fights the Horde, it will be a war of annihilation against the Forsaken. However much I admire the Alliance and its spirit of civilization, I will always remember that most of their number wish death on my entire race. I cannot allow them to exterminate us.

What have the Forsaken built with their freedom? A corpse of a nation, offering little to the world beyond cruelty and poison. The shadow of the Lich King guides every action, and many Forsaken inflict his cruelties on others. Sylvanas’ revolution was a physical one, but not a spiritual one.

The Lich King’s death will not end the torment of my people because most Forsaken will not allow it to end. His touch will always shadow our lives and memories; those who say it is pain without end speak the truth. In the end, that means little. If we are to ever find victory, we must spite his evil by doing good.

I remembered the sounds of the necromancer Festus’ screams as the Kirovi nailed him to the floor, and my own satisfaction at the sight. His agonies had seemed like justice in my recollection. Where would such thoughts end? Slaughter in the name of just retribution, like what motivated the Scarlet Crusade? Better, then, for my people to be free than to see justice done.

The Scourge must be fought and destroyed. Just as importantly, it must be rejected. As one of its countless victims, I refuse to let it rule my actions. Whatever the risk, I will be free.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Beyond the tunnels of ice, lifeless and immaculate, the Gilded Gate beckons in all its ancient splendor. Bronze plates laid out in the shape of a spider and engraved with the angular Nerubian script stand over a hexagonal portal, through which gleam the city's fluorescent lights. Curved obsidian feelers crawl out from the gate, itself set into a cyclopean wall of dark stone, each piece fitted together with geometric precision. Pieces of carved jade shine in the light of red and glowing crystal torches.

Narotta clasped her hands, shaking like a petitioner overwhelmed by the divine. She’d visited Azjol-Nerub before but never with one able to unlock its age-old secrets. The vizier himself, a nerubian mind stitched to a rotting human body by Narotta’s artifice, said nothing as he beheld the entry to his home. Removed from the sleigh, he kept his balance on the walking sticks held in each hand, every limb quivering as if in pain.

“Vizier, please tell me: what does the writing on the gate mean?” begged Narotta, her voice a hair’s breadth above a whisper.

Merun’khet moaned, a ghostly cry that sank into a dry and lingering rattle. An agonizing silence passed before he spoke.

“These words remind all that they stand before the law.”

“And what are these laws, vizier, that I may obey them?”

I heard a hollow intake of breath, and Merun’khet turned his grotesque head to face Narotta.

“The law does not apply to you, or to anyone else on the surface. Do as you will; it matters not.”

They held each others gaze for some time, neither venturing to speak. Narotta finally nodded, turning to face the gate.

“The vizier has freed us from the law! Nonetheless, we shall treat him with the respect his position deserves. Don’t tarry, there is much here to explore, move on through the Gilded Gate and to the wonders beyond!”

Narotta marched through the portal, a deathguard on either side. Suspecting that Narotta knew far less than she thought she did, I fell in with Merun’khet, who hobbled forward on his crutches. Three Forsaken followed us at a healthy distance, protecting Merun’khet from harm without venturing too close. One of them shot me an incredulous look, unable to believe that I’d willingly walk next to the vizier.

“If I may ask, Vizier Merun’khet, what lies just past the Gilded Gate?”

“The great webs protecting the Brood Pit, the walls once packed with flesh for the young to devour. Hundreds of eggs clustered in the Brood Pit, each one marked with its destiny: worker, warrior, vizier.”

“I find it curious that you’d keep the Brood Pit so close to the entry. Why not place it deeper in to protect it?”

“The Gilded Gate once looked out onto the Spawning Caves, where the jormungar worms coiled in bloated embrace. When came the time for a new brood to hatch, workers smeared the path to the gate with jormungar fluids. A clot of worms always heeded the call, slithering through the Gilded Gate to die in the webs and nourish the young.”

“No threat came from the surface?”

“The Pit of Narjun is of recent make, created by the crypt lord that is its namesake to further the Lich King’s conquest of the surface. We sealed ourselves from the world above before the fall.”

The true scale of Azjol-Nerub opens up beyond the Gilded Gate. Ziggurats and citadels cling to the cavern walls like stony insects, their shadowed forms lit by crystalline lights shining bright and sharp in the darkness. Steep staircases lead from the gate, ending at the ruins of an immense spider web that spans a 60-foot gap, its strands as thick as tree trunks. A ragged hole, easy enough for a dozen to fit through, breaks the surface. Dozens of circular stone structures honeycomb the rock wall on the other side, smoothly joined to the stone.

Narotta had already gone down to the web, walking on its surface without getting stuck. I saw a thin and opalescent membrane between the strands, beneath which is a nightmarish tangle of molds and fungi, colored like fresh bruises. Only the spectral lights of luminescent spores make it possible to see the eerie tableaux, and one’s vision can only go so far. My hands clenched; what really lurked at the bottom of that dank abyss? Yet even there Azjol-Nerub extended, its grand palaces and temples built into the walls of the pit, their lights obscured by growth.

I helped Merun’khet down the stairs, suppressing an involuntary nausea (a most rare sensation in undeath) as I guided his withered frame. I imagined something crawling beneath the vizier’s skin, the same dread of indifferent hunger.

“How is she not stuck?” I asked, my voice hushed in awe at the alien sights around us.

“More work of the Scourge. Our webways connect even the most far-flung points of the city. An ideal defense in times past, when invaders foundered on the sticky strands. Then the Scourge developed new chemicals, making the webs like iron: cold, strong, and smooth. Now our glory is open to all.” The last words came out as a wheezing hiss, a hint of outrage making him seem almost mammalian.

More Forsaken ventured onto the web, standing even on the delicate-looking membranes. The Scourge had turned Azjol-Nerub’s greatest defense into a means of access, twisting it to their own ends as always. Whatever our differences, I could at least understand Merun’khet’s hatred of the Lich King. Or so I told myself. Who but a nerubian can really understand what a nerubian thinks?

Looking back at my own words, I feel shame at the obvious disgust I express towards Merun’khet, though he had done nothing to harm me. I, who have long stressed the importance of tolerance, can only come across as a rank hypocrite. But talking to Merun’khet made me wonder if there are indeed species that are just too different, with whom it is impossible to establish meaningful communication. In any conversation, I felt the gulf of eons separating us.

I at last set foot on the web, the surface giving ever so slightly beneath my feet, like soft earth. No longer needing any help, Merun’khet set off across the web, a new confidence in his awkward gait.

“The nerubians built all of this?” I asked.

“A significant proportion. The core of the city predates our arrival.”

“Who built it?”

“A Titanborn race called the tol’vir. They were weak and in disarray; we enslaved them and expanded the city. Little of the original city remains. Tol’vir aesthetics call for streamlined edges and bright colors, not dissimilar to the trollish style. Though they lived underground, they needed far more light than did we. Darkness and entanglement are preferable for nerubians.”

“Who were these tol’vir? Do any still remain?”

“During the Scourge’s invasion of your lands, did you see the obsidian statues?”

“No, though I have heard of them.” The Scourge had introduced these peculiar weapons in the chaos after the Third War. Reports described them as resembling winged human torsos with the lower bodies of great cats. Though obsidian, they moved as living things.

“Those were tol’vir. Some may conceivably survive in the deeper recesses of Azjol-Nerub, though we reduced their intellects to prevent them from threatening us. We made them into living weapons. Nothing more.”

“In a sense, you owe them the existence of your city,” I pointed out, not able to entirely stem my anger.

“Their presence proved to be in our interest,” he said, his voice as dry as dust.

I cannot hope to recount the route we followed. The hexagonal door past the ruined web goes to a shadowy maze cut into the living rock, lit only by the wan light of quartz lamps. A mad profusion of corridors and stairways wrap around each other, each path leading into darkness.

I forced myself to aid Merun’khet at the stairways, help he accepted without question. In so doing I felt as if I proved him right; I helped only so as to learn more. Seeing his ruptured head lolling on a strut-riddled neck and hearing the painful gurgles in his throat, I questioned the worth of such knowledge.

Sometimes Narotta asked him about our surroundings, her light voice echoing like a ghost’s along the ancient walls. He answered without a trace of feeling. He told how nerubian workers once nested in the dry burrows that still gape along the lower walls. Thousands had once skittered through the warrens, emerging to repair the city and tend the fungal farms.

“Interesting. I did not know that nerubians could eat fungus,” I remarked.

“Flesh was reserved for those more important to the polity. Workers sustained themselves almost exclusively on fungi and molds, the malnutrition keeping them weak and pliable.”

“Did the nerubians ever hunt?”

Merun’khet paused before answering.

“Not as active participants. We drew beasts into our webs at times. I ate fresh flesh 50 times a year, as befitted one in my station.”

“And fungus aside from that?”

“That alone would not be sufficient. Other animals live in this biome, feeding on the fungi: squirming touraki worms, the wingless flies called pahnaki. Workers tended entire herds of these creatures, providing a more constant supply of blood.”

Traveling further into Azjol-Nerub’s bowels we passed great windows looking out into the knotted abyss. Narrow webways stretch across the pit’s walls like scaffolding, curtains of mold pouring out from the torn sacs of dead eggs. Creeping life intrudes into the hallways, carpets of fibrous blue hairs tipped with opalescent spores spreading across the floor in abundance. The air is thick, almost like fluid, and very cold.

We stopped to reorient ourselves at a grand and pillared hall of black stone, decorated in gilded abstractions. A wide balcony opens up to the pit, where streams of water course down from the rock under fungal lights. Clusters of pale blue mushrooms sprout up from the balcony flagstones, their undersides colored an iridescent violet. Graceful in their own way, they reminded me of my time in Zangarmarsh.

After Merun’khet confirmed that they posed no danger, I went ahead to examine the nearest set of mushrooms. Only then did I see the mold-ridden nerubian leg sticking out from the morass. A dead nerubian lies under each cluster. I wondered if some had grown from fallen Scourge, though the health of the mushrooms suggested otherwise. It was the first sign I’d seen of great battle waged in those caverns. As they had died, so too had thousands of humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, and others.

I walked back to where the expedition gathered around an electric lantern, watching as Narotta studied a map. I thought it strange to see the Forsaken huddling around a light source. Merun’khet lay sprawled on the floor, indifferent to their actions. I sat next to him, trying to steady myself. Ever fiber of my being pushed me to keep away from the vizier and join Narotta, however loathsome I found her.

“For how long did you hold off the Scourge?” I asked, my voice scarce above a whisper.

“Six years. The Lich King’s arrival in our world sent violent psychic shock waves through the ranks of the dreaming viziers, and I remember the fear that seized me in those panicked nights. As arachnids, it is not in our nature to attack. Better to wait for the enemy to founder in webs and darkness. This new intrusion warranted a violation of our nature.”

The Lich King’s mental power is his most powerful tool, through which he maintains dominance over his undead army.

“What exactly did you fear?”

“Nothing else in our experience had displayed that kind of power. The dreams of others belonged to us alone. The Lich King represented an entirely new threat. Four-thousand armored warriors poured out onto the frozen surface and battled the Lich King’s army of demons. Their sorceries tore through our ranks and we retreated, trapping the tunnels in preparation.”

At first, the Lich King had relied on demonic auxiliaries. He had not plagued our world long enough to gather an undead army of any real size by the time of Azjol-Nerub’s fall. The Burning Legion and the Scourge parted ways after the Third War, though few outside of their dark ranks know precisely why.

“Only two foes had ever laid siege to Azjol-Nerub prior to that: the tol’vir remnants and the drakkari. Both armies lost themselves in darkness, cut to pieces by our warriors. Here, at last, was an enemy that did not fear the darkness or the cold. Those who fell to the Lich King returned as mockeries, bent to his will. In time, we developed defenses against this: warriors implanted with spores that activated on death, turning the corpse into a fungal incubator. You can see the results on the balcony. Effective, but not enough. By then the Lich King was raising the dead of the surface races.”

“Surely your numbers must have made it difficult.”

“Our greatest weapons were fear and shadow, both useless against the Lich King. Hours spent in my ritual chamber, probing for some weakness. Sure that they dreamed on some level, perhaps possible to implant terror in their minds, subvert the master’s control. Hunger for their fear, even now.”

His body twitched, the vizier letting out a starved moan. Narotta jumped to her feet and ran towards us. Fast as a whip she backhanded me across the face and I fell back in shock. Grabbing me by my coat she lifted me up, her insect face of glass and leather inches from mine.

“I did not bring you along so that you could trouble the vizier,” she growled.

I looked to Merun’khet, whose dead eyes observed us without feeling. Even the most decayed Forsaken exudes a sense of life. I saw nothing in him, a true walking corpse.

“Vizier, forgive me. I did not think he would be so problematic,” she implored.

“It is of no matter to me.”

“Good. Please, tell me if he troubles you again.”

She shoved me to the ground and returned to the lantern. The guards looked back and forth, apparently puzzled by the exchange. One offered a sympathetic shrug.

We quickly resumed our descent. I kept to myself; I still intended to learn more from Vizier Merun’khet, but knew I had to exercise caution. I tried to comprehend Narotta’s motivation; she took on an unctuous attitude towards the vizier, but usually ignored him. She failed to express much real curiosity about our surroundings.

At long last the labyrinthine warrens came to an end and we stepped into a forest of mushrooms surrounding a limpid pool, fed by water trickling down the rocks.

“What is this place?”

“One of the Brood Pits. See the husks of dead eggs through veils of mold. Thousands of skittering young grew in the bodies of worms, brought here to offer sustenance. Workers went to labor after the first gorging, imitating their elders. Hence the proximity of mushrooms.”

“Where did the soon-to-be viziers and warriors go?”

“After we nursed on the remaining meat, great mothers, a variant of worker, carried us on their backs to Ahn’kahet where we began our training. We viziers learned the history of our race, of the rules that bound us like iron. Before anything use, however, our instructors taught us to discipline hunger.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Generations of viziers had failed to extinguish the predatory outlook that is the true ethos of our race. The hunger of the nerubian is eternal. We are dry and dead without the richness of blood flowing down our gullets. Yet we cannot indulge as we please. Thus, we are disciplined, finding substitutes for live prey. Viziers sublimate the predatory instinct through learning. Instructors condition the juvenile viziers to associate knowledge with satiation. The mind must be distracted from its baser needs.”

“How is this done?”

“Subjects placed in sealed rooms with weak prey animals. Reversion to instinct punished via electric current. Alternatives offered: texts, experimental tools, and the like. Precise nature depends on area of subject’s training.” He began speaking in a rapid cadence, sounding like a rotting machine. That grotesque head turned up to the cavern roof, a mile above our heads.

“You underwent this?”

“All viziers do. Failure equals death. Uncontrolled hunger a liability.”

“Do you still feel this hunger?”

“No. This body is inert. This mind still hungers for mortal dreams.”


The subterranean forest thins out into a barren suburb of colossal stone walls and empty streets. Trapezoidal towers reach up to the distant ceiling, opaque green film stretched across arched and narrow windows like some biological glass. Strands of webbing hang between buildings, snarled by dead insect husks. Mushrooms sprout from broken streets, growing in the dim glow of glassy torches.

While the Scourge had ruled upper Azjol-Nerub for many years without contestation, they found it harder to keep their grip on Ahn’kahet and the adjacent regions. The remains of battle still litter the great avenues and plazas, the bodies of ghouls and crypt things lying in webbed heaps. Some of the fungal growth appears to come from dead nerubians.

Our expedition made a quick stop at a bronze tunnel entrance, built in the trapezoid shape common to the city. Hoping I would not regret doing so, I decided to speak with Narotta. I wanted to learn more about her motivation.

“Narotta, if I might have a word—”

“Have you apologized to the vizier?” she demanded, her tone sharp.

“Yes. He has forgiven me.”

“Good. The poor man has suffered greatly, and I take no joy at putting him in such a painful position. But necessity demands no less. I can only make his ordeal as comfortable as possible.”

“What exactly do you want to learn from him? You’ve hardly asked him anything all through here.”

“Are you criticizing me?” she fumed. “Do you really think I haven’t already spent hours in conversation with the vizier? I already know all the petty things you’ve been asking him. I only trouble him when something really sparks my curiosity, and even then I exercise restraint.

“You see, deep in Ahn’kahet, there is grand library of ancient lore. The entrance to this treasure trove is locked by a complicated mechanism that demands an understanding of nerubian symbolism to open. My hope is that Vizier Merun’khet can unlock the door, and grant us access to his race’s wisdom.”

“He is willing to do this?”

“Yes. He understands that we Forsaken are the successors to his race, a continuation if you will. Cold, analytical, untroubled by mammalian concepts of right and wrong. We already have adopted some degree of nerubian aesthetics, handed down by the Scourge. He wishes for us to rule here.”

“I see.” Had he really said such a thing? I found it hard to imagine that Merun’khet would be at all impressed with Narotta’s plan to make the Forsaken nation more like Azjol-Nerub. While some Forsaken claim to be creatures of pure intellect, this almost never reflects the reality. Most Forsaken are, if anything, too emotional (at least in terms of anger, sorrow, and hate). Perhaps Merun’khet believed Narotta’s description to be accurate.

Merun’khet himself had made the claim that self-interest is the only motivation felt by the nerubians. Was he telling the truth? Perhaps he saw closer ties with the Forsaken as being in his self-interest. Yet only he really knew what lay behind the mechanism mentioned by Narotta. Did a trap of some sort await the expedition?

“Are you sure that a library is what’s there?”

“The vizier confirmed it! If you listened to him, you’d know that the nerubians act in self-interest, and it is in their self-interest to befriend the Forsaken!”

I tried to think of a way to get the truth from Merun’khet. I could not allow my compatriots to walk into a potential trap. Narotta clearly took the friendship of the nerubians as an article of faith, and I doubted any argument of mine could dissuade her. Nor could I relate my concerns to the guards without attracting her attention. The guards seemed to know relatively little about the expedition’s purpose, and actually distrusted me because I’d spent so much time conversing with Merun’khet.

All these fears evaporated, if only for a moment, when I at last saw Ahn’kahet. Imagine an entire world encapsulated in stone, where stalactites the size of mountains hang ponderous over an ocean of darkness. Through this otherworldly milieu is the city of cities, a thousand obelisk-capped citadels reaching high above and deep below, revealed in the cold light of spectral lamps. Bent spires like the legs of dead spiders extend from obelisks and platforms. Narrow walkways made of thick webs sprawl across the city, entire neighborhoods suspended in their embrace. Fungal gardens still flourish, their mottled surfaces adding jolts of color to the scene.

Even the guards stopped to admire Ahn’kahet, though they’d each seen it several times before. I wondered how much of the original tol’vir city remained. Ahn’kahet did bear the grandiosity of Titan construction, though the peculiar layout and its more basic architectural forms marked it as distinct.

“How... how many nerubians lived here at its height?” I asked, all but dumbstruck.

“Only viziers and warriors lived here. Perhaps 65,000, before the Scourge. Workers maintained the city, but resided in the tunnels,” explained Merun’khet, his voice thick like that of a man in the last stages of a fatal illness.

We walked past the tangled corpses bound together in webs, their original forms impossible to guess. The only sounds came from the broken flagstones wobbling under our feet. Oblivion stands ready to consume the once-great city. Pyres of cold blue flame flicker as if in a silent wind, sometimes disappearing entirely for minutes at a time. I thought them to be of nerubian origin, but Merun’khet corrected me, saying that the Scourge had created them during its brief occupation of Ahn’kahet.

“Unlife came to the nerubians placed in those false fires. As we set fungal blooms to awaken in our bodies upon death, the Lich King’s minions bound the living and threw them inside. I watched from the last redoubt as the Scourge gathered survivors and marched them through the streets en masse. Never before had so many gathered in Ahn’kahet, and never will it happen again.”

“They could not fight back?”

“Liches bound the warriors in chains of ice, cowing most of the viziers. Towards the end, many of the viziers advocated surrender, hoping for compromise. We are not an aggressive caste, as a general rule. My exposure to the rage of human dreams gave me the fury I needed in order to survive. I helped plan the exodus of the last free nerubians, to secret places that the Scourge does not know.”

The Hall of Conquered Kings is beyond a set of broken bronze gates, the surface spattered with verdigris. Moist stone walls the color of soiled jade encircle a room stinking of rot. Windows of that green, opalescent film (grown dry and brittle from age) line the walls, making the site look like a profaned cathedral. Broken eggs and dead crypt things pile ankle-deep the floor.

“Why are there eggs here?” I asked.

“The Lich King kept some nerubians alive as breeding stock. Eggs placed here, away from Brood Pits, to be inducted into undeath from the moment of birth. Difficult to create warriors or viziers in such a fashion, but workers a simple matter.” Merun’khet doubled over, first gasping and then coughing. Ichor oozed from his wounds, visible in the hall’s dim light. He continued once he recovered, his voice straining with the effort of speech.

“This place once called the Hall of Kings. Held artifacts associated with the rulers of Azjol-Nerub. Lich King understood enough of symbolism to make it his new nursery—” Interrupted by a strangled cough, he almost fell. I caught him at the last second.

“Vizier, please do not continue if it causes you—”

“In my self-interest to continue. Azjol-Nerub must be remembered.”

The exchange had attracted Narotta’s attention. She strode towards us, her yellow teeth clenched.

“Vizier Merun’khet, is he disturbing you?”

“No. Respect me; listen to my words. I speak because I wish to do so.”

Narotta stood still, and I sensed the expression of shock she wore beneath the mask. Without a word she returned to the front of the column. Merun’khet hung his head, and I again saw the metal braces digging into his neck.

“Were the rulers of Azjol-Nerub viziers?” I asked. I wondered if I should remain silent, fearing another painful outburst as we left the Hall of Conquered Kings.

“Rulers unique forms, called kings, produced by feeding infants meat treated with special chemicals. Exhaustive process, done only in times of need.”

“Was the king’s rule absolute?”

“No. Law binds all. Mind of the king expansive, often able to judge correct course of action. Not precognitive, but adept at probability. Predictions almost always correct.”

I noticed that in times of stress, Merun’khet dropped personal pronouns from his speech. When I asked him about this, he explained that Nerubian lacked them entirely.

Beyond the hall, a series of terraced plazas slopes down for what looks like miles. The descent ends at a monumental cube-like structure capped by four bronze prongs. Gleaming red crystal laces the black stone, curved obsidian spires forming a crown around the top. Even from such a low position it rises above its neighbors higher up on the terrace, rivalled only by an amphitheatre of blue stone standing nearby. In the amphitheatre, colossal spiders of worked bronze cling to walls that look almost too thin to remain upright under such weight. From inside we heard the sound of splashing water, incongruously natural in such an bizarre place.

“We stand again at the heart of Azjol-Nerub!” exclaimed Narotta, raising her hands in triumph. “The Temple and the Altar! What the Scourge desecrated, we can sanctify anew.”

We began a long descent through the maze-like terrace, giving a wide berth to the still-active cold fires. No one cared to find out what would happen if a Forsaken stepped into the flames.

“What did you worship in the Temple?” I asked.

“A poor translation. We rejected the gods who created us, and followed instead the laws of our own making.” Merun’khet sounded calmer than he had in the Hall.

“Are these the Old Gods?”

“Yes. Do you know of Ahn’qiraj?”

“I fought against the qiraji in the Silithus Campaign.” I explained to Merun’khet the background of that brief and bloody war, where Horde and Alliance made common cause to end the threat of the qiraji and their master, C’thun. Niharalath, the priest and messenger of the Old Gods, had claimed that defeat meant nothing, that C’thun’s power would seep through dream and memory to rule the world. Time suggested his predictions to be mere ravings; the qiraji are broken, and the Twilight’s Hammer Cult apparently defunct.

“Good. The qiraji are worthless, and their extermination is to the world’s benefit.”

“The surface races do not seek to exterminate. Qiraji still live in the ruins of their city, apparently in a state of chaos. Cenarion soldiers monitor the gates for signs of renewed hostility. They tried to open diplomatic channels with the survivors... it did not end well.” I blanched at the memory of what had happened to the emissaries, their fates horrifying even the most violent orcs when the news reached Orgrimmar.

“An error! Destroy them all.”

“Why do you hate the qiraji?”

Merun’khet faced me and I saw the terrible age behind his ruined face. I wanted to flee but forced myself to stay, suppressing the memory of panic. Forsaken live by their own wills, I reminded myself.

“Great were the earthen hive-cities that once blistered under the light of a youthful sun. A million crawling things carving bulbous spires in the dead western lands, a million mandibles vomiting forth the slime that held fast the stones. Bloated priest-kings presiding over rituals of slaughter in underground temples, minds distorted by the call of the Old Gods. The world of the Azi’aqir.”

He spoke as if in a trance. Black ichor again seeped from the rents in his scalp, as if the words accelerated his body’s rot.

“The Old Gods ruled the world unseen, we Their chosen servants. Nothing contested our reign in the scoured deserts. New races stumbled out from caves and forests. Overseers fed them the honeyed bile of priest-kings, a single taste enslaving the strongest mind to the raw need of hunger.

“Softened mammalian bodies clogged tunnels coated by the sacred essence, our harvesters cutting flesh and carting it to the gluttonous feasts above. Azi’aqiri devoured mammals, in turn consumed by the priest-kings in honor of the Old Gods.”

“What of the trolls?”

“Faith defended them from the effects of the divine bile. As the azi’aqir had their gods, the trolls had the loa. For 30 years, troll and insect clashed in dusty wastes and jagged canyons. Thousands fought against thousands, on a scale this world will never again see. No arcane magic or cunning technologies existed to replace warriors; there was only faith and rage. The sky of the world turned black with the smoke of sacrifice, both sides killing to honor their gods.

“For all the power of the azi’aqir, they lost ground to these mammalian upstarts. The scribes understood their fatal flaw. Mindlessly enthralled to their masters, azi’aqir warriors fought as drones. Easy prey to the clever trolls. The arachnids argued that law must replace whim, letting each warrior think independently within her bounds.

“As they argued, the troll warriors ground the great cities to dust, making mountains from the the dried shells of the dead, priest-kings devoured by divine fire. Seeing the folly of the azi’aqir, the scribes went north to the ancient city of the tol’vir. So was born Azjol-Nerub. The qiraji lashed themselves to pheromone whims, continuing the debased ways of their ancestors.”

Ancient vistas flashed through my mind, the feather-bedecked warriors of Zul’gurub and Zul’aman standing firm against the insect onslaught in that young and barren world, at last turning the tide.

“What did the nerubians do to change themselves?”

“Elder scribes wrote the Law. First among them that pheromone control had no place in Azjol-Nerub. The scribes led the way, excising the control glands from their own bodies and throwing them on a pyre that burned in the great temple ahead of us. Each new hatchling underwent the same procedure.”

“And the castes?”

“We continued the caste arrangement of the azi’aqir, excluding only the priest-kings. They were the source of the Old Gods’ poison, giving rise to indulgence and pointless cruelty. The rest stayed, controlled by obedience rather than addiction.”

“You said you reduced the intellectual capacities of workers and tol’vir to make them more pliable. How is that any different?”

“You misunderstand me. Azjol-Nerub never valued freedom. The law is a cage of steel, flexible but unyielding. Within the law, we do what is in our self-interest. So too can the workers and tol’vir; their self-interest merely became more limited in scope.”

“Why not allow them the full range of self-interest? You said that the nerubians needed Azjol-Nerub to survive. Wouldn’t a fully intelligent worker still desire to help Azjol-Nerub?”

“Remember, workers become stunted through malnutrition. Food is limited. The first kings determined that it is better for Azjol-Nerub to reserve meat stores for dedicated viziers and warriors. Workers do not need intelligence. The key element here, what differentiates us from our disgraceful qiraji cousins, is that they are not controlled by desire.

“We last contacted Ahn’qiraj 700 years past, and our findings justified our disgust. The qiraji twin emperors assumed the roles of the fallen priest-kings, their glands emitting streams of pollution as they gorged on sugar-drenched flesh. Sycophants and slave warriors bathe in the pheromones, satiating their needs, and in turn inflict the same fate on their underlings.

“Each qiraji views his peers as instruments to his own pleasure. Ahn’qiraj is a hierarchy of slaves wielding total power over their inferiors. Why do you think they depend so on the silithids? Mindless and addicted to the qiraji essence, silithids do the work their masters cannot, unaffected by desire.”

“But the nerubian workers are also mindless—”

“No. They are simple, but not mindless. All are taught the law: tol’vir, workers, warriors, and viziers. All are subject to its bounds.”

“I see. An important difference,” I acknowledged, without much feeling. I imagined a chaos so terrible that slavery seemed preferable. Merun’khet’s stories inspired not just fear but also contempt, the azi’aqir no more than hedonistic insects. If I took Merun’khet’s words at face value (an admitted risk, given his attitude), the azi’aqir and their qiraji descendents never experienced love, freedom, or creation. They experienced nothing more than a life of the senses: pointless and limited. To think that such creatures might have ruled Azeroth is obscene. Let all the races thank the trolls for ending this threat.

“What happened to the mammalian races enslaved by the azi’aqir? I take it they were separate from the silithids?”

“Silithids arose later. Most of the mammalian slaves died without the priest-kings. We learned later, much later, that a few survived. Soft bodies sank deep into the earth and into the embrace of the Old Gods, and changed into Their likeness. The faceless ones, we called them.

“As we fought the Scourge at the Gilded Gate, some viziers dug too deep in searching for new routes of attack. Armies of the faceless ones brooded beneath the rock, crushing our warriors upon release. The Old Gods at last took their vengeance. We drove them back into the darkness though thousands died screaming in the grips of their tendrils. Our armies broken and our city harrowed, the Scourge soon ruled Ahn’kahet.”

“Have the faceless ones been seen since then?”

“Indeed, clambering back up from the shadows to fight the Scourge, spreading corruption through its necromancers. You do not know how closely the Lich King deals with the powers of the Old Gods, powers he cannot understand. They are everywhere in Northrend, the blood of Yogg-Saron running through the earth itself. We shunned it. The Lich King did not.”

“Will this make him more powerful?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. The Old Gods are impossible to predict. They are a cancer spreading through time and space. Dangerous to speak of Them, doing so gives Them a foothold into the mind. They are nurtured in the dreams of mortals. For this reason only a few viziers, like myself, learned of Them. That is why I scanned the dreams of the surface races; to search for Their presence.”

“You were protecting the surface races, in a sense.”

“Not for their sake, but for our own. Destron,” he said, his use of my name catching me by surprise, “you do understand the difference between nerubians and qiraji?”

“I do. Perhaps not to the fullest extent, but I know the two races are quite dissimilar."

“We inflicted the sacred law on ourselves to suppress our predatory natures, to tame the hunger the still lurks in our minds. Onerous, but necessary; we would not repeat the mistakes of the azi’aqir. Now all that is gone, but surely the difference is obvious! Seven centuries ago, Ahn’qiraj looked nearly identical to the tol’vir city conquered by the qiraji, changed only by the neglect of its new masters, once-bright citadels baked gray under the desert sun. We made our city magnificent, adding unnumbered spires and icons. Let there be no doubt as to who once ruled here.”

Would the tol’vir say the same? I wondered, though I kept silent. I did understand Merun’khet’s distress, though this empathy could not quite displace my fear.

“The nerubians put their own art in this city; I think anyone would be able to see that,” I said.

“We created. The qiraji only destroyed. Art is the ultimate expression of self-interest. Took inspiration from the tol’vir, seen in the geometric designs that still abound through Azjol-Nerub, the colors darkened. Added the arachnid sculptures, in honor of bodies distinct from the qiraji. Syncretic visions of bronze and gold, sublime order repelling the taint of the Old Gods. Epics written of Azjol-Nerub’s glories, inexorable and desirable warriors standing against drakkari invaders, words arranged in the same tone and cadence as the sacred law to invoke wonder.”

Merun’khet stopped, sinking to his knees in silence. I stepped closer, offering my arm for support. No gratitude showed on the mutilated face, the sight of it inspiring that old revulsion within me. Still the sense of crawling horror beneath his skin.

The vizier righted himself with painful effort. I saw two of the Forsaken guards watching the scene, but they soon turned their heads and said nothing. Oblivious, Narotta continued towards the temple. Merun’khet resumed his journey, his crutches scraping out dull clicks on the ancient flagstones.


Standing with the other Forsaken over the sea of shadows beneath Ahn’kahet, surrounded by a graveyard of buildings, I nonetheless felt relief. I was again with my own kind. No amount of similarity or even shared experience could bridge the gap between Merun’khet and myself. For all he spoke of Azjol-Nerub’s splendors, I could not see him as anything other than a predator. Perhaps this speaks more to a failure of imagination on my part.

I empathized with him on a purely intellectual level, particularly regarding the qiraji (though I cannot take his descriptions as unbiased). How often have I wished to join like-minded Forsaken and separate from the corruption of Undercity? Yet this only went so far; Merun’khet was simply too far removed from me.

To me, Merun’khet looked far more dead than any of my kindred, a quality that contributed to my attitude. Maybe my distrust came from the same source as that which is felt by the living towards the Forsaken. This distrust is something that can be overcome, sometimes without much effort. The individual Forsaken’s level of deterioration plays a significant role in his or her ability to inspire trust. Part of me is convinced that a deeper, more intrinsic aspect of Merun’khet’s nature is the cause of this divide. Or maybe that is just my rationalization.

Narotta had taken Merun’khet with her inside the temple, a vast single room lined with statues of long-dead viziers. Bronze script runs up and down the walls, the law written for all to see. She ordered us to stand guard, fearing that the Scourge or the faceless ones might attack as Merun’khet helped her unlock the gate.

“Pointless,” muttered a nearby guard to his companion. “No Scourge here any longer.”

“There are things other than the Scourge down in Ahn’kahet, to hear the rumors. You hear the story about that Alliance expedition? Eleven went in to explore Ahn’kahet, all veterans of Outland’s worst conflicts. Four came back out, and two killed themselves soon after,” replied the other.

“You believe that? We’ve never seen anything of the sort, it’s obviously an Alliance lie to keep the Horde out of the underground.”

“Why would they lie? There’s nothing here worth having.”

“Narotta seems to think there’s something valuable.”

“Narotta’s a damned lunatic. Who knows what she’s really got planned with that pet freak of hers? We ought to hire some goblins to detonate this hellhole.”


I heard the fear in their hushed voices, the words a paltry weapon against the oppressive silence. I tried to imagine the city at its height, a lonely realm ruled by viziers laboring in walled-off solitude, maintained by swarms of brain-damaged workers. A paradise for Merun’khet, I am sure, and I will not begrudge him for lamenting its destruction. The thought of Azjol-Nerub still terrifies me. And if Merun’khet spoke truly, Ahn’qiraj held horrors far worse.

I had never set foot in Ahn’qiraj itself, though I'd seen its teeming insect multitudes erupt from the dust-worn gates. Horde and Alliance alike felt an instinctual mammalian fear, and were united by it. We fought for a week in the blistering winds, differences forgotten in the face of that ancient horror, and as victory followed victory the fear turned into soaring hope. At Mt. Hyjal the two factions broke the onslaught of the Scourge and the Burning Legion. At Silithus, they defeated a horror as old as time. When Ahn’qiraj’s outer defenses finally collapsed, we all saw that no force of evil could stand in our way for long, that Azeroth had the power to liberate itself and all other worlds.

The dream started to fray as partisans, who’d stood as brothers just a few days earlier, began fighting each other for control of the silithyst geysers. Their former sense of shared purpose fell way to predation. I remember hearing the boasts of Horde marauders who lurked behind silt dunes for days at a time, setting up ambushes for Alliance silithyst couriers, simple murders turned to epics in the retelling. The Alliance did the same. We often found Horde runners lying in the sand, bodies hacked and burned beyond recognition.

The soldiers who had actually entered Ahn’qiraj and survived filtered back, hard and hollow-eyed in victory. No one slept easy through those hot desert nights, listening to brave men scream in their sleep at what they’d seen beyond the Scarab Wall. As the qiraji menace weakened, the blood feuds between the Horde and Alliance grew crueler. Ahn’qiraj survivors joined the fray towards the waning days of the campaign, committing some of the worst bloodshed.

From somewhere far below, a low piping echoed off the city’s undersides, the notes harsh and high like breath through a hollow bone. Guards looked to one another as the sound faded, searching the faces of their neighbors for confirmation. The Forsaken nearest me, a man named Hendris, grabbed his rifle, taking careful steps to the edge of the platform.

“You all heard that?” whispered Hendris, sockets lined up along the barrel.

“Maybe some old nerubian machine,” suggested another guard.

No one else offered an alternative, though the readied weapons betrayed what they truly believed. Preferring caution, I motioned for Hendris to get back from the edge. After a moment’s hesitation, he concurred. The piped notes returned as he drew back to the temple, louder than before.

“Narotta, how far is the vizier on that lock?” asked Hendris.

“Quiet! What’s that, vizier?” There was a pause, and I could just hear the Merun’khet’s raspy voice echoing in the sanctuary. “An attack! Guards, get in position! A faceless approaches!”

“Faceless? How do we—” a shrill blast of sound cut off his words.

Stone quivered beneath our feet, accompanied by thick, wet sounds somewhere between dripping water and tearing flesh. Aimless piping shrieked along, constant but without beat or rhythm, the song of a lunatic. A deathguard fell to his knees, gloved hands pressed to his temples as he rocked back and forth.

Vast and pale, a mass of flesh bulged up from the platform’s edge, the surface shimmering like water. A wide spine-like plate of segmented bone ran down the front, pressing against a beard of dripping tendrils, its piercing song played through suppurating holes all along the skin.

Guns blazed to life, bullets splashing into the faceless one, the ruptures reconnecting in an instant. More of its body slithered into sight, pulled to the side by the weight of a vast and soft right arm ending in a crude hand. A muscular tentacle hung from the left, mottled colors playing along the fluid skin. Frightened Forsaken opened another volley in response. The kneeling guard fell into a twitching heap.

I thought of arcane fire, hot and pure, burning away this obscenity. The world underwent a spasm, ancient citadels contracting and shaking, colors made sickly and sour. Flame streaked from my outstretched hand, scoring a black mark where it hit the faceless one.

Still it advanced, misshapen legs splashing down on the flagstones. The vast right arm swung, extending as it pushed through the air and slammed into a Forsaken, whose body stretched from the force but did not break, instead falling as an elongated and boneless corpse.

Hendris grabbed an inscribed silver sphere hanging from his belt and rolled it towards the faceless one as its left arm lashed out to strike another deathguard. Its target dodged at the last moment, just as the sphere shattered into arcane light, magic energy piercing the faceless one’s wide legs. It flinched, at least I think it did, and the fluted song increased in intensity.

Seeing the limitations of single fireballs, I prepared a pyroblast, looking into the flame that grew in my hands. Only the faceless one’s mocking song called out to me. The guards ran as they fired, hoping to disorient the monster.

The spell readied, I looked up to see violet—neither a liquid nor a gas, but simply a color—bleeding into air around the faceless one. I heard a terrific crack as the convulsing guard succeeded in breaking his skull on the steps, blood and worse flowing out from the wound. I loosed the spell, the fiery sphere burning its way towards the monstrosity. Purple stains expanded on the flame, the shimmering air around it turning still as the heat died. The pyroblast hit the faceless one as a mass of gaseous flesh, adding to its bulk.

Impossible! I thought. My most powerful offensive spell made useless. I began to shake, trying to will myself back into the reality I understand. The fireball spell had worked, but not the pyroblast. Had it adapted to flame? Or was some other mechanism undoing my efforts?

Trapped in bands of color, another Forsaken disintegrated just a few feet from me. My mind raced as I tried to think of an effective weapon. In desperation I prepared an arcane barrage. I looked at the floor as I readied myself, not wanting to see the distortions running through Ahn’kahet. The shifting stone and impossible colors—had they always been there? I was no longer sure.

Gunfire competed with the drilling whistles when I unleashed the spell, unseen energies shooting and bursting along the faceless one’s belly. Skin dissipated with gooey splashes, the bony plate cracking under the pressure. The song stopped for a few blessed moments, the monster sliding back towards the rim.

Another guard threw an enchanted explosive at the faceless one and it exploded in the nest of tentacles. With only trace mana left to me, I fired a volley of arcane missiles.

As they hit, the faceless one began to peel apart in sheets of flesh, a flower rotting as it bloomed. Chunks of its body splashed to the ground and dissipating into a purple gas that stank of all the rot in the world. Its death took mere moments, leaving only a lingering foulness in its place.

I sat down, covering my face with my hands as I tried to reorient myself. I felt as helpless as an infant in pain, wanting to cry out and have my fear assuaged. Instead I prayed, taking comfort in the regular cadence of Light’s Glory Rising, the hymn so loved by my mother.

“Narotta! We’re leaving before more of those things come!” screamed Hendris, his voice shaking. “Do you hear me? We’re leaving with or without you and your freak!”

No answer came from the temple. Lifting my face from my hands, I stood back up, not sure what to expect. Driven by fear and rage, Hendris marched into the temple, his rifle at the ready; he looked quite willing to kill Narotta.

No one followed him at first, the two surviving guards looking to where the faceless one had died. I entered the temple, wanting to put something between me and the darkness, even though I knew the protection to be illusory.

Narotta lay on the floor, the back of her head crushed as if by a club. The only sign of Merun’khet was a series of staggered footprints leading towards the statue's base. The prints ended at the closed device, its dusty surface spotted with fingerprints. The vizier had made his escape.

“The bastard probably summoned that monster! Well let the underworld have him, and as for Narotta: good riddance!” spat Hendris. More likely, I suspected, Merun'khet had simply taken advantage of the chaos, guided by his self-interest.

The survivors finally ventured into the temple with faltering steps. Neither said a word at the sight of Narotta’s corpse. Hendris turned to the suddenly timid pair, forcing the residual fear from his voice.

“All right, nothing more to be done here. We’re headed back to Agmar’s Hammer as of now. No need to worry; we’ve killed the worst they can throw at us. Destron, I trust you’ll be going along?”

“Of course,” I said, surprised by how tired my voice sounded.

Hendris leading the way, we walked out into the shadowed city. In my memories, I heard the confident voice of Niharalath promising the inevitable victory of the Old Gods.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dragonblight: Part 3

One cannot truly appreciate the scope of the Dragon Wastes from the air. Looking down on the unbroken snowbound plains from above, the landscape seems like the backdrop of a stage, of no real substance or importance. For those on the ground, the Dragon Wastes present an undeniable and very physical challenge.

There, the whole visible world becomes a cold white desert, torn by fierce winds sweeping down from the north. The interminable snow takes on a monstrous quality, vast and implacable like some primordial beast. The self recedes in importance until one can think only of the frigid emptiness. There is no escape or mercy, the wastes indifferent to those who dare traverse it. Even in Tanaris one finds hints of life; hardy scrub in the flatlands, or the tracks of snakes on the dunes. In the Dragon Wastes, there are only the signs of death and eternal cold.

“Ha! You Forsaken are still Lordaeronians at heart; only at home in tidy forests and meadows. This land is a challenge, and orcs love a challenge,” laughed Loruk, after I told him my impression of the Dragon Wastes. Wind-driven snow hurtled down on the caravan as we spoke in the shelter of a wagon.

“I’ve enjoyed many harsh and desolate vistas; the Badlands, the Barrens, Durotar, to name a few. I get a different impression from this land, though it’s not without a foreboding beauty,” I said.

“I do find the cold off-putting, though that should not bother you as much.”

“My mind still associates the cold with death on some level. Seeing the Dragon Wastes tends to inspire morbid thoughts.”

“Do not waste your time with that. If the blue dragons still ruled the skies, if the Scourge still lurked in the snows, than yes. Now that the land is safe enough for a caravan this slow to traverse, only fools still fear.”

The Nexus War had rendered travel across the Dragon Wastes nearly impossible. As a result, the Horde’s western forces never really knew what the eastern armies were doing. Warsong Hold relied on sporadic communication (arcane communiques and messengers for the most part) that failed to paint a true picture of the eastern Horde’s reckless acts.

“I do not just mean the Hand of Vengeance. Even the orcs in the east followed their own dark path. Have you heard of Conqueror Krenna?” asked Loruk, when asked about this subject.

“Yes, actually.” I’d visited her fortress in the Grizzly Hills. Savage to the extreme, she'd squandered her troops in attacks against the Alliance and terrorized any who dared disagree.

“A fine warrior but a terrible leader. She ignored Thrall’s orders to open up a front against the Scourge in Zul’drak and fought the Alliance instead. She’s dead at any rate; she challenged her sister, Gorgonna, to a duel and lost.”

“What prompted the duel?”

“I am not sure. Gorgonna’s the interim leader of Conquest Hold. Gorgonna fought well, by all accounts.”

“Warsong Hold never knew about this?”

“Krenna probably just told Garrosh what she wanted him to know. Now, I ask you: why did the Forsaken at Venomspite never seize New Hearthglen?” It came more as a statement than a question. “Occupied by the hated Scarlet Onslaught, I’d say it’s a natural target!”

“They attacked New Hearthglen—”

“But never destroyed it! Quite unlike Sylvanas, wouldn’t you say? Venomspite had more than enough warriors for the task, and say what you will about the free dead but they are almost as fierce as us orcs!”

“Where are you going with this?”

“New Hearthglen’s cannons made it impossible for the Horde to send supplies by sea! Had the Forsaken destroyed it, we’d have been able to communicate with the east; the caravans could go from Warsong Hold to Moa’ki, put everything on ships, and then land south of Dragonblight and go from there to Conquest Hold.

“I will tell you why this never happened. The apothecaries knew we’d catch on to what they planned for Wrathgate, so they kept the eastern front isolated. All they had to do was let New Hearthglen survive.”

I do not actually believe Loruk’s theory. Venomspite had never succeeded in destroying New Hearthglen, but they’d worn down the Onslaught forces to the point that they could not extend their power beyond the fortress. The Scourge posed a bigger threat, so Venomspite’s garrison had no choice but to respond. As far as I can tell, the Horde never considered New Hearthglen a priority (a strategic error on their part), suggesting that they only started caring about monitoring the east after Wrathgate.

In a concession to the dangers of the natural world, the Horde employed a taunka shaman named Hennotak to protect the caravan from the vagaries of the weather. Hennotak rarely left the ritual circle in the rear wagon though we all heard his growling songs, promising pain to any spirit that dared cross our path. Since we never suffered worse than the ceaseless winds and sporadic snowfall, I can only surmise that the spirits heeded his warning.

The caravan would make a brief stop at the tuskarr village of Moa’ki Harbor before going on to Agmar’s Hammer. Horde diplomats had persuaded the local tuskarr to let their village act as a sanctuary for said caravans (though the protection did not extend to other Horde forces). That they made this arrangement after Wrathgate testifies to the diplomats’ remarkable skill. Some predicted that it meant the end of tuskarr neutrality, but the deal is a purely local one.

Moa’ki Harbor offers a spot of warmth on the coast between the Dragon Wastes and the frozen forests of the west, its fish-shaped huts looking as if an entire school had just beached itself on the gray sands. Rotund tuskarr work at myriad tasks: butchering sea lions, drawing in fishing nets, and carting goods towards a large hall designed to resemble a whale. An almost tactile air of expectation hung over Moa’ki.

The caravan came to a stop just outside the village. Noticing us, a pair of tuskarr hurried forward to offer greetings.

“Ah, visitors from the wastes! Welcome to Moa’ki; come rest your heads and fill your bellies here,” greeted one tuskarr in a booming voice. “You have arrived at a most auspicious time! Elder Ko’nani is holding a feast, and he would be most pleased if you attended.”

“We will be honored to accept,” said Kul’dor, the caravan leader as he dismounted from a wagon. The tuskarr introduced himself as Nonquok, the youngest nephew of Ko’nani.

“What is the occasion for this feast?” I asked.

“To laugh in the face of the darkness that even now roils beneath our feet.”

The tuskarr view the spirits of nature as cruel, and believe that fear and sadness attract their malign attention. Happiness, say the tuskarr, makes the best armor, and they project a constant joy that is bolstered by innumerable celebrations and rituals.

“Darkness?” I asked.

“I am sure your shamans have sensed it as well,” said Nonquok, looking to Hennotak. The taunka shaman made a grumbling sound.

“There is always darkness,” he replied.

“But something terrible lies in wait. You can hear it in the crash of the waves and the scream of the wind. The spirits seek to unnverve us, but they never learn how easily we tuskarr laugh and make merry!” Nonquok chuckled, as if to emphasize this fact.

“Do your shamans have any idea what lies in store?”

“Only that it means ill for the world. But this is no reason not to be cheerful. If one must die, better to do so while happy than sad.” I suppose one cannot really argue with that.

The entire caravan staff followed Nonquok to the great communal hall, where a roaring fire threw its light on walls of tanned hide and pillars of whalebone. At our entry, an imposing tuskarr at the other end of the hall raised his hands and laughed, and walked towards us with surprising speed. I noticed that he left behind an orc and a night elf, his departure interrupting a heated argument between them.

The tuskarr introduced himself as Ko’nani. Most in the group recognized him from the last stop at Moa’ki. Ko’nani happily invited us to partake in the feast, though I wondered if there would be enough food for ten newcomers. As is the case with many tribal societies, the tuskarr consider hospitality to be among the highest of virtues. According to their ancient laws, any visitor may help himself to the village’s food for three days; after that, he must contribute.

As we rested in the hut’s smothering warmth, tuskarr brought in a staggering amount of meat into the room, each one waving at us as they passed. Whale meat, plucked seabirds, seals, a dozen varieties of fish and more waited to be consumed. I wondered how the tuskarr had managed to obtain so much food at one time.

The orc who’d been standing next to Ko’nani, Sorsk Ripfang, listened to Kul’dor give the latest news about Northrend. Sorsk served as the Horde’s envoy to Moa’ki Village; his Alliance foil, Emissary Skyhaven, had gone out to help with the preparations after Ko’nani went to greet us.

Ko’nani asked dozens of questions about the state of Northrend, tugging at his great and bristling beard as he spoke. Though he sometimes asked about the political factions warring over the continent, he most often inquired about the spirits. Ko’nani directed these questions at Hennotak, who seemed to find them puzzling.

“Wise one,” rumbled Hennotak. “The only thing we mortals need know about the spirits is how to avoid them or bend them to our wills.”

“Yes, of course! Ha ha! But do you find it harder to do so these days?”


Tuskarr soon filled the hall near to bursting, the air torrid from so many bodies packed together. Guttural laughter mixed with the sound of smacking lips as they tore into the raw meat and lard. Voices competed to be heard over each other as the noise within the hall reaching a near-deafening level.

What seemed like every tuskarr in the village came by to greet us. Only a few spoke Orcish, but they still made every effort to interrupt, eager to bring more into their happy world. A tuskarr woman shooed me towards the array of glistening meat, motioning for me to have my fill. Smiling, I put a piece of whale meat in my mouth and began chewing, and kept chewing in an attempt to soften it. She found this delightfully funny and I couldn’t help laughing along with her once I finished.

I sat back down next to Hennotak, whose teeth tore at the flank of a snow moose. Six of the beasts had been carried in by Kaldorei hunters, perhaps to curry favor with the tuskarr who consider the beasts a welcome break from their usual fare.

Hennotak made no move to engage with the tuskarr celebrating all around him, his pale gray eyes a world away. I badly wanted to ask him about the tuskarr’s concern regarding the spirits, but knew that our hosts would not want anyone to discuss such things during a festival.

While the tuskarr deflect spiritual attention with happiness, the taunka view the spirits as bitter enemies. Considering the cruelty of the northern lands, it’s easy to see why. Taunka shamans spend their entire lives battling the spirits, breaking them and forcing them to give the taunka a place in the sun.

For all their prowess, the taunka are a scattered people. The Scourge drove them from their lands and decimated the populations. Though raiders and pirates trouble the tuskarr, there is no question that they are better off than the taunka. I tried to imagine what Hennotak might feel, seeing so many of them carouse as if free of care. I suspect he understood the dread at the heart of this joy.

A piercing snarl broke the dull roar of conversation and the tuskarr suddenly pulled back from the center. Small bodies hit the floor as savage growls rang out in the silenced hall, sounding like an entire pack of vicious dogs. Not stunned for long, a bunch of tuskarr rushed the source of the commotion just as a slab of torn meat flew up in the air. Trying to shout over the tumult, they grabbed down with their massive arms.

Hennotak and I stood up, trying to see what happened. One of the tuskarr at the center reared back up, clutching to his chest a small and furious wolvar that snapped and strained to escape from his grip. Some of the tuskarr laughed as another wolvar was pulled from the fray. I looked to Sorsk in confusion.

“Moa’ki’s newest residents,” he said.

“How did that come to be?” I asked. The territorial and combative wolvar seemed an odd match for the placid tuskarr.

Sorsk paused as he watched the villagers carry out the wolvar, still trying to wrestle free and fight each other.

“The tuskarr are a very merciful race. Perhaps too merciful. The Snowfall Tribe of wolvar used to raid Moa’ki’s food stores, and even killed a few tuskarr. When a tuskarr is murdered, his kin are obliged to kill the offender. But this obligation does not extend to the offender’s children.

“The Snowfall were near dissolution, forced south by the Scourge and surrounded by enemies (usually of their own making). Some of the wolvar fell to tuskarr spears, others to visitors employed by the tuskarr—the rules of vengeance allow the offended to work through proxies. But they could not bring themselves to kill the children, so the tuskarr decided to raise them as their own.”

By this point, the convivial atmosphere had returned, as if the fight had never happened.

“I take it there have been difficulties?”

“Wolvar live to fight, the tuskarr prefer to laugh and fish. How much do you know about the wolvar?”

“Not a great deal, though I did spend some time with the Frenzyheart Tribe up in Sholazar. They were quite quarrelsome; every encounter turns into a struggle for dominance.”

“I’ve never heard of the Frenzyheart, but that’s the general attitude of the wolvar. They aren’t warriors; not really. Just thugs. A dozen of them live here; most are still too young to do much of anything. The two who just made the scene are Niquip and Poaluq.”

The orcs at the Frenzyheart camp had expressed a similar disdain towards the wolvar. I wondered if the tuskarr understood the difficulties of incorporating the wolvar into their society. While some of the wolvar violence is culturally enforced, they are a carnivorous race, suggesting that the aggression is at least partly biological.

Humans have lived among the tuskarr without any conflict. The human woman whom I’d met in Unu’pe, Letense, enjoyed the lifestyle, though most other humans had departed as soon as they found others of their kind. However, humans (along with trolls and goblins) are quite good at adapting to very different cultures. I am not sure if this can be said for the wolvar.

The feast came to its happy conclusion at around midnight, the heavy-bellied tuskarr sleeping in the communal hall (since they were already there). Waking a little past dawn, the people of Moa’ki went to work at the daily business of life, perhaps a bit slower after the previous night's indulgence.

After looking around for a while I found the hut where the wolvar lived. A tiny wolvar infant at the doorway, little more than a ball of fuzz, played with a small hide ball, batting it from one paw to the other. The wolvar stood up as a muscular tuskarr approached the hut, balancing a bone basin in his hands. The tuskarr offered a cheerful hello to the wolvar, who squeaked back in response.

Going to his knees, the tuskarr placed the bowl on the ground and I saw some milk splash over the surface. A whole host of wolvar hurried out of the tent, some on all fours to begin greedily lapping at the milk. The tuskarr began speaking to the wolvar in an authoritative but friendly tone. When two of the wolvar suddenly started growling at each other, he stepped in and picked them both up by the scruffs of their necks, his voice suddenly stern.

I found out that the tuskarr’s name was Kuilik, an angler and a father of three. I managed to talk with him shortly after noon.

“Ah, they are a most wonderful group, are they not? We first gave them to the wise (old) mothers to take care of, but these wolvar are much fiercer than what we tuskarr are used to seeing in our young! So a few of us anglers volunteered to do this task.”

“Is it difficult?”

“These children are aggressive, certainly. And how they bite!” he laughed. “But they are still children, and they can be taught.”

“How do the tuskarr intend to teach them?”

“By example and by discipline. Their anger is a very real danger. However, the ancestors frown on those who let children die. We are happy to accept the risk. They must learn that they are tuskarr, not wolvar, even if they look like wolvar.”

“Have they adapted?”

“Slowly. A month ago, we found Poaluq trying to get away from Niquip, bleeding from his left flank where Niquip had bitten him. It hurt us to hear poor Poaluq’s yelps; he was in so much pain! We separated them for a while, and disciplined Niquip. They’ve fought since then, but not seriously.”

“Like last night?”

“Yes, we intervened!” he laughed. “Niquip still lives apart, as he is the most aggressive of the bunch; aside from Poaluq (who has learned our ways best, so far) the rest are too young to cause any harm, though we watch them at all times. Even during the festival, old Inememuq made sure the infants were safe.

“It is strange. Tuskarr children need to be scolded and taught. They might get into arguments, or behave impetuously, but they never fight. The wolvar always fight; it is why they are so unhappy. We must teach them that it is not the tuskarr to way to fight one’s brothers and sisters.”

“How well do Niquip and Poaluq get along with the tuskarr children?”

“Poaluq gets along quite well. Niquip, not as much. He does not understand that we tuskarr have thick skins and lots of muscle, even at an early age! I am sure he will soon learn the foolishness of starting fights with his playmates. The wolvar do seem to grow up much faster, which is a worry. But we will put them in the right age group as needed.”

“Forgive me if this question is inappropriate, but what will you do if they do not adapt?”

“Drive them from the village when they reach adulthood, kill them if need be. We cannot allow their anger to spread. Certainly not to our own children. I do not look forward to this possibility, but we will do so with a merry song in our hearts should it be necessary.”

I thought on the matter after thanking Kuilik for his time. Boiled down to its base essentials, the wolvar children had been kidnapped from their homes and thrown into a vastly alien culture where their natural aggression became a liability rather than a strength.

But is this aggression ever truly a strength? The wolvar have been retreating on every front save Sholazar, and even there the wolvar are far from establishing a secure home. They attack without warning, driven by the instinctual fear of being made subordinate. They either cannot or refuse to realize that other societies are not necessarily interested in attacking them without reason.

Had the tuskarr not kidnapped the children of their fallen enemies, it is likely that the young wolvar would have died after the tribe scattered. Even if the tribe itself survived, it only meant that the wolvar infants would continue the tradition of constant violence. Can the tuskarr teach the wolvar a better way?

Despite all their aggression, I cannot bring myself to condemn the wolvar, for in so doing I would condemn my own. The Forsaken have done far worse to the world than have the sparse wolvar tribes. One cannot expect the peoples of Northrend to forever tolerate the endless wolvar attacks; given how few wolvar remain today, the race’s survival may well depend on adopting more peaceful attitudes. Perhaps this will start in Moa’ki.


With its iron parapets and thick walls of black stone, Agmar’s Hammer manages to look even less welcoming than the leagues of frozen forest surrounding it. Ugly though it may be, few would question the fortress’ record of victory against overwhelming odds. When Overlord Agmar’s army first arrived at the site they found an entire Scourge force waiting for them. A lich known as Geldus Deadheart, who’d earned his name overseeing the massacre of Lordaeronian refugees in the Third War, led the undead army. Geldus' skill at the doctrine of mobility made him a source of terror for both the Horde and the Alliance.

Battle raged through the icy forests for two weeks, the Horde warriors warmed by their fury. Striking from the trees, ax-wielding grunts whittled away at the Scourge, aided by shamans who blasted the undead with elemental flame. Horde trackers navigated the thickets to surround Geldus, finding his weakest points and opening fire from the shadows. Deaths on both sides mounted, yet it is said that eight Scourge drones fell for every orc. The forest’s unusual properties prevented Geldus from fully clearing it with his poisons, giving the Horde an ideal hiding place.

Geldus tried to follow suit but his troops stumbled and wandered in the forest confines, becoming easy prey for the Horde. Never staying in one place for more than a night, Agmar prepared to finish his job. Horde warriors plowed through Geldus’ remaining defenses on the last day, and Agmar himself brought an end to the lich’s cruelties.

The Scourge attacked again as peons labored to construct the fortress. When scouts reported the advance, Agmar set ambushes all along the Scourge’s path. Skirmishers wreaked havoc on the marching dead, weakening them so that Agmar’s forces could win the battle at the half-finished fortress. When the Scourge made a separate attack on the nearby Ruby Dragonshrine, Agmar’s troops quickly occupied the routes and chokepoints surrounding the area, turning it into a deathtrap.

Armored guards ushered us through the pyre-crowned gates of Agmar’s Hammer in silence. Smoke clogs the air from a dozen fires burning inside stone burrows, and supply crates seem to sink into a courtyard that is equal parts ice and mud. Gnarled black tree limbs reach over the great walls, a reminder of the surrounding forest. A great keep guards the scene, red light smoldering from knife-slit windows placed between metal spikes.

A sort of inner coldness grips Agmar’s Hammer as surely as the freezing snows all around it. Blades clash in the vast courtyard as warriors spar, fighting with a silent fervency not often seen among orcs. The boisterous battle cries and taunts heard in most orcish settlements have little place among the black-armored fighters in Agmar’s Hammer.

“Overlord Agmar is among the Horde’s greatest warriors, and we would do him a disservice to offer anything less than our best,” stated a young soldier named Olmut.

“He has an amazing record,” I agreed.

“Before the battle begins, Overlord Agmar swears himself to victory. I have seen it myself; he places his father’s ax on the ground and cuts his palm, letting the blood fall on that hallowed blade. He fulfills his vow every time, because of his foresight and wisdom. He is like a shaman of battle.”

“The soldiers here seem to do much more training than others.”

“Yes. Imagine Overlord Agmar as a blacksmith, and we warriors as his ore. He shapes us into weapons of unsurpassed strength. We do not idle around and boast of past victories. We train every day; we use different weapons, different armor, create different situations, handicap ourselves. Battle must be our life, he says, and when there is no one to fight we will practice against each other.”

“Your training is scheduled?”

“Scheduled? A human might interpret it that way. But this is no mere matter of timetables and numbers. This is the art of creating heroes.”

Discipline in orcish armies has always relied more on traditional social mores than on specific rules. A warrior is expected to fight, and sparring is considered a pastime, so they all end up being well-trained. Even so, gaps sometimes appear. An orc who loves the ax may train with only that weapon, neglecting other forms of proficiency. Proven warriors might feel they have nothing left to learn by practicing, and their skills atrophy.

Orcish training also tends to be ad hoc, resulting in a very personalized fighting style. This is by no means negative; small groups can learn to combine their skills in terrifyingly effective ways. However, it becomes problematic in larger armies. While small numbers tend to be the norm in modern warfare, there are times that bigger forces are needed.

Agmar’s training schedule may offer a solution to this problem. His warriors internalize the concept of combat, so that practicing it is as natural to them as eating or breathing. It can be argued that the orcs do not need the strict scheduling seen among human troops; orcs are simply more motivated when it comes to war.

Imposing a timetable on orcs cannot have been an easy task, and it testifies to the reverence in which Agmar is held. His effectiveness against the Scourge gives weight to his training ideas. I learned that Agmar was a veteran of the Battle of Mt. Hyjal, where he’d worked closely with the Alliance forces. It is possible that he attempted to adapt their training methods to an orcish context.

“Agmar is a great warrior, I agree. Yet I fear that his rules dim the fire of orcish fury. Our anger is spontaneous, like a Mulgore thunderstorm, and this gives us the strength we need to win.”

Such were the words of a visiting independent warrior. No one is brazen enough to directly criticize Agmar, but outsiders may express doubts about his techniques. Soldiers within the fortress all appear to be enthusiastic supporters, at least on the surface. The peons stand as a glaring exemption. Not subject to the timetables, they are a fatalistic lot without much in the way of hope or motivation.

Agmar’s Hammer is also notable as being the site where the taunka had officially joined the Horde. After the Scourge drove the Icemist Tribe from their ancient homeland, the survivors found shelters within the walls of Agmar’s Hammer. In return, they pledged to do battle in the Warchief’s name. Most of the taunka warriors now fight on the northern front, their hardiness an invaluable asset. Only the oldest and youngest Icemist taunka still live in Agmar’s Hammer, where they are largely left to their own devices.

I spoke with an elderly taunka woman on the second day. Named Mahotada Sleethoof, her hands worried at a necklace of polished bone beads, some tied to tufts of brown fur.

“My sons, strong and skillful braves both, now do battle against the evil one,” she said. “Both gave me snippets of the fur on their chins, so I may keep them close even across the boundless snows.”

We spoke of her sons for a while, and of her daughter who perished when the Scourge took Icemist Village. I sensed that her fear went even deeper than the dread of losing a loved one; with so many of the Icemist youths fighting the undead, the tribe’s future is at stake.

“Without the Horde, there is no longer an Icemist Tribe. So many died on the day the Scourge attacked. Our power is gone, our shamans weakened. Since you still live—in a sense—you must not have seen Icemist Village.”

“That is correct.”

“We once called it the Place of Crashing Waters. When the poisoned mountain snows of Wintergrasp melt, it is as if an entire ocean is falling into the churning waters below. In that spot our ancestors fashioned great totems, as tall as the sky, and forced the wicked spirits to live within them.

“The Icemist shamans of old made a place where the spirits could not reign. That was the reason for the great totems, for the markings and sacred stones. All of Icemist Village worked to trap and contain the spirits, so that we could assert our will.”

“Did you still maintain herds?”

“Of course! Such is our way. We still guided our herds through the frozen forests to the warmth of the coasts, where we traded with the tuskarr. No one lived in Icemist Village all through the year; our tribe grew so big that we split into three bands, each one residing there for a part of the year.

“In Icemist Village the shamans studied the spirits trapped in our web of wood and hide, learning their weaknesses. I remember how we used to gather around the spirit prisons as children, giggling as we heard them rage, screaming wind muffled by our power! Our shamans spoke of this to the wise ones of other western tribes (the hunters of the east were too far) and they came to learn. And now that is gone from us. It took many generations to build. In our weakened state, it may be impossible.”

“The Horde will help.”

“There are limits to what even the Horde can do. Rebuilding Icemist Village is not a matter of lumber and gold. The power in that place came from entire generations, their songs and stories giving strength to the sacred land.”

I thought of Dalaran, perhaps a human equivalent of Icemist Village, and how it rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Third War. Might Icemist do the same? I thought of mentioning that, but restrained myself for fear of inspiring a false hope.

There are even elements of the Horde that might be reluctant to help rebuild Icemist Village. I cannot imagine that the tauren look favorably on recreating a prison for the spirits. Some part of me wonders if the orcs would prefer to keep the taunka without such a tool, so as to make them entirely dependent on Orgrimmar. I suspect, however, that such a cynical outcome is unlikely; the orcs appear to respect the taunka.

I explored Agmar’s keep on the third day and saw the famed warlord seated on a throne of stone and timber. Two great wolves flank the throne, their golden eyes intent and cruel. Named Anguish and Suffering, they accompany Agmar wherever he goes.

The keep itself is a frigid icebox that stinks of unwashed bodies. Those obliged to spend time inside wrap themselves in flea-ridden fur coats, hovering close to the paltry fires that never bring real warmth. Being orcs, they endure the discomfort with indomitable stoicism.

“What is in the future for Agmar’s Hammer?” This was my question to Gurtuk, one of Agmar’s lieutenants.

“Alas, the front has moved away from us. The Warchief needs this place to resupply the northern front, which gives us precious little to do beyond handling logistics. Important—essential, really—but dull.”

“I would think Overlord Agmar would be leading the attack, given his record.”

“The Warchief has chosen Korm Blackscar for that honor. Blackscar is a warrior almost without parallel. I saw how he raised his bloody blade high over a mountain of demon corpses in Outland! A sight for the ages, truly. Though skill in combat alone is not enough to win a war.”

“Do you think Overlord Agmar is a better choice?”

“I do not question the will of the Warchief!” he snapped. “Blackscar is a great warrior, just as Overlord Agmar is a great strategist.”

A small contingent of Forsaken apothecaries are tucked away in the southwest corner of Agmar’s Hammer. Kept out of sight, I still noticed them on almost the first moment of my arrival, their presence made conspicuous by the wall of crates surrounding their section. Having stayed in Agmar’s Hammer for almost the entirety of the war, these Forsaken had been completely cut off from the machinations of the Apothecarium in the east.

While in the keep, I overheard a conversation revolving around some kind of “monster” being kept by the Forsaken, referred to in tones of deep fear and disgust. I’d been reluctant to speak with the Forsaken of Agmar’s Hammer, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I visited them the next day.

Rows of rusted metal cages lean crooked in the frozen mud beyond the stacked-up boxes. Preserved limbs twitch on metal tables, electric currents coursing through dried flesh. Forsaken apothecaries stand in silent observation, wearing the insect faces of breathing masks. Glass-lensed sockets looked over me as I entered, the apothecaries soon turning back to their studies.

I made a few cautious inquiries regarding the work being performed in that foul laboratory, rarely getting more than a monosyllabic response. Only Senior Apothecary Narotta Casca showed any interest in conversation.

“I scarce blame your suspicious tone, good Destron; the Apothecarium has fallen far from its original goals. While those murderers and dilettantes brewed new plagues, my coterie delved into the nature of undeath herself,” she explained. Wrapped up in thick layers of rotting black cloth, her face hidden behind a shapeless leather mask, only Narotta’s light and breathy voice identified her as a woman.

“How do you mean?”

“Much remains obscure about our condition. Why do we still move outside of the Lich King’s power? What is our connection to shadow? Answering these questions serves many different purposes, only one of which is the total destruction of the Scourge. The Dark Lady herself has taken a keen interest in our efforts.

“Of late, our research has taken a turn towards Azjol-Nerub. As I am sure you know, the Pit of Narjun—the entrance to their fallen empire—lies less than a week west of here. We can learn much from the nerubians. What do you know of them?”

“Very little, I am sad to say.” I have always felt a deep fascination with the nerubians, a curiosity heightened by the fragmented and contradictory accounts of their once-mighty civilization.

“Then I think you may enjoy your time here. We’ve made several expeditions to Azjol-Nerub; another one starts in three days. On our last, we made a most opportune discovery. Would you like to see?” she asked, her voice taking on a beseeching quality, like a student eager to show off to a teacher.


“Follow me, please.”

She turned around and made for a nearby tent, her gait stiff like a marionette’s. Going to the entrance she peered inside and called a name into the shadows.

“Vizier Merun’khet!” she called out, in Common.

A thrill ran through my body the moment I heard the name, so distinct and alien—unmistakably nerubian. Yet something altogether different crawled out from the tent. Pale arms emerged from the darkness, each hand clutching a walking stick as they pulled the connected body into the light. A normal Forsaken from the chest down, his head caught my attention, the scalp swollen to twice its normal size, masses of wrinkled flesh pushing up from open wounds. A metal web of support struts, embedded into the flesh of his neck, let him support his heavy and mutilated head.

“We found the vizier near death at the edge of the Old Kingdom, his exoskeleton crushed, legs severed. He’d fallen afoul of the Scourge—groups of them still operate in Azjol-Nerub. I knew we could not save his body, but I realized we could save his mind. His soul, if you will.

“A Forsaken named Jarrel provided the body; he’d perished after a booby trap drove a spike through his skull. Gave me a most convenient opening. I performed the surgery under fungal light, cutting and opening as needed. No one has ever done something like this before, you understand, attaching human nerves to an alien brain. Perhaps a higher power guided my hand. Whatever the case, Vizier Merun’khet received his chance for vengeance.”

Merun’khet said nothing, his jaw slack.

“Does he remember anything?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. Narotta translated my question into Common.

“My intelligence and recollection remain at full capacity,” said Merun’khet, and I flinched at the sound of his voice, strained like that of a man in unspeakable pain. His gray mouth twisted in unnatural ways, like a mouth trying to be something it wasn’t, the words without any inflection.

“Do you speak Common? I’m afraid Vizier Merun’khet has not yet mastered Orcish, though he is coming along remarkably well,” said Narotta.

“Yes, I can.” I saw how Merun’khet kept his body bent and low to the ground, using the walking sticks as extra legs. My stomach twisted at the realization that he was trying to emulate the body of a nerubian.

“Vizier Merun’khet is an amazing individual. He will be accompanying us on our next expedition. You are welcome to join us; I am sure it will be a fine way for you to learn more about Azjol-Nerub. We could certainly benefit from a trained mage in our retinue.”

I knew my answer before she finished speaking.


Azjol-Nerub was the first nation of Azeroth to fall before the Scourge, but it did not go easily into defeat. The Scourge spent years battling the nerubians in their web-work of tunnels, the Lich King tested to the utmost in sending his paltry force against an ancient empire. Perhaps we all owe the nerubians a debt of gratitude for delaying the Scourge, giving Thrall and Stormwind time to prepare their defenses.

When the last of the subterranean citadels fell to Scourge, their poisons seeped up through the earth. The icy forests of western Dragonblight fell to corruption, the plague eating away at their roots and spreading up through the trunks. Resistant to the Scourge’s dark touch, years of exposure will destroy even these enchanted trees. Pustules of diseased sap now hang in clusters from open wounds, and ichor-soaked branches sag almost to the ground. Yellow fog curls around the trunks, stinking of death and decay.

No one can say with any certainty how many Scourge minions still lurk in the wilderness of western Dragonblight. Horde warriors have harrowed the Scourge base in Icemist Village multiple times, yet scouts still claim to see undead prowling through the ruins. Nor do the authorities expect Azjol-Nerub to be fully cleared, its recesses too dark and deep to explore. On some level, the Horde fears what may remain. A flood of the dead had spilled out from the earth when the Horde armies first landed on Northrend. These forces will not be able to sustain another assault like that, spread out as they are across the continent.

Narotta led our grim expedition along the dead roads. We numbered seven in total, all Forsaken save for Merun’khet. The mutilated vizier lay prone on a battered sled, pulled through the snow by a skeletal horse. Merely looking at him inspired the memory of pain, and I am no stranger to the cruelties that death visits on its victims.

Whatever I suffered in my undeath, I at least walk in the same body I possessed while alive, ruined though it may be. On some level this provides comfort and familiarity: I at least know what I am. Merun’khet was denied even this, trapped instead in a prison of alien flesh. I tried to imagine myself transplanted into an arachnid body, and knew that whatever I thought up could not compare to the truth.

I first thought that an irrational guilt over this fact kept me from conversing with Merun’khet. His tortured form forced me to acknowledge my own relatively well-preserved body, achieved purely by the luck of dying in a cold place and being raised soon after. I chose to interact with the world of the living by my own choice and will, but there is no question that my appearance made this choice easier. Badly decayed Forsaken sometimes choose to do the same (and are truly laudable for their efforts), but the process can be much more difficult in those cases.

Over time, however, I realized that something about Merun’khet himself disturbed me. Humans often view arachnids with a primal abhorrence. Far worse than the appearance (which I admit that I have always found strangely elegant) is the sense of heartless predation. A wolf or lion might attack a human, but humans view them as relatable. The great hunters form societies and take care of their young. Their eyes can be imagined as expressing emotion.

This is not to say that such a view is accurate. Nature is completely impersonal when it comes to the hunt. Spiders offer humans a chilling reminder of this fact that other animals cannot. In cities and farms, people imagine themselves safe from predation, freed from the ancient dread of the forest night. The spider is one of those creatures that insures no race will ever entirely forget this past, that there will always be a cold hunger in the shadows.

I approached Merun’khet as our party navigated a cloying sea of yellow fog, his body a tattered silhouette heaped up on the sled. Perhaps I preferred to meet him when I couldn’t really see his ruined face, or the arachnid need beneath the skin. I told Merun’khet of myself as I trudged through the mist, hearing the dry rasp of sliding bones in the skeletal horse pulling him.

“Are you in any pain?” I finally asked, daring to look at him. My stomach twisted in revulsion, despite having seen Forsaken in physical states worse than his own.

“Yes,” he choked, the word torn by a mouth not known to his senses. “Nerves hooked to dead flesh. I feel, yet I do not. Why is it in your interest to ask?”

“I wanted to know how you felt about this situation.” I had hoped I could learn more from him by expressing my sympathies, which were genuine. There is no mercy in forcible resurrection.


“I was curious,” I said, not sure how to respond. “Has Narotta said how she wishes to use you?”

“Her interest is to learn of Azjol-Nerub, as it was once mine to learn of the surface,” he responded, the last word trailing off in a rattling sigh. A strange whimper escaped his mouth and his bloated head drooped forward.

“You were a vizier, correct?”

“Yes. Many tasks fell to our caste: studying the ancient records, commenting on the laws, developing the arcane. I accumulated knowledge of the surface world. From my ritual chamber in Ahn’kahet I explored the dreams of the sunlit races. Much can be learned from the reality beyond the appearance. Interests—desires, perhaps, a better term—are exposed in dreams.”

“Is that how you learned Common?”

“We possessed extensive records on the language, and I achieved proficiency before my first oneiric expedition. Hearing Common in the dreams of others sharpened my skill.”

“You know it better than many native speakers.”

“Such is expected of viziers. Our mothers nursed us with the sweetest blood, and as eggs they placed us in rich flesh to stimulate our minds.” Merun’khet gasped and shuddered, his borrowed yellow teeth chattering uncontrollably. Long seconds passed before he regained control. “Nerubians are nurtured into their castes. Workers get very little food, while warriors are gorged. Viziers receive less than do the warriors, but how fine it tastes!”

“What sort of flesh?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“Jormungar ice worms. I understand enough of human fears to know that you assume that we used your kindred as fodder. Dismiss the fear; paltry human flesh was never in Azjol-Nerub’s interest.”

“I am not human.”

“The Forsaken are less dissimilar than Narotta thinks.”

“At any rate, the humans themselves must have been of some interest if you studied them.”

“At great length. I plunged into the sea of dreams, satiating my need on its symbols and veiled truths. To emerge shuddering from that uncertain realm and return home, to its comforts of darkness and solitude, is indescribable. Humans congregate like ants, yet are choleric like wolves. So alien to this world.”

“You mentioned solitude. You worked alone?”

“We are predators, Destron. Solitary, cold, and hungry. Seeing others of our own kind does not inspire feelings of empathy. Only fear. Fear that they will take what is ours. Fear that they will attack and kill. Workers, blessed by limited intelligence and appetite, may operate in large numbers. For the rest, the presence of kindred is no cause for relief.” He drew another long and ragged breath, his palsied fingers jerking like puppets on strings.

“Did you never meet other viziers?”

“Many times. We can suppress the instinct, just as humans usually suppress their instincts to steal and kill—”

“Pardon the interruption, but how is that instinct different from your own?”

“Humans have an instinctual desire to seize that which does not belong to them, kill that which threatens them. Equally strong is the desire for companionship. Nerubians lack the latter quality.”

“I see.”

“Our ceremonies force us to gather in large numbers, to tolerate other nerubians without fleeing in terror. Azjol-Nerub, ancient and once-immutable, binds us. We cannot survive alone. Therefore, it is in our interest to strengthen the collective immortality of our kingdom.”

“The same could be said about the surface races.”

“Yet their interests are altered by ideals and sentiments. They deny their true motivations. We are not without emotions, but the focus on survival and satiation surpasses all other considerations; our interest is calculated. If a warrior sacrifices herself to defend Azjol-Nerub, she is not motivated by any patriotic impulse. Her offspring—her immortality—exist in Azjol-Nerub, and are in her interest to defend.”

“Are all warriors female?”


“What if one has not had offspring?”

“They are not sent into battle until they have laid one clutch of eggs. This insures cooperation. As I said, there is only interest.”

“Is this current body in your interest?”

“There is nothing I can do about this shell for now, so it may as well be. But self-interest is always provisional.”

I mulled over Merun’khet’s words. Is self-interest the only real motivation of the surface races? The idea makes sense from a certain perspective. Even an entirely altruistic action is self-serving in the sense that it fulfills a moral or spiritual need on the part of the person performing the action.

This argument can be adapted to interpret highly communal or idealistic societies. The draenei might be seen as finding it in their self-interest to spread the Light and their message of justice to all peoples, in a collective rather than individual form of self-interest. Of course, the draenei would consider the benefits they receive secondary to the benefits all peoples would enjoy in such a society. Nevertheless, a spread of draenic culture would affirm what they believe, and could thus be interpreted through a lens of selfishness.

Does this then boil down to a question of motive? If the altruist truly does not care about his own moral fulfillment, and only about helping someone else (say, a rival or enemy), can he truly be said to have any self-interest? Some might argue yes, for he still receives (or hopes to receive) the moral fulfillment on an unrealized, subconscious level.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with self-interest. Many of the great developments in arcane studies and engineering—developments that have drastically improved the lives of thousands—came about because the inventors wished to get rich and work less. The classic zeppelin is a prime example of this. Yet I think it is reductive to say all behavior is based on an animalistic self-interest, as Merun’khet seemed to say. Animals may sacrifice themselves in the manner of Merun’khet’s hypothetical nerubian warrior. I do not see animals risking their lives for a higher cause, like freedom or a religion. While sacrificing oneself for a cause is still self-interested in a sense, it expands the self into something greater. The hypothetical warrior, who sacrifices for the collective immortality of Azjol-Nerub, is still self-serving on a more basic (though by no means evil or disgraceful) level.

However much I rationalized and argued such points, Merun’khet’s rasping voice carried the conviction of history itself. The nerubians are old beyond reckoning, having ruled their dark domain for thousands and thousands of years. As the warm-blooded surface races rose to power, as Azjol-Nerub’s ancient troll foes consigned the arachnids to half-remembered myths, they watched. Just how much might they have learned, building on the knowledge of eons past? Would not our own knowledge, so rudimentary and consigned by limited memory, pale by comparison?

It is a mistake to assume that age brings wisdom. Nerubian observations may well be flawed. Certainly they are somewhat limited; while apparently aware of events beyond Northrend, the world to the south was mostly closed to them. Given how different the nerubian psyche is from any surface race, it may be impossible for one to truly understand the other. Yet I cannot dismiss the possibility that his distant mind somehow knew us better than we knew ourselves. That in the end, the cold hunger of pure egotism dominates us as much as it does them.

Unable to make peace with these dark thoughts, I made no further attempt to converse with Merun’khet while we traveled on the surface. Perhaps I felt some shame at being repulsed by what had so long fascinated me. Narotta led us through lands ruined by plague, where toxic fogs roll over flats of pest-ridden slush. At last we reached the Pit of Narjun, a yawning abyss nearly a mile across. A frozen earthen ramp descends to an earthen platform cluttered with webs and bones. The faint glimmer of subterranean pools shines through ice-rimmed pits in the ground, hinting at the endless caverns beneath the earth.

“At last! Azjol-Nerub’s scion returns to its glory!” exulted Narotta, raising her hands high as she scrambled to the edge. Peering into the depths for a moment, she threw back her head and laughed.

“So much for us to learn, the wisdom of the ancients at my fingertips! All thanks to you, Vizier Merun’khet.”

She hurried over to the sled where Merun’khet reposed and threw herself into the oozing ground before him.

“Vizier, I promised you I would take you to your wondrous home. I now fulfill that promise, and await all that you can impart to us. Vizier Merun’khet, the wise... my greatest creation,” she said, the words tumbling out all at once. Merun’khet said nothing, arachnid senses watching her through a human skull.

Narotta did not wait for a reply. Standing up, she took Merun’khet’s hands into her own trembling hands, lowering her masked face as if to kiss them, the way a vassal of old might have done for his liege.

“This honor is beyond anything I imagined, vizier.” She stepped back before turning to face the pit, Merun’khet still silent. Raising her hands, she addressed the rest of us.

“Many dangers still hide in Azjol-Nerub, so stay close. Understand that Vizier Merun’khet will not come to harm under any circumstances. If you must choose between saving me or him, you will save him. I have worked my entire life for this moment, and nothing will threaten it. Is this understood?”

A chorus of agreement went up from our group, the voices echoing in the icy caves beneath our feet.