Thursday, January 14, 2010
The Storm Peaks: Part 2
Keening cries of rage echoed in depthless valleys, the drake twisting beneath me as I gripped the reins with all my strength. The world around us spun, a dizzying kaleidoscope of ice and stone. Up became down and left became right, everything in constant motion.
I knew I could not hold on for much longer, that sooner or later the drake would throw me from the saddle entirely. My stomach jumped into my throat as the drake plunged to the distant ground, zooming past the sharp mountain walls, spiraling in sharp loops. I looked down at the thick scales on the drake’s neck, dizzied by the tumbling scenery.
The force of the beast’s movements rocked me back and forth and I half-feared I’d snap under the pressure. I became so focused on holding on that I almost failed to notice the white expanse rushing towards me as the drake streaked towards the earth.
Snow burst out in all directions, the drake pulling up at the last second, its massive claws tearing through the ground. Just as it began to lift up, I released my grip and threw myself off, the thick snow cushioning my landing.
Shrieking a cry of victory the drake soared into the heavens while I lay on the ground, too stunned to move. Though wild, the drake did not appear vengeful, and it soon disappeared from sight. I surveyed my surroundings, a desolation of snow and stone that I suspected was the Valley of Ancient Winters, just east of Brunnhildar. Moaning winds swept across the expanse, a melancholy sound that seemed to reach out from antiquity.
I stood up on shaking legs. My mind turning not to escape, but to Vyldra. Though she had found the fate she’d wanted, I could take little joy in it. There are few things more tragic than seeing an individual with so much promise be consumed by draconian traditions and inner demons. I have too often seen it during my travels, and it never fails to make me doubt the possibility of a better future.
I recited a short funerary prayer as I stood in that forgotten valley, heard only by the wind and the snow. A weak gesture to be sure, but I could do nothing more. Once finished, I began my march to the east, not knowing what I would find.
I could not even be sure I was really in the Valley of Ancient Winters. Very little is known of the Storm Peaks’ interior, the supposed facts often rumors started by half-crazed prospectors and trappers. I thought back on some of the stories I’d heard in K3, wild tales of colossal ice-worms and fearsome giants that stalked the lonely mountain passes, killing everything they saw. Even without such monsters, the Storm Peaks are still a deadly place, and I had to stay watchful at all times.
A storm struck the next day, tons of snow thrown down from black clouds that flashed and rumbled, seeming to shake the very mountains. I took refuge in a tiny cave up on one of the slopes and sat near the back, watching the wind-tossed snow through the entrance. The already freezing temperatures plummeted as the storm raged and darkness filled the cavern. Single flames of intense heat burst to life at my bidding, a ring of lonely lights in the winter darkness.
Perhaps two days passed like that, with only my thoughts to keep me company. My mind drifted back to the mild winters of Dalaran, and the lights of Winter’s Veil spent in the company of the only woman who had ever truly loved me. I wondered if Emette still lived. If she did, and I saw her again, what would I say? How would I feel?
I rushed to the cave entrance when the storm finally broke. Bright stars gleamed like distant hopes in the night sky, revealing miles and miles of fresh snow all along the valley floor. The stars were soon joined by the unearthly glow of the aurora borealis, the shimmering curtains of light that dance across the northern sky.
I hoped for a destination as I continued my journey, making my way through those grand peaks. Over time, I began to care less and less. If I were to stay in that valley for a hundred years, what world would I find on the outside? A graveyard under the heel of the Scourge? A war-torn world ruined by the Alliance and Horde? Or something better, a new Azeroth of freedom and plenty?
Seeing the city of the giants finally returned me to reality. I spotted it from the top of a hill, its spires of solid ice standing guard over a vast glacier citadel. Impossibly large chains held the great ice spikes in place, adding a brutish touch to the wintry fantasia that I beheld. The city dwarfed the surrounding landscape, the great trees like toothpicks in comparison.
Almost immediately I remembered the stories I’d heard about the giants. Vrykul, adventurer, and archeologist alike described them as implacably hostile. I stood no chance against even a single frost giant, much less a city full of them.
Held in awe and dismay, I did not first notice the thin spiral of black smoke rising from a copse of snow-covered firs on the slopes below. I snapped to attention when I saw a large figure ambling towards me. Hides wrapped his furry body, the shaggy head crowned by small black horns that identified him as a taunka.
“Tell me your name and your tale, Forsaken stranger. Few of your race come this far north. I am Tahodan Coldspring, long runner of the Icetotem Tribe,” he said, in accented Orcish.
“I am Destron Allicant. I’m quite relieved to see you. I was beginning to fear I was trapped here. Is there a taunka camp nearby?”
“Nearby as the drake flies, perhaps. Camp Tunka’lo, the Last Warm Place, is many days to the north, and past some of the cruelest lands found in Northrend. Come, sit with me by the fire, and we shall talk.”
I followed Tahodan down the slope, suddenly elated by the encounter. He brought me to the tidy campfire that he’d set up in the fir grove and motioned for me to take a seat. I stretched out my hands towards the flames, something I used to enjoy doing on cold winter nights while alive.
“May I ask what brings you to the Storm Peaks? I have never before seen a Forsaken; I only know of your kind through reputation.”
I paused, wondering what that reputation might be.
“I am here to learn as much as I can about this place. I did not know that any taunka tribes lived here.”
“The Icetotem Tribe is alone. In better times, we sent our fastest and cleverest long runners to the southern taunka’haga. They went south bearing gifts, and returned north with mates. But the evils of today make that impossible.”
The taunka’haga to which he referred are the hunting tribes of eastern Northrend.
“Has the Scourge attacked your tribe?”
“Not yet, though our shamans see armies of rotting braves in their dreams, which would fit the Scourge. As of yet, only the nature spirits make war upon us, sending killing storms and fearsome monsters. We are isolated, but not yet suffering from the new dangers.”
“If you are so isolated, how did you learn of the Horde?”
“Our eldest shaman, Untokto Whitehoof, met your Warchief in a dream. He says that your Warchief is a man of great wisdom. Only one of your Horde, a Shu’halo named Xarantaur, has ever come to our village in the flesh.”
“I see.” Xarantaur struck me as an unusual name.
“Now, the Icetotem Tribe makes preparations. We number but few; the cold of this land will not allow many of us to survive. The tribe thought it best that my sister, Suwennehah Coldspring, go here to speak with the Sons of Hodir and warn them of the coming evils. I went with her, for it is too dangerous to travel without friends,” he added, giving me a pointed look.
“Who are the Sons of Hodir?”
“They are spirits, among the few who stayed loyal to the Earthmother after she departed in shame and rage. The Sons of Hodir are like mountains of ice that walk with a great and terrible power. Their city is within sight, the carved ice of Dun Niffelem.” He pointed to the city I’d seen earlier.
“I think my people call them the frost giants. I was told they are hostile.”
“Indeed they are. This is an ancient land with its own rules. The Sons of Hodir will not hesitate to destroy anything they see as a threat. But our braves helped them fight the stone warriors in ages past, and they remember the favor. They will not attack you as long as they know you are under the tribe’s protection. Their caution is justified, for they already fight the ice warriors who attack from the west.”
“I actually just escaped from the ice warriors, who are called the Hyldnir. I’d be happy to tell you more about them.”
I explained some of my recent experiences. When I was done, Tahodan asked if I would follow him and his sister to Camp Tunka’lo so that I could inform the tribe’s leaders. I readily agreed.
“First though, we must wait for my sister.”
“Would it be possible for me to meet the Sons of Hodir?”
His brow furrowed, and he was silent for a moment.
“Suwennehah is much wiser in these matters than am I. Ask her when she returns. I do not expect it will be a problem, but the spirits keep their own counsel, and can be cruel.”
We waited for the better part of the day, exchanging stories about our respective lives. Though he concealed it with oblique humility, it became clear that Tahodan was among the best long runners in his tribe. He had been journeying south, carrying thick mammoth fur pelts and carved bone amulets, when the Scourge decimated the other tribes.
“I came upon empty camps strewn with ashes, too late to do anything but weep. I chose to return, since my people needed to know of this. Soon after, these Hyldnir, as you call them, started their war, and going south became impossible. How shall I now find a wife? I am well past the age where marriage is customary.”
Exogamy is the norm among the taunka’haga tribes, due to their small populations. There are exceptions to this, as the chieftain’s daughter will typically marry within the tribe, but they are rare.
“Is it out of the question to marry another Icetotem?”
“Not for most. But my father trained me in the art of the long run, and it is my responsibility to bring new blood into the tribe.”
“Well, since you’ve made contact with the Horde, we may be able to ease the process of travel.” Thrall’s rhetoric does include the importance of safe travel routes in Horde territory.
“You seem well able to travel in these lands,” he pointed out.
“True, though the Forsaken enjoy certain advantages in that regard. It is not the same with orcs or Shu’halo.”
“Still, your words give me some hope.”
Suwennehah returned some time later, a dark blot trudging uphill through the snow. Tahodan immediately stood and hurried down to greet her, and I followed. The two siblings immediately began speaking in the taunka dialect, with its sonorous and drawn-out vowels. Unlike her brother, Suwennehah did not speak Orcish, though she greeted me with a welcoming smile.
“Suwennehah says she needs to return to Dun Niffelem tomorrow. While she is not sure if the Sons of Hodir will permit visitors, you may follow her to the gate, where she will ask.”
“That will be fine. Give her my thanks.”
The three of us went up to the campfire. Tahodan soon had his hands full translating Suwennehah’s many questions. I asked a few of my own, including why Tahodan had set up a camp outside Dun Niffelem, instead of staying within.
“Dun Niffelem is no place for mortals,” explained Suwennehah, through her brother. “Too long there and the breath freezes in your throat. Nor is it in the nature of the Sons of Hodir to offer much hospitality.”
“Who is Hodir, exactly?”
“The spirit of the winter, fifth-oldest son of the Earthmother. He perished against the darkness that rose up from the earth. Only those winter spirits whom he clothed in bodies of ice and stone remained true to the Earthmother.”
“Do they help you against the wayward spirits?”
“No, it is not their duty to do so. The Earthmother made our shamans strong, so that they may fight and defeat the spirits of the storm and the cold.”
I went to Dun Niffelem with Suwennehah early the next day. Tahodan joined us, kindly offering to act as a translator. Beautiful and almost delicate from a distance, Dun Niffelem becomes much less inviting on closer examination. Its frozen ramparts, rearing in cold grandeur between the mountains, can only belong to a fortress.
Standing at the edge of Dun Niffelem I worked to suppress the intimidation I felt towards the impossible city. The sight of Dun Niffelem reminds the viewer of his own mortality. Though I cannot die of old age, I can still be killed by violence or accident; given the life I lead, such a fate is inevitable. But Dun Niffelem will still stand as it has since time immemorial, more a part of nature than a place deliberately constructed.
A shapeless gate offers entry into Dun Niffelem, frigid air wafting out from the opening. A giant emerged as we approached, the ground shaking with each step. He stood at around 30 feet in height, made even taller by the broad horns fixed to his dented helm. His craggy gray face wore a beard of glittering ice that reached down to his belly. For clothes he wore the entire hides of great animals, stitched together to cover his massive frame. More ominous were the scarred shields hanging from his belt. Most of the shields were of vrykul make.
Suwennehah motioned for Tahodan and I to stay back. We watched as she walked towards the giant, her head bowed in respect. She began to speak, her tone hopeful. The giant was silent for a moment, and then responded with an echoing voice that rang like a cascade of silver bells. Though he spoke, his mouth did not move, the words seeming to emanate from his entire body.
“Norsir the Gatekeeper says you may enter Dun Niffelem!” said Tahodan, translating the frost giant’s words. “Say a few words to him before you go inside, in Orcish.”
“What should I say?”
“Simply express your gratitude.”
I approached Norsir with cautious steps, trying to read his inscrutable face. Ageless blue eyes, sharp as agates, stared from the ancient face.
“Thank you, noble gatekeeper, for allowing me to visit the home of your people.”
A series of low-pitched tones sounded out from Norsir’s icy body and I stepped back involuntarily, surprised by the sound.
“You are under the protection of the Icetotem Tribe, whom we respect as battle-brothers,” said Norsir, the musical notes taking the form of Orcish with a slight Forsaken accent. “Stay by the side of the one known as Suwennehah, daughter of Seyunkaw, and we shall see you as a friend.”
I thanked him again and turned to Suwennehah and Tahodan, who both stood at the entryway. Both had raised their hoods in response to the bitter cold.
“Are the giants able to learn an entire language just from hearing a sentence?”
“They are mighty spirits, Destron. Are you sure you wish to enter Dun Niffelem?”
“I am certain.”
“Then follow me, and do not stray from my sister’s side.”
In Dun Niffelem it is as if all the cold from a thousand winters is focused on a single spot of land. The city resembles a stadium, rows of ice surrounding a snow-covered courtyard, the glass-like surface reflecting the northern stars. Bones of ancient creatures hang frozen in the grand walls, ribs and skulls sometimes reaching out from the ice.
A giant wolf lay near the entry, its great head resting in paws the size of wagons. Golden eyes opened up as we stepped inside, though the beast took no other action, as if thinking us beneath its notice. Others of its kind roamed the edges of the courtyard, their fur glistening with frost. I heard Tahodan shiver next to me, his thick clothing and natural fur still not enough to warm him in that coldest of places.
I saw many Sons of Hodir standing on the glaciers, each nearly identical to Norsir, as if they’d been made from some divine smith’s mold. Though a city, there is no noise in Dun Niffelem beyond the distant rush of mountain winds. The giants said nothing, to each other or to us.
Suwennehah began to speak, her voice no more than a whisper. Even then, the sound of speech seemed almost like an offense, detracting from the city’s aloof magnificence.
“My sister wants to know if there is anything you wish to do here. She will tell you if it is permitted,” said Tahodan, translating.
“I would like to simply learn more about the Sons of Hodir. Might it be possible to interview one?”
“My sister says that the Sons of Hodir are not always forthcoming with their information, but that you are free to ask. She is here to discuss matters of grave importance with Lorekeeper Randvir. When she is finished, you may speak.”
Dun Niffelem does present some difficulties for non-giants. The Sons of Hodir can easily climb the icy tiers of their city, but this is impossible for anyone smaller. To allow for the mobility of others, the giants had ripped trees from the ground and placed them as ramps leading to key areas. Suwennehah made her way up one of these makeshift ramps with remarkable dexterity. All the while, the giants stayed in their positions, more like statues than living things.
We met Randvir on the middle tier, where abandoned weapons and armor are half-embedded in the ice. Suwennehah and Randvir met, the taunka prefacing the conversation with a deep bow. Dented shields hung like jewels from his left hand, the fingers wrapped around a club of ice.
Quite some time passed before Suwennehah introduced us. I bowed as she had done, and offered him a thanks similar to what I’d said to Norsir. Randvir responded in a voice identical to Norsir’s, confirming that he understood. I then asked my first question.
“Are the Sons of Hodir spirits, of a sort?”
“Spiritual energies course through bodies of rock and ice, giving motion and voice to that which cannot move.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since Hodir placed us here to care for the stone, many orbits past.”
“Forgive me, but I do not understand what you mean by that. Care for the stone?”
“Hodir sought a world where life could flourish in spite of stable stone. We once marched along the faults, soothing the pressure, preventing chaos.”
I realized he was confirming the gnomish theory of tectonic plates. However, Randvir was saying that the giants initially worked to prevent earthquakes, but that doing so would make it harder for life to grow. I inquired about this.
“This is what Hodir said. We know not from where Hodir watches in this dark time. So we wait for his return.”
“Was Hodir a Titan?”
“Hodir is a Watcher, entities subservient to the Titans.”
“Do the giants still maintain the fault lines?”
“Thorim, the Watcher who was once our friend, set his servants upon us in wrath. We know only his fury, not his reason. The Sons of Hodir clashed with the earthen, while elsewhere did rage the battle between the giants of stone and the giants of storm and sea. When the last victim fell, few remained to preserve the world. Of the survivors, the Burning Legion slew fully half and one-quarter, and half of the remainder perished as the world split. Today the Creation stands in disarray, and we are too few to make repairs. We must wait for the Purpose to be renewed.”
“Is it possible to create more giants?”
“Possible, but not by these hands. Only the Watchers may craft life at the Forge of Wills, and only Hodir may make giants.”
“When you stopped fighting the earthen, did you defeat them conclusively?”
“Our war never ended. There came a day when no earthen met us on the field of battle, their warriors vanished. We marched to Holy Ulduar, where they once lived, only to find it empty.”
“Now you fight the Hyldnir. What is the source of this conflict?”
“When they walked with skins of stone they made war against us alongside the earthen, and disappeared alongside them as well. Now they return, garbed in flesh that is coated in ice.”
I tried to add up what Randvir had said. Something had sparked a global war between Thorim and several of the giant races. They fought to a standstill, weakening all involved factions to the point where they could do little to prevent the Sundering.
According to Randvir, the vrykul and earthen vanished at the same time. While archeological evidence suggests that the earthen were sealed in their cities and eventually became modern dwarves, there is no record of the vrykul. Had they fled south as their bodies turned to flesh?
The vrykul went into suspended animation at the decree of King Ymiron. Unless Ymiron is, in fact, Thorim, then their plan must have been separate from the dwarven slumber. Then again, vrykul legends are full of heroes going into the mountains to slay giants. Were these actual accounts of the war? Or simply mythic retellings, the details obscured by time?
“Who created the earthen and vrykul?” I asked, not sure where to take the interview. I already felt bewildered by the amount of information.
“The Watchers. We belong to Hodir, and to Hodir alone.”
“When did the taunka come into this?”
“The one known as Icetotem appeared as the Sundering pushed this land farther to the north, and ice began to grip the rock even in summer. We knew he followed the Purpose, though we knew not his creator. The Sons of Hodir live for the Purpose, a world that is both stable and nourishing, not one or the other.”
“How many different types of giants exist?”
“Hodir made us from stone, though ice and snow now cover our forms. As I said, our task is to preserve the earth. From Freya’s hand came the giants of sea and storm. Those of sea kept the currents on their courses. Those of storm guided the rains and winds to specified locations at the specified times. Today, many of the giants have forgotten the Purpose, and roam without thought.”
“There is one,” I said, “who remembers some of his tasks. He is a sea giant named Arkkoroc, in a land far to the south.” He had saved me from the naga in Azshara. “Has he contacted you?”
“No, nor can we trust his kind until we know why we were attacked. Even so, we shall keep this in mind. If he still functions, he may be an essential part of the Purpose. The Sons of Hodir, however, must be very cautious.”
Randvir soon told me that he had no more that he wished to share. He gave no reason for this, and would not even respond to further inquiries. The rest of Dun Niffelem watched while we spoke, maintaining their silence.
I found it difficult to understand the mentality of the Sons of Hodir. They had stayed in Dun Niffelem for thousands of years, doing nothing but waiting. This did not engender any impatience or frustration on their part, at least not as far as I could tell. The Sons of Hodir seemed totally lacking in initiative.
We soon left Dun Niffelem. The Valley of Ancient Winters felt almost tropical in comparison to the giants’ city, and Tahodan let out a sigh of relief as a chilling wind swept in from the west. I looked back at Dun Niffelem as we marched up the snowy ascent, looking just as mysterious and foreboding as when I’d first seen it.
The taunka more than live up to their reputation as the masters of the northern wilderness. Tahodan and Suwennehah bounded through the lost valleys of the Storm Peaks, guided by the wisdom and cunning of generations past.
Called the long run, this method of travel is used by all taunka, and perfected by the Icetotem Tribe. Lacking any sort of mount, the ancient Icetotems learned how to perfectly utilize their own physical reserves in order to cover staggering distances in only a little time. Would-be long runners are trained from an early age to memorize the twisting mountain passes, and to know when they might be prone to avalanche.
Long running made its way south, though the other taunka tribes had less need of it thanks to the kodo beasts they used as mounts. Even so, the skill proved useful when the tribes needed to send messengers through snowy regions that lacked grazing vegetation. After thousands of years, the Icetotems are still the undisputed masters of the long run.
Suwennehah kept up with Tahodan, her stamina buoyed by spirits of air and earth. Undeath enabled me to maintain a good pace. Tahodan led the way, his eyes keen and his mouth lifted in a brave smile. Calling it a long run is a bit of a misnomer; long runners rarely go faster than a brisk jog. Someone who exhausts himself sprinting will soon freeze to death. Endurance, not speed, is the trait most important to the long run.
It took around five days to reach Camp Tunka’lo. Small even by the standards of the taunka, the village is an assembly of hide tents scrabbling to a solitary mountain in the Plain of Echoes. Tahodan slowed to a walk and raised his arms as it came into view, gusts of tired and triumphant laughter spilling from his lungs.
“Here is the home of the Icetotem Tribe. Generations of my people lived on this mountain, hunting the woolly mammoth herds that ramble through the plains below.”
“I’m surprised you were able to subsist on hunting them,” I said.
“We hunt selectively, and there are never enough Icetotems to strain the supply. Keep going, Destron; just a little farther and you shall rest at the Last Warm Place.”
Tahodan’s description suggested that the Icetotem taunka were actually pastoralists, not hunters. I found it surprising that large herbivores could even survive so far north, but decided to save my questions for later.
We entered Camp Tunka’lo to a chorus of enthusiastic greetings, eager taunka crowding around us to hear of the Coldspring siblings’ adventures. I too was the object of great interest as the first Forsaken to visit their village. Seeing their curious faces, I could not help feeling a pang of regret. I am sure that, once they become more familiar with the Forsaken, they will share the distrust of the Shu’halo cousins. I resolved to make as good an impression as possible.
I was ushered into a large communal hut of timber and hide built within a structure of bones. A titanic mammoth skull rested on the roof, symbolizing both the tribe’s hunting prowess, and plentiful food reserves. I spent most of the day answering the questions of the tribe, many of which were asked by their chieftain, one Temonahe Icebow.
As I spoke with the friendly Icetotem taunka, I could not help thinking that they acted more like the Shu’halo tribes of Kalimdor than their fellow taunka in the Howling Fjord. Though hospitable, the taunka of Camp Winterhoof were certainly quite guarded. This was understandable given their circumstances. Was the Icetotem Tribe then an example of pre-Scourge taunka’haga culture? Or was there more to it? Even before the Scourge, the taunka found themselves under attack from the elements, and regarded the spirits as enemies. Such a situation would likely give rise to a siege mentality. Yet I saw none of this among the Icetotems.
I started the next day by learning more about Xarantaur, the tauren druid who had come to Camp Tunka’lo some time earlier. I was disappointed to learn that he’d left the village to meditate in an ancestral burial cavern called Frostfloe Deep, and would not be back for some time.
“Only the wisest of outsiders are permitted entry in Frostfloe Deep,” said Tahodan.
No one knew when Xarantaur would return, though Tahodan offered to show me the tent used by this mysterious tauren. His name still struck me as unusual. Tahodan had assumed it to be a normal Shu’halo name.
To this day I am not sure how Xarantaur was able to carry so many books with him. However he did it, I found myself staring in awe at the extensive library in his tent. Many of the books were obviously ancient, some even written in what looked like ancient Darnassian. Tucked away on one shelf were a set of Gurubashi codices where angular warriors battled insects on barkskin, the bright colors nearly undimmed by time.
After leaving Xarantaur’s hut, Tahodan introduced me to Untokto Whitehoof, the tribe’s senior shaman. He struck an impressive figure, standing nearly eight feet tall. Age-whitened fur covered his stern face, making him look like part of the landscape. I met him in the Camp Tunka’lo ghost lodge, a squat wooden structure that seemed too small for Untokto. A small fire blazed in the center of the room, over which was suspended a bone bowl half-filled with mammoth musk. It let off a raw and heavy scent, strange though not exactly unpleasant.
Having been the first of his tribe to contact the Horde, Untokto could speak flawless Orcish. He began by praising Thrall’s wisdom, and assuring me of his tribe’s support for the Horde. Despite all his admiring words, I thought I detected a hint of suspicion in his eyes and voice.
Eventually, the subject drifted away from politics and into tribal history. I asked him why the Icetotem Tribe lived in such a harsh environment.
“You say that the Winterhoof told you of our race’s history. How we once lived in warmth during the days of the Time Past. How evil shamans brought destruction and sent the Earthmother fleeing in horror.”
“I am familiar with the basics.”
“Then I shall tell you the specifics. All Icetotems trace their lineage back to Helahuk Icetotem, who roamed the sun-kissed plains of the Times Past. Game was plentiful in those days, running in herds that stretched past the horizon. Day and night did Helahuk hunt, joined by his friends Eagle and Bear. They filled the air with their joyous songs, their voices so rich that the beasts they hunted would stop and listen, though it meant their death.
“It is not the way of the world to let such light and joy exist forever. Driven by darkness the spirits brought cold and hunger to the land, burying the plains in snow and raising mountains of stone and ice. Eagle died the first night, and Bear died the second, leaving Helahuk alone. How he wept! As the last of his tears froze in his eyes, he began to sing a final song, a dirge for the world he loved.
“Perhaps the Earthmother heard him as She fled the world destroyed by Her misguided children. Perhaps She was already going towards him. Either way, Helahuk felt warmth in his heart, the way he had in the Times Past, when the sun still shone.
“Evil spirits had brought wickedness into the world, whispering from deep beneath the ground. The Earthmother warned Helahuk that the whispers would one day return, bringing an awful end to all things. At this, Helahuk again felt despair, for what could he do? Then the Earthmother spoke:
‘Dearest child, know that as long as the smallest sapling lives, so do I. The darkness can be stopped so long as you remember this, and keep the light of life in your heart. Stay alive, Helahuk, and watch this place. For when the whispers return, it will be here. Gather as many braves as you can when this happens, and you may yet save this world.’
“Before She left to wander the stars in her loneliness, the Earthmother brought life back to Eagle and Bear. Eagle she sent south, to tell the rest of the taunka about Helahuk’s holy task. Bear she sent into the mountains, to help Helahuk stand guard. Then she gave life to the beasts once hunted by Helahuk, giving them thick fur to withstand the cold. These are the woolly mammoths that we hunt today. Finally, she cursed the spirits in the area, making them weak so that Helahuk could complete his mission.”
“And he passed this mission onto his descendents?” I asked.
“Yes. That is why we live in this place. In some ways, our lives are easier than one might expect, because the spirits here are weak. They still become fearsomely strong beyond the Valley of Echoes, led by the cruel North Wind. Isolation keeps our minds on our tasks, and in dreams we listen for the whispers that promise death.”
“Have you ever heard them?”
Untokto lowered his eyes to the bowl, suddenly looking very fragile.
“I first thought I was mistaken. Yet each time I dreamed I heard it, hissing death and madness. It was not long after that Tahodan went south to meet the other taunka’haga, only to find ruin. Since we could not warn others through conventional means, I entered the deep sleep known to our wise men. That is how I found Thrall.”
“Does the Warchief also use that technique?”
“No, I spoke to him in one of his regular dreams, and told him how to respond. It has been some time since last we spoke; the deep sleep ages the body, and is not meant to be done often.”
“Would you mind telling me more about this evil? Is it the Scourge?”
“No. It is much older than the Lich King. It is a many-fanged beast that grows and stretches beneath the Shining Mountains to the west. Your people know these mountains as Ulduar.”
“How did the evil come to dwell there?”
“The ancestors say only that the Shining Mountains were built as a prison. Who the builders were, they do not know. Perhaps the Earthmother, perhaps someone else. It does not look like something that She would make.”
I explained what little I knew about Azeroth’s cosmology, hoping that my information could help Untokto in some way. I told him about the Titans and Elune, and of the Old Gods. In detail I described C’thun’s rise in Silithus, and the similarities that event shared with the evil of which he spoke. I also warned him of the bad ends met by those who defeated C’thun: murder, suicide, and madness.
Untokto accepted the information in stride, viewing his tribe’s task with a degree of fatalism. Whatever the cost, he said, the evil must be stopped. His main concern was getting enough braves to do so, a duty made difficult by the small Icetotem population.
“Though the Earthmother has eased our lives in exchange for service, survival is still what we owe our ancestors, as it is with every other taunka tribe.”
Survival is the prime virtue among the taunka, and the Icetotem Tribe fulfills this through hunting. I saw an example of such when nine hunters returned to the village later that day, dragging the massive body of a slain mammoth placed on a great sled. The entire village rushed out to greet them, dozens of taunka voices breaking into a sing-song chant. The hunters waved, smiling even as they strained to pull their mastodonian cargo.
Hunting the mammoth is a dangerous business, even for experts like the taunka. The first step is to spook the mammoth without provoking it. This is accomplished by having two hunters banging on drums and blowing horns from somewhere nearby. All this racket without any visible source frightens the beast and causes it to flee. At this point, strategically placed hunters herd the mammoth to a nearby precipice, at which point it plunges to its death. Mammoths are usually solitary creatures, only gathering small herds when mating season comes around. They are not hunted during this time.
Untokto came out of his hut, leaning on a gnarled staff capped with the horn of a woolly rhino, the profile of a bear’s head engraved on the white surface. The Bear is given credit for all successful hunts.
The hunters came to a stop and the crowds fell silent. Untokto approached the fallen mammoth, moving in a slow, shuffling dance. Chanting in a breathless voice he kneeled at the mammoth’s head and took out a sharp flint knife. With this, he cut off the tip of the trunk. Holding it up, he shouted to the crowd, and the butchers came forward to carve up the meat.
Leaving the fallen animal, the hunters followed Untokto up to the top of the ridge. Camp Tunka’lo’s totem pole stands there, overlooking the tiny village. As is the case with other tribes, the totem pole is the single most important object in the village, the place where the ancestor spirits are strongest. Untokto set up a fire near the foot of the pole, and placed the severed trunk in a small bone basin, similar to the one in his hut. Then he put the basin over the fire while the hunters lowered their heads in prayer. I observed this from a distance of several meters, Untokto having given me permission to watch.
The purpose of the ritual is to demonstrate the tribe’s continued viability. By perpetuating and winning the battle against nature, believe the taunka, they earn the approval of the ancestors. The ritual also gives token respect to the spirit of the slain quarry. Animal spirits are not considered evil, like those of the storm and snow. However, the taunka view them with much less regard than do the Shu’halo.
Despite living so close to Ulduar, the Icetotem Tribe knows little about the place. They regard it as ill-omened, which is understandable from their perspective. Ulduar’s temples of stone and glass must look profoundly alien, though the dark entity lying beneath the city poses an even more compelling reason for avoiding it.
The tribe’s warnings almost dissuaded me from going, but I finally decided that I’d gone too far to turn back. Archeologists and explorers had ventured into Ulduar and returned safely, though many who set out to see it never returned. I promised Untokto that I would avoid entering any of the deep places in the city, and would keep to the surface as much as possible.
There is another ruined site much closer to Camp Tunka’lo, a circle of mighty stone pillars somehow free of snow. Though some of the pillars lie broken and the upper circle is collapsed, the stone is preternaturally resistant to the elements, showing few signs of erosion. Stranger still are the huge dead trees that grow from a gap in the floor.
I did not explore this ruin, called the Temple of Life, but it is easily visible from the heights of Camp Tunka’lo. Tahodan pointed out the details to me, and mentioned that the air around the temple was much warmer than anywhere else in the valley, and that the stones radiated heat.
“That is why things grow for miles around the temple. You cannot see it from here, but pale grass grows under the snow. We do not know how, but we are sure the temple has something to do with it. Mammoths and rhinos gather around there to eat, which makes it the best hunting ground.”
“There’s enough to support entire herds?”
“Not always, which is why we keep close track of their numbers, culling them when necessary. If the herds used up the grass and starved, it would be a disaster for the tribe.”
“Did the Earthmother build the Temple of Life?”
“I do not think so. Our legends say it was here before Helahuk Icetotem wept for the Times Past. Besides, why would the Earthmother build a temple like that, when She made the great mountains you see here?”
I looked around the camp, surrounded on all sides by snowy mountains that pierce the black clouds, their magnificence enhanced by the endless symphony of the wind and the storm. Why, indeed, would She bother?
Ulduar is a dead city, but it is not a ruined one. Its citadels still stand in dark splendor, the perfect relics of a forgotten age. Faint light glows from the narrow green glass windows running up the sides of black stone towers, the glass too thick to offer any hint of what lies inside. The great doors, some as tall as twenty men, are shut to the outside world. Ulduar is not keen on sharing its secrets.
I walked the broad snow-covered streets in my human guise, wanting to be prepared in case I found any stray archeologists. Given the city’s size, the probability of running into one struck me as miniscule. The Titans may have been giants, but I am sure that even they would have felt small in Ulduar.
The city offers few hints as to its purpose. Nothing about it suggests a prison. Scholarly texts generally agree that the great Titan cities were used as places of comfort from which their builders could oversee and manage the world. The metropolis of Ulduar may even be the Titan equivalent of an outpost.
In fact, Ulduar’s arrangement seems far too tidy to be a real city. I say this from an admittedly limited perspective. But one does not get the feeling that people ever truly lived there. Its columned towers of black stone look too austere, too distant. Perhaps the real city lies underground.
Though the surface is deserted, there are definite signs of subterranean activity. In places I could hear the rumble of distant machines beneath the earth, accompanied by strange noises unlike anything else on Azeroth.
I could not help but feel some frustration at all the grand buildings seemingly closed for eternity. I was sure that astounding sights lay beyond the sealed metal doors, their secrets denied to me. I even tried pushing on some of the doors, in the futile hope that they would open in response. The frustration only grew as the days passed.
The Titans must have had great power to build Ulduar in such a hostile land. Graceful temples reach for the heavens on even the highest summits, and massive complexes look out from sheer mountainsides, like Ironforge on a larger scale. Bridges span the gaps between sprawling cities built on canyon walls. I can scarcely imagine the extent of the Titans’ resources.
Travel in Ulduar is still quite difficult. The broad streets are all covered in several feet of snow. Stairways offer passage where the roads go up and down the mountain slopes, but they were not made for those of human size. Each step is as tall as a full-grown man. The easiest way to cross them is to walk on the railings that flank every stairway. Even these are treacherous, being much too steep to easily traverse.
I was trudging through a snowy plaza when I first heard voices echoing down the urban canyons. I stopped, wondering if I had only imagined it. There were no sounds beyond the endless roar of the mountain winds. Then the voices returned, metallic rasps that seemed to scrape the bone.
I immediately recognized the squat figures standing at the base of an endless stairway, their gray bodies decorated by runes of cold blue light. The last time I had seen the iron dwarves was in the Grizzly Hills. I remembered the report, illicitly though nobly given, of the iron dwarf captive describing his race’s eternal war against the Curse of Flesh. Suddenly, Ulduar seemed like the only place that such a group, fanatically loyal to the Titans (or what they thought of as Titans) would call home.
The iron dwarves had not seen me and I immediately ran in the other direction, keeping low to the ground. Thick snow muffled my footfalls as I hurried north to a street bound by soaring temples. Of course Ulduar would have dangers, I thought to myself in accusation. Could the iron dwarves be what the Icetotem Tribe feared? The taunka legends more closely matched the modus operandi of an Old God, but I could not be sure if that was the case.
I finally slowed to a walk, hidden in the shadows of black columns as tall as castles, themselves miniscule compared to the skybound towers on either side. My senses strained, searching for threats in the endless city. I soon darted into a comparatively narrow street meandering to the north. A wide bridge passed overhead, forgotten palaces hanging from the underside. A mortal lifetime is not enough to explore Ulduar, I realized. Even the most modest structures rivaled the grandest efforts of the Horde and Alliance. In all probability, the city I saw was only a small portion. Ulduar may extend miles and miles below the surface.
Such a scale can only evoke awe, bordering on blind terror. I shuddered to think of the powers needed to create Ulduar. The sight of the Naaru elevates the spirit, bringing it close to glory. Ulduar dominates and crushes, a reminder of mortal weakness. Or is it? It occurred to me that my interpretation was colored by fear and isolation. Had its makers actually intended it to be inspirational? Would it appear so under different circumstances?
I tried to keep walking to the north and west, sometimes hindered when the streets took unexpected turns. Ulduar took on an increasingly unreal quality. I began to wonder if I’d ever escape, or if the gargantuan sprawl made the outside world unreachable.
I first thought myself mistaken when the stones of a nearby temple began to move of their own accord. Gusty winds were kicking up a fog of powdery snow, the resulting haze distorting my vision. Yet even there the motion was unmistakable. The stones moved, a pale gray lighter than the surrounding buildings, revealing a chiseled face framed by a beard of rock.
“Are you a human?” it asked, speaking in slow and gravelly Common.
“I am. My name is Talus Corestiam. Are you an earthen?”
“Yes. A dwarf, who calls herself Argylla Steeltooth, told us about the humans. She said they looked like shrunken vrykul.”
I got a better look at the earthen, who resembled a living statue. From a distance it could almost be mistaken for an iron dwarf; like its metallic cousins, the earthen possessed glowing blue eyes. Though uncanny in appearance, it lacked the palpable aura of menace seen in the iron dwarves.
“I am Breck Rockbrow. Talus, you should know that this is an extremely dangerous area. I suggest that you join my patrol. We are returning to Bouldercrag’s Refuge. I cannot guarantee safety, but you would have a better chance with us.”
“I’d be most grateful to accompany you.”
“Follow me, they are farther down the Northbound Conduit.”
Breck moved with surprising speed through the snow. I immediately began to ask him about Ulduar.
“Do you still live in Ulduar?”
“The earthen control Bouldercrag’s Refuge, previously the West Geological Observatory, as well as smaller safehouses throughout the city. The metallics rule most of Ulduar. Argylla calls them iron dwarves. We have fought for thousands of years. Coexistence is not possible, as the metallics jeopardize the Purpose.”
“This fight has been going on for your entire life, then?”
“That is correct.”
I was about to say more when we reached the earthen patrol, numbering nine others. What struck me was that I only saw four distinct types, including Breck. Four had bodies made of a light blue stone, with black beards. All of these carried heavy, two-handed axes. Another four consisted of tan rock with white beards, and wielded hammers in each fist. The only unique model, aside from Breck, was a dull white earthen standing at the rear. At the time, I thought I was simply unable to appreciate the physical differences between earthen. The truth proved more complicated.
Breck spoke to his fellows in Dwarvish. He looked at me when finished.
“I am the only one in this group who is able to speak in Common, which we knew as Vrykul. There are other models in the Refuge who can do the same. We must hurry and get to safer ground. Follow us.”
Ulduar proved much easier to cross with the help of the earthen. Breck led the way, following a flawless mental map. Unencumbered by the frailties of flesh the earthen kept a consistently fast pace on their trek. Much like the Forsaken, the earthen will still suffer fatigue after prolonged strenuous effort; Breck later described exhaustion as a dissipation of spiritual energies. However, they can easily outlast a normal dwarf.
We stopped to rest near the front steps of what looked like a large temple. The dome and massive pillars reminded me of Darnassus’ Temple of the Moon, or the ruined structures of Zin-Azshara. There is a slight similarity between the architectural styles of the Titans and the Kaldorei. Breck agreed to answer some of my questions as the earthen “rejuvenated.”
“I know almost nothing about the earthen, so forgive me if I speak out of turn. How long have the earthen been here?”
“For 9,044 years. That was when Watcher Loken created us, the Series Three earthen, at the Forge of Wills.”
“There were other series?”
“Series One and Two proved vulnerable to the Curse of Flesh. The Series One earthen degenerated to the point that they became dangerous. The Series Two earthen were preserved in stasis and eventually changed into dwarves. This demonstrates that the Curse of Flesh may have some utility.”
“Superior adaptability to rapidly changing circumstances. The dwarves surpass us in that regard.”
“But the Series Three earthen have not been affected by this curse?”
“We have not.”
“What is the Curse of Flesh? In your own words, please.”
“The Curse of Flesh is the process through which manufactured entities become biological. This is not possible, but it nonetheless occurs. We initially thought it inherently corruptive, though the fate of Series Two proves otherwise.”
“Series Two changed into dwarves while in stasis?”
“Why did Watcher Loken create the earthen?”
“In order to maintain the Titan Laboratories: Ulduar, Uldum, and Uldaman. This is similar to the task appointed to the giants by their creator, Watcher Hodir.”
“To maintain the globe itself. Did any of the giants fall victim to the Curse?”
“Some, though never fully. They proved the least susceptible for reasons that are still unknown.”
“Were other entities created?”
“Watcher Thorim crafted the vrykul, to act as protectors against malign influences. Nearly all of them fell victim to the Curse of Flesh, perhaps due to more exposure to the source. None of the original variety remain. Watcher Mimir crafted the mechagnomes, in order to help with the experiments. Argylla alleges that they became gnomes through the Curse of Flesh.”
My mind soared with the knowledge Breck imparted onto me. The Titans had indeed created the dwarves, gnomes, and humans. But the modern races came about through an unnatural curse, albeit one with apparently positive side-effects.
Moreover, what did these revelations mean for the dwarves? While it did imbue them with a near-divine purpose, the earthen described this purpose as maintaining Titan research centers. Certainly the modern dwarves have accomplished far too much to settle for that. I do think that humanity’s origin as constructed warriors does make a sad kind of sense. I could barely think of what to ask next.
“What did these Watchers do, exactly?”
“They were made by Titans to ensure stability in the Titans’ absence. They have failed in this mission.”
“Watcher Loken mistakenly believes that the Series Three earthen suffers from the Curse of Flesh, and attempted to terminate us. He took control of the Forge of Wills and began producing the metallics to use as an instrument of our destruction. He claims that the metallics are totally immune to the Curse of Flesh. We have been at war with the metallics since then.”
“Why did Loken believe this?”
“We do not know.”
“What about the other Watchers?”
“The others disappeared around this time, and we have not been able to contact them. The creations of Watcher Hodir even attacked us, though we do not know why. The vrykul aided us for a time, but they drifted south. Without the Forge of Wills, replenishing our numbers has become extremely difficult. We cannot create new models, and few of the current models were designed for warfare.”
“I am an eighth generation Breck Rockbrow model. The Breck Rockbrow model is an administrative variety. Combat capabilities have been added to every model since the fifth generation.”
“Is there an original Breck Rockbrow?”
“The prototype was lost in an accident, long before the war started.”
“There are other Breck Rockbrows among the earthen?”
“Eighty-three at last count.”
“Is this why so many of the earthen here look so similar?”
“Correct. Of the ten earthen in this patrol, there are only four different models: myself, combat models Harner Stonefist and Thrygmar Basaltfoot, and Brangrimm Flintear, a repairer.”
“Amazing. Do you consider yourself an individual entity?”
“Argylla asked the same question. I am still unsure what is meant. I am physically distinct from other Breck Rockbrow models, occupying my own space. All in the Breck Rockbrow line share the same soul, however.”
“Are you in some kind of mental communication with the others in your line?”
“We enter a gestalt state at the end of every 50-day period, in which each model shares its experiences with its fellows. These experiences are then given to the Bouldercrag leadership models for inspection. The Bouldercrag line uses this to determine the spiritual composition of the next generation, improving flaws and encoding knowledge. This is the case for all earthen models.”
“You mentioned metallics earlier. I know only a little about them. My understanding is that they undergo a similar procedure. Dead metallics are melted down, with only choice memories of the deceased individual being preserved. Is this true?”
“Yes. The metallics only preserve knowledge that is relevant to war. Unlike them, we have not forgotten the Purpose, and continue to develop our utilitarian skills when possible. Furthermore, the experiences of all generations in a model line are maintained in Template Discs. This way, I may access information going back to the prototype. By doing so, I can add to my own knowledge, refine it through my experiences, and then use it to improve subsequent generations.”
“While most metallics lack any kind of identity.”
“This is correct. Watcher Loken stated that the earthen method is what makes us vulnerable to the Curse of Flesh. This is incorrect. The Titans designed us this way so as to create a sense of personal attachment to the Purpose within each model. I share the attachment felt by the initial prototype, and every Breck Rockbrow since then.”
“Has Ulduar’s condition deteriorated due to the war?”
“The metallics attempt to maintain Ulduar, but they cannot do so effectively. Currently, our primary duty is to defend against the metallics. Our defeat is inevitable without significant outside assistance.”
“Has the situation always been so dire?”
“Once Watcher Loken seized the Forge of Wills, we understood that defeat was inevitable. However, surrendering to annihilation would be illogical. We will serve the Purpose, in whatever way we can.”
“There are no other allies here?”
“None. The vrykul are absent, the giants are hostile, and the mechagnomes either help the metallics, or are neutral. The patrol has rejuvenated sufficiently. We must continue.”
The entire group of Earthen stood up as one and resumed their journey, ten pairs of stony feet thudding on the deserted streets. I compared Breck’s account with that of Randvir, the giant lorekeeper. Something had caused the Titans’ creations to make war on each other, a war seemingly abetted by at least one of the Watchers. Yet no one seemed to know the cause of this conflict. I wondered if the taunka legends of a dark evil beneath the earth somehow tied into these age-old conflicts.