Saturday, February 13, 2010

Crystalsong Forest



Following the icy canyon of Bor’s Breath at last returned me to the Snowblind Hills, freeing me from the ancient mountains. I considered stopping by at K3, but decided it was simply too far, and instead took a southerly route towards Crystalsong Forest.

Strange magics course through the hills and dales of Crystalsong Forest, the result of an ancient battle. The survivors of the Kirin Tor found it an ideal place for their rebuilt city, which now floats a half-mile above the ground. The ambient mana in the region is responsible for its mild climate, and for the singing crystalline trees covering the eastern half.

Politically, the region is under the auspices of the Kirin Tor, who maintain a policy of neutrality towards the Horde and Alliance. Dalaran played a key role in the Alliance military during the Second and Third Wars, developing the sorceries that proved so effective against the Horde and Scourge. The Alliance is still furious at Dalaran for leaving. I would not learn exactly why the mages left until I reached Dalaran itself.

An unreal white glow fills the eastern valley up to its rim, motes of light from the crystallized forest reflected on the snowy slopes. Through the haze one can still see the trees of glass, brilliant and incandescent. Pointed jewel leaves grow in clusters along delicate limbs, every inch suffused with white or violet light, the colors intermingling in an endless dance.

I also heard the forest’s namesake song, a series of clear and drawn-out notes struck from a vast chime, making subtle changes in pitch and tone. Sound cascaded out from the forest in waves, each tree calling out in a voice fine and high. Song and light merged in this unreal display.

I made my way down the slopes in a half-daze, lost in the forest’s eerie tranquility. At times I forced myself to look back at the Storm Peaks to the north. The mountains, harsh against a stormy sky, reminded me to stay in reality.

Then again, who is to say that the Crystalsong Forest is any less real? One can see it, hear it, feel it. The strange landscape serves as a reminder that magic is quite real, and that there is something in the mind that can never totally accept it. Magic challenges the senses, forcing the witness to accept the impossible. Some esteemed mages believe that the ability to accept magic, more than intelligence or training, is what truly defines a mage.

I do not necessarily disagree with this. I have known many mages who are utterly imbecilic, just as I have encountered others who study hard but focus on scholarly or educational roles, rarely if ever casting an actual spell.

Among the few things I knew about Crystalsong Forest is that the Horde maintains a small camp in the north, connected with the main road. As such, I went about without my disguise and was soon rewarded when I spotted the scarlet banners of Silvermoon atop a snowy hill. Sin’dorei archers stood guard behind a palisade, watchful but relaxed.



“It is our honor to receive a retainer of noble House Windrunner,” said one of the archers as I approached.

“I, in turn, am honored by the hospitality shown by the defenders of Silvermoon.”

“Thank you, though our defense lies more in the political arena than the military. Dangerous creatures do roam this amazing land, necessitating a small degree of security.”

More than a degree, I thought, looking at the ballistae perched in menacing readiness along the hilltop. I could not tell if the guard had simply been indulging in a bit of humor, or honestly considered the defense minimal. Perhaps it is minimal by the standards of Northrend.

Tents of gray silk, capped by bejeweled phoenix statuettes, stand around the summit. The guard told me to speak with one Elisa Silverstream, the commanding officer of the camp. A beautiful Sin’dorei woman, she greeted me in much the same way as the guard, before inviting me to enjoy a glass of mulled wine.

“This camp, the Sunreaver’s Command, is a trifling affair in the larger scheme of things, but I take great pride in its maintenance. I can do no less as a retainer of House Summerdawn.”

Silverstream is a subject family to Summerdawn, one of the Great Houses that survived the Third War relatively intact.

“The archer at the front mentioned that the Sin’dorei here are more concerned with political issues. Could you tell me about this? I know very little about Horde politics as of late.”

“You ask from simple curiosity?”

“That is correct.”

“How familiar are you with the machinations of the Kirin Tor?”

“I know next to nothing, other than they have declared their neutrality.”

“Very well. As you are no doubt aware, many of our greatest magisters once studied and taught in Dalaran. Some, including the traitor Kael’thas, were full members of the Kirin Tor. The destruction of old Dalaran and the fall of Quel’thalas changed this. Most of the elven magisters who survived remembered their obligations to serve their Great Houses in this time of need, and left for Quel’thalas. The Kirin Tor disliked this, though until Kael’thas’ regrettable betrayal, they did not actively oppose it.”

“Were many of these magisters able to return to their homes?”

“Yes. Silvermoon severed its dealings with the Kirin Tor when our nation accepted the friendship of the Horde. Then the masters of Dalaran rebuilt their city and declared themselves above the mortal conflict fought between the Horde and Silvermoon against the Alliance.”

I must confess some surprise at hearing Elisa’s terminology. I was under the impression that the Sin’dorei had come to consider themselves a full part of the Horde (even if most still look down on their compatriot nations). As I later learned, her opinion is a minority one that has sympathetic ears in high places.

“Did the Sin’dorei then attempt to reestablish communication with the Kirin Tor?”

“We would have been fools to do otherwise. A few elves, however, had remained among the Kirin Tor during our time of greatest need. They abandoned lord and nation in Quel’thalas’ darkest hour, yet still have the gall to consider themselves true elves. These cowards—forgive me if I do not mince words, as I am still a soldier, first and foremost—seek to expel us from Dalaran. They call themselves the Silver Covenant.”

“Is there any Horde group opposing them?”

“We fulfill that role under the guidance of Lord Sunreaver. Most call us Sunreavers, though few are related to him by blood. Lord Sunreaver is well-respected, and many Great Houses lent their retainers to his aid. I am an example of this. We are also the Horde’s representation on Dalaran. Orcs lack familiarity with the subtleties of wizards, and the Warchief was wise to request our involvement in this matter.”

“I should say so.”

“Our presence does draw the ire of the Silver Covenant, largely because we remind them of their own inconstancy and cowardice. Why the Kirin Tor listens to them at all is beyond my ability to understand. The Silver Covenant abandoned their very identity, and there is no reason to think that they would not abandon the Kirin Tor should continued loyalty prove inconvenient.”

Elisa’s account conveniently omitted the crippling magic addiction that drew so many elves to follow Kael’thas into Outland. Nonetheless, loyalty to one’s Great House is a prime virtue among the Sin’dorei. Certainly it was the main motivation for at least some of them, and never far from the minds of the rest. As such, it is not surprising that the Sunreavers hold the Silver Covenant in such disdain.

“What does the Kirin Tor think of the Sunreavers?”

“They accept us, for now. Rhonin, a good and honorable human, leads the Kirin Tor, and he understands our importance. This is particularly noteworthy when one considers that his wife is the leader of the Silver Covenant.”

Elisa looked down at her wine, her expression pensive.

“I feel only the deepest regret at telling you this, but you should know that his wife is none other than Vereesa Windrunner, the sister of your Dark Lady.”

“I was not aware of this. I knew that the Dark Lady had a sister by that name, but I had no idea what became of her.”

The situation did not strike me as inordinately worrisome; the Kirin Tor Consul mainly acts as the organization’s public face. The power to decide policy lies in the group as a whole, the consul’s input being no more important than any other member’s. This is not to say that Vereesa’s position is insignificant; only that it will not be critical.

“I am very sorry that you had to find out in such a fashion. Do you need some time to come to terms with this?”

“No, I am fine. Thank you.” While the Forsaken adore our Dark Lady with an intense fanaticism, the Sin’dorei often misunderstand the nature of the relationship, thinking of it in terms of retainers serving a Great House. The adoration of the Dark Lady is singular in nature; the rest of her family is irrelevant to the Forsaken.

“I have always admired the strength and conviction seen in the best specimens of humanity, which can shine undimmed even in undeath.” Elisa’s lips upturned in an almost matronly smile.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling slightly awkward.

“I marched with the armies of Lordaeron during the Second War. My heart is gladdened that the successor to that noble kingdom counts itself as an ally to Quel’thalas.”

While Elisa could not explicate it, the real purpose of Sunreaver’s Command is no secret. It is said that every conversation held in Dalaran, from civic meeting or a drunken argument, is heard, transcribed, and sent to the Kirin Tor within minutes. This is an exaggeration, but one based on the truth. Certainly, no political discussion will go unheard. Dalaranese spies riddle the Horde and Alliance embassies, some of them holding distinct political sympathies for one faction or another.

When Horde diplomats need to confer with the Sunreavers, they meet in the comparative privacy of Sunreaver’s Command. The resident Sin’dorei have set up wards through the camp in hopes of revealing spies, which would be impossible to do in the city where the Kirin Tor controls all mana usage.

This also explains the high level of security. As a remote camp that often hosts notable Horde political figures, it makes a tempting target to the Alliance. However, a full-on attack on either Sunreaver’s Command or Windrunner’s Overlook (the Silver Covenant’s southern equivalent) would be a declaration of war, and roundly condemned by the Kirin Tor. This situation makes an attack unlikely, but far from impossible.

For instance, if the Alliance believed that the Kirin Tor was becoming too sympathetic to the Horde, they might well decide that an attack on Sunreaver’s Command (during a time when, say, the Warchief was visiting) would be worthwhile. Though the interiors of these camps are believed secure, both sides use scouts to monitor all traffic coming in and out of the camps. When a notable figure comes to visit, the other side is sure to know.

Sunreaver’s Command basks in the violet glow of Crystalsong Forest. The hilltop offers a splendid view of the surroundings, the lattice of glass limbs arrayed in nature’s patterns. A closer examination reveals that brilliance shining from blazing rifts in the ground is brilliantly refracted by the trees, their purple coloration changing the shade of the light.



Two researchers from the Magisters' College work at Sunreaver’s Command, hoping to learn more about the strange nature of Crystalsong Forest. The region’s history remains obscure. Though beautiful beyond compare, the crystalline forests cannot support any kind of society.

“What is known is that these forests, called Ishalaral in elder times, hosted a small elven colony,” explained Firulsele Dawncrown, one of the Magisters. Speaking in Orcish he spat every word, as if the language dirtied his mouth.

“Are there Kaldorei ruins in the forests?”

“Several. Druids flocked to Ishalaral, its unspoiled wilderness drawing them like moths to the flame. At the time, of course, it had not yet crystallized.”

“When did that happen?”

“Shortly after the Sundering, probably no more than a few years. The Black and Blue Dragonflights waged a great battle over this land—over what, I do not know—and the Blue Dragonflight lost. The magic used by the Blue Dragonflight unleashed a strange phenomenon, crystallizing the eastern half of the valley. Their goal was supposedly to destroy a particularly powerful black dragon, though that has not been confirmed.”

The history of the dragonflights invariably involves a significant amount of guesswork and wild speculation. Dragons make it their business to be aloof and unapproachable, as if trying to inflate their importance in mortal eyes. Of the few facts that are known, one is that the Blue Dragonflight is responsible for the existence and maintenance of arcane power on Azeroth. This same dragonflight is among the smallest, its numbers reduced by the rival and seemingly purposeless Black Dragonflight.

Firulsele theorized that the spilled blue dragon blood had seeped into the earth, transforming it into a fount of raw magical energy. This, he stressed, would be quite different from the Well of Eternity, the first known mana source. While the Well of Eternity acted as a connection to the alien energies of the Twisting Nether, the Crystalsong Forest grows on those same energies after being filtered through dragon’s blood.

“What is the difference?”

“The impurities render Crystalsong mana safer, though also less valuable. If I drew my powers from this place, I would not be able to cast any spells of note.”

“The fact that it turned an entire forest to crystal, and kept it alive, seems impressive,” I noted.

“Yes,” he sighed, “however this only demonstrates its static nature. Normal mana is defined by constant movement and change. This remains true even if it is used to slow time or movement. Crystalsong mana is inherently preservative, mimicking biological energies.”

“So the forest still grows?”

“Yes, in a manner very similar to that of a normal forest. Animals cannot survive there, obviously, but trees still grow up from saplings. Crystalwood trees, as they are called, can only grow in the magic-suffused soil in the eastern half of the valley, and in a small patch of similar ground to the west.”

“Does this affect Dalaran at all?”

“No, because that garish city floats over the western half, nor would they need the mana here for anything except study. Many of the world’s greatest leylines intersect at Dalaran’s current position, giving them plenty of normal mana.”

Arcane magic first erupted into the world from the Well of Eternity, and the leylines are the globe-spanning currents that emanate from the Well’s remains. Leyline intersections enhance magical energies. In both its incarnations, Dalaran stood at such an intersection.

For all his arcane knowledge, Firulsele had never really explored the frozen forest, an understandable caution given its dangers. Most of the fieldwork was conducted with the aid of a farstrider named Cylrandor Morrowlight. Far more approachable than the magisters, he gladly agreed to let me join him on his next jaunt through Crystalsong Forest.

*********

“Take your steps with care,” warned Cylrandor, his slender form silhouetted against the luminescent forest. He pointed a gloved hand at the razor-leafed strands of a nearby glass bush.

“One of the first farstriders here stepped on a bush like that. It broke and ripped the poor fellow’s foot to ribbons. The healer stopped the bleeding, but he’ll never walk properly again.”

Cylrandor had already warned me about the dangers in Crystalsong Forest, but caution drove him to alert me a second time. I did not blame him. Eastern Crystalsong is a very dangerous place, all the more so because its beauty lulls the mind into complacency. It is fortunate that the undergrowth is relatively sparse, as not all the plants survived the crystallization.

Though a farstrider, Cylrandor bore little resemblance to the elven ranger of popular imagination. Farstriders in Quel’thalas dress simply and lightly in forest colors so as to blend in with the nation’s legendary woodlands. Cylrandor, in contrast, was covered from head to toe in thick cloth. Leather patches sown into the cloth guarded his throat and mouth, and bulky goggles covered his eyes. He wrapped himself in a cloak of white luminescence, shades of violet shimmering across the surface to match his unearthly surroundings.

“Between this and the falling branches I can see why one would need to be careful,” I pointed out.

“Quite. In most cases, you’ll be safe so long as you watch out for branches that are overlong; those are the ones most likely to fall. There are times, though, that you can be surprised, and end up dead despite your precautions.”

The magisters routinely sent Cylrandor to gather reagents from the forest. In this particular case, they had charged him with returning a certain type of crystallized berry. It struck me as insulting that the magisters would risk Cylrandor’s life on such a trivial task, but the farstrider took a far more positive attitude.

“They send me because there is no one else who can do this. Think of it, Destron. Many farstriders know the forests of Quel’thalas, but only I know Crystalsong. I am sure that my father and my liege, both gone from this world, would look on my actions with approval.”

“I suppose that is a good stance to take.”

“The only sane one, I think,” he laughed.

Cylrandor actually had many reasons to feel proud. He’d been one of the few farstriders to serve under Jaina Proudmoore during the Third War, and continued fighting in the Battle of Mt. Hyjal. He went back to the Eastern Kingdoms after that, hunting the Scourge through Lordaeron’s ruined forests.

His race’s thirst for mana at last compelled him to return to the ashes of Quel’thalas. Even there he remained active, being among the first to go through the Dark Portal when it reopened. To one of Cylrandor’s skill and courage, Crystalsong seemed a vacation.

Trees in the deeper parts of the forest are wreathed in veils of blue light, lifting up from the streams of mana like fog from a riverbank. The light of day never ends in Crystalsong, continued through the night by the forest’s shining roots and limbs.



Noise and light make sleep an unlikely prospect for the neophyte. Cylrandor said that most get used to it over time, and that yellowleaf tea, imported from the Eversong Woods, serves as an efficient catalyst for sleep. As there’s nothing to burn in Crystalsong, we drank it cold.

We rested for the night in a rocky clearing at the top of a hill, the forest glow making a campfire unnecessary. A Kaldorei temple stood in ruins nearby, the gray stone pitted with age, the pillars toppled by crystalline roots. Cylrandor, who’d taken off his mask and goggles, studied the ruins with practiced eyes.

“I am sure that Firulsele told you how this land once went by the name Ishalaral?”

“He mentioned it.”

“Ishalaral, Jewel of the North, Druid’s Gift,” Cylrandor quoted, a rueful smile on his face.

“You sound like you knew the place.”

“No, but there was another who did, Hestelon Nightdream of the Order of the Claw. A druid, if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology.”

Cylrandor went on to describe his time among the Kaldorei, most of whom held him and the other farstriders in utter contempt.

“Hestelon’s love of nature is matched only by his hatred of magic, and he cited Ishalaral’s present state as reason enough for his anger. I suppose I cannot blame him. In times ancient, the druids nurtured the pannealei, the five giant trees that symbolized life itself. Only one still remains, the rest turned to crystal.”

I nodded, thinking of the great crystal trees I’d seen from Sunreaver’s Command, loftier than even their grandest neighbors.

“We’ll be going by the remains of one tomorrow; I believe it’s the one Hestelon called the Light of the Sun Everlasting. I’m sure it sounded less stilted in Darnassian.”

I was silent for a moment, trying to gauge Cylrandor’s feelings towards the Kaldorei. Regret and envy laced his sardonic tone. The night elves had exiled their Highborne cousins thousands of years ago due to the latter group’s arcane addiction. Distrust still runs strong on both sides, and the Third War was the only time the two factions really interacted.

Crystalsong Forest does illustrate the dangers of magic, an energy source still obscure despite millennia of study. I am sure most Kaldorei regard the sterile forest as an abomination, a sentiment intensified by Ishalaral’s former importance to the druids. A forest should shelter and nurture life. Crystalsong is inimical to life, for all its beauty being a place where nothing can survive.

We followed the jagged course of a mana rift all through the next day, past pellucid groves and sunken towers. Cylrandor’s unease vanished as he stalked along the banks, his feet barely touching the ground.

Cylrandor came to a sudden stop, holding up his hand in a motion for me to do the same. I heard nothing more than the forest’s endless chorus as he stood still, light glinting off the dark lens of his goggles.

“I do not wish to alarm you, Destron, but we are being watched.”

“By whom?”

“Someone from the Silver Covenant, most likely. Whatever their politics, they’re still elves who cannot resist studying magic. We are probably not in any danger; just be aware of your surroundings.”

Cylrandor suddenly turned to a nearby grove, and I heard muffled laughter under his garb.

“I see that our tracker wishes to be found,” he announced.

“Only to test the talent of Morrowlight’s farstrider scion,” came a woman’s voice.

“Then you do me an injustice by placing such blatant clues,” protested Cylrandor in mock offense.

“Men tend to miss the more subtle clues; you can scarcely blame me for being careful.”

The speaker revealed herself, a shimmering root unfurling into a cloak much like Cylrandor’s own. The wearer was smaller than Cylrandor, her features hidden by a similar arrangement of wool and leather.

Cylrandor went down on one knee before her, speaking Thalassian in a voice both yearning and respectful. She replied, her tone harder to read. Cylrandor then pointed to me.

“We are honored by the presence of Ilviena Sunmist, esteemed daughter of the late Lord Enderion Sunmist. She continues the legacy of her house through honorable service under the Silver Covenant. Lady Sunmist, I humbly introduce Destron Allicant, a loyal servant of House Windrunner.”

“It is my honor to accept you, Destron. I consider myself a friend of House Windrunner, though I fear we follow different branches of that noble lineage.”

“I hope that shall not be a cause of conflict on this day,” I said.

“Stay your sword and I shall stay mine,” she replied, quoting an age-old Quel’dorei proverb.

They drew closer together, and for a moment I thought they would embrace. Something held one or both parties back. Cylrandor removed his mask, his expression reverent and longing.

“May I tell Destron about House Sunmist’s deeds and honors?”

“Always so formal,” she smiled. “I would be honored, dearest Cylrandor.”

“House Sunmist is among the five Great Houses to pledge loyalty to the Alliance. Together, they seek a new future for the Quel’dorei race, away from the corrupting influences of demons.”

“A noble stance,” I said, suddenly wondering if Cylrandor was an Alliance agent. Perhaps detecting my uncertainty, he continued.

“I assure you that as a farstrider, I am loyal to Silvermoon and the Horde. But the men and women of the Morrowlight family have served House Sunmist since time immemorial, and no war or government can ever change that.”

“Why did you not follow her to the Alliance?”

Ilviena answered for Cylrandor.

“You should first know that my father taught many of the Dalaranese mages who fought the Horde in the Second War, and decreed that all who served him must also respect the Alliance. For this reason, many of our retainer houses pledged their lives to fight the Cult of the Damned. Cylrandor was the first to volunteer.”

“Your family’s honor deserves no less, milady.” I was shocked to see tears in his eyes.

“And your courage served us well. I remained in Quel’thalas and watched it burn. As my father died, fate cast Cylrandor on the shores of Kalimdor, far from home. Put simply, neither of us knew the other was alive.”

“I did not hear the news until my return from Outland,” said Cylrandor, his voice quavering. “For years they lied about Sunmist and the other Alliance houses, claiming they had perished during the war.”

“Did you come up north to reconnect with Lady Sunmist?”

“No. I did not learn of her membership in the Silver Covenant until some time after I arrived. Once I did, however, I made every attempt to find her.”

Nothing was explicated, but judging from their reactions I half-suspected that Cylrandor and Ilviena had been betrothed at some point. Believing in the strength and endurance of noble blood, Sin’dorei aristocrats make it a point to marry commoners. Still, I may be wrong about this. Words cannot really describe the intensity of elven loyalty to house and name.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do after Quel’thalas’ fall?”

“I fled to Kalimdor some time later, but our paths never crossed. I lived in Theramore for many years, until the Kirin Tor invited me to come up north in light of my father’s service to that esteemed organization.”

“Are you a mage?”

“No. My family raised me to be a noble in word and deed, so I knew little that would help me in a time of war. I am now a ranger, and I owe my skills to Delentella Shadowbough, a Kaldorei huntress patient enough to teach even me.”

“How are the relations between the Kaldorei and Quel’dorei?”

“Improving. The Sin’dorei often said that the Quel’dorei are a dying people, rotting in mind and body for a want of mana. They were correct. Desperation destroyed our arrogance, and we sought to learn from the Kaldorei. Though our strength has been restored along with the Sunwell, we will not forget the lessons we learned from them.”

“Though my lady has assured me that Delentella treated her with the respect that a Great House scion should be accorded,” interjected Cylrandor.

“Respect takes many forms,” said Ilviena, and Cylrandor bit his lip. I marveled at his eagerness to defend the honor of House Sunmist, even with Ilviena’s self-deprecation.

“My mother resides in Dalaran proper, while I help the Silver Covenant in their research here. There is still much for me to learn in my chosen craft, and this is a fine testing ground.”

“Albeit, much different from the forests,” I pointed out.

“Why should a ranger only know the forest? Survival is the true criteria, regardless of environment.”

“Is it safe for you to meet like this?” I asked.

“Safe? It’s expected,” chuckled Cylrandor. “The Sunreavers are fully aware of the situation, and they would not expect me or milady to behave in any other way.”

“Are there other Sunreavers who once served the Alliance-aligned Great Houses?”

“A few. This is really the best way to renew the oaths of obligation.”

“I do not fault you for this, but I am curious: what of the obligation to Silvermoon and the Horde?”

“Loyalty, not mana, is the true foundation of elven society. I’m afraid that the Horde has no choice but to allow this.”

Actually, the Horde may well force the issue, though I do not think that would be wise. The relationship between the Sunreavers and Silver Covenant is staggeringly complex. The Sunreavers incorporate a variety of different creeds. In addition to lost retainers, there are scholars who desire access to Dalaran’s resources, Sin’dorei nationalists seeking to expand their influence, and a few who wish to improve diplomatic relations with the Alliance.

As we walked, Ilviena explained more about the Silver Covenant, with which I was less familiar.

“The Silver Covenant regards the Sin’dorei magisters as inconstant, perhaps the worst sin in elven culture. I do not take such an extreme view, but it is a common one.”

“How are they inconstant?”

“They courted demonic magics, abandoned the rules of wizardry, and fought against Dalaran. I see them as being more misguided than anything else, doing what they thought necessary to save their race, and being tragically mistaken.”

“Those are serious charges.”

“Yet modern Dalaran owes its existence to Archmage Aethas Sunreaver, formerly head of the Magisters' College, and now a member of the Kirin Tor’s Council of Six. Sin’dorei mages helped put Dalaran in its lofty place above the world. As such, the Kirin Tor cannot ignore them.”

“Then the Sunreavers have already succeeded.”

“For now. Many in the Silver Covenant wish to expel them, though I am satisfied in limiting their power.”

“Not all in the Sunreavers seek power.”

“Their leaders do. It is ultimately a question of loyalty. We believe that Kael’thas betrayed the spirit and memory of the elven race, and that those who followed him must be held accountable. The Sin’dorei see us as having done the same. Then there are those stalwart few beyond reproach, wrongfully ignored in these times,” she added, looking at Cylrandor.

Light intensified as we neared the roots of a cohesion tree, the mineralized remnant a druidic great tree. The roots take the shape of mountains, rocky slopes that break apart into floating crystal shards as they slope up to meet the blazing glass shell of the trunk. The elves lowered their eyes at the sight of it, a worshipful motion once made by the druids of long ago. A crown of chatoyant limbs spreads out from the hollow trunk, rotating in regal confidence over the sterile forest.



“Why are these called cohesion trees?” I asked, gazing at the splendor.

“After the Black and the Blue fought over this place, the source of the curse fell deep into the ground,” explained Cylrandor. “The roots of the great trees absorbed the strange mana, and spread it throughout the forest via light and sound. By continuing to cycle mana, the cohesion trees perpetuate the curse.”

At this, Cylrandor kneeled down next to a jagged glass vine, the berries he sought hanging like marbles of pink glass. He broke them off with deft movements and I heard them clink as he dropped them in a small pouch.

“Could you end it by destroying the cohesion trees?” Part of me would object to Crystalsong’s destruction on a purely aesthetic basis, though the fact remains that it is both dangerous and void of life.

“The land is still suffused with magic, and nothing will change that. Destroying the cohesion trees would prevent the regrowth of the glass forest, but no natural forest would replace it. Crystalsong is utterly dependent on magic, sickened and beautified all at once.”

“It is little wonder that our race is so fascinated by it,” added Ilviena.

*********

Ilviena left in the night and a morose Cylrandor accompanied me to the edge of the crystalline forest the next morning.

“Often my mind turns to what we Sin’dorei did to survive, following a madman to the brink of damnation. The Naaru saved us. Were we so wrong? The spirit of our nation is stained with the blood of the innocent, but had we not erred, had we not delved into the darkness, the Sunwell would remain a ruin. Meanwhile Quel’dorei kept themselves pure in spirit, though they rotted in mind and body.”

“What do you think about the Quel’dorei today?”

“They are right. And they are wrong. I know how they faded as a people before the Sunwell’s restoration. Had we all done as them, our race would be doomed. Instead, we did evil, and in so doing inspired a greater good to save us from ourselves.”

“What do other Sin’dorei think?”

“Most choose not to think. Few express any fondness for Kael’thas, though they would rather forget him than condemn him. The Quel’dorei believe themselves right for shunning him, and they were. But their inaction did nothing to save the Highborne.”

“Do you blame them?”

“No. They did as they thought necessary. I would like to believe there was no other way for the Sunwell to be restored. Did the Naaru renew it from a goodness of spirit? Or were they only motivated to control it and prevent more demons from coming through? Or both? There is never any way to be sure.”

The crystalline forest comes to an abrupt end, the dead purple earth giving way to fields of stubbly yellow grass. Ash and birch trees with leaves speckled the colors of autumn stand in groves across the landscape, shepherding the smaller apple and plum trees. The air is cool, though still too warm for someplace so far north. At the center is a cold and pure lake called the Twilight Mirror. It is strange that such a lovely place would be called the Forlorn Woods, though the name may make more sense when its former isolation is taken into context.



The floating mountain of Dalaran is almost an intrusion in this idyllic scene, hovering above the land like a meteor frozen in time. Nothing can be seen of the resurrected city’s spires and parapets. There are only the miles of rock taken from the beneath the city’s original location in the Alterac Mountains and moved far to the north.

I bade farewell to Cylrandor and set out across the chill autumnal plains. Smoke curled up into the sky from behind a gentle slope, most likely from one of the farms spread across the Forlorn Woods. A city like Dalaran cannot feed itself, and the ruling magocracy paid surviving Dalaranese farmers and agro-mages a fortune to relocate. These farms experiment with cutting-edge techniques of food production, seeking to enhance crop yields on limited amounts of land.

Agricultural politics in the Crystalsong Forest are actually a very contentious affair. When the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor began their exchanges in earnest, several druids went east to study large-scale agriculture, which was unknown to the night elves. Thanks to the powers of nature, the druids ended up learning a great deal about crop yields and growing methods.

Exactly how this information got into Dalaranese hands is uncertain. The Dalaranese claim that the druidic Cenarion Circle shared it with them, while the druids insist that they were tricked. At any rate, many druids are outraged that the Dalaranese would use information from their notes to advance in sorcery. While druidic and arcane magic cannot intermingle, knowledge in one can (at least in this case) further knowledge in the other.

The Kaldorei hate and fear arcane magic, and there are still a few who remember the devastation that it caused during the War of the Ancients. They are also suspicious of agriculture due to the effect it has on ecology. That the mages used druidic knowledge to improve on arcane agriculture is a terrible affront to them.

For their part, the Kirin Tor argues that these methods allow them get more food from less land, decreasing the overall impact of agriculture. The land is already swimming in magic, they reasonably argue, so there’s no concern of further arcane contamination.

The druids insist that it’s more a matter of dishonesty. For a time, it looked as if Darnassus would refuse to have any doings with Dalaran. Cooler heads prevailed in the end, with the Kirin Tor promising not to share their information with others. The Cenarion Circle still hates Dalaran.

A few Cenarion dissidents argue that Dalaran’s farming techniques may actually help the natural world by reducing the amount of land needed for agriculture. These dissidents tend to be tauren, who (while not fond of magic) do not share their elven compatriots’ hatred of it. The Kaldorei druids argue that increased food yields would also increase the population, leading to even more land being used.

This is a questionable conclusion. While the human and orc birth rates continue to grow, much of this is in response to the losses incurred during the Third War. Meanwhile, the dwarves, who suffered comparatively little, have not experienced a significant rise in population or birth rate.

The era after the Second War saw a tremendous increase in social mobility and education. The unity of the war exposed the arbitrariness of old class boundaries, which had already been fading for some time. The common person could also expect a degree of security in the form of financial safety nets and better health and education. After the initial population explosion, the birth rate began to shrink. Before the First War, the average family might have as many as thirteen children. After the Second, it was rare to see a family with more than two or three.

The Third War throws a wrench in these calculations. However, evidence suggests that improved living standards are likely to lower the population rather than increase it. Until the world becomes a safer place, however, there is no way to be sure.

Doubt weighed on me the closer I got to Dalaran, the city blocking the sky like some omen of doom. I could not help but laugh at my own anxiety; I’ve seen some of the most dangerous regions in Azeroth and Outland. A gentrified wizard’s city should not be a cause for alarm.

Cylrandor had told me that access to Dalaran could be found at a small base called the Violet Stand in southwestern Crystalsong. There, Kirin Tor agents guarded themselves against Blue Dragonflight. In a grave voice he told me of the madness that had seized the entire flight, and how they made war upon all magic users. I could scarcely believe this, but had no reason to think he was lying. Little of the fighting occurred in Crystalsong, he said, though he warned me to avoid the small patch of crystalline forest in the south.

The first years of my undeath taught me not to dwell overmuch on the memories of Dalaran. I spent those days hunched over slime-stained tomes in the Undercity’s loneliest quarters, my distorted mind flickering between dreams of vengeance and memories of life. What hurt more, I wondered? That Dalaran was no more, or that I had become a walking atrocity? Each recollection of the sun-dappled streets, of Emette’s smile and the smell of great libraries, deepened my pain and hate until I could take no more and forced myself to think of other things. Only then did I really free myself from the Scourge.

Dalaran is a treasured memory that I only take out on the rarest occasions. Yet is there really so much to treasure? I experienced the city as an adolescent. I was callow, timid, lazy, and self-absorbed. The lens through which I saw the old city are not how I would see it if I returned today.

Of course, going to the new Dalaran is not a true return. The old city was three times the size of the current, and many of my most cherished memories take place in the gardens and suburbs surrounding the Violet Citadel, all annihilated by the Scourge. The Languorous Rose (I can almost taste the smoky air in that place, a mix of oil lamps and heady wine), where I spent so much of my time, is no more. For me, the real Dalaran lay outside the alabaster towers and citadels of the center.

I recalled with mixed success (memory is an ever-shifting thing), my reaction to the city upon first seeing it at the age of sixteen, me a fearful youth burdened by bitterness and isolation. I must have felt apprehension at Dalaran’s soaring towers and floating mansions. Magic had fascinated me, but I could not help absorbing the Lordaeronian prejudice against it. Some part of me whispered a promise of madness and damnation if I learned the Art.

I can’t imagine that the sight of first-year student housing did much to assuage my fears. I still remember the building’s dilapidation, its thin wooden walls and threadbare rugs. Like many other things in the academy, the poor furnishings were symbolic. As the first mages had suffered, so too must the first-years.

But perhaps I am being too critical. While poor compared to the dormitories of more advanced students, the first-year quarters were hardly terrible. I spent little time there, too busy going from lecture to experiment, walking across the city dozens of times a month. The Violet Citadel and its grounds were for full-fledged mages, and no instructor would be so audacious as to hold classes there.

As one must when living with so many others, I made friends. Danner was first, his practiced Stromgarder sneer withering the academic pretense of our Dalaranese peers, the blood of ancient mages running in their veins. I appreciated his irreverence, and in turn I helped him excel at his studies. We attracted a few other misfits, though I cannot remember the names of most. Though outsiders, we were too passive to be rebels. The true rebels were all Dalaranese, their connections freeing them to commit all kinds of mischief.

For a year we laughed and studied in that old clapboard dorm, a few souls against a hostile world. Thinking back, I wonder if my memories of Dalaran should really be cast in such a rosy light. I was not happy, being half-lost in a universe I thought determined to hurt me. Nor was Danner, and I remember the drunken nights he spent cursing the heavens and the earth for thwarting his ambitions in school and in love. I could do little but wait for him to tire himself out and then explain to him that life wasn’t so terrible, even if part of me agreed with him.

How strange to think of Danner today, cool and self-possessed, his once-careless smile turned hard and calculating.

There are those rare individuals who can dispel fear and sorrow with their very presence, just the sight of them lightening the heart. Such was Emette. Danner introduced her to me early in our second year; they’d met in a history class. If I am to be honest, I must confess that my first reaction upon seeing her was disappointment that she seemed so plain. Even so, her ready smile invited conversation, and she talked to me like an old friend.

Emette held none of the animosity so common among the Dalaranese. For all their claims to cosmopolitanism, most Dalaranese looked down on everyone except the Quel’dorei, whom they still distrusted. Perhaps her background explained it, Emette being the oldest daughter of a baker who kept shop at the edge of the city, in a place where the streets gave way to tall grass and sparse woodlands.

Some students devoted themselves to petty rebellions, infusing each defiant act with illusory importance. Emette rebelled without effort or intent, her wit and cheer bypassing the barriers of culture and bloodline. She did not consider herself any sort of renegade; Emette loved Dalaran. The way she fulfilled its projected ideals made me love it too.

The universe lost its hateful edge and I pursued my studies with new hope. How could magic possibly be wicked if Emette studied it? Only a lovestruck adolescent would think in such a way, but it helped me embrace my new profession. I left the leaking dormitory and was moved to the quarters of more advanced students, a white hallway standing between the library and the Dalaran Gardens, which contained every flowering plant in the Eastern Kingdoms.

I declared my love for Emette towards the end of my student years, and she embraced me without hesitation. She’d always seemed indifferent to romance, a trait that I found all the more endearing. In my eyes, her common features surpassed the beauty of even the loveliest in Dalaran, their made-up faces and perfect lips cheap and tacky compared to Emette’s honest elegance. When I told this to her, and she said she loved me in turn, I knew I had found what I’d sought all my life.

Undeath throws memory into disarray, and the accuracy of human recollection is questionable in even the best of minds. How much is wishful thinking on my part? Emette was still human, and it is unfair to idealize another person unto perfection. Somehow I cannot remember her flaws, though I know they existed. Carelessness may have been one, or perhaps it was her somewhat rigid personality. She was a teetotaler, an unusual trait for a Dalaranese; few cultures prize fine wine as much as they.

I stopped in my tracks at the top of a hill, burying my face in my hands. Bony fingers pressed on the stretched skin of my face, tracing the rims of hollow sockets. Memories of Emette and her love flashed through my mind, inspiring a recollection of impossible joy. Her inner light again illuminated the shadows of Dalaran and the world, a saint’s grace that she’d given to me and to me alone.

That is gone. I looked up at the floating city, its rock base heavy and brutish. If Emette lived, she would no longer be the Emette I had known, just as I am no longer the Destron I once was. Time writes itself on the soul. Would the Third War have twisted her? Or would she continue to shine in the darkness, that confident smile lighting her face?

I loved a memory. So it is with many Forsaken, our minds lost in thoughts of life, reliving a time when our hearts beat and our blood flowed. With a single thought of Emette I wanted to love, I wanted to desire her as I once did. To again feel my pulse quicken at the sight of her, love’s strange elation lifting my mind and my hopes and knowing that she too felt the same way.

I can remember this, but I cannot feel it.

At that moment I almost turned away from the city, its gleaming towers an imperfect reminder of a world that had never truly existed. Better, I thought, to leave and never return.

Except I would not truly escape that way. Dalaran had haunted me since the moment of my awakening with its cruel and impossible promise. It was conceivable, barely, that Emette still walked those streets. But would it do her any kindness to approach her in my monstrous state? I did not even love her any longer, but I wished more than anything that I still could.

I needed to know if she still lived. The answer likely lay in Dalaran, though there was no guarantee. In the end, I had no other way of finding out. To do anything else would be to cheat myself, to dwell over something that could no longer help me.

I walked through memory towards Dalaran, my past coming to life around me, her voice in the wind and her smile in the sky.

9 comments:

  1. Incredible.
    I was going to say something about the whole Sunreaver/Silver Covenant business, but... wow.
    Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, memories your dearest friends just like your worse enemies. That whole ending was just, just...
    Incredible.

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  2. ... Beautiful...
    Lets leave the game out of this for a moment.
    Dude, you got skill. As a writer. I was enthralled by your main characters thoughts on his memories. Destron isn't another leeroying, spawn farming, trade spamming player. You've made him into a complex character slowly over the course of this entire story. It feels like its all coming to a climactic point at Dalaran. I don't know what you have planned, but you built it up well to this point.

    Got any others works planned or in progress?

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  3. Thank you both very much for your comments. Though the world of Azeroth is the main focus of the story, I do try to make the narrator an interesting and compelling character.

    Now, I don't want to raise too many expectations for Dalaran. I do have it planned out, and I think it's good, but it might not be as momentous as some readers might expect. I know that's very vague, I just really want to avoid misleading anyone.

    I'm planning to put up an original fiction blog in March. Don't expect too much from it right away. While I plan to update it regularly, I'll need to shift gears in regards to the style, so it might not be as polished as you're used to. And I will continue updating the travelogue as well, though possibly once a month instead of twice.

    Also, Lucas, are you Brett's friend? From Starving for Gravity?

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  4. Nope, Probably just got the same name.
    Oh, and don't worry, don't make it momentous or anything, he's still got a good half of Northrend to finish up after all.

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  5. Beautiful section. Definitely one of the iconic moments of the travelogue for me. Reading this section brought me back to the very first paragraphs of Tirifal Glades or Destron's idyll in the wilderness of the Badlands. I always feel that the best moments of the travelogue are Destron's moments of "Forsaken ennui". Don't be afraid to push the emotional envelope, so to speak. I can't wait to see what you have in store for Dalaran itself.

    On an unrelated note: I know you've mentioned before the narrative order of the Northrend zones, but could you remind me again? I'm wondering because I'm interested in how you'll handle Borean Tundra. Ingame, it's meant, like H. Fjord, to be Northrend 101; it's an introduction to the expansion and its myriad story threads. But if Destron visits toward the end of his time in Northrend, how will that change? I'm also wondering how you'll address the Wrathgate incident. Basically, what I'm getting at is, have you thought about how you'll reconcile the geographic and temporal narrative imposed by the game with Destron's circuitous path through Northrend?

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  6. Interesting. I must say, Destron's character evolution is fascinating. In the beginning of this travelogue, you make a point of addressing memory as a very strong force to the Forsaken. However, Destron's character did not seem unduly affected by it, at least not as much as the rest of the Forsaken were; with, admittedly, a few quirky and somewhat vicious exceptions, an example being Alen-of-the-Gun, seen in Desolace (And even there, upon second thought, these exceptions are not free from the influence of their memories). This Crystalsong entry is one of the times that Destron's memories come into prominence, and affect his decisions. On the whole, however, Destron seems, to me at least, to not fit this bill. I have a little difficulty in visualizing him as a decaying specter; instead, he seems to be something of a knightly accountant: polite and curious, but with a courageous streak that shows itself not too infrequently. I might be confusing the issue, and that image might be what you intended, or close to it, or not, but hey, whatever.

    Also...
    Destron is visiting areas that are becoming increasingly more dangerous. As far as his style of exploring goes, this has worked so far. But there are places in Northrend that are sites of open, total warfare. A suggestion: during Destron's visit to Dalaran, he should update his skills a bit, possibly including portalling, or not. Just a suggestion; of course, this might be wholly unnecessary, and you might have already planned this, or I might be simply short-sighted or whatever. But I think that you have underplayed the fact that Destron is a mage. Not much, his skills define his style of combat and give him an edge where mana is extensively used. An encounter with an old teacher might be of use here. I keep expecting him to become more involved, especially with the situation with the Blue Dragonflight, and the treat to magic-users it poses. Also the assault on Icecrown Citadel. I, personally, would have Destron participate in an Icecrown raid, as he did with Ahn'Quiraj. It would give him a chance at the vengeance so desired by all the Forsaken, and seems to me that it would be appropriate as a landmark to end the Northrend section, as you ended the Old World section with AQ. Once again, forgive me if I'm being presumptuous, overbearing, insincere, or simply stupid.

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  7. No need to be so self-deprecating, Drew, I appreciate your insights and commentary.

    I have a general plan as to how I'll handle the rest of Northrend. While the narrator will be thrown into some brutal combat situations, I don't think they would be all that much worse than, say, Shadowmoon Valley. The narrator already has the full complement of spells enjoyed by an in-game level 80 mage with arcane specialization.

    (I'll confess here that I don't have any mage characters in-game. I know, my bad)

    I'm honestly not sure how I'll handle the Blue Dragonflight. The problem is that I just don't find dragons very inspiring. While I can't omit them entirely, I just can't seem to get many ideas for them.

    I'll probably explore draconic issues in Dragonblight, and maybe touch on them in the Borean Tundra. There are tons of things in WoW that really inspire me: Forsaken, orc peons, Nerubians, food production, arakkoa, ethereals, religions, and trolls, to name a few. Dragons just aren't one of them. *shrugs*

    I'm not sure about Icecrown, but I'm thinking the climax there will be more of a personal one. Keep in mind that the narrator is very uncomfortable with his own desire for vengeance, so the situation's more complicated than it is in Ahn'qiraj.

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  8. I think that Destron running out of mana is a way to make it more interesting, but I don't EVER have trouble with that on my characters that have been playing for a while, so I think that it is slightly unrealistic unless there are people who play differently from me. It almost seems like Destron can cast about 4 pyroblasts before his mana runs out. My dad can't remember ever running out of mana on his mage.

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  9. That's artistic license on my part. In the travelogue, a single fireball spell will probably kill or at least incapacitate a normal person, as opposed to WoW in which it was not that damaging (I guess it's been replaced by frostfire bolt, but the same idea applies).

    It'd be boring to write an action sequence where mages just lob spells at each other without much effect. That's why I describe the spells as being far deadlier than their game counterparts. At the same time, I have to reduce the amount of spells that a mage can use at any given time, since they'd otherwise be overpowered, leading to a boring story.

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