Sunday, May 30, 2010
((I wanted to announce a few things. First, I posted another story on Scratched Nerve, which I hope you all read.
Also, those of you who are interested in playing tabletop RPGs should go and check out Adventures in Oz, the recently published indie effort from F. Douglas Wall.))
I reached Taunka’le Village as the sun sank to a burning red sliver on the horizon. Paltry wisps of smoke rose up into the darkening sky from behind Taunka’le’s walls of hide and wood, the entire town silent save for the frigid winds wailing across the plains. Great wooden totem poles protect the village from cruel spirits, their carved animal faces worn down by wind and time.
A lone orc stood guard at the entrance, his face lost in shadow. He gave me a hesitant salute.
“What brings you here, Forsaken?”
“I’m simply looking for a place to rest. Is this Taunka’le Village?”
“It is. Or was. Most of the taunka evacuated to the Westwind Refugee Camp over in Dragonblight a few months back. Only a few still live here.”
“Is there still much of a Scourge presence?”
“Ha! Our warriors put their drones back into the grave, where they belong. The spiders still lurk beneath our feet, but the surface is ours. Had it not been for your Apothecarium friends, we’d be at Icecrown by now!”
He let me in without much more fuss. Hide tents and wooden houses look out with gaping emptiness onto a patch of dirt. Lean-looking kodo stand tethered to their posts, their movements despondent. Taunka with fur whitened by age sit around burning campfires near the empty huts. I did not need to understand their whispery words to know they spoke of better times. Still they carried weapons, the display a last sign of defiance from these proud people.
Scouts and warriors of the Horde make up most of the population, though even they are few in number. Many are tauren seeking to better understand their northern brethren. The tauren and taunka differ in many respects, most notably in their attitude towards the spirits of nature. To the tauren, these spirits are the essence of the world, to be treated with deference and respect. The taunka see them as enemies to be defeated.
I spent the night in an abandoned tent claimed by a quintet of rowdy orcish warriors. Tucking myself into the darkness at the edge of the room, they took little notice of me. I set out to learn more when morning dawned.
My previous encounters with the taunka had been with the taunka’haga, the hunter tribes of the east. I knew little of the western herders, the taunka’loba.
Despite their age, the taunka I met in Taunka’le Village still possessed the hardiness that comes from a nomadic life. I first spoke with Chehepan Bluehoof. Livid scars crossed the patches of bare skin on his arms, the remnants of old battles against the magnataurs.
“Our taunka’haga brothers broke the power of the magnataurs in the east, so the beasts fled here to continue their mischief. But the magnataurs did not find our kodo herds to be easy prey! Our spears found the hearts of even the strongest magnataurs.”
“How many tribes lived here?”
“Four: the Coldtotem, the Rimehoof, the Frozenmane, and my own Frostwind. Now we are as one, our great warriors undone by the living dead. Those taunka’loba who still live now dwell in the forests of Dragonblight, preparing to strike back at the Scourge.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because this land, not Dragonblight, is where our ancestors lived. If we old ones do not watch it, who will? The taunka’loba will die without a place for their herds to graze.”
“The Scourge is weakening in this region, so I’m sure you will get it back.”
“Someone must watch it all the same.”
“Do you fear that someone besides the Scourge will seize it?”
He paused a moment before shaking his head.
Taunka’le Village now acts as a resupply point for Horde troops going between Warsong Hold and Agmar’s Hammer. Looking at the intact tents and totems, it becomes clear just how abruptly the taunka’loba evacuated their ancient home. While their eastern brethren found shelter from the Scourge in the dense forests, the taunka’loba learned that the plains gave little protection.
“Before the Scourge, only one tribe at a time would use Taunka’le Village. They alternated through the year, the rest roaming through the Flood Plains. By the time I arrived, the remnants of all four tribes sheltered in its walls. Even then the taunka fought, their warriors sallying forth against the Scourge,” recounted Kalosh, an older orc warrior.
“My understanding is that the Scourge’s hold on this area is now minimal.”
“Steel and courage whittled down their numbers. I suppose we’re keeping the area for the taunka; even among orcs, you’d be hard-pressed to find warriors as eager to do battle against the Scourge as they. I’m glad they’ve taken our side.”
“I don’t suppose the ones still in Taunka’le do much fighting.”
“No. I gather there’s been some sort of division among the taunka’loba, between those who think that the best way to survive is to attack, and those who want to hold on to their traditional lands.That’s why we let these old ones come back. I am sure that, once the Scourge is dust, the rest will return to their herds.”
“Why do these elders think otherwise?”
“Fear, I suppose. The herd is everything to the taunka’loba.”
The societies of the taunka’haga and taunka’loba are broadly similar. Both consist of small tribes overseen (though not exactly ruled) by a chief, who is selected (via marriage) by the previous chief’s daughter.
Like their tauren brethren to the south, the taunka tribes are communal in nature. Herds act as form of social status among the taunka’loba. Every adult taunka male must care for a number of kodo beasts. They do not own the kodo per se; the tribe owns the herd as a whole. Yet those who are best able to care for and protect their charges enjoy increased standing within the tribe.
A taunka who cares for a large and healthy sub-herd is called a lohnonka. Only the lohnonka are deemed strong and fierce enough to fight the spirits as shamans. As a result, shaman training tends to start relatively late in life compared to other shamanistic cultures. It’s also entirely possible to fall from the esteemed lohnonka position by losing a portion of the herd.
Demotion does not earn active scorn or censure in most cases (unless the fallen lohnonka did something spectacularly foolish), but he will be seen as weak and less reliable. A chieftain who loses a large portion of his herd may well be divorced by his wife, who can then choose a new chieftain from among the other lohnonka.
Because survival and cooperation are paramount, a disgraced lohnonka is expected to accept his lot and simply try harder. It is possible to make a turnaround. Also, the taunka are much less prone to jealousy or despair than other races. That said, taunka’loba legends sometimes feature failed lohnonka driven to bitter madness, suggesting that some do not react well.
Among humans, one might expect there to be a great deal of competition, each person trying to get the best and biggest herd. While each male taunka’loba strives to give his herd the best possible care, this is not done with the goal of surpassing his fellows. Should he do so, that is simply a fortunate happenstance. Credit is always given to the ancestors in event of a fortune, though the high status of the lohnonka indicates an implicit acknowledgement of personal skill.
Talodom Wintergale was the senior taunka in the village. Formerly the leader of the Coldtotem Tribe, he’d chosen to stay behind and guard the tribe’s lands, fully expecting to die. A great warrior and herder in his day, he appeared confused by his continued survival, and by the Horde presence.
“The ancestors live in the ancient wood of this hall,” Wintergale said, as we drank tea in the great hall that dominates Taunka’le Village. Brightly painted wooden pillars and arches support a hide roof, its inner surface adorned with figures of myth done in the sharply defined taunka style. Traditionally, the chieftain of the village’s resident tribe held meetings in the hall.
“I can see why you’d want to protect it.”
“We did not think time favored us. Otherwise we would have disassembled this sacred place and taken it north. Visions of the future showed this village in ruins, but that has not come to pass. Perhaps that is yet to come, or maybe fate has changed.”
“Could the Horde move the hall to a safer place?”
“They discussed the matter, though they never reached a decision. Human warriors still plague the road to Dragonblight, and I fear that they might intercept the cargo.”
As we talked, Talodom mentioned that he knew the Nerubian language. This came as a wonderful surprise. Little is known about the arachnid nerubians. During its heyday, the vast subterranean empire of Azjol-Nerub had not tolerated any outside interference. Many in the Eastern Kingdoms thought it mythical.
Now, most associate the nerubians with their Scourge conquerors, some even thinking the decimated race to be in league with the Lich King. In actuality, the nerubians found themselves among the Scourge’s very first victims. The Scourge adapted their ancient cities (some of which predated the Sundering) into conversion centers, forcibly turning the nerubians into undead minions. Almost nothing is left of their culture, a fact that surely numbers among the Scourge’s worst atrocities.
This is not to say that Azjol-Nerub was a shining light of civilization. Most accounts of the Northrend surface races show them as cold and alien at best, sadistic and predatory at worst. Nonetheless, the destruction of Azjol-Nerub is an incalculable loss to the world’s knowledge.
“How did you learn Nerubian?”
A shadow fell over Talodom’s face, and the great chieftain shivered beneath his fur.
“The nerubians are not of this world. They are unclean, a darkness beneath the earth. Yet if they offer help against our enemies, we cannot refuse.”
“I take it that you did not consider the nerubians enemies?”
“All in Northrend are our enemies. Some merely more so than others.” It took me a moment to realize that Talodom meant it as a grim joke. “But the nerubians are not like others. We can trust in magnataur cruelty, or in tuskarr indifference. The nerubians remain unknowable.
“I was not yet chieftain when they spoke to us as we guided our herds through the northern snows late in the summer. We heard them first in monstrous dreams, a fathomless hunger tempered by cold understanding.”
“The nerubians spoke to you in dreams?”
“In nightmares. Knowledge passed down from the ancestors states that the nerubians always begin contact in the dreaming realm. They do not speak. Instead, they make you see the world as they do.”
“Like mind control?”
“No. We still knew the boundary between our minds and those of the nerubians. Normally, the ancestors speak in dreams, warning of the future and revealing the past. They use the symbols and totems of our people. Nerubians change the symbols, imposing their alien vision over our own.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t fight back.”
“Wisdom passed down from generations past warned us not to, until we knew more. This was not the first time the nerubians spoke to the taunka’loba. In feverish trances our shamans interpreted these corrupted dreams, and learned that they wished to bargain.
“Guided by dreams, our eldest shaman, Yehekmek Snowhorn, traveled north through the Transborea, to the caves without warmth. He took me with him; I still do not know why he selected me and not another brave. Though skilled, I was by no means the best.
“The one waiting for us called himself Az-Vaul. I remember the sunlight glinting on his clusters of black eyes. This awful clicking sound filled the caverns as he conferred with his retinue before turning his attention to us.
“Az-Vaul explained that the viziers of Azjol-Nerub wished us to kill magnataurs. Why they needed us is still not known to me. But we hated the magnataurs more than anyone else, and their last raid killed many of the finest Coldtotem braves. Since the nerubians agreed to help us kill the magnataurs, how could we refuse?
“In those days, the biggest and cruelest magnataur in the Transborea was the one called Bloodstink. Az-Vaul wanted us to hide our braves outside of Bloodstink’s lair on the next moonless night. He promised that the magnataurs would eventually flee. We were to force them back in the cave. Az-Vaul warned us not to enter the lair until dawn, and said we would find one lone magnataur. This one we were to leave alive.”
“Why?” I asked.
“An enemy is an enemy. We did not seek to question our benefactors. Yehekmek went back to camp to discuss the matter with the elders. I stayed behind as collateral.”
“Alone save for Az-Vaul. He did not hurt me, though he assured my death if Yehekmek failed to return. ‘In death, you may be of interest to my people, and I cannot return empty-handed,’ he said. Az-Vaul asked many questions. In return, he taught me Nerubian. Their written language, not the spoken one.”
“You learned remarkably quickly.”
“Nerubians can place their thoughts in the minds of others, which helped the process. I thought it useless, but learning Nerubian allowed me to help the Horde fight the Scourge, many years later. I sometimes wonder if Az-Vaul foresaw that.”
Talodom buried his face in his hands, his body tensing.
“I stayed there for so long. No more than a few days, but so long all the same. The nerubians are old, like you cannot know. I sensed this in Az-Vaul’s ancient eyes, looking at me the way a wolf sniffs a wounded reindeer. I struck Yehekmek when he returned, I am ashamed to admit, driven to madness at being left there. He forgave me; perhaps he understood my pain on some level.”
“Did you participate in the attack on Bloodstink’s lair?”
“I was too sick. Yehekmek said I fell into convulsions on the way back to camp. I do not remember the next few days, though they say I screamed until I spat blood. Did you know that I have not been able to sing since that day? My pain ruined my voice.
“Everything at Bloodstink’s lair went according to plan. Our braves said that the magnataur screams shook the very mountain. When they at last ventured inside, they saw nothing but blood slathered on the walls and dripping from the ceiling. They found only the lone survivor promised by Az-Vaul, an older female who yelled and flailed at shadows. They left her and departed.”
“Did the magnataurs trouble you after that?”
“Never again. The nerubians did, though not of their own wills. My herd grew and prospered in the years to come, allowing me to become a lohnonka. Pawhutana Wintergale chose me as her mate and the tribe’s chieftain. Perhaps I owe this to the nerubians. Perhaps not.”’
Vicious as the magnataurs are, I could not take much comfort in Talodom’s description of their slaughter. His story reinforced the darker aspects of nerubian interaction with the outside world. They also filled me with the desire to learn more, to learn whatever is possible about them before it is too late.
Taunka’le Village stands at the very edge of the Steam Springs, a series of naturally terraced basins that descend into the sere Geyser Fields. Hot and limpid water fills each of these basins, the rock beneath warm to the touch and as white as snow. From Taunka’le one can see them spread for miles to the west, a flooded natural staircase.
Windmills perch throughout the Steam Springs on crude stone foundations submerged in the water. Their sails rotating in the steady wind, they look much like the mills that the tauren use to grind their flour. I could not fathom why the pastoralist taunka would make such devices. Made of wood gathered from the sparse forests south of Transborea, they cannot be easy to build.
I met a tauren woman named Tanoniah Timberhorn as she burned incense near the Steam Springs. She explained that the mills trapped wind spirits that the taunka’loba shamans could then drain for power.
“These mills are an affront to the Earthmother,” she said, her voice hushed. “Yet I cannot do anything to stop them.”
“You fear offending the taunka?”
“I fear hurting them! Northrend is a strange and dreadful land. The spirits are not the enemies of Her children, but the taunka treat them as such. Their war against the Earthmother’s creation has gone on for so long that I fear it will never stop. Many spirits truly do hate the taunka! The tribes have created enemies where none existed. But they are our friends and brethren, and we cannot let them die.”
“What do you think should be done?”
“I do not know. I’ve sent several messages back to Thunder Bluff, but there’s been no reply. Some sort of negotiation between taunka and spirit would be best, but I cannot presume to play diplomat when I know so little.”
“Do you think negotiations are feasible?”
“They must be. The Earthmother does not hate. The taunka do, but I am sure they can learn to end this. Perhaps if some went to Kalimdor to learn our ways... but they take such pride in their domination of the spirits. I think it may be what they live for.”
“The taunka say that survival is their only goal.”
“I am sure this is the case. Yet I think they would find survival much easier if they worked with the spirits instead of against them.”
“Given the hostility of the spirits, they may not have much choice,” I pointed out.
“A hostility that they nurture each and every day,” she sighed. “I do not know what is to be done.”
As a Forsaken, I cannot really say much about the spirits; they operate on a level far removed from my own. I can only compare the facts that I’ve learned about them. Northrend’s spirits do appear more hostile than those in other parts of Azeroth, and they are more aggressively focused than are the oft-confused spirits of Outland.
In contrast to the combative taunka, the tuskarr prefer to avoid the spirits. The fact that they feel this need certainly underscores the very real danger these spirits pose. Horde shamans find the Northrend spirits harder to deal with than expected, more interested in appeasement than negotiation. Some believe that the only reason that the spirits even acknowledge the Horde is due to the Scourge contamination of the natural world. With these facts taken into account, the taunka attitude does not strike me as unreasonable. However, they may have also worsened the situation through their own aggression.
I spent the better part of the day descending the Steaming Springs, each downward step taking me deeper into a haze of sulfurous air and water vapor. At last I reached the porous yellow desert of the Geyser Fields, flat save for the stone nozzles that eject boiling water high into the sky. Almost empty of life, the Geyser Fields thrum with noise, the earth churning and hissing beneath the surface like some great machine.
Tuberous plants latch on to the geysers, bright red fronds growing from pale stems. Tiny black mites cluster on the leaves, the only animal life visible in the Geyser Fields. Though its heat attracts some larger beasts, the region’s utter bareness soon drives them away.
Yet the Geyser Fields are far from empty. A day into the wastes, the steamy fog fell to reveal a haphazard tower of steel leaning crazily on a network of metal pipes piercing deep into the earth. Power hummed within the metal shell, joining the geothermal symphony beneath the ground.
The sight did not come as a complete surprise; in Warsong Hold, some grunts had told me about the gnomish presence in the Geyser Fields (I wore my disguise as a precaution). I never imagined it to be so extensive. Getting closer, I saw rectangular depressions in the earth traveling in parallel lines, each trail ending in a pile of wrecked machinery.
I knelt down near one of the heaps, trying to visually sort through the riven metal. Automatons of some sort, that much I knew. Gnomes lead the way in the development of artificial life. Due to being few in number, the gnomes rely on automatons to perform dangerous and labor-intensive duties. Though more resource-intensive than purely arcane methods of creating the same, automatons tend to be more durable and reliable. Their simplistic natures prevent them from performing complex tasks, though there has been steady progress on improving that area.
A steady drone began resounding through the haze, followed by the mechanical chop of a propeller. I looked up to see the cruciform silhouette of a gyrocopter flying overhead. Seeming to catch sight of me, the pilot twice circled the vehicle before bringing it down to the ground. An awkward contraption of brass and patchwork, I identified the flier as an old model dating back to the Second War.
The pilot stood up in his seat, a red-faced gnome with slick black hair who observed me through a pair of flight goggles.
“What are you doing here?” he asked as the propeller sputtered to a stop. “This pumping station still isn’t very safe.”
“I heard there was an Alliance outpost here.”
“A few months ago and you’d have been right. We moved west, to the rim of the Geyser Fields. Here, I’ll give you a lift. Stand on the railing and grab on to the side. Can you do that?”
“Certainly, as long as you don’t go too fast.”
“Ha ha! Not a problem, this old rig’s slower than a goblin flier. My name’s Lev Wrenxcoggle.”
I clambered on to one of the wooden landing struts and leaned against the shaking fuselage, hoping I wouldn’t come to regret the decision. Lev proved a capable pilot, however, keeping the gyrocopter steady as we flew over miles of rock, the land studded with mechanical structures that continued to work through their neglect.
We passed what looked like a metal castle keep, steam belching forth from thick bronze pipes. Lev pointed it out to me, shouting to be heard over the grinding engine.
“That’s the old Fizzcrank Pumping Station!”
“What happened to it?”
“How much do you know about the Fizzcrank Expedition?”
“We’re jointly funded by the Gnomeregan University-in-Exile and the Explorers' League. They set us up to research the geothermal energy here, as well as any Titan artifacts we might find. Turns out the Geyser Fields are full of old Titan bits. You ever see a mechagnome?”
“Yes, in Storm Peaks.”
“Really? You should talk to the archeologists once we land. Anyway, we put one of those back together. Next thing we knew, it told us we were all tainted and needed to be purified. Seconds later it somehow took control of every gear in the station, swarming us with ‘tons and timed bursts of scalding steam. A lot of people died.”
“Did you retake the station?”
“Some freelancers did. We got the pipes under control, but the ‘tons are still rogue. I think we’ll have to shut them down one by one.”
“Did you learn more about why this mechagnome attacked?”
“Something to do with a Curse of Flesh. I’m a botanist who has to fly this old rig for a living, and nobody really explained it to me in a way that I can understand. Sounds like it devolves into metaphysics.”
In the Storm Peaks I had learned about the Curse of Flesh, the taint of the Old Gods that turned the Titans’ mechanical constructs into the humans, dwarves, and gnomes of today. The iron dwarves make war on these races, seeking to destroy what they see as corruption. The slaughter at Fizzcrank Pumping Station might have been a mechagnome outgrowth of that phenomenon.
We reached Fizzcrank Airstrip just before dusk. Electric lamps illuminate a long gravel runway, flying machines old and new parked at the sides. Bronze-capped huts shaped like turnips or mushrooms dot the field, the windows glowing with inviting warmth.
Due to its remote location, Fizzcrank Airstrip gets few visitors. Alliance travelers sometimes stop by on the way to Sholazar Basin, though not many ever go in that direction. Air shipments come in regularly from Valiance Keep. The gnomes are well aware that these shipments must fly over Horde territory to reach Fizzcrank Airstrip. Many expect to abandon the base in the near future. The base maintains a squadron of six bombardiers, but they act as a deterrence, and a weak one at that. Such a small number has no chance of getting through Warsong Hold’s thick air defenses.
Because of this expectation, the gnomes perform their research at a frenetic pace. The outpost no longer focuses on geophysics or Titan excavation. Instead, they pursue the controversial field of created intelligence.
“This unassuming sphere, which we call a arti-brain, is what controls an automaton,” explained Hannie Lumiswitch, an older gnome woman who’d come late to Fizzcrank Airstrip. She took the risk to participate in what she considered the most promising research opportunity of the century.
“Now, we’re very limited in what we can do with one. We can enchant it to respond certain ways to certain stimuli. For instance, if an automaton encounters an impassable object, the enchantment will direct the ‘ton to move around it. Over time, we’ve been able to improve and enlarge the enchantments in a single arti-brain.”
“If you’ll pardon the interruption, why aren’t automatons aren’t more common?” I asked.
“Largely due to the fact that they’re still pretty stupid. They’re also difficult to construct, requiring lots of small moving parts. Enchantment’s pretty easy to come by; complex machines, not so much. If magic didn’t exist, we’d have developed more efficient means of production by now, I’m sure.
“Anyway, ‘tons are stupid. However, they are growing more sophisticated. In our lifetimes we’ll probably see a ‘ton capable of learning, at least to a limited degree. But that’s still not really intelligence, not in the gnomish sense anyway. That requires curiosity, desire, the satisfaction of learning.”
“Emotions, in other words.”
“Exactly. Here’s why Gearmaster Zod, the rogue mechagnome, was so interesting. It expressed something like desire. An abhorrent one, admittedly, but still quite remarkable. Now, while the earthen are made of some magical stone, the mechagnomes are more traditional constructs.”
“I met one during my travels in the Storm Peaks.” I briefly described my encounter with Attendant Tock, the mechagnome who maintained a solitary vigil over a Titan metallurgical laboratory. It had displayed an emotional range, albeit somewhat limited.
“That matches up with the descriptions we’ve heard from Explorers' League scouts who have been up that way. Creating something like that could revolutionize the world. There would be ‘tons not only capable of adapting and learning, but also of wanting to do so.”
“Have you studied mechagnome arti-brains?”
“The only one we have is Zod’s, and that was badly damaged. From what we can tell, it doesn’t look much like what we build. Still, the existence of mechagnomes proves that superior created intelligence is possible.”
However, other minds express concern about the levels to which this sophistication might be taken. I ended up discussing this with Vyrix Aerozot, a junior researcher and an ordained priest in the gnomish Church of the Light.
“The real issue is: what happens if we develop a created intelligence that is mentally on par with a sentient being? I know that the goal is simply to create automatons capable of self-correction and motivation, but once you start going into that, it seems like true sentience would be a natural side-effect.”
We stood at the end of the runway as a scout came in for a landing, the carriage straining as the wheels bumped their way down the path.
“You believe that this is inevitable?” I asked.
“Seems safe to say. The mechagnomes are close to sentient, though they’re apparently still too tied in with their directives to really be considered free-willed.”
“Might that mean it’s possible to freeze development at that stage?”
“For Titans? Sure! But we gnomes can’t help tinkering with and improving things. Once we make something like a mechagnome, it’s only a matter of time before it makes the jump from partly aware to fully, probably with our encouragement. Now, the purpose of a created intelligence is to make life easier. You have it do the dangerous boring jobs no one else will.
“But if there’s a true created intelligence, forcing it to do such work would be unethical. If it has its own desires and interests, it must be free to follow them as a full member of society. However, a created intelligence would also be exceptional. It might have a metal body, or no body at all, simply plugged into a stationary machine. Things like sensory input and physical state play a huge role in a child’s mental growth, so such factors are sure to have an effect.”
“What might be the side-effects of growing up in a metal body?”
“Well, it might not even mentally mature in the way we understand it. It’s impossible to say for sure, though it wouldn’t be a gnome clone by any means. The Forsaken might present the closest thing we have to a model, since their bodies are compromised. Certainly they tend towards anti-social behavior, though that may have something to do with the Plague. Sorry, I feel like I’m grasping at straws here. It’s just that we know so little.”
“No need to apologize. I understand that its difficult.”
“Also, can we really claim the right to create new sentient life? A fully developed created intelligence would become a citizen in our society; of that, I have no doubt. But it wouldn’t be a gnome, not exactly. That might cause feelings of deep alienation... or it might not. And if we design such a thing, who else might? I shudder to think what the Horde would do to such entities. To be frank, I wouldn’t necessarily trust the other Alliance nations with this technology either.”
I’d never given much thought to automatons and constructs, but I found myself sharing Vyrix’s concerns. Having once been little more than a rotting automaton myself, I feel empathy even to the concept of a created intelligence forced to work against its will. Unfortunately, were such a mechanical race ever to arise, I do not expect it will find friends among the paranoid Forsaken.
Concerns of a more immediate nature also trouble the gnomes of Fizzcrank Airstrip. Their base stands near the front of a hidden war that’s been raging across Northrend for over a year, the struggle between Dalaran and the Blue Dragonflight. Back in Dalaran, everyone seemed on the verge of discussing it only to silence themselves at the last moment.
“That’s the problem with Dalaran, and the big reason Gnomeregan never saw eye to eye with them. They simply do not believe in transparency,” said a young engineer named Elix Thermavolt.
“Dalaranese society is less keen on sharing research results with outsiders,” I conceded.
“Oh, they downright hate it. But how are people supposed to further the cause of progress if they don’t know anything? Human societies tend to be like that, no offense.”
“At any rate, the Blue Dragonflight apparently objects to our use of magic. Well, everyone’s use of magic. They believe mortal magic use threatens the world’s existence, though as usual the dragons refuse to tell us of ways to fix it!”
“And the Blue Dragonflight declared war on Dalaran?”
“More like the other way around. The Blues started to seize all magic power for themselves, which would be an unmitigated disaster for the world. Dalaran, showing surprising initiative and responsibility, decided to stop them. I’m afraid I don’t know much more. Everything I do know is secondhand information at best.”
“And they are still fighting?”
“Mostly in Coldarra, a big frozen rock off of the Borean Tundra’s west coast. I hear that the Kirin Tor’s accepting help from all volunteers. If you really want to learn more, you can help them. They maintain a base southwest of here, at a place called Amber Ledge.”
“I’m surprised this isn’t more of a concern for the Horde and Alliance.”
“They’ve got their hands full with the Scourge—and each other,” he sighed.
Knife-edged winds course through the Coldarran Strait in an unending current, rising to a deafening scream as they slice past the monstrous cliffs on both sides. A splintered bridge sadly reaches out from the Borean side, a memento of safer times. On the Coldarran side rise the impassable ice mountains lifted up by Malygos’ will many thousands of years past in an effort to ward off the unwanted.
Amber Ledge is situated on a windswept plateau next to the strait’s icy waters. A single stone tower marks the spot, and a few dozen makeshift tents and cabins spread out around it. The place hardly looks like the work of the legendary Kirin Tor. Far more visually stunning is the verdant meadow a little ways to the east, a patch of lush grass and flowers amidst the cold rock. Here thrives the grace of the Red Dragonflight, the touch of their scales creating life where none could exist. Ruby-scaled drakes soar through the frigid skies around the Amber Ledge. A full-fledged dragon rests in the improbable garden, his golden eyes closed in thought and his colossal wings folded in rest.
To the south lie the remnants of the Blue Dragonflight’s mainland operations. Stone discs, miles across, fume with a blue light that rivals the sun in brightness. Complex runes rotate like the teeth of gears within the circles, and the floating stone platforms used by Malygos’ followers continue to shadow the marked earth.
Daoul Toulome managed Amber Ledge with all the administrative experience that a career bureaucrat could bring. Sporting a luxurious beard, he appeared well-compensated for his efforts, wearing purple robes decorated with gold trim. As a scion of one of the great mage families, he’d volunteered for this dangerous position.
“Dalaran’s armed forces rarely need to project force. Considering that we must do so over such inhospitable terrain and with so many auxiliaries, capable management was essential,” he reported.
We met in one of the cabins, the almost luxurious interior belying its careless construction. Enchantment kept the cold outside, allowing Daoul to enjoy the comforts of home. A bookshelf (its contents commendably focused on administration and strategy) filled up one end, while a tin kettle began to whistle as it boiled water on a tiny gnomish stove.
“Now that the Borean side is secure, much of my work involves helping volunteers find their role in the campaign. I am pleased to report valiant efforts from both the Horde and the Alliance in this regard. Perhaps I may even be so bold as to hope that this combined effort will bring the factions closer together.”
“I do hope so.”
“All of Dalaran does,” he smiled. “I regret to say that, due to the amount of time elapsed since your death and return to Dalaran, your years as a student no longer amount to very much in terms of reputation.”
“I wouldn’t expect it to. As I said earlier, I do not intend to stay long. My goal is to learn more about this conflict. I am more than willing to lend combat aid in order to do this.”
“Very good. What do you know of this war?”
“Only that Malygos seeks to control all magic, and prevent mortal usage of the same.”
“Correct. Arcane magic has undergone significant exponential growth over the past two decades. The risks arising from this growth have proved manageable in most cases. However, Malygos and the Blue Dragonflight fear that our arcane usage threatens this world’s very existence.”
“What is his rationale?”
“He dreads the same issues that the Kirin Tor and other creditable groups work to ameliorate or eliminate. He does not believe us capable of doing so. Malygos specifically fears that our tampering will weaken the bonds between worlds, as seen in the Dark Portal, and open Azeroth to full-scale demonic invasion.”
“You do not think there is merit to this?”
“None has been found. Malygos seeks to redirect all of the world’s arcane energy to the Azure Dragonshrine in the Dragonblight. That doing so will be a virtual apotheosis for him is the least of our worries. One cannot move an arcane leyline without consequences: continent-shattering earthquakes, volcanic devastation, and poisonous mana leaks are but a few. If he continues to move leylines, Azeroth may well shatter.”
“And he is not aware of this?”
“Given the he is a dragon lord I must assume that he knows and simply does not care.”
“How long will it take him to do this?”
“Anywhere between two to five years. Malygos himself warded the leylines to make them difficult to move. His previous caution now slows him down,” Daoul smirked.
“That explains why the Horde and Alliance are not interested in helping at the moment.”
“Correct. Unfortunately, the Blue Dragonflight now pursues more radical techniques to speed the process, so we cannot afford to take our time. The dragons kidnapped many prominent Dalaranese mages, using sorceries to twist their minds into unthinking obedience.”
“Malygos did this? I never heard any mention of it in Dalaran.”
“The Dalaranese know full well that the Kirin Tor will stop at nothing to achieve justice, and see no need to involve outsiders. Our goal is to retrieve and deprogram as many of the kidnapped as possible. Sadly, they are violent, and some will die in the battle.”
Cold anger gripped my heart, Malygos’ deeds reminding me of the Scourge. Even then, something struck me as odd about Daoul’s words. Would not the families of the kidnapped at least try to make an extra effort by involving outsiders (especially since auxiliaries already fought under the Kirin Tor banner)? No one in the Horde Embassy had mentioned such requests.
“The Red Dragonflight has also graciously lent its aid to our cause.”
“I guessed as much. If I may ask, why are you here and not at the Azure Dragonshrine?”
“Alexstrasza the Life-Giver, Queen of the Red Dragonflight, said that dragonshrines are best cleansed by other dragons. We agree. Perhaps for that reason, Malygos makes his home in Coldarra.”
“How powerful is Malygos?”
“He is the greatest mage to ever live! However, our sources in the Red Dragonflight say he spent the years after the Sundering in seclusion, learning and doing nothing. Malygos’ power is without parallel, yet magic has changed significantly since his glory days. Make no mistake; he is a fast learner, another reason why time is of the essence.”
“I see. What is the situation in Coldarra?”
“Victory is at hand. Our troops are few, but our patience and skill slowly wears down the Blue Dragonflight. They do not know how to adapt to our tactics.”
“Even with the kidnapped Dalaranese?”
“Most of those they abducted were theorists and loremasters, not generals. I should warn you that Coldarra is still exceedingly dangerous. But we hold the advantage.”
“I would like to go.”
“Very good. All I need to do is put you down as a short-term volunteer. You may leave tomorrow; the drakes make regular flights between Amber Ledge and our bases in Coldarra, and they accept passengers.”
“Impressive. My understanding is that dragons, of any variety, usually dislike riders.”
“They ferry us on behest of Surristrasz, the red dragon you saw meditating out in the meadow. He is among the oldest and wisest of their number, and they obey to him in all things. So long as you remain polite and deferential, the drakes will not complain.”
“What does Surristrasz do?”
“By meditating he can see into the thoughts of the Blue Dragonflight and anticipate their actions. This is by no means error-proof; the blue dragons do not make their minds easy to read, and Surristrasz can only dig so deep. Nonetheless, his information has twice saved our campaign.”
I said goodbye to Daoul as he walked to the tower, his steps preternaturally crisp and even. I ventured closer to Surristrasz, though I kept a safe distance; one can never be too careful with dragons.
Called the Spellweaver, the Dalaranese histories credit Malygos as Azeroth’s first sorcerer. A good number of the mainstays in a mage’s arcane repertoire supposedly owe their existence to him. Yet Dalaran’s best historians knew next to nothing about Malygos and his flight. Many of my lecturers treated Malygos as a symbol of import rather than a living and breathing entity.
The blue dragons themselves came to symbolize the dangers and mysteries of Northrend, rarely flying within sight of the Eastern Kingdoms. Whatever facts we possessed came from limited interactions with the Red Dragonflight, who were disinclined to say very much.
Kaldorei histories revealed more about Malygos’ life. The near-total destruction of the Blue Dragonflight at the hands of Deathwing, 10,000 years past, sank the Spellweaver into deep despair. Though time replenished the flight’s numbers, Malygos secluded himself from the outside world until his rampage.
Among Azeroth’s deepest enigmas, the dragonflights remain a source of both awe and frustration. Records found in the Ulduar and Uldum state that the Titans created the dragons to maintain Azeroth, but the dragons themselves refuse to elucidate.
Keeping to their own counsel in the remote places of the world, the dragons obey the charges set on them by the Titans, and are accountable to no one save themselves. Deathwing and his Black Dragonflight were the first to fall to corruption, their anger causing untold devastation. Now, Malygos and the Blue Dragonflight follows suit.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Fear stared at me through Johan’s eyes, his gnarled hands gripped tight around a pitchfork, its sharpened points inches from my throat. He cast a quick glance to the towers of Valiance Keep to the south before looking at me again.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Corestiam. It’s not my way to greet strangers so rudely, but we’ve no choice but to be careful.”
“I understand,” I said, hoping to calm him down.
Cold ocean winds swept through the blackened shells of burned farms as Johan watched me, his arms tensed. A wrong move on my part, and he’d run me through.
Three more figures appeared at the top of the hill carrying hammers and clubs. They looked to be of the same type as Johan, young farmers fearing for their lives and souls.
“Johan, who is this?”
“He says he’s Talus Corestiam, that he just came in from Valiance Keep!” called back Johan.
“Let him in.”
“Just like that?” A look of incredulity crossed Johan’s gaunt face, his once full cheeks hanging as if deflated.
“We saw him coming up the beach from Valiance Keep. All the cultists there are dead or with the rest of their kind. Besides, if he is a cultist, Kastoor’s sure to take care of him.”
“All right.” Johan looked to me and nodded. “Again, begging your pardon. Normally we’re polite folk.”
“You needn’t apologize.”
The three other farmers approached me, more relaxed than Johan though still visibly cautious. They seemed to defer to the man in the center, a short but muscular human with a wispy red beard.
“Welcome to Farshire! Here, the promise of Northrend is offered to Stormwind’s doughty sons and daughters.” He gave a bitter little laugh and offered his hand. “My name’s Erton Hereford, acting mayor of Farshire.”
“I’m honored. I didn’t know things were still so bad here.”
“It’s a lot better than it was, believe me. More to the point, what do you want here? We’ve very little to offer anyone right now.”
“I’m collecting information on Northrend for my employers in Kul Tiras. I suspected I wasn’t getting the full story from the people in Valiance Keep, so I thought I’d take a look for myself.”
“I see,” said Erton, apparently impressed. “You missed most of the fun, but there’s still plenty to do. What are they saying about us in Valiance?”
“Simply that Farshire was attacked by the Cult of the Damned.”
“Oh, an attack? I guess that’s accurate enough, except we didn’t realize we were being attacked until it was too late. I really can’t stay and talk, but I’ll take you to the town hall. Someone there can help you.”
Erton guided me to a narrow and steep-roofed building at the top of a rocky hill. Crude barricades block the road, each one guarded by worn and wary peasant archers. A narrow path leads to a lighthouse perched on a windy promontory. Stunted turnips and wheat grow in the hardscrabble dirt fields around the town hall. I was surprised to see harvest golems roaming these fields, like the ones I’d seen in Westfall so long ago. I shuddered at the memory.
The inside of the town hall was almost totally empty, all the furniture long since chopped up for use in the barricades. Cold air wafts through the wooden walls, unadorned by paint or tapestries.
Erton greeted a scrawny middle-aged woman who sat cross-legged on the floor, knitting by the sun’s light streaming through gaps in the ceiling.
“We have guests, dear! Please show Talus here some Elwynn hospitality. Talus, this is my wife, Indrea.”
“We’ve got company? Here? I’m afraid there’s not much in the way of hospitality I can offer.”
“I actually just wanted some information. I’m a mage, so I can create my own food and drink.”
“He works for someone in Kul Tiras. I need to get back to the front.”
Erton turned and left, leaving me in the drafty hallway.
“So what do you need to know, Brother Talus?”
“That’s what Brother Kastoor calls the menfolk. The ladies go by sister. Most of us kind of like it, so we’re starting to do the same.”
“Who is Brother Kastoor?”
“A draenic priest. Anchorite, he calls himself. Farshire wouldn’t be here without him.”
“Exactly what happened in Farshire?”
She looked up from her knitting with eyes dry and red, the telltale signs of sleeplessness.
“Erton and I used to be tenant farmers down in Elwynn River Valley, tilling the fields all day for a few scant coppers. When we heard about the homestead deals up in Northrend we jumped at the chance, risks be damned. The soil here’s cold and rocky, but you can coax growth from it if you’re tough enough. Hard to do, but it was our land and we’d stand by it, no matter what the Scourge had to say.”
“Were you attacked often?”
“Sure, by those spider things. Ugly as sin they were. The soldiers in Valiance helped us through at first, at least until the keep got surrounded. Still, we held our own. Most of the undead didn’t come up this way, no reason to since Valiance gets all its food from ships.
“Then one night we see these lights leaking out of the Tanner homestead. Everyone had the good sense to stay back, except Hanford who tried to get a better look. This thing, like a wave of blackness, hit poor Hanford and killed him then and there.
“That’s when the door blew open and Isrin Tanner came out, in robes bloody from head to toe, his new wife’s corpse walking beside him. Right after that, we saw those awful lights start glowing all through Farshire. The Toyles, the Prestons, the Balmores, a dozen other families wiped out.”
“Isrin Tanner was a cultist?”
“That he was. He sailed up here with the rest of us, I remember talking to him in Stormwind Harbor. Married a sweet girl on the way up, talked about starting a family. Turned out he just wanted more minions!” She almost shouted the last sentence, her prematurely aged face red with anger.
“And the others?”
“Some turned out to be cultists, others were turned by death wizards who snuck in on their own. Before we knew it half of Farshire was undead, ghouls and corpse-men bearing down on us from all sides, gutting people and raising them as horrors. All we could do was hunker down around the lighthouse, and pray.”
“Valiance couldn’t help?”
“From up here it looked like the entire beach was moving, there were so many spider-things on it. I’ll tell it plainly; we were doomed. This horrible rotting smell soaked the air, so bad we could barely breath anymore. We heard the cultists saying their evil prayers out in the distance, calling in more Scourge.
“Outsiders came by to help us, though they’d usually only do it in return for money or for ownership of our land! Not that it mattered, they all got killed. Until Brother Kastoor.”
“But the Cult of the Damned is still out there?”
“Some might be hiding in the mine. Brother Kastoor’s purging it, but he’s being careful; he doesn’t want a single person to die if he can help it.”
“Admirable. May I meet him?”
“Oh, certainly. He’s not like some Stormwind lord, where you have to make an appointment a month in advance,” she laughed. “Brother Kastoor would love to see you, I’m sure.”
“Also, do you have any idea how many cultists came in from Stormwind?”
“No. But we know Isrin wasn’t the only one. We thought they were regular folks like us, and somehow they turned out to be necromancers. Light only knows how many are still there in the old country.”
“Has Stormwind been warned?”
“We told General Arlos at Valiance, and he said he’d tell the king. That’s all we can do.”
To its adherents, the Cult of the Damned has always promised a life free of iniquity and cruelty, one where all stand equal. This ideology attracted the bitter and dispossessed of old Lordaeron, as well as a handful of utopians. In its early days, the cult claimed to follow the Light.
If the cult had attracted so many in the prosperity of Lordaeron, how many more might it find in war-torn Stormwind? Admittedly, hardship can sometimes strengthen the soul; I doubt the militias of Westfall and Redridge would put much stock in the cult’s promises. But there are others who might join simply for a want of other options, like refugees and former Defias rebels.
Most alarming of all is the possibility that Stormwind itself is compromised. Popular imagination associates the cult with the poor, but many wealthy and educated individuals joined its ranks in the early days, attracted by its message of justice. Cultists might well walk the corridors of Stormwind’s royal palace, waiting for the time to strike. They are skilled necromancers, able to raise the dead at a moment’s notice.
If Stormwind is so compromised, who is to say that other nations are immune? Cultists may wait in Khaz Modan, Orgrimmar, and Kezan. It is not clear how much of the cult’s power is drawn from the Lich King. Should the Scourge fall, these clandestine necromancers may be able to create a new one in the world’s population centers. Then again, the cult in Stormwind might have only a minimal presence. Certainly they can no longer proselytize openly, probably working through intermediaries and front groups. However, the nations of the world must be careful in handling this.
I left the dreary town hall, walking out to the rocky fields where the harvest golems work. Dispensers in bladed hands open up to release seeds, and the bulky constructs reach down to cover them with the cold earth. A young man barely out of adolescence stood near the field, sharpening a severed golem hand on a whetstone. He looked up at me, his expression haunted and wary.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s no trouble, brother. What’s your name? I’m Darlow.”
“Talus. If I might ask, why do you use harvest golems?”
“We can’t work the fields, not while the cultists are still out there. Harvest golems aren’t actually that good; they keep breaking down and they go as slow as tar. But there aren’t many of us left, so they still cover our needs.”
“How did you get them?”
“A Valiance trader sold them to us. I think he got them from goblins or gnomes or something. He overcharged us too.”
“Given Farshire’s importance, I figured you’d get a discount.”
“Nope. Nobody in Valiance Keep did anything. Right now, they’re more important to us than we are to them. If we die, they can just ship up some more colonists.”
“The harvest golems are safe, right? I heard that the ones in Westfall had been sabotaged—”
“Please don’t start on that, Brother Talus. Look, if they were going to go crazy on us, they’d have done it already. They’re slow and stupid, not dangerous.”
“Sorry. Who owns this field?”
“This is Erton’s, though he’s sharing it with us for the time being. My father used to have his own field, but the undead came and poisoned it, so I have to use this one.”
“You intend to reclaim your land?”
“Oh, you better believe it! Right kindly of Erton to let so many folks use his plot, but we came here to get our own. My father died to defend his land. Once we clear out the last of the deaders, I’m going to set out a new plot of land for me, my mother, and my sister. I’ll ask Brother Kastoor to bless it for us.”
The beloved Kastoor returned later in the day, accompanied by five militia troopers. Big even for a draenei, Kastoor had adopted a ragtag set of human clothes altered to fit his frame. Kastoor’s charisma was apparent at first glance, his broad features radiating a purposeful strength. He smiled when he saw me.
“Ah, you must be Brother Talus! Sister Indrea told me that you had just come to Farshire. Would you consider joining our community? I will warn you, it is a hard and very dangerous life, yet the spiritual rewards can be great.”
“The land is another reward, I gather.”
“Yes, that is very important to the people here.”
I told him of my largely fictitious reasons for being in Farshire. He folded his massive arms as I spoke, and nodded his bald head.
“I will say that I am glad to know this nation, Kul Tiras, is taking interest in Farshire. I am not very familiar with human politics outside of Stormwind.”
“Kul Tiras is a maritime nation.”
“But what is the dominant belief in Kul Tiras?”
“The Light,” I said, not sure entirely what he meant.
“Ah, of course. The Most Holy Light that binds us together, and inspires us to help our fellows. Look around you, Brother Talus. Why do you think a human would wish to live in this place?”
“The promise of land.”
“And why would they go so far and risk so much to get this barren land?”
“Land translates to security, wealth, and even influence.”
“This it does.” His demeanor became grave. “My human brothers and sisters have told me of their homeland. It is a brutal place, where they break their bodies to fulfill the greed of a few. How is such a societal arrangement in accordance with the Most Holy Light?”
“Humans must make exceptions in order to survive. We do not have the same sense of unity seen in the draenei, or the material advantages.”
“Brother Talus, my friends have suffered much. I do not see why that must be. They know no other way, and I am hoping you can explain more.”
“That matter is a complicated one, I am afraid.”
“Why must it be complicated? All things are clear in the Infinitely Holy Light.”
He sounded like almost like a hurt and frustrated child, confronted with some troubling fact he could not understand. From his perspective, the hierarchical and individualistic nature of human society must seem quite frightening.
The truth ultimately boils down to the fact that humans are different from draenei. I tried to explain this as best I could, yet my arguments faltered under the weight of their own complexities. I had to explain the historical context of modern human societies, as well as what I knew of human desire, selfishness, creativity, and motivation.
“Surely you were informed of this before you left the Exodar,” I said.
“I was. However, hearing the truth of the matter from these humans provoked a strong emotional reaction in me. It is not right for humans to suffer so.”
“Are there other draenei here?”
“I came to Farshire with two others, who both died fighting the Scourge. You may be aware that it is dangerous for draenei to be isolated, as that allows selfish and unstable tendencies to manifest.”
“I know this.”
“However, I was able to find a new purpose within the Farshire community. I am blessed to be able to help the people here.”
“They seem to look up to you.”
“I think you may be interpreting what you see through a human standpoint. I have stressed many times that I am not particularly important, and that it is only as a group that we are strong.”
“Nonetheless, they do admire you.”
“I have not done enough to warrant admiration. Farshire, on the other hand, is worth praising as a strong community. I hope to make it an example to Valiance Keep, and from there to Stormwind.”
“So as to help human society better follow with the dictates of the Most Holy Light.”
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but did not the people of Farshire come here for land?”
“Yes, we established that.”
“Don’t you think they would want to keep it?”
“Yes, and I will not stop them. My goal is simply to build a stronger sense of community in Farshire, and the best way to do that is to defend it against the Scourge. This effort has succeeded, thanks to the faith and hard work of my brothers and sisters here.”
“So you are willing to make a compromise?”
“Please, Brother Talus. I am not what you would call a fanatic. I cannot dictate the community’s standards. I have made the truth known to them, but there is no point in forcing the matter, especially when Farshire’s survival is still uncertain. All I can do is act in accordance to the Most Holy Light, and in so doing show the power of faith and unity. In the end, their joy is my joy, as the Infinitely Holy Light says.”
From the time I have spent in the Exodar and other draenic population centers, I know that they regard their own society as the ideal for all others to follow. Certainly their society is the closest thing I have seen to perfection—though only by draenic standards. I have long wondered how the draenei would react as they spent more time interacting with the other Alliance races, and Kastoor provides an interesting example.
While disturbed by the greed and selfishness he hears about in human lands, he understands that the humans must survive before they do anything else. What he may not understand is that the humans in Farshire may have exhibited such outstanding unity in order to defend their private property. Selfishness is an intrinsically human motivation, and many great things have come from it. So have many terrible things. At any rate, I do not believe it will ever go away.
I do wonder how well his message might be received in Stormwind. The kingdom is, with some justification, famed for its relative social mobility. However, there are many tenant farmers and poor miners with few realistic hopes of ever rising from their stations. The egalitarian ethos of draenic ideology might be very appealing to these unfortunates. If taught, will they express these ideals with draenic benevolence, or with human violence?
The Transborea is one of the great deserts of the world, a unforgiving expanse of snow and ice stretching across the northeastern Borean Tundra. Only the hardiest creatures make their homes in such a place, and many of them have been sickened and killed by Scourge poisons. Soon, the white hills of the Transborea may be just as lifeless as they appear.
This icy wasteland rubs shoulders with the even stranger environment of the Geyser Fields. A deep basin almost the size of Westfall, this is where the tectonic chaos of the Borean Tundra had created a steamy and rock-strewn wasteland. Between these disparate landscapes lies the verdant strand of the Flood Plains.
Currents of geothermal heat warm the earth in the Flood Plains, melting the snow and feeding the leagues of stunted grass that cover the landscape. Natural basalt spires, worn down by millennia of floods and fierce winds, stand like aged sentinels. Reindeer herds roam the lonely wilderness, stopping to graze and drink at the hot springs found throughout the scrubby flats. The warm waters are home to all manner of fishes and amphibians, many species unique to their pools.
Not all of the springs are conducive to life. Some boil with underground heat, and strange minerals taint others. A few even host powerful geysers that can spray scalding water up to a hundred feet in the air. Guided by instinct, the reindeer stick to the pools that contain water that is safe to drink. The taunka natives have relied on the wisdom of these animals for generations.
The gorlocs occupy the top link of the local food chain. Resembling bipedal toads with disturbingly large teeth, these curious creatures often hide among stones at the edges of the pools. There, they wait for reindeer to go to the pool and drink their fill. As the reindeer leave, two or three gorlocs will hop out from the rocks and take down a straggler. During lean times, the gorlocs eat the fish and frogs native to the springs.
Not much research has been done on the gorlocs. A gnome in Valiance Keep told me that many believe them to be related to murlocs, but I cannot say I see any resemblance between the two species. For reasons that remain obscure, the gorlocs lay their eggs around the geysers every spring and fall. The local heat may act as an incubator, though no one really knows for sure. Hatchery springs are best avoided, as the gorlocs are quick to attack trespassers. Vibrating gorloc cries ring out through the Flood Plains, audible miles away from the source.
I was passing through the Flood Plains to reach the tuskarr villages of the Transborea. These peaceable fishermen and whalers have lived along Northrend’s southern coast for centuries. Decimated by the Scourge and other hostile forces, the surviving tuskarr face a long struggle for survival.
The Flood Plains make an abrupt transition to the Transborea, heralded by patches of slushy snow on the grass. The isolated drifts soon coalesce into a snowy desert that reflects the wan northern sun, a landscape of eerie brilliance. Black basalt pillars contrast with the snow’s gleaming whiteness, frost coating their edges.
Two days of travel brought me back to the Borean Tundra’s frozen coastline, a jagged rock face thrusting up from a narrow strand. Unceasing winds scour the icy stones, whipping up the sea spray as white-flecked waves crash on the treacherous shore.
I fought my way north through ankle-deep snow for another day until I finally saw whispers of smoke rising from the north. A little more progress rewarded me with the sight of a tuskarr village. Tuskarr architecture is immediately distinct, their simple homes of bone and hide fashioned into the shapes of whales and other sea creatures. Blue and bulbous they sit on the shore, totemic symbols of that most important of animals. Tusks flank mouth-like openings, and act as branching tails at the backs.
Resembling anthropoid walruses, the tuskarr look almost comical with their stout and paunchy physiques. Yet their layers of natural fat provide insulation from the cold, allowing them to comfortably go about in temperatures lethal to unprotected humans. I’ve also heard that the blubber acts as a surprisingly effective natural armor.
A pair of colossal yellowed tusks form a gateway to the village. Between the tusks hangs a stone disc carved with auspicious symbols and suspended on thick ropes. Squat tuskarr heads looked up from their labors at my arrival, and only then did I see the ruined outlying huts, their walls torn and supports shattered.
A pair of tuskarr clad in hides ran forward with barbed harpoons at the ready, their thick feet astonishingly nimble on the snow. I almost laughed at the sight, their thick and bristling moustaches flapping up and down as they ran. I restrained myself, knowing that I underestimated the tuskarr at my own peril.
The bigger of the two came to a stop at the gate, and motioned for his fellow to do the same. He flashed me a look that might have been apologetic. His harpoon still trained at my chest (and given the prodigious tuskarr strength, I’ve little doubt he could have killed me in one hit), he made a rumbling sound somewhere between a bark and a howl.
Another tuskarr emerged from a partially collapsed hut, swirling tattoos decorating his gray skin. He waved a stubby arm and shouted to the warriors, who lowered their weapons and offered slight bows.
“Welcome to Unu’pe!” called the newcomer, speaking Orcish with just the bare trace of an accent. He spoke as he walked towards me. “We apologize for the hostile reception—it is not our way to point harpoons at those who bring good food and good stories—but times have been uneasy. I am Inquanok, a shaman. I take it you are of the Horde?”
“Correct, of the Forsaken, to be specific.”
“A few Forsaken have visited. We know that you are not the Scourge, but Miknuk and Atinook wanted me to confirm this.”
“No harm done, the Scourge demands caution. How does Unu’pe fare?” I asked, looking again at the ruined buildings.
“We’ve often battled against the armies of the Cold One, whom you call the Lich King. But we shall face them as always with full bellies and smiling faces! Please, come into Unu’pe. The Horde is a good friend to the tuskarr people.”
I followed Inquanok past the hollowed huts and down an icy path, all the way to the snowbound beach where much of the village stands. Kayaks bob in the icy waves, tethered to poles of bone. A dead whale lay on the beach, tuskarr hunters merrily singing rough-voiced chants as they carved huge chunks of meat from its corpse. Dozens of tuskarr stood around the whale, joining the hunters’ song.
“Even in these dark times, the ocean is generous,” remarked Inquanok.
Tuskarr are not the only inhabitants of Unu’pe. I saw a mixed collection of Horde and Alliance races throughout the village, all of them formidably well-armed. A few mingled with the tuskarr, joining them in their celebration of the hunt, though others huddled in faction-specific groups at the edges of Unu’pe, their eyes to the sea.
“You seem to have many visitors.”
“More than ever before! Know that on the first three days, the food of Unu’pe is your food as well. After that, however, you must provide for yourself and the village if you wish to stay.”
“I will be able to take care of my own needs, though I am not sure if I can provide for the village. I’ve never fished or hunted in my entire life.”
“Ah, of course. We often forget that the southern people do not hunt as much.”
“I’d be more than willing to learn the basics, though I do not intend to stay long.”
“A good attitude! Cheerful and full of hope! Though we tuskarr are trained in such matters from birth. Still, many of the visitors here contribute in other ways.”
He said those last words with a tremor of dread, and I saw him cast a quick glance to a quartet of humans and dwarves seated around a campfire, their weapons on display.
“What troubles your village?”
“We call them the tiun’ak, though the humans call them kvaldir. It is best not to discuss such matters in the open. The outdoors is a place for cheerful talk.”
“May I ask why?”
“To show sorrow and fear is to show weakness, and the spirits love nothing more than to inflict miseries on those weaker than them. Better to be happy! Since the beginning of time itself, we tuskarr have lived merry lives on these deadly shores. The spirits know they cannot weaken our resolve, so they make no special attempt to do so.”
“Are there any times where it is acceptable to show sadness?”
“A tuskarr cannot help being sad if another dies. Our ancestors provide special places for us to mourn, where the spirits will not see. Forgive me, but Miknuk and Atinook need my help in guarding the edge of Unu’pe. Go wherever you please; our village is as yours, and we’re all very happy with the latest hunt!” he said, pointing at the dead whale. Inquanok chortled and slapped his paunch, promising to return at sundown.
Much like the taunka, the tuskarr believe the spirits of nature to be harsh and vindictive. While the taunka actively fight back against these spirits, considering the battle a cultural perogative, the tuskarr avoid them with a show of good cheer. This comparatively passive attitude may reflect the fact that the ocean is a more reliable food source than are the herd or game animals on which the taunka depend.
I approached the crowd surrounding the carcass, foreign voices awkwardly joining with the harsh strains of tuskarr song. Blood stained the snow as tuskarr butchers separated flesh from fat, the red gore covering their bodies a strange contrast with their happy faces. I stood next to a young orc dressed in furs, who grinned when he saw me. He held a half-full bowl of tea in one gnarled hand.
“These tuskarr are fine hunters!” he exclaimed, before humming along with the crowd.
I felt something tug at my coat sleeve, and looked down to see a tuskarr holding a beautifully carved bone kettle. Spirals of steam wafted out from the opening, and small soapstone bowls hung from hide thongs on the tuskarr’s vest. He took one of these bowls and pantomimed a pouring gesture with the kettle.
I smiled and nodded, hoping it would be read as acceptance. Sure enough, the tuskarr poured me a bowl of piping hot tea. I took it and smiled in way of thanks. The tuskarr bowed and went to one of his fellows. That little gesture was all it took to make me feel more at home in Unu’pe than I had in Warsong Hold.
“Friendly, too!” remarked the orc. “My name is Morrag. I came here to learn about ways of the ocean hunt. So far they have me spearing fish, but Nichinuk says I’ll soon be ready for a whale hunt!”
“They let visitors do that?”
“So long as the visitor proves himself first. I wouldn’t be the first orc to be honored in such a way. The ocean is everything to the tuskarr. It’s so generous that they believe a man who cannot catch anything must be cursed and wicked to be so denied.”
“Would I be expected to catch anything as a visitor?”
“No, those rules only apply to tuskarr. Traditionally, visitors of any race are supposed to bring fish as a gift, but they’ve suspended this rule since they need outside help and they’re getting more visitors than ever before. Still, now that you know, you should make the effort.”
Morrag explained more about the Horde’s interest in the tuskarr. Tuskarr culture displays many of the values admired in Thrall’s Horde: courage, shamanism, and respect for the ancestors. Though relatively few in number, they are formidable warriors and hunters who occupy valuable coastal land. Some in the Horde even considered making them full-fledged members.
This proved impossible. The tuskarr have very little interest in engaging with the world beyond their shores. Membership in the Horde carries ancillary costs, of which the tuskarr are apparently aware. Negotiations with the race as a whole can be difficult, as there is no unified ruling body. Each village is essentially sovereign, though they do help each other in time of need. However, this aid stems more from a shared culture than from any political union.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the tuskarr have long enjoyed positive relationships with various human groups. I learned about this from a Lordaeronian woman named Letense.
Wrapped from head to toe in furs and hides, Letense hardly looked Lordaeronian. Dark eyes studied me from a broad face made rough and tan by years of exposure to the harsh climate. A head of pale blonde hair was all that remained from her old life, hanging from her scalp in limp strands.
“I first saw the tuskarr when a storm dashed my father’s fishing boat on a tiny rocky island near the coast. I still remember the bosun’s brains dashed out across the rocks, me screaming and crying while father pulled me from the wreck. We sheltered in a cave for the next few days, and even then I saw the fear on his face. He had his catch, but no fresh water.
“We were near death when the tuskarr came, a day after the long storm’s end. I saw them and couldn’t believe that they’d brave the fierce northern waters in such tiny boats, kayaks they’re called, made of wood and hide. My father fell to his knees and said a prayer of thanks when he saw them. I was a little frightened by the sounds of their voices, like angry dogs I thought, but didn’t show it. They shared their water with us, and summoned more kayaks from Unu’pe so that we could be taken there.
“You can’t imagine how strange and wonderful it was for me, a girl of nine, to be put among these tough and happy people. My father spoke a bit of Tuskarr, and they knew he was a good person by how many fish he’d caught. That’s why they treated me so well. The elder’s wife adored me, and I remember watching her stitching a thick fur coat for me in that bright hut of hide and bone, so much warmer than my father’s ship.
“I lived there for a year, the tuskarr girls teaching me how to set traps and which berries and herbs were good to eat. I didn’t want to go back to Lordaeron, but my father flagged down another human vessel and brought me along. I promised myself I’d return, and eventually I did.”
“When did you return?” I asked.
“During the Third War. Living dead—looking a bit like you—swarmed our village. I escaped with Hendrin and Lylus—my husband and son—and joined some other refugees on the north coast. We knew the undead infested every rotten inch of the kingdom, and that to go south was suicide. We found another old fisherman who knew the way to the tuskarr, and bribed our way on board.”
“You’ve lived here ever since?”
“With Lylus. Hendrin died in the first winter, as did most of the crew. Each tuskarr village now has a few humans living in it, raising their families. Very few, mind you, probably less than 50 total; most never made the journey, and most who did died.”
“Your father was not the first fishing captain to know about the tuskarr, I take it.”
“Lordaeronian fishermen sailed up to Northrend for centuries, offering the tuskarr tools in return for rights to their fishing grounds. They respected us for going so far, and were honored to see their fisheries so desired.”
“How does Lylus cope with growing up here?”
“He doesn’t remember Lordaeron, and I haven’t told him much. This place is better anyway. It’s hard for him; he can’t endure the cold the way his playmates can. But he knows how to fish, and he’s already good at it. I hear there’s some human girls his age in Mo’aki, to the east, so who knows? Maybe he’ll raise children of his own here someday.”
“Has he seen Valiance?”
She gave a rueful smile.
“Yes, and he finds it interesting and frightening at the same time. Most of the survivors fled there; I do not think this life agrees with most Lordaeronians. They carried the wounds of the past, and still wept for what they lost. The tuskarr think sadness makes people weak, and I agree. I hope that Lylus stays here, but we shall see.”
I think that the human population living in tuskarr lands is simply too small and scattered to create a viable, long-term community. Letense’s story did reveal the cordial history between Lordaeron and the tuskarr.
These human expatriates do not feel much loyalty to the Alliance, nor are they numerous enough to be significant in tuskarr politics. However, the tuskarr feel too close to the Alliance to join their sworn enemies. It remains to be seen how long they can safely practice this neutrality.
The tuskarr have also dealt with the Kirovi, the humans of Northrend. When the Kirovi warlord Nevaksander broke the power of the magnataurs at the Battle of the Bloody Snows, the tuskarr lent aid to his cause. Nevaksander dreamed of uniting Northrend, but none of the non-human races showed interest in this, and the tuskarr were no exception. They simply saw no reason to involve themselves in the world beyond their lands with the magnataur threat gone. Kirovi and tuskarr mostly stayed away from each other, aside from limited trade. There are no records of conflict between the two.
Hospitality is a premier virtue in tuskarr culture, so they feel obliged to act as good hosts. Dealing with so many disparate visitors can be a strain, even if said visitors help defend the village. Because the tuskarr are loathe to complain, their true attitude remains obscure. In addition to outlanders, the villages most also cope with tuskarr refugees from neighboring towns, though they are not seen as a burden. Tuskarr settlements traditionally help each other in times of need.
I spoke with a tuskarr named Tarralikitak, Unu’pe’s snow-walker. A snow-walker is a tuskarr who goes from village to village carrying gifts from his hometown. When he stops in a settlement, he offers these gifts (most typically carved bone ornaments, though gold and other precious metals have become common in recent years) in exchange for stories, which he will eventually retell when he gets back home.
“One must always walk the wastes with care, but no amount of care seems to be enough these days. Now, I do enjoy a good challenge; nothing like fighting my way through a wild storm, or evading the wolves of the plains. But now there is much worse,” he said, keeping his voice cheerful.
“Are you still able to perform your duties?”
“Not as much. Kaskala is the only nearby tuskarr town that still stands, and even that is in danger from the... I believe the humans call them kvaldir.”
“I’ve heard of them.”
“They are treacherous warriors who sail out from the mists to reave and kill. No one knows what they truly want. Kaskala has suffered dozens of raids, though they still stand against the enemy. Let no one underestimate the ferocity of a well-fed tuskarr!” he laughed. If his mirth was forced, I could not tell.
“Did the kvaldir destroy many other villages?”
“Most of the tuskarr abandoned the villages before the kvaldir destroyed them. They live here or in Kaskala now, doing their bit for the community. A fine arrangement, and we’ve all made good friends through it.”
The entirety of Unu’pe indulged in a raw feast that night, all of the village’s many families gathering in and around the shaman’s fish-shaped hut. Larger than the others, it acts as both the village commons and as Inquanok’s less than private residence. Happy tuskarr chewed uncooked whale meat and organs, the hunters at the center of this joyous circle.
Not all of the foreigners found the raw meat to their liking. Though Morrag and the other orcs enjoyed the bloody whale-flesh, some of the humans insisted on cooking it. Their tiny campfire made slow progress, and I saw Letense cast them a withering look.
I sat down with Inquanok’s family, consisting of himself, his wife, Niquoni, and their three children. They occupied a cozy place towards the back of the communal feasting hall, suffused with light and heat from the blazing fire at the center. The tuskarr word for home is the same as their word for hearth, for the two things are one and the same in their culture.
A burning hearth represents continuity with the ancestors. Each family home has its own fire, never meant to be completely extinguished. Younger children are often responsible for feeding the flames, using driftwood, damp grass, and sometimes charcoal from the surface deposits sometimes found in the Borean Tundra. These fires are actually smaller than one might expect. Thanks to the tuskarr race’s natural hardiness and their well-insulated huts, small fires prove sufficient to meet their needs.
From Inquanok, I learned the importance of family in tuskarr culture. As many as three generations can live under the same roof, though in practice this is rare; accidents claim the lives of most tuskarr before they can become grandparents. Bloodlines are matrilineal and women possess almost total control of a family’s domestic sphere. The men represent the family’s public face in interactions with its neighbors.
Marriage ceremonies do not exist per se. Traditionally, a young tuskarr man will simply declare his intentions to his beloved and her family. To prepare, he will try to catch as many fishes as possible so as to prove his righteousness, skill, and wealth to the potential bride. If her family accepts, they are married without any real fuss. Divorce, though not common, is also done quite simply. This usually occurs if the couple decides they are incompatible, or if one is found lacking in some way. No stigma is associated with separation. Children always stay with the mother, though contact with the father is frequent due to the community’s small size.
Responsibility for fishing and whaling falls on the father, who acts as the family’s material caregiver. Should a father die (sadly, not an infrequent occurrence), this responsibility falls to his next youngest brother, or eldest if the deceased was the youngest. In cases where there are no surviving siblings, a village chief or shaman shoulders the burden. The widow is expected to remarry as soon as possible. This is generally done quickly, even if the widow is old. Tuskarr hold the elderly in great regard, and older women are considered desirable. Though her new spouse will likely outlive her, it will not be difficult for him to find a new wife.
A rapid pattering of hand drums pounded out in the vastness of Inquanok’s hut as the feast came to a close, interspersed by the whine of bone flutes. Settling into quiet, all the tuskarr watched as Inquanok stood up and hustled to a low platform at the end of the room, seeming to bound from one leg to another. Positioning himself between two whale-tallow lanterns hanging from wooden stands, Inquanok took a deep breath. I waited, expectant to see the tribe’s age-old songs or stories performed by the shaman.
Grunting in Tuskarr, Inquanok made a face and pulled his moustache, turning around as if confused. Every tuskarr in the room roared with laughter, the sound almost deafening. Inquanok turned to the audience, feigning surprise. Reaching into his vest he took out a soapstone fish and puffed out his chest, resulting in even more laughter. Pretending to ignore it, Inquanok held the fish high, singing off-key voice as he paced on the stage to the audience’s delight.
Inquanok continued to entertain the village for some time before inviting another tuskarr on stage to perform. Both of the tuskarr donned masks of carved bone, the newcomer adding a crude hat made of woven grass. In these guises they played out a sort of ritual comedy routine, the very air seeming to shake with mirth.
Inquanok later explained some of the details to me. Tuskarr comedy both parodies and reinforces existing social mores. The routines rely on stock characters that are instantly identifiable in any settlement; the routine I saw involved Inquanok playing a generous host (typically called the hwequaan, or fat man) and the other tuskarr as a guest (the quekag, or fool) who did not know when it was appropriate to leave. These are just a few of the characters in the repertoire.
Like other people, the tuskarr possess their share of heroic legends. But these are rarely told straight. Storytellers take great delight in incorporating comedic archetypes into these stories in new and unusual ways. Ironically, while the humorous routines rarely change, the most important legends undergo constant metamorphosis and experimentation. The storyteller can often gain renown for displaying a particular mastery with certain characters. Inquanok’s specialty is the pequat, or mourner, a perpetually sad and greedy tuskarr who is invariably ridiculed for his attitude.
Inquanok’s performance ended on a more serious (though still happy) note as he sang a dirge-like tune for the ancestors. The other tuskarr joined him, the gruff sounds of their throats echoing up and down the icy shores. They filtered out when he finished, headed to their family huts. After he explained the rituals and entertainment, Inquanok invited me to spend the night.
I slept on a sealskin rug near the fire, dimmed to a smoldering red glow in the northern night. Waves and wind smashed themselves on the rocks, unable to penetrate the warm heart of Inquanok’s home. For all the terror of recent years the tuskarr appear strong and hopeful. Perhaps with reason, I thought, considering that the major Scourge bases in the Borean Tundra lie abandoned, leaving only a few deathless armies to trouble the natives.
The rapid thuds of heavy feet hitting the hidebound floor returned me to consciousness. A tuskarr stood next to Inquanok’s bed, gesticulating and shouting. Only then did I notice the dampness in the air, my hair plastered to my scalp. Walls of fog put the room out of focus, the hearth’s dying fire visible only as specks of smoldering light.
Inquanok stood up, grabbing the other tuskarr’s shoulders and saying something meant to reassure him. As the messenger left, Inquanok ran over to me.
“Destron! I fear that evil has come to our village. Are you able to fight?”
“Yes. What is this?”
“Mist is the herald of the sea-raiders, whom you call the kvaldir. Fear not! The shamans in Kaskala found ways to dispel this fog, and I will do this. You stand guard on the beach; there are many fine warriors in Unu’pe on this day, and you should look forward to celebrating our victory!”
I followed close as Inquanok fled the hut, losing sight of him almost immediately. Torches flared to life in the darkness, sooty red eyes flying through the mist. Gruff tuskarr war cries resounded as tribal warriors prepared themselves for battle. Surrounded by impenetrable fog, I tried orienting myself by following the torchlight. Yet these motes of flame scattered in all directions, weaving madly in confusion and disappearing into the mists.
I heard nothing of the wind or ocean surf, the beach made silent in the unnatural fog. Unu’pe’s skilled seafarers and anglers found themselves helpless in their own homes, the laws of the coast suddenly meaningless. I took out my compass, cursing as the needle spun madly in place. Around me, the shouts grew louder and more frantic, voices laced in panic.
Something fell behind me and I leapt to the side in blind reaction, hearing a heavy blade slice through the air. I turned around to face my attacker, seeing only the endless fog.
“They’re here!” shouted a tinny human’s voice, both nearby and unimaginably distant.
I backed away, praying my assailant still stood in front of me. A tuskarr chorus shouted commands somewhere to my left, like the baying of a giant hound. Then I heard heavy steps on the snow, and an ear-splitting warcry.
A giant slammed into me as I tried to dodge. I saw an ax head raised high in the mist a moment before I stumbled under my assailant’s feet. An iron-shod boot hit my side as he tripped over me, cursing as he fell. It took me a moment to recognize the curse as an Orcish one.
“Wait!” I called out.
I heard him hit the snow, scraping through the thick slush as he tried to get back up.
“Wait! I’m on your side!”
“What? Blood and thunder! Destron, is that you? Forgive me, please! I thought you were—”
“I’m all right. You’re Morrag?”
“Are the kvaldir here?”
“That’s what the tuskarr said.”
The sounds of fighting drifted through the fog, against what we could not tell. Unu’pe’s defenses spiralled out of control, no one even knowing if the enemy was yet on the shore. Morrag stayed close, scanning the fog.
A current of air suddenly rushed past, hot and damp like an animal’s breath. Shudders ran through the body of mist as it fell apart into pale clots that dissipated in the air. Cold ocean winds again whipped down the icy shores, carrying the sea’s salty tang. In seconds, the light of the wan sun revealed all.
Tuskarr looked around in relief and confusion. My heart sank when I saw a dead hunter, gored by the spear of his neighbor who looked down at the body in horror. No kvaldir roamed the village, the only damage caused by Unu’pe’s own.
Morrag and I weren’t anywhere near the beach, having gone right up to the cliffs lining Unu’pe’s northern edge. Only when we looked to the south did we see six dragon-prowed ships and their webbed orange sails, cutting through the waves at impossible speeds.
“There they are!” yelled Morrag, bounding to the shore.
No oars propelled them and the tattered sails looked ready to fall apart, but the ships moved as swift as any modern vessel. Parasites riddled their water-logged hulls, and verdigris crawled in splotches up and down the copper prows. Only the lanterns of blinding blue light, hanging from the dragons’ jaws, looked new.
Even from a distance these ships carried a dreadful air of antiquity, like long-forgotten relics never meant to again see the light of day. Closer to sea creatures than ships, they radiated the primal brutality of a storm or tidal wave. Hunched green figures swaggered about the decks, raising damp and bearded heads over the rims as the ships streaked closer.
I launched a fireball at the nearest ship, the burning spell smashing through the rotting hull and bursting out the other end. The fireball ripped open a cavernous gap next to the prow, the damage failing to even slightly slow the advance. A cascade of rifle fire echoed as dwarven gunners opened up, the shots tearing into the hulls and never stopping them.
Perhaps a pyroblast was best, I thought, but I no longer had the time to prepare one. Rearing dragon heads with eyes of garnet smashed into the ice floes, a dozen kvaldir howling in bloodlust as they leapt to the shore, ancient weapons in hand. They resembled nautical mockeries of the vrykul, giant humans with skin the color of algae. Kelp strands and sea-worms thrived on their damp bodies and they stared us down through oily blue eyes, their diseased mouths slavering in anticipation.
A second ship landed and disgorged its crew as the tuskarr warriors charged down the beach, fearless even against the kvaldir. Another volley of gunfire cracked, bullets splashing wetly through kvaldir flesh. Most of the bloodless wounds closed in an instant, though I saw one kvaldir lurch and fall to the side. I fired arcane missiles into the berserkers from the second ship, hoping to hurt them in some way. I turned just in time to see a third ship hit the beach, screaming warriors leaping from the deck.
At my bidding came a wave of cold, encrusting their seeping feet in ice. I scrambled up the shore to safety even as unaffected kvaldir ran after me, bellowing in mindless fury. Morrag ran to intercept the nearest kvaldir, the downward strike of his ax cleaving through the invader’s chest and into his belly. Slime poured from the opening, strands of skin wriggling in a futile attempt at healing. Texture melted out from the kvaldir’s face and body as he collapsed into a heap of briny slime.
Morrag roared as he engaged another kvaldir, the distraction giving me the opportunity to strike back. Arcane light burst on the snow, pummeling the half-frozen kvaldir warriors and tearing one to shreds. As the ice shattered they resumed their charge and I slowed them with a second arcane blast, and then a third. Impossibly swift, they jumped out of the way as if forewarned, my attack only managing to fell one more.
My mana ebbing, I used the last of it to steal the heat from the area in front of me, freezing the kvaldir in their tracks. The three nearest me stiffened and fell, the supercooled air turning their insides to ice. I faced three more without the energy for a single spell.
I heard a choking cry and saw Morrag sink to his knees, the stump of his left arm spraying blood. Unbowed even then, he prepared to deliver a final swing as a kvaldir blade crushed his skull.
I ducked as a berserker slashed at my neck and nimbly ran past the warriors farther down the beach. Hurrying to Morrag’s corpse I leaned down and grabbed his ax, its weight awkward in my fragile hands. I stared the kvaldir down as they charged, knowing full well I didn’t stand a chance.
Four enraged tuskarr warriors came to my rescue, wielding cruelly barbed harpoons. I saw one tuskarr stab a kvaldir in the gut and rip the weapon back out, pulling along strings of pulpy slime. The kvaldir died before he had time to scream. The short tuskarr managed to evade many of the kvaldir blows, and the thick layers of flesh and fat softened the ones that came through. Meanwhile, the tuskarr weapons seemed designed to kill the kvaldir with ease. Rather than slicing or puncturing, the barbs on the harpoon shafts tear out the enemy’s innards.
I ran to assist the tuskarr as best I could, putting all my effort in controlling Morrag’s ax. My swings never even came close to hitting, but they distracted the kvaldir as the tuskarr destroyed them.
When it ended I stood in a pile of ooze with three of the tuskarr. One lay dead, and another bled freely from a score of wounds. The ship whose crew we’d killed shivered as if afraid, the ancient wood suddenly peeling away and falling to bits. Seconds later, only a few planks of driftwood remained.
Still the battle continued. I followed the unhurt tuskarr to the nearest skirmish, the injured warrior staying behind with a bow and arrow. Tuskarr and outlander fought side by side, bloodied but standing firm. Doomed to lose, the dwindling kvaldir kept up the fight until the last of them fell to the tuskarr harpoons, and the invading ships tore themselves apart in rapid succession. Their destruction left the ocean placid, as if the attack had never taken place.
The tuskarr raised their arms in celebration, bellowing insults at the disgusting kvaldir remnants. Laughter and rejoicing soon filled the village, even though ten of their number (and three foreigners) had died in the battle. Did I hear strain in their voices as they fought their sadness? Or did I simply imagine it because I expected it?
I talked with one of the gunners, a dwarf named Ulfred. He’d fought the kvaldir before in Kaskala, but knew little about them.
“They’re a riddle, they are,” he sighed.
“Are they undead? Elemental?”
“If anyone knows, they’re not telling us. Every time, an entire fleet lands on the shores and the kvaldir fight to the last. There’s no damned purpose to it. Maybe they’re softening the coasts up for something worse.”
The tuskarr took their dead to a ceremonial structure at the edge of the village. As we’d fought alongside them, Inquanok invited all foreigners to see the dead laid to rest.
Ornaments of soapstone and bone decorate the interiors of tuskarr homes, but the House of Departure (as it is called) is empty save for a great firepit, which the tuskarr filled with driftwood as we entered. Chalk-white ancestral sigils stretch across the walls, protecting the occupants from evil. Every tuskarr in Unu’pe came to give their respects, covering their faces with masks of carved bone, featureless save for the ghostly eye holes. One by one, the tuskarr lay their dead in the center of the firepit. All of Unu’pe sat in expectant silence as Inquanok shook a bone rattle over the corpses, so as to frighten away malign spirits.
When Inquanok set the rattle down, the entire room went mad. Tuskarr shrieked and cried, rolling on the ground or burying their masked faces in the ashes of the pit. Only Inquanok stood still, the rest hurling themselves into paroxysms of grief. It was as if a dam broke, all the unvoiced sorrow suddenly given voice. A troll sitting next to me wailed and beat his chest, sobbing as the emotional storm caught him in its grip. The screams inspired images of Hell, the pain of the damned made manifest. Tears flowed from the eyes of the non-tuskarr, and I lowered my own head, shaking as stricken cries rent the air.
Tuskarr embraced each other with fanatic intensity, their shared emotion strengthening the lamentation. I feared I’d go mad in that place, and felt amazed that they could sustain it for so long. Only when the sunlight from outside began to dim into night did they slow down, going from frenzied sadness to mournful acceptance.
Inquanok began to sing, his deep voice holding a simple up and down meter. He set five bone totems around the pit as he chanted. He walked back to the dais when finished and faced the pit, his arms upraised. Light flashed, followed by heat and smoke as flames poured out from the totems and set the bodies alight. Nearby tuskarr held out their hands, seeking to warm them one last time with the essence of the fallen.
I stayed in the House of Departure through the night, listening to the tuskarr sob behind their masks. Perhaps they cried about other losses in addition to their most recent. Being with them in this time of vulnerability felt almost like a trespass, but I could do nothing more than endure.
My next (and last) day in Unu’pe found me wandering the village in a daze, bemused by the suddenly cheerful tuskarr. They joked and laughed, bearing no sign of the frantic sorrow they welcomed the night before. Even from what I knew about tuskarr beliefs, the rapidity of the change astonished me.
“There is much to be happy for, Destron! We are all still alive, and those who lost their loved ones will find new ones. See it as a time of renewal,” explained Inquanok.
We stood within sight of the House of Departure. A white face emerged from the darkness within, looking out at the village through empty sockets for just a moment before disappearing.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“Some of us are not able to move on so easily,” he said with a disapproving rumble. “We let them continue to grieve if they insist. When they are ready to rejoin us, they may.”
“How long does that usually take?”
“Rarely more than a few days. It is foolish to stay sad for so long. As I’m sure you can tell, this is a very brutal world. We cannot afford to show any weakness.”