Sunday, May 30, 2010
The Borean Tundra: Part 3
((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.