Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Sholazar Basin: Part 1
Two months crawled by in Coldarra’s frigid clime, the long days and nights running together into an exhausting blur. Dragons clashed in the sky while we scrambled to maintain the defenses, all forces recalled to the Transistus Shield. I aided as best I could, defending the camp against dragonspawn incursions.
I left only when the mages at last renewed and improved the defenses. Kirin Tor forces returned to the offensive, striking from the cover of stealth. Promised even greater rewards, mercenaries soon flooded the icy island and conducted regular raids into the Nexus. Dragon after dragon fell, overwhelmed by the demonic and Scourge weapons wielded by so many of these sell-swords.
I returned to the mainland, weary but convinced of Dalaran’s eventual victory. An endless winter seemed frozen into my sight, Coldarra’s ice returning to me every time I slept. Fortunately, I knew of a place that provided a fantastic alternative.
Word of Sholazar Basin had quickly spread throughout the Horde and Alliance forces of Northrend. Rumors described a veritable Un’goro of the north, a place of verdant jungles and teeming swamps. No one agreed on how such an environment could exist; magic, geothermal vents, and the grace of Elune were all offered as explanations.
It did not take me long to reach Sholazar Basin. I first stopped by Bor’gorok Outpost, a small Horde base on the windswept steppes north of Warsong Hold. There, I contacted a goblin merchant headed to Sholazar, planning to sell supplies to a large hunting camp there. Named Clag Gibble, he was an unaffiliated trader struggling up from hard times. Clag worked with another goblin merchant operating out of Warsong Hold, who sold him the supplies.
“Sholazar’s not exactly a great place to make money, but right now there’s no one else selling to Nesingwary,” he said, as his three-zeppelin flying caravan drifted out across the plains one blustery morning.
“Nesingwary? The hunter?”
“The same. Seems like an all right sort, I guess. There are other goblins in Sholazar, but they’re all Venture Company miners.”
“You don’t care to sell to them?”
“They don’t buy! Venture Company employees can only buy Venture Company goods. It’s sick, I tell you, corporate incest! But as long as we stay away from their mining operations, they won’t give us trouble.”
The road to Sholazar cuts through the peaks of the Borean Wall, taking a sudden plunge into the hot mists. Splashes of emerald peek out through the white steam and tropical birds make their raucous calls. I stood at the prow of the zeppelin for a moment, entranced by the sight as the tundra’s bitter winds howled around me, the scent of life on my desiccated nostrils.
Descending into the warm fog, I thought back to my time in Un’goro Crater, a seeming eternity ago. Yet the differences between the two anomalous jungles soon become apparent. Most of Un’goro is a marshland, lost in the shadows of immense and primitive trees that grow far from each other. Sholazar’s vegetation is far denser, its profusions of trees and ferns exploding from the damp earth, its flowers blooming in riots across the boundless canopy. The air quivers with the songs of birds and insects, and bright flashes of plumage dart from branch to branch.
We flew over large clearings where russet-furred giraffes strode through the grasses, picking leaves from the succulent trees in aloof grandeur. Scarlet flowers covered in prickly feelers waft in the breeze, tended to and quarreled over by bold-colored hummingbirds.
“Let me tell you, it’s good to be here after shivering for four weeks in Bor’gorok Outpost. Long exposure to cold does strange things to the mind,” said Clag. He closed his eyes, his mouth stretching out into a wide and toothy grin.
“Too bad the sun’s still so weak," he continued, "otherwise it’d feel just like Stranglethorn.”
Indeed, the sun’s rays feel distant in Sholazar, obscured by the vapor. The region’s northerly location also puts it much farther from the sun than the equatorial jungles. Sholazar’s periphery is surprisingly temperate, though I’d heard that the low-lying central basin is brutally hot and humid.
Clag knew little about Sholazar Basin’s origins. He relayed what he’d learned on his last supply run, namely that the Titans bore responsibility for the unusual environment.
“Something about how they tapped into the heat beneath the ground, venting it up through geysers. Hemet’s a dwarf, and dwarves say the Titans are responsible for everything, but there are some ruins on the basin’s rim.”
“Have they been explored?”
“Probably. Really not my business to know.”
The sun is not the only source of illumination in Sholazar Basin. Brilliant lights shine atop great stone mesas, making night as bright as day above the canopy. I spotted three during our flight; one nearby, and two more in the distant north and east.
“The Pillars, they’re called. Used to be five, just four now.”
“What happened to the fifth?”
“Blew up. Most think the Scourge did it. Whole armies of the undead are tearing up eastern Sholazar, or so I hear.”
My heart sank.
“Do I look like the Lich King to you? I’m not really sure what anyone wants with Sholazar. No one’s made a serious attempt to colonize the place. Right now the Horde controls access to the area but they don’t keep a real firm grip on it. There was some talk that they’d use it to resupply Lake Wintergrasp since that place keeps flaring up, but the jungle and steep terrain make it more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Are there any natives?”
“Some. Wolvar and gorlocs. All they do is fight each other.”
“I’m surprised the Horde and Alliance haven’t enlisted them as proxies.”
“Ha! Me too, I’m thinking it’s too remote for them to care. Not to say that the factions totally ignore Sholazar. The Horde has agents in Nesingwary’s camp who make sure that the Alliance agents don’t start caring about Sholazar, and vice versa.”
We saw the smoke of campfires early in the seventh day out of Bor’gorok. The zeppelins continued their ponderous pace, landing at Nesingwary’s camp at mid-afternoon.
I thanked Clag for the ride and set off to explore as the caravan porters unloaded crates of food, tools, and ammunition. Packed to the brim with hunters and researchers, Nesingwary’s Camp is in constant disarray. Dwarves predominate, though I found representatives from nearly all the major races. One of the larger tents shook with the sounds of wild Dwarven song, a sullen ogre laborer going inside to deliver two more casks of precious beer.
Hemet Nesingwary himself lives in the northern part of the camp, his luxurious tent surrounded by past trophies. Tiger and crocolisk skulls stare out from posts, their once-mighty jaws propped open as a testament to Hemet’s skill. Preserved wings of Nagrand windrocs hang from the sides of the pavilion, and a great clefthoof hide is spread out as a welcoming mat. I found the display rather macabre.
“Aye, I’ve hunted with Nesingwary since Stranglethorn,” boasted a dwarven hunter named Bolgur Flintfist. I spoke to him outside the tavern tent, his face red from the heat or the drink or both.
“I must admit I’m not very familiar with the hunter’s world, though I know he’s achieved quite a name for himself.”
“For good reason! Finest hunter who ever lived. Made his name during the Second War shooting orcs in Dun Morogh. He dropped grunts and death knights alike with his rifle. Slowed the Scourge advance in the Third, and then went to explore Kalimdor. Got captured by centaurs in the Thousand Needles and escaped, freeing some tauren in the process.”
I nodded, thinking back to the ghastly centaur tent cities made from the hides of their own kind.
“Is he retired from military work now?”
“Still keeps his connections you understand, such things are always useful. He’s a free agent for now, mostly gives the young bucks an opportunity to hunt. Hemet doesn’t do so much himself.”
“Really? With all the trophies I figured he’d be out hunting every day.”
“Heh! Lad, someone else bagged most of those trophies. Give them to Hemet, and he’ll put in a good word for you at one of the Alliance militaries. I’d reckon half of the rangers in the Eastern Kingdoms got their positions thanks to him.”
“What about Horde hunters?”
“Well, Hemet can’t do as much for them. Hemet’s word used to carry weight in some of the tauren tribes, but they’re starting to get riled up about all the hunting. He does pay good coin for trophies brought in by Horde hunters.”
“Why the fascination with trophies?”
“Who can say? It’s not like he claims them for himself, he gives credit where it’s due and remembers who bagged each and every skull and hide. Hemet’s a strange sort, no doubt.”
Hemet’s entourage consists of notables from all around the world. Given the preponderance of guns and dangerous activities, it does come across as an international incident in the making. For this reason, Hemet relies on a select group of hunters to keep the peace. Expeditions are organized according to factional allegiance, preventing assassination attempts in the field. Well-trained guards maintain vigil throughout the camp itself, intervening at the merest hint of trouble.
“Most hunters keep to their own kind,” explained Kron’gor, an aged orc whose one good eye still gleamed with vigor. A high-ranking warrior in the Bloodeye War-pack, he’d fought with distinction in the Second and Third Wars.
“Who are the hunters here?”
“There are two types. First are those like myself, who know Hemet and the ways of the hunt. Rich dwarves, human nobles, farstriders on leave, and the like. Then are the young whelps who drift in from the Borean Tundra, eager to prove themselves. Trouble only comes from the second group.”
“Are fights common in the second group?”
“More than they are among the first, but Hemet’s guards are swift to act. Any who raise their hands against another in this camp are thrown to the jungle’s mercies.”
“What is Hemet’s reputation in the Horde? I find it interesting that he is able to keep the peace so well.”
“That depends. The tauren hailed Hemet as a hero for rescuing so many of their own kind. Yet as word spread of his deeds, blazing a path of glory through Stranglethorn and Nagrand, their view darkened. Most now think him wasteful, hunting for selfish reasons. Only the tribe of those he rescued still honors him, and even they find him disturbing.”
“Does Hemet use his prey for anything other than trophies?”
“The meat is always eaten, and there are plenty willing to buy the skins. His hunters are less fastidious than the tauren, but he hardly wastes his quarry. It is Hemet’s motivations that disturb the tribes.”
“And what of the orcs?”
“Most orcs don’t know of him. I respect Hemet for his bravery and skill, as do the other orcs here. Trolls as well. We see nothing wrong with earning fame through the hunt. Though I fear Sholazar is less promising than Nagrand.”
“Why is that?”
“The great beasts here do not know fear. They practically walk into range,” he sighed. “I wanted more of a challenge.”
“There’s no history of hunting in Sholazar?”
“No. The wolvar hunt, but they came here only recently and usually chase after smaller prey. The giraffes and woolly rhinos only fear the drakes; they think us too small to pose a threat.”
“Is that impacting morale?”
“Not as much as it should. Too many of the hunters here are soft, going to Sholazar only to carouse with their fellows. I came here to keep my skills keen, since the Horde may still call me to take my bow and bring true death to the Scourge! But even a child could hunt in Sholazar.”
Night descended onto Sholazar, the jungle heralding the darkness with the cries of frogs and monkeys. Proving the camp’s ultimately frivolous nature, a tent of dwarves and humans competed against nature’s sounds with an litany of drinking songs. Their slurred ballads faded at around midnight while the screams of the forest continued unabated.
Light drizzle fell from a clouded sky the next morning. The camp’s unsung heroes, its cooks and cleaners, roused themselves for another day of work. Mostly dwarves and humans, they are well-compensated by Hemet Nesingwary and seem to enjoy high morale. I did hear a few complaining about the number of Horde hunters at the camp, thinking it a security risk.
A team of researchers called the Naller Expedition (after its leader, Fenton Naller), was also in the Nesingwary Base Camp at the time of my visit. Sponsored by a number of major research centers around the globe, they sought to uncover the natural mysteries of Sholazar Basin.
“Sholazar offers an abundance of endemic flora and fauna. Plenty of scholars jumped at the chance. Some of us served with the Marshal Expedition down in Un’goro,” said a stocky human woman named Bergesse Antouille.
“Ah, I actually passed through their camp when I traveled in Un’goro. How do they fare?”
“Their camp is more or less permanent now, though most of the original staff went home. Un’goro already has too many researchers, so Sholazar really provides us with a wonderful opportunity.”
“Are you attached with the Explorers' League?”
“No. They did not approve of us including some Horde researchers. Preposterous, it’s not as if their political affiliations makes them bad at their jobs! The Explorers' League reps warned us over and over again that we’d be arrested if we so much as touched the Titan ruins here. As if that was our intent!
“Anyway, Nesingwary offered to foot some of the bill and he’s a very wealthy man. Loves reading about nature—when he’s not killing it. Between him and the various universities, we were able to get by.”
“You sound conflicted about Hemet.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m researching new ways for him to slaughter the poor beasts here. His lackeys do most of it, really. He just collects the trophies.”
“Why does he do that?”
“It’s a show of status. Sure, he gives credit to the people who bagged the trophies, but he knows nobody pays attention to that. They just think he’s the greatest hunter of all time. I’ll be glad when we put this place behind us in a few days.”
“Where are you headed?”
“The River’s Heart, at the center of Sholazar. The environment changes drastically according to the altitude. The River’s Heart is basically where four different rivers coalesce, one of them flowing in from the ocean!”
“From the ocean? I’m surprised the entire basin doesn’t overflow.”
“Preliminary studies suggest that something at the bottom of River’s Heart takes water back out to the ocean, maybe a subterranean current of some kind. Nesingwary’s group came here from the ocean through the Seabreach Flow; you can still see the remains of the ship a half-mile upstream. Anyway, you’re free to join us when we leave. You look a little out of place here.”
“I think I might do that, thank you.”
Hemet proved something of an enigma. No two accounts of the man matched up precisely. Some credited him with leading raids deep into Zul’gurub and other dark places, while others dismissed such stories as rumors or boasts. Everyone agreed on his heroism during the Second War, and his daring escape from the Galak encampment.
“Very few people escape from the centaur prisons. That he managed to, and rescue others in so doing, makes even the wildest stories about him seem plausible,” said Gordus Leadfoot, the camp’s supply clerk.
I found Hemet standing outside his tent later that day. Morning’s clouds had cleared by that point, transitioning to a warm and damp afternoon. His monocle and muscular physique gave him the look of an aristocratic pugilist. He waved when he saw me and soon started talking to me like an old friend. Piles of animal skulls stared at us with gaping eyes as we talked.
“I don’t do as much hunting these days. Not to say that I don’t ever go out, rifle in hand, to bag my dinner! But these bones get old, and my scars start itching whenever it rains, which is often! Next time I ought to hunt in a desert,” he laughed.
“If you don’t mind my saying, I’ve heard a lot of conflicting stories about you. How do I know what’s true and what isn’t?”
“Ha ha! Ah, Destron, lad, how do you ever know? No two people remember an event the same way.”
“This is true,” I concurred.
“Folks tell all kinds of stories about me, and I tell stories about myself. I exaggerate, sometimes I make mistakes or remember things wrong, the wonderful sins committed by every storyteller.”
“Which stories about you are actually true?”
“We’d be here talking for days to put all of that in order!”
Hemet’s cavalier attitude troubled me, even though I agreed with him on the difficulty of finding the truth.
“What about the trophies? What’s your motivation for collecting so many?”
“Oh, that? Simply to always remember where I’ve been, what I’ve lived through.”
“Seems like it would be hard to forget.”
“Sure, but I like having a memento that really gives you a punch to the gut when you look at it. I’m old, you know. Hard to feel things the way I used to. This way I always know I’m alive.”
He gave a weird, high-pitched laugh.
“Ah, the things I’ve seen. Thousand Needles was the worst though. The centaurs are the only race I’ve met where I can’t think of a single good example from the lot. Those awful tents made of their own skin, gnawed centaur bones everywhere... utter savages. But they do make an impression.”
“Do you keep any mementos from your days as a prisoner?”
“Not on display,” he growled. “Not fitting to show. But these?” he said, pointing to the skulls. “These are good. Remind me of good times in this beautiful world of ours. I remember who gave me each and every trophy. That big thunder lizard skull I got from another dwarf, a brave lass named Doanna Hammertooth. Brought it all the way from the Barrens she did. That grand clefthoof hide in my tent is the work of Korrok’dal, a Mag’har hunter, twice as fierce as Nagrand’s worst storms!
“I’m honored to make the acquaintances of these people. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of them are twice the hunter I am. And that’s really what I want to do here; see these young and brave souls pitting their wits against the wild. No better way to know you’re alive than to plunge into the jungle dark! Sholazar’s not the best place for that, perhaps, but it’s not bad either.”
Hemet turned to face the jungle when he finished speaking, eyeing the lush jungle with a lonely look in his eye.
Sholazar is a land rich with life and green beyond belief, the color positively bursting from every inch. Macaws flit from tree to tree, colored as bright as ornaments while great snakes rest along branches in languorous repose, soaking up the damp warmth. The brackish waters of the Seabreach Flow run swift along a shallow bed of rocks, utterly unnavigable.
The Naller Expedition went by foot, following the river to its terminus, weeks away, at Sholazar’s heart. Some part of me relished escaping Northrend’s endless cold and war and the land’s fecundity almost made me believe that I’d emerge to find the world healed.
For all its pristine beauty, Sholazar is not without its difficulties. Swarms of flies colonized the air around each explorer, mining sweat and blood from their hot skins while they marched on in stoic determination. Familiar with places like Un’goro, they knew better than to exhaust themselves trying to swat the insects. Damp air weighed on our shoulders like lead, and we felt as if we were sinking into the soft ground under the humidity’s weight.
A tauren named Holkolam Windmane led the way, hacking through the undergrowth with an adamantite machete. Kada, a young orc shaman, guided his path, keeping him from going down aimless tributaries and away from the torrid pools where toothsome crocolisks slept on rotten logs, waiting for the next meal. Nearly everyone carried a gun of some sort, a precaution in event of attack.
We reached the escarpment after a week of travel, the waters of the Seabreach Flow crashing into tangled ocean of green limbs and leaves, untouched by the slightest breeze. From the top we breathed in the cloying scent of growth and decay, feeling as if we stood before some primal and unknowable god.
It took us a full day to scale the cliff, a task made all the more daunting by what awaited us: the impenetrable Wildgrove Mangal. Here the Seabreach Flow loses its course, spreading in all directions through moss-skinned mangrove trees that stand on roots arranged like spider legs. Reaching up to my waist at the deepest point, the waterways offer no real navigation cues. Lilies clog the stagnant pools, their blossoms colored like gems in the noisy jungle night. Bejeweled dragonflies and water beetles buzz all through the swamp, their sounds trapped under a dense canopy that is as thick as stone.
“I do not mean to sound doubtful, but can we really find the way to River’s Heart from here?” I asked Bergesse as we set up camp.
“It’s been done before. Don’t worry, Kada’s very good at what she does.”
“She’s been here before?”
“Once. Sholazar’s not as untouched as it might seem; people have been exploring it since the Horde and Alliance first started mucking around in Northrend.”
I talked to Kada and she related to me the story of her first exploration. She and a band of independent warriors had heard word of the Lich King expanding his reach into Sholazar, and they vowed that his minions would fall under their blades before anyone else’s.
“We never did battle against the Scourge. Instead, we found different battles,” she sighed.
“How do you mean?”
“Wolvar and gorloc wage war all through this jungle. The wolvar call themselves the Frenzyheart, coming to this hot land to flee the Scourge that ruined their ancient home. The gorlocs are called the Oracles, and they vow to defend this land. My companions split, some helping the Frenzyheart and others the Oracles.”
“Really? Your companions actually fight each other?”
“They are warriors. It is easy to forget allegiance in this land, and independent warriors are prone to rash decisions.”
“You did not take a side?”
“No. I am not sure who is right. I consult the spirits, but they cannot advise me until they know more of the situation. Good orcs fight on both sides. I wonder how many still live.”
Kada’s words sparked my curiosity, and more than a bit of alarm. As she pointed out, it is not inconceivable that unaffiliated orcish warriors, far from home, might choose opposite sides. An organized war-pack would simply pick one, and that would by default become the Horde’s regional proxy.
“Were there others besides your friends taking part in the battle? Races of the Alliance?”
“I saw a few dwarves and humans among the Frenzyheart. Beyond that, I do not know.”
This suggested an arrangement similar to the Aldor and Scryers in Shattrath, the two sides not falling neatly into the Horde and Alliance dichotomy. But in Shattrath, the grace of the Naaru kept the disagreement peaceful. Nothing restrains violence in Sholazar.
I became acquainted with one of the Naller Expedition’s more interesting members, a talkative Broken porter named Storokos. He belonged to the first generation born to Broken parents, and knew nothing about life before the mutations.
“I grew up in Zangarmarsh, you know, one of the Wrekt! But my parents, they saw the Wrekt were doomed, so they fled to Shattrath. Grew up to be a real tough one I did—had no choice, the Lower City being what it was. Things got quiet when the Naaru and the Pure Ones came.”
“You did not find the quiet to your liking?”
“No, they made things better. Now, I never talked to the Pure Ones all that much. Seemed as strange as arakkoa to me, even though my parents used to be Pure Ones. I never saw the connection myself. But then the Dark Portal opens up again, and all kinds of people start going into Shattrath—purple ones, furry ones, dead ones like you! And they all tell me about this place called Azeroth, where the sky isn’t torn to pieces.
“You can imagine how much me and the other young Broken talked about this. Broken—funny word, I never felt like anything was broken about me. So we signed up to go to the Exodar with the Pure Ones. Figured that would be a good way to do things.”
“I’ve heard there’s a large Broken population on the Exodar,” I said, being discreet.
“Oh yes, over a thousand! First thing I know, some Pure Ones are putting a pick in my hands and telling me how I can help the Light by working and praying all day. Worst of all were the other Broken; these fellows really are broken! They kept telling me and my friends how we should be thankful and grateful for the chance to do work.”
“Did all these Broken used to be regular draenei?”
“To the last. Listening to them got old, so we left.”
“The draenei didn’t stop you?”
“Oh, they tried. Our preserver, a type of priest who works with Broken, kept telling us how we needed to stay and recover. She convinced a few, but me? I was gone on the first boat, standing right at the front, a whole brand new planet stretched out in front of me!”
I could easily imagine Storokos at the prow of a Kaldorei vessel, arms opened to embrace Azeroth.
“How did you find the night elves to your liking?”
“They seemed all right, but I did not stay there long. Took another ship and went to Menethil, and from there to Ironforge. Now the dwarves! Them, I like! Do not get me wrong, I think the Light is important, but there is more to life than praying. The dwarves pray, but they also drink lots of beer. I love beer!”
“The dwarves have fine brews.”
“Can you undead types taste it? Someone said you could not.”
“We have a limited capacity for taste. I’m going by what I remember from life.”
“Anyway, I got a job there, dwarves are small so big people like me can be very helpful.”
“Are there other Broken?”
“Only a few. I helped cart some goods for Naller when he was gathering expedition members in Ironforge. He liked my work, said he’d pay well. So here I am.”
“Did you find it difficult to fit in at Ironforge?”
“Sometimes. My Dwarven is still not very good. But it’s a big city, plenty to do. I spent a lot of time with humans, actually, and I might go to Stormwind after this. It is funny, they all say I don’t act like a draenei, and I tell them it’s because I’m not. I guess nobody knows what a Broken is supposed to act like, so I can do whatever I want.”
“That sounds liberating.”
“Is it like that with you Forsaken? From what I hear your people are a bit like us. Unwanted children who enjoy killing things,” he chuckled. “Some Broken tribes were not very friendly. But my question stands.”
“Unfortunately, we carry baggage. Undeath has long been associated with evil, and I fear that we Forsaken have given the world few reasons to think otherwise.”
“You should leave, form your own tribe. That’s what Broken do when they get tired of things.”
“That might not be a bad idea. What’s your opinion of the Horde?”
“The Horde? Hmm.” He was silent for a moment. “I am Alliance. Trolls, the pink elves, the furry ones—tauren?”
“I have no problem with them. Orcs? Them, I do not always trust. Now Kada, she is all right. But orcs did very bad things to my parents. From the look of things here, they might start doing bad things again. So I am careful.”
“Do you think the Broken would be considered an Alliance race?”
“As a whole? No, most in Outland do not care much about the Alliance. But any Broken here on Azeroth is part of it. They help us. We should come up with a new name besides Broken, I think. The Repaired? Ha! Let the Pure Ones pray about that for a while!”
“How do you feel about the draenei?”
“Oh, they are very good, I am just making a little fun of them. But they are...” he trailed off.
While many believe the Broken to be wards of the draenei, the truth is far more complex. Those still in Outland are divided between the Naaru loyalists in Shattrath and the rebellious Ashtongue Deathsworn, who seek to forge a new destiny separate from the draenei. Then there are those like Storokos, eager to experience life in all its forms, wanting only to be independent.
A week and a half inched by as we fought our way through the swamp, the vines seeming to grow back the moment we cut them down. Sleepless eyes fixed on the green shadows, and aimed guns at crocolisks that weren’t there. Naller’s focus and confidence kept the expedition on track. A researcher and naturalist, Naller was also a veteran of the Second and Third Wars and used this military experience to his advantage.
“Swamps like this are tough, you just have to be a little bit tougher,” he commented.
“Dustwallow’s nowhere near as bad as this,” grumbled Bergesse.
“You know why? Because I was there to clean it out and plot the roads, back before anyone knew what kinds of horrible things lurked in there. I wrestled crocolisks and murlocs, punched out black dragons, and cleaned a solid ton of dust out of my armor every morning, noon, and night. If I could handle that, you can do this without complaining.”
The canopy thinned towards the end of our journey, veils of yellow light cutting through the steamy jungle haze. Sluggish waters picked up speed as the ground declined, the mire starting to rush over the moss-laden roots. A joyous cry from the front sent electric hope through the group, and we bounded ahead to see Holkolam raising his hands to the open sky.
Grand waterfalls plunge into the roiling depths of the River’s Heart, the entire Wildgrove Mangal draining into the ancient lake. Clouds of mist drift over the churning waters, rainbows arcing through their wispy forms. Geyser spouts grow from the solid rock around the lake, hinting at the awesome energies beneath the earth. At the edges stand the great palm trees, their segmented trunks bending from the weight of bulbous mauve fruit.
Descending the sheer cliffs around the River’s Heart took a day and a half. Relatively clear during the morning, the afternoon reveals the region’s true dangers. The midday heat nearly boils the water, turning what seems like half the lake into a torrid steam bath. We stopped our descent as hot vapors obscured our visions, forcing us to seek shelter on narrow ledges only as wide as our feet.
The expedition completed the descent the next morning, just in time for the afternoon’s outdoor sauna. These broiling hours render exploration impossible, the thick mists obscuring anything more than a few inches ahead and the heat bad enough to bring a strong orc to his knees. Even Storokos, native to Zangarmarsh’s stifling climate, found the River’s Heart exhausting.
Researchers to their core, the inclement weather could not entirely dampen the expedition’s enthusiasm. Naller, Bergesse, and others drew sketches of the plants and peered into the lake in hopes of divining its secrets. We followed the northern edge of the River’s Heart towards Lakeside Landing, a tiny airstrip used by Nesingwary’s associates.
We reached the landing just as steam began forming a second skin over the lake. A flier of recent make stood on the runway, a bearded human man in an oil-stained shirt leaning against the fuselage. Sweat poured down his body in rivulets, and he blinked as we approached.
“Hey, who are you?” he demanded, grabbing his wrench.
“I’m Fenton Naller. Didn’t Nesingwary inform you about us?”
“Nesingwary doesn’t tell me much. All the planes here are rusted shut on account of the damn steam. Marvin’s been trying to mix some alchemical formula to clear it out, but he doesn’t have much to work with down here.”
“You’re not the only one here?”
“Marvin and Tamara, they’re farther back in the thicket. All I know is Nesingwary isn’t paying me enough to be cooked here for days on end,” he sighed.
“We might be able to help, we’ve got some sharp minds here. If worst comes to worst, you’re free to go back with us when we leave in a month.”
“Sure. I just want to get out before the Scourge gets here.”
“Scourge? I heard they were farther east.”
“They are, but they’ll spread. I flew up there a while back, saw moving bones and rotten flesh pour down like an avalanche from Icecrown way. The Goddess is keeping them in check for now, but who knows how much longer.”
“Goddess?” Fenton’s visible confusion deepened.
“That’s what we call her. This giant woman with green hair, all covered in leaves and leading an army of walking plants. Damndest thing I ever saw.”
He spoke in a rush of words, gesticulating as he stared at us with bloodshot eyes. I began to wonder how I’d leave River’s Heart; I’d badly underestimated the density of the jungle, and did not care to try my luck in the Wildgrove Mangal without help. I supposed that helping out in a research expedition would provide enough experience to keep me interested for a while.
We spent the next few days setting up a camp that consisted of open-shelters all along the beach. Vic introduced us to his compatriots, Marvin and Tamara Wobblesprocket. A married gnome and human couple (the only example of such I have ever seen), they bore the hardships of Lakeside Landing with better humor than did Vic. Then again, they had never seen the carnage allegedly taking place to the northeast.
“Vic was practically leaping in the air with excitement when he first came back. A day later, all the life went out of him. Now he just sits by the plane all day, trying to get home,” said Tamara.
“You and Marvin do not seem worried about it.”
“We are, but we figure Professor Calvert would send someone down eventually.”
Naller had mentioned Professor Calvert, one of the leaders of the expedition. Her poor health had forced her to stay in the Nesingwary Base Camp.
“Marvin half-feared Vic would go to the wolvar to get away.”
“I’ve heard some talk of them. Recent arrivals?”
“Not very pleasant either. I think the only reason they don’t attack us is because of the human warriors who help them fight the gorlocs. The wolvar sometimes visit Lakeside Landing to make a trade, but I get the feeling that the little beasts would gut us as soon as look at us.”
“Does any fighting occur here?”
“No, this position isn’t exactly defensible. They keep it to the jungles, which suits us fine.”
There were plenty of inquiries as to why Tamara had married a gnome, some phrased more politely than others. The only answer she gave was that she loved him and he loved her, and that was all that needed to be said. I was inclined to agree.
Sharp little claws jabbed into the small of my back as the wolvar shoved me towards the bonfire, the flames inches away from my feet. He yowled in anger and I turned around to see the dirty brown fur bristling on his back, foam dripping from his clenched jaws. A pack of other wolvar bickered around the flames, ignoring my plight as the two orcs guffawed in delight.
“Words won’t make him think you’re strong, Forsaken! You need to fight back!” shouted a lean orc named Grenk.
“But not with magic,” added Dheg, his friend. “You need to do it like a man.”
The wolvar raised his arms, the muzzled head retreating into a thick neck, pointed little ears folded back. The small black eyes offered no hint of calm or mercy, the entire body quivering in tensed anticipation.
I tried to gauge his strength. Small for a wolvar, he appeared less threatening than most of his kin. Yet he’d spent an entire life hunting and fighting in the deadly northern wilds. I, who prefer to fight at a distance, would be at a disadvantage. How far would the wolvar go? Looking at his maddened expression, teeth bared and growling, I did not think he’d be satisfied with anything less than my death. If I used magic to kill it, would the entire tribe turn on me? I’d fought with my fists before and won, though only in moments of desperation when my mind was still locked in the nightmare of combat.
I erred on the side of caution and looked away, hearing the orcs yell insults at me. All at once the wolvar relaxed and he padded towards me, suddenly curious. Then he swiped at me with a sharp yip, his paw hitting the side of my knee. I stumbled into the dirt as the wolvar walked away.
“Fool! Now you’re the lowest in the pack,” scolded Dheg. “Show off some Horde pride; there are dwarves here that the wolvar respect more than you.”
“I’m hardly an expert in fisticuffs,” I retorted, suddenly wanting to blast the entire tribe into oblivion.
“The one who just beat you was Hrrlhra, the most pitiful Frenzyheart of them all, barely worth the name of his tribe. He’s slow, foolish, and timid. A single shove and he’d be serving you. Here, watch: Hrrlhra!” shouted Dheg.
Hrrlhra scampered back on all fours, so eager to please that he looked like some rich old lady’s Pomeranian. Dheg growled something in the wolvar’s language and Hrrlhra bowed. An instant after, he sprung into action, a thrashing furry ball barking incomprehensible demands at me.
“Hrrlhra!” Dheg bellowed, and followed it with an angry series of snarls. Hrrlhra shrank back, again docile, and hurried off to pick up a hollowed-out gourd before disappearing into the jungle.
“I told Hrrlhra to get me some water. He told you to get it for him, which was his right to do. But no Horde, however timid, should serve these simpleton savages, so I interceded. I won’t do it again.”
Dheg and the Frenzyhearts spotted our arrival in Lakeside Landing from above, and immediately came down for a visit. Going about with his mostly bare chest laden in crude charms of wood and bone, Dheg relished his role as a jungle savage. I went with them after they finished trading, curious to meet the wolvar. Dheg had tried to persuade Kada to visit as well, but she had refused.
Three-foot tall bundles of violence, the wolvar live in scattered tribes throughout Northrend. Disdained by humans, taunka, and tuskarr alike, they had nonetheless carved out their own small domains. The other races disliked the wolvar for many reasons, especially their allegedly inconstant nature; they only followed their word when sufficiently intimidated. Kirovi humans had even hunted the wolvar for sport, entirely wiping them out in the Grizzly Hills.
Already faltering, the wolvar quickly fell to the advancing Scourge. Those who fled their ruined lands reconvened to form the Frenzyheart Tribe. Sholazar Basin is far from an ideal home; the smothering heat quickly tires the wolvar, who are unable to sweat. Most live in the comparatively high altitudes at the edge of Sholazar, though the fiercest warriors chose to make their homes closer to the center so as to pursue their war against the gorloc Oracles.
The wolvar make their homes in hard-packed earthen mounds, the entrances and windows surrounded by reed arches that open up to the outside like bonnets. Densely placed wooden stakes jut out from the mounds to defend against raiders and angry beasts.
Not a day goes by that the jungle does not attempt to retake the land, and the Frenzyheart invest much of their effort in keeping the forest at bay. Each morning, right after breakfast, the older wolvar go out to push back the jungle’s nighttime growth with crude machetes and controlled burns. By sundown, Sholazar will have already resumed its inexorable advance, creepers and flowering moss spreading across the cleared land.
I spent the night in Dheg’s tent, nursing my bruised ego. Dheg told me more about his time with the Frenzyheart Tribe, commending their ferocity (though in a noticeably patronizing tone).
“Destron, you came here to learn, did you not?”
He shook his head.
“Few of the Frenzyheart know any tongue but their own. Those who do will not talk to you because you were defeated by Hrrlhra. You are the lowest of the low!”
“What am I to do?”
“Simple. Defeat Hrrlhra. He’s slow, Destron. I am sure you can do it.”
“Are there any tactics you’d recommend?”
“Wolvar are furry. Grab a few tufts—grab them deep, by the roots—and kick Hrrlhra in the belly a few times. He’s a rank coward with little tolerance for pain.”
“Do I need to challenge him?” I felt distaste at my own words, even as part of me relished the thought of besting the wolvar.
“Shove him a few times, but strike right after. Don’t give him a chance.”
“The Frenzyheart care little for honor. Magic outrages them; anything else is fair game.”
“Is their entire society arranged like this?”
“Ha! The wolvar are dogs. I’ve half a mind to take Hrrlhra and give him to my son as a pet. They’re less than dogs, really, for a good hound is loyal and true, qualities the wolvar will never know. Yes, they do fight. Any wolvar you best in combat is your slave; any who bests you is your master.”
“Is such an arrangement permanent?”
“No. A slave can attack a master at any time and change things around.”
“Are these fights ever lethal?”
“Don’t be foolish. They want slaves, not corpses. Are you really afraid of Hrrlhra?”
“I feel unsure. Small races usually have a good deal of muscle density, and they’re hard to hit.”
“Hrrlhra might be strong in comparison to you. But he’s still slow. You need to do this, Destron. I will not have these runts claiming mastery over anyone in the Horde.”
“You don’t seem fond of the Frenzyheart. Why do you stay with them?”
“I find their savagery worth respecting, and I’ve beaten enough to the ground that they know to walk carefully around me. Besides, the gorlocs are disgusting.”
“You came here to fight the Scourge. Do you still intend to?”
“We’ll lead the wolvar against the Scourge once the gorlocs are finished. The Frenzyheart cannot muster their full forces until they rule Sholazar.”
I awoke early the next morning as smoke rose up from the sod huts’ damp kitchens. Dheg stayed at the edge of Frenzyheart Hill, alongside the other foreign mercenaries. I hasten to add that orcs are by no means the only outsiders in Frenzyheart Hill. During my visit I encountered a trio of dwarven treasure seekers, a group of human mercenaries separated from their outfit, a closemouthed Sin’dorei magister, a gnomish researcher, and a pair of Revantusk hunters.
A wolvar suddenly jumped out from behind a bush, his claws outstretched and howling like a berserker. I hopped to the side as his claws tore the side of my coat, the wolvar landing heavy on the muddy ground and spinning to face me.
Anger took hold of me and I made a feint, moving as if to strike from his left. The wolvar lunged forward as I shifted instead to the right, grabbing fistfuls of fur on his scalp and lifting. I heard a ripping sound and yowls of pain as the bristly fur stretched. Not granting him respite, I drove my foot into his belly, and heard him yelp in pain.
Yet all this time he struggled, the coiled muscles in his compact form unleashing their strength until I felt like I wrestled with a giant. The fur in my hands at last came free, flecks of blood flying through the air as the wolvar hopped back only to jump forward again, his paw slamming into my leg.
I fell to the leaf-strewn earth, my world a bewilderment of slashing claws and barked cries. Gritting my teeth I grabbed at him again, heedless of the deep cuts he scored on my arm. Luck saved me; I caught him off-balance and pulled him to the ground.
We both righted ourselves during the lull, his unreadable eyes fixed on my sockets. A growl nestled in his throat as I drew myself to my full height, raising my shoulders and baring my own teeth.
A moment later the wolvar dropped to his knees and bowed.
“Rogrof serve master,” he whined. “Master bigger than Rogrof. Rogrof scared.”
I could only barely understand his Orcish, the language an unnatural fit for his muzzle.
“I am pleased,” I answered, feeling slightly ridiculous. I looked at the wounds on my arms, not really much more than scratches. “Are you hurt?” I asked.
“Have you eaten anything today?”
“No. Wife make food right now. Rogrof saw master. Thought master weak because Hrrlhra beat master. Now Rogrof know master stronger than Rogrof, because Rogrof stronger than Hrrlhra.”
“Is Hrrlhra now my slave?”
“No. Master slave of Hrrlhra. Master must beat Hrrlhra. But master, no Frenzyheart like Hrrlhra. Many Frenzyheart slave to Rogrof. Rogrof important. Master get respect for beating Rogrof.”
“I see. May I enter your burrow?”
He cocked his head in confusion.
“Master do what master want.”
I knew entering was risky; he could easily attack me again if he so chose. I hoped that the psychological nature of my victory would make Rogrof hesitate.
Rogrof led me into a damp, single-room hut where a small fire burned under an earthen pot filled with thick vegetable mash. Decaying leaves lined the floor and walls, giving the place a decidedly damp feel made more pronounced by the smoke that clung to every exposed surface. Weak light leaked in through tiny windows.
My own lanky frame seemed to take up half the chamber. Rogrof’s wife watched me in alarm, his three (admittedly adorable) cubs squeaking in fear. Rogrof shouted something to them, and they went returned to their business, casting nervous looks my way.
“Master want food?”
“No. I only wished to see how you lived. What do you eat?”
“Frenzyheart eat everything,” he said. “Grhra make morning food. Hrahra root from ground, meat from last night. Frenzyheart hunt too.”
“What sort of animals?”
“Small animal like bird and wasp. Big animal like ape and tapir. Better food in the high places. Only best Frenzyheart live here, to kill enemy. Wolvar here masters in other villages; master must protect slaves.”
“What about Hrrlhra?”
Rogrof made a strange sound somewhere between a bark and a purr. I realized he was laughing.
“Hrrlhra not wanted here, came from other village. Hrrlhra die soon. Too weak for Frenzyheart Hill. Frenzyheart use Hrrlhra to catch rat.”
I am not sure if it is fair of me to replicate Rogrof’s speaking habits in this writing. The broken Orcish gives the impression of stupidity, but he was no fool. Certainly he had little trouble understanding me. I finally chose to mimic it to paint a more evocative picture of Frenzyheart Hill, and my (possibly incorrect) interpretation of it as an outsider. The reader should simply keep in mind that languages like Orcish and Common are by no means the norm, and that not all races can use them conveniently.
“Who leads the Frenzyheart Tribe?”
“High Shaman Rakjak. Rakjak big and wise. Rakjak will kill slimies.”
“Frenzyheart enemy. Small and slimy.”
“Why are they your enemies?”
“Frenzyheart beat slimy. Slimy not be slave for Frenzyheart. Frenzyheart must make slimies slaves or dead.”
“Do the shamans also have to fight?”
“Shaman good fighter. Rakjak great fighter! Shaman no use spirit in fight. Just claw and tooth,” he said.
“Could I meet Rakjak?”
Rogrof looked down at his feet, like a bashful child. It’s easy to let the appearance of the wolvar lull one into a false sense of security. They look like living plush dolls.
“Rogrof slave to Rakjak first. Master not yet master of enough Frenzyheart. Master must fight much more to see Rakjak.”
“I see. I think I’ll pass, on that case.”
“Master might see Rakjak when Rakjak go through village. Rakjak do many things.”
After concluding that seeing Rakjak was not worth the trouble, I decided to instead learn about the wolvar in some other way. Navigating Frenzyheart Hill is never easy, the air laden with open animosity. I saw several ferocious squabbles that morning alone, the fighting wolvar resembling storms of twisting fur and snapping teeth.
Olitennsus Reveroptic was a freelance researcher associated with the Gnomeregan University-in-Exile. With his close-cropped hair and rigid demeanor, he looked more like a soldier than a scholar. He explained that the wolvar possess a remarkably high metabolism.
“Wolvar eat almost constantly, and they can eat just about anything,” he remarked. I thought I detected a hint of contempt in his voice.
“How do they keep from running out of food?”
“They don’t. That’s why the taunka hate them so much; the wolvar eat everything and move on. However, the wolvar lifespan only lasts twelve years, and the vast majority get killed before they reach that age.”
I wondered if there was any way for the wolvar to harness their spectacular energy to a more constructive purpose. While their hunting methods sustain them, it comes at the cost of stability and allies.
An older wolvar named Brugug offered some perspective. A warrior in the now-defunct Slaughterclaw Tribe (located in southwestern Dragonblight), he’d fought his way to a high position among the refugees. I met him near the center of the village where he sat on a pile of rotten leaves. At eleven years of age, he was the oldest and most cunning Frenzyheart.
“Brugug did many things. Brugug took food from the taunka until they made us stop. Brugug hunted many snow moose, and killed many ghosts. Scourge, you call them.” He was the first wolvar I’d met to use personal pronouns.
“What sort of future do you see here in Sholazar?”
“Future? No such thing. Only hunger in Brugug’s belly. Frenzyheart eat animals here, go somewhere else.”
“And when there is no place else to go?”
“Brugug dead by then, so does not care. But Brugug understand you. Brugug talk with humans and orcs, know why they build big villages.”
“Have you seen any of these cities?”
“Heard stories. Brugug once think wolvar do same. But Brugug got hungry, and hunted. Kept getting hungry, so just hunt and kill.”
“Other races can create these cities because they get steady food. Is there a way for the wolvar to attain this?”
“When wolvar wake up in the morning, wolvar want to run around and hit things. Wolvar must do this all day to sleep. No way to stay still long enough to grow things.”
“Farming does take a lot of effort,” I said, not mentioning the various enchanted labor-saving devices on which we all rely.
“Not fast though. Human told Brugug about this. Brugug move around in fight and in hunt. Wolvar have funny story. Long time ago, many gods had a fight, and the winner told the others to make the world. Loser gods do good job, because they fear winner god.
“But loser gods not like winner god either, so one of them makes wolvar. Wolvar eat and fight until nothing left to eat or fight. Wolvar make all animal and race upset, mess up entire world! But winner god just laugh and say wolvar must stay tough to live. So far, we stay tough. But Scourge tougher.”
According to their own creation story, the wolvar are a malicious joke unleashed upon the world. It even hinted that the wolvar knew their situation to be untenable and nearly absurd, fighting and eating without end.
“The wolvar did participate in the war against the magnataurs. Your people can work with others.”
“Brugug not know about war. Magnataurs big, but stupid.”
Given how long ago the war was fought, I suppose it is not surprising that the short-lived wolvar would forget.
I went back to Rogrof’s burrow and asked to speak to his wife, Grhra. She knew no languages besides her own, so Rogrof translated. I could tell he disliked this, fidgeting almost as soon as he started, though whether from insecurity or restlessness I could not say.
“Do the wolvar women also fight each other?”
“Weak fighters. Women do it less,” interjected Rogrof.
“What does Grhra say about this?”
He whined, before snarling something to his wife. She growled back, and Rogrof turned to me, grinding his right foot in the floor.
“Women not fight so much. Women with cubs in womb never fight.”
“What activities do you do?”
“Grhra nurse cubs. Cubs strong. Grhra gather small food.”
“Do you feel tired after doing this?”
“Grhra sometime feel tired when day end.”
I suspect that the female wolvar, whose tasks require a steady but less intense energy output, are better able to develop the race’s society. The Scourge all but destroyed the wolvar, who’d been leading precarious lives before then, and their future is in doubt.
However, the wolvar are also very patriarchal in outlook. I cannot imagine how one would encourage this societal shift to take place. Nor do I know anyone who would be willing to make the attempt.