Monday, August 23, 2010
((Here's a short chapter dealing with Wintergrasp. Special thanks to this chapter goes towards Anthony Cohen for giving me the idea of partisans going commercial. Also, in case you haven't already seen the link, there's a discussion forum for the travelogue.))
“Glory awaits in Wintergrasp!”
A dozen Horde warriors repeated this mantra, their eyes alight in hope of fighting the Alliance. War between the factions becomes more likely each day, and to some, more desirable.
“I tire of hewing down the same lumbering corpse-men. Humans are weak, but they fight well and fierce. There is more honor in taking arms against them than against the Scourge,” claimed one young warrior.
Leaving Sholazar Basin took longer than I had expected. After leaving Freya and returning to Rainspeaker Canopy, I gave Moodle (the Oracle) some advice on improving his people’s situation. From there, I returned to the science expedition at the River’s Heart, and marched back to the Nesingwary Base Camp where I took Clagg’s supply zeppelin back to Warsong Hold.
Part of me had hoped that the misguided fury against the Alliance would have died down, but quite the opposite happened. A series of victories against the Scourge had caused the Horde to view the Lich King as less of a threat. I also heard troubling rumors of open conflict between the Horde and Alliance forces in Ashenvale and Hillsbrad.
As I walked among the angry Horde warriors, clamoring for more blood and battle, I kept thinking back to Dheg, the orc I’d killed when defending Rainspeaker Canopy. The Horde adventurers there told me I’d acted in the right, but I wondered if that opinion was really so widely held. Dheg’s savagery seemed a close fit to the prevailing attitude in Warsong Hold.
Secrets have a way of oppressing the soul, a factor that has always marred my enjoyment of anonymous travel in Alliance lands. I never thought to feel the same discomfort in a Horde citadel. How many in the Warsong Offensive had known Dheg, and thought of him as a friend? Not affiliated with any war-packs, accomplished independents like Dheg still receive a great deal of respect.
Airships make regular trips between Warsong Hold and Wintergrasp. Ostensibly hired by private parties to resupply the partisans, the zeppelins now carry small numbers of elite Warsong troops. While not officially there on behalf of the Horde, they fight just the same.
I bought passage on an already overstocked supply dirigible and found myself squeezed between crates in steerage, which a Horde mercenary group called the Black Moon Marauders had turned into a makeshift barracks. Only a small portion of the Marauders’ total numbers, they were proud to represent their group in Wintergrasp.
“I hear the boys in Battleborn all bragging about killing Alliance in Wintergrasp, and we figure it’s time for us to show folks how to do it all proper,” chuckled a lean troll marksman named Baz’jak.
A few fighters from the legendary Ebonflint War-pack, one of the Horde’s most prestigious warrior societies, flew on the dirigible with us. Staying mostly on the upper deck when not sleeping, they didn’t even pretend to be mere observers.
Little is known about Wintergrasp. Gnomish pilots had discovered the region a few years before the Explorers’ League began large-scale operations in Northrend. The thin mountain air and freezing temperatures make it a grim prospect for even the dwarves, and they delayed exploring the ancient citadels. Much to their chagrin, the Horde reached it first.
Forsaken excavators made some headway in uncovering the ruins, but the Horde agreed to halt all archaeological endeavors until the fall of the Lich King. Many in the Explorers’ League thought it a blasphemy for others to make use of what they saw as a dwarven birthright. The Alliance presence in Wintergrasp steadily increased over the months, ostensibly to observe Scourge troop movements in Icecrown.
When news of the Wrathgate Massacre reached Wintergrasp, the Alliance did not wait to avenge their murdered brethren. Volunteers (affiliated with, but not members of, the Explorers’ League) struck the great Titan citadel and killed or drove off the small garrison. Since then, the Horde and Alliance have waged a back and forth war for Wintergrasp, neither side able to hold the citadel for long.
Partisan enthusiasm dimmed as we began the steep ascent to Wintergrasp. The Black Moon Marauders huddled together, shivering in flea-ridden fur blankets as they nursed the splitting headaches and dizziness caused by the altitude. Water froze in open cups one night, and the mercenary leader, a one-eyed orc named Zorgul, kicked the Marauders awake and ordered them to run back and forth in the cabin.
“Run before the blood freezes in your veins, whelps!” he snarled, leading them in the exercise.
They ran for a time before dropping to their knees, one by one, whimpering at the pain in their chests as they gasped for breath. Unable to keep anything down they vomited up their breakfasts minutes after being fed, filling the icy cabin with an abominable stink. Zorgul alone remained standing, surveying the mess with contempt.
The dirigible made its landing in the middle of the night, guided by a lone electric lamp at the top of Shadowsight Tower, a small fortification in southwestern Wintergrasp. Zorgul drove the Marauders out of the airship with threats and curses, the exhausted and nauseous soldiers proving quite compliant.
“I love seeing these whelps get their wings,” laughed an orcish woman in mismatched armor as she watched the Marauders stumble onto land.
I soon learned that the Horde thought it best to let their troops suffer through the harsh acclimatization. Previous operations (like the Silithus campaign) saw shamans convincing the air spirits to make high-altitude travel safer and easier. Back then, however, the combat took place in the lowlands. Warriors in Wintergrasp have no choice but to adapt to such hostile conditions. Nonetheless, the Horde commanders seem a little too fond of making the process as brutal as possible.
Though I was not able to confirm this, I did hear that Alliance airships give their passengers pills to ease the discomfort, allowing for a more gradual adjustment. Alliance shamans were apparently unable to make a bargain with the fickle and cruel local air spirits. Perhaps the taunka method of spiritual domination is the only way to accomplish such feats in Northrend.
Worn down to a husk by time and war, Shadowsight Tower had once stood as a grand Titan spire. No one knows the tower’s original purpose, the ancient machines too esoteric and worn down to offer much information. These same machines keep the sparse interior warm in spite of the collapsed ceiling and the gaping holes in the walls.
A Forsaken by the name of Lars Dallow serves as Shadowsight Tower’s unofficial leader. A skilled mage in the infamous Tirisfal Raiders (a partisan gang), he wields significant influence in the Deathguard. His moldy skin waxy and peppered with tiny holes, Lars’ decrepitude masks his great power.
“From what I’ve seen, it appears that the Horde intends to ramp up its involvement in Wintergrasp. Do you think this to be the case?” I asked early the next day.
“I can’t speak for the Horde, Destron, only for Undercity. But we have every reason to be here.”
“What exactly are we fighting for in Wintergrasp?”
“Several things, most notably revenge. The fanatics of the Explorers’ League slaughtered our brethren in Wintergrasp Fortress. This insult cannot be tolerated.”
“My understanding was that partisans, not the Explorers’ League itself, did the deed.”
“Yes, the Steel Hammers led the attack. Their name alone should tell you where their allegiances truly lie. At any rate, our forces ground the Hammers to dust, the survivors fleeing to other Alliance-backed freelancers.”
I could not really argue that; the Alliance provides as much tacit support to its partisans as does the Horde.
“What’s in Wintergrasp Fortress itself?”
“Assorted Titan leftovers. Some might be usable as weapons, though nobody really knows. Whatever the case, driving the Alliance from Wintergrasp will shame and demoralize the dwarves for years to come.”
Partisan groups rarely last for long. Consisting of extreme personalities repeatedly subject to the world’s cruelest places, it’s easy for them to fragment and fall apart.
“Marauders are a good bunch, I’m thinking,” said Baz’jak later that day. As adaptable as the rest of his race, he’d mostly recovered from the rigors of the journey and bided his time making sketches of the surrounding landscape. His efforts displayed considerable (though obviously untrained) talent.
“Have you been with many other groups?”
“Oh, sure. After my papa kicked me out of the Bloodscalp Tribe I joined up with Brizkig’s Wreckers down in Stranglethorn. Brizkig paid us well, but he up and disappeared one day in Booty Bay so we all went our own ways. Found a new outfit with the Red Spears in the Barrens; mostly tauren, real honorable and the like. Most of us got killed in Razorfen Downs. Whatever else they may be, quilboar are right fierce.
“Tried working as a smith for a while in Sen’jin, but that never really worked. Got bored sitting around, you know? Savage Warcry took me in, you hear of them?”
“I have, actually.” Savage Warcry had been one of the companies that did the most to cement the reputation of independent warriors. Word of their skill and courage in defending Horde caravans against raiders made them veritable heroes in Orgrimmar. I knew that they’d disbanded while I was in Outland, though I never got the details.
“Heh, everyone knows Savage Warcry. Yeah, a good crew for sure. But then our boss, Khurrok, got this orc woman, Vola, to take care of Savage Warcry’s money. Now, Vola never fought next to us, so we didn’t really know her, but she made a lot of friends in our group. Turns out, she was sneaking gold away from us and putting it in the hands of Bladestorm, a different group we didn’t like too much.”
“Why was she doing this?”
“Ah, she was sweet with the Bladestorm boss or something. He wanted to make us look bad. Vola was a right charmer, she was; when we exposed her, she got a few Savage Warcry folk to switch sides—mostly blood elves, no surprise there, eh?
“Now, Khurrok was in a real fury about this, wanting to go out and kill Vola. I told him to settle down, keep it quiet. ‘You do bad things and the spirits will do bad things right back at you,’ I said. ‘Let the spirits take care of Bladestorm.’ We got things back together. Khurrok started thinking it’d be a good move to raid Zul’aman. That way, folks would know we were back and ready to fight! Didn’t work out that way. Half of us got killed, and no one wanted to follow Savage Warcry after that.”
“What happened to Khurrok?”
“I hear he runs some dirty orchard near Stonard now. He’s out of the game. After Savage Warcry, I fell in with the Outland Seekers, but they never got any farther than Hellfire Peninsula. I quit them after we got back to old Azeroth, and joined the Marauders a few months later. Been here since.”
The best partisans are just as disciplined as national armies. Unfortunately, they prove less adept at navigating problems outside of the battlefield. Baz’jak’s aborted attempt at civilian life demonstrates this fact. It’s easy to see how problematic it is for these partisans to steadily increase their influence on governmental affairs, as they’ve been doing for the past several years.
Even from a distance, it’s obvious that Wintergrasp’s famous lakes are filled with something other than normal water. Colored a bright blue that one only sees in an alchemist’s lab, the lakes stand out as strange splashes of color in the otherwise monochrome wasteland.
Sheets of vivid blue slush cover portions of the lakes, the result of precipitation frozen by contact with the bizarre liquid. All the snow in Wintergrasp is tainted by these chemicals, forcing travelers to bring their own water or to purify the melted snow. A large lake of normal water does stretch out across southern Wintergrasp, supposedly forced into a state of purity through the efforts of ancient taunka shamans. This lake feeds the fallen taunka capital of Icemist Village.
I joined Baz’jak and a few others in investigating a nearby lake as we stopped to camp towards the end of another freezing day. I watched as Baz’jak dipped his spear into the drink, his face crinkling in disgust at the acrid smell, so much like ammonia.
“It’s not that dangerous,” assured Gorm, a Horde observer who’d been to Wintergrasp before.
“Then why don’t you go swimming in it, eh?”
“I could. The stuff won’t kill you right away. You can even drink a bit of it—you’d be a fool to, but you can.”
“What is it, exactly?” I asked.
“The Forsaken up in Wintergrasp Fortress used to call it Titansbrew. I think they were just trying to anger the dwarves with that. What was it they said about Titansbrew? Ah, yes, it stays cool but it doesn’t freeze. Every living thing native to Wintergrasp has it in their system, which is the only reason there are any trees here.”
Trees grow throughout Wintergrasp in great numbers, their branches weighed down by white-violet leaves. Unlike the glassy spires of Crystalsong Forest, these actually are trees, somehow able to survive in this nearly lifeless environment.
“The Steel Hammers burned nearly all the Forsaken writings. A surviving piece is an apothecary’s theory that the Titans used this place to learn about creating life in cold places. Something silly like that.”
“Did the Apothecarium control Wintergrasp Fortress?” I asked.
“The Hand of Vengeance did, and wherever they go the apothecaries follow,” grumbled Gorm. “The Steel Hammers did the world a favor by killing the deaders in the fortress. Still, it was our honor to do that task, not theirs!”
Baz’jak leaned by the lake and cupped his hand, filling it with water. Taking a cautious sip, he made a face and spat it out. The other Marauders laughed at the sight.
“Pcha! I’ve drunk orc mead that tastes better than this!” exclaimed Baz’jak.
Directed by Gorm, the Black Moon Marauders and the remnants of another partisan band (Devastation Dawn, a group with more experience in Wintergrasp) marched north to the Broken Temple, a Horde-commandeered Explorers’ League workshop situated amidst some Titan ruins. War machines play a small but decisive role in Wintergrasp, spearheading the attacks on enemy outposts.
“Do you ever worry that you might destroy the citadel’s value?” I asked Gorm as we resumed our journey that night, the air around us like ice. I recalled the fate of Halaa, the contested draenic town in Nagrand that ended up being bombed to oblivion.
“No. There’s nothing truly important there, not by my reckoning. If we destroy it, the dwarves may finally learn to never meddle in Horde affairs. Of course, some in the Horde insist it has value beyond that.”
A great network of Titan roads connects the ruins of Wintergrasp. Made of smooth black stone and wide enough to hold rallies on, they do much to expedite travel through the rugged area. Cool to the touch, snow nonetheless melts after prolonged contact with the roads, keeping them clear despite the weather.
Gorm boasted of the battles waged across the snowy plateau, his words painting a picture of wild and barbaric combat. He said little about the grinding warfare fought by artillery and riflemen, or the quick ambushes relied on by both factions in Wintergrasp. Gorm told the stories with skill, but got only raised eyebrows and stifled laughs from his audience.
“This fool thinks we fought as if the Third War still raged. You can tell he’s never been to Outland,” scoffed one.
I can only wonder what Gorm, himself a combat veteran of Ashenvale (which does allow for more in the way of personal combat, provided one can get close enough to the Kaldorei), thought of his own words. I brought this up with him as carefully as I could, asking why he felt it necessary to propagandize to the volunteers.
“All orcs grow up hearing the bloody tales of ancient heroes. There is strength in these stories, something that stirs the blood and quickens the pulse! These bold partisans already know how war is fought; I tell the stories to inspire courage.”
“If you don’t mind my saying, I am not sure if the partisans find it particularly inspirational.”
“Many of them have spent time away from the heart of the Horde. They may need reminders.”
The Broken Temple itself stands on what used to be a plaza atop a snowy hill, surrounded by crumbling statues of forlorn-looking dragons and Titans. Armed warriors guard the area at all times, their large frames looking even bulkier under the thick winter coats made from the hides of woolly rhinos. Cannons and chain guns peek out over sandbag fortifications, dissuading all but the best-armed attackers.
Dented and blackened by war, metal plates have been soldered onto the gaping rents in the workshop’s surface. A few demolishers and other self-propelled vehicles rest in a massive dock behind the main structure, where trollish charms of luck and protection hang from steel rafters.
For obvious reasons, war machines must be shipped in to Wintergrasp from the outside world. The early days of the campaign saw heavy use of repurposed utilitarian vehicles (originally brought by the Explorers’ League), but most of these have since been destroyed and replaced with aging machines from the Third War. Though the nations of the world are taking more interest in Wintergrasp, they do not yet want to put their latest weapons in the hands of partisans.
The old workshops continue to see use due to their optimal location (near the walls of Wintergrasp Fortress and other defenses throughout the region, an important fact when one considers the limited fuel), and the infrastructure left over from the Explorers’ League in the form of tools and buildings.
“Sooner or later, someone’s going to take this place and set everything to the torch,” remarked a white-haired goblin named Zel.
Goblin engineers run the operations at the Broken Temple. Most hail from the burgeoning Bilgewater Cartel, a goblin trade organization with links to the Horde. Part of their employment contract requires them to teach non-goblins how to repair and maintain machines.
“Teaching orcs is a waste of time and money. Even the ones that aren’t stupid don’t want to bother learning. Trolls are tough to reach, but they’re pretty handy once they get into it. I’m consistently impressed at the quality of the tauren trainees,” said Zel.
“What about the Forsaken and Sin’dorei?”
“None of them here. They’ve already got their own engineers. It’s the Kalimdor Horde that needs help.”
I encountered a number of partisan groups protecting the Broken Temple, commanded (more or less) by a handful of senior Warsong fighters. The quality of partisan soldiers, especially in terms of equipment, varies quite widely. Some groups eke by with cheap castoffs, while others sport weapons and armor superior to that used by official soldiers.
Ghost Kodo Army is one of the most esteemed Horde partisan groups, with warriors on nearly every front. The ones in Wintergrasp wield customized equipment made by retired or off-duty members.
“We learned of more than combat in the cursed ruin of Outland. Our warriors also developed in the way of the smith, of the enchanter, of the alchemist. This gives us more resources that we can use to strengthen our brothers and sisters, as well as the Horde.”
So said Kahoka Ragetotem, an officer in Ghost Kodo Army. The bigger partisan groups are also making inroads into the commercial arena. Through their travels they learn new techniques in various professions. In addition to giving their fellows better gear, they can also raise money by selling their goods to others. Some have become quite adept at this, members of certain professions from different groups pooling their resources and forming trade guilds.
Initially the most distrustful of partisans, the tauren have come to accept and even embrace them. Alarmed by orcish foreign policy, some tribes are starting to think that the less aggressive partisan groups are a good alternative to serving in the Horde military. Many young tauren in the suttaqua stage (a time in life during which they travel and meet with other tribes) join up with partisan groups approved by their elders. Tauren culture tends to ameliorate the volatility of partisan groups, making them less disruptive to Horde governance and society. This, of course, only applies to groups in which the tauren enjoy significant influence.
With such a demand for powerful weapons, the specter of the red market, that quasi-legal trade in demonic weapons, cannot be far behind. Partisans play a significant if not defining role in the red market, acting as both buyers and sellers. I saw many freelancers displaying fel arms throughout the Broken Temple. To its credit, Ghost Kodo Army refuses to have anything to do with the red market. However, they are in the minority.
Reports filtered in of more Horde victories to the east, the faction’s warriors ready to retake Wintergrasp Fortress a third time. Some rumors claimed that most of the Alliance partisans had already fled via airlift, leaving behind only a few dwarven fanatics.
This hardly translated into a long-term victory. Whenever a faction knows Wintergrasp is lost, it disperses into the surrounding regions and regroups to seize the outer defenses, places like Shadowsight Tower and the Broken Temple. Perhaps a more concentrated effort might result in a concrete victory. As it is, neither the Horde or Alliance is willing to expend that much effort and risk the shame of losing to a mostly freelance force. They will continue to fight through proxies until everything of value is destroyed.
While I did not see Wintergrasp Fortress myself, the photographs show crude barricades and artillery positions set up on the rubble of its ancient walls. The main keep still stands, formidable even against the icy mountains to the north, but its eventual destruction is all but inevitable.
I began the journey back to Shadowsight Tower with the battered remnants of the Hunter’s Grace, a short-lived partisan group decimated by Alliance outrunners near Wintergrasp Fortress. Ten of them had sallied forth from the Broken Temple, dreams of glory in their eyes. Only three had returned.
Beholden only to their own officers, nothing can really keep disheartened freelancers from leaving Wintergrasp. On occasion they are bullied into joining a larger group, but most don’t think them worth the effort. Initiative is a prime virtue among the partisans.
Gorm accompanied us, ready to guide the next batch of new arrivals to The Broken Temple. He said little to the Hunter’s Grace survivors on the way back, his silence expressing a perfect contempt. The remnants of Hunter’s Grace, two orcs and a Forsaken, kept to themselves, defeat in their eyes.
Some of the careless confidence I had earlier sensed in Gorm seemed to evaporate, the veteran looking frailer and older on the return journey. I imagine that Wintergrasp is a frustrating place for Horde officers. Many of the volunteer armies are actually very well-organized in regards to supplying themselves, but problems can arise in inter-group logistics, often worsened by partisan rivalry.
Gorm first spotted the wisps of black smoke on the horizon, a day south of the Broken Temple. Raising a battered spyglass to his eye, the orc bared his teeth.
“Savages!” he roared.
“What is it?”
“Look for yourself.”
I covered one socket to focus my vision and looked through the device. Smoke hung over a charred wreck, the details lost in the distortion of the bad lens. I could just make out the shredded remnants of a Horde banner.
“An Alliance attack?”
“Yes. Everyone stay on guard; Destron and I will lead the way. You curs shall follow us.”
Gorm grabbed his ax and stepped forward, keeping an eye on the rocky outcropping to our left. The world froze around us, still and cold, the overcast skies tinged by sunset’s colors. The Hunter’s Grace survivors hung close together, faces locked in bestial scowls.
I expected to find the remnants of a simple ambush, the typical ugliness of war. Something worse awaited us. In the distance I hadn’t seen the five bodies through all the debris, the chilled flesh garbed only in wounds. Tied to wheels and planks, their killers had cut them open from navel to chest, opening the slits to let their innards freeze while they still lived.
“This cannot stand!” bellowed Halak, one of the Hunter’s Grace orcs.
Halak strode past the wreckage to the nearest body, shouting curses upon the Alliance.
“Halak, stop!” ordered Gorm.
Heedless, Halak kept on, deaf to the officer’s demands. Gorm bounded forward, faster than I thought possible for him, and threw his fist into Halak’s jaw. Surprised, Halak didn’t even have time to counterattack before Gorm pinned him to the snow, cursing him as a fool.
“Destron, burn the snow at the base of a body!” shouted Gorm.
A scorch spell did the trick, the cold white mound melting away to reveal a dented metal sphere next to a flat plate. Halak’s stopped his struggles as the truth dawned on him.
“The Alliance always booby-traps their atrocities,” said Gorm, all trace of anger gone from his voice. “Because of their soft lives, they care little for the dead and the sanctity of the body. They know that we do care.”
“We need to find the cowards who did this!” swore Halak.
“Wintergrasp will soon be ours, and we’ll cleanse the Alliance outrunners from these hills. And what we do to them will make the fate of our friends here seem like a mercy.”
I examined the bodies from a distance; two trolls, a tauren, an orc, and a blood elf, the body of the last barely identifiable as such. The Alliance saves its greatest hatred for those who were once its friends. Someone had scrawled a notice on a fragment of wood near the bodies: “Brought to you by the Westfall Exiled!” I could only assume that it referred to an Alliance partisan group.
Lacking the means to safely dispose of the bodies, we left them where they stood. Gorm promised to get the needed burial supplies at Shadowsight Tower, if possible. We camped a few miles south from the ambush site.
“Gorm, I beseech you: we have changed our minds. Though wounded, we wish to fight,” implored Halak, his head bowed.
“You’re a warrior of the Horde, Halak. You thirst for the blood of these wretches, as is right and natural. Follow me back to the Broken Temple should you so choose. Hunter’s Grace is no more, but there are other bands in need of your blades.”
If the Alliance hoped to demoralize the Horde, they failed. Gruesome atrocities may inspire fear, but they also sow hate and a bitter determination to fight until the very end.
“Is this common in Wintergrasp?” I asked Gorm, after the others drifted off to sleep.
“I’ve seen it before. You can take some satisfaction in knowing we’ve done the same to them.”
“I thought you respected the sanctity of the body,” I said, not really surprised.
“These are humans and gnomes and draenei. They are without honor to begin with, so it matters not. Do you feel sympathy for your former kindred? They brutalize the Forsaken worst of all,” he snickered.
“I am sure that they do.”
Gorm fell silent and looked up to the murky night sky, paltry stars twinkling cold between the clouds.