Sunday, September 26, 2010
Dragonblight: Part 2
((I deal with somewhat heavier subject matter than usual in this section, and I'm keen to know if I did a good job of this. Please tell me what you think.
The forum is now a thriving community of 18 members, but could still use more. If you enjoy the travelogue, please do not hesitate to join us.
Also, there will be a delay after this section since I need to work on the next Scratched Nerve story—a sequel to Suburban Fury.))
While bearded patriarchs argued theology in the onion-domed churches of Sanktagrad, the earthly lords of Kirovar ruled from Paskaron. Founded by Lord Nevaksander on the banks of the mighty Dragonspine River, the city’s population grew rich on the fur traders, loggers, and fishermen who glutted its markets. Visitors from the south described a noisy metropolis where herds of pigs rooted through streets of mud or ice (depending on the season). Fires broke out with disturbing regularity, yet the resourceful Kirovi always rebuilt the city bigger and wilder than before.
King Alyosha Federov, hearing tales of the gleaming southern cities, finally decreed that stone should replace wood in Paskaron. Soon, the Border Range’s valleys echoed with the sound of picks and hammers hitting stone as the king used his treasury to open great quarries.
In the end, his dreams came to naught. Paskaron now lies in stinking ruin, portions still overrun by the living dead in Naxxramas’ shadow. The floating necropolis is an unavoidable sight, its stone skulls leering down at Paskaron, now called the Carrion Fields. Skeletal frost wyrms orbit Naxxramas in cold silence, ready to destroy any who dare approach.
“They used to call this place Coin Street, where each day one man would make a fortune, and another would lose it,” recalled Kolya Peshkin. Looking much older than his twenty years, he pointed at a row of moldering posts that leaned haphazard in the slush.
“Tirasi merchants lived all along here, building the finest houses. My mother worked as a servant in this big yellow house. I thought it was the grandest place in the world that did not belong to a noble. And now? Nothing.”
Hundreds of Kirovi irregulars support the 7th Legion’s efforts to secure the Carrion Fields. Equipped with makeshift and handed-down weapons, the Kirovi fighters are far more formidable than they might appear. Cruel winters and constant Scourge attacks have left only the strongest and fiercest alive. They have little in common with Father Vanya, the urbane priest I’d met in the Grizzly Hills.
“I even remember when they first started to pave Coin Street. They brought these great big sleds full of flagstones to the edge, and cleared everyone out. For days, no business could be done there. The king did not want anyone to interfere with his project, and he had his footmen pummel anyone who tried. The Scourge destroyed the city a few months after that.”
“How did you survive?” I asked.
“Pure luck. Snow fell heavy that day, and the roof of my mother’s hut collapsed while she was at work. Master Giapparo permitted us to sleep in the basement of his house, which was very warm. I thought it wonderful; his house had every luxury you could imagine! Running water, insulation, everything.
“A strange sound woke us, and mother went upstairs to investigate. I never saw her again. For days I cowered in the basement as I heard a thousand, thousand screams above! So badly did I want to run up and see mother! But I was too afraid; that awful smell of death clinging to everything.
“Finally I emerged, I don’t know how many days later. Above, I saw everything I knew in ruins! But not a single corpse. Even then I knew it meant something truly horrible and unnatural had occurred. Plenty of bloodstains, no bodies.
“I made my way to the Church of the Seven Saints, and found nothing but the foundations. Before I got too close, I saw the men in black robes lurking just outside the ruins. Cult of the Damned, I know now, probably thinking stragglers would head to the church. I knew they wished me ill, so I fled. Lord Balakov found me a while later, and I joined his group.”
Ivor Balakov had rallied the survivors of the Paskaron massacre into a makeshift army. They roamed the wilderness of eastern Dragonblight, conducting a bloody guerrilla campaign against the Scourge, pillaging isolated Kirovi villages to feed his troops. Balakov cited his relation to the fallen king as justification.
Not even the best guerrilla army can survive without food. As the Scourge destroyed the remaining Kirovi towns, Balakov’s army faced starvation. With no other option, Balakov retreated deep into the Border Range with a small army of serfs. For decades he waited in an isolated valley, his fief shrinking a little bit more each year, until he heard of Wintergarde’s stand against the Scourge.
Today, the outskirts of the Carrion Fields are in the Alliance’s firm grip. Supply ships from Menethil dock at a port on the Dragonspine River, keeping the troops in Wintergarde well-fed. At any given time, three-fourths of the 7th Legion protects the Alliance possessions in the Carrion Fields, aided by the Kirovi. The fall of Naxxramas is inevitable; the Alliance’s main concern is to defeat the Scourge with a minimal loss of life.
Even the frost wyrms only provide limited protection for the Scourge forces around Naxxramas. Undead troops that dare land on the ground face quick annihilation at the hands of Alliance mages, who can call down area of effect devastation with the aid of spotters.
In what is a sure sign of desperation, Naxxramas sends small teams of undead minions led by necromancers throughout the area, hoping to find and kill Alliance patrols to raise their corpses. This is a decidedly inefficient method of gaining large numbers of troops, and shows how strained the Scourge’s supply lines have become.
I found myself again helping the Alliance, accompanying a Kirovi patrol on the lookout for any Scourge presence. We numbered ten in total, led by a small, dark-haired man named Volskoi Imraev. Advising him was Captain Thurton, a 7th Legion officer.
Surrounded by burned-out huts, we ate a cold lunch of bread and sausage. The Kirovi soldiers wrapped themselves up in heavy fur caps and longcoats, all encrusted with years of dirt. Kolya told me about life in the old city while Volskoi and Thurton planned out our route for the rest of the day. Kolya spoke of his youth with an understandable longing, though it sounded quite brutal when compared to the life of even a relatively poor postwar Lordaeronian child.
Still, for all the lawlessness and cruelty, it did sound as if Paskaron had been gradually improving. Perhaps in time it might have grown to rival Stormwind City or Stratholme.
“Kolya, does Lord Balakov plan to rebuild Paskaron after the Scourge’s fall?”
“No. Cities are not good for the Kirovi. We are a people of the wild. Look at the Grizzly Hills; only one city, but many Kirovi still live there, free of the Scourge. All our cities here are ash.”
“Plenty of the villages were also destroyed.”
“But there are still some left! Look at where you come from; you had more cities than us, and Lordaeron is totally ruined. Cities are not good places. When so many people live together, it’s hard to care for each other. You take your neighbor for granted. Who needs him, right? If he dies, he can be replaced.
“The Scourge destroyed Paskaron to make an example. They even destroyed holy Sanktagrad. Better for us to live in rustic sanctity than urban sin. We must still have farms, of course. But there is no need for big cities. City people are soft and not very good in fights either. Most of the Kirovi under Balakov today came from outside Paskaron. Praise the Light they found me and turned me into a real man!”
City life can certainly be an alienating experience. At the same time, it’s easy for people to forget the drawbacks of rural life. In small towns, there is little chance for an individual to improve his or her lot in life. This is not bad in and of itself, but those with ambition must find it frustrating. Individuals who differ from the norm may face hostility in the more close-minded communities. Village life is also quite laborious, even in our age of labor-saving enchantments.
Volskoi soon ordered us to resume the patrol and we slunk through the icy streets like cats hunting for mice. The hardened Kirovi soldiers wore expressions of grim satisfaction as they worked, happy to turn the tables on their oppressors.
We stayed silent to avoid alerting the Scourge, though our approach made enough noise of its own. To hear Kolya talk, the necromancers tended to panic when the patrols came too near and made foolish mistakes trying to escape. Despite our advantage, the Kirovi soldiers kept aware of their surroundings, looking to the shadowed hulks of dead houses for any undead presence.
The man taking point stopped in his tracks, holding up one hand in warning. With the other, he pointed to what might have been a storefront straight ahead of us, its wooden walls riddled with gaping holes that showed a dark and rubble-strewn interior. As if directed, the soldiers began to fan out along the street with weapons at the ready, while a few ducked into a narrow alley sagging with rot.
“Get ready,” whispered Kolya. Beside him, a few soldiers nocked arrows to their bows, aiming at the crooked doorway. More Kirovi grouped up at the sides of the building, their faces fierce and glowing.
The first ghoul leapt howling from the ruin, ribbons of flesh flying behind its scrawny body as its clawed feet hit the ground running. Arrows whistled through the air, a wooden shaft pulping the ghoul’s decayed shoulder but not stopping its attack. Shouting louder than the ghoul the nearest Kirovi swung his ax, separating the creature’s head from its body.
Two more jumped out, meeting streaks of icy light flung from my hand, dead joints freezing in arcane ice. Spindly figures (called geists by the 7th Legion) clambered down from the roof, their limbs long and stretched, flayed heads hidden in cowls. I saw one of the new attackers jump onto a Kirovi, grappling him to the muddy ground.
Arcane flame exploded along the wall, wood collapsing inwards and throwing the wretches to the ground. The eager geist who had first struck found itself surrounded and torn off its chosen victim by a swung mace. The Kirovi irregulars struck quick and without hesitation, leaving the undead where they fell.
“He’s still up there, the rascal!” called the Kirovi nearest the door.
“Then get him!” shouted Volskoi.
The soldiers disappeared into the darkness. Seconds later I heard a shrill cry from inside, and saw a panicked face appear in a window, but only for a moment before someone pulled him back into the darkness. One of the Kirovi appeared in the doorway, laughing and telling us to come inside.
The mood among the soldiers turned celebratory and they practically rushed to see their prey. I followed them to a Scourge necromancer, trembling as a pair of Kirovi gripped his arms. The fearsome skull helmet worn by his kind lay broken on the dirt floor, his pale and decidedly unremarkable face distorted in terror. He whimpered like a dying dog, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Among all the Scourge’s dreadful servants, few inspire as much hate as the necromancer. Ghouls devour flesh and abominations rend limbs, but only necromancers corrupt life itself, twisting it to the will of the Scourge. To kill a man is to destroy his body and his future. Raising him in undeath destroys all he ever was, his memories subsumed by the Lich King’s will, a complex and wondrous human reduced to a weapon. There can be no closure for those who loved him, his slavery an unhealed wound. For the victim, there is only the cold and the pain, a spectator to the cruelties committed by his own unwilling hands. The necromancers brought entire nations to this fate.
“Do the usual,” grunted Volskoi.
The soldiers holding the necromancer pinned him to the floor, pulling his arms and legs until he lay spread-eagled. An old Kirovi with stringy white-hair stepped forward, opening a kit he’d been carrying with him all day. Reaching inside, he took out a mallet, holding it with a comfortable familiarity. More whines came from the necromancer.
“I am the anointed of my master—” he cried through gritted yellow teeth.
“Yashev over here used to be a carpenter. He built many fine homes in his village back in the day, but with all the trouble he’s hardly had time to work,” said Volskoi, his tone conversational.
I watched in numb silence as Yashev knelt by the necromancer’s outstretched left hand, studying it like a painter would a canvas. The necromancer strained his eyes trying to see Yashev, his head gripped in place. Still holding his hammer, Yashev took a thick iron nail from out of his pack, rusted and bent from age.
The necromancer clenched his hands, eyes wide in terror. Soldiers grabbed his fists, twisting the fingers back until they snapped, the necromancer shrieking with each break. Yashev pressed the point of the nail on the necromancer’s forced-open palm. After a moment’s judgment, Yashev raised the hammer and drove the nail through flesh.
I am not sure I have ever heard such screaming, the necromancer bucking and twisting in vain as the soldiers laughed. Yashev hit the nail again, and a third time, fixing the ruined hand to the ground. Tears streamed down the necromancer’s face, slime dribbling from his nose as he wailed.
I felt myself smile.
Not saying a word, Yashev got to his feet and walked to the other hand with deliberate slowness. A pleading whine escaped the necromancer’s bloodless lips.
“I’ll tell you anything you want, just stop!”
“We already know everything about Naxxramas, wretch!” shouted Kolya.
I knew I could. A quick blast to the head would finish the necromancer. Yet what would the Kirovi say? Would they think me a sympathizer? Besides, no matter what he did, it would not amount to a fraction of what he’d inflicted on the Forsaken, on the Kirovi.
“You must forgive Yashev if he’s a bit clumsy. He’s not practiced for many years. Fortunately, your fellows have recently given us plenty of opportunity to get reacquainted with our old skills,” continued Volskoi.
Yashev went to each limb, one by one, taking a quiet professional relish in his work. The necromancer’s face collapsed in anguish, his pleas for death the only sound in the room.
I stood there, my human memories trying to make me feel something for the man tortured in front of me. My mind brought only misery, hunger for the life robbed from me. At the hands of someone much like him, I’d lost my future. I can never again feel true love for another. I can never be a father. I can never grow old as a human being.
Yashev put his bloodstained tools back into the kit when finished and walked back next to Volskoi. He examined the scene with an almost bored expression.
“Let’s go outside for a little bit, boil some water for our next game. But someone keep an eye on him—Talus? I’m surprised to see you volunteer for this; our fun makes most southerners squeamish. But I suppose you Lordaeronians have reason enough to hate the Scourge.”
They filed out. I stood in a shadow of weak light cast from the doorway, the brutalized necromancer stretched out in the darkness ahead. He wept in uncontrolled bursts, all thoughts of his master destroyed by pain.
I stepped out of the light to get closer to him.
“By the Light I don’t want to die like this!” he cried. “Please, these savages will do even worse. I’m from Lordaeron, like you. I didn’t know what the master intended, but he takes your soul and you don’t have a choice anymore!”
I said nothing. I wanted to lash out at him, to wring him and bleed him out. His tears inspired no pity, just hatred. Had he heard the cries of his countrymen as they died at the hands of their loved ones?
“We’re civilized, you and I, both of Lordaeron! You can’t let them do this to me! Please! Oh, Light, mother help me, I don’t want to die like this, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
An inchoate cry escaped his lips, interrupted by more sobs. I reflected that his life meant little. Just a minor necromancer. His pain meant nothing to the world, beyond the dark joy it nourished in the hearts of his victims.
I glanced outside, to where Kolya busied himself setting up a fire, using pieces of his home city as kindling. Someone else had found a pail and was filling it with slush while Volskoi and Thurton laughed at some joke.
The necromancer shrunk into silence, shaking though each movement caused pain. I covered my eyes, trying to find pity. I could not. Every ounce of my being demanded more, an endless retribution for what he and his allies had done to my nation, to me.
I looked at him again and tried to stem the emotional tide threatening to overwhelm me. My heart cried out for vengeance. In my mind, I thought of the Apothecarium and its evils. They often said that any cruelty they committed was justified by what they’d suffered, a foolish argument at best.
Outside, a soldier set the pail over the fire, waiting for the slush to melt and boil. Someone pointed to the house, as if wanting to go back in, but was dissuaded by his friends. They drank from their canteens, talking of old times.
Perhaps I found it easy to forget the desire for revenge so common among my race, not just against the Scourge but against the whole world. Spending time with others eroded my resentments, revealed them as pointless. I have dedicated my existence to the future, but revenge can never go beyond the past. Revenge drove Putress to plunge the world into war. If I am to stand in opposition to those like him, I cannot follow their methods.
I leaned close to the necromancer, his hopeless eyes wet with tears. I could not release him, not as long as he might raise more undead. Nor would he get far, with the soldiers just outside, who’d rightly condemn me for letting him go.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Festul Aelford,” he gasped.
I nodded. I shouted as if in alarm, loud enough to get the attention of the soldiers, and aimed a flame burst at the necromancer’s head. He died in an instant, a single convulsion running through his body as the burst of heat finished him.
“Talus! What happened! Why did you kill him?” demanded Kolya when he rushed in. His nose crinkled at the smell of burning flesh.
“He began to chant something under his breath. I’m sorry. I was afraid he’d unleash some kind of curse.”
“Aren’t you a wizard? I’ve never seen a necromancer cast a spell with his hands pinned,” argued Kolya.
“Necromancers have little in common with Dalaranese mages. I don’t know the rules for them, and I didn’t want to take a chance,” I said.
“If they could hurt you by talking we’d cut out their tongues first!”
“Enough!” ordered Volskoi. His cynical eyes seemed to look through me, and a sardonic smile played on his thin lips. “I should not have given this responsibility to someone new to our ways. It is no matter; we will find more necromancers in the future.”
An inner sickness dogged my steps as I walked alone through the frozen forests of eastern Dragonblight. I had fled the Carrion Fields the day after Festul’s death, not willing to test my resolve a second time. Before leaving, I wrote a message to Dallard Corwyn describing the torture. Considering that a 7th Legion officer witnessed the torture without any apparent concern, I suspect that Dallard already knows. I did not stay to learn of his reaction. Among the gnarled and black-barked trees, their drab leaves preserved in icy perfection, I found the solitude to dwell on my own actions.
Like the forests in Wintergrasp, the trees in Dragonblight are not natural. A vibrant forest had once grown in this snowy realm, thousands of years ago, but the Sundering brought the land too far north for life. In tribute to the world that was, the Red Dragonflight worked their will to keep the trees alive in the constant winter.
For the red dragons, life is sacred. What is it to the Forsaken? I had done nothing to stop Festul’s torture as it occurred, only ending it after the Kirovi savaged him. When I thought of Festul, I thought only of his crimes.
Some Forsaken excuse their actions by saying our kind is incapable of empathy, but this is untrue. Many Forsaken have demonstrated empathy, showing kindness and sacrifice to friends and even enemies. I have heard of Forsaken who helped the living escape the Apothecarium’s machinations; very rare, but not unheard of.
When I think of my friends in the Darkbriar Lodge, particularly Daj’yah, I feel the same tenderness I did towards my companions while alive. To hurt them is to hurt me.
But perhaps the Forsaken can only attain this through effort. Already inclined to isolation (made all the easier by the nature of Forsaken society, which is held together by shared hatred), many never make the attempt. Empathy and wisdom require interaction, even when unpleasant; after all, one can still learn a great deal from a fool or a scoundrel.
Humans are forced to learn empathy through social interaction. The Forsaken easily forget it. Once forgotten, it may be impossible to truly relearn. That is why we must think carefully of our actions; where our hearts fail, an intellectual understanding of right and wrong may succeed.
Arthas’ crimes have created a mental barrier that is not easily overcome, by either Forsaken or humans. To hate the Scourge is not wrong, so long as that hate contributes to victory. But we will not win this war by torturing captured necromancers to death. Such deeds only harden the soul. If sadistic murder is acceptable, what could possibly be forbidden?
The humans in the Carrion Fields shared my lack of empathy, though that blessed quality perhaps comes more easily to them. In the end, I had performed the correct action because I knew it to be consistent with my beliefs, not because I felt moved to action. I am not sure if a Forsaken can feel empathy to a Scourge necromancer. Or perhaps I say that to excuse my own failings.
I followed an old Kirovi road south, walking past ruined villages already consumed by the forest. Black roots sunder the foundations of stone manor houses. Birds make homes in rotting churches, the mournful eyes of gilded icons looking out from brambly nests. I spent a week marching in these tranquil and ghostly environs before reaching the Forgotten Shore.
Arthas had driven the Scourge from Lordaeron by fire and sword, fields and towns burning in his wake. Using all the power accorded to him, he and his army had sailed to Northrend to wreak vengeance on the Lich King, the embers of Stratholme still smoldering at the time of his departure.
His ragged army landed on a desolate beach wracked by sleet and hail. Kirovi fishing towns had once fought for survival amidst the damp gray sands, but the Scourge left almost nothing of the land’s former inhabitants.
Though they stood on the edge of a grim and hostile realm, all accounts indicate that Arthas’ soldiers totally believed in their leader and his mission. Many had seen their homes turned into ritual abattoirs by the Cult of the Damned. Engineers and laborers soon established a beachhead from which Arthas could begin his final campaign as a living man.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. At some point, Arthas recruited local mercenaries, mostly Kirovi and a few wandering ogres. No one knows exactly why these mercenaries turned on Arthas, destroying the ships he’d used to send his army north. Some theorize that they worked for the Lich King, and were ordered to strand Arthas so as to further his corruption. Whatever their motivations, the Lordaeronians slew the mercenaries. Without any way to get home, they marched north to their eventual destruction.
Records confirm that King Terenas Menethil II had ordered his wayward son to return home with the army, perhaps to account for the razing of Stratholme. The message either never reached Arthas, or he ignored it. When he did return, it was as a destroyer.
The remnants of Arthas’ base still linger on the Forgotten Shore, falling further into ruin under the constant battery of storms. Decks of half-sunken ships stick out from the frigid waters like wooden islands, creaking under forests of broken masts.
Forsaken soldiers in the recent campaign had discovered that ghosts haunted the Forgotten Shore, attacking travelers with a vengeful fury and interfering with caravans going from Conquest Hold to Venomspite and beyond. Initial attempts to clear the region had proven futile; the ghosts they destroyed invariably returned a few days later. The last I heard of the matter, the Forsaken had handed the Forgotten Shore over to a group of Argent Crusade priests, whose exorcisms rituals enjoyed a much higher success rate.
The Argent Crusade still maintained a small camp at the time of my visit. I saw them from a distance, a smattering of rude white tents pitched around a driftwood fire, from which a path of gray smoke coiled into the sky.
Nearing the camp, I saw a gray-bearded dwarf hobble out from one of the tents, his left leg a wooden peg. In contrast to his worn features and battered body, his armor looked immaculate. Spying me, he raised a cautious hand.
“Good afternoon to you,” he said. “You’re from the executor?”
“No. I’m only a traveler.”
“Pardon me, lad. I thought you’d come from Venomspite. What brings you to this place? There’s scarce anything here for sensible folk. That’s why they send in the Crusade,” he chuckled. “I’m Mawglin Stonethumb, from Kharanos.”
“I’m Destron Allicant.”
“Where did you come from, if not Venomspite?”
“The Wyrmrest Temple, actually.”
“Ah, draconic business. Well, I won’t ask, on that case. Dragons are best left alone.”
“I’m surprised that the Argent Crusade still has a presence this far from the front,” I said. After Zul’drak’s utter collapse, the Argents had relocated to Icecrown, planning to make a direct strike at Arthas himself.
“This is the Argent Crusade’s vacation spot! Some Forsaken wanted to turn this place into a resort—completely mad he was. His plan never went anywhere, but we went ahead and did it for him.”
“You don’t perform exorcisms any longer?”
“I’m joking, it’s not really a vacation spot. Just compared to Icecrown it is. We’ve cleared out most of the ghosts, though some still haunt the shipwrecks.”
“I imagine those would be harder to reach.”
“Aye, you’ve no idea. A right and proper exorcism takes time too, near a quarter of an hour.”
“Didn’t the paladins conduct instantaneous exorcisms in the Second War?”
“That they did, but it’s a simple (if draining) matter to turn ambulatory bones into dust. When there’s something keeping them on the mortal plane, as is the case with these poor ghosts, things get more complicated.”
“I suppose it’s also ineffectual against the Scourge.”
“The Lich King keeps his slaves rooted to this world. And exorcisms just plain don’t work against Forsaken. No offense; I learned that from a Scarlet back in the Eastern Plaguelands.”
“None taken. What’s become of the Scarlet Crusade?”
“Hard to say, rightly. They call themselves the Scarlet Onslaught now. See, they kept picking fights with your lot back when they were a crusade, and most got themselves killed. After they lost their holdings in the east to the Scourge, the survivors sailed north to kill Arthas.”
“How do they plan to do that?”
“You’re forgetting, lad, this is the Scarlets we’re talking about. Sanity and planning aren’t their strong points. They established a fort a ways west of here called New Hearthglen, and from there an outpost north of the Border Range. Nothing beyond that, as far as I can tell. I’m not even sure how they get food.
“Now, there’s a rumor—a foolish one—that they sent the bulk of their forces to some island west of Icecrown. But that’s nonsense, since there’s no way for them to support an army that far north! They’d starve to death if they didn’t freeze first.”
“You said you weren’t sure how they supported New Hearthglen, but they do have a way.”
“New Hearthglen’s not that big. Gotten even smaller after the Forsaken raided the place. High Executor Wroth in Venomspite is just waiting for the right time to finish them off once and for all, and that’s it for the Scarlets. Good riddance, I say!”
“I take it that your time working together in the Naxxramas Crisis didn’t endear much commonality?”
“Half the Scarlets fled and joined us or the Brotherhood when we drove Naxxramas away. The others just started hating us more.”
Mawglin introduced me to the other Argent Crusade members in the Forgotten Shore. Numbering eleven in total, they followed the lead of Armont Marcell. Formerly an archdeacon in the Lordaeronian church, the elderly priest had taken it upon himself to ease the souls of Arthas’ followers. His thin white hair almost transparent against his spotted scalp, Armont endured the rigors of northern life with a patient smile.
Dalaranese by birth, Armont had spent much of his life in that fabled city. He cared for Dalaran’s people as best he could after it’s destruction, until the Kirin Tor began its journey to Northrend.
“‘Armont, you are old! Live out your last days in comfort!’ they declared. But I said to them, that there is more work to be done. There are enough priests in the new Dalaran. I am needed elsewhere. So I joined the Argent Crusade.”
“You haven’t been with them for long, then?”
“Not as a direct member, no. There were many Argents around Dalaran though, and they knew of my work there.”
For the moment, Armont could do little to help the remaining lost spirits. He needed a large boat on which to conduct the exorcism ritual from a safe distance. The Forgotten Shore has no shortage of wood, but it is all thoroughly rotten. One of his aides, a Sin’dorei, was in Venomspite trying to get help from the Forsaken, a daunting task at best.
“I would like to liberate these spirits before I die. I do not know why the good people of Venomspite seem so reluctant to help. They want the ghosts gone as much as do we, though for more pragmatic reasons,” he sighed.
“The ones out in the wrecks are too far to bother Venomspite. That’s why the bastards don’t care,” said Mawglin.
Armont took me to the docks the next day, a rotting wooden appendage reaching out into the gray sea. Colonized by weeds and barnacles, only inertia keeps the docks above water. Armont and I stood on the cold sands next to the decrepit structure, hearing the lonely calls of seagulls as they circled beneath dour skies.
“You can still see the ghosts of Arthas’ soldiers out on the shipwrecks, waiting for a war that will never come. I only pray that I can lift their burden before I die,” said Armont.
“You are indeed a holy man,” I said.
“Ha ha! It’s dangerous for priests to believe that about themselves, very dangerous. Still, I will not turn down a compliment.”
“Armont, I hope you are as holy as you appear. I need to talk to someone who is holy. I did something horrible, and I cannot stop thinking of my own cruelty! I fear I will never stop.” The words rushed out of me like a current from a breaking dam, Festul’s screams echoing in my mind.
Armont turned to me, his blue eyes grave.
“A bit of darkness is in all of us, Destron. But together, our light shall drive it away. Tell me what it is you did.”
I told Armont of my disguised travels throughout Alliance lands (perhaps also hoping to absolve my deceptions). I knew the risk, but the gravity of the situation demanded nothing less than full disclosure. I described Festul’s tortures in cruel detail, desperate to communicate the totality of my sin.
I finished, studying Armont’s wrinkled face for some hint of judgment.
“I do not think you feel guilt for allowing Festul’s torture.”
“Please, Armont! I may be Forsaken, but I know right from wrong!”
“You misunderstand me. You regret not stopping Festul’s torture, for by having allowed it, you have acted against the morality of the Light. However, your guilt comes from your inability to feel the same while watching Festul’s torments. You wish that you could feel the shame and self-hatred, but you do not; in your soul, you consider his pain justified.”
“Yes. That is true. What his kind did to me, to so many others, subjected us to a pain I cannot describe! Our lives ended and ruined, not just in death but beyond, and these necromancers still live to commit more evil! To have them taste some part of this agony seems only right. Intellectually, I know it is wrong. Am I a monster for being unable to feel empathy for this man?”
“My task is not to declare men good or evil, but to interpret their deeds as such. Had you been alone, and had Festul been in your power, would you have tortured him?”
“No. I am sure of this—at least, I hope I am sure.”
“Did you not step in to end his torture?”
“By killing him. Though there was no way he could have survived.”
“He may have. Perhaps the 7th Legion might have taken him back to their headquarters, to inflict further indignities on him. You prevented that.”
“Therefore you feel some empathy.”
“My action was purely intellectual, not emotional.”
“Intellect and emotion are not as far removed from each other as many suppose. We are all influenced by our feelings, by the roiling soul beneath the surface of the mind. What we believe is purely rational may stem from base emotion. Can you feel empathy?”
“Is it then so hard to believe that perhaps some sliver of the same motivated you to end Festul’s suffering?”
“That is possible.”
“I can tell that you also feel great anger and resentment. Perhaps those darker emotions (though one must feel anger against the Scourge) prevented you from realizing this empathy?”
“I would like to believe that.”
“Why then, is it so hard to believe that even you feel it for the worst of your enemies?”
I still did not feel such a thing. If I were to accept Armont’s advice, it would have to be a matter of faith, a belief that the Light uniting all thinking beings shines even in me, bringing one spark of commonality with Festul.
“I am not sure if I can believe that. I still hate Festul.”
“Your actions, however delayed, suggest more than just hatred.”
“True. Thank you, Armont. I am not sure if I feel any resolution, but I do appreciate the attempt.”
“Think on what I have said. Pray on it. Your soul is as much my concern as any other.”
A biting wind picked up, stirring ripples on the ocean’s gray skin, and Armont shivered in his thick woolen robes. A victim of his body’s age, his eyes still shone with a fierce inner light and he smiled as he looked across the gloomy vista, willing to seek redemption where most saw only damnation.
Indifferent to the cold and the hostile eyeless glares, orc warriors stand guard around the Venomspite laboratory at all hours of day and night. Putress had made a last stop in Venomspite before committing the Wrathgate Massacre, and the Horde hoped that he’d left some of his notes in the remote outpost.
Driven more by rage than by any desire to find the truth, the orcish authorities left the lab in shambles before giving up. Through steel-barred windows one can see the wreckage strewn across the pitted floors, vials smashed and cauldrons overturned in an effort to find Putress’ records. Forsaken are still forbidden from entering the gruesome alchemical workshop, a fact that does not sit well with Venomspite’s inhabitants.
“These modern orcs are no better than the ones who ravaged our lands in the Second War!” fumed a senior alchemist named Deanna Bosley, her brittle gray hair looking ready to break off her scalp. “Any one of us could have told them if something was out of place, but they insist on searching the lab themselves. Now its ruined. All of my work! All of our work!”
“Did you see anything unusual?”
“No, I was too busy working! For years the Horde let us brew our poisons without complaint. Now, our every move is suspect! I’ve never so much as exchanged words with Putress, and the greenskins treat me as if I’d committed the massacre.”
Venomspite is a nervous place to say the least. Lacking any political clout, the Forsaken can only watch as orcs and a few trolls take over the base. All high-ranking Forsaken found themselves subjected to interrogation, and a few had been shipped to Warsong Hold for further questioning.
I can hardly blame the orcs for their anger, though I believe they’d accomplish more by restraint than by fury. The orcs still come across favorably when compared to most of the Forsaken in Venomspite, who behave like petulant children.
Venomspite fell under suspicion for the very reason of its creation. The Apothecarium found it a perfect place from which to experiment on the undead Scourge (New Agamand, in contrast, concentrates its efforts on the Scourge’s living servants). Forsaken troops penetrated deep into the Dragon Wastes to bring Scourge drones back for experimentation, their twitching forms bound in wire.
Venomspite is still too useful for the Horde to shut down. Its position between Conquest Hold and Agmar’s Hammer links Horde holdings in western and eastern Northrend. This also makes it an appealing target to the Alliance, and Venomspite’s small size gives it little chance against the 7th Legion. As a precaution, the Horde has permitted High Executor Wroth (Venomspite’s commanding officer) to keep a number of plague-wagons operational. These grim contraptions wait for battle in their rickety berths at the edge of town, poison fluids blistering in glass tanks.
Venomspite serves a cultural purpose as well. As much as the Forsaken pretend to hate all aspects of life, many show an obsessive predilection for collecting mementos, a trait I had first discovered back in Tirisfal. There, daring Forsaken used to comb Scourge-haunted ruins in search of keepsakes from old Lordaeron: paintings and kitchen knives, books and baubles.
Lordaeron’s been almost completely looted by now. Looking to continue their trade, a few bold scavengers began picking through the wreckage of the Forgotten Shore. Most of the keepsakes they find are military in nature.
“You’d be surprised how much someone will pay for a dead soldier’s sword. Perhaps they think it belonged to a father, brother, or son. I neither encourage nor disabuse these notions,” explained a Forsaken memento dealer named Mardyle Norritz. Rotten leather straps interwove with the loose gray skin of his face.
“Did the ghosts give you any trouble?”
“Quite a lot. The Forgotten Shore is cleansed now, of both ghosts and valuables.”
“There are still some shipwrecks off the coast,” I said.
“True, but I doubt anything there would still be in saleable condition.”
“Where will you go now?”
“I haven’t any idea. Nearly every surviving piece of old Lordaeron is owned by one Forsaken or another. A good business, but a short-lived one.”
“Did profit drive you?” Few Forsaken ever feel a lust for gold, but it is known to happen.
“No, money does not matter to me. I do this to bring joy, something Forsaken have trouble finding. These little bits of our old lives can bring immense happiness, even if it is fleeting. You can see it in the most stoic buyer: a crinkle around the eyes, a catch in the voice. They remember when they were whole.”
“Why not just give it to them?”
“Because then I am just giving junk that no one would want. When someone purchases it, however, the trinket achieves real value. I like to think that the original owners would approve, that they would like to be able to ease undeath. But that is irrelevant; they are dead, and we are not.”
Struck by a whim, I asked to look through Mardyle’s wares. Standing out from the rusted swords and shields, I spotted a sealed box of lacquered wood. Mardyle explained that he’d found it a few miles inland, presumably carried there by some long-dead soldier.
“Fortunate too. I doubt its contents would have survived so close to the water.”
Opening it with his permission, I found a book. Bound in leather, it displayed the gilded floral patterns common to the style of a century past. Countless fingers had left their indentations in the yellowed pages. Looking at the text, its letters so thick and curled, I realized I held an early printed copy of The Knight’s Lamentation.
The Knight’s Lamentation is the seminal work of the Romantic Renewal, a literary style popular before the First War in which Lordaeronian writers revisited the courtly romances of the medieval era. The novel both subverted and celebrated the constraints of its genre. Its author, the sporadically brilliant Dreon Kopescu, knew full well the brutality of Lordaeron’s history, but also saw qualities worth admiring, the same qualities he saw fading as Azeroth hurtled towards modernity. I had read the book as a child, adoring every adventurous minute of heroic combat and selfless courage. Reading it again as a young man, I no longer agreed with its nostalgia, but still appreciated the passion and skill in which it was written.
Holding it again brought a rush of memories, so intense that I nearly fell to my knees. I saw its wondrous pages through living eyes once more, a grand story I’d all but forgotten, an early edition in my hands. I imagined the man who’d read it last, a soldier wanting some memory of Lordaeron’s beauty in this distant realm.
I put it back in the box, treating it with the same care a priest would give to a holy icon. I asked for the price, knowing full well I’d pay whatever Mardyle required. Moments later I clutched the box to my chest, the taste of life playing in my cold mouth.
No sooner had I turned around when Festul’s terrified face rose up in my mind’s eye, a wretch facing the agony he deserved but should not have suffered. His pain had brought a denuded joy to my soul, while a mere book inspired ecstasy.
My brief happiness gone, I retired to the bleak way-station that serves as Venomspite’s hotel, a cramped maze of drafty hallways lit by flickering candles. Forsaken apothecaries congregate in the shadows beneath the stairs, hissing in blind resentment. I knew I differed from them, but was no longer sure as to the degree.
Retiring to a dark room on the third floor, the wooden walls creaking under their own weight, I put The Knight’s Lamentation down on the nightstand. I’d find no escape between its pages. Festul’s memory refused to budge, sharpening my hatred for the man. The Scourge is an insidious thing; perhaps only a few Forsaken ever escape its grasp.
I thought back to Armont’s words. Perhaps I had felt some sense of shared pain, buried so deep that I could not recognize it. Certainly a convenient thing to believe. An endless replay of Festul’s torture and death turned through my memory, and I prayed to feel some revulsion or sympathy. Envisioning anyone else in that pain, a Defias marauder or Shadow Council cultist, and I found the horror I sought. With the Scourge? Nothing.
I cursed in the lightless room. What did I hope to accomplish? No rationalization can change the truth. In the darkness of Venomspite, surrounded by the hatred so defining to my race, I wondered if the Forsaken truly are damned.
But in the end I had stopped the torture, while the humans rejoiced at the thought of continuing it. Those Kirovi soldiers had not struck me as evil, at least not for the most part. They were merely victims like myself (though a victim must still take responsibility for his own actions). If such was the case, I was certainly no worse than them.
In the end, that too is no more than a rationalization. There is no benefit, however, in dwelling endlessly on past sins. Self-obsession is hardly conducive to empathy. Better that I go out and continue my efforts to help the world in small ways.
To Festul: I wish I could have felt sorrow for you.
Frozen leaves rattled like stones as biting winds cut through Venomspite the next morning. Perhaps to distract myself from Festul, I resolved to find Ulrecht, the Forsaken warrior who’d gone north to aid the humans in the defense of Wintergarde.
As badly as I wanted to see some example of Forsaken heroism, I cautioned myself against becoming too optimistic. Hating the Scourge enough to fight them instead of the Alliance did not preclude a similar loathing of humanity. Nonetheless, it struck me as worth investigating.
I found only denials. Every Forsaken I asked, from Deathguard trooper to paranoid alchemist, claimed no knowledge of Ulrecht. I finally went to High Executor Wroth.
Looking more dead than undead, Wroth keeps a dusty office in the hotel’s foyer. Shriveled to little more than bones and brittle muscle, he wears his black armor more to support his ruined body than for protection. A rack of a dozen candles smoldered behind him, too-faint lights in the darkness.
“Ulrecht? You must forgive me, but I know of no such person.”
“The rumors I heard described him as a deathguard.”
“Rumors are but rumors, I’m afraid,” he laughed, his voice whistling through his battered jaw.
“Are there any records?”
“Many Forsaken come through here. As executor, I deal in defense and assassinations, not administrative details.”
“Don’t you need to at least know how many soldiers you have here?”
“By numbers, not by names. I want to make sure there are enough fighters to defend Venomspite. Their names are not my concern. You do not live in Forsaken territory, do you.” He did not phrase the last sentence as a question.
“I’ve been traveling, though I normally reside in Orgrimmar.”
“A fine city, from what I hear. Orcs are a fierce race, though they lose a bit of that ferocity after suffering the right kind of pain.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Merely an observation, Destron. My intelligence officer mentioned your name when you arrived. Quite important in the Darkbriar Lodge, are you not?”
“Kudos to your intelligence officer; I do work there. From what I remember of Undercity, the government did not especially care where individual Forsaken might wander.”
“The recent coup has forced our Dark Lady to keep a tighter grip. It is in the state’s interest to know where our people are.”
“Yet Ulrecht is an exception to this?”
“Oh, by no means. Someone knows where he is, what’s happened to him. That is the Dark Lady’s business, after all, but her business is her own. Sometimes, secrets must be kept.”
I did not need to hear any more. I thanked Wroth for his time and almost ran outside. Whatever Sylvanas’ sins, she had at least given us the freedom that is our birthright, our defining quality. Now, even that is disappearing. Sylvanas chooses to make slaves out of those she liberated. Too many Forsaken share her madness, mired in memory and resentment. Arthas will not reign for much longer; if her evil kingdom is to continue, the hatred nursed by every Forsaken must find new targets. Not yet willing to entirely abandon my own hate, I had felt no horror as I watched a man (an evil one, but still a man) being tortured to death. I fear what this means for my race.
Seeing no reason to remain in Venomspite, I joined the next caravan headed west across the snowy wastes. Woolly rhinos pull three armored wagons that carry particularly important supplies and deliveries from the east, first to the orcish fortress of Agmar’s Hammer, and then to Warsong Hold to be sent back to Orgrimmar via zeppelin. Several such caravans operate at any given time, traveling in a circuit between Warsong and Conquest Holds.
Sending letters home is as important to orcs as it is to any other race. A young orc named Loruk was responsible for ensuring the missives reached their the postmaster in Warsong Hold. I walked up to him as the caravan prepared to leave Venomspite, a dusting of fresh snow on the ground.
“I need something delivered to Orgrimmar,” I said.
“What is it?”
“This,” I said, handing him the box holding The Knight’s Lamentation. I’d not yet had a chance to reread it, but that seemed unimportant.
Accepting it, he took a pen and a piece of paper from his pack.
“To where and to whom shall it be delivered?”
“To a troll living in Orgrimmar’s Valley of Spirits. Her name is Daj’yah.”