Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Dragonblight: Part 3
One cannot truly appreciate the scope of the Dragon Wastes from the air. Looking down on the unbroken snowbound plains from above, the landscape seems like the backdrop of a stage, of no real substance or importance. For those on the ground, the Dragon Wastes present an undeniable and very physical challenge.
There, the whole visible world becomes a cold white desert, torn by fierce winds sweeping down from the north. The interminable snow takes on a monstrous quality, vast and implacable like some primordial beast. The self recedes in importance until one can think only of the frigid emptiness. There is no escape or mercy, the wastes indifferent to those who dare traverse it. Even in Tanaris one finds hints of life; hardy scrub in the flatlands, or the tracks of snakes on the dunes. In the Dragon Wastes, there are only the signs of death and eternal cold.
“Ha! You Forsaken are still Lordaeronians at heart; only at home in tidy forests and meadows. This land is a challenge, and orcs love a challenge,” laughed Loruk, after I told him my impression of the Dragon Wastes. Wind-driven snow hurtled down on the caravan as we spoke in the shelter of a wagon.
“I’ve enjoyed many harsh and desolate vistas; the Badlands, the Barrens, Durotar, to name a few. I get a different impression from this land, though it’s not without a foreboding beauty,” I said.
“I do find the cold off-putting, though that should not bother you as much.”
“My mind still associates the cold with death on some level. Seeing the Dragon Wastes tends to inspire morbid thoughts.”
“Do not waste your time with that. If the blue dragons still ruled the skies, if the Scourge still lurked in the snows, than yes. Now that the land is safe enough for a caravan this slow to traverse, only fools still fear.”
The Nexus War had rendered travel across the Dragon Wastes nearly impossible. As a result, the Horde’s western forces never really knew what the eastern armies were doing. Warsong Hold relied on sporadic communication (arcane communiques and messengers for the most part) that failed to paint a true picture of the eastern Horde’s reckless acts.
“I do not just mean the Hand of Vengeance. Even the orcs in the east followed their own dark path. Have you heard of Conqueror Krenna?” asked Loruk, when asked about this subject.
“Yes, actually.” I’d visited her fortress in the Grizzly Hills. Savage to the extreme, she'd squandered her troops in attacks against the Alliance and terrorized any who dared disagree.
“A fine warrior but a terrible leader. She ignored Thrall’s orders to open up a front against the Scourge in Zul’drak and fought the Alliance instead. She’s dead at any rate; she challenged her sister, Gorgonna, to a duel and lost.”
“What prompted the duel?”
“I am not sure. Gorgonna’s the interim leader of Conquest Hold. Gorgonna fought well, by all accounts.”
“Warsong Hold never knew about this?”
“Krenna probably just told Garrosh what she wanted him to know. Now, I ask you: why did the Forsaken at Venomspite never seize New Hearthglen?” It came more as a statement than a question. “Occupied by the hated Scarlet Onslaught, I’d say it’s a natural target!”
“They attacked New Hearthglen—”
“But never destroyed it! Quite unlike Sylvanas, wouldn’t you say? Venomspite had more than enough warriors for the task, and say what you will about the free dead but they are almost as fierce as us orcs!”
“Where are you going with this?”
“New Hearthglen’s cannons made it impossible for the Horde to send supplies by sea! Had the Forsaken destroyed it, we’d have been able to communicate with the east; the caravans could go from Warsong Hold to Moa’ki, put everything on ships, and then land south of Dragonblight and go from there to Conquest Hold.
“I will tell you why this never happened. The apothecaries knew we’d catch on to what they planned for Wrathgate, so they kept the eastern front isolated. All they had to do was let New Hearthglen survive.”
I do not actually believe Loruk’s theory. Venomspite had never succeeded in destroying New Hearthglen, but they’d worn down the Onslaught forces to the point that they could not extend their power beyond the fortress. The Scourge posed a bigger threat, so Venomspite’s garrison had no choice but to respond. As far as I can tell, the Horde never considered New Hearthglen a priority (a strategic error on their part), suggesting that they only started caring about monitoring the east after Wrathgate.
In a concession to the dangers of the natural world, the Horde employed a taunka shaman named Hennotak to protect the caravan from the vagaries of the weather. Hennotak rarely left the ritual circle in the rear wagon though we all heard his growling songs, promising pain to any spirit that dared cross our path. Since we never suffered worse than the ceaseless winds and sporadic snowfall, I can only surmise that the spirits heeded his warning.
The caravan would make a brief stop at the tuskarr village of Moa’ki Harbor before going on to Agmar’s Hammer. Horde diplomats had persuaded the local tuskarr to let their village act as a sanctuary for said caravans (though the protection did not extend to other Horde forces). That they made this arrangement after Wrathgate testifies to the diplomats’ remarkable skill. Some predicted that it meant the end of tuskarr neutrality, but the deal is a purely local one.
Moa’ki Harbor offers a spot of warmth on the coast between the Dragon Wastes and the frozen forests of the west, its fish-shaped huts looking as if an entire school had just beached itself on the gray sands. Rotund tuskarr work at myriad tasks: butchering sea lions, drawing in fishing nets, and carting goods towards a large hall designed to resemble a whale. An almost tactile air of expectation hung over Moa’ki.
The caravan came to a stop just outside the village. Noticing us, a pair of tuskarr hurried forward to offer greetings.
“Ah, visitors from the wastes! Welcome to Moa’ki; come rest your heads and fill your bellies here,” greeted one tuskarr in a booming voice. “You have arrived at a most auspicious time! Elder Ko’nani is holding a feast, and he would be most pleased if you attended.”
“We will be honored to accept,” said Kul’dor, the caravan leader as he dismounted from a wagon. The tuskarr introduced himself as Nonquok, the youngest nephew of Ko’nani.
“What is the occasion for this feast?” I asked.
“To laugh in the face of the darkness that even now roils beneath our feet.”
The tuskarr view the spirits of nature as cruel, and believe that fear and sadness attract their malign attention. Happiness, say the tuskarr, makes the best armor, and they project a constant joy that is bolstered by innumerable celebrations and rituals.
“Darkness?” I asked.
“I am sure your shamans have sensed it as well,” said Nonquok, looking to Hennotak. The taunka shaman made a grumbling sound.
“There is always darkness,” he replied.
“But something terrible lies in wait. You can hear it in the crash of the waves and the scream of the wind. The spirits seek to unnverve us, but they never learn how easily we tuskarr laugh and make merry!” Nonquok chuckled, as if to emphasize this fact.
“Do your shamans have any idea what lies in store?”
“Only that it means ill for the world. But this is no reason not to be cheerful. If one must die, better to do so while happy than sad.” I suppose one cannot really argue with that.
The entire caravan staff followed Nonquok to the great communal hall, where a roaring fire threw its light on walls of tanned hide and pillars of whalebone. At our entry, an imposing tuskarr at the other end of the hall raised his hands and laughed, and walked towards us with surprising speed. I noticed that he left behind an orc and a night elf, his departure interrupting a heated argument between them.
The tuskarr introduced himself as Ko’nani. Most in the group recognized him from the last stop at Moa’ki. Ko’nani happily invited us to partake in the feast, though I wondered if there would be enough food for ten newcomers. As is the case with many tribal societies, the tuskarr consider hospitality to be among the highest of virtues. According to their ancient laws, any visitor may help himself to the village’s food for three days; after that, he must contribute.
As we rested in the hut’s smothering warmth, tuskarr brought in a staggering amount of meat into the room, each one waving at us as they passed. Whale meat, plucked seabirds, seals, a dozen varieties of fish and more waited to be consumed. I wondered how the tuskarr had managed to obtain so much food at one time.
The orc who’d been standing next to Ko’nani, Sorsk Ripfang, listened to Kul’dor give the latest news about Northrend. Sorsk served as the Horde’s envoy to Moa’ki Village; his Alliance foil, Emissary Skyhaven, had gone out to help with the preparations after Ko’nani went to greet us.
Ko’nani asked dozens of questions about the state of Northrend, tugging at his great and bristling beard as he spoke. Though he sometimes asked about the political factions warring over the continent, he most often inquired about the spirits. Ko’nani directed these questions at Hennotak, who seemed to find them puzzling.
“Wise one,” rumbled Hennotak. “The only thing we mortals need know about the spirits is how to avoid them or bend them to our wills.”
“Yes, of course! Ha ha! But do you find it harder to do so these days?”
Tuskarr soon filled the hall near to bursting, the air torrid from so many bodies packed together. Guttural laughter mixed with the sound of smacking lips as they tore into the raw meat and lard. Voices competed to be heard over each other as the noise within the hall reaching a near-deafening level.
What seemed like every tuskarr in the village came by to greet us. Only a few spoke Orcish, but they still made every effort to interrupt, eager to bring more into their happy world. A tuskarr woman shooed me towards the array of glistening meat, motioning for me to have my fill. Smiling, I put a piece of whale meat in my mouth and began chewing, and kept chewing in an attempt to soften it. She found this delightfully funny and I couldn’t help laughing along with her once I finished.
I sat back down next to Hennotak, whose teeth tore at the flank of a snow moose. Six of the beasts had been carried in by Kaldorei hunters, perhaps to curry favor with the tuskarr who consider the beasts a welcome break from their usual fare.
Hennotak made no move to engage with the tuskarr celebrating all around him, his pale gray eyes a world away. I badly wanted to ask him about the tuskarr’s concern regarding the spirits, but knew that our hosts would not want anyone to discuss such things during a festival.
While the tuskarr deflect spiritual attention with happiness, the taunka view the spirits as bitter enemies. Considering the cruelty of the northern lands, it’s easy to see why. Taunka shamans spend their entire lives battling the spirits, breaking them and forcing them to give the taunka a place in the sun.
For all their prowess, the taunka are a scattered people. The Scourge drove them from their lands and decimated the populations. Though raiders and pirates trouble the tuskarr, there is no question that they are better off than the taunka. I tried to imagine what Hennotak might feel, seeing so many of them carouse as if free of care. I suspect he understood the dread at the heart of this joy.
A piercing snarl broke the dull roar of conversation and the tuskarr suddenly pulled back from the center. Small bodies hit the floor as savage growls rang out in the silenced hall, sounding like an entire pack of vicious dogs. Not stunned for long, a bunch of tuskarr rushed the source of the commotion just as a slab of torn meat flew up in the air. Trying to shout over the tumult, they grabbed down with their massive arms.
Hennotak and I stood up, trying to see what happened. One of the tuskarr at the center reared back up, clutching to his chest a small and furious wolvar that snapped and strained to escape from his grip. Some of the tuskarr laughed as another wolvar was pulled from the fray. I looked to Sorsk in confusion.
“Moa’ki’s newest residents,” he said.
“How did that come to be?” I asked. The territorial and combative wolvar seemed an odd match for the placid tuskarr.
Sorsk paused as he watched the villagers carry out the wolvar, still trying to wrestle free and fight each other.
“The tuskarr are a very merciful race. Perhaps too merciful. The Snowfall Tribe of wolvar used to raid Moa’ki’s food stores, and even killed a few tuskarr. When a tuskarr is murdered, his kin are obliged to kill the offender. But this obligation does not extend to the offender’s children.
“The Snowfall were near dissolution, forced south by the Scourge and surrounded by enemies (usually of their own making). Some of the wolvar fell to tuskarr spears, others to visitors employed by the tuskarr—the rules of vengeance allow the offended to work through proxies. But they could not bring themselves to kill the children, so the tuskarr decided to raise them as their own.”
By this point, the convivial atmosphere had returned, as if the fight had never happened.
“I take it there have been difficulties?”
“Wolvar live to fight, the tuskarr prefer to laugh and fish. How much do you know about the wolvar?”
“Not a great deal, though I did spend some time with the Frenzyheart Tribe up in Sholazar. They were quite quarrelsome; every encounter turns into a struggle for dominance.”
“I’ve never heard of the Frenzyheart, but that’s the general attitude of the wolvar. They aren’t warriors; not really. Just thugs. A dozen of them live here; most are still too young to do much of anything. The two who just made the scene are Niquip and Poaluq.”
The orcs at the Frenzyheart camp had expressed a similar disdain towards the wolvar. I wondered if the tuskarr understood the difficulties of incorporating the wolvar into their society. While some of the wolvar violence is culturally enforced, they are a carnivorous race, suggesting that the aggression is at least partly biological.
Humans have lived among the tuskarr without any conflict. The human woman whom I’d met in Unu’pe, Letense, enjoyed the lifestyle, though most other humans had departed as soon as they found others of their kind. However, humans (along with trolls and goblins) are quite good at adapting to very different cultures. I am not sure if this can be said for the wolvar.
The feast came to its happy conclusion at around midnight, the heavy-bellied tuskarr sleeping in the communal hall (since they were already there). Waking a little past dawn, the people of Moa’ki went to work at the daily business of life, perhaps a bit slower after the previous night's indulgence.
After looking around for a while I found the hut where the wolvar lived. A tiny wolvar infant at the doorway, little more than a ball of fuzz, played with a small hide ball, batting it from one paw to the other. The wolvar stood up as a muscular tuskarr approached the hut, balancing a bone basin in his hands. The tuskarr offered a cheerful hello to the wolvar, who squeaked back in response.
Going to his knees, the tuskarr placed the bowl on the ground and I saw some milk splash over the surface. A whole host of wolvar hurried out of the tent, some on all fours to begin greedily lapping at the milk. The tuskarr began speaking to the wolvar in an authoritative but friendly tone. When two of the wolvar suddenly started growling at each other, he stepped in and picked them both up by the scruffs of their necks, his voice suddenly stern.
I found out that the tuskarr’s name was Kuilik, an angler and a father of three. I managed to talk with him shortly after noon.
“Ah, they are a most wonderful group, are they not? We first gave them to the wise (old) mothers to take care of, but these wolvar are much fiercer than what we tuskarr are used to seeing in our young! So a few of us anglers volunteered to do this task.”
“Is it difficult?”
“These children are aggressive, certainly. And how they bite!” he laughed. “But they are still children, and they can be taught.”
“How do the tuskarr intend to teach them?”
“By example and by discipline. Their anger is a very real danger. However, the ancestors frown on those who let children die. We are happy to accept the risk. They must learn that they are tuskarr, not wolvar, even if they look like wolvar.”
“Have they adapted?”
“Slowly. A month ago, we found Poaluq trying to get away from Niquip, bleeding from his left flank where Niquip had bitten him. It hurt us to hear poor Poaluq’s yelps; he was in so much pain! We separated them for a while, and disciplined Niquip. They’ve fought since then, but not seriously.”
“Like last night?”
“Yes, we intervened!” he laughed. “Niquip still lives apart, as he is the most aggressive of the bunch; aside from Poaluq (who has learned our ways best, so far) the rest are too young to cause any harm, though we watch them at all times. Even during the festival, old Inememuq made sure the infants were safe.
“It is strange. Tuskarr children need to be scolded and taught. They might get into arguments, or behave impetuously, but they never fight. The wolvar always fight; it is why they are so unhappy. We must teach them that it is not the tuskarr to way to fight one’s brothers and sisters.”
“How well do Niquip and Poaluq get along with the tuskarr children?”
“Poaluq gets along quite well. Niquip, not as much. He does not understand that we tuskarr have thick skins and lots of muscle, even at an early age! I am sure he will soon learn the foolishness of starting fights with his playmates. The wolvar do seem to grow up much faster, which is a worry. But we will put them in the right age group as needed.”
“Forgive me if this question is inappropriate, but what will you do if they do not adapt?”
“Drive them from the village when they reach adulthood, kill them if need be. We cannot allow their anger to spread. Certainly not to our own children. I do not look forward to this possibility, but we will do so with a merry song in our hearts should it be necessary.”
I thought on the matter after thanking Kuilik for his time. Boiled down to its base essentials, the wolvar children had been kidnapped from their homes and thrown into a vastly alien culture where their natural aggression became a liability rather than a strength.
But is this aggression ever truly a strength? The wolvar have been retreating on every front save Sholazar, and even there the wolvar are far from establishing a secure home. They attack without warning, driven by the instinctual fear of being made subordinate. They either cannot or refuse to realize that other societies are not necessarily interested in attacking them without reason.
Had the tuskarr not kidnapped the children of their fallen enemies, it is likely that the young wolvar would have died after the tribe scattered. Even if the tribe itself survived, it only meant that the wolvar infants would continue the tradition of constant violence. Can the tuskarr teach the wolvar a better way?
Despite all their aggression, I cannot bring myself to condemn the wolvar, for in so doing I would condemn my own. The Forsaken have done far worse to the world than have the sparse wolvar tribes. One cannot expect the peoples of Northrend to forever tolerate the endless wolvar attacks; given how few wolvar remain today, the race’s survival may well depend on adopting more peaceful attitudes. Perhaps this will start in Moa’ki.
With its iron parapets and thick walls of black stone, Agmar’s Hammer manages to look even less welcoming than the leagues of frozen forest surrounding it. Ugly though it may be, few would question the fortress’ record of victory against overwhelming odds. When Overlord Agmar’s army first arrived at the site they found an entire Scourge force waiting for them. A lich known as Geldus Deadheart, who’d earned his name overseeing the massacre of Lordaeronian refugees in the Third War, led the undead army. Geldus' skill at the doctrine of mobility made him a source of terror for both the Horde and the Alliance.
Battle raged through the icy forests for two weeks, the Horde warriors warmed by their fury. Striking from the trees, ax-wielding grunts whittled away at the Scourge, aided by shamans who blasted the undead with elemental flame. Horde trackers navigated the thickets to surround Geldus, finding his weakest points and opening fire from the shadows. Deaths on both sides mounted, yet it is said that eight Scourge drones fell for every orc. The forest’s unusual properties prevented Geldus from fully clearing it with his poisons, giving the Horde an ideal hiding place.
Geldus tried to follow suit but his troops stumbled and wandered in the forest confines, becoming easy prey for the Horde. Never staying in one place for more than a night, Agmar prepared to finish his job. Horde warriors plowed through Geldus’ remaining defenses on the last day, and Agmar himself brought an end to the lich’s cruelties.
The Scourge attacked again as peons labored to construct the fortress. When scouts reported the advance, Agmar set ambushes all along the Scourge’s path. Skirmishers wreaked havoc on the marching dead, weakening them so that Agmar’s forces could win the battle at the half-finished fortress. When the Scourge made a separate attack on the nearby Ruby Dragonshrine, Agmar’s troops quickly occupied the routes and chokepoints surrounding the area, turning it into a deathtrap.
Armored guards ushered us through the pyre-crowned gates of Agmar’s Hammer in silence. Smoke clogs the air from a dozen fires burning inside stone burrows, and supply crates seem to sink into a courtyard that is equal parts ice and mud. Gnarled black tree limbs reach over the great walls, a reminder of the surrounding forest. A great keep guards the scene, red light smoldering from knife-slit windows placed between metal spikes.
A sort of inner coldness grips Agmar’s Hammer as surely as the freezing snows all around it. Blades clash in the vast courtyard as warriors spar, fighting with a silent fervency not often seen among orcs. The boisterous battle cries and taunts heard in most orcish settlements have little place among the black-armored fighters in Agmar’s Hammer.
“Overlord Agmar is among the Horde’s greatest warriors, and we would do him a disservice to offer anything less than our best,” stated a young soldier named Olmut.
“He has an amazing record,” I agreed.
“Before the battle begins, Overlord Agmar swears himself to victory. I have seen it myself; he places his father’s ax on the ground and cuts his palm, letting the blood fall on that hallowed blade. He fulfills his vow every time, because of his foresight and wisdom. He is like a shaman of battle.”
“The soldiers here seem to do much more training than others.”
“Yes. Imagine Overlord Agmar as a blacksmith, and we warriors as his ore. He shapes us into weapons of unsurpassed strength. We do not idle around and boast of past victories. We train every day; we use different weapons, different armor, create different situations, handicap ourselves. Battle must be our life, he says, and when there is no one to fight we will practice against each other.”
“Your training is scheduled?”
“Scheduled? A human might interpret it that way. But this is no mere matter of timetables and numbers. This is the art of creating heroes.”
Discipline in orcish armies has always relied more on traditional social mores than on specific rules. A warrior is expected to fight, and sparring is considered a pastime, so they all end up being well-trained. Even so, gaps sometimes appear. An orc who loves the ax may train with only that weapon, neglecting other forms of proficiency. Proven warriors might feel they have nothing left to learn by practicing, and their skills atrophy.
Orcish training also tends to be ad hoc, resulting in a very personalized fighting style. This is by no means negative; small groups can learn to combine their skills in terrifyingly effective ways. However, it becomes problematic in larger armies. While small numbers tend to be the norm in modern warfare, there are times that bigger forces are needed.
Agmar’s training schedule may offer a solution to this problem. His warriors internalize the concept of combat, so that practicing it is as natural to them as eating or breathing. It can be argued that the orcs do not need the strict scheduling seen among human troops; orcs are simply more motivated when it comes to war.
Imposing a timetable on orcs cannot have been an easy task, and it testifies to the reverence in which Agmar is held. His effectiveness against the Scourge gives weight to his training ideas. I learned that Agmar was a veteran of the Battle of Mt. Hyjal, where he’d worked closely with the Alliance forces. It is possible that he attempted to adapt their training methods to an orcish context.
“Agmar is a great warrior, I agree. Yet I fear that his rules dim the fire of orcish fury. Our anger is spontaneous, like a Mulgore thunderstorm, and this gives us the strength we need to win.”
Such were the words of a visiting independent warrior. No one is brazen enough to directly criticize Agmar, but outsiders may express doubts about his techniques. Soldiers within the fortress all appear to be enthusiastic supporters, at least on the surface. The peons stand as a glaring exemption. Not subject to the timetables, they are a fatalistic lot without much in the way of hope or motivation.
Agmar’s Hammer is also notable as being the site where the taunka had officially joined the Horde. After the Scourge drove the Icemist Tribe from their ancient homeland, the survivors found shelters within the walls of Agmar’s Hammer. In return, they pledged to do battle in the Warchief’s name. Most of the taunka warriors now fight on the northern front, their hardiness an invaluable asset. Only the oldest and youngest Icemist taunka still live in Agmar’s Hammer, where they are largely left to their own devices.
I spoke with an elderly taunka woman on the second day. Named Mahotada Sleethoof, her hands worried at a necklace of polished bone beads, some tied to tufts of brown fur.
“My sons, strong and skillful braves both, now do battle against the evil one,” she said. “Both gave me snippets of the fur on their chins, so I may keep them close even across the boundless snows.”
We spoke of her sons for a while, and of her daughter who perished when the Scourge took Icemist Village. I sensed that her fear went even deeper than the dread of losing a loved one; with so many of the Icemist youths fighting the undead, the tribe’s future is at stake.
“Without the Horde, there is no longer an Icemist Tribe. So many died on the day the Scourge attacked. Our power is gone, our shamans weakened. Since you still live—in a sense—you must not have seen Icemist Village.”
“That is correct.”
“We once called it the Place of Crashing Waters. When the poisoned mountain snows of Wintergrasp melt, it is as if an entire ocean is falling into the churning waters below. In that spot our ancestors fashioned great totems, as tall as the sky, and forced the wicked spirits to live within them.
“The Icemist shamans of old made a place where the spirits could not reign. That was the reason for the great totems, for the markings and sacred stones. All of Icemist Village worked to trap and contain the spirits, so that we could assert our will.”
“Did you still maintain herds?”
“Of course! Such is our way. We still guided our herds through the frozen forests to the warmth of the coasts, where we traded with the tuskarr. No one lived in Icemist Village all through the year; our tribe grew so big that we split into three bands, each one residing there for a part of the year.
“In Icemist Village the shamans studied the spirits trapped in our web of wood and hide, learning their weaknesses. I remember how we used to gather around the spirit prisons as children, giggling as we heard them rage, screaming wind muffled by our power! Our shamans spoke of this to the wise ones of other western tribes (the hunters of the east were too far) and they came to learn. And now that is gone from us. It took many generations to build. In our weakened state, it may be impossible.”
“The Horde will help.”
“There are limits to what even the Horde can do. Rebuilding Icemist Village is not a matter of lumber and gold. The power in that place came from entire generations, their songs and stories giving strength to the sacred land.”
I thought of Dalaran, perhaps a human equivalent of Icemist Village, and how it rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Third War. Might Icemist do the same? I thought of mentioning that, but restrained myself for fear of inspiring a false hope.
There are even elements of the Horde that might be reluctant to help rebuild Icemist Village. I cannot imagine that the tauren look favorably on recreating a prison for the spirits. Some part of me wonders if the orcs would prefer to keep the taunka without such a tool, so as to make them entirely dependent on Orgrimmar. I suspect, however, that such a cynical outcome is unlikely; the orcs appear to respect the taunka.
I explored Agmar’s keep on the third day and saw the famed warlord seated on a throne of stone and timber. Two great wolves flank the throne, their golden eyes intent and cruel. Named Anguish and Suffering, they accompany Agmar wherever he goes.
The keep itself is a frigid icebox that stinks of unwashed bodies. Those obliged to spend time inside wrap themselves in flea-ridden fur coats, hovering close to the paltry fires that never bring real warmth. Being orcs, they endure the discomfort with indomitable stoicism.
“What is in the future for Agmar’s Hammer?” This was my question to Gurtuk, one of Agmar’s lieutenants.
“Alas, the front has moved away from us. The Warchief needs this place to resupply the northern front, which gives us precious little to do beyond handling logistics. Important—essential, really—but dull.”
“I would think Overlord Agmar would be leading the attack, given his record.”
“The Warchief has chosen Korm Blackscar for that honor. Blackscar is a warrior almost without parallel. I saw how he raised his bloody blade high over a mountain of demon corpses in Outland! A sight for the ages, truly. Though skill in combat alone is not enough to win a war.”
“Do you think Overlord Agmar is a better choice?”
“I do not question the will of the Warchief!” he snapped. “Blackscar is a great warrior, just as Overlord Agmar is a great strategist.”
A small contingent of Forsaken apothecaries are tucked away in the southwest corner of Agmar’s Hammer. Kept out of sight, I still noticed them on almost the first moment of my arrival, their presence made conspicuous by the wall of crates surrounding their section. Having stayed in Agmar’s Hammer for almost the entirety of the war, these Forsaken had been completely cut off from the machinations of the Apothecarium in the east.
While in the keep, I overheard a conversation revolving around some kind of “monster” being kept by the Forsaken, referred to in tones of deep fear and disgust. I’d been reluctant to speak with the Forsaken of Agmar’s Hammer, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I visited them the next day.
Rows of rusted metal cages lean crooked in the frozen mud beyond the stacked-up boxes. Preserved limbs twitch on metal tables, electric currents coursing through dried flesh. Forsaken apothecaries stand in silent observation, wearing the insect faces of breathing masks. Glass-lensed sockets looked over me as I entered, the apothecaries soon turning back to their studies.
I made a few cautious inquiries regarding the work being performed in that foul laboratory, rarely getting more than a monosyllabic response. Only Senior Apothecary Narotta Casca showed any interest in conversation.
“I scarce blame your suspicious tone, good Destron; the Apothecarium has fallen far from its original goals. While those murderers and dilettantes brewed new plagues, my coterie delved into the nature of undeath herself,” she explained. Wrapped up in thick layers of rotting black cloth, her face hidden behind a shapeless leather mask, only Narotta’s light and breathy voice identified her as a woman.
“How do you mean?”
“Much remains obscure about our condition. Why do we still move outside of the Lich King’s power? What is our connection to shadow? Answering these questions serves many different purposes, only one of which is the total destruction of the Scourge. The Dark Lady herself has taken a keen interest in our efforts.
“Of late, our research has taken a turn towards Azjol-Nerub. As I am sure you know, the Pit of Narjun—the entrance to their fallen empire—lies less than a week west of here. We can learn much from the nerubians. What do you know of them?”
“Very little, I am sad to say.” I have always felt a deep fascination with the nerubians, a curiosity heightened by the fragmented and contradictory accounts of their once-mighty civilization.
“Then I think you may enjoy your time here. We’ve made several expeditions to Azjol-Nerub; another one starts in three days. On our last, we made a most opportune discovery. Would you like to see?” she asked, her voice taking on a beseeching quality, like a student eager to show off to a teacher.
“Follow me, please.”
She turned around and made for a nearby tent, her gait stiff like a marionette’s. Going to the entrance she peered inside and called a name into the shadows.
“Vizier Merun’khet!” she called out, in Common.
A thrill ran through my body the moment I heard the name, so distinct and alien—unmistakably nerubian. Yet something altogether different crawled out from the tent. Pale arms emerged from the darkness, each hand clutching a walking stick as they pulled the connected body into the light. A normal Forsaken from the chest down, his head caught my attention, the scalp swollen to twice its normal size, masses of wrinkled flesh pushing up from open wounds. A metal web of support struts, embedded into the flesh of his neck, let him support his heavy and mutilated head.
“We found the vizier near death at the edge of the Old Kingdom, his exoskeleton crushed, legs severed. He’d fallen afoul of the Scourge—groups of them still operate in Azjol-Nerub. I knew we could not save his body, but I realized we could save his mind. His soul, if you will.
“A Forsaken named Jarrel provided the body; he’d perished after a booby trap drove a spike through his skull. Gave me a most convenient opening. I performed the surgery under fungal light, cutting and opening as needed. No one has ever done something like this before, you understand, attaching human nerves to an alien brain. Perhaps a higher power guided my hand. Whatever the case, Vizier Merun’khet received his chance for vengeance.”
Merun’khet said nothing, his jaw slack.
“Does he remember anything?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. Narotta translated my question into Common.
“My intelligence and recollection remain at full capacity,” said Merun’khet, and I flinched at the sound of his voice, strained like that of a man in unspeakable pain. His gray mouth twisted in unnatural ways, like a mouth trying to be something it wasn’t, the words without any inflection.
“Do you speak Common? I’m afraid Vizier Merun’khet has not yet mastered Orcish, though he is coming along remarkably well,” said Narotta.
“Yes, I can.” I saw how Merun’khet kept his body bent and low to the ground, using the walking sticks as extra legs. My stomach twisted at the realization that he was trying to emulate the body of a nerubian.
“Vizier Merun’khet is an amazing individual. He will be accompanying us on our next expedition. You are welcome to join us; I am sure it will be a fine way for you to learn more about Azjol-Nerub. We could certainly benefit from a trained mage in our retinue.”
I knew my answer before she finished speaking.
Azjol-Nerub was the first nation of Azeroth to fall before the Scourge, but it did not go easily into defeat. The Scourge spent years battling the nerubians in their web-work of tunnels, the Lich King tested to the utmost in sending his paltry force against an ancient empire. Perhaps we all owe the nerubians a debt of gratitude for delaying the Scourge, giving Thrall and Stormwind time to prepare their defenses.
When the last of the subterranean citadels fell to Scourge, their poisons seeped up through the earth. The icy forests of western Dragonblight fell to corruption, the plague eating away at their roots and spreading up through the trunks. Resistant to the Scourge’s dark touch, years of exposure will destroy even these enchanted trees. Pustules of diseased sap now hang in clusters from open wounds, and ichor-soaked branches sag almost to the ground. Yellow fog curls around the trunks, stinking of death and decay.
No one can say with any certainty how many Scourge minions still lurk in the wilderness of western Dragonblight. Horde warriors have harrowed the Scourge base in Icemist Village multiple times, yet scouts still claim to see undead prowling through the ruins. Nor do the authorities expect Azjol-Nerub to be fully cleared, its recesses too dark and deep to explore. On some level, the Horde fears what may remain. A flood of the dead had spilled out from the earth when the Horde armies first landed on Northrend. These forces will not be able to sustain another assault like that, spread out as they are across the continent.
Narotta led our grim expedition along the dead roads. We numbered seven in total, all Forsaken save for Merun’khet. The mutilated vizier lay prone on a battered sled, pulled through the snow by a skeletal horse. Merely looking at him inspired the memory of pain, and I am no stranger to the cruelties that death visits on its victims.
Whatever I suffered in my undeath, I at least walk in the same body I possessed while alive, ruined though it may be. On some level this provides comfort and familiarity: I at least know what I am. Merun’khet was denied even this, trapped instead in a prison of alien flesh. I tried to imagine myself transplanted into an arachnid body, and knew that whatever I thought up could not compare to the truth.
I first thought that an irrational guilt over this fact kept me from conversing with Merun’khet. His tortured form forced me to acknowledge my own relatively well-preserved body, achieved purely by the luck of dying in a cold place and being raised soon after. I chose to interact with the world of the living by my own choice and will, but there is no question that my appearance made this choice easier. Badly decayed Forsaken sometimes choose to do the same (and are truly laudable for their efforts), but the process can be much more difficult in those cases.
Over time, however, I realized that something about Merun’khet himself disturbed me. Humans often view arachnids with a primal abhorrence. Far worse than the appearance (which I admit that I have always found strangely elegant) is the sense of heartless predation. A wolf or lion might attack a human, but humans view them as relatable. The great hunters form societies and take care of their young. Their eyes can be imagined as expressing emotion.
This is not to say that such a view is accurate. Nature is completely impersonal when it comes to the hunt. Spiders offer humans a chilling reminder of this fact that other animals cannot. In cities and farms, people imagine themselves safe from predation, freed from the ancient dread of the forest night. The spider is one of those creatures that insures no race will ever entirely forget this past, that there will always be a cold hunger in the shadows.
I approached Merun’khet as our party navigated a cloying sea of yellow fog, his body a tattered silhouette heaped up on the sled. Perhaps I preferred to meet him when I couldn’t really see his ruined face, or the arachnid need beneath the skin. I told Merun’khet of myself as I trudged through the mist, hearing the dry rasp of sliding bones in the skeletal horse pulling him.
“Are you in any pain?” I finally asked, daring to look at him. My stomach twisted in revulsion, despite having seen Forsaken in physical states worse than his own.
“Yes,” he choked, the word torn by a mouth not known to his senses. “Nerves hooked to dead flesh. I feel, yet I do not. Why is it in your interest to ask?”
“I wanted to know how you felt about this situation.” I had hoped I could learn more from him by expressing my sympathies, which were genuine. There is no mercy in forcible resurrection.
“I was curious,” I said, not sure how to respond. “Has Narotta said how she wishes to use you?”
“Her interest is to learn of Azjol-Nerub, as it was once mine to learn of the surface,” he responded, the last word trailing off in a rattling sigh. A strange whimper escaped his mouth and his bloated head drooped forward.
“You were a vizier, correct?”
“Yes. Many tasks fell to our caste: studying the ancient records, commenting on the laws, developing the arcane. I accumulated knowledge of the surface world. From my ritual chamber in Ahn’kahet I explored the dreams of the sunlit races. Much can be learned from the reality beyond the appearance. Interests—desires, perhaps, a better term—are exposed in dreams.”
“Is that how you learned Common?”
“We possessed extensive records on the language, and I achieved proficiency before my first oneiric expedition. Hearing Common in the dreams of others sharpened my skill.”
“You know it better than many native speakers.”
“Such is expected of viziers. Our mothers nursed us with the sweetest blood, and as eggs they placed us in rich flesh to stimulate our minds.” Merun’khet gasped and shuddered, his borrowed yellow teeth chattering uncontrollably. Long seconds passed before he regained control. “Nerubians are nurtured into their castes. Workers get very little food, while warriors are gorged. Viziers receive less than do the warriors, but how fine it tastes!”
“What sort of flesh?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.
“Jormungar ice worms. I understand enough of human fears to know that you assume that we used your kindred as fodder. Dismiss the fear; paltry human flesh was never in Azjol-Nerub’s interest.”
“I am not human.”
“The Forsaken are less dissimilar than Narotta thinks.”
“At any rate, the humans themselves must have been of some interest if you studied them.”
“At great length. I plunged into the sea of dreams, satiating my need on its symbols and veiled truths. To emerge shuddering from that uncertain realm and return home, to its comforts of darkness and solitude, is indescribable. Humans congregate like ants, yet are choleric like wolves. So alien to this world.”
“You mentioned solitude. You worked alone?”
“We are predators, Destron. Solitary, cold, and hungry. Seeing others of our own kind does not inspire feelings of empathy. Only fear. Fear that they will take what is ours. Fear that they will attack and kill. Workers, blessed by limited intelligence and appetite, may operate in large numbers. For the rest, the presence of kindred is no cause for relief.” He drew another long and ragged breath, his palsied fingers jerking like puppets on strings.
“Did you never meet other viziers?”
“Many times. We can suppress the instinct, just as humans usually suppress their instincts to steal and kill—”
“Pardon the interruption, but how is that instinct different from your own?”
“Humans have an instinctual desire to seize that which does not belong to them, kill that which threatens them. Equally strong is the desire for companionship. Nerubians lack the latter quality.”
“Our ceremonies force us to gather in large numbers, to tolerate other nerubians without fleeing in terror. Azjol-Nerub, ancient and once-immutable, binds us. We cannot survive alone. Therefore, it is in our interest to strengthen the collective immortality of our kingdom.”
“The same could be said about the surface races.”
“Yet their interests are altered by ideals and sentiments. They deny their true motivations. We are not without emotions, but the focus on survival and satiation surpasses all other considerations; our interest is calculated. If a warrior sacrifices herself to defend Azjol-Nerub, she is not motivated by any patriotic impulse. Her offspring—her immortality—exist in Azjol-Nerub, and are in her interest to defend.”
“Are all warriors female?”
“What if one has not had offspring?”
“They are not sent into battle until they have laid one clutch of eggs. This insures cooperation. As I said, there is only interest.”
“Is this current body in your interest?”
“There is nothing I can do about this shell for now, so it may as well be. But self-interest is always provisional.”
I mulled over Merun’khet’s words. Is self-interest the only real motivation of the surface races? The idea makes sense from a certain perspective. Even an entirely altruistic action is self-serving in the sense that it fulfills a moral or spiritual need on the part of the person performing the action.
This argument can be adapted to interpret highly communal or idealistic societies. The draenei might be seen as finding it in their self-interest to spread the Light and their message of justice to all peoples, in a collective rather than individual form of self-interest. Of course, the draenei would consider the benefits they receive secondary to the benefits all peoples would enjoy in such a society. Nevertheless, a spread of draenic culture would affirm what they believe, and could thus be interpreted through a lens of selfishness.
Does this then boil down to a question of motive? If the altruist truly does not care about his own moral fulfillment, and only about helping someone else (say, a rival or enemy), can he truly be said to have any self-interest? Some might argue yes, for he still receives (or hopes to receive) the moral fulfillment on an unrealized, subconscious level.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with self-interest. Many of the great developments in arcane studies and engineering—developments that have drastically improved the lives of thousands—came about because the inventors wished to get rich and work less. The classic zeppelin is a prime example of this. Yet I think it is reductive to say all behavior is based on an animalistic self-interest, as Merun’khet seemed to say. Animals may sacrifice themselves in the manner of Merun’khet’s hypothetical nerubian warrior. I do not see animals risking their lives for a higher cause, like freedom or a religion. While sacrificing oneself for a cause is still self-interested in a sense, it expands the self into something greater. The hypothetical warrior, who sacrifices for the collective immortality of Azjol-Nerub, is still self-serving on a more basic (though by no means evil or disgraceful) level.
However much I rationalized and argued such points, Merun’khet’s rasping voice carried the conviction of history itself. The nerubians are old beyond reckoning, having ruled their dark domain for thousands and thousands of years. As the warm-blooded surface races rose to power, as Azjol-Nerub’s ancient troll foes consigned the arachnids to half-remembered myths, they watched. Just how much might they have learned, building on the knowledge of eons past? Would not our own knowledge, so rudimentary and consigned by limited memory, pale by comparison?
It is a mistake to assume that age brings wisdom. Nerubian observations may well be flawed. Certainly they are somewhat limited; while apparently aware of events beyond Northrend, the world to the south was mostly closed to them. Given how different the nerubian psyche is from any surface race, it may be impossible for one to truly understand the other. Yet I cannot dismiss the possibility that his distant mind somehow knew us better than we knew ourselves. That in the end, the cold hunger of pure egotism dominates us as much as it does them.
Unable to make peace with these dark thoughts, I made no further attempt to converse with Merun’khet while we traveled on the surface. Perhaps I felt some shame at being repulsed by what had so long fascinated me. Narotta led us through lands ruined by plague, where toxic fogs roll over flats of pest-ridden slush. At last we reached the Pit of Narjun, a yawning abyss nearly a mile across. A frozen earthen ramp descends to an earthen platform cluttered with webs and bones. The faint glimmer of subterranean pools shines through ice-rimmed pits in the ground, hinting at the endless caverns beneath the earth.
“At last! Azjol-Nerub’s scion returns to its glory!” exulted Narotta, raising her hands high as she scrambled to the edge. Peering into the depths for a moment, she threw back her head and laughed.
“So much for us to learn, the wisdom of the ancients at my fingertips! All thanks to you, Vizier Merun’khet.”
She hurried over to the sled where Merun’khet reposed and threw herself into the oozing ground before him.
“Vizier, I promised you I would take you to your wondrous home. I now fulfill that promise, and await all that you can impart to us. Vizier Merun’khet, the wise... my greatest creation,” she said, the words tumbling out all at once. Merun’khet said nothing, arachnid senses watching her through a human skull.
Narotta did not wait for a reply. Standing up, she took Merun’khet’s hands into her own trembling hands, lowering her masked face as if to kiss them, the way a vassal of old might have done for his liege.
“This honor is beyond anything I imagined, vizier.” She stepped back before turning to face the pit, Merun’khet still silent. Raising her hands, she addressed the rest of us.
“Many dangers still hide in Azjol-Nerub, so stay close. Understand that Vizier Merun’khet will not come to harm under any circumstances. If you must choose between saving me or him, you will save him. I have worked my entire life for this moment, and nothing will threaten it. Is this understood?”
A chorus of agreement went up from our group, the voices echoing in the icy caves beneath our feet.