Thursday, December 2, 2010
Beyond the tunnels of ice, lifeless and immaculate, the Gilded Gate beckons in all its ancient splendor. Bronze plates laid out in the shape of a spider and engraved with the angular Nerubian script stand over a hexagonal portal, through which gleam the city's fluorescent lights. Curved obsidian feelers crawl out from the gate, itself set into a cyclopean wall of dark stone, each piece fitted together with geometric precision. Pieces of carved jade shine in the light of red and glowing crystal torches.
Narotta clasped her hands, shaking like a petitioner overwhelmed by the divine. She’d visited Azjol-Nerub before but never with one able to unlock its age-old secrets. The vizier himself, a nerubian mind stitched to a rotting human body by Narotta’s artifice, said nothing as he beheld the entry to his home. Removed from the sleigh, he kept his balance on the walking sticks held in each hand, every limb quivering as if in pain.
“Vizier, please tell me: what does the writing on the gate mean?” begged Narotta, her voice a hair’s breadth above a whisper.
Merun’khet moaned, a ghostly cry that sank into a dry and lingering rattle. An agonizing silence passed before he spoke.
“These words remind all that they stand before the law.”
“And what are these laws, vizier, that I may obey them?”
I heard a hollow intake of breath, and Merun’khet turned his grotesque head to face Narotta.
“The law does not apply to you, or to anyone else on the surface. Do as you will; it matters not.”
They held each others gaze for some time, neither venturing to speak. Narotta finally nodded, turning to face the gate.
“The vizier has freed us from the law! Nonetheless, we shall treat him with the respect his position deserves. Don’t tarry, there is much here to explore, move on through the Gilded Gate and to the wonders beyond!”
Narotta marched through the portal, a deathguard on either side. Suspecting that Narotta knew far less than she thought she did, I fell in with Merun’khet, who hobbled forward on his crutches. Three Forsaken followed us at a healthy distance, protecting Merun’khet from harm without venturing too close. One of them shot me an incredulous look, unable to believe that I’d willingly walk next to the vizier.
“If I may ask, Vizier Merun’khet, what lies just past the Gilded Gate?”
“The great webs protecting the Brood Pit, the walls once packed with flesh for the young to devour. Hundreds of eggs clustered in the Brood Pit, each one marked with its destiny: worker, warrior, vizier.”
“I find it curious that you’d keep the Brood Pit so close to the entry. Why not place it deeper in to protect it?”
“The Gilded Gate once looked out onto the Spawning Caves, where the jormungar worms coiled in bloated embrace. When came the time for a new brood to hatch, workers smeared the path to the gate with jormungar fluids. A clot of worms always heeded the call, slithering through the Gilded Gate to die in the webs and nourish the young.”
“No threat came from the surface?”
“The Pit of Narjun is of recent make, created by the crypt lord that is its namesake to further the Lich King’s conquest of the surface. We sealed ourselves from the world above before the fall.”
The true scale of Azjol-Nerub opens up beyond the Gilded Gate. Ziggurats and citadels cling to the cavern walls like stony insects, their shadowed forms lit by crystalline lights shining bright and sharp in the darkness. Steep staircases lead from the gate, ending at the ruins of an immense spider web that spans a 60-foot gap, its strands as thick as tree trunks. A ragged hole, easy enough for a dozen to fit through, breaks the surface. Dozens of circular stone structures honeycomb the rock wall on the other side, smoothly joined to the stone.
Narotta had already gone down to the web, walking on its surface without getting stuck. I saw a thin and opalescent membrane between the strands, beneath which is a nightmarish tangle of molds and fungi, colored like fresh bruises. Only the spectral lights of luminescent spores make it possible to see the eerie tableaux, and one’s vision can only go so far. My hands clenched; what really lurked at the bottom of that dank abyss? Yet even there Azjol-Nerub extended, its grand palaces and temples built into the walls of the pit, their lights obscured by growth.
I helped Merun’khet down the stairs, suppressing an involuntary nausea (a most rare sensation in undeath) as I guided his withered frame. I imagined something crawling beneath the vizier’s skin, the same dread of indifferent hunger.
“How is she not stuck?” I asked, my voice hushed in awe at the alien sights around us.
“More work of the Scourge. Our webways connect even the most far-flung points of the city. An ideal defense in times past, when invaders foundered on the sticky strands. Then the Scourge developed new chemicals, making the webs like iron: cold, strong, and smooth. Now our glory is open to all.” The last words came out as a wheezing hiss, a hint of outrage making him seem almost mammalian.
More Forsaken ventured onto the web, standing even on the delicate-looking membranes. The Scourge had turned Azjol-Nerub’s greatest defense into a means of access, twisting it to their own ends as always. Whatever our differences, I could at least understand Merun’khet’s hatred of the Lich King. Or so I told myself. Who but a nerubian can really understand what a nerubian thinks?
Looking back at my own words, I feel shame at the obvious disgust I express towards Merun’khet, though he had done nothing to harm me. I, who have long stressed the importance of tolerance, can only come across as a rank hypocrite. But talking to Merun’khet made me wonder if there are indeed species that are just too different, with whom it is impossible to establish meaningful communication. In any conversation, I felt the gulf of eons separating us.
I at last set foot on the web, the surface giving ever so slightly beneath my feet, like soft earth. No longer needing any help, Merun’khet set off across the web, a new confidence in his awkward gait.
“The nerubians built all of this?” I asked.
“A significant proportion. The core of the city predates our arrival.”
“Who built it?”
“A Titanborn race called the tol’vir. They were weak and in disarray; we enslaved them and expanded the city. Little of the original city remains. Tol’vir aesthetics call for streamlined edges and bright colors, not dissimilar to the trollish style. Though they lived underground, they needed far more light than did we. Darkness and entanglement are preferable for nerubians.”
“Who were these tol’vir? Do any still remain?”
“During the Scourge’s invasion of your lands, did you see the obsidian statues?”
“No, though I have heard of them.” The Scourge had introduced these peculiar weapons in the chaos after the Third War. Reports described them as resembling winged human torsos with the lower bodies of great cats. Though obsidian, they moved as living things.
“Those were tol’vir. Some may conceivably survive in the deeper recesses of Azjol-Nerub, though we reduced their intellects to prevent them from threatening us. We made them into living weapons. Nothing more.”
“In a sense, you owe them the existence of your city,” I pointed out, not able to entirely stem my anger.
“Their presence proved to be in our interest,” he said, his voice as dry as dust.
I cannot hope to recount the route we followed. The hexagonal door past the ruined web goes to a shadowy maze cut into the living rock, lit only by the wan light of quartz lamps. A mad profusion of corridors and stairways wrap around each other, each path leading into darkness.
I forced myself to aid Merun’khet at the stairways, help he accepted without question. In so doing I felt as if I proved him right; I helped only so as to learn more. Seeing his ruptured head lolling on a strut-riddled neck and hearing the painful gurgles in his throat, I questioned the worth of such knowledge.
Sometimes Narotta asked him about our surroundings, her light voice echoing like a ghost’s along the ancient walls. He answered without a trace of feeling. He told how nerubian workers once nested in the dry burrows that still gape along the lower walls. Thousands had once skittered through the warrens, emerging to repair the city and tend the fungal farms.
“Interesting. I did not know that nerubians could eat fungus,” I remarked.
“Flesh was reserved for those more important to the polity. Workers sustained themselves almost exclusively on fungi and molds, the malnutrition keeping them weak and pliable.”
“Did the nerubians ever hunt?”
Merun’khet paused before answering.
“Not as active participants. We drew beasts into our webs at times. I ate fresh flesh 50 times a year, as befitted one in my station.”
“And fungus aside from that?”
“That alone would not be sufficient. Other animals live in this biome, feeding on the fungi: squirming touraki worms, the wingless flies called pahnaki. Workers tended entire herds of these creatures, providing a more constant supply of blood.”
Traveling further into Azjol-Nerub’s bowels we passed great windows looking out into the knotted abyss. Narrow webways stretch across the pit’s walls like scaffolding, curtains of mold pouring out from the torn sacs of dead eggs. Creeping life intrudes into the hallways, carpets of fibrous blue hairs tipped with opalescent spores spreading across the floor in abundance. The air is thick, almost like fluid, and very cold.
We stopped to reorient ourselves at a grand and pillared hall of black stone, decorated in gilded abstractions. A wide balcony opens up to the pit, where streams of water course down from the rock under fungal lights. Clusters of pale blue mushrooms sprout up from the balcony flagstones, their undersides colored an iridescent violet. Graceful in their own way, they reminded me of my time in Zangarmarsh.
After Merun’khet confirmed that they posed no danger, I went ahead to examine the nearest set of mushrooms. Only then did I see the mold-ridden nerubian leg sticking out from the morass. A dead nerubian lies under each cluster. I wondered if some had grown from fallen Scourge, though the health of the mushrooms suggested otherwise. It was the first sign I’d seen of great battle waged in those caverns. As they had died, so too had thousands of humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, and others.
I walked back to where the expedition gathered around an electric lantern, watching as Narotta studied a map. I thought it strange to see the Forsaken huddling around a light source. Merun’khet lay sprawled on the floor, indifferent to their actions. I sat next to him, trying to steady myself. Ever fiber of my being pushed me to keep away from the vizier and join Narotta, however loathsome I found her.
“For how long did you hold off the Scourge?” I asked, my voice scarce above a whisper.
“Six years. The Lich King’s arrival in our world sent violent psychic shock waves through the ranks of the dreaming viziers, and I remember the fear that seized me in those panicked nights. As arachnids, it is not in our nature to attack. Better to wait for the enemy to founder in webs and darkness. This new intrusion warranted a violation of our nature.”
The Lich King’s mental power is his most powerful tool, through which he maintains dominance over his undead army.
“What exactly did you fear?”
“Nothing else in our experience had displayed that kind of power. The dreams of others belonged to us alone. The Lich King represented an entirely new threat. Four-thousand armored warriors poured out onto the frozen surface and battled the Lich King’s army of demons. Their sorceries tore through our ranks and we retreated, trapping the tunnels in preparation.”
At first, the Lich King had relied on demonic auxiliaries. He had not plagued our world long enough to gather an undead army of any real size by the time of Azjol-Nerub’s fall. The Burning Legion and the Scourge parted ways after the Third War, though few outside of their dark ranks know precisely why.
“Only two foes had ever laid siege to Azjol-Nerub prior to that: the tol’vir remnants and the drakkari. Both armies lost themselves in darkness, cut to pieces by our warriors. Here, at last, was an enemy that did not fear the darkness or the cold. Those who fell to the Lich King returned as mockeries, bent to his will. In time, we developed defenses against this: warriors implanted with spores that activated on death, turning the corpse into a fungal incubator. You can see the results on the balcony. Effective, but not enough. By then the Lich King was raising the dead of the surface races.”
“Surely your numbers must have made it difficult.”
“Our greatest weapons were fear and shadow, both useless against the Lich King. Hours spent in my ritual chamber, probing for some weakness. Sure that they dreamed on some level, perhaps possible to implant terror in their minds, subvert the master’s control. Hunger for their fear, even now.”
His body twitched, the vizier letting out a starved moan. Narotta jumped to her feet and ran towards us. Fast as a whip she backhanded me across the face and I fell back in shock. Grabbing me by my coat she lifted me up, her insect face of glass and leather inches from mine.
“I did not bring you along so that you could trouble the vizier,” she growled.
I looked to Merun’khet, whose dead eyes observed us without feeling. Even the most decayed Forsaken exudes a sense of life. I saw nothing in him, a true walking corpse.
“Vizier, forgive me. I did not think he would be so problematic,” she implored.
“It is of no matter to me.”
“Good. Please, tell me if he troubles you again.”
She shoved me to the ground and returned to the lantern. The guards looked back and forth, apparently puzzled by the exchange. One offered a sympathetic shrug.
We quickly resumed our descent. I kept to myself; I still intended to learn more from Vizier Merun’khet, but knew I had to exercise caution. I tried to comprehend Narotta’s motivation; she took on an unctuous attitude towards the vizier, but usually ignored him. She failed to express much real curiosity about our surroundings.
At long last the labyrinthine warrens came to an end and we stepped into a forest of mushrooms surrounding a limpid pool, fed by water trickling down the rocks.
“What is this place?”
“One of the Brood Pits. See the husks of dead eggs through veils of mold. Thousands of skittering young grew in the bodies of worms, brought here to offer sustenance. Workers went to labor after the first gorging, imitating their elders. Hence the proximity of mushrooms.”
“Where did the soon-to-be viziers and warriors go?”
“After we nursed on the remaining meat, great mothers, a variant of worker, carried us on their backs to Ahn’kahet where we began our training. We viziers learned the history of our race, of the rules that bound us like iron. Before anything use, however, our instructors taught us to discipline hunger.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Generations of viziers had failed to extinguish the predatory outlook that is the true ethos of our race. The hunger of the nerubian is eternal. We are dry and dead without the richness of blood flowing down our gullets. Yet we cannot indulge as we please. Thus, we are disciplined, finding substitutes for live prey. Viziers sublimate the predatory instinct through learning. Instructors condition the juvenile viziers to associate knowledge with satiation. The mind must be distracted from its baser needs.”
“How is this done?”
“Subjects placed in sealed rooms with weak prey animals. Reversion to instinct punished via electric current. Alternatives offered: texts, experimental tools, and the like. Precise nature depends on area of subject’s training.” He began speaking in a rapid cadence, sounding like a rotting machine. That grotesque head turned up to the cavern roof, a mile above our heads.
“You underwent this?”
“All viziers do. Failure equals death. Uncontrolled hunger a liability.”
“Do you still feel this hunger?”
“No. This body is inert. This mind still hungers for mortal dreams.”
The subterranean forest thins out into a barren suburb of colossal stone walls and empty streets. Trapezoidal towers reach up to the distant ceiling, opaque green film stretched across arched and narrow windows like some biological glass. Strands of webbing hang between buildings, snarled by dead insect husks. Mushrooms sprout from broken streets, growing in the dim glow of glassy torches.
While the Scourge had ruled upper Azjol-Nerub for many years without contestation, they found it harder to keep their grip on Ahn’kahet and the adjacent regions. The remains of battle still litter the great avenues and plazas, the bodies of ghouls and crypt things lying in webbed heaps. Some of the fungal growth appears to come from dead nerubians.
Our expedition made a quick stop at a bronze tunnel entrance, built in the trapezoid shape common to the city. Hoping I would not regret doing so, I decided to speak with Narotta. I wanted to learn more about her motivation.
“Narotta, if I might have a word—”
“Have you apologized to the vizier?” she demanded, her tone sharp.
“Yes. He has forgiven me.”
“Good. The poor man has suffered greatly, and I take no joy at putting him in such a painful position. But necessity demands no less. I can only make his ordeal as comfortable as possible.”
“What exactly do you want to learn from him? You’ve hardly asked him anything all through here.”
“Are you criticizing me?” she fumed. “Do you really think I haven’t already spent hours in conversation with the vizier? I already know all the petty things you’ve been asking him. I only trouble him when something really sparks my curiosity, and even then I exercise restraint.
“You see, deep in Ahn’kahet, there is grand library of ancient lore. The entrance to this treasure trove is locked by a complicated mechanism that demands an understanding of nerubian symbolism to open. My hope is that Vizier Merun’khet can unlock the door, and grant us access to his race’s wisdom.”
“He is willing to do this?”
“Yes. He understands that we Forsaken are the successors to his race, a continuation if you will. Cold, analytical, untroubled by mammalian concepts of right and wrong. We already have adopted some degree of nerubian aesthetics, handed down by the Scourge. He wishes for us to rule here.”
“I see.” Had he really said such a thing? I found it hard to imagine that Merun’khet would be at all impressed with Narotta’s plan to make the Forsaken nation more like Azjol-Nerub. While some Forsaken claim to be creatures of pure intellect, this almost never reflects the reality. Most Forsaken are, if anything, too emotional (at least in terms of anger, sorrow, and hate). Perhaps Merun’khet believed Narotta’s description to be accurate.
Merun’khet himself had made the claim that self-interest is the only motivation felt by the nerubians. Was he telling the truth? Perhaps he saw closer ties with the Forsaken as being in his self-interest. Yet only he really knew what lay behind the mechanism mentioned by Narotta. Did a trap of some sort await the expedition?
“Are you sure that a library is what’s there?”
“The vizier confirmed it! If you listened to him, you’d know that the nerubians act in self-interest, and it is in their self-interest to befriend the Forsaken!”
I tried to think of a way to get the truth from Merun’khet. I could not allow my compatriots to walk into a potential trap. Narotta clearly took the friendship of the nerubians as an article of faith, and I doubted any argument of mine could dissuade her. Nor could I relate my concerns to the guards without attracting her attention. The guards seemed to know relatively little about the expedition’s purpose, and actually distrusted me because I’d spent so much time conversing with Merun’khet.
All these fears evaporated, if only for a moment, when I at last saw Ahn’kahet. Imagine an entire world encapsulated in stone, where stalactites the size of mountains hang ponderous over an ocean of darkness. Through this otherworldly milieu is the city of cities, a thousand obelisk-capped citadels reaching high above and deep below, revealed in the cold light of spectral lamps. Bent spires like the legs of dead spiders extend from obelisks and platforms. Narrow walkways made of thick webs sprawl across the city, entire neighborhoods suspended in their embrace. Fungal gardens still flourish, their mottled surfaces adding jolts of color to the scene.
Even the guards stopped to admire Ahn’kahet, though they’d each seen it several times before. I wondered how much of the original tol’vir city remained. Ahn’kahet did bear the grandiosity of Titan construction, though the peculiar layout and its more basic architectural forms marked it as distinct.
“How... how many nerubians lived here at its height?” I asked, all but dumbstruck.
“Only viziers and warriors lived here. Perhaps 65,000, before the Scourge. Workers maintained the city, but resided in the tunnels,” explained Merun’khet, his voice thick like that of a man in the last stages of a fatal illness.
We walked past the tangled corpses bound together in webs, their original forms impossible to guess. The only sounds came from the broken flagstones wobbling under our feet. Oblivion stands ready to consume the once-great city. Pyres of cold blue flame flicker as if in a silent wind, sometimes disappearing entirely for minutes at a time. I thought them to be of nerubian origin, but Merun’khet corrected me, saying that the Scourge had created them during its brief occupation of Ahn’kahet.
“Unlife came to the nerubians placed in those false fires. As we set fungal blooms to awaken in our bodies upon death, the Lich King’s minions bound the living and threw them inside. I watched from the last redoubt as the Scourge gathered survivors and marched them through the streets en masse. Never before had so many gathered in Ahn’kahet, and never will it happen again.”
“They could not fight back?”
“Liches bound the warriors in chains of ice, cowing most of the viziers. Towards the end, many of the viziers advocated surrender, hoping for compromise. We are not an aggressive caste, as a general rule. My exposure to the rage of human dreams gave me the fury I needed in order to survive. I helped plan the exodus of the last free nerubians, to secret places that the Scourge does not know.”
The Hall of Conquered Kings is beyond a set of broken bronze gates, the surface spattered with verdigris. Moist stone walls the color of soiled jade encircle a room stinking of rot. Windows of that green, opalescent film (grown dry and brittle from age) line the walls, making the site look like a profaned cathedral. Broken eggs and dead crypt things pile ankle-deep the floor.
“Why are there eggs here?” I asked.
“The Lich King kept some nerubians alive as breeding stock. Eggs placed here, away from Brood Pits, to be inducted into undeath from the moment of birth. Difficult to create warriors or viziers in such a fashion, but workers a simple matter.” Merun’khet doubled over, first gasping and then coughing. Ichor oozed from his wounds, visible in the hall’s dim light. He continued once he recovered, his voice straining with the effort of speech.
“This place once called the Hall of Kings. Held artifacts associated with the rulers of Azjol-Nerub. Lich King understood enough of symbolism to make it his new nursery—” Interrupted by a strangled cough, he almost fell. I caught him at the last second.
“Vizier, please do not continue if it causes you—”
“In my self-interest to continue. Azjol-Nerub must be remembered.”
The exchange had attracted Narotta’s attention. She strode towards us, her yellow teeth clenched.
“Vizier Merun’khet, is he disturbing you?”
“No. Respect me; listen to my words. I speak because I wish to do so.”
Narotta stood still, and I sensed the expression of shock she wore beneath the mask. Without a word she returned to the front of the column. Merun’khet hung his head, and I again saw the metal braces digging into his neck.
“Were the rulers of Azjol-Nerub viziers?” I asked. I wondered if I should remain silent, fearing another painful outburst as we left the Hall of Conquered Kings.
“Rulers unique forms, called kings, produced by feeding infants meat treated with special chemicals. Exhaustive process, done only in times of need.”
“Was the king’s rule absolute?”
“No. Law binds all. Mind of the king expansive, often able to judge correct course of action. Not precognitive, but adept at probability. Predictions almost always correct.”
I noticed that in times of stress, Merun’khet dropped personal pronouns from his speech. When I asked him about this, he explained that Nerubian lacked them entirely.
Beyond the hall, a series of terraced plazas slopes down for what looks like miles. The descent ends at a monumental cube-like structure capped by four bronze prongs. Gleaming red crystal laces the black stone, curved obsidian spires forming a crown around the top. Even from such a low position it rises above its neighbors higher up on the terrace, rivalled only by an amphitheatre of blue stone standing nearby. In the amphitheatre, colossal spiders of worked bronze cling to walls that look almost too thin to remain upright under such weight. From inside we heard the sound of splashing water, incongruously natural in such an bizarre place.
“We stand again at the heart of Azjol-Nerub!” exclaimed Narotta, raising her hands in triumph. “The Temple and the Altar! What the Scourge desecrated, we can sanctify anew.”
We began a long descent through the maze-like terrace, giving a wide berth to the still-active cold fires. No one cared to find out what would happen if a Forsaken stepped into the flames.
“What did you worship in the Temple?” I asked.
“A poor translation. We rejected the gods who created us, and followed instead the laws of our own making.” Merun’khet sounded calmer than he had in the Hall.
“Are these the Old Gods?”
“Yes. Do you know of Ahn’qiraj?”
“I fought against the qiraji in the Silithus Campaign.” I explained to Merun’khet the background of that brief and bloody war, where Horde and Alliance made common cause to end the threat of the qiraji and their master, C’thun. Niharalath, the priest and messenger of the Old Gods, had claimed that defeat meant nothing, that C’thun’s power would seep through dream and memory to rule the world. Time suggested his predictions to be mere ravings; the qiraji are broken, and the Twilight’s Hammer Cult apparently defunct.
“Good. The qiraji are worthless, and their extermination is to the world’s benefit.”
“The surface races do not seek to exterminate. Qiraji still live in the ruins of their city, apparently in a state of chaos. Cenarion soldiers monitor the gates for signs of renewed hostility. They tried to open diplomatic channels with the survivors... it did not end well.” I blanched at the memory of what had happened to the emissaries, their fates horrifying even the most violent orcs when the news reached Orgrimmar.
“An error! Destroy them all.”
“Why do you hate the qiraji?”
Merun’khet faced me and I saw the terrible age behind his ruined face. I wanted to flee but forced myself to stay, suppressing the memory of panic. Forsaken live by their own wills, I reminded myself.
“Great were the earthen hive-cities that once blistered under the light of a youthful sun. A million crawling things carving bulbous spires in the dead western lands, a million mandibles vomiting forth the slime that held fast the stones. Bloated priest-kings presiding over rituals of slaughter in underground temples, minds distorted by the call of the Old Gods. The world of the Azi’aqir.”
He spoke as if in a trance. Black ichor again seeped from the rents in his scalp, as if the words accelerated his body’s rot.
“The Old Gods ruled the world unseen, we Their chosen servants. Nothing contested our reign in the scoured deserts. New races stumbled out from caves and forests. Overseers fed them the honeyed bile of priest-kings, a single taste enslaving the strongest mind to the raw need of hunger.
“Softened mammalian bodies clogged tunnels coated by the sacred essence, our harvesters cutting flesh and carting it to the gluttonous feasts above. Azi’aqiri devoured mammals, in turn consumed by the priest-kings in honor of the Old Gods.”
“What of the trolls?”
“Faith defended them from the effects of the divine bile. As the azi’aqir had their gods, the trolls had the loa. For 30 years, troll and insect clashed in dusty wastes and jagged canyons. Thousands fought against thousands, on a scale this world will never again see. No arcane magic or cunning technologies existed to replace warriors; there was only faith and rage. The sky of the world turned black with the smoke of sacrifice, both sides killing to honor their gods.
“For all the power of the azi’aqir, they lost ground to these mammalian upstarts. The scribes understood their fatal flaw. Mindlessly enthralled to their masters, azi’aqir warriors fought as drones. Easy prey to the clever trolls. The arachnids argued that law must replace whim, letting each warrior think independently within her bounds.
“As they argued, the troll warriors ground the great cities to dust, making mountains from the the dried shells of the dead, priest-kings devoured by divine fire. Seeing the folly of the azi’aqir, the scribes went north to the ancient city of the tol’vir. So was born Azjol-Nerub. The qiraji lashed themselves to pheromone whims, continuing the debased ways of their ancestors.”
Ancient vistas flashed through my mind, the feather-bedecked warriors of Zul’gurub and Zul’aman standing firm against the insect onslaught in that young and barren world, at last turning the tide.
“What did the nerubians do to change themselves?”
“Elder scribes wrote the Law. First among them that pheromone control had no place in Azjol-Nerub. The scribes led the way, excising the control glands from their own bodies and throwing them on a pyre that burned in the great temple ahead of us. Each new hatchling underwent the same procedure.”
“And the castes?”
“We continued the caste arrangement of the azi’aqir, excluding only the priest-kings. They were the source of the Old Gods’ poison, giving rise to indulgence and pointless cruelty. The rest stayed, controlled by obedience rather than addiction.”
“You said you reduced the intellectual capacities of workers and tol’vir to make them more pliable. How is that any different?”
“You misunderstand me. Azjol-Nerub never valued freedom. The law is a cage of steel, flexible but unyielding. Within the law, we do what is in our self-interest. So too can the workers and tol’vir; their self-interest merely became more limited in scope.”
“Why not allow them the full range of self-interest? You said that the nerubians needed Azjol-Nerub to survive. Wouldn’t a fully intelligent worker still desire to help Azjol-Nerub?”
“Remember, workers become stunted through malnutrition. Food is limited. The first kings determined that it is better for Azjol-Nerub to reserve meat stores for dedicated viziers and warriors. Workers do not need intelligence. The key element here, what differentiates us from our disgraceful qiraji cousins, is that they are not controlled by desire.
“We last contacted Ahn’qiraj 700 years past, and our findings justified our disgust. The qiraji twin emperors assumed the roles of the fallen priest-kings, their glands emitting streams of pollution as they gorged on sugar-drenched flesh. Sycophants and slave warriors bathe in the pheromones, satiating their needs, and in turn inflict the same fate on their underlings.
“Each qiraji views his peers as instruments to his own pleasure. Ahn’qiraj is a hierarchy of slaves wielding total power over their inferiors. Why do you think they depend so on the silithids? Mindless and addicted to the qiraji essence, silithids do the work their masters cannot, unaffected by desire.”
“But the nerubian workers are also mindless—”
“No. They are simple, but not mindless. All are taught the law: tol’vir, workers, warriors, and viziers. All are subject to its bounds.”
“I see. An important difference,” I acknowledged, without much feeling. I imagined a chaos so terrible that slavery seemed preferable. Merun’khet’s stories inspired not just fear but also contempt, the azi’aqir no more than hedonistic insects. If I took Merun’khet’s words at face value (an admitted risk, given his attitude), the azi’aqir and their qiraji descendents never experienced love, freedom, or creation. They experienced nothing more than a life of the senses: pointless and limited. To think that such creatures might have ruled Azeroth is obscene. Let all the races thank the trolls for ending this threat.
“What happened to the mammalian races enslaved by the azi’aqir? I take it they were separate from the silithids?”
“Silithids arose later. Most of the mammalian slaves died without the priest-kings. We learned later, much later, that a few survived. Soft bodies sank deep into the earth and into the embrace of the Old Gods, and changed into Their likeness. The faceless ones, we called them.
“As we fought the Scourge at the Gilded Gate, some viziers dug too deep in searching for new routes of attack. Armies of the faceless ones brooded beneath the rock, crushing our warriors upon release. The Old Gods at last took their vengeance. We drove them back into the darkness though thousands died screaming in the grips of their tendrils. Our armies broken and our city harrowed, the Scourge soon ruled Ahn’kahet.”
“Have the faceless ones been seen since then?”
“Indeed, clambering back up from the shadows to fight the Scourge, spreading corruption through its necromancers. You do not know how closely the Lich King deals with the powers of the Old Gods, powers he cannot understand. They are everywhere in Northrend, the blood of Yogg-Saron running through the earth itself. We shunned it. The Lich King did not.”
“Will this make him more powerful?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. The Old Gods are impossible to predict. They are a cancer spreading through time and space. Dangerous to speak of Them, doing so gives Them a foothold into the mind. They are nurtured in the dreams of mortals. For this reason only a few viziers, like myself, learned of Them. That is why I scanned the dreams of the surface races; to search for Their presence.”
“You were protecting the surface races, in a sense.”
“Not for their sake, but for our own. Destron,” he said, his use of my name catching me by surprise, “you do understand the difference between nerubians and qiraji?”
“I do. Perhaps not to the fullest extent, but I know the two races are quite dissimilar."
“We inflicted the sacred law on ourselves to suppress our predatory natures, to tame the hunger the still lurks in our minds. Onerous, but necessary; we would not repeat the mistakes of the azi’aqir. Now all that is gone, but surely the difference is obvious! Seven centuries ago, Ahn’qiraj looked nearly identical to the tol’vir city conquered by the qiraji, changed only by the neglect of its new masters, once-bright citadels baked gray under the desert sun. We made our city magnificent, adding unnumbered spires and icons. Let there be no doubt as to who once ruled here.”
Would the tol’vir say the same? I wondered, though I kept silent. I did understand Merun’khet’s distress, though this empathy could not quite displace my fear.
“The nerubians put their own art in this city; I think anyone would be able to see that,” I said.
“We created. The qiraji only destroyed. Art is the ultimate expression of self-interest. Took inspiration from the tol’vir, seen in the geometric designs that still abound through Azjol-Nerub, the colors darkened. Added the arachnid sculptures, in honor of bodies distinct from the qiraji. Syncretic visions of bronze and gold, sublime order repelling the taint of the Old Gods. Epics written of Azjol-Nerub’s glories, inexorable and desirable warriors standing against drakkari invaders, words arranged in the same tone and cadence as the sacred law to invoke wonder.”
Merun’khet stopped, sinking to his knees in silence. I stepped closer, offering my arm for support. No gratitude showed on the mutilated face, the sight of it inspiring that old revulsion within me. Still the sense of crawling horror beneath his skin.
The vizier righted himself with painful effort. I saw two of the Forsaken guards watching the scene, but they soon turned their heads and said nothing. Oblivious, Narotta continued towards the temple. Merun’khet resumed his journey, his crutches scraping out dull clicks on the ancient flagstones.
Standing with the other Forsaken over the sea of shadows beneath Ahn’kahet, surrounded by a graveyard of buildings, I nonetheless felt relief. I was again with my own kind. No amount of similarity or even shared experience could bridge the gap between Merun’khet and myself. For all he spoke of Azjol-Nerub’s splendors, I could not see him as anything other than a predator. Perhaps this speaks more to a failure of imagination on my part.
I empathized with him on a purely intellectual level, particularly regarding the qiraji (though I cannot take his descriptions as unbiased). How often have I wished to join like-minded Forsaken and separate from the corruption of Undercity? Yet this only went so far; Merun’khet was simply too far removed from me.
To me, Merun’khet looked far more dead than any of my kindred, a quality that contributed to my attitude. Maybe my distrust came from the same source as that which is felt by the living towards the Forsaken. This distrust is something that can be overcome, sometimes without much effort. The individual Forsaken’s level of deterioration plays a significant role in his or her ability to inspire trust. Part of me is convinced that a deeper, more intrinsic aspect of Merun’khet’s nature is the cause of this divide. Or maybe that is just my rationalization.
Narotta had taken Merun’khet with her inside the temple, a vast single room lined with statues of long-dead viziers. Bronze script runs up and down the walls, the law written for all to see. She ordered us to stand guard, fearing that the Scourge or the faceless ones might attack as Merun’khet helped her unlock the gate.
“Pointless,” muttered a nearby guard to his companion. “No Scourge here any longer.”
“There are things other than the Scourge down in Ahn’kahet, to hear the rumors. You hear the story about that Alliance expedition? Eleven went in to explore Ahn’kahet, all veterans of Outland’s worst conflicts. Four came back out, and two killed themselves soon after,” replied the other.
“You believe that? We’ve never seen anything of the sort, it’s obviously an Alliance lie to keep the Horde out of the underground.”
“Why would they lie? There’s nothing here worth having.”
“Narotta seems to think there’s something valuable.”
“Narotta’s a damned lunatic. Who knows what she’s really got planned with that pet freak of hers? We ought to hire some goblins to detonate this hellhole.”
I heard the fear in their hushed voices, the words a paltry weapon against the oppressive silence. I tried to imagine the city at its height, a lonely realm ruled by viziers laboring in walled-off solitude, maintained by swarms of brain-damaged workers. A paradise for Merun’khet, I am sure, and I will not begrudge him for lamenting its destruction. The thought of Azjol-Nerub still terrifies me. And if Merun’khet spoke truly, Ahn’qiraj held horrors far worse.
I had never set foot in Ahn’qiraj itself, though I'd seen its teeming insect multitudes erupt from the dust-worn gates. Horde and Alliance alike felt an instinctual mammalian fear, and were united by it. We fought for a week in the blistering winds, differences forgotten in the face of that ancient horror, and as victory followed victory the fear turned into soaring hope. At Mt. Hyjal the two factions broke the onslaught of the Scourge and the Burning Legion. At Silithus, they defeated a horror as old as time. When Ahn’qiraj’s outer defenses finally collapsed, we all saw that no force of evil could stand in our way for long, that Azeroth had the power to liberate itself and all other worlds.
The dream started to fray as partisans, who’d stood as brothers just a few days earlier, began fighting each other for control of the silithyst geysers. Their former sense of shared purpose fell way to predation. I remember hearing the boasts of Horde marauders who lurked behind silt dunes for days at a time, setting up ambushes for Alliance silithyst couriers, simple murders turned to epics in the retelling. The Alliance did the same. We often found Horde runners lying in the sand, bodies hacked and burned beyond recognition.
The soldiers who had actually entered Ahn’qiraj and survived filtered back, hard and hollow-eyed in victory. No one slept easy through those hot desert nights, listening to brave men scream in their sleep at what they’d seen beyond the Scarab Wall. As the qiraji menace weakened, the blood feuds between the Horde and Alliance grew crueler. Ahn’qiraj survivors joined the fray towards the waning days of the campaign, committing some of the worst bloodshed.
From somewhere far below, a low piping echoed off the city’s undersides, the notes harsh and high like breath through a hollow bone. Guards looked to one another as the sound faded, searching the faces of their neighbors for confirmation. The Forsaken nearest me, a man named Hendris, grabbed his rifle, taking careful steps to the edge of the platform.
“You all heard that?” whispered Hendris, sockets lined up along the barrel.
“Maybe some old nerubian machine,” suggested another guard.
No one else offered an alternative, though the readied weapons betrayed what they truly believed. Preferring caution, I motioned for Hendris to get back from the edge. After a moment’s hesitation, he concurred. The piped notes returned as he drew back to the temple, louder than before.
“Narotta, how far is the vizier on that lock?” asked Hendris.
“Quiet! What’s that, vizier?” There was a pause, and I could just hear the Merun’khet’s raspy voice echoing in the sanctuary. “An attack! Guards, get in position! A faceless approaches!”
“Faceless? How do we—” a shrill blast of sound cut off his words.
Stone quivered beneath our feet, accompanied by thick, wet sounds somewhere between dripping water and tearing flesh. Aimless piping shrieked along, constant but without beat or rhythm, the song of a lunatic. A deathguard fell to his knees, gloved hands pressed to his temples as he rocked back and forth.
Vast and pale, a mass of flesh bulged up from the platform’s edge, the surface shimmering like water. A wide spine-like plate of segmented bone ran down the front, pressing against a beard of dripping tendrils, its piercing song played through suppurating holes all along the skin.
Guns blazed to life, bullets splashing into the faceless one, the ruptures reconnecting in an instant. More of its body slithered into sight, pulled to the side by the weight of a vast and soft right arm ending in a crude hand. A muscular tentacle hung from the left, mottled colors playing along the fluid skin. Frightened Forsaken opened another volley in response. The kneeling guard fell into a twitching heap.
I thought of arcane fire, hot and pure, burning away this obscenity. The world underwent a spasm, ancient citadels contracting and shaking, colors made sickly and sour. Flame streaked from my outstretched hand, scoring a black mark where it hit the faceless one.
Still it advanced, misshapen legs splashing down on the flagstones. The vast right arm swung, extending as it pushed through the air and slammed into a Forsaken, whose body stretched from the force but did not break, instead falling as an elongated and boneless corpse.
Hendris grabbed an inscribed silver sphere hanging from his belt and rolled it towards the faceless one as its left arm lashed out to strike another deathguard. Its target dodged at the last moment, just as the sphere shattered into arcane light, magic energy piercing the faceless one’s wide legs. It flinched, at least I think it did, and the fluted song increased in intensity.
Seeing the limitations of single fireballs, I prepared a pyroblast, looking into the flame that grew in my hands. Only the faceless one’s mocking song called out to me. The guards ran as they fired, hoping to disorient the monster.
The spell readied, I looked up to see violet—neither a liquid nor a gas, but simply a color—bleeding into air around the faceless one. I heard a terrific crack as the convulsing guard succeeded in breaking his skull on the steps, blood and worse flowing out from the wound. I loosed the spell, the fiery sphere burning its way towards the monstrosity. Purple stains expanded on the flame, the shimmering air around it turning still as the heat died. The pyroblast hit the faceless one as a mass of gaseous flesh, adding to its bulk.
Impossible! I thought. My most powerful offensive spell made useless. I began to shake, trying to will myself back into the reality I understand. The fireball spell had worked, but not the pyroblast. Had it adapted to flame? Or was some other mechanism undoing my efforts?
Trapped in bands of color, another Forsaken disintegrated just a few feet from me. My mind raced as I tried to think of an effective weapon. In desperation I prepared an arcane barrage. I looked at the floor as I readied myself, not wanting to see the distortions running through Ahn’kahet. The shifting stone and impossible colors—had they always been there? I was no longer sure.
Gunfire competed with the drilling whistles when I unleashed the spell, unseen energies shooting and bursting along the faceless one’s belly. Skin dissipated with gooey splashes, the bony plate cracking under the pressure. The song stopped for a few blessed moments, the monster sliding back towards the rim.
Another guard threw an enchanted explosive at the faceless one and it exploded in the nest of tentacles. With only trace mana left to me, I fired a volley of arcane missiles.
As they hit, the faceless one began to peel apart in sheets of flesh, a flower rotting as it bloomed. Chunks of its body splashed to the ground and dissipating into a purple gas that stank of all the rot in the world. Its death took mere moments, leaving only a lingering foulness in its place.
I sat down, covering my face with my hands as I tried to reorient myself. I felt as helpless as an infant in pain, wanting to cry out and have my fear assuaged. Instead I prayed, taking comfort in the regular cadence of Light’s Glory Rising, the hymn so loved by my mother.
“Narotta! We’re leaving before more of those things come!” screamed Hendris, his voice shaking. “Do you hear me? We’re leaving with or without you and your freak!”
No answer came from the temple. Lifting my face from my hands, I stood back up, not sure what to expect. Driven by fear and rage, Hendris marched into the temple, his rifle at the ready; he looked quite willing to kill Narotta.
No one followed him at first, the two surviving guards looking to where the faceless one had died. I entered the temple, wanting to put something between me and the darkness, even though I knew the protection to be illusory.
Narotta lay on the floor, the back of her head crushed as if by a club. The only sign of Merun’khet was a series of staggered footprints leading towards the statue's base. The prints ended at the closed device, its dusty surface spotted with fingerprints. The vizier had made his escape.
“The bastard probably summoned that monster! Well let the underworld have him, and as for Narotta: good riddance!” spat Hendris. More likely, I suspected, Merun'khet had simply taken advantage of the chaos, guided by his self-interest.
The survivors finally ventured into the temple with faltering steps. Neither said a word at the sight of Narotta’s corpse. Hendris turned to the suddenly timid pair, forcing the residual fear from his voice.
“All right, nothing more to be done here. We’re headed back to Agmar’s Hammer as of now. No need to worry; we’ve killed the worst they can throw at us. Destron, I trust you’ll be going along?”
“Of course,” I said, surprised by how tired my voice sounded.
Hendris leading the way, we walked out into the shadowed city. In my memories, I heard the confident voice of Niharalath promising the inevitable victory of the Old Gods.