Hendris whispered a prayer to the faith of his living days when we at last stumbled out of the frozen darkness, the timid northern sun almost too bright to bear. The deathguard stopped when he saw me looking at him, his eyes narrowing. I smiled to show that I did not judge, and Hendris nodded, silently mouthing the rest of the prayer.
We walked for days, not stopping until we reached the edge of the Scourge’s blight. Freed of the earth’s confines, we wanted only to get as far from Azjol-Nerub as possible. We tried not to think of the fact that Azjol-Nerub stretches through most of western Northrend, and that one almost cannot avoid walking over it.
“What will the authorities do about Narotta?” I asked, as we finally stopped to rest. Hendris had set up a campfire. Facing the flames, he looked almost afraid to look up at the dark forest.
“They’ll gather up her research and take it back to Undercity. She’s not our concern, we did as we were told.”
“Did the Apothecarium pay much attention to her work?”
“I wouldn’t know. No one ever tells me anything. We were totally isolated in Agmar’s Hammer until after the Nexus War. All we did was protect Narotta. She was pretty sharp in a scrap herself, believe it or not; I suppose the freak got the jump on her.”
“Maybe now we can go up and fight the Lich King with everyone else,” groused another deathguard name Lytus.
We returned to Agmar’s Hammer and found it joined by a second fortress: the aerial battleship dubbed Orgrim’s Hammer. The orcs back Warsong Hold had talked of almost nothing else, their conversations on the subject so detailed that listening was like reading a blueprint. But they could not reduce the shock of seeing that hulk of pine and steel floating over the black parapets.
Myriad gun batteries festoon the ship-like hull. Rotating ball-turrets compete for space against the rows of heavy chain guns, one on each side. A figurehead forged in the likeness of a snarling wolf guides the ship from its prow, a great cannon emerging from its fanged maw. A pair of balloons in the dirigible style keep the vessel afloat, connected to the hull with a bewildering array of chains and supports.
Lytus cheered upon seeing the marvel. I will admit to also feeling a rush of pride, though I knew that the Alliance possessed a similar weapon. Airships have long played a role in warfare, but never before had they acted as dedicated combat platforms.
We found that the inhabitants of Agmar’s Hammer shared our jubilation. Off-duty warriors chugged tankards of bloodmead and cheep bear around roaring campfires, slurred voices belting out gruesome ballads. Peons fled to tents around the fortress, not wanting to get caught underfoot. The only sign of Agmar’s famed discipline were a handful of sharpshooters patrolling the walls.
I followed Hendris into the Forsaken quarter and stood with him as he recounted the events of our trips to Dr. Malefious, the head of operations in Agmar’s Hammer. Despite bearing the ostentatious title of grand apothecary (a rank he shared with the fallen Putress), he seemed to be little more than a lab administrator.
“Damn, of all the times to find such a wonderful resource! Think of the weapons we might synthesize from the faceless one’s flesh! No possibility of that now, with the orcs watching our every move.”
“Grand Apothecary,” said Hendris, bowing. “With due respect, I do not think the faceless one is safe to use.”
“I agree with Hendris, Grand Apothecary,” I added.
“I wouldn’t expect imbeciles like you to have any real vision,” he sighed. “It’s a moot point anyhow; there’s no way to conduct the research at this point in time.”
Once the briefing ended, I asked Dr. Malefious about the celebration.
“The frontline rabble is celebrating a victory against the Scourge and the Alliance,” he said, flicking his hand in dismissal.
“Typical that the orcs celebrate their most profound idiocy. The Alliance sent an army through the Decrepit Flow some time ago, planning to take the fortress north of that—Mord’rethar, the Deathgate, I think it’s called. A small Horde force attacked the Alliance and the Scourge. I will give them credit for cleverly capitalizing on the disorder, but all those savages have really done is give more troops to the Scourge.”
Murderers, monsters, savages: growing up in postwar Lordaeron, these were the words used to describe the orcs. I remember the firebrand orators who stood at the marketplaces of capital city, demanding to know why the kingdom’s treasuries were drained in order to keep the remaining orcs fed and sheltered. They’d have shown no mercy to us, went the argument, so why should we show it to them? We, who’d seen our towns razed, our families butchered, at the hands of the Horde.
These were cruel words, but perhaps they fit the occasion. The Old Horde inflicted unnumbered atrocities on the Eastern Kingdoms without any provocation. To think that at the end of the war, some of the bloodied human nations not only refused to kill the orcish survivors, but actually spent time and money trying to help them, is nothing short of astonishing. The unprecedented mercy is a testament to the most high-minded aspects of human civilization.
How has humanity been repaid? By betrayal and death. The massacre at the Broken Front proves right those bigoted agitators. How indeed is a nation to react to another that repeatedly shows itself to be incapable of coexistence? What is so frustrating is that the orcs are capable of peace and honor; they just choose to throw it aside. Some may boast of the Broken Front as a glorious victory, but any honest look reveals it as the rank act of cowardice that it is.
The orcish race neared extinction when Warchief Thrall had liberated the internment camps. The Horde owes its existence to the Warchief. So too do they owe their existence to human mercy. However limited the mercy shown, it allowed the orcs to last long enough to find new hope in the form of Thrall. Any Azerothian race other than humanity would have surely exterminated the orcs after the Second War.
I stumbled past the bonfires, burning red and garish in the darkness, feeling like a child next to the brawling orcish revelers. An acrid, alcoholic fog hung in the air, each exhalation adding to the stench. A mere two years ago such drunken excess would have been unimaginable in an orcish base. I wonder if the dark sights of Outland and Northrend have forced warriors to find a new means of escape.
I wandered into Agmar’s Keep without any real destination in mind, climbing the metal stairways to a bare stone room at the top of a tower. A peon dozed on a threadbare rug in one corner, shivering in his sleep. I began to remove my coat, thinking to put it on his shoulders as added protection from the cold. Then I wondered how much he knew; no one trusted the Forsaken any longer. He might well think it plagued, and only become frightened.
I left him to his dreams, going down to the bottom of the stairway and lying down on the cold floor, my coat giving me warmth that I did not need. Guttering torchlight threw its harsh glow against the walls, the ceiling almost lost in darkness. My senses numbed, I let sleep overtake me.
When I awoke, I brushed the dust from my clothes and walked to the dimly light main hall. Hearing Orcish voices echo down the passage, I paused, choosing to listen.
“They’ll be sober; standing guard through the pain of a hangover is almost a source of pride these days.”
“They should not be drunk! How does Blackscar maintain discipline if he lets his men drink bloodmead like water?” growled another orc, in a voice like scraping stones.
“Overlord Agmar, I respectfully remind you that Blackscar does not allow this save on special occasions. The triumph on the Broken Front, and the relative safety of your own mighty bulwark, make it appropriate.”
“Yes, a triumph,” he scoffed, “though the Lich King still rules in Icecrown, which is not really that far from my walls. Now I must watch for an Alliance attack on top of everything else! Not only that, he has the audacity to mock my rule! You saw what Blackscar said: he contradicted me in my own fortress to let the bloodmead flow! Discipline must be eternal on the battlefront! Let the drunkards and sots have their pleasure in Orgrimmar, not here! My warriors listened to him, not me.”
“Overlord, you do yourself an injustice. They did not raise their voices in exultation until after you agreed to what Blackscar said. You are their master; not him.”
“I suppose. Back to your duties, Gort. It gladdens my heart to know I can rely on your words.”
“For the Horde!” shouted Gort.
“For the Horde!” answered Overlord Agmar.
I stayed in the shadows, doubting that I was meant to have heard the conversation. Overlord Agmar’s words revealed much. Leaders of even the smallest orcish military camps tend to take great pride in their domains; these camps often end up reflecting the personalities of their masters. For an outsider, even one of higher rank, overriding a camp commander in the presence of his troops is a terrible insult. Only the most esteemed orcs can hope to get away with such behavior. As the commander of the Horde’s greatest weapon, Korm Blackscar may fall into that category.
I walked out of the keep a short time later, into a courtyard of orcs blinking bloodshot eyes in the morning light. Warriors still trained in groups, their movements just a touch slower, their yells a little wearier, than before. Heaps of rubbish befouled the icy mud, uncleaned remnants of the previous night.
I tried to think of the Broken Front through a purely strategic lens. Even then, the decision was foolhardy. As Dr. Malefious had said, it gave the Scourge a rich new source of corpses to replenish the losses they’d suffered in the battle. Perhaps Korm feared that the Alliance would take control of Icecrown, but that seems unlikely. Icecrown is too remote and inhospitable for anyone but the Scourge to occupy. It holds no resources other than saronite.
Then again, considering the dangers posed by saronite, can the Horde afford to let it to fall into Alliance hands? Saronite is so common in Icecrown that the Alliance could mine great quantities with only a token presence. Many in the Alliance hate the Horde, and I will even go so far as to say that the Horde has given them reason to do so. But the Horde, like any government, is obliged to defend itself and its people. At the same time, I cannot be sure if the Alliance intended to take the saronite; they may also realize its inherently corruptive properties. If the Horde did attack over the saronite, was it to prevent the Alliance from taking it? Or because the Horde desires saronite for its own arsenal?
Did a grand strategy guide Korm’s plan? Or did he simply attack without thought? Korm is a popular leader, though I question his strategic acumen if he thinks it acceptable to leave so many dead bodies at the Lich King’s doorstep. I know that he helped organize the aerial assault on the Black Temple, in which I participated, and that had been a well-executed operation. This suggests he had a solid reasoning behind the Broken Front.
There is so much that I cannot know.
I waited until after noon to ask the warriors about the Broken Front, not wanting to bother them when they were hung over. They all claimed to see the Broken Front as a glorious victory against overwhelming odds. Indeed, the Horde army on the battlefield had been considerably smaller than either the Alliance or Scourge forces, making for an impressive victory. More than a few believed it to be in response to some other attack initiated by the Alliance at Icecrown.
“Orcs do not fight without reason. The Alliance has screamed for our blood ever since Wrathgate, even though many of our bravest died on that accursed day. I have heard how humans and dwarves shed the blood of our battle-brothers in Icecrown. The Alliance must learn that we orcs avenge our own!”
There are no records of any Alliance attack against the Horde before the Broken Front. I took some solace in the fact that some orcs believed in this fiction; at the very least, they may not have been so enthusiastic if they knew the whole truth.
But the Horde does not consider the truth a secret. Perhaps some of the warriors will regret their enthusiasm when they learn. Misinformation being as stubborn as it is, some will probably never find out. Whatever the case, only the Scourge now stands against open war between the Horde and Alliance.
I also learned that Orgrim’s Hammer would begin its return to Icecrown in a week’s time. Some claimed it would spearhead the final push against the Scourge, though others were more pragmatic in their predictions.
Snow fell from heavy skies starting at noon, getting thicker as the day wore on. Goblin crew members worked to shovel snow off the decks of Orgrim’s Hammer, and down below we saw fresh powder falling from the sides in white cascades. A groaning north wind swept down on the fortress just before dusk. Red-eyed orc warriors hovered around campfires, shivering in their black armor. They knew a hard night was on its way.
I climbed the metal stairway in the freezing west tower, where peons on the dark bottom floor rubbed their hands to stay warm. Reaching the summit, I watched the snow’s steady fall on the bare and black trees stretching for miles in every direction. Flakes landed on my face and hair, the cold barely noticeable to me. I looked to the north, where ancient mountains stand shoulder to shoulder, bound in ice for all time.
I wanted to leave Northrend, to never again look upon its butchery and dead cities. Only Icecrown Glacier remained unexplored. How could I be so foolish as to tempt fate a second time? Death holds little fear for me, but I will not let myself be enslaved again. No Forsaken ever really escapes the Lich King. His touch marks the soul. Some break down after they are made free, maddened by the echoes of his voice.
All meaning falls to pieces against the Lich King’s power. I’d already lost so much to him. To lose everything I’d built after my liberation would be too much to bear.
Was it better to return to Orgrimmar, to hear the beat of war drums as a new generation prepared to fight the Alliance? Wrathgate and the Broken Front had simply nourished a much older hatred, the seeds of war planted long before the Northrend Campaign. If the Alliance fights the Horde, it will be a war of annihilation against the Forsaken. However much I admire the Alliance and its spirit of civilization, I will always remember that most of their number wish death on my entire race. I cannot allow them to exterminate us.
What have the Forsaken built with their freedom? A corpse of a nation, offering little to the world beyond cruelty and poison. The shadow of the Lich King guides every action, and many Forsaken inflict his cruelties on others. Sylvanas’ revolution was a physical one, but not a spiritual one.
The Lich King’s death will not end the torment of my people because most Forsaken will not allow it to end. His touch will always shadow our lives and memories; those who say it is pain without end speak the truth. In the end, that means little. If we are to ever find victory, we must spite his evil by doing good.
I remembered the sounds of the necromancer Festus’ screams as the Kirovi nailed him to the floor, and my own satisfaction at the sight. His agonies had seemed like justice in my recollection. Where would such thoughts end? Slaughter in the name of just retribution, like what motivated the Scarlet Crusade? Better, then, for my people to be free than to see justice done.
The Scourge must be fought and destroyed. Just as importantly, it must be rejected. As one of its countless victims, I refuse to let it rule my actions. Whatever the risk, I will be free.