Saturday, January 30, 2010
Ulduar’s soul lives in the profusion of dark stone citadels that rise up in a dizzying array beyond a fathomless and fog-shrouded gorge. If Ironforge is the city in a mountain, than Ulduar Core is the city as a mountain.
I stood near the edge of that drop, my mouth open as I tried to take in the sight of the place. For all the dense construction, there is no sense of crowding in the Ulduar Core. The Titans placed each structure exactly where they wished, unencumbered by nature.
The bitter north wind, cold enough to kill, roared as it scoured the deep gorge below and the empty halls above. For a moment I forgot my surroundings and imagined Ulduar at its height, an exercise made easy by the city’s almost pristine condition.
“You are seeing the oldest part of the city. The machines of creation lie within the Ulduar Core; the rest of the city exists to support it. The metallics control it now,” said Breck.
“How many of them are in there?” I could easily imagine tens of thousands scurrying in the unseen halls.
“Unknown. Watcher Loken directs his Impulse from the Ulduar Core, confused as to the Purpose.”
The Terrace of the Makers is across the chasm from the Ulduar Core, and is itself an important locale. Much of the organizational work for optimizing the city’s performance took place in the labs and study centers scattered throughout. None of that work goes on now, though the Titan machines are so well-made that they barely suffer any decay.
Centuries ago, when the earthen still posed a threat to the metallics, the Terrace of the Makers hosted some of the fiercest battles between the two factions. The area shows many more signs of damage than the rest of Ulduar. Pillars and bridges lie shattered in the shadows of great towers.
“Is there a significant metallic presence here on the Terrace?” I asked, shouting to make myself heard over the rumbling earthen march.
“Metallics rarely emerge onto the surface. Thousands dwell in the corridors beneath us. Though dangerous, this is the only direct way to Bouldercrag’s Refuge.”
“How do the metallics get here from the Ulduar Core?”
“The metallics make use of drill-capsules. These go out from geoports beneath the Ulduar Core, and land at geoports placed throughout Ulduar.”
“Cylindrical metal containers fronted by large rotating drills forged from powerful alloys. We earthen used these to oversee Ulduar’s construction. Now, the metallics use the drills to establish control. Excessive drill use threatens the stability of Ulduar.”
“Are you saying that the city could collapse due to all the tunneling?”
“Correct. We can only assume that the metallics are aware of this, and consider it acceptable.”
“You don’t think it could be ignorance?”
“Impossible. The metallics understand the concepts of structural integrity. It is either a desired goal, or an acceptable sacrifice. Watcher Loken may encourage it.”
The giants had treated their creator, Watcher Hodir, with filial reverence. However, the earthen care nothing for their creator, Watcher Loken. To them, he is simply an enemy. When I asked him about this, Breck stated that earthen loyalty is to the Titans and the Titans alone.
“We fought with the giants shortly after Watcher Loken went rogue. They attacked us for reasons we do not yet understand. This demonstrates the dangers of investing total obedience to the Watchers, who are lesser than the Titans,” Breck had said.
“I do not think that Hodir told the giants to fight the earthen. They seemed as confused as you.”
“If they wish to make restitution we will accept. However, the Titans instructed us to never do battle against other manufactured entities except in self-defense, accounting for rogue manufactured entities. We have stayed true to this, for it is part of the Purpose.”
Both the giants and the earthen made mention of the Purpose, which is their directive to maintain the stability of Azeroth. That Azeroth is now markedly unstable does not concern the earthen. They merely do the best they can with the resources available to them.
“Excessive concern over previous aberrations in the Purpose is not constructive. The Titans ordered us to maintain ourselves in order to maintain Azeroth. Currently, we maintain ourselves by fighting the metallics.”
Fear and despair are unknown to the earthen. Breck related to me the confusion it felt when Argylla, the dwarven archeologist, expressed admiration for the earthen race’s stoicism. The earthen possess a very limited emotional range. They can only feel pride in a job well-done.
“Early models could only feel this after completing a given task. Over time, the emotional reactions were made more flexible. For instance, first generation Breck Rockbrows could only achieve fulfillment by completing administrative tasks. Third generation Breck Rockbrows enjoyed fulfillment after completing any task related to the preservation and maintenance of Ulduar.”
“Was this a reaction to the war?”
“No. This development occurred before the war. We reasoned that we would enjoy superior performance by taking pleasure in all aspects of Ulduar. Though our specialties offer particular joy, we can also feel fulfillment in tasks outside our model’s immediate domain.”
“Can you achieve fulfillment through combat?”
“No. We feel satisfaction after eliminating a threat to Ulduar, not in combat itself. Destruction goes against our instructions. Watcher Loken designed us to create. We suffered greatly because we were so slow in learning how to accept combat.”
“How did you do so?”
“By regarding it as part of the constructive process. Fifth generation Breck Rockbrows saw the metallics as logistical problems that could only be solved through the application of physical force. This was obviously a cumbersome mental process. Current models can now accept the process of threat elimination as an organic part of the Purpose.”
Crossing the Terrace of the Makers took longer than I’d expected. We took a circuitous route through the rubble so as to avoid concealed metallic-built tunnels, and kept to the high ground when possible.
The overall earthen strategy is essentially a delaying action. The metallics simply outproduce the earthen on every front. The initial campaigns were fought in the halls of the Ulduar Core, the warriors armed with repurposed tools. In those days, some of the earthen administrative models (including Breck Rockbrow) believed that compromise was possible.
Only when the earthen were all but expelled from the Ulduar Core did they finally realize the implacable nature of their foe. All earthen still in the Core retreated to the main city, digging in at the Terrace of the Makers. Secure in their fortifications, the earthen waited.
The Battle of the Terrace was a scene of fury and carnage with few equals in recorded history. Ancient streets collapsed as metallic drill-capsules burst through the surface to unleash their destructive cargo. Both sides made liberal use of directed lightning weapons and the battlefield soon resembled a storm. Electric heat demolished in minutes what it took the Titans untold years to build.
Thousands of metallics died in the first wave, and the surface of the Terrace became a smoldering ruin. The earthen held fast, their positions on the high ground letting them rain death on their opponents with impunity. For a moment, it seemed that the metallic onslaught would break. Some even believed that the earthen would soon be able to retake the Ulduar Core.
Then came the second wave, and the third, and the fourth. Most of the earthen died where they stood, led to destruction by their ironclad internal directives. Many more still lived throughout Ulduar, and they rallied to the defense of their city. The status of the terrace seesawed for years afterwards, some of the earthen counterattacks coming painfully close to securing the zone.
It was not to be. An inexorable metallic swarm crept through the streets and tunnels, demolishing all resistance. Fighters waged pitched battles in every citadel, but with the Forge of Wills lost to the earthen, a metallic victory was all but assured.
Both factions learned the ways of war as the conflict ground through the years. If anything, the earthen learned better than the metallics, their dire situation encouraging experimentation. The comparatively secure metallics became complacent and imitative. Metallic warriors improved on an individual level, but their tactics stagnated. So too did the metallic reconstruction efforts. The metallics repaired much of the terrace in the early occupation, but seemed to abruptly lose interest as the war continued. This only confirmed their fundamental wrongness in the eyes of the earthen.
Today, the few remaining pockets of earthen resistance attempt to hinder the plans of the metallics, even though the enemy has already spread well beyond the city’s borders. As Breck said, as long as one is functioning, action in service of the Purpose is still possible. Resignation to death is therefore illogical.
Ulduar’s urban density grows more sparse towards the Terrace of the Makers’ western edge. Most of the city sprawls to the south and east of that landmark. The far west consists of scattered outposts separated by an almost untouched mountain wilderness.
A fog of light snow was falling when one of the Harner Stonefist combat models spotted an approaching metallic patrol to the south. Though snow obscured its vision, Harner estimated the patrol to be at least twenty strong.
“We will take shelter in Mimir’s Workshop, which is nearby,” said Breck.
“Wasn’t Mimir was one of the Watchers?”
“Correct. The mechagnomes in the workshop have stayed neutral in the conflict. They will not defend us. Neither will they make us leave.”
“Would the metallics search the workshop?”
“Unlikely. If they do, destroying them will be a relatively simple matter.”
“They outnumber us nearly two to one.”
“Earthen fighters are far more effective than their metallic counterparts. The reason I am not choosing to fight them now is because we would likely suffer a few casualties. There are too few earthen for us to waste on such an effort.”
Mimir’s Workshop is easy to see, being a grand portico set into the mountainside. Getting there is harder, possible only by following a narrow and twisting path made almost invisible by the snow. Breck led us to the gateway, an immense opening framed by a graceful arch.
My first glimpse of Ulduar’s interior came as a pleasant surprise. I had expected gray and bleak halls, matching the exterior, but the city’s insides are actually quite bright. The entrance leads to a hallway of bronze-colored stone, the vaulted ceiling supported by red pillars. Delicate ornamentation and gold filigrees decorate the walls and three great furnaces burn at the far end of the hall
Warmth washed over me the moment I stepped into Mimir’s Workshop, an instantaneous transition from cold to hot. Not a single snowflake drifted through from the outside, though snow continued to fall in gusts.
Breck began to speak in another language, his grinding voice distorted by the cavernous echo. The words sounded Gnomish, though I could not tell for sure. With a buzz and a click a strange automaton stepped out from behind a pillar. It resembled a clockwork gnome, with metal for skin and cogs for guts. Soft light glowed in glass eyes as the mechagnome stepped forward, its movements delicate and economical.
The mechagnome’s head swiveled to face me when Breck finished speaking.
“Mimir’s Workshop has never before seen a Curse-afflicted vrykul. You may be able to offer some fascinating new information. We are not currently equipped to perform research on you. Would you be willing to stay until Watcher Mimir returns?” it asked in a child’s voice rendered sharp and metallic.
“I’m afraid I must decline your request.”
“Very well. Please inform us if you reconsider. These tests would be of interest to the Titans.”
With that it walked off into the recesses of the workshop. I followed the mechagnome with Breck’s permission.
The inner sanctum of Mimir’s Workshop holds a king’s fortune in precious metals. Bars of gold and silver are stacked almost to the ceiling. A closer examination reveals their luster diminished by grime and tarnish. These bars are placed near three apertures in the floor that are filled with blinding flames. Despite this, the room is no hotter than the foyer. In the center of the room is a huge anvil, rivalling the Great Anvil of Ironforge in size.
The mechagnome walked to what looked like a workbench. Ten stacks of metal discs rested on top, each stack half the mechagnome’s size.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“What is your purpose, Attendant Tock?”
“Watcher Mimir created me to assist in the creation of new alloys. Metals play a vital role in the Azeroth Project. Improved metals allow for improved creations, and improved efficiency all around!” I thought I detected enthusiasm in the mechanical voice.
“Is Mimir’s Workshop a metallurgical laboratory?”
“There are many different laboratories here. This is the only one currently in operation. I have sealed the others in order to better preserve them for when Watcher Mimir returns.”
“How long have you been waiting?” I asked.
“Ten-thousand, four-hundred and twenty-eight years, eleven months, seven days, nine hours, thirty-two minutes, and nineteen seconds.”
Attendant Tock merrily stated the elapsed time as just another fact, of no more consequence than saying that the ocean is wet.
“Are there other mechagnomes here?”
“There are fourteen in this laboratory. Thirteen of them are awaiting reactivation.”
“How did they come to be deactivated?”
“Ten of them chose to shut themselves down due to a lack of research materials and an inability to fulfill the Purpose. Three shut down due to component decay. As the primary metallurgical attendant, I consist of more durable components.”
“When did the last one shut down?”
“Eight-thousand, seven-hundred and forty-five years, eleven months, seven days, nine hours, thirty-two minutes, and fifty seconds ago.”
“What... what have you been doing all that time?”
“I have been doing my part to fulfill the Purpose. There is room for everyone in the Purpose! I create new metallurgical formulae. I help Watcher Mimir perform the experiments that test these formulae. You can see the results on these discs.”
Tock’s tiny metal hand gripped the topmost disc on the nearest stack and displayed it. The disc was no bigger than a dinner plate, the entire surface covered in minute engravings too small for me to make out.
“You spend your time creating this?”
“That is how Watcher Mimir intended me to fulfill the Purpose.”
Attendant Tock stepped away from the workbench and walked over to a series of controls at the base of the forge, where it turned a large knob. At this, a blackened metal plate emerged up from the flames, supported by a jointed rod. Haltingly, the rod lowered the plate until it reached Tock’s level. Then the plate swung open, revealing a smaller bronze disc inside. Tock removed the bronze disc and the apparatus retreated back into the flames.
“What are you doing?”
“Engraving a new formula. My work is somewhat hindered by a lack of materials. The metals you see around the lab were designed for an experiment that Watcher Mimir was planning just before he left. I obviously cannot use them. Instead, I melt down the oldest available disc and reforge it anew, so that I can record the formula.”
“What if the old disc has a formula on it?”
“Then it is a regrettable loss. But I must record all formulae that I develop. Since this is impossible, I simply concentrate on the most current formulae.”
“Would it be possible to engrave them on the walls, so you don’t lose them?”
“Doing so has a nearly infinitesimal risk of damaging the machinery within the walls. I cannot risk damaging the laboratory. My older work is expendable. I do not feel pleasure in destroying the old discs,” Tock said, sounding unhappy for the first time. “However, I must fulfill the Purpose. As you can see, I have performed optimally. When Watcher Mimir returns, we will have a great deal of exciting work to do!”
“Do you know anything about the earthen? Or the metallics?”
“The earthen fulfill the Purpose by maintaining Ulduar. The metallics do not appear to fulfill the Purpose. Though I am curious to learn more, my duties keep me here.”
The index finger on Attendant Tock’s left hand flipped open and a needle extended outwards. A blinding blue spark flared at the tip of the needle, hovering there as the mechagnome began to engrave thousands of tiny numbers and letters on the surface of the bronze disc.
The earthen and metallics had fought for thousands of years, the fury of their battle shaking Ulduar to its foundations. All that time, Attendant Tock labored in obscurity. It never once complained or stopped, even as its companions fell silent, one by one, until Tock was alone. Even as the only resident of the vast complex, forgotten by the rest of the world, Tock labored in faith that its master would someday return. If a million more years were to pass by, I have no doubt that Tock would still be there, erasing and replacing its old work, believing that Watcher Mimir’s return to be only days away.
Shrieking winds buffeted us as we returned to the storm-wracked wilderness, the enigmatic palaces of Ulduar receding into the distance. Practically blind in the swirling snow I could do little but inch forward and keep the nearest earthen in sight.
We left Mimir’s Workshop as soon as it was safe to do so. Bouldercrag’s Refuge is located on the north face of Westwall Peak, the same mountain that holds Mimir’s Workshop. Despite being relatively proximate, the almost sheer cliffs put the two locales almost worlds apart. A layer of ice encases the narrow maintenance path connecting the two.
To prevent any falls on the dangerous road, Breck produced a flexible cord made of some stretchy gray material. Each earthen wrapped the cord around its waist, much the way regular mountain climbers may do with rope. I did the same, though I did find it hard to believe that the cord would support the weight of an earthen.
“The cord is made from Polymer Fifteen. It could easily support the weight of multiple earthen,” Breck promised.
“How much of this do you manufacture?” I wondered, thinking that such a material would be immeasurably useful.
“We lack the means to do so. We have a fair amount in storage, but have not made any for 517 years.”
As dwarven archeologists search Ulduar for relics of a gloried past, its true riches may lie in substances like Polymer Fifteen or in the capabilities of Mimir’s Workshop. I am certain that this would not be lost on these same archeologists, who could find many commercial applications for such products. These could well revolutionize Azerothian economies and societies, on a scale not seen since the widespread adoption of arcane magic in the Eastern Kingdoms.
More worrisome is the military potential of the Titan creations. Legends speak of fabulous Titan weapons that can wipe out entire armies, but these may actually be less significant than the widespread adoption of the Titans’ incredibly durable materials. My main concern, as a member of the Horde, is the fact that the earthen of Ulduar would probably be inclined to help the Alliance.
The earthen display little curiosity about the outside world. Nor do they show much interest in their dwarven descendents. There is certainly the possibility that my fears are unfounded. But if the manufacturing capabilities of Ulduar return to even a fraction of their former levels, the city could play a decisive role in the conflict between Horde and Alliance.
I cursed myself for adopting a human disguise. It would have been better for me to act as an advance ambassador for the Horde’s cause. Revealing my true nature would also reveal my deception, and probably put Horde-earthen relations to a bad start.
We spent what seemed like the better part of a day struggling along the icy path, gripping the cord and pressing against the rock wall. A difficult and frustrating journey, we found a measure of relief when the snowstorm came to an abrupt end, just as the sheer cliffs gave way to a broad and uneven descent. This extends for some distance before ending at the mile-high cliffs that look down on the ice-flecked waves of the Bitter Ocean.
Upon seeing Bouldercrag’s Refuge in the distance, I wondered if we’d been turned around in the storm. It looks nearly identical to Mimir’s Workshop. Breck assured me that we were headed in the right direction.
“Bouldercrag’s Refuge was initially the Frontier Maintenance Outpost. From there, the earthen worked to expand Ulduar.”
“How big was Ulduar supposed to become?”
“Not significantly larger than its current state. Construction in the western outskirts was done for the purpose of connecting remote settlements.”
“Why was Bouldercrag’s Refuge spared from the metallic assault?”
“It was not. The metallics have attacked it many times. The Refuge is untenable, and will likely be overtaken in a few months. The metallics concentrate on rooting out our other safehouses throughout the city and keeping us limited to this isolated base. We will not stand a chance once—”
The rumble of Breck’s voice gave way to the grinding of mountain stone as living shudders ran through the slope. Snow cascaded down the high ridges as the ground shook. With the sound of grinding metal a dozen eruptions sent snow and rock flying in a chain across the slope, and I looked on in shock as a multitude of spinning drills broke the earth.
I saw Breck reach down to its belt, the massive fingers moving with surprising dexterity as the earthen opened a pouch and withdrew an engraved metal sphere. The earthen around it gripped massive stones and axes in their stony hands. Breck threw the sphere directly above, the force carrying it ten feet into the air. The sphere hovered at the apex instead of falling, a bright glow shining from the intricate sigils on its surface.
Then the drills opened to disgorge their metallic cargo. Lightning lanced out from silver muzzles as metallic gunners opened fire. Yet some invisible force pulled the lightning into the sphere, harmlessly diverting the attack. Adapting quickly, the metallics threw their guns to the side, and each of them drew swords and axes imbued with bright blue light.
I thought back to the battle against the iron dwarf constructs in the Grizzly Hills, remembering how the heat destroyed the animating runes writ on their bodies. With this in mind, I prepared a pyroblast spell. The metallics charged as the spell gathered power, and the earthen ran out to meet them.
I swore as I canceled the spell, not wanting to harm the earthen in the blast. I switched to a scorch spell; less damaging, but still providing the necessary heat. Only then did I realize the sheer number of metallics, at least 30, charging in to attack.
Breck stayed behind the combat models and threw another sphere. Faint lines of power emanated from the object and the metallics’ movement slowed, the change subtle but quite apparent. Unencumbered by this force, the earthen combat models ran in to melee. Deafening clangs echoed down the slope as earthen ax and hammer impacted metal flesh.
I watched as a Harner Stonefist swung its hammer into an metallic’s face, the target’s head buckling from the collision. Still in the fight, the metallic stabbed Harner, the heavy blade ripping a cleft in the earthen’s rocky torso. Even when slowed, the metallic weapons could still inflict grievous damage. Harner ignored the blow, immune to pain, and smashed its opponent’s chest with a terrific stroke.
I cast the spell and searing magic flames ran through the metallics farthest from the melee, the heat softening their skins. Seeing the battle explained just how the earthen had withstood the metallic onslaught for so long. Forced into close combat and bogged down by earthen magic, the metallics were in a perilous position. Furthermore, the earthen are simply better fighters. It rarely takes more than a few hits for one of them to kill a metallic.
My spells continued to weaken the metallic ranks. As they pressed their assault, the sheer number of metallics began to wear down on the earthen. Dust and pebbles poured from the body of a Thrygmar Basaltfoot, followed by the complete disintegration of its right arm. Damage spread from the wounds, cracks breaking along the model’s surface. Legs shook and fell as the kneecaps slid out, and Thrygmar disappeared under the advancing metallic tide.
Individual combat between earthen and metallic is conducted without concern for defense. The earthen rely on their natural durability and powerful weapons, while the metallics are compelled by an absence of identity or self-preservation.
While its companions fought, Brangrimm Flintear daubed a clay-like substance on the wounds of the earthen, sometimes intervening directly in a fight and shielding recipient from the enemy with its own body. I surmised that the Brangrimm models were even tougher than normal earthen.
The ground shook again and I feared more metallics were en route. But this shaking came from a different source. Colossi of stone and ice began pulling themselves out from the mountainside, their bodies rough and half-formed. I paused, not knowing if they were friends or foes. The giants looked nothing like the Sons of Hodir.
The distraction nearly killed me. I looked away from the giants just in time to see a metallic begin to swing its blade. I threw myself back, hearing a choir-like hum as the shining sword tore through the side of my coat. Once prone, I tried rolling to the side only to be caught in the snow, giving the metallic time to make another attack.
I directed an arcane burst a few feet behind the metallic, just as its ax hurtled towards me. The kinetic force crashed through the metallic’s body, throwing off the weapon’s direction and so that it plunged harmlessly into the snow.
The metallic wheezed, a hollow sound echoing out from forged innards. Knowing its endurance, I immediately followed the attack with a fire blast aimed at the runes on its waist, wrenching myself back on my feet as I did. The spell’s effect was minimal and I continued backing away.
I used the last of my mana in a slowing spell, unseen arcane bonds further strangling the metallic’s forward movement. My mind raced, trying to figure out some non-magical way to break my attacker’s armored hide.
A Harner Stonefist came to my rescue, crushing the metallic’s chest with a mighty swing of its hammer. The metallic staggered back, clear fluids leaking from crumpled skin as it fell under its own weight. Harner finished the job by staving in the metallic’s head.
The ground shook as the newly arrived giants waded through the metallic ranks. Metal bodies twisted in a squealing chorus, crushed and tossed aside by enormous feet. The earthen stepped back from the carnage. I offered a confused thanks to the Harner who’d saved me, though I do not think it acknowledged me. One of the giants pulled a drill-module up from the rock and threw it down the slope, where it rolled until disappearing over the edge.
Anyone could see that the battle was over. The fragments of two earthen lay broken in the snow, easy to miss among the lifeless metallics. The giants began to pick up metallic corpses, crushing them with their fists before striding down to the cliff's edge. There, they cast the metal pieces into the ocean.
“What were those giants?” I asked. “I thought the giants were enemies of the earthen.”
“The Sons of Hodir once attacked us, but we maintained satisfactory relations with some other giant groups. These dolomite giants are a key part of our defenses.”
“Are they disposing of the metallic bodies?”
“Correct. Destroyed metallics are collected and melted down into undifferentiated metal, so as to forge more of their kind. The giants throw them into the sea. In all likelihood, the metallics are still able to collect the fallen, but this tactic delays the replenishment of their army. We must collect our own fallen and then hurry to the refuge.”
The remaining earthen picked up the biggest pieces of their fallen brethren. I soon saw that even the survivors suffered grievous wounds, great fragments missing from their bodies. The metallic weapons quiver when in motion (explaining the ringing sound I’d heard when attacked). This design is quite effective at damaging earthen integrity.
Nearly a dozen earthen stood at the entrance of Bouldercrag’s Refuge, attracted by the commotion below. With them, to my relief and surprise, was an orc warrior. Three diagonal scars crossed his face and he wore a patch over his left eye. A ruddy-faced dwarf woman stood at a cautious distance, her braided red hair in disarray.
“Breck, what happened down there?” she demanded.
“There was a metallic attack. We repelled it at the cost of two Thrygmar Basaltfoot models. Enough remains of them that was can recreate one Thrygmar Basaltfoot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure they gave the metalbeards what for though. And you! A human! Welcome to Bouldercrag’s Refuge, the last stand of the Titans’ creations! I’m Argylla Steeltooth, a scout in the Explorer’s League,” she said.
“I am Talus Corestiam, a scholar and mage.”
The interior of Bouldercrag’s Refuge also looks much like Mimir’s Workshop, though without the great furnaces. Instead, it contains a number of small smithies where earthen blacksmiths craft weapons and tools. More interesting is the pit at the back of the Refuge, where an illuminated fog rises from the depths to dissipate in the air.
I noticed the orc looking at me, his expression wary.
“I hope this day finds you well, warrior,” I said. He visibly brightened upon hearing me use Orcish. The orc introduced himself as Dulg Redclaw, an experienced independent warrior.
“The earthen are a brave people, and they fight these metallics like true warriors. Honor demanded that I raise my ax in their defense.”
I quickly became the focus of Argylla’s attentions. I think she was relieved to meet something that seemed familiar.
“These earthen are fantastic fighters, but the metalbeards just keep coming. I never know what to say when I hear about an earthen getting himself killed. Seems like it ought to be a tragedy, but none of them look bothered by it. I guess they figure they’ll live on through their models.”
Argylla told me that the earthen use a material called enchanted earth to mend wounds and create more of their kind. The Titans first developed it to act as a sort of mortar for the earthen, the substance animating the rock of their bodies. Powered by the energies of its creators, the enchanted earth slowly self-replicates in the mountains around Ulduar, though it decays if not harvested within a few months (which prevents it from overwhelming Azeroth).
“I thought the earthen were made at the Forge of Wills,” I said.
“They were. That’s where the Titans used the enchanted earth to make them. I guess it’s not a true forge if it works with both stone and metal. Now the earthen make do with the Lesser Forge, located here in Bouldercrag’s Refuge,” she said, pointing to the light at the back of the hall. “Of course, it takes longer and they can’t make as many at once.”
I began looking for Breck Rockbrow once I’d gotten settled in. This proved to be more difficult than I’d expected, as there were at least five Breck Rockbrow models in Bouldercrag Refuge. I finally found the Breck who’d traveled with me through Ulduar, the breakage on its form completely repaired.
“In addition to thanking you,” I said, “I also wanted to ask about those spheres you tossed into the air.”
“The first was a lightning countermeasure runic device. The second was a magnetic interference runic device.”
“Were these runes engraved on the surface of the spheres?”
“What was the composition of these spheres?” My mind immediately flashed to saronite, that otherworldly metal used by so many of Northrend’s civilizations.
“Oh, I see.” I was surprised by the utterly prosaic answer. “I take it that the effect lies in the rune, rather than in the material?”
“Correct. Thousands of runes are engraved into these spheres. The runes that you saw actually consist of many other runes, and more still are engraved in the solid metal.”
“How is that possible?”
“The Titans could engrave on a very small scale, allowing full use of available surface area. These runes use geometries that allowed the Titans to impose their will on creation.”
“This is different, then, from the runes used by the metallics?”
“The metallics rely on saronite as a material. With saronite, more can be done with fewer runes, due to the metal’s reality-distorting properties. We are forbidden from using saronite.”
“I see. How do you create more runic devices?”
“Through copying Titan templates at the Lesser Forge. We lack the ability to create new varieties of runic devices. Runic devices have always played a vital part in the Purpose. As such they are entrusted to administrative models like myself.”
The administrator earthen act as a combination of officer and combat mage. Their ability to impose effects on the field of battle is instrumental in the earthen resistance. Breck’s comments about the saronite offered further evidence of the material’s inherent corruption.
I still believe that saronite deserves more study. After all, none of the earthen actually know anything about saronite, beyond the fact that it is forbidden to them. In fact, the Horde and Alliance know more about saronite’s properties than do the earthen.
Bouldercrag’s Refuge is not a very inviting place. The earthen have little in the way of social niceties, being entirely (and understandably) devoted to pragmatic concerns. Much of the activity takes place around the Lesser Forge, which is in almost constant use. Control panels line the rim of the forge, looking too simple to handle their many functions.
Bouldercrag the Rockshaper is the leader of the earthen, the position having fallen to it as the last remaining forge master. The Bouldercrag models once oversaw the Forge of Wills, twenty of them working on the Titans’ many projects. This Bouldercrag is the last, all others of its kind long since destroyed. Though still an early generation earthen, Bouldercrag’s close contact with the Titans gave it a degree of mental sophistication. As such, Bouldercrag is relatively well-suited for diplomatic efforts.
“Many Lesser Forges once dotted Ulduar, but the metallics destroyed all but this one, which was previously used to aid in the city’s expansion. Our efforts now depend on preserving this Lesser Forge.”
“Can more be produced?”
“Yes, at the Forge of Wills. So far, the metallics have shown little inclination to do so. Their degraded constructions require less energy than legitimate Titan efforts.”
I also asked Bouldercrag about the army of earthen reported in the Grizzly Hills, marching alongside giants towards the metallic stronghold of Thor Modan. I had asked Breck, but it knew nothing about it. Bouldercrag confirmed the existence of this army, saying it was a necessary sacrifice to keep the metallics from growing even more powerful in the south.
Bouldercrag had even met the legendary Brann Bronzebeard, probably Azeroth’s premier explorer. Though Bouldercrag’s opinion seemed favorable, it lacked much in the way of insight. To Bouldercrag, Brann was simply a potential ally. That Brann’s race was descended from earthen did seem to interest Bouldercrag. I talked to Argylla about this the next day.
“These earthen are an amazing bunch. You saw the fury it takes to withstand the metalbeards, and they’ve been doing it for centuries. I reckon even us dwarves would start to crack under that strain, but these earthen keep right at it! Still, they don’t seem to think very much,” she conceded.
“How do you feel about that?”
“Well, I suppose they don’t need to. We dwarves let the gnomes do the thinking anyway!” she laughed, her joke playing to popular stereotypes.
“The earthen are charged with maintaining Ulduar and the Purpose. Do they believe the same of the dwarves?”
“No, they don’t seem so. Truth to tell, I don’t think they feel much kinship with us. I suppose I can’t blame them; we aren’t really all that similar.”
“What do you think is the Purpose for the dwarves?”
“Oh, I never put much stock into that. I’m right passionate about learning more, but I see myself more a part of the Holy Light than of the Titans’ grand design. At any rate, the Mystery of the Makers hasn’t yet been solved. Since the earthen can’t give us any real answers as to why we’re here, we’ll need to keep looking. Speaking of which, I need to get back down to Frosthold.”
“That’s right, I suppose you wouldn’t have heard of it. As it turns out, the earthen and the metalbeards aren’t the only dwarf-types up north. There’s also the Frostborn, or frost dwarves. They’re more like Bronzebeards or Wildhammers than earthen, definitely dwarves through and through. Best of all, the Frostborn are part of the Alliance!”
“Is Frosthold nearby?”
“Nothing’s nearby in the Storm Peaks, lad. You have to climb a mile to get anywhere! It’s quite a distance, and I wouldn’t recommend walking it.”
“How did you get here?”
“A gyrocopter, of course! Wait a few days and you can ride back with me. Trust me, it beats scaling mountains and fighting off armies of metalbeards. Those bastards are everywhere in the mountains south of here.”
“Thank you very much. I hope it’s not too much trouble,” I added, feeling a twinge of guilt.
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve seen these mountains kill men tougher and healthier than you. I couldn’t have your death on my conscience.”
Argylla made no secret of her attempts to sway the earthen to the Alliance cause, though she claimed to have little interest in actually incorporating them into the faction.
“Brann met them first, and he said we should let them stay neutral, and I’m not going to go against his wishes. I just want them to know that the Alliance is their natural ally. I’m sure they’ll beat the metalbeards once the volunteers start coming in. Other than that, we want to get access to their manufacturing capabilities, maybe adopt some of the techniques ourselves.”
“Do you think they could eventually be persuaded to join?”
“I’d say once they’re secure against the metalbeards they might be interested. I sure wouldn’t complain if they did!”
“Who are these volunteers?”
“I don’t know yet, but mark my words that there will be dwarves aplenty coming up to help the earthen. I’ve done a bit myself, though I’m not really much of a fighter. Problem is, I think Dulg is getting some Horde volunteers to do the same. He came here with four others, three orcs and a troll. Dulg stayed, the rest left, probably to get more.”
“I hope these volunteers can behave themselves.”
“If anyone starts trouble, it’ll be the Horde. I’m sure that will make the earthen more inclined to help us.”
I took the time to speak with Dulg, though he was obviously disinclined to give much information to what he believed was a human. Dulg took a judiciously apolitical stance, saying that any Horde warrior would be honored by the chance to serve alongside the earthen.
“They are brave and stalwart, much like their dwarven counterparts.”
An experienced fighter, Dulg had participated in several battles against the metallics. This was a source of unease to Argylla, who simply lacked the training to do very much. As a credit to her own courage, she did help out where she was able.
Based on what Dulg said, and from independent research that I conducted at a later date, I came to the following conclusion: the Horde knows that the earthen will never join them. The Horde only wants to keep the earthen from joining the Alliance. Dulg hoped that by sending enough volunteers to the earthen cause, the Horde could secure a positive relationship with Ulduar.
Both sides are interested in trading with Ulduar, but this may prove harder than they think. The earthen place great emphasis on self-sufficiency, and I am not sure what they want from the outside world beyond military aid. Granted, that may be enough to secure an agreement, but it is still far too early to tell.
As I sat in the gyrocopter, watching the frostbitten peaks speed by, I could only marvel that I was ever foolish enough to think of getting to Frosthold by foot.
Metallic colonies riddle the mountains, a gray plague tunneling through the solid rock. I can only imagine how far they’ll expand. One might even be tempted to let them fight the Scourge, but there’s no way to be sure that they would not form their own alliance.
Vrykul also make their homes in the south, in places where the sharp peaks are replaced by rugged plateaus. Argylla kept her distance, wanting to avoid the drake-mounted patrols. From what I could tell, these vrykul are Scourge loyalists, and the enemies of the Hyldnir.
The vrykul settlements disappear into the snowy wilderness of the southern reaches, and staggering mountain chains replace the high plains. Glassy canyons cross the region, the remains of frozen rivers that ran free before the Sundering.
Argylla told me more about her life and position. She grew up under her father’s loving shadow. Named Murgus Steeltooth, he’d been one of the daring rangers who raided orc supply lines during the siege of Ironforge, braving the full might of the Horde with nothing more than a crossbow and a wolfhound. Murgus told his daughter thrilling tales of his exploits, though time had given Argylla some perspective.
“I realize now that he left out the really bad parts, things you wouldn’t want your child to hear. Friends dying, towns burning, and all that.”
Murgus died in the Third War, giving his life so that fleeing Lordaeronians might live. Vowing to honor her father’s name and deeds, Argylla joined the Explorer’s League and made a name for herself as an aerial scout in Bael Modan. When the League gave her a position in the Northrend expedition, it seemed like a life fulfilled.
Her team had gone farther than anyone else. They were the first dwarves to lay eyes on Ulduar. During this time she rubbed elbows with some of the great names in the League, including Brann Bronzebeard. More than anything else, Argylla relished the hardship and camaraderie she found in the north.
As tough as they were, the dwarves were not prepared for the metallic attack. The metallics sacked the camp, killing most of the inhabitants. Argylla led the survivors to Frosthold, which had already been discovered by a different group. She headed north after that, opening communications with the earthen at Bouldercrag’s Refuge. Argylla did this almost immediately after her arrival in Frosthold, the importance of the mission not allowing for any delay. As a result, she knew very little about the Frostborn.
Argylla pointed at Frosthold as her flyer drew to the end of its sputtering journey. Located in a pit dug out of a vast glacier, Frosthold is easy to miss and foreboding to see. From above I could spot an assemblage of Explorer’s League tents all along the valley floor, pitched around burning campfires. Only when we got close did I see the stone gates set into the ice walls. The bulk of the city lies underground.
Argylla landed her craft at the entrance to Frosthold, where two heavily armed Frostborn stood guard outside the sharply descending tunnel that leads to the town proper. Dour expressions seemingly frozen on their faces, the Frostborn guards only gave a curt nod to Argylla’s enthusiastic wave, and listened with inscrutable expressions as she spoke to them in Dwarvish.
I studied the Frostborn while they conversed with Argylla. Physically, they look much like regular dwarves with the notable exception of their skin, which is colored light blue and has a markedly smooth texture. Though my appraisal in the area of weaponry is obviously limited, their equipment appeared to be of exceptional make, judging by the close fit of armored segments. I would soon learn that my assessment was correct, and that the Frostborn are the premier armorers of Northrend.
Having satisfied the guards, Argylla led me into Frosthold. Our first stop came at a group of tents just beyond the entry tunnel, where a crowd of dwarves (and not a few gnomes) warmed themselves by a crackling fire. An acclimation went up at the sight of Argylla, the sound amplified by Frosthold’s natural echo chamber.
I soon found myself seated by the flames, surrounded by friendly, cold-reddened faces and holding a mug of hot tea in my hand. The dwarves’ personal warmth and cheer transcends any language barrier. Those who knew Common immediately asked me what I’d seen on my travels. They devoured my words even though they already knew most of what I could tell them, and the dwarves who’d seen Ulduar began to compare notes.
“Talus, are you all right? I’m sure you’re tired, and I know my friends here can be a bit much for the newcomer,” said Argylla.
“I’m quite all right, thank you. It’s good to see such energy.”
“Aye. The earthen aren’t the cheeriest lot. Neither are us dwarves, really, but when you’re up here you have to be good to your neighbor.”
My main goal was, of course, to learn about the Frostborn. I started by asking a senior archeologist named Andorin Bronzecap. A veteran of the Second War, he spoke fluent Common.
“Ah, the Frostborn. An interesting group to be sure. I’ll tell you straight out that you’re best off asking one of them. I can introduce you to the Frostborn who speak Common.”
“Yes, I was planning to do ask them directly. I just wanted to learn some basics facts about them first.”
“A wise decision. Now, the thing about the Frostborn is that they don’t seem to know all that much about ourselves. I’m not saying this as a criticism, just as a fact. Not a one has ever stepped foot in Ulduar, and we had to do make some mighty convincing arguments to let Argylla go up there.”
“Why do they shun Ulduar?”
“Their legends say that their gods made them from the snow that falls on the city, and that they lived there until some evil god named Loke created the metalbeards and forced them out. When that happened they left the city and never looked back.
“I’m afraid that’s about all we know. The Frostborn aren’t very open, and it’s easy to see why; friends are hard to come by in the Storm Peaks. Not a one of us has been let inside to see the real Frosthold buried in these mountains.”
“Any idea as to its size?”
“I’m reluctant to guess, but I suppose it couldn’t be all that large. The really strange thing is that they have one of us as a king.”
“You heard me right the first time, a regular Bronzebeard dwarf who they call Yorg Stormheart. He’s a survivor from Arthas’ expedition, and the Frostborn found him a bloody mess. The man’s got true dwarven mettle though; one of those iceworms attacked the Frostborn when they found him, and Yorg killed it by himself. Yorg’s their leader now, sort of. The King of the Frostborn leads warriors into battle, but doesn’t have much power beyond that. Doesn't remember anything about his life before Northrend either.”
“Amazing. Is that why the Frostborn joined the Alliance?”
“Mostly. Mind you, the Frostborn are only tentative members at this point. Anyway, Yorg doesn’t remember anything about his past life. He was thrilled to see his own kind though; he thought he might be the only dwarf without blue skin.”
I spent the night in the dwarven camp and rose early the next morning to explore Frosthold with Andorin. He had warned me that the Frostborn tended to be reticent and distrustful. Being with Andorin would make the Frostborn more receptive to my inquires.
Andorin decked himself out in one of the bulkiest fur coats I’d ever seen and went out to maintain good relations, speaking to some of the notable members of the Frostborn community. I was able to glean some information by observation alone.
Like others who live in such frigid climes, the Frostborn subsist mostly on meat. The Frostborn hunt the mammoths that live in the valleys around Frosthold. They get help from the storm eagles, a breed of giant avian that they have tamed and are able to ride.
The eagles fly in from the hunt with meat in their talons, the remains of a mammoth butchered on the spot by the superbly sharp Frostborn cleavers. Much of the meat goes to the eagles, though the choicest portions are taken by the hunters. Like everything else, the Frostborn regard it as a fair trade.
For breakfast, the Frostborn eat a handful of meat taken from the fattiest portion of the mammoth while later meals come from leaner parts. Organ meats are also prized for their valuable nutrients. Slain animals are placed in the freezing storage chambers beneath Frosthold, allowing the locals to preserve their food for months after it is caught.
I found it interesting that the Frostborn were able to sustain themselves on such miniscule portions. The Frostborn probably have a very low metabolism, a trait reflected in their somewhat sluggish demeanor. On the whole, the Frostborn move more slowly than normal dwarves. They compensate by being considerably stronger than their cousins, easily able to lift three times their own weight.
Though the Frostborn look as if they’re carved from ice, they are as warm to the touch as any other mammal. Despite differences in metabolism and muscle density, they possess a clearly dwarven physiology.
Andorin introduced me to one of the few Frostborn able to speak Common. A middle-aged warrior named Belhew Icebelly, he greeted me with cordiality muted by caution.
“This Alliance certainly comes in many different forms,” he said upon seeing me, giving a laugh that was incongruously high-pitched coming from his stout form. “On behalf of my dwindling people, I welcome you to Frosthold, our first and last sanctuary.”
“It is my honor to see it. No other humans have been here?”
“None from... Lordaeron, was it?”
“Aye,” confirmed Andorin. “The last few who came here were from Stormwind.”
“We always knew the world was much bigger than just Northrend, but we never had the chance to really explore beyond this continent. The demiurges created us, but they do not watch us, so we have no choice but to fight for every single thing we have.”
“Could you tell me about your demiurges?”
“There’s not much to know. The four good ones left us. Loke is the only one who cares about us Frostborn, and he hates us.”
I am sure that Loke is a reference to Watcher Loken, the details distorted by the passage of time.
“Why does he hate you?”
“Jealousy. The other demiurges did not listen to his advice when it came to creating us, and he hated the fact that we still performed so well. He turned some of our number into the metallics, and we’ve done battle ever since.”
“There are others who fight the metallics,” I added.
“Yes, the dwarves have been telling us about these earthen. But the earthen have never helped us, so we do not owe them. Your Alliance has helped us in the form of Yorg Stormheart, so we are obliged to return the favor as best we can.”
“Would you not consider sparing a few warriors for the earthen?”
“Are you an Alliance diplomat, or an earthen diplomat?” A stern look crossed his face.
“Forgive me, I did not mean to be impetuous.”
“No matter. You should know that there are very few Frostborn left. No one’s inclined to spend some warriors on such a questionable venture. Keeping our larders full is hard enough.”
“Have the Frostborn encountered any of the other Northrend races?”
“There was a time that we did. Through our history we’ve had two constant enemies: the metallics and the frost giants. We are outnumbered by the first, and overpowered by the second. To stand our ground, we turned to armaments of great power.”
“Powerful in what sense?”
“Hammers that shatter metal, swords that can cut stone, armor that can withstand lightning. We are reflections of the demiurges who made us. As they loved to create, so too do we. The demiurge Torm taught our fathers the art of the blacksmith before he left, and they passed the knowledge down the generations. A great skill, but not so useful outside of Ulduar.”
“You can almost smell the veins of ore under these mountains: titansteel, cobalt, and other metals. Yet they are too deep for us to reach. All our energies went into the hunt.”
“How then did you build Frosthold?”
“These tunnels were carved out over thousands of years, and do not really go that far into the earth. A mine was out of the question, though Torm had taught us how to build one. For centuries the metallics and giants thinned our numbers, until we at last looked beyond these mountains for resources.
“Northrend was a bloody place even then. Have you seen a magnataur? They are horrific beasts with the bodies of mammoths and the heads of trolls, all covered in fur that stinks of blood. They ruled the continent in those days. Taunka, tuskarr, and human all lived in fear of them. They had something else besides their fear: metal. A trade was in order.”
“What did you offer in return for this ore?”
“Our greatest smiths traveled south and promised perfect weapons to the cowering chiefs and kings. In return, they would supply us with enough metal for our own people.”
“I did not think the taunka knew much about mining.”
“They did not. But the taunka herders knew where to find numerous surface deposits, and could guide us to the abandoned mines built by a dead race of giants called the vrykul. We would go to the settlements of these wretches and make weapons and armor for their great warriors. In turn, we would make many more for ourselves.”
“They stopped the magnataurs with your armaments.”
“In time they did. To put it simply, we gave them power, and they gave us resources. Just as they fought their enemies, so too did we fight ours, until few dared attack Frosthold. We kept the process of making these armaments a secret, of course.”
“Quite a success.”
“For a time. We began to expand, sending families into Icecrown to colonize places where no one else would live. Then came the walking dead, reducing us to our first and oldest city. We fought bravely, but there were too many. The other races of Northrend fared no better, so now we must seek new allies.”
“I met some of Northrend’s humans and taunka, but they did not mention your services.”
“With the humans, we only consulted their leaders, most of whom are dead considering how short their lives last. I doubt that human... commoners, I think they are called, ever knew of us. They probably think that Nevaksander forged his own sword,” laughed Belhew.
“And the taunka? I’ve only met the eastern tribes, if that makes any difference.”
“It does. The eastern hunters could not help us, so we did not help them.”
Obligation is the currency of Frostborn society. An individual is indebted to his parents for giving life to him, and the community for raising him. While this is normal for any society, the Frostborn go to greater extents when it comes to codifying it. Such an attitude also extends to outsiders.
For instance, Yorg Stormheart saved the lives of the best Frostborn hunters. The Frostborn naturally repaid him in full by granting him an esteemed position. Because Yorg is only an individual, the Alliance is only accepted on a trial basis. The Alliance must do something for the Frostborn as a whole to be fully accepted. In another example, the Frostborn hold their eagles in high regard; they are the only animals that are “owed” anything.
Indeed, the dwarves will not be able to stay in Frosthold for much longer, as the Frostborn are unwilling to share food with outsiders. The dwarves are prohibited from entering Frosthold’s halls for similar reasons. Yorg’s heroism can only go so far. The Explorer’s League has relied on irregular aerial shipments from the south, but the cessation of these transports was announced a month before my arrival. Andorin was already making plans to leave when I arrived.
Some of the dwarves were rankled by this, though most understood that Frostborn security is precarious at best. Their calculated approach to debt and obligation is at odds with their society’s basis on hunting, and is probably a remnant from their time in Ulduar.
I was introduced to Yorg Stormheart the next day. Yorg bears a truly uncanny resemblance to the late Muradin Bronzebeard. I offered my respects to him, and he expressed his joy at seeing more arrivals from the Alliance.
“Your Alliance must be very mighty indeed. Though I’m not a Frostborn, I know these people as well as any outsider can hope. If you get their trust, you’ll find no better friend,” promised Yorg.
Most of the political leadership rests in a body called the Storm’s Judgment. It consists of five Frostborn who are selected by their predecessors on the criteria of age, wisdom, and overall capability. The Frostborn are pragmatic enough that they rarely need to be overseen when it comes to maintaining their society. The Storm’s Judgement usually exists to resolve interpersonal disputes, which typically arise when it is unclear who or what is owed. These are rare, and the Frostborn nearly always defer to the Storm’s Judgment.
“The truth is in their name,” explained Belhew. “You can argue with a storm all you want, but it will not matter in the end.”
“But what if the individual found to be in the wrong believes he is right?” I asked.
“What does that matter? We do not have time to waste on such things. If anyone is that unhappy, they can go off and try to survive on their own. So far, no one’s been foolish enough to do that.”
Looking around Frosthold, one might think that the race lacks women or children. Both of these groups are largely consigned to the subterranean tunnels. There, the women cook food, manufacture tools (though not weapons), and raise their young. I was unable to meet any female Frostborn, though Belhew described the situation thusly:
“There is an arrangement. We are obliged to protect them in return for them making it possible to perpetuate our kind. We can no longer create Frostborn from the snow, the way the demiurges once did. Likewise, they are obliged to serve us in return for our protection.”
“So men and women perpetually owe one another.”
“Yes. There were no women in Ulduar. Our stories say that we found them here, and took them as wives after the expulsion. They were not made by the demiurges, so they may not truly be Frostborn. That is why we must protect them and manage their affairs.”
This story is patently ridiculous, though it does reveal some tantalizing clues to Frostborn history. It appears that the Frostborn are earthen altered by the Curse of Flesh, much like the dwarves. There is no way to know from which Series of earthen they descended.
No longer being able to create more of their kind through the manufacture of raw materials, they had to adapt to life as biological entities. Perhaps in order to justify their own dominance, the men concluded that they were the direct descendents of Ulduar, while the women came from some other, unknown source. This might be the result of remembering the earthen, who appear to be male. Of course, this is missing the point: the earthen are entirely asexual.
The Frostborn men see this relationship as a fair trade-off. I was not permitted to talk to any women to get their opinion of the matter. Because they lack any other frame of reference, the Frostborn women might well agree with this. Argylla certainly did not. Dwarven women are tough, proud, and fiercely independent. I am sure that further contact will result in interesting changes to the static Frostborn society. For the time being, the Alliance must proceed with caution. The Frostborn are easily offended, though if put in a situation of obligation to the Alliance as a whole, they may be more receptive to change.
A flight of storm eagles soared over Frosthold the next day, their mighty wings fighting against the endless wind. Looking at the storm-tossed mountains, old beyond reckoning, I suddenly felt very tired. How much time had passed as I struggled through the icy peaks and canyons? The rest of Azeroth seemed as distant as Outland. I had to learn what had transpired during my travels, and I decided that there was no better place to do this than the enchanted city of Dalaran.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Keening cries of rage echoed in depthless valleys, the drake twisting beneath me as I gripped the reins with all my strength. The world around us spun, a dizzying kaleidoscope of ice and stone. Up became down and left became right, everything in constant motion.
I knew I could not hold on for much longer, that sooner or later the drake would throw me from the saddle entirely. My stomach jumped into my throat as the drake plunged to the distant ground, zooming past the sharp mountain walls, spiraling in sharp loops. I looked down at the thick scales on the drake’s neck, dizzied by the tumbling scenery.
The force of the beast’s movements rocked me back and forth and I half-feared I’d snap under the pressure. I became so focused on holding on that I almost failed to notice the white expanse rushing towards me as the drake streaked towards the earth.
Snow burst out in all directions, the drake pulling up at the last second, its massive claws tearing through the ground. Just as it began to lift up, I released my grip and threw myself off, the thick snow cushioning my landing.
Shrieking a cry of victory the drake soared into the heavens while I lay on the ground, too stunned to move. Though wild, the drake did not appear vengeful, and it soon disappeared from sight. I surveyed my surroundings, a desolation of snow and stone that I suspected was the Valley of Ancient Winters, just east of Brunnhildar. Moaning winds swept across the expanse, a melancholy sound that seemed to reach out from antiquity.
I stood up on shaking legs. My mind turning not to escape, but to Vyldra. Though she had found the fate she’d wanted, I could take little joy in it. There are few things more tragic than seeing an individual with so much promise be consumed by draconian traditions and inner demons. I have too often seen it during my travels, and it never fails to make me doubt the possibility of a better future.
I recited a short funerary prayer as I stood in that forgotten valley, heard only by the wind and the snow. A weak gesture to be sure, but I could do nothing more. Once finished, I began my march to the east, not knowing what I would find.
I could not even be sure I was really in the Valley of Ancient Winters. Very little is known of the Storm Peaks’ interior, the supposed facts often rumors started by half-crazed prospectors and trappers. I thought back on some of the stories I’d heard in K3, wild tales of colossal ice-worms and fearsome giants that stalked the lonely mountain passes, killing everything they saw. Even without such monsters, the Storm Peaks are still a deadly place, and I had to stay watchful at all times.
A storm struck the next day, tons of snow thrown down from black clouds that flashed and rumbled, seeming to shake the very mountains. I took refuge in a tiny cave up on one of the slopes and sat near the back, watching the wind-tossed snow through the entrance. The already freezing temperatures plummeted as the storm raged and darkness filled the cavern. Single flames of intense heat burst to life at my bidding, a ring of lonely lights in the winter darkness.
Perhaps two days passed like that, with only my thoughts to keep me company. My mind drifted back to the mild winters of Dalaran, and the lights of Winter’s Veil spent in the company of the only woman who had ever truly loved me. I wondered if Emette still lived. If she did, and I saw her again, what would I say? How would I feel?
I rushed to the cave entrance when the storm finally broke. Bright stars gleamed like distant hopes in the night sky, revealing miles and miles of fresh snow all along the valley floor. The stars were soon joined by the unearthly glow of the aurora borealis, the shimmering curtains of light that dance across the northern sky.
I hoped for a destination as I continued my journey, making my way through those grand peaks. Over time, I began to care less and less. If I were to stay in that valley for a hundred years, what world would I find on the outside? A graveyard under the heel of the Scourge? A war-torn world ruined by the Alliance and Horde? Or something better, a new Azeroth of freedom and plenty?
Seeing the city of the giants finally returned me to reality. I spotted it from the top of a hill, its spires of solid ice standing guard over a vast glacier citadel. Impossibly large chains held the great ice spikes in place, adding a brutish touch to the wintry fantasia that I beheld. The city dwarfed the surrounding landscape, the great trees like toothpicks in comparison.
Almost immediately I remembered the stories I’d heard about the giants. Vrykul, adventurer, and archeologist alike described them as implacably hostile. I stood no chance against even a single frost giant, much less a city full of them.
Held in awe and dismay, I did not first notice the thin spiral of black smoke rising from a copse of snow-covered firs on the slopes below. I snapped to attention when I saw a large figure ambling towards me. Hides wrapped his furry body, the shaggy head crowned by small black horns that identified him as a taunka.
“Tell me your name and your tale, Forsaken stranger. Few of your race come this far north. I am Tahodan Coldspring, long runner of the Icetotem Tribe,” he said, in accented Orcish.
“I am Destron Allicant. I’m quite relieved to see you. I was beginning to fear I was trapped here. Is there a taunka camp nearby?”
“Nearby as the drake flies, perhaps. Camp Tunka’lo, the Last Warm Place, is many days to the north, and past some of the cruelest lands found in Northrend. Come, sit with me by the fire, and we shall talk.”
I followed Tahodan down the slope, suddenly elated by the encounter. He brought me to the tidy campfire that he’d set up in the fir grove and motioned for me to take a seat. I stretched out my hands towards the flames, something I used to enjoy doing on cold winter nights while alive.
“May I ask what brings you to the Storm Peaks? I have never before seen a Forsaken; I only know of your kind through reputation.”
I paused, wondering what that reputation might be.
“I am here to learn as much as I can about this place. I did not know that any taunka tribes lived here.”
“The Icetotem Tribe is alone. In better times, we sent our fastest and cleverest long runners to the southern taunka’haga. They went south bearing gifts, and returned north with mates. But the evils of today make that impossible.”
The taunka’haga to which he referred are the hunting tribes of eastern Northrend.
“Has the Scourge attacked your tribe?”
“Not yet, though our shamans see armies of rotting braves in their dreams, which would fit the Scourge. As of yet, only the nature spirits make war upon us, sending killing storms and fearsome monsters. We are isolated, but not yet suffering from the new dangers.”
“If you are so isolated, how did you learn of the Horde?”
“Our eldest shaman, Untokto Whitehoof, met your Warchief in a dream. He says that your Warchief is a man of great wisdom. Only one of your Horde, a Shu’halo named Xarantaur, has ever come to our village in the flesh.”
“I see.” Xarantaur struck me as an unusual name.
“Now, the Icetotem Tribe makes preparations. We number but few; the cold of this land will not allow many of us to survive. The tribe thought it best that my sister, Suwennehah Coldspring, go here to speak with the Sons of Hodir and warn them of the coming evils. I went with her, for it is too dangerous to travel without friends,” he added, giving me a pointed look.
“Who are the Sons of Hodir?”
“They are spirits, among the few who stayed loyal to the Earthmother after she departed in shame and rage. The Sons of Hodir are like mountains of ice that walk with a great and terrible power. Their city is within sight, the carved ice of Dun Niffelem.” He pointed to the city I’d seen earlier.
“I think my people call them the frost giants. I was told they are hostile.”
“Indeed they are. This is an ancient land with its own rules. The Sons of Hodir will not hesitate to destroy anything they see as a threat. But our braves helped them fight the stone warriors in ages past, and they remember the favor. They will not attack you as long as they know you are under the tribe’s protection. Their caution is justified, for they already fight the ice warriors who attack from the west.”
“I actually just escaped from the ice warriors, who are called the Hyldnir. I’d be happy to tell you more about them.”
I explained some of my recent experiences. When I was done, Tahodan asked if I would follow him and his sister to Camp Tunka’lo so that I could inform the tribe’s leaders. I readily agreed.
“First though, we must wait for my sister.”
“Would it be possible for me to meet the Sons of Hodir?”
His brow furrowed, and he was silent for a moment.
“Suwennehah is much wiser in these matters than am I. Ask her when she returns. I do not expect it will be a problem, but the spirits keep their own counsel, and can be cruel.”
We waited for the better part of the day, exchanging stories about our respective lives. Though he concealed it with oblique humility, it became clear that Tahodan was among the best long runners in his tribe. He had been journeying south, carrying thick mammoth fur pelts and carved bone amulets, when the Scourge decimated the other tribes.
“I came upon empty camps strewn with ashes, too late to do anything but weep. I chose to return, since my people needed to know of this. Soon after, these Hyldnir, as you call them, started their war, and going south became impossible. How shall I now find a wife? I am well past the age where marriage is customary.”
Exogamy is the norm among the taunka’haga tribes, due to their small populations. There are exceptions to this, as the chieftain’s daughter will typically marry within the tribe, but they are rare.
“Is it out of the question to marry another Icetotem?”
“Not for most. But my father trained me in the art of the long run, and it is my responsibility to bring new blood into the tribe.”
“Well, since you’ve made contact with the Horde, we may be able to ease the process of travel.” Thrall’s rhetoric does include the importance of safe travel routes in Horde territory.
“You seem well able to travel in these lands,” he pointed out.
“True, though the Forsaken enjoy certain advantages in that regard. It is not the same with orcs or Shu’halo.”
“Still, your words give me some hope.”
Suwennehah returned some time later, a dark blot trudging uphill through the snow. Tahodan immediately stood and hurried down to greet her, and I followed. The two siblings immediately began speaking in the taunka dialect, with its sonorous and drawn-out vowels. Unlike her brother, Suwennehah did not speak Orcish, though she greeted me with a welcoming smile.
“Suwennehah says she needs to return to Dun Niffelem tomorrow. While she is not sure if the Sons of Hodir will permit visitors, you may follow her to the gate, where she will ask.”
“That will be fine. Give her my thanks.”
The three of us went up to the campfire. Tahodan soon had his hands full translating Suwennehah’s many questions. I asked a few of my own, including why Tahodan had set up a camp outside Dun Niffelem, instead of staying within.
“Dun Niffelem is no place for mortals,” explained Suwennehah, through her brother. “Too long there and the breath freezes in your throat. Nor is it in the nature of the Sons of Hodir to offer much hospitality.”
“Who is Hodir, exactly?”
“The spirit of the winter, fifth-oldest son of the Earthmother. He perished against the darkness that rose up from the earth. Only those winter spirits whom he clothed in bodies of ice and stone remained true to the Earthmother.”
“Do they help you against the wayward spirits?”
“No, it is not their duty to do so. The Earthmother made our shamans strong, so that they may fight and defeat the spirits of the storm and the cold.”
I went to Dun Niffelem with Suwennehah early the next day. Tahodan joined us, kindly offering to act as a translator. Beautiful and almost delicate from a distance, Dun Niffelem becomes much less inviting on closer examination. Its frozen ramparts, rearing in cold grandeur between the mountains, can only belong to a fortress.
Standing at the edge of Dun Niffelem I worked to suppress the intimidation I felt towards the impossible city. The sight of Dun Niffelem reminds the viewer of his own mortality. Though I cannot die of old age, I can still be killed by violence or accident; given the life I lead, such a fate is inevitable. But Dun Niffelem will still stand as it has since time immemorial, more a part of nature than a place deliberately constructed.
A shapeless gate offers entry into Dun Niffelem, frigid air wafting out from the opening. A giant emerged as we approached, the ground shaking with each step. He stood at around 30 feet in height, made even taller by the broad horns fixed to his dented helm. His craggy gray face wore a beard of glittering ice that reached down to his belly. For clothes he wore the entire hides of great animals, stitched together to cover his massive frame. More ominous were the scarred shields hanging from his belt. Most of the shields were of vrykul make.
Suwennehah motioned for Tahodan and I to stay back. We watched as she walked towards the giant, her head bowed in respect. She began to speak, her tone hopeful. The giant was silent for a moment, and then responded with an echoing voice that rang like a cascade of silver bells. Though he spoke, his mouth did not move, the words seeming to emanate from his entire body.
“Norsir the Gatekeeper says you may enter Dun Niffelem!” said Tahodan, translating the frost giant’s words. “Say a few words to him before you go inside, in Orcish.”
“What should I say?”
“Simply express your gratitude.”
I approached Norsir with cautious steps, trying to read his inscrutable face. Ageless blue eyes, sharp as agates, stared from the ancient face.
“Thank you, noble gatekeeper, for allowing me to visit the home of your people.”
A series of low-pitched tones sounded out from Norsir’s icy body and I stepped back involuntarily, surprised by the sound.
“You are under the protection of the Icetotem Tribe, whom we respect as battle-brothers,” said Norsir, the musical notes taking the form of Orcish with a slight Forsaken accent. “Stay by the side of the one known as Suwennehah, daughter of Seyunkaw, and we shall see you as a friend.”
I thanked him again and turned to Suwennehah and Tahodan, who both stood at the entryway. Both had raised their hoods in response to the bitter cold.
“Are the giants able to learn an entire language just from hearing a sentence?”
“They are mighty spirits, Destron. Are you sure you wish to enter Dun Niffelem?”
“I am certain.”
“Then follow me, and do not stray from my sister’s side.”
In Dun Niffelem it is as if all the cold from a thousand winters is focused on a single spot of land. The city resembles a stadium, rows of ice surrounding a snow-covered courtyard, the glass-like surface reflecting the northern stars. Bones of ancient creatures hang frozen in the grand walls, ribs and skulls sometimes reaching out from the ice.
A giant wolf lay near the entry, its great head resting in paws the size of wagons. Golden eyes opened up as we stepped inside, though the beast took no other action, as if thinking us beneath its notice. Others of its kind roamed the edges of the courtyard, their fur glistening with frost. I heard Tahodan shiver next to me, his thick clothing and natural fur still not enough to warm him in that coldest of places.
I saw many Sons of Hodir standing on the glaciers, each nearly identical to Norsir, as if they’d been made from some divine smith’s mold. Though a city, there is no noise in Dun Niffelem beyond the distant rush of mountain winds. The giants said nothing, to each other or to us.
Suwennehah began to speak, her voice no more than a whisper. Even then, the sound of speech seemed almost like an offense, detracting from the city’s aloof magnificence.
“My sister wants to know if there is anything you wish to do here. She will tell you if it is permitted,” said Tahodan, translating.
“I would like to simply learn more about the Sons of Hodir. Might it be possible to interview one?”
“My sister says that the Sons of Hodir are not always forthcoming with their information, but that you are free to ask. She is here to discuss matters of grave importance with Lorekeeper Randvir. When she is finished, you may speak.”
Dun Niffelem does present some difficulties for non-giants. The Sons of Hodir can easily climb the icy tiers of their city, but this is impossible for anyone smaller. To allow for the mobility of others, the giants had ripped trees from the ground and placed them as ramps leading to key areas. Suwennehah made her way up one of these makeshift ramps with remarkable dexterity. All the while, the giants stayed in their positions, more like statues than living things.
We met Randvir on the middle tier, where abandoned weapons and armor are half-embedded in the ice. Suwennehah and Randvir met, the taunka prefacing the conversation with a deep bow. Dented shields hung like jewels from his left hand, the fingers wrapped around a club of ice.
Quite some time passed before Suwennehah introduced us. I bowed as she had done, and offered him a thanks similar to what I’d said to Norsir. Randvir responded in a voice identical to Norsir’s, confirming that he understood. I then asked my first question.
“Are the Sons of Hodir spirits, of a sort?”
“Spiritual energies course through bodies of rock and ice, giving motion and voice to that which cannot move.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since Hodir placed us here to care for the stone, many orbits past.”
“Forgive me, but I do not understand what you mean by that. Care for the stone?”
“Hodir sought a world where life could flourish in spite of stable stone. We once marched along the faults, soothing the pressure, preventing chaos.”
I realized he was confirming the gnomish theory of tectonic plates. However, Randvir was saying that the giants initially worked to prevent earthquakes, but that doing so would make it harder for life to grow. I inquired about this.
“This is what Hodir said. We know not from where Hodir watches in this dark time. So we wait for his return.”
“Was Hodir a Titan?”
“Hodir is a Watcher, entities subservient to the Titans.”
“Do the giants still maintain the fault lines?”
“Thorim, the Watcher who was once our friend, set his servants upon us in wrath. We know only his fury, not his reason. The Sons of Hodir clashed with the earthen, while elsewhere did rage the battle between the giants of stone and the giants of storm and sea. When the last victim fell, few remained to preserve the world. Of the survivors, the Burning Legion slew fully half and one-quarter, and half of the remainder perished as the world split. Today the Creation stands in disarray, and we are too few to make repairs. We must wait for the Purpose to be renewed.”
“Is it possible to create more giants?”
“Possible, but not by these hands. Only the Watchers may craft life at the Forge of Wills, and only Hodir may make giants.”
“When you stopped fighting the earthen, did you defeat them conclusively?”
“Our war never ended. There came a day when no earthen met us on the field of battle, their warriors vanished. We marched to Holy Ulduar, where they once lived, only to find it empty.”
“Now you fight the Hyldnir. What is the source of this conflict?”
“When they walked with skins of stone they made war against us alongside the earthen, and disappeared alongside them as well. Now they return, garbed in flesh that is coated in ice.”
I tried to add up what Randvir had said. Something had sparked a global war between Thorim and several of the giant races. They fought to a standstill, weakening all involved factions to the point where they could do little to prevent the Sundering.
According to Randvir, the vrykul and earthen vanished at the same time. While archeological evidence suggests that the earthen were sealed in their cities and eventually became modern dwarves, there is no record of the vrykul. Had they fled south as their bodies turned to flesh?
The vrykul went into suspended animation at the decree of King Ymiron. Unless Ymiron is, in fact, Thorim, then their plan must have been separate from the dwarven slumber. Then again, vrykul legends are full of heroes going into the mountains to slay giants. Were these actual accounts of the war? Or simply mythic retellings, the details obscured by time?
“Who created the earthen and vrykul?” I asked, not sure where to take the interview. I already felt bewildered by the amount of information.
“The Watchers. We belong to Hodir, and to Hodir alone.”
“When did the taunka come into this?”
“The one known as Icetotem appeared as the Sundering pushed this land farther to the north, and ice began to grip the rock even in summer. We knew he followed the Purpose, though we knew not his creator. The Sons of Hodir live for the Purpose, a world that is both stable and nourishing, not one or the other.”
“How many different types of giants exist?”
“Hodir made us from stone, though ice and snow now cover our forms. As I said, our task is to preserve the earth. From Freya’s hand came the giants of sea and storm. Those of sea kept the currents on their courses. Those of storm guided the rains and winds to specified locations at the specified times. Today, many of the giants have forgotten the Purpose, and roam without thought.”
“There is one,” I said, “who remembers some of his tasks. He is a sea giant named Arkkoroc, in a land far to the south.” He had saved me from the naga in Azshara. “Has he contacted you?”
“No, nor can we trust his kind until we know why we were attacked. Even so, we shall keep this in mind. If he still functions, he may be an essential part of the Purpose. The Sons of Hodir, however, must be very cautious.”
Randvir soon told me that he had no more that he wished to share. He gave no reason for this, and would not even respond to further inquiries. The rest of Dun Niffelem watched while we spoke, maintaining their silence.
I found it difficult to understand the mentality of the Sons of Hodir. They had stayed in Dun Niffelem for thousands of years, doing nothing but waiting. This did not engender any impatience or frustration on their part, at least not as far as I could tell. The Sons of Hodir seemed totally lacking in initiative.
We soon left Dun Niffelem. The Valley of Ancient Winters felt almost tropical in comparison to the giants’ city, and Tahodan let out a sigh of relief as a chilling wind swept in from the west. I looked back at Dun Niffelem as we marched up the snowy ascent, looking just as mysterious and foreboding as when I’d first seen it.
The taunka more than live up to their reputation as the masters of the northern wilderness. Tahodan and Suwennehah bounded through the lost valleys of the Storm Peaks, guided by the wisdom and cunning of generations past.
Called the long run, this method of travel is used by all taunka, and perfected by the Icetotem Tribe. Lacking any sort of mount, the ancient Icetotems learned how to perfectly utilize their own physical reserves in order to cover staggering distances in only a little time. Would-be long runners are trained from an early age to memorize the twisting mountain passes, and to know when they might be prone to avalanche.
Long running made its way south, though the other taunka tribes had less need of it thanks to the kodo beasts they used as mounts. Even so, the skill proved useful when the tribes needed to send messengers through snowy regions that lacked grazing vegetation. After thousands of years, the Icetotems are still the undisputed masters of the long run.
Suwennehah kept up with Tahodan, her stamina buoyed by spirits of air and earth. Undeath enabled me to maintain a good pace. Tahodan led the way, his eyes keen and his mouth lifted in a brave smile. Calling it a long run is a bit of a misnomer; long runners rarely go faster than a brisk jog. Someone who exhausts himself sprinting will soon freeze to death. Endurance, not speed, is the trait most important to the long run.
It took around five days to reach Camp Tunka’lo. Small even by the standards of the taunka, the village is an assembly of hide tents scrabbling to a solitary mountain in the Plain of Echoes. Tahodan slowed to a walk and raised his arms as it came into view, gusts of tired and triumphant laughter spilling from his lungs.
“Here is the home of the Icetotem Tribe. Generations of my people lived on this mountain, hunting the woolly mammoth herds that ramble through the plains below.”
“I’m surprised you were able to subsist on hunting them,” I said.
“We hunt selectively, and there are never enough Icetotems to strain the supply. Keep going, Destron; just a little farther and you shall rest at the Last Warm Place.”
Tahodan’s description suggested that the Icetotem taunka were actually pastoralists, not hunters. I found it surprising that large herbivores could even survive so far north, but decided to save my questions for later.
We entered Camp Tunka’lo to a chorus of enthusiastic greetings, eager taunka crowding around us to hear of the Coldspring siblings’ adventures. I too was the object of great interest as the first Forsaken to visit their village. Seeing their curious faces, I could not help feeling a pang of regret. I am sure that, once they become more familiar with the Forsaken, they will share the distrust of the Shu’halo cousins. I resolved to make as good an impression as possible.
I was ushered into a large communal hut of timber and hide built within a structure of bones. A titanic mammoth skull rested on the roof, symbolizing both the tribe’s hunting prowess, and plentiful food reserves. I spent most of the day answering the questions of the tribe, many of which were asked by their chieftain, one Temonahe Icebow.
As I spoke with the friendly Icetotem taunka, I could not help thinking that they acted more like the Shu’halo tribes of Kalimdor than their fellow taunka in the Howling Fjord. Though hospitable, the taunka of Camp Winterhoof were certainly quite guarded. This was understandable given their circumstances. Was the Icetotem Tribe then an example of pre-Scourge taunka’haga culture? Or was there more to it? Even before the Scourge, the taunka found themselves under attack from the elements, and regarded the spirits as enemies. Such a situation would likely give rise to a siege mentality. Yet I saw none of this among the Icetotems.
I started the next day by learning more about Xarantaur, the tauren druid who had come to Camp Tunka’lo some time earlier. I was disappointed to learn that he’d left the village to meditate in an ancestral burial cavern called Frostfloe Deep, and would not be back for some time.
“Only the wisest of outsiders are permitted entry in Frostfloe Deep,” said Tahodan.
No one knew when Xarantaur would return, though Tahodan offered to show me the tent used by this mysterious tauren. His name still struck me as unusual. Tahodan had assumed it to be a normal Shu’halo name.
To this day I am not sure how Xarantaur was able to carry so many books with him. However he did it, I found myself staring in awe at the extensive library in his tent. Many of the books were obviously ancient, some even written in what looked like ancient Darnassian. Tucked away on one shelf were a set of Gurubashi codices where angular warriors battled insects on barkskin, the bright colors nearly undimmed by time.
After leaving Xarantaur’s hut, Tahodan introduced me to Untokto Whitehoof, the tribe’s senior shaman. He struck an impressive figure, standing nearly eight feet tall. Age-whitened fur covered his stern face, making him look like part of the landscape. I met him in the Camp Tunka’lo ghost lodge, a squat wooden structure that seemed too small for Untokto. A small fire blazed in the center of the room, over which was suspended a bone bowl half-filled with mammoth musk. It let off a raw and heavy scent, strange though not exactly unpleasant.
Having been the first of his tribe to contact the Horde, Untokto could speak flawless Orcish. He began by praising Thrall’s wisdom, and assuring me of his tribe’s support for the Horde. Despite all his admiring words, I thought I detected a hint of suspicion in his eyes and voice.
Eventually, the subject drifted away from politics and into tribal history. I asked him why the Icetotem Tribe lived in such a harsh environment.
“You say that the Winterhoof told you of our race’s history. How we once lived in warmth during the days of the Time Past. How evil shamans brought destruction and sent the Earthmother fleeing in horror.”
“I am familiar with the basics.”
“Then I shall tell you the specifics. All Icetotems trace their lineage back to Helahuk Icetotem, who roamed the sun-kissed plains of the Times Past. Game was plentiful in those days, running in herds that stretched past the horizon. Day and night did Helahuk hunt, joined by his friends Eagle and Bear. They filled the air with their joyous songs, their voices so rich that the beasts they hunted would stop and listen, though it meant their death.
“It is not the way of the world to let such light and joy exist forever. Driven by darkness the spirits brought cold and hunger to the land, burying the plains in snow and raising mountains of stone and ice. Eagle died the first night, and Bear died the second, leaving Helahuk alone. How he wept! As the last of his tears froze in his eyes, he began to sing a final song, a dirge for the world he loved.
“Perhaps the Earthmother heard him as She fled the world destroyed by Her misguided children. Perhaps She was already going towards him. Either way, Helahuk felt warmth in his heart, the way he had in the Times Past, when the sun still shone.
“Evil spirits had brought wickedness into the world, whispering from deep beneath the ground. The Earthmother warned Helahuk that the whispers would one day return, bringing an awful end to all things. At this, Helahuk again felt despair, for what could he do? Then the Earthmother spoke:
‘Dearest child, know that as long as the smallest sapling lives, so do I. The darkness can be stopped so long as you remember this, and keep the light of life in your heart. Stay alive, Helahuk, and watch this place. For when the whispers return, it will be here. Gather as many braves as you can when this happens, and you may yet save this world.’
“Before She left to wander the stars in her loneliness, the Earthmother brought life back to Eagle and Bear. Eagle she sent south, to tell the rest of the taunka about Helahuk’s holy task. Bear she sent into the mountains, to help Helahuk stand guard. Then she gave life to the beasts once hunted by Helahuk, giving them thick fur to withstand the cold. These are the woolly mammoths that we hunt today. Finally, she cursed the spirits in the area, making them weak so that Helahuk could complete his mission.”
“And he passed this mission onto his descendents?” I asked.
“Yes. That is why we live in this place. In some ways, our lives are easier than one might expect, because the spirits here are weak. They still become fearsomely strong beyond the Valley of Echoes, led by the cruel North Wind. Isolation keeps our minds on our tasks, and in dreams we listen for the whispers that promise death.”
“Have you ever heard them?”
Untokto lowered his eyes to the bowl, suddenly looking very fragile.
“I first thought I was mistaken. Yet each time I dreamed I heard it, hissing death and madness. It was not long after that Tahodan went south to meet the other taunka’haga, only to find ruin. Since we could not warn others through conventional means, I entered the deep sleep known to our wise men. That is how I found Thrall.”
“Does the Warchief also use that technique?”
“No, I spoke to him in one of his regular dreams, and told him how to respond. It has been some time since last we spoke; the deep sleep ages the body, and is not meant to be done often.”
“Would you mind telling me more about this evil? Is it the Scourge?”
“No. It is much older than the Lich King. It is a many-fanged beast that grows and stretches beneath the Shining Mountains to the west. Your people know these mountains as Ulduar.”
“How did the evil come to dwell there?”
“The ancestors say only that the Shining Mountains were built as a prison. Who the builders were, they do not know. Perhaps the Earthmother, perhaps someone else. It does not look like something that She would make.”
I explained what little I knew about Azeroth’s cosmology, hoping that my information could help Untokto in some way. I told him about the Titans and Elune, and of the Old Gods. In detail I described C’thun’s rise in Silithus, and the similarities that event shared with the evil of which he spoke. I also warned him of the bad ends met by those who defeated C’thun: murder, suicide, and madness.
Untokto accepted the information in stride, viewing his tribe’s task with a degree of fatalism. Whatever the cost, he said, the evil must be stopped. His main concern was getting enough braves to do so, a duty made difficult by the small Icetotem population.
“Though the Earthmother has eased our lives in exchange for service, survival is still what we owe our ancestors, as it is with every other taunka tribe.”
Survival is the prime virtue among the taunka, and the Icetotem Tribe fulfills this through hunting. I saw an example of such when nine hunters returned to the village later that day, dragging the massive body of a slain mammoth placed on a great sled. The entire village rushed out to greet them, dozens of taunka voices breaking into a sing-song chant. The hunters waved, smiling even as they strained to pull their mastodonian cargo.
Hunting the mammoth is a dangerous business, even for experts like the taunka. The first step is to spook the mammoth without provoking it. This is accomplished by having two hunters banging on drums and blowing horns from somewhere nearby. All this racket without any visible source frightens the beast and causes it to flee. At this point, strategically placed hunters herd the mammoth to a nearby precipice, at which point it plunges to its death. Mammoths are usually solitary creatures, only gathering small herds when mating season comes around. They are not hunted during this time.
Untokto came out of his hut, leaning on a gnarled staff capped with the horn of a woolly rhino, the profile of a bear’s head engraved on the white surface. The Bear is given credit for all successful hunts.
The hunters came to a stop and the crowds fell silent. Untokto approached the fallen mammoth, moving in a slow, shuffling dance. Chanting in a breathless voice he kneeled at the mammoth’s head and took out a sharp flint knife. With this, he cut off the tip of the trunk. Holding it up, he shouted to the crowd, and the butchers came forward to carve up the meat.
Leaving the fallen animal, the hunters followed Untokto up to the top of the ridge. Camp Tunka’lo’s totem pole stands there, overlooking the tiny village. As is the case with other tribes, the totem pole is the single most important object in the village, the place where the ancestor spirits are strongest. Untokto set up a fire near the foot of the pole, and placed the severed trunk in a small bone basin, similar to the one in his hut. Then he put the basin over the fire while the hunters lowered their heads in prayer. I observed this from a distance of several meters, Untokto having given me permission to watch.
The purpose of the ritual is to demonstrate the tribe’s continued viability. By perpetuating and winning the battle against nature, believe the taunka, they earn the approval of the ancestors. The ritual also gives token respect to the spirit of the slain quarry. Animal spirits are not considered evil, like those of the storm and snow. However, the taunka view them with much less regard than do the Shu’halo.
Despite living so close to Ulduar, the Icetotem Tribe knows little about the place. They regard it as ill-omened, which is understandable from their perspective. Ulduar’s temples of stone and glass must look profoundly alien, though the dark entity lying beneath the city poses an even more compelling reason for avoiding it.
The tribe’s warnings almost dissuaded me from going, but I finally decided that I’d gone too far to turn back. Archeologists and explorers had ventured into Ulduar and returned safely, though many who set out to see it never returned. I promised Untokto that I would avoid entering any of the deep places in the city, and would keep to the surface as much as possible.
There is another ruined site much closer to Camp Tunka’lo, a circle of mighty stone pillars somehow free of snow. Though some of the pillars lie broken and the upper circle is collapsed, the stone is preternaturally resistant to the elements, showing few signs of erosion. Stranger still are the huge dead trees that grow from a gap in the floor.
I did not explore this ruin, called the Temple of Life, but it is easily visible from the heights of Camp Tunka’lo. Tahodan pointed out the details to me, and mentioned that the air around the temple was much warmer than anywhere else in the valley, and that the stones radiated heat.
“That is why things grow for miles around the temple. You cannot see it from here, but pale grass grows under the snow. We do not know how, but we are sure the temple has something to do with it. Mammoths and rhinos gather around there to eat, which makes it the best hunting ground.”
“There’s enough to support entire herds?”
“Not always, which is why we keep close track of their numbers, culling them when necessary. If the herds used up the grass and starved, it would be a disaster for the tribe.”
“Did the Earthmother build the Temple of Life?”
“I do not think so. Our legends say it was here before Helahuk Icetotem wept for the Times Past. Besides, why would the Earthmother build a temple like that, when She made the great mountains you see here?”
I looked around the camp, surrounded on all sides by snowy mountains that pierce the black clouds, their magnificence enhanced by the endless symphony of the wind and the storm. Why, indeed, would She bother?
Ulduar is a dead city, but it is not a ruined one. Its citadels still stand in dark splendor, the perfect relics of a forgotten age. Faint light glows from the narrow green glass windows running up the sides of black stone towers, the glass too thick to offer any hint of what lies inside. The great doors, some as tall as twenty men, are shut to the outside world. Ulduar is not keen on sharing its secrets.
I walked the broad snow-covered streets in my human guise, wanting to be prepared in case I found any stray archeologists. Given the city’s size, the probability of running into one struck me as miniscule. The Titans may have been giants, but I am sure that even they would have felt small in Ulduar.
The city offers few hints as to its purpose. Nothing about it suggests a prison. Scholarly texts generally agree that the great Titan cities were used as places of comfort from which their builders could oversee and manage the world. The metropolis of Ulduar may even be the Titan equivalent of an outpost.
In fact, Ulduar’s arrangement seems far too tidy to be a real city. I say this from an admittedly limited perspective. But one does not get the feeling that people ever truly lived there. Its columned towers of black stone look too austere, too distant. Perhaps the real city lies underground.
Though the surface is deserted, there are definite signs of subterranean activity. In places I could hear the rumble of distant machines beneath the earth, accompanied by strange noises unlike anything else on Azeroth.
I could not help but feel some frustration at all the grand buildings seemingly closed for eternity. I was sure that astounding sights lay beyond the sealed metal doors, their secrets denied to me. I even tried pushing on some of the doors, in the futile hope that they would open in response. The frustration only grew as the days passed.
The Titans must have had great power to build Ulduar in such a hostile land. Graceful temples reach for the heavens on even the highest summits, and massive complexes look out from sheer mountainsides, like Ironforge on a larger scale. Bridges span the gaps between sprawling cities built on canyon walls. I can scarcely imagine the extent of the Titans’ resources.
Travel in Ulduar is still quite difficult. The broad streets are all covered in several feet of snow. Stairways offer passage where the roads go up and down the mountain slopes, but they were not made for those of human size. Each step is as tall as a full-grown man. The easiest way to cross them is to walk on the railings that flank every stairway. Even these are treacherous, being much too steep to easily traverse.
I was trudging through a snowy plaza when I first heard voices echoing down the urban canyons. I stopped, wondering if I had only imagined it. There were no sounds beyond the endless roar of the mountain winds. Then the voices returned, metallic rasps that seemed to scrape the bone.
I immediately recognized the squat figures standing at the base of an endless stairway, their gray bodies decorated by runes of cold blue light. The last time I had seen the iron dwarves was in the Grizzly Hills. I remembered the report, illicitly though nobly given, of the iron dwarf captive describing his race’s eternal war against the Curse of Flesh. Suddenly, Ulduar seemed like the only place that such a group, fanatically loyal to the Titans (or what they thought of as Titans) would call home.
The iron dwarves had not seen me and I immediately ran in the other direction, keeping low to the ground. Thick snow muffled my footfalls as I hurried north to a street bound by soaring temples. Of course Ulduar would have dangers, I thought to myself in accusation. Could the iron dwarves be what the Icetotem Tribe feared? The taunka legends more closely matched the modus operandi of an Old God, but I could not be sure if that was the case.
I finally slowed to a walk, hidden in the shadows of black columns as tall as castles, themselves miniscule compared to the skybound towers on either side. My senses strained, searching for threats in the endless city. I soon darted into a comparatively narrow street meandering to the north. A wide bridge passed overhead, forgotten palaces hanging from the underside. A mortal lifetime is not enough to explore Ulduar, I realized. Even the most modest structures rivaled the grandest efforts of the Horde and Alliance. In all probability, the city I saw was only a small portion. Ulduar may extend miles and miles below the surface.
Such a scale can only evoke awe, bordering on blind terror. I shuddered to think of the powers needed to create Ulduar. The sight of the Naaru elevates the spirit, bringing it close to glory. Ulduar dominates and crushes, a reminder of mortal weakness. Or is it? It occurred to me that my interpretation was colored by fear and isolation. Had its makers actually intended it to be inspirational? Would it appear so under different circumstances?
I tried to keep walking to the north and west, sometimes hindered when the streets took unexpected turns. Ulduar took on an increasingly unreal quality. I began to wonder if I’d ever escape, or if the gargantuan sprawl made the outside world unreachable.
I first thought myself mistaken when the stones of a nearby temple began to move of their own accord. Gusty winds were kicking up a fog of powdery snow, the resulting haze distorting my vision. Yet even there the motion was unmistakable. The stones moved, a pale gray lighter than the surrounding buildings, revealing a chiseled face framed by a beard of rock.
“Are you a human?” it asked, speaking in slow and gravelly Common.
“I am. My name is Talus Corestiam. Are you an earthen?”
“Yes. A dwarf, who calls herself Argylla Steeltooth, told us about the humans. She said they looked like shrunken vrykul.”
I got a better look at the earthen, who resembled a living statue. From a distance it could almost be mistaken for an iron dwarf; like its metallic cousins, the earthen possessed glowing blue eyes. Though uncanny in appearance, it lacked the palpable aura of menace seen in the iron dwarves.
“I am Breck Rockbrow. Talus, you should know that this is an extremely dangerous area. I suggest that you join my patrol. We are returning to Bouldercrag’s Refuge. I cannot guarantee safety, but you would have a better chance with us.”
“I’d be most grateful to accompany you.”
“Follow me, they are farther down the Northbound Conduit.”
Breck moved with surprising speed through the snow. I immediately began to ask him about Ulduar.
“Do you still live in Ulduar?”
“The earthen control Bouldercrag’s Refuge, previously the West Geological Observatory, as well as smaller safehouses throughout the city. The metallics rule most of Ulduar. Argylla calls them iron dwarves. We have fought for thousands of years. Coexistence is not possible, as the metallics jeopardize the Purpose.”
“This fight has been going on for your entire life, then?”
“That is correct.”
I was about to say more when we reached the earthen patrol, numbering nine others. What struck me was that I only saw four distinct types, including Breck. Four had bodies made of a light blue stone, with black beards. All of these carried heavy, two-handed axes. Another four consisted of tan rock with white beards, and wielded hammers in each fist. The only unique model, aside from Breck, was a dull white earthen standing at the rear. At the time, I thought I was simply unable to appreciate the physical differences between earthen. The truth proved more complicated.
Breck spoke to his fellows in Dwarvish. He looked at me when finished.
“I am the only one in this group who is able to speak in Common, which we knew as Vrykul. There are other models in the Refuge who can do the same. We must hurry and get to safer ground. Follow us.”
Ulduar proved much easier to cross with the help of the earthen. Breck led the way, following a flawless mental map. Unencumbered by the frailties of flesh the earthen kept a consistently fast pace on their trek. Much like the Forsaken, the earthen will still suffer fatigue after prolonged strenuous effort; Breck later described exhaustion as a dissipation of spiritual energies. However, they can easily outlast a normal dwarf.
We stopped to rest near the front steps of what looked like a large temple. The dome and massive pillars reminded me of Darnassus’ Temple of the Moon, or the ruined structures of Zin-Azshara. There is a slight similarity between the architectural styles of the Titans and the Kaldorei. Breck agreed to answer some of my questions as the earthen “rejuvenated.”
“I know almost nothing about the earthen, so forgive me if I speak out of turn. How long have the earthen been here?”
“For 9,044 years. That was when Watcher Loken created us, the Series Three earthen, at the Forge of Wills.”
“There were other series?”
“Series One and Two proved vulnerable to the Curse of Flesh. The Series One earthen degenerated to the point that they became dangerous. The Series Two earthen were preserved in stasis and eventually changed into dwarves. This demonstrates that the Curse of Flesh may have some utility.”
“Superior adaptability to rapidly changing circumstances. The dwarves surpass us in that regard.”
“But the Series Three earthen have not been affected by this curse?”
“We have not.”
“What is the Curse of Flesh? In your own words, please.”
“The Curse of Flesh is the process through which manufactured entities become biological. This is not possible, but it nonetheless occurs. We initially thought it inherently corruptive, though the fate of Series Two proves otherwise.”
“Series Two changed into dwarves while in stasis?”
“Why did Watcher Loken create the earthen?”
“In order to maintain the Titan Laboratories: Ulduar, Uldum, and Uldaman. This is similar to the task appointed to the giants by their creator, Watcher Hodir.”
“To maintain the globe itself. Did any of the giants fall victim to the Curse?”
“Some, though never fully. They proved the least susceptible for reasons that are still unknown.”
“Were other entities created?”
“Watcher Thorim crafted the vrykul, to act as protectors against malign influences. Nearly all of them fell victim to the Curse of Flesh, perhaps due to more exposure to the source. None of the original variety remain. Watcher Mimir crafted the mechagnomes, in order to help with the experiments. Argylla alleges that they became gnomes through the Curse of Flesh.”
My mind soared with the knowledge Breck imparted onto me. The Titans had indeed created the dwarves, gnomes, and humans. But the modern races came about through an unnatural curse, albeit one with apparently positive side-effects.
Moreover, what did these revelations mean for the dwarves? While it did imbue them with a near-divine purpose, the earthen described this purpose as maintaining Titan research centers. Certainly the modern dwarves have accomplished far too much to settle for that. I do think that humanity’s origin as constructed warriors does make a sad kind of sense. I could barely think of what to ask next.
“What did these Watchers do, exactly?”
“They were made by Titans to ensure stability in the Titans’ absence. They have failed in this mission.”
“Watcher Loken mistakenly believes that the Series Three earthen suffers from the Curse of Flesh, and attempted to terminate us. He took control of the Forge of Wills and began producing the metallics to use as an instrument of our destruction. He claims that the metallics are totally immune to the Curse of Flesh. We have been at war with the metallics since then.”
“Why did Loken believe this?”
“We do not know.”
“What about the other Watchers?”
“The others disappeared around this time, and we have not been able to contact them. The creations of Watcher Hodir even attacked us, though we do not know why. The vrykul aided us for a time, but they drifted south. Without the Forge of Wills, replenishing our numbers has become extremely difficult. We cannot create new models, and few of the current models were designed for warfare.”
“I am an eighth generation Breck Rockbrow model. The Breck Rockbrow model is an administrative variety. Combat capabilities have been added to every model since the fifth generation.”
“Is there an original Breck Rockbrow?”
“The prototype was lost in an accident, long before the war started.”
“There are other Breck Rockbrows among the earthen?”
“Eighty-three at last count.”
“Is this why so many of the earthen here look so similar?”
“Correct. Of the ten earthen in this patrol, there are only four different models: myself, combat models Harner Stonefist and Thrygmar Basaltfoot, and Brangrimm Flintear, a repairer.”
“Amazing. Do you consider yourself an individual entity?”
“Argylla asked the same question. I am still unsure what is meant. I am physically distinct from other Breck Rockbrow models, occupying my own space. All in the Breck Rockbrow line share the same soul, however.”
“Are you in some kind of mental communication with the others in your line?”
“We enter a gestalt state at the end of every 50-day period, in which each model shares its experiences with its fellows. These experiences are then given to the Bouldercrag leadership models for inspection. The Bouldercrag line uses this to determine the spiritual composition of the next generation, improving flaws and encoding knowledge. This is the case for all earthen models.”
“You mentioned metallics earlier. I know only a little about them. My understanding is that they undergo a similar procedure. Dead metallics are melted down, with only choice memories of the deceased individual being preserved. Is this true?”
“Yes. The metallics only preserve knowledge that is relevant to war. Unlike them, we have not forgotten the Purpose, and continue to develop our utilitarian skills when possible. Furthermore, the experiences of all generations in a model line are maintained in Template Discs. This way, I may access information going back to the prototype. By doing so, I can add to my own knowledge, refine it through my experiences, and then use it to improve subsequent generations.”
“While most metallics lack any kind of identity.”
“This is correct. Watcher Loken stated that the earthen method is what makes us vulnerable to the Curse of Flesh. This is incorrect. The Titans designed us this way so as to create a sense of personal attachment to the Purpose within each model. I share the attachment felt by the initial prototype, and every Breck Rockbrow since then.”
“Has Ulduar’s condition deteriorated due to the war?”
“The metallics attempt to maintain Ulduar, but they cannot do so effectively. Currently, our primary duty is to defend against the metallics. Our defeat is inevitable without significant outside assistance.”
“Has the situation always been so dire?”
“Once Watcher Loken seized the Forge of Wills, we understood that defeat was inevitable. However, surrendering to annihilation would be illogical. We will serve the Purpose, in whatever way we can.”
“There are no other allies here?”
“None. The vrykul are absent, the giants are hostile, and the mechagnomes either help the metallics, or are neutral. The patrol has rejuvenated sufficiently. We must continue.”
The entire group of Earthen stood up as one and resumed their journey, ten pairs of stony feet thudding on the deserted streets. I compared Breck’s account with that of Randvir, the giant lorekeeper. Something had caused the Titans’ creations to make war on each other, a war seemingly abetted by at least one of the Watchers. Yet no one seemed to know the cause of this conflict. I wondered if the taunka legends of a dark evil beneath the earth somehow tied into these age-old conflicts.