Sunday, September 26, 2010
((I deal with somewhat heavier subject matter than usual in this section, and I'm keen to know if I did a good job of this. Please tell me what you think.
The forum is now a thriving community of 18 members, but could still use more. If you enjoy the travelogue, please do not hesitate to join us.
Also, there will be a delay after this section since I need to work on the next Scratched Nerve story—a sequel to Suburban Fury.))
While bearded patriarchs argued theology in the onion-domed churches of Sanktagrad, the earthly lords of Kirovar ruled from Paskaron. Founded by Lord Nevaksander on the banks of the mighty Dragonspine River, the city’s population grew rich on the fur traders, loggers, and fishermen who glutted its markets. Visitors from the south described a noisy metropolis where herds of pigs rooted through streets of mud or ice (depending on the season). Fires broke out with disturbing regularity, yet the resourceful Kirovi always rebuilt the city bigger and wilder than before.
King Alyosha Federov, hearing tales of the gleaming southern cities, finally decreed that stone should replace wood in Paskaron. Soon, the Border Range’s valleys echoed with the sound of picks and hammers hitting stone as the king used his treasury to open great quarries.
In the end, his dreams came to naught. Paskaron now lies in stinking ruin, portions still overrun by the living dead in Naxxramas’ shadow. The floating necropolis is an unavoidable sight, its stone skulls leering down at Paskaron, now called the Carrion Fields. Skeletal frost wyrms orbit Naxxramas in cold silence, ready to destroy any who dare approach.
“They used to call this place Coin Street, where each day one man would make a fortune, and another would lose it,” recalled Kolya Peshkin. Looking much older than his twenty years, he pointed at a row of moldering posts that leaned haphazard in the slush.
“Tirasi merchants lived all along here, building the finest houses. My mother worked as a servant in this big yellow house. I thought it was the grandest place in the world that did not belong to a noble. And now? Nothing.”
Hundreds of Kirovi irregulars support the 7th Legion’s efforts to secure the Carrion Fields. Equipped with makeshift and handed-down weapons, the Kirovi fighters are far more formidable than they might appear. Cruel winters and constant Scourge attacks have left only the strongest and fiercest alive. They have little in common with Father Vanya, the urbane priest I’d met in the Grizzly Hills.
“I even remember when they first started to pave Coin Street. They brought these great big sleds full of flagstones to the edge, and cleared everyone out. For days, no business could be done there. The king did not want anyone to interfere with his project, and he had his footmen pummel anyone who tried. The Scourge destroyed the city a few months after that.”
“How did you survive?” I asked.
“Pure luck. Snow fell heavy that day, and the roof of my mother’s hut collapsed while she was at work. Master Giapparo permitted us to sleep in the basement of his house, which was very warm. I thought it wonderful; his house had every luxury you could imagine! Running water, insulation, everything.
“A strange sound woke us, and mother went upstairs to investigate. I never saw her again. For days I cowered in the basement as I heard a thousand, thousand screams above! So badly did I want to run up and see mother! But I was too afraid; that awful smell of death clinging to everything.
“Finally I emerged, I don’t know how many days later. Above, I saw everything I knew in ruins! But not a single corpse. Even then I knew it meant something truly horrible and unnatural had occurred. Plenty of bloodstains, no bodies.
“I made my way to the Church of the Seven Saints, and found nothing but the foundations. Before I got too close, I saw the men in black robes lurking just outside the ruins. Cult of the Damned, I know now, probably thinking stragglers would head to the church. I knew they wished me ill, so I fled. Lord Balakov found me a while later, and I joined his group.”
Ivor Balakov had rallied the survivors of the Paskaron massacre into a makeshift army. They roamed the wilderness of eastern Dragonblight, conducting a bloody guerrilla campaign against the Scourge, pillaging isolated Kirovi villages to feed his troops. Balakov cited his relation to the fallen king as justification.
Not even the best guerrilla army can survive without food. As the Scourge destroyed the remaining Kirovi towns, Balakov’s army faced starvation. With no other option, Balakov retreated deep into the Border Range with a small army of serfs. For decades he waited in an isolated valley, his fief shrinking a little bit more each year, until he heard of Wintergarde’s stand against the Scourge.
Today, the outskirts of the Carrion Fields are in the Alliance’s firm grip. Supply ships from Menethil dock at a port on the Dragonspine River, keeping the troops in Wintergarde well-fed. At any given time, three-fourths of the 7th Legion protects the Alliance possessions in the Carrion Fields, aided by the Kirovi. The fall of Naxxramas is inevitable; the Alliance’s main concern is to defeat the Scourge with a minimal loss of life.
Even the frost wyrms only provide limited protection for the Scourge forces around Naxxramas. Undead troops that dare land on the ground face quick annihilation at the hands of Alliance mages, who can call down area of effect devastation with the aid of spotters.
In what is a sure sign of desperation, Naxxramas sends small teams of undead minions led by necromancers throughout the area, hoping to find and kill Alliance patrols to raise their corpses. This is a decidedly inefficient method of gaining large numbers of troops, and shows how strained the Scourge’s supply lines have become.
I found myself again helping the Alliance, accompanying a Kirovi patrol on the lookout for any Scourge presence. We numbered ten in total, led by a small, dark-haired man named Volskoi Imraev. Advising him was Captain Thurton, a 7th Legion officer.
Surrounded by burned-out huts, we ate a cold lunch of bread and sausage. The Kirovi soldiers wrapped themselves up in heavy fur caps and longcoats, all encrusted with years of dirt. Kolya told me about life in the old city while Volskoi and Thurton planned out our route for the rest of the day. Kolya spoke of his youth with an understandable longing, though it sounded quite brutal when compared to the life of even a relatively poor postwar Lordaeronian child.
Still, for all the lawlessness and cruelty, it did sound as if Paskaron had been gradually improving. Perhaps in time it might have grown to rival Stormwind City or Stratholme.
“Kolya, does Lord Balakov plan to rebuild Paskaron after the Scourge’s fall?”
“No. Cities are not good for the Kirovi. We are a people of the wild. Look at the Grizzly Hills; only one city, but many Kirovi still live there, free of the Scourge. All our cities here are ash.”
“Plenty of the villages were also destroyed.”
“But there are still some left! Look at where you come from; you had more cities than us, and Lordaeron is totally ruined. Cities are not good places. When so many people live together, it’s hard to care for each other. You take your neighbor for granted. Who needs him, right? If he dies, he can be replaced.
“The Scourge destroyed Paskaron to make an example. They even destroyed holy Sanktagrad. Better for us to live in rustic sanctity than urban sin. We must still have farms, of course. But there is no need for big cities. City people are soft and not very good in fights either. Most of the Kirovi under Balakov today came from outside Paskaron. Praise the Light they found me and turned me into a real man!”
City life can certainly be an alienating experience. At the same time, it’s easy for people to forget the drawbacks of rural life. In small towns, there is little chance for an individual to improve his or her lot in life. This is not bad in and of itself, but those with ambition must find it frustrating. Individuals who differ from the norm may face hostility in the more close-minded communities. Village life is also quite laborious, even in our age of labor-saving enchantments.
Volskoi soon ordered us to resume the patrol and we slunk through the icy streets like cats hunting for mice. The hardened Kirovi soldiers wore expressions of grim satisfaction as they worked, happy to turn the tables on their oppressors.
We stayed silent to avoid alerting the Scourge, though our approach made enough noise of its own. To hear Kolya talk, the necromancers tended to panic when the patrols came too near and made foolish mistakes trying to escape. Despite our advantage, the Kirovi soldiers kept aware of their surroundings, looking to the shadowed hulks of dead houses for any undead presence.
The man taking point stopped in his tracks, holding up one hand in warning. With the other, he pointed to what might have been a storefront straight ahead of us, its wooden walls riddled with gaping holes that showed a dark and rubble-strewn interior. As if directed, the soldiers began to fan out along the street with weapons at the ready, while a few ducked into a narrow alley sagging with rot.
“Get ready,” whispered Kolya. Beside him, a few soldiers nocked arrows to their bows, aiming at the crooked doorway. More Kirovi grouped up at the sides of the building, their faces fierce and glowing.
The first ghoul leapt howling from the ruin, ribbons of flesh flying behind its scrawny body as its clawed feet hit the ground running. Arrows whistled through the air, a wooden shaft pulping the ghoul’s decayed shoulder but not stopping its attack. Shouting louder than the ghoul the nearest Kirovi swung his ax, separating the creature’s head from its body.
Two more jumped out, meeting streaks of icy light flung from my hand, dead joints freezing in arcane ice. Spindly figures (called geists by the 7th Legion) clambered down from the roof, their limbs long and stretched, flayed heads hidden in cowls. I saw one of the new attackers jump onto a Kirovi, grappling him to the muddy ground.
Arcane flame exploded along the wall, wood collapsing inwards and throwing the wretches to the ground. The eager geist who had first struck found itself surrounded and torn off its chosen victim by a swung mace. The Kirovi irregulars struck quick and without hesitation, leaving the undead where they fell.
“He’s still up there, the rascal!” called the Kirovi nearest the door.
“Then get him!” shouted Volskoi.
The soldiers disappeared into the darkness. Seconds later I heard a shrill cry from inside, and saw a panicked face appear in a window, but only for a moment before someone pulled him back into the darkness. One of the Kirovi appeared in the doorway, laughing and telling us to come inside.
The mood among the soldiers turned celebratory and they practically rushed to see their prey. I followed them to a Scourge necromancer, trembling as a pair of Kirovi gripped his arms. The fearsome skull helmet worn by his kind lay broken on the dirt floor, his pale and decidedly unremarkable face distorted in terror. He whimpered like a dying dog, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Among all the Scourge’s dreadful servants, few inspire as much hate as the necromancer. Ghouls devour flesh and abominations rend limbs, but only necromancers corrupt life itself, twisting it to the will of the Scourge. To kill a man is to destroy his body and his future. Raising him in undeath destroys all he ever was, his memories subsumed by the Lich King’s will, a complex and wondrous human reduced to a weapon. There can be no closure for those who loved him, his slavery an unhealed wound. For the victim, there is only the cold and the pain, a spectator to the cruelties committed by his own unwilling hands. The necromancers brought entire nations to this fate.
“Do the usual,” grunted Volskoi.
The soldiers holding the necromancer pinned him to the floor, pulling his arms and legs until he lay spread-eagled. An old Kirovi with stringy white-hair stepped forward, opening a kit he’d been carrying with him all day. Reaching inside, he took out a mallet, holding it with a comfortable familiarity. More whines came from the necromancer.
“I am the anointed of my master—” he cried through gritted yellow teeth.
“Yashev over here used to be a carpenter. He built many fine homes in his village back in the day, but with all the trouble he’s hardly had time to work,” said Volskoi, his tone conversational.
I watched in numb silence as Yashev knelt by the necromancer’s outstretched left hand, studying it like a painter would a canvas. The necromancer strained his eyes trying to see Yashev, his head gripped in place. Still holding his hammer, Yashev took a thick iron nail from out of his pack, rusted and bent from age.
The necromancer clenched his hands, eyes wide in terror. Soldiers grabbed his fists, twisting the fingers back until they snapped, the necromancer shrieking with each break. Yashev pressed the point of the nail on the necromancer’s forced-open palm. After a moment’s judgment, Yashev raised the hammer and drove the nail through flesh.
I am not sure I have ever heard such screaming, the necromancer bucking and twisting in vain as the soldiers laughed. Yashev hit the nail again, and a third time, fixing the ruined hand to the ground. Tears streamed down the necromancer’s face, slime dribbling from his nose as he wailed.
I felt myself smile.
Not saying a word, Yashev got to his feet and walked to the other hand with deliberate slowness. A pleading whine escaped the necromancer’s bloodless lips.
“I’ll tell you anything you want, just stop!”
“We already know everything about Naxxramas, wretch!” shouted Kolya.
I knew I could. A quick blast to the head would finish the necromancer. Yet what would the Kirovi say? Would they think me a sympathizer? Besides, no matter what he did, it would not amount to a fraction of what he’d inflicted on the Forsaken, on the Kirovi.
“You must forgive Yashev if he’s a bit clumsy. He’s not practiced for many years. Fortunately, your fellows have recently given us plenty of opportunity to get reacquainted with our old skills,” continued Volskoi.
Yashev went to each limb, one by one, taking a quiet professional relish in his work. The necromancer’s face collapsed in anguish, his pleas for death the only sound in the room.
I stood there, my human memories trying to make me feel something for the man tortured in front of me. My mind brought only misery, hunger for the life robbed from me. At the hands of someone much like him, I’d lost my future. I can never again feel true love for another. I can never be a father. I can never grow old as a human being.
Yashev put his bloodstained tools back into the kit when finished and walked back next to Volskoi. He examined the scene with an almost bored expression.
“Let’s go outside for a little bit, boil some water for our next game. But someone keep an eye on him—Talus? I’m surprised to see you volunteer for this; our fun makes most southerners squeamish. But I suppose you Lordaeronians have reason enough to hate the Scourge.”
They filed out. I stood in a shadow of weak light cast from the doorway, the brutalized necromancer stretched out in the darkness ahead. He wept in uncontrolled bursts, all thoughts of his master destroyed by pain.
I stepped out of the light to get closer to him.
“By the Light I don’t want to die like this!” he cried. “Please, these savages will do even worse. I’m from Lordaeron, like you. I didn’t know what the master intended, but he takes your soul and you don’t have a choice anymore!”
I said nothing. I wanted to lash out at him, to wring him and bleed him out. His tears inspired no pity, just hatred. Had he heard the cries of his countrymen as they died at the hands of their loved ones?
“We’re civilized, you and I, both of Lordaeron! You can’t let them do this to me! Please! Oh, Light, mother help me, I don’t want to die like this, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
An inchoate cry escaped his lips, interrupted by more sobs. I reflected that his life meant little. Just a minor necromancer. His pain meant nothing to the world, beyond the dark joy it nourished in the hearts of his victims.
I glanced outside, to where Kolya busied himself setting up a fire, using pieces of his home city as kindling. Someone else had found a pail and was filling it with slush while Volskoi and Thurton laughed at some joke.
The necromancer shrunk into silence, shaking though each movement caused pain. I covered my eyes, trying to find pity. I could not. Every ounce of my being demanded more, an endless retribution for what he and his allies had done to my nation, to me.
I looked at him again and tried to stem the emotional tide threatening to overwhelm me. My heart cried out for vengeance. In my mind, I thought of the Apothecarium and its evils. They often said that any cruelty they committed was justified by what they’d suffered, a foolish argument at best.
Outside, a soldier set the pail over the fire, waiting for the slush to melt and boil. Someone pointed to the house, as if wanting to go back in, but was dissuaded by his friends. They drank from their canteens, talking of old times.
Perhaps I found it easy to forget the desire for revenge so common among my race, not just against the Scourge but against the whole world. Spending time with others eroded my resentments, revealed them as pointless. I have dedicated my existence to the future, but revenge can never go beyond the past. Revenge drove Putress to plunge the world into war. If I am to stand in opposition to those like him, I cannot follow their methods.
I leaned close to the necromancer, his hopeless eyes wet with tears. I could not release him, not as long as he might raise more undead. Nor would he get far, with the soldiers just outside, who’d rightly condemn me for letting him go.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Festul Aelford,” he gasped.
I nodded. I shouted as if in alarm, loud enough to get the attention of the soldiers, and aimed a flame burst at the necromancer’s head. He died in an instant, a single convulsion running through his body as the burst of heat finished him.
“Talus! What happened! Why did you kill him?” demanded Kolya when he rushed in. His nose crinkled at the smell of burning flesh.
“He began to chant something under his breath. I’m sorry. I was afraid he’d unleash some kind of curse.”
“Aren’t you a wizard? I’ve never seen a necromancer cast a spell with his hands pinned,” argued Kolya.
“Necromancers have little in common with Dalaranese mages. I don’t know the rules for them, and I didn’t want to take a chance,” I said.
“If they could hurt you by talking we’d cut out their tongues first!”
“Enough!” ordered Volskoi. His cynical eyes seemed to look through me, and a sardonic smile played on his thin lips. “I should not have given this responsibility to someone new to our ways. It is no matter; we will find more necromancers in the future.”
An inner sickness dogged my steps as I walked alone through the frozen forests of eastern Dragonblight. I had fled the Carrion Fields the day after Festul’s death, not willing to test my resolve a second time. Before leaving, I wrote a message to Dallard Corwyn describing the torture. Considering that a 7th Legion officer witnessed the torture without any apparent concern, I suspect that Dallard already knows. I did not stay to learn of his reaction. Among the gnarled and black-barked trees, their drab leaves preserved in icy perfection, I found the solitude to dwell on my own actions.
Like the forests in Wintergrasp, the trees in Dragonblight are not natural. A vibrant forest had once grown in this snowy realm, thousands of years ago, but the Sundering brought the land too far north for life. In tribute to the world that was, the Red Dragonflight worked their will to keep the trees alive in the constant winter.
For the red dragons, life is sacred. What is it to the Forsaken? I had done nothing to stop Festul’s torture as it occurred, only ending it after the Kirovi savaged him. When I thought of Festul, I thought only of his crimes.
Some Forsaken excuse their actions by saying our kind is incapable of empathy, but this is untrue. Many Forsaken have demonstrated empathy, showing kindness and sacrifice to friends and even enemies. I have heard of Forsaken who helped the living escape the Apothecarium’s machinations; very rare, but not unheard of.
When I think of my friends in the Darkbriar Lodge, particularly Daj’yah, I feel the same tenderness I did towards my companions while alive. To hurt them is to hurt me.
But perhaps the Forsaken can only attain this through effort. Already inclined to isolation (made all the easier by the nature of Forsaken society, which is held together by shared hatred), many never make the attempt. Empathy and wisdom require interaction, even when unpleasant; after all, one can still learn a great deal from a fool or a scoundrel.
Humans are forced to learn empathy through social interaction. The Forsaken easily forget it. Once forgotten, it may be impossible to truly relearn. That is why we must think carefully of our actions; where our hearts fail, an intellectual understanding of right and wrong may succeed.
Arthas’ crimes have created a mental barrier that is not easily overcome, by either Forsaken or humans. To hate the Scourge is not wrong, so long as that hate contributes to victory. But we will not win this war by torturing captured necromancers to death. Such deeds only harden the soul. If sadistic murder is acceptable, what could possibly be forbidden?
The humans in the Carrion Fields shared my lack of empathy, though that blessed quality perhaps comes more easily to them. In the end, I had performed the correct action because I knew it to be consistent with my beliefs, not because I felt moved to action. I am not sure if a Forsaken can feel empathy to a Scourge necromancer. Or perhaps I say that to excuse my own failings.
I followed an old Kirovi road south, walking past ruined villages already consumed by the forest. Black roots sunder the foundations of stone manor houses. Birds make homes in rotting churches, the mournful eyes of gilded icons looking out from brambly nests. I spent a week marching in these tranquil and ghostly environs before reaching the Forgotten Shore.
Arthas had driven the Scourge from Lordaeron by fire and sword, fields and towns burning in his wake. Using all the power accorded to him, he and his army had sailed to Northrend to wreak vengeance on the Lich King, the embers of Stratholme still smoldering at the time of his departure.
His ragged army landed on a desolate beach wracked by sleet and hail. Kirovi fishing towns had once fought for survival amidst the damp gray sands, but the Scourge left almost nothing of the land’s former inhabitants.
Though they stood on the edge of a grim and hostile realm, all accounts indicate that Arthas’ soldiers totally believed in their leader and his mission. Many had seen their homes turned into ritual abattoirs by the Cult of the Damned. Engineers and laborers soon established a beachhead from which Arthas could begin his final campaign as a living man.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. At some point, Arthas recruited local mercenaries, mostly Kirovi and a few wandering ogres. No one knows exactly why these mercenaries turned on Arthas, destroying the ships he’d used to send his army north. Some theorize that they worked for the Lich King, and were ordered to strand Arthas so as to further his corruption. Whatever their motivations, the Lordaeronians slew the mercenaries. Without any way to get home, they marched north to their eventual destruction.
Records confirm that King Terenas Menethil II had ordered his wayward son to return home with the army, perhaps to account for the razing of Stratholme. The message either never reached Arthas, or he ignored it. When he did return, it was as a destroyer.
The remnants of Arthas’ base still linger on the Forgotten Shore, falling further into ruin under the constant battery of storms. Decks of half-sunken ships stick out from the frigid waters like wooden islands, creaking under forests of broken masts.
Forsaken soldiers in the recent campaign had discovered that ghosts haunted the Forgotten Shore, attacking travelers with a vengeful fury and interfering with caravans going from Conquest Hold to Venomspite and beyond. Initial attempts to clear the region had proven futile; the ghosts they destroyed invariably returned a few days later. The last I heard of the matter, the Forsaken had handed the Forgotten Shore over to a group of Argent Crusade priests, whose exorcisms rituals enjoyed a much higher success rate.
The Argent Crusade still maintained a small camp at the time of my visit. I saw them from a distance, a smattering of rude white tents pitched around a driftwood fire, from which a path of gray smoke coiled into the sky.
Nearing the camp, I saw a gray-bearded dwarf hobble out from one of the tents, his left leg a wooden peg. In contrast to his worn features and battered body, his armor looked immaculate. Spying me, he raised a cautious hand.
“Good afternoon to you,” he said. “You’re from the executor?”
“No. I’m only a traveler.”
“Pardon me, lad. I thought you’d come from Venomspite. What brings you to this place? There’s scarce anything here for sensible folk. That’s why they send in the Crusade,” he chuckled. “I’m Mawglin Stonethumb, from Kharanos.”
“I’m Destron Allicant.”
“Where did you come from, if not Venomspite?”
“The Wyrmrest Temple, actually.”
“Ah, draconic business. Well, I won’t ask, on that case. Dragons are best left alone.”
“I’m surprised that the Argent Crusade still has a presence this far from the front,” I said. After Zul’drak’s utter collapse, the Argents had relocated to Icecrown, planning to make a direct strike at Arthas himself.
“This is the Argent Crusade’s vacation spot! Some Forsaken wanted to turn this place into a resort—completely mad he was. His plan never went anywhere, but we went ahead and did it for him.”
“You don’t perform exorcisms any longer?”
“I’m joking, it’s not really a vacation spot. Just compared to Icecrown it is. We’ve cleared out most of the ghosts, though some still haunt the shipwrecks.”
“I imagine those would be harder to reach.”
“Aye, you’ve no idea. A right and proper exorcism takes time too, near a quarter of an hour.”
“Didn’t the paladins conduct instantaneous exorcisms in the Second War?”
“That they did, but it’s a simple (if draining) matter to turn ambulatory bones into dust. When there’s something keeping them on the mortal plane, as is the case with these poor ghosts, things get more complicated.”
“I suppose it’s also ineffectual against the Scourge.”
“The Lich King keeps his slaves rooted to this world. And exorcisms just plain don’t work against Forsaken. No offense; I learned that from a Scarlet back in the Eastern Plaguelands.”
“None taken. What’s become of the Scarlet Crusade?”
“Hard to say, rightly. They call themselves the Scarlet Onslaught now. See, they kept picking fights with your lot back when they were a crusade, and most got themselves killed. After they lost their holdings in the east to the Scourge, the survivors sailed north to kill Arthas.”
“How do they plan to do that?”
“You’re forgetting, lad, this is the Scarlets we’re talking about. Sanity and planning aren’t their strong points. They established a fort a ways west of here called New Hearthglen, and from there an outpost north of the Border Range. Nothing beyond that, as far as I can tell. I’m not even sure how they get food.
“Now, there’s a rumor—a foolish one—that they sent the bulk of their forces to some island west of Icecrown. But that’s nonsense, since there’s no way for them to support an army that far north! They’d starve to death if they didn’t freeze first.”
“You said you weren’t sure how they supported New Hearthglen, but they do have a way.”
“New Hearthglen’s not that big. Gotten even smaller after the Forsaken raided the place. High Executor Wroth in Venomspite is just waiting for the right time to finish them off once and for all, and that’s it for the Scarlets. Good riddance, I say!”
“I take it that your time working together in the Naxxramas Crisis didn’t endear much commonality?”
“Half the Scarlets fled and joined us or the Brotherhood when we drove Naxxramas away. The others just started hating us more.”
Mawglin introduced me to the other Argent Crusade members in the Forgotten Shore. Numbering eleven in total, they followed the lead of Armont Marcell. Formerly an archdeacon in the Lordaeronian church, the elderly priest had taken it upon himself to ease the souls of Arthas’ followers. His thin white hair almost transparent against his spotted scalp, Armont endured the rigors of northern life with a patient smile.
Dalaranese by birth, Armont had spent much of his life in that fabled city. He cared for Dalaran’s people as best he could after it’s destruction, until the Kirin Tor began its journey to Northrend.
“‘Armont, you are old! Live out your last days in comfort!’ they declared. But I said to them, that there is more work to be done. There are enough priests in the new Dalaran. I am needed elsewhere. So I joined the Argent Crusade.”
“You haven’t been with them for long, then?”
“Not as a direct member, no. There were many Argents around Dalaran though, and they knew of my work there.”
For the moment, Armont could do little to help the remaining lost spirits. He needed a large boat on which to conduct the exorcism ritual from a safe distance. The Forgotten Shore has no shortage of wood, but it is all thoroughly rotten. One of his aides, a Sin’dorei, was in Venomspite trying to get help from the Forsaken, a daunting task at best.
“I would like to liberate these spirits before I die. I do not know why the good people of Venomspite seem so reluctant to help. They want the ghosts gone as much as do we, though for more pragmatic reasons,” he sighed.
“The ones out in the wrecks are too far to bother Venomspite. That’s why the bastards don’t care,” said Mawglin.
Armont took me to the docks the next day, a rotting wooden appendage reaching out into the gray sea. Colonized by weeds and barnacles, only inertia keeps the docks above water. Armont and I stood on the cold sands next to the decrepit structure, hearing the lonely calls of seagulls as they circled beneath dour skies.
“You can still see the ghosts of Arthas’ soldiers out on the shipwrecks, waiting for a war that will never come. I only pray that I can lift their burden before I die,” said Armont.
“You are indeed a holy man,” I said.
“Ha ha! It’s dangerous for priests to believe that about themselves, very dangerous. Still, I will not turn down a compliment.”
“Armont, I hope you are as holy as you appear. I need to talk to someone who is holy. I did something horrible, and I cannot stop thinking of my own cruelty! I fear I will never stop.” The words rushed out of me like a current from a breaking dam, Festul’s screams echoing in my mind.
Armont turned to me, his blue eyes grave.
“A bit of darkness is in all of us, Destron. But together, our light shall drive it away. Tell me what it is you did.”
I told Armont of my disguised travels throughout Alliance lands (perhaps also hoping to absolve my deceptions). I knew the risk, but the gravity of the situation demanded nothing less than full disclosure. I described Festul’s tortures in cruel detail, desperate to communicate the totality of my sin.
I finished, studying Armont’s wrinkled face for some hint of judgment.
“I do not think you feel guilt for allowing Festul’s torture.”
“Please, Armont! I may be Forsaken, but I know right from wrong!”
“You misunderstand me. You regret not stopping Festul’s torture, for by having allowed it, you have acted against the morality of the Light. However, your guilt comes from your inability to feel the same while watching Festul’s torments. You wish that you could feel the shame and self-hatred, but you do not; in your soul, you consider his pain justified.”
“Yes. That is true. What his kind did to me, to so many others, subjected us to a pain I cannot describe! Our lives ended and ruined, not just in death but beyond, and these necromancers still live to commit more evil! To have them taste some part of this agony seems only right. Intellectually, I know it is wrong. Am I a monster for being unable to feel empathy for this man?”
“My task is not to declare men good or evil, but to interpret their deeds as such. Had you been alone, and had Festul been in your power, would you have tortured him?”
“No. I am sure of this—at least, I hope I am sure.”
“Did you not step in to end his torture?”
“By killing him. Though there was no way he could have survived.”
“He may have. Perhaps the 7th Legion might have taken him back to their headquarters, to inflict further indignities on him. You prevented that.”
“Therefore you feel some empathy.”
“My action was purely intellectual, not emotional.”
“Intellect and emotion are not as far removed from each other as many suppose. We are all influenced by our feelings, by the roiling soul beneath the surface of the mind. What we believe is purely rational may stem from base emotion. Can you feel empathy?”
“Is it then so hard to believe that perhaps some sliver of the same motivated you to end Festul’s suffering?”
“That is possible.”
“I can tell that you also feel great anger and resentment. Perhaps those darker emotions (though one must feel anger against the Scourge) prevented you from realizing this empathy?”
“I would like to believe that.”
“Why then, is it so hard to believe that even you feel it for the worst of your enemies?”
I still did not feel such a thing. If I were to accept Armont’s advice, it would have to be a matter of faith, a belief that the Light uniting all thinking beings shines even in me, bringing one spark of commonality with Festul.
“I am not sure if I can believe that. I still hate Festul.”
“Your actions, however delayed, suggest more than just hatred.”
“True. Thank you, Armont. I am not sure if I feel any resolution, but I do appreciate the attempt.”
“Think on what I have said. Pray on it. Your soul is as much my concern as any other.”
A biting wind picked up, stirring ripples on the ocean’s gray skin, and Armont shivered in his thick woolen robes. A victim of his body’s age, his eyes still shone with a fierce inner light and he smiled as he looked across the gloomy vista, willing to seek redemption where most saw only damnation.
Indifferent to the cold and the hostile eyeless glares, orc warriors stand guard around the Venomspite laboratory at all hours of day and night. Putress had made a last stop in Venomspite before committing the Wrathgate Massacre, and the Horde hoped that he’d left some of his notes in the remote outpost.
Driven more by rage than by any desire to find the truth, the orcish authorities left the lab in shambles before giving up. Through steel-barred windows one can see the wreckage strewn across the pitted floors, vials smashed and cauldrons overturned in an effort to find Putress’ records. Forsaken are still forbidden from entering the gruesome alchemical workshop, a fact that does not sit well with Venomspite’s inhabitants.
“These modern orcs are no better than the ones who ravaged our lands in the Second War!” fumed a senior alchemist named Deanna Bosley, her brittle gray hair looking ready to break off her scalp. “Any one of us could have told them if something was out of place, but they insist on searching the lab themselves. Now its ruined. All of my work! All of our work!”
“Did you see anything unusual?”
“No, I was too busy working! For years the Horde let us brew our poisons without complaint. Now, our every move is suspect! I’ve never so much as exchanged words with Putress, and the greenskins treat me as if I’d committed the massacre.”
Venomspite is a nervous place to say the least. Lacking any political clout, the Forsaken can only watch as orcs and a few trolls take over the base. All high-ranking Forsaken found themselves subjected to interrogation, and a few had been shipped to Warsong Hold for further questioning.
I can hardly blame the orcs for their anger, though I believe they’d accomplish more by restraint than by fury. The orcs still come across favorably when compared to most of the Forsaken in Venomspite, who behave like petulant children.
Venomspite fell under suspicion for the very reason of its creation. The Apothecarium found it a perfect place from which to experiment on the undead Scourge (New Agamand, in contrast, concentrates its efforts on the Scourge’s living servants). Forsaken troops penetrated deep into the Dragon Wastes to bring Scourge drones back for experimentation, their twitching forms bound in wire.
Venomspite is still too useful for the Horde to shut down. Its position between Conquest Hold and Agmar’s Hammer links Horde holdings in western and eastern Northrend. This also makes it an appealing target to the Alliance, and Venomspite’s small size gives it little chance against the 7th Legion. As a precaution, the Horde has permitted High Executor Wroth (Venomspite’s commanding officer) to keep a number of plague-wagons operational. These grim contraptions wait for battle in their rickety berths at the edge of town, poison fluids blistering in glass tanks.
Venomspite serves a cultural purpose as well. As much as the Forsaken pretend to hate all aspects of life, many show an obsessive predilection for collecting mementos, a trait I had first discovered back in Tirisfal. There, daring Forsaken used to comb Scourge-haunted ruins in search of keepsakes from old Lordaeron: paintings and kitchen knives, books and baubles.
Lordaeron’s been almost completely looted by now. Looking to continue their trade, a few bold scavengers began picking through the wreckage of the Forgotten Shore. Most of the keepsakes they find are military in nature.
“You’d be surprised how much someone will pay for a dead soldier’s sword. Perhaps they think it belonged to a father, brother, or son. I neither encourage nor disabuse these notions,” explained a Forsaken memento dealer named Mardyle Norritz. Rotten leather straps interwove with the loose gray skin of his face.
“Did the ghosts give you any trouble?”
“Quite a lot. The Forgotten Shore is cleansed now, of both ghosts and valuables.”
“There are still some shipwrecks off the coast,” I said.
“True, but I doubt anything there would still be in saleable condition.”
“Where will you go now?”
“I haven’t any idea. Nearly every surviving piece of old Lordaeron is owned by one Forsaken or another. A good business, but a short-lived one.”
“Did profit drive you?” Few Forsaken ever feel a lust for gold, but it is known to happen.
“No, money does not matter to me. I do this to bring joy, something Forsaken have trouble finding. These little bits of our old lives can bring immense happiness, even if it is fleeting. You can see it in the most stoic buyer: a crinkle around the eyes, a catch in the voice. They remember when they were whole.”
“Why not just give it to them?”
“Because then I am just giving junk that no one would want. When someone purchases it, however, the trinket achieves real value. I like to think that the original owners would approve, that they would like to be able to ease undeath. But that is irrelevant; they are dead, and we are not.”
Struck by a whim, I asked to look through Mardyle’s wares. Standing out from the rusted swords and shields, I spotted a sealed box of lacquered wood. Mardyle explained that he’d found it a few miles inland, presumably carried there by some long-dead soldier.
“Fortunate too. I doubt its contents would have survived so close to the water.”
Opening it with his permission, I found a book. Bound in leather, it displayed the gilded floral patterns common to the style of a century past. Countless fingers had left their indentations in the yellowed pages. Looking at the text, its letters so thick and curled, I realized I held an early printed copy of The Knight’s Lamentation.
The Knight’s Lamentation is the seminal work of the Romantic Renewal, a literary style popular before the First War in which Lordaeronian writers revisited the courtly romances of the medieval era. The novel both subverted and celebrated the constraints of its genre. Its author, the sporadically brilliant Dreon Kopescu, knew full well the brutality of Lordaeron’s history, but also saw qualities worth admiring, the same qualities he saw fading as Azeroth hurtled towards modernity. I had read the book as a child, adoring every adventurous minute of heroic combat and selfless courage. Reading it again as a young man, I no longer agreed with its nostalgia, but still appreciated the passion and skill in which it was written.
Holding it again brought a rush of memories, so intense that I nearly fell to my knees. I saw its wondrous pages through living eyes once more, a grand story I’d all but forgotten, an early edition in my hands. I imagined the man who’d read it last, a soldier wanting some memory of Lordaeron’s beauty in this distant realm.
I put it back in the box, treating it with the same care a priest would give to a holy icon. I asked for the price, knowing full well I’d pay whatever Mardyle required. Moments later I clutched the box to my chest, the taste of life playing in my cold mouth.
No sooner had I turned around when Festul’s terrified face rose up in my mind’s eye, a wretch facing the agony he deserved but should not have suffered. His pain had brought a denuded joy to my soul, while a mere book inspired ecstasy.
My brief happiness gone, I retired to the bleak way-station that serves as Venomspite’s hotel, a cramped maze of drafty hallways lit by flickering candles. Forsaken apothecaries congregate in the shadows beneath the stairs, hissing in blind resentment. I knew I differed from them, but was no longer sure as to the degree.
Retiring to a dark room on the third floor, the wooden walls creaking under their own weight, I put The Knight’s Lamentation down on the nightstand. I’d find no escape between its pages. Festul’s memory refused to budge, sharpening my hatred for the man. The Scourge is an insidious thing; perhaps only a few Forsaken ever escape its grasp.
I thought back to Armont’s words. Perhaps I had felt some sense of shared pain, buried so deep that I could not recognize it. Certainly a convenient thing to believe. An endless replay of Festul’s torture and death turned through my memory, and I prayed to feel some revulsion or sympathy. Envisioning anyone else in that pain, a Defias marauder or Shadow Council cultist, and I found the horror I sought. With the Scourge? Nothing.
I cursed in the lightless room. What did I hope to accomplish? No rationalization can change the truth. In the darkness of Venomspite, surrounded by the hatred so defining to my race, I wondered if the Forsaken truly are damned.
But in the end I had stopped the torture, while the humans rejoiced at the thought of continuing it. Those Kirovi soldiers had not struck me as evil, at least not for the most part. They were merely victims like myself (though a victim must still take responsibility for his own actions). If such was the case, I was certainly no worse than them.
In the end, that too is no more than a rationalization. There is no benefit, however, in dwelling endlessly on past sins. Self-obsession is hardly conducive to empathy. Better that I go out and continue my efforts to help the world in small ways.
To Festul: I wish I could have felt sorrow for you.
Frozen leaves rattled like stones as biting winds cut through Venomspite the next morning. Perhaps to distract myself from Festul, I resolved to find Ulrecht, the Forsaken warrior who’d gone north to aid the humans in the defense of Wintergarde.
As badly as I wanted to see some example of Forsaken heroism, I cautioned myself against becoming too optimistic. Hating the Scourge enough to fight them instead of the Alliance did not preclude a similar loathing of humanity. Nonetheless, it struck me as worth investigating.
I found only denials. Every Forsaken I asked, from Deathguard trooper to paranoid alchemist, claimed no knowledge of Ulrecht. I finally went to High Executor Wroth.
Looking more dead than undead, Wroth keeps a dusty office in the hotel’s foyer. Shriveled to little more than bones and brittle muscle, he wears his black armor more to support his ruined body than for protection. A rack of a dozen candles smoldered behind him, too-faint lights in the darkness.
“Ulrecht? You must forgive me, but I know of no such person.”
“The rumors I heard described him as a deathguard.”
“Rumors are but rumors, I’m afraid,” he laughed, his voice whistling through his battered jaw.
“Are there any records?”
“Many Forsaken come through here. As executor, I deal in defense and assassinations, not administrative details.”
“Don’t you need to at least know how many soldiers you have here?”
“By numbers, not by names. I want to make sure there are enough fighters to defend Venomspite. Their names are not my concern. You do not live in Forsaken territory, do you.” He did not phrase the last sentence as a question.
“I’ve been traveling, though I normally reside in Orgrimmar.”
“A fine city, from what I hear. Orcs are a fierce race, though they lose a bit of that ferocity after suffering the right kind of pain.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Merely an observation, Destron. My intelligence officer mentioned your name when you arrived. Quite important in the Darkbriar Lodge, are you not?”
“Kudos to your intelligence officer; I do work there. From what I remember of Undercity, the government did not especially care where individual Forsaken might wander.”
“The recent coup has forced our Dark Lady to keep a tighter grip. It is in the state’s interest to know where our people are.”
“Yet Ulrecht is an exception to this?”
“Oh, by no means. Someone knows where he is, what’s happened to him. That is the Dark Lady’s business, after all, but her business is her own. Sometimes, secrets must be kept.”
I did not need to hear any more. I thanked Wroth for his time and almost ran outside. Whatever Sylvanas’ sins, she had at least given us the freedom that is our birthright, our defining quality. Now, even that is disappearing. Sylvanas chooses to make slaves out of those she liberated. Too many Forsaken share her madness, mired in memory and resentment. Arthas will not reign for much longer; if her evil kingdom is to continue, the hatred nursed by every Forsaken must find new targets. Not yet willing to entirely abandon my own hate, I had felt no horror as I watched a man (an evil one, but still a man) being tortured to death. I fear what this means for my race.
Seeing no reason to remain in Venomspite, I joined the next caravan headed west across the snowy wastes. Woolly rhinos pull three armored wagons that carry particularly important supplies and deliveries from the east, first to the orcish fortress of Agmar’s Hammer, and then to Warsong Hold to be sent back to Orgrimmar via zeppelin. Several such caravans operate at any given time, traveling in a circuit between Warsong and Conquest Holds.
Sending letters home is as important to orcs as it is to any other race. A young orc named Loruk was responsible for ensuring the missives reached their the postmaster in Warsong Hold. I walked up to him as the caravan prepared to leave Venomspite, a dusting of fresh snow on the ground.
“I need something delivered to Orgrimmar,” I said.
“What is it?”
“This,” I said, handing him the box holding The Knight’s Lamentation. I’d not yet had a chance to reread it, but that seemed unimportant.
Accepting it, he took a pen and a piece of paper from his pack.
“To where and to whom shall it be delivered?”
“To a troll living in Orgrimmar’s Valley of Spirits. Her name is Daj’yah.”
Saturday, September 11, 2010
A flower grows for each hero slain by Forsaken treachery, blooming eternal from cold metal steps. Pyres burn bright and smokeless around this strange garden, willed to life by the dragons in honor of the fallen, to remind the world that there is no death so great that life cannot rise from its remains.
No one will ever truly know the price paid by the world on that awful day. Thousands died for the sake of vengeance, and so too did the hope of a more peaceful future. Nations no longer speak of laying down their arms after the Scourge’s fall, preparing instead for new and greater battles. From thrones to gutters, men talk only of war.
The Horde and Alliance put aside their differences on the forested slopes of Mt. Hyjal to stop the demonic assault. They did so again on the sands of Silithus, ready to protect the world they both cherished. Wrathgate should have been the third such noble episode.
Those who saw the terrible event described the forces arrayed, the best of the Horde and Alliance pitted against the undead swarm. How orcs saved humans and humans saved orcs, all hearts united as one. The Lich King stepped forward to defend his evil realm, but not even his power could stop the forces arrayed against him, each soldier determined to end his cruelties. All this ended by a cabal of fanatics who loosed the Blight at this key moment.
Green fog billowed out onto the battlefield, liquefying flesh and bone until the slain lay mixed together on the steps to the Wrathgate, maimed survivors stumbling blindly for help as their faces ran down their necks. The Lich King fled, his army collapsing around him. Perhaps even he feared the hatred of his former slaves
Blame for the sins of the Forsaken must also fall on the Horde. The Apothecarium had relished cruelty at every turn, making no effort to hide their rage. Perhaps the Warchief dismissed it as akin to the hyperbole often seen in his own culture; perhaps he chose not to believe them. Sylvanas buried herself in madness, and all but allowed the coup to take place. Is it any wonder then, that many in the Alliance consider the Horde complicit?
While the Horde dismisses accusations, they turn inward to the Forsaken. The Horde alone helped my race, and the apothecaries repaid them with murderous betrayal. Most Forsaken do not care, as lost as Sylvanas in their own miseries. The burden of reconciliation falls on the shoulders of a small handful of undead, trying to make themselves heard over rage on one side and apathy on the other.
It must be said that the Blight also wreaked terrible damage on the Scourge. No one knows the Scourge’s exact numbers, but the losses they suffered at Wrathgate forced them to withdraw deeper into Icecrown. While their reserves continue to fight in Sholazar, their armies in the rest of Northrend found themselves severed from the source. In Dragonblight, only the necropolis of Naxxramas now defies the efforts of the free peoples.
Exactly what happened to the Blight is still debated. The Horde and Alliance accuse each other of confiscating the formula for use as a secret weapon. Some in the Horde think that the surviving apothecaries hid the notes and await the next opportunity to strike. Official channels claim that Putress and his closest aides committed the process to memory, and that the formula died with them. Given the obsessive tendencies of many Forsaken, this is not as far fetched as it might seem.
Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen decreed that no more blood would be shed at Wrathgate, laying an enchantment over the battlefield that stills all thoughts of violence (save against the Scourge, should they attempt to break through). Now, the Kor’kron Vanguard and Fordragon Hold glare sullenly at each other from across the field.
Banners of black and maroon stand along the snowy precipice of Kor’kron Vanguard, each festooned with prayer ribbons marked by the names of the murdered. Wooden swords and axes lie at the bases of the flagpoles, recreations of the warriors’ possessions, the originals too contaminated to retrieve.
A clouded sunset gave way to night as I stood at the cliff’s edge, looking down at the forever blazing gardens below. The fires burn steady through the darkness, but their light never reaches far. I turned away from the sight and trudged through the snow towards the base. Most of the squat towers in the Kor’kron Vanguard are empty, though sooty firelight still glows from the top levels in a few, the homes of the fort’s ghost-like inhabitants.
I reached Kor’kron Vanguard courtesy of a goblin pilot named Burrig, who carried messages from Wintergrasp to the Forsaken outpost of Venomspite in southern Dragonblight in his zeppelin. As the Horde no longer trust the Hand of Vengeance, the Forsaken troops rely on freelance messengers to stay informed of events in Wintergrasp.
Burrig landed at Wrathgate to prepare for the rigors of crossing the Dragon Waste, a trackless desert of snow that dominates south-central Northrend. He landed his craft and settled into an abandoned smithy at the edge of the Kor’kron Vanguard. Upon landing, Burrig checked in with an aged orc who hardly said a word and stared at me with undisguised loathing.
I closed the door once I entered the bare little smithy, all the equipment inside ripped out and shipped to other fronts. A small campfire burned lively where a forge had once stood, the shadows of flame flickering on the cold gray walls. I saw Burrig poring over maps of the Dragon Waste, planning the best route.
“I was starting to get worried about you,” he said as I walked inside. “Don’t know if this is the best place for a Forsaken to walk around by himself.”
“It seemed safe enough. Has there been violence against Forsaken here before?”
“No idea, but orcs don’t usually need much excuse to start busting heads. Really ugly business here.”
“I’m surprised that any warriors remain in the garrison.”
“They’re the fathers of the Wrathgate dead, too old to be frontline troops. Came here to honor the memories of their children. I guess the Horde didn’t want to abandon it entirely; it’s helpful enough for people leaving Wintergrasp.”
“What is the Hand of Vengeance saying about this?”
“I wouldn’t know. I just ship stuff from one place to another.”
“Are they good employers?”
“No worse than most of the others I’ve had. Get some sleep, Destron. We’ve got a big day tomorrow. Don’t waste your energy feeling guilty; you didn’t do anything bad.”
I conceded to Burrig’s wisdom in the matter. Waking up before Burrig, I went outside to see the light of the rising sun, hazy through the dark eastern clouds. A pair of old orcs stood under one of the banners overlooking the battlefield. Wrapped in fur-lined hide robes designed for men younger and bigger than them, they looked on in total silence.
A visitor came to us as Burrig prepped the zeppelin. She walked up the narrow pass leading to the Kor’kron Vanguard, a blood elf dressed in magnificent silken robes that shimmered even in the cloudy day’s half-light. She looked as if she’d just stepped out of a Silvermoon City cafe.
Burrig put down his wrench as she approached, her unreadable green eyes examining the gyrocopter.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked, sounding suspicious.
“Perhaps. I require passage to the Wyrmrest Temple. You will be reimbursed for your detour.”
“It’s out of my usual route, but if you’re reimbursing I don’t see a problem!” In truth, Wyrmrest Temple was not at all far from the course he’d plotted.
“Excellent. I am Vendella Mornlight, a loyalist mortal agent of the Blue Dragonflight and the Wyrmrest Accord. Normally I would reach my destination via drake, but that is not possible under the circumstances. I must reach the Temple as soon as is possible.”
“Sure. Let’s see... elves don’t weigh much, so you wouldn’t slow her down. Come aboard, we’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
“If I may ask, what’s happening at the Wyrmrest Temple right now?” I inquired.
“Malygos the Spellweaver is dead. His rampage has ended, his flight scattered and in disarray. Now we must decide how to handle the remnants.”
“The boys in Coldarra finally did him in? Good for them,” said Burrig.
“The death of a dragon aspect is hardly a cause for celebration. Besides the tragedy of his death, magic may grow all the more perilous without his guidance.”
She didn’t see Burrig shake his head in derision.
“Who now leads the Blue Dragonflight?”
“Our new master, Kalecgos, has been chosen for this formidable and august task.”
“You will continue to serve the Blue Dragonflight?”
“With honor and obedience. Our flight is greatly depleted in numbers, and Kalecgos chose to replenish the ranks of mortal agents to compensate.”
“Is Kalecgos the new Dragon Aspect?”
“No. History gives us no precedent for the destruction of a dragon aspect. Kalecgos will act as regent until the remaining aspects decide who, if anyone, should succeed Malygos.”
“Is Deathwing still counted among the aspects?” I asked, referring to the rogue leader of the Black Dragonflight. Vendella’s eyes narrowed upon hearing the name, and long seconds passed before she spoke.
“Deathwing is an aspect. Nothing, save death, can change that. However, he has not spoken to any of his peers in eons. Representatives of his misguided flight still attend the Wyrm Council, but that is all. Only Malygos knew his whereabouts.”
“Has this knowledge been passed on to Kalecgos?”
“You ask too many questions. Trust in the dragons, for they are older and wiser than you.”
I mulled over my limited knowledge of Deathwing while Burrig went through the final preparations. At its clearest, draconic history is still quite obscure. They reveal almost nothing to the outside world, and blur or obfuscate the few facts escape their grasp.
Deathwing last terrorized the world in the closing days of the Second War. Horde histories of the time make gloating references to him as a powerful new ally, though a close reading gives the impression that the aspect only used the Horde for his own ends. His few surviving servants from that time describe him as obsessed with placing black dragon eggs in Draenor so as to protect them from the other flights. Deathwing’s attempt went awry, and arcane contamination of the eggs created the rebellious Netherwing Dragonflight.
Supposedly slain in Draenor, Deathwing made a covert return to Azeroth. Through his daughter, Onyxia (who had adopted a human disguise), he engineered the kidnapping of King Varian Wrynn. Onyxia’s exposure and eventual death at the king’s hands proved that Deathwing still schemed. More worrisome is the fact that no one knows Deathwing’s precise location. Sightings are numerous, but are of doubtful provenance.
We boarded the zeppelin once Burrig gave the word to do so and embarked on the long journey across the Dragon Wastes. Here is the great northern desert, a boundless land of endless winter. An ocean of snow covers the realm, ten feet deep in places, broken only by islands of icy rock that jut into the sky, scoured of all life by the killing winds.
A dreamlike stillness rules this expanse of white snow and black rock, sleeping under a forever gray sky. Only in the far heavens can one see color and movement, the pale shades of the northern lights dancing sinuous and aimless in the firmament. Colossal bones lie half-buried in the snow, draconic spines and skulls barely visible against the surrounding white.
Scavengers quickly devour what the cold preserves. Vultures and worms of terrifying size roam the wastes, growing fat off of the dead. These in turn are hunted by the brutish magnataur warlords, driven to this lonely place by the great hero Nevaksander in ages past.
“Why do so many dragons choose to die here?” I asked.
“Dragons exist to preserve and to perpetuate the world. What better way to do that than to lay here for their final rest? Through death, they bring life to this cruel place. The greatest of their number rest at the dragonshrines.”
A noble act, perhaps, but also one easily exploited by the Scourge. Necromancers and their retinues traveled the Dragon Wastes in the fearful days before the Third War, raising draconic skeletons for service in the Lich King’s armies. Accustomed to being veritable gods in the flesh, the dragons never suspected that any would dare disturb the corpses of their fallen.
The recent dead alone gave the necromancers enough material to create an army of skeletal frostwyrms. Initial success inspired the Lich King to dig deeper. Numberless undead levies cleared the snow to excavate the oldest corpses, adding ever more to the rotting aerial fleet.
As if reading my mind, Vendella spoke of that very issue.
“The blasphemous resurrection of fallen dragons shall forever number among the Scourge’s worst crimes,” she said, her voice sharp and cold. “If the Lich King died a thousand deaths, it would not be a sufficient reparation.”
“Why didn’t the dragons guard the bodies against the Scourge?” wondered Burrig, taking a quick glance back from the cramped cockpit.
“They never imagined any would disturb the bones. Certainly not the superstitious inhabitants of Northrend, who rightly feared draconic wrath. Wyrmrest Temple is the headquarters of all dragonflights, yet they meet there but rarely. When the Scourge raised the dead of this realm, only the Blue Dragonflight took action.”
“A testament to their wisdom,” I said, hoping the compliment would prompt her to say more.
“And their courage. Yet they were few, and alone. Those gallant dragons who ventured to end the Scourge found themselves among its ranks, overwhelmed by the Lich King’s foul arcane power. Kalecgos has sworn to end their suffering.”
“Were the other dragonflights unable to aid the Blue?”
“Other matters of equal importance kept them preoccupied. You must understand that only a truly catastrophic threat—like Malygos’ fury—could bring the flights to convene at Wyrmrest Temple.”
“I see. What matters occupied the other flights?”
“I do not speak for the other dragonflights. As a mortal, it is my place to trust and obey, not to question.”
“Did the Lich King’s abuse of magic contribute to Malygos’ crusade against wizards?”
“I will not guess at the Spell-weaver’s motives.”
My knowledge is only partial, but I think it safe to say that recent decades have been tumultuous ones for the dragonflights. The Horde’s subjugation of Alexstrasza (the Aspect of the Red Dragonflight) sent shockwaves through draconic identity. They never imagined that mortals would or could do such a thing. That another dragon aspect (Deathwing) aided the Horde in this endeavor offered scant consolation.
Dragons have always been held in mixed degrees of fear and awe. Early humans worshipped them and dragons appear in the iconography of many other cultures, always as remote and nearly godlike beings.
The orcs of Draenor came from a world without dragons of its own. Certainly they feared and respected the dragons for their power, but never held them with the reverence seen in Azerothian culture. When Deathwing told the Dragonmaw Clan how to take Alextrasza as a hostage, the task perhaps seemed less daunting than it would have to a human or troll.
The Red Dragonflight, the sworn protectors of Azerothian life, found themselves making war against their own world in order to protect their queen. Terrified Alliance soldiers had no choice but to fight back against these mighty beasts of legend. Fight back they did, and eventually they started to win.
Alextrasza’s liberation occurred in the Battle of Grim Batol, fought against the Dragonmaw Clan several years after the Second War officially ended. Her freedom is of immeasurable value to the dragons and to the world itself. The Red Dragonflight will likely play a vital role in Azeroth’s ecological recovery, once they themselves are able to replenish their strength and numbers.
It must be remembered that Alexstrasza’s kidnapping was only made possible by Deathwing, another dragon aspect. However, the spell that the dragons held over the world was broken in the Second War, perhaps forever. The Scourge’s recent corruption of the draconic dead eroded it even further. They continue the awful precedent started by the Old Horde; the fact that sufficiently powerful and wicked individuals can twist Azeroth’s manifest spirit to their own dark ends.
My concerns vanished when the first dragon passed by our zeppelin, replaced by a thrilling wonderment. A red, it soared over the snow on wings of glory, each crimson scale seeming to hold the promise of life itself. Despite its size it flew with an eagle’s grace. I caught but a glimpse of its golden eyes, and barely kept myself from falling to my knees. Draconic majesty has been tarnished in the larger, cultural sense, but is still quite real on a personal level.
Even Burrig seemed startled, and I saw him shrink into his seat as the dragon passed. Vendella smirked at the sight.
“They know you are with me, and they mean you no harm.”
“All that thing needs to do is clip my zeppelin and we’ll crash!”
“Do you really fear that a centuries-old dragon would make such a clumsy mistake?” she laughed.
Wyrmrest Temple is the tallest building in the world, a city within a single tower. Pillared and bronze-domed rotundas rise up in profusion from black marble ramparts, the myriad lofty perches reaching ever higher. Dragons rest in grand arched openings while others soar through the icy air around the Wyrmrest Temple, armored in scales of red or blue. Glass windows offer glimpses of the interior, showing hallways with entire worlds painted on the walls and vast libraries of draconic lore.
“Where should I land this thing?” asked Burrig, his voice a whisper.
“Any location on the ground should suffice. Never before have the dragonflights been so open to visitors. You should consider yourself fortunate.”
Replying with silence, Burrig set about slowing the zeppelin and bringing it down to the snow. Dragons circled above us, divinely indifferent to our arrival.
A pall of gloom hangs over the Wyrmrest Temple despite the flights' recent victory. They can take little joy from the death of one of their oldest and greatest. The very future of the Blue Dragonflight is in question, and history offers no answers.
Coldarra and the Wyrmrest Temple were the two main fronts of the Nexus War. While Dalaranese wizards and freelance soldiers carried the day in Coldarra, dragons did most of the fighting around Wyrmrest Temple. Using the Azure Dragonshrine (holy ground to the Blue Dragonflight) as a base, Malygos laid siege to the temple with his cobalt-scaled army.
With great effort, Spell-weaver redirected a few arcane leylines to the Azure Dragonshrine, using them to enhance the strength of his troops. Aided by mortal irregulars, the Red Dragonflight fought off the rogue blues. The course of battle turned over the months, and the reds began making raids on the Azure Dragonshrine itself, preventing Malygos from putting the entirety of his forces in Coldarra.
I should note that calling the non-draconic combatants mortals is not accurate. The Kaldorei, the draenei, and Forsaken are all (or at some point have been) technically immortal. However, it is the preferred umbrella term, at least when referring to dragons.
Most of the volunteers departed from Wyrmrest Temple after Malygos’ fall, seeking money and glory elsewhere. In their place are the emissaries from the world’s many nations. Like their predecessors, they stay on the ground floor, a round and monumental chamber spanning 400 yards in diameter. Towering reddish-gold pillars support a circular mezzanine, through which one can see a fantastic dome the color of the sky, high enough to create instant vertigo. Glass orbs ensconced in metal rings float six feet above the ground, their light soft and constant. Even the biggest orc or draenei looks like a child in such a place.
Bok’tosh wore his age on stooped shoulders, his wrinkled face surrounded by a ragged white beard. A lowly Blackrock peon during the Second War, he had discovered his brave inner warrior during Thrall’s liberation. From there he had made his mark on Kalimdor, until age forced him to enter the diplomatic corps. Because he’d only been a peon during the Second War, the orcs thought he’d be able to present a more conciliatory face to the mighty Red Dragonflight.
“Nearly everyone here is with the Alliance. Alexstrasza refuses to see me—when it comes to the Horde, only the Sin’dorei ambassador may speak with her. Sometimes I think the Warchief sent me here just to apologize!” he groused. “But don’t misunderstand me; I know that Alexstrasza has good reason to hate us. It’s a sign of her mercy that she allows me entry. I just find it frustrating.”
We sat by Bok’tosh’s bedroll at the edge of the chamber, sharing a cask of bloodmead. He looked tired, brought low by a combination of age and exhaustion.
“What does the Warchief hope to accomplish here?”
“Simply to improve relations and to ensure that Alexstrasza does not join the Alliance. If she does, it may spell the end for the Horde.”
“Is this considered likely?”
“No, only a possibility, and an unlikely one. Everyone knows that the dragonflights are scattered. The queen is the only aspect really accounted for, and the flights are scrambling to prepare for Deathwing’s next move.”
“Is there any idea what that move might be?”
“The old monster might strike from any place at any time. Malygos’ last report said that Deathwing lurks under the surface of Azeroth, where the Black Dragonflight is strongest. But no one knows for sure.”
“An alarming prospect. With whom do you usually deal?”
“Lord Afrasastrasz. He is a brave and honorable red, and I will always remember how he single-handedly slew two attacking blue dragons. By the ancestors, what a glory it is to watch dragons make war!” he laughed, looking almost youthful again.
“He’s more willing to forgive the orcs?”
“Lord Afrasastrasz is a warrior. Some orcs volunteered to help the Wyrmrest Accord, and they impressed him with their skill. They’ve all gone north now. They were a fine bunch!
“I remember how one day we all sprinted out into the Dragon Wastes in just our underclothes to hunt down some of those carrion birds! You wouldn’t think a bird poses any threat, but these buzzards are giants with skin like leather and beaks of iron! We killed seven before turning back home with our trophies. They taste terrible, but we felt the thrill of the hunt all the same.”
“You went with them?”
“Don’t be fooled by my age, Destron. I’m an orc through and through! It took me a long time to realize that, and I’m still making up for all those years spent as a peon. Though,” he added with reluctance, “considering the fouled spirit of the Horde during the Second War, perhaps it was best I became a warrior late.”
The foreign emissaries also struggle to get the attention of the Dragonflights, who have more personally pressing matters to consider. Most of the talk in Wyrmrest Temple revolves around the future of the Blue Dragonflight.
I spoke to an unusually open blue dragon named Ruragosa on my third day. Exploring Outland at the outbreak of the Nexus War, she had never received her lunatic master’s final commands. She returned to Azeroth to find her flight even deeper in ruin than when she left. When I met her, she had adopted the human guise of a tall woman with blue eyes and hair.
“I promise you that there will always be a Blue Dragonflight. What my brethren discuss is the form it should take.” Her high voice sounded like splintering glass.
“What form might that be?”
She paused, looking directly into my sockets.
“It is no secret,” she said at long last. “Perhaps the Blue Dragonflight can thrive without an aspect. Some of the survivors argue that the aspect’s power should be disseminated among the remaining dragons, lessening the damage should one fall to madness.”
“That does sound like a good idea on the surface. What are the drawbacks?”
“Among dragons, power and respect can only come with age. Mortals, even those untouched by age, find it appropriate to scramble for power. We deem this foolish. Power comes to those who wait, doing their duty until they can be trusted.”
“However, several of the eldest among the dragons did go rogue,” I pointed out.
“True. Unexpected situations arose, twisting them to darkness. And I ask you: if they, in their wisdom, proved vulnerable, how much more vulnerable would the younger dragons be? I doubt you care to think of a hundred lesser Malygoses descending upon your mortal cities. At least when the aspect was contained in one, it gave the rest of us a convenient target.”
“That is a good point. It still seems that there would be some benefit in diffusing the concentrated power. If there is no unquestioned leader to go rogue, how likely could it be for an entire flight to follow suit?”
“How likely was it for both Deathwing and Malygos to turn on the rest of us? If there is anything to learn from recent events, it is that anything can happen.”
“What is Kalecgos’ opinion on the matter?”
“He has not decided. Truly, I should not even be discussing this with your kind. I only speak of it because the proponents of the decentralization are preaching its virtues to mortals, perhaps in an effort to make the Blue Dragonflight seem more acceptable.
“As if we need that! No flight has taken as much interest in mortals as has the Blue Dragonflight. At every step, we watched and protected. And now we must rehabilitate ourselves in your eyes! It is a shameful state of affairs.”
Perhaps complicating affairs is the paucity of dragons from the bronze and green dragonflights. All flights (including loyalist blues) sent troops to Wyrmrest Accord. These took the form of dragonspawn and the drakonids, lesser varieties bred for war. When it came to drakes and dragons, only the reds sent significant numbers.
Standing twenty feet in height, the drakonids resemble anthropoid dragons. For all their size they move with a swift and surprising grace. Drakonids and dragonspawn are collectively referred to as minor dragonkin. Vastly more common than their masters, almost nothing is known about them. They seem to be younger races; the first mention of dragonspawn appears in druidic records written during the War of the Ancients, and the drakonids only appeared sometime after the fall of Arathor.
Whenever a dragonflight conducts war, it is the minor dragonkin who do the bulk of the fighting and dying. Operating under the command of a drake or true dragon, they throw themselves into battle with an astonishing ferocity. Of late, many have been seen guarding locations important to the dragonflights.
I met a red drakonid named Lom, one of the few who could speak any language other than Draconic. Trained to fight alongside Horde warriors, she spoke fluent Orcish. Reticent to reveal much, I had to coax her into giving information.
“Pardon me if my questions are unwelcome, but very little is known about the drakonids. At the same time, they have become a symbol for the strength of the dragonflights.”
“We are the Dragonflights! By the hue of my scales and the flame of my breath, I serve the Dragon Queen. So it has always been for the drakonids.”
“You are true dragons?”
“No. We rise when there is need. Righteous fury is our mother, and battle the midwife.”
I paused, not sure if she meant that literally.
“Do you hatch from eggs?” Her obsidian claws scraped on the floor and I suddenly wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake.
“A drakonid may speak no lie. Do not pretend to misunderstand me. We are the will of the dragonflights, and we serve as one’s will must.”
“You are created by acts of will.”
“We are the will of our masters.”
“I think I understand. What happens after you are so created?”
“Steadfast and strong we execute the desires of the aspects for as long as needed. Where there is will, we live.”
“And when you’ve completed your task?”
“Duty is life.”
“So you, Lom, see yourself as your assigned mission?”
An echoing snarl burst from her mouth, and she raised her reptilian head. It took me a moment to realize she was laughing.
“How easily I forget. Lom is a Draconic word: ‘protection through a fearsome storm that may yet break’. Indeed the storm is all but over, the scattered clouds need only find a new master.”
“Are all the drakonids here named Lom?”
“Many different words can symbolize a single concept, each shaded and defined by brilliant nuance. I am what my name is. Words are will made clear, and we are words made manifest. Does that explain it?”
“Yes. And the dragonspawn?”
“They are the same.”
“Is there any truth to the rumors of them being descendents of mortals who worshipped dragons?”
“Only if such was the will of the masters.”
She refused to say more than that. Exactly which dragons are able to create warriors remains unclear to me. If the minor dragonkin are indeed manifestations of draconic will, it suggests a level of power very close to godhood on the part of the flights. Yet their power seems quite limited in other areas. If dragons can will creatures into existence, why do they struggle so much to maintain their own dominance? Competition from hostile aspects cannot explain every case.
There must be limits on what the dragonflights can create. Otherwise the world would not need mortal fighters to protect against demons and undead. If the dragonflights could create a limitless number of minor dragonkin, the conflicts between the flights would also be far more devastating than history has shown.
Much like true dragons, the minor dragonkin do not need to eat or drink (unlike true dragons, they are entirely unable to). This allows the flights to field large numbers of troops in isolated areas with very little in the way of support. The difference between dragonspawn and drakonids seems mostly utilitarian. Dragonspawn are lightly armed and strike quickly, while the drakonids act more like heavy infantry.
As is usually the case, the dragons themselves say little about the matter. I spoke to some of the Wyrmrest Accord volunteers (the few who had not yet moved to new frontiers) to learn their opinions towards the drakonids (no dragonspawn are stationed at the Wyrmrest Temple). All agreed that the drakonids were spectacular fighters. However, there is no sense of camaraderie between mortal and drakonid, despite the shared hardship of battle.
The red, blue, and green dragonflights all claim to be friends to the mortal races, citing the alliances and even friendships forged between dragons and mortal throughout history. The Bronze Dragonflight makes no such claim, mostly because it does not need to. More than any other dragonflight, they enjoy interacting with other races.
Chronormu is the lead representative of the Bronze Dragonflight in the Wyrmrest Accord. With her are two other elder bronze dragons, Eternos and Monkormi. I spoke at length with Monkormi, easily the most candid dragon I have ever met.
Like her bronze compatriots, Monkormi used her mortal form almost exclusively. She took the form of a bespectacled, pink-haired gnome woman wearing a pastel green dress and jacket, two columns of white felt buttons on the front of the latter.
Monkormi initiated our first exchange, early in the morning of my fifth day. I was exploring the libraries of the second floor, walking past shelves holding books too big for mortal hands. Struggling under the weight of one such tome, I examined the curving Draconic sigils with a mix of curiosity and frustration. I first didn’t notice my name being called, only looking up when the voice grew too loud to ignore.
“I’ve been obliged to attend the meetings, so I had no idea you were in the Wyrmrest Temple,” she said, after a hurried introduction.
“I didn’t know that my presence warranted any particular attention. Are you sure I’m the right Destron?”
“Very sure. The Bronze Dragonflight knows about you. You and Talus,” she giggled. “No need to fear, your secret’s safe with us. We respect what you’re doing.”
“How did you know?”
“You’ve met a few disguised bronzes in your travels, though you didn’t know it. I can’t give names, you understand.”
“Anyway, at a time of rampant paranoia and fear, you take the time to learn as much as possible. That is a very good quality.”
“Thank you. In truth, I only started traveling because there was nothing for me in Undercity.”
“That sounds like a fine motivation to me. So, as per your usual style, I’m going to assume you have some questions for me.”
“Since you’re a bronze dragon, can you predict what I’m going to ask?”
“Ha ha! Not exactly. I mean, I have a general idea based on your modus operandi, but those of us in the business of prediction know better than to be certain about anything.”
“A wise attitude. Very well, where is Nozdormu?”
“Eternos figured you’d ask that first. I figured you’d wait, too disappointed by previous answers from dragons to start with it. I’m afraid I have to disappoint you again; suffice to say, he’s alive and well.”
“What is Nozdormu doing? Or is that confidential.”
“I’m afraid even we bronzes have our secrets.”
“Like the nature of time itself?”
“That’s no secret! At least, not any longer. Gnomes have already published papers on the subject. Granted, nobody besides academics ever reads those papers, but the truth’s easy to find if you’re inclined. I’m a little surprised you didn’t already know.”
“Orgrimmar doesn’t get very many scientific treatises from the University-in-Exile, I’m afraid.”
“A shame. I’m sure the—Darkbriar Lodge is it?”
“There’s still scientific communication between Silvermoon and the gnomes, you might be able to access that through Darkbriar. Let’s see, how best to explain the nature of time? Walk with me, Destron, this might take a while.”
I followed Monkormi as she drummed her fingers together, narrowing her eyes in thought. We walked out of the library and into the mezzanine looking down the ground floor, where red drakes perch in watchful expectation.
“Imagine, if you will, a tree. Like all trees, it starts from a single seed. This tree is time, and the seed is the moment that the Titans set Azeroth to order. However, it gets more complicated. Time—as a succession of events—didn’t exist before the Titans got here. The chaos made it impossible to create a linear timeline.
“To put it simply, there is not a single timeline. Whenever something is in question—whether it be Grom defeating Mannoroth or the path of a falling leaf—each outcome creates a new timeline.”
“Then there must be an infinite number of them,” I uttered, the floor seeming to drop out from beneath me. The casual way in which Monkormi described this situation made it even stranger. “Earlier you referred to time as being akin to a tree. Would the different possibilities be like the branches?” I tried to imagine an endless tree with an infinity of limbs, feeling dizzy at the thought.
“Not quite. You see, most of these differences are inconsequential. They’re different strands in the trunk, but they all progress in the same direction: up, or more accurately, to the future.”
“So what would be the branches?”
“Junction points. The Draconic word for this translates more literally to, ‘the garden of forking paths,’ but that’s a little more poetic than would be helpful for you. Take an important event, say, Thrall’s escape from Durnholde.
“If Thrall never escaped, this would drastically change the course of world events. There would be no Horde, and very probably a demonic victory at Mt. Hyjal. Now, this would be a separate branch of the tree, a sort of tangent universe.”
“There must still be quite a lot of these.”
“Oh yes, millions. You’d be surprised how pivotal some seemingly minor events can be. And like the main timeline, it consists of many minutely different lesser timelines. However, tangent universes are not stable. They collapse after a certain point.”
“Destroying everything inside it?”
“Yes, but there’s less to destroy. The inhabitants of tangent universes tend to experience reality like a dream. It’s not real to them, and only gets fuzzier. Eventually it all just fades away. The main timeline continues.”
“But what determines if a universe is real or tangential?”
“During the junction points, all the timelines coalesce for the key moment or moments. They all exist as one, but distinct. A paradox, I know, but such things occur in time. What happens there determines whether the outcome is real or tangential.”
I fell silent for a moment, trying to process the information.
“Can the Bronze Dragonflight see these junction points ahead of time?” I finally asked.
“No. In fact, sometimes they only become junction points in hindsight. Context is everything. Like I said, it’s hard to predict things.”
“Nothing is fated to be important, then.”
“Thrall was just an orc with an unusual background. It wasn’t until he became Warchief that he turned into something close to a living junction point,” she laughed. “A junction point doesn’t have to be a person either; it can be a social movement, a quirk of the weather, a cultural phenomenon. All viable possibilities.”
“From what you’re saying, it sounds like the Bronze Dragonflight’s famed ability to see into the future is a myth.”
“We never claimed we could! That was just some primitives misinterpreting us. What we meant was that we can predict with some degree of accuracy. It’s actually really funny how mortals would make up such convoluted justifications to explain why we were wrong.
“The Bronze Dragonflight tries to figure out what might come next, but our accuracy rate is only about 80%, and is likely to decrease due to the introduction of Outland into the Azerothian narrative. Our purview is limited to Azeroth; Outland, and Azeroth’s various coterminous planes are beyond our jurisdiction.”
“Do you act more like consultants to the other flights, in this regard?”
“Correct. We tell them what we think, and get some feedback. Sometimes we miss an important detail that the reds or someone else picks up. Communication is essential. This is also why it’s helpful to observe tangent realities; they provide interesting case studies as to likely progressions. In the end though, nothing is certain.”
“Is that the only purpose of the Bronze Dragonflight?”
“Our primary task is to ensure the continuity and stability of the main timeline.”
“Stabilize it from what?”
“The odd arcane or fel side-effect that disrupts the flow. We fix it before anyone else even notices something’s wrong. Easy, but time-consuming.”
“Entities like the Scourge do not pose a threat to the timeline?”
“Theoretically, someone could go back in time and alter the outcome of a junction point. This would either rearrange the course of time, and might even cause the whole universe to collapse. But there’s no point in worrying about that; nobody’s powerful enough to do such a thing. Except us, and we obviously wouldn’t.”
“That is reassuring to hear. Do other worlds have groups like the Bronze Dragonflight?”
“I only have a limited selection of other worlds to examine, so I can’t give a definite answer. The Titans may have developed other methods. The Pantheon did not give the aspects much information beyond what they needed to know.”
“What do you think of that?”
“We’re just responsible for this world. The Titans are not beholden to us in any way, so we do as directed.”
When Monkormi offered to transport me across the Dragon Wastes, I assumed she meant to carry me in her true, draconic form. Instead, she flew down to the base of the Wyrmrest Temple in a sleek gyrocopter, an elegant insect of brass and wood. She gave a cheery wave from the cockpit, her glasses replaced by aviator goggles.
I clambered into the two-seat model, a metal canopy between me and the steady chop of the propeller blades.
“I must admit I’m a little surprised,” I shouted, to make myself heard. “I thought you’d just fly me over as a dragon.”
“Hope you aren’t disappointed. I carried dozens of night elf warriors for years back in the War of the Ancients, and I find I don’t like being a passenger vehicle. Draconic form is overrated anyway. You can get a lot more done as a gnome.”
I thought about that for a moment.
“I suppose you could.”
“For sure. Nobody really wants to talk to a dragon.”
We made good time over the Dragon Wastes. Monkormi’s flier even came with a small heater, letting me boil conjured water with which to use the last of my coffee grinds. I figured that there was no better way to enjoy it than miles above a frozen desert, in the passenger seat of a dragon’s flying machine.
A crown of knife-edged mountains protect the Bronze Dragonshrine from unwanted eyes. Amidst the peaks is a desert of shifting amber sand. Great dunes creep over draconic skeletons, sharp horns and vertebrae rubbed down to indistinct nubs under the wear of sand and wind.
The propeller slowed as Monkormi landed her flier next to a great socket filled with sand. She’d agreed to take me as far as the Bronze Dragonshrine; from there, I would proceed (in disguise) to the Alliance base of Wintergarde Keep. Monkormi remained seated as I climbed out, looking at a bleached skull as big as the flier itself.
“Here we are!” she chirped. “The resting place of the greatest bronze dragons. Sand’s a nice touch, don’t you think? Dragons rely too much on metaphor, but the sands of time simply work so well; empires, wyrms, ideas, and worlds, all ground down to sand over the ages.”
“And replaced by new ones,” I pointed out.
“Before we go our separate ways, I wanted to ask you something: if a bronze dragon travels back in time, would his or her actions create more timelines? Since it would alter history.”
“We usually fix things behind the scenes, so nothing in the real world is affected. But there are times where we take direct action, and that does create new parallel, non-tangential realities. We operate with care, to avoid making junction points. That causes complications.
“I never mentioned Baladormu, my mate. He lies here, his body dust in the wind, his memory a million perfect jewels in my mind. I met him after he saw himself die, in the War of the Shifting Sands. He saw a future version of himself, I should say. We both knew his death was imminent, so we made the most of it. We said our last goodbyes when the elders ordered him to go back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No, it was a beautiful moment. We both knew it was coming.”
“Could he have changed his fate? Knowing what was to come?”
“Not without creating a paradox, since he’d seen himself die, and that shaped the rest of his life.”
“So fate does exist.”
“Only for time travelers,” she laughed, her voice tinged with regret. “We are stuck in this timeline, so to speak. We can observe the others, but we cannot go to them. Whatever timelines Baladormu created by going back, he’d always seen himself die, and had to fulfill that promise. Such is the nature of our duty.
“Some bronze dragons fear seeing themselves, but it’s never bothered me. In a sense, we’re already dead, and in another, we’re always alive. The Titans wanted to create time as a succession, but from our position it's hard not to see it in a more flexible light.”
“I’m afraid all this is a bit beyond me,” I confessed.
“You need to be a bronze dragon to understand fully. Either that or insane. Maybe that says a lot about us.”
I followed a narrow and icy path out of the Bronze Dragonshrine, the black and glacier-carved Border Peaks looming ahead of me to the east. It felt strange to walk alone after traveling in vehicles and large groups for so long, a sensation amplified by the gusty winds cutting down from the north.
Aside from Valiance Keep, Wintergarde is the biggest Alliance base in Northrend. Built near the ruined Kirovi capital of Paskaron, it stands as a symbol of human defiance. Cynics suspect that its location was chosen so that Stormwind could present itself as a legitimate successor to Kirovar’s fallen king.
Whatever their motivations, no one doubts the courage and tenacity shown by Wintergarde’s defenders. Wintergarde is the home of Stormwind’s legendary 7th Legion. All but annihilated in the First War, the survivors vowed to restore their Legion’s honor by fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Second War. In the Third War they held back the demon armies at Mt. Hyjal, the only Stormwinders to participate in that world-saving battle. The 7th is proud to be Stormwind’s first line of defense, and has seen action in Silithus, Outland, and now Northrend.
Wanting to make an object lesson of the 7th Legion, the Lich King had sent the mobile fortress of Naxxramas to destroy Wintergarde. Even the warriors of the Horde shuddered to hear of the battle’s early days, of its rotting swarms that infected and killed everything in Wintergarde’s outlying farms, pushing the defenders back to the central keep.
Perhaps in his undead state, Arthas forgot the power of the human spirit. Running low on supplies and facing a decaying army twice the size of his own, Legion Commander Halford Wyrmbane sent messengers all through eastern Dragonblight, rallying help from the Argent Crusade in the north, the Kirovi holdouts in the Border Peaks, and (allegedly) several Forsaken soldiers from Venomspite. Made careless by their advantages, the Scourge never learned about this army until it was too late.
At the same time, a team of the 7th Legion’s best broke into Naxxramas. At the cost of their own lives they sabotaged Naxxramas’ teleportation network, halting its steady stream of reinforcements from Icecrown.
Only then did the Alliance strike. Skirmishers raided the Scourge from all sides, bursting out from tainted groves and rocky precipices to take down key targets while Argent Crusade pilots cleared the skies of gargoyles and frost wyrms. While the Scourge reeled, the 7th Legion sallied forth from Wintergarde, an unstoppable force of steel and fury. By the end of the day, over half of the Scourge’s ground forces had met a final death. Naxxramas still casts its shadow over fallen Paskaron, but the Scourge has not regained its momentum in Dragonblight.
I reached Wintergarde’s western gate after a grueling, six-day uphill journey. Five soldiers stood guard, their tabards emblazoned with the stylized lion’s head of the 7th Legion. One of them strode towards me, his dark brown skin and black hair marking him as a Ralmanni, the nomadic humans of southern Stormwind.
“What is your name, and where did you just come from?” he asked, his voice polite but firm.
“I am Talus Corestiam. I arrived here from Wyrmrest Temple.”
“You traveled the waste by yourself? A powerful one, I see. You are welcome to enter Wintergarde, but you will be expected to contribute to its defense should the occasion arise.”
“I would be honored to do so. I am glad to see that the Scarlet Raven flies over this dismal land,” I said, referring to the sun as described in the Ralmanni mythos.
To emphasize this, I withdrew a wooden amulet displaying the same, given to me years ago by a Ralmanni headman. The soldier’s eyes widened at the sight.
“A friend of the People! Who gave that to you?”
“Headman Rav Anjor, of the Avishna band. I saved one of the Avishnas from the ogres in Deadwind Pass.”
“Avishna Band? There’s an Avishna here, Captain Ummerjay Deshakh. Do you know him?”
“I think I recall the name, though I am not sure I ever talked to him. I only spent a short time with the Avishna Band.”
“Well, you ought to say hello. The Ralmanni cohort stays in one of the barracks inside the keep; there’s a big ugly mask of some devil over the door.”
“I’ll be sure to visit. Where are you from?”
“Born and raised in Stormwind City. Otherwise I’d tell you what that mask represents,” he chuckled. “I'm surprised I even remembered the Scarlet Raven. Welcome to Wintergarde!”
Wintergarde delivered what I’d come to expect from an Alliance fortress town in Northrend. Disciplined soldiers march through snowy streets that wind between steep-roofed buildings. Taking advantage of the mountainous topography, the Alliance had placed key structures on elevated terrain. Wintergarde Keep itself is on the highest point in the landscape. From anywhere in Wintergarde one can see Naxxramas floating in the eastern skies, a black omen for battles not yet fought.
I underwent a short interrogation at the gates of the keep, conducted by a bearded soldier who spat every word. After giving him my name and twice explaining my business in Wintergarde, he ordered me to wait outside while he checked my story. Not sure how he would confirm it, I stood at the gates as the sky clouded over, lonely flakes of snow spiralling down from above.
He finally returned, his suspicious eyes examining me for some imperfection.
“So, what happened to helping out with the war effort?” he demanded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Back at Westguard Keep, over a year ago, you told the good man at the gate that you were on your way to Wintergarde to help with the war effort. What took you so long?”
“Uh, I ended up in the Grizzly Hills. I aided the Kirovi there, and one thing turned into another,” I said, surprised at the Alliance’s level of communication.
“One thing turned into another, huh?”
“I’m not a soldier, so it’s not as if I’m under orders. I went to where I thought I was needed. I helped the Kirovi get to Westguard via Amberpine Lodge—”
“Maybe I should send a telegram over to Westguard, see if your story is true.”
“If you feel the need. Speak to Captain Deshakh; he can vouch for me.”
“Corporal Ollers, get the captain over here,” ordered the guard. The soldier standing next to him saluted and hurried off into the fort. I waited in awkward silence, bathed in the guard’s condemnatory glare. Finally, a dark-skinned man arrived at the scene, wearing the biggest moustache I have ever seen on a human.
“Captain Deshakh. This traveler claims to know you.”
Ummerjay examined me. Doubtful at first, a spark of recognition lit up in his eyes, and he suddenly ran forward to embrace me.
“Ah, Talus! A friend of the People! This man saved one of my band!” he exclaimed. “Yes, he knows me, Sergeant Adderby, he is a good Lordaeronian.”
“Yes sir,” replied the sergeant, stepping aside.
“Tell me, tell me, do you still have the scarlet raven medallion?”
I took it out again in response, and Ummerjay broke into a joyous laugh.
“I never thought I’d see you again! You must want to hear about Davitri; she is safe in Darkshire now, married to a young man from the Gan band.”
“Is she still training to become a seer?”
“She was when we left.”
Ummerjay led me through the fort’s narrow corridors, the stone walls seeming to sap what little heat remained in the air. His breath came out in gusts of steam. I saw the mask soon enough scowling from on top the door, a blue-black face with a bony crest and bloody tusks, tendrils of black hair sprouting from its jaws. It looked like an odd cross between an eredar and a jungle troll.
“Here we are, the home of the 5th Cohort! I am the only one from the Avishna Band, but all Ralmanni will recognize you as a friend if you keep the raven on display.”
Ummerjay burst into the simple barracks, praising me with boasts and wild gesticulation. Seven other soldiers were there, all Ralmanni, and most reacted to Ummerjay’s excitement with amused confusion. His relation of my credentials at least impressed them, and they gave me a place by the roaring hearth.
“Here, take some of our rations. You are our guest,” insisted Ummerjay.
“I am honored to accept,” I said, stifling the guilt. They needed the food more than me, but one should never refuse a Ralmanni offer of hospitality.
“The Stormwinders are a good people, a brave people, but their tongues are dead. We must make do with bread and tasteless meat.”
Once we settled down, Ummerjay told me of the Ralmanni situation. A subordinate, Corporal Mandin Travagor, joined in the conversation.
“Not long after you left, fate forced us to leave Deadwind Pass. Nothing there but mists and ghosts. We hated to give up our freedom, but a man must be able to eat to appreciate the Path of the Wheel.
“Darkshire accepted us, needing the living bolster their numbers. Many Ralmanni live there, more than we thought.”
“Most of us here are from Duskwood,” interjected Mandin. “Only a few are proud nomads like Ummerjay over here.”
“I am not the only one! But yes, most come from Darkshire, where they sit in chairs all day,” laughed Ummerjay.
“How did there come to be a Ralmanni cohort?”
“King Varian wanted to get as many people from Duskwood as possible. He figured we already knew how to combat the undead, so we’d be natural fits for Northrend,” explained Mandin. “Fighting the Scourge is actually a lot different from fighting the Duskwood undead, but walking corpses don’t frighten us as much.”
“So it’s really more of a Duskwood cohort.”
“No, we’re all Ralmanni here, from either Duskwood or Deadwind. Ralmanni from other places, like Stormwind or Elwynn, are mixed in with the rest of the Stormwinders.”
“Those Ralmanni have forgotten even more than Mandin over here!” said Ummerjay, clapping Mandin on the back.
“You certainly appear happy to serve.”
“Because the king promised great rewards. If we fight, we can claim whatever land we want in the Swamp of Sorrows. At long last, a true home for the Ralmanni! Should anyone doubt us, we’ll show them the scars the Scourge put on our bodies,” boasted Ummerjay.
“He’s going to give you a sovereign nation?”
“No. He will still be our king, but the Swamp of Sorrows will be for the Ralmanni.”
“The swamp and all its bugs and mud,” sighed Mandin.
“It is a good place; not an easy one, but good all the same. Some of our ancestors lived there. Besides, it is better than here, eh? At least you won’t freeze half to death every night.”
Mandin moved his hands up and down, as if weighing the options.
“You can’t tell me you wouldn’t go to the Swamp of Sorrows if it meant your own land.”
“I’d rather own land near Darkshire. That’s home, to me. And I reckon that land will be pretty cheap there; most of its been abandoned.”
“The curse is deep in Duskwood. It might be many years before the Scarlet Raven lifts the darkness.”
“I know. But if we go to the Swamp of Sorrows we’ll have to fight the orcs in Stonard.”
“So what? We Ralmanni fought orcs before Stormwind did! My grandfather killed a bunch of them in the swamp. We can do it again!”
“Look, I fully support taking the Swamp of Sorrows. I just think it might be a little more challenging than you think.”
“A challenge is good, it will make us stronger!”
More soldiers filtered in as the night went on, Ummerjay insisting that every one be introduced to me. I lost track of how many hands I shook that night, and the Deadwind Ralmanni hugged me just as Ummerjay had done.
From talking to some of the other soldiers, I gathered that most shared Ummerjay’s interest in the Swamp of Sorrows, despite being Duskwood natives. They suspected (not without some reason) that Darkshire’s Stormwinders would buy up all the land before they could get a piece. The Ralmanni in Darkshire tend to be poor, and while the Stormwinders are not hostile, neither are they welcoming.
Mandin offered a different perspective on the matter.
“The Ralmanni are a lot more integrated into Darkshire than you might think. Perhaps I’m biased; my wife is a Stormwinder.”
“But many here say they are discriminated against.”
“I never really felt it. I served on the Night Watch for years. They gave me dangerous jobs, and I did them better than anyone else. Sure, I look different from the Stormwinders. But in Duskwood, you don’t really care what color somebody’s skin is, so long as they have skin.”
“Why then, do you think there’s a perception of discrimination?”
“Well, some definitely exists. But I don’t think the Darkshire Stormwinders are going to make a collected effort to cheat us out of land. Some of the king’s representatives seem to think they will; that’s why they said we should go colonize the Swamp of Sorrows. I suppose that message appealed to a lot of the Ralmanni.”
“Helpful to the kingdom as well.”
“Right. You should probably talk to the others if you want more information, I can only tell you my own story. As an example though, marriage between a Stormwinder and Ralmanni, like my marriage, might not be common, but it’s far from rare in Darkshire. I would say that is a good sign of integration.”
Judging from my own (extremely limited) sample, I cannot determine the level of discrimination faced by the Ralmanni. Finding the truth simply depends on too many variables. There is no doubt that some exists, though the problems in Duskwood have forced all humans there to at least tolerate one another. External pressure is the best way to build camaraderie, but the psychologically corrosive nature of Duskwood’s curse may hamper the development of a more positive mentality.
Military rules prohibit non-soldiers from staying in barracks. Expressing his regret, Ummerjay and Mandin guided me to the small guest inn called Memories of Summer at Wintergarde’s southern edge. We walked in the harsh daylight of electric lampposts, the sky above black and foreboding.
Ummerjay played a violin as he walked, his bow burning a furious melody from the strings. Wherever I went in Northrend, it seemed I could not escape the good deeds I had committed in Stormwind. Humans of that kingdom remember me, a Forsaken, as a friend or even a hero. They give me more respect and recognition than does the Horde.
Would they accept me if they knew the truth? Memories of mutilated Forsaken bodies, the former friends and family of the living, gave me all the answers I needed. Despite this, I have only once lifted my hand against the Alliance, in Halaa, and even then I have never killed any from that faction. In contrast to that, I slew a Horde warrior in self-defense back in Sholazar.
Doubts of my own loyalty began to assail me. What have I become during my travels? A Horde citizen? Or simply a rootless wanderer? I thought of the Horde’s mad desire for war, and felt only disgust. At the same time, I owe what I am to the Horde. They gave me the means of escaping Undercity. The Warchief’s message of redemption gave hope to me and to those Forsaken who listened. The Alliance only wishes us dead. So why have I done so much to help the Alliance?
I spent the night at Memories of Summer, which is surprisingly comfortable given the circumstances. Partisan donations had gone towards its construction, stocking the property with quality furniture and electric lighting.
I explored more of Wintergarde the next day and met some of its numerous dwarven soldiers. It’s easy to forget that Stormwind contains a substantial dwarven population in its capital city. As patriotic as any human, the dwarves of Stormwind bring their steadfast courage to the war effort. Ram-mounted dwarven cavaliers also patrol the fortress and its environs. Unlike their kindred in the infantry, these dwarves are an auxiliary cavalry unit on loan from Khaz Modan.
“Seems our two kingdoms get closer together each day,” remarked one cavalier. “But if anyone’s going to stand alongside Khaz Modan, I’d want it to be Stormwind.”
“Not the gnomes?”
“Oh, them too! But they’re tinkers and scientists before anything else. Humans are warriors. Let me rephrase it; I’d like the Stormwinder to fight at my side in battle, while the gnome stays in base and figures out some outlandish new weapon!”
Khaz Modan had contributed many resources towards Stormwind’s postwar reconstruction. Much of this came from their genuine desire to see an ally get back on its feet, though it did serve a more pragmatic purpose as well; Khaz Modan wanted a buffer state between it and the Dark Portal. Now, the two nations represent the Alliance in Northrend (the Kalimdor Alliance having offered only token support), finding ever more common ground in the fight against the Scourge.
Towards the end of the day, I found myself talking to Dallard Corwyn, an officer in the 7th Legion. He did not know this, but I had twice met his sister, Alima Corwyn, an ambitious and idealistic noblewoman helping to rebuild Stormwind. Dallard definitely comes from the same stock, far more approachable than one would expect from an aristocrat. Soldiers who knew him saluted with genuine smiles on their faces.
We conversed in the Memories of Summer, in a windowed turret overlooking an snowy path leading up to the keep. Dallard used the place as an unofficial office, in which he got information from travelers like myself. Something of an autodidact, he was more than happy to discuss more scholarly matters. However, the conversation eventually turned to Wrathgate.
“I’m damned lucky that they never sent me to Wrathgate. Wyrmbane was right on the verge of leading us across the Dragon Wastes, only to get a royal order at the last minute, telling us to maintain a vigil over here. They did not want the Scourge in Naxxramas to regroup.”
“As a soldier, what do you think it means for the Alliance?”
“More war. More death, more needless destruction. Certainly a lot more excitement than puttering about the estate though, I’ll give it that much.” He laughed without conviction at the last comment.
“I do wonder how the Horde could be so careless.”
“The Horde’s never been as organized. For those who paid attention, it’s no surprise that rogue factions could get away with an attack of that magnitude. Regardless, the Alliance wants blood, and the Horde seems happy to oblige. You do know that King Varian led a strike force into Undercity?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“He found horrors there, crimes too awful to describe. The Forsaken alchemists tested their plagues on human prisoners long before Wrathgate.”
“Do you think the Warchief wants conflict?”
“Thrall? I can’t really say. My sister’s convinced he’s a thoroughly decent sort, and she might be right. Whatever the case, elements on both sides are clamoring for war, and I think they shall get it once the Lich King is finished.”
“What do you think of the Forsaken?”
“The leaders are a nasty bunch. At this point, the Alliance has no choice but to punish the Forsaken responsible for the crimes of the Apothecarium, and the Horde continues to protect those wretches.”
“And others, I fear.”
“I heard a rumor that some Forsaken aided in Wintergarde’s defense.”
“Yes, actually! Fifteen of them, fought fiercer than anyone else. A fellow named Ulrecht led the bunch, and they took down three times their number, easily. Ulrecht said he’d consider anyone who helped him fight the Scourge a friend.”
“What happened to Ulrecht?”
“He survived, as did some of his men. They went back to Venomspite after that. I don’t know what became of them. I suppose we’ll have to kill them soon enough,” he sighed.
Dallard got up from his seat and walked over to a small round table at the edge of the room. A curious device sat on top, a box connected to a curving horn. Dallard took hold of a small crank sticking out the side and began to turn it.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of these new goblin record players? They’re a good sight better than the wax cylinders we used to have. Pardon the interruption, but if we’re going to talk of something as barbarous as warfare, we may as well enjoy the fruits of civilization while we can.”
I heard a few quiet pops before a woman’s voice filled the air, still lovely through the scratchy sound. Piano keys tapped quiet and solemn in the background as she sang of better days to come. Dallard sat back down opposite me, smiling as he listened.
“Quite impressive, don’t you think? They fit entire songs onto these discs.”
“Very.” Though the lyrics promised hope, they stirred a sadness within me, a last reminder of a world doomed to fade away.
“Perhaps I’m just a spoiled noble, but I do think such luxuries are important. A life of pure necessity can only be brutish, and the brave men here have more than earned some respite.”
“I agree. Especially if there is war between the Horde and Alliance. Do you think peace between the two factions is possible?”
Dallard turned his eyes to the wintry landscape outside, his smile fading.
“I fear that night is falling all over Azeroth, and that we shall not see the dawn in our lifetime.”
((I hope you enjoyed this entry. Writing about the Bronze Dragonflight's concept of time was a bit tricky, and I'm worried that it came across as more tiresome than interesting. Again, if you want to discuss this or some other matter involving the travelogue, the forum is the place to do it.))