Friday, February 4, 2011
Cold whispers pulled me awake, one body among many packed in the freezing darkness of the ship’s hold. Snores shuddered in stale air that stank of unwashed bodies and flea-ridden furs. Sitting up from the metal floor I reminded myself of my own freedom, clenching and opening my fists to be assured of this fact.
“I am in control,” I whispered.
After a few days aboard Orgrim’s Hammer, it becomes clear why Korm Blackscar allows his troops so much indulgence while on leave. The airship is an ironclad hell where orcs languish trying to breath the thin and icy air. Orcs have traditionally fared poorly in higher altitudes, and Orgrim’s Hammer is no exception. Shamans can neither persuade nor force the air spirits to improve the situation. In Icecrown, nature itself is subject to the Lich King’s will, and only a few of its spirits give any aid.
Bodies jumped to waking as a metallic screech clattered through the dark room. Booming beats from a vast drum came out small and tinny from the speaker placed near the roof, followed by the blare of thin horns.
“Awaken, Horde, to the glory that is your birthright! Wherever we stand, the Horde will prevail! Let the world tremble at the sight of our banner, red with the blood of heroes!”
Heedless of creaking bones and aching muscles, warriors leapt to their feet, thrusting their arms in the air to proclaim: “For the Horde!”
Leaving their bedrolls open for the night crew’s use, the warriors of Orgrim’s Hammer scrubbed their hands and faces with a coarse powder made from soap and ground pumice. Bathing of any sort is out of the question, the vessel unable to carry enough water for such a luxury. Instead, bins filled with this powder line the walls of sleeping chambers.
A mob of orcs, blinking the sleep from their eyes, tramped below decks to the gelid gunnery platform that doubles as a mess hall. Frigid winds cut through this portion of the vessel, coming in through the turrets where chain guns point with menace into the dark sky. We entered to see the mess table set up, cold-toughened peons hovering over cauldrons of steaming gruel. From the other end of the platform, the engine room’s infernal glow beckons with the promise of warmth.
Abstaining from breakfast I fell in with one of the handful of other Forsaken onboard the Orgrim’s Hammer, an old acquaintance of mine named Llane Osrick. I’d first met Llane in Shadowmoon Valley, where I served as his gunner during the famed aerial battle against the Illidari. At the time of our second encounter, Llane was flying reconnaissance missions for Orgrim’s Hammer. The vessel holds three fliers for this purpose, each haphazardly chained to the deck.
“This place really isn’t designed to hold smaller fliers,” remarked Llane when we first met onboard. “A bit of a design flaw, I’d say. One can only hope that future airships will take this into account.”
“I seem to remember that you preferred living fliers: bats and wyverns and the like,” I said.
“Ha ha, yes, I still do. They just respond better, you know? But nowadays all the fighting takes place in miserable hellholes that living fliers are too sensible to visit.”
That morning, I walked over to join Llane as he approached the doorway to one of the turrets, his jacket flapping like mad in the wind. An orc woman, her features almost totally hidden by the thick fur hood she wore, kept a watchful gaze on the land below us, a wasteland of anoxic-blue ice and rock.
“Here you go, Shengra,” said Llane, handing her a bowl of gruel. “I got you a second serving.”
“Thank you,” she grunted, the words coming out in a puff of white steam. She took the bowl and returned to her vigil, her eyes bruised by the constant cold. Llane turned to me, the thin skin on his face crinkled into a wry smile.
“Ah, another charming morning in Icecrown. They practically begged me to come up here—well, that’s not quite accurate. They yelled and bellowed until they got hoarse. But that’s how orcs beg, you know? You, on the other hand, just skipped aboard.”
“An assault against the Black Temple’s defenses wasn’t quite foolhardy enough, so I decided I’d take it up to the next level,” I answered. Llane chuckled, and for a moment I thought I heard the whisper of a different voice laced with his own. He stopped when he saw the fear in my face.
“You hear it too? Every Forsaken does, at some point. Out here it’s not that bad, but it gets worse near Icecrown Citadel. No need to worry; we’re actually quite far from that place,” said Llane. “One day soon, we’ll destroy it.”
I nodded, looking at the glacier-carved valleys far below. The natural world sometimes offers a sense of assurance that the scientific and arcane cannot. But Icecrown Glacier, indelibly stamped as it is with the mark of the Lich King, brings no such relief.
“I see it,” growled Shengra, looking to the prow.
“Skybreaker? I figured we’d pass them this morning,” said Llane.
“Now, now. I used to be Alliance. So did Destron here. The Alliance is really a bit more cat-like than dog-like, wouldn’t you say, Destron?”
“Um, maybe? I’m afraid you’ve lost me on this.”
“Pets of some sort, anyway.”
I found it difficult to share in their jest, though I faked a smile. Skybreaker soon drifted into sight, a bulky silhouette laden with churning propellers. Letting out an odd combination of grunt and yawn, Shengra clambered into the turret’s control seat, a metal coffin stinking of oil and grime. Guns sprang to life all along the starboard, their mechanical groans briefly louder than the engine’s roar. Llane and I stepped back into the hold to get out of the way, most of the crew still engaged in breakfast.
The orcs barely acknowledged the ear-splitting crack of cannon fire as Orgrim’s Hammer blasted a volley. Incendiary shells arced bright and red in the still air, falling well short of their mark. Moments later, the Skybreaker responded, the boom of its cannons rattling the sky. By that point, the gunners were already stepping out of the turrets, forbidden to waste any more ammunition on a salutary attack.
Each airship represents a tremendous investment on the part of its controlling faction, both in money and morale. The loss of one would be catastrophic. Though never explicitly revealed, everyone on Orgrim’s Hammer paying any attention knows that the airship is effectively forbidden from engaging the Skybreaker in combat. There is every reason to think that the Skybreaker is under similar orders. I suspect that Orgrim’s Hammer will eventually strike first, matching the Horde’s increasingly aggressive policies.
Both airships were intended to aid ground forces in the taking of Icecrown, though all advances have stalled since the Broken Front. The Horde, at least, seems content to celebrate its dubious victory on that battlefield.
“The Scourge is a cornered beast, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Soon, very soon, our warriors will make the final strike on Icecrown Citadel!” boasted Moz’gul, an older warrior with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard hanging from a jutting chin.
“Icecrown Citadel is still far away from our position, and the Scourge’s defenses are far from depleted,” I said. We spoke in the hold during the midday meal, Moz’gul shoveling the gruel into his mouth. No one on Orgrim’s Hammer really gets as much food as they’d like, an unfortunate function of the orcs’ demanding dietary needs.
“What, more shambling bone-puppets? We seek real battle. Humans are weak in body, but strong in spirit. They are foes worthy of our axes. The Scourge does not even deserve our piss!”
“There are still many of them—”
“I am high enough in rank to hear what goes on, and you Forsaken are the only ones who care about fighting the Scourge. Your lot had your chance, and you squandered it! A glorious new war waits for us on the horizon. No orc wishes to die now when even greater battles await!”
“You do not consider the Scourge more of a threat than the Alliance?”
“There you go, like so many Forsaken, still thinking like a human. Cowards react to threats. Heroes seek honor. Killing Scourge is work fit for peons. Fighting humans? Now that is the deed of a warrior!”
Moz’gul's attitude is rather extreme, even for the charged atmosphere of Orgrim’s Hammer. Though most of the warriors look forward to future battles, many of them display some apprehension at the thought. Togluk was one of the more anxious warriors, and he addressed some of his concerns to me later that day as he warmed himself in the engine room.
Off-duty orcs often congregate in the seething engine room of Orgrim’s Hammer, much to the annoyance of the goblins who work there. In the vessel’s burning metal heart, where each breath singes the throat and fouls the tongue, the crew can briefly escape winter's grip. Togluk called me over, shouting to be heard over the rumble.
“Perhaps this isn’t the best place for a conversation?” I shouted.
“Cold may not bother you, but we orcs prefer heat. I have spent the entire day freezing on-deck. I can hear you well enough, and I am sure you can hear me. You must have fought the Scarlet Crusade at some point?”
“Once, though that was some time ago.”
“What is it like, testing your mettle against a human foe?”
“That’s a rather difficult question to answer. It depends on both you and your opponent.”
“Naturally, but what is it like when compared to fighting a mindless undead? I am barely more than a whelp in my War-pack; only the Scourge has tasted my blade, and I have not even seen any fighting since being assigned to this flying box.”
“Speaking in the broadest sense, a free-willed opponent is more engaged in the fight. This is not to say that they’re necessarily more dangerous than a Scourge drone.”
“Good. So they die like orcs.”
“How do you mean?”
An uncertain look crossed Togluk’s rough face, and he bit his lip.
“With honor, screaming defiance to the last,” he finally said, the words spoken with haste.
“Humans and orcs die in much the same way.”
Togluk had only fought the Scourge, but he must have seen his fellows killed in battle, dropping silently or choking out their mothers’ names through bloodied mouths. Battle-hardened veterans had carried the Outland Campaign, but many of the warriors in the Northrend War are new to the ways of combat. Though born in the internment camps, they have few memories of those bleak places, having come of age in the dusty red plains and rocky hills of Durotar.
To them, the horrors of the Second War are a distant memory, and the Alliance an obscure rival. The mindless dead are the only enemy most of these orcs have fought. Living opponents are rare in the orcish homelands at this point; the quilboars and centaurs have already been pushed back and incapacitated, though a few reports suggest that they are preparing a retaliation.
While some elder orcs speak of the Second War with longing, those who remember the atrocities rarely speak of it at all. In their eyes, the demon-haunted Horde of the past is something best forgotten. To an extent, even Thrall has fallen victim to this, seen in his refusal to entirely distance the Horde from its dark past. A grand city like Orgrimmar deserves a better namesake than the Doomhammer.
Among the new generation, some orcs pray for the chance to do battle against the Alliance, eager to avenge slights to orcish honor. Others, however, sense the unspoken dread of their elders, a fear for which orcish youth must create its own definition. Many understand, on at least an implicit level, that the Alliance will be a much different foe from the Scourge.
Exhausted bodies fell to the floor as the day shift ended, sweat like beads of ice on grimy skin. Too tired to be bothered by the rumbling engine or the rattling metal frame, warriors and peons alike fell asleep in minutes. I listened as the night crew took positions above and below, the hide bedrolls they’d so recently vacated heavy with their scents.
A single electric lamp, its bulb stained with grime, emits a harsh light made paltry by the surrounding darkness. I imagined the world outside of Orgrim’s Hammer, preparing my mind’s eye to work its way south to Durotar’s warm red sands, to the palm trees swaying under velvet night skies. My efforts foundered among the frozen rocks, its frigid surfaces cleansed of what little life once existed there.
Scarred transmissions relay dead words from his mind to his army, rotten forms twitching in the memory of life.
I strained my senses, listening to the engine’s steady growl, trying not to hear the rapid monotone I was just starting to remember. A constant susurration weaving itself into every other sound, cold and insistent. His voice speaks in the tramp of dead feet and the roar of burning cities, even in the silence of the aftermath.
Getting to my feet I stepped with care through the packed bodies, so much like the piles of corpses that had littered the streets of Capital City. Turning the lever with nerveless fingers, I pushed the door open and spilled out into a battered metal passage and scrambled to the deck.
Frigid winds blasted the deck’s surface, making a high-pitched moan like some great beast in terrible pain. The night crew tended to the rarely used surface cannons under the puny light of electric lanterns. Lightning flashed in the heavy black clouds, revealing the hulking silhouettes of the ship’s dragonhide balloons.
Cold-hardened eyes dismissed me, the crew too beaten down to think beyond their duties. Every night, numbed hands clean oily gun barrels, their slack mouths huffing steam. Shamans maintain a frozen vigil along the edges, shivering as they try to reach paranoid spirits through ritual. Bulging out like a metallic tumor, part of Orgrim’s Hammer’s great engine rests at the center of the deck, black smoke oozing out from rusty pipes, an acrid haze leaking from grimy rivets.
“What is the matter?” inquired a deep voice, echoing with a metallic timbre. I turned to face the speaker, a Sin’dorei, skin bleached white by death, his blue eyes glowing but lifeless.
“Do not fear, Forsaken. I hate the Scourge as much as you, perhaps more. I am Koltira, also called the Deathweaver. In life, I fulfilled the honor of House Goldenmist on the battlefield. In death, I avenge its passing.”
I nodded, not able to look Koltira in the eyes.
“Is it customary among the Forsaken to not respond to introductions?” inquired Koltira, an edge creeping into his voice.
“My apologies; this land is a difficult place for me. I am Destron Allicant.”
“If you find Icecrown not to your liking I suggest you leave. One must be tested to gain power, but going too far too soon results in weakness.”
“I assure you I am capable. It merely takes time to adjust.”
“Do you hear his words?”
I stepped back, suddenly seeing in Koltira’s face all the cruelty of the Scourge. One of the death knights, proud in his master’s dark domain. Who else saw him there? I wondered. Or had the Lich King come to reclaim my mind, Koltira his avatar? Again I heard the distant voice reciting an endless litany of orders, echoing down the frozen valleys.
“All who once served him hear him again,” continued Koltira. “His soul lies heavy in this realm, just as it once ruled our minds, yours and mine.”
“We are free now,” I mumbled, looking down as I dreamed the mountains rising up to eat the sky, a prison of ice and stone, alone again with his voice.
Koltira laughed, a hollow sound devoid of mirth.
“I am free to seek power that I never wanted in life, compelled by the wants of another. But you? Perhaps. Many of your countrymen surrender their wills to Lady Windrunner.”
“Many, but not all,” I said, raising my voice, still unable to look at him.
“Perhaps. This deck is a dreary place. Follow me to the bridge; it is warm there, and well-lit. Cold matters little to us, but I think you would agree that only a fool dismisses the memory of warmth?”
“Yes,” I said, after a pause. “Would I be permitted there?”
“I am delivering a report to Blackscar. Stay with me, and no one will object. I know it is difficult here; the undead face unique challenges in Icecrown.”
Koltira marched past me, his iron-shod boots clanking against the deck. I followed like some pale shadow. Crew members stepped aside to make way for Koltira, which at least meant others saw him as well.
“What drove you to help me?” I asked. The Lich King had harrowed the souls of the death knights, purging them of all mortal wants until only the lonely desire for power remained. Once freed, the Knights of the Ebon Blade found guidance from when they still lived, and followed motivations that they remembered but did not feel.
“My liege, while he lived, held House Windrunner in high esteem. Since your people remain an ally of mine, I am obliged to offer aid.”
“Of course,” I said. I thought back to my first encounter with the Ebon Blade in the dying forests of Zul’drak. I cannot deny their laudable efforts against the Scourge, or their refusal to give in to evil, a refusal the Forsaken would do well to emulate. Yet they had still served as the Lich King’s greatest vassals.
Orcish warriors guarding the bridge saluted Koltira and he nodded a regal acknowledgement. A wooden ramp leads down to a circular room where weapons and trophies line metal walls draped in red hides. Oily flames smolder in black braziers, seemingly at the mercy of the cold and the dark. Wind whistles through the horizontal slots above the walls. Korm Blackscar surveys this dismal chamber from a crude steel throne, a kodohide map of Northrend stretched on the floor before him.
Koltira gave a slight bow to Korm, his face inscrutable. Korm raised his head to face the death knight, the movement slow and painful. Bloodshot eyes fixed on the death knight, and the warlord shivered under his armor.
“Well? What news do you bring?” demanded Korm, his voice hoarse as if scarred by the cold.
“Only the true dead rule the battlefield below. The Scourge’s withdrawal from the Broken Front appears permanent. As you predicted, the Argent Crusade prevented the Scourge from raising more than a few of the corpses.”
Korm nodded, his head slumping onto his chest. Raising his hands he massaged his temples, and I saw the peeling skin on his lips.
“I knew the Argent Crusade would do the right thing. Now the Horde stands at the brink of supremacy, the Scourge not significantly stronger for our efforts. Our warriors’ boldness is a thing to behold, quick to shed blood in defiance of the odds.”
“Your leadership is an inspiration,” intoned Koltira.
“Nothing can inspire your miserable breed. And why is the Forsaken here?” Reddened eyes shifted back and forth between Koltira and I.
“Your deeds have impressed him, and he wished to see you in person.”
“I do not need sycophants,” he grunted. “Your report is accepted. Now leave me.”
Bitter winds still hammered the deck when we left the bridge. Koltira looked more at home than anyone else there, his carved features set in a sort of grim satisfaction.
“You must have had a deeper reason for showing that to me,” I said.
“If you wish to believe that, you may. Focus keeps the Lich King at bay. Certainly, there is much to be discussed regarding the Horde, and Korm Blackscar is emblematic of the rising generation of senior warriors. Cunning, brutal, and very effective.”
“Like the Order of the Ebon Blade.”
Koltira’s frowned, as if in disappointment.
“An apt description. The Ebon Blade is its own entity however. Whatever power we desire, we will never again allow ourselves be slaves to darkness.”
Still above the frozen wastes, I nonetheless experienced a sense of limitless freedom as Llane’s flier sped east, away from Orgrim’s Hammer. The enormous sky and sculpted vistas offered the illusion of escape.
“How do you tolerate staying in that place?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the thundering engine.
“By flying reconnaissance as often as possible. Or on diplomatic visits like this one.”
Korm Blackscar had ordered Llane to deliver a message to Highlord Tirion Fordring of the Argent Crusade. I knew nothing of the message’s contents; for me, it was enough to leave Orgrim’s Hammer.
A Scourge army had gotten through the mountain passes a few months after the Broken Front Massacre. The Lich King had made every effort to regain the momentum he’d been steadily losing throughout the Northrend Campaign. Only the Argent Crusade stood between him and Dalaran, the city-state’s armies locked in combat against the Blue Dragonflight. Dalaranese mages could make for a new generation of liches, perhaps turning the tide of the conflict.
While the Horde and Alliance squabbled, the Argent Crusade stood its ground. The seeping rot of the Scourge army blackened the white snows of the highlands. Stitched abominations led the way for battalions of drudge corpses, their hooks and blades clearing paths through the Argent soldiers. Armored crypt lords marched forward, carrying lesser arachnid broods in their armor. Reigning above this gruesome scene, the frost wyrms soared through the air on wings of death.
This diseased army smashed itself on the makeshift ramparts of the Argent Vanguard. Veteran soldiers held the line as cannon shot decimated the Scourge ranks, scattering limbs across the snow. Riflemen took to the hills to retake the high positions from undead hands. When at last the Crusade secured the high ground they blasted the flanks of the Scourge army, their bullets replenished by daring pilots who risked certain death in the wyrm-haunted skies.
As Crusade and Scourge fought, the Lich King prepared to open up a second front. The necropolis Azdragol flew in from the west, protected by two squadrons of frost wyrms. Vials of disease festered in its lightless interior, tended to by necromancers and their creations. Azdragol spelled certain doom for the Argent Crusade.
As Azdragol ascended the frozen peaks, the Knights of the Ebon Blade had made their move. Cutting down the frost wyrms with spell and sword they boarded Azdragol. Unable to fully destroy the necropolis, the death knights sated themselves by slaughtering the inhabitants until blood and ichor flooded the dark corridors.
By the time the last of the death knights left the ruined hulk, the Lich King knew the day was lost. The ground troops made a bloody retreat to the plague pits of Scourgeholme to the north, and the Argent Crusade established a lasting foothold on Icecrown.
While most of the troops are stationed at the newly built Crusaders' Pinnacle to the north, a few reserves keep their position in the Argent Vanguard. Built on the cheap, it does not look especially impressive. Stone walls, some of the towers not fully completed, surround a pair of rocky hills lined with white tents. A wooden keep stands in the center (originally planned to be made of stone, the masonry was instead used to build Crusaders' Pinnacle). Yet this meager outpost had withstood one of the war’s most fearsome onslaughts.
Making his descent, Llane held up a reflector to flash a signal to the troops below, using the spotlight of a watchtower for this purpose. He then landed the flier on a patch of damp earth past the northern wall, the churning propeller coming to a stop. A yellow-bearded dwarf in battered armor approached, his salute little more than a perfunctory flick of the hand.
“I come with news from Warlord Korm Blackscar of the Orgrim’s Hammer,” announced Llane.
“Aye. Follow me to the highlord. Your guest can go anywhere else in the camp.”
“Sorry, Destron. I’ll see you in a bit.”
After saying goodbye, I stepped out of the flier and sank into the knee-deep snow like a stone, cold slush trickling down my boots. An orcish Argent soldier, wearing armor battered almost to the point of uselessness, eyed me uneasily.
“What are they saying now in Orgrim’s Hammer, undead?” he asked.
I paused, not sure what he wanted to hear.
“Are you forbidden from speaking? Our Horde does cherish keeping its secrets, much like a child.”
“Sir, I am just a traveling scholar, not a Horde agent. The authorities have no interest in telling me anything.”
“Hm. This is a place for warriors, not scholars.”
“I’ve helped the Argent Crusade in Zul’drak, and before that in the Eastern Plaguelands, when they still called themselves the Dawn.”
“Then perhaps you may prove your use. I am Ormskol Grayblade. Many Scourge have fallen to my ax, and many more will fall before I breathe no more.”
I followed Ormskol up one of the hills. We walked along a row of white tents. Most were empty, though I sometimes saw wounded Argent soldiers at rest. An older warrior, Ormskol had joined the Argent Dawn during the Outland Campaign.
“I heard stories of doughty humans fighting the undead at every turn. How could I let them seize the glory of battle?”
“I take it you were already an experienced warrior at that point?”
“Yes, in the Bloodeye War-pack. Age was slowing my limbs and my mind, but I vowed to fight unto death. The pack elders praised my decision, and I left Orgrimmar with a glad heart. I did not expect to live this long.”
“Judging from your earlier comments, you seem rather ambivalent about the Horde today.”
“The world has changed,” he sighed.
Reaching the mess tent, he eased himself down onto a wooden bench. He raised a mailed hand, and a human server ran to place a steaming bowl of stew on the table.
“Here you are, Master Ormskol,” said the human, barely more than a boy.
“Thank you, squire Edris,” he replied, lifting the bowl to his lips. Edris saluted and ran back to the kitchen, and I noticed the flaking gold trim on Ormskol’s armor. Putting down the bowl, he continued.
“Whatever far lands they hail from, whatever blood runs in their veins, the warriors of the Argent Crusade are the bravest who ever lived. Spindly humans and elves follow our banner, each fighting with the fury of ten normal orcs! Our enemy is evil itself. And as we continue our heroic struggle, the Horde lets rogue Forsaken poison its own troops, and then stabs the Alliance in the back!”
His fist cracked into the table with a loud bang, and the entire structure shivered.
“They dare call themselves orcs? What sickness has entered Orgrimmar, that makes craven cowards of my people? Does the Warchief not see what is happening here? The Scourge is a threat to the very concept of honor; if the Lich King rules, there can be no valor, no glory, no courage.
“Many brave souls in the Argent Crusade perished trying to prevent the Scourge from raising up the dead of the Broken Front. They died well, so that is good, but we are weaker for their loss. That is why our warriors can only watch Scourgeholme, the way a hungry dog watches roasting meat, instead of harrowing that rotten pit!”
“I do question Korm’s choice in attacking the Alliance,” I said, wondering how safely I could speak.
“He is the warlord of Orgrim’s Hammer? That flying boat was nowhere near the Broken Front at the time. The Horde simply found the Alliance in battle and attacked. It matters not.”
“What is the Argent Crusade’s opinion on the matter?”
“Disgust, as any true warrior would feel. You would do well to warn the Horde: the Argent Crusade may well march with the Alliance if it comes to open war.”
“Which side would you take if that were to occur?”
Ormskol looked down at the table, his brow furrowing.
“I will do what is expected of an honorable warrior, as will the other orcs here. Make of that what you will.”
Argent Crusaders of Horde origin were uniformly outraged by the Broken Front, though many still claimed loyalty to their various governments. Certainly it is difficult to imagine a tauren ever raising arms against his tribe, or a blood elf against his House. Most of the few Forsaken in the Argent Crusade reject the Horde entirely. Orcish attitudes are less clear-cut, though many seem to favor the Argent Crusade. As I had seen in Sholazar, an orc’s immediate companions often have more relevance than the dictates of a relatively abstract and distant nation-state. This is one reason for which some orc leaders advocate that warriors avoid mixing with individuals from other races and nations.
The question of sovereign rights over individual crusaders is a tricky one. The Argent Crusade represents the closest thing to law and order in much of the Plaguelands. An entire generation has come of age under their protection. Once the Cenarion druids had cleansed enough of the region, farmers moved in to the Western Plaguelands and now pay a (very mild) harvest tax in exchange for Argent protection. This, along with generous Steamwheedle loans, is why the Crusade can continue to field such a large army in Northrend.
“It’s certainly not in the Argent Crusade’s interest to be recognized as a sovereignty,” remarked a Forsaken woman named Mertense. An administrator in charge of securing armaments, she covered her face with a yellow veil so as to not alarm the living. She’d come to the mess tent to drink a cup of hot water, tea and coffee being unaffordable luxuries for the Argent Crusade.
“Isn’t it obvious? The Horde and Alliance would be much more cautious about letting their subjects join our ranks if they saw us as a true state. We are of great value as an international organization that fosters cooperation.”
“You fear being seen as a competitor to the existing states.”
“Most especially Undercity and the remnant of Lordaeronian nobility. Our Dark Lady’s gotten it into her worm-riddled brain that Undercity is the successor to Lordaeron. Since the Argents occupy much of the old kingdom, she sees in us a threat.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“She’s gotten to naming Deathguard groups after old Lordaeronian army regiments. This started after the coup; I suppose she sees it as a way of solidifying her reign.”
“What about the surviving Lordaeronian nobles?”
“Their ability to influence the situation is limited at best. Baron Wandrow—old lord of Northdale, if you don’t recall—is trying to get Stormwind’s King Varian to retake and reestablish Lordaeron. I’m sure Varian will be happy to send an army north, though it’ll be for Stormwind, not Lordaeron,” she chuckled.
“I suppose if the Argent Crusade establishes itself as a sovereignty, both of these factions would jump to declare war?”
“That would not surprise me. We are a de facto nation-state, but we cannot afford to make it official. Our original goal was to drive the Scourge from old Lordaeron, but things somehow got more complicated. They always do.”
“Would any power groups be willing to sponsor the Argent Crusade’s sovereignty?”
“Quel’thalas would probably enjoy having us as a buffer state. Stromgarde—what’s left of it—would probably like to spite the remaining Lordaeronians and have us between them and Undercity, but they’re too weak to matter at this point. Ultimately, Highlord Fordring himself has no real interest in announcing himself as a new king or consul.”
“I have heard that the Argent Crusade is swaying to the Alliance.”
“In spirit, though not in action. If we took the Alliance’s side many of our Horde-aligned troops would leave, however reluctantly. Then we’d scarce have enough of an army to maintain our position in Northrend.”
“What about after Northrend?”
“That remains to be seen,” she said, and I could imagine a wry smile behind her veil.
Llane walked into the mess tent soon after Mertense retired for the evening, and said he needed to return to Orgrim’s Hammer as soon as possible. He looked unsure when I told him I intended to stay.
“I know the Hammer’s a miserable place, but there really isn’t any better way to travel up here in Icecrown. You’d be mad to attempt it by foot,” he warned.
“I do not know how far I will go. Perhaps this marks the extent of my journey.”
“Is your plan to reach the Lich King? That’s a fool’s errand, Destron, especially for those like us. His voice will get stronger if you go in any further.”
“I know. This is the risk I choose.”
“Be sure you find a way to kill yourself if his influence grows too great. Better death than enslavement. Are you sure you won’t return to Orgrim’s Hammer?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“All right. Good luck to you, Destron.”
I walked Llane to his flier, and watched as it rose from the ground and circled slowly into the starless sky. The sound of its rotor faded with distance, leaving only an icy silence. A deep blackness engulfed the valley, the camp’s torches burning bright but ever so delicate.
There is a story behind each stone that makes up the Crusaders' Pinnacle. By wagon, boat, and zeppelin, the Crusade’s messengers had sent the stones to the far places of Azeroth and beyond the world altogether so that they might be blessed by the holiest and wisest. Scarred Zandalari priests dribbled jaguar blood on some, while the monks of Northshire Abbey inscribed sacred icons on the stones sent to them. Some pieces basked in moonlight shining down on sacred glades, or absorbed the smoke that carries the dreams of Shu’halo ancestors. A few witnessed the light and glory of Holy A’dal, Guardian of Shattrath.
At first glance the expense might seem extravagant, but when one looks at the bubbling mire of Scourgeholme, a vast green gash in the icy valley below, the effort must be acknowledged as appropriate. A major base for the Lich King, Scourgeholme had repelled the Crusade’s initial attacks, forcing the attackers to fall back to their blessed keep. A quartet of blinding spotlights stay on at all hours, searching the sky for signs of the enemy.
A motley assemblage of artillery lines the ridges overlooking Scourgeholme. The Crusade took whatever it could find, and aging ballistae from the Third War sit next to modern cannons and chain guns. Most of the newer artillery pieces come from the Steamwheedle Cartel, which (as I had learned in Zul’drak) sells at a discount to the Argent Crusade.
After the Crusade’s retreat, they loosed a day-long bombardment on Scourgeholme, blasting the southernmost third of the base into rubble. The gunnery has been silent since then, as the crusaders wait for the next ammunition shipment.
“Artillery alone isn’t enough,” said Genette Vaskess, a human crusader who looked as if she’d been carved from the mountain’s living rock. “See, we can blast apart all those buildings, but most of the deaders are down beneath the earth, and they dig their way out when the bombs stop. Sooner or later we’ll have to go in there in force.”
“What happens after Scourgeholme?”
“I’m not high-ranking enough to be told anything. My guess is we’ll stay to the highlands. Those valleys below are clogged with deaders. Most of them can’t burrow, so fliers and artillery should clear a lot of them out. Won’t be easy though, since the Scourge has got plenty of airpower of its own.”
“You’d think that the Orgrim’s Hammer or Skybreaker could help.”
“You’d think so. No one expects the Alliance or Horde to help us at this point. Some crusaders still want to get friendlier to the Alliance, but I don’t see them as much better than the Horde. They talk politics, we fight and die.”
“They may no longer see the Lich King as a real threat.”
“They’re wrong. He’s still a threat. Maybe not to the rest of the world, but that’s only because we’re up here fighting him on his home turf. The Scourge still has a lot of deaders. Oh, over here, when we say deader, we only mean Scourge, so don’t take it the wrong way.”
The Crusade’s strategy appears quite effective. By taking the mountainous regions surrounding the valleys, they’ll be able to attack with near impunity. Nonetheless, I suspect it will be a drawn-out affair. As Vaskess pointed out, the Scourge is still quite large, and bolstered by recently converted corpses from Zul’drak. Attacks on Icecrown had forced the Scourge to recall most of its forces from the ruined troll empire, but by that point they’d seized the second tier and parts of the third (the Crusade had been able to evacuate its troops before this happened, airlifting them to the Grizzly Hills).
Some fear that the Lich King is working to develop a virulent new plague, and that the slow progress in Icecrown will give him ample time to finish. Several high-ranking officials in the Horde and Alliance ascribe to this theory, and urge the creation of a second united front. Unfortunately, this becomes less likely by the day.
Where the Argent Crusade’s progress has stalled, the Order of the Ebon Blade continues. The freed death knights had recently appropriated a large Scourge base called the Shadow Vault far to the north. The relative ease with which they had seized a major fortress, utilizing minimal outside assistance, is a sore point for the Argent Crusade. Several of the death knights were stationed as observers at the Crusaders' Pinnacle during my visit.
“I am sure that, if we had the forces of darkness at our beck and call, we’d have a much easier time of it,” complained a gnome artilleryman named Flitwip Sparkdowser. We stood near one of the cannons, the stone ziggurats of Scourgeholme in tempting range. I could see the frustration on Flitwip’s cold-reddened face, the wind tousling his shaggy white hair.
“From a purely pragmatic perspective, do you think the Argent Crusade would do well to mimic the Ebon Blade’s talents?” I asked.
“If you asked me five years ago, I’d have said yes. But the more we fought the Scourge, the more I learned, and the evidence suggests that necromantic powers are corrupting in the extreme. Worse than fel energies, even, and I’m already wary of those.”
“How do some of the other crusaders feel about it?”
“Oh, they are adamantly against it. Most of them despise the Ebon Blade. The typical crusader follows the Holy Light, which places great emphasis on joy. Now, the Forsaken might not feel joy very easily, but at least they are capable of it. The death knights can’t really feel it at all. I do not think it is much of a stretch to say that most Light-worshippers in the Argent Crusade consider the Ebon Blade blasphemous.”
“What about those of other faiths?”
“They still hate the death knights. Everyone here wishes the visitors would leave, and there’s been some talk about petitioning the highlord to force the issue. The place just feels horrible with their presence.”
I hold the Argents in high regard, and was thus surprised at the level of hostility. Even so, I could understand it.
“Would it not be preferable to put up with them? Fighting between the Horde and Alliance has already damaged the war effort. I’d hate to see the Ebons and Argents go the same way,” I pointed out.
“Well, I disagree with those who want to kick the Ebon Blade out of here, though I understand their reasons. You have to realize that the Crusade is ultimately an ideological organization. What good will it do, say the critics, if we defeat the Scourge only to leave the Ebon Blade as a new source of necromantic magic? I’m not one of those who believes that the Ebon Blade will become a new Scourge, but they still use dark magic. This world has enough problems without necromancers.”
“If it helps defeat the Scourge, some might think it worthwhile.”
“Like I said, the Crusade is idealistic, not pragmatic. Some are concerned that, by allying with the Ebon Blade, we are sending the message that necromancy is acceptable.”
“Interesting. The Crusade and the Dawn have both accepted help from warlocks in the past. Did that create as much controversy?”
“Oh, it created its fair share. But these warlocks were just random freelancers, not part of any big organization. Also, we were struggling to survive back in the early days. Now, we’re pretty well established, and feel like we can do more to set the rules.
“I’m of two minds on the issue. I can’t deny that the Ebon Blade has been instrumental, and that they are doing real damage to the Scourge from the Shadow Vault. At the same time, they are the very essence of corruption, and it’s doubtful that they can deliver any long-term benefit to Azeroth.”
Like all the outposts inhabited by the living in Icecrown, the defenders of the Crusaders' Pinnacle work in shifts. The endless night is deeply disorienting to newcomers, and even veterans never totally adapt to it. To address this issue, the Crusade hired some goblin engineers to build a replica of more pleasant climes.
There, a spherical lamp set in the ceiling of an underground chamber shines bright, a facsimile of the sun. Record players emit the sounds of crashing waves and crying seabirds, while photographs of tropical islands flicker on screens placed all around the room. The arrangement is actually very similar to one used by the Emerald Circle’s base in Felwood, though the builders claimed to have never heard of that. The crusaders enjoy it well enough, even though the island theme does not remind most of home.
I accompanied crusaders on patrols of the region, the blighted expanse of Scourgeholme never far from our vision. Arachnid shadows lumber through the green mists, and poison-colored lights glow at the peaks of squat temples. All the soldiers expressed a strong desire to go ahead and attack, even as the inevitable casualties gave them pause.
“I fear that supplies will not come soon enough. Who knows what the Scourge is building in those tunnels? Yet if we attack now, we might lose too many to continue,” mused a night elf called Vellendow Mossbranch.
The clamor of alarm bells jolted me awake that night. I threw on my coat as I rushed out of the tent into the night. No beams of light searched the sky, the spotlights somehow snuffed out.
“Fix the generator!” came the frantic shout.
High-pitched shrieks rang down from the sky, the sound scraped out from throats of stone. I recognized it from the last days of my life, the hunting cry of the Scourge’s gargoyles. Winged stone statues animated by the souls of the fallen, they had descended upon Lordaeron like locusts during the Third War.
A memory thought lost came to me unbidden: gargoyles flying in pairs or trios over the refugee columns in which I once walked, flinging bolts of shadow from stony hands. The darkness withered what it touched, instantly turning the healthy into cripples. We could not stop for them, and sang wavering hymns to drown out their dying cries. For just a moment I again smelled the stink of unwashed bodies trudging to the grave.
Soldiers aimed at shadows and fired blind into the sky. An orb of flame sprang to life in my hand. I looked up as it gathered light and heat and saw shadows flit across the dark clouds. There was a mocking quality to their keening cries. A soldier running past me tripped sprawling into the snow, gasping in shock and pain.
I loosed the pyroblast and the projectile soared up, horrors revealed in its fiery light. A swarm of gargoyles looped and screamed overhead, 30 at the very least. Darkness streaked to the ground in whip-like currents, and the confused soldiers shot at whatever attacker was nearest. I saw one gargoyle spiral out of control and crash into the mountain’s icy face.
My spell faded, and as I prepared a second I saw another pyroblast launch from the tents to my left, followed by a third from the base of the tower. Officers wrenched the situation into some kind of order, getting the soldiers to aim at specific targets. More of the beasts dropped, though we all saw the dark specks rising up from Scourgeholme’s fog to join the battle.
Pyroblasts are taxing spells. I could only hope that the generators returned to life. After firing my second, I noticed the five haggard silhouettes flying out from behind the keep, skeletal griffins mounted by shadows. I shivered in a mix of fear and revulsion, somehow able to feel their cold blue eyes even at that distance. The death knights had joined the fray, cutting through the sky on wings of bone.
One death knight swooped in close, pursuing two gargoyles, and I saw him raise his arm. Invisible force wrenched the gargoyle backwards, the shift in momentum splintering its stony flesh. No one cheered at the strangled cry it made as the force pulled it onto the death knight’s outstretched blade.
The Argent soldiers lowered their guns, perhaps for fear of hitting their allies, or maybe because they saw that the battle was out of their hands. Spellfire’s light dimmed, and the death knights flew through the night that they knew so well. The gargoyles’ screams of triumph turned into those of pain, growing fewer and fewer in the echoing valley. At last they stopped, the wing beats of undead griffins the only sound.
Brilliance flooded the skies as the searchlights returned to life. The death knights had already landed in the center of the Crusaders' Pinnacle, the skeletal griffins collapsing into component bones as their riders dismounted. The Argent soldiers offered lifeless salutes, which the death knights accepted with cold smiles.
Talk of sabotage whirled around the camp until noon (or what passed for it) the next day, when an officer explained that a faulty wire had been the source of the disaster. Six crusaders had died in the battle, a number that would have surely been higher without the Ebon Blade.
“The Scourge is easily undone by its own weapons, demonstrating the folly of their cause. Arthas is not long for this world, and the Most Holy Light will reign in his place.”
So spoke the leader of the Ebon Blade representatives, her voice flawless in tone yet awful to hear in its coldness. Born of the Light, she’d died in shadow. Compelled first by a love of power, and second by her recollections of faith, she waged war against her former master. Her name was Otuura, and she was the first draenic death knight.
((Sorry for the delay in posting. The next few sections will not take as long. Writing this, I included a section detailing the narrator's encounter with a goblin priest. I ended up not including it in the text proper, but you can find it on the forums, here.))