Monday, December 31, 2012

The Firelands

Disaster is the herald of Ragnaros.  His arrival on Hyjal turned an entire valley into a vast cauldron of superheated flame, one that burned all through the invasion, consuming air and melting rock into slag.  Twilight cultists gathered on the tortured rim to pay homage to their elemental master, upturned faces blistering and soon liquefying.  Others came to dance on the charred bodies of their fellows, throwing the corpse-ash into the blaze before succumbing to the same fate.

The Sulfuron Spire emanated tides of destructive heat from atop this gruesome scene.  An impossible fortress of solidified flame, its ember-domed towers glowed as bright as the surrounding inferno, and above that fumed the great horned ring through which Ragnaros saw the world.

Sulfuron Spire maintains a measure of its former majesty.  The lights long-since gone cold, the architecture still attests to the power of flame, seen in the curving foundations and sharp flourishes of its walls and parapets. 

I flew to the Sulfuron Spire on a rickety airplane dating back from before the Third War, purchased on the cheap by the Argent Crusade.  The pilot, Veelix Lectronston, claimed to have survived flying the even more dubious contraptions of the Second War.  We landed as clouds of ash moved like ghosts under the wind, the site cold and inert.  The place is how Shadowmoon Valley might look if the Hand of Gul’dan someday goes cold. 

“Here we are,” announced Veelix.  “The portal here used to go straight into Ragnaros’ lair, but the Guardians of Hyjal rerouted it to the Molten Front, where they have a little base.  They closed all the other portals; if the fire elementals make another attack, they want it to be here.”

“Are we safe going in like this?”

“As long as you stay in Malfurion’s Breach.   Beyond that, you’ll burn up in a microsecond.”

I walked quickly behind Veelix, discomfited by the smoky darkness; shadow is the natural element of the Kaldorei.  Nekra and her friends offered more protection than Veelix, though I rationally knew that the Kaldorei had no reason to attack the gnome.  During the flight I could not help searching for movement in the deserted ravines below, an utterly useless and foolish effort.

A slick ramp of black glass connects to the opening of the Sulfuron Spire, where foggy red light swirls over the ground.  The elemental planes are prisons for their masters, who had been driven from Azeroth by the Titans in ages past.  Obscure and isolated, they were once of interest to only a handful of sages.

Maron Deletienne, the greatest Dalaranese mage of the medieval era, was one of the few to explore these primordial realms.  His sojourn to the Abyssal Maw, the elemental plane of water, led to the tenuous alliance between the Dalaranese mages and the water elementals.  Given to cryptic riddles and self-aggrandizement, Maron revealed little about the planes’ inner workings, though he portrayed the Firelands as a place of demonic horror.  

“Verily the infernos of that deplorable plane are made from the souls of the wicked, sent to be scourged by fire throughout eternity for their sins.  In their wretched screams they call out the name of Termagaunt, the dolorous fiend who rules that realm in hopes of earning his pity, but it is in vain for he has none.”

Many once believed that demons came from the Firelands, a myth not dispelled until the First War.  Maron certainly visited the Abyssal Maw, but many historians believe that he never set foot in the Firelands, or that if he did he learned almost nothing.  I am less certain of this; none truly know the size of the Firelands, and some entity named Termagaunt may well rule a portion of its depths.  The host of damned souls seems less probable, however.

“Are you ready?  Perfectly safe, but it can be a shock,” cautioned Veelix, a silhouette against the ruddy light.

I nodded.  Veelix entered the portal, becoming fuzzy and indistinct in the arcane mists before vanishing entirely.  Eager to escape the gloom, I jumped in moments later.

The world stumbled, sky and land spinning into an endless blur.  Streaks of red split into my field of vision, expanding as the sense of movement slowed.  A new vision took form.

To enter the Firelands is to fall into a crown of fiery light, the glare fading as the burning meets the void.  Hard-packed ash crumbles at the slightest touch, revealing the mirrored obsidian surface beneath the char.  Force, ponderous and overwhelming, pulls at the fibers of this plane.  The air rumbles with endless detonations, the sound alone enough to level cities.  Crushed between the heat and the darkness, I almost toppled back through the portal. 

“Easy, Destron!  I told you it’d be a shock.”

Veelix’s voice cut through the shielded bubble of air, a sonic beacon in the tumult.  Closing my eyes, I became conscious of falling.  Rather, the world around me was falling, slowly as if in a nightmare.  I went back to standing still, not sure what to do.

“Don’t worry, the ground won’t fall out from under you.  Everything here is sinking, but it’s slow; you’ll get used to it.”


“Sure.  What you’re standing on isn’t part of the Firelands exactly.  The Elemental Planes are always fighting each other, with or without their masters.  This fine burg was peeled off from Deepholme and is sinking its way to the Firelands core.”

“How long before it reaches?”

“Forty-three years or so, I was told, though it’ll be completely uninhabitable in about fifteen.”

Chains of mountains coil around the Molten Front, all making their final descents.  Some are no bigger than boulders and others span the breadth of entire kingdoms.  The lower rocks of these masses melt into pyroclastic flows that meander through the hot and poisoned air, visible as bright cords feeding the furnace.

“Won’t Deepholm run out of rock?”

“Elemental planes never run out of their core elements.  The Firelands is a furnace; it routinely steals rock from Deepholm and air from the Skywall to keep burning.  Doesn’t touch the Abyssal Maw, however.  Here, look to your left, it might make you feel better.”

Dizzy from all that I’d seen, I obeyed, not quite believing the magnificent arbor rooted in the ash.  Treants stood around the mighty roots, their wooden bodies clothed in leaves.  The soft glow of the adjacent moonwell almost lost itself in the ambient glare.

The researchers at the Forge of Supplication had told me what to expect at Malfurion’s Breach, but the incongruity made it difficult to accept.  A trio of robed Kaldorei woman stood around the moonwell, heads lowered in reverence.

“Come on, they’re Guardians of Hyjal and are friendly enough.”

Veelix led me to a small cavern beneath the tree, its confines offering some measure of relief.  Chandeliers of roots grow from the roof and clay vessels collect the moisture that drips from the tendrils.  Anxiety dogged me even there, the silver eyes of the few Kaldorei residents distant and inscrutable.

I reminded myself that my fears were unfounded; all those in the Molten Front were full members of the Guardians of Hyjal, and would not harm Horde visitors.  Veelix seemed to know them well enough and he launched into Darnassian salutations, inspiring smiles on the placid faces.

Sitting down in an alcove, I tried to take stock of my situation.  Traveling to Outland had been disorienting, but comprehensible; however distant, it is another world (or rather the remnants of one) like Azeroth.  The Firelands exists on a more vague level, not truly a part of the normal universe.

Harder to accept is its size.  The Firelands dwarf Azeroth and any other planet.  Indeed, the Firelands might be better described as a reality unto itself.  I stood on a tiny mortal foothold, the sights of a million flame-scarred worlds before me, and I could only cower in seclusion.

I fell asleep at some point, the sense of freefall tossing me back and forth from wakefulness.  Veelix himself napped in a small cot.  Kaldorei spoke in whispered voices, leaning against the hard black stone and running their hands across damp roots.

I nerved myself to speak to one the next morning, a druid named Selestar Irontree.  One of the brave few who had agreed to stay on in the Firelands, he spent many hours meditating beneath the graceful branches.

“Here I am again in Elune’s embrace, and rest easy knowing I will soon return to Azeroth.”

The efforts of so many volunteers from around the world had softened his stance towards the Horde, though he still warned me that the warchief’s intrusions into Ashenvale could only be met with violence.

“Indeed, if the matter is not solved by the time I return, I will deliver the wrath of my goddess unto the orcs without regret.”

“I cannot fault you for defending your lands,” I said.

“We do not defend our lands.  We defend nature itself.”  He looked out the cavern entrance into the scorched landscape.  “We have been tested, and proved ourselves in battle.  When the Guardians of Hyjal stormed the Ashen Fields, the Ragnaros’ realm itself arose to fight back.”

“Did Ragnaros control all of this?”

“He controlled enough, but who can say how far the Firelands really extend?”

“And now that he is dead?  What have you observed?”

“As you might imagine, this seething hell does whatever it can to limit our operations.  Unseemly creatures and fuming spirits infest most of these earthbergs inside and out.  More to the point, the Firelands are simply too large for even an entire army to map.”

“If you’ll forgive my bluntness, it seems a rather futile operation to stay behind.”

“No.  There are a few who have… adapted to this place.  They serve as our eyes and ears, so that we at least know what is happening the realms adjacent to Ragnaros’ former seat of power.  I expect one of these scouts is due to return shortly, perhaps tomorrow or tonight, however time is measured.”

He grunted, making a downward stroke across his face with his right hand, a Kaldorei gesture signifying exhaustion.

“Her name is Melestria Nightweave, a Druid of the Flame.”  He spoke the title with a cruel relish, as if savoring some foul taste out of spite.


Perhaps circumstance made it impossible for the former archdruid Fandral Staghelm to be anything but a deeply polarizing figure.  Taking the mantle of the beloved Malfurion Stormrage, he had no choice but to lead and reorganize the gutted druid population after the Third War.

Whatever his faults, he had made some wise decisions.  Though a traditionalist in many respects, he saw that the Kaldorei could never return to their former isolation and formally brought the sentinels (and those they protected) into the Alliance.  Similarly, he allowed women to join the druid orders (though for obvious reasons he refused to recognize the Shu’halo druids).  For this reason, more than a few Kaldorei saw him as the leader that they needed.  A few, like Melestria Nightweave, still argue his worth.

Jagged cracks smoldered all across Melestria’s crimson face, her skin bright and demonic in the light of the flames writhing against her scalp.  Yet traces of luminous beauty persisted beyond this nightmarish visage, her high cheekbones and full lips visible though marred.

She looked quite at home as we walked in the Ashen Fields, where the brittle ground shifts at the slightest weight.  Piles of red-glowing ash show where the covering has grown thin, the molten rock underneath ready to erupt.  Plumes of superheated gas burst alight overhead, the ejecta twisting like serpents.

Selestar had given me a portal shield before I left Malfurion’s Breach.  The portal shield creates a localized one-way portal into Azeroth, supplying the wearer with the homeworld’s air, moisture, and temperature.  Developed at the last minute by the cooperation of druids, shamans, and mages, these enchantments made it possible for large numbers to strike into the elemental planes.

“We stood here, my sisters and I, weaving flame into weapons,” Melestria reminisced.  “Fire protected us, until arrows made from Nordrassil’s sacred trunk felled us one after the other.”

I heard her voice through the grinding roar of burning gas, and wondered how the elves had withstood fighting in such an inhospitable place. 

“Is that when the Druids of the Flame surrendered?”

“No.  Most fled the field to regroup.  I surrendered on my own.”

“What motivated this action?”

“Odd.  Most just assume I feared death and sought mercy from the victors.  Not one of the Kaldorei in Malfurion’s Breach believes my motivations anything but selfish.  As you asked, I will tell you; I remembered the beauty of Azeroth, the boundless forests I’d so recently vowed to defend.”

“Were you one of the first women druids?”

“I was there when Archdruid Fandral opened the orders.  As a child, my sister heard the song of Elune under the stars, yet I felt the strength in the trees and stones.  Why could I not be a druid, when their mission called to me?  At last Fandral opened the way, and I could fulfill my life.”

“How do you feel about Fandral?”

“How can one describe how one feels about anybody?  Perhaps humans are able to do so.  Ah, forgive me if I am underestimating your kind, living or dead.”

It took me a moment to realize that she was sincere in her apology.

“Archdruid Fandral was many things,” she continued.  “Tell me, you are of the Horde: do you find it strange that Malfurion would invite the destroyers of Ashenvale to defend Hyjal?”

“The situation in Hyjal threatened all of Azeroth.  He merely appealed to a united sense of self-preservation.”

“Hyjal is more than the heart of our world.  It is the soul of my people, the wellspring of life.  Should we so freely open it to those who burn our forests?  I do not know if I would choose corruption over the peace of death.”

“An interesting decision.”

“Malfurion sees in Thrall a kindred spirit.  Thrall: the brute who brought the orcs to these shores.  Though Garrosh rules now, every tree that falls in Ashenvale falls because of Thrall.  Why should we follow Malfurion when he calls Thrall a friend?

“Archdruid Fandral knew Malfurion’s blindness to the ways of his own people, ways that Malfurion himself helped create!  That is why he tried to keep Malfurion in the Emerald Dream!  But such is the way of the world, the great and powerful enjoying the company of those who slaughter their weaker kin. 

“Malfurion fought the cursed queen in ages past.  She let her people suffer so that her demonic consorts might hold sway in her arcane court.  Is Malfurion today so different?  Enough.  You did not come to hear me lament the passing of Archdruid Staghelm.”

“Actually, I find your perspective interesting.”

“It matters not.  I am a shadow.  In this state I can no longer set foot in Azeroth without setting alight what I touch.”

“You cannot return to our world, yet you said you surrendered for its sake.  Why?”

“How does it matter if I am able to enjoy it?  I am but one.  More vital that my race lives on to cherish its memory, so long as they protect it from the orcs.”

I will confess to a certain mean-spirited pleasure at Melestria’s words.  Though the Horde returns to its former barbarism, the Alliance suffers from its own internal conflicts.  The Kaldorei have never had a very clear command structure.  The temple, the druid orders, and the sentinels all handle their own responsibilities.  To be fair, the system works remarkably well, its factions more inclined to cooperation than rivalry.

However, the Alliance’s reaction to the Horde onslaught raises questions.  Why indeed should the Alliance trust the Horde to defend Hyjal?  Cooperation with an enemy who has made explicitly clear his desire for world domination seems like a risky choice, even in the face of the Elemental Invasion.  Certainly the Horde gains more from a united front than does the Alliance.

Archdruid Malfurion Stormrage left a world still flush from its united stand against the Burning Legion, and returned to find his realm under attack from the same warriors who’d fought the demons.  How prepared is he to adapt to these new circumstances?  I am not surprised that some Kaldorei question his leadership.


Radiating its deadly heat on an earthburg miles away from the Molten Front, Sulfuron Keep became Ragnaros’ new center of power, drawing elemental armies from across the plane.  From there, these reinforcements launched counterattacks on the Molten Front, crossing the gap in burning arcs that utterly destroyed whatever they hit.

These elemental minions landed in Ragnaros’ Reach, a plateau where blood-red lava oozes up from the ground to spill over the edge and flow in slow cascades to the lower ground.  Pillars of solid flame form a ring around the molten lake, the Firelord’s way of stamping the realm as his own.

Today, the reminders of his power seem almost pitiable.  The dark red stones of the pillars flicker in place, the fire within trying to break free from their artificial prisons.  Where his lieutenants once led armies, there is only the burning earth devouring itself.

“Do you know the name of Lord Rhyolith?” asked Melestria, putting her hand almost fondly on the side of a crumbling wall.


“Impossible to forget for anyone who saw him, a giant made of shifting magma.  His core burned bright enough to blind mortal eyes.  Ancient beyond reckoning, he’d served Ragnaros since before the Titans.  He told us much of the Firelands and their history.

“Ragnaros once ruled from the Blazing Court that roamed the entirety of this plane, consuming the choicest fuel.  Only after his sojourn on Azeroth did he start building these citadels.  Perhaps his time as a god to the Dark Irons had whetted his appetite for worship.” 

“Sulfuron Keep is new, then?”

“New, and not long for the Firelands.  On wings of flame I flew past its sinking towers, where living infernos devour it.  That is the way of the fire elemental: to consume without end.”

“They need fuel?”

“When the Firelands burned bright and new, or so said Lord Rhyolith, Ragnaros’ armies laid siege to the Skywall.  They swelled up as they consumed the air of the plane, only to eat up their fuel and collapse.  For this reason they sought to raid Deepholm, where more lasting fuels could be found.

“Consumption earned seniority amongst the fire elementals.  The great masters were those who best managed these resources, who ensured a steady source of fuel for themselves and their underlings.  Some focused exclusively on Deepholm, but others continued the war against the Skywall.  The volatile air of the Skywall gave brief surges of power to those who possessed them.”

“Did Ragnaros tax his subjects?”

“As I said, Ragnaros’ court wandered the plane.  Wherever he stopped, the local warlord delivered unto him gifts of fuel, sometimes sacrificing lesser elementals to feed the Firelord and stay his wrath.”

“Fire elementals consume one another?”

“Fuel is stored each creature’s core, and can be stolen by others.  Always their lot to seek and devour, so that the flame might never die.”  

“Hence the endless wars.”

“Not all of them besieged Deepholm or the Skywall.  Some, the scavengers, ate away at abandoned earthburgs or waylaid warriors coming back from the front.  No great entities guided them, and they fled whenever they saw the Blazing Court.”

“The scavengers were enemies of Ragnaros?”

“Ragnaros cared little about them, and they sought only to escape his hunger.  Scavenger bands sometimes possessed great caches of fuel.  Many a warband master made his name by seizing these supplies.”

“Did any ever think to trade fuel for protection?”

“No.  Fire seeks only to spread and consume, and it is the same with the elementals.  They are not elves, with their—our—endless plans.  Why should elementals think of the past when it interferes with survival?”

“Ah, but you said Lord Rhyolith told you of the Firelands’ history.  The past must be relevant.”

“A good listener, I see.  Yes, those powerful enough had time to reflect.  But such is beyond the capability of most elementals.”

“Did the other planes attack the Firelands?”

“Usually only in retaliation.  There is little here for them, though sometimes an opposing elemental lord might tap into the furnace’s energy for some special project.”

“What about trading for it?”

“I told you, the fire elementals do not trade with each other, and certainly not with their foes.  They do not dare give up fuel that they may need.  Only the threat of force would motivate an elemental to relinquish even the smallest bit, hence the tributes to Ragnaros.”

“How are fire elementals created?”

“As the elemental burns fuel, it grows larger.  Greed and hunger often get the better of the elemental, and it consumes too much, too quickly.  Then it bursts into a mighty conflagration, up to a dozen lesser elementals spawning from its corpse.”

“And if it resists the temptation to consume too much?”

“Then it steadily grows in size, to become something akin to Lord Rhyolith.”

“Rewards go to the patient.”

“And even then they must be on watch.  Lord Rhyolith told me of a pillar of all-consuming light called Flaurox, self-declared herald of Ragnaros’ might.  As mighty as fallen Executus, Flaurox led entire throngs against Deepholm.  Yet its hunger bettered its sense and it self-destructed in glorious immolation.”

“Interesting.  The fire elemental can never rest easy.”

“Nor would it wish to.”

“Do the fire elementals now seek a new lord?”

“They fight the other planes and amongst themselves, as they always have in the past.  The Firelands did not suffer during Ragnaros’ absence.  Whether or not a new lord replaces him matters not.”

If Melestria’s summation was accurate, the fire elementals are a race that needs conflict to survive.  They remind me of the ogres, who find their lives similarly dominated by a need for sustenance.  Can there ever be peace on the elemental planes?  Perhaps a better question to ask is whether or not the planes even desire peace.

Melestria stepped away from the pillar, venturing to the crumbling edge of the earthburg.  She beheld a vista of toxic clouds stretching for thousands of miles without interruption.  All Azeroth’s creations are miniscule compared to the endless and singular essence of the elemental planes.  Nothing can ever tame the Firelands, and this suits the inhabitants perfectly.

“If you don’t mind a personal comment,” I said, “I find it surprising you’d find the Firelands appealing.”

“Really?  Does it not cause pain to see something you love slowly destroyed?”

“I don’t follow, though I can understand that sort of pain.”

“Ashenvale is burning.  Perhaps we will repel the Horde, but the forests where I came of age will never return.  I fear the Alliance just as much.  They bring airplanes, sprawling cities, other things I cannot understand.  My world is dying.  The essence of the Firelands, however, is eternal.”

Something to Melestria’s side caught her attention and she crouched next to what looked like a clump of ash.  Taking a closer look, I saw black cords reaching out from the pile, brilliant specks burning at their tips.  An expression of almost maternal fondness came over Melestria’s face.

“Do you see them?  These are flowers of the Firelands.  They completely cover some earthburgs, boundless fields of fuming lights so much like the starry night skies of our world.  On the Molten Front, only a few survive.  The flowers very slowly burn the earth, until the seed—the burning part at the end—breaks off from the flower.  The fiery mote can float for a long time before losing power, always searching for fuel.  When it finds fuel and consumes it, new flowers grow from the ash.”

I leaned in, seeing the flower stems so much like burning matchsticks.  They looked almost too delicate for their surroundings.

“This remindes you of Ashenvale, doesn’t it?”

“I remember the blossoms that came every spring, a million colors painted across the green swards, so bright and lush.  Though my world will soon be a memory, I could not let its physical essence be destroyed by Ragnaros; under mortals, however wasteful, some trace will remain.  These flowers, so stubborn and beautiful, convinced me.”

“Have you thought about returning home?”

“My punishment is to remain here.  Eventually the gate will close, forever cutting me off from an Azeroth I no longer understsand.  I will have the memories, green and undying.  Besides, there is nature here, of a kind.  Is it not a druid's duty to love nature in all its forms?  I see it as my honor to watch the ebb and flow of life in the Firelands, even if no one else sees it as life.  Especially if no one else sees it as life.”


((Happy New Year, everyone!))

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mount Hyjal: Part 2

I stood alone on an ashen bluff, wrapped in a dead druid’s robe and trying to control my thoughts.  Below me, saplings grew between the husks of trees, grass surviving in patches through the gray dust.  The air still carries a bitter and metallic tinge, the redolence of a once-mighty furnace. 

I stumbled towards the Shrine of Aviana after witnessing the ritual, fearing a second assault the whole while.  I imagined myself helpless before the anger of the Ancients, and the drunken Kaldorei mobs seeking to execute their wills.  I said nothing when the shrine’s guardians first beheld me, silver eyes knife-sharp in the forest shadow.

Though hardly friendly, the druids at the Shrine of Aviana honored the Hyjal Truce better than some others, and allowed me to seek shelter.  Nahonah rushed to my side when he learned of my state, aiding me to the best of his ability.  Druidic healing is of no benefit to the undead, but the physical wounds proved mostly superficial.

Safe though I was, I never felt at ease in that place.  I sensed the hostility in the elven voices, polite but cold.  I spent four days in Nahonah’s tent, not willing to brave the shrine proper.  A gracious host, Nahonah gave me clothes once worn by Hyjal’s defenders and was able to procure a hippogriff rider for transportation down to the Sanctuary of Malorne.

The Horde maintains a comparatively significant presence in the Sanctuary of Malorne.  Recreated in stone, the divine and eponymous stage stands alert on a still-verdant hill.  From there, the Guardians of Hyjal had commandeered the attack on the Firelands.

I hoped to find Horde traveling companions who could take me away from the burned mountain.  The Kaldorei did not want me on Hyjal.  In a certain sense, I could not blame them.  The Horde does terrible things in Stonetalon and Ashenvale, and it is not unreasonable to forbid enemies from journeying in one’s most sacred land.

Yet I had only been a traveler, one ostensibly protected by the Hyjal Truce.  Could they not find some more deserving target for their anger?  Tempted though I was to embrace this burgeoning hatred against the Kaldorei, I knew such a course would be self-destructive and ultimately foolish.  Logically, it was not every night elf that had humiliated me that day, only a small group, whose members might have been more gracious had I met them singly.

Intellectual justifications cannot easily overcome emotions.  My only option was to throw myself into analysis, so that I became fascinated enough with the world around me that I no longer dwelled on personal affronts. 

However, my political allegiance made the severed orcish head in the priestess’ hand impossible to ignore.  I brought the matter to Oklan, an orcish veteran of the Third War and the senior Horde representative in Hyjal at the time of my visit.  He greeted me in a sparsely furnished kodohide tent and listened as I related my story.

“Damn this mess!  Forsaken though you are, any humiliation you suffer is shared by the Horde!”

“I am more concerned about the dead orc.”

“Rightly so, rightly so,” he said quickly.  “The priestess probably spoke the truth.  We shattered the Twilight Cult in Hyjal, but a few still hide in the forests.  There is no way I can prove the dead orc’s identity one way or another.  It’s rotten by now, I’m sure, and you say it was mutilated.”

“I will defer to your judgment on the matter.”  I felt a stab of shame at how quickly I accepted, a disappointment that soon faded into apathy.  I think that I mostly wanted to leave Hyjal and never again see a night elf.

“My blood boils over this insult to us—but there is little I can do.  Destron, you strike me as a wise man.  You know that if this is reported, the warchief will demand the priestess’ own head.”

“Over me?  He hates the Forsaken.”

“It is the duty of the warchief to defend the honor of the orcish people, as well as the races that serve them.  My fear is that this duty will compel him to open up a second front on Hyjal.”

“Why not just wait?  The Horde is already at war against the Kaldorei, and I’m sure his armies will eventually reach Hyjal.”

“It’s not so simple.  The ownership of Mount Hyjal is far from clear.  It has always been a holy place to the entire Kaldorei race.  By right, rulership of the land goes to the Cenarion Circle, but Darnassus now also has influence.  The Kaldorei pay little heed to our notions of national sovereignty.  If the warchief sends troops here, we will be at war with the Cenarion Circle and Darnassus.

“You can see my dilemma.  We cannot spend troops fighting the Cenarion Circle when so much of our army is already engaged.  It will also cause problems with the Shu’halo.  Perhaps I will be dishonored for not acting like an orc should, but reprisal will be a cost we can ill-afford.  The warchief’s honor must never be besmirched, but I am simply a humble warrior, and I will do what I can to protect the Horde’s interests and the warchief’s honor.”

Oklan’s face sunk into his hands, the orc making a sound almost like a whimper.

“That is wise,” I said.  “But this might easily happen again.”

“I know.  I’ve already been trying to get every single Horde warrior out of Hyjal.  Only the Shu’halo—and maybe a few trolls—involved in the Cenarion Circle have any reason to stay.”

I am not as convinced as Oklan that Garrosh would send troops to Hyjal.  I think he could easily declare that the dead orc was a Twilight cultist, and no one would challenge him.  Nonetheless, Garrosh’s volatility demands caution on the part of his subordinates.

Here, Thralll’s great sin is revealed.  The position of warchief simply carries too much power.  No reasonable person could ever believe that only individuals of Thrall’s caliber would reach such heights.

Forcing myself to put the issue behind me, I learned what I could about the region known as the Regrowth.  Despite the progress made in the land’s healing, the Guardians of Hyjal face a number of serious obstacles.  Fire can be the harbinger of new life but the flames of Ragnaros’ army burned hot enough to destroy the very soil. 

Today, the druids try to find ways to restore the lost earth.  Moving earth from any other location is problematic at best.  Synthetic soil can be created, but only in minute quantities, and the Kaldorei detest the idea of using artificial substances on the holy mountain.  The most viable solution came as quite a surprise.

“The Cenarion Circle keeps close contact with the Earthen Ring,” explained a Kaldorei druidess, referring to Azeroth’s preeminent shamanistic organization.  “They have been negotiating with Therazane to harvest special minerals from Deepholm.”

“I thought Deepholm had been closed off after the restoration of the World Pillar.”

“Therazane apparently changed her mind, though the shamans tell me she is not at all pleased by this.  I am not clear on exactly what happened, which irks me; it must have been significant.  The gnomes call the mineral crumlite; it’s a soft stone that can be eroded into soil through artificial means.”

“I thought the druids did not wish to use synthetic materials.”

“Crumlite is completely natural; it will simply undergo an artificial alteration.  A fine distinction, perhaps, but an acceptable one.  The forests are my people’s greatest defense; right now, an opposing army could quickly sweep through the lower slopes.

“The crumlite alone is not sufficient.  We will need to use more traditional druidic methods to strengthen it.  That is our only real option.  This is not a matter of soil degradation, which we could solve on our own.  Nothing remains of the earth that once covered the slopes.  Given enough time, Ragnaros would have melted the very bedrock.”

I spent four days in the Sanctuary of Malorne before leaving it in the company of three Horde partisans: Nekra, an orcish shamanness; Kuzlok, an orcish warrior; and Sleed, a goblin scout.  As per Oklan’s wishes, they were headed to the neutral territory of Everlook and would from there fly back to Bilgewater Harbor.

Before we left, Oklan warned us to keep away from any large groups of Kaldorei.


Trekking through miles of gray ash, blown into ghostly swirls by the wind, it is easy to forget that forests once covered the place known as the Scorched Plain.  Here is devastation even more complete than seen in Felwood, the forests not corrupted but annihilated.

I followed close behind my companions, Nekra taking point.  All three had fought against the Elemental Invasion, their deeds recorded on their burned bodies.  Sleed’s face had been nearly destroyed, the gruesome sight hidden by a voluminous hood.

“The Warchief wills me to Ashenvale,” said Nekra as we camped one night.  An elemental’s rage had burned all the hair off of her head, and slick patches of regrown skin covered most of her scalp.

“What?  You are a hero of the Horde, Nekra!  Surely they would listen to you,” insisted Kozluk.  Timely healing had prevented many scars from marring his form.  With his mane of tangled black hair and boisterous voice, he looked every inch the orc warrior.

“I told them.  The voices of my fathers and mothers warned me that it is a poor thing to fight those who so recently fought by your side.  But the warchief better knows the spirits than I,” she sighed.

“You must contest this!  It is not our way to simply accept, we are orcs!”

“I tried!  Honor demands that I serve.  I do not want to go to Ashenvale, and the spirits say I should not.  They will be unlikely to aid me in the forests.”

“Why does the Horde want you in Ashenvale?” I asked.

“I know how the elves think and act.  I spent half a year defending them.  We stood on the towers of the Shaladral Bulwark, bows and guns at the ready as the inferno swelled in the distance.  Flame devoured beast and tree alike, growing hotter with each pound of fuel, until it was as if we stood in an oven.

“We called on the spirits to stop the fire: orc, tauren, troll, goblin, dwarf, and draenei, all as one.  The earth rose up to suffocate the fires and rivers overflowed their banks to drown them.  We bought time, but at last the spirits wailed and said they could do no more.

“From afar we saw the fortress burn away to ash, all of us vowing to find victory or death.  Still Ragnaros advanced, the heat of his fires weakening us even as we fought.  How many times did a Kaldorei save my life?  How many times did I save one of theirs?  Only the spirits know.”

“We fought well, and with honor,” added Kozluk. 

“Where are you headed, Kozluk?”

“I am an independent, so I will go wherever there is honorable battle.  Perhaps to the Southern Barrens.  Nekra here is a wise woman in the Red Blade Rising, a warrior band of great esteem, but has less choice in her destination.”

I had heard of Red Blade Rising, which had earned its fame battling Alliance freelancers in the Grizzly Hills.  They are so closely associated with the Horde’s government that they are effectively a war-pack of their own.  Red Blade Rising has also championed the trollish cause, but has not made much progress in that field.

We reached the remains of the Shaladral Bulwark the next day.  Named for a huntress who perished on that spot while defending Hyjal in the Third War, the elves had used it as a post from which to observe the demons in Darkwhisper Gorge.  The Guardians of Hyjal reclaimed the fort after Ragnaros’ initial onslaught, but found themselves stretched too thin to occupy it during the pushback into the Firelands. 

Now controlled by Darnassus, the sentinels are embroiled in Ashenvale and unable to protect this charred possession.  Nonetheless, Oklan warned us that any entry onto the grounds of the Shaladral Bulwark would be seen as trespassing.

The ash disperses a few days east of the Shaladral Bulwark, thinning out to a powdery layer on the gray rock.  Once the last tendril of winter before Nordrassil’s eternal warmth, the Darkwhisper Gorge never recovered from the Third War.  Demons lurked there well beyond the defeat of their dark master.  Concerned with other matters throughout their realm, the Kaldorei never saw its reclamation as a priority, preferring to supply the Hyjal summit via hippogriff from Moonglade and Darkshore.

What the Kaldorei neglected, the Twilight’s Hammer Cult finished.  Spilling out from their strange temples, the motley army wiped out the Burning Legion’s last regional foothold.  Their presence did little to improve the situation.

The temperature drops farther down the stony slopes, flecks of ashen snow fluttering down from slate-colored clouds.  The slightest bit of color stands out, which is why, as we crested a ridge, we instantly saw the corpses strewn on the rocks a few miles away.

Weapons gripped in dead hands and bodies torn by gruesome wounds told us that they’d met their ends in battle.  Advancing decay obscured individual features.  Getting closer, we counted seven dead in total.  Most were orcs, along with a tauren and a human, the last with a Horde ax buried in his skull.

“Blood and thunder!” exclaimed Kozluk.  “Six dead Horde?  It must have been an ambush!  Ready yourselves; the attackers may still lurk.”

I stepped over a bloodily splayed orcish body to the lone human.  For armor he wore only a battered cuirass.  He held a broken rifle in his hands, the barrel in the left and the stock in the right; perhaps he’d used it as a clumsy defense against the ax. 

“These wounds are not natural,” said Nekra.

“Arcane?” I asked.

“I know little of the sorcerous arts.  But look at the killing wound on this one!”

She pointed at an orc whose entire front had exploded outwards.  Nekra put her hand over her mouth and stepped away.

“That might have been an arcane blast,” I said.  Had the spell been centered on his body—an unlikely decision, since it’s much easier to aim for the ground at the target’s legs—it could have done such a thing.

“How could some Alliance warband kill six of our own while losing only one of theirs?” demanded Kozluk.

“We can’t even be sure it had anything to do with the Alliance.  This might be the work of Twilight cultists; perhaps even some leftover demons,” I cautioned.

“Nekra, ask the spirits what they have seen,” said Kozluk.

A grave look passed over Nekra’s scarred face.

“The poison of the Twilight’s Hammer has spread deep into this land.  Where they walk, the spirits fall silent, sometimes for years.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is difficult to rouse the spirits in lands once ruled by the cult.  Only the greatest shamans can coax them from silence, and the asking price is always great.”

“Can you try?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“I am not worthy to trouble them.”

“This could be important, however.”

“An improper request might waken them into rage.  The spirits are not like the spells that come to your aid whenever you wish, Destron; they keep their own counsel, and it is not always for us to know.”

“Heed her words, Destron,” agreed Kozluk. 

Frustrated, I again examined the dead human, not really sure what I expected to find.  Sleed ambled over, his tiny hands rifling through the dead man’s clothes with a perverse grace.  Lifting up the torso, he pulled out a tin brooch.  A yellow sunburst on a blue field had been painted onto the surface. 

“Do you recognize this emblem?” I asked Sleed.

He shook his head.  I suspected it to be the logo of a partisan band.  Partisans on either side might not necessarily see themselves as beholden to the Hyjal Truce; indeed, I suspect more than a few partisan leaders would deliberately withhold such information from their subordinates.

Kozluk established that the Horde dead had been members of Justice of the Ax, a small partisan band decimated in the Elemental Invasion.  All members wore a tattoo of an ax on their upper left shoulders.

“These were likely the last.  They were fierce fighters.”

“Did they follow the Hyjal Truce?” I asked.

Kozluk’s brow wrinkled in annoyance.

“Perhaps your own state makes you bold, but it is a foolish thing to speak ill of the dead,” he growled.

“Forgive me.  Sleed found a brooch; does the symbol on it mean anything to you?” I asked.  Sleed held it up for all to see.

“I have not seen it.  Probably some meaningless decoration,” said Kozluk.  “Is that all you found?”

“No,” said Sleed, his tone hoarse and labored.  “This too, in a vest pocket.”

He handed me a folded-up paper.  Opening it, I saw several lines of printed text in unidentifiable symbols. 

“Some kind of code?”

I passed it around, but no one recognized the writing.  Nekra said that the Twilight’s Hammer used code for all their written missives, but that she’d never read any herself.  The characters used looked disappointingly prosaic for a group as bizarre as the Twilight’s Hammer.

“There is a joint Argent-Cenarion camp not far from here, in the Forge of Supplication, a former Twilight base.  They came to study the Twilight’s Hammer Cult.  They may know more,” said Nekra.

Our next course of action was clear.


“Nothing about this damned place makes sense.”

Shivering and surrounded by monuments to nonexistence, the human named Leoron Valstad breathed on his wrinkled hands and put them up against the campfire, its flames fed by enchanted embers looted from the Firelands.  No fuel exists in the Forge of Supplication, the cult having made its base in a site as barren as its creed.

“I was a child when the Horde first attacked.  Most of the clans plundered as they went, but the Twilight’s Hammer always stayed behind to break every house and uproot every foundation.”

“To let no stone stand on top another,” I said, remembering the scholar Belgrano’s translations of Cho’gall’s prophecies.

“I saw them tear apart the villages around Northshire, setting everything ablaze.  Didn’t care about treasure or slaves, just destruction.  That’s what happened to my farm.  Some dwarven scouts saved me and took me north—none of my family survived.  Fought the Hammer when I got older, and cheered when the rest of the Horde killed them.

“I never imagined they’d reappear in Silithus, and again after the Cataclysm.  The bastards are like cockroaches; whenever they disappear, it just means they’re regrouping.”

I wondered to what degree the New Horde bears responsibility for the current Twilight’s Hammer. 

“How does the Twilight’s Hammer of today compare to the one of old?” I asked.

“The Twilight’s Hammer in the Second War used to fight like the other clans, more or less; it was only after the battle that they stood out.  The cult is different.  I was up on the Sanctuary of Malorne during the Elemental Invasion, healing wounded soldiers.  Waves of fire tried to burn through us, and the cultists attacked between the infernos.

“They’d charge us in groups of 20 or 30, even though we were firmly in place.  We had one chain-gun set up, opening volley after volley.  I saw a cultist get hit square in the chest and he didn’t even slow down.”


“Elementium.  The stuff’s all around us; Twilight priests grow it out of the earth, the way the druids raise trees.  All the Twilight structures are made of elementium and they can shape raw ingots into weapons and armor.  Wollic, the geologist here, explained how it works.  Elementium armor eats any force inflicted on it.  So a bullet can hit a fellow in elementium, but he doesn’t get hurt.  In fact, the force of the blow gets transferred to his weapon, making it hit harder.  I saw cultists shatter boulders with the swing of a sword.”

“How did you stop them?”

“There’s a limit to how much the elementium can absorb.  Still, it’s a high limit, and the cult never runs out of supplies.  If I didn’t know better I’d swear the earth itself was on their side.  Elves have lived on these slopes for thousands of years and they never found any trace of elementium in the rock.  Wherever the cult goes, the stuff becomes as common as dirt.”

“To be fair, the Kaldorei aren’t the most dedicated miners.”

“Still seems hard to believe that they wouldn’t at least know about it.  We must have killed a hundred cultists in the first week, and figured that would do it for their presence in Hyjal.  After all, they didn’t convert that many people.  Then we found their bases, and saw that we’d barely made a dent in their numbers.”

Night had almost fallen by the time my companions and I reached the Forge of Supplication.  We first reported our findings to the camp’s leader, a dwarven paladin named Orzel Flintknuckle.  After hearing us out, he promised to send someone to investigate the site.

“That’s the last thing I needed to hear!  Ach, no matter, thank you for telling me.  It’s my job to know.”

“Who do you think is responsible?” I asked.

“Too early to say, though I’ll send investigators tomorrow.  If even a few cultists are still around, it could be a big problem.  Dangerous ones, they are.”

“What makes you so sure that it was not the work of Alliance partisans?” pried Kozluk.  Orzel frowned.

“And what makes you so sure that they are?  The Alliance isn’t the one starting a new war every week!  The condition of the bodies, your shaman’s inability to get readings from the spirits, that all says Twilight’s Hammer to me!”

“Did you recognize the emblem or the code?” I said, wanting to prevent a quarrel.

“No.  Emblem might not mean anything; the dead lad you found might’ve looted it from somewhere else.  The code is the only thing that makes me think it’s something other than cultists.  Twilight codes are ugly things that give you a headache if you look too close.  This is downright basic by comparison.”

“Is there anyone here with expertise in codebreaking?”

“I wish, but the Cenarion Circle doesn’t want to send their codebreakers up here.”

“Why do they not go here?  Are they cowards?” accused Kozluk.

“No, just not interested in wasting time and energy!  There aren’t any Twilight writings in this place, not anymore.  Twilight papers fall apart a week after they’re made.  We transcribed them as fast as we could and sent the copies to Nighthaven and New Hearthglen.”

We spent an uncomfortable night in the repurposed Twilight base.  My companions recognized a few of the residents from their mutual defense, but I sensed little in the way of camaraderie.  The Horde and Alliance conflict, once relatively distant, is now very real for many Azerothians.

Nekra chose to stay another day to make sure that Orzel sent the investigators; she still suspected Alliance involvement, and feared Orzel might cover up for any partisans.  Awaking early, I sensed something of Northrend in the dawn’s freezing air. 

Coiling Twilight structures wrap around the more solid demonic constructions, unsightly growths on a corpse.  Elementium dragonheads extend on serpentine necks from stone columns, the worksmanship possessing a strangely childlike quality.

The spiked fortresses display the brutality of the Burning Legion, just as the flanged Scourge citadels had advertised the Lich King’s unspeakable cruelty.  The arrangement of Twilight structures in the Forge of Supplication instead suggests a sort of purposelessness.  The elementium growths, little more than elaborate tents, form a rough circle around a broken stone shrine at the center.  Impressive though it must be to raise elementium from the ground, the final product evinces little effort. 

I took advantage of this to speak with the lead Argent researcher, a Forsaken like myself.  Named Gulrow Ansilian, he went about his work in a gilt-embroidered black silk coat, the kind favored by wealthy Lordaeronian merchants before the Third War.

“Whether cursed into undeath or stuck in this Light-forsaken wilderness, let it never be said that I’ve been anything other than a gentleman,” he declared.

Gulrow had worked as an arcane researcher (as opposed to practitioner) in Dalaran, though our paths had never crossed.  His experiments had allowed the Argent Crusade to exploit weaknesses in the Scourge armies, making him a natural choice for uncovering the secrets of the Twilight’s Hammer Cult.  However, the cult proved much harder to crack.

“The cult makes less sense every day.  I’m not speaking of their ridiculous theology, mind you—that’s a realm of absurdity all to itself.  Rather, I refer to their operational capacity.  Tell me, how many converts did the cult find in Orgrimmar?”

“I was not present when they amplified their missionary activity, nor does the Horde keep very good records.  A thousand, perhaps, 2,000 at most.”

“They numbered at least 5,000 here in Hyjal.”

“Did they have more success finding converts in other lands?”

“Orgrimmar was one of their most fruitful.”

“Then most of them must have gone to Hyjal.”

“So you would think.  Except that similar or greater numbers have been reported in other regions.  There seems to be no limit to their zealots in the Twilight Highlands.”

“Then they are getting more troops.  Has anyone been able to track their supply lines?”

“And there’s the thing!  They don’t have any!  The Twilight’s Hammer Cult is an army operating without logistics.  Frothing minions erupt from nowhere, as if birthed from thin air.  Stormwind and Khaz Modan at the very least would have been able to tell if the cult had sent large movements of converts through their territory, but nothing of the sort was ever reported.”

“Perhaps someone’s been concealing records?”

“That is possible, but there is literally no evidence of Twilight supply lines even existing.  Look around you, Destron.  This place is utterly dead; not even a druid could grow food here.  Yet somehow, thousands of soldiers made it their base, even when surrounded by hostile and volatile territories that would have made it impossible for supply caravans to reach them.”

“Did you find any evidence of food infrastructure in these camps?”

“No.  What we did find were hundreds of dead cultists who’d simply perished of thirst or malnutrition.  Sometimes they’d throw the bodies in ravines, but they often let them lie where they fell.  Among the cultists we killed, most were already half-dead from starvation.”

“That’s consistent with what I saw back in the Silithus Campaign,” I said, remembering how the cultists ate locusts sent to them as gifts by the qiraji.

“I’ve heard the stories.  This particular camp is interesting; the Twilight’s Hammer used it as a sort of training ground.  Not a place for hardened troops.  So to set up a base of operations on Hyjal, the cult sent thousands of green recruits through the wartorn forests of Ashenvale, completely unsupported by any manufacturing or agricultural base, and unnoticed by everyone.”

Gulrow threw up his hands.

“It’s maddening.  I suppose the lack of manufacture can be explained by the way they just summoned that disgusting elementium up from the ground—I never thought I’d see a mineral less pleasant than saronite, but elementium comes close. 

“Not only that, but cultist training tended to be very lethal.  We had a few undercover agents here, and they told us that about a third or a half of the recruits died trying to complete ludicrously hazardous trials.  After all that, they’re still able to field an army powerful enough to threaten the Guardians of Hyjal.”

“What’s your hypothesis?”

“I haven’t anything particularly good.  There are two theories in vogue at the moment, neither of them supported by evidence.  Extremely powerful mages are able to teleport large groups of people across vast distances; there are perhaps five people on Azeroth capable of such.  However, the cult would need dozens of such wizards working around the clock to manage such a feat.

“The other, slightly more plausible theory, is that they used the elemental planes as a means of getting from place to place.  That is to say, they opened up a portal to the Firelands in Durotar, and then created a new portal to Mount Hyjal from within the plane.

“This still runs into some trouble.  Such portals are impossible to conceal; even small ones send all kinds of unpleasant energies gallivanting through the landscape.  If they could march troops at will through the elemental planes, why not send more cultists through the portals as they advanced up the slopes?  No one knows how they got to Darkwhisper Gorge, but once here they marched their way up to the top the old-fashioned way.

“Any damn thing is possible with them!  How do you quantify an army that’s freed itself from the bonds of reality and common sense?  The devices here tell me nothing.  I’m going to send my few findings here to everyone: the University-in-Exile, the Magisters’ College, Dalaran, even those dreadful sorts in Undercity.  This is too complex for one mind to solve, even one as marvelous as mine.”

“I’ve heard that Twilight prisoners are less than cooperative.”

“Oh, totally useless.  We have to kill them.  Not from brutality, but simple practicality.  They are a danger to themselves and everyone around them, barely able to do anything besides scream and claw.

“You do know what this means, don’t you?  As far as I can tell, the Twilight’s Hammer can create a base anywhere and instantly teleport or transport an endless number of well-equipped soldiers.  With the national armies spread out as they are, can you imagine the damage if they set up shop next to Silvermoon?  Or in the middle of Elwynn?  We’re trying to inform all the sovereign states about this.

“Ghastly business,” he said, after a pause.  “On a more amusing note, the cult is apparently as prone to infighting as anyone else.  The ogres form a sort of elite; some of them had fought alongside Cho’gall during the Second War, or are descended from those who have.  They do not always get along with the other cultists.”

“They actually fought each other?”

“According to our undercover agents: yes!  The ogres are rather more prosaic.  I imagine that their simple minds interpret Cho’gall’s ravings as a mere call to destruction.  Converts from other races demand more elaborate theologies.”

“The ogre-mages are capable of rather sophisticated thought,” I pointed out.

“You know your ogres.  Still, they rely on the normal ogres for protection, and encourage these basic beliefs to retain power.  No point in confusing your underlings.”

“What is the cult’s theology?”

“Hard to say.  Cult texts tend to disintegrate after a week and they’re all encrypted.  What’s more, the codes used change on a constant basis.  The priests must have some way of bypassing the code entirely; there’s no way they could keep track of it all.  The translations we’ve seen are all philosophical, though I hate to sully that adjective by associating it with such ravings.  There’s no mention of how they might have created these armies, so I’m very nearly working blind.”

“What about Cho’gall’s central writings?  Some of them survive in Northshire.”

“Belgrano’s work?”

“You’ve met him?”

“No, sadly.  He passed away a few years ago, but we do possess copies of his translations.  Unfortunately, Cho’gall seemed to take a perverse delight in contradicting himself as often as he could, and even discourages readers from heeding some parts of his message.  There’s a general longing for destruction, but that’s the only constant.”

News in Orgrimmar said little about the Twilight’s Hammer Cult.  Reports described them as sidekicks to more overtly menacing groups, like the elementals or the naga.  Nor do the authorities care to dwell on the fact that the cult gained converts in Orgrimmar.  These converts are generally described as peons and non-orcs.  In reality, some orcish warriors and shamans also joined.  Of places beyond Orgrimmar, nothing is said.

In a way, the cult’s ability to raise bases out of nothing is an amplified version of the threat posed by Scourge necromancers.  A necromancer in a graveyard can quickly assemble a small army.  However, some kind of support infrastructure is required to field more advanced forms of undead.  Abominations, for instance, are not easy to create.  The Twilight’s Hammer Cult does not appear to be limited in this way.

Gulrow offered me a curious opportunity later that day, one that I had to ponder for some time.  The main gate to the Firelands did not close after Ragnaros’ defeat.  The Guardians of Hyjal continue to maintain a small outpost there at great expense, wanting to observe the elemental plane in the aftermath of its lord’s death.  The Argent researchers also found it valuable, both for resources and information.

A gnomish scientist named Veelix Lectronstun would be flying there the next day, and Gulrow said I’d be welcome to go along.  I did not agree to this as quickly as usual.  My humiliation at the Shrine of Goldrinn still pained me, and I feared another encounter.  Beyond the portal, in a realm of infinite flame, what might the elves be willing to do to me?

Gulrow assured me that I’d be safe so long as I stayed under Argent protection, and that the Guardians of Hyjal would not persecute me, however much they disapprove of Sylvanas’ actions.  Doubt in my throat, I told Gulrow that I’d visit the Firelands.  Having made my decision, I resigned myself to whatever might happen on the next journey.


((If any of the readers out there are artistically inclined, by the way, I'd be happy to accept fan art submissions.  Please submit them to