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!))
((Happy New Year, everyone!))