Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Southern Barrens

Hot eastern winds blew in the smell of cordite, the yellow grass rustling like loose bones on the dying prairie.  The sun retreated behind the mountains as we walked, its rays bloody and shimmering in the dusty air.  The last of the afternoon heat pressed down on us, a reminder of dry mouths and cracked skin.

“You approach a holy place, undead.  I trust you to keep your distance?”

“Of course.”

“Forgive my warning, but this is a place of great import to us.  Perhaps even more now than when children still laughed on the plains.  An’she weeps; you can see it in the dimness of Her light.  I fear our Mother will weep for many months yet.”

Shaya Windhorn shook her shaggy head, her brown fur whitened by dust.  I had met her years ago during my first trip through the sun-blasted Barrens, back when its name was still a misnomer.  Though the depopulated north survives more or less intact, the south is a battleground. 

A deep-voiced Taurahe chant wove in and out of the gusts.  A hulking shadow threw thick arms above its horned head, shifting weight from one hoof to the other as it danced at the base of a solitary watchtower.  Darkness reached out to clutch the heaps of burned timber, piled up like cairns on the plain.

Vidder, the pilot Elazzi had hired for us, had made an unscheduled landing at Vendetta Point in order to check out some engine problems earlier that day.  Vendetta Point is where the survivors of the Tauraje Massacre regrouped, joined by braves from other tribes shattered by the Cataclysm.

Shaya had offered to take me to Camp Taurajo so that I might see what became of the place I’d visited years ago.  A shaman when I’d first met her, Shaya had recently taken a less conventional route for her spiritual education.

“I have heard of the sunwalkers,” I’d said, shortly after meeting her in Vendetta Point.  “Your order makes up the priests and paladins of the Shu’halo, correct?”

“Priests and paladins?” she laughed.  “I do not mean to sound mocking, but many tauren find the word ‘priest’ very puzzling.  The Earthmother loves us all; why should She only choose a few to be close to Her?”

“Well said.”  Taurahe has no native word for priest, instead using the Orcish word, which is itself a loan from Common.

“We sunwalkers are not any kind of special order.  We simply seek to serve the Earthmother.  Like the Kaldorei, the druids of our people revere Mu’sha, the Earthmother’s left eye.  Who then speaks for Her right?  The sunwalkers address this imbalance.”

“I’m afraid I still tend to categorize the world in the manner of humans, so please pardon me if I’m slow to understand.  In human society—and others—priests and paladins serve distinct roles and have different abilities.  Among your people, are both considered sunwalkers?”

“Yes, why should different talents separate them?  I am a sunwalker, and my brother is a hunter, but we are both of the Windhorn Tribe.  Sunwalkers are those who give An’she the same reverence that the druids show Mu’sha.”

“And this reverence confers certain abilities.”

“Yes.  The druids learn how to tap into the essence of nature through the old rituals and practices of the elves.  Few such rituals exist for An’she.  When Tahu Sagewind and Aponi Brightmane first bowed beneath An’she, they had to have faith.  In this faith, there is strength.”

“But if the tauren have always worshipped the Earthmother, why is this only happening now?”

“We saw Mu’sha and An’she as parts of the greater whole, serving her in the old ways.  Yet the Kaldorei worship Mu’sha.  How can one claim to love the daughter of another family while ignoring the mother?  We are simply trying to create balance, so that all of the Earthmother might be appreciated.”

“I see.  How well do the sunwalkers fit into your society?”

“So long as one helps the tribe, she is welcome.  More than ever the tribes need those who know something of both healing and combat, so the sunwalkers can make themselves helpful.  There is no greater thing than aiding one’s kin.”

In Vendetta Point, Camp Taurajo remains as a memorial to the fallen.  Now that war rarely spills past the middle of the Southern Barrens, the site is periodically visited by shamans who sooth the spirits of the dead.

To the tauren, the violence and upheaval of the Third War heralded what they called an Age of Peace.  The orcs had routed the rapacious centaurs and quilboar, allowing the tribes to once again flourish.  Only isolated incidents like the Aparaje Massacre (the tragic aftermath of which I had also seen) disrupted this time of growth.

The Taurajo Massacre threatens the Age of Peace; indeed, perhaps it already has signified its end.  Deathwing’s rise tore ancestral lands asunder, and the Horde and the Alliance wage war on a scale more massive and devastating than the old tribal conflicts could ever reach (though one could argue that the explicitly genocidal tribal wars were more vicious).

“Hunters of the Chalkhoof Tribe saw smoke rising from Camp Taurajo and they ran to investigate.  They found humans looting the dead, carving pieces from the bodies.  Horns, tails, ears… just like the centaurs did to our ancestors!” said Shaya, her voice quaking.

Shaya knelt down next to a burnt wooden stake leaning out of the dust, already eroded by the wind. 

“I only heard about it on the radio,” I said.  “They reported that the human forces surrounded the camp and marched in, cutting down anyone who tried to get past.  I will admit I found it hard to believe that the humans of Theramore would do such a thing.”

Shaya paused, her dark fur making her almost invisible in the encroaching night, the sky lit only by the corona of the falling sun.

“Perhaps the orcs did not get a full report.  That is not what happened.  The humans left their lines open, and let the young ones and new mothers pass through safely.”

“So they only targeted the warriors?”

“Not exactly.  For generations we fought ruthless butchers who savored innocent blood.  The cruelty of their acts gave them an awful power, and they made no pretense at being anything other than evil.  The humans seemed different.

“As they made their escape, the tall grass opened up.  Dozens of quilboar warriors had waited there and our children died on their spears.  The Alliance knew, of that we are sure.  These humans are savages who are afraid to admit it, so they simply give innocents to monsters instead of doing the deeds themselves.”

More cautious minds in the Horde had long worried about the Alliance exploiting Kalimdor’s ancient hatreds.  Both factions had waged a proxy war through the centaur tribes in Desolace (one that has apparently ended now that the battle lines have moved to the north and south).  However, the contrast between the radio report and Shaya’s recounting gave me pause.  Could it not be coincidence that the quilboar had been in the area?  Known for their opportunism, it is hardly a stretch to think that they had simply positioned themselves around the battle in order to loot the dead or kill survivors.

“You… you are sure it was not a coincidence?” I asked, my voice trembling.  I feared my objection would make a mockery out of her grief, and whatever my concerns I could not disprove her version of events.

“There is no doubt.  Why would the Alliance let quilboar warriors go behind them, unless they were sure the quilboar would not attack them?”

I said nothing in response, though it was possible that the Alliance simply had not known.  A small hunters’ camp, Taurajo had nonetheless been a very important stopping point in the kodo herd runs between Mulgore and the Crossroads.  The Cataclysm combined with Camp Taurajo’s destruction has hobbled the kodo trade, further weakening the Horde’s economy.

Shaya and I took seats in the dirt at the base of the watchtower, smoke weaving up from a small fire built on the dirt floor.  Koohoak Cloudsong, a shaman, watched us through cloudy eyes that held all the fear his people had once known.  Aged and near death, Koohoak had taken it upon himself to sing to the spirits of Camp Taurajo, where he had once lived. 

“Dark times again,” he murmured, his voice weighed down by dread.  “There must be restitution for this.”

“Such is being seen in the war against the Alliance,” I said, after a long pause.  I imagined the cries of ghosts in the silence between words.

“War alone is not enough.  These humans and quilboar killed our children, so their children must also die.”

“But their children committed no crime!”

“Our ways demand no less.  If we allow this to happen, to have the futures of our tribes threatened, we will die.  You still think like a human, but Kalimdor is not a place for laws.  It is too wild and great for them.”

“But if you kill their children, it will harden the hearts of the Alliance.”

“They already wage a war of extermination against us by letting the quilboar to do the work for them.”

“Here, you have an opportunity to shame—“

“Do not speak to me about shame, of law, of immunity to vengeance.  These are human ideas.  We are Shu’halo.  I sense a kindness in you, and that is good, but do not seek to advise us.”

Many see the tauren as peaceful, but they are not without their ruthless side.  I saw firsthand how the omokee exiles are shunned and abused, and saw too the willingness of many tauren to utterly destroy the centaurs. 

“Remember, though,” I said with haste, “that the Alliance blamed the Shu’halo for razing the settlements around Dustwallow, but the truth turned out to be more complex.”  The rogue Grimtotem Tribe had been at fault.

Koohak’s throat rumbled and he went silent for several long moments.

“You speak wisely.”

“You must be sure that the Alliance was truly responsible before taking such an action.”

With that, the helplessness returned, wrenching at me.  I had verbally defended the Alliance for the sake of human children while implicitly saying that quilboar children were acceptable targets.  I tried to say something, but nothing came out, and I felt eons’ worth of tradition crashing down on me. 

“We will.  For now we will content ourselves fighting them on the field of battle.  Other tribes share your concerns, and like you, they are wise.  We will listen and learn.  But do not seek to question our ways.  The tribe is everything.”

A gust of wind blew through the open windows, the fire flickering on the verge of extinction before righting itself, the light weaker than before.

Vidder took off from Vendetta Point at dawn, us wincing at every painful jolt and shake as it picked up speed on the rough ground.  Once in the air, I told Daj’yah about what had happened at Camp Taurajo.

“Not so different with us.  I remember how one night—I was a little girl at the time—the Skullsplitter attacked.  They jumped out of the trees at night and weren’t particular in who they killed.  Later, our own boys went off to pay them back, and I’m sure they did the same.”

“But you do think it’s wrong?” I asked, almost pleading.

“Yes.  I listened to what Thrall told us, and I read a lot of human novels.  Funny, how much the humans gave us, even as they fight us.  But I know how the tauren feel.  When the village is all you have…” she shrugged.

Defeated, I looked at the porthole window at the brown and dusty plains.  I feared that for all my experience, I was as naïve as I’d been when I started.

“You are right, Destron.  I don’t want you to think I’m cruel.  But these ways have power, and I’m not thinking they’ll end in our lives.  In my life.  Maybe new ideas will come up.  I changed.  So did you.”

“I wish I could have said something more convincing.”

“You did everything you could do.”

Was Daj’yah right?  Or was I simply a coward too bowed by my own history of ineffectual attempts at persuasion?

Vidder’s flight path took us to Desolation Hold, where he intended to land and refuel.  A monster of granite and steel, Desolation Hold stares with baleful contempt at Fort Triumph, its Alliance counterpart on the other side of the valley.  The days after the Cataclysm saw the Southern Barrens plunged into confused fighting as isolated orcish troops and tauren hunters tried to intercept the mechanized advance of Theramore’s armies.  The front settled in the middle of the Southern Barrens after a half-year of chaos, creating a shell-pocked tract of earth called the Battlescar.

Vidder curved his flight west over the mountains as we approached Desolation Hold, letting us see the still-green prairies of Mulgore where a solitary railroad cuts across the grass, made to ferry troops to the front.  Our pilot did this to avoid the contested skies over the Battlescar.

We soon drifted back to the east.  The sky darkened, the smell of exhaust and expended gunpowder filtering into the scorching airplane cabin.  Daj’yah wrinkled her nose at the smell, sometimes coughing.

“Enjoying life?” I asked.

“Don’t be gloating, now,” she muttered.

Dull booms reverberated in the stifling air, Horde artillery firing another volley into the ruined earth.  Vidder slowed down as wyverns skimmed by, goggled orcish faces looking into the tiny windows.  Making a gradual descent, Vidder picked up speed as he approached the landing strip.

A smaller version of Warsong Hold, Desolation Hold projects a similar aura of cruelty and domination.  Bladed metal towers encircle a massive keep, itself surrounded by depots, armories, and garages as numerous as ants in the courtyard.  Dozens of artillery emplacements form a smoking metal forest on the slopes east of the fortress.

“All right, Daj’yah: I’m going to try to wheedle some fuel out of the people here.  My bird has Horde colors, so it should be enough, but I’ll still have to argue for it.  Hopefully we can fly out of here in a few days,” said Vidder.

“Should we have a plan if we can’t get fuel?” asked Daj’yah.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll get it, but if not I should have just enough to get to Mudsprocket, though that’ll be risky: a lot of Alliance patrols over Dustwallow, and they’ll shoot us down if they find us.”

“What about Thunder Bluff?”

“Too far, and even with full tanks we wouldn’t be able to get from there to Gadgetzan.”

“I’m surprised Desolation Hold even sells fuel.  They must need a great deal to supply all these war machines,” I said.

“Desolation Hold is the transit depot for oil deposits in the Southern Barrens, so they sell some; the Horde always needs cash.”

“Good luck then.”

“Thanks.  Listen, Daj’yah: Ancestral Fury doesn’t have any presence in the Southern Barrens as far as Elazzi can tell, and your face probably isn’t known outside of Orgrimmar.  Just the same, you should stay with the trollish auxilliaries here.  To be on the safe side.”

After landing we found the troll barracks in the shadow of the western wall, a low wooden building flying the tribal colors.  Mostly inhabited by Darkspears and dissident Bloodscalps, they allowed Daj’yah to stay.  Their welcome was not exactly warm; the size and varied origins of the Darkspear Tribe’s members results in in less social cohesion than enjoyed by the tauren tribes.  Nonetheless, they allowed her to stay so long as she conjured her own food.

As a major base in an active warzone, life in Desolation Hold is quite constrained.  At the time of our arrival, most of the trollish troops were out hunting for scouts in the maze of trenches beyond Desolation Hold. 

Talking to a few of the troops revealed the nature of life at the front.  Soldiers go out into the Battlescar for weeks at a time.  Actual ground combat is relatively rare.  Artillery barrages quickly annihilate any obvious advance, and flares make night attacks impossible.  A common tactic on both sides is to use spells that mislead artillerists into opening fire on empty ground.  The Alliance utilizes arcane illusions for this purpose, while Horde shamans persuade the earth spirits to create clouds of dust that might be advancing troops.  These tricks are never enough to distract all of a side’s artillery, but it does force them to waste shells.

“It is a wicked thing we do,” mourned one orcish shaman.  “The spirits in the Battlescar are insane, made that way by our war.  We do not convince them so much as twist them to our wills.”

 “Like the taunka shamans do?”

“It was a taunka who taught us this way.  For now we have not suffered, but the other spirits of the world will know what happened here.  Will they still listen to us after this war?  I wonder.”

The decisive battles take place in the air.  If, say, the Horde’s fliers are able to penetrate enemy airspace, they will bombard the Alliance artillery.  The call will then go out through the Horde trenches to make a full-scale assault, assuming enough of the artillery emplacements have been destroyed (due to the distances involved, invasions take time; soldiers must reach designated rallying points scattered across the dustbowl and then march to the opposing trench network before the artillery is replaced or repaired).  The Horde has made four such attacks, and the Alliance has thrice returned the favor.

Warriors on leave from the Battlescar often entertain themselves by sparring with old-fashioned weapons.  Overlord Agmar’s ideas of constant drilling have spread the south to the Horde’s immeasurable benefit.  There is another reason for the sparring.  Most fighting now happens from a distance, and the orcs engage in close combat far less than they did during the Outland Campaign.  Melees are an integral part of orcish culture, and sparring enables them to engage in this vaunted tradition.

Exhaustion visible in dust-caked eyes red from long hours and hard living, the orc named Avket Redspear agreed to speak with me.  A wyvern rider, he’d returned from a quiet but anxious morning patrol.

“Warchief Hellscream first appointed Warlord Gar’dul to rule Desolation Hold and bring woe upon the Alliance.  But Gar’dul feared the Alliance artillery, and held back even as the Alliance encroached on tauren lands.  Gar’dul is dead now, after challenging Bloodhilt, the new warlord of Desolation Hold.”

“Bloodhilt appears to have been successful in at least securing Desolation Hold’s flanks.”

“Warlord Bloodhilt is a wise orc, and an honorable warrior.  Yet the Alliance is a crafty foe, and we have not yet broken through.  But, neither have they,” he laughed.  Taking on a more serious tone, he continued: “I have spoken to old warriors from the Second War.  I will not name them, since I do not wish to besmirch them, but they do not understand the nature of the war we fight.”

“Why not?”

“In the old days, it was enough to simply charge.  The madness in our blood saw us to the end, and if any died, it mattered not.  Today, a single grunt is a very expensive investment.  I know I sound like a goblin, but it is true.  We have to be careful.”

“Has Warlord Bloodhilt been criticized for his strategies?”

“A bold question.  He has, but wrongly.  Bloodhilt is brave, but he is also cautious.  Many wonder why we have not taken Fort Triumph.  I tell them: it is because of their artillery that shatters the bones of even the bravest warrior, the fliers that cut through the honorable and honorless alike, the chain-guns that riddle brave men with bullets.”

“You see it as different from old wars.”

“Actually, no.  Back then, ballistae skewered champions, griffin riders blasted them apart, and elven arrows turned them into pincushions!  All that has changed is that warriors are more skilled, and also less expendable.  It is fine for warriors to die in honorable battle, but if it happens too often, you no longer have an army.”

“I am curious: as a wyvern rider, how do you compete against airplanes?”

“Living fliers are still useful.  We defend ourself as best we can: our wyverns call on the wind spirits to pluck away bullets that’d strike them.  Alliance griffin riders use more conventional arcane shields.  Airplanes are still better defended, but we are not helpless.”

“The airplanes are also faster.”

“Yes, but they do not fly as nimbly.  The spears I use are designed to explode on impact.  One or two good throws and I will destroy a normal-sized mechanical flier.  Airplanes are designed to harry infantry.  Living fliers are designed to destroy airplanes.”

“Interesting.  But wouldn’t the airplanes have the same protection that you have?”

“A hit with a wyvern rider’s spear will destroy the shield of an Alliance flier.  A second hit, the airplane itself.  Sometimes I get lucky and finish it with a single strike.  We were not able to get the wind spirits to defend our machines, unfortunately.”

“So the Alliance has an aerial advantage.”

“Yes, but they must import griffins from distant Dun Morogh.  Wyverns are nearby, and eager to avenge this intrusion on their homeland.”

It is often forgotten that the wyverns themselves are sentient creatures.  Their interaction with other races is limited: the wyvern vocal apparatus cannot even approximate any known languages, and they lack organs of manipulation.  Nonetheless, they do communicate and organize into tribal societies that even practice limited shamanism.

While the Horde’s strategists recklessly expand, local commanders must use their troops very carefully because they have become so hard to replace.  A warlord who is too cautious will be deemed a coward and dismissed (this is not meant to defend Gar’dul, who truly was incompetent by all accounts), while being too daring will result in irreplaceable losses, which in turn might lead to the collapse of an entire campaign.  Worsening matters are the overstretched supply lines and the failure of the Horde to net significant resources from newly conquered territories.

Considering that the Horde is fighting on three different fronts in Kalimdor alone (Ashenvale/Stonetalon, Feralas, and the Southern Barrens), one can see that Garrosh is playing a very dangerous game.


The ear-splitting clash of iron bells sprung the barracks to wakefulness, Zandali oaths mixing with the sounds of trolls stumbling out of their beds to grab rifles and spears.   

“Daj’yah!  You’re a wizard, you can fight with us, yes?” shouted a troll in Zandali.

I saw Daj’yah at the other end of the barracks, blinking in the torchlight, blue fingers rubbing her eyes. 

“Yes, what is happening?”

I could not understand what the troll said in response.  Springing to my feet, I made my way towards Daj’yah.

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“They’re saying the Alliance is attacking Desolation Hold!”

A beam of red light striking skywards shone even in the smoky darkness.  Scattered gunfire ripped through the night as soldiers poured out from tents and barracks.

“Battle is here!” exulted a nearby orc.

The great tide swept us towards the steel gate of Desolation Hold, and I cast panicked glances around for Daj’yah, already lost in the mob.  Great earthworks piled up on both sides past the gates, the dry trenches between them littered with the detritus of war.

“Forsaken!” shouted a voice.  I turned to see a bald orc, rifle in hand and an ax strapped to his back.  “Can you fight?”

“Yes, I’m a mage.”

“Go with us.  Partisans like you can be deadly.”

“What’s happening?”  I ran as I shouted, the larger frames of my companions hemming me in.

“The Alliance has broken through; one of our fliers set up a beacon in that red beam of light.  We’re headed there.  All this damned waiting… and now blood will flow!”

More lights burned the sky, flickering phosphorescence of artillery flares arcing across the sky like shooting stars in slow motion.  I hated the idea of fighting the Alliance; I had done so once before, back in Nagrand.  My attempt had wounded but not—to the best of my knowledge—killed any on the Alliance.

In the end, the Horde gave my people a helping hand, and I could not deny it.  Whatever hatred the orcs bear against the Forsaken and the innumerable crimes committed by our wretched queen, they do not hate me in the moment of battle.

Something heavy flapped through the air over our heads.  Light shone between the hulking shadows as a glowing column, similar to the first but colored green, blazed to life.

“Halt!  Take positions!  Machine gun, take point!”

I moved to the side as a pair of orcs carrying a machine gun on a stretcher hurried to the front.  Other soldiers dropped to the ground, guns pointed down the earthen corridor.

As the orcs set up the machine gun on faded sandbags I listened for some hint of the hell to come.  I sensed the curdled mix of dread and eager anticipation all around me, the long months of swatting flies and broiling under the sun at least reaching consummation.  It occurred to me that I did not even know which of my spells might be useful in such a situation. 

Where Daj’yah was, I had no idea.  I tried not to think of her being hurt or killed, of that wondrous mind spilled out onto the dirt.

The green beacon flickered and went dark, leaving only the phosphorous shells fuming over empty trenches.  The sounds of rifle fire faded, replaced by the drone of airplanes and the flapping of wings, punctuated by periodic bursts of automatic fire and explosives.  War seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.  That the artillery kept silent told us that the enemy was well within the trench network.

“The wall!” gasped an orc.

Looking to my side, I realized what he meant.  Loose dust flowed like water down the trench’s steep slopes, the ground shaking beneath us. 

“An earthquake?”

“No, not this.”

Ten yards ahead the left side of the trench began to contort, its face suddenly bursting forward in a cloud of grit and the sound of grinding metal.  Not waiting for orders, the machine gunner opened up into the fog with a deafening clamor.

I barely caught a glimpse of what emerged, a shadowy mass bigger than all of us put together.  Light flashed in the dust, the sound of the blast lost in the force of the hit.  The ground deformed under the impact, a ton of earth pushed up and out in a tidal wave.  Dirt rushed to drown us, the whole strike happening so fast that no one even had the chance to cry out. 

A moment later I found myself lying prone, the world around me muffled by the ringing in my head.  Not allowing myself to succumb I crawled backwards as best I could, at last seeing the source of our misfortune.  An Alliance tank squatted in the midst of the trench, a halo of smoke around its barrel.  A dirt-blackened drill stuck out from the tank’s front.

Thick hands pulled at my coat, and I tumbled again before landing at the feet of six orcs, their rifles made useless by what we faced.

“Forsaken, do you have any spells that might crack that thing open?” accosted one.

Having never before fought a tank, I was at something of a disadvantage.  Nonetheless, I tried to think of a solution.  An arcane explosion would damage it, but I’d not have the time to cast enough to destroy it.

“Tanks have machine guns too, remember that,” he added.

A monstrous engine rumbled past the mound of collapsed earth, and we ran back towards Desolation Hold under whispered oaths.  The seven of us ducked into a perpendicular trench.

“Shoot up a flare!  That’ll get the fliers’ attention!” said one.

“There are too many enemy fliers.  Besides, Nurok had the flare gun, and he’s buried,” countered another.

“I can slow it down with a spell.  The tank’s already pretty sluggish.  While slowed, I might be able to do some damage,” I said.

“For how long would it be slowed?”

“Fifteen seconds or so.”

“That won’t be enough.”

I’d considered the gruesome possibility of slowing the tank and destroying it with a flamestrike, but I was not sure the heat would do enough damage over such a short time.  The tank could still drive through it, even if slowed.

I heard the crunch of rocks beneath the massive treads, the tank making its slow way through the trench.  The grinding noise returned, metal tearing through earth as the drill reactivated.  One of the warriors poked his head back to the main trench.

“It’s burrowing into the other side.  If we wait until it’s all the way in the ground, we can strike!”

Presumably the guns would not be able to rotate when pushed down by the earth.  The warrior peeked out again, holding his hand in warning.  The tank driver was making a foolish move, but perhaps he thought the blast had killed all of us, or that we’d fled. 

“Everyone, go!  Forsaken, slow it down and blast the rear armor with everything you have!  Watch out for its machine gun.”

We ran out into the main trench as clouds of dust filled empty space, our ears blasted by the sound of the drill.  I saw nothing of the vehicle itself through the swirling dust.

“Slow it!”

“I can’t see the tank!” I yelled.

Hoping it’d help to get closer I clambered up the dirt where we’d been waiting earlier, disturbed earth piled halfway up to the trench’s rim.  I spotted the flash of gunfire and dropped back down, hearing a wet puncture as bullets tore through the chest of the warrior next to me.  The grinding slowed to a stop, the monster aware of our presence. 

“Strike now!” someone ordered.

A horrible sense of nakedness swept over me, knowing that a single shot would take off my head.  My mind reached out into the arcane, drawing from the true source of power.  Illusory duplicates of myself popped into existence, mindless images that’d buy me the time I needed.

The turret fired as it saw three Forsaken go over the top, not spotting my real scalp and eyes.  Seeing the blocky shadow of the tank proper, I shaped the arcane into predetermined shapes, unseen hooks and binds that’d slow the gears and reactions of everything targeted.  Tiny explosions peppered the mound, like a hundred firecrackers going off as the machine gun tried in vain to destroy my illusions.  Gaps between blasts lengthened as the spell took effect.

“It’s done!” I yelled.

I saw the warriors bound up pathways dug by the shells.  Gunfire ceased, the operator realizing the nature of my duplicates, and the multi-barreled turret made its aching turn to the orcs on my right.  The main turret gun also began its rotation, inch by painful inch.

White fire belched out from the massive gun, a shell as big as my forearm sailing through the air, slowed but still carrying all of its knetic and explosive force.  The shell hit the right side of the trench, the soil again pouring loose under its power.  The gunner had fired off-center, but I still saw the luckless orc caught in the blast, his body ripped in two.

I used the last of my mana reserves to slow it again, the orcs having not yet closed the distance.  I saw my comrades get in range, one of them jumping down onto the tank’s roof.  He took out a stout ax under the light of artillery flares, the blade a bright smile in the phosphorescent light.

All the while the machine gun roared, slowed bullets spiraling through the air, unable to aim high enough to hit its assailants.  The main gun blasted again, harming no one, the last desperate act of a cornered beast.  Other orcs had joined the one already at the tank, ax and hammer going to work on the hatch. 

The harsh light of the flares died and I waited for the next fusillade as shadows tore at metal.  Rough cries of triumph announced their success, and moments later they leapt back onto the earthen shelf.  A dull explosion rocked the night, the machine gun falling silent as smoke bled from ruptured armor.

What happened next, I am not sure, but I was soon running through the endless maze, the four survivors around me.

“You fight well, undead,” one said.  “But the battle is not yet over.”

Thankfully, he was wrong.  Yellow beacons shot up from different points in the trench, which they said was the all-clear signal.  My companions cheered and we staggered back up to Desolation Hold in near-delerium, stupefied relief running together with exhaustion.

I split from the group once behind the walls, searching for Daj’yah, and finding her unharmed with the trollish auxiliaries.  They had not encountered any hostiles.  That alone lifted the dread from my spirit.  We soon learned more of what had happened.  At least six Alliance tanks equipped with drills had made the long journey under the Battlescar. 

In order to carry enough fuel for the distance and the drill, the tanks had actually been heavily stripped down, the main gun the smallest calibur available.  Even then, a goblin engineer theorized that the Alliance would have needed to refuel the tanks halfway through the Battlescar.

“There’s probably a whole network of tunnels down there.  To get back, they’d have had to use the ones they dug to got here,” he said.

“Wouldn’t that lead us right back to Fort Triumph?”

“They probably collapsed it on the way back, at least put enough dirt between us and them to make it hard to follow.  If they haven’t done it yet, they’re sure to do it soon, and I don’t want to be under when it happens.”

Six such tanks would not have been able to take Desolation Hold; the purpose may have been to sow terror and inflict minor damage on the defenses.  Only two tanks had been destroyed.  The four others had completed their mission: casualty reports continued to pile in throughout the night, the initial mood of triumph soon fading. 

Even so, such an operation would have been astronomically expensive for the Alliance.  The Alliance fliers had attempted to bomb the artillery emplacements but never even got close to them.  So long as the big guns remain, Desolation Hold will be secure (as will Fort Triumph).  Overall, the attack was more of a draw, though it did illustrate Alliance ingenuity.

Desolation Hold hailed us as heroes, but we did not stay to receive any honors.  Instead, I woke Vidder, who’d managed to get the fuel at sundown, and told him to fly us south.  Perhaps this invalidates any claim of loyalty to the Horde, but I have no wish to serve Garrosh as a soldier.  Nor does Daj’yah.  Bundled up in the airplane, Vidder took off into the sky in the darkness before dawn.


  1. I've always found it intriguing to see how magic matches up against technology in stories where both exist side by side. I can only imagine how battles will be fought when Azeroth's technology manages to catch up with the expertise of mages and archmages (assuming of course that this is not already the case).

  2. An in-universe explanation of raid markers? I love it!

    Now Destron just needs to make an illusionary skull above someone's head....