I watched in childlike amazement, imagining the wind whooshing past my own body as the glider dipped into a steep plunge, hurtling towards the ever-churning sea of the Thousand Needles. The craft kept falling, the broad delta wing getting smaller as it plummeted between enormous stone pillars, each the size of a mountain. I knelt on the rock, too enraptured to feel any vertigo, seeing the glider’s prow begin to level out as a spear stabbed from its underbelly and into the drink to pull out silver that writhed in the sun.
Controlled gusts from the spirits lifted the wing, the glider making slow circles up the mesa. As he brought the glider back up to eye level I saw the light flashing against the scales of the great fish still twisting on the speartip.
Waves had touched the cliff tops in ancient days. Time had boiled away the waters, leaving behind the parched canyon known as the Thousand Needles. A place of mysteries and portents, the grand rock spires offered a glimpse into the supernatural, a realm too harsh and strange to be tamed by mortal hands.
The following millennia saw nomadic tauren fighting harpies and centaurs for control of this difficult land. Where the tribes of the north suffered a constant retreat, the Needles tribes saw their early victories give them a powerful (though always contested) advantage over their foes. They became confident and even impetuous (at least by tauren standards), taking family names over tribal names, always ready to prove themselves to the unforgiving world.
Today, the consuming sea has reclaimed the Thousand Needles. Deathwing’s rampage broke the eastern shelf, leaving nothing between the desert and the immensity of the Great Ocean. Tons of water surged across the landscape as an environment built over eons perished in a few hours. The ocean’s fury even hit Feralas, a colossal tidal wave wiping out leagues of eastern forest.
In some respects, the Needles tauren were fortunate. All three tribes had been gathered at the mesa-top village of Freewind Post at the time of the Cataclysm, moved by the need to discuss the political uncertainty in Thunder Bluff. Survivors said that the entire mesa shook, and that none could hear their own prayers over the crashing water. When it finished and the sea leveled out, the tauren confronted an alien landscape.
The children and the elders fled to Feralas on the Horde’s makeshift refugee flotilla but the braves and younger shamans stood their ground. The xenophobic Grimtotem Tribe had tried to seize the Thousand Needles in the wake of the Cataclysm, but the Needles tauren would not give up their lands so easily. Warriors dueled with spear and rifle all along the lonely mesa tops, dreams and visions guiding them to strike their foes. At last the Grimtotem fell back, still in the Thousand Needles but unable to rule it.
Kewhana’s gyrocopter took three days to make the journey from Firestone Point to Freewind Post. My joke had become a reality; the only way for me to join them was to be strapped to the side. Though awkward, it was the most logical means for me to travel. I think Daj’yah was more bothered by it than was I, though I’ll admit feeling no small relief when we landed.
I remembered the Thousand Needles as a place of cruel heat and endless silence, the emptiness between the mesas speaking in a voice of absence. The silence is no more. Now there is the constant crash of waves against the stone, the cold ocean winds and the cries of seabirds.
“Sleep once seemed so easy. To close one’s eyes and dream. It is no longer as hard as it was after the flood, but the noise is most unwelcome.”
I spoke with a hunter named Hotoma Stonetotem. I’d first met him years ago in the western Needles as he underwent his rite of passage into adulthood. Forbidden from speaking at the time, his guide, Moshoc Blackhoof, had done all of the talking. Moshoc had perished in the fight against the Twilight’s Hammer, as had Tomo Stonetotem, Hotoma’s older brother. Still young by tauren standards, Hotoma looked much older.
“Will the Needles tribes return here in large numbers?” I asked.
“We hope, for this is the home of our ancestors. It will be difficult. Food is actually more common now, for the waters bring many fish. But we are accustomed to red meat and we lost all of our herds.”
“How are the tribes dealing with that?”
“We once honored those who cared for the herds, and their voices carried worth in meetings. Now they speak like frightened children, their identities no more.”
In the participatory democracy of the Needles tribes, every person has at least one vote. Those who are accomplished in hunting, child-rearing, kodo-herding, or other esteemed fields can accrue multiple votes.
“Did the herders lose their extra votes?”
“No, for nothing can erase the care and wisdom they showed in the past. Many of the greatest in our tribes left, as this land is now much crueler to the aged. Those of us who stayed have become like heroes, but guidance is often hard to find.”
“There are no elders?”
“A few stayed, but all are dead, killed by the cultists or the Grimtotems. We must be more like the Cliff Runner than ever before,” he said, referring to the warrior-trickster of Needles lore, “if we are too honor our ancestors.”
“What about fresh water? How do you obtain that?”
“However we can. The goblins and gnomes to the east can pluck the salt from seawater, but they charge a high price for it, not from greed, but because they need it too. A few of the cliff-side springs remain, though their use must be rationed. The Horde ships in water when it is able. The other method you may see tomorrow, or even tonight.”
Later that day, I saw all the tauren placing wide-mouthed clay pots and bowls out in the open, limiting me to the narrow paths between the myriad containers. I even saw a few empty oil drums set up in the center, totems favoring the spirits dangling from the rim.
The storm broke early the next morning, delivering rain so fierce that it seemed almost like a column of water pouring onto Freewind Post. Joyous cries leapt out from the tents and cabins, audible over nature’s fury. The tauren picked up the flooded bowls and poured the contents into reservoirs beneath the large central tent. Daj’yah and I helped out, she faring rather better than me as my spindly arms struggled with the weight of so much water.
Upon filling the reservoirs to capacity, the tauren broke into an impromptu celebration, their senior shaman running to the center of the village in the pouring rain, laughing as he chanted an ode of thanks. Others brought out the drums, giving structure to a dance already rhythmic from years of practice.
The celebration lasted until it evening, the still-clouded skies growing dark. Their bodies hot with exhaustion, the tauren settled down to rest for the next day’s labors. They had enough preserves with which to regain their energy and insisted that Daj’yah and I take our share, though we could conjure our own. The spirits are known to reward generosity.
At last, under intermittent rain, the village slept. Waking early in a sort of giddy communal weariness they sang to prepare themselves for a new day. Now that there are no immediate threats to Freewind Post, the tauren focus on trying to more firmly establish their settlement (and hopefully allow the refugees to return).
The swoop-fishing I’d seen on my first day, though spectacular, is not the tribes’ primary method of gathering food. The tauren use fishing canoes made out of wood culled from the sparse forests along the northern shelf. The waters in the Thousand Needles are treacherous at the best of times. It’s easy for a vessel to get caught in a wave that dashes it against a mesa, and waterspouts can form with little warning. Fortunately, the waters around Freewind Post are relatively sedate. The constant current always brings new fish within reach, decreasing the likelihood of overfishing.
The gliders’ main purpose is military. The late shaman Pemmachek Dryhorn had promised to drive the Twilight’s Hammer from the Thousand Needles. In return, the wind spirits had pledged to protect the gliders, giving the pilot a level of control that would be impossible under normal circumstances.
Though the Hammer is gone, the wind spirits continue their support out of gratitude. Under their protection, the glider pilots rule the skies and continue to watch for hostile incursions from the Grimtotems or the Alliance. The glider pilots sometimes spear the great nononka fish when those creatures venture too close to the surface, but they usually leave that to the anglers. Swoop-fishing is done for training purposes.
Gliders are also how the Needles tribes maintain communication with their kindred in Feralas. That great forest hosts another front in the war, one where orcs and tauren battle the Kaldorei beneath primeval boughs. Needles tauren who had seen the war described it as one of unremitting savagery. For all their connections to the natural world, the Kaldorei are less familiar with Feralas than they are with Ashenvale, while the local tauren hunters know every secret path and overlook.
However, the Feralas front is also the least supported of the Horde’s efforts in Kalimdor. Sophisticated weapons are promised but never delivered, and the soldiers must fight a primitive campaign of ax and arrow. The Feralas tribes are reluctant to move against the elves, having had no quarrel with them in the past. Indeed, a short-lived peace treaty had existed between the sentinels of Feathermoon and the forest peoples prior to the Cataclysm.
The Needles tauren who have remained in their homeland have become masters of improvisation, and not just for base survival. With the elders still in Camp Mojache, the younger tauren have led the remnants through some of the worst of the Cataclysm’s tribulations. Helping them in this is an older orcish shaman named Meklu’mor. Scars crisscross his scalp like hairs, but his fearsome appearance belies a friendlier soul.
“I am honored to fight alongside these braves. They have displayed an incredible spirit, one that would put many of my own people to shame,” said Meklu’mor.
I asked him, somewhat obliquely, about the Horde’s long-term plans in the region.
“To help the Needles tribes stand strong once more. If the Alliance tries to encircle us, they will meet the spears of the Horde’s bravest warriors! One day we hope to reconnect with the Southern Barrens, but I cannot yet ask the tribes to make war on the quilboar. They have lost too many.”
“Do you think that Freewind Post will be able to support the full population of the Needles tribes?”
“That… is a complicated question. Freewind Post will not, but there are still many springs on the southern and northern shelves. Quilboar and centaurs rule the north, and Alliance partisans roam the south.”
“What about the remaining Grimtotem? They must have a water supply.”
“Yes, but they are even fewer than the remaining Needles tauren; their stores will help, but will not be sufficient. This is a stark and beautiful land, one that any orc can love. We crave these elemental challenges, and I think the Shu’halo are the same way. But the Horde does not care about the Thousand Needles.
“What few resources this land possessed are now drowned beneath the sea. Nor is it worth anything to the war. Battle rages in Feralas, and if we lose the forests, the Alliance will simply fly over the Thousand Needles to attack the Southern Barrens.”
“Could the gliders prevent that?”
“Ha! That’d be grand thing to see! But they cannot inflict enough damage, and are too few. There are only five gliders in the Thousand Needles, Destron. It would best serve the Horde if the Needles tribes abandoned their homes and went west to Feralas, to do battle against the elves. But these people have forged lives here in the most daunting circumstances. Even after the Cataclysm they survived!”
“Do you think the Horde will force the issue?”
“I do not know. The orcs in Feralas are dissatisfied with the forest tribes and long to see the warriors of the Thousand Needles in action. And these tauren would be glad to participate, but they wish to rebuild their homeland. If they leave, the remaining Grimtotem, though few, would soon move in to take their place. If the Horde cannot protect the homelands of its people, what good is it?
“I can never go against my warchief, but neither can I betray those who are my brothers and sisters in battle. If we could secure the Thousand Needles and use it to support Feralas, it might be worthwhile, but there are so few warriors left. My hope is that more partisans will seek glory among the mesas, and help this land’s rightful masters.”
I mulled over the term “rightful masters.” Uneasily, I again wondered who really had the right. Tauren legends claim that they fled to the Thousand Needles, but who can really say? Then again, who am I to doubt the tauren? The quilboar have persecuted the tauren without relent, just as the Forsaken have persecuted humanity.
“If the Thousand Needles are reclaimed, and all the Needles tribes returned, would that not weaken the Feralas front?”
“No. The Needles tauren are not craven. They understand what is at stake. If anything, more would be willing to fight in Feralas if the Needles was safe; some have told me so themselves. But if we cannot control this place, the warchief will wonder why we are here, and I will have no answer worth hearing.”
Before leaving Freewind Post, I spoke with one of the Earthen Ring shamans charged with investigating the Twilight's Hammer. A northern Tauren named Wellehek Ragetotem, he explained that their findings had been limited at best.
"Elementium is pain to the spirits. Instead, we seek answers from the ancestors, who speak to us in dreams."
Wellehek and his companion had created a dreaming circle at the edge of the encampment. After four nights, Wellehek's visions had brought him to conclusions similar to those reached by the Cenarion Circle. He did mention one other detail that stuck out.
"I see them as a thousand minds and bodies distorted beyond recognition, warriors who see through the eyes of others. They are false, but I do not know how or why."
Wellehek had been forced to retreat after spotting an armed patrol of five Alliance partisans on the eastern ridges overlooking the Twilight's Hammer base. Their location suggested that they had come from Gadgetzan or the Speedbarge. Daj'yah and I would need to be careful in those places.
Drying out in the glare of the blistering sun, I looked down on the oceanic desert speeding below us, the mesas sinking from sight. I wished that the propeller over my head were a parasol of some kind, though I did not yet feel any pain from the heat. Tied to the side as I was, my feet on the rail, I could only endure.
"Destron, are you all right?" shouted Daj'yah.
"Quite fine. I've been on enough flying machines that riding one in the normal fashion would feel a bit passé. This is much more interesting."
"Ha! Still, I don't like it. Here." Daj'yah reached back with her left hand, which held a canteen of water. I took it with my free arm and brought it to my dead lips, the water hot and flat. The undead are resistant to extreme heat but we still require hydration.
We flew over what had once been called the Shimmering Flats, a vast and unforgiving salt desert. A hardy band of misfits, mostly gnomes and goblins, had dwelt there in a site called the Mirage Raceway where they experimented on new engines and vehicles with gleeful abandon.
Drowned like the rest of the Thousand Needles, the waters of the new Shimmering Deep are a brighter blue than the surrounding sea thanks to the higher salinity. Defying fate, the inhabitants of the Mirage Raceway survived and regrouped on Fizzle and Pozzick's Speedbarge, a city of boats.
Kwehana hollered from the cockpit a few hours later and I craned my neck to see ahead of us a dizzying network of ships and gangways, arranged like a berserk spider web. A shell of smog encapsulated the floating city, tendrils of grease creeping out into the water. The heart of this mad assembly is the eponymous vessel, a wood-and-metal hulk five times the size of its neighbors. Buildings in the gnomish and goblin styles grow on the hull like barnacles, shadowed by a dented crown of towers and smokestacks upon the aft.
Lowering the gyrocopter, Kwehana flew to the makeshift boats bobbing off the speedbarge's starboard, the propellers slowing over a square metal platform tethered to a battered tramp steamer. The platform pitched and swayed under our weight, but Kwehana landed with laudable skill. Daj'yah immediately went about untying me, and I took my first step onto the speedbarge.
I almost savored the familiar smell of urban goblin life, the sea's briny essence soured by smog and burnt rubbish. Lean goblins, skins like green leather, observed us from the steamer's deck.
"You have not been here before, so you should walk carefully," said Kwehana, his tone relaxed but cautionary. "The Horde and the Alliance both seek dominance in this place, their battle waged with words instead of spears."
"How long will we be here?" asked Daj'yah.
"No more than a day. I wish to sleep before the last leg of our journey. Fuel should not be hard to get. Come, follow me to the main ship."
The speedbarge suburbs are site of constant activity. Goblin junk merchants jump out from leaking boats to sell their wares, their voices cracked by the heat. Squat towers of floating cargo harbor entire families who work with all the mad energy they can muster. Bowls and basins gasp on rooftops, awaiting rain.
"How did they put all this together?" wondered Daj'yah. "They must have had some warning about the Cataclysm."
"Indeed they did, in a most strange way,” said Kwehana. “When I was in Northrend, I learned how the shamans of the taunka saw darkness in the future of Azeroth, of evil roiling beneath the earth. One of these shamans, afflicted by visions, wandered south after the Lich King’s fall.
“Somehow he found himself here and warned the people of the Mirage Raceway. Fizzle Brassbolts, the gnome, believed him. Pozzick, the goblin, figured he could build a boat and charge the believers for entry. They worked together to build the monstrosity you see before you (though it was much smaller in those days). When the eastern shelf collapsed, the inhabitants of the Mirage Raceway found safety in its hull."
"What happened to this taunka?"
"He drifted farther south after the Cataclysm. None here know what became of him."
“Maybe they should name it after him instead of Fizzle and Pozzick,” remarked Daj’yah.
A wide but precarious walkway leads up to the speedbarge’s main deck, the smell of smoke and sun-cooked trash reeking worse with each step. On the deck, unstable-looking ramps wind around makeshift houses to reach the factory citadels perched on the aft. The fore resembles a plain of dirty multi-colored cloth, tents and huts fighting for space.
Words more spat than spoken shot through the hot air, dozens of diminutive inhabitants going about their lives, casting hard glances at anyone from the opposite faction. I had expected that the gnomes and goblins of all races would be best able to avoid the reflexive hostility so common to this day and age.
“I must speak to Pozzick about getting fuel. He is a selfish man, and will charge more than it is worth, so I will haggle with him as best I can.”
Daj’yah had given Kwehana much of the discretionary money given to her by Elazzi. Fuel is expensive, and Kwehana had gone far out of his way to help us. In Freewind Post, Daj’yah had promised to speak to the Darkbriar Lodge on behalf of the Needles tribes, should they require help.
“They’re not much trusting us wizards, but when times are hard…” she’d explained to me.
Kwehana made his way up one of the ramps, towards a collection of corrugated metal huts decorated with garish signs. Daj’yah and I stood on the noisy deck, uncomfortably tall.
“So what do you usually do in this situation, Destron?”
“I look for someone willing to talk. Maybe some shade as well.”
We stepped through a nearby bulkhead, Daj’yah’s tall frame forcing her to duck. I heard her curse once inside, the cramped hallway twice as hot as the exterior. A solitary electrical lamp hanging from a pair of wires let out a grinding buzz, as if in warning.
“Can you get in?”
“Yeah. I’m not thinking they get many visitors who aren’t their size here.”
Something whooshed through the air ahead of me, crashing into the wall with a resounding clang that vibrated up and down the corridor. I drew back in alarm, only to see a sun burnt gnome poke his head out of an uneven crevice to my right.
“Get out of here, Horde!”
I raised my hands in supplication, backtracking out to the deck where Daj’yah had already retreated.
“I think it’s best to stay to the goblin-held parts of the ship,” I said.
“Gnomes aren’t very friendly.”
“On the contrary, of all the Alliance races, they’re easily the most tolerant to the Horde. I can only assume that things have gotten very tense here.”
A while later, we found a teeming goblin mob lined up in front of a battered metal tank surrounded by the towering constructions on the aft. Armed gnomes and goblins stood around the tank, looking back and forth between each other and the crowd. Herded into some semblance of a line closer to the tank, each goblin came forward with a container or skin, which one of the guards would then place under a spigot to fill with water.
“This rationing is decidedly un-goblin,” complained a reedy voice. The speaker was a goblin, spindly from poor nutrition. His skinny arms hugged a tiny metal keg, obviously full by the way his limbs drooped.
“Where does this water come from?”
“The desalination plant that takes up half this ship. It’s a marvel of engineering, especially considering how little we had to work with. I’m more into marketing than tinkering, but I know it has something to do with boiling water and letting it condense again.”
“Does that demand a lot of energy?”
“It sure—say, how about we make a deal? I’m not the biggest guy around, and some of the gnomes have been real mean lately. Some of the goblins too, come to think of it. How about you and your friend walk me back to my house, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
I looked to Daj’yah, who shrugged.
“That sounds fair.”
“Great, my name is Muzgo Lagwroggle, formerly of the Steamwheedle Cartel.”
Daj’yah and I followed Muzgo into tunnel coiling down into the lower depths. I saw no signs of hostility, but perhaps I didn’t know how to look for them. Our footsteps boomed down the tiny corridor, the steps scuffed and worn. I heard Daj’yah struggling to breath in the stultifying heat.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m a troll, I’m tough,” she said, an edge of annoyance in her voice.
The hallway abruptly opened out into a wide but low-ceilinged room. A small crowd of gnomes sat at tables, most no more than repurposed crates, taking swigs from water-holders. A human woman, incongruous by her size, stood behind a bar. Dusty shelves carrying a few bottles of rum lined the wall behind her.
“The gnomes get their water first; some of them come down here to drink it, and like to give little surprises to goblins just looking to enjoy their water in peace!”
Muzgo lived in a tiny room not far past the bar, nearly every inch of available space taken up with a seemingly random assemblage of machines. He grimaced when Daj’yah and I stepped inside, forcing him into the corner.
“Wow, pretty cramped in here. No matter, no matter… you’re not staying here for long, are you?”
“Just a day or so,” I said.
“Good. Legally, anyone who isn’t a goblin or gnome isn’t allowed to be here for more than three days.”
“Big folk drink too much water. Mages are the exception, though Pozzick doesn’t like that they can conjure water; he’s worried it’ll cut into his profits. I think Fizzle finally explained that a wizard can only make enough for himself.”
“We are mages, in fact.”
“Really? You know, since you’re Forsaken, you won’t need as much water. You could make a pretty penny selling it—oh, what am I doing, giving away ideas! Forget I said that!”
“Like I said, we won’t be staying long. So how do you keep the desalination plant running?”
“Oil. There’s a huge field on the northern shelf. Used to be some centaur there, but we handled them. Anyway, there’s more than enough oil that we can sell much of it. That’s why the place got so crowded; a lot of displaced goblins from Kezan drifted here.”
And who speaks for the centaurs? I thought to myself. I remembered their encampments in Desolace, the tents made from the skins of their own kind, and shuddered. Who indeed?
“I noticed that the speedbarge is much more crowded than the Mirage Raceway.”
“Definitely, way more profitable now. We can also sell table salt, which we get from the desalination. Problem is, there’s the question of ownership. Pozzick and Fizzle both claim to be in charge.
“Maybe they could have worked it out, but the Alliance and the Horde just had to grab a piece of the action. Pozzick doesn’t want to give his profits to the Bilgewater Cartel, but if he works against them, they’ll probably replace him.”
“That cartel’s trouble,” said Daj’yah.
“I think Gnomeregan wants to fund its own reclamation with the oil profits here, so that’s why this place is lousy with spies from the factions. It’s no secret that thugs on both sides are trying to engineer a confrontation.”
“Like the gnomes in the other room?”
“Some of them. Point is, people who were perfectly friendly back when this all started are getting mean. They’re afraid that this whole thing is going to go up in flames and they want to be on the winning side. Plenty of goblins are the same way.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“I figure something has to give sooner or later. I don’t like the idea of the speedbarge becoming a Horde base, but if the Alliance gets it, they might push me into the sea. Orgrimmar and Stormwind turned it into an us-or-them situation.
“The only hope, strange as it sounds, are the Southsea Pirates. They gave us a lot of trouble in the early days, but I guess there was some shuffling at the top, and now they’re interested in cooperation. They might be able to give enough security to make Horde or Alliance agents think twice before starting anything.”
“So why not hire them?”
“Because Fizzle and Pozzick don’t trust each other enough to hire them jointly. I’ve talked to Pozzick and I have a gnome friend who knows Fizzle. Neither of them wants to be sucked into the war, but each thinks the other is angling to use factional backing to throw out the opposition.”
“Don’t they trust each other enough to run the oil fields?”
“There’s a lot of backroom dealing for control over that, so not really. For now they split the profits and each pay their own people: gnomes for Fizzle, goblins for Pozzick. If Fizzle and Pozzick can get their acts together, the speedbarge might come through. It’s mostly Fizzle’s fault; he thinks Pozzick is untrustworthy for trying to profit off the speedbarge back before the Cataclysm. Typical gnomish distrust of commerce. You can’t let a deal like that slip past you!”
“The Horde might be willing to settle for neutral control of the speedbarge,” I said. “The main concern is to keep it out of Alliance hands.”
“Fizzle knows that, and it sounds like some people in the Horde agree with him. Right now, unfortunately, there are still a lot of idiots in the Bilgewater Cartel pushing for total control. Longer they do that, the less likely they are to give up. I guess we’ll see how it turns out.”
Muzgo lamented the current state of affairs to us for a while longer, talking between draughts of the water. We excused ourselves some time later, going back up to a deck just starting to cool in the evening darkness. We met back up with Kwehana.
“Pozzick has no choice but to give Horde travelers a discount on fuel,” he reported, sounding a bit smug.
Tensions raised in the day’s heat seemed to fade in the darkness, stars winking through the smog. The crowds began to mix. Beneath a sputtering electric lamp, I saw a goblin and a gnome deep in discussion, their postures relaxed and tones friendly.
In a strange twist of fate, the Cataclysm actually made Gadgetzan a more pleasant place. I remembered the old city as a furnace in the desert, noise and heat trapped in a bubble of smog. Though pollution still scars the throat there is at least the relief of the ocean breezes. Tired city-dwellers sometimes gather on the shore as if congregants in a church, receiving benedictions of clean air.
There was a time when goods destined for Gadgetzan would be unloaded in the small town of Steamwheedle Port. Many believed that Steamwheedle Port would eclipse Gadgetzan in profit, but the Cataclysm annihilated the coastal town. The onrushing waves killed hundreds and drowned the desert up to the walls of Gadgetzan.
After landing, we made our way through the labyrinthine streets to the Gadgetzan Visitors’ Rest, the same dim hotel where I’d stayed during my first visit. I found it almost unchanged, the lights kept low as a response to the desert glare.
After settling in, Daj’yah went to the telegraph office to inform Elazzi of what had happened. I spoke with a goblin named Znag Slyzzilgip whom I’d actually met during my first visit. Still dressed in the gray suit of the Gadgetzan Water Company, he filled me in on the town’s recent history. A radio piped cheery goblin music into the lounge, the first such device I’d seen since leaving the Crossroads. Gadgetzan is too distant to receive any signal but its own, but the town’s population ensures a lively radio scene.
“You picked a good time to come back, all in all,” he said, after taking a sip from his coffee. “A lot of opportunity in Tanaris these days. Gadgetzan’s ended up being Uldum’s main trading partner; dealing with the Alliance or Horde carries a lot of baggage that the Ramkaheni aren’t sure they want.”
The Ramkaheni are the sovereign natives of Uldum.
“What sorts of things end up being traded?”
“Precious stones, artwork, some rare medicines, grains. Uldum might be a good place to grow cotton too.”
“How’s Gadgetzan itself?”
“Like I said, it’s busy, and busy is good. The Alliance cleared out the Southsea Pirates; we’ve rewarded them with preferential trade deals.”
“For all of Steamwheedle? Or just Gadgetzan?”
“Relax, just Gadgetzan. Those odd trolls up in Zul’farrak got restive, but were put back in their place. Wastewander Bandits aren’t much of a problem any longer.”
“And the silithids?”
“Still some hives out in the desert, but they aren’t as aggressive. I think losing contact with the qiraji turned them into wild animals. They’re dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but aren’t really an existential threat. Like I told you before, still plenty of opportunity for a Forsaken.”
“What about for a troll mage?”
“Oh, the gal you were with earlier? Mages are always useful,” he said with a shrug.
“I remember there also being some tension between the Cartel and the Water Company.”
“Not so much now. Old Bilgewhizzle finally got bought out by a private interest and the new boss is much more amenable to the authorities. Kind of a shame; place isn’t as exciting any longer, but that’s progress for you.”
“Is there much partisan activity? There’s been partisan involvement up in the Thousand Needles.”
“You don’t need to try and be sneaky about it; I know you’re asking about Alliance partisans. Yes, some are here. Three big groups—“
“Do any of them use a sunburst as their logo?”
“That would be Zenith.”
“What do you know about them?”
“I don’t stick my nose in partisan business.”
I retired to my room at sundown, where Daj’yah joined me. She surveyed the cramped little space with no little consternation, having to lean forward to even fit through the door.
“I was going to offer you the bed, but I think you’re too tall for it,” I said.
“Goblins are so small! Here, let me have the pillow. As long as my head’s on something soft, I’ll sleep fine.”
I tossed it over to her, sitting down on the bed’s springy mattress. Guilt borne from vestigial Lordaeronian chivalry troubled me, but there was little to be done. Both of us quiet, we heard the sound of conversation in the adjoining parlor and the swoosh of the ceiling fan’s wooden blades.
“How do you like Gadgetzan?” I asked.
“Exciting, like any other goblin city. You still thinking of Uldum?”
“Maybe I’ll go with you this time.”
I nodded, recalling the Shrine of Goldrinn on Hyjal, the angry mob that had descended upon me. There was supposedly less of an Alliance presence in Uldum, but who really knew? As the elves defend Hyjal, so too might the dwarves lay claim to Uldum.
“Perhaps. I know little of the place, or what dangers await there.”
“Ah, don’t treat me like I’m glass, Destron.”
“No, I know you aren’t… but I don’t want you to risk going there unless you’re sure you want to see it. Hyjal was far more treacherous than I had expected. I had an encounter…”
Words caught in my throat as hundreds of angry faces hovered in memory. Had it not been for priestess’ contemptuous acknowledgement of the Hyjal Truce, they’d have killed me for sure. My powers are limited, and I cannot fight an army alone.
“I was attacked by Alliance partisans. I escaped, no serious harm was done,” I said, the truth of the matter caught in my throat. “My point being, that some of these places are still quite dangerous.”
“What? But there’s the Hyjal Truce! Did they hurt you?”
“Not seriously. They were more pilgrims than partisans, and they didn’t intend to kill me, just hurt me enough to discourage visitation.”
“What do you mean by not seriously?” she demanded, propping herself up on an elbow to look at me.
“I mean not seriously. I was never in any true danger.”
“Destron, what they do to you is done to all the Horde.”
“I reported it to a Horde representative, but there’s not much he can do. Hyjal is elven territory anyway.”
“Territory’s whatever you can hold, and if there’s Horde there it’s partly ours too.”
“There aren’t many Horde still on Hyjal. Daj’yah, I just want you to realize why I’m concerned.”
She was silent for a moment, lying back down on the ground.
“If I go to Uldum, I won’t be wandering out into the desert or anything. I’ll be staying in the cities.”
“Let’s see if we can learn more about the situation in Uldum,” I insisted. “Last I heard, the Ramkaheni were neutral, but their sympathies may have shifted.”
“I’ll do the research myself. You go off and take mad risks without asking anyone, so who are you to judge?”
My jaw dropped.
“I didn’t mean to offend. But I’ve already died once; it doesn’t matter so much if I die again.”
“Maybe not to you.”
Daj’yah awoke before I did; the goblin at the register told me that she’d gone out into the city at dawn.
Daj’yah’s writings have further elucidated arcane understanding and are of immeasurable benefit to all mages in the Horde. Meanwhile, I travel for my own edification. Those leaders in the Horde who cared what I have to say are mostly dead or out of power; sharing my findings could also endanger the lives or reputations of some who have helped me. Daj’yah alone knows the full extent of my wanderings, and is similarly constrained in sharing them. There are only the redacted versions in Eitrigg’s possession, and they have failed to make a difference.
I wandered out to Gadgetzan’s new shoreline, the shallow waters traveled by fishing boats. Next to me, a rusty machine of unidentifiable purpose poked a sad appendage out from the beach, the gears crusted in wet sand. Watching seabirds loop through the clear skies, I thought back to what Anlivia had said back in Moonglade. What kept me in the Horde?
I spent the morning asking local travelers about Uldum, figuring that Daj’yah was doing the same. Most said that the Ramkaheni still wished to stay neutral, and that the cities (excepting the Lost City and Neferset, due to their schismatic beliefs) were safe.
“Not as many noisy partisans as there are here, I’ll say that much,” reported one goblin.
I had not forgotten about the Alliance partisan group called Zenith, and had already been pondering how best to investigate them. Doing so turned it to be easier than I’d expected.
Almost lost in the clamor and smoke of the city, one can just see the stained banner of a golden sunburst on a blue field over a squat tent near the northern gate. It felt strange to see that symbol writ large and in the open when so few people in the north knew of its existence. Word of famous partisan bands spreads quickly in the modern age.
Hurrying back to the inn, I put on my human disguise. I had just enough components for my purposes (I knew that the Masquerade had vacated Undercity, but did not know where the eccentric alchemist had gone from there). Fortunately, I hadn’t taken it with me to Hyjal, or else the elven mob would have destroyed it.
I went inside the tent, stepping into a shaft of hazy sunlight let in from square openings in the upper sides. A lone dwarf sat behind a collapsible table that was covered in papers. He raised his head, revealing a yellow beard tied up in two thick braids.
“Hello, my name is Talus Corestiam. Are you part of the group called Zenith?”
“Aye! Are you looking to join?”
“I’m considering it, though I would like to know more.”
“Well, do you love the Alliance?”
“With all my heart!”
“Then we’re probably a good fit for you!” he said with a laugh, his voice booming. “Here, pull up that chair and we’ll talk in more detail. You said your name’s Talus Corestiam? I’m sure I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”
“You have? I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. Your name is…?”
“Margon Chiseltooth. What skills can you bring to Zenith? We’re a top-notch defense organization, focused in the east but with a significant presence in Kalimdor. Zenith’s got more than enough green troops, but we’re always in need of hard-bitten fighters.”
“I’m a reasonably experienced wizard who’s managed to survive lengthy sojourns in Outland and Northrend.”
“Ah, some of us fought in those places, you’ll be in good company then. Now, you understand I’m not authorized to sign you up, but I can send a telegram to our office in Theramore. Mages are always good to have around, and I’m sure they’ll say yes.
“You need to know that Zenith is a patriotic organization, not a mercenary one. We fight so that the Alliance can prevail against the Horde and retake what’s been lost. Zenith can cover some basic expenses, but you won’t get rich.”
“That’s fine. How did Zenith get started?”
“You can thank the Horde for that. Our founder, Gestarn Tair, saw right through Thrall’s lies. He’s a Stormwinder, and was still a child when he followed Anduin up north. Now, the new Horde’s revealed what it’s really about: conquest, murder, and tyranny.
“As you know, it’s a difficult time for the Alliance. Poverty in Stormwind, political chaos in Ironforge, and the Kaldorei under attack. It’s enough to make the lily-livered fools in the press quail about defeat. Tair sees it as an opportunity for the Alliance to reach new heights, to prevail against the Horde once and for all.”
“Does he think that the Alliance governments are incapable of doing this?”
“The governments on both sides have relied on freelancers in the past, so there’s nothing new under the sun here. Tair knows that some of the best fighters are independent, and he wants the skills of men like you to make the Alliance great again.”
“What does he think should be done with the Horde after they’re defeated?”
Margon raised an eyebrow at my question.
“That’s really more for the Alliance to decide. We just want to make sure they’re in a position to do so.”
I realized that I would not get anywhere without being direct.
“A colleague of mine working with the Cenarion Circle has said that Zenith is exploring some of the old Twilight’s Hammer bases, maybe in hopes of using cult armaments. Is this true?”
“My, you are a curious one! I’m not really very high-ranking, so it’s not my place to know all of Zenith’s plans. What I can tell you is that Zenith wants to make sure that the Horde doesn’t get its hands on Twilight weaponry. The Earthen Ring’s occupied a lot of these cult bases, and you can be sure anything they find is going to get to the Horde.”
“That makes sense.”
“Partisans on both sides have used demonic and Scourge weapons, so this isn’t really anything new. Ugly, I agree, but war’s always ugly. You won’t have to touch any of that elementium if you don’t want to.”
I thanked Margon for his time and promised that I’d consider the offer. He told me that there was always a place for Alliance patriots in the ranks of Zenith. Walking out, I reflected on what I’d encountered in Hyjal.
There was no doubt in my mind that Zenith was experimenting with cult armaments. The question then was whether or not such an activity was even worth examining. It had already been pointed out to me, by several people, that researching and using questionable armaments is standard procedure.
The coded note had urged the carrier to dispose of the materials, which suggested a secrecy that Margon had not reflected. Then again, the Zenith operatives had been operating in Kaldorei lands, and Darnassus and the Cenarion Circle are among the few groups absolutely opposed to using malign substances.
Perhaps what troubled me was the obscurity of the Twilight’s Hammer. However destructive and corrupt, the Burning Legion and Scourge are understandable. Their armed forces functioned as standard militaries, albeit with somewhat unusual advantages. The Twilight’s Hammer, in contrast, seems to operate outside of logic. The full capabilities of the Twilight’s Hammer, and how this may or may not relate to their weapons, should perhaps be a bigger source of concern.
I returned to the Gadgetzan Visitors’ Rest at dusk to find Daj’yah seated at a table and reading one of the books she’d retrieved from Vidder’s ill-fated airplane. Nervously, I took the seat opposite her.
“Everyone’s saying the cities of Uldum are as safe as the mothers’ hut,” she said, referring to the special huts reserved for trollish women who have recently given birth.
“I’ve heard the same.”
“Safe enough for me. I signed up on a caravan that leaves in a few days. They’ve still got plenty room for you, if you want.”
“Oh! I figured most of the traffic to Uldum would be maritime.”
“I thought so too, but the caravan master—a Broken draenei named Kulud—said that visiting merchants are to always deliver a few gifts to King Phaoris. That, and the coastal lands are still unstable. So are you going?”
“Yes. Maybe I’d best sign up now, before the slot’s taken.”
“Good idea. Kulud’s in another guest house, a place called the Grand Caravanserai near the north gate. Here, I’ll take you to it.”
We both stood up from the table, Daj’yah putting the book in her bag. I caught a glimpse of the suddenly familiar cover, A Knight’s Lamentation written on the front, and smiled. Following Daj’yah, I went back out into the streets.