Metal crumpled like paper, waves of force tearing through the sky as engines strained and sputtered. I remember first hearing the distant explosion, hunching forward with no idea what to do as the cabin rattled. I felt the momentary thrill of total helplessness as the airplane tumbled through the sky, clouds spinning in the portholes.
Vidder cursed, screaming at the engines as the harness caught my weight, dropping forward as the entire world tipped off-balance. Daj’yah choked and retched as we dropped. The engines blasted back to life, shudders running through the fuselage as the airplane struggled to right itself. Weight and momentum won the day and again we fell.
Sobs broke from Vidder as he yelled, pain breaking through his composure. I got a brief look at the cockpit, seeing a constellation of broken glass. Machines rumbled, the airplane leveling out only to fall once more.
We hit the ground in a wrenching squeal, Barrens dirt spraying into the cabin as the floor disintegrated. The impact threw me up against the harness so that my head slammed into the ceiling. Cool ichor ran into my eyes, and I sensed only the roar and shake of metal hurtling through earth.
Dying motors twitched as the airplane slowed. I wiped the slime out of my eyes, hating the feel of the stuff.
“Destron? You hearing me?”
“Yes… yes,” I mumbled, my fingers struggling to undo the harness. Its metal clips had torn through my clothes and into my flesh.
“Can you stand up?”
“I think so.” Undoing the last buckle, I lifted myself off the seat. I tested the ground with my feet, amazed at how few injuries I’d suffered.
Craning my head over the seat, I saw Vidder slumped forward, blood trickling around the flight instruments. Daj’yah edged past the debris blocking the aisle, the plane barely big enough for her.
“He’s breathing, but it’s not looking good. Vidder?” she called.
Our pilot wheezed out an inchoate response. Walking over to the cockpit, I saw the extent of the damage. The windshield had shattered, Vidder’s face and neck turned into ribbons by shards of glass. Blood continued to pump out of the wounds as we watched, the goblin’s skin an awful shade of yellow.
“Is there anything you can do, Daj’yah?”
She fumbled with her robe as if to make a tourniquet, her hands slowing as they realized the futility of the action. It was too late for Vidder; there’d be no way to remove the glass and close the wounds in time.
“Vidder, do you have any family? Anything you want me to tell someone?” asked Daj’yah, leaning next to him, blood trickling on her robes.
Vidder coughed, his eyes a thousand miles away. His jaw worked, a red bubble swelling in his mouth. He died moments later.
“Is there a shovel? We can bury him,” I said, not really sure if we’d be able to.
“Ground’s nothing but dust and rock. There’s no shovel either.”
She exited the plane and I followed, sheets of sand whipping through the air on burning winds. To the south, the low mountains around the Thousand Needles emerged from a sea of shimmering heat.
“What is this?” Daj’yah gasped.
Through the dust we saw a stretch of land miles across slammed flat as if by a storm. Torn roots and scattered splinters marked where the land's scant trees once grew. Dark clouds of residue swirled over our heads, tons of the stuff somehow thrown up in the air. Quick glances confirmed that the path of ruination reached the horizons to the east and west.
Taking slow steps forward, I noticed a small furrow in the dusty ground, starting narrow before spreading out to a half-foot in depth and width. A black rock lay in the sand at the widest point, about the size of my ear. I reached out feeling no small amount of trepidation, a strange and prickling heat running through my dead fingers.
"Be careful, Destron."
Heeding Daj'yah's warning, I withdrew, noticing that the object was made of some kind of metal.
“We could go back to the Desolation Hold,” I said. “Of course, they may not want us to leave.” Normally I’d have continued without a care, but the presence of a living friend gave me caution. Trolls are perhaps the most adaptable and resilient race in Azeroth, yet there are still limits to what they can withstand. The strange metal fragments and the inexplicable devastation hinted at greater dangers ahead of us.
“No. There’s an Earthen Ring base south of here, yeah?”
“Firestone Point. If it’s still standing.”
“We’ll go there. If it’s gone, then we go back up.”
Retrieving whatever we could carry from the wreckage, the two us ventured into the battered landscape.
We saw more of the strange metal pieces embedded in the ground, first in twos and threes but soon in groups of a dozen. The heat grew worse as we walked, a clammy swelter emanating from the ground. Sand continued to fall from the sky until it blanketed us, tiny granules settling in our hair and under our clothes. The wind never let up, fierce gusts blowing dust from random directions. Our vision shrank to just a few feet ahead, everything beyond blocked by the thick haze.
Worse than all that was the stink, a putrid stew of sewage and burnt metal. At first an annoyance, it soon grew intolerable, particularly for Daj'yah. She stopped after a few miles, keeling over from coughing fits.
"I don't think we should cross this place, there's some kind of poison here!"
"No, I am alright," she gasped, her voice raw. "We go north, we’ll just have to walk through it all again."
"Are you certain?"
"Come on, let's go!"
With an angry start she resumed her trek. We both thought back to the dreadful confusion of the Cataclysm when inexplicable disasters erupted all across the world. Something in the sheer breadth of the devastation around us recalled those dark days.
Daj'yah took shallow breaths to cope with the bad air. It struck me how much more courageous are those travelers who still live. I gave her my share of the conjured water.
We came across the corpses of four kodo, already coated in sand. Skin hung in loose folds from the skeletons, the beasts having suffered in the lean times. However, it was not hunger that had killed them. Getting closer we saw the misshapen nature of the bodies, their innards liquefied and seeping out from open mouths and popped eyes. Ragged holes punctured the bodies of all four.
Not far beyond that the ground dropped out into a shallow gulch many yards across, the ground at the bottom smoldering red. We could at least be thankful that the falling dust had smothered any potential brushfires. Neither of us voiced our suspicions that Deathwing had passed over the Southern Barrens, his mere presence wreaking havoc.
"I'm not walking on that! I can try freezing a path through!" shouted Daj'yah, her voice thin over the wind.
We navigated the steep path down, an angry red line cutting through the gray and glassy sand like a second Great Divide. Daj'yah coughed again, only to raise her arms in preparation for magic. I felt the mana in the air, unseen conduits draining the heat. A specialist in frost magic, Daj'yah was well-prepared for such eventualities. I contributed as best I could, absorbing some of excess heat missed by Daj'yah. Before our eyes, the red glow faded, leaving only the residue of smoke.
Moving quickly we crossed the burned stretch and up the other side of the gulch, another stretch of ruin awaiting us. Hoping that we’d gone through the worst of it, we braced ourselves to withstand the heat and the smell for a few miles more.
Light and shadow dancing on her face, Tauna Skychaser looked up through the vent and into the starry expanse over our heads. Outside the tent we heard the mournful tones of a tauren dirge, and the shuffling of hooves on the parched grass.
I sat on a rug of red and white design placed across the campfire from Tauna. My fingers brushed against the earth, dry and brittle but still possessing a quality of life absent in the trail of destruction we’d so recently passed.
“Deathwing is a creature more miserable than any other. It is always in the power of life to create: the eagle lays its eggs, the flower spreads its seeds. Even demons create more of their own wicked kind. But he can only destroy.”
“What I do not understand is why, if he can destroy so easily, he hasn’t killed us all,” said Daj’yah.
“Nor do we. All of us here felt him as he passed, the screams of dying spirits in our minds. The earth that falls under his shadow becomes nothing more than dead dirt. If Deathwing wished, he could fly over all the great cities of Azeroth and reduce them to rubble. Yet to date he has only attacked Stormwind City, and he left most of it standing.”
“Why? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Little about the world does any longer. Deathwing holds back his full power, and his rabid armies appear as if from the air. Among the Free Peoples, the wise become timid as fools grow ever bolder.”
“Will the Earthen Ring be able to heal what Deathwing has destroyed?”
“We are already pushed to the limit, but we will try. Perhaps new spirits can be coaxed back into sky and earth.”
Daj’yah and I had reached the camp called Firestone Point. Once a sacred place cherished by tauren shamans, it has grown into the Earthen Ring’s primary base in central Kalimdor. Shamans of the Horde and Alliance put aside their differences as they try to reach the spirits and heal the land.
We had been accepted as guests in the tent of Tauna Skychaser, a senior shaman. Firestone Point was still in a state of uncertainty, though Deathwing appeared to have departed without inflicting further damage. They could only guess at his purpose.
Tauna at last put out the fire. The shamans outside continued mourning the spirits destroyed by Deathwing’s passage, and I drifted to sleep on their sonorous laments.
The next day, Daj’yah and I tried to figure out our next move. Quilboar of the Razorfen Tribe control the land south of Firestone Point. Giant thorn vines stitch through the earth, sucking up all the water from the Southern Barrens. Trying to walk through their territory would be suicide.
As mages, our conjurations allowed us to stay without draining local resources. Firestone Point had once relied on foraging, but this became impractical as the population grew. Zeppelins from Mudsprocket now make regular trips to Firestone Point, delivering food and even fuel for the occasional flier going to and from the Thousand Needles (the irony of being dependent on goblin trade is not lost on the shamans).
The deaths of so many spirits under Deathwing's shadow caused some survivors to lash out and embrace elementalism. In their dreams the shamans saw the restless earth taking monstrous forms; investigations proved these visions accurate. Patrols issue forth from Firestone Point twice a day to put down the enraged spirits.
"I wonder where he flew out from," said an orcish shaman named Turzuk. As we talked, he sat cross-legged on the grass, watching the sun go down. Daj'yah and I had been in Firestone Point for five days by that point, able to do little more than doze under the stifling heat.
"I admit I did find it hard to believe that Deathwing disappeared after the Cataclysm. I figured it'd be easy to track him," I said.
"He is seen only when he wishes to be seen. My mentor, Kolum'dan, went into a trance after the Cataclysm, imploring the wind spirits to tell him the location of the Destroyer. Yet they knew not, and cried only for their murdered brethren."
"How do you think he hides himself?"
"Some think he goes out of our world, or exists between the spaces we know. He is like the Twilight's Hammer; he appears from nowhere to wreak havoc, and vanishes abruptly. His flight across the Southern Barrens is not the first time he's appeared since the Cataclysm. Goblin caravans saw him soar over Desolace, and Argent Scouts found a trail of destruction cutting through the Eastern Plaguelands. He's been spotted in Icecrown, the mountains north of Arathi, and in Silithus."
"Always in very empty areas."
“Not empty. The spirits are everywhere.”
“Forgive me. I had not thought of that.”
“Forsaken seldom do. Perhaps Deathwing targeted the spirits to further fray the world. However, we do not know for certain. We are hoping that the Thousand Needles will give us answers."
"What has attracted your interest there?"
"The Twilight's Hammer made camp on the southern shelf, their warriors numbering in the thousands. Yet multitudes are no match for courage, and Shu’halo warriors swept them aside."
"Really? I had no idea that the cult had attacked the Needles tribes." I was similarly surprised that the natives, already weakened by the Cataclysm, would be able to repel the cult.
"Little news from the south makes its way to the ears of the north. Partisans aided the Needles tauren, defending them from the Twilight's Hammer and the Grimtotem Tribe."
"Is there any relationship between the Grimtotems and the Twilight's Hammer?"
"The Grimtotems are traitorous wretches fit to be wiped from Kalimdor, but they bear no love for the cult,” he said, referring to the tribe’s brief outreach to Alliance forces in the Stonetalon Mountains.
"Though the cult is long gone,” he continued, “their foulness remains. A few shamans investigate their empty camp, trying to learn more about our enemy."
“I thought that the spirits could not normally see the Twilight cultists.”
“They cannot, but the shamans are wise, and will perhaps glean information with their own sight.”
"The Cenarion Circle is similarly engaged with the Twilight bases up in Hyjal. Has the Earthen Ring found anything interesting?"
"Not yet," he sighed. "What they do find makes no sense. There is a tauren pilot, Kwehana Skyhopper, who delivers the research to us from the south. He should be here in a few days."
Tauna had actually told Daj'yah and I about Kwehana, saying he might be able to get us to Gadgetzan.
"Are these researchers with the Earthen Ring?"
"Yes, though they are all from the Horde."
Life in Firestone Point reveals some of the fault lines within the Earthen Ring. One of the “Five Neutral Powers,” (as pundits like to collectively call the Cenarion Circle, Earthen Ring, Steamwheedle Cartel, Argent Crusade, and Dalaran; some add the Sha’tar as a sixth), the Earthen Ring is the only one openly sympathetic to the Horde (the Steamwheedle Cartel had once preferred the Horde, but had been alienated by Garrosh’s protectionism and his inclusion of the Bilgewater Cartel).
Alliance shamans come in two broad varieties. The draenei follow their rather clinical variant of the practice, while the dwarves bring a more traditionally mystical mindset. The Wildhammer Clan had long practiced shamanism, and began inducting some Bronzebeards into the system after the Cataclysm. Remarkably similar to orcish shamanism, it emphasizes heroic ancestors as well as maintaining good relationships with the spirits of the natural world.
“Does it bother you that we’re helping these Hordelings reclaim their territory?”
From where I sat in Tauna’s tent, I could overhear a conversation between a draenei and a dwarf, conducted in Common.
“I understand your concern, Brother Soarghus. But if the spirits are in disarray, it is a problem for everyone on Azeroth.”
“Aye, but—it pains me to say this, Larhasha, but the spirits of the Barrens aren’t the ones my fathers talked to. They’re the ones Tauna’s fathers talked to, you see? The Horde needs shamans far more than we do. And here we are, helping them do their work.”
“It is a conundrum, I agree. Our hope is that cooperation can inculcate a sense of unity.”
“Maybe. I’m leaving in a few weeks. For good.”
“What is the reason for this?”
“My brother’s been transferred to Fort Triumph. I can’t help the Horde any longer, and the Earthen Ring is in Garrosh’s pocket.”
“That is not true, Brother Soarghus.”
“Isn’t it? Earthen Ring keeps the peace in Vash’jr—which is right and dandy if you’re the Horde navy wanting to take out Stormwind City. They make the Southern Barrens safe for the tauren. Look, the tauren are a fine bunch, and I wish they were in the Alliance, but they aren’t. I’ve got to watch out for my own.”
“Have you told Tauna?”
“Not yet, but I will.”
With the exception of the Steamwheedle Cartel, the Five Neutral Powers have all made various claims to the moral high ground. As the faction most visibly in retreat, and clearly the less aggressive, the Alliance can make a more convincing claim to righteousness than can the Horde. This puts the Horde-sympathetic Earthen Ring in a very awkward position. Contrast this with the Cenarion Circle, where the Horde presence adopts an apologetic attitude. If what I have been told is true, many of the Horde members in the Argent Crusade actively disavow their faction of origin.
The propeller’s steady chop slowed to a thin whine as the gyrocopter landed, a wooden skeleton under kodohide decorated with images of dueling gods and heroes. Small and lean for a tauren, Kwehana dismounted from the open-air cockpit, his brown fur matted. Tauna stood outside of the landing patch, a kind smile on her face. She exchanged words with Kwehana, and soon guided him to a communal tent where the other senior shamans already waited.
Daj’yah walked towards the gyrocopter, examining an image painted in white on the left flank, of a tauren leaping from one mountaintop to another. I recognized the character as the Cliff Runner, a folk hero for the three tribes of the Thousand Needles.
“After flying over so many miles, I wonder how it is people ever walked,” remarked Daj’yah. “I never even dreamed of such things as a girl. Now, everyone’s flying something.”
The tauren lack the infrastructure to build very many machines, but what they do create is marked by an almost uncanny quality. Many have commented on the seemingly intuitive knack that some tauren have for engineering (the tauren themselves say that one can hear spirits in gears and pistons). Tauren machines also boast incredible artistry, as seen in the vivid sagas painted on the sides of Kwehana’s flyer.
“Wait! There’s only two seats on this thing,” said Daj’yah.
“I was afraid of that. Elazzi paid to get you to Gadgetzan, not me—“
“Come on, Destron! You’re not a goblin. I’m not making you walk all the way down there.”
“I’m hardly a stranger to walking.”
“That’s not the point. When Kwehana gets back from talking to Tauna, we’ll figure something out.”
“I’m light and durable. Maybe Kwehana can just strap me to the side.”
“Are you joking?”
“I’m not sure. I think it’s feasible though. Look, I’m undead, I may as well take advantage of the fact.”
She gave me another look, her confusion buckling and then breaking into laughter.
Tauna and Kwehana walked out of the tent a while later, their faces solemn.
“You choose a most interesting time to visit the Thousand Needles,” said Kwehana to Daj’yah. “The Twilight’s Hammer is gone, and the Grimtotem are at bay, but chaos still rules.”
“We’d not be too much trouble, I’m hoping?” said Daj’yah.
“Hospitality is the way of the Shu’halo, and we will not shame our ancestors by turning guests away. But I must warn you that the Alliance now controls the southern shelf, where the Twilight’s Hammer once ruled. What they seek there, I do not know.”
“Are they official Alliance soldiers?” I interjected.
“They are warriors—I think you might call them partisans. They are many in number, including both warriors and sages. We do not recognize their symbol, which is the blazing sun at its height, golden rays spread through the sky.”
The same symbol, I realized, that I’d seen on the dead partisan’s brooch back in Hyjal.