A sense of torrid oppression hangs over the wilderness of Kalimdor's southernmost longitudes, a quality more felt than truly seen. Bones and ruins sink into Tanaris' endless sands, while a toothy darkness fills Un'goro's jungles; the less said about Silithus, the better.
In contrast, the world opens up all at once past the mountains ringing Uldum, the land’s puffy clouds scudding through capacious blue skies. Just as dry and harsh as its equivalent in Tanaris, Uldum's golden sands offer the illusion of life.
The Gate of Unending Cycles guards the mountain pass leading into Uldum, the cliff paved with tremendous blocks of stone. Bronze statues of animal-headed guardians watch from cavernous alcoves, majestic in their indifference.
The Titan safeguards that had so long concealed Uldum from the eyes of the world failed during the Cataclysm, revealing the last great city of antiquity. Researchers from around the world hoped to at last find answers to the questions posed by Uldaman and Ulduar. War and time had driven out the inhabitants of those cities, but Uldum's original protectors had remained and even thrived in the form of the tol’vir.
Reality seldom matches the fevered expectations of dwarven archaeologists, and one could almost hear the gnashing of teeth in Ironforge as researchers explored the temples. As is so often the case, the questions answered by Uldum served to bring about even more questions. Nor was Uldum preserved from the world's chaos, as the age-old realm erupted into war, and mercenary bandits sought to claim a Titan artifact capable of wiping all life from Azeroth.
Uldum appears calm today, but as I would soon find, confusion and instability still roil beneath the surface. At the Gate of Unending Cycles, however, I did not even have the slightest inkling of such problems. The air itself offers hopes of glory and revelation.
Kulud's caravan had made good time going around the treacherous Abyssal Sands. A Broken who'd slipped past the attention of the draenei, Kulud had found a new life among the goblins. His flowing white robes, the hems and sleeves decorated with gilded abstractions, demonstrated his success. Kulud's wagons were laden with silks and spices that fetch a relatively high price in Uldum despite the gradual market saturation of recent months. He'd return to Gadgetzan with semiprecious jewels and papyrus. He employed a sizeable group of porters and guards, mostly split between goblins and other Broken. An ogre bodyguard and a human seneschal rounded out the crew.
Besides Daj’yah and myself, there was another traveler. Called Jamet, he was the first tol’vir either of us had seen in the flesh. The tol’vir are a physically intimidating species, powerfully built crosses between centaurs and great cats. Jamet stood nearly nine feet in height, covered in russet-colored fur. For clothes he wore only a harness and a thick sash around his waist, the latter held in place by a gold plate inscribed with symbols of learning: a diagonal brush and a triangular inkpot.
The government of Ramkahen (currently the only viable political entity in Uldum) is understandably anxious about the outside world, but has sent only a few representatives to explore Azeroth. Jamet was a scribe, ordered by King Phaoris to learn of Gadgetzan. Jamet’s packs were near overflowing with scrolls containing his report.
“He looks like our kind of tol’vir,” remarked Daj’yah.
We passed much of the journey speaking with Jamet. He saw his task as no mere assignment, but as something akin to a holy quest.
“It is the will of King Phaoris that the world be known to him, for he is Azeroth’s First Sovereign. I have strained to make my words accurate, though I fear this simple mind found much that was confusing.”
The shape of the tol’vir muzzle makes it very difficult for them to pronounce Orcish, though they can be understood with some effort (Gilneans in worgen form must deal with a similar challenge). Despite this, he spoke with flawless grammar and construction.
“The holy words first uttered by the Ancient Ones created this world. When They said atap, which you call a palm tree, the atapi grew. Every language is a world, and though you call it a palm tree and we Virtic-speakers call it atap, they are not the same thing.”
“But is not a palm tree the same no matter what it is called?”
“In the physical sense, yes, but not in the spiritual. Atap conjures Uldum, its riverside trees swaying in a cool wind. We remember how Horut, our first king, rested in their shade. These are not associations others would make.”
“However, by telling me of these associations, I too can make them.”
“Yes, but not in the same way. You still construct the image with Orcish words. If you forgot every word you knew and learned Virtic instead, then perhaps. This is why the tol’vir treat all languages with great respect.”
“A wise stance to take.”
Curious as to how a tol’vir would see the outside world, I asked Jamet about his experience in Gadgetzan. His brow furrowed in an endearingly anthropomorphic expression.
“I fear that any report I make will be inadequate. Gadgetzan has already changed since my visit, for there is no permanence there. Your world, I fear, is outside my experience.”
“Would you say Uldum is more constant?”
“In a sense, though much has changed over the past years. Yet it is more constant than the goblins, who see only dreams.”
“How do you mean?”
“To understand the world, one must look at it as it has always been: to see the permanence of the desert , to see the Titans’ glory. The goblins dream things, and then pursue them, though no precedence for these dreams exists. They are not a realistic people. Are all the races of the world like the goblins?”
“I should say none of them are like the goblins, nor are any like each other. As to how they compare to the tol’vir, I cannot say.”
“There are other scribes like myself in the distant places. Much will be discussed when they return.”
The caravan spent two days descending the sandy foothills, the vivid blue streak of the Vir’naal River and its verdant banks a tantalizing promise. Called the Artery of Life in some translations, Uldum's civilization is dependent on the Vir’naal's steady flood cycle.
Late afternoon saw us reach the level ground on the edge of Khartut's Tomb, a wondrous ruin in northern Uldum. A statue of a tol'vir reaches heights befitting a god, the setting sun's light glinting on the golden plates embedded in its brow and chest. Great temples sleep in the statue’s shadow, half-buried by the dunes. Rectangular in layout, the walls of the temples are decorated only by subtle pilasters, giving an impression of streamlined strength. Trapezoidal doors, flanked by white turquoise-capped obelisks, lead to sacral chambers unused for centuries. To the front of the statue are much larger obelisks inscribed with ancient writing, and past that are broad plazas strewn with sand.
“We will camp here,” ordered Kulud. “Those of you who haven’t been here before, the tomb is safe as long as you stay on the surface. All the curses are below ground.”
The goblins and gnolls in Kulud’s employ soon set up the white tents. They worked quickly but without urgency, untroubled by the crumbling antiquity all around us. The abandoned cities of Uldum possess an airy openness that defuses any sense of dread; the impossible statue seemed as much our protector as the tomb’s.
Daj’yah, Jamet, and I ventured into the tomb complex, walking by the memories of dead kings. Sweeping desert winds brought an end to the day’s heat, spreading loose sand across the flagstones.
“Did the Titans build Khartut’s Tomb?”
Jamet paused, his amber eyes thoughtful.
“In the sense that you mean? No.”
“Forgive me if I am in error. You inquired as to who physically built this place?”
“My ancestors built it to honor Khartut-of-Many-Spears, who brought an end to Hameth the Jackal. Yet in truth, the Titans built it, for we merely followed their techniques, however imperfectly.”
“How much of Uldum did the Titans make?” asked Daj’yah. “Physically, that is?”
“The Halls of Origination, the Obelisks of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, and the Temple of Uldum. So too did They make the underground chambers upon which this place and others were constructed.”
“The rest is yours?”
“Physically, yes, spiritually, no. All things emanate from the Titans, for they spoke the first words.”
“There are scores of grand but abandoned cities all through Uldum, at least from the maps I’ve seen,” I said. “Your people physically built them, but no longer live there?”
“We left, because the world forgets the words. Rivers dry up, the desert expands, and our memories grow indistinct. Such is the way of the world.”
I examined the grand constructions surrounding us, as indomitable as mountains. Still in good condition, I could see the pock marks left by the wind and the sand, time taking its inevitable toll. I also noted the hieroglyphs carved onto the stone, the images visible but no longer clean and clear.
“Are you able to read the hieroglyphs?” I asked.
“Yes, why would I not? I am a scribe,” Jamet answered, his voice rumbling. I did not recognize it as such at the time, but the gravelly sound is actually tol’vir laughter. “Here, I will read to you the deeds of King Khartut.”
We trekked several yards to the base of the magnificent statue. By then, the sun lingered as a dark red corona on the horizon, its light no longer flashing on ornaments of gold. Jamet held up his lantern to the text, each glyph as big as his hand.
“Honor and gifts unto King Khartut-of-Many-Spears, whose wrath and wisdom brings peace and plenty to Ramkahen! For Hameth the Jackal comes from the north with the men of Orsis to fall upon our lands with the hunger of locusts. Yet when they hear of Khartut’s mighty deeds they quail and curse their lives, for they are weak against him. Under the sun, Khartut’s spears pierce the Sons of Orsis, and when they see this, they throw down their weapons and flee.” Jamet announced the words with a showman’s relish, making the occasional pause as he mentally translated the words.
“That must have been an incredible sight.”
“Yes, King Khartut was a great man. We often made war with the tol’vir of Orsis, and Khartut broke their power.”
“I did notice that you told the story in present tense. Is there a reason for this.”
Again, his throat rumbled.
“I cannot tell you how I struggled to learn the concept of past tense. There is no such thing in Virtic.”
“Really? How then, would a reader know this took place in the past?”
“How would he not? One does not build a great statue to commemorate a man who is not yet done fighting. At least, not in Uldum. I know not the ways of other lands.”
“So one needs to know the context to place it in time?”
“Yes. And in a sense, there is no time, for is not Khartut still battling? By defeating Hameth, he made all of this possible, so it is misguided to see the war as past. The Orsisi know they are defeated, and will always be.”
I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on the Virtic language, but I eventually did learn more about how the tol'vir communicate. As Jamet said, understanding the larger context is essential. When describing past events, a tol'vir will preface a sentence by establishing time. For instance, if an adult tol'vir says: "I am a child, and I play in the temple gardens," it might translate as "When I was a child, I played in the temple gardens."
The tol'vir actually have a very sophisticated understanding of time. Tol'vir astronomers are aware that there are 365 days per year. Their scribes have also created a dating system that begins with the arrival of the Titans. Thus, the tol'vir can precisely date the events of their history; the only real difference is that past events are described as happening at present. In fact, to refer to Virtic utilizing only the present tense is inaccurate. There is a past tense; however, it does not affect verbs.
Thus, the tol'vir do not suffer from serious confusion when referring to historical events. More interesting are the philosophical underpinnings. None deny that history shapes the present, but Virtic portrays history as a living and inescapable thing. One's actions are reflected through eternity, for they are partially described as occurring in perpetuity, even if relegated to a long-past date. As Jamet and others would explain to me, that the war between Khartut and Hameth happened 4,713 years ago does not change the fact that it is still being fought in an ineluctable if not literal sense.
If the images painted of the place are believed, the lush sanctuary of Ramkahen City has scarcely changed in its millennia of existence. Wide paved streets run in straight lines beneath the clear blue sky and lush palms sway in the wind. Clean geometric precision best describes the city's architectural style, its block-shaped sandstone houses evenly spaced. The homes of the rich are not much larger or finer than their neighbors, though some are topped by pyramidal capstones or boast enclosed gardens where bountiful date trees nearly spill over the edges.
Great statues of crocodile-headed guardians cast their sightless gaze across the Vir'naal's deep blue waters, the white sails of reed fishing boats moving across the surface as steady as clouds. Deeper in the city, tol'vir merchants gather in bazaars shielded from the sun by tarps of multicolored cloth suspended between roofs. Fruits, sweet-meats, clay votive figurines painted in vivid shades, linen shawls, and more compete for space on simple wooden kiosks. The whole scene conjures descriptions of medieval Dalaran, then a distant and exotic place in the eyes of superstitious Lordaeronian travelers.
The city's topography slopes upward from the river bank, culminating in the Seat of Plenty, a combination of temple and palace from which King Phaoris rules his domain. Made of marble, the Seat of Plenty is an elongated structure set perpendicular to the roads leading to its gate. Obelisks stand to each side of trapezoidal gate, and pyramid-crowned towers towards the back hint at the Seat of Plenty's dimensions. A pitched stone roof runs over the main sanctuary, with the curious detail of a triangular frontpiece made of some foggy glass, behind which shines a steady white light visible even at noon.
Flanked by porters bearing chests filled with gifts (fine cloth, cameras, clocks, and wine), Kulud genuflected to the guards standing at the Seat of Plenty’s gate. Carapaces of polished armor cover the Ramkaheni guards, their faces hidden by bulky helmets resembling hawk heads. King Phaoris rarely accepts visitors not on official business, so we did not follow Kulud.
To our surprise, Jamet refrained from entering. He explained that the report would first go to the office of Vizier Tanotep in the nearby city of Mar’at.
“King Phaoris’ rule is unquestioned, for he knows better than anyone what must be done. For this reason, it is vital that he receives wise advice from the High Council.”
“Who else is on the High Council?”
“There is High Vizier Tanotep, whom I have mentioned. To him falls the sacred task of recording and managing the harvest. High Commander Kamses sees to Uldum’s defense. His heroism in the war against Al’Akir and the Neferset has made him shine ever brighter in the eyes of the tol’vir.
“Lastly there is High Priest Amet, who divines correct action in the ways taught since time immemorial. He also conducts the sacred rites of the Vir’naal River.”
“How much power does the High Council have?”
“Each rules his sphere, and can be overridden only by the king. The king is second only to the gods, and it is not our place to trouble him except in times of need.”
“Is there ever any disagreement within the High Council?”
“Men as wise as they rarely disagree. Should this happen, the king makes the final decision.”
“And how are the members of the High Council selected?”
“The king chooses the Vizier and Commander. The priesthood follows its own counsel.”
Jamet then excused himself to announce his return to a local administrator. Left to our own devices, Daj’yah and I decided to return to the marketplace. Unable to speak Virtic, we contented ourselves with casual observation. Bazaars in most places tend to be crowded affairs, but the tol’vir give each other a great deal of space. This habit complements the city’s roomy dimensions.
Much like Jamet, the other tol’vir wear little in the way of clothing. Most simply wrap a thick sash of dyed linen around their waists, sometimes embellished by a copper plate inscribed with symbols of the wearer’s profession. A few wear additional ornamentation about the shoulders or the neck, but there is relatively little surface difference between individual tol’vir.
Somewhat later, I learned that the Ramkaheni tend towards a superficial social egalitarianism. All Ramkaheni are seen as having their place, and should they fulfill it well, they are deserving of respect. A peasant will always defer to priest or a scribe, but it is bad form to be openly contemptuous to someone on a lower social rung.
Women run many of the merchant stands; buying and selling is seen as something of a feminine trait, though there are some male vendors (who are usually elderly). Ramkaheni society is extremely patriarchal, and trade is one of the few occupations that women are permitted to hold outside of the home. Some of the tol’vir women wear elaborate headdresses from which hang strings beaded with polished turquoise. Such decoration advertises that the wearer is available for marriage.
Conversation in the marketplace is steady but quiet, the sound making the city feel full of endlessly purring cats. The Ramkaheni tend to be reserved, though public displays of strong emotion are acceptable in certain venues (holidays, funerals, and so forth).
Daj’yah went to purchase some figs at a stand. To her surprise, she could buy three of them with a single copper coin (fruits of any kind cost at least two coppers a piece in Orgrimmar). Happily, she took them and gave one to me. Eating it, my dried tongue searched for flavor, sampling the memory of sweetness.
“Strange it’d be so cheap,” she commented.
“Why? I’ve heard there are fig orchards along the river.”
“Sure, but these tol’vir are looking a bit ragged, no? If food’s cheap, they shouldn’t be so scrawny.”
The tol’vir in the marketplace do look gaunt, at least compared to the royal guards. Then again, royal guards are seldom the physical norm for their societies. Even so, I started to notice the ribs visible beneath faded fur and the hairless spots running up tired legs.
We retired to Bed of Reeds, a rambling two-story structure near Ramkahen’s eastern gate where Kulud had told us to stay. Built only a year before our visit, Bed of Reeds caters exclusively to foreign visitors. Hospitality is a cardinal virtue among the tol’vir; travelers prior to the Cataclysm could be assured of finding shelter in the home of even the poorest resident if they so asked. Though this courtesy is still extended to the Ramkaheni, the natives are a bit less comfortable giving succor to aliens.
A wide door, open at all hours, keeps the air circulating in the grand parlor room where visitors stretch out on plush cushions spread around low and circular acacia tables. Bright murals of regal tol’vir at work and play parade along the smooth tan walls. Oil fires burn in cobra-girdled stone braziers raised nearly to the ceiling, the guttering light creating the illusion of movement in painted limbs.
The inn’s proprietor, a tol’vir able to speak proficient Orcish, ushered us to one of the tables. Bundles of cedar sticks placed around a central oil lamp tried (without much success) to counteract the riotous smell of sweat, smoke, and all manner of foods. Four Sin’dorei lounged at the table; I half-expected them to look down at our arrival, but one, his scarlet hair cut scrupulously short, stood and offered a slight bow. As he did, the other elves got to their feet and did the same, as Daj’yah and I returned the gesture.
“Welcome, noble scions of House Windrunner and the Darkspear. It is as always an honor to see relatively familiar faces in this beautiful but distant land. I am Avaeron Spellstar, second sun of Great House Spellstar, and a member of the Reliquary.”
“The honor is mine. I am Destron Allicant.”
“And I, Daj’yah.”
We sat back down. A serving woman came by and placed enormous mugs of frothy beer on the table.
“When it comes to loving a good brew, I think the dwarves may have at last found their rivals among the tol’vir,” laughed Avaeron.
I smiled and took a draught, not really able to notice the taste. The texture was thick and almost grainy.
“Please tell me of Great House Spellstar; I have heard many impressive things,” I said. In truth, I had never heard of it at all, but wished to avoid causing offense.
“I’m surprised you know about us. We are a new Great House.”
My sockets widened in surprise. The Sin’dorei take lineage and loyalty to an art form. Many of the Great Houses perished during the Third War, but their retainers kept alive the memories. I’d never imagined that the Sin’dorei would so soon allow new Great Houses to arise.
“I understand your astonishment,” he continued. “This decision was not without controversy. In the end, necessity gave us no choice. Too much of our land lacked governance; for a while, Silvermoon attempted to administer all parts of the realm directly, but this became harder to do, especially after the unfortunate events in Outland.”
Kael’thas Sunstrider, once called the Sun King, had used the destruction of so many Great Houses to consolidate his regime. With this done, he gave temporary authority to Regent Lor’themar Theron and vanished to Outland where his soul embraced demonic corruption. When he returned with an army of fiends to reclaim Quel’thalas, Horde and Alliance alike took him down for good. Even after all this, the Sin’dorei consider it bad form to directly criticize Kael’thas.
“Who made this decision?”
“Lor’themar Theron. Great House Sunstrider’s line tragically ended with the Sun King’s illness. As such, House Theron assumed ruling duties and became a de facto Great House. With Great House Theron paving the way, Lor’themar chose other houses to follow suit.”
“I see. How did Great House Spellstar come to be chosen?”
“For centuries we served as retainers to Great House Goldenmist. Ellyurian Goldenmist protected my esteemed ancestor, Dellis Spellstar, during the retreat from Kalimdor and we have never forgotten this noble deed. Yet Goldenmist is no more. Because my family aided Lor’theron in confirming his reign, he determined that we should take the place of Great House Goldenmist and rule over the eponymous territory in the Ghostlands.”
“Ah, Goldenmist Village. It is now Spellstar Village, I take it?”
Avaeron’s face darkened, but only for a moment.
“I should say not. Never will the name of the land change, for we can never forget the familial name of he who guided us to that land. However, we assume the legal and administrative obligations of Great House Goldenmist.”
“Impressive. And you contribute through the Reliquary?” The Reliquary initially focused on protecting and maintaining artifacts that the Sin’dorei had taken with them on their exile. They have undergone a dramatic expansion in recent years, becoming the Horde’s under-budgeted equivalent of the dwarven Explorer’s League.
“As best I can. I am one of the less experienced scholars in Uldum. It is truly an honor to my family that I be allowed here.”
"If it's not impertinent of me to ask, how are the other Sin'dorei reacting to this change?"
"There are as many answers to that as there are Sin'dorei. For the most part, my kindred are willing to accept this."
"Would you say that Quel'thalas is more accepting of change after the Sun King's departure?"
"Again, it varies. You have to remember that over the past several years we lost our kingdom, lost the Sunwell, embraced diabolism, joined the Horde, endured a civil war, and at last had the Sunwell returned to us thanks to the people we had been attempting to kill or enslave.
"No one is entirely certain what to think right now. Some cling all the more strongly to old beliefs, while others are reexamining their places in the world. So much rapid change is unprecedented, but hardly unique to Quel'thalas. The Darkspear Tribe and Lordaeron have both weathered similarly dramatic upheavals."
"Things have been strange," said Daj'yah. "I still remember when I was a girl, the islands being my whole world. Then everything changed."
"Indeed. Your people made remarkable achievements, especially in Stranglethorn."
"Ah, but we lost most of that after the Cataclysm," she sighed, taking a sip of her beer.
"I am sure the Darkspear will regain it."
"Sure, but maybe the Loa are having a laugh at us. The world makes fools of us all, yeah?"
"One can never hope to accurately predict the course of events. Yet certain traits and institutions in groups or individuals arise over time. From my perspective, the Darkspear possess leadership qualities— forgive me, I do not mean to sound presumptuous. I should note that my knowledge of the Darkspear is gleaned mostly from secondhand reports."
"I can tell, but I'll say I'm impressed that an elf knows anything about us."
One of the retainers frowned, but Avaeron laughed.
"This is the time to look beyond Quel'thalas' old borders. The forest trolls are in decline. So are the jungle tribes. Zul'drak is in ruins, and Zul'farrak is barely hanging on. Surely you would agree that your tribe has leadership potential?"
"So you are thinking of making us Great House Darkspear?" laughed Daj'yah.
"Sadly, the choice is not mine, but I would be honored to have some of your people as guests."
Daj'yah blinked, and then forced a quick laugh. Perhaps sensing that his statement had been off-target, Avaeron blushed. After an awkward pause, we turned the conversation to more mundane matters.
We spent a week in Ramkahen, half-walking half-drowsing beneath the golden desert sun. The tol’vir take an almost obsessive interest in beautifying their city. The residents of every household devote the early morning hours to cleaning both their domicile and the streets immediately outside of it. As parents and children set to work with brooms and washcloths, they sing in low and roaring voices that rise up from every street and square. This obligation is religious, not legal, in nature.
A family home in Ramkahen City is a cherished possession, handed down through the generations since time immemorial. Families may only move out from the city with a special dispensation from the local government. Likewise, children are expected to follow the trades of their parents, though choice of profession is a bit more flexible than housing.
I also learned why Daj'yah's copper piece had purchased so many figs. Ramkaheni coins, or drachma, are small and almost paper-thin, using far less metal than coins from the outside world. As such, a single Azerothian copper piece is worth three copper drachmas when based on weight alone. Yet Azerothian coins also tend to be mixed with baser metals, so the actual value is closer to two copper drachmas.
Unfortunately, Ramkaheni sellers are not used to measuring purity, and end up cheating themselves in transactions. In general, street vendors are unable to make much of a profit; Ramkaheni society is extremely conservative and discourages wealth accumulation. The ideal is that everyone will have enough if they stick to their societal roles. As I gradually learned, however, the limited resources of Uldum have made this security difficult to maintain.
This information came from the money-changer, a tol'vir who spoke reasonable Orcish and Common. She told us not to worry about the issue.
"These traders hoard up the outside coins, like misers. They will be fine."
I imagine that the heavy influx of valuable metals will have an inflationary effect on Ramkahen’s (and by extension, Uldum’s) economy. This will be compounded if the Ramkaheni begin to adulterate the drachma.
Avaeron sometimes joined our tours. He was on his second visit to Uldum; his first had occurred during the height of the chaos, when air elementals and foreign brigands wreaked havoc in the ancient landscape. He’d stayed to help the Ramkaheni defend their cities from the Neferseti, though his retainers had begged him to go back home.
“The honor of my House rests on my actions; so too does the honor of the Horde. I could not, in good conscience, leave,” he said by way of explanation.
He finally went back to Quel’thalas after the fall of Neferset City, mostly to inform other Sin’dorei of recent events. Avaeron returned to Uldum as soon as he was able, and planned to reconvene with the Reliquary at their headquarters in the city of Mar’at.
“You may both accompany me. Though the Reliquary is a Sin’dorei organization, we welcome all the other Horde races, particularly those of a scholarly bent.”
We accepted his offer.
On our last day, Daj'yah and I sat at the steps overlooking the port, the morning sun scorching though still some ways from its zenith. Reed boats trawled the waters, distance making them as small and neat as the colorful frescoes that decorate the walls of riverside homes.
"What do you make of Avaeron?" I asked.
"He's better than most elves I've met. Maybe he doesn’t understand as much as he thinks, but who really does?"
I looked around at the ancient city, bright and new through my vision. So too did it look back into me, an alien in its walls, a small part of an incoming flood.
Our tent bore all the hallmarks of Sin’dorei luxury, the scarlet cloth bright and densely woven, golden filigrees running along the edges. Two beds with silk sheets and chests of polished mahogany had been given for our use, along with a bottle containing wine of respectable vintage.
“Forgive me if the accommodations do not meet your expectations. Our resources are still limited in Uldum.”
“Not at all, this is quite luxurious. Thank you, Avaeron,” I said.
“Nice, sure, but do you have a longer bed by any chance? I won’t fit on this little thing,” said Daj’yah.
“My apologies. I do not think the Reliquary has any dedicated carpenters, but I may—“
“It’s fine, I’ll manage. I can use a stool to prop up my feet.”
“Very good, you trolls are certainly resourceful! Now, if you’ll pardon me, there is some Reliquary business to which I must attend. If there is anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Avaeron bowed before turning and walking into the shaded peristyle surrounding the courtyard. The garden of Brightblade Hall is a fine place. Flagstone paths meander between royal palms, thick ferns unfurling in the shade. Water pours from the open jaws of four sleek lion heads carved around a sandstone fountain in the center. Riverside scenes painted in green and turquoise decorate the walls and square pillars.
Standing at the southern edge of the city of Mar’at, Brightblade Hall is the headquarters of the Reliquary in Uldum. At the opposite side of the town, Harrison Hall serves in the same capacity for the Explorer’s League. Both structures had been built to honor the aid given by the Horde and the Alliance during the Neferset War. Fearing undue foreign influence in the royal court, King Phaoris had decreed that they be built somewhere other than Ramkahen City.
“Now it is the Steamwheedle Cartel that is King Phaoris’ main foreign contact. A clever move, perhaps; cartel support may allow Uldum to maintain neutrality,” Avaeron had said.
Avaeron helped us settle into Reliquary life over the next few days. The Reliquary’s access to Uldum’s ancient sites is quite limited. Now that Ramkahen is in a more secure position, King Phaoris is able to prohibit most exploration. Expeditions into the Titan ruins also risk provoking the nomadic Orsisi tribes, who see the ruins as sacred.
“While regrettable, his decision is understandable. The Reliquary’s interest is in artifacts of power, and it is in King Phaoris’ interest to keep such artifacts, even if he cannot use them,” explained Avaeron.
“Why can’t he use them?”
“The tol’vir are not very inquisitive in regards to their past. There are reasons for this. Are you familiar with the Coffer of Promise?”
“I know it was some ancient Titan device.”
“Yes, one capable of wiping out all life on Azeroth. A paramilitary group associated with the Twilight’s Hammer attempted to seize it; only the timely intervention of the Explorer’s League prevented extinction.”
“I had no idea!”
“Not much news escapes here, and we had no wish to spark a panic. You can see, I am sure, why King Phaoris is reluctant to allow such things into the hands of outsiders. The Explorer’s League has more leeway than does the Reliquary, largely due to their instrumental part in saving the world, and even they face many obstacles,” he chuckled.
“So King Phaoris favors the Alliance?”
“His actual opinion is uncertain. The High Council is divided; Vizier Tanotep prefers the Alliance, but High Commander Kamses is sympathetic to the Horde. It was Horde agents, after all, who spearheaded the assault on Neferset and eventually brought an end to Al’akir, the Windlord.”
“What of the high priest?”
“He is undecided. Sometimes I wonder if he does that from some perverse fondness for neutrality. Regardless, the Reliquary is somewhat distrusted because our goals are explicitly aligned with the state of Quel’thalas, and by extension, the Horde. The Explorer’s League is better at convincing people that they are not partisan; they only want to learn of their histories, after all.”
“I’m surprised that the Reliquary would be so open about its aims.”
“We seek to assure the security of Quel’thalas. I also believe that understanding and utilizing these artifacts will be to Uldum’s benefit; the Reliquary will share most of its findings with the royal court. Uldum is fading, their great cities falling into the sand. I’d hate for this land meet the same fate as Zul’gurub and Zul’aman.”
“I suppose that’s a relatively altruistic attitude to take.”
“I saw the greatest civilization on Azeroth plunged into chaos and led astray into darkness. I do not want to see it happen to anyone else. Uldum is less secure than it looks. Yes, my loyalty is to Quel’thalas, and if I must sacrifice Uldum for my liege, so be it. However, I believe my efforts can help both groups.”
Much of the work in Brightblade Hall consists of translating the hieroglyphs found in Uldum’s innumerable ruins. Enterprising Horde agents had recorded these words in etchings and in photographs during the excavations conducted at the height of the Neferset War. This is frustrating work at the best of times, the tiny fragments of data never really fitting together. It is the Reliquary’s hope that scholars will be able to glean meaningful information about powerful Titan devices.
King Phaoris had assigned several experienced scribes to aid the Reliquary (and the Explorer’s League) in translation, but many of the Sin’dorei distrust them. There is the general belief that for all their polite service, the scribes are withholding vital information.
Not knowing Virtic, Daj’yah and I were unable to directly translate the retrieved tol’vir documents. What we could do was compile and edit the reports made by Reliquary officials. Not all of the translators have the best command of Orcish. Though Daj’yah speaks with an accent, her writing is flawless.
The elves whose work I edited tended to be courteous but aloof, generally acknowledging my efforts. Some were almost genial, or cited their own family’s past friendship with House Windrunner. Daj’yah, however, faced a more daunting task.
A researcher stormed past my desk a few days after our arrival, his jaws set and eyes blazing, gripping a crumpled scroll. I barely paid him any attention until I heard the angry whispers exchanged with Avaeron, who had been studying Virtic records at the other side of the room. Only then did Daj’yah enter, following the path led by the enraged researcher, a look of bored irritation on her face.
The researcher’s tone went from furious to one of restrained concern in nearly an instant. He turned to look at Daj’yah, offering a slight bow and a cold smile. Avaeron sighed, gritting his teeth before speaking.
“Lady Daj’yah! Belsamar was just informing me of the progress you two have made. However, after some deliberation, I think that Belsamar’s findings need to be placed at a higher level of security, one that I fear you do not yet meet. Rest assured, I will find more work for you.”
“You know, you can just tell me what Belsamar really said. He told me just fine,” said Daj’yah.
“Belsamar is proud to serve both the Reliquary and his lineage. His opinion does not factor into this.”
“I should say not. My duty is my life,” affirmed Belsamar.
Already suspecting what had happened, I talked to Daj’yah about it that night. She laughed when I brought it up.
“These elves! Can’t stand that a troll knows more about something than they do!”
“What did Belsamar’s work actually involve?”
“Uldum’s climate. Very important for Horde security, yeah?”
“You should tell Avaeron more about this.”
“He knows. Nothing he can do. Most of the elves here are all right, really. It’s just a few that don’t want to work with me.”
A week and a half passed by in relative contentment. However, I grew increasingly frustrated by how little I knew about the tol’vir. Most of the translations I read dealt with obscure Titan lore, only hinting at the tol’vir themselves. Avaeron suggested that I visit the Vir’naal Dam. Though seemingly utilitarian in purpose, the dam is also the site of the holiest tol’vir temple, and the office of High Priest Amet.
“Some of the priests are actually quite willing to speak with outsiders. Of the High Council, the priesthood seems most interested in the outside world. A bit surprising.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“My personal opinion? They are in shock that the rest of the world even exists. The scribes tend to focus on the purely material, but the priests are the closest that Ramkahen has to philosophers. I am sure there are many other factors as well. They’ll be happy to share their wisdom with you, though they will also ask you to tell them about the outside world.”
“This could be rather sensitive, then.”
“I think you’re a fine fit for the task, Destron. You’re very inoffensive.”
Daj’yah and I were only obligated to help the Reliquary so long as we stayed in their headquarters. As such, I left to visit the Vir’naal Dam, several days to the south. Tired of traveling, Daj’yah declined to join me.