I bought passage on a riverboat ferrying pilgrims between Mar’at and the Vir’naal Dam. Massive tol’vir crowded the boat aft to prow, standing rigid to keep it from capsizing, me as skinny as a reed between the tremendous bodies. I feared the slightest jolt would send a tol’vir toppling over me, and the sussurated prayers recited in endless litany by the passengers suggested a degree of anxiety on their part.
Our helmsmen kept us within sight of the shore, landing in the reeds every night to let the passengers rest on solid ground. Most of the boats in Uldum are too small to carry very many, and those on-board must often endure painful overcrowding.
Even so, I got used to the cramped quarters after the first day. There is a sense of the eternal in Vir’naal’s steady current, carrying passengers past sandstone fishing villages half-hidden by reeds, dozing beneath swaying palms. Every year the river brings life (and death) to those on its shores, the floods replenishing the moist black earth. Glimpses of temples and monuments show Uldum’s brightness unceasing through the ages as others succumb to time.
Of course, this is a romantic illusion. However grand Uldum might be, it is far from unchanging. Ignoring the recent events, one must always remember that its great eastern cities were not always buried in sand.
I was surprised to find another tol’vir able to speak Orcish among the passengers. Inexperience makes it hard for me to distinguish one tol’vir from another, but the woman named Khatefa stood out from the crowd, the fur around her eyes streaked with ash and black linen draped around her shoulders.
We met on the second night, the stars bright above the reeds as the pilgrims set up camp. Khatefa stood at the shore, losing herself in the river’s constant flow. She had worked as a papyrus merchant in Mar’at and had learned Orcish so as to cater to the Reliquary. Married to a warrior named Ptasun, and a mother of two children, she had once counted herself among Ramkahen’s most fortunate until a fire destroyed her home and killed her family.
“I do not know why this has happened to me. I am a good woman, and I always obeyed my husband and cared for the little ones. I dealt fairly with those who sought my business. All of this, and I am judged wanting!”
“Yes, by the gods. Had I been unfaithful or disobedient I would know why, and could make restitution. Yet there are no answers! Now my neighbors spit on me, for they have seen the results of my sin. The tongues of wicked women, once my friends, remember every slight and shame, though they have all done the same and worse.
“This is why I go to Vir’naal. I wish to know what wrong I did to deserve this fate. I used what little money I have left to buy passage and some incense that I will burn on the altar, so I will smell good and sweet like a wife should.”
I found myself torn. I have little use for a religion that assumes misfortune is a sign of divine retribution, and assigns blame to the victim. Yet what could I say that would convince Khatefa she was not at fault? Perhaps the ritual would at least provide her with some closure. I cannot even imagine the guilt she felt. Her matter-of-fact tone suggested exhaustion rather than emotional restraint.
“Forgive my ignorance, but I know little of your gods,” I said, not sure how to proceed.
“They are generous, and gave a paradise to our forefathers. Every single thing we need to prosper is found in these lands, placed in anticipation of our need. Do you know that feeling, outlander? That the world is made for you? The tol’vir belong here.”
“Did the gods also protect Uldum from the outside world?”
“For eons yes, until prideful Neferset bargained with the Enemy. The gods lifted their protection to punish all tol’vir, so that we might never forget our place.”
“But the Ramkaheni defeated Neferset, did they not?”
“Yes, but our righteousness could not wipe the stain of their sins. Now lamentations rise from the markets and the fields. There are few who are still righteous in the eyes of the gods.”
“What do you think the people of Uldum should do?”
“Kind visitor, I am only a woman, and a wicked one too. Would I, whose husband and children lie dead, have any wisdom to offer? I can only beseech the gods—“
Her voice broke, a ragged cry escaping from a fanged mouth.
“What a dark time in our land. I fear worse is to come.”
“There are those who say that it is always darkest before dawn. Perhaps things will improve.”
“Brave words. Who are your gods?”
“That is a difficult question to answer,” I said. “I was once human; perhaps you have seen them among the visitors?”
“I know of them.”
“Most of my kind no longer follow human ways. I still do, to an extent. Humans and others believe in the Holy Light. The Holy Light is not a deity, but rather a force that connects all thinking beings. For this reason, we are to be good to each other.”
“Did the Light create your lands?”
“No. The Holy Light exists with us, but does not rule us in the manner of a sovereign. We are all a part of it.”
“Strange thoughts to me,” she said, with a sound almost like purring from her throat. “You are good to each other to gain the favor of the Light?”
“Not precisely. It is said, however, that no one can truly be happy so long as sadness still exists in the world. Conversely, no one can be without hope so long as some joy remains.”
“That does not make sense! We Ramkaheni are happy to see our foes fall. Their anguish is our delight. You outlanders are no different; I know of the war between the Horde and the Alliance.”
“Yes, this is true. Not all outlanders believe in the Holy Light. And those who do may not always agree on what it truly means. Saints and scoundrels both ascribe to the faith.”
“Our gods are much simpler. They rule this world, gifting the faithful and punishing the wicked. What more can there be? We see the work of Aman in the sun as it moves across the sky, and the generosity of Eonys in the cries of newborns. But your god is wise, and you must be righteous indeed to be so favored.”
“The Holy Light is not a god—“
“But you treat him as such.”
“Those of us who follow the Light do so because we believe it to be the right thing to do.”
“Believe? Do you not know?”
“All believers debate and disagree to some extent. Some believe that they hear what is right within them, but they cannot know for sure.”
“Your god is a very complicated one, if you do not mind my saying so. Our gods set the world to order, and what we must do is never in doubt.”
Faces hidden behind curved metal beaks, the temple guards watched in silence as the pilgrims disembarked with a rush of sighs and weeping, the red light of the setting sun on their bent backs. They walked up the dirt path on trembling legs, offerings held out before them. Only when the boat had nearly emptied did the guards’ hawk heads swivel to focus on me.
“Do you come to pay tribute to our gods?” boomed one, his words almost incomprehensible through the metal helmet.
“I bring only this pouch of saffron,” I said, taking it out from my coat. “If it is insufficient, I will not trouble you—“
“This is a paltry gift, but we will accept it for what the Horde has given us. The priests are glad to share their wisdom with outsiders. They speak with the force of the gods, and the hearts of the wicked stop at their presence.”
Avaeron had warned me that the guards would make a big show of allowing entry. So long as I presented myself humbly, I would be let inside.
“I can only pray that one finds me worthy. I seek them because Ramkahen’s wisdom is without equal.”
I will confess that part of me already suspected that my conversations with Khatefa had been more illuminating than anything the priests could offer.
“Give me the saffron,” ordered the guard. Hurrying to the banks, I handed it to him, noting how tiny it looked in his tremendous clawed hand.
“Stay in the guest house; tell them that Nulm has granted you entry. Tomorrow morning, a messenger will tell you if a priest has chosen to grant you an audience.”
“Thank you for this honor, good sir,” I said.
In the lengthening darkness I could still see the pilgrims in line to approach the temples inside the dam, casting incense into braziers that exhaled torrents of sweet smoke. Virtic chants reverberated in the balmy evening as the priests accepted their petitioners.
I went up to the square limestone house that the guard had indicated. A female tol’vir ushered me inside once I told her that Nulm had sent me, and I was shown to a large stone room (not much more than a cell by tol’vir standards) decorated with soft rugs. I drifted to sleep on the sounds of worship, and dreamed of lions playing in the dusk.
Morning reveals the Vir’naal Dam’s true glory. Encased in polished limestone of the purest quality, the dam flashes in the light of the sun, a gleaming smile that stretches for miles. Freestanding gates are regularly spaced along the dam, held up by slender pillars nearly too tall to stand. White and narrow cascades spill from the smooth wall, feeding the shallow and lily-choked waters of the southern Vir’naal.
The Vir’naal Dam is a marvel of engineering, perhaps the greatest of its kind in Azeroth after the tragic destruction of the Stonewrought Dam (I have no doubt that the Bronzebeards will one day restore it). The construction possesses the same elegant and airy quality seen elsewhere in Uldum, and looks almost too delicate for its intended purpose.
The messenger promised by Nulm arrived shortly after daybreak, and told me that a priest by the name of Ibos would see me at noon. Until then, I had free reign of the place. The sacred fields west of the Vir’naal Dam are called Thutmet. There, Ramkaheni kings and heroes rest in the confines of trapezoidal crypts, the deeds of the interred painted in bold colors along the walls.
Pilgrims to the Vir’naal Dam first present themselves to the high priest, who waits at the western edge (the west represents death). After benedictions, a lesser priest dressed as Phetnu, the vulture-headed psychopomp, leads the worshippers through the ancient galleries.
Already exhausted to the bone by the long voyage, the pilgrims stumble bleary-eyed onto the eastern banks, the greenery replete with shrines dedicated to specific gods. There, they anoint themselves and place gifts on gilded altars. The journey from west to east represents an escape from death, a return to the divine perfection from which the world first emanated. Pilgrims typically spend two days in the holy lands before taking the homeward ferry.
The messenger fetched me at noon as promised, a masked temple guard at his side. In silence we walked to the Vir’naal Dam, going into a small gatehouse leading to steep staircase. Entering the shadows beneath, I felt the stale and clammy air, suffused with centuries of burnt incense and tired bodies.
A grand hall runs through the Vir’naal Dam, its dimensions perhaps appropriate for the Titans that the tol’vir so love. Great windows line the northern wall, looking out directly into the submerged world of the Vir’naal River. Shafts of sunlight cast mottled reflections on the solid south wall, the pale glow sullied by the river’s effluvium.
Though spectacular in its construction, the dam’s interior is quite void of decoration. The effect is one of solitude, the surface world’s knowledge of the gods transformed into blind faith.
Ibos waited farther ahead, an acolyte at each side. A fantastic jackal mask of metal and precious stones covered his entire head, letting all know his connection to the gods (for it is the jackal-headed god Anbat who guards the gate to the afterlife, allowing only the virtuous to pass through under the auspices of Phetnu). Light glinted on the polished black ears that more closely resembled horns.
I got down on one knee, lowering my head though Ibos had not yet acknowledged me. A long minute passed before he at last spoke, the voice a whispery echo from behind the mask, like that of a man long since ready to pass from this world.
“You may stand, Destron. The followers of the Horde are friends of Ramkahen.”
“I am much obliged. I was told that you shared your wisdom to those who asked for it, and was wondering if you would be willing to share with me.”
“It is the gods who decide what I may share with others, but they have commanded me to be generous. Ask what you please, but do not take too much of my time.”
“Thank you. From where did the tol’vir come?”
“Can you not ask the dwarves?” A muffled laugh reverberated from inside the mask. “The gods made us, for our presence pleased them. They carved us from stone and breathed life into our forms. For themselves, the gods had crafted paradise; they asked us only to preserve it.
“Yet in time the tol’vir grew proud, and challenged the gods. We disobeyed they who gave us so much. In wrath they turned us from stone to flesh, and our people felt pain for the first time. In their mercy, they left us Uldum, and promised that those who stayed faithful would return to blessed stone.”
I was already mentally reinterpreting the tol’vir creation myths according to what I’d heard from other sources. Like the dwarves, gnomes, and humans, the tol’vir had once been Titan constructs. They too had fallen victim to the Curse of Flesh (though having seen what the Titanborn have accomplished on their own, I am not convinced that it is truly a curse).
It also matched the tauren myths, which suppose that the tauren lived in bountiful peace with the Earthmother until led astray by the insidious whispers below the earth, most likely from the Old Gods. The Old Gods are also responsible for the Curse of Flesh, which has led some to believe that the tauren are also Titanborn, though no evidence for this has been discovered.
“The Neferseti heretics doubted the gods, and sought to return to stone by way of the Enemy, whom you call Al’Akir. The ruin of their cities is proof enough of our righteousness, for the gods do not allow the righteous to suffer.”
I was tempted to ask about the lean times being faced by many Ramkaheni, but took the easy way out; I did not want to risk offending Ibos, and in so doing hinder the Horde’s relations with Ramkahen.
“I had heard about the Neferseti stone warriors. Have they all been destroyed?”
“All Neferseti, from lowliest peasant to greatest warrior, are locked in cursed stone. Some of the outlanders—most of them from the Alliance—have interceded on the behalf of the surviving Neferseti. We let the Neferseti live, for now.”
“Do you wish to kill all of them?”
“What I wish is irrelevant. Their bodies are everlasting insults to the gods.”
“Why did the Neferseti do this?”
“We have long shunned the Neferseti, for they are a wicked and capricious race. Their reasons do not matter.”
“What of the Orsisi?”
“The Orsisi have returned to the deserts from whence they came. Perhaps they will again plague Ramkahen, but we will be ready.”
“Ramkahen was allied with Orsis at the time of the Neferset War, correct?”
“In a sense. You must understand that it is not the way of the Orsisi to build cities. The metropolis that bears their name was a gift from King Makhtes III to the Orsis Host. Most Orsisi lived as savages in the dunes, even after this gift.”
“If I might ask, why are so many of the great Ramkaheni cities empty? I know there are many in the east.”
“Yes. Great Hebedes, fabled Tesset, myrrh-scented Nirnak. And to the west, Khoros-of-Many-Pillars, and Ammon, once ruled by Neferset. For a time, when Uldum was new, we spread across its surface. But for what? We became indolent, and the gods’ anger manifested in a deathly heat that shrunk the Vir’naal. We left the cities to the sands, content with what remained.”
“I have heard that a new river has reappeared in the south. The Cradle of the Ancients, I believe?”
“You are correct. The gods restored it to show the rightness of our cause. Let it never be said that they are without humor, for in ages past the Cradle of the Ancients belonged to Neferset.”
“What can you tell me of Ramkahen’s future? I am told the priests have the gift of prophecy.”
“The high priest is the only one permitted to see into the strands of time. He sees how the currents of the river reflect the currents of history. Indeed, Vir’naal is life itself.
“Look at its shape; it begins as thin rivulets in the dry mountains, meandering and unsure like the first steps of a child. Yet it grows into youth, the two northern tributaries called Tiye, the Daughter, and Num, the Son. Swift and impetuous they meet in the waters of the Vir’naal proper.
“Stately and sure like a tol’vir in prime, the river flows south, losing itself in the eternal reeds and trees. In the delta the flow splits, exploring the many routes to its termination. Finally it arrives in the dead waters of the southern sea.”
“Surely even your kind cannot drink the salty waters?”
“Ah, forgive me. I was referring to the fish.”
“There are fish aplenty in the waters of life. Why then seek death? Ramkahen’s future is to endure as always. Our triumph against Neferset confirms this. Now, there is much I will ask you. The Forsaken remain obscure even to me…”
Ibos’ polite interrogation lasted for more than an hour. I answered to the extent that my knowledge and Horde security would allow. That he questioned me in such detail belied his public confidence about Ramkahen’s future. His inquiries tended to be more about Forsaken political structure and philosophy, rather than the faction’s military capabilities (I am sure he knew that Ramkahen’s military is hopelessly outdated).
I think that Ibos was trying to decide how Ramkahen could best learn from the outside world. If the gods favored anyone, it would appear to be the Horde and the Alliance. Implementing cultural change is a daunting task, made all the more challenging by such a conservative society.
Though the Ramkaheni elite enjoys nearly uncontested (though not undivided) power over the populace, it needs to be remembered that the populace has bought into the larger cultural narrative. Should the priesthood try to inculcate change, they may run the real risk of angering worshippers who see such actions as heresy; it would be a simple matter for opportunistic acolytes to take advantage of this.
I believe that the other members of the High Council depend (to a greater or lesser degree) on High Priest Amet and his followers for legitimacy. Authoritarianism relies on cultural acceptance. If Amet challenges this on the advice of Ibos or some other priest, his position will not be the only one under threat.
When finished, Ibos thanked me for my time, the glass eyes of his mask turning again to the river’s haze. Guards, silent and attentive, took me up the stairs to the blinding glare of the afternoon sun, hammering the sandy hills into gold.
Cooled by the green shade of the river valley, warriors of the Ramkahen Legion keep watch over the western dunes as their ancestors had done in generations past. Golden eyes forlorn, they wait for the dust and smoke that will herald the return of the Orsisi nomads, who once scourged the palm-lined avenues and painted sanctuaries.
The Arsad Trade Post continues its commercial role for now, but the promise of war waits in the hot desert air. Where once a rainbow band of pavilions hosted all manner of exchange, only a few dusty tents remain.
Inspired by tales of the Orsisi, I had journeyed to the Arsad Trade Post in order to learn more. I departed Mar’at on the day of my return, staying only long enough to tell Daj’yah of my whereabouts; as far as I could tell, she had comfortably settled into her role as a translator. Time was of the essence; at the docks, I had learned that the Ptath Band, a group of Orsisi, would soon arrive in Arsad, but would not stay for long.
Upon arriving, I spoke with Harutep, a captain of the Ramkahen Legion. In halting Orcish, he asked about my reasons for being there, his sleek feline face unreadable.
“You are not on official Horde business?”
“I am only a scholar. I simply want to learn more about the Orsisi.”
“The Orsisi have little to teach. They are barbarians, cursed by the gods. Why else would their city be in ruins, their people scattered to the desert?”
“They may serve as a useful example for others, and are thus worth examining,” I said, feeling a bit guilty over my statement.
“I fought alongside many brave Horde warriors in the Neferset War, so I will not stand in your way. However, I cannot permit you to take any weapons to them.”
“I carry none; you may search my belongings, if you like.”
Terse orders from Harutep summoned orderlies. Harutep asked me to empty my backpack and his subordinates made a salutary attempt to search for something obviously not present.
“The Orsisi may yet be a problem. I do not question the friendship of the Horde, but I fear that… rogue Alliance agents might be trying to cause trouble.”
“Is Ramkahen worried about the Alliance befriending the Orsisi?”
“It is a concern. High General Kamses respects the Horde, and listens to their counsel.”
“Well, I can assure you that I am not of the Alliance. Their people cannot easily disguise themselves as mine.” I wondered how hard it would be for humans to pass themselves off as a Forsaken. Doing so would be within the realm of possibility.
“Very well. You can buy food from the nearby villages while you wait for the Ptath Band. It is difficult to know when they will arrive. One of their raiders, Somhet by name, speaks Orcish.”
“How did he come to learn it?”
“I do not know.”
“For what is the Ptath Band known?”
“That you should ask them, though I can tell you that they are great warriors of the desert. It is for this reason that we must now guard the west.”
I waited for two days at the Arsad Trade Post, enduring the air of sullen dread. In the guards’ eyes I imagined memories of fearful nighttime battles, as much present as past in their words.
The Ptath Band arrived without much ceremony, leading a long train of camels and goats towards Arsad. The nomads wrap their heads in dun cloth, leaving only narrow slits through which to see; this is to guard against blindness during sandstorms.
Without any gold or finery, Teldes, the chieftain of the Ptath Band, marched up to the trading post with all the assurance of a king, an image enhanced by his silent bodyguards. Though the guards held spears, I was more troubled by the high caliber orcish rifles strapped to their backs. A cornucopia of grown food, mostly fruits and vegetables, had been spread out on a crimson rug in the middle of the post.
I watched as the Ptath Orsisi appraised the gifts, waiting for them to finish before I showed myself. Harutep had coached me on basic etiquette, and assured me that I would be accepted. Looking at the nomads, I began to have second thoughts; though physically smaller than the Ramkaheni, they possessed all the lean and fierce strength that a nomadic life brings.
At last the leader held up his hand and uttered something in Virtic. Ramkaheni porters gathered up the goods and placed them in cylindrical wicker baskets, some half as tall as a human, and tied them to waiting camels.
I was witnessing what passes for trade at Arsad. Ramkaheni goods are laid out for the Orsisi, who take what they want. In return, the Orsisi leave behind a few of their smaller animals. At no point do the Orsisi engage with the Ramkahen, a wall of ancestral contempt between the two factions.
After the exchange, I introduced myself to the Ptath Band, specifically to a warrior by the name of Somhet, a lean tol’vir whose fur was so light as to almost be white. He greeted me with enthusiasm and immediately asked if I knew an orcish warrior named Uzmal.
“The Horde is truly a brave bunch, from what Uzmal has told me. They are like the Orsisi of the outside world, bringing woe to their enemies, hearts filled with honor!”
I was perturbed to learn that Uzmal had been giving modern weapons to the Orsisi bands. That must have been the reason that Harutep had searched me; perhaps he’d blamed Alliance activity to avoid causing offense. Somhet knew little about the Horde beyond Uzmal’s glorified account. He imagined Orgrimmar as a tent city instead of an urban conglomeration that dwarfs anything in Uldum.
Somhet was the only tol’vir in the Ptath Band who spoke Orcish. An experienced fighter (he’d apparently slain five of the Hammer-aligned paramilitaries), Somhet was respected within his community. Though I could not communicate with the other nomads, they appeared enthusiastic about my visit. Uzmal had apparently described the Forsaken as simply another warrior race, ferocious in spite of our decrepitude.
“Please join us. I am sure you are weary of the soft cities,” said Somhet, not long after our introduction.
“I am honored! However, I cannot stay with you for too long, as I have obligations elsewhere.”
“We are heading south, to the Cradle of the Ancients, where we spend much of the year. The Ptath Band roams the western edge of the Vir’naal River Valley, so it will be easy for you to leave if you must.”
“On that case, I would be happy to accept.”
With that, I settled into the nomadic routine as best I could. As far as I could tell, the rest of the Ptath Orsisi share Somhet’s enthusiasm for the Horde (I must marvel at how thoroughly Uzmal had impressed them). They allowed me to ride one of the camels, which the tol’vir use as pack animals.
Native to Uldum, camels are curious beasts, quick and agile in spite of their awkward appearances. I have heard them described as furry horses, though this is not really adequate. They stand on spindly legs that are capable of remarkable agility and bear massive humps on their backs. These humps store fat that the camel can use as an internalized source of food and water. Long and ponderous necks support a goat-like head.
The camel is quickly becoming a popular mode of transport in other desert regions, and could become a profitable export for the Orsisi. They are smarter and more temperamental than horses; even when tamed, they are stubborn and will spit on those who annoy them. This quality actually endears them to the Orsisi, who take it as a sign of the animal’s strong spirit. To be “proud like a camel” is to have done something of great worth (usually, this term connotes a deed done in the past that has secured one’s name rather than something recent, the idea being that the camel’s pride has significant pedigree).
The Orsisi are divided into bands consisting of anywhere between four and ten families; Somhet knew of eight bands, including his own, but claimed that there are many others. Uldum’s environment poses some very real challenges for a pastoral lifestyle. Grazing lands are few and far between. The Vir’naal River Valley has always been a prime location, which once resulted in friction between Orsis and Ramkahen, and may do so again. Other bands relied on the Oasis of Vir’sar in the northwest, and the Cradle of the Ancients in the south.
The staple food animals are goats and rams; camels are typically used as beasts of burden, though they will be eaten during lean times. While Orsisi are smaller than their sedentary brethren, they are still quite large compared to humans. As a result, it is often difficult for them to maintain sufficiently large herds. In ancient times, Orsisi with depleted herds might raid their richer kin, but this changed thanks to a nomad chief remembered as Khades the Mighty.
“The Ramkaheni never speak of Khades! The mere mention of his name sends them scurrying to their parapets!” laughed Somhet. The Ptath had set up camp for the evening, Somhet and I leaning close to a roaring camel dung fire, the heat a poor shelter from the cold winds. He held a bowl (fashioned from part of a goat skull) filled with goat’s milk soup in his immense paws.
“What did Khades do?” I asked.
“He sees how the weak Ramkaheni and Neferseti grow fat and soft. Our lives in the desert make us hard and fierce, so we should take from the farmers. They are easier prey than other Orsisi.”
“I noticed you use present tense even in Orcish.”
“Yes, for speaking of things as if they are past degrades them. One may as well say the past is no more. Even when we speak other tongues, I speak of things as they are in truth, not how some might remember them.”
“Fair enough. So Khades united—excuse me, unites—the Orsis?”
“Ah, you are a wise one! But do not feel obliged; your ways are not our own. Khades is the first leader of the Orsis Host, and we make war under him.”
“Were the Orsisi always united?”
“Only when there is need. If the herds are full and fat, why raid?”
“A good point. When I first visited Uldum, I heard about another Orsisi leader named Hameth the Jackal. He comes after Khades?”
“Ha! Tales of glory seek out the ears of warriors like you Hordelings, and inspire you to even braver deeds! Yes, Hameth the Jackal brings woe to the holdings of north Ramkahen, and breaks the capital’s mighty walls to fall onto the golden temples and treasures.”
“He fought Khartut, did he not?”
“If indeed such a slaughter can be called a fight. The great Ramkaheni multitudes march, many hundreds of thousands strong, to bring an end to us. But the Orsisi fall upon them; though we are outnumbered five to one, each Orsisi kills fifty times his number.
“When the sun sets, we put the survivors to death, and Khartut flees behind his walls. For us, there is celebration, and we go back to our tents with enough food for a thousand feasts.”
I compared it to the Ramkaheni account, which posited a clear victory for Khartut. The Orsisi version of the tale does not completely contradict this; it could be that Khartut had achieved his goal of driving out the nomads, by which point the Orsisi had already been satisfied by their robberies. The battle they fought was certainly smaller than described.
“That must have been a grand thing to see,” I said.
“Yes, the battles of today are paltry things compared to the battles of our fathers. Perhaps we shall impress them yet.”
“I also understand that the Orsisi possessed a city at some point.”
“We will go by that cursed place in a few days. I will tell you more when we arrive.”
Ibos had mentioned the now-fallen city, a splendid bribe of streets and palaces given to the Orsisi in ages past. Called Orsis City (the tol’vir share humanity’s irritating habit of giving the same name to a nation and its capital), it was wiped out in an unnatural sandstorm during the Neferset War. The air elementals of Al’akir, Neferset’s supernatural ally, had claimed responsibility.
Though the nomads hold city-dwellers in utmost contempt, many of their number did make their homes in Orsis City’s now sand-drowned homes and streets. News of the massacre reached Orgrimmar, and pundits exhorted the Horde to strike back against an elemental menace that would kill so many innocents.
Dismay over the city’s fate proved short-lived, attention drifting to more immediate dangers. Ibos’ description had painted a picture of a small yet bejeweled city, a gift humbly offered in return for peace. What I actually saw, a few days later, is a melancholy sweep of ruination, the tips of forlorn citadels peeking sadly out from the tops of towering dunes, ghostly veils of sand rippling in empty valleys.
In a ringing voice Somhet described how a day of darkness preceded a day of screaming winds, sand stripping flesh and filling mouths stretched in screams. Perhaps I only imagined the satisfaction in his voice.
“What manner of people lived here?” I asked, my voice scarce above a whisper.
“Cowards and weaklings. The last master of the Orsis Host is Simatep, who brings woe to Mar’at in generations past. Yet he is made of weaker stuff than Khades and Hameth, and accepts the poisoned gifts from Ramkahen’s Seat of Plenty. Now you see the results.”
“Simatep must have had many followers,” I said, the city still grand in scale beneath the sand.
“The Ramkaheni give Orsis City tribute, and its people multiply. Orsis City demands that we, the followers of the true way, bring them our herds, yet we cannot satisfy their greed. Nor can we strike back, with so many turned against us.”
“More Orsisi lived here than without, I take it.”
“Yes. Fueled by the grain and gold of Ramkahen, the city steals our work and takes our land. So hungry is this den of vipers and thieves that the Ramkaheni must dam the river to water the growing fields. Orsis City is an abomination.”
“How many survived the city’s fall?”
“The gods saved a few so that they might warn others of the wicked city’s folly. We do not call them Orsisi any longer, and they cower in the towns of Ramkahen.”
“But I thought that Al’akir, not the gods, destroyed the city.”
“The gods do not lift their protection without reason. They let the city-dwellers grow fat and lazy so that their fall might better show the price of pride. The Ramkaheni will listen, if they are wise. So too might the Alliance,” he added, making a harsh noise somewhere between a laugh and a sneer.
“What do the gods wish of the Orsisi?”
“Obedience and honor. The elders tell how in the days of creation, the gods build golden cities up from the burning sands. They craft the tol’vir from stone, and all is good. But we become poor children, selfish and petty, so they turn us to flesh and depart from this world.
“Yet still the tol’vir do not learn! Ramkahen and Neferset create mockeries of the gods’ work and declare themselves holy! Never shall we Orsisi pretend to be gods, and for this reason we are favored. Only when our leaders become weak and hear the honeyed lies of Ramkahen do we suffer. For this reason, we must close our hearts to their entreaties.”
I said nothing. Had the nomads always hated their namesake city? Perhaps it had once been seen as proof of their victory. The image of triumph turned to one of loss as Orsis City encroached and corralled the desert wanderers, its memory becoming a curse. Now it is fit to be remembered only as a warning.
And what of the Vir’naal Dam? I had not thought to ask about the structure’s history. The Ramkaheni had built it to increase their water supply, though it would also decrease that available to Neferseti. Did the heretics have a more pragmatic reason to hate their northern kin?
The Horde and the Alliance have stumbled into this ancient land, grasping blindly for new weapons and warriors. The forces of Deathwing may have been defeated in Uldum, but I fear that this realm has not yet seen the worst of its tribulations.