Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Skywall

To go into to the Cradle of the Ancients is to plunge into a sea of green.  One swims more than walks through damp air laden with the buzz of countless insects.  A thousand tiny channels run through the mud and the reeds, the earth soft and warm.  Here and there, the stone foundations of Neferseti forts sink into the mire. 

I soon reached the coastal Steamwheedle encampment known as the Elemental Exchange.  Set up several months after the Neferset War, the enterprising Steamwheedle goblins use it as a base camp for their exploration of the Skywall.  Though not yet common knowledge outside of Uldum, the air elementals are more open to interaction than are their fiery cousins.

Perched on gossamer clouds over the sea, the gate to the Skywall seems more the stuff of fairy tales than of reality.  Bejeweled alabaster spires soar over bronze cupolas engraved with swirling geometric patterns, the whole sight a fever dream of exotic riches. 

Al’akir, lord of the Skywall, had sent only a token force into Uldum.  His greatest agent, Siamat, returned the Neferseti to stone while a multitude of lesser elementals sowed the storm that buried Orsis City.  There was never any equivalent to the armies the nearly burned Hyjal to ash; Al’akir allowed the Neferseti and the mercenaries to do most of the work.

Perhaps this became Al’akir’s undoing.  When Horde partisans (Belskur among them) quickly cut through the paltry garrison guarding the Throne of the Four Winds.  A formidable combatant, Al’akir still succumbed to their combined skill, though a full half of Belskur’s party perished in the attempt.

“It’s a beautiful sight, to be sure.  Considering it’s mostly air, there’s a lot of wealth in the Skywall,” said Spirra.

I was pleased to again meet Spirra Sprangelfrazz.  Our first encounter had been in the Blasted Lands, where we helped each other escape from the Shadowsworn cultists.  She then took me to Stranglethorn Vale, where her zeppelin was shot down.  Spirra considered herself indebted to me for saving her life in the Blasted Land, and by her reckoning, still owed me some measure of recompense.  Like many others in Steamwheedle, Spirra holds very strongly to the old goblin ethics. 

She’d done quite well for herself in the past few years, having earned a great deal of credit flying supplies to the Argent Crusade in Zul’drak. 

“Not an easy job, to be sure.  Damn near froze my fingers off each morning and I don’t think I’ll ever get the smoke out of my nostrils.  Sometimes, I wish I could just wipe out all my memories of Northrend.”

“I know the feeling.”

“That’s why I’m here.  It’s an easy job, but pays good money since it’s so far out in the middle of nowhere.”

“How long were you in Northrend?”

“A year.  The Argents then paid me to help out with relief efforts after the Cataclysm, mostly around southern Lordaeron.  Then I came here.  I’d almost say the sunshine is payment enough, but then I remember how much I like gold,” she laughed.

“Would it be possible for me to visit the Skywall?”

“Sure!  I’m taking some people up tomorrow, and I think I still owe you.”

We left for the Skywall just after sunrise, the fantastical palace ablaze in the morning light.  Crystalline spheres set into the towers twinkled like stars in the sky. 

Besides Spirra and myself, the only other person on the zeppelin (a sturdy two-engine Albatross model, favored by Alliance scouts) was Reeg Klagdox, a one-eyed goblin with a strip of black hair meandering across his scalp.  Reeg studied the Skywall and reported his findings to the Steamwheedle bosses.

“The Throne of the Four Winds—where we’re going—is a bit gaudy for my taste,” he said.

“The only other elemental plane I’ve seen is the Firelands.”

“You’ve been there?  Well, I think you’ll find the Skywall a welcome change of pace.  The air elementals really aren’t bad folks once you get to know them.  Turns out, the reason that so few elementals invaded Uldum was because Al’akir couldn’t get enough of them to follow him.”

“So what exactly was the political situation in the Skywall?”

“Tough question to answer.  You have to keep in mind that the Skywall is a world unto itself—a universe, even.  It’s much too big for any one person to rule, even Al’akir.

“What Al’akir did have was the Throne of the Four Winds.  It’s both a palace and a machine.  With it—how, I don’t know—the controller can send things hurtling through the air.  If you have it helping you, a ten year journey drops down to ten hours.”

“Is the Skywall densely populated?”

“Not at all.  You fly for a human lifetime without seeing a single other soul.  There are cities though, made of clouds, dense gases, stolen elements from other planes.  Some of them have big populations.

“So like I was saying, it’s hard to get places in the Skywall.  When the air elementals first ended up there, they squabbled a lot.  Kingdoms rose and fell, all that stuff.  Al’akir had power, but no way to wield it, until he either made or found the Throne of the Four Winds.”

“And that gave him control over transportation?”

“Yes.  He called all the big air bosses over to the throne, and said they could serve him or try to go on their own.  Most agreed to let him call the shots.  The ones who didn’t were pushed out by the wind to the very edges of the Skywall, where it starts to bleed into the other elemental planes.”

“And the loyalists?”

“They got to stay in the safer part of the Skywall.  Al’akir demanded taxes in the form of art; each community had to give him something nice, like statues made of trapped lightning or wind in the form of a song.  These were big projects, by the way; the entire city usually had to pitch in.

“A lot of these cities didn’t like having to depend on Al’akir for transport.  Any move they wanted to make, they had to ask his permission.  Al’akir deputized some responsibility by getting four powerful elementals to watch his realm—he called them the Conclave of the Winds—but that still didn’t satisfy anyone.

“You could bribe him, sure, but there was no guarantee he’d reciprocate.  From what I hear, it sounds like Al’akir started to lose his mind towards the end.”

“Who controls the Throne of the Four Winds now?”

“That’s an interesting subject.  There’s a kind of provisional government at the moment, but there’s still a lot of debate.  You’ll see when we arrive.”

“Which we’re about to,” added Spirra.

Misty filaments broke on the zeppelin’s prow as Spirra took us up, nimbly circling the central spire.  Many of the buildings on the Firelands are made of an improbable solid flame, but the materials for the Skywall are clearly stone.  This suggested a less monomaniacal focus on a single element; not only is there room for earth, but it can also be made lovely.

Spirra stopped her ascent at a circular balcony of white stone some ways beneath the tip of the spire.  Engines sputtered to low ebb as she pulled a cable out from the cockpit, tying it to a support capped by a glowing glass orb.  Reeg pulled on a fur coat before sliding open the metal door, the hot lowland air gushing out and replaced by high altitude frigidity. 

Exquisite designs cover every exposed surface of the portal, abstract to my eye though they perhaps carry great meaning for the natives.  The edifice on which I embarked is really no more than a jumping off point for invasion, yet its makers had spared no effort in beautifying it. 

“The Skywall’s the friendliest of the elemental planes, so long as you’re walking on something solid.  Oh, and it’s quite cold, but I suppose you wouldn’t be bothered by that.  Are you ready?” asked Reeg.  Behind us, Spirra had opened up a coffee thermos and began thumbing through a battered paperback novel.


“Then follow me.  Just so you know, it helps if you look at the buildings before you look at the sky,” he said, heading towards the portal of cloudy blue light beckoning where the balcony met the tower.


Spade-shaped petals of stone spread beneath my feet, the image of a dahlia chiseled onto the floor by exacting hands.  Pillars, bulbous at the bottom and tapering to narrow stems, lift an airy dome, its azure surface interrupted by an oculus that opens up to a smaller, second dome.

The citadel’s towering height, unhindered by gravity, conjures memories of Wyrmrest Temple.  Perhaps Al’akir had taken some inspiration from his wardens, though the style incorporates elaborate arabesques uniquely his own.

It is in the surrounding vastness that the true architecture of the Skywall is to be found.  Palaces and ziggurats of clouds roil through the endless skies, their amorphous parapets shuddering with lightning.  The air itself is alive, suffused in ozone’s energetic swell.

My time in the Netherstorm reduced the shock of seeing the Skywall, but did not reduce its beauty.  I knew that the storms and open spaces rolled on without any discernable end, like the dust clouds spotted by astronomers.  There is no barrier except distance.

The Throne of the Four Winds proper is actually rather small.  Four cupola-topped citadels (one of which contains the portal) surround a circular platform of gleaming marble.  The space on the platform flickered, and I could just see a three-dimensional outline of a towering figure, one of the native elementals.

“Where we are now used to be the personal office of Siamat, the South Wind.  Actually, south wind isn’t quite the right term; cardinal directions don’t really exist here, but that’s how he ended up being known.  At any rate, he controlled the wind paths for everything in the Skywall going away from the center in this direction.”

“Siamat also changed the Neferseti.”

“That he did.  The rest of the conclave managed their realms in each of these towers, while Al’akir ruled the whole thing from the center.  Al’akir made the ultimate decisions; where resources should go, and all that.  I’m happy to answer your questions, but you really ought to ask Rezehar over there,” he said, pointing to the distortion on the central platform.

Bridges of moving air connect the different segments of the Throne of the Four Winds.  I saw Reeg step off the platform and be instantly blasted forward and upward in a dramatic arc, his dense body a twig in a storm.  For a heart-stopping moment he floated in mid-air, arms and legs outstretched.  He descended rather than fell, completing the arc on the other end.  He motioned for me to do the same.

Not giving myself time to second-guess the action, I jumped.  A wall of solid air slammed into my back and lifted me to the tower’s upper levels.  For a vertiginous moment I hung suspended over the gap, an infinity of storm clouds beneath me.  All at once invisible hands seemed to grip my shoulders, gently pushing me down until I landed next to a laughing Reeg.

“Hell of a ride, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed.  But why is it here?  Can’t the air elementals fly?”

“Sure, but Al’akir wanted to demonstrate his power to any petitioners.  To get to the Throne of the Four Winds, you had to ask a Conclave member to give you a good wind current; then, you had to use Al’akir’s enchantments to see him directly.  He used to rule from this very spot.”

“Couldn’t someone ignore it and fly over?”

“A few tried.  He always blasted them out of the sky.”

Wavering like the horizon on a hot summer day, the air elemental known as Rezehar floated towards us.  A closer look revealed the details in his figure, a mist within the wind taking the faintest outline of an aquiline face.  Bands of some slick gray metal encircled the tempestuous columns of his arms, and beneath that spun the whirlwind of his body.

Reeg introduced Rezehar as a representative from the Thousand Drenching Gales, an air elemental nation close to the border of the Abyssal Maw.  His voice came as a sort of whispering howl, a hurricane’s power trapped in words.

“My master, the Duke of Driven Rain, served Al’akir for many faithful years, but with little recompense.  We are glad that the Wind Lord is fallen, and are grateful—though not subservient—to the Horde,” he said.

“We are glad to have helped.  Is the Thousand Drenching Gales its own sovereignty?”

“My master is powerful, and there are none in our realm who would question his greatness.  Yet he does not control the wind.  When Al’akir still ruled, we reported to the satrap Nezir, whom you call the Lord of the East Wind.  Those of us who wished to visit our neighbors—whether for trade or for war—had no choice but to petition Nezir.”

“Is war frequent in the Skywall?”

“We are not the barbarians of the Firelands,” he said, a whistling note spiking his voice.  “Nor are we cowards.”

“For what do you fight?”

“This will not be easy for you to understand.  We do not require food or water as does your kind.  We have all that we need.  Now, look around yourself!  The storm you see did not always rage around this palace.  When the Titans ensorcelled us here, there was nothing.”

He let the last word stand out.

“Only darkness and inertia in all directions, a paltry world to those who once thrilled in the maelstrom of creation.  Al’akir saw that this could not be, and bade us enrich ourselves to make the Skywall a place fit for the Race of Kings.”

“You made war for the sake of beauty.”

“War for the sake of sanity, Azerothian.  We were emptiness in a plane of nothingness.  Al’akir called out to us in the darkness.  The Conclave of Wind manipulated the currents so that we might go to where the boundaries thin between planes.”

“I think I understand.  Certainly I would not want to be locked into nothingness.  Does the light in this plane come from the Firelands?  The moisture from the Abyssal Maw?”

“Yes.  The kingdoms of the Skywall battled for Al’akir’s favor.  Those who delivered unto him the greatest gifts could be assured of support from the Conclave of Winds.”

“Allowing the favored nation to gather more.”

“Sometimes they sought his help in escaping the elemental borderlands, for our enemies on the other planes do not avoid conflict.  Many kingdoms fell.  Some nations waged war to beat their rivals into submission, and in so doing be assigned to attacking our enemies.”

“Was there ever any trade?”

“At times with the Abyssal Maw or Deepholme; never the Firelands.  Al’akir disliked trade, for it is not the way of our kind to make exchange; as masters of air and wind, it is our place to take.  At times, however, trade proved necessary.  The merchant nations were sure to give Al’akir the finest gifts in return for his tolerance.”

“I was once told that elementals are defined by a single focus on their native element.  That when a fire elemental is unleashed in Azeroth, it wishes to burn everything.  This does not appear to be the case with your kind.”

“Air is supreme, but it cannot exist alone.  Were that the case, we would have been content in our prison as the Titans designed it.”

“Other elements are acceptable if they are subordinate?”


“Speaking of subordination, who now controls the Throne of the Four Winds?”

Drops spun faster in Rezehar’s neck, his body seeming to darken and contort.

“I do not know how the Steamwheedle Cartel came to this place.  Warriors of the Horde slew Al’akir in honorable battle, yet it is these inert beings who claim the spoils.”

“The Horde is facing many obligations, and cannot afford to maintain much of a presence in the Skywall.  I think that to too many, your world began and ended with Al’akir.  As for the Steamwheedle, they used to be friends with the Horde, many years ago, and there is still some communication between them.  They saw opportunity where the Horde did not.”

“Opportunity to make their own kingdoms lovely with the spoils of our realm.  They demand to trade our treasures.  The goblins confer the winds to those of us who debase themselves to the foreigners.  But what do we owe them? 

“Al’akir, for all his wickedness, made the Skywall a place worthy of our race.  We served him for this, though his lightning dimmed as his greed grew.  Now the goblins expect the same service, but what do we owe them?”

“I do not think the goblins see it as a case of obligation.  Rather, they seek an exchange between equals.”

“Yet they control the Throne of the Four Winds!  For now we are weak, but the Race of Kings will not suffer their presence for long.  It is we who rule this place!”

The Steamwheedle Cartel claims that they have no desire to occupy the Throne of the Four Winds for very long, and I believe them.  These goblins are traders, not empire-builders.  Most are fully aware that the air elementals detest their presence.

However, the Skywall is potentially very profitable.  Only a small portion consists of breathable air; deeper in the plane are gaseous oceans of strange chemicals that can be used for manufacturing, for fuel, and myriad other purposes.  The Steamwheedle Cartel seeks to open that up for trade.

For this to happen, the Skywall must be stable.  The goblins are attempting to support sovereignties that they see as reliable; the Throne of the Four Winds will likely be handed over to a group of such states.  Yet even this is problematic.

“The air elementals hate us,” said Reeg.  “And as we’re learning, they’ll especially hate the countries that we decide should be in charge of the Throne of the Four Winds.”

“Do you think they’ll attack the inheritors?”

“Almost certainly.  We kind of jumped into this without really thinking, and I’m a little worried about how much money is being raised by Skywall speculators; it could crash in a really bad way.”


No one knows exactly how Al’akir imbued the Throne of the Four Winds with his power.  Such a phenomenon is the manifestation of godlike entity’s will, not a matter of mechanics arcane or technological.  It is peculiar that Al’akir would make it possible for others to access the throne’s capabilities.

The explanation may lie in Al’akir’s own love of the Skywall.  He was a tyrant who saw himself as a protector.  Knowing that his civilization depended on the Throne of the Four Winds perhaps motivated him to ensure that it could survive him. 

Today, the Throne of the Four Winds operates at about half its original capacity.  Steamwheedle shamans convinced Tanaris air spirits to aid them in managing the artifact (in return, the shamans cut down on the smog produced in Gadgetzan; affected factory owners received shares in the newly minted Skywall Company).  Native air elementals are not seen as reliable, though the use of foreign spirits is a sore subject for Skywall’s natives.

The sheer speed involved in long-distance transport is actually quite dangerous to beings of flesh and blood.  For this reason, the goblins strap themselves into bullet-shaped metal canisters equipped with cushioned interiors when undertaking a journey.  These are exclusive to key employees, so I was not permitted to use them.

Fortunately, I met another aerial emissary in the form of Shuresteh.  Unlike Rezehar, Shuresteh had abandoned all pretense of taking an anthropoid form and resembled a striated column of air rotating in place.  Roughly ten feet in height, flashes of light sparked within Shuresteh’s core, and frozen lightning arched out from its sides like the bones of wings. 

Shuresteh hailed from a splendid realm called the Radiant Courts, a chaotic metropolis of lightning whose jagged towers and crooked streets spread out for hundreds of miles in all directions.  Pahashta, the Esteemed Master of Light, had forged the Radiant Courts from the heart of a vast storm.  Pahashta’s power bound the lightning, slowing though not stopping it so that the city’s three-dimensional sprawl became an ever-shifting array.

Pahashta had served Al’akir reluctantly at best.  Much of the Radiant Court’s power came from raiding the Firelands, though they also traded rare gases in return for Deepholme gems the size of castles.  The gems, said Shuresteh, are polished and cut to perfection, their facets reflecting and multiplying the glory of the Radiant Courts.

I met Shuresteh in the eastern tower, formerly occupied by Nezir, Lord of the East Wind.  He and several other Skywall ambassadors waited there to speak with the Steamwheedle representatives.  They were not idle, the emissaries plotting with and against each other for a future free of Al’akir. 

Our discussion first went to a subject that had been puzzling me for some time: namely, why so many elementals are gendered.  Al’akir is referred to with the male pronoun, despite being asexual.  Shuresteh’s lack of anthropomorphic traits highlighted this curious tendency among some of its peers.

“My liege is ancient, and it remembers a time when Al’akir took no form beyond a wind of infinite force.  Yet it changed, imitating what you Azerothians would call a man.  This is because of the Titans.”

“I thought the elementals detested the Titans.”

“Detest, envy, gratitude… many other emotions.”

“Why gratitude?”

“Because the prison they made for us is the perfect canvas.  We would never have been able to create such beauty on Azeroth without our rivals destroying it.   Ultimately, there is nothing an elemental respects as much as power, and the Titans were clearly our betters.  Their race was split into men and women, so some elementals sought to do the same; others, like my master, see this as misguided.”

“Ah.  I know that the fire elementals are able to produce more of their own kind after consuming enough fuel.  How are air elementals created?”

“The method is not dissimilar.  As an air elemental ages, it expands, for air is forever mobile.  As it grows, it can gather more force with its body; winds are imbued with consciousness, and become separate.”

“Older elementals can do this indefinitely?”

“No, for some part of itself is always sacrificed.  Yet the great ones, like Al’akir or my own liege, Pahashta, have more energy to spare, and are able to create elementals of exceptional quality.  Skill and power together give an elemental leader the right to create.  I am not Pahashta’s son or daughter, but I am its child.”

With that question answered, the conversation moved on to politics.

“You have come to visit the Skywall at a most interesting time.  I am not sure if the Race of Kings knows what to do now that the greatest among us—however despicable—is no more.”

“What is your opinion?”

“I am a skilled diplomat, good Destron: I have no opinion.”

“Well said,” I chuckled. 

“The Radiant Courts is enthusiastic.  We support the Steamwheedle Cartel—and expect them to support us.  My master has long attempted to forge its own path, so we are no strangers to enmity.”

“Is Pahashta an absolute ruler?”

“Yes.  Pahashta wields power greater than any of us within the Radiant Courts, so we follow as best we can.  The beauty of our nation is an emanation of Pahashta’s magnificence, just as Pahashta once did the same for Al’akir.  This is true for all elementals.”

“So there is some commonality between the planes.”

“I should say so!  My home owes its beauty to the gifts of Deepholme after all.”

“Do you think the different groups of elementals can cooperate?”

“The idea of different groups of elementals is fundamentally absurd.  Your kind uses the term ‘air elemental’, which is already inaccurate.  Many natives of Skywall do not possess a trace of what you call air in their bodies.  They are of nitrogen, piquant mixes of helium and ammonia, and so forth.

“Instead of air, earth, water, and fire, it should be gas, solid, liquid, and heat.  Even then, there is hybridism.  My form contains emerald dust purchased from Deepholme.  I am mostly gaseous, yet am also solid in parts.”

“Is this opinion common in the Skywall?”

“Who can say?  We are too numerous and too far apart to be sure, but these are the words of Pahashta.  Our realm would be less were it not for Deepholme’s jewels, just as others benefit from the Firelands’ heat and the Abyssal Maw’s moisture.”

“Is this why the Steamwheedle Cartel appeals to you?”

“Appeal is perhaps too strong a word, but I see them as necessary.  If my liege is able to secure a place controlling the Throne of the Four Winds, we may bring our message of hybridism to others.  From there, we can spread and make the elemental planes a place of peace.”

“I applaud your goal, but from what I’ve seen of the Firelands this will not be easy.”

“Too true, but my master appreciates a challenge.  This is still a place for the elementals, not for Azerothians, but the goblins may help us.  Let all salute the Skywall for the universal grandeur it shall possess under Pahashta.”

I could not help noting that Shuresteh still saw it as a matter of its nation achieving dominance.  Realpolitik never really goes away.  Still, the idea of a more inclusive order suggests a transformative possibility within the elemental planes. 

The war between the elemental planes is a fruitless one.  Each plane is simply too large and hostile to be conquered by another.  Thus victory must come about through ideas, rather than military force.

It is this dream of power that made it so easy for Deathwing to win Al’akir’s loyalty.  Deathwing promised the elemental mastery that Al’akir so desired, never mind that Ragnaros had been assured of similar power.  That both Ragnaros and Al’akir are dead reinforces the futility of their goals.

Conceivably, there is reason for hope.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Uldum: Part 3

Looking back on these episodes, I fear that I am being unfair to the Orsisi.  Their once-fearsome warrior culture is only now emerging from the lean centuries.  The kings of Orsis City had never managed to completely consolidate their rule over the nomadic bands, and marginalized or persecuted those they could not control.  The Ramkaheni encouraged the urban Orsisi in this persecution, though it must be remembered that the nomadic Orsisi had once terrorized Ramkahen.

I could not listen Somhet’s gloating satisfaction without also hearing the self-righteous resentment voiced by Garrosh and his followers.  There are numerous parallels between the Orsisi and the orcs.  That may be why it was so easy for the elusive Uzmal to win the Ptath Band’s loyalty.

I traveled with the Ptath for a while longer, observing their daily lives.  I will admit that I began to try and avoid Somhet.  This was poor behavior on my part; whatever his opinions, he had been very tolerant and welcoming towards me.

Like other bands, the Ptath are too few in number to have much individual specialization.  Each Ptath must be a herder, a hunter, a parent, and innumerable other roles.  As such, there is more gender equity than is found in Ramkahen.  The only exception is in battle against other tol’vir; women are seen as too vital to risk in conflict.  Nonetheless, women are still trained in combat, and are ready to participate should the situation turn grim.

The chieftain of a band is usually an experienced warrior or hunter who has reached at least 40 years of age (due to the high status of warriors, chieftains are usually men, though female chieftains are not rare).  The Orsisi believe that long-lasting power tends to stagnate, and for this reason choose leaders from among the older of their number.  This strikes me as a wise decision. 

The chieftain acts as a first among equals.  While their word carries influence, it is not final.  Decisions are made in meetings that include all adult members of a band.  The chieftain attempts to lead the band from disagreement into a broad consensus.  Minority opinions are allowed to speak during debates, but must stay silent once the issue has been decided.    

Interestingly, no unified consensus had been achieved regarding the creation of Orsis City; Simatep had simply taken those loyal to him and accepted Ramkahen’s offer.  This, claimed Somhet, had doomed the city to failure.

The entire community works together to raise children, though a child’s father enjoys particular authority.  The consensus-based politics of a band mean that it is rare for the father and community to be at odds.  Marriage is exclusively exogamous, a fact that actually ties into the resentment many Orsisi feel for the old city.

Somhet told me that in ancient times, the different bands would periodically meet at the Cradle of the Ancients or the Vir’sar Oasis in order to trade, exchange news, and marry.  Orsis City eventually replaced these locales as the preferred trademeet. 

Not long after, the Neferseti seized the Cradle of the Ancients in the hope that its water supply would make up for the loss created by the Vir’naal Dam.  In so doing, the Orsisi were prohibited from entering.  Instead of sending a force to reclaim the Cradle of the Ancients, the Orsisi king (who likely desired to strengthen his grip over the nomads) decreed that his people no longer needed the southern oases.

While this may have been true in a technical sense, it exposed the rift between the urban and nomadic Orsisi, the latter of which regarded the Cradle of the Ancients as sacred.  Several bands tried to retake the land.  Fewer in number than in the Orsis Host’s glory days, the Neferseti repelled them after several bloody battles.  The handful of surviving bands had to make do with less formal gatherings along the Vir’naal River Valley, where they were made to pay taxes (in the form of animals) to Ramkahen.  It was during such times that the Orsisi bands truly learned to hate the concept of the city.

The northern Orsisi around the Vir’sar Oasis fared somewhat better, though their isolation proved to be their undoing.  The mercenaries who so recently tried to plunder Uldum killed many of them, and their future is in doubt.

It is not entirely clear whether or not Orsis will pose a real threat to Ramkahen.  Hatred cannot make up for a lack of numbers.  Thanks to Uzmal and others, the Orsisi possess a variety of modern weapons, and are proficient in their usage (though obviously not their manufacture).

I suspect that the Orsisi (in their current state) are quite capable of raiding and inflicting serious damage on Ramkahen, whose army is still archaic.  However, the Orsisi will not be able to win a sustained campaign against their neighbors.  They may be used as a bargaining chip by the Horde, though the Horde’s control over them might not be as complete as they imagine.

I encountered firsthand Uldum’s political volatility towards the end of my second (and last) week among the Orsisi.  The journey had been interesting; with Somhet’s help, I had been able to talk with some of the other tol’vir, and even speak a little bit of Virtic (though my accent renders me nearly incomprehensible).

The Ptath Band had made camp one night on the rocky bluffs overlooking the border between Ramkahen and Neferset.  The spot is in sight of the southern Vir’naal winding thin and sluggish through the green plains.  Terraced Mount Orum, crowned by the Titan edifice known as the Obelisk of the Sun, sprawls across the dusty southern horizon.

Titan vaults riddle the interior of Mount Orum, and the place had been the site of pitched battles between the Explorer’s League and mercenary looters.  The mountain is sacred to all tol’vir, and especially to the Orsisi.  To them, it is a reminder of that which only the Titans may build. 

I listened to the groaning chants of the elders as the Ptath settled down for the night, their voices quieting as light faded from the sky.  I fell asleep on a weathered camel-hide blanket, my dead skin suffused with the musty smell of smoke and tired herds.

I awoke to the sharp growling of angry Virtic, the tones quickly taking on the qualities of outrage and disbelief.  Shadows stirred at the other side of the tent, Somhet’s wife Bastei rising from her bed. 

Venturing to step outside, I found the campsite in an uproar, families roused to action in the dead of night.  Only when I ran into Somhet, standing next to a pair of tol’vir nomads not of the Ptath, did I learn what had happened.

“Destron!  The Alliance is stealing from the Obelisk of the Sun!  These two are from the Japh Band, who are traveling east below the slopes of Mount Orum, and they saw the ones you call dwarves preparing to invade the holy places.”

“The Explorer’s League?”

Somhet repeated my question to the Japh warrior, who made a noncommittal gesture. 

“They are Alliance.  We cannot allow them to steal from the homes of the gods.  Alone, the Japh Band is too few, but with our help they may kill the interlopers.”

“Wait, attacking the Alliance will be no easy task,” I stalled, my mind racing for a solution.

“Uzmal said that the Horde will stand by us in a war.”

“And we will.  But you must remember that the Horde has few warriors in Uldum.  It will be some time before they can send any real force to fight alongside the Orsisi.  This is not the right time to fight the Alliance.”

“There is no right time when it comes to sins like these!  The gods made this place, Destron.  We cannot let outsiders taint it.”

“The Alliance has been in the Obelisk of the Sun before, in order to repel the bandits during the Neferset War.  Surely that was not a problem?”

“How can you say that?  That which the Titans built is holy.  We fought the bandits, but they pushed us away.  The gods did not see us as worthy of defending their gifts because the sins of our leaders had not yet been expunged.

“Now, the gods favor us, as can be seen in the Horde weapons.  Just because foreigners drove out the bandits does not give them the right to take our holy lands.  All the fallen Ramkaheni and Neferseti cities are for you to do with as you please, but that made by the Titans is sacred.”

“I understand.  You have every right to be outraged.  Yet if you start this battle and lose, it will encourage the Alliance to plunder even more holy sites!  If you fight, it must be from a position of strength.”

“The gods will favor us.  If they do not, than nothing we do matters.  It has been decided.”

“The faith of the Orsisi is strong indeed.  I wish my own people believed with such fervor.  What if I could convince the Alliance to leave?  I can speak their language.”

“Do you think you can do this?” he asked, after a pause. 

“I understand the Alliance as well as anyone in the Horde.  At least let me try.  I have no doubt you will beat them in battle, but it would be better for the Orsisi to grow in strength before committing their forces.”

“Stay here, I will tell this to the others.”

Somhet jogged over to a gathering of tol’vir, the moonlight dancing on their furred bodies.  I realized that my presence might well indicate official Horde involvement in the attack.  The Orsisi using Horde weapons was problematic enough without a Forsaken agent tagging along for the ride.

Neither the Alliance nor the Horde has a significant presence in Uldum.  However, the Explorer’s League is closely tied with the highest levels of Alliance government, and they would surely send troops in the event of an attack.  The Horde could try to deny involvement, but my faction lacks even a shred of diplomatic credibility.  The dwarves also revere the Titans, and will likely want to punish the Orsisi who interfered with their excavations.

In fact, I could not even be sure that the Horde would attempt to distance itself from a potential skirmish.  It struck me as entirely plausible that Garrosh might welcome it as an excuse to open up a new front.  With him, it is impossible to tell.  I finally resolved to try and stop the conflict if at all possible.  I could only work to ensure that my efforts would not worsen the affair.

Somhet returned, saying that the Ptath would march to the Japh encampment.  Chieftain Teldes saw merit in my words, but needed to discuss it with the warriors of both bands.

The camp dispersed with remarkable swiftness, mothers and the aged staying behind to protect the vulnerable with sturdy bows and sharp eyes.   All fighting adults stormed to the south, the clouds of sand in their wake making no secret of their coming.  My camel glided over the soft dunes, cold desert winds whipping around us, the stars bright.

The desert soon flushed pink with the dawn’s brilliant light.  Sudden heat seared our sides, the harbinger of burning noon not yet strong enough to drive out the night’s chill.  Looking to the east, the lush river valley sleeping in shadow beneath the blazing disc, I gave a prayer of thanks that I could see such wonder.

Mount Orum drew closer, a burnished fortress in the morning light.  Ancient turrets line the highest slopes, seamlessly melded into the living rock.  Ptath and Japh rendezvoused below a dusty ridge embedded in the foothills, big enough to shield them from attack.  Because the Explorer’s League controlled the high ground, the Orsisi would have no chance to repel them in a frontal assault.  Instead, they would wait for night and then split and move to the eastern and western slopes to attack the encampment from behind, an extremely risky maneuver.

I waited as the warriors discussed their options.  At last, Somhet summoned me to their council, a bristling mass of spears and rifles. 

“Destron, it is the decision of both our peoples that you be given a chance to talk to the invaders.  We did not come to this easily; it is our way to punish without mercy those who tread on the work of the gods.  Yet we are not yet at full strength, and the gods frown on careless pride.  If heaven wills it, you will persuade them.”

“Thank you.”

Breath echoed hollow in my dry lungs as I dismounted the camel, my feet sinking into the sand.  I put all thought of consequence out of my mind: I had no choice but to succeed. 

Struggling up the rocky foothills I could see rifle barrels jutting out from sandbag barricades on the mountain’s upper reaches, fewer than I had expected.  The dwarves clearly knew something was the matter.  I raised my arms, palms facing back, and hoped they would not shoot.

“I seek parley!” I shouted in Common, my voice echoing.

Long minutes passed under sun, their rifles steady.  I tensed, expecting a bullet to burst through my skull.  Intermittent gusts whispered through the sand and loose rocks.

“I seek parley!”

“Stay where you are!” barked a voice from above.

I finally saw movement along a winding earthen ramp chiseled into the mountainside, three dwarves and a gnome hurrying down, each carrying a gun.  They rapidly closed the distance, their eyes set in hatred.  The lead dwarf, a powerfully built specimen wearing a braided yellow beard, carried a set of anti-magic bracers with him. 

“Lower your hands, keep your palms pointed up.”

I obeyed without a word.  The lead dwarf raised his arm and shouted back to the summit.  He then backed away, his gun at the ready.  A gnome stepped forward, his green hair incongruous in the desert.  Bright eyes appraised me, seeing all the sins of my countrymen.

“All right, who are you?”

“Destron Allicant.  I come here on behalf of the Orsisi.”

“I’m Lindwick Spastodril, and don’t lie; you’re here for the Horde.”

“You are correct, but I also wish to help the Orsisi.”

“I can’t say we’re happy to see you here.  What does the Horde want?”

“This does not involve the Horde directly; I am here to inform you of an unfortunate situation.  The Orsisi bands are extremely agitated; they fear that outlanders in this place, however well-intentioned, will offend their gods.”

“The Titans are the dwarves’ gods too.”

“Of course.  I think that, if anything, the Orsisi and the dwarves have common cause.  Yet the Orsisi see themselves as the protectors of the Titan constructions.  For them to see foreign archaeologists on sacred ground is an insult.”

“The Explorer’s League has permission from Ramkahen.”

“The Orsisi do not recognize Ramkahen’s authority.  I think the key here is communication; the Explorer’s League should let the Orsisi know their intentions.  Perhaps if the Orsisi are involved, they will be willing to allow you to investigate.” 

“Except the Orsisi are already with the Horde.”

“Certainly the Orsisi respect the Horde, but they are hardly members of it.  The Orsisi demand only that their faith be respected.  Given the chaos that has engulfed Uldum, they can hardly be blamed for fearing that the Explorer’s League is simply another group of bandits.

“I will be blunt; the Orsisi will attack your encampment if you do not leave.  Even if you are victorious, your expedition will be crippled.  Behind me await the warriors of the Ptath and Japh; even if they fall, news of the defeat will spread and the entire Orsis Host will surround these foothills.”

“An impressive threat.”

“This is a concerned warning, not a threat.  I am also a scholar, and it is my sincere desire for the knowledge in these ancient places to be spread to the world.  I believe this would be possible, but you must speak with the Orsisi first.  Talk to the local bands; inconvenient, to be sure, but far less so than fighting every single desert warrior.”

“The Explorer’s League is willing to fight.  We fought off the mercenary army, saving this land for the Orsisi.  Maybe they should be more appreciative.”

“The Orsisi sacrificed many of their best warriors against those bandits, and the Horde contributed as well.  Not all of the glory can go to the Alliance.  The Orsisi respect valor, and if you just meet with them and be honest with them, I imagine you will make significant headway.  Surely it is at least worth the attempt?”

Lindwick stroked his chin, deep in thought.

“I’ll relay what you said back to the camp commander.  Stay here until I return.”

I watched Lindwick trudge back up the ramp, already beaten down by the heat.  My minders stayed silent, grimacing with the frustration of having a hated enemy in one’s grasp but unable to do anything about it. 

A low whistle sounded out from the ledges after a long while, the dwarf nearest me standing up at the sound, the disbelief plain on his face.  He muttered something in Dwarven before turning to me.

“It’s your lucky day, deader bastard.  We’re leaving the mountain, so run back to your overgrown cats.  If I ever see you again, I’ll make sure you go back in the ground.”


Neferset City is a place of towering temples and obelisks, the glory of its kings chiseled in stone.  Statues of long dead warriors protect the once-bustling streets, now empty save for soldiers of the Ramkahen Legion.  The city is arranged around a processional boulevard running from the north to the south.  Side streets reach their ends in dusty marketplaces where fleas and beetles hold court.  Beyond that, the rude huts of the common Neferseti cling to the precipices, a sort of shambling city wall.

The memory of bloodless slaughter haunts the grand boulevards.  Dust gathers on heaps of once-living rubble, the occupying Ramkaheni offering scant mercy to the ultimate reprobates. 

The rest of the world sees Uldum as a distant sideshow, almost too exotic and picturesque to be real.  The tol’vir are curiosities, conveniently packaged as either noble Ramkaheni or depraved Neferseti.  Ramkahen’s victory makes Uldum seem a rare success in this tumultuous age.

What must be realized is that the warriors were not the only Neferseti to receive stone bodies.  Al’akir imparted this gift to every last tol’vir in Neferseti lands, from high priest to beggar.  In Ramkaheni eyes, all tol’vir who bear stone skin are an insult to the gods, and in Uldum such mockery may only be answered by death.

I had reached the Royal Plaza, the pyramidal temples like mountains on either side, the sun hammering down on the Ramkaheni warriors standing flank to flank.  The flagstones shine with a painful brightness, bleaching the world to a scorched white.  Across from me stood the Neferseti, their splendor marred by defeat.  Smooth brown stone, inlaid with gold, takes the place of fur and skin.  They behold their collapsing world through eyes of polished jade, and streamlined wings sweep out from the backs. 

Entire families of Neferset had been corralled at the plaza, hammer-wielding Ramkaheni keeping watch.  Among the Neferseti I could see stone women and children, a far cry from the conquering army that once threatened to seize Uldum.

Funereal drums resounded as a pair of club-wielding Ramkaheni prodded and struck a shackled Neferseti.  The prisoner’s stone paws dragged, scraping against the ground, powder seeping out from hairline cracks his legs and sides.  The left wing ended in a jagged stump, and I wondered if the Neferseti could feel pain.

Hollow cries rushed out from stone throats, the Neferseti onlookers stirring, a few raising their arms.  The Ramkaheni silenced them with yowled curses and the threat of raised hammers.  The meaning of the spectacle became clear to me as the prisoner climbed the first few steps of the temple’s processional stairway, crippled in sight of Neferset’s holiest place.

The drums rattled into silence, the two guards moving aside as another Ramkaheni, his head encased in a cruelly beaked vulture mask, a sledgehammer in his hands, marched towards the prisoner.

The vulture-headed Ramkaheni took position behind the helpless Neferseti and spoke, his tone translating Virtic into pure contempt.  Raising his face to the heaven, the prisoner’s surviving jade eye looked out from a cobweb of splintered skin. 

With a single smooth movement the executioner raised the hammer over his right shoulder and swung forward with all his might.  Dust and fragments of stone exploded from the remaining wing, an ear-splitting crack reverberating through the plaza.  The prisoner began to drop forward, only for the guards to push him back into place.

Taking deliberate steps to the victim’s left, the executioner swung the hammer a second time, the metal head driving into the front knee.  The leg snapped backwards and split, the Neferseti suddenly brought down by his own weight.  Arms bound by shackles tried to balance but the he collapsed to the side, dust spilling from the severed limb.

Some part of me urged escape, but I stayed rooted to the ground.  In my mind I saw the tortured form of the necromancer Festul in the Dragonblight’s frigid hell.  I’d been able to grant Festul an escape, but the Neferseti was beyond my ability to help, though he was surely more deserving of it.

Still the hammer rose and fell, mighty shoulders splitting asunder, stone arms rolling down the steps.  Perhaps I only imagined the terror in the single jade eye.  More legs broke, the executioner’s chest heaving with exertion.  Completely helpless, the prisoner lowered his head as if in acceptance.  Taking a deep breath, the Ramkaheni hoisted the weapon as high as he could before slamming it down on the prisoner’s scalp. 

Tiny fragments burst in all directions as the sculpted head burst, the neck splintering under the assault.  Mindless shudders roiled the corpse before it went suddenly still, death rendering it inert.

Ramkaheni voices roared in approval, drowning out any sound made by the watching Neferseti.  Lifting the hammer in both hands, the executioner bellowed to the crowd. 

In a daze, the noon’s white light like fire, I watched as the plaza emptied.  The Ramkaheni returned to their tasks, the soldiers herding away the native-born.  On numb legs I walked to the victim’s remains, a broken statue spilled onto the steps.  I reasoned that he could well have committed some grievous crime, but the sight of the gleeful mob brought to mind the early days of the Scarlet Crusade.  Perhaps the world might be a better place had those zealots succeeded in wiping out my kind, but a good result can only make evil means necessary, never moral.

It was at the execution site that I became acquainted with Belskur Redblade, a middle-aged orc with a mop of gray hair reaching to his shoulders.  He’d also watched the scene with a heavy heart, and was able to give some context.

“His name was Siruse, a Neferseti warrior.  I did not know him personally, though he was one of the few officers who survived the war.”

“Why was he executed?”

“Sedition.  He may well have been guilty; some Neferseti still hope to drive out the Ramkaheni, but most know it is hopeless.  Here, we should not be in this place.  Follow me.”

As we walked, Belskur told me about himself.  An independent warrior who came into his own during the Outland Campaign, he had actually been a part of the band that killed Al’akir, the lord of the elemental plane of air and a key Neferseti ally. 

“A great battle that was, against a foe who deserved every wound we inflicted upon it!  There are few things better than knowing the rightness of one’s cause.”

Since then, he had been living alone at the edge of Neferset City.  Belskur took me to a cluster of adobe huts that had once been occupied by poor Neferseti, canvas set up in place of a broken roof that lay on the floor in pieces.  The darkness offered a bit of relief, a kind of return to normalcy for my northern self.

“The Ramkaheni dislike our presence, but no tol’vir forgets a debt, so here we stay,” said Belskur.  We sat on a pile of rubble, passing a prodigious clay bottle of grainy Ramkaheni beer between us.  Scarabs crawled in the dust of the entryway, their shells dull in the dim light.

“Why are you here?”

“I started as a spy!” he laughed, shaking his head.  “I’m one of the only orcs here who bothered to learn Virtic, so the Horde deemed it best for me to keep an eye on the Alliance in case they decided to use the Neferseti as a proxy.”

“Do you consider that a valid concern?”

“I don’t, because it’s not, and you can tell that to your masters in Orgrimmar.”

“Excuse me?”

“Are you not here to check on me?”

“No, I’m simply a traveler.”

Belskur’s brow furrowed, his gray eyes roving over me. 

“I will assume you speak truly.  It would be strange for the warchief to send a Forsaken.  Besides, any fool can see that the Neferseti are nearly ruined.  The Alliance would use them as proxies if they could, but there are too few warriors left.

“Stone soldiers are mighty indeed, but they cannot heal from their wounds.  Stone women do not bear children.  The Neferseti are doomed.  The Ramkaheni murdered them by the hundreds once the city walls fell.  Had I not been in the Skywall at the time, I would have taken my ax to the Ramkahen Legion.”

“But they are still doing it!  The execution outside—“

“Believe me: if the Ramkahen Legion had its way, there would be an endless stream of executions in that place.”  He took a deep gulp from the bottle, wiping his mouth as the brew trickled down his chin.  “Blood and thunder!  I wish they had stronger stuff than this.”

“Are you all right?”

“Dammit, I helped kill the Windlord!  Do you think this is a challenge?  All I do is sit and wait, watching the Alliance act like true warriors.  Thrall charged us with protecting the weak, and there are none weaker than the Neferseti in this place.  The Neferseti live only because the Alliance protects them.  The Horde does nothing.”

“Perhaps we can also vouch for the Neferseti.”

“Absolutely not.  If we do, the Alliance will take it as us trying to claim the Neferseti, and then they will use the Neferseti as troops.  There is a draenic priestess, Ruunea, who leads the relief effort in Neferset City.  She does this because of her belief in the Light—to think my father might have murdered her family back in Draenor!”

Before my eyes Belskur seemed to crumple.

“Ruunea protects the Neferseti, and the Alliance lets her because doing so does not threaten them.  The moment the Horde gets involved, the Alliance will assume the worst.  Ruunea told me so herself when I pledged to defend her with ax and word against all who challenged her.”

“Then why stay here?”

“Have you not been listening?  I must report on the Alliance’s deeds.  Not that there’s anything to report.  Forgive me; you should not be seeing me like this.  I am a warrior, and must act the part.  But all this damned waiting…”

“Does the Alliance really trust the Horde so little?  Surely we can find some common ground in protecting the Neferseti.”

“No.  With the Horde comes war and plague.  The Orsisi already run at our beck and call, and the Alliance will not let the Neferseti meet the same fate.  I wish I could end this by killing some monster, but in this world, if Deathwing dies, we will fight over the corpse.”

“The draenei, at least, are very dedicated to their principles.  Ruunea may be able to make some headway with her leaders, and perhaps the Horde could persuade the Alliance to let you help.”

“If what I hear is true, Prophet Velen does have the ear of Prince Anduin.  Maybe when he is king… but not until then.”

We continued to talk into the night, a whisper of a southern breeze unable to relieve the stubborn heat.  Belskur told me of his coming of age in the internment camps and a youth spent forging the frontier in the Barrens.  When dusk passed, he ate a simple dinner of dense Ramkaheni bread and lentil soup, and retired soon after finishing.

I remained awake, sitting on a pile of shattered adobe in the darkened house, darkness leeching away the day’s heat.  My mind wrestled with the reality of Uldum, its woes inextricable from Azeroth’s.  Most see the Neferseti as Uldum’s homegrown villains, but the real evil appeared to lie with Ramkahen.

Yet saying that is just as inaccurate and unfair as blaming Neferset.  Whatever their reasons, however much they actually knew, the Neferseti did aid the forces of Deathwing.  So too did Neferset attack Ramkahen for control of the central Vir’naal in ancient times; the mighty Vir’naal Dam, whose mere existence dried up miles of Neferseti farmland, testifies to the result.

None of the three factions can truly be described as good or evil.  All are opportunistic, fearful, and determined in equal measure.  Perhaps this is why the truth of Uldum is so troubling.


The morning sun glowed red against the city’s ancient stones, promising another brutal day.  I ambled out into the still and silent bazaar, trying to imagine how it had looked in better days.

The Neferseti have lost their future as surely as the Forsaken.  What had motivated their leaders to make such a bargain?  Stone skin is of use to warriors, but not to farmers; indeed, what purpose do farmers have when bodies no longer hunger?  Surely the Neferseti had known this would mean an end to their nation.

If anyone could help the Neferseti, it would be the Earthen of Ulduar.  They alone function as the Titans presumably intended, and know how to upkeep stone bodies.  Conceivably, they might even be able to produce more tol’vir.  If the Neferseti are brought to the Earthen, however, I suspect it will only bring the Neferseti closer into Alliance orbit.  Perhaps that is not so terrible.

When Belskur awoke, he suggested going to Whitestone Plaza in the city’s northwest quadrant.

“Priestess Ruunea often goes there with her Neferseti charges.  You should meet them; one speaks Common.”  I had mentioned my familiarity with that language the previous day.

“I thought the Horde needed to keep its distance.”

“Only from those Neferseti outside of Alliance protection.”

As we walked through the streets, the early morning shadows long and sharp, Belskur explained that about a hundred Neferseti lived in a refugee camp west of the city.  Enclosed in the fens of the Cradle of the Ancients, Ruunea had established it to protect the surviving family members of high-ranking Neferseti.

A ten-strong Ramkaheni patrol occupied Whitestone Plaza, boredom evident in their slouched postures.  Most lounged in the shade of a partially collapsed warehouse, swatting at the brown desert flies buzzing around their heads.  Several hailed Belskur, standing up at his arrival.

Whitestone Plaza had once been a target for the short-lived Neferseti resistance.  Now, the Ramkahen Legion guards the place against a nonexistent threat.  The soldiers themselves are more interested in idling than in guard duty; as a general rule, the Ramkahen Legion consists mostly of poorly disciplined volunteers who split their time between military service and farming.  The small professional core is badly overstretched during the flood season. 

By the time Ruunea appeared, garbed in loose-fitting white robes, her arrival went almost unnoticed.  The soldiers preferred to hear Belskur’s tales of battling Al’akir and his armies, and the orc loved the attention.  Belskur waved to Ruunea, but kept at his story, speaking more quickly but unwilling to end the retold battle prematurely.

Ruunea possessed the sort of ageless beauty common to the draenei.  White hair and horns contrasted with a perfect face that looked chiseled from cobalt.  Accompanying her was a Neferseti woman with a necklace of turquoise squares set into her stone neck.

I introduced myself when she finished reporting to the Ramkaheni, and expressed my curiosity and sympathy regarding the Neferseti.  Belskur had not yet pulled away from his audience, talking and gesturing like an ecstatic drunk.

“Your interest is commendable, Brother Destron.  However, I must inquire as to why you seek to learn more.  There are those who use knowledge for unethical purposes.”

“I travel mostly to satiate my own curiosity, though I tell others of my findings.  I assure you that I never tell anything to the apothecaries,” I said, fully aware of how poor my words sounded.

“How do you know Brother Belskur?”

“We met by happenstance yesterday, at Siruse’s execution.”

“Another execution?”

“Yes.  I’m sorry, did you know him?”

“I did not, but the news is distressing.  For what was he killed?”

“Belskur himself didn’t seem particularly sure, but he said something about possible sedition against the Ramkaheni.”

“We are trying to get as many of the Neferseti to the camp as possible.  The Ramkaheni laws are in place for good reason, but I fear they enforce them too cruelly.”

“Is there anything the Horde can do to help?”

“Do you have any influence with them?”

“Not really, but I might be able to suggest your ideas to one of the more reasonable authorities.”

“The Horde can help best by leaving the Orsisi alone.  This land is under enough stress without the nomads being turned into weapons.”

“Point taken.”  I do not disagree that the Horde’s manipulation of Orsis is immoral.  Still, I could not be sure that the Alliance didn’t truly intend the same with the Neferseti.

“Who is the Neferseti with you?” I asked.

“Sister Shepsa.  She is a very courageous woman.  Her husband was a priest who died in the war; now she works to sustain and educate other friends of the old regime.”

“Does she speak Common or Orcish?” 

“Only Virtic.  I can tell you, Brother Destron, that the Neferseti have truly come together in this troubled time.  Sister Shepsa has helped greatly in this.”

“A role model of sorts?”

“Yes.  The Neferseti, much like your own Forsaken, are a static population.  Sister Shepsa’s two daughters will never grow up, stuck in stone as they are.  In this hardship, they have learned to put faith in the community rather than in a denied future.”

“Is there any way to return them to flesh?”

“There are some who are working on that.  The Earthen may be able to help manage them in this current state.  A few seek answers in the Skywall—after Al’akir’s death, the air elementals have become more accommodating.”

“The Alliance has diplomatic relations with the Skywall?”

“So paranoid, are you?  No, we do not, there are only researchers.  The Steamwheedle Cartel, of all groups, sees riches in the Skywall, and offers transport to that place.”

“I see.”  I glanced at Shepsa, her carved features unreadable to me.  Did she know we discussed her nation’s future?  Without speaking Virtic, I’d never be more than a wandering fool in Uldum.

Belskur finally broke away from his fans, who slunk back into the shade.  Sweat dripped from his rough face as he bowed before Ruunea.

“Hail, priestess.  I see you have met my friend.”

“Light be with you, Brother Belskur.  Brother Destron’s interest in the Neferseti speaks well of him.”

“Yes.  Did Captain Eltuney trouble you?”  Belskur looked towards one of the lounging Ramkaheni.

“No.  Our sanctuary is still tolerated by Ramkahen, thanks mostly to the Explorer’s League.”

“We saw another execution the other day.  The accused cannot fight his way out with either blade or with word; they just take him up to the square and break him to pieces.  A terrible thing.  The Neferseti should not be made into a race of captives, as the humans did to the orcs.”

“Do you think that the Neferseti need a Thrall of their own?”

Belskur’s face scrunched up, and he growled beneath his breath.

“I do not want to see them trod upon any longer!  The spirit of their race must be revived!”

“Brother Belskur, you should consider yourself lucky that I do not believe there is such a thing as the spirit of a race.  There is only the Most Holy Light, of which we are all part.  Our circumstances differ, but we are all within it.”

“Perhaps saying that is the spirit of the draenei?” chuckled Belskur.  “Forgive me, I should not make fun.  I know what my people did to you, and to the humans.  For all these evil things, don’t I have all the more reason to rankle at cruelty?  I sense the despair in this place, where the deeds of Neferseti heroes are chiseled into the monuments.  There is some spirit here, something that is Neferseti.”

“You can theorize, but you have no proof, either spiritual or material.  I only see a people in need.”

Ruunea let us follow as she left Whitestone Plaza for the Neferseti Quarter.  She and Shepsa hoped to persuade more Neferseti to relocate.  The number of volunteers had slowed in recent months.

“Those still here feel little hope.”

I could not help but wonder if perhaps the camp was not to the liking of its residents, and that word had spread.  Again, there was no way for me to know.  I cannot easily read the emotions of regular tol’vir and the Neferseti are far beyond my ability.  In my experience, the draenei are often just as saintly as they seem, though they do not always understand what their friends truly want.

Once called the Merchant’s Quarter, the Neferseti Quarter shows fewer signs of damage.  The poor areas and the main boulevard had hosted most of the fighting, and the humble Neferseti merchants owned few possessions worth looting.  It is a strange sight, where dozens of Neferseti stand motionless, living statues under the sun.  No conversation lightens the hot and dusty air, the place as much of a tomb as the eastern ruins.

Belskur and I waited at the edge of the neighborhood as Ruunea went in to do her work, so as not to cause disruption.  As we idled, he told me about his time in Outland, where he’d fought in the Hellfire Peninsula, Zangarmarsh, and the Blade’s Edge.

“I still remember when I first reached the Path of Glory, stretching as far as the eye can see, and then realized what it was made of,” he said, his voice shaking.  The Path of Glory is the miles-long monument to Horde brutality, a road made of draenic bones.

“That my people could do that… and it just went on, and on, and on.  I wept like a child.  And now, after all this, the draenei still seek to help!  Did you know that any orc who now wishes to see Outland must get permission from the warchief?”

“I hadn’t heard that.”

“Outland is no longer of much value.  They do not want these reminders of the past, for fear they might dull our spirits.  I think it would make us stronger to know, so that we might fight evil all the harder.”

Ruunea and Shepsa returned at midday with nothing to show for their efforts.  We joined them on the way out of the city.  Ruunea’s camp is nestled between the bluffs and the marshes west of Neferset City, close enough for her to return on the day of her arrival.  She and Belskur continued their conversation, Shepsa walking behind them, her appearance—majestic and even terrifying taken on its own—made ludicrous by the gulf separating us.  I longed to reach out, but could neither understand nor learn from her.  I again felt the weight of the world, all its history and torment, pressing on my back.

We at last reached a place where rows of abandoned houses crack under the sun’s heat, the lush greenery of the Cradle of the Ancients just a few miles away.

At Neferset’s height, the Vir’naal River Delta and the Cradle of the Ancients had supported their three great cities.  Enslaved Ramkaheni and Orsisi struggled up the narrow paths to Neferset City, pulling enormous carts weighed down with food grown on the riverbanks. 

The Vir’naal Dam reduced the output of the delta, spurring riots in the lush metropolis of the Lost City.  This disobedience, say the Neferseti, roused the wrath of the gods, who dried up the Cradle of the Ancients in a terrible drought.  Neferset never recovered, and hatred of Ramkahen seeped into their very bones.  Neferseti priests had taken the Cradle of the Ancients’ recent and mysterious renewal as a sign of divine support, only to lose the war a few weeks later.

“What did the Neferseti believe?” I asked Ruunea, feeling silly for relying so much on her.

“They followed the same gods as the other tol’vir.  As you may know, the Ramkaheni and Orsisi both believe that the gods turned the tol’vir to flesh and departed to the heavens after growing disgusted with their worshippers’ poor behavior.  The Neferseti differ in this; they believe that some malign entity turned them into flesh, and that the gods shunned them as a result.”

“What sort of malign entity?”

“The Neferseti called it Kutep.”

“Was Kutep blamed for other disasters?”

“No; Neferseti legends say that the god Aman cursed Kutep before leaving, trapping him within stone.  Some think there is a link between Kutep and C’thun.  The Neferseti still blamed the unfortunate for their own problems.”

“Do they blame themselves for losing the war?”

“Some do.  More than any other tol’vir, the Neferseti wished to return to stone.  When the servants of Al’akir made the offer, the priests jumped at the chance.  Here was the entire point of their existence, a chance to usher in a return to glory.  They did not care that it would physically doom their people, for they saw in it spiritual salvation.

“Many, like Sister Shepsa, now think that the Neferseti must have been wrong all this time.  Some still believe that they are being tested, but they are few in number.”

“Do the ones in your care all follow the Light?”

“No.  My main purpose here is to protect the Neferseti.  By my actions, I spread the Most Holy Light, and can educate a few of them in more detail.  From there it may spread.”

Ruunea at last bade us farewell, walking down the path to the Cradle of the Ancients.  I could just see the camp down below, massive stone figures shadows against the pale tents. 

“Have you ever seen the camp up close?” I asked Belskur.

“Once, when I went ahead on a scouting mission.  Ruunea is a good person, Destron.  The Neferseti need protection.”

“I agree.  I suppose a part of me is suspicious, but the draenei have always been fair-minded.  I only wish I could talk to one of the Neferseti about this.”

“Do not worry about it; I am sure Ruunea told you the essentials.”

Sighing at my own helplessness, I watched the sun descend into the empty lands, its searing heat a short-lived ghost in the desert night.