Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Southern Barrens



Hot eastern winds blew in the smell of cordite, the yellow grass rustling like loose bones on the dying prairie.  The sun retreated behind the mountains as we walked, its rays bloody and shimmering in the dusty air.  The last of the afternoon heat pressed down on us, a reminder of dry mouths and cracked skin.

“You approach a holy place, undead.  I trust you to keep your distance?”

“Of course.”

“Forgive my warning, but this is a place of great import to us.  Perhaps even more now than when children still laughed on the plains.  An’she weeps; you can see it in the dimness of Her light.  I fear our Mother will weep for many months yet.”

Shaya Windhorn shook her shaggy head, her brown fur whitened by dust.  I had met her years ago during my first trip through the sun-blasted Barrens, back when its name was still a misnomer.  Though the depopulated north survives more or less intact, the south is a battleground. 

A deep-voiced Taurahe chant wove in and out of the gusts.  A hulking shadow threw thick arms above its horned head, shifting weight from one hoof to the other as it danced at the base of a solitary watchtower.  Darkness reached out to clutch the heaps of burned timber, piled up like cairns on the plain.

Vidder, the pilot Elazzi had hired for us, had made an unscheduled landing at Vendetta Point in order to check out some engine problems earlier that day.  Vendetta Point is where the survivors of the Tauraje Massacre regrouped, joined by braves from other tribes shattered by the Cataclysm.


Shaya had offered to take me to Camp Taurajo so that I might see what became of the place I’d visited years ago.  A shaman when I’d first met her, Shaya had recently taken a less conventional route for her spiritual education.

“I have heard of the sunwalkers,” I’d said, shortly after meeting her in Vendetta Point.  “Your order makes up the priests and paladins of the Shu’halo, correct?”

“Priests and paladins?” she laughed.  “I do not mean to sound mocking, but many tauren find the word ‘priest’ very puzzling.  The Earthmother loves us all; why should She only choose a few to be close to Her?”

“Well said.”  Taurahe has no native word for priest, instead using the Orcish word, which is itself a loan from Common.

“We sunwalkers are not any kind of special order.  We simply seek to serve the Earthmother.  Like the Kaldorei, the druids of our people revere Mu’sha, the Earthmother’s left eye.  Who then speaks for Her right?  The sunwalkers address this imbalance.”

“I’m afraid I still tend to categorize the world in the manner of humans, so please pardon me if I’m slow to understand.  In human society—and others—priests and paladins serve distinct roles and have different abilities.  Among your people, are both considered sunwalkers?”

“Yes, why should different talents separate them?  I am a sunwalker, and my brother is a hunter, but we are both of the Windhorn Tribe.  Sunwalkers are those who give An’she the same reverence that the druids show Mu’sha.”

“And this reverence confers certain abilities.”

“Yes.  The druids learn how to tap into the essence of nature through the old rituals and practices of the elves.  Few such rituals exist for An’she.  When Tahu Sagewind and Aponi Brightmane first bowed beneath An’she, they had to have faith.  In this faith, there is strength.”

“But if the tauren have always worshipped the Earthmother, why is this only happening now?”

“We saw Mu’sha and An’she as parts of the greater whole, serving her in the old ways.  Yet the Kaldorei worship Mu’sha.  How can one claim to love the daughter of another family while ignoring the mother?  We are simply trying to create balance, so that all of the Earthmother might be appreciated.”

“I see.  How well do the sunwalkers fit into your society?”

“So long as one helps the tribe, she is welcome.  More than ever the tribes need those who know something of both healing and combat, so the sunwalkers can make themselves helpful.  There is no greater thing than aiding one’s kin.”

In Vendetta Point, Camp Taurajo remains as a memorial to the fallen.  Now that war rarely spills past the middle of the Southern Barrens, the site is periodically visited by shamans who sooth the spirits of the dead.

To the tauren, the violence and upheaval of the Third War heralded what they called an Age of Peace.  The orcs had routed the rapacious centaurs and quilboar, allowing the tribes to once again flourish.  Only isolated incidents like the Aparaje Massacre (the tragic aftermath of which I had also seen) disrupted this time of growth.

The Taurajo Massacre threatens the Age of Peace; indeed, perhaps it already has signified its end.  Deathwing’s rise tore ancestral lands asunder, and the Horde and the Alliance wage war on a scale more massive and devastating than the old tribal conflicts could ever reach (though one could argue that the explicitly genocidal tribal wars were more vicious).

“Hunters of the Chalkhoof Tribe saw smoke rising from Camp Taurajo and they ran to investigate.  They found humans looting the dead, carving pieces from the bodies.  Horns, tails, ears… just like the centaurs did to our ancestors!” said Shaya, her voice quaking.

Shaya knelt down next to a burnt wooden stake leaning out of the dust, already eroded by the wind. 

“I only heard about it on the radio,” I said.  “They reported that the human forces surrounded the camp and marched in, cutting down anyone who tried to get past.  I will admit I found it hard to believe that the humans of Theramore would do such a thing.”

Shaya paused, her dark fur making her almost invisible in the encroaching night, the sky lit only by the corona of the falling sun.

“Perhaps the orcs did not get a full report.  That is not what happened.  The humans left their lines open, and let the young ones and new mothers pass through safely.”

“So they only targeted the warriors?”

“Not exactly.  For generations we fought ruthless butchers who savored innocent blood.  The cruelty of their acts gave them an awful power, and they made no pretense at being anything other than evil.  The humans seemed different.

“As they made their escape, the tall grass opened up.  Dozens of quilboar warriors had waited there and our children died on their spears.  The Alliance knew, of that we are sure.  These humans are savages who are afraid to admit it, so they simply give innocents to monsters instead of doing the deeds themselves.”

More cautious minds in the Horde had long worried about the Alliance exploiting Kalimdor’s ancient hatreds.  Both factions had waged a proxy war through the centaur tribes in Desolace (one that has apparently ended now that the battle lines have moved to the north and south).  However, the contrast between the radio report and Shaya’s recounting gave me pause.  Could it not be coincidence that the quilboar had been in the area?  Known for their opportunism, it is hardly a stretch to think that they had simply positioned themselves around the battle in order to loot the dead or kill survivors.

“You… you are sure it was not a coincidence?” I asked, my voice trembling.  I feared my objection would make a mockery out of her grief, and whatever my concerns I could not disprove her version of events.

“There is no doubt.  Why would the Alliance let quilboar warriors go behind them, unless they were sure the quilboar would not attack them?”

I said nothing in response, though it was possible that the Alliance simply had not known.  A small hunters’ camp, Taurajo had nonetheless been a very important stopping point in the kodo herd runs between Mulgore and the Crossroads.  The Cataclysm combined with Camp Taurajo’s destruction has hobbled the kodo trade, further weakening the Horde’s economy.


Shaya and I took seats in the dirt at the base of the watchtower, smoke weaving up from a small fire built on the dirt floor.  Koohoak Cloudsong, a shaman, watched us through cloudy eyes that held all the fear his people had once known.  Aged and near death, Koohoak had taken it upon himself to sing to the spirits of Camp Taurajo, where he had once lived. 

“Dark times again,” he murmured, his voice weighed down by dread.  “There must be restitution for this.”

“Such is being seen in the war against the Alliance,” I said, after a long pause.  I imagined the cries of ghosts in the silence between words.

“War alone is not enough.  These humans and quilboar killed our children, so their children must also die.”

“But their children committed no crime!”

“Our ways demand no less.  If we allow this to happen, to have the futures of our tribes threatened, we will die.  You still think like a human, but Kalimdor is not a place for laws.  It is too wild and great for them.”

“But if you kill their children, it will harden the hearts of the Alliance.”

“They already wage a war of extermination against us by letting the quilboar to do the work for them.”

“Here, you have an opportunity to shame—“

“Do not speak to me about shame, of law, of immunity to vengeance.  These are human ideas.  We are Shu’halo.  I sense a kindness in you, and that is good, but do not seek to advise us.”

Many see the tauren as peaceful, but they are not without their ruthless side.  I saw firsthand how the omokee exiles are shunned and abused, and saw too the willingness of many tauren to utterly destroy the centaurs. 

“Remember, though,” I said with haste, “that the Alliance blamed the Shu’halo for razing the settlements around Dustwallow, but the truth turned out to be more complex.”  The rogue Grimtotem Tribe had been at fault.

Koohak’s throat rumbled and he went silent for several long moments.

“You speak wisely.”

“You must be sure that the Alliance was truly responsible before taking such an action.”

With that, the helplessness returned, wrenching at me.  I had verbally defended the Alliance for the sake of human children while implicitly saying that quilboar children were acceptable targets.  I tried to say something, but nothing came out, and I felt eons’ worth of tradition crashing down on me. 

“We will.  For now we will content ourselves fighting them on the field of battle.  Other tribes share your concerns, and like you, they are wise.  We will listen and learn.  But do not seek to question our ways.  The tribe is everything.”

A gust of wind blew through the open windows, the fire flickering on the verge of extinction before righting itself, the light weaker than before.

*********
     
Vidder took off from Vendetta Point at dawn, us wincing at every painful jolt and shake as it picked up speed on the rough ground.  Once in the air, I told Daj’yah about what had happened at Camp Taurajo.

“Not so different with us.  I remember how one night—I was a little girl at the time—the Skullsplitter attacked.  They jumped out of the trees at night and weren’t particular in who they killed.  Later, our own boys went off to pay them back, and I’m sure they did the same.”

“But you do think it’s wrong?” I asked, almost pleading.

“Yes.  I listened to what Thrall told us, and I read a lot of human novels.  Funny, how much the humans gave us, even as they fight us.  But I know how the tauren feel.  When the village is all you have…” she shrugged.

Defeated, I looked at the porthole window at the brown and dusty plains.  I feared that for all my experience, I was as na├»ve as I’d been when I started.

“You are right, Destron.  I don’t want you to think I’m cruel.  But these ways have power, and I’m not thinking they’ll end in our lives.  In my life.  Maybe new ideas will come up.  I changed.  So did you.”

“I wish I could have said something more convincing.”

“You did everything you could do.”

Was Daj’yah right?  Or was I simply a coward too bowed by my own history of ineffectual attempts at persuasion?

Vidder’s flight path took us to Desolation Hold, where he intended to land and refuel.  A monster of granite and steel, Desolation Hold stares with baleful contempt at Fort Triumph, its Alliance counterpart on the other side of the valley.  The days after the Cataclysm saw the Southern Barrens plunged into confused fighting as isolated orcish troops and tauren hunters tried to intercept the mechanized advance of Theramore’s armies.  The front settled in the middle of the Southern Barrens after a half-year of chaos, creating a shell-pocked tract of earth called the Battlescar.

Vidder curved his flight west over the mountains as we approached Desolation Hold, letting us see the still-green prairies of Mulgore where a solitary railroad cuts across the grass, made to ferry troops to the front.  Our pilot did this to avoid the contested skies over the Battlescar.

We soon drifted back to the east.  The sky darkened, the smell of exhaust and expended gunpowder filtering into the scorching airplane cabin.  Daj’yah wrinkled her nose at the smell, sometimes coughing.

“Enjoying life?” I asked.

“Don’t be gloating, now,” she muttered.

Dull booms reverberated in the stifling air, Horde artillery firing another volley into the ruined earth.  Vidder slowed down as wyverns skimmed by, goggled orcish faces looking into the tiny windows.  Making a gradual descent, Vidder picked up speed as he approached the landing strip.

A smaller version of Warsong Hold, Desolation Hold projects a similar aura of cruelty and domination.  Bladed metal towers encircle a massive keep, itself surrounded by depots, armories, and garages as numerous as ants in the courtyard.  Dozens of artillery emplacements form a smoking metal forest on the slopes east of the fortress.


“All right, Daj’yah: I’m going to try to wheedle some fuel out of the people here.  My bird has Horde colors, so it should be enough, but I’ll still have to argue for it.  Hopefully we can fly out of here in a few days,” said Vidder.

“Should we have a plan if we can’t get fuel?” asked Daj’yah.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll get it, but if not I should have just enough to get to Mudsprocket, though that’ll be risky: a lot of Alliance patrols over Dustwallow, and they’ll shoot us down if they find us.”

“What about Thunder Bluff?”

“Too far, and even with full tanks we wouldn’t be able to get from there to Gadgetzan.”

“I’m surprised Desolation Hold even sells fuel.  They must need a great deal to supply all these war machines,” I said.

“Desolation Hold is the transit depot for oil deposits in the Southern Barrens, so they sell some; the Horde always needs cash.”

“Good luck then.”

“Thanks.  Listen, Daj’yah: Ancestral Fury doesn’t have any presence in the Southern Barrens as far as Elazzi can tell, and your face probably isn’t known outside of Orgrimmar.  Just the same, you should stay with the trollish auxilliaries here.  To be on the safe side.”

After landing we found the troll barracks in the shadow of the western wall, a low wooden building flying the tribal colors.  Mostly inhabited by Darkspears and dissident Bloodscalps, they allowed Daj’yah to stay.  Their welcome was not exactly warm; the size and varied origins of the Darkspear Tribe’s members results in in less social cohesion than enjoyed by the tauren tribes.  Nonetheless, they allowed her to stay so long as she conjured her own food.

As a major base in an active warzone, life in Desolation Hold is quite constrained.  At the time of our arrival, most of the trollish troops were out hunting for scouts in the maze of trenches beyond Desolation Hold. 

Talking to a few of the troops revealed the nature of life at the front.  Soldiers go out into the Battlescar for weeks at a time.  Actual ground combat is relatively rare.  Artillery barrages quickly annihilate any obvious advance, and flares make night attacks impossible.  A common tactic on both sides is to use spells that mislead artillerists into opening fire on empty ground.  The Alliance utilizes arcane illusions for this purpose, while Horde shamans persuade the earth spirits to create clouds of dust that might be advancing troops.  These tricks are never enough to distract all of a side’s artillery, but it does force them to waste shells.

“It is a wicked thing we do,” mourned one orcish shaman.  “The spirits in the Battlescar are insane, made that way by our war.  We do not convince them so much as twist them to our wills.”

 “Like the taunka shamans do?”

“It was a taunka who taught us this way.  For now we have not suffered, but the other spirits of the world will know what happened here.  Will they still listen to us after this war?  I wonder.”

The decisive battles take place in the air.  If, say, the Horde’s fliers are able to penetrate enemy airspace, they will bombard the Alliance artillery.  The call will then go out through the Horde trenches to make a full-scale assault, assuming enough of the artillery emplacements have been destroyed (due to the distances involved, invasions take time; soldiers must reach designated rallying points scattered across the dustbowl and then march to the opposing trench network before the artillery is replaced or repaired).  The Horde has made four such attacks, and the Alliance has thrice returned the favor.

Warriors on leave from the Battlescar often entertain themselves by sparring with old-fashioned weapons.  Overlord Agmar’s ideas of constant drilling have spread the south to the Horde’s immeasurable benefit.  There is another reason for the sparring.  Most fighting now happens from a distance, and the orcs engage in close combat far less than they did during the Outland Campaign.  Melees are an integral part of orcish culture, and sparring enables them to engage in this vaunted tradition.

Exhaustion visible in dust-caked eyes red from long hours and hard living, the orc named Avket Redspear agreed to speak with me.  A wyvern rider, he’d returned from a quiet but anxious morning patrol.

“Warchief Hellscream first appointed Warlord Gar’dul to rule Desolation Hold and bring woe upon the Alliance.  But Gar’dul feared the Alliance artillery, and held back even as the Alliance encroached on tauren lands.  Gar’dul is dead now, after challenging Bloodhilt, the new warlord of Desolation Hold.”

“Bloodhilt appears to have been successful in at least securing Desolation Hold’s flanks.”

“Warlord Bloodhilt is a wise orc, and an honorable warrior.  Yet the Alliance is a crafty foe, and we have not yet broken through.  But, neither have they,” he laughed.  Taking on a more serious tone, he continued: “I have spoken to old warriors from the Second War.  I will not name them, since I do not wish to besmirch them, but they do not understand the nature of the war we fight.”

“Why not?”

“In the old days, it was enough to simply charge.  The madness in our blood saw us to the end, and if any died, it mattered not.  Today, a single grunt is a very expensive investment.  I know I sound like a goblin, but it is true.  We have to be careful.”

“Has Warlord Bloodhilt been criticized for his strategies?”

“A bold question.  He has, but wrongly.  Bloodhilt is brave, but he is also cautious.  Many wonder why we have not taken Fort Triumph.  I tell them: it is because of their artillery that shatters the bones of even the bravest warrior, the fliers that cut through the honorable and honorless alike, the chain-guns that riddle brave men with bullets.”

“You see it as different from old wars.”

“Actually, no.  Back then, ballistae skewered champions, griffin riders blasted them apart, and elven arrows turned them into pincushions!  All that has changed is that warriors are more skilled, and also less expendable.  It is fine for warriors to die in honorable battle, but if it happens too often, you no longer have an army.”

“I am curious: as a wyvern rider, how do you compete against airplanes?”

“Living fliers are still useful.  We defend ourself as best we can: our wyverns call on the wind spirits to pluck away bullets that’d strike them.  Alliance griffin riders use more conventional arcane shields.  Airplanes are still better defended, but we are not helpless.”

“The airplanes are also faster.”

“Yes, but they do not fly as nimbly.  The spears I use are designed to explode on impact.  One or two good throws and I will destroy a normal-sized mechanical flier.  Airplanes are designed to harry infantry.  Living fliers are designed to destroy airplanes.”

“Interesting.  But wouldn’t the airplanes have the same protection that you have?”

“A hit with a wyvern rider’s spear will destroy the shield of an Alliance flier.  A second hit, the airplane itself.  Sometimes I get lucky and finish it with a single strike.  We were not able to get the wind spirits to defend our machines, unfortunately.”

“So the Alliance has an aerial advantage.”

“Yes, but they must import griffins from distant Dun Morogh.  Wyverns are nearby, and eager to avenge this intrusion on their homeland.”


It is often forgotten that the wyverns themselves are sentient creatures.  Their interaction with other races is limited: the wyvern vocal apparatus cannot even approximate any known languages, and they lack organs of manipulation.  Nonetheless, they do communicate and organize into tribal societies that even practice limited shamanism.

While the Horde’s strategists recklessly expand, local commanders must use their troops very carefully because they have become so hard to replace.  A warlord who is too cautious will be deemed a coward and dismissed (this is not meant to defend Gar’dul, who truly was incompetent by all accounts), while being too daring will result in irreplaceable losses, which in turn might lead to the collapse of an entire campaign.  Worsening matters are the overstretched supply lines and the failure of the Horde to net significant resources from newly conquered territories.

Considering that the Horde is fighting on three different fronts in Kalimdor alone (Ashenvale/Stonetalon, Feralas, and the Southern Barrens), one can see that Garrosh is playing a very dangerous game.

*********

The ear-splitting clash of iron bells sprung the barracks to wakefulness, Zandali oaths mixing with the sounds of trolls stumbling out of their beds to grab rifles and spears.   

“Daj’yah!  You’re a wizard, you can fight with us, yes?” shouted a troll in Zandali.

I saw Daj’yah at the other end of the barracks, blinking in the torchlight, blue fingers rubbing her eyes. 

“Yes, what is happening?”

I could not understand what the troll said in response.  Springing to my feet, I made my way towards Daj’yah.

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“They’re saying the Alliance is attacking Desolation Hold!”

A beam of red light striking skywards shone even in the smoky darkness.  Scattered gunfire ripped through the night as soldiers poured out from tents and barracks.

“Battle is here!” exulted a nearby orc.

The great tide swept us towards the steel gate of Desolation Hold, and I cast panicked glances around for Daj’yah, already lost in the mob.  Great earthworks piled up on both sides past the gates, the dry trenches between them littered with the detritus of war.

“Forsaken!” shouted a voice.  I turned to see a bald orc, rifle in hand and an ax strapped to his back.  “Can you fight?”

“Yes, I’m a mage.”

“Go with us.  Partisans like you can be deadly.”

“What’s happening?”  I ran as I shouted, the larger frames of my companions hemming me in.

“The Alliance has broken through; one of our fliers set up a beacon in that red beam of light.  We’re headed there.  All this damned waiting… and now blood will flow!”

More lights burned the sky, flickering phosphorescence of artillery flares arcing across the sky like shooting stars in slow motion.  I hated the idea of fighting the Alliance; I had done so once before, back in Nagrand.  My attempt had wounded but not—to the best of my knowledge—killed any on the Alliance.

In the end, the Horde gave my people a helping hand, and I could not deny it.  Whatever hatred the orcs bear against the Forsaken and the innumerable crimes committed by our wretched queen, they do not hate me in the moment of battle.

Something heavy flapped through the air over our heads.  Light shone between the hulking shadows as a glowing column, similar to the first but colored green, blazed to life.

“Halt!  Take positions!  Machine gun, take point!”

I moved to the side as a pair of orcs carrying a machine gun on a stretcher hurried to the front.  Other soldiers dropped to the ground, guns pointed down the earthen corridor.


As the orcs set up the machine gun on faded sandbags I listened for some hint of the hell to come.  I sensed the curdled mix of dread and eager anticipation all around me, the long months of swatting flies and broiling under the sun at least reaching consummation.  It occurred to me that I did not even know which of my spells might be useful in such a situation. 

Where Daj’yah was, I had no idea.  I tried not to think of her being hurt or killed, of that wondrous mind spilled out onto the dirt.

The green beacon flickered and went dark, leaving only the phosphorous shells fuming over empty trenches.  The sounds of rifle fire faded, replaced by the drone of airplanes and the flapping of wings, punctuated by periodic bursts of automatic fire and explosives.  War seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.  That the artillery kept silent told us that the enemy was well within the trench network.

“The wall!” gasped an orc.

Looking to my side, I realized what he meant.  Loose dust flowed like water down the trench’s steep slopes, the ground shaking beneath us. 

“An earthquake?”

“No, not this.”

Ten yards ahead the left side of the trench began to contort, its face suddenly bursting forward in a cloud of grit and the sound of grinding metal.  Not waiting for orders, the machine gunner opened up into the fog with a deafening clamor.

I barely caught a glimpse of what emerged, a shadowy mass bigger than all of us put together.  Light flashed in the dust, the sound of the blast lost in the force of the hit.  The ground deformed under the impact, a ton of earth pushed up and out in a tidal wave.  Dirt rushed to drown us, the whole strike happening so fast that no one even had the chance to cry out. 

A moment later I found myself lying prone, the world around me muffled by the ringing in my head.  Not allowing myself to succumb I crawled backwards as best I could, at last seeing the source of our misfortune.  An Alliance tank squatted in the midst of the trench, a halo of smoke around its barrel.  A dirt-blackened drill stuck out from the tank’s front.

Thick hands pulled at my coat, and I tumbled again before landing at the feet of six orcs, their rifles made useless by what we faced.

“Forsaken, do you have any spells that might crack that thing open?” accosted one.

Having never before fought a tank, I was at something of a disadvantage.  Nonetheless, I tried to think of a solution.  An arcane explosion would damage it, but I’d not have the time to cast enough to destroy it.

“Tanks have machine guns too, remember that,” he added.

A monstrous engine rumbled past the mound of collapsed earth, and we ran back towards Desolation Hold under whispered oaths.  The seven of us ducked into a perpendicular trench.

“Shoot up a flare!  That’ll get the fliers’ attention!” said one.

“There are too many enemy fliers.  Besides, Nurok had the flare gun, and he’s buried,” countered another.

“I can slow it down with a spell.  The tank’s already pretty sluggish.  While slowed, I might be able to do some damage,” I said.

“For how long would it be slowed?”

“Fifteen seconds or so.”

“That won’t be enough.”

I’d considered the gruesome possibility of slowing the tank and destroying it with a flamestrike, but I was not sure the heat would do enough damage over such a short time.  The tank could still drive through it, even if slowed.

I heard the crunch of rocks beneath the massive treads, the tank making its slow way through the trench.  The grinding noise returned, metal tearing through earth as the drill reactivated.  One of the warriors poked his head back to the main trench.

“It’s burrowing into the other side.  If we wait until it’s all the way in the ground, we can strike!”

Presumably the guns would not be able to rotate when pushed down by the earth.  The warrior peeked out again, holding his hand in warning.  The tank driver was making a foolish move, but perhaps he thought the blast had killed all of us, or that we’d fled. 

“Everyone, go!  Forsaken, slow it down and blast the rear armor with everything you have!  Watch out for its machine gun.”

We ran out into the main trench as clouds of dust filled empty space, our ears blasted by the sound of the drill.  I saw nothing of the vehicle itself through the swirling dust.

“Slow it!”

“I can’t see the tank!” I yelled.

Hoping it’d help to get closer I clambered up the dirt where we’d been waiting earlier, disturbed earth piled halfway up to the trench’s rim.  I spotted the flash of gunfire and dropped back down, hearing a wet puncture as bullets tore through the chest of the warrior next to me.  The grinding slowed to a stop, the monster aware of our presence. 

“Strike now!” someone ordered.

A horrible sense of nakedness swept over me, knowing that a single shot would take off my head.  My mind reached out into the arcane, drawing from the true source of power.  Illusory duplicates of myself popped into existence, mindless images that’d buy me the time I needed.

The turret fired as it saw three Forsaken go over the top, not spotting my real scalp and eyes.  Seeing the blocky shadow of the tank proper, I shaped the arcane into predetermined shapes, unseen hooks and binds that’d slow the gears and reactions of everything targeted.  Tiny explosions peppered the mound, like a hundred firecrackers going off as the machine gun tried in vain to destroy my illusions.  Gaps between blasts lengthened as the spell took effect.

“It’s done!” I yelled.

I saw the warriors bound up pathways dug by the shells.  Gunfire ceased, the operator realizing the nature of my duplicates, and the multi-barreled turret made its aching turn to the orcs on my right.  The main turret gun also began its rotation, inch by painful inch.

White fire belched out from the massive gun, a shell as big as my forearm sailing through the air, slowed but still carrying all of its knetic and explosive force.  The shell hit the right side of the trench, the soil again pouring loose under its power.  The gunner had fired off-center, but I still saw the luckless orc caught in the blast, his body ripped in two.

I used the last of my mana reserves to slow it again, the orcs having not yet closed the distance.  I saw my comrades get in range, one of them jumping down onto the tank’s roof.  He took out a stout ax under the light of artillery flares, the blade a bright smile in the phosphorescent light.

All the while the machine gun roared, slowed bullets spiraling through the air, unable to aim high enough to hit its assailants.  The main gun blasted again, harming no one, the last desperate act of a cornered beast.  Other orcs had joined the one already at the tank, ax and hammer going to work on the hatch. 

The harsh light of the flares died and I waited for the next fusillade as shadows tore at metal.  Rough cries of triumph announced their success, and moments later they leapt back onto the earthen shelf.  A dull explosion rocked the night, the machine gun falling silent as smoke bled from ruptured armor.

What happened next, I am not sure, but I was soon running through the endless maze, the four survivors around me.


“You fight well, undead,” one said.  “But the battle is not yet over.”

Thankfully, he was wrong.  Yellow beacons shot up from different points in the trench, which they said was the all-clear signal.  My companions cheered and we staggered back up to Desolation Hold in near-delerium, stupefied relief running together with exhaustion.

I split from the group once behind the walls, searching for Daj’yah, and finding her unharmed with the trollish auxiliaries.  They had not encountered any hostiles.  That alone lifted the dread from my spirit.  We soon learned more of what had happened.  At least six Alliance tanks equipped with drills had made the long journey under the Battlescar. 

In order to carry enough fuel for the distance and the drill, the tanks had actually been heavily stripped down, the main gun the smallest calibur available.  Even then, a goblin engineer theorized that the Alliance would have needed to refuel the tanks halfway through the Battlescar.

“There’s probably a whole network of tunnels down there.  To get back, they’d have had to use the ones they dug to got here,” he said.

“Wouldn’t that lead us right back to Fort Triumph?”

“They probably collapsed it on the way back, at least put enough dirt between us and them to make it hard to follow.  If they haven’t done it yet, they’re sure to do it soon, and I don’t want to be under when it happens.”

Six such tanks would not have been able to take Desolation Hold; the purpose may have been to sow terror and inflict minor damage on the defenses.  Only two tanks had been destroyed.  The four others had completed their mission: casualty reports continued to pile in throughout the night, the initial mood of triumph soon fading. 

Even so, such an operation would have been astronomically expensive for the Alliance.  The Alliance fliers had attempted to bomb the artillery emplacements but never even got close to them.  So long as the big guns remain, Desolation Hold will be secure (as will Fort Triumph).  Overall, the attack was more of a draw, though it did illustrate Alliance ingenuity.

Desolation Hold hailed us as heroes, but we did not stay to receive any honors.  Instead, I woke Vidder, who’d managed to get the fuel at sundown, and told him to fly us south.  Perhaps this invalidates any claim of loyalty to the Horde, but I have no wish to serve Garrosh as a soldier.  Nor does Daj’yah.  Bundled up in the airplane, Vidder took off into the sky in the darkness before dawn.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Horizons


Oily fumes wrap around the metal walls of the Tigerclaw War-pack’s Bilgewater headquarters.  It is an easy place to miss, a seeming afterthought thrown together at the edge of the harbor.  A solitary Horde banner, the crimson fabric soiled by grime, is all that distinguishes the base from the anonymous warehouses on either side.  It is a curious exception to the Horde’s usual ostentation.

I headed there the moment I disembarked from the Bilgewater zeppelin I’d ridden from Everlook.  I arrived on one of those stormy Azshara days where pounding rain erodes the demarcation between sea and sky, drenching the world into disarray.  I braved the pouring cascades of the dockside streets and followed the mean glare of buzzing electric signs.

Once inside the dank and dismal office, ankle-deep in greasy water, I forced myself to maintain an air of careful aggression.  Groveling to orcs will almost always result in being shunned or ignored, though many will threaten those who take any but the most obsequious stance.  Every conversation is a battle.

Fortunately, the intelligence officer to whom I spoke appeared interested.  Listening to my report, he thanked me for my effort and promised to relay it to someone higher in rank.

“Well done, Forsaken.  The warchief’s eyes are upon you.”

“Such is my honor,” I grunted in response. 

Having fulfilled my responsibilities I went up to Elazzi’s topsy-turvy manse.  Not foolish enough to take the flooded surface streets, I braved the narrow walkways groaning under scores of passing goblins.  I swam in a sea of umbrellas, their ratty canopies up to my chest.

Joag, Elazzi’s valet, was standing outside her house when I arrived, trying to stay under the eaves though his suit was already soaked.  He held a rifle in his hands.

“Joag!  Is everything all right?” I asked.

“So far, but there’ve been some prowlers here at night.  Elazzi’s out, but she told me to let you in if you showed up.”

“How’s Daj’yah?”

“Fine, she got your last telegraph.”

“Good.”

The fiery air blasted through my wet clothes when I stepped in, the foundry below the first floor smelting yet more steel for the war effort.  I called out to Daj’yah but got no response.  I put my sodden coat on a closet hanger and went up to her room, where I found her reading a book at a too-small desk.

“Daj’yah?”

“Destron?  Welcome back!” she greeted.  For a second she started to get up from her chair, but sat back down.  “So, tell me all about Hyjal.”

“Very green, very old,” I said.  I did not relish the thought of telling her about my humiliation at the Shrine of Goldrinn.  She’d gain little by learning about it, beyond frustration against my assailants.

“Destron, I’ve seen you write entire pages to describe a single leaf on a tree, you can’t be just saying Hyjal is green and old,” she laughed.

“Sorry, it’s been a long trip.  I’ll give you a more thorough recounting when Elazzi gets back.  How have you been?”

“Mostly here, reading and writing.”

“Elazzi isn’t dragging you to more social events?”

Daj’yah looked down at the floor.

“Things are getting complicated.  Last week, Joag found an orc sneaking on the foundry roof in the middle of the night.  He had an Ancestral Fury tattoo.”

“What?”

“Joag scared him off; orcs aren’t as powerful here as they are in Orgrimmar, and even the partisans know it.”

“Was this reported?”

“Report to who?  Goblins take care of themselves because they cannot trust each other!  Elazzi hired some extra security, and we did tell the foundry owner.  He’s not wanting rogue orcs creeping around on his property.”

I rubbed my temples, suddenly wanting very badly to unleash a cataclysmic spell on a deserving target. 

“I sent you a telegraph after your second message, telling you to get here as fast as you could, but you didn’t mention it in your third,” she said.

“The Everlook operator didn’t tell me about it.  He probably forgot, or the one who received it never wrote it down.”

“I’m getting out of Bilgewater; I want to find someplace where crazy orcs won’t follow me around!  Thrall told us that we were a part of his people, like we were the same tribe, told us in his own words!  Destron, I saw him tell us!  And now?  They push us aside and kill anyone who tells them otherwise.”

Fury boiled in her eyes, and I suddenly remembered tales of trollish berserkers in the Second and Third Wars.  All at once she settled down, shaking her head as if trying to get rid of an objectionable thought.

“I need to get out of Bilgewater.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere the Horde does not rule.”

Elazzi came back later that day, red hair plastered to her green scalp.  She welcomed me back; she unrolled a map of post-Cataclysm Kalimdor as Joag cooked dinner, circling possible destinations with a red marker.

“I know it’s Horde, but I think Thunder Bluff would be pretty safe.  The orcs treat the tauren like fine china, so they won’t be so bold as to attack a guest,” she said.

“I am sure, but I want to go away from the Horde for a while.”

“Suit yourself, but Thunder Bluff is probably safer than neutral territory.  Partisans are everywhere.  Let’s see… Ratchet’s practically a Horde colony, so that’s out.  There’s the Speedbarge, but they don’t have much room for longterm residents.  If you brought your own boat it might work.  There’s some camps in Un’goro—“

“No,” interjected Daj’yah.  “I’m not wanting to dodge dinosaurs all day and night.”

“I couldn’t agree more!  I love science as much as the next girl, but the researchers down there are crazy.  Gadgetzan might work—wait, how could I forget?  Moonglade!  Destron, how’s Moonglade?”

“Safe, though tense.”  I briefly explained the political situation in Moonglade.  “The worgen don’t appear to have any grudge against the trolls.”

“Maybe.  I don’t know I like being so close to the Alliance though.”

“You are tough to please!  We’ll put Moonglade in the ‘maybe’ category.  Going back south, there’s Gadgetzan.  Steamwheedle is hiring a lot of new people, and talent like yours could go a long way.  South of that there’s Uldum, but not much is known about it.”

“Are there still a lot of Horde partisans down there?”

“Most moved on to the Twilight Highlands.  I think it’s more blood elves down there than anyone else.  Well, them and the dwarves, but they generally know how to be civil to each other.”

Daj’yah looked down on the map, her right index finger going north and south like a metronome. 

“Gadgetzan sounds good, and I can go on to Uldum if it doesn’t work out.  Destron, you’re probably wanting to see Uldum yourself.”

“Very much so, in fact.”

“There you have it, Elazzi.”

“Destron’s going with you?  Let me think… Daj’yah, I was going to put you on a flight to wherever you wanted to go.  I can’t exactly calculate the net worth you’ve brought me through your books, and the social capital you conferred just by being here, so consider the flight paid for with some left over for future favors.  Now, Destron hasn’t done as much for me, so he needs to pay, unless you’re willing to spring for him…”

*********

((This mini-update is just to connect Moonglade with the next section, the Southern Barrens.

Also, on a personal note, I'm currently looking for a new job.  I've been checking the usual channels (Monster.com, Indeed.com, etc), but thought I'd ask readers if they had any leads.  I'm specifically looking for jobs in southern California (which I'm defining as any area between and including Santa Barbara and San Diego.  I have professional experience in online marketing, a Master's Degree in International Studies, and I'm also capable writer/editor.  I'm looking for work that pays at least $34,000 per year (though this is negotiable depending on other benefits).

I'd be comfortable in marketing or publishing, but am quite willing to adapt to new industries.  I am also interested in the gaming industry, though I don't have any real technical or programming experience.  

If you know of any such opportunities, please email me at destron@live.com.))

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Return to Moonglade



Veelix flew me back to the Forge of Supplication.  While I explored the Molten Front, Gulrow had prepared a new batch of notes that needed to be shared with the Cenarion Circle in Nighthaven.  After a day’s rest, Veelix jumped back into the cockpit for a journey to the druidic realm of Moonglade.  I again joined him as a passenger.

I did not take the trip lightly.  Indeed, I more or less forced myself to go.  Back in the Firelands, a part of me had felt more comfortable with the horrifically burned Melestria than with the Guardians of Hyjal. 

Even now I hate myself for describing the Kaldorei in such terms (though I have so easily dismissed other races like the murlocs in the same way without any self-reproach).  I know full well that theirs is a culture rich in wisdom and virtue.  Yet no matter what I know about them, seeing a night elf instantly brings me back to the Shrine of Goldrinn.

Large numbers of Forsaken have the same reaction to humanity, and I cannot allow myself to go the way that so many of my brethren have traveled.  Whatever I feel, I know that the night elves are far more than a barbaric mob.  Armed with this knowledge, I can overcome the base emotions common to my kind, however painful a process it becomes.

Beyond trying to improve myself, I had another reason for traveling to Moonglade.  I’d made a copy of the coded note I’d found back on Hyjal (Nekra possessed the original).  My hope was that Moonglade’s decrypters could reveal its contents.  The ugly scene had stayed with me, and I found myself speculating as to exactly what had happened.  The one dead human had held a rifle, suggesting the use of normal weapons.  Yet Nekra’s findings and the state of the Horde bodies indicated that the Twilight’s Hammer bore at least some responsibility. 

I began to suspect that the event had started as a fight between partisans.  Sadly, it does not stretch belief to think that a gang of six Horde freelancers might have attacked a lone human.  They killed the human through normal means only to fall victim to Twilight’s Hammer cultists that attacked immediately after the murder.  If such were the case, the note was likely irrelevant, but I wanted to make sure.

Once more I endured a nervous flight, trying to allay my anxiety by talking to Veelix, our voices soon hoarse from shouting over the engine.  We made a brief stop at Everlook to refuel.  I took advantage of our time there to send another quick telegraph to Daj’yah.  By that point, I was very glad she had declined to join me, and vowed to never again be so careless with such an invitation.  These travels are often foolish risks, done only to satisfy my curiosity, and I cannot allow my friends to be hurt in such ultimately selfish endeavors.  While I have had traveling companions, they usually possessed their own reasons to be there, or were at least paid for their trouble.

Winterspring’s high and snowy plains end at the mountains of the Timbermaw.  Beyond is the foggy valley of Moonglade, a patch of deep green when seen from on high.  Veelix took his flier to a tiny and neglected-looking landing strip in the mountains around Moonglade; the druids do not allow vehicles to fly in sight of Nighthaven.

We half-walked, half-stumbled down the steep and narrow path leading to Moonglade proper.  The sun had set by the time we reached level ground, bringing us into an inky night.  Veelix switched on a small electric lantern, revealing dense fog coiling around trees as big as castle keeps.

“This place never ceases to amaze me,” Veelix breathed.  “We’ll camp here; Moonglade’s safe, and I like seeing the forest at night.”

I stretched out on the soft grass, the forest seeming to take me into its embrace, abomination though I am.  In dreams I wandered through endless glades and sacred darkness, guided by the soft lights of the departed. 

We made good time the next day, reaching the shores of Lake Elune’ara in the late morning.  Many Kaldorei believe the Elune’ara is the first thing Elune created as she birthed the world in Lake Ashanaral.  This suggests that Ashanaral predates Azeroth, perhaps lending credence to the schismatic Lenanorei.  Then again, I should probably not try to analyze Kaldorei creation myths through human criteria.  The faith of Elune is one of paradox, the priestesses guiding but not defining the beliefs of their petitioners.  Only in the forest, say the holy texts, can Elune’s will truly be known.


The bridges of Nighthaven awaited us on the other side of the lake, its lanterns so much like wisps.  Luck had preserved Moonglade from the Cataclysm’s physical effects.  As I would soon learn, however, its political fallout proved harder to escape.

Dressed in robes of leaves and petals, the natives of Moonglade are very much a part of the forest.  Other Kaldorei see these dwellers in dream as wise if also rather distracted.  Their idle curiosity bore little resemblance to the arrogant zealotry I’d seen at the Shrine of Goldrinn.  Even so, I perceived distant threats in the serene faces.

“I am safe here,” I whispered to myself.

Veelix took me to an ancient stone and timber hall intended to host visitors.  I’d stayed there once myself, years ago.  We found it to be a site of considerable activity.  Dozens of Kaldorei sat on cushions, watching as an elven woman of remarkable beauty played on a wooden harp, her fingers brushing along the chosen strings.  Her melody wandered, carrying with it a sense of hypnotic timelessness, a far cry from the elaborate melodies preferred by the eastern elves.

I took an involuntary step back, the crowd appearing to double in size before me.  They were not only elves, I realized.  Worgen crouched in the shadows, predator eyes bright and sharp.  Not making a sound, I watched as the nearest grinned at me to expose a row of sharp and yellow teeth, the gesture’s intent unmistakable.

“Excuse me, I think I’ll stay at the Horde embassy,” I mumbled, making a quick exit.  Veelix turned as if to stop me, but I was already long gone.

The Horde embassy resembles the adjacent Kaldorei halls save for a few kodohide tents out in front.  The stolid presence of so many tauren quickly set me at ease, and I asked the Horde ambassador (an orcish woman named Skure) if I might stay there.  I am not proud of how I expressed this, adopting an attitude of disgust towards the night elves.  The truth would expose me as a coward, and most orcs hate the fearful.

“You Forsaken are never satisfied,” grunted Skure.  “You may stay here, but don’t get in the way!”

Ashamed, I sat down on a thick tauren-style rug, still glad to no longer feel the searching of silver eyes.  I rested there for a while, feeling smaller by the moment.  At last I saw a young troll pass by, an enormous green mohawk standing up from his scalp.  Surprised that I greeted him in Zandali, he introduced himself as Yazjahd, a druid.

“I lived in the Valley of Spirits for a while.  I heard about trolls joining the druidic orders, but never got many details,” I said.  Uthel’nay had wanted to incorporate the druids into the Darkbriar Lodge, but was never able to establish much communication with them.

“Yes, we took a strange path to get here, to be sure.  Truth is, the old Gurubashi knew the difference between wizards and druids, but could never figure out the druidic ways.”

“Until recently.”

“So you know about Zalazane, yeah?”

“Of course.”  The rogue witch doctor had expelled the tribe from its island home through trickery and dark magic.  The Darkspear had only recently reclaimed the Echo Isles. 

“The witch doctors were supposed to keep such evils away from our homes, but Zalazane made fools of them all.  A wise woman called Zen’tabra knew we’d done wrong, and led some of the witch doctors away from the tribe so that they might again hear the ancestors in the shadows.  Fate being what it is, Zen’tabra heard something else: Gonk!

“Gonk is a lesser loa, but lesser or not you never trifle with one called the Chief of Raptors!  He told her how the beasts were withering away under Zalazane.  So he taught Zen’tabra the secrets of shapeshifting, of the Emerald Dream.”

“Is there any precedence for such a thing?  Generally, it was Cenarius who brought mortals into the Emerald Dream,” I said.

“The loa keep their own counsel.  Zen’tabra learned the ways of the druid, and helped Vol’jin take back the Echo Isles!”

“You were not yet a druid at this point?”

“No, I was just a hunter, none too good at it either.  Now I am closer to the jungle than before.  When I hunt beasts, it is in the form of a beast!” he guffawed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen any trollish druids in Orgrimmar.”

“Some folks there aren’t liking us much.  They see us as traitors to the true way.  Druidism is a wicked elven magic to them, and they want no part of it.  Shamans fear we’ll steal their power.”

“Shamans and druids have gotten along quite well in Shu’halo society,” I said.

“Shu’halo society gets along quite well, yeah?  Us trolls, not as much.  Even the priests hate us.  They’re jealous that Gonk didn’t talk to them, since they’re the closest to the loa,” he snickered.  “Only a fool claims to understand the loa, and I think that’s a mistake many priests make.”

Yazjahd had come to Moonglade for further training, and he particularly looked forward to seeing the Emerald Dream.

“Are the tauren teaching the troll druids?”

“Mostly.  Elves don’t much care for us.”

“But they did let you into the Cenarion Circle.”

“A lot of druids died after the Cataclysm.  When the elves invited in the worgen, the tauren said we should be let in too.  Fair is fair, yeah?”

“I’m surprised that the tauren have that much clout.  My impression is that the Cenarion Circle is less than happy with the Horde.”

“Most here think the Horde is a plague.  And I don’t just mean the elves and worgen.  Tauren see all the trees in Azshara and Ashenvale getting gobbled up.  Orcs treat us trolls like garbage, even though we’d been with them since the beginning.”

“Do you still consider yourself a part of the Horde?”

“You testing me, man?” he laughed.  “I’m Horde, still am, but I’m not happy about what Garrosh is doing.  You shouldn’t be either; he’s throwing your people away in Gilneas.”


That Yazjahd felt comfortable enough to express his dissatisfaction in an embassy spoke volumes.  Horde diplomats like Skure fight an uphill battle trying to persuade the Cenarion Circle of their good intentions.  I learned that she’d described the deforestation of Ashenvale as a necessary evil that would end if the Kaldorei traded with the orcs (though this was more to prove her good intentions than to influence policy; the Cenarion Circle has little control over Ashenvale).  The goblins’ exploitation of Azshara has, unfortunately, emptied her words of any real meaning (though it is worth noting that the Kaldorei had long been content to ignore Azshara’s magic-infused forests). 

*********

I followed Yazjahd around town the next morning, a bit more relaxed with a troll at my side.  Trollish druids take basic training under the tutelage of Zen’tabra on the Echo Isles.  Those demonstrating enough proficiency can receive further education in Moonglade through tauren sponsorship.

There are probably no more than 50 or so druids in the trollish population.  Aside from a few masters like Zen’tabra, most are basically hedge druids.  After receiving minimal instruction they go out into the world, sometimes apprenticing themselves to more experienced tauren practitioners, other times studying on their own.  These rogues are a source of minor anxiety for the Cenarion Circle.

“It’s not easy to get a sponsor.  I knew one man, Zen’tabra’s cousin, got in no problem, but me?  I’m nobody, and the tribe doesn’t like the druids too much so it’s not mattering that my father is a mighty hunter.  So if you can’t get a tauren to help you out, you need to make your own path.”

“Does the Cenarion Circle actively censure druids that go out on their own?”

“Not so much, no.  Hard to keep track of them, and they aren’t doing any harm.  What we learn on the Echo Isles is simple, but it’s the simple things that really matter, yeah?  We help nature, nature helps us, kind of like the shamans with the spirits.  I guess we deal with nature on a deeper level, the whole thing instead of just every local spirit.”

“I would imagine it takes a lot of education to know how to help the entirety of nature.”

“That’s some of what Zen’tabra teaches us.  Maybe not as much as the elves learn, but growing up in the jungle you pick up on a lot of details that I think the elves might miss.”

The Kaldorei see nature as their responsibility, and the tauren revere and respect it as something mighter than they.  The trolls take a more pragmatic attitude.  Yazjahd said that the Cenarion Circle fears the rogue druids might form the nucleus of an exclusively Horde druidic organization, but dismissed such concerns as spurious.  Such druids show little indication of organizing, and often feel quite distant from the Horde.

I ran into an old acquaintance by the name of Anlivia Reterion.  A Forsaken like myself, she’d actually attended a few classes with me back in my student days.  We’d been reunited during my first visit to Moonglade.  After her liberation, she’d made it her mission to restore the forests of old Lordaeron, and sought help from the Cenarion Circle.

The efforts of Anlivia and many others have strengthened the ties between the Cenarion Circle and the Argent Crusade.  As a result, the Western Plaguelands has undergone a remarkable recovery over the past year.  Still eager for more, Anlivia told me she was organizing a campaign to heal the similarly blighted east.  She had long ago severed all ties with the Horde.

“I saw where the Horde was headed from the very beginning.  What Sylvanas is doing to the Gilneans is no surprise.  I’ve heard some of the stories they tell, awful things.  I’d kill Sylvanas myself, if I had the chance.”

“There’s more to the Horde than Sylvanas.”

“Come now, Destron.  The Horde abets her every move.  And look at what the orcs do in Ashenvale!”

“Objectionable, I’ll grant you, but Garrosh at least plays by rules of war.  His warriors do not murder and pillage like the Horde of old.”  The words faltered before they were spoken, my mind returning to the Grand Cannon pointed at Stormwind City.

“You can’t tell me you believe that.  You’ve heard of the Stonetalon Massacre, haven’t you?”

“Yes.  Garrosh killed the commander who ordered it.”  Another in a long list of shameful acts done by the new Horde, the Stonetalon Massacre involved the destruction of a druidic school and its entire populace.

“Oh, how wonderful!  Which is why he also killed Sylvanas for murdering so many Gilneans—except he did not.  Meanwhile he burns Ashenvale to the ground—including aerial attacks on towns like Astranaar!  Hundreds have died because of the Horde!  There is nothing good about your warchief, Destron.

“Maybe you should speak to one of the Gilnean druids here,” she said.  “See the Horde as it truly is, from the eyes of its victims.”

“Would one be willing to speak to me?”

“I know a few.  As a Forsaken, you’d best keep away from the worgen lodge—even I avoid that place.   I do know a druidess named Prudence Ancaster who spends most of her time by the lake.  She’s more talkative.”

“Anlivia, it’s not necessary for her to tell me about Sylvanas’ crimes against Gilneas.  I’m well aware, and I stringently oppose.”

“Yet you do nothing!”

“What do you expect me to do?  The Horde despises the Forsaken, and I have no power there.”

“All the more reason to leave.  You owe the Horde nothing, Destron.”

“On the contrary, the Horde accepted me when no one else would.  That’s a debt I cannot repay!”

“Nonsense.  The Argent Crusade accepts Forsaken.  The Steamwheedle Cartel accepts us.  Look at me!  I’m allowed to reside in Moonglade.  There are many places for the Forsaken in this world.”

“If the Horde goes, the Alliance will destroy almost all of the Forsaken.  We did not come so far from the Lich King’s grasp—“

“So what?  What contribution do most Forsaken really make?  I used to live in Brill, and death would be a mercy for those people.  Don’t try to defend the indefensible.  Let our wretched kind fall to ruin.  The good ones, like me, maybe even you someday, can stay on to help.  Here, I’ll introduce you to Prudence.  Listen to what she has to tell you.”

I hated to admit it, but Anlivia’s words wiped out my already weakening defenses.  The Horde embraced cruelty, violence, and oppression with a readiness that would have made Orgrim Doomhammer proud.  Indeed, many Forsaken have found better existences outside of the Horde.  Small dissident communities exist in New Hearthglen, Booty Bay, and Shattrath City.  Why not join them?


Could I abandon my own kind so readily?  I speak of the Forsaken whom, in a very real sense, I have already abandoned.  Yet some hope might remain.  Thrall could return, Sylvanas might be destroyed or discredited. 

Growing up, I heard my elders decry the orcs as evil incarnate.  No thought or deed, they said, could ever redeem something damned from birth.  But why would creation allow a race that could only be evil (keeping in mind that demons are not a race per se)?

Even as a child, I wondered how I’d feel as an orc.  Would I have some irrepressible urge to kill and destroy (while somehow simultaneously languishing into oblivion)?  If I’d simply been born in a different body, would I be so wicked as to deserve universal condemnation?  The thought always terrified me, and I’d fear I was similarly tainted in some way.

And I have met many orcs, more than I can count, who have exhibited traits admirable by any standard.  Though shoved aside by a cruel leadership, their existence clearly demonstrates that orcs are not irredeemable monsters, even if aspects of their culture are monstrous.  One might point also to the rapacious cruelties of Alterac’s ruling class, or the viciousness of the Defias Brotherhood, and dismiss humanity as evil incarnate.

If the orcs can be redeemed, perhaps it is the same with the Forsaken.  But most Forsaken never really made the attempt.  Most orcs were at least content to tolerate Thrall’s reforms until the world situation changed.  My old fear, that I might be evil by simply having the wrong body, returns to me.

I could claim to stay in hopes that the Horde will redeem itself.  Yet in staying, am I not in some way complicit?  Perhaps I stay simply because it is comfortable, and because those I care most about are also a part of it.  Simple tribalism at work.

Going past the hazy limits of Nighthaven, Anlivia led me along the placid shores of Lake Elune’ara.  I already dreaded the upcoming confrontation, expecting a litany of righteous anger directed at a target I can no longer defend.

Anlivia slowed when we saw the lone worgen woman sitting under a tree, stout roots like armrests at her sides.  Dressed in rough-spun forest clothes she displayed little sign of her national heritage.  She held an old book, the object absurdly tiny in her clawed and heavy hands.

“Thought that smell was you, Anlivia.  I don’t recognize the rotter next to you though; his stink’s drier than yours, and there’s a something a mite sooty about him.”  Her fanged muzzle distorted the familiar sounds of the Common tongue, already made strange by her accent.  

“I am impressed by your sense of smell.  I did just return from a trip to the Firelands.”

“Prudence, this is Destron, a friend of mine.  I’ve been trying to get him to leave the Horde.”

Prudence’s head swung towards me, hungry golden eyes burrowing into my sockets, lips curled back to expose slick and yellowed fangs.

“The Horde?  You lot are all beasts!  First the orcs back in the Second War, and now the undead.  Demons next, I’m sure.  You ever hear of Emberstone?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“’Course you haven’t.  Deaders like you came in the night, killed half of us and put the rest of us to work as slaves!  Someone—like you—murdered my son!  He was six, he couldn’t have hurt even one of you, and you killed him just the same!”

“Prudence—“ began Anlivia.

“I’ve got a mind to kill this rotter where he stands!  Won’t bring back Dorrey, but it’ll make my little one’s soul rest easier.  Light damn you and your kind!”  Prudence bolted to her feet, as fast as lightning, teeth fully exposed.

“Please!  He’s willing to listen!  Not all of us are evil, just those that serve Sylvanas,” begged Anlivia.  I watched Prudence tense, and remembered the terrible strength of the worgen. 

“You said it yourself, he’s a Hordeling!”

“But maybe we can get him to leave.”

“No.  You come in on us, and expect a second chance?  The pack doesn’t give second chances to cub-killers!  We’ll tear apart the lot of you and I’ll eat Sylvanas’ guts as she screams!”

“I bear no love for Sylvanas!  I can tell others of Emberstone, I also want to see justice done!” I cried out. 

“You’re a nitwit if you think you can weasel out when I’m like this!”  Her posture slackened.  All at once her body began to twist, the massive shoulders collapsing, the fangs retreating and losing their sharpness.  Fur and claws pulled into a body made suddenly normal and I heard the awful sound of snapping bones.

As a human, Prudence looked only slightly less threatening.  A hatchet-faced woman of middle age, she carried with her the strength that comes from enduring years of hardship. 

“I never go back to this ugly form if I can help it, so you’d best give me a good reason for doing so.  It’s like I said; the Forsaken came down and slaughtered women and children.  They wanted me for the mines, but I fought, I hit and struck the bastards every step of the way.  But like this, I’m weak.

“Greymane’s men saved us, told us how the worgen curse could make them pay.  I never did see it a curse, not after what the Forsaken did.  If I’d been able to transform then I’d have saved little Dorrey, be holding him right now.  He did love the forest, on account of the harvest witches in his family I’m sure.”

Prudence’s eyes clenched shut as her brittle voice tried to retain composure.

“Get out, Destron.  Anlivia, you ought to know better than to show me some rotten Hordeling.  I wanted to rip you apart, Destron, and I know I can do it, but right now I just want to weep.  Don’t lie about changing the Horde, it won’t happen and you know it.  Same Horde that attacked us in the Second War.  Same damn Horde.”

We left Prudence to her mourning, her muffled sobs audible over the lake.  A terrible sense of futility crashed down on my shoulders.  How could I ever expect to be forgiven?

“I’m sorry, Destron.  I did not think that through,” said Anlivia in a husky whisper.

“She wasn’t angry at you.”

“Prudence is a very wise woman.  I didn’t mean to cause her pain.”

Dejected, Anlivia retreated to her home, a flowering cabin of living wood just north of Nighthaven.  Too afraid of what my mere presence might inspire, I kept my distance from any Gilneans and slunk back to the Horde embassy.

I almost ran away when I saw the worgen leaning on the railing at the bridge to the embassy.  He dressed like a Gilnean of means, or perhaps a parody of one.  Fur poked through holes in his too-small jacket and a skewed top hat looked ready to slide off his furry scalp.

A tauren stepped out from the embassy, dressed in druidic robes and holding a parcel.  The worgen turned and they bowed their heads, before the tauren handed over the parcel.

“We appreciate your patience.  Here are the reports of Hyjal’s recovery, as observed by our kin,” rumbled the tauren.

“Thank you very much.  I had best be off, but I will see you on the by and by,” said the worgen.  Tipping his hat further askew, he caught sight of me as he began leaving the premises.

“Are there now Forsaken druids?”  he chuckled.

“No, I’m only a visitor.  My name is Destron Allicant.”

“Artur Wincrowe, formerly Lord Tharton’s commercial ambassador to the kingdom of Stormwind.  An exporter of timber, if we are to be specific.  Now I am a druid.”

“An interesting career change,” I said, not sure what to make of his friendliness.  It is quite difficult to read a worgen face, though bared teeth are never a good sign.

“Druids and timber merchants both understand the forest in different ways.”

“Do you still work for Lord Tharton?”

“Sadly, his lordship perished in the invasion.  Murdered by a Forsaken like you, as a matter of fact.  I fear Kalimdor would have been a difficult place for him; only the strong survive in this land.”

“You speak very candidly.”

“Indeed, why not?  There is no longer any need for fine words and pretense.  The Stormwinders thought the Gilneans fools for their pretensions, and I came to agree.  The Kaldorei have been kind enough to confirm my prejudices against our social superstitions.”

“Do other Gilneans feel this way?”

“I should say so, at least here in Moonglade.  Those in Darnassus are encouraged to stay in human form, and tend to be a bit less realistic.  Here, we know that fine pedigrees and ancient bloodlines matter little in the contest of tooth and claw.”  A bloodcurdling sound wracked his throat, somewhere between a terrified human’s shout and a wounded wolf’s whimper.  It took me a moment to recognize it as laughter.

“I never much cared for the nobles of old Lordaeron myself, though I suppose most were decent sorts.  It did seem like a rather silly institution though,” I said.

“Perhaps humans just need a change of perspective, eh?  No matter, what brings you to the Cenarion Circle?”

“Curiosity, for the most part.  I wanted to learn more about the Gilneans specifically.”

“Ask away!  To a limit, of course; I am not going to say anything that might give your kind an advantage.”

“If I may ask, why are you so friendly?  Most Gilneans hate Forsaken.”

“All Gilneans hate Forsaken, my curious friend, and I am the most hateful of all!  But I am first and foremost a civilized worgen.  The druids did not teach us to control our rage so that we might spill blood on the bridges of Nighthaven.”

“I’m glad that we can at least be civil to one another.”

“So what is it you wish to know?”

“What is the background of the typical Gilnean druid?”

“Most used to be harvest witches.  I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I once scoffed at the idea.  I thought them charlatans, when in truth they are the inheritors of an ancient tradition that is only now being rediscovered.”

“I’ve heard a bit about the harvest witches.  Did Kaldorei teach Gilneans in ancient times?”

“No one really knows the answer to that question.  None of the druids here are aware of any elven presence in Gilneas.  On the other hand, it could be that the elves that went to Gilneas never returned.  The harvest witches tell stories about the court of fae, and nobody can agree whether or not those were the same as the elves.

“Whatever their origins, the harvest witches did know something of druidism.  I am really only a neophyte in our ranks.  Happily, I have put myself to use in other ways.”

“Such as?”

“I represent worgen interests in the Cenarion Circle.  Most of the senior druids are elves, and a few are tauren.  As a former commercial ambassador, I was the natural choice for Gilneas.”

“So the old class roles still apply?”

“Class roles?  Undead or not, you are still a human!  I proved myself by tooth and claw, as our savage natures demand.  Not all of the nobles and burghers are hapless ponces in a fight; some are quite fierce.”

“How has the Cenarion Circle received the Gilneans?”

“With enthusiastic caution borne from guilt.  Worgen form is a night elf creation, you know; the druids who first adopted it all went savage and had to be locked up in some part of the Emerald Dream.  Arugal’s meddling returned it to Azeroth.  The worgen curse is a curse, I would say, but a useful one.  Certainly one that I am not in any hurry to relinquish, considering that the elves have taught us to control ourselves.”

“If you can control yourself, how is it a curse?”

“Worgen form has upset the natural order.  Ironic, I know, since worgen form is closer to nature.  But what is natural for a beast is not natural for mankind.  Whatever the case, I do not intend to relinquish it.”

I nodded, noting the difference in attitude from Prudence.

“The elves want the respect and deference that they deserve, and I am more than happy to ensure that my countrymen behave appropriately.  In return, they heed our concerns, support the Gilnean Liberation Front in its efforts, and place us firmly in the lap of the Alliance.”

“A reasonable arrangement,” I agreed.

“Quite.  I also keep open lines of communication with the tauren and the trolls.”

“I noticed the tauren handing you a package.”

“Suspicious, are we?  Ha ha, no matter, the contents are quite innocuous.  We wish only to know how Hyjal is recovering.  You can see it for yourself, if you would like.”

“No, I trust the tauren.”

“They seem like a good bunch.”

“I’m surprised you’re so fond of them.”

“Fond is not quite the right word, but they have their place in the world, and I am civilized after all.  Neither tauren nor troll has harmed my people.  That is the doing of the orcs and the Forsaken.  The orcs even abuse their own allies; I have heard the stories about what the trolls endure in Orgrimmar.”

“It is a shame.”

“A relatively minor one, I would think, compared to what else the Horde does,” he said.  “I really must be going, but I am glad to know that decay has not robbed all Forsaken of the capacity for conversation.”

“We are not all monsters.”

Artur cocked his head to the side, looking so much like a puzzled dog that I had to stop myself from laughing.

“I am afraid your words mean nothing to me.  Do not worry, Destron; soon enough, I will rip out Sylvanas’ heart and burn it in front of her.  But I will keep you alive until the very end.”

*********

After four days in Nighthaven, I found myself no more comfortable around night elves than I’d been upon my arrival.  I could blame only myself.  I rarely left the Horde embassy, and when I did it was usually while following Yazjahd like some pitiful shadow.

I met again with Anlivia and was pleased to find her mood improved.  She was the only person besides Yazjahd with whom I felt safe in Nighthaven.  Prudence had forgiven her, though the druidess had warned Anlivia to never again bring a Horde-aligned Forsaken into her sight.

“And I agree: Destron, there is no reason for you to stay with such an evil group.”

I wondered if she’d heard Artur’s promise to murder us all.  I hate Sylvanas and all she stands for, but I have met too many other decent Forsaken to agree with Artur.  If it becomes a matter of survival, do we not have a right?  We stayed and died while our countrymen found new lives across the sea.  But I must beware of vilifying those who ran.  I would have fled too if I’d had the means, and Theramore has been a positive presence in the world, something that cannot be said for Undercity.

I again heard rumors of Sylvanas practicing necromancy, this time from Yazjahd.  I kept better control of myself, though I explained why such stories could not be true.  Some of the darker news from the front lines in Silverpine mentioned Sylvanas and some enslaved val’kyr raising the dead Gilneans, but these were all second- or third-hand accounts.  Certainly the Gilneans have reason to degrade Sylvanas’ name (not to say that she deserves anything less than utter ruin—but the truth is the truth, and she has committed enough real sins to make fictional ones unnecessary).

Even Anlivia dismissed such stories.

“I saw Sylvanas’ evil a long time ago, but no one who has suffered undeath can inflict it on another,” she said.

Some might argue that Arthas had done just that, but he had embraced undeath in his own way.  We had it forced upon us.


On the fifth day, Veelix told me that he would soon fly back to Hyjal, and offered to take me there or at least as far as Everlook, where I could find passage back to Bilgewater Harbor.  I thanked him and accepted his offer, leaving me with one afternoon and one night left in Moonglade.

Shoving all thought from my mind, I got up from my chair in the embassy and began walking, making a straight line out of the hall and onto the arched bridges.  Keeping a brisk pace I soon marched past the Horde enclave and into the elven parts of the city.  I busied myself thinking about the courageous Kaldorei who stood against their queen in ages past, and of their novels that eschew narrative for examinations of memory and perspective.

I am not sure how much I really accomplished, but I felt at least somewhat better about myself.  One task remained on my itinerary.  I still held the copy of the coded letter in the pouch that Sleed had found in Hyjal.  In truth, I’d nearly forgotten about it, but a stubborn curiosity drove me to make the effort.

The codebreakers of the Cenarion Circle do their work in a library found at Nighthaven’s southern tip, perched on a living platform whose roots drink the waters of Lake Elune’ara.  The druids keep the open-air building warm and dry in sanctioned circumvention of nature.  At the time of my visit, druidic tomes shared shelf space with copied and partly translated Twilight manuscripts.  Chalkboards bearing dizzying nebulae of scrawled formulae hung from the walls, and beneath them linguists argued without end.  If the Twilight’s Hammer hoped to sow confusion, they appear to have succeeded.


I was directed to an old orc named Mawglor Rendhammer.  Greasy locks of white hair hung to the sides of his wrinkled face like drapes but his cold and penetrating eyes belied the dirty appearance.  He sat cross-legged on a rug of woven moss, surrounded by stacks of paper.

“What is it, youngling?” he grumbled.  “More Twilight gibberish?”

“I am not sure if this is a cult document or not, actually.  I was hoping for your expertise on the matter,” I said, handing him the paper.

Mawglor blinked as he examined the document.

“’After testing, dispose of material.  Then, rendezvous with the Conjurer at Point Llane, and await further instructions’,” he read.

“I take it that you recognize the code?”

“I saw it as a whelp.  It was one of the codes Stormwind had in the First War.  It’s actually a very complicated one; I spent so much time trying to figure it out that I am probably incapable of forgetting it.  Stormwind used it up until the raid on Northshire Abbey, which is when they realized we’d broken it.”

“This is a very recent document, however.”

“I doubt very many people alive would recognize it, though modern techniques make it a good deal easier to figure out.  Where did you find this?”

I related the story to Mawglor, who frowned upon hearing it.

“The Twilight’s Hammer Cult has plenty of its own codes.  I am positive this is Alliance.”

“My theory is that Horde and Alliance partisans were fighting each other, and that the Twilight’s Hammer killed the survivors.”

“That is possible.  But this says the Alliance was testing something—“

“It might not have even been the Alliance,” I cautioned.  “At least not officially.  Some of these partisan groups have a staggering amount of resources at their disposal.”

“Partisans are still part of their factions!  The Alliance or Alliance patriots were testing something that they did not want to be caught with.  I think we can draw an obvious conclusion.”

“That these partisans were using Twilight’s Hammer weaponry?”

“Partisans already use tools looted from the Burning Legion and the Scourge.  The Twilight’s Hammer Cult is the next logical step.  Fools.  We orcs already made that mistake once, and I will not stand by and see whelps of either faction do it again!”

“We did not see any such gear on the dead human.”

“His companions probably retrieved it and took it to Point Llane.  That’s probably a codename itself; Llane was Stormwind’s king during the First War, so whoever wrote this has a long memory.  They did not bury him, so they must have been keen to escape before anyone learned of their foul deeds.”

“The ground was solid rock, it would not have been possible to bury him.  We also found a brooch marked with a yellow sunburst.  Is that symbol familiar to you?”

“No.  That might be the symbol of their group, or it might not matter.  This needs to be reported.”

“I think Nekra, the shaman, will have already delivered this to authorities elsewhere,” I said.

“Perhaps, but remember that very few people alive today know this code.  I never expected to see it again.  Where are you going after Moonglade?”

“Bilgewater Harbor.”

“Let someone in charge know about this.  Will you swear to do so?”

“I will do it.  For the Horde.”

“For the Horde!” he bellowed, a bit of youth’s flush returning to his aged face.  I prepared myself to again defend a faction that I’d come to fear.