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.”
“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.