Saturday, October 31, 2009
Zul'drak: Part 1
Millennia of brute labor has reshaped the very landscape of Zul’drak. Unaided by sorcery or technology, the Drakkari built an empire on the backs of their people. Such were the origins of Jintha’kalor Passage, the steep three-mile long stairway that ascends to the dark home of the ice trolls.
I stood on the icy banks of the Dragonspine Tributary, a strange dread gripping my heart as I studied the awesome construction. My initial reaction was disbelief, even though Horde scouts in Conquest Hold had informed me what to expect. How could the ice trolls, dismissed as savages by their southern cousins, ever build such a thing? No frozen wasteland could support the thousands upon thousands of laborers needed for such an endeavor.
I walked to the base of the stairs, surrounded by the Scourge-gutted ruins of Drakkari shrines, ziggurats similar in style to the Amani temples in Quel’thalas. A stale wind blew down from the heights, the escaping breath of a dying realm. Above me, maroon clouds spread like veins through an oily sky.
In the world of symbols, the stairway represents connection, much like a road or an open door. Religious connotations give the stairway an element of hope. The climb may be arduous, but the reward is communion with the divine. It is a symbol of hope, of understanding, of progress.
Jintha’kalor Passage is the opposite. It offers no welcome, only a warning. The choice of stairs reveals much about its builders. Wheeled vehicles cannot reach the top, effectively blocking large-scale trade. An invading army from long ago would face a logistical nightmare trying to get its supply wagons up the steps. Seeing Jintha’kalor Passage, I understood why even the vrykul left Zul’drak to the trolls.
Even descending the steps would present a challenge for large groups. As the Drakkari shunned visitors, so too did they discourage their own from traveling beyond the nation’s borders. Their kingdom never extended beyond the small (though still impressive) temple-cities standing at the bases of the great stairways.
The scale presents a psychological challenge as well. If these trolls could build such an awe-inspiring project, designed to be difficult and placed at the very edge of the realm, what might await at the top?
I looked up from the base to the miles of steps, each one as high as my knee, rising before me. High stone walls demarcate the steps, blocking all sight of the surrounding mountains and countryside. The traveler’s view is forced up to Zul’drak’s murky skies. Battlements of angular spirals adorn the tops of the walls, the only concession to aesthetics.
I began the climb, a mite of rotten flesh against the godlike stones. The edges of steps are still sharp, barely worn by traffic or the passage of ages. Few had ever traveled this way, in either direction. Only now, in our age of airships and magic power, can Zul’drak’s defenses be bypassed. In a way, that realization proved equally disturbing, showing how time and change destroy even the greatest of achievements. Reports of the Scourge and Argent Crusade making headway in Zul’drak prove that it is inhabited by mortals, not gods.
Weariness pulled at my legs as I climbed. The uniformity of Jintha’kalor Passage makes all progress appear miniscule. The end looks no closer at the midway point than it does at the bottom, and the massive walls press against the spirit. This place is not for you, the stones seem to say. Gray steps stretch endlessly ahead; behind, the snowbound ruins of Jintha’kalor turn to distant specks of stone.
At long last I stumbled past the two stone pillars marking Zul’drak’s borders, worn down after a near-eternity of climbing. I can only imagine how taxing the living would find such an obstacle.
A low causeway leads out from the stairs. Unlike them, it shows signs of wear and use, the stonework crumbling at the edges. Tangled forests encroach on both sides of the disintegrating causeway. The trees growing there are unique to Zul’drak; I have never before or since seen anything like them. Dark roots twist like screws into the soil, feeding rough trunks covered with thorns the size of swords. Higher up, deep red leaves burst like flecks of blood from gnarled and blackened limbs.
The air in Zul’drak feels too damp and heavy to be so far north. While not exactly warm, it is still quite humid. The moisture helps explain the sheer density of the forest. I can scarcely imagine even an elf braving the tightly packed trees and thorns. Insects chirp and click in the underbrush, though their sounds are muffled as if afraid of attracting unwanted attention. Beyond that, there are no signs of animal life.
Seeing nowhere else to go, I followed the causeway after a brief rest. Smoke inundates the Drakkari borderland, rising in pillars from fires hidden in the foliage. I wondered if the Drakkari were burning the bodies of the dead. A charnel miasma grips the forest, sharpened by the trees’ ghastly colors. Though battle rages all through the forests, almost nothing stirs on the causeway beyond beetles and arm-length centipedes. At night, (which is not much darker than day) bats soar in flocks from their hiding places in the deep woods, chittering as they fly.
There are still many signs of the Drakkari presence, if not the Drakkari themselves. Gateways span the causeway, reaching as high as church spires. Much stranger are the offerings that burn on stone altars placed at intervals along the road, wreathed in sooty flames that never consume their fuel.
I paused at one such altar, the offered plants and meat charred but never destroyed. Were they even offerings? What use was a sacrifice if it remained in this world? Drakkari gods scowled in angular bas-relief across these altars, unwilling to share their secrets. Forests stretched around me for miles. I saw no home for a priest or attendant who might tend the flame.
I passed the grand entrance of Drak’tharon Keep two days after my arrival. A multitude of stone pagodas stick upwards from a monumental gatehouse, a vast torch-lit corridor visible from outside. An ancient stone head glares out from above the entry, a fearsome troll king or god wearing a crown shaped like the setting sun. Bones and trash litter the entrance. I walked over to an abandoned linen pack, perhaps dropped by a fleeing troll. Opening it, I found worn stone working tools: an awl and a small pick, among others.
Drak’tharon Keep is essentially a heavily fortified version of Jintha’kalor. The stairs inside lead down to the Grizzly Hills, not far from furbolg territory. Because so little is known about the Drakkari, much of their history (as far as the outside world can tell) is based more on conjecture than on fact. It seems relatively certain, however, that the Drakkari withdrew from Drak’tharon Keep as they grew ever more insular after the Sundering.
Previously used as a base from which to conduct raids on Grizzlemaw (exactly why the Drakkari did this is not known), the trolls continued to maintain it even after they stopped their forays. Only a small garrison occupied Drak’tharon by the time of the Third War, and they were quickly wiped out by the Scourge onslaught. Arthas’ expedition then wrested Drak’tharon from the Scourge and stayed there for one winter before abandoning it for good. The Scourge and Drakkari have fought over the ancient fortress complex since then. Now that the Scourge is crushing its way through Zul’drak’s first tier, it seems safe to say that the undead emerged victorious.
There is another causeway just past Drak’tharon Keep, this one aimed north. Thinking back to the vague maps I’d seen in Vengeance Landing, I recalled that going north would probably lead me deeper into the dying empire.
Signs of war grow more common in the north. Paths of tainted earth slash across the causeway, the ancient stones broken by the Scourge’s passage to the east. These paths branch out from the Scourge holdings in the forest interior. I first thought it odd that the Scourge would not immediately strike to disable the arteries of traffic.
What felt like three days passed as I wandered through the haze of smoke and darkness. Ruins abound, walls and ziggurats falling to pieces. Thorn-studded roots break and overturn the foundations, the forest reclaiming the land with an unnatural fecundity. Spread among these are the remains of lesser houses, burnt sticks poking out of the damp earth.
Something there struck me as sickeningly familiar. The emptied Drakkari towns brought to mind the ruins of Darrowshire, of Andorhal, of Corin’s Crossing, and all the other places where the people of my nation had once lived. Lordaeron fought until bled dry and all our sacrifices failed to prevent it from happening again.
The Drakkari are no friends to outsiders, yet I understood them on at least one level. They too suffered from the machinations of the Scourge, a worthless and destructive cancer on the world. I am sure that thousands of ice trolls now march under the Lich King’s banners, their dripping bodies forced to unspeakable deeds.
A cold presence pulled at my mind and I recalled scenes of burning streets and screaming children. These thoughts faded as soon as they came, probably no more than a vivid imagining of the Third War. I’d died in a refugee camp, after all, not in one of the cities. Cold and hunger had claimed me in the end. Only some unguessed willpower enabled the Dark Lady to liberate my body and soul from the Lich King.
I will hate the Lich King forever.
At least, that is what I fear. That by hating him I will give him the ultimate victory. But how can I, or any Forsaken, not hate him? I cannot forget what he did to me. The fear and dread remain, still binding me in some small way to his will. My undeath is a perpetual reminder of his evil. I look at my gray and tattered hands and think of how they felt, what they could feel, while I still lived.
It was in this dark state of mind that I found an instance of Drakkari victory. A shallow ash-choked pit open in the earth just off the causeway. The pit reached dozens of yards across, ankle-deep bone fragments covering every inch of ground.
I knelt by the edge for a closer look, ash trickling down from the rim. Necessity had forced the Drakkari to be thorough. Burning sufficed through most the Third War but is no longer enough to stop the Scourge. Enterprising necromancers developed new techniques after the war, reusing burned remains for their armies. Only breaking the body to bits will now dissuade them.
Bodies do not burn easily. Creating an open-air crematory oven, as the Drakkari must have done, would require immense power. After that, to whose lot did it fall to stomp the bones into dust? I wondered how much longer the Drakkari could hold out. If they lost most of their battles, the Scourge would become significantly larger.
A flame of cold white light suddenly pressed itself into ruined earth at the opposite side, followed by another. They burned without so much as a flicker, as still as death. I stood up to see the outlines of mounted figures, the hooves glowing pale in the darkness. Black armor wrapped around the bodies of rider and steed alike, bleeding into the shadows. Frosted eyes shone from inside the helmets, their cruel gazes cutting into my soul.
I knew them as death knights, the field marshals of the Scourge whose bloody work had brought a nation to ruin. They embraced the curse that their masters had thrust upon us, surrendering their souls for power’s sake. Possessing a sliver of free will, the death knights rejoiced in slaughter while we suffered in the shells of our bodies. Only the Lich King and his necromancers can equal their evil. They deserve no fate but death.
My fate would be the same, a fact I knew even as spellfire coalesced around my outstretched hands. A single death knight could wipe out scores of professional soldiers, their runeblades cutting through armor just as their magic cut through souls. To kill even one as my final act would end an undeath well-spent. Death knights still feel pain, conceivably still feel fear. I wanted them to know what I’d felt, to give them the awful end they so richly deserved. To hear a death knight scream would be a hero’s reward, and I’d wallow in his blood before following him into death.
“Hold, Forsaken. We are not what you think,” said one of the death knights, his cold voice echoing over the field.
I felt only a tremor of doubt. Lies, I was certain. They feared me, and I smiled at the thought. Then I gasped as a vise of bitter cold pressed on my mind. The spellfire vanished as I backed away, my vision frosting into white. Shouting a curse I dove back into the arcane current, relishing its feel as I prepared a new spell.
“We no longer serve the Scourge, fool!” bellowed the one who’d spoken earlier. Something in his voice gave me pause and I let the spell dissipate. The death knight dismounted and took of his helmet, revealing a corpse-white human face.
“Hardly a good use of your energies, Forsaken. There are better ways to find the vengeance you seek.”
“I... I do not seek vengeance. You startled me,” I said, the lies clumsy on my tongue. He only smirked.
“What are you doing here anyway? Armies clash all through these forests. Are you with the Argent Crusade?”
“I am not. Are you?”
“When it suits us. I am Velluc Elkener, who has served under the banners of Old Lordaeron and of the Argent Dawn. Now I fight in the Order of the Ebon Blade. My friend here is Festelle Ashsong, whose history is similar to mine, though she served the houses of Quel’thalas rather than Lordaeron. And you?”
“Destron Allicant,” I answered, suddenly weak. They’re lying, hissed an inner voice. But I suspected they told the truth. Had they really wanted to kill me, they would have already done just that.
“We are headed back to Ebon Watch, our headquarters in this wretched land. Feel free to accompany us, though remember we only do this because you’re no use to anyone when dead. Neither of us particularly cares emotionally if you live or die.”
“I would not expect you to.”
Velluc only smiled in response, the muscles in his face seeming to resist the attempt.
I’d dismissed the rumor when I first heard it slurred to me, courtesy of a drunken soldier in Amberpine. The idea of death knights breaking free of the Scourge seemed absurd. Yet in Zul’drak I got the story from a death knight named Velluc, his icy voice giving his words an air of authority. When the Horde and Alliance began their campaigns in Northrend, so too did the Lich King prepare an attack on the Eastern Kingdoms, ordering his necromancers to raise the fallen champions sent against them. From the best of these, the Lich King had assembled a new cadre of death knights. He resorted to raising dead heroes because he could no longer find anyone willing to serve him, a fact I found comforting.
The Scourge tested the neophyte death knights in the fires of battle, sending them to finish off the remnants of the Scarlet Crusade. After the last Crusader stronghold in Lordaeron lay in ruins, they turned their attention to the Argent Dawn. The Dawn triumphed where the Crusade failed. Strengthened by the sanctified bodies buried under Light’s Hope Chapel, the Argent Dawn forced the death knight leader, one Darion Mograine, to surrender.
Velluc then said that an apparition of the Lich King had appeared amidst the strife, revealing that the death knights were no more than a ruse to bring Argent Champion Tirion Fordring out of hiding. Darion struck his master upon hearing this, only surviving the counterattack with help from Tirion. Upon the battle’s end, Mograine declared the creation of the Knights of the Ebon Blade, a task force of the Lich King’s deadliest weapons turned against him.
“We no longer serve the Scourge. Why should we, when they would sacrifice us so readily?”
“Than who do you serve?” I asked. I kept my distance from the two death knights. Warmth and light died in their presence. I could not even look at them without thinking of the Scourge and all its evils.
“The Ebon Blade, first and foremost. Some our kindred have been rehabilitated into their factions. I believe Festelle here still acknowledges the Horde...”
“I do,” said the alabaster Sin’dorei seated next to him.
“Our true loyalty is to the Scourge’s utter destruction. I suppose you Forsaken are the same way—though you’ve done precious little to see that goal become reality.” He said it as someone would state an obvious fact.
“Forsaken troops have fought and died long before your liberation,” I retorted. “We did not have so many advantages. The Alliance despises us, and the Scarlet Crusade threatened our very existence in the early days. We weakened them enough for you lot to slaughter the remnant!”
“You could have gone north directly to strike at the Lich King, leaving Lordaeron behind,” said Velluc with a metallic chuckle. “There are Forsaken in the Ebon Blade, you know. They say that their position gives them more perspective. The normal Forsaken fear death and cling to life, no matter how much they deny it. You create a parody of a human kingdom, even though it is not truly necessary for you to do so.”
“The Scarlet Crusade—” I started.
“Was in Lordaeron. A place where you had no reason to stay,” he finished.
“Not all of us found our faculties so quickly. We had no precedent for the situation.” I knew that any defense I gave would make me sound weak. As if realizing this, mirthless smiles spread across their faces.
I traveled with Velluc and Festelle for nearly a week in total, following the causeway north for three days until we reached another one perpendicular to it, at which point we went west. Curiously, Velluc knelt on the ground every morning to recite a short prayer, reciting in a voice without conviction. He explained that it was a habit he’d picked up in the Argent Dawn, which he’d served while alive.
Velluc insisted that I ride with him; it would not do to have me lagging behind. Not having much of a choice, I complied, hating him for it. Shame colored my anger, making my situation all the harder to bear. After all, was my reaction so different from the humans who killed the Forsaken on sight? The death knights were not friendly, but neither were most Forsaken.
I think my hatred truly stemmed from the fact they had served the Scourge as leaders, not as minions. Death knights had led me and my risen countrymen from one atrocity to another, relishing in the bloodshed. Even though these death knights shared an origin similar to my own, I could not help but see them as at least somewhat complicit. Like the volunteer death knights of the Third War, they had maintained some degree of personality and free will in their servitude. I followed the death knights to learn more about them. If I am to be honest with myself and the reader, what I truly hoped was to find a reason to hate them.
We passed through lands decimated by the Scourge, blight clinging to the dying trees. Velluc explained that the worst fighting had occurred in the north. The Scourge found the thick forests an ideal hiding place, and made short work of the Drakkari war bands roaming the wilderness. Larger armies were similarly repulsed.
We veered south after three more days, Velluc marching us towards a huddle of snowy foothills at the base of the Dragonspine. The forest all but disappears in that place, giving way to rocky highlands. The death knights seemed to grow heartier as the temperature dropped, their harsh white faces matching the landscape. My mind again turned to dark suspicions as we trudged through the gray snow. Why were the death knights so quickly accepted into the ranks of Horde and Alliance? I wondered. The simple answer is that they were simply too useful to shun.
Part of me, however, wondered if their appearance played a part. Velluc and Festelle bore no signs of visible decay, and could even be said to possess an eerie beauty. Would the Alliance have been so welcoming if the death knights returned as shambling monsters, as had been the case with most Forsaken? I forced myself to dismiss such thoughts. There were many reasons for the Alliance to reject the Forsaken. While I disagree with the Alliance’s decision, I also acknowledge that some of those reasons were (and still are) quite valid.
We came within sight of Ebon Watch a day later, the base no more than a rude set of black tents in a shallow valley. Velluc pointed at the camp from the top of a nearby hill, a joyless smiled etched in his face.
“Below us stands Ebon Watch, the Woe of the Scourge!” he said with mock grandiosity.
“How many death knights are stationed there?” I asked.
“Fifteen, including ourselves, though most are out on patrol at any given time. The numerical imbalance spurs us to fight at our best.”
“Be fair, Velluc. We do get help,” reminded Festelle.
“Reinforcements?” I inquired.
“You could say that we make our own. You’ll see, Destron.”
I understood what Festelle meant when I saw a ghoul squatting in the snow outside Ebon Watch, its spiny teeth nestled in a worn bone. The ghastly head whipped up as we neared. Then it gave a strange and high-pitched cry before returning to its snack. It looked just like the ghouls in the Scourge armies: hunched stature, bloody claws, exposed bone and sinew.
“Are these ghouls liberated from the Scourge, or raised by your own necromancy?” I asked.
“We plucked these specimens from the grave. A corpse is a terrible thing to waste, after all,” joked Velluc.
“What powers this corpse? The former owner’s soul?”
“Our necromantic abilities fall short of that. These ambulatory corpses are controlled by dark magic culled from the realm of shadow. Each is bonded to its creator. Even the most powerful of us can only maintain a handful of such servants. Not so dissimilar to the galvanized abominations that lumber through Undercity.”
“Are they at all intelligent?”
“Stray memories flit through their rotting brains, without any feeling. If such a minion survives long enough, it will attempt to develop a personality based on those foggy memories. Needless to say, they’re terrible conversationalists.”
A faint but frigid wind blew through the gloomy camp. The black tents sagged, seemingly devoid of life. Hideously rotted bodies sprawled on the snow, adding to the cold abattoir stink hovering over the place.
A pair of icy blue lights switched on in the darkness of a nearby tent, sharp like knives. As if on cue the dead began to stir, clumps of damp snow still plastered on their ragged forms. Velluc walked towards the nearest tent and knelt at the entrance, the dead eyes gleaming above him.
“The Scourge remains in the forests, Master Vadu. We only encountered a few patrols on the roads.”
“Interesting,” rasped Vadu. “Who is your guest?”
“Destron Allicant. We found him near the remnants of a battle.”
“Dismissed, Sir Elkener. Suffer well.”
Velluc lowered his head in respect before stepping back from the master’s tent.
“Destron. The Knights of the Ebon Blade seek no quarrel with the Horde. Many of our number serve your Warchief. As such, consider Ebon Watch your home.” Vadu walked to the front of the tent, revealing himself as an imperious human in scarred black armor.
“Thank you, Master Vadu. I am glad to see that you are on our side.”
“We are not on anyone’s side save our own. For the time being, our goals match those of the Alliance and Horde. This may change.”
“An ally is always appreciated.”
I spent three uncomfortable days in Ebon Watch. The death knights almost never speak, and when they do one almost wishes for them to keep silent. No kindness can be heard in the metallic scrapes that pass as voices. They converse in dead tones, nearly devoid of emotion. Much like the Forsaken, the death knights display little regard for comfort. I saw Velluc sleep in the snow, still entombed in his black armor. Only the weapons look cared for; everything else is an afterthought.
I reflected on what Velluc had said on the journey to Ebon Watch. He was correct in saying that the Forsaken cling to the memories of life. Conversely, the Ebon Blade demonstrates no desire to return to their former selves, at least not openly. What causes this? Did their closeness to the Lich King fundamentally alter their spirits? Or were they in some way seduced by the power granted to them?
I retreated into a shell for the rest of the first day, hating the death knights in silence. How could I feel any kinship with them? What they suffered is not what I suffered. They were the Lich King’s favored servants, the vessels of his cruelty.
Sooner or later, I had to grapple with the ugly fact of my own irrationality. Whatever I wished to believe, the death knights were allies against the Scourge. They had even allowed me into one of their bases. I could not support an intellectual basis for my hatred, though neither could I completely suppress the depths of my feeling.
A fearsome orcish warrior in life, Reg’vul looked even more imposing in death, his scarred face partly hidden in the shadows of his cowl. He’d fought and killed for the Horde’s honor in the Plaguelands, part of a small detachment sent by the Ebonflint War-Pack. Reg’vul’s expression almost never changed while we spoke, frozen in watchfulness.
“How much do you remember from your time under the Lich King?”
“I fought with skill and honor, as I did in life. Those few Scarlet Crusaders who still live doubtless speak my name in fear. We drove them from burning towns, the streets wet with blood.”
“An impressive deed.”
“An honorable one. No matter what, I did my duty as a warrior. I had no choice but to serve the Lich King. He did not control me as he did you, but he forced me to think like him. The only freedom I had was the freedom to fight like a true warrior.”
“Do you feel accepted in the Horde?”
“I live the warrior’s way. The Horde’s spirit rages within me, no matter what anyone thinks. Those who doubt my prowess are free to test it.” Even his threats came out in a cold and flat tone, spoken as if he’d forgotten the inflection.
“I agree with you.”
“Honor is everything to me. My only concern is to fulfill it. That is how I know I am an orc.”
“You fear you would forget otherwise?”
He was silent for a moment, his eyes staring into the snowy wastes around Ebon Watch.
“Arthas tried to imprint his coward’s soul on our spirits. His attempt... did not completely fail. I would not forget that I am an orc, but the sense of honor might fade. I live it, so that I might believe it. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“I doubt that. You Forsaken are different. It is easy for you to hate what Arthas did. For us, it is sometimes difficult. He gave us such power, and the freedom to use it as we wished, so long as it served his plan.”
“You consider your state a gift?”
“Not a gift. Not a curse either, not entirely. I still fight with honor, I still follow the precepts of our Warchief. I will gladly fight anyone who doubts me.”
Discipline is the goal of the death knight. Some of the Lich King’s essence remains in their spirits and they must constantly strive to suppress it. The Ebon Blade walks a tenuous line when adopting so many of the Scourge’s tactics. They hope to avoid corruption by maintaining strict self-control.
Their situation when under the Scourge was not really so different. Because Scourge death knights enjoyed a modicum of free will (though still heavily influenced by the Lich King), they required a great deal of discipline and training. With Darion Mograine’s defection from the Scourge, the freed death knights found a familiar routine waiting for them. Their loyalties to the Ebon Blade were only strengthened by the suspicious receptions they found the Horde and Alliance. For most, knighthood is their identity.
The other death knights had codes similar to Reg’vul’s. Distant and snappy to outsiders, Festelle observed an extreme form of Sin’dorei etiquette when dealing with her peers. Velluc followed the routines of the Argent Dawn, where he’d served for many years. They fulfilled their self-imposed demands with perfection, if not sincerity.
Contrast this to the Forsaken. Our Dark Lady freed us from utter mental and physical domination. The Lich King never bothered trying to change that which he could control with such ease. All we had left were the raw scraps of old identities, made seemingly irrelevant by our bleak new world. Undercity offered physical protection, but we were left to our own devices in every other respect.
I found it difficult to learn much from the Knights of the Ebon Blade, so focused are they on training. This rigorous existence is a key part of the Ebon Blade’s identity. They believe such efforts will help to eliminate all trace of the Lich King’s influence.
“Arthas forged our souls as weapons, but we will never permit him to use us,” said Vadu.
I spent some time talking to the Ebon Blade’s forgotten servants; the lowly undead who work as squires, though without hope (or want) of advancement.
The ghoul named Baneflight ignored me when I first talked to him towards the end of the second day, as black clouds blotted out the setting sun. Velluc and Reg’vul sparred nearby, the glowing runes on their swords painting currents of sickly color on the darkening world. I greeted Baneflight a second time, speaking louder to be heard over the deadening clang of swords. That time the ghoul looked up, his face no longer recognizable as human.
“Yes?” he asked, his voice a warbling hiss.
“What do you do here?”
“I do what Master Vadu wishes. I take care of their steeds. See?”
With a jagged claw he pointed to the bones neatly laid out in the snow, set in the approximation of a griffin’s skeleton. A black leather saddle lay next to each one.
“Bones mix, hard to put back together. I make sure they ready to go at all time.”
“Are you bound to Master Vadu?”
“His creation, yes.”
“Do you remember anything from life?”
“Much. Picked cabbages from the ground. Human woman and children my masters then. Sometimes, I was master of woman and children, but worked for them too. Strange.”
“Where did you live?”
“Many cottages. Farms. Cabbages and wheat. Hot sun.”
“Do you miss that?”
“Miss? Not understand. Same as now. I serve different master then. Now I serve Vadu.”
“How do you feel about Vadu?”
“Do you feel anything towards your masters in life?”
“Nothing. I do, not feel.”
I left Baneflight, a twisted sensation in my gut. Certainly the Ebon Blade’s undead minions are less abominable than the Scourge’s. The soul, after all, is gone. Baneflight’s words seemed to prove it. He does not suffer, and is not really much different from a gnomish automaton. Was I just unable to believe that he could remember without feeling? Such cherished memories seem like they ought to be sacred. Yet in the end, that form of undeath does not harm the victim. It feels deeply wrong, but I could not explain why.
Two more Ebon Blade knights rode in early the next day, like some ill-omened wind from the east. In frozen voices they reported a violent battle at the edge of the second tier. There, corpse solders marched up the bodies of their own to breach the troll defenses, only to crumple under a rain of stones and arrows. The necropolis of Voltarus reeled in disarray, the necrotic swamp beneath it choked with battle.
“This presents a fine opportunity,” said Vadu.
The death knights walked over to Baneflight. Velluc, Festelle, Reg’vul, and both of the new arrivals (a dwarf woman named Kurresta and a human male named Iriol Storrant) pointed at the bones, which rose and whirled, fitting together like puzzle pieces until a row of skeletal griffins stood waiting.
“Destron. You’re free to do as you will, though I’d be surprised if a Forsaken passed up the chance to exercise his hatred of the Scourge,” remarked Vadu.
“How will I get there?”
Without a word he pointed at a collection of bones, assembling them by will alone.
“Take mine. My duty is to keep Ebon Watch standing.”
I felt as if he were reading my veiled hate towards the Ebon Blade. Use your hate as a weapon, he seemed to say, and find a deserving target. Do not deny it.
“Would I be useful to them? I am only a mage.”
“You’re skilled enough to have reached Zul’drak. Velluc, would you object to Destron going with you?”
“Not at all,” he replied.
“A mage might be useful.”
“There you have it. Mages can do things that we cannot. This is hardly the first time we’ve used outside help.”
Every death knight looked to me, a challenge implicit in their silence. Or was I only imagining it? Did they, in truth, not care? The cold air seemed to press around me like a vise. I turned to Vadu.
“I would be honored.”
Baneflight stepped aside as I approached Vadu’s griffin, which stared ahead through sockets of blue light. Bound to their masters like the ghouls, the griffins require even more shadow energy, limiting their usage.
“Rotbeak is easy to manage, Destron. Simply get in the saddle and it will follow Velluc’s lead.”
Stiff clicks ran up the griffin’s spine as I lowered myself onto the saddle, its skeletal form shifting under my weight. Velluc glanced at me as his own mount spread its ragged wings.
Vadu’s griffin sprang into the air as if catapulted from the ground, tearing through the skies. I gripped the reins and lowered my body, the roar of wind almost deafening. The other death knights led the way as shadowy streaks. I noticed how the griffins seemed to shrink into themselves, the legs curling into the rib cage and the wings sweeping to the back, sharp beaks pointed forward like arrowheads.
We soared over the snowy hills with astonishing speed, faster even than the flying machines I’d ridden in Outland. By noon (or what passed for it) we’d already reached the northern forests. The limbs of the trees twist together in dense knots, completely hiding the forest floor. Pale gases seep up from the thorny canopy, coalescing on the upper branches. The rare clearings reveal scenes of utter devastation, of lifeless earth soaked with poison. On occasion I’d spot movement, shambling nightmares of dead flesh, but we moved too quickly for me to get a good look.
Driven by darkness, the death knights never stopped to rest. We flew night and day over rotting forests and blood-spattered cities. Hours lost themselves in the blur of time, trapped in the endless milieu of destruction.
The effort began to weigh down on me, more mental than physical. Like the death knights, Forsaken can go for long periods without any rest. However, I’d adopted a more human sense of time, which improves my understanding of the living. Because I was so used to regular sleep, forgoing it proved quite taxing.
At long last Voltarus itself appeared, an obscene blight of bone and rock blotting out the horizon. The necropoli of the Third War were trifles compared to Voltarus, its vast size comparable to a city. It floats above a haze of seething corruption, the skulls of giants glaring out in silent menace. My spirit quailed upon seeing it. No amount of firebombs or spells could hope to fell such a monstrosity. The necropolis radiates a sense of grim triumph, a tombstone for the world.
The griffins deaccelerated quite suddenly, legs and wings reaching out in a symphony of clicks. We descended into a forest of flayed trees where strands of ghostly phosphorescence spirals up the trunks and sickens everything in their path.
I dismounted upon landing, my feet sinking a full inch into the earth. Viscous yellow liquid oozed up from where I stepped. Plasticine bubbles swelled and burst, further putrefying the air with their contents.
Pale lights began flickering in the trees, which shuddered as torn white faces pushed out from the leaves and trunks. Gasping wails poured out from ragged mouths as the banshees became aware of our presence, a pale and screaming menace preparing to strike.
Velluc struck first. He raised his mailed left hand and gripped, tendrils of shadow coiling out of the earth in response. Rents opened up along the banshees’ ghostly forms, the forces of darkness tearing them to pieces. Our attackers at the edge vainly tried to escape, cords of shadow gripping and pulling them towards the Festelle’s and Reg’vul’s outstretched swords. Quickly skewered on the blades, the banshees dissipated, their haunting screams lingering in the foul air.
“Arthas trained us too well,” smirked Velluc. “Kurresta and Iriol have gone ahead to identify opportune targets. We’ll stay here at the edge of the blight until they return.”
A faded Scourge banner drooped from a standard of lashed bones, marking the undead occupation of the region. I still felt a bit of shock after seeing the ease with which the death knights had destroyed the banshees. Only a fool would turn away such a valuable weapon. At the same time, I could not help wondering what the Ebon Blade will do if the Lich King is defeated. Will the Horde and Alliance sympathizers within the order go to war against each other? Or will they maintain unity, perhaps turning their attentions to another target? It is not entirely amiss to describe the Knights of the Ebon Blade as a superweapon with a mind of its own.
“The Scourge we fight today is a different entity from what you once knew, Destron,” said Velluc. “Arthas is a monster, but he is no fool, and undeath has only sharpened his tactical sense.”
“In what way does the modern Scourge differ?”
“Arthas learned from his mistakes in Lordaeron. Do you remember Araj?”
“I’ll never forget.”
The name of Araj looms large in the annals of the Scourge. Among the most powerful liches of the Third War he presided over the butchery of thousands of refugees. He also refined the necromantic sorceries developed by Kel’thuzad, teaching them to a generation of acolytes. At some point after the war, he oversaw the local Scourge efforts from the ruins of Andorhal. There he met his end, his body destroyed and his phylactery shattered by Alliance operatives. That glorious victory occurred while I was in northern Kalimdor.
“I was there when Araj met his fate. All through Andorhal and even beyond, the Scourge forces fell to pieces without his guidance. Some died outright, some went berserk, and a few mastered themselves and went to join your Dark Lady. This event repeated itself in Stratholme.”
“The Lich King relied too heavily on intermediaries, in other words.”
“More than that, actually. Arthas did have to deputize his authority after Illidan’s attack; the Scourge’s recovery took much longer than most outsiders realize. Arthas realized his true problem after the Horde and Alliance victories in Lordaeron: not that he was too dependent on underlings, but that they were too dependent on him. This is why he has been granting some degree of free will to many of his underlings, even lowly ghouls.”
“Are you saying that the Lich King can now give drive to the souls he’s imprisoned?”
“Not precisely. It is more accurate to say that Arthas duplicates a fragment of his own spirit, and implants it so it exists in parallel to the victim’s original. This original soul still languishes in slavery.”
I tried to imagine having a sliver of the Lich King’s mind alongside my own, a gleeful participant in his crimes. It is another form of control, insidious and psychological. I consider myself deeply fortunate that I remember almost nothing from my time in the Scourge. Those Forsaken who recall their slavery in detail find it difficult to adapt, and are prone to morbid apathy or hatred.
Iriol and Kerresta returned a few minutes later. Her pale round face splotchy with rot, Kerresta gave a horrific smile as she described a whole row of Scourge siege weapons a mile away, guarded by a token force. Velluc nodded. Then, to my surprise, he got down on one knee, placing his runeblade in front of him. Eyes downcast, he began to speak.
“I pray now to feel the strength of our righteousness. Bound together by our wills alone, our unity is stronger than that of the Scourge. The Light resides within us, and we will defeat the darkness.”
Iriol and Kerresta joined him, while Festelle and Reg’vul maintained a respectful silence. Velluc stood back up, instantly returning to his normal demeanor, and ordered us to get back on the griffins.
Speed and power are the defining qualities of the Ebon Blade, enabling them to make lightning-fast strikes at key targets. Their model is a more advanced version of the mobility-focused strategies adopted by the Horde and Alliance on Outland. I am sure that generals in both factions are trying to learn all they can from the Ebon Blade.
I barely had time to register the ruined landscape below Voltarus. The land beneath the necropolis is an utter waste, where fetid yellow pools glisten like pustules amidst the rubble of a fallen Drakkari city, melted to its foundations by Scourge poisons. Scourge-built stone obelisks float over the ruins, belching diseased fog from ornamental skulls.
“Destron!” shouted Velluc, his griffin slowing mid-flight alongside mine. The cold and stinking air robbed his voice of its luster, making him sound weak and muffled.
“Cast a spell that will hit multiple targets at once when we land.”
I could just see our target through a curtain of choking vapors. Five bulky catapults were lined up in a row, guarded by the seeping bulks of abominations. Velluc had his griffin glide towards the ground, skeletal wings wading through the fog. Descending there felt like sinking into a frigid sea of liquefied meat, the almost tactile rot flooding eyes and ears.
Ragged ghoul packs scrounged at the feet of abominations, red tongues lapping up the bloody run-off from gaping wounds. I called a down a blizzard on their position the moment I landed. Shards of ice plunged down from the sky, lancing the diseased flesh of the Scourge guards. Immune to pain they rushed towards me, the ghouls twitching with gurgling laughter. Shadowy lines pulled bodies from the mob as the death knights went to work. Velluc and his companions hacked their way through the lesser Scourge minions, cutting them to pieces almost at leisure.
The nearest abomination barreled past the blizzard, frost clinging to the network of chains running through its bloated form. Lashing out with a hook-tipped chain it caught Iriol and pulled him from his mount, dragging the death knight through the cold dirt.
I cast a fireball at the abomination while Iriol struggled to free himself. The impact of the spell ripped the stitches running up the abomination’s left side, its arm and shoulder sliding off from the torso in a shower of pulped flesh. Diseased eyes rolled towards me and it turned, momentarily forgetting Iriol. Raising a cleaver with its remaining hand it charged, fluids still spurting from its wound. Surprised at how quickly it picked up speed I jumped from the griffin while casting an arcane explosion. The sudden movement disrupted my aim, causing it to burst harmlessly behind my attacker.
Needle-clawed hands suddenly grabbed at my legs. I fell backwards into a patch of earth that roiled with the undead, limbs and skinned faces erupting from the dirt. A frost nova spell slowed the churning chaos and I frantically pulled off the hands gripping my feet. Ghouls and skeletons clambered out from the ground, most running towards the death knights whose attentions were focused on the abominations.
“Look out behind you!” I yelled.
A trio of ghouls stood in front of me, clots of earth falling from scarecrow figures. They assessed me with quick, darting movements, almost like a bird’s. I dodged the initial attack just in time, the ghoul’s yellow claws slashing air. A second jumped in as I moved, the full force of the collision knocking me to the ground. I rolled, a flurry of claws and gnashing teeth on top of me. Ribs cracked as the ghoul’s hands slammed down on my chest. A frost nova saved me and I threw the chilled ghoul from my body. Continuing my counterattack I got to my feet and stomped the ghoul’s fragile midsection, worn down by decay to little more than a spine. Weakened by rot and frost, it broke under the third blow.
I spun around and depleted the last of my mana with an arcane explosion centered on another ghoul, who burst to pieces. Only one remained, made cautious by the quick deaths of its companions, but probably thinking I was spent, or close to it. The ghoul advanced in careful steps, the exposed muscles on its legs tensed. A single swipe from its claws could kill me. The ground beneath us shook as the abominations fell to the Ebon Blade’s assault. Could I afford to wait?
The ghoul struck, swinging its left hand at my head. I ducked, only to meet its right. Pure luck saved me, the claws scraping my chest without inflicting serious damage. The world slowed, the ghoul’s arms flung wide. Acting on instinct I grabbed both of those spindly limbs and kicked its shriveled belly with all my might. Something crunched beneath the thin layer of flesh and I released the ghoul, pushing it back as I did. It wavered for a moment and then fell apart in front of me.
I looked up just in time to see Velluc delivering the finishing blow to an abomination. The Ebon Blade had prevailed against the Scourge, despite being outnumbered. Their victory was not without a price, however. Festelle and Iriol were both dead.
It took only a few minutes to destroy the catapults. When done, Velluc ordered us to remount the griffins. Kerresta and Reg’vul tied the bodies of Festelle and Iriol to their griffins (the steeds of the fallen having collapsed upon the death of their masters).
We reconvened at the tumbled ruin of an aqueduct at the foot of the second tier’s wall. Even after the recent battle, my thoughts turned to the aqueduct. Had the Drakkari been maintaining the forest with water from the upper tiers?
Velluc took me aside when we landed. I saw no sign of wounds, though his armor bore the signs of intense fighting.
“You did well, Destron.”
“Thank you. Were we ambushed back there?”
“We walked into a trap. One set for the trolls, but sprung by us. Burying ghouls in the dirt is an old Scourge tactic, and we’ve all been trained to spot it. They’ve apparently become better at concealing themselves.”
He sighed, and looked to the mangled corpses of Iriol and Festelle being untied from the griffins.
“The Ebon Blade feels each loss. We are a limited army. Even now, the minions of the Scourge can sometimes break free and join the Forsaken. But I do not expect there will ever be another event like the Battle at Light’s Hope Chapel. Arthas keeps his death knights close.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“Such is our fate, to fight and suffer well. I wonder what becomes of us when we die? Are we redeemed, or will the shadows claim our souls?”
“I suppose those would be questions for a theologian,” I said, not sure how to respond.
“Plenty are already debating that fact,” he said with a short laugh. “Do the Forsaken ever wonder about this?”
“There are some who believe that their state renders them beyond redemption. Many more are lost in madness or indifference.”
“What about you?”
“I do not think that being Forsaken implies any sort of damnation in and of itself. Certainly, many Forsaken follow a dark path, but this is usually of their own choosing.”
“Perhaps Arthas instilled a love of power in the souls of his death knight,” Velluc said. “This supplants other, greater loves: love of another, love of country, love of the Light. For all the power we have, we cannot seem to put our desire anywhere else. I only hope that someday, a death knight will learn how to escape. How I would love to fight for a reason other than vengeance or power. Yet no matter how much I try, I can find no other motivation.”
The two fallen death knights were laid out on slabs of fallen masonry. Their runeblades were removed with great care and given to Reg’vul. When a death knight perishes in battle, his runeblade is taken to the Ebon Blade stronghold of Acherus in the Eastern Plaguelands. There it is put on display to remind other death knights of their own mortality.
“From death we emerged, and to death we return. Victory will assure that our sacrifices and valor will be remembered for all time. Failure will consign us to oblivion. May our enemies fear our power. May the Light rest our souls.”
Velluc bowed his head and raised his arms. Wisps of smoke slithered out from the armor of the dead. In an instant, brilliant blue fires bathed the bodies, bright enough to temporarily dispel the surrounding darkness. Seconds later the light faded. Where the bodies had once lain, only suits of battered armor filled with ash remained.
“Arthas put runes of self-immolation in our weapons, so that our enemies could not steal them. We removed those runes and inscribed them on our own bodies, so that he can never again use us,” intoned Reg’vul.
We stood there for a while longer, as the smoke from the bodies slowly dissipated into the surrounding darkness.