If you began playing World of Warcraft when the game came out, then you played through a period of interbellum. The Third War ended four years before World of Warcraft started, and the mortal races that banded together on the slopes of Mount Hyjal to defeat the Burning Legion were now beginning to approach a war footing once more.
We talked before about the Third War (in two parts, in fact), and in the next few weeks, we'll talk about the period between the Third War and the original story of WoW, the events of the 1-60 game that was remodeled in Cataclysm. Why did the people of Azeroth turn away from the unity established in the fight against the Burning Legion? Why did the former high elves turn away from their once-allies? Why did Illidan raise the naga? How did Arthas Menethil transition from a death knight into possibly the most powerful mortal-born entity ever to exist on the face of Azeroth? These were the times that blasted souls.
The coming of the naga
Amazingly, the rise of the naga from their eons of lurking resentment below the surface of Azeroth's oceans owes much to Gul'dan, the orc necromancer who died at the end of the Second War -- or at the very least, to his memories, held in a demonic artifact crafted out of his very skull and held by Illidan Stormrage.
After Illidan's consumption of the skull's magic and transformation in the blasted forests of Felwood, he found himself yet again banished by his brother Malfurion. Rootless, with no place in the night elven society he had helped to save and pursued relentlessly by his former jailer Maiev Shadowsong, the last visitor Illidan expected to receive was the visitation he found himself entertaining, Kil'jaeden the Deceiver. With Archimonde dead and Sargeras effectively gone in the Twisting Nether, Kil'jaeden was now effectively the master of the Burning Legion.
Rather than destroy Illidan for his role in annihilating Tichondrius, the crafty demon sought to offer Illidan a deal. Without a place among the kaldorei and with his love Tyrande lost to him forever in favor of his brother Malfurion, Illidan was without a purpose, an elf 10,000 years lost from anything he remembered. Kil'jaeden's offer was simple enough. The undead Scourge under the command of the Lich King, created by Kil'jaeden to invade Azeroth, had betrayed the Legion and would now move to secure itself as a power in its own right. Kil'jaeden, who had turned the orc Ner'zhul into the Lich King via slow, torturous destruction of his physical form, was not about to allow the tormented soul of the former orc shaman to attain enough potency to become a threat. Nor was he inclined to allow Ner'zhul's second betrayal to go any better for the orc than his first one had.
The pact was struck. Illidan would destroy Kil'jaeden's creation, currently out of reach of the demon on a world that the Legion had been driven away from for a second time. In exchange, Kil'jaeden would raise Illidan up, investing him with even more demonic power and knowledge of eredar magic, making him effectively one of the lords of the Legion itself. Illidan didn't particularly trust Kil'jaeden, but without a reason to refuse him, his normal lust for magic and power overwhelmed his caution. Furthermore, he was more than a little angry at the idea that the Lich King, through his death knight Arthas, had used him to defeat his master.
Secrets of the Skull
Communing with the power and memories contained in the Skull of Gul'dan, Illidan came to learn how the orc (ironically, a former student and later usurper of Ner'zhul) had died. Far more ambitious than Ner'zhul had ever been, Gul'dan had sought out the Tomb of Sargeras where Magna Aegwyn had seemingly defeated and entombed an aspect of Sargeras itself. (The world would later come to know that it had all been a trap so that Sargeras' essence could inhabit a mortal host, Aegwyn's future son Medivh.) Furthermore, Illidan learned to his amazement that the Tomb was in his own childhood home of Suramar. Gul'dan had doubled his efforts to pull the tomb up from the oceans themselves, only to die at the hands of the host of demons that infested the place.
Learning of Gul'dan's ultimate destination within the tomb, Illidan knew he could use it to destroy even the Frozen Throne that sheltered the Lich King. Not even the mystical workings of that icy prison crafted by Kil'jaeden could stand against the raw might of the Eye of Sargeras, the artifact that Gul'dan sought. The orc warlock had died believing the eye could elevate him to near-godhood. Illidan, however, was more cautious than the former bearer of the skull, and so he sought aid to help him reach it ahead of his pursuers.
He called the naga, and they came.
The Warden's pursuit and the sinking of Suramar
The naga who allied with Illidan were lead by Lady Vashj, a potent servant of Queen Azshara (one of her handmaidens before the War of the Ancients, in fact). With the help of Vashj and her naga, Illidan made his way off of Kalimdor and to the Broken Isles and Suramar. Maiev and her wardens followed, of course, but with the naga running interference for him, Illidan easily beat Maiev to the eye and used its power to effectively sink the Tomb again, and Suramar as well. Maiev escaped, barely, but her wardens did not.
Enraged even more by this turn of events (Maiev was already fairly driven, even obsessed with recapturing Illidan after Tyrande had murdered her own people to free him from his eternal sentence of imprisonment), she turned to Malfurion Stormrage, Illidan's brother. This forced her to work alongside Tyrande, who could be seen as basically the source of every setback Maiev had ever suffered in her life. Maiev had lost the role of High Priestess, it had gone to Tyrande instead. After literally thousands of years as leader of the watchers, Maiev lost many of her followers when Tyrande decided to murder them to free Illidan to fight the Legion because Malfurion wouldn't support her decision (it's likely no one else would have, either); finally, Maiev was forced to leave the rest of the watchers behind to die at Illidan's hand, which wouldn't have happened at all if Tyrande hadn't freed him. To say that relations between these women were tense is like saying that Lost in Space was a bad movie; it's a true statement that doesn't begin to cover it.
Malfurion and Tyrande arrived at the Broken Isles with reinforcements that allowed the night elf forces to push the naga back, but Illidan made his escape with the eye. Together, the uneasy trio of Shan'do, High Priestess and Warden made their way after him.
Illidan and the naga made landfall in the ruined and blighted forests of the former kingdom of Lordaeron and soon made their way south through Silverpine and across the lake to the remains of Dalaran. In the ley line nexus of the destroyed city, Illidan intended to harness the eye's power to fulfill his promise to Kil'jaeden.
For their part, Malfurion, Maiev and Tyrande were close behind him. After arriving in Lordaeron, Malfurion attempted to commune with the native forest while Tyrande and Maiev made the acquaintance of Kael'thas Sunstrider and his people, now calling themselves blood elves after the destruction of their homeland Quel'Thalas. Kael'Thas was investigating the recent increase in undead attacks on makeshfit blood elf camps throughout the region, and he surmised that Illidan's actions in Dalaran might have something to do with it. Together, he and the night elf forces under the two women made for Pyrewood, where the blood elves had supplies that would aid in reaching Dalaran.
This turned out to be a mistake, as the undead ambushed them and forced a retreat. In the end, Tyrande held the bridge across the river Arevass, and the brudge fell, sweeping her into the water. Kael'thas wanted to try and rescue Tyrande, but Maiev insisted that Tyrande had known the risks and that capturing Illidan was more important, demanding that Kael instead take her to Dalaran. Maiev went so far as to lie to Malfurion, telling him Tyrande had died, torn apart by the undead when the Shan'do arrived. Malfurion had been led to Dalaran by the land itself, groaning in protest at the ritual Illidan was performing, and Maiev's lie drove him into a fury.
The blinding of the eye
Maiev, Malfurion, Kael'thas and their forces stormed Dalaran and interrupted the ritual, destroying the Eye of Sargeras in the process. Illidan berated his brother for interrupting an almost sure means to destroy the Lich King, while Malfurion lashed out enraged at Tyrande's death due to Illidan's actions. Confused, Kael'thas inadvertently revealed that Tyrande wasn't necessarily dead at all, and Malfurion realized that Maiev had lied to get him to turn his focus wholly on Illidan. In the end, Illidan and his naga servants rescued Tyrande from the undead, much to everyone's surprise, and Malfurion and Illidan reached a sort of peace between each other.
"We have had much strife between us, my brother. I have known only ages of hate for you. But, for my part, I wish it to end. From this day forward, let there be peace between us." With these words, Illidan turned and departed from the forests of Lordaeron. However, while Malfurion and Tyrande may have forgiven him, Maiev had not, and she continued her pursuit.
Next week, we go to Outland.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.