For both Alliance and Horde, the first part of vanilla WoW was all about putting an end to Ragnaros, and uncovering and subsequently lopping off Onyxia's head for a delightful city decoration that was not at all likely to scare the pants off of any of Stormwind or Orgrimmar's children. Seriously, who thought dragon remains on a stake was a wise design choice? Regardless, while there were definitely giant foes to be beaten, if one dug a little deeper, there was some underlying story going on in vanilla, too.
The Alliance was busy getting back on its feet, and Warchief Thrall was busy trying to make nice with the Alliance. But even though Onyxia had been defeated, the king of Stormwind was still missing. And even though Ragnaros had been sent back to where he belonged, he was far from the only menace in Blackrock Mountain. And even though these problems were leaping up in the Eastern Kingdoms, there was something lurking in Kalimdor -- something far, far worse than problems with dragons and firelords.
Back story you should know
Once upon a time, hundreds of thousands of years ago, there was only one troll Empire, the progenitor of every troll tribe in existence to date -- the Zandalar. This Empire eventually split into the Gurubashi to the south, and the Amani to the north. In Stranglethorn Vale, the Gurubashi Empire was in danger from within when a group of troll priests called the Atal'ai decided the best thing in the world would be to call forth a giant evil soul-stealing blood-god called Hakkar the Soulflayer into corporeal existence. This did not go over as smoothly with the other troll tribes as expected.
In fact, it began a bloody civil war that tore the Gurubashi Empire apart. As a result, the Gurubashi eventually split further into the assorted tribes inhabiting Stranglethorn Vale. Let's face it, trolls just don't get along very well with anyone, including each other. Especially when it involves summoning a blood-god and using your fellow trolls as sacrifices to the thing. The Atal'ai were defeated and promptly exiled to the Swamp of Sorrows, where instead of being sorry for their actions, they proceeded to create a giant temple devoted to Hakkar and continue trying to bring him to terrifying life. Some trolls just never learn.
Meanwhile, over on Kalimdor a great war raged. The kaldorei were intent on putting a stop to the uprising of the Qiraj, an ancient race of untold evil in the southern reaches of Silithus. But the Quiraj weren't about to go out without a fight, and it took everything the kaldorei had, along with the assistance of the dragonflights, to put a stop to the evil behind the gates of Ahn'Qiraj. And even though the Qiraji forces were stopped, they were not defeated and wiped out.
The leader of the kaldorei forces was one Fandral Staghelm, who worked his hardest to beat back the threat of the Aqir. Standing proudly at his side was his son Valstann, who offered to lead a force to Southwind Village and fend off attacks. Fandral agreed, but Valstann was captured by a Qiraji general who then proceeded to tear Valstann in half, right in front of Fandral's eyes. Stricken with grief, Fandral ordered a retreat to Un'goro and in desperation negotiated the assistance of the Bronze dragonflight.
The Bronze flight had a plan, and created a gate to lock the Qiraji into the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, hopefully never to be seen again. But just in case, they created a way to open the gate -- the Scepter of the Shifting Sands. In the event that any mortal wanted to pass the gates and access the city, the Scepter would allow them to do so. The Scepter was given to Fandral, who promptly shattered it into pieces and declared that he wanted nothing to do with Silithus, the Qiraji, or any dragons ever again. He returned to Kalimdor, fully consumed by grief for his lost son.
And now we fast forward to present day in vanilla. Onyxia may have been defeated, but she was only one half of the dynamic duo working to bring down the human kingdom of Stormwind for her absentee father, Deathwing. Onyxia's job was to keep the humans distracted so that her brother Nefarian could perform his experiments in creating a better, stronger, faster, more dedicated to evil dragonflight in peace. But Onyxia failed her job in a major way, which meant that Nefarian's quiet experimenting was no longer being ignored in favor of the giant purple dragon stomping around Stormwind's throne room and torching unsuspecting lowbies.
Orcs, dragons, and unlikely allies
With Onyxia out of the way, Alliance attention turned towards Blackrock Spire and Nefarian. Nefarian wasn't just sitting around being pals with the orcs in Blackrock Spire. He was working on creating the Chromatic dragonflight, a flight composed of blood from all of the dragonflights and consequentially far stronger than any before. Nefarian planned to use this dragonflight as an army of unstoppable warriors, thus truly taking his place as his father's successor. Obviously, he couldn't be allowed to live.
For the Horde, the matter was a little more personal. Nefarian and the Black Dragonflight were backing the Blackrock clan of orcs, the orcs that were running around proclaiming that they were the true Horde. Because of this, Thrall wanted Nefarian out of the way, both because a black dragon in any form is a dangerous threat, and also to put the quash on the Blackrock clan and the Dark Horde once and for all. Once Nefarian was defeated, the world could breathe a small sigh of relief, but that sigh wouldn't last for long.
In Stranglethorn Vale, a curious group of visitors set up shop and made their home on a small island in the north called Yojamba Isle. The visitors? None other than the Zandalar, remnants of the progenitor race of trolls. It turned out that those crazy Atal'ai that had been exiled to the Swamp of Sorrows finally figured out how to summon Hakkar, and the method involved taking over the old Gurubashi capital of Zul'Gurub. They did so, and Hakkar came back to terrifying life.
The trolls of Stranglethorn banded together and sent in their best high priests, champions of the primal Gods, in order to combat the menace. But the priests fell under Hakkar's sway, and it looked as though the blood god was on his way to becoming a global threat. This is when the Zandalar decided to step in -- and oddly enough, they decided the other races of Azeroth would be fine allies to bring down Hakkar once and for all.
But it was in Kalimdor that the greatest threat lay in wait -- one that would change how we viewed the world of Azeroth and set off a chain reaction of events that affect us to this day.
Rise of the Old God
In the deserts of Silithus, an ancient evil began to stir, and the Cenarion Circle began to take notice. The qiraji, long thought trapped behind the Scarab Wall, had apparently found a way to circumvent the gate. Not enough to warrant an army, but the signs could not be ignored, and the gate needed to be opened. However, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands was pretty much in pieces at this point. It was up to the mortals of the world to piece the Scepter back together so that the gates could be opened -- but merely opening the gates wouldn't be good enough. And beyond that, there were signs that this was far worse than a mere qiraji invasion.
The Twilight Cult had made a home in the Silithus deserts. This organization, also known as the Twilight's Hammer, had one purpose in mind -- to bring the world to an end. Originally led by the ogre mage Cho'gall, the Twilight's Hammer had since opened its crazy, armageddon-loving arms to all who were nuts enough to think the end of the world was a really keen idea. And the Twilight Cult chose Silithus as their location of operation because beneath the desert sands, the Old God C'thun waited to bring about the end of the world, just as the Twilight Cult wanted.
The Horde and Alliance recognized the severity of this threat, and it pretty much overrode any faction disputes that happened to be going on at the time. Each side amassed vast amounts of resources for what was surely to come -- a rematch of kaldorei vs. qiraji. Only this time, the kaldorei had far, far more allies on their side. Once both Alliance and Horde mustered up enough resources to fend off an army, the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj were opened.
However, those forces couldn't be allowed to just rest in the Temple. The gates could not simply be locked again -- it was known, now, that the qiraji would only bide their time until they could make another strike. And so players traveled into the great Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, intent on clearly out the remaining Qiraji forces and putting an end to the horror that waited at the depths of the temple. By all appearances, C'thun died, his remains taken to the red dragon Caelestrasz as proof of his demise.
What they did not know was that C'thun was only one of many. And as the years went on, this would not be the last time the native races of Azeroth heard the term Old God.
In between all the chaos of black dragons, trolls, and Old Gods, a new development was coming into play. There was something wrong in the Emerald Dream -- something that was keeping Archdruid Malfurion Stormrage there, unable to return. The exact cause of the disturbance was unknown, but it was having a curious effect on green dragons. Four giant behemoths, Ysera's lieutenants, made their presence known at four portals to the Emerald Dream scattered across Azeroth. And these dragons were changed creatures, riddled with a darkness that the druids simply referred to as the Nightmare.
While nothing was known as far as the status of Malfurion Stormrage, the dragons of Nightmare were destroyed, preventing them from doing any lasting damage. But it was clear that whatever this mysterious Nightmare was, it was spreading throughout the Emerald Dream to the point that it was trapping druids within.
Meanwhile, in the northern corner of the eastern kingdoms, a neutral organization known as the Argent Dawn quietly worked. The Argent Dawn's purpose throughout vanilla WoW was to eradicate the remnants of the Scourge army that was left over after the Third War, and to clean up the Plaguelands and restore it to what it had been. It was a huge task -- so huge that the Argent Dawn recruited players to assist them while questing through these zones.
Vanilla story progress
While the original story of vanilla was pretty divided by faction, later patches and storylines saw the factions merge and work together. There was also much less emphasis on the faction leaders of the world. King Varian Wrynn was still missing, and Warchief Thrall seemed content to stay put in Orgrimmar, while other faction leaders continued doling out the same quest. But this stretch of vanilla saw the introduction of High Overlord Varok Saurfang, who led both Horde and Alliance in one combined army against the Qiraji in Silithus.
Certainly the Alliance and Horde were still at odds in areas like Arathi Basin, Alterac Valley, and Warsong Gulch -- but as time went on in vanilla, it was apparent that both factions realized there were far more dangerous things in the world than each other. Things that required a united effort to defeat. Had Alliance and Horde not come together in Silithus, the story of Ahn'Qiraj would likely have had a very different, far more horrific ending.
This united front stayed put almost to the end of the original iteration of the game. But events that played out at the end of the expansion guaranteed that Alliance and Horde would remain on opposite sides, as both fought their way through the Dark Portal and into Outland. The lore of vanilla concludes next week with the uprising of the Scourge and the opening of the Dark Portal.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
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.