Know Your Lore, Tinfoil Hat Edition: The "death" of the Old Gods

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|07.11.11

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Know Your Lore, Tinfoil Hat Edition: The "death" of the Old Gods
The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Once upon a time, there was a little planet called Azeroth. A shining jewel of the universe, this little planet was chosen by the Titans, blessed by their presence and organized into a perfect representation of order and beauty. But that order and perfection wasn't to last. At some undefined point in the little planet's future, malevolent proponents of chaos, creatures simply called Old Gods, visited Azeroth's surface and quickly decided to ruin the harmonic vision of the Titans with their own brutal, corrupt, and chaotic one.

The Titans realized something had happened and returned to find the world they had so carefully balanced in a state of utter chaos. They immediately launched an assault on the Old Gods, but they discovered something strange. The Old Gods had fully integrated themselves with the matrix of the little planet, placing a strange malaise on the inhabitants. If the Old Gods died, so too would Azeroth -- and so the Titans imprisoned the Old Gods deep beneath the earth where they could do no further damage. They set to work repairing the planet, leaving various safeguards behind to watch over the world. Satisfied, they left -- and they haven't been seen on Azeroth since.

Today's Know Your Lore is a Tinfoil Hat edition, meaning the following is a look into what has gone before with pure speculation on why it happened. The events presented are events that happened in Azeroth's history, but the conclusions are merely theories and shouldn't be taken as fact.

Except the reach of the Old Gods, the power of the Old Gods was severely underestimated. Thousands of years after the Titan's departure, Neltharion, Aspect of Earth, succumbed to the soft, insistent voice of an Old God. It promised him power. It spoke of the eventual treachery of the other Aspects. It told him the only way to prevent betrayal was through utter control. Neltharion created an object called the Dragon Soul, imbued with the essence of every living dragon from every dragonflight. The creation was meant to be used as a weapon against the encroaching forces of the Burning Legion -- or so the other flights thought.

In reality, the only essence not contained in that artifact was the essence of the Earthwarder himself. During a crucial battle in the War of the Ancients, Neltharion turned on the other dragons of Azeroth, leading his flight into a battle that decimated the forces of the Blue Dragonflight and caused Malygos to slip into despair and madness. The Dragon Soul, now called the Demon Soul, was stolen from Neltharion's -- now Deathwing's -- clutches and hidden away, but the damage had been done. The world shattered at the end of the War of the Ancients, the continents slipping apart, the face of Azeroth forever changed.

And the Old Gods, imprisoned beneath that earth, stirred. The ability to influence the mortal races had gotten just a little easier.

Thousands of years later, the night elves of Azeroth rose up in force against the Qiraji in the sands of Silithus. Various representatives of the dragonflights fought alongside the night elves, but they discovered something disturbing. Deep within the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, something stirred, a dim force of magic that radiated utter evil. The dragons chose to close and seal the gates of Ahn'Qiraj, preventing them from opening and unleashed whatever it was buried within. The Qiraji forces were eventually beaten back and defeated. The gate itself was sealed, the key to the gate shattered by a grief-stricken Fandral Staghelm, who had watched in horror as his son was literally ripped apart by a Qiraji general.

The gate remained shut for another thousand years.

But in that thousand years, Azeroth continued to quietly grow and thrive, its inhabitants dealing with attacks from the Burning Legion and the arrival of the orcish forces of Draenor. It also signaled the arrival of the Twilight's Hammer, a branch sect of the warlock-run Shadow Council. Although supposedly loyal to the Horde, the Twilight's Hammer held a much higher belief close to its heart: total, complete annihilation of all life, everywhere. Oblivion, the destruction of creation, chaos. The Twilight's Hammer was led by an ogre mage -- the first ogre mage -- named Cho'gall. Over the course of time, the Twilight's Hammer lost track of their leader, who had disappeared with Gul'dan some time during the Second War.

And over the course of time, it was only natural that the Twilight's Hammer gravitated to these strange, dark areas of Azeroth. They traveled to the Blackrock Depths, intent on serving Ragnaros, one of four elemental lieutenants originally appointed by the Old Gods. And they traveled to Silithus, gravitating towards that mysterious dark force, sealed behind the gate. They set up camps in the desert, worshipping, performing rituals, and listening to the faint whispers of the Old God C'thun. With each whisper, with each ritual, with each eager supplicant bowing down to the Old God, C'thun grew a little stronger.

Somewhere between the Third War and the rise of the Twilight's Hammer -- sometimes called the Twilight Cult -- something else was going on, something disturbing on a fundamental level. After the War of the Ancients, the night elves were charged by the Aspect Ysera to watch over a plane of existence called the Emerald Dream. A perfect copy of Azeroth as it appeared in the beginning days of the world, the Emerald Dream's purpose wasn't really clear to the night elves. But they agreed to help Ysera keep watch, many druids falling into slumber and letting their spirits roam freely among the fields and trees of the otherworldly plane.

The Emerald Dream embodied Azeroth's perfection, before the Old Gods arrived. Yet ... something wasn't quite right in the Emerald Dream. Over time, a strange, malevolent presence made itself known -- a darkness that twisted the thoughts of all it encountered. This Nightmare didn't show itself physically, instead making its presence known through the effects it had on the denizens of the Dream and the landscape itself. It twisted the emerald guardians of the Dream, turning them into nightmarish versions of their former selves. It took over the night elves that dreamt within the plane. It threatened to completely eradicated Ysera's domain altogether. And it imprisoned Malfurion Stormrage.

Meanwhile in Silithus, the sudden uprising of Twilight and the discovery of the Old God lying in wait beneath the temple spurred the mortals of Azeroth into action. They chose a champion to assemble the Sceptre of the Shifting Sands, collecting the shards of the artifact and ringing the gong that opened the gates to Ahn'Qiraj. And waiting on the other side was an army of Qiraji that poured forth from the temple grounds and proceeded to slaughter without reservation. The battle was long and bloody, but eventually the Temple was breached and the Old God C'thun defeated. His corpse was left in the dusty depths of the Temple to rot, the mortals of Azeroth satisfied, the Old God dead.

Or so they thought. As the mortals of Azeroth continued their quests and fights, moving onward to the shattered remains of Draenor, Cho'gall returned to the Twilight Cult, moving to Silithus in an attempt to resurrect the Old God. His efforts were fought by the most powerful magic users of Azeroth, including a boy named Med'an, son of the Guardian Medivh and potentially one of the most powerful mortals on Azeroth. Med'an was captured, imprisoned in C'thun's chamber. As he lay there, waiting for rescue and the power to strike back, he heard the whispers of an Old God.

C'thun wasn't as dead as the mortals of Azeroth had assumed. The Old God imbued Cho'gall with power, transforming the ogre into a twisted echo of itself. Though Cho'gall was supposedly defeated and the Old God once again taken care of, one had to wonder -- was C'thun really dead? Was it really possible to kill an Old God permanently?

In Outland, the mortal forces had put down the latest effort in the Burning Legion's attempt to wreak havoc on the world and moved back to Azeroth, to Northrend, where the Lich King and his Scourge armies threatened to wipe out all civilization. But the Lich King wasn't Northrend's only danger. Miners and explorers in Howling Fjord went mad after spending too much time in Whisper Gulch. In Grizzly Hills, the furbolg of the region have gone mad as well, the remnants of Vordrassil oozing with darkness. It was discovered that the ancient city of Ulduar to the north contained an Old God whose reach extended the entirety of Northrend -- and mortal adventurers worked to quickly put the Old God Yogg-Saron down.

Yogg-Saron was dead. But then, we assumed C'thun was dead, didn't we? ...

Meanwhile, efforts in the Emerald Dream had reached a breaking point; the war against the Nightmare was quickly being lost, and as Azeroth celebrated the death and downfall of the Lich King, many mortals found themselves falling into deep slumber, unable to wake. These mortals were drawn into the Emerald Dream by the Nightmare, their bodies empty shells, their spirits drawn forth into an army of Nightmare. Malfurion Stormrage was freed and the Nightmare beaten back to the very corners of the Emerald Dream, but it wasn't eradicated completely. A pocket of darkness remained in the Rift of Aln, but it would have to be addressed later. After all, there were more important things to consider.

Things like the return of Deathwing. His emergence shattered the world again, rocking Azeroth with an explosion the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Sundering. Suddenly, Azeroth was littered with grasping tentacles and whispers of Old Gods. The Twilight Cult resurged with a vengeance, convinced that their worshipping and rituals were about to bring about the world's end. After all, the Old Gods, and the servants of the Old Gods, were suddenly far stronger than ever.

In the beginning, Azeroth witnessed a war between Titan and Old God, bringing the realization that the Old Gods were tied so completely to the "matrix" of Azeroth that destroying the Old Gods would destroy Azeroth as well. The Curse of Flesh was a part of that tie -- the dwarves, the gnomes, the humans, and the tol'vir, all fallen victim to the Curse (possibly other races as well, though the mortal world has yet to discover that connection). But I'm going to ask a radical question and then provide a radical answer that may explain why we have yet to see the death of an Old God -- and why the Old Gods are rising and slowly gaining strength.

What, exactly, is the matrix of Azeroth? What is the matrix that the Old Gods have tied themselves to so irrevocably? It's never really been clearly defined. My own assumption was that as they were imprisoned beneath Azeroth, the core of the world was somehow tied into the various tentacles and bodies and writhing masses of Old Gods. Destroying them would cause the base foundation of Azeroth itself to collapse in upon itself and the planet to crumble to nothing.

But what if that matrix is something completely different. What if that matrix is us?

The mortals of Azeroth. The creatures who populate the world, the mortals who live and breathe, think and grow as a result of the Curse of Flesh. Most of the major races in Azeroth are a direct result of evolution caused by the Curse of the Flesh. We don't know tauren origins; it could be that at some point, the Curse of the Flesh created them as well. Forsaken are former humans; humans were derived from the Curse of the Flesh. For all we know, elves are a result of trolls being affected by the Curse of the Flesh, rather than some magical Well of Eternity-generated explosion.

If this is the case, we as mortal creatures are irrevocably tied to the existence of the Old Gods. More importantly, the existence of the Old Gods is irrevocably tied to us.

We cannot kill the Old Gods, because our every thought, our every dream, our every fear or nightmare feeds the existence of these creatures and fuels them onward. In the case of C'thun, it was the mass acknowledgment of the Old God's existence that brought him back from the dead -- if he was even dead to begin with. Perhaps we merely thought we killed him, content in our happy dream.

As for dreams, the Emerald Nightmare came into play as a slow force. Something allowed the Old Gods to cross over into that plane; something gave them the access they needed to plant a foothold within the Dream. How about ... the night elves? They were creatures generated after the Emerald Dream; the backup of the Emerald Dream has no record of sentient Azerothian life for all we know. What if it was the doubts, the fears, and the frightened nightmares of druids that spurred that connection into place? What if the greatest mistake Ysera ever made was allowing the contaminated mortals of the world into her domain -- allowing them to be the bridge between the Dream and Nightmare?

What if Yogg-Saron isn't dead? What if in his house he still waits dreaming, quietly feeding on the nightmares of those left behind, the memories of horror that still lurk amongst those in Northrend who mop up the mess left after the Lich King's defeat? If this is true, if all of this is true, then we can never truly kill the Old Gods -- unless we wipe ourselves from existence, our minds no longer connected and feeding them raw power. Our very existence is the reason the Old Gods exist -- and our very existence guarantees that the Old Gods will never cease to be.

Look at the actions of the Twilight Cult -- the speeches on soapboxes in major cities just prior to the Shattering. The purpose wasn't just to gather new recruits; the purpose was to sow fear and discord, doubt and uncertainty. Those who chose to join with the Twilight Cult were ultimately worshippers whose thoughts and devotion fed the Old Gods; those who chose instead to veer away, frightened and uncertain of the fate of the world, fed the Old Gods as well. It's a no-win situation. So what can we do?

I have seen worlds bathed in the Makers' flames. Their denizens fading without so much as a whimper. Entire planetary systems born and raised in the time that it takes your mortal hearts to beat once. Yet all throughout, my own heart, devoid of emotion... of empathy. I... have... felt... NOTHING! A million, million lives wasted. Had they all held within them your tenacity? Had they all loved life as you do?

Perhaps it is your imperfection that which grants you free will. That allows you to persevere against cosmically calculated odds. You prevailed where the Titans' own perfect creations have failed. -- Algalon the Observer

Perhaps it is strength, or courage, or the simple tenacity to survive. It's the fiery perseverance in the hearts of people, random adventurers like you and me, that flares the moment we confront an Old God in its lair. It's that courage, that unwillingness to give up in spite of it all, that ... odd free will, so different from anything Algalon had ever observed, that caused the Old Gods to "die." In that moment of glory, in the minds of all that fought for their lives, there was no doubt, uncertainty, or fear -- it couldn't be afforded.

We cannot kill the Old Gods. But we can make them weak. The planet Azeroth hangs in a precarious balance between madness and despair, life and hope. On one side of the scales are the Old Gods; on the other, heroes like you and I. Perhaps the only way to truly defeat the Old Gods is to accept Azeroth for what it is: imperfect and corrupt. Embrace it, love it, and continue to soldier on regardless of the odds.

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.
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