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Know Your Lore: Interbellum Part 4 - The Queen of the Dead

Matthew Rossi

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.

With Illidan set to return to the war against the Lich King, we now switch stages and ask ourselves, what of the effect of his initial attack? Even though stopped by Malfurion and Maiev, Illidan had done great damage to Northrend and the Frozen Throne stronghold of the undead mastermind.

Unbeknownst to anyone, the Lich King had gambled heavily when he had forced Frostmourne from the icy monolith that held the armor his spirit was bound into. The ice was his prison, yes, but it also held the vast necromantic powers that Kil'jaeden had bestowed upon him. By damaging it, he had started a slow leakage of his might. Clearly, he viewed this an acceptable trade-off for gaining a valuable servant in Arthas. Just as clearly, he never foresaw Illidan's attack on him with the Eye of Sargeras. Illidan's interrupted magical onslaught managed to penetrate the Scourge's defenses and do untold damage to their frozen fortress and, in the process, greatly damaged the ice tomb of Ner'zhul's spirt, causing his power to gush forth like blood from a wound.

At the pivotal moment when Kil'jaeden was renewing his alliance with Illidan, the Lich King found himself weaker than he had ever been. It was the ideal moment to strike, and so the decision was made by the frozen entity to recall its most loyal servant. In so doing, a series of events was set in motion that would lead to the end of the Menethil line's dominion over Lordaeron -- and indeed, the end of humanity's rule over the greatest of human kingdoms.

The dead would have their day.

Read Part 1: Forcing Fate's Hand
Read Part 2: Into the Outland

Read Part 3: To Rule a World

A Windrunner runs wild

At the end of his invasion of Quel'danas, Arthas Menethil (the death knight whose soul had been stripped from him by the runeblade Frostmourne, making him the loyal servant of the Lich King) was not satisfied with destroying the Sunwell in order to bring Kel'thuzad into undeath as a lich. He was wrathful with the high elves for their obstinate resistance to the Scourge invasion forces, especially the valiant Ranger-General of Silvermoon, Sylvanas Windrunner.

Arthas was so outraged with this scion of the Windrunner clan that he felt her death at his hands wasn't punishment enough for her having dared to try and protect her home and people from his invading armies. No, a fate far worse than death suited Arthas and his outraged pride, and he tore from Sylvanas even the comfort of death.

This act would ultimately come to cost Arthas a great deal.

Months passed after the destruction of Silvermoon and the coming (and then defeat) of the Burning Legion. Arthas returned to Lordaeron and easily deposed the three dreadlords who had been left in control of the vast Scourge armies by Archimonde, forcing Balnazzar, Detheroc, and Varimathras out of the ruins of Lordaeron and seizing total control in the name of the Lich King. While this worked out very well for Arthas while the Lich King was still in possession of the majority of his power, once Illidan struck, the situation quickly destabilized.

The undead Sylvanas, while still under the thrall of the Lich King, had been one of Arthas' chief lieutenants and had assisted in his purge of the remaining living holdouts, murdering them with cold efficiency and forcing them into undeath. She even managed to reclaim her physical body during this time. However, her loyalty was completely imposed from above. Once the Lich King's power began to wane, Sylvanas was one of the first of his servants to regain her will and a cold hatred for the man who had forced her into undeath began to burn in her dead heart.

Being contacted by the dreadlords was not a surprise to her. Hiding her growing free will and that of her banshee servitors, Sylvanas made a pact with the three nathrezhim to aid them in destroying Arthas, but in her own way and independent of their control. So when the dreadlords forced Arthas to retreat from Lordaeron (partially due to his waning power, so tied was he to the Lich King), she took the opportunity to strike and sent her bansheers to lure Arthas into a trap under the guise of a rescue operation. Deceived, the self-proclaimed King of Lordaeron found himself struck down by a special arrow crafted by Sylvanas that paralyzed him.

Helpless before her, he could only demand a death she had no intention of granting. Sylvanas fully intended to take her time with Arthas, returning him the "mercy" he had shown her. If not for the intercession of Kel'thuzad, she would have begun torturing Arthas to a slow death, but the lich destroyed her banshees and forced her to retreat, denying her the long-awaited vengeance and leaving her behind in Lordaeron. The Plaguelands, as they had started to be known, were now locked in chaos between those forces still under the thrall of the Lich King and those commanded by the dreadlords.

It would fall to Sylvanas to break that standoff.

A Scourge turns in a Forsaken hand

Varimathras appeared to Sylvanas, offering her a position under him and his brothers in the new order they sought to create in the Plaguelands. The former Ranger-General would have none of it. She and the banshees that served her sought only to be left alone to ponder what, if any, role monsters like the undead could possibly have. Varimathras, for his part, warned the Banshee Queen (as she was now called) not to attempt to stand in the way of the rulership of the dreadlords.

Really, he might as well have just asked her to conquer him, really.

Angered by the demon's presumption and her own undead state, and knowing the dreadlords would waste little time in destroying her, Sylvanas moved quickly. She used her banshee servitors to amass an army by possessing the leadership of local forces of ogres, gnolls, murlocs and even a band of human assassins. She then used these dominated forces to surprise and defeat Varimathras, who pledged his service to her in exchange for his own life (although his later actions involving the Wrathgate and the Battle for the Undercity make it clear that he was just biding his time). While neither the dreadlord nor the undead ranger trusted each other, each believed they could make use of the other. Sylvanas used Varimathras to act against his brother Detheroc.

Detheroc had assumed control of the human commander Garithos, hiding within the bigot's camp and using him and his men as shields against outside attack. However, with several agents capable of possessing and controlling the minds of others, Sylvanas successfully turned the tables on Detheroc, taking control of those who would have warned him and easily fighting her way to where Detheroc was hiding. With her forces, she easily overpowered and destroyed (seemingly at least) Detheroc, freeing Garithos from his control. Amazingly, Sylvanas managed to come to terms with the Grand Marshal, offering him control over Lordaeron in exchange for his aid in sacking the place and destroying the final dreadlord commander Balnazzar.

It worked rather spectacularly. The two-pronged attack of Garithos' forces from one end of the city and Sylvanas' army from the other managed to overpower the demons serving Balnazzar, and the dreadlord was quickly brought to bay. Sylvanas demanded that Varimathras kill his fellow dreadlord to prove his loyalty. (Even though Varimathras claimed that his people never killed one another, he then apparently did as she bid, although Balnazzar quickly returned in the role of Saiden Dathrohan, Grand Crusader of the Scarlet Crusade.) She just as quickly repaid Garithos for his aid with death. With this last act of murder, Sylvanas had defeated all rivals and cemented her hold over Lordaeron as well as the rebel faction of undead no longer bound to the will of the Lich King. This would be the birth of the faction known today as the Forsaken.

But while Sylvanas seized power in Lordaeron, the man she hated most made his way to the roof of the world and a final confrontation with the forces of Illidan Stormrage. Next week, we end this series with a look at the end of the Lich King and his rebirth.

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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