The end that should have ended war
After the events of the Second War, it appeared that humanity had finally triumphed over the orcs and their invading Horde, driven the forest trolls of Zul'Aman back into exile, and otherwise saved the world as they knew it. Ruined Stormwind was to be rebuilt (most likely as much to honor Anduin Lothar, the Lion of Stormwind and architect of the Alliance of Lordaeron). Traitorous Alterac lay in ruins itself, crushed by Uther the Lightbringer and the Alliance forces. Those orcs who didn't have the good sense to die with their fellows were held in camps, after an internal debate among the kings of the Alliance's nations.
To win the war, the Alliance had held together. Dwarves, high elves, humans and even gnomes had fought side by side, welded together by the force of will of the greatest warrior and general Azeroth had seen in generations. It may be fairly said that only Anduin Lothar could have brought all the kings of Azeroth's humans together, as he was the last descendant of Thoradin and in fact, if not in name, ultimately the one, true king of humanity. Furthermore, only Lothar could have brought the high elves to the table, as their nation owed his bloodline a debt it could not refuse. However, while his life brought unity and victory, his death on the slopes of Blackrock Mountain just as surely led to the end of the very Alliance he had founded. What would have happened, had he lived? Would the grateful nations of the Eastern Kingdoms have acclaimed him king? Impossible to say, but what happened following his death is clear enough.
With no force of will so strong as Lothar's to hold them back, the kings of humanity fell to squabbling, bickering, and infighting. Proud Gilneas and Kul Tiras didn't see much point in continuing to contribute to projects like internment camps and Nethergarde Keep in the deserted Blasted Lands, watching over a hole in the ground where the Dark Portal had once stood. Stromgarde, bled white during the war, hungered to take over Alterac and her rich farmlands -- Gilneas too, though Alterac was a rich prize. While the minor lord Daval Prestor served to smooth over some of these tensions as a compromise candidate for rulership of Alterac, his sudden disappearance left the question open and the nation leaderless and often lawless.
Whimpering and crawling an Alliance dies
Eventually, both Gilneas and Stromgarde left the Alliance, Gilneas out of a general sense of dissatisfaction with the idea of Gilnean lives being spent on what they saw as the problems of other nations, and Stromgarde more specifically over Alterac and the orc internment camps. Gilneas objected to these, as well, but moreover the idea that they would be expected to pay to keep orcs alive. If Terenas was fool enough to want to feed and house alien monsters that had murdered his fellow kings, that was his foolishness. But to Stromgarde, the oldest human nation, the deaths at the hands of the orcs were far more personal, as the Horde had actually marched across her lands and burned her people's homes. Few Gilneans truly felt the ravages of the war the way the other nations had. Keeping orcs alive was an insult to every human who had died, heads torn off and stuck on pikes to amuse the warchiefs of a savage, invader race. It was an insult to the death of Lothar on the slopes of Blackrock, and worse, the loss of Danath Trollbane as a member of the Alliance Expedition. Thoras Trollbane did not take this well at all.
While all of this was progressing, Stormwind was rebuilding. There was a setback as Horde from beyond the Dark Portal invaded to steal a magical artifact. But after the Second War, the city of lions rose proudly once more, rebuilt by the stonemasons under Edwin VanCleef. Sadly, the dragon Onyxia, posing as Katriana Prestor, managed to manipulate the House of Nobles of Stormwind (a greedy and selfish, short-sighted lot) into refusing to pay what VanCleef's masterful designs cost to realize. A riot broke out that killed Tiffin Wrynn, wife of the young king Varian. Already distracted from rule by his desire to bring his father's betrayer and murderer to justice, Varian sank into a years long depression.
In just a few years, the Alliance of Lordaeron had gone from a collection of victors to a fractured, almost impotent body. The elven, dwarven and gnomish allies had all retreated to their own affairs. Gilneas built her infamous wall and vanished from history. Stromgarde, alone and with few resources, began her slow decline. Alterac became a land of criminals who were once rulers and who ruled in fact through crime, even as Lordaeron tried to enforce an untenable martial law over the place. Magical Dalaran barely concerned herself with the affairs of the world around her. Only Lordaeron and Kul Tiras were ruled by active monarchs, and while Terenas was mentally fit, he was aging. His son Arthas, the heir apparent, had witnessed his father's growing weariness during the Prestor affair (when despite having previously promised otherwise, Terenas nearly forced his daughter Calia to marry Daval Prestor) and vowed to be the strength his father's rule required.
Dreams die, as do those who dream them
To cover the entire Third War would not only divert us, but it's already been done. What is sufficient is to demonstrate what happened to humanity during this nearly apocalyptic war. The First War destroyed one human nation. The second destroyed another but also rebuilt Stormwind. At the end of the First and Second Wars, humanity had ultimately held onto all of its territory from before them, even if there had been destruction and travail.
But at the end of the Third War, humanity had completely lost Lordaeron, had effectively lost Stromgarde, had no idea that behind the Greymane Wall the people of Gilneas were enduring civil war and the worgen curse and could no longer maintain contact with Kul Tiras. Dalaran had ceased to exist. Left effectively alone, Stormwind struggled on under a king who barely wanted to rule, while the remains of Lordaeron and Kul Tiras had either left for Kalimdor or flocked to Stormwind to be taken in as refugees. Kul Tiras was doubly abandoned, as Jaina Proudmoore took much of their fleet with her, and her father Daelin followed with almost all that was left.
In recent years, Varian Wrynn went from a distant, barely present ruler to a vanished one and then returned to reveal the deceit of Katriana Prestor and her true idenity as Onyxia. In so doing, Varian became a figure of hope for his people, who had endured so many defeats and so much loss over the past decades. It's hard for others to understand how Varian has galvanized not only the Alliance but his own people. With so many humans dead -- with so much territory lost, so many nations wiped out, with the Horde expanding on all fronts, with monsters like the Lich King and then Deathwing menacing a people who have already lived through waves of terror and death -- how could Varian not prove popular at first? Even those who fomented dissent against him had to use the chaos of the times to do so. His approach contrasted greatly with that of Jaina Proudmoore, the ruler of the only human settlement on Kalimdor.
In the decade since the Third War, Stormwind has managed to expand its power, concentrating much of what remains of humanity in the territory under its control. The influence of Katrina Prestor has left Stormwind's control over the regions surrounding it weak at best, and the ruinous expense of the war against the Lich King has prevented Stormwind from improving the situation. Poverty in Westfall has allowed the Defias Brotherhood to thrive and rebuild after Edwin VanCleef was hunted down and killed. Redridge continues to try and fend off Blackrock ocs with little to no help from Stormwind. Duskwood struggles against marauding worgen and undead. The few settlements in Stranglethorn contend with trolls, the jungle itself, and ancient magics. Theramore, for its part, is the wedge driven into Horde domination of eastern Kalimdor, and it is constantly under pressure, following the successful Horde invasion that slew Daelin Proudmoore after the Third War.
The last stand of mankind
Humanity is at present the most battle-hardened it has been since the time of the Troll Wars. Most living citizens of Stormwind and Theramore are refugees from former nations now destroyed or were themselves once refugees when Stormwind itself burned. Human settlements destroyed in what is now the Swamp of Sorrows are still rememberd and fought for by the children who were forced to watch their parents die at orcish hands.
Every human alive in all of Azeroth remembers those three wars, which all took place in living memory of almost any adult human. These aren't the distant wars of night elves, the most recent one before the Third War a thousand years ago, or the War of the Three Hammers that took place centuries ago. No, these are wars so recent that even short-lived humans can remember them, remember the people lost in them, and lament the choices and missed opportunites of the peaces between them, short as they were. To some, the Third War almost never seems to have ended, with the battle in Northrend so fresh in their minds.
Now, humans like Greymane and Trollbane look like prophets, as the children of the same orcs who murdered Tess Blueheart's family bring war to humanity once again. Spared in the camps, they bring death, seeking to invade Stormwind from the sea and burn it as they once did via a traitor's dagger. The Cataclysm that shook the world seems like more of the same, and the scars of a dragon's claws on Stormwind remind its people of how close they have come before to being totally wiped out. For humanity, times have never been this interesting, and the stakes never this high. Now is humanity's chance to stand or fall, to be remembered as its finest hour or its final one.
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