To make it clear: The Scourge are hardly the first undead to blight Azeroth. Captain Varo'then, the commander of Queen Azshara's personal guard, was so loyal to the Queen that he was willing to go so far as to destroy Kalimdor itself in her name, and the land itself cursed him to never rest within it, rendering him a ghost that endured for 10,000 years.
The state of undeath
The state of undeath isn't coupled to any of the many methods by which it has been reached. Some undead are self-created, such as the lich Naberius. Naberius is notable for having succeeded where even Kel'Thuzad failed in reaching undeath purely through his own actions. Even Ner'zhul himself only became undead after being tortured and torn asunder by Kil'jaeden, who then created him as a unique undead being in the form of the original Lich King, but Naberius brought himself to undead and the form of a lich.
Similarly, Meryl Felstorm (once Meryl Winterstorm) was a human mage who lived during the Troll Wars who directly kept himself in a state of undeath through his own magics. This is the rarest way for one to become an undead. Usually the state is bestowed or forced upon one by a powerful wielder of necromantic magic such as Kil'jaeden, the Lich King, or one of the Nathrezim.
One of the distinctions between groups of undead is their level of autonomy. The Risen, who in life were the Scarlet Crusaders deceived and used by Balnazzar in his cover identity of Saidan Dathrohan, display almost no free will and very little active intelligence. Even the Scourge under the various entities calling themselves the Lich King had members who displayed intelligent service to their master (such as Kel'thuzad as a Lich, Lana'thel, or Anub'arak), but the Risen lack even this level of independence, no doubt because of the experience Balnazzar had losing control of the Plaguelands to Sylvanas Windrunner and her Forsaken.
While the Forsaken seem fanatically loyal to Sylvanas, with a very few exceptions, they definitely appear to retain the most independence of thought and action of any of the undead born from Burning Legion necromancy. Essentially, the Forsaken were created in the same way as the majority of the Scourge, infection via the Plague of Undeath originally distributed by the cauldrons used by Kel'thuzad and the Cult of the Damned.
Loyalties and alliances
However, the modern Forsaken now have an entirely new method of creating more undead, as the Banshee Queen has made an alliance with a group of val'kyr formerly in service to Arthas. These val'kyr can directly raise the dead as free-willed Forsaken, but while it seems that the ones raised in the Deathknell area can choose whether to serve Sylvanas or not, the ones we see raised on Fenris Isle seem to immediately convert to fanatical worship of Sylvanas.
With the Scourge in disarray following Arthas' death and Bolvar's seizure of the Helm of Domination, the Forsaken are the largest active contingent of undead. As members of the Horde, the Forsaken have expanded onto the shores of Northrend as well as throughout the northern regions of the Eastern Kingdoms, holding much of the former Lordaeron, Gilneas, and the Alterac region and making inroads into the Arathi Highlands.
Another group to be discussed are the death knights of the Order of the Ebon Blade. These death knights, similar to the Forsaken, have regained a semblance of their former independence and have banded together. While death knights serve as members of both the Horde and the Alliance, all of the death knights that regained their wills after the Battle at Light's Hope Chapel are considered members of the Ebon Blade.
Originally dedicating themselves to vengeance against the Lich King for the undeath he forced upon them and the atrocities he used them to commit, the Ebon Blade is now in a position of uncertainty. With Arthas dead and the Scourge in shambles, they would seem to have no real purpose for existence. At present, Darion Mograine has not made any moves toward establishing a new purpose for the Ebon Blade in a post-Cataclysm world.
Next week: the nuts and bolts of the undead.
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