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Know Your Lore: The undead, part 3 -- the cold, bleak future

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.

One of the things I've most wanted to make clear in this series is that neither the Scourge nor the Forsaken have the monopoly on undeath now. The Scourge were joined by the will of the Lich King, and the Forsaken defined by their defection from the Scourge's ranks under Sylvanas Windrunner, but neither group created the state and neither has exclusive control over the creation of new undead. There are still vast numbers of Scourge in Northrend today, milling about under the control of the new Lich King, held in check but still a potential threat to the world. The Forsaken grow in numbers and might due to no small part to Sylvanas' deal with the val'kyr and her own experiments with the Plague of Undeath.

But both of these groups, for all their numbers, are not the only means to create more of those trapped between life and the sepulcher. The Risen (former Scarlet Crusaders from Stratholme and Tyr's Hand, now enslaved by Balnazzar), ancient and modern self-willed undead, and even those directly cursed by unfathomable forces (such as the continent of Kalimdor itself) have all existed over the years.

With the parting of the Mists of Pandaria, it would be easy to forget that the lands of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms will not be standing still. We know that both Scarlet Monastery, home of those remaining forces that did not make the trip to Northrend as part of the Scarlet Onslaught after the onslaught of Acherus, and Scholomance itself will see new developments, new stories. As we turn our attention away from these cold, chill places, the dead refuse to remain quiet.

The return of Scholomance to prominence is very interesting because it continues the fragmentation of the Eastern Kingdom's Scourge followers and the Cult of the Damned following the death of Kel'Thuzad and the fall of Arthas. The new Lich King seems unable or unwilling to force his will upon those so far from his Frozen Throne, leaving the Scourge in the Plaguelands divided and the Cult rudderless. The Alliance, the Horde and the Argent Crusade have all moved themselves into places formerly held by either the Scourge or the Scarlets, but the Cult of the Damned is hardly destroyed in the Plaguelands. Pushed back, weakened? Yes. But not gone.

We saw during the Cataclysm expansion that many of the high-ranking Scourge in the Plaguelands were attempting to carve positions of power and authority for themselves and assert control over their less intelligent or free-willed fellows. Ix'lar the Underlord is just one example of a former servant of the Lich King who now serves his own agenda.

While the Lich King was at full power, he could force even those undead of his creation who retained their minds to serve him slavishly, but the current Lich King is still coming into his power, and we have no idea what his state of mind is now or will be. At present, he does not seem capable of exerting his will as far as Arthas could, perhaps because he lacks a powerful servitor like Kel'Thuzad to serve as an extension of his will, or perhaps simply due to not wishing to embrace the full extent of his new power the way Arthas did.

This leaves the Scourge and the Cultists in the Plaguelands diminished, weaker, without his direct guidance -- but it also means that for the first time, the Scourge in the Plaguelands also serves no master and can hatch their own plans. There's no one to tell cultists what to do outside of their own groups. There's no hand on the reins.

The return of the Scholomance to prominence is troubling because it confirms that even leaderless, the Scourge has not faded away. Ras Frostwhisper, once a direct servant of Kel'Thuzad, now has the freedom to make his own plans, direct his own actions and create his own evils. The Scholomance's fell faculty (led by Darkmaster Gandling, a member of the Cult of the Damned skilled in necromantic magic) can raise the dead without need for the Plague of Undeath. Having lost to Thassarian and Koltira's forces during the Battle for Andorhal, Gandling's Cult has retreated to their redoubt in the Scholomance and clearly are working alongside Jandice Barov.

Undeath unfettered by any master

What's really fascinating to contemplate here is the presence of Lilian Voss. We know from the achievements we've seen that there will be some role for the haunted young Forsaken assassin, formerly a member of the Scarlet Crusade in life, raised from the dead by Sylvanas against her will. She's got no love for the Scourge, the Forsaken, the Scarlet Crusade or anyone else, really. So why is she involved in the Scholomance? We know only that we're expected to defeat her and that there's an achievement for doing so before her soul can reach 24% health. What can we make of this?

Frankly, it seems extremely unlikely that Lilian would deliberately ally with the Cult of the Damned, especially figures like Darkmaster Gandling and Ras Frostwhisper, much like Jandice Barov. Her hatred for the Scourge hasn't abated from her living days, to the point that one of the reasons that she was so willing to kill Scarlet Crusaders was their insistence on trying to kill her due to their belief that she was Scourge. But it may not have been necessary for Lilian to willingly join up with the Cult at all.

The Lich King learned much of his necromancy from Kil'jaeden, after the left hand of Sargeras caught the orc shaman Ner'zhul between worlds and rent his body and soul asunder, placing the essence of the orc into what would become the Frozen Throne, bonded to a suit of mystical armor.

But before that, Ner'zhul helplessly watched as his former studen Gul'dan accepted Kil'jaden's tutelage and displaced him. Ner'zhul watched as Gul'dan formed the Shadow Council, watched the orc warlock's reckless sorcery. Ner'zhul saw the conquest of the Temple of Karabor and watched as Gul'dan and his necrolytes experimented with the most foul and twisted magics ever learned by mortals. Remember, Gul'dan was so talented a prodigy that he invented the first death knights ever seen on Azeroth merely as a means to and end (that end being the preservation of his own life). Death knights, a force so powerful that Ner'zhul's successor Arthas would first become one and later make an army of them, were an afterthought for Gul'dan.

In the hands of death burn baby burn

Anyone who has explored the corrupted Black Temple has seen that the place teems with souls torn from their bodies. Not only was Akama enslaved by Illidan via the separation of his soul from his body, but the fearsome and incomprehensible Reliquary of Souls lurks in the Temple, and it seems likely that it predated Illidan's arrival. Perhaps Illidan made use of the Reliquary to separate Akama's shade from his body and thus force the Broken to serve him.

Now, while it seems that Gul'dan is the most likely candidate to have created the Reliquary (perhaps even twisting some beneficial draenei or naaru artifact), the reason I really believe this is the existence of the Forge of Souls and the Devourer of Souls at its heart. If Illidan created the Reliquary, how does the Lich King (with the memories of Ner'zhul) effectively have an identical soul-rending engine of his own? One possibility could be that Illidan gained the knowledge from the Skull of Gul'dan, but that would just mean that the creation of the Reliquary was indirectly Gul'dan's. At any rate, we now see that the Lich King possessed a similar soul engine, one that could tear a soul apart, bind it, and even use it for some unknown purpose.

Now, consider the Scholomance, a school for necromancy founded by the Barov family under the auspices of Kel'Thuzad. Kel'Thuzad, for his part, learned necromancy from the original Lich King, who learned it not only from Kil'jaeden but by watching Gul'dan and his acolytes perform their twisted research. Gul'dan clearly knew how to tear a soul apart, to bind it (he bound the souls of his followers into jeweled truncheons to create the first death knights) and to enslave it. Clearly, Illidan used this knowledge to pull the evil out of Akama and bind it in place. Why couldn't Kel'Thuzad have learned just such a technique from his master, and why couldn't Ras Frostwhisper have learned it in turn?

Lilian Voss represents a danger to the living and the dead, but she also represents power. And with the Lich King no longer controlling them, the Scourge of the Plaguelands are all concerned with finding and acquiring as much power as possible. Why not? Someone has to rule -- and if the Lich King can't or won't, Frostwhisper and Gandling would doubtlessly prefer themselves to, say, a vengeful Sylvanas and her legions of fanatical Forsaken. But who could possibly kill Sylvanas?

Lilian could. Her prowess in the arts of sorcerous assassination only grew upon her death. She's worked with a Forsaken High Executor, so she could probably get into Undercity. She'd make the perfect assassin, if they could control her. And how better to control her than to remove and bind her soul, just as Illidan did to Akama using Gul'dan's secrets? Remember, too, that Gul'dan himself performed experiments with the Runestone left at Caer Darrow, the very site of the Scholomance. Could the Cult of the Damned pull a portion of Lilian's tormented spirit out of her corpse and force her to serve them? And could they survive her reprisal if she ever got free?

We have yet to see what the true story of the Scholomance will be, but clearly, the undead of the haunted school for necromancy are not disposed to rest quietly. There does not, ultimately, have to be a Lich King, a Banshee Queen, or even a dreadlord for there to be undead. They seethe in their unquiet torment, and they dwell in the darkest corners of the world. The Scourge could be destroyed, the Forsaken fall, the Plaguelands bloom with new life ... and yet there would still be undead.

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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