Know Your Lore: The life and legacy of Lei Shen

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|08.26.13

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Know Your Lore: The life and legacy of Lei Shen
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, somewhere in the dawn of Azeroth's history, before the Sundering split the world in two, there was a race of warlords called the mogu. Violent and cruel, the mogu fought relentlessly against everything -- including each other. That is, until one day when one mogu sought out the history and secrets of his people's past, discovering that they were creatures of far more potential, far more purpose than any had realized. It was a secret long forgotten, and the mighty Lei Shen not only uncovered it, but brought that secret back to his people.

For untold years after Lei Shen emerged from the depths of the Isle of Thunder, the mogu reigned supreme on Pandaria. They captured and enslaved the weaker races, forcing them into servitude. It was not until after the death of Lei Shen that the pandaren race finally rose up with the hozen, the jinyu, and even the grummles to disrupt and reduce the armies of the mogu to rubble, taking the continent of Pandaria back as their own and ruling in peace.

In the waning hours of Lei Shen's inevitable downfall at the hands of Azeroth's heroes, we'll soon be leaving these relics of ages past behind, and instead focusing on the future of our world. But the history of the mogu, the history of Lei Shen is not a tale we should soon forget.

Mogu History, version one

There are two distinct versions of mogu history that we've been presented with as players. The first is the one we were given at the onset of Mists of Pandaria, told by the pandaren race: The mogu are a race of ancient warlords. In ancient times, they brutally enslaved the pandaren race, forcing them to create the common sights we see in Pandaria today -- the Serpent's Spine, the great statues of mogu that litter the landscape, all were created by the labor and suffering of pandaren slaves. The pandaren were not allowed anything that might be construed as a weapon, and thus they learned to fight with their bare hands, eventually becoming the monks we see today.

According to the pandaren, the mogu were ruthless and cruel, possessing magical powers that allowed them to bend and shape flesh and stone at their whim. The mogu were responsible for the creation of the saurok, having warped and manipulated native lizards into what they hoped would be weapons that the mogu could then bend to their will. But with the saurok, as with all other races of Pandaria, the mogu made a fatal mistake. They forgot that these lesser creatures, whose lives and very genetic makeup they toyed with as if they were nothing, possessed a spark of free will.

And in the end, that was the downfall of the mogu. Despite all their might, despite all their power, they could not comprehend a world in which the lesser races would rise up against them. They expected the pandaren and the others to simply fall into line and obey. When confronted by the uprising, the mogu had little idea what to do, and their mighty empires crumbled, quickly falling to ruin. The mogu were left to disappear, becoming little more than stories to frighten pandaren children that didn't behave.

Mogu History, version two

The second part of mogu history was not discovered until we set foot on the Isle of Thunder, and it tells a very different tale. In the beginning of time, when the world of Azeroth was set to order by the Titans, the mogu walked among them with skins of stone, agents of the Titan's will. The mogu carved and shaped the mountains and valleys of Pandaria, similar to the activities of the earthen that later evolved into dwarves and troggs. The mogu had a keeper they simply referred to as "The Storm," a great being who gave them orders and told them what to do. This was Ra-den, the Titan Watcher that is buried deep within the Throne of Thunder.

But something terrible happened -- the Watcher fell silent. There are no records of this time period, likely because there was nothing to record these records, no one to think of writing them down. One can assume that much like robots without commands, the mogu simply milled about with no purpose, or shut down entirely, unable to comprehend existence without a voice to tell them what to do. And that's when the Curse of Flesh struck, changing the bodies of the mogu from stone to flesh, giving them life, breath, and blood -- all of which were incomprehensible to the mogu. Yet the Watcher remained silent.

And the mogu weren't just "gifted" with flesh by the Curse -- they learned pride, and greed, and anger, and fear. This is why the mogu began to fight with each other -- spurred on by emotions they did not fully comprehend, they were no longer working under the orders of their master. Instead, they were given free will, and allowed to carry out whatever these strange new emotions led them into. In a land permeated by the last vengeful breath of an Old God, this could only spell chaos ... which is exactly what the Old Gods are all about.

The rise of Lei Shen

The mogu ran rampant on Pandaria, without a vision or orders to guide them. Yet in the midst of the Age of a Hundred Kings, Lei Shen was born -- and unlike the rest of the mogu, Lei Shen remembered the old ways. Why, exactly, one mogu out of hundreds of thousands remembered a time when purpose and order were the keys to mogu existence is unknown. How, exactly, a mogu could be "born" when there were no females of what was essentially a sexless species of robots is also unknown. But Lei Shen looked upon the mogu, saw the folly of their ways, and set about with a plan of action: To awaken the gods -- the Watcher -- and set the mogu race right. Lei Shen traveled to the mountain in which, legends told, the gods slept.

Nobody knows what happened deep in the vaults beneath the mountain. He may have discovered Ra-den sleeping, discovered the Engine of Nalak'sha, and simply tore the power from the Watcher as Ra-den slept. He may have awoken Ra-den, only for Ra-den to turn on him once he rose from his slumber, proclaiming the mogu corrupt, wrong, something that needed to be destroyed. Regardless of what transpired, one thing was absolutely clear -- Lei Shen was powerful enough, strong enough to rip the powers of Ra-den from the Watcher, and emerge from the mountain no longer a simple mogu, but a mogu with the powers of the storms and the knowledge of a "god." The Thunder King.

When Lei Shen returned, the choice was given to the mogu of Pandaria -- follow Lei Shen's orders and carry them out, or be destroyed. He had no qualms at all about murdering his own people, if they were deemed to be broken enough to be beyond redemption. To the rest of Pandaria, Lei Shen appeared to be a ruthless warlord intent on enslaving those judged to be "lesser" races. As the mogu once served their Watcher, now the lesser races would serve the mogu -- and Lei Shen would stand above them all, dictating the order of the land and expecting those orders to be carried out.

Know Your Lore The life and legacy of Lei Shen

A tale of two villains

The mogu are a different kind of villain for World of Warcraft. While their actions both during the age of Lei Shen and today are horrific, savage and reprehensible to the rest of the world, to the mogu, they are only carrying out what must be, what always has been. Lei Shen wasn't necessarily trying to rule the world with an iron fist, he was simply acting on what was the prime directive of the mogu from the beginning of time -- order. Left without a being to give him a template of what order should be, Lei Shen took his cues from the world around him.

Yes, he decided to rule by fear by looking at the mantid. One could look at that two different ways -- he viewed the way in which they ruled their society and considered it good, modeling his version of order into theirs. Or, alternatively, he saw the mantid for what they were -- a race of creatures that perhaps even pre-dated the mogu, a race that could not be controlled. A race that could not be beaten. Because of this, they were a race to be feared -- and emotion, that odd gift of the Curse of Flesh, was a very powerful thing. Emotion, fear, could be used as a driving force to establish order and control.

What the pandaren view with terror, what they speak of in hushed tales of history long ago, what they warily speak of in ancient legends is nothing more than a horrifying reflection of what the world was meant to be. The mogu were tools of the Titans, and the Curse of Flesh ripped that function away from them. Lei Shen gave them purpose and a reason for existence -- when he passed on, they continued on the same path he had paved for them. When the lesser races of the world rose up against them, they fell apart -- none of Lei Shen's plans, none of the plans of the Titans accounted for this type of situation ever coming to pass.

Lei Shen's legacy

Lei Shen is now dead. His heart rests in the stomach of a black dragon who sought to understand what, exactly, the secret behind the power of the mogu was -- and Wrathion understood it, saw it all for one brief instant before it faded away. A moment of desperation: "We must rebuild the final Titan. Do not forget." This message came directly from the heart of the Thunder King -- we can only assume that this was part of the driving force behind Lei Shen's actions. He wasn't just setting the world to order, he was trying to carry out that purpose that echoed somewhere within the beat of his heart.

What can we learn from Lei Shen's reign of terror? That the Titans are not infallible. We knew that the Watchers, the Keepers of the world could be corrupted -- we saw it vividly in the halls of Ulduar, where Thorim, Freya, Mimiron, and Hodir were all corrupted and turned against players, their minds captured by the maddened whispers of Yogg-Saron. But at the time, it made sense for that to occur -- Yogg-Saron wanted to escape, the Keepers of Ulduar stood in its way.

Corruption is one thing. It's very easy to understand. But what happened to the mogu is something entirely different. Yes, they were touched by the Curse of Flesh. It shaped them into creatures that lived, felt emotion, breathed, bled, and eventually died. But it did not change their strange search for purpose, for order -- Lei Shen's actions weren't those of an evil warlord, they were those of an emotionally-charged creature trying to set the world back in order again, as the programming of the mogu originally intended.

Know Your Lore The life and legacy of Lei Shen

The downfall of the mogu

The Curse of Flesh was not the downfall of the mogu. The reason the mogu failed in their plan to keep Pandaria in an orderly, if violent, version of master and slave is the same reason the saurok failed as an experimental weapon. It's the same reason the mogu failed and milled about aimlessly fighting each other for thousands of years. It's the same reason that Algalon, when presented with players that refused to simply sit back and let him destroy the world, was so taken aback.

Free will.

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. I've rearranged the reply code. Your planet will be spared. I cannot be certain of my own calculations anymore.

Free will, the ability to think, dream, hope, love, aspire -- the ability to look at a situation, judge right from wrong and make the choice to stop that wrong from happening -- that is what stopped the mogu from winning, in those ancient times of mogu power. When the pandaren worked together with the other races of Pandaria and took a stand, the mogu had no idea what to do. They could not fathom a world in which "lesser races" stood up to them. When the cog in the machine simply stood up, said "No thank you," and left, that machine -- the mogu Empire -- fell apart.

And although the return of Lei Shen was terrifying, it was no longer anywhere near the threat that it was in those days of old. We have had thousands upon thousands of years to perfect our free will -- to hone our ability to make those judgments. To train ourselves to fight, to take a stand. It's no wonder that Lei Shen once again crumbled. Simply put, we had thousands of years to make ourselves stronger, while the mogu spent those thousands of years doing ... nothing, apparently.

In the end, the legacy of Lei Shen and the mogu isn't really a lesson to be learned. It isn't a flat moral that comes at the end of a legend. If the mogu, creations of the Titans, could not comprehend the power of free will when it was handed to them via the Curse of Flesh -- if Lei Shen felt that the only right course of action was not to try and understand and adapt, but instead abruptly steer the mogu back to the "correct" path ... then it is apparent the Titans did not expect us to behave and adapt in the way that we have. We were not meant to become what we have become. Which leaves the legacy of Lei Shen not as a lesson, but a haunting, unanswered question:

What did the Titans intend us to be, if not what we are today?

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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