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.
Part one covered the original launch game, and part two covered the Burning Crusade expansion. Part three is about Corgis Unleashed.
No, no, I kid. Part three is of course about Wrath of the Lich King, when our titular king of the liches gets upset. Miffed. Irate. Angry, even. This one is going to be long - even longer than the BC recap, so long that I see no choice but to split it into two parts. The Lich King was a long time in coming - players were clamoring for him from the moment World of Warcraft launched, and when the expansion bearing his name finally hit, it changed everything.
Like The Burning Crusade, WotLK started with an event. But unlike TBC, this particular event, the Scourge Invasion, was leaps and bounds more dramatic than expected. This time, the monsters were the players, so to speak.
It began with mysterious boxes appearing in Booty Bay and other cities and towns, spreading across Azeroth slowly. The boxes appeared in capital cities, shipped from unknown locales... and slowly, all over the world, the curse of undeath began taking root. At first members of the Argent Dawn could keep ahead of the tide of plague, but as it continued, more and more of Azeroth's heroes succumbed. Soon an irresistible tide of undead threatened Orgrimmar, Stormwind, Ironforge, Undercity (yes, even the forsaken were not immune) and other locations. Some ran and hid in the countryside, avoiding major cities, because these undead seemed to possess a sadistic enjoyment and sought to infect as many as possible.
As the plague increased in virulence, the forces of the Horde and Alliance rallied to try and end it. The Royal Apothecary Society of Undercity, led by Grand Apothecary Putress, set up a base in Shattrath in order to use its portals to help them travel the world of Azeroth, seeking a way to cure or overcome the disease, and the naaru created a potent Light-based altar to help purge the undead. Scourge necropoli made their appearances throughout Azeroth, heralding the Lich King's direct involvement. The Darkfallen Prince Tenris Mirkblood appeared in Karazhan, attempting to perform experiments on orders from the Lich King himself, forcing adventurers to strike him down.
Eventually, as the Scourge began invading the capital cities of Orgrimmar and Stormwind directly, a cure for the plague was discovered, and the undead were driven off, but not before the Lich King's herald addressed the world, daring them to bring the battle to his naster in his lair in Icecrown, the furthest northern part of the continent of Northrend.
And so, Alliance and Horde would do exactly that. The Lich King, Arthas Menethil, had to be stopped. It had been years since Arthas had traveled to Northrend to return a death knight, a servant of the Lich King and harbinger of the Scourge - had in turn slain his own father and delivered Lordaeron into the arms of undeath, then marched north to attack and befoul Quel'Thalas and use the power of the Sunwell to resurrect Kel'Thuzad as a lich. Years since Sylvanas Windrunner had become a banshee at his hands, then betrayed him and seized Lordaeron for her own. In that time, Arthas had marched to Icecrown, defeated Illidan Stormrage at the very foot of the spire created by the Frozen Throne's arrival on Azeroth, and ascended its frozen spike to break open the ice trapping Ner'zhul's spirit within a set of massive black armor. Atop that spear of ice, Arthas would don the Helm of Domination, and become a parody of what he had been - a husk, a king only of death and evil, a soulless aberration with necromantic power beyond anything previously seen on Azeroth.
The Knights of Death wield an Ebon Blade
For years, Arthas sat atop that very point, encased in ice, and the world moved on. Alliance and Horde faced menaces in Blackrock Mountain, Silithus, even Arthas' own minions in Naxxramas. Now, Arthas himself stirred, and the invasion proved he could strike simultaneously all over the world. It was impossible for the people of Azeroth to ignore him any longer, to allow his Scourge to blight the Plaguelands and settle on a policy of containment.
Little did they know what Arthas had set in motion during that period. A new order of death knights, champions of the Scourge and the Lich King, had descended upon the Eastern Plaguelands. This order, called the Ebon Blade, was headed by some of Arthas' most powerful servants - Inspector Razuvious, the Darkfallen princes, even Baron Rivendare himself - and at the top of this order presided Darion Mograine, son of the infamous Ashbringer himself, Alexandros Mograine. In seeking to create a new army of Scourge champions, Darion unleashed the Ebon Blade on the town of New Avalon, an enclave of the Scarlet Crusade and utterly annihilated it even as the Crusade under High General Abbendis abandoned the region of Tyr's Hand. Abbendis had visions that led her to take ship, leaving New Avalon's people defenseless - all died at the Ebon Blade's hands.
Yet all of this was merely part of Arthas' plan. New Avalon meant nothing to him, and neither did the Ebon Blade - one servant, or hundreds of trained knights of death, all were tools to be used after being wrenched from death. If they died again, it mattered little to Arthas, who could always find new corpses to raise, new fallen heroes to corrupt and enslave. And so Arthas sent the Ebon Blade under Mograine to attack Light's Hope Chapel and the holy power it concealed - the resting place of thousands of souls strong in the Holy Light. Despite their overwhelming force of numbers and necromantic might, the death knights were defeated by that very power. But they played their role in Arthas' plan, luring Tirion Fordring out of concealment so the Lich King could personally kill him.
Unfortunately for the Lich King, Darion didn't take well to being used as bait. Having seen an image of his father's spirit, the younger Mograine (who was not in Outland) chose to turn against his erstwhile master and surrendered the Corrupted Ashbringer he'd taken from his father's body to Tirion. The paladin used the Holy Light to awaken the sword's true power, and with it cleansed, forced the Lich King to retreat. Now, from Acherus the massive necropolis, Mograine led a revolt that cleansed the Ebon Blade of Scourge loyalists and sent death knights to join Horde and Alliance forces intending to bring war to the Lich King. They, too, sought revenge for their undeath.
To Arrive In Northrend
The Horde and Alliance set out for Northrend - Garrosh Hellscream's Warsong Offensive making their first strike into the Borean Tundra, while Sylvanas' forsaken set up camp in the Howling Fjord, at Vengeance Landing. The forsaken had a personal grudge to settle against the former Prince who had betrayed them all to the Scourge, and who was now also the embodiment of the Scourge itself, the personification of the entity that had once been Ner'zhul. For Hellscream, it was a chance for glory and warfare, to emulate the father he'd never really known - Thrall chose him in part to divert his restless energy away from Orgrimmar, where a confrontation between the shaman and the hotheaded warrior had been interrupted by the Scourge. Alongside Hellscream was Varok Saurfang, hero general of the Might of Kalimdor, brother of Broxigar and, in this instance, intended to serve as a brake on Hellscream's ambitions.
The Alliance, too, made landfall on both sides of the continent. Their base in the Borean Tundra, Valiance Keep, was seamed with the corrupting presence of cultists who served the Cult of the Damned, death worshipping zealots who saw in the Lich King a kind of god. In the Howling Fjord, the Alliance found themselves besieged by vrykul, barely keeping their base at Valgarde intact from endless waves of attacking giant berserkers, some of which had already embraced the Lich King's offer of immortality via undeath. Secrets about the origins of humanity itself would be found in the shadows of Utgarde Keep, and unwary souls would encounter the Lich King himself, cryptic and sardonic in his display of lethal power.
Each faction made inroads deeper into Northrend, confronting Scourge forces at the Temple City of En'Kilah in the Tundra and Gjalerbron in the Howling Fjord. Then they pushed forward, arriving in the Dragonblight and Grizzly Hills, both rife with further Scourge activity - the most dramatic being that the necropolis of Naxxramas had returned to Northrend, and somehow Kel'Thuzad had returned from the death dealt to him by a small army of adventurers. Meanwhile, the kingdom of Azjol-Nerub itself, besieged and mostly fallen to the plague, was now ruled by their former king Anub'Arak, now a slave to the Lich King as an undead Scarab Lord. Called the Traitor King by his former subjects, the heroes from the south found a way to ally with the remaining nerubians - slaughter the undead infesting their kingdom, and make war on the Twilight's Hammer cultists serving a faceless one in the Old Kingdom, beneath Azjol-Nerub itself.
In the Grizzly Hills, at first it seems that little if any Scourge were present - trolls threatened the coast and north near the enormous stairs leading up to the terraced city-empire of Zul'Drak, but of the plague of undeath there was initially little sign. However, looks were deceiving. The Lich King's minions had raised a fallen Archmage, Arugal, and enlisted his shade to help raise an army of worgen in service to Arthas. While battling this menace, it was discovered that the trolls on the coast were being pushed down from Drak'Tharon Keep, which was besieged by Scourge forces. This would lead to further complications, as it was through the actions of misled heroes that the Scourge would ultimately defeat the Drakkari trolls, destroy the Prophet Tharon'Ja, and take not just the keep but much of Zul'Drak itself.
Alliance forces made war on the Scourge pouring from Naxxramas, and slew Thelzan the Duskbringer, formerly Father Inigo Montoy (the same man who claimed the Phylactery of Kel'Thuzad at Light's Hope Chapel and then disappeared) alongside Highlord Bolvar Fordragon, while the Horde found themselves performing errands for the forsaken apothecaries at Venomspite. Saurfang, having aided heroes in defeating the Scourge in the Tundra, tasked them to keep an eye open in the Dragonblight, but none could have forseen the consequences of seemingly harmless requests - or at least, seemingly harmless to the Horde and its allies. Soon, concentrated efforts by both factions dealt the Scarlet Onslaught forces of High General Brigitte Abbendis a crippling blow, leaving her dead and the Onslaught base at New Hearthglen in shambles. This left both factions secure enough that they felt safe making the final push against Angrathar, the Wrathgate between Dragonblight and Icecrown Glacier.
What happened next proved that not all that was unfolding was the result of the Lich King's machinations, even though he clearly wished to be seen as a master manipulator goading the heroes of Azeroth to pursue him into Icecrown. At the Wrathgate, the forces of the Warsong Offensive under Dranosh Saurfang, son of Varok and of the 7th Legion under Bolvar Fordragon would make war upon the Scourge, and face the Lich King himself. Dranosh would die as Frostmourne struck him down, shattering his father's axe and reaving his soul from his body. Even as Fordragon claimed that Arthas would pay for his crimes, the truth behind the apothecaries of Venomspite and their agenda would be revealed.
What no one knew was that Grand Apothecary Putress - the same forsaken who had helped end the zombie outbreak - had switched paymasters. The Banshee Queen, Sylvanas Windrunner, had allowed one of the nathrezim, Varimathras, to live in exchange for the dreadlord's service as her aide. However, this turned out to be a mistake on her part, as Varimathras had no intention of remaining her servant - being a demon skilled in the art of corruption and deceit, it wasn't hard for Varimathras to find forsaken impatient with Sylvanas' regime. Putress and others in the Grand Apothecary Society aided the demon in a coup d'etat, driving Sylvanas to Orgrimmar, and struck at the Lich King knowing full well that many if not all of the Horde and Alliance forces present at the Wrathgate would be destroyed by their new form of the plague. Indeed, even the Lich King himself seemed stricken by the casks of weaponized disease as they exploded all around him.
Did you think we had forgotten? Did you think we had forgiven? Behold, now, the terrible vengeance of the Forsaken! Death to the Scourge... and death to the living!
--Grand Apothecary Putress speaking to Arthas
Casualties of the Wrathgate included, so far as anyone knew, both Bolvar and Saurfang the Younger. Incensed, Varian Wrynn refused to accept this attack, seemingly by the forsaken, and led a force of 7th Legion troops through portals and behind the lines, to the sewers of Undercity itself. Meanwhile, Sylvanas enlisted Thrall's aid to crush Varimathras and Putress in their rebellion. Thus, a full fledged battle for the Undercity erupted, with Thrall and Sylvanas leading Horde troops through the despoiled former gates of Lordaeron while Varian and his men, and a reluctant Jaina Proudmoore, infiltrated Undercity's sewers. The Alliance slew Putress and saw the evidence of just how the plague had been created - cages filled with dwarves, gnomes and humans who'd served as guinea pigs for months in the depths of the Undercity. Meanwhile, Thrall and Sylvanas destroyed Varimathras as the dreadlord attempted to summon his 'master' through an array of portals.
Enraged by the evidence of the Horde's willingness to kidnap, torture and even murder Alliance civilians, Varian sought out Thrall in Sylvanas' throne room, and the two nearly came to blows before Jaina chose to teleport the Alliance forces out of the Undercity. Left stunned by the outcome, Thrall could only accept the wisdom of a grieving father as Saurfang informed him that it was his task to carry on despite the death of any real chance at peace.
Indeed, neither faction would choose to willingly work together for the remainder of their time in Northrend. The Wrathgate exposed chinks in the Lich King's armor, yes. But it also proved to be the end of cooperation between the Alliance and Horde.
Next week, we finish the story of Wrath of the Lich King - what dark force slept in Ulduar? How did Zul'Drak fall? Why did the Titans wish to safeguard Sholozar Basin? And how did the Lich King finally fall?
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.