Welcome back to Know Your Lore, WoW.com's column about the story behind the game we all play.
We talked last week about Quel'Delar, a sword of emerging lore, and the week before that we covered Darion Mograine, a pivotal figure to Death Knights and part of the reason we're fighting in Northrend. This week, however, we're kicking our look at the lore of Wrath of the Lich King in the caboose with a look at possibly the most reviled orc to ever live. Sure, he probably wasn't the most evil orc ever (Gul'dan wins that one in a walk, boy howdy) but for sheer staying power and for having a role in the genocide of the orcs against the draenei, the sundering of Draenor into Outland, and for being the first Lich King, you really have to hand it to Ner'zhul. Here's an orc who manages to pop up a lot in the lore.
If you did the Howling Fjord quests for the Alliance and made the mistake of walking too close to a certain King of the Liches (and other undead things) he delivers a line of dialog that perfectly explains why we're talking about Ner'zhul today. Before Arthas, there was Ner'zhul. Like Arthas, Ner'zhul wanted to save his people, to be a hero, to be respected and powerful. Like Arthas, Ner'zhul lost sight of the truth as he sought to achieve his goals. Unlike Arthas, however, Ner'zhul turned his face away from ultimate evil once he recognized it for what it was... but too late, far too late, and found himself damned for his hubris, forced to watch his apprentice do every evil thing he himself had refused to do.
It was the first prison for Ner'zhul, but it would not be the last.
Ner'zhul was a respected figure among the orcs of Draenor, who lived in nomadic tribes and had no central controlling power. Chieftain of the Shadowmoon Clan and an Elder Shaman (even revered older shamans like Mother Kashur respected him for his wisdom and knowledge of the spirits) but the respect of his people and their general acknowledging of him as pre-eminent among shamans wasn't enough for Ner'zhul. The fact that, in a people who were each loyal to clan or tribe first and their race second he was almost so revered that he could command clans not his own wasn't enough for him. It can be said honestly that Ner'zhul was deceived. And indeed, when dealing with an entity actually called 'The Deceiver' it's understandable. Kil'jaeden used the enormous power imparted to him by Sargeras himself as well as his own millennia of experience to mislead the elder shaman. The Deceiver had tracked Velen to Draenor and in so doing had observed the orcs (as well as had them observed by other agents) and saw in them good raw material. For as much as the orcs were a nomadic, shamanistic people, they were also a race capable of great savagery and violence, and as capable of being twisted and corrupted as any other species the Legion had encountered in their endless crusade through the nether.
Seeking to give Velen no warning this time, Kil'jaeden first took the form of Ner'zhul's deceased wife Rulkan (a spirit the elder shaman was accustomed to seeing in visitation) and then appeared in a form that was suitably impressive to convince the orc shaman that the draenei were plotting to enslave... or even worse... the native orcs of Draenor. That draenei magics (already seen as strange and incomprehensible by the orcs who witnessed them) would be used against them. Playing on Ner'zhul's vanity and need for overt power and position to match his unstated role. Kil'jaeden convinced Ner'zhul to whip the orcs into a frenzy and lead them in warfare against the draenei... a war the orcs were winning when Ner'zhul started to have doubts about the whole thing. Not as simple as Kil'jaeden had believed, Ner'zhul had noticed odd inconsistencies... how like a draenei the supposed mouth of the orc ancestors himself looked, for instance, and how much he hated Velen of the draenei, a level of personal hate that seemed incompatible with a divine spirit. Ner'zhul was many things... power hungry, vain, and overly susceptible to flattery, yes, all these... but he surely wasn't a fool. Troubled, he traveled to Oshu'gun to consult the spirits of the orc ancestors directly.
Here he learned that his wife's spirit had not been speaking to him of the draenei's treachery, that the ancestors did not endorse the war against their admittedly strange but never hostile neighbors, and that Ner'zhul himself, the elder shaman of his people, had completely failed in his duty to them. Shocked, horrified, and at his core sickened (while he felt no particular love for the draenei, his own people were indeed dear to him, and being informed of his own monumental failure was enough to shock him into action) he swore to turn his people away from their genocidal course before it was too late. Unfortunately for him, he hadn't been careful enough and his apprentice Gul'dan had overheard the entire conversation.
Both Ner'zhul and Gul'dan shared a love for power, but where Ner'zhul craved acceptance and needed to believe in his own righteousness, Gul'dan was completely devoid of any such illusions about himself. Ner'zhul cared about the orcs, and was infuriated that Kil'jaeden had misled and lied to him, while Gul'dan cared about himself and immediately went to the dark entity and proposed that Ner'zhul's usefulness to the demon was at an end, while Gul'dan would serve as a much more useful servant and lead the nascent Horde in exactly the direction Kil'jaeden the 'Great One' wanted it to. Ner'zhul's 'rebellion' was dead before he even got a chance to implement it, as the spirits of nature and the ancestors had already abandoned him, and the demonic power of Kil'jaeden was taken away from him. Impotent and helpless, left by those that had once been his allies and the source of his power and wisdom, the former elder shaman was left alive by his former apprentice to watch the rise of the Horde.
Honestly, to some degree the ancestor spirits are responsible here. Was Ner'zhul wrong in what he'd done? Yes, absolutely. But when he came seeking answers, confused and wanting to do the right thing, they chose to abandon him totally instead of helping him redress his error. They left him alone and powerless in the hands of his enemies and his betraying student. They did nothing to help him as he was forced to serve as a hollow rubber stamp of approval to the Shadow Council and Gul'dan. It's impressive that Ner'zhul even managed to warn the Frostwolves (and it's interesting that Drek'Thar, today one of Thrall's closest advisors and the one who brought him to shamanism was fully misled by Kil'jaeden posing as Mother Kashur but was forgiven for directly using the warlock magics while Ner'zhul, who turned away and tried to stop what he'd helped bring about was never so forgiven) not to drink the blood of Mannoroth.
Until the death of Gul'dan and the fall of the Old Horde at Blackrock Spire, Ner'zhul passes here into quiescence. When the Alliance forces destroy the Black Portal, Ner'zhul is one of the orcs nearly slain by the blast. He spends two years holed up with his Shadowmoon Clan (following the departure of the Old Horde and Gul'dan's death, Ner'zhul was once again the leader of the Shadowmoon) until one of Gul'dan's warlock apprentices and first Death Knight Teron Gorefiend comes to see him. This moment, where Gorefiend convinces Ner'zhul to assist him in the creation of more portals in order to find new, more easily conquered worlds, is pivotal for many reasons.
Ner'zhul had grown death obsessed over the years of his 'imprisonment' at the mercies of Gul'dan and the Shadow Council, and while he hated and loathed Gorefiend as a lackey of Gul'dan's and a former warlock, the Death Knight's strange undead state impressed him. For whatever reasons... the chance to do something again rather than exist as a puppet ignored by both the ancestors and elements and mocked and reviled by the demonic forces that he'd helped unleash, or perhaps a desire for revenge on a world that he felt abandoned by... Ner'zhul told the Death Knight to assemble artifacts of power.
One of those artifacts was the skull of his former apprentice, Gul'dan, which I still think he only had Gorefiend fetch so he could look at it and laugh. I mean, a lot. I expect there were entire afternoons spent sitting on the edge of whatever latrine the Shadowmoon used, giggling incoherently while looking at Gul'dan's bony pate. Maybe he'd pick it up (possibly not wiping as thoroughly as he could) and hold it in front of himself and snicker right into the empty eye sockets. Perhaps not, but man, I would have.
We could belabor Gorefiend's exploits to assemble said artifacts but what ultimately happened is this: Gorefiend succeeded through sheer, unholy badassery. Ner'zhul used the artifacts to harness Draenor's latent energies and in so doing opened not one, but a series of portals. The sense of reconnecting to forces greater than himself drove Ner'zhul (who had spent years at this point a helpless wreck of an orc, cast out by both his shamanic spirits and the demons) totally into power madness. Declaring himself the Horde entire, Ner'zhul ordered those that had helped with the ritual to either leave Draenor through one of the portals or to die, and stepped through himself, unleashing magical forces in the process that turned a formerly lush planet into the place we all spent 10 levels thinking "wow, this place is a dump'.
It turned out that for all his 'muhahahaha, I am the power' spiel that Ner'zhul had merely exchanged one kind of prison for another. On the other side of the portal waited Kil'jaeden, and the de facto Lord of the Burning Legion was anything but gentle with his former servant. He slowly tore Ner'zhul's body apart until the orc agreed to serve the Legion again, and used his spirit as the core of a malevolent entity fused to ancient armor and a potent runeblade called Frostmourne, and so Ner'zhul the elder shaman of the Shadowmoon Clan of Draenor became the first Lich King and was hurled bodily into Azeroth to accomplish with his new power what his former student had failed to do.
The story of Warcraft III is the story of Ner'zhul finding and corrupting a new apprentice, ultimately. It's the elder shaman, his former benevolent aspects snuffed out, his hubris and power lust turned into a frozen force so potent even the demons couldn't control it, seeking out a kindred spirit and using him to first free him from the Legion's control, and eventually from the prison of bodiless ice he was locked into. In the end, however, he may yet again have chosen his apprentice poorly, as Arthas appears to have not only torn out his own humanity but to have consumed every last vestige of the elder shaman in the process.
It's impossible to say how much of Ner'zhul was left from Kil'jaeden's torture even before he merged with, became a presence within and ultimately was consumed by Arthas Menethil. Did the Lich King choose to make Arthas the first of the new Death Knights because of memories of Teron Gorefiend? (And thus, did he ultimately end up stealing Gul'dan's idea?) How much of the Lich KIng was Ner'zhul in the first place, and how much of him is left now?
It's hard to say, but I'll always remember that last chuckle before the Lich King killed me in Howling Fjord.
"Shamanism has brought you here...its scent permeates the air. I was once a shaman."
Ner'zhul is dead, yes, devoured by the entity that calls itself king of the liches. But Ner'zhul can never really die. There could be no Lich King without Ner'zhul. Skull faced orc visionary, madman, prophet, tool of cosmic evil, helpless witness to his own failure, destroyer of worlds, frozen king of death, there have been many faces to the elder shaman. It was Ner'zhul who broke Arthas Menethil, Ner'zhul who slipped Kil'jaeden's leash and handed to the mortal races the hints they needed to destroy Archimonde. I, for one, think there's more of Ner'zhul left inside that armor than we realize.
Patch 3.3 is the last major patch of Wrath of the Lich King. With the new Icecrown Citadel 5-man dungeons and 10/25-man raid arriving soon, patch 3.3 will deal the final blow to Arthas. WoW.com's Guide to Patch 3.3 will keep you updated with all the latest patch news.