Bolvar went north, to lead the forces against the Lich King. Alliance players questing through Dragonblight run into him unexpectedly during a quest chain at Wintergarde Keep. In helping the 7th Legion out at Wintergarde, it's revealed that the appearance of Naxxramas is the result of Thel'zan the Duskbringer. Once known as Inigo Montoy, a priest down in Eastern Plaguelands, he's now been raised as a lich. It's up to the players to kill him -- and during the seemingly hopeless fight, Bolvar appears to help out.
Fun fact: If you are playing through on a character that completed the Masquerade quest chain prior to its removal from the game, Bolvar will tell you it's nice to see you still alive and kicking, and thank you for your help in Stormwind so long ago.
After Bolvar takes his leave from Wintergarde, Alliance players are sent to help him out at Angrathar. Bolvar's been busy assembling troops for a particularly bold move -- confronting the Lich King at his doorstep. He has an odd ally in the form of Draenosh Saurfang, son of Varok (aka the baddest orc that ever lived). While the Horde and Alliance forces are at each other's throats here and there in Northrend, at Angrathar there is no quarrel between the two -- obviously both Bolvar and Saurfang realize that fighting each other is an idiotic notion in the face of a far greater threat. After assisting the red dragonflight with retrieving the Scythe of Anitok, a weapon that should prove helpful in upcoming battles, players are sent back to Bolvar Fordragon one last time.
This is the last moment of Bolvar's life -- the plague of the Forsaken slowly infusing his body and leeching the life from it, he looks to the sky and sees the red drakes led by Alexstraza herself, razing the area to the ground with their fire. Bolvar Fordragon is, effectively, no more.
Or is he? Later in the game, much, much later in the game, players running through Ulduar and fighting Yogg-Saron are treated to three different visions in the boss's brain room. The first is a vision of the creation of the Dragon Soul, an artifact created by Neltharion, who had been driven mad by the Old Gods. The second, a vision of the assassination of King Llane by Garona the half-orc; more than likely a reference to the events contained in the Warcraft comics, which I'll be recapping at a later date. The third vision is of the Lich King with an orc death knight by his side, torturing someone referred to as an Immolated Champion. The dialogue between the two, as well as commentary by Yogg-Saron, is as follows:
The Lich King: Your resilience is admirable.
Immolated Champion yells: Arrrrrrgh!
Immolated Champion: I'm not afraid of you!
The Lich King: I will break you as I broke him.
Yogg-Saron: Yrr n'lyeth... shuul anagg!
Yogg-Saron: He will learn...no king rules forever. Only death is eternal!
The Immolated Champion is Bolvar Fordragon. This was the subject of heavy speculation when the sound files and the images of the Immolated Champion were released, but there's no doubt about it anymore, that's Bolvar. Captured by the Lich King after the events at Angrathar, Bolvar was tortured mercilessly in an attempt to fashion a death knight out of him, much like Deathbringer Saurfang, the remnants of Varok's son. But Bolvar would not be turned -- showing an admirable amount of resilience; he resisted the Lich King's control.
When players finally entered Icecrown Citadel for the first time, they heard Bolvar again:
The Lich King says: The breaking of this one has been taxing. The atrocities that I have committed upon his soul. He has resisted for so long, but he will bow down before his king soon.
Highlord Bolvar Fordragon says: NEVER! I... I will never... serve... you!
And players that have defeated the Lich King discover Bolvar's final fate. From staunch defender and advisor to Stormwind's throne, to defender and protector of the world itself:
Bolvar, a charred shadow of his former self unselfishly and without reservation takes the mantle of the Lich King as his own.
But how did Bolvar survive? One can only speculate, and I've thought this over ever since I first saw the Lich King's death. Bolvar states in the final sequence that the dragons' flames sealed his fate, which got me thinking. Here is a man stricken with a plague of death that is leeching through and destroying his body -- and as he dies, his eyes lift skyward. Red dragons soar overhead, scorching the ground with their flames. Red dragon flames. The flames of life -- the only thing that can counteract a plague of death and keep it from spreading. Bolvar was smack in the middle of the flames, and rather than killing him, they brought him back from the edge of death that the plague had pushed him to. No longer truly alive, yet imbued with the life-giving essence of those flames, Bolvar Fordragon was unable to die. The Lich King somehow retrieved his body, intent upon forging a new champion -- but Bolvar's spirit could not be broken.
We saw a faint echo of that spirit so many years ago when that paladin faced off against a slew of elite dragonkin and inexplicably won. It's the same spirit that kept him devoted to Stormwind, the spirit that hoped for peace, the spirit that loved young Anduin Wrynn and vowed to keep him safe. It was that strength of will that kept him from falling under the Lich King's command -- and he knew that there had to be someone, something holding the Scourge back. Someone had to take over the mantle when Arthas fell -- Yogg-Saron stated as much in his vision. Only death is eternal -- and if there is nothing to hold back that plague of death, the world would fall, and only death would remain.
With the Lich King gone, Bolvar Fordragon was free -- but no longer himself. The flames of the red dragons had eaten away most of his body, leaving behind a charred, unrecognizable mass that would surely horrify anyone he encountered. Unable to die, and unable to truly live, there was nothing left for Bolvar to do but take up the mantle. He alone showed the strength and tenacity required to hold back the Scourge, and he alone had no other real place in the world. No longer a leader that people would follow, unable to die and take his place among the world's heroes, Bolvar was meant for this task, utterly and completely.
While Tirion Fordring would've gladly taken the place, he was a lousy choice. Why? Because despite his motives for good, he is still willing to take matters into his own hands and make choices that may or may not be for the good of Azeroth. Rather than seeking help or advice upon retrieving Arthas' frozen heart, he instead made a snap judgment and destroyed it. Could Arthas have been redeemed? Not according to Fordring -- but did Fordring really know, or was he simply ticked off enough that he decided to call Arthas on his bluff? Regardless of the answer, a human being that is working on his own motivations wouldn't make a good choice for the Lich King -- his corruption at the hands of the Lich King would be inevitable.
For what is being taken here isn't just a simple title -- it's that entity that Kil'jaeden created so long ago. Arthas is dead, well and truly dead if the cinematic is any indication. Ner'zhul may or may not have been killed at the hands of Arthas the Lich King in the novel Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, but one thing is clear -- at that last moment, at the Lich King's final breaths, the only thing remaining is a tattered scrap of what was once Arthas Menethil. No redemption, no final moment of glory, no cackling, mad former orc shaman. Simply a man in the spirit of his father's arms, staring off into space and uttering his final words:
"I see only darkness before me."
There is speculation that Arthas, at the end of the Rise of the Lich King novel, didn't kill Ner'zhul. Instead, he now lords over Ner'zhul's spirit, rather than collaborating with it. If Arthas is gone, however, that piece of Arthas that crushed Ner'zhul's spirit is no longer present, meaning either the Lich King is just an entity combined with Bolvar Fordragon now -- or that Ner'zhul's spirit is once more free to have a chat with Bolvar about the state of the world and how much nicer it'd be if everyone simply ceased to be.
Is he dead for good? Is there more to his story? A post from the developer chat on Twitter has some interesting news:
Q. Will Ner'zhul appear at any point in 3.3 or the near future?
A. Well, he is a chunk of the Lich King now. But if you mean will he appear as an orc, we're not ready to tell his story just yet. We have a lot of stories left to tell, but his is a good one.
Sadly, this doesn't really answer any questions. It could mean that Ner'zhul is alive, and his spirit is still in the Lich King and now working on Bolvar. It could mean they'd like to release a novel about Ner'zhul's life. It could mean Ner'zhul had a nephew that nobody's heard about who decided to travel back in time, it could mean the details of Ner'zhul's brief but passionate affair with Myra Tyrngaarde will at last be revealed. There is no solid information to build on -- and there won't be, until Blizzard decides to reveal it. Players noted a change in Bolvar's voice as he spoke the last lines of the cinematic, and people are going wild, saying that it's proof that Ner'zhul is still there and present, and we haven't seen the last of him. Unfortunately, we have no proof of this.
What we do know is this -- Bolvar Fordragon, champion of Stormwind, the man of legend that once battled umpteen elite dragonkin in Stormwind Citadel itself, is dead. The Lich King has risen once more to sit upon his Frozen Throne and control the Scourge of Icecrown and beyond. Whether he remains as steadfastly devoted to protecting the world of Azeroth, or slowly becomes corrupted from within once more, is a story yet to be told.