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Know Your Lore: The undead, part 2

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.

Undeath in Azeroth and beyond it (such as the hordes of angry dead in Auchindoun on the former world of Draenor, now Outland) is a terrible condition. Undead are not supposed to be undead; undeath is an imposed condition that creates a moving entity that does not live. (Even in those few who achieved undeath themselves, like Meryl Felstorm, undeath is still imposed on their flesh or spirit -- it's simply self-imposed.) Undead spirits do not hold perfectly to this mortal coil, and as a result, they often suffer greatly.

Undead who manage to maintain any fraction of their former will and sapience are beings who simply cannot truly feel the world any longer. Their spirits dwell forever trapped in between the rest they are unable to achieve and the sensations that life brings, sensations they can no longer fully experience. This separation from life is due to the fact that their souls are, in essence, forcibly conjoined in some fashion. Necromantic magics fix the spirit to whatever form it maintains, be it a ghostly one or a prison of rotting flesh. Heat, pain, flavor, all the subtle and gross aspects of life are denied them.

The true horror of undeath

The undead can feel pain, yes. The touch of the Holy Light causes them dire agony as it sears away decomposing tissue, shakes the chains of dark magics that trap their essence to this world, and reminds them terribly for brief moments what it was like to truly be alive. This sensation is perhaps the cruelest one of them all. Not only is there true physical pain to be endured as the Light sears them body and soul, but worse, it's often the strongest sensation they can feel and mocks their usual muffled, empty experience as well as reminding them of what they've lost. Those of the Forsaken who can still touch and use the Holy Light to heal must endure this sensation every single time they call upon its power.

In a way, those undead without minds can be seen as the fortunate ones. They evade the true horror of their condition. They are not forced to exist devoid of the pleasures of life, cut away from feeling, sensing the world around them, their souls chained imperfectly to an existence they can only pantomime.

Undeath and the many forms of death

As we discussed last week, the undead are divided into factions based on how they were created and what happened to them after their unlives started. Some of these factions overlap.

There are Forsaken who are also death knights, in essence having died, been raised, regained their free will, then died again, only to be raised and enslaved again. The process of making a death knight is different from the Plague of Undeath that raised the majority of the Scourge and the Forsaken, for a variety of reasons.

First, because there are two different paths to becoming a death knight. The original process was devised by Gul'dan, using his knowledge of corrupt magics gained from Kil'jaeden's instruction. Gul'dan actually killed his own acolytes, trapped their souls with necromantic power inside jeweled staves, then placed these orc souls in truncheons into the bodies of deceased human knights. Teron Gorefiend was the first orc warlock to be so raised as a death knight in this fashion.

The death knights we know today are inspired by these, because Ner'zhul (the orc shaman who would become the first Lich King) met and worked with Teron Gorefiend after Gul'dan's death and the Horde's defeat during the Second War. After Kil'jaeden rent Ner'zhul asunder and imprisoned his essence within the ice that would become his prison (essentially imposing undeath upon him), the spirit of the former orc shaman remembered his former student's trick.

The modern death knights created by Arthas were thus inspired by the memories of Ner'zhul within the Lich King. These death knights are directly raised from the dead by the Lich King rather than created by the plague of undeath, in a manner similar to how the Nerubians who died in the War of the Spider became crypt fiends. Nerubians were targeted by the Lich King entirely because they were immune to the plague of undeath, but even those immune to the disease are able to be raised directly by powerful necromancy after they die.

In addition to death knights and crypt fiends, there are many kinds of undead. First, there are the incorporeal undead such as ghosts, lichlings, banshees and wraiths. The val'kyr who served Arthas directly and who now serve Sylvanas Windrunner are incorporeal undead as well. Many of these undead were created by moments of great tragedy and unleashed magical power, such as the destruction of the original Well of Eternity. One specific ghost, Varo'then's Ghost, was actually created by the land of Kalimdor's refusing to allow him to rest within it. While the Lich King and other necromancers seem capable of directly creating such undead as well, the plague of undeath does not seem to create them.

Bodies and souls chained forever

It should be noted that despite the fact that they have physical forms, a lich could be considered an incorporeal undead. They exist in phylacteries, and if slain, the phylactery will simply form a new body for them. In order to slay a lich, the phylactery itself must be destroyed. Lichs are usually powerful spellcasters, and at least one made himself a lich, beholden to no one else.

If left to fate or the occasional necromancer, there would perhaps be more ghostly undead, but thanks to the Lich King's rampage across Northrend and the former Lordaeron with his plague, a great many corporeal undead exist. Cult of the Damned necromancers working under Kel'thuzad before and then after his death expanded upon the standard rotting, shambling corpses with the creation of ghasts, ghouls, and abominations, to mention just a few.

Meanwhile, the ancient troll empires understood how to use dark voodoo to likewise create zombified undead minions in a similar fashion -- a different means to the same end. This tradition is exemplified in the poisonous brews of Zanzil. It should be noted that unlike most necromancy, the troll voodoo tradition seems capable of actually returning the dead to life and not merely unlife.

The plague of undeath may not be able to raise ghostly undead, nor can it raise the dead to true life, but it is exceedingly good at infecting and killing the living who become undead in whole groups. What is troubling about every method of raising the dead isn't merely that it seems to often break the will of those who undergo it. No, the true horror is that, in many cases, the long-deceased can be raised. Do these also have spirits trapped in rotting flesh? Or are some mindless undead mindless because they are purely dead flesh and/or bones animated by raw necromantic power, the soul having long since departed?

While there are many different kinds of undead and many varied forms of necromancy, their creations all seem to have that same imperfect bonding of the spirit to the flesh (if they even possess flesh at all) or to the world. All the shared characteristics of the varied kinds of undead can be drawn from this incomplete anchoring of the spirit into the world of the living.

Next week, we tackle the ultimate questions of undeath and the 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.

Filed under: Lore, Know your Lore

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