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Know Your Lore: Never to rise again

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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.

There will be spoilers for the revamped Scholomance Mists of Pandaria heroic in this post.

Arthas Menethil is dead.

He's not just dead; he's really, most sincerely dead. He is no more. He has ceased to be. Bereft of life, yes, but as Sylvanas Windrunner saw during her own recent experience in Northrend, he does not rest in peace. The Lich King lives on in the form of Bolvar Fordragon, but Arthas? Arthas is dead. No king rules forever.

And yet Arthas' hand reached far across the world before he died. Even before he became a Lich King, Arthas forever warped the world of Azeroth. Even before his soul was blasted and rent asunder by Frostmourne and he became a servant of the then-Lich King, the former Ner'zhul, Arthas destroyed a city by his own hand and his own will. What Arthas did can never be truly undone. As much as they hate him, the Forsaken of Undercity owe their freedom from the Burning Legion to Arthas' move against the Dreadlords following the Battle for Mount Hyjal. As much as she hates him, Sylvanas owes not only her current existence but the val'kyr that have twice raised her from death to Arthas.

Unlike Tinfoil Hat KYLs, this particular post is speculation and rumination without a theory to support or prove. It's musing on the nature of undeath, the role of the Lich King, the discordant notes and unreliable narrators of this particular part of the story. It asks several questions and does not have any answers to them.

Does Bolvar Fordragon sit alone atop the Frozen Throne? Does Sylvanas Windrunner rule herself? Can we trust the val'kyr's word? And if Arthas Menethil still existed within the Lich King, holding the Scourge in check, then what did Tirion Fordring destroy in the Cathedral of Darkness? What of Matthias Lenher?

I have no answers but many questions.

The hand that doomed the soul

While working on my big roundup of undead and undeath in WoW (a post topic I may revisit in the future, as I was unsatisfied with how it turned out), I of course ended up dwelling on the Lich King quite often. It's understandable. While no incarnation of the Lich King invented undeath on Azeroth, the entity did do much to spread the affliction with its Cult of the Damned and their work spreading the Plague of Undeath, a magical disease that causes those infected with it to die and rise as mindless undead.

In addition, Arthas himself was intimately connected with the undead, from his culling of the infected population of Stratholme to his return to Lordaeron from Northrend as a death knight. As a death knight, Arthas sowed misery in his wake, slaughtering and raising his own people as mindless corpses and even destroying the Sunwell. In the process of his atrocities, he killed and raised Sylvanas Windrunner in order to punish her for her defiance during his campaign against her homeland of Quel'thalas.

It should be noted that it was Arthas himself, not the plague and not the Lich King (at that time, purely the disembodied and nearly destroyed spirit of Ner'zhul the orc shaman) who raised Sylvanas. It was personal for Arthas, what he did to her. In many ways, it was a horrific personal violation of her life and everything she'd ever believed in or stood for. When Arthas did this, he was not acting as an agent of his master; he was seeking personal revenge for the slight she'd offered his vanity in resisting his will. A savage and childish act of petty revenge that, in the end, cost him his home city and perhaps even his reign as the Lich King as well.

A nation alone, divisible

We've covered Arthas' story here at KYL, so we only need touch on it briefly, but when Sylvanas shot Arthas with that poisoned arrow, only to have her vengeance stolen away from her by Kel'Thuzad, it was a deferral for both of them. Arthas went north, fought his way through Azjol-Nerub, and defeated Illidan at the foot of Icecrown Glacier, ascending the Frozen Throne to become the Lich King by placing the Helm of Domination on his brow. Sylvanas, for her part, destroyed the scheming Dreadlords' hold on the former Lordaeron, named her new people the Forsaken, and vowed to slaughter anyone who stood in their way.

Now on the one hand, in the novel Arthas, it's made very clear that during his time atop the Frozen Throne, the spirit of Arthas Menethil defeated and expunged both his own more human side and that of Ner'zhul in turn, becoming the Lich King wholly and uniquely himself. Yet the Lich King in game contradicts this at times, as during his appearance in Howling Fjord where he claims I was once a shaman. If nothing of Ner'zhul remains, if Arthas destroyed and absorbed all of him and obliterated his personality, why would he say that? Is it just shorthand?

Undeath, tear my heart away

Furthermore, if Arthas removed his heart and banished all of his humanity in so doing, what of his death scene atop Icecrown Citadel? Who is that speaking to Terenas Menethil's spirit? It looks and acts like Arthas Menethil. Considering that we're often told that Arthas' soul was torn from him the moment he touched Frostmourne, we're left with a disturbing possibility that the Arthas that died atop Icecrown was merely a fragment of a whole.

Having recently discussed the revamped Scholomance, it's time to return to it and to Lilian Voss. During her fight with Darkmaster Gandling, the necromancer displays a command of necromancy that allows him to actually pull out and enslave Voss' soul. We've seen similar necromantic power at work in the Black Temple, where Gul'dan's twisted warlock experiments ended up developing the Reliquary of Souls and allowing Illidan to later pull part of Akama's soul out of him as the Shade of Akama. Yes, I said part of Akama's soul.

Now, we know that Arthas had an exact replica of the Reliquary in his Forge of Souls. Why did he have it? What was he doing with it? This is the question that has been bothering me every since it occured to me that it was possible to partition a soul, that lesser necromancers had already done it, and that the Lich King was demonstrated to have ripped part of himself out to banish any weakness it might have caused him. Yet it's fair to say that Matthias Lenher could be considered an unreliable narrator. After all, he's part of Arthas.

The Whispers of the Tomb are lies

Consider, also, the val'kyr from atop Icecrown, the ones who made the deal with Sylvanas. They claim to be seeking their freedom from the dormant Bolvar Lich King, and this is probably true. They also claim that they did not choose to serve the Lich King (the Arthas one), and I have no difficulty believing them. However, what they never claim is to actually be free of the will of the previous Lich King.

Right now, Bolvar is doing exactly what Arthas did when he became Lich King -- sitting motionless atop the Frozen Throne. Why is he doing this? If Arthas destroyed Ner'zhul, absorbed him wholly into himself, and himself dead at the hands of Tirion and a group of handsome adventurers (like, say, us -- we rock), then why is Bolvar dormant? Why are there suddenly free-willed Scourge running around the reduced Plaguelands trying to take over the Scourge? Why is Gandling suddenly trying to expand the Scholomance's power into Andorhal? What if, when the Lich King said he was once a shaman, he was telling the truth?

Arthas was proud, vain, and arrogant. His actions in turning Sylvanas into a banshee showed that he often put his personal agenda ahead of the Lich King's will. Was he so arrogant that he attempted something no other necromancer ever did and performed the same sort of spiritual dismemberment that Ner'zhul endured to become the Lich King at Kil'jaeden's hands?

Many shaman have rituals that symbolically allow them to die and, in so doing, gain wisdom and power. Ner'zhul's treatment at Kil'jaeden's hands certainly did that. It created an entity that grew in power well beyond what Kil'jaeden had intended for it. Furthermore, we often ignore the Lich in the title Lich King. Liches don't die when you kill their bodies. You have to destroy their phylacteries. But for a being who has clearly torn apart his own sould, could it be possible that Arthas had multiple phylacteries? And what would they be?

Fractured, splintered, broken

Clearly, one was destroyed. The Heart that Tirion destroyed in the Cathedral of Darkness appears to be a good candidate for the phylactery for Arthas' good self, which means that ironically enough it was probably that part of his soul that we killed. This fits with what Sylvanas sees when she drops into oblivion following her leap from the top of the spire. She sees a pitiable entity, one that seeks some succor from a life of bad choices. Between Tiron and ourselves, we destroyed what little good remained of Arthas, the bright-eyed prince who wanted to be a paladin when he grew up. But what of the rest of his soul? What of his tenacity, ruthlessness, and the other aspects of his being he thought suitable to hold onto? Where are they?

Clealy at least some of him, as well as some of Ner'zhul, remains in the Helm of Domination. If not, there would be no reason for Bolvar to need a period of dormancy. Arthas didn't go dormant because of the power of the Lich King; he went dormant in an attempt to reconcile himself to the alien, half-annihilated remnants of Ner'zhul huddled within the Helm. Bolvar's lapse into a similar period implies heavily that he is undergoing a similar process, and the end result cannot as yet be guessed at.

Will Bolvar, too, divide himself? Will he accept the knowledge and experiences of both Ner'zhul and Arthas? Can he?

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Finally, we come to the val'kyr who seemingly defied the Lich King to join the pact with Sylvanas. Clearly, we can't trust anything they say, either. It's possible that they are lying to Sylvanas -- or worse, that they have no idea that they're not telling her something. We were told that there must be a Lich King, that without him the Scourge would mindlessly raven across the world. But we were told this by a spirit that appeared to us from out of Frostmourne, and we know that Uther has appeared elsewhere in the world, at his own tomb, seemingly free of the blade. We also know that before his fall, Arthas looked up to Uther, respected him, saw in him the ideal of paladinhood. And we know that when Arthas enters the Halls of Reflection and sees you talking to Uther's spirit, he dismisses it with a wave and the command Silence, paladin.

Many faces, one voice

Not Silence, Uther. He specifically calls the spirit, who does not appear when you defeat the Lich King atop Icecrown, by the title of paladin. What is that's exactly what that spirit is? What if it's not Uther at all, but a piece of Arthas? We have no evidence that Uther particularly knew Sylvanas, yet he addresses her familiarly. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Arthas ripping out his duty, honor, and responsibility -- in fact, it's exactly what Frostmourne seems to have stolen from him in the first place. It would make sense for the sword to have contained that piece of Arthas. And it would make sense for that piece of Arthas to still remain within the sword's fragments, since unlike the other spirits that erupted from within it when it was destroyed it would have no place to go, with Arthas' body containing the other Matthias Lenher portion of his being. Now, we have no idea where the shards of Frostmourne are. We know that, as a runeblade, it can be reforged just as Felo'melorn and Quel'Delar were.

Of course, you'd need to be insane or obsessed to reforge Frostmourne. Perhaps, you'd even need to be under the influence of some of the Lich King's supposedly disloyal former servants. You'd perhaps need to be the last person seen atop the Frozen Throne, so that you had ample time and opportunity to assemble the shards of the shattered runeblade. And you'd need to be someone so personally affected by Arthas that you would serve as a suitable new phylactery, the paladin ideals of protection Lordaeron and crusading against the enemies of the place working on you, causing you to declare yourself a champion of the people who once held Lordaeron and willing to go further and further in its defense. Of course, we don't know anyone like that.

As I said when we began, I have no answers, only questions. I do not know what is happening inside Bolvar's mind, why he lays dormant with the Helm of Domination atop his flaming brow. I do not know where the shards of Frostmourne are, why Arthas pulled out his heart, why the Forge of Souls plays host to the Devourer of Souls nor what its dread purpose is. I do not know if the val'kyr lie or if Matthias Lenher died atop Icecrown, the only good part of Arthas, the only part of him doomed forever. I only have questions.

Arthas Menethil is dead. May he never rise again.

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: Analysis / Opinion, Lore, Know your Lore, Wrath of the Lich King

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