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.
If you were here last week, you know the drill. If not, here it is - we're covering the entire lore of the game, expansion by expansion.
Let's do this.
A world unlike our own
Were we prepared for what we'd find beyond the Dark Portal? The realm of Outland had a long and storied history, but it was a history no one on Azeroth had seen since Illidan went back following his battle with Arthas at the base of the Frozen Throne, where the Death Knight had proven the stronger and assumed the mantle of the Lich King. In defeat, Illidan had gone mad, or so the shade of his brother Malfurion had informed Remulos - mad and stewing in his humiliation, Illidan daily fought the battle again, and in his fevered rage was the victor, not the defeated. But this was all we knew, and it second-hand from Malfurion's trapped spirit. No one had seen Outland since the Third War, and the Dark Portal had squatted in the crater created by Khadgar's attempt to destroy it, seemingly inert since that time.
Then it opened. And demons poured out of it.
Dealing with the flood of demons was a momentary respite - both the Horde and the Alliance realized that their own squabbles were meaningless if the Burning Legion possessed a doorway to invade Azeroth. So both factions put together expeditions and seized control of the portal's Outland side, and for the first time since the end of the Second War, the Alliance and the Horde stepped foot onto the shattered world once known as Draenor.
But before they did, each side gained new allies.
Blood and Light - the blood elves and the draenei
Neither faction expected the allies it got, however.
Before the Dark Portal opened, events on Outland were spiraling out of control. Illidan held his coalition together mainly by force of personality - the naga under Lady Vashj served Illidan out of personal loyalty and some sort of agreement between Illidan and their queen, Azshara, even as they worked to gain control of Outland's major water supply in the Zangarmarsh, but Kael'thas Sunstrider had joined forces with Illidan for the sake of his people. The night elf had promised Kael'thas a means to deal with the addiction to magic that imperiled his people since the destruction of the Sunwell and most of his people along with it, and as time passed and Illidan stewed in his delusions the uncrowned king of the Sin'dorei chafed at the delays. Seeing the promises of the Betrayer as worthless, he moved to secure a power base of his own.
The few surviving draenei had gathered in refuges hidden throughout the now-shattered landscape, and though many were now broken (krokul in the draenei's eredar derived language) many were not. Hope was rekindled in these ragtag survivors when the naaru arrived to investigate what had happened to the formerly thriving draenei settlement on Draenor in the vast dimensional fortress Tempest Keep. Even as the naaru spread out to evaluate the situation on the sundered world floating in the nothingness of the Twisted Nether, Kael'thas struck to secure their fortress, leading his blood elves to storm the fortress, capturing the one remaining naaru, M'uru. In so doing, he set the future in motion both for his own people back on Azeroth, but for the draenei survivors under Velen as well.
Velen's prophetic gifts had given him a glimpse of the future, and following these visions he led as many survivors, draenei and broken alike, as he could in a daring counter-assault that freed the Exodar (one of Tempest Keep's satellite structures and a dimension ship in its own right) and used it to flee Outland. However, the blood elves Kael'thas had left on the Exodar managed to sabotage the ship, and forced it to crash-land at its destination. The Exodar spiraled from the skies above Azuremyst Isle, and so the draenei came to rest on Azeroth. Soon a champion arose from these few battered survivors, helping rescue the injured and dealing with threats both from the crash itself and from the area such as satyrs and naga. In the end, the blood elves and an eredar named Sironas were dealt with and the draenei had made peaceful contact with an Alliance fleet, leading them to accept an offer of aid and alliance - and so the draenei joined the Alliance.
While this was happening, Kael'thas sent the captured naaru to Silvermoon, where his close ally and loyal follower Grand Magister Rommath could use him as a source of magic to be drained. Rommath had served at Kael'thas' side during the Third War (even surviving the attempted execution of the Sin'dorei by Garithos) and had learned from Illidan the method of draining new sources of magic, although when he returned to Silvermoon at Prince Kael's request he made sure that the people of the city were told that the ability to siphon magical power from entities such as demons were techniques Kael'thas taught him. Rommath's presence in Silvermoon during this period meant several things for the future.
First, Rommath was spared knowledge of who Kael'thas was now in service to, knowledge that would have forced him to choose between Kael'thas and his people. Secondly, Rommath was able to experiment - when Kael'thas sent M'uru to Silvermoon, Rommath chose not to merely feed the Light-based entity to his people all at once, and instead worked alongside the former priestess Liadrin to discover a means of empowering a group of former priests and warriors with the Holy Light, siphoned directly from the naaru's body. This was the birth of Silvermoon's new Blood Knights, an order of paladins who wielded the Light via theft, rather than devotion. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rommath knew something that Regent Lord Lor'themar Theron would use to his advantage - in his time serving Kael'thas in Outland, before leaving to aid in the reconquest of Silvermoon, Rommath had seen that there were orcs in Outland who were, amazingly enough, not part of Illidan's army of fel orcs under Warchief Kargath Bladefist.
Lor'themar used this information, and the support of his southern neighbors the forsaken (led by former Ranger General Sylvanas Windrunner, who died in the Scourge invasion that had killed so many of the high elves and led the survivors to rename themselves blood elves) to gain membership for his people in the Horde. Seeing their former allies the humans as racist xenophobes who had nearly completed the job of destroying their people, they turned their backs on them and sought a new alliance of convenience, one that could help them rejoin their prince in the promised paradise he was creating for them in Outland. For their part, the orcs under Thrall was desperately curious about finding uncorrupted orcs in Outland and reconnecting to the orcish way of life before the coming of the Legion, before Gul'dan convinced Hellscream to drink the Blood of Mannoroth.
So the stage was set - the draenei wished to return home and rescue more of their people. The blood elves wished to find their lost prince and the release from the addiction to magic he promised them. The Alliance wanted to put an end to the demons pouring through the Dark Portal that was still only a few days travel from Stormwind. The Horde wanted to reconnect to its roots in the broken world the orcs originally came from.
The Madness of King Illidan
The land beyond the Dark Portal was harsh - both the Alliance and Horde first set up camp in the relentlessly inhospitably Hellfire Peninsula, a red wasteland of cracked rock and floating spires, patrolled by enormous fel reavers (machines made by Burning Legion artificers) and dominated by the Hellfire Citadel, now held by Illidan's loyal fel horde. Both the Horde and Alliance reconnected with old allies - the Alliance was stunned to discover that Danath Trollbane himself still lived, and commanded the remains of his Alliance Expeditionary Force from Honor Hold.
For their part, the Horde dispatched Nazgrel to command a base which the Horde diehard named Thrallmar after his warchief. Soon, while striving to defend this new base from the Fel Horde and Burning Legion forces, Nazgrel discovered that the Mag'har (a union of uncorrupted orcs) existed in Hellfire, and made contact with them.
Both the Horde and Alliance forces discovered that the balance of power on Outland was precarious - The Burning Legion forces had been trapped there when Illidan and his allies had sealed the portals that Ner'zhul had originally opened (the ones that tore Draenor apart in the first place) and while many of the demons had sided with Illidan's forces, becoming the Illidari, others had remained loyal to the Legion. These demons sought ways to reopen portals for reinforcements to bring the fight to Illidan and crush him for daring to stand against the Legion. Between the Illidari and the Legion stood the naaru of Shattrath City (moved there from Tempest Keep before Kael'thas seized control) and their allies, the Shat'tar priesthood. In addition, two factions, the Aldor and the Scyers, jockeyed for position in the city, and would work with either Alliance or Horde to further their goals. Presiding over Shattrath City is the naaru A'dal, and serving as A'dal's majordomo of sorts is the mage Khadgar, former apprentice to Medivh and member of the Alliance Expedition, now a willing member of the naaru's coaltion to free Outland from both Legion and Illidan.
Medivh keeps the peace in Shattrath between the Horde and Alliance as well as between the Aldor and Scryers, as the native draenei of the Aldor (once a priestly order dedicated to curating Shattrath) and the blood elf defectors of the Scyrers are far from allies. Still, neither faction has any use for the Legion or Illidan's breakaway demons.
Outland was a vast floating continent drifting in the Twisted Nether, its oceans mostly gone or transformed into marshland. Much of the topography had changed utterly - parts had been destroyed or so thoroughly changed that they bore only the slightest resemblance to their former states before Ner'zhul had opened the portals. Regions like Blade's Edge and Netherstorm were barely recognizable. The naga had infested Zangarmarsh and, from their Coilfang Reservoir were attempting to drain all of the fresh water and thus control Outland's major source of potable water, setting themselves up as rulers over this important resource. Unlike Kael'thas, however, Vashj appears to have remained loyal to Illidan. Still, she was a grave threat to both the Alliance and the Horde, who sought to prevent her naga from dooming Outland to a slow death by thirst.
Both the Alliance and Horde fought their way across Outland, setting up settlements and seeking out allies for the eventual pushes against Illidan, who instead of seeking common cause against the Legion had decided these newcomers were intruders who needed to be destroyed. Horde forces following the clues from the Mag'har in Hellfire Peninsula eventually found Garadar, the home of the uncorrupted Mag'had in Nagrand. Garadar had originally been a camp to quarantine those orcs stricken by a disease known as Red Pox - ironically, by isolating those stricken with the pox in one location and then shunning them, the fel-tainted orcs of Gul'dan's Horde had ensured the survival of the Mag'har as orcs uncorrupted by warlock magic and untainted by the Blood of Mannoroth. The Mag'har retained the brown skin that all orcs once had, and among their number were orcs of every former clan, now united in a new clan structure.
However, when Thrall's Horde finally reunited with the Mag'har, that clan structure was failing. Greatmother Geyah, who had held the Mag'har together from the early days when the Red Pox struck to the present, was dying and her chosen successor Garrosh Hellscream, son of Grom, was mired in despair over her death and his own belief that the Hellscream lineage was a curse and that he was doomed to corruption due to his father's actions. Since it was by the hand of Grommash Hellscream that the Blood Curse had first been inflicted on the orcs, Garrosh did not believe he could lead the Mag'har - therefore, he sat by the fire mired in his self-doubt, leaving Jorin Deadeye (son of Kilrogg) to do the day to day leading. It took a visit from Thrall himself, showing Garrosh his father's death and the destruction of Mannoroth, to convince the younger Hellscream that his father was a hero and that his legacy wasn't one of corruption and demonic taint. This would utterly change the course of Hellscream's life.
Working alongside the naaru, the Horde and Alliance opposed both the Legion and Illidan both. A foray into Shadowmoon Valley revealed that Illidan was enslaving nether drakes to serve a faction of Dragonmaw who he had brought into the Fel Horde, and that under Zuluhed the Whacked - assassinating Zuluhed, an alliance of sorts is forged with the nether dragons who provide aid in infiltrating Illidan's forces and destabilizing them. Illidan's forces rule over the Black Temple, formerly the domain of Gul'dan and his Shadow Council and then the demon Magtheridon, and before these forces the Temple of Karabor, a sacred draenei city-temple. It is revealed that Illidan, after defeating Magtheridon, has captured the pit lord and is using his blood to create his legions of fel orcs - both the Horde and Alliance know that the first step to defeating Illidan is therefore the destruction of Magtheridon, ending Illdan's ability to create more fel orcs.
Making contact with Akama, the heroes of Azeroth learned that Maiev Shadowsong lived yet, caged by Illidan to mock the Warden for her ten thousand years watching over Illidan - but Akama's watch over Maiev was all part of the broken's plan to betray his erstwhile master. Realizing after the defeat of Magtheridon that Illidan was yet another evil force determined to rule over Outland and Akama's people, the former Vindicator had slowly and carefully put together a plan. It only required agents that he could trust to execute it, and it would require the downfall of Kael'thas (to keep Illidan occupied with the blood elf prince) and Vashj (to preserve Akama's secrets).
At the same time, back on Azeroth, the tower of Medivh goes dark, and the Kirin Tor sends word to Outland. Khadgar soon proposed the impossible - to investigate the tower, the key would be necessary. In order to procure it, it would be necessary to go back in time and get a copy from Medivh himself - and in the end, this is exactly what happened, as the very founding of the Dark Portal was a target of attack by renegades called the Infinite Dragonflight. These time-meddlers sought to alter history, and the Bronze Dragonflight made the decision to open the Caverns of Time to mortals in an attempt to prevent the Infinites' plans - so Medivh's key was procured from the past, and Karazhan was opened and explored. The Burning Legion proved to still be active within the tower, led by Prince Malchezaar and the legions he commanded. Why the Legion chose that exact moment to invade Azeroth via the tower was never fully revealed - were they seeking a way around the blocked Dark Portal?
Death, destruction, and madness
After dealing with the Legion in Karazhan, destroying the dragonkiller Gruul in Blade's Edge and dispatching Magtheridon and thus stopping Illidan's Fel Horde from creating more fel orcs, the time came to put pressure on Illdan's subordinates. Yet one of these subordinates was no longer loyal to the Betrayer. As mentioned before, Kael'thas had grown impatient. Illidan promised his people a cure to the addiction to magic, but despite sitting atop a source of arcane power so great he could use it to bend Legion demons to his will, Stormrage did little to help the blood elves (likely because, in their addicted state, they were useful pawns willing to serve him) and so Kael'thas did what many would have found unthinkable.
From his base in Tempest Keep, Kael'thas contacted the Burning Legion, and he offered his services to Kil'jaeden. The Deceiver still had a score to settle with Illidan, and also sought to enter Azeroth bodily as Archimonde had to prove his superiority to his deceased rival and, perhaps, even to Sargeras himself - Kael'thas had access to Tempest Keep and the naaru magical technology within it, and as such access to a power source unlike any other in Outland. They struck an accord, and so, Kael'thas began work on mighty manaforges throughout the Netherstorm region, drawing the raw and chaotic magic of the Twisting Nether into Tempest Keep for later use. Even more so than Vashj, Kael'thas was therefore a menace that must be stopped - furthermore, both Kael'thas and Vashj had on them vials of water from the original Well of Eternity vouchsafed by Illidan, and these vials were requested by Soridormi of the Caverns of Eternity.
For the blood elves who Kael'thas had left behind on Azeroth, serving Kil'jaeden was unthinkable - after all, the Scourge that destroyed Quel'thalas and murdered most of their people was created by Kil'jaeden, and had attacked them at the behest and motivated by the Legion. Draining magic from demons was, in its own way, a sort of rough justice, but serving them was an unthinkable betrayal. Thus, the alliance with the Horde, once a mere matter of convenience, now became a necessary means to the end of survival. Their prince had to be stopped.
Eventually both Vashj's naga and Kael'thas' blood elves were defeated and both were seemingly slain, although Kael'thas revealed his survival even as A'dal was informed of Tempest Keep's liberation. The reason for Soridormi's request was revealed - in order to breach the Black Temple, the reliquary of Rage Winterchill, a lich destroyed during the battle for Mount Hyjal was required. Soridormi required the vials in order to open a portal to the battle, and mortal adventurers made the trip and retrieved the phylactery for Akama - and the Black Temple, seat of power for Illidan Stormrage, was breached.
Illidan had stocked the Black Temple with loyal forces of demons, abyssals, even naga - fel orcs and blood elves stocked the halls and fought to protect their master. In its depths were aberrations such as the Reliquary of Souls, an artifact of strange origin and terrible powers. Yet none of it mattered - thanks to Akama's presence and the reclamation of his very soul stolen from him by Illidan to ensure his loyalty, the Ashtongue Deathsworn would provide the invaders with aid and support. In the end, Illidan stood alone atop the Black Temple, and his years of madness and isolation proved his downfall, as did the enmity of Maiev. The Betrayer fell.
But events were far from settled. Kael'thas had waited while Akama and the heroes of Azeroth moved against Illidan. The blood elves of Silvermoon were not prepared for their prince's return.
The naaru M'uru had languished in Silvermoon, a prisoner of the blood elves and the source of their Blood Knights' power. It was a shock to everyone, especially Rommath and Liadrin (now known as Lady Liadrin, head of the Blood Knight order) when Kael'thas led a force of fel elves to invade Silvermoon itself and spirit M'uru away. Worse still was the revelation of what, exactly, Kael'thas had been doing and what he intended to do.
The mad prince had used the power of the Netherstorm and the forces of the Legion to reconstruct the Sunwell. He had not done this with his people's weal, or their addiction to magic, in mind. In truth, he no longer seemed capable of caring about his people's plight. With a shard of fel crystal protruding from his chest where his heart once lay, he now seemed totally dedicated to the goal of completing the Sunwell - but once completed, the new Sunwell would provide Kil'jaeden with the raw magical power necessary for him to translate himself bodily into Azeroth proper, and in so doing begin the third true invasion of the Burning Legion. The entirety of Azeroth had just barely survived the Third War, and now it faced the prospect of a Fourth.
While this was unfolding, the trolls of Zul'Aman under Zul'jin began stirring behind their walls, threatening to unleash a new assault against both the Alliance and the Horde. They hated the Alliance for foiling their attack on the high elves and Silvermoon during the Second War, and they hated the Horde for allowing the blood elves to join their ranks - and the Amani trolls were stronger than ever, with their Hex Lord Malacrass binding the spirits of loa within troll hosts.
Ironically, Zul'Aman was raided and destroyed not by an expedition seeking to prevent the rise of a new threat, but by treasure seekers looking to profit. Still, the death of Zul'jin cleared the way to deal with Kael'thas and the Legion forces infesting the Sunwell, and a combined force called the Shattered Sun Offensive mounted an assault on the isle of Quel'danas where the Sunwell Plateau was held by Kael'thas' forces.
The fallen prince of Quel'thalas died spouting prophesies of Kil'jaeden's ultimate triumph, and then the Sunwell itself was breached with the aid of the blue dragon Kalecgos. Casualties were high, including another blue dragon, Madrigosa and the personification of the Sunwell, Anveena Teague - but in the end, Kil'jaeden was balked and the naaru M'uru gave new life to the Sunwell, thanks to Velen. Thus the draenei prophet gave to the blood elves a source of magic that could in time remove their addiction as well as a true means to touch the power of the Light without theft or malice, putting their people on the road to recovery.
The legacy of the Outland campaign wasn't only the destruction of Illidan and his Illidari, nor merely the routing of the Legion and Kael'thas' death. The blue dragon Tyrigosa discovered the nether dragonflight, the descendants of Deathwing altered forever by the magical calamity that destroyed Draenor and created Outland - this would lead to the reinvigoration of Malygos and the creation of the Twilight Dragonflight in turn. The death of Zul'jin was the end of a period of history begun during the Second War and would change the trolls of Azeroth, in part leading to the rise of the prophet Zul. The events of the Sunwell would leave the blood elves a very different people than they had been at their induction to the Horde - no longer would a member of the Sunstrider dynasty rule them, no longer would they require theft to sate their magical addiction, and the Blood Knights, a sinister order founded in the will to power would come to know the truth of the Holy Light again. Azeroth seemed to groan with relief as Kil'jaeden sank back into the blazing waters of the Sunwell, driven from Azeroth once again.
And from the frozen north, an icy throne began to crack open.
Next week - The Wrath of the Lich King.
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.