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.
Last week's coverage of the lore of Wrath of the Lich King got to the thematic middle point of the expansion - the Wrathgate event. It changed the nature of Horde/Alliance relations, breaking any possibility for faction cooperation. It also capped off the Dragonblight storyline - Horde players had to deal with the realization that the very plague used on Horde troops by Putress was created by their efforts questing in the zone, while Alliance players saw the loss of one of the more beloved lore figures on their side, Highlord Bolvar Fordragon. (The last name Fordragon means "He who cleaves on Dragons' in old Arathi. Okay, no it doesn't. But Bolvar absolutely did that.) Combined with the way Bolvar's previous encounters with players had been worked into the quests, it was a gut punch to lose him.
It was far from the end of the story, however. We had miles to go before we reached the foot of Icecrown Citadel. I mentioned, briefly, the Arugal storyline in the Grizzly Hills, but there was also the story of the Furbolg in the region - a story that touched upon earlier zones such as the Howling Fjord and the Whisper Gulch. These stories would be shown to be of vast importance, and connected to that of an entity named Loken, who was directing the plunder of ancient Titan sites across Northrend by a force of strange Iron Dwarves.
The story of Loken would, in a way, eclipse that of Arthas Menethil without displacing him - for while the Lich King was a clear and present danger and the reason the Alliance and Horde had come to Northend, Loken would prove to endanger Azeroth far more directly. If the Lich King succeeded, the Scourge would rule a world dominated by the undead. If Loken had his way, there would be no Azeroth at all.
The machinations of these two forces both involved a strange material called Saronite - the Scourge forces seemed determined to mine this unusual metal from specific dark corners of the land beneath Northrend's surface. Whisper Gulch, too, teemed with it. But what was Saronite, and why did the Scourge seemingly loathe and fear the name Yogg-Saron while still using the stuff?
Mad Whispers and the deep blood of the world
Whisper Gulch was the site of a lost expedition of the Explorer's League, come to Northrend to seek out evidence of the Titans, in the footsteps of Muradin Bronzebeard (the late brother of King Magni, presumed dead at Arthas' hand) - however, they found only madness and death in the Gulch. The famed Whispers were real, and their hold over the minds of these poor souls left them incurably mad. And they weren't the only ones to suffer for delving too deeply into the depths. At the same time, Loken's Iron Dwarves were attacking another Explorer's League outpost, the former Baelgun's Excavation Site, chosen due to its Titan statues and relics. The Iron Dwarves clearly didn't want anyone digging up this evidence of the past.
In the Grizzly Hills, adventurers quickly found that worgen weren't the only dangers. The furbolg of the area, from their settlement of Grizzlemaw (the trunk of a toppled world tree, Vordrassil, grown eons before by the night elves) had attempted to bring back the dead bear god Ursoc back from the death that claimed him during the original War of the Ancients. They succeeded.
Their success, however, was tied up in their use of the magic of Vordrassil - by tapping the dormant power of the toppled world tree, they tapped into that which had felled it. Its roots had penetrated too deeply into the soil, into the dark places of the earth and rock where darkness lay imprisoned, and the taint of that darkness had permeated the tree, leading to its destruction as the druids who were to tend it abandoned it, and Northrend. Ursoc, once a noble protector, devolved into savagery and madness incarnate, and along with him fell his chosen people, the furbolgs. Orsonn and Kodian, Ursoc's children, pointed a way to cleanse the bear ancient - confront the powerful spirit within his very den, and destroy the corrupted flesh that caged him in his madness. Despite the lunacy of daring to battle the bear ancient in his very lair, heroes accomplished this feat, and in so doing cleansed Ursoc of his corruption. In gratitude the bear god named his enemy, and the enemy of all that lived - Yogg-Saron, that whose reach extended throughout Northrend, for the isolated continent was essentially all his prison. His tendrils extended across the land, reaching from Icecrown to the Fjord, from the Borean Tundra to the Storm Peaks.
And from the Storm Peaks also came the Iron Dwarves. In the ruined city of Thor Modan, the Explorer's League comes face to face with these strange cousins, who strike out from their base of Dun Argol to the south. Their motives are unclear but they follow the will of Loken (as did the Iron Dwarves in Howling Fjord) and are not interested in cooperating with or even discussing things with the dwarves of Ironforge. Indeed, it's soon seen that they are engaged in exploitation and enslavement of the local earth giants, binding them with runes - this leads the local earth giants to band together under the leadership of Kurun, and to work with anyone who will help them against these oppressors. Loken's plans are left undiscovered, but they point north, to the very Storm Peaks where giants are rumored to contend with gods.
First, however, comes the fate of Zul'Drak.
The Terraced Land Destroyed
The first notice the Horde and Alliance took of the Drakkari trolls was the presence of a few Drakkari reanimated at the hands of the Scourge at Jintha'Kalar, where the Dragonblight meets the very base of the giant steps that lead up to Zul'Drak. Soon, however, those exploring the Grizzly Hills came to know that Zul'Drak was under pressure from the Scourge - the mighty fortress of Drak'Tharon Keep had fallen, and trolls were fleeing down into the Grizzly Hills despite the enmity of the local furbolg (who were too afflicted by the madness of their god to strike out at their ancient enemies). It was at Drak'Tharon Keep that Arthas had killed Mal'Ganis and become utterly bound to the will of the Lich King, after having claimed Frostmourne - now it was the base of Scourge troll followers of the Prophet Tharon'ja, who had chosen to serve the Lich King rather than perish opposing him.
It seemed clear that Tharon'ja had to die, and so, following the advice of a troll named Drakuru, they move to strike down Tharon'ja. In so doing, however, they merely tighten Arthas' hold over the citadel, for Drakuru's advice has led them to slaughter the last holdouts against the Scourge in the Keep as well as the followers of Tharon'ja, and Drakuru reveals his true allegiance by summoning the Lich King to present him with the whole of the Keep. In turn, the Lich King rewards Drakuru for this feat (accomplished entirely by heroes from the south) by 'promoting' him, granting him the power of undeath and charging the new overlord of Drak'Tharon Keep with the final conquest of Zul'Drak.
Zul'Drak itself is in chaos. Over a third of the zone is directly controlled by the Scourge when the heroes arrive - from Volturus in the north of the zone to Drak'Tharon in the south, and leading to the stars to Crystalsong and Dragonblight all is held by the undead save small encampments of the Argent Crusade and Ebon Blade. Another third of the zone to the north and east is under heavy contest between the Drakkari trolls and the Scourge, with the Argent Dawn also involved in the conflict (having seized a former temple to serve as a base, now called the Argent Stand) and it is where the Drakkari have managed to bring down a flying necropolis, the crashed Kolramas.
Moving through the zone, heroes discover that their actions in Drak'Tharon have placed Overlord Drakkaru in position to push even further north and end all resistance to the Scourge - furthermore, their 'friend' hasn't forgotten their help, and seeks to trick them into becoming minions of the Scourge before they can pose a threat to his operations. With the help of the Knights of the Ebon Blade, Drakaru's plan is turned against him and the Overlord's offensive is stalled, ending in his destruction by his master. The Lich King, however, spares those who brought Drakaru down, finding an amusing symmetry in their actions and their betrayal of the one who once betrayed them.
Marching north, the extent of the Scourge invasion and its toll on the Drakkari is made clear. From Kolramas, a cache of Saronite is discovered - despite a seeming antipathy for Yogg-Saron (his name is said to be whispered with hate and loathing by Scourge forces) the material, named after him, is clearly of great importance to the Scourge war machine, and the Argent Crusade forces soon learn that their most powerful attacks seem incapable of damaging the force that permeates it. But even this discovery, important as it is, pales when compared with the devastation of Zul'Drak. For faced with extinction, the Drakkari trolls have done what even their cousins the Amani and Gurubashi never dreamed - they have turned on their own gods.
Seeking survival and victory over the Scourge, the Drakkari at first turned to their gods for help. But seeing the betrayal of Tharon'ja and the inability of their loa to stem the tide, the Drakkari went one step beyond even the wholesale merging of troll and god seen in Zul'Aman - they chose to take all the power of their loa, to spend it all in one great act of ritual consumption. In essence, they chose to murder and consume their gods in the hopes of spending all of their might there and then, rather than allowing them to fall slowly or choose to betray them to Arthas as Tharon'ja did. It's possible that it was Tharon'ja's example that led the Drakkari to decide their loa could not be trusted, but whatever the impetus, this choice, once made, led to the ultimate downfall of Drakkari society. Some of the loa were utterly destroyed in the resistance they put forth, others managed to free themselves or take revenge on their former prophets (with the help of adventurers) and the Zandalari lorekeepers arrived to witness this seeming final chapter in the Drakkari nation, for even Gundrak would eventually fall.
Indeed, Gundrak itself was ruled not by the Frost King Malakk (who was nowhere to be found in Zul'Drak) but by Gal'darah, former Prophet of Akali, who too had slain his own god to consume its power - power that did not save him from the Horde and Alliance forces that marched through his ravaged kingdom and struck him down at the behest of the loa seeking some form of redress for their followers' crimes. Perhaps Arthas smiled, as those who struck down Drakuru then did what he could not and destroyed the last vestiges of the Drakkari leadership - did it matter to the Lich King if it was the Scourge that destroyed the Scourge's enemies in Zul'Drak? Either way, they were destroyed.
The Nexus War
With the fall of Zul'Drak, the stage was set for these seemingly unconnected threads - the Scourge, Yogg-Saron, and Loken - to be revealed. However, the time spent in the Borean Tundra and the Dragonblight had revealed another disturbing development - for from the island of Coldarra, from within a place called the Nexus, the long quiet, formerly mad Aspect of Magic had seen what magic had wrought on Azeroth - the necromancy of the Lich King, the invasion of the Burning Legion - and now Malygos felt compelled to act. Following the events of the Burning Crusade, a blue dragon named Tyrigosa had brought nether dragons to the Nexus - through an elaborate series of events, Malygos was exposed to their chaotic energies, and in absorbing them seemingly regained his sanity. Now he turned that sanity towards the state of affairs and, to his eyes, saw that his inattention during the long period of his madness and the near-total destruction of his dragonflight had allowed mortal hands to control the flow of magic.
What Malygos did may have been well intentioned - it's hard to argue that mortal spellcasters like Kel'Thuzad or Gul'dan don't show the dangers of the arcane in mortal hands, and it's very true that the Legion was attracted initially to Azeroth by reckless spellcasters during the original War of the Ancients - but how he did it spelled disaster. Using his knowledge of the ley lines of Azeroth, Malygos began moving them, causing destruction on a planetary scale, seeking to collect all of the magic in Azeroth within his Nexus and the Eye of Eternity that he created, a pocket dimension at its heart under his total control. When the other dragonflights balked at the devastation this would cause, Malygos simply declared war on them, as he did the mortals of Dalaran who attempted to stand against him. His actions so endangered the world that he managed to bring even the black dragonflight into a loose alliance against him, and the mages of Dalaran moved the recently reconstructed city into the skies over Northrend to confront him directly. His servants and the Kirin Tor of Dalaran opposed each other, and thus the Kirin Tor sought allies wherever it could - in the face of Malygos the Spellweaver and his threat to take all magic away from them, even the Horde was a suitable ally, and Dalaran became a neutral city from which both Horde and Alliance could make further sorties into Northrend.
The two death gods
Those that went directly into Icecrown discovered much - the true nature of the Lich King was revealed by a ghostly boy named Matthias Lehner, who revealed the truth about Arthas and his actions in Northrend, how he'd removed his very heart and cast it into the depths below his Icecrown Citadel - a vast complex made of pure Saronite, mined from the land beneath the glaciers by vrykul slavemasters who spurred their captives with whips in the name of their 'god of death'. Meanwhile, their slaves often broke, not due to their captivity, but due to the madness seeping up from the Saronite itself, the deranging whispers of another death god entirely.
After forcing their way through the breach in the glacier wall, heroes working alongside the Argent Crusade and the Ebon Blade found that the Alliance and Horde were wasting time and manpower battling each other as well as the Scourge. While attempting to bring the battle to the undead, these heroes would aid the Ebon Blade in its conquest of a foothold in a Scourge base called the Shadow Vault, and from there move not only against Arthas' vrykul minions but also against the Scarlet Onslaught, which had erected a fortress cathedral on an island off the coast of Icecrown.
Interestingly, it was within the Storm Peaks that the truth about Yogg-Saron and Saronite would be revealed. The local vrykul here had managed to avoid falling to the worship of the Lich King, in part because unlike the ones in the Howling Fjord under King Ymiron (who had turned eagerly to the Lich King after being awakened from a magical sleep) these particular vrykul still had a god to worship, the enigmatic Thorim. Those who made their way into the Storm Peaks soon learned that the Titans had done more than leave behind a few relics and ruins - they'd left Ulduar, and to watch over it, powerful entities called Watchers. And the reason for all this? Within the very heart of Ulduar, chained by the Titans themselves, mighty Yogg-Saron lay bound and imprisoned. It was from Ulduar that the old god's tendrils grew outward, spreading its madness and the taint of its hardened blood (for Saronite was itself the stuff of Yogg-Saron's being, his solidified blood) everywhere in Northrend. And the old god was nearly free of its bonds. One of its watchers, Tyr, had vanished entirely and the others had disappeared within Ulduar... all save Thorim, brooding atop his temple for the loss of his wife Sif.
The heroes managed to return Thorim's will to fight, and he seeks out Loken, his brother and the prime designate of the Titans only to discover that Loken had feared to confront him atop the Temple of Storms, where his power was greatest - so it was Loken who had manipulated the heroes to find Thorim and reveal to him Loken's part in the death of Sif, knowing it would goad Thorim into facing Loken at a place of Loken's choosing. With the aid of Yogg-Saron Loken was able to defeat Thorim, who was needed within Ulduar as the old god could only be freed by accessing the watchers themselves. Angered at Loken's deception, those he used stormed the Halls of Lightning and destroyed the prime designate, but this, too, was all part of Yogg-Saron's design - Loken's death was the major signal the Ulduar complex needed to summon Algalon the Observer, who could in turn send forth the signal to re-originate the entire planet, scouring it clean of life and remaking it. The old god seemed willing, even eager, for this event to occur.
To save a world
So stood events at the penultimate moment. Other threats arose - the dragon Sartharion the Onyx Guardian watched over a brood of twilight eggs, with three powerful twilight drakes at his side, seeking to work the will of his distant master Deathwing. and the necropolis of Naxxramas was dealt with as a first strike to deprive the Lich King of his most favored minion, Kel'Thuzad. With the destruction of Naxxramas, the reanimated frost wyrm Sapphiron relinquished the key to the focusing iris, and thus, the means of challenging Malygos from within the Eye of Eternity itself. Aided by the Red Dragonflight, mortals were ultimately successful in defeating Malygos, the first Aspect ever to die. With his death the Nexus War ended, and the Blue Dragonflight sent an ambassador to Wyrmrest Temple in turn. But hard on the heels of Malygos' death came the news from within Ulduar - the old god would soon escape.
While the Argent Crusade made preparations to erect a vast complex in Icecrown itself for a then-unknown purpose, the heroes of both the Horde and Alliance did what their leaders could not, and put aside their personal differences to face the old god in the vast Titan city complex of Ulduar itself. After battling their way past the strange magic or science of these unknowable entities, they found themselves dealing with the four Watchers, now driven mad by the old god and his corruption. Yet even as they freed each watcher and enlisted their aid in the final confrontation with the self-proclaimed god of death, an even more dire threat became apparent. In slaying Loken, they had activated the original purpose of Ulduar, and soon Algalon the Observer would arrive to judge if Azeroth was too corrupted by the old gods to be allowed to exist. Rather than allow their world to be destroyed, the heroes quickly realized both threats needed to be neutralized - the old god needed to be destroyed, and the Observer halted. Amazingly, improbably, both were accomplished - Yogg-Saron's massive manifestation was seemingly killed (although it's debatable if old gods can die) and Algalon was convinced by those fighting against him that mortal lives were worth preserving, and that the love of life these mortals displayed challenged all he had believed. Algalon provided the proper reply code to send to the Titans to prevent Azeroth's re-origination.
The March on Icecrown
So things stood. With Yogg-Saron 'dead', Malygos defeated, and Algalon no longer a factor, all eyes turned to Icecrown and the Lich King. Yet the Argent Crusade had a surprise for all - during the time that Ulduar was being explored and Yogg-Saron defeated, they'd constructed a vast coliseum near the border to the Storm Peaks (using stone scavenged from there, in fact) and rather than immediately pressing the attack, proposed a contest between the various heroes of each faction - arguing that rather than mounting a full scale assault on Icecrown Citadel which would simply provide the Scourge with fodder to raise against them, only the most powerful of Azeroth's defenders should be chosen to attack. Why the Crusade felt trial by combat in an arena was a better method of selecting these heroes than simply choosing the ones who had defeated Naxxramas, destroyed Malygos, slain Sartharion in his lair, killed an old god and prevented the end of the world entire is beyond me. Yet the tournament went on, presided over by Tirion Fordring, and it proved that the Horde and Alliance were incapable of working together, as King Varian and Garrosh Hellscream traded insults from the rafters and champions of both factions died in combat.
Ultimately, the Lich King decided matters. Arriving, he proclaimed that the tournament grounds and the coliseum itself had been built upon territory once held by the ancient Nerubian empire - an empire he now fully controlled. With the runeblade Frostmourne, he destroyed the arena floor, sending the heroes tumbling into the depths of what was Azjol-Nerub once, and there they found a twice-resurrected Anub'arak waiting for them. His third death was his final one, and climbing forth from the shattered arena his destroyers could no longer be gainsaid. They would lead the charge to Icecrown, and face off against the most hideous creations and most powerful servants of the Lich King himself.
At this time, the blood elves and their high elf counterparts discovered that the Sister Blade, Quel'Delar, long thought lost, had in fact traveled to Northrend with Lana'thel, the blood elf who fought and died for Kael'thas during Illidan's attempt to prevent Arthas from reaching the Lich King. Dying and being raised as the Queen of the Darkfallen, former blood elves who now served as princes of the Scourge, the vampire queen shattered the blade in her rage. But it could, and would, be reforged to strike against Arthas and his minions.
Raids into the Forge of Soul and Pit of Saron dispatched many servants of Arthas, and revealed a secret - the runeblade Frostmourne was often left along in a set of chambers known as the Halls of Reflection deep within the citadel, unguarded. Agents of Sylvanas Windrunner and Jaina Proudmoore each sought the blade, but ultimately it was discovered to be guarded by Falric and Marwyn, two former servants of Prince Arthas in life who now also served him in death. After escaping from the trap and destroying them, a battle with the Lich King turned into a flight for survival ahead of waves of undead, and a panicked getaway aboard a gunship. It was now obvious that trying to steal the blade away from its master was impossible, and that there would be no redemption for Arthas - as Tirion had discovered when the frozen heart of the Lich King had been brought to his attention by those visited by Matthias Lehner, Arthas had surrendered himself utterly to his existence as the Lich King, and it was this process that kept the Scourge from simply boiling out of Icecrown, a tide of undead bent only on destruction.
The Citadel itself held many challenges. Darion Mograine, head of the Ebon Blade, tempted those heroes seeking the destruction of Arthas with the potential for a runeblade of their own, one potentially as powerful as Frostmourne itself - one would rise to claim Shadowmourne, and wield this monstrous new weapon against Arthas. Inside the citadel, it would be discovered that Arthas had not slain Bolvar Fordragon, but rather had brought his fire-ravaged body to the peak of the spire, to torture his spirit and break his will. Fordragon still held out against the Lich King, and it was decided to mount a rescue attempt, hoping his freedom could end the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. But first and foremost, Arthas' death, the destruction of the Lich King, was the ultimate goal of the climb. A battle between the Horde and Alliance gunships endangered the mission, and the gate into the spire was guarded by the death knight Deathbringer Saurfang, whose father came to reclaim his corpse even if he had to render it still first.
Ultimately, Darkfallen queens and frost wyrms and plague alchemists all fell before those who had fought their way to the foot of Icecrown Citadel, who had made their way across the whole of Northrend to reach the foot of the Frozen Throne itself. And atop that icy pinnacle the truth was revealed - every step, every challenge overcome, every battle was part and parcel of Arthas' plan for them. For in conquering all that Northrend had to offer, they had proven themselves as the most powerful fighting force Azeroth had ever seen, a small elite force of heroes. Exactly what Arthas needed to bring Azeroth under his control once and for all. By slaying and reanimating them, he would gain generals with the personal might to destroy anything the Horde and Alliance could possibly put in their path - after all, weren't they the best Azeroth had to offer? Using the power of Frostmourne, the Lich King indeed struck them down and prepared to raise his new army, only to find that the power of the Light does not forget its champions - through the actions of King Terenas Menethil's spirit and the Ashbringer held in the hands of Tiron Fordring, the runeblade Frostmourne was shattered, and the heroes raised from death's embrace to strike down the Lich King once and for all. Arthas Menethil, fallen Prince of Lordaeron, patricide and bane of the people he once swore to save, died atop the spire.
Yet Bolvar Fordragon, liberated from his torture, proved himself a hero again as well. Rather than see the Scourge erupt in murderous chaos that might claim even more lives, he took up the Helm of Domination that once adorned Arthas' head, and became Lich King himself, sealing himself in ice while seething with the flames that had burned the plague, and life, away from his now warped body.
The Lich King was dead. The Lich King lived. And a new threat loomed, one as mad and destructive as anything yet seen. For Sartharion's death had not gone unnoticed, nor would it go unavenged. The Twilight Dragonflight attacked the Ruby Sanctum, killing its red dragon warders, and Halion the Twilight Destroyer heralded the coming of an even greater darkness. The slayers of the Lich King dealt with Halion - but could they deal with his master?
Because Deathwing had risen, and the world buckled and shattered in his wake. The Cataclysm had arrived.
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.