Very fortunately indeed, the zone that came out of Liala’s Eleventh Hour Challenge coffee cup for me was the one that was next on my list of Zones I Still Need To Screenshot Before The Cataclysm Comes.
“It is time,” Magistrix Zaedana said to me, “for you to learn how to create your own Wizard’s Staff, a powerful tool which will make the Ley Staff you received when you first began your training look like a child’s plaything. There is no greater master or teacher of the art of the Staff than the human mage Tabetha, so it is to her hermitage in Dustwallow Marsh that I now send you.”
After some weeks studying and laboring under Tabetha’s strict, but gentle tutelage, I had crafted the body of my staff and learned a great deal about staff lore. At length, all that remained for the completion of my staff was for me to obtain the Orb which would store the majority of the magical energy. The references in the reading I had done suggested that orbs were not created or made, merely found and used. Many scholars thought them to be relics of the Titans, left scattered about the world at the dawn of time. After so many millennia, however, all the orbs had already been gathered and the best, safest, and most predictable way to locate and acquire an orb was to take it from a someone else who was using it for ill purposes, like a naga or a cultist of the Burning Legion. Thus, I was not surprised when Tabetha tasked me with traveling across the continent to Desolace to acquire an Infernal Orb from the Burning Blade cultists entrenched there.
((I like screenshots, so the story continues under the cut))
I traveled by wyvern to Sun Rock Retreat in Stonetalon Mountains, where I only had to wait a week before the kodo caravan headed for Desolace came through. ((For the purposes of this story, I imagine the kodo caravan making a long circuit through all the zones surrounding Mulgore: beginning in the Crossroads, going up through Stonetalon Mountains to Sun Rock Retreat, down into Desolace to stop at Ghostwalker Post, continuing into Feralas to Camp Mojache, visiting Freewind Post and the Raceway in Thousand Needles before doubling back to the Great Lift, and making a short detour to Camp Taurajo before finally returning to the Crossroads.)) We passed through the Charred Vale with only a few minor skirmishes with baslisks and harpies.
As we crossed into Desolace, my eyes were immediately drawn to the elven ruins to the west. Perhaps, once I had obtained the Orb I sought, I could spend a few days exploring those ruins, looking for buried secrets, before returning to the Marsh. The goblins, seeing my gaze, advised me that there were other ruins in the area more majestic than these — though I should avoid the ruins at Sargeron if I valued my safety, as they were infested by satyrs. I inquired if the orc fortress looming in the distance was the local Horde base and was informed that no, this was the stronghold of the Burning Blade, and the main Horde outpost was more centrally located. I marked the location, so that I could head there to retrieve my Orb.
Shortly afterwards, our caravan passed a small herd of the most decrepit kodos I had ever seen. The lowing and bellowing that commenced between our kodos and these ancient kodos rendered me entirely unable to think. My hawkstrider flapped his wings madly, and jumped about, crowing, until I had so much trouble keeping my seat that I leaped off before I could be thrown. I huddled at the side of the road with my hands over my ears, whereupon my hawkstrider buried his head in the cave created by my arms. The other members of the caravan chuckled at our distress. “Poor little elf,” a troll said, “they not be tellin’ ya that Desolace is the place the kodos go to die? All the oldest roads inta this place be followin’ the kodo trails.”
The land soon turned to sunbaked grey dust, littered with bones. The pools of water we saw were shallow and thick with mud. I wondered how anything could survive in such a place. Desolate Desolace, what an apt name.
We stopped the first night at a place called Kormek’s Hut. The darkness was full of distant drums and muffled shouting. In the morning, the kodos were nervous and so were the goblins. “Something’s got the centaur all riled up,” the caravan leaders said, “so we’re going to leave the road for a while to stay farther away from the Kolkar’s village.”
About mid-day we reached Scrabblescrew’s camp, the home of a goblin utterly fascinated by kodos, where the Gizelton brothers exchanged their tiredest animals for fresh ones. I left the caravan there, striking out towards the Horde outpost to the west.
Ghostwalker Post was built on the bluffs above the Kodo Graveyard itself and commanded an impressive view of the entire region, which, was, I suppose, of tactical value sufficient to make it worth enduring the stench drifting up from the dead and dying kodo.
I mentioned the drums in the dark and the nervousness of the kodos in the caravan to the outpost leader, who said that while the centaur were always at each others’ throats, he’d send scouts to investigate. In the meantime, if I was going to do battle with the Burning Blade anyway, he had some tasks he’d like me to take care of while I was in the area. Though the outpost was a military installation and without many comforts, I stayed the night there anyway because it was too late for me to continue alone to the larger Horde town on the coast, Shadowprey Village.
The next morning I headed back up towards the Burning Blade fortress. The travel itself took me most of a day, so when I spotted the grander elf ruins the goblins had hinted about only a little farther off, I decided to make my camp there. I was almost distracted from my task of recovering an Orb from the Burning Blade by the wealth of artifacts and fascinating carvings in the ruins.
I battled cultists all the next day, but none of them were carrying an Orb. One cultist, however, wielded a surprisingly beautiful object which I brought back with me to my camp in the ruins for further study. As I reached the bridge leading to the ruined tower, I heard a great noise behind me. I turned around and saw, far below me on the road, a large band of centaur. They seemed to be in an uncharacteristically jolly mood, and were wearing necklaces made of flowers. Where in this wasteland would they get so many flowers? I wondered.
Exploring Ethel Rethor further that evening, with a torch in one hand and the curiously carved scepter in the other, I found myself abruptly face to face with a human. He, like I, was dressed in mage’s robes.
“Where did you get that?” he demanded, staring at the object in my hand. “I have been searching all over this place for it!”
I took a step back and regarded him warily for a moment, until he regained his composure and his manners and introduced himself properly. It seemed he was an Archmage aligned with the paladin order of the Argent Dawn, seeking a powerful relic of the Light for use in the war against the Scourge — a relic which, at some time in the past, had been looted from the tower by the orc warlocks. We spent the evening conversing about magic. After I complained about my failure to find an Orb on the orcs in the fortress, Aldamort informed me that there was another Burning Blade camp to the south, the Mannoroc Coven. Perhaps one of the more powerful warlocks there might hold such an Orb as I was seeking.
I passed through Ghostwalker Post again early the next afternoon on my way towards Mannoroc Coven. I thought it prudent to tell the commander about the oddly dressed procession of centaurs I had seen the previous day. He swore viciously.
“Gorramnitall, Uthek and Warug were not trying to pull the wool over our eyes!” He glared at the mountains to the northeast, then continued, “Magistrix Kaelinda, you must help us kill the Khan of the marauding centaurs!”
I gave him my best puzzled look. “Aren’t all centaurs marauding? Which clan’s Khan are we wanting to kill, and why?”
“The Maraudine centaurs. The representatives of the Gelkis and the Magram came to us, independently, yesterday seeking our aid against the other clans. It seems that the Maraudine kidnapped the daughter of the Khan of the Kolkar three nights past. The Kolkar war party that went out to rescue her was met by a Maraudine party bearing rich gifts and a proposal of marriage. The Gelkis and the Magram hate each other too much to ever work together, but alone neither clan could stand up to the combined might of the Kolkar and the Maraudine. An alliance between those two clans would destabilize the whole balance of power in this region and threaten all the progress the Horde has made in the past several years. We MUST stop this wedding!”
But how? We knew very little of centaur customs. I was given a pendant, a rock with a hole in it, strung on a thong, to wear as a token of identification and sent to consult with the representative of the Gelkis centaur, Uthek the Wise. Uthek told me that since it had already been three days since the filly had been taken, the marriage would be tonight — centaur marriages were always performed at sunset.
We truly did have no time to waste!
The scouts brought news of a Kolkar procession headed toward the Valley of Spears, laden with wineskins. We ambushed the procession, taking care to leave the centaur only unconscious, and doctored the wine with a sleeping drug hastily concocted by the goblin siblings who camped down at the edge of the Kodo Graveyard, Hornizz and Melizza Brimbuzzle.
A few hours later, as the shadows lengthened over the grey dust, a small party from Ghostwalker Post snuck up to the entrance of the Valley of Spears. To our great relief, the centaur had not waited to begin their merrymaking, and the libations had flowed freely — all the centaur were collapsed ungracefully on the ground, snoring. As we approached the heart of the Maraudine village, we found the sentries still alert, while behind them other centaur continued to rush about, making preparations.
I caught glimpses of a centaur woman who seemed smaller, more delicate than the others. She was being fussed over by a number of other centaur women, who were wrapping her face in richer fabrics than I had ever seen any centaur wear, painting her torso with vivid blue patterns, piling bangles onto her arms, weaving flowers into the coarse hair of her topknot and tail. Again I wondered where all these flowers could be coming from. And I had a sudden, surprising flash of sympathy for the girl, whose posture spoke of being at once both deeply frightened and terribly proud.
“There,” the commander said, interrupting my thoughts. He pointed up at an immense horn on the top of a tall platform. “Warug said that if we blow this horn, we will summon Khan Hratha and he will have to fight us. But first we must get a mouthpiece for the horn from one of these brutes. We will attack these guards here. As soon any one of us gets a mouthpiece, we will toss it to you, and you must run up to the horn and blow it. We will deal with the rest of the centaur while you take down the Khan.”
And with that, we plunged into battle. While our force engaged the guards, the centaur women, even the bride, threw aside their ceremonial preparations and grabbed their staves and bows. I dodged their lightning bolts, burned their arrows to cinders in midair, and pelted them with ice until they fell, groaning. The filly, more nimble than her elders, darted out of reach before I could blast her into unconsciousness. She dashed into the mouth of a great cave — and indeed it was a mouth, for the rocks above it seemed to make the shape of a horrible monster.
At that moment, one of the scouts shouted at me, “Heads up!”
I barely had time to turn around and throw my hands out to catch the object he hurled at me. I Blinked forward onto the base of the ramp, then started running. I froze the centaur still guarding the ramp in place as I raced to the top. A few furious Arcane Explosions, a Flamestrike, a Blizzard, and then the platform was free. I shoved the mouthpiece into the enormous horn and blew with all my breath.
A sound that I felt in my bones more than heard with my ears rippled through the reddening sky. The Khan seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was the hugest, ugliest centaur I had ever seen. As he charged me, I froze him in place, then Blinked back down across the last bridge of the ramp. My mana reserves were already drained from the previous fighting, so I had to Evocate while the Khan was frozen. Then, when he charged me again, I froze him again, and again Blinked out of reach. Then, at last I could begin freezing and burning him down. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it. As I was gathering the last of my mana, hoping desperately that the spell would be enough to finally finish the Khan off, a spear flew past my head and buried itself in the Khan’s chest. He fell with a mighty crash, dead.
Shaking, I turned around, and saw, not the other members of the Ghostwalker Post force I had set out with, but the Kolkar centaur filly.
“I thank you for free me,” she said in halting Orcish, “Marry Khan Hratha great honor, but I not want to do it. Other of my kinswoman, maybe. Not me.”
Then she galloped away, streaming flower petals.
“Huh.” said the commander. “Good work, Magistrix. Now let’s get out of here.”
Around us, the drugged centaur were beginning to stir. We made up hasty litters for our wounded and retreated back to Ghostwalker Post. The orcs and the tauren celebrated, but I sat, pensive, staring at the fire, wondering what would happen to the centaur girl. She probably could not return to her own clan; though I still knew little of centaur culture, I couldn’t imagine how refusing such a marriage would make her anything but a pariah.
The next day I went south to the Mannoroc Coven and secured my Infernal Orb in short order. I marvelled at how the barely-controlled fel energies of the Burning Blade summoners had turned the everpresent dust a purple hue, and caused the silt-choked ponds to be an strange amethyst color.
Though I quickly I made my way out to Shadowprey Village, where I was able to contract a series of wyvern flights back to the Marsh and would therefore not have to wait for the next kodo caravan, I spent another fortnight in Desolace before returning to Tabetha. The leaders of Ghostwalker Post and Shadowprey Village had many tasks suited to an adventurer of my experience, and being in the company of Tabetha’s other apprentices had reminded me how much I preferred to be alone (excepting, of course, the company of my sisters and cousins). But the deadness of Desolace never stopped haunting me. I hadn’t realized how much it unnerved me until I slept soundly for the first time in days on that first night swaying in the soft seabreezes in a hammock on the uppermost floor of the inn at Shadowprey Village. I therefore spent as much time by the seashore as I could — mostly in further explorations and study of Ethel Rethor — in between errands to wreak havoc upon Thunder Axe Fortress, Mannoroc Coven, and Sargeron. At Ethel Rethor, I helped Magus Aldamort retrieve another powerful relic from the naga. I would have liked to have spent some time studying the book right then and there, but my time was limited, and the ruins were not an ideal place for for the kind of in-depth scholarship such a relic deserved. The magus promised me that he would make sure that when I came in contact with the Argent Dawn again, I would be able to study it at my lesiure.
I avoided all the centaur villages as much as I could. In the north, the Kolkar and the Maraudine had, unsurprisingly, gone to war with each other, and the grudge-match sniping between the Gelkis and the Magram in the south continued as it always had.
When I had finally completed all the tasks that both the Ghostwalker Post and Shadowprey Village leaders could think of to set me, I returned to Shadowprey thinking only of how glad I would be to get on the wyvern and fly out of the region at dawn the next morning. As I rode down the pathway to the village, I saw a movement under a copse of trees out on the Sartheris Strand that I had never paid much attention to before. Curious, I turned out to investigate. Drawing closer, I saw a group of dryads. It was strange to me, to see dryads in open air, as I had thought that they preferred the deep woods of places like Ashenvale. Even more oddly, one of the dryads did not quite look like the others. The strange-looking dryad bounded out of the group and stopped in front of me. It was the centaur girl, veil-less, hair down. She was only pretty as orcs and trolls consider pretty, but her face shone with happiness.
“Thank you for free me. Mara sisters take me home. We cleanse Mara, make safe, then all centaur, all sisters free.”
And that, more than the heat and the dust and the bones and the weight of the Orb in my satchel, is what I will always remember when people speak of Desolace.