It’s the waning day of the war against the Burning Legion. Both factions are celebrating their victories, even as they’re cognizant of the cost; the Horde in particular is a bit jumpy, as the Lightforged buoy the army of the Alliance and tensions are still high after the debacle on the Broken Shore. And both sides are well aware that the departure of Sargeras leaves a hole to be filled… quite literally. Even more so when Dwarven investigators in Tanaris discover that something is coming up from the ground around the wound.
King Anduin Wrynn, naturally, orders a team dispatched to study this strange new “Azerite.” Sylvanas learns of this expedition and sends some of her Deathguards as well as Blood Elf units to the south to investigate as well; they manage to retrieve a small sample, which fascinates her to no end. Unfortunately for her, the team is aware of her spying, and Greymane in particular pushes for the dwarves and gnomes to harness the power of the Azerite in the form of weaponry. Mekkatorque, still grieving over the loss of Varian Wrynn, throws himself into the project and winds up with fierce new weapons of war that are soon ready to go.
Anduin, of course, wants to hold these back for defensive purposes. But Greymane, having long had his tacit trust, orders a strong tactical troop deployment in Gilneas that pushes through the Silverpine Forest into Lordaeron proper with the aid of Night Elf forces. By the time Anduin realizes what’s happening (and the player realizes that Anduin didn’t know when the expedition launched), Sylvanas is fortifying her position in desperation and well aware that the Undercity is in peril.
His hand forced by Greymane’s aggression, Anduin commits fully to the assault, landing on the north shore of Tirisfal Glades and leading the charge against the Undercity. Left with no further options, Sylvanas evacuates the city, leaving undead forces to fight on as she blows the entire city and fills it with a choking, noxious Blight to make the ruins uninhabitable.
Greymane is bolstered by this fact; the war is being won, the Horde has to pay for what they did. But Anduin is quick to point out that every such action will have consequences. Jaina has a role here as a peacemaker, agreeing to an extent with Greymane while also recognizing that this is the road to an all-out war she’d still hoped could be forestalled.
The Horde is indeed in motion, with Sylvanas leading a march against Darnassus, aiming to block the Alliance from further access to the Azerite. Saurfang opposes her charge, telling her that the Horde simply doesn’t have the manpower for this; they’re weakened after their own losses on the Broken Isles, and from the civil war with Garrosh, and even with the new allies they’ve acquired it’s not enough. Sylvanas, however, is insistent that they cannot let this attack go unanswered, that it is crucial they show the Alliance that they will face misery for their choice.
The Horde march ends at Darnassus, but in the process Saurfang is captured by Alliance forces. Sylvanas is told by Baine to treat their captured city gently, but she makes it clear with a smirk and a shake of her head that capturing Darnassus was never the plan. One city lost for the Horde, one lost for the Alliance. The tree burns, and Sylvanas prepares for a naval blockade to keep the Alliance at bay from this point on, seeking the aid of the Zandalari Trolls.
Anduin is uncomfortable with the state of affairs, but his hand is being forced. He sends Jaina as an ambassador to work out details with the Kul Tirans. This leads into the central conflicts of the expansion. On the Horde side, you have Sylvanas preparing to defend and unlock the secrets of Azerite when she’s been admittedly caught on the back foot, which ties in well with the Zandalari issues of a great empire that’s rotting out from within. All the strength in the world can’t help you when you’re sick at heart.
On the Alliance side, meanwhile, we finally get a clearer picture of Jaina and her seemingly contradictory turns from peacemaker to warmonger. It’s not that she ever really switched from one side to the other, it’s that she had ultimately found herself in the mindset that the people in charge of the Horde were never going to be amenable to peace. Now she’s not sure that the Alliance really wants peace, either; it’s no longer that the Horde would support Garrosh for so long, it’s that the Alliance is just as eager to go to war when it thinks it’s righteous.
This serves as a central theme through the expansion as a whole. The Mag’har recruitment scenario, for example, becomes a trip to a world of endless war in which the Draenei were prepared and able to repel the Horde when they attacked once again; those who choose to return to the Horde of Azeroth are those who seek a war that can be won, not an endless slow loss against enemies able to defend themselves. The question is one of the nature of war, if it’s a natural state for these factions, a hardwired need for this conflict to define both participants.
Everything comes to a head with the Battle of Dazar’alor, with the Alliance making a hard push led by a reluctant Jaina and a now nigh-maddened Mekkatorque. The gnomish leader is so fixated on his need to prove his value as a war asset that he deploys his weapons with abandon, ultimately dying not in a last stand but from a sheer lack of tactical acumen. When all is said and done, the Alliance hasn’t toppled the Zandalari, but they have dealt a significant blow to their abilities.
Sylvanas is beginning to see that Saurfang was initially right; they don’t have the strength to win this war. She has to find the assets that can bring her victory, the same way she always has. Even if she didn’t start this war, she will finish it, and the whispers of the Old Gods seem a small price to pay if she can defeat her opponents.
Anduin continues to talk with Saurfang, trying to divide the Horde, seeing it as a path to peace… but Jaina is aghast at this, not because Anduin seeks peace but because he seeks to win a war he knows is unjust when Greymane is properly responsible. That need for competition and victory is rooted even deeper than she thought. There’s an almost violent need to be proven right, even when the people behind the war know that they’re wrong.
Ultimately, it leads us to the setup for more Old Gods stuff in the next expansion and a fight against Sylvanas… but the sense of a fight that could be avoided. The Alliance aren’t the heroes but have the chance to assert heroism over cruelty, while the Horde has something to be legitimately angry at the Alliance over and new factional divisions to pit its members against one another.
Further reading in this series: