Know Your Lore: Gul’dan and the Burning Legion
Gul’dan has a long and storied history in World of Warcraft — after all, his betrayal of Ner’zhul and subsequent takeover of the original Horde is what brought the Orcs to Azeroth in the first place. And his thirst for power overwhelming led directly to his demise in the Tomb of Sargeras during the Second War. Yet Gul’dan was just as influential after his death as he was while still alive, and perhaps more so. Even his skull turned out to be an immensely powerful artifact, one that transformed Illidan Stormrage from mere Night Elf to something more sinister. And although he was long dead, from beyond the grave Gul’dan’s whispers could be heard by those lucky enough — or unlucky enough — to hold his skull in their hands.
But that’s our Gul’dan — he one who lived on our version of Draenor, the one who first opened the Dark Portal and began a series of wars that had enough of an impact on Azeroth that their influence is still being felt today. In Warlords of Draenor, we meet the Gul’dan of this alternate reality. And while there are a number of similarities, there’s just enough differences to make one wonder whether Gul’dan is using the Burning Legion … or the Legion is using him.
The Burning Legion definitely took notice of Gul’dan back in the days before the First War. After all, it was Gul’dan who betrayed Ner’zhul and let Kil’jaeden know that Ner’zhul had finally seen through his lies. Why? Power. Gul’dan wanted power, as much of it as possible, and he really didn’t care who had to pay the price as long as he got it. Sacrifice his people’s connection to the elements? Not a problem. Use dark and twisted magic to prematurely age Orc children until they could fight? Absolutely. Convince his people to seal the deal by drinking the blood of a pit lord, transforming the lot of them into rage-filled monsters driven by an unnatural bloodlust? He didn’t even blink at the prospect: he simply handed his people over.
And once his work on Draenor had been completed, the Burning Legion realized they had what was probably as close to a perfect servant as they could get in Gul’dan. When Shattrath was destroyed, Kil’jaeden left Draenor and left Gul’dan to his own devices. It wasn’t because they were done with Gul’dan — it was because now that they had his number, they could easily manipulate him into doing their bidding. Medivh — who at that point had been possessed by Sargeras, leader of the Burning Legion — contacted Gul’dan and promised him the powers of a god, located in the Tomb of Sargeras, knowing full well that there was no way Gul’dan would turn down that kind of offer. In exchange, all Gul’dan had to do was construct a portal linking Draenor to Azeroth, and unleash the might of the old Horde on the unsuspecting world.
Of course Gul’dan took him up on it. But when Medivh was in danger of being slain, Gul’dan did nothing to defend him — at that point, it was highly likely there wasn’t anything Gul’dan could do anyway. Instead, he ransacked Medivh’s mind, searching for the location of the Tomb and the power he’d been promised. He was still trying to do so when Medivh was killed, and the shock forced Gul’dan into a coma. When he awoke, it was to a Horde now led not by Blackhand, his easily manipulated choice, but Orgrim Doomhammer, who took advantage of Gul’dan’s coma to kill Blackhand and assume leadership of the Horde himself. And he gave Gul’dan two choices: Prove his loyalty by handing over information about Blackhand’s followers or die. Naturally, Gul’dan chose life. After all, he had the location of the Tomb … he simply had to bide his time until he could go after it.
That time turned out to be the end of the Second War. Once the Horde finally reached Lordaeron, Gul’dan realized they were near the Tomb’s location. In the dead of night, just before Doomhammer and the Horde were to attack Lordaeron, Gul’dan took both the Stormreaver and the Twilight’s Hammer clans and set out to sea, leaving Orgrim’s forces severely crippled. The Horde was forced to retreat, and Orgrim immediately began to search for Gul’dan, incensed at his betrayal.
But Gul’dan found the Tomb before Orgrim to get to him … although that really didn’t end well for the Warlock. Taking only a few followers, Gul’dan disappeared into the Tomb, searching for the Eye of Sargeras. He never found it — instead, he found a horde of insane demons who promptly tore him to shreds. Orgrim’s forces caught up with the deserters shortly thereafter, and systematically slaughtered both clans.
And in those last, final moments of his life, Gul’dan came to the sudden realization that the power he’d been offered was nothing more than a ruse. Sargeras likely never intended to hand over the Eye of Sargeras — he just wanted Gul’dan working for him. Gul’dan betrayed the Horde, and in turn, the Burning Legion gave him nothing but a swift death.
Which is where we flip to Warlords of Draenor and the Gul’dan of that reality. And in turn, we have to take a look at the Burning Legion — because the Burning Legion is the same across all realities, not just our own. Which means that Draenor presented a second chance at razing Azeroth, and evidence suggests that the Burning Legion not only realized this, they went out of their way to take steps to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes as they did before. Instead of tricking Ner’zhul, Kil’jaeden apparently just contacted Gul’dan directly, luring him away from the Shadowmoon Clan with promises of power, promises they knew he wouldn’t be able to resist.
Gul’dan took the bait and ran with it, drank the demon blood, transformed into a fel green and twisted version of the Orc he had once been, and put together the Shadow Council. He planned to get the rest of the clans in on the deal by convincing Grommash Hellscream to drink the blood of Mannoroth — something that should have worked. Something that the Burning Legion likely told Gul’dan to do, because they had every evidence of that action working marvelously before. What they didn’t expect was the timely intervention of Garrosh Hellscream, who used a shard of the Vision of Time to convince the Warsong chieftain to deny Gul’dan’s offer, and even helped him put together siege equipment to kill Mannoroth. Gul’dan and his lieutenants were captured, their powers used to fuel the new Dark Portal that would open the way to Azeroth.
And we set him free. We set him free because it was the only way we could destroy that portal, and in the process we gave the Legion a second shot at taking Draenor. Kil’jaeden was out of the picture and Archimonde took over, preferring a strategy of brute strength over the delicate subtlety of Kil’jaeden’s lies. As for Gul’dan … he sat back, he waited, and we underestimated him, because we assumed that the greater threat was the Iron Horde. But what we didn’t realize was that because Gul’dan was obviously not held in high regard, he wasn’t exactly happy with the Iron Horde either. And cutting a swath of carnage through Draenor’s Warlords only meant that there was less and less opposition, and more and more room for Gul’dan to step in and take over, just as he’d planned all along.
Which worked perfectly for the Burning Legion. Archimonde wanted to conquer the world with brute strength — we managed to whittle the world’s most powerful heroes down to nothing and pave the way for Gul’dan to let the Legion in. And somewhere in the midst of it all, the Burning Legion gave Gul’dan something arguably far more powerful than any fel magic they could have bestowed: Knowledge. Gul’dan knew that Garrosh Hellscream was Grommash’s son from a different reality, and he used that information at the best, most precisely timed moment to shut down Grommash and hopefully persuade him to drink the Blood of Mannoroth. He knew that he and Khadgar had a history. He knew all kinds of things about us and our world, and it’s entirely likely the Burning Legion gave him every bit of that information.
Why? Because Draenor was a test run. Draenor didn’t hold anything particularly useful for the Burning Legion, not after their plans to corrupt the Orcs were thwarted. Sure, the Orcs drank the demon blood eventually, but the numbers just weren’t there anymore, not after all our efforts. Archimonde wanted to devour the souls of the dead Draenei in Auchindoun, but those plans were also thwarted — again, by us. And with every victory we added to our ever-growing tally, we also experienced losses. We may have defeated the Warlords of Draenor, but we neglected to get rid of the one piece left on the board that also happened to be the most powerful piece in the Burning Legion’s arsenal — we didn’t get rid of Gul’dan.
And when, at last, Archimonde lay defeated, he sent that pawn through the Black Gate and out the other side, to a world of far greater interest than Draenor ever was. To our world, to the Tomb of Sargeras, in order to finally open another portal through which the Burning Legion could pass. Gul’dan is working for the Burning Legion now, and in a way, he’s far more terrifying than he ever was during the First War. Because now, the Burning Legion knows how to get Gul’dan to do what they want — and they also know what to look for, and how to keep him in check if he gets out of line. The Burning Legion is playing a long, long game, and what we’re likely going to see in Legion is the end result of thousands of years worth of observation and careful calculation, assessments of our strengths and weaknesses, and possible counters to every single last one of them. Because the Burning Legion is eternal, and they can afford to wait as long as it takes.
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