Know Your Lore: Death Knights, then and now
Death Knights are a big part of World of Warcraft. As one of the tank class, they’ve remained popular since their introduction during Wrath of the Lich King. But they have a history that predates Wrath, and indeed, even predates Warcraft III and the introduction of the Scourge, the Lich King or Arthas himself.
Death Knights date back to everybody’s favorite Warlock, in fact. And their creation wasn’t part of a grand malevolent scheme or a furious explosion of malice from an undead being. Before the Frozen Throne crashed into Icecrown, before the lords of the Burning Legion first conceived of a weapon that would scour life from Azeroth, there was only means, motive and opportunity… and a self-serving power hungry Warlock grasping for a tool.
Dawn of the Second War
The Orcs invaded Azeroth and at the end of the First War, destroyed Stormwind via an assassin’s blade and the death of King Llane Wrynn. At the same time, the Orc Warlock Gul’dan had overreached himself in attempting to plunder the location of the Tomb of Sargeras from the Guardian Medivh’s mind. Doing so caused him to fall into a coma, when Medivh was killed. Gul’dan lay unconscious, near death, while his loyal Necrolytes and his puppet Warchief Blackhand were struck down by Orgrim Doomhammer.
Gul’dan awoke to good news and bad news. The good news? The Orcs had succeeded in destroying Stormwind and routing the Humans. The bad news? Doomhammer, the new Warchief, hated him. With his necrolytes all dead Gul’dan didn’t have a power base in the Horde anymore. Brought before the Warchief, Gul’dan was asked a simple question — “Why shouldn’t I kill you right now?”
Gul’dan was nothing if not all about himself. Everything he’d done since his encounter with the Legion at the Throne of the Elements was in the pursuit of personal power. So when Doomhammer asked him that question, Gul’dan was unsurprisingly quick to answer it. Gul’dan knew that the Humans were far from defeated. So his answer was simple: “Let me live, and I will give you a means to defend against the Human magics.” Without the Warlocks, the Orcs had no answer to Humanity’s Priests and Mages, no means to face them openly on the battlefield.
Birth of the Death Knight
But Gul’dan had little more than that answer. He certainly didn’t actually have a means to do what he had promised and Doomhammer would only let him live so long. So he immediately set to work, with what few servants had been left to him. One thing he had in abundance was raw material.
The bodies of Stormwind’s proudest defenders, the Brotherhood of the Horse, were still in Orcish hands. They’d fought and died to a man — their Armsman, Anduin Lothar. The rest of the Brotherhood had died buying time for Stormwind to evacuate. As such, they were invested with an almost supernatural dread by the Orcs they’d fought. Gul’dan, however, was not most Orcs.
After several ideas failed, he finally hit upon the one that would work. He killed the few remaining Necrolytes and used their hearts to create magical jewels, which he then affixed to truncheons that seethed with the dead Necrolyte’s power over death. Placing this truncheon in the hand of a fallen knight of Stormwind, the spirit of Gul’dan’s chief pupil Teron’gor infested the body and it arose from death as Teron Gorefiend, first of the Death Knights. Gorefiend, first of the Death Knights, served at Gul’dan’s side until his master made the fatal mistake and overreached himself.
Return to Draenor
Gorefiend did not die alongside Gul’dan. Instead, he ended up making his way to Draenor, where his own people quailed at the sight of him. But Gorefiend, for all his evil, had once been a Shaman of the Shadowmoon Clan. It was only after the elements had refused to answer his call that Teron’gor had turned to the Fel.
As a former Shaman, Gorefiend sought out his former master, Ner’zhul. Despite Ner’zhul’s hatred for Gul’dan and those that had turned away to serve him, Teron convinced the former Elder Sage that the Orcs needed him. Together, they formed the Horde of Draenor.
The fate of Draenor came from this decision. So did Teron’s part in retrieving relics for Ner’zhul to use to open portals for the Orcs to escape their dying planet. But before Ner’zhul tore his world apart with reckless sorceries, he first beheld Teron Gorefiend and all the power the Death Knight commanded. Gorefiend was the first Death Knight, the most powerful of that generation, and Ner’zhul knew exactly how powerful that was.
Rise of the Lich King
Ner’zhul ultimately got what he wanted — portals off Draenor — but tore the planet apart in the process. Fleeing through one of those portals he found himself in the grasp of Kil’jaeden. Enraged at his attempted betrayal, Kil’jaeden flayed Ner’zhul’s body apart while ensuring that his soul survived the process. Then, he encased Ner’zhul in the Helm of Domination, a suit of magical armor, and gave him the runeblade Frostmourne.
Once this was complete, Ner’zhul was hurled onto Azeroth’s Icecrown Glacier, to begin the slow process of corrupting and destroying it on behalf of the Legion. But Ner’zhul wasn’t loyal to Kil’jaeden. What he needed most was a weapon, a means to escape the control of his Nathrezim jailors and achieve his own aims. What kind of weapon would serve?
His first step was to drive the runeblade from his prison, the Frozen Throne itself. He managed to convince the Dreadlords that the runeblade would serve in a grand scheme to convert a champion for the Scourge. And he was careful never to mention that this champion would be loyal to him, and not the Legion.
During the Second War, the Death Knights of Teron’s generation found themselves equally matched by the Order of the Silver Hand. Ner’zhul’s agents sought out one of the order who was powerful, a skilled warrior, and yet untested enough to potentially serve their master’s will. Kel’Thuzad and the Cult of the Damned moved to isolate Arthas Menethil from his order, from his loved ones, and in time even from himself. They drove him wild with a lust for revenge and a grudge that was deeply personal. Each time Arthas failed to prevent the Cult from unleashing a new horror, his wounded pride festered inside him.
Watching Draenor crumble while helpless to stop it taught Ner’zhul a great deal about the pain of wounded pride. Arthas was moved step by step through the kind of failure and loss that Ner’zhul had suffered. By the time he pursued Mal’Ganis to Northrend, the prince of Lordaeron was gone. A man who would burn his own ships to keep his troops from returning home had taken his place. Just as Ner’zhul had intended.
By the time Arthas took up Frostmourne, he was already gone. It was a reversal of how Teron’gor had become Gorefiend. There, the dead Orc’s soul had been forced to animate another’s body. Here, Arthas’ soul was stolen from him and tainted forever. When he held the runeblade and surrendered to its power he was left a husk. A gleefully evil servant of a master who intended to wipe all life from Azeroth.
As a Death Knight, Arthas was an unstoppable force for the Lich King’s plans, both in service to the Legion, and against it. It was Arthas who told Illidan Stormrage where to find the Skull of Gul’dan. Arthas who slew Mal’Ganis and threw the Dreadlords out of Lordaeron. And who made the journey north when the Lich King began to weaken, and Illidan tried to destroy him. He proved just how powerful a Death Knight could be.
Arthas was the first of a new order of Death Knights. Ner’zhul would make others, twisting other Paladins and Warriors who fell in battle. But these would be his direct servants. Arthas still held some modicum of free will, which would lead to his becoming instrumental in Ner’zhul’s plan to escape the Frozen Throne. Arthas Menethil eventually became the Lich King himself, fused to Ner’zhul’s unholy power and malevolence.
Death Knights of Acherus
After years seated atop Icecrown Glacier, the Lich King rose and strode out, beginning the events that led to the Scourge becoming active again. He created Acherus, a vast necropolis that traveled south to the Plaguelands. There, the Lich King began recruiting a new generation of Death Knights.
Though similar to the ones created by Ner’zhul, Arthas sought more than mindless servants. He sought to create an aristocracy of death in his own image. Lords and Ladies who would bring suffering and havoc to his enemies and leave only corpses in their wake. He sought, in his way, to create a peerage. Because unlike Gul’dan or Ner’zhul, Arthas actually knew what Knights truly were. He’d been raised a Prince, after all. As King, he needed a court, didn’t he?
He intended to use these Death Knights to lure out the Silver Hand’s greatest champions. If they were destroyed, he could always make more. It was that act that ultimately led the Knights of Acherus to rebel against the Lich King. Thus Arthas created some of his own worst enemies, and the modern Death Knights of Azeroth came to be, owning no allegiance to the Scourge.
Modern Death Knights are not animated by jeweled truncheons, the way Gorefiend was. The power of the Lich King, born of Ner’zhul’s own suffering, suffuses and animates their bodies. As such, they are forced to inflict suffering on others if they wish to endure. The Death Knight salute ‘Suffer well‘ comes from this inherent nature. Not only do they inflict pain and suffering on others, they feel it themselves, constantly. It’s woven into their new existence as neither living nor truly dead beings. This is the price of their existence. At present, the Death Knights of Acherus stand as the last remaining Death Knights on Azeroth, the third generation of Death Knights created since an Orc’s soul was embodied in a dead knight’s body.
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