Know Your Lore, Tinfoil Hat Edition: The plot behind Gul’dan’s rise to power
On the Lore Watch podcast recently, the discussion fell to Gul’dan in Harbingers and how and why the Legion reached out to him. In the classic timeline, Gul’dan was Ner’zhul’s apprentice. After his mentor rejected the Legion, Gul’dan went to Kil’jaeden and said, essentially, I’ll be your big bad evil guy. This laid the path for the formation of the Horde, the drinking of the Blood of Mannoroth, the corruption of the Orcs, and everything else that led up to the Azeroth we know today.
Just as obviously, however, the Gul’dan from Warlords’ Draenor was never Ner’zhul’s protege. How far does the divergence go? If our Gul’dan was an acceptable Shaman for a while, why did this Gul’dan fail to meet the approval of the elementals? How did the Legion even know to make him an offer at all? For answers we must speculate, because some facts have never been presented in game or elsewhere. So let’s talk about how the game’s two Draenors differ from one another.
This is a Tinfoil Hat KYL. It speculates on lore that hasn’t been explicitly stated in game yet and may be contradicted by later revelations. There will be spoilers for Legion in this KYL.
If you’ve seen Gul’dan’s story in Harbingers, you saw the tale of a despised, broken Orc who was nearly put to death by his own village. Gul’dan was cast out and told to seek out his destiny at the Throne of the Elements. After enduring months at the brink of death, he reached his goal.. only to face rejection from the elements themselves.
We don’t know when, exactly, this happened and though we know that in the timeline we’re from Gul’dan was Ner’zhul’s apprentice we don’t know how he became Ner’zhul’s apprentice. It’s assumed that Gul’dan was a member of the Shadowmoon clan because Ner’zhul was their Chieftain and Elder Shaman. But imagine this instead: what if Ner’zhul met Gul’dan in our timeline is because he was traveling to Nagrand to visit the spirit of his wife Rulkan at the sacred mountain Oshu’gun?
For want of a nail
In history as it unfolded for our characters, Ner’zhul’s wife Rulkan died before the Legion discovered Draenor. I submit to you that on our Draenor (i.e. not the Draenor of Warlords), Rulkan’s death meant that Ner’zhul went to Oshu’gun to visit her spirit. There he could have met young Gul’dan: a starving, nearly dead wretch. Being a fair sort, Ner’zhul would have found his story of bitterness and rejection unacceptable. Ner’zhul was an Orc and as savage as any of his people, but the idea of wasting Gul’dan’s potential would have galled him. So he might have taken the younger Orc as his apprentice, soothing over any difficulties the elements might have had using the experience a lifetime of dealing with such capricious beings had given him.
Everything would have unfolded we experienced: Kil’jaeden posing as Ner’zhul’s wife, the elements turning their back on the Elder Shaman, Ner’zhul rejecting Kil’jaeden after his own wife’s spirit turned her back on him, and Gul’dan’s bargain and ascension to puppet master of the Horde. We know the rest of the story: the First War, the invasion of Azeroth, the attempt to probe Medivh’s mind only to be thrown into a coma by his death, the rise of Doomhammer, Gul’dan’s creation of the first Death Knights, his betrayal and flight to the Tomb of Sargeras, and his death in that demon-haunted place. All of it as we experienced — and all of it known to the Legion, for they retrieved his skull and used it to help corrupt Felwood in the Third War.
Imagine it. Because Rulkan died, Illidan became a demon. For want of Ner’zhul’s mate, the Kaldorei lost himself.
I found my destiny
So far, though, this has little to do with the Harbingers Gul’dan. Even if their stories diverge because Ner’zhul’s mate didn’t die on the alternate Draenor of Warlords, why did the elements reject Gul’dan? How did the Legion know to contact him? Well, that’s the fascinating thing about the Legion. The Legion’s spymasters, the Nathrezim — the evil force that pushed Sargeras to doubt the Titan’s plan for the universe — have many secrets. But ironically, one fact about them is common knowledge and yet no one has fully considered what it means.
Sargeras first encountered the Nathrezim on a world already corrupted by the Old Gods where the Titan soul had been destroyed. The seething void energies combined with the madness, fear, and chaos of the world’s doomed beings were delicious to the Nathrezim. Sargeras, at that time still a Titan, didn’t yet know how to kill a Nathrezim, so he gained knowledge by a simple means: he simply tortured one until it broke and revealed the secrets of the Old Gods. This eventually convincing him to destroy the corrupted World Soul as the Old Gods rendered it beyond saving.
When Sargeras broke with the Titans, he went to the prison world he’d created in the Twisting Nether: Mardum. He ripped it apart and freed the demonic prisoners therein, including the Nathrezim. He’d long since divined how to permanently kill them, so he offered them a deal: serve him or die. They took his offer and have served faithfully ever since.
They who sit in shadow
But treachery comes to the Nathrezim more easily than breathing. How loyal can they ever be? Not only did they delighted in the void energies released by an utterly corrupted a world, Sargeras alone in creation knows how to permanently kill them. They served him to avoid death, but we’ve seen what a Nathrezim’s oath of loyalty is worth in those circumstances. When Sylvanas Windrunner gave Varimathras the very same deal, he and his brothers began plotting against her before their bodies were even cold.
The Old Gods do not fear the Legion. And the Old Gods are merely servants of the Void Lords, beings of incalculable power who terrify even Sargeras. His fear of their corruption of unborn Titan souls led Sargeras to conclude that destroying everything was preferable to the Old Gods succeeding. He fears them. So if you’re the notoriously treacherous Nathrezim, masters of shadowy magic and revelers in the chaos of Void-touched planets, why wouldn’t you make a deal with the Void Lords? After all, once Sargeras is dead, the whole universe can be overtaken by the Void, leaving the Nathrezim to dance in the seething corruption of all existence. And then no one will know how to kill them.
But how best to betray the Legion? They exist across all realities, tethered to the Twisting Nether. Kill a demon of the Legion and it returns, death in the mortal plane being nothing more than a temporary setback. But the Legion doesn’t seem to know the future and the crafty Nathrezim could exploit that.
The tower that bends time
When Sargeras possessed Medivh, he learned about Guardian and Karazhan. In Khadgar’s Harbingers short, we see that the Legion still has designs on Khadgar and Medivh’s tower.
When we journeyed to Karazhan during The Burning Crusade expansion, we encountered Prince Malchezaar, an Eredar Lord who sought to claim the tower for the Legion. In his words, the tower opened “all realities, all dimensions.” Why would that be important to him? The Legion invades worlds and destroys them, so why did he seek a nexus between realities? As a back door into Azeroth? Did even he know why he wanted the tower?
Now consider Kairoz’s perfectly timed arrival on alternate Draenor: it was almost exactly five years before the Legion would discover that world. It takes Garrosh that long to ready his people, giving the Orcs with weapons unlike any they’d seen in an effort to change their destiny. When Kairoz freed Garrosh, he did so with the help of the Infinite Dragonflight, even though said Dragonflight was supposedly destroyed when Nozdormu and a group of adventurers slew his future self, Murozond.
To shatter this clockwork universe
Nozdormu claimed the Old Gods were involved in Murozond’s plans, and when Thrall traveled to several alternate timeways during Cataclysm Nozdormu again claimed the Old Gods were responsible. We know the Old Gods tried to stop Rhonin, Krasus, and Broxigar from traveling to the War of the Ancients to prevent Sargeras’ first attempt at entering Azeroth. We know that the Old Gods sought to use that attempt to free themselves from their prisons and that they don’t fear the Legion or its master.
So consider this possibility.
The Nathrezim have been looking for alternate timeway all along, working hand in hand with the Old Gods. The Old Gods, in turn, use the Infinites to find a point in history far enough back and strongly divergent enough to endure. Once the Hour of Twilight acme and Nozdormu sacrificed his powers as an Aspect (yes, this means Murozond was a pawn) they struck. The Nathrezim planted the idea of exploiting the timeways in Kairoz’ mind, perhaps even convincing him to use them to recruit a vast Horde of Orcs from as many timeways as it took to balk the Legion once and for all.
Heck, who’s to say that Kairoz was right when he told Garrosh that the world he found was just naturally slightly different? Perhaps the Nathrezim engineered it, using the Infinites to make sure there would be no Garrosh, that Rulkan didn’t die so Gul’dan was never accepted as a Shaman. Perhaps it was all to ensure Kairoz would find his perfect world — and in so doing doom ours.
How to kill that which kills gods
Garrosh killing Kairoz may have been their design or simply a fortuitous accident. Either way they had what they needed: a strongly divergent timeway with the proper cast of characters and the right circumstances to bypass Ner’zhul and go straight to the best lackey the Legion ever had. They could essentially impart their knowledge of the possible future to themselves via the timeway, which was decades in their own past since the Legion transcends all realities. It was simplicity itself.
So all of it — Hellscream’s trial, his escape, his establishment of the Iron Horde, bringing the Alliance and Horde to Draenor, Hellscream’s death, Gul’dan’s rise to rule the Iron Horde — all of it was simply a means to gain Gul’dan’s aid. The Nathrezim wanted to put him on Azeroth to allow the Legion to invade via the Tomb of Sargeras in hopes that the Old Gods could finally free themselves and kill Sargeras. It would give the Legion everything it wanted and hope it choked on it, orchestrated by the universe’s perfect traitors.
Or maybe not. We’re just speculating, after all.
But remember, Azeroth is the home of the Final Titan, prophesied to be more powerful than the entire Pantheon put together. It’s the world where the spirits of the other members of the Pantheon rest in the bodies of the Keepers. And it’s the world that has twice balked the Legion. Fighting here has never gone well for them. If you want to kill Sargeras, this is probably the best place to do it.
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