What broke the Machine of Death in Shadowlands?
In Shadowlands, souls are flooding into the Maw unchecked instead of being properly assigned to Covenants. The machine of death is broken, and no one knows who (or what) did it or how it happened — but there’s plenty of room for speculation. (And for spoilers. You’ll find some minor spoilers for alpha content in this article, but most of it is speculation.)
In the alpha, we’re starting to see hints of what may have happened. In Ardenweald, we discover an important clue that further narrows the timeline: Ysera was one of the last souls to enter the Shadowlands before the machine broke.
While players could quest through the zones in Legion in any order, canonically, the story begins in Azsuna, and follows into Val’sharah before reaching its culmination in Stormheim. Ysera died in the conclusion of Val’sharah, and we now know, at that time, the machine of death was working.
So what happened next? We have a few theories as to why the machine of death stopped working.
Ysera and the puzzle of judging a being of Life and Nightmare
In a murder investigation, you question the last person to see the victim alive. The last soul we know of who saw the Arbiter fully functional was Ysera. Any investigation into what broke the machine of death should start with her.
This seems to be the theory of Pyromancer, a well-known lore speculator in the WoW community. In his video, he lays out his theory that the Arbiter acts similarly to a computer or AI like MOTHER. When Ysera died, she came before the Arbiter. Here was this being infused by the Titan of Life, Eonar, and the guardian of the verdant Emerald Dream. Yet, as the Arbiter looks over Yesera’s life, her final moments are as a creature of chaos, imbued with power of the Nightmare.
This dichotomy was too much for the Arbiter’s logic and algorithms to process. As computers will sometimes do when presented with data they can’t handle, the Arbiter simply shut down.
That’s one suspect, but we can’t end our investigation there. Who else should we question? Perhaps someone who’s caused trouble for Azeroth in multiple timelines.
Gul’dan and the conundrum of celestial double jeopardy
Our own lore expert, Matthew Rossi, proposed Gul’dan as a possible trigger. In a similar line of thinking to Ysera, Gul’dan presented the Arbiter with a set of circumstances she couldn’t process. The Gul’dan we defeat atop the Nighthold in Suramar is not from our timeline or reality. Our Gul’dan died in the Second War. This Gul’dan came from the alternate version of Draenor we followed Garrosh Hellscream to in Warlords of Draenor.
The Arbiter is faced with a soul that she already dealt with, one that should be in the Maw. How do you process someone you already judged?
That’s two solid suspects, but we want to be thorough, and there’s another death in Legion that demands our attention.
Argus and the death of the Titan of Death
While it’s not overtly shown in game, Argus the Unmaker is the Titan of Death. His spells are called things like Death Fog, Cone of Death, Soulbomb, and Soulburst — and in the World of Warcraft database, these spell are labeled with “deathtitan.” The hints continue with his weapon: a scythe, reminiscent of the Grim Reaper.
And think about how the Burning Legion used him: for eons, they used his power over Death to bring the slain demons back to life.
We killed Argus in the penultimate raid of Legion, so it after the death of Ysera which fits the timeline. Killing the very Titan of Death could, in and of itself, break the machine of death.
But his death led to the imprisonment of Azeroth’s oldest foe, Sargeras, and his rather large sword impaling our planet.
The remains of Sargaras’ power and the fragments of Frostmourne
Frostmourne came from the Shadowlands. It was forged in Torgast. During Legion, the Deathlord takes fragments of the Frostmourne and forges the twin blades of Icebringer and Frostreaper, which would have inherited Frostmourne’s connections to the Shadowlands.
In a final act of defiance after his defeat, Sargeras plunges his own sword into Azeroth. We use our artifact weapons to drain Sargeras’ sword of its power, which means Icebringer and Frostreaper could have channeled the raw power of Sargeras into the Shadowlands itself. Like overloading a circuit breaker, that much power would have been too much for the Arbiter to handle, and down she goes.
The Dragon Aspect of Life, the leader of the Shadow Council, the Titan of Death, and the Mad Titan himself.
That’s quite a lineup of suspects, but we’re missing one of the most important characters in Battle for Azeroth: the Banshee Queen herself, Sylvanas Windrunner. No investigation can be complete without questioning her.
Sylvanas and the shattered Soulcage
The next major event in the story after Ysera’s death is the conclusion of Stormheim questing, where we find Sylvanas torturing Eyir in the vault of Skold-Ashil with a powerful artifact called the Soulcage. In her moment of triumph, Genn Greymane attacks Sylvanas, steals the Soulcage, and shatters it as retribution for the Banshee Queen murdering his son.
But in his blind rage, did he do irreparable harm to the Shadowlands? It seems like he could have.
Everything about the Soulcage links it to the Arbiter. The in-game description reads “Gifted by Helya, the Soulcage held the power to compel the soul of any being.” Even someone as powerful as Eyir, a Titanic Watcher, couldn’t resist it. Compelling souls is the Arbiter’s main function. Would anyone willingly go to Revendreth or the Maw? No, they must be compelled there.
The Soulcage may very well have been the source of the Arbiter’s power. With no way to perform her function any longer, she simply shut down.
Did she lend the Soulcage to Helya? Was it stolen from her? What role might Helya have played in breaking the machine of death? I think we have yet another suspect on our hands.
Helya and the hunt for even more power
Whatever Helya’s plan might have been, it doesn’t matter. We killed Helya. She’s dead, right? Not so fast, my friend.
Helya is growing in power.
What, small one, are you surprised? Did you think she was defeated?
<Valdemar laughs heartily.>
You cannot kill death!
Helya and Sylvanas made a bargain. Helya’s part was to provide Sylvanas with the Soulcage. Sylvanas would use the Soulcage to force Eyir to give her the Val’kyr, ostensibly to create more Forsaken. I give the Dark Lady’s stated motives a heavy dose of side eye.
What was Sylvanas’ end of the bargain? What did Helya want? Heyla wanted Eyir subjugated. Sure, Sylvanas could have the Val’kyr. Helya made the Valy’kyr. But with Eyir under Sylvanas’ control, what could Helya have demanded Sylvanas make her do?
During a discussion I had with Jalamenos in the Queue, he put forth the idea that Helya wanted a bridge between the Shadowlands and Helheim. Helya already had Helheim, her own realm of Death, like the Maw, where none were supposed to leave.
But in her pride and hubris, perhaps Helya wanted more: the Shadowlands, the realm of Death itself. So strong was her desire for the Shadowlands, she even named part of her realm the Maw… of Souls.
She already had a level of access to the Shadowlands. It was Helya, after all, who allowed Odyn to peer into the Shadowlands. But to glimpse her future kingdom wasn’t enough. She wanted to rule it. Much like Sargeras seeking a way into Azeroth through the Well of Eternity in the War of the Ancients, Helya needed a way into the Shadowlands.
Eyir was to be her Rainbow Bridge. A beautiful plan, ruined by Genn Greymane. But despite this setback, Helya wasn’t going to be denied. She devised a new plan. The Helarjar started attacking the Broken Isles with little rhyme or reason and they lured us back into Helheim. She played Odyn for the fool and had him send us into her realm.
To do what we do best. To kill her.
In the Trial of Valor raid, we do the deed. Importantly, we kill her in her native realm of Helheim. It would have been a “real” death, and she’d be sent to the Shadowlands and to the Arbiter. The Arbiter had likely never seen a soul with so much Anima before. Helya overwhelmed the Arbiter and shut her down.
So those are our suspects, for now. Perhaps as we continue to venture into the alpha, we’ll find new clues to narrow our search. Which one do you think is the guilty party? Is there some other suspect we’ve missed completely? Let us know in the comments.
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