Rastakhan watched the pallid predawn light creep over the island of Zandalar and its inhabitants. The normally quiet kingdom of the scholarly trolls was abuzz with activity, despite the early hour. Trolls shouted instructions to one another as they prepared for the arrival of their scattered brethren from throughout Azeroth. Tents, pavilions, and small huts sprouted like a sudden growth of foliage on the city's outskirts: the handiwork of the diligent Zandalari. Though the tribes had their differences and disputes- some with the Zandalari themselves- they put aside their hostilities every six years to come together on Zandalar under peaceful conditions.
Distant rumors came to the island several months ago that something terrible was happening to Azeroth. There were reports of unrest amongst the elementals, which were brazenly attacking cities. It seemed like the planet's forces were preparing for an upheaval of some sort. Rastakhan dismissed it all as irrelevant to his people. No matter what happened to the world outside, the island's magic would shield them from anything disastrous, as it had during the Sundering, so many thousands of years past. If something was wrong, it was the fault of the other races and no concern of the Zandalari.
But, one night, the loa raised their voices in a garbled clamor, like roosting birds suddenly disturbed from their nests. When Rastakhan tried to communicate with them, all he could make out from their message was danger and shattered. He did not know what they were speaking of, except that it was urgent. As he stepped outside of his residence in the city's main temple ziggurat for fresh air, other Zandalari were already running up to report their own confused messages from the loa. They spoke of the same sense of imminent danger; some mentioned a feeling of being physically torn apart.
Then a brilliant red flash appeared on the horizon, though the growing light seemed shrouded by something else, as if encased within a clouded vial. The ground began to shake. Glittering ripples shimmered on the surface of the island's ancient shield. Rastakhan shut his eyes as the loa's clamor became louder, the noise pounding his skull from within and without. The light came close enough for the trolls to see that it was actually fire: a massive, winged thing of fire and molten earth, hurtling through the sky across Azeroth's landscape. Liquid flame dripped from the creature's body, hissing against the shield, as it thundered past overhead. Their eyes remained riveted on the glowing spectacle, despite the quaking land beneath their feet, until a shout brought their attention back toward the direction the thing had come. A massive tidal wave was looming above the island in the wake of flame and ash, racing after its creator like an eager pet.
The Zandalari's veteran priests went to work, reinforcing the shield with whatever magic they could muster. Rastakhan himself called upon the loa to help them, trying to make his plea heard above their tumultuous noise. He prayed the loa's warnings were not sent in vain, that he and his people had not listened too late. The wall of water broke against the shield. It hammered against the island's defenses with a deafening, terrifying crash, and sent the trolls to their knees. Though shaken and confused, all that marked their ordeal was the ash in the air and the roiling ocean around the island. The loa were quiet again, but the large, burly troll leader was left with a sense of dread and despair.
In the weeks to come, he would receive numerous messages that depicted scenes of ruin and destruction. One messenger had collapsed on the temple steps; her tenacious grasp on life lost when she finally reached her destination and completed her last duty. She looked young, with her small, slender frame now sprawled on the steps in death. Her jewel-hued turquoise skin was charred, blistered, and bruised to a sickly greenish-purple beyond recognition- and beyond the help of her natural regenerative abilities. The trolls were gifted their regenerative powers by the loa, allowing them to heal wounds faster and even regrow extremities like fingers, though the process was long and painful. It was likely the messenger only survived for so long, despite her injuries, through the combined effort of sheer willpower and what desperate healing the loa's power could give her. When Rastakhan found her, there was nothing he or the other priests could do.
A member of the temple guard pried the crumpled parchment from the messenger's burnt fingers, handing it to Rastakhan. As attendants gently moved the body away to prepare her for burial, the Zandalari leader read the hastily scrawled note. He could sense the fear in the writer's words, and he resisted the urge to run, to flee: The ground just opened up like a huge animal roaring! Most of village fell in. Gone! Fire, dead, ruins everywhere. It can't be saved. So long as one of you lives, make sure this message gets to Rastakhan and the Zandalari. They need to know. They can help.
The world was breaking apart, and the trolls along with it. And, for the first time since the sacking of Zul'Gurub, Rastakhan found himself wishing for the simpler days of the past.
During ancient times, the Zandalari were respected- and even revered- as the holders of knowledge amongst the trolls: the curators of their collective history. They maintained neutrality throughout the millennia while other tribes sought conquest, land, power, and riches, vying against the other races and one another for domination. But with recent events in Northrend, and now the Shattering of Azeroth, the Zandalari would have to take a more active role in creating the history they desired to continue recording. A historian would be nothing without a subject to document.
The leader of the Zandalari closed his aged eyes against the morning light, thinking of his people's dark future, and how it came to be. The jungle trolls of the once glorious Gurubashi Empire were fractured from the first war against Hakkar, then further flung into dereliction with the Atal'ai's second failed attempt to summon the Soulflayer into the world. Their sand troll cousins were isolated in faraway Tanaris, an arid desert devoid of riches, with little to show for themselves. The Amani forest trolls never recovered from the assault of the humans and high elves during the Second War. Later, when Zul'jin died at the hands of adventurers, Zul'Aman became a city of ghosts and unfulfilled dreams. To the distant north, the ice trolls fell victim to the Lich King's scourge army. Betrayed from within by Drakkuru and driven to madness by desperation, the Drakkari were all but gone, a mockery of the civilization they once were.
Rastakhan felt it was all somehow his fault. The wisdom and influence of the Zandalari could have prevented the loss of so many troll lives if they had only acted sooner, he thought. Instead, they relished their solitude, hiding behind their scrolls and tomes. Even when Hakkar's coming to Azeroth was imminent, the Zandalari only encouraged and assisted the heroes who answered the call to arms against Zul'Gurub, guiding them with what advice and wisdom they could give. They did no actual fighting on their own during the second battle against the Soulflayer. And as they ventured to Northrend, it was only to observe and preserve what remained of the ice trolls' legacy. They were content to watch their kin make history happen; it was their duty to write the epic of their people.
But these were dire times, different times. The Zandalari must put down their quills and pick up weapons. Perhaps this was for the best, however. Rastakhan had the perfect scheme to save the trolls and propel them into prominence over Azeroth now. With generations of collected knowledge and research, Rastakhan and the Zandalari could use their wisdom to finally gain what the troll empires failed to achieve time and time again: absolute victory.
"Our numbahs be shrinkin' fastah den trophy 'eads, Rastakhan."
The slow, guttural voice spoke the unfinished thought in Rastakhan's mind. He turned slightly to acknowledge the other's cloaked and hooded presence: the prophet known only as Zul. It had been the prophet's idea to send out the call to the tribes, to urge them to unite as a uniform troll army, heralding in a new age for their people.
"On'y you, Rastakhan," the voice continued from within the folds of the deep cowl. "On'y you can bring da diff'rent tribes togetheh and make dem work ta a single goal. You are dere king." The prophet cut off Rastakhan's protest, knowing what the other troll wanted to say. "You be da king whetha you say you is or not. Dey sees you as king. Dis da only way de vision can be grasped. Dey needs a leadah. Dey needs direction. You know dat."
Golden sunlight deepened the shadows of Rastakhan's creased face. In recent generations, the troll tribes came to the Zandalari for advice and guidance less frequently, until no one landed on the shores save members of the tribe returning from their research expeditions abroad. He needed to rein in his wayward kin. He needed to remind them of the vision of greatness they once lusted for. It was a page in the history book that remained unwritten, thousands of years later. The prophet was right. The trolls would never willingly follow a single leader who was not of their choosing, not an overt one anyway. But they could be guided and nudged from the shadows. They could believe they followed their own wills, their own leaders. Rastakhan had been the unofficial king of all trolls for countless years; it was a position he never claimed, a position with great power he never wielded- both out of choice and out of respect for the independent spirit of the tribes. He knew his brethren too well.
He remembered the first time that voice cut through his thoughts, tearing apart the veil of delusion that shielded him from rest of the world. The unknown troll appeared on the island not long after the terrifying night when the loa frantically warned of the threat besieging Azeroth. At the time, the Zandalari merely thought him a returning member of their tribe. He had made his way through the city of Zuldazar at a steady, ponderous pace, ignoring fellow trolls and towering ancient ziggurats alike. Zul did not stop until he had reached Rastakhan and delivered his dark message.
Flame and destruction, the prophet had said. He was using an ancient form of the trollish tongue Zandali that no one but Rastakhan and a few of the elder priests remembered. The prophet's words seemed to come from outside Rastakhan's throne room- or, rather, outside of the island itself, like an echo from the realm of spirits. Da harbinger of death 'imself is upon us. As one, we may survive. Separate, we shall surely die. To go for'ard, we must go back.
Rastakhan knew it meant returning to the ways of old, when the trolls were all one unified nation. It also meant invoking the nearly forgotten dream of a powerful troll empire, reawakening the major Amani and Gurubashi empires. He had argued with the prophet then, unable to fathom a way to make his cousins work with one another after so many millennia as scattered, independent tribes. "How d'ya 'spect me to lead da trolls when dey used ta leadin' demselves?" the ancient witch doctor demanded. "Dey not see me as dere leadah for who knows how long."
The hood swayed ever so slightly as Zul shook his head. "Zandalari not leadahs," he replied. "Nevah leadahs. Not in normal sense. But voice of wisdom, guidance, yes. Trolls like da stone on a path; dey do not move unless someone pushes dem. Sometimes da threat of death is enough. But broken as dey is now, dey need assurance of victory. You can give dem dat."
The Zandalari leader was skeptical. He might be able to convince the Amani to receive Zandalari aid, but the Gurubashi were a different matter. At his urging, adventurers from all over Azeroth had invaded the ancient city of Zul'Gurub to stop Jin'do and his priests from summoning Hakkar. Beyond that, he made sure they would not and could not find a way to summon the bloodthirsty god again. But Rastakhan had heard whispers that Jin'do remained in the spirit world, restless and angry and ashamed at his failure; he may have even obtained a new physical form by this time. It was unlikely that he would forgive Rastakhan for thwarting his plans. Emissaries of Rastakhan's own council remained in outposts throughout Stranglethorn Vale, under the hospitality of the Darkspear Tribe and their Horde allies. They kept a vigilant eye on Zul'Gurub to make sure it continued to be quiet. So far, there have been no reports of activity.
The Darkspears, Rastakhan suddenly thought with dread. He had nearly forgotten about the wiry jungle trolls who fled to Kalimdor and became a part of the Horde forces, fighting alongside Orcs and Tauren and even elves. It was easy to mistake them as one of the other races. The Gurubashi and the other jungle troll tribes exiled them in what seemed like many lifetimes ago; it seemed doubtful that Vol'jin would look upon working amid their former bullies with any relish. That aside, the Darkspears neither had nor desired any claim in the Gurubashi Empire, even from the beginning. He thought about convincing them that the Gurubashi of today were no longer the same trolls who ran them out of Stranglethorn Vale so many generations ago, despite Jin'do's continued presence.
"We need 'im," the prophet intoned, as if reading the witch doctor's thoughts. "We need Jin'do. An' his blood god."
Rastakhan thought his ears had failed him. He stared at the tall, robed figure in disbelief. "Hakkar? You can't be serious, mon. We are not so desperate-"
"Aren't we, now?" The tone of the prophet's voice bore into Rastakhan like an invasive insect and brooked no argument. "It's da powah of da god we need. It be madness to give ourselves to da Soulflayer again. But to offer anyting less will not appease da Hexxer. How else do ya propose to win Jin'do ovah?"
"I s'pose ya right," Rastakhan replied. "It will give 'im a taste of wat 'e desires... An' more. To give him control of Hakkar and his powahs..." He dared not finish his sentence.
The very thought of using Hakkar's power to fuel their efforts still sent chills running down Rastakhan's spine, despite the warmth of the late spring day. He turned his attention away from his memories only to find the prophet had disappeared from the room. It was always the same with Zul: appearing and disappearing without warning or announcement. He didn't know where the enigmatic troll came from, or where he went when he vanished, but the Zandalari leader could not mistake the conviction in the prophet's words, nor the truth behind them. And such conviction could not be ignored, especially when the fate of the entire troll race was in question.
Several tablets were stacked on a table next to the old witch doctor; a neat pile of scrolls was perched atop those. They contained the collected research and findings from Zul'Drak in Northrend. Much of the information concerned the Drakkari's consumption of their gods, unraveling their methods on how they managed to siphon the gods' powers for their own use. The Drakkari did not have the foresight to use the stolen powers wisely, but the Zandalari had learned where their cousins went wrong. Jin'do himself would not be so foolish to make the same mistakes, Rastakhan knew. Subverting the raw power of a god as powerful as Hakkar the Soulflayer would be no easy task. Unlike the gods of the Drakkari, Hakkar was an independent spirit who used his subjects instead of living in harmonic symbiosis with them. Perhaps the Hexxer's prior association with the god would be enough to eliminate the uncertainties. Regardless, Rastakhan no longer had the leisure to remain in his quarters, aloof and lost in his thoughts- a luxury he and his tribe had taken for granted until now.
Noise and commotion floated up to Rastakhan, heralding the arrival of the different troll delegations. The day was growing long, already heading into the afternoon. He watched as his people greeted jungle, forest, and ice troll alike, giving no one more homage or respect than another. Although all trolls were his people, his fellow Zandalari were always the first to know if something concerned the welfare of their people. When he gathered the tribe in Zuldazar that night after Zul's arrival, they looked at him expectantly, curious, but always with absolute trust and respect. They were unprepared for the dark words Rastakhan spoke, the same ones Zul brought to the island. The Zandalari murmured amongst themselves in the silence that followed. As he outlined the daring plan derived from the prophet's vision, the murmurs transmuted into a primal roar of fervor and enthusiasm. His people would follow him to the ends of Azeroth, even if it meant abandoning their way of life and millennia-old tradition of non-involvement.
The ear-shattering clamor was interrupted by the occasional dissident voice, harmless gnats in a storm. Among the dissenters, Rastakhan noted, were Surkhan and Ghaliri, two of his trusted emissaries to the wider world during times of turmoil. That disappointed him. Perhaps he had let them be in contact with the other races for too long; Surkhan, especially, spent much of his time in the northern Stranglethorn outpost of Bambala. It would be another matter to deal with when the time came, he had thought then. He was preoccupied with sending messengers to the leaders of the different tribes, his mind already fathoming out the more intricate details of his plan.
As Rastakhan turned from the window to greet his guests outside, he found he was no longer alone again. His two once-trusted envoys stood by the doorway, quiet and deferential, but the troll leader could sense they had not changed their minds about the new direction he was taking the tribe and all of their kin. He looked at them levelly, his gaze hard and stern. "What d'ya two wan'?" he asked serenely.
"All we ast is dat you listen to us," Surkhan said. "At least, hear da counsel of your own people, Rastakhan. Dis plan be crazy an' you know't! Ta call 'pon th' powah of Hakkar and use it for ourselves? De loa not be happy. You saw what happened to de Drakkari!"
Ghaliri nodded his head in agreement beside his friend. "How do we even know dis so-called 'prophet' can be trusted?" he asked. "Dis could be a trick by de Blood God himself! Did you evah tink o' dat?"
Rastakhan flared at the notion of being foolish enough to agree to a plan without thinking of all the implications and consequences. He took a deep, calming breath before speaking. "Normal ways be no longah enough to save our people on such a scale," he replied. His voice was low, edged with enough menace to hint at the anger lurking behind his words. "If dis be da Soulflayer's trick, we woulda smelled't. We seen enough of 'im to know what 'is presence feels like. No, dis be different. Our threat be much biggah, an' much worse, dan Hakkar."
The other two trolls exchanged uneasy glances. "So we trade one evil for anodda?" Surkhan asked. "Hope to combat evil wit' evil?"
"How can we fight when we don't even have da people to make an army?" The Zandalari leader could not believe how difficult it was to make them understand. "Dis be about troll survival. We can't 'elp til we 'elp ourselves."
"An' how will startin' a war be helpin' us any?" Ghaliri demanded. "We jus' send trolls to dere deaths and 'ope more pop up from da corpses?"
"We gives dem a future," the witch doctor said, his temper slipping again. But this time, he did not bother keeping it in check. "We gives dem a legacy to in'erit, someting to look for'ard to. An empire! It be a reason worthy o' legends. Worth a war. It give us a reason to fight. A reason to live! Ratha dat den languish in the shadows of de uddah races, waitin' for death!"
The final word hung in the air like a poisonous cloud. Rastakhan was shaking with fury, his rough hands curled into tight fists. Surkhan and Ghaliri turned away in silence, leaving their leader to his machinations and visions. He suddenly felt old and worn. His eyes wandered over his room's familiar walls, adorned with a few ceremonial masks and little else, searching for something to give him solace from the turmoil within his mind. The trolls had never questioned his decisions, not once in all of his time as leader of the Zandalari. Why now? he thought. Especially when the fate of all our people is threatened? Why can't I make them understand?
In a moment of pensive nostalgia, he took a dusty, leaf-and-feather festooned mask from its crude wall mount. The vibrant, almost gaudy, colors had faded and the paint cracked, but Rastakhan still remembered the day he crafted it as an untested youth.
He had been fierce, but quiet and contemplative, even then. His large build marked him as a promising warrior but his affinity for communicating with the loa would cement his future as a priest and powerful witch doctor. Other trolls would barrel headlong into duels against their peers while Rastakhan preferred to take his time, watching and observing before making a move. When the summons from the Zandalari temple arrived, he began to devise his ceremonial mask, the first one of many he would make. He thought about the trolls' place in Azeroth and their relationship with the loa. As he smeared the thick gobs of paint onto the wooden mask with his blunt fingers, Rastakhan imagined the trolls rising above the other races. They were a civilization of might and wisdom; their strength was drawn from the loa, knowledge, and physical prowess. The bright and varied colors were the different troll tribes and loa both, he decided; the heavy wooden mask itself was the world. By the time Rastakhan was finished, the trolls and their gods had covered every corner of Azeroth. On a whim, he added the leaves, feathers, and beads to emphasize his connection with the natural world, the domain of the loa.
And when the tribes gathered to see his initiation into the temple, the young Rastakhan towered above everyone else with firelight dancing off his mask. The trolls gazed at the neophyte priest and saw their future leader.
Rastakhan returned the mask to its place on the wall as flakes of paint fluttered to the floor. The majority of the mask was still intact, however, and the troll did not worry. He watched the old paint settle onto the woven mat at his feet. A quiet knock sounded against the doorpost. As he turned to greet his latest visitors, his foot crushed the dried pigments into a fine dust. The Zandalari leader paused for a moment; he looked back at the place where his foot had been and watched the breeze blow the grains away, carrying them out of the room toward the setting sun. He bowed his head, thinking, and then walked to the door to greet his two patient guards.
The torches they carried sent long shadows dancing across the room. Rastakhan's seamed face was grim in the flickering light, though his eyes showed only hard determination. One of the guards cleared his throat. "Da trolls have gatha'd on da beach, Rastakhan," he said. "All have arrived. Dey await ya t' begin."
"Is Zul dere as well?" Rastakhan asked. Both guards looked at him with blank expressions. "De prophet," he said emphatically. "Is de prophet dere or no?"
The other guard shook her head. "No, de prof't couldn't be foun'. We look'd ev'rywhere. We even sent scouts to da mountain but dere be no one. 'E just vanished, mon!"
Rastakhan nodded wordlessly, as if he already knew the answer to his question. With a final nod, he walked out of the temple flanked by the two trolls. Torches marked the island's paths, though he needed no guide to where the trolls were gathering. A large bonfire was blazing on the beach, bright and high enough to be seen for miles. As he approached the assembly of trolls, the fire seemed to outshine the moon and stars together. He walked to the front of the Zandalari delegation with slow, measured steps. On the way, he passed Ghaliri and Surkhan, who stood at the fringes of the group. They bowed their heads in a sign of deference and respect. But Rastakhan noted their garb were suited for travel- especially for long journeys where one did not know when he would return next.
The Zandalari leader could not allow himself to be distracted. Not now, not when all trollkind stood around him, awaiting his word and guidance. A few remnants of the ice trolls stood to a side, their deep blue skin setting them apart from the others. Off to the right, the forest trolls stood in a tight group with a fierce, warrior-like troll at their head; the firelight made his orange-red hair seem aflame against his green skin. Opposite the forest trolls was a small contingent of lean, muscular jungle trolls led by a masked shadow hunter and his advisors. On the other side of the fire from Rastakhan, however, was the largest troll party, a collection of bigger, broader jungle trolls from Stranglethorn Vale. He felt their leader's hard gaze peering at him, hostile and almost mocking. It was the stare of a spirit that had tasted death before.
He took a torch from one of his companions and held it high, calling the assembly's attention to himself. The loa granted trolls the gift of regeneration, he thought, for times of peril and danger, when it was a matter of life or death. Even so, some wounds take more effort to heal, or else it would fester and become worse despite the loa's powers. To achieve greatness, we must take great risks. We cannot wait any longer. Rastakhan raised his voice over the bonfire's crackling roar. There is no turning back.
He gave them Zul's dark words. But before the prophecy's despair could sink in, he gave them his vision of hope. Trolls once ruled the mightiest empire this world had ever seen. When he fed the resurrected Jin'do pieces of the plan for the Gurubashi, he felt the Hexxer's sardonic glare transform into an eager look of glee. The new Amani warchief gave a primal roar as he listened to Rastakhan detail the plans for a revitalized Zul'Aman. For a moment, the Zandalari leader paused, listening for the song of the loa. There was only silence. Dey need assurance of victory. Zul's words echoed in Rastakhan's head instead, giving him confidence. You can give dem dat. Soon, all of the trolls gathered there on the beach took up the cry, raising their arms in defiance against their prophesied fate.
All, but the shadow hunter and his companions.
Without a word, he turned his masked face away from the fire and made to leave, beckoning his tribe to follow. He had heard enough.
"Vol'jin of de Darkspear!" Rastakhan's voice boomed over the beach and ocean. The other troll halted in midstride and turned to face the Zandalari leader again, as his Darkspear trolls waited calmly, patiently. "You would turn your back on your own people?"
"De Horde be my people now," Vol'jin said in a low, husky voice. The chieftain's Zandali was marked by a heavy, lumbering accent. Yet, his words held a razor-sharp edge, thin but deadly. And dangerous. "If it be war you bring, den I stand against you."
"So be it, Darkspear." Rastakhan spat out the name, cursing it as it left his lips. As if to punctuate his judgment, he thrust his torch into the fire, making it leap higher. He watched the Darkspear delegation disappear into the deepening night. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a pair figures move away from the main bulk of the crowd to join the departing group.
In the dancing light of the bonfire, their receding forms looked like flecks of dried paint, falling off into the void.