What if Zovaal Isn't the True Jailer? (Shadowlands Lore Speculation)
17.03.2022 в 10:11
What if Zovaal isn't the Jailer, but instead a dominated pawn? When it comes to lore analysis, sometimes it's fun to speculate - even when you know the theory is likely too far-fetched to be true. Just for fun, as the story of the Shadowlands winds down, I want to present my own wildest theory.
The Primus is the Jailer.
Zovaal is, and has been from nearly the start, his Dominated pawn, speaking his words and carrying out his plans. And we've just made a very, very big mistake.
Let me explain.
My theory begins with the Shadowlands announcement trailer. Not the one where we see Sylvanas tear apart the Helm of Domination, the announcement trailer that we saw at Blizzcon 2019 opening ceremony. In case you need a reminder, here it is.
The trailer begins with a close-up of the Helm of Domination, and Bolvar Fordragon narrates, introducing himself as 'the Jailer of the Damned' - a title he used to refer to himself in the
Fall of the Lich King ending
. The camera moves out to show the Helm lies broken on the floor, as the scene changes to show Icecrown, the torn rift into the shadowlands overhead.
The Jailer of the damned. A grim task, which I have failed. Now the eternal veil screams, torn asunder, by her.
The scene changes again, and we reach one of the most significant parts in the trailer. Sylvanas, arriving in the Shadowlands, walks up to a figure, kneeling and chained. As the narrator speaks about the "darkest of terrors" which should "never be set free" we catch our first glimpse of the Jailer.
Within the realm of shadow lies the darkest of terrors, which should never be set free.
The next few scenes introduce us to the idea of the Shadowlands, showing us images of the realms we will explore - Bastion, Maldraxxus, Revendreth, and Ardenweald.
The shadowlands are infinite. Their terrors and beauty were never meant for mortal eyes. I wonder if they could bear to behold all that awaits them. The denizens of this realm are the key to restoring the balance between life and death if their trust can be earned.
Finally, we catch another glimpse of the Jailer as Bolvar says the same words we will hear throughout this expansion - "Death comes".
Death comes and the end of everything is just the beginning.
And here is where it gets interesting. That silhouette of the Jailer absolutely does not look anything like the Jailer as we know him.
Back in 2019, Youtuber Pyromancer
leaked an image allegedly of the early concept art for the Jailer
. This image matches the silhouette that we saw in the trailer.
Both images look nothing like Zovaal, but they do look a great deal like someone else we know: the Primus.
Now, we have been given an official reason for this. Any minor differences we see is what happens when early concept art is released before final creative decisions have been made.
Ion Hazzikostas said as much in an interview.
But indulge me for a moment. What if we let ourselves believe, for the purpose of this article, that the reason why the Jailer looks like the Primus in this very first preview of the expansion is because it's a clue to the twist that's been hiding in plain sight all along?
The Death of Zovaal
In the Sepulcher of the First Ones raid, after we defeat Zovaal, a cinematic plays showing us his death. I have already written a full analysis of that, and the preceeding, cinematic, but I left out a few observations - largely because they go a bit beyond analysis and delve into sometimes pretty wild speculation.
Analysis of the Jailer Encounter Cinematics in Sepulcher of the First Ones (Spoilers)
If you'll indulge me, these are the things that stood out, and made me start to question - well - everything.
First, when Zovaal is defeated, and his armor melts away from him, the visual effect is very similar to the way the Domination fell away from Anduin.
Second, when we see a flashback of Zovaal being judged by his other Eternals, we never see the Primus. Instead, he casts his shadow over Zovaal ominously, and we hear the clinking of Zovaal's chains. While this could have simply been done to save on the trouble of having to create a high-res model of the Primus, the effect can't help but be sinister, and it almost seems to highlight the fact that the Primus was the one who imprisoned Zovaal - and could be said to be his Jailer.
Finally, when the Primus asks Zovaal to explain himself, we see a side of Zovaal that we just haven't seen before. And his reasoning here is suddenly very different to anything we've heard from him before - disconcertingly so.
The Jailer: You preserve that which is doomed. A cosmos divided will not survive what is to come.
In fact, the sudden apparent change in messaging has received quite a bit of backlash from players - frustrated that Zovaal would wait until he's literally dying before mentioning his whole plan is part of "a greater good". In literally the cinematic we watch before this encounter, all he can talk about is his great plan. There's no mention of "what is to come" other than the Jailer's own plans of total domination and power.
Zovaal: Every event set in motion. Every pawn put into play. All to claim the power slumbering within your world. The soul of Azeroth, wounded, vulnerable, yet teeming with potential that I will use to erradicate this flawed reality. Death claims the soul of your world. Now, bear witness, mortals, to Eternity's End.
There's also the question of why Zovaal's apparent fear of a bigger threat has never once been mentioned to us. Zovaal himself hasn't brought it up it in his dealings with us, preferring to gloat about his Death-related intentions for Azeroth and his own superior strategic abilities. Sylvanas doesn't seem to know about it, because she doesn't use it at all in her arguments with Anduin Wrynn. When the other Eternal Ones tell us about this scene, they talk about stripping Zovaal of the Arbiter's power and sentencing him to the Maw, but not about him apparently fearing a greater threat to come. It seems like a strangely important thing to gloss over.
What's more, Zovaal just looks different in this scene. The expressions on his face are unlike we've ever seen from him before. He's almost... softer.
So here is the theory.
Long ago, Zovaal, the Primus, and Sire Denathrius, came into two pieces of important information. One was that a great threat is looming. The other is that the sigils of the Eternal Ones can be used to unlock a portal into the forbidden realm of Zereth Mortis - which contains the power to reshape the universe itself. The three agreed to do something about it. They would gain access to Zereth Mortis and use the power to save the universe.
The Primus, warmongering to his core, felt that the only way forward is for the powers of Death to gain complete and total control over the universe - to defeat all the other Cosmos and reign supreme. Denathrius agreed. Zovaal, however, believed otherwise. In his own words, "A cosmos divided will not survive what is to come." A fight broke out, and rather than help the Primus, Zovaal had become an obstacle in his way.
At this point, the Primis realized two more things. First, gaining access to Zereth Mortis would not be easy, especially if the leaders of the other Covenants got wind of his plans and decided to try stop him. Second, nothing beats a good diversion.
His friend Denathrius might have taught him that.
The Primus revealed the evidence they had that Zovaal had been trying to reach Zereth Mortis, accusing him of trying to access forbidden knowledge to increase his own power. A master manipulator, the Primus arranged things so that it seemed Zovaal was guilty of the crimes that would upset the other Eternal Ones most. This can be seen in the judgment itself - Kyrestia, the Archon, seems shocked that Zovaal, the Arbiter, would forsake his sacred duty. The Winter Queen is terrified that Zovaal threatened the great cycle.
Denathrius, of course, knows the truth, and only reminds Zovaal that he could have chosen to work with him and the Primus rather than go against their plans.
The Archon: You have betrayed your duty as Arbiter, and shall be bound forevermore
The Winter Queen: Your madness has threatened the cycle of Life and Death entire.
Sire Denathrius: You could have sought another way, brother. Imagine what we could have accomplished together.
Zovaal was blindsided and did not see the threat coming, before he had much of a chance to do anything he found himself stripped of the Arbiter's power and in chains, the crime he was accused of apparently so terrible, the rest of the Eternal Ones condoned the most severe possible punishment.
The Invention of Domination
As it turns out, the Primus had been working on something quite remarkable - a runic language whose sole purpose was to be the utter suppression of another. As we now know, the Primus - and not the Jailer - created Domination magic, and used it to bind Zovaal as part of his sentence to the Maw. All the Domination that we have seen in our own realm - the Lich King's helmet, Frostmourne - is the result of the designs of the Primus. (According to him, Zovaal turned Domination around on him, forcing him to make these creations, which he then sent out into other realms - but more on that later.)
Yet as potent as the Primus's runic language proved to be, we must speculate that an even greater force was required to bind his errant brother, Zovaal. Would being such as the Eternal Ones feel remorse at condemning one of their own for all eternity? What crime could have been committed that would warrant such a sentence? Such answers are unknowable to us, of course. What is clear is that the Primus delivered what was needed: a new runic language, one whose
sole purpose was to be the utter suppression of another
. The language of Dominion.
- Grimoire of the Shadowlands
Of course, we've encountered Domination magic before - with Ner'zhul, Arthas, Death Knights, and other victims in our history. But we also have had a chance to see the effects of this terrible power up close in this expansion - with the Domination of Anduin Wrynn.
The first time we see a dominated Anduin, it's in the cinematic Kingsmourne. The Jailer, out of patience, finally commands Sylvanas to forcefully dominate Anduin against his will. As she's about to do it, she seems to hesitate - while he challenges her to make a choice. In
Taliesin & Evitel's cinematic analysis of Kingsmourne
, Taliesin points out the fact that, for a moment, we don't know for sure if Anduin has been corrupted or not.
The scene changes and we see Anduin arriving in Elysian Hold. He looks like himself, sounds like himself, and even uses his own voice at first. The only real visual hint that we have that something's amis is his expression - Anduin, the great lover of peace, doesn't usually look this aggressive.
It is only after the Archon realizes it's the Jailer that the illusion falls away and we see the visual signs of Domination - too late, as it turns out, to save the Archon from attack or stop the Jailer from getting her sigil. This theme that appearances can be misleading is a common one throughout Shadowlands.
However, even when Anduin still looks like himself, and certainly after he starts to show the more obvious visual effects of Domination, we understand that when he speaks it is usually not his voice. Rather, the Jailer speaks through him - and continues to do so even during and after the Anduin Wrynn boss fight.
Jailer (through Anduin): Do you not understand? This one is bound to me.
Jailer (through Anduin): Fulfill your final purpose: Annihilation. The fate of all who carry my blade.
The Domination of Zovaal
Back to Zovaal. When he became the very first being to be Dominated, the Primus carved the Domination runes directly into his flesh.
The empowered runes they saw carved upon the Jailer's visage can only mean one thing. the Primus used the language of Domination to brand the sentence of the Eternal Ones onto his brother's flesh, employing this entirely new system of magic to lock the Banished One away within what was intended to be an inescapable prison.
- Grimoire of the Shadowlands
And here's something to consider. Every other Dominated character that we have seen has not acted like themselves, has not spoken with their own voice. The sole purpose of Domination is utter control, to fully dominate a person's will. Zovaal was the first Dominated character, and the runes dominating him do not merely cover armor - they are carved into his flesh.
Why, exactly, do we just accept the premise that he is entirely in charge of his own will?
Going back over the Jailer defeat cinematic, I noticed something potentially significant. While Zovaal is replying to the Primus's question, there are no runes yet carved into his face. He has not been dominated.
What's more, the scene changes halfway through his sentence. As he says,
You preserve that which is doomed. A cosmos divided will not survive...
The scene is of his memory, kneeling in front of the Primus.
But then it changes to present time, and we see the Jailer, now transformed into an empty vessel, mutter the final words.
...what is to come.
Here's what I think happened. The reason why the memory cuts off in that moment is because that is the last memory Zovaal had before his mind was forever bound by Domination. I believe that was the moment the Primus carved his runes of Domination into Zovaal's flesh, cutting him off mid-sentence. The Eternal Ones never heard those final words.
I also believe Zovaal has been Dominated from that moment until just before his death. Again, we watched the Domination apparently fall away from him in the same way that it melted away from Anduin.
I believe the main reason why Zovaal seems so different in that scene is because that is the only time we have ever witnessed Zovaal speaking with his own voice.
Every interaction we've had with him since his Domination has really been with "The Jailer" - a being that has, all along, not been Zovaal, but Zovaal's Jailer - the person Dominating Zovaal and controlling him - The Primus.
Remember, there is precedent that titles can refer to more than one being. "The Arbiter" was not always the broken construct in Oribos. Once, it refered to Zovaal. Spoiler alert: we already know there will come a time soon when it
refers to someone else
. Prince Renathal proved that he could become the new Sire of Revendreth. Once, the Lich King was Ner'zhul, and Arthas fell under his influence. Later, Arthas became the Lich King himself.
So if, in this cinematic, this is really what we're seeing: the end of Zovaal's Domination - then it casts the flashbacks he sees here in a different light as well.
The sky above Icecrown, torn open. Zovaal, in full Domination armor. Zovaal, before his full armor - but the runes of Domination carved into his flesh glow with power, and he wears a collar around his neck.
When he shouts "This must not be!" the assumption is that he's expressing distress over finally being defeated. But it could also be distress at these visions and reminders of the things that he has done - that he has been forced to do - ever since he was Dominated himself.
Of course, the major flaw with this interpretation is obvious. Zovaal may have started out Dominated by the Primus, but he found a way to reverse Domination's effects. What's more, when the Primus visited the Maw to investigate, Zovaal turned his own magic on him, trapping him as the Runecarver in Torghast and using Domination to force him to create the artifacts well known to us - such as the Helm of Domination and Frostmourne.
Unless that isn't true.
The Primus - A Master Strategist and Tactician
For all the Jailer's boasting about his own great and masterful plan, Zovaal himself is not actually the Shadowlands lore character presented as being the master strategist and tactician. That is, in fact, something specifically said about the Primus.
The Primus of Maldraxxus was known to be the most tactical and strategic of the Eternal Ones who rule the realms of Death. His stratagems and weaponry would prove to be infallible against his every foe. One account cites that the only losses the Primus suffered were intentional, as he felt there was more to be learned in defeat than in an endless series of decisive victories.
- Grimoire of the Shadowlands
interview with SA Gamer
, Steve Danuser explained just how the Primus became such a master strategist.
The Primus has used his time to hone his tactical deduction and strategic thinking beyond mortal constraints, thanks to a little help. Danuser details his arduous training regimen: “It is said that the Primus sought out an ally who could show him the infinite timeways, which he used to watch the same battle play out over and over again across realities. He noted how the slightest differences in strategy and troop deployment could swing the conflict toward one side or the other. After eons of such meticulous study, the Primus can instantly assess any situation and devise the most likely path to victory.”
“It is said that the Primus sought out an ally who could show him the infinite timeways" is one hell of a line to suddenly just come across in a lore interview from over a year ago, what with all the talk about Dragons in 10.0 and all.
Now, if I'm wrong, and Zovaal is the Jailer, then this is weird. Why specifically set up the Primus as a master strategist like this. One of the problems with Zovaal's repeated claims of playing 5D chess is people just haven't been buying it. He seems cartoonishly evil, like someone we're meant to mistrust on sight and go out of our way to stop - nothing like a master strategist at all. That's only made worse when a character that clearly is supposed to be a believable strategist is right there.
But if I'm right, and the Primus is secretly the Jailer, then suddenly it all makes sense. To pull it all off, he would need to be brilliant. He would need to have the sort of strategic mind one can only get from watching the same battle play out over and over again across realities. And if part of his plan was specifically to make it seem like Zovaal was independently responsible for everything from the plans involving Domination armor to the plan to reach Zereth Mortis, then the Primus would want to specifically frame Zovaal as the Big Bad. He would make sure to make Zovaal say and do things that makes him really sound like a real threatening enemy with motivations that are entirely his own. It's the perfect distraction. Then, even if we defeat Zovaal, all that happens is we're lulled into a false sense of security, congratulating ourselves for cutting a puppet's strings while the puppet-master walks free.
But again - how does that fit in with the Primus's own imprisonment in the Maw as the Runecarver? I really am getting to that.
According to the Primus, he began to notice Zovaal's influence seeping outside of the Maw, and decided to investigate. He hid his sigil away in Korthia, left a trail of hidden messages detailing his plans and warning against Zovaal, and then headed to the Maw, where Zovaal defeated him, stripped him of his memories, and imprisoned him as the Runecarver.
It seems strange, the master strategist of the Shadowlands, said only to suffer losses he intended, being so easily outwitted end defeated by his own Dominated pawn. According to the Grimoire of the Shadowlands,
Domination, the most potent runic language the Primus had ever created, was meant to remain in the Maw, but the best-lain plans do often seem to go awry.
That is interesting wording. The best laid plans do often
to go awry. Shortly after we were told that, when the Primus seems to suffer a loss, it's intentional. It seems, to me, that this is a clue.
When we meet the Runecarver, he seems like quite the pathetic creature. Chained up in Torghast, he tells us how his memories have been stolen by Zovaal, but if we help him by bringing him his memories, and releasing one of his hands, he promises to help us by creating powerful equipment.
We want very much to do this because it unlocks the Runecrafting system, so we enlist Ve'nari's help. She does, but before she sends us on our way, she
takes a moment to warn us about our actions
This ought to be enough to break the bonds that hold your newfound ally. <Ve'nari pauses for a moment.> Before you do so, I offer a word of warning. No creature imprisoned in that place should be trusted. Tread carefully, mortal. After all, it would be a shame to lose so valuable a business partner.
Once again, I am reminded of the Blizzcon announcement trailer. Sylvanas stops to stand in front of a kneeling and chained figure while the narrator tells us,
Within the realm of shadow lies the darkest of terrors, which should never be set free.
The implication is that the chained figure is Zovaal, who Sylvanas freed. But that's not quite right. Even though we have seen images of Zovaal bound and chained this way, if he overpowered the Primus eons ago, he couldn't have been physically chained himself by the time Sylvanas arrived. The only creature still in that position by the time she arrived was the same bound and chained figure we came across in Torghast, kneeling on the floor, who we helped to release.
The Runecarver Conspiracy
So here's what I think really happened.
The Primus believed he could use Domination magic to great effect in his plan to spread Death throughout the universe, but he still wasn't ready to do so openly. For a time, he worked both in Maldraxxus and in the Maw - using his puppet Zovaal to carry out experiments and begin the process of creating a Mawsworn army - but eventually, possibly in part because Zovaal really had begun to show signs of being able to resist Domination, he decided he needed to be in the Maw himself to properly oversee things.
However, it was imperative to the Primus's plans that his true intentions stay mostly concealed. With the exception of Denathrius, the rest of the Eternal Ones - and a great deal of the Shadowlands - would try to stop him if they caught wind of what was going on, so if the Primus was going to relocate to Torghast, he would have to do so in a way that would never raise suspicion - not even if he was found there literally creating tools of Domination.
Therefore, the Primus left behind a series of messages. If found they would lead anyone who came across them to believe he was worried about Zovaal escaping his bonds and going after the sigils again. He hid his own sigil in Korthia, and then staged his own disappearance.
In fact, the Primus did still intend to go after the power of Zereth Mortis, but he would continue to use Zovaal as a puppet in this plan. That way, he could breach the Sepulcher itself without the other Eternal Ones being any the wiser. But more on that later.
By the time we come across the Runecarver, we are lead to believe he has been imprisoned for eons, that he's entirely helpless, and that he's been forced to create the tools of Domination that we've seen have been sent out into the world. We are lead to believe this by the Runecarver himself. This is the Primus's story. And it's a deception.
In reality, the Primus was in control the entire time.
Once again, it is said "the only losses the Primus suffered were intentional".
There is reason to believe that, if we find the Primus seemingly suffering from a defeat, it's part of his own plan.
Deception is a major theme throughout the story of the Shadowlands. From the start, we are warned that things are not always as they appear. In the story of Maldraxxus, we discover one of the Leaders of the House of the Chosen was deceiving us all along. In the Story of Revendreth, we helped Sire Denathrius against his rebellion at first, though we are repeatedly warned things aren't all they seem - and this is proven true when we discover Denathrius is working with the Jailer.
In the Bastion Covenant Campaign, we learn that many of the Forsworn have been deceived by their own leaders - and had no idea they were working with the Maw. In the Ardenweald Covenant Campaign, we are tricked by an illusion into killing an ally - made to look like an enemy.
In Chains of Domination, patch 9.1's storyline, we are repeatedly tricked by Dreadlords who we discovered have infiltrated Renathal's court. Just when we think we've figured out and thwarted their plans, we realize they were manipulating events all along - their true objective was rescuing Denathrius. In Korthia's side quests, we helped lead the Dreadlord Kin'tessa right to the Fatescribe she was searching for.
In Secrets of the First Ones, patch 9.2's story, the trend of deception continues as, once again, the Dreadlord Mal'Ganis uses our image to trick others.
Mal'Ganis (disguised as you) says: Surprised?
Mal'Ganis (disguised as you) says: If I truly replaced you, would anyone notice?
These are just a few examples, but the theme is constant. You can't trust anyone. Things aren't always what they seem. Just because the situation appears one way, doesn't mean that's the way it is. We are told this over and over again, and yet are fooled over and over again.
When Ve'nari warned us not to trust the Runecarver, it was easy to dismiss at the time. We already knew the Runecarver was going to be an ally to us - helping us to make our powerful legendaries. Ve'nari's warning could quite safely be put down to a little bit of flavor - boding words to give a utility questline a little bit of edge.
Unless we really do take the over-reaching theme of deception to heart. What if we look at the Runecarver with the attitude that he might not be as helpless as he seems.
We have known all along that the Primus is the creator of Domination, that he created the Lich King's crown and armor, and the mourneblade Frostmourne, and yet we have never suspected him of foul play because he appeared to be Zovaal's prisoner.
If I am right and the Primus has both been fully in control and the true Jailer all this time, then his appearance as Zovaal's prisoner is, you have to admit, the perfect cover. No one is going to believe the prisoner of an obvious bad guy like Zovaal is secretly both his master and the one fully in control of everything he says and does.
It also works a little more with what we saw in the reveal trailer. When Sylvanas is shown in front of a chained figure, we have assumed that is Zovaal - even though Zovaal probably wasn't chained that way by the time she arrived, and even though the silhouette looks much more like the Primus than Zovaal - we put those inconsistencies down to art being released before the final concept was ready.
But what if it's not an inconsistency, and is intentional. Then, we would see Sylvanas come across a bound and chained Runecarver, just as we did. She believes, as we did, that he's Zovaal's prisoner. In the final scene, we see the figure looming behind Sylvanas - looking even more like the Primus, he is clearly in control, the real mastermind behind all her actions and - since we met him - ours.
There is still one question. Surely, if the Primus was never actually Zovaal's slave, he wouldn't have spent his time chained up in Torghast.
Well, no. The Primus wouldn't have to spend all his time chained up in Torghast. He wouldn't have expected many visitors at all - it wasn't exactly a popular destination. He'd only have to make sure we'd find him there if we happened to visit. Conveniently, he had a way to keep an eye on everything going on in the Maw - the Jailer's eye, in fact.
And here is an interesting little tidbit. We eventually got rid of the Eye of the Jailer debuff in the 9.2 storyline Focussing the Eye. In the very next week, The Last Sigil, we "rescued" the Primus from Torghast.
The (Very) Long Game
So the Primus is hiding in Torghast, creating tools of Domination to send into the universe while also being ready to appear, to anyone who finds him, no more than a hapless slave simply doing what he's been forced to do. Denathrius is his ally, so he makes great use of Dreadlords, infiltrating other Cosmological forces - such as the Burning Legion - and planting the seeds of Death. Remember, the Primus's ultimate goal here is for Death - specifically Death under his own rule - to be the most powerful force in the universe. Every move he's made has been to advance that goal.
I've already spoken a little about the evidence that the Primus is a tactical marstermind, suggesting that if this is something he wanted to pull off, he has the intellectual means. But does he have the desire? Is there reason to believe the Primus is as ambitious and agressive as I am claiming?
The Primus rules Maldraxxus, the army of the Shadowlands. A zone with a notable Scourge-like aesthetic, and birthplace of necromantic magic, Maldraxxus is known to value victory by any means possible,
The ultimate qualification for a place among the Maldraxxi is victory--achieved either by honorable or questionable means, whether through might or through guile. I am told that any soul steeled to overcome adversity fulfills the purpose of Maldraxxus: to forge an immortal army of unyielding souls ready to defend Death from those forces that threaten its sanctity.
Maldraxxus has also been known to go to war with other realms of the Cosmos. In the cinematic
, we see Baroness Draka learn how to make use of tactics like stealth and subterfuge while she grows used to her new house. People quickly noticed that one of the scenes in the video was very familiar - it was similar to one involving Felguards from Harbingers: Illidan, leading to speculation that the Necrolords may have fought against the Burning Legion.
More than one conflict between the Shadowlands and the other Cosmological forces have since been confirmed - and the Maldraxxus war against the Burning Legion is specifically mentioned in
one of the lore books, written by our friend Firim, that we originally found in Tazavesh
Irik-tu met their end in a terrible war, they claimed, their home ravaged by the demons of the Twisting Nether.
I nodded in solemn camaraderie, for we all recall the tale of the Burning Legion's assault on Maldraxxus and the terrible cost of the necrolords' victory.
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In the same Afterlives video, a shot of the Felguards can clearly show trees in the background. Here's the thing.
Maldraxxus does not have any trees.
It was even specifically mentioned as something the art team had to design around in a
Shadowlands Art Interview
For example, in Maldraxxus, one of the big challenges is that there aren't any trees in the zone. We had to find elements that served that same purpose on the screen - vertical forms to break up the horizon lines.
This was all noticed before and
confirmed that Draka left the Shadowlands to visit the Legion's stronghold
In other words, while Maldraxxus is often described as the defender of the Shadowlands, there is already some evidence that, under the Primus's rule, there was already a trend towards the invasion of other Cosmological realms.
Important to note as well that every Eternal One shapes their realm around their own personality. With that in mind, I once again would like to highlight some of the qualities said to be inherent to Maldraxxus. In the Grimoire of the Shadowlands, we are given a list of each of the Maldraxxian Houses, their leader, and their defining qualities.
Margrave Gharmal, House of Constructs, home of juggernauts, of physical might and intimidation
Margrave Sin'dane, House of Rituals, home of necromancy and sorcery, of intellect and ambition
Margrave Akarek, House of Eyes, home of subtlety and infiltration, of secrets and weaknesses
Margrave Krexxus, House of the Chosen, home of arms and armor, of tactics and strategy
Margrave Stradama, House of Plagues, home of toxins and poisons, of delieration and decay
In many ways, Maldraxxus resembles our ideas about Orcish society - valuing strength and victory, strategy and intimidation, but there is also a heavy emphasis on more underhanded avenues to power - subtlety and infiltration, exploiting weaknesses, poisons, necromancy, and decay. One word we can't help noticing is missing from that list is the word "honor".
This all ties in quite neatly with Scourge invasions, the infiltration of other Cosmological forces, and a lot of the other things we have believed were part of Zovaal's plan. It's possible that the Primus could had justified some invasions by claiming they were really a defense - assaulting the Legion's stronghold as a retaliation against the Legion assault on Maldraxxus. However, it's unlikely he could justify all his military efforts this way, which is why he he needed to use Zovaal as a front. "It's not my fault that the Domination I created found its way into all these other realms. I'm a prisoner. Zovaal made me do it."
Let's be honest, the Seat of the Primus also just has an evil-mastermind-planning-to-take-over-the-universe-lair aestheitc.
Talking About the Seat of the Primus
Looming over Maldraxxus is a giant statue of a Necromancer. It's always struck me as an odd choice - why not just the Primus himself? During a discussion about the Primus=Jailer theory with
, she pointed out the following:
The Seat of the Primus, the statue itself, I believe, and always have, that that is what the Primus looks like without his mask. The primus as the dear old gandalf wizard has broken teeth, just like that statue. The statue is a hooded figure, symbolizing deception, and a skeleton, symbolizing death.
The classic "disguise" is bushy eyebrows, check. Glasses, preferably horn rimmed, check and check (literally). A big nose, check. A mustache, check on steroids.
The very first word that springs into my mind when I look at the primus is Wizard. He has been described as "Gandalf" not just by me. This leads me to the Wizard of Oz, who was not at all what he seemed.
In the Arthas piece I wrote
, I mention that Sylvanas is off to defeat the true villain behind the curtain.
Zovaal has a hole in his chest. He has no heart, he is an empty vessel. This has bothered me since day one. Add the collar and bing!
Character Spotlight: Arthas Menathil - The Book is Closed on an Iconic Villain
But the Anima
By the time we arrive in the Shadowlands, it hardly seemed like the result of a long-term plan to make Death the most powerful Cosmological force in the universe. We found a great deal of it weakened, drained of anima. Maldraxxus, the Primus's own realm, in disarray. At a glance, it does not seem like it could all be part of the Primus's plan. For this, I would like to turn, once again, to a passage in Grimoire of the Shadowlands, where we can learn several things about the way the Primus works.
The Primus understood that victory for his realm would not be achieved through physical might alone, that there were many subtle aspects to warfare that required rigorous methods of instruction and discipline. Thus the Primus divided his necrolord soldiers into five houses, each of which embodied what he saw as one of the five traits of the ideal champion of Death. By their very nature, each house maintained a contentious relationship with the others as they struggled for dominance and power. Sometimes this conflict took the form of heated military exercises, whereas others were a long game of manipulation and espionage. This infighting was not a symptom of failing system, but an essential ingredient of success. Conflict was an accepted process through which the mightiest within Maldraxxus claimed and maintained their power. From it, weak leaders were struck down and supplanted by those better suited to lead their immortal armies. While effective at cultivating strength, this process also helps explain the current state of ruination these once mighty houses are found in today.
First of all, the conflict that we see Maldraxxus in when we arrive is by design. The Primus intentionally sets up his zone this way, supposedly because it helped make his armies stronger, but there was also a secondry result - it meant that no one could ever fully take the Primus's place, that his own rule and position would never be challenged, because anyone who might be a threat to him would be too busy fighting each other to get around to questioning or overthrowing his rule.
Secondly, the use of manipulation and espionage is as key to the Primus's plans and efforts as physical might.
Third, conflict is something the Primus uses to sharpen his own forces. If he is planning to eventually launch a full-scale invasion from the realm of Death, he wants all those in his army to be as powerful and useful as they can.
Here's what I think happened.
The Primus, with Denathrius's help, began to funnel anima directly into the Maw, to empower the army he was building. As the anima drained away from the other realms, it had a sharpening effect. The denizens of those realms, facing unprecedented hardship, became tougher, harder. Through Zovaal, the Primus began the process of infiltrating other realms, establishing allies and contacts throughout the Shadowlands.
The intended end game? While yes, he wanted the power of Zereth Mortis, no master strategist relies on only one plan. The Primus also wanted to use Domination on the rest of the denizens of the Shadowlands. He would not need to ever convince the Arbiter or the Winter Queen to join his cause - he'd just have to strike when they least expected it.
There was only one problem. Domination had shown itself to be flawed.
The Problem with Domination
it's a theme that we've seen many times before, but that has been reinforced during the Shadowlands. Domination, though powerful, is not flawless.
As Anduin showed us himself
, even when fully Dominated - it's possible for a victim to gain moments of clarity.
Here's what I think happened.
Zovaal did, indeed, begin to show signs of resistance against Domination, and that really is part of the reason why the Primus decided he needed to go to the Maw. Once there, he started sending Domination tools out into the universe, and observed as they, too, sometimes failed. This is why the Primus never attempted to Dominate the rest of the Eternal Ones - one, he could keep an eye on, and prevent him from ever fully escaping, but two others - and all the denizens of the Shadowlands as well? Too risky.
And so the Primus has been biding his time, playing the long game, planting more and more seeds of Death throughout the universe, until he felt he was ready to set the most recent events in motion.
OK, so, let's say all of the above is true. The Archon and the Winter Queen trusted the Primus. Why didn't he just take their sigils?
Probably because the act itself would have exposed him as a villain. Secrecy is a cornerstone of the Primus's plans. Much safer to use Zovaal - who the others already expect to want their sigils - and just have him say something about being banished now and then to make his motivation sound believable.
So alright. Let's say that, when Zovaal collected and used the covenant's sigils to create a portal into Zereth Mortis, he was as much of a Dominated pawn as Anduin. Why would the Primus have Zovaal open a portal, leave through it, and not follow himself?
First, Zereth Mortis is, canonically, a mysterious realm said to be the Workshop of the First Ones. When we knew that's where we were headed, we kind of expected to, at some point, meet First Ones ourselves.
The First Ones specifically forbade the Eternal Ones from visiting Zereth Mortis, and, from the sound of things, likely would be very much against any plans on the Primus's part to expand the reach of Death. There is also the very real possibility that they are the threat Zovaal warns about at the end of the Sanctum of Domination raid.
If the Primus is cautious enough to pretend to be the prisoner of his own pawn, he is probably cautious enough to not head into an area where the First Ones may be waiting blind.
Here's what I think happened.
The Primus did organize for the Jailer to visit Zereth Mortis first, sending him with a Mawsworn army but also - importantly - under the supervision of Dreadlords. The same Dreadlord, in fact, that he once sent to supervise the Lich King situation: Mal'Ganis. Perhaps Denathrius went too, who knows.
The Primus knew he would be able to follow, because he knew how to create more sigils. What's more, he wouldn't have to fight anyone for the power to reach Zereth Mortis this time, or be exposed when he took them. Thanks to his masterful manipulations, we would hand the sigils over to him willingly, "for safekeeping".
Once the Primus had established Zereth Mortis was safe, he revealed the way to make the Arbiter's sigil. As it turns out, it was easy - the Attendants of Oribos were able to forge one. The portal opens, and the Primus makes a great show of telling us he would not be going himself - the Eternal Ones are forbidden.
As we are about to step through ourselves, Dreadlords attack.
Remember, there is a precedent of Dreadlords attacking being a diversion.
There is something I noticed recently, when I was last in Korthia. The Primus is no longer there. In fact, he's nowhere to be found.
Now, while the last time we saw him ourselves was when that portal was open, we do have Bolvar's confirmation that he was seen after it was closed again. The Primus placed the gateway in Oribos, apparently trusting us to reopen it.
Highlord Bolvar Fordragon says: After your flight from the Arbiter's chamber, we defeated the nathrezim... but they had sabotaged the gateway.
Highlord Bolvar Fordragon says: Once the stain of Maw magic had been cleansed, the Primus placed the gateway in this chamber.
Highlord Bolvar Fordragon says: He trusted that you would find an anchor on the other side to reactivate it, giving us a path to Zereth Mortis.
Here's what I think happened.
The Primus is in Zereth Mortis.
He could not come through Zovaal's gateway, because that would be too obvious. He could not come through our gateway when we first opened it, because, again, people would notice. So instead, he had the Dreadlords attack and "sabotage" the gateway.
Then, he placed the dormant gateway in Oribos, stating his belief that we would open it. Perhaps, through his Dreadlord spies, he had already learned about the Waystone and knew it would open for us. Maybe he just planned to set things up so it looked like we opened it later.
Either way, the Primus still wouldn't be able to travel through any gateway that was openly known about. The Eternal Ones are forbidden from visiting Zereth Mortis - the moment he crosses that line, his mask slips away and he's in open war with the rest of the Shadowlands. His only chance was to slip through an open portal while everyone else thought it was closed.
So after he placed the gateway in Oribos, while it still appeared inactive, the Primus used it to come through to Zereth Mortis. Yes, the Dreadlords had sabotaged it, but if they are the Primus's allies, it's entirely possible for them to have placed some sort of back-door in the now-closed gateway, where if you knew exactly what you were doing, you could still use it to slip through.
So What Now
We do actually see the Primus in Zereth Mortis this week, but it's a projection of him. The official story is that he is still in Oribos, but that he is communicating telepathically to offer us advice.
Once again, I can't help but notice a theme - one of the Primus casting a shadow. In the expansion announcement: His shadow, behind Sylvanas. As we first enter and explore the Shadowlands, the Primus is nowhere to be found, but we still hear about him, receive a message from him, and deliver that message to others - the Primus may not be present as himself in 9.0, but his presence still casts a shadow. By Chains of Domination, we encounter visions of the Primus in Korthia that lead us to his sigil - as if he left a shadow of himself behind to guide (or manipulate) us. In Sepulcher of the First Ones, we watched as he cast a shadow over Zovaal. Finally, we once again engage not with the Primus himself, but with an image - a shadow.
And what is the subject that the Primus is advising us on? Domination.
In Crown of Wills, the fifth chapter of patch 9.2's story campaign, we help research Domination - specifically, the ways to resist it. We learn that the denizens of Zereth Mortis have some natural resistance to Domination, and that first one phrases are the key to that resistance. We also learn about the moments that helped major lore characters throw off Domination in the past, and infused the shards of the Helm of Domination with their will.
And yes, this all seems important - learning how to resist Domination. But there could be another motivation. The Primus, consistently frustrated with the weaknesses of Domination, has taken this opportunity to research it further, enlisting our help, not to destroy the weapon that is Domintion, but to work out the kinks and perfect it.
At the end of the questline, the Primus takes us into his Runecarver's room, where he forges the Crown of Wills, a powerful tool of anti-Domination.
Then he takes the Crown from us, telling us he will hold onto it to "keep it close until it is needed again", while we turn our efforts towards defeating Zovaal.
Side note: There is one major difference between our early glimpses of the Jailer and the Primus as we know him today. The Primus has horns, while the Jailer is wearing a Crown.
Now, I'm not saying the Crown he is wearing is the Crown of Wills - for one thing, the models don't match. I will point out the fact that the Primus's horns are actually a mask or a helm of some sort. If you look closely at his model, you can see it matches other armor he wears - his glove and shoulder piece. This also tracks with his Runecarver form - there's no space under that mask for those horns.
So I'm just saying, if the Primus did take off his horns, and put on that crown, he'd look a lot more like the early concept artwork that we saw of the Jailer than one might expect.
His statue in the Seat of the Primus also looks more like the horns are part of a mask rather than attached to his head. And, you know, exactly why is his statue so sinister-looking anyway.
What Lies Ahead
At the moment, we are - we believe - victorious. Zovaal lies defeated. The rift between our world and the Shadowlands is closed. Azeroth's soul is safe.
The Primus may or may not be evil, and he may or may not be positioned exactly where he wants to be - with a lot more knowledge about why Domination sometimes fails, a Crown whose power we do not fully understand yet, and possibly even free access to that universe-changing power everyone's been going on about.
Warning: PTR Spoilers ahead.
In quests on the PTR, we see neither the Primus nor the Crown of Wills again
though we have seen Arbiter Pelagos wearing the Crown in datamined images
. But we also don't see a complete end to the Mawsworn attack. Dreadlords and the Dominated remain a constant threat, and the Dreadlords even go ahead with a plan that they claim was put in place eons ago by the Jailer - apparently they didn't get the memo that he's been defeated.
We know that a Patch 9.2.5 is coming, and that patch 9.2's main storyline used to have an eighth and final chapter called "Epilogue: Judgement". We know that, conspiracy or no conspiracy, there are still some loose ends to tie up - particularly with regards to Tyrande and Sylvanas.
PTR Spoilers zone ended.
Finally, right the beginning of this article, I mentioned a line in the announcement trailer: "Death comes and the end of everything is just the beginning."
The end of everything is "Just the beginning". I wonder if I need to point it out at this point - the name of Patch 9.2 is "Eternity's End".
So, what does this all mean. Do I think we will also get a reveal that the Primus was the real Jailer all along, that every time Zovaal says things like "Every event set in motion. Every pawn put into play" it was actually the Primus speaking, boasting in plain sight about a plan that, you would have to admit, required godlike skills of manipulation, subterfuge, and strategy?
Honestly, no. But it sure is fun to speculate, and my favourite thing about this theory is even if the Primus never reveals himself and we never learn it was all a big conspiracy, it's still always possible. If he hasn't revealed his true colors yet, it could still simply be because he's playing the long-game. And that, for me, is a headcanon I choose to believe for my own enjoyment, if nothing else.
I will leave you with one last thing. There is a precedent in World of Warcraft to use Latin, or Latin-sounding, words to hide secret meanings. As an example, the "mortis" in "Zereth Mortis" means death - we were told Grimoire that Zereth itself translates to "keystone" or "cornerstone", giving us a name that translates to "The keystone/cornerstone of death".
As I was reminded when
writing the history of Anduin Wrynn
, apart from the obvious Dreadlords, World of Warcraft also has a precedent of deception and manipulation tied specifically to Dragons - Onyxia, the Black Dragon, and her own long-game of deception and subterfuge, was one of the first threats we ever faced.
With both those things in mind, I will point out one possible interpretation for the name "Maldraxxus".
"Malum" - Latin for evil.
"Draco" - Latin for dragon.
Maldraxxus, loosely translated, means "evil dragon".
I just really wanted to use this image somewhere.
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