Kel'Thuzad: Arch-Lich, Master of Naxxramas, and perhaps the closest thing the Lich King ever had to a friend. This powerful master of necromancy has been one of the greatest champions of the undead army of the Scourge, and thus, one of the most dangerous non-cosmic enemies to ever threaten the people of Azeroth.
While nothing is known of his early life or studies, it is know that Kel’Thuzad rose to become one of the most powerful mages in the city of Dalaran before the coming of the orcish Horde through The Dark Portal. He was a leader of the Council of Six, the ruling body of the city, and regarded by Archmage Antonidas, as one of the finest mages of the Kirin Tor. He was also a man with a particular hunger for magical knowledge and power, an obsession that would become his undoing. He was particularly eager to access the hidden knowledge of the Guardian’s Library— which was in the Tower of Karazhan and belonged to the Guardian, Medivh — and was very upset when Medivh shut off his tower to the rest of the world. After the Guardian’s death in the First War, Kel’Thuzad questioned Medivh’s apprentice, Khadgar, about what had happened. He was particularly interested in uncovering the secrets of the mysterious Order of Tirisfal, which had strong connections with the immense power that those of the Guardian title had wielded for centuries.
Kel'Thuzad when he was a mage in Dalaran, as seen in a flashback in World of Warcraft.
After the Second War, when the orcish Horde had been driven back through the Dark Portal to their homeworld of Draenor, they became desperate to escape their dying world and create portals to other worlds that would be easier to conquer than Azeroth. To accomplish this, they sought powerful artifacts from Azeroth to conduct a ritual. One of these artifacts was known as the Eye of Dalaran, and it lay behind secure protection in the city’s Arcane Vault. These protections, however, proved ineffective against the power of the death knight, Teron Gorefiend, who had once been an orc warlock and Shadow Council member. However, he had been killed and his spirit infused into the body of a fallen human by Gul'dan during the Second War, making him the first death knight. Gorefiend escaped with the Eye of Dalaran on the back of Deathwing, but his visit would have unexpected repercussions beyond the theft.
Kel’Thuzad had already taken an interest in the forbidden magic of necromancy, but witnessing the power of the Horde’s death knights made him determined to explore its fullest potential, now that he knew what it could do. His necromantic experiments, however, went against laws almost as old as the Kirin Tor and Dalaran itself, but his obsession continued in spite of the consequences. He went from being one of the rulers of the city to being stripped of most of his power. Kel’Thuzad saw all of this as nothing but evidence of the Kirin Tor’s “closed mindedness” and was only further motivated to continue his horrific experiments as he sought answers.
One night, Kel’Thuzad heard a voice whisper in his mind that promised him answers to all of his questions. This was the voice of The Lich King, who had been created from the tormented soul of the orc Ner’zhul and sent to Azeroth by Kil’jaeden of the Burning Legion to weaken the world for a demonic invasion. Imprisoned in a magical set of armor, and frozen inside a block of ice called the Frozen Throne, the Lich King was forced to rely on champions and minions to conquer for him. With his immense mental powers, he reached his consciousness across the world, seeking powerful individuals who would answer his call in exchange for the power of undeath. Kel’Thuzad was only too eager to be one of them.
In complete awe of this mysteriously powerful entity, Kel’Thuzad instantly abandoned Dalaran and journeyed to the frozen northern continent of Northrend to witness this power for himself. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Anub'arak, one of the Lich King’s most powerful undead servants, and given a grand tour of the floating ziggurat, Naxxramas. The horrors he witnessed were almost too much for him to bear, as he saw the first versions of the plague of undeath being tested on live captured humans. Kel’Thuzad initially wanted to escape this house of torments, but the Lich King’s servants forced him to stay. The time to reconsider had ended when he arrived, and now Kel’Thuzad would serve the Lich King. The only question was whether he would do so of his own free will while alive, or if he would have to be killed and raised as an undead with his will shackled to the entity.
Forced to crawl before the Frozen Throne and the Lich King himself, his reluctance to serve instantly fell away as he was promised power beyond imagining in return for his loyalty. Kel’Thuzad was given a special assignment. Rather than stay in Northrend with the rest of the growing undead army—known as the Scourge—he would instead return to the Eastern Kingdoms and gather an army of loyal followers that would spread the plague of undeath to begin the first stage of the Scourge’s invasion.
Kel'Thuzad is brought before the Frozen Throne
One of the greatest and most powerful of the human kingdoms was the northern kingdom of Lordaeron, a perfect place for Kel’Thuzad to plant the first seeds of his plague. When he arrived in the kingdom after leaving Northrend, he took the guise of a holy man, preaching a new religion that could promise power and overcome death. His strategy for recruits was two-fold. For the poor of Lordaeron, he manipulated their disillusionment with their rulers, claiming he could ease their sufferings and lead them to eternal life. They were all complete lies, but were twisted from the kernels of truth in his mind. After all of the power of undeath he had witnessed was sort of like having eternal life. His binding to the service of the Lich King had removed any fear he had of death, so the lies came easily to him. For converting the rich nobles and landowners, he took another approach, soothing their fears of his “people’s movement” and convincing them that the commoners were only a tool that the rich and powerful could use to topple their enemies, secure more wealth, and gain immortality.
As the years passed, Kel’Thuzad slowly grew his following, but very few of the people who he led knew the true nature of their organization. They knew nothing about necromancy or the plague of undeath that would destroy humanity. Only those in whose heart Kel’Thuzad could sense a tendency to darkness were let in on the secret and swayed to his necromantic service. One day, they would become known as the Cult of the Damned.
Members of the Cult of the Damned fully corrupted and dedicated to necromancy.
To secure a headquarters for the cult, Kel’Thuzad made a deal with one of the wealthy noble families of Lordaeron, the Barovs. The family had become discontent with their current holdings and taken in by Kel’Thuzad’s promise of power. In exchange for the preservation of their fortune and extension of their lives, they allowed him to use their manor on the island of Caer Darrow in the middle of Darrowmere Lake. It was in this manor that Kel’Thuzad founded the Scholomance, a training school for necromancers. Here, his most devoted would be tutored in necromancy and experiment with new ways to wield the power of undeath. The family servants of the Barovs were tortured and experimented on, skeletons dug up from beneath the school were animated, and the first abominations were created by hacking apart corpses and sewing them together into horrific forms. The Barovs themselves would eventually fall victim to the darkness festering in their home, as they were all turned into undead under the necromancers' control.
Three members of the Barov Family from when they were still alive as imagined in Scholomance Academy.
Among all his cult’s experiments, Kel’Thuzad’s most important work was perfecting the plague of undeath that the Lich King had given to him in artifacts known as plague cauldrons. Eventually, he succeeded in creating a version that could be used to infect the grain supplies of the kingdom, working slowly enough that it could infect entire regions before anyone knew what was wrong. By then, it would be too late, as the plague would kill them and instantly raise them as a mindless undead who could be controlled by the necromancers. After three years of recruiting and researching, Kel’Thuzad and his Cult of the Damned were ready. Not only had the plague been perfected, but the cult now secretly controlled many of Lordaeron’s northern towns, which would act as epicenters from which the plague would spread.
Kel'Thuzad in his role as the Headmaster of Scholomance before the Cult of the Damned came out of hiding, as imagined by the Scholomance Academy card set.
At the Lich King’s command, the cult infiltrated the town of Andorhal, the main agricultural distribution point in the region. From there, they infected the grain that was to be transported all over the kingdom, though even many cult members didn’t fully understand what they were doing. The effects were slow, but those who ate the grain began to fall ill in a way that no one had seen before. Meanwhile, the Lich King had decided that it was time to begin his secret rebellion against his masters in the Burning Legion and take control of his own destiny. While there were few he could trust, as he was constantly guarded by several dreadlords, he was able to confide in Kel’Thuzad, who was steadfast in his loyalty to the Lich King and promised to aid in rebelling against the demons. To accomplish this, the Lich King tricked the dreadlords into agreeing that the undead army needed a champion to lead it on the battlefield, a being who served as an extension of the Lich King’s will. While he hadn't chosen a champion yet, it would end up being Arthas Menethil, the prince of Lordaeron himself.
Kel'Thuzad in his fully-revealed cult-master regalia.
As time passed, and the plague took and raised more lives, Kel’Thuzad watched with great approval that his master’s army was growing. He named it the Scourge, as it would scour humanity from Azeroth like a flail. However, this also meant that the Cult of the Damned and the Scourge were slowly losing their cloak of secrecy as agents from Dalaran and Lordaeron, led by Prince Arthas and Lady Jaina Proudmoore, were sent to investigate the source of the plague. Together, they witnessed the gruesome ravages of farms and towns that had been infected and caused immense suffering by turning the dead against their former loved ones. Slowly, they pieced together the mystery and learned that Kel’Thuzad was the leader of the mysterious cult. Arthas, burning with rage and frustration for the people of his kingdom that he had so far failed to save, eagerly tracked Kel’Thuzad to Andorhal to make him pay for his crimes.
Through the eyes of his undead minions, the Lich King was always watching, and Arthas intrigued him. The young man showed great potential to be his champion, and the Lich King was determined to lure him to Northrend where he could be fully corrupted. His dreadlord jailers crafted a plan based on his suggestions to have Kel’Thuzad face Arthas in battle and reveal to the prince that he was not the leader of the Scourge, but merely a servant of a higher power. He would give his life in this battle, but Kel’Thuzad didn’t mind that little fact. He was eager to shed the shackles of life and be raised by the power of the Lich King.
The necromancer played his part to the letter. Before he had the life crushed out of him by the prince, Kel’Thuzad told Arthas that he served the dreadlord Mal'Ganis — not revealing the existence of the Lich King yet — sending him on a path of unraveling sanity as he worked to track the demon to Northrend. This was the end of Kel’Thuzad’s human life, but his story wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. While he was dead, the Lich King’s plan unfolded perfectly as Arthas was lured to the runeblade, Frostmourne, and accepted the Lich King’s power in his desperation to destroy Mal’Ganis, whom he still believed to be behind the plague. Through Frostmourne, the Lich King whispered into the prince’s mind and urged him to kill the dreadlord, which would be the first step for the Lich King’s freedom as one of his most powerful jailers was slain. After his victory, Arthas wandered the frozen wastes for several days as his humanity was eroded and he was transformed into the first death knight of the Scourge. Ready to enact the will of his new master, one of the major steps would be for Arthas to raise back to life the man who he had hunted down and killed with such hatred, Kel’Thuzad.
Arthas and Jaina confront Kel'Thuzad in Warcraft III: Reforged
The Lich King had already convinced the dreadlords that it was necessary to resurrect Kel’Thuzad and empower him as a lich because only he could complete the great summoning ritual needed to bring the Legion general, Archimonde, to Azeroth as the next state of the Legion’s invasion plan. While this was true, the real reason was that Kel’Thuzad was needed for his loyalty in the looming rebellion against the demons. Arthas returned to Andorhal, where he had killed the necromancer, and collected his remains. In the process, he fought and killed his old teacher, the paladin Uther Lightbringer. Arthas didn't care, all that mattered was the will of the Lich King, and that will told him to take the dead remains to the high elven city of Silvermoon and use the powerful magic of the Sunwell to bring Kel’Thuzad back. Arthas led the Scourge under his command against Silvermoon, permanently scarring the land and killing all but a few of the elves. Many of them, such as the Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner, were raised back as undead to further bolster his ranks. Reaching the Sunwell, Arthas wove a spell that infused the well's arcane magic into Kel’Thuzad's body and remade him as a powerful lich. Such foul magic corrupted the Sunwell itself and would quickly necessitate its destruction by the surviving elves and their prince, Kael'thas Sunstrider.
Arisen to Lich form, Kel'Thuzad was now far more powerful than he had been as a living necromancer.
Now reborn, Kel’Thuzad traveled with Arthas to Dalaran, confiding in him that the Legion saw the Scourge as nothing but disposable weapons to be cast aside once their task was finished, and that he should be ready for the rebellion. Arthas eagerly agreed. The two of them returned to Dalaran to recover the Book of Medivh, which contained enough arcane magic to create the summoning portal. Using his knowledge of the city from when he was one of its rulers, Kel’Thuzad helped Arthas shatter the defenses protecting the book, slaying Kel'Thuzad's former colleague Antonidas in the process. Once they had what they needed, they left the city so Kel’Thuzad could draw on the incredible power of the artifact to anchor a portal large enough for Archimonde and his demon army to enter. Once they arrived, Archimonde quickly proved Kel’Thuzad right about the Scourge being considered disposable tools, as he immediately transferred control of the undead to the dreadlords and dismissed the Lich King as being of no further use.
The summoning of Archimonde by Kel'Thuzad in Warcraft III.
In spite of all of his demonic power, Archimonde failed in his task to bring the full might of the Burning Legion to Azeroth. A combined force of human Alliance forces, led by Jaina Proudmoore, the Horde, led by Thrall, and the newly-encountered night elves, managed to destroy the demon general at the battle of Mount Hyjal. Hoping to salvage victory from this defeat, Kil’jaeden called on the Lich King to mount another attack, but was stunned when the order was directly refused. The Lich King saw that the time for his rebellion had finally begun with the Legion’s fresh defeat, and rallied Kel’Thuzad and Arthas to lead their army and hunt down the remaining dreadlords.
Unknown to the two champions of the Scourge, Kil’jaeden had decided to destroy the Lich King for defying him, and had enlisted Illidan Stormrage to deal the blow. While Illidan failed in his first attempt to destroy the Frozen Throne with a magical ritual, he did manage to crack it enough that the Lich King’s power and essence began to leak out. As his power waned, so did that of his death knight, Arthas. Urgently, he ordered Arthas to return to Northrend to defend him, but Arthas was separated from Kel’Thuzad and captured by a now-free Sylvanas who wished to torment the man who had caused her so much suffering in death. Luckily for Arthas, Kel’Thuzad came to his rescue and took him to a fleet of ships for Arthas to make the journey on. By this point, Arthas considered Kel'Thuzad his most loyal servant and as much of a best friend a tyrannical being like himself could have. Thus, he asked Kel’Thuzad to remain in Lordaeron and ensure that his legacy survived in the event that Arthas himself did not. Eternally loyal, Kel'Thuzad agreed to carry out that mission at any cost. Arthas would eventually merge with the Lich King and take his place on the Frozen Throne as the new leader of the Scourge. While Sylvanas and her newly-freed undead—known as Forsaken— claimed the Tirisfal Glades, Kel'Thuzad ruled over a region that would be called the Eastern Plaguelands from his floating citadel of Naxxramas.
From Naxxramas, Kel’Thuzad worked to spread the plague of undeath and bolster the forces of the Scourge. This included the creation of the Four Horsemen, powerful death knights under his control. The leader of the Horsemen was a paladin named Alexandros Mograine who had been betrayed and killed by one of his sons, Renault, with a blade called the Ashbringer. Alexandros’ other son, Darion Mograine, managed to infiltrate Naxxramas and defeat his father in an attempt to free him. However, his soul was still trapped in the Ashbringer, and the blade itself corrupted by the act of betrayal it had been used for.
Alexandros is raised as a death knight by Kel'Thuzad and wields the corrupted Ashbringer.
In the Plaguelands, two factions had arisen to oppose the Scourge. These were the corrupted and fanatical Scarlet Crusade—who had been infiltrated and manipulated by one of the Lich King’s old dreadlord jailers—and the Argent Dawn, who followed a purer path and were disgusted by the Scarlet Crusade's methods. The Argent Dawn’s base was known as Light’s Hope Chapel, and it was protected by powerful holy magic that posed a great threat to Kel’Thuzad’s undead forces and necromantic powers. He determined to destroy it and launched a massive attack that completely outnumbered the chapel’s defenders. In the middle of the battle, Darion realized that the only way to drive back the Scourge was by releasing his father’s spirit from the Ashbringer, and so he impaled himself with the blade, committing the ultimate sacrifice to undo the ultimate betrayal that had killed his father in the first place. Not only was his father’s spirit freed, but the heroic souls interred beneath the chapel were also awakened, and their holy fury proved enough to lay waste to the entire Scourge invasion. Alas for Darion, his own body was recovered by Kel’Thuzad as compensation for the loss of the battle, and he was raised as the leader of the Four Horsemen to replace his father.
From his seat of power in the Frozen Throne, the Lich King was continuously watching the people of Azeroth as they wore themselves down fighting foe after foe. After seeing the Alliance and Horde suffer a massive drain on their resources in the invasion of Ahn’Qiraj and the defeat of the Old God C'Thun, he determined that now was the perfect time to unleash his other necropoli on Azeroth and probe for weaknesses for a future invasion. Floating fortresses just like Naxxramas appeared all over Azeroth and assaulted the local populations. The primary strength of this assault, however, still was Kel’Thuzad and Naxxramas, and the Argent Dawn determined that they could end the whole invasion by striking at the heart. Bolvar Fordragon, the current regent lord of Stormwind, sent heroes of the Alliance to assist the Argent Dawn in their invasion, as repeated attacks from both them and the Scarlet Crusade had managed to weaken Naxxramas’ defenses enough to allow an infiltration team to enter. The heroes battled against many horrific members and creations of the Scourge until they faced Kel’Thuzad himself. While they were victorious in defeating the lich, they were manipulated into not destroying his phylactery to end him for good. Instead, they gave it to a member of the Argent Dawn named Father Inigo Montoy, who later betrayed his order and returned the phylactery to the Scourge. As a reward, he was transformed into a lich himself named Thel'zan the Duskbringer, and Kel’Thuzad would be allowed to eventually regain corporal form.
The Chambers of Kel'Thuzad in Naxxramas
A few years later, Arthas the Lich King, having asserted and consolidated his power, determined that the best way for him to conquer Azeroth would be to lure its greatest champions to Northrend and assimilate them into the Scourge. The undead feinted attacks against the Alliance and Horde, successfully provoking them as the two factions sailed for an invasion of Northrend. In the region of Dragonblight, they faced their first major counter-attack from the Scourge, the reborn Kel’Thuzad, now more powerful than ever, and his forces in Naxxramas. The lich was a master of strategy, attacking the Horde and Alliance with overwhelming force from all sides and dividing them through chaos sowed by his spies. All this time, the imposing Naxxramas hovered directly over the armies. However, its proximity to the battles inadvertently left it open to infiltration. Once again, heroes stormed the fortress, purged the evil from its halls, and prepared to do battle with Kel’Thuzad again. As before, the lich’s power was not enough to save him, and his fall marked a giant loss for the Lich King and the Scourge.
While Kel’Thuzad’s phylactery wasn’t destroyed after his second defeat, as it was not on his person and no one knew where to find it, he did not return as he had before. Instead, his soul drifted through the Shadowlands, the realm of the dead, and he wouldn’t be seen until many years later when the heroes of Azeroth would one day have to enter the Shadowlands themselves.
All images are sourced from Wowpedia.