Treading the chaotic spaces between worlds, the ethereals are astral travelers who dwell within the Twisting Nether. They are known to be collectors and traders of arcane items and artifacts. Now drawn to Outland, many ethereals are seeking to track down its treasures and steal them back into the Twisting Nether. They are liars and scoundrels who will stop at nothing to pursue their mysterious aims. The ethereals have no care at all for the Burning Crusade. They would even play both sides of the conflict against each other if doing so would serve to further their own goals.
Ethereals can be found in Nagrand south of Lake Sunspring, in the Mana Tombs of Auchindoun, the Blade's Edge Mountains, and throughout the Netherstorm. A small number also dwell in Shattrath. The ethereals are driven by trade and economics, and accordingly their political structures are centered around trade princes and political "companies." The ethereal faction called The Consortium, which players can gain reputation with, is one of these. The ethereals that currently control the Mana Tombs in Auchindoun led by Nexus-Prince Shaffar are another of these "political companies." The Ethereum is a radical militant organization that attempts to avenge the destruction of the ethereal homeworld by void creatures. The Protectorate attempts to thwart the void and protect neutral races from the Ethereum's attacks.
The ethereals are similar to goblins, in the way their political systems work, and like the goblins the ethereals will support anyone who would further their profits, and oppose anyone who dares interfere with their plans. The Ethereals also share in the goblins' propensity for technology, though their technology appears to be far more powerful and otherworldly. Ethereals possess everything from the familiar, such as transporters, to the radical, such as their eco-domes. They utilize a unique school of magic known as technomancy.
K'aresh was an arid planet, home to a thriving ecosystem and several sentient species before the arrival of Dimensius the All-Devouring. How the void lord found K'aresh is still hotly debated among the surviving ethereals, but the effects of his coming were unmistakable: he opened countless gateways into the void and the Twisting Nether around the planet, bathing K'aresh in arcane and dark energies. Using every scrap of its advanced technology, one of the mortal races hastily attempted to construct magical barriers around its cities, but it was only partially successful; although the dark energies were blocked, the unimpeded flood of arcane energy tore away the mortals' corporeal shells and infused their souls with enough energy so that they could subsist without a body… barely. Members of this race, now called ethereals, took to binding themselves with enchanted strips of cloth to provide their souls with enough structure to survive. This altered state proved to be a blessing in disguise, as their enhanced minds and magical abilities allowed the ethereals to fight Dimensius and his limited forces to a standstill. Over the years, however, Dimensius eventually grew powerful enough to summon armies of fellow void creatures, forcing the ethereals to flee into the Twisting Nether.
The Ethereum, which held the ruling council of Nexus-Princes, started becoming dark and twisted in their obsession for vengeance. This caused many of the Nexus-Princes to leave the council and form their own organizations with their own goals. Undeterred, the Ethereum continued in the search for vengeance against Dimensius, destroying anyone in their way. The Protectorate was formed by a Nexus-Prince, who left the council, to stop the Ethereum in their destructive path.
Originally, Ethereals had physical form. When Dimensius the All-Devouring assaulted their homeworld of K'aresh, however, the dark energies he wielded ripped apart their bodies. Only their advanced technology allowed them to survive - barely - as beings of pure energy. Ultimately, it was this very change that allowed them to battle Dimensius on an even-footing and travel through the Twisting Nether to find refuge. Their bodies can take many forms, able to be compacted into small sizes, or expanded to their true form: a mass of glowing energy with vaguely distinguishable head, eyes, and arms.
They most often appear in their specially enchanted wrappings that keep their energy forms bound within their humanoid shapes. Ethereals appear to need to eat and drink, with their vendors selling specialty bread and drinks not found on vendors of other races. The Ethereal Soul-Trader sells an that can have an odd effect on 'fleshy imbibers' suggesting that Ethereals drink it themselves with no ill effects. Based on the foods Eyonix sells and their interest in gems, it could be thought they consume them and precious metals. Alternatively, Ethereals may not eat at all and sell food only for the sake of the more corporeal beings with whom they trade and interact.
It is not known if they sleep, for even if they have inns, it could be stated that they do only for business purposes with other races; however it is more likely that they do not need rest, since their encampments lack true shelter or any form of relief. This is also hinted at in the Fangs of the Father quest line where Thaumaturge Rafir -if you choose to threaten to kill him in his sleep for his outrageous prices- says "Well then. It is good that I no longer sleep."
Nexus-stalkers are a partially void-based form of ethereal created by the rogue Ethereum faction, and are considered by the Protectorate to be abberations. Though it was initially believed that the Ethereum was dedicated to hunting down and taking revenge on Dimensius, it was later discovered that their true goal was to "become void." To that end, they constructed a proto-accelerator which was used to manipulate the abundance of void energy at Manaforge Ultris, bonding it with their own energy to transform into nexus-stalkers.
The physiology of a nexus-stalker is similar to that of a typical ethereal, albeit with hybrid bodies composed in part of void energy. As such, they appear translucent and perpetually emanate a shadowy, purple miasma. Those that have been encountered have had the ability to drain their enemies' power.
The Protectorate eventually put an end to the operation and killed Nexus-King Salhadaar. It is unknown if any nexus-stalkers remain, or if they still factor into the long-term goals of the Ethereum.
Relationship to the Void
Currently, the Ethereals are at war with the Void, the demon-like creatures made of pure shadow energy (an example is the Voidwalker used by warlocks). The Void lord Dimensius the All-Devouring, ravaged the Ethereals' homeworld long ago, and ever since the void have been a constant threat to the energy beings. Whether or not the Void invasion was planned by the Burning Legion is unknown, but the Void is a force acting on its own. The Void are not officially a part of the Legion, shown by the fact that Voids are not present in Legion encampments, and so the Ethereals seem to hold no vengeance for the Legion.
Each group is lead by a Nexus-Prince, all of which came from or still part of the Ethereum.
Activities in Azeroth
The Nexus War
This section concerns content exclusive to Wrath of the Lich King.
The Ethereum appear to have negotiated an accord with Malygos and the blue dragonflight during the Nexus War, though the results of the alliance or their ongoing consequences have yet to be touched on in any Warcraft media. However it is possible that the death of Wind Trader Mu'fah prevented the leadership of the Ethereum from learning that an accord was reached.
This section concerns content exclusive to Cataclysm.
Groups of entrepreneurial ethereals have emerged from the nether to offer a host of new technologies and services that will allow the adventurers of Azeroth to customize and store their equipment. Ethereal warpweavers, vaultkeepers, and thaumaturges will set up shop in Stormwind and Orgrimmar to give players access to Transmogrification, Void Storage, and Reforging, for nominal fees. K'areshi Traders are found coming out of portals at Mazthoril in Winterspring.
This section concerns content exclusive to Mists of Pandaria.
This section concerns content exclusive to Legion.
It is revealed that in exchange for their aid in the Nexus War, Malygos had promised the Ethereum access to the blue dragonflight's treasures within the Nexus. The Ethereum seeks to become an unstoppable force--to become void, and they are using the surge needles in Coldarra to bore into the Twisting Nether and call up void energies. After Nexus-Prince Bilaal is defeated by an adventurer and Azuregos, Azuregos remains in the Nexus so it will not fall into the wrong hands again.
In Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
This section concerns content exclusive to Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
Several ethereals have appeared in Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, most notably Nexus-Champion Saraad and Arch-Thief Rafaam. Saraad, a champion jouster participating in the Grand Tournament, rides atop an energy-camel, a creature that has yet to be seen in World of Warcraft proper. Rafaam, the so-called "supreme archaeologist," leads a band of villainous ethereals in opposition of the League of Explorers in the adventure of the same name. Rafaam controls three extremely powerful artifacts: the Lantern of Power, the Mirror of Doom, and the Timepiece of Horror.
- Ethereal names (such as "Bashir" and "Shaffar") are borrowings from, or alterations of, Arabic names. This is a reference to pre-Islamic Arabia, which was organized into oasis city-states ruled by trade princes or powerful merchant families.
- The Ethereals superficially resemble the Protoss from the Starcraft universe, most obviously when an Ethereal "runs", leaving several ghost copies behind himself much like a High Templar does.
- Dave Mallow and Joe J. Thomas provide two of the ethereal voices.
- Game files call them "etherials".