After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King's Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls.
In previous expansions, entities like the Loa of Death Bwonsamdi, ex-Forsaken Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, and corrupted titan watcher Helya all have spoken of the Shadowlands, and for some, the desire to conquer it. Sylvanas' character arc throughout Battle for Azeroth ends with her seeking to control death itself, indicating that she will play a pivotal role in Shadowlands.
The Realm of Shadows may be the same World of Shadows as the one that becomes visible when a [Elixir of Shadows] is consumed. It may also have something to do with shadow magic and shades. Death knights, necromancers, and undead as a whole share a strong connection with the Realm of Shadows from many hints that can be seen in-game. In the death knight starting zone, death knights are given the task to enter the Realm of Shadows in order to gain their Deathcharger. Later on, death knights are eventually able to learn the ability [Raise Ally] which pulls their ally's spirit back from the Realm of the Dead and forces it back into their body. Upon doing so, a buff is applied to the player stating that: "A touch of the spirit realm still lingers..." This shows that death knights and necromancers both have a connection to the Realm of the Shadows/Dead to perform necromancy which furthers the idea that they actually are drawing their magical power from it.
Covenants grant two additional gameplay abilities, one being class-specific. It alters your playstyle. Covenants grant unique armor styles and special capes that look a little more like accessories. Titan-like Kyrian capes look more like angel wings, for example. Each Covenant has a unique campaign similar to those found in Battle for Azeroth and Legion.
The final destination of the spirits of the deceased remains a mystery to the priests and philosophers of Azeroth. However, as spells such as [Resurrection] can reunite a dead body with its spirit, and a majority of living creatures from the tauren to the troll shadow hunters claim they can communicate with and call upon the power of the spirits, a widely held belief is that the spirits of the dead remain on the Material Plane — in an immaterial state that can only be altered or contacted through the use of magic.
The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
Claim a covenant's power: players will be called upon to forge a bond with one of four covenants that rule Shadowlands' new zones, setting the tone for their journey through the expansion with a full covenant campaign. As they level up, they'll get new abilities based on their choice, including class-specific abilities for each Covenant—as well as developing soulbinds with specific covenant members, which grant them access to that character's specific traits and bonuses.
During the Burning Legion's third invasion, the Knights of the Ebon Blade traveled to the Shadowlands to acquire the Aggregates of Anguish, five tormented essences of powerful souls - Admiral Proudmoore, Soulbinder Nyami, Grand Empress Shek'zeer, Grand Apothecary Putress and Archmage Arugal. Salanaar required these to conjure the Steeds of the Damned for the order's new Horsemen.