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 the opening cinematic, Sylvanas shatters the Helm of Dominion, breaching the veil between the material realm and the Shadowlands, an ancient dimension where the dead coalesces for judgment. Sylvanas' actions have upset the natural balance between life and death, and it's on players to enter the Shadowlands itself and repair the cycle before it is too late.
Furthermore, upon the Lich King's death he even spoke of "Seeing only darkness before him" while Sylvanas Windrunner said the same in Silverpine Forest after being risen from the dead by the Val'kyr. This may hint that because undead, death knights, and necromancers are connected to the Realm of Shadows when they die (again) they actually become apart of the Realm of Shadows and are forced to wanders in its dark mists for the rest of eternity. If this is so, then it can also be implied that when a death knight is given his/her own personal runeblade, the runeblade is actually used to bind the individual to the Realm of Shadows in mind and body, making it impossible to ever be rid of the death knight curse. In Howling Fjord, players are even able to witness the Lich King himself standing within the Realm of Shadows with two Val'kyr. The idea that necromantic magic and death knight runes drawing power from the Realm of Shadows itself is not yet proven, but it is heavily supported by in-game quests and lore.
Explore the Realm of the Dead: for the first time ever in World of Warcraft, players will cross into the Shadowlands and experience the wonders and horrors of the afterlife across five new zones—the gleaming fields of Bastion, the scarred battlefields of Maldraxxus, the eternal twilight of Ardenweald, the opulent keeps of Revendreth, and the horrific Maw.
Adventurers entering the Shadowlands will find the realm of the dead in disarray. In the natural order of things, souls are sorted and sent on to an afterlife realm appropriate to the lives they lived, but starting around the time of the Burning Legion's third invasion of Azeroth, all souls who have perished—including the innocents slain at Teldrassil—are being funneled directly into the Maw. The Shadowlands are starving for anima even as the Maw continues to grow from the glut of fresh souls. Sylvanas Windrunner has been seemingly perpetrating acts to bring about great amounts of death and destruction. In partnership with the Jailer, they have been working toward a common end for some time.