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.
The four zones that comprise the Shadowlands are ruled by "Covenants", similar to the Class Orders introduced in Legion. Each Covenant will have its own campaign, similar to the War Campaign in Battle for Azeroth, with gear specific to the faction and abilities both universal and determined by class. The four covenants are the Kyrian of Bastion, the Night Fae of Ardenweald, the Venthyr of Revendreth, and the Necrolords of Maldraxxus. Players experiencing the Shadowlands content for the first time will need to reach level 60 before they can choose to pledge themselves to a Covenant, while alts are able to do so at the start of the Shadowlands content.
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.
Sylvanas Windrunner, fallen leader of the Horde, has pierced the veil between Azeroth and the realm of the dead, setting in motion a series of events that threatens to upset the cosmic balance between life and death. World of Warcraft players entering the fabled Shadowlands will find the realms of the dead in upheaval. Under the normal order, departed souls were delivered to a realm appropriate to the lives they led, but now, all souls are being funneled into the Maw, where the most wicked are damned to suffer for eternity. As they seek to right the cycle and uncover the extent of Sylvanas' designs, players will forge bonds with the Covenants who hold domain over different planes within the Shadowlands.
The spell called "spiritual projection" or "astral projection" brings the caster to the Twisting Nether instead of the Shadowlands; and the Twisting Nether is also referred as "realm of ghosts". However, both planes don't appear to be related, as Outland is floating on the Twisting Nether, but the Shadowlands can be reached in Outland in The Burning Crusade.