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WOW: Kestler-The Long Way Back (FINISHED)

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Azurlavai
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Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

WOW: Kestler-The Long Way Back (FINISHED)

Postby Azurlavai » Fri Oct 12, 2018 7:38 pm

((I, in real life, am about to ship out to Army training. While there, I'll be cut off from a lot of the pleasures of life, but I'll still have my writing. So, while there, I decided to create a story about my WOW character being taken as a POW to explain my IC absence on the servers. While my guild has a forum of its own, a few of my friends don't have access, so here is me putting this out there for them to also enjoy. This thread is not, repeat not, meant for replies, though if you have comments I would be happy to hear them through telegram. That is all. Please enjoy my week-by-week way of surviving an Army camp for 45 days.))

Kestler Household
Gilneas City, Military District
23 years ago


“Stop.”

Johan Kestler, all of fourteen years old, let out a sigh of relief as the sword pressed against his own relented, allowing him a moment of reprieve. The swords were dulled metal, a step up from the wooden dummies of his childhood. His trainer was a Gilnean army veteran with a trio of scars across the top of his bald head, a souvenir from a troll’s claw weapon. The 2nd War only over for two years, the scar still looked fresh even though it had healed over, and the soldier had only grunted away any questions young Johan had asked about it.

From the back porch strode the hulking form of Soren Kestler. Though the ripe age of sixty-two, the Kestler patriarch was still in prime health, his hair and moustache not the white of old age but the defiant steel of a veteran. Muscles bulged under the fitted training jerkin, and his hands were enormous, reaching out and smacking Johan upside the head with little restraint. The veteran, Matthias, winced but did not protest, more than used to this sight.

Johan fell to the grass, his head ringing though still keeping a hold on his sword as he tumbled, blinking rapidly to try and clear his vision.

“Your guard was wide open. If Matthias had been an orc, you’d be gutted and spread over this yard. Have none of your lessons settled, boy?” His grandfather reached down, trying to wrestle the training blade away from the boy. Unable to wrest it out, he grunted in satisfaction, finally letting go. “At least you’ve learned -something.-” He spat, and though it was not directly at Johan the boy still felt some moisture on his cheek. He glared at the old man, though knew better than to speak. That lesson had taken time to settle in.

Soren sighed, waving Matthias away for a break. Reaching up, he tugged a towel from one shoulder and offered it to the boy, who took it reluctantly, watching for a trap. It hadn’t been the first time he had ‘ambushed’ Johan under the guise of offering help. But the offer was genuine, and Johan wiped off his brow, pushing up into a sitting position and panting in exertion. He’d been training with his grandfather, father, mother and whoever else they brought in since he was seven, yet it seemed they always had some way to bring him down to new lows. He was stronger and faster than any other kid at the public school, and his strategy and history lessons had made him a fast thinker. But it was never enough. Always another mountain to climb, another length to run. A month ago, his grandfather had made him run all the way to Tempest’s Reach and back in the rain, not citing a reason or lesson for doing such. Last year, his mother had taken him hunting in the Blackwald and he had quickly found himself alone (though not completely as she revealed she had not gone far). And just last week his father had been home on leave to take him to Emberstone mine, where the foreman had been convinced to let Johan work in the shaft doing the labor of a grown man. It was an intense life.
“Johan. You’re fourteen. Public school ends in two years. You will be of enlistment age.” Soren, despite his advanced age, knelt next to the boy with the fluidity of a tightly honed physique. Rumor was he had once sparred with King Greymane...and that the king had lost. Rumor, of course. Soren sighed, rubbing his face. “You must be ready.”

“I will be, Grandfather.”

“You -think- you will be.” Soren stood, offering his hand to Johan. “But you won’t know until you first stroll into battle. And if you keep holding your guard like that, you won’t last a single skirmish.”




Aboard the vessel Majesty
Kul Tiran Stormbringer-class ship of the line
Stormwind Harbor
October 4th, Year 33 ADP


The Kul Tiran ship featured many additional facets that similar models from the Alliance and Gilneas didn’t. A deeper kitchen for longer voyages, an onboard barber to keep the sailors in good appearance, and a full-sized briefing room capable of seating a hundred. Though not officially returned to the Alliance, the invasion of Stormsong Valley combined with the recent attempted coup of Lady Ashvane over Proudmoore meant that many officers in the Navy no long trusted their superiors. Some even demanded to be returned to the Alliance, if only to avenge Brennadam. Needless to say, some admirals had started acting on their own initiative.

Regardless, the Kul Tiran detachment was here on direct orders, though it not only refused to unfurl its fleet standard but the sailors were extremely tight-lipped about who exactly had ordered them here. The Majesty’s briefing room held officers from the Kul Tiran Marine Corps, stalwart men in storm silver plate armor who said little, some of them being enormous and burly. The rest of the room had Alliance Navy, Ironforge Air Force and (mostly) Gilnean uniforms filling the rest of the seats, many inside having to jostle and make room for the much larger worgen. Officers and senior NCOs literally rubbed elbows as they moved to their seats, the low murmur filling the comparatively small room.

“Quiet!”

A rapping came from the podium up front. Captain Ulriss had taken the stand, and in response the human, dwarven, worgen and gnomish voices quickly quieted down, eyes riveted to the front. Standing next to the Kul Tiran office was a night elf, a Sentinel captain by her insignia and armor, and a Gilnean major by her side in turn.

“Well, now we’re all assembled,” Captain Ulriss said, picking up a sheaf of papers and straightening them out, glancing down before addressing the room again. “Gentlemen, welcome to Operation Ember. This briefing will inform you of the details of the plan you’ll be executing in approximately two weeks time. Your units have already received training schedules the past few weeks, and this is where we’ll put it all together for you.”

At this, the Gilnean major, a man named Carver, stepped to the fore, clearing his throat as he did so. This was the commander of 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, and he certainly looked like he belonged to the Peer. No worgen himself, he wore an immaculate dress coat, with decorations pinned painfully straight on his breast, no doubt by an overworked attendant. His hair was greased back, revealing a widow’s peak he did nothing to hide, and his moustache was waxed in the latest style in Stormwind. He held himself like a peacock, the upper crust of Gilnean society.

To Sergeant Johan Kestler, sitting in the crowd, there was nothing more superficial than an officer who was full of himself. It made him miss being surrounded by competent superiors, like when he had been summoned to the Grymmtide mission by the Lord General. While the results had been less than ideal, it had been a breath of fresh air to have people who knew what they were doing around. To his left, Chief Sergeant Halvin Hardstout drove an elbow into Kestler’s ribs, grunting “Now’s the part where they tell us how they plan for us to die for the cause.” Kestler had met the dwarf pilot some time ago on the alternate Draenor, where the worgen’s platoon had rescued him from a devastating crash. Since then, the two had met again in the Broken Isles, and again in Kul Tiras and former Forsaken territory. Unlike Kestler, Hardstout had fought in the Battle for Lordaeron, and described the terrifying battle to him in the medical ward. Kestler merely grunted by way of reply, knowing better than to keep chattering when a peacock of an officer had taken the stand.

Major Carver reached up, tugging down a map from a canvas roll, exposing territory that every Gilnean knew by heart. Silverpine Forest’s landscape greeted them all, several unit stickers displaying known Horde and Alliance positions. Since the fall of the Undercity, the Alliance had been pressing to finally take back the old wood, but with the renewed Horde offensive in Arathi and the incursions on Kul Tiras, priorities had been decided. Now, it finally looked as if things would swing back to the Gilneans to reclaim their former home.

Major Carver cleared his throat. “Fenris Isle has fallen to the Bloodfang,” he announced. This was not news, the castle had been seized even before Lordaeron had been put to siege. “With Lordaeron eliminated as a supply point and a source of reinforcements, the Forsaken front has become overextended.” He pointed at several red icons, mostly focused around Shadowfang Keep, Ambermill and the road that had previously led north. These were marked with unit designations and the emblem of the Forsaken, a circling around the Gilnean lines that had slammed shut and refused to open again. Up at Fenris Isle, an Alliance banner with an icon of raking claws hung, indicating the wogen guerillas in Ivar’s pack that had seized the keep. For the most part, the Horde forces had a lock on the area, for they controlled the roads and several hardpoints, keeping the worgen in the south corralled in.

“The Horde has reinforced the roads, hardening positions here in Silverpine,” Carver continued, slapping Horde emblems onto the map at various points up and down the canvas. “Unsurprisingly, Blightcaller has also dispatched Dark Rangers into the woods here and we believe here as well. But one thing they haven’t changed is the location of their High Command.”

Here, Carver drew attention to a spot in the north, marked “Forsaken Rear Guard” and “Forsaken High Command.” While once important, it had been thought that these places had been emptied of all important material, especially with Shadowfang in their grasp. Apparently, that was not the case.

“The new Outriders are headquartered here, under command of a Dark Ranger named Alina,” said Carver, tugging out a swagger stick and indicating the High Command area. “The site also functions as a secondary HQ post for the region. Ever since Lordaeron fell, its officers have been relocated. Except for Grand Executor Mortuus. We have reliable intelligence stating he has remained at this post, conducting his experiments with Val’kyr and other chemicals. The two VIPs, any crucial documents and its location relevant to Fenris make this site an ideal target for a fast attack. With this, we will have the Forsaken encircled and be in prime position to cut them off from supply and reinforcement through Hillsbrad.”

Carver glanced around, seeing the crowd understood for the most part and there were no pressing questions before he bowed, stepping to the side to make room for the Sentinel Captain to take the center. The night elf did not introduce herself for a moment, instead taking a handful of icons out of a belt pouch and carefully affixing them to the canvas, making sure they were perfectly adjusted, unlike the icons Carver had simply slapped up on the map. Finally, she finished her work, and stood back, examining them before turning, her cloak billowing around her.

“I am Sentinel-Captain Melsynda Moonhollow. I will be the commander of forces on the ground.” She gestured back at the canvas, highlighting an area of coastline just west of the Forsaken High Command, past an area designated the ‘Forsaken Rear Guard’. “This area of beach will be our primary point of operations. It is called North Tide’s Beachhead. It leads into a hollow, which will allow us a straight shot into the hills. We overwhelm the Rear Guard, and then into the Command camp. But the hard part will be the landing.”

Moonhollow indicated the beach once again, and began putting up even more emblems on the canvas. Bunkers, barriers, minefields, artillery cannons. The more emblems were placed, the more concerned the crowd got, the more the murmuring began to stir up once again. Finally, when the beach was covered in more red than the background green, Moonhollow turned back to the crowd.

“The last time the Horde used this beach for landing, a group of feral Bloodfang worgen attacked the crew when they were in the process of offloading cargo. After, the Horde retook this area and built it up to construct a secure port. While the port itself wasn’t finished before Lordaeron fell, the defenses are strong, but undermanned. Securing this beach will give us the direct line we need to achieve all our mission objectives. We will have substantial support from the Alliance Navy, the Gilnean Navy, the Kul Tiras Navy and the Ironforge Air Force to land troops ashore. The first wave will consist of Marines from the 15th Kul Tiran battalion along with several Sentinels. Their job will be to push forward until they can go no further and dig in, clearing a space for the next wave.” Here, Hollowmoon moved blue icons across the canvas from the icons representing vessels until they were surrounded by red. “The bulk of the fighting force will come from Echo Company, of the 3rd Gilneas Brigade. Once the Marines have secured a foothold, it will fall to Echo to move up the beach and assault the bunkers, trenches and gun pits.”

The officers and NCOs of Echo Company, the bulk of the rooms occupants, shifted uneasily as they glanced to each other, knowing what Moonhollow wasn’t saying; once they made the push, they’d be taking the worst of the casualties. Down and dirty grunt work, moving from pit to pit. Worgen were tougher and stronger than most of the other Alliance races, almost as fast as Night Elves. But this was just crashing right into the enemy positions.

Moonhollow began going on about the ships and flying machines clearing up the hardest of the enemy positions, the bunkers and gunpits that posed the greatest threat to Echo Company, but Kestler’s mind began to wander. Echo Company alone was made up of one-hundred and eighty-nine soldiers, both human and worgen. Even if naval bombardment and aerial support softened up the beach defenses, they’d still be funneling straight into the enemy guns. One hundred eighty-nine men and women funneled across a beach was a recipe for a massacre.

Evidently, Hardstout thought the same thing, as he leaned over and muttered “So they’re just gonna run you up at the guns? What’s gonna stop the bullets, hopes and dreams?”

“To cover the advance,” Moonhollow suddenly said, as if cutting in on Hardstout and Kestler’s conversation. “We will be deploying several new prototype assault engines. The Amphibious Siege Engine, also known as the AMSIE by the gnomes developing the device, is a floating steam-powered craft which can carry twenty men each. These will take you to the beach and provide you cover fire with their onboard mortars.”

“Prototypes?” asked a nearby Echo officer, Lieutenant Vennrik snarled, cursing as she spat at the floor. “Damn gnomish inventions. May as well dig the graves now.”

The briefing continued, and every detail thrown in made Kestler’s gut sink further and further. Dwarven air support, but no carrier on standby? Where were they supposed to fly out from, Menethil Harbor? Ah, they were building a temporary airfield in the Wetlands. All this offshore bombardment support, but no mention of building a foothold base before pushing in? It all screamed of a smash and snatch for appearances’ sake, an attack to make it look like something was happening while the officers played God with toy soldiers. Except the toy soldiers were flesh and blood. Sergeant Kestler had been down this road before.

“It’s a political op,” he grunted, and Hardstout glanced up at him, as did several other officers around him, suddenly making a covert circle of conspiracy. “Carver gets to be praised for running a successful counter-intel op, Moonhollow gets some revenge for Teldrassil, the Kul Tirans get to dip their foot back into war again and the gnomes get to test a new device. This was a cut deal.”

“And what about us?” asked Lieutenant Ford.

“Someone has to die for their medals,” Kestler snarked, shaking his head. “So y’know what? Ignore that clap they’re spoutin’ up there. Difference between good officers and bad. Carver and Moonhollow don’t give a twit about us gettin’ back off that beach, mark my words.”
Last edited by Azurlavai on Thu Nov 22, 2018 10:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Sat Oct 20, 2018 3:52 pm

Kestler Household
Gilneas City, Military District
18 years ago


“It’s that damned wall is what it is.”

Here we go again. Corporal Johan Kestler sighed, setting his fork down as he once more had to listen to his grandfather spout about politics. Next to him, his mother frowned, having just sat down to eat breakfast. It was no secret that Adrienne and Soren didn’t get along. Adrienne’s own family were country folk from Duskhaven, certainly not of the same breed as the ‘upstanding’ folk in Gilneas City, never mind that her own father has been a major. Johan only came home on the weekends, and while she and Nathan were more than delighted to see their son still around after he enlisted, his grandfather had hated the idea of a Kestler without prospect for war. And so, for three years, they had listened to Soren gripe as complain and commit borderline treason.

“Leaving good Gilnean land like that to close us off. Bloody cowardly, it is.”

Nathan Kestler sighed, rubbing his face, scratching at the eyepatch out of habit.

“Pa, it’s a matter of geography. The towns of Silverpine can’t be efficiently defended. The engineers had to think of how to set up the Wall quickly so it can be easily defended.”

“Don’t bloody talk to me about efficiency in defense!” Soren snapped, slamming his tankard down, ale splashing out over the rim onto the table. Faced with his father’s fury, Nathan merely silenced himself, quietly rubbing his empty eye socket. Adrienne glared at her father in law, the dinner knife suddenly looking like a sinister weapon in the huntress’ firm grip.

As quickly as he’d flared up, Soren suddenly seemed to deflate, sighing as he turned back to his food, shoulders slumped, white hair hanging limply on his head, picking at the eggs without much attentiveness. He’d been like this since Johan had been placed on garrison, like 80% of the Gilnean Royal Army. For the most part, the King’s Men has roamed the countryside, killing outlaws, pacifying beasts in the Blackwald and the hills and generally just keeping the peace. Gilneas has withdrawn from the Alliance, and with that voluntarily backed out of world affairs. Without meddling in politics, there was almost no chance of the Kestler family marching off to war once more. Adrienne and, surprisingly, Nathan were both visibly relieved by this revelation, assuring their son that this was not such an unfortunate thing. A lifetime spent preparing for war was a hard thing to set aside, though. The youngest Kestler often felt restless and caged in on patrol in the Blackwald.

Soren, however, took if the worst.

The Kestler family lineage had a proud military history interwoven with Gilnean history, including such events as the founding of Gilneas City, protecting the colonists to Kul Tiras and fighting against forest trolls in the ancient past. Being a patriot and a staunch traditionalist, Soren Kestler was faced with the prospect of his grandson not seeing any conflict at all. Faced with the possible collapse of family tradition, he’d collapsed into his cups, spending more time at the Veterans’ Hall and reminiscing with several of his old comrades about ‘the good old days’. Having served before the Second War, his opinion on conflict differed greatly from his own son, Nathan, who had lost an eye to an orc axe in Khaz Modan.

And while Adrienne had done her best to welcome Johan back now he would be spending more time at home, Soren had done his best to try and push Johan into seeking greater and greater chances of being sent into possible combat, ask for rotations to the wall. Twice now Johan had been, though even now still had no war at the gates. Nathan had taken the middle ground, trying to keep the peace in the house by both agreeing with his wife that their only child need not go off to die for the sake of tradition, and keeping his father pacified by pointing out that Gilneas was trying to keep out of future conflict. It was a fine balance to walk.

Breakfast now spoiled, the family finished quickly, in silence for the most part. After clearing his place, Johan retreated upstairs. His room had been kept the way he’d left it, for he came home quite often, and he sighed as he flopped over onto the bed. In the corner, resting in a small pile, was his uniform, sword and shield. In the spirit of ensuring a 100% readiness force, soldiers were allowed home with their weapons and armor, allowing them to be ready to report in a heartbeat, wherever the fight needed them. He sat up, inspecting the equipment from a distance, though not touching it. The Gilnean crest leapt out at him from his tabard, a trio of crimson slashes on a field of blue. In the time since he’d taken the oath he’d served as best he could given circumstances, but it was nothing like what his father and grandfather had readied him for. There was no great clash of arms and armor, shattering wars and armies prepared to tear each other to bloody ribbons in epic battle. While that was, of course, a good thing for his life expectancy, it was a letdown from the years of preparation he’d gone through as a boy.

His sword, Gilnean army steel, honed and sharpened for battle, had mostly been used in training, fighting bandits on the roads and putting down beasts from the Blackwald. No nicks in the blade, no weathering from long use. The kite shield seemed to mock him with its clean, unburnished surface. True, it had seen use but nothing that could put much of a scratch in it. Blood had been splashed across it, sure. But not that of greenskins or human soldiers but a mere cutthroat who had slipped back his squadmates. Johan had killed her seconds later, the first human he’d ever put down.

It hadn’t been nearly as glorious as he thought it would have been.

Suddenly, Johan didn’t want to stick around.

In less than a minute, he was gone, out the door and on the streets of Gilneas City’s Military District. The stone lanes were old, and echoed history in their tight, dark design. Midmorning mist clung stubbornly to the air, even with sunlight streaming down and the normal morning traffic attending the area. Weapons shops and patriotic merchandise booths set up to support the army (“All proceeds help fund the City Watch!”) strung the streets, but these were mostly residentials, offices and armories. But honestly, Johan was beginning to feel constrained by military infrastructure. Dodging past a trio of City Watch (he’d rather not risk running into someone he knew right now) he made his way out onto the main road, where people and humans were crammed along over the bridges into the hills, mostly work details and ore convoys heading to Emberglen and the lumber parties in the Blackwald, farmers in the hills and hunters preparing to track elk with their mastiffs in tow. The further down the road from the city he got, the fewer people were around, and as he crested over the hills to the southeast he was once more alone.

Perhaps he should have grabbed one of the family horses. But his physical anxiety needed to be bled out.

And so it was that a handful of hours later (he lost track in all honesty) he reached the quiet town of Tempest’s Reach. Unlike the busy industry of Emberglen’s mines or the danger of Stormglen on the Blackwald, Tempest’s Reach was isolated and quiet, positioned in the hills overlooking the crags and reefs that faced towards the open sea, and across that bay was Khaz Modan, the dwarven realms, though impossible to see from here even for an elf.

A small flock of sheep blocked the path, and as Johan approached a figure rose from a seat on the hill nearby, the shepherd clearly stopping to enjoy a quick lunch as he mounted his horse, taking up crook and riding down.

“Hang on a moment, lad! I’ll clear the ornery beasts out for ye!”

Johan, in no rush, merely smiled and waved his thanks, watching as two sheepdogs emerged from their positions watching their flock, barking in response to the shepherd’s whistling and hollered orders, quickly rounding up the sheep and starting them towards pasture in the hills. Once more, in no hurry Johan observed the entire occurrence, waiting for the last woolen behind chased by one of the dogs to disappear over the hill before he continued on his way.

Tempest’s Reach was a farming community, though they did do some fishing. Word was silver may have been discovered in the hills, but so far the royal surveyors hadn’t confirmed it yet. Aside from farmers, townsfolk and the odd hopeful prospector, the town was quiet, just the wind and the seabreeze blowing in from from the cliffs. Day had finally made itself known by now, the full sunlight cast over the oddly gray landscape and the sleepy town. A destination now in mind, the young soldier continued towards the lighthouse, deciding to get a good look at the sea today.

“Oi, lad. Where are you off to?”

The question, asked by a Town Watch militiaman at the bridge, was innocent enough. Johan was a stranger, and though the lighthouse guided far fewer sea vessels it was still guarded jealously by the town as their prize possession.

He raised a hand in a wave.

“Just seeing the sights, mate.”

The militiaman, his battered crossbow slung over one shoulder (the army and the nobles kept a monopoly on the firearms being produced, though with no war on that might change in the next few years) simply nodded, waving Johan through as he took a slug from his flask. Johan decided not to press his luck.

The lighthouse was, unsurprisingly, mostly abandoned. With the ports closed and the Navy disbanded, only the rare ship could be seen these days, quite a few of it Kul Tiran sailing outside of the reef in the distance, though Johan had once heard a dwarven ironclad had been spotted a few weeks backs.

Today, he stood near the stone wall, staring south towards the rest of the world. Azeroth was so massive, but fate had conspired to keep him bottled up in Gilneas. As much as he loved his country, the reality of military service in an isolationist nation after so long spent hearing his family’s war stories had left a sour taste on his tongue. On his mother’s side, his other grandfather and his uncles had seen military service as well, serving at the tail end of the Second War. He didn’t talk to them much anymore, but they had sent along their pride and well-wishes when he had enlisted.

And now, what? Had he made a mistake? But how could he, when he had been told it was the family obligation? Service brought honor, glory in battle. But so far, his service had been lackluster, no glory to be found. His mother was relieved, his father seemed like he had just let out a breath he’d held for too long. His grandfather was furious and his uncles were all...well, busy to be honest.

He spotted a Gilnean fishing boat far down below, skirting just inside the reefs. Inside, a woman struggled with her nets, hauling them in against the surf. Johan was surprised by how strong she was, and even from here he spotted scars up and down her muscular arms, telling of years in a hard job. Still, it was filling work, putting food on the table while living each day in so much danger. Maybe he should have been a fisherman…

The salt spray wafted over him again, carried by the sea breeze...




Operation Ember
Off Northtide's Beach head, Silverpine Forest
October 18th


“Hang on fellas!”

The AMSIE lurched under the feet of the worgen troops, churning through the waves as it chugged towards the shoreline. Seawater splashed over the edges with every wave, soaking the the twenty troops inside, shivering in their plate mail armor and blue uniforms, faces hidden behind armored masks, hands clenching around swords and rifles. The gnomish pilots fought the controls the whole way, hollering at each other in high pitched curses and insults as they seemed to adjust knobs and gears without rhyme or reason.

It would have been amusing if they weren't currently being shot at.

Another plume of seawater launched into the air, spraying the already soaked Echo company troops. Given the storm the fleet had used as cover, it didn’t change much. The three other AMSIE carriers, strung on line, plowed through the chop as behind them the far more vulnerable swarm of rowboats packed with the bulk of the company followed the vanguard towards the shore. Overhead, gryphon riders and dwarven flying machines duelled with Forsake batriders, the clamor of engines, machine guns and animal cries drowned out by the barrage the landing parties were taking. Forsaken catapults continued flinging Blight boulders at the transports, the green-tinged stone splashing down into the sea. Occasionally, an explosion would announce a goblin cannon, carving out enormous troughs in the water. At the front of AMSIE 1, Sergeant Kestler had a grim frontseat view of the storm (both literal and figurative) coming down on them.

So when AMSIE 3 took a direct shot from a Blight boulder, detonated spectacularly, slowed to a halt and then disappeared under the waves straight to the bottom, he could do little more than raise his hackles and watch. Twenty soldiers and the gnome crew, gone in an instant and he was powerless to do anything.

He hopped off the step, looking to his own men. Blue tabards and platemail armor greeted him, truesteel shields and swords greeting him as he did a final inspection. Most of the soldiers in his platoon were worgen, already in their wolf forms, but a few unafflicted humans were in his ranks, clutching rifles closely to try and keep their powder dry.

He sighed. Twenty here, the rest of his platoon in AMSIE 2 with Lieutenant Wallace. But AMSIE 1 would hit the beach first, meeting up with the Kul Tiran Marines and the Sentinels holding the beachhead. Afterwards, the rowboats would arrive to reinforce the landing party. And then would begin the slow grind up towards the bunkers and the gun line.

Kestler took a deep breath, shrugging off his apprehension. No good here.

“Alright, listen up! You all know yer shit, so I won’t hold yer hand! We’ve got clear, open beach to cover before we reach the fighting positions, so keep yer heads down and run fast as yer legs can fuckin’ carry ye! We hold the beach until the rest of the company makes landfall! Keep an eye out for Wallace and her lads, watch yer feet for goblin mines and make sure ye designate any archers for the marksmen! We’ll haul arse up the rise once the rest of Echo joins us, so above all hold the line! We’ve got more fightin’ up the hollow!” He turned towards the front ramp, drawing Witchbane. In the wet air, the blade was practically a torch, even its subtle blue glow cutting through the storm’s oppressive air. Bulwark, pitted and scarred, he shifted until he could see the thirteen mark kill count on the inside. Thirteen Horde commanders slain.

Time to add to the number.

“And fer Light’s sake! Don’t get yerself killed by some dumbarse mistake! I find ye in the afterlife, I’ll kick yer arse!”

A chuckle among his troops. He’d broken their apprehension a moment, but it would come back. The secret to surviving combat (aside from luck, of course) was to convince yourself you were invincible, but to know the truth in the back of your mind.

The AMSIE was nearing her embarkation point. A rattle echoed off the front panel as gunfire met them, most likely from a goblin weapon given the rapid fire. One bullet slipped past, tearing through one of the worgen soldiers and blowing her brains over the footman behind her. The corpse tumbled as the other soldier blinked and sputtered, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Kestler snarled, raising his shield higher as he tried to put himself between his troops and those guns. If those bullets could kill at this distance, it was a grim portent to what was to come.

“Platoon!” he yelled, to get their attention. He heard swords drawn and armor rattling as they turned away from their downed comrade. Grim, but she could always be recovered later. “What makes the grass grow?”

“Blood! Blood! Blood!”

“What do we do for a living?”

“Kill! Kill! Kill!”

“I CAN’T FUCKIN’ HEAR YOU!”

“KILL! KILL! KILL!”

The AMSIE shuddered. She was reaching the shallows. They had scant minutes, at best. Already, Kestler could hear the clash of swords and shields on the beach, the whistle of mortars and the hiss of crossbow bolts.

“WHAT DO WE KILL FOR?”

“KING! COUNTRY! REVENGE!”

“AND WHAT IS THE NAME OF THAT COUNTRY?”

“GILNEAS!”

“AGAIN! SO THEY CAN HEAR IT ON THE BEACH!”

“GILNEAS!”

“DO YOU LOVE YOUR COUNTRY?”

“AYE!”

“AGAIN!”

“AYE!”

“THEN TAKE HEART, SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF GILNEAS! FOR TODAY, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, YOU WILL FIGHT FOR THAT COUNTRY! AND EVEN IF WE FALL, OUR BLOOD WILL PAVE THE WAY TO FREE HER!”

The AMSIE shuddered to a halt, lurching with the soldiers inside. One of the gnome operators scurried to the forward lever, ducking as another Blight boulder smashed down nearby, crashing into the beach. The onboard guns thumped, sending out a brace of shells. In the distance, the ships of the fleet duelled with the guns onshore, a broadside pounding the cliffs above them.

“WHO ARE WE?”

“GILNEAS!”

“WHO THE FUCK ARE WE?”

“GILNEAS!!!”

Now satisfied their blood was properly pumping for battle, Kestler knew he had done all he could for them. Their fates would be decided here and now, on this beach.

The ramp dropped, and Kestler raised Witchbane, sparking with energy and fury, and led the charge straight into the surf.

“FOR GILNEAS!”

And it filled his heart with pride that every single one of them chased down after him with absolutely no hesitation.




The next minute was a scene from hell.

The beach was already littered with bodies. Marines and Sentinels who had fallen early still lay on the sand, some brought down by long-range fire, others by the mines they tread on, others by the Horde melee troops that came down to face them. Those bodies were nearby as well, orcs and trolls and Forsaken for the most part, cut down in a spray of blood and left as if tossed by a bored child. Bolts and bullets filled the air, and spells shot past as they rent a butcher’s bill on the Alliance ranks. Sprays of sand from mortars, Blight boulders and enormous ballistae tore the beach apart. Visibility was almost nothing from the smoke, spray and fog. The Horde defenses on the cliffs were little more than vague shapes suggesting bunkers and trenches, barbed wire and iron barricades. Fires blazed everywhere, from bodies to still-burning spells to ignited munitions and goblin flamethrowers. It was a scene from hell.

And into that hell, Kestler bolted across the beach. Worgen were fast, and it didn’t take long before they outpaced their human comrades, dashing towards the Marine positions further up. Some died silently, felled by Forsaken crossbowmen, troll archers and goblin snipers on the cliffs. Two stepped on buried landmines. Three disappeared in a fountain of gore as a mortar shell landed at their feet. And still the others pressed on.

The surviving AMSIE craft had dropped their load as well. The carnage was visited on the whole line, and Gilneans both worgen and human were cut down in clusters, rent asunder by the terrible punishment the Horde was sending their way.

Kestler finally pushed through the killing grounds, spotting the vanguard positions. Not as much a fortification as a scratch in the ground, the Marines had thrown down sandbags to cover themselves, but not enough to make much difference. Kul Tiran storm silver smashed into Horde iron as Marine halbardiers and swordsmen held the front against a determined orc counter-attack, and Marine gunners emptied hot after shot into the enemy ranks, scrambling for powder. Nearby, a cluster of Sentinels moved and killed with grace and efficiency, swords and glaives flashing and tearing away sprays of black and red, purple skin covered in cuts and bruises while veteran archers calmly and grimly put down an endless stream of arrows.

Kestler narrowed in on the nearest Marine, a massive Kul Tiran human who had locked blades with an equally large orc holding an axe the size of a horse. The two were struggling to push the other off, and were standing over a gunner cut down presumably by the orc, her torso almost parted in half as she drenched the beach in red. With little warning or preamble, Kestler raised Witchbane, directing his charge as he stabbed into the orc’s unprotected side, a gout of black blood splashing over him. The greenskin howled, but now the halbardier could raise his weapon and bury it into the orc’s skull, permanently downing him. Kestler spotted two more, an orc and a Forsaken shock trooper, charging towards them and clenched Witchbane, unleashing a bolt of energy with a quick swing, blasting the orc back. The undead soldier continued, and Kestler took the strike with his blade, pulling the serrated sword away before executing a short, savage chop into the Forsaken’s face with Bulwark. Now stunned and open, the Horde swordsman was unable to defend against the killing blow as Kestler cut him down.

Having bought a second of breath, Kestler scanned the field, looking for an officer to tell him what to do. His men and most of the Gilnean charge had stuck in, and the fight to clear the beach was quickly turning from a grim holding action to the Alliance’s favor. He reached out, taking the Marine’s shoulderplate.

“Where’s your CO, Marine!”

“Dead, sir!” replied the Kul Tiran, clearly not seeing Kestler’s NCO pins. “His 2-Eye-See as well!”

“So who’s in charge? Moonhollow?”

“She’s dead too, sir!” the human shot back, shaking his head as Kestler blinked in confusion. “Killed by a bloody mine in the first wave!”

Now that he could see clearly, Kestler realized the defensive line was far short of its intended location. With their most senior officers dead, they’d have been forced to act on low-level initiative, which of course meant all kinds of confusion.

“SERGEANT KESTLER!”

Immediately, the NCO left the halbardier, pushing into the crush. He cut down a troll rogue about to backstab a Gilnean footman, drew his pistol Glory and put a round in a nearby Forsaken repeatedly stabbing a down Sentinel, shield-checked an oncoming orc. Finally, he made it through the press to find himself standing by Lieutenant Erica Wallace, standing over a half-dozen more Horde bodies and four Gilneans. The human Lieutenant turned to spot her senior NCO before she shot a Forsaken battle mage point blank, gesturing to the shore with her blade.

“The rest of Echo is landing, and we’re still stuck down here!”

It was true, the line of rowboats was indeed pulling up onto the beach, and they’d be facing the same carnage that had visited the frontranks. By now, they were supposed to have advanced on the gunline, disabling at least some of the artillery and marksmen to ease up the rest of the charge.

“Moonhollow’s dead, ma’am!” Kestler replied, instinctively raising his shield to take a crossbow bolt straight on.

Wallace cursed, working to load her pistol as she looked over the scene, trying to figure out what was happened. As they watched, a Forsaken bat crashed into the sands nearby, flopping in agony and killing several Horde warriors before a troll put it down with a spear in the eye. But the Alliance aerial forces weren’t getting off that easy, as a dwarven flying machine screamed down in flames, detonating on the ridge.

“We can’t stay here, ma’am!” Kestler hollered, to which Wallace nodded grimly.

“Where the fuck is Carver when you need him,” she growled, and Kestler raised in hackles in agreement. The major wouldn’t be joining them for his operation, and Echo’s captain had remained on the ships to coordinate since Moonhollow was supposed to be leading the charge. But with her death, it was down to platoon leaders and senior NCOs to pick up the slack.

“Kestler!” Wallace suddenly snapped. “I need you to grab two, get up the ridge and bring down those guns! I have to stay here and hold the beach!”

“Jus’ me? What am I s’posed to block the bullets with, hopes and dreams?”

“Well, I can’t get the whole attack up into the Hollow without those guns down, or we’ll come out looking like ground meat!”

As if to underline her words, a Blight boulder suddenly smashed into a nearby cluster of Alliance troops. Blood sprayed and screams were cut off as it tore through the sand, bouncing away and leaking clouds of Plague as it rolled into the sea. Kestler cursed, realizing she was right.

“Yes, ma’am!”

No time to think. He spun, quickly picking out two of his soldiers and yanking on their shoulders to pull them away. Parsons and Mores, two reliable veterans Kestler had come to trust. Parsons had been in the Alliance ranks since Pandaria, where he had served with the Expedition against Horde and sha, though the worgen there had been under Stormwind officers. Mores was a more recent human recruit, but she had gotten all the experience she needed in the Broken Isles. As added reinforcement, Kestler also grabbed a fusilier, a worgen named Temmes who he didn’t quite know, but the lad was on hand and seemed a good shot at least.

Quickly, Kestler broke down their instructions in a few seconds, and the team was off, slipping past the Horde line as more warriors came down to fight the beachhead. The team moved up over the ridge, dropping into the first trenchline. A goblin mortarman preparing the next shell looked up at them, pushing his goggles up as he tried to process what exactly was before him, right before Parsons cut him down swiftly. They killed four more goblins in the same way, blood flashing and rifle barking as they cleared the first firing pit quickly. It was rough work from here, as there were several more pits to clear, bunkers to inspect. Fortunately, luck favor them here. The gunpits were poorly guarded, mostly crewed by goblin engineers with only handguns and hatchets for defense (thank the Light there weren’t any shredders here like in Stormsong), and the bunkers mostly had supplies and marksmen inside, caught unaware by the commando party.

It was grim, bloody work. They moved from trench to trench, bunker to bunker, killing enemies shocked they were there. The Horde clearly had hoped to hold them on the beach and annihilate the Alliance there, supporting the theory that these defensive works were poorly guarded. If Northtide was properly garrisoned, the Alliance would have never made it past the beach.

They had to watch out for offshore bombardment. As the raiding party did their killing, another broadside cut from one of the Gilnean ships, pounding a bunker to rubble nearby, almost taking off Mores’ head much to her immediate displeasure (“Figures its the feckin’ Navy what kills me, ye goddamn twats!”), and even the volleys that missed pounded the cliffs around them.

By the time they’d cleared out the last trench, the Horde was in full retreat. The few goblins who had realized what was happening had abandoned their guns, spiking the mortars and rigging the ammunition to deny the Alliance their use. Orcs covered the stragglers, cutting down any footmen who pursued, bellowing war cries as they did so. Echo company and the vanguard moved forward, securing the ridge and defenses to overlook the beach. They’d taken horrendous casualties and lost every significant officer to this part of the operation, but the beach was finally theirs at last.

Kestle rejoined Wallace as the other officers gathered together, taking a quick count of who was left. From that, they could determine what their current standing manpower was. One AMSIE had gone down in the sea, and forty had fallen across the beaches, leaving Echo company standing at one-hundred twenty. The vanguard had started with sixty Marines and thirty Sentinels, the former taking twenty losses and the latter had only lost ten, though one of those was Moonhollow.

Out of a total standing strength of two-hundred and eighty-five, they stood at one-hundred ninety-four remaining. A staggering loss of ninety-one in just two or three hours. And that wasn’t even counting the dwarves overhead or the gnome engineers in the AMSIE or on the beach. Counting the number of Horde lost didn’t help determine what kind of force their enemy had, for the number came out to eighty-one, and they’d grabbed up many of their wounded.

But despite the appalling way this attack had gone, Northtide was theirs.




Orders came down from the Majesty. Secure the beach, evacuate what wounded they could and dispatch scouts. Prepare to move towards the Hollow.

Kestler had snarled at that.

“He’s not serious? No reinforcements? No adjustment in strategy? We’re just going to keep hauling off on this idiotic plan? This was a goddamn slaughter!”

Wallace merely sighed, gesturing outside. The surviving officers and senior NCOs had crammed into one of the standing Horde bunkers to get out of the storm. Outside, Echo company and the surviving Marines were rushing back and forth, hauling material to new positions to prepare the defense, expecting an imminent counter-attack. If the Horde struck now, Northtide wouldn’t last an hour before the Alliance was pushed back into the sea, and then Operation Ember would be a dismal failure. But Major Carver was back in command, and his orders were to keep pushing in. He’d have his victory, even with such a casualty rate.

“Carver’s orders are to accept whatever opposition comes at us to achieve the op. His words, and I’m not shitting you here, are that we need to strike before the Horde reorganizes, or we’ll run into opposition too stiff to counter.”

“Well he’s bloody right about that!” hissed Lieutenant Ford, gesturing in a chop at the hills outside. “This was just what they had on the beach! What have they got in reserve! Or on the roads! What if they bring in reinforcements from Shadowfang or, Light help us, Silvermoon?”

The bunker paused at that, the silence of the reality making them all fidget. If Silvermoon responded, they’d be overwhelmed by blood elves, and the dragonhawk riders were more than a match for Wildhammer gryphons (though the dwarves would never admit to it).

“That’s another reason for us to move quick,” Wallace replied. Though no one had said it, she’d taken unofficial command of the operation, and no one had argued with her sense so far. “Carver expects us to ignore losses and just pile on in, but without adequate support from the dwarves or the ships, we’re left to our own ability in there.” She turned, nodding to a slim figure off to the side. “Magister Coldband. Whenever you’re ready.”

Coldband was a void elf, a mage who had turned his back on his blood elf counterparts far back as a high elf. When the call had come out he had taken on the Void and reaffirmed his loyalty to the Alliance. He and a few other void elf mages had been attached to the attack, though they had been deemed too valuable to come in off the AMSIE engines, disembarking from the boats afterwards. Coldband -seemed- to regret that, but he was so elvenly aloof that it was hard to tell.

The gray-skilled elf cleared his throat, apparently uncomfortable now that the attention was on him.

“I have four mages under my command. From what we could see, the Horde possesses at least a half-dozen orcish shamans and two more mages that survived the battle down here. We’re not sure if they have any priests, but our own are busy with the wounded, and unable to join us in pushing off into the Hollow.”

“No priests?“ Lieutenant Vennrik hissed, he arm in a sling and her bandages soaked with blood. “And they expect us to push up anyway?”

“They do,” Wallace replied. “And if we can’t then we’re going to take even worse casualties. We get hemmed in against the water, we’re done. They’ll kill us all before we get out of here.”




Wallace found Kestler after the meeting. The veteran was sitting on a crate against the wall, sharpening Witchbane. Enchanted blade or not, she still needed care, and nicks in her edge would only hasten her breaking. Bulwark was nearby, its roughened wood surface cleared of arrows. Glory had been cleaned and loaded, and was ready to fire again.

For a moment, the Lieutenant and her senior sergeant were quiet. The bunker was empty, and the loudest noises were from the rain outside and the rasp of the whetstone on the stormsilver blade.

“Got somethin’ on yer mind, ma’am?” Kestler asked finally, inspecting the blade to keep track of his work. Wallace sighed, rubbing her face.

“Yes. I don’t think we can move the entire force up into the Hollow. We had always intended a rearguard, but now...we’ve lost too many.”

“That’s a statement. Ye’ve already answered that question.” He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look her way. “So if that’s the case, what’s yer solution?”

“I need a commando team to get in there,” she replied immediately, and Kestler’s ears pinned down, listening carefully as she spoke. He knew what was coming here.

“So ye’ll yer best veterans, then. Someone you know can get the job done while you prepare to capitalize on his success.”

“Kestler,” she said, frowning. “I know we haven’t worked together long, but you’ve got twenty years experience. That’s a decade more than about ninety percent of the battalion.”

“So it falls to me again.”

“You’re always going on about wanting a good fight.”

“Aye, a -good- fight,” he growled, now matching her gaze. “Not a suicide mission. Yer asking me to push into the Hollow alone before taking the fight to a dedicated, hardened enemy. What -is- my objective, ma’am?”

“Forget Mortuus, he’s a political target and most of what he’s doing can be picked up again. I need you to take the head off the Dark Rangers.”

“So the Rearguard, then.” Silence once more, the sergeant staring down the lieutenant. They both knew exactly who was the more capable of them, and the chances of carrying this mission out the way it was intended were fairly obvious to both of them.

Finally, Kestler sighed, tugging at his chin for a moment.

“Let me...lemme finish a letter first, at least.”

Wallace raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t served with Kestler long, but knew that his history with ex-wife hadn’t been pretty, and that his family were all gone by now. The fact that he had someone to write to was a surprise, and she only surmised one conclusion.

“What’s her name?”

“Lyran,” he replied, already rummaging through his belt pouch for supplies. “She’s really...something. She’s been encouragin’ me to retire, move on to bounty work and monster huntin’.”

“Are you going to do it?”

He grunted as a reply.

“We’ve talked...but I’ve an obligation.”

“Not sure that applies anymore,” Wallace said, scratching her chin. “3rd Brigade has plenty of experienced fighters. I’m sure if you brought the issue up to...well, not Carver. But you’re on good terms with the Lord General, aye?”

“We’ve done some work, aye,” Kestler responded, setting out a parchment and readying a quill and inkwell, while also tugging free a dwarven cigar and flintbox. Now he was dry and about to write something this meaningful, he wanted to relax for a bit.

“So bring it up to him. I’m sure he’ll tell you what you-”

“Wallace.” The tone was full of warning as Sergeant Kestler glanced up at his officer. “I know ye mean well...this isn’t such an easy choice to make. Twenty years in, ye stop functionin’ outside war. I was a wreck when I was racked up with fel poisoning. Not bein’ there at Darkshore or for Lordearon practically killed me. The Stormwind Raid almost -did- kill me. Now look...Lyran, she’s special. Important, to me. But the army…”

Another pause. Another uncomfortable silence.

“It’s all I’ve got left.”

Wallace considered that for a moment, looking on Kestler with an expression that seemed stuck halfway between pity and envy. Then, without a word, the human officer simply gathered herself, nodding silently and then proceeding out into the storm once more.

And Kestler sighed before he began to write.
Last edited by Azurlavai on Sun Oct 21, 2018 1:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
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Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Mon Oct 22, 2018 12:01 am

Kestler Household
Gilneas City, Military District
13 years ago


“I’ve done it!”

Johan glanced up, his hands pausing in attempting to thread a piece of fishing line into a hook. He’d rather not miss and wind up tearing his thumb open. Instead, he paused with his hands, staring across the dining room at his father with a concerned look on his face. The past few years, Soren had been increasingly obsessed with getting Johan opportunities to see some form of battle, as if to seal in his ‘honor’. Truthfully, Johan was nearing the end of his first term of service. Given the little he’d done, and after speaking with his parents, serious doubt had seeped into his mind about signing up for a second. But Soren had never given up, as if Johan getting into combat would allow Soren to capture some small measure of glory for himself.

This wasn’t the first time Soren had declared a deployment would see action.

“Johan!” Soren declared, slamming his hands onto the dining table, his hair scattered and his gaze wild, grinning viciously. “How would you like to see some combat? A real, true, sure chance to secure some meaning to your service?”

Sighing, Johan laid the hook and line down on the table. Looked like he wouldn’t be getting to Stormglen today if he had to talk his grandfather down, which was normally the job of his parents.

“Grandfather, I’m okay staying in Gilneas City. I don’t need to go to the Ashen Coast, or the Blackwald again or the hills around Duskhaven. Seven years of playing constable is...enough. I’m okay. Really.”

“What about Lordaeron?”

Johan blinked, unsure of how to respond. Of course word of the orc uprisings had come back to Gilneas, as well as conflict with some kind of plague afflicting the people of the north. For the most part, these had simply been shrugged off by Gilneas’ population. They grew their own grain, so had no worry for plague and orcs would never get past the Greymane Wall. While he’d heard rumors of some kind of mobilization to the Wall, it had been another brigade, not his own.

“Lordaeron? What’s happening in Lordaeron?”

Something told him he shouldn’t ask, but the more frantic his grandfather got, the more it drew him in. There was a difference here, compared to the other times Soren had tried to negotiate with his old contacts in the army to get him posted somewhere he might see battle. Now, he seemed triumphant, ready to bask in his own glory and genius. It made Johan apprehensive...and more than a little intrigued.

“The dead walk! They rise from their graves and hunt for the living! Some foul cult has gripped the land, spreading a plague among the people of Lordaeron. Surely you’ve heard of the Scourge? Even rumors?”

“I hear lots of rumors, Grandfather. They say a whole Brigade was called to the Wall. That Archmage Arugal summoned men that looked like wolves. I’ve heard a lot of stuff. That doesn’t make it true.”

“Well it is!” Soren declared, and Johan felt his blood ice over in his veins. He hadn’t wanted to believe what he’d heard when the news blackout had hit. No one questioned it, of course, but injured soldiers had been appearing in Gilneas City, rotated to the prison and high security portion of the Central Barracks and watched over by the King’s royal bodyguards, the Greymane Retainers, refusing visitors or observers. Some simply disappeared. Whispers had flown through the ranks, things so fantastic they couldn’t be believed. Of course Johan had heard talk of the dead rising in Lordaeron, but he’d dismissed it as flights of fancy. But if that was true, what else was actually right? What other rumors were fact? Could the orcs have stolen an entire fleet of transports from Southshore? Could the city of Stratholme had been purged by Prince Arthas?

Was Gilneas in danger?

Suddenly, he felt the ice in his blood thaw, his heart rate accelerated, his anger and fury rise. All the stories and training his family had bestowed on him through his childhood came running back in a flash, and the lethargy that had taken him the past few years seemed to melt away as he stood, slowly, watching his grandfather carefully. Soren merely grinned, knowing he’d gotten through.

“What do you say, boy? Feel like being a soldier for once?”

Lance Sergeant Johan Kestler frowned, both disturbed and excited. War was coming, and if Soren’s contacts, most of them senior officers and members of the Peer, were correct than Gilneas couldn’t afford to wait.

“There’s been no general mobilization. Only the 1st Brigade’s been sent to the Wall. The King isn’t responding?”

“The King believes us safe here behind this wall, while Lordaeron and Gilnean citizens die in droves,” Soren scoffed, though Johan knew that to be a ruse. While the words might have been true, his grandfather wasn’t stating this out of care for the people being killed by the dead and the greenskins, he was saying it to play on Johan’s empathy and sense of justice. “No one is doing anything, save for Lord Darius Crowley.”

“Lord Crowley?”

That made sense. Crowley’s lands had been cut in half by the Greymane Wall, leaving the formerly wealthy young noble robbed of much of his subjects and property. If he was as much a champion of the people as he’d stated, his resentment combined with the King’s unwillingness to act would be a vitriolic combination.

Soren nodded.

“He is gathering what he can spare, but his House troops are not numerous. So he has asked around for volunteers, trying to gather patriots to go and do battle in Gilneas’ name. Patriots like you, Johan! Men that want to -fight-! You’ve been left behind by the King’s Army! This is your chance! Join the Gilneas Brigade, and everything you’ve worked towards will come true!”




Operation Ember
Northtide's Hollow, Silverpine Forest


The Hollow was empty.

Of course it was, it was meant to look that way. A hundred Horde troops streaming past in retreat wouldn’t linger. But they -would- leave behind someone to watch for the Alliance advance. He could almost see them as much as he could smell them. Dark Rangers patrolled this patch of the woods. The Hollow was an easy place to post an ambush, a clear path the Alliance would take to get through to attack the Forsaken Rear Guard and the Command Post. The beach belonged to Echo company, and there weren’t many places an army could go aside from through this exact place.

His raiding party knelt in the trees with him. Corporals Parson and Mores as well as Private Temmes of course. But he’d grabbed seven others, worgen and human footmen who leapt to as quickly as possible, following him into the black woods. It was their task to raid the Forsaken High Command, kill as many Dark Rangers as they could and eliminate the Dark Ranger Alina. Mortuus could be left for another attack, one better prepared to crack the hardened defenses around Shadowfang. But Alina was a clear and present threat, an actual objective to take down for the Bloodfang to move freely in the woods again.

But Johan wasn’t certain. The High Command was the obvious place, of course. But Sylvanas’ personal troops were known more for their pragmatic nature than the vain and noble thinking of elves and Peer officers. So, he’d shifted his focus to the east instead of the north, narrowing in on the Rear Guard. A field officer knew better than to distance themselves from the battlefield, especially if they’d just received word of a major attack. If Alina was as good as they said, she’d have sped to a forward command post as quickly as she could.

Kestler reached up, taking a long pull on his cigar as he considered the objective before them. Ten soldiers, to take on the best marksmen the Horde had to offer and whatever warriors had survived pulling back off the beach, all to kill a single Dark Ranger commander.

He tossed the used stogie to the ground, grinding it out with a stomp before he stood up. He survived plenty of suicide missions before.

“Let’s go.”

The raiding party moved swiftly into the wood, pressing for the thicker parts of the trees. At one point, much of this had been Lordaeron land, bordering right on Gilneas. Now, it was a land of the dead, right down to the wildlife. Ever since the Scourge had rolled through, Silverpine had been emptied out of almost everything possibly alive aside from the two battling armies. Even if the Alliance retook this place, would it be possible to truly resettle it? Johan had seen towns of Ginean refugees in hardy places like the Blasted Lands and the Broken Isles. They were survivors, but Silverpine might just be beyond them if it was this empty and devoid of life.

They couldn’t go south for long. The Sepulcher was a nexus of Forsake activity, and their corridor for slipping past that graveyard and the obviously watched Hollow was narrow. If one bat rider spotted them, their cover would be blown. But the Gilnean soldiers pressed on, watching the skies and surrounding woods carefully. The dead didn’t breathe after all, and could be buried as ambush troops. Leftover Scourge ghouls were also a risk, and these woods had been infested right up until the Forsaken rebellion. But whether it was the Light or the Titan watcher Odyn looking out for them, the footmen slipped through the woods carefully and quietly enough. Their closest call came when a trio of bat riders from the east went flying overhead, sending the party scrambling for cover in the trees. Before they’d even all found concealment, the bats had already turned south, peeling away out of sight without coming back for a second look.

They found the flying machine after that.

Deep in the woods, digging out a furrow in the treeline, barely more than scrap at this point, the wreck had clearly been taken down by a bat rider from its ripped wings and splashes of acid on the body. The raiding party skirted around, carefully watching the treeline. Horde skirmishers had a tendency to post ambushes around crash sites like this, waiting for recovery teams to come out and jumping them.

Though he doubted the crew could have survived, Kestler moved around to the cockpit. The dwarven machines were impressive pieces, being one of the first flying devices the Alliance had ever fielded, and had changed very little since then, whereas it seemed gnomish devices were altered every year. Now, like many other, it was little more than a crumpled wreck here in Silverpine.

He froze when he saw Hardstout.

The Chief Sergeant was slumped over his control yoke, blood spraying over the windscreen, his head smashed in. He was obviously dead, but Kestler still ran to his side, crying “Halvin!” It was, of course, to no avail. But for a moment the veteran had hoped there was a chance his dwarven friend was still alive.

The rest of the team watched, silently. They knew little of this, but they all could tell when a fallen warrior was being mourned. When a soldier had lost a friend.

Kestler pulled himself together again, taking the Ironforge tags off Hardstout’s neck and tucking them away. They were gone in a few minutes.

In less than an hour, they were finally in sight of their objective. The monolithic tower of the Rear Guard stood watch over a Horde camp, one that had recently swelled in size. Tents and supply wagons spilled outside the walls, playing host to Forsaken Dreadguard and orc warriors (many of whom were Sea Dogs too drunk to stand up straight) but the camp had clearly taken on several of the wounded and other forces pushed off the beaches. Trolls and the occasional goblin and tauren wandered the newly formed ranks, tending to the wounded and seeing to preparations for a defense. Weapons were readied, ammunition passed around and armor frantically repaired. The single building of the post was surrounded by Dark Rangers, all of whom looked more to their own ‘fellows’ than cared to watch the forest.

“Sarge, look” exclaimed Temmes, pointing. But he didn’t have to, for Kestler spotted exactly what he was indicating. Positioned on a wagon drawn by two mighty kodo, already amid preparations to roll out, was an enormous, multi-barreled cannon, its fixtures pointed skywards. Goblins practically dangled off the thing, passing each other tools, shells and spare parts as they seemed ready to get moving. Flanking the cannon were a pair of goblin shredders, the new version Kestler had seen in Stormsong, much larger and far more intimidating with their armored cockpits and sneering visages. Tough armor too, many Alliance soldiers had learned to their unfortunate demise.

“They’re getting ready to return to the beach,” he muttered, spotting several orcish and Forsaken officers moving through the camp, barking orders as they went. “They’ll push us off. Into the sea.”

“What do we do, Sarge?” asked Mores, frowning in concern.

Kestler was equally as concerned. Their target was clearly in that building, but defended by all those Dark Rangers and what looked like over a battalion of Horde warriors meant they wouldn’t stand a chance getting in there, much less killing her. Stealth wasn’t an option either, as none of them were made for it in their platemail and heavy weapons. The only choice was to wait for the counterattack to roll out, and strike when the Rear Guard had sufficiently emptied.

Kestler turned to one of the troopes, a footman he hadn’t had time to learn the name of.

“Get a message back to the beachhead. Tell Lieutenant Wallace to evacuate the wounded, quick as she can, and to dig in. There’s a major counterattack in the works, and we’re not ready for it.”

The worgen nodded, quickly reverting to all fours and dashing off, into the dark woods.

Now, all they could do was wait.




He sat alone, as he did. These 3rd Brigade soldiers were good fighters. Veterans, like him, well trained. But they weren’t his comrades. They hadn’t fought across Pandaria and Draenor with him, or suffered in the Broken Isles. He was still a newcomer here, and as such they didn’t know him so well. Coupled with the Lord General’s particular attention in selecting him for the Grymmtides mission in Kul Tiras and he had been seemingly further removed from their ranks. For while the other soldiers gathered together in small clusters to wait out the time until the Horde troops left the camp, he sat on the ridge overlooking the Rear Guard, behind a split oak, Witchbane stabbed into the ground next to him and Bulwark leaning against the tree. He’d tugged off his helmet, relishing the freedom his fur and ears finally had, watching the camp with careful blue eyes, puffing on another cigar.

Was this all he had left? Was he fated to keep doing this for the next ten years? How long until it claimed him, as it had so many others today? He always talked about being unkillable to Lyran and the other Blades, and he always threw himself into every fight eagerly, but maybe Lyran was right. Maybe it was time to distance himself from war.

Tabby had pointed that out to him too.

Tabitha...his fingers clenched around his helmet. His only real friend in the Blades, whom he had nearly killed in Grymmtide Keep, under the thrall of a witch and taken in by an image. His family was gone, he knew that. His daughter had never been given a future, and yet he’d been so convinced of what he could have possibly had dangled in front of him, creeping over his mind and taking his senses so thoroughly…

He’d almost crushed Tabby’s throat with his bare hands. And for that, the Blades had lost their shot at taking down a witch matron, and screwed up a valuable alliance. Kestler didn’t often feel like his mistakes had caused major errors in the flow of other people’s lives, but seeing that hurt in her eyes afterwards and knowing he was no longer welcome around her or many of the other Blades had hurt. It had sealed the fact that he’d led to their failure. He had fought passionately for the wrong cause, and it haunted him still, even a month later.

His ear twitched.

The arrow was obviously meant for him, but the split-second reaction he’d been granted by his reflexed meant it sailed on past, spearing another worgen in the back, the glowing purple of its sickly energy detonating on impact. He spun around, Witchbane and Bulwark in hand, just in time to block an elven blade as it descended towards him. The second he blocked, however, a second blade sliced at his armored belly, saving him merely by the thickness of the plate. Regardless, he knocked the blade away and swung Bulwark at the Dark Ranger, who merely absorbed the blow and backflipped away, tossing a trio of throwing knives before her companion loosed yet another Dark arrow, this one detonating on Kestler’s shoulder pauldron, spraying armor fragments everywhere.

With a snarl, Kestler and the other Gilnean soldiers dove in.

The Ranger who had tried to stab him lunged back, her twin blades flashing as she stepped up, striking towards Kestler, who simply lowered his shoulder and pressed on, even as the blades fell on him. The undead elf hadn’t been expecting that, and took the oncoming pauldron full in the face, stuck to the worgen’s shoulder as if he was a bull going through a fence. The others engaged the second Ranger, one taking a Dark Arrow straight in the throat and losing her head in a spray of blood and gore before the others simply dogpiled onto him, dragging him to the ground. With a flash of knives, the Ranger tore apart a Gilnean human and was back on his feet again.

Kestler had pinned the first Ranger against a tree, burying Witchbane into her guts and bursting out into the treetrunk. Just as the elf was about to scream, he smashed her face in with his shield, then made sure to finish the job by grabbing her skull with a massive hand, claws digging in for a moment before he tore sharply, her head coming away savagely. The task done, he turned only to spot Temmes raising his rifle, cocking the flint as the surviving Ranger buried his knives in another worgen. Kestler’s eyes widened, and he raised a hand, shouting “Don’t!”

Too late. The rifle cracked, the bullet scoring home amidst a cloud of smoke and tearing the Dark Ranger’s chest out. But Kestler hadn’t been worried the shot wouldn’t kill. He was worried about who would hear. Swiftly, he ran back to the oak, looking down the hill at the camp.

Blessed Light. The Horde was preparing to move out. Troops on the move, catapults being loaded up and the cannon cart groaning as the kodo hauled it away.

“The Horde’s movin’,” he said, his voice a relieved sigh more than anything else. “We need to get ready to move.”

“What about Gavin? Lorelei? Saunders?” asked Mores, gesturing to their fallen comrades.

“Grab their tags and ammo. Leave the bodies.”

“That’s it? Yer so heartless as to not even give ‘em a burial?” Mores narrowed her eyes, pointing her blade straight at Kestler. “That how you survive twenty years, Sarge? Just leave ‘em behind?”

“Listen to me, you dumb bitch!” Kestler snarled, hackles raised as he drew Glory, cocking the hammer. Immediately, the clearing shifted, and he found two blades lifted to point at him, a rifle at his head and the remainder around Mores confused. Despite everything, he was an outsider here, nothing else. He’d been in 3rd Brigade far too short a time. They didn’t know him yet. Didn’t trust him. “Ye get through twenty years by knowin’ when it's time to stay and when it's time to go. They -deserve- proper rites. But none of us are mages or priests. So we en’t got the time or ability to do it. That’s on us. But if we don’t go down there now, all yer comrades on the beach will have died fer nothin’. D’ya understand that? So do you want to let the rest of Echo company get slagged...or do you want to buy them the time they need to get away clean?”

Mores glared at him. He glared back. Neither relented for a moment, and the other party members stared for a few seconds, unsure of what to do but ready to try anything if they got an inkling of direction. Finally, the human lowered her blade. With that, the worgen put his gun down, and the rest of the raiding group let out a sigh of relief.

“You’re still a bastard, Sarge.”

Kestler sighed, holstering his pistol as he turned away.

“Funny. I was just startin’ to like m’self again.”




They at least waited until the cannon cart was out of sight before they slipped in. Sentries were cut down in moments, watching the convoy rolling out and unaware of the danger they were in. This far inside Horde territory, with this many elite guardians, why should they be concerned?

Next were the drunk sea dogs, orc mariners far too into their cups to respond properly, who blinked and tried to reason what was coming at them, but the worgen bowled them over as well.

It was when one of the Dreadguard left behind looked up and saw Kestler tugging his blade out of an orc’s neck that the alarm was sent up.

“WORGEN!” the Forsaken yelled, seconds before turning back and Kestler’s blade swung into his face. For extra insurance, he twisted Witchbane, splitting the skull in half. In an instant, it seemed as if the tents and structures remaining simply poured out reinforcements, and the six Alliance troops were suddenly outnumbered three to one at least. Kestler, Parsons, Mores and the last melee trooper carved in, hacking and slashing as they just dove right into the enemy. A troll spear cut down the unknown trooper before Mores buried her sword right in his eye, Parsons struck down a Dreadguard, a Sea Dog and a regular orc warrior before his sword was wrenched out of his hand and he was forced to beat down a tauren with fist, claws and his shield, sprayed red in gore as he finally got the best of the bull man. Kestler, for his part, fought like he possessed two weapons instead of one and four eyes instead of two. He killed a Dreadguard on the right, a troll on the left, picked up a goblin with a flamethrower and tossed him into a cluster, shooting out the fuel tank right before impact, smashed his shield into (oddly) a Pandaren and then took out her legs before stabbing her on the ground. He took a blow from an orc shaman’s mace to the side and he stumbled before suddenly feeling the shock of lightning blow over him. An instant later, with the crack of a rifle, the pain subsided, and he looked over to Temmes and his partner moving between pieces of cover, taking out spellcasters and snipers one after another to ensure there wasn’t a second the raiding party didn’t have cover. Kestler raised his blade in thanks before blasting another Dreadguard with a bolt of energy.

Just when it finally seemed like things were swinging their way, and the Horde guards were beginning to thin out in sprays of blood and ichor, however, the Horde line abruptly parted, and Kestler felt his gut drop. Looming over them, misshapen limbs and rotund bulk and -way- too many weapons, an Abomination loomed, leering down with its ugly face and eyes.

“Kill doggos!” the thing slurped, and Parsons snarled as he squared up, shield up and a stolen axe in hand.

“C’mon then, you damn monstrosity!” he declared, ready for it.

The Abomination simply sniffed, as if offended by Parsons and his paltry threat, before swinging the chain and sinister hook around, smashing into Parsons’ head and sending him flying up into the tower overhead with a -thwak- that was way too meaty, blood and ichor spraying everywhere on impact.

“Parsons!” Mores hollered, turning to the orc she’d been busy stabbing in the guts beforehand, finishing the greenskinned woman off before turning back, online with Kestler, who was circling around the other side, Bulwark raised. “What’s the plan, Sarge?”

“Got any firebombs?”

“Do I fucking look like I have bloody firebombs on me?”

“Then we carve it up.” Kestler glanced back, but Temmes and his partner had already taken up position behind an overturned wagon, busy peppering the Abomination with shots that (at worst) mildly hurt it and keeping the Horde troops behind it suppressed and hidden in the background. This was taking far, far too long. Their target had to realize her camp was under attack. They couldn’t stay here for much longer, fighting this thing. But taking down an Abomination was not like eliminating an orc warrior or bringing down a tauren. Slicing this thing to pieces was literally the only thing they could do.

“Go left!” he hollered, and the two of them were away. Kestler dashed for the legs and gut, and two arms swung down at him. He took on blow on Bulwark, the impact rattling his arm and the plating on it, the impossibly strong golem of flesh battering against him. Kestler swung Witchbane, feeling the blade bite hard into flesh, but the Abomination barely reacted, merely howling and swinging again. The worgen barely managed to sidestep, as that same gore-stained hook that had killed Parsons so casually tore into the earth. Another flash of the enchanted blade, opening an enormous tear along the Abomination’s arm. Now the creature lunged back, screaming in agony and rage (or maybe just rage). A bullet tore at its neck area, spraying some unnatural green liquid, and Mores used these distractions to get up, stabbing under its arm before dashing away, her attention grabbed by a troll with twin axes who decided to get a shot in at the team.

“He’s all yours, Sarge!” she yelled, turning back to fight single-handed against the oncoming press. Cursing, Kestler ducked under another massive blow. Slicing again and again to little avail. True, chunks of flesh were tearing away and more sprays of green were blasting across the grass around him, but it didn’t seem to slow the giant down at all. Another Dreadguard attempting to flank him suddenly took a bullet through the helmet, and Kestler knew they couldn’t keep this up. Four raiders versus an entire camp. They were about to be crushed. He had to it.

So it was that, with a mere shift of his hand, he hit the Abomination with another bolt of energy. The creature howled, staggering as the magical attack flooded over its body, stunning it just for a moment. In that time, Kestler seemed to grow larger, more muscled, blue bolts of lightning coursing across him. An arrow arced in from the Horde warriors on the side, smacking into Kestler’s breastplate. The worgen merely grunted, snapping it lazily with his shield. And then he stomped.

Witchbane had a great reserve of energy. When Kestler had been awarded the blade by Lady Waycrest, it had been with the warning that it reacted differently depending on who wielded the sword. Its enchantment and temperament were fickle things. But Kestler had plenty of time to experiment in Stormsong. So the sword knew how to react to his actions, and when he stomped, energy lanced along his legs, into the ground and over it, striking the Abomination. With that opening, Kestler was suddenly under the two massive arms, his sword cutting into the third with enough force it caught in the bone, and no matter how the creature struggled, it couldn’t pull away as the worgen went into a killing frenzy, smashing the limb again and again and again with Bulwark, the spikes on the shield tearing away blood and matter with every strike. Kestler was coated in the stuff, but he seemed not to care. Another arrow smacked into his back, piercing his cloak, but he ignored the pain. Finally, after a solid minute of struggling against this one limb and deflecting blows from the others, the arm finally came away in a fountain of gore. This the Abomination finally reacted to, stumbling away and howling. But Kestler wasn’t done, as he merely used Bulwark and Witchbane to clamber up the back of the creature. He took another arrow in the back, another bullet, but these didn’t seem to slow him at all. The Abomination looked up, spittle and gore flying from its ugly mouth and face as it realized Kestler stood over its head, energy arcing from Witchbane as he raised the sword higher and higher.

“Fuck doggo!” the Abomination cursed. Kestler merely grunted “Not my type, mate.”

And then he stabbed straight down into the open gash on its neck, wrenching and cutting before his blade found its spine, shearing straight through and pulling away. The Abomination’s head, already terribly abused, suddenly flew away in a literal downpour of green blood. It stumbled, the last pieces of muscle memory trying to remove the worgen from its back before it suddenly slumped, went still, and finally fell over.

There wasn’t the stunned silence befalling the battlefield one might expect, but as Kestler clambered down from the Abomination’s body, the circle of Horde troops that had rushed in to challenge him definitely balked. Mores, thrown down by a tauren warrior, had been spared a second to stab her attacker in a very unfriendly place, stumbling up to watch as Kestler stared two orcs, a Forsaken and a troll down. For a moment, the Horde warriors seemed reluctant to press.

And then the Forsaken stabbed. The blade skittered off Kestler’s plate, but found a sensitive part of his side, slipping past damaged mail into flesh underneath. Instead of hissing and flinching, however, the worgen simply stared down at the blade before he savagely snarled, stabbing the Forsaken back, right in the chest and tugging the woman in, smashing Bulwark into his face once, twice, three times before tearing the sword away. The dead again corpse dropped, and Kestler glared over at the other warriors, his gaze narrowing.




Alina Whitemourn’s day hadn’t been doing so well. While the Bloodfang worgen had been tricky in the past, lately their attempts to break out of Fenris Keep and retake the roads had been especially persistent, and many of her Rangers had ventured into the forest without returning. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the mangy mongrels they killed, the woods just kept spitting up more of them, and not all of them were the savage guerillas of the Bloodfang. Some wore Gilnean uniforms, held weapons and were quite clearly Alliance soldiers. The level of opposition she faced currently was astoundingly out of proportion to the amount of support she received just trying to deal with the cretins.

Beside Alina, Admiral Hatchet leaned against the wall, inspecting her blade as they delivered the message. Her presence here had mostly been in consideration of keeping naval traffic from Kalimdor going, but this had gotten much harder with the Undercity destroyed. Naval traffic running from Zandalar had eased up the tight straits, but Kul Tiran ships had set them back at square one again of the Admiral having too many crew, not enough ships and way too much risk to run them through Alliance infested waters.

Before them, being cast by the Forsaken mage, was an image of Nathanos Blightcaller. The Warchief’s Champion was currently occupied with the campaign in Zandalar, but his ability to multi-task had allowed him to keep track of affairs in Silverpine at the same time. So, as it was, he rubbed at his chin, processing the Dark Ranger’s report from thousands of miles away in Zuldazar.

“So you are confident that you can retake the beach?”

“Indeed Champion,” Aline replied, nodding sharply. “And if I cannot, Regent Lorthamar has sent me confirmation that a group of Dragonhawk riders is en route from Silvermoon. Once they have lost their air superiority, the Alliance forces will be forced to pull their ships back and abandon the landing parties on the beach.”

Champion Blightcaller nodded, still deep in thought, stroking the beard he carefully maintained since his death and rising. “But there is the threat that the Alliance might use this landing spot again with a larger force. Very well. I’ll look into the matter. I might not be able to send any forces from Zandalar, but I am certain Orgrimmar holds a host I can dispatch quickly. Perhaps even from one of our allies in the Broken Isles.”

That had been a diplomatic victory on that account. With both Highmountain and Suramar joining the Horde, the Broken Isles were practically Horde territory, a move that had swept in new recruits and resources by the boatload. It was just a matter of securing the sealanes to move all this new manpower and material back to Kalimdor.

Alina bowed at the waist, stiffly for an elf but still conscious of the fact that she was indeed still dead, as her joints told her.

Admiral Hatchet stepped forward, about to speak when Nathanos raised a hand and said “Admiral, I am working to get you more war galleys as we speak. The Alliance dogs have the sea lanes locked down, and we are often forced into more and more skirmishes over islands of little important simply to try and break through. But aide is coming. You have my-”

Abruptly, the door to the command shed was thrown open, and both Alina and Hatchet whirled around, hands going to weapons as a cluster of bloodied figures stormed in. Hatchet looked to Alina, howling “I thought your Ranger were supposed to handle them!”

To which Alina hissed back “I see far more orc blood on their armor! So I suppose yours did little better!”

They were both interrupted, of course, when the human in front lunged forward, burying her blade into Hatchet’s gut. Alina fired a Dark Arrow, but it simply shot over the armored worgen barreling towards her, though it did kill one of the fusiliers at the back readying a shot. The Dreadguard defending Alina attempted to intervene, but he was simply smashed away off a battered wooden shield into the wall, where he was finished with a blade slicing into the Forsaken’s neck and then tearing the head away savagely.

But as the worgen then turned to Alina and engaged in a short, messy duel with her, the last fusilier and the human female accompanying him, the mage keeping the message up had to break the spell in order to fight, readying a fireball before a bullet suddenly took his skull off.

And in the second before the message broke, right as he spotted the worgen stab Alina in the gut, smash out her teeth with his shield and then lunge forward like a shark, digging his fangs into her neck and shaking his head back and forth, Nathanos knew exactly who had just killed his Dark Ranger commander.

“Kestler…” he hissed, seething as he recognized his would-be assassin from weeks back.

And then the message ended.




“Fourteen.”

When it was all said and done, Kestler, Mores and Temmes stood there in the building, panting as they tried to process everything that had happened. Their last raid member was dead. It was down to the three of them now to get back and inform Wallace that the target was eliminated, or else she very likely might give up the beach and leave them there. They were all a mess, dripping with gore and sweat. Even Temmes had been forced to go in bayonet first when he’d been cornered. But now, having killed their way through to the other side, their uniforms torn and their armor battered, Kestler was the first to recover, reaching up and tugging on the blade in his side. With but a hiss of pain and a spray of blood, he wrenched the broken sword away, tossing it down. Then he reached back, tugging first one, then two and then a third arrow out of his back, his own crimson blood oozing out.

“How...how do you do that?” Mores groaned, watching this show.

Kestler glanced up, huffing.

“Practice…” he replied, tugging off a ruined pauldron. “We still have to deal with that cannon. You heard the message. If those riders get ‘ere, the ships will have to leave.”

“So...what do we do?”

The last broken arrow fell to the floor, blood dripping off its shaft.

“We take down the bloody cannon. Then the damn ships -can- leave. That’s what.”

They were gone again after only a moment’s respite. There was barely time to grab tags and ammunition (Temmes was nearly out, and Dearly’s corpse gave him enough for maybe another ten shots) before they set out again. There was no room for stealth this time. They had to make all speed to cross the Hollow and make it back to the beach. Mores was bleeding from the wounds sustained during the fight back at the post, not possessing Kestler’s nigh invulnerability, wherever it came from. It eventually got so bad that the sergeant paused, huffed and then finally threw her arm over his shoulder, tugging her on the way forward.

“This is how I got through twenty years,” he finally said. Mores glanced up, not comprehending, while Temmes watched the path into the forest ahead carefully, rifle at the ready.

“Come again, Sarge?”

He kept pulling her, on the verge of just throwing her over one shoulder but knowing she needed to move on her own power for now. But he still assisted her as best he could.

“I’ve done this twenty years. Been there for my brothers, helped ‘em along. Took blades for them, arrows, bullets. Fought monsters, seen monstrous things. But at the end, I always seem to be the last one standin’.”

Silence. They were almost to the Hollow now. The distant sounds of battle reached their ears again, cannon fire and the buzz of machinery, the sound of swords smashing into each other. A rapid thumping told of the goblin device, the rattling machinery of shredders on the beach. Guess they were just waiting for the ideal time to strike.

“Why keep comin’ back, then?” Temmes asked, pausing long enough to let them catch up. “It sounds terrible, to stay at somethin’ so awful fer so long.”

“Why are you here?” Kestler asked, an eyebrow arched. Temmes balked a moment, thinking it over before replying “Drafted, sarge.”

“Mmm,” Kestler replied. “And at the end, ye’ll head back to yer family and home, aye?”

“Well, yes. That’s my plan.”

“There’s the difference,” Kestler replied as they crested the final ridge, looking down into the Hollow and the beach beyond. “Both of mine keep gettin’ taken from me.”

Another pause, though this one was from the awe as the trio looked down at the carnage of this final battle. The Horde had reengaged, and without sufficient defenses facing the proper direction Echo Company and the Marines hadn’t been able to whittle the enemy down. It was just a balls-out smashing of one side and the other on the blood-soaked sand, a contest that seemed caught in a draw. Behind them, a line of gryphons waited to take off with the wounded loaded up by priests, while rowboats were taking pitiful numbers of troops away from the beach. As they watched, a trio of gryphons lifted off, each carrying a wounded worgen. But before the creatures could rise more than a few dozen meters and start off across the water, a clatter of shots echoed from the Hollow accompanied by bright flashes, and the three creatures fell to the unforgiving, stormy seas. The rain had gotten even worse, with thunder and lightning flashing, drowning out the screams of the wounded soldiers as they drowned. Those that weren’t torn apart, that is.

And there were fewer and fewer gryphons returning from the ships.

Overhead, the dwarven flying machines struggled to cut through the squall alongside their fellow gryphon riders, engaging the graceful Dragonhawks that didn’t fly so much as sail through the air. If the blood elf aerial forces were here, their land column wasn’t far behind. The cannons sounded again, and bright flashes lit up the sky, chasing after Alliance air forces.

“What do we do, Sarge?” Mores, looking rather pitiful with her face ashen from blood loss and her voice weak from exhaustion, looked up to Kestler, begging them to maybe find them a solution, but for a moment the veteran had nothing, just staring out at the carnage in the middle of the storm.

Finally, he reached over, passing Mores to Temmes. The stunned fusilier took the wounded footman, blinking as he glanced up at their NCO. “Sarge?”

“Get her out of here,” Kestler replied. “Tell Wallace the Ranger is dead. Get everyone out of here.” After a moment, he drew Witchbane, looking at the blade with a forcibly neutral expression, though definitely a quiet moment of some contemplation. “Here...take this.” He reached under his armor, tugging out a folded piece of parchment and handing it to Temmes as well. “And this. The address is on the back.”

Temmes blinked, unsure of how to process this. “Sarge...I don’t understand.”

In response, Kestler stepped over to a nearby orc corpse, shot dead by a nearby fallen fusilier. He reached down, taking the orc’s axe in hand, spinning it to get the weight and grunting in satisfaction. This would do.

“This is how you get through twenty years. You -always- be ready to take that one order that makes sure everyone else lives. Because, at the end of it all...all we have is to go down swingin’. But you do it while savin’ others...that’s the best kinda death, right there.”




The cannon cart was, itself, not heavily defended. The enemy was to their front, after all, and with the column from Silvermoon coming within the hour, their rear was more than secure. A handful of warriors had still been positioned to keep the cannon safe, however. A few trolls, a smattering of Dreadguard and a she-orc who watched over the beach, her arms crossed over her chest as she considered the battle. This mess hadn’t turned out to be worth the price after all. She’d have to go back to the Horde officer and raise her rates.

The cannons thumped again, and a dwarven machine flared up, spinning and screaming before smashing itself the pieces on the rocks. The gunners giggled hysterically before high-fiving, their loader struggling under her arm full of shells as she slammed each round into position, readying the cannons for another volley.

Giska Drakecleaver rolled her eyes, sighing at the little creatures’ antics. This was supposed to have been a quiet posting to a security job, but no one had told her she would be forced to fight in a full battle. That was fine, Giska had no problems with battles, but for that she charged far more. Battles held higher risks and greater chance her equipment would be damaged. She needed to be covered for that, dammit.

She turned to ask someone of one of the trolls standing guard, but was puzzled to find he was slumped over at his post, his skull leaking blood and laying in a sprawled way. Her hands went to her weapons, and she drew her blades, glancing around to find the perpetrator. But the treeline was clear, and the battle raged far below, down on the beach or high in the air. Could this troll have been killed by a sharpshooter? A spare shot?

Then she spotted him. Lurking by one of the kodos was a shadow, a hulking mass of armor and fur. A worgen warrior, in blue and grey plate, his torn tabard clearly telling of him being a Gilnean soldier. She snarled behind her leather mask. She’d been mauled by a worgen before, in the past. She had no love for the beasts, though she did respect their ferocity. This one held a shield, battered and jagged, and an orcish axe in the other hand, clearly looted from the field.

“Alliance scum!” she hollered, trying to get the attention of her teammates, but the cannons chose that moment to thunder, and she realized that was how he had gotten his shot off in the first place. Cursing, she reached down, sheathing her blades to draw a brace of pistols. The worgen finally noticed her, growling and ducking away as she fired once, twice. The worgen leapt onto the cannon, and as the gunners glanced up from their controls and realized what was happening, he buried his axe into one’s head before slamming the other with his shield, knocking both bodies away off the cannon. The loader he picked up by the scruff of her neck, tossing her away towards the munitions stacked nearby. The goblin, who had held on to her shells with all her might, accidentally wound up being the thing that destroyed the guns, as when she landed first the ammuniton she was holding, then the entire dump cooked off. The worgen jumped clear only just in time as explosions claimed the cannon, highlighting his form against the stormy background, cutting down two Dreadguard and a troll, barreling straight towards her.

But Giska stood her ground, tossing her spent pistols aside and drawing the other two, immediately leveling twin shots at the worgen. The warrior stumbled, clearly not expecting an orc with firearms, before he continued his shield charge at her. The mercenary rogue sidestepped, using her greater mobility to duck under the poorly aimed axe swing. One dagger came up, striking into pure plate armor, the other taking a chunk out of the worgen’s exposed side. In retaliation, he smashed her with his shield, snarling as he did so and sending her flying back.

By this time, the other Dreadguard and trolls surged forwards, surrounding the worgen. Try as he might, bloodied and battered by what had clearly been an intense fight, the soldier was overwhelmed by superior numbers, though he did take four more with him.

It was Giska who dealt the final blow, striking at the worgen’s legs, bringing him up and landing on his ass. She would have killed him on the spot if not for the yell of the tauren commander, an older veteran.

“Hold!” She paused, already straddling the worgen’s chest, one blade at his throat and the other raised to strike. The worgen, having lost his axe, shield and helmet, snarled up at her, crimson blood streaming from a bad head wound. Looking at him now, under the storm and pinned by her weight, the Alliance soldier was even more ragged than she’d thought. The mud was stained with his lifeblood, turning the mud into a red-black mess underneath him. His armor was rent and sundered in many places, and he was covered in the gore of battle. Giska glared over at the tauren, venom in her eyes.

“What, Ragetotem?”

“Look at him...he is a veteran warrior. He has many years serving the Alliance.” Sturdek Ragetotem strode up, kicking aside the worgen’s attempt to claw at him. “Besides...he is at his limit. Striking him down in such a pitiful state would not be honorable.”

“To the depths with that!” she spat. “I say kill him before he kills more of us!”

“Are you so abandoned of your race’s principles that you’d throw away even honor, orc?”

“Do not lecture me about honor, tauren!” Giska snapped, rising from her position restraining the worgen. Indeed, he did seem far too gone to move now. As if he’d been running on the last of his energy, and now his momentum had been halted all he could do was lay back in the mud, huffing under the weight of his own armor. “If you want to keep him so he may stab you upon recovery, be it on your head. I’m done with this contract.”




Sergeant Johan Kestler lay in the mud, huffing and spluttering. This was it. He’d sustained too much damage. Taken too many straight on blows, too many arrows. He’d done what he’d always done best, and drawn the attention of the enemy onto him.

He turned his head, past the burning cannon cart, narrowing his eyes as he tried to peer off into the distance. The boom of ship cannons rang out, but he could still see gryphons taking off from the beach as the Wildhammer riders and Ironforge machines held the Dragonhawks at bay. Now, with no cannons to shoot down the wounded, they could get away unharried, and fewer would be loaded into the rowboats.

And so, Sergeant Johan Kestler smiled. And then chuckled. This turned into a full-fledged laugh, a deep guffaw as, feeling his energy return, he ignored the pain wracking his body, slowly raising into a sitting position, feeling for the axe he had taken up.

A nearby pandaren monk, deciding he’d had enough of this, immediately planted a sharp kick into Kestler’s face.

I’m sorry...Lyran.




While Echo company, the Sentinels and the Marines retreated off the beach, and Operation Ember was considered a success, the cost had been enormous. With an eighty-two percent casualty rate, the final losses were high. Out of a ground force of two-hundred and eighty five, only fifty one of them came away without any injuries, and thirty Wildhammer gryphons and fifteen Ironforge pilots were down. Echo company, as predicted, took the worst of the losses.

Out of the original one-hundred and eighty-nine, seventy-six were wounded. At least fifteen of them died of their wounds despite healer intervention. Corporal Mores was one of these.

Fifty-seven Echo company soldiers were dead and left on the beach, only their tags and some supplies recovered.

Of the number remaining, nineteen Gilneans were abandoned at Northtide. Eighteen of them were found tortured to death in various holding camps, dungeons or experimentation labs in the coming months.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
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Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Mon Oct 29, 2018 8:05 am

Southshore
Hillsbrad Foothills
Year 20 ADP
13 years before the War of Thorns


The forest was silent. This wasn’t so odd, as on ordinary nights the Foothills were able to absorb sounds, giving a sense of tranquil peace to the residents of the town. But this was something completely different. Given the fact that over a thousand human and elven soldiers had just been annihilated just over those hills to the north, and the Scourge juggernaut was pouring down towards the south, there should have been a lot more chaos and noise. But the trees were silent. Not even birds sang, nor wolves howled. The Scourge took everything, either consuming it, corrupting it or merely annihilating it.

They were posted a kilometer up the road, the rearguard action. In the harbor, another ship was being loaded with refugees and surviving forces. Lordaeron’s elite troopers, the Stromgarde survivors, dwarven remnants. The Kul Tiran marines held the harbor, the last line of defense. The Gilneas Brigade were spread through the hills, holding roads and killzones, waiting for the wave of the wandering dead to wash over them.

3rd platoon, 5th company, was anchored on the main road. They had been fifty when they’d set out from Gilneas. They also had a lance sergeant per squad, and 2nd Lieutenant Janson in command, astride his mountain charger and leading from the front. Now, they were thirty-one, and Janson was dead. Recently promoted (and now promoted again) Sergeant Johan Kestler was in charge now, and honestly the twenty-four year old NCO felt far out of his league. Better men than him were more qualified. Unfortunately, they were either assigned to the other platoons or dead as well. So, Kestler was all that remained.

He stood on the road, in front of the barricades. They weren’t the professional roadblocks of dedicated combat engineers, or even sandbags that most infantry units could put together to defend from arrows or shot and slow the enemy down. These were hacked down logs, strewn debtris, wrecked mailboxes and benches, destroyed wagons. He’d deployed his men in teams, an inward bending arc. Heavy swordsmen held the edges of the crest, claymores drawn and ready. Rifles were handed to almost every man and woman, and in the center was their single six-pounder cannon. Other platoons were in the hills, ready to meet the charge same as him, but this would be where the worst of it was. Along the road were the remains of abandoned carts, dead animals and hastily buried loved ones, wrecked luggage and slain formerly wandering Scourge. The crows had flocked down here, of course. But even they had smelled the mass of undead pouring towards the town, and cleared out.

Kestler raised his lantern, staring into the darkness beyond. The moon was dark tonight, but he didn’t have to worry about being killed by a sniper. He watched the blackness beyond, tensing. The flood of undead would wash over them soon. Every man in the Brigade was still haunted by that realization, and the fighting retreat of the last few days (couldn’t even have recognized where one fight ended and the next began). Retreat. They had marched out, so proud and capable, ready to come in and be the big damn heroes on Lord Darius Crowley’s orders. Yet for all his talk of doing the right thing, where was Crowley now? Major Tabbes, their commander, was dead. Butchered in one of the first fights, yanked off his horse by a skeletal warrior and torn apart by ghouls. Captain Vasey had been forced to take over simply by his own years in service, though there was talk that Lady Proudmoore might assign a dwarf as a senior officer to help the Brigade through.

Dark times for the once proud, now humbled Gilneans.

“They’re just waiting out there…” said a voice nearby. Kestler turned to the speaker, a seventeen year old recruit, barely any facial hair on his face. One of the Lordaeron conscripts, pressed into service to fight the Scourge. The Gilneas Brigade had received a few to replace their losses, and no one had seen fit to argue. The boy clenched his pike tightly, the second-rate chainmail clinking slightly as he trembled. He looked over to his comrades on the barricade, a handful of Gilneans who said nothing, though their faces told that they were quietly just as terrified, if a little more composed.

Kestler stepped over, and one of the barricade soldiers came to attention while the others merely nodded. In the field salutes were a disruption and a hazard, and they needed to focus on the fight. The conscript glanced up at the platoon leader, a befuddled look leaking through his fear.

“Of course they are,” Kestler replied. “We know they are. They’re getting the numbers together and trying to drive up the fear while they do.” And slowing to attack every single hamlet and farmstead on the way, but he didn’t mention that out loud. “But I think it’s a good thing.”

“You do, Sergeant?” one of the Gilneans asked incredulously. The conscript frowned, trying to comprehend.

Kestler nodded. “The longer the Scourge takes reaching us, the shorter the fight will be. Once the evacuees are on the ships, we can collapse and get out ourselves. The fight will be bloody fierce of course. But we’ve got plenty of time to get set here.” He patted the young man on the shoulder. “We’re not here to win the fight. We’re here to fight another day.”

The conscript, now looking a bit more assured, nodded back. His chain mail no longer clinked and clattered. He’d need that confidence to face what was coming.

The first wave of Scourge was spotted by the scout Kestler had posted ahead. Coming in at full gallop, the woman dismounted, reported quickly, then left to join her fellows. The platoon braced, hands clutching rifles and swords, fingers tightening. The smell came first, that odor of cursed, rotting meat hanging from bones. Some of the victims had been buried before they had turned. Most had been raised in the street or taken as they fled. Kestler exhaled, eyes narrowed as he drew his sword, the shield with Gilneas’ crest before him.

The skeletons, ghouls and wretches came first. A shambling, horrifying mess that sprinted towards the Gilneans. Some carried weapons. Most were almost naked. And some still had flesh dangling from their frames. There were quite a few here, but it was was manageable.

Kestler raised his sword.

“Volley Fire, at orders!” he shouted. As one, most Gilneans took up rifles, checking the chambers and cocking the flintlock weapons. “Aim!” Two dozen weapons were shouldered, lance sergeants hollering for their men to pick their targets carefully. The men from Lordaeron, unfamiliar with rifles, carried crossbows instead, and unfortunately were on their own in terms of initiative. A pair of priests wandered in the rear ranks, maces ready and watching for fallen to heal or raise.

The wave came rattling on. There had to be at least a hundred of them out there, far too many to take if they had been flesh and blood professional soldiers. Of course, no army would have thrown themselves on enemy guns like this.

The cannon boomed, and a geyser of dirt blossomed in the middle of the Scourge ranks. Luckily, they’d sighted correctly on the first shot, a rarity. Chunks of bone came rattling down, pieces or rotting flesh and shattered weapons.

When they closed to around forty feet, Kestler gave the order, dropping his sword arm to point at the oncoming enemy.

“First rank, fire!”

The ranks in the middle fired into the coming rush of the dead, bullets smashing through ribs, skulls and rotting meat. Kestler has given orders to aim for the torso, as it had been discovered decapitation did nothing to stop these monsters. Only thorough dismemberment would put them down. As the center of the Scourge charge tumbled, those soldiers immediately set their rifles down, drawing swords, axes and pikes. They only had a limited amount of shot, after all. They needed to conserve ammunition for the large beasts they couldn’t hope to take up close.

“Second rank, fire!”

More shots, felling even more corpses. But the Scourge kept coming, ignoring the bullets that tore at them. As the center squared up and readied for the fight, Kestler hollered “Skirmishers, Fire!” The riflemen on the flanks cut loose, and more Scourge monsters dropped. By now, any sentient commander would consider pulling back. They’d taken many more targets than shots fired via over penetration, and any other time this would be considered a poor assault. But the Scourge kept coming.

“Skirmishes, Fire at Will!” Kestler commanded, and while the heavy infantry wielded their mighty claymores and hammer, the riflemen and crossbow archers spread out, firing on targets of opportunity where they had a clear shot.

The flanks may have been whittled down, but the entire wave struck at once. Sergeant Kestler was suddenly surrounded by a sea of rotting flesh and bones, and his shield became as much of a weapon as his blade. He blocked and swung, cut and smash as black ichor that had once been blood splashed over him. Bones splintered, flesh rent and he screamed what he wanted to believe was a fierce cry, but knew was actually some half-feral scream laced with barely suppressed panic. A ghoul came into his face, and he stabbed up under the jaw, turning and cleaving another with the back slice. Next to him, a Gilnean soldier fell with three ghouls swarming him, tearing flesh from the fusilier with their rotting teeth even as the man scream. Kestler took a long step, swinging his shield in a vicious backswing, taking one, then stabbing a second and kicking the third before smashing his shield into its skull again.

And suddenly, the wave broke. Kestler’s sword brought down another undead wretch and then there was no more. Around him, similar occupancies carried out, his soldiers putting down the last of the Scourge, stalking through the dead and killing any survivors. Kestler took a headcount of his men in the center and the skirmishers. Twenty seven, now. Not their worst, but this was just the fodder. The serious stuff would be coming now. Still, he did have another option.

“Sergeant!” a Gilnean footman called out, pointing in the distance. “Abominations!”

Kestler turned, feeling his heart drop and freeze at the same time. There they were, at least five of them, mountains of flesh crudely stitched together, extra smaller appendages jutting out all over. With them were the hulking forms of Crypt Fiends, spindly legs and powerful jaws.

“Reform the line!” Kestler shouted, hurriedly striding to every soldier out of position. “Ready up for volley!”

The cannon boomed again, taking a wide swathe out of the next charge. Skirmishers kept firing, picking their targets as they came. This time, the volley was more focused, but only two abominations and a handful of Fiends fell. Kestler had just a second to draw a flare gun, point it into the black sky and fire. Then he was under the wave.

The nightmare raged on around him. For every foe Kestler cut down, two more took its place. He glanced to the side, watching Gilneans nearby falling under the mass. The yellow glow of the priests using their Light powers to fight on was blocked, dimmed and then went out. Gunfire began to wither out, from a strong thunder until it receded to little more than a single shot or two every eon or so. But for Sergeant Johan Kestler, of the Gilnean Army Volunteer Brigade, the fight kept going on and on and on. He dodged under an Abomination’s strike, opened its belly. A Crypt Fiend smashed into his shield, and he hollered as he pushed back, shoving it away. Ghouls and skeletons and other torn undead kept coming before him, and he kept hacking his way out.

This wave broke as well, but to only give the survivors a brief moment of respite, as the third wave was already upon them, Crypt Fiends and Skeletal Knights falling on the paper thin line. Kestler saw a Nerubian grab up a Lordaeron conscript, tearing the man’s head off with powerful jaws before then proceeding to rend the corpse limb from limb. A Skeleton Knight stabbed a Gilnean woman through the torso before yanking its sword out, tossing her corpse back into the sea of living dead.

An Abomination came up before Sergeant Kestler, now alone amongst the tide, and the massive misshapen creature babbled and giggles in sick pleasure at facing this one lone human.

Abruptly, there was a burst of yellow white energy, carving through the mass of undead bodies. Kestler stumbled, holding up his shield to cover his eyes after being in the dark so long.

“Quickly, Sergeant! We must make haste!”

A massive hammer swung down, tearing an entire line of bodies asunder as massive armored hooves flattened and pounded any and all in the way. The Abomination stumbled back, momentarily stunned before the horse reared, and the Silver Hand Knight lunged up, his glowing hammer tearing the creature asunder.

“Forward, Brothers!” he hollered, his warhammer raised over his head. “To battle! For Lordaeron! For the Light!”

Similar cries rang out over the din, and Kestler finally managed to disengage as the mounted Paladin held off the Scourge, stumbling past the knights charging straight into the fight. Up the hill, towards the road back to Southshore. He could barely think, barely breath. If this line faltered, the whole Brigade would have to fall back, compromising the evacuation.

“How many are left?” he shouted to a nearby knight. The woman reigned her armored charger in, pushing up her visor as she looked down at the filthy, gore covered platoon leader.

“Just you and the Marines! The rest of the Gilneas Brigade have pulled back and formed a perimeter around the town! Your platoon held position the longest!”

With that, she was off to the fight, leaving a stunned Kestler behind. Dazed, he glanced around, looking for the remains of his platoon.

Six men wearing Gilneas uniforms stumbled out of the dark. One more wore Lordaeron livery, the conscripted boy from before, his pike snapped and his helmet gone. They were all covered in ichor and red blood, and they all moved like they were drunk, trying to pull each other up.

A Gilnean stumbled over, panting as he choked out “What...what now, sir?”

Kestler turned towards Southshore, even from here in the darkness spotting glowing torchlight in the distance. One evac ship left, and he could already see the flashes of gunfire from here.

“To Kalimdor, then…” he muttered.




The Great Sea

Imprisonment was a new sensation. In his past, Johan had been wounded, left for dead, abandoned by superiors and tortured by the enemy. But he had never been captured before, at least not for long. Certainly not an entire week. But the cell of the great troll warship was built of solid, thick iron bars hardened with monalite, and beyond that he could see at least a dozen Bladeguards, countless deckhands and two Dire Trolls beyond. The Guards were watching the prisoners carefully, and the dire trolls were clearly itching for a fight, shuffling from foot to foot and clenching their fists, snarling at any deck hands who got too close.

The past week, they had been shut away in here, manacled and not allowed to move unless it was to get food, water or relieve themselves in a bucket that was emptied at the end of the day. There were nine of them in here, most of them Alliance soldiers. There were three humans, Kul Tiran sailors from the look of them. A single massive draenei leaned against the bars opposite of Kestler, and the rest were a handful of dwarves and night elves. None of them spoke to each other, both from a combination of weakness sapping their strength and the Bladeguards actively pushing the groups away from each other, likely to prevent a concerted escape attempt. They all wore different uniforms, however, a wide selection of uniforms that told of battles won and lost. The showdown at the Arathi Highlands had left a wake of new casualties, and at least some of these had to be from that battle. Others taken from the shores of Kul Tiras or the Broken Isles, all dumped into this great golden warship and sent off to shores unknown.

He was slumped back against the bars, feeling the hungers pangs. They hadn’t been fed much, just a few scraps tossed in every day or so at each of the prisoners. For someone like him, it hadn’t been enough. His stomach rumbled, and he knew the others had the same sensation.

The wood creaked around them as the ship challenged the waves, a hypnotic and chaotic sort of sensation that, failing to find anything else to pass the time, Kestler had taken to listening to, hearing which planks made what noise under what circumstances. He was no nautical man himself, but he’d been on plenty of ships, and come to grow a basic understanding of their nature over time. Between the hunger, the lack of movement and listening to the ship and the sea, he often found himself drifting off, whether to sleep or just into his own mind he was never entirely sure. He pondered on his life, the circumstances that brought him here, the nature of the world and, most often, his memories. He thought back to Gilneas, before all of this, the war. Back to a different time when all he knew was how to live up to the family dream and break out of a boring military career he’d felt trapped into. His mind took him back to Kalimdor, to Mount Hyjal and Theramore, to coming home. The Worgen attack. The Forsaken Invasion, running back to Kalimdor, continuing the fight there.

Of course, there was another piece of his history that he’d rather not recall from that time.

She wasn’t slender, like many women or even some mages. She’d grown up a refugee, a farmgirl, a person who worked for what she wanted. She was tan, and fit, and she wore garments she’d woven herself, a robe she herself had sewn rather than some excessively flashy summoned or commissioned piece of wizarding gear. Of course, the last time he’d seen her had been four years ago, to settle the divorce papers.

And now, she sat in the cell next to him, staring up at him with a twisted expression, a mix of pity, sarcastic wonder and more than a little hostility.

“Are you just going to ignore me all day?” Tiandre MacAllister finally asked, an elbow on her knee as her hand supported her head.

“Maybe,” Johan replied, though he knew he wasn’t actually speaking. He refused to look at her apparition, though, as if willing her away would somehow work. “Still tryin’ to figure why yer here. Thought ya were s’posed to be dead to haunt someone.”

“I don’t have to be dead to be a psychologically traumatized hallucination,” she replied haughtily, standing and brushing straw out of her short, messy blond hair.

“Great. So yer sayin’ I’m crazy.”

“No, -you- are. I’m in you’re head Johan, what you’re seeing is all coming from your own thoughts.” She smirked down at him, hands on her hips as she took the metaphorical high ground. She’d always been like that. Book smart, so educated about magic and the world. So willing to flaunt her superiority over those around her.

“That’s encouragin’,” he grunted. “So how do I get rid a’ya?”

“So eager to send me off already? What else are you going to do with your time? Keep drooling at the wall? I knew most soldiers were dumb, but this takes you to new lows.”

“Bulkhead.”

She frowned. “What?”

“A wall on a ship is called a ‘bulkhead’.” He chuckled, grinning at his victory as she huffed, crossing her arms just under her breasts.

“Oh don’t fucking start.”

“That’s just like when we was married, Andi. You could rain abuses down on my head all day long, an’ the second I got a good one back in ye’d cry foul.”

“Don’t call me that. You lost any right to that nickname when we divorced.”

“Yer in my head. What’re ye gonna do, hex me with the magic I don’t have?”

She pouted, and for a moment it occured to Johan he’d never tried to imagine her without her arcane powers. She was always so proud of her aptitude with the magical arts he could scarcely pull up a memory of her without bringing her magic to mind. She used it for everything; summoning food, her arcane familiars and sentries, books levitating around her as she referenced them, various magical devices she’d acquired clicking in the background in their house they had shared in Stormwind. Their marriage hadn’t been all bad. They’d gotten through an entire year together, and there had been some points when they had almost made it work, back when they were both trying their best.

It was when they were at their worst things had fallen apart.

“You got quiet? What’s the matter? Not going to take your victory lap?” Tiandre, or at least the vision of, looked concerned. That was how she’d always been. Even when honest and worried, she couldn’t help the bites that escaped her. It had driven him insane for quite a long time until he’d learned how to cope with it. He was certain she’d had to employ similar survival tactics.

“I’m sorry, Andi. We were....we never could have made it work, could we?”

She didn't chastise him the use of her beloved nickname. Just stared down at him with an inscrutable expression. Her piercings glowed with subtle blue arcane power, and he was reminded that this was how things had been in the past too. Understanding and compromise for, at best, a few days before things fell apart again.

“We were forced together. After we had said our goodbyes, we had no intention of coming back. But when I-”

She paused, biting her lip. This part Kestler was certain his mind was improvising from existing memories. She had been so distraught after the miscarriage, he was certain it had broken some part of her, deep inside. Did she think about it today? Probably like he thought of war and Gilneas. But he couldn’t know for certain.

“I saw ‘er, y’know? What she could’a been.”

“I know.” She smiled sadly, tapping her own head with a single finger. “Got your memories, remember. She was....” Another pained pause between them both, carried on for what felt like a year. How long had it been since he’d slipped into this trance? Dream? Whatever it was.

Finally, the vision of Tiandre took a breath. “She was beautiful, Johan. You would have made such a good father. But you have to let that go. Grace never happened. You have to accept that.”

“I do, trust me.”

“Then why did that witch use her against you?”

Abruptly, Johan started, a sharp pain in the back of his skull as he slumped over. He growled out loud, feeling the back of his head as he turned back, looking over his shoulder. The Bladeguard who had smacked him in the head glowered down at him, glaive raised and ready for any sign of defiance. Apparently just a flex of power.

Knowing he was trapped here, with the ghosts of his past and an uncertain future, Johan Kestler just turned back, rubbing his skull as he leaned back against the bars, sighing as his mind once more drifted away, thinking back on the wreck that had been his life.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Fri Nov 02, 2018 3:58 pm

Stonetalon Peak, Kalimdor
12 years ago


“So...this is Kalimdor.”

They’d spent the past two weeks hiking into the mountains, labeled as ‘Stonetalon’ by various scouts who’d apparently picked up the name from the local savage tribes. For their part, the Gilneas Brigade had marched into hills without facing any real opposition, on orders from Lady Proudmoore. Their objective; to secure an outpost as far west as they could in order to allow followup Alliance colonizers. Archmage Manath Magesinger, the only battlemage they had remaining from Gilneas, had effectively taken command of the brigade alongside their new dwarven commander, Príomh Chomanndair Cliffward (assigned by the Lady Proudmoore, much to many Gilneans’ resentment). With such a shake up in command, the Brigade’s effectiveness had been reduced to company level, an issue they desperately needed to recover from.

For now, the Gilnean Fusiliers had finished their march across the wasteland to the seas in the west, stumbling across various tribes of beastmen. Men that were half horse, boars that were half men, bears that walked upright. It didn’t matter. There was no chance the Gilneans were going to let anything get in their way, not here in their new homes, not after all they had faced in Lordaeron. For that reason, they had carved a bloody path through the hills, the echoes of their shots and grenades still ringing in their ears.

5th company was a patchwork group. Made of survivors from the other platoons, it was essentially a group of men and women who had been regrouped into a single handful. To even call them a company was a joke, as they barely had enough men to make one understrength. For that reason, 5th Company command had passed to Captain Vasey. While Vasey had his lieutenants, he’d taken Sergeant Kestler as his senior NCO, given that he had the longest time in service of the surviving enlisted.

Kestler glanced to Vasey, grunting at the captain’s comment.

“Suppose it is. We made pretty good time, all things considered. No borders to worry about, no cities to stop in. Just a straight path across country.”

“But there are roads,” Vasey pointed out. “And ruins.”

Here, Vasey pointed south, towards the great forests they’d scouted out. True, there had been other ruins they’d passed on the way, great marble towers retaken by the elements which spelled out some sort of grand civilization long since disappeared from this land, but the mystery had been many of the areas beaten flat for long expances. Taken simply as landscape, they didn’t make sense until one dug into the dirt. There, often no more than a foot or two under the soil, one would often find ancient flagstones. These were roads, or had been at some point. In some areas, the old stones even still poked through the surface, visible and even walkable for kilometers at times.

“Someone was here long before we were,” Casey concluded, to which Kestler found no reason to disagree, merely shrugging at the declaration.

“Whoever they are, they've long gone.”

The Captain fixed the Sergeant with a pointed glance, to which Kestler raised an eyebrow in question.

“Are they?” Vasey asked. To which Kestler wasn’t sure how to respond.

It was an hour later, as 5th Company was hardening their camp here, that a horseback scout came galloping in over the ridge. The sentries let her through, and she quickly spurred her exhausted mount towards the command tent, where she practically threw herself out of her saddle to stand before Vasey and Kestler.

“Report Corporal,” the captain said, waving a hand for a soldier nearby to take her horse to water. The scout had dismounted and stepped over swiftly, throwing up a hasty salute to Vasey, breathing heavily as she tugged her facemask down.

“Sir! Orcs, in the far pass! 2nd Company’s been routed and Archmage Magesinger’s been killed!”

Kestler felt his blood turn to ice in a moment. From Vasey’s expression, the same thing had crawled into his veins. 2nd Company had been the vanguard, holding forward positions to watch for incoming enemy forces. With their only opposition so far being the half-horses, boarmen and walking bears, they hadn’t expected a full out attack. Now, somehow, orcs were here. Greenskins had followed them to their new home, and the Alliance didn’t have superior numbers anymore.

“Orcs?” Kestler asked stupidly. “How? How’d they get here?”

“No one knows, Sergeant. Commander Cliffward sent messengers to all the other camps while he rallies up 2nd Company’s survivors. Orders are to make a stand in the pass.”

To his credit, Vasey got his wits about him immediately, turning to look back at 5th Company’s camp.

“Lieutenant! Lieutenant Harper!”

Harper hustled over, dropping the crate he’d been carrying to help out the men. Covering the distance in a mad sprint, he was to Vasey in an instant.

“Get the men hustled! Leave the support personnel, get every combat capable man and woman who can hold a sword and get them moving now! We’ve got orcs to kill!”

“Yes sir!”

Vasey turned back, looking the messenger in the eye.

“Which clan?”

Normally, one might blink in surprise at such a question, wondering how or why someone might think that. But these were orcs, and the differences between clans were crucially important. Even Gilnean officers had studied the differences, in case the orcs ever broke their containment and recovered from their apathy. The messenger, however, just looked back at Vasey with a combination of remorse and stoicism.

“Warsong, sir.”

Vasey and Kestler glanced to each other, frowns and worry mirrored in their expressions. Warsong.

They were of in less than a half hour, one-hundred and twenty Gilneans crammed onto the trail. They had few horses and even fewer knights, but the firepower they carried in the form of their rifles and mortars were expected to (hopefully) make up for this. They moved as quick as they could, ignoring formation as they hauled ass double-time over the hills. In heavy armor, their sprints may not have lasted long but they were currently burning on pure adrenaline, charging to the rescue of their comrades. At the front, Vasey and Kestler were leading the charge, sprinting ahead of the other fusiliers to reach the fight first.

Cresting over the final hill, the company got their first look at the fight raging down in the pass below. It was like a scene out of the 2nd War. Orcs and humans were clashing across the field, the lines devolved into a hundred smaller actions. But the orcs had brought allies. Troll headhunters fought with the greenskins as they had before, but these were smaller jungle trolls, not the large and brawny forest Amani (they must have been hired on before the orcs landed in Kalimdor. The thought they might have already been here was terrifying to even consider), and there were plenty of bull-sized direwolves and enormous bats. But the terrifying thing was that the orcs must have picked up some of the natives as mercenaries, because among the orcs’ ranks were enormous bulls that stood upright, clubbing with enormous totems and sledges, cleaving with axes even bigger than what an orc would use, charging like their animal cousins. It was chaos down there, with dozens of combatants smashing into each other and hundreds more pouring in from both sides. Gilneans in platemail and blue uniforms attempted to reform the line while the orcs and their savage allies charged into the fight heedless of their own casualties. Rifles cracked, grenades detonated, wolves snarled and mauled, bats shrieked and all around chaos reigned the fight.

Vasey held up his sword, calling to 5th Company behind him.

“GILNEAS!”

As one, 5th Company raised their blades, calling back “GILNEAS!”

“TO BATTLE AND GLORY, BROTHERS AND SISTERS!” Vasey hollered, raising his shield and leading the mad dash down the hill. Behind him, the Gilneans immediately followed, spreading out to form a wide rank as they came down the slope. At the front, Kestler sprinted alongside his captain, sword and shield up as he gasped for air, his vision through the eyeslots of his helmet showing him only death ahead. Was this what his father had seen in the war? Charging into a fight against these creatures? Johan had seen war against the dead, but here, in this far off land, he was battle the old foe of humanity. How strange that things had come back around full circle…

And then the ranks crashed into the fight, and he had no more time to think.

The first Gilneans in struck true, cutting down the Horde before them. Orcs, trolls, wolves and their new minotaur allies were cleaved, and at first it seemed 5th Company had caught them in the flank. They carved deep, swords and shields flashing and slicing, riflemen up on the ridge peppering the fight with volleys of rifle fire, the deep thumping of mortars and detonation of shells ripping into the Horde. Kestler cut down another orc, another one, a troll, ducked under the wide swipe of a bull-man and stabbed into its guts before tearing his sword back out, taking a mace strike on his shield and beheading the orc that held it. War against the orc was different from the dead. Orcs screamed in their barbaric tongue as they charged into battle, blood spraying across the field. They were just as hard to fell as well, all tough muscle and plate armor, and they knew -how- to fight most importantly. They blocked strikes, muscled past shields and drew attention to those with heavier armor. It wasn’t just enduring the waves anymore, it was -fighting- the foe.

And THIS kind of war was what Kestler had prepared for all his life. THIS was the enemy, the fight he had expected. He REVELED in it, diving into the bloodshed. More orcs died to his blade, another troll, another bull-man. This was the battle he had dreamed of.

A scream cut across the battlefield. Not a scream of pain, or terror, but of absolute, unrelenting ferocity. It was a battlecry. A warcry.

Kestler turned away from his opponent, a female troll with dual knives, to spot Grom Hellscream diving straight into the fight.

It was an amazing sight, as glorious as it was terrifying. He cleaved his opponents apart, Gilneans and their dwarven allies sent flying in bloody chunks as the enormous axe he wielded went to slaughter, cutting into the Brigade ranks. Suddenly, the battle shifted once again. When 5th Company had arrived the fight had been in chaos. The addition of a hundred more human combatants had swung favor back to the Alliance. But once more, with the arrival of the Warsong chieftain, the fight swung back.

Kestler turned back, suddenly remembering his own place in the battle, just in time to catch the dagger strikes on his shield. The she-troll snarled, pushing with all her strength and superior height. Kestler was forced to a knee, feeling his arm beginning to buckle. With rough motion upwards, he stabbed her in the hip, getting just enough clearance to rise, throwing her off the shield and stabbing down, splitting her ribcage apart.

He looked up again, blinking as he tried to clear the blood splatter off his face. Somewhere, he’d lost his helmet, and he wasn’t sure if the blood he wore was red or black, but it was in his eyes. He reached up, smearing it away and finding it to be a mix of both (possibly his own and a bit off an orc he’d killed) and when he looked up again it was to find that the infamous Grom Hellscream had cut his way to the center of the brawl, where he had locked blades with Príomh Chomanndair Cliffward. Axe met hammer as the dwarven commander of the Brigade, the stout dwarf snarling as he smashed Hellscream’s axe aside. A gap appeared to open up in the middle of the battle for their duel, as if both armies realized there was a fight of epic proportions, beyond their own stations. Kestler had finally gotten close enough in the chaos to see for himself, and honestly it was a small wonder that, in his stunned state, some orc hadn’t taken the opportunity to pick him off.

The fight was like two gryphons clashing. A whirlwind of blades and howling from both combatants, as each blow was either expertly deflected or barely avoided. Hellscream’s axe smashed down, but Cliffward’s warhammer took the blow on the haft, a shorter waraxe sweeping around to swipe at Hellscream's torso, though it bit nothing but air. Both warriors screamed, smashing away at each other as metal met metal and blood sprayed.

“Filthy mongrel!” Cliffward screamed, finally loud enough to hear over the din of battle. “I’ll cut ye down like the cur ye are! Every last one ‘a ya!”

“Tough talk from one who’s head will soon decorate the pike at my camp!” Hellscream shot back, shocking Kestler (where did the chieftain pick up Common?). The dwarven Thane merely responded by slamming the war leader back with a swift strike.

Something else hit Kestler from the side at that moment, and he found himself knocked to the dust, looking up to see a jungle troll standing above him, fierce war paint decorating his face with a spear in one hand and a dagger in the other. The Headhunter snarled, cursing in whatever language it was they spoke before stabbing down at the sergeant, who at least had the presence of mind to roll aside. The spearhead pierced the ground just where he’d been, and Kestler rolled back to his feet, shield up and sword ready to strike. The troll stabbed once, twice, three times, and each time Kestler deflected with his shield, looking for an opening with his sword, though his own strikes were knocked aside by the troll’s sinister dagger. They were obviously deadlocked. He needed to change it up, and fast. He broke their deadly faceoff, putting his shoulder behind the shield and charging forward. Surprised, the troll stabbed, but the spearhead glanced off the shield once more. The dagger, however, had better luck. Kestler howled as a sharp pain lanced through his chest, the blade sinking into his collar past the chainmail. But he didn’t stop his mad charge, bringing the troll down with him and stabbing wildly. When his sword caught on something, he released it and took a handle of his shield, slamming it down with full force like a blunt object. The troll attempted to block, but Kestler kept it up, impacting again and again and again and again and eventually the troll’s arm broke under the assault, leading to a broken nose and leading to a spurt of blood as his skull was split. But Kestler didn’t stop there, turning the kite shield around until he brought the point down, right into the misshapen forehead, splashing crimson everywhere as he felt the armor sink in past the bone.

A horn blew in the distance.

The battle as a whole shifted, the fighting lapsing noticeably as human, dwarf, troll and bull man turned, staring up the hill. There, atop a massive black wolf, a hammer writhing with energy (or was that his hand?) was a massive orc, black hair tied into twin braids down his front and clad in thick, black battle plate. Next to him, another bull, this one much larger than his warriors and clad in feather-decorated leathers, held an enormous horn, through which he blew another somber note. The orc in plate raised his hammer, roaring something in their language. Kestler faltered, his shield forgotten as his hand began reaching blindly for his blade. Was this reinforcements? MORE orcs? They’d be crushed at this rate…

But no! They were withdrawing! The back Horde ranks, the ones nearest the orc on the hill, were beginning to disengage, trolls and bulls and orcs moving back up the slope at a dead run. More and more of them, cutting their way out. The fight began again, but now it was the Horde pulling out of the fight, moving towards this armored orc, obviously their leader.

A snarl cut the air, and Kestler turned his head around just to watch as Grom Hellscream, monster that he was, planted his axe dead center in Cliffward’s helmet. In agony, wide-eyed, Kestler watched the axehead sink all the way down until it sat in the dwarf’s clavicle.

And then Hellscream twisted, freeing his axe in a splintering of bone and a spray of red blood and grey brain matter.

Kestler had never met Chomanndair Cliffward. Didn’t know much about him, either. But the fact that his commander had just been cut down as a last thought, like he was just a quick loose end to tie, filled him with fury. The contempt of the blow. The uselessness of it. He took up his sword, now able to simply grab it, and charged forward, yelling at the top of his lungs as he covered the distance in a dash. One of the bulls stepped in front of him, and Kestler merely sidestepped, ripping the troll’s dagger out of his shoulder in a spray of blood and planting it in the bull’s side. While he doubted he did much real damage to something that large, he left the blade as the creature staggered, and he completed his mad rush, frothing at the mouth and screaming. And he wasn’t alone, he knew. He could hear footsteps near him as two more Gilneans and four dwarves bum-rushed Hellscream, weapons raised and bellowing for vengeance.

To his credit, Hellscream took the threat seriously, swinging the massive axe around as he looked upon the superior numbers. It was how he casually swung the axe and beheaded one dwarf, then delivered a powerstroke into a human chest and reached out to catch the other in a massive paw, crushing the woman’s skull brutally before swiftly dealing with the other dwarves...that was the part he seemed to not take seriously. But Kestler had thrown all caution to the wind, and leveled out his charge, zeroing in on Hellscream with all intent.

Except he’d forgotten he didn’t have a shield.

The young sergeant impacted the chieftain like a ram against a stone wall, and while all his momentum was stopped short, he planted the sword into Hellscream’s arm in a fit of fury. The massive orc howled, reaching down to grab for Kestler’s head, but he ducked in time to step back, stabbing again for Grom’s chest. His blade seemed to have been dulled by the fight, however, as it stopped in the orc’s flesh far short of what should have been possible, even sticking at one point.

It was here the chieftain swung a massive fist into Kestler’s view.

The soldier went flying, skidding through the dirt. How he was not trampled by the flow of bodies pushing past, both Horde and Alliance, he didn’t know. But when he was finally able to see again, it was to realize that the orcs were just disappearing over the rise, the Gilneans in pursuit.

A hand reached down, grabbing his shoulder and hauling him up.

“Easy there, Sergeant,” said Captain Vasey, bringing him to a seated position. “Tough son of a bitch, aren’t you?”

“Gotta...gotta go-” Kestler mumbled, trying to speak through two swollen lips and the blood cascading down his throat. His hand lifted lazily, fingers skittering as they tried to find a blade. He noticed his shattered platemail, soaked in both red and black blood. Was that his armor? Where had all that blood come from? He spat again, and a spray of red came out. He couldn’t feel his legs. Come to think of it, he couldn’t feel much and what he could feel was in absolute agony. “Gotta get-”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Vasey replied, and he finally swung into Kestler’s blurry view. “The orcs are withdrawing. I’m just chasing them off. We need to hold this pass, and that means no charging off after greenskins and trolls.”

Vasey looked up, past Kestler’s line of sight, and the sergeant tried to loll his head to the side.

“The...commander….”

Vasey sighed, moving to reposition Kestler’s head.

“Oh, he’s most certainly dead...a shame. I heard he was a great warrior. We were well off with him in command…” A pause as Vasey seemed to do some calculations, trying to figure something out. “I suppose that puts me in charge. Well, until we get orders from Lady Proudmoore.” He didn’t seem pleased by that notion. The captain did look down at Kestler, however, inspecting his shattered sergeant. “Look, relax. We’re going to get a healer to you, okay Sergeant? I need you. You can’t die on me yet. That’s an order.”




Dazar'alor, Zuldazar

He’d seen the city before. Though it was from a ridge overlooking the outskirts of the Great Pyramid, waiting to meet with a spy. His occasional missions in Zandalar had been passed down from Alliance High Command, not Lord Berenal or his officers. It was always the same thing though; recon, meet up with disguised informants, pick off the odd scout and root out infiltrators attempting to find out what the Alliance was up to. He’d been rotated onto Zandalar a half dozen times since coming to Kul Tiras, never for more than a week at a time, as standing orders for the Blades were to focus on Kul Tiras and ex-Gilnean territory. But the impression he’d gotten of the Empire hadn’t been a positive one.

Well, he was up close and into Dazar'alor now. After being pushed through the city’s harbor off the Horde war galley he’d spent the last week cooped up on, chained to a handful of other Alliance POWs. The harbor, full of life and activity, held who knew how many races, far more than its equivalent Boralus did, with sellers hawking their wares in a half dozen languages, troll children running under everyone’s feet, enormous and exotic beasts hauling cargo and war platforms across the square, smells and sounds from the world over and at least a few things Kestler recognized from other worlds.

They’d been paraded by the Horde down to the city’s dungeons, which seemed to have been built into the catacombs of the ancient pyramid. It was here Kestler’s existence had shrunk to for the last week. From one cage to another, passed like a wild animal in chains. Given that one of the dwarves had killed two guards before they cut off his head, the Zandalari certainly had the impression their Alliance ‘guests’ might just be that.

The beatings had started at once, of course. Among the Royal Army, interrogating an enemy involved strapping them to a chair and letting soldier after soldier whale on the unfortunate prisoner. Horde prisoners were extremely rare, so the opportunity to vent frustrations was welcomed. Regardless, the risk of killing them was low, since most Hordies were so tough to just tilt their chin up and keep taking it. For orcs, it was even a bargain, since being killed in such a way apparently kept their honor intact for defying torture.

In Zandalar, beatings took on a different meaning.

He was strapped to a stone frame, this one clearly meant for a troll (and how scary was it that even their females could look him dead in the eye?) and they exposed his belly or his back. To the belly, they hit him with bags of sand as well as their fists. His back was torn open by whips. They’d drawn on him with blades, intricate emblems to their loa. And every time, they healed him up with potions and spells before going right back at it again. The freshly healed flesh ached even more every time they began anew. The overseer of these tortures, acting on authority from the Warchief herself, was a Forsaken with an iron jaw, his mottled hair pulled back into a ponytail and his stature not quite as hunched. He seemed a bit more put together than most undead, his dead skin a much darker hue closer to green. His dress and bearing suggested he was a rogue. He’d not mentioned his name, but he was the one who had asked the questions.

“Your ID tags say you’re part of the 3rd Brigade. The Blades of Greymane...what is old Berenal up to, I wonder?”

“What a catastrophe that operation turned into. All for a Dark Ranger and an Admiral. I don’t buy it. What was your real motive in Silverpine?”

“You seem familiar with the Zandalari. How many times have you been here? I’m sure you know of at least a few Alliance camps in the jungle, yes?”

“How many ships does the Kul Tiran fleet even possess now? Come now, that’s something you would have at least heard in your operations, Sergeant. Odd rank. In Gilneas, it's actually a senior title, isn’t it?”

So it had been for seven days now.

His cell was a cold, dank and moldy pit. The ancient stone around him was etched with old runes, a few suspect stains on the floor that appeared to be blood seeped into the stone. The jungle growth had crawled in through the floor, vines up and down the wall and splitting the ground flagstones, not that the trolls seemed to care, at least. And, oddly, the whole dungeon always seemed tilted to one side…

He had a cellmate.

Her name was Dagna. If she had a surname, she’d never mentioned it. Mostly, she just stayed in the corner, watching the worgen soldier with that burning red gaze.

She was a Dark Iron dwarf.

Kestler knew that the Dark Irons were now officially a full part of the Alliance. But having fought plenty of them, he still held a mighty distrust of them. From Dagna’s gaze, she held similar thoughts about him. That might be because he was a worgen. Many in the Alliance still looked at their savage allies the way Dagna was looking at him. Like he was some wild predator about to lose control.

Not now. Not for Kestler. He simply spat at the ground, looking up at her as he felt his fresh scars ache. She said nothing, simply watching him from her corner. Her skin, once tattooed in dark ink, had many of the same scars Johan’s did. The Zandalari were having too much fun taking advice from the Forsaken on how to torture.

“Today?” she asked quietly, and Kestler huffed before he shook his head. It hadn’t been said, and neither would elaborate at all, but they both asked each other when one was returned to their tiny cell. Did you crack today? He was certain that if his answer was ‘yes’, she’d kill him. Call it intuition. He would do the same, if that was the case. They were both holding out against the interrogation, and one failing would disgrace the other. Dwarves were very much like orcs in that regard, and Kestler wasn’t going to let himself be vulnerable to that kind of weakness. If she would come up with a reason to kill him, he’d have to be sure he did it first.

But not today. After a week straight of torture, neither one had broken down and spilled.

Kestler stood, hobbling over to his own corner. They hadn’t been given anything to sleep on, but he’d done worse than bare stone, and stretched out, groaning as he felt the sting and slap of today’s scars over the ache of those from the other days. While his fur would grow to cover many of those areas, they’d be written into his flesh for a long time. Most of the worst were on his torso. Those could be covered by armor. And while not vain, he worried about the marks already on his face. Without a mirror, he had to feel. Easier to do as a human, but he wasn’t sure he -could-. The constant danger and ache meant his body never relaxed, and as a result he couldn’t focus enough to shift. Sometimes, if he’d been injured to the point of physical weakness he would change to a man again, but the pain was too much. His body was always under assault.

“Ye’ll be okay.”

He turned, half expecting another hallucination like what happened on the ship. But Dagna had simply turned her head to look over at him, staring from the darkness, her gaze burning like some dark beast in the shadows, fixed intently on him.

“What?” he grunted, certain he’d misheard.

“Yer gonna make it,” Dagna said again. “I en’t seen someone make it this long.”

He blinked in confusion. “I’ve only been here a week.”

Dagna nodded. “I know. And that’s longer than anyone else.”

“How bloody long have you been ‘ere?”

Dagna seemed to consider the question carefully, thinking the topic over before she asked “What’s the date?”

“November 2nd,” he replied, to which Dagna’s brows raised from their frown.

“Ah. Then, a month.”

With that grim declaration, Johan laid back down, sighing as he stared at the ceiling, suddenly feeling the breath pulled out of his bluster.

Bloody wonderful.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

User avatar
Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Mon Nov 05, 2018 11:15 pm

”Kestler! Kestler! Sergeant Kestler!”

“Here, Captain!”

“Demon forces are about to overwhelm the night elves! Get to the front gates and hold! I’ve got the ridgeline here!”

“Roger Captain!”

-----------------------

“But sir-”

“Major Vasey, I gave you an order! Take your Gilnean thugs and hold that beach or I will find an officer who will in your place! You are replaceable, Major! Do NOT forget that!”

“Commodore, that’s insane! The Horde’s gonna land on that beach with everythin’ they’ve got! 5th Fleet’s sinkin’ in the bloody harbor, -we’re- next!”

“Major! Have that man whipped for insubordination!”

“I will NOT Commodore! Sergeant Kestler’s right! You’re posting us in a suicidal position! We’re going to be-”

BANG





Gilnean Central Barracks, Soldier Racks
Gilneas City, Military District
8 years ago


Johan’s eyes snapped open, and he bolted upright, his hand scrabbling for his sword. But he wasn’t on Mount Hyjal, watching as demons and Scourge tore up the ground to charge up at the three allied armies, he wasn’t in Theramore as the Gilneas Brigade was crushed between the Horde on the beach and knowing that retreating would just see Kul Tiran guns cut them down.

He was here. In his bed. Home. What a strange sensation, this.

The rest of the brigade slept soundly. It was still early morning, far earlier than most would consider awakening. He peered towards the window, seeing the mists of dawn. It had to be about 4 am given the sunlight. Still, he knew he wouldn’t go back to sleep now. The nightmares wouldn’t let him, he’d been here plenty of times before.

He sighed, sitting up in his bunk as he swung his feet down to the wooden floor, feeling the smooth planks. In minutes, he had dressed in his off-duties, addressed his facial hair and checked the assignment board at the front. Currently, the Brigade was on standing garrison orders, meaning nothing critical was happening. Aside from a standing notice to be ready at all times, most soldiers had the weekends to themselves. He posted his status on the board, slinging his pack full of armor over one shoulder, sword and shield over the other shoulder. He checked in with the front sentry, who merely gave him a curt nod, allowing him to leave. Johan was glad this guard didn’t seem to notice him. He’d rather not deal with his reputation today.

The Military District was less crowded than he remembered it being. Shops and stands should be getting ready for the business today, but there were few people wandering the streets today, fewer stands and the shops seemed almost abandoned with boards barring windows. People muttered in the streets, eyeing each other suspiciously. It was a time of great suspicion. The Northgate Rebellion was waging across the northern countryside. If not for the Royal Army troops garrisoned in the city, there was certain to be riots. No one trusted their neighbors.

He stopped by a bakery for something to eat. He’d missed the chow hall, after all. A quick breakfast might help settle his nerves, and it looked like they’d just opened up. He stepped over to the counter, ringing the bell for service. A middle-aged man, wearing a baker’s apron over his portly belly and his hands already covered in flour for the day’s shift, stepped out from the back, approaching the counter eyeing Johan up warily.

“Out a bit early, ain’t you lad?”

“Eh, I’m used ta it.” Johan’s accent had been noticeably marked by his time traveling. So long around the dwarves and humans from other kingdoms had made a notable change on his manner of speaking, already country enough from many of the men in his brigade. He awkwardly cleared his throat, glancing under the glass counter at several of the loaves on display. “D’ya do sandwiches, mate? Could go for one-”

“Wait, I know you.” Johan felt his heart drop at the baker’s words, and he glanced up at the man, who had become noticeably more hostile. “You’re that Kestler lad, ain’t you? Family lives nearby, grandfather’s a grumpy old codger that bitches and moans all the time!”

After a moment, Johan straightened up, suddenly realizing that no, he wasn’t going to be getting any food here.

“I knew it! Get the hell outta here, you bleedin’ traitor!”

“Sir, I just wanted to get somethin’ t’ eat,” Johan gently protested, but the baker was having none of it.

“I said out! Go back to your Northgate buddies! They’re waitin’ for you, just head outta here! No one wants your kind in the city anyways!”

“Sir!”

No good. Johan could see him fumbling under the tlil counter, and upon realizing the familiar tang of gunpowder, he decided discretion would be the better part of valor. He turned, quickly high-tailing it out of the bakery as more oaths and insults ranged after him about his supposed treason and how Johan was a disgrace and little more than a rebel spy. He finally got out of staring and hearing range when he rounded the corner, ducking into an alley to try and get off the main street. He needed to keep his head down, never know who else might recognize him.

He passed a pair of padfoots, who glanced up at him from the shadows. One held a dagger, the other a pistol. They stepped towards Johan, obviously full of ill-intent, and the young soldier glanced past to see the body of a homeless man behind them, slumped against the wall and clearly dead for some time. Johan paused, his eyes staring at the corpse.

“Lookee what we got here, Arnie. A litt’a soldier boy, caught on his own wiff no’one to ‘ear ‘im. An’ he’s gotta lotta good lookin’ gear.”

The other thief loomed closer, cocking the pistol menacingly.

“What’sa matta, soldier boy? Nevah seen a dead body? Guess all the real soldies’re up north, aye? That why yer still ‘ere, lad?”

Johan didn’t react. He didn’t quite ignore them, but he didn’t look at them for a second, even as they got closer, his gaze still locked on the corpse of the homeless man. Finally,when they were just outside of his arm’s reach, he looked up at the first one, eyes narrowed as he took a deep breath.

“Oi. Did you kill that man?”

The thieves smugly looked to each other, stepping even closer in their arrogance. The one passed his knife back and forth between his hands, licking his lips greedily over broken teeth.

“Mebbe we did. Dozzat make ya angry?”

The second thug, Arnie, stepped closer with his pistol raised, placing the muzzle to Johan’s forhead.

“Don’ matta nuffin’ anyways. No one’s gunna miss ‘im. Now, are ya gonna hand over yer stuff? Or do we gotta dump you in the sewer too?”

Johan’s ice blue eyes flicked from one padfoot to the other, blinking as he processed the situation, calmly making a decision in a split second. A moment passed. Then two. The first thug stepped in even closer, knife raising even higher.

“Ey! Didja ‘ear im, dumbass! Give up the gear an’ yer gold, else we dump you in th’ canals! Stupid meathead soldier boys, struttin’ round like ya own the place! Ye’ll get yers, you an’ that moron Greymane-”

In a flash, Johan’s hands came up, wrenching the pistol out of Arnie’s hand and slamming the goon in the jaw. Muscles toned and conditioned by decades of training and years of war immediately broke the bone, and Arnie stumbled back, tripping over a loose flagstone and taking a tumble into a collection of broken crates nearby. The first thug hesitated, the knife drooping a bit, just enough time for Johan to turn and, in the same eyeblink he’d taken the firearm, put a slug right into the goon’s forehead.

Arnie stared up at him, panic written into every inch of his face as Johan stepped closer, tossing the spent pistol aside. He put a hand up, trying to mumble a plea out from under his broken jaw.

“Wait! ‘Old on! We weren’t gonna kill ya, honest! We jus’ wanted yer stuff, swear on the Light!”

In a single motion, Johan had leaned down, scooping up the fallen dagger and, in a move that was both clinical and brutal, shoved the blade between Arnie’s teeth, stabbing straight through the roof of the mouth. He held onto the blade, staring the thug dead in the eye as he struggled, then went limp, his eyes glassing over as he stared up at his killer. Johan stayed like that, staring the thug in the eye before he stood, letting go of the knife and wiping the blood off his hand with the goon’s jacket. That shot might bring trouble if the City Watch heard, and he’d rather not get a citation or worse for what was arguably an act of justice.

He stepped back onto the main road, heading towards his family’s house, quietly trying to just blend in to the press of people here on the street as the morning rush began.

------------------------------

When he finally reached the Kestler household, the sun had arisen to midmorning. That was fine. It meant his mother would be cleaning up breakfast to start the day. He could eat the leftover without needing to ask her to make another meal. His knuckles rapped on the door, and he could hear the clamor and clatter from inside halt for a moment. He heard the rasp of the latch inside, and the door swung inwards on its hinges to reveal Adrienne Kestler, whose expression was equal parts shocked and delighted.

“Joey!” She stepped forward, wrapping her arms around his neck in a firm embrace, telling him that even in her advanced age she hadn’t lost any of the strength her huntress upbringing had gifted her. “You didn’t tell us you were coming!”
Adrienne’s hair had once been blonde, though now she was certainly going grey. She embraced it, however, continuing to shear her locks short and refusing to use any kinds of dyes like many other women her age. She was proud of her age. The daughter of a soldier (and later huntsman) and sister to several other soldiers, the fact she’d made it this far despite the odds of life was something she delighted in throwing back at the world’s face.

“Morning Ma,” he replied, smiling and pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Spur of the moment thing. Y’always said I was free to stop by.”

“You are, you are! Come in, please. Drop your bags, shuck your boots.”

“I know the house rules, Ma.” He crossed over the threshold, the duffel, shield and sword clattering to the ground next to the door before he reached down, unlacing his already muddy boots. “Got anythin’ left from breakfast, Ma?”

“A bit. Should have come by an hour ago, I still had pancakes. I know they’re your favorite,” Adrienne called back from the kitchen, and Johan could hear the clattering as she retrieved pan and bowl from the sink, preparing to make him more.

“Ma! No, don’t go makin’ more! I’ll be fine with what’s left!”

He was about to stumbled after her in his socks to try and prevent her spending even another minute trying to make him more food, when another voice from the study cut in over his protests.

“Oh, look at that. He wants to make things easier for the family! First time for everything, I suppose!”

Johan stopped, taking a deep breath as he immediately recognized that voice. It had changed several times over the years, from the proud and wise voice of his boyhood to the angry, slurred mess it was today. He turned, stepping over to the door to the parlor.

“Morning, Grandfather.”

“Don’t you ‘morning’ me, you little brat!”

Soren Kestler tipped his head back, taking another slug from his flask, gulping freely. The years and drink had not been kind to him. His back was slumped, his demeanor turned sour. His hair had grown white and greasy, poorly kept as it grew longer and was simply slicked back. His clothes were stained where he’d spilled his drink, and he refused to let Nathan or Adrienne close to cae for him. Here in the parlor, he sat at the regicide table, across from Nathan. Johan’s father merely greeted his son with a glance and a short smile before turning back to the game, smoking his pipe as he carefully considered his next move. Even in his drunken, slovenly state Soren Kestler’s brilliant mind was sharp as a steel trap. That, at least, hadn’t soured with age. Just his attitude.

“What the hell are you doing back here?”

“I live here, Grandfather.”

“And I keep telling you, I will -not- have some disgraceful little coward under my roof!”

“Lay off him, Dad. C’mon, focus on the game,” Nathan grunted, not looking up from the board as he chewed on his pipe thoughtfully, single eye squinted in concentration.

“Lay off? Lay off! He wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me!” He turned back to Johan, spitting in his grandson’s direction. “Kept you outta the stocks, when everything in me said I should let you be hauled off for treason! After you tucked tail and ran back here! Disgraceful!”

Johan sighed, shaking his head and turning away, leaving his grandfather to his alcohol-soaked ranting. It had been this way since he’d returned home to Gilneas. Him being the only Brigade survivor had only hardened the thoughts of many military officers that not only was Johan a traitor for siding with a known radical and venturing off against royal decree, he was a coward for abandoning his comrades in Theramore after the battle and coming back home. His words that there -were- no other Gilnean survivors (they were all dead under the boots of the Horde) fell on deaf ears. The King’s officers had condemned him before he even gave his testimony. Made even worse was the fact that many of those officers’ sons and daughters had gone off with the Brigade as well. They flat out refused to accept that all their heirs were dead and gone.

He ventured back into the dining room, taking a seat at the dining table, his head in his hands, sighing as he considered the situation that kept leaping to mind everytime he came to visit.

Soren Kestler had personally appealed to King Greymane. That alone had kept Johan out of court martial and remaining in the army. Though recently he was starting to regret that. None of his superiors trusted him with a single important, despite his rank and veterancy. They all saw him as either a traitor for abandoning Gilneas or as a coward for running after the Horde had trashed the Kul Tirans. He’d been passed from unit to unit, unwanted and disposed of over and over again. The whole time the Northgate Rebellion had raged, he’d been withheld from the front. No one wanted to take a risk on his loyalties.

Maybe he should stop visiting. Maybe he should just leave again. He got back into Gilneas. He could find another way out again. Find work as a mercenary.

Green fire flashed before his eyes.

His hands slapped down to the tabletop, and he gasped, his heartrate suddenly slamming in his chest. He gulped, clearing his throat as he tried to banish the memory back to that dark corner in his mind he’d previously locked it up in. Weak heart some called it. Others referred to it as shell shock. But the ones who had actually been in the trenches, been under fire, quietly called it something else; the Ghosts of War.

It wasn’t like he suddenly thought he was back in time, of course. But the smell of seawater and fire, like a torch nearby when the sea breeze blew in from the north, still brought to mind the memories of standing on a beach of corpses, the horizon full of nothing but burning green sails and flying red banners.

A cold sensation took his hand, and he glanced up to find his mother looking down at him, concern etched in every wrinkle on her face. She sighed, sadly, looking into his eyes as she leaned forward, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead before bringing her own forehead down to gently touch his. He closed his eyes, sighing softly as the warmth was pressed to his own. It was only after feeling the contrast that he realized how clammy his skin was, how heavy he was still breathing. Her hand was cold from the sink water, but his skin was practically ice under the warmth of her lips and forehead.

“My boy…” she said quietly, her other hand reaching up to take his shoulder, pulling him close.

They were like this for at least a moment or two, a mother trying to soothe her damaged child. Unbeknown to Johan or his mother, Nathan had stepped over, watching from around the doorframe, his single eye blinking as he watched, trying to work up the courage to step in there and embrace his son as well.

But in the end, the veteran simply turned back, moving into the parlor to contain Soren as the older man grumbled and considered his next move.

Finally, Johan rose and moved with his mother to the kitchen. He didn’t complain when she made him fresh pancakes to go with the leftovers.

They were the best damn things he’d ever eaten in his life.

--------------

Johan was out back, chopping firewood, when he heard the cannonfire.

It was distant, and he paused in his axe-swing, unsure if he was hearing correctly. Lots of things sounded like cannons, and his mind might still be playing tricks on him.

It came again. Still, he hesitated. Maybe the Royal Guard were doing gunnery fire. It could be a demonstration, to bolster the people’s faith in their king during this trying time. The Northgate rebels couldn’t have….gotten around….three whole brigades of the King’s Men.

The whistle of shells smashed any of those hopes to pieces. He heard the cannonballs landing in the city, saw one soar past the Kestler household and smash into a tower on top of a nearby residential. That’s when he knew it was war.

He dropped the axe and stormed back into the house, tugging his shirt on hurriedly as he practically dove on his bags. In a flash, his sword, shield and armor were fished out and he was halfway into his mail, trying to get the armor to slide on. He almost fell over, but found himself caught by strong fingers. Looking up, he found his father supporting him silently, watching him with his own single eye. Johan gulped, nodding as he returned to his kit, strapping his gauntlets on. In a moment, he felt a tug at his back, and then another.

“Nathan! For Light’s sake, that’s the wrong strap!”

Abruptly, another tug, firmer this time, helped Johan secure his chestpiece into position, the tabard straightened and secured by sure hands joining his father’s. He didn’t think to question, merely straightened his gauntlets on and turning, sword now affixed to his hip and shield fastened to his backplate. His helmet was still missing, though…

He turned, suddenly finding it pressed into his hands, looking up to find none other than Soren himself offering it, standing straighter than Johan had seen in years. His grandfather held his gaze wordlessly before releasing the helm. Johan turned to his parents, seeing Adrienne and Nathan watching him careful. Neither were happy to see him go. But they fixed him with an intense stare, a mixture of pride and concern.

This was his family.

He nodded, swiftly, before he pulled his helmet on, belting out the door and dashing away through the street.

-------------------

“No, fuck that!”

“Captain, I’m only askin’ ye to let me lead my platoon!”

“They’re not your platoon, traitor!” Captain Eckstein hissed, stepping closer and jabbing her finger right up into Kestler’s face. “They’re -my- men, and I’ll be damned if -you’ll- be the one to lead them in!”

Kestler took a step back, wavering. He was tempted to pull his helmet on and follow the captain’s orders, go take up position at the south gate, despite it not only not being his unit but also an unlikely place for the rebels to go after. Perfect place for them to dump him.

But then he rallied, staring her in the eye so intensely than even venomous Eckstein blinked in surprise.

“With all due respect, ma’am! I’m the most experienced man ye’ve got, an’ the rebels are knockin’ at our front door, literally! You gotta better suggestion, lemme hear it!”

Another cannonball whistled overhead, smashing into a Market District house, bringing it crumbling down. The Royal Guard and City Watch were being slowly pushed back by the rebels. All brigades in Gilneas City were being deployed to contain the threat, but they’d make it to the Military District for sure before they could be stopped. In the meantime, the fighting was laying everything to waste, Royal Army grenades and mortars demolishing whole sections of street at a time while rebel cannons and sappers blew new routes through buildings to outflank the Army positions. Cavalry dueled in the streets, and the house-to-house urban combat had already taken hundreds of civilian lives.

Eckstein huffed, clearly not happy with the situation but also understanding she had no choice. She glanced back at Kestler with a wary eye, hostility radiating off her in waves. But also desperation.

Finally, she relented.

“Lieutenant!” One of her officers nearby hustled across the small square turned command post, pulling his helmet off to receive his orders.

“Yes ma’am?”

“Take Sergeant Kestler out and hold the front with him! He wants to join his men so bad, he can take the fighting where its at its worst.” She glowered at him, but Johan knew he’d won. “If he steps even -one- foot out of line...cut it off.”

“With pleasure ma’am,” the lieutenant replied, pulling his helmet on and jerking his head for Kestler to follow.



Dazar'alor, Zuldazar

He was visited in his cell.

He wasn’t sure if they were dream, hallucinations or spirits. Maybe he really was going mad. Dagna never said anything, but that woman seemed to have the willpower of an ancient. The torture they both endured left little chance for real physical exercise, but occasionally he would wake to see her doing exercises on her side of the cell, something he certainly should be doing as well. But aside from that and the guards popping in every few hours for one reason or another, the only movement were the specters of his past that came to visit him.

The first was Major Vasey.

Kestler remembered the day he’d been executed. Hell, the Major still had the bullet hole in his head from where the Kul Tiran Commodore had shot him before he’d placed a Kul Tiran Marine officer in charge of the Brigade. As if the door had just been opened for him Major Vasey walked in, smiling reassuringly as he sat next to Kestler, his armor rattling in the ethereal calm and quiet that the tomblike dungeon had become.

“Well, you look a bit troubled, Sergeant.”

“Hey Major,” Kestler replied, too tired to be astonished. He glanced over at Dagna, but the woman didn’t budge from her sleep. “You’re not much better off.”

“True,” Vasey replied, reaching up and delicately touching the bullet hole in his forehead. “Blimey, you say one word of protest to those lads and they just snap on you.”

“He’s dead, if it makes you feel better.”

“A bit. But I know better than to celebrate the death of a Kul Tiran Commodore.” Vasey glanced back down at Kestler, concern in his eyes. “You’re not doing so well, old friend.”

“Are you in my bleedin’ ‘ead too?”

“Might be. Would that make you feel better?”

Kestler honestly thought that over for a moment, eyes squinting as he tried to consider the alternative to his theory. The thought that Vasey’s ghost had travelled across an ocean to come and follow him was terrifying to behold, but why was that? He hadn’t tried to do anything to harm his former sergeant, and it made sense in a way; so far as Kestler knew, there were no more members of the Brigade left. He was the last one, and any Kul Tirans involved were long dead, sunk in Theramore’s harbor. And Theramore itself was wiped off the map.

Was that why Vasey was here?

Carefully, he asked “What do you know?”

Vasey shrugged, his expression completely unperplexed aside from the fact that, once again, he had a bullet hole in his forehead.

“What you know, of course. If I said something you didn’t know, how would you know it was true or false?”

“That...makes way too much bloody sense.”

“Stop trying to figure it out, Sergeant. Just know that, whatever you decide, whether you think I’m spirit or vision of insanity, I’ve always been watching out for you.”

Kestler chuckled, groaning at the pain. “That’s right creepy, sir.”

“Shut up and get some rest, Sergeant.”

As if responding to the Major’s order, Kestler’s eyes slowly slid shut, and he dropped off into his first honest rest since he’d gotten here. When he next opened his eyes, Vasey was gone, and a Bladeguard was reaching down to haul him off to the next session.

---------------------------

When he was next thrown into the cell, his father was waiting for him.

Nathan Kestler looked down on his son from a sitting position, his face almost unreadable. The eyepatch over his right eye mirrored the damage done to Johan’s left. Today, one of the guards had screwed up, cutting too close to the eye socket. The blade had slipped in, and the eye was pierced, rendered useless. The Forsaken had withheld healing potions.

“Leave it be,” the animated corpse smirked. “He only needs one, and this will make sure that if he goes back to the Alliance he’ll never be as good an asset again.”

Johan flipped over, groaning as he felt the scars and aches along his back fade compared to the pain in his head. His eye socket was in agony, and the blackness that had robbed him of half his vision was a new an unwelcome sensation.

“Today?” Dagna asked from the shadows. Johan shook his head. Dagna fell silent.

His father stood, stepping into his sight, looking down on his son. He held the same stoicism as before, sighing in his own remorse as he saw what had befallen the surviving member of the family.

“I’m so sorry, lad,” Nathan finally said. He shook his head slowly, sighing as he moved to help Johan up, but his hands passed straight through the worgen’s shoulder. He hissed, rolling up and staggering to his corner, collapsing against the stone, the scent of blood strong in the air and, he was certain, splashing against the wall and floor. “I never wanted any of this for you...not after what I went through.”

“Bit late for that one Pa,” Johan bit back, struggling to sit upright against the stones. Nathan knelt down next to him, and the younger Kestler could see that he wore his old military dress uniform, immaculate and spotless in the gloom. He’d seen his father come home so many times in that uniform since he could remember, a little boy running to the door to be scooped up by his father as his mother hummed in the dining room, his grandfather quietly coming down the stairs to see his son back home from another rotation. What a family dynamic that had been.

Until the day his father had stepped in wearing those blues and that eyepatch. Johan had known something had happened, and that his father was in hospital for some time, but it was far away, in the distant land of Stromgarde. When he’d come home, he had changed. War had tempered his patriotism and talk of glory. But his advice in training Johan hadn’t faltered. If anything, it had doubled. He pushed his son harder, faster, ever onwards towards becoming the soldier he was one day meant to be.

“You didn’t want this for me, why d’ya put me through all that? Y’know what other kids got? Toys. Sweets. Playtime. What’d I get? Combat drills, training weapons and physical training….at least Ma -tried- to make things normal for me.”

Nathan’s head snapped around, his face hardening, and Johan was reminded that this was -the- man who had first inspired him to take up the sword and shield for king and country. Colour Sergeant Nathan Kestler had led the charge, time and again, just like his father and his father before him. He was a veteran too, as much as Johan was. He’d fought the original Old Horde, corrupted by demonic fel magic and bent by murderous evil. Nathan stood, eye narrowing at his son and Johan was suddenly reminded of other ways he’d looked up to his father...literally. The man had been a bear in life, and as a spectral vision now was just short of haunting.

“I got you -ready-. Your grandfather was going to ship you off to the meatgrinder for his own reputation, no matter what! Keep the line of Kestler military glory going. You remember what he was like at the end! I saw how what he said put that spark in your eye, the same spark I had in -my- eye when he was describing it all to -me-! I thought I was going off for honor! Glory! And what happened to -me-, Johan?” Here, he reached up, tearing off the eyepatch to revealed the gnarled, twisted scar beneath surrounded the open, empty socket. After he had come home, Nathan had purposefully grown his hair long, using it to shroud his face, covering up what the patch couldn’t.

But Johan had seen where the orc axe had bit into his father’s skull, if only a handful of times. The chunk of flesh and bone missing from the side of his head. It hadn’t just taken the eye, it had opened the socket. Another inch to the left and Nathan Kestler wouldn’t have come home. Here, he -did- look like a haunting wraith, and Johan felt himself shrivelling back, physical or not, nightmare or not. This was real enough to him, and seeing his father this way sent a fear rolling down his spine like nothing else he’d ever felt in his life.

“-I- was the first your grandfather sacrificed! -I- marched into the crucible against the Horde! Against an enemy we had no idea how to fight! -I- faced the orcs, and the trolls, and the ogres and goblins! -I- watched my brothers and the men of seven other kingdoms get gutted, ripped apart and devoured by an enemy from beyond our world! And when I came back home, your GRANDFATHER was already talking about sending YOU off to face the same hell I saw! Nothing I said made a difference to him! All he cared for was being able to stand around with the Peer and pretend that because his family had military legacy and glory, he was their equal in the eyes of honor! HONOR, Johan. That’s all he cared about! And when I saw that I couldn’t get him to back off...I couldn’t stop him.”

Here, the spectre of Nathan seemed to recede, shrinking back to his physical limitations in life. His harrowing expression faded, and he reaffixed the eyepatch, smoothing it over and patting it as Johan had seen him do a thousand times.

“...Johan. I did what I did to prepare you. I gave you the best training I could. Your mother taught you how to shoot...not like I could, with this bloody pit in my head.” He thumbed towards his empty socket, chuckling grimly for a moment. “I got whoever I could. Matthias, Reginald, Anita. They all served with me. They all saw what I saw. They came back and we swore to make sure the next generation of Gilneas’ sons and daughters were ready for the next war. We all knew it was coming...no denying that. So...I gave you the tools you needed. You learned how to fight with just about any weapon out there. You learned to fight an enemy twice your size. You learned to shoot like a champion. Hunted and tracked in the Blackwald with no fear. I made you strong, tough and hard.”

He reached down, placing a clenched fist over his heart, true sorrow in his eye now.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a normal childhood, lad. But -everything- I did...was to make sure that you were ready when the war came. I didn’t -want- to send you. But I knew if you went, you needed to be the best soldier I could make you. I needed to make you….you needed to be -better- than me.” Here, the father smiled down at the son, a single tear slipping down his spectral cheek, so real in Johan’s mind he swore he could smell the salt in the water. “And you did. You became -so- much more, Johan. I’m sorry you had to go, and see the things I saw, and worse. I’m sorry for what the Army did after you came back. I’m sorry for what your wife did-”

Here, Nathan’s expression darkened, and Johan swore he could almost see another hint of whatever kind of wraith he had become just a bit ago. But the moment passed, and Nathan leaned down, placing his hand as close as he could to Johan’s face.

“I loved you so much, lad. And -that- is why I put you through all that. I’m not saying it was right. I could have fought your grandfather on it...hell, I did. But I knew I’d never get through to you. Not til you’d seen it. And when you had, and you came back, I knew the damage was worse than anything I could fix…”

“Pa…” Johan muttered, feeling his speech muddled by both a mangled jaw and feeling so tongue-tied and sick to his stomach. He remembered, so long ago, how distant his father had been. He’d always managed to be -somewhere- else, whenever Johan was home for leave. Mealtimes Nathan had always been curt and quiet, as if caught in his thoughts, leaving as soon as dinner was done.

“Can you forgive me, lad?”

For a moment, Johan was silent, looking the image of his father in the eye. Their mangled eyes matched up. He was like his father after all, sent off to fight an enemy he hadn’t been ready for, and spat back out by the grinder of war. And now, he almost wished this wasn’t a hallucination, that he wasn’t going absolutely insane just so he could know that his father’s ghost was watching over him. He chortled, weakly, with no heart.

“Coulda tried, Pa. Coulda come an’ talked to me.”

“Think I don’t regret that? I tried a thousand times to be there for you when you needed me, and a thousand times I lost my nerve and failed...what you had been through, what you’d seen, was leagues beyond what I had. I didn’t...I couldn’t relate. And I missed my chance.”

-------------------------------------------

The younger Kestler awoke to a dark cell, his hand halfway up, reaching for his father. He looked around, realizing it must have been nighttime. The jungle outside, so audible in the still air even so far down here, echoed in the tight cell. He could see Dagna’s outline as the dwarven woman did pushups in the middle of the cell. She paused, and he could see the orange glow of her eyes as she fixed him with a stare. Once again, her expression was impossible to decipher. After a moment, she went back to her pushups.

Kestler’s hand fell, and he sighed as he tipped his head back as well. Just a dream, then. He was having so much trouble figuring out what was real and what was a product of the torture and his own damaged mind. He wished he’d gotten some closure with his father, but Nathan Kestler had died with the rest of his family in Gilneas City. Whether to the feral worgen or to the Forsaken invaders he didn’t know, but in seven years of searching he’d turned up no hint of any of them. Thousands had died during the dual invasions and thousands more during the occupation. Hundreds had died during the evacuation, and hundreds had gone off on their own to try and resettle elsewhere in Azeroth. After all this time, he knew they were gone. And he’d never gotten to finish things with any of them.

His eye opened, staring at the cieling. Once more, his vision was halved. His eyelid blinked over a ruined eyeball, his face still ached.

And for one agonizing second, he was almost convinced he could smell saltwater.

Almost.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Tue Nov 06, 2018 1:20 pm

Stormwind Hospital Ward
5 years ago


This was not something he was ready for.

It wasn’t often Johan Kestler was in human form. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the shape he’d been born, but being a worgen gave him a sense of power and mastery in combat. Being the Wolf also helped keep the nightmares away. It made him feel safe. Like he could take on the Burning Legion alone.

He couldn’t take this on, though.

He stared down through the window at the yard. Fittingly, it was raining today. His blunt fingernails dug into the windowframe as his weaker human eyes flitted across the plaza, watching nurses, priests and orderlies rushing back and forth through the wet, hurrying to new cases, staggering off to get some sleep or helping patients out of the rain. Races of all kinds were admitted here, and the Hospital Ward had grown enormously with the Alliance, and after the destruction of Theramore last year most of the operations in southern Kalimdor had to be evacuated to Darnassus and Exodar or back across the sea to the Eastern Kingdoms.

Theramore…another tragedy he hadn’t been there for. He’d helped build that city with his own two hands, his sweat and blood. He’d watched his brothers and sisters die in that city. Now it was gone. Wiped off the map. And where had he been? On a troop convoy heading there. Always too late.

He heard a shift behind him, and he turned, watching Tiandre come back to consciousness. She still had a bit of the belly left, that wouldn’t go away for a while. But it wasn’t as large as it had been. Tiandre’s eyes fluttered open, and she weakly tried to take in her surroundings. The hospital bed had elevated her upper torso for her own safety, and Johan stepped forward, checking the pins for the hundredth time before he pulled up a chair next to the bed. Her eyes rolled over to him painfully, and he could see the redness around her irises, the trails of tears staining her cheeks. He reached out, taking her hand and squeezing. Her fingers weakly twitched, trying to squeeze back.

For a while, neither of them said anything. A nurse poked her head in, only to run off when Johan glared at her, feeling a growl building in his throat. They went undisturbed for some time.

Finally, Tiandre had gathered enough of her strength. She cleared her throat, nodding towards the pitcher of water, which Johan gladly poured a glass out of, gently holding it to her lips. At first, she glady drunk. But after a moment she reached up, insistently taking the glass in her own weak fingers and finishing her drink before setting the glass back down gently.

“When did you get here?” she rasped. Johan shrugged, staring at some invisible speck on the sheets.

“Last night. You were asleep. I sat watch. The druid said you were almost lost.”

“Mmm,” she replied, nodding weakly. “Did they-”

“Yeah,” he said, stopping her from having to say it. “They told me.”

Another pause. Somehow, this one felt even more charged than the last one. It was odd, seeing such a fierce-mouthed individual like Tiandre so weak and vulnerable. Her piercings weakly pulsed with blue power, and her arcane familiar was nowhere to be seen, mostly likely faded when she nearly died. She was such a strong personality he could almost fool himself into thinking she didn’t -have- moments of weakness. But now, of all times, was certainly the time.

Finally, she said the words he dreaded.

“You weren’t...here.”

His heart sank. As harsh as it was, she was absolutely right. He thought over his next words carefully, trying to be as selective as possible.

“No. I was...fightin’ in the Valley of the Four Winds. Soon as I got back to camp, they passed me the message, and I hitched a griffon back to the Jade Forest. Caught the first mage I found and got him to port me back here. But er...when I got here it was-”

“Too late.” Her voice was still shakey, but firmer now. Firm enough to cast down disappointment. Hurt. Spite. She tugged her hand out of his own, and he didn’t fight it. “You were too late, Johan. I needed you and you weren’t here. Again.”

“Andi-”

“No. Do you know where I was when it happened? In the damn study. All of a sudden, I couldn’t walk! I couldn’t cast! Do you know how hard it is for a seven-month pregnant woman to -crawl- over to the front door and scream for help? There’s-” Here, she gulped, her face somehow even paler as a choked sob interrupted her. “There’s -blood- all over the place, Johan! I fucking -miscarried- and -I- had to help myself! You weren’t FUCKING there!”

“Andi, I was on deployment!” he protested, but he knew she was right. “Light’s sake, Pandaria en’t safe! Yer as close as I can get ye! I spend every leave, every holiday, every break I can back ‘ere with ye!”

“You’re the one who chose not to retire, Johan!” she snapped. “Fuck’s sake, I followed you across Kalimdor when you were bouncing from place to place! I evacuated Theramore and you were still half the world away!” Her fury seemed to trump her exhaustion and pain, and she sat up, livid and vicious again, the dark spots around her eyes almost appearing to sink further into her skull, spittle flying from her lips. “I almost -died- Johan! Fuck, I think I -did- die for a second! And we lost-”

Another pause, as she almost seemed to choke on her words, stammering and stuttering to try and come up with something more to say. This much, he weathered, staring her in the eye with a neutral expression. Because, at least on this point, she was right. He was gone a lot of the time. It didn’t matter that he tried to come back as often as he could. She had needed him at a crucial time, and he hadn’t been there. And now, as a result, tragedy had struck.

When she seemed to deflate, he cleared his throat, trying to will himself to speak again, his words thick and forced.

“They told me...it was a girl.”

Tiandre stared at him, gaping in wonder, agony and astonishment. They stayed like that for a minute before she suddenly broke down, sobbing and howling. He reached out, and she embraced him, burying her face in his shoulder, drowning out her cries. He squeezed her back, biting his lip as he tried not to let his own sadness overtake him as well.

He tasted blood from the effort.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Fri Nov 09, 2018 1:39 am

Coast of Kun-Lai Summit
Pandaria
5 years ago


“C’mon! Hurry up!”

The dawn light was beginning to break on the horizon, and the pirate raider was determined to push off before full visibility was possible. Between the resurgent Horde Navy and the Alliance Air Forces in the region, there was every possibility they’d be nailed before they got too far away. As such, the crew were loading the stolen cargo aboard the ship as quick as they could, the ever present danger all too real even without the high elf captain breathing down their necks. Gnolls, humans, orcs and even a few tauren passed crates full of stolen jade and gold, artifacts plundered from temples, scrolls and relics looted from ruined villages and weapons carefully taken off slain Horde, Alliance and Shado-Pan soldiers. They’d lost some of their own number of course, but with the Sha rampaging across the region, the three armies seemed far too preoccupied to hunt for the looters.

The other cargo, however, was sure to draw attention.

Civilian refugees, stolen from their shattered homes in midnight raids and off the roads as they tried to run from the war that had gripped their homeland, were already safely ensconced in the hold of the ship. No one was likely to come looking hard for them, either. Not with far greater threats to address. The Padaren captives were crammed into the most secure compartment first, guarded at all times by two of their best, standing there looking quite threatening with cutlass and pistol in hand, ready to rough up any who caused trouble.

The cargo nearly loaded, and sunrise now a true reality, the pirates were just about ready to be off and away. The helmsman and quartermaster quickly ascended the steps to the helm, talking quickly about the best route to avoid patrols. They’d leave it up to their captain, of course.

If they could find her.

The aft deck around the helm was empty. Captain Avarosa was -supposed- to be up here, preparing the ship to leave. The quartermaster blinked, squinting his orcish eyes in the morning light. Where was she? The crew was nearly finished, they had to leave.

“Uh...Mister Grak?” asked the helmsman, a former Wildhammer dwarf, reaching for his mace as his eyes locked on the deck. Grak glanced at the helmsman, annoyed at the interruption in his search, before his eyes followed the dwarf’s gaze, and he froze. There, splashed across the planks, was a puddle of bright red blood.

“Sound the alarm!” he snapped, turning to rush towards the bell. But the dwarf was suddenly not alone, and Grak found himself staring a predatory, glowing blue gaze in the eye. With a flash of jaws, all went black.

Sergeant Johan Kestler dropped both bodies, knowing he had maybe one or two more glances his way from the rest of the crew to make his move. So, he took advantage of the surprise he still had, drawing the flare gun from his belt and firing it straight into the air.

The red star flew over his head and, in the dim dawn light, looked almost like a separate sun. The pirates, as expected, all paused, staring up at the red flare as it blazed overhead.

He didn’t need to say a word. Immediately, gunfire lashed out from the foliage on the shore, dropping pirates still loading crates. On the deck, the scoundrels immediately reacted, drawing axes and cutlasses, moving to gunracks and readying cannons to fight back. But now there were worgen climbing over the gunwhales, felling clusters of astonished pirates in seconds with wide swipes of their weapons.

Kestler landed on the gundeck, bringing the halberd in his grip down on a tauren’s head in a fierce chop before spinning, catching a human with the next stab. A dark iron dwarf hollered as he rushed towards the worgen platoon NCO, only for Kestler to yank the halberd clear with a fountain of blood, skillfully deflecting the strike and spinning it around for another chop. This one lodged a bit too deep, so he abandoned the polearm as an orc rushed him from the side, tackling him against the gunwhale, knocking the breath out of the worgen. After several blows from a green, ham-sized fist, a clawed hand caught the orc’s fist, squeezing and drawing black blood before twisting the massive arm away. The orc roared aloud before glancing up, his blood turning to ice as he got a look at the expression of sheer murder under the helmet in front of him.

“Parasite,” Kestler snarled, drawing the sword at his waist and burying it right into the orc’s guts. Even before the greenskin could choke out in pain, he was abruptly flipped over the gunwhale, landing in the sea below. Weighed down by his own weakness and agony and bleeding out, he lasted less than a minute.

It didn’t last much longer than that. The worgen raiders cleared the deck of all resistance, those who were captured or surrendered forced to their knees on the deck, hands on their heads. Kestler, armor covered in red and black blood once more, lumbered up in front of the captives, looking down at the six of them as he tucked his smoking pistol away. He turned to his second in command, sniffing the air.

“This all a’ them, Lance?”

Lance Sergeant Emily Marston nodded, wiping a smear of blood out of her face.

“Aye, Sarge. The rest are dead as Arthas.”

Kestler leaned down, glaring at the goblin shivering before him, noting that this particular gremlin wore a tattoo on his chest of a gear, wrench and bomb. The emblem of the Steamwheedle Cartel. He snorted, rather disappointed. He’d hoped to bring Eckstein back proof that these raiders were being funded by the Horde, but it appeared that they were indeed completely freelance, even worse. Just more greedy bastards using people’s suffering to get rich.

“Where are the captives?” he growled, voice low and gravelly, hackles raised to expose his fangs, so close his snout almost poked against the goblin’s.

He immediately smelled urine. The detestable little creature merely raised a shaking hand, pointing at the door leading down into the underdecks.

Kestler stood, grunting, before he stabbed the sword down.
---------------------------------------
Valley of Strength, Orgrimmar
Durotar
5 years ago


Kestler never actually thought he’d be here, in the very capital of the Horde. Oh, he’d dreamed of it. But that was more of ripping out its heart and dashing Orgrimmar from existence with cannon fire and explosives, definitely involving battleships, flyers and siege tanks. Now, however, he was here to take down a tyrant and -restore- the Horde. While the thought sickened him, he could at least live with it. For now.

A Kor’kron charged him, bellowing in bloody fury, and he swung his shield to deflect the strike, burying his sword into his enemies’ exposed side, between armor plates. Another axe swung towards him, and this one he deflected with his sword, his shield acting as a blunt object to smash the next Kor’kron’s helmet in, black blood spurting out between the plates.

The Valley of Strength was a chaotic free-for-all, Alliance forces storming the Kor’kron ramparts while cannon fire and mortars boomed all around, gunfire cracking from both sides as Gilnean and dwarven sharpshooters dueled with Kor’kron Deadeyes, archers from both factions releasing a storm of arrows. Darkspear Rebellion forces were engaged as well, trolls headhunters and tauren braves crashing into their former allies.

“Hold the line!” shouted a Stormwind officer nearby. “The Champions are pushing towards Skullcleaver’s position!”

A Dragonmaw rider swooped close, and Kestler ducked under the proto-drake’s massive red maw, striking upwards as the beast snapped up a Sentinel and her sabrecat behind him. His wild swipe struck true, fortunately. The beast spiralled down, crashing to the ground and thrashing with kicking legs and spasming wings. A draenei paladin brought his hammer down on the monster’s head, and a troll stabbed the dazed Dragonmaw rider through the throat with a spear. The Sentinel staggered to her feet, wounded but much better off than her cat for certain.

Another heavily armored Kor’kron rushed Kestler, but bounced off the worgen’s shield. Stunned, the orc barely raised his head before an Alliance issued-sword stabbed into his vision slit. The worgen glanced up, two more warriors rushing him out of the maelstrom of violence, and drew Glory with his shield hand, thumbing back the flint and taking only a second to aim before pulling the trigger, blowing one Kor’kron’s brains all over the dusty ground. The second moved to close the distance, a bloodcurdling war cry emanating from her fanged mouth before a massive hammer swung into Kestler’s view, practically blasting the she-orc away into the crowd again. Kestler faltered, bringing his shield up reflexively to face the tauren warrior who seemed to do the same, his own shield bearing the emblem of the Horde and several other racial icons painted onto additional plating. For a moment, he and the brave stared each other down, both of them in heavy plate armor, ready and waiting for the other to act.

After a moment, however, the tauren lowered his shield and hammer. Kestler, warily, did the same. With but a grunt and a nod, the tauren turned away, slamming a wolf rider to the ground and pulping the rider’s head as his hooves crushed the mount’s ribs.

Sergeant Kestler did likewise, turning away back into the crucible of war.
---------------------------------------
Lunarfall Post, Shadowmoon Valley
Draenor
4 years ago


Lunarfall wasn’t meant to be a permanent presence garrison. But with the amount of opposition the Shadowmoon clan was already giving them, the fortifications that were planned for the future started looking more and more permanent every day. The wooden palisade walls that they’d put up had to be set even higher when the knowledge of feral elekk herds and hostile -trees- of all things was made known. Present among the expeditionary forces were also veterans from the Burning Crusade, the campaign in present day Outland as it was known. Kestler had seen Shattrath City, but hadn’t toured the wider scope. This version of Shadowmoon Valley wasn’t the fel wracked wasteland he’d remembered, however. Here were wide open forests and gentle, dark grass, though the apparent serenity hid the myriad new dangers the veterans weren’t ready for. Already, two lumber expeditions had been attacked and badly mauled up by the wildlife of all things, and no one was looking forward to running into more of those giant ravens. Stories of trees coming to life and attacking were coupled with tales of orc hit and run attacks, and just venturing down the road was turning into an exercise in combat mission planning.

For now, however, Sergeant Kestler took his blade from the blacksmith, inspecting the blade’s edge. Just getting this far had taken a great toll on their equipment, and he’d had to replace an entire suit of armor so far. Not to mention how many had to be sent back to Stormshield to be evacuated to Azeroth. Both the wounded and the dead.

Kestler nodded to the smith, taking up the claymore. With supply lines stretched as they were, more basic hand weapons were being reserved for the regular rank and file, while veterans like himself were being given the far heavier two-handers and speciality weapons. He wasn’t quite as experienced, but at least he had the space and time to practice, with a few orc-shaped targets. He grinned internally.

With a repaired suit of armor and newly assigned sword in hand, Kestler stepped away to address the new issue; as a part of a detachment, he was also responsible for keeping his troops fed and watered. While this was nothing new, being part of an expeditionary force instead of a fighting front was an old habit he had to dust off. Not since the Volunteers had he been forced to work with such thin supply lines, greater time for reinforcement and less intelligence. In Pandaria the 1st Brigade had landed after the 7th Legion, after Alliance airships and marines. They had mostly been working with functional intel given by troops who had been in the vanguard. Here, Lunarfall -was- the vanguard. Other outposts were being set up through Stormshield, but Lunarfall was in the best position already to be running combat operations. So, for now, his company operated with the garrison, Captain Eckstein part of the command staff as well, charged with the Gilnean military personnel.

The barracks held elements of 2nd Company, meant to be rotated out on combat operations through the valley. They were meant to bolster Karabor’s defense against the Shadowmoon clan, isolate Anguish Fortress and pacify the wildlife for further troop movements across the valley. While the majority of Karabor’s peacekeepers were being held in Embaari and Karabor (and dealing with a small demonic cult problem from what he’d heard), a detachment of artificers, Vindicators and Rangari had been assigned to Lunarfall, helping to cement its defenses and fortifications as the Alliance’s presence was hardened. Without the natives, the situation would be a lot more dire.

The barracks were relatively empty, to Kestler’s disappointment. He’d wanted to review the inventory with Eckstein about weapons available to the company. The mineshaft attached to the outpost was an excellent source of local minerals, so the sooner they figured out how to reequip with weapons made from truesteel and blackrock, the less they’d have to rely on overstretched Alliance supply lines. Naval convoys were promised, but so far a long way off.

He got a few waves his way from some of his troops. Most of them had served through the Pandaria campaign with him, and survived under his command in Orgrimmar. He was proud of his 1st Brigade veterans, soldiers he’d stood with since Gilneas evacuated to Darnassus. They were crack troops, doing the old Volunteers of his memory justice. And, more importantly, not a single one cared about his old reputation.

A shame the senior officers still recalled his supposed ‘treason’ and ‘cowardice’. Someone did, at least. Someone on the path to promotions. Two dozen commendations and awards and he was still stuck at the same rank.

Resigning himself to pushing the project back, he decided perhaps a bit of time fishing might do him some good. After all, if the conflict with Shadowmoon and the rest of the Iron Horde escalated like it was supposed to, free time would certainly be hard to come by. Supposedly, a few local draenei fishermen had set up a shack to help alleviate the food supply issue nearby. They had to have reels and bait.

He was on his way back out, heading up into the hills behind Lunarfall, keeping an eye out for the fishing shack. He still wasn’t familiar with the local terrain, and that bothered him quite a bit. Still, the sooner he ventured out and got a better feel for his surroundings, the better. At this point, he had a better idea of the landscape of the rest of the valley than the base itself. The path stretched out into the forest, already being claimed by the Alliance’s lumberjacks as they sought material for the outpost. Many of them gave Kestler a nod in passing, which he idly returned.

“You are lost, Wolf-Sergeant?”

He looked around, ears perked up as his hand automatically reached first for the sword at his waist, then the one on his back after realizing his error. When no threat immediately materialized, he moved his vision up, into the surrounding trees.

Rangari Sahula had arrived with the detachment under the command of the woman Chell. It was still a little disconcerting, talking to draenei who were strangers to Azeroth. Many of them shied away based on his appearance. But not her.

She sat on a branch overhead, crossbow over her lap and a quarrel of bolts at her hip. He was brought back to Chell’s recommendations of placing sniper posts in the trees, and while many Alliance officers had non taken her seriously and posted it on the backburner, looking to more ‘realistic’ solutions. But Eckstein had listened, and immediately worked with the Rangari to shape platforms and post Gilnean riflemen along the perimeter. These had worked quite well, and more than a few Shadowmoon scouts had already been poached while attempting to spy on Lunarfall. So when Sahula had learned that Kestler had supported her leader’s idea, her interest seemed to have only increased.

That might have been problematic.

“Never lost, Rangari. Just temporarily misplaced.”

The draenei woman chuckled, sliding down from the tree with almost elven grace, gently setting hooves on the grass below.

“That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that.” She approached, and Kestler kept track of the distance as she strode with an easy, unhurried pace. “So, then. Just where were you thinking of...replacing yourself?”

“Fishing hole,” he replied, taking an apprehensive step back, eying her up from under his helmet warily. “Gotta bit a’ free time. Wanted to use it while I could.”

“In full armor?” she smirked, and he found it hard to look anywhere else but that small part of her mouth that quirked upwards.

It wasn’t that he didn’t find her attractive. Very much the opposite, in fact. Her abrupt interest in him was a little disconcerting, but he suspected the strangeness of his appearance made him a little exotic in a way. But he’d only just settled the divorce papers before shipping out to another dimension, well and truly done with Tiandre, and she done with him. Being on more than friendly terms with a female wasn’t something he was comfortable with yet.

“Gotta be ready for an attack. Anytime, anyplace. Served me well before.”

“I’ll bet,” she replied, stopping just out of arms’ reach (her’s, not his. Which meant she was uncomfortably a bit -too- close). She smirked up at him, slinging her crossbow and taking a deliberate step back as if she realized the effect she was having on him, tilting her head off into the trees. “This way to the fishing, Wolf-man.”




Dazar'alor, Zuldazar

Lyran visited him next.

That surprised him. And saddened him a little. It either meant his girlfriend was dead or these truly were just hallucinations. The first struck a deep pang in his heart. Once again, he had lost someone close to him because he hadn’t been there to protect them. Lyran falling to his curse sent a wave of despair around him as he sagged visibly, looking at her standing in the cell with him, hip cocked and muscular arms crossed, that little smirk on her face and her dark red hair mixing perfectly with the light. Her armor gleamed dully, strapped up with weapons (one of which was Witchbane, sheathed at her waist).

The second, that she was just a product of his mind going mad, struck him even worse. Lyran Sjolander was a dedicated mercenary, a veteran monster hunter. During a spar, he’d dug his teeth into her shoulder and damn near broke her clavicle after throwing her off a wall, and she’d laughed it off. Hell, their first ‘date’ had been hunting black dragons in Blackrock. If anyone was tough enough to survive the odds, it was her. So, it was more likely he was going crazy, and these hallucinations were the byproduct of his shattered mind.

Wonderful. A part of him had started holding out hope that the spirits of his commanders and family really -were- watching over him. He’d started feeling better. Hopeful. It had helped him brace against the daily sessions. But now, he knew it was all his imagination.

“Hey, Old Wolf,” the not-Lyran said, a smirk on her lips. “Don’t get up. Wouldn’t want you to pop a hip.”

“Ah, yer worth it,” he said, engaging in the banter they shot at each other, welcoming the old habit with open arms. He smirked over at her. “Besides, y’came -all- the way out ‘ere fer me. Pretty committed, aye?”

“I think you know why I’m here,” she said, though he could see a little bit of a blush. She suddenly caught sight of his ruined eye as he turned to sit up and face her, and suddenly her smile dropped as she stepped closer. “Holy shit, Johan...what the fuck happened?”

For some reason, the idea of explaining his injury to something he knew was already in his head suddenly annoyed him to no end. He huffed, turning away as the vision knelt in front of him, reaching out. To his shock, however, instead of going straight through him as his father’s hand had, Lyran’s hand settled on his muzzle, and he could almost feel the warmth of her calloused fingers and the force of her arm as she gently tugged, turning his head to look at his now-blind left eye more carefully.

“So...eyepatch?” She tried making the situation light again. “Gonna be a pirate now?” He snorted, and she grinned wickedly as she began thinking hard. “Gotta say, you strap on an eyepatch with all these scars, you look even more badass than ever. Might even catch up with me.” She moved to his left side, leaning around to wander into his blind spot. “Can you see me now?”

“No,” he grunted, moving his head to bring her back into focus. She frowned, scratching her chin. “Well then it's a good thing that’s your shield arm. Gonna have to work on your shooting, though.”

He sighed, pulling back from her hand. She watched him quietly, frowning at his apparent reluctance to engage in their usual back and forth bantering. Kestler had to remember, after all, that Lyran wasn’t really there. His mind was either attempting to comfort him, or his sanity had slipped enough that some part was trying to keep it held together. That didn’t stop him from considering how his relationship had been with the real woman herself. Full of life, challenging certainly. Honest. Real.

“You look like you got something on your mind. Spill.”

“We coulda really been somethin’, y’know?” he asked, quietly. She tilted her head to the side, giving him a quizzical look that turned into a knowing one...a humored one.

“Sap.” She reached out, miming a smack on the nose, but not actually connecting. “So what’s stopping you?” She gestured to the cell around them, grinning. “This place? Come on, you’ve gotten through worse.” Not-Lyran leaned in, reaching up and gently patting Johan on the cheek again. And once again, he swore he could actually feel her hand. “You’ve put up with me so far. And I’ve learned to live with you, for better or worse.”

“Is this s’posed to be a pep talk? Cause it's terrible. I can feel my will to live slippin’ away the longer ye talk, luv. Savage, you are.” He grinned, however painful it was, and she scowled, swatting him on the muzzle lightly. The final fact that he could swear he felt the sensation, but there was no pain from the blow (however light) finally gave him his last proof that she definitely wasn’t there. This was all in his head.

“Ahhh, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Johan; you have a fucked up taste in women.”

“Really?” he looked up at her, a twinkle in his eye for the first time in a long time. “I’ve always thought I was after women with big er…” He made a meaningful glance down. “Personalities.”

“‘Personalities.’ Right…” she scoffed, grinning and shaking her head. “Light’s sake, all men are the same. More like ‘big assets.’”

“A personality can be an asset,” he shot back, leaning forward until his elbows were on his knees.

“Admit it, Johan; you just want me for my body,” she quipped, striking a pose with her hip popped out, an arm up and curled. Though the platemail got in the way, he knew exactly what was underneath it; a flexing, powerful bicep. He grinned, remembering that one time they had posed with them both showing off in some new ‘casual’ clothes. She grinned back, clearly thinking of that time as well.

And once more, he caught himself, the smile slipping off his face as he recalled, once more, that she wasn’t actually there. This was all in his head. What was it the vision of Tiandre had said? Trauma induced hallucination?

“Nah, Lyran. I’m pretty sure I wanted you for a lot more than just that.”

She paused, her arm slowly coming down, any trace of smugness gone from her face. The vision considered him for a moment, and Johan almost could believe she was really there. If she was in his head, then he could bring her over, embrace her, kiss her again. But it wasn’t really her. He knew that. And he couldn’t bring himself to even try to manipulate the vision like that.

She smiled, as if sensing his internal decision. “I dunno, Johan. I’m a pretty fucked up gal.”

“Well, then yer perfect,” he quipped, grinning toothily. She narrowed her eyes, tilting her head in curiosity as she tried to figure out his meaning.

“How do you figure that?”

“Said it yerself, remember? I got fucked up tastes in women.”

He was so grateful that he remembered her laugh so clearly. The vision sounded just like her, and he laughed along with her, finally feeling some shred of warmth inside him since he’d come to this hell.

She stopped laughing, finally. He looked up. But she was gone.

Dagna stared at him across the cell. No expression. Just twin, glowing coals in the dank, dark corners of the stone chamber.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
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Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Tue Nov 13, 2018 1:21 pm

Shadowmoon Valley, Lunarfall
Draenor
4 years ago


Sahula was an accomplished Rangari, an elite scout in the service of the Council of Exarchs. In all her years exploring the hills of Draenor’s wildest places, she had fought alongside warriors from Karabor, from Shattrath, even those of Prophet Velen’s personal guard. She had fought the orcs many times, including their newly mechanized iteration in the Iron Horde. She had seen their concept of ‘honor’ and ‘glory’. She knew the orcish ways of war from hunting them between the trees and hills, under mountains and across coastlines. They were brutal and barbaric, but when their honor was on the line, orcs were capable of great good.

These Alliance fighters, however, were something else. Whereas orcs would do great good in the name of their honor, the Alliance used their nobility to justify their cruelty. Credit where it was due, they attempted compassion where they could. But to fight the Iron Horde, the Alliance used just as despicable tactics, stating they were only going to such lengths as a response. But Sahula knew the truth as little more than politics and whitewashing.

Take their use of these ‘worgen’ creatures for example. A terrifying half-man half-wolf sort of monster, they seemed so at odds with others in their coalition. Some of them seemed to shapeshift into the smaller pinkish creatures known as ‘humans’, though many seemed to prefer remaining in their more feral shapes. Several had been deployed to the Alliance fort at Lunarfall, a few more to support the Night elves (another odd race, with much in common with the draenei so not nearly as interesting) and roving patrols to combat Shadowmoon patrols. The worgen were efficient hunters, able to sniff out orcs like their animals counterparts, move across wilderness quickly even without mounts and fight with minimal resources.

They were fierce, yes. Terrifying, yes. But Sahula found them fascinating. One above all the others.

He was one of the leaders of the worgen soldiers here, from a kingdom they called ‘Gylnayiss.’ Like her people, the worgen were displaced, cast out of their home. But this man, Sergeant Kestler, drew her in. Other worgen were fierce, anxious for battle and eager to dive in. But Sergeant Kestler (she had learned this was his rank, not his name) was more withdrawn, aloof, cautious. He talked up his urge to fight, but she’d seen his mannerisms and the look in his eyes. This was a man who had seen war. He had fought her enemy before, and his own prowess in combat put nearly all of his fellows to shame.

Sahula had drawn closer to him, trying to get his attention. But for some reason, he had withdrawn, politely declining her advances time and time again.

But now, word was the Alliance garrison in Lunarfall would move on and day now. Gorgrond, was the word. Now that the Ner’zhul and his Shadowmoon Clan were defeated, the next enemy was the Blackrock and their industrial center. She didn’t know if she’d be allowed to go with them.

The Rangari had been allowed quarters within Lunarfall, now a large and extensive fortification, but they had preferred to take camp in the surrounding forest, so as to be on hand at all times while their representative Chel stuck with the Alliance command staff, advising where needed. Though Sahula herself preferred the forest, she found herself coming back into the fort proper more and more often, and not just for the outsiders’ curious food. She was currently taking in the sights at the Forge.

The two humans who worked the Forge, named Irondreamer and Samras, appreciated the extra help they received from the soldiers when they got it. Truesteel and blackrock ore were difficult enough to master at a normal pace, but with the war raging they had to learn how to effectively forge and repair weapons at a breakneck. And often, they got their help from one worgen in particular. Currently, Sergeant Kestler had stripped off his armor, down to a pair of leather pants, some smithing gloves and a cloth shirt which had stretched far more tight than should be legal on the worgen. She was watching from across the lane, seated as she casually ate something called ‘spicy noodles’ from Azeroth, eyes roving over his back. A massive hand rose, hammer clutched in the fingers, striking the white-hot truesteel bar again and again.

There was something to be said about a man who had talent with his hands, and Sahula bit her lip as her imagination wandered a little…

Then he turned, spotting her from afar and pausing, tongs holding the metal bar as he was about to move back to the forge with it. He paused, glowing lupine eyes squinting as he considered her. For a moment, that’s where it hung before she realized she was still wearing the same, stupid smirk she had during her daydreaming. Sahula wasn’t one much for exceptionally girly acts, but here all she found herself capable of doing was grinning like an idiot as she felt a dark blue blush spread over her cheeks, raising a hand and waving at him. For his part, Kestler seemed to just sigh and return to work, probably attempting to ignore her. For some reason, he’d rejected all of her advances towards him, politely of course but still turning her down.

Well, something would have to be done about that. She was nothing if not persistent.

So, with nothing else to do and released from duty for the day, she watched and waited. She wasn’t hurting for entertainment, and the noodles were enough to keep her going for a while.

Finally, Sergeant Kestler emerged from the Forge, fur matted down with sweat and covered in soot, ash and metal debris. Sahula grinned to herself as she rose. She knew exactly what that meant. In a moment, she had vanished into the base’s traffic.

-------------------

Lunarfall didn’t have showers. They weren’t considered a military necessity, even for the officers. Often, mages and shaman could clean themselves, and higher officers didn’t stick around long, heading back through the portals to Stormwind to handle what they needed to. For the regular rank and file as well as lower officers, this often meant a quick hike to a nearby river, or down to the beach to clean up. All sweaty and covered in debris from the forge, Sergeant Kestler knew of a more personal place, where he could focus and collect his thoughts. It wasn’t that he was shy, but his time alone was precious with his responsibilities. It was a short hike through the woods, but he had time and his claymore for protection, so had stopped worrying about it. He simply noted his location in case he was needed, gathered up a bar of soap and a towel from the barracks and headed out of Lunarfall, into the hills.

Shadowmoon Valley reminded him of Kalimdor, specifically the Night Elf territories such as Ashenvale and Teldrassil. The place was always cast in some sort of eternal night (through magics he’d had explained to him but didn’t understand so well) and Draenor’s moon shone down on dark, subtle tones of leaves, grass and trees. Even the wildlife had adapted, their fur and skin color drifting closer to greys, blues and darker browns or blacks. Even for all the danger from predators or orcs, the place was so serene, calm and peaceful. He liked hiking out on his own, just to see the sights of the calm forests, the wide open plains and the idyllic draenei settlements.

Even with the war in the far distance, this was the most at peace he’d felt for a long time.

He finally reached the break in the trees going to ‘his’ creek, far enough up in the hills that he hadn’t seen anyone else nearby. From here, he could spot the Lunarfall garrison, and further beyond was the new shipyard that had recently finished construction. Ships from Azeroth were making regular supply runs between Lunarfall and Stormshield. Their supply issues had finally been improving, and with their new absorption of local resources, things were finally straightening out on the logistics front. He grunted, satisfied.

But as he pushed through the trees, he heard humming up ahead. Female humming. He paused, a hand going to his sword a moment. While it certainly could have been one of the Shadowmoon Clan orcs, he was close enough to Starfall Outpost that one of the Sentinels could have discovered this spot. While one part of him said he should leave, another part assured him that whoever it was, she was probably almost done, and checking to see when she would leave was no harm at all.

So it was that he pushed through, his eyes downcast as he called out “Excuse me, Miss?”

He expected a gasp or some kind of statement of surprise. Instead, what he got was a surprise to -him-.

“Well, took you long enough.”

In shock, he looked up, recognizing the voice immediately. He then immediately regretted doing so...but didn’t at the same time. Because there, sitting on a boulder right at the creek’s edge, her hooves dipped into the water, was none other than Rangari Sahula. She was looking at him, wearing a sultry, amused expression.

And currently, that was all she wore.

He grunted, immediately breaking eye contact. Unfortunately, this meant his gaze immediately went straight down, and his eyes widened before he decided looking at her face was the safer alternative here. When he did, it was to find her smirking at him.

“Enjoying the view, Sergeant?” she jested, shifting so her arms were...oh Light.

He cleared his throat, trying to keep his voice level. “Miss Sahula. I didn’t know you was ‘ere.”

“I know.” She chuckled. “That was the point.”

He nodded carefully, turning to try and escape. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Just lemme know when yer done.”

“Or,” and here he heard light splashing as she stood and began approaching through the creek. “You could stay. Plenty of open space, plenty of water. Good time to...get cleaned up.”

He needed to shut this down. Right now. The last time he’d been with a woman had been Andi, and even though she was pregnant it had been awkward and filled with tension. He’d rather not repeat that experience, so he kept slowly stepping backwards, looking up and exercising all his discipline to keep his eyes locked firmly on hers, even as she came even closer.

“That’s...not a good idea.”

“Why?” She tilted her head to the side. “Is it me? Something you don’t like?”

“No. I uh...yer a very attractive lass.”

“So, it is my...what’s the word? My personality?”

“Er, no. No, yer...yer great, honest. I do happen to like bein’ round ya.”

“‘Being around me?’ I never thought I’d see you so shy, Sergeant Kestler,” she laughed (giggled!), her face almost split by that smile.

Kestler tried taking a step back. She took a step forward, until she was damn near pressed up against him. That’s when he knew he wasn’t going to get away from this. He knew most other soldiers would literally be leaping at this opportunity, getting some action in a foreign land with a woman they’d probably never have to think about again. But Johan’s own experience was limited. And not friendly.

“Not shy. Cautious,” he insisted, standing his ground and straightening up. Her grin fell to a smirk.

“Why? I’m not talking about swearing to each other before the naaru, moving into our own cottage in Embaari and living out our lives with two kids. I’m just talking about a night where we have some fun.”

“That was a very specific example, Sahula.”

The grin was back, and she reached out, taking one of his hands and tugging, gently but insistent. “Look, I like you. A lot. Now you’re going somewhere else. So I wanted to take my chance while I could.” She paused. “I know you’ve got some bad memories from your wife. So...why not try and make some good ones?”

Johan balked, watching as she put his hand up on her shoulder, grey fur meeting smooth blue skin. By the Light she was so warm.

“We’ll just have a good night, and see where it goes. Yeah?”

She slid his hand down to her chest, biting her lip at the sensation. Johan felt his resistance crumbling, watching her reactions like this. By all rights, this should be perfectly fine. She’d specified this wasn’t meant to be a deep thing. And honestly, perhaps it was time he did something for himself. Taking the pleasure of a woman who offered herself up to him wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, it was shaping up to be a really good idea.

He tried one more time.

“I’m afraid I’ve er...not got much knowledge of this.” She raised a questioning eyebrow, which with the bit lip and tilted head made her just looking teasing and mischievous. He cleared his throat, trying to get his message out.

“It’s not like that. I’ve er...well, aside from my ex, I’ve really only been with a woman uh...twice, maybe.”

To that, she chuckled, pulling him in. The motion took him by surprise, and as such when she leaned up and pressed a kiss to his lips he had nothing to fight back with. He felt the items in his hands fall to the ground as the reached up, smoothing over her shoulders as if to push her away, then gently pulled her to him.

After a moment, he suddenly became away of his sword and sheath falling from his back. She pulled back, grinning like the temptress she was.

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll help you work out the kinks.”

And then she pulled him towards the water. He didn’t resist this time.
------------------

Afterwards, they simply lay on the bank for a time, staring up at the stars. The silence pressed in on the clearing, but to his surprise it wasn’t oppressive. Just...calm. He’d spent so long at war and getting ready for it, he suddenly realized he’d never taken any time to just sit back, listening to the world around him. He was always expecting another fight. But here, post-bliss, he heard the wolves in the distance. The trees rustling with the wind. An elekk trumpeted in the distance. The chirrupping of insects that were not crickets but perhaps something close.

“Silver for your thoughts,” Sahula asked, snuggling against his chest and tugging an arm around her shoulder. He grunted, surprised at the gesture (but that was something he might have thought to do...well, should have), but tucked her in to him, rubbing her back as he thought up a response.

“This is nice,” he finished, feeling heat rush to his cheeks. The statement was...well, not one of his best. It was so plain, like something out of a trashy romance novel (deployments got long, and female soldiers brought a lot from home they let others borrow) but she didn’t seem to mind, just humming and nodding as her head rested on his shoulder.

“It is,” she replied, looking up at him with those glowing eyes, her elegant face parked on his furry chest. “So I did a good job? You certainly sounded like you...appreciated my efforts.”

That impish smirk again, and he reached up, playfully swatting at her face. She giggled again, rolling on top of him, a far more comfortable arrangement than the reverse. They like that for a time before Kestler shifted, lifting onto his elbows.

“Y’know. I gotta take another bath after that.”

“Oh. Well, my apologies,” she said, the look on her face not apologetic at all. “Is there anywhere you need to be?”

He considered her for a moment, frowning. “Thought ye said this weren’t anythin’ deep.”

She shook her head, shrugging. “I meant it. If we’re going our separate ways, then at least I took my chance. But I never said I wasn’t -interested- in trying my luck again. And again. And again-”

“I get it,” he said, reaching up and pinching one taut, blue buttock. Once more, she giggled, shifting so she was a but further up on him, closer to his face (not that he minded the friction).

“Well...what do you say? You know I’m good for it. Now I’ve cracked your shell, what about you?”

“I do -not- have a shell,” he blatantly lied, frowning as he considered. “We’re s’posed to be moving out to Gorgrond soon. Word is Karabor’s trying to free up troops to help us.”

“So...that’s not a no.”

“...I en’t sayin’ no.”

Sahula grinned, leaning in and kissing him again, which he returned despite the odd sensation of their different dimensions. After a moment, she pulled back.

“So...you never said if you had somewhere else to be.”

He grinned back, finally feeling a bolt of excitement, instead of apprehension. Maybe this was a good thing. A new start. A way to move on from everything after the divorce. After all, he was in a different world. A different timeline. What else could be the definition of a fresh chance?

“Well...I s’pose I don’t.”

With that tempting grin still in place, she slid down his body.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Lion’s Watch, Tanaan Jungle
Draenor
3 years ago


“Battery, fire!”

Alliance artillery was very advanced, very impressive. Even with goblin engineering, the Horde was only just beginning to catch up with things like rocket launchers and repeater cannons. But between the dwarves, gnomes and Gilnean schools of artillery, their guns were stronger, more accurate and far more numerous. The line of cannons up on the ridgeline thundered away, able to smash into the fel-corrupted fortifications of Hellfire Citadel in the distance. The rattle of steam tanks in the jungle combined with the constant rifle-fire and clash of swords told that the Alliance offensive was finally rolling out. From here, even the massive siege guns mounted in the towers were having trouble even scratching the distant fortress, so the real challenge was getting close and capturing an Iron Horde assault engine, hoping the orcish machine would smash through the gates to allow the combined Horde-Alliance-Draenei-Frostwolf army to flood in and finally bring down Gul’dan, and stop a second Burning Legion invasion of Azeroth.

On the hill behind the camp, the area had been stripped of trees for material to use in the base. Even the stumps had been torn up. In their place, lines of graves marked the resting place of dozens of Alliance casualties. With no time for formalities or luxuries, these weren’t marked by headstones or other markers, but by weapons planted in the ground, pieces of armor, branches cut down to size and other means. Dogtags and other hanging identifiers hung off these makeshift gravestones, from Ironforge cogtags to Night Elf runes strung on a necklace. A few soldiers on burial detail worked tirelessly to make ever more resting places, for as many as there were, there were always more to bury, and sure to be more to do as the attack rolled out.

One of these near the end, was freshly dug and packed, the mound of jungle dirt tamped down by spade. But this one had been dug by one man alone, who had not been part of the detail. He had just finished up, and was now affixing an ornate blue crossbow into the dirt at the head, making sure it was stable and patting down more dirt at its stock to ensure it stayed upright. On the mounting brace, he hunt a simple metal chain, on which were two icons; one was a symbol of Argus, the long lost homeworld of the Draenei. Even against the odds, after so many millennia, they had always held out the hope that one day in the future they might go back home. In a way, the Gilneans in their ranks sympathized with this more than any other Alliance race, for while the battle raged on in their own homeland it was likely they wouldn’t be able to call it theirs for at least another decade. This had won them friends here on Draenor once the locals had gotten over the worgens’ fierce appearances, and a deep bond had formed between them.

Some more than others.

The other icon was a simple metal plate, a little bigger than a standard issue Gilnean dogtag. The smith in Embaari who had made it had done it on commission, and didn’t have the same stamping machinery the Alliance did. As such, he had to engrave it by hand, necessitating the larger size. Regardless, it had done its job.

Sergeant Kestler sighed, wiping off his muddy hands before running one through his head fur, looking down at his work. It hadn’t been easy, but it was something he needed to do even with battle imminent. 2nd Company was sure to be called up to the fighting any minute now, and he knew he wouldn’t get this chance later. If he wasn’t killed himself, her body would be processed by another gravedigger. This was personal.

“I’m sorry, Sahula…” he grunted, looking down at the mound of dirt, now marked by her Rangari crossbow and the two pieces she’d always worn around her neck. Had he loved her? Maybe. He wasn’t sure. After the divorce, he wanted to be careful examining his feelings. Perhaps he’d taken too long to decide.

She’d said she loved him.

For as terrible as this campaign had turned out to be, and for as many old demons as it dragged out of him, he had found one shred of good in it. They’d both understood what they were getting into with this, and what the risks were. This was usually why he didn’t try to pursue women in the ranks with him. But for her, he’d taken a chance.

And been punished in the worst way imaginable.

“I’m gonna go fight this…” he muttered, taking up the spade and his field cape once more. “We’re gonna storm the Citadel. And I’m gonna win it. Fer you, luv. We’ll make sure yer home is freed.”

For him, it had just been another war. Another campaign in foreign lands, fighting a familiar enemy. Another fight. But for her this was about freeing her people, and lifting the old threat of the Burning Legion off of Draenor while casting down the new threat of the Iron Horde. Now that they had become one and the same, she’d focused herself on ending things once and for all. It had been -important- to her.

A shame it hadn’t helped her see the ambush that took her life.

He heard the interloper. Paws in the mud, the rattle of plates, the smell of gunpowder. Captain Eckstein approached with slow, purposeful steps. His company commander knew the significance this draenei woman had been to Kestler. The past few years together in service had taught her a lot about her senior NCO, and she’d shaped up a lot in terms of how she saw him.

When the she-worgen was only a few meters away, Kestler raised his head, though he didn’t look back.

“Captain.”

“Sergeant.” She paused, watching his back carefully, eyes flickering down to the now-finished grave. “They’re calling us up.”

“Yep…” he replied, still not looking back as he stared down at the icons, his breathing deep and steady. They were like that a moment, listening to the fighting in the distance, the boom of cannonfire and screech of fel-infused creatures, the rattle of metal on metal and cries of the wounded in the jungle mud.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant.”

“Fer what?”

“Your loss. I know how much she-”

“Don’t. Ma’am.” He finally looked over his shoulder at her shocked but controlled expression, narrowing one glowing blue eye at his commander. “I know ye mean well. But I’ve heard that platitude enough times. Fer different reasons. Just...leave it be. Please.”

Eckstein considered this statement for a moment before she just resolutely nodded, reaching forward and squeezing her sergeant’s shoulder gently.

“I understand, Johan. Just...don’t take too long, aye? It won’t be long now.”

“It never is...” he grunted in reply.

--------------------

It was as the Captain had said. Within a half hour, calls for the next unit to be sent into the meat grinder went up. The Karabor Draenei and Stormwind’s forces were stuck in, as well as another company from 1st Brigade. They needed to break the deadlock without compromising too many of the reserves. And so, the job fell to the 2nd Company soldiers assembling before the gates of Lion’s Watch, two-hundred men and women, human and worgen resplendent in dark blue, the red triple lance of Gilneas on their mud splattered tabards and their faces hard as they fell into their ranks, ready to march.

Sergeant Johan Kestler stared out, towards the battlefield beyond. Before, this fight had just been about service and survival. But she had changed that. She had made it personal for him. So he was going to smash down those gates, singlehandedly if need be, and lead the charge into the Citadel. He’d storm those ramparts, the towers, the halls and chambers and kill every orc and demon that dared stand in his way. He’d tear that damned place down brick by bloody brick.

For her.

He reached up, tugging the helmet on and pulling the strap tight, eyes narrowed. Up front, Captain Eckstein turned, heading up the column as she drew in a breath, shouting with all her fury.

“2ND COMPANY! MOVE OUT!”

Kestler reached down, drawing his sword and pointing it straight ahead, signaling for his platoon to march grimly down, into the crucible of war.

Up on the graveyard hill, overlooking the battle, one could see the Gilnean forces marching off to join their comrades, eventually turning into another stream of figures that lined up and charged into the crowd already down there. In less than an hour, they simply became part of the seething, roiling mass.

But the crossbow, buried up to its trigger guard in mud, stood above the freshly dug grave, the two icons clinking quietly in the gentle wind. And, as the smoke and darkness of the battled deepened, a cerulean moth came fluttering along in the breeze, perching upon the crossbow and taking a rest, its wings moving gently. As if in tune with a heartbeat.
Last edited by Azurlavai on Tue Nov 13, 2018 1:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

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Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Tue Nov 13, 2018 10:53 pm

”You know, you’re a tough nut to crack, Sergeant. It’s rather impressive...but you’re boring me now.”

“...”

“Fine. Do what you want with him. I’m done here. His cellmate too, she’s long overdue.”

---------------------------
Near Zul’ahjin
Vol’dun, Zandalar


The sun had reached its highest point before Kestler and Dagna found shelter. Not some old troll ruin, they’d learned that lesson already. Even though most of them were exiles and criminals, plenty of Zandalari were ready to kill the two Alliance POWs. They also wanted to avoid caves, as those typically held desert creatures that wanted to rip into their delicious flesh like krolusks and hyenas. More often, such caves would already be occupied by Zandalari Exiles or Sethrak Faithless soldiers (cultists?). For the past few days since they’d been dumped into this desert, Kestler and Dagna had found their best shelter under ridges and judging the sun to find the deeper shadows behind scenery. But ridges and outcroppings were at best temporary and uncomfortable, especially since they were both still recovering from their injuries and all the time crammed into a tiny, damp cell. They tried moving during the night and sleeping during the day, but the night was when the krolusks came out. In the day, vultures and sethrak. Neither of them had any weapons, but their knuckles were bloody from the numerous scraps they’d gotten in with the predators hunting them. They just ran from the armed and overwhelming soldiers, especially the ones with those lightning cannons guarding their camps.

So when Dagna found a wide open cave with an assembly of old bones and krolusk shells around the entrance, it was a difficult choice but they had to go with it. Days without enough water and trying to survive on minimal sleep in these extreme circumstances were going to kill them otherwise.

Kestler went in first. His injuries were more fresh and extensive, but with her height Dagna was at a sharp disadvantage against the krolusks and Exiles who could simply pick her up. But all Kestler had to do was pin something down and Dagna more often than not would go in for the killing blow (like ripping the carapace plating off a krolusk and punching straight through its hide to tear the thing’s heart out. Dwarves were -very- strong). So, the worgen went first.

The cave was faced towards the sunset. This was good, as it meant plenty of light would come in and persist as long as the sun was still up, pushing away darkness as long as possible. The cave was long, and narrowed out slightly after the mouth. While that discounted krolusks, who were quite wide, it didn’t eliminate them. Or hyenas. Or two-legged dangers.

Dagna followed behind soon after fists clenching and unclenching, orange eyes burning in the dark as she glanced from side to side. The past four days in the desert wastes had left them both bedraggled, on edge and always alert for danger. While their fear was justified, the stress and paranoia had gotten under both of their skins when it wasn’t around. She was used to facing danger with a dark hound and firearm, and he with plate armor and a sword. Here, they were both dressed in the tatters of their old uniforms, with just their fists as weapons.

The cave opened into a chamber. Here, the roof stretched high overhead, until it opened to in a small crevice, showing off the plain, empty blue desert sky overhead. Sunlight filtered in, providing illumination, but also deepening the shadows around them. A ramp of stone sloped up and curled around the chamber until it flattened into a platform, about a dozen feet above the sandy stone floor overlooking the ring of light from above.

And on that platform, one could see a camp.

Johan ducked low, sniffing the air. There was no fire, but he could smell that one had been lit recently. No sethrak, either, and no Exiles. But the scents he -could- smell were of...weapon oil? Gunpowder?

Dagna moved around him carefully, eyes scoping out the rest of the chamber. But was was still unoccupied, and ended against the back wall.

“Someone lived here,” she muttered, already seeing what he’d seen.
“Lives,” he clarified, sniffing again. “Fire’s not out more than a day. Must’ve gone out somewhere.”

“But...where?”

He had no answer for her on that one.

They both approached the camp, moving up the ramp carefully in case of enemies they couldn’t see or stragglers hiding in the dark. The camp had a single bedroll laid out next to the firepit, which was filled with blackened wood and twigs. The camp itself was a motley collection of junk salvaged from the desert, piles of various things that almost seemed random, inside scavenged containers such as jars from the ruins, a Zandalari urn that was decidedly more modern, even what looked like a stolen Horde supply crate. In said crate were various bits and bobs, collected from what looked like Zandalari, Horde and even Alliance soldiers. Pieces of armor, medals, various bits and bobs. Kestler reached in, gently pulling out a familiar piece and holding it up to the light. The silver wolf’s head with purple ribbon hanging underneath was a Merit of the King’s Honor. Whoever had once worn this had once been part of the old Royal Guard, maybe even a Greyguard. He knew the Alliance had a commando camp somewhere here in Vol’dun, but how many of them were actually here? He glanced down, spotting a piece of uniform he definitely recognized as a 7th Legion tabard. Well, that explained a lot.

He heard Dagna’s cry of excitement, and turned to see her tugging a leather-wrapped package out of a vase nearby. She struggled with the leather only a moment before undoing the strings at last and tugging both the flaps away. In it lay a -very- familiar sight; the dark iron barrels, spiked top rail and bronze covered stock. This was a dark iron repeater, issued to 7th Legion riflemen. Kestler had served with Dark Iron Grenadiers, and knew they preferred their more basic design (a double barreled phlogiston blaster that could blow off a shredder’s arm), but this triple barreled repeater rifle had been adopted by Ironforge troops en masse.

“Finally! It’s been so long since I’ve held a slugthrower!” Dagna smiled, and he found it so odd to see after almost a month of watching her blank, neutral expression across a cell or her savage fury in battle. It was strange to see, but he found it made him feel a little better.

“Any ammunition?”

Her face fell, and she looked back in the urn, scoffing. “Not here, but there are some blades you might be able to use. Take a look, lad. I’ll start searching for powder over here. Maybe whoever this bastard was realized what was the important part, and I can shape some of this junk into bullets.”

With that, she began rummaging through a nearby battered chest. Kestler moved over, and just as she had described one ancient canoptic jar was filled with weapons, like a bouquet of steel. Most of them were the monelite-hardened blades used by the Zandalari, and he pushed past, trying to find something made of decent steel, maybe a thorium blade if he was luck. The odds of a good Kul Tiran storm silver cutlass were low, but he was interested in inspecting one for himself especially with memories of Witchbane still in his head.

He was about to pull out a sword which had probably belong to a mercenary to give it a few swings, when Dagna stiffened up so hard he practically heard it. And then his ears picked up what had made her react so. A clicking, clattering noise so soft and subtle that anyone else might have simply dismissed it. But for the pair who had been confined in such a quiet place and then running from endless danger, the sound may as well have been gunfire to them. Kestler’s ear twitched as he froze, and he glanced at Dagna, who turned her head just enough to get one of her orange eyes looking back at him. The two of them continued listening, trying to place the sound. It seemed to get closer and closer, but the entrance to the chamber was within Kestler’s good eye view, and all he saw was the sunlight leaking in from the outside.

Closer, louder. The worgen carefully reached out, closing a clawed hand around the haft of the sword he’d considered, tugging it to begin drawing.

The clacking stopped, right when it seemed to be on top of them. Kestler blinked, staring hard at the entrance before he glanced at Dagna. She frowned back, her hands automatically gripping the empty repeater, readying the bayonet on the muzzle. If it was a hallucination, they wouldn’t both be hearing it, and no words to describe it had been said. An invisible enemy would still have to push past Dagna, and Kestler could judge that the top of the rock formation they hid in was too thick to hear something up there with such perfect clarity down here.

Then, he took a deep sniff, closing his eye. The scent that suddenly filled his nostrils was equal parts feather, saurian and Exile, like a troll mounted on a raptor. He was overwhelmed by it, as if it had only just appeared now contrasted against the desert air. The weapon oil...of course! With all this metal in here, whoever owned the camp had to have simply dumped it into the containers to protect it from the sand. Overwhelming amounts of it, probably distilled from some sort of local material. The oil was pungent enough to hide an approaching adversary. But where was the bastard?

In a flash, something occured to him, and he slowly titled his head until his good eye could open and look up at the ceiling.

Johan had run into plenty of sabertusks before. The saurian creatures were like big cats, quadruped hunters with astounding speed, force enough to knock a man and his horse over and with strong enough jaws to bite through platemail. To see one with its claws dug into the rock ceiling at least twenty feet up surprised him so much, he hesitated, flinching in shock at seeing the large jungle creature just -there-.

His hesitation was almost their death.

The sabertusk snarled and lunged, right when Kestler hollered “Dagna! Up!” He reached for her, but the dwarf had already thrown herself flat and rolled, pointing the rifle straight up, the bayonet stretching out like a spear.

The sabertusk impacted on the ground, going for Johan first, knocking the worgen through the jar full of blades and at least two other containers, falling into the twelve foot gap to the floor in a rain of snarling flesh, fur, scales and falling metal. Fortunately, Johan wasn’t quite so stunned as he impacted the ground, roaring back as he thrust the blade out edge first to catch the beast in its toothy maw, inches from his face. They struggled as fragments of jars and an astounding multitude of oiled blades landed around them, the sabertusk’s claws attempting to gain purchase and drive itself down. He felt its forepaws land on his chest, and brought a sharp elbow down on its nose before the thing could gut him. The sabertusk reeled back, taking his sword with it but freeing him up enough that he could reach over and grab a hammer from the sand next to him, a large two-handed one of Forsaken make if he was right. The sabertusk spat the sword out, and he pressed the attack, coming in with a wide swing that caught it in the side, sending it flying, though it skittered across the wide face and recovered to come back towards him.

Dagna came in as if from nowhere, howling in Khazalid as she slammed her stock into the creature’s head, stunning it from the powerful blow before spinning her rifle around and burying the bayonet into its ribs. The sabertusk howled, batting her away before backing into a corner, growling and swiping to keep them back. The two advanced, Dagna quickly dropping her empty rifle and taking up a two-handed axe knocked down from the edge, spinning it in her hands and grunting as she approved. They moved to cut off any escape, now armed and ready to kill this vicious creature.

Until the damn thing shapeshifted. In a flash, the sabertusk was gone, replaced by a large ankylodon the size of a kodo, its armor plating dull and spiked, clawed forearms swiping. Johan had seen plenty of these, and knew their plates were much harder than krolusk carapace, capable of reflecting bullets, absorbing magic missiles and even blunting blades. Its beak snapped, the tusks waving back and forth as it-

Tusks! Sabers had tusks, but not ankylodons! The delayed reaction in Johan’s mind finally completed, though it seemed Dagna was much quicker on the uptake, halting and staring at the beast as she tried to figure out what to do. The two sides glared each other down, looking back and forth between each other as all three tried to work out what the hell to do.

Finally, with another flash of light, the saurian disappeared, and in its place was the tall, muscled form of a male Zandalari troll, his skin a darker grey than most of his kin. He was crouched over in ratty leather, hands up to keep the two from immediately killing him, though he winced and reached around to hold his wounded side.

“Damn, Leetl Sista. Got me good, ya did.”


“Druid!” Dagna exclaimed, though it was a bit of a wasted effort. They’d all figured out the situation seconds ago. She must have been trying to work through the shock. Johan, meanwhile, was more focused on another aspect.

“You speak Common?”

The tall troll (again, a scary reminder of just how big trolls could get by looking Johan in the eye) straightened, chuckling as he pointed at Johan in a ‘finger gun’ gesture.

“Smart call, Wolf. Been ‘round nuff Alliance to work it out.” He winced again, glancing down at his shoulder, also pumping blood. “Ye got me good too. But -I’m- smart nuff to knowin’ when it's time to talk. Mebbe we can work sometin’ out.”

He raised both hands, gesturing to the cave. “Gwon den. Take what ya want, I got no urge to see Bwonsamedi yet.”

Kestler and Dagna glanced at each other, unsure of this Zandali’s motives. As if sensing their apprehension the druid quickly reached over, picking up the mercenary sword Kestler had previously tugged out. After a quick wipe and reversal, he held it out to the soldier, a grin on his leering face.

“G’won, man. Take it. Call it a gift. Sometin’ tells me you’s more a sword kinda guy enniway.”

Kestler paused, his fist clenched around the Forsaken weapon, glancing the troll up and down. The regeneration must already be kicking in, because the druid showed absolutely no more signs of pain, standing up straight and holding the sword out one-handed, held by the blade. He looked to Dagna, who glanced back and huffed, clearly thinking this whole thing a bad idea. While the two had been shut up in a cell together for quite some time, he couldn’t say he -knew- her per se. He couldn’t say he trusted her.

He set the hammer down, leaning against the rockwall, watching the troll carefully, his blind eye twitching fitfully in its socket. The druid, to his credit, didn’t move. He simply held the sword out, a half smirk affixed to his tusked, grey-skinned face. Kestler didn’t take his eye off the troll’s face, his hand reaching out and retaking the sword, fingers wrapping around the hilt. For just a moment, there was resistance, and then the larger, blunted fingers released the blade and let the worgen have the sword. Kestler could have gutted the Zandalari then and there with a single stab forward, and his fingers clenched as he remembered the long days with steel-tipped whips tearing open his back, sandbags and fists beating every inch of him while knives carved into his flesh. His instincts were suddenly screaming at him to just plunge this blade into the troll’s throat.

“Relax mon,” the troll said, his hands sweeping out wide. “Let ol’ Shek take care’a’ya!” He swept his hands around, indicating the cavern again. “G’won, g’won! Take what ya want! It’s all just a future investment for me anyway. Potential wealth jus’ waitin’ to be shipped out!”

“Yer a scavenger,” Dagna asked, though it was more a statement, shifting from foot to foot as her hands clutched the axe even closer.

“Eh, somewhat of a recent ‘occupational transition.’ Ah’m more accustomed to gettin’ da stuff from place to place dan collectin’ really.”

“A druid arms smuggler?” Kestler frowned, staring the Zandali down as he was absolutely flummoxed. “How’s that make any damn sense?”

“Well, if’n ya need ta know, it kinda comes from pissin’ off a certain high priest an’ needin’ ta get out on da first ship outta Dazar’alor, which jus’ so ‘appened ta be a pirate ship, curse da loa in charge a’ luck.” Shek, as his name appeared to be, shrugged so hard his shoulders almost came level with his ears. Immediately, Kestler began doubting his claim. “Den afta a few years out at sea, some bad luck wound me up on Pandaria when dat same high priest saw me an’ had me hauled off back here ta ‘face justice’.” Shek turned away, glancing over his shoulder at Kestler and Dagna before shrugging again. “Y’know, same ol’ same ol’.”

“I don’t believe a damn thing ye just said,” Dagna replied plainly, her face an exasperated neutral. Shek held up his hands placatingly.

“Easy, Leetl Sista! Would I lie to a pair a’ runaways who jus’ came into my camp an’ assaulted me fer protectin’ my-wait, that sounds kinda accusatory-”

Kestler immediately put the point of his sword in Shek’s face.

“Stop. Bloody. Talkin.’”

-------------------

Things smoothed out a little after that.

No they didn’t.

While Shek declared he was pleased to share his camp with the two, it was clearly obvious to all that he had no choice in the matter. Still, he did his best to be hospitable. He used his druid powers to summon what little plant matter would come from the sandy, rocky ground, and with it came fresh water to quench their thirst. Kestler and Dagna helped him clean up the mess they’d made of the weapons and vases, fending off his attempts at conversation while still learning about him and his little hidey hole. The weapons, it turned out, had been scavenged off the various armies fighting for Vol’dun. From the Empire, the Horde, the Alliance, the Faithless and even a few unfortunate bands of pirates and marauders who had the poor luck to land on Zandalar’s shores. The oil, of course, was to fight off the sand and decay, keep all the potential merchandise fresh for the day Shek caught a ship off the continent.

“Krolusk flesh makes dis nice, juicy oil as a side-effect,” Shek told them as he tugged a few old pieces of cloth out of his scavenged goods, wrapping the now exposed weapons in them. “At first, ey jus’ burned it for lamp oil. But den I found out it helps keep da metal sharp and fresh! Perfect in dis place!”

He’d kept his word, and not fussed as the two went through the stocks, picking out weapons and armor. Dagna tugged on a mail vest that, despite the oil, still showed evidence of rust from the sand, while Kestler was forced into armor that had clearly belonged to a Zandali, other pieces from orc and Alliance. Apparently, not many worgen had landed in Vol’dun. Few others had material in his size.

Scraps aside, the pieces were still in good shape, a testament to Shek’s devotion to his wares. They dressed in better quality clothes, chewed on summoned food and jerked meat and finally felt the hunger and thirst of the past few days melt away to exhaustion. Though he had no dwarven ale, Shek produced a cask of some sort of Pandaren beer, which had soured somewhat, thought Dagna merely screwed up her face and chugged with no further complaint. Shek mentioned no ill will about the two of them going full bore on his stocks, merely lamenting the lost profit which, honestly, did him no good sitting here while he waited.

“Seen plenty a’ folk die in dat desert,” he said as Dagna filled another beaten wooden goblet full, staring up at him wordlessly. “Dis beer, dat food, de armor, I can get it all back. Don’t do no one any good just sitting ‘round, goin’ bad.”

Kestler was suspicious at first, but the food and water were neither poisoned nor laced with narcotics to make them sleep. While druids were usually inclined to easy living and generosity, Shek was a Zandalari and a proclaimed pirate. Neither were backgrounds very prone to gentleness and benevolence. Still, his words rang true with some logic.

They helped Shek fix his camp back up until the sun set, and he told wild stories of his travels, from digging out rare metals in the Un’Goro Crater to tomb-robbing in Northrend and selling information on areas in the Broken Isles to pirates and settlers both. He had apparently tried to secure travel to Outland, but never could get onto a convoy heading through the Dark Portal. Still, he’d lived a fantastic life for a Zandali pirate druid...if his outlandish stories were at least half true.

When night settled, it was Dagna who used a bit of krolusk oil on the bare brush they’d scavenged to try and keep a fire going, supplied by the occasional piece of wood Shek had from distant trees and broken crates. Being a druid, his pterrodax form allowed him to slip over the mountains and get several resources from the jungles of Zuldazar as long as he was careful.

They dined on grilled krolusk that night. It was better than the hyena, and llama were too hard to catch regularly. The three stripped their bones clean, and even after eating so much earlier to sate their hunger, Dagna and Kestler were still famished enough to eat every scrap. Eventually, however, they knew they had to stop, lest they grow sick and deplete the stores. And so, the evening ended with Kestler and Shek drinking water and settling back on sleeping mats, Dagna taking more cautious gulps of her beer, now monitoring her depleting stock.

“An’ den dey made me der king!” Shek was finishing his tale of how a tribe of tuskarr had elevated him to rulership for saving them from a kvaldir raid. This, Kestler refused to believe, but simply nodding and grunting was enough to keep Shek happy, and he had to admit it was better entertainment than he’d been forced to endure the last few weeks. The pirate troll had, against all odds, started to grow on him.

“An’ what about you, Leetl Sista?” Shek asked, turning to Dagna, only to spot the dark iron casually taking another sip of her beer, her other hand gently slicing lead off a block to make a large caliber ball with a large, monel-hardened knife. She held the bullet up to her eyes, inspecting it quietly before tucking it away in a shot pouch, having already scavenged up materials for blasting powder. She seemed to ignore Shek entirely, so the Zandali took the chance and pressed further. “C’mon! Ye gotta have a few good stories, ya? So what’s yers?”

Dagna suddenly paused, her orange eyes snapping up to Shek’s own, burning with an intensity to match the fire they matched. Abruptly, she slammed her wooden goblet to the stone, pointing the stone at Shek.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten what yer kind did to us, Troll. Ye may have let us into yer supples and camp, but a deal worked at gunpoint is useless. I ent gonna get caught offguard again.” Here, she pointed the knife around at Kestler, her eyes narrowed menacingly. “By -either- of ye.”

Kestler sat up slowly, growling low for a moment. Apparently, the time they had both spent suffering together in that Zandalari dungeon had done little to temper a Dark Iron’s natural paranoia and suspicion, and he brought his hand down to the hilt of his blade, feeling its oiled blade slide out soundlessly as he flicked it with a thumb, getting it ready for draw.

For a minute, they were held like that. Dagna’s eyes blazed as she stared Kestler down, her blade reflecting the firelight. He stared back at her, blind eye searching uselessly while his good eye stared back, narrow and ready for action. Between the two, Shek had his hands up, looking back and forth, trying to ascertain who exactly might strike first. Kestler’s eyes flickered down to the repeater behind her, now capable of actually firing something. True, she had the knife and now a pair of dwarven hand axes scavenged from Shek’s trove, but he doubted even with her strength she could best him in close combat. The knife was probably the only blade she had to hand at the moment. His sword might belong to a dead mercenary and his shield little more than a Zandali monel-hardened buckler, but sword and shield were his mastery. If it came down to it, things would depend on if she could get to her blaster repeater fast enough to level it and pull the trigger. Then she’d have three opportunities to end him. But after that she was finished, and she knew it.

They sat there for a while longer, still eyeing each other up, Shek trying to judge when the right moment to run was.

Then, abruptly Dagna let her blade fall, taking a deep breath as she glanced between the two, still composed but now not quite as furious, grinding her teeth one moment and then biting her lip the next. And it occurred to Kestler that if he had suffered the kind of damage he had in a few weeks, what might Dagna have gone through in a month on top of that?

They were quiet for a while before Dagna stood, stepping away from the fire. She grabbed her repeater and the shot she’d been making, moving down the ramp towards the exit. She paused, glancing back and saying “First watch. Get some sleep. We’ll scour the coast until we find a way out.”

And then she moved on.

Kestler looked to Shek, who simply shrugged, the firelight gleaming off his bald head as he glanced back and forth, still trying to process what had happened. With but a grunt, Kestler stood, tugging his sword off so he could lay down more comfortably on the bedroll, which at that moment felt like the most comfortable thing in the world.

“She don’t mean it, does she?” Shek muttered.

“About blowin’ yer head off? Yeah, she does.”

“No, not dat. Ah’m -fully- aware she’s lookin’ fer a reason to kill us.” The troll leaned closer, beads and necklaces jangling on him. “Ah mean...she ken’t search da coast.”

“Why not?” Kestler titled his head up, watching the Zandali carefully.

“Cause, mon. Tink I haven’t tried? Ent nottin’ to find. Trust me. Y’all gonna wind up dyin’ a thirst fore you find a way out of Vol’dun overseas. Trust me.”

--------------------

He thought he might have earned a reprieve, now he was out of the cell. Though that the trauma of his ordeal in imprisonment might have been the factor causing these visions.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be wrong.

“Wake up, you waste of skin.”

Kestler’s eye opened, staring at the dark ceiling of the cavern. Dagna was off to the side, snoring lightly with her repeater laying across her lap in case of attack. Regardless, this was probably the most relaxed he had ever seen her. The starry night sky of Vol’dun in full darkness stretched above him in the gash overhead, where he saw what had to be Shek in some sort of humanoid pterrodax form, golden medallions stretched across his chest as he stood watch from the highest perch they had available.

He knew that voice.

“Up!”

With that, Soren Kestler swung into Johan’s view, his face just as sour and angry as he remembered it. White hair, once majestic grey and pulled back neatly and meticulously, had grown shaggy and ill-cared for in his later years. His shirt was stained by spirits, his once noble field jacket open and loose, hanging with medals on the breast that had been polished so many times the metal shell had almost worn to the lead beneath.

“Get up, you filthy coward! I’ve got words to say to you!”

“I get it, Gramps.”

Johan sat up, reaching for his sword, unconcerned. Unlike the other visions, even Tiandre, he felt no apprehension towards his grandfather. Of course, he felt no regret or remorse either. Near the end, before Soren had disappeared into the Forsake Invasion, his state had been extremely manic and unpredictable. Sometimes, he was the proud, noble soldier Johan remembered. The old warhorse who held his chin up high and declared House Kestler to be the equal of the Peer by lineage alone. Other days, he was still the scheming opportunist who had send Nathan and Johan off to certain death for his own name and prestige while yelling Adrienne into cooperation. And many, many others he was the drunk who swore up and down that Johan’s cowardice in returning from Kalimdor after the Volunteers had been annihilated had shamed the family named forever in spite of all his hard work.

“Gramps! The lack of respect! You will address me with-where are you going?” The vision of Soren blinked, realizing Johan had already starting stepping down the ramp, heading for the entrance. “I’m fucking talking to you!”

“I’m headin’ outside. Rather not wake Dagna talkin’ to somethin’ in my bloody head.”

With the sound of clattering leather riding boots on stone (it seemed so damned real) Soren caught up to Johan, storming to the worgen’s front to glare at him as they went, his moustache trembling in fury.

“How DARE you! You think you can just dismiss me as you please!”

“No, I think I just need to wait you out,” Johan grunted as he rounded the corner to the entrance, strolling out onto the inky black sands, the moons overhead casting the desert around him in a ghastly, pale white light that looked menacing on the sands. The black expanse rolled on forever around him, and once more he wondered if maybe, just maybe he wasn’t still in his bedroll, fast asleep. “I don’ wanna talk to you, of all people.”

“Well, that’s a fine how-to-do!” Soren bristled, reaching up and beginning to smooth his scraggly hair down, tugging at his moustache angrily. “Oh, sure! Your father gets a nice, warm confession, your ex-wife a touching memory of your lost daughter-” here, Soren spat into the dirt, and Johan was never more tempted to strangle the old fucker. “Your commander comes in for a nice ‘how are you Sergeant’ and I get told to piss off! I MADE YOU, BOY!”

Soren had been a raving drunk near the end of his life. Any pleasant memories Johan had of the old man had certainly come from earlier years. It wasn’t helped by knowing that more than anything, this raving lunatic was how he himself pictured his grandfather near the end. That might not even have been true. Was this a real memory, or just his perception of the man?

Abruptly, Soren seemed to deflate, his voice growing weary. The military coat seemed less worn than draped, and the old man was suddenly hunched.

“What’s-why...I’m suddenly very tired.”

Johan, on instinct, had taken a few steps towards the old man, who suddenly fell to the sand, gasping as he tried to sit up, coughing. But the worgen stopped himself, watching the vision carefully. Much as he felt the urge to help, should he? Could he even if he wanted to?

Regardless, Soren Kestler rallied, straightening up but remaining seated, tugging his coat tighter as if he truly was chilled by the desert air, his decorations clinking on his chest. The old icon of Sergeant Major was stitched into the sleeve, a triple chevron with two bars underneath. While he’d always claimed his best years were as a Colour Sergeant, there was no denying that ironically Soren had certainly had the most -successful- military career out of all the family. He had worn his own campaign field jacket more and more near the end, shining his medals and other trophies of his career with increasing obsession, until the veneer had almost come off and the ribbons were beginning to tear. As he let go of his own appearance, so too had he let go of the old uniform. He insisted he still wore it out of pride, but the tarnished end it received meant it was old pride, long exhausted.

Soren glared up at his grandson.

“What are you staring at, you mongrel? Look at you,” he gestured Johan up and down. “You’re not a soldier. You’re a monster. A coward. A disgrace.”

“That’s rich,” Johan grunted, hackles raised at the vision. “Comin’ from you, ye broken ole man. Look at ye, stumblin’ all over yerself. Ye used to -be- somethin’ Grandfather. Now yer just a madman drownin’ in his cups, askin’ why the world forget about him.”

“Ha! At least I waited until my time was up before -my- breakdown!” Soren laughed out loud, reaching down and tugging his flask out, unscrewing the lid and taking a swig. Judging by the smell (so now smell was a thing in these visions? Where would it end?) “You RAN from Theramore, Johan. You weren’t -there- when they need you. Where were you when your wife miscarried? When your city was wiped off the map? How about Teldrassil, Lordaeron, Grymmtide Keep? What could be falling apart -now- without you there to-”

“SHUT UP, Old Man!” Kestler snarled, actually throwing a bark in as well, fangs and claws fully out, though he knew he could do no harm to him. The vision simply mocked him, laughing at the worgen’s misery and misfortune.

“For Light’s sake, you strangled your friend because a witch told you to! Look at the facts, Johan…” Here, Soren’s face straightened up, and he stared Johan directly in the eye. “As bad as you keep saying I am, you. Are. Just as bad.”

Johan’s ears flicked forward a moment, before he pinned them back again, his hackles quivering. Soren stopped laughing, stopped mocking, just looking on his grandson with a sad smile for a moment before he began rummaging round, tugging out a pipe and packing with a wrinkled finger.

“Can’t deny it, can you? It’s alright. Means you accept reality. Nothing wrong with that.”

“STOP IT!” Johan snapped, stepping forward and swiping a hand to knock the pipe out of his grandfather’s hand. Unlike the visions of Lyran and his father, however, this vision had no tangibility, and his blow went straight through. Soren glanced up, annoyed, before he went about his business of producing a match to strike and light the tobacco. Despite -knowing- it wasn’t real, Johan could still smell the flame, the smoke. It was all too much to take. “Stop it...I get it. Everythin’ I touch just...turns to shite.”

Soren sighed, taking a few puffs on his pipe, tapping it to dislodge any loose debris. “Certainly seems that way.” He looked up, the orange of the coal burning in the night. “Why do you stay this way, Johan? A beast acting like a man?”

He was caught offguard. The last person who had asked him that question had been Lyran, back in Stormwind. There, he’d answered her honestly. It was an easy question for him to answer. Being a worgen gave him power, strength in battle. The Wolf kept the nightmares away. But, Soren being part of his mind meant the vision of his dead grandfather knew the whole truth…

“Ye must’ve had nightmares, aye? Ye went to war plenty a’times.”

Soren shrugged. “Plenty. But you knew that. I can’t answer anything you don’t actually know, Johan. What are you getting at?”

“Because when I...when I’m human, they don’t stop.” He stepped back, looking away into the darkness and almost feeling the urge for the inky blackness to simply swallow him up. He’d never advocated suicide, and while he had considered it several times he’d never taken steps to act on ending his life. “I see it, all the time. When I’m asleep, when I’m awake. I smell burnin’ wood, all I can think of is houses and ships a’flame. Cooked meat is...its…” He rubbed his face, growling into it...no, whining. Like a dog frustrated with its circumstances. Normally, such a pathetic sound from his own throat would disgust himself. Now, he couldn’t bring himself to be the hypocrite and act like he was so much better. “I...I can’t be a man anymore, Grandfather. Not with all that. This is who I am now. I’m...me like this. I can fight. I can sleep. And I can keep goin’.”

“But what happens when -that- stops working?”

Johan blinked, not sure how to answer the very directional, very armor-piercing question. But when he turned back, Soren was gone.

But from the tunnel mouth, he spied two sets of eyes. One set blue. One set orange.

The blue eyes, realizing Kestler was looking back at them, disappared into the tunnel. The orange eyes lingered for a minute, and he stared back, one eye glowing blue and the other milky white. Finally, Dagna stepped away as well.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

User avatar
Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Wed Nov 21, 2018 1:06 am

Greywatch, Stormheim
Broken Isles
2 years ago


“Up on your feet, lads! They’re at the gates again! Arms, arms!”

“Aye, Sergeant!”

“Roberson, move those rifles to the overwatch! Addington, grenades now! Rochester, I want three men outside with shields, now!”

“Aye Sarge!”

“Roger, Sergeant!”

“Moving!”

Vrykul were a special kind of enemy. They looked like humans, though far taller, far wider and stronger. It wasn’t like fighting tauren, it was more like fighting an army of giants that moved like night elves. They rode bears, for Light’s sake. Even the worgen, used to towering above most members of the Alliance, found themselves paled in terms of height against these enemies. But without the ability to transport heavy cannon up here and without the time to strengthen the walls, they had to just grind it out with these raiders when they came knocking.

Tideskorn were especially persistent. Despite the casualties they’d sustained already, their orders from the Burning Legion insisted they drive the Gilneans and Forsaken out of Stormheim. At night, battle could be heard over the hills at Dreadwake’s Landing, just beyond the closest fjord. Word was, the King was planning a potential offensive to unseat the Horde, drive Sylvanas out. Right now, the Alliance presence in Stormheim was primarily Gilneas, awaiting reinforcements from Stormwind since King Anduin had been coronated. For now, they worked on their own.

The gates were under siege again. Outside, grenades detonated as rifles fired, indicating the Gilnean fort was at risk once more. Though cannons were too difficult to get through the hills right now, a few mortars had been set up further inside, thumping as worgen crews shoved new shells in, whistling as they flew overhead to assist the troops pulling back inside. At the gates, fusiliers lined up in ranks to cover the retreating Gilnean footmen. Anytime a clear shot emerged, a volley of shots rang out, cutting down the Tideskorn pursuing the worgen and humans before them. The end result was that a wall of lead covered the pass, and already a small mountain of corpses had started piling up. Fitting revenge for the Gilneans killed this day already.

But the vrykul pushed on, heedless of their losses, warriors and huntresses and ursine chargers catching up to the tail end of the retreat. And so, they kept falling back into Greywatch, as they had before. Against the half-giants, it was a better solution than standing and fighting in poor positions.

As the Gilnean forces fell back into the fort to regroup, it was just the skirmishers now. The wounded were passed to the rear to be mended, while ammunition and fresh weapons were passed to those still on their feet. The defenders rallied as the cracks of rifle fire became more and more insistent, the guards posted outside clashing with the oncoming press. Soon, they too would have to fall back inside Greywatch. Through the push of 2nd Company soldiers, Sergeant Kestler moved like a shark passing between shoals. He seemed to part the crowd before him, his target being the entrance to the camp. The canyon and gate would act like a funnel, brining the Tideskorn (and the occasional Felskorn he could see, which brought a sick feeling to his gut every time he saw fel corrupted beings) right down on them. Already, one of his lances was arranging soldiers in a double ring of shields, swords and pikes, fusiliers at the back to prepare a volley, and he knew the moment of truth was coming.

“Sergeant Kestler!” he snapped his head around as Captain Eckstein emerged from the crowd. She’d been placed in command of the fort’s forces, at least while the king was gone. And speaking of the King…

King Genn Greymane was always said to be a tall bear of a man, even in human form. Kestler had always assumed this meant he wore armor plate and exerted personality, since he’d only really seen the king from a distance before now. But even as a worgen, King Greymane was looking him dead in the eye, and he wore no armor aside from his enchanted leathers. Kestler found himself drawing up short. Where he once moved with precision towards the gates, ready to kill again, he suddenly found himself caught unawares, awkward and unprepared.

The King nodded to him, stormy eyes carefully considering the NCO before him.

“Well met, Sergeant. I’ve been hearing...things about you.”

Ah. Unfortunate things. His old reputation still lingered among the senior leadership left. He’d never be rid of it, it seemed. He felt his hackles start to raise at the thought, the idea that even now after all these years no one seemed to give a shit about looking past that. The awards he’d received hadn’t done him much good, and bought with the blood of his brothers he cared about them less and less. Before he could stop himself, he was already cranking out a quip.

“I assure you, they’re only half right.” He felt ice shoot down his spine, and immediately backpedaled in his mind as he internally panicked. “Eh, Yer Majesty.”

Should he bow? Salute? Kneel? Something?

But Genn Greymane merely smirked toothily, his eyes full of amusement.

“Which half, Sergeant?”

As if to remind them of the insistence of the situation, the gates slammed shut, the skirmishers and guards having fallen back inside the fort. Kestler turned away, aware of how much protocol he was breaking by doing so, slamming his helmet onto his head as he stepped up at the rear of the line.

The gate shuddered. The Tideskorn were trying to get in.

He looked over at Eckstein, about to ask her a question before he paused, glancing up at Greymane. While he was certain the King had been present at other battlefields, he’d never -shared- a site with him. 1st Brigade were the King’s Men, but for all that he’d never clapped eyes on the king on the same field. He took only a second to consider before he asked “Yer orders, Majesty?”

To his credit, Greymane’s response was to shift into worgen form, gesturing to the gates and the ring of 2nd Company troops ready for the breach.

“They’re your men, Sergeant. Consider me just an...observer.”

Kestler nodded, turning away and taking a deep breath, tugging his claymore Rend off his back, testing the blade though he knew it to be perfectly sharpened. As he moved into the ring, Gilnean troopers stepped aside, glancing at him before sidestepping to let him in, forming back up behind him, a ring of steel, fur and flesh. Finally, he was at the front, and the gates shuddered again as he looked up at them, considering the oncoming danger as one appraises cooking meat to test if it was edible yet. He took a deep breath, hearing the raiding vrykuls’ alien war cries as they prepared to rush the gate again. His hand curled around the haft of his sword.

He turned, looking out at his troops. He wasn’t one for big speeches. He had always led his men by reinforcing their morale, standing with them, diving into the fight at their head. But today of all days, with the King here and watching, he felt that it might warrant at least a few words. He paused, considering as the door behind him shuddered again, dust and splinters thrown from the freshly cut timbers. He drew in a deep breath before he gave it his best shot.

“Stand fast, lads! They’ll be pouring over us before we’re ready, sure as sure. But you are worgen! You -are- Gilneas!”

The gates shuddered again, splintering audibly this time, but still holding. He pointed at it, snarling as he directed their fury, their range, anger and drive for vengeance.

“There is nothing they can throw at us we haven’t seen a thousand times already!”

He snarled, and the sentiment was repeated a dozen times over, even from the human troops and their few dwarven comrades. Right now, the Gilneas Brigade stood ready for the armies of of hell to march over them, and take their corrupted blood down with them.

The gate slammed again, and Kestler could hear the hinges straining, the locks about to burst. He turned to face it, backing up until he was in front of the ranks of his men, sword held in hand as his eyes narrowed.

“They’re breaking down the door!” he called, though his men could obviously see what was happening. But he needed to rally them, keep them focused and ready for the fight. “Stand! Steady! Steady!”

In that brief moment of silence, with the gates barely hanging from splinters and the vrykul beyond even visible through the gaps, you could almost hear a pin drop. The Gilnean troopers were frozen, their platemail not even rattling as they awaited the crush about to come down on them.

And then the gates fell beneath a massive, white-haired Tideskorn berserker, a massive human-shaped creature with an axe in each hand the size of a horse, roaring like a lion as he surged forward. But he didn’t get more than a stride before Kestler buried his claymore in the giant’s guts, wrenching upwards before tearing the blade away, disemboweling the vrykul in a spray of blood and guts. Even as the first one fell, more came onwards with their fury and their hate for the lesser races of Azeroth, seeking to slaughter the children of the east, and as ever Sergeant Kestler was the first one in, his bloody blade held high as he screamed “FOR THE KING! FOR GILNEAS! FOR THE ALLIANCE! CHARGE, LADS! INTO THE TEETH OF HELL! FOLLOW ME TO GLORY!”

And without hesitation, Gilneas followed him.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Near Zul’ahjin
Vol’dun, Zandalar


It became both easier and harder surviving the next week with the cave now. Easier because they now had a place to hold up when sandstorms came and fight against the heat, but harder because they had to range further and further away to make sure they didn’t exhaust the resources close by. Shek, in his pterrordax form, could go take his pick of the jungle, but he could only bring back so much. It fell to Kestler and Dagna to tackle the harder parts of the desert around the ruin. They’d faced off against krolusks and hyenas, scorpids and vultures. And where they went, armed as they were all it took was one or two Exiles fended off and hacked apart for the rest to scurry off into the ruins around them. So far, no sethrak. According to Shek, that was a very good thing. It was an interesting shift in the power dynamic, to suddenly be in control of their fates.

Dagna never brought up Kestler’s fit. He didn’t know why. To her, he had to seem a raving madman, shouting at things that weren’t there and even trying to strike them. Shek had started being -way- too nice and treating him with kid’s gloves. If it weren’t for the great trove of salvage he had, despite all his talk of being a free spirit and making up his lost profits, Kestler had no doubt the Zandali would have fled, perhaps even risking discovery by the Empire.

Regardless, the days bled into each other as Kestler and Dagna ranged out further and further, trying to see how far they could go as they regained their old strength. Wounds healed, closed as the hard living combined with the food they gathered brought them back from the wrecks they had been. Shek did his best with druidic restoration magic, but there came a point where he simply shook his head, shrugging. There was nothing he could do about the scars. It was up to Kestler and Dagna to recover.

Their options to find the coast were limited. To the west, past the ruins of Atul’aman, was a stretch of coastline anchored by the cursed port of Zem’lan. No boats were here, and it was a city of the dead. Undead trolls walked its fallen lanes, in numbers Johan hadn’t believed. Had this all been one crew? The three of them couldn’t take such an enemy.

To the north of that was the Terrace of the Devoted, across the Arid Basin. Nevermind how difficult it was to reach, the place was full of sethrak and a battlefield between the two factions, the Faithless and Devoted. Everyday, the two would fight each other across the sands for dominance. Battlegrounds Sergeant Kestler was familiar with. But he dare not get close without his own troops.

To the north, the wide open wasteland greeted them. It was telling that the only things capable of thriving there were krolusks and ranishu, the little scaly bastards. More than once, Kestler and Dagna had been forced to retreat when they had swarmed the duo, their acid spit making their meat entirely useless. But aside from that was the Vulpera Hideaway, where the little fox creatures hid from the unforgiving desert. They were friendly, to a point, but didn’t show much trust to these strange outsiders.

“It’s not you,” one of them told Kestler as he accepted some of the krolusk carapace in exchange for some softer cloth. “You’re just...strange. Unlike anything else we’ve seen.”

Well. At least he was familiar with that.

And so, they waited it out, trying to plot a preferable route. Maybe if they packed their supplies and were willing to camp in the rocks, they could cross the wastes to the north, wildlife or no. Word said that strangers had taken up position on the northern coastline, probably tortollan merchants, though Johan had heard about Alliance raiding camps somewhere here (something he noticed the vulpera were extremely unwilling to talk about).

Every night, the three of them sat around the fire, watching the wood burn as they sipped water from salvaged cups and considered their actions the next day. Shek seemed happy enough just surviving, though Kestler suspected he was just making the best of a terrible situation. Dagna never said more than a dozen words when she didn’t need to. And his own social skills were horrid, so he never brought anything up unless it was pertinent.

So, they continued like this. Day after day. Night after night. Without end.

-------------------------

At sunset on the fifth day, the champions came.

Kestler and Dagna were heading north, trying to find some way to cross through and search for a sign of these ‘outsiders’. Unfortunately, the Faithless had started a new offensive, and that meant that now the north was impossible to reach at this rate.

They were overlooking the sethrak army from a high rise, watching the force march north to try and attack the Devoted’s position. Neither of them spoke, just sipped their water as the late day sun beat down on their necks. Kestler sighed, tucking his battered old canteen away as he considered that now may be the time to head back. The hunting had been poor today, and with this news they were considering turning back to wash their hands of their losses, conserve supplies.

There was a clattering of pebbles, and they both froze up. There were any number of dangers in the desert, and sometimes if they just stayed still it would move on.

The clatter came again.

Kestler drew his sword and buckler shield in a flash, immediately spinning and putting himself in front of Dagna, who was readying her rifle. The first crossbow bolt flew in, past the buckler and burying itself in Kestler’s shoulder. His arm was thrown back, but he merely growled, ignoring it as he focused on his target. A goblin Hunter, already preparing another shot, a massive red hyena charging across the sand towards them, its open mouth huffing and drooling. Flanking the creature was a Highmountain shaman, her lightning shield up as she readied a solid one, a set of triple blades mounted on a fist brace. On the other side was a massive orc in monel-hardened plate, clearly of Zandali make, massive twin axes clutched in his hands as he surged forward.

Champions were not soldiers. They were the best of what the Horde had to offer, living paragons of their craft. Kestler had faced champions before, in ones and twos and with an army at his back. But alone, outnumbered and with poor equipment, their odds were slim.

Another bolt glanced off his buckler. Dagna took up a kneeling position, sighting on the charging warrior, her rifle cracking. The shot connected, but glanced off the orc’s armor. The greenskin let out a bellow of rage anyway, leaping up from the sand to come crashing down on top of Kestler’s shield. The worgen snarled back, shoving him away as they two began their dance of blades. Without a big shield, Kestler had to deflect instead of fully block, turning away the axe blows with his sword and buckler instead of just absorbing them as he normally would. The orc bellowed in his face, bringing both axes down as Kestler snarled back, his world narrowing as he felt one axe bite into his shoulder. He smashed his buckler into the orc’s face, knocking on slobbering fang out of his maw. The orc barely seemed to feel it through his bloodlust and fury, punching Kestler back with a mailed fist.

A flash of light came from Kestler’s right, and he warded the orc off with his sword before taking the incoming fireball on his shield, feeling the sheet of flame cast over him by the shaman. Dagna fired again, and the bullet took a chunk off the she-tauren’s shoulder, causing her to howl in pain. Another crossbow bolt sailed past Kestler’s head, and the hyena yowled as it leapt towards him. For a solid minute, Kestler was caught in a wild frenzy of spells, axes, crossbow bolts and teeth. He was almost overwhelmed, caught in a whirlwind of violence as he tried to defend from all sides. He slammed his shield into the hyena, caught another bolt in the, sidestepped an axe swing, but took the shaman’s mace to the face without time to react.

”That’s it Johan! Block, block, swing!”

Kestler fell to the sand, sword and shield and arms up as he blindly tried to defend. Bad enough his left eye was dead, now he could see at all as he was whaled upon by three parties, hearing them jeering at him in their foreign tongues as they moved to finish him. Hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers and all it took was a bad day and three equally skilled fighters, maybe just as experienced as he was.

”Get up, boy! You think the fight ends because you’re broken and bleeding? Fight! Your enemy will -end- you if he thinks you’re weak! NEVER give up the struggle! NEVER lay down and die! At the end of it all, all we’ve GOT is going down swinging! Now GET -UP-!”

He snarled, lashing out, feeling his sword connect with something, shield up and smashing, blood spraying, pain lancing through him. Something flashed before him, and he headbutted blindly on instinct, feeling his helmet crack on something fleshy. The Forsaken rogue who had overseen his torture fell to the sand, skull split and spitting blood. Where had he come from? Something moved to his right, and with barely a glance Johan brought his sword up to block the strike, killing on instinct now, stabbing and smashing and biting and tearing and killing and killing and killing and killing-

”That’s all you are, Johan! There’s nothing left in you but hate!”

Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate

”Get up!”

“Fight!”

“You don’t have to-”

“-die with glory, Sergeant! Forward!”

“-do this anymore-”

“Kestler…”

“When will you accept that this is ALL you are!”

“Ye’ve got a gift, lad. I ent seen -anyone- can fight like-”

“You monster!”

“Kestler!”

“My boy…”

“INCOMING!”

“Coward!

“TRAITOR!”

“I love you, y’know-”

“-awarded for acts of valor above and be-”

“-fel spear shard. We’ve got it out, but the corruption-”

“Welcome to the Blades, Sergeant-”

“Johan! Stop! It’s not real!”

“You bastard!”

”KESTLER!”


He blinked.

Dagan lay on her back below him, her slugthrowers barrels yawning into his face. The bayonet gently touched his chest, pressed against the plate. Her orange eyes burned as they stared up at him, wide and watching, almost fearful even. She was breathing hard, hands clenching her rifle, finger on the trigger. A drop of blood appeared on her face. Then another. And another.

He tasted blood.

His sword arm slowly lowered, and he straightened up, abruptly feeling pain shooting up and down his limbs. He grunted, gasping as he took a step back. Then two. His sword fell to the sand, suddenly no longer able to hold onto it. He looked down.

He was drenched in blood. Red and black. Not all of it as his, but judging from the cuts, the crossbow bolts he had and the dagger sticking out of his side, a great deal of it was. He tasted blood, but when he spat it was black, not red. Slowly, he turned around.

He torn into them. The orc was in shreds. The Highmountain tauren’s arm and head were gone. The hyena had one of the orc’s axes in it. The goblin had a dagger through its throat. The Forsaken was ripped in half at the waist.

He fell to his knees. He’d never been too bothered by the violence he’d been forced to dole out. Harsh as it may be, they were his actions. He had to find some solace in doing them. But this...he didn’t remember doing -any- of this. Just a blur, flashes and voices as a rushing in his ears, a crashing mix of burning wood and crashing waves.

“What…” he couldn't speak.

Dagna was at his side, looking down at him, her burning gaze so hard to match. Yet somehow, he found a way, looking up at her through all the pain and exhaustion in him. For a long moment, he thought this would be it. She’d just kill him, here and now. He wouldn't blame her one bit.

But, after a long moment, she reached down, slipping a hand under his arm and hauling him up.

“C’mon, Wolf. It’s gettin’ dark. Let’s get Shek ta patch ye up.”

--------------------------

The last week, he’d been plagued. Every night, it was someone different. Fallen comrades who came through to talk to him, remind him of past battles. Of past failures. Subordinates. Brothers. Sisters. Superiors. He tried to keep his end of the talks as subdued as possible. The ghosts never seemed to bring it up. He’d never been much of a chatty person any way.

On the sixth night since they found the cave, he rolled over expecting the cieling above. He had company, but unlike the others he wasn’t sure how to speak to her. Shek was sprawled over his sleeping mat, snoring like a dwarven engine. Dagna must be outside on watch, her glowing eyes scanning the horizon for danger. Fortunately, he suspected this conversation might be quiet enough he didn’t disturb either of them. Still, he just wasn’t sure how to start.

Adrienne Kestler started it instead.

“Feeling better?”

He shrugged, still staring at the sky.

“Better than in the dungeon, at least. Be a while before I’ll be back to form.”

She stood, stepping over so she was in his view. For a moment, he was reminded of the vision of Soren Kestler, but his grandfather had gotten up in his face, aggressive and accusatory. His mother stood just at the edge of his awareness, her head tilted as she watched him carefully. Just over fifty, her hair gone to grey before her time, soft eyes watching him carefully. She’d lucked out, her wrinkles being light as her activity kept her skin from sagging. Her body was still strong, not as strong as in her youth but still not close to being disabled. She wore her hunting leathers, hand stitched personally from beasts she had shot and hides she had tanned. She’d grown up in Duskhaven, hunting in the surrounding hills and the Blackwald. She was a survivalist, younger sister to two brothers. She knew how to take care of herself.

“You’ve been through a lot. Look at all these scars.”

He grunted, trying to chuckle but it turned out like a cough. When he recovered, he took a deeper breath, sighing.

“You think those’re bad? Should see the ones on my back.”

“Things’ll get better, Joey. They always do.”

“Ma…” it sounded exactly like something she’d say. But she -wasn’t- real, just stuck in his head like all the others. “I dunno what’s happenin’ to me. I’m seein’ you, grandpa, Pa, Lyran, all these other people from my past. I’m losin’ control of myself. I’m...I feel like I’m goin’ insane, Ma.”

He knew she was in his head. But that made things better. He didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed. No one would know. Perhaps the fact she looked and sounded so much like the real thing made him feel a little easier about talking to her, much easier than his grandfather or ex-wife.

She tugged off her gloves and reached out, and once again he felt that same pressure that his father and Lyran had managed, the sensation so maddeningly close to being real he couldn’t stand it. His family was gone. This wasn’t a ghost either. It was just a crazy, raving hallucination that sat down next to him, looking at him just like a mother who hadn’t seen her son in years.

“Ma...am I mad?”

She smiled, and that threw a lot more questions at him his brain wasn’t prepared to handle (such as wondering if he was trying to comfort himself or if he was attempting to project a reinforcing image through this vision) and rubbed behind his ears. Eerily enough, it was actually rather soothing, as if her fingers ran through his fur between his ears.

“Do you feel mad? Do you feel like you’re losing control?” She scratched around his dead eye, and he settled into it, deciding to forget for a moment how insane this had to look or the concept of it in the first place, taking comfort from a vision. “This feels real, but you know its not.”

“Aye.”

“So, do you feel mad?”

“I must be. I’m seein’ you. I keep havin’ all these...flashes. Memories. Comin’ back to me.”

“How did you pull through that dungeon, Joey? What kept you going?”

He answered near instantly.

“Hate.”

But she shook her head, a smirk on her face just like what she’d wore when she knew he was lying or dodging the truth. Adrienne always looked through his barriers and deflections, like a bullet through heavy armor.

“No. No it wasn’t.”

He didn’t answer. She knew the truth. Instead, he closed his good eye, relaxing and enjoying the feeling of her gently stroking the fur between his ears, humming a song from his childhood as she held her son’s head in her lap.

And he could pretend it was real.

When he woke in the middle of the night, she was gone.

-----------------------

The next day, they met Shek’s partner in crime. Literally. Her name was Aiko, and when Kestler awoke she was sitting next to the fire, casually gnawing on a strip of vulture jerky. He watched her for a moment before Shek noticed he was awake, waving the worgen over. Kestler grunted, shifting to join them at the fire. The newcome drew her blade in a flash, and he found himself staring down at a wickedly serrated blade.

The vulpera looked up at Kestler with a wary eye, clicking her teeth angrily.

“I don’t like strangers, Shek. Strangers bring bad news.”

“Aiko-”

“First we have the dwarf, who is this one? -What- is he?

“I’m a worgen, ye bloody runt.” Johan glanced down at her dagger. It looked to have been made out of krolusk carapace and bone, common materials in the desert, and he was certained it was poisoned. “Put that damn thing away before I kill ye with it. Plenty tried killin’ me with a damn pig-sticker, none of them won.”

She kept watching him, but he had little worry for her, settling next to Dagna, who handed him an empty scorpid bowl full of what looked like some kind of meat stew (questionable on if those were vegetables). He didn’t question it, merely tucked in with gusto. After the whaling he’d received yesterday and the healing session, he was hungry. With food starting to stretch after a week and an unsuccessful hunt yesterday, they had to make the meat stretch until they got a good one.

Aiko finally sheathed her dagger, glaring at Kestler from under her hood as she turned back to the meat. Whether because he was just trying to diffuse the situation or he had completely missed the hostilities, Shek seated himself next to the vulpera, his own bowl of stew in hand as he grinned, glancing back and forth between the two.

“Okee den. Kestler, Dagna, dis is Aiko. Aiko, da furry one is Kestler, da dwarf is Dagna. Dey been, uh...stayin’ wit me a few days.”

“He means we came in and beat his arse with his own weapons so he’s forced to share camp with us,” Dagna stated bluntly, not even looking up as she continued eating. Kestler chuckled, elbowing the dark iron in the ribs, who elbowed back with the smallest trace of a smile.

Aiko grunted as her ears flattened, clearly not impressed. “Neat,” she said flatly. Shek continued regardless.

“Kestler, Dagna, dis be Aiko. She’s da reason I got so much good stuff outta da desert. I kin send ‘er out to dig stuff up an’ I’ll come get it later. She don’t need as much water as me, an’ the Hideaway lets her in without problems.”

“Yer a scout,” Kestler remarked, setting his cleaned out bowl down, licking his chops to get at the last of the broth. Evidently Aiko took that wrong, as she hunched down a little, paw on her dagger. He saw no reason to convince her otherwise.

“So what if I am?” she snapped, her gaze wary as she watched him close. Dagna elbowed Kestler back, and he grunted towards her, shaking his head as he began picking his teeth to get the last of the meat out. “You’re the two idiots trying to get to the coast, then?” Aiko’s demeanor was hostile and suspicious, likely a response to the poor conditions the vulpera faced here in Vol’dun. “The hell do you want to see on the coast?”

“A way out,” Dagna said simply, now finished with her own stew and sipping carefully at the last of her pandaren beer. It may not have been a necessity, or even smart considering they were in the desert, but she was a dwarf, and dwarves drank beer and ale like other races drank water, so after being in that dungeon for two months, no one was going to stop her. “We were gonna check the north coast soon as we can.”

Aiko snorted.

“One of you crossing to the north is gonna get you deader than the sethrak’s beloved loa. Shoulda tried those pinkskins.”

This abrupt, casual statement, dropped so casually, pulled the two Alliance outsiders up fast. They stared at the little fox creature, then looked to each other, then over to Shek, who wasn’t looking their way, suddenly very concerned with his bowl. In their moment of confusion, Dagna was the first to react, turning back to Aiko.

“Pinkskins?”

“Well, some of them aren’t. Most of them are though. They look like you, except some of them are -big-. Like -really- big. Big as a Zandali.”

“Humans,” Dagna confirmed, blinking in surprise. “In Vol’dun?”

Kestler growled. “And Kul Tirans. What the hell are they doin’ here?”

Aiko shrugged, looking as if she really couldn’t be bothered much as she kept picking through her food.

“Dunno. They set up down south. Only thing I care about with them is killing them, though.” She looked up, her gaze suddenly full of fire. “They’re slavers. And of course they don’t go after the Exiles. Not enough of them, too hard to control. No, they have to grab -my- people.”

“Grab? I see plenty of vulperan pirates. Don’t need to be dragged off,” Kestler grumbled, his mind on Freeport and its piratical members, namely the Irontide Raiders. In a flash, Aiko was on her feet, stew knocked sideways and poisoned dagger at Kestler’s throat, her eyes flashing with fire.

“Say that again, you great big furry bastard!” she snarled, one hand hanging on Kestler’s collar as she threatened him. “They’re not pirates! The pinkskins throw my people down a mineshaft and don’t let them back up unless they’re a corpse!”

To her utter surprise, Kestler neither froze up nor frantically tried to pull her off, but with the sound of steel sliding on rock, she suddenly felt cold steel against her belly, looking down to find Kestler’s mercenary sword’s blade pressed to her. The worgen stared her down with his one good eye, absolutely no fear present.

“I’ve survived worse than you, little girl. Ye wanna try yer bloody luck? Bet I can decorate this cave with your guts before that poison kills me. -If- it kills me.”

“A’ight, enough!”

With rough, powerful hands, Dagna the dark iron stepped forward, grabbing an arm in each hand and yanking the two apart so sharply, she almost broke the bones she held. Her burning gaze snapped between the two, back and forth, jaw clenched as she tossed Aiko away.

“Ye wanna do somethin’ about this, or d’ya wanna go back to threatenin’ te kill each other?” Kestler she shoved down, straddling his chest and sitting right down on it, slamming a meaty punch into the worgen’s snout the moment he tried to protest. He rallied, attempting to reach up and wrestle the dark iron woman off him, but she simply repeated a working solution and smacked him again. This persisted another two tries until Kestler finally relented, glaring up at Dagna from under a fresh bruise, growling lowly.

Finally, when tempers had at last cooled off, with Kestler on one side of the fire and Aiko on the other, Dagna began again. First, she turned to Aiko, and coolly asked her “Where?”

The vulpera stared up at the dwarf a moment, then clearly decided against trying her luck. “About a week from here, going the safe way. Well, if you call tangling with sandfury trolls ‘safe’.”

“So what’s the ‘risky’ way in that case?”

Aiko held Dagna’s stare a quivering moment, her entire body shuddering lightly before she glanced at Shek, who stood in the corner, not saying a word but looking on with something between grief and anxiety. Kestler could smell the fear coming off of them. Not fear of the Alliance POWs, though Shek had plenty of that. No, these two were scared of whatever route the vulperan was about to suggest. That didn’t bode well at all.

Finally, Aiko broke eye contact with Shek, turning to stare the rock beneath their feet.

“A day’s travel south, through Zul’Ahjin and the Withering Gorge.”

“Ye didn’t tell us there were human ships that close!” Kestler snapped, his gaze now fixed firmly on Shek. The Zandali huffed, looking the closest to hostile that they had seen since they’d arrived, standing to his full and impressive height above the trio.

“Course not. Cause if ah did, ya woulda made me go. Da sandfury don’ take prisoners, dey take -slaves-. Dat’s what dey was s’posed to do with ya, I bet. Must have missed ya. It happens more often dan ya tink. But on top a dat, if dey don’t getcha, da Withering Gorge will! An’ if -dat- don’t getcha, da ruins is full a’ sethrak and scorpids, just waitin’ for stupid travelers. Look...dese humans, dey don’t fuck around. If’n ya get through all dat, dey’s got enough guns on de odda side to chase off General Jakra’zet’s warband. -Several- times. Dat’s alotta guns.”

“Who are they?” Dagna queried, her brow furrowed. Kestler too was equally puzzled. While he’d heard of Alliance raiding bases out here, the Alliance didn’t take slaves, and tended to bring along more races than just humans.

But Shek just shrugged, clearly out of his element. “Dunno. Some a’ der ships got an anchor on da sail so at least a few be from Kul Tiras. Others got a set of scales. All I know is dat a few months back, dey suddenly shown up ‘ere and started pillagin’ the area for whatevva dey can find.”

“Pillagin’?” Kestler muttered, racking his brain. A few months back would correspond with the time when Azerite had started emerging across the world. Many interested parties were sent scrambling after it, and that didn’t just include the Horde and Alliance.

“Y’thinkin’ mebbe pirates?” Dagna asked, thinking the same as him, but he shook his head.

“Pirates using Kul Tiran banners? Don’t make sense.” He stood, dusting himself off. “We’ll find out when we get there, I s’pose.” For a moment, the group stared at him, and he realized none of them had reacted. He looked at each of them inquisitively, trying to figure out why they were staring up at him with such odd expressions. “What?”

“Get there? Are you aware, friend, of just all the difficulties we’ve just named off in just getting there, not to mention facing down these guys? There’s a lot of humans with guns there.”

“Yeah.” Kestler turned, moving to begin packing his gear up, bedroll tucked up and armor gathered so he could start buckling up. In another moment, he took up a pike from the weapon stocks around him, setting it aside so he could take it with him. “An’ its our best chance of gettin’ outta here. Sides, I get to shut down a bunch a’slaver assholes at the same time. Bit of a win fer me.”

Dagna was up on her feet too, packing up her own supplies now, though she glanced over at Kestler several times in apprehension. He didn’t show any reaction, preferring to focus on packing camp. Shek and Aiko said nothing, still sitting by the fire as they watched the two Alliance soldiers prepare their trek. They gathered jerked meat, took waterskins and canteens, packed up their salvaged navigation equipment, battered as it was. Armor was strapped into position, weapons gathered and tied down. Travel cloaks were shaken out and tied, and their packs (more accurately a collection of salvaged bags, sacks and pouches they’d put together into backpacks of a sort) were finally prepared.

As they finally stepped towards the entrance, Kestler turned to Shek and Aiko, looking at both of them with a grit jaw.

“I know ye’ve got no reason come. Sooner we’re gone the sooner ye’ll have two less mouths to feed and ye can go back to livin’ like ye had before.”

“Okay. Bye,” Aiko said dismissively, turning back to the fire and poking it with a stick. Shek said nothing, watching the worgen carefully.

Kestler continued. “But we could use the help. Ye’ve been here fer -years- Shek. Ye gotta know how to get us there.”

The druid didn’t respond, looking from Kestler to Dagna, back again. He did this several times, his brow continuing to furrow and deepend, obviously resolving some sort of internal crisis he was having. But in the end, he simply turned away, staring into the fire as well, not a word spoken.

Dagna reached up, tugging on Kestler’s arm. “C’mon, Wolf. We can’t blame ‘im.”

He agreed with that, and sighed as he took up his pike, following after Dagna as she moved down the ramp. They exited the cave, striking out towards where their compasses told them was south, pulling their cloaks close to protect from the winds already whipping up. The last two weeks here had taught them quite a lot about the desert.

An hour later, with the fluttering of wings, Shek landed in front of them, changing into his troll form and giving the two of them a long, hard and piercing look. Neither of them said anything, just watching the Zandali as he made some sort of internal decision.

Finally, he sighed, rubbing his eyes before jerking his head towards the south.

“C’mon. Let’s get dis ovah wit.”

When the hell Aiko had arrived, none of them realized. But as the four of them set off towards the south, the winds settled for a time, and they settled into an easy, striding pace. A day to the ruins through the Withering Gorge, then into a possibly hostile port/slave mining operation. All against who knew how many dangers and enemy powers.

But Johan Kestler was more than ready to start the Long Way Back.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War

User avatar
Azurlavai
Diplomat
 
Posts: 607
Founded: Aug 29, 2013
Corrupt Dictatorship

Postby Azurlavai » Thu Nov 22, 2018 10:19 pm

Withering Gorge, Vol’dun
Zandalar


Amusingly, in contrast to their last few weeks here, the trek across the desert turned out to be the easy part. Following the mountains south had taken them in a fairly straight line until they had reached the mouth of the pass. That should have been their first sign that something was wrong, was when the route was empty and they went unmolested. Nothing impeded them, not wildlife or sethrak or Horde or Exiles. At the time, Kestler had just chalked it up to their luck finally turning to their side.

He should have known better.

The Withering Gorge was made up of the ruins of an ancient troll city, Zul’Ahjin. According to some of the history Shek had spouted off, Zul’Ahjin had guarded the approach into the temple of Akunda, so its wealth and scale had grown to cover much of the south. Now, however, it was little more than another sprawling mass of buildings spelling the past glories of an Empire in decline. And, for them, it made the largest obstacle in reaching their goal.

As they came up to the ruins and began their approach through the Gorge, Dagna finally spared a glance back at Aiko and spoke the first words of the trip that hadn’t been someone pointing out a hazard in the sands.

“Why’d they call it the ‘Withering Gorge’, anyway? Seems a bit odd out in the desert?”

In response, Aiko simply shrugged, her bandanna pulled up to cover her face, leaving only her eyes visible under her hood.

“Probably something to do with the walking carnivorous plants.”

Kestler honestly wished he hadn’t been shocked. He’d found the undead, giant green aliens from beyond their world, demons and other monsters. And yet at the little vulperans’ words he and Dagna both stopped, fixing her with pointed stares before glancing forward to Shek. To his credit, the druid at least had the temerity to look embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck and shrugging.

“Right...uh...kinda missed dat one.”

“How d’ya fuckin’ “miss” lettin’ us know the damn plants crawl an’ chew, ya daft bloody bastard,” Kestler grumbled, pushing past to take the lead, Dagna in pursuit. A sheepish Shek and an uncaring Aiko followed after, as the ground beneath their feet sloped downwards. For a time, they were still left alone to plug on through the sand, not seeing anything aside from birds in the distance, most likely vultures. But the ruins rose under them, swallowing up their surroundings as sand turned to stone. They were walking down what had to be an avenue now, up against the cliffs. The dead city loomed up around them, wind whistling through empty buildings and pyramids like the dead come back to remind them they were trespassing on hallowed ground. The sun blazed high overhead, still as deadly and intent as in the open desert but at least giving them relief in the shadows from the structures.

It was at this point they started seeing odd tracks. As the sand gave way to true soil, long and dragging trails showed themselves in the ground, odd trenches dug in the ground. Shek and Aiko immediately grew uncomfortable, carefully watching the dirt as they went. Their uneasiness made Kestler nervous, and he readied his sword and buckler. The pike would be useless if these were actually living plants. He didn’t doubt that part, actually. He’d seen plenty of stranger things than predatory vines.

Their first hint was just a small hissing noise that made them all pause, trying to find the source. It stopped, and they were ready to continue on when it came again, louder and from multiple directions, causing the party to freeze in place, glancing around as the four automatically put their backs together, blades up and searching. Shek turned to his moon form, already preparing a spell. Aiko drew a second dagger, flipping them uneasily in her paws as she glanced back and forth. Dagna thumbed back her hammer. Kestler had his shield up, sword blade held ready to stab the first thing to enter his field of vision.

Silence. The ground lay still, but the four didn’t lower their guard. They watched carefully, waiting. Listening…

And then the ground burst beneath their feet, vines whipping around. Kestler struck automatically, his sword slashing through one, then three, six vines. And yet, still more burst from the desert soil, writhing around like the tentacles on some deep sea monster, searching for some prey to grab. Dagna’s repeater boomed over and over again, only interrupted by her need to reload, and Shek cast his moonbolts and solar wrath en masse, laying waste to half the field as Aiko flowed like water, a true assassin as he blades flashed through the air.

Mouths were coming up now, enormous toothy maws that resembled jagged fronds and vines sewn into some macabre representation of a jawbone. Kestler snarled, slapping his shield into one of them before he slashed through all four with the sword. They couldn’t keep this up. The fight had only just started, but they were already being overwhelmed.

“Cut through!” he barked, laying waste to three more of the aggressive growths the second they popped up from the ground. Dagna spun like a turret, levelled her rifle and let loose three shots, immediately opening a corridor, which Aiko leapt into and ripped through to clear more space. Shek drew up even taller, his arms opening wide as he released a bolt of Sunfire, searing away the space. But already, the vines were emerging from the ground, grasping for them. Kestler put his shoulder behind his shield, roaring as he surged forward, the others on his heels as he turned into a literal battering ram, tearing through the rest to reach the other side, feeling jagged teeth and grasping vines tear at him, searching for some gap in his defense.

And then he was through, with a final powerul swipe cutting past the last of the creatures until he felt his feet stumble over burning stone and sand. He turned back, lopping off two more vines that came after the party. The ground was roiling now, hundreds more vines coming up to chase after them, seeking for their flesh.

“Shek! Burn it!” he hollered, fending off another creature as it took a bite at him. Shek obliged immediately, bringing down a Solar Beam, followed by a Starsurge, Sunfire and finally a Starfall that blanketed the Withering Gorge in a obliterating bombardment. In moments, it was finally over, the ground left blackened and charred. Though still twitching, the vines now refused to reemerge.

--------------------

They made camp in the ruins that night. Aside from a handful of sethrak relic hunters and a few oversized spiders, they met no more serious resistance. Camp was quiet that night, a small fire for warmth against the vicious chill of the desert. A sandstorm crawled in that night, the winds buffeting the ruins and imitating the screams of the dead.

They treated their wounds carefully. No one had been too badly hurt by the vines, but this far out from the cave and on limited supplies, with the fight they expected, they couldn’t be too careful. Shek healed a pretty bad gash on Dagna’s back, while Kestler sniffed blood on Aiko.

“It’s fine, dog. Leave me alone,” she said, baring her teeth up at him. He wasn’t impressed, but when he reached out to take her shoulder, she actually had the gall to turn around and bite him, sinking her peg-like teeth in. He snarled, tossing her across the camp.

“The fuck was that for?” he hissed.

“Leave me alone, you bastard!” she snapped, her hood now pushed back to reveal the cut on her head. “I don’t need anyone to look after me!”

“I’m tryin’ to keep ya alive, ye stupid bitch!” he snapped, gesturing to her bloody fur. “Ye wanna let that get infected, fine! I’ll be long gone before it effects me.”

“Oh you’re so tough, aren’t you! I be you’ve run off on everyone who’s ever been difficult!”

Silence. Kestler didn’t move a muscle, a hand on the throwing axe in his belt, staring daggers down at Aiko, his good eye narrowed in unrelenting rage that he had barely controlled.

“Ye don’t know a damn thing about me.”

Finally realizing she had crossed a long, Aiko glanced over at Shek uneasily, her ears laying down across her head. Dagna, who had let her shirt down a bit to let the druid at her injury, glared back at Aiko, coal-burn eyes narrowed, a hand on her own axe.

Finally, Aiko sighed, trudging over to Kestler and sitting down, back to him so he could take a look. In spite of himself, he did so, taking a knee and carefully pushing through her fur to look at the wound. Fortunately, it appeared as shallow as he suspected. Scalp injuries merely bled more, which gave the impression of a serious injury. He grunted, standing to let Shek get in and patch her up with a heal (the druid was looking pretty tired, so he must have been low on mana) and muttered “Next time, just lemme take a look.”

“What do you care? You’ll be gone, remember?”

He’d turned away at this point, staring into the sandstorm that battered the ruins, appearing almost as a solid barrier of flying earth and silt in the darkness of the desert. While the odds of something coming at them out of the sand were low, one could never be too cautious. Still, he thought long and hard about ignoring her, leaving the question hanging and the little fox questioning. Shek healed her scalp, then moved back to his pack, pulling out a canteen and a hunk of jerked meat, beginning to chew to sate his appetite.

Finally, the worgen answered.

“I don’t leave men behind. An’ I don’t ignore people in pain.”

“Well. You sound like a -real- hero,” Aiko shot back sardonically, and he could tell she was ready to write him off as some brooding drama queen. He snarled, glancing back at her with his good eye.

“No. Bein’ a hero en’t the same as not bein’ an arsehole. Big difference.”

Aiko frowned, considering his words for a moment before saying “But you -are- an asshole, Kestler.”

There was a brief moment before Dagna chuckled, grinning as she loaded powder for her rounds. Then Shek grinned, trying to keep his own laughing down. Finally, Kestler and Aiko started chuckling.

They weren’t friends. But now, at least, the tension between them was finally dispelled.

----------------------

“I’ll be damned,” Kestler muttered, looking down on the tangle of hovels, lean-tos, storage sheds and docks dotting the cliffs below them. “When you said enough guns to fight off a warband, I didn’t think it was -that- many.”

The next morning had been uneventful. A hike through the hills took them out of the desert and into the rocky foothills to the south, where they finally saw the cool coast and smelled the salty breeze. A high ridge allowed them a good scaling, and in the morning light they had a good view over what Shek and Aiko had called Redrock Harbor. The place wasn’t just a pirate camp, it was practically a port. Full-scale buildings had been set up in the south, along with the aforementioned tents and firepits. Cannons were set up facing into the harbor to ward off any ships choosing to pursue, and the docks held a single ship with orange and white striped sails, an emblem of scales across the cloth.

Ashvane.

Kestler knew plenty about the Ashvane Company. After their little attempt at a coup, he and his men had been ordered to raid their company foundry back in Kul Tiras for refusing to halt weapons production. They came out of it with armfuls of Azerite weapons, explosives, raw powder and after liberating at least a dozen child laborers. The trail of mercenaries they’d left in their wake was just icing on the cake.

But he didn’t have a squad of fusiliers here, with Proudmoore marines as backup and heavy armor to muscle through. The enemy here was well armed, well fortified and set up in a good position. Even for Kestler, he knew they couldn’t fight through them here.

“That ship’s gettin’ set to sail,” Dagna muttered, gesturing to the orange sails. Indeed, the deck was crawling with hands, cargo crates being set up and bundled down below decks. Holds were being shut closed and the sailors coming aboard had duffles over their shoulders, ready for the voyage where they were going. But those crates had each been cracked open for inspection while the party watched. And they were definitely full of Azerite.

Suddenly, their escape became a lot more practical. And timely.

“We need to get onto that ship,” Kestler muttered, watching the captain stand on the forecastle, barking orders to humans (just regular humans and Kul Tirans, he noticed). “Likely its headin’ back to Kul Tiras. Either way, its goin’ off Zandalar, and that’s better than nothin’.”

Dagna began to nod slowly, but Shek cut in.

“Uh...ain’t we gonna shut down the mines?”

Ever since they’d arrived, Aiko hadn’t said a word, simply stared over at the mineshafts, up in the hills over the harbor. From here, they could hear the clattering of carts on rails, and could even see the lines of cages that held Exile and vulperan captives, ready to be tossed down for slave labor mining the precious blue mineral. Kestler hissed, hating that it had come down to this, but this might be their only chance to get off island. He needed to find a way to balance the two priorities; free the slaves they could and slip onto the ship at the same time. Shek and Aiko had been correct after all. This was even further odds than back in North Tide Hollow. At least then they had backup and the assurance of six fully armed commandos, as well as purpose in their mission. Here, their priorities were split. He wanted to help free the slaves, but getting into a protracted fight was certain to cause the ship to launch, and then they’d not only be trapped here, but who knew when the next vessel would come through here?

He wasn’t proud to say it, but desperation was beginning to govern his thoughts.

Finally, he said “We can’t take them in a straight fight. So we’ll need to plan it out so we can cause a ruckus at the mine. Free a few prisoners, then hope they can start a revolt. After that, Dagna and I slip onto the ship and stowaway in the confusion.”

“Dat’s it?” Shek asked, brows furrowed in confusion. “Free a few a dem an’ hope for da best? Ye just gonna leave us to fight da whole camp?” Kestler sighed, rubbing his eyes.

“That ship’s gonna leave the second a shot’s fired. They wouldn’t want to risk anything happening to the shipment. Dagna an’ I -have- to get back to our units. This could be our only chance.”

“Yeah, an’ who else gonna come for dese people?” Shek hissed, and suddenly Kestler realized he’d never seen the druid so upset before. Perhaps his control had finally slipped with the realization that Exiles were caught in those cages too. Some trace of his druid empathy must have overwritten his pirate attitude. Fine time for it too, making his bad decision worse.

“Shek, it's either them or us! Its shit, I know, but if we wanna do one properly, we gotta sacrifice the other! We’re takin’ a risk with this too, y’know! The ship could leave once the riot starts, there could be more guards in the way than we’re prepared to deal with. It’s either this or only one thing gets done.”

“Lads…”

“Dat’s bullshit. I tawt ya ‘bout doin’ stuff right. En’t ya s’posed to be a war hero or sum’thing?”

“I en’t no hero, Shek. I’m a soldier. An’ I will -always- do what I need to. But the mission is to get back to the war, not stay cooped up in the desert. I’m sorry, but this is the best I can do.”

“Lads!”

“So ye’d leave dozens a’ innocents behind to be worked to death in da mines so ye can save yer own skin?”

“I never bloody said that, you blue fuckin’ moron! We’re still goin’ to set some a’ them loose, ent we?”

“Oi!”

Shek and Kestler, caught up in their arguement, glared down at Dagna’s outburst. The dark iron, nonplussed, simply thumbed down the hill.

“The little fox left while ye two were bitchin’.”

Shek looked to where Aiko had been, dumbfounded, but Kestler was already moving, knowing there was only one place she was likely to go. Indeed, he spotted her bushy tail as she was slipping through the camp of half-awake guards and half-asleep returning nightwatch, making a beeline for the cages.

“C’mon! We gotta get the fuck down there!”

Aiko had changed the plan, forcing his hand. Now it was a rescue mission, plain and simple. Following after her wasn’t an option. They’d just have to go full bore and take out as many as they could in a short amount of time before they were spotted. Suddenly, this was feeling more and more like the commando raid in North Tide every minute that passed.

To their credit, Dagna just shoulder her rifle, drawing the two handaxes as Shek reverted to his sabertusk form, following the worgen warrior down the hill.

They hit the first camp like a muffled sledgehammer. The only guard paying attention turned, his cigarette dropping from between his lips and he tried to process the worgen barreling towards him out of nowhere, his hand fumbling for the pistol at his hip, but it was too late. Kestler hit the human like a kodo bull over a goblin, cutting him down where he stood in a vicious spray of blood before leaping to another, just now come out of her tent. Dagna and Shek were no slouches either, immediately carving into the three sitting by the fire that had only just realized something was happening and were standing to react. It was a very bloody scene, as Shek ripped one man’s ribs open, Dagna cutting a sailor down with an axe in the throat before throwing the other into the back of the final guard, trying to run and get help.

It wasn’t neat. It was ugly, and would only hold up until someone passed by the camp. But Aiko had a headstart on them, and none of the three were stealthy as she was. They tore through another camp in the same way, spraying dirt and stone red with blood, emptying the ridge of guards and personnel.

That was where their luck ran out, however.

They were on the move from one camp towards what appeared a straight shot, Aiko just ahead, about to reach the cages. They were so close. They could catch up to her, open up the cages, maybe murder a few guards and use the noise to escape to the docks. This plan could still be salvaged.

Aside from the one guard who decided to fire on the obvious intruders, instead of just calling out to them.

The shot went wide, but it boomed like a thunderclap in the still morning air. Kestler skidded to a halt, throwing himself flat as he tried to locate the source. The shot echoed off the walls, and he knew their attempts at stealth were sunk. The marksman was revealed, however, as she loaded another shot and swung her rifle around, only for the top half of her head to disappear in a spray of blood by an answering shot. Kestler looked down to Dagna, nodding his thanks.

“C’mon! We gotta get Aiko outta there!”

In the distance, they could already hear shouts of alarm, a bell ringing to alert the entire town, and the thudding of rushing feet at the Ashvane mercenaries rushed to react. Their time was down to minutes if they wanted to pull a win out of this. Kestler stood, moving up over the next ridge. Already, he could see Aiko picking the lock of the first cage, but before he could shout a warning to her a big, muscled Kul Tiran guard appeared as if out of nowhere, swinging a warhammer that would make an orc jealous. On reflex, he raised his buckler, forgetting it wasn’t nearly large enough. The enormous head impacted, driving his arm back and knocking him over onto his ass. Abandoning his weapon, the merc went straight for the worgen’s throat, enormous meaty hands closing in, tightening their grip, a snarl on the human’s face as he squeezed with a strength almost ogre-like in nature. Now, more than ever, Kestler wished he still had Glory or some kind of pistol, and it had saved him from a similar sort of predicament several times. Instead, he felt his vision begin to blur as he struggled, the air leaking out of his system with none of it coming in.

Finally, he freed his buckler arm, swinging it up to stagger the Kul Tiran. In another swipe, his blade decapitated the merc in a shower of blood and gore as the massive body fell to the side. He stood, coughing as he tried to breath in again, looking around for his team.

Dagna blasted another rifleman away, hands moving to reload the spent barrel like a machine, already tracking her next target as she did so, popping off another shot within seconds of topping off. Shek was in the thick of them, taking on three guards at once. He had one in his teeth when Kestler spotted him, and threw her away like a rag droll trailing blood through the air, spitting out the chunk of flesh he’d torn from her body before ripping into another man and then leaping on the last human.

Shots rang out, and bullets buzzed through the air. Cries in strong Kul Tiran accents rang through the mining grounds as more and more guards poured in, and Kestler knew they were about to be overwhelmed. He surged forward, cutting down another unaware of his presence before he swung the buckler, taking a third guard off her feet. The slave cages were within sight, though Aiko had disappeared. Regardless, he started hacking his way through to them. At least he would have one victory from this mess, even if it was starting to look less and less like they would escape.

Two more got in his way, and he sheathed the bloody blade, drawing his pike instead. With the extra reach, he stabbed the first through the belly, blocking the other’s dagger strike with his buckler as he prepared for another-

Pain. He winced, glancing down as he realized this guard had held -two- daggers, on in each hand. How had he missed that? He’d blocked one strike, but had been unaware as the second had come in low, piercing his armor right in the side. It hurt. Way more than it should have. And that fucker who’d done it looked so damn smug…

So Kestler snarled viciously, then parted his jaws and clamped them around the man’s face. Once his teeth were dug in on the cheekbones and the human was screaming in agony and struggling to pull the worgen’s teeth out, he chomped down, shaking his head back and forth until he felt the familiar crack that told him he’d snapped the sod’s neck, the taste of blood rushing into his mouth he was so familiar with. He tossed the body away, only to spot another merc charging him. With a quick stab from the pike, the metal head went into the goon’s groin, and Kestler knew from how the blood poured out as a waterfall he’d hit an artery. He tore, savagely, causing a fountain of dark red spray.

“Ready!”

Kestler spun round, buckler up as he heard the call, only to realize he was facing a gunline. Blunderbusses, muskets, axe-pistols. At least a dozen Ashvane mercs, forty paces away, getting their bearings on him. Once again, he was staring down Kul Tiran gun barrels, and there was no way he could cover the distance or protect himself with his buckler in time.

And just like that, he was back in Theramore again.

”Fall back! We’re being overrun!”

The Horde had them. They’d faced the landing parties and initial bombardment as best they could, and dozens of orcs, troll and tauren corpses littered the beach, blood soaking into the sand. But the Volunteers were getting pushed back, and the Horde would soon be bringing up the heavy hitters once they had enough room. Plenty of humans were dead on the beach as well, blue uniforms and gray platemail torn across broken red plate, furs and leathers.

Their Kul Tiran Marine commander was dead. Captain Harper was dead. So was Lieutenant Danners, Baxter, Vedan and Morely. Captain Holmes had led the charge down the beach, disappearing as the red tide rushed in. Everyone able to lead was dead or so badly wounded as to not be able to.

So it was down to Sergeant Kestler, and he was calling for the survivors to abandon the beach for the city. The Brigade was getting hacked to pieces out here, trapped on the sand as the Horde kept landing their war galleys, canoes and rowboats, goblin ironclads in the distance raining cannon and catapult fire down on the beach and the city itself. But the Brigade knew how to fight in tight quarters, use the paths to their advantage. They could bottle up the Horde in the streets and-

“Ready arms!”

His head shot up as his soldiers, previously streaming past him to withdraw, suddenly pulled up short, confused and on the verge of panic. Facing them, up on a hill and previously firing into the ships coming into the harbor, were a line of Kul Tiran cannons and riflemen. They’d moved from their overwatch position to block the road, with halberdier Marines moving to set up barricades and prepare for the charge. But the gunners leveled their guns straight at the retreating Gilneans. Muskets and cannons, until the Volunteers were staring down a forest of yawning barrels.

“No! Wait!” Kestler cried, pushing forward with his shield up, trying to get between them and his men, trying to keep the Marines from following their Commandant’s orders, trying to save his fellow Gilneans. The bastard was actually going to do it.

“WAIT, YE FUCKIN’ CUNTS!

But the Marine lieutenant dropped his arm.

“Fire!”


In Theramore, Proudmoore’s Marines had cut down his brothers and sisters with cannonfire and musket volleys because they were in the way, stuck in with the orcs. What better way to ensure your shots would kill than to fire on an enemy that couldn’t move. That, and the Commondant had ordered any Gilneans that retreated shot.

Well, they’d shot them all in the end.

Just like here, Kestler realized as he came rushing back, realizing he was a volley away from getting riddled and he’d frozen up, staring down a dozen black maws. He was dead. He still braced, bringing his buckler around as he hunched, but at forty paces there was no way they’d miss that many times.

“Fire!”

And then his field was full of fire and grey carapace. Shek, in ankylodon form, between him and the gunners. Bullets ricocheted noisily off the hard shell, buzzing away angrily. But he heard the telltale slaps of flesh being pierced, and knew that not enough had been deflected. In that instant, several of the Overseers had drawn a second weapon, most of them pistols. They fired again, trying to get around the troll druid and hit the armored worgen, kill them both, something. The air was full of gunpowder and fire, and for an instant, Kestler forgot where he was.

Shek’s dead body, in his true troll form, collapsed at his feet. Bullet wounds dotted his body, leaking blood onto the sand at Kestler’s feet.

Kestler gaped. It had all happened so quickly. He was caught unawares. By all rights, they had him dead to rights, there in their sights. He should be dead. But Shek had thrown himself right into the path of the bullets.

And then Rage took over. His head snapped up, his one eye squinting in fury as he narrowed in. To their credit, the gunners looked just as shocked. But now they had to reload.

He charged. Across the sand, Kestler surged in abject rage, bearing down on the the gunline. Suddenly, a dozen mercs that had seemed so sure to end his life moments ago were merely prey, as they either rushed to reload or draw backup blades, terror in their eyes as they realized what was coming for them. One got lucky, and got enough powder into his rifle to raise, aiming. A pike in the chest was his answer. As he cleared the last few feet, Kestler drew his sword.

It was butcher’s work, familiar and bloody. It passed in a haze of red rage, as he sliced one across the throat, bashed another in the face with his buckler, tore a third one’s throat out with his teeth. Shots fired, blades stabbed, but he shruged it off as he felt his battle fury take over. Another he took in his claws and ripped apart at the waist, roaring as the last two tried to run from him. But he pounced on one, stabbing her in the back as she struggled to get out from under his weight. The other he sized up with a stolen pistol, aiming with his only good eye and squeezing the trigger. The man staggered, pitching over the ridge and falling to the sand below.

He came back to himself. Alarm bells were still ringing. Shouting was getting even more panicked, to a fever pitch. They had cut down the first response team. Of several. Regardless, the Ashvane mercs hadn’t expected that. They were freaking out. And a panicky opponent would try anything.

They needed to leave.

He found Dagna and Aiko by the slave cages. Nineteen of them, open and empty. A few slaves lay where they’d been cut down, but most seemed to have gotten away. He couldn’t hear a slave riot in the near distance, just more angry voices. The captives must have fled as soon as they could.

Aiko was on her back nearby. Blood streamed a bullet wound in her side, and she was gasping for air. Dagna was sat by a cage, her leg hacked off below the knee, her leg tossed away nearby like a discarded toy. Her breathing was steady, even if she was in pain. She too had bullet wounds, and what looked like a sword gash in her chest. Nearby, a Kul Tiran lay with an axe buried in her head.

“Shek?” Dagna asked, a little more hope and pain tinging her voice than she probably wanted to show. But Kestler just shook his head, staring down at them. Dagna laughed, coughing a little and grimacing. “Figgers. Aiko got one when she was pickin’ a poor bastard’s cage. They all just ran...none of them fought.”

They were silent for a moment, listening to the alarms in the distance, the tramp of boots as the guards looked for them, getting ever closer all the time. It wouldn’t be long now before they were found.

Finally, Kestler said “Dagna-”

“Don’t.” She said, shuffling until she was a bit more upright, her stump flailing as she obviously tried to support herself with a limb no longer there. “I’m done. Without Shek, tis only a matter a’ time.” She looked out to the port, and Kestler knew exactly what she was looking for. “That ship won’t stay. Not long, not with all this goin’ on.”

She was right. He reached down, hand open. “We can still get ya to a healer.”

“No.” The tone of her voice was final. “Not wit’ this leg. An’ ye’ll need someone ta keep their focus. Else they’ll...sweep all over ye. You can still get away, lad.” She reached up, tugging her dogtags away from her neck. Miracle of all miracles, even after all this time, she still wore them. A shaking hand held them out to him, and he took them, inspecting them closely with his good eye. Starkhold, Dagna. Shadowforge Army.

“Y’know what to do, Kestler.” she said. The finality in her voice sealed the deal, and he nodded, tucking the tags away. “Aye. I do.” He saluted, grimacing at the pain wracking his own body. “It’s been a pleasure, Dagna.”

The dark iron smiled up at him bloodily, and he noticed for the first time that her orange eyes were a bit dimmer. Had a bit less life in them.

“Go on, ye daft bastard. I don’t wanna do the whole heroic sacrifice bit if ma friend winds up gettin’ killed anyway.”

He smiled down at her sadly, scooping up Aiko’s fragile, barely breathing body. He turned away, hustling down the hill, trying to focus on getting through to the docks.

”Oi! YE FUCKIN’ CUNTRAG BASTARDS! CAN’T EVEN KILL A DWARF PROPER! YER ALL JUST PATHETIC! COME AN’ GIT SOME, YE THINK YE GOT THE STONES!”

A shot rang out, then two, then three. Return fire from further down the hill. A moment later, her repeater barked again, three shots. Johan didn’t look back. Couldn’t look back. Forced himself to keep going. The way ahead was clear, for now.

He heard her repeater fire two more volleys. Six more shots before the storm of fire from the Ashvane mercenaries was finally the only gunfire in the cove. And then that too faded away.

He kept running, Aiko tucked behind his buckler.

--------------------------------

The docks were in a frenzy of activity. With the incursion, the captain was certain it was either Horde commandos come to investigate what they were doing or another attack by the sandfury trolls. Either way, they couldn’t let this shipment be compromised. The Azerite had to be shipped back to Kul Tiras. Once they got Lady Ashvane free, she’d need all the weapons and equipment she could get to strike at Proudmoore again.

The hands were rushing the loading, tossing crate after crate into the hold. They rushed back and forth over the dock, gathering up what they needed and making final preparations to set sail. So preoccupied were they, no one noticed a large, armored form clamber up the side, slip over the gunwhale and dash through the hold hatch. Likewise, the few down below were too worried with casting off to pay much attention. The figure moved down every deck, finally tucking away into the cargo hold and squirrelled away in the shadows, disappeared.

Aiko was on the verge of death. There was nothing he could do for her. He tried stemming the bleeding, but it was all for naught. Without medical supplies or something to cauterize the wound, he couldn’t do anything. She was barely conscious as it was.

Her eyes were out of focus as she peered up at him, whispering “Shek?”

Kestler shook his head.

“D-Dagna?”

Again. Aiko’s head tipped back, and she started crying, silent tears rolling from out the corners of her eyes.

“I...I d-don’t want to d-die…”

“I know lass,” he said quietly, taking her much smaller paw in his own. “An’ I’m sorry.”

She sniffled for a moment, light whimpering from between her jaws. Finally, she whispered “How many got away?”

He furrowed his brow, trying to think of what to say. He’d been through this a thousand times with brothers and sisters too far gone for the healers in medical tents, or pumping out their last heartbeats torn apart in battle. It never got easier, only more familiar. He knew how to cope better. And he also knew that here, at the end, any comfort he could give was important.

“All of ‘em,” he replied, leaning over and smoothing her head fur. Her face wrap and hood were down so she could breath easier. His hand came away bloody, but he kept stroking, trying to keep her relaxed. “They was raisin’ bloody hell when I looked back. Probably the whole mineshaft gonna be a bloodbath by now. Yer people are scrappy little bastards. They’ll be...just fine.”

Aiko smiled, weakly. She reached up, and he leaned over to find out what she wanted. Her weak arms pulled his head down, and she hugged his neck.

“You’re not as awful as you think. Thank you…”

She was quiet after that. When Kestler pulled her arms off him, her eyes were shut, and she’d stopped breathing.

He wrapped her in a sheet after that and found a crate full of salt. After scooping out enough to make room, he tucked her away and renailed the planks shut, saying a short soldier’s prayer to the light as he did.

And then, suddenly aware of his own condition, he staggered off to the darkest, most distant corner of the hold. Bloody. Battered. Stabbed. Shot. Alone once more.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\//\/\

Aboard the Tides of Fortune
Two hours later


The Great Sea again. How many times had he crossed his ocean? More times than most, he was certain. Others had come after him, soldiers and builders and colonists and merchants, back and forth.

But he had been one of the first. After the orcs had escaped Lordaeron, when the Alliance forces under Lady Proudmoore had fled the Scourge in Southshore, they had taken a leap of faith to sail past Northrend, the Broken Isles, Kul Tiras and Zandalar and head onwards, past all that landmass and off into the horizon.

And now, if he was lucky, this vessel would take him back.

But he didn’t feel lucky. Tucked away here, in this dark corner of this ship, he felt at his lowest he’d ever been. Stowed away like a rat, reeking of battle, bullets and knives sticking out of him. His friends, left behind to die. The last survivor, the only one left standing.

Again.

What was it about him? Was it his good luck? The bad luck of his comrades? More likely, he was cursed. For how did a single man wind up being the last one standing over and over again? How did one man keep losing all those around him?

He reached up, tugging one of the knives out of his armor. Blood spurted to the deck, splashing across the planks. He grunted, considering it. A light wound, barely through the flesh. It would heal, as they all did. He barely felt the pain now. With a clatter, he dropped the knife, then reached for another. There was little he could do for the bullets for the moment, but they’d have to be pulled out at a later date. In the meantime, he attended to what he could.

He was ignoring her. She was back, and he was certain this had to be a result of his madness now. She looked up at him with his eyes, though her face resembled her mother. Six years old, curly blond hair pulled back from her face, watching him carefully. Silently.

Grace Kestler wasn’t real. Unlike the other visions, she had never been real. Dead before she had been born. Yet here she was, the same vision that had drawn himself so far in at Grymmtide Keep. Taken him for a fool, played on his feelings and regrets and grief. Forced him to strangle a friend near to death and cause the Blades to fail their mission. All his fault, because of his weakness.

He took hold of another knife, tugging. This one was more firmly dug into his flesh and plate, however. It refused to release, and he ended up needing to -yank- it out, feeling his flesh tear as the blade finally came free-

”-get down! Get the fuck down ye idiot!”

He hissed, reaching up and rubbing the skin around this gash. -That- one he felt, the pain seeping through his nerves as his opposite hand clenched into a fist time and again.

”Sergeant! Sergeant, what do you want us to do-”

“-they’re fucking killing us out here! Sergeant Kestler, we have to-”

“-do something about you. For going against the King’s orders and deserting your post to march with traitors to the crown, your crimes warrant execution. But we’ve had word from King Greymane-”

“-to march on Gilneans City! The Forsaken have the place in their bony fist, and we’ll never be free so long as those fuckin’ deaders walk our lands! This is a war of liberation, and we’ll be its soldiers! Either we free Gilneans from the Horde or we all die in the struggle! Every! Single! ONE!”


“Go away,” he muttered weakly. Was it to her? All the visions he’d been having? The memories bouncing around in his head? He didn’t know. All he wanted was a moment of peace, a chance for clarity. But it seemed like he was going to be denied that as well. The injustice of it all stung deeply, like a sharp slap to the face hard enough to leave a bruise. All he’d ever wanted was to be a soldier, dammit. To walk in his father’s footsteps, his grandfather’s. To do right by his family, his nation, his king. He didn’t want to be a hero.

He had always only ever wanted to do the right thing.

A hand rested on his muzzle. Like Lyran, his father and his mother, this felt real. But this was the most real one yet. He didn’t -have- to pretend she was there, his senses were screaming that his dead daughter had put her hand on him, gently rubbing the three tears along his snout, standing right before him.

He opened his eyes, only the good right one glowing blue as he looked at her, the dead one white and blind. Sitting here in the hold, hunched over like this, she was on an eye level with him. She stared at him with eyes both familiar and alien, for they had been his own as a man but were so strange in her head that never was. She was so worried for him, and it looked so genuine it hurt so much. She’d never existed, he told himself, kept telling himself. This was blood loss, dehydration, grief from the loss he’d just suffered back in the camp. Watching his three friends getting butchered in front of his eyes had to have caused him to go over the edge, to finally settle at the bottom of his madness and insanity. But...he couldn’t help but look at her as he wished he might have, a father looking at his daughter and feeling his heart swell with love, worry and sadness. Without meaning to, and almost without realizing it, his massive hand, bigger than her head, came up to gently stroke her hair. It felt so real. Her skin was smooth, but with the light weathering that came from a girl who loved to play outside. Her fingers already had calluses, likely from the light sparring he would do with her or the spell motions she saw her mother cast and tried to imitate. Her face had a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks.

A single clawed finger came across her face, gently pushing a lock of hair out of her eyes, those light blue eyes that he had as a human, which looked up at him like a daughter trying to figure out why her father was in pain both physically and emotionally. She would be so beautiful when she grew up.

Have. He had to catch himself. Would have.

And then she stepped forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. This was no vision, not to him, at least. He could feel her squeeze gently, as if afraid of hurting him. She pressed her face into the fur around his neck, and though she made no sound he could feel her barely restraining a sniffle as her nose took in the smell of gunpowder and blood and sand on his pelt. Grace gave everything she had in that hug.

Without hesitation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he wrapped his arms around her, bringing her in. He too was afraid to hurt her, though for an entirely different reason, as his strength could actually injure his daughter. But she was no delicate, fragile thing, even for a six-year old girl. She was the child of a warrior and a mage, and she knew the harsh realities of war from both their stories. She was firm in attitude and ready to take on the world, if she only could grow a little faster. But right now, right here, she hugged her injured and emotionally shattered father. Because while she needed him most days, today he needed her.

They were like that for...who knew how long. And in that time, Johan felt patches of wetness dot the fur under his eyes, lingering down to his arms. He didn’t check what they were. He knew. He didn’t care.

Finally, she stepped back, and he instinctually caught her by the shoulders. His reality was coming back, but he didn’t want it to. A part of him, the part that never got over how life robbed him of her being there, clung to her still, wished she was still around. Right now, it was stronger than the part that had accepted her death. He’d seen it thousands of times, tens of thousands. None of his brothers or sisters or even his family had been spared death. Why would his daughter? But, that part of him was silent, and he held onto the vision, staring into her eyes, wishing she would stay with him.

But she reached up, gently pulling his snout down to look directly into her eye, just as sad as he was. And then, finally, she smiled. She reached out, and with a tiny hand stroked his fur just beyond his eye. A final farewell. Some part of him finally understood the message she was trying to deliver. If she stayed, he knew, he would die. He would sink into himself and lose the ability to keep moving forward, the one thing that had helped him push on through the tragedy that was his life. If he kept her here, his death was assured. And this vision, the representation of that part of his mind that couldn’t let her go, didn’t want that. Grace was telling him it was time to let go again. He couldn’t keep chaining himself to the wish to have her around.

And then Johan felt his hands slide off her shoulders. Grace smiled at him, one last time, and then turned, stepping away into the gloom of the hold. He watched his little girl go, eye tracking every second until the moment when he blinked and lost her in the darkness. One moment he could see her outline moving past the crates and deeper into the ship. And then, blink. Gone.

Kestler was alone again.
*No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
*If your positions are firmly set and you are prepared to take the enemy assault on, he will bypass you.
*If your ambush is properly set, the enemy won't walk into it.
*If your flank march is going well, the enemy expects you to outflank him.
~Murphy's Laws of War


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