You asked for it, so here it is. In fact, this is only the beginning, and because we don’t do things by half around these parts we’re going to be travelling in two distinctive directions with our fiction.
This is the first of what will be a series of vignettes based in the Wrath Expansion, which will give you some back story into these people and their lives before the events of 5.4 begin to play out. There’ll also be a stand-alone story that follows ‘A Worthy Forfeit’ which will act as a taster to what we’re all going to ‘play’ when 5.4 finally launches. If you’re confused, I’ll be producing a visual guide to who’s who in this evolving group and how that line-up has changed ‘since Vanilla’ whilst linking it to the dedicated Player 5 page.
For those of you who have only played Horde, I’d like to apologise in advance for the Alliance bias in a lot of what follows (for obvious reasons.) I have, where possible, linked quests which will allow you to ‘trace’ the events that are being referenced in these particular incidents. Wowhead is a great resource if you want to reconstruct such events. Hopefully however you can enjoy what is to come without having played through the questlines…
Title: Winter Trees : Dragonblight
Character/Pairing: The Hunter, the Rogue, the Paladin and some others. See above for contextual explanations. Takes place in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
WARNING: Character Deaths are discussed. At length.
Rating: Mild sexual implications and themes. These people are grown-ups, after all.
Summary: You have completed the quest ‘An End and a Beginning’ [Alliance, L73]
The casualties of war are inevitable, the damage to relationships incalculable. No-one is to blame, but everyone will claim the responsibility.
Disclaimer: All these people live in a computer game owned by Activision and Blizzard. NPC names are specific to the Wrath expansion. The one I play is mine in my mind only.
Massive thanks go to everyone who read this before it was ready. Extra Special Bonus Level Thanks must go to M, who will be getting a separate post all to himself tomorrow.
The snow is grey with ash, burning piles of desiccated bodies spreading low clouds across the already darkened skies. The Dwarf idly sits digging holes in the snow with booted feet. They are the necessary repetitions of a child waiting for a parent to protect her: she still won’t accept that guidance isn’t coming. The remains of the Legion force stand quietly to her left, steaming mugs clenched in shaking hands. They steal glances, no-one prepared to broach the moment. Silence clings, words lost after the encounter in the Crypt. Everyone knows how badly the push had gone, the evidence lying away near the Gryphons to the right, neat row of bodies no longer warm.
Wintergarde smells rank: death and decay far stronger than any that Thassarian’s men could ever conjure. The place is as close to a war zone as she’d seen since Shadowmoon, odour forever burned into her brain: death and loss in one of its many forms. She’d assumed that the Undead would be eliminated with ease, but this campaign was already full of surprises. Cost was rapidly outpacing preparation: the Quartermaster was already out of body bags, casualties forced to lie in a line, faces covered with their own capes. To one side, wrapped in the Dwarf’s own cloak, the Gnomish body stood out, purple and black silks against the white fur.
At least the snow would preserve the Warlock until she returned to Coldridge.
The Dwarf is numb, the weather within her far colder than the frigid ambiance. All that remains as a constant is the Gnome’s smell, seductive sulphur burn that became her essence. Moments fracture, soul shattered: present and past overlap into disorientation. To her left only moments before, casting Immolations seemingly without end. Constant pleasure from spreading heat: liquefying surface snow, keeping them warm when she’d stand to maximise damage. That wicked smile, sparkling green eyes, sharing understanding without communication, beyond their countless fights, the successful campaigns. They would always return, together, triumphs celebrated at the Slaughtered Lamb with their favourite meal. Sitting for hours, everything and nothing preoccupations between days, the stuff of friendship. Men, their obsessions, their inability to understand everything and anything for convenience. The enemy du jour, the Legion and how dragons were the root of all evil.
A bond unbreakable, formed in the steam and lava of Ironforge two lifetimes ago. The Troublemakers. Brilliant yet volatile, the substanceof the Earth. Steady and fiery, dependable yet elusive. Friends until their last breaths, and now beyond.
There would never be another conversation in this lifetime: no more words were possible.
Legion Commander Yorik appears, his face ashen, and the Dwarf doesn’t stand, even though she should. She is pleased when he squats down close, implying no chain of command he wishes to push. He has lost almost a dozen good men since the sun came up, and protocol is the least of his concerns.
“I’ve communicated with Lord Fordring in Valgarde. They’re going to hold the next boat back to Menethil so you can travel with the bodies.”
This is a concession to her, the Dwarf knows, and she touches the man’s arm, the briefest of eye contact all she is capable of in thanks. The bodies would normally ship straight from Valiance Keep, but this re-route would be deliberate: arriving closer to Ironforge than Stormwind, to accommodate her particular request. Her promise to Mirrie was almost forgotten, made in youth and seemingly without relevance, until the moment she knew there was no resurrection coming. If either was to die in battle, the other would return the body to their family. There was a pension to be settled, monies from their quest here: not much, but enough. Gold to pay for the funeral, to help her mother and sister through the hardest of the winter months in the Valley.
War felt a long way away in the Eastern Kingdoms’ snow, but the Dwarf knew sorrow was never far from anyone’s mind.
She looks up for the first time since she arrived, across to the small group that went in with her and the Legion. The draenei male, Argus, sits on a crate: his large purple mace wedged between massive thighs, engrossed in what she knows is meditative prayer. She’d often reflected on faith to guide her as it did the Paladins, but no revelation had ever moved her to insight or belief. Instead she tried to take calm in respecting the Light, what she’d reconciled as intelligent compromise. Next to him, sitting in the snow as she did was the Rogue, one of the new SI:7 intake. He stares deliberately at the ground, arms wrapped around legs, hugging his body a little too tightly. His leathers were new and insulated: he shouldn’t suffer from the cold.
As Yorik returns to the Inn Randall appears, laboured gait saying all that is needed, tired plated limbs dragging through the snow. His hand extends, an invitation to pull the Dwarf to standing, a gesture she wants to ignore but can’t. At some point there has to be a discussion with him, and it may as well happen now.
“You need to tell me how you feel.”
She closes her eyes and looks for something, anything as a response.
“Numb. I… what do I say? This year can go to the Nether.”
“You just keep your promise, P. Don’t you dare start locking it away, because it will destroy you.”
No-one used her name, not any more. She was P, or Boss, or Ma’am to the Alliance. Her identity had been lost, somewhere between Onyxia and Illidan, her own way to distance from the horrors. Mirrie was always the exception, mimicking her father’s distinctive tone, a reminder of their past. Her father. She wanted him to hold her again, wrapping herself in his protective embrace. She would have remained until that day when Mirrie came and told her about Arthas and his Death Knights, and handed her the invitation from the King himself. She’d accepted the intractable truth: death came, but the enemies remained. Those who survived had a debt to pay, to those who had lost their lives.
‘They were together.’ Randall deliberately blocks the view between her and the Rogue, and she reacts sharply in surprise.
‘You didn’t know?’
‘Mirrie hadn’t mentioned she was with anyone when we arrived, or indeed since. Are you sure about this?’
‘I don’t ask these things, but he was in her room last night. They weren’t working on First Aid skills.’
Suddenly a lot of things make sense. The dangerous sprint away from the melee group, his body an indistinct blur as he desperately tried to bandage her mid-fight. His sudden withdrawal after they’d emerged from the Crypt was completely understandable: Argus had been the voice of dissent on the Legion’s tactical decision but she’d expected the rogue to contribute. Both fought so closely behind Randall, who would continue to blame himself for losing threat and not taking the initiative. If it weren’t for all of this Mirrie might still be here, joking that her robes would never keep her warm, however many layers she added beneath them.
The Dwarf still rued her trap, incorrectly placed, that could have bought valuable time. Sleep-deprived and unfocussed, her sloppiness only one of their collective failings.
Everyone was to blame for this terrible accident.
‘I know you won’t want to think about this right now, but he’d make a good fit in our team. He’s fast and clearly knows his job. He also did more damage than you.’
Anger flares within her: Randall is a cold bastard to be comparing meters at this moment. There remains however the strength of understanding between them to grasp the need to keep functioning as a unit. As of now they are just three and without another two their progress would be severely restricted. The burrows to the East were teeming with the insect brethren of the Silithid she had taken so much pleasure in exterminating what seemed like a lifetime before. Everyone needed upgraded gear, or the potential for more casualties became a concern. They had to adapt or die, and this was the only life she either knew or wanted. Argus was a good fit, Randall already had him in mind. A rogue would be a sensible choice for the final place.
Footsteps distract her away from the practical. There is yet more grief to attend to.
“I did everything I could.”
Yari literally drops into the snow next to the Dwarf, exhaustion etched on her Night Elf features, skin almost translucent in the dullness. The first move is reflex, reaching over to hold the Druid, to console as the sobs wrack through her slim body. P won’t cry, silently turning her skin to stone to arrest her own grief, letting her friend’s sorrow flow quietly back into the Earth. This must not be the time for weakness. Strength comes before acquiescence, when she stands with Mirrie’s family and says the words, throws the first clump of soil onto the tiny coffin. So small a body, but so large a heart, to accommodate and inspire so many. Light in darkness, good harnessing evil. The best of all contradictions. A speech she has already written, but never wanted to give.
‘I know you did. We all tried, but sometimes circumstances…’
Both Randall’s voice and assertion waver: the Dwarf knows he’s having trouble holding himself in check. His hand rests on her shoulder and she senses him shaking. No-one was to blame, but everyone needed to bear the responsibility.
Their moment is broken by the chain of command.
‘The odds sometimes cannot be beaten, however hard you try.’
She’d not expected Fordragon to remain, with the construction at the Wrathgate taking up so much time. Rumours were circulating, that there would be a push soon, but not until the pockets of resistance had been dealt with. The Phylactery retrieved from Thel’zan was a vital piece of a far larger puzzle. It was a battle that should have been routine, but nothing was turning out that way in a land where the enemy hid in almost infinite numbers beneath the surface. Had Bolvar not arrived when he had, their casualties would have been far greater.
In war, sometimes death was an option you had no choice but to embrace.
The Dwarf grasps this time that protocol matters, aware the gathered troops have all moved to attention. Even Argus and the rogue are standing, conscious of the significance of her visitor.
“Your loss is great, as is the Alliance’s. I would ask you to give this to her family.”
Bolvar hands a pension bag to the Dwarf without ceremony, far more gold than should be the norm. By the feel of the leather there are some gems in the mix, hidden amongst the coin. Fordragon’s eyes have seen so much horror, such a small loss should not be his concern. As he appraises the Dwarf, something else is at play. Something clearly personal.
‘When I heard you were here, I knew I must come and see you myself, to offer my condolences.’
‘You know Mirrie’s family?’
‘I meant your loss, at the Temple. Hammermaster Khorman.’
It takes everything she has not to fall apart where she stands. The last time someone had mentioned her husband she had crumbled sobbing into the rich earth, tears of unmitigated pain into the grass around the Loch’s shore. She remains motionless, unable to say anything, staring back at a man who until that moment she knew of only in stories. Lonrim’s stories. Told to her as she lay next to him, quietly drifting off to sleep. A life away from this grim existence without him beside her. Without his words of comfort and understanding.
To lose her composure in front of a total stranger would normally be unthinkable, the ultimate mortification. She cannot harden either skin or heart so soon, thereis nowhere left to hide, the truth inescapable in its terror. The look on his face is resigned understanding, eyes and face softening, knowing what will follow. Then she is sobbing unhindered into a stranger’s stained plate chest,the blood of her friend still fresh as a reminder. He had carried the Gnome from the Crypt himself, and laid her in the snow where she remained.
A desperate question forms, one she finally accepts will remain forever rhetorical.
“Why did you waste your Soulstone on keeping me alive?”
Her words are bitter anguish and Randall reacts, his arm moving to protect. Yari is there too, pulling her gently away from Fordragon, wrapping her coat around them both, trying to shield her from the World. She has no idea how long she weeps but eventually when she stops nobody has moved, many of troops behind him crying themselves, struggling to maintain composure. They were so young, all of them, and she shouldn’t have mislaid her temperament, but losing the ones you loved was a horrendous part of this game they needed to understand.
Sometimes it was alright to grieve. It gave Fordragon a chance to inspire them all.
“To suffer the death of two of your loved ones in such quick succession will be a difficult burden to bear, but your heart is strong. Your shoulders are broad and your resolve unshakeable. You will prevail, of this I am certain.”
All she can do is nod and finally pocket the pension, which seems enough for Bolvar. He moves without ceremony to Randall and embraces him warmly, before turning to address the troops. A gryphon rider appears from the East, sweeping low, dropping a package into the snow nearby then arching back into the late morning sky. The body bags will have been asked for specially, one in particular. The Gnomeregan crest stands out against the strong linen, another concession she quietly notes.
Unwrapped from her embrace, Yari knows her task is clear.
“I will do this. You should prepare yourself to travel.”
The Druid breathes, strength returning to her body, and without another word crosses to the parcel, to help the two Legion Medics already unpacking the contents. The Dwarf forces foot in front of foot, back into the inn, upstairs to her room, but stops outside Mirrie’s at the sound of movement.
There is someone inside.
She knows it is the Rogue before she opens the door. He sits, staring out of the window, the remains of Wintergarde almost beautiful in their desolation. She waits, and finally he turns to face her.
“I had to leave. I thought you deserved time with your grief. I’m sorry.”
She knows the apology isn’t for her. It will be for him, and for the Gnome, the time they no longer had, their life that would remain unwritten. It was easy to see why Mirrie would have found him attractive: dark-haired, blue-eyed arrogance and attitude. Economical, precise and ultimately elusive: the perfect Rogue template. He would have made her laugh at herself, and forget the horrors she’d experienced in Shadowmoon. Of all of them, Grimm had been the most easygoing and relaxed, even in the face of abject terror. She’s been perfectly suited to her class, as he was to his. The Dwarf wonders just how much he had invested in their relationship.
“Did you love her?”
“We kept each other warm.”
His face is a mask, the convenient default, his eyes harder than the ice that held this continent together. The Dwarf understands the need to couple, that it is just that for many of the Humans. When your life is measured in such small numbers, connection becomes a necessity and not a dance, no focus on detail. In this land, that was probably an advantage. Mirrie would have forced a rethink of any such preconceptions: her legacy would resonate far beyond these frozen lands, memory alive in both hearts and minds.
“I made a promise, that I would return her to Coldridge. Randall will need to remain to find her replacement. I could use the company, if you wish to honour her.”
She covers her feelings without thinking, knowing that she can assess him best as they travel. Her brain reacts from reflex, and she confidently expects him to refuse. There is no time for sentiment, because the moment she allows it back into her heart she will be useless, incapable. He doesn’t flinch at her bluntness or the request.
“How long before we leave?”
“As soon as the bodies are prepared and the rites given.”
He is up and past her without a word, downstairs to the area she knows he had been given to sleep at the Bar. She takes this as acceptance, and is suddenly grateful.
Only then does the Dwarf realise she has no idea of his name.