Written while listening to Marunae by E.S. Posthumus.
((I blame this one on Yulenia of Moon Guard. “Write a Val story,” he says; “write a war story,” he says… The discussion between Eredis and Valdiis comes from in-game RP; much thanks to Eredis and Bergmann for letting me run off with those characters a bit. The format – specifically, the timing of the three threads – of this particular story is somewhat bizarre. Hopefully, it is not too obscure to be understood.))
. . . . . . The acrid mixed scent of sulfur and flux, of melted iron and crushed rock, hung on the hot, dry air swirling lazily through the open balcony of the second floor of the building. As acclimated as any native of the city by now – or perhaps just too dead to smell it – a draenei female in light plate armor sat motionless at a desk piled high with papers. In her hands she held a report detailing the buildup of sin’dorei troops on the other side of the Dark Portal – a clear and immediate threat to Alliance trade interests that must be dealt with swiftly.
. . . . . . Plated boots clomped up the stairs and the draenei never moved, her glowing eyes fixed not on the report, but blankly at a spot on the wall opposite her chair. The clomping continued as a grizzled, older human male in heavy plate covered by a black tabard moved through the path of her blank stare and sat down across from her at the desk.
. . . . . . “Commander Valdiis. Just the person I wanted to see.”
. . . . . . The draenei Commander took several seconds to focus her attention on the man across the table from her, and several seconds more to form something between a sigh and an acknowledgment. “Hrhn. Major…”
. . . . . . The human Major raised his eyebrow inquisitively at this unusually slow response.
. . . . . . After another several seconds, she blinked and seemed to shake herself out of it. “Major Eredis, sir. Ehm. Alright, so I am just ze person you vanted to see?” The paper went down on the table and her hands – covered as always in articulated plates over leather gloves – folded atop the desk in what would have been a casual gesture if the creak of tightly-clutched leather didn’t give her away.
. . . . . . The Major nodded. “You’ve read the reports on Sunguard activity in Outland.” It wasn’t a question.
. . . . . . She glanced down at the paper under her hands and nodded mutely. One of the ebon-gray tendrils set behind her ear twitched.
. . . . . . “I need you to represent AEGIS at the Temple of Telhamat.” The Major scratched his bearded chin. “Bergmann will be your aide, as usual.”
. . . . . . The land on the other side of the Dark Portal was as barren as the land from whence they came – blasted, sere, and scarred. Their hooves kicked up clouds of red dust while leaving behind a trail of navy smears. Several of the draenei males were supporting one another in order to keep walking forward. Just one more step. Just one more step. As long as they could walk, they would keep going. A draenei female – one of only two amongst them – wept silently as she moved up and down the marching line, summoning what she could of her connection to the spirits of this blasted land to mend the worst of the wounded.
. . . . . . As she approached the only other woman in the company, the second gave her a dry-eyed curt nod. “Do not waste your powers on me, Beluuma. It is not so bad a wound.” She jerked her head back to indicate the two stumbling males behind her. “Ordrion there is wheezing badly.”
. . . . . . Beluuma gave the draenei female a skeptical look, the direction of her gaze on the obscene inward-bend of the warrior’s breastplate on the right side. “Valdiis…” she said warningly.
. . . . . . “It is not fatal, Beluuma. Just ugly. I will live.” With a slow, pained shrug, the warrior jerked her head again towards the ones behind her. Firefly Company’s only shaman and remaining medic moved to help the wheezing Ordrion.
. . . . . . “Keep moving, soldiers,” came the gruff rumble of their Commander. As bloodied and battered as the rest of them, he led the line – only a quarter of his original Company – away from the Portal through whence they’d arrived some five miles behind them and still looming massively. Ahead loomed a pass clogged with moss-draped trees and smelling wetly of swamp, a scent the self-proclaimed ‘swamprats’ of the Firefly Company marsh-guard unit were familiar with. “We’ll not tarry here long. Keep moving.”
. . . . . . Portal travel was the only way she was going to be able to do this. The orders she followed were truly pushing the edges of her sanity inwards and threatening to crumble the self she’d rebuilt over the last six months. The leather of her gloves creaked as she clenched her fists and stared at the shimmering blue portal to Shattrath in the back of the enclave in Dalaran.
. . . . . . “I hate portals,” she murmured under her breath in Draenei.
. . . . . . Then she stepped through.
. . . . . . The heavily-plated draenei female doubled over as she landed on her hooves – barely – at the center of Shattrath. “There ya are, lass!” The tip of a long, red beard entered her vision while she fought back the entirely ridiculous nausea. She hardly had much of a stomach left, how could it roil so much?
. . . . . . “Ugh,” she growled as she straightened to tower over the dwarf at her side. “I hate portals. It alvays feels like my brain is beink pulled out through my spine and shoved back in through my eye sockets.”
. . . . . . The dwarf didn’t even acknowledge her gruesome assessment of mage portals, instead beaming a cheery grin at her. “Come along, then. We’ve birds ta catch.”
. . . . . . She spent the majority of the gryphon-back flight looking straight ahead, the shattered sky dancing with arcane and fel storms less awful to look at than the shattered ground racing by beneath her. The speed of the flight and the passing rush of air made strategizing with her companion impossible, despite his gryphon flying only a wingspan away. In contrast to her stoic forward stare, the dwarf spent most of his flight looking down at the ground or down into his mug. One day, she was going to have to ask him how he managed to not spill his ale on a flight…
. . . . . . “I truly think he’s taken a liking to you,” murmured Major Eredis. The draenei Commander was staring blankly at a point just beyond his head again, but he didn’t seem to notice. He let the silence drag on.
. . . . . . Commander Valdiis’s leather gloves creaked again as she squeezed her hands tightly and finally looked at Major Eredis, her voice quiet and her question abrupt: “Sir, vhere vas your last big battle? Before beink raised.”
. . . . . . The Major raised one dark eyebrow at her, hesitating a quarter moment, but he saw no harm to the inquiry. “That would have been during the Second War. Blackrock Spire, where Lord Lothar fell.”
. . . . . . “Have you been back zere since?”
. . . . . . He nodded. “I have. I can’t say I like what the orcs have done with the place.”
. . . . . . “I lost a hundred and twenty-three men on zat last march, sir.” She was still for a moment before continuing, her voice flat as she gave the briefest summary possible, “I have been back all of once.”
. . . . . . “To the Peninsula.”
. . . . . . “Yes, sir.”
. . . . . . Hoarse cries for aid competed with the harsh clash of blades on metal armor and shields. Her brothers in arms were dying all around her and all she could do was fight to take another step forward to the massively looming Portal ahead that would take them to an unknown land on the other side. “Val! Your back!” shouted a sky-blue-skinned warrior several feet to her left as he swung a heavy two-handed blade at the green-skinned fiend trying to cut him down.
. . . . . . Valdiis spun and crouched simultaneously, barely missing the whistling blade that would have otherwise taken her head. The large double-bladed axe in her hands connected with a body covered in felsteel, bit deep through the metal, and channeled the blackish-red blood down to her ungloved ebon-gray hands and beneath the vambraces strapped to her forearms. As she pulled her axe free by kicking the corpse backwards with her hoof, she felt a familiar thump at her back as her brother resumed his usual position guarding her back while she guarded his. The siblings cut a whirling, well-synchronized path of death towards the Dark Portal.
. . . . . . Other warriors of Firefly Company did much the same, fighting in pairs or clumps to regroup and press forward. Those draenei who fell, if they could keep walking, were gathered up; if they could not, they were trampled by the rabid orcs before their comrades could retrieve them anyway.
. . . . . . A gleefully battle-crazed green face leered up in Valdiis’s vision as she reflexively parried the oncoming swing of a mace. Unfortunately, she missed the fact that the orc squaring off with her was wielding two. With a sickening crunch, the second mace hit her khorium breastplate on the right side and crumpled it against her ribs. Spears of pain pierced her with each panting breath, but she spat no blood, so she gritted her teeth and lashed out with a plated forearm, her spiked battle vambraces connecting with the side of the orc’s head. He fell. To her right, so did another draenei – a younger fellow she knew had a wife back at Orebor praying he’d return and come with her to Tempest Keep; so many of them she knew so much about, and would never be hearing from again.
. . . . . . “Did you need time away from the Temple to see to them?”
. . . . . . If a death knight could manage to look green, Valdiis did exactly that, slow horror spreading over her formerly blank expression. “No, sir. I vould like to be stationed elsevhere if at all possible. Nagrand is vonderful zis time of year.” The flatness had left her tone, but there was no false hope behind her suggestion of Nagrand either.
. . . . . . “Nagrand isn’t where the Horde is massing, Commander.”
. . . . . . She looked down at the report on the desk unseeingly. “Sir. Is zere anyvhere else you could station me?”
. . . . . . Major Eredis Orill folded his hands on the desk, thinking for a long moment. “Yes. Yes, there are several places I could assign you.” He paused as the draenei across from him looked at him expectantly. His expression never changed. “After you report to the Temple to deny the Horde any strategic advantage.”
. . . . . . The draenei shoved her chair back and stood with a clatter of light plate falling into place, her face a resolved and unreadable mask – the blank mask of a ‘good’ soldier. She snapped a stiff, almost jerky salute at the man sitting on the other side of the desk. “Sir. Yes, sir.”
. . . . . . “We must all make sacrifices for the greater good, Commander.”
. . . . . . The dwarf was deep in his cups by the time the gryphons landed at Telhamat, each being kept in reserve to allow for the draenei and the dwarf to use them in battle. She’d fought at his side long enough to know he usually battled sauced, and so gave it little heed. They walked across the dry, blasted, red land between the buildings, discussing defensibility and strategic advantages of each. The lack of massing Grand Alliance troops at the Temple was worrisome.
. . . . . . “AEGIS coordinator Valdiis?” A gryphon wheeled a few feet overhead, a lean, battle-worn elf at its reins.
. . . . . . The draenei paused and looked up at the hovering warrior. “Yes?”
. . . . . . “There’s been a change in the strategy. AEGIS member units are massing at Honor Hold. We have elected to leave the Temple defenseless in the face of our-” the elf looked away sharply, “-diminished defensive capabilities.”
. . . . . . “Diminished? Wot are ye on about?” asked Bergmann.
. . . . . . “We don’t have enough forces to support the action here.”
. . . . . . The death knight cursed and turned back towards the stabled gryphons. “Felfire and night! Come on, Bergmann, ve vill have to go meet vith zem zere. Who is runnink zis Nether-blasted operation?”
. . . . . . The Temple of Telhamat was empty, an eerie ghost town of draenei architecture. Once, it had been built on the edge of a fertile plain, but fel magics had blasted this land and scoured it of life. The Temple’s priests and the small sect of Seers training here had long since fled through the pass Firefly guarded and reached safety at Orebor Harborage. Or so the one hundred and sixty soldiers of Firefly Company hoped as they took up residence in the abandoned buildings to have the medic corps see to their wounds, clean their own armor, sharpen their blades, and get a night’s rest before pursuing the orcs across the barren peninsula.
. . . . . . A fire was built in the shelter of an open-fronted shop, the officers of Firefly Company settled around it after the rest of the soldiers had eaten and gone to prepare themselves for the impending battle.
. . . . . . “So how many of them do you think are between us and that Portal?” asked a large, sky-blue-skinned warrior as he ran a whetstone along the edge of his two-handed blade.
. . . . . . “Best estimate, Rulaam?” Commander Magtoor rumbled, “I’d say upwards of five hundred.”
. . . . . . “So we each get three kills. That seems fair enough. I’ll even take Beluuma’s three, since she doesn’t kill.” The speaker, an ebon-gray female warrior laughed as Beluuma, a pretty, middle-aged draenei – one of those new Seer sorts – gave her a droll look.
. . . . . . “You can leave my extra kills to Arteros, Valdiis. I trust my husband to pick up my slack.”
. . . . . . “I’ll bet your ‘slack’ is not what he’s picking up tonight,” laughed Rulaam as he mimicked a gesture of having a woman on his lap.
. . . . . . The nine warriors and lone company shaman kept up the good-natured ribbing between strategizing, trying to plan a way to escape through impossible odds, pinched between a lost pass back to the marshes and a mysterious Portal to Naaru only knew where – or take as many of the hated orcs down in flames with them as they could.
. . . . . . “Fifteen?!” The death knight’s voice was a quiet hiss, but her disgust was clear. “Ve are fieldink a force of fifteen Alliance soldiers against an expected attack by forty Horde troops?”
. . . . . . Out of earshot of the commander of the sole unit who had shown up for the battle, Valdiis and her aide, Bergmann, conferred in hushed, angry tones. If the draenei kept glancing towards the walls of the Hold and twitching like a caged animal, the dwarf was polite enough to ignore it. “Aye, lass. Some sort of conflictin’ mission in Azeroth, it sounds like.”
. . . . . . There was a faint ringing sound as Valdiis stamped one titansteel-shod hoof against the flagstones of the tower door behind them. “Zat leaves us vith barely enough forces to defend ze Hold, much less to put forth any attack on zeir resources!”
. . . . . . Bergmann looked down at his ever-present mug of ale. “We defend what we can then, aye?”
. . . . . . Valdiis threw her hands up in exasperation, then turned the gesture into hailing the elven commander over to them. “Alright. Strategy adjustment. Ve vill consolidate our forces vithin zis tower, defend ze Hold from here. Ve must stay together and keep fightink to be even moderately successful.” She tilted her head to the left with an obnoxious crack of vertebrae, her fists clenched at her sides. “It is still likely zat ze Hold vill take some damage in ze attack, but if ve can get ze Alliance forces to hole up and stay defensive, ve have a chance of vearink zem out and sendink zem back empty-handed.”
. . . . . . With that, the coordinator of the Alliance Expeditionary Group Intelligence and Support project headed into the tower, barking out defense orders in her heavily-accented Common, preparing for a defense against impossible odds for a trade route the Alliance hardly seemed to give a damn about.
. . . . . . Valdiis turned sharply from the desk and headed towards the stairs out of the office, one plate-gloved hand coming up to tangle in a mithril chain around her neck, the unseen pendant weighing it down clattering against the inside of her breastplate. She looked at the human still seated at the desk. “You know one of ze first slurs against ze draenei I heard vhen I arrived in Stormvind, sir?”
. . . . . . Eredis raised an eyebrow and waited.
. . . . . . “Cobblestone.” Her accented voice was harsh. “For ze bones linink ze Path of Glory.” She looked as if she might spit on the stone floor to say those last three words, if she had any spit remaining in her dead mouth.
. . . . . . The Major pursed his lips, then sighed. “Commander…Valdiis. I do not deny that your people have suffered terribly, and I understand you have no wish to ever step foot near that path again. I do not blame you for it.” He paused. “We have all lost…much in this regiment, for those who remember it.
. . . . . . “But I can say with certainty that you are not a ‘cobblestone.’ You are the granite that turns the droplets of the Horde aside as so much moisture.”
. . . . . . The draenei stood at the top of the stairs and nodded tightly, her hand still tangled in the chain around her neck. “Understood, sir. And…appreciated. I vill report for duty at Telhamat as ordered.”
. . . . . . “I do not send you there for the people who call you such silly terms. I send you there so the one hundred and twenty-plus troops who were with you then will know that not even death can stop you honoring their memory. Not. Even. Death, Valdiis.
. . . . . . “Bring our foes the winter that heralded your rebirth, Commander. We will not tarry there long.”
. . . . . . She nodded tightly again, her movements little more than stiff jerks. Light glinted dully off the scoured gold rings around the tendrils behind her ears, the faint twitching betraying her agitation. “I… Yes, sir.”
. . . . . . Major Eredis nodded at her. “Thank you. And, Commander?” Valdiis looked at him for a long moment, then he went on. “I order you there because you, above all others I have served with, can get the job done.”
. . . . . . Valdiis reached up to the dead skin of her neck with her hand still wrapped in the mithril chain she wore and appeared to pinch herself before dropping her hand back down to rest against the top of her breastplate. “Zank you, sir. I vill not let you down.”
. . . . . . “You never have, Commander.”