Misty and Cookie: A Dark and Stormy Night

It was a Dark and Stormy night, like most Tuesday and Friday nights had been for a month. The moon shone bright, surrounded by a necklace of sparkling star jewels as warm, gentle breezes stirred the leaves.

Foggy Mist, the big Snow Leopard, led “Humble” Misty and “Cookie” la Boomboom up the well worn path to John Dark’s small tavern. Stormy, John’s jet black wolf companion, met them at the door, his brilliant yellow eyes standing out from the dark background like lanterns. The wolf snarled and immediately charged the big leopard, who snarled back and reared to meet the challenge. The two merged into a Yin and Yang ball of black and white fur as they rolled a dozen yards down the hill. They broke apart then immediately romped off together down the trail in anticipation of an evening of hunting and play.

Misty and Cookie chuckled watching the pair’s ritual meeting, then moved into the warm tavern lit by a snapping fire on the hearth and a few candles on the tables. A pair of oil lamps behind the bar reflected in mirrors and their light danced between bottles shelved there. John himself moved to welcome them, a pair of mugs in hand. They moved to a table occupied by an older woman with a Peggles board already set up. The woman was unknown to both Misty and Cookie, but that wasn’t uncommon. John’s place was well known for it’s standing open Peggles games, fine ales, and quiet, friendly environment.

One of the reasons for the quiet environment was John himself. At first glance he was an average older guy, of normal height and build beneath his knit sweater. His face bore a permanent smile etched deep and a steel-grey beard. His voice rumbled with the echo of a hearty laugh whenever he spoke. On a bit closer look, however, the steel in his eyes matched his beard, the quickness of his hands and easy grace with which he moved tables, chairs, and supplies showed his hidden strength. His calloused hands showed the effects of hard work, but also the scars of combat. John had been the field commander of a group of Seraph known as the “Dark Angels”, a squad sized unit of the “Fallen Angels” of Ebonhawke. Their mission was generally infiltration, intelligence gathering, sabotage, and “key target elimination”. Their effectiveness as a unit was proven by the difference between the tales of their adventures as told by friend and foe.

Few around here knew of his background, but a troublemaker would very quickly learn that John was not a man to be challenged in his own pub. Regulars at the pub would whisper to uppity newcomers the story of the scars high on the wall at the end of the bar, above a coat rack, and point out the lamp hanger in the center of the room.

The story went that a huge Charr Centurion had come into the bar and made “unreasonable demands”. When John politely refused his demands the Centurion got in his face and started with the insults, calling John “puny human livestock” among other things. John just stared him down and refused to either respond or obey. Finally the Centurion worked himself up to the point he drew his dagger and took a swipe at John. That was a mistake. The scratch marks bore witness to where John had pinned the giant Charr, his head literally nailed to the wall with his own fangs. The Centurion had to be carried out by his warband, toothless and disgraced. Cookie had checked after hearing the story the first time. The coat rack consisted of a matched pair of Charr canine teeth embedded deeply in the wooden wall and broken off at the base. A close look at the lamp at the center of the room revealed a Charr dagger embedded in the ceiling with an oil lamp hung on each quillon of the hilt.

Few chose to challenge John. None challenged him twice.

The lady at the table rose to meet them, extending a warm hand and introducing herself as “Lady Grey”. Her handshake was firm but friendly, her smile genuine, but Misty detected the subtle bulge of a dagger hilt on each side beneath her flowing grey cloak. The thrown-back hood showed short hair of snowy white and surprisingly intense dark eyes along with the broad smile. She seemed genuinely friendly and pleased to meet them, as if they had been expected, and yet there was something about her that triggered warnings in Misty’s head - there was more to this lady than she revealed. Still, being a friend of John’s was a trustworthy credential.

The four of them took their seats at the table and set up their pieces for the game. Peggles is an amalgamation of many games of different races. The active pieces are wooden pegs placed in a board of curling, looping, and crossing paths with holes drilled at regular intervals. No two Peggles boards are identical, making mastery of the game even more problematic than the convoluted rules would imply. In front of each player is a deck of cards and five marked spaces, one for each of the five allied races, representing Ferocity for the Charr, Guile for the Human, Strength for the Norn, Technology for the Asuran, and Spirit for the Sylvari. Cards are dealt from each player’s deck at the beginning of each round into each space. Bets are placed, in a friendly game, using beans, pebbles, and pegs - 10 beans to a pebble, 10 pebbles to a peg. Pegs are removed from the board to pay debts, and earned Pegs are added to the board. Die are cast to determine movement of the pegs, one die for each active peg a player has on the board. Pegs can be moved in any direction along a path or at crossings, but meeting a peg belonging to another player initiates combat. The outcome is based on a complex relationship of the cards, the number of spaces moved to initiate combat, and the relative size of the bets. The rules are somewhat fluid and open for interpretation, discussion, and sometimes confrontation, so it is a game best enjoyed by unarmed friends.

The two other patrons of the pub watched the game for a while, then said their goodbyes and left as the evening grew longer. Cookie was eliminated first, his conservative style quickly overwhelmed by the other three all playing increasingly aggressive strategies. He retired to the kitchen to prepare snacks for what looked like a long session. Misty was trailing badly, but the other two seemed more intent on battling each other than finishing her off. Misty was watching their eyes - there was more between these two than just a friendly competition, but yet no hostility. Moves and results that would have brought anger or outrage from many brought wry smiles and occasional snickers from the two nearly deadlocked opponents. The evening wore on as pegs were won and lost and the ebb and flow of stylized battle refused to pick a winner.

John was contemplating a risky move to block two of Lady Grey’s pegs when a distant howl echoed faintly up the hill from the valley below. John’s chair toppled backward as he instantly rose and his face went hard and cold. “Trouble” was all he said. The game abruptly ended. In two steps he reached the bar and retrieved a shortbow and quiver from a hidden recess. Lady Grey had moved fluidly to a position with her back to the wall next to the door, a matched pair of daggers appearing in her hands. Her stance was that of a trained warrior. Misty took the hint and retrieved her sword from the rack near the door. Cookie ducked behind the bar to check the load and prime of his brace of pistols.

John opened the door a crack, blocking the base with his foot, and peered into the darkness, his bow at the ready. A moment later he stepped back and threw the door open as two streaks of fur raced through the opening and skidded to a stop in the room. The heavy door slammed and the bolt snicked home as John spun to face the two companion pets. Stormy had debris and what looked like streaks of blood on his fur and his lip was curled in a toothy snarl. Foggy Mist was carrying a prize as he approached Misty - a human forearm and hand that looked like it came from a long-dead cadaver - except that the fingers of the hand were moving, grasping at anything in reach. Foggy spat the rotting flesh on the floor at Misty’s feet and stepped back. Misty’s heel landed hard on the writhing fingers and quickly ground the bones of the hand to dust. “Undead” she growled, “What are they doing around here?”

John’s hands quickly checked Stormy. “Just scratches and small cuts, nothing serious.” He scratched the big wolf’s ears then turned to the bar. Retrieving two bowls he tapped a measure of ale into each, then set them on the floor in front of the two companions. “It helps get the taste of undead out of their mouths” he said to nobody in particular. Foggy lapped at the bowl, then looked at Misty as if to ask “How come you never thought of that?”. Misty, for her part, was pondering just how John may have come to this knowledge himself.

John looked up at Lady Grey and asked, “Do you think they know?”

“I think we have to assume that they do. We need to prepare, and I think we should let our friends here know what they may be in for.”

Misty looked confused, and Cookie looked clueless, at the discussion. “Who?”, “What?”, “Huh?” came as disconnected fragments of a question from Misty.  Cookie just looked back and forth between the other three, hoping to catch a bit of context at some point.

John reached up and pushed, rather than pulled, one of the taps on the bar, then rotated an unused candle stand on a post at the end of the bar a quarter turn counterclockwise. He then picked up an odd-shaped bottle from the shelf behind the bar and shoved the top into what appeared to be a knothole in the wall and twisted the bottle. There was a sharp click, and the entire bar pivoted on it’s center, revealing a hidden staircase. Lady Grey quickly disappeared into the hidden basement.

“Dim the lamps and check that the shutters are secure” said John, as he moved to recheck the door. “There are peepholes in the walls beneath any picture that shows a soldier.” He pointed to one that showed a tired warrior kneeling with a Banner of Defense and looking over a scarred battlefield littered with dead. Cookie was surprised to find the shutters much more substantial than they appeared. The wooden slats were merely a facade over solid iron sheets on heavy hinges. Deadbolts top and bottom secured each shutter. Misty dimmed the lamps and shovelled a bit of ash onto the fire to bank it down, then began locating and checking the peepholes in the walls. The pets lay side by side staring at the door, tails twitching in unison.

As Cookie finished with the last of the shutters he turned to see a shape coming up the hidden stairway. At first he thought it was Lady Grey, but then he caught the glint of metal and sharp profiles of armor. His pistol was coming up as a hand fell over his and forced it back downward. “It’s OK” came John’s voice. “Let us explain.” The figure resolved in the dim light into a warrior in the dark armor and angel’s wing shield of the Fallen Angels. “This is Lady Grey, also known as Commander Alita Lawrence of the Fallen Angels, my former commander. She, and this mission, are the reason that Queen Jennah requested that you stay in this area for a while.”

Misty’s eyebrow rose in surprise. The orders for their secret mission came directly from Queen Jennah, sealed and coded. Nobody should know what was in them. The surprises were coming quick tonight.

The four gathered around a larger table in the middle of the room, all arranged on one side so they could all face the door. Alita spoke first:

“There is an Asuran who has been working alone and in secret to complete a weapon specifically for use against the Undead and hopefully the Risen. It uses properties isolated and extracted from Oozes and traces of Foefire. Used directly against the undead it consumes them in a purified fire so intense that it breaks the bond of soul and spirit, releasing the undead forever from this world. It also contains an Etheric Toxin that travels back up the Spectral Channel to the controlling Necromancer, poisoning and destroying it. If it works on Risen as well as on Undead, we may have a way to turn Zhaitan’s minions into weapons to be used against him. We may be able to destroy his strongest lieutenants without having to face them directly. It could even threaten the Dragon himself.”

“But…” Misty filled the pause.

John sighed heavily and spilled the bad news: “Somehow, it seems word of his work has reached Zhaitan. Spies have been seen everywhere. A decoy patrol supposedly escorting the Asuran to Divinity’s Reach was ambushed and nearly wiped out. It seems Zhaitan will do anything to ensure the destruction of the Asuran and his work. Alita and I have been tasked with getting him to safety. Both of us report directly to Queen Jennah in this effort. I have the resources of the Order of Whispers available to me, and Alita has the full force of the Vigil, but force alone cannot seem to guarantee success in this case. As of right now, only two people know where this Asuran is.”

“In the basement.” stated Cookie.

“OK, maybe three, or now four.” said John with a pained look.

“And apparently a few undead.” Misty added, less than helpfully.

“We don’t know that for sure”, Alita said. “It may be coincidence that some wandering necromancer was practicing in the area and the pets just bumped into his minions while playing…”

Five pairs of eyes stared at her.

“No, I don’t believe that either.” Alita’s shoulders slumped a bit.

Foggy rose to his feet and his tail went straight back, just the tip twitching,  as he crouched into an alert position facing the door. Stormy began to pace and sniff, nose high, around the room.

“They are coming.” Misty and John spoke in unison.

John went to a closet behind the bar and rummaged about for a moment before coming out with what looked like a cross between binoculars and a moonshine still.

“Gift from a friend of sorts,” he explained. “It can see etheric energies. I will try to see what we are up against. There are view slots in the attic.”

He grabbed his bow and went up a ladder in the closet and through a ceiling hatch.

A few moments later his head appeared in the hatch. “I can see only about a dozen of them, but they have the place surrounded. The Necromancer is on the next hill to the west, well out of range.”

“Only a dozen of them? Well that’s encouraging,” replied Cookie. His tone was not altogether serious.

The attack began with heavy strikes against the door and shutters, but the heavily reinforced structures easily resisted the assault. Soon they could smell smoke, as the attackers attempted to burn their way through the door, only to be met with glowing hot iron. Next they could hear scrabbling on the roof and against the walls as the undead attempted to claw their way in through the solid stone. Several choruses of Twang - Thump - Howl - Thud were heard as John cleared the roof of intruders, firing through his viewports.

At one point Cookie heard a rustling at the chimney and a dessicated foot slipped into view at the flue. “Close your eyes!” he shouted as he pitched a fist-sized lump into the fireplace. There was a brilliant flash and a sudden “Whump!” as the packet hit the embers on the hearth. The foot was gone.

John was laughing hysterically up in the attic. “I wish you could have seen that fireworks display from up here,” he gasped when he could catch his breath. “There were three of them packed in that chimney, and they went off like fireworks. There are little sparkly flaming bits of undead raining down everywhere! Those three won’t be reanimating anytime soon.”

Alita turned to Cookie and Misty. “We can’t just wait for them to come to us. We are trapped in here and nobody knows where we are. Our situation is unlikely to get better with time. We need to get word out, and that means we need to break out of this trap. Dawn is coming, better for us and worse for them. At first light we need to break their siege.”

“What about the secret anti-undead stuff?” Cookie asked.

“We have only a tiny sample, and it hasn’t been fully tested. I’m afraid it won’t be of much use to us.”

“It won’t help if neither our charge nor the sample makes it out of here intact” pointed out Misty.

“True enough,” agreed Alita, “but let’s save it for a last resort if we can.”

“How about the Asuran, can he fight?”

“He may be able to talk them to death. He never shuts up. Ever. I don’t think he’s much of a fighter, though. He hides at the first sign of a threat. I’ve never seen him pick up a weapon.”

“So just the six of us, then,” John stated flatly. “The best course I can see is that we set an ambush at the front door and fight our way out, send the companions ahead for help, and make our way to Ebonhawke and the Asura gate to Divinity’s Reach.”

Heads nodded in agreement around the room.

Half an hour later they were ready to make their move. A Flame Turret faced the front door, with Misty and John behind it with arrows nocked and full quivers. Alita waited beside the door, sword and shield ready to deal with any creature that managed to cross the threshold. The pets had been equipped with short notes describing their location, situation, and plans, and stationed behind the bar until an opening could be made through the opposing forces. Cookie had intended to equip his flamethrower, but had to opt for his pistols after he was “nominated” to look after the Asuran.

The Asuran, for his part, was making muffled but decidedly uncomplimentary noises. His mood was due in no small part to having lost an argument, something he was clearly not accustomed to. He had insisted on staying in his basement hideaway until they were rescued. He made a very logical case that he was far too valuable to take a chance on having himself captured, injured, or even killed by the undead or some servant of Zhaitan. After all, as the only Asuran in the group he would be easily targeted.

The others resolved his reservations by the simple expedient of shoving an oversized helmet filled with clothes on his head, effectively muzzling him, and stuffing him in a backpack where he was not only hidden but also seated on a live grenade. It was then pointed out that he was unlikely to be captured by the enemy, and if he were to perish it was unlikely that there would be sufficient remains to reanimate, even for an accomplished Necromancer.

The fact that both Asuran and Grenade were strapped to Cookie’s back didn’t exactly improve Cookie’s mood either.

Alita looked to the others, counted down from three, and slipped the bolt. There was a brief look of surprise on the face of the undead Brute that had been pounding on the door incessantly for hours as it swung freely open. Then he took the full force of the flame turret blast and a double shot to the face from Cookie’s pistols and the look went away along with the rest of him. The bows began to sing as the two Rangers targeted anything moving in the dawn light. An undead Asuran ducked under their fire and made a run for the door. He met Alita’s sword halfway through, and her boot lofted his newly independent head back out the door and well down the hill.

In moments the door was cleared of threats. The two Rangers traded bows for swords and joined Alita as they set about clearing the area and making sure that reanimating any of the corpses wouldn’t be an easy task. It was a short and dusty battle. It would have been a short and bloody battle except, you know, the undead don’t do much in the blood department.

As the last undead were reduced to scraps the two Rangers whistled in unison and the Wolf and Snow Leopard leapt through the door, searching for threats and looking disappointed when they found none. John pointed in the direction of Ebonhawke and instructed, “Find friends.” The big black wolf canted his head in question, as if to say, “Aren’t you coming?” A nod and second point and the Wolf bounded off, disappearing almost immediately in the half-light of dawn. Misty knelt to scratch her big cat’s ears, then made eye contact and simply pointed in the opposite direction. The big cat hesitated just a heartbeat, then vanished into the underbrush.

Cookie joined the others, who began moving down the path forming a protective wedge ahead of him. They had gone only a few dozens of yards when they spotted motion and a cloud of dust coming up the hill. They crouched under cover, watching as the cloud resolved into a mass of undead, at least twenty in just the first rank, storming up the hill.

“Back to the pub.” ordered John. There was no disagreement. John and Misty dropped a hail of arrows on the trail to slow the assault and cover their retreat.

Back in the pub Cookie disarmed the grenade and freed the Asuran who quickly scampered back to his basement hiding place while throwing insults and complaints over his shoulder at anyone who would listen. Which was nobody.

“This is bad,” said Alita, stating the obvious, “there are too many of them. This isn’t just a Necromancer or two trying to gain favor with Zhaitan. These must be Risen. I have never seen them this far from Orr. The Dragon knows we are here. It’s only a matter of time until he gets sufficient forces here to overwhelm us.”

As if in response to her statement the building shook as something massive slammed into the bolted door. Weapons came to the ready and all eyes went to the door. Dust filtered down from the ceiling, beams creaked, but the door held.

“They have an Abomination.” This time it was John stating the obvious. “The door can’t stand up to that for long.”

Alita outlined their strategic situation. “We have to hold out as long as possible, and hope the companions can bring help. We will blockade the door and windows as best we can, set traps inside, and retreat to the basement when the time comes. The stairs are narrow and curved, and will force them to attack single file unless they simply poison or burn us out. We should be able to hold for a while. Cookie can rig a deadman charge so if the last of us falls it will ensure that none of us get reanimated as undead. We all know too much to let that happen.”

Heads nodded slowly. It wasn’t a plan anyone was particularly anxious to execute.

Cookie moved his Flame Turret to the now-cold fireplace and mounted it facing up the flue. A Rocket Turret was mounted in the back corner behind the bar, where anyone would have to move all the way across the room and behind the bar to reach it. “You know this is going to make a mess of this place if it starts firing, right?” he mentioned in passing to John. “It’s not really rated for indoor use.”

“If it needs to fire the mess is already made,” replied John. “Just make sure it doesn’t start firing while we are still in the room.”

Misty and Alita moved the big table so its top was against the door, then wedged another table up against it and nailed that one to the floor. The Rangers set an entanglement trap just inside the door, and spike and flame traps along the most likely paths of movement.

The hits against the front door continued, and the iron plate was now bent, the hinges and bolt loosening in the mortar of the rock wall. John had gone back to the attic with his shortbow, but couldn’t bring it to bear so close to the building. He picked off several Risen that were just standing back waiting for the door to give, though, and forced the rest to back off or take cover.

“John! Get ready!” shouted Alita as the hinges finally gave way. A couple more hits and the horde would be inside.

John scrambled down from the attic and the others took aim at the door.

“Downstairs!” shouted John. “It will take a while for them to figure out where the stairs are if we are closed up before they get in.”

The four scrambled down the stairs. John operated the lever to swing the bar closed, while Alita stopped at the bottom of the stairs, pivoted, and went to a defensive stance with sword and shield at the ready. The little Asuran was hiding under the table on the far wall reciting the value of Pi to himself. Cookie and the Rangers arrayed themselves to fire over Alita’s head at anything moving down the stairs.

The building shook with a heavy impact, then a second, then two more in rapid succession. Dust rained from the ceiling and flaked from the walls. John and Cookie looked at each other curiously. John spoke first. “That didn’t sound right, and I don’t hear anything happening upstairs.”

There were more thumps, now clearly explosions rather than physical impacts. Faint sounds of a pitched battle filtered to their underground refuge.

A few moments later it was Misty’s turn to suddenly look to the ceiling. “Foggy Mist. He’s close. And happy,” she said in slightly puzzled tone. “I think maybe our help got here.”

There came a rhythmic tapping of metal on metal from upstairs.

A quick round of raised eyebrows, shrugs, nods, and hand gestures established a consensus that emerging from their refuge might not be immediately lethal. John pulled the release handle while the rest tensed for an attack. It didn’t come. Alita led the group up the stairs. There was light showing around the door, but the braced table was still intact. There was no sign of undead or Risen inside. The tapping continued on the bent iron of the door. Alita cautiously reached and tapped the same rhythm with her sword.

“Ah, so there is someone home,” came a gravelly but very un-undead sounding voice. “We would have come in but we figured you might not be too welcoming to uninvited visitors just now.”

“Identify yourselves!” commanded Alita through the sagging door.

There was a heavy sigh, and then in the tone of voice reserved by soldiers for filing reports and reciting regulations came, “Fourth Warband, Second Company, Iron Legion. Legionnaire Kut Sharpeye” and in a low growl, “at your service.”

Cookie looked up in surprise. “I know that unit. Advanced scouts.”

“What happened out there?” inquired Alita, in a more conversational tone.

“You gonna let us in or do we have to keep chatting through the wall? We got a big white cat out here that really wants to get inside for some reason.” The request was accompanied by the screech of claws on iron.

“Foggy!” Misty called. “It’s safe, Foggy says they are OK.”

It took several minutes to disarm all of the traps and remove the obstacles they had set up. The big Charr finally lifted the heavy iron door and tossed it aside like a well-used rag. A streak of white zoomed through the opening and jumped to meet nose-to-nose with Misty, who promptly set to scratching ears and making baby noises to the big cat.

Five Charr followed the cat through the door, doffing helmets as they entered. Five clearly well used battle axes lined up by the door as they entered. They quickly set about straightening tables and chairs and clearing dust and debris.

John stepped through the door and looked around. What had been forest was now a dead and blasted wasteland. Undead corpses, or rather pieces of undead corpses, littered the area. A few craters still smoked. It smelled of the peculiar dusty, acrid odor of burning undead. He turned back into the pub.

“What happened out there? There must have been close to a hundred of them. How many casualties did you take? Any injured we need to recover?”

“Whoa there, pilgrim.” Kut’s big paws made slow-down motions in the air. “They were so busy trying to knock your little door down they never saw us coming. We had reports of a Risen group on the road, and were already headed this way when your Cat found us. We just circled around behind ‘em and took out their Necros before they even knew we were there. Once those were out of commission the rest didn’t have a brain between ‘em. Then we just opened up with mortars and walked ‘em down toward us, thinning them out. By the time they were running past us it was no problem at all for each of us to cut down eight or ten apiece. I might have gotten a clean dozen, but your cat there stole a couple of my kills.” He chuckled. “We may have to make him an honorary Charr.”

“To say we appreciate your efforts is a vast understatement,” said Alita with a bow. “We owe you our lives.”

“Fine,” said the Legionnaire with a wave of his hand. “This is a pub, right? We haven’t eaten since dawn. Got anything to eat or drink around here?” He grinned. Charr grins can be scary.

John quickly checked the taps. “Got ale.” he said and started drawing mugs. “Cookie, can you check the pantry?”

Moments later Cookie returned with an armload of sandwich fixin’s. He began to unwrap a loaf of bread on the bar when the Charr stepped up and slapped a big paw down on the loaf. “We are warriors doing battle. Don’t try to feed us this pasty grain stuff you humans seem to like so much. Try this instead.” He pulled a similar looking loaf from his pack and dropped it on the bar, where it landed with a heavy “thump” that didn’t sound at all like bread.

Cookie unwrapped the loaf and found a solid log of ground and spiced meat wrapped in bacon. He pondered for a moment then picked up his chef’s knife to slice the loaf. “Allow me,” rumbled the Charr as he flexed his claws and neatly separated four slices at a time with simple efficiency. “Too bad you haven’t got a grill going. It’s better warmed to fresh meat temperature. A human cook conscripted into one of our Warbands developed this as a field ration. It sure beats having to hunt for lunch every day.”

Cookie had a suspicion who that cook might have been, but didn’t mention it.

A quiet cough from one of the other Charr drew the Legionnaire’s attention. Two of them were standing at the end of the bar, the one with the cough standing with one paw resting on the coat rack. As Kut looked his way he opened his palm, revealing the embedded tooth, then his eyes flicked to the dagger in the ceiling. Kut’s eyes followed, then narrowed as he looked back at Cookie.

“So this is the place. You?” The topic was clear, the intent not so much. Cookie took a step back and helpfully pointed at John Dark.

Kut raised his voice as he faced John. “Band! Ten-hut!” Chairs scraped as the Charr snapped to attention facing their leader. “This is the human,” he growled as he pointed a single extended claw toward John, “that humiliated and forced the retirement in disgrace of Centurion Barok Foulwind.”

There was a moment of tension as everyone in the room froze, trying to figure out what was coming next. Then one corner of Kut’s lip curled, and he barked, “Lift your mugs in salute, you are in the presence of a hero of the Charr enlisted man!” He broke into a belly laugh, slapping John on the back hard enough to propel him several steps forward into the middle of the room. “There isn’t a Charr under his command that wasn’t glad to see that arrogant ‘Captain Windbag’ retired. You have done us a great service. Hear hear!” He drained his mug in one draught. The others followed suit, and John was surrounded and nearly mauled with congratulatory expressions of respect. It was far more attention than he was comfortable with.

“All right already!” John shouted. “Let the bartender do his job and refill some mugs!” His statement was met with cheers of hearty agreement.

Cookie turned back to Kut and said, “If you can loan me a soldier or two I think I can fix the grill issue.”

Kut nodded to the two by the bar. Cookie directed them to retrieve the iron door and set it up as a flat surface across a few piles of stones out front. He retrieved his Flame Turret and in short order had it modified to emit short bursts of flame continuously under the newly constructed iron grill.

Misty and Alita had finished setting out various ingredients and sliced produce on the bar. “Lunch is served!” shouted Misty. Even Foggy Mist joined the hastily forming queue.

Plate, slab of Charr ‘meatbread’, a selection of cheese, produce, thin-sliced meats, condiments, and another slab of ‘meatbread’, then out to the grill to sear it all together into a crispy-gooey handful of rich and filling goodness. It was a simple but quick and effective recipe.

Cookie swung the bar open and went to check on the Asuran. “Stinky cheese, spicy mustard, and extra pickles,” came a voice from the shadows. “Medium well. And I am NOT coming upstairs until it is entirely safe.” As an afterthought, “Oh, and a container of fizzy water if you please.”

Cookie sighed and retreated up the stairs. He returned a little later with a plate and mug of the closest thing John could find to ‘fizzy water’, some awful concoction John had called ‘Light Beer’, whatever that meant. The Asuran deemed it acceptable, which in Cookie’s mind put it firmly in the ‘unfit for any purpose’ category.

In short order the entire crew, sans Asuran, was gathered outside enjoying the sunshine and the occasional contented belch. War stories and tall tales were being shared, each more extravagant than the one before.

John’s head snapped around and his attitude went suddenly cold as a howl was heard in the distance. “Stormy,” he whispered. “A warning.”

Alita vanished into the pub and returned with John’s binocular-still combination. She began scanning the horizon. “Big energy concentration to the south. Can see movement. Must be close to a thousand of them. We need to get moving out of here.”

“I don’t think so.” said Kut. He ducked into the pub and returned with a chair and his helmet and axe. He promptly used his helmet to prop the chair in a reclining position against the pub wall, propped his axe alongside, and sat down, crossing his arms across his chest in a totally relaxed and unconcerned manner. “This is gonna be fun,” he said to nobody in particular. The members of his warband snickered and went to retrieve their own chairs.

Alita confronted Kut “We are vastly outnumbered, in a position to be trapped, and we can’t even close the bloomin’ door,” she pointed out.

Kut’s grin held no mirth, but the look of a hunter who knows his prey has no chance of escape. “We are a scouting unit. We don’t travel alone. Your knowledge of the strategic situation is incomplete.” He chuckled.

A moment later a sleek dark figure topped the hill to their east and in moments skidded to a stop in front of John, tail wagging so hard the big wolf could barely stand. Not far behind came another dark figure, this one on two legs, and not moving nearly as fast.

“Good boy, Stormy, and I see you brought friends,” John said while scratching ears and enduring a rough-tongued face wash.

The soldier in Fallen Angel armor reached them, panting. “We came as soon as we could… there is a large contingent of Risen headed this way, nearly a thousand of them, killing any living thing in their path.” Then he looked around. Destroyed entrance, blasted earth, pieces of what had once been undead mixed incongruously with what appeared to be a casual outdoor picnic and a bunch of armored Charr arrayed to watch some sporting event. Finally his eye landed on something that made sense and he snapped to attention and saluted. “Commander Lawrence! Lieutenant Gervis at your service. What are your orders?”

“At ease Lieutenant. We are all friends here. What have you brought for me?”

“We have two full companies of Fallen Angels following, about ten minutes behind me. The Ebon Vanguard are also sending a unit, but they are a bit further behind.” He looked at Stormy and then up a John while while rubbing a set of tooth-shaped dents in his greaves. “Your Wolf is pretty good at getting the urgency of your message across.” John just nodded, smiled, and went back to scratching ears.

“Have your units hold behind the ridge until it’s time,” ordered Alita.

“How will we know when it’s time?”

“Oh, you’ll know when it’s time,” rumbled Kut with a toothy grin. “Trust me, you will know when it’s time.”

Lt. Gervis looked curiously at the Charr. It seemed odd that Commander Lawrence should be so easily and casually taking commentary from someone so recently considered an enemy. Still, Rank was Rank. He saluted his commander with a, “Yes Sir!” and headed back down the hill toward his troops.

They watched the approach of the cloud of dust until it resolved into a mass of Risen creatures heading directly toward them. The Charr were relaxed, the others a bit tense. As the mass resolved into individual Risen the Charr began to chuckle and joke. The others picked up their weapons and began looking for firing positions. As the horde began to climb the hill the Charr became downright giddy. The others began thinking maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. The companions began to crouch and growl.

Finally Misty had had enough. She nocked an arrow in her Molten Longbow and chose a target as the range closed. There was a rumble, like thunder in the far distance, and she heard Kut say, “Here it comes!” as she drew the bow and settled into her combat mode, choosing the point of impact for her arrow. Just as she was about to release the shot her target disappeared in a puff of smoke. She quickly shifted to another target, and just as quickly that one disappeared as well. She lowered the bow as the entire front rank of Risen disappeared under a heavy and steady rain of mortar rounds forming a curtain all the way across the hillside.

The Charr were on their feet cheering, making the kind of hissing whistle usually reserved for epic battles between champions. The others were stunned at the ferocity of the attack, and so far not a single combatant on their side was visible. That was about to change.

The ground shook and trembled as four huge Charr battle tanks, each larger than the entire pub, crested the ridge to the west. As soon as their turrets cleared the ridge they opened fire on the massed targets in the valley below. Hundreds of Charr warriors followed the tanks over the ridgeline, then began a headlong charge into the valley in tight, disciplined units. The Risen forces wheeled to meet the onslaught against their flank, but as they did the sky to the east darkened with arrows. Seconds later the Fallen Angel forces rose from their hiding places and began pouring fire into the rear of the Risen lines. The Risen forces still on their feet lost all direction, and in confusion attempted to withdraw back to the south. There they ran directly into the ranks of the Ebon Vanguard troops moving up from Ebonhawke. It was a fierce, but ultimately one-sided battle as the three combined forces encircled the Risen forces. There were flashes of magical power answered instantly by heavy weaponry and explosions.

Those at the pub could only watch in awe as overwhelming power devastated the Risen ranks. Only Cookie heard Kut’s quiet statement: “When Metal meets Magic, Metal wins.”

In less than an hour the battle that would become known as the Third Battle of John Dark’s Hill was over as Human and Charr forces met over the remains of the Risen army.

That evening it was crowded behind the makeshift door of John Dark’s pub. Commanders of each of the major units had assembled. Hands were shaken, stories told, a few weapons exchanged, and a great deal of ale consumed. Well into the evening Commander Lawrence stepped up onto the fireplace hearth and tapped her beer mug with her dagger for attention. Slowly the room quieted and all eyes turned her direction.

“A few short months ago we would have been enemies, the current combatants of a war so old that our grandparents were not alive to see its beginnings. The Truce of Summit Peak brought peace at last between Human and Charr. Today, our joint efforts defeated a new, and dangerous, common enemy. Never have the Risen ventured so far from Orr, and never have they been defeated in such numbers in so little time.”

Cheers rose around the room, Charr and Human side by side.

“Common enemies make for strong alliances.”

More cheers erupted.

“I would like to recognize one unit in particular. Legionnaire Sharpeye, would you bring your warband up here please?” The phrasing was unusual for a Charr command, and it took a few seconds for Kut’s slightly inebriated brain to realize the polite request was not really a request. He quickly motioned for his band and moved to the hearth. Alita reached down to take his paw, apparently to help him up on the relatively small hearth. Instead of the offered paw, however, her hand overshot and firmly grasped the Charr’s wrist. Kut’s eyes widened as he looked up at her in surprise. Alita looked back, smiled, and nodded slightly. Kut’s paw gently wrapped around Alita’s wrist, and an audible gasp could be heard throughout the room as she guided him up alongside herself.

This grip, hand to wrist, has special meaning among both Human and Charr. Among Humans it is a Comrade’s Grip, all but unbreakable except by mutual agreement. It symbolizes a strength of unity that goes beyond friendship. It is the grip used when a life hangs in the balance.

Among the Charr it is the ultimate sign of trust and respect. In this grip merely flexing the claws would open the veins and sever tendons rendering the other nearly defenseless. It is never used in social situations. It literally symbolizes putting one’s life in the hands of another.

In one motion this handshake spoke more than all of the words written on the document of truce to those assembled.

“These six,” she motioned to Kut and the five assembled soldiers in front of the hearth, the four who had been at the pub and a lithe female built along Cheetah lines that had been the messenger sent to bring the other troops. “These troops moved to assist others that they did not know, those not of their Legion, or clan, or even race. They took on a force that outnumbered them nearly ten to one, and emerged not only victorious but unscathed.”

There was a polite smattering of applause.

“The Risen, the Brand, and now the effects of the Bloodstone all present new threats, new challenges, and new problems to be resolved. We can no longer hold on to old differences. That which binds us together must be stronger than that which would tear us apart.”

“I would like to request, on behalf of Queen Jennah, that these troops, along with the commanders of the two Fallen Angel companies and the Ebon Vanguard unit, be allowed to accompany me to Divinity’s Reach for special recognition by the Queen herself as an example of what can be accomplished as we work together for the good of all Tyria.”

Alita turned and whispered into the big Charr’s ear: “I have a special request for your band as well, an escort assignment of sorts..”

More applause, more speeches, and more Ale followed.

The next morning the Charr warband moved out toward Ebonhawke along with a large contingent of Fallen Angels and Commander Alita Lawrence, all surrounding a very talkative Asuran that nobody wanted to walk close to.

Four days later…

It was a Dark and Stormy night. The stars shone bright as Foggy Mist, the big Snow Leopard, led “Humble” Misty and “Cookie” la Boomboom up the well worn path to John Dark’s small tavern...

Published: June 2nd, 2017   |  8,199 Reads

About the Author

Senior Editor

As GmaFog loves to adventure in life, she gets excited about everything surrounding her. In addition to working as a Web Production Assistant for Franchise Update Media, she voluntarily writes and edits for Gaiscioch Magazine. She attends Westside Christian Church and loves going on missions trips to Rwanda with Africa New Life Ministries. In her spare time, Gma plays games with The Gaiscioch [GSCH] Family and grandsons; dabbles in photography; and explores crafting ideas. You can always ask her questions, as she enjoys helping others, in-game and out.

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