Author's Notes: finding the inspiration to write Marco has been hard, considering the effort needed for each chapter. It took a while, but... here it is. Last chapter of book 1.
Four more to go.
"How do you survive?"
"I shoot first."
"What about you, old timer? It's your turn."
"Awww, shucks, no one wants to hear mine!"
"We all had to share OURS!"
"It's all in good fun!"
"This is a judgement-free zone. Tell the truth."
"Make it fast, I gotta pee."
"Go on, Poppi!"
"It's not like it could be any worse than Matsuda's."
"...well, gosh, alright. It all started back when I was married, I suppose! See, way back when I was a young buck, I married this beautiful young gnome-she was so bright, like a tiny star had descended to Azeroth. She had a smile that could power any of the machines she worked on!"
"Let me guess-she died?"
"Nope, but that was probably a safe assumption to make! I married her because she was so ambitious-she loved her work and got hurt on the job often, so we made a good team! She could recklessly throw herself at her work without a moments hesitation because she knew I could help her pick up the pieces. Sometimes we had to pick up pieces literally!
"Well we were a young married couple, so it was only a matter of time before she became pregnant! We were happy, of corse, but she was never the kind of girl to let something like pregnancy slow her down! She kept working like she always had. And, well, it was only a matter of time before she made a mistake... and only a matter of time before I forgot I was healing for two..."
"...Oh... was it too much for her? Did she blame you?"
"Hmmm? Oh, no! Actually, it was the other way around. On the day we found out it was stillborn, she really didn't care. 'It was just a fetus' she said, and ''throw it in the trash, it's just meat now' when we were offered the body. Can you imagine something so cold? Looking at he corpse of our first child without even the slightest spark of compassion in her eye? It was more like disgust, like she was looking at a spoiled steak.
"I guess I realized then how magic like mine affects people! I couldn't of known how she started to see living creatures as something that could be easy to fix, and she must of started thinking that they were easy to replace, too! The more I think about it, the more I wish I'd noticed it sooner. Maybe if I was a little more stingy with the light, she would have understood just what we'd lost."
"So why'd you join the army?"
"You guys face death every day, too. You fight, and you kill, and you could be killed at any given moment. I joined because I don't want you to become saturated with healing magic-I can't trust any other healer to help you understand just what it is we're protecting... and taking...
"...I guess I still believe every life is valuable. And I guess I just like pushing my beliefs on other people! Right Marco?"
I opened my eyes. What a strange memory, disguised as a dream.
I sat up. It was still dark out, but it was defiantly morning-morning enough, anyhow, to justify getting out of bed and getting ready. There was little point in going back to bed, I figured-they'd be waking me up again soon anyway, and it'd just make me groggy to take a half-hour nap. So I shook out the lethargy that had set into my body from my sleep, what remaind of the medicine Flo gave me last night, and a few stray hairs from my beard, and slid my armor on at a luxuriously lazy pace.
I wore mail. To the uninformed, mail is armor composed of interlocking metal rings, which made it excellent at protecting me from slashing wounds and blunt attacks, like from swords or maces, but it wasn't so good at protecting me from puncturing attacks, such as pikes or crossbows or bullets. I suppose it was that way so I would be encouraged to take out other ranged fighters to I provided aid and cover to my more melee minded allies. Since I was a warrior of exceptional note, the "elite of the elite", my mail was made of thick, tightly woven, riveted steel links, with a thin layer of leather under that to absorb shock. Made it a hot wear, but in Alteric Valley I don't think I have to worry too much about overheating.
It was ornamented. Linked within the mail was runes and gems, which melted with the steel to provide me with further protection and to enhance my natural agility and stamina, as well as provide some form of resistance against magic, which would normally eat right through this stuff. It was very... green. I looked a little bit like broccoli with a brown top. It certainly wasn't indicative to camouflage, but I had my ways.
I snapped my cape around my neck-it was a flowing red thing, whose tail flickered at the slightest provocation. On the back was a intricate design, and improved, elegant version of the Ironforge symbol that had taken so many artistic liberties it was near impossible to see the base design anymore.
My helmet was a pretty simple cover-a simple green-steel dome that covered my hair, the back of my neck, and ringed around my eyes, putting it on, I felt fully prepared for the day-there was something about wearing a full set of armor that made a man feel prepared to face any challenge a day can throw at you. Battle? You're set. Riding a dragon? You got armor, you're fine. Babysitting? Lets see those brats kick your crotch without breaking a leg. Laundry? Screw clothing-you're in ARMOR.
I got my war-pike out. It appeared simple, but it was forged from the finest Titanium our Dwarven mines could provide, and designed with the finest Dwarven minds to puncture anything who so foolishly threw themselves towards it. The long hilt was inscribed with runes that told the story of a legendary unnamed Pikesman in the second war, who impaled 8 orcs in a single thrust of his pike, then took them to ironforge, alive, for interrogation. The runes tickled my fingers through my mail gloves, and I felt the strength of that unnamed Dwarf bequeathed to me by its magic. I rarely, if ever, actually used the pike as a weapon, but I kept it on my back for the strength it generated, and the odd time I am forced to engage an enemy in close quarters-spears help keep that distance I thrive on. I slid it onto my back, and it's weight tamed the wild dance of my cape.
Finally, my gun. The ol' standby. A warrior could shoot this thing-heck, anyone could, but they'd be in for a fel of a surprise when the recoil dislocated their shoulder-if they were lucky. This thing had a strong enough kick to punch through three rows of adamantine plate. It was a hand cannon in the truest sense, and without the proper training it would cause the user more harm than good. Romancing death, remember? Well, this little death incarnate was my kitten, and she purred real good in my hands.
...man, Melissa's right. I DO miss Mittens. I wonder where she went.
"Are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely. This cat has proven it's valor in the field of battle time and time again."
"...that's great and all, but how does that make her qualified to be a housepet?"
"Well you did say you had lots of small children, ma'am."
I strapped my gun to my back as well, forming a cross on my back with my weapons-and with a deep breath, I stepped outside.
It was still dark, but there was plenty of activity in the camp-several restless people who had taken to the final hour of darkness in order to find the solace they couldn't find in sleep. They moved like specters, cautiously stepping around the sleeping masses, desperate to keep them unconscious and blissfully unaware of the morning about to dawn. I joined them, tip-toeing out of my tent and slithering through the cracks in my effort to reach the stables, where Tessa slept.
Because like fel was I gonna waste this time wandering aimlessly. If I was awake we might as well train together a little more, maybe grind whatever animosity we may of had left into a fine dust to spread under our eyes.
Also, I'd like to tell her we were going to enter combat today, before we were corralled into the cave. I couldn't be sure she knew.
The stablemaster wasn't awake, and I wasn't about to disturb her for something I could do myself, so I took it on myself to unlock her kennel and Shepard her to the opening in the tents near the cliffside. She was asleep when I found her, but didn't seem to begrudge me waking her, because the moment she stepped out of her cell she was quick to relieve herself. But she was getting a little more thoughtful about it-she went in a nearby gorilla's kennel (I had no idea who owned that gorilla... probably one of the marksmen) so as not to leave a mess in the main passage. Not really the ideal solution but at least she wasn't just going on the spot.
I hope that gorilla doesn't roll in it's sleep.
Anyway, at the clearing, she stretched her limbs out, having kept them close to her body while slowly finding her way around the tent town. She clicked, a sort of half-acknowledged 'good morning', she looked at me expectantly, waiting for something out of me-orders to train, a plan of what was gonna happen today, explicit orders NOT to do something...
"We can train in a bit. Just a little though. I have to tell you something, I'm... not sure if I've done this yet. Or stated it explicitly."
I had probably told her "we're fighting in a few days" in some capacity, but I couldn't be sure she even kept track of time the same way we did. Maybe she though that bloody day was still far, far into the distance, some unimaginable moment in the future where we'd mastered techniques that made what we were doing now look like training for a massage parlor. Sadly, that wasn't the case-what few tools we had were all we'd get, for now.
"We're going into battle toda- er, real soon. I mean, before we get to sleep again, we'll have to have survived a battle. A whole battle."
Her eyes stared dumbly at me, and she twisted her head.
"We have to KILL people today. We have to kill them before they kill us. And we have to protect other people from being killed, too."
She shrugged with all three shoulders she had, either indifferent to the idea of battle, or the shrugging gesture meant something else in Silithid.
"...well as long as you know. Now let's train. With something other than your... meld... thing."
She continued to stare at me until I lost patience.
"Something else. The basics, I guess. Hand gestures and the like, since I can't exactly shout or use the gun. Comeon-lets see kill command!"
We didn't get to train for longer than a few minutes before a trumpet blast rocked the entire camp into a state of pre-alertness. We were supposed to be awake, now, so it was only natural both me and Tessa were suddenly hit with a wave of fatigue and a powerful longing to return to our beds. But that choice was forever denied us, now, so all we could do is trudge back to the tents and join the rest of the waking soldiers.
As the moments passed, the soldiers emerged from their tents like bubbles from a shell, completely ready for battle. Their armor was on, their weapons were strapped to their bodies, their faces sturdied for the onslaught they were about to endure. What the general said was very much correct-first thing they did was start handing out the mounts and directing people who looked ready to the cave, where we were to sit idly and wait for the signal. Since I was up for a while now, and that bit of trivia hadn't been overlooked, I was one of the first to be given a goat and sent on my way.
"Go across the bridge and down the path some. The cliffs next to you will start to get smaller, and once it flattens out a little, maybe a mile and a half in, turn around-you'll see a road behind you intercept with the main road. Follow it, you'll hit the cave."
I took a last look around to see if I could catch anyone I knew, but after a good glance told me they weren't going to be around, I just got upon the goat and went on my way, going full-steam ahead-I directed, and my goat friend dashed across the bridge. Tessa, who seemed thrilled to be moving, ran besides me, able to keep pace with the male mountain sheep with ease.
We had the wide, snowy, morning-colored road to ourselves. After walking our mounts yesterday for so long, it felt good to just recklessly charge ahead, keeping the wind in my face and the scenery fresh. It really woke the soul up, got that spirit-plasma or whatever flowing. The funny thing about speed... it seemed like, if you moved fast enough, the future became indistinguishable, the past became irrelevant, and the present became so blurred that you couldn't find any imperfection. It was just what I needed right now, where if my mind had caught up with my body, the past would become invaluable, the future abrupt, and the present was ripe with tribulation.
...well, it was mostly fun. I did learn the hard way that goats aren't good at making hair-pin turns, but at least Tessa enjoyed it.
Since we were going full gallop, it didn't take long to reach the cave, where, to my surprise, there were already people waiting-others who were up early, like I was, but got to their mounts faster than me, I suppose. There were maybe six people there, either catching up on their sleep with last-minute naps, swinging their arms around to stretch their muscles out, or in light conversation. Of all six people there, there was only one I recognized, and unfortunately it was the one person I didn't want to see.
"Hey! Marco! My bunk buddy!" Hector greeted me, fully adorned in his battle-attire: Turned out, ironically enough, he was a mage, and he wore starch, hard-edged robes that resisted movement and didn't flow or wave. The design was equatable to the pattern of a moth wing, if the wing leaked an arcane power so potent it burnt through the eyelids. His staff was impressive, as well-a sort of silver/mithril alloy handle with a golden orb head, which had serrated halos floating around it, crossing and grinding silently against each other.
"Oh. Hector. Hey."
I may not care for him that much, but if I had to guess, he was the creator of the magical mana-cake plate that was levitating on the floor, so I suppose I'd have to humor him out of gratitude.
"Excited for our big day? It's going to be a heck of a party! Ooh, my adrenaline's pumped just by being here!"
"Funny thing about adrenaline, people say it gives you an energy boost, but that's not really the case! Scientists from the horde and the alliance alike both did research on adrenaline to try to find some way to weaponize it and they found something amazing! You know what it is?"
"You do? Oh, good, then I don't have to explain it. You'd be AMAZED at how little people these days know, why, I've made it my noble MISSION to try to get people to learn more! Understanding the world we live in is such an important part of living, you know? Why, I once met this fabulous author-this orc fellow name Balok. You heard of him? Ah ha- don't say a word! I know what you're thinking!"
Wow, these were actually really good mana cakes.
"Yes, I HAVE met the orc author Balok. See, they don't sell his work in alliance lands-go figure-so I have to go to booty bay every time he publishes something new and buy it from the goblins! Well, as luck would so have it, he was over there doing a signing, and I caught him just after the event! We had the most interesting conversation about the acquisition of knowledge and the duty of the writer and scholar to share that knowledge!"
"Of corse it's a thankless job, but you should see the faces, ah-it's thanks enough. You know, back in the early early days, we didn't use gold as currency, you know. We were wiser then, and we used GRATITUDE. Not LITERALLY gratitude, mind, but a system of trade-trading direct goods and services for other goods and services! See, we weren't able to mine for gold back in those days, because Dwarfs were still underground, so we had to find something else of value, so what we did was-"
Tessa, with a slight twitch in one of her eyes, spat a gob of webbing into the man's face, which shut up him rather quickly.
"...sorry about that. She's... uncomfortable around strangers."
"...I see. Excuse me, I need to wash this off."
He turned around and went deeper into the cave, presumably to find something to wash with, and the moment he turned the corner I patted Tessa on the head.
When another person galloped up the way and found shelter in the cave, Hector found a fresh victim to antagonize while I waited for someone I enjoyed to come up. They were starting to trickle in faster now-some faces I knew, like the Marksman who worked the stables with me, the fat draenei, that strange Worgen who never takes off his creepy mask (He was a warlock? Go figure), and, finally, a face I knew with a name-Vyger.
"Beat me to it, huh?" Vyger laughed, patting me on the back as he caught up with me. "'Ell, 'ere I thought you weren't excited."
"Frankly I'm surprised you didn't just charge the frostwolves solo."
"'Ell, the general would tan m' hide f' that... but not before I tanned all of theirs!"
Something irrational in me believed his wild boast, like a child believing their dad could wrestle with a dragon and win. It was one of those childish comforts we clung to, the evolution of the security blanket.
"Where are the others? Do you know?"
"Poppi was right behind me. Can't speak for Flo or Melissa, although Melissa looked awful tired when I woke 'er up."
My memory of last night wasn't deteriorated enough for me to forget Hector's report to the guard, and I had to bite my tongue to prevent anything I'd regret saying from slipping out of my tongue in front of Vyger.
"Whas' wrong? 'Ou look upset."
"W-what? Oh, n-nothing. I just... wish she had gotten a better night's rest."
"She'll wake up soon enough."
At that moment, Poppi stepped in-he was a sight for sore eyes. He looked just as he always had-standard staff, his colorful gown, and a old shit-eating grin that lifted my spirits. Seeing him in what he always wore when surrounded by people in their battle-tested armor was like having a tiny fragment of last week in the now-a time before we had to worry about war, or training new pets, or anything other than ticking the boxes on the calendar away.
"Whoo! What a morning! It's getting really cold out there!" His face was so flushed from the chill you'd think he was a tomato with legs.
"Really? Wasn't that bad earlier."
"Aye, I didn' feel nothin'."
"Well, maybe it's just me, but I still feel chilled to the bone! Can anyone make a fire?"
"I think I know how, but we don't have any wood."
"Well, shoot!" Poppi wrapped his arms around himself to try to contain his shivers, a funny old grin still on his lips. "Guess I'm SOL until Melissa shows up!"
Vyger was wrong. It was actually our beloved druid who appeared next, slogging up the hill into the cave in the form of a cheetah. Naturally, we could only guess if it was Melissa until she actually became human again, and when she did we waved and said hello.
"Yeah. Where's the food?"
It seemed that was everyone's first question, and I couldn't blame them, they were really good mana cakes. I'd eaten somewhere around seven. We directed her to the plate, she grabbed a handful, and as she stuffed the magical pastries into her mouth I started talking at her.
"How're you feeling?"
She was wearing leather, but it was a much more tribal design then her usual loose-fitting winter wear. It was a tightly-woven extra layer of skin, clinging to her without a trace of air between it and her skin-so thick and heavy it was amazing she looked so unfettered. She wore a helmet, to-something that wrapped around the outside edge of her face and the back of her head, which wouldn't of ever fit had she not shaved her head. She even had a polearm, like me, a J-shaped hook spear that slightly glowed green.
She looked good. It was honestly the first time I could say all the scars on her face seemed fitting and natural.
She eyed me wearily, and shifted her weight, as if on guard suddenly.
"...what are you looking at?"
...I suppose I did have a habit of staring.
"Oh! I'm just not used to seeing you in something so..."
"What?" she looked down at herself, nose wrinkled.
"...and that's weird? You see me naked all the time."
Oh, druids and their sensibilities. Although I supposed it was true... she wasn't wearing anything when she was in in the shape of a beast, after all.
...suddenly I felt very awkward.
"Melissa! Boy am I glad to see you! I'm freezing!" Poppi beamed, walking over from some further corner of the cave where he had gone to seek sanctuary from the rogue gusts that found their way into the mouth of the cave.
"Oh, hey Poppi." She half yawned, returning his smile like a mirror. "Don't see what's more cold about today then yesterday or the day before..."
"A chill in the air?" I suggested, although traditionally before battle there's more of an edge to it.
"Sure, why not!"
"Alright, alright." Melissa shrugged, stuffing another cake into her mouth before turning into a bear, allowing Poppi to crawl onto her back and it was a lot more weird now that she had brought my attention to her nudity.
"Much better!" Poppi snuggled into the long fur.
Poppi and Melissa had started gorging themselves, with Poppi grabbing the snacks and popping the odd one into her open bear-maw, which... yeah, was still really awkward, but I didn't say anything. Vyger was giving a pep talk to some guy who was crying, so I didn't bother him, so I spent the time between Melissa showing up and Flo appearing by feeding Tessa small chunks of some cheese I had smuggled in. I'd throw it into the air and watch her catch it... I preluded this little game with the promise it was training, but really, it was just mindless fun for me. I always liked dogs, anyway.
The cave was mostly full of people by the time Flo had arrived. There was conversation abound, the spinning lights that came with the multitude of buffs being granted to us, the sound of people chewing mana-cakes (it was a wet smacking sound-it should have been disgusting, but it was more homely), and there was even a soulwell, summoned by that worgen warlock. Apparently all you had to do was reach into the green fire and pull out a health stone, but I was wary of that whole demon-magic business. For all I knew the soul of my mother was crammed in one of those rocks.
When Flo did come in, I was the first to notice-she was still beautiful, although you could tell that she had spent even more time on her makeup, and her face appeared so soft and angelic I couldn't help but wonder how the wind hadn't wiped it clear off her head on her way up here. I half expected her to be some sort of sub-arctic mirage.
She wasn't smiling, though, and I suspect that particular vision wouldn't grace us until tomorrow, at least.
She wore her carefully tailored leather outfit, which exposed as much of her body she could afford-thighs, the bottom of her feet, back of her knees, shoulders, armpits and the upper arms, stomach, her collarbone and cleavage, and no helmet to speak of. The armor itself was designed in a way to draw the eye away from the outfit and onto her smooth plum skin and summertime jewel eyes.
"Good to see you."
"Wish I wasn't here." She sighed, casting her gaze upon the crowd of people who were in the cave.
"Well it's not my idea of a good time, either. What took you?"
"Makeup." She awkwardly twisted her little wrist to gesture to her face. "And that shaman woman."
"Looking for rides. Complaining about the cave. Said it'd make more sense to meet at the southernmost bunker."
I bit my lip, and she could only shrug. We both knew what we felt towards that woman was illogical, and yet...
"Oh, hey! Flo! Melissa, Flo's here!"
The bear turned in the same direction Poppi was pointing, and nodded at her. It seems the two of them were still eating when Flo showed up.
"There must be 200 cakes here, the plate never seems to go empty! Flo, you should grab some!"
She took five.
We didn't really talk to each other. I couldn't say why, there was no lack of things to say, but every time I opened my mouth something seeped into my ears that whispered to me "Nope, not now", and that took the wind out of my ambitions. We'd still talk with the people around us in what could be called dabbles of conversation, but... we didn't say much to each other... until the gate suddenly closed, trapping everyone inside the cave.
Suddenly, all forty of our units, who had been dispersed across the cave quite evenly, rushed to the gate, pressing into one large mob that stared out the window.
"What's going on?"
"Is this a trap?"
"Where'd this gate come from?"
"Are we starting soon?"
"It landed on my cloak!"
There was enough hysteria from the event that it was one of those strange moments in the human experience where everyone was talking but no one was listening, nor did anyone speak with the intention of being heard. The ungainly tapestry of mismatched voices jammed into our ears was all we wanted, and we succeeded to a frightening degree.
"AWRIGHT, QUIET!" Voyager shouted, the force in his lungs dwarfing our combined efforts. Our vocal bubbling calmed into a simmer, and he lowered his voice as well. "Horde's ready, and will be goin' down south n' 60 seconds! Say a prayer or two, n' get ready, because when that gate opens the battle begins!"
Suddenly it seemed like all the time in the world had been laid before me, and it still wasn't enough.
"Well... here goes..." I breathed, grabbing hold of Tessa's leg as she desperately shoved into the people around her, trying to get some personal space.
"Deep breaths, Marco, we'll be fine!" Poppi grimaced, hopping off Melissa's bear back (A pun? Now? Really?) and grabbing hold of the frostbitten iron bars in front of us. "You have me with you! And with a healer on your side you've got no reason to cry!"
Melissa, who became more vertically gifted and less horizontally evasive by becoming human again, nodded grimly.
"We'll be fine. What's our plan?"
"I think the five of us should capture that first tower and keep it until it catches fire." I suggested. "We'd have a solid defense and it'd free up the other soldiers to do their thing."
"Works for me!"
Flo didn't say anything, but I was fairly sure she was game.
We went quiet and simply waited for that gate to rise. Trying to describe the cave itself was simple enough: it was crowded, hot, invasive-we were surrounded at all sides and we were surrounding others the same. Armor ground up against armor, weapons tapped into one another and ticked like the passing of the second hand, breathing was heavy and talk flew under it, present, but weighed down by the hollow words screamed from our lungs.
Trying to describe the rest... well... that was harder. I could throw some words out at you-collective, tender, loathing, small, polite, throaty, pummeled-but those words have taken a different meaning for me, after having experienced them in that moment, in that cave, with those people, in those seconds. Whatever emotion or feeling or expression those words have taken with you... I'm not sure they can really equate anymore.
It's how words work. Experience shaped their meaning.
I didn't have time to meditate on those feelings before the gates were cranked open. As the gates rose, and the daylight washed over us... it disinfected me of everything I had done. All the fear I had experienced. All the doubt that I tried to hide. All the training I had done. All the battles I had fought. All the people I killed. All the friends I had. All the bullets in my gun. All the courage I had. All the questions I wanted to ask. All the times I had prayed. All the times my prayers were heard.
All of it was useless.
"GLORY TO THE ALLIANCE!"
Ready or not, the battle for Alteric Valley begun.