Creepy candlesticks, spiders, and jack-o’-lanterns littered the grounds of Aldineri’s garrison. The decorations were appropriate given the late October weather, but it had still taken some convincing to get them up. Ald watched as Giles placed the last jack-o’lantern in front of the garrison’s fountain.
“Will that do, sir?” asked the older draenei.
Aldineri smiled and nodded at Giles. The draenei generally kept the garrison decorated in Winter Veil gift boxes and elf hats all year long. He insisted it was a matter of preference. Something about that feeling of giving and goodwill to all. Ald didn’t usually have a problem with this. After all, he rarely visited the old garrison these days. But with the upcoming meeting, Ald had insisted that the garrison decorations be more in sync with the upcoming holiday.
“Just remember, Giles. You can put up all that fake snow you like as soon as everyone leaves. This is just temporary.”
Giles gave a small bow. “Of course, sir. I apologize for arguing. You are right, of course.”
The little old draenei was the sole year-round resident of the garrison. Ald had found him wandering alone in Shadowmoon Valley after his home had been destroyed. Instead of wandering alone, Ald had invited him to stay in the garrison during the Alliance’s campaign in Draenor against the Iron Horde.
Nestled deep in a magical forest of Draenor, this place once bustled with activity. Patrols of draenei and night elves, the chatter of smiths creating jewelry and armor, and the clanging sounds of pickaxes striking deposits of true iron ore filled the eyes and ears of his memory. So much had happened since then. So many battles. So much death.
After the campaign, everyone had left. Everyone except Giles, that is. The old draenei had stayed on as caretaker while Ald and the rest of his team of heroes saved Azeroth from other threats.
“What a blast from the past,” came a low and growly voice from his right.
Ald thought he and Giles had been alone. Kebechet’s voice surprised him, bristling the hair on his neck and arms. It must have been visible since a wry smile shaped her face.
“Wow. If I’m so stealthy, maybe I should be the rogue,” she said, the smile still wrapping around her canine jaws. Kebechet was not dressed in her usual manner. Gone was the mail armor and intricate hunter helmet. Instead, she was dressed in a simple dark shirt that matched her Worgen fur, and short pants of the same color. The only things that reminded Ald of Keb’s battle days were the ornate golden belt buckle tied around her waist and the glowing rifle slung over her shoulder.
“Hunters are known for their stealth as well, sister,” he replied, recovering quickly from his startled reaction. Though not biological siblings – one being a worgen and the other a pandaren – the two of them had been through enough over the years to consider one another family. He let a smile touch his own lips.
“Lady Kebechet,” Giles said. He gave another bow, this one much deeper. “It is an honor to see you again, dear lady. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Giles, you old dog,” she said with an impish tone. Pure irony in the Worgen calling someone else a dog. “I’m alright, actually. If I know you, there’s something fantastic laid out inside,” she said as she gestured toward the Town Hall building in the rear of the garrison.
Instead of replying, Giles shot Ald a look.
Ald let out a heavy sigh. “Cald insisted upon setting out the food today. He’s been practicing cooking using fire elementals again.” Giles had been upset by that, too. Ald was lucky the two of them didn’t live together often. They might never stop arguing.
Giles let out an audible sniff. “I will tend to the dining table. I’m sure master Cald has finished placing the food. I’m sure I’ll have to fix it.” He gave another deep bow to Keb before heading into the Town Hall.
Ald waited until Giles was out of hearing range before speaking with Keb any further. “How have you been?”
Kebechet leaned against the garrison town hall building, letting her rifle rest on the ground at her side. “As good as can be expected. I’ve been itching to get back out there, of course. I assume you’ve heard about the Lich King?”
The mention of the Lich King erased the smile from Ald’s lips. It was the reason he had called this meeting. “Of course I have. Things seem to be moving. I suppose it’s time we thought about putting the band back together, as it were.”
Keb nodded. Her eyes went from Ald’s head to his feet and back again. Her smile had not yet left her mouth. “You sure you’re up to it?”
The small vacation between now and the War of the Thorns, as the conflict with Sylvanas and the Horde had since been named, had affected Ald in more ways than one. The burning of Teldrassil and the loss of many friends took a heavy toll. He might have grown a little heavier since the campaign. He might not have been training as much as usual. He might look a little more disheveled than he did when he led the motley crew of heroes who had defeated the Old God N’Zoth months and months ago.
“I’m not sure he has ever been up to leading our band of misfits,” Fuzzy said as he strutted into view. Unlike Ald or Keb, Fuzzy was clad from head to toe in flamboyant plate armor complete with shoulderguards spiky enough to be banned in three Alliance cities. The fact that hunters really shouldn’t be wearing plate armor seemed an afterthought to the male worgen. Fuzzy looked around dramatically. “If I’d known I would have been one of the first ones here, I’d have arrived later. To be fashionable and all.”
Keb rolled her eyes. “Yes, fashionable. Definitely one of your personal traits.”
Fuzzy grinned while he brushed off invisible dirt from one of the pieces of his spiked shoulder armor. “Yep. Second only to my enormous…sense of humor. Where’s the grub?”
Ald’s smile returned as he waved a furry paw towards the door of the town hall building. “Cald put it out. He’s likely finished and in the archaeology room studying some books about the afterlife.”
Fuzzy slapped the palm of his paw over his face. “Not the fire elemental business again? Ugh. The last time he tried that, everything I ate tasted like charcoal for days!”
“I’d rather eat charcoal than whatever kibble you can produce,” Keb retorted.
Fuzzy stuck his tongue out at Keb. “Well, I still want to give it a sniff or two before the meeting. See you cool kids inside.” Fuzzy sauntered through the doorway, having to turn sideways so that his shoulders cleared the door frame.
Keb rolled her eyes again, a practice she did frequently when Fuzzy was present. “Well, he’s back to his old usual self,” she said to Ald after Fuzzy had disappeared into the building. “But my previous question wasn’t rhetorical, brother. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
Ald noticed that the smile had faded from her mouth. She seemed genuinely worried. It was something to value in their friendship, and why he considered her part of his family. He shook his head. “I’m really not sure, Keb. We’ve been doing this for so long. We’re not getting younger. And this new threat…I mean, we’ve faced all sorts of demons and old gods. But death itself? How do you fight that?” Even Ald could hear the weariness in his own voice. “I’m not sure we are up to this one. I don’t think we’ll come out of this unscathed, and I fear that we’ll…” He stopped. He couldn’t bear to say the word, but Kebechet seemed to hear it just as well.
“We won’t fail, Ald. And even if we do,” she said as he placed her own paw on his shoulder. “We’ll do it together. As a team fighting the good fight. That’s all we ask of you. Lead us to greatness, no matter the outcome.”
Ald nodded, but he didn’t feel any truth behind it. He had questioned his leadership for so long that he wondered why others hadn’t. Or perhaps they had, just not to his face.
“We’ll be fine,” she added. She glanced over his shoulder, and Ald noticed a few other raid members entering through the garrison walls. “I have to change into my armor. I have to silently brood in the background, ya know. My reputation and all. See you inside.”
Ald watched as she vanished into the town hall behind Fuzzy. He turned to greet the other members of his crew. Archmichaels and Kobaiyashi greeted him with warm hugs. Opalily and Andalys both gave solemn bows before erupting into huge grins and patting him on the back. Feniox and Healpimp were animatedly chatting and joking with one another before giving Ald a brief nod and entering the building.
The sky was getting dark, and a few more members would arrive before the meeting, but he needed to change as well. The others would find their way inside. Ald retired to the archaeology room to find Cald indeed at work, reading up on the Shadowlands. Ald didn’t want to disturb his studying, but if he left him to his own devices, Cald would spend the entire night there poring over the ancient texts and preparing for any upcoming battles the group might weather.
“Hey, Cald. It’s nearly time.”
Cald seemed to snap from a trance as his eyes left the pages of the book in his hands. He leveled them at Ald and gave a quick nod. “Yep. You’re right. It’s time.” He snapped the book closed and placed it on the nearest shelf. “You ready?”
It seemed to be the question of the day.
“I think so. I’m just going to change before the meeting. Put on the battle gear. And the game face.” For the second time in just a few short minutes, Ald wasn’t sure he believed himself. Cald was an eager young man, brimming with enthusiasm, knowledge, and strategy. As the second-in-command, the crew followed his every word as best as they could. Under Cald’s direction, the team had not only survived their previous encounters but emerged triumphant.
Ald considered telling Cald his plan. That he intended to step down. That he was no longer fit nor ready to fight. That weariness and disillusionment had taken hold of his feeble psyche, and that it was time for him to retire from the adventure game.
But he couldn’t. For all of his battles and all of his triumphs, Ald was still a coward.
Cald cocked his head at Ald’s vacant face. “Ald, if there’s anything you need, you know I’m right there with you.” Ald gave a curt nod and opened the small closet to reveal his rogue armor. Looking at the poison vials and dark straps of leather, Ald felt a rush of strength. He turned to tell Cald all about his plan…but the young shaman was gone. Ald heard some whooping and chatter from the other room. No doubt, the others were glad to see Cald join their number after such a long break.
With a grimace, Ald removed the armor from the closet and slipped it on. He had definitely gained some weight as he had to loosen the belt to complete the ensemble. He felt sharp pains in his chest whenever he breathed. He might have to ask a leatherworker on the team if they could take it out just a bit.
“It’s time,” he told himself as he left the archaeology room and wound his way to the main gathering hall. Raucous laughter and loud voices echoed around the room as the adventurers had indeed arrived. Ald pulled out his roster and did a quick headcount of the humans, dwarves, gnomes, worgen, pandaren, night elves, and draenei that made up their crew.
“We’re missing one, I think,” Cald whispered to him as Ald approached the head of the room. “Anth.”
Ald’s eyes flickered over the large group of people. “Anyone seen Anth?” he called.
“Nope,” replied Lady Emma. “But I can summon him. And Ald, too.”
He felt his own eyes roll in their sockets. “I’m already here, Emma. As it’s my garrison and all. Opie, have you seen your-”
A voice from the rear rang out in a single word. It wasn’t an expletive, but the word mentioned seemed inappropriate given the setting. A human paladin wearing large pink goggles walked into the room. “Sorry I’m late. Needed to get the little one in bed.” He gave a high-five to Fuzzy and sat down at the large table where various refreshments were available for the taking. He grabbed a roasted lamb chop (with extra char) and placed it on the plate in front of him. “What’d I miss?”
Ald was starting to feel like Keb as his eyes rolled again. “Nothing yet. We’re just getting started. Can I get everyone’s attention up here?”
The room quieted quickly. Only the sound of Giles filling wine goblets could be heard in the small room. Though the crew seemed excited to see each other again after so much time had passed, they took no time in preparing for Ald’s opening speech. Ald had led this group long enough to know what that meant. They know. They know about the Lich King. And perhaps…the Shadowlands.
“Good evening, everyone. Thank you all for coming to the garrison. This place is a reminder,” he said gesturing at the walls with his large furry paw. “It’s a reminder of what we’ve done together. What we’ve stood for and accomplished. What we’ve achieved together. This place represents us as a group. We are not just a part of the Alliance or part of the Convert to Raid battalion. We are heroes who stand on our own. We are heroes who band together and save the day. So that evil will lose. So that our way of life can continue for our loved ones and our brethren.
“We’ve braved Orgrimmar and defeated the orc tyrant Garrosh Hellscream. We’ve been here at Draenor to save it from the orcish warlords of the Iron Horde and the demon Archimonde. We’ve traveled to the Broken Isles and helped Illidan defeat Argus the Unmaker. And we recently completed the War of the Thorns and bested the Old God N’Zoth. We are a force to be reckoned. We are the tip of the spear. And we are the best hope our world now has.
“Many of you know what happened at the Frozen Throne. You’ve heard the stories of what Sylvanas has done. Of the chaos that will descend upon all of us and the lands we hold dear. Most of you realize what we must do.
“Before I call upon your oath of duty, a few housekeeping items. Anda, would you please?”
The druid stood from the table and took a scroll from one pocket of her robes. She pulled the ribbon on the scroll, and a long piece of parchment unfurled, covering the tables and goblets in front of her. Kobaiyashi moved his plate of mashed potatoes so that bits of parchment weren’t in his next bite.
Anda adjusted some glasses on her nose. “The guild bank is in need of some resources. Our gold is holding steady, but we need any materials you can all gather for potions, flasks, and feasts. I commend both Healpimp for his fishing donations and Trelander for his herbs. Honestly, it’s like you’re in six places at once to gather so much. Furthermore -”
“Thank you for the update, Anda,” Ald interrupted. He was nervous about the next part, and he wanted to move the meeting along. Besides, Anda could talk professions and bank management all night.
She gave him a stern look through her glasses, but she sat down all the same.
Ald gave her a brief nod of apology before moving on.
“There is one more issue I’d like to discuss. I want to let you all in on something rather important. We’ve been through so much together and seen so many things.” Ald paused to look over at Cald who was listening intently to the speech. Ninjas must have been cutting onions in the near vicinity because Ald felt tears well up in his eyes. Leaving this team would be harder than he thought.
“It is with heartfelt regret but incredible optimism for your future that-”
A large blast outside the town hall building shook the ground, and Ald’s head snapped to the source of the sound. He wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the room looked at the blank wall as if they could see through the hard stone. A few stood from their chairs, blades drawn.
Ald was the first out of the building, and he was not prepared for what awaited him. His garrison was on fire. And among the flames wandered moving figures with blue eyes and decrepit bodies. The Lich King’s zombies had found Aldineri’s garrison. And they were destroying it.