To go anywhere that I please

Author’s note: Out there on the Internet, on Archive Of Our Own, there lives a long story named Rock Happy. Rock Happy is a term that means “Gone mildly eccentric from living on a deserted island for an extended amount of time.” It’s a crossover between Generation Kill, which is perhaps my all time favourite war series for its stark, unforgiving realism, and Stargate Atlantis, which is a science fiction series known for its stark unforgiving unrealism. Rock Happy is written by my friend ArwenLuné, and I much admire it for the realism of its characters and its undertones of empowerment, and the way in which it makes the reader understand the issues facing a woman in a man’s world like the military. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, I have unrepentantly kidnapped Arwen’s characters for my own pleasure, and the least my characters can do is help them get back to their own unreality. Lee Brittner and Darren Avery appear courtesy of Arwen Luné, Brad Colbert, Nate Fick, Tony “Poke” Espera, and Ray Person are the creations of HBO Films, based on real people. Laura Cadman and Evan Lorne are from MGM. Bannog, Ariciel, Mareva and Stetson, as well as Ellandriel, Lirael, Lenna Steambender, and little Bieslook are my own creation, based on my and others’ World of Warcraft characters. World of Warcraft, and all the people and locations therein, are the creation of Blizzard Entertainment. Peter Popoff is mentioned without his permission, and frankly, any courtesy would be wasted on the man.

“You know I’m not a religious fanatic, Bannog. Really I’m

not. I just want to have a moment to contemplate where I come from,
where I belong, who I am, really.”

“I know,” said Bannog.

He was riding along the road with the woman he loved, and two of his
best friends. A few days out to Darkshire, then back again to the
castle he was named after. A few days of peace and quiet, a chance to
have some crab cakes in the Scarlet Raven. Bannog wasn’t complaining.
They were riding side by side, both on horses so they could talk while
they rode. They were almost half way to the Raven Hill cemetery from
the town of Darkshire. Soon, they would turn north into the Twilight
Grove. The Twilight Grove was a mysterious place, an oasis of
Night-elvish influence in the predominantly human area of Duskwood. It
was the closest such place to their home in the Redridge Mountains.
Their draenei friends, the newly-weds Stetson and Mareva, were riding a
little way behind on Elekks. Their honeymoon had been a fairly wild
ride, and they had returned to Caer Bannog for a bit of peace and
quiet. Ariciel hadn’t even needed to ask if they wanted to come with.

“Are we nearly there yet?” Stetson and Mareva asked, in unison, in a
sing-song voice.

“Almost,” said Bannog. “Be good now, there may be ice cream!”

“Or the Undead,” said Ariciel.

“Even better,” said Mareva. “Hunting the Undead gives me an appetite.”

“Good grief,” said Ariciel. “You’ve been married for three months.
Surely, you can keep your clothes on for more than five minutes at a
stretch now?”

“Do not look back,” said Mareva.

They rode slowly up the path marked by lanterns, and entered the
Twilight Grove. Ariciel fell silent, closed her eyes and breathed in
deep. It was almost as though years of tiredness fell from her. At the
end of the path, at the foot of a huge tree, there was a huge portal.
Nobody had been able to enter it since it had been found. Once, it had
been guarded by a green dragon, but it had not been seen for a long
time. Ariciel handed the reins of her horse to Bannog and got off. For
the occasion, they had brought real horses from Sir Wilfrid’s farm,
rather than the magical constructs that were all the rage these days.
Mareva and Stetson dismounted, and their matching purple elekks
disappeared in a puff of smoke. They were milking out every bit of
their license to be sickeningly cute together.

Ariciel walked over to the right of the portal, where there was a
pool of water, shining with the light of the Moon. She looked over her
shoulder at her friends.

“Give me an hour or so,” she said. “Feel free to wander off for a
bit. There’s lots of stuff here… trees and things.”

Bannog put his big hand on her back, looking into her eyes.

“You go ahead. We’ll be at the end of the path if you need us.”

Ariciel smiled, nodded, and started to remove her clothes,
unashamed. All the people here had seen her naked before. She walked
over to the Moonwell, kneeled in front of it, scooped up some of the
water in her hand and poured it over herself. Then, with her hair and
skin glistening and wet, she walked over to the portal, sat down on her
knees in front of it and closed her eyes.


“Connection established, Sir. Stargate opening.”

“Excellent. Let us see then what thereat is, and this mystery
explore.”

“‘Tis the wind, and nothing more, Sir.”

Major Lorne sat back in his chair, mug of tea in hand, and grinned.
One of the delights of hiring a bunch of geeks for the Stargate project
was that no matter how obscure your references were, there would always
be one out there who’d spot it. Not that this one was very
obscure, but still.

“I’ll believe that when a MALP tells me, Corporal. All ahead full.”

The corporal grabbed the joystick, and pushed it forward. Down below
them in the gate room, one of the small vehicles lit up its blinking
lights, gave a warning beep, then set itself in motion. It trundled up
the ramp and disappeared into the Stargate. The corporal looked at his
readouts.

“Twenty-four percent oxygen, seventy-two nitrogen, one percent trace
elements, five percent unknown to rapid mass-spec. No known toxic
substances. Looks breathable, Sir.”

“Good. Let’s have a look around.”

The corporal’s hands were already on the controls, and the camera
started to revolve. It was getting dark there, and there were huge
green trees and grass.

“Is that a structure, Sir?”

Lorne leaned forward to see better. There was a small house, or
perhaps a small shrine, lit by an unseen source. Inside was something
that looked like a bird bath.

“Looks a bit religious to me. Holy water or something like that.
We’ll have to take… what the fuck?”

There was an image on the screen of a big man in what looked like
medieval plate armour, wielding a very large sword. There was a brief
flurry of interference as the camera registered its last, and then the
display went dark. All the indicators turned red.

“Signal lost, Sir,” said the corporal. “Rewinding the footage.”

Major Lorne stared at the image. “A sword! He broke our MALP
with a fucking sword!”

“We must have spooked him a bit, Sir.”

“I’ll say,” said Major Lorne. He reached for the intercom. “Right
kids, we’ve got a busted MALP and a very pissed-off Ancient Warrior on
the other side. AR-4, move out and ask him if we can have it back. Ask
nicely now.”

The calm British accent of Captain Avery came out of the speaker.

“Roger that, Sir. AR-4 moving out.”


Stetson wrapped a cloth round the handle and pulled the tea kettle
out of the fire. Back at the Portal, Ariciel was still sitting in
prayer, or meditation. He put a handful of tea leaves in and put the
kettle down on the grass. He opened his pack and pulled out his tea
mug. Mareva and Bannog did the same.

Stetson looked at Ariciel sitting straight and quiet.

“How long will she be?”

“Don’t know,” said Bannog. “She said about an hour, so could be any
minute now.”

As if on cue, Ariciel got to her feet, turned round, and started to
walk down the ramp towards them. Bannog couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“Wipe your mouth,” said Mareva. “Your beard is getting wet.”

Bannog turned round to Mareva to say something, but at that moment
the portal exploded into activity. A huge mass of water came gushing
out, threatening to drown Ariciel. Then, it seemed the flood changed
its mind and retreated into the portal, leaving a slightly rippling,
watery surface. Ariciel jumped off the ramp to one side, and changed to
her bear form in a reflex. Bannog, Stetson and Mareva sprinted towards
her, weapons out, as Ariciel ran to where her clothes were. With a cry,
Mareva raised her arm and her four totems appeared round her. Stetson
whistled, and his large blue-white striped tiger Morgan appeared next
to him like a ghost.

“What was that?”

Mareva peered ahead. “It would appear that the portal has activated.”

Stetson grunted. “And just in time for us zlotniks to blunder into
whatever comes out.”

Ariciel stepped up, fastening the last strap to her chest piece.

“This portal is connected to the Emerald Dream. No telling what’ll
come out.”

Mareva pointed. “Whatever it is, here it comes.”

As they watched, some kind of device came rolling out of the portal
on six dark wheels. It had an eye on the front and a large gripping arm
on top. It was made of shining metal with a pattern of small stripes on
it. The eye on top roved round to the right, and seemed to come to rest
on the shrine to Elune.

“What is this?” said Ariciel. “It looks gnomish. Not like something
from the Dream at all. Are there gnomes inside?”

Mareva shook her head. “There are no doors. I believe that this is
some kind of probe. A device to look around without risking the lives
of your people.”

Stetson looked at the device through the sight of his crossbow.
“These things are usually the herald of a more sizable attack force.
They wish to know if they can enter unopposed.”

Bannog raised his two-handed sword. “Let’s tell them not,” he said,
and rushed out at the machine.


They stepped through the Stargate in formation. Sergeant Brad
Colbert was on point. After the recent unpleasantness, he once more
carried the M4A1 carbine with night-sight and M203 grenade launcher
that he had used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He gladly bore the weight
in exchange for the comfort of superior firepower. Because it was
daytime on the other side of the stargate, he had the lens-cap on with
a tiny hole drilled in the middle so the light wouldn’t overwhelm his
optics. The others were all carrying the compact P90 submachine guns
usual on gate teams. They were lighter, smaller, and easier to stow
away when space was at a premium. To the left and right were Captain
Lee Brittner and Lieutenant Laura Cadman. To the rear, and walking
backwards, was the leader of the team, Ex-SAS Captain Darren Avery.

They stepped out of the gate and into a green clearing into an
otherwise dark, gloomy forest. A few yards in front of them stood the
smoking corpse of the Mobile Analytic Laboratory Probe, about half a
million dollars worth of scientific equipment, now a very large
paperweight. There was no sign of the swordfighter. Brad Colbert raised
a fist and all stopped, their eyes searching for signs of movement and
their weapons moving with them.

“AR-4 Atlantis. Please report. Any hostiles out there?”

Captain Darren Avery keyed his radio.

“AR-4 Actual. That’s a negative, Sir. No sign of hostiles.”

“Interrogative. Is there a DHD on this gate?”

Avery looked round. “Inconclusive, Atlantis. Not in the standard
place, but we’ll need to scope the location. Stand by.”

“Atlantis standing by.”

They all lowered their weapons and only now looked round properly.
Nobody spoke, but they all missed the enthusiastic voice of Dr. Michel
Fournier, who would have loved to see these small bits of architecture,
classifying them as ritual or religious places. He would have known
what kind of religion the denizens of this planet were practicing, and
whether that included human sacrifice, which was always nice to know
ahead of time.

They did a quick round of the area. The gate was embedded in a very
large tree. There was a pond next to it, lit from within by an unknown
light source. The same eerie light surrounded the shrine and the font
inside. There was no sign of a Dial Home Device. None of them felt any
Ancient technology in their minds. Darren Avery got on the radio.

“Atlantis? This is AR-4 Actual. There is no DHD on this gate.
Repeat, negative on the DHD. Don’t close the door on us, please. How
copy?”

“Solid copy, AR-4 Actual. No DHD. Will keep gate open for another
fifteen mikes, how copy?”

Darren Avery looked at his watch.

“One-five mikes. Understood. AR-4 out.”

Nobody knew where she came from, but without a noise, without any
warning, she stood there. A tall, white-haired woman wearing
comfortable leather armour, leaning on a staff as long as she was.
Simply looking at them with a faint pale grey light where her eyes
should be. Brad Colbert quickly scanned the perimeter, but nobody could
be seen. This chick screamed “bait” at him. Which meant that her
friends would be watching him. He gave her a smile. She smiled back.
Good. Maybe they weren’t going to end up as pink mist after all. He
waved. She waved back. Super. Behind him, Avery keyed his radio.

“Atlantis, This is AR-4 Actual. We have visual on a local. Humanoid,
female, wearing leather. Tribal face tattoos. And… pointed ears.”

“AR-4, have you walked into one of Ray Person’s wet dreams?”

Avery grinned. “That’s a negative, Atlantis.”

“No family resemblance at all,” said Colbert, with a private
shine in his eye.

“Who are you calling a human,” said Ariciel. “I’m a night-elf and
don’t you forget it.”

Everyone stared at the woman.

“These ears aren’t ornamental, you know?”

“AR-4 Atlantis, what’s happening there?”

“Atlantis, AR-4 Actual. We’ve progressed to talking.”

“Roger that, AR-4. AR-7 is on standby here if you need…”

Ariciel watched with raised eyebrows as all the group simultaneously
scrabbled at their ears. Behind them, the watery surface of the portal
shimmered and disappeared. Avery looked over his shoulder.

“Oh bollocks.”


Stetson’s crossbow was steady as a rock, pointing at a non-specific
point between the group of strange Humans that had come out of the
portal. His eyes didn’t waver.

“They do not seem to be eager to attack her.”

“Good for them,” said Bannog. “Means their teeth stay where they
are.”

“I am not familiar with their armour,” said Mareva. “It looks mainly
cloth, though they have more substantial chestpieces.”

“I would be a fool to comment,” said Stetson, with a little grin.

“They look a bit jumpy,” said Bannog. “Must be that portal closing
behind them.”

“Does this mean we are stuck with them?” Mareva raised her head
slightly. “I do not fancy any of them. Not even the girls.”

“That is good to hear,” said Stetson.

“You do not wish for a good night’s sleep, sladkaya?”

“No.” Stetson’s eyes found Mareva’s, and they grinned at each other.

“Ah. She’s waving us on.” Bannog got to his feet, rolled his
shoulders. “Maybe they’re friendly after all.”

“They’re stuck here,” said Ariciel. “Their portal closed, and they
can’t open it from here.”

The leader of the group of Humans stepped forward, unusual in that
he was the only one to have a dark brown skin, where all the others
were about the same colour as Bannog. He had slung his weapon on his
back, and held out his hand to anyone who wanted it. Bannog took it.

“Good day, ladies, gentlemen. I am Captain Darren Avery, Atlantis
Recon Four.”

“Bannog of Caer Bannog, Captain. Welcome to Duskwood. What are you
doing here?”

“We are explorers, Sir. We are seeking out any technology left
behind by the Ancients.”

“You’re pretty well armed for people just looking round,” said
Bannog.

“Sometimes, people take rather violent exception to being explored,
Sir.” Avery looked at the corpse of the MALP. “We like to be prepared
for any eventuality.”

Bannog pointed at the MALP. “That thing yours?”

“Yes, Sir. You never had anything to fear from it. I apologise for
any distress it may have caused you.”

Bannog grinned, fully aware that the Captain was being ever so
polite about him destroying an expensive piece of equipment. But it
wouldn’t do to annoy the locals, now would it?

“Not to worry, Captain. I like hitting things. Do you have
any more?”

Avery looked round at the portal. “Our supply lines may be somewhat
compromised.”

Mareva had walked over to the probe, and was on one knee by it,
looking inside. The machine was made of a light, tough metal. Bannog’s
spell-enhanced blade had sliced through it and damaged some of the more
sensitive equipment inside. Most notably the comms unit, recognisable
by the fact that it was closest to the antenna. The very existence of
this machine told her that these Humans, wherever they came from, did
not posses the magics to explore places far away.

“I think it’s FUBAR,” said someone. “And with just a sword.
Impressive.”

Mareva looked up. A woman stood next to her, dressed as the others
in heavy cloth trousers and shirt with a black and grey pattern on it.
A few blonde hairs had escaped from under a black beret that would
offer no protection from swords at all. She smiled, and held out a hand.

“Laura Cadman,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Mareva of Exodar. Likewise.” Mareva pointed at the MALP. “I think
most of it can be salvaged.”

“No way of getting it home,” said Cadman. “Imma stick a lump of C4
under it and make it go boom. We don’t want any of our tech to fall
into the wrong hands.”

“I understand. When Exodar came down, we weren’t even allowed to
take a simple handgun. Then, we met the gnomes, and the rules were
relaxed somewhat.”

“Gnomes?”

“Small humans.” Mareva held her hand some three feet off the ground.
“About this high. Very clever, very full of themselves.”

“Lieutenant?” Darren Avery walked over. “You get to do some property
damage here. Blow up that MALP. Looks like we’re staying here for a
while.”

“Aye-aye Captain,” said Cadman, and took off her pack.

Mareva turned to Avery. “Captain? Do you have a means of contacting
your people? I have not seen you use your communication device for a
while.”

“They only work when the Stargate is open, Miss…”

“Mareva. I thought as much. Perhaps I know someone who can help.”

Avery blinked. “You do?”

Mareva’s eyes gleamed a bit brighter with amusement, as the echo of
the ‘what do a bunch of primitives know about interstellar travel’
carefully didn’t sound.

“We are a space-faring race, Captain Avery. I can introduce you to
our navigator. It will involve some travel, though.”

“Hmm. How much?”

Mareva looked away a second, thinking. “We do not have enough mounts
for everyone, so we’ll have to walk to Darkshire. Then, we can fly to
Stormwind, ask Mrs. Lenna Steambender to portal us to Exodar. About
two, three days, depending on how fast we walk.”

“You have Stargate technology here?”

“Portal magic,” said Mareva. “Our mages can create gateways to
faraway places. But they need to know where they are going. This is
where O’ros may be able to help.”

Avery gave Mareva a long look. She vaguely noticed the lack of
surprise at her looks: blue skin, horns, hooves, a tail. Possibly,
those eyes had looked on many alien species, each as different from
himself as she was. He reached a decision.

“That would be most welcome, Miss Mareva.”


Ariciel marched briskly along the road to Darkshire, holding the
reins to her horse. They had put their packs on the horses. Ariciel had
handed the reins of Bannog’s horse to the quiet woman called Brittner.
She had accepted them with no comment, and rubbed the horse’s neck with
her hand before gently leading it on. They were bringing up the rear.
Captain Avery was in front with Stetson. Bannog had recognised a fellow
warrior in Colbert and was walking next to him comparing notes. Mareva
was talking to the blonde woman, Cadman. Judging by the gestures, about
other things she’d blown up. Ariciel wasn’t sure she quite approved.
There was now a crater in the Twilight Grove where the dead machine
used to be. Not exactly good for the tranquility in one of the few
sacred places in the Eastern Kingdoms. Ariciel looked aside at Captain
Lee Brittner. She’d taken off her beret and stuffed it in her belt,
revealing short-cropped black hair. Her hand was on her weapon, and her
eyes scanned the trees every twenty steps or so.

“Hey.”

The captain looked at her.

“No need to be so jumpy. We’ve got a hunter with us. Stetson is
tracking. He’ll see anything long before it sees us.”

“I didn’t know that, Miss.”

They walked on, listening to the slow clip-clop of their horses’
hooves. Brittner’s eyes strayed again to look for potential hiding
places for enemies. The habit of watchfulness was hard to drop. Ariciel
herself, even when they were just out on a run to the mailbox in
Lakeshire, found herself checking every minute or so whether her
friends were still there. She turned to Captain Brittner.

“This place has spiders, wolves. There’s also the Undead. Ghouls,
skeletons. The more healthy ones are Ogres. There’s a mound nearby, a
few miles behind us. There’s also Worgen out there.” Ariciel grinned.
“I could handle any of them on my own, so relax.”

“Undead?” Brittner’s eyes were suddenly on her with an intensity
they hadn’t had before. “What do they look like?”

“Um… Dead,” said Ariciel, slightly taken aback. “Except they’re
still walking about.”

“Have you ever seen a species that feeds on Human lifeforce? Usually
by touching them with their right hand?”

“Vampires,” said Ariciel. “We’ve seen a few here and there.”

“Where do they come from?”

“Elune only knows. The few of them I’ve seen were too dead
afterwards to tell us anything.”

“Hmmm.” Brittner didn’t seem convinced. “Has your world ever been
invaded from the Outside? By people not of this world?”

“Let’s see. We’ve had Orcs coming through the Dark Portal. Old Gods
being corrupted. The King of the Undead. Dragon aspects going bad, and
as we speak, a continent we never even knew for sure existed is under
attack by unworldly powers of corruption.” Ariciel smiled sweetly. “We
may have been, and never noticed in the rest of the noise.”

“I’m talking about the Wraith,” said Brittner. “They cultivate
inhabited planets, then cull the inhabitants to feed on.” She sighed.
“But then again, I’m not even sure if we’re in the right galaxy
for that.”

“Don’t think we’ve had the pleasure,” said Ariciel. “But we tend to
take care of ourselves. You’ve had a lot of problems with them then?”

“The scourge of the Pegasus galaxy,” said Brittner. “Apart from the
Replicants, Goa’ould… and if that’s not enough, there’s plenty of
plain ordinary human beings to worry about. Ask Colbert.”

“Nice,” said Ariciel.


“It’s a shame we won’t have the time to get you people some proper
armour. That cloth you’re wearing ain’t gonna stop anything.”

Colbert thumped his chest. “This’ll stop most bullets.”

“Don’t you guys carry any swords?”

Sergeant Colbert shook his head. “Not that I don’t appreciate the
ancestral image of the Vikings ravaging the lands with nothing but cold
steel. But when you need a sword, you’ve let them come too close. If
they can get that close to you, you’re doing it wrong. So we don’t need
them.”

Bannog gave Colbert a strange look. “Don’t need them? Then what do
you have for melee combat?”

Colbert held up his assault rifle. “Works as well from two feet away
as it does from five hundred yards. You can fix a bayonet to
it, but the only guy I know actually did that in a combat situation was
a grade A Olympic standard moron.”

“Heh. Keep that under your hat when you’re among hackers. They think
arrows are for sissies.”

Colbert looked at Bannog’s face to see if he was, as Avery would
have it, ‘Taking the piss’. Fuck it, he wasn’t going to let that slide.

“Mister Bannog, do I have to infer that you are impugning my warrior
spirit based solely on the type of weapon I choose?”

“Oh come on. How can you satisfy the hunger of any warrior spirit by
standing five hundred yards away and pointing a stick at them? You want
to get right up in their faces and have their blood and entrails spill
over you as you pass your sword through their bodies.”

Brad Colbert slowly started to grin. “Well Sir, I find that the
warrior spirit of this Marine is satisfied perfectly by
standing over a slowly cooling mound of the bodies of my enemies, as
well as those of my friends and allies who chose not to avail
themselves of a tactical advantage when it presented itself to them.”

Bannog laughed out loud. “A good point well made, Sergeant.”

“Thank you sir.” Colbert walked on, eyes forward.

“Still think arrows are for sissies.”

“Ooh-rah, Sir.”


It was slightly unnerving to see a large wild animal walking along
with them, not even on a leash, but apparently happily, willingly
following the… draenei. The tiger had a glossy coat, white with blue
stripes. Avery had learnt to suppress his preconceptions when
encountering a new species, but it was difficult not to see Hunter
S’dezo’houn as a Klingon. Except of course, Lt. Worf didn’t have a
tail. Nor did Worf tower head and shoulders over his Human friends.
Stetson walked on hooves, making him and his wife the only hooved
bipeds he knew of, apart from the Goatish One of course. There was a
sense about the alien of raw strength, tempered by finely honed
instincts. As Captain Avery watched him, he slightly raised his head
and closed his eyes. He called over his shoulder.

“Bannog? Do we have enough food for us and our guests? I see some
spiders over to our front right.”

“Let’s get ’em,” said Bannog. “If all else fails, they might like it
at the Raven.”

“I am sure they will,” Stetson said. “Do you wish me to demean
myself by shooting them, or do you wish to show these Humans how a real
warrior takes care of business?”

“Shoot ’em already,” said Bannog. “I won’t tell anyone. Colbert?
Want to see this?”

Colbert looked over to Captain Avery, who waved him on, moving his
weapon from his back to the crook of his arm. Hunter Stetson, Bannog
and Colbert walked off the road and into the woods.

Spiders?”

Laura Cadman looked at Mareva to see if this was some kind of joke.

“Yes,” said Mareva. “The Scarlet Raven inn sells the meat from their
legs as ‘crab cakes’. They are not bad. The residual venom in the meat
gives the cakes a bit of a kick.”

“Tastes a bit like chicken,” said Ariciel.

“There is a theory among my people that chickens evolved
specifically so that other animals could taste like them,” said Mareva.

Cadman looked over at Brittner, who was the ranking official on all
things medical. Brittner gave a minute shake of the head. She turned to
Mareva.

“We must be very careful with unfamiliar food. We may not be
accustomed to it, and it may make us ill.”

Mareva nodded. “As it turned out, we have not had any allergic
reactions, except to a kind of tropical fruit from Stranglethorn. But I
understand the need for testing.”

“Red breadfruit?” said Ariciel. “They make everyone sick. If
it’s that sort of red, don’t eat it.”

“We’ve brought food,” said Brittner. “Don’t worry about us.”

“How much?”

Laura Cadman dropped her pack on the floor and pulled out a
military-style labelled package to show them.

“A few days at least, and we can push ourselves.”

Emmarrees?” Mareva put her hand gently on Cadman’s shoulder
and gave her a sad look. “Oh you poor woman. Did convergent evolution
produce Emmarrees in your universe as well?”

Ariciel snorted. “We have bread. There’s fruit that’s probably
alright. If all else fails, there’s bacon. We can feed you something
that won’t give you the runs.”

“And won’t it be fun finding out if we have to stay here a
while,” said Brittner.

Mareva laughed. “When first I came here, after eating Emarree for a
year, I had to test a lot of the bacon and eggs. Just to make
sure.”

“And rabbit,” said Ariciel, giving Mareva a private look.

“Especially rabbit,” said Mareva.

Colbert removed the lens cap from his night scope and put it in one
of the pockets on his tac vest. They were moving through the shadows in
the woods. For such a big sucker, Stetson was surprisingly light on his
feet. Hooves. Bannog moved with as much grace as you would expect from
someone in plate armour. The tiger, named Morgan, slipped through the
trees like they were on different planes of existence. Stetson raised a
hand, then pointed. Colbert raised his rifle to his shoulder and looked
through the nightscope. His jaw dropped.

“What the F…”

“Big suckers, aren’t they?” Bannog whispered.

The spider Colbert could see was about the size of a sheep. It was
busy doing something of interest to spiders at the foot of a tree.

“Save your ammunition,” said Stetson. He raised his crossbow, aimed,
fired. There was a shivering hiss from the spider, and it curled up and
died.

Bannog moved forward. “That didn’t use to be so easy, remember?”

“I practiced on Blood-elves in Terrokar Forest,” said Stetson. “They
are not fit for food.”

“Make my stomach turn even when they’re still moving,” said Bannog.
“Colbert, try not to step on the webs. Let’s get that thing back to the
road. Do you think your friends will want to see it before we chop it
up?”

Colbert imagined the faces of his team-mates when they came back
carrying this thing. He thought of Lee’s face, hearing that
they were supposed to eat this, and his smile broadened.

“They’ll love seeing this. Are you serious about eating it?”

“You have to crack open the legs, to get at the muscle inside. I
think I have the recipe, and I’m sure Ariciel has the spices.”

“Incoming,” said Stetson, raising his crossbow and turning round.

Bannog’s sword leaped into his hand and he ran out to the spider
that had sneaked up on them while they were busy with its brother.
Colbert had to admit, Bannog moved with a kind of power and purpose
that could only come from long practice. Behind the spider, a few more
came up. Bannog picked them up easily and made short work of them.

There was a noise to his right, and Colbert turned round. More
spiders, attracted by god knows what, were heading straight for them.

“Four spiders on our three. Forty meters out, heading in.”

Colbert raised his rifle, aimed, fired. Tracer rounds flew out from
his rifle and hit the spiders, two or three shots to take down each
spider.

“Spiders suppressed,” he said, which was a phrase he never would
have thought he’d use.

Behind him, he heard Morgan growl and sprint off. The tiger leapt at
the nearest spider and started to tear it apart. Stetson was pouring
crossbow bolt after crossbow bolt into the group Morgan was fighting,
apparently not concerned he’d hit his cat. The fight didn’t last very
long, and Bannog came walking back wiping the spider goo off his sword.

“No such thing as ‘one’ spider in these parts,” he said. “Well,
we’ve got enough delicious spider for everyone. Let’s get back to the
road.”


Avery looked up at the noise. “That’s Brad firing,” he said. He
tilted his head, listening more carefully. “Doesn’t sound like hunting.
They’ve run into something.”

Ariciel gave Mareva a look. “Could be Hordies. They pass through
here sometimes. I’ll go look. You keep the Humans out of trouble.” She
grabbed the reins of Bannog’s horse and pressed them into Laura
Cadman’s hands. “Don’t let it run off.”

She turned round, grabbed her staff and ran off into the woods.
Laura Cadman looked at the reins in her hand, realising full well that
she’d been given them solely to keep her from following Ariciel. She
looked at Brittner, who was also holding a set of reins, then at Avery,
who would never leave them alone. She laughed and turned to Brittner.

“Hey Lee?”

“Yeah?”

“My horse is bigger than your horse.”

Captain Avery walked up next to Mareva. “Will your friends be
alright?”

“Probably, yes,” said Mareva. “Still, just in case we have to rush
in and save their butts…”

She closed her eyes and concentrated. From out of nowhere, four
differently-coloured pots appeared at her feet. They started to hum and
glow in shades of red, green, blue and pale. Mareva took a breath and
whispered a few syllables in a strange language. Lights appeared and
started to circle round her body. The colour of her eye glow changed
subtly as she frowned. Avery was impressed. Mareva looked quite
graceful, obviously intelligent, a bit fragile and non-combatant with
her slender form. Now, with the look in her eyes filled with purpose,
she looked scary.

“And now,” Mareva said, “We wait.”

A few minutes later, Stetson, Bannog and Brad Colbert came out of
the woods, each dragging something behind them. Brad pulled his load
into the middle of the road and turned to his teammates with a big grin
on his face.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner has arrived!” His voice was bright and
cheerful. “Bannog here says, don’t eat the crunchy bits.”

Stetson walked up to Mareva and put his big arms round her. “Were
you worried, my sweet? Or do you simply know how much I like to see you
all powered up?”

“Both,” said Mareva, and ran a finger along the barbels hanging from
his face. “What was all that noise about?”

“We ran into a little more dinner than we thought we would. Sergeant
Colbert acquitted himself admirably. Excellent shooting.”

“Where’s Ariciel?” said Bannog.

“She went looking for you,” said Mareva. “Maybe five minutes ago.”

“Honestly,” said Bannog. “Walk off for a few minutes… Sometimes
she’s worse than a sheepdog. Can you signal her, Mareva?”

Mareva nodded, pulled away Stetson’s arms, took a few steps and
raised her arm.

Naur an edraith ammen,” she cried. There was a bright flash,
and the light zoomed up into the air.

Colbert walked up to Bannog. “Want to go look for her? I can help if
you want. So can Avery. We’ve got gear.”

Bannog shook his head. “Nobody spots her when she’s in a forest, not
even me. She’ll have seen Mareva’s light. She’ll be back. Nothing in
these parts that she can’t handle or run away from.”

“Panther on our three!” Brittner raised her weapon as a
fierce-looking pale grey cat came walking towards them. It didn’t seem
to be afraid, and kept coming. She took careful aim, for a clean kill.
Someone grabbed her gun, and pulled it up and out of her hands. She
glared at the big warrior, who was just standing there, her gun in his
hand.

“Don’t shoot my girlfriend, Cap’n Brittner,” he said. He handed her
gun back to her. “It pisses her off.”

Cat-Ariciel walked up, waited till she had everyone’s full
attention, then changed back to her elf form without breaking step. She
smiled as she saw everyone’s mouths hanging open. People in Azeroth
were used to Druids these days, which was good, because they knew not
to shoot at Ferals. Sometimes, though, it was nice to impress people.

“Sorry,” said Brittner.

“Make it up to me sometime,” said Ariciel. “We have spiders? I’m not
lugging them all the way to Darkshire.”

“Get chopping then,” said Bannog.

Ariciel dug a leather sheet out of her pack and spread it out on the
ground. Then, she produced a knife and showed Colbert where to cut open
the joints to get the meat out. Colbert nodded, and pulled out a
Ka-bar. There was something strangely satisfying in dismembering the
massive creature. Bannog, Avery and Stetson started on the other
spiders and put the meat down on the leather sheet. Cadman and Brittner
watched, still holding the horses. Cadman leaned over to Brittner.

“We should avoid these alien foodstuffs. They will give us the
shits, and we will offend these good people with unseemly noises and
smells.”

Lee laughed. “Oh come on Laura. It’s not like we’ve never been
offered weird things to eat. I’m sure that once you try it, you’ll
wonder how you ever lived without.”

“Whoa,” said Cadman. “Warrior on your three.”

Bannog had walked up with something in his hands, which he offered
to Brittner. He bowed his bald head to her.

“Great head-woman of Ayarr-fore, I honour you by offering you the
first morsel of the Hunt. These will improve your night vision, so it
can vie with that of a Night-elf.”

Brittner stared. In the man’s hands was a sticky mess of goo. Food
that stared at you was bad at the best of times, but this? Over
at the other spider, Ariciel looked up, picked up something in her hand
and threw it. It bounced off Bannog’s shoulder with a squelching noise.

“Bannog? Play nice!”

Bannog dropped the eyes on the floor, and pointed. “You take that
meat, marinate it in cheap white wine, boil it for half an hour and
grind it up with some mashed potatoes. Then you shape it into patties
and stick ’em in the oven for half an hour. They’re pretty nice warm.
Smitty had half a dozen of them once before we told him what was in
’em.”

“I’ll be… honoured,” said Brittner.


It was hurrying on to midnight when they walked into the small town
of Darkshire. Bannog liked Darkshire. The people there were a bunch of
morose depressed gits, but they had been like that for years and showed
no sign of giving up. They walked into the Scarlet Raven inn and found
a table. Inns in Azeroth never closed. Bannog walked to the kitchen
door and held up their bag of spider parts.

“Got you some river crab,” he said. “Courtesy of the nice clothies
over by the fireplace.”

“They’re a strange looking bunch,” said the cook.

“Came rolling out of the Twilight Grove portal by mistake.”

The cook looked again. “They don’t look like Fae. Except
maybe the blonde sitting next to your girlfriend. Are they staying?”

“Just for the night,” said Bannog. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

“Hope? What is this ‘hope’ you speak of?”

“The belief that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, things
will improve,” said Bannog. “They’ll be eating their own food, because
they aren’t from here and they think your cooking will make them puke
their guts out.”

“Figures,” said the cook. “Crab cakes for the rest of you?”

“Sure,” said Bannog. “We can eat anything you bastards throw
at us.”

They ended up taking two rooms. Girls in one, boys in the other,
against Mareva’s protests that she and Stetson weren’t married so they
could practice abstinence. Ariciel grabbed her by her tail and pushed
her into the room.

“Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” said Ariciel.

“I shall sit on the bed and pine for my husband,” said Mareva. “I
will only agree to become the lover of one of you after I finish
weaving this tapestry, which I will unpick every time you are not
looking.”

“How long have you been married?” said Cadman.

“Three months,” said Mareva.

“Beautiful wedding,” said Ariciel. “In Darnassus. By my priestess
friend.”

Brittner sat down on the bed across from Ariciel. “You have
priestesses. Which gods do they serve?”

“Well, we Night-elves all serve either Elune or her son Cenarius.
I’m a Druid of the Cenarion Circle. Which is how I can shape-shift into
animal forms.”

“How long have you been doing that? Were you born with that ability?”

“No. We are born with a certain calling, but what it is you’re meant
to do isn’t clear until you’re about twenty or so.” Ariciel touched the
marks on her face. “I got these when it was clear I would be a Druid.
I’d never have got that in the old days. Only men became Druids then.”

“What changed?”

“The Dark Portal opened, and all kinds of trouble came out. We
couldn’t afford to ignore anyone’s calling after that.”

“So what do Druids do? Are you the armed forces?”

“Fighters or healers. We strive to preserve the balance of Nature.”

“You say in ancient times there were no female Druids. Did women not
fight?”

“Oh, all the Sentinels were women,” said Ariciel. “But with the
coming of the Horde, and the losses they suffered, they’re happy with
anyone who knows what to do with a war-glaive.”

“Necessity. Women didn’t break out of their traditional roles with
us until the War.” Brittner looked at Ariciel sitting on the bed,
relaxed, confident. “And after that, of course, the so-called men’s
jobs weren’t really men’s jobs anymore. No going back.”

“Your group is half men, half women,” said Mareva. “So you seem to
have sorted out that problem.”

“You are extrapolating from a very small sample. We are unusual, we
space-travellers. Back on our planet, there are huge armies with no
women at all.”

“And not because women do not wish to fight,” said Mareva.

“Correct,” said Brittner. “I am, in all but name, a Combat Rescue
Officer. Which means that I can coordinate complicated rescue
operations. Prepare, report, locate, support, recover and reintegrate.
I can only do that where I am now. Not planetside. I’m not allowed
because I’m a woman. So back on the planet, I am a nurse.”

“The organisation does not need you, practically speaking,” said
Mareva. “They have plenty of willing men and no incentive to change.”

“And you don’t put a potential breeding vessel in harm’s way.” Lee
Brittner looked at the floor, burning with a low quiet anger that would
never run out of fuel. “Never mind that there’s seven thousand thousand
thousand of us.”

“Large organisations do not operate by logic,” said Mareva. “They
operate by inertia.”

Brittner sighed. “It is a shame Michel isn’t here with us. He would
like you. You would like him. I have to take notes to take back for
him.”

Mareva studied Lee Brittner’s face. Pain and worry was reflected on
it when she mentioned the name of their companion who was not with them.

“What happened to him?”

“He was our anthropologist,” said Cadman. “Our… people
expert. He would have loved to be here.”

“Is,” said Brittner.

“Is,” repeated Cadman. “He was hurt in a fight on a planet called
Waronir. That was several months ago. He’s still recovering.”

“Bring him to our healers,” said Mareva. “Nobody I know took more
than two months to recover.”

“Stetson?” Ariciel raised an eyebrow.

“Six weeks, from what he tells me.”

“We’ve got the best doctors,” said Brittner. “We’ve got the best
equipment, some of which we’ve inherited from the Ancients. It can pull
someone back from the brink of death. It can re-grow things like spinal
nerves that normally wouldn’t grow back at all. Blast away infections
that antibiotics can’t touch. And still, it’s not enough.”

Mareva’s luminous eyes turned to Brittner’s face. “But he draws
breath.”

“That, he does,” said Brittner. “And he is improving. But so slow.
He’ll never be allowed on a gate mission like this again.”

Cadman looked up at the sad face of the stag whose head was hanging
on the wall above the door.

“I’m going to take pictures of everything. Show the slacker what
he’s missing here. Actual sorceresses, and shapeshifters!
That’ll convince him to get on with it.”

“Shaman,” said Mareva. “But shamanism is the subject of next week’s
lesson. Enough of this gloom.” She rolled over backwards onto the bed,
grabbed her pack and produced a bottle and four metallic cups.
“Happiness in a bottle. Please welcome Mr. Qrovna, and forget any plans
you might have for tonight.”

“Umm,” said Brittner, “What’s in that?”

Mareva handed her a cup with a virulent purple liquid in it.

“Doom.”


“An unmitigated multi-layered clusterfuck,” said Brad. He took
another swig of ale. It was a calculated risk, as there might be things
in it that he’d react to, but at least it tasted nice. It also rendered
him incapable of shutting up and keeping his opinions to himself. He
wondered if this was what Ray Person felt like all the time.

“Here we are, one of the finest recon operations in existence, and
they stick us in crap vehicles, give us a pair of heavily armed
sub-human morons to lead us, and send us out to liberate a country that
isn’t sure at all whether they’ll be better off after we’ve fucked up
their cities.”

“Ah,” said Bannog. “That would be the nice man who used a ranged
weapon to stab people with?”

“The very same. We’re Recon Marines. That means we go wherever the
hell we want, without asking anyone, without them noticing, until they
look round, and find their headquarters have ceased to exist. And here
we are, standing in front of a city in our piece of shit
humvees, toting pop guns, while behind us, the heavy armour rolls by.
You know, I was recruited by Lieutenant Cadman, who’s here, and Major
Lorne, who was behind that Stargate until it closed. You know what
really made me want to join up?”

Brad paused, and looked from Bannog to Stetson and back. Stetson
obliged.

“What was it that made you want to join?”

“She told me that the whole chain of command, from bottom to top,
was entirely sane.” He took another swig of beer. “Sane. How
fucked up a situation is it when you’re jumping at a chance to get your
orders from someone who is compos mentis?”

“That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, Brad,” said
Avery. He was drinking tea he’d brought in his pack, with a splash of
milk that he had obtained from the innkeeper. There was unlikely to be
anything mind altering in milk. “I am touched and flattered.”

“I always thought that warfare was simply settling among the
interested parties who the bad guys are, and consequently who gets to
shoot straight, then letting events run their course.” Stetson shook
his bottle, put it back in the crate and got a fresh one. “But then
again, I am the only one here who is not in the professional military.”

“Yeah.” Bannog grinned. “I’m lucky. The King don’t pay us much
attention, and the only one in the castle who outranks me is my
brother. And I can put him in a headlock if he pisses me off.”

“At least you know who your enemies are,” said Brad. “Back in Iraq,
there were people waving and cheering at us, and they would be the same
people who’d shot at us the night before.”

Bannog stared at his hands. “My father tried to make some sort of
peace with the Orcs. Only lasted a few months. Then, they stabbed him
in the back for his troubles.” Stetson handed him a bottle. Bannog
pulled out the cork and raised it half-way to his mouth. “We did
explain to them why they shouldn’t have done that. And now the green
bastards are at it again. It just never stops.” Bannog tilted up the
bottle, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “People tell me we can’t
kill the lot of them, but they never explain why not.”

“I assume even Orcs have non-combatants,” said Avery. “Children.
Farmers. Surely you wouldn’t suggest killing all of those as well?”

Stetson looked into Avery’s eyes. “An Orc is ready for battle at the
age of twelve, and in order to become a warrior, they must first kill
an enemy in single combat. One would assume that with the speed at
which they breed, they would run out of enemies at some point. I do not
believe there is such a thing as a non-combatant Orc. I have been
attacked by mothers with children on their backs. Nobody knows the
natural life span of an Orc.”

“Can you imagine ever being at peace with the Orcs?” Avery put down
his empty tea mug. “Surely, at some point, the fighting must stop.”

“The Orcs who lived on Draenor when we arrived were peaceful. We
traded with them, until they were raised against us. The taint of fel
magics is what turned their skins from brown to green. If they wish to
leave, I will not pursue them, but I will never again trust them.”

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are
now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where
they lie side by side now here in this country of ours.”

Everybody looked round at Brad.

“Those are the words of a military leader, named Kemal Atatürk.
There was an incredibly bloody battle. The Aussies killed thousands of
Turks. Turks killed thousands of Aussies. And still he was able to say
those words, and mean them. With the places I’ve been, not a
chance. In a war, you’re supposed just to fight warriors. People like
me, who know and accept that you’re trying to kill the other warrior
before he kills you. I’ve no hard feelings for the men who tried to
kill me. It’s their job, as it is mine to kill them. I’m better at it
than they are, and that’s why I’m alive and they’re not.” Brad scowled.
“But we fucked up. We shot too many people who didn’t need shooting.
I’ve seen the burnt bodies of little kids lying by the roadside, with
flies on them. I’ve seen airstrikes on villages with just women and
children in them, because some dickhead didn’t get the right message.
Bombs dropped onto cities like fire and brimstone on Sodom and
Gomorrah. The ones who died there weren’t the hero warriors. They were
just ordinary people, trying to live their lives. And we come in and
blow them to bits.” Brad looked up, a little wry smile on his face.
“They’re never going to forgive us for that. I wouldn’t if it was me.”

Avery’s dark brown eyes turned from Brad to Bannog and Stetson.
“What Sergeant Colbert doesn’t say, is that the enemies were wont to
hide among the civilians, to protect themselves against our attacks.”

Bannog frowned. “The warriors hid behind the civilians?”

“Yes. So that we could not hit them without also hitting innocent
bystanders. We had the choice between hitting civilians and warriors
alike, or going home. We chose to strike, may we be forgiven.”

“That is… dishonourable,” said Bannog. “I don’t think even Orcs
would do that.”

“That is true,” said Stetson. “But then again, who would they hide
behind?”


Laura Cadman opened her eyes. In her head, people were setting off
explosives and she closed her eyes again. Trying to keep up with their
new friends in drinking, what was it called again? Kurovnja. Bad idea.
Must remember that name. And start running when she heard it. In the
bed next to her, she could hear painful noises. Good. Misery loves
company.

“Lee?”

“‘koff,” said Brittner, who wasn’t a morning person at the best of
times. She’d been a lot smarter and only taken a few sips. On the other
hand, that meant she’d tasted it, which you weren’t supposed to do.

Laura sat up. It wasn’t often that they had proper beds on missions.
In the bed on the other side of her, the blue-skinned woman was still
asleep. The Elf-who-walks-like-cat was nowhere to be seen. She walked
to the window and looked outside. Behind the inn, Ariciel was putting
herself through a series of staff exercises. As a Marine, Laura hadn’t
had much occasion to fight with a staff. Knives, yes. Hand-to-hand
grappling. Bayonet training. But still, she could see that the moves
Ariciel was practicing were lethal ones. No scoring points here. The
winner is the one who’s still breathing at the end.

When she turned round, Mareva was sitting up in bed. Lee was kicking
her legs out of bed with an expression on her face that told anyone who
wanted to know that she was combat ready, no matter how her head hurt.
Mareva held out her hand palm downwards. On the floor, a green vessel
appeared, shining with a soothing light. Laura took a breath, as she
felt like a wave of energy flushed out her head, taking the throbbing
headache with it.

“One of the nice things about drinking with a Shaman,” said Mareva,
“is that she will also provide the hangover cure.”

The door opened, and Ariciel came walking in, skin glistening with
the exertion. She put her staff up against the wall, noticed Mareva’s
totem on the floor, and laughed.

“You guys had two cups, and you need healing? Lightweights.”

Lee Brittner took an MRE out of her pack and ripped open its guts.
She pushed her hand inside, and it came out holding the still-beating
bag of coffee. “My head is fine. It’s mornings I have trouble with, not
alien rotgut. Do they do hot water here?”

“Downstairs,” said Ariciel. “By the bucket. I’m taking a bath.”

Brad Colbert stood a little way to the back of the group, arms
crossed, in a state of self-enforced combat-readiness. Bannog was
negotiating with a woman who was standing next to a roost on which
there was a creature half eagle, half lion. At the tavern, they had all
gotten these small pebbles with a blue rune on that would allow them to
make use of the flying services. Bannog’s horses had been left in the
stables, to be picked up later. He looked up, into a light rain,
wondering what kind of aircraft the people here would use. The
technology was all over the place. Magic, swords, guns, and if he could
believe Stetson, holographic projectors. Whatever the air service would
turn out to be, he’d be allowed to take an M4A1 assault rifle with him.
Coming from a world that confiscated grannies’ knitting needles on the
grounds that they might be used to force pilots to fly their airplanes
into the Statue of Liberty, that gave him enough to be amused about. It
happened almost too quick for him to see. The flight master, a
serious-looking woman, held one hand on the gryphon’s head, her other
on Mareva’s shoulder. There was a rushing sound, and in the blink of an
eye, Mareva was sitting on a large griffin. The next moment, she had
disappeared into the sky. Stetson was next to fly away.

Bannog waved him over. “Your turn, Sergeant.”

“Um. Won’t I fall off?”

The flight master, named Felicia Maline, gave him a look. “Are you
some kind of noob? Nobody falls off our griffins. Come on then.”

“Hurry up,” said Bannog. “If we leave Stetson and Mareva alone for
too long, there’s no telling what they’ll get up to.”

Ariciel’s eyes gleamed. “Oh yes there is. I know exactly what
they’ll be up to. Off you go, Sergeant. Save them from being arrested.”

Colbert looked round at Avery, who gave him a nod. He held Miss
Maline’s hand, and the next moment, he was up in the air, with the wind
blowing in his face. His griffin beat its wings, and the whole of
Darkshire lay in front of him. As soon as he crossed the river, it
seemed that the air cleared, and he was flying over a green forest. He
looked round. For some reason, the griffin took a sharp turn to the
left, flew like that for a while till it came to a small village, then
turned North again. Up ahead lay the massive form of a walled city. The
griffin flapped its wings, and made for an opening in the wall. Brad
could see every brick in the wall, and still, the griffin didn’t slow
down. He winced, and braced himself for being splattered into the wall,
then found himself a few inches above the ground, hanging in the air,
with no sign of his griffin. He landed on unsteady legs.

“Whoa,” said Brad. He looked round to see Stetson and Mareva
standing a bit off to the side.

“Ah, Sergeant,” said Stetson. “You made it, I see? Please join us
here, or your teammate may land on your head.”

Brad took a deep breath, and put on his Iceman face, as if flying on
the back of mythical creatures was nothing strange to him.

“I was under orders not to leave you alone.”

Mareva laughed. “We have no butter, handcuffs, feather dusters or
Goblin jumper cables. Does that Elf think we are animals?”

“As I understand it, Ma’am, she holds your improvisational
capabilities in extremely high regard.”

“She would,” said Mareva.

There was a rush of feathers and Laura Cadman appeared on the deck,
eyes shining, and a big, big grin on her face.

“Oh wow!” She looked at them, and ran towards them,
laughing. “I’ve got to get me one of these! I used to think
jumpers were the shit in flying. Sorry Ancients, but you’ve
been trumped.”

One by one, the rest of the team arrived, followed by Bannog and
Ariciel.

“What took you so long?” said Mareva, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Bannog wanted to do a threesome with Felicia and me,” said Ariciel.
“She said no, silly girl.”

“That is simply racist of her,” said Mareva.

“No it wasn’t,” said Ariciel, with a filthy grin. “Do we head for
the harbour now?”

Bannog nudged Lieutenant Cadman. “She is joking. Just in case you
were wondering.”

“What, she doesn’t want us to head for the harbour?”


“Exodar? Sorry Miss Ariciel, I don’t have that one. Best I can do is
Darnassus.”

“We can take the boat from there,” said Mareva. “That takes only a
day or so, depending on the wind.”

Lee Brittner looked at the small woman. Gnomes. They were in an
actual gnome’s house. Lee overlooked Lenna Steambender by a head even
when sitting on the floor. She didn’t have a pointy hat, no glowing
eyes, her magic staff was in an umbrella stand by the door, and still,
if you could believe Miss Ariciel, she could open portals with her mind.
Lee drained her cup. And she made a damn good cup of coffee. She looked
round at Brad, and was treated to the sight of him looking down on the
young daughter of this sorceress, Bee’s Loak or something like that,
looking up at him, trying to get him to explain why he was wearing
cloth when he clearly couldn’t do magic. She could do magic,
only she wasn’t allowed to in the house, because she’d apparently set
the curtains on fire with a fireball once. Avery, usually their
dedicated small child expert, sat next to him, enjoying an excellent
cup of tea, and offering no help at all. Brad had his Iceman face on.
Brittner had to stop herself from laughing. He’d improved, really he
had, but even after all this time, he still didn’t trust these small
creatures that moved like people. They might suddenly start wailing and
bring the wrath of Thor down on him.

Lee looked round the living room. There was a large table, a sofa, a
sideboard, chest of drawers. On the wall was a cork board filled with
children’s drawings (some large blue inhuman individual and a little
man next to it, dressed in black robes), and lots of baby pictures. The
place looked too large for just one pair of gnomes and their daughter.
Like the children had only just left, and they hadn’t quite expanded
themselves into the open space yet.

“So how are you getting back afterwards?” said Lenna. “I can’t come
with you. Griggin will be home in an hour or so, and I can’t just run
off.”

“We’ll ask Elissa Dumas to portal us back,” said Ariciel. “No
worries.”

“Right then, let’s get outside.” said Lenna Steambender. She walked
up to the front door and pulled the loop of chain hanging next to the
wall. The front wall started to rise up and back, like the door of a
garage. Lenna grinned over her shoulder at the Elf woman, Ariciel. “Fun
though it is to make you lugs grovel before me, a joke’s a joke.”

“You know,” said Ariciel, “When a fighter bows to you, you’re about
to get hit.”

Lenna gave the Elf an amused look, then… disappeared. Lee’s mouth
fell open. Had the Gnome woman cloaked, or teleported?

Lenna’s voice came from outside. “Get out here, you lugs. I haven’t
got all day.”

“Mages,” said Mareva. She saw Lenna’s staff in the umbrella stand
and grabbed it. She walked outside, and tossed it at Lenna.

“Do you really think I need a focus device to get you guys to the
treetop?” said Lenna, catching it.

“Humour me,” said Mareva. “I have ended up in the wrong place
before.”

“Pff. Everybody? Shake hands with the Gnome please.”

Lee watched, as each of the Azerothians briefly held the Gnome
woman’s small hand, and looked into her eyes. She’d seen many rituals
in her time, but she suspected that this was probably something to do
with the magic she was about to do. She held out her hand to Avery, who
took it with a friendly smile and a nod, then Brad, then Laura. Lenna
turned to her, held out her hand. Lee looked at it, Lenna had only four
fingers on her left hand. A quick check of the other hand gripping her
staff showed that that was the normal number.

“Look at me, please,” said Lenna.

Lee did. A slight tingle ran up her arm, and Lenna’s eyes briefly
lit up, or changed colour. Lenna looked back at her, and squeezed her
hand.

“First time, love? Don’t worry. I do this all the time. Usually ask
five gold for it, but Big Lug and his girl are friends. We’ll have you
laughing at the Night-elves in no time. Don’t believe them when
they say you have to be sky-clad for dinner, they’re having you on.”

“Oi, I heard that!”

“O dear,” said Lenna. “Forgot about the ears.”

“Everybody forgets about the ears,” said Ariciel.

Bieslook walked up to Ariciel. “I don’t think your ears are funny.”

Ariciel ruffled Bieslook’s hair. “Thank you, Bies. Lenna is being
mean to me.”

“Honestly,” said Lenna. “I can port you all the way to
Shatt, you know? Well then, nobody’s left anything inside? Nothing left
to do here? Then off we go.”

Lenna took a few steps and closed her eyes. She slowly raised her
arms, speaking under her breath. In front of her appeared a small
light, which grew into a larger circle as she spoke. Inside the circle
they could see the blue sky, buildings, and pools of water in a
different place. Lenna dropped her arms and turned round.

“Off you go then, people. Say hi to the Elves for me.”

Stetson and Mareva waved, stepped into the circle, and disappeared.
Next, Brad and Darren Avery walked through. Laura shot Lee a quick look
and a smile, then stepped in and was gone. Easy. Just like any other
wormhole.

“You’re up Captain Brittner,” said Lenna. “Just walk through the
portal, once you’re through keep walking or Big Lug here’ll land on you
and you don’t want that.”

Lee nodded, and walked up to the shimmering circle. She’d been
through Stargates more times than she could count. Only sissies close
their eyes, so she didn’t even blink. This was different. There was
only the vague sense of displacement, and then… music. Voices singing
in the superb acoustics of a large hall, in complex, shifting harmonies
and rhythm. Someone put a hand on her arm and gently pulled her away. A
few moments later, the big Human arrived, followed by Ariciel, who
closed her eyes, and listened to the music. She smiled.

“Lirael,” she said.

Lee looked at the Elf, not understanding.

“Hear the soprano line?” said Ariciel. “That’s my friend Lirael.
Let’s go see her.”


Lirael turned out to be a head taller than Ariciel, with a long
black ponytail, and a gentle expression on a beautiful face.

“We’ve got a couple of clothie warriors, headed for Exodar,” said
Ariciel. “Ferry still goes at six in the morning doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Lirael. “Do you need space for your friends to sleep?”

“Depends. Is Her Ladyship in?”

“Ellandriel? Off on a mission with the tough chicks. If you ask me,
she’s enjoying giving fire support a little too much.”

“High-borne. Like to think they’re all airs and graces, but when
push comes to shove, they’re a bunch of blood-thirsty sods. So that
means I can sleep four.”

“I can stow away two for you,” said Lirael, “If they are used to
sleeping together.”

“Stetson and I have slept together on several occasions,” said
Mareva. “We were married together specifically for that purpose.”

Lirael laughed. “I was there, remember? Right then. I’ll take these
horny draenei off your hands.”

Lirael turned to Captain Avery as Mareva melted into Stetson’s arms
making obscene propositions to him in her own language. Lirael
pretended not to hear.

“If you need room, you can try Saelienne’s, or if you are used to
sleeping in the same beds, Ariciel’s place is probably large enough for
one night.”

“Two on the floor, two in the loft,” said Ariciel. “I can get some
stacks of skins out of the bank for people to sleep on.”

Bannog spoke up, looking at AR-4 in turn. “I’m expecting you people
to prefer staying together and cuddling up a bit closer than you’d
normally do. Otherwise, we can stick two of you in the inn. Or all of
you for that matter.”

“I’m cheaper, though,” said Ariciel. “Saelienne charges two gold per
room.”

Avery coughed. “As you have probably guessed, we haven’t got any of
the local money. We are already very much in your debt for guiding us
here. We can easily sleep under the stars if you prefer us not to
invade your home.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Ariciel. “We haven’t brought you all this way
for you to be eaten by harpies. Also, Bearwalker is sure to have in
another batch of students. Can’t have you shooting at the newbie
Druids.”

“Even so,” said Avery, “If you prefer us simply to wait, it would
not be the first sleepless night we have had. I would not wish to
impose on your generosity.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Ariciel. “All you’ve cost us up to now
is a couple of meals in taverns. But you’re explorers. How do you
normally pay for things?”

“We trade,” said Brittner. “For instance, we once gave people a
large supply of glass jars so they could preserve fruit, in exchange
for a part of the fruit. Sometimes we exchange labour for food. Help
people bring in the harvest. Or give medical aid.”

“Or blow stuff up for them,” said Cadman. “I once widened the
passage to a cave dwelling with a few well-placed pieces of plastique.
No more bumped heads.”

“Plenty of opportunity for that here, if you need to stay a while,”
said Bannog. “If you can fight, there’s lots of money.”

Avery shook his head. “We can’t take sides in local conflicts.”

“I understand that,” said Stetson. “But unfortunately, you already
have, simply by being born a Human.”

“And by taking up with us,” said Bannog. “Sorry.”

They said goodbye to Lirael, promised to meet her at Saelienne’s,
then went Oscar Mike to Ariciel’s place, which overlooked one of the
small lakes. Ariciel went round the back, dug up a key, opened the
door, walked in, and stood still with her mouth hanging open. Mareva
bumped into her as she came in.

“By the light of Elune…” Ariciel looked round.

“Books,” said Mareva, getting to the heart of the matter.

“Lots of books,” said Ariciel.

“Yes.”

“I used to have walls.”

“Now, you have bookshelves. Paper is excellent insulation. You will
save on firewood.”

Ariciel laughed the kind of laugh that people laugh when they are
confronted with complete, utter, stark raving madness.

“She did ask,” said Mareva. “And you said yes.”

“I should have known,” said Ariciel.

“What’s up?” Bannog looked over Ariciel’s shoulder. “Whoa! I didn’t
know you read so much.”

“I don’t,” said Ariciel. “It’s our High-borne fire mage.”

“Oh, I remember, you told me about her. Ella…”

“Ellandriel,” said Mareva. “We found her in Terokkar Forest, and she
followed us home. She is mad. I like her.”

They all stepped inside. Ariciel pulled a random book off a shelf
and read the title. ‘Pandaria. Facts and fiction on the continent
behind the mists.’ She opened the book on a random page. There was a
drawing of a bear-like creature wearing robes and brandishing a staff.

“She can’t have read all of these, can she?”

Mareva pointed. “She wrote a few of them.”

“Come on,” said Bannog. “I’m hungry. Let’s drop stuff and head to
the inn.”

Lee and Laura climbed the ladder to the loft, which was filled with
boxes of books, but left just enough space on the floor for them both
to stretch out on. Colbert and Avery would sleep on the floor. Beggars
can’t be choosers. Lee took an MRE out of her pack and looked at it,
then put it back.

“We’re going to risk the local cuisine?” said Laura.

“Yeah I reckon,” said Lee. “They’re being nice to us. Least we can
do is appreciate it.”

Just in case they’d end up needing it, she grabbed some tablets of
Norit and Imodium. She stuffed them in the pockets of her tac vest.
Laura saw her do it.

“Come on, then. Let’s get poisoned in the name of intergalactic
diplomacy.”

It was quiet that night at Saelienne’s tavern, and they had a nice
meal with Lirael. AR-4, on Brittner’s advice, stuck to vegetarian
dishes heavy on fruit, with lots of water to drink. Saelienne assured
them that it came straight from one of the sap streams that the
world-tree Teldrassil sucked from deep, deep underground, and nobody
was likely to develop an allergy to plain water. The strategy seemed to
work. Lee watched them all with eagle eyes, but nobody got violently
ill. The draenei left with Lirael, the Humans left with Ariciel. They
arrived at Ariciel’s place, and Brad helped Ariciel carry a big stack
of furs from the bank, to sleep on. They turned in early.

It was about three hours past midnight, when the door opened.
Someone came in, and nearly stepped on Avery. A female voice cried out
and a dazzling light shone. As everyone woke up and shielded their eyes
from the glare, the woman spoke in a voice rich with authority.

“You have three seconds to explain why you are here.”

“Ellandriel?” Ariciel jumped out of bed. “They’re with me. I wasn’t
expecting you back till tomorrow.”

The bright light went out as the woman closed her fist on it.
Ellandriel looked round at all the humans looking at her from every
corner of her home. She raised a long eyebrow. “Tu m’as dit que tu
aimes les humains, mais ceci? C’est un peu de trop, non?

“I was about to say the same thing about your books,” said Ariciel.

Ellandriel looked round, looking a bit embarrassed. “Well, I put up
just one shelf, but I filled it up and one thing led to another. I hope
you don’t mind.”

“Hey.” Ariciel pointed. “There’s a bit of wall there next to the
door where there aren’t any books yet.”

Ellandriel hesitated. Then, she propped up her staff against the
empty bit of wall and hung her cloak above it on a peg. Ariciel stared
at it, looked at Ellandriel’s face, then burst out laughing. She put
her hands on Ellandriel’s shoulders and gave her a hug.

“It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

“Good. The Sentinels hardly even remember I’m High-borne anymore.
They’re a great bunch of girls. And Feanor has given me the key to his
library. I’m repaying his kindness by compiling an inventory. His own
works on the Dragon Aspects are amazing.”

Ariciel looked her over. “You’ve put on some weight, too. Good.”

“A diet including red meat and long healthy runs after Horde scum
will do that,” said Ellandriel. “So who are your friends?”

“The big lug in my bed is Bannog. The rest are a group called AR-4.
We’re taking them to Exodar for a chat with O’ros. Oh. Mareva and
Stetson are here as well. We’re taking the early boat.”

Avery bowed his head to Ellandriel and introduced the rest of AR-4.
Lee and Laura came down the ladder. Brad smiled, nodded, and kept
himself in the background.

“In fact, Ma’am,” said Avery, “It’s only a few more hours until the
ship leaves. We will leave you in peace, and head for the harbour.”

“I and the Sentinels will be on the same ship,” said Ellandriel. “We
are escorting a diplomat to Exodar. I’m only here for a change, a cup
of tea and maybe a few hours’ meditation. I can sleep en route.”

“Enjoy your morning, Ma’am. Miss Ariciel? Which way for the harbour,
please?”

“Colbert? Do you remember the bank?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“From there, head west until you see the portal down. You can see
the docks when you come out.”

“Very well,”said Avery. “AR-4? Grab your things, we are Oscar Mike.”


“Think that’s it?” Laura pointed at a wooden frame. Underneath was a
faint, unworldly purple glow.

“There’s nothing else west of the bank,” said Avery. “This must be
it. Volunteers to look silly when they walk through and nothing
happens?”

Brad keyed his radio, and looked at Lee, who nodded. “Right. If it’s
the waste disposal, avenge my death, warrior brothers and sisters.”

“We’ll have a Brad Colbert memorial waste bin in the Anthill,” said
Laura.

Brad gave her a grin, waved, walked into the purple glow and
disappeared. A few seconds later, they heard his voice over the radio.

“AR-4, Colbert here. I’m down safe. You’ve got to see this.”

Even Brittner, she of the Do Not Bother Me Before Nine Unless It’s
Life Or Death, was looking up in awe. It looked like a wall, but it was
covered in tree bark. Roots were sticking out, reaching down into the
water below them. It was lit by the full moon, and stood still as only
a tree can, defying Fate to throw at it what it would.

“That is an unusually large tree,” said Avery, with a British flair
for understatement.

“It’s a tree with a city on top,” said Brittner. “We were sleeping
on top of a tree.”

“Scuse me,” said someone. “You’re blocking the portal mate.”

They looked round. Looking at them was a woman wearing a top hat.
She had a beautiful glossy coat, deep brown soulful eyes and a healthy
wet nose. Everybody stared.

“Oh ‘ave a heart, people, you’re not expecting me to go all the way
up the apples are you? Bugger off there’s a good lad.”

Avery slowly breathed in. “A thousand pardons, Madam,” he said, and
allowed the… lady to pass by.

“You’re a gent,” she said, winked at him and ran into the portal.

Avery looked round at his friends and colleagues. “Right,” he said.
“Lycanthropes, I can deal with. We’ve seen lycanthropes on
Sirius three. Lycanthropes who speak in bloody Cockney rhyming slang?
Own up. Which one of you wankers thought it was funny to spike my tea
with Lysergic acid diethylamide?”

“Shit my CO says,” said Brittner and Colbert, at the same time.

The first new arrivals were Stetson, Mareva, Bannog and Ariciel.
AR-4 followed them to the right pier, and they lounged about, waiting
for the ferry. Next were a group of women wearing light leather and
chainmail, led by a woman who was a bit shorter than the rest. She had
a loud voice, short green hair, and bulging muscles on her bare arms as
she ordered her Sentinels to take up stations on the pier. Mareva
raised a hand at Ellandriel, who was with the Sentinels, wearing robes
the same colour as their armour. She wandered over.

“Good day to you. We are just bringing in the diplomat.”

Ariciel was lying on her back with her head in Bannog’s lap, her
eyes closed.

“Why not just portal the git over there?”

“He doesn’t travel well in Alliance portals,” said Ellandriel. “Ah.
There he is.”

Four Sentinels came from the portal to the pier, with between them a
pale-skinned blonde man wearing red robes. He had a staff in his hand,
and his eyes glowed green. Whether the Sentinels were keeping him safe,
or keeping him from escaping, was not clear from their expressions.
Brittner noticed with interest that one of the Sentinels was a man.
Mareva was on her hooves, standing next to Brittner with a murderous
look in her eyes.

“I did not know that you were carrying Sin’dorei,” she said. “Is he
a specimen for experiments?”

“He is a Scryer from Shattrath,” said Ellandriel. “Here for a
friendly chat with Velen about Pandaria.”

“Are they expecting him back in Shattrath?”

Ellandriel rubbed her arm. “I’m not exactly fond of them myself, but
apparently we can’t just light him up after he’s had his say.”

“Shame,” said Mareva.

Captain Leafwind came walking up. “Stow that kind of talk,
Shen’dralar. We’re Sentinels. We follow orders. And now, our mission is
to carry this sorry excuse for an Elf to Velen. Ferry’s in in half an
hour. Get in shape.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Ellandriel.


The ferry came, they all got on, and set off. Ellandriel went below
decks to find a hammock. She still got seasick now and then, but not in
her sleep. The sun came up, and Captain Leafwind declared that the
moving deck of a ship was the perfect place for a little hand-to-hand
combat training. Before long, a dozen Night-elf Sentinels were rolling
round on the deck. Darren had walked up to the aft deck, and was
talking to the helmsman. Mareva and Stetson were standing by the
railing, tails touching, and looked at the wake of the ship behind
them. Lee, Laura and Ariciel were on top of the Fo’c’sle and looked at
the Sentinels training below. Brad and Bannog leaned against the aft
cabin, watching.

“These girls look the business,” said Bannog.

Brad only nodded. The Sentinels’ martial arts reminded him a bit of
Marines wrestling, fast, with lots of power moves, hard punches and
kicks to the body, elbows to the head, and the occasional bout of
ground work. It also reminded him of home, where Dusty must be worrying
herself sick. They were still keeping their relationship quiet, though
unavoidably, people had read their body language and come to the right
conclusion. All of his team knew, of course, including Michel Fournier,
their missing man. Sometimes Brad thought they were keeping it quiet
even from themselves.

“You don’t wanna join in, do you?” Bannog glanced at Brad.

Brad looked. The women were wearing leather leggings and shirts.
Their arms were bare, and strong. They moved with a supple grace,
without a wasted gesture, full of purpose. Dusty Mehra would have her
hands full with one of them.

“We get our asses kicked,” said Brad.

“Yeah,” said Bannog.

One of the Sentinels threw her colleague over her hip and slammed
her into the deck.

“Nice,” said Brad.

Bannog pushed himself off with his shoulders. “Sod it, I’m going to.
See what they can really do.” He walked over to one of the Sentinels,
who was having a drink of water between bouts. “Hi. Wanna dance?”

The Sentinel looked at him. “You’re only human. Think you have a
chance?”

“I arm-wrestled Mathrengyl Bearwalker once,” said Bannog.

“Oh. Did you win?”

“No.”

The Sentinel’s teeth showed in a slow smile as she got to her feet.
“I’ll go easy on you.”

Brad watched Bannog and his new friend square off. Fuck it. Recon
One’s honour was at stake, as was AR-4’s. He walked up to a single
Night-elf and tapped her shoulder.

Laura saw the boys step into the ring, and hit Ariciel’s leg.
Ariciel was lying on her stomach, head on her arms, eyes closed.

“What?”

“Your boyfriend just walked into the lion’s den.”

“Oh. Does he need healing yet?”

“Whoa.” Lee pointed. “Brad’s been shamed into joining in as well.”

Ariciel raised herself on her elbows and looked. On the main deck,
Bannog rolled his shoulders, flexed his muscles and knocked his fists
together. His opponent laughed. With predatory speed, Bannog kicked her
legs out from under her, turned her over and locked her leg with his
own. Then, he put a wrist lock on her. The Sentinel hit the deck with
her free hand, and Bannog let go.

“Heh,” said Ariciel. “He went in all ‘I’m gonna smash you little
Elf’, and then he throws her. You only get away with that once, my
love.”

“Here they go again,” said Lee.

The Sentinel, now wise to Bannog’s masculine wiles, wasn’t fooled
another time. Bannog tried to unbalance her, she moved along with him,
and sent him flying instead. Bannog tried to escape her choke hold for
a moment or two, then tapped out. The next round lasted a bit longer,
but also ended badly for him.

“These girls are good,” said Laura. “But he’s not completely
overmatched.”

“Whoa, look at Brad go.” Lee pointed.

They looked. Brad’s opponent was trying to throw him, but Brad moved
out of the way every time. Then, she tried to put a wrist lock on him,
but Brad outmaneuvered her.

“Dusty been giving him private lessons?” Laura’s head bobbed along
with Brad’s moves.

“Think so,” said Lee. She winced. “O dear.”

Brad was on the floor, pinned by the Sentinel. He tapped her back,
and with a little satisfied grin, the Sentinel waited one moment
longer, then let him go.

Ariciel looked at Bannog, who had just managed to avoid being thrown
down.

“Get her, you lug. She’s going to sweep you.”

As the Sentinel’s leg came round, Bannog ducked down, grabbed it and
lifted the Sentinel off her feet. He threw her down on the deck and
dropped on top of her, one arm round her neck, the other holding her
wrist. She gave him a grin, and tapped out.

“Oh shit,” said Laura. “Take a break Brad, she’s getting annoyed.”

“Surely not,” said Lee. Her eyes opened wide. “Oh damn.”

Brad had managed to wrestle his opponent to the ground and had her
in a tight armbar. He waited for her to tap out, but she didn’t. With a
jerk, she turned her body round. She stifled a cry, and Brad,
incredulous shock on his face, let go and jumped up. The Sentinel,
pale-faced, sat up, teeth bare. Her arm hung limp.

“What the fuck?” Brittner reached back for her pack, with
its medical supplies. “That stupid woman just dislocated her arm rather
than tap out.”

Lee ran for the stairs. Ariciel didn’t bother and jumped down.
Seeing Lee and her medical supplies, she put herself between Greenleaf
and Brad. Captain Leafwind, who had been watching the whole match with
interest, stepped up.

“Sentinel Greenleaf! What in the name of all things fel and filthy
do you think you’re doing?”

Sentinel Greenleaf got to her feet. “Sparring Captain,” she said,
through clenched teeth.

Sparring? You’re supposed to come out of a sparring match better
prepared for battle. Where were you when they handed out the brains? In
the queue for tits?”

“That human…” began Sentinel Greenleaf.

“Don’t give me that. He had you and you know it.”

Captain Brittner walked up. “Hey you. Sit down.”

“Who are you?” said Greenleaf.

Brittner walked up in front of the Sentinel, and looked down on her
from her height of all of five foot nine.

“I’m the human who’s going to unfuck your shoulder, Sentinel. Now do
you expect me to jump up to do it? No? Then sit the fuck down and shut
the fuck up.”

Greenleaf looked at her captain.

“Do you need help with the translation, Sentinel? Do what she says.”

Greenleaf bent down. Brittner held her hand out. Greenleaf looked at
it, then took it and sat down on the deck. Brittner examined the woman.

“Dislocated shoulder. Pulled muscle. Nothing broken, good. Laura?
Two mill Tramadol.”

Laura took out the medikit, pulled out a syringe, stuck the needle
in the bottle and pulled the plunger down. She tapped the syringe to
get rid of air bubbles, pushed the plunger till a drop came out, then
handed it to Lee, who stuck it in Sentinel Greenleaf’s arm and slowly
pressed down the plunger.

“Good. Now lie down. Easy.”

Lee put one hand behind the woman’s head, and cradled her injured
arm with her own as she lay down. She looked round, and pointed at the
man she’d noticed earlier.

“You. Hold her steady. Sentinel, I’m going to pull on your elbow,
then lever your shoulder joint back in. Try not to move, and I’ll need
just one go.”

Lee sat down next to Sentinel Greenleaf, put her foot in her armpit
and turned her arm as if Greenleaf was throwing a ball. Greenleaf
gritted her teeth, but made no other sound. With a stomach-churning
crunch, Greenleaf’s shoulder popped back into its socket. She only took
a few deep breaths to indicate it might hurt. Brittner gave her
shoulder a few exploratory squeezes, then nodded.

“Laura? Ice pack, please. And a triangle cloth to use as a sling.”
She turned to Sentinel Greenleaf. “Now in a few hours, the pain killers
are going to wear off. I don’t know anything about your metabolism, so
I don’t know when. When they do, don’t be an idiot. Come and tell me,
I’ve got more.”

“Um, Captain?” Brittner looked up to see Ariciel bending over her.
“Want me to take it from here?”

“Oh gods, just what I need,” said Sentinel Greenleaf. “A
Light-bleeding feral who thinks she can heal.”

“Yeah, the day is getting better and better,” said Ariciel. “Feral
Druid’s gonna heal your butt. Play nice, and I’ll heal your arm as
well.”

“Do I look like I shag girls? Girls are for fighting. Boys
are for fucking.”

“That’s what they all say until they try it. Now shut your face and
let me concentrate.”

Ariciel put her hands on Sentinel Greenleaf’s shoulder, and they
started to glow with a green light. Captain Avery, who had been
standing a few steps away with Brad, now walked up to Captain Leafwind.

“Will your Sentinel be alright, Captain?”

“Sure,” said Leafwind. “Miss Ariciel will fix her right up. Your
healer did a nice job.” She nodded at Lee. “Thank you, Captain
Brittner. Still…” she leaned over to Avery. “It’s probably best if
your warrior quits while he has a head.”

“Roger that, Ma’am,” said Avery.

Ariciel finished her healing spell, and Lee put her hand on
Greenleaf’s unhurt shoulder, then pulled her to her feet. Captain
Leafwind jerked her head in the direction of the Fo’c’sle.

“Piss off, Greenleaf. Go simmer down a bit.”

Lee, Laura and Ariciel walked back up the stairs to the foredeck, to
find the Sin’dorei diplomat standing there, arms crossed, watching the
Sentinels at practice. He allowed his gaze to fall on them.

“Ladies.”

Laura gave him a warm smile, Lee gave him a nod, Ariciel ignored him
and lay down on the deck, watching the Sentinels.

“Such a waste,” said the Elf.

“What do you mean?” Laura looked up at him.

“All this,” said the Elf, waving a hand over the writhing mass of
bodies on the main deck. “If they would simply accept the natural
order, then none of this would be necessary.”

“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” said Lee. There was a tone in
her voice that suggested a tonne of pure muscle with a lot of teeth at
the front, speeding towards a Blood-elf making happy splashing noises.

“They could be so much more than this,” said the Blood-elf.
“Night-elves like these are apt to great things, fine arts, music,
dance, works of literature. All they need is a hand to guide them. And
yet, here they are. Behaving like… animals.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Ariciel, as if to herself.

“But they are an old race. Long memories have stifled their ability
to mould themselves. I find humans are much more sensible in these
matters. I much prefer dealing with humans, especially the females of
the species. Your short lifespans make you wonderfully passionate.”

“Oh,” said Laura, big eyes looking up at the Blood-elf. “You must be
so old.”

“Only four hundred years, my Lady.” The Sin’dorei allowed himself a
little smile. “In the prime of my life, like you.”

Laura gave a little shy giggle. The Blood-elf was leaning on the
foredeck railing in a pose of studied nonchalance.

“I can see you are a woman of rare intelligence and taste. It is a
pity that we meet only so briefly. I could teach you so much. I could
show you the sights of Shattrath, city of Light, and its magics, its
feats of alchemy. The Naaru Adal’s blessing of Light against the
majestic auroras of the Outlands is a most stirring sight to behold.”

Laura’s laugh sparkled. “Well, that would be wonderful, Sir,
but… I already have a degree in electronics, which is pretty much
what magic will turn into in a few thousand years’ time, and another
one in chemistry, which is what alchemy would want to be when it grows
up. I’m an expert in high temperature and energetic materials, and I
can recognise and detect every explosive material used by Humanity, by
sight or smell. I’m a qualified first-aider, and I’m working on a civil
engineering degree. So I think I’m fine for teachings just now.”

The Blood-elf stared at Cadman.

“Also, I tap-dance,” she said. “Not in these shoes, though.”

The Blood-elf stood up, turning his green eyes back to the Sentinels
below. When he spoke again, he didn’t look at Laura.

“I may have underestimated you, Lady, but surely, you can see that
the way of the mind is much to be preferred over this… this nightmare
of violence and bestial instincts?” He turned to Brittner. “Wouldn’t
you agree, Lady?”

Lee gave him a look. “So then, if not animal, what are you? Mineral
or vegetable?”

Ariciel have a snort, and rolled back with laughter. The Blood-elf
gave her a dark look, and Ariciel looked up at him. Her fingers brushed
her throat, as if rubbing away an itch.

“Rrrr,” said Ariciel.

The Blood-elf turned round brusquely, and left with barely a nod. He
met Ellandriel coming up. Ellandriel watched his back, then joined the
others on the foredeck.

“What is the matter with him? He has been trying to look down my
robes all the way from Shattrath, and he hardly saw me now.”

“He tried it on with Laura, then with me, then with Ariciel,” said
Brittner. “Not you too?”

“He sucks as a diplomat,” said Laura. “If he’d known about the
little balls of chocolate wrapped in gold, I’d be in his bed by now.”


The ship arrived at the dock in the early evening. The sentinels,
bent on carrying out their task to the very end, or at least up to the
tavern, disembarked with the Blood-elf diplomat in their midst,
Ellandriel walking next to him. Brad went below to see if he’d left
anything, and found Sentinel Greenleaf in her hammock, staring at the
ceiling.

“Hi,” said Brad. He looked her over. “You okay?”

Sentinel Greenleaf waved her arm about. “Yeah, yeah. Shen’dralar’s
house-mate fixed me up.”

“Then why are you here?”

Greenleaf sneered. “Captain yanked my shore leave.”

“What, over a little training accident? Really?”

“Yeah, really. I’m not allowed to offend you little inbred
ogre-faced runts, even if you keep your brains in your nutsacks and
won’t even know until you get home.”

“That’s right,” said Brad. “You purple trash overconfident,
oversexed, and overgrown tree monkeys should show us a little respect.”

Brad and Greenleaf grinned at each other.

“When you get to Shinytown,” said Greenleaf, “Don’t let them serve
you any of that swill they call Qrovna. There’s a secret tavern called
the Belltower and Rifle. They have the good stuff. Your draenei
engineer friend will know where it is.” She looked away for a moment,
then looked into Brad’s eyes. “Sorry for blowing it back there. You’re
as slippery as a fish. Who taught you to do that?”

“There’s this girl I know,” said Brad.

Greenleaf gave a little laugh. Of course.

“So,” said Brad. “Where are you off to after this?”

“They don’t tell us,” said Greenleaf. “Probably patrolling Darkshore
for Horde scum. That’s one nice thing about the Horde. They always give
us lots of Orcs to play with.”

Brad nodded, and raised his fist at Greenleaf. She bumped hers into
his.

“Stay frosty,” said Brad.

Brad walked onto the deck to see the rest of AR-4 on the pier.
Brittner waved her arm and he hurried down the gangway and joined his
friends.

“Kiss and make up?” said Brittner.

“I have met the enemy, and she is us,” said Brad.

Avery clapped his hands. “Line up hand in hand, children, we’re off.”

The Sentinels weren’t keeping to any order they could recognise,
except that Ellandriel and Captain Leafwind stayed near their grumpy
Blood-elf charge. Brittner saw the male Sentinel and walked up to him.

“Hi. Thanks for the assist earlier. When you’re yanking someone’s
arm half out, you really need someone to keep them from moving.”

“Don’t mention it,” said the Sentinel.

Brittner recognised the careful phrasing that could not be taken for
innuendo. She held out her hand as they walked. “Lee.”

“Kyrion,” said the Sentinel, shaking it. “Kyrion Moonfeather.”

“Don’t see many men in the Sentinels,” said Lee. “You’re a man in an
army of women.”

Kyrion walked on, silently. Lee looked up to him. He had dark blue
hair, and a subtle purple tone to his skin. She could have walked under
his arm without ducking.

“Back where I come from, I’m a woman in an army of men. How are they
treating you?”

Kyrion gave Lee a quick look, then went back to looking ahead of
him. They walked on quietly for a minute or so.

“Not too bad,” he said, finally. “Though they did find it necessary
to explain to me that a Blood-elf is something you stick your blade
into, and not your cock.”

“That is useful information,” said Brittner.

“They’re alright,” said Kyrion. “They have seen me at work. Keeping
your sisters alive is always appreciated. You get used to the
background noises.”

“I see,” said Brittner. She did. The so-called jokes, friendly
banter. Lewd remarks. That there wasn’t usually any actual malice
behind them didn’t mean it wasn’t annoying as hell.

Kyrion spoke in a low voice. “You do not speak my native tongue, so
I’ll tell you that my two sisters walking behind us are laying bets
that you and I will be in the same bed tonight. All I need to do to
dissuade them, is to look one of them in the eye for more than, say,
five seconds. Then, she’ll think I want to lie with her. Women
train to become more deadly. We train to impress women enough that
they’ll take their clothes off in front of us.” Kyrion smiled wryly at
Lee. “Does this resonate with your own experience?”

“Yeah,” said Lee. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” said Kyrion. “Because despite all of this, my sisters
will lay down their lives for me, and I would for them. They have
accepted me into their group, and so I am able to pay back the Horde a
thousandfold for what they did to my wife. Alone, I might have taken a
dozen Orcs before I was slain. Together, we have taken hundreds.”

They walked on together for a while, not speaking, until Captain
Leafwind sent him to check out some movement. They were deep in
Alliance territory, but you never knew. Perhaps someone might have a
good reason to stop this Sin’dorei git from talking to the blue goats.

Laura stepped up to Lee. She could see a familiar look on her face,
one that combined sadness, anger, despair of mankind, and a general
desire to kick people until they saw sense, or her legs gave way.

“Sup?”

Lee scowled. “My theory that oestrogen is essential for brain
function just went out of the window. As it turns out, assholery is
equal opportunity.”

“They giving Elf boy a hard time?”

“Yeah.” Lee frowned. “Part of me really hoped that we would find one
place where we’d be better in the same situation.”

“Just depends on who’s on top,” said Laura. She smiled to herself.
“Also, they’re marines.”

“Yeah? So fucking what?”

“What we have here is a great big bunch of alpha females, all
dominating the fuck out of each other. Hang around with Marines for any
length of time, and you’d swear that the Black Panthers, the Neo-nazis,
the Westboro Baptists and the Ku Klux Klan were all having a party
together. But it’s not what it looks like. They’re establishing the
pecking order. They grapple, they run, everything they do is a contest.
Anything you have on a guy, race, looks, background, you use it. Makes
you hard.”

Lee nodded. “Tits?”

“Oh yeah. You bet that some of the Marines in my platoon explained
exactly to me what my tits would look like and what they’d like to do
with them. But I’ll tell you, any fucker really wanting to mess with
me? They’d smear his face over a mile of road.”

“Nice of them,” said Lee. “Please tell me you didn’t just let them
get away with it.”

“Let the Sisterhood down? Me? Come on, you know me better than that.
If all else fails, I can tell them all about the guy who jumped over
the concertina wire that turned out to be a few inches higher than he
thought it was gonna be.”

Lee winced. “Ow.”

Beautiful tenor voice, though,” said Laura.


Lee walked next to Brad, eyes slightly unfocused. Brad had been
taught that might be a sign that some bit of Ancient technology was
talking to her. He looked at Avery, who was walking along with a slight
frown. Brad gently nudged Lee’s arm. He did not have the gene that
allowed people to communicate with the Ancients’ technology. He was
therefore the man to look out for his teammates who did, and keep them
from bumping into things when some Ancient toaster was yelling into
their minds that the toast was now perfectly warm and golden brown.

“Everything alright Captain?”

Lee blinked and shook her head as if her ears had become waterlogged
and she wanted to clear them. Her gaze returned to the here and now.
They were walking down a gentle slope, spiralling down a deep shaft.
All round them, lights gently glowed.

“Yeah,” said Lee. “I’m okay. It’s not the ancient tech we know of,
but I’m sure it’s using the same ways of communicating. It just feels
like I’m being told, ever so politely, not to touch any of the buttons.”

“Probably sound advice,” said Brad. “Stetson tells me that this is a
spaceship like Atlantis.”

“It’s not going to fly anywhere,” said Lee. “It’s basically running
on emergency power. Its big energy sources are gone.”

Mareva looked round at Lee. “That is correct. Sin’dorei agents blew
off our vector coil. You can find it a few miles away on the island.
O’ros did move Exodar with his mind, but he used actuators to do it.
Think of them as a telepathic steering wheel and levers.” Mareva stared
ahead. “I spent two weeks re-setting the operational parameters before
we could jump to Azeroth. They apparently tried to re-configure them
for Daemonic beings to control. If they had succeeded, O’ros would have
outlived his usefulness.”

“Who is this O’ros?” said Lee. “One of your officers?”

“He is a creature of Light. A Naaru.”

“Is that your word for priest?” Lee looked up at a sculpture of
light, consisting of a bright blazing central orb, surrounded by
blades, or shards, that lazily revolved round it, quite beautiful. She
couldn’t see how it was made, whether the lights were held aloft by
magnets or by some other means.

“No,” said Mareva, pointing a hand at the light sculpture. “Naaru is
our word for one like him.”


“Major Sir!” Corporal Ray Person waved Major Lorne over. “Incoming
message, says it’s from AR-4.”

Since the unknown portal had closed behind his old Sergeant and team
leader, they had been unable to drag Person out of the comms booth. The
console was littered with empty cans of Red Bull, bags of Skittles,
scraps of paper with notes and empty bags of coffee. Ever since the
disappearance of Avery’s team, they had been trying to re-open the
stargate, to no avail. The gate did not engage, as if there was nothing
on the other side.

Major Lorne walked into the booth. “Are you sure it’s them?”

“Positive,” said Ray. “They’re using Zeta protocol, and the
challenge response says they’re alive and well, not being held captive,
and not gone crazy and shit. It’s them, I’d bet my last Juggs
on it, the one with Yasmine wearing-”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Major Lorne. “So where are they?”

“That’s the weird thing,” said Ray. “They’re not in the Pegasus
Galaxy anymore, and the signal looks like it’s coming from everywhere,
not just through one wormhole, but from all the wormholes in existence.
Captain Avery is pulling some weird-ass comms voodoo on us, Major.
Also, he’s not talking to us directly. I’m talking to some guy called
O’ros. He’s given me directions, and that’s where it really
goes off the scale on the weird shittometer.”

Ray handed the Major a piece of paper, on which he’d scribbled the
coordinates. The Major blinked.

“You sure he didn’t say second star to the left, and on till the
morning? That would have made more sense than this.”

“We can do it with a jumper Major, sure thing.”

Major Lorne looked at the piece of paper again, and shook his head.

“Well, the instructions are clear, even if they’re completely
batshit insane.” He handed the piece of paper back to Ray. “I
understand AR-7 is free for a little trip across the multiverse?”

Fuck yeah!”

“Good. I’ll raise Lieutenant Fick.”

“Captain Avery?” O’ros’ voice sounded in their heads without taking
the unnecessary detour through their ears. “Corporal Ray Person has
just acknowledged my instructions. If he follows them precisely, your
people will be here in eight days, six hours. They will emerge from the
Twisting Nethers about seventy miles east of Darnassus. No doubt, they
will be able to contact you there.”

Avery bowed his head. “Thank you, O’ros, for all your efforts. I
hope we have not inconvenienced you with our requests.”

“Captain Avery, we Naaru are not subject to boredom, as the whole of
the collected Universes are ours to explore. But if we were, then this
would have been a welcome diversion. Safe journey home.”


They emerged from the portal made for them by Ellandriel, and walked
out of the Moon Temple, into the clear, crisp air of Darnassus.
Ellandriel could not come with them, because they had to take the
Sin’dorei diplomat back to the Dark Portal, from where he would find
his own way back to Shattrath. They walked past the Howling Oak, a new
tree-dwelling for the Were-wolf, or rather Worgen refugees from
Gilneas, and knocked on Lirael’s door. Lirael sat them down on pillows
and mattresses, and made a large pot of mint tea. Laura was the first
one to give in to temptation and hit Lirael’s large earthenware drum.
Lee looked at Lirael’s impressive collection of lutes, violins, harps
and other musical instruments. Lirael poured out the tea.

“What music do the Tau’ri humans have?”

“Oh, all kinds,” said Lee. “Some of it sounds like what you do in
the Temple, but there’s also less… sacred music.”

“Some of it is downright blasphemous,” said Laura.

“Would you sing us a song from Planet Earth?”

Lee grabbed her pack from behind her and pulled out her tablet. “I
can do better than that,” she said. She flicked through her music
collection, and a few moments later, the first few chords sounded from
the small speaker. She put the tablet on Lirael’s desk for the
resonance.

Avery winced. “Oh bloody hell woman, are you determined to ruin our
good name?”

“Oh shush,” said Lee.

“Sounds nice,” said Bannog.

Ariciel’s ears perked up as she listened. “Oh I like that.
Remember the Hellfire Peninsula, Mareva? When I first got my flight
form?”

Laura looked at Ariciel. “Don’t tell me. You can really turn
into an eagle?”

“Every storm crow thinks she’s an eagle, but yeah.” Ariciel pointed
at the tablet. “And that song tells you exactly what it felt like.”

Lirael stepped over to a cupboard and pulled out a few sheets of
paper. “Lee? Could you play that again, please?”

“Sure,” said Lee, and rewound the song.

Lirael sat down next to the tablet, and closed her eyes as the song
played. When it finished, she started scribbling lines and notes.

“Do you remember the lyrics, Mareva?”

“I do,” said Mareva. “Do you wish me to write them down?”

“Please,” said Lirael, handing over a few sheets. “For the rest of
the girls.” She put the sheet of paper on top of her big drum, grabbed
a harp from the wall, and started to play.


“Are we nearly there yet?”

“Affirmative,” said Nathan Cristopher, who was at the helm. When he
had been recruited for Atlantis, they had found that he could interact
telepathically with Ancient machinery, all the useful and useless
devices the Ancients had left scattered all over the Galaxy. Including
their small spacecraft, affectionately known as Puddle Jumpers. He
turned round and looked at Ray.

“We are there, but we are everywhere at the same time. We have to
cease being in all the other places. So it’s really the wrong question,
Ray.”

“Oh.” Ray looked pensive. “Really everywhere?”

“Yep. We are passing through every point in the Universe at the same
time. Mathematically speaking.”

“Shit, dog, that means I’m up J-Lo’s twat right now. Awesome.”

Lieutenant Nate Fick leaned back in the co-pilot’s seat, and kept
his eyes closed. The boys had learned to police their language PDQ in
polite company, but this was not polite company so fuck it.

“Dog,” said Tony Espera. “That means that mathematically speaking,
you’re also up the asshole of George Walker Bush. Shit, you’re up everyone’s
asshole. You’re up your own asshole.”

“Damn,” said Ray. “Mathematicians are dirty motherfuckers.”

There were a few moments of silence.

“Yo Nathan.”

Yes Ray?”

“Have we nearly stopped being everywhere else yet?”

They had emerged from what the mysterious voice on the other side
had called the Twisting Nethers, and were now cloaked, flitting a few
dozen feet above sea level towards the signal of AR-4’s implanted
microchips. They were having to take care, because most ships here were
wooden sailing vessels with hardly any radar footprint at all. Which
meant that they were avoiding them using telescopes and the good old
Mk. 1 eyeball. They were flying well above mast level, but it would be
a bit rude to blow them over with their exhausts. It was early in the
morning, and the day looked bright and full of promise.

“Look at that,” said Christopher. He’d called up a display of a
lateen rigged sailing ship making its way to roughly the same place
they were going. A grey-haired tall old man was at the helm, and other
people were scrubbing the deck, doing rope work or preparing breakfast.
A blue-haired woman with a dark purple skin stood on the bow-sprit,
holding on to the front stay, looking ahead. As they watched, she
looked over her shoulder, right into the camera. Then, she turned her
eyes forward again.

“Is our stealth up, Nathan?” said Fick.

“Up and stable.”

“Better not rely on it too much. These people could have very
well-developed hunches.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

“Eltee? Look at this.”

Fick sat up, and looked at the display.

“It’s a tree,” he said.

“It’s a tree growing in the middle of the sea, Sir. It’s several
miles high.”

“That ain’t natural, homes,” said Tony Espera. “Trees like that
don’t grow in the middle of the sea.”

“Mangroves do,” said Ray. “But this isn’t a mangrove. Looks like a
maple, or an oak, only bigger.”

“And our wayfinder is pointing right at it,” said Christopher.

“Don’t run into it my man,” said Ray. “That would suck, flying all
across the multiverse into the only tree in the whole ocean.”

“This from the driver of the most fucked-up humvee in the whole of
OIF, that hadn’t been hit by a fucking RPG.”

“Word to the motherfucking street, yo. That LAV backed into me and
you know it.”

“See any place to land, Nathan?” Fick peered at the displays.

“I’ll do a fly-over, Sir. Hang on. Looks like there’s a building
on top.”

“Not just a building,” said Tony, “A whole city. Homes,
normal fathers build their kids a tree house. This is what white boys’
competitive parenting does for you.”

“Any nice LZs, corporal?”

“Not a damn place, Lt. Can’t land right in the middle of town, tree
cover everywhere else. Gonna have to hover and you guys rappel down.”

“Right then. Person? Try and raise AR-4 on the radio. Touch down in
thirty mikes.”


Mathrengyl Bearwalker, teacher of Druids, sat in the shadow of a
large tree. Next to him were two of his students. They were watching
three humans, who seemed to have fallen from the sky on ropes attached
to nothing. Why they hadn’t just sailed into Rut’theran Village and
used the portal to get up, he didn’t know, but he could think of
several reasons, very few of them pleasant. The humans were not trying
to conceal themselves, and didn’t have any obvious weapons. The small
metallic things that they carried on straps round their shoulders could
be guns, though. Well, they were clearly not supposed to be here. Let’s
have a little chat with them. After a quick glance at his apprentices,
he changed to his cat form, and stalked off after the humans.

“Eltee?”

Nate Fick keyed his radio. “Corporal Christopher?”

“I’ve got your immediate surroundings on infra-red. There’s some
wildlife on your four, two zero zero metres out, maybe big cats. Image
isn’t clear enough.”

“Roger that Corporal,” said Nate. “Gentlemen? Keep your eyes peeled,
There’s lions and tigers and bears about.”

Espera gave a nod, and tried to look through the trees. “Lieutenant?
You said the natives were friendly, right?”

“They are,” said Nate. “I am assured of this.”

“This O’ros guy seemed cool,” said Person. His eyes gleamed. “They
are grateful to be liberated, and welcome the Atlanteans as friends.”

“Dawg,” said Espera. “Don’t remind me of that asshole translator.”

“Meesh?” Nate shook his head. “I can name several worse assholes in
that great big AO.”

Corporal Christopher’s voice sounded in their ears. “Eltee? The
wildlife just dropped off my FLIR. Can’t see them anymore, and they
were heading in the same direction you are.”

“Roger that, Corporal,” said Nate. “Stay frosty, gentlemen.”

“It’s a fucking jungle here,” said Ray, with a wild look in
his eyes. “Any moment, we could die. Jesus Mary and Joseph, we
could be torn to shreds by fucking tigers. Where the
fuck is our ass? Where’s our cobras? Whole companies get wiped
out like this. I’ve got my best men, dying in here.”

Espera laughed. “Steel Rain, Steel Rain, this is Hitman Actual. I’m
calling in a fire mission. Grid Papa Quebec 0-5-9 0-9-8 0-3-8 degrees.
Two hundred meters.”

“Hitman Actual, please confirm, you want us to drop arty on the white
house?”

Nate Fick rolled his eyes. Fond memories of his tour in Iraq were
few and far between, and the day that his superior officer proposed to
drop a generous amount of ordnance on the heads of his own company
didn’t even come close. Fick had almost been relieved of his command
for insubordination, simply for pointing out to his captain that (a)
there was no enemy for the artillery to shoot at, and (b) they
themselves were well inside the blast area for your average
bombardment. He heaved a deep sigh and trudged on.

One moment, Espera was on point, Person in the back, Fick in the
middle. The next, he was lying on the ground, and a face with lots of
sharp teeth was looking at him. His hand strayed to his P90, but the
cat on top of him snarled and put a claw on his arm. There was a sound
like a breeze of wind, and suddenly, a tall, dark-skinned man was
sitting on him. He spoke a few words in a language Nate couldn’t
understand. It took Nate a moment to find his voice.

“Pardon me?”

“I said, who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“I am Lieutenant Nate Fick, of Atlantis Recon Seven, and I am here
to find my sister team, AR-4. I come in peace.”

The tall man gave Nate a slow look, then got up and held out his
hand. Nate took it and was pulled to his feet. He looked at his
teammates. The wild animals that had taken them, had also turned into
people. Tony and Ray got to their feet, and stared. Their new friends
looked down on them from a height of six, seven feet. One man, one
woman. The expression on their faces made it clear that the day might
just still include a savage mauling if they looked like they were in
the mood for it.

“Teacher?” The woman’s voice was deep and soft. “I think I have seen
humans clothed like this before. They are staying with Druid Ariciel.”

The leader gave her a nod. “Let’s take them there, then.”

They started off in a westerly direction, the humans in the middle,
the elves round them.

“We’ve just been owned by a bunch of natives,” said Ray. “But damn,
she’s hot.”

“Shut up Ray,” said Nate.

“Remember Poke, I saw her first.”

“Technically, dog, she saw you first.”

Mathrengyl Bearwalker knocked on Ariciel’s door, and she opened it.

“Ariciel? I come bearing gifts.” Bearwalker pointed a hand at AR-7,
who were standing behind him with polite expressions on their faces.

Ariciel shook her head. “Honestly. You get it on with one
human, and people think you want all of them. Distribute them among the
poor, why don’t you?”

Bearwalker snorted. “Where is your last batch? I think these ones
complete the set.”

“On a run to Dolanaar,” said Ariciel. “We’re renting them out as
pack animals. Girls are helping the priestesses heal people at the
Temple. Should all be back in a few hours.”

Nate gave a little cough. “Good day, Lady. Do I understand rightly
that you have seen our friends? Two men, two women…”

“One cute blonde girl, one dark-haired one, one pale guy, one brown.
Laura Cadman, Lee Brittner, Brad Colbert, and Darren Avery. Are they
yours?”

“They are, Lady. We are looking for them to take them home.”

“Well, they’re carrying stuff to the Temple. So I’d say wait for
them there.”

“Good,” said Bearwalker. “Can I leave them in your care? I’ll leave
Maurane and Sinjono with you. Just in case.”

“Good good. Gentlemen, druids all? Follow me.”

The white-haired Druid Ariciel led them up a path from her home to
the entrance to the city they had seen before, then towards a large
white building made of stone. While they were walking, Nate keyed his
radio and spoke in a low whisper.

“Nathan? Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, Lieutenant,” came Nathan’s voice over the radio.

“Do you have visual on us?”

“That’s affirmative Eltee. I think the blonde is prettier than the
green-haired one.”

Ariciel looked round at Nate. “Tell him thanks, and to bloody well
get his butt down to Rut’theran Village at the foot of the tree.
Maurane can pick him up there, and he can tell her how sorry he is.”

Nate stared at Ariciel. Ariciel puffed her cheeks up and blew out.

“Stars and stones. Every bleeding human always stares at our ears,
and none of them ever realises that we actually use them.
You’re talking to the people up in the flying machine with the
invisibility spell, aren’t you? The one with the high whining noise
that keeps following us?”

“Just one, Ma’am,” said Nate. “We need the space to take AR-4 home.”
He looked Ariciel in the eye. “I apologise.”

“Why aren’t you talking to Darren or Brad? He’s got his far-speaker
spell on.”

“Tried,” said Ray. “Couldn’t raise them. Not on any of the hailing
freqs. But these earpieces have only a two-mile range, so we’d have to
be right on top of their heads to hear them. When we’re that close, may
as well just pop blue smoke.”

Ariciel shrugged, then turned to her colleague. “Maurane? There
should be another one of these humans at the bottom portal. Could you
go fetch him? Don’t get your hopes up, he likes blondes.”

You are our human fancier,” said Maurane. “Why, I cannot
possibly fathom.” Maurane changed herself into a large deer, and
galopped off to the portal.

They walked on into the temple. Ariciel led them to the infirmary,
where they found Lee wearing a mask, using a scalpel on some poor
Night-elf man’s infected leg with the priestesses looking on. Local
anaesthetic was apparently new to them. Meanwhile, Laura was winding a
bandage round a draenei man’s tail. Lee finished her work, pulled her
mask down, and gave Nate, Ray and Tony a bright grin.

“Hi Lieutenant. I’ve been expecting you. This infirmary is amazing.
They have only three different kinds of medicine, but they can channel
mental energy through their hands. Reiki, laying on of hands, prayer,
and it actually works. I’ve got to get some footage of
them doing it.”

“As long as you don’t show it to anyone on Earth, Ma’am,” said Tony.
“Before you know it, you’ll have faith healers crawling all over the
place.”

“Why would that be bad, friend?” A platinum blonde woman in a yellow
dress smiled at Tony. “Healers’ hands are never idle. The more healers,
the less hurt.”

“Back in my home town, my niece went to some white boy named Peter
Popoff. So he does his hallelujah shit on her and says Jesus has cured
her cancer, so she don’t need her chemotherapy no more. And her mother,
she actually believes him and donates all her savings to this asshole’s
foundation. She didn’t even have enough money left to bury her
daughter. I ever meet him, I’m gonna lock the piece of trash up in a
gas chamber and pump cigarette smoke in till his lungs are fucking
jelly.”

Alathea’s face froze. “This man offered healing, but he was no
healer? What manner of person would do such a thing?”

“As long as those white boys keep the money rolling in, Ma’am, they
don’t care how many people’s lives they fuck up. And if Captain
Brittner shows what you’re doing here back home, motherfuckers like
Popoff are going to come crawling out of the fucking woodwork, sayiing
they’ve learnt Elf healing, wave his hands over some poor sick fuck and
tell him he’s cured. Then he’ll take his money and let him die. Say
about the white man what you like, but one thing they started that’s
good, is good solid evidence based medicine. That’s what you want, not
this magic mumbo jumbo make believe shit.”

“Poke…” Lieutenant Fick quietly shook his head at Tony.

Alathea’s eyes shot fire. She slowly reached out, and took Lee’s
scalpel from her hand. She looked into Tony’s eyes, rolled up her
sleeve and with a quick move of her hand slashed the scalpel across her
forearm. She held out the scalpel to Lee, handle first, blood dripping
down her arm. Lee simply stared, mouth open. Alathea shot her a look.

“Take it, please. I’ll need my hand free.”

Swallowing hard, Lee took the scalpel. Alathea looked into Tony’s
eyes.

“Watch. Look at my arm.”

Alathea held her hand over her injured arm, and it started to glow
with a pure white light. As Tony watched, the cut sealed up,
disappeared. Only the bloodstains remained as evidence of what had just
happened. Laura stepped up and handed Alathea a wet towel. Alathea
wiped off the blood and handed it back.

“We are not all frauds, my child.” She put one hand on Tony’s
shoulder, the other on his cheek. “I am so very sorry for your niece.
May her soul be part of the Light Everlasting, and may she rejoice in
her rebirth.”

Tony simply stared at her, wordless. Alathea smiled at him, and
after a few seconds, he smiled back.

“Please lady, don’t do that again.”

“I agree, it is a bit melodramatic.”

Ariciel looked at her. “We Druids have a word for people who cut
themselves with their own blades.”

“And I’m sure it is a wonderful word,” said Alathea. “Well, all the
lame and the sick have been tended to. I’m assuming that Lee and Laura
wish to join their companions?”

“Give me a sec to grab my things,” said Lee.

Ariciel and Sinjono led the humans to a quiet corner of the temple,
within sight of the central statue. A flock of priests and priestesses,
Lirael among them, walked to the small paved area. The choir leader
waited for them to take their places, then raised her arms, and sweet
voices filled the whole hall. Lee grabbed her pack, and pulled out her
tablet and its directional microphone. She pointed it at the choir and
hit “record”.

A few minutes later, Maurane entered, leading Corporal Christopher
as if on a lead. She sat down next to Nate, and turned her face to the
choir, listening. She turned to Sinjono.

Ils n’ont pas chanté la chanson des druides?

Sinjono shook his head. Maurane turned back to the music.

Bon

This was a practice session for the Darnassus Temple Choir, but even
so, they always had an eager and devoted audience. As one hymn gave way
to another, Bannog and Stetson came in, followed by Darren and Brad.
All had heavy packs on their shoulders, which they dropped at the
infirmary. Ray waved and called.

“Yo Brad! What took you so long?”

Brad came walking over with a grin on his face. “Just wanted to give
you a chance to listen to something besides that Whiskey Tango country
music you always have on.”

Tony got to his feet and punched Brad in the side with a clang. “Yo
Iceman, what’s up with you dog? What’s that metalwork you’re wearing?”

“Yeah Brad,” said Ray. “Are you going to hunt for dragons like in
the dress-blue commercial?”

“When in Rome, my little friends,” said Brad, “Do as the Romans do.”

“When in Turkey, do as the turkeys do,” said Tony. “Is that a sword?
Are you walking into battle with a sword?”

“Yea forsooth,” said Brad. “My new friend Bannog here lent it to me,
because he thinks bullets are for sissies.”

“Aww homes,” said Ray. “Bullets are for everyone.”

“Look,” said Bannog, “If I have to choose between being a breathing
sissy and a dead hero, I’ll take the first. But I’d still be a sissy.”

“Hey,” said Brad. “Don’t knock the mighty sword. Sliced right
through a MALP’s armour.”

“Eh!” Maurane looked over her shoulder with a frown. “Les
humains? Fermez la.

She turned her face back to the choir. Priestess Jandria had just
announced one of the new songs. She turned round, raised her arms, and
the choir sang the first few chords. Ray’s mouth fell open.

“I knew it! They’re not Swedish! They are fucking aliens!”

Lee glared at him. “Shut the fuck up, Ray.”


Lee lay in one of the bunks in the jumper. They’d said goodbye to
their new Azeroth friends, and following O’ros’ instructions, had
slipped back into the Twisting Nether. She’d tucked her tablet in
between the bulkhead and the side of the bed, and put in her earphones.
The song that was playing was one of her favourites, and Lee was the
only person in the entire universe who had this version of it.
There were a few background noises, of course. There always were with
live recordings. Mostly people telling Ray to keep quiet. If she asked
Kay, she probably would be able to filter that out. But really, it
didn’t matter much. Very, very quietly, she sang along:

High, up high

What a feeling to fly

And to go anywhere that I please.

Lee pulled her sleeping bag up till only the top of her head poked out,
sighed, and fell asleep.

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