“Victory in the Nighthold!” Widge Gearloose cheered, raising his mug high.
“For the Alliance!” Baelan Grimaxe roared, his voice echoing off the walls of the Dalaran beer garden.
“For Azeroth!” Pika and Piko called out in unison.
“May Gul’dan’s death nae be ‘merely a setback,’” Ringo Flinthammer said, making motions in the air with his fingers, although not proper air quotes as Widge had tried to explain to him several times now. “Killing a bastard twice should be enough for anyone.”
“Here, here,” Archmage Ikeya said. “I hate having to kill someone a second or third time.
“I’m not sure I like the way you’re looking at me,” muttered Vamen D’barr, sliding away from the mage.
Ringo turned, as did Frostmaw, finding a tear-streaked Beli Flinthammer standing on the rear steps of A Hero’s Welcome, holding out a crumpled letter in her hand. The Kirin Tor could make a city fly, but what they were really proud of was their mail system, which had come a very long way since the days that ravens carried all their letters.
“My parents!” Beli said, thrusting the letter at Ringo. “Their house. BAEL!”
Ringo jerked it away and yanked it open. He was hit immediately with the scent of smoke.
“What?” He pushed Frostmaw away, the bear curious about what had his mistress so upset. “They were attacked?”
“The Legion attacked their house in the District!” Beli said. As far as dwarves were concerned, the Dwarven District of Stormwind was the real heart of the city, and everything else was just its suburbs. “They burnt it to the ground!”
“That donnae make any sense — mebbe it was an industrial accident?”
“It was green fire, Ringo! They barely got out with their lives!”
“But why would … They build bridges and walls, they’re no’ any threat …”
“You dragged us out here, away from our family …”
“Ah ‘dragged us out here’ to protect our people and our world!”
“We should be with them, not helping some stupid elves who were too cowardly to fight the Legion thousands of years ago!”
“Well, Ah admit that’s no’ my favorite part of this war effort …”
“I’m going home, to protect our family from the Burning Legion!”
“Beli, th’ best way tae protect them is here …”
“Your son’s bed is nothing but ashes, Ringo! How many of your family does the Legion get to kill? They’ve already killed your father and mother. Durkon seems determined to die at their hand. Are you going to sacrifice the rest of your brothers, too? Do they get to kill me? Do they get to kill your son?”
Ringo’s voice shriveled under his wife’s glare.
“The only acceptable answer was ‘no, they do not.’ I’m leaving, Ringo, right now. I’m packing up, going back to Stormwind and taking my family somewhere safe. You can come with me, or burn with the rest of the anvil-headed Flinthammers.”
Beli spun about and marched into the inn.
Ringo stood silent, watching her go, and hung his head.
In a corner of the beer garden, one of the others leaned his head down to the one standing next to him.
“If they’d wanted to keep him safe from us, they shouldn’t have left him so close to a mage portal location, now should they?”
“No, no, they should not have,” his compatriot said, clinking their beer mugs together in a toast.
Alliance warlocks tried to say that fel energy was just another source of magical power.
Everyone posted to the Broken Shore knew better. When they woke after hours of nightmare-ridden sleep, they would cough up vivid green and black globs of something in the morning, increasingly laced with blood and pieces of things that looked like they were things the soldiers would one day miss.
Even looking at the Black City, or worse, the Tomb of Sargeras, hurt. A green outline of either building burned itself into the retinas, and would remain there, sometimes for several eye-watering hours.
Boots were set down mid-polish and bowls of chow were put down half-eaten.
“Icebeard! Urik! Quarterflash! Windstryke! Hallard! Flinthammer!”
Durkon Flinthammer took the proffered letter and sat down on a rock to read it, his back to the Temple of Sargeras.
“Hello, big brother. I hope this letter finds you well and intact.
“Beli and I are alive and well, and I reckon eating better than you are. The battle against the Burning Legion …”
Several paragraphs were then blacked out by the censors. Durkon could never figure out whether Ringo didn’t understand that he couldn’t write certain things in letters sent in a war zone, or whether he just did it to irritate the censors.
“Frostmaw and Beer Run actually seem to enjoy the Broken Isles. At this point, they’re both pretty used to getting shot at and if it wasn’t for the Legion, (redacted), elf ghosts and (redacted), this would be a pleasant place to live. Maybe after this is all over.
“The in-laws tell me that the 7th Legion helmet you sent to Bael in Stormwind was a big hit with your nephew. The split where I reckon a Legion blade shattered it just makes it better, I’m told. I won’t ask if you survived, since I know your head is harder than any helmet.
“But it does all of us, both back home and here in the isles, to know you’re at the tip of the spear. I keep up a brave face for Beli and Bael, but the end of the world feels closer than it ever has. One of the few things that gives me comfort is that I know one of the bravest, strongest and smartest soldiers I’ve ever known — my big brother — is standing between the Legion and all we hold dear. (Save this letter, because I’ll never admit to having said any of it.)
“I don’t know how long this campaign will last — has there ever been a war we weren’t told would be over by the Feast of Winter Veil? — but I have faith that your bravery, that of our other brothers, and whatever the blessings the Titans can bestow on us (redacted), we will get through this.
“Keep your head down and your powder dry.
“Your brother, Ringo.”
Durkon smiled, and folded the letter up, carefully tucking into a pocket in his tunic, alongside all the others.
“All right, ladies,” he called out, standing and turning back to the camp. “Let’s go kick some Legion ass.”
“I don’t understand this plan.”
“No one needs you to understand this plan. My masters had me recruit you –”
“No one ‘recruited’ me; I’m in this for the destruction.”
“Fair enough, my masters had me reach out to you –”
“And the lighting of things on fire.”
“Yes, of course, it’s what you do best. My masters had me reach out to you –”
“And the nihilism. I’m basically just in it for the nihilism.”
“Obviously. You once waged a three year war against trees.”
“They had a look about them I didn’t like. A real arrogant cast to them.”
“In any case, my masters told me to ask for your help because we’re going after some of the biggest impediments to the Burning Legion’s invasion …”
“By going after the hapless idiot brother.”
“It’s a long game. We’ve both known him for years. We drive him to his knees, his brothers’ resolve fails, and suddenly those commando missions against the Black City become much less effective and …”
“Hold on, we’re just demoralizing him? I’m not in this to hurt people’s feelings.”
“Don’t you worry your psychotic little head about that: After we demoralize him, we’ll finish him off. This is the year we kill Ringo Flinthammer.”
“You know,” Widge Gearloose said, putting down his glass, “Gnomes just number years instead of naming them. It’s a much more logical system.”
“What are ye talkin’ about?” Beli Flinthammer said, forcing the twin images of Widge to resolve themselves into one. “How’d ye expect anyone to remember that?”
The noise didn’t help. Everyone was there at the party: Baelan, Cordovas, Dinhalia, Glondor, Ikeya, Jhakir, Kyroson, Mollie, Mozzbi, Nerraro, Omanoma, Phia, Pika, Piko, Ringo, Saehdrin, Shmooty, Turing, Ukatorr, Vamen, Vimes, Whiskyjack and Xaus.
“It’s very easy,” Widge said, warming to the subject. “It’s all separated with decimal points, starting with which High Tinker’s tenure it occurs during, followed by a decimal point and another digit based on their current term — High Tinkers are elected, you know.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself: Before the number, there’s a mathematical symbol, denoting whether it occurs before Gnomeregan’s founding, after its founding, after the fall of Gnomeregan, after Operation: Gnomeregan or after the expected point in the future when all of Gnomeregan will be under full gnomish control once more. So, if it’s before the founding, the year is marked with a minus sign. If it’s after the founding, it gets an equals sign. If it’s after the fall, it gets a division sign. If it’s after Operation: Gnomeregan — the current era, in other words — it gets a multiplication sign. And, if it’s a date in the future, after gnomes retake the remaining part of the city, it gets a plus sign.
“So, after those initial two digits and mathematical symbol, there’s digits for the year, month, week and date, each using the gnomish base-10 system with 10 months in a year, 10 weeks a month and 10 days a week. I mean, wow, the non-gnomish calendars make zero sense and don’t even use a consistent numerical base.
“After that, there’s a digit for the 10 gnomish hours of the day, 100 gnomish minutes and 100 gnomish seconds. There’s even smaller digits available for those who want to get really precise, but honestly, I think you can figure out the rest from there. It’s pretty intuitive, as you can see.”
Beli looked up from her mug again and furrowed her brow. Behind Widge, fireworks were bursting high over Dalaran.
“I’m sorry, could ye repeat that? This drink was a wee bit stronger than I expected.”
“Or maybe it was one of the eight or nine before that one,” Widge volunteered. “Anyway, to the end of a bad, non-intuitive, non-base-10 year!”
“Aye, may the Year of the Kraken go screw itself!” Beli raised her mug enthusiastically, splashing several patrons in the beer garden, although this was a fairly common experience and no one seemed to notice. “Bloody Burning Legion! Bloody Naaru bringin’ bloody bad news!”
Beli and Widge drank, Beli setting her mug down hard enough to make the flying city wobble, Widge suspected.
“Happy New Year!”