“The Naaru know I’m not opposed to a suicide mission,” Baelan Grimaxe muttered, adjusting himself gingerly atop a rocket aimed at the Dark Portal, just visible across the red plains of the Blasted Lands, “But straddlin’ a giant bomb seems a bit much.”
“You can’t argue with the classics,” Widge said. “This worked for Khadgar once, it’ll work again.”
Knight-Captain Ringo Flinthammer finished buckling a deeply unsure Frostmaw onto another rocket. The bear looked as uncertain as Baelan did.
Ringo climbed onto the front of the rocket he shared with Frostmaw, which seemed much less unstable than Baelan’s and like it would be harder to steer.
“There’s not going to be an overt signal to tip off the Iron Horde to what we’re doing. We wait for our troops to engage the Mag’har and get them occupied. Khadgar said he thinks he can get the Horde to attack at the same time — and, there they go. Fire rockets — NOW!”
The passenger rockets thundered to life, sending out sprays of yellow, purple, blue and green sparks as their passengers raced toward the Dark Portal.
“What’s that?” Widge yelled over the roar of the rockets.
“Ah said,” Ringo yelled back, “‘Ah jus’ wish we knew why the bloody portal had turned red!'”
It had been years since Ringo had thought about the Dark Portal. The Burning Legion had tried to invade through it years ago, at the apparent behest of Illidan Stormrage and Kael’thas Sunstrider. But the Alliance — including Ringo and his wife Beli — had helped push them back through and both tyrants were eventually slain, although Kael’thas got as far as Quel’Danas before meeting his end. Before that, it had been dormant for years, ever since Khadgar’s plan had worked the first time.
The Iron Horde Mag’har the Alliance had captured hadn’t been able to explain what had happened to the portal — they had seem baffled by the question, as though they were unaware that the portal had previously been green.
“Ringo, you and Baelan have to just buy us enough time to set the charges on the far side,” Widge yelled over the wind. “We’ll have about 30 seconds after I set the timer, then we have to get back through immediately, or we’ll be stuck in Outland when the Dark Portal gets destroyed — again.”
Which, by itself, would slow the Iron Horde down by a few decades, if history was any guide. And this time, the Alliance would destroy the Dark Portal on the Azeroth side as well, once they had cut off the Iron Horde’s reinforcements and mopped up the few Mag’har who would be trapped on this side of the portal. With any luck, the Mag’har would never be able to reestablish the connection between the two worlds ever again.
The rockets were racing over the heads of the battling forces now and the glowing red portal glowed like an ember beyond them.
“Ah jus’ feel like we’re missin’ somethin’ important,” Ringo yelled. “This blasted portal must o’ turned red fer a —”
And then they passed through the portal, and out of Azeroth.
“Knight-Captain Flinthammer? Sir? Sir?”
“Step aside, soldier, I’ve got this.”
“As you wish, Sgt. Gearloose.”
In the darkness, Ringo found himself getting prodded with something, over and over again.
“Ringo, knock it off, we’ve got work to do!”
Ringo Flinthammer swatted at the poking object, then closed his hand on it.
“What the hell is this?” he snarled, propping himself up on one elbow, looking blearily at the strange weapon-thing he’d taken away from his tormentor.
“It’s a Pandaren spell-sickle,” Widge Gearloose said, snatching it back from Ringo. “It’s not important.”
“More importantly,” said a second gnome, appearing behind Widge in the blue tent, “You’re awake at last!”
Ringo’s next question what drowned out by a high-pitched whistling, a mechanical whirring and the sound of a distant explosion.
“Yes, you’re still in the Blasted Lands,” Widge nodded. “Specifically, the Alliance’s foothold, if you can call it that, on the beach.”
Ringo asked another question, which was drowned out by the sound of another iron star being launched somewhere nearby.
“We can’t,” Vamen D’barr, the second gnome, shook his head sorrowfully. “The Iron Horde has smashed Nethergarde Keep to bits.”
“Ah’m ne’er going to get one of their tabards now,” Ringo muttered sadly.
“Ye’re awake!” a dwarven voice boomed. A black-bearded dwarf on a cot on the far side of the gnomes sat up with a groan. “This time, ye’re the one unconscious longer!”
“Vamen and I were working in Nethergarde when the Iron Horde attacked. Lady Proudmoore wants to re-integrate Dalaran into the Alliance military structure, and we were here to evaluate the magical needs of Nethergarde Keep when the Dark Portal turned red.”
“And I was stationed there,” Baelan Grimaxe said. “Hadn’t gotten my tabard yet, though.”
“They really were nice tabards,” Ringo muttered, turning and putting his feet on the red sandy floor. “Haven’t see ye, Vamen and Baelan, since the war against the Lich King.”
“Nothing reunites everyone like a potential apocalypse,” Widge said, pulling Ringo to his feet. “Come on, let’s go: We’re preparing for a counter-attack on the Dark Portal. We’re going to push the Mag’har back into Outland.”
When Ringo Flinthammer regained consciousness, he was underwater, surrounded by icy black in all directions.
There were vague shapes in the darkness — masts and prows of older shipwrecks, with glowing debris dropping past them in the gloom. He’d heard that this coast was a dangerous one, where some ill-fated Gilnean expedition had sunk in the days following the Cataclysm, but no one aboard had been clear on the details.
He saw no sign of Frostmaw, or any of the crew members. But he couldn’t worry about that just yet: already his lungs were beginning to burn and he felt the powerful urge to take a breath — a fatal urge if he gave into it.
Fighting to stay calm to make the most of what air he had left, Ringo did slow and measured frog-kicks toward the surface, sculling with his large hands as he rose.
Ringo felt his ankle grow numb. Looking down, he saw thick translucent fingers closing around it and felt himself being jerked back downward.
“Grol will kill you!” a voice reverberated up through the inky blackness. Despite being underwater, Ringo suddenly smelled blood and smoke and heard distant hopeless screams.
Ringo kicked at the hand, which was now definitely pulling him further from the surface and the air above. He felt around — he had his gun, but it was wrapped in oilcloth. And he had gotten lazy in recent years, no longer carrying an axe as he once had.
Ringo’s chest felt like it was full of flames now and had to bite his lips together to keep from opening his mouth and gulping in the Forbidding Sea.
The dimming light from above — still flashing with explosions as Iron Stars hit their marks — flickered and grew dimmer. But it wasn’t him drowning, at least, not yet, but shadowy figures streaming down from above their claws and silvery teeth flashing as they tore at the hand. There was a roar of outrage from whatever in the darkness was pulling Ringo down and suddenly he was free, propelled upward like a cork toward the air above.
Once at the surface, Ringo gasped, sucking in the smoke-filled air, letting the waves carry him to shore.
Ringo Flinthammer leaned on the railing, looking down from the poop deck with a smile, listening to the troops sing a navy song that dated back to the Second War, called the “Tides of Darkness.” It was a song of grim determination, about pushing the orcs back through the Dark Portal, and seemed appropriate.
Archmage Khadgar himself was supposedly on one of the other ships in the Alliance fleet, heading round the Cape of Stranglethorn, and now heading for the Blasted Lands. They were bypassing the Gilnean outpost of Surwich, which was both too far from the Dark Portal and not fortified enough to withstand an Iron Horde counterattack if they landed there en masse.
A sound of a young gnome getting sick over the side brought Ringo’s attention back to the upper deck.
“Ye doin’ all right there, Pazerp?”
“Sure, sure,” the young SI:7 agent said, wiping her mouth with the gloved back of her hand before lowering her goggles back over her eyes. “I’m pretty much out of things to throw up at this point.”
“Ah reckon we’re gettin’ pretty close,” Ringo said, turning to point, then stopping. “By Magni’s stony balls! Do ye have yer spyglass on ye?”
“Always!” Pazerp chirped, pulling it out and peering. “Those shapes — Horde zeppelins, over the bay where we’re supposed to be docking. They’re landing ships there, too.”
“If they’re part o’ Garrosh’s new army …”
A boom from up ahead silenced the singing soldiers. It was followed by a whirring, buzzing noise that Ringo knew from somewhere, although he couldn’t immediately replace it.
Then one of the zeppelins exploded into flame and a large iron orb plunged steaming into the ocean waters.
“Iron stars!” Ringo roared as more booming explosions echoed down the red cliffs and more buzzing whines filled the air. “Man the lifeboats! If he turns those on us, the ship will …”
Ringo found himself rising up in the air, spinning over the ship, looking back down on it as it burst apart before he ever heard the explosion. He plunged back toward the burning wreckage below him, and everything went black.