Sometimes I wonder why they come here.
Maybe it's because we're the closest pub for twenty miles once you leave the capital. I know they have boozers up in Stormwind but I've made deliveries and none of them are ever half as full as mine, not even that creepy place by the park district, with those hooded blokes in it. Hell maybe it's because we're the closest pub outside the city, I know the guards in that place don't take kindly to raised words – or blades, if it come to that – on their turf. Much as I'd like to say it's because we've got the best beer no, we all get our brew from Sally and the others down at the orchards.
No, I reckon it's because of the scenery, no better way I can put it. The capital's nice and all but there's something about Goldshire that just brings them all in. They come out of all that stonework and jumped-up heraldry out into the country and they just…look around, faces somewhere between heaven and the clouds. Then they come inside and order the booze of course. But I reckon it's the greenery that does it, the trees and the apples and the shrubs and how bloody lovely the whole place is. You can walk outside in spring or autumn and just look around and see how blessed normal Goldshire is. No voodoo-storms like down in the Vale, no bloody feral wolf-things like Darkshire, no dust and more dust like they have down in the Blasted Lands (although they brew some good stuff there I'll admit, probably so they don't have to think about all that dust). Yeah, it's the scenery. Last some of them will ever see, first some of them have seen in years. Seen in decades maybe, with those elves, especially after…well I'm getting ahead of myself.
Because you're looking around and wondering about them aren't you? Yeah, the one over there, and the other by the fire, they're legit. A lot of them are. I mean don't get me wrong we get our fair share of poseurs in here, strutting about acting like they're king of the shit, but most of them come down fast enough once a real one comes through. You can always tell. Some of the young lads 'round here will come in, all kitted out and off to join the Stormwind Guard or one of the guilds that a rep for adventurin', showing off the new blade he's bought with his Coming of Age money and whatever boiled leather passes for armour these days. He'll buy a drink and start telling everyone what he's gonna do, where he's gonna go. Sure as hell, one of them will walk in, like on-bloody-cue, and gods if that won't shut the boy up when he sees what a real adventurer looks like. It's written there, on their faces. What they do, what they've seen. What they've had done to them. Wearing armour that's half rotted but the skin underneath isn't even scratched they're that quick, or robes so thick with magic it practically rolls off 'em like smoke they're so full of the stuff, or steel plate that just looks so goddamn solid you can't imagine anything getting through and it'll still have bloody great claw-marks in it, made by what I don't know. And the things they've got slung on their backs. I've had the blacksmith over here for drinks when they come in and he's told me it's impossible for metal to bend like that, but there they are anyway and I can only imagine the damage those things can do in the hands of an artiste. I was cleaning up one night, drunks rolled out and doors locked shut, and a bloody sword-blade comes down through the ceiling, quiet as anything, just a five-foot length of steel swinging through the wood like a pendulum. One of them had went to bed, propped his sword on the floor hilt-down all haphazard-like, and it just rolled over in the night. Hilt didn't go through but the wood didn't even slow down whatever that sword was made of. Scared the shit out of me.
Do they talk? Well…some. I think that's a little more expensive than the drink you're trying very badly to make last. Yeah I see that look, you're fooling no-one. You're with one of the city-papers aren't you? What's your angle here miss? Oh, well, that's not so bad I guess. Why not.
Most of them don't really care to chat, just coming in on one last stop before heading out and all they want to do is drown their worries one last time, or coming in from out there, and all they want to do is drown their memories so they'll forget. But some talk. Some of them talk like they have something heavy in 'em they can't get out any other way. I don't think they'll mind if I tell you. It's been a rough year, I'm not going to turn down a coin. People deserve to know, and some of them can't tell anymore.
I guess I'll do it for 'em.
Would have been twenty years ago I think. Seems like six or seven but you know how time is these days. He must have been one of the first, poor bastard. Didn't even know what he was getting into. He looked like one of those recruitment posters you still see around, all blonde hair and freckles, blue eyes and a chin you could cut stone with. He was getting some eyes from the ladies from the second he walked in but he didn't even turn and smile, just straight down to the bar and asked for a drink. Then another. They're both down in seconds and he's looking down into the glass like it just told him his father died. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut but I was young(er) and stupid and thought it was my duty as a barman to entertain my patrons. Maybe if I'd taken a closer look at his armour, and what was left of his blade, I'd have seen this was a man who'd looked across a battlefield at more than just another Orc-horde.
"Coming home from the front?" I asked cheerfully. We knew that something was happening over in Kalimdor with the elves and some pissant forest nobody could name. Give the Orcs a kicking, show them just because we weren't on their side of the water didn't mean we weren't watching them, and come home again no harm no foul. Things were so much simpler back then.
He laughed at me when I said that. I'd get to know that laugh well and strangely enough it was always a comfort even though it sounded like a death-rattle. It was the ones who said nothing that you wondered how close to the edge they were, but if they laughed you knew they still had something driving them on. "Yeah, the front, no" he said, gulping down his third. Not that any of them seemed to have done anything. Boy was steady as a rock. "More like the bottom." Then that laugh again. That one made me step back and take a look at what he was wearing, and I managed a sniff as well. Ever smell a cooking fire on a hot day? That kid smelled like they'd just turned one on and left it to burn. He smelled like charcoal and ash.
You have to see back then, we didn't know, not really. We had the orcs and the bloody undead but all that was up north, and nobody down south gave a goddamn when we had a whole continent and a city-full of dwarves between them and us. We had an easy life. There'd been rumours, some of those bloody creepy Dark Iron buggers coming out sometimes out of Redridge but the Bronzebeards – bloody good neighbours if you ask me – took care of their own and we didn't look too closely at what was happening. More fool us.
They'd sent this kid and his unit down after Windsor, one of the old crew back when the marshals were still expected to swing a sword around and fight with their men instead of behind them. Got one of the guilds to send down a team into the mines underneath Blackrock to find the bugger and by God they came up with who they were looking for and more. This kid had been the one to see it, just a quick look down one of those corridors, lava all around him and he sees it.
"Biggest thing I ever saw," he said, with a look in his eyes like he's still seeing it. "A giant made of fire."
I said those beers had finally gotten to him and he ought to take a break, and I think that got his guff up because he kept talking then, maybe to convince me he wasn't lying or maybe because he had to tell someone. He started talking and I always remembered what he told me. Back then I was barely into my thirties and stuff like this just didn't happen. Back then it was…it made you shiver to think there was stuff like that out there. Not like today.
"Ezekiel died first, poor bastard. He'd fought in the Gorge before and maybe he thought this was just a bigger version of what the Dark Iron had been fielding there but this thing…it just reached out and his armour melted away before the fist even touched. I got a look, one look and I could see him screaming before he just dissolved into nothing. Gods."
"We couldn't back down then of course, and maybe we deserved it. We'd been on missions through the Plaguelands running food to the people left there, fought through Dire Maul although we never got through the whole way to the core of whatever that place is now. Me and Ilsa had taken down a cabal of rogue warlocks the year before out by Felwood, trying to bring that place back to something resembling a forest instead of a toxic marsh. We thought we could handle it. We were stupid, just stupid."
Four of them came out alive. The lad and his partner, some priest and an archer, and the only reason why they lived was because they were farther away than the others. There'd been two of them, these Molten Giants. They'd finished crushing their mates and turned around, and these three kids had seen burning eyes looking at them. They ran.
"They sent us back in, how could they not? The Dark Iron were up to something down there – Light it was so hot – and they needed to know what. Hired a couple of guilds out of the city for a lord's pay and sent them in with us. Anna didn't go, said she just couldn't. Left the guard the next day. Ilsa went with me. Lionel came back with us too, wanted to take them down for Ezekiel. Kept an arrow and said he was going to put it right in one of the giant's eyes if it killed him."
I asked him how it went and there was a little bit of a smile on the kids face as he told the story. And that laugh. "Oh they weren't titans or anything, they could die. Took us an age and a bunch of corpses but they died. Lionel even got that eye he wanted, even though it bloody well killed him like he said it would."
And then, I'd asked. The entire place was deathly bloody quiet and that's not a small thing for this place on a night. Everyone was listening to this kid. I swear there were people outside listening in at the windows. Like I said this was another time, not like now. This stuff just did not happen.
"Then we went in deeper." The boy shook his head. "Gods I've never felt heat like that. And the things inside. There were more giants and other things too, I don't know how anything could live in that place, not unless they ate molten rock and drank lava. We went in as far as we could."
Huge two-headed dogs that towered over them, big enough to eat a man alive in one gulp. Fire that moved across the ground like a living thing, rocks that came out of nowhere and hit hard enough to crush skulls. "It was hell but we kept moving anyway, Light I don't know why. We lost a few to the dogs I know that. Some others just…stopped. Like they couldn't go on. I saw Jacob walking into the lava like he thought it was a lake of water, I tried to stop him god I tried, but he just dived in. And they talked to us."
I'd filled his drink and he'd emptied it every time. I wasn't even thinking about getting him to pay, I just wanted to hear more.
"They were like snakes, but they had bodies like people. All teeth and horns though." The kid was staring past his drink like it wasn't there. "Just hissing at each other and at us. One of them was stood there, between us and the inside of the next cave, just…standing there. Like it was daring us to try and get past him."
And did you?
"Aaron did. Bloody stupid fool challenged it like he was back in paladin training and it was just one more fellow cadet fighting by the rules. It didn't care. Just skewered him like a slice of meat and stood over him while those dogs tore him up." Another drink, another refill. It's water now and this seems to be helping better than the beer. Cheaper too. "That was enough, I reckon. It had so many teeth and it just smiled at us while those puppies tore him up. I swear it was laughing. All those teeth, and that bloody great spear. I could feel fire on my back like something was choking me, and the only mage we had left was practically crapping himself with something, muttering about a curse. We turned back and it didn't stop us. I could feel those eyes on me when we left it, left Aaron's body like a chew-toy for those goddamn dogs."
Walking out, all alone, no food, little water, and only fire around them. Miles out of that endless blaze, he said. Walls and floors so hot it hurt to walk on or touch even through the leather, the priest that had come with them didn't have any skin left on her soles when they finally found a way out. The soldiers had it worse, their steel heating up until they were in ovens. Miles through nothing but red rock and scorching heat and all the time the demons in that hole kept at them as they walked, fast as they dared, knowing if they stopped the heat would overcome them, if they ran the heat would overcome them. Symon tripped just a little too close to an edge and went down into a pool of lava crying out CATCH ME as he fell. They didn't even see what happened to Ilsa. They just hadn't heard her voice for a while and when they turned around to look she was gone. When they finally reached the bridge they were there again, two more of those bloody giants. Maybe even the same ones. The eyes followed them as they left.
"Twenty went in. Five came out." The boy raised a hand and you could smell the embers coming off that armour. Like he'd walked from the mountain to Goldshire and hadn't washed off between. "I found this in there, took it off some skeleton. We weren't the first, we won't be the last." He banged on the chest-piece with his free hand and I swear on my mother's life I saw black sparks come from that dark iron. "This is good stuff, whatever they made it out of. Dolem said he could make more, if we could get the ore, and I know we can. I know we can if we have to take forty men into that hell just to bring it back. We'll forge enough to get us back in without dying of that damn heat and we'll murder them all."
You're going back?
He looked up at me from his drink and there was something in those eyes. I was just a young barkeep (comparatively, comparatively) and I didn't know what it was then, but I know it now even if it doesn't have a name. It's what keeps them going back, these lads and lasses, the thing that makes them go on even when their friends are dead or worse. He had it in his eyes and while it was pure courage there was madness there too. "Of course we're going back. I saw it, in there, even if the others didn't. Just a glance but I know it's worse than what we think."
What did you see? What did you see?
He stood up then and for a second I thought he wasn't going to tell us, but he picked up the sword – really, the lump of charred iron that might have been a sword once – and faced the bar when he told us.
"Just a big room, bigger than any cave I ever saw, and high, twice as high as the giants that got Ezekiel at the start of the whole mess. But it had scorch-marks on the ceiling anyway. Something comes up from down in that lava lake, something twice as big as anything else in there. Something huge. There were skeletons littering the room, but all sitting in a giant spiral leading to the centre pool. Like a cult had walked in and just sat down and waited to die, worshipping."
Worshipping what, I asked, but he ignored me, just talked on.
"The colonel's been talking to SI-7 and he thinks there's something up north in Azshara, across the waters, that might help us. If there are fire demons down there why can't there be ocean spirits up here? Maybe they'll help us? Maybe they're at war. We'll go back because that was an army we saw down there, and those snake-men were soldiers and all soldiers have commanders."
"That huge cavern with the skeletons looking toward the centre was a throne-room, and somewhere in that hell there's a king of fire."
He walked out then and he took the smell of ash and charcoal with him. He'd paid for his drinks as he left. I'd never seen the coin before, looked dwarfish and for a second I thought the bugger had had me. It was gold though, solid gold. That was the first one for my collection, and believe me I have a hell of a collection by now. I saw the kid again once when he was older, not a kid then but a full colonel in the Stormwind Guard. I don't know if he killed his king of fire, and he couldn't tell me the details at that point, due to half his face being burned up and all of his voice with it. I hope he did though. I hoped to Gods and the Light he did.
So will that do little miss? Your drink's gone warm although I can see your notebook's full. Oh? Well, I suppose it is pretty dark. Can I interest you in a room? Never-mind then, safe journey to you. Inn's always open, and there's more where that came from. The kid came and left but he wasn't the last to sit down there on that seat you're sitting on now, and just talk.
Hope to see you again.