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‌Epilogue‌

Forgotten Ruin

Some of the Rangers started to eat their MREs right there in the body- littered courtyard where orc blood collected among the stones. Vandahar was there and the old wizard swept off his crazy wizard’s hat and laughed good-naturedly at what had been done. The orcs driven out. The dragon driven off. Brumm coming back. The old man’s laugh was good and genuine. And made you want more of it in this world.

Word was Captain Knife Hand had disappeared. But the wounded were being attended to. And the dead. There were dead beyond the power of Chief Rapp. Who insisted it wasn’t him who had the power.

Maybe Brumm was a miracle. Maybe it was magic.

Maybe it was a one-time shot. A gift from the universe. Or… whomever.

Whatever. We’d take what we were given where we found it. But I couldn’t say we wouldn’t ask questions.

I had a ton.

But now wasn’t the time.

It was the sergeant major who found me.

“C’mon, Talker. Time to debrief. And I got something to show you.”

He led me away. Me following that long-legged road march stride. I had seen many weird things. A dragon. A resurrection. Ghosts and death. Tombs filled with treasure. A vampire. A beautiful elf girl who gave me a look that said… all things are possible.

And that was just today. And it was only a bit after O7OO in the morning.

We held the fortress. It was ours now. The Lost Boys and their queen, Last of Autumn, were setting up camp near the Lost Library. Claiming it as their own.

The sergeant major led me to a small tower that hung over the ledge of the crag. It was near the inner defenses and not defensive in nature. We walked into it, and I realized it was a kitchen. A normal medieval kitchen with a cooking hearth, pots and pans of beaten copper, an old rough table, and a few odd chairs. A giant open window looked out over the beautiful

valley below the crag. The day was turning green and golden, and I could see the hawks out there catching the first thermals of the day. Crying out to one another that today would be a good day.

I tried to forget the image of the dragon looming above me at the top of the tower. And how close I’d been to death at that moment.

The sergeant major rummaged around in his ruck, and instantly I recognized his camp percolator.

He had coffee?

He’d been holding out on me?

“Look at this…” he said, opening a small wooden door at the back of the kitchen. Rough steps led down into a small cellar. There were hams hanging, breads in baskets. Things in jars. Food, I hoped. But no, better than food.

There was coffee.

Sacks of it.

I couldn’t see it yet, but I could smell it. ’Cause I’m an addict.

Turned out there were five sacks. Five large sacks. All stamped crudely with something that basically equated to Product of Portugon in Portuguese. I could translate that. That’s also one of my languages.

I hauled the sack up while the sergeant major found some eggs and cut some ham off the hanging shanks. Thick slices.

For a while we worked at getting the kitchen up. Firewood. Water from a nearby well. I made the coffee using a strange little grinder I found in the kitchen. The sergeant major cooked eggs and bacon in a copper skillet. Finally we moved the chairs and sat down around the rough table right there in the tiny medieval kitchen. Next to the open window.

I tasted the coffee and watched the hawks hunt.

It was… the best coffee. Real coffee. Ground and brewed right here.

By me.

“Good?” asked the sergeant major in his Texan mumble as he scooped up his eggs. “Guess we coulda made toast,” he added.

“Yes, Sergeant Major. This is… real good. And it means…”

“Means a lot. Means a lot, Talker. Means people out there with a civilization we can relate to. But that’s for another day.”

I kept thinking about Brumm being dead. And then not being dead. I asked the sergeant major about that.

He continued to eat, and then, as he finished his food faster than me, he took a sip of his coffee and sat back for a moment watching the hawks. He fished his Kindle out of his cargo pocket and set it down on the rough table in the rustic fortress kitchen. I could tell this would be his reading place. This was where we’d be able to find him. Just like his little circle of stones and fire out on the island that had almost been our Alamo.

“Man could get used to this,” the command sergeant major said to himself, staring out the window at the valley and the golden sunlight as the day began to heat up. “That’s for sure.”

He looked at me. I was still waiting for an answer. But I wasn’t going to prompt a sergeant major for one.

“You know what Ol’ Shakespeare would’ve said, PFC Talker?”

I did not, so I said nothing. Shakespeare said a lotta stuff. Chances were I’d get it wrong. I like to be right. I’m sick that way.

“He said… There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. That’s from Hamlet. It was a play. But I been thinking about this since we spotted our first orcs back on the LZ. This world’s a strange place. Maybe it isn’t even ours. Maybe it is. But I’ve been having strange dreams ever since we got here.”

He paused. And for a long time we just drank our coffee. Finally, he leaned forward and I could tell our pause was coming to an end. There would be a lot to do today. The fortress would need to be scoured. Blood washed. Defenses and watches set up. Quarters organized. Forge restored to working order. More of the Orc tossing game. That and a lot of other things for a lot of days to come.

“You know that… meme,” continued the sergeant major as he studied the hawks out there. “Those pictures and words you young guys like to communicate by instead of just pickin’ up the phone. You know that one where it shows a buncha studs in high-altitude drop gear coming in at dusk or dawn or whatever. And it says someone is praying right now and asking for help. And help is on the way. Two minutes to insertion. You know that one, Talker?”

I did.

“Well, maybe that’s all that happened. What Shakespeare was trying to say. Someone here in whatever this place is… they needed help, Talker. And the universe, or whatever, decided to send Rangers. That’s what I think

about all of it. I’ve been that guy. Droppin’ into some hellhole to try to croak a tyrant and make things a little easier on the oppressed. So maybe this… this is just that. But all like ol’ Shakespeare was tryin’ to say ’bout the nature of the universe and stuff. There’s mysteries we ain’t even thought of, Talker. Reasons we don’t understand yet, know what I mean?”

I took a deep breath.

I had coffee. That was actually all I needed when I got right down to it.

Everything else was just a want. But coffee. Coffee was a need.

I could face what came next. Dragons, vampires, were-captain-knife- hand-tigers. Whatever the Ruin had. I was sure there was more to come. I was sure the captain would come back to lead us. He’d lead us even when he’d become something else. Something terrible. And he’d continued to lead in the only way he could at that moment. By attacking our enemies like a wild and berserk animal.

“Talker…” said the sergeant major as I got up to go and find some way to be useful and help the Rangers stay alive one more day here in the Ruin.

I looked back at him. He held my gaze for a moment to tell me that what he was giving me was the truth. That I could measure by it. That I could survive with it.

“You done good, Ranger.”

***

That night, I dreamt in Elvish.

 

The End

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