The creature, when it appeared, was wrong.
That was the only way the young warlock could describe it — though of course she was tactful enough not to. Astoreth had met few Forsaken before (though she had destroyed enough Scourge already to become heady on her new power), and fewer Tauren; still, it had been enough to develop an expectation of what her contact would be like — or so she had thought. The general details, such as she had imagined them, were correct: the beast was tall, broad and bovine in build, with taut and greying skin and sunken eyes. But there was no way she could have expected the chill in the already cold air that preceded its approach – nor the ghostlike silence of that approach, as it defied the heavy black saronite plates covering its form to move far more smoothly than any creature (dead or living) should be able to do. Suddenly it lumbered close, towering over her, until she could see the greenish frost on the fur of its muzzle, and hear the faint creaks and screeches as the creature’s joints protested every movement. It fixed its unsettling blue eyes on her, causing her to shrink back despite herself, and she only became acutely aware that the beast’s chest was not rising and falling as it should when it suddenly drew in a sharp, rasping breath.
“Elf Astoreth,” it exhaled in a voice like a sword scraping across stone. “I am called Ashmaw.” The beast turned from her with a snort of cold air, drawing a massive, runed axe from its back as it began to stride up the hill. “You will stay behind me.”
* * * * *
Astoreth ran her hand along the soft, splintering wood that had once been a fence along a secluded Silverpine country road. The damp and the cold and the recent worgen incursion had taken their tolls upon the structures in the area, and with no one to maintain them this place where she had first met the death knight was slowly falling to the decay that threatened, slowly but surely, to consume the valley entirely. It briefly occurred to her that Westel might say it was being reclaimed by nature. But no, no such thing was occurring here. This was simply rot.
She smirked, thinking back. It was not so long ago, as her kind counted years… but she had felt so much younger then. She had been much younger, in spirit and worldly experience if not chronologically, and it wasn’t until she had grown up a bit more that she was able to truly appreciate exactly what Ashmaw had done for her — not only in defending her with his blade, but what he had taught her about the world she found herself in; the world outside the well-manicured forests of Quel’thalas and the marbled walls of Dalaran. A world of war, and of death… and of fates worse than death. But also of strength, and sacrifice, and perseverance against impossible odds.
She remembered taking Ashmaw to see the Dead Scar. He listened intently as she pointed out the path the army had took, and spoke of the buildings and lives destroyed. Her own family home still in the wreckage beyond the protective barrier wall. How he marveled at it: the destruction that had torn him inside, laid outside. A city destroyed as he had been. And, as he had been, rebuilt around it… though souls are not so easily repaired as cities. And the Scar, like him, forever denied a rebirth.
Once Astoreth had expected to die battling the monster that had created Ashmaw. Some days she still wondered that she hadn’t. But when she thought of Ashmaw, she raged at the injustice of it. She had grown strong enough to survive in large part because of Ashmaw. But where she had moved on after – continued to grow, to discover love, to find happiness – Ashmaw would be forever as he was. “It is not for me,” he had told her, recoiling from newborn Laurelia, the embodiment of Astoreth’s joy.
She forgot sometimes what Ashmaw was. It had long ago stopped mattering to her. But he never did.
Astoreth glanced up the hill to the keep the two of them had infiltrated that day, years before. It lay half in ruins, considerably worse than they had left it; a few charred timbers standing askew indicated that it had been ravaged by fire, and the ashes that the cold breeze kicked down her way suggested that it had not been long ago. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, smelling the cold and the rot and the faint aroma of burnt pine.
It occurred to her that she had not seen Ashmaw in some time.
* * * * *
He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul.