In the end, they were their own worst enemies.
Astoreth would have found the idea amusing in those last moments if she had the leisure and perspective to think about it. But all that she could think at the time was move move move, oh titans, oh SHIT, oh gods… Fire on the ground and shadow in the air; these were nothing new. She could handle them. It was the voices in her head, like the ones she’d heard in Northrend – and over it all, the laughter….
They lost Tywren first, somehow. Astoreth didn’t see it happen; she just tripped over something as she was running and when she looked, it was him. It took an act of will to tear her eyes away from his – always so lively, now glassy and hollow – but pull away she did, and she scrambled to her feet, and she kept going.
The field – hall, actually – was chaos. Astoreth ducked another shadowy missile and found herself briefly near Zul’rohk. “Ty’s down,” she screamed at him, and he yelled back something she couldn’t understand, facing away from her and firing arrows faster than she could see. “What?!” she screamed again, straining to hear as she began to channel another spell.
“Now I see de darkness,” shrieked a voice by her ear. “Now m’eyes be open!”
Astoreth jumped and whirled around and let loose with the full force of her spell at the source… and watched in horror as her comrade Zarat staggered back choking, grinning at her maniacally, zealous fire in his yellow eyes. “Chaos, madness,” he hissed, “like a hug for y’brain!” The priest raised his hands in a gesture Astoreth knew entirely too well – though those hands twitched as the fel corruption tore through his bloodstream – and she began desperately chanting to draw power in the hopes she could get off even a single spell while her mind was still her own….
…and then the troll’s eyes flashed wide, and he gagged as a sword burst through his chest. He fell to his knees as Ernmas drew it back, and without pausing the orc warrior swung around and struck the priest’s head clean from his shoulders. “What are you doing?!” Astoreth screamed.
Ernmas simply laughed. “At last,” she chuckled, and then turned a bloodthirsty grin on the warlock.
Astoreth ducked under the first swing, redirecting the curse she’d prepared for Zarat to Ernmas, only to watch in horror as the magical energies dissipated in mid-air and the warrior laughed. “Your foul magic can’t touch me, demon!” she shrieked – Astoreth screamed as Ernmas swung again in a terrifying arc – and suddenly Ernmas was frozen in a block of ice, fury written on her face, and Zul’rohk was beside Astoreth again.
“I said, dey’re turnin’ on us!” the hunter shouted in her ear.
“No, you think?!” she snapped back.
“C’mon, we gotta regroup!” he said. Zul’rohk whistled for Tsavo and took off running, and Astoreth could do nothing but follow. Not that following was easy — the troll’s build was designed for combat in dense forests and jungles, and though he nimbly dodged the falling bits of architecture and pits of black ichor as easily as a child played hopscotch, it was all Astoreth could do to keep up and not be crushed or trapped. She could not see the far end of the hall as they ran for the smoke and darkness that filled it, but the shrieks and mad laughter of their enemy rang through the hall, along with crashing metal and cracking skulls….
Suddenly the two of them came to a alcove, a small clearing in the smoke and rubble, where a group of their companions had likewise sought sanctuary. Aurorai lay curled up on the ground in her bear form, one horn broken, licking a paw. Stavier fixed her with a cold gaze. Balor was on his knees, coughing, and glared up at Astoreth as she and Zul’rohk arrived. “This is all your fault,” he growled at her, green eyes blazing. “If you had drunk your milk like your sister—”
Still panting, Astoreth opened her mouth to ask if this was really the time but Zen’Hakar cut them both off. “Where d’others? ” he asked.
Zul’rohk just shook his head. “They no longer answer to the Signal,” Kelist answered for him.
Zen’Hakar cursed. “Shayzani?”
“No one’s seen her in ages,” Ganelon replied. Zen’Hakar cursed again.
Aurorai put her paw down, tested it, and pushed herself up, rolling her powerful neck and shoulders as she did. “We can’t wait any more,” the druid growled in low, urgent tones.
Zen’Hakar nodded at her. “We make anotha’ push now. Balor, Stavier, Ast’reth –”
“You’re lumping me in with these fucking drop bears?” Balor screeched, staggering to his feet as well.
“—go to d’right; Aurorai, Zul’rohk, Kelist, down de left. D’rest of yah, center wit’ me now. NOW!”
Stavier didn’t hesitate, slamming his face guard down and charging back into the heavy cloud of smoke behind them. Astoreth followed, never doubting that Balor wouldn’t be far behind – his ridiculous outrage aside, she knew he was far too proud to let her or anyone else fall on his watch.
She lost sight of Stavier quickly in the smoke, but Kreelum dashed past her (where had he been?) to catch up with Tsavo, and she was able to follow in his wake for several yards until the hall opened up into a great chamber (a throne room?) where the smoke rose to the ceiling and her vision was cleared again. A gigantic two-headed ogre stood at the far side of the room, and he laughed and cackled madly as he raised his hammer and black corrupting ichor rained down upon the company. Faceless things – the ogre’s minions – poured from side corridors, tentacles flailing. Astoreth squinted up at the monster as she ran to find a position… and something clicked inside her head.
“Wait – wait a moment,” she said to no one in particular. “That’s – Cho’gall.”
Someone laughed at her. “Welcome to the fight, Ast,” someone else hollered.
“That can’t be Cho’gall,” Astoreth snapped. “Cho’gall’s dead. As in – dead dead.”
“You’re dead!” shouted Balor.
Zen’Hakar stopped where he stood, and stared right at her. “Ast’reth. Don’ ya know, dat which is dead can nevah die?”
She blinked at him.
Time seemed to slow around her, and separate; she was vaguely aware of the chaos continuing, but Astoreth had an unsettling feeling of being apart from all of it. “Zen?” she said, hearing her own voice as though from far away. “What are you talking about?”
“De Mastah’s eye sees all dat was and all dat is t’be, or not.”
“What does that mean?!” she shouted at him.
“MADNESS!” the creature screamed. “CHAOS! HE SPEAKS IN BLOOD!”
She heard a voice inside her head. Your will is not your own.
“All falls to chaos,” Ernmas’ voice rang in Astoreth’s ears. “All will be destroyed. Your end has come.”
As if from a far distance she saw Zen’Hakar unleash a chain of lightning that struck Zul’rohk, Ganelon, and Balor. The hunter twitched and fell where he stood; Balor somehow shook off the shock and ran. Ganelon gave a cry and immediately threw a tidal wave of force back at the shaman, knocking him back through the air and into a wall.
No, Astoreth tried to scream, stop, we’re not the enemy, but the voice in her head was louder than her own. Look around, it said. They will all betray you. Flee screaming…
She watched as Zul’rohk staggered back to his feet, only for a blast of shadow to strike him square in the chest, knocking him down again… and this time, the hunter lay where he had fallen. Behind her Astoreth heard Kelist shrieking with delight. “Death to the Scourge!” the priest howled, “and death to the Living!”
You resist… You cling to your life as if it actually matters… You will learn…
Slowly she turned back towards Cho’gall and those still fighting him… those who were still fighting him. Kelist sat on the floor laughing madly. Balor was on his hands and knees, again, coughing up black ichor. Aurorai and Stavier alone still harried the cackling ogre, but Aurorai had grown a tail – no, a tentacle – and as Astoreth watched the ogre swung a blow with his hammer that smashed through Stavier’s shield and arm both, and the blood knight went crashing to the floor.
Behold the destiny of your fragile world! the voice sang inside her head. Death is close… Your courage will fail. Your friends will abandon you. You will betray your friends. You will die.
No, Astoreth thought.
Your heart will explode. Embrace your end, it said.
…and something clicked for Astoreth, again. It made so much sense. It was perfect. This is what my father meant. This was why she had done… everything, really, that she had ever done, from becoming a warlock to joining Nocturne, and everything before and since. This is what Bareris died for.
“I understand,” Astoreth said.
She smiled, clenching her fists. She laughed as she drew on her fel power, felt it surging through her form for the last time. She marveled at how easily the Forsaken form caught fire; how brightly it burned, and how Ganelon’s feathers rotted and molted away before her eyes as she liltingly intoned one curse after another. The expression on Balor’s face before she melted it away was priceless. And as she rained felfire and flame down on the hall, it was only out of the corner of her eye that she saw Zul’rohk stand up again, and take careful aim at her throat.
* * * * *
Astoreth gasped sharply, blinking at the ceiling. A cool breeze ruffled the curtains at the window, and her blood pounded in her ears. Bareris stirred in his sleep beside her. “…mmmm… wha’s wrong, babe?” he mumbled, moving closer to drape an arm around her.
“…nothing,” she said softly, after a long moment. “Just a dream, Bare… nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep, love.” A loud snore behind her ear told her that he was several steps ahead of her, and she tried to smile. She wrapped his arm around her waist and cuddled against him, letting him pretend to protect her in his sleep.
She sighed, concerned. Dreams about upcoming dangers were understandable enough… but Nocturne hadn’t been dispatched to the Twilight Highlands in months. And though at the height of the conflict even being near the Bastion of Twilight had been… the phrase she finally settled on was ‘mentally and emotionally exhausting’, in a shocking twist of good fortune the entire company had pulled through in the end. Zarat and Ernmas had taken personal leave afterwards, and Zen’Hakar had departed to pursue some vision quest… but the rest of Nocturne was still pushing strong into Firelands. Spirits were high despite the still-looming threat of flaming elemental apocalypse. No one was dead, no one was mad (well, no more than usual) and no one was melted – and certainly not by her hands.
But why would she be dreaming of this now?
Stop worrying, she told herself. It’s just a dream. No more significant than that one with Grand Magister Rommath and the polka-dotted elekk.
Astoreth closed her eyes and snuggled deeper into her blankets, listening to Bareris breathe. For a moment, phantom twitches of fel energy tingled in her fingertips.
You will be alone in the end, something whispered. She opened her eyes again. Nothing.
…just a dream.