Unanticipated teleportation always left Astoreth woozy.
She recognized the area immediately – she had flown over it but two nights before, during Westel’s scavenger hunt. She did not, however, recognize the figure presumably responsible for her sudden change of scenery. An elven male judging by the build, he stood tall and proud at the edge of a ledge about twenty feet away, holding his hands out and shouting into the abyss. His back was to her and the rushing wind obscured his voice, but Astoreth could feel the magical energies radiating from him even at this distance, the flow of mana infusing her dizziness with a sense of euphoria. Still, she could not let her guard down; few willworkers would forcibly teleport anyone else with beneficial intentions. “Who are you?” she called out, cautiously advancing towards the figure. “Why have you brought me here?”
The man lowered his hands and turned his head slightly towards her, though his face remained obscured by his hood. “We,” he replied, in a voice that sounded as if two spoke for one. “We are friends. We are lovers… we were yours, once.” The man chuckled, and suddenly his two voices became one, and that one familiar. “How one can so easily forget you, when you are off and away! Alas, dearest Darksworne, you wound us.”
“Anetho?!” She gasped in surprise, and took a step forward. Could it be?! The last time she had seen the warlock, he had been bent and broken, wheelchair-bound and near-invalid due to the hell wreaked on his body by infernal corruption and mortal disease – and yet this figure before her stood tall and straight and more steady than she’d ever seen Anetho Dawnpride. “Anetho – I thought you were gone! You’ve returned…?!”
“We,” he corrected her. “We have returned. I’ll beg a slight ounce of nerve on your behalf. We are… adjusting.”
“We? Who else is here?”
He canted his head to the side, his voice resounding and firm even as the echoes returned. “We (we) are here. Two corpses, cast aside for one entity (entity).” He began to slowly turn, the familiar face coming into view as she walked closer… and then she stopped in her tracks.
One half Anetho’s face was as she remembered it – no, brighter and more beautiful, his fine lips smirking, his fair hair lush and flowing, his eyes blazing with mana and his cheeks flush with life. But where his left eye glowed brightly with the arcane shade of blue most living elves had lost, the right eye appeared sickly and yellow, with a reptilian pupil, and it shone a dim and unnatural orange as it rolled eerily in a darkened socket. Angry veins streaked his right cheek, and small lumps moved beneath discolored flesh. As she stared in horror, a tentacle seemed to dart out from under the cowl on that side as if to taste the air before drawing back. He smiled at her again, appearing in one moment both as he must have in youth before she met him… and as the monster he’d always imagined himself. “Hello, Astoreth,” he said in warm tones.
“Anetho,” she whispered, aghast. “Oh, Anetho… what have you done?” She tentatively reached forward to cup his face in her hands.
The man who had been Anetho smiled, a slender tendril tracing its way along her hand up to her arm. “You should tell us what you think we’ve done. It would amuse us.”
Astoreth looked at him in wonder and horror. “Anetho… I daren’t even guess. Have you relinquished your flesh only? Or do the fiends have your soul, as well?”
“Those who dine on souls know only hunger (starvation!)” he chuckled. Little tentacles lashed out and flicked this way and that as he spoke; little pulps of flesh, with pulsating veins, and a layer of slimy grime. “I (we) found escape (solace) in each other. We did what your kind could not. We broke from our fragile shackles.”
“That doesn’t actually answer my question,” Astoreth frowned as she rubbed her thumb along his ruined cheek. “Anetho… how much of you is left in here?”
“Enough to recollect what I feel for you (love…). We deigned to meet with you, and through no effort at all, I’ve called you here.” Anetho reached up to gently brush the knuckles of his gloved hand along her cheek. “We have missed you. We… regret not having informed you.”
“Haven’t I always come when you called?” Astoreth closed her eyes, pressing her cheek against his hand. “I’ve missed you too. I’ve wondered about you… where you were, if you were safe.”
“We almost perished (I almost followed the path of mortals). I’ve touched that which is beyond comprehension. I’ve held an Old One to my chest, and behold, two (two) have become as one. What was mortal and imperfect has become immortal. Eternal. Powerful. (Hungry.)” Anetho smirked. “We are friends (friends). Through this vessel, it may wander. Through its eyes, may I see. Through our mana, are we omnipotent (through your agony, our hunger is satiated).”
Astoreth took a step back.
Anetho chuckled. “Oh, you look so frightened. Just look at that soul, seasoned with happiness, now fraught with confusion.”
“You will not have my agony,” Astoreth said evenly.
“Why, we’ve feasted on it, for so long. Subsisted on your pains. Your husband. Your children. This vessel has been fueled by your… mortal shortcomings. Well, rather, I did.”
“Then no longer.” Astoreth narrowed her eyes. “And I’ll recover Anetho from you as well, if I can.”
“How can you steal what isn’t missing?” Anetho chuckled, his tone falling from youthful bliss, to echoing dark intent. “We find you… amusing. So easily lost to chains of words.”
Astoreth frowned. “What is it you want?”
“Ah! We’re so happy you decided to ask!” Anetho smirked, his tendrils lashing about excitedly. “We desire souls. (SOULS!) Long term goals, short sighted thoughts of revenge, even the hope of a child with Eirwen pale in comparison. Fruitless desires of mortal kind! Even you, though still ever present in our mind, are just a divergent path (pointless) that will inevitably fade away with the passing of time (time). We will exist. You will not. We are eternal. (We are eternal…)”
Astoreth folded her arms. “And they who dine on souls know only hunger, mm?”
Anetho stared at her for a moment with almost obsessively violent eyes, before he closed them and smiled coyly, speaking in that youthful tone. “And would you believe there is a hell of a libido that requires indulging? Even Old Ones get lonely.”
Astoreth sucked in her breath, and her face darkened. “If you think, for one moment…”
He laughed. “Oh come now, I’m entitled to have a joke. Do you know what solitude can do to a sense of humor (pointless diversions)?” Anetho shrugged. “We’ve no intentions of harming or otherwise soiling your body. I’ve outgrown the need for acts of desperation brought on through bliss in good company. Love is a curious emotion. (An empty pursuit.) Where I love you, I find also a void. So an idea came to us.”
Astoreth’s cheeks reddened a bit at her misstep, and she quirked her head curiously. “An idea?”
“Simply stated, I wanted to watch you squirm. (Pointless diversions…) You’re quite the imbecile, at times. How I adore that! How’s the husband?”
Astoreth glared at him. She’d almost forgotten how endlessly frustrating the man could be. “Oh, he’s an ex-husband, but aside from that he’s likely fine. I’m engaged again, though I don’t know if it matters to you much what an imbecile does.”
Anetho chuckled again, and the tendrils twisted about each other, as if sharing in his delight. “Alas, yours is quite the life of infidelity and wealth. Who am I to step in that? Who’s the new unfortunate soul?” He cackled. “No, I know. Our favorite ‘west wind’?”
“That would be the one.”
“Oh dear.” Anetho pressed his fingers to his lips. “And here we were so hungry…!”
Astoreth sneered, looking him up and down. “Sorry. I don’t do sea squids.”
“I sincerely hope you haven’t made too many arrangements. Certain souls shared in the company of many taste… exquisite.”
He seemed to reach for her, and Astoreth braced herself for a counterattack… but then Anetho cackled and leapt backwards from the cliff. The next moment he had faded away, and she was alone.
Alone, and discomfited. Was it but last week she had told Westel that she wished Anetho were here, so that he might enlighten Kuvasei as to the dangers she faced on her latest reckless path? Even she had never expected that he would go this far. Not that she had ever expected him to reform or recover – not Anetho Dawnpride, not in a million years – but she had always thought it far more likely that he would light himself up like an Elune candle, and go out in a blaze worthy of a warlock and magister of his prowess… if the sickness that had wracked his body when last she saw him didn’t end him first. But pacts with servants of the Old Gods? Had he gone mad? How could he have become so desperate? She knew he agonized over his state… but what could be worth the bargain he had made? How much of who (or what) she had just faced was Anetho, and how much was this other… thing? Was she safe? Could he be saved?
…should he be saved?
Astoreth sighed and began to walk. She had about an hour’s journey to Camp Mojache, and a lot to think about.