A crazy thing, love. It has always made me act rather ridiculously. I suppose it was something I had always sought, even during the years I rejected all emotion. Emotion makes you weak, I used to repeat to myself. If I began to find myself getting attached to someone, I would promptly leave. That changed, as you know. I have told you the story of my growing into a man that can allow that weakness. Some may find that to be my greatest fault. But I know my capacity to love – you, my daughter, my tribe – is in fact my greatest strength. For it is from you, and from them, that I draw my strength to fight and to persevere. For that, Astoreth, I thank you.
Astoreth sat on the floor by her bed, cross-legged like a child, her memory box open beside her. The paper on which the proposal was written was not old, but it was worn and creased with repeated careful readings, and now Astoreth had to be careful not to let her tears mar it as well.
She did not turn her head at the bored sigh behind her, nor at the sound of windchimes that precipitated it. “He lies almost as prettily as you do, does he not?” Szesstra purred as she stretched out on the bed.
“He tells the truth,” Astoreth replied, not looking up.
“All mortal men lie. And all women too. But you know that better than most, I suspect.”
“No one asked you,” Astoreth snapped bitterly. “And what are you doing here? I didn’t call you.”
“Did you not?” the demoness replied, all wide-eyed innocence. “My violet vainglory, I was certain I heard your cry for help. Your plea to be released from this pain.” She rolled over on the bed, leaning over the edge to grin at Astoreth enticingly. “I know what you want,” she whispered. “I know how you long for soothing surcease from this self-inflicted suffering. And I can give it to you.”
“And more than that besides,” she purred. “I know what else you seek, though you squirrel your desires away from yourself almost as easily as you hide them from your diligent prowler.” The demoness grinned wickedly, almost hungrily. “You have your cake, as you say, but I see you longing for bites of others. You deprive yourself needlessly, darkfire child. I can slake your thirst and find many morsels to sate your hunger. You only need ask.”
“Stop it. Whatever you’re offering, I want none of it. I don’t need you.”
Szesstra laughed. “Is that what you said to the scarlet magister? No wonder he wasn’t convinced! Oh Anetho,” Szesstra sang in an eerily accurate imitation of Astoreth’s own voice, swooning on the bed like the distraught heroine of a paperback romance. “Oh I can’t, I’m maaaaarried! Oh, don’t, stop! Don’t stop, don’t stop!” She shrieked with laughter.
Instantly Astoreth was on her feet, her hands rising up in a swell of shadow and fire as she screamed and blasted the bed where Szesstra had been lounging a split second before. Feathers spun in a flurry around the warlock as the demoness appeared behind her, still grinning. “And you still have not told your blackwolf what truly happened that night.” Astoreth swung gracelessly, and the demoness dodged without effort. “Tsk tsk.”
“I did tell him,” Astoreth shot back. “I told him that I let Anetho kiss me, and I pled his forgiveness.”
“Let him kiss you!” she tittered. “Ah, but you didn’t tell him where the scarlet magister kissed you. Nor how you urged him on, nor where his bloodfire hands roamed.”
“Don’t you dare call me a liar!” Astoreth shrieked. “You! Don’t you dare, you – you queen of lies!” She spun around and fired another bolt of shadowfire at the demoness, but Szesstra had blinked across the room again, and the grin that spread across her face could not have gleamed brighter.
“Queen of lies, you call me,” Szesstra snarled in delight, “but truths have I only ever spoken. Carefully selected truths at that; your favorite kind. Even your blackwolf knows that, knows how preciously you covet your portwine secrets. That was why his fire-eyes burned you so – for though he had asked to hear all, he knew you incapable of giving it.”
“Westel didn’t want to know!” Astoreth had meant to deny the charge, but the truth was faster on her lips, and it made her eyes burn. “He… he didn’t. The whole time I was trying to tell him, West just wanted me to stop. Stop talking, just stop, just… just shut up! Shut up, so he could get to the part where he forgave me and we moved on. So I did. I stopped.” She glared at Szesstra. “Don’t you tell me that was wrong.”
“Do I have to?” she grinned.
“He forgave me.”
“He forgave you for being a victim, which he and you both know requires no forgiveness. One would think he might wonder at the intensity of your anguish and insistence on your own guilt with regard to the tale you spun him, and take note of the inexplicable imbalance between them. But perhaps he is an idiot, and a blind fool.” Szesstra grinned her shark-toothed grin again. “Or perhaps you did give him what he thinks he wants. Such a good little wife you are.”
“I gave him what he wanted. Not what he said he wanted, or what he thought he wanted, what he actually wanted.”
“His lips said one thing and his body another?” Szesstra chortled derisively. “Even your besotted scarlet magister knew better than to trot out that old line. And you gave him ample opportunity.”
Astoreth turned her back on the demoness in disgust – and gasped in dismay at the sight of her memory box overturned, and its contents scattered across the floor, half-awash in feathers from the ruined mattress. She dropped to her knees and began scrabbling to collect the pieces – old letters, a lock of Laurelia’s hair, an old and ornate dagger, an ice-cold coin on a slender gold chain, the sketches Westel had made of her by the pond, and…
She looked up at the demoness with renewed hatred. “Where’s my ring?”
Szesstra lounged in the pile of feathers that had once been a bed and examined her nails with disinterest. “On your hand.”
“My other ring. Westel’s ring – his father’s ring, the one West gave to me when we were first courting.”
“My darling darkfire child, however should I know? This is a glorious disaster of your own furious making, and none of mine.” The demoness chuckled to herself and rolled over to languidly observe the warlock scrabbling on all fours to find her lost jewelry. “Do you know what I want to know, sweet shadowscribe?”
Astoreth gritted her teeth. “I don’t care.”
“What I want to know,” Szesstra continued merrily, “is why you do not simply do as you wish. Take what you wish, because you can. And offer neither explanations nor apologies for it.”
“That’s not who I am,” Astoreth sighed, lifting up the bedskirt to peer underneath.
“You may lie to yourself, little lovely,” the demoness purred. “And your suns and wolves and magisters may follow gladly at your heels. But do not think me so easily led astray. The hearts and minds of you and your kind are as a ripe and ready feast to one such as I, with every morsel for my taking.”
Astoreth sighed again, putting her hands on her knees. “That’s not who I am anymore.”
“But it is,” the demoness insisted. “The zhevra does not change her stripes. You may scrub your hands pale, but the scent of blood will still remain; you may drape yourself in virgin white but it will not change the color of your soul. You want to do these things, your very nature cries for them – but you hold back. Why?”
“I’m not holding back. I’ve changed.”
“You are holding back, and you have changed, but not in the way you think!” Szesstra grinned at the woman. “This simpering, weeping dedication to compromise and compensation is unbecoming. An example: not so many days past, your blackwolf offered you the freedom you had foolishly forsaken. You had him withering in your grasp. He would have done anything for you, anything to hear sweet words fall from your lips to his ears again, anything to turn your tears to smiles. And you refrained, and it wasn’t for love.”
“It certainly was!”Astoreth said, taken aback. “In a relationship based on equality and –”
“Oh do not even begin with that ridiculous prattle,” Szesstra cut her off. “Must I tell you again? We both know why you demurred.”
The warlock frowned petulantly. “I wanted him to come to such a decision while he was calm and sober. That’s fair, that’s –”
“You didn’t do it to be fair,” the demoness purred. “Not for love, nor for respect. You did it out of pride. You did it so you could compliment yourself for your marvelous magnamity, and to prolong the pleasure of listening to him grovel for you. And what did this gain you?” She had leaned close as they spoke, and now she snatched up Astoreth’s left wrist. “The rules of your imprisonment do not change. You yet wear the blackwolf’s collars, and you pretend to conduct yourself by his laws.”
Astoreth yanked her hand back. “If I do, I do so by choice. And there’s no pretending about it.”
“No pretending?” she sneered. “Then what of the desires you shared with the scarlet magister? What of the looks you cast the shielded lantern? What of those whom you decline to touch, lest they hear from your fingers the salacious thought your sewn-tight lips will not let fly?”
“I made a promise,” Astoreth set her jaw. “And I keep my promises.”
“Absurdly and recently so,” the demoness concurred in scathing tone. “And strangely consistently for one whose allegiances once changed with the wind from the Ghostlands. Yet I’ve noticed something, my violet vainglory.” She leaned in to look Astoreth closely. “Your record in promise-keeping cleaned up dramatically and very suddenly two springs past – at about the same time the blackwolf gave you his Name.” She smirked. “Hard choices are easier when alternatives are denied; you know this as well as any. Honesty is simpler when falsehood is impossible. You remain faithful to your blackwolf in word and deed to ward off his displeasure – but would your choice be different if you did not know he would see through any veil you thought to wear?” The smirk became a wicked smile. “Are you truly reluctant to betray him… or merely afraid you’ll get caught?”
Astoreth said nothing.
“He does not deserve to command you,” Szesstra said in low tones. “And you know this. You do not even respect him enough to confront him openly. You refuse to test him, for fear he will fail. He does not challenge you, nor you him. He is an ill—”
Astoreth’s hand flew before she could think, and Szesstra’s head snapped to the right. “That’s enough,” Astoreth seethed. “I love Westel, and I will not tolerate any more of these insults and lies and accusations! Not from you!”
The demoness laughed, a deep, rumbling, dangerous sound. “Such a lovely little liar… and of course you lie the sweetest to yourself.” She opened her eyes a slit then, and smiled at the warlock. “You do not love him. You are not capable. You gave up that ability, and that privilege, years ago. It is not in you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Astoreth retorted.
“How long will you keep this up?” Szesstra purred. “How long do you intend to play this game of shells and hearts? To pretend yourself a lovely innocent who was overwrought by the world; let the brightest of silver suns and most feral of black wolves come to your gallant aid; dance only with the handsomest boys and have the most beautiful babies. You don’t even play with your whole heart! Your grasping hands seek to keep your husband close and your lovers in easy reach, despite every pretty little promise you have made. Is it no wonder your steadfast blackwolf doubts you, when he saw first-hand what you dealt the silver sun? Just look at the pain and agony you’ve caused; the deaths and tortured screams you’ve left in your wake. All in the name of love these days, you say, but in truth for lust, and greed, and pride, as you always have.” She grinned wickedly at Astoreth. “The scarlet magister certainly had your number, didn’t he?”
“I’m done with you. I’m not going to sit here and let you – you, of all people, judge me.” Astoreth stood up, and began stalking towards the door.
“Me, judge you?!” Szesstra laughed, and the next instant she stood between Astoreth and the door, her eyes blazing and her smile wide. “I fear you have been spending too many times in those rooms of court where your magisters so love to play. I am no judge, my violet vainglory; call me instead a devil’s advocate.” She chuckled. “But now, suppose instead we hand this case to a jury of your peers?”
She held up both hands, and snapped her fingers, and instantly the room was full of people.
Astoreth blinked, whirling around to look at them all. “What the hell –?”
Szessta chuckled. “Nine is the sufficient number, yes? Or is it twelve? I can never remember. Let us hear what they have to say.”
Goredis Fireheart glared at Astoreth. “You killed me. You strung me along for political gain, and then you dropped me. It broke my heart – and I was an old man, Astoreth, you knew my heart wasn’t strong. You knew.”
“Your choices were your own,” Astoreth retorted. “And anyway, didn’t I help you?”
“Yes, how did that work out for you?” Talordris Sunblaze leaned against a wall. “Let’s see. You strung me along, teased me – oh, but before that, you ambushed me, murdered me and stuck someone else’s soul in my body.” He suddenly advanced on her the way he had in Northrend, and Astoreth took an involuntary step back. “You fucking bitch, you destroyed my life.”
“I didn’t – but you don’t understand – and then you –”
She bumped into Krystion Shadowthorne, who shrugged at her nonchalantly. “I’ve got to be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing here.” He moved around the bed and sat down to idly sift through Ast’s memory box.
“You took advantage of me!” Candriss sobbed in a corner. “You let him take advantage of me!”
“I did no such thing!” Astoreth snapped back at her. “I only wanted to help!”
“What you consider aid only salts the earth that nothing may grow,” Anetho Dawnpride snarled, between coughs. “You used me – to fill your bed, to feed off my emotions… just to break me apart.”
Krystion peered up at Astoreth, letters from her box in each hand. “Am I even in here?” he asked, his tone hurt. “Didn’t you remember me at all?”
“I died for you,” Bareris Darksworne said, his blue-green eyes radiating pain. “I loved you, and you left me to a fate worse than death. You fucked around on me when I only wanted you. And when I needed you most, you left me for him.”
Cardre Bloodfyre put up her hands and began to back out the door. “Look, this really isn’t my scene,” she said. “You never had time for me anyway. So you all have fun. I’m out.”
“You ruined my marriage,” Corael Dawnbreaker said. “I called you my sister, but you berated me and tormented mercilessly until you needed something from me – and then you took everything I had. Everything she had.”
“You took my daughter from me!” Bareris said.
Astoreth looked around in confusion as the collection of former friends and lovers closed in around her. “I’m – I’m sorry,” she gasped, backing up against a wall.
“No you’re not,” Anetho smirked. “No more than I ever am.”
“How many of us did you say you loved?” Goredis seethed. “How many of us did you lie to?”
Astoreth heard the scrape of metal as Talordris drew his dagger, and she desperately scanned the room for someone to help. “Stavier!” she screamed.
Stavier Luminiar never moved from where he stood, at ease, by the door, watching. “You knew how I felt,” he said quietly. “And you know what you did.”
“The jury appears to have reached a decision,” Szesstra laughed in Astoreth’s ear, having somehow slipped behind her. Her clawed fingers dug gently, almost lovingly into Astoreth’s shoulders. “They know you for who and what you are. Why do you fight it?” She tilted her head to whisper in her ear, her breath hot on the warlock’s throat. “Or shall I ask, why do you not fight them? You could destroy them, control them, make them love you and fear you. Every. Last. One. The shining knights, the mysterious magisters, the sneak-thieves. You could have them, hurt them, break them, and leave them begging for more. You have done it before, you could do it again.”
“I’m not that person,” Astoreth gasped. “I’m not.”
“Aren’t you now?” Szesstra purred. “I think we’ll let him be the judge of that.” She snapped her fingers, and the mob that had pressed around Astoreth vanished.
Westel stood behind where they had gathered, his eyes fixed on Astoreth’s face.
She stared back at him, helplessly.
“All things end, my curious kitten,” Szesstra sighed as she circled around Astoreth, her hooves clicking softly on the hardwood floors. “All truths and illusions come to dust. All lives and memories will wash away. All loves, all hatreds, all things.” She smiled at Astoreth. “Well, most things. I am immortal. You could be like me, dear darling darkfire child, if you let go of these silly trappings and strings and let me help you. Such glorious works we could make. Marble monuments and robust dynasties – a legacy for the ages – creations that will last! Unlike everything here on Azeroth, which eventually falls…”
Astoreth became aware that she was holding something in her hand. She lifted up her fist and opened it to reveal Westel’s silver ring on her palm. The light from the window highlighted the engraving: APART.
“You ache because you care,” the demoness rumbled. “I can take it away. Love is such a small price to pay for peace, darling darkfire. What do those such as we require it for, anyway? It makes one weak, makes one act ridiculously – as you have today. Give up this silly game, lovely. Say the word, and you will never have to feel this pain again. And you will be beautiful, and terrible, and we will work wonders.”
Astoreth said nothing.
Szesstra sighed, and rubbed at her temple. “Well, the offer remains open, sweet drowningchild. Think on the cost, and you may change your mind. Remember, you were destined to lose it anyway.”
Astoreth stood there in silence as Szesstra walked past Westel, smirking. “Do not think I have forgotten you, little prowler, little black wolf with your eyes like fire,” the demoness purred to the ranger. “You have seen enough for tonight, I believe. But I have things that you need and desire as well, souls to share and tales to tell, and I suspect I shall be seeing you again soon.”
Astoreth looked up and clenched her fists again. “You leave him alone, you fucking –”
“You think to protect him from me?” Szesstra laughed. “The scarlet magister has told you of his fate. If the Isle does not take him, I certainly will. All the while you cannot protect his favorite bedsheets.”
Astoreth gasped in sudden realization and horror, her eyes going wide as she turned to the ruined bed –
– and woke with a start, her hands clenching unruined green silken bedsheets as she lay on a wholly intact mattress.
She took a moment to breathe. Her room was empty. Her box was safe under the bed, and she knew the ring would be inside. Westel lay beside her, perfectly quiet.
“Westel,” she said softly.
He turned away.