As of today I have only six weeks to go.
Lately I feel like I’ve been on an emotional rocket coaster ride, up one minute and down the next. I know intellectually that part of it is hormones. But part of it is not.
It’s not the pregnancy I mind; outside of the vomiting and aching and inability to rise to a standing position from a fluffy couch unassisted, it’s not an unpleasant state – and of course the end result is more than worth even the unpleasant parts. It’s that I am thoroughly unaccustomed to “staying home where it’s safe” while those I care for are in danger. It’s not that I do not know how smart it is, or how right it is; I know that my most important role at the moment is mother, and I must do what is best for the children I carry. I just hate being unable to act. I tried for awhile to find some way to aid my friends and comrades from behind the scenes, but most of those attempts have been thwarted in some fashion or another — the final nail was pounded into the coffin of my last attempt when I somehow landed on a Kor’kron terrorist watch list. Since then I’ve been more or less bound to home, with little to do but sew and worry, and it’s driving me slowly insane.
Meanwhile Westel is back on the front – on the Isle of Thunder currently – and it truly is the best thing for him. A friend commented on the oddity of my being happier with him off fighting than home, but truthfully he handles ‘being home where it’s safe’ even worse than I do. I watched him during those months where he was unemployed, pacing the house like a caged tiger, slowly strangling in his confinement, and it was a terrible thing to see. Westel needs the bow like most men need water, and I would rather have him vibrant and whole – though it means seeing him less, and even at the risk of losing him entirely – than watch him become an empty shell of his true self.
He’s still seeing the therapist the Farstriders insisted upon. He tells me next to nothing about it. I know he considers the goblin he is seeing to be a quack and a fraud, but when he does tell me what the therapist says I have to admit that some of it makes sense. Admit it to myself, at least.
The children are growing well. Anais and Laurelia are both flourishing like wild blossoms in the lush forest where we’ve made our temporary home; they spend all day exploring the tall grasses and brush and trees, splashing in the creek and watching for wild animals. Sometimes I take a book to the creek to watch them; sometimes when my back and feet are aching I simply keep a window open so I can see their little heads and hear their chatter and laughter while I rest. It is peaceful and safe where we are and I have no fear of any harm coming to them greater than a bee sting. Meanwhile our two as-yet-unnamed additions keep me awake most nights with seemingly endless kicking and turning – and between the four I have the most disconcerting feeling most days of being completely exhausted despite getting absolutely nothing practical done.
Kuvasei as usual is her own special case. She’s becoming more independent by the day – which is the best possible thing that could happen at her age. But it leaves us in sort of an awkward place. I am still her mother, I expect to always be her mother, and frankly sometimes she still needs me as her mother. But we also share many of the same friends and (increasingly) peers and… it has led to some unfortunate and awkward situations. We muddle through.
She is yet engaged to Anetho Dawnpride. I am somewhat surprised that this has not fallen apart. I thought Westel was delirious – or worse, ensorcelled – when he came home from his meeting with the Red Magister decreeing that he had changed his mind and approved of the marriage after all. But so it is. I haven’t had much of a chance to actually talk to Anetho about it – I’ve barely seen him outside of him crashing my baby shower. He does give marvelous gifts.
Aside from the Luminiars I’ve not heard from many of Nocturne in some time. This is unsurprising, truly; given the numbers of trolls in our ranks, even most of our tuskless members have been joining their brethren-in-spirit in the Barrens rebellion.
Six weeks to go. Only six weeks. Then I’ll still have compelling and restrictive obligations of course, in the form of two new little Firewings – but they’ll be different obligations, and I’ll be able to at least start getting my life back.
I can hardly wait.
“Oooh, what was that?” Astoreth purred. “I couldn’t quite hear you, boy.”
She daintily stepped back, removing her silken slipper from the boy’s throat, and he rolled over and coughed, the sound echoing off the walls of the little garden courtyard. “I’ve got a name, you know,” he hacked, wincing.
Astoreth rolled her eyes and sighed. “Of course you’ve got a name. Everything’s got a name– even if it’s a stupid name like ‘Stavier’. That’s basic onomastics. Child’s play. But you don’t hear me calling the chair ‘Ilirien’ or my lipstick ‘Lanaliel’, and they don’t complain about it.”
Stavier Luminiar glared at his smirking tormentor as he dragged himself back to his feet. “I’m a man, Astoreth,” he snarled at her. “I’m not one of your damned toys!”
“Oh now, see, that’s where we’re going to have problems,” Astoreth said with feigned dismay, sashaying closer to him again. He was older and taller, but she leaned forward, her straight black hair framing her porcelain face, and glared up at him with eyes the color of sapphires. “And what you need to learn, boy,” she said sweetly, “ is that just because my father decided to pick you up out of that filthy mess you’d gotten yourself into, clean you up and make a showpiece of you, that doesn’t mean you have rights. Speaking of which….” She slapped Stavier across the face, hard enough to turn his head. “That’s Lady Duskflame to you,” she hissed as he closed his eyes in burning anger. “Or don’t you remember who’s in charge around here when my father’s away, boy?”
“Rioghan’s in charge,” answered a clear voice behind the two of them. “And our mother is Lady Duskflame.”
The dark-haired adolescent turned and frowned at her younger sister, who stood in the doorway of the courtyard with her arms folded over a heavily padded chestpiece, her blond hair in braids. “Mother and Rioghan aren’t here either, Cearalaith,” the elder girl snapped. “What are you doing here? And in those ridiculous clothes?”
“And when Ree’s not here, it’s Beirgin and Carragan,” Cearalaith continued calmly.
“They’re busy with their archery training.”
“So?” Cearalaith shrugged.
“So I’m in charge!”Astoreth snarled, turning and taking several steps towards the younger girl. “Now what are you doing here?!”
“I have a lesson with Stavier,” Cearalaith replied simply. “Father arranged it before he left.”
Astoreth folded her arms and sneered at her sister. “That’s absurd!”
The younger girl shrugged again. “Father says I need to learn self-defense. He said Stavier is a good teacher.”
Astoreth scowled. “Get your lesson with another of the guard.”
“Nope. Father said Stavier Luminiar. So here I am, and you’re making us late.”
“I am rescheduling you.”
“You are not!”
“Consider it done, Cear. Now get out of here.”
Cearalaith stamped her foot. “You’re not the boss of us, Asty!”
“Like hell I’m not!” she screamed. “When Father’s not here I am the boss of you, Cearalaith, and I am certainly the boss of an upstart piece of street trash like–”
Astoreth turned around to point menacingly at Stavier, and found herself waving at an empty courtyard. She blinked. She looked left – right – behind her – the boy had vanished, leaving no indication of where he had gone. Both gates leading out of the little yard were closed, though neither was locked. Cearalaith giggled, and Astoreth whirled back. “You did this on purpose!” she snapped.
“Did what?” Cearalaith asked innocently, snickering.
“I’m telling Father!”Astoreth screeched, storming across the courtyard towards one of the exit gates. She hesitated a few feet in front of it, looking at the other, evidently weighing which direction he might have gone.
“Telling him what, that you lost his newest guardsman?” Cearalaith laughed, but her sister only scowled as she flung open the gate in front of her, swept through and slammed it closed behind her. Cearalaith stood in the courtyard listening to Astoreth’s footsteps grow fainter and fainter down the cobblestone path until they could no longer be heard, and then she smiled.
“She’s gone,” Cearalaith called softly. “You can come down now.”
In reply there came a rustle from the apple tree in the center of the courtyard, and a moment later Stavier dropped down to the grass. He dusted himself off, walking towards Cearalaith. “I feel like a coward hiding from her,” he confided to the younger girl.
“Don’t,” Cearalaith said. “She’s mean to you. And you can’t hit her back, or do anything else about it. Getting out of the way is the smartest thing.”
He grumbled. “I don’t want her taking it out on you.”
Cearalaith smiled. “She won’t. But she’s going to be even madder at you now. Don’t let her catch you alone for a week or two, okay? Or the twins. She’s probably on her way to tell them you did something horrible and you know they’ll jump on any excuse.”
Stavier sighed and nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
Cearalaith frowned up at him. “I’m sorry they’re so mean to you. Are you sorry you came here?”
The young man broke into one of his rare grins. “As opposed to what, being in prison?” He shook his head. “Your father gave me a second chance – and Alezandra, too. I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head, three meals a day and a future that doesn’t end at the gallows. And there’s nothing your brothers and sister can dish out that I can’t handle.” His upper lip twitched. “If they ever touch Aly, though…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Cearalaith smirked and shook her head. “They give Alezandra a wide berth. Beirgin thinks it’s funny to claim she’s got rabies, but that’s just because he doesn’t want to admit she terrifies him. Her and that lynx of hers.” She sighed. “They’re just cowards. They pick on you because they know you’re a good person. They think it’s a weakness. They’re wrong.”
Stavier shook his head. “I’m not a good person,” he muttered.
Cearalaith smiled at him. “You’re good enough for me,” she declared. “And better than you know, anyway. But I still need to have my lesson, or Father will be cross with us. Let’s head to the west side of the house? They’re replanting over there, so Ast and the twins probably won’t think to look for us there.”
Stavier nodded. “I’ll bring the gear. And, uh, Cearalaith?” He rubbed his neck, suddenly nervous. “Thanks for… uh, thanks. For everything.”
Cearalaith grinned. “You’d have done the same for me.”
“I owe you,” he added emphatically.
“No you don’t,” she laughed.
“I do,” he insisted. “Your father’s been good to me, but… of everyone here, you’ve been the nicest. I swear I will repay you someday, for all your kindness.”
He was so sincere, she couldn’t help but smile at him. “Maybe you will,” she allowed. “But come on now, let’s go.”
The corner bistro was quiet this morning, and practically empty save for the two elves at a table on the patio: a dark-haired noblewoman in rich silks, and golden-haired holy warrior in simple but functional linen. They stared at each other for several long moments before one finally broke the silence.
“You wanted to see me,” Astoreth said in even tones.
Cearalaith sighed and pushed her water glass around. “Yeah,” she admitted. “I needed to tell you something.”
Astoreth sat up. “I’m listening,” she said.
Her sister sighed again, a small huffing sound. “I needed to tell you… it’s not working out between me and Corael. We’ve decided it would be best to go our separate ways.”
Astoreth blinked and frowned, suddenly uncertain of herself. Why tell me? she wanted to ask, but she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to hear the answer. “I’m – I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.
Cearalaith nodded her head; an acknowledgement that she had heard, nothing more. “I needed to tell you… it’s not because of what happened. We’re not even angry. We still get along and all, we just…” She looked from the glass on the table up to the sky without meeting Astoreth’s eyes along the way. “We’re just too different. We were apart so long – we’re practically strangers to each other. And I’m not happy sharing my home with a stranger.”
“That… makes sense,” Astoreth said, still wary.
“So,” Cearalaith continued, “I’m telling you, because you, and Firewing, and Stavier, and Kuvasei, all at different points offered to murder him in creative ways if he broke my heart. I’m telling you he didn’t break my heart.”
Astoreth smiled softly. “I know you are strong.”
“Stronger than you know, Astoreth,” Cearalaith replied quickly, firmly. “Stronger than you ever knew.”
“Yes,” Astoreth agreed evenly. “Yes, you… you truly are.”
Cearalaith nodded, her lips pursed, and silence fell over the table again. After several moments she sighed and spoke again. “This changes nothing else.”
“No. I didn’t expect it would.”
“Then I’ll go.” Cearalaith stood, dropping a few coins on the table for her untouched sandwich.
“Don’t –” Astoreth caught herself, biting her lip.
Cearalaith blinked at her. “Don’t… what?”
Don’t go. I miss you. Let’s talk. “Don’t… don’t bother paying,” Astoreth said. “I’ll cover it. You didn’t even eat.”
“I’ll pay my share.”
“I can afford it.”
“I know you can. So can I.”
“On an Argent’s salary?” Astoreth sneered.
Cearalaith scowled back. “Oh, this again, is it? I can pay for my own damned sandwich, Astoreth.”
“At least take it to go.”
“ASTORETH!” Cearalaith glared at her.
“It’s probably delicious!” Astoreth snapped, setting her jaw and matching her sister’s glare with one of her own.
They stared at each other for several moments in stalemate.
“You are fucking absurd,” Cearalaith growled, snatching the sandwich from the plate. “This changes nothing. You’re not my mother; you’re barely my sister. You don’t have my best interests at heart and I am not your friend. We’ll play nice in front of Kuvasei and our friends and family, and we’ll keep each other informed of things, and that’s it, Astoreth.”
Cearalaith spun on her heel and marched towards the door. Astoreth heaved a sigh and stared down at her hands, until her sister’s voice caused her to start and look up again.
“And another thing,” Cearalaith snapped, jabbing her sandwich at Astoreth for emphasis. “Tell Firewing I’d better get a letter, or a notice, or a singing telegram or something when these kids are born. Not hear about it weeks later like with Laurelia.”
Astoreth smirked. “You could tell him yourself, you know,” she said gently.
“Maybe I will!” Cearalaith retorted, and stormed out.
Astoreth watched her go, and continued watching the door for several breaths after Cearalaith had gone.
Then she set back in her chair and, smiling softly, began to eat her lunch.
Lia means well, she really does. But no matter how hard or often I try I cannot talk to the woman. I know she wants to help… but every time I attempt to engage her in conversation about non-superficial things I walk away feeling worse than I did before. Part of it, I think, is that she gets an idea in her head about how I must feel, and then she insists on responding to that idea instead of listening and responding to how I actually feel. Then I have to argue and re-explain, and she gets frustrated that I am not listening to her, and next thing I know we’re both yelling at each other; she’s upset that I don’t appreciate her and I’m upset that I’ve gone from being merely frustrated or confused to frustrated or confused and misunderstood and set upon for not having the “right” feelings, and it’s rage-inducing and miserable all at the same time.
A recent example: somehow she’d heard (or deduced) that Westel and I have been talking about our relationship again, and that we’d again settled on monogamy. It wasn’t an easy decision and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, but I’m dealing and it will get easier. When Lia broached the topic with me, ostensibly looking to give me a sympathetic ear, I took a chance and confided in her that one of the big issues I’m still wrangling with is that I’m making this decision about how to live my life for a man. I’m changing who I am and adapting my expectations for a relationship to suit a man. There’s other factors involved in it as well, of course; I do think it’s the less terrible of two uncomfortable choices, given that monogamy hurts me a lot less than the idea of polyamory seems to hurt Westel, and there is nothing wrong and everything right about doing what is best to promote a healthy partnership with a worthwhile partner. But there’s still that little voice screaming that I’m betraying myself by changing for someone else – anyone else, really, but especially someone I’m sleeping with – and that voice bothers me.
Lia’s response? All change is painful, but as you grow up sometimes you learn that change is for the best. Sticking with one thing forever leads to stagnation and death of the soul.
What? What? My problem isn’t change, my problem lies in reconciling with the reasons why I’m making this particular change. I don’t mind change; I live for bloody change. Bloody hell, if I wanted to stick with the same thing forever I’d have been inclined to monogamy from the get-go and I wouldn’t be having this thrice-bedamned quandary! Her response to my explanation of my situation was well-rehearsed and recited and had nothing to do with my actual problem.
And it’s that moment of realizing that she never really wanted to hear what I had to say at all, she only wanted the opportunity to deliver her pre-prepared speech to me so she can feel soooo adult and mature (wasn’t I the one counseling her through relationship issues a few months ago?) and fucking helpful, when I really lose my cool. Not only am I struggling with deep and painful issues of who I am and how I define myself and my own self-worth, but oh right, just in case I forgot, here’s a handy reminder that the people who are among my closest friends don’t actually care about me so much as what I can do for them – and even though in Lia’s case that’s very little, it doesn’t change anything.
As Stavier is someone on whom I rely frequently and heavily I would like to be able to get along with his lady wife. Besides that, I actually do like Liealia when we’re not dealing with matters of my emotions. But she seems to think she’s being a terrible friend if she does not get in my business, and that I’m a terrible friend if I don’t let her in my business, and her insistence on perpetually misunderstanding/ misappropriating my business is going to be the death of one of us eventually.
And by one of us, I mean her.
How are you? I am fine. I am moving to a house in Pandaria!!! with Daddy and Mommy Ast and LaLa and Koosv Kusa Kuavv my other sister. It’s just for a few months while Daddy is out there all the time so he can come home at nights. There is lots of fighting in Pandaria but where we are going is safe and Mommy says I will get to see funny dragons. I do not know how we would take you with us and I do not want you to be lonely so I guess it is good that you are gone.
I miss you. I was mad at first that you left without saying goodbye but I am not mad anymore. Mommy says ghosts do not belong with us and that you are where you belong now. I hope you are happy there and not sad or scared anymore. It made me sad when you were so scared. Now I am sad that you are gone but I am happy for you. I asked Mommy if your mom and dad might be where you are and she said maybe. I hope they are. Maybe they have funny dragons where you are too. That would be neat.
Mommy gave me the flute you left for me. It is very pretty and I love it thank you!!! I can not play it very well but I can make some noise with it and Mommy says she knows a person who can teach me to play actual songs on it. I hope the person is a troll like you and can teach me a song you would like. I am keeping it next to my knife because I know you liked that too.
I wish I could come visit you but since I can not do that Mommy promised to use her magic to send you this letter. Maybe there is a person where you are who has magic and can send one back? I would like that. Mommy does not think that can happen but she did not even think you were REAL so I think maybe it can. Anyway Mommy says she will send all the letters for me that I want so I can write you any time I get lonely or sad and I am going to do that even if you do not write me back.
You are a good friend Jak and I am glad I met you. I hope you do not forget me where you are. I will never ever ever EVER forget you.
Love your friend,
Anais Hollyfield Firewing
* * * * *
Astoreth hated lying to Anais.
But what else could she have done? The child wouldn’t understand. The child still didn’t understand – she kept asking whether Jak was going to be okay, if he was happy, if there were other children where he was, if she could go visit him. When in desperation Astoreth suggested writing her lost friend a letter Anais had pounced on the idea… and it seemed to be a good choice, in the end; almost as soon as she had handed Astoreth the little note in its lavender envelope (with TO JAK carefully scribed on the front in childish hand) Anais bolted outside to play cheerfully for the first time in days. But now, looking over the heartfelt letter with furrowed brow, Astoreth wondered whether her other choices had been so wise.
Engaging the Vrykul mystic who had come for the little ghost boy absolutely would have been foolish. Anything powerful enough to get through the wards on Astoreth’s sanctum was an entity she did not want to tangle with on a lark, not with Laurelia sleeping yards away and Anais curled up anxiously in her own bed not much farther away. The caller had already captured the little shade besides, with magics unfamiliar to Astoreth; the likelihood that she would have been able to unwork them to free the boy’s spirit was small… and for that matter, from what the Vrykul woman said, Jak wasn’t a little boy at all, but a grown troll who was victim to a botched resurrection. There likely wasn’t anything of substance there to free. Even oblivion might have been a blessing to such a creature as the mystic described.
…but what if the witch had been lying? This was a question that had troubled Astoreth. She had accepted the woman’s explanation and her seeming contentment to depart again with few questions once she had confirmed that the mystic had no intention of returning. Had her reluctance to hinder the Vrykul in her passage resulted in the damnation of an innocent child to some unknown torment?
No, she decided. The creature was not a child; it merely held the shape of one. And her duty to two real and living children trumped any imaginary obligation to one who was, at the very least, likely many years dead. If letting a powerful willworker leave her home with one errant spirit meant the witch did not turn her eyes to the two little girls in Astoreth’s care, that was certainly for the best.
Astoreth frowned as a thought occurred to her. The Guardians, the mystic had called her and Westel. Astoreth had assumed the woman meant Anais’ guardians. But then the witch didn’t seem to know of or care about Anais at all. What then had she meant? Ast and West hadn’t known of – well, hadn’t admitted to Jak’s existence before that night. Guardians of whom, or what? Were they meant to guard the little spirit?
If so, Astoreth realized, it was moot now. Still, she’d guarded Anais from a spirit-snatching witch the night Jak was taken. Today she had to protect Anais from the harsh truth of the world, for at least a while longer.
Carefully Astoreth ran her fingers along the delicate runes in the prescribed order to unlock her sanctum. She entered in a smooth motion, turning to immediately lock the door behind her again before proceeding to the bookshelves at the far end. She reached up high, scanning the shelves until she found the one she wanted – a book not of spells or rituals, but of old Thalassian fairy tales; the cover and pages themselves were old and worn, which was why it had been relegated to this location while her own children received newer editions.
She flipped through the pages to find some of Anais’ favorite stories, and ended up tucking the little note between Strawberry-Hair and the Three Green Trolls and Jack the Giant-Killer. Then she replaced the book on her shelf and departed her sanctum, silently wishing she could hope Jak was happy, too.
Ironic that it was Anetho Dawnpride who prompted me to first bestow the name. I am generally not much one for pet names and sobriquets outside of the common ‘dear’ or ‘darling’, and Westel had just recently told me that he disliked being named my lover while I was married to another, so when Anetho demanded to know who Westel was to me, I responded with the first thing that came to my lips: my truest friend, my staunchest companion, my faithful West Wind.
…come to think of it, Westel broke Anetho’s nose that day too.
Folklore holds that the west wind is mildest and most favorable of the cardinal winds, and this immediately makes it a curious if not entirely inappropriate choice for my husband. Without doubt he is stubborn, opinionated, with a vicious brooding scowl for the world at large –these are not traits most would describe as gentle. But with me he is kind, patient and understanding; with our daughters he is gentle, and his warm crinkling smile is infectious. And he is patient, and he is steadfast, and he does nothing by half-measures. When he loves, he does so fully, and that fire inside him drives him to protect what he loves fiercely. The west wind is associated with spring and flowers – one of Westel’s first gifts to me was not merely a bouquet, but an entire garden he still tends with loving devotion.
Westel and I have argued worse exactly once – and that was less of an argument and more of a hateful screaming match. It ended in us parting company for a torturous few weeks before fate tumbled us back together and we agreed that we did not wish to be parted again. Ever since then we’ve committed to trying to work things through by talking about them – and to prevent problems from occurring by talking about them before they begin. Honesty, forthrightness and communication… such simple concepts.
But it was all simpler then. I could easily tell Westel what I thought without fear of losing him… because I didn’t truly have him, or he me. But sometime around the time he put this ring on my finger, I became acutely aware that I did have him and I could lose him – him, and everything he has come to represent to me. Somehow it was easier for me to accept the idea of losing Westel as inevitable than it was to accept the idea that if I lost him it would be solely and completely my own damn fault.
I nearly lost him these last few weeks, I think… and it would, indeed, have been completely my own damn fault.
Fortunately for me, he is neither a doormat nor unforgiving. And I am willing to own my mistakes and endeavor not to repeat them. We argued, we shouted at each other – he went for his boots when I broke down crying – but ultimately we reaffirmed that he loves me, and I him, and we’re not going to be broken apart by demons or doubts or pride or insecurity. We got ourselves put together in time for Westel’s trial, even, which is another wholly frustrating story. Not wholly mended, perhaps; there is yet work to be done. But we have fought too hard for each other to give up so easily.
I still don’t truly know what I am doing. But I will keep fumbling along the best I can. And every time the west wind breezes through my door, wild and untameable, smelling of spring and earth and flowers, I will be grateful for the warmth he brings to my life.
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.
He knew when he’d been beat. There had only ever been two outcomes – the word retreat held no meaning for him – but defeat itself came as a surprise, and he fought it to the last. He thrashed wildly in his efforts to escape the bonds of fel energy constricting around him, and continued shrieking madly even as an arcane muzzle clamped over his mouth and he was wrestled to the ground. Nothing held him at this point but pure will, the magical energy so close he could smell it – could still taste the power on his tongue mixed with the blood – but he could no longer reach out and take it, and he howled in frustration.
He hated the idea of submission to this, this mortal – his pride railed against it – but he could only be what he was. Mortal or no, power was everything, and she held more than he – even more, it seemed, than the masters she had stolen him from. He strained one more time against his bonds, but they held fast. With one last muffled scream of hatred and humiliation, he lowered his head, and was still.
The room was deathly quiet in the aftermath of the struggle, and as he lay in the circle he listened and felt for those around him. Five mortals: three of lesser power, one of greater age… and her, the one who had challenged and fought and bound him, still kneeling on the ground and panting from exertion. Now that she was so close, now that he could feel her and smell her without the heat of battle between them he was chagrined to realize how small she was, and how soft her flesh. He did not understand how such power could reside in one so fragile… but that was not his to question.
The elder mortal moved from where his stood and made a satisfied noise. “I must say I’m impressed, Astoreth. I sense you have the potential to become one of the most powerful warlocks of this era.”
She snorted in reply, and took to her feet, small shoes scraping softly against the dusty floor with each step. “I bet you say that to all the girls,” she grumbled in a tone inaudible to the other mortals as she knelt near her captive. He heard it, of course. Their tongue was strange, but he understood it well enough. He was incapable of fear, but he wondered what she would do now.
“Kreelum,” she said softly, the first time he’d heard his name spoken by mortal lips; the tone of authority in her voice did little to mask the timbre of youth. “You are mine now, Kreelum. My servant, my guardian, my hound, my hunter, my slave. I am not inclined to be cruel to those who serve me, but neither will I hesitate to remind you of your place. Do you understand me, Kreelum?”
A sigh came from the elder mortal in the room. “He’s a beast, Astoreth, he can’t understand you.”
Stupid mortals. She was young, but smarter than many. He gave a snort and a whine. He understood.
She reached forward and placed a hand along his neck, and Kreelum felt the bands of magic release him. He scrambled to his feet, and at a snap of her delicate fingers he found his way to her side. She lowered her hand to him, and Kreelum lifted his head to meet it. He found he liked the way her hand felt as she stroked his quills. Her touch was cool on his skin, but he could sense a rumbling of pain and anger and seething hatred just beneath the surface. He had a vision of this tiny, soft, arrogant, unexpectedly tenacious creature unleashing fiery hell on her enemies… and now, he with her. He grinned, and let his tongue loll out in a way that had as much to do with the thought of sinking his teeth into new foes as it did the spot she had found behind his right tentacle and was presently scratching. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
“I’d keep him muzzled for awhile,” the stupid mortal advised, but Kreelum’s new mistress chuckled.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” she answered in a careless tone that Kreelum instantly appreciated. “I am anxious to take him hunting.”
No, he thought, not bad at all.
Astoreth made a conscious decision to completely ignore Stavier Luminiar as his mood suddenly and inexplicably darkened before he stormed off across the bar with murder in his eyes. She was having a good time, and she didn’t really want to know what had so abruptly ruined Stavier’s night lest it ruin hers as well. She deliberately did not turn her head when she heard Stavier’s voice rising, demanding of some unknown party does she know you’re alive.
Westel looked, however, and when he started and swore in shock Astoreth could ignore it no longer. With a sigh of resigned dread she turned and looked as well.
Thankfully she had put her drink down, else she would have dropped it. Dead gods, she thought, her blood running cold, not again.
* * * * *
Only one person besides Cearalaith herself had a key to her apartment these days, and strictly for emergencies; Cear knew there was no circumstance under which Stavier would have entered without knocking or at least announcing his presence. So when the rattling at her door began she did not hesitate to wonder who it might be or why; she immediately leapt into action, vaulting over the back of her couch, bolting down the hall to her room and grabbing her weapons in the dark. She heard the door open as she grasped her sword, and rather than charging back out decided to lay in wait, pressing her back against the wall by her door and listening.
The stranger walked into her living room and paused, presumably looking around, before moving towards her hallway. The intruder did not speak, but the weight of each footfall suggested a form just a little larger than the paladin; most likely a male elf or undead, and judging from the soft chink that accompanied each step, well armored. Cearalaith held her breath and waited, counting the steps as he moved closer.
She timed it perfectly, giving no warning before turning into the door lightning-fast and bashing the intruder in the face and chest with her shield. He was caught completely off-guard, crashing back with a grunt of surprise , his flailing arm knocking over a side table and vase – and once he was down, Cearalaith wasted no time putting her bare foot on his chest and her sword to his throat as he gasped for the wind she’d knocked out of him. “Who are you?!” she demanded. “And what the hell are you doing in my house?!”
“Cear?” he choked.
Cearalaith staggered back.
Oh gods, oh Light, she thought. It’s impossible, she thought. Nothing’s impossible. But how could this be? The Light works in mysterious ways. Where has he been? Why do I care? This can’t be real. Why would he come back? I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kiss him. I’ll kiss him, then kill him. No, other way around. No, this is a dream. I’m dreaming. He’s dead. He left me alone. I’ve been so alone. I want to wake up. I don’t want to wake up.
He half-sat up and looked at her, and a shaft of moonlight illuminated his face, removing most doubt, though it left a million questions.
“Bloody hell, you’ve gotten strong,” Corael said.