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As Ærtemis walked, she heard Mallory approaching from behind. 

“Hey.”

Ærtemis turned, her eyes glowing from under her hood, her frost-designed cloak   almost around her instead of simply down her back.

“…Well, I finished showing Robin around… I still can’t believe you really saw that place…”

“I remembered the moondial when you talked about it,” Ærtemis answered. “Little else, but it was a beautiful image.”

Mallory tried to envision it. “Hmm. If I could see it, I imagine it would look…haunting. Beautiful but sad, in a way.” She strolled up beside Ærtemis to walk with her.

“The fragment I have of a memory… It wasn’t sad, but it was beautiful… The wardens don’t let me forget my status here, when I am in the temple…though something there draws me in anyway.”

Mallory looked up into the trees, her hands folded behind her as she walked. “Do you think you were a priestess in your early days? Before becoming a Warden?” She chuckled. “Kinda makes me wonder what teenage Ærtemis was like, actually!”

“I doubt it. E’lune was followed devoutly by the Wardens and the rest of the population alike… She still is.”

She shrugged at the idea of her as a teenager. “I just know something draws me to the Temple…and the Wardens are both particularly hostile in that place, and it is particularly bothersome to me that they are.” She shook her head, rather sadly, seeming to fade a bit into her cloak. “I don’t know why, but it saddens me.”

Mallory walked in silence for a moment. “Yeah… Me too.”

“I’ve not been inside but a handful of times, really, either. It is… haunting… in there.”

A long awkward pause, at last broken by Mallory. “Earlier… When we were talking with Robin, you said torture was….beyond me, or something.” She looked down at her feet as she walked.

Ærtemis paused, and nodded. “I just can’t see you capable of that level of…”  She gestured, looking for the right word, absently.

“Beyond me,” Mallory repeated. “………..not ‘us.’ Just me.” She immediately looked away, embarrassed. “Never mind. There are some memories you should be trying to remember, and some you should be trying to bury. I don’t want to bring back one of those you should be burying.”

Ærtemis stopped and looked at Mallory, blue eyes glowing softly from the shadow of her hood. “No, ask. If it bothers you, ask. I do not plan on forgetting anything.” She shifted, and brushed back her hood, looking slightly less foreboding.

Mallory hesitated. “Did you…torture people?” She shook her head before Ærtemis could answer. “No. Scratch that. I don’t believe you did. Not YOU. The Lich King, controlling you, maybe. But not you.”

After hesitating at the initial question, Ærtemis nodded at the continuance.  “Let’s take a seat. I’ve… not wanted to have this conversation with you, but you’ve asked. And I did promise myself that if you asked…”

“Okay…” Mallory felt confused at this sit-down discussion, but searched for a rock to sit on. Finding one, she sat down and drew her knees up near her chin, smoothing out her robe over her feet.

After taking a seat, Ærtemis looked down at her hands for a minute before looking up at Mallory, sitting crosslegged on the ground in front of her friend with Mallory perched slightly above her. The gesture was intentional, but Mallory didn’t seem to notice. “Does remembering that I am a death knight bother you?” she asked.

“No, not usually. It’s…easy to forget. But then you just…said something like that, that reminded me of it. And it just put this…image in my mind.”

Ærtemis sighed and looked down, her hands folded together too neatly in her lap. “What image is that?” Her tone carried the implication that she already had a suspicion.

Mallory hesitated, unsure of the wisdom of going into this discussion. “Some…guy on a…um…torture rack…the stretching ones…and you standing over him with this….like…big evil grin on your face like you’re about to go to work on him.” She looked away again, feeling ashamed.

“…and that bothers you a great deal,” Ærtemis finished. It was a statement, not a question, and Mallory heard a soft creak of armor though Ærtemis hadn’t moved.

“It wasn’t you,” Mallory reiterates softly. “It was just…something I forgot you could have done.”

After a pause… “And if I told you… that that isn’t gone? That I still have that capacity?” A soft creak again, and Ærtemis’ head remained bowed.

Mallory suddenly looked at Ærtemis. “Oh, I know that. This really isn’t a surprise to me or anything. Like I’ve known that that’s the path you were made to walk and I’m okay with that. I just all of a sudden…………..pictured it. Saw it, in a way.”

Still not looking up, and clearly withdrawn into her shell, Ærtemis nodded slightly.  “Mal, I’m going to say this to you, and know it will be true always.   Whatever you choose to ask me, I will answer it honestly.” A pause. “And… I am still capable of that level of vicousness.” Another pause. “I… do not find it conscionable. But the hunger I described, the need I vented the other morning…”

Mallory suddenly remembered. The previous morning she had been awoken by an unfamiliar woman telling her to find Ærtemis near the training dummies north of the traders’ terrace. When Mallory arrived, Ærtemis had completely demolished four dummies and was working on a fifth, a storm of frost and ice all around her. Wardens stood in plain sight as a crowd gathered watching Ærtemis’ relentless yet effortless assault on the unfortunate wooden beams, dismantling them bit by bit, an astonishing display mixed with such calm on her face that she may as well have been carrying on the whole exercise in her sleep. She later discovered that she had been at this for eight hours, in a combat trance of sorts. Mallory suspected that it was left-over rage from the battle with Bairne, which she hadn’t entirely gotten to vent.

She was snapped back to the present as Ærtemis continued. “It is that capacity for thoughtless, almost gleeful bloodlust,” the death knight said. She still did not look up, the location of the creak now clearly her folded hands…as they creaked again from how tightly she must be holding them.

Mallory shook her head at the sight, then hopped to her feet and quickly plopped back down next to Ærtemis instead of across from her. “I know you’re still capable of that. And it’s okay. Whatever the Lich King did to you…that’s what was unconscionable.” She put her hand on Ærtemis’ armored gloves. “But I know you’re capable of much MORE than that, too. Under all that armor is a woman of compassion…which is more than can be said for some who HAVEN’T been through what you’ve gone through. And I never, ever feel safer than when you’re around.”

Ærtemis nodded, seeming to be unable to find words.

Mallory patted Ærtemis’ hand. “Besides… I knew from the first day I met you…after I was done running, that is…when you gave me refuge, I knew that no matter what your life looked like, you were a better person than the man I had just dealt with. He abused and victimized. You offered shelter when you didn’t have to.”

Ærtemis shook a little harder after a moment, her voice shaky. “I’m… sorry, Mal, for not having this conversation with you sooner, but… Can you understand why I wished to keep my monster from you?”

Mallory gripped her friend’s hand softly, certain that she couldn’t feel it through the armor. “You’re not a monster… You’re a well-disciplined warrior… A Night Warden of the Kaldorei…and my friend. There’s no monster to keep back.”

Ærtemis shook her head, but loosened her hands, as if she felt Mallory gripping the one, her armor slightly cool, as it always was to the touch.  “There always is… I just don’t discuss it… and I keep it on a short leash.” A long pause, Ærtemis’ hair was still obscuring her face, as her head bowed a touch lower. “Given the way you ran when we first met, I… never thought you could accept all of that. Not… not as you have…”

“What I saw that day was…the outward appearance. I hadn’t learned about the compassion yet.” She paused and smiled. “But it didn’t take me long. Still… I’m sorry for running.”

Mallory felt a drop of cool water, as if it had come from the nearby lake, land on her hand… and then another… and a moment later, a third…  

“….When did it begin to rain?” Ærtemis’ voice shook as badly as she did.

Mallory choked up. In those words, Ærtemis demonstrated again just how much the Lich King had taken from her and so many others. Whoever it was that said time heals all wounds, Mallory reasoned, must have never been friends with a death knight.

Ærtemis’s shoulders slumped down as she continued… silently sobbing. Most people’s tears came out hot, the temperature of their blood. Of course Ærtemis’ would feel like a cool rainshower…  Ice ran in her veins. She seemed to fold in on herself, her voice barely audible both through the tears, and because she was whispering that softly. “It… isn’t raining… is it?”

Mallory reached her arm around Ærtemis’ shoulder and pulled her close, hugging her tightly. Just over her shoulder, out of Ærtemis’ field of vision, a Night Warden stood in plain sight from the high brush as if to see if her eyes had deceived her, a mix of surprise and empathy on her face. She and Mallory made eye contact. 

“They don’t know you like I do,” Mallory said…quietly, just over a whisper…loud enough that she knew the warden would hear.

The Warden slipped closer by a few paces, apparently not believing her ears either, her stealth clearly forgotten. Ærtemis continued to whisper so softly she was barely audible… “I know why… gratitude, shame… never expected anyone… who did not share my curse… to ever accept me and it as you have… shame, because that hunger… that monster… will always be there… a companion to the ice in my veins…” As she whispered, she leaned into her friend, effectively nestled under Mallory’s chin — completely vunerable, completely broken down. “I… have not cried… in all of my current memory… and I am… sorry… for burdening you with it…”

Mallory holds Ærtemis and lets her own tears flow too as she watches the approaching warden. “It’s not a burden,” she sniffles. “It’s my privilege.”

The Warden slipped further around the pair, moving silently, but stealth forgotten until she eventually faded out a few paces away. Ærtemis’ eyes were closed, frost riming the armor at her toes, but no farther. She made no noise as she cried, she simply shook, breath soft as a whisper gasping, and it continued for a good long while.

When she next spoke, it was a full quarter hour later, still as soft, and still as shaky… “I almost mourn… what may have been… if we had met before…”

Knowing the Warden’s presence, Mallory had accustomed herself by this time to seeing her, and was able to make out her feet, just barely, if she looked carefully enough. She remained silent a moment before answering Ærtemis, curious what she meant about what may have been. “We still would have been friends,” she reassures her.

A miniscule headshake. “Not… not what this one meant… You would have known the Warden… the version without a monster on a short chain.” A slow, very shaky breath. “You would have known… a better welcome… and your friend would have so much less darkness…” She began to pull away, though the tears continued, but Mallory wouldn’t let go.

“I’m not so sure,” Mallory answered with a smile. “Based on my experience with other wardens besides you, I think your welcome has been warmer. You can’t appreciate a beautiful mountain if you haven’t seen a dark valley, I’ve heard… We’ve both had our share of valleys, to say the least.”

Mallory realized she could vaguely make out the outline of the warden’s form, and traced her eyes up the body to where she made out two tiny glints of the glowing eyes. What is she doing? Why this close? Mallory gave the warden a look, not quite forbidding, but somewhere in between “can I help you” and “do you mind?”

The tiny lights vanished, as Ærtemis fought the hold for a moment before giving in to Mallory. Leaning against her, still shaking slightly with tears, a very dry, sardonic chuckle. “I really don’t remember the last time I cried. I haven’t once, since waking to this life.”

Mallory thought of dozens of things to say, but none of them seemed quite right just now. So, she said nothing, and held her unlikely friend close, wondering if Ærtemis could feel her warmth the same way she felt Ærtemis’ cold.

A long minute after the tears finally stopped, another sardonic chuckle.  Her voice still soft, and a trace rough from the long cry…   “Someone, somewhere is making a joke about a warm body and melting ice.”

Mallory chuckled. “I was just thinking that!”

Sitting upright, Ærtemis ran a hand over her face, and snorted. “You’re a rare person, you know that?”

Mallory looked at her friend. “Thanks…so are you. Epic, even.” She grins. “Legendary? …seriously, death knights and wardens are known for being kinda the biggest buttheads around. You’re a member of BOTH – and you’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

Ærtemis outright laughed at that, and looked off to the right, speaking up so her voice would carry. “You hear that, warden? She believes I’m nice, after seeing to my core.” Shaking her head with a further soft chuckle, she looked at Mallory with her faintly blue-glowing eyes. “A variation on something you said, then. The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow. You be the light, I’ll be the long shadow you cast, watching your back.”

Mallory chuckled. “If you insist…but you’d better be ready to be the light if I drop into the shadows… There can be days like that, ya know.”

Another snort, as Ærtemis stretched and rose. “If it comes to that, we’ll see.” She offered Mallory a hand up, which Mallory accepted. “If you’d like, the next time I need to do something like what i did to the dummies the other morning, I’ll invite you to watch.” A pause. “I may well anyway… if only so you can stop me when I am done venting, so i don’t lose track of time again. Eight stinking hours…”

Ærtemis glanced at the Warden again, a trace balefully. “You are to keep the last hour of your observations of me under your helm, got it?” Frost riming a good bit of her armor again as usual, she had regained her composure, and seemed a great deal less haunted than when the entire conversation began. She then turned to Mallory. “I do need to go exercize, actually. It won’t be remotely as destructive as earlier, but you’re welcome to watch.”

As they headed back toward the city of Darnassus in relative silence, Ærtemis said a great many things to her friend, silently.

I knew we were friends. Fel, she’s more like a little sister or a daughter — the distinction between the feelings for either is still a little fuzzy to me. It’s… nice, though it scares me that she can accept the monster within me. I will never forget that it is a monster, either. Even controlled, the things i have done and the things i am driven to do… Letting it loose on the training dummies was much-needed, but showing it to the Wardens was unwise. They were almost hostile to begin with — I suspect the only reason I am under heavy surveillance instead of outright attack by them is the simple fact that Lady Whisperwind has accepted the death knights. Mal… E’lune knows I may never understand why, but I am glad you can accept it all… and remain my friend. I hope you never have to know just how deeply scared I was that this discussion, or you seeing a fragment of that monster, would scare you away.

Author Rann
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