The ship was, as always, glowing softly golden with the radiance of the Light that powered it – the low hum of magic through the floors and walls rang like an eternal, soft hymn that stayed just at the edge of hearing. The Lightforged of the Army of the Light moved with purpose within it; the defeat of the Legion may have brought respite, but it didn’t bring -rest-.
The meeting the day before with Fareehya had gone well – the Lightforged seemed to know Aunne, and she was not unwelcome. Aunne spoke of her desire to brave the Forge, and they worried, and spoke among themselves of the risks, of enabling self-destruction, and more. Aunne, however, just.. stood, impassive and listening, letting them have their say until they started talking in circles, at which point she spoke firmly, in echoing Draenic:
“If you think I do not know the risks, you are foolish. You seek to protect me from myself, as though I were a child playing with forces I do not understand – is this what you need to hear, then? I have been a priestess, a mother, a mate, a horror – I have been lost and alone, and I have experienced loneliness you will never understand. I have spent years locked away in my own mind, and years more learning to become something more whole. In doing so? I have become broken. I have one path forward: through fire and Light. I prefer to face this path with your blessing and friendship, but I will not be turned from it. If my choices are, as they are now, madness or death? I will choose death – but I also say that I have hope, and I have faith. The Light has not forsaken me. I can be whole.”
“I will end in the Light, or I will find a new beginning in it. It is neither your choice to make, nor to approve – you merely need to stand aside.”
The council deliberated for a few moments longer – “Then so be it,” the verdict came. “But you must select another to come with you.”
When Aunne returned to Malien and Maisy, it was with a troubled expression. “I knew I needed that – and I’d forgotten.”
Malien nodded at Aunne in understanding, “You saw it then? Was it as beautiful as m…people told me?” She blinked as she registered the rest of the sentence, “What had you forgotten Mis…” she thought for a moment and corrected herself, “Aunne.”
“.. they won’t let me enter alone.” Aunne sighed, her draenic … frustrated. She dropped to sit on one of the benches in the underbelly of the ship.
Malien gave her a soft smile. Her own Draenic was a tad flustered, clearly nervous to be there, “Well it is a good thing I am here then I suppose. Whatever you will have me do, I am at your service.”
“Malien… this.. could destroy you. I cannot ask that.”
“I had one simple wish. If I died I wanted the Light to do it. Seeing as Miss Moonleaf and Miss Ebonlock are both not pleased with the idea of killing me, perhaps this is my best bet. Besides, I am not letting you go in there to die alone. I trust that you know me better than to believe that.”
Aunne studied her for a long, long moment… then gave in. “I .. am thankful.” She held out her hands to the other undead. “… More than you will ever know.”
Malien awkwardly placed her hands in the other girl’s. “Of course.” She cleared her throat, “As I said, simply tell me where to go and I will follow.”
“Then.. we will go into the Forge. Tonight. It tests … it tests everything. I hope I do not fail you.” Aunne stood smoothly – “You will want your weapons and armor – but nothing else will matter.”
Malien stood with her, trying to hide how nervous she was. She clenched her hands into fists to stop them from shaking and forced a small smile. “I hope I prove useful to you.”
“Malien – it means much that you are here. The rest.. the rest will be what it is.”
The ceremony for the Forge was surprisingly short. A small group of the Lightforged gathered – Aunne was asked if she were certain, and she simply said yes. Then? The Lightforged preparing the ritual looked to Malien, his draenic ringing through the hall: “Aunne’keva seeks to forge a new bond with the Light, choosing to test her devotion, faith, and herself against the Forge. In this, she is allowed one to accompany her, to help her to face the shadows of her own soul. She has asked that you join her in this.”
“You should know, child of Shadow, that as in all things, the Forge is neither safe nor easy. As Aunne’keva is tested, so will you be – and her existence, and likely your own, will rest in your hands. It is a heavy burden – is it one you accept of your own will?”
Malien did not look the elder in the eyes. Her normally cold and angry demeanor melted, then, to something quieter and more nervous, “Yes sir. I do. Miss Aunne has given me hope, something I have not felt in a long time. I can only hope to help her complete her journey.”
“Then so be it.”
A touch of a control, a twist of a staff… And they were gone.
They landed on earth, soft and rich – the air lit as though by luminous starlight, soft and pale. Massive mushrooms towered above them, while bog-striders and sporebats flitted among their ribs and between the great caps that blotted out the sky. The soft light came from everywhere and nowhere – a closer look revealed that it was in the air, and showering down from the mushrooms above: luminous spores. Bright, sluggish water wound between the great stalks, and the sounds of animal life were rife around them.
Draenor. Zangarmarsh – it had to be. No other place was quite like it.
Aunne tilted her head – “… I thought..” Her draenic echoed oddly between the mushrooms, and it .. seemed to startle her.
Malien looked about, confused a moment. She realized where she was and she dropped to her knees, calling out in Common, “No, no, no… we were not supposed to be here!” The sound echoed wildly into the marsh. She composed herself with effort, shakily pushing herself to her feet, muttering, “It is…it is not real. It is…it is just the Test…” She closed her eyes a moment and smelled the air, a look of fear and of longing appearing on her face but not for long. “What…what are we doing here?”
A voice came from everywhere. Nowhere. Maybe within them both.
The only way is forward.
Aunne crouched, to run her fingers over the loamy ground… and then reached out to help Malien up. “I don’t know. But I am here.” In the midst of all of this, it was she that offered comfort, for now. “You are not alone.”
Once Malien was steady, Aunne began moving.. well. Forward. Where else was there to go, save along the narrow strip of earth that wound through the slow-moving water, under the great mushrooms?
Pain is the architect of memory.
“I know this place.” Aunne’s expression slowly grew very grim. “I remember this place.”
“Not…not a great place I assume,” Malien tried to access the landscape, “Do we need to be ready for something?”
The sound of running footsteps and of splashing water echoed from the edge of the path and a pair of Draenei younglings burst from behind one of the great stalks, eyes wide and panicked.
“This way!” Both of the young boys shouted back into the shadows, then turned onto the path ahead of the two undead, running hard.
There were others – a gawky adolescent carried a short, crystalline hammer and wore a temple robe – he was shepherded by a much larger male with dark hair, “Go, Pyotr – catch up to the little ones, hurry!”
Mosur – for it was Mosur, very young, tall, and proud – looked back into the space behind the stalk. “Amia! Hurry!” But he had to keep up with the little ones…
Aunne moved slowly to that spot of the path… looking stricken.
She emerged from behind the stalk next – a raven-haired, willowy, living version of the death knight, who seemed like the palest of shadows next to what was once her, so many years ago. The living Aunne’keva was afraid, sobbing with it, stumbling onto the path… as shadows of orcs, flickering, faded into existence from both sides. They laughed, a horrible, horrible sound – magnified through what was likely the lens of memory, and they charged with ghostly weapons raised. “Lok’tar ogar!”
Malien blinked and before even thinking about it ran at the orcs. She raised her swords above her head and attempted to protect the fearful woman that would later become the girl she knew.
Aunne moved with her, but .. sluggish, somehow, her near-ethereal swords slow to come to her hands. Battle was joined, there, on the path; the living Aunne’keva running on, away, vanishing outside of the light of the spores. The orcs were everywhere. They jeered, and jabbed with swords and cut with axes; Malien was quickly surrounded, the shadows pushing her away from Aunne.. who seemed drawn toward something else, away from the path.
In the mushroom forest, a towering male Draenei in the armor of a Vindicator stood over the fallen shape of a younger female.
“No -” Aunne gasped softly – stepping from the path.
Malien growled at the orcs, “You made a mistake coming here.” All at once she became a blur, her icy blades flying through the air. She relished this.
When the orcs finally started to fall, it could be seen that their eyes were a frozen blue and they had turned pale.
Malien emerged from the pile of corpses with nothing more than a scratch across her left cheek. She came down from her murderous high, and seeing no sign of Aunne, she called out, “Ma’am? Ma’am is everything alright?”
After a few moments Malien started down the path the living Aunne’keva ran down, still yelling.
The path opened up to a small clearing; Aunne’keva, the living one – cowered with her arms around the adolescent, sobbing – she didn’t seem to see Malien, didn’t respond to her presence.
Aunne moved up next to the other death knight from the shadows of the path, her voice.. broken, holding a shattered vindicator’s helm in her hands. “… I was a priestess. The orcs destroyed the temple at Karabor – my husband, my daughter, my son – Mosur, my son-in-law, and the children I was watching.. we escaped when a wall was shattered. My faith wasn’t strong enough – I couldn’t protect them. All I could see was fear.”
Malien looked at the helm a moment and back up at the other Draenei, “You have grown. You are strong enough to face it now. What do you see?”
“This is when my faith was tested. When the orcs took the bones of my husband and my daughter to their Path of Glory.” Aunne studied the living version of herself. “My grief made me strong.. when it passed. Even so.. I think my heart shattered then. Even now, after all of these years, after dying.. I still feel this day.”
“Grief for family does not fade.” Malien glanced at the living woman, then back.
“My husband died in the marsh because I did not stand with him – and my daughter. The orcs took their bones away.” Aunne sighed, and drops the helm…her hands were shadowed, where they touched the tarnishing metal. “I know where we need to go – to the shelter.” She set off into the swamp.
It wasn’t far to walk – the path wound up to a rock face, wet and dripping with moisture. A cave mouth was there – darker, somehow, than it should be. Aunne led them in, her head bowed.
“We hid here during the Hunting Times. One of many places – but this is where we learned to survive.” The cave beyond opened up to an area were twenty, perhaps thirty draenei existed in a cramped space – there was little privacy, but there was dry ground, scavenged bedding, a fire for warmth ducted through a cunningly cut hole in the ceiling of the space. It was as though they walked into a still picture – nothing moved. The fire does not even crackle.
The search for meaning
Aunne doesn’t seem to hear the voice.
At the back of the cave.. her living self sat, wrapped in a blanket, looking down at a map weighted by small bits of crystal. Gone was the robe, replaced by battered and tanned sporebat leathers, very practical in the moisture of the swamp; her long hair was cut close, her skin artfully streaked with mud.
As Malien looked about the cave, she was very careful not to look at anyone for too long. After a moment Malien looked between the image and the Knight, “Can she hear us? Perhaps there is something we can learn from her…some meaning to this.”
Aunne crouched, looking at the map. “I had sent out hunters – we needed food. None came back. Everyone looked to me – ” Bitterly. “I was a /priestess/. My faith was supposed to lead us – and I was killing them.”
Shadows coalesced at the cave entrance – two tall Draenei shapes, with spears and burning eyes. They advanced on the pair, threateningly – one threw a blade at Malien, stalking – “She killed us. As she is killing you.”
Malien drew her own blade and turned towards the shadows. She called back to Aunne, “Miss there was nothing you could have done. You were a leader in a difficult time. You did not kill them. Forces out of your control did.”
The two shadowy hunters surged toward Aunne, shouting of her failures, striking with spears. They’re quick, strong, dangerous.. and their eyes blazed with fire as Malien intercepted them.
Aunne’s head bowed. “I couldn’t keep them safe.. how can I protect them now?”
Malien growled and lunged. In between her surge of strikes she tried to reason with Aunne, “You do not have to. Just…I do not know. Learn. That is what Miss Moonleaf always told me. Just find something you can learn from and protect the people you know now. Miss Aunne, you are not a bad person because you could not defeat an entire army by yourself. I have seen you do great things. You have to get up.”
The two were far more dangerous than the orcs – they struck in tandem, with focus and precision; it took all of Malien’s skill to fend them off, and score a blow where she could.
Aunne seemed to absorb those words. The faintly glowing form of a worgen, truly massive – a female larger by half than most, dressed in hand-me-down-armor with golden eyes, and another, of a great cat – Etsiyona, by the streaming light of her fur and the green radiance of her form – both faded in next to her. The worgen touched her shoulder; the great cat leaned in to rest against her leg, offering strength. One more, a darker form, a smaller human in heavy plate – Maisy – joined them both, standing at attention at the death knight’s right.
Aunne.. stood, as though with /tremendous/ effort; while faint traceries of shadow surrounded her horns, showed in the spaces between her armor, she nonetheless straightened.
Cold erupted from Aunne, with a gesture – slamming into the shadows; tearing at them, slowing them. “You’re right. I did what I could – what little it was. It is not about standing for them; it is about standing /with/ them.” The thought struck her oddly, and she smiled faintly. “They always had faith in me, even when I did not.”
Malien nodded at her with a small smile, “You are correct ma’am. You have power more than you know. The Light never left you…I can see that now.” She was clearly somewhat fatigued but full of spirit.
Between the two – they made short work of the hunters. The forms in the cave faded away.
But does she really live?
Again, Aunne seemed not to hear the voice – moving slowly toward the cave entrance as though compelled. The pair came out into the light, and into the wide expanse of the plaguelands, brown and blighted. In the far distance stood Light’s Hope, but here? Here was in the hills, somewhere between the great western watchtower and the chapel. A wagon was here – frozen as it was on fire, with several paladins fighting off members of Acherus, the Ebon Blade’s dark armor stark next to the gleaming gold and white.
One of the ebon blade had run his sword through the raven-haired draenei priestess.. and the Light around her was dying.
“… this is where I died.” Aunne’s face twisted. “… do I exist? I /died/ there. What are we? Is this shell empty? I am Aunne – did Aunne’keva die that day?”
Malien’s face became one of fear and shame yet again, “I…” she shook it off so she can comfort Aunne, “I do not think you could feel ‘this’ if you were empty. Perhaps Aunne’keva did die. The Light had a purpose I believe. Aunne’keva…from what I have seen, could never have been as brave as you are. You are devoted to the Light now more than ever. Aunne’keva would be happy that one day she would be you.”
Aunne looked to Malien with those cold eyes – shadow flickers there. “… Are we /things?/ Is there a soul in this shell? Did /she/ go on to see him – and now I am here, dreaming of something that cannot exist?” Aunne circled… herself.
Around them, the paladins slowly turned to face the duo.
Malien simply gave her a shallow smile, “We are here to find out? Are we not? I do not believe a husk can want so desperately to be with the one they love. A husk cannot feel regret.” She took a breath to calm herself and continued, “I have seen living people who are soulless, and those who are dead and soulless. I do not see that in you.”
The paladins looked to Malien – The dead should be dead. They judged, and that judgement was harsh – You are nothing more than this.
Aunne seemed to hear that – and she shriveled slightly.
But then… Alistair was there, her hand resting on the Death Knight’s shoulder. She was.. golden, transparent – even with those black eyes, her face was kind, even radiant.
Aunne straightened, standing tall. “No. The Light is in me. Even if Aunne’keva is gone – I exist. These memories are mine. These friends are mine.” She touched Malien’s arm… and something surged into the other death knight; something warm, firey, bright. “And I have learned to care for them. Aunne’keva does not matter. Aunne does.”
There was a hissing sound.
The scene evaporated into a windswept hill, buried in snow, with a ramshackle cabin, the roof fallen in.
Madness. Loneliness. Alone is easy – away from all. You cannot harm them here.
It was night – and the snow gleamed, but Aunne had grown somehow /dimmer/, while Malien somehow was more vital, somehow more solid. Aunne moved reluctantly toward the cottage, voice more broken – “My future. The one the mages saw.” A look to the right showed something else: another door to another place, this one a decadent room, filled with art and music. From this one came a glorious laugh.
“There you are. I’ve waited /ever/ so long.”
Out of it swept another Aunne. White-haired, yes, with those gleaming blue eyes – but her voice didn’t echo, and she dripped with power, radiating cold and menace. This was something beyond a death knight, a thing that had not only embraced undeath but thrived within it and fed well. Her armor was a deep blue like the deepest ocean, and her face was like carved marble, cold and clear, her horns tipped in obsidian, her hooves ringing like steel on the rocks beneath the snow. “There are two paths – didn’t /he/ tell you? ‘the only way is through’ indeed – ” She leaned down. “What is wrong with going mad? There is power – power enough to shape the world, to hold it all in your grasp. Why – you could control this one, and your Maisy, and they would stay near forever. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Never lonely again – and strong enough to shape your own destiny.”
Malien growled the creature, “She is not you, Aunne, you know that…this is a monster and it does not scare me, it should not frighten you either.”
The cottage was empty – broken, and the Fallen stalked toward it. “This.. is nothing. It is choosing to be nothing – a future of no possibilities. No legacy, just an ending – oblivion.” She turned, made a come hither gesture, and Aunne was dragged through the intervening space, the Fallen’s death grip an inexorable force.
Aunne dangled from the Fallen’s fist, grabbing at the other creature’s wrist. “I told the demon no. I never wanted power – I never wanted /this/.”
In the broken cottage the faintest outline of a figure stood. The paladin, from Zangarmarsh – see-through and watching, reached out toward Aunne, his expression anguished.
Malien shouted at the monster, “You are not her and you know it. You have no warmth inside of you!” She looked to Aunne, calling, “Fight it ma’am. It wants you to fail. Do not give it that satisfaction. Someone still loves you…please fight. I am coming to help.” She started to run for the creature.
Aunne twisted, landing an inelegant kick that loosened the Fallen’s grip and let her drop away; somehow, her runeblades are /there/, and she wades in at the Fallen’s waist, ice bursting into existence in a swirling storm. The two engaged as Malien dove in; then it really was a fight as the three swirled around each other, blades clashing.
Aunne flickered, fading, growing more shadowy as the Fallen pressed in – “Give in. Accept what you could be. The Light has forsaken you – as you have always known. Why believe in that which does not believe in you?”
A ghostly draenei woman faded into existence behind the fight – Seella, who raised her voice in song; a hymn, soft and ringing like a bell across the three-way duel. The paladin joined in – a deep bass singing counterpoint. A human girl, burning like a flame, took both their hands, her voice bright and clear – Ygraine knew that song as well. It was an old song – one from the earliest days on Draenor, and sung ever since.
Malien recognized the song…a melody sung by her mother while the woman sewed her clothes. Although she felt guilt rushing through her as she heard it she, too joined in, her voice lower and rich, full of raging rapids and storms. Her voice followed the melody even as she fought the mighty creature.
The shadows around Aunne – all of that doubt, that worry – under the call of the song they shivered and started fading away. Where the shadow was? Now traceries of pure light burned into the undead’s skin. Aunne shoved back against the Fallen, raising her eyes – and the gem at her throat suddenly flared with white fire.
“NO.” Aunne’s voice was crystalline and melodic. Light -pure, strong and golden- exploded from her, washing over the hilltop, shattering both doorways and the possibilities they represented, battering down the impossible Fallen. The death knight raised her gauntlet, and pulled down – and amidst the howling storm that surrounded her, a column of luminous energy slammed down, shattering that potential future. “I will /not/.”
Her eyes still burned blue. “I have faith. It has -not- forsaken me. I am -not- alone. And I do not need to be afraid.”
Malien gave a real, pure smile and called out laughing, “Yes!”
The party on the Vindicaar was hardly subdued – there was music and dancing, and new and old Lightforged alike celebrating a momentous evening with impromptu fun. Yet – after only a short time, the death knights moved away; there was too much, and now too many people, too much to process.. just.. too much.
In the quiet of the lower decks, Aunne offered Malien a quiet, “Thank you.”
Malien looked at the new Lightforged. “You…you did this. You have nothing to thank me for.”
“Your faith in me mattered more than mine in anything else. In all of this… did you find what you were looking for?”
“I…some of it.” Malien gave a soft smile, real this time. “I am sure…I am sure I will find answers later.”
The two went to rejoin Maisy, and then leave, unnoticed, from the ship.