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Vionora

Eclipse: Between Shadow and Darkness

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[[ Trigger warnings: violence, suicide, and extensive abuse, including implied sexual abuse and rape. ]]

On one side of her there was shadow; on the other, darkness.

The light was never an option. She was told it was there; sometimes she was even told how to reach it, though it always proved impossible. And once, she thought she found it. In the end, she had realized it didn't actually exist; or if it did, it just wasn't meant for her.

The path to realizing it began on the day her mother committed suicide in front of her.

***

Her earliest memories weren't terrible. Her mother was kind. Anxious, high-strung, but concerned enough about Tassha's wellbeing. Yolanta struggled a little to make ends meet, but her brother's family helped sometimes by watching Tassha, and Tassha got to play with Shaena then.

Shaena was strange in some ways, acting out and causing trouble, but she was Tassha's only friend.

And sometimes when her aunt wasn't home, Tassha's uncle locked her in a closet and didn't give her any food, and threatened worse if she ever told her mom, but that was just the way things were. Shaena was always subdued by the time Tassha was let out.

It changed when Tassha was old enough to start attending schooling.

***

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Sequestered in her family's homes, by her mother's design, Tassha hadn't realized she was reviled.

Her skin was too dark; she was too tall for her age. She found these things out on her first day of schooling. At first she was only bewildered; however, the harassment was only beginning. Because it wasn't just the other children. The tutors, the officials – all the adults looked on her with disgust, too. By the end of her first year, she was being told by nearly everyone that she was a blight on their kind and the world would be better off without her. If not said outright, it was implied by the way they looked at her.

This understandably caused some behavioral problems as the years went on. Tassha was rebellious, uncooperative, and violent, ensuring even those who might have been indifferent ended up set against her. Her mother reached her wits' end far too soon and gave up any attempt to straighten out her daughter. In Tassha's third year, however, one tutor had her referred to a counselor.

***

Miss Darrow was kind; as kind as Tassha's mother had once been, but with a patience Tassha could not exhaust. Even when Tassha screamed and threw things for a week straight, Miss Darrow still spoke with a gentle voice and asked her how she was doing that day. On the eighth day, Tassha burst into tears. She hadn't cried since the first day of schooling.

Miss Darrow became her only ally. Whenever Tassha was having too much trouble getting through the school day, she could go visit Miss Darrow. It was her escape. They were always glad to see her go, anyway, although there were some murmurs about special treatment regardless. But Tassha didn't care. She loved Miss Darrow.

Then one day, when one tutor had berated her in front of the entire class for not completing her work and she had decided she needed to go visit Miss Darrow, just like Miss Darrow had always told her she should when she needed to, Tassha stopped outside the door because she heard another voice inside.

***

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"...and no one else wants to send their children to you," a man's voice was saying. It was the principal, visiting Miss Darrow. He went on. "It's a problem, your special treatment of the Minara child."

He was talking about her. Tassha carefully pressed close to the door to listen. The hallway was empty, lessons still in progress.

"Mister Hart," came Miss Darrow's always calm voice, "I am doing the community a service by rehabilitating her. It is not as though we can simply be rid of her. We have a responsibility."

Tassha didn't understand, but some part of her knew that that wasn't what she wanted Miss Darrow to have said. Still, it wasn't the worst.

"Even so," Principal Hart said, "you cannot keep indulging her behavior. She needs a harsher hand if she is to learn. It's the only thing something like her understands."

"Let me continue trying," Miss Darrow said. "No one has attempted this approach with her before. If she doesn't show adequate progress within, let's say, three months, then other methods can be explored."

Tassha still didn't completely comprehend the conversation, but what she did grasp was the only thing that mattered to her. Miss Darrow's patience wasn't unlimited. It was possible for Tassha to lose her, too – to ruin this. There was, in fact, a point where Miss Darrow would give up on her. Just like her mother.

Tassha would never receive unconditional love.

She ran away.

***

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They found her; they dragged her back, kicking and screaming. She refused to go see Miss Darrow anymore, and when they made her, she spat on the woman. Miss Darrow's eyes filled with tears, and she tried to say she hadn't meant it, and would never give up on her, but Tassha was too scared to believe her, even though she wanted to.

She might have come around eventually, though, if her mother hadn't killed herself.

Yolanta only worked in the evenings and at night, and slept until the afternoon, so Tassha rarely spent time with her mother anywhere public. As a result, she didn't realize her mother was reviled too until a little later in her childhood.

But then she started seeing it; hearing it. Whore. That was what her mother was. It was one of the most despicable things a woman could be. Even Yolanta's brother looked down on his sister for it, but most especially for letting herself get knocked up by a night elf.

Her mother had told Tassha a few times her father would come back someday. But she didn't really seem to believe it. Tassha understood he had abandoned her mother when she got pregnant. He hadn't wanted Tassha either.

One morning, Yolanta came home so late that Tassha was already up and getting ready for school, even after dawdling. She walked with a limp and a bruise darkened her cheekbone. Tassha stared at her as the woman stopped in the doorway of their small kitchen and looked at her daughter.

"It's not worth it anymore," Yolanta whispered.

She went into the bedroom. Tassha didn't know why she followed, except that she needed to. Her mother opened the nightstand drawer and took out a pistol.

"Mama?" Tassha said.

Yolanta turned around, looking at her daughter again. Tassha would never forget that look in her eyes. It was defeated and bitter.

"You should come with me," Yolanta said. She hesitated, looking down at the pistol. Then she cocked it.

"Where?" Tassha said uncertainly.

"Where there's no more suffering," her mother said.

Still, the woman hesitated, holding the pistol at her side. Tassha didn't understand what was happening, but she was afraid. Her mother gazed at her for a long time, her expression growing more and more pained.

"I'm sorry," Yolanta said, and put the pistol to her own head and pulled the trigger.

***

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Suffering and Tassha would develop a lifelong relationship. Her mother's words and actions permanently shaped her daughter's views. The world was full of suffering, and only death was an escape from it.

Everything from then on seemed only to prove this true; but she resisted it.

She was raised by her uncle after that, whose wife had left him. Sometimes, he beat her; mostly, he ignored her. Tassha turned to acting on Shaena to have some sort of sense of power, doubling the abuse the younger girl received, but keeping it covert – though her uncle probably would not have cared anyway, considering what he himself was doing to the girls. Overall, to cope, Tassha became petty and cruel, and thrived on others' suffering to make herself feel better. Punishment only made her act out more.

Her uncle made it clear that once Tassha reached the age of majority and he was no longer legally liable for her, she was on her own. She didn't wait that long, running off and joining the Rangers by lying about her age.

There she met Jazziks and Sinaku Wolfrunner, a pair of siblings. She envied them for their closeness, their popularity, and their skill, and grew infatuated with Sinaku. After the fall of the Sunwell, they became part of a small faction of Quel'dorei who did not turn to the fel for sustenance, yet remained loyal to Silvermoon. It was difficult not only coping with the addiction but being further hated for standing apart as well, but the rebellious part of her refused to quit, to try to be what the world wanted her to be, because deep down she knew it was impossible.

Then Sinaku broke off to form the Rangers of the Dark Sun; and then came the first Eclipse. When Sinaku turned to Accalia, Jazziks left, but Tassha stayed by his side. She was more than happy to watch the world burn if that was what Sinaku wanted.

At that time, Tassha decided to act as a double agent and infiltrate the ranks of the so-called heroes Jazziks had turned to in order to resist her brother. Inventing a sympathy-inspiring story for why she was changing sides, Tassha told it flawlessly. However, it became clear that it wouldn't matter even if it were true... There was no sympathy to be found. No one cared. And she was held responsible for this, due to her own petty, cruel nature.

That was when she finally stopped resisting, and tried to kill herself.

She was saved by a kind orc and tauren; at least physically. From that moment on, she pursued self-inflicted punishment headlong. The kind orc tried to show her the right path, but she was beyond his ability to help. She goaded Elanderik, a ruthless Blood Knight, into demanding he be allowed to question her, and then walked willingly into his hands. That was the first time they would to go Stratholme. She didn't find what she was looking for there.

Then came the twilight nightmare.

***

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[[ The following writing is marginally adapted from the original thread. ]]

The ever-burning fires ensured that there could be no sense of night or day in this place; instead, an orange light permeated the interior of the chapel, lending the holy ground a semblance more hellish. Even with her eyes closed, it came in through her eyelids, a constant reminder of where she was.

She had come to know this detail about her surroundings well in the week she had spent here, and her memories had done her no favors such as leaving it out.

But this time when she opened her eyes, something was different. Tassha slowly pushed herself up, looking around the small chapel. It was empty. He wasn't here... why was he not here? What point did this nightmare have if he weren't here? Was her mind finally tiring of torturing her night after night with not only dreams of Accalia's minions hunting her down, but these even more deeply troubling memories?

More than that, though, this felt wrong. As she rose to her feet, she became aware of another significant difference. Instead of the Ranger leathers she had been wearing when this memory had taken place, she was dressed in her current priestly robes. She stared down at herself, taking up fistfuls of the material before letting it fall from her grip. Then, slowly, she lifted her hands, which, as was more customary in her dreams, were lacking the gloves she wore every day and every night.

However, even then there was a significant disparity. The mark on her hand was dead, darkened as it had been in the weeks between Sinaku's defeat and Accalia's mustering of her powers before the Eclipse. Unable to make any sense of it, Tassha gazed at her hand, transfixed. As she did, she began to realize something.

This was unreal, but it was not just a dream. It was impossible, but she was there. How, or even why, she could not begin to grasp.

When Elek strode into the chapel, sword in hand and anger in his eyes, it started to make a little more sense... albeit not much more. If he was here, then she knew what would happen next, and that things would once again fall into their familiar pattern. His pale gaze fell to her and if anything, his anger intensified. He made no move to sheath his weapon as he stalked toward her. Tassha dropped her hands again, watching him come without flinching.

"You..." he growled.

"What is this," she said quietly.

Ignoring her words entirely, the Knight took her by the collar of her robes and yanked her against him. The girl's eyes widened, but she didn't resist in the slightest. Because, she realized, whether this was real or not, or how little sense it made, didn't really matter. If there was punishment to be dealt out, then it was nothing she needed to wonder about, but simply accept.

It didn't matter that she had already gone through this once, and relived it in her dreams every night for months afterward. It hadn't been enough. It hadn't redeemed her. And even if it did really happen again, it would be less than she deserved. Only an eternal hell would suffice.

Somewhere, Accalia laughed.

Elek glared down at her. His blade grazed up the side of her body, stopping when it was poised at her neck. In his gaze, there was only her. No questions needed to be asked, nothing else needed to be presented on which to blame the cruel impossibility of this all.

"Now... just what do we have here?" he said with a jeer.

She didn't respond, looking back up at him expressionlessly. There was no challenge in her as there had been when he had first brought her here; nor was there the fear he himself had put before they left. The time since had done more damage than the week she had spent here, shown in her mute resignation and utter lack of resistance, not even lifting a hand.

He watched her for a moment longer. Did he fancy he saw despair? Did that please him? Tassha simply waited for what would come next.

Elek burst into a torrent of violence, throwing her to the ground with a fierce strike to the head. Crimson coated the pommel of his weapon. Unsurprised by the strike despite the lack of warning, Tassha didn't cry out. She started to lift a hand to her bleeding head, then let it fall.

"I have no promises to fulfill," he told her with grim satisfaction. "There is no one who will look for you, no one to come rushing to your help, no one to even care once I'm finished with you."

Last time, he had only had a week, and he had promised to return her alive and whole. This time, although he clearly didn't care how they had come to be there, he was very aware of the freedoms this situation thrust upon them entailed.

But why was he here? Why did he deserve to be trapped here with her again? Was he to find some salvation in doing worse to her than he had done, free now that there was no flimsy bond of honor to hold him back? The thought weakened Tassha with a stunning relief, a strange gratitude. Her suffering would never take back her sins, but perhaps they would help salve another's pain. She clung to the thought because it was all she could hope to do.

"Do as you will," she said, speaking quietly again as her eyes rose to his. "The only point of my existence is that so you may."

He took her words as a taunt; she saw him grit his teeth, rage flash through his gaze. His boot hit her shoulder, forcing her painfully down to the ground on her back.

"You're a murderer, a traitor, an enemy of Silvermoon." His boot ground in and she winced in pain. "You made me do those things to you... here. Things I would have killed a man on the spot for doing. Things I've had nightmares of since. I've changed... become something different... the very thing I hated, the very thing I fought against... all because of you."

He wasn't really speaking to her; she may as well have been deaf. He just needed to speak the justification aloud so she could be the one to pay for all those crimes.

"If not for you, Silvermoon would have been spared the horrors of the Curse of Accalia. If not for you, all of those other Knights would still be alive. If not for you... what happened those many months ago would not have happened."

It was not her place to question his reasoning. If there was some solace to be had, that he could extract from her, then the least she could do was give it. Tassha closed her eyes as he bent down and fabric tore.

She'd thought she was truly resigned to this; that she could accept it. But the shame, the humiliation, the pain, they evoked the tears she knew she didn't deserve to cry. Internally she could only chalk it up as another item on the list of things that made her a failure as a human being. When he was done, the day long gone if it had ever been at all, she lay curled on her side, wishing futilely the tears would stop.

She could sense his dissatisfaction as he looked over her bruised, beaten body. He sat in the lone chair in the chapel, brooding. Already he had abused her worse than he originally had, but it wasn't enough.

How long would it take? Another week? Longer? Until her weak tears ran out and he was satisfied further punishment was meaningless enough to warrant simply removing her from this world?

Would his rage be salved by then? Would her suffering have done any good by then? Would she finally have done any good by then?

When she heard him move, she struggled to push herself upright, turning her head just enough to watch him come closer out of the corner of her eye. Even if all her bones were broken she would still try to move to face him rather than wait for him to come to her. In this tiny world, it was all she could do to accept the price.

He seized her by the hair and threw her back to the floor. Before she could even breathe, the sword he'd picked back up tore through her shoulder, guided by his forward thrust with enough force behind it to bury the point into the cobblestones of the floor beneath her.

A smile, smug and grim, danced upon his face as he hovered above her. "Sleep well," he said, leaning just enough to set a kiss upon her lips as her mouth still hung open in the shock of the pain. He turned and left her there.

***

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She didn't remember falling asleep, but as she opened her eyes again, she saw the dim orange light shining through the chapel's open door and realized she had. How she was able to with the sort of the pain she had suffered became clear as she realized she could no longer feel it... She had to be in shock. Then she wondered if she was even still alive.

There was something was missing from her field of vision. After a moment, she realized that the sword that had impaled her shoulder was gone. With a start she lifted a hand to her shoulder, not only finding it free of pain, but covered in cloth. She was dressed? And healed?

Sitting up, Tassha looked down at herself to find her priestly robes covering her body as though they had never been torn. Not a single ache signified a bruise or injury anywhere on her. Unable to grasp this, she found herself looking up at the doorway again as Elek reentered.

The Blood Knight perked an eyebrow as he saw Tassha uninjured, intact; and then exploded in fury. He set about tearing apart the closets and cabinets, throwing furniture around in a fruitless search for explanation. She watched silently as a sort of comprehension stole over her... one that would evade him for some time.

His teeth clenched tight and with a shake to his hand, Elek finally came up to her where she waited and struck her. "Who was it?!" he demanded. "WHO was here?!"

Thrown back by his blows, Tassha began to laugh. Looking up at him through the blonde locks fallen over her face, her words come fast and sharp. "What mysterious visitor came by and decided to heal me, to clean up the chapel, to remove any trace that anything ever happened, and even miraculously fix my robes? Like yesterday never even happened? I don't know. They managed to do all this despite me being awake all night until just now when I realized I was asleep. Did you sleep last night? Did you clean the blood off your gauntlets or did the mysterious visitor clean them too?"

She waved at his spotless armor.

"Do you begin to wonder why we are here yet?" she asked.

His hand clenched around her throat to lift her from her feet and hold her up against the wall. "Do not toy and play games with me, girl," he spat. Rage still blinded him from seeing it.

Tighter he squeezed his hand around her slender neck, the muscles in his arm pulling tense. Tassha's eyes widened as her hands rose to close around his arm, not in effort to break free, but more from reaction. Even now she couldn't bring herself to resist. It was pointless, especially with the hysterical comprehension she now possessed. Would even this be the end? Would tomorrow come one way or another? The thought didn't seem so impossible. Her eyes rolled back as she passed out from lack of air.

Even still, he refused to let go as frustration and confusion filtered in despite the fact that her body had fallen limp. His knuckles whitened from his grip, ushering her into a rest that she would certainly never recover from. Time passed, minutes come and gone one after the other until every muscle in his body burned and ached from the tension. Arms growing heavy and weak, he finally eased his hand's hold and let her body fall to the ground at his feet, turning around to leave this wretched city.

At least, he tried.

***

Orange light... filtering through her eyelids. This time, she would not open them at the urge. Something was wrong; something was so horribly, horribly wrong. Despite her efforts, Tassha could not remember how she had gotten here. What had happened? How could she have possibly wound up in Stratholme?

The prior nights returned to her with a sudden start, forceful like a slap in the face. With a gasp she sat straight up and looked around. One hand went to her neck, unbruised, unsure... had what happened the night before been undone again? Had she only just passed out? Had he not followed through? It didn't seem so hysterical anymore as dread prompted her to look toward the entrance.

Elek stood there in the doorway for what seemed like an eternity, struggling to understand. She watched him, watched the confusion and anger and frustration on his face. Ultimately, there were no words to speak, no taunts, no jeers. He took up his sword and walked forward to make short work of the item of his frustrations.

Perhaps he had not been thorough enough. Not this time. A crimson pool stained the ground, spreading beneath the slender elf unhindered. Unmoving for hours, he watched over her in silence but for the sound of the undead's moans until well beyond the setting of the sun to personally ensure she would not rise again. There would be no tricks, no games. Not this time, he assured himself.

***

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She didn't remember falling asleep... Again, the same sense of disorientation; and that was exactly what clued her in to the situation. Blue eyes opened wide, this time not seeing the chapel at all. He killed her... and still here she was, in this dream world. She felt his blade cut into her body, saw the blood, saw his cold face as he dispatched her life as he could have at any time before, in a way she hadn't really understood before then. A shudder ran through her body as she curled on herself, unwilling to look toward the door this time as he entered.

But that was just the beginning; the very beginning. Every day for what seemed like months, he killed her. At first it was out of sheer anger and frustration. As time passed, it became a sick form of 'art'. There were times he simply went about it as if she were nothing more than an artist's tool, a cut of the blade, a spray of blood upon the wall... oh, the number of grim fantasies he played out at her expense. He would strike her, come at her with a weapon, throw her out to the undead to rip apart.

Despite the terrible pains he inflicted, day in and day out, despite that he had killed her hundreds of times, taken her against her will at least as many... Each day she had tried harder and harder to accept that this was simply her due, and the agony, the humiliation, she had no right to object to it. But the longer it went, the more her resignation changed to something else. Something almost... odd. A strange amusement, an enjoyment of the irony, a mirthful understanding of what each day would bring. This was the hell she thought she deserved. And it was no longer possible to think it might help him in some way; there was nothing but the suffering. That was all there was.

There was no point.

She had thought she deserved this; intellectually, she still knew she did. But now she questioned what purpose it served for her to suffer. No one gained from it, not even him, the one who hated her the most, who blamed her for all the troubles he could think of. Her hell had become his hell, and the day his sword clanged down to the ground next to her, she knew he had finally realized it too.

Slowly she raised her head from her knees drawn up against her chest to look at the blade. For more days than she could remember clearly, she had not said a single word. Not a sound, not a whimper... nothing. She still felt the pain, but it no longer evoked a response from her. Now she wondered if she remembered how to speak as she looked at the weapon.

He sat with his back against the wall, unmoving.

"What don't you leave?" she asked, a few simple words strung together from a throat that should have long ago been worn out.

"Can't," he muttered. He tilted his head back against the wall, not looking at her. The fire of hate that had been in him had burnt out; and there was nothing left. Fueling it hadn't given him any solace either. He realized that now, long after she did.

The day wore on. Finally, Tassha got up and walked over to the bookcase. It contained holy books, words of learning and teaching. As she drew out the first, she wondered if eventually she would know all these books by heart. But for now, it would keep her occupied, even as she mused on how substanceless a diversion it was. She also found it rather ironic that in this hell, the chapel contained books only about the Light.

Elek never moved.

***

Tassha very well could have fallen asleep, but she didn't know if she truly had when the familiar orange light glowed through her eyelids. Her eyes blinked open, taking in the empty chapel. Another day... It would be as meaningless as the one before. Even he had given up. What would he do now? She sat up and looked toward the door, waiting to see.

But he didn't enter. After a time she got up and walked to the doorway. There, a distant din reached her ears. It took her a moment to place it. Fighting?

***

He fought against impossible odds, wave after wave of horrors, endless, always another to replace the one he felled. "Why don't you leave," she had said before. There were too many, he knew this before even trying. All of those days before, if not too fatigued after whatever violence he served her, he had entered into skirmishes with the undead. They were stronger than he had wanted to believe, but their numbers at the points of escape provided a clear sign.

He couldn't escape.

Regardless, the idle waiting, wallowing in the inner turmoil and burden of despair was driving him quickly out of his mind. He couldn't take it, wouldn't accept it. Limbs and bodies were strewn in his wake as the lesser guardians fell to his unleashed ferocity. A claw upon his armor, a rip against his flesh... one by one the wounds slowed him down. It was just as obvious as he had first thought... There were just too many.

Blood trailed down his arms and legs from a dozen cuts and gashes. Still he fought, passionate in the midst of combat, refusing to surrender. A slash caught him across the leg and dropped him to his knees. Hungry for blood, the undead around him closed in despite his every effort to keep them at bay.

He didn't have the strength to challenge their 'jailkeepers' by himself, but it was something he had to find out for his own. A part of him had wondered if he'd wake up here again tomorrow, just like it seemed to for Tassha. Even as he was falling, his vision no more than a faint blur, he still would call out upon his powers with the Light and resist. Futile.

The death was painful and came without mercy. As it came, he figured he had earned it.

***

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Some days she heard him try to fight; some days he came in and stared into space until darkness overtook them; some days she never caught a sign of him and didn't know what he did. Tassha didn't bother counting the days, but she thought it had been over a year that they had been here. They never ate, and they never remembered sleeping, and each day began exactly the same.

She made her way through the books.

To him, she may as well have not even been there anymore; she wasn't even a target for his frustrations or scapegoat for his troubles anymore. She truly had become meaningless. Similarly, the despair he descended into was meaningless to her -- not because it didn't matter, but because nothing could be done, especially not by her. And in and of itself, his despair served no purpose. Suffering without reason. Pain without point.

This was the last book from the bookcase, though actually one of the first books given to novices of the Light. It was the same one she had read aloud to Thoraggar after Elek had returned her to him, a lifetime ago.

The Holy Light teaches that there is a connection between the self and the universe. This connection manifests as what we feel through both senses and emotions. When a person is moved, through seeing something breathtaking or feeling love for another, that emotion connects him to the universe. Experiencing the emotion ensures that he exists, as something within him felt the emotions or processed the sensual awareness. Because he exists, so must the universe that gave him that feeling. From there, he can act upon the universe, causing more changes to create feeling in others. Thus, the followers of Holy Light seek to make the world a better place by being true to their own emotions.

Tassha knew she existed; she knew she could act upon the universe. But following her emotions had only gotten herself, and Elek, where they were now. What meaning did these words have? She could find none.

Slowly she closed the book, the last page read. Elek didn't respond as she got up to replace the book, although she could have strewn the entire contents of the bookcase on the ground and tomorrow it would be tidy again. The girl paused, looking down at him where he sat, his back to her.

He breathed heavily, shaking slightly. A gentle pity came to her. He was much less equipped to cope with their situation than she was. He deserved it much less; for even what he had done was not unjustifiable. If he had done anything else in his life to deserve this, Tassha didn't know. She had to wonder if he was only trapped here because of what she had done to entitle herself to this hell.

"For what's it worth," she said, "I'm sorry."

He shook his head, turning his head to peer over his shoulder at her. Beads of sweat dribbled down his brow, and his skin was pale, almost colorless. "No," he said, gasping for a breath and appearing to be biting something back, "it's not you who should be sorry." The Blood Knight continued, each phrase and word was spoken as if it were through great pains to do so. "You've suffered more than you could have ever deserved. More than you should have. All because of me. It's not you who should apologize... it's me."

Tassha looked back at him for a long moment, weighing his words. The difficulty with which he spoke... She smiled sadly. "Do you think an apology is what it will take to release you from this place?"

"No... I don't think that's what it will take to get away from here."

He wavered where he sat, his pale gaze going unfocused. Tassha was silent, watching him and wondering what had gotten into him.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, "but perhaps... maybe you will... wake up in your own bed tomorrow."

The Sin'dorei closed his eyes and drew a breath, slumping over to the side shortly after. Blood covered his wrists and lap, coating his armor and the floor beneath him. The smell had long become so familiar to Tassha that she hadn't noticed it.

For a time she looked over the Blood Knight as he slipped from unconsciousness into death, his breathing growing shallower, then stopping entirely; then she walked over to the bookcase to pick up the first book on the shelf and begin to reread it.

He was as distant from salvation as she, but far more lost. Maybe in time he would reach some understanding, as she had.

***

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Elek's eyes opened, but before they did he already knew another timeless day had begun. Flame and ash, and the hungry, growling undead closed in around him. He sighed and looked down at his wrists, which were whole and unmarred once more. The attempt had been as useless as everything else and wasn't going to resolve their 'situation' either.

He made his way into the chapel, leaving the lumbering undead behind him. Tassha was there, as always, already picking up one of her books. His eyes went to her, then away. After a deep breath, he approached her and drew his sword to turn it and offer her the hilt.

She blinked, her gaze going to the hilt, traveling up the length of his blade, up his arm and body, and to his averted face. Her head tilted ever so slightly.

"That won't work either, you know," she said.

Seeming to dismiss him, she turned away to take her seat and begin reading. Elek shook his head, offering her the weapon once more. "Ever since the fight with Sinaku, I've blamed you for everything," he said. "I've blamed you for my own failures, blamed you for my own inability to maintain control. I've let myself lose sight of the tenets and creeds I used to respect."

Her gaze slowly rose to his again, but she didn't speak.

"Take it," he said to her. "I need to know."

She wouldn't.

***

Time was the one thing of which they had more than enough. For a week he argued with her, trying to bargain and plead, and at one time even cry and beg... but she would not take up the blade. Tassha knew that there was no one in the world who wouldn't find her insane for not seizing on the chance to exact some vengeance on her torturer, but it was her very lack of desire for such a thing that made her sure that that was not the key to their imprisonment here. She knew he hadn't done anything wrong; she had deserved everything that had happened to her. So striking him down would deliver to her no pleasure, no satisfaction, not even any meaning. No, that could not be any sort of solution, if indeed one even existed.

It saddened her, though, that he no longer believed she deserved what he had done, and had come to blame himself. Without even serving as a target for his blame, she really did have no purpose, and could not even do anything to ease his anguish. Nothing genuine, anyway; nothing that in time, something they were guaranteed to have, wouldn't be revealed as false, like any action suggesting she might desire some kind of justice cast down on him.

When it became clear she would not be moved, he became focused on her guilt. He told her he forgave her, that others werre right and he had been too blind. He hadn't believed she was capable of change, of redemption. Tassha just shook her head and quietly rebuked his every statement. She told him only despair moved him; that he had never stopped to think things through and hadn't stopped to do so now, but was only reacting. He didn't know, understand, or believe a thing he was saying. He only wanted to pay whatever price he thought he was supposed to pay by being in this place. Like a child, he jumped to what he assumed the answer was without ever learning what he was supposed to along the way.

As the days passed, he became quiet once more. He seemed to sink into meditations, into himself. Tassha continued rereading her books, thinking very little as she bided her time... like treading the infinite waters of insanity. Eventually she would grow too tired to stay afloat, but until then simple instinct kept her continuing.

***

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Tassha honestly couldn't say how it had happened. But when he had started talking one day, talking about something other than this hell, she had listened, and without thinking had offered her own words in return. Without thought to the consequences, the effects.

She came to understood what drove the Blood Knight. He had always wanted to help people; his fall to the depths she had seen was the result of circumstances beyond his control. He really wasn't to blame, for although he had always been prideful, it had been the taint of the Curse in his blood that had driven his pride and hate beyond his reason and compassion. Tassha came to understand and believe this, and her forgiveness, once only the bitter and brittle child of self-recrimination, gentled into unconditional acceptance.

Even if she deserved what he had done, he didn't deserve to have been the one to deal it to her. Sinaku's hate of the Blood Knights had turned Elek -- Elanderik -- into something terrible that he never would have been otherwise, despite the experiences the Wolfrunners had had.

He came to be peaceful, to be calmed by her acceptance. That was when the unexpected happened again. As he grew more into his former self, he came to question her more closely about her self-blame. It threatened her, his probing. Although she had told him about how rotten she had always been, how only self-interest had motivated her and the cost anyone else might pay for her gains mattered none, up to and including the deaths of a dozen in Silvermoon at her hands... He still insisted that she didn't deserve an eternal hell... that she, too, was worthy of forgiveness.

The near-friendship they had shared fell apart as Tassha rejected this notion, refusing to speak to him as long as he pressed the matter, and when his determined words continued -- she found herself walking outside, into the ravenous packs of undead, just to escape him. The pain and the familiar embrace of death didn't bother her nearly as much as what Elanderik spoke. But he didn't let her do that again, and finally his words made her break down in tears as she was unable to accept what she wanted more than anything to hear despite her staggeringly powerful attempts to tell herself she didn't deserve it.

Elanderik finally accomplished what he never had before; he broke her. His kindness, as unconditional as hers for him had been, left her vulnerable. But he didn't hurt her, he comforted her until she fell asleep in his arms and the next day dawned.

She didn't know how to believe him, but she could no longer tell herself she didn't want to. And without that her defense was no longer seamless. As time wore on, Tassha struggled with the difficult process of forgiving herself... but she had all the time in the world to accomplish it, and at her side one of the only people in the world who wanted to help her.

Somewhere, Accalia stalked and snarled.

When Tassha sought Elanderik's arms for more than simple comfort, he was taken aback, and, despite the closeness they had come to share, wary. But somewhere along the way they had become closer than friends, closer than confidants, as the only ones who could possibly understand each other. They needed one another and neither could deny it.

It wasn't quite a heaven, but no longer was it a hell. In this place, both of them found what they needed to become whole again, although even in the months that passed the process of rebuilding was only begun.

He began to teach her in the ways of the Light. The rhetoric of the books was tossed aside as with Elanderik's guidance she began to understand it in a way that transcended words. Before long they realized that with her growing adeptness, it was very possible that they might be able to fight through the swarms of undead together.

They were never meant to get out of here alone, but Accalia had never been able to anticipate that these two would find in each other what they had. The Beast was furious but unable to change what she had designed.

In the end, they escaped.

***

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That was the time when Tassha thought she had found the light.

She and Elek didn't see each other after that. It was different, back in the real world. What they had shared had been too much. So they went their separate ways. Tassha looked forward, ready to face life.

She gave herself to public service. She worked in clinics, healing. It was rewarding; at least at first. Freed from the belief that she deserved suffering, she worked only to better herself, and the world around her, in whatever way she could.

Yet... the suffering around her continued. She saw it, every day. As the years passed, it wore on her. She changed her name to Vionora and went to the Alliance, looking for something... she didn't know what. She didn't find it there, either. Eventually she ended up working in Shattrath. By then, what light she thought she'd seen was gone.

It didn't matter what she did; what anyone did. Suffering, shadow, was everywhere. And the only escape from it was darkness; death. She went through the motions, but stopped caring.

That was when Malhavik found her.

***

In conjunction with Accalia's rising, Vionora had had things taken from her she didn't even know could be taken. First, Malhavik had ruined her purity from the fel. It was something she carried with her every day now, a taint she could never be rid of. But that was only the beginning.

He had also put a seal on her soul that prevented her from being able to absorb magic from her environment as all elves needed to do to survive. It hadn't been intentional, but it guaranteed her demise... one way or another. The curse fed her, but either Accalia's victory or her defeat would end it all. The darkness was forced upon her, and she embraced it, finding relief in the coming end.

Only to have that snatched away from her when Malhavik bound her soul to a soulstone.

She was left with no option but to embrace the shadow instead; to learn to love suffering, as that was all that she could have. In a way, that was almost a greater relief. She had resisted suffering for so long, even when she had sought it out because she believed she deserved it. To finally sacrifice the last of her pride, her identity, was a true liberation.

Yet she couldn't help but look toward darkness; death. With it denied her, she wished for it more than ever. She wavered, still, between the shadow she was offered, and the darkness she was denied.

Then, it was offered back to her.

***

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But first, she met Tirien.

It was the fateful day of Accalia's release when they met; literally bumping into each other as she left Stormwind after spreading the curse. She was disheveled, a wreck in appearance, but renewed with purpose, with the understanding that the suffering needed to end. He was in poor straits, coping badly, and prepared to fight. Still, both of them had paused when they recognized something in the other. No more than that, but it was enough.

She returned to Stormwind occasionally after that. It was strangely easier to blend in there than any of the Horde cities. And he found her, again.

She learned about him, and what the fel inside him was: an entity named Hunter that sought immortality every generation. And he learned about her and what she was helping bring to the world, but continued to see her as a person, nothing more, nothing less.

***

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The first time they spoke, it was a fraught encounter. She hadn't thought anything of him except that he probably had a deathwish; they said little of consequence. But the next time they met, she was the one who'd realized she wanted to die... and could not. Tirien had revealed a type of kindness, then, listening without judgment, and offering no empty platitudes, either. It was different than anyone else thus far had treated her.

That was why she'd been drawn back to him again, and again.

She found him once by the ocean, drinking; he'd taken the bottle from her when she took it up and pitched it into the ocean. She hadn't seen him with a bottle since then. Another time, she found him swimming in the lake. He tried to teach her how to swim; she showed him the twilight realm. That was also when the crusader had come, and asked Tirien about the one who'd brought the plague.

When Stepanos left, Tirien eased back to the ground, letting out a breath and calming visibly. Still, he kept an eye on where the crusader had disappeared into the trees. Vionora watched the rogue, considering. She'd sat quietly as Stepanos asked more and more pointed questions of Tirien, for the most part ignoring her presence.

"You never mentioned people were asking you about me," she said.

Tirien ran a ran through his dark golden hair. It was still damp from the swimming he'd been doing earlier; so was hers, and her robes. "It was one time, the night after I first bumped into you," he said.

"You told him you didn't know." He nodded, and she stated, "You're basically helping me end the world."

"I never really knew till just now that it was you," he said. She looked away at that. "I had suspicions, sure," he added.

"What will you do now that they're confirmed?" she asked. She couldn't even dredge up bitterness.

"I'll sit here an' still talk with ya," he said, "if that's alright by you?"

She slowly lifted her gaze back to his. He regarded her as he always had – without judgment. With caution, but also patience. It would be too easy to dismiss him as naïve or idealistic. She had seen that in others' eyes when they looked at her; it wasn't in his. It was something else. He just... saw her. Unexpectedly, a flush sprang to her face, and she looked away again.

They spent the rest of the evening together. Neither wanted to leave.

***

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The next time she saw him, she met Michael.

She learned that the fel inside of Tirien was more than just energy: it was a soul, the soul that had also been his father. But when Hunter had tried to take Tirien, his brother Michael had somehow gotten involved as well, and now all three shared his body. Michael helped keep Hunter at bay for Tirien.

"Are you real?" she'd asked him, Michael.

They were atop a tower in the old barracks, shielded from patrolmen's view. She leaned her head against the cool stone wall, sitting in one arch; Tirien/Michael sat in the other, his legs hanging off the edge unconcernedly.

"Probably?" he guessed. He sounded so much more boyish that Tirien.

"How can you tell?" she asked him.

"Memories mostly, and a vague sense of self?" he offered.

"...A sense of self," she said. She wondered what that was like to possess.

"Like, yeah," he said. "See, you get it?"

"Not really," she said. "I've only ever been what people told me I was."

He clicked his tongue. "Awh, whaaat?" he said. "You seem like you have a good head on your shoulders to me."

"Did Tirien tell you things to make you think that?" she asked.

"Nah. I listen in. Mostly when he's not paying attention. Thinks he's protecting me or something." He snickered. "Totally the other way around."

She placed her palm down on the cold, textured stone. A breeze whispered through. "I can be someone else with Tirien," she said.

"You like being with him?" Michael asked. "Being this other person?"

She hesitated before answering. "Yes," she said.

He smiled. "Alright. I'll keep your secret."

***

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They chatted a little while longer, but then Hunter started acting up. It manifested in a fel transformation, with claws, spikes, and more. But in the end Tirien gained control. Having come over to the other arch, unable to help him as he struggled, Vionora gazed at him now that it was over. "It's the fel in you," she said.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Hunter's gettin' more aggressive. I ain't got a clue how Michael keeps him at bay, but man... It'll be awhile b'fore we switch again."

She nodded. It made her glad to hear his rough manner of speech again. She found she'd missed it. "Does it get better?" she asked after a moment, looking at the claws, scales, and spines.

He sighed. "Yeah... Usually when th' sun comes up."

It was still early in the night; Elune had just set on the horizon. "That's not for awhile," she said.

"It never is." He said something else, only to end up biting his tongue. "Damnit! Fangs. Ain't used t' them."

"Come here," she said.

Vionora sat down against one side of the arch. He looked at her, his eyes pitch black now, but still reflecting his personality, and lowered himself to sit across from her.

She raised her hand, not quite cupping his face. Accalia still whispered to her that she should mark him, should claim the fel inside of him and tame the demon-beast, but Vionora ignored her as she always did. She wouldn't touch him, not skin on skin contact. Tirien tensed, looking into her eyes as old habits had him looking for her intentions, yet didn't seem afraid.

She called the Light, inhaling softly as it burned, but able to surmount the pain and focus the energies into him. He stifled a grunt of pain of his own at the Light and twitched, resisting the urge to lash out with his new claws as the energies within him fought back.

"Shhh," Vionora shushed gently. Leaning forward, she put her hand on his leg as she concentrated on calling more Light. She had never been a great healer, and ever since the curse, the Light hurt her to wield... but if it would help him, she would do it. And the fel began to subside in his features, his face becoming less gaunt, the pitch of his eyes returning to dull gold, claws and spines shrinking, though not disappearing completely. It was enough that he could pass for normal before she let go of the Light. The absence of pain made her slump a little before she drew back from him, slowly. Then he grabbed her wrist.

"Thank you," he said. The look on his face said he knew it had hurt her to do that. She curled her fingers, not wanting to accidentally touch him where her gloves left them bare, but didn't pull away.

"It's nothing," she said.

He smiled at her, lowering her hand but not letting go as he turned his head to look over the ocean. It glimmered softly under the stars. "Yer a noble soul, Vionora," he said.

She remembered the years she had spent in the clinics, trying to help others. "I tried to believe that," she said.

He smiled, squeezing her wrist. "Well. Ya have me convinced."

They spoke briefly about Michael. When the conversation reached a natural lull, Vionora closed her eyes, listening to the muted, distant sounds of the human capitol at night. "Maybe dawn shouldn't come," she said.

Tirien gave her wrist another squeeze, still holding it. He had grown more relaxed, now. "If it don't I may be stuck like this fer awhile. Also would hafta work on my night vision. Ain't th' best in the world..."

"But then..." She stopped herself. There was no point in wishing. The dawn would come, regardless. The knowledge took away the peace of the evening for her, reminding her that before the sun rose, she would leave, and return to the other side, where she was despised, hated, feared.

He'd been looking over the harbor; now he turned to look at her a little. "Then...?" he prompted.

She shook her head, making her bright blonde hair swing against her face. "It doesn't matter," she said. Like everything else, it was inevitable.

"Of course it does." He smiled at her. "Speak yer mind."

She shook her head harder, and pulled her hand away from his, finally. He let her.

"Alright, if yer sure," he said.

He was always like that; never took anything she did or said personally. She wrapped her arms around her waist, leaning forward a little. It hurt, a little, his kindness, irrationally. It would have felt better if he'd reacted with hurt or anger when she withdrew.

"You chilled?" he asked, noting her posture.

"No... Tirien... You can't keep being so kind to me," she said.

***

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Tirien scooted to get a better look at her. "What d' ya mean?"

Vionora tilted her shoulder against the wall, not looking back at him. The fact that he moved closer instead of away seemed to her to embody the problem. "You just.. you have to stop. I need to stop seeing you."

"It's Accalia, ain't it?"

There was concern in his voice. And stubbornness. He was stubborn; impossibly so. Vi sought to explain.

"That man.... He was looking for me," she said.

His look turned level. "I ain't gonna let some self righteous pigeon stuffer stomp about an' have his way."

"That won't stop anyone from hurting you," she said.

"It ain't about me."

That made her finally look at him again. He looked back at her, unwavering.

"I've been hurt enough," he said. "Ain't nothin' he can throw at me worse than I already faced."

"Don't say that," she whispered, the words drawn from her like stitches from a wound that had never healed. "It's never true. It's never true."

Tirien reached out and rested his hands on her arms, just below her shoulders. His expression was set in stubbornness, his stance on the matter like bedrock. "It ain't worth sayin' if it ain't true. V, I ain't gonna let 'em have his way. What's he gonna do? Toss some Light at me? He's already done that an' I'm fine. He gonna smack me around? Good luck. Go fer my home? I ain't got one." He tightened his grip, though it wasn't so much that it hurt. "Hurt th' folks I like? Again, good luck."

His touch, his words, made her sway toward him. But when his grip tightened, she took in a breath, her eyes widening. "N-no... I'm going to hurt you..."

That was the truth of it. He couldn't stand beside her and not get hurt; if not because of who would come after him, then because she would hurt him herself. She hurt everyone. Accalia would make no distinctions.

He smiled, not with amusement, or pride, or condescension; it was just a smile. "Nah, I don't believe that."

Every time he said something like that, it cut away part of her. And it hurt, but pain was something she knew well. She reached out, knowing she should push him away, but her hand curled against his chest instead. "How are you so sure?" she asked.

"'Cause I have faith in ya," he said simply.

Vionora searched his eyes. There was nothing in them to fear; nothing that could ever hurt her. Her other hand moved to his knee as she leaned closer. "Why?" she asked.

His smile softened. "'Cause yer just a normal person with a lotta weight on yer shoulders."

It was a gross understatement of the situation, but that was how he saw it. She leaned over more until her head was resting against his shoulder. That was what she needed; so much. Someone who saw her as a person dealing with all of this, and not an embodiment of anything, not a herald or an avatar, or a tragedy or a villain, a possession or a pawn. Just... a person.

He let her rest there. "Pardon th' tunic." He rumbled a laugh. "It's seen better days."

Vionora didn't care. She slid her arm up to his waist, almost in his lap now. He went with the movement, holding onto her and maneuvering his back to the wall; she clung to him, afraid to let go, afraid to do anything, say anything, change anything. His elbows popped as he moved. "Oof, man, I gotta start stretchin' again," he commented as he settled back. When she was silent, he glanced down at her. "You alright?"

"What now?" she mumbled into his chest.

"Mm? Well, yer welcome t' rest here t'night. An' by here I mean uh..." He looked to his right. "I think I left my pack somewhere in th' barracks here... Should have my bedroll in it still, if yer tired?"

"No... I mean.."

She tilted her head back to look up at him. He met her look and smiled, one arm still around her. "It's up t' you," he said. "I trust ya."

Accalia was silent, not so much a whisper in her thoughts. Vionora couldn't hear her anymore. She stared into Tirien's eyes, knowing that one wrong move and she could hurt him. If her hands touched his arms... if her face brushed his... She would mark him. And he trusted her. All she could think to say was, "What are you saying?"

"I'm sayin' where we go from here is up t' you." He smiled still. "A course I'd like fer ya t' stay an' I'd like t' talk with ya more, but I ain't gonna tell ya what t' do."

Frustration began to well within her. She slowly, carefully, extricated herself from him. He held out his arm, keeping it extended between her and the open arch as though concerned she might turn and walk off the tower. It wasn't an entirely illogical concern given the conversation they'd had atop the keep.

"I don't know what good this is," she said. Bitterness was still distant, but it was there.

"Nothin' wrong with that," he said.

"I don't have any hope left... so what good is comfort?" she said.

It had been in that dank dungeon, overhearing Malhavik casually discuss torture with Karthok, that she'd come to understand. "Hope is a torturer's most powerful tool," the warlock had said conversationally to the orc. That was why he had deprived her of everything. If she had no hope, she could not suffer.

Tirien narrowed an eye up at her suspiciously. "I wouldn't go s'far as t' say that," he said. "But things don't always need t' have a point."

She leaned against the other wall, searching for a position to take, something to make him understand. "I feel like I'm going to ruin the good in you," she said.

He smiled again, that same damn smile. "We've been over this already."

Her frustration snapped. Turning, she slammed her first into the wall. The arch rumbled, dust raining down as the stone cracked under her hand. She drew her fist back, the broken knuckles already mending, and stares at the cracks blankly.

Tirien leaned to his left to get a better look at the punch. He whistled. "Whoa, now that's impressive!"

"I think you just don't understand," she said calmly.

"I'd like t' think I do."

"You can't understand."

Tirien rose to his feet, leaning his upper back against the other side of the arch. "Aight," he said. "I won't pretend I understand everythin', cause I don't, but I feel I got an inklin'."

"That's all this is.." She was speaking mostly to herself, now. "You just don't understand..."

"What if I want to?"

He didn't sound stand-offish. It was just... genuine. Vi took another breath. "Stop," she whispered.

"We've been over this, V," he said.

"Stop saying that!" she cried. "Stop... stop saying these things!"

"I'm not. Plain an' simple as that." He spoke humbly. "I can't."

Vionora put her forearms against the wall, leaning her forehead against them and squeezing shut her eyes. She stayed there for awhile, then eventually turned around, putting her hands on the wall behind her and leaning back. She met his eyes.

"I can't... stop you," she said.

She was defeated. It was a relief, but it was terrifying at the same time. She didn't know where to go from here.

"Then I'll jus' be here," he said.

Maybe that was all there was to it.

***

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The times she spent with Tirien stood in stark contrast to the times she spent in Horde territories. In Stormwind with Tirien, she found peace; everywhere else she went, there was violence, doled out to her and by her in great amounts. And when she was not with Tirien... there was Malhavik.

One evening, the warlock had enlisted her assistance in capturing the Sanctuary monk, Kex'ti. For unknown reasons, Kex'ti was immune to the curse, and Malhavik wanted to determine how. He also intended to enjoy the process a great deal; and wanted Vionora to share that enjoyment. It was his intention, after all, that she learned to enjoy suffering.

Darrethy had arrived in the midst of it, but Malhavik had actually managed to convince the other warlock it was for the greater good -- in no small part after Darrethy saw how dispirited Vionora was. Now, chuckling with glee, Malhavik sat himself down beside the fire where Vionora was already seated. She sat with her legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around, and stared into the dancing flames. The dual marks on her exposed hands glimmered as brightly as the fire did.

"That went... exceedingly well," Malhavik said. He chuckled again. "Did you find any joy at all in the tale we wove? Perhaps remind you of being a kid, and bluffing to your parents?"

"My father abandoned us and my mother killed herself when I was a child," Vionora said.

"Well then," Malhavik said, "let me rephrase..." He paused, and the pause turned into a long silence. "Sorry, I was lost in thought," he said presently. "What was I saying?"

Vionora looked at him across the fire. "I don't know, making some sort of assumption about me probably," she said dully.

"Ah yes, that sounds about right!"

He laughed, but it turned into a searching look. Vionora ignored it, her gaze lowered back to the fire, and keeping her arms clasped around her legs.

"So how do you feel about tonight's events?" he asked.

"I don't feel anything," she said.

"You didn't find any of that fun?" Vionora shook her head. "Distasteful even?" he asked.

"No... It just... doesn't matter," she said quietly.

"Ugh, that old bell." He frowned, and Vionora looked away from the fire, feeling the weight of his disapproval. "There must be something you can find to hold dear... Well, lucky for you I am exceedingly patient for those who catch my eye! Though..." he said thoughtfully. She looked up at him. "Darrethy did bring up a point I had been meaning to make for some time."

She didn't ask, knowing he'd tell her. Nothing she said mattered. He did.

"My home, and my camps, are always open to you. I don't know where you have been spending your time passing days, and I respect the option to have solace. But you really should try and develop relationships with people."

Unwittingly, she shot him a wary look. Her fingers curled into the fabric of her skirt, of the robes he'd picked out for her. He noticed, and she quickly looked away.

"You already have?" he intuited.

Her gaze snapped back to his. She didn't say anything, but it was as telling as if she had.

"Do tell..." he said.

"No."

She never said no to him. He possessed her soul. The warlock was briefly baffled. "No?" He laughed, and Vionora shook her head. "I trust it won't impede our goal?" Malhavik inquired.

"He won't... impede anything," Vionora said.

The warlock stared at her, hard, then cast his gaze to the fire. Vionora scrunched up fistfuls of her skirt, not realizing she was doing so.

"Well, good," he said eventually. "That means you are ahead already. I knew you'd catch on quickly!"

He gave her a smile, and she looked down, not meeting his eyes.

They spoke for a short time on other things; Malhavik wanted her to continue playing on Darrethy's sympathy, which she had not done intentionally, but which had accomplished much regardless. Malhavik also speculated that Kex'ti's immunity lay in his body, not in his soul.

Eventually, Malhavik rose to his feet. "I am going to begin my research," he said. "You are welcome to stay in my quarters as long as you wish, I do not require slumber."

"I don't either," Vionora said. It was true. Since Accalia's rising, she had required neither food nor sleep. She had nearly forgotten what either was like.

"Well, all the same, my room is quite extravagant!" Malhavik said. He sounded pleased with himself.

She blinked. "Extravagant how?"

"Well... I exhumed all the corpses in the crypt's largest room, which is indeed very large. Lined with marble pillars and refurbished with crimson drapery and rugs. Though my favorite paraphernalia is the chamber I keep behind my resting coffin."

Vionora reflected on the shoddy house she'd lived in growing up, the rough accouterments of living as a Ranger, and the miserable shack she'd lived in in Shattrath. She'd never known fine things and never thought to try to acquire them. "What purpose does it serve?" she asked.

"It is where I keep my collection," he said. "I keep the souls of my most hated, or... my favorite people. The room is shaped so that you can relax to the reverberations of the collected souls."

"I see," she said. Perhaps someday her soul would join the collection, she thought morosely.

"Though... there are plenty of other items in there you should probably not bother yourself with." He chuckled as she glanced at him. "I have... many personal joys best kept private."

"What, you don't want to teach me to enjoy those too?" she said. Somehow, she had managed some sarcasm.

He looked at her with his black eyes. "Those... are things you must choose to enjoy. They cannot be thrust upon you."

"Unlike suffering," she said flatly.

"Normally, suffering would be included in the taboo. But you don't have much of a choice now do you?"

She hunched her shoulders a little at the reminder. "And you want to leave me with the illusion of a choice for the rest," she said. After a short silence, she said, "I'm not innocent, you know."

"Provoking drive from you is what I swore, was it not?" he said.

She glanced up at him again, briefly unsettled, but then looked away again. It was nothing worse than what she had endured before. "Do what you will," she said quietly. "It doesn't matter."

"I am many things, but a heathen is not one of them!" Malhavik chided her. "Perhaps when I am certain I have piqued your interest."

Her gaze returned to his from under her eyelashes, and she didn't speak.

Studying her expression, the warlock moved to sit back down, and posed her a question. "Tell me, what do you plan to do within the next few days?"

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Vionora tried to think. Forming plans was difficult; she didn't do much unless she was forced to. "I need to.. recruit more hounds... and.. talk to Darrethy, like you told me to..."

"Is that all? Business as usual?"

"I guess," she said uncertainly.

"You know I would be angry with you for such an answer."

Her hands curled in her skirt again at his tone. "What else should I do?" she asked hesitantly.

"You seem to be completely ignoring what I'm trying to teach you." His words sent a chill of dread through her. "But..." he said then, "you have a... friend?"

Vionora looked up at him again quickly, but didn't speak. She didn't dare.

"Lover?" he inquired.

The question threw her off-guard. "N-no," she stuttered.

Malhavik chuckled quietly to himself. "No... No!"

"No," Vionora said again, with certainty, but he wasn't listening.

"Maybe I should share my personal joys with you!" he said. "Impress your new man? Aha!"

"It's not..." She realized he was watching her closely, trying to provoke a telling reaction. It was a struggle to maintain her composure. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Monitoring your progress," he said matter-of-factly. "Since you will not share it with me, I must use other means."

She was squeezing fistfuls of her skirt again. "He's the opposite of you," she said suddenly.

"There we are," he said with satisfaction. "How so?"

Looking at the warlock, Vionora thought about Tirien. His gold eyes, his awkward and utterly pure sincerity. "He doesn't try to make me be anything."

"He would allow you to be Accalia's dog?" he scoffed.

"Don't. Don't twist it." She would take back the words, this entire conversation, before he could taint peace she found with Tirien, if she could. But she couldn't.

"You hope for a fantasy... Do you not see this for what it is?" Malhavik said. He rose to his feet once more. "That is fine. But know this."

The breath left her lungs at the terrible sureness in his words, the truth she could feel in her very soul. She lifted her left hand, the seal-marked hand, and pressed it to her chest, but the feeling did not alleviate, and only grew as he continued speaking.

"I am the rock that disturbed your march... I do the necessary evil to drive you out of the mindless path you've been on. If you want to forsake me and live that pleasant fairy tale, so be it. But years from now when your life crumbles yet again, as it always has..."

Shadow crashed down on her, blinding her.

"I will not be there to stand you back up. I will be there to add you to the collection."

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She didn't remember getting up and moving over to him, only dropping to her knees before him, taking his clawed hand in her own. "I'll do anything... just tell me... what to do."

Malhavik looked down at her as she pleaded. "Tell its name," he said.

The command rocked her back. It was the last thing she wanted to do. "W-why?" she said.

He chuckled. "Afraid I will cause harm?"

She sat back on her heels, looking up at him pleadingly. "...Please, leave him alone. I won't go see him again."

"Tell me his name, and all is forgiven," he told her. Still, she hesitated. Malhavik began to pull away, and she lowered her head and whispered.

"Tirien."

She didn't see it, but Malhavik smiled. "Relax, I will not harm him."

His smile had faded by the time she looked back up at him. He stared into the fire, silent for a time.

"I want you to keep seeing him," he said finally. His gaze moved down to her as she blinked and looked at him uncertainly. He watched her for a long moment, and then said, "I don't want you to change a thing, my dear."

"O...okay," she said.

"Leave me," he said, withdrawing his hand. "I have much work to do."

She hesitated again, but under his gaze, she slowly rose to her feet and turned away. The twilight enfolded her.

***

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It was true, everything he'd said. The last time she had escaped shadow, darkness had come to claim her. Imagining she could find the embrace of anything besides those two things was just a fantasy. And without him to help her to learn to love suffering, and death denied to her... What she would face then was unfathomable.

So Vionora understood there was only one thing to do: give herself to shadow.

***

Malhavik worked into late in the evening. His mind was still on his experiments when he walked into his chamber, intending only to meditate for a little while to see if a breakthrough would occur to him. He stopped short when he realized the chamber was not unoccupied.

Vionora waited for him, a sheet drawn up to her shoulders. She said nothing, only looked at him with her gray eyes and rose to her feet, still holding the sheet.

"Ah, Vionora," he said, trying to think of how to handle this situation. "You needn't–"

She dropped the sheet.

Like all elves, she was beautiful, from head to toe. She had flawless, smooth skin, and perfect proportions. Her bright hair cascaded over her shoulders in pleasing contrast to her dusky complexion. She stood with her hands at her sides, watching him for his reaction with no sign of fear or hesitance.

Malhavik felt conflicting emotions. Her allure, her clear willingness, was undeniable. But her beauty only served to remind him of his own decrepit condition. Still, he drew close to her, and lifted one clawed hand to her face, watching her eyes.

"I told you I'm not innocent," she said. Her voice was lower, huskier. She turned her face into his hand, keeping her eyes on his. "I know what I want."

"And what do you want?" he had to ask.

"What only you can give me." Her gaze was intense as she reached up. Her hand clasped the cold porcelain mask and pulled it away, revealing his face. "Please."

He took her in his arms.

***

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Even still, it was a choice she'd felt she had no option but to make; and not, therefore, a choice at all. Her outlook remained bleak as events progressed, especially after Naheal revealed in Moonglade that it was the seal that Accalia had turned into her talisman, ensuring Vionora would be linked to the Beast-God for as long as the seal remained. She tried to convince Malhavik that there was no use trying to help her, and he almost started believing it himself, seeing her wanting to give up... but decided he would try to remove the seal the moment of Accalia's appearance in the mortal realm, the only time an event of great enough power to do so would occur. Still, Vionora lacked any will, powerless in her own life.

But then a curious thing began happening: she started wanting to help Tirien with his Hunter problem. It was a shift, for her... In her entire life, she'd never worried about anyone else before. So she ended up asking Malhavik, who knew a thing or two about souls, if he could help. He agreed.

They met in the old Shattrath, under A'dal's protective aura.

***

She'd spoken to Tirien first, who was hesitant and skeptical, and questioned her at length about the warlock. But he'd agreed to meet with him, under certain conditions. Now Vionora waited, hands clasped, with Malhavik. His concealed face was, of course, unreadable.

As always, she could sense Tirien, and knew he was nearby. "He's coming," she said. She looked at the six-armed demon standing beside Malhavik. "He asks... no demons... and no magic."

"Fine, fine," Malhavik said. He dismissed his demon with a wave of his hand. Soulshards floated over his head, a lingering reminder of his power; that and the curse flowing through him, making him the most powerful of any of those she had marked. Yet it wasn't any of that that gave him power over Vionora. She looked away.

It wasn't much longer before Tirien made himself known. He leapt down from one of the overhanging crystals with easy agility. Vionora brightened to see him. "Tirien..."

He glanced at her briefly and offered a nod before returning his attention to Malhavik. He was dressed differently than Vionora had ever seen him. Gone were the old tunic and trousers; he was dressed head to toe in black leather of excellent quality, now. Daggers gleamed openly at his hips, coated in virulent poison. He reached up and pulled down his hood.

Malhavik took note of the rogue's readiness as well. But all he said was, "Tirien, I presume?"

"Indeed, warlock," Tirien said. They both spoke Common; a language all three of them had in common.

Malhavik moved forward. "Well then, allow me to properly introduce myself."

Tirien tensed at the approach. "Not a foot further," he said.

Malhavik didn't move any closer, but otherwise ignored the rogue's words. "I am Malhavik Undercroft, of The Grim." He bowed.

"Tirien Forewell. House Forewell." Tirien offered no bow or even a nod in return.

Vionora watched Tirien, her brow faintly furrowed. She understood he disliked warlocks, but she'd never seen him like this.

"Must we speak here?" Malhavik was saying. "I would much prefer the cushy seats and cold drinks of an inn."

"I like the chiming," Tirien responded. He smirked. "Now what did you want to discuss?"

Vionora spoke up. "He can help you..."

Malhavik turned his veiled gaze toward her briefly. Tirien didn't look at her, still eyeing the warlock. "Is that so?" Tirien said skeptically.

"Sweet Vionora here tells me you have a rather unique affliction," Malhavik said. "One I just so happen to specialize in."

Vionora was beginning to wonder if either of them had agreed to meet for that ostensible reason.

Tirien huffed a little from his nose. "I doubt that." He rested his wrist on the pommel of one dagger.

Vionora's confusion finally crystallized into a question. "Tirien... Why are you acting like this?"

The rogue turned a reassuring smile on her. "Because he's dangerous."

"We're all dangerous in our own right," Malhavik said. "What future do we have to hope for if we can't cooperate every now and then?" He sounded jolly.

Vionora was still looking at Tirien. It hadn't been right, that smile. That wasn't how Tirien smiled at her. This wasn't how he acted. This wasn't... "You're not... Tirien," she said, grasping the truth. "You're him. Hunter."

Hunter grinned, keeping his attention on Malhavik, who remained impassive. "Pardon me if I find the presence of another warlock... unsettling."

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"What happened to Tirien? What have you done to him?" Vionora stepped forward. Her hands curled into fists.

Hunter was still smiling. "He's fine. You don't need to worry over him."

"Here I was thinking I would have to do some linguistic gymnastics to speak with you," Malhavik remarked.

Shocked, Vionora looked at Malhavik. "You wanted to talk to... the fel in him?"

"How else would I truly learn what going on here?" Malhavik inquired.

"I've never enjoyed dancing around a point," Hunter said. He went back to regarding the other warlock, measuring him.

Vionora looked back at Hunter. "It's... his father," she said to Malhavik. "His name is Hunter."

"Yes. Thank you for the introduction." Tirien's voice speaking so coldly to her gave her chills.

"Ah, splendid," Malhavik said cheerfully. "So Hunter, are you seeking immortality through your boy? Why possess him?"

"Are you seeking to help Vionora?" Hunter returned instead of answering. "Why bind her soul?"

"Indeed I am trying to help her," Malhavik said smoothly. "Binding her soul will further my efforts."

Hunter clicked his tongue. It was a sound Vionora had heard both Michael and Tirien make, and it was unnerving to recognize the true similarities. "You should have more faith in her, like Tirien does," he said, and she bit her lip.

"Faith?" Malhavik scoffed. "Hmph. Faith is for those to lazy or too weak to do things themselves."

Hunter looked amused. "An observation I share." Then he laughed lightly through his nose. "You spoke earlier about aiding Tirien?" Returning to a sober stare, he began to frown. "I am not some disease to be rid of."

"You're fel... You're wrong... you're hurting him!" Vionora burst out, but he continued to ignore her.

"Actually," Malhavik said, "I was looking to help Vionora. You see, Tirien has been a rather large thorn in my side as of late."

Her attention whipped around to Malhavik. "What?"

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"I am not surprised," Hunter said, almost dryly. "It's a quality he developed on his own."

His right arm twitched, and he gripped it with his left briefly.

Malhavik was looking at her. "Come now, did you honestly thing I would allow him to soften you? His influence on you is a complete contradiction to my teachings."

"No... You said..." She had believed him. He had promised her he wouldn't bring any harm to Tirien. Vionora cast a glance at Tirien – no, Hunter. He looked intrigued by their conversation. Malhavik turned to him as well.

"Now, what can we do to ensure your boy stops intervening?" Malhavik inquired.

"I'll stop seeing him," Vionora said, "please, just don't hurt him..."

They were both ignoring her again. Hunter went, "Humm..." and sighed. "I am afraid the nature of my circumstances makes this difficult," he said. His right arm twitched again, and he folded his arms across his chest.

"Let me make myself perfectly understood," Malhavik said. "The entity known as Tirien is an unknown variable in my future plans. Plans that need utmost precision to be successful."

Vionora stared at Malhavik, curling her left hand into a fist and pressing it to her stomach. She couldn't resist him. But she couldn't let Tirien be hurt.

"I was hoping I could speak with you and come to a solution," Malhavik went on. "If we cannot, I will find other means to solve my little problem."

"No..." Vionora said. They continued ignoring her.

"I am open to suggestion, though it would appear I have a better grip now than I have had in months," Hunter said.

"Do you require their souls?" Malhavik offered.

"No!" Vionora said.

Hunter glanced at her briefly. Was that a look of panic for a moment? Malhavik looked at her as well; his look was a warning. She trembled.

"I am past that step already," Hunter told Malhavik.

Malhavik spoke softly, his attention still partly on Vionora though he spoke to Hunter. "You mentioned there were two fighting your will? Let me take one."

"NO!" Vionora cried for a third time, and this time she moved. Her feet carried her between the two men, her back to Hunter as she faced Malhavik.

"Unless you can rip out a personality," Hunter spoke, as though she had done nothing, "it is next to impossible. Our souls are fused. As I said, that step is done."

Vionora recovered herself. She looked at Malhavik pleadingly. "Please... Tirien... the real Tirien... He's harmless. If I stop seeing him, he won't matter."

"Harmless?" Malhavik said. "I agree. That is what makes him a problem my dear."

"Yes... no!" she cried. She clasped her left hand to her chest, struggling. Malhavik stared at her for a long moment. Behind her, she heard a whisper.

Then Malhavik sighed. "I need some time to think..." he said. "Speak with your Tirien if you will. When I come back we will decide his fate."

"O-okay," Vionora said. He turned and walked away. Vionora stared after him, then slowly turned around to face the one who wore Tirien's face. "Tirien..." she said quietly.

"My fate is my own," Hunter said coldly. "The warlock is powerful, but it's nothing I have not seen come and go."

"I told you... I won't let him hurt you." Her voice had become more sure than it had been all evening. Her gaze searched his features, seeking a sign of Tirien within.

"He can't," Hunter said.

Vionora stepped forward, but a barrier flared between them, made of fel energy. She winced, holding up a hand.

"I wouldn't if I were you," Hunter said.

Lowering her hand, she looked at him. "I wasn't talking to Hunter," she said quietly.

He smirked. "Yes. You are."

She studied him. A calm was coming over her as she considered the situation. "What do you want out of this?" she asked eventually. "Do you want Accalia's power? Because I can give it to you. You can sense how powerful Malhavik is... I gave that to him. That on top of the power you already possess... do you want it?"

Hunter laughed, a wholehearted sound. "I can sense the fel inside of you is his. That is what I want, girl."

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Vionora clenched her left hand, the demonic seal-marked hand, over her stomach again, as she tried to understand. "What... do you want of it?"

"I want IT," he told her. "To add to my own. To bolster me further."

She stared at him as comprehension slowly dawned. "You want to make me the next in your chain."

A pitying look replaced his smirk. "Tsk, awh. You've found me out."

She lifted her hand and splayed it against the shield. It crackled with fel energy, but she ignored the discomfort. Hunter appeared at least as powerful as Malhavik was, by her estimation.

He returned to a smile, watching her. "If I did, Accalia would trouble no one, and you would be free of both her and your fel." His expression morphed to a devilish grin. "And be free of the shackles of life."

His words washed over her like a foreign language, although she understood them. Her response felt like it came from someone else. "What would... happen to Tirien?"

"He would remain in this husk of a body."

"You said your souls were fused together." She focused on him, intently.

He nodded. "Yes. He can keep it and live a long, long healthy life, free of my fel magics."

Vionora shook her head. She lifted her hand off the shield, then pressed it back against it, testing.

His features narrowed, but he continued speaking. "It's not my soul that needs to transfer, my dear. It's everything else."

The shield began to bend under her touch. With a flick of her wrist, she tore it. It fell apart, dissolving into fel shards, and she looked up at him expressionlessly. "I don't believe you," she stated.

They were in the twilight realm in the next moment, the sullen colors of old Shattrath washed out even further into grays and murky edges. There, she didn't move, just looked at him. His gaze shifted around, then back to her.

"What do you plan to do by bringing me here?" he asked. His arms were still folded. He gripped one bicep tightly.

"To ensure you wouldn't leave."

He looked about the twilight in thought, rubbing his beard. "Humm..."

"You see, admitting that you want to take me... now Malhavik has every reason to end you."

Malhavik had returned. She could sense him nearby. She reached out and pulled him into the twilight with them.

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