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Acherontia

Harvest and Torment

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It was difficult for Acherontia to ignore the screams. At this time of night, while most of the city slept and the only sounds to be heard were the bubbling of the ever-oozing ichor and the occasional scurrying of the rats, sound traveled far. Sometimes, it was a sob of despair, or a shriek of pain that escaped the depths of the Apothecarium. Most often, though, the sound that assaulted her ears was that of another poor wretched soul who had succumbed to madness - gibbering, raging, screaming, his cries winging through the tunnels, ricocheting off cold and damp stone, echoing on top of themselves over and over again before arriving at the little alcove she now called home and arrowing straight to her ears, straight into her mind.

Tonight, though, the warlock was too enmeshed in her thoughts to give heed to those suffering in the depths of the Undercity. Tonight, she and Melchisedech had ventured again into the depths of the monastery of the Scarlets, this time with Benan and Vanis as their guides. Acherontia shuddered as she remembered slipping and sliding on the blood and slime that coated the stone floor of one of the chambers, remembered seeing the broken bodies stretched to their deaths and hanging from the ceiling...remembered the hatred that filled the eyes of her attackers...she had wanted to shrink away from those eyes, to flee, but she stood firm with her companions and did what she could to aid them.

Acherontia felt a small grin twitch the corners of her mouth as she thought about how very different tonight had been compared with the one before. Their warrior companion, the one referred to them by Grainger, had been mostly silent, but it was the other orc that had amused and perplexed her. Acherontia had seen him in her Fel-vision as a mass of dark and rolling color, all force and drive and business and killing, with occasional flashes that sprung to the forefront out of an undercurrent of...rawness.

He and Melchisedech had taken a dislike to each other immediately.

"He is boorish, Acherontia. Thuggery is the only task to which he is suited. That you have to be subjected to his barbarism..." Melchisdedech trailed off in disgust, his voice dripping scorn.

Acherontia watched from the doorway as Kromag and his pet slaughtered a roomful of Scarlet fanatics. "I think he is kind to help us as he does. He considers it his duty to help those younger than he."

"Ah. Does he also consider it a duty to eye you like a side of beef, or was that merely an aspect of his 'kindness' that escaped your notice?" Acherontia shifted uncomfortably, and Melchisedech stepped closer, his voice dropping to a low hiss. "I do not know what exactly it is you see with those empty eyes, but I can tell you can see that much. 'I prefer Forsaken females to my own kind.' " Acherontia's face burned as she recalled the first words Kromag had spoken to her. She could not meet the priest's gaze. His voice softened. "My dear, he is an orc. Remember, Acherontia, that every orc, every Tauren, every troll and elf are lower than we. Even Thrall himself could never hope to be the equal of the lowliest Forsaken. We are Her chosen people."

Kromag, for his part, had very gallantly offered to kill Melchisedech for her if she so desired.

"Will you also lay claim to this magnificent chapeau that Melchisedech has been raving about?" Acherontia had whispered to the hunter with a smile.

"I have no interest in a hat, my lady." Kromag's reply was gruff, yet eloquent. "However, for your sake, I will kill the one who wears it if you wish me to."

Acherontia had politely declined.

The warlock lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling of the Undercity, contemplating what the priest had insinuated to her about the orc. Even in the darkness, alone, she flushed uncomfortably. Physical intimacies were not something she had been...recreational about in the past. It had been a very long time since a man - not man, male-...Acherontia sighed and paused in her ruminations. Since anyone had paid her any...attentions. The corners of her eyes suddenly prickled with tears she could never shed. Simon...Simon...Simon...

No.

He was gone, lost and gone and - her throat constricted - dead, gone, lost, lost, lost forever...

Melchisedech whimpered in his sleep, and Acherontia turned her head to the side and regarded her sleeping companion as he rested across the alcove from her. She could sense a change about him, his muted, milky aura now faded, now sparking with brilliant flashes of light, now rolling as a grey ocean, now rich with color. Acherontia barely recognized the priest at times. She remembered the initial moment of panic when she awoke in Thunder Bluff after the catastrophic events that she had wrought in Arathi Basin and found herself face to face with who she thought was a stranger. His voice was unmistakable, though, and eventually she relaxed, soothed by his gentle washing of her face but confused nonetheless.

The priest shifted fitfully, and Acherontia was puzzled as she regarded him with her sightless eyes. As usual, reading him was difficult, but something was amiss. Melchisedech rested quietly, sleeping only rarely, but he seemed deeper tonight, wandering in visions only he could see. Alarmed, she rolled to her side as her companion let out a strangled whimper. She hesitated briefly, then reached out a gloved hand towards him...

...with a start, the priest awoke.

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I huddled in the barrel, hearing the snuffling sounds of the ghouls outside. They scratched at the wooden slats, fingers poking in through the bunghole. They could smell my piss, my shit, my fear. I whimpered. I was crying.

One of the ghouls pushed the barrel over, and it cracked and broke open on the cold rock of the Lordaeron stone. I spilled out, caked in my own filth, weak and shaky from malnutrition and a week spent cramped in a barrel, not daring to leave.

Three ghouls surrounded me, drool dripping repulsively from distended, hairy maws. I wailed and scrabbled into a corner, huddled in on myself. A large, bulky shape pushed through the ghouls, a skeleton in massive, spiked armor, eyes burning red, blade dripping gore and rust.

The skeleton stared at me for long moments. Without a word, it drove its blade through my heart.

Melchisedech woke with a start, his throat constricted tightly around a scream that died stillborn. He felt like his heart should be racing, like he should be gasping for breath. Nothing.

In the darkness of the Undercity, he pushed himself to a sitting position, leaning back against the wall of the tunnel. He pulled his legs up against his chest and lowered his forehead to his knees.

Worm. Useless. Coward.

Melchisedech's shoulders began to shake. Deep, quiet shudders wracked his frail form. Softly, almost silently, the priest started to weep.

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At the priest's sudden movement, Acherontia snatches her hand back and drops her head on top of her other arm, closing her eyelids and feigning sleep. She barely moves, her Forsaken body making it unnecessary for her to breathe, and she waits, motionless, for Melchisedech to shift his position and fall back into his rest. She hears him draw a shuddering breath, his robes rustling in the dark, sliding on the stone floor as he moves. There is a sudden, tiny whimper, like that of a wounded animal, plaintive, pleading. Slowly, barely daring to look, Acherontia opens one eye a hairsbreadth and peers.

Melchisedech has scrunched himself up into the corner of the alcove, hugging his knees to his chest with his head hanging down. He is still that same brooding energy Acherontia saw while he was sleeping, but it seems to be all arrowed in on himself, sucking in light and shadow rather than exuding it. Acherontia banishes that thought from her head, feeling somewhat guilty for speculating. What does she know of a person's spirit? She watches in silence as her friend trembles and quakes, shuddering and whimpering-...Acherontia's eyes open wide.

Melchisedech is crying.

The warlock lays there in shock for several long moments, listening to him weep softly. Confusion runs rampant over her - surely the seas have dried up, surely the sun will not rise tomorrow. This is the impossible, the unthinkable. She has no doubt that Melchisedech would have stricken the weakness from his own body before succumbing to it, but now...after all he had told her about sorrow, the past, being weak...being too human...Acherontia's face hardens suddenly. Hypocrite. Fool. Liar. No more. With a whispered word, she conjures the Eye of Kilrogg and hovers it in front of his face.

"Melchisedech."

The priest lifts his head slowly and stares not at Acherontia, but into the green orb floating in front of him. He knows she is on the other side of it, watching him. The Fel-light illuminates his ragged features, glints off the tears soaking into the dead, puffy flesh around his eyes. Acherontia remains prone on the floor, not looking at him with her shadowy gaze, her face slack as she channels the Eye. She studies her companion carefully, a myriad of expressions washing over her. Her jaw muscles tense and relax under her pale skin, her eyebrows knit together and her lips harden, then part slightly before closing again. As the spell slowly begins to fade, Acherontia pushes herself up to a sitting position and turns to face Melchisedech, staring hard at him through the Eye before it disappears completely, casting the small alcove into darkness once more.

Her voice is quiet, yet almost businesslike when she finally speaks. "What happened?"

Melchisedech laughs. It is a short, biting sound, swallowed before it even emerges from his rotting mouth. "I died." He is looking, not at her, but off into a world only he can see. "It was a nightmare. Nothing more than a memory haunting me." Under the softness of his voice, Acherontia can still hear his core, the firm steel center of his being. She sees in him a hatred, a churning black mass of utter self-loathing.

"But...you never sleep," she blurts. It is the first thing that came to her mind, so utterly confused at her own thoughts is she.

"No. Perhaps this is why." Melchisedech lifts a hand and blots the skin around his eyes with the sleeve of his robe. "I hardly ever consider the past, either. And yet, sometimes, it forces me to."

Acherontia nods, silently. She knows the terrors of the past, the ones she shares with him. She remembers being Scourge. She knows that link that binds them. After re-living those horrors every day, every night...her voice is very soft. She knows. "You will become accustomed."

The priest makes a visible effort to straighten himself, smoothing his robes and straightening his legs, his voice regaining some of its former lyricism and strength. "I apologize, Acherontia. That was...unlike me."

"I know, my friend...I know." This time, when she asks, her tone is gentle. "What happened?"

Melchisedech is silent for a long time. It is clear that he is thinking, but he does not speak for several minutes. Acherontia leans against one of the wheels of the old cart, crossing her legs, waiting patiently.

"When I saw the numberless hordes of the Scourge, I did not stand on the wall." His voice is very matter-of-fact, edged with a tight undercurrent of anger. "My kinsmen, my countrymen stood, and died at the blades and arrows and spells and claws and teeth of you and your minions and allies. I did not."

A sudden realization dawns on the young warlock as she listens to Melchisedech speak. He had told her long ago that he had died when Arthas and his armies - she among them - had come against Lordaeron, but he was cryptic in his words. Now, Acherontia recalls something he had said to her, something that had puzzled her at the time and on which he would not elaborate. " 'I did not fight in Lordaeron.' ...but you were there..."

"Yes."

Acherontia listens quietly as he continues. "When you and yours came over the wall, I was valiantly curled up in a barrel. I stayed in that barrel for a week. When your foot soldiers finally found me, I was nearly starved, dying of dehydration, covered in my own shit. I had vomited all over myself. My clothes were black and rotting. I was caked with dirt and sweat and puke and piss. All because I was too afraid to climb out and die like a man."

Not for the first time, the warlock muses on the memory of sending her demons into the city after its people, and the reality that she is now traveling and fighting alongside one of them. She remembers the hundreds of soldiers that fell, screaming in horror and agony, only to be risen in undeath by the necromancers and forced to turn on their once-companions. She had always assumed the priest to have been one of these.

Acherontia is silent for long moments, remembering the last cries ripped from the throats of the soldiers as they died, remembering calling up demon after demon from the void, flinging curses and spells at the last valiant defenders of the city. Those men, those who had stood against the might of the Lich King...they had been fools. Looking back, she finds it impossible to believe that any could have. Slowly, deliberately, she speaks. "...I find it difficult to blame you for it." She twists her hands in her lap, not looking at him. "I feel I should be thinking of the women of Lordaeron, the weak and infirm...you should have been protecting them...but..." A cloud descends over Acherontia's face as her thoughts turn inward. She raises her head, meeting his gaze with her black stare.

"...I saw them too, Melchisedech. They had come for me once...and I fled too. I cannot fault you for that. Those that stood against the Scourge..." Her voice chokes her and it is several moments before she can continue. "Those that fought against them to protect me-"

"Run!"

Hearing his voice in a yell frightened her more than the screams that echoed from over the hills. William, from the next farm over, was ransacking the small shed that housed Simon's tools for anything he could use as a weapon, but Simon was yelling at her, pleading with his eyes. He swiftly drew a dagger from his boot and cut the traces that hitched the horse to the plow, and the animal plunged and tossed its head at being handled so roughly. Holding the horse steady with one hand, Simon crushed her to him with his other in a fervent embrace, inhaling the sun from her hair and whispering into her ear. "You have to go. You heard what happens when-...Jana, you can't be here."

Jana flung her arms around him, her rock, this steady, quiet man who now seemed like a stranger in the face of...only the gods knew. "Don't make me leave you," she begged him. He released the horse and squeezed her with all the strength in his brawny arms, a sob escaping his throat before he held her away from him. His eyes burned into hers with a fierceness she had never before seen. His voice was a low, fervent whisper. "I will come for you. I promise, I will find you after this is over. You aren't safe here." He lifted her off the ground and bundled her on to the back of the horse, winding her hands in the dark mane and squeezing them tightly. "Hold on...don't let go, keep your head down. Hold him with your legs." Jana shook her head tearfully and grabbed at one of his hands with her tiny one, desperate for every last second. Simon smiled up at her. "Take care of our child." He quickly kissed the swollen curve of her belly, then slapped the horse's rump with the flat of his hand and the animal shot off, across the field, into the woods, the young woman clinging to its back for dear life.

William ran back to him, brandishing a pitchfork and Simon's rifle, but the bigger man just stared after his wife. All the promises he had made her, he had never broken. He prayed to the gods that he could keep this one too.

Acherontia swallows hard and continues in a voice that is no longer steady. "...they had more courage than any man could ever be born with. You were never a fighter, Melchisedech. You cannot be blamed."

Melchisedech sighs faintly. "Your words are sweet, Acherontia, but I still smell the sour stench of myself." The priest shrugs, adjusting his shoulders. He looks almost normal once more. "I am sorry to have disturbed your rest with my self-pity."

The young warlock smiles faintly. "I was already awake. Do not concern yourself." After a moment, she rises uncertainly to her feet, not sure what to do next. "Would you like to walk?"

Melchisedech nods and stands. "I do not believe I will be returning to sleep. I will gladly walk with you." He moves as if to exit the small alcove, but Acherontia steps forward and stops him. Staring straight ahead, not looking up into his face, she hesitantly raises a gloved hand and holds it there, hovering inches away from him, before gently placing it on Melchisedech's chest, over his heart. After a brief moment, she brusquely pats him with her fingertips. "Come."

She turns away from him and slides through the narrow space between the wagon and the damp stone wall. Melchisedech, bewildered but not displeased, follows her, and the two silently make their way out into the empty, echoing tunnels of the Undercity.

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