The Mother Tree’s calming words did nothing to protect me from the splintering pain that ripped through my body. With every flail, the intensity hacked my body and consciousness further apart. I was in danger of losing myself. My spine arched and fingers contorted, as spasms seized every muscle in my body. I thrashed wildly in the chains that held me against the wall.
My vision washed white and my ears rung with my own deafening screams.
I couldn’t feel or sense anything except the raw pain that raked my body. Eventually, Bastel relented, and my cries dulled to a low sob. Bastel’s hideous laugh flooded my ears and made my skin crawl.
‘It’s your turn twig,’ Bastel jeered, turning to Ralith.
‘No more…’ I begged.
Bastel’s mangled face twisted into a sick grin.
‘I love it when they beg. It means they’re fresh.’
Ralith, who had been watching silently, took a tentative step forward. He put a soft hand on my bruised skin. I looked up at him. Tears streaked my face, and I mouthed wordlessly. I begged him to have mercy. Instead, he grimaced, and took a deep breath.
Electricity jolted through my body. It paralyzed me in a hot grip of agony. It was as if a thousand fire ants were tearing at my flesh. I couldn’t even scream.
When the electricity stopped, my body could only flop forward, completely exhausted.
‘Embrace the experience twig,’ Bastel barked. ‘Enjoy it. With every tormented memory you create, we are closer to freeing the Mother Tree.’ Ralith nodded silently.
‘Again!’ Bastel roared. The pain seared for an eternity until, finally, Ralith stepped away and Bastel undid my shackles.
I collapsed onto the damp soil.
‘Clean her up, bandage her wounds and take her to Vilem,’ Bastel growled. ‘I’ve got a Charr who needs to learn how to beg’. I could not even lift my head, as I heard his booming laugh echo as he left.
Soft hands reached out for me and pushed me gently up against the cave wall. My exhausted body slumped as Ralith flitted around the room, collecting bottles and bandages. When he sat down next to me, he pushed my pink tendrils out of my eyes and wiped my face with cool water.
He reached for my injured arm. I whimpered, pulling back. I wanted to scramble away from him, but my body felt like it had been snared by oakheart roots.
‘I didn’t want to hurt you,’ he said earnestly, his dark eyes beseeching me. ‘I didn’t enjoy it like Bastel did. I won’t hurt you now. Let me bandage you.’ He reached out again, and took my arm. He applied a pungent ointment before wrapping it carefully.
‘Why?’ I rasped. He kept his eyes down on his work.
‘Vilem doesn’t want you dead. You’ll be treated well.’
Treated well? I stared at my broken and discolored body. Fresh wounds leaked steadily, as sap cascaded down my skin and melded with muddy puddles on the floor. Disbelief and anguish overflowed, and rivulets of salty water dribbled from my eyes as I sobbed.
‘Don’t cry,’ he said wringing his hands. ‘They won’t hurt you like they hurt the others; you’re special. Bastel isn’t allowed to kill you.’ His words were intended to soothe me, but it made me feel sick.
‘I want to go home,’ I sobbed. Ralith tried to smile comfortingly.
‘I know it’s hard at first, but you’ll see, the Nightmare Court has a noble purpose.’
* * *
When he finished bandaging my wounds, Ralith helped me to my feet. My whole body ached and as I wobbled forward, I felt the bandages flood with fresh sap.
He helped me through the halls. He moved slowly so as not to hurry me, and his eyes frequently flickered tentatively to my face.
Screams bled through the walls, and every bone-shattering shriek made me jump. The corridors gradually became more lavish, and the wails turned to faint whispers. Each wall was lined with large banners emblazoned with the Nightmare Court’s emblem.
We stopped at an intricately chiseled door at the end of the corridor. Its wooden features showed a beautiful tree arching into the sky encircled by thorns that seemed to be protecting her from indistinguishable beasts. Ralith knocked on the door.
‘What?’ Vilem’s voice snapped impatiently.
‘Master Vilem, I have Azalea for you.’
There was a pause, and then;
‘Oh yes, the sapling,’ he said. Ralith opened the door, and I hesitated.
‘Go in,’ he hissed urgently. Reluctantly I hobbled in and the door shut behind me.
Vilem’s room was luxurious. The cave roof was higher than other rooms, and spindly vines twisted across the walls. An ornate wooden chair and table were placed in the center of the room, a huge woven tapestry of blues and green behind it. The craftsmanship was exquisite, and if it had not depicted withering contorted faces stretched in utter horror, it would have been considered beautiful.
Vilem stood by the desk and gestured for me to sit down. I hesitated.
‘Sit down,’ he hissed, his face contorting momentarily. I quickly obeyed. Vilem drew closer, and I cringed. The image of him grinding his foot into the ashen corpses still burned in my mind. Although it felt like days ago, it had only been a few hours. My connections to the roots in the ground were stronger here, and I could sense that the flowers had closed their petals for the night.
‘I see Bastel was enthusiastic as always,’ Vilem drawled as he inspected my bandages. He suddenly jabbed my wound. Pain flashed through my body causing me to yelp. I flung myself away but my heavy legs stumbled, and I fell into the dirt. Vilem chuckled darkly and slid away, letting me struggle back to the chair.
‘Pain ought not to be feared, sapling. It brings focus, passion and purity. You will learn this soon enough.’
He moved silkily to the other side of the desk, his long fingers selecting a fruit from the bowl. As he bit down into the ripe juicy flesh, I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. A dull ache seized my stomach
‘The Nightmare Court seeks to free our Mother Tree from the shackles of the Ventari tablet and its tenets. You think we are evil, but what do you know sapling? You are still green with youth, and you presume to pass moral judgments.’
He started to pace in front of me.
‘Our mother has grown with these tenets in her roots but no wider knowledge concerning the true nature of the world. They are supposed to guide us, but they were written by an old babbling centaur. She cannot see that if we do not aggressively defend ourselves, we will never survive. Tell me, sprout, what is the point of being “good” when we are dead?’
I stayed silent, too scared to answer.
‘Sylvari must break free from the tenets. We, the Nightmare Court, crusade for this purpose. A true Sylvari must embrace the darkness of the nightmare.’
He stopped and turned slowly, his arms held out wide.
‘You are a gift from the Pale Tree. We all felt the significance of your dream. You belong here as a knight of the Nightmare Court. I welcome you with open arms.’ I stared at him in horror, and his eyebrow twitched as he watched me expectantly.
‘I want to go home,’ I cried. Vilem’s vengeance was swift. The back of his hand slammed against my face, his ring of thorns tearing across my cheek and throwing me off the chair once more.
‘I will tell you again,’ he hissed, his shadow swallowing me. ‘Embrace the nightmare.’
I clasped my cheek, the sap dribbling through my fingers, and a hot anger bubbled in my chest as stubborn tears welled.
‘I won’t,’ I yelled. I tried to scramble to my feet, to defend myself, but he pushed me down with a flick of his foot.
‘Stupid sapling. If you will not join, you will be tortured until you break out of the insanity the Mother Tree has forced upon you,’ he sneered. ‘You will make the right choice, or suffer the consequences.’