I quickly realized that begging didn’t help. It just gave Bastel pleasure, so I stopped.
An unfamiliar anger started to burn within me. It felt like it was eating at my insides, threatening to consume me. At first, I hated it. Then I embraced it. I carried me through each day, as the fantasy of ripping Bastel limb from limb grew brighter.
The torture twisted my mind, but my body bore the brunt of the trauma. My skin had scaly patches of sickly yellow hues around my wounds, and the chains had blackened and bruised my wrists. The soft, fresh body the Pale Tree had blessed me with was gone, but somehow, I had no tears to shed for it.
They stored me in a small room that had been carved out of the soil. It had nothing in it except a dry leaf litter bed. The room was completely dark except for large tree roots that had been left intact and intertwined into the dirt as walls. Their speckled skin shed a blue luminescent light that glittered in the darkness. It was beautiful, and I ached to see it every night. I embraced the living life that pulsated from it.
In the Grove, I felt the gentle hum of life through other sylvari. We were all connected by a shared subconscious, and we could feel each other. If someone was merry we felt the twinge of their emotions, and could share in their happiness. Here everyone felt dead, like they had severed their connections to the Tree. I’d never felt such loneliness. Every night I had only one comfort that eased my despair.
‘Azalea,’ Ralith called softly. My eyes flickered to him, but I did not reply. ‘Eat,’ he said pushing a tray of raw tasteless vegetables towards me, as he did every night, but this time, there was a new addition.
‘I managed to get you a plum’ he said. From what he had told me about his living conditions, I could only presume it came from his rations. I took the plum and ate it greedily. I wouldn’t be able to stomach the uncooked vegetables.
Ralith moved closer to inspect my wounds. He carefully examined a laceration on my thigh that had started to fester. I hissed as he touched it, and he shook his head.
‘How long are you going to be stubborn, Azalea?’ he sighed, pulling out ointment from his coat. ‘Why will you not be reasonable, and join the Nightmare Court?’
I looked away.
‘It’s the Pale Tree’s brainwashing Azalea,’ he said earnestly. ‘Even now the Pale Tree subtly influences you. Do you not have the choice to preserve your own life?’
‘I do have a choice,’ I hissed. ‘I choose not to hurt people.’
‘That’s a sweet sentiment, and I wish the world was that way, but the fact of life is people get hurt. If you don’t hurt them, they will hurt you.’
I stared at him for a moment.
‘Like you’re hurting me?’ I said in a low voice.
Ralith smiled knowingly.
“You see, the Pale Tree knows of the Nightmare Court’s existence. She’s known since long before you were even born, yet she has done nothing to stop them. She has decided not to protect her own children and you have had to suffer the consequences. To her we are all just fodder for the dragon,’ he hissed. A darkness swallowed his eyes, but he turned away, his attention once again falling to my wound. He smeared ointment over it. He conjured a small shard of ice in his hands and pressed it softly against my cut to ease the pain.
‘Why do you treat me so differently?’ I asked curiously, ‘It’s as if you like me…’
Ralith looked up, his leafy eyebrows rising in surprise.
‘I do like you… very much.’
‘Then why do you torture me?’ I asked dumbfounded.
‘As painful as it is Azalea,’ he said with a heavy sigh, ‘I’m doing you a favor.’
* * *
Bastel plunged a hot knife into my festering gash and I shrieked.
‘Don’t mame her!’ Ralith cried, surging forward. Bastel swung around, and with his other hand struck Ralith down.
‘Don’t you dare give me orders,’ Bastel growled. Ralith backed away, nursing a swollen cheek.
The pain was unforgettable. White hot agony seared my mind, and it felt like my body was being torn apart into a thousand pieces.
‘I give up,’ I screamed at the top of my lungs.
My surrender hung, suspended in the damp air.
Bastel’s eyes glittered, and he yanked the dagger out of my leg. He turned away, roaring for the door guard. Ralith hurried forward and bandaged my leg hastily. I was losing a lot of sap.
Bastel threw Ralith away and dragged me through the halls to a small room. The walls were made of twisted roots that glowed, and at one end sat sat a simple throne. The Nightmare Court emblem was emblazoned behind it.
I slumped up against the wall as Ralith tried to tend to me. Bastel watched him, his mangled face twitched with distaste.
‘What is the point of me doing it if you’re just going to bandage her up again.’
Ralith’s eyes flickered with anger, but he kept them downcast.
‘Come away Ralith,’ a silky voice commanded. Vilem strode into the room. A smug smile tilted his thin lips. Ralith obeyed.
‘Stand up,’ Vilem instructed. I struggled to stand upright. I felt faint, as sap oozed through the bandage and down my leg.
‘I’ve heard you’ve consented to join our cause.’
I nodded silently.
From behind Vilem, a Nightmare Court guard moved forward, with him he dragged a human male. He shoved the human onto his knees in front of me. Although I knew what a human looked like, thanks to the Pale Tree’s shared consciousness, I had never seen one in the flesh before.
His and my form were similar, but instead of green organic skin, he had soft tanned flesh, much like a hairless mole. A black fur patch on his head had been matted with dry blood and his face was splotched purple and puffy. He did not match my image of humans entirely, but I had heard some humans could be uncommonly ugly.
It was hard to tell, but under his swollen skin, he looked terrified.
‘This human bandit…‘Vilem said, moving slowly around me, ‘…was killing sylvari all in the name of coin.’
As he brushed past, the bandit whimpered.
‘He has probably killed countless sylvari. Our brothers and sisters have not sought vengeance for his crimes, preferring the path of passivity,’ Ralith turned to the bandit, cold malice in his eyes. ‘He won’t get off so easily today.’
He nodded to Ralith, who moved forward and placed a human-made pistol in my hands. I stared at it, dumbfounded.
‘That is his pistol,’ Vilem said, sitting down on this throne, and slouching back. ‘He’s killed many with it. You will give them justice.’
I stared at the bandit. He stared back at me with wide eyes, but behind them I saw shame.
‘Get on with it!’ Bastel roared. I fumbled with the gun, and held it up tentatively. The bandit whimpered. I grimaced and squeezed the trigger.
Except I couldn’t.
Bastel twitched, and my adrenaline spiked. I turned my pistol on Vilem. A whip of electricity cracked, and stung my hand, sending the gun flying. Ralith had his daggers out, and his eyes swum with disappointment.
‘You stupid weed!’ Vilem roared, ripping my attention to him. ‘I have tried to patient, but you are testing me,’ he growled. Bastel grabbed me by the neck, squeezing hard.
‘Send her to Bex, we’ve been too easy on her,’ Vilem hissed.
Bastel shoved me into a large stone room. The architecture was distinctly different from the rest of the caves I had seen. The ceiling was much higher, and the walls were made of pale stone. Large pillars throughout the room supported the weight. Instead of torches, glowing purple gems suspended in midair floated through the room and there was a strange electrical hum. I felt no plants here, not even the faintest whisper of a tree root. They avoided this place.
Bastel pressured my neck, urging me forward. As we moved past the large pillar, I saw it.
A huge metallic golem hulked past. It’s legs hitting harshly against the floor and causing vibrations beneath my feet. Large crystals, twice the size of the ones suspended in the air, floated between its rounded torso and its limbs as it moved. It ignored us as it carried metal boxes from one side of the room to the other.
‘Brought me another one have you?’ a high-pitched voice asked. I looked down to see an asura.
Asura were short humanoid beasts with round heads and big flapping ears. They had sizable glittering eyes that often made them look appealing, but when they smiled, they revealed a terrifying fanged maw.
This asura was only half my height, her large ears flapping as she surveyed me with a look of skepticism. She crossed her arms,
‘I hope this one lasts longer than the previous one you bought me,’ She growled.
Bastel didn’t like her attitude.
‘Don’t kill this one,’ he growled through his teeth. ‘Vilem wants her alive.’
‘Much like you weren’t meant to kill my assistants? It takes months to replace them. If you must kill them at least wait until I’ve finished my research.’
Bastel’s eyes narrowed.
‘Find one that is not so irritating,’ Bastel’s voice was terrifyingly low. ‘I warn you rat, if you kill this one, it’s the opportunity I need to skin you alive. I’ll throw your hide over my bed like a rug.’
‘Yes yes,’ Bex sighed dismissively. ‘Golem take her,’ she commanded. The golem put down his metal box and hunkered towards me. I couldn’t help but shrink back.
Bex waved Bastel off with a flick of her nailed claws ‘Go now.’
Bastel’s hand twitched to his axe that hung on his belt, but after a moment, he sneered and stormed off.
The golem took me to a large stone alter. It had strange inscriptions on it and colorful gems inset in the stone that glowed. Above it was a contraption that pulsated with energy. It had four prongs with glass orbs at each end pointed directly down at the alter.
‘Lie down,’ Bex commanded. I hesitated.
‘Chop, chop!’ she yelled. ‘I don’t have all day!’
I lay down, and the golem fastened leather restrains around my wrists and ankles. A shiver rippled down my spine. Bex seemed to be programming the device from a glass panel on the other side of the room. It lit up as she touched it and the strange symbols of light whirled across the screen.
‘I’ve finished cleaning out the skelk trap, Bex’ Another asura said, wiping his hands on a dirty rag, as he waddled in from a side door
‘About time Oalm,’ she hissed. ‘Hurry up and inject it with the serum.’
The asura hesitated. ‘But Bex, you’ve seen what influence it has on the subject. Is it wise?’
‘Don’t tell me you’re getting soft Oalm? They’re just plants, no more sentient than your herb box. Even if the rest of the asura think otherwise’ she grumbled under her breath.
‘Of course not,’ Oalm sighed in frustration, ‘but last time the subject almost broke free from the restraints. The serum lent him artificial power. Did you recalculate the molecular quantities?’
‘Of course I did,’ Bex snapped. ‘Now stop flapping your big useless mouth and do the job I paid you for.’
Oalm snorted angrily, but did his job. As he approached the alter he didn’t even acknowledge my presence.
The serum felt cold as it flooded my body.
‘Good.’ Bex said, nodding approvingly. ‘Now that serum combined with my aetheric energy articulator, which I expertly designed, should elucidate the energy that gives these creatures such effervescence. I would just need to reprogram their central tree to our specifications, and imagine, I would I could produce any organic creature I’d desire. Imagine Oalm, if I could discover their secrets, I’d be able to grow fields of servants, even armies! When I am finished here the asura will rue the day they exiled me!’
‘Drama queen,’ Oalm muttered under his breath.
He moved away, and the contraption above me started to buzz. The glass orbs glowed blue and started to revolve. My body flushed with heat.
‘Such complex magical energy,’ I heard Bex admire. ‘Their ability to problem solve and regenerate would make them as valuable as golems.’
My head swum as the chemicals reacted and a foggy haze washed over my mind. I felt crawling on my skin. I looked down to see thousands of spiders, their pincers clicking their way up my body.
I cried out, terrified, as I tried to shuffle away, but the restrains kept me shackled.
‘It’s having a bad reaction!’ Oalm’s voice cried. ‘You recalculated the molecular compounds incorrectly!’
‘Azalea,’ I heard a soft voice call. I looked over to see Elthia. Her visage reached out for me. ‘Help me,’ she begged sorrowfully. Behind her I saw the faint ghosts of Narith and the poor rocking sylvari.
I wrenched against my restraints. I had to help her, I had to help them. Flames sprung up from her feet and swallowed them. I watched her body crumble and her begging eyes disappear behind licking flames. I howled.
A pain far more intense than torture washed over me. Despair mingled with blind hatred, and it flushed through my bark, and somehow, I tore free from the restraints.
Adrenaline washed my vision clear, and through the daze I saw the rat. I leapt forward, savoring the look of sudden fear and panic in her features. I grabbed her tiny neck and felt it under my fingers. She struggled, her sharp nails ripping into my face, but I hardly cared. I felt something shift in my hands, and I knew her neck would crack any moment.
Then a force grabbed my own neck and flung me to the ground. In my surprise I let go of the asura. Cold stone cracked against my head, and for a fleeting moment, I saw Bastel’s foggy form before I lost consciousness.