Consciousness flooded back to me like a breaking tidal wave. I jumped awake, my head knocking against a twisted root. I grit my teeth in pain, as my vision swum. I saw Ralith’s blurry form, peering at me. When my eyes finally focused on him, he breathed a sigh of relief. I tried to speak, but it felt like I had swallowed a desert. Ralith passed me a wooden cup full of clear sloshing liquid, and I guzzled it hungrily.
‘You’re dehydrated. Bex’s experiments will do that,’ he said, a nostalgic tinge to his voice.I swallowed the last drop of water and peered into the cup, aching for more. I sighed, and passed it to Ralith. A headache thundered in my skull.
‘You’re lucky,’ Ralith said, inspecting my body. ‘Your injuries are nothing like Bex’s last subject.’ I looked down at my infected gash and my collection of cuts and bruises, not to mention the scratches Bex had ripped into my face, and wondered what the last subject had come out like.
‘Why are asura here?’ I croaked. ‘I thought Vilem hated asura for what they did to the firstborns. Why are they working for the Nightmare Court?’
‘Don’t be silly Azalea,’ Ralith smiled. ‘They’re prisoners, even if they don’t know it yet. They’re helping the Nightmare Court foster hatred towards the other races. The more sylvari the asura torment, the more likely sylvari will be born with those memories. When they outlive their usefulness, Vilem will let Bastel have his fun.’ A grin flickered across Ralith’s features.
I wouldn’t feel sorry for the asura’s deaths, but somehow the memory of Bastel threatening to make the asura’s hide into rugs seemed real now.
‘Bastel told me how you almost killed Bex,’ Ralith said, a chuckle in his voice. ‘He was practically boasting about it.’
I kept my eyes downcast.
‘It seems like Bastel is starting to like you. Let’s just hope Bex isn’t the type to hold a grudge.’
Unfortunately for me Bex was the type to hold a grudge. Her experiments grew increasingly sadistic, and to my dismay, she had installed stronger iron shackles.
I could hear her muttering, as she drilled holes into my bark; ‘I’ll make you suffer, suffer like I made Saja suffer when she said I have a boy’s name. Well, she wasn’t so impertinent when I was through with her…’
After a week, the combination of new wounds, my festering thigh and Bex’s chemical experimentation meant I had lost the capacity to carry my own weight. I had to be dragged back to my cell.
As a guard threw me in, Ralith hurried to help me. He hoisted me off the ground and laid me onto the leafy bed.
‘This is getting out of hand,’ he muttered, as he washed my sweaty face. My body was starting to lose the fight with the infection. A yellow halo had formed around the oozing wound, and I labored to breathe.
‘I’m trying my best to heal you, but Vilem is frustrated. He isn’t giving me access to the healing potions anymore,’ he said as he wiped away the pus and sighed. You look like you won’t even make it to the dark vigils.’
‘I don’t mind,’ I said, through grit teeth. Ralith stared at me with shock, then his features crumpled into annoyance.
‘Why are you so stubborn?’ He growled. ‘You have the Pale Tree’s blessing. You are destined to do great things for the sylvari. Your dream is proof of that. Why will you not accept it?’
‘My dream means nothing,’ I snapped.
‘We’re running out of time. You’re becoming too jaded. Once your memories stop reaching the Pale Tree Vilem will dispose of you. You must join the Nightmare Court!’
‘Then what?’ I hissed ‘You know I can’t kill someone with ease like Vilem or Bastel…or you even,’ I spat.
“It’s something you will learn,’ he said, losing his previous vigor. ‘It was hard for me too at first.’
I shook my head.
‘You and I both know I will die here,’ I said angrily.
I tried to squash the fury that was knotting in my chest. I didn’t know what, or who, I was so angry at, but I hated it all. Was this to be my life? Born, captured, tortured and to die at the mercy of a festering wound. It was unfair! I felt like I had been promised more from life, but the Pale Tree hadn’t promised me anything. She only promised life, not how it was spent. My life started in the agony of the dream, it seemed almost poetic to die the same way. Surely there was no life more miserable than this.
Ralith sighed. He had been staring at me for some time. He was biting his lip in deep thought. He closed his eyes, and sighed again. When he looked up his face was drawn, as though a serious decision weighed on his features.
I watched him silently as he stood up, and headed towards the doorway. He hesitated for a moment, as though remembering I was still there, and turned.
‘Get some rest Azalea,’ he said. As he pulled open the door, his sleeve slipped, revealing scarred, bubbled welts on his skin, as though he had been boiled alive. He quickly pulled his sleeve down, and without saying another word he left.
I slept badly that night. My body burned as cold shivers rippled down my spine. Every moment I thought I would fall into blissful sleep, fear surged through my body, causing me to jolt upright. I soon succumbed to an exhausted comatose-like state.
It was deep in the dark of the night when, through my sleepy stupor, I felt a presence standing over me. I struggled to wake up, but I could only lift my head sluggishly, before it flopped down again. I moaned, but no one answered. After a while, I was able to pull back my eyelids. I blinked through the darkness, and saw something glittering in the distance under the dull blue luminescence.
I stumbled out of bed, tripping over my own feet. Hanging on the doorknob was a small pendant. I picked it up and stared at it. Its gold surface was scuffed and dirty, and in the center was a small opal. How did it get here?
I looked past it to the doorknob. Gently, I put my hand on the latch. I took a deep breath, and pushed down. The metal lock grated harshly, but mercifully gave way. The door creaked open. I held my breath as I peered down the hall. It was empty.
Everything was still.
I tiptoed out cautiously. There was nothing, not even a sound. I didn’t stop to admire my incredible luck. I crept through the halls, desperately trying to remember the way out. I ignored the sweat that was beading on my forehead, and the tearing sensation in my healing wounds. I was surprised that I could even walk.
My body was still bruised and clumsy, but I moved as silently as I could. I reached a dead end that culminated in three wooden doors. I hesitated. What if someone was inside? I looked behind me. I could turn back, and find another way out, but I had gone so far this way, and surely I was running out of time.
I grit my teeth and went through one of the doors. The room was empty, and it had another door leading out. I stumbled through the room and reached for the latch. My heart leapt into my throat as I heard the door behind me open. I turned to see Ralith. He was reading a book and when he looked up, our eyes connected. He dropped his book, and surprise riddled his face.
‘Azalea!’ he hissed, surging forward, leaving his book forgotten on the floor. ‘What are you doing?’
I stared at him.
‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m escaping.’ He mouthed wordless for a few moments.
‘But you have nowhere to go,’ he said finally.
‘I’ll go back to the Grove,’ I said.
‘The Grove?’ he shook his head. ‘You can’t.’
‘Are you going to stop me Ralith?’ I hissed. ‘I’m going home,’ I tried to pushed past him.
He grabbed my arms and pulled me close.
‘You’ll go to the Grove, and they’ll see you…’ he ran a hand over my damaged skin, his finger rising over each hard bump, ‘…. They’ll see your knotted scars and the death that hangs in your lightless eyes, and they’ll shun you. They’ll fear you, fear to be like you, jaded’ he said softly. ‘You belong here Azalea. You’re destined for the Nightmare court, and it’s destined for you. Can’t you see that?’
I shook my head in horror.
Suddenly, the sound of yelling clamored through the halls and I looked away. The whole cave was starting to stir awake, and it sounded like they had realized someone was missing.
‘Make your choice Azalea,’ he said, letting go of me.
His dark eyes made me hesitate, but the sound of thudding boots rattled my heart. I turned, and fled.
I ran as fast as I could, but my wounds were slowing me down. They soon found me. I heard heavy feet and yelling echoing behind me. The floor inclined, and I knew I must be heading towards the surface. An arrow whizzed past my ear, and I pushed my maimed leg to go faster. I seemed to be covered in sap, as I tore open all my old wounds.
The lighter hues of the morning could be seen through the window of the cave entrance, and with every ounce of strength I could muster, I leapt forward through it. I landed onto the lush jungle floor.
Ecstasy riddled my body as the first fleeting seconds of sunlight bathed me. I felt energy invigorate my body, and I let out a low sigh. Happiness.
Wild shouting crashed through my delight, and reminded me that I was not free yet. I would have to fight for my freedom.