I ran. My ripped feet seared upon burning red earth, as hot embers from crackling flames stung my eyes.
Withering corpses followed me, and their shapeless darkness gained swiftly. Sickly flesh snagged my foot, and I stumbled. Offal and flesh hung loosely on blackened bones as they slowly lurched forward, and decayed fingers raked against my green skin.
I desperately kicked and flailed in utter terror. The stench and fumes suffocated me. The earth beneath me crumbled, and I tumbled into darkness. Burned, splintered roots jutted out of the red earth, and as I fell each one whipped and sliced my body.
I plunged into a sea of crawling undead flesh. Their bloody hands grasped and tore at me. The lament of tortured souls pressed in my ears. I could only wail as the flesh swallowed me whole.
I jumped awake, my chest heaved and my mind raced. I sat up and looked around, panic-stricken. I was expecting the undead from my dream to ambush me even now. I rubbed my face as the headache dulled, and let the soft trickle of water and gentle rustle of leaves meld with the Pale Tree’s song, and calm my unsettled heart.
My thorn wolf companion, Stalk, rustled up against me. His leafy, organic fur brushed softly against my skin.
‘Are you trying to comfort me, friend?’ I asked, looking to the beast. He merely nuzzled my hand in reply. His big slimy tongue hung out of his mouth, and I couldn’t help but smile.
‘It is nothing,’ I murmured, embracing him
I had spent everyday of the month since my awaking from the Mother Tree, trying to make sense of my dream. What did the Pale Tree mean? Why had she shown me such disturbing images?
The first-born had been eager to help me. They had referred me to the teachings of the Ventari tablets for guidance, but their words only made me realize how abnormal and unnatural my dream was.
Sylvari are defined by their dreams, yet all I saw in mine was suffering, hate and destruction. No one had ever dreamt of such evil before, nor with such intensity as to rattle the entire Grove. The other Sylvari were hesitant, preferring to avoid me. Through the Pale Tree’s connection to all Sylvari, I had terrorized the inhabitants of The Grove before I was even born.
I sighed as I looked around the empty glade. Images of my dream still flashed in my mind, and I felt a desperate urge to escape them. I wanted to feel the wealth of life that was the forest again, and blur the image of death and decay in my mind.
I picked up my bow and swung it around my back. The forest beckoned temptingly and all at once I felt the rush flush through my body, and I dared not deny it. I danced through the forest; Stalk was close behind. My bare feet touched lightly on damp bark and dirt. The gentle voices of the forest whispered sweetly in my ears, and the cool jungle breeze playfully teased my hair.
My heart vibrated with excitement as I threw myself into the unexplored jungle. I ran carelessly through unknown terrain. I was glad the Mother Tree hadn’t given me this; I wanted to explore it all anew with my own eyes. I didn’t stop running until my chest seared, and my mouth ached for water.
I stopped by a stream, and sipped the chilled water from my cupped hands. Stalk lapped the water, his fur rustling with every labored breath.
‘Did I exhaust you?’ I asked, flicking stray bark from his leafy coat. Stalk ignored me and continued drinking.
‘My apologies,’ chuckled.
I gazed down at the stream, and saw my own faint reflection flickering in the ripples. I’d never had much time to ponder my form. My green features were smooth with only a few lighter patterns. As a newborn I would have to wait a few more years for the browner knots to form around my elbows and knees. Twisted soft pink leaves and ivy curled around my face. It was obvious I was a sapling of spring, bright and vibrant, unlike the brown bark saplings of winter.
Stalk’s ears flickered, and his head snapped upwards. I was aware of the approaching presence, but had already deemed it was not undead, so I waited patiently for them to arrive.
As I crouched by the riverside, I could feel their fast-approaching footsteps in the earth. Two, no three, entities. One of them was so light on his feet, so at home in the forest, that I only sensed him sporadically. Surely, he was a ranger like myself.
When they burst into the clearing, I saw it was only a small group of Sylvari. I sighed heavily. I had hoped it would’ve been humans, or better yet, a Charr or Asura. How fantastical that would have been.
‘Greetings,’ I said, bowing my head slightly.
The leader of the group, a worn warrior, moved forward. He had chunks of organic flesh torn from his right side which, evident by the sickly purple shade, had healed badly. Thick-knotted scars streaked his face.
‘You have encroached on our territory, grove-dweller,’ he barked, pulling out his axes
I tried to move back, but another Sylvari, a necromancer judging by his faithful bone minion, grabbed my arm tightly.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, horrified by their boorish manners.
‘Bastel, she looks newborn,’ the ranger sneered, touching my pink curls. ‘We should take her to Vilem’
The warrior hissed through his teeth.
‘Fine, let’s take her,’ he growled. The necromancer’s grip became painfully tight as he attempted to yank me forward. I reacted fast, and twisted out of his grip as I jumped backwards. The skills my mother, the Pale Tree, had instilled in me before birth came quickly, despite never using them before. Stalk was beside me, growling, as I pulled out an arrow from my quiver, and aimed it at the warrior.
‘Leave us be,’ I warned firmly. Bastel laughed, his mangled face turning to the canopies.
‘Even a foolish human child could see you’re outnumbered,’ his eyes glittered manically.
‘We do not wish to go with you,’ I repeated firmly. ‘Leave us be.’ I kept my face stern, but I felt my heart trembling in my chest. Bastel’s grin widened. I felt like I was giving him exactly what he wanted. He rose his axe and in a second I knew his intent was to kill.
I let loose my arrow and it splintered through armor and bark, and embedded into the warrior’s shoulder, making him stumble. Stalk pounced, and viciously ripped the bark hamstring off the ranger, sending pulsating waves of viscous sap, as the Sylvari screamed in agony.
I reached for another arrow, but as I did I felt a dark weight on my shoulders forcing me to stagger into the ground. Deathly voices whispered in my ears. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a fleshy mass leap at me. I unsheathed my sword and speared the bone minion, before shaking off the corpse.
Bastel snapped off the arrow in his shoulder and lunged at me again. I tumbled out of the way, managing to shake off the necromancer’s enchantment. I pulled my war horn off my hip and blew it furiously. The birds of the forest swooped from their high branches and began to peck at the necromancer’s fleshy face.
I would have to be quick if I was to finish off the warrior. I slashed furiously at him, slicing his arm. Yellow sap oozed plentifully, but he took no notice. He swung one of his axes, aiming for my neck. I dodged, but his force knocked me to the ground. His form towered over me menacingly. I kicked furiously, and my foot connected with his knee. He roared in pain. I could see Stalk bearing over the ranger; his legs ripped and useless. Bastel was crippled. I lifted my sword intent on severing his neck when coldness seized my heart, and I hesitated.
It cost me.
A boney form snagged my foot and quickly snaked its way around my body. The flesh wurm constricted my chest. I choked and spluttered as I felt my bark crumple and woody splinters combine with sticky ooze.
‘Enough!’ The warrior yelled, and the wurm loosened slightly. ‘She needs to be alive, or we’ll have nothing for the new recruits.’
I was powerless in the wurm’s bind. I silently begged to Stalk to run, but he hesitated. I commanded again with as much mental force I could muster. As Bastel turned Stalk’s tail could be seen diving into the brush. The necromancer started after him, but the warrior waved his hand
‘Leave the beast,’ he growled, pulling the rest of the arrow out of his shoulder brutishly.
The wurm slammed me against the hard forest floor and loosed its grip completely. I groaned, trying not to move my aching body.
‘Get up,’ Bastel kicked me with his sharp metal boot, slicing open a new gash on my chest. I quickly obeyed and stumbled to my feet. He grabbed my neck and forced me forward. My body was too broken and injured to resist.
‘What about him?’ The necromancer asked, gesturing apathetically to the mauled ranger, unconscious on the ground.
‘We’ll send someone back to see if he survived,’ the warrior said with a cruel grin.
The sky washed with darker hues, and the dusk crickets began their evening chorus, as I staggered through the brush. Bastel kept a firm grip on my neck, his iron gloves wearing into my skin.
‘…the filthy rat’s assistant kept complaining, so I cut off his head. He’s a foot shorter but at least he’s shut up about it,’ Bastel roared with a laughter causing me to shudder.
We emerged out of the thick jungle in front of a small cave opening, where two Sylvari were stationed at the front. They smirked when they saw me.
‘Good catch,’ one of them laughed.
Bastel shoved me through the deteriorating wooden door into a sparse but extensive cave. The cavern roof was high, not even the flickering lamps could penetrate the thick darkness. Faint dripping and hushed whispers echoed throughout the cave. The general stank of decay hung in the damp air.
He herded me through steadily narrowing halls. As I passed one door, I heard shrieks of agonizing horror. The sound seized my heart like cold fists, sending spasms of fear throughout my body, causing Bastel and the necromancer to laugh boisterously.
‘That always gets them,’ Bastel roared with delight.
A wave of nausea washed over me. We reached a small room, and I saw two wooden frame cages. One was occupied by three Sylvari. A woman and two men, stared at me in horror as Bastel shoved me roughly into the second cage. The cages were so low it was impossible to stand upright.
‘Don’t move from there’ Bastel said as he clicked the rusty metal lock into place. ‘Or I’ll kill you,’ he hissed, baring his teeth in a menacing smile. Then he erupted into manic laughter and left with the necromancer, their jeers echoing behind them.
When silence fell, the female Sylvari moved to the part where the two cages were closest. Her wide eyes looked over me
‘Glade sister, are you alright?’ Her voice was heavy with concern.
I moved forward, nodding. The sap had started to coagulate around my wounds, but my splintered chest bark still ached. The female Sylvari was covered in scars and wet sap leaked from old and new wounds. Her right arm was completely charred beyond use. I could see through the flickering torchlight that the other two men were in similar shape. One’s face had been so badly burned that he could barely open his eyelid.
‘What’s going on? What is this? Why are our kinsmen doing this?’ I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling.
‘You do not know?’ The female asked, surprised.
‘She is but a sapling Elthia, look at her. I doubt she has even seen the winter,’ said the male rubbing his scared face. The other male Sylvari did not look at me. He just rocked in his cage, dulled eyes downcast.
‘Don’t mind him young one. He is losing grip of his sanity. The Night Court caught him long before they caught Narith and I’ she said looking to the Sylvari with the damaged face.
‘Night Court?’ I asked weakly.
‘The Night Court,’ Narith spat, ‘is a disgrace to the Sylvari and the Pale Tree. They are the result when a Sylvari lets the darkness into their hearts. They are evil beyond recognition.’
‘We are not evil,’ a voice boomed, causing them all to flinch.
A small group of Sylvari entered the dim cave. They looked upon us with unkind sneers. In the group, I could see Bastel, his dark eyes glittering with anticipation. A lavishly dressed Sylvari Mesmer snaked forward, his long twiggy features set in a permanent snarl. He looked down at us, as though he had found a dead rat at the end of his bed.
‘We only seek to rid the Mother Tree from the impurities of human and centaur influence. She is contaminated,’ he said.
‘You are the ones contaminating her!’ Elthia yelled. ‘She mourns for all the Sylvari you have slain.’
A dark smile flickered on the Mesmer’s features, and he turned.
‘Come here Ralith, my young Elementalist’, he said holding his hand out elegantly. The tall group of brawny guards parted, and a slim Sylvari stepped forward. His face was pale, and he trembled ever so slightly. The Mesmer laid his arm around the young one.
‘The Pale Tree is ignorant,’ he said. ‘She has no idea of the suffering of this world. She must know or she cannot truly realize the purity of the Sylvari.’
‘Do not presume to know more than our Mother Tree!’ Narith yelled defiantly.
‘Shut your mouth, you moronic weed,’ the Mesmer roared. The disturbed Sylvari whimpered and began to rock faster.
‘You know nothing,’ he continued. ‘When we first graced this world the other races took us as their playthings, experimented upon us, and what was their excuse? They thought we were plants. The other races commit atrocities upon us. The Mother Tree speaks of unity among races, but does she expect us to lie down while they slaughter us? She is ignorant,’ he growled. He took a deep breath and a grin slowly curved his thin lips
‘However you will have the honor of teaching her otherwise,’ he said. ‘ As you know, when you die, your tormented memories will return to the Pale Tree’s well of knowledge, pouring into every sapling born henceforth. Eventually, the Pale Tree must understand our suffering and be free to bear spiritually pure Sylvari’.
He turned and Ralith flinched.
‘Burn them’ he hissed. Ralith nodded, but there was a flicker of fear behind his eyes. I could only stare, horrified .
‘No, please!’ Elthia begged, ‘You have a choice – do not use your own hands to kill your kind.’ The young Elementalist hesitated. The Mesmer turned on him,
‘Do you want to earn your place in the dark vigils, or not?’ He hissed ‘Burn them.’
‘Yes, Master Vilem,’ the elementalist murmured.
He closed his eyes. As the caged Sylvari begged, his hands shook and the wood set ablaze. I threw myself backwards. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. The roaring flames licked my cage, but mercifully, it did not set alight. The three twisted forms disappeared behind the blazing fires but their screams could not be blocked out. The shrieking pierced my soul as I watched them wither away.
The burning only lasted a few minutes and when it died down all that was left was charcoal corpses covered in solidified amber. Vilem stepped forward to inspect. The corpses crumbled as he dug his foot into them, and the guards jeered. Ralith stood still at the edge of the group, shaking fervently. As the Mesmer finished chuckling, his eyes fell on me. I shrunk back.
‘You’re new,’ he said gazing at me with interest. ‘Such smooth skin, you look like you’re barely out of the pod. What is your name?’
‘Azalea,’ I whispered, pushing myself against the cage wall.
‘And your dream, Azalea?’ he asked, moving forward. I shook my head, too terrified to speak.
‘Speak sapling or I will cut you down where you sit’ he hissed.
‘It was darkness,’ I whimpered ‘I saw evil.’
He stared at me, his eyes wide and disbelieving. Then he surged forward, flinging open the cage door and grabbed me by the neck, a terrifying aura surrounding him.
‘You were the one. I felt your presence. The pain and suffering, the feeling of utter helplessness. That was you,’ he dropped me, and I collapsed onto the ground.
‘And the Pale Tree has delivered you right into our arms. You hear this, brothers?’ He said turning to the room, his arms out wide. ‘This is progress!’
His laughter boomed throughout the chamber sending shivers down my spine. He turned to me, staring deep into my eyes as he spoke.
‘Bastel, torture her…. thoroughly, then bring her to me,’ he said, his lips curling. He turned and strode away but paused at the entrance, and looked back to the quivering Elementalist.
‘Oh, and Bastel? Make sure he watches,’ he said with a sly grin.
Fear consumed and paralyzed my body as Bastel advanced on me.
‘No, please,’ I begged.
My emotions flooded, and threatened to overwhelm me. Looming figures turned to dull blurs. Their jeers became a distant garble as though I had been plunged underwater.
Calmness washed over me. Her song pierced the discord, and I bathed in her melody.
‘My dear Azalea,’ she sang, her sweet tones holding me in a warm embrace. ‘My precious daughter.’
‘Mother tree’ I murmured.
‘Don’t loose hope,’ she chimed, her light fading. ‘I have great plans for you.’