The sounds of thick, bubbling potions were everywhere. There was a distinct smell in the air. It wasn’t of moss or decaying things, but it was thick and earthy. It was like the air was a tangible grime that could be touched and scraped away from the pads of fingers and the metal implements lining the walls.
There were flickering lights from open flames nearby. They had to be from oil lamps hanging aloft, but shadows consumed the flame’s container. The light wasn’t bright enough to come from a fire, but the heat these small flames possessed was enough to create a raging inferno.
Why did it always need to be so hot?
Thick restraints suffocated her wrists and ankles as the leather strap over her mouth kept her screams muffled. The strap was damp with tears and saliva, but it stayed firmly in place. It was by design. The sweat from the heat only choked the limbs restrained by the leather straps, tightening with even the slightest twitch.
Everything here was by design.
Menacing beyond comprehension.
No one in their sane mind would choose to be here, especially with what was to come.
A face came into view in the torch light, featureless except for the wicked grin across the figure’s lips. The figure was massive, taller than her, but slender. At the same time, this slender figure could have consumed all of the flickering light in the chamber if they wanted to.
It was their nature.
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt much today,” said some female voice, cold and calculating like the implement she wielded in her hand. The blade was a thin one. It gleamed happily in the firelight, almost dancing in the wielder’s fingers.
She tried to cry out, to beg for the pain to stop. She didn’t want to do this anymore. Why was she here? She didn’t choose to be here. Why was it always like this? Couldn’t they see? Didn’t they know? Did they relish in the pain they inflicted because they endured it themselves?
She struggled against the restraints and tried to speak through the smothering leather, begging to be set free. Tears dripped over the edges of her eyes, an involuntary reaction her body employed to garner sympathy.
Her pleas went unanswered.
The searing edge of the blade instantly cauterized the wound as it made contact with her arm. Every nerve in her body screamed as she raised her voice to do the same. She thrashed vigorously, teeth grinding until they threatened to crack. Fresh tears poured from her eyes as she thrashed against the unforgiving restraints which tore away and dug into the scabs from previous encounters.
“Oh, hush now,” said that same female voice, now sounding annoyed. The blade curved and sliced away with delicate precision. Some metal device resembling tongs splayed open the fresh wound. She cried out again and tried to turn away, but the strap against her chest kept her firmly in place against the metal slab.
“You went through more just yesterday. Bite back your tongue and it’ll be over faster. I guarantee it.”
She had tried biting back for what felt like decades. Regardless of how she ground her teeth or how hard she tried trapping the sensations involuntarily controlling her actions, it was no use. All she could do was try to push those feelings down; to push away the pain and lock it away.
She tried to force the mind-numbing pain in the affected limb and send her conscious self somewhere else.
Perhaps an island in the ocean? What about the endless sea of sand that baked in the suns’ light? Would the lakefronts be as beautiful as they were in those sketches she saw in her books?
What about the forest? The undergrowth trapping all the secrets of the birds and beasts and leaves that came before. There were many beautiful things that grew in the forests. Mushrooms with pluming folds of all shapes and colors. Leaves that ombre, displaying every season in one moment. Those magnificent trees towering above, hiding the suns’ light in the canopy of leaves so that every day seemed endless.
Then again, the tall trees may make her feel small, like how she felt now.
A jagged cut made her arm spasm. She thrashed accidentally, making the leather pull tighter and bore into her wounded flesh. She felt a scab scrape off, which slicked her wrist in a thin trickle of blood. At least her fantasies had momentarily distracted her from the suffering.
“Really now, dearest, you mustn’t hurt yourself like that,” chided that female voice hidden in the shadows. “We have so much more to do. I just received word that I have to conduct a few more tests before the day are done. Such a pity. I could have finished before this word came in and would just work tomorrow. How could you make me do this to you today, and after you’ve been so good?”
She whimpered and closed her eyes, sight consumed with darkness. She needed something – anything – to make it stop. She needed to get away from here.
Where would she go if she weren’t here? She hadn’t traveled. She heard of those far away places from stories before being taken to this place.
She closed her eyes and willed herself back to the tranquility she had captured moments ago.
Where would she go? If she had the choice, where would she choose to go?
Seaside? No. Sand was messy.
Trees? Again, feeling small wasn’t desirable.
Perhaps the mountains?
That was where she wanted to be. The mountains.
The mountains were far away from people. They were high above the rest, away from sweltering heat. Trees were on mountain tops. Mountains and trees.
She hadn’t seen snow in so long.
As the blade began to make the first slice into her abdomen, she dreamed of a place in the mountains far away from everyone.
Her mental image, however, was not enough to block out the pain. She raised her voice and screamed in agonizing frustration before… black… falling…
Essie sat bolt upright, body covered in a cold sweat and heaving breath after breath of cool mountain air. She was in the mountains. She was in her home under the furs that made her bed.
Her ice shard like eyes darted around the room at the shelves of supplies she gathered. Plumed mushrooms creating their own biome in the jars. Slabs of bark and scrapings of phloem and cork were next to them.
This place was a safe haven; but safe from what?
Essie forced herself back down onto her bed and breathed deeply to calm her racing heart. What just happened? Why was she all worked up?
Her fingers traced the marks on her arms and wrists, as if touching these strange scars would somehow soothe her. Oddly enough, it was working.
How did she even get these marks? They were all over her body, but they had no origin story. They weren’t from training with her mentor, Kaven Ardox.
They couldn’t have come from nothing. Everything has a source, an origin, and that was the same for these marks on her body. She didn’t do this to herself; at least, she didn’t think she would do something like this to herself.
Essie sighed and tried to remember, but nothing came to mind.
Were these marks why she felt so worked up? Why had she sat bolt upright from her slumber?
She wasn’t in pain. Nothing outside woke her. Essie had woken up with her heart pounding in her chest and nervous sweat all over her body.
A thought occurred to her.
Was it a dream?
She hadn’t dreamed in years.