“Ratana!” Achara cried allowed waking from her sleep. She was breathing heavily and sweating, but she quickly calmed down. She sat up in the absolute darkness and groped around the bed where she had been laying. She had not left the cell since she had come to wherever she was, and she had lost track of how long she had been in the cell. There was no day or night. Her sleep was erratic. She had not talked to or seen anyone since the last time she had spoken with the dark figure that came in.
Achara tried to recall what she thought was a dream. She remembered hearing Ratana’s voice and then feeling her touch, but short of that she could not remember anything. She sat on the bed and stared into the darkness, breathing deeply and further calming herself, working down from the rush from the dream. Before long, she was in a meditative state, completely calm with long even breathing. She could hear echoes through the building and even the sound of what she thought was water rushing in as waves, but she could not be sure. She then drowned it all out and focused on the void in her mind, clearing her head of all thought and cognition. She then waited.
She wasn’t sure how long she had waited, but she then heard Ratana’s voice, “Achara… I see you’re awake now.”
“Yes, I am,” Achara worded with her mouth, projecting the thought into her mind.
“Are you alright?” Ratana asked.
“All things considered, I am. But I have no idea where I am or what is going on.”
“I’m so glad that you’re okay. I can tell you that you’re located somewhere in the Eastern Ocean. An elf came with Camon, and I was able to help them locate you.”
“Camon’s alive?!” Achara felt like she wanted to shout.
“Yes, alive and well. He’s trying to get to you.”
“Where is he? Can I talk to him?”
“No. Rune plotted with the Inquisitors and they used me as bait to capture him. He’s in their custody now. He gave himself up to them.”
“I believe he did it to protect me,” Ratana said in her mind. “Right before he was given over to them, he asked me to read something from your book to you. I think he thought it was important enough to sacrifice himself like that.”
“He gave me a book that you had been studying about seers.”
“Oh, yes. That little tome has been most helpful. Do you know what he is planning to do?” Achara asked.
“No. He didn’t have time to explain anything to anyone. When they arrested him, they let the elf go and they did not question us about the visit. I am guessing that Rune had no idea what happened. My parents have been completely tight-lipped about it as well.”
“Why would Rune do this?” Achara inquired.
“He still believes Camon should have been more transparent with him. He doesn’t trust him.”
“Why are you helping me then?”
“Because Camon saved my life and the life of my son. I at least owe him my gratitude, even if my husband doesn’t see eye to eye with him.”
“Thank you. His name is Mahn.”
“But the last time I saw Camon, he was in Muangnoi. I have no idea what time it is or how long I’ve been here, but it can’t have been the time that it takes to get from there to Neuasut.”
“He says the elf brought him there on the wings of a roc, but I didn’t see the roc. The elf was nowhere to be found the day after they took Camon, so my guess is that Camon told the truth.”
“Camon has something up his sleeve, but what I don’t know. He wouldn’t have made it so easy for the Inquisitors if there wasn’t a way out.”
“Then let’s hope you’re right. Rune’s coming. I’ve got to go. We’ll read the book later.”
“Thanks!” Achara said as her mind went back to the void again. She let go of the void and almost felt dizzy as she became more aware of her surroundings again, hearing the sounds of the building and feeling the cool, moist air against her skin. She shivered slightly and gave a slight smile. It was the first glimmer of hope she had had since she left Muangnoi. She wanted to celebrate that Camon was not dead, but she also did not want to give herself away either. She remained in silence for a while longer then started working on exercises that Laoren had showed her. Her time alone in the darkness had given her ample opportunity to go over these time and time again to where she could do them almost without thinking.
She then heard footsteps in the hall outside her door that stopped outside. She could see the light coming in from under the door. The lock clicked and the door opened and a figure in robes came in with a candle that seemed blinding to her. He lit another on Achara’s table and then went out of the room again and locked the door behind himself. She watched the candle burn as her eyes adjusted, then she remembered her hand and she examined it in the light. She saw the burn on her palm that still ached if she thought about it too much or touched anything with it.
A minute later, the lock clicked again, and two figures entered the room and then a third one, which spoke to her, “I see you’ve gotten accustomed to the place.” Achara did not reply. “You don’t have to remain silent with me, Achara. You can’t fool me as much as you would like to hide behind that look of solace.”
“You’re already a fool,” she rebuked.
“You still have a sharp tongue,” the figure said. “Have you learned nothing?”
“If you’re here to burn me again, we can skip the formalities and get to it.”
“Oh no, no no… I have something much better for you in mind today. But before we begin with that, have you had a chance to reflect on things?”
“Many things,” she snapped.
“Then perhaps you can tell me about them?”
“I’d just assume talk to a wall,” she scorned. “They have more empathy than you and your goons do.”
“Empathy? I have nothing but empathy for you! Do you not see that?”
“If this is empathy, your definitions of empathy and freedom are about as twisted as you are.”
“So you have been thinking about freedom then!” the figured shrilled.
“I’m not here for a philosophical debate,” she rebuked. “Save your breath.”
The figure laughed, “Outside these walls – out there in the world, do you think of yourself as free?”
“Freer than I am in here,” she said.
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m not a captive. Any dolt can see that!” she snapped.
“And what of the Paladin and his control over you? Was that freedom?”
“Camon came to me and gave me the option. He has never held me against my will.”
“Your will? Will to do what?”
“My will to choose.”
“To follow him? To be subjugated by his religion?”
“No!” she said. “Camon is hardly one to subjugate anyone.”
“Have you ever thought that perhaps he wasn’t free? Is he not bound to an oath that requires he live according to its demands? And you too?”
“You’re referring to The Light.”
“A perceptive girl! The Light. Do you think The Light frees you?”
“Look, I don’t know hardly anything about Camon’s code, but whatever he is, he is honorable and just.”
“Honor. Justice. The very notions smack of anything but absolution. Do you know how humanity came to accept The Light?”
“No,” she answered. “But I’m sure it’s a cute bedtime story that you tell your children.”
“Funny you should say that. It was The Light that cost your father his life, was it not?”
“What do you know of my father?”
“That he died doing what he believed to be the right thing to do. That’s all that matters. And your mother. You let her go because you believed it was the right thing to do. You cared for those girls because you believed it was the right thing to do. You call it a conscience.”
“Of course I do. You should get one.”
“Hah! I would tell you—”
“That I have no idea. I get it,” Achara interrupted.
“No, far from it. You have one. And it is an idea. But is it merely an idea? Because if you are bound to it, how can you be free?”
“Freedom is the choice to choose to follow it,” Achara said. “That’s what makes us different from elves.”
“Elves. The noble creatures you perceive them to be, have a past. They are the progenitors of your conscience and the lack of mine. They made both of us what we are. But alas! The one thing they so desperately want they cannot have. Freedom.”
“So that’s what you mean by freedom then?”
“Oh, that and so much more! You are beginning to see it, aren’t you?”
“I see nothing,” she said.
“Don’t hide it. You know of what I speak.”
“The freedom from everything even conscience?”
“Bravo! You see, it’s this overwhelming desire in you that wants to do right that makes humanity rash and easy to manipulate, even by their own kind. And it has made them weak because they fear themselves. Because it is the ‘right’ thing to do.”
“‘Their own kind’. You speak as if you’re not human.”
“Because I’m not. Like I said, the elves made me what I am.” The robed figure removed his hood and revealed his face in the candlelight. His red eyes against his gray skin and charcoal gray hair glinted at her. He smiled revealing a row of jagged teeth. His heavy brow wrinkled pushing his pointed ears flat against his head. Achara looked, but did not flinch or react. “I am of the Aforim. Or the ‘Gray Elves’ as humanity calls us. We are the byproduct of an attempt by the Highborn to create a being with the Gift of Man by crossing their essence bound to the Light with the essence bound to Darkness. They failed in their quest. But they also succeeded, because I am bound to neither.”
“Gift of Man?”
“Freedom, Achara, Freedom!” the Gray Elf roared. “You have a conscience, yes. But freedom is more than merely the ability to choose right and wrong. Conscience? Pst! You can choose your destiny. You can be more than anything the Paladin could ever make you.”
“I’d rather die than be a pawn in your games. But you need me.”
“Don’t be so vain. You are gifted, but you are not special. There are many of others like you. But I know you want more than this. You desire it! You have felt the pain of your making and you want to let it go!”
“You intend to unleash me against your demon lord once he has brought the world to its knees.”
“Yes!” he roared again. “You have the power to show the world what true freedom is!”
“You’re delusional,” Achara moaned.
“No. I’m merely a catalyst. The elves made you. I intend to finish what they started.”
“No, you’re petty. You want revenge on the elves for making you this mishappen form.”
“Don’t project your puniness on me, girl. I don’t care what you do to me. When I’m done, I won’t matter, only you will. Your pity for the fallen will show them their error. You will be their guiding light, not their twisted sense of what is moral.”
“I will die before then,” Achara said.
“No you won’t, because your sense of right and wrong will keep you alive as to protect others like you. But then you will give in. And when you do, you will see as I see.”
“You’re insane,” Achara scorned.
“Sanity is judged by those who believe themselves to be sane. I care not though. Now, it is time to show you.” The elf replaced his hood and left the room and returned with two more hooded figures who were carting a mirror with two candles on either side of it. They lit the candles. They then drove a nail into a wall and hung the mirror on the wall, then walked over to Achara. They forced her onto her feet and bound her hands and brought her in front of the mirror. Achara looked at the mirror and turned her head away.
“You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?” the elf said.
“I will not look!” she said.
“But you will look,” the figure said. Achara grimaced and then felt an involuntary presence force her head to turn towards the mirror. She tried to close her eyes, but could not. She was staring now at herself in the glass before her. The image in the glass rippled and began to shimmer becoming distorted. The candles flanking the glass went from warm yellow to a bright white hue and hissed as the flames grew taller. The shimmering began to swirl and Achara saw into the glass an image of a girl crying next to a bed in a room. She recalled the image. It was her the night her father died. Her own jaw began to quiver and she tried to turn away, but she could not. She felt a tear form in her eye as she watched the little girl on the bed wailing uncontrollably.
Next, the image shimmered again and swirled. The flames on the candles shifted to a bright blue. She saw the image of the hotel in Muangnoi and then the room where she had been taken. She did not see herself, but Camon standing to face the mage, then absorbing a blast coming from the mage that sent Camon flying out of the room through the broken wall into the darkness. She recalled what Ratana had told her moments before and a resolve flushed through her. She clenched her fist in anticipation of what happened next.
The mirror shimmered again then swirled with light. The candles went to a purplish hue and burned with even more intensity. The image on the mirror then came into focus. She saw a battleground smoldering with smoke. All about the field lay corpses of the fallen. There were broken war machines. Weapons littered the ground which was burn to a blackened crisp. Trees were snapped and charred. Then through the smoke emerged a hideous form towering twenty feet over the battlefield. Smoked billowed from the place a nose should have been, but was merely nostrils. The beast’s eyes glowed yellow as it stared over the field. It walked with purpose, each step making a great thud on the ground with its horse-like legs and hooves. It carried a shimmering sword easily eight feet in length in one hand and a shield in another. It wore nothing but a heavy breechcloth of hide about its waist. Its muscles rippled on its crimson skin with each step as it tore through the remnant of the battle.
The beast roared, spreading its massive arms and thrusting the sword skyward. It then spread a grim smile across its grotesque face. Amidst the smoke of the battlefield, a cloaked figure emerged darting between trees, rocks, and broken war machines. The beast saw the figure but paid it no mind. It roared again and misshapen minions began to emerge from the smoke surrounding the beast. The minions jeered and cheered as the beast continued to howl. The figures gnashed their teeth and hissed in a cacophony that swelled higher and higher to a deafening volume.
The beast then roared again, but the roar was cut short. It lurched forward then arched its back, letting out a hiss that evolved into a scream. The beast contorted its head and looked back and saw the thin cloaked figure holding a dagger in its back. The minions screamed in horror and began to scatter. He tried to move but was paralyzed as the figure held the blade there. The figure’s hood fell back, revealing a girl. It was Achara. The blade in the beast’s back began to glow white, and Achara held on to it with a white-knuckle grip.
As Achara watched the scene unfold, she felt the same power well up in her as what flowed through the dagger. She continued to clench her fist as she stared at the beast’s image, who was now looking on in horror.
“What are you doing?” the Gray Elf cried as he saw the flicker in Achara’s own eyes.
“Showing you the power of conscience…” she murmured. With that, her voice welled up in a scream. Her eyes glowed with white fury. She pulled at her bonds, which broke. The mirror’s candles were burning like torches now and the image became bright and blurry. It resonated as she screamed. Achara continued to scream, then in one final effort, she brought her fist around and slammed it into the mirror. The mirror exploded sending shards of glass away from Achara towards every corner of the room. A burst of wind extinguished the candles and the room went dark as did Achara, collapsing on the floor.