Behind me, Katryn tossed aside a small glass mirror and hugged her knees tightly to her chest. “We need to talk, Dryetn,” she said. As she spoke, she patted the leafy mattress beside her. We hadn’t been able to make it back to the Grove in one night, but had settled down in a verdant hut usually reserved for patrolling Wardens. It was off the main roads, not useable by the ordinary traveler, but still kept up and clear of wildlife.
I tilted my head to the side quickly, the crack of stretching wood causing her to jump. I breathed out slowly and began to remove the remnants of my sap-covered armor. I hadn’t even bothered to salvage my old breastplate after the fight. “Talk about what, Katryn?”
“About what happened in the village today.”
“And why is that?” I said, turning away to face out a woven window and closing my eyes.
“You scare me. You really scare me, and I can’t keep doing this.”
“I’m so intimidating that you can’t even kill courtiers with me?” I scoffed.
“Yes. I mean, you’re frightening enough fighting—Gods, you’re terrifying—you’re like a whirlwind filled with tiny little blades, and your laugh…” She trailed off then, and I stared at the wall silently, waiting for her to find her voice. “But then, after you thought it was done, you shut down. You just sat there, and I knew you couldn’t see anything or hear anything, and then… when that monstrosity came…”
“You left me to die,” I finished, unbuckling the last of my plates and throwing them to the floor with a clatter. I turned to stare her in the eye, hoping to derail the conversation. To my surprise, her red-rimmed pupils were full of fire, and I was the one who looked away first. “I don’t blame you,” I admitted. “I would’ve done the same. Anyone should’ve.”
“You need to tell me what’s going on, Dryetn. I have to understand you, understand why you want to do this, or… I can’t help you anymore. I can’t have you close me out like that again.”
I turned quickly and nearly slammed my fist into the closest wall, but I slowed myself at the last moment and took a deep inhalation. I uncurled my hand and pressed my fingers against the leaves. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want her to make me do this. “You won’t like what I have to say,” I warned her.
She waited. And waited. Eventually, though, she refused to let me get away with silence.
“Why are you so different?” Katryn asked.
That question again—that all-important question. ‘Why.’ She was always asking me why.
“Okay,” I said, moving to sit beside her. “When we are born, our ‘mother’ gives us… memories. Images. Emotion. Every sylvari that dies sends their memories back to the Pale Tree, but she’s sentient, and she can see what is happening in the world even without the recollections of the dead. She has so much knowledge… and we get a fraction of it when we are seeded. My brethren call it the Dream.”
Katryn nodded her understanding, her gaze not leaving my face. None of this was new to her.
“I was the first sylvari to have nothing but death in what they term ‘Dreams’,” I said finally, looking her in the eye. “As I was born, my only memories were of blood and death and violence. All I knew was the thought of killing or being killed. Before I had taken my first breath I had slain hundreds and died a hundred times. Peace wasn’t a part of my experience, not even for a moment.”
“Dryetn,” she began, horrified. I knew she was about to offer comfort and I cut her off.
“Also, my mother has a… sadistic side. Some of the pods she births us from are on branches high enough off the ground that we die in the drop to earth. Mine wasn’t quite so high, but I still snapped my spine in the descent.” Her eyes widened, but I kept talking. “The first memory that was mine, truly mine, was of falling, of agony. And it seemed… so fitting. It was a blessing that justified the deaths in my dream. It was a validation of what I had seen.
“I had no idea that the seeding was different for anyone else… I didn’t know that others were born with happiness. The only words I knew were the gloating of murderers and the pleas of the dying, so I didn’t even bother with them. Instead, I just screamed—and not because of the pain. I was trying to communicate. I screamed and screamed at the sylvari who tended my back, and couldn’t comprehend the trivial noises they made. I didn’t understand why they weren’t screaming back at me.”
Katryn’s eyes were watering, but I ignored her. I stared at my hands and continued. “The only things I knew were how to torture, how to kill, and, when the time would come, how to die. If it wasn’t for Kahedins, my life would have turned out… so differently. He was the one who taught me to speak, who understood what it was that I had seen, and who tried to show me beauty in the world. To a degree, he failed. When I realized how alone I was in the Grove, I felt no connection to this mother who had damaged me or the natural world that I sprang from.
“Worse, I couldn’t quench my thirst for blood. I couldn’t control my desire to kill, nor… the joy I felt at feeling a life slipping away beneath me. I couldn’t resist anymore, and one night…” I paused when I didn’t mean to, lost in the memory, and Katryn assumed the worst from my silence. The tears began to spill freely.
“Dryetn…” she whispered.
“Kahedins stopped me that night. He found me before I could do any damage, and then he did the best thing anyone has ever done for me. He told me who had caused my dream to be so corrupted. He told me about the Nightmare Court.
“After that night, I had my first targets. The thought alone of finally being able to kill—and just as much gaining revenge for the horrors they’d dealt me—sated my bloodlust for a while. I trained with the Wardens, the process sped up exponentially by the amount of fighting in my dream, and was able to avoid any… fatal incidents. Within weeks, I took my first raid out against the Court forces. We were to prevent a Dark Vigil, which Kahedins blamed for the corruption of the Pale Tree that had produced me.
“I was so happy that night, I nearly cried with joy as I set about slaying them. I utterly destroyed any courtier to cross my path. At the end of it, I was covered in blood, and it was the best thing I had ever felt. I never told Kahedins that… And yet, before the night ended, my joy was stolen from me. I realized that everything I had just done would be sent back to the Pale Tree—by those I had slain, and by myself when I one day returned to her. I was propagating the very evil I wanted to stop.
“I realized, of course, that I couldn’t stop hunting the Court. Their Vigils do more damage to the Tree in one night than I could in months. And yet I still knew that even trying to prevent their evil, I was creating my own, despite my personal joy in the matter. I felt trapped by circumstance, bitter beyond belief, obligated to kill to in order to stop killing. I think the human word for what I felt is ‘disillusioned’.
“I was only a year old then.
“I wondered what kind of a world I had entered that was so putrid, so filthy. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t truly alone. I had only death in my Dream of Dreams… many wake up each morning to the same bleak reality. Most of their lives are filled with death.
“I recalled at that moment everything I had learned in my short year about the human Gods, the norn’s Spirits, and what Kahedins had told me about others’ Dreams. That’s when I understood for the first time that ‘Dream’ is the wrong word for it—because right now, we’re sleeping.
“When I was in my ‘Dream’, I was not afraid, despite the death and destruction I saw. I was secure. And when I go to sleep now, the images that flash before my eyes are not of the evils of this world but the security of the Mists. And so I know.”
I turned to stare deep into Katryn’s eyes–realizing, for the first time, that they were the same hue as my skin. I made each of my next words carry their maximum weight. “This life is an illusion. It’s not real, Katryn. It’s something that you, and I, are dreaming. Everyone is dreaming. It’s a short reprieve from a true life. An eternal life. But there are those, not just the Court, who seek to taint this rest that we have, and I stop them. Everyone I kill wakes up, Katryn. They wake up and are judged.” I hadn’t blinked the entire time I spoke.
“True life waits for us beyond the veil, and truth is something I have never been afraid of. I would seek it out, but it is not my time to awaken yet. I am here to preserve this dream for those too foolish to see through its façade. Your Gods were the first ones to learn the truth, I believe, and that’s how they gained their power—and perhaps, one day, I will become a God alongside them when I die.” I flashed her a wooden smile, waiting for her reaction. There was none. “Never mistake me for more than what I am. I am only protecting the natural order of things, isolating the Court’s corruption for the ideal of a peaceful dream. I have been fighting for nine years, and more blood stains my hands than you can imagine. I can’t deny that, to this day, a thrill of pleasure runs through my veins whenever I find myself in the midst of carnage. And with every kill I make, my power grows, and I am one step closer to godhood.”
Katryn’s face was drained of all color, paler than the Tree from which I had been cast down. She closed her eyes and turned her face from me. I tried not to wince at her reaction.
“And now you know.” I looked to the ground, stood slowly, and retrieved my mace. Behind me, she flinched as I grabbed the weapon, and I closed my eyes in defeat. I moved to the doorway, parting it to walk into the darkness beyond. “You know what makes me ‘different’. I wish—”
“You’re wrong, you know,” Katryn called out, unnecessarily loud, interrupting me.
“What?” I said, turning back towards her.
“About this life. It’s real.”
I took a cautious step back into the room. “No. I don’t think I am, Kat.”
“If this is all a dream, why do you bother? I know that, despite what you say, this is not all about your sick pleasures,” she pressed.
“Why? I fight because people should be able to sleep and dream in peace. They deserve better than to wake up and face only nightmares. I have this… this ache, deep in my chest, when I think of all the evil in the world.”
Katryn did smile, then, perhaps the most genuine smile I had ever seen. She glowed. “So you do care.”
The glow unsettled me. “Don’t pretend to know anything about me. We have fought together, and that’s all,” I said defensively, iron creeping back into my voice. “And now you know my past. Don’t believe you can read my mind.”
“You’re wrong. I know what I see in my visions of you. I know you, Dryetn, better than you think. I know how you think, what you feel—what you can’t feel,” she said, her voice cracking at the end of the sentence. “I know what it would take to make you feel fear.”
My heart twinged at the last assertion. Was this… apprehension? I dropped the mace and moved back to sit beside her.
“Tell me. I told you. Tell me of the visions. What do you see in front of me?” I asked her softly.
Katryn turned away so her hair curtained her face. “You focus so strongly on the present. You don’t want to know anything about your future.”
The comment gave me pause, but only for a few moments. “I do.”
“In these dreams I have of you… it’s always the same.”
“I see your mace flying through the air, carving a path of blood;” she said quietly, “painting snow and sky and water red and black, as you judge the dead and dying to damnation. I see you climbing over a pile of bodies of all races as you approach a mountain, grey and looming and unshakeable. You use the dead as a ladder up the cliffs, even as the world explodes around you in fire. I see two names written in blood on dying grass; and one of them is yours, Dryetn.
“And yet, when the smoke clears, you are standing at the mountain’s peak and looking down on the world around you, and you are no longer playing at judgement. Then, you turn yours eyes skyward as clouds roll towards you, mists frothing black and illuminated by lightning—and for the first time in this dream of mine, I see fear in your eyes.”
I sat at her side quietly, unable to respond.
“This is what I see for your future.”
“And you stay with me in spite of all of this,” I said, a strange emotion welling in my chest.
“Yes,” she finished quietly. I knew then she would remain at my side no matter what.
I thought back to what I knew other races said and did in these moments. None of their customs seemed to fit now. “Thank you,” I said simply. And I meant it.
“We’re going the wrong way,” she said quietly. “You need to go to the Bloodstone. We have to find out what that courtier meant. You need answers.”
Was that true? I didn’t want answers—that was certain. I wanted to know nothing about how this Court sylvari was tied to me, how she knew me.
And yet, yes, I needed to know.
“Yes. We’ll head to the Bloodstone.”