Haxia stifled a yawn in her sleeve, reaching absently for an apple as she surveyed the dining hall. She was probably late, and could only count her blessings that there was still fruit. Having never been on such a schedule before, Haxia had only recently realized that she was always late. Aes Sedai, however, seemed to be far too dour to accept that excuse. Rubbing idly at her eyes with one hand, Haxia took a bite of the apple-
Except there was no apple.
She shrieked, jumping an awkward half step away from the table, her hand grasping first at air, and then at her own face. The dining hall was empty, and the fruitbowl was gone. Haxia deflated, sinking inelegantly to her knees, and stared vacantly at the floor. She had not meant to fall asleep. She had saved tea from the afternoon meal, and had situated herself as uncomfortably as she could manage in her chair. Her bed was as clean and neat as it had been when Haxia had arrived at the Tower.
Haxia sobbed, her shoulders shaking with the force of it, exhaustion burning her eyes through the tears. The Aes Sedai had said they would help, but there had been little of that so far. They told her that this place was a dream, that she must believe it to be a dream, but Haxia hardly saw the sense in that. Even they admitted that this Tel’aran’rhiod could hurt her, and that was real enough for Haxia. To say that she must believe herself to be real, but nothing else? It was all senseless riddles, and none of it had stopped her from ending up here.
She pressed her palms to her eyes, hard, and forced herself to swallow her sobs. When Haxia finally looked up, her shoulders were shaking fractionally with the force of her hiccuping breaths. The dining hall was as empty as it had ever been, with a few stray bowls of porridge that vanished as soon as she noticed them. Light, but Haxia hated this place. She stood and wiped at her face with the sleeve of her plain nightgown. It did little but spread wetness across her cheeks.
Scowling as fiercely as she could manage, Haxia stomped toward the door, green silk skirts brushing against her legs. Oh, Light. She was happy enough to be out of her nightclothes, but couldn’t a single thing in the blasted place stay constant? First fruit, then her clothes… Tel’aran’rhiod was the eeriest place she had ever been. Haxia could never shake the feeling of someone’s gaze on her back, and doors had a nasty habit of opening only to reveal no one standing on the other side. Haxia had not known what trollocs had looked like until her dreams had shown her, and she did her best not to wonder what nightmares she might see now. Haxia ran her thumb fitfully along her right forearm, at the scar Tel’aran’rhiod had left. It was terrifying to know that she might die in this place, although she supposed it was likely enough to die outside of her dreams, as well. But at least doors never opened for no reason when she was awake-
The door to the hallway swung open.
Haxia froze, her heartbeat thumping in her ears. She could smell smoke, hear the low crackle of fire. It was just like the dreams that had haunted her as a child, after she had burned herself on the fireplace. A man made of fire. He had chased her in her nightmares, a man with white hot embers for eyes. Haxia took a slow, stumbling step backwards, hand flying to the table to steady herself. It couldn’t be-
“Nothing here is real.” She breathed, trying hard to believe. But the scent of smoke was stronger now. Fingers of flame wrapped around the edge of the door, wood crackling as it caught fire. Haxia screamed and turned, tripping over her own skirts and caught herself just in time on the bench before her. Her slippers skidded across the stone floor, and she scrambled to her feet gracelessly. She ran, her slippers turning to leather boots as she tore towards the kitchens. Haxia skidded through the door and froze, her eyes darting from the counters, to the cabinet, to the pantry.
It was only after she had tucked herself into the pantry, knees clasped in trembling hands, that Haxia remembered that the man of fire had always found her, no matter how cleverly she hid.