Spell Caster Chapter 16
Jerryck spurred his mount forward, heedless of Heston’s and Kellos’ call for him to wait. He gathered up some energy, and shaped it into an illuminated orb. He adjusted that to absorb the fog within a five foot circle around him, and to dispel the magic that had gathered it. By the time he reached the edge of the fog leaking out between the trees, he had the orb levitating about a foot over his head. Inside the trees, he immediately slowed. The most well-worn paths were on the other side of the grove, closer to the city where the pond lay. Jerryck had never approached the dryad’s tree from this side. He tried giving his horse the leeway to go where it pleased while he set up some tracking to figure out the exact location of the dryad. The animal turned around and headed back to the edge of the grove. Heston barreled out of the dark between the boles of the trees. He reached down and snatched at the bridal of Jerryck’s horse. “What do you think you’re doing? I told you to wait.” Jerryck batted Heston’s hand away, and steered the horse back toward the center of the grove. “If they irritate the dryad too much, she’ll kill them all.” “Unless they kill her first,” Heston said, following. “Not likely,” Jerryck said with a snort. “Besides, if she dies, the grove dies. Then the sprites at Zinrish Dell will die. And then the flower trade from it will die. And a lot of our art trade will die, because our poets and writers and painters will immigrate elsewhere.” “Stop,” Heston said. “I know it sounds a bit dramatic,” Jerryck said. “Stop!” Heston pulled his horse in front of Jerryck’s, cutting him off. “You go riding through trees on a horse, you knock your head on branches. Dismount.” Jerryck lit onto the ground. A few of the guards on foot came up behind them. Heston also dismounted, then turned both the horses over to one of the men. While that man guided the animals back the way they came, everyone else went forward heading for the center of the grove. The fog wasn’t flowing out to the edge of like he expected. It was flowing to the center, swirling and eddying as it went around the trees and the underbrush, creating ghostly shapes that reached out skeletal fingers to pluck at anything that got too close. Jerryck stopped, frowning and watching it move. Heston stopped beside him. “What?” Jerryck held up his hands, fingers splayed. “Do you feel any kind of a breeze?” “No,” Heston said. “Why?” “Just double checking,” Jerryck said. He pointed to the flowing fog. “It’s moving the wrong direction.” Heston watched it for a few heartbeats. Then said, “What would make it do that?” “I’m not certain,” Jerryck said, continuing forward. “Maybe the dryad is pulling it in. If so, it’ll get thicker the closer we get to her tree.” “Why would she do that?” Heston asked. “She’s a plant,” Jerryck said. “Maybe she likes the moisture. She’s also a magical creature. Maybe she’s feeding off the magic that generated the fog. Maybe both.” Heston pointed at the ball of light over Jerryck’s head. “Can you dim that some?” “It won’t dissipate the fog as well if I do,” Jerryck said. “That’ll make it easier to see if it’s thickening,” Heston said. Jerryck drew some of the energy out of the orb and back into himself. He got it down to about half the light it had originally emitted. He stopped dimming it when one of the men behind him stumbled over a root. The fog closed in on either side, flowing faster the farther they went. The ground sloped gently upward, evidence they were getting close. Men’s voices drifted their way from ahead. One of them called out something about a light. A couple of minutes later, the sergeant emerged from the fog. Water dripped off him. His wet hair was plastered to his head. His boots squished with every step he took. Heston continued pressing forward. “What happened?” The sergeant turned around to walk beside him. “I made the wrong choice in one of the team members.” “How did you get all wet?” Jerryck asked. “That’s from the fog,” the sergeant said. “It’s so thick up there, everything is wet. We tried to light torches to draw the dryad away from the tree. That’s when it all billowed in and saturated everything. Now nothing will light.” The crack of a rock hitting wood resounded. The trees around them rustled, and the sergeant swore under his breath. He said, “We gathered up some rocks to throw as a distraction, just in case she went after the rookie before we could get him out of the tree.” “You shouldn’t throw things at her,” Jerryck said, watching the dark branches spearing the fog and waving restlessly as if there was a breeze. “If the fog is that thick up there,” Heston said, “how are you able to see enough to hit anything?” “That’s the strange part,” the sergeant said. “We can see pretty clearly. I don’t know if it’s because the fog is condensing into water, or something else.” Another smack rang out. The trees obscured in the fog creaked and groaned. Jerryck broke into a run. He came to another guard, his arm drawn back with a rock in hand. Jerryck grabbed his arm before he could throw. “Stop!” “We have to do something,” the man said, lowering his arm, water dripping from the sleeve of his elite uniform. Jerryck frowned up at the tree on the pinnacle of the incline. More gnarled, twisted, and larger than any other tree he knew of. Fog swirled around it. Moonlight cast mangled shadows from it. And still, they could clearly see the man dangling from an arm and leg from some of the smaller branches, and the humanoid shape of the dryad clinging to the bole. “She stopped moving!” someone called on the right. Clarity of sight didn’t extend that way. It only wrapped around the tree. Another called on the left. “Should we try lighting the torches again?” “No!” Jerryck raised his voice, answering them. “If you irritate her too much, she’ll spear you with the branches of the other trees. Or beat you to death with them.” Heston and the others caught up. Ripples shivered across the bark of the dryad’s skin. She let out the sound of dry leaves rustling, her version of hissing at them. She shifted her feet, clinging to knots on the tree, then raised her arms and splayed her twig-like fingers wide. The magic fueling the fog lurched her way and reshaped. More fog swirled in, surrounding Jerryck, putting out his light, and drenching him in seconds. At the same time, the tree became even clearer to see. The soldier stuck in the tree called out to them. “She wouldn’t really use my body as fertilizer, would she?” “Yes,” Jerryck said. He took a few steps to the right, out of the knot of fog. The dryad’s fingers twitched. The fog slowly drifted after him. He kept moving while he explained to the trapped guard, “You’re not a thinking, feeling being in her view. Your best use is food for her friends.” He came to the man on the right who called out earlier. It was the elite with the cleft chin. He snickered and said to Jerryck, “You’re so tactful at times.” Jerryck ignored him, keeping his focus on the magic the dryad manipulated. Heston followed him. “You used fire the last time you faced her down.” “I used the illusion of fire,” Jerryck corrected him. “That way it didn’t do any damage. It just startled her. If I had burned her tree, we wouldn’t have made it out of the grove alive.” “Can you do it again?” Heston asked. “She’s magically clarified sight around her tree,” Jerryck said, pointing to it. “That’s why we can see in the dark through the fog. It’ll cancel out any illusion I try to use. She remembers me, what I did.” “Can’t you put her to sleep? Like you do with patients sometimes?” “Different biology,” Jerryck said. “It would take a different process.” “How soon can you get it done?” “I’m not sure I can,” Jerryck said. Heston walked sideways, watching the dryad. The others followed. She moved with them, continually facing Jerryck, disregarding anyone else. He stopped. The dryad stopped. The knot of stalking fog caught up and enveloped him, drenching him all over again. He walked away again, this time to the left, passing all the men who had been following him. The dryad still turned to keep facing him. “Do plants even sleep?” the sergeant asked. “Sometimes,” Jerryck said. “Trees sleep in the winter. When it’s cold.” Could he chill everything enough to make the dryad even drowsy? If he could, that would slow her down, make her lethargic. He lifted his hands, feeling the mists, letting the condensing water drip down his fingers. It connected him back to the magic that had created the fog. He gathered up more of his own energy. Breathing in the fog, it deepened the connection. Then he breathed that out into the energy that had gathered, connecting it further. He reshaped it with words that turned it freezing. Then spoke the words that severed it, sending it out to all the rest of the magic it was connected to. The mists crystallized into minuscule shards of ice hanging in the air. The temperature plummeted. Everyone’s breast frosted, adding to the chill moisture. The dryad lowered her hands, clinging to the tree with all four limbs again. Her magic abated. The tree grew obscure in the darkness and the frozen fog. Jerryck turned his attention to the tree. He tweaked the magic again, causing it to pull moisture out of the branches holding the man. They were young enough, thin enough, that they shriveled and snapped. The man fell. The dryad moved sluggishly toward him. The other men rushed in, grabbing their comrade and dragging him away before she could cross half the distance. The dryad reached out again. This time, she made the mournful sounds of wood creaking and breaking. With the clarifying magic now at its weakest, Jerryck fashioned the illusion of animals entering the grove, dying, decaying, and feeding all the trees. Setting that in motion, it caught her attention. She settled, nestling down, the bark of her skin melding nearly seamlessly with the trunk of her tree. Jerryck motion for everyone to retreat, leaving the illusion to play out over the next quarter of an hour. That was enough time for them all to get out from beneath the canopy of trees.