The Dryad’s Dream
Chapter 4 – Over the Top
Wendel scooted out from under the arms of the two females, gently repositioning them so that he could see how they fared the weather. It was remarkably dark, even though he knew it should be well after sunrise, and he suspected that quite a bit of snow may have accumulated on and around their tents, despite his warding. He found the opening to the outside, and confirmed that there was indeed snow. What he hadn’t expected was how much.
The tents were buried completely, that much was obvious. That he couldn’t even see any light indicated that there was at least a meter piled above them. Digging out was going to require a bit more effort than he’d first imagined.
After pulling on his pants and shirt, he carefully aimed his staff and muttered a few key phrases in an old language. There was a soft FWOOSH, and light was suddenly streaming down from above. A cone of the cold, white powder had been blasted away, and now the wizard could see that it was more like three meters of snow around them. He used his staff two more times before he felt he had enough removed to climb out. Standing outside his excavations, he turned in a circle and whistled. Everything for a kilometer around them was buried in a wonderland of cold and ice.
“Wendel?” Peleial’s voice sounded muffled coming from the bottom of the cone-shaped hole a few minutes later. “Is everything okay?”
“Not to worry, my dear. Close the flap and sit tight. I’ll have this cleared out in a jiffy.”
Twenty minutes later, their quickly assembled campsite was once again fully visible. He’d blown the white mass away from them to form a large, shallow crater with the tents in the center. The others were just emerging from the shelters, blinking into the morning sun as he scanned the mountain peaks. Taya stretched and joined him.
“The work of our elemental?” she asked in a hushed tone, frowning.
“Undoubtedly. I believe this was a warning rather than a full attack though.”
“Hell of a warning.”
“Indeed. I expect we’ll see the Kax again as we near the ridge.”
“You still planning on drawing it away while the rest of us cross?”
“That’s the plan, yes.”
She sighed. “And if there’s more than one?”
He turned and looked over at her. “Well, then we’re in deep shit.”
It took longer than he wanted to pack everything up and start their ascent again, and he kept one eye on the mountain the whole time. If the Kax returned before they reached the top, he doubted pitching tents would save them a second time.
The wizard was obviously concerned and alert, but the party’s spirits were nonetheless in very good shape several hours later, despite the fact that no one in their tent had gotten much actual sleep. Sometimes, even a brief rest after such a delightful evening can be enough. He noticed that Taya and Lawen seemed to share their slightly sleepy-happy visages, and wondered if the pair had…
“Wendel?” called Taya from the back of their group. “Check the eastern ridge!”
Turning toward the morning sun, he brought up his hand to block the glare, scanning the range. He was about to query the woman when he saw something move. It was coming almost right out of his blind spot, and so looked like a black fuzzy silhouette. It was quite a distance off, but moving at a speed that was well above any natural animal.
“Tricky bastard… GO!” he called out, and pointed up the path. “You have to reach the top of the pass before it does! Don’t stop until you’re past the twin spires on the far side!”
“What are you…” started Peleial.
“I’ll meet you later… HURRY!”
As soon as they started running, Taya saw the wizard make a quick series of hand gestures and then sprint more directly up the mountain as though weightless.
“Mistress? Where is Master Wendel going?” asked Briddle, wide-eyed with fear. “What’s going on?!”
“Don’t worry. He can handle himself. Let’s just do as he said and get through the pass.”
The group of four moved as quickly as they could, but the path was quite steep until they finally reached the pinnacle. Twice, they heard what sounded like thunder just east of them, and at one point there was a flash of white light brighter than the sun, followed by a sharp crack that caused the whole mountain to rumble.
They continued to follow the wizard’s instructions and did not stop until they came to a pair of spikes nearly halfway down the other side of the range. Below them, Taya saw the green expanse of Vel’Orthak. A traveling road formed just at its edge, extending through the forest in the distance.
“Do you see Wendel?” asked Lawen as they stopped just beyond the markers to catch their breath.
Taya frowned. “No. We’ll wait here for him.”
“What WAS that back there,” panted Peleial.
Sighing, the warrior decided that it would do no good for them to speculate on their own. “Kax,” she replied simply.
Both of the elves gasped.
“An elemental!?” said Lawen, clutching her cleric’s robes. “Shit! And we let him face that alone?”
The tall woman crouched down to rest, and so that she could look the other in the eye. “Only magic can face a creature such as that, Lawen. Our weapons would have been useless. We would have just been a liability.”
“Is he a match for such a creature?” asked the elf’s sister.
“I honestly don’t know,” she admitted. “He was going to lead it away so that we could get through the pass.”
Lawen was starting to lose it. “What if he didn’t get away? What if he’s dead?!”
“He’s not,” replied Briddle, and all three females turned to her, surprised at her calm.
“How do you…?” started Taya.
“…Because I can still feel his master’s bond. If he were dead, the bond would pass to his second. To you, Mistress Taya.”
She blinked. “So he’s okay then.”
The human girl frowned. “The master’s bond does not tell me his condition, or what he is feeling. It only confirms he still lives. It’s possible he could be injured.”
Lawen gasped again, but not regarding their conversation. “Taya, look!”
The warrior turned back to the mountain, and saw a very large, dark shape moving along the ridge in their direction.
“Is it Wendel?” asked the other elf.
She squinted into the mid-morning light. “No.”
“Everyone get back behind the stones!”
Scrambling, Taya directed them while she kept an eye toward the ridge. She noticed at once that the sky was rapidly darkening, as though a veil of shadow were falling from the heavens. She was confused until she saw a widening field of white reaching down the face they had just descended.
“Is it the Kax?” asked Peleial, following her gaze.
“I think so. We need to get out of here. That thing is freezing the whole face…”
“Surely it can’t reach us down here, can it?” asked the elf, terrified.
“Not directly, but it can dump enough cold on us to kill us anyway.” She turned to the rest of the group. “We need to make a run for the forest. There’s enough heat there to shelter us, but we need to go NOW!”
Taya took one more long look at the shapeless dark that now hovered directly below the mountain peak. Even without any evident eyes, she knew the malevolent being was also looking down… at her, and her soul chilled.
“Not today, asshole…” she muttered under her breath and joined the others.
The ground frost followed them right to the edge of the forest before the heavy spring heat finally pushed it back. After racing the freezing death down the mountain, stepping into the warmth of Vel’Orthak was like walking into a steam bath. They were drenched in sweat almost at once.
“Gah,” exclaimed Lawen, stripping off her heavy robe. “I thought I’d be happy to be warm again.”
Taya and the others followed suit, removing their mountain gear. “I’m afraid the forest is likely to be even worse further in,” she commented. “We’ll hide the bulk of our warmer clothes here for the return trip.”
Ten minutes later, Taya was the heaviest dressed of the four of them because of her leather armor. Peleial noticed her staring east again, but she wasn’t looking up the mountain.
“Any sign of Wendel?”
She frowned. “No, and I think we have another problem. What do your elf eyes see at the base there, just left of the darker mound?”
Peleial shielded her vision from the sun and focussed for a moment. “I don’t… wait! Did something glint? Metal… there it is again!”
“Damn,” she sighed. “I was hoping I was just imagining it.”
“What is it? Can’t be the Kax…”
“No. It’s an army. I recognise the light pattern. From the look of it, they are heading this way along the base of the mountains. Pel, what’s over in that direction?”
“Well, not a whole lot. Beyond the range is the Oller Hills, Baycheck, and of course the Waste.”
“The first two are cities?”
“Yup. Oller is elf-kind. Baycheck is a mix, but both are more like small towns to be honest, and pretty far away.”
“Not the kinds of places that would send out large patrols?”
The elf snorted. “Are you kidding? They don’t send out much of anything.”
The she-elf looked at her again. “I forget that you’re not from the Vale sometimes… It’s on account of the Waste. It’s a large dead-zone. Very little vegetation. Water is really hard to come by. Not much lives there save for orcs. They’ll attack anyone they find. Hey… you don’t think…”
“Gather the others. We need to move again.”
“What about our wayward wizard?”
The human woman glanced at the mountain on last time. “We can’t wait. Wendel will just have to find us. He knows where we’re going. If we stay here, we won’t be able to stay ahead of them. I don’t think you want them to catch our scent…”
Peleial paled, remembering the last time she met orcs. “No… that would be bad. You think they’re going to take the road through the forest?”
“Probably, which means we need to be well on our way when they do, with or without our wizard.”
An hour later, the four females were keeping a good pace down the wagon-worn road through Vel’Orthak. It had gone from simply warm, to jungle humid in that time, and even Taya finally relented and started unstrapping parts of her armor to carry on her back. She left on the upper part of her breastplate, but tucked away the abdominal cover with several smaller pieces of the thick leather from her thighs and shoulders. She didn’t like being so exposed, but the alternative was drowning in her own perspiration. Sweat-slickened armor can be worse than nothing at all.
For the moment, Lawen was in the lead, followed by her sister and then Briddle. Taya took the rear so as to let those with shorter legs set the pace. She’d gotten used to cutting her strides by about a third, but still came up a bit short when the group ahead of her stopped suddenly.
“Taya…” Lawen said slowly as she stared at the road ahead of them.
The warrior came forward, and her eyes widened. “Get into the forest!” she called out, dashing to the side without waiting to see if the others had followed. When she had gone a dozen meters into the cover, she turned and found only Lawen beside her. Pelial and Briddle had run to the other side of the road. She could just see them. Frantically, she tried to signal that they should move further into the forest and move parallel to the road, but they didn’t seem to understand.
Lawen stopped her. “Allow me.” She quickly made a few gestures, and her sister replied in kind. A moment later the pair turned and faded deeper between the trees.
“I didn’t know you were fluent in hand-speak,” said the human, impressed.
“I’m not. My sister and I developed our own hand language to keep us out of trouble. It didn’t help, but it was still fun. Do you think they saw us?”
Taya glanced up the road to where the second armoured group had just come around a slight bend.
“I don’t think so. We were in the shadows. But we should get further into the forest just in case. Do you think half a click will be enough to mask our scent?”
The elf smiled. “Oh, I should think so. We might’ve needed to go further in the middle of winter, but Vel’Orthak in the spring is like one giant whorehouse of smells. I’d be more worried about the forest actually.”
Taya continued the conversation as they moved. “I got a little better look at that second group before we left the road. If Wendel’s descriptions are accurate, which I have no doubt they are, then those were definitely orcs. It wasn’t a whole army though…”
Lawen hopped over a thick root. “They’re dangerous even in a small group.”
“I’m sure they are,” continued the warrior. “But that group…. They weren’t just traveling down the road, they were patrolling it. Are they known to do that?”
“Not that I’ve ever heard. Certainly not in the spring. Nobody comes through here in the spring… save for idiots like us.”
The woman frowned. “That’s what I thought. Wendel would know that as well. He never would have risked us traveling this way if he’d know that the road would be patrolled.”
“Which means he didn’t know they would be there either.”
The she-elf stopped for a moment to look at her. “Does it matter?”
“Maybe not. It’s unusual. I just don’t like unknowns. The unknown will get you killed in a place like this.”
“I can’t argue with that.” The elf drew her knife and abruptly pinned an innocent looking frog to the log it had been sitting on. Taya raised a brow until Lawen tilted the amphibian enough that the other could see several rows of sharp teeth on its underbelly.
“Yeah, right now, pretty much everything in this forest wants to either eat us, or fuck us… or both.”