The Dryad’s Dream
Chapter 8 – A Simple Plan
Getting back to the road wasn’t too much of a problem once Briddle figured out the best way to move Peleial was to keep the elf floating in front of her as they traveled. Only once did they have to stop to free Briddle from the grip of some overly friendly flowers. The tall-stemmed blooms had reached right around her legs when she stopped to rest for a moment. She called out to Wendel, who hopped back and cast a spell that caused them to pull away sharply. Even in the thirty or forty seconds it had taken him to get to her, the plants had managed to draw down her pants and were reaching under her panties.
“Why does everything in this forest want to pleasure us?” she asked as she buckled her belt again.
“It’s spring,” he said simply. “Spring is the time of fertility. It’s when most of the plants and animals choose to reproduce after the long winter, though the creatures here in Vel’Orthak usually have more sinister intentions…” He zapped a tree branch that was slowly lifting up her shirt.
“Hmm. Other forests are not like this?”
He chuckled. “No. Most are quite safe, relatively speaking. Many beasts wake and are hungry, but such activity is a normal part of the yearly cycle. This forest was taken by dark magic. In the winter months, it is merely gloomy, but in the spring and summer, it is quite dangerous. Only the truly desperate travel these roads when the forest wakes.”
The girl was quiet for a moment.
“It’s because of me…”
“Hmm? What’s that?” he asked.
“We’re ‘desperate,’ it’s why we’re taking this risk… Why Taya and Lawen are missing, and why Peleial is trapped in a slumber…”
“Hey, hey…” The wizard came to her side and drew her close to quell her panic. “None of that nonsense, Briddle. We all chose this path… save possibly for you. Taya and the others, even Peleial, they all knew the risks and agreed to them willingly, even happily.”
“It just doesn’t seem fair – that you would all risk your selves for me… For the life of one slave.”
“For the life of one person,” he corrected her, smiling.
She sighed, and Wendel saw a brief sadness flash across her features.
“You’re concerned about what will happen when we reach Holsfield,” he stated.
“I don’t want to belong to someone else. I… I like being with you and Peleial and the others. I want to be your slave!” She burst into tears.
Now it was Wendel’s turn to sigh. “Oh my.” He drew her into a hug, patting her back until she quieted some. “Briddle, look at me… You will never be my ‘slave’. I only hold the title of ‘master’ for you because it is legally necessary until we reach Holsfield. I will have to pass that title on to Ebbis Brent as I am required, and is, as it happens, necessary to end the Akanit curse. But know this… I don’t plan on letting you suffer that fate for long. I’ll find a way to get you back. Brent may be willing to sell you to me, or possibly for trade. My skills would be quite valuable to someone in his position. Whatever the means, whatever it takes, it is my full intention to see you free. Do you understand?”
She sniffed and then nodded, smiling.
“Good. Now I want you to focus on the present. We have a lot of catching up to do before nightfall, and I need you sharp. You let me worry about the marrow, agreed?”
He glowered at her.
It was mid-day before they crossed to the road, moving quickly when Wendel was sure the way was clear. They saw no orcs, only footprints, but the Wizard wasn’t convinced that was a good sign.
“Better to know where your enemy is hiding,” he explained.
Safely across the divide, he took them directly away from the road for another hour before turning parallel to it again. They were stopped for a drink, and Briddle asked the obvious question.
“How will we pick up their trail?”
He grinned. “I already have.”
“Really?” she replied, her eyes wide.
“Indeed. I believe they passed this route less than half a day ago, no more. They don’t seem to be moving very quickly, so if we hurry, we might reconnect with them before sundown.”
“That’s wonderful!… But… The orc tracks. If we can pick up their trail, won’t the orcs?”
“You assume that the orcs are looking for them, and that they would even notice the signs if they were.”
She considered this as they prepared to move on.
Her pointed to the base of a tree. “See there? That mark in the moss?”
“The brighter line?”
“Yes. That’s Taya. She’s a clever one. She left us a clear path to follow.”
She shook her head, frowning. “But how do you…”
“Look at the edges, Briddle. See how sharp they are? The moss was cut by a very sharp blade… Impossibly sharp.”
“That’s right. She left that mark on purpose. To anyone else, it’s just a random scratch on a tree. To us, it wouldn’t be a clearer sign if she had written her name.”
They had only gone another half hour’s travels, when Wendel turned sharply and stood in front of the human, blocking her view of what was ahead.
“Master? What’s wrong?”
“Bri, in your time with Tarn, did you see death?”
Her face became a mask of worry. “Once… he killed a girl in front of me. One of the workers. She had held back some money that was given to her by a client. Is… Is it Taya and Lawen?… Are they dead??” She was on the edge of panic.
“No, it’s not them.” The girl visibly relaxed. “But it’s a fairly gruesome scene. I didn’t want you to see it unprepared.”
She nodded. “I’m okay. Nothing could be worse than what what my former master did to that girl…”
“Very well,” he said, stepping aside.
The bodies of the fallen orcs were scattered across the forest floor, some in multiple pieces. Wendel moved forward, examining the corpses.
“Unless I miss my guess, this was Taya’s handiwork. The cuts are far too clean for unskilled hands… or cheap weapons.”
“They’re okay then?”
The wizard smiled at her. “I’m at least certain that they walked away from this fight. Look here, they looted the orcs for random coin, but left their food and water. Smart. No telling what these foul creatures were eating. We should move on. This happened only recently.”
They continued at a brisk pace, and after a bit, Wendel discovered that it was he who was becoming the limiting factor to their speed. He finally had to sit after climbing out of a shallow gully.
“Ah… youth,” he said to the girl, panting as he caught his breath. She smiled, and was about to sit herself, when she noticed something on the ground.
“Is… Is that an orc footprint?”
Suddenly alert, he grasped her hand and pulled her down low, dragging Peleial to ground as well. He motioned for her to remain quiet, and then carefully made a scan around them.
Wendel was gone for only a short time, but it was plenty long enough for Briddle to get very nervous. When he finally returned, he helped her up and sighed.
“We’ve got a problem. Something happened here, and it’s not clear what it was. Taya and Lawen definitely entered this clearing, but their tracks don’t leave. Unfortunately, the orc’s tracks do.”
The girl was on the verge of tears again. “Were they… eaten?”
“There’s no blood, orc or human, so I’d have to say that they were captured without a fight.”
“There are several nests of Corgen’s Folly… er, a trapping vine, and it looks like at least one of them might have gotten stuck. The good news is that the orcs weren’t worried about being stealthy. Their tracks are obvious and easy to follow. Don’t worry, Briddle,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get them back. We’re going to have to hurry though. Do you think you can manage Peleial at a run?”
“Good girl. Let’s go…”
It wasn’t hard to find the orc encampment, as it was only about a kilometer away. It was a bit more difficult to get close enough without getting spotted. The sun had just set, which worked in their favor, but the wind was tricky. If they orcs picked up their scent, they’d be revealed for sure. When they finally had a good position to observe the camp, Wendel handed her a small jar of ointment, opening it and taking some of the cream-like substance in his palm. He started wiping it on his face and urged her to do the same.
“It’s not a perfect mask, but it should hide us from their noses for a little while.”
Briddle crinkled her own nose in disgust as she followed the wizard’s example and smeared the foul smelling goop onto her cheeks.
“Now, let’s see what we’re… Holy shit… By Taligan’s balls, what is that doing here?!”
“What’s wrong?” asked the girl.
Wendel’s shoulder’s slumped. “This is bad. Very bad.”
“Do you see Taya and Lawen?”
“Oh, I see them all right, they’re right there next to that fucking Beholder…”
He sat down next to her again. “I’m sorry, Briddle. I don’t usually lose my composure like that, but I’m really starting to think that this whole trip has been rigged against us.”
“I don’t understand…”
He turned to her, and took a deep breath. “No, of course you don’t. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot more going on than I expected out of this journey. It’s not your fault, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s not just a coincidence. There’s a creature out there…”
“That’s the one. A giant floating ball with dragon’s hide and eye-stalks for hair… well, they just happen to be magic eaters. Of all the creatures we could possibly encounter, a Beholder is probably the only one I can’t fight. They literally consume magic. My spells are useless.”
“It is with the orcs?”
“Probably controlling them, actually. It would explain why they aren’t trying to leave the forest.”
“I don’t understand. The magic eater is controlling the orcs?”
He smiled at her innocence. “Beholders are slavers. They use their mind to dominate others. They also have a big central eye that can negate magic, so spell attacks are pretty much pointless. These orcs are pretty weak-minded to begin with. It wouldn’t take much to subjugate their minds. That one Beholder could easily play general to the whole orc army. They’re pretty smart too.”
“So what do we do? How are we going to rescue Taya and Lawen?”
He rubbed his head in frustration.
“I really don’t know, Briddle. My strength is in my magic. Going up against that Beholder would be suicide.”
The girl was peering over their cover. “There has to be something we can do. If magic won’t work, can’t we attack the Beholder with knives or swords or something?”
“No… no. Its hide is like platemail. A sword would just bounce right off of it. It would take something super strong and sharp to pierce it and do any damage… a ballista, or maybe a dwarven dragon lance…”
“…Or an enchanted spear?” said the human girl, still staring at the camp.
Wendel blinked and then scrambled to his knees. Briddle was pointing to something almost dead-center next to the fire. There, leaning against a rack among a dozen inferior weapons, was Taya’s red-tassled, white-gold spear.
“Ha! I’ll be dipped!”
“Would it work against the Beholder?”
He was thinking furiously. “It just might at that, only…”
“How are we supposed to get it? Orc’s don’t sleep. Rest, yes, but they don’t need to sleep like you or I do. And,” he continued, frowning, “I really don’t think Lawen and Taya have that kind of time, even if we could wait for the orcs to call it a night.” He nodded in the direction of the Beholder. He and Briddle were nearly directly behind the beast, but they could just make out a single pale female with pointed ears at its left side. She was naked, and glistening in the firelight as she crawled on top of a prone orc.
“What is she doing? Is she… no…”
“Briddle… I don’t think she’d do that willingly. She’s probably being controlled. I’m sorry.”
“We have to stop it! We have to!”
He pulled her down out of view. “Shhh. Okay, okay… Just let me think. I can’t use direct magic attacks, but maybe there’s some way magic could still help,” he said, talking to himself. “Uh, distractions?… Maybe, but it’ll never get them all to leave. If just one of those orcs sees us… No, no good. That beholder is going to have orcs around it constantly. They don’t come above ground often, so it’ll be cautious. Luring it away might work, but then we still have to face an army of orcs. This is crazy!”
“I’m small… maybe I could sneak in and steal it. They might not notice me,” offered the girl.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Briddle. That…” His eyes grew wide. “… might totally work!”
“What?! I was sort of kidding. I… I’m not a thief, Master Wendel, sir!”
He patted her head. “It’s just Wendel, and I know that, Bri. But you don’t have to be. You just have to not be noticed!”
She frowned. “I try to understand… but I do not see how this will work.”
The wizard was giddy. “It’s called the Charm of the Unseen. It’s a clever little bit of magic that Warlocks often use to get themselves out of trouble. Basically, the caster channels a spell that allows them to be ‘unnoticed.’”
“Like… invisible?” she offered.
“Sort of, only better. You’re not actually invisible, but you might as well be. You could be standing in a room full of people, and no one would ‘see’ you. They might even run right into you if your weren’t careful, which would be bad, because that would break the spell. Normally, a warlock casts the charm on themselves when things get sticky. So long as they channel it… uh, repeat the incantation to themselves… and don’t touch anyone, they are virtually undetectable.”
“So… you could go and get the spear without the orcs noticing you.”
“No. I can’t channel a spell and move around at the same time.”
She frowned again. “But… that doesn’t work. How will you get Taya’s weapon?”
“I won’t. You will.”
“I can’t move while I’m channeling, but I can cast the spell on someone else who can move. That would be you. All you have to do is walk into the camp and take it.”
She was shaking her head, mostly in denial of what he was asking her to do. “Won’t they… Won’t they see the spear disappear?”
“Nope. The second you take it, it will fall under the charm as well and be ‘unnoticed.’ This will work, Briddle. I know it will.”
“I… I am afraid.”
He sighed understandingly. “I’m sure you are. I know it’s asking a lot of you, but I don’t know any other way to save Taya and Lawen. We have to do something soon or it won’t matter, and you’re their best shot. Getting the spear is the easy part. The real question is whether you’re strong enough to pierce the Beholder’s hide.”
“What?! No… no no…”
“Briddle, I have to keep the charm going. Neither of us would get close enough unless I do. Once you have the spear, you just move behind it, and thrust it into its back. The little eye stalks aren’t a problem, but you’ll have to be sure to stay clear of its frontal eye. If you walk in front of that, it will see right through the magic.”
“Master Wendel, please… I do not think I can do this.”
He looked into her panicked eyes with true sadness. It wasn’t fair to ask of her, and he knew it. “There’s no other way. We owe it to them to try.”
She was silent for quite a while, biting her lip. “Master… I… I need you to order me. You must command me to do this task for you, as your slave.”
He was taken aback. The very idea that he could force her, as his legal servant, to put her life in such jeopardy, had simply never occurred to him. The words struck him as though someone had slapped him across the face, and a deep sense of loss came over him. He had a pretty good idea what this choice would cost him, but it had to be paid. He took a deep breath and then let it out slowly.
“Briddle, as your master, I order you to get that spear and kill that Beholder. Do you understand my command?”
“Yes, Master,” she said, suddenly more relaxed and resigned. She was also… different. He saw that at once… and didn’t like it. Whatever warm rapport that they had gained while on their journey, it was now completely absent from her. “I am ready.”
Wendel picked up a short stick and started drawing a circle. It wasn’t part of the charm, but rather a warding field. It would only afford him a little protection, and nothing that would stop the Beholder should it noticed him, but it was better than nothing. While he was channeling, he would be helpless.
“As soon as I start,” he said, sitting in his circle, “you can go for the spear. Move slowly, and steadily, and do not let anyone touch you. Even the slightest brush, even on accident, and they will see you. Get the spear, and move behind the Beholder. Under no circumstances are you to get in his forward field of vision. Stay behind it. When you have a clear shot, plunge the spear directly into its back as hard as you can. With any luck, it will pierce its hide and kill it. After that, go find cover. You won’t have the charm anymore, so watch yourself. I’ll come as soon as you strike.”
“And if the Beholder is not killed?”
“Fuck it. I’ll come anyway. I won’t leave you to fight that thing alone. If you have any questions, Briddle, now would be the time.” He took some dark earth and smudged a pair of lines on her forehead, cautioning her not to disturb them.
She looked out at the camp, then back to the wizard.
“I understand what I am to do, Master.”
“Then I want you to count to ten and then go. Start now.”
Wendel sat, and began the incantation, carefully forming the words in his head. He did not need to speak the phrases out loud, but he did need to concentrate. There was a soft shimmer around the girl, who took one last look at the man, smiled, and then walked out into the open.