If someone had asked Elvia a year ago if she'd be rubbing shoulders with Magisters and witnessing city-levelling combat that existed on a mythical level— she'd ask what quasi-magical medication they were taking.
Elvia was as kind as she looked, a daddy's girl. Among the friendship trio, she was Gwen's respite, Yue's sometime-pillow, and the angelic healer of Blackwattle's clinic. Timid and bashful, she was not built to withstand the immense tension that came with two Magisters squaring off, much less the traumatic anxiety of conspiracy where hundreds of thousands of human lives hung in the balance.
"Debora, God help me if you don't let Gwen go right this minute. If you harm her, my life's sole purpose will revolve around ensuring that you suffer..."
Yue's acerbic threats made Elvia's scalp crawl.
"You fucking bitch… I am going to immolate everyone you love. Your brothers, your sisters, your parents. You will rue the day you turned traitor…"
Elvia felt sick. Yue's blasphemous threat sent shivers down her spine precisely because she knew that her friend meant every word. As Alesia's Apprentice, Yue could arguably cite to the Tower that Debora's family was complicit to the conspiracy that resulted in the death of tens of thousands. But what if they were not? She would never know the sweet innocence of restful sleep ever again.
The standoff had lingered for a moment more until Alesia uttered a cry of dismay. Surprising them both, Yue's Master Blinked past them into the Grot.
"You're too late," Debora announced flatly as a swarm of firefly embers filled the air.
Beside the traitorous Transmuter, Gwen writhed in agony, caught in the constrictive embrace of the Sand Prison. Elvia' fists clenched and unclenched. It was just like that time during the Field Trip, only now Gwen wasn't screaming for her to run away.
When Debora next spoke, her words were emotionless and full of prophecy.
"There is nothing you can do. There is nothing any of you can do. Not anymore."
"Shut your hole—" Yue began, letting loose a torrent of abuse.
Elvia wanted to cry but fought down the tears.
But it wasn't her gut that began to spin and churn.
Without warning, the Grot began to distort, though really, there was no word to describe the strangeness of their unbidden translocation. It was the folding of two spaces across a vast expanse, first folded like two ends of an origami crane, and now transforming back into a plain sheet of paper.
In the blink of an eye, the space within the Tower ceased to be.
Where Yue had been shouting death-threats at Debora only a split second ago; now she was hurling abuse at a lonesome sapling. A verdurous seedling with a dozen leaves that had sprouted from the foliage smothered floor of a tropical rainforest.
Much like a cargo truck without compression breaks, Yue went on for a few more seconds before her embroiled mind could process their forced translocation.
"…. shove a wand up—" Yue stopped.
She had stopped because the sapling had uprooted itself and fled behind the wall-like roots of a giant banyan tree.
"What the fuck?" Yue said to the general air.
"Where ears this?" Whetu regarded their surroundings with awe. "This reminds me of northern New Zulland, near Rotorua."
"Fuck that, where's Gwen?! Where's that bitch, Debora?"
"I don't think this is Sydney," Elvia intoned frightfully, feeling the humidity almost instantly drench her pale, heat-sensitive skin, far more acclimatised to the dry, cold air of Middle Europe.
The movement of a sapling-like being peeking out from the trees caught their wandering, agitated eyes. It gawked at the party, its leaves quivering with terror.
"Hello? Who are you?" Elvia lowered her body until she was on both knees, her fair hair cascading over her shoulder. "We don't mean to harm you. You may come out if you like."
Perhaps sensing Elvia's goodwill, or possibly recognising the tone of her speech, the little sapling emerged a little more from its place of shelter.
Now that they had a closer look at the thing, it was no longer in the shape of a sapling tree. The plant was instead a petite, female babe with olive skin, bright luminous eyes of emerald green, and hair full of tressy vines. The young Spirit was also entirely in the nude, though a lack of anatomical features hinted at its inhuman nature. Overall, it was an adorable, tiny thing the size of a puppy or a kitten.
Elvia swallowed while Yue and Whetu sucked in deep breaths.
Where the hell had they teleported? The duo tried to recollect themselves. Was this a part of the Grot? Perhaps a defensive system? Where was Alesia?
Most importantly, the sight of the child-like forest-spirit before them assailed their capacity for rational thought. First of all, why was there a sprite here? Wasn't it that Magical Beings like this only existed in zones uninhabited by humanity?
"Come on, little one. Come out. Can you speak?" Elvia cooed as she coaxed the delightful little thing to come closer, anxious to ask it for directions so that they could escape and find Gwen.
Yue and Whetu took a step back.
"Elvia," Yue spoke carefully. "Don't do it."
"Maybe it can talk," Elvia assured her friend innocently. "Maybe it can tell us where we are?"
Elvia gestured so that Yue suppressed her instinct to drop a Fireball. She was confident that her gut feeling was right. As Elvia watched, the sapling spirit emerged entirely from its sheltered spot between the roots and was now coming towards them.
It reaches out with long, tendril-like fingers that were far too distended for an anatomically accurate human body and touched Elvia's cheeks.
"Ki!" the creature uttered. "Kiki!"
To Elvia's surprise, it came forward and began to rub itself against her hands. Instantly, the healer relaxed, feeling no hostility from the creature. Mayhap the Sprite was attracted to the Positive Mana that emanated from her body?
Elvia brushed a hand over the sapling's hair.
"So soft," she said, turning to her friends. "I feel it's harmless. I don't think it can talk— ouch!"
She spoke too soon. A needle-sharp pain that pricked her hand, causing her to wince and grimace. With a jerking motion, Elvia pulled her hand from the thing's head. It had stabbed her with a tendril, prickling the pale skin of her finger, which began to bleed profusely.
"I knew it!" Yue fired up an aura of fiery mana. She was confident that she could incinerate the thing with a pair of Scorching Rays while avoiding the risk of friendly-fire on Elvia.
"No!" Elvia leaned over the creature protectively. "It was an accident!"
The sapling creature cowered beneath Yue's flaming aura, feeling the motes of fire pour from the Evoker's body. Trembling, it reached out with a tendril and caressed Elvia's hand, where its thorn had pierced her skin. There was a brief emerald glow. To their surprise, the swollen wound mended in front of their eyes.
"That's rather handy," Yue retracted her spell but still regarded the thing with suspicion. The child-like Spirit made a face at her and hid away from Yue behind Elvia.
Whetu furrowed his brows. "Elvia..."
"I know," Elvia answered. It goes without saying that because a Magical Being was benign right now doesn't mean it would remain so in the future.
"Kiki-ki!" the thing wailed. It then clambered up onto Elvia and buried itself in her flaxen hair.
"We're not keeping that thing," Yue warned her friend, mindful of Alesia's claim that the only good Magical Being was a smouldering mana-core after a nice Fireball.
"Just for a little bit?" Elvia begged. "Maybe it'll be helpful?"
Both Elvia and the Sprite begged their companions with liquid eyes.
"Erh." Yue turned away, unable to withstand the look of innocence that radiated from two pairs of guileless eyes. Whetu as well seemed defeated by their adorability.
The trio inspected their surrounding.
Evidently, they were in a verdant jungle. The heat was beyond humid and oppressive, weighing upon the group like wads of cotton. Behind them was a gigantic Banyan tree, stretching into the heavens, smothering all light, leaving the floor with nought but the dappled light peering through its dense foliage. Between the root system as tall as a grown man, was an open space that hinted at a Dryad's sanctum.
"I reckon that's the Grot," Whetu pointed out helpfully. He ventured close to the threshold and placed his hand between the open space. What he felt was a resistance, like pressing one's hand against congealed gelatine. "Ets closed."
"Let me try." Yue attempted to enter the Grot. She made it no more than a few feet before the wall of force drove her backwards. Undeterred, Yue clicked her fingers, and a pair of Dancing Lights manifested. In the shimmering reflection, she could see the outline of her body hazily refracted through the firelight.
Not far from Yue, Elvia had settled the little wood sprite onto her shoulder. She produced her Message device and tried a few Glyphs. The droning tone and the glowing red symbol informed her that its inbuilt Divining formulas were woefully out of range.
"Shit!" Yue's patience was wearing thin. "We have to get back to Gwen. I can't believe Debora betrayed us for Walken! That bitch!"
"I swear I'll make good on my promise. When we get back, I am going to boil that traitor alive in a vat of low-smoking oil, I… "
Yue looked up at her companions, who were staring wild-eyed behind her.
A fragrance of wildflowers drifted through the air, sweet and alluring, thick and sticky, hanging in the atmosphere like a physical presence. The redolence was accompanied by the sound of rustling leaves and the susurrating of tall branches.
The trio beheld a vision, one that beheld them in turn. An avatar of Aphrodite with a long head of autumn leaves beginning in flaming red and ending in burnish bronze shimmered under the dappled light of the afternoon sun. From its head of autumn colours, a breathtakingly beautiful face, gemstone eyes, a celestial nose and pouting lips with the hue of ripe goji protruded. Fluid lines of woodgrain formed its exotic wooden complexion, passing over sensuous curves that were dangerous and voluptuous.
"Wow…" Elvia held her breath, mesmerised by the beauty of the ravishing Dryad that strode into the clearing on long slender legs taller than her head.
Yue turned to Whetu, whose face looked smitten.
"Why do you suppose Dryads have knockers?" she said to the two of them critically. "They ain't mammalian creatures, so ain't it kind of like tits on a bull? I mean, why nips?"
Elvia stared at the alluring Dryad. Yue was right. Especially with its skinny waist, the exaggerated breasts of the woodland being was enormous. Like ripe fruits they were, melons in their own right, poignantly poised upon her chests.
"You've ruined the glamour, Yue." Whetu moaned. "I can't un-see it."
"Well tits or no tits, we gotta ask it for directions. Gwen's waiting for us to rescue her," Yue snapped. "Put your eyeballs back in their sockets, Whetu."
A rustling giggle answered their banter.
"Little ones," hailed the giantess in green and brown. "Where might you hail from?"
Though the group knew that humanoid Magical Beings could speak, the more human-shaped, the more likely, they were still impressed that a creature of such age and origin spoke the common tongue.
"Hello," Elvia began politely. "We're from Sydney. Do you happen to—"
"Tree Lady, where are we?" Yue interjected. "What are you, and how do we get back?"
Whetu placed a careful hand on Yue's shoulder. "Patience, Yew, we are in her domain."
Yue shook herself off Whetu's grasp with impatient annoyance.
"Where might this be?" The Dryad moved her overlarge body with a grace that was pleasing to the eye. "Why, we are in my groove, where my sisters and I have lived since time immemorial."
"We are sorry to intrude." Elvia curtsied, amazed that the creature spoke English. "Might I ask how we may return to our home?"
"Of course, allow me to show you the way." The Dryad turned, flicking her hair in a way that sent streams of beading dew flowing through her hair, dripping down the arc of her wasp's waist onto her magnificent buttocks.
Whetu's breath grew laborious.
"Now that's an arse you could build a house on," Yue muttered offhandedly, displeased at her male companion.
Elvia followed without a word, mindful of the little Sprite hidden in her voluminous hair.
"Ki-ki! Ki!" it muttered beside her with a distinct sense of alarm.
"I can't understand what you're saying," Elvia gave her minute companion a nudge. "What's the matter?"
The sprig-sprite pulled at her ear, but a backward glance from the giant Dryad sent it back into hiding.
The group followed the Dryad for a quarter of an hour. The woods seemed to part before them before closing behind them, giving the three a feeling of foreboding anxiety as their hostess lead the way. By Whetu's guess, they had made it a kilometre before Yue had enough.
"Hey! Double-D, are you sure this is the way out?"
Whetu broke into a snort. Even Elvia couldn't help herself and had to pinch her thighs to keep a straight face. With tears in her eyes, she turned to Yue to scold her for her abrasiveness.
The giantess turned to the group with a winsome smile that no longer reached its eyes. "Yes, it's just this way."
When the group reached a clearing though, it was evident that not only were they not "out" of the woods, they were, in fact, more buried within it. There were tables and chairs set out for human-sized guests in the clearing, shaded by the dappled bower of the enormous Bayan tree above it. The three junior Mages had done their bestiary classes. Now, they regretfully acknowledged that despite their naive optimism, the coy giantess had broken faith and had brought them to be drugged and glamoured.
"It must be very tiring to walk through the woods," the Dryad spoke with a voice dripping with honey. "Mayhap take a short sojourn here and enjoy a cup of sweet mead or a slice of manna bread."
True to her word, cups sprouted from the tables, while a bloom of white flowers seated upon the wood began to fruit, forming a puffy white mushroom that resembled unbaked bread dough.
"I am truly sorry," Elvia began. "But we really must be going, you see, an enemy has captured a friend of ours, and we really must depart to save her."
The Dryad turned to face them with her gemstone eyes, her pupil-less irises giving her an alluring, alien presence. She turned to them, a nude wonder poised to please, and from her mouth issued a soft breeze of spring. A sweet fragrance supernaturally filled the air as the clearing blossomed at once with thousands of flowers.
"Won't you stay? Just for a little while longer?" Her voice filled their ears, rich with pleasing promises.
Whetu seemed instantly smitten, his expression becoming soft and languishing. An idiotic grin of unconditional trust appeared on his face as he nodded slowly. Elvia meanwhile, heard a small "Ki Ki Ki" beside her, a few seconds later, her groggy mind regaining its clarity. Yue however, was entirely unaffected, with the flower petals bursting into fireflies as they neared her body.
"Hey, wood whore!" Yue punched Whetu in the chest, doubling him over. "Last chance."
The Dryad frowned, lovely even in anger. From the other side of the clearing appeared several more of her kind, each beautiful in their way, with mischievous smiles and cruel faces full of anticipation.
"Well, have it your way." Yue opened a channel to the Plane of Elemental Fire. "Fire Storm!"
Swirling motes of Elemental fire descended upon the clearing. The lesser Dryads shrieked and fled the scene. The giantess' face transformed into a maleficient scowl.
"YOU DARE?!" the elder Dryad screeched, her voice the shrill lament of wind through hollowed logs.
But her protest was fruitless. In the next moment, a firestorm engulfed the clearing.
Great gobs of uncontrolled plasma fell indiscriminately into the clearing and the surrounding area. Yue gritted her teeth and kept up the channel, transforming the woodland domain into a sea of crackling flames.
"Bless! Aid!" Elvia slapped Whetu across the back of his skull, pulling Whetu from his stupor.
"Wii have to git back to Sufina's Grot!" Whetu exclaimed. "This place is going to be crawling with nimfes."
"You lead, I'll clear ahead," Yue shouted back, satisfied that the clearing would be burning for a few hours yet. The abundance of elemental fire in the area would ensure any the wood and debris were as good as bone-dry tinder.
Yue was glad she had shaken Whetu from the Charm, for the Dryads' retribution was quick and swift. Lashing tentacles of barbed tendrils shot from the shadows of trees towering above them, trying to snag them by the neck like nooses or to scourge them with their poisoned spikes.
Whetu, now cleared of the tree-woman's glamour, executed his expertise, forming punamu shields left and right, above and behind, shielding the two girls as they slid and stumbled through the densely wooded trail.
"Is this the right direction?" Yue shouted. She and Elvia had barely passed outdoor survival and so couldn't even begin to tell the direction.
"Oi think so." Whetu forced apart a thorny bush with a shield. "Dis way!"
If any of them could fly, that would have simplified their progress, but the earthbound party of three had to push through the verdant, dense jungle by sense alone. Along the way, their escape was itself unimpeded, though even as their mana waned, they couldn't help but notice they were nowhere near Sufina's tree.
"Shit, what do we do?" Yue warded off another Dryad who came into view with a Scorching Ray.
"I think it's the woods itself. We're in a maze." Whetu opened an umbrella Shield. The tendril penetrated the first few layers of his punamu. Elvia huffed. She could see that the attacks were getting more vicious.
Elvia had concurrently been listening to the little Sprite that rode on her shoulders.
"Kiki!" it suggested, apparently aware of some solution to their dilemma. In the chaos, though, Elvia had no idea what it was saying.
"I don't understand," she begged the Sprite for greater clarity. "Point us where to go?"
The Sprite's inarticulate gesticulation was interrupted by a triumphant shout from Whetu.
"I see a clearing! There's the tree!"
"Ki! Ki!" the Sprite pleaded desperately, but its companion ignored its incomprehensible, irksome actions.
The three junior Mages burst into the clearing with Yue's purging flame pruning the way. A giant Bayan tree again towed over them, underneath of which was a portal into the underground.
"Is that it?" Yue asked, unsure if this was indeed the Grot they had seen.
Behind them the entire forest seemed to be moving, crushing towards them like a mudslide consisting of roving greenery. The trio's options were clear, they could forgo the clearing and keep on moving, or they could take a gamble.
"No Time!" Whetu felt a dozen tendrils lashing the Shield he had left behind them, crunching through the punamu. "Which way?"
"To the Grot!" Yue commanded. "Maybe we can hold it hostage. The bestiary said that Dryads perish with their Grot. Elvia?"
"Kiki!" The Sprite was pulling her hair backwards, causing Elvia to wince.
"Dump that thing! Lord knows whose side it's on," Yue snapped and pulled Elvia forwards. Together, they stumbled towards the shaded nook of the tree, into the space between the roots.
"It's open," Whetu was the first to touch the base.
Behind them, the elder Dryad burst into the clearing like a wooden goddess that had seen better times. Her lovely hair of flowering tresses was now a smouldering mess of cinders, her flawless woodgrain skin charred in several places. Her gemstone eyes were aglow with angry, autumn colours. If one wasn't in the know, they might have mistaken her for an avatar of forest fires. A dozen others appeared, likewise singed and injured by Yue's flaming outburst, striding dramatically into the clearing, their eyes full of murder.
"Fuck it!" Yue pulled Elvia by the hand, and they pushed into the Grot.
Outside, the flames suddenly extinguished. The smouldering leader of the Dryads shed her red hair and ashen skin, becoming once again beautiful and flawlessly radiant. A cruel smile touched her lips, and she began to giggle, an innocent trill full of sadistic mirth, echoed by her companions until the entire clearing became full of thrilling laughter.
The air inside was damp and chilly.
The tunnel into the Grot itself was moss-covered and wet to the touch, leading downwards into the darkness, lit by phosphorescent fungi that shed just enough light to tease the eye. They had made a hundred meters or so when Whetu became overcome by a sense of Déjà vu.
"Oi think we're going in circles, look hear." He pointed to a spot in the wall where he'd left a piece of punamu when they'd last made a loop. "Circles out there, circles in hear. Ets not looking good. The dryads are warping the woods."
"Well, I'll just carve a route out then, maybe it'll give the owner of this Grot indigestion." Yue grinned nastily as an orange flame blossomed in one hand.
The sudden burst of elemental fire in the tunnel seemed to awaken something, as the walls began to shudder.
"See?" Yue tittered smugly.
Then out of the moss-covered walls came bursting out a pale white hand. It grasped Yue by the mouth and waist, pulling her back with such force that she became winded. To Whetu's shout and Elvia's dismay, Yue became violently pressed upon the walls; half-dragged into the moss by the pale-skinned figure.
"Mmmmph!" Yue tried to struggle free, but the thing's arms were as strong as old roots. A pale face appeared by the tunnel's side, one of a venerable old warrior long since consumed, whose near translucent skin looked as though it hadn't seen the sun for a century.
"Join us! You cannot escape. The mistress will have thee in her thrall!" The resonating voice crooned, its eyes turning to look at Whetu. "Thee as well will become her servant! None escapes here!"
"MmmmPH!" Yue burst into flames as she forcibly manifested her Flame Shield, causing a wracking surge of fiery mana to escape her body and sear her skin.
The pale bodied man screamed and howled, retreating into the tunnel's walls with a wail.
"Motherfucker groped me." Yue coughed and spat as Elvia healed her blistering skin and eased the effect of the disorientating mana burn with a Lesser Restoration. She felt for her right breast, where she was sure that there would be a bruise come morning, restoration or no.
"Healing Word!" Elvia dispensed some of her healing.
"Flame Shield!" A semi-circle of fire manifested around Yue, encompassing Elvia and Whetu within its protective reaches. All around them, the walls of the tunnel were now a mess of writhing moss, within which white arms and legs, white faces by the hundreds, appeared and disappeared.
Yue produced one of the mana potions that Alesia had left them at the convent and injected herself with the blue solution.
"YEAH, that's the stuff," Yue moaned as her reserves shot to full. "Let's get out of here. I rather fight those bitches to the death than die here in a stinking hole. Let's see how long it'll take before whoever owns this Grot regurgitates us."
"Flame Sphere!" A giant sphere of fire manifested and began to roll down the tunnel, turning all within range into ash.
"Wall of Fire!" A blistering row of fire charred the tunnel walls.
Yue's escalation seemed to have done the trick, for it took them only a few minutes to wander out from the Grot and once again into the clearing.
As they exited the pocket-space of the Grot, they grew aware that angry woodland beings now surrounded them.
Unexpectedly, however, the trio was no longer being menaced.
Instead, the Dryads were on their knees, supplicating themselves before an emerald goddess that stood amongst them like a tall poplar amongst lowly hedges. Even the elder Dryad was on her knees, steaming a little as her innards fumed with the fire still burning within her Grot.
The object of their adoration was a familiar shape with a familiar face. It was Gwen's face, superimposed upon an artistic wooden sculpture of surreal beauty. Its hair was a verdant vertical garden of tendrils, flowers and leaves that framed her face and cascaded until it reached the forest floor. Its eyes were a glimmering display of prismatic colours, staring intently towards them with distinct displeasure.
"Sufina?" Yue intoned, swallowing a little as her flame shield spluttered. "Sufina, do you know where Gwen is? We need to get back to her."
"Sufina!" Beside Yue, Elvia breathed out a sigh of relief. Her companion Sprite hid instantly behind her hair, cowering and whimpering.
"G' day," Whetu added.
The majestic Dryad's eyes regarded them coldly, seemingly devoid of all emotion. Behind her, the woods were lovely, dark and deep, a place of flora sans the fauna, a dark forest where no birds sing.
"You three," Sufina said softly. "Are in big trouble."
- End of Arc 1