A note from Wutosama


When the giantess reached a second clearing, it became evident to the party that a calamity had stuck the grove. Considering the prevalence of exotic orchids Gwen and company had seen on their way in, they had been expecting to find a resplendent paradise, the very apex of nature's crowning beauty. Instead, they found a ruined wasteland that was only now beginning to recover. Old roots and branches that had once formed into chairs and tables were charred and shrivelled, black and burnt and mangled. The Grot's dappled pavilion, with its leaves and branches overhead, was all but in tatters; the earth now stank of rot, the soil ankle-deep in soot and decomposing mush.

"This is an… interesting Grot you have." Her father studied their hostess with scepticism. The man likely doubted the Dryad's intelligence, through Gwen felt that wasn't an undesirable quality in a nymph.

Beside them, the wood-sprite turned a stain darker. Gwen hadn't realised that dryads could blush, she imagined one needed flesh and blood for that.

When the Dryad spoke, her voice was bitter and tragic. "Sufi's guests, uncouth, mortal louts the lot of them. I had invited them to tea out of the kindness of my own heart, and this is how they repaid me— by burning my lovelies."

"Brutes!" Morye agreed with the verdurous goddess. "Let me find a way to make it up to you."

Gwen meanwhile, had cold sweat oozing past the fabric of her skin-suit. Yue! It had to be Yue. She was sorry for the Dryad's loss, but also thankful, for the garden's distressed state meant her friends had made contact with Sufina and so must be alright.

"Mistress of the Wood, may I ask where is Sufina now?" Gwen stepped into the clearing, imploring with Demi-human with a face full of hope. To her surprise, the giantess turned her sculpted face toward Gwen and leaned in closer.

"Mmm… what is that scent?" The Dryad came closer and closer until her nose was almost touching Gwen's. The woodland being was enormous, her head nearly the length of Gwen's torso, carved out from wood as though a grandmaster had taken his skills to a colossal trunk. Her lashes, tiny blades of grass, fluttered lovingly, drawing attention to two smouldering orbs of viridescence that seemed to possess infinite depth. It was an alluring but alien expression, for the woman's eyes had depthless pupils. "Your face…"

Gwen felt her skin crawl as the creature stalked about her, causing Taj and the others to ready their guards and half-incant spells under their breath. She too was prepared to let loose her Void-Shield or clad herself in Void-skin if the wood-woman were fancy a sudden assault.

"How curious," the giantess muttered to herself. The Dryad carefully placed a tendril under Gwen's sculpted chin and lifted her face so that her eyes could fully purchase the dimensions of Gwen's appearance. "You remind me of Sufina's contractor, and yet... you're not?"

"We are… related," Gwen answered obscurely. "Can you direct us to see Sufina now? The matter is urgent."

The Dryad reared back, almost striking Gwen with her flailing vines. Gwen staggered back, mildly alarmed by the woodland lady's exhibitionism. Moving with the sound of lifting timber on a summer morning; the nymph peered towards the group's men with a gesture filled with promise.

"Maybe they'd like to stay for tea while you made your visit? My sisters and I are starved for company."

When she spoke, a dozen more Dryads of different shapes and sizes appeared at the edge of the clearing, each sprouting garlands and trellises of vibrant hair that filled the grove with colour.

Where the men hadn't seemed so smitten before, now they were reddening with swelling anticipation. Even Jonas seemed to hold his breath as a red-headed Dryad made her acquaintance known by running a hand of white-pine down the length of her washboard abdomen.

"Maybe they will." Gwen turned to face their hostess with an expression several degrees colder, muttering under her breath. "Are there mortals like me with Sufi?"

"There are." the Dryad didn't look pleased as she recounted an unpleasant story of uncultured savages ravaging her grove. "There was a little maniac of fire, a dainty midget healer, and a very strapping native, which Sufi cruelly denied us. I figure she must be wringing him dry right now."

Gwen turned to the party to ask for an escort, but the grinning fools that greeted her made her sigh deeply. Maybe it was the military life, but Taj, Jonas and Paul seemed especially vulnerable to the charms of the opposite sex, notably when they resembled pin-ups that she'd sometimes see in the dorms. The fact that the dryads were fully compliant, eager even, with a master carver's perfection, stripped the disciplined men of their senses.

Her father especially demonstrated an enviable ability to hold three to four conversations, flittering between compliment and flattery with the ease of a river eel sliding over mossy stones.

Gwen had told them not to initiate combat under any circumstances. Still, she hadn't anticipated that the Dryads were completely friendly or harmless, or that the men could initiate extra-curriculum contact.
Should she tell them off, or should she let them be? She wondered, painfully aware of her junior status. Surely with Sufina as the 'Madam' of the Grot, the men would be safe, if a little worse for wear— having survived the strange hazards of the island, there are worse fates than picking wood splinters from one's tender regions.

"I am going to find Sufina!" she called out to them. "You lot should be perfectly safe here."

"Want me to come with?" Jonas tore himself away from the redhead with the painful expression of immense self-sacrifice. By now the lesser Dryads had grown furniture to cater for the men, twisting branches and roots to form divans, chairs and tables, creating linen from beds of emerald moss and jade turf. The flourishing transformation proffered the clearing with an eclectic air, making Gwen's nose wrinkle.

Gwen sighed. That Jonas poised a rhetorical question told Gwen that perhaps it was time for her to take a hike in the woods. There must not have been much privacy for men to perform maintenance on the ship.

Then there was the real reason— that Sufi's Grot was a place only she could venture. She neither wanted the men to see nor for them enter a haven that was sacred to her Master, a private sanctuary ventured only by Alesia, Gunther, and herself.

Wistfully, the Dryad opened a path through the jungle and told Gwen to follow it until she reached a Bayan tree that had a clearing all to itself. Gwen followed the dark road of fecund soil, sensing her shoes sink into the rich loam with each step. After a few minutes, she came to a clearing, though there was nothing open about the space occupied by the singularly immense Bayan tree.

The familiar creaking of warping wood greeted Gwen's entrance.
A branch dipped from up on high and began to lower itself.
From its tip, Gwen could see a familiar female figure striding forth on a pair of svelt stalks that ended in needlepoints tapered to a wasp's waist, adorned with modest bosoms of smooth blonde wood.

It was Sufina, but the Dryad was also not Sufina. Something that made Sufina her Master's companion had grown ambivalent in his absence. The warmth, the humanity, the little gestures of whimsy, was now absent.

"Greetings, Gwen," Sufina uttered, the stifled emotion in her voice punctuated with a slight tremor, as though she was having trouble recollecting the past. "Your Master is no longer among us."

"I know." Gwen felt her throat tighten, eyes little warmer for the effort. She could feel the tremorous grief she'd left buried for a week rising from the dead and kicking apart the box she'd shut them in. "Sufina…"

"Would you like to see him?" The Dryad interjected.

At the wood woman's behest, Gwen felt as though a cat had snatched her tongue and fled with her words. "Master's remains… are here?"

"Yes." Sufina motioned for the entrance to the Grot. "Come."

Gwen wordlessly followed her erstwhile family member until she reached the entrance to the Grot. It was no longer the familiar sight of a portal artistically woven into elegant designs. The entry was now a dark hole caught between two slabs of sinuous roots, its degraded state an apt metaphor for their present circumstances.

The pair passed over the threshold and made their way deep within until they reached the heart tree, the place where Gwen had laid down Henry to be healed by Sufina's natural vitality. That was the last time she had seen her Master, and he rested in its centre now, just as she had left him, only pale, still and unmoving.

"Oh—" Her body turned rigid and unyielding as her eyes fell upon the harrowing sight. "Oh— O Gods."

As though moving through molasses, Gwen shimmied towards her Master's cadaver. One step, then another, then the rest of the distance in quick succession. Her hand immediately fell to his jugular, her other hand hovering just over his nose. Despairingly, there was nothing. The coldness of his flesh struck like eldritch frost.

"Master..." Her chest was heaving out of control, her heart struck by such arrhythmia that she could hardly draw another breath. Then something escaped from her throat, a long wail that echoed across the hollow chamber of the heart tree, now empty of its Master and occupant.

A sobbing mess, the inconsolable girl fell upon the chest of the unmoving man, all her dammed up grief abruptly unleashed. Beside her, Sufina watched, her face as calm as a billabong that mirrored the still sky.

"I have preserved him, in so far as my magic allows. He will exist in gentle repose so long as my Grot exists," she informed Gwen, placing a hand on the shoulder of the grieving girl. "I'll take you to see your friends now, would you like to leave a few words? I think he would have liked that. He had always liked your way with words."

Half ruined with tears, Gwen looked up at the Sprite that had once laughed and indulged her with the delight of a child. Sufina's tone was distant and aloof, as befitting a powerful magical being. Creatures such as Dryads knew want, lust, greed, desire, hate and like, but their empathy were traits honed for predation. Unlike their Demi-human cousins, the Elves and Dwarves or even the Orcs, they did not possess the capacity for what scholars called the Human Condition.

A few words?

What words could she leave Henry now? Her Master was no more; there was no more 'Henry' here than Sufina was the Sprite she had known for the last twelve months. If she were to leave words, it would not be for herself or Henry, but for Sufina, whose intact intellect would recall, and mayhap even one day understand the lament enough to protect Henry's remains for centuries to come.

What could she say? What was Henry to her and Sufi? What words were fitting for a man who singularly changed their lives, whose constant affirmation and support aided her in her darkest hour? What would resonate with Sufina's alien heart?

Perhaps there was something.

Gwen couldn't recall the recital in its entirety, but she couldn't think of a better way to commemorate their bond.

"O Captain, my Captain…' Gwen began, fossicking through her memory for the words. After the initial stutter, the words came to her.

"O, Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
For you, bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores— and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

The sentiments of Whitman far exceeded her circumstances, but it was all Gwen could eulogise. Henry had been her Captain, and he had given his life in their defence. She was his torchbearer now, like those that came after Lincoln, but where would she start? How would she even begin to live up to her Master's hopes? For now, all that crossed her mind was wrapping her fingers around Sobel's white neck.

"O, Captain…" Sufina appeared to be digesting the words. "My Captain... Fallen cold and dead..."

The wood-nymph allowed the words to roll off whatever dryads used for a tongue. Gwen observed the doll-like woman as she repeated the words, each time engendering a shiver.

"I will let Gunther and Alesia know, Master." She returned her attention to the reposed Master of Sydney. "Us siblings will come and visit you, all three of us, in the future."

"Come." When Sufina spoke again, her voice no longer had that burred feeling of apathy. "It's time to meet your friends."

Gwen found Elvia and Whetu in a walled garden, engaged in sullen boredom.

Whetu looked as though he was bored out of his mind. The poor Kiwi Abjurer was building himself a precarious house of punamu cards.

Elvia, golden and resplendent as always, had been well preserved. She was still wearing her competition uniform from the attack on Rosebay, though it looked to have been laundered since. The diminutive girl was playing catch with what appeared to be a flower-sprite of some kind, tossing a ball of positive energy to and fro as the creature skipped across the lawn.

"EVEE! Oh, my dear Evee!" Gwen sprinted from the entrance at a deadbolt, responding to feelings she had not realised were so acute and advanced.

Elvia's face formed the expectant expression of agog surprise as Gwen tackled her from the ottoman stool and pushed her onto the lawn, burying Elvia's face between her bosom.

"Gwenmmph!" Elvia cried out, wrapping her arms around Gwen's waist, squeezing with all her might. "Oooivemiffedyew!"

"Ke kee!" The little Sprite that had been playing with Elvia fled into the tangles of her hair.

"Oh, I've missed you too!" Gwen pulled herself away to kissed Elvia thrice on the forehead, opposing herself to avoid a dearer target. She felt strangely complete and was about to give Elvia another hug when someone beside them coughed.

"Hello." Whetu waved at her.

"G'day," Gwen nodded back, for her hands were busy.

Elvia writhed in Gwen's arms, her head still buried against her. The petite girl's face grew thoroughly flushed as it pressed against her friend. "Gwennie! I— I can't breathe!"

Gwen relented, panting slighting for having exhausted her bottled up emotions. Between the extreme grief of her Master and the explicit joy of seeing Elvia, she was emotionally exhausted.

"Where's Yue?" Gwen asked, looking around. "Is she alright?"

"She's on another level," Sufina answered from behind. "Your pyro friend was beyond maddening."

"Oh?" Yue's rage did not require any stretch of the imagination. "Sorry, Sufina."

"Gwen," Whetu interrupted Gwen's conversation, retracting his house of punamu. "Does you been here mean we're getting out?"

"I'd presumed so." Gwen turned to Sufina. "Can we leave, Sufina?"

"You have a ship?"

"We do."

"Good, get your pyromaniac away from my Grot." Sufina spat with a scowl.

At her behest, the reconvened party then descended a flight of stairs interlaced from the Bayan tree's roots. As the tunnel burrowed downward, they could hear a dull thud striking the earth at irregular intervals. Elvia made an awkward expression when Gwen asked what was causing the horrid racket, because 'it' was probably Yue.

"I am cooling off your friend's temper." According to the Dryad, Yue did not like that Sufina kept them 'incarcerated' in the Grot's safety. In her own words, given time, she could surely burn "A six-lane highway" through the greenery to the sea.

Though Sufina had to admit that Yue presented a reasonable goal— given that the island had no megafauna, consisting mostly of poisonous and carnivorous inspects and plants, she could hardly allow the madcap psychopath such liberty to wreak havoc. When told that she would not be allowed to do as she pleased, the Battlemage challenged Sufina to a duel, insisting that Sufina was trying to trap them.

Sufina obliged, bones were broken and then mended.

Therefore, it was under these circumstances that Gwen and Elvia found their friend, her attire in shambles, scorched here and there and bleeding from several places, battling a gnarly Root Elemental in an underground arena.

The summoned creature was an interactive dummy, ceasing its offence whenever Yue exhausted herself and resuming its offensive as soon as she recovered. For seven days and nights they had squared off, Yue drawing as much mana as she could from meditative sleep, Sufina's nourishing mead, and the cache of mana crystals she had in her small Storage Ring.

With smugness, Sufina explained that the Root Elemental was, in fact, a part of the Bayan heart-tree, and was thus immortal while within the confines of the Grot. Tired of her bickering, she had set Yue up to blow off her bottled rage accumulated from Debora's betrayal, trading precious mana for silence.

When Yue saw Gwen appear at the threshold of the arena-like cavern, she sizzled off her spell and bolted toward them at full belt, still energetic after a week of ceaseless combat. Her eyes though, betrayed her frayed nerves, for they were two panda-rings of puffy flesh.

"Gwen! You're alright! You're okay! You're safe!" Yue shrieked across the arena, diving headfirst into Gwen's arms. Taking both of her friends, Gwen invited Elvia to join a long-desired huddle.

"I know this might not be the right time…" Yue pulled herself away after she ran out of breath. "But where is—"

"Debora's dead," Gwen announced immediately, reading her friend's one-track mind.

"Dead? How?"

"Digested slowly, by Caliban."

Yue pumped her fist in the air. "Hell, yes! I wish I could have watched. How about Elizabeth? The Void Mage? The Mermen?"

"Not good. Sydney is an ongoing concern."

Beside her, Elvia's eyes were as large as blue-bells in full-bloom.

"Gwennie... Caliban a—ate Debbie?" Elvia spluttered, her complexion turning pale as a sheet. "Like, bones and all?"

"It's a little more complicated than that." Gwen went on to explain to the frantic Elvia. "There's a sordid tale to be told for sure, but we'll have plenty of time on the way back. For now, let's get out of here."

"What, we can 'leave' now?" Yue turned to Sufina with a catty expression.

"Gwen has a ship, and a whole party of Senior Mages." Sufina returned Yue's catty expression with a resting bitch-face of her own. "Now get out of my Grot!"

Yue turned to wave to the Elemental that she'd been sparring with for a week. "... I guess this is goodbye, Woodie."

To their surprise, the Elemental waved back.

"Woodie was originally made by Henry to be your sparring partner, Gwen," Sufina explained to the girls. "At least someone got some use out of it."

At the mention of her Master, the jubilation of the moment was murdered and left for dead. In silence, the four of them returned to the upper level of the Grot, bypassing the Heart-tree and its treasured body of Henry Kilroy.

Then, without warning, the dappled light of day dazzled their eyes.

Elvia had acclimatised to living underground for the last seven days. When they emerged again into the sunlight, she clasped Gwen's hand and squeezed nervously, afraid that something awaited them in the woods. Meanwhile, Yue fell to her knees in triumph.

"Yess! FUCKING natural light! Blessed open air! We're finally out!"

Whetu as well seemed stunned by the unexpected deliverance. "Boy, I am happy to be out. Imagine that, a life without Hungi Feasts! Without root beer! Without Feijoa Cider! Nothing but Golden Mead..."

Watching the grinning Maori, Gwen wondered if Whetu felt homesick for Auckland Tower after all their wayward adventures fighting competition matches, surviving a city-destroying conspiracy, and then surviving tropical island full of century-old cougars.

After giving Elvia another pat to ensure that her blondie was really there in the flesh, she turned once more to Sufina, who had watched the girls with a complicated expression. Sensing a strange inspiration, she tapped into her Astral Body and felt for Almujd's Essence deep within her animus. Drawing on instinct, she gathered the emerald energy and compressed it into a ball, willing it to coalescence.

"I still have some of that life-force you loved so much," Gwen offered the prize to Sufina. "Thanks for taking care of my friends."

Sufina eyed the viridescent Essence; a wet pink tongue darting between her lips hinted at her desire.

"Thanks," Sufina absorbed the mote with her finger.

"Do you want to keep exploring the outside world?" Gwen metaphorically tested the lukewarm waters with her toes. "I think our Master would have liked that."

"I can't be moved that easily." Sufina's eyes moved from the girls towards Gwen, facing two shimmering orbs of emerald on amber. "I refused to be contracted to another Mage, not after Henry."

"Is it because of elemental compatibility?" Gwen asked. To have Sufina as an ally would surely be an incredible boon.

"Irrelevant." Sufina raised a hand and grew a small flower from her palm. She allowed it to bud and bloom, before depositing it in Gwen's hair, behind her ear. Gwen noticed Sufina herself had the same flower on her opposite ear. From afar, they must look like fraternal twins, one flesh and blood, the other a delicate wooden replica. "Gwen, when Henry died, and our contract absolved, I lost a part of myself. It was a part of the spell, I know, but it had been a part of me for so long. You should know that I am still in possession of almost three decades worth of shared memories. But—"

Sufina's attention turned toward the middle distance.

"I don't feel it, Gwen. I want to cherish those memories, but they're someone else's now. What Henry had provided for me, the emotions and the feelings, they're gone. The 'Sufi' you knew has been unmade."

"Sufina..." Gwen moved to touch her hand, but the Dryad drew away.

"I need to stay here," Sufina announced to the open air, almost as a declaration. "If I am away from him, my memories will fade faster."

Gwen ignored Sufina's earlier rejection and embraced her doppelgänger, feeling Sufina's recalcitrant body press against her own.

"Okay," Gwen said, for once lost for words.

"You may visit." Sufina watched Gwen retract her embrace without particular emotion. "I would like to see Gunther and Alesia, I think. I did watch them grow from mewling children to adults, after all."

"I'll let them know, and we'll come together in the future," Gwen agreed. "So, this is goodbye?"

"For now." Sufina turned back to her Grot. "The others will open the way for you."

Gwen watched Dryad stalk back into the darkness of the Grot. The portal shimmered for a moment, then faded, revealing nought but the exposed roots of an enormous Banyan tree. She spun to address the others, who'd been watching them.

Elvia appeared frail but in good cheer, her blonde hair plastered to her face by the jungle's humidity. A little Sprite-thing poked from her hair and watched Gwen with luminous eyes.

Yue was sweaty but felicitous. Her body was rightly battered, but the girl was happier than she looked.

Whetu looked like himself, but skinnier and more mellow than Gwen had recalled. There was a hungry look in his eye that suggested he couldn't wait to be feasting on something other than Dryad milk.

"Shall we?" She motioned for the far clearing. "Home awaits."

The reformed party found Taj, Paul and Jonas not far from the path that led back into the clearing. She hoped that in the several hours she'd been gone, the men had not engaged in haphazard coitus with the wood nymphs.

Nonetheless, they had been fed berries and mead made by the ladies of the woods, playing house with the doll-like damsels. More than anything, it was a strangely comical sight: three military men, sitting rigidly upright, surrounded by a plethora of flowering ladies with laughter like tingling bells and trilling birds, asking them questions about the outside world.

"Hey, guys! We're back!"

Jonas bolted upright as though he'd been caught doing something dirty red-handed.

"Oh, thank God you're here!" He moved from the table, the red-headed dyad still hanging onto his arm. "Any longer and they'll be putting us to pasture."

The other two men stood as well, trying their best to shake off their admirers.

"Yue!" Paul snapped a smart salute, which was returned by Yue expertly.

"Good to see you guys, I am happy you all came to pick me up."


"Hi everyone, I am very thankful for your efforts to retrieve us."

"Don't mention it."

Gwen scanned their surroundings.

"Where's Morye?"

The men whistle innocuously.

"He went off with the giantess - the elder dryad… somewhere."

Gwen had expected as much, but to think that her father was somewhere right now being put to stud.

Unbidden, she took hold of her Evee to dispel the horrid vision of her father.

"Eek!" Elvia yelped as Gwen caught the mind-scrubber in her arms and squeezed her shoulders.

"Kee! Kiki!" A vaguely humanoid Sprite tried to repel Gwen by striking her with a leafy burst of Positive Energy.

"What is that thing?" Gwen spluttered, batting away Evee's leafy protector.

Elvia looked sheepish.

"I contracted it." She whispered under her breath, barely audible, her face as a red as a beet.

"You contracted what?" Gwen pawed her chest-mesh for the Cure Disease potion. Hopefully, it would be enough to cleanse Elvia of whatever she had picked up in the woods. "Don't worry, a shot of this and it's going to be A-okay."

The group stared at Gwen dumbly.

"She contracted a Spirit, Gwen." Yue pointed out loudly.

Gwen's brows furrowed, realisation dawned. "Oh, a contractual Spirit! Like Alesia's Crimson Caracal?"

"Yes!" Elvia quickly raised her hand in the affirmative to avoid further misunderstanding.

"Ki-ki!" The Sprite raised its head in defiance.

Gwen awkwardly laughed with them before turning back to the matter at hand. "So, anyone knows where Morye is?"

"Morye, as in your dad?" Yue raised a sceptical brow. "What's a useless no-good old man like him doing here?"

"Plenty, trust me," Gwen replied with a heavenward roll of her eyes.

"So what's the plan?" Jonas pulled his arm from between the wooden vice that was the redhead's hills and valleys. "I am sorry, Miss. We have to go."

"Stay!" The junior Dryad seemed to be capable of only simple speech. "Play with us! Feel good!"

Gwen had half-expected a "We love you long-time," from the Dryad, but chose to ignore the raunchy display. Instead, she pointed to the only path leading away from the Grot.

"That's our way out. Let's skedaddle before its overgrown again."

"Agreed," the others replied.

The group checked their gear and politely asked the dryads to leave them alone. Whetu especially had to fight them off bodily with a few punamu barriers. The sun was now reaching a low orbit, but with any luck, they could be halfway out by nightfall and reach the beach first thing in the morning.

"Tell Morye we're heading for the ship," Gwen informed one of the blonde dolls still trying to convince Paul to stay.

The Dryad ignored her.
Gwen dismissed the snub and moved toward the trail.
Soon, they would be out on the beach.
From the beach, they would retreat to the City of Singapore.
Then, one freight ship later, they would be home.

A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: 

Volume 1 Amazon (US) the book is in all markets as well.
Volume 2 Amazon (US) the book is in all markets as well.
V1 Google Play, iBook, Kobo, Nook and Playster Link
V2 Google Play, iBook, Kobo, Nook and Playster Link

Paper back in near future


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Edited 30-12-2020 

About the author


Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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