Following Sigmir through the short stretch of trapped forest was rather easy, even with most of my mind focused on the crystals I had placed within. There were five crystals, roughly equally interspersed across the stretch, each floated into place with my Ice Magic.
I had done my job right and Sigmir had followed my instructions, allowing us to circumvent the traps, without triggering anything problematic. The others had to make sure I didn’t trip a wire, but I had warned them that I could do little more than walk forward.
Before us, another clearing opened up, this one looking greatly different from anything I had ever seen. Dominating the clearing, right in its middle, was a rather small tree, some sort of birch - at least it looked like that to me - but the type of tree or its size was not the thing that made it dominating. No, it was dominating because the large, clear crystal I had seen in Tegi was partially merged into the tree, illuminating the clearing. In front of the tree and the crystal, a dryad was standing - one hand holding onto the crystal, the other holding onto the tree - and her legs were entwined with roots coming from the ground, as if she was merging the two. In addition, there were two nymphs on the clearing, possibly as guards or helpers. The dryad did not look as if she was taking anything in but her work.
“She’s trying to rebuild her tree. She must have lost it when Tegi was destroyed, maybe due to backlash, but she is weakened.” Adra softly explained and there was a strange sort of hunger in her voice.
“So, we kill her and this community falls apart?” I asked.
“Probably. But I’d like to absorb her power. I got a lot of power when you shattered the Devourer and if I get more than a fraction of the power she is channelling into the crystal and the tree, I will surpass the first divide.” The hunger I had heard in Adra’s voice before was even stronger now. She truly wanted to devour the power of that dryad. She didn’t see the other dryad as anything but nourishment for herself, a meal to be devoured, if at all possible.
“I will try to keep others away. You three should take out the guards first, then you can do whatever you need with her. Sigmir can cover you and Rai can cover me.” I laid out a basic tactic and started channelling power into the crystals, only a trickle at first, to remain inconspicuous. The others nodded and I saw Rai move further through the shadows, aiming at the position closest to one of the guards, as Adra readied her bow.
After a few moments, Adra spoke a chant under her breath and let an arrow fly, aiming at the guard further away from us. I took that as my signal to increase the power I put into the crystals, creating a huge amount of mist and shattering the crystals in the process. The mist was still connected to me, via my magic, letting me control and strengthen it.
On the clearing, events escalated quickly: the nymph Adra shot sank to the ground with an arrow sticking out of her skull, and the other gave off a strangled cry as Rai copied the maneuver I had used on Jongarn; two quick stabs into the kidneys, followed by a single stab to the throat.
My focus was almost broken as a terrifying pressure assaulted us, the dryad had realised that something was going on and spread out her presence. Just judging by the power of the pressure, I would assume that she was either high on the first or maybe even past that, but at the same time, the presence felt hollow, as if it was only an image of past glory.
“Intruders?!” She shouted, her voice spreading through the clearing but getting smothered in the mist. “If you run now, rats, I might not send my huntresses after you!” she threatened in an angry voice. My own attention was too taken with the control of the mist and attempting to use my new mind-magic skills against anyone entering the mist to make sure that they got lost in the short stretch of forest, but that was not true for Adra.
“Your huntresses? Mhehehehe, they can’t help you, they are far away. No, you will be but a dried, shriveled husk when I’m done with you. Fertilizer for the forest.” Adra’s voice had a disturbing quality to it and her laughter was not helping me to see her as sane. There was a small voice, claiming that it were just my own mannerisms I was seeing in action, her entire being focused on her own advancement and the destruction of her enemies. Maybe, such personality-traits were a necessity to become truly powerful in this world, I would have to watch and consider further. Sociopathic tendencies were a hindrance in a world based on societal cooperation, in a world based on personal power, they could be an asset.
The dryad-leader only gave off an inhuman shriek and the pressure on us intensified but I took it more like a puffer-fish, puffing up to appear bigger and more threatening. No, if she could fulfill the promise of violence her aura was projecting, she would simply kill us, not try to scare us.
“Don’t think your aura will fool us! I can feel its hollowness, you are far from your full strength. A dryad that was bound and lost her tree? Come, Sigmir, let’s make timber!”
A disturbance in the mist drew my focus, someone had wandered into it and, thanks to my skill in Mind Magic, I was able to feel the mind and it felt weak. Weak enough that I was able to push the disorientation even stronger, causing the nymph to lose her way, wandering in circles around a single tree. I felt Lenore’s magic join with mine, introducing something else into the mix, a gentle wind, softly blowing between the trees, causing the density of the mist to wax and wane while creating phantom images due to the movement. It would add to the disorientation someone in the mist would feel, decreasing their ability to navigate it even further. I kept vigilant, letting minds wander halfway into the mist before sending them into spirals of confusion and misdirection.
There was a momentary lull in the minds trying to get through my barrier, allowing me to take a glimpse at the fight between Sigmir, Adra and the dryad-leader. I was not quite sure what Adra was doing - she had her spear in hand, but the main event seemed to be a tangle of ghostly vines or roots, spreading out from the phantom image of a tree behind her. The vines were creeping toward the crystal and the tree the dryad was working on and it had to be frightening to the dryad, she was frantically trying to get at Adra, using strange wooden projectiles to shoot at her and tree-limbs were waving around like clubs. But Sigmir had taken out her shield and was standing strong, shielding Adra behind her and taking any attack that might hit her. Her offensive actions were limited to the occasional blow into one of the tree-limbs, if they got too complacent. Ylva was next to her, coordinating with her and adding a second layer of defense to their struggle.
Sadly, I could not truly watch their fight, only take a few glimpses, as the nymphs outside knew that something was going on back here and they probably knew that they needed to support their leader, so they tried to overcome the mist-barrier. But with Lenore’s help, I was able to let them wander around, without getting anywhere.
My attention was pulled back to the middle of the clearing by an especially loud and shrill shriek and the image I saw was promising. The ghostly vines used by Adra had penetrated into the crystal and it looked as if they were absorbing the energy from the crystal into her. What was a little disturbing was the fact that it reminded me of the tentacles and the devouring mechanisms I had seen from the nethersprites, as if they were two sides of the same coin, or maybe a similar coin, feasting upon the life to fuel their own existence. Anyway, with the vines sucking the life out of the crystal, the dryad was visibly weakened and Sigmir seemed to have an easy time blocking her attacks, letting me assume that the fight would be over soon.
Just as my mind reminded me what ‘assume’ also meant, I heard the crunching of snow close to me, forcing my attention to my immediate surroundings, and showing me that I had mucked up at some point in the fight. Next to me, in the process of swinging some sort of bladed weapon - one might call it a saber - was a nymph that I had failed to trap in my mist-maze. The focus of my world suddenly was very narrow, consisting only of the sharp blade that was rapidly approaching me.