Alex’s mind began to race. His eyes darted, quickly taking in his surroundings and analyzing the situation.
They’d been surrounded; their opponents had come out of the woods—some of them emerging directly from tree trunks—to flank their entire party at the same time. His sister had gone silent, and Theresa was hugging her tightly to her side. The huntress had her massive hunting knife drawn and on guard, but she was flanked by two females—each holding swords close to her—while two more crouched in the trees, with bows pointed down, ready to draw and fire arrows in a heartbeat.
Thundar was still frozen in mid-sentence with two swords pointed at his chest, while Khalik and Isolde each had a swordswoman threatening them. The Patrizia, his captain and a few guards had managed to draw their weapons, but it was clear who held the advantage.
Despite some of the women moving from branch to branch for a better angle to aim their bows at their targets, they did not make a single sound in the trees. It was an uncomfortable reminder of the silence-spiders.
Alex’s brow furrowed.
From the fact that they were all still alive, it seemed that these assailants didn’t plan on ending their lives immediately, which made him wonder what they wanted exactly.
“Hold now, hold! Peace!” Giuseppe shouted. “What is the meaning of this? Are the dryads violating their pact with my family after so many years? Are you no more than common bandits now who dare threaten my kin and party?”
“Quiet, mara-vitar,” one of the assailers said. “I think you misread the situation. You are the rabbit, and weare the snare."
“Wait! I recognize this one!” Another voice came from a towering oak close to Isolde’s cousin. Another woman slid down silently—one with a scar on her cheek. “Yes…you are the mara-vitar…er, human. You are the human lord that lives outside of our forest?”
“I am the human lord that rules part of this forest,” Guiseppe said with heat. “Has one of my subjects violated the peace? We have not left the path, so why do you threaten us?”
The scarred woman watched him for a long moment. “I apologize, human lord, but these are strange times.” She looked at the other women. “Bring your swords away from him.”
“Take your weapons away from my sister and friends,” Alex growled, speaking from a mix of anger, defensiveness and fear.
The sword drifted a little closer to his face.
“Quiet, you,” the woman said.
“I must agree with my guest,” Giuseppi echoed, keeping his sword up even as his aggressors put theirs down. “You are paying us incredible insult. Do not hold swords on us like we are common criminals.”
“It is not that we fear you and yours are criminals,” the lead woman said. “There is a creature in these lands, one that steals magic by contact with life.”
“You mean the mana vampire?” the Patrizia asked.
“That is your name for it, yes,” she said. “It is a shapeshifter, and can choose many guises. With…what has happened, the coming of strangers is a danger to us—one of you might be this creature who seeks to bleed the magic from us and our woods.”
“All of these guards have been with me for as long as memory serves me. There have been no mana vampire attacks on this estate: they are what they seem, and this woman is my kin.” Giuseppe placed a hand on Isolde’s shoulder. “I vouch for her on my honour and life. She is no mana-stealing shapeshifter.”
“And these are my friends,” Isolde jumped in, with head held high and hand closed on the hilt of her stiletto knife. “I have known them for half a year. They are not shapeshifting monsters, I assure you. We are in a cabal together; if you threaten them, then you also threaten me, and I shall defend us as such!”
There was a long pause while the tension thickened in the air. Alex could see Theresa’s eyes moving quickly, as though she were creating a plan: how to fight and how to escape.
She drew Selina closer to her side. The little girl was staring up at the swords.
“You do threaten a child,” Khalik said. “Not a shapeshifting monster. A child. Clearly something has happened to you to make you so…cautious, but understand: you do threaten a child.”
The women seemed to finally process Selina’s presence, and Alex saw a good deal of tension leaving and their demeanour relaxing. Those with weapons pointed at Theresa and Selina gave uncomfortable looks toward their leader, who sighed.
“We are in the wrong here,” the scarred woman said. “Lower your weapons.”
She gave the Patrizia’s group a deep bow. “My apologies, mara-vitar, we acted in haste. We ask forgiveness.”
Alex let out a sigh of relief as the women moved their weapons away. He wasn’t the only one who exhaled. His heart had been hammering in his ears the entire time.
“Though no one was hurt, I will want an explanation,” Patrizia DePaolo said, then glanced at his guards. “You may sheathe your weapons.”
The group of travellers looked at each other before taking their hands away from their arms. Theresa was the last to sheathe her knife, glaring at the women for several heartbeats before finally sheathing the blade and speaking gently to Selina. Alex immediately went to two of them, catching them both in a tight hug.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” he said quickly to Selina, bending down, taking her chin and turning her face this way and that to make sure she hadn’t been injured. He couldn’t find any wounds.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” she said quickly, hugging him. He noticed that her eyes were steady and she showed no signs of crying. He thought back to when they’d first walked into The Cave of the Traveller: his little sister really did seem to be especially brave for a child her age. He knew he wasn’t that brave at ten years old.
He glanced up at Theresa. “Are you okay?”
“Just nettled,” she said, continuing to glare at the women. She didn’t say anything else, likely because—from the look on her face—anything she really wanted to say would probably have reopened hostilities.
Alex looked back at the Patrizia, who was speaking quietly with the leader, who—now that the threat of imminent violence was no longer an issue—he finally had a chance to examine.
It was strange how the mind could focus on certain details and miss others when danger was threatening. The women were obviously not human, but all their non-human traits had become completely irrelevant while his mind was occupied with the sword that had been right in his face and the safety of his sister and companions.
First, his eyes took in their weapons. While they carried either swords, bows and arrows or spears, all were completely constructed of what looked to be wood. From the sharpness of their points and edges, and the way the dryads wielded them, though, Alex had no doubt about their deadliness. His eyes rose to examine the weapon wielders themselves.
From Guiseppe referring to them as such, and their unique appearance, he realized that they were in the presence of dryads. They were humanoid in form. Their skin-tones ranged from the frosty white of a cloud, to the tan of a fawn, to the reddish-brown of a fox, or browns of a chestnut or acorn, to the deep black of a midnight sky—and the multi-hues of tree bark. Some even had a greenish cast to their skin, like the colour of summer leaves. Their hair was unlike that of a human’s or animal's: soft branches like a willow tree grew from their heads, some rising up and some falling over their shoulders like green saplings that were weighted down. These ‘branches’ were filled with an abundance of crimson coloured leaves, like the reds of fall. Their eyes were every colour one could find in nature, and they wore sleeveless tunics woven of the same red leaves that fell just above their knees. Their feet were bare.
They were also as beautiful as was told in tales and texts, but not just in a physical way. There was an unearthly grace to each one, as if they were representations of nature’s own beauty.
It took Alex a moment to tear his eyes away from them and notice that the others—even Selina, Theresa and Isolde—were fascinated too. Not surprisingly, Khalik, Thundar and some members of the house guard were having similar reactions as one another and doing a lot of happy grinning.
Alex tuned into the conversation between the dryad leader and the Patrizia.
“-have trouble with the mana vampire too, Harmonia?” Giuseppe was asking the leader.
“It has tried to penetrate our forest to find our village several times,” Harmonia said. “It even changed shape to mimic one of our own and try to blend into a patrol, but its behaviour was off and none recognized this new dryad. It fled. Had it reached our sacred grove, it would have drained the mana and life force from our tree-sisters. So, we have increased our patrols and interrogated outsiders since.” Her eyes narrowed. “And then we encountered the second beast.”
“Second beast? Do you mean the creature with scales and terrible claws?” The Patrizia asked.
“Yes. It walked on two legs, but it was a monster,” the dryad leader said darkly. “Dark scales as strong as steel, claws that cut deeper than fine blades, and a bite that was as venomous as an adder’s fangs. It was quick enough to run down a stag, agile enough to move through the branches at speed, and strong enough to break bone in its grip. A patrol of five found the thing and by the time the battle was finished, two of our sisters lay dead and their sister-trees withered.”
Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Now we do not take chances.”
Alex frowned. That clawed beast had been mentioned a few times now by people around him. He scanned the trees as others did the same. He suddenly wished that Baelin was close by like he always was when they faced monsters in The Barrens.
A wild suspicion began to grow in his mind: one that must have been simple paranoia as his rational mind was telling him. After all, there were tons of monsters in The Barrens and other kinds in the countryside around them. They varied in shape, size, power and probably, not all of them had been discovered. It was likely this unfamiliar creature was just some unknown monster from somewhere nearby.
But despite trying to reassure himself, his imagination couldn’t help but conjure the image of a monstrous agent of The Ravener coming to seek his life after all this time.
“Is the beast still about?” Khalik asked.
“It fled after it fought our patrol, and passed beyond our lands and beyond our knowledge,” Harmonia said. “We have watched for it but have seen no sign: we asked the birds to keep watch for it, but they have not seen it for months now. Perhaps it has moved on. Still, we must be cautious. I again, apologize for the misunderstanding. When my sister-tree bears fruit, I’ll have several baskets sent to you in apology, mara-vitar.”
Again, she bowed her head. Her leafy hair rustled as she moved. “In better times we would welcome you to our village to extend proper hospitality…but that will have to wait. Once the mana vampire, as you called it, is eliminated, perhaps we can offer hospitality again to our neighbour. For now, we will leave you to your business. Stay on the path.”
With that, Harmonia and the other dryads melted back into the trees.
In a few heartbeats, they were alone.
Birds chirped in the branches overhead, and Alex looked up, wondering if they’d been left behind as watchers.
“Well,” Thundar finally said. “That was a lot less fun than I was hoping. They were damned pretty though.”
After the conversation with the dryads, the mood had dampened and so they returned to the villa and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Patrizia’s gardens. He’d shown them his prized hounds and falcons since hunting was a favoured pastime of his household. Khalik had called Najyah—who was always close by—and Giuseppi had admired the raptor, even offering Khalik a handsome sum for her. The prince had refused of course, explaining that she was more to him than simply a hunting bird. He’d demonstrated some of her abilities as his familiar to the Patrizia, which left him wanting to buy her even more. Najyah didn’t seem to be too impressed and maybe a little offended by the man. The group were invited to stay for an early supper, and at the end of the visit, Isolde’s cousin had extended an invitation to them: an open invite to his spring masquerade ball. He said that the dryads were often on his guest list as well, though most rarely attended.
Everyone was really excited about the invitation and talked about the different fancy masks they could wear on their way back to campus on the sky-gondola. Alex noted that he’d have to add some more dance moves to his repertoire.
The rest of the break passed well, though Alex spent much of it working at Shale’s, tearing into his textbooks for the upcoming semester, and continuing to sculpt the golem body with Selina.
Alex’s fussiness—just like when it came to cooking—came into play in-part because of The Mark’s continuous refining of his skills. By the end of each sculpting day, he’d be a little more skilled than when the day had started. Selina also wanted the body to be as perfect as they could make it and so—when they inevitably noticed a part of the golem that could have been sculpted better—they would go over their work from the previous day, which made things take longer.
But, at the end of each work day, that resulted in a golem torso that was looking more and more like a sculpture of a well-proportioned, muscular warrior. All too quickly school break came to an end and Alex promised Selina that they’d continue sculpting around their schedules during the new semester.
As the time for his new classes came on, there was a task ahead that was filling him with both excitement and anxiety.
“Alright, Alex, you can do this,” he said, staring at his reflection in the mirror while moving his hair—now a good three inches longer than when he’d first arrived at Generasi— to the side. On his desk were his potions notes and a new textbook, as well as specific project instructions Jules had handed him for his first self-study project.
Today would be the day he’d be heading to the lab—with some independence—for the very first time.
Also sitting on the desk was a small sack.
Within, was a sample of the dungeon core’s remains.
Alex looked at the bag with a smile of anticipation. This was the day he’d been waiting for. This was the day that, in secret, he would begin analysing the Ravener’s dungeon core.