Acrid fog swirled between the transmuted trees as Esieh looked up into the twisted, enraged face of a monster. Metallic branch-arms, adorned with glimmering amethyst leaves, swung through the air at her companions. Dark shapes swam across her vision and the welt on the back of her head pounded. Her ears rang and filled with the grate of metal as the dryad above her distorted its body to fight.
“Don’t hurt it!” she heard Ela’s voice cry from somewhere to her left.
To her right, Guy shouted mild blasphemy and hurriedly drew his longsword, charging at the animated tree. Wasting no time, he brought his blade down hard on the inorganic bark, sending tiny sparks spraying over Esieh.
Rising to fully face the dryad, the back of her dress slightly singed from the lightning discharged during its emergence, Ela clasped the holy symbol on her necklace. She stared fixedly at the purple tree, her colourless eyes unblinking, and quickly recited a prayer to Pelor. Upon the prayer’s conclusion Ela breathed in sharply and the symbol in her grip pulsed with an internal light. The dryad paused as it too began to shine dimly. An aura of holy light covered its whole form.
“Don’t hurt it,” Ela repeated. “It’s surprised. It’s shocked.” She turned to look at the tree. “We don’t mean any harm.”
The creature rested its branches and turned its inhuman face towards the circle of pixies behind Ela. The moment its attention was on them, two of the tiny fey folk vanished instantaneously. Staring at the satyr and the one remaining pixie, the dryad’s eyes glowed brightly, a brilliant violet that outshone the faint light from Ela’s magic. They both stared back and their expressions fell blank, abandoning the fear they showed before. Their eyes then lit up into the same shade of purple as the dryad.
Maintaining its blank expression, uttering no sound, the satyr stooped to pick up a knotted and gnarled hunk of wood that lay by its hooves. Hefting the natural wooden hammer in its humanlike hands, it bunched its leg muscles and leapt at Guy, swinging savagely. The weighty wood slammed into Guy’s thick leather armour, knocking the wind from his lungs and sending him reeling. As the attack made contact, everyone’s attention riveted on Guy and the satyr, the final pixie blinked away.
Snarling, Bakris backed away from the raging tree. He glanced at Guy and the satyr, then clenched his claws. He began to weave his hands and fixed his eyes on the dryad. As he stared at it, however, his gaze caught the dim glow it emitted, his movements slowing. His mind filled with a gentle feeling; a calming sense that urged him not to fight, not to attack… In his head, Ela’s peaceful intentions seeped into his own, trying to direct him away from violence. It was only through great force of will that he resisted Ela’s holy warding and commenced his attack.
Intricate shapes formed in the raw air as the blue dragonborn flicked and weaved his fingers, his reptilian mouth hissing the words of power that lived in his head. Three glowing balls of energy materialised around him and with a gesture he sent them all flying at the animated tree, producing a sound not unlike fire on metal. The dryad reeled and roared with a vicious, angry sound; a far cry from the melodic voices of the fey.
Grinning with satisfaction, Bakris took a deep breath and bellowed:
“I have unlimited power!”
From his mouth came the same torrent of blue lightning that he’d released against the bandits. Ela had to shield her eyes and flinch back to avoid it as the smoking bolts hit the creature. In a surprisingly display of agility, however, the metallic monster twisted its body so the dragon breath couldn’t land squarely. While the patch it hit billowed steam and left a scorch mark, Ela was sure it wouldn’t have survived if it’d been struck cleanly.
As the final flickering sparks dissipated, Ela looked up to see that Erlan had run to her side. He gave her an indecipherable look then turned his back on her, placing himself between her and the tree. He began to mutter a spell, a small ember appearing in the air between his hands, when Ela cried out.
His incantation faltered as her words made him hesitate. The moment he stopped speaking, the building spell fizzled out. He turned to speak to the tiefling behind him, but Esieh ran past him and shoved Ela as hard as she could.
“What in the hells are you doing?” Esieh demanded angrily, pushing Ela several feet away from the expanding fight behind them.
“Don’t hurt it!” Ela pleaded, tears forming in her eyes as she looked into the High Elf woman’s contemptuous face.
“You’re not helping,” Esieh stated coldly, turning away.
Blinking to clear the tears from her vision, Ela dodged around the elf and ran forward. She saw Guy fighting the satyr, exchanging blows with neither drawing much blood, and she could just about make Bakris out in the fog, some lightning still sparking around his hands. Before her the crystal dryad, still steaming from Bakris’ attacks, was looking for its next target.
Ela looked down, clasping both her hands in front of her. Her pointed purple tail coiled around her legs, drawing her white dress tightly closer. Without touching her holy symbol, she took a breath and then threw back her shoulders as her voice boomed, its volume magically enhanced.
“Stop!” Her allies all stared at her and even the satyr took pause. “We don’t want to fight!”
Ela’s defiant words echoed around the forest, muffled only slightly by the thick fog that still encircled them. The dryad turned his purple glowing eyes on her and she suddenly felt something tugging at her mind; an external force trying to breach her mental defences. The feeling vanished just as suddenly as it began and Ela watched as her holy ward on the dryad faded away; it existed only to protect the innocent.
As Erlan and Esieh stared at the tiefling in incomprehension, they didn’t notice a pixie pop back into being behind them, its eyes still aflame with purple. It stretched out its tiny hands towards them, spinning the strange fey language into magical chords. The two high elves blinked as their minds clouded with tiredness for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, however, elves do not need, and in fact cannot, sleep. They fought back the feeling of tiredness and shook themselves to focus their minds on the fight.
Reenergised, they turned their attentions to the dryad, its crystal-covered branches flailing. Erlan readied a spell again as Esieh raised her slyly-hidden shortbow. Arrows and fire flew from the elves at the tree, singing inorganic leaves and striking metallic bark. Ela saw one arrow in particular as it clanged against the area around the dryad’s glowing eyes, stripping a chunk of bark and exposing the steely flesh below. Amethyst leaves showered the ground as the animated being roared in pain and anger.
Almost in response, the crystals coating another transmuted tree, near which Guy and the satyr stood, began to glow. Just as happened with the first, the foliage on the second tree reached a crescendo and exploded into violet lightning as a second crystal dryad awoke.
Guy ducked as the purple electricity arced to him and burned his skin. There was the terrible sound of sundering metal as the creature broke its way out of the tree. The tips of his large moustache smoked lightly as Guy watched Ela collapse to her knees, her mace and shield thudding to the forest floor.
“Ela, what are you on about?” he yelled in the brief silence.
“Don’t hurt them!” she cried back, turning to look at him with tears streaming down her face. Guy’s jaw tightened.
“Not good enough.”
Facing the satyr once more, Guy gripped his longsword and lowered his stance before delivering a skull cracking head-butt to the goatman. His bald head avoided the satyr’s horns, slamming with extreme force into its snout-like nose. It reeled back, trying to regain its balance, bleating madly.
At the edge of the clearing, drawn by the sound of Ela’s amplified pleas, a tall, pale wood elf watched.
Ela saw Guy’s attack and glanced at the new dryad. It was swinging its branches in an attempt to hit Guy, but the human was too far away from it. She looked back at the first tree and her eyes scanned over the splintered, metallic bark, the smouldering crystal leaves, the arrow marks around its eyes. Quickly she scrambled to her feet.
Running so recklessly that her sandals tripped and skidded on the uneven ground, Ela hurried to kneel in front of the injured dryad. One hand closed around her holy symbol as her other slammed against the pockmarked bark. She closed her eyes and cried out:
“Please, Pelor! Grant me the ability to cure this poor creature’s wounds!”
“What?” came an outraged shout from Bakris. “WHAT?”
Esieh lowered her bow and stared in utter disbelief, the pain in her head still pounding.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she muttered under her breath.
Ela looked up, hope filling her face, to see the dryad’s reaction. It was only then that she realised something had gone wrong; she felt nothing, no change. She had prayed for Pelor’s assistance in healing countless injuries, and watched as cuts resealed, puncture wounds closed up, and even broken bones begin to reknit. This time, however, she felt no power. Her holy symbol was unresponsive and her patient as damaged and angry as ever.
“It’s not…alive,” Ela whispered to herself, her hand falling away.
She tried to stand again, but couldn’t muster the energy. Instead she merely fell backwards in shock, looking up at the towering animated tree.
The satyr, its nose bloodied, lowered its horned head and charged at Guy, looking to pay in kind for the head-butt. He was able to sidestep the charge, but by that point the second dryad had succeeded in freeing itself from its transmuted prison. With its twisted, metallic form, it lumbered towards Guy and its eyes began to glow the same purple as the other.
The dryad looming over Ela, shreds of bark fluttering off its trunk, turned on the spot to face Bakris. With a delicate, but forceful, flick of its branch, dart-like leaves flew at the dragonborn. The tree’s damage, however, appeared to be weakening it considerably; Bakris had no trouble avoiding the desperate attack.
“Guy’s getting lumbered and the cat-girl tries to heal the tree!” he raved, drawing his small crossbow. Ela, however, was deaf to his words.
After a brief pause to take aim, Bakris released a single bolt that whistled through the foggy air and struck the exposed flesh around the dryad’s eyes. With an almighty shattering sound, like a thousand blasted shields, the dryad exploded into shards of metal and crystal. Purple and silver rained down on the forest, and once Ela stopped shielding her face, there was nothing left of the tree she had tried to save.
With the tree exploding, and Guy set upon by two attackers, Erlan and Esieh were too distracted to notice the pixie behind them cast another spell. Suddenly magically-surging roots burst from the dirt below their feet, circling them and climbing their legs. Erlan was able to tear his body free, looking around and seeing the glowing-eyed pixie, but Esieh wasn’t strong enough to break the animated vines.
With an expression somewhere between annoyance and apology, Erlan launched a small shot of fire at the pixie. The little flaming bolt flew straight and didn’t slow as it destroyed the creature’s body, leaving behind a tiny settling cloud of brightly coloured dust. With the destruction of the crystal dryad, however, its hold over the fey creature dissipated. With his keen elven eyes Erlan saw, in the seconds before the bolt obliterated the pixie, the purple faded from its eyes and its blank expression shifted to one of confusion. The sound it made as it poofed out of life was akin to the blowing of a fistful of powder.
As soon as the bolt killed the pixie, the vines that entangled Esieh and Erlan stopped and wilted. Wasting no time, the male elf rushed to Ela’s side and reached to help her to her feet. Having seen two creatures die in quick succession, shards of the tree still covering her, Ela slapped Erlan’s hand away. Esieh by comparison didn’t even look at the tiefling, instead focussing all her attention on the surviving dryad, drawing her bow and loosing shots at the glowing eyes.
As the dryad turned away, shielding its face from the arrows, Guy lowered his weapon, stumbling back and shaking his head. His face whipped round to stare at Ela, lying on the forest floor nearby. The large human moved towards her unevenly, barely lifting his feet to avoid tripping. He stood over her and she looked up at his face as he swung his sword down onto her.
Erlan watched in horror as red flooded Ela’s pristine white dress, radiating outwards from a large gash in her chest. Her eyes closed and her body fell limp. Before he could even find what words to say, Erlan saw Guy’s face; his expression was completely blank and his eyes were glowing the same shade as the dryads’.
Forgotten by the party in light of what had just happened, the satyr steadied itself. With the destruction of the first dryad it had also been freed from its trance, the purple fading from its eyes. Vengeance burning within it, it hefted its wooden hammer and glared, bleating, at the one animated tree still standing. Bringing the organic weapon round to smash into the inorganic monster, the satyr sent the mobile tree staggering awkwardly. Its concentration broke and, with it, the hold it had over Guy.
Blinking, groggy and carrying only a vague recollection of the last few minutes, Guy looked around at Erlan and Esieh. He followed Erlan’s horrified gaze and looked down at the blood-soaked body of Ela at his feet. His sword fell from his grip, clanging on a metal root.
“Woah! What in the hells happened?” he yelled.
“You just hit Ela with your sword,” Erlan told him bluntly.
“No! No! No! Not me!” Guy insisted, backing away.
“It was you,” Erlan stated, his expression hard.
Guy stared at his own hands and then at his sword, seeing the tiefling blood run down the blade.
“How? Why?” He began to shake and dropped to his knees beside her.
Bakris, unsure of the reasons for Guy’s pained screams, peered through the fog. He could just about make out a few figures by the blasted remains of the first dryad, but could more easily see the satyr laying into the second. Targeting the tree’s eyes, as he had done before, he clipped his crossbow onto his belt and unleashed more magical energy missiles. Three orbs of roiling energy formed around him and then twirled through the air to collide with the dryad’s face. Between the hammer blows and the magical barrage, the creature’s body could take no more; the crystal dryad exploded into a great shower of metal and gems.
With a worried glance at Guy, Erlan kneeled on Ela’s other side and applied what little medical knowledge he had to stop the bleeding. The wound was wide and deep, the sword easily piercing her unarmoured dress. By covering it with strips of clean cloth, muttering any brief incantations of healing he could think of, he was able to stem the tide of red. Sitting back on his haunches, he looked down at his hands, coated as they were with Ela’s blood.
He gave a sigh of relief, Esieh stepping closer to see Ela’s condition, when they heard an unfamiliar voice call out.
From out of the fog ran the tall elf who had been watching the fight. He was dressed in tall dark leather boots and unadorned robes woven from heavy linen. His skin was very pale, almost an off-grey colour, but pristine and unblemished. His shoulder-length hair was pure as new frost and matched his white irises. In his hand he carried a tall wooden pole.
He took Erlan’s place by Ela’s side, ignoring the distraught Guy across from him.
“What are you doing?” Erlan demanded.
“Your treatment won’t hold,” the pale elf informed him, calmly peeling back the dressing Erlan had applied.
As if on cue, the poorly-remembered healing magic the high elf had performed faltered, opening Ela’s wound again and causing her to breathe sharply. Her body began to convulse in unconsciousness, but the pale elf didn’t hesitate. Dipping a hand into a satchel at his side, he retrieved some simple bandages and started covering the cut. He muttered under his breath, though whether magic or simply to aid his concentration, none of the others knew. When he sat back, wiping his hands clean on a rag, Ela’s injury was dressed neatly and her breathing was steady.
Esieh, satisfied that the tiefling was not about to die, scanned around for threats. Her eyes fell upon the satyr, still standing over the shattered body of the second dryad. It looked over at them, glancing at Bakris as he approached the group, before turning away and disappearing into the foggy woods.
“What happened here?” Bakris asked, stunned, as he rounded the blasted tree and saw Ela covered in blood.
“We need that health potion you have,” Erlan replied, ignoring his question.
“Unfortunately I don’t have one,” Bakris shrugged, pulling out the small red vial. “Just this red potion.”
“That is a healing potion.”
“Oh.” Bakris held up the red vial and blinked at it. “Okay.”
He looked down at the unconscious form of Ela and grimaced. Reluctantly he crouched down and carefully poured the contents of the vial into her mouth. As soon as she swallowed it, its effects began: a faint light shone from beneath her bandages as the cut flesh closed up. Seconds later, Ela awoke.
She opened her colourless eyes and looked up at the four people around her, taking in the faces of Bakris, Erlan and an unknown elf. When she saw Guy, however, she flinched away, startled.
“Wha-… I…” she stammered, fear on her face.
“Does anyone want to explain what just happened?” Guy asked, relief and confusion clouding his eyes. Erlan straightened up.
“I’m pretty sure those big dryad things had some kind of charm magic, allowing them to enter our minds, controlling us like puppets. Including those small fey creatures,” he said.
As he said this, Ela’s eyes widened and she lifted herself up despite the pale elf’s protestations. She pushed her way out of the crowd around her and rushed some feet away. Falling to her knees, slightly loosening the dressing around her healed wound, Ela stared at the little pile of dust that was once a pixie.
Erlan watched her for a moment, a regretful expression on his face, before turning to the new elf.
“So who are you, then?”
“I’m the dragon who killed the two trees instead of the cat who tried to heal it!” Bakris answered loudly, moving to one of the fallen dryads and kicking it bitterly. “Stupid cat!”
Ela looked over sharply, her expression hurt and tears in the corner of her eyes.
“It’s…it’s not a cat,” Guy told Bakris.
“To a dragon,” Bakris replied, as if that explained it.
“I’m talking to him,” Erlan stated, indicating the unknown elf.
“I am Paelius Nailo,” the elf said, nodding politely. “Hello.”
“How did you come to be here?” Erlan asked, looking him up and down.
“I was walking through these woods when I heard a booming voice,” Paelius explained.
Erlan briefly summarised their interactions with the pixies that led to the confrontation with dryads. He then told of how Ela ended up unconscious and bleeding.
“I’m glad I came by when I did,” Paelius nodded.
“We should be heading back to the caravan,” Erlan announced. He watched as Paelius carefully picked up his long wooden staff. “Now that this is all cleared up,” he finished.
Sniffing haughtily, Bakris spoke again.
“Someone check on Ela; make sure she’s okay.”
He watched her walk slowly to where she had abandoned her mace and shield, before returning to the pile of dust. His eyes, instead of following her as she walked away, looked past her to a small pile in the centre of where the pixies had once played their music. Seeing a glint, he approached it and found a few coins resting on top of a small sack.
Curiously he picked up the sack and stuck a claw inside. When he withdrew his hand again, he found he was holding another golden coin. His expression turned inquisitive as he reached in again, once more pulling out a single gold coin.
“By the gods!” he whispered excitedly, carrying it over to where Esieh, Guy and Paelius stood. “Watch this!”
He stuck a hand into the sack again, but found his palm empty when he pulled it back out.
“What?” he exclaimed.
“I don’t get the joke,” Guy said, looking at the dragonborn.
Ela approached and saw Bakris repeatedly reaching into the bag and finding it empty. She scowled.
“Do you have no respect?” she accused, returning to the dust.
“Respect!?” Bakris repeated, outraged.
Esieh watched Bakris in silence for a bit.
“What are we supposed to be watching? You with an empty sack?” she asked acidly.
Erlan joined Ela away from the others and found her using her mace to dig at the coarse earth. Sighing to himself, he sat beside her and watched in silence. When the hole was a few inches deep, she placed her mace aside and gathered the brightly coloured dust. Scooping it with her hands, she laid it to rest in the hole and again used her mace to cover the tiny grave. Once the ground was level again, they got to their feet.
“Can we go now, Ela? We need to get back to the caravan before they leave without us.” He paused. “I’m not trying to be disrespectful.”
Ela glanced at the grave.
“Yes, we can go.”
“Which direction are you headed?” Paelius asked as they began to pick their way towards the road.
“West towards the capital,” Erlan answered. “After a quick stop in Eshlethas.”
“If there is space, I’d be happy to accompany you as far as the city.”
Watching the others stride away, Ela lagged behind and walked up to the shattered husk of the tree she had tried to heal. The fog was thick and very little light filtered its way down. Even so, she stood with one hand on her holy symbol, the other on the cold, metallic bark.
In the grim quiet and grey light, she whispered a short prayer to Pelor. She sensed no response. Opening her eyes, the fog around her felt more oppressive than ever, the sun’s light a distant memory. Letting her fingers slip off the tree’s surface, Ela turned her back on it and hurried to catch up with her companions.