A Clear Headed Approach
Jessie reached down with her off hand to grab her belongings, the big pile of gear she had lugged along so far, keeping her weapon firmly gripped before her, as Launa’s eyes changed from the cloudy green of a scummy pond to a flat reptilian black. Her face became suffused with bulging green veins as she clearly lost her temper for real at the new challenge. Jessie kept most of her attention firmly on the surrounding trees, grass and vines, and was almost instantly rewarded by noticing the branches overhead were busy weaving nooses and lassos out of thick corded vines and creepers. She just had time to wonder how branches could move like that without muscles or tendons before Far Dreamer took the decision on what to do next out of her hands.
As the tree branches around the clearing whipped violently, casting dozens of long woven nooses towards the extremities of the two women, Far Dreamer opened her mouth wide, her jaw dropping down further than Jessie thought it possible to go, in what was clearly meant to be a shout of epic proportions. Instead of noise, however, a great gout of fire vomited forth, jetting clear across the clearing and drenching the shocked dryad in liquid fire.
Almost at once the nearby branches began gyrating spastically, as the formerly young and beautiful dryad went up like an oil soaked torch. The lengths of vines woven into nooses crisscrossed the clearing, draping over both Far Dreamer and Jessie, but none of them were being held or controlled any more, and were easy to cast aside. Far Dreamer and Jessie both backed away from the heat radiating off the thing rolling around in the center of the clearing, watching as it’s spasms slowly subsided, but their attention was suddenly torn away from the dying dryad as the massive tree with the hollow trunk that had served Launa as a home suddenly shook violently, and in a gout of earth and mud uprooted itself from the ground.
Far Dreamer turned to look at Jessie with a curiously calm expression, as if things like this were a common part of her life, and asked “Did you know Dryads aren’t really alive? They’re more like a cutting from the main plant. They don’t really have a life apart from their tree. And for the tree, it is as if a small piece of their soul has gone exploring outside of the body, but is still very much a part of the tree at all times.”
Jessie replied, “No, I didn’t know that. But if you mean you just pissed off that tree, I’m out of here.”
Far Dreamer looked from Jessie to the tree, and back again, and said “I know you’ve already done a lot for me, but I can’t go very far without my clothes. They’re a part of my soul magic, and I can tell they’re inside of that thing. Look, I see you’ve got Single-Blows’ axe and my sword there in your bundle. That axe has a lot of power tied up in it, it’s a relic left over from the god wars that should have been destroyed long ago. I don’t have time to teach you many of the command words, but it’ll cut through natural wood, even wood like this, like clotted cream. If you’ll hand me my sword and deal with the branches and roots when the thing reaches us, I’ll hold it steady and work on its’ heart.”
Jessie looked from Far Dreamer to the huge uprooted tree, and back again. No matter how angry the tree might have been, it wasn’t the fastest horse in the chase on its best day. And once it had uprooted itself, the other trees in the area quieted right down. Jessie looked around, and repeated the thought to herself aloud.
“They must communicate through the roots, look, the other trees are all asleep.”
Far Dreamer glanced around the clearing at the still trees, and then once more down towards the now still and charred form of the dryad. Charcoal and ash coated the still form, and glowing embers flared red as a stiff breeze wound across the green grass. The stench of burnt wet wood and a hint of charred flesh was carried away from the two on the wind, but the scent still lingered in Jessies’ nose.
Far Dreamer says in a sad voice, “I’m of the opinion that whether you stay or go might not matter after all, young human. Whatever poison Launa packed my wound with is coursing strong through my veins. I am keeping my feet, but I’ll not have the strength to run or fight much longer.”
Far Dreamer turns and looks directly in Jessies’ eyes as she continues, “I give you thanks for doing what you could to aid me. I can read the signs that you are not in a strong position yourself, and from your earlier questions of Launa, I could hear great pain and sorrow for your people carried in your voice. You must be one of the survivors of the Orcs’ earlier raid on the Stronghold. I grieve for your pain, and for your loss.”
Far Dreamer settles a little, and smiles wistfully at the sky. “I had almost made it to the cliff wall. There is a path there, little more than a series of hand holds that lead upwards to a fissure that leads deeper inside, deeper into Kelgardelac Strung, into the mountain you call Torr Baldwin. Perhaps I was mad to think that I could stop this craziness all by myself. It’s hard to remember sometimes that my original mission had nothing to do with the Orc war on your people. I was merely sent to find the Hall and ascertain its condition. That seems like such a long ago time, now.”
Far Dreamer looks directly towards Jessie, and her determination and willpower seem to slam into focus. “Leave me my sword. I’ll stand here and occupy the oak as long as I can. Take the axe and head for the cliff wall. Travel south about two leagues, and watch for a crude sign painted upon the white chalk in the color of blood, in the form of a deer head with thorny horns. The first handhold leading up will be there. If you want revenge for yourself and your people, climb up to the fissure and stand guard. Soon the Clans will make their pilgrimage to the Hall, to send their Chiefs, Heroes and Shamans through to be ‘elevated’ by the spirits and made Holy. If you wait long enough, you will have the chance to kill the best and brightest leaders and advisors among the Orc Clans on this side of the spine wall. I would have preferred to change the nature of the Hall to bring peace and understanding to the Clans, rather than the rage Launa has designed, but this senseless slaughter must stop, one way or the other.”
Far Dreamer takes her blade, and assumes a guard position as the huge Oak lumbers ever nearer. The very tip of the blade quivers as though her nerves are a little unsteady.
“The axe is very powerful, and using it for too long will have a terrible cost on your dreams, and may even lead to waking nightmares, but there are two command words your tongue might be able to master that will help you greatly to achieve your goal. Do not speak them aloud while holding or wearing the axe until you are ready, but repeat them in your mind until you think you have the inflection right. If you’re lucky, you’ll get it right, and if you’re not, and you need the power of the axe that desperately, it’s probably not going to be a long term problem.”
“First, the axe will drink deeply of the blood and soul of anyone that it wounds. It will grow ever stronger in this way, but it is not designed or meant to harness the lifeforce it collects permanently. The extra power will tend to dissipate slowly, and return to Gaia over time. But, so long as the axe is suffused with this extra lifeforce or mana, it will be far more devastating to your opponents, and you as a pure mortal can draw some of that power from the axe into yourself to heal your wounds and bring you renewed energy and vitality. Be careful, however, for the axe is a very raw and primal tool, linked directly to Gaia. The lifeforce it draws from the souls it takes will still be pure, imbued with the essence of the person the axe had wounded. You may be assaulted by visions and emotions the person had lately experienced. If you draw too strongly upon this power from one being, or if the person was exceptionally supernatural in nature, you may even be overwhelmed by the person’s spirit. To trigger the spells that draw the lifeforce from the axe into you, hold the axe tightly in both hands and intone the command, ‘Khaladhakathan’.”
“Second, you can unleash all of the stored mana at once when the blade makes contact with a living being. The command must be made before the blow is to be struck, and once the command is uttered, all of the stored mana will be focused into the blade edge. The axe will be hard to hold onto, it will shiver as if it were straining at the leash. It cannot be made safe once it has been triggered, and it will unleash all of its energy in the first living being to touch the blade. The command to trigger this is ‘Dhalakhaladan’.”
“I hope that you are not called upon to use the axe in this way, but at least I have done all I can to aid you in your journey. Now go, child, and be well in your life.”
Jessie stands there for a moment, obviously weighing her decision, but she quickly stands fast beside the elf clutching the axe, and asks, “Is there any way we have a realistic chance of stopping this thing if we work together?”
Far Dreamer looks over at Jessie, and hesitates for just a second before replying, “Yes, there is, if you have the skill to fight, and the wisdom to act with a clear head rather than with fury and rage. An oak of this many years has only a few vulnerable areas we can reach, and if you go charging in like most human males I’ve seen, we’ll both die rather messily.”
Jessie looks down at the axe clutched in her hands with a dubious expression. “I’m afraid Fergus never taught me how to use an axe, I’m much more comfortable with a sword. But I’ll do my best. You tell me where you need to stick the damn thing and I’ll do my best to get it to open up for you.”
She looks at Far Dreamer, and grins. “Would this qualify as one of those desperate times you just mentioned?”
Far Dreamer grins back, and says, “If you’re stupid enough to stay, then I’m stupid enough to fight with you while that abomination that looks like an axe cuts loose. Just try not to hit me with it, all right? I want my soul to last long enough to sneer at our foolishness if we fail.”
Far Dreamer points towards the massive oak trunk, and says, “You see that gnarled knot sticking out of the side of the cavity? That’s some kind of sensory organ. It should be tied directly into the things’ version of nerves. If you nail that thing with all of your strength, the oak will certainly feel it. How much, I don’t know, but if we’re lucky, the cavity will open enough for me to get inside. I assure you, I may not live for long inside it, but neither will the oak, and it’s my best chance of getting my gear. If I do get inside, keep it occupied by hitting every protrusion you can, and stay out of reach of it’s branches, they’ll pierce your clothes as if you were naked.”
Jessie shifts her grip on the axe handle, flexing her muscles against its massive weight. Tossing the rest of her gear towards the roots of the quiescent tree behind her, she swings the axe a few times, trying to find the perfect mix of balance and power.
Talking to herself under her breath as she moves, she hears Fergus’ voice in her head, saying, “Ok, Jessie me girl, this ain’t too different from splitting firewood at home. O’course firewood is generally a bit more cooperative, like lyin’ still, and not doing it’s best to kill you. Stay steady, and find yer place o’ peace. And remember. It’s slow as spring after a Fell Orc winter.”
Far Dreamer suddenly gasps out loud in pain, and as Jessie whips her head away from the advancing tree, she sees Far Dreamer writhing in pain as the dress of green leaves contorts about her body. Although Far Dreamer remained on her feet, her sword was held in one restrained hand, positioned out of line to help cut the mass of leaves away.
Jessie went to run to Far Dreamers side to help fight the leaves, but then hesitated, looking back towards the advancing oak tree. It’s branches bristled menacingly, and Jessie couldn’t tell whether she’d have time to clear away the leaves before the tree arrived. I’d be a near thing no matter what she chose. Would it be better to take on the tree by herself, or to help Far Dreamer first, and maybe be unprepared at the last moment?
Jessie runs hurriedly over to Far Dreamer, and while holding the axe in her left hand, tugs on the writhing leaves, trying to see if they are all connected to one branch or vine, or if they are all individual pieces. Turning the elf around, Jessie is rewarded by seeing that, running up Far Dreamers’ back, a single thick vine, slightly darker than the leaves, seems to have small taproots stretching out like hoops around Far Dreamers body.
Gripping the thick vine tightly with her right hand, Jessie leans forward and yells into the struggling elf’s ear, “If you don’t stop struggling, I’m liable to be giving you more than a poisoned shoulder to be worrying about. I’ve got a big damn axe and no time to switch weapons, and I’m gonna be cutting this damn thing off near your spine!”
Far Dreamer stills immediately, standing stiff as a plank. The leaves and vines, sensing their victim’s stillness, squeeze even harder, just as Jessie carefully runs the edge of the axe blade along the thick vine. The green flesh of the vine smokes as the blade touches it, and reacts violently, springing loose of the elfs’ body and flinging itself away from Jessie, Far Dreamer and the axe, moving disquietingly like a spider as it scuttles away, all vines and leaves.
Jessie feels sick in sympathy for Far Dreamer, who’d actually had the thing touching her.
With the reflexes that make her so dangerous, Jessie snaps the axe over head with both hands, like a logger splitting wood, and brings the axe down through the center of the thick vine before it could scuttle out of reach.
The mass of leaves explodes into brief flame and nauseous green smoke, far different from the flames that had consumed the dryad, before collapsing into dust. At the same time, the axe felt both lighter and emotionally heavier in Jessie’s hands, exerting a psychic presence that instantly started to give Jessie a headache, and the axe head began to glow a metallic green color, while the massive oak tree halted in its advance, and let loose with a scream that had nothing of sound in it, a scream that Jessie could feel like a knife in her forehead, twisting.
As she turned to face the screaming tree, leaves flying apart from the branches as they flail at the sky, she feels the weight of her grief burning in her eyes. The rage and the grief pull a harsh growl from her throat as she hefts the glowing axe, and readies a good solid grip.
“That sounded like it hurt really bad…good, I have a lot more pain for you right here.”
Glancing towards Far Dreamer, who has composed herself and stands naked holding her sword, Jessie asks, “Are you ready to finish this?”
Jessie takes a second hard look at Far Dreamer, as she sees her for the first time without any concealing clothing. The horrible wound in her left shoulder has completely closed, but the flesh underneath, as well as the skin around it, had turned a virulent shade of green, with pulsing veins a darker color of green, instead of the red that Jessie would have expected from the blood the previous night. Jessie made the instant connection with the leafy pattern that had been on everything else the dryad had touched.
Jessie decided that, without knowing more, the best hope was that, if the oak died, maybe the poison would die with it.
What drew Jessie’s attention more than the wound, however, was the glittering gold markings completely covering the elf’s right leg, from ankle to hip. Jessie had seen a glimpse of it before, but it was boldly apparent now, glittering a brilliant gold, a beautiful tattoo showing what seemed to be a snakelike scaled dragon with a long, winding, serpentine body. The style was something she had never seen before, an art that looked far more involved and difficult to create than the simple, crude tattoos she had seen on some of the more widely traveled guards that traveled with the infrequent caravans that visited her family’s Caer. This was a masterpiece that seemed to have so much depth and detail that it almost seemed alive.
Jessie snapped out of her distraction, and focused her eyes back on the elves’ face.
The elf, replying to Jessies’ last words, says, “Yes, as ready as I have any hope of being.”
Jessie asks, “So, dragon lady, can you breathe fire at the oak again, or are you tapped out?”
Far Dreamer seems shocked for a moment, glances down at her now naked body quickly, and then looks back up, her cheeks burning. “No, I can’t, and I’ll thank you to be casting your gaze to the oak, young man!”
Jessie blushes a bright red, shocked at herself for feeling embarrassed after all that had happened during the last two days, and turns her attention fully upon the tree. Jessie and Far Dreamer step out as one, advancing to meet it in the bright glade. The massive tree is far from motionless, as it’s branches writhe in torment, but Jessie felt that, for the moment at least, the oak was ignorant of their actions, but Jessie was too cautious to trust in its seeming distraction.
As Far Dreamer got settled into an awkward looking pose, partially crouched with her sword gripped with both hands, Jessie advanced towards the side of the tree that brought her closest to the knot that Far Dreamer had suggested as her first target, weaving and dodging to stay clear of the branches and roots that were thrashing about.
Setting herself, Jessie leapt towards the knot, swinging the axe as hard as possible, and called out, “Dhalakhaladan!” swinging the massive axe in a sweeping arc, swinging, swinging….
Jessie heard Far Dreamer scream out, “No!” from behind her, but it was far too late. Jessie was committed to the swing, and brought the bit of the axe into and through the knot, burying three feet of the axe’s length into the tree.
Jessie had felt no difference in the axe as she called out the name she had hoped she’d got right, but when the axe struck the tree, a flash of light erupted from the contact, and at the same moment she felt a consuming weakness spread throughout her body, starting from her hands and sweeping swiftly through her heart. It felt horribly as if her life and her very soul were flowing out of her body into the axe, through her hands, and as the weakness and confusion closed over her mind, she collapsed into an all consuming darkness and for the time, knew no more.