19 October 2012

Excerpt: The Dryad Assassin




The first 4500 or so words from a 23,000 word novella.

If you're looking for the really hot parts, well sadly, this snippet doesn't reach there :(

Which is not on purpose… as with all my stories (so far) it just takes some girls a while to get going :)

If you'd prefer to read samples on your ebook reader, you can generally download a similar sample from any of the bookstores listed below

Enjoy!





Edge

DISORIENTATION.

She found herself sitting, or reclining, in a chair of some sort, staring at leaves and branches and sky. She couldn’t move her head to look anywhere else.

She couldn’t move her body either. Her arms were resting comfortably by her side and her feet were on the ground, blades of grass between her toes.

Her legs were spread wide, invitingly.

Disorientation.

~    ~    ~


Cali stared at the tree. It was the first tree that she had seen in two days.

“Fuck,” was all she could think of to say.

It wasn’t a particularly interesting tree, small and relatively short, only a few feet taller than Cali herself.

But it was the first tree.

Behind her was rolling grassland. The only thing to be seen was grass, rolling hills and more grass, plus Cali’s trail of freshly flattened leaves, leading in a nearly straight line back west.

In front of her were more trees, this first one, then a smattering of others. The ground was suddenly flat here; so different from what she had seen for the past few days. In the distance she could see the beginning of the forest proper, a solid line of trees extending across the horizon.

She could still change her mind. She didn’t have to enter the forest.

Of course I do. Cali started walking forward, touching the trunk of the tree as she passed. The gesture made her feel better somehow, as if she had asked the tree for permission to proceed and it had given her its blessing.

She looked up at the sun, which was almost directly in front of her, almost halfway up the sky. She was trying to keep a good pace, but now that she was walking everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. This was the third day of her journey. The first two had been on horseback, riding swiftly along the King’s Road and staying each night at precisely placed inns. Courier Inns, they were called, for they allowed Couriers such as Cali to travel quickly across the Kingdom without worry of where they would find shelter each night. 

But this morning she had left her horse behind. Keeping it would have saved her a couple of extra hours travel by foot, but once she reached the forest’s edge she would have been forced to abandon the creature. The forest was not a good place for a horse.

It’s not likely to be a good place for me, either.

~    ~    ~


It was past midday and Cali was getting impatient. Even though the trees were becoming closer together, she still didn’t feel like she was actually in the forest itself yet. The Drya’dell forest was supposed to be thick with trees and other vegetation; this hardly qualified.

Six days to Timbelane. When planning her route it had seemed completely reasonable. Two days on the road, reach the forest by noon on the third, leaving three full days to cross the forest.

Cali tried to force herself to relax. Either I’m in the forest and on schedule, or I’m not. All I can do right now is keep walking.

Except that she was getting hungry. She had hoped to be in the forest before stopping to eat lunch, but now didn’t see the point in waiting any longer.

At least I can save some time by walking as I eat. There are only so many hours of daylight, no sense wasting them by stopping.

She reached into her backpack and pulled out one of the bundles of food that she had picked up that morning at the Courier Inn. It contained some strips of dried beef, a small wedge of cheese and an apple: simple food, but nourishing and easy to eat on the move.

She walked for another hour without seeing any change in the trees. At least I’m making good time. It’s easy to walk here; the ground is flat and the grass is short. If the whole forest is like this then I have nothing to worry about.

Of course, it’s not the forest itself that’s supposed to be the problem.

With that thought in mind she suddenly found herself in a clear swath of land, about a hundred yards across and completely free of trees. On the other side the trees were much thicker and much more forest-like.

Now that’s more like it.

She started crossing the clearing. The sound of running water filled the air, and about halfway across she discovered a narrow, fast-moving stream.

Huh. I know there was no stream on the map before entering the forest, so this must be the Chrysel.

Just to be certain, she stopped and pulled out her map. Sure enough, right about four hours walk from the Courier Inn was Chrysel Creek. And it was definitely within the forest borders.

Relief washed over Cali. She was in the forest and, according to the map, had been for a couple hours now. She was on schedule, maybe even a bit ahead.

Then the thought went through her mind again. I’m in the forest…

And a shiver went up her spine.

People that tried to cross the Drya’dell forest had a tendency to disappear. Whether they actually died wasn’t known, but they were certainly gone and never seen again. Some travellers made the trip without incident, not seeing anything more than trees and the usual animal inhabitants, but others would disappear without any indication of how or why. Race didn’t seem to matter, as humans, dwarves, goblins and even elves would disappear with the same frequency. Strength of numbers didn’t seem to help either, as an entire caravan with dozens of souls could vanish just as easily as a single person.

In the distant past, crossing the forest had been relatively safe. Out of a hundred travellers, perhaps ninety-nine would survive unscathed. Since it avoided the mountain ranges to the north and south it was by far the shortest route to reach the eastern half of the continent, thus many would take the risk. Particularly merchants, willing to trade speed for safety.

In more recent decades, the numbers had evened out, with about half of all travellers surviving. Those odds had drastically reduced the number of people that attempted the journey. Only the brave, foolhardy or desperate would even think of trying.

In the past ten years or so only one person had survived the trek. He was a wandering minstrel who claimed that with the power of his voice he had befriended a Dryad and been led safely through the forest. A month later he tried to make the return journey and was never seen again.

Dryads. Except for that one minstrel (who was quite possibly lying), no one had seen a Dryad in a hundred years. Within the borders of their forest they were reputed to be mighty warriors and very nearly invincible. Everyone assumed they were to blame for the disappearances. 

And here’s me, trying to cross the forest, hoping that it really is the Dryads who are killing people.

Because they’re the only defender of the forest that I might be safe from.

Blood

CALI LOOKED both ways up and down the creek for the easiest place to cross. For the most part the creek was about eight feet wide but in some places it narrowed enough that Cali felt that she could jump across.

Or could if I were unencumbered. It occurred to her that if she could find a narrow point and throw her pack to the other side, then get a running start and jump across… she could probably make it.

The problem was, jumping wasn’t something she did a lot of, and she wasn’t exactly sure how far she could jump. Plus, the grassy edge of the creek was a bit soft and could easily break away when she tried to make her leap.

Maybe jumping isn’t the best idea.

Obviously, she could also just wade across, as at the wider points the current was not strong enough to knock her down and the water didn’t seem to be more than knee high. She did have an extra pair of shoes, so could change if she got wet.

But do I really want to walk through cold mountain water?

Fortunately, she had heard of another option.

No one crossed the creek anymore, but last night at the Courier Inn’s taproom she had met a few local farmers who remembered playing in the forest as children. Even as recently as 20 years ago, young children would run into the outskirts of the forest and return with a leaf as proof of their bravery, and the older ones would make it so far as this very creek to swim and fish. According to the farmers there were a couple places where large rocks in the middle of the creek should enable her to cross safely and without much difficulty. There was some doubt, however, as to where exactly these rocks were. Two farmers thought she would find them by walking a short distance upstream, while another swore vehemently that the rocks were at least a mile to the south.

Two against one. Cali started walking upstream. About five minutes later she was rewarded with the sight of three large round rocks, each nicely placed so that she could cross without needing to make more than a few short jumps.

She adjusted her pack, making sure it was secure, then jumped to the first rock. It was the biggest one and dry on top. The second rock was wet and looked like it had the potential to be slippery, so she took extra care as she jumped to it.

As she landed she heard the sound of metal hitting rock, then saw an arrow land in the water and flow quickly away.

Fuck.

She made a sudden decision to avoid jumping on the last intermediate rock and instead leapt for the shore, wanting to get away from the creek as quickly as possible. Her footing gave way slightly as she pushed off, and she landed just at the edge of the creek, her foot hitting the moist grass and slipping back out from under her. She fell heavily to the ground with a loud grunt, all the air knocked from her lungs.

Well, at least I fell forward. And it’s probably better for me to stay low, for a moment anyway.

Where had the shot come from? The ground was so flat around here that Cali was certain she would have seen anyone standing within arrow range. The forest, both ahead and behind her, seemed to be too far for any sort of accuracy. Unless someone was just firing warning shots, trying to scare her.

She replayed in her mind the moment that she heard the arrow hit. She hadn’t seen the arrow in flight, but had seen it, just for a moment, ricocheting off the rock beneath her near water level.

No one could have hit the rock that low and at that angle, unless they were standing upstream of her, right in the creek itself.

Cali started running even before she got her feet properly under her, staying low to the ground and heading for the trees. She didn’t run straight, but instead darted about, changing direction and speed often, hoping to prevent a clear second shot.

She reached the trees safely and ran a few yards in before stopping. Here there were a number of trees that were wider than her and she crouched behind one, then looked back at the open field behind her. No one was following her.

But, as the saying went, you never see a Dryad unless they want you to see them.

Cali reached into her left vest pocket and pulled out a small black cylindrical vial. It was about the size and length of her smallest finger. She removed the vial’s cap and carefully tipped part of its contents into her other hand: a single red sphere, the size of a pea.

I should have done this an hour ago.

But no, she couldn’t have. She hadn’t known for certain that she was in the forest and the vial contained such a limited supply.

She closed the vial and returned it to her vest pocket, then looked at the tiny sphere in her hand. 

Let’s hope this works.

She took the index finger of her other hand, placed it on the sphere and pushed, squishing it. The sphere bulged for a moment then burst, releasing a thick, gooey liquid into the palm of her hand. It was red like human blood, but more translucent.

Dryad blood.

She pulled her finger away and watched the droplet. It wobbled and shimmered in the light, then started to sink into her hand. In a moment it was completely gone, not even leaving a stain on her skin.

Dryad blood, freely given. It was supposed to make Dryads think that you were one of their kind. It was supposed to allow you to pass among Dryads without hindrance. Best of all, it was supposed to prevent Dryads from trying to kill you.

We’ll see.

The problem was no one knew for sure that Dryad blood would have these effects. Yes, many ancient tomes made these claims, but no one in recent memory had tested them. Partially because a failed test would likely end in death, but mostly because Dryads never gave their blood freely.

Edekin had supplied her the blood, but had not told her where it came from and she hadn’t asked.

With any luck, the Dryads would now ignore her and Cali wouldn’t see another arrow.

Or feel one, for that matter.

The thought wasn’t funny, but Cali still laughed.

Forest

DISORIENTATION.

There was a breath of air on her skin and with a start she realized that she wasn’t wearing anything; she could feel the breeze on her nipples and didn’t need to look down to know that they were erect and excited.

The breeze felt cooler between her legs; her pussy was wet.

She couldn’t hear anything, but was certain that someone was near. Very near.

Something brushed against her inner thigh.

Disorientation.

~    ~    ~


Cali stood up and glanced about for any signs of the Dryad. As expected, there was nothing to be seen, just trees, grass and a lone black squirrel high in a tree, nibbling a nut of some sort.

She started walking deeper into the forest. Progress was immediately slower here, not only were the trees closer together but there were innumerable thick bushes and the ground was covered in random deadfall that needed to be carefully traversed. Still, she had expected most of her journey to be over such terrain.

There was the obvious alternate route, to use the old merchant’s road that was somewhere a few miles north of here. It hadn’t been used much, if at all, over the past few decades and would likely be overgrown, but it would still make for a faster and easier passage through the forest.

Except that it was a road for travellers, a road that outsiders used to cross the forest. Someone using that road had no hope of going unnoticed. There was something in the forest that was capturing or killing people, and whatever it was would surely have most of its attention on the road.

Dryads were the main threat. They were the spirits of trees, creatures of magic, graced with strength, speed and stealth. Their one goal was to protect the forest. If you could avoid the Dryads then you had a decent chance of surviving.

To be sure, there were other dangers here as well. There were a number of animals, like the nightmunk, that were large enough to cause serious problems for the unwary, but more concerning were the sentient creatures that roamed the woods, none of which had much liking for outsiders: Bugbears, Giant Spiders and Flukes to name just a few. However, these other denizens of the forest likely wouldn’t be actively on guard and watching for interlopers. With a bit of care and common sense, they should be relatively easy to avoid.

No, I’m not too worried about the other creatures of the forest. The Dryads are the danger and the Dryads are the reason I was chosen for this task.

Now that she was in the forest proper, she found that she was enjoying herself. While progress was slower than it had been through the grasslands, it was also much more interesting as the terrain forced her to make continual decisions about the path she was taking. Whether it was through a thick patch of trees, or around a large mass of thorny bushes, or stepping over an intricate maze of fallen trees and branches, she found the process of evaluating her surroundings and deciding upon the optimal path invigorating.

As well, as she made her way deeper into the forest, she became aware of the variety of life around her. There were squirrels by the hundreds, of all colours from red to shades of green, many types of rabbits and foxes, and even a few badgers and bears. Then there was the air above her, filled with birds and butterflies and insects of all sorts. The birds in particular were startling, so many varieties that she had never seen before and couldn’t hope to put names to.

None of the animals she saw paid much attention to her. Many didn’t see her at all and the ones that did just glanced at her and continued about their business. One exception was a tall skinny bird with silky black feathers and a red tuft on its head. It had a long straight white beak, a long curved neck and long thin legs. It just stood in Cali’s path and watched her intently. Cali considered trying to avoid it, but here the foliage was particularly thick and the only real route took her right past the bird so she decided to take her chances. The bird didn’t make a sound and didn’t move except to swivel its head as she walked past it. At one point she was close enough to reach out and pat its bright red tuft, and would have except for the sense of intellect that emanated from the bird’s eyes.

It might just be a bird, but I swear it’s smarter than I am.

It wasn’t until the sky began darkening above her that she began to see the pattern: she was enjoying her trek through the forest to an unusual degree, the animals didn’t feel threatened by her, and now she realized that she had been hiking through the forest for a solid eight hours without rest or food and without awareness of the passage of time. Yes, she was strong and accustomed to full days of travel, whether by foot or horse, but this was very unusual. She also should have been hungry by now. Normally she liked to eat every few hours, splitting up her meals into smaller snacks, but since leaving the creek she had had no urges to eat.

I am drinking water, but there’s something strange there too: I’m consuming a lot more than I usually would.

It was the Dryad’s blood, of course. Not only was it protecting her from the Dryads, but it was making her feel much more at home in the forest, extending her senses and stamina, and even preventing the animals from fearing her. Overall, she was enjoying this simple trek through the forest much more than she possibly could have expected.

Cali stopped and took stock of herself. Part of her wanted to continue through the night; she felt like she had boundless energy and was certain she could make it to the other side of the forest without stopping to rest or eat. But her more sensible side saw that beneath the magical charm upon her, her physical body was tiring and rapidly running out of fuel.

She decided that she should stop for the night and make camp right here. Yes, there was probably enough daylight left for her to continue for another hour or so, but she had already travelled a good deal faster and farther than she had expected. A good night’s rest would allow her to continue tomorrow, safely and hopefully at a similar pace.

And in any case, it looked like a good place to stop. She was surrounded on most sides by thick bushes which would give her shelter and keep her somewhat hidden, just in case there were things in the night that were immune to the effects of Dryad blood. As well, there was a small stream nearby which would allow her to wash; there was nothing more rejuvenating after a long day than the chance to rinse away the accumulation of dust, dirt and sweat.

A half hour later she had washed, eaten another of her packaged courier meals and found herself a relatively comfortable place to sleep. It wasn’t completely dark yet, but now that she was lying down she realized how utterly tired she really was.

She slept, and dreamed.

Task

SHE FOUND HERSELF STANDING before Edekin, the King’s Hand.

He looked at her speculatively. “You are an excellent Courier, I am told,” he said.

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” It wasn’t conceit or over-confidence. She was one of the best.

“I have a task that needs to be performed,” he said. “A task which you have every right to refuse.”

“Sir?” It was very strange to receive a task directly from the King’s Hand. While he was nominally the head of the Courier’s Guild, he was also in charge of so much more. Most of the day-to-day, get-your-hands-dirty sort of things that needed to be done in the Kingdom were handled by the King’s Hand, but Courier jobs were usually given out by intermediaries. She had never heard of any Courier meeting the Hand directly.

Of course, by the very nature of the Courier’s Guild, there were likely a lot of things that happened that no one ever heard about.

For the most part, a Courier’s job was simple and exactly what people expected. When a message needed to be delivered quickly and with certainty that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, you used a Courier. Most often Couriers were used by the King or by members of his Council, but sometimes they were also used by the rich, or anyone with enough money to pay for speed and secrecy.

Less known, but often whispered, was a Courier’s other function: to acquire information for the King. Some might even go so far as to call them spies.

“You’re Z’eph, are you not?” Edekin asked, interrupting Cali’s thoughts.

“Pardon?” It was such a strange question. Her sexual orientation was in no way secret, but having the King’s Hand ask her directly like this was startling. “I mean, yes, I am.”

“I need something delivered to Timbelane. Quickly.”

Again, Cali was surprised but recovered quickly. “That means… through the forest?” 

He nodded. “Yes, and that’s why I’m not ordering you to go.”

Cali considered that. “There’s no way to deliver it magically? By portal, perhaps?”

“No, at the moment I have no access to any Mages with that ability that I trust.”

“And, can I assume that you have a way for me to get there alive?”

Edekin looked uncomfortable. “Maybe. Nothing certain, but there are a number of things that increase your chance of survival.”

Cali made the connection. “Dryads. You think that they won’t kill me because I’m Z’eph?” It made sense, in a simplistic way. Dryads were all female. Z’ephs were only sexually interested in other females.

“In part,” Edekin said. “I’m not saying that it’s logical, but we’ve collected extensive information on as many victims as we could, and we have no documented cases of any Z’eph disappearing in the forest, and we know of three that have survived.”

Cali frowned. It just seemed too simple. “How can you possibly know the sexual preferences of everyone that’s tried to cross the forest?”

He shook his head. “We don’t, but so far the data indicates that Z’eph might be safer.” Then he smiled, sheepishly, which seemed so out of place in a man of his stature. “I know, it’s not much to risk your life over. But there’s also the fact that your great-grandmother was a Dryad.”

How in seven hells did he know that? “That’s only a rumour,” she said.

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know. It’s been our little family secret for so long. I always assumed that it was true, but I don’t really know.”

“Our information indicates that it is most likely true.”

Cali felt odd having that part of her life confirmed. She had always believed that there was a little piece of her that was different, magical, more than human. “Most likely true?”

“Our information on her is extremely limited but points in the direction that she wasn’t human. We had a Mage scry back in time to study her. She was definitely a creature of magic, which confounds scrying somewhat, but our Mage believes she was indeed a Dryad.”

“So, that makes me, what, one-eighth Dryad? Does that really matter?”

Edekin shrugged. “It helps, especially in conjunction with this.” He held out his hand, showing her a small black cylindrical vial.

Cali took it in her hands. It weighed almost nothing. “What’s this?”

“Dryad blood,” he said, “and yes, it was freely given.”

“I’m supposed to drink it?”

“No, there are three capsules in there. Just break one in your hand and it will be absorbed into your skin.”

“And this will protect me?”

“In conjunction with the other two factors?” Edekin shrugged again. “I can only say… maybe, but you’re the only person we feel has a better than zero chance.”

Better than zero. “And why do you think I’d take this risk?”

“Your debt.”

Cali was startled. She had gone to great lengths to prevent anyone knowing about her… problems. “How did you—”

Edekin held up his hand. “Please. It’s my business to know things.”

Cali had been on the run for almost two years now. Being a Courier made it somewhat easier to disappear, to stay one step ahead of those who pursued her. “You know I owe a lot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Edekin said. “If you make it across the forest, then paying your debt is well worth it.”

“And if I don’t make it?”

“Then… I suspect your debt will be meaningless.”

Cali shook her head. “No, I’d like you to pay my debt, whether I’m successful or not.”

Edekin just raised one eyebrow in response.

“If I’m going to risk my life, then I need to know that my slate is clean.”

Edekin nodded, almost approvingly. “Fine. Your debt will be expunged before the sun sets tonight.”

Cali bowed. “Thank you, sir,” she said, feeling giddy from suddenly having the weight of debt removed from her shoulders. “Now, what is it you’d like me to deliver?”


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