Liedecker Institute #23 – Dryads Part 3

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 2: Student Life

“This is not a plan.” Arkose complained as the four of them walked through the gates. “In fact, you aren’t even sure there’s even reason to need a plan. All you’ve got to go on is the fact that a girl that’s already weird is acting weird.”

“We’re all weird.” Jada snapped at the stone girl. It wasn’t lost on her that between them, Steampunk was the only one that looked normal, but she didn’t want to be cruel by pointing that out. “And anyway, if you need more proof, did you notice how the guys at the gate just let us through? No asking where we were going, no making sure we had our locators—nothing. They just opened the gates for us like they didn’t care.”

“And you think it’s because of the flowers.” Arkose walked a step or two behind the others.

“What else? As far as we know, we don’t have any telepaths at the school strong enough to do that.”

“Plus,” Phineas chimed in, “This isn’t ‘Steampunk weird’. She’s got this robot girl thing going, but it’s kind of clear that even she’s bothered by this and whatever it is, it’s trying to get her to go somewhere.”

Arkose folded her arms. It was cool out, but she still wore short sleeves because it took temperature well below freezing to make her register any chill at all. “And has it occurred to you that following it might not be a good idea? If the situation is ‘evil flowers’, then won’t there be a giant Venus flytrap at the end of this shouting ‘feed me’?”

The embers of Phineas’s eyes flickered and he looked to Jada. “She’s got a point.”

Jada shook her head. “That doesn’t track to me. If this were about eating, why not make everyone come all at once and get in line? And why the school? It’s clearly outside the campus, and there’s a lot more easy targets than us.”

“I’ve got it!” Phineas exclaimed. “Pod people. It can only grow a few replacements at a time, so it’s picking us off, one by one. And who better to copy than descendants? Your sleeper army now comes with built in firepower.”

It was hard for the others to tell, but Arkose rolled her eyes. “This is the kind of thinking you’re encouraging with the evil plants thing.”

Jada ignored her and looked over at Steampunk. The other girl kept her eyes forward and both hands on the old style doctor’s bag in her hands. She’d insisted on going to get it when Jada suggested she lead them to whatever her traitorous instincts were drawing her.

“So what do you think Steampunk?”

“I am still collecting information. At the moment, my conclusions would be meaningless. My hypothesis is that this course of action is not advisable for the reason that Rose Abernathy exaggerated: whatever is causing this is doing so for a purpose that is likely counter to our best interests.”

Arkose nodded pridefully. “She’s strange, but she’s right.”

“Like we were going to sit around and wait for who or whatever’s doing this to come and get us.” Phineas made a rude noise and patted Steampunk’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Steamy, we’re here with you and we won’t let it get ya.”

Steampunk didn’t stop walking, but she did turn her head to regard. After a long moment of studying his face, she nodded sharply and face forward again, increasing her pace.

“I… think that means she’s feeling better about this?” Phineas ventured.

They turned a corner, and at the end of the adjoining street, spotted Jacob and Betty. The pair were walking close, side by side, but they weren’t talking or looking at each other at all. As they drew closer, Steampunk tensed.

“What?” Asked Phineas.

Steampunk’s face tightened as if she were trying to stave off a killer headache. “I am supposed to…” Her eyes closer tightly and she shivered, tossing her head. Without warning, she clutched her doctors’ bag and bolted into the bakery they were passing by.

“That’s not good.” said Arkose.

“You’re telling me.” whispered Phineas. “Summit’s my roommate—and now that I think of it, he was gone when I woke up this morning. Usually, he ends up waking me up with all his try-too-hard warm-up stretching and stuff, but this morning? Gone without a sound. Like a ninja… or a pod.”

Arkose glared at him. “If you start screaming at him about alien invasions, I’m out of here.”

Of course, Phineas wasn’t listening. “But if they’ve replaced my sweet Betty, I’ll never forgive their slimy alien asses.”

Your?” Jada almost knocked herself off balance turning to look at him.

Sweet?” Arkose almost shouted.

Phineas’s eyes dimmed as he pouted. “What?”

“You realize that she’s Satan’s illegitimate daughter via Medusa, right?” Arkose asked.

Clearly affronted, Phineas reconfigured the vines that made up his body to look taller. “Hey! Now that doesn’t even make any sense. Medusa had snake hair… right?”

“Yes, I know who Medusa is. Her hair moved, Betty’s—“

She was cut off by Jada shouting, “Oh, hi!” loudly and frantically. Jacob and Betty had come within earshot while they were arguing.

“Hello.” both replied in the same falsely pleasant tone that people often use with co-workers who aren’t quite annoying, but whose personal life you don’t want to hear about nonetheless. Betty’s hair, the majority of it in larger than normal braids, was a neutral brown color and trailed behind her languidly.

Jada tried not to look suspicious of that. “So… lunch date?”

Even though they didn’t look at each other, there seemed to be a beat there where two people caught in a lie might glance aside at one another.

“Yes,” Betty finally said, her breeze, self-superior tone creeping back into her voice by a slim measure. “A nice little place called Century Garden. There’s a two week waiting list for lunch alone, but my god, the minced scallop tarts and the chef’s special centennial salad are absolutely worth the wait.”

Normally, at this point, Betty would have added some barb about how they would never let just freakish (and ‘poor’ creatures at the three in front of her to get past the front door, but she didn’t, leaving an opening for Jada.

“What about Hightower?”

“What about him?” they both said in synch.

Jada could tell that the flowers threaded in Betty’s hair were sending and receiving data furiously and started to jam them, one at a time as she spoke. “Maybe I need my scorecard here, but isn’t Hightower… I don’t know… your boyfriend?”

This made Betty come up short. “Well I…” suddenly, her hair went platinum blond and absolute rage twisted her features. A lock of pal hair swept out and knocked her off her feet.

“Stop it!” Betty shouted. “I know what you’re doing. How dare you!”

Phineas stepped in before a thick braid could pummel the prone Jada. “Whoa. Hold on a second.”

That was all he got to say before Jacob delivered a crashing blow to his jaw, which sent him stumbling up against a parked car. He followed up by grabbing the plant boy by the shoulders and turning him around.

“You know, I thought that you of all people might understand her. You have to know what it’s like being her. All she wants is what anyone wants; respect, love, devotion. Back where she comes from, she can’t get that. The daoine make poisons that fill the air and keep her from even talking to them or her sisters. Then they came into her grove and take the fruits of her trees. Do you know what a fruit is to a tree? That would be like ripping of your—“

Phineas braced himself against the car and, getting his arms up between him and Jacob, extended them to their fullest, flinging the other young man directly into Betty and knocking them both down.

“Yeah, I’ve heard enough.” He said, rushing to help Jada up. “And not just the ‘fruit picking’. This isn’t pod people talk, it’s cult talk.”

Jada accepted his help, though she made sure to keep an eye on his hands. “And who or whatever a ‘daoine’ is, they have a way to keep these things from ‘talking to them’, which is probably how they say ‘mind control’ where they’re from.”

Without much trouble at all, Betty lifted Jacob off her and was put back on her feet with her hair.

“There’s something wrong with you.” She decided suddenly. “It seems like it’s harder for you to hear than most people. But don’t worry; I can help.”

Three of her thickest braids snaked from behind her, unraveling to reveal smaller braids hidden within. These were threaded with vines covered with small, violet flowers with bell shaped blooms.

No ‘nostalgic’ scents masked this. Jada was overcome by the biochemical equivalent of shouting into a loud speaker. It made her feel lightheaded and confused to the point that what she really wanted to do was lay down and hope it would pass.

“Jeez, that stinks even worse than the first ones.” Phineas complained beside her. His hand was over his midsection, like he was feeling queasy—which she didn’t know was possible without a stomach.

Upon hearing this, Betty let out a frustrated and affronted shriek. “This is why no one likes you, Finny. You’re rude and have no taste whatsoever!”

“Aw, you don’t mean that. That’s just the insanity pollen or whatever talking, babe.” Phineas offered a weak, but thorny grin.

Not amused, Betty extended a flower laced braid to encircle Jada while another coil of her locks up rooted a parking sign in preparation for striking Phineas. The former, however, was stopped short in the grasp of a rocky fist.

“Alright, prom queen, time to shut up now. Let’s get you back to the Institute so you and Summit can detox from…” She looked from Phineas to the flowers in Betty’s hair and let out a disgusted sigh, “the insanity pollen.”

Betty laughed. “Really? You think you can boss me around? I would pound you into gravel if it wouldn’t get my hair all muddy. Summit?”

Obligingly, Jacob strode forward.

“Stop.”

At her voice, both Jacob and Betty did so, almost involuntarily, and turned toward Steampunk.

She stood in the door of the bakery, the nervous and confused owner looking over her shoulder. The doctor’s bag was tucked under one arm and the other was pointed, fist first, at the two of them.

It was encased in a thick, leather glove, much bulkier than the ones that came with her suit. A metal cuff was mounted on the back of the glove’s hand and crawled up her forearm, sprouting metal hoses in places, which all either led from a nozzle in her suit, or fed into the back of a round edged, metal protrusion on the back of the wrist.

“Leave them alone.” She said plainly. “And explain.”

“She’s been waiting for you.” Jacob whispered with reverence.

Betty tugged her hair from Arkose’s hand and turned to fully face her. “You’re coming with us.”

Hair cascaded toward her in a white tsunami, but Steampunk didn’t move except to tighten her upraised fist. Valves opens and closed, with hisses and clicks preceding a massive jet of scalding steam that poured out of the device on her wrist and washed over Betty’s hair, and more importantly, the flowers threaded in her hair.

Letting out an unholy shriek, Betty recoiled from her. Tears fell from her face as she dropped to the sidewalk, clutching at her hair, which went limp as it was hit with the attack.

Steampunk didn’t even register the apparent agony she’d just inflicted, turning the steam jet device toward Jacob next. But Jacob was too fast, stepping closer before she could fire and grabbing her arm in a crushing grip that destroyed a number of fragile components, causing them to bleed steam.

Steampunk cried out in pain, a sound made all the more frightening coming from someone who normally showed so little emotion. Before she could do anything else, Jacob caught her around the waist and hauled her up into a fireman’s carry.

“She needs you.” He hissed. “And you will not deny her.”

With that, he flew up and disappeared over the building.

“Still think this is just a dumb conspiracy theory?” Phineas demanded of Arkose, his voice cracking. He didn’t wait for her reply before going to tend to Betty. “Rapunzel, are you okay? Can I help?”

Betty was trying hard to fight back the tears and was losing the battle. “It’s not hair.”

“Huh?”

“It can feel and get hurt.” She was shivering and all her hair except for the lengths that had been hit by the steam head turned a sickly gray. “It was like she dumped boiling water down my back. She might have killed it.”

Phineas knelt down beside her and took a look at the still-white injured braids, which now stunk of boiled vegetables from the demise of the vines. “Hey, it’ll be alright. It’s… well it looks like it’s moving a little now.”

Indeed it was, albeit in a stiff, lethargic manner.

Seeing this, Betty started to collect herself and for the first time, saw who it is that was comforting her. “Ew! It’s you!”

“Glad you’re feeling better, sweet thang.” Phineas grinned, much to Betty’s disgust.

“Are you two done?” Jada broke in. “Jacob just kidnapped Steampunk and he’s taking her to whoever ‘her’ is. Betty, if you remember anything about ‘her’, you’ve got to tell us.”

Betty shuddered and got to her feet, this time without the aide of her hair. “Yeah, I remember. ‘She’ is a dryad. A real one, not a fake one like you. And she’s totally one of those things we’re supposed to call school security to take care of.”

“Sure, if you want them to shoot us in defense of ‘her’.” Arkose said. “Everyone at school’s at least a little bit screwed up with that flower stuff.”

Jada made a face, then tapped her finger to her lips. “Maybe not. Betty, you’re yourself again. It looks like getting hurt put you back to normal.”

“That’s right!” Betty said. “It happened to Jacob before too.”

“Right.” said Jada. “Everything’s chemical, so the chemicals from the pain response override the… dryad’s chemical mind control.”

“So what? We go around slapping everyone in school?” Phineas asked, a bit too eager.

“No, just one of the biggest pains in the ass at the Institute—at least I’m sure Betty would agree. We’ll need her help if we’re going to save Steampunk and get the school back to normal. Come on.”

To Be Continued…

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #22 – Dryads Part 2Liedecker Institute #24: Dryads Part 4 >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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