Liedecker Institute #24: Dryads Part 4

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 2: Student Life

“Are you kidding? My mom and dad would think that was a great idea!” Kura chirped as she and Tammy walked down the hall. It was between periods and they were killing time wandering to dorm levels. “They’re always telling me how important it is to make friends, and this is an even better way to do that than the tree party!”

“I still have to ask mine.” Tammy pouted, “I’m not sure they’ll like me not coming home for spring break.”

“We can tell them it’s educational. Horizon expanding. You know, all the stuff they put in the brochure about this place.” Kura insisted.

Tammy shrugged. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”

The next moment, both of them were on the floor, their faces stinging from a blow neither had seen coming. Kura was back to her senses first and opened her eyes to see strands of black hair whipping over her head.

“I thought we agreed we’d just pinch her.” Jada’s voice said from somewhere Kura couldn’t see.

“And I don’t remember Kaine being part of the plan.” Phineas’s added.

Kura sat up to see all those two, plus Betty and Arkose standing just inside the door to Jada’s room. Evidently, they’d been lying in wait for them to pass by.

“They was so much more satisfying.” Betty grinned malevolently. “And I deserve it after your robot-girl roommate burning my hair.”

“Yeah, well is Steampunk decided you needed to get steamed, you probably deserve it.” Tammy rolled over and got to her feet before offering a hand to Kura.

After accepting the help, Kura eyed the group curiously. “Okay, I give up. Why are you three working with the drain-clogger? She insults you three just as bad as she does anyone else.” Her eyes hardened as her eyes fell on Betty. “And where do you get off hair-whipping me?”

As answer, Betty snatched their flowers; Kura’s from where it was rubber banded to her wrist and Tammy’s from where it poked out of her tablet case, and crushed them to fragrant mush with her tresses.

“Hey!” Tammy pulled a straightened paper clip from behind her ear and pointed it threateningly.

Jada stepped in between them before things could escalate. “It’s okay. Betty’s being… Betty, but there’s a good reason you don’t want those flowers anywhere near you.”

Tammy returned the clip to it’s hiding place behind a lock of red-brown hair and folded her arms. “Better be good.”

So Jada told them.

Both Tammy and Kura exchange looks.

“Good reason.” They both agreed.

“So what are we waiting for? We need to go save Steampunk and Tammy’s crush from this monster hedge thing.” Kura said.

“He is not my crush!” Tammy said, scandalized.

Kura made a face at her. “If he wasn’t you wouldn’t have instantly known who I meant when I said ‘crush’.”

“There’s only two people that need saving!”

Jada rubbed her arm and looked off to the side, careful to avoid eye contact. “Actually, you wouldn’t be going out to save anyone, Kura.”

This bought the other girl up short. “What now? No! She’s my friend, I get to go save her!”

Before Jada could make her argument, Phineas interrupted, “Thing is, we kind of need you here. You know how your powers can make one thing smell like another?” He didn’t wait for her to confirm. “Smell is how the mind-flowers do their thing. We need you to screw that up before the dryad—the real one, not Jada—takes them all over.”

“And we know how good you are at screwing up.” Betty appended with acid in her voice.

“Not helping.” Jada muttered.

But Kura wasn’t listening. “So I’d be the most important part of the plan, right?”

Betty started to scoff, but Jada spoke over her. “Of course! Otherwise, when we tell the teachers or security, they won’t listen.”

Kura pouted at this. “Do we even have to tell them? They’d just tell us to let them deal with the monster plant and then not give us any credit.”

“That’s not going to happen.” said Arkose, sounding annoyed at that fact.

“Why?” asked Tammy.

Jada looked to her unlikely comrades. “Because we’re going to be dealing with the monster plant while you’re doing that.”

***

Steampunk found herself dumped on the ground in a shady part of the park. Her arm throbbed fiercely and a piece of the nozzle Jacob crushed was threatening to sink into her flesh if she moved wrong.

Her mind lingered on how the device she built to direct and focus the steam she naturally exuded as damaged beyond repair and leaking from cracked joints and split seams. It was part of her ongoing creativity exercises with Ms. Brant, though the teacher was always insisting that she try something less utilitarian.

A thud told her when Jacob landed and she rolled over to get a look at him, careful of her injured arm.

“You are currently under the influence or a powerful behavior modifying chemical.” She informed him out of habit.

“I take overs from her.” Jacob nodded toward the thick and thorny hedge. “She wants you—the heat you make with your powers. Where she comes from, plants use more than just the sun to grow.”

As he didn’t make any move to restrain her, she sat up and faced the hedge cross-legged. “Though their reproductive organs are often referred to as being either ‘male’ or ‘female’, a given flowering plant has both organs in numbers. Your use of ‘she’ is incorrect.”

Suddenly motivated by a command she couldn’t sense, Jacob stepped forward and plucked one of the white and red flowers from one of the vines growing in the hedge and advanced toward her. “She says that she’s a ‘she’ and I won’t argue. Now. Inhale.”

“It does not work on me.” It felt wrong to her to hold back information. That was part of her purpose for being and she’d served that purpose perfectly for as long as she could remember. Something, deeper than that even, told her that the consequences of explaining why she was immune would be unpleasant.

Jacob forced the flower to her face anyway. It smelled or water and earth and chlorophyll; exactly like the room she shared with Jada at the institute. Then, in the span of a breath, it turned sharp; a mixture of turpentine and burning plastic.

She looked up over the petals at Jacob, her expression unchanged. “As I explained: I am immune.”

The stare he sent back at her gave her a taste, for the first time, of how it felt to others when she picked them apart down to their basics with her eyes. She returned it with the same intensity. Neither moved for long minutes before Jacob received another prompting from the dryad.

Breaking the gaze, her reached down and grabbed her good arm, dragging her along the grass toward the hedge. Vine rearranged as she drew closer, readying slim, gruesome looking thorns. Steampunk resisted only in the fact that she refused to move, but she was fascinated by the range and complexity of the plant’s locomotion to the point that when Jacob offered her injured arm up to them, she was curious her own self as to what was going to happen.

Her mind was a warehouse of images and ideas that would break most people. But most of the time, she was indifferent to it; desensitized. But ideas were one thing; pain was another. Whatever emotional abuse her upbringing constituted, absolutely no one was permitted to harm her physically.

The worse pain she’d suffered prior to that day had been along the lines of stubbed toes and having blood drawn. The bruising attack she endured earlier was already something horrific and fearful to her.

It was nothing compared to the thorns. They sliced through the layers of her suit and pierced her skin, seeking nerve endings. Steampunk tried to scream, but it came out as a harsh groan because she’d never screamed before.

And then: contact.

The mind is a two-way street, and as the dryad invaded her consciousness, Steampunk invaded the dryad’s. The same thing happened with Betty and briefly with Jacob, but the difference was that Steampunk had and eidetic memory—what she saw, she retained.

From the dryad’s point of view, she saw generations of tall, severe looking men and women with angular faces and ears that swept away from their heads like short horns. They came in masks against the treacherous scents of the grove, and burned herbs and minerals in braziers to foul the dryad’s command of the forest.

Older thoughts showed those creatures; without masks of braziers, tending the trees and bringing exotic foods and soils to feed their mistress’s roots. But now those times were done. The dryad was extorted into growing herbs and fruit for them to sell and was paid only in the waste of their animals bought to fertilize the grove.

The master had become a slave. And in her home, her era had ended.

Steampunk then saw mist and blue light and then that very copse as seen from inside the trees themselves. Shortly after, a ball landed there and shortly after that, Jacob.

Memory caught up to the present day, and then to thoughts of the future.

There was so much information coming through the nerve conduction, that Steampunk didn’t register when help arrived.

***

Jacob stood silently over the Steampunk.

The girl was still on the ground propped up by one arm while the other was held in the grip of the vines.

He’d never seen her face like that; contorted in pain while tears streamed down her cheeks. Buried deep beneath the ensconcing blankets of mind control, his bile rose at the thought that he’d played a part in making that happen.

“Not Mr. Perfect yet.” He mumbled to himself and was shocked to hear himself speak. Hearing those words hurt, even from himself. He’d thought that withholding the name he really wanted to live up to just pertained to his schoolwork, but now he was wondering how ‘perfect’ someone could be if they could be dominated into hurting an innocent girl by a particularly ornery ficus.

“That you are not.”

A perfect guard would have been paying attention. Jacob couldn’t tell if that chastisement came from himself or the dryad, but immediately after, he found a pair of arms wrapped tightly around him. He expanded his chest and flexed his muscles to no avail; the grip he was in was literally rock hard.

“Okay. I got him. Now what?” asked Arkose.

“Now we snap him out of it.”

That the first sign of Betty’s hair, Jacob flew straight backward, pushing Arkose along with him. Betty missed, but even though the maneuver pounded her spine first into a dogwood, Arkose didn’t let go.

“I’m made of rock remember? It’s useless.” she scolded him flatly.

“I can’t let you disturb her before she’s into her next generation.” Jacob flew upward and tried spinning to shake her off. Looking down, he saw Phineas run to help Steampunk while Jada and Tammy (who wore an allergy mask and was carrying a wrench pilfered from somewhere on campus) standing back.

Phineas reached Steampunk and started tearing the thorny vines apart so as to remove her without ripping the thorns out of her arm. “I’m a big fan of the green and leafy look, obviously, but as your roommate, I’ve gotta draw the line at helping this one have kids.”

A thorn sank into one of the vines that made up his hand and he leapt back, cursing. “What the hell was that?! Did I just see a bunch of pointy eared guys throwing themselves on… spiked roots? I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Me too.” Jada agreed. “I don’t understand the way this other dryad communicates, but I’m getting a translation from the other plants and it’s not pretty.

Tammy chewed her lip as she watched the scene in front of her. “We should’ve stopped at the hardware store for a machete. How are we supposed to take this thing out? Cutting up a weed doesn’t do much.”

“There’s a seed.” Betty said. “In the roots. She made us plant and fertilize it. And look how much protection she’s put up.” She sent snares of her hair up to entangle Jacob and tried to pull him down.

“Hmm.” Tammy tested the weight of her wrench. “The roots of that tree in the middle there?” She pointed the wrench at the oak.”

“Yes!” Betty strained as Jacob threatened to pull her into the air.

“Good. Fiinny! Grab Steampunk and pull her out of there!” Tammy shouted.

“What?” Phineas looked dubiously at the thorns that had just so recently filled his head with images of death.

Tammy raised the wrench overhead, purple arcs of electricity crackling off it. “Because as my great grandpa used to say: lightning hit a pine.”

To Be Continued…

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #23 – Dryads Part 3Liedecker Institute Annual #2 >>

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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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