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About Traditional Art / Hobbyist Ed Storm32/Male/United States Group :iconcaptive-centrale: Captive-Centrale
Bound, gagged, and no escape!
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Woodrush Under the Shade, Part 3
Foxglove leered at his captives through the hissing green bars of the cage that confined them. Woodrush and Alcea looked all around, seeing the hulking forms of Foxglove's goons surrounding their prison. There were nymphs and pixies amongst them, mostly ruffians and known criminals. There were also a few white-cloaked mages in his company, waiting with eyes zeroed in on the two Academy professors. Next to them in the cage, Iris stirred briefly, still slowly awakening from the sleeping powder they had been dowsed with when they struck the Drider's web.
Foxglove saw them realizing their plight. "I suppose we can dispense with this barbaric contraption, seeing as you understand your circumstances," he said. With a wave of his hand, the green bars vanished. The professors were left in darkness for a moment as their eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of burning root torches held by some of the goons. When their eyes came into focus, they warily stood. Foxglove stepped right up to Woodrush fi
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Iris by EdStorm Iris :iconedstorm:EdStorm 6 9
Literature
Woodrush Under the Shade, Part 2
Slowly, as the effects of the unreal scream subsided, Woodrush began to pull himself up. Waves of dizziness still crashed over his brain, but they were quickly subsiding now. Whatever accursed magic Mandragora had used on her voice, Woodrush thanked Dogwood that its effects didn't seem to be permanent.
"Mncle! Mncle! Hmlp mm!"
Woodrush looked over at the struggling form of his niece, Iris, wrapped up tightly in white ropes and squirming her jaw under a gag of black cloth. She scowled and squirmed like a madwoman, clearly furious over having been restrained. Woodrush squinted to be sure, but he thought he saw her face burning red with humiliated anger. If he didn't think it would make him sick, he might have chuckled.
I wouldn't want to be Mandragora if my niece gets hold of her, he thought. He raised a shaky hand toward the unfortunate girl, and managed to stammer "Relosas!" The ropes fell away, and Iris clawed the gag away from her mouth so fast that Woodrush thought her face m
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Literature
Woodrush Under the Shade - Part 1
"With Honeysuckle and I joined in marriage the new era for Daffoville will begin in earnest. My friends, a new dawn is breaking, and together we will lead nymph-kind to glory!"
The crowd of nymphs erupted in chaos, half cheering for joy, half hurling invective as Foxglove, the new Prince-to-be, ended his speech. An ugly mood overtook them as they began to disperse, with some confrontations breaking out and quickly threatening to turn physical. There was little room left in the middle in Daffoville; you were either for, or you were against.
Professor Woodrush stood still for a moment, hugging his ratty black coat around him, trying to process what he'd just seen. There'd been nothing like it in his lifetime; nothing like it in the lifetime of many ancestors. A full-blown usurpation. And it had all happened so terribly fast; before any significant resistance or objection could be mustered, it was over. Power had changed hands. Daffoville seemed to be wandering in a dream world ever since
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    ‘Bluebell. Is going. To pay. For this.’
    These were the thoughts of Crocus as, once again, she furiously attempted to shake away the magical ropes binding her hand and foot, but to no avail.
    Behind her both sat the twins Rosie and Posie, both tied up just as she had been, with enchanted ropes (with little blue petals protruding from the hemp) fixing them all back to back so they formed a Y-shape on the floor; wings, arms and bodies all pressed tightly together while wearing dressing gowns over the undergarments they’d intended to wear under their bridesmaid dresses. The twins had both given up trying to get loose from their bonds a while ago, and just sat glumly waiting for someone to release them.
    But Crocus was not in a defeated mood. She was furious. How dare that little upstart Bluebell do this to her… on ‘HER’ big day. She was supposed to be walking down the aisle and turning the heads of Da
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All around was silence. You could have heard a petal fall to the floor amid the stunned quietness permeating the gathered congregation. Grand Mage Lupin been sent through the Black River at Foxglove’s hand. How had he returned, now of all moments? But the longer the imperious mage stood defiantly in front of his son, the more they dared believe their eyes.
   Foxglove was barely struggling to conceal his rage. He was trying so very hard to keep his cool, but it was taking every fibre of his being. Everyone could see streams of quintessence, like tongues of fire, beginning to stream from his eyes, as he clenched his fists and grinded his teeth. He couldn’t have looked more different to the calming but firm demeanour of Lupin, who eyeballed his son as if daring him to make the first move.
   After an interminable silence Lupin then turned his attention to Honeysuckle, still stood with Scilla (who was not the slightest bit perturbed at how his father had re
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Ch. 2: Betrothed?
When she awoke, the first thing she noticed was that the overpowering  smell was gone--replaced by a smell that was somewhat musty, like rooms that needed cleaning.
I guess I blacked out, she thought, blinking as she tried to focus.
Bella’s eyes finally flickered open, and she let out a startled yell--or would have, if not for the thick, knotted cloth in her mouth, tied tightly at the nape of her neck. “Mmmph!”
She’d never seen this place before in her life. It was an old, country-style bedroom. All the room’s furnishings were unfinished wood, except for the bed, which had a wrought-iron frame. There was a chair and a dresser with a mirror. The reflection didn’t show Bella anything except for the wooden door.
The window on her right had the curtains drawn, but through the thin material Bella could see that it was dusk. She couldn’t have been unconscious for more than an hour or two.
Looking up, she saw that her han
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“Hold on...there.” Sara beamed, yanking the cork from the bottle, with a satisfying, sucking pop.
Peggy watched her take a neck a mouthful of whatever cheap red they'd picked up from the shop on the way back to Sara's flat, and took the bottle when it was offered.
After a quick trip down the station, and a slightly longer explanation of the day's events, they'd been allowed to go. Sara hadn't wanted to linger, and had asked that her name be kept out of whatever news followed about the arrest of the crew of thieves, who'd been working among the contractors doing the construction around Little Owlton. And that any mention of Mr White be forgotten. The local cops had gone along with it, if only because they seemed to enjoy the simpler approach to things.
“Beats going back out.” Peggy knocked back a mouthful of her own. “At least we won't have to walk back again.” She passed the bottle back to Sara.
The two were sat side by side, on Sara's bed, watching
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Literature
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Sara waited patiently, as the coach rolled into the small bus station at the edge of Little Owlton. Or tried to, she thought, catching her heeled boot tapping insistently on the pavement again.
It was a sleepy little village, practically indistinguishable from plenty others, in Yorkshire, but being host to White Rose University had given it a bigger spot on the map. The university campus was spread comfortably over the top of a hill overlooking the countryside for miles around, not to mention Little Owlton itself, nestled about on the slope, and below.  It must have been bigger than the village ever had been, at one time, but there was a lot of new building going on, to accommodate for the growing student and working population.
Sara hadn't been feeling particularly sleepy, lately, though. She was barely a third of the way into her first year of university, mere months since she'd moved out on her own, for the first time. Away from home, Carrington, her family, and friends. And th
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Drew Barrymore by EdStorm

Quick sketch I worked up today when I found out it was this lovely damsel's birthday. Although my kink was well-established long before this movie came out, I still consider this to be a classic scene and pretty foundational as this was the first time I had ever seen lipstick lips drawn on a gag, and I was floored by how new and yet obvious that was. The fact that it was on a gorgeous redhead didn't hurt.

And yes, I'm still alive - my activity here waxes and wanes, as anyone who's followed me over the years is no doubt used to. Lately it's been far more on the wane as my mainstream artwork has been flourishing, so when I had the time today I wanted to throw up this piece so everyone knows I haven't quit on you all. I've actually had a new story in the works for some time, so you've all got that to look forward to as well.

I really enjoyed drawing this little tribute to such a beloved scene, so I may do more like this for warm-ups. Watchers/viewers, let me know what you think.

-Ed

EDIT: And, wouldn't you know it, I've got Part 1 of the new story up now, too! My good friend :dev:Golavus: is bringing his beloved Bluebell saga to an exciting new head, and I'm coming along for the ride with a companion story: "Woodrush Under the Shade"! You can read it here:
   Woodrush Under the Shade - Part 1"With Honeysuckle and I joined in marriage the new era for Daffoville will begin in earnest. My friends, a new dawn is breaking, and together we will lead nymph-kind to glory!"
The crowd of nymphs erupted in chaos, half cheering for joy, half hurling invective as Foxglove, the new Prince-to-be, ended his speech. An ugly mood overtook them as they began to disperse, with some confrontations breaking out and quickly threatening to turn physical. There was little room left in the middle in Daffoville; you were either for, or you were against.
Professor Woodrush stood still for a moment, hugging his ratty black coat around him, trying to process what he'd just seen. There'd been nothing like it in his lifetime; nothing like it in the lifetime of many ancestors. A full-blown usurpation. And it had all happened so terribly fast; before any significant resistance or objection could be mustered, it was over. Power had changed hands. Daffoville seemed to be wandering in a dream world ever since


I'm on fire tonight! Hope you all enjoy it!

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Foxglove leered at his captives through the hissing green bars of the cage that confined them. Woodrush and Alcea looked all around, seeing the hulking forms of Foxglove's goons surrounding their prison. There were nymphs and pixies amongst them, mostly ruffians and known criminals. There were also a few white-cloaked mages in his company, waiting with eyes zeroed in on the two Academy professors. Next to them in the cage, Iris stirred briefly, still slowly awakening from the sleeping powder they had been dowsed with when they struck the Drider's web.

Foxglove saw them realizing their plight. "I suppose we can dispense with this barbaric contraption, seeing as you understand your circumstances," he said. With a wave of his hand, the green bars vanished. The professors were left in darkness for a moment as their eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of burning root torches held by some of the goons. When their eyes came into focus, they warily stood. Foxglove stepped right up to Woodrush first.

"Ah, Woodrush," he said, "everyone's favorite misfit professor."

"Foxglove," Woodrush rejoined, glaring at his captor, "no one's favorite anything."

"Ha!" Foxglove exclaimed, clearly too confident in his power to be anything but amused. He did not answer Woodrush, but turned instead to Alcea, who stood quite close by her companion. She wore defiance much plainer on her face than Woodrush - along with fear.

"And Alcea, I haven't seen you since we were at the Academy together! It's been ages!" he said, raising an eyebrow at her. "Would you permit me to tell you that you've aged most gracefully?"

Alcea gave her the sort of smile reserved for small children who have stomped on her foot, but are too small to be shouted at. "Only if you'd permit me to tell you the opposite."

Foxglove's smile twitched into an expression of annoyance.

"Oh, Alcea, attacking the man's vanity," Woodrush said, a nervous hysteria creeping through his frame, "what a blow."

Alcea turned up a mischievous look at Woodrush. "Don't approve?"

"Oh no, it was quite good." Woodrush replied. "I wish he'd set me up for it."

"He did rather walk right into that one, didn't he?" Alcea said.

"Yeah," Woodrush said, taking note of Foxglove's reddening face. "I'm surprised you didn't mention something about his hands."

Alcea feigned confusion. "What, you mean like how very small they are?"

"You two haven't changed a bit, you know that?" Foxglove said, tightening his lips. Then - clasping his hands behind his back -  he put on his best threatening smile.

"My Drider," he said, nodding to the tall, black-haired, female half-arachnid that stood apart from the group, "wanted to cocoon the three of you. I daresay I should have allowed it, but I - perhaps stupidly - thought you might want to have a little chat."

Woodrush nodded. "Yes, that was stupid." Alcea snorted. 

A barely-contained rage glistened in Foxglove's eyes. "You two may wish to treat this situation with some gravity. No one knows you're out here, and people who have crossed me are in increasingly short supply these days."

"Oh, alright," Woodrush said.

"Uggh, what's all this yelling about?" came the slurry voice of Iris, who had finally come fully around from the sleeping powder. She saw Woodrush, and Iris, then the group of thugs surrounding them - and then, her widening eyes rested on Foxglove.

"Oi!" Iris said, pointing, "isn't that Prickface?"

Foxglove's eyes shot open in rage. "What did you call me, you miserable little creature?"

"It's a strange dialect these young ones pick up, isn't it?" Woodrush said, putting an arm around Iris and tightly gripping both her shoulders; he and Alcea had bantered with Foxglove out of sheer nerves, and knew when to stop; Iris had no such fear or tact. "Hanging around humans and whatnot, who knows what they're saying?"

"I'm saying he's a Prickface," Iris said, looking Foxglove dead in the eyes. "You know, what you older lot are always thinking but too afraid to say."

Foxglove's retinue began to back away. Foxglove himself clenched his hands into fists, his eyes beginning to blaze with a magical orange light that neither professor could ever remember having seen before. An otherworldly fury seemed to be taking hold of him, one that Foxglove himself had little control over. Iris, either not sensing or not caring about this danger, took a fighting stance herself.

Woodrush suddenly experienced the strange phenomenon of watching his niece's life flash before his eyes. He saw the little girl he had known, saw her learning her first magic tricks and flitting around outside with her friends. He saw the moment she had alluded to, when he had promised to teach her magic... and the heartbreaking moment three years before, when she clung to him, crying, because her mother, Woodrush's sister, had told her they were leaving Daffoville to live in another community. And then, just earlier in the day, when the two bumped into each other and felt the bonds of family strengthen once again.

Iris was good, probably every bit as good as she claimed to be. But Foxglove would flatten her in an instant.

"Iris," he said, stepping between his niece and the evil mage, "remember you're my favorite niece."

She met his eyes for an instant, and realized he was about to try something. Knew she wouldn't have time to prevent it.

He growled, "Defelfither!"

Iris screamed as a pair of leathery, misshapen wings of magical energy sprouted from her back and pulled her straight up into the air so fast it made her squeal. The wings carried her this way and that, darting randomly through the air, only going invariably up, up, farther into the forest canopy. Soon, her cries were lost in the forest night, receding faster than any nymph could hope to fly.

Everyone assembled on the forest floor watched her go, stunned by witnessing a spell unlike any they had ever seen. Woodrush, seizing the moment, cast his gaze around the assembly, on every face that was clearly now more respectful of the prey they had come to seize, coming slowly back to Foxglove. Their leader, too, wore a look of astonishment on his face, but quickly regained his composure. He turned to two of his goons, a strongman and a mage.

"Find her," he said, and they flew off in the general direction the insane wings had taken Iris. "You shouldn't have done that, old man," he said to Woodrush.

"I'll live with my decision," Woodrush returned.

"For a while," Foxglove said, in a menacing whisper.

"You're awfully intimidating to schoolchildren," Woodrush said, nice and loud. "But you've never scared me, Foxglove. The only thing that scares me is what you've done to my home."

Foxglove, sensing that he had to recover some prestige, glared at Woodrush.

"Perhaps we can find some common ground then, Woodrush," he said, resuming his winning smile. "Because your home - our home - is the reason I'm out here. There are threats to Daffoville, Woodrush. More every day."

Woodrush nodded to the assembled group. "Driders and criminal pixie gangs, for a start."

Foxglove chuckled. "Think bigger. Much bigger." He stepped in closer. "Like the kind you vanquished last autumn... and then buried somewhere in the western woods... these woods."

Woodrush shrugged. "Not much of a threat as long as it stays vanquished."

"No," Foxglove said, "but we can't count on that, can we? We need to know where Thorn can be summoned."

"So ask the Leaf Movers," Alcea chimed in, stepping up beside Woodrush. "They helped move away all the debris after Thorn was dispelled. Their chief is a big supporter of yours, I hear."

"Indeed he is. But, I require something more," Foxglove said, glaring back at Woodrush. "I need the man who knows how to bring the monster back."

Woodrush saw the opportunity for the gambit, and took it. "Then, you've got the wrong man," he said.

"Ha! Really."

"Really. Thorn was called into being by a schoolchild playing around with magic she didn't understand. I haven't a clue what spell she may have used."

"And who might this school child be?"

"That," Woodrush said, crossing his arms, "is information that I would take to the grave to keep away from you. But, as to the other matter, I can't tell you what I don't know. My expertise is in being rid of Thorn, not bringing it back."

"Yes," Foxglove said, stroking his chin. "And just how did you learn to get rid of it, may I ask? And for that matter, where did you learn that bizarre spell you just performed on your unwitting niece? You know a lot of very strange things, Woodrush. Types of magic no one else seems to know. I wonder where you learned it all?"

Woodrush turned away, cornered at last into an area he hadn't expected to be trapped in. Pear was right, he thought, Foxglove has his supporters everywhere, even high up in the Academy. He couldn't think of a response. Foxglove pressed his advantage.

"There are rumors that you have a very particular book," he said, "one which is filled with all sorts of strange and wonderful things."

"Well," Alcea jumped in, "You're half right; it is filled with strange and wonderful things."

"Alcea, what in Daffodils?" Woodrush admonished.

"He already knows, Rush," Alcea said. "No point bluffing now." Beneath the flowing bangs of Alcea's hair, Woodrush detected a gesture that, he reckoned, only he and a few others who had really known Alcea would be able to recognize; a faint lifting of the eyebrows, a mark of certain mischief at work. He didn't quite know what she was up to, but he decided to trust her.

"Hmmph. Half-right, you say?"

"Yes," Woodrush continued, "the other half of what you said is wrong; I don't have it."

"Oh?" Foxglove said, looking annoyed. "Then who does?"

"We thought your girl did, by now," Alcea said.

Foxglove looked around at his retinue. "My girl?"

"Calls herself 'Mandragora,'" Woodrush said, beginning to realize what Alcea was thinking - if Foxglove and Mandragora weren't working together, perhaps they could be pitted against each other. He continued: "Pink eyes, crazy voice. Talent for screaming. She's been badgering us all night for the book, and finally got it. We thought she was working for you."

"I'm afraid I haven't the faintest idea who you're talking about," Foxglove said. Then, he too appeared to find an opportunity he could seize on. "But if what you're saying is true, it sounds like a very powerful weapon has just fallen into the hands of some sort of rogue agent. And that would be on you, wouldn't it, Woodrush? So would anything that happened to Daffoville as a result."

"On me... or, on anyone who prevented me from recovering it, by force-marching me through the woods to resurrect a monstrosity."

Foxglove laughed. "Woodrush, you misread me as always. One of my new jobs as Prince will be to protect Daffoville. I need to know where Thorn is so I can keep an eye on the place, that's all. But of course, should the town come under attack from a dire enough threat, such a weapon certainly would be a useful asset. I just need to know how, and where, so I can keep my city safe. I don't intend to bring Thorn back tonight. Heavens, no! Could you imagine me marching that beast into town this very evening, for no other reason than a spectacle?"

"I very much can imagine that, in fact," Woodrush said, without hesitating. "It's one of the most imagineable things I've ever imagined. But, that wouldn't be good PR, would it, traipsing back into town inside the monster that destroyed so many homes and businesses last year. Then everyone might finally see what a maniac you are."

"Boys, boys!" Alcea snapped, as Foxglove was about to issue a sharp reply. "The Pixienomicon is in the hands of a crazed mage planning revenge on all nymphs for Dogwood-knows what. If we're going to stop her, we'll need the might of Daffoville's top mages, and right now, two of them are standing in the woods, bickering.

"Now, Woodrush," Alcea said, "you've established that you don't know how to bring back Thorn, so surely just showing Foxglove where to go can't hurt anything, right?"

Again, Woodrush saw her moving eyebrows. With a begrudgring expression, he grumbled, "I suppose not."

"And Foxglove," Alcea said, turning toward him, "You said that whatever terrible things happen to Daffoville would be on Woodrush's head for losing the book. That's true enough, it was his job to protect it. But clearly, if you swoop in tonight and help recover the book, the credit for saving Daffoville would belong to you. A win like that would really be something to help sway the undecided back in town toward your favor."

Foxglove smiled. "What Prince couldn't use a little more favor from his subjects? Well," he said, clapping his hands together, "lead the way, Professor Woodrush."

Woodrush narrowed his eyes. "Aren't we supposed to shake hands on our deal first?"

Foxglove laughed. "No, old man, this isn't a deal, it's a plan. A deal is an agreement between two equal powers. You've got quite an array of talents, but," he gestured towards his formidable retinue of thugs and mages, "I'm clearly running the show. Now get moving. Oh, and, perhaps it's a mere formality at this point, but... Bondara e Mufflisca!"

"Oh, come ommmppphh!" Alcea said as the bonds and gag wrapped her up tight, sending her falling to the ground.

"Alcea!" Woodrush said, stepping forward. Foxglove's goons stepped up to block his path.

"I'll be keeping our little peacemaker as collateral. I'll let her go once you have shown me all you know about Thorn, and then we can go to find this Mandragora character. That's the plan. Any questions?"

"One," Woodrush said, desperate to regain some sort of upper hand. "Do you wear children's gloves, or are those custom-made?"

Foxglove snorted. "Get moving, Woodrush."

Woodrush turned away, clenching his fists. Then, his wings flapped, lifting him off the ground. The Drider chuckled sadistically as she picked up Alcea. Woodrush exchanged one last, desperate look with his friend and colleague. He thought he knew the plan, or hoped he did, anyway; lead Foxglove's retinue to Thorn, in hopes that Mandragora would be there, and maybe their combined power would be enough to take her down. Foxglove could always be taken care of later...

...couldn't he?

***

The wings pulled Iris through the air with incredible speed, jerking her this way and that through the forest foliage so hard and with such rapid change in direction that she gave up trying to keep her bearings after a minute or two. Finally, after about two minutes or so of mad, shaking chaos, the wings vanished - with Iris still in mid-air.

So shaken was she, that at first she didn't even realize she had begun to fall. It was only as she recognized that empty, weightless feeling in her stomach that she began fluttering her own wings, without a very good sense of up or down, just trying to regain some sense of control. In the end, she managed to slow her descent just enough so that her thudding stop against a gnarled root was more annoyance than pain. She lay there for a while, hands shaking against the ground, her head spinning for she knew not how long. Eventually, when the earth stabilized once more, she felt tears welling up.

She lifted her head, eyes blurring the dark forest all around her. She heard nothing but a gentle breeze overhead; no talking, no flitting of wings or trudging of feet. She swallowed, her throat stinging as with betrayal.

"Uncle!" she yelled into the night. She wiped the tears from her eyes, and stood. "Uncle! I was trying to help you! You can't just throw me aside like this! You can't just throw me aside, like..."

Her feet threatened to give way in their boots, and she put out a hand to steady herself.

"Like everyone else... ow!"

Iris jerked her hand back, feeling the pinpoint sting of the thorn that had jabbed into the palm of her hand. She winced, feeling a drop of blood welling up. Then, her eyes flew wide.

A thorn? What are the chances...

She raised her unwounded hand and called "Lumiscar!" A glowing orb of light rose out of her palm, and hovered there. Iris gasped... and saw how lucky she'd been in her fall. The area all around her was thick with thorny vines, spikes, brambles, and all manner of sharp plant life, positively choking a path to the west.

There was no mistaking it; sharp plants don't just crowd out all others like this. Iris had landed in the Thorn Valley, Daffoville's ancient defense against human intrusion into the western woods. Iris had never been here before, but had always heard stories about what a sad, lonely, and dangerous place it was. Here, alone in the dark, it appeared far more terrifying than sad. She turned completely around, and on all sides the thorns continued.

"How the bloody Dogwood am I going to get out of here?" she whispered to herself. "I'll slice myself to ribbons!"

Iris looked up, trying to find the opening she had fallen through. She thought she could see it, and began clambering up the root. Every once in a while, some errant spine would snag at her clothes, eliciting a curse. Finally, wriggling her body upward through a claustrophobic tunnel of wicked points, she found herself hovering in the relatively clear area above the undergrowth.

But which way to go? she thought.

Suddenly, there was a rumble nearby. A weird, pink light began growing from a dense patch of low, leafy plants off to her left, which stirred as with some unfelt wind. Iris thought she heard chanting... the chanting of a familiar, maddening, double-barreled voice.

Mandragora!

Iris made a beeline for the strange light, extinguishing her own Lumiscar spell to try and avoid detection. The closer she got, the harder it became to fly, as the bizarre spell taking place within the patch caused the wind to blow first away from it, and then draw in toward it, as if breathing. Iris landed, and made the last approach on foot. Hiding behind a small clump of moss, she looked into the plant patch.

There was Mandragora, all right. She stood in a cleared-away area fringed all round by these plants, which were going absolutely mad with the wind of the spell. A clump of matter was gathering at the heart of the pink light, which Iris had trouble looking at due to its growing brightness. But as she watched, the clump swelled larger every second as new mass came into it. From every side of the clearing, vines and plant masses whipped onto the form as though drawn by a magnet, tangling and tightening until the massive form stood easily the height of three nymphs... then four... then five...

And then, a vine reached out and grasped Mandragora. The sorceress stiffened, then closed her fists in a clear feeling of rapturous power. From high up on the form, two bright pink lights flared into existence - eyes. Just like Mandragora's. The beast began drawing the evil mage into itself. She laughed... and, with a rumbling growl that sent shivers all over Iris' body, so did the creature. The noise startled birds that had nested overhead, and they flew in terror into the night.

Iris, hands hugging her arms against the shivers, couldn't help whispering aloud:

"We're too late."

***

We're too late.

It was exactly the thought that ran through Woodrush's mind, when the caravan stopped cold at the sound of the deep, monstrous laughter that filled the forest canopy. Most of Foxglove's thugs uttered curses. All eyes roamed the dark woods that threatened to swallow them up with unknown horrors.

"Woodrush," Foxglove crooned through gritted teeth, "what was that?"

"You're asking me?" the professor returned, though he had a very clear idea of what it probably was. Suddenly, the idea of pitting Foxglove and Mandragora against each other seemed completely mad. The fight would be catastrophic, and whoever was left would be out for blood - specifically, Woodrush's.

But I can't take either of them on alone... especially if Mandragora has Thorn now. If I can eliminate at least one threat to Daffoville, maybe that's worth my life.

Woodrush looked back at Alcea, still bound and gagged on the back of the Drider, looking at him with fear in her eyes. His heart skipped.

Either way, he thought, mulling over his various goblin spells, I am releasing Alcea first chance I get, whoever I have to go through - and however I have to go through them.

A mighty groan came through the forest. Now, there came the creaking of vines and sticks, the sound of something moving - something big. A faint tremble rolled through the earth. Foxglove's troupe showed serious signs of wavering.

"Hold, men!" Foxglove shouted, "you are in the service of your Prince!"

"Foxglove," Woodrush said, casting his eyes around, like everyone else, "release Alcea."

Foxglove scoffed. "You must think I'm an idiot."

"You will be if you don't add her power to this retinue," Woodrush said. "What's coming is colossal."

Another growl rippled through the night air, closer now. Birds left their nests, retreating with frightened cries. Some of Foxglove's less-courageous thugs began to whimper.

Foxglove marched up to Woodrush and grabbed his collar. "Is this some sort of a trick? Trying to drag me out here and scare me into letting you go? What is that thing?"

Woodrush fixated on the part of the forest from which the sounds of movement were now clearly coming. Without looking back at Foxglove, he said, "I suspect you weren't the only one after Thorn tonight. It looks like Mandragora got there first."

Woodrush looked back at Foxglove. Even in the brief firelight from the torches of the caravan, Woodrush could see the color drain from the mage's face. He said he had come out on the suspicion that Woodrush might be resurrecting Thorn, but clearly he thought his plan to capture them and take the beast himself was foolproof; the idea that he might have to actually confront the monster had not occurred to him until this very moment. He looked like he was going to be sick.

Another tremble vibrated the earth.

"Foxglove," Woodrush said, carefully measuring each word, "please release Alcea. She is a powerful mage, and we will need her. If those goons of yours don't wither like old mushrooms, they're going to end up full of lots of holes."

Foxglove licked his lips. "We need to go back to town," he said, almost to himself, "get the NDF."

"The NDF are an itch to Thorn," Woodrush said, "and he's rather equipped for scratching. It's going to take mages, and some of our most powerful are right here in this group. One is you, one is me, and one is tied up for no reason except to make your bloody tiny hands feel bigger, now let her out!"

There was another growl, closer now, so loud and powerful it sent a tremor through the air, and through the bodies of the assembled fey. Two blazing pink eyes appeared in the darkness, looming high above through the nearby brush. One of Foxglove's goons bolted into the night.

"Stop it!" Foxglove shouted, anger the only feeling that could possible hold his fear at bay. "Hold fast, you cowards!"

Seeing Foxglove distracted, Woodrush bolted for the Drider holding Alcea. He called "Mufflisca!" at the Drider, generating a black rag that whipped over her mouth.

The Drider, startled by the sudden gagging, reared back with an "Mmmph!" of surprise, reaching up to feel at her covered mouth. Woodrush used the distraction to point again, at Alcea, and cry "Relosas!"

The ropes and gag fell away from the Alcea, who flipped over in a flash and cried "Snofrizar!" A column of ice enveloped the Drider, freezing her limbs in place and leaving her mumbling - with increasing fear rather than fury - into her gag.

Alcea flashed Woodrush a quick smile of gratitude - but then, an ear-splitting growl rattled the forest as the hulking form with the pink eyes lumbered into visibility. As the torchlight crawled up its body, the eyes of all assembled flew wide. Woodrush's jaw dropped.

"That's... not Thorn?" Alcea said, bewildered.

The creature that stood before the assembled party was certainly of a type with Thorn; a massive trunk and limbs composed of plant matter from perhaps several dozen plants, standing at a height easily five times that of any nymph. A mean, monstrous head with a grimacing mouth and two glowing eyes. But the similarities ended there. Unlike Thorn, this creature had assembled itself entirely out of Belladonna plants. The broad, flat green leaves wrapped over and among themselves into a practical suit of plate armor, studded with the plant's bell-shaped pink and white flowers. Noxious black berries hung all over its body, but seemed to be especially concentrated on the outer edges of its arms.

"No," Woodrush said, in answer to Alcea. "This isn't one of Wormwood's constructs. She made a new one." Woodrush met Alcea with terrified eyes. "I hunted through that book from beginning to end and couldn't find the spell to create a new one. How in Daffodils did she do it?"

The creature observed the caravan, seemingly as perplexed as they were by its presence. Then, raising its arms, its booming voice declared, "APPETIZERS!"

Nightshade swept down its arms, flinging a cluster of black berries that tumbled like rolling boulders and exploded all over the forest floor, resulting in a rain of toxic sludge falling all over the caravan. Woodrush and Alcea each cast Portus spells to generate shields, and most others dove for cover behind leaves or roots.

The bound and gagged Drider behind the professors hadn't been so lucky. She stood petrified, desperately trying not to inhale or allow into her eyes any of the poisonous juice. With her mouth still blocked by the gag, it wouldn't be long, however, before she would have to take a breathe.

Alcea noticed the Drider's plight. Standing up from behind her shield, she called "Galooste e Graskipi!" Her fingers danced as, using a combination of small blasts of air and telekinetic manipulation, she managed to carefully and quickly scoop away every bit of berry sludge threatening to make its way into the Drider's nose, eyes, or ears. It left the bound-up creature with skin as clean as though it had been scrubbed. The Drider, feeling the magical ministrations, opened her eyes, incredulous.

"Your kind take up with Foxglove quite a lot," Alcea said, stepping up close to the Drider and putting a finger under her gagged chin. "I certainly hope that will start to change after tonight."

The Drider, eyes wide in awe of Alcea, only nodded.

"Very good. Now get out of here before you get squashed. Combestis!" she cried, melting the ice that held the Drider in place.

The Drider, shivering from the cold and the fear of the titanic creature, skittered away without even removing her gag.

Woodrush spied someone else who was trying to skitter off.

"Foxglove, you bloody coward!" he cried, flying over to where the Prince-to-be slowly edged away from the light. He had managed to avoid the berry sludge, but his men were in disarray. The thugs had all fled, and the few mages he had brought with him were pinned down in hiding or trying desperately to clean off the poisonous sludge.

Foxglove started at seeing Woodrush before him again. He was pale, and seemed to be muttering to himself.

"How do you think your people will feel knowing their Prince ran away from a fight?" Woodrush said.

Foxglove's trademark sneer returned; Woodrush took some small consolation in the fact that at least his ego might keep him in the game. "I'm trying to warn them!" Foxglove said, "trying to save them from this thing!"

"And just where do you think this monster is going to head if we don't stop it here?" Woodrush said, virtually barking in Foxglove's face over the roaring of Nightshade, which was powerful enough to make the earth, and the nymphs, quake. "You said yourself that you're the protector of Daffoville now. Well, here's your chance to bloody prove it! Dogwood knows we hate each other's guts, but we have to fight together or everything is lost! So what's it going to be?"

Foxglove looked up at the creature, as though considering. Something primal and weak, deep inside the man's arrogant shell, made him whisper, "we might lose."

Woodrush felt disgust rise in his gorge, but he didn't have time for invective. "Where would you rather lose, then? Out here in the forest," he replied. "Or back in Daffoville, where everyone can watch?"

A new fear passed behind Foxglove's eyes, of being publicly undone, of losing fear and power. He grimaced at Woodrush, and said, "this little tiff between us - this isn't over, Woodrush."

"No, that would be downright honorable of you, wouldn't it?"

The two mages wheeled out of their hiding place to face the titanic beast. Alcea was already trying to rally the mages that had accompanied Foxglove, to get them to at least contain the beast. When she saw the men return, she flashed a desperate look at the two of them.

"Good of you to join us," she said, pausing as Nightshade roared. "What in Daffodils do we do about this thing?"

Woodrush looked up at the towering monstrosity, roaring at the mages that flitted around, firing spell after spell at it to no avail. He had a flashback to Thorn running amok in Daffoville, seemingly more a force of nature than a being.

But we beat Thorn, he thought. Surely, we can beat this.

"Couldn't we just dispel the quintessence, like you did with Thorn?" Foxglove offered.

"The spell to do that is in the Pixienomicon," Woodrush replied, "and I'd wager every petal in Daffoville Mandragora's got it in there with her.

"Besides," Woodrush said, "with the two of them linked up like they are, killing the creature might just kill the host as well."

The beast hurled another poison berry-bomb at one of Foxglove's mages, who barely flew out of the way in time.

"Small price to pay, if you ask me," Foxglove said.

"Believe it or not, I'd be inclined to agree," Woodrush said. "Either way, this is going to involve getting the host out, and Mandragora isn't going to go willingly. We're going to have to distract or disable it with something powerful, and get in close to cut through that hide."

"Powerful, eh?" Foxglove said, "I've got a few things I could throw at it. Where should I hit it from?"

"Wherever the cutters aren't going to be in danger of being caught up in your spell," Woodrush said. He looked at Alcea. "And I suppose that makes us the cutters, if you're up for it?"

Alcea smiled at him, clearly terrified of the prospect. "It'll be just like old times."

Nightshade roared, the bellow reverberating under the canopy. It murmured "GROW," and more of the noxious Belladonna weed slithered out of the undergrowth to join its bulk.

"You and I remember old times very differently," Woodrush said.

The three mages took off, and joined the heat of battle.


***


What in Daffodils was that thing?

Iris huddled in the undergrowth, the enormous creature summoned by Mandragora having just stomped off into the woods. Whatever it was, it definitely wasn't Thorn. She had to warn her uncle that something new was on the way... if she could find him.

"Bondara e Mufflisca!"

"What? Noommppphh!!!"

Iris barely had time to exclaim before a black rag wrapped tight over the lower half of her face, and magic vines whipped around her body, pinioning her limbs. She screamed in impotent fury against her gag, thrashing against the bonds before they were even finished securing her. When she realized she was taken, she looked frantically around for the culprit, and saw two nymphs come up behind her, with torches lit. One was a thuggish, unkempt brute; the other wore the white cloak of a mage.

Foxglove's goons! Iris spit curses at them from behind her gag. The mage, with a smug smile on his face, lifted a finger to his lips, crooning "Shhhh now. Time to go back to your friends, little one. I'm sure Foxglove will have all sorts of wonderful ideas for what to do with you." He motioned to the thug, who ambled over to where Iris lay and, despite her most ardent thrashing and kicking, hoisted her up over his shoulder. He turned to begin traipsing out from under the thick tangle of thorns, and once again, Iris found herself facing the mage. The man placed a crooked finger under her chin, and said, "This is what happens when you cross a powerful man, little girl." The mage moved in front of his brutish companion, and together they walked off.

Iris saw red, but there was little she could do about it but exude hateful mumbles as she was carried off. This night could not get any worse; Mandragora had the Pixienomicon, and now one of those enormous constructs at her disposal. Foxglove had Woodrush and Alcea, and after being sent careening through the air to an escape she hadn't wanted to make, now Iris, too, was right back in the clutches of the wicked Prince-to-be, being carried off like a sack of acorns.

To add insult to injury, the undergrowth of spines and brambles was so thick that the goon carrying her could not move through it without catching her clothes - or her skin - on a sharp point with every step. She issued mumbled squeals or growls every time, but the brute didn't care; he just kept trudging. It seemed the discomfort would never end... until one of the spines barely grazed the side of her face.

Iris' eyes widened. If I can catch another one of those, I could pull my gag off! She began twisting around, seeing no shortage of potential candidates looming about. But then, she wondered; what will I do? I'll still be bound, and as soon as these guys hear me cast Relosas, they'll be on me in an instant. I can't take on both of them in such close quarters and I've got nowhere to run, not with all of these -

Iris froze. The seed of an idea began to grow in her mind, along with a wicked smile under her gag. It was insane. Her uncle would have forbidden it. It probably wouldn't even work. But then again... why wouldn't it?

The thorns were thinning out. Soon her captors would take flight, and all hope would be lost. Iris saw one last, nasty point sticking straight toward her in exactly the direction she would need. It would either take off her gag, or cut her throat. She waited, anticipating the jostling given her by the goon as he walked. And, at the right moment, she squeezed her eyes shut and lunged her face toward the spike.

The gag tightened dramatically over her mouth for just a moment as it caught, eliciting a pained "mmph!" from the wearer. She squeezed her eyes closed, sliding her head through and away from the biting black fabric, and her mouth was free. She gasped.

"What in Daffo-" said the goon.

But he was cut off by Iris, calling as loudly and forcefully as she possibly could, "Quintessitam!"

***

Another of Foxglove's mages crashed to the earth, exhausted. Woodrush, Alcea, and the Prince-to-be himself had barely flitted out of the way of a lashing vine coated in the poisonous berry juice of Nightshade's fruit. All three had about had enough, and settled behind a fallen branch to regroup.

"We're getting bloody nowhere!" Foxglove swore at Woodrush. "Every time we try to pin it down, it's lashing out! We haven't made a single cut on that hide! This is hopeless!"

"Hate to say it, Rush," Alcea said, panting, "but he's on the nose. She's not getting distracted like you said happened with Thorn. We've got to think of something else."

Something Alcea said clicked in Woodrush's head. "You're absolutely right," he said. "She isn't getting distracted. With Thorn, we did exactly what we've been trying to so far, but we had one additional element: Bluebell."

Foxglove scoffed with a cherished vitriol. "Oh, come on."

"Bluebell tapped into the creature's quintessence, and spoke to the child within. That allowed us to paralyze the creature. We don't have to distract the monster; we have to distract the host."

"Great," Alcea said, "so who gets the honor of linking minds with Mandragora?"

"I will," Woodrush said. "This monstrosity is my fault. You two see if you can rally the other mages to provide a covering Shrouvortax spell like we've been doing. I'll link up and try to distract her, and once the creature stops moving you can start cutting in."

"This is preposterous," Foxglove said.

"And throwing the NDF at that thing isn't?" Woodrush said. "Let's try this absurdity first, and if that doesn't work we can move on to the next one."

"Fine," Foxglove said, standing. "I'll rally the troops for one last, futile charge. Just be ready." He flew off. Woodrush turned to Alcea.

"Are you sure about this, Rush?" Alcea asked.

"Not even a little," Woodrush said. "But we have to do something, and this is all I've got left."

Alcea took his hands in hers, and squeezed them, flashing a sad smile at him up through her low-hanging bangs, disheveled by combat. "I'm with you every step of the way, Rush. Let's do it."

Woodrush nodded, and together they emerged from hiding. Foxglove and the four remaining mages were soaring in a cloud around the beast, dipping and dodging in and out, hurling the same ineffectual spells they had been trying all night just to keep its attention. Woodrush took off, and landed far closer to the creature than he liked. When Foxglove flew round near to him, he nodded.

"Everyone, together!" Foxglove shouted, and simultaneously they all called "Shrouvortax!" A mighty wind, fueled by the power of four expert mages, whipped through the clearing and pounded against the head of Nightshade. The beast shivered, falling to one knee under the pressure. Bits of leaves and vines tore away from its bulk, but it still maintained itself. It growled, preparing to rally.

Woodrush closed his eyes, focused his energy towards the beast, and called, "Quintessitam!"

Electric bolts of magical energy shot forward into the form of Nightshade. All at once, Woodrush was aware of the timeless, self-perpetuating energy within the quintessence of the plant matter; endless cycles of emergence and withering, the safety of the seed and the malevolence of the poisoning fruit. His awareness soared through all of that, hunting for the host. When he saw it, the blazing pink light of defiance, he was hit with simultaneous waves of anger, power, and... to his shock, frightened pleading.

"What?" he said, his words echoing within the link between the beings, "What am I looking at? How many of you are there?"

The pink energy around Mandragora seethed as it turned its attention to him. It growled at him, in Mandragora's double-barrelled voice, "This goes deeper than you could ever know, young mage."

The beast's energy whipped into a frenzy as a fire burned its chest. Woodrush felt the pain, distantly, and knew Alcea had begun trying to burn her way in. He decided to follow his curiosity into territory that was possibly more dangerous than he could understand, tried to probe past Mandragora's threats. He saw something within the pink energy - very dim, very weak, but still there.

"Who are you?" Woodrush said.

A distant voice tried to respond, but was muffled.

"I see you, nymph," the double-voice said. "You are going to die."


***


Outside the beast, Alcea had begun to make some headway, but it was not easy trying to keep her Combestis spell going within the vortex generated by Foxglove's mages. Still, as the thick leaves shriveled away before the flame, she sensed she had nearly reached Nightshade's core.

If I can just keep this going a few... more...

The beast lurched. Alcea watched as its arm began to rearrange. Several poison berries moved into its open palm, and it tightened its fist, crushing and grinding them. Then, drawing in a mighty breath, it put the fist up against its titan mouth, and took aim.

Right at Woodrush.

The professor stood still, eyes closed, still linked to Nightshade by the energy of quintessence. If he was aware that the beast had taken aim at his physical body, he showed no signs of being aware of it - or doing anything to avoid it.

The monster bellowed its breath out through its hand, and a jet-stream of poisonous gas blasted onto the forest floor, settling into a creeping cloud of lethal mist that barrelled straight toward the unsuspecting professor. His awareness may not have been entirely within his own body, but he still had to breathe. If that gas entered his lungs, he would be dead in seconds.

"Woodrush!" Alcea cried. She was so close, the fire burning away the chest of Nightshade. She saw a flash of pink energy within, knew she'd be able to pull Mandragora out if she could just burn for a few more seconds. But Woodrush didn't have that long.

Alcea leapt away from Nightshade, and flew as fast as her wings could carry toward Woodrush. The poison cloud rolled over the forest floor beneath her, hissing, swirling, imbued with the malevolence of its origins. Alcea swooped in low, strafing the cloud itself and trying her best not to breath. Finally, just as the black mist began to curl around Woodrush's ankles, she snatched up her fellow professor, and lifted him to the safety of a nearby log.


***


Woodrush snapped away from the bond with Nightshade and roiled back into himself, just in time to feel his body slam into a floor of mossy wood. Alcea rolled to a stop just beside him, out of breath.

Woodrush lifted his head, dizzy from the sudden disconnection. Nightshade still stood, furious as ever, calling out to nearby weeds to reconstitute its damaged chest. Its eyes still glowed that same shade of bright pink; Mandragora remained in control.

"What happened?" Woodrush to Alcea.

She smiled at him, sadder than before.

"I had to save you, Rush," she said. "I'm sorry."

"Not yet, but you bloody well will be!"

Foxglove landed on the log, eyes blazing with indignation. He grabbed the exhausted Alcea by the hair, lifting her up to a seated position, and screamed into her face.

"You were almost there! You dashed our best opportunity to beat that creature to come save your bloody sweetheart!"

His fist began to glow with green energy.

"That's the last time I make the mistake of trusting you two," Foxglove said, "and the last mistake that you will make - period."

Woodrush lurched upward, putting forth a hand to cast a spell. Foxglove merely kicked him down. Then, holding out his glowing green hand, he lifted the professor off the ground with a magical beam.

"You know so much about fighting these things?" Foxglove sneered at him, "Then go do it. But you'd better hope Nightshade kills you quicker than I will."

Foxglove hurled Woodrush towards the towering creature, Alcea's scream following him all the way. He tumbled along the forest floor, wincing with every bump. When he rolled to a stop and looked up, he saw the blazing pink eyes of Nightshade looming over him. His heart skipped a beat.

The beast growled "WOODRUSH," and reached forth a gigantic, leafy hand.

Then, a massive fist caught Nightshade's wrist. The creature looked up - and promptly caught an uppercut to the chin that cracked the night air, echoing in the forest canopy. Nightshade reeled backward against a nearby tree, its bulk shaking the earth as it stumbled.

What in the name of Daffodils? 

Woodrush looked up, and up, and up... to see the enormous, spine-ridden nightmare he had faced down in the autumn, the massive form of the nightmare construct, Thorn. Bigger than ever, with a furious countenance that chilled his blood, the beast stood over him and faced down Nightshade, which appeared to be dizzy from the sucker-punch it had been dealt. Then, Thorn opened its mouth, and spoke:

"KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY UNCLE, YOU UGLY TOAD!"

There was a moment of silence. Nothing moved in the clearing - until Woodrush said, with panicked amazement, "Iris?"

Thorn turned its great head down to face the professor. It lifted a powerful, spiky hand - and waved.

"UNCLE WOODRUSH! THIS IS THE RADDEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED, IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!"

"Iris," Woodrush said, frantically pointing toward the rising form of Nightshade, "Mandragora is inside the other one, you've got to cut her out of there!"

Thorn turned its attention to its rival being, and cracked its colossal knuckles. "NOTHING WOULD PLEASE ME MORE, DEAR UNCLE."

Thorn began a run toward its opponent. One arm extended several tendrils, which wrapped together in a massive flail and began spinning, faster, faster, faster, until just as Nightshade stood erect once more, the flail smashed into its face like a meteorite, lifting the creature off its feet and hurling it to the quaking Earth.

Woodrush flitted as fast as he could out of the way of the titanic brawl that was about to ensue. As he flew, however, he heard, echoing from somewhere on the bulk of Thorn, the amplified, ear-raking sound of Iris' compact disc, playing as she stomped Nightshade's face into the dirt.

Back on the log, where Foxglove stood white-faced at the appearance of Thorn, he, too, heard the music play. He let go of Alcea, squeezing both hands against his hears.

"What in Daffodils is that bloody racket?" He exclaimed.

Alcea, a wild glint in her eyes at the sudden turn of fortune, looked up at her assailant.

"It's plunk rock," she said. "It's the sound of rebellion."

Foxglove heard what she said, but did not take it in - until at the last possible moment, his eyes widened.

"Boltracta!" Alcea called, and blasted Foxglove right in the gut with a beam of blue energy. The mage skidded along the log, fingers scrambling for purchase. As he stood, his fist glowed green once more, preparing a no-doubt lethal counterattack. As soon as he unleashed it, however, he heard from overhead "Isernfyst!" Woodrush landed between him and Alcea, and deflected Foxglove's blast with a glowing, gold fist.

"You're right, Foxglove," Woodrush said. "This little tiff of ours is far from over."

Foxglove looked back and forth between Woodrush and Alcea. The battling monsters rolled closer, Iris using Thorn's tendrils to sling the smaller Nightshade around like a ragdoll. With the arrival of Thorn, the balance of power had suddenly changed. For the first time since his coup, he was no longer in control, no longer the center of strength no matter where he went. His mouth set in a line of focused rage.

Then, he flew off, disappearing into the night.

"Tiny-handed coward," Woodrush muttered. He and Alcea exchanged a weary, relieved smile.

The earth shook as the two mighty constructs slammed each other around the forest floor. Thorn, the larger of the two by several measures, easily pinned Nightshade on the ground. Not to be outdone, it filled its fists with poison berries and smashed them against Thorn's head. Whirring its thorny tendrils, Thorn blew the poison mist away, and resumed the relentless pounding of its knuckles into the face of Nightshade. The beast could scarcely reconstruct itself fast enough to counter Thorn, and instead managed the flip the larger creature over.

Woodrush and Alcea were thrown off balance by the shaking of the Earth, standing on wobbly legs to begin with. But both leapt into the air when Thorn's tendrils snaked around the log they had stood on, pulling it right out of the earth and smashing it to splinters against the head of Nightshade. The smaller creature tumbled along the ground once more, coming to rest against a nearby tree.

At this moment, two small forms flitted out of the forest with terrified faces, their clothes ripped to shreds. It was the mage and thug that Foxglove had sent after Iris.

"Foxglove, quick," the mage cried, "the girl's coming back with an enormous - eep!"

Thorn turned to behold these newcomers, and, quick as a flash, snagged them out of the air with its tendrils. It held them before its scowling blue eyes - and smiled.

"THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU CROSS A POWERFUL GIRL, LITTLE MAN."

With that, Thorn wound up and flung the two goons up and clear out of the forest canopy as though they were fired from a slingshot. Then, returning to its main adversary, it snaked its tendrils down to pinion Nightshade's wrists. The tendrils continued looping around and around the roots of the tree that the creature lay against, binding it in place with its chest wide open. Nightshade writhed and growled with an impotent fury as Thorn lifted one arm, its vines twisting and reshaping, until it took the form of a massive circular saw, spiny teeth outward and fierce. The wheel kicked into gear and began whirling around until it was naught but a blur, and Thorn lowered the weapon down into the chest of Nightshade. The monster roared and writhed when Thorn's saw bit into its leafy chest, kicking out a fine mist of foliage all over the nearby forest floor as the blade sunk deeper.

"Dogwood," Alcea said, watching from up in a nearby tree. "What do we do?"

As a response, Woodrush began a weak applause.

Finally, Nightshade stiffened. There was a loud, magical SNAP, and Thorn lifted up its buzzsaw arm. Tendrils from its other arm slithered into Nightshade's chest, and, seemingly about to tear the pixie apart on the vines that still attached her to Nightshade, pulled an unconscious Mandragora from the chest cavity of the vanquished beast. It nearly mummified the sorceress in thorny vines, sticking a small spine into her mouth to cut off any attempt at spells. Finally, lifting its defeated foe up into the night air, Thorn let loose a furious roar.

"Bloody good show, Iris!" Woodrush cried out, flying as close to the monster as he dared. "Is the book in there?"

"ALL BUSINESS, AREN'T YOU, UNCLE?" Thorn responded. It turned, and snaked its tendrils back into the motionless body of Nightshade. It came out almost at once with the wicked tome, which it handed over to Woodrush.

"THERE WE GO, SAFE AND SOUND."

"Yes indeed, safe and sound," Woodrush said, flipping through the book. "Speaking of which, would you put our prisoner down, please? I have quite a lot of questions that I'll need her intact for."

Thorn set Mandragora down, and cut off the vines that wrapped around her from its bulk. Then, it turned back toward Woodrush - and suddenly stiffened.

"WHAT - WHAT'S GOING ON? NO, UNCLE, NOOOoooo!"

Thorn wobbled as its form fell apart once more, quintessence disintegrating from the spell that Woodrush had now read for a second time. As it sunk to the ground, its last willful act was to cradle Iris, ensuring that she reached the earth without falling or being cut to ribbons. Then, it moved no more.

Iris looked up at Woodrush with tears in her eyes. "Uncle, what did you do that for? He just saved the day!"

Woodrush smiled down at his niece. "No, Iris," he said, "you saved the day. That's why you're my favorite niece."

Iris turned a wobbly smile up at her Uncle. "Only niece," she said.

Woodrush smiled, and turned to Alcea. "And you. You saved my limmphh!"

Woodrush was cut off when Alcea flung herself onto him with a passionate kiss. He relaxed into it, letting the feel of his old lover dizzify him. When she finally retreated, he looked down at her through glassy eyes.

"Just like old times," he said, dreamily.

"ALRIGHT UNCLE!" Iris shouted, clapping him on the back. "I told you we'd get your girl back!"

Alcea turned back to Woodrush with a look of mischievous displeasure. "She did, did she?"

"That was mostly her goal, really," Woodrush stammered. "Mine was purely to make sure that you, and, everyone else, were safe. Purely."

"Ah-ha," Alcea said, with a wry smile. "Well, we're safe for now, I suppose, but, we still have another being to get rid of, and a very powerful sorceress to take into custody... the question being, whose?"

"It won't be Foxglove, that's sure," Woodrush said. "I'm sorry you got mixed up in all this, Alcea. We'll be in danger if we go back home."

Iris held up a finger. "Why don't we go to my parents' place?"

Woodrush turned to look at her, stunned. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah, why not? They're looking for me anyways, right? Won't be the first time I've showed up with a load of weirdos to crash on their couches."

Woodrush began to chuckle. "No, I'm sure it won't." He paused. "I didn't part with your mother on the best of terms last I saw her."

Iris shrugged. "Me, either. But they're family, you know? They gotta love you. It's the law or something."

"Right, the law," Woodrush said, shaking his head. Something occurred to him.

"Your parents," he said, "they're Foxglove supporters, aren't they?"

Iris winced. "Best to just not bring that up."

***

On the long flight through the woods toward Iris' home, Woodrush carried the Pixienomicon, which he had also used to dispel the quintessence of Nightshade, and a magic spell carried the bound form of Mandragora. They had to once again travel in a wide arc around Daffoville, figuring there would be all manner of patrols after them. Finally, in a clearing that represented about the furthest the group had the energy to fly, they settled down and decided to make a camp for the night. Woodrush took the first watch, and the women all slept.

Sometime during the night, Iris awakened to the sound of murmuring. She cracked open her eyes to see the form of her uncle, up close to the fire. He seemed unusually alert for a man who had been through so much that day, and it sounded like he was whispering something to himself. The Pixienomicon appeared to be open in his lap, and the fire glowed with a bizarre pink light.

Iris sat up quick, shaking the cobwebs out of her head. She squeezed her eyes shut several times, and when she opened them at last she saw Woodrush sitting hear the smoldering fire, but leaned forward, asleep. Daylight had already crept over the forest; evidently, they had all slept quite late after their ordeal. The Pixienomicon was next to her uncle, as it had been all night, unopened. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Then, she heard a whimper.

She whipped her head around to see Mandragora, still tightly wrapped and gagged by thorn vines, propped up against a root where they had left her. She was awake, her eyes wide open and brimming with tears. But the glow in her eyes had vanished, and when she sobbed, it was with only one voice. Iris' brows screwed up in confusion.

"What in Daffodils?" Iris said, and arose. She stepped over toward the bound form of her prisoner, eyes searching her body in the light of late morning to try and spot tricks. Mandragora only whimpered harder when she saw Iris approaching.

"Pleafe, pleafe dmn't hmrt mm," Mandragora around the thorn in her mouth. "I dmn't knmw whm ymm peofle mre, jmst lmt mm gm!"

Iris did not respond. But her hand rose to remove the gag.

"Don't listen to her, Iris."

Iris whirled around to see Woodrush, still seated but awake now, watching her through drilling eyes.

"Didn't she play enough tricks on us yesterday?"

Iris looked back and forth between them, and stepped away from Mandragora. The girl cried louder for Iris to remove the gag. Coming back into her own, she said, "Nice try, you toad. But you're gonna stay like that until we figure out what to do with you."

"That's my favorite niece," Woodrush said. "When all this is over, I'm going to make sure you get straight into the most advanced classes we can start you in at the Academy. Just as soon as all this nonsense is over, and things are back to normal in Daffovi-"

Suddenly, there came a large BOOM in the distance, and a roar as of an enormous crowd of people in tumult. Alcea started awake, and all heads turned towards the sound.

"In Daffoville," Woodrush said.
Woodrush Under the Shade, Part 3
And that's... a... wrap!

...or is it? Woodrush & Co. have not even begun to unravel the mysteries of Mandragora, but they'd better start fast; Daffoville is in the grip of a full-on revolution, and could use all the talented mages they can get!

Thanks again to Golavus for creating the world of the nymphs of Daffoville, and letting me tell this supplementary story of magical insanity happening at the same time as his forest-rocking climax, "The Reign of Foxglove." It's been a real treat to revisit Woodrush, and to get to know Iris and Alcea. Hopefully it won't be another five years (!) before they appear again, and continue this romp through the hideous pages of the Pixienomicon!
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Iris
I thought I'd switch gears a bit and sketch out a picture of Iris, my plunk-rocking nymph damsel from my story "Woodrush Under the Shade," a companion piece to Golavus' ongoing fantasy DiD saga, "Reign of Foxglove." Enamored by stories of the bizarre countercultures of the human world, Iris has a weird fashion sense and a brash attitude, both of which mystify her uncle Woodrush. Read the stories for the full strange and wonderful adventure, concluding with part 3 soon!

Woodrush Under the Shade:
www.deviantart.com/edstorm/art…
www.deviantart.com/edstorm/art…
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Slowly, as the effects of the unreal scream subsided, Woodrush began to pull himself up. Waves of dizziness still crashed over his brain, but they were quickly subsiding now. Whatever accursed magic Mandragora had used on her voice, Woodrush thanked Dogwood that its effects didn't seem to be permanent.

"Mncle! Mncle! Hmlp mm!"

Woodrush looked over at the struggling form of his niece, Iris, wrapped up tightly in white ropes and squirming her jaw under a gag of black cloth. She scowled and squirmed like a madwoman, clearly furious over having been restrained. Woodrush squinted to be sure, but he thought he saw her face burning red with humiliated anger. If he didn't think it would make him sick, he might have chuckled.

I wouldn't want to be Mandragora if my niece gets hold of her, he thought. He raised a shaky hand toward the unfortunate girl, and managed to stammer "Relosas!" The ropes fell away, and Iris clawed the gag away from her mouth so fast that Woodrush thought her face might come with it.

"That fat toad!" Iris exclaimed, scrambling to her feet, "I'm going to pluck out those glowing pink eyes and use them as reading lights.”

"Fine plan," Woodrush said, trying to stumble to his feet - and falling over.

"Uncle!" Iris said, dashing to his side. She put an arm around his shoulders, and put her other hand on his. "Let me help you up." She slung one of his arms around her shoulders, and nearly lifted him to his feet on her own strength. Woodrush's head spun.

"Not so fast, if you don't mind," he said, squeezing his eyes closed.

"Sorry," Iris said. She looked around at the carnage in the living room. "It looks like most of your furniture is knackered. We'd better get you into your study."

Iris guided her uncle into the room full of books, and eased him into his favorite reading chair. He sat there for a moment, his eyes still closed, trying to recover his strength. Iris plunked herself down on the floor, hugging her knees and huffing in anger.

"I'm the one who should be angry," Woodrush said, hearing her exhalation. Iris looked up at her uncle, who opened his eyes at last to stare into hers. The stern, reproving look reminded her that her beloved relative could be cold and hard as ice if he had to.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" he said.

Iris grimaced, defiant. "Looked to me like I saved your life, Uncle."

"You handed that book to an already-powerful maniac with unknown intentions," Woodrush said, leaning forward and scowling. "Saving lives is the last thing you've done. It wasn't your decision, anyway; I was supposed to die before I let that anyone take that book."

Iris stood. Not looking at her uncle, she crossed the room, going straight to the Pixienomicon's hiding place. She moved aside the plant, opened the small drawer, and withdrew a thick, weathered tome, missing its dust jacket. This she brought over to Woodrush.

"Don't worry, Uncle," she said, plopping the heavy book down on his lap, "you might still get your chance."

Woodrush stared at the old, roughed-up cover of the Pixienomicon; he had never seen it outside of the worn, stitched-up leather dust jacket that had gripped the malevolent tome for untold years. Somehow, it looked even more sinister now, naked to the world and covered in strange stains and burn marks.

He looked up at his niece, incredulous. "How did you find the hiding place?"

"You did have a plant in front of it, Uncle. It looked terribly out of place."

"Wasn't my idea," Woodrush grumbled. His eyes went wide. "Dogwood, what is that psychotic Mandragora going to do to Alcea once she realizes you gave her the wrong book?"

Iris shrugged. "Nothing, right? Alcea's her leverage over you. She only hurts her if you don't give her the book."

"We didn't give her the bloody book! Have you already forgotten, or did the memory just leak out the extra hole in your nose?" Woodrush snapped. He began rubbing his hand with his forehead.

Iris crossed her arms and turned her face away from him. "You'll have to do better than that, Dear Uncle," she said, her voice nonetheless quivering. "I've heard worse from Mum and Dad."

Woodrush sighed, and slumped back in the chair. "I'm sorry," he said. "You acted to save my life. Most nymphs would've just capitulated. I can't fault you for not knowing what else was at stake."

"An apology," Iris said, "There's something I've never heard from Mum and Dad."

She smiled at her uncle, and for a moment they sat together in silence. Woodrush bit his lip.

"That was awkward, wasn't it?" Iris said.

"A bit, yes," said Woodrush.

"Okay, well, forget all that family junk. How d'you reckon ol' Mandragora did the bit with that scream, and her walking roots? Have you ever seen magic like that?"

"No," Woodrush replied, opening the Pixienomicon. "But I may have read about it. Let me take a look."

"You think it's Pixie magic?" Iris said, walking over to stand beside Woodrush's chair.

"Could be," Woodrush replied, not looking up. "Why?"

"You're looking for it in the Pixienomicon," Iris shrugged. "Seems like a dead giveaway."

"Don't let the name deceive you," Woodrush said. "This book is far more extensive than just Pixie lore. There's the magic of nymphs, hobgoblins, leprechauns - you name the fey, there are chapters devoted to their lore in here. The Pixienomicon is an attempt to collect and synthesize all of these traditions, to create one far greater than its parts."

"Okay, I'm interested," Iris said, leaned against the top of the chair and looking down at the pages. "How'd that come about?"

"The author, the pixie sorceror Wormwood, was more than just a powerful lunatic. He also possessed the most extensive library of magical texts in fey history. No one knows precisely what all was in it, but we have to assume that much of what he had were original scrolls, some of which were never copied. Most of it was acquired through pillage and other ill-gotten means, of course."

"Naturally. Nobody gets that powerful by being honest."

Woodrush smirked. "I'm afraid I must defer to my inner cynic and agree."

Iris raised her eyebrows. "Inner?"

"Wormwood wanted to get down further, even beyond the mathematics, the simple nuts and bolts of magic," Woodrush continued, flipping through pages. "He wanted to be able to manipulate quintessence itself, to change its structure, its nature - and, indeed, to harvest it."

"Yikes. How far off was he?"

Woodrush looked grim. He flipped open the book to a certain page, and pressed his index finger into an illustration.

"He wasn't off at all. He made these."

Iris looked at the page to see towering monstrosities composed of plant parts. One was made of vines, another of tangled roots, another of curling creepers, and the final -

"Is that the thing that attacked Daffoville last autumn?"

Woodrush nodded. "That is Thorn. Wormwood birthed a whole series of these creatures that manipulate quintessence to create massive, shape-shifting bodies. They are basically mindless; they have something approximating a consciousness, but no free will. Almost no motivation of their own. For that, they rely on hosts."

"Hosts?"

"Fey who ride within the bodies of the beasts, and who give the creatures their impetus to act. Mages... or, as we discovered last autumn, anyone unfortunate enough to stumble across the quintessence of one, and accidentally summon it into being."

"That's a lot of power to stumble into."

"Understatement of the evening. When Thorn attacked, it took half the NDF, one of the super-strong humans, Bluebell, and myself to defeat it. And that was when the host was nothing but a frightened child. I don't want to even think about what in the name of Dogwood it would take to stop a creature like Mandragora if she got into one."

Iris' eyes widened. "You think that's what she wants?"

"It's the strongest possibility I can think of."

"But then why's she going after the Pixienomicon? How would she even know the creatures are in there? Before Thorn came back, nobody even suspected their existence. They were totally forgotten."

"I wonder if they weren't just MOSTLY forgotten," Woodrush said, rubbing his temple. "The real calamity regarding Wormwood's pillaged library was that, after his death, someone pillaged it right back. No one knows what became of it. Among the stolen texts were Wormwood's experimental notes. If Mandragora has gotten hold of these, she would not have failed to recognize the descriptions of Thorn that came out of Daffoville last autumn. And now, she has arrived to follow up her suspicions at the most inconvenient time in nymph history."

"No kidding," Iris said, "I've heard all about that prickface Foxglove. Mum and Dad adore him."

"A staggering number of nymphs do," Woodrush said. "Those of us who do not have targets on our backs at all times. And while everyone has their eyes on the aforementioned prickface, the nightmare we never dared to contemplate when we dispelled Thorn in the western woods is threatening to come to pass."

Iris snapped her fingers. "Do you think ol' Mandra could be working with Foxglove?"

Woodrush thought hard for a moment. Then, quietly, he said, "No."

"Why not? She might even be just the errand person who picks up the creature for him."

Woodrush shook his head. "Foxglove is a megalomaniac. He would never trust anyone else with something this powerful, even temporarily. Especially if anyone has told him about the effect they have on their hosts."

"What effect is that?"

"I said that the creature has almost no motivation. More precisely, it has no motivation at all, with one exception. When it has a host, there is no means it will not employ to keep them. That consists of physical attacks on all external threats, naturally, but it also means a sustained campaign of propoganda on its host. It encourages the host to indulge in its basest desires, the things that make them feel the best rather than what might be objectively good. It acts as what the humans might call a devil on their shoulder, spending every second convincing them, subtly, that the beast is the only thing they can trust and anyone who tries to get them to come out is an enemy.

"I will forever admire young Tulip's resolve. Thorn found a sure-fire way to control her when it realized there was a certain bully that she hated, but when Bluebell reminded her that what she was doing was wrong, she found the strength to abandon the creature. For a person like Mandragora - who, for all her power, doesn't seem overly concerned with with inhibition - I fear the temptations of Thorn or his ilk would be irresistible."

"Same again for Mr. Prickface Foxglove," Iris said. "From what I hear, he's got a devil on each shoulder already whispering the same things Thorn would."

Woodrush nodded, sadly. "Part of the reason things have gotten so bad here is that we all believed the worst case scenario would never play out, and so we never prepared for it. Now it's looking us right in the face." Woodrush sighed. "I have to assume that Mandragora intends on summoning Thorn, if not something worse from the book. And even if I were to abandon poor Alcea to her fate, Mandra would only come after the Pixienomicon again. I have to stop her now, early on, before Foxglove ruins Daffoville beyond repair. I have to keep the book out of her hands. And, I have to do it all bloody alone."

Iris tapped her foot. "Ahem. Aren't you forgetting someone?"

"What, you?" Woodrush said, shutting the book. "Forget it. I'm not about to explain to my sister that I got my favorite niece killed just as I was getting to know her again."

"Don't you try to soften me up with that 'favorite niece' business. I'm rather well acquainted with it, after all - 'Dear Uncle.'"

"Point taken. But I can't put you in harm's way. It was bad enough having to watch Bluebell confront this insane sort of magic, and she's only a year or two your senior."

"Right, right, this grand prodigy Bluebell," Iris said, waving her hands in the air with a mocking fanfare, "I've heard all about her. I told you, I've mastered everything Mum and Dad had to teach me, and they could have each been Headmasters at that Academy. I fancy I'm just as much a prodigy as Bluebell is. Prodigier, in fact."

Woodrush blinked. "Did you just say 'prodigier'?"

"I did," Iris said, hands on her hips. "What do you think about that?"

"I think you're loony."

Iris shrugged. "I've been called worse."

"So have I. Some of my colleagues thought for certain I'd be a supporter of Prickfa - er, Foxglove," Woodrush said, with a shudder. "Alright. Let's go then."

"Really?"

"Yes," Woodrush said, standing up from his chair. "Have you changed your mind?"

"No, just... you gave in surprisingly quick. Why?"

"Because," Woodrush said, appearing to do calculations in his mind, "you wanted to accompany me in pursuing Mandragora, which is insane. But I wanted to pursue Mandragora alone, which is actually more insane. So, given that you're the saner of the two of us, I reckon it would be wise to have you along."

“Alright, Uncle!” Iris leapt into Woodrush's arms, giving him a big hug and laughing. When she stood on her own again, she said, "Let's go get your girl back!"

Woodrush scratched the back of his head. "She's not my girl, I'm afraid."

"Not yet, you mean," Iris said with a wink.

“Not anymore, I mean."

"Not for long not anymore, you mean."

Woodrush appeared to do calculations again, then shook them out of his head.

"If you are as creative with magic as you are with language, Mandragora doesn't stand a chance."


***


Despite their lumbering, oafish nature, the roots commanded by Mandragora made good time through the woods; simple orders seemed to be their specialty. Mandragora had used a bizarre incantation to stitch together the root that Woodrush had halved, and it trailed behind its fellow as though ashamed at its earlier defeat. Mandragora evidently harbored no ill will towards the creature - in fact, to Alcea's horror, her captress had seemed to reserve her sternest tongue-lashing for herself.

About twenty minutes outside Daffoville, Mandragora's eyes had flared and flickered, and she gave vent to a rage that crackled the very air around her. She fell to her knees, clawing the soil with her long fingernails and growling in her freakish twin voices.

"WEAK!" She proclaimed, grinding a fistful of dirt into powder, "Should have killed him! He will only cause trouble now!"

Mandragora gripped her stomach as though in pain, her forehead against the ground. Her light green hair spilled out all around her, but still Alcea could see the psychedelic glow of her pink eyes.

"The creatures exploit weakness. Feed on sentiment," she growled. "I must have none!" Mandragora planted both of her palms on the soil. Slowly, a bright, pink glow began to emanate - from deep underground.

Alcea had long since ceased to struggle against the root, its strength more than sufficient to keep her pinioned. But watching the underground light grow and the earth begin to swell at the command of this bizarre sorceress, she instinctively fought to pull her arms free, to work the sticky leaf off of her mouth. Neither budged.

"They shall fall," Mandragora growled, "they will pay! Every last nymph will pay!"

Despite her growing rage, Mandragora evidently held back. The earth began to settle back to its normal flatness, the light from deep within began to dim. The pixie mage shivered with reabsorbed power, sitting back up to her knees; Alcea observed that the girl's hands were smoking.

Woodrush, she thought, what in Daffodils have you gotten involved with?

Alcea was a Professor of Magical Physics, specializing in spells that manipulated matter in all manner of weird ways. She had attended lectures by all sorts of advanced mages, and it was not often anymore that she saw anything that caused her eyes to widen. But the magic wielded by Mandragora, and even the spell used by Woodrush to summon the - what was it, "unseen sword?" - was not like anything she had ever heard of. It had been humiliating enough to be captured by such a young nymph, but now Alcea realized that she, a high-ranking professor, was also woefully out of her depth. She had nothing to do but wait, and hope Woodrush could recover and come after her.

Alcea's heart fluttered as she thought of her old flame, lying beaten in his own home, of how terribly close he had come to the end. The horror of near-death, and the frustration of being captured, of not even being able to scream out his name through her plastered mouth, brought tears to the professor's eyes. Despite herself, she released a muffled sob.

Mandragora slowly turned, remembering her captive. She sneered, and returned to her feet. As Alcea looked up through tears, and through her dangling bangs, she watched the wicked pixie approach her.

"It will take days to wash the stink of your kind away from me," Mandragora's voices said. She motioned toward her other root, which handed her the book she had taken from Iris. "But now, I have what I need to cleanse it from the Earth completely. Small sacrifices often pay great dividends, as you shall see."

Mandragora ran her fingers across the ghastly leather surface of the book's jacket. She seemed entranced, seemed to lose herself in the presence of this hideous artifact. Alcea felt as if the girl had forgotten about her completely.

"It has been a long time, my old friend," Mandragora said, fingers trembling as she opened the cover of the book. "Whisper your black secrets to me once more."

Despite all she had heard of the awful Pixienomicon, Alcea was a curious intellectual, after all; she couldn't help but crane her neck to see the pages of the dreaded book when Mandragora opened it. The first thing to come up was the title page - which gave both women pause.

Title page? Alcea thought. Surely a book whose reputation precedes it has no need for a title page.

Then, at the same time, they both saw what was on it.

"Professor Walnut's Magic and Ethics Primer?" Mandragora growled. Her fingers tightened on the book, her teeth clenched in rage. The pink light in her eyes became so blinding that Alcea had to turn away, certain she was about to be incinerated. Instead, the mad mage once again plunged her hands down against the Earth. This time, the light from underground flashed into brightness at an instant, and the soil all around them erupted in an explosion of magical energy. Clods of dirt and roots rained down for yards in every direction, burning up before they hit Mandragora as the mage's energy sizzled in an orb around her.

Slowly again Mandragora turned and approached Alcea. In spite of herself, the Professor flinched away from the younger mage, turning her head aside. Mandragora, far from being rough and abusive, placed a deliberate but firm hand on the Professor's chin, her fingers digging in to Alcea's sticky-leafed cheeks as she turned her captive's face back towards her.

"They're going to be coming after you," Mandragora said. "We'd best not disappoint them."

Suddenly, the mage moved her hand to clamp down over Alcea's gagged mouth, eliciting an "Mmmph!" of fright as Mandragora's face came within inches of her captive's.

"And they had better not disappoint me, again."


***

"Tracks go on this way, Uncle Woodrush!" Iris called. She led the way, with the Pixienomicon under one arm, and a dim violet orb of magic, which cast a faint purple glow over the forest floor around them on her other hand. The spell caused the tracks of Mandragora and the roots to glow when the light hit them. It was a challenging spell, usually not one that mages of Iris' age could maintain for long, yet she pranced absentmindedly through the woods ahead of Woodrush as though it were second nature to her. Impressive, to be sure - which, Woodrush knew, was her main reason for casting it.

"I understand you're a talented mage, Iris," Woodrush said, "but that Noirluxa spell isn't chiefly necessary when we're following rather distinct tracks in the daylight, is it?"

Iris rolled her eyes, and the light vanished from her hand. "Fine, but forgive me if I feel the need to prove myself to an Uncle who brought me along for my insanity rather than my ability."

"There'll be plenty of time to prove yourself when we find Mandragora," Woodrush said. "I have a feeling she has a whole bag of tricks we haven't even seen yet. It's going to be quite a task to free Alcea."

Iris cocked her head to the side. "What's the story with the two of you, anyway? I mean, if you don't mind me asking."

Woodrush narrowed his eyes at her as if she'd just asked if he wanted to eat a worm. "I do rather mind, thank you."

"Sor-ry," Iris said, raising her palms in mock defense. "Just wondering what you did to chase her off, that's all."

"What I did?" Woodrush snapped. "It was her bleeding father that - " he caught himself. "Look, it's complicated, and it's not your business anyway. Just know that she's very dear to me and we have to get her away from that maniac, for everyone's sake. Alright?"

"Alright, alright," Iris said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "I'll ask Alcea once she's free."

Woodrush fixed her with a sidelong glare. "Did my sister give you lessons in being irritating as well as in magic?"

Iris snorted. "Some things just come naturally."

Woodrush and Iris emerged from a dense thicket, and hid among a patch of clovers. The tracks from the mandrake roots led down from this thicket into a clearing, and right up to a pond below. An early evening breeze rustled the plants all around them; the only thing they could hear were distant birds, and the lapping of water.

"Right," Woodrush whispered, surveying the landscape. "How's your defensive magic?"

"Defensive? Forget that, we're going on the offensive!"

Woodrush rolled his eyes. "Everyone wants to go on the offensive, obviously. But, look at the situation down there. The tracks go right into the water. That makes no sense. Mandragora has probably set up some sort of ambush, so I need to know that you can defend yourself. Alright?"

"'Course I can defend myself! I can't wait to wipe the smirk right off that bloated toad Mandragora's face, I wish she was here nowmmmphhh!!"

In mid-sentence, the arm of a sentient root snaked out of the weeds behind Iris, and curled tight over her mouth. Another arm moved around her midsection, lifting her, thrashing and kicking, off of the ground.

"Iris!" Woodrush exclaimed. In almost the same breath, he said "Portus!" A blue shield of shimmering energy appeared on his left arm, and he held it over his head, his eyes darting all around. Mandragora didn't seem like the type to only think one step ahead.

The professor's foresight paid off. A mere second after the root had grabbed Iris, a sizzling bolt of flame shot out of the sky, sending sparks and waves of heat cascading around Woodrush as it reflected off of his shield. He tried to peer up through the shield, and saw glimpses of his assailant, hovering high overhead. He waited, calculating, for the column of flame to cease.

Nearby, Iris struggled against the root, scratching, kicking, pounding against the strange being's strength. Evidently following careful instructions, it kept the wispy tendrils of one "arm' tightly wrapped around its prisoner's mouth. Other than that, it could hardly keep the girl's limbs pinioned, so fiercely did she resist.

Woodrush smiled, admiring his niece's fighting spirit. Just hold on a moment, Iris, he thought. I know exactly the thing to help. He curled his free fist up tight, ready to cast his spell.

As soon as the flame relented, he stood, shield still covering his head amidst the burnt, smoking grass around him, and growled, "Isernfyst!" His curled fist began glowing as if forged of gold, and with a great leap through the smoke, he slammed it into the "head" of the Mandrake root. The force of Woodrush's enchanted fist pummeled the great bulk with such power that it flew off of its feet, and continued flying backward at a phenomenal speed, knocking down blades of grass and weeds as it receded into the undergrowth.

Woodrush turned, expecting to face a renewed assault from Mandragora. But as he did, he heard from by his side, "Mufflisca!" The root's tendrils, twined around Iris' mouth, had snapped off from the force of Woodrush's punch. As soon as she was free, she had yanked the gag away from her mouth and moved to apply one to Mandragora, who had been readying another of her debilitating screams. The black rag whipped upward through the air and slapped over the sorceress' lips, turning the beginning of her scream into a muffled screech.

"Good on you, Iris," Woodrush said, "but keep on your toes, we don't know what else she has in - "

Woodrush was cut off, as Iris lifted off and flew straight at their still-hovering enemy.

"Oh, bugger," he said, lifting off to fly after his niece.

Iris cast a shield of her own as she zipped straight upward toward Mandragora. Several bolts of magic slammed into the protective cover, but Iris' flight never deviated. Mandragora had removed her gag, but did not attempt to scream; the confident smirk on her face showed she clearly didn't consider Iris enough of a threat to waste the energy.

"Alright, you fat slug," Iris called, readying another spell, "I've been waiting for this. Boltracta automatica!"

Aiming her free hand right at the sorceress, Iris unleashed a spitfire of energy blasts, which she fired up through her shield. Woodrush, watching as he flew to join the battle, was stunned. The level of quintessence manipulation that Iris had to be capable of for something that quick and precise was leagues beyond anything he expected from a home-schooled mage, no matter how capable her parents.

Unfortunately, Iris wasn't the only one capable of remarkable feats of magic. Mandragora, still smirking, did not make a shield. Instead, she began flicking her fingers through the air, deflecting with carefully-manipulated energy every single bolt that Iris sent her way. She hardly appeared to break a sweat from the effort.

Who on Earth is this girl? Woodrush wondered.

"You waited for that, little one?" Mandragora said, with a warped, twin-voiced laugh. "You have waited in vain."

Mandragora waited until Iris was almost upon her, then stopped hovering and dropped away. She fell a good foot before growling "Wyrmtonga." Out of her hand sprung a whip made of pure flame, which she snapped straight up at Iris and wrapped around her boot. Using the girl's own inertia, Mandragora stopped her flight, and slung her with brutal rapidity back toward the ground...

...and straight into Woodrush.

The collision knocked the wind right out of the professor, and uncle and niece careened toward the ground. Only some quick flitting of wings saved them from serious injury as they tumbled along the earth, coughing and sputtering. Iris sat up at once, waving her leg about; the boot that Mandragora had caught with the fire-whip was still burning.

"Owwww! Bloody toad!" She exclaimed, stamping her flaming footwear out on the soil. "I'm gonna make her swallow one of those whips... uh, if you can teach me to make one?"

"I'll get right on it," Woodrush said, sitting up with a wince.

"Mmmpphh!"

Woodrush followed the mumbled cry to see a Mandrake root - the one he had cut in half, its legs stitched crudely back onto its body with some sort of shimmering incantation - down at the edge of the pond, prepared to throw a thoroughly-bound and gagged Alcea into the water. A rock dangle from a rope, fastened to her tightly-bound ankles.

"Alcea!" Woodrush called. A magic bolt sizzled into the earth right beside his head; Mandragora was trying to keep him down. He recast his shield, and stood up over Iris, helping her up.

There was a splash. Woodrush looked up to see the root standing, without Alcea, and turning towards them. The water nearby rippled. Woodrush's veins ran cold. But, the professor had faced dire situations before, and remained pragmatic.

"Iris, get Alcea out of the water!" Woodrush said. "I'll hold off Mandragora!"

Realizing that Alcea's life was at stake, Iris turned aside from her hatred for the strange sorceress, and raced toward the water. The mandrake loomed in her way, but she deftly skipped aside and cried "Bondara!" Vines flew out of her fingers to pinion the creature's limbs. They wouldn't last long, but Iris didn't need them to. She pushed past the struggling root and dove into the water, just as Alcea was bobbing back up to the surface.

Woodrush turned back to see a magic bolt of ice coming straight for him. He growled "Brynaweal!" and before him there shot from out of the earth a wall of fire that curled around Woodrush in a rapidly-expanding, whirling sphere, melting the icy bolt from the Snofrizar spell. The sphere kept expanding with a wave of Woodrush's arm, swirling over the area where Iris emerged onto the bank with Alcea, newly-freed by a Relosas spell. The professor was drenched and shivered with fright, but very much alive. She stood, shaking out the water from her wings. Woodrush raced over and wrapped his arms around her.

"Are you alright, Alcea?"

"I'm fine, Rush, all things considered. Thank you for the save," Alcea said. She nodded at Mandragora "Do you have any idea who this is?"

Woodrush pulled away from her, and watched as Mandragora descended to the earth. His eyes narrowed.

She's coming right down to our level to fight, giving up the high ground, he thought. She's confident... and deservedly so.

"I'd never laid eyes on her until she showed up at my door, holding you hostage," Woodrush said, watching their enemy stalk outside the fiery orb. "Did she let slip anything while you were with her?"

"Not much I could make sense of. Seems to want all nymphs to pay for something, and mentioned "the creatures" exploiting weakness - whatever that means," Alcea responded. Her look toward Woodrush turned dark. "Oh, Rush, do you really have a copy of that horrible book?"

Woodrush froze. He looked first at Iris, and then, together, they all turned to look outward, at Mandragora. All at once, they seemed to realize the same thing: Woodrush's party no longer had the Pixienomicon.

"I'm afraid I did, Alcea," he said. "But I'm more afraid that now, I don't."

"I dropped it up in our hiding place when that thing attacked me!" Iris said, "And then I left it behind to go after that toad! I'm so sorry, uncle!"

"And I forgot all about it when I saw Alcea was in trouble," Woodrush said, turning a sad smile upon his old flame. "Mandragora knew exactly how to distract us."

"Well, now we'll have to see if we can distract her, so one of us can make a run for the book," Alcea said. "Who shall it be?"

"I wouldn't mind another chance to make her eat her own teeth," Iris said, cracking her knuckles.

"Nor I," Alcea said, smiling at the young girl's enthusiasm. "Iris, is it? Rush, you never told me you had a daughter."

"Niece," Woodrush said with a smirk, as the two women shook hands. He returned to watching Mandragora's glowing pink eyes. "We have to all hit her at once. If only two of us attack, she'll know to follow the third. See if we can disable her, or at least bog her down, and when I get a moment I'll nip over to grab the book. Agreed?"

"Right," Alcea said.

"Rad," Iris replied. The sphere of fire was beginning to wane. Still, Mandragora didn't move, staring at her adversaries and waiting patiently for them to become exposed.

Suddenly Woodrush heard a loud, rhythmic buzzing, almost like distant, distorted music. An angry, raucous voice started barking words over it, sounding just as small and warped as the frantic noise beneath it. He followed the sound over to Iris, who was nodding her head to the rhythm. Beside her, in mid-air, hovered a small, spinning disc made of a slice of twig. It was from this that the noise appeared to emanate.

"What on Earth is that racket?" Woodrush said.

Iris' eyes brightened up. "It's plunk rock!" she said, "You like it?"

"What exactly is 'plunk rock'?" Alcea asked.

"It's the music of rebellion!" Iris said, smiling. "I listen to it to get pumped up. It's meant to have all the chaotic violence of a ton of rocks being plunked into a lake all at once."

"Mission accomplished," Woodrush said, one eyebrow raised. "How on Earth are we hearing it right now?"

"I managed to use the Scribion spell to capture sound onto twigs instead of words onto leaves. So now, I can listen to my favorite songs whenever I want on these little inventions of mine - I call them 'compact discs.'" Iris said, beaming. "I'll bet even the humans don't have anything like them!"

"Not if they're lucky," Woodrush grumbled.

Iris scoffed. "You should be glad I didn't put on any Norwoodsian Black Petal. That'd really rub your ears raw."

The fire wall flickered, and began to withdraw.

"Shields up, and watch for mandrake roots," Woodrush said. "Iris, hit her with some more of those bolts to keep her busy. I'll see if I can lasso her with a taste of her own medicine. Alcea, try to bind her, or if it looks like she's getting the better of us, hit her as hard as you like."

"Let's hope she gets the better of you," Alcea said, licking her lips.

They all cast Portus spells, as the sound of Iris' blaring music raked the air. When the wall of fire finally vanished in a puff of smoke, all three nymphs flitted their wings, and took off.

"Boltracta automatica!" Iris called, once again firing a barrage toward her assailant. Rather than deflect the bolts, Mandragora deftly dodged them. Coming round to flank her, Woodrush growled "Wyrmtonga!" and lashed Mandragora neatly around the waist with a fire-lasso of his own. The mage jerked to a halt, hitting the ground.

Alcea was on her in a moment, calling out "Graskipi!" With practiced movement she used magic energy to pile earth on top of Mandragora, pressing the soil inward to limit her movement. The mage fought her way against it, and opened her mouth to scream - but Iris was there, crying "Bondara e Mufflisca!" Ropes and a black gag floated through the air to whip around the wicked mage, Alcea pulling back the pressing soil wherever necessary to allow the ropes to fix on their prisoner. When the mage had been thoroughly bound, Alcea used the earth to press her down, where she mumbled in fury.

"We did it!" Woodrush said, a smile creeping over his face for the first time all evening.

"Take that, you ugly freak!" Iris cried, pointing at Mandragora's blazing eyes. "You don't mess with our family!"

Alcea beamed at Woodrush, exhilarated at defeating her earlier captor. 

Then, Mandragora began to laugh.

All three looked down at the bizarre villainess, whose cackling rose to a mad frenzy beneath her gag. The light in her glowing eyes began to fade... and, gradually, so did the rest of her. The gag dropped through her face, and the earth sunk into the space where her body had lain.

Mandragora vanished.

"What in Dogwood?" Alcea said.

"She can bloody teleport, too?" Iris whined. "Is there anything this evil fungus can't do?"

"I suspect something else," Woodrush said, his eyes darted around the clearing. "Backs together, everyone. She could hit us from any direction."

The three nymphs formed into a flying triangle, each of them facing outward. They hovered there for several seconds, their formation slowly rotating as each ran their eyes over the landscape from sky to earth and back again. Nothing moved around them.

"I don't see her," Iris said. "Anyone else?"

"Nothing," Alcea replied. "Rush?"

Woodrush breathed heavily through his nose. A small flame of anger had flickered to life deep within him as he began to realize what the trick was - and that it had probably worked. He looked down toward the area where he and Iris had been ambushed.

"I don't see her, and I don't think we will," he said. "Come on, let's go look for the book. Stay in formation and keep an eye out."

The three nymphs descended, taking note of every detail of their surroundings. When they reached the spot where Iris had been standing when the root had grabbed her, Woodrush broke from formation, and began hunting amidst the underbrush.

"Is it there, Rush?" Alcea asked, she and Iris still facing outward against a possible attack.

Woodrush's hands curled into fists.

"No," he growled.

Alcea and Iris turned towards Woodrush, who stood with his head facing the earth, fists tight at his sides. A silence fell over the clearing, save for a soft wind rustling the trees. In each of their chests, the weary gravity of defeat added weight.

"How'd she do it?" Iris said, incredulous. "How'd she get here?" We were fighting her the whole time! She was right in front of us, trussed up and half-buried! We had her!"

"No, we didn't," Woodrush said, his voice a growl.

Iris and Alcea exchanged glances. Neither of them had ever seen Woodrush so enraged. Neither of them also saw the looming shadow behind them, until they felt their arms suddenly pinioned to their waists.

"No!" Iris cried, once again in the grip of the mandrake root. It had broken its bonds and come up from the edge of the lake, evidently still bent on finishing its enemies despite being abandoned by its mistress. It squeezed its victims, harder than it ever had before, squeezing the air right out of them.

Like a lightning bolt, Woodrush sprang up to the towering beast, eyes blazing with fury. He slapped a hand against its woody torso, and growled: "Boanaetere!"

The creature lurched, and both nymphs fell to the earth. They scrambled away from the root and turned, ready to fight, until the saw the effects of Woodrush's spell playing out. Alcea gasped, her hands covering her mouth.

All over the form of the root, wide gashes opened rapidly, one after another. There were brief flashes each time, as though with the swing of a dozen invisible blades - a whirling ball of blades swinging from inside of the root. The flashes increased in speed and frequency as chunks of the root began to fall away, sliced clean off. The root writhed against the lethal magic, finally crumbling to the earth and falling to pieces - and even these pieces kept dividing, seemingly slicing themselves to bits until nothing was left but a randomly-popping pile of sawdust.  

Woodrush stood over his victim, scowling. Iris looked at his back, thinking of putting a hand on his shoulder but unwilling to approach anyone who could mete out such a savage fate with but one word. Alcea removed her hands from her face, clutching them instead to her heart.

"Woodrush," she said, her voice catching in her throat, "what in Daffodils was that?"

Woodrush didn't look away from the defeated pile of dust, which had begun to blow away in the wind. Whatever magic had animated the root, it evidently had been dispelled by such total corporeal destruction.

"Something ghastly," Woodrush said. Both women waited for him to elaborate; he did not.

"Rush, today I've seen magic unlike any I ever dreamed of, and frankly it's made me terrified of the people using it," Alcea said. "One of those is Mandragora... but the other is you. What on Earth is it you've gotten into?"

Woodrush swallowed, regret at losing his temper creeping into his voice now. "Goblin magic," he said, "from the Pixienomicon. Mostly offensive spells designed to be as nasty as possible. To deceive, destroy, and terrorize. What you've seen me do is only the beginning. Mandragora used just such a spell to distract us by the pond: Doppelmanna. One I;ve studied but haven't been able to learn yet. She used parts of her quintessence to make a temporary copy of herself that could move and make noises like her, but it couldn't have harmed us. It only existed long enough for her to grab the book."

"And now that she's got what she wanted, she's pissed off somewhere else," Iris finished. Her face screwed up in confusion "But, why does she even need the ruddy book? If she can do spells out of it that even you don't know, what's it for? And... how in Dogwood can she do spells out of it, anyway?"

Woodrush shrugged. "The sorcerer Wormwood's lost library, I suppose. Does it really matter?" His voice shot up with anger. "She can bloody do it, and wondering how is pointless. I suppose we can ask her, if we can find her again before she uses that thing to unleash Dogwood-knows-what on Daffoville! I failed... I failed, and the only thing we can hope for now is that she and bloody Foxglove finish each other off, and don't take too many of the citizens out with them!"

"No, it isn't, Uncle," Iris said. "We know where she's going - or at least, we have a pretty good idea, right?"

Woodrush looked at her, but said nothing.

"Thorn," Iris said. "You said before that the only plausible plan for her is to bring that prickly monstrosity back. She probably knows about it, but she probably doesn’t know where you dispelled it. If we can beat her there, maybe we can get the book back and stop this whole mess."

Woodrush lifted his head as if in revelation.

"It's the best bet we've got, Rush," Alcea agreed. "We can lay a trap for her, just like she laid for you. She's powerful, sure, but if we get the drop on her, the three of us might just be able to keep Thorn asleep."

"I'm not thinking about keeping him asleep," Woodrush said. He turned to the women, his eyes wide and almost glassy with a kind of wondrous dread.

"Come again?" Alcea said, eyebrows shooting up.

"We can't just get to Thorn first," Woodrush said, licking his lips. "We have to awaken it first. It's the only way to keep her from getting it."

"I'm all for crazy plans, Uncle," Iris said, "but, are you feeling alright? I thought you said this thing was basically the most dangerous creature in the forest."

"It is," Woodrush said. "And the second most dangerous creature is Mandragora. She's already beaten us twice, and now that she has the book, she's going to have access to a whole slew of new spells, the likes of which we can't even imagine. We need something big to take her down."

"But we don't have the book," Iris said, "how will we conjure him up without it?"

"I don't need it," Woodrush answered. "Tulip accidentally summoned Thorn up from thousands of years of sleep with a simple Quintessitam spell. That's all it'll take. Mandragora must not be aware of that, if that's really why she was after the Pixienomicon. We can have the most powerful weapon in the forest at our disposal in minutes. If we fly fast."

"Well," Iris said, with a mischievous smile. "If that's what we need to put the boots to Mandragora, we'd better get going, Uncle."

"Iris!" Alcea said, "you don't know what you're saying. Rush, please think this through. You do remember what that thing did to Daffoville, even with an innocent little girl inside of it?"

"I remember all too well," Woodrush said. "Now it looks like we get to see what a competent mage can do with it. Would you rather that be Mandragora, or me?"

Alcea lowered her face to her hands. When she brought it back up, it was with a shake of the head and a smile as one resigned to folly.

"We'd better get going, then," Alcea said. "Mandragora's got a head-start to the Thorn Valley." She flitted her wings, and began to rise.

"Uncle," Iris said, as she and Woodrush rose together, "do you have any idea what you're doing?"

"Not really, no," Woodrush replied, "but I have to try something. Being complacent is how we wound up with Foxglove, I suppose."

"Right, ol' Prickface" Iris said. Her eyes lit up. "Hey, you should march Thorn in to Daffoville and take care of him, too!"

Woodrush gulped. "One menace at a time, my dear."


***


The sunlight had almost retreated from the sky by the time the three nymphs neared the western woods. They had circled Daffoville in a wide berth, not wanting to attract any attention to a matter that, all things considered, seemed complicated enough without any contribution from the political turbulence at home. Now, with the resurrection of a colossal threat mere minutes away, they flew in silence, each lost in thoughts of how much worse things might be before the night was over.

Woodrush, who alone among the group had actually battled Thorn, tried to remember what little details had been gleaned from Tulip, and later Bluebell, each of which had shared the host-bond with the creature. Tulip had mentioned that Thorn couldn't make you do anything you didn't want to, that it only encouraged the base desires its hosts often suppressed. That it whispered to you, even lied to you, to keep you within. That it only took independent action to keep its hosts safe and connected. Bluebell had added that the connection it established also had an emotional component - that the creature felt sorrow and fear at the possibility of a host leaving it, and that being separated caused it to lash out at everything in its presence - including the former host.

At the thought of Bluebell, Woodrush's heart ached. No one had seen her in weeks, nor had any idea where she could be. Young and inexperienced as she was, the girl had power and charisma. If she had been around, and had any ability to fight, she would almost certainly be present and taking on Foxglove personally. Leading people against him, even nymphs who were far her elder.

And would I follow her? Woodrush wondered. Yes, I suppose I would. She'd be our hope, whom we could rally around. I'd follow her. I'm sure Alcea would, too.

Woodrush looked down at his niece. Iris reminded him of Bluebell, in many ways. Headstrong, itching to prove herself. Propensity to leap before looking. A family legacy with somewhat mixed blessings. He didn't want to go down the road that had put a wedge between himself and his sister, Iris' mother; that was a matter for another day - and surely would be, if Iris had actually told her parents that she was emulating her Dear Uncle Woodrush.

Like it or not, old man, she's looking up to you for guidance. You've just got to hope you're not leading her in a bad -

-direction.

Woodrush saw the shimmer of the invisible wall only a split-second before flying into it. There was no time to give a cry of alarm, or to case a spell; there was the impact, the stretchy give of the web against their momentum, and then the snap back. Iris and Alcea cried out as the three of them swayed sickeningly in midair, held aloft by the unyielding web. Woodrush, stuck by the side of his face, tried to turn his eyes in all directions to see where the threat would come from. Soon enough, he heard it, looming behind him.

"Mmncle!" Iris cried, a strand of the web sticking her mouth closed.

"Normally, you'd  make a fine meal," crooned the sadistic voice of a female Drider from above. "But lucky for you, someone's paying to stock my larder tonight. Sweet dreams."

Before Woodrush could utter a spell, a cloud of glittering, violet powder fell all around his head. He held his breath for as long as he could, but finally couldn't help gasping. A veil of drowsiness fell over him, and he sank into unconsciousness.


***


"Woodrush," Alcea whispered. He lifted his head, and saw her; young and beautiful, sunset light glinting off of her multicolored hair. And the vast field behind her, where the two of them sat in the top of a tree, skipping class to meet up together. And his heart hammering in his ears, unable to believe someone so wonderful would risk so much just to be near him, would go against her father despite his clear opposition, and that the two of them were finally alone to look into each other's eyes in the way they were always too nervous to do around everyone else...

"Woodrush, please wake up!" the note of fear in her voice brought him back. Alcea was there - beautiful as ever, still capable of making his heart beat wild - but she was older now, and so was he. And they were in trouble. Just how much, he was about to learn.

"Sir," came a voice from nearby, "they're awake!"

Woodrush looked up through a cage of glowing green energy. Next to him were Alcea, and the slowly-stirring form of Iris. Alcea clung to Woodrush's arm, as a figure loomed in the brief torchlight outside the cage; since they had been caught, night had fallen.

"Well, isn't this nice," crooned a sadistic voice. The figure bent down, and his face shone sickly green in the light from the cage.

"Hello, Woodrush," Foxglove said, smiling. "it's been a long time."





Woodrush Under the Shade, Part 2
Things really heat up in Part 2 of "Woodrush Under the Shade," my companion story to Golavus' ongoing "The Reign of Foxglove." As you can see, Foxglove is a busy guy these days, what with a whole kingdom to rule and a lot of power to cement; but he's just the latest threat to arrive in the woods around Daffoville, with the sinister Mandragora proving herself craftier and more powerful than anyone had expected. 

This story has been a lot of fun to write, mostly for the intense action scenes. Exploring the world of goblin magic has allowed me the opportunity to flex my horror muscles a bit as well, which I haven't done in a long time and certainly never in a DiD tale. But, the coup de grace in this story is gonna be the final throwdown, which is one of the maddest things I've ever written. I look forward to sharing it with you all!

-Ed
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"With Honeysuckle and I joined in marriage the new era for Daffoville will begin in earnest. My friends, a new dawn is breaking, and together we will lead nymph-kind to glory!"

The crowd of nymphs erupted in chaos, half cheering for joy, half hurling invective as Foxglove, the new Prince-to-be, ended his speech. An ugly mood overtook them as they began to disperse, with some confrontations breaking out and quickly threatening to turn physical. There was little room left in the middle in Daffoville; you were either for, or you were against.

Professor Woodrush stood still for a moment, hugging his ratty black coat around him, trying to process what he'd just seen. There'd been nothing like it in his lifetime; nothing like it in the lifetime of many ancestors. A full-blown usurpation. And it had all happened so terribly fast; before any significant resistance or objection could be mustered, it was over. Power had changed hands. Daffoville seemed to be wandering in a dream world ever since, not fully recognizing itself, still wondering what exactly had happened.

It was little wonder; the character of the town had altered irreparably following one existential crisis after another. This had been the final straw. Nymph society was torn, and trust was broken. Now, where formerly neighbors had smiled in the streets and opened their doors to one another, their glanced about with shifty eyes, and hurried home to lock themselves in. Supporters of Foxglove were the only jubilants, but it was not a happy celebration; it was an ill-spirited, sadistic one, declaring they had never liked the royal family anyway, and wouldn't a self-made genius like Foxglove be such a better leader than someone that was simply given the role?

Loyalists to the Queen had hidden in silent fear, without a figurehead to rally around - until now. Seeing their Princess in the clutches of Foxglove seemed to have lit a fire in their eyes. Woodrush could see groups of them huddled together, or leaving the square and talking with great animation but in hushed voices; already, there were enemy camps. Already, lines had been drawn down the middle of the community.

What times are these, Woodrush thought, where we gleefully make enemies of our neighbors?

"He certainly does make an awful racket, doesn't he?"

Woodrush turned at the familiar, smoky voice. It was a female nymph, tall and willowy, with a shock of pink hair framing her face like a clump of soft wild grass. There was a growing section of white around her roots, indicating, along with the smile lines forming around her wide mouth and sleepy eyes, her ascent into middle age. She wore a billowy green blouse with a highly-detailed embroidered neckline, tucked into a flowing, light-brown skirt that brushed the tops of her sandalled feet. Bracelets of vine dangled around her wrists. When she smiled, Woodrush felt an old warmth wrapping around his bones.

"Alcea," he said, catching her infectious smile. "What are you doing out in this dreadful place?"

"Watching the imminent downfall of the order we've known all our lives,” Alcea replied. Then, she froze, realizing what she’d given away. Cautiously, she said, “That’s what you’re watching too, isn’t it? You don’t look like you feel too good about what’s happening."

"Yes, well. You try and keep an intellectual distance from this sort of thing," Woodrush replied, offering a scowl at the place where Foxglove had stood. When he looked back at Alcea, it was with a sad smile. "But I suppose sometimes the... heart just sort of..." he rolled his fingers through the air, unable to find the words.

"Overrules the mind," Alcea offered, relief flooding into her face. He met her eyes again, and they both started to chuckle.

"That'll do," Woodrush said. Those were old words of theirs, too.  It occurred to him that this was the first time he'd seen her outside of the Academy - or spoken to her about anything outside of work - in quite a long time. His heart began to quicken.

She clearly sensed the same sort of tension, and brushed it off by returning their usual subjects. "I need to borrow a copy of the Advanced Spell Theory text, if you have one. I stopped by your office earlier, but obviously you were out."

Woodrush felt his face fall a bit at this retreat from intimacy, and Alcea clearly saw it; she quickly added, with a teasing smirk, "Still sloshing through a lot of clutter, I see."

Woodrush's smile returned. "Yes, well. I do keep quite busy, these days."

"You might be a little less busy if you didn't have to spend ten minutes shuffling through scrolls every time you need to find one," Alcea said, her long bangs shuffling as she raised her eyebrows at him. "A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind, you know."

Woodrush replied, without a hint of malice, "In that case, far better it be a cluttered desk than an empty one."

Alcea's laugh tinkled, and faded away. She looked at Woodrush in the familiar way they’d always had. He could never turn his eyes away when she did that. The years melted away from her features, and from his limbs, and somewhere in his mind, they were young nymphs once again.

"However cluttered your mind might be, I'm glad it's still sharp as a bramble,” Alcea said, reaching out to touch his arm. “And I'm glad you're against what's happening here in town. It would have broken my heart if you weren't. Keep yourself safe, Woodrush."

"I will," he said, almost under his breath, so quiet had he fallen in her presence. He saw her moving to leave, and called out, "I have a copy of that text in my flat, should you wish to stop by for it this evening."

She paused, appearing to roll the suggestion over in her mind for a moment. Then, with a laugh, she said, "Alright. I'll see you a bit later then, Woodrush."

"I'll see you," Woodrush replied, watching her go. For a long time he lingered, not snapping back to himself until she was completely out of sight. He had forgotten for a moment about the angry crowd around him, about the mad mage now presiding over the city he called home.

Amazing, how you can lose yourself so thorougly like that, he thought. Not wanting to stick around to be lost in the horrid mood any longer, he turned and headed toward the Academy.

From the edge of the crowd, a figure also moved away in the same direction. It followed the shaggy-haired professor right up to the doors of the Academy, and then passed along on its own way, with its own plans to attend to.


***


Professor Pear stood at the window of his small office in the Grand Mage Academy, looking out over the throngs filing through the streets below. One or two flew by in a hurry, though most walked; it was dangerous to fly when talking to five or six fellow nymphs, and that seemed to be what most were doing. Even hidden away in the comfort of his office, Pear felt terribly vulnerable. He suspected everyone did, nowadays.

There was a knock at his door. He licked his lips, and called out "Come in."

The door opened, and he heard the familiar voice of a colleague say, "Afternoon. Enjoying the view?"

"Woodrush," Pear said, turning from his window.

"Pear," Woodrush replied. "What's this about a meeting?"

Pear was taken aback at first, but then relaxed. "I'm sorry, Woodrush, I sometimes forget you don't like to bother with such pleasantries as 'How are you?'"

"Is that what this meeting is about?" Woodrush asked.

"It's about how we all are," Pear said.

"Alright," Woodrush said, "how are you, then?"

"Bad," Pear said. "How about you?"

"Fair, I suppose," Woodrush said, shifting his weight off of one foot. "Corn's acting up a bit."

Pear shook his head. "Woodrush, the situation with Foxglove can't be ignored any longer. I can't believe I have to ask this, but I need to know where you stand."

Woodrush's eyebrows rose. "So the Academy's storied tradition of remaining politically neutral ends today, does it?"

Pear frowned, and picked up a birch bark scroll from his desk, and held it toward Woodrush. "Remaining neutral is no longer a luxury that we can afford. Foxglove made sure of that, just about an hour ago."

Woodrush took the scroll, and glanced over it. His eyes flew wide. When he looked up, Pear wore a grim expression on his face.

"Is this some sort of joke?"

“Tell me where you stand, Woodrush.”

Woodrush’s hands, still holding the scroll, dropped. “I find him deplorable, as any decent person would. What in Daffodils would make you expect me to think otherwise?”

Pear sighed with visible relief. “Some in the Academy thought you might sympathize with him as a sort of ‘misunderstood genius.’”

Woodrush bristled. “I was unaware that ‘misunderstood’ was now synonymous with ‘megalomaniacal.’”

“There’s that,” Pear continued, “and you’ve stated many times in rather unkind detail that you don’t give a sod about the royal family.”

“I may not give a sod about them, but I rather draw the line at attempting to murder them,” Woodrush said. “My dislike for the man aside, how can we be sure this isn’t some sort of hoax?”

"I only wish it was. It came through the proper channels, with the seal of Princess Honeysuckle herself," Pear said. "The Academy has three days to deliver an inventory of every copy it possesses of the texts on this list to Foxglove's police."

"An hour ago," Woodrush said, "before he made his speech. And already, he's issuing proclamations with the Princess' seal. What a nightmare," Woodrush said, rubbing his forehead. "Does he know the size of our library? Why in Daffodils does Foxglove need to know how many copies we have of the 'Magic and Ethics' primer?"

"It'll come in very handy if he wants to deprive us of them all," Pear said.

"Right," Woodrush said, his eyes going over the list. "Well, why the private meeting with me? Am I to head the book-counting committee? I'd rather not tender my resignation today, Pear."

"Don't be ridiculous," Pear said, taking back the list. "Our administration is drafting their response as we speak; they intend to refuse. But I must tell you, Woodrush, that the decision was far from unanimous. Foxglove has his supporters everywhere, even here, and they are moving to gain more power. That was why I needed to know where you stand. And, I need to know something more important, should the individuals I've mentioned find out about some of the Academy's off-the-record possessions."

Pear leaned in close, and dropped his voice to a whisper.

"Do you have the book on the Academy campus?"

Woodrush paused. "Which book?"

Pear closed his eyes. "The book, Woodrush. The book that we assigned you to study to find out how to defend Daffoville. The wicked book."

"Oh, right, that one," Woodrush said, scratching his head. "No, that's not here, that's - "

"Don't tell me!" Pear said, raising his hands. "Don't tell anyone anything about where it is. The fewer people know, the better. Listen carefully. When you leave this office, I want you to go straight to wherever the book is hidden, and move it to the safest, most secure hiding place you can think of."

"Alright," Woodrush said. His mouth screwed up in thought. "What if it already is in the safest, most secure hiding place I could think of?"

"Then move a…  potted plant in front of it or something, for Dogwood's sake!" Pear said. "We don't know how far Foxglove intends to press this issue, but knowing that maniac, he's only just getting started. We have to assume his power is going to grow, and with that, his daring."

Pear sat down at his desk, and stared out the window again. He looked old, and weary. The weight of events clearly strained him.

"Dark times are falling over us, Woodrush. Darker than I've ever seen in my life. Political coups, civil unrest… people disappearing! Students, even!” Pear fell silent, wringing his hands. “I only hope we are all strong enough to see this through."

Woodrush nodded. Something else occurred to him, then.

"Speaking of students… any sign of Bluebell yet, Pear?"

Pear sank further into his seat, and shook his head.

"I fear that Foxglove may have finally dispensed with her, as well. The poor girl... I hope she's alright, wherever she is."


***


"What a day," Woodrush thought, leaving the Academy. "Government overthrow, confiscation of books, division in the town... Alcea..."

Woodrush remembered her smile, and felt one of his own creep over his face. He would see her tonight, outside of work. Together again, for the first time in… ages. He allowed his mind to wander back through time, to their own days in the Academy. Or rather, out of it; more often than not they had to cut class to be together, as they were a year apart and Alcea’s stern father had not liked him at all, positively forbidding her to bring him home. Woodrush shook his head, thinking of all the times since becoming a professor that he had admonished students not to cut class, or pass notes, or any other of the myriad things he and she had done so often.

Ah, the irreverence of the young, Woodrush thought. How glad I am to be rid of that.

A body moving at a brisk pace collided with him, knocking all the air from his chest. He fell back against the wall of a nearby house, while a strange-looking young nymph girl fell backward onto the street. Coughing, Woodrush pushed himself forward to help her. When she sat up and took his hand, she froze.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I -" Woodrush began.

"Uncle Woodrush!"

Suddenly, the strange girl he had bumped into gave him a smile he hadn't seen in over three years - warm, admiring, with the hopeful eyes of the very young. It was a smile that caught at his heart, and always had. But the face that wore it was different; the multicolored hair – vivid violet with a white streak, and a splash of yellow at the root - framed not the countenance of a girl, but that of a young woman, with heavy black makeup around her eyes, her lips stained purple. She stood almost as tall as him, wearing all black; her sleeveless shirt cut off at the midriff, tight miniskirt, a pair of spider silk tights ripped to shreds all the way down her legs, front to back, and a sturdy pair of stained-black grass-twine boots. Decorating her wrists and arms was a plethora of asymmetrical jewelry, and a choker studded with bits of crystal encircled her neck. A belt made of tiny spines lashed together hung on her hips. And, to top it all off...

"Iris?" Woodrush said, leaning closer to his niece. "What on Earth is in your nose?"

"Oh, this?" The girl replied, crossing her eyes as though to see her own nostril. "It's a piercing."

Woodrush rubbed his eyes. "A what?"

"A piercing! Like the humans have."

Woodrush was stumped. "Could you possibly elaborate?"

"Right, so I was talking to my girlfriends, Lily and Orchid, and they said Lily's cousin's best friend's sister's next-door neighbor met one of those humans that came to Daffoville, and she started talking about how in the human world, people punch holes in their skin and put in bits of metal. It sounded rad, so I did it with my nose! Mine's just a tiny bit of stone, though."

Woodrush shook his head, as though trying to wake himself up. "It sounded what?"

"Rad!" she said. "Lily said humans say it when something's good."

"Why not just say 'good'?"

"That wouldn't be rad at all, would it?"

"And you thought it would be... 'rad'... to have an extra hole in your nose? In case the first two don't work, is it?"

"Ah, come on, it's just something different, isn't it? Like you. You're different."

"I'm not quite sure I'm 'three-nostrils' different."

"Aren't you going to ask me what I'm doing in Daffoville?"

Woodrush rolled his eyes, thinking of the speech he had just witnessed by Foxglove. "I'm beginning to wonder what it is I'm doing here."

"I've come here to study magic!"

This got Woodrush's attention. He folded his arms. "Really, Iris? Interesting time to start, mid-semester. When did you apply to the Academy?"

"Well... I haven't applied, as such. I've got more... private instruction in mind."

"Ah," Woodrush said, resuming his slow walk, with Iris clinging to him like a parrot on his shoulder. "And who, pray tell, will be instructing you?"

"Well, I... sort of wanted to talk to you about that, Uncle."

"Ah. Of course.” Woodrush held up his fingers and began counting.  “So, on top of the six advanced courses I'm teaching this semester, the independent studies I'm engaged in with University help, and the consultant security research that I'm performing for the NDF, I am also going to be providing private tutoring for a notoriously mischievous niece with a record of disrupting classes that we shall call - what shall we call it?"

"Spotty?"

"Frequently spotty. And I wonder what I'm to receive as compensation for this additional weight on my already-strained schedule?"

"Well, um... you know how much I love you, Uncle Woodrush?" She said, hugging Woodrush, and nestling her colorful hair beneath his chin, beaming up at him.

"Love," Woodrush said, scratching his forehead. "I wonder, what can I do with this love? Can I eat it? Will it patch the holes in the roof of my flat?"

"I can patch them!"

"Can you now?"

"Sure! I can do it straightaway! Why don't we go have a look at that flat?"

"A look at my flat, is it? I wonder, are you about to offer me sufficient love for room and board as well?"

"Well, since you're offering, Uncle."

"I am not offering Uncle."

"Dear Uncle."

"I am not offering Dear Uncle, either. Your parents haven't a clue that you're here, do they?"

"They don't need to. I reached adulthood this year. I can go where I please."

"And the place you please is my flat?"

"Uncle, come on! I mastered everything  Mum and Dad know. I can cast rings round the both of them now. In fact, I have, on several occassions!"

Woodrush imagined the look of fury he knew so well from his sister - Iris’ mother.  "I'd like to have seen that,” he said.

"I've nothing left to learn from them, and you know more about esoteric magic than anyone! When I was a little girl, you promised you'd teach me!"

"As I recall, that promise was contingent upon you entering the Academy."

"That was not part of the promise. I remember every word."

"There was a disclaimer," Woodrush added, "there's always a disclaimer."

"Uncle, come on!" Iris said, stopping in front of him. "You were my hero growing up. Everyone around me was so upright and proper, with their nice dress, and their high ambitions, and their daily grooming - but not you!"

"That's your idea of a compliment, is it?"

"You aren't afraid to be different. You didn't want to be just like everybody else. That's what I admired about you." She began to pout, like she had when she was a little girl. "And I still do."

"Iris," Woodrush said, putting a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Being different's nothing to fear, that's true; but it doesn't make things any easier. I'm sorry. I haven't the time to instruct you, or anyone else right now. If you want to take lessons from me, the surest way is to apply to the Academy."

Iris' shoulders fell. "But that'll mean years of taking prerequisite classes that I'm overqualified for. Years I could spend really learning!"

"Not necessarily. There's an entrance exam. That'll decide your placement. It's fairly basic, but if you talk to the Headmaster, I'm sure they can get you into some courses that will challenge you in due time. Now, I really do have to get home so I can continue my research. I'm sorry."

Iris looked out into the falling evening, her chin set in anger. Woodrush thought he saw tears forming in her eyes. He sighed.

"I know you're a long way from home, and me telling you to go back isn't what you wanted to hear tonight."

She still didn't look at him.

"Come on back to my flat. I won't contact your parents. You can stay with me until you figure out what it is you're going to do."

She brightened up at once. That old, warm smile  returned, and she leapt onto Woodrush, squeezing him in the tightest hug he'd received in several years.

"Thank you so much, uncle Woodrush! You'll barely even notice I'm there. I promise I won't go rummaging through your magic books and casting random spells."

"I very much appreciate it," Woodrush said, his mind going back to a mad day with a much younger Iris. "It took me three days to track down that bloody nightstand you brought to life."


***


The door opened to Woodrush's flat, a spacious yet humble abode carved into the roots of an old stump. The professor himself entered, followed by his niece, who looked around with an expression of concern. Virtually every surface was covered in stacks of books and dog-eared scrolls, some with a noticeable mote of dust on them. The paint, made of mashed flower petals, had probably been a bright, warm orange at one point, but now appeared faded and cracked. From somewhere in the flat, Iris could hear the distinct sound of dripping.

"Nice digs, Uncle," she said, before stumbling over a small bucket made from an acorn. Water sloshed out onto the carpet of moss.

"That's the leaky roof you promised to fix," Woodrush replied, pointing upward.

"Well, perhaps I can patch it with some of the grime from under your tap," Iris said, taking a daring peek into Woodrush's kitchen.

Woodrush took a look around his living space, as if for the first time. "I suppose the place could do with a bit of tidying," he said, as the wall cracked and a picture fell to the floor. "Funny how you never notice these things until you're expecting company."

"Expecting company?" Iris said. "I thought I managed to surprise you?"

"Oh, no, not you," Woodrush said, with a wave. "Actually, I've invited a friend over this evening. She needed to borrow a book of mine, and - "

"Time out!" Iris said, approaching her uncle with a dropped jaw. "She? As in, female?"

Woodrush looked around the room. "That's the only sense of usage for that word I'm aware of."

"Oh my Dogwood, my uncle Woodrush has a date! That's adorable! Why didn't you freaking tell me?" she said, giving Woodrush a playful shove on his shoulder.

"I try to avoid 'freaking' if it can be helped," Woodrush replied, brushing off his shoulder. "Besides, it's a purely professional visit. As I said, she's just coming to get a book."

"Purely professional, sure. Then why'd you turn red just now, you sneak?" Iris said. "What's her name?"

Woodrush cleared his throat. "Her name is Professor Alcea. I wouldn't even have told you, as she's a distinguished colleague of mine at the Academy, but as you'll be meeting her I suppose I'll need to introduce you."

"I don't have to meet her if you plan on getting 'distinguished' with her tonight," Iris said, raising her eyebrows. "I can always hit the town and see what sort of trouble I can get into if you need the flat."

Woodrush's face screwed up. "First of all, 'distinguished' is absolutely senseless as a euphemism. Secondly, be careful what you wish for. There's a great deal of trouble you can get into in this town as of late. I'd much rather you stay safe in here."

A breeze blew outside, and a cloud of splinters puffed out of a hole in the ceiling.

"Right, safe in here," Iris said, coughing at the cloud. "Well, I feel a bit grimy after flying all the way here today. I'm gonna nip into your shower. Is there anything I should know about the condition it's in?"

"No," Woodrush said, feeling defensive now about his domain. "I had the balls of flame that used to erupt from the drain taken care of months ago."

Iris disappeared down the hall, and once she had turned into the bathroom, Woodrush began looking around. It occurred to him that his earlier statement about the place needing "a bit of a tidying," had been extremely generous. He looked into the unattended kitchen, where dishes sat stacked to stratospheric heights and the floor was spattered with a veritable painter's palette of stains.

No time, he thought. She's not coming for dinner, anyway, she doesn't have to see the kitchen. Woodrush grabbed hold of the curtain that separated the kitchen from the living room, and pulled it across the opening - only to see the middle, stiffened into rigid folds by filth and disuse, crumble and fall away, leaving the mess of the kitchen not only still visible, but nicely framed by the hole.

Woodrush slid the curtain back into place, and, pointing at the window above the stack of dishes, whispered "Obscuritas!" A wobbling black cloud emerged from his fingertips, flew across the kitchen and stuck over the window, dimming the mess from sight.

Woodrush heard the shower begin to flow down the hall. Now that he was alone, he remembered something else he needed to take care of. He headed into another room off the hallway, and with a snap of his fingers, illuminated an enchanted lump of quartz at the top of the ceiling.

Woodrush's library contained, at his last count, something like a thousand books and birch bark scrolls. In contrast to the rest of the house, it contained a large area around his dependable old desk that was relatively free of dust, and most of the shelves were in a perfect state of organization. This was where Woodrush needed to find things right away, where his mind best worked. He took a moment to deeply inhale the scent of old paper, and smiled.

He made sure the curtains were drawn tight, then listened once more for the sound of the shower. Satisfied his niece was occupied, he crept over to a bookcase that was equipped with two large drawers built into the base, and opened the top one.

There, in the bottom of the drawer, was the book that Pear had warned him to hide, the malevolent magic tome whose potential for danger was already well-proven. The Pixienomicon seemed to elicit a primal growl in the back of Woodrush's skull every time he looked at it. Most nymphs would probably dismiss this as superstition, as a case of intimidation induced by the book's frightful reputation.

Most nymphs hadn't read it.

Woodrush's mind began to wander into the places the book had taken him. He had read less than half of it so far - translating from Old Pixie was not an easy task - and yet, what he had already absorbed had rattled him. There were forms of magic unused by, or even unknown to, nymph scholarship. The absorption of what good the book contained into the nymph world would be enough to build a long nymph lifetime on.

And, Woodrush thought, preventing what evil the book contained from entering the nymph world will be the task of many lifetimes to come.

Woodrush snapped back to himself, realizing he had unconsciously picked the book up. The stiff old leather of the dust jacket felt eerily warm in his hands; he quickly deposited it back in the drawer, and shut it. He stood to leave, but remembered Pear's admonitions to make the hiding place even more secure. Thinking for a moment, he left the room, returning a few seconds later with a small weed in a pot, which he placed directly in front of the drawer. He stood up, scratching his head.

Then, there came a knock at the door. Woodrush's heart fluttered. He ran a hand through his hair, and then quickly wiped it on his coat to remove the thin layer of grease it had accumulated. He paced out to the door, hands clenching and unclenching repeatedly.

Come now, Woodrush, he thought, you're two distinguished, professional educators, and she's only here to borrow a book. Stop all this nervousness, you're like some flighty schoolboy of thirty.

Woodrush paused in reaching out for the door. He knew Alcea when he was thirty, and she made him feel this way then, too.

Woodrush opened the door, and smiled upon seeing Alcea there. His smile quickly faded, however, when he saw a sticky leaf plastered over her mouth.

"Wmmdrmsh, M'm smrrm!" she mumbled, wide-eyed.

"What in Daffodils - " Woodrush began. But before he could finish, an arm reached in the door to shove him further into the house.

At least, it was very near to an arm.

The owner of the limb pushed past Alcea to follow Woodrush into his house. It had to duck to get in, and when it raised its - for lack of a better term - head back to full height, Woodrush observed that the being had no face. Its twisted, pale brown body divided into long, tapering limbs - thin arms and huge legs - and capped off on top with a shock of green, like hair. Woodrush realized with some astonishment that he was looking at what appeared to be a sentient root.

A second root carried the bound and gagged form of Alcea into the house, standing up to full height next to its companion, their grassy "heads" pressing into the ceiling. They stood, mute, engaging Woodrush in the most colossally unfair staring contest in nymph history. He licked his lips. This fight would tear his house apart, but he was fairly certain he could find a way to take down whatever these monstrosities were.

Then, the two roots parted, to make way for one last entrant through the door.

A female pixie strode with a menacing single-mindedness into the house. She wore a white minidress made of purple and white mandrake flower petals, atop black spider-silk tights on both legs and arms. Black wedge-heeled boots fashioned from strips of grass reached up to her knees. The tips of the mandrake petals that composed her dress framed her face as a hood. From within, pale green hair tumbled out in waves, down to her waist.

But Woodrush was really drawn to her eyes. Over the woman's humorless mouth, her eyes glowed with a psychedelic pink light.

"Professor Woodrush, I have come for the Pixienomicon."

If Woodrush had thought the woman's eyes were her most disturbing feature, he had to reevaluate his position upon hearing her voice. When she spoke, it was with a disorienting double-barrel voice, as though he was hearing two speakers in almost perfect sync; one voice, having a more skewed and distant quality, clearly began speaking first, though the other, more immediate voice always caught up in a wink. Both voices were flat, cold, and menacing.

Woodrush swallowed. He had never encountered anything like the motley assemblage that had just entered his house, holding Alcea hostage. All the same, he had one priority, given what the woman had just demanded.

No, Woodrush thought, remembering Iris in the bathroom. Two priorities.

Woodrush stood up straight, letting his hands clasp behind him. Once there, his fingers danced on the air.


***


Down the hall, Iris had just emerged from her shower. She stood over the tub, drying herself, aggressively humming a favorite song of hers. Suddenly, she saw a flicker of light in the corner of her eye. When she looked up, she beheld a glowing red wall of magic blocking the bathroom door. Her eyes narrowed.

"Uncle?" she called.


***


"And, who exactly are you, to come barging in here on this foolish assumption that you know what's in my book collection?" Woodrush said to the intruder.

The woman smiled; there was malice in the simple gesture, a depth of sinister confidence paired with lack of restraint that Woodrush had only seen once before - on the face of Foxglove.

"I am called Mandragora," she said, in that bizarre dual voice.

"Of course you are," Woodrush replied, looking at her dress, and the living roots. He nodded towards the one holding Alcea. "Neat trick there with the roots. And your voice. And eyes. There are a lot of neat things about you. It makes one wonder why you feel the need to go barging into private homes to try and steal books that aren't there."

Mandragora's smile faded. "The book is here. Do not waste my time. Your colleague only has one life to lose."

Woodrush looked at Alcea, whose eyes pleaded with him over her sealed mouth. But the plea he read there was not for herself. She knew that handing that book to Mandragora, whoever she was, could not bode well for anyone. Woodrush scowled back at Mandragora.

Behind his back, his fingers continued to move, manipulating magic without a word.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," he continued, "but whoever you're paying for your information is not giving you your money's worth. Why don't you go attack them with your root-people, and let my colleague and I have the pleasant visit we were planning before you spoiled everything?"

Mandragora bared her teeth. The pink glow in her eyes flared to an almost painful brightness.

"No," she said.

Woodrush lifted an arm against the brightness of Mandragora's eyes, just in time to see the other root swinging a long, spindly limb his way.

Woodrush barely breathed "Portus!" and a large blue shield flared into being on his right arm, which he used to block the root's assault. He followed this up with an equally-rapid "Snofrizar!" which he directed at the feet of the root, freezing it into place on his floor.

Except, it wasn't on his floor, to be precise; it was on his woven-moss area rug. The momentum the creature had built up in its approach to him continued to carry its bulk forward, lifting the rug off of the ground and sending the root falling straight toward Woodrush.

"Bloody hell!" Woodrush leapt out of the way, stumbling over the small pile of books that had accumulated near his couch and barely keeping on his two feet as he barreled into the wall. The root smashed onto the couch, destroying it and the end tables to either side of it. Still it crawled toward Woodrush, dragging the tattered remnants of his area rug along with it.

"Combestis," Mandragora said, shooting a ball of flame at the ice that locked her henchman's legs. The root writhed in voiceless terror at the touch of flame. Its mistress did not pity it.

"Get up and fight, you weakling!" she ordered, eyes flaring pink. The root quickly seemed to forget the fire that licked at its legs. The ice had melted, and it began to rise.

Woodrush saw he would be cornered in only a moment, but the Professor hadn't ascended to his position by being easy to outwit. He raised a hand, and, twisting his lips in a way he was not quite used to, uttered an incanctation.

"Ungesnsweyard!" he growled. He felt a sudden weight come into his hand, and without hesitation, he leapt toward the root and slashed his hand at its midsection.

Though nothing was visible in the Professor's hand, a flash of light like that of a metal blade shimmered through the root's body along the arc of Woodrush's swing. The creature stopped, and stiffened. Then, slowly, its head toppled forward, followed by its arms and chest.

Its lower trunk and legs remained where they had stood for a moment, then toppled over in the opposite direction. As Woodrush looked past the creature he had cloven in two, he saw Mandragora looking at him, her pink eyes widened in rage.

Woodrush smiled, gesturing at the lifeless root before him. "Don't worry, Alcea, I'll have you out of there before you can say Queen Snowdr - "

If Woodrush ever finished saying the Queen's name, Alcea never heard it. At that moment, Mandragora opened her mouth, and unleashed the loudest, most violent noise either of the nymphs had ever heard. Her twin voices built, higher and louder, racing each other towards some distant and unimaginable crescendo. It was not the scream of fey or man; it was the crash of a tidal wave, the blast of a volcano or the roar of an avalanche - events epoch-ending to humans, and outright apocalyptic to nymphs.

Some voice in the back of Woodrush's head begged him to cast a Mufflisca spell to gag the woman, or any spell at all really - just something to make the endless screaming stop. But he couldn't hear that voice, for Mandragora's scream was inside his head as much as in his ears, drowning out all thought but the unbearable pain and noise. Before he realized it, he was on his knees, hands crammed against the sides of his spinning head. Then, he was on the ground, curled into a ball. The world spun as though it were a child's maltreated plaything, shaken back and forth without plan or reason. Woodrush saw spots. Then, the spots became colors, then forms, twisting and warping before his vision, even when he closed his eyes.

Gradually, the scream began to fade. Down, down it fell, still ringing, still painful, but retreating. Woodrush, coming back into himself from where the scream had taken him, realized he had lost all sense of time; he had no idea how long the scream had actually lasted. Through the spots in his vision, and the lingering scream in his brain, and the debilitating dizziness, he began to observe Mandragora standing over him, one boot on his back. She sneered down at him with utter contempt, glowing eyes cold and distant, as though the woman herself were barely present in the surreal nightmare she had turned Woodrush's flat into.

"You are a fool," she said; Woodrush felt more than heard the words, his ears still pulsing with the ringing scream. "If I had believed your futile lie about not having the book before, your last spell would have shattered my belief."

Mandragora raised her own hand, and uttered the words as Woodrush had: "Ungesnsweyard!" In her hand, there shimmered light as on a blade. She stepped over toward the dazed Alcea, still in the arms of the surviving root, still with her mouth plastered shut by a sticky leaf. Mandragora moved her hand, and the shimmer of the blade moved toward her captive's throat. She turned back to Woodrush.

"There is only one place one of your kind could have learned the Spell of the Unseen Sword," she said. "One last time, Professor Woodrush: where is the Pixienomicon?"

Woodrush looked up at the mysterious woman, and at Alcea in the arms of the root. Tears streamed down Alcea's eyes, yet there remained, beneath the haze from the scream, a look of defiance. They couldn't prevent Mandragora from tearing the place apart to find what she needed, but that didn't mean they would just hand it to her. Woodrush began to shake his head.

"N-n-never," Woodrush stammered, "not in a m-m-million - "

"Here it is!"

All three fey turned to follow the voice. At the mouth of the hallway stood Iris, in a pair of spider-silk pajamas, holding a large, weathered old book that Woodrush could recognize, even in his dazed state, as the Pixienomicon.

"Iris, no!" he cried. Mandragora pivoted and planted a boot right between his wings, pushing his face to the ground. The shimmer of the unseen sword hung over his head.

"That's a good girl - Iris, was it?" Mandragora said, taking slow, predatory steps towards the young nymph. "Quite the little obedient one, aren't you?"

A look of offense came over Iris' face, but she suppressed it. "Look, if you promise not to hurt them, you can just take the book and go, okay?"

"If I promise" Mandragora said. The wicked smile returned. "Alright. Bondara e Mufflisca!"

"Nooommmmmph!" Iris cried as a black gag sprang from Mandragora's fingertip and wrapped itself with stringent tightness over her mouth. White ropes followed suit, trussing the rebellious mage up tightly. She fell to the floor with a thud, wriggling in frustrated rage.

"My promise is this:" Mandragora said, picking up the book. "I will take what I want, and hurt who I want, regardless of what a Mage Academy student wants or thinks. In fact... I think I ought to make sure there are no loose ends remaining here."

Mandragora strode over to Woodrush, placing the shimmer of the unseen sword over his neck once more. Iris screamed into her gag, pulling and straining furiously against the ropes. In the arms of the root, Alcea put up a similar struggle.

The shimmer wavered. Mandragora looked down at Woodrush through her glowing pink eyes, her teeth gritted, hand trembling. Iris felt gripped by a very real confusion; Mandragora had been ruthless and efficient up until now. What was staying her hand?

The shimmer vanished. Mandragora now turned her look of vitriol away from Woodrush, and onto the carcass of the root soldier that the Professor had cleaved in two. She extended a hand over its remains, and began whispering under her breath. The root struggled back to life, writhing and shifting. Mandragora kicked its back.

"Pull yourself together," she ordered. She returned to Iris, whose prone form she bent over.

"You're lucky the Professor cut apart my mandrake," she said, "otherwise, you'd be coming with me, and Alcea. Make sure to remind Woodrush that if I am followed, she will die."

Mandragora stood. "Enjoy your studies, Iris," she said. Then, with the Pixienomicon under her arm and accompanied by the root carrying a screaming, gagged Alcea, and the other dragging its sundered bulk, she left.


Woodrush Under the Shade - Part 1
I am extremely pleased to be able to post this, the first part of a companion story to the current events of Golavus's Bluebell saga, "The Reign of Foxglove." (you can read part 1 here: fav.me/dczr6ku). This story, "Woodrush Under the Shade," marks the return of a character I introduced almost five years ago, in my first foray into Bluebell's world, "Bluebell's Thorny Situation" (Read part 1 of that here: fav.me/d72u1j2). All of the elements I toyed with and hinted at in that story are going to blow up into a whole disastrous threat of their own here, right when Daffoville has an excess of threats as it is! I hope you all will enjoy this story; in a way, I've been waiting five whole years to tell it!

Here's Part 2!:
www.deviantart.com/edstorm/art…

-Ed
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Drew Barrymore by EdStorm

Quick sketch I worked up today when I found out it was this lovely damsel's birthday. Although my kink was well-established long before this movie came out, I still consider this to be a classic scene and pretty foundational as this was the first time I had ever seen lipstick lips drawn on a gag, and I was floored by how new and yet obvious that was. The fact that it was on a gorgeous redhead didn't hurt.

And yes, I'm still alive - my activity here waxes and wanes, as anyone who's followed me over the years is no doubt used to. Lately it's been far more on the wane as my mainstream artwork has been flourishing, so when I had the time today I wanted to throw up this piece so everyone knows I haven't quit on you all. I've actually had a new story in the works for some time, so you've all got that to look forward to as well.

I really enjoyed drawing this little tribute to such a beloved scene, so I may do more like this for warm-ups. Watchers/viewers, let me know what you think.

-Ed

EDIT: And, wouldn't you know it, I've got Part 1 of the new story up now, too! My good friend :dev:Golavus: is bringing his beloved Bluebell saga to an exciting new head, and I'm coming along for the ride with a companion story: "Woodrush Under the Shade"! You can read it here:
   Woodrush Under the Shade - Part 1"With Honeysuckle and I joined in marriage the new era for Daffoville will begin in earnest. My friends, a new dawn is breaking, and together we will lead nymph-kind to glory!"
The crowd of nymphs erupted in chaos, half cheering for joy, half hurling invective as Foxglove, the new Prince-to-be, ended his speech. An ugly mood overtook them as they began to disperse, with some confrontations breaking out and quickly threatening to turn physical. There was little room left in the middle in Daffoville; you were either for, or you were against.
Professor Woodrush stood still for a moment, hugging his ratty black coat around him, trying to process what he'd just seen. There'd been nothing like it in his lifetime; nothing like it in the lifetime of many ancestors. A full-blown usurpation. And it had all happened so terribly fast; before any significant resistance or objection could be mustered, it was over. Power had changed hands. Daffoville seemed to be wandering in a dream world ever since


I'm on fire tonight! Hope you all enjoy it!

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:iconjpstudios11:
Jpstudios11 Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018  Student Traditional Artist
Happy birthday!
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:iconthephoenixking:
ThePhoenixKing Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy birthday, and keep up the great work!
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:iconmuds11:
muds11 Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy B-day to one of the best DiD writers around!
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:icondannysuling:
dannysuling Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
A very happy birthday to you, my friend!
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:iconenglishdamsel:
EnglishDamsel Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy birthday!
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:icondreamerforever2004:
Dreamerforever2004 Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy Birthday, Ed! :D
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:iconnabselhinari:
NabselHinari Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy Birthday
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:iconallylogan:
AllyLogan Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2018
Happy Birthday!
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:iconatmu:
Atmu Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2018
Do you take requests or just commissions?
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:iconedstorm:
EdStorm Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2018  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Neither at the moment.
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