Prologue

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Esti ignored Darius. “Come on, we’re getting close. This way.”

They were in the sub-basement of The University, well beyond where second-year students were expected to be. “I’m just saying that whomever put your tree down here isn’t going to like this. We should get a professor or something.”

“And tell them I’m a dryad? No way.”

“Meliae.” Darius corrected. The difference was normally a pet peeve of Esti’s. She just headed through the catacombs.

The University (and if you had to ask which one, you didn’t need to know) was technically open to all races and species, as long as the students could show some mastery of some form of magic. In practice an nature-spirit’s ‘abilities’ weren’t considered ‘magic’ and the nature-spirits themselves weren’t considered people, really. Just semi-sentient manifestations of the underlying magical conflux. No more than a golem, and with just as much feelings and rights.

So when Darius had accidentally seen Esti step out of a tree one day while clearing his head in the woods, he’d been surprised. She was a friend, and they’d been in several classes together. He knew she was an intelligent, independent, person. It didn’t take much begging on her part for him to agree to keep her secret. Even without the threat of the forest around him.

“Are you telling me you never told any of the faculty here what you are doing?”

“Every nature spirit who has ever applied here has been turned away or enslaved. I’m not telling anyone until I’ve graduated.” She paused at the next corner, and took a right.

Darius stopped in place a moment. He knew what she was trying to do, but he’d assumed someone was helping her. The idea of a dryad (or maliae) sneaking into The University under false pretenses just to get people to recognize nature-spirits as sentient beings was mind-boggling enough, but doing it alone…

Well, it explained why she went to a second-year wizard for help when her tree disappeared.

Darius ran down the twisting corridor to catch up, and just saw Esti duck through a low doorway to the side of the corridor. He followed, and found himself on a staircase descending into a large vault. Centered in the room was a small tree, just barely clearing the ceiling. Esti was running down the stairs.

“Esti, wait! Be careful!” Darius hurried down the stairs after her.

She was circling the tree, examining it, when he arrived at the bottom. “Well, it looks like they haven’t damaged me, at least. Not intentionally, anyway.”

Darius had gotten used to Esti speaking of her tree as a part of herself, so parsing that sentence wasn’t hard. “Good to know. I wonder how they got it in here?”

“Teleportation spell, I expect.” Esti wasn’t paying attention, as she ran her fingers over one of the lower leaves. “The air isn’t good down here. Not enough circulation.”

“Well, it will take me a while to prepare a teleportation spell. At least one that can transport a whole tree without damaging it.” Esti, he knew, couldn’t work ‘pure magic’ spells. That was one reason she’d brought him along. “We should look around a bit, see if we can figure out what they indended to do with the tree.”

Esti broke out of her daze. “Good idea.” She headed off one way, towards the wall. Darius headed the other.

At first sight the room appeared empty, apart from the tree. It wasn’t: it was just that the room had been cleared for the tree, and everything else was dwarfed by it being there. There were alcoves full of various implements, some shuttered and some not. The implements seemed evenly divided between magical and gardening.

Darius had just found what looked like an altar with a spellbook placed on it when he heard voices. “Esti, hide!” He shot in a semi-telepathic whisper. He shut the alcove he’d just opened, and darted to the previous one, which had held only dusty gardening supplies.

The doors sealed well, which meant it was dusty and dark. But Darius could still hear fairly well. Not that he needed to: Whomever was approaching wasn’t bothering to hide at all.

“You sure this is a dryad’s tree?”

“Absolutely. You saw the scrying spell. Don’t worry: She’ll come eventually. It’s only been a day, after all. The stupid spirit is probably just realizing her tree is gone.”

Darius heard water running into pails. “So what are you going to do with her, once you’ve bound her?”

“Well, dryads are supposed to be in the form of very lovely young women…” There was a collective snicker. “Don’t worry. I’ll share her. Once I’m done.” The speaker’s tone changed. “Let’s see… Oh, yes.”

Darius felt the pulse of power infuse the room. Whatever spell the speaker was maintaining, it was fairly wide-area.

“Come on, we’re done here. The wards will tell me if she arrives. Then we’ll have a party.” There was laughter, and the voices faded as the speakers walked away. Darius waited until he was sure they were completely out of earshot before opening the doors to his hiding-place.

It might just be his eyes, but Darius thought the room looked brighter. “Esti?” He called, softly.

“Here.” It was a sob. Darius looked where he thought the voice had come from, but didn’t see his friend.

He walked towards it, to the center of the room. “Where?”

“Here.” She said again, the voice much closer. “In the tree.”

“Well, come on, we have to get you out of here. We’ll work on getting your tree out later. You heard him: he’s got something set up to detect you.”

Now she did sob. “I can’t: He put a trap spell on the tree. I can enter, but I can’t leave. I couldn’t feel it from outside, and when you told me to hide, I just automatically jumped for my tree…”

Darius took a deep breath. “Ok. We’ll find a way out for you. Look, can you at least form a face? It’s hard to talk to a tree trunk.”

“Not if we don’t want them coming back. He’s got spells in here, looking for me. I was lucky I was thinking ‘hide’ when I entered the tree, or they would have gone off immediately. As it is I can hold them off a while, but they’ll notice I’m back sooner or later.”

“How long?”

“A couple of hours, maybe.”

Not long then. Darius started to study the spell binding Esti to her tree-self.

It didn’t take him long to find out what he needed to know. “Esti? I can’t unwork the binding. Not directly.” He felt ashamed to admit it. “I can see how they did some of it, but… Maybe if I had a week to study. This is third-year work at least. I just don’t know enough.”

“I… I understand.”

“I’m not giving up though. I saw a spellbook just before they came. Maybe it’ll have something.”

The book, predictably, was open to the spell on binding a dryad to a human. Darius flipped the pages. Binding a Naiad, binding a Lampaed, various types of land nymphs, a couple of air spirits…

All of the bindings were to humans. The spell that had bound Esti into her tree was mentioned, but only in passing. Darius looked around, but this was the only spellbook in the room.

“Sorry, Esti,” he reported, “That book has the spell to bind you to a human, but not the one that’s caught you.” Darius sat down, dejected, in his friend’s shade.

“Thanks for trying, Darius.” She sounded as sad as he felt. “Tell me about the spell they are going to use.”

He winced. “It’s not nice. It’ll draw you out of your tree, and transfer that bond to the caster. No subtly or anything: you just end up bound to them. ‘Body and will’, according to the notes on the spell. All bonds to your tree are broken.”

All bonds?”

“Yeah. The notes mention the spell that caught you, but only in that it is broken as well.” He laughed, a graveyard chuckle. “I could get you out, but only by binding you to me.”

They sat in silence a moment.

Esti whispered. “Better you then them.”

“What was that?”

There was a pause, and Darius wished he could see Esti’s face. “I said: Better you than them. You recognize that I’m a person. To them, I’d just be a toy. A ‘form of very lovely young women.’ Nothing more.”

“You want me to cast the enslavement spell?”

“I can’t hide from these alarm spells much longer, and I’d rather die then be enslaved by that cretin. He’s got spells to keep people from killing the tree, and there’s no way you could get out, find help, convince them I’m worth rescuing, and get back here in time. It… It is better than the alternative.”

“But that type of thing is what you are here to fight. Why you became a student. To prove that you are equal to any other person here!”

“And I can’t fight it very well as their slave, can I?” She didn’t sound happy. “I’d rather be the slave of someone I liked, if I have to be a slave.”

Darius was on his feet, facing the tree trunk. He let the tension out of his stance. “Ok. I’ll do it. But… I offer a Wizard’s Oath: I will not require you to do anything you do not wish, and I will strive to free our bounds, so that you may live in freedom once more.”

“I… I accept your Wizard’s Oath, Darius. Thank you.”

Darius felt the Oath fall over him. A Wizard’s Oath wasn’t unbreakable, but it would compel him to attempt to fulfill it. He didn’t know anything better to make sure he wouldn’t give in to the temptation to abuse his friend. He went back to get the book, this time studying the spell to make sure he could cast it.

“Esti, I’m going to need to cut… No, wait. Remember what professor Aksel said in spell construction last week? The intent of how something is done affects the course of the spell. Can you give me a small branch? I wonder if being a willing slave makes a difference. I can make some other minor changes…”

“You sure it will still work?”

He shrugged. “If it doesn’t, then we try it the other way. It should though, I’m just going to try changing the intent behind it a bit, not actually modify the spell.”

“Ok.” She dropped a straight branch into his hands. Darius set about using it to draw runes and patterns in the ground and air around Esti’s tree, murmuring under his breath.

Esti knew better than to interrupt him. This spell was well above his level, and tampering with it was dangerous. The advantage he had was that it was being cast on her, and she wanted the modifications to work. Nor was she going to fight the course of the spell, though she could feel it pulling her…

It hurt. Like she was being ripped in two. For a moment she fought, instinctively, and she felt Darius’ hold on the spell start to falter. He wasn’t good enough: she could break free.

If she wanted to. But Esti had no doubts that those who had set this trap were good enough to hold the spell together, even if she did fight. She forced herself to stop fighting, to help Darius complete the spell. Without her opposition, he quickly regained control. She felt the bond that was a part of her, that was the reason for her, break. For a moment, she felt fear: Left like this, she wouldn’t die, but she wouldn’t live either. She’d become…

The thought was gratefully left unfinished, as Darius completed the spell, and bound that part of her that had been the tree to himself, substituting his life-energy for the tree’s, and making her whole once more, even if not the same whole.

Esti fell out of the tree onto the ground in front of Darius. He grabbed her hand. “Come on, we probably just set off that guy’s alarms. We’ll come back and get your tree later.” Her aborted reply was ignored as Darius pulled Esti to her feet and headed for the door.

Darius led this time, down an almost random set of passageways until they were in familiar corridors again, under the dorms. Darius pulled off into a study room, and sat down on a couch. Esti followed. “So, how are you doing, Esti?” He asked, carefully.

She considered herself, and his face. “I… I’m ok, I think. Still myself, mostly. And don’t worry about going back for the tree.”

“Oh?”

“It’s not a part of me anymore.” She shrugged. “It has some… sentimental value, but that’s it.”

“I thought meliae drew their life-force from their tree.”

“They do. But for all intents and purposes, you are my tree now. Oh, and I’ve figured out what a willing slave is.”

“What?”

“A girl in love.”

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