Making more wolfen turned out to be a tricky problem. Originally I’d hoped that my flesh sorcery would be up to the job, provided I could get a decent look at the magic involved. Cerise had helpfully bent her power-stealing abilities to the task of collecting a sample of felwolf magic, which we’d picked up a bit over a week ago while we were testing out our new flight abilities. So I sent for a couple of wolfen volunteers, and settled in to spend an evening comparing their physiology to the magic in Cerise’s sample.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Thanks to my mana sorcery it was easy enough to figure out what was in the sample, but the important parts were more mystical than biological. My flesh sorcery was good at moving atoms around, but not so great at inventing new forms of innate magic. If I wanted to duplicate the enchantment that made the wolfen I’d have to start by turning some poor sap into a miniature felwolf, and then spend a few months experimenting on him.
Yeah, not going there. People already thought I was an evil wizard. No need to prove them right.
It was Cerise who finally pointed out that we already had a way to bypass that problem. The next morning we pooled our efforts to render a sample of felwolf essence into physical form, and then headed down to the kitchen.
Avilla examined the vial full of dark, syrupy liquid dubiously. “This doesn’t look very appetizing.”
“You don’t need very much,” Cerise said. “A teaspoon of that stuff is about what you’d get from a felwolf heart with your normal ritual.”
“Oh, so it’s concentrated? That might work, then. Give me a moment.”
She carefully measured out a few drops of liquid, and diluted it with a cup of milk. Then she sniffed it like a wine snob sampling some exotic vintage, and tasted a tiny sip.
“Strong, but not unpleasant,” she declared. “There’s a bit of an aftertaste, but I can fix that. Use it in a sauce over red meat, or as seasoning for a hearty stew. I suppose I could serve feasts to make more wolfen now and then, if you can supply me with enough essence. Will that take a lot of hunting?”
“Oh, I can make more,” I explained. “My mana sorcery is good enough for that. I just couldn’t quite make the jump from creating felwolf essence to transforming people safely. So we figured I’ll just make you a bottle of the stuff that refills itself automatically, and then you can make us as many wolfen as we want.”
She stared at me incredulously for a moment. Then she giggled, and shook her head.
“Only you, Daniel. Do you realize how precious an ingredient like that is for me? An unlimited supply of even one essence will make me the most powerful hearth witch in Europe.”
“I think you were already there, honeydew,” Cerise told her. “Have you shown Daniel your new trick?”
“Nope,” I answered for her. “I haven’t been around much. Have you started animating the utensils or something?”
“Better,” Cerise said. “Come on, show him already!”
“Alright, alright, if you insist. Really, it’s not that impressive. I’ve just been deepening my claim on our home.”
Avilla took a step back into the cabinets that lined the wall behind her, and vanished. Just like a dryad stepping into her tree.
“That’s pretty cool,” I observed. “Can you still hear us like that?”
“Yes,” came Avilla’s voice from out in the dining room. I turned to find her standing on the other side of the breakfast bar, with a proud little smile on her lips.
“Traveling, too? How far can you go?”
“This is my limit right now. But my reach grows a little further every day. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll be stepping across the palace and back whenever I like.”
“Normally that takes about twenty years of daily rituals, and it doesn’t reach more than a dozen paces from the hearth,” Cerise pointed out. “My girl’s already stronger than her granny ever was.”
Avilla blushed prettily. “Thank you, kitten. Just remember that raw power isn’t everything. I have a long way to go before I can match granny’s subtle hand with enchantments, and I have no one to learn from. A few more hearth witches have turned up among the refugees as they trickle in, but so far they’ve all been young apprentices like Mari.”
“At least you’ve still got your recipe book,” Cerise pointed out. “Hey, Daniel, think we could swing back north to pick up honeydew’s implements sometime soon?”
I winced. “Ouch. I’d love to, but that would probably take three days with the Intrepid. I’ve got some ideas for a faster flying machine, but I need to come up with a way to supply our troops with skimmers before I can take time for that.”
“It’s alright, Daniel,” Avilla assured me. “To be honest, when we left the house I didn’t think we’d ever be back. I’ve already started to make replacements, and with the power you’ve given me it won’t take nearly as long as when granny made hers. I’m sure rescuing villages is a much better use of the airship’s time.”
“I guess there’s no telling where we might find an old granny who’s really an experienced witch,” Cerise pointed out. “Just don’t hesitate to tell us if you realize you’re missing something you can’t replace, okay? We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, sweetie.”
Avilla walked through the bar like it wasn’t there, and pulled Cerise and I both into a group hug.
“You’re too good to me, both of you,” she said. “Thank you. That means a lot to me. But really, I’m fine. In fact, I’m going to have some fun surprises for the Yule feast.”
“Do they not have that where you’re from?” Cerise asked. “It’s the biggest holiday of the year, and it’s only a few weeks away. Come to think of it, we should arrange something for the troops too. It would be good for morale.”
“My to-do list never seems to get any shorter,” I said. “At this rate I’ll have to invent time travel just to keep up.”
“Maybe Elin can help with that,” Cerise joked. “The dryad groves are practically turning into faerie realms with all the power we’re feeding them, and I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about how strange time can be in faerie. Of course, knowing Pelagia I doubt you’d ever get any work done there.”
“Yeah, somehow I don’t think that would turn out very well,” I agreed.
“Then again, I could go for a few years of banging hot nature spirits in between our weekly disasters.”
“Slut,” Avilla said affectionately. “You’d spend your whole life in bed if you could get away with it.”
“You complaining?” Cerise pulled her lover into a kiss. Avilla squeaked in surprise, but didn’t put up much resistance until Cerise’s tail started to snake up her thigh. Then she pulled away, and swatted Cerise on the butt.
“Stop that! I have work to do, kitten. Go play with your dryads if you’re so worked up.”
Cerise pulled away with a giggle. “Nah, I think I’ll seduce Elin. She’s been getting wrapped up in her books again, so someone needs to remind her that she’s not alone anymore. You’re done with me for now, right Daniel?”
“I don’t know, I’m tempted to get in on this Elin seduction business.”
“You’d better save your strength for tonight,” she advised. “You don’t want to disappoint Pelagia.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Go on and have your fun, then. I can take this from here. Avilla, I’ll have Gronir handle all the organizing for wolfen recruits, so you won’t need to do anything but the cooking. I’m sure you two can work out a schedule, and you can add in some of the maids if you want.”
“Alright, Daniel. With a large essence supply I can make a much stronger recipe, so it won’t take long to start seeing results.”
That was one problem out of the way. Could I do something about the other transformations and enhancements I’d been thinking of while I was at it? There was an interesting personal enchantment I’d never used, that would make the subject a lot stronger and more durable than a normal human. But laying enchantments on people is a more delicate process than burning them into a piece of equipment, and I’d never had the luxury of spending a whole day on something like that.
A day of work just to make a single soldier twice as strong wasn’t worth it, but maybe I could make a device that would do the work for me? Something like the factory enchantments I’d been building to make guns and mortar shells? That might work, but the idea of using it on people made me a little nervous. I’d never done anything quite like that before, and a mistake could have nasty side effects.
So I decided to start out with something a lot less complicated. Could I make a device that would apply a simple cosmetic change to the wearer? There were a lot of those I could do with my flesh magic.
An amulet that changed the wearer’s hair color was trivial, but that was just a magical dye job. Making it change their natural color was more complicated, and I found that it was best to give the magic some time to work instead of trying to make the change instant. There were also some interesting complications, like making it smart enough to realize when it was done instead of just re-running the transformation forever. Making it recognize when the wearer already had the desired hair color also seemed like a good idea. Stuff like that turned out to be the hardest part of the exercise, but even so it barely took me an hour.
What would be a good step up from that? Something involving more tissue, and maybe a mass change, but not a full-body effect?
I snickered at the first idea that came to mind. Why not? Avilla had already told me there was a demand for it.
My kitchen goddess was rather bemused when I stopped by her domain again late in the afternoon to present her with a collection of little gold amulets.
“Ask, and ye shall receive,” I said grandly. “But I want you to keep these under lock and key, and be careful about how they get used. Some of them could cause problems if the girls get careless.”
She eyed the handful of amulets cautiously. “How mysterious. What do they do?”
“They’re transformation amulets. Each one has a different effect, but they’re pretty simple to use. Here, let’s start with this one. See the little glowing crystal? It changes the wearer’s hair color to match whatever is showing.”
“Oh, my! That will be very useful,” she exclaimed, taking the amulet and studying it intently. “How do you set the color? Some sort of intent control?”
“Yes, but you have to feed it a little magic while you’re setting it. I did it that way so you can have the maids use it, and they won’t accidentally change the settings. It takes about ten minutes to work, but once it’s done that’s their natural color.”
“Marvelous. I’m surprised you had time to make something so frivolous, though.”
“I’m working my way up to more complicated things,” I told her. “I just figured I might as well make the test pieces something you can use. This next one does the same thing, only with skin tone. Notice it’s got a little ‘S’ engraved on the back, and the other one has an ‘H’? It takes a little longer to work, and you don’t want to take it off before it’s done or the color might not come out even. If you keep it on after it’s finished with the basic change it’ll go on to remove freckles, moles and small scars, so if you’ve got someone who likes her freckles you’ll want to be careful with that.”
“Alright, that will be handy for making some of the girls look exotic. What about the other three?”
I grinned, and held up one of the amulets. “This one makes the wearer’s breasts bigger.”
She giggled. “I knew it!”
“Yeah, I had to go there, didn’t I? It’ll also fix some common problems, like removing stretch marks and making them match if they aren’t quite the same size. It’s a lot slower than the color change amulets, though. It takes about half an hour to make a noticeable difference, but it just keeps working for as long as you wear it. Don’t let anyone wear it to bed, or they’ll end up way too big.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Daniel. We wouldn’t want to upset Tina.”
“We also don’t want anyone to get suffocated by her own breasts,” I said dryly. “Seriously, most people aren’t going to need more than a couple of hours. But I know women can be picky about these things, and it could take some experimenting to get it just right, so this amulet does the opposite. Notice the engraving says ‘B-’, and the growth amulet says ‘B+’. That way the ones who get carried away can get back down to a reasonable size without having to bother me.”
“How thoughtful. You know, Daniel, that’s one of the things I love about you. You always try to think these things through, and make them work out right for everyone.”
“Um, thanks, I guess? What else would I do?”
“Most wizards would say that people are cheaper than magic,” she pointed out. “Letting a few fools die in mishaps is a lot easier than trying to make your enchantments flawless. But we all know you don’t think that way.”
“No, I have this strange idea that lives are actually valuable,” I replied.
It really got to me sometimes, how little anyone else around here seemed to care about that. I know life is cheap in preindustrial societies, but I don’t have to like it.
“Anyway, this last one is going to need special handling. It turns the wearer into a catgirl.”
A breathless squeak from the other side of the kitchen informed me that we had an audience. A couple of the maids were putting away a load of groceries, and the pantry was easily within earshot.
Avilla smiled indulgently, and raised her voice. “Did you see a mouse, Cami? I hope so, otherwise I’ll have to punish you for eavesdropping again.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Avilla!” One of the maids exclaimed. “I didn’t mean it! I just, I mean, I couldn’t help myself.”
“I know how much you want to be like Tina,” Avilla said. “But you still overstepped. Finish your work, and then go to the training room and wait for me.”
“Yes, Miss Avilla!”
I thought about intervening, but the breathless anticipation in the girl’s reply changed my mind. Instead I raised a sound barrier around the two of us.
“Must not be much of a punishment if she’s looking forward to it that much,” I said.
“Ten swats with the paddle,” Avilla admitted. “Slow, with lots of attention in between, and I usually can’t resist playing with them a little afterwards. I know, I’m a softie.”
“It seems to be working out for you,” I said with a chuckle. “So, anyway. I tuned the catgirl transformation to go with your idea of making exotic maids, so it still leaves them looking pretty close to human. They’ll have the ears and tail, but no fur to speak of. It’s also going to give them better hearing, a much better sense of smell, faster reflexes and enough strength to arm wrestle your average soldier. But it takes most of a day to finish the transformation, and it’s important to keep the amulet on the whole time. If the process ever gets interrupted somehow don’t let them put the amulet back on, and get them to me as soon as you can.”
She frowned. “How dangerous is that?”
“Oh, it isn’t going to kill them or anything. It’s just that the amulet isn’t smart enough to pick back up where it left off, so they could end up with a distorted transformation that doesn’t work right. I don’t think anyone wants to get stuck with an extra pair of cat ears, or a nose so keen she can’t stand to get near the kitchen.”
“I see. That’s not so bad, then. Does it also give them Tina’s, ah, proportions?”
“No, it just gives them some extra physical fitness. I figured anyone who wants to go catgirl can use the other amulets first, to get the cosmetic changes right. Oh, but that’s an important safety issue. I designed these enchantments to work on human women, and they aren’t necessarily safe for anyone else. The wolfen should be fine, but no elves or catgirls. Or you, for that matter. Not that I can see why you’d want to change anything about yourself, since you’re already perfect.”
She playfully swatted my arm. “Oh, you! Don’t start with the flattery when I’m supposed to be keeping my hands off of you. Shouldn’t you be heading down to the grove soon?”
“I know, I know. I’m just going to go change first. What do you wear to a revel, anyway?”
“Something that’s easy to take off?”
I turned to go, but she suddenly pulled me back and kissed me.
“Thank you for the gifts, Daniel. I’ll put them to good use.”
I headed back to my room with a smile.
What do you wear to a nature spirit sex party? I pondered that question for a few minutes as I looked over my wardrobe. Avilla had been adding new outfits when I wasn’t looking, and I found that I now had quite a selection. Comfortable lounging robes. Practical work clothes. Fancy formal outfits. There was something appropriate for any normal social function.
Mythology paints nymphs as simple nature spirits, spending all their time dancing naked in woodland groves and leading satyrs on giggling chases through the wilderness. But for all that they seemed to spend half their time naked, the women in Pelagia’s grove tried to be more sophisticated than that. When they did bother with clothes they favored surprisingly elaborate gowns, and Pelagia was always bragging about how refined they were supposed to be. Her ‘girls’ were immortal nymphs and their nearly ageless companions, and in a thousand years even the most flighty of creatures could learn a thing or two.
In the end I decided to dress for a formal ball. That meant a shirt and pants instead of the robes mages usually favored, and a tailored jacket to go over it. The tails on the jacket took some getting used to, and I had to get a maid to help arrange the braid properly. But at least Varmland didn’t seem to have ties.
I knew I’d made the right choice when I reached the entrance to the dryad complex, and found a nymph wearing what had to be a formal dress waiting for me. With a skirt that almost reached her knees and a neckline that barely showed a hint of cleavage, it was the most conservative thing I’d ever seen a nymph wear.
She was still stunning, of course. The thin silk clung to an hourglass figure that would put any centerfold model back home to shame, and her long mane of curly chestnut hair was done up in a complicated arrangement that framed her face and left her delicate neck bare. She even wore earrings, dangly twists of gold set with big green gemstones that matched her eyes.
She favored me with a brilliant smile. “I bid you welcome to an evening of celebration, my lord. May I escort you to the festival?”
I struggled to remember her name, but luckily it came to me.
“Certainly, Xenia. I take it Pelagia has big plans for the evening?”
I offered her my arm, and she took it without making any attempt to get closer.
“Of course, my lord. We haven’t had such cause to celebrate since before the Grove of Bloody Thorns was properly formed. All our best entertainers are going to be part of the show.”
The door I’d come through opened onto the bottom floor of one of the agricultural areas, between the habitats I’d built for Pelagia’s Grove of Bloody Thorns and Corinna’s Fangs of the Forest. I hadn’t been here in weeks, and I found that the dryads had turned it into a garden at some point. The overhead lights were turned off, but there was a grassy path lit by floating balls of green and blue faerie fire. On either side of the path were patches of flowers between tall bushes, all of which had colorful blossoms of their own. It almost looked natural, except that I knew there had been nothing here but bare dirt when I built the place.
“Very nice,” I said. “But doesn’t this make things difficult for the farmers?”
“They use the other doors,” she replied. “This one is closest to your palace, so Pelagia and Corinna decided to make it look nice. Now please, my lord, no more talk about practical things. Tonight is a time for relaxation and enjoyment, not work.”
“Alright. What would you like to talk about?”
The path crossed a little stone bridge in the deceptively deep stream Elin and I had carved out between the two groves, and I saw that someone had made a few additions to the structure. A mass of vines grew up around the posts at either end of the bridge, and twined together atop them to form miniature tree shapes adorned with tiny balls of faerie fire.
We crossed the bridge, and started down the path to Pelagia’s grove.
“Well, Nomiki wanted me to thank you for convincing Lady Elin that our offers of massage services aren’t just a plot to seduce her.”
“You’re welcome. I think you had a good idea there. That girl seriously needs to learn how to relax. Although I doubt Nomiki would pass up a chance if it came up. I’ve seen how she looks at Elin behind her back.”
Xenia giggled. “Well, of course not. Lady Elin is quite beautiful, and she helped you build our new home. We’re going to seduce her quite thoroughly one day. But it’s clear that she isn’t ready for that yet, so for now we’re simply working to get her comfortable with us. Thankfully your other ladies are more open about such things.”
“Oh, yes. Avilla asked for a demonstration a few days ago, and she was a lot of fun. I think she’s working out a plan to have us ambush Cerise and pamper her into a pliable puddle of bliss. And Tina is just a joy! She came wandering down here wanting to meet everyone, and spent the better part of a day just visiting. There’s not an ounce of human hesitation in that one.”
“No, she’s pretty enthusiastic. She told me once that if she’s going to be one of us sinful heathens, she wants to try out all the sins and figure out which ones she likes. I can’t imagine her reaction to some of the things you girls do, though.”
“She was fascinated by the restraints and costumes,” Xenia confided. “I put on a little show with Hela, just some light bondage and paddling, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of us. It was adorable.”
We came to the end of the path. It opened out into a grassy clearing, surrounded by the tall trees of the grove. A crowd of beautiful women filled the space, all of them dressed for a party. Lean, athletic dryads in miniskirts and halter tops, their weapons put away for the evening. Taller, more mature hamadryads mingling with the outrageously curvy nymphs, all dressed in formal gowns like Xenia’s. The naga I’d seen once before, who was draped in so many gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and waist chains that they almost hid the fact that she was naked.
Pelagia emerged from the crowd, and enveloped me in a warm hug. “Welcome, Daniel! I’m so glad you could make it. Ladies,” she said, turning and raising her voice. “Our guest of honor has arrived.”
The murmur of conversation died instantly, and the whole crowd turned to face me. Then they all curtsied in unison, and smiled at me.
“Welcome, my lord.”
Pelagia claimed my free arm, and smothered it between her soft breasts as she went up on tiptoe to murmur in my ear. “Every one of my girls is eager to serve you in any way you desire.”
I couldn’t help it. I was hard as a rock already.
“But first, let us show off our less predictable talents,” she went on, louder. “Come, we’ve prepared a place of honor for you. Have a seat, and sample our wine while you enjoy the show. Xenia will ensure your comfort.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Xenia led me to a large cushion surrounded by soft grass, where a pair of dryads waited with wine and a bowl of fruit. They settled me on the cushion, with a dryad curled up on either side of me. Xenia settled herself behind me, and they pushed me back to recline with my head on her mountainous breasts.
“Wine, milord?” One of the dryads asked.
“Or food?” The other said.
“Both,” I replied. “But go easy on the wine. I wouldn’t want to overdo it, and miss something. ”
“Of course, milord,” said the dryad with the fruit bowl. “Just relax, and let us take care of you.”
I started to say something else, and she popped a grape in my mouth. Then wine girl leaned in to hold a goblet to my lips, incidentally pressing her perky little breasts into my shoulder.
Well, guess I wasn’t going to need my hands here. I let them settle around the dryads’ waists, and they practically purred at the contact. Fruit girl fed me an orange wedge.
Around us the rest of the crowd was taking seats on the grass, facing a low wooden stage. Pelagia took to the stage as the crowd settled, and looked out over the group with a brilliant smile.
“My dear friends and beloved sisters, we are gathered here this evening to celebrate a momentous occasion. For the first time since the fall of Olympus, our grove stands on hallowed ground!”
There was a burst of applause, and several cheers. Pelagia waited for the noise to die down before she continued.
“For ages we nymphs were playthings of the gods. They lent us a faint reflection of their power, feeding our cravings for protection and support. But they had little care for their toys, and we often suffered under their rule.
“Then came the fall, and for long centuries we were left to fend for ourselves. Hunted by men and gods alike for our beauty and compliant nature, with nothing to defend us but our wits. Each of us has known the bonds of slavery at least once, and for many of us the only escape was the mortality of our captors.
“We survived as best we could, and over the centuries of our exile we learned to work together and hide ourselves. Our dryads mastered the warrior arts, becoming fierce protectors as well as beloved companions. We turned our grove into a hidden refuge, and took in a few kindred spirits who had magic of their own to contribute to our defense. But our safety has always been precarious, dependent on walls of misdirection woven from the dying echoes of the magic we once held.
“When Fimbulwinter fell, I feared it was the end of us.”
She bowed her head, and was silent for a long moment.
“But now, our long exile is at an end,” she went on. “For we have a new patron. Not some arrogant, uncaring god who will ignore and abuse us, nor yet some feeble wizard fumbling to bind us with scraps of power no stronger than our own. No, our new lord is a man of rare wisdom, steeped in hidden lore and wielding the power of a demigod. A man who greets us as comrades instead of pleasure slaves, and shares the fruits of his mysteries with any who pledge their loyalty. A man who is already as ageless as we are, and with our aid may one day become more than a man.”
She raised her arms in a triumphant gesture. “And see what he has wrought! Our refuge now stands within the mightiest fortress in Europe, surrounded by walls that could withstand even the Thunderer’s mighty hammer. Hard men and subtle elves stand ready to defend us while we turn our magic back to its true purpose, nurturing our hidden fastness of verdant life. In this sorcerous realm the very sun and rain come and go at our command, thanks to the implements our lord has gifted us.”
She knelt, and placed one hand flat on the stage. “Then we have the final miracle. Our new lord’s limitless magic floods the land and waters of our grove, filling us all with a warm glow of protective strength. Even our old masters never offered us such power, and this time there is no hidden corruption or terrible price to be paid. We nymphs will soon be restored to the station we once held, as demigoddesses of nature’s bounty. Only this time we have the will and the wisdom to use our power for more than idle games. Our dryads are fast blossoming into huntresses of fell power, fit to contend with even the strongest of monsters. Muriel and her sisters have already turned their pool into a little faerie realm, and in a week we’ll be ready to do the same with the entire grove. Even dear Renshitrinashlit has benefited, through the bonds of sisterhood we all share with her.”
Pelagia stood, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes now. “My sisters, our time of troubles is finally over. Tonight we celebrate the birth of a new era for the Grove of Bloody Thorns. We celebrate safety and healing, the end of tears and the beginning of new joy. We celebrate the end of our lonely struggle for survival, and the companionship of strong new allies who stand ready to protect us. But most of all, we celebrate the indulgent embrace of our new lord, who assures me that any nymph who seeks a personal bond with him shall be well and truly conquered before morning!”
There was a round of laughter and catcalls at that.
“Just remember to wait your turn!” Pelagia went on. “Especially all you performers. No trying to sneak in a quickie before your show. Now, let’s demonstrate for our new lord what the Thorns can do!”
A band started up, laying down a smoky beat with drums and some kind of wind instrument. A tall nymph with long black hair swayed onto the stage as Pelagia stepped down, dancing sinuously to the beat. Three dryads followed her up, and worked their way into a circle around her. Then the nymph opened her mouth, and began to sing with the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard.
I leaned back into Xenia’s breasts, and let the dryad with the goblet feed me another sip of wine. This promised to be an interesting evening.