Ash and Maple ~ Part 2
rating: +11+x

Alone.

The dryad was alone.

The secret language of the dryads didn't even have a word for being alone. Being a dryad meant being interconnected with every other dryad in the Grove. It meant a hundred thoughts, experiences, lives, all humming in the background.

She remembered the feeling of a falling metal beast ripping and tearing her tree to pieces. Remembered the blades pulverizing her branches. The blood of the beast burning through her bark and scorching to her heartwood. The screaming and panic pouring into her and overflowing and suddenly… ceasing as the world went dark and quiet.

Empty and alone.

She felt her body jolt as the branches under her dug into her back. There was a sensation of movement and a constant stream of muttered curses. She exercised control of this form, and opened her eyes to the impossible.

The forest stretched out around her, but it wasn't the Grove. She couldn't feel the roots beneath her and the forest was full of beeches. She did see maples, but they seemed… wrong. Sickly?

Some movement caught her eye and she saw the smoke. The smoke of her home, her body, her family, billowing into the uncaring ashen sky. She felt the aching absence and wept.

~~~

Bryan limped through the forest, muttering curses. Years. Years spent seeking power had led to months preparing for this day which had become a catastrophe in minutes.

He deserved that magic. He had earned that magic. Yeah his teachers in the Serpent's Hand had stressed that it was a gift to be given, but none of them had saved the last member of the Grove with a never-before-tried Working.

And how had he been repaid so far? The crazy tree-chick had yanked him across the forest, then flopped to the ground screaming.

He hissed in pain as a step jolted his arm. It dangled uselessly by his side, steadily turning purple.

~~~

A sound like dry leaves rustling brought the dryad back to reality. It was the sound of another person! She jerked, falling off the two branches on which she was being supported. Her body impacted the ground and she tried to scramble back up. She felt… wrong, like a plant trapped in a too-small pot, roots tangling and filling the space so completely it cracked the pot. At the same time, she felt light and empty, truly hungry for the first time.

One of the humans! Right! She had tried to save one and it looked like she had been saved by one. She looked up at him and tried to remember how to speak.

"Hey." His voice held a rasp like the edge of a saw. She tried to recoil away and hit her head on the limbs still held in his hand.

"Chill. We got away from them, for now. We gotta keep moving though. A helicopter crash won't kill a Bookburner Strike Team, not in those damn suits. They'll probably spend some time burning the Grove but I haven't been able to mask our trail."

The dryad was filled with a sense of loss so profound she was amazed the human could stand under the weight of it. She tried to speak but didn't quite have the shape of it.

"You yanked my arm out of its socket, damn near ripped it off." The saw blade was near the surface of his voice again, painful and angry. She watched his mouth. So that's what she was doing wrong.

"Badrieee" She whispered urgently. No, that still wasn't quite right.

"Now would be a good time to whip out some magic" He looked at her, expectant.

"My tree." She managed to work her mouth correctly, and clung weakly to the branch he was holding.

"Burned to a crisp, probably. I think yours was one of the first to go. Come on, we need to move." The words were like a blow. It was fresh and bleeding in her mind, the metal beast falling on her tree, its spinning blade shredding her and burning blood scorching her heartwood. She cried out in remembered agony, and the human made a noise like the wind through dry leaves.

"Shush and come on. The least you can do is walk on your own."

She flailed again, struggled to her knees, and somehow managed to stand.

"My tree! How…?" She tried a step, and narrowly avoided falling.

"I used the Grove initiation spell to bind you to that seed." He pointed to her chest where she had been clutching it without realizing. That explained why she felt so compressed, so root-bound. It also explained why she felt so wrong. He had yanked her… self? Soul? Spirit? out of her tree and shoved it into a tiny seed. It had sprouted during the process. The human dropped the branches and started walking. She immediately grabbed the two, tied together with a strip of leather.

"These are part of Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep."

She realized that this might be all that was left of her best friend. The only thing, apart from her, left of the Grove. She would not abandon them, not for any price.

"Okay…? I guess we can bring the sticks if you want. At least we're moving."
He turned, left arm hanging uselessly by his side.

"I'm Bryan, by the way," He unfastened the leather and put it around his waist. This accomplished, he picked up one limb, and she relinquished it reluctantly. She still had the one in her hand, and it seemed they were going in the same direction. Even through the anguish, she felt a little thrill. Somehow, she was outside the Grove! She was somewhere no dryad had ever been!

"Thank you for saving me."

"And your name is…?" The saw was back. Had she broached some rule of etiquette?

"My name was Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash," A beautiful name in Dryad, rendered ugly and twisted by irony.

"My Dryad isn't great. How does that translate to English?" She worked out the translation.

"Seedlings Spring from Cold Ash," The words tasted like ash in her mouth, too.

"Jesus. That's apt. And lengthy. What do you mean by 'was'?" He winced a little with every step.

"I died when the metal beast hit me. In the instants before the flame ate this body, you attached me to this seedling. Thank you. But I am dead. Do the dead have names?" He was glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, but she paid no mind. Step after step, she walked the outside world. A miracle made of death and desperation.

"Metal beast? Oh… you mean the helicopter…" He seemed to think on this for a bit, "I think I'll call you Ashley. I don't want to stumble over your whole name every time."

Ashley accepted this and took yet more impossible steps into the unknown.

~~~

Bryan tried to keep in mind the lesson drilled into him by his instructor in the Serpent's Hand.

'Being chosen by the Grove is a gift. No matter how long you work, most of you won't be chosen. This isn't, as I've heard some of you suggest, an easy path. You will need to work hard to even get a chance, but that work does not obligate them to choose you.'

But he hadn't just done the preparations. He had saved Ashley's life and saved the Grove. That had to entitle him to the joining. She would have to make another seed for him to use, but he'd seen his instructor bring plants to fruit with her powers, granted by the Grove.

Ashley was quiet. She seemed to have gotten the hang of walking and was following him steadily. She had one hand clutched with the seedling on her chest, and the other was holding the branch he'd picked up. He could understand why she would be hesitant to let go of the last reminder of her friend. He had a locket from his mother around his neck- he had ever since she died a decade ago.

"Where are we going?" Her voice seemed a little stronger. He stopped, looking around.

Fuck. Well if we can get back to Alaska, I might be able to get us to the Way. That's if she ever gives me what she owes me.

"West!" He tried to project as much confidence as he could into the single word.

They walked in silence for a time. Finally, a question bothered him enough to break it.

"Why don't you wear clothes?" Ashley looked down at her form and gave him a confused look.

"Why would I wear cloth?"

"Don't you get cold? We're in the Yukon Territory. This is Canada. Canada is known three things: maple syrup, hockey, and snow to the frigging rooftops."

She gave him a look that was, for lack of a better word, wooden.

"We can- we could control the weather. Why bind ourselves with strips of cloth and leather when we could wear the wind and sky?"

"Well if we're going to make it around humans you're going to need to we- what do you mean 'could'?

"Our magic came from the connection and communion between the members of the Grove. We each contributed a drop to the pool."

"So you can't give me power?"

"I'm sorry, I don't have any to give. Every drop of magic I have is going to sustaining my form."

He couldn't quell the anger and frustration, so he tried to cover two of his problems.

"Here. Wear my jacket. Someone might see you."

Silence reigned until they, battered and weary, reached the road.

~~~

Ashley examined the meal on the plate before her. Two glistening yolks sat atop their whites, which in turn sat atop a thin crust of burnt egg. The bacon was three short strips of grease on a pale square approximating bread. It made her wince, remembering the perfect sweet strawberries she'd just dropped on the forest floor.

The branch sat across her lap. It was a little awkward in the cracked booth, but she wouldn't abandon it. She was a little nervous about Bryan taking it. He'd left behind the one he'd been carrying, and she didn't like the way his eyes lingered on hers.

Very occasionally, the Grove would grant a branch to a special mage. It would enhance their connection to the collective and allow them to pull more magic from the communal pool. Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep's branch wouldn't do that, though. She and the rest of the Grove were dead. Ashley was terrified of Bryan abandoning her. If he did, she would be completely alone. She took a calming breath and glanced around.

Bryan sat two tables away, talking to himself. Ashley only caught a few phrases but they were even less encouraging than the meal.

"…down the drain… could be lying…? years… damn it… my only option… dark"

He moodily stomped outside. Ashley returned her attention to breakfast. Normally, dryads didn't need to eat more than two or three times a moon. They did so for pleasure, normally, but she felt odd. It felt like she hadn't eaten in years. She obviously needed more sustenance than her tiny seedling could supply her.

It made sense- it had taken her decades of growth in her tree to be able to manifest a humanoid form. Hopefully she would be able to sustain herself by eating and whatever her seedling could supply. And, she reflected disgustedly, hopefully other food would actually have flavour.

~~~

They stayed the night in a motel. It was clearly Ashley's first experience with a bed. She lay, face down, sideways across it. She was still clutching the stick in one hand and the seedling in the other.

Bryan himself couldn't help but pace, nerves overwhelming what little self control he had left. He had been warned away from these people so many times by his mentors in the Serpent's Hand. They had no morals or ethics, caring only for the power and money they could accrue. His mentors had told him how to avoid them. He'd used that information to contact one of their agents.

It was against everything the Serpent's Hand stood for and he would need to run after this. He would definitely have the resources if he could pull this off. It would be worth it.

Because he had realized something.

She couldn't empower him because she was alone.

And he knew the people at Marshall, Carter, and Dark would pay well for the last of a kind.

End of Part 2

« Ash and Maple ~ Part 1 | Ash and Maple ~ Part 2 |

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License