Ash and Maple ~ Part 1
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Bryan's skin buzzed with magic, but his legs ached from days of hiking. Weeks of sitting in the forest hadn't prepared him for the miles of hiking up and down mountains. He had worked till his hands bled, building temporary Potential by repeating the same small ritual over and over, 18 hours a day, 28 days in a row. The only thing that had kept him sane through that process was the 8 other initiates, sitting with him in a circle around a maple tree.

There wasn't anything special about the maple tree, but several times he could have sworn that a knothole was staring at him. He had grown to resent it, the knothole just sitting there staring at him while he worked himself raw for a chance, just a chance to be accepted as a mage. He checked again that the seed was still in his pocket and walked on.

They practiced as they walked the faint trail, a singing chant in a language like the rustle of wind through leaves, like the groan of a bough heavy with ice, like the whir of seeds spiraling through the air. Its atavistic splendour was rich and heavy in the air around them.

Bryan was sixth in the line. His feet fell on leaves pressed flat into the soft earth by the initiates before him. Behind him, the last two sang and walked. He glanced back, sensing eyes on him, but the girl behind him was focused on traversing the terrain without losing her place in the song.

He looked around uneasily. He still felt eyes on his back. Were there mountain lions in this part of the world? They might be eyeing the three goats the last initiate was leading behind them. Back home in California, if you felt eyes on your back in the wilderness, it was probably a mountain lion…


Assessment Team 763 crept through the forest after the nine fledgling Type Blues. They were on a Response Level 2 mission to trail and eliminate a recently-discovered wing of KTE-Lerna (The Serpent's Hand), dubbed KTE-5325-Lerna-Blue.

763 commander Lena Drummond wished they could get closer, but her Grey Suit wouldn't keep her unseen if she didn't maintain a 30 meter distance between herself and the targets. Plus, (and she was increasingly nervous about this) the third from the back (Dubbed KTE-5325-Lerna-Blue-6) seemed all too aware of her team's presence.

Yeah, they were kids. Hell, the oldest member couldn't be older than 25, but they were members of the Serpent's Hand, and so they were terrorists. Still, she couldn't shake a feeling of apprehension as the six members of her team stalked through the forest.

They needed to get wherever the hell they were going, and soon.


Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash stepped her consciousness out of her tree, new lips forming the words of the song instinctively. She was the youngest dryad in the Grove, having just managed to create a humanoid form last full moon.

She loved it.

She loved the sound of the wind. She could feel the wind in her branches, but having ears? having skin? It was a completely different experience. And colours? She knew what colours were, having experienced them through her links with the rest of the Grove, but she could never have predicted the fact of them on her verdurous eyes.

She turned those eyes on the leaf-strewn ground. It looked like any other patch of earth in this forest, but just beneath the surface, her roots drank the rich earth. She could feel them, through her link with her tree, and through her roots she was linked to all the other dryads in the Grove. She could feel them all, so many ancient minds in harmony with her own. With those minds in harmony, they could call on the collective magical power of the Grove and work their wills on the world around them.

"Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash, would you help me grow rich fruit for the festival?"

She turned and smiled at Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep. She could have communicated through their shared connection to the Grove, but they were the two youngest dryads, and had yet to grow jaded to the novelty of speech. They had spent many lovely hours exploring their new forms together, as well as the curl of magic worked by hands and lips.

"It would be my pleasure," Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash joined Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep in a different song, moving fingers in complex patterns in the power-charged air.

As they sang, seeds carefully collected and stored burst forth with life. The ground around them grew thick and lush with pepper plants and tomatoes, strawberries and snap peas. Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash raced her friend, growing succulent, rich tomatoes faster than Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep could grow her sweet bell peppers. Strong-Roots-Dig-Deep retaliated by playfully wrapping her in pea plants heavy with sugary snap peas, while Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash's strawberries burst into perfect ripeness all around her.

They laughed and sang, collecting the fruits of their labour. When they had almost finished bringing the produce to the large stone at the centre of the Grove, they felt a ripple of attention go through the collective consciousness of the trees.

They're here.


Bryan heard the song grow louder, richer, as if their nine voices had been joined by dozens more singing a companion piece. He stopped dividing his attention between his feet and the shadowed forest behind him, and stared forward in shock. Ahead, the sparse undergrowth of the old-growth forest gave way to thick green grass strewn with maple leaves. Inside the border, the old-growth beech-maple forest was replaced with only strong, tall maple trees, much thicker and stronger than the ones outside the border.

"The Grove," he breathed, hearing the initiate in front of him burst into tears of relief. Soon, the ordeal would be over. He would either be a mage or a failure. He could see them now, figures in the trees. He made eye contact with one, a girl who looked about 20 with green hair and an armful of strawberries. She looked as curious about him as he was about her, which surprised him. She had probably seen other humans, but this was definitely the first time he had ever seen a dryad.


"Chief, what the fuck are those? Hell, that one just popped out of a fucking tree" Agent Miller messaged Commander Drummond. She halted their pursuit and answered as best she could. She didn't have a clue but it would be bad for morale for her to reply that she was as clueless as they were.

"Designate PTE-Lerna-Hogweed-06. Miller, contact command and request a strike team at our position. Wilcox, it looks like they're about to start a ritual. If it looks like they are about to sacrifice the goats, engage and neutralize the Type Blues before they can complete the Working." Okay. She had a handle on the situation. She hoped.
She turned to survey the other five members of her Assessment team.

"It will take half an hour for the nearest Strike Team to reach our location. If necessary, we can-"

"Commander, the assumed sacrifices have been transferred to Lerna-Hogweed-06, after an exchange of words. Orders?"

Fuck. She whirled around in time to see one of the green-haired figures bring a hand-sized thorn towards the goat in the lead.

"Stop them, by any means necessary."


The Grove happily accepted the symbolic gift of the livestock. Deer and moose were not hard to come by here, but goat was a rare treat brought only by visiting humans seeking boons.

Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash felt a dozen more dryads step out of their trees and prepare to see if one of the initiates was well suited to merge with their collective. If one was worthy, they would be granted a connection with the Grove, and given access to some of the powers the dryads themselves wielded.

The initiate in the back, a boy with winter hair and nervous eyes, passed the leads of the goats to Boughs-Bend-in-Summer-Storms. The ancient dryad took the leads with a bow and lead them back to prepare the livestock for the feast. She lifted a thorn made for the purpose, and-


Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash felt the pain and surprise through her roots, but the Grove was mostly full of confusion. Why was there a hole in Boughs-Bend-in-Summer-Storms' head? There was a hole in a nearby tree, too. What did it mean? And why were the initiates scattering like dry leaves in the breeze?


The song vanished, and time slowed as Bryan dived for cover. How the hell was someone shooting at them? He saw the dryad with the goats stumble, a rapidly-filling hole in her head. He saw the confusion ripple through the dryads, strawberries scattering from the arms of the cute one he'd seen earlier, just yards away.

He fled the gunfire… and immediately tripped and fell.

That's it. I'm dead.


"Standard rounds ineffective." Wilcox's voice was calm, collected. This was hardly the first time they'd run into something without an allergy to lead. "Switching to incendiary."

"The fucker is regenerating! Looks like limited regeneration Type Red."

"Miller, profanity. Wilcox, how are the incendiaries working?" She tried to project the collected, powerful leader she had to be.

"More effective, entities are fleeing."

"All units, switch to incendiary munitions. Miller, make sure the Strike Team knows."


There were predators in the forest, and they had brought fire. The trees shuddered with fear. There were few things they truly feared, but fire was one. The initiates were scattered. Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash scooped up the nearest initiate and ran towards her tree. Towards safety.

Bryan's arm was a mass of pain, where the strange tree-girl had started to pull him along. The fire in his nerves was echoed by a blast of nearby flame, a maple erupting in a shower of shrapnel and napalm. A nearby dryad collapsed, her steps faltering as her body burned from the inside out. The one pulling him along flinched, sending more pain down his abused arm.

A whoop from Miller temporarily distracted Commander Drummond. He had clapped the youngest member of their team on the shoulder, congratulating him.

"The trees are the weak point! Burn the fuckers to the grou-" He collapsed with a gurgle, as vines erupted from the ground, thorns biting into his carotid and ending his exclamation shortly before his life.


The Grove burned with anger, elders marshaling defenses they had never needed. Vines whipped from the ground towards the invaders and fog was wrought from thick air. Storm clouds were summoned from the sky and thick pillars of stone rose from beneath the earth, creating physical and magical defenses.


Bryan clung to the dryad and survival. The Bookburners! It had to be the Bookburners. They would raze the Grove. It would all burn. She would burn with her tree. He would die. The seed! Maybe he could…?


Drummond peered from behind a tree. She had to stifle a laugh at the irony. Her team was dead. Only her silence and stillness had saved her. The Strike team was seconds away. She just had to-

The sustained thunder of the helicopter brought tears to her eyes! She would live!


They brought a craft with wings of thunder? Well the Grove could use thunder too.


Bryan slapped the seed to the dryad's chest, finishing his chant and dropping a prayer to the universe.


Drummond's one unseeing eye reflected the burning, falling helicopter. The other was replaced by a large shard of shrapnel. Falling from her hand, a screen displayed: 'Melville Airstrike inbound 36:02:53'


Seedlings-Spring-from-Cold-Ash screamed and collapsed, her tree obliterated by a twisting, blazing, shredding mass of metal. Her self was burned and ripped apart. She closed her eyes and wept her first, and last, tears.



A seed cracks open, tiny roots finding their way into the open air.


A figure staggers under the weight of another, one arm hanging uselessly. He drags his makeshift travois between two columns. Her head bounces gently, hand clutching a seedling to her chest.


A pair of green eyes open.

End of Part 1

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