Nika’s eyelids fluttered open. Pain racked her fragile body as she slowly sat up. She was sitting in a forest glade, strange constellations shining above in the inky black sky.
As her eyes focused, she saw a figure slumped against a tree, clothed in green with something as equally green flapping behind him.
Nika gasped and pressed her back against the nearest tree, eyes wide.
It was the same faery who had saved her from the tree woman. He seemed in pain.
“Are you all right?” Nika whispered to him.
His eyes opened and she saw they had dark circles under them.
“No, but I want to die.”
Alarmed, Nika crawled over to him on her hands and knees.
He turned and she gasped as she saw the bloody wound encompassing where his wing joined his back and his right shoulder.
It seemed to be singed as though burnt….but how he had managed it in only one area, she might never know.
A cool slender hand draped itself over her left shoulder and Nika started, jumping up to face a possible attacker.
Instead, she began to scream in fright.
It was another tree woman! This one was pale as a full moon with curving, almost beautiful, roots for legs that slipped easily into the softened earth.
Dark stripes patterned her body and face, bark peeling in places.
Pale blue hair hung in curls from her head and wide black eyes stared out from her fey face.
“Do not be alarmed.”
Nika blinked and lowered her balled fists.
“What are you?” Nika asked cautiously, not letting her guard down for a moment.
The tree’s laughter was like wind in branches.
“I am a birch Dryad. And you little one?”
Nika only now realized how tall this newcomer was. She was like a giant to her.
Dorr’s groaning pulled Nika away from the Dryad and she knelt by the faery once more.
He had turned back around and his eyes were glassy. Nika realized with horror that these could be his final moments.
She held his hand and looked at him imploringly. He turned his head towards her and smiled weakly.
“I’ve done what I needed to. Now I can have peace.” And Dorr died.
Nika bit her lip to keep from crying. She had barely known him but she still felt connected to him, somehow.
The gentle giant birch comforted the girl as best she could, making soft cooing noises.
The grove suddenly exploded in a whirl of colors and dancing lights........no, the lights were not dancing, the trees were!
Nika realized this as she watched the graceful waltz of the wood. In the centre of the twirling heart of elegant elms and willow women, playful saplings and doting, motherly, applewood trees, stood an ancient hunched redwood who beckoned with gnarled hand.
As Nika approached the old tree, she began to pick out details of his kind face.
Coal black eyes, wet with tears, watched her approach, lights of the colorful spectacle reflected there.
When she stood right up next to him, he was so tall; he was framed against the stars.
"Little one, when we die, three days afterwards our soul flees. For three days we rest in our dead shells," The redwood's voice creaked like wet wood, rasped like sandpaper.
His outstretched hand caused the lifeless Dorr to rise on a wisp of golden light. He floated surreally in front of the ancient one's face as he studied him.
"I can repair the body for a price."
Nika shuffled nervously. "What kind of price?"
The tree pointed to a necklace that she only just noticed. It hung around the redwood's neck like a trophy, made up of locks of hair, trinkets, aurora-graphs (which Nika would come to learn of.) and feathers and leaves.
"Beauty is the price. A lock of your hair maybe? Or perhaps…."
Nika nodded to the first once it was spoken.
"What should I cut it with?" She asked, twirling a strand of her red hair.
He leaned down and scissored her hair with his fingers, the sharp wood removing the small lock of hair.
He let it fall and it twined itself into his necklace of its own accord.
Dorr fell slowly to the ground and he gasped as life was breathed back into him, via the golden smoke that flowed from the redwood's lips.
As quickly as the grove came alive, it fell, no more than a grove of trees again.
Dorr scrambled up, eyeing the gnarled redwood before him that appeared to have a face in the whirls of the bark.
The birch, which had reappeared, sighed and shook her head slowly, "The old king sleeps again."
Dorr turned to Nika who still stood, mouth agape, in the shadow of the redwood.
He reached put to her, startling her from her stupor, and fingered the slightly shorter lock of hair that had been cut to pay for his life.
"Thank you." He murmured softly, letting the ruby red lock fall back against her cheek.
Nika's shyness fell away with those two words. She grinned whole-heartedly and through laughter, replied, "You’re welcome."
Goren rapped his steel plated knuckles against Elissa's wooden door to her room.
He had watched Dorr leave the night before with the girl and knew the time had come.
"Elissa!" He called, knocking louder whilst cursing his low, deep voice.
He had no time to scream as the knife slid between his shoulder blades.
In his last moments of life, a deadly hot voice hissed in his ear, "I always knew you would betray us. For a lord of the earth, you are weak!"
She pulled the bloody dagger free and Goren's body slumped to the floor.
On the other side of the door, Elissa had pressed her ear to the wood and listened in horror, learning of Goren's murder.
Serena flung open the door and Elissa screamed, diving for the window.
"Guards! Seize her!" Serena screeched.
Elissa jumped from the window and fell three stories, her white dress flowing gracefully around her.
As an Air Elemental, she could slow her descent, and did so, touching down lightly to the pebbled ground.
Armored guards charged her with ironwood lances.
Thinking fast, Elissa caused three pebbles to become airborn and, using hand motions, sent them through each guard's helmet and into their throats, choking them.
At first, she was horrified at her actions until she remembered that Serena's guards were mindless beings composed from fire.
Fire-Flesh they were called.
Elissa prayed for safety to the Great White Bear as she fled out the open gates, away from the stone tower known only as the Fortress.
Serena watched her go and gritted her teeth. She had to catch Elissa and kill her before she could help that girl.
For the sake of Serena's reign over the land.