The forest and the dryad

THE CROSSROADS
NOW

How long had Lily sat in the void? Time barely seemed to exist in the transition from her world to the Crossroads. Ask her one day and she might have said 5 minutes. Ask her the next and she might say 5 millennia. The darkness, absence of darkness, absence of everything, seemed to pulse yet not change at all, to swirl yet remain as still and silent as death. Lily felt it press upon her, leave her weightless, drag her down, or up. The points of the compass did not exist. There were no directions.

Until, suddenly, there were. With the sound of a balloon popping underwater, Lily suddenly felt the return of direction as she tumbled from the bubble onto the mossy forest floor. She barely had time to yell: “WHOA!” before hitting the ground. Only her years of training and honed reflexes prevented her from falling directly onto the gun on her back. “Griever’s turds!” she cursed, clutching her painful elbow. It wasn’t broken, thankfully, but it sure hurt. Still grimacing, she looked up. The bubble she had fallen from hung motionlessly in the air. Flashes of landscapes pulsed in and out of sight. One of them, she was certain of it, was Esthar, with its violently colored pathways and towering buildings. Another showed Balamb Garden, crossing the ocean, leaving a wall of spray and mist behind it. But even while jumping, she could not reach the strange anomaly that contained her own world within. So instead, she focused on her direct surroundings.

Around her was a dense, seemingly primordial forest. Trunks and roots twisted from the ground, paths obscured by saplings and shrubs. Moss and mushrooms grew wealthily on fallen trees, sounds of small critters in the underbrush echoed around her. It was a beautiful place, untouched by the hand of man, and a magical shimmer hung in the air. Here and there, through the trees, Lily could see more pulsing bubbles of spacetime, harboring primordial beasts or strange cities where cars sped on darkened highways by the thousands.

Suddenly, movement. With a snap Lily had a loaded and cocked pistol in both hands. If it was a deer, she might have to chance to kill it to get a headstart on a foodstore. Who knows when the next opportunity for food would come by again.

Instead of a deer, a strange face poked around the bend of a tree. It was a woman, but not like any Lily had seen before. Her hair was branches, bark spreading across her forehead and cheeks. It looked almost like a grotesque mask. Lily slightly lowered her pistol, but remained alert. “Where am I?” she called out. “C’mon out, I don’t wanna shoot. I just wanna know what’s going on here!”

The woman stepped out from behind the tree. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, but her features were obscured by layers of bark, moss and leafy branches that swayed with her movement. “You are safe, Lily Zabac of Galbadia,” she said, and her voice was soft and melodious, yet older than the earth. “The Being has requested your presence.”

“Is this some sort of cosmic destiny bullshit?” Lily asked, more sharply than intended, but she uncocked her pistol and holstered it.

The dryad giggled. “Indeed it is, as you say, cosmic destiny bullshit, Lily Zabac of Galbadia. Please, follow me.” And she walked into the forest. Occasionally she would pass through a tree, leaving patches of moss that immediately bloomed flowers on the wood.

The sight of it made Lily smile despite her bewilderment. How evil could a creature that brought this much life truly be? She’d been raised on the stories of the Balamb Six and their battle in the distant future, and as such she had always believed destiny to be a powerful and inescapable force. She had always tried to insert herself into that flow. It seemed her efforts might have paid off. She hoisted her harness onto her shoulders and followed the wooden woman into the trees.

Worst comes to worst, she thought as she clambered across wild roots and forced her way through dense vegetation, I’ll get to try out Crush on something bigger than a thrustaevis.

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