All days were beautiful, of course, but this was her favorite kind of day. It was warm but heavily overcast; rain hovered and threatened, but did not fall. A steady, fierce wind tore across the landscape, thrashing the canopy furiously and making its presence felt even in the innermost depths of the forest. Juniper had climbed as high as she reasonably could, though, selecting a perch in the branches of a towering tree that happened to peek above the canopy, providing her a firsthand exposure to the wind, as well as a stunning view over the Deep Wild. Her chosen tree was thin enough at the top to move strenuously in the wind, swaying back and forth nearly hard enough to pitch her out if she relaxed her grip.
It was good. She spent most of the morning there, just existing. Feeling the tree, the wind, the moisture-laden sky, being part of nature.
Toward noon, the cloud cover had begun to thin, driven south by the wind, which still kept up. Now, there was sunlight as well, and she basked in it for a while. This didn’t hold her attention as thoroughly, though. It was still good, but it wasn’t her favorite kind of day anymore. As the sun passed its zenith, the dryad grew bored. A morning spent in inactivity, soaking up the fury of wind, sun and sky, had left her feeling energized and wanting an outlet. She wasn’t exactly hungry, so there was little reason to go hunting. There was always something to do, though. Maybe some of her sisters were in the mood to play. Or she could chase a fairy around for a while, perhaps find a satyr to mate with. Ooh, or chase him down first! Though that wasn’t likely to happen; satyrs took direction well, but they tended to be obsequious with dryads, and to get them to indulge her creativity she usually had to explain things so elaborately that all the spontaneity was ruined.
She clambered down about half the tree, the indulged herself in a freewheeling drop the rest of the way. Juniper hit the ground hard enough to half-bury herself in loam, and giggled from the sheer exuberance of it as she dug herself out. Fun, but not really enough to scratch the itch…
Brushing dirt off herself, she attuned to the Wild, feeling its presence opening up like another set of senses. It was a blissful experience as always, just for its own sake, but it was also pleasant to connect with the other children of Naiya in the vicinity. There were fairies of various kinds all around her, of course, mostly of the smaller variety that had little to offer her (or vice versa). Ah, but there was a satyr not far away, and apparently not doing anything. Then again, she discerned two other dryads even closer.
Juniper debated for a moment. Ah, well, there would always be more satyrs; she was kind of bored with them anyway. Spending time with her sisters was more important. Holding to her attunement, she took off at a walk, asking the Wild to direct her.
This was exactly how outsiders got lost in here; too much consciousness made it impossible to keep one’s bearings when physical space shifted around on all sides. Even the fae took years to get the hang of it, those intelligent enough to bother. The smaller ones just went where the Wild took them, but Juniper had had an embarrassing and frustrating few years of constantly getting turned around before she grasped the trick of focusing on a destination and not paying attention to where she went in the process of getting there. She directed the Wild to take her through a fast-running stream to finish washing the mud off her and out of her hair, then closed in on the others she sensed.
“Juniper!” Larch called, waving as she approached. “I was just looking for you!”
“You weren’t looking very hard,” she replied pointedly. Dryads sensing each other through the Wild went both ways; Larch would have known the moment Juniper sought her ought through the attunement.
“Well, I was about to start looking,” Larch amended, looking unrepentant. “This one isn’t any fun at all today.”
“Oh, don’t gripe, it makes you sound silly,” Aspen chided, rolling her eyes. “I’m just not in the mood right now, that’s all. The sky’s clearing; I was gonna go sunbathe.”
“Sunbathe,” Larch said in disgust. “You’re so boring. How often do we find humans in the Deep Wild?”
“Humans?” Juniper asked, suddenly very interested. It wasn’t often at all. There had only been a few incursions of humans in her lifetime, and she had been kept away from them.
“Woodcutters!” Larch said, grinning fiendishly.
“Ew.” Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Just feed them to something.”
“You’re as bad as Aspen, little sister. Don’t you want to play with them first?”
“I—me?” Her voice squeaked embarrassingly.
“Uh, yeah, her?” Aspen gave Larch a warning stare. “I know she has to be introduced to humans sometime, but… Maybe starting with woodcutters isn’t the best idea. We could find her a nice witch!”
“Excuse me, I’m standing right here,” Juniper said, planting her fists on her hips. “And you aren’t Mother.”
“Yeah, Aspen,” Larch said in an annoying singsong, grinning insanely. “You aren’t Mother! Let the girl have some fun.”
Aspen pursed her lips disapprovingly, and Juniper found herself torn. On the one hand, humans! This was something new and different; if Larch was willing to share her catch, she badly wanted to meet them, woodcutters or no. On the other… Maybe encouraging Larch wasn’t the best idea. She was a little…off.
It happened to dryads as their years turned into centuries, then millennia; too much time in which they’d seen and done everything left them bored and looking for new experiences, which resulted in some very dangerous—or at least twisted—behavior. Juniper had heard stories of some of the older ones, but dryads were scattered across the world; the only two “oddballs” who were in residence in the Wild during her lifetime were Larch and Poplar. Poplar’s project of copulating with every creature she could coax into it was a source of appalled fascination for most of the dryads; some had tagged along to watch a few times, returning with disgusting anecdotes which they gleefully recounted. Larch, though, had taken to hunting for pure sport, killing things she didn’t intend to eat and even inflicting pain in elaborate ways before finishing off her prey.
She wasn’t even that old. Juniper had to wonder, sometimes, if something was just wrong with her.
“What did you mean by ‘play?’” she asked dubiously. “Did… Did you skin them again? Please tell me you’re not going to try to wear their hides.”
“Feh, no point; it doesn’t even scare them after the first shock,” Larch said dismissively. “Only makes them angry. Anyhow, I’m just horny, not in the mood to waste a lot of time. I have two of them tucked away in a nice little grotto with wood spirits keeping them put, but!” Her grin widened, eyes locked on Juniper’s. “There’s a third one, I put him away separately. Since fuddy-duddy here doesn’t want him, you can have him!”
Juniper licked her lips, glancing back and forth between her two sisters. Aspen didn’t look particularly excited, but she shrugged.
“Oh, why not, you might as well. It’s not like he’s dangerous, isolated and being contained by the spirits.”
“Well…all right,” Juniper said, trying for a nonchalant tone. “If you’re sure you don’t want him, yeah. I guess I don’t have anything better to do.”
Larch cackled gleefully, and somehow managed to make it sound smug. Clearly Juniper’s act was fooling no one. She didn’t have to dwell on it, though, as Larch attuned to the Wild and sent her a destination. Juniper fixed the image in her mind. It was far away, but distance didn’t mean anything here.
“Sure you don’t want to come?” she said politely to Aspen. In truth she wouldn’t have minded a familiar face present while meeting her first human.
“Eh, you have fun,” her sister replied, stretching. “I’m gonna go find a clearing to bask in.”
“And I will be busy,” Larch said cheerfully. “As you well know. Heh.”
“Thanks!” Juniper said belatedly as Larch set off into the trees, getting a half-hearted wave in reply. Aspen, too, was already moving away.
She squared her shoulders, sternly reprimanding herself for feeling nervous, and stepped forward into the Wild, keeping her destination firmly in mind. In just a few moments she rounded the thick bole of an ancient tree and found herself in a swampy area.
The trees here were titanic, so thick around that twenty of her holding hands couldn’t have encircled the trunks. They stood on dense lattices of roots above the water, forming their own little islands. Unlike most normal swamps, there was a startling lack of insect life here, just butterflies and some phosphorescent moths. This was a fairy home, then, a fitting place for a prisoner to be kept.
Through her attunement to the Wild, Juniper sensed spirits positively everywhere, whispering and giggling to each other in their silent language. They instantly pointed her to where the human was being kept. She wasn’t sure whether they even realized she wasn’t the same dryad who had asked them to confine him. It could be hard to tell how intelligent forest spirits were. Not that she really needed the help, though, with the noise he was making.
Juniper waded through the hip-deep water to the spot where the woodcutter was confined. One tree-island had two layers, a thick mat of loam covered with soft moss nestled out of the water but under the tree’s thick roots, making a little cave into which dim light peeked through a thousand cracks. There was only one opening large enough to pass through, half-obscured by hanging lichen; inside, luminous mushrooms and small flowering plants that really shouldn’t grow in this shade bedecked the space. Clearly some dryad had had the spirits make this spot as a love nest. Possibly Larch, though this was too old for her to have done it just to hold this particular human.
He fell silent as she ducked into the grotto, squinting up at her. Juniper, belatedly remembering what she’d been told about how their eyes worked, pulled the hanging moss back down over the opening so she wasn’t standing silhouetted in the light. In the relative dimness, he could see her clearly again, and his eyes widened, racing up and down her nude figure.
Immediately, despite his obvious agitation, his appreciation and desire for her filled her awareness, and Juniper couldn’t hold back a delighted grin. Most of the dryads she spent time with were of a willowy build, though some of the older ones were downright plump. The satyrs had always insisted her heavy breasts and wide hips excited them, but that meant nothing; satyrs worshiped any dryad who deigned to play with them. This was her first objective experience, and the fact that he clearly found her beautiful was deeply endearing.
“Who are you?” he demanded, his tone gruff despite his rising lust. “Where are my friends? You can’t just keep me here!”
“Sure I can,” she said distractedly, studying him. Vines and roots, animated by forest spirits, had coiled around his limbs, keeping him firmly in place; at her statement, he began struggling against them again, to no effect. He was…different. She could see the resemblance to other, similar classes of creatures. Supposedly, she and her sisters were modeled after the females of his species, though nobody seemed to know why. It was hard to tell in a race as sexually dimorophic as humans, but being this close to one, she could see the resemblance. He was thicker, more powerful than an elf, but hairier…though not so much as a satyr. Not as muscled as a troll, though, not enough to be off-putting. He was…just right. Like something that had been designed for a creature like her.
It was intriguing.
“Look, I don’t know what you want, lady, but you’re asking for trouble! I’m a Tiraan citizen. People will come looking for me! What happened to my friends?”
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I didn’t capture you.”
He stilled at that, studying her more closely. Mostly above the shoulders, too; she felt the ambient lust in the grotto diminish as he directed more blood back to his brain. “You didn’t? Are you…with that other one?”
“Who, Larch?” Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Eh… Look, I’m sorry if she was rough with you. Honestly—and don’t tell her I said this—I don’t think she’s completely right in the head. Are you okay? You don’t seem hurt.”
He looked slightly mollified at that. “Well…no, not really. Mostly just pissed off and—” He broke off, swallowed. “Uh, curious.”
“Scared,” she said helpfully. The human scowled.
“Who says I’m scared?”
“Your scent and body language,” she answered, stepping closer. He watched her come, his eyes darting over her form again.
“Why aren’t you wearing—is your hair green?”
“Yep! Do you like it?”
“Oh, gods,” he whimpered. “You’re one of them.”
Juniper tilted her head. “One of whom?”
“One of those—those fairies.”
“Well, yes, I’m a fairy. Honestly, you came cutting trees in the Deep Wild and you’re surprised fairies captured you? No offense, but that’s not very smart.”
He barked a short, strained laugh. “Yeah, I know. But the money was good. I’m trying to save up to get some land, build a homestead out in the Great Plains.”
She didn’t know what any of that meant, and wasn’t curious enough to ask. Juniper eased closer, studying him avidly; he eased back, as much as he could with the vines holding him.
“Oh, I’m sorry! Are you uncomfortable? Here.” She directed her will through the Wild and the spirits acted; the bonds loosened, then slithered away, leaving him free. He fell back against the moss, looking simultaneously relieved and spooked.
“Uh…thanks,” he said, rubbing at his arms. “Does…. Am I free to go, then?”
“You could go,” she said, nodding, “but you’d probably get killed in, like, five minutes. The Deep Wild isn’t a safe place for humans in general. You were cutting on the trees. Really, you’d better stay with me. Nobody will bother you with me.”
“Um…” He eyed her up and down, and she felt his desire increase. “…thanks? Do you…think you could help me get out of here?”
“Are you hungry?” she asked, directing her will outward. The spirits responded, and more vines coiled into the little grotto. The human jumped nervously, but these didn’t go for his limbs; they were holding a selection of fruit. “You should eat something,” she continued, picking up a pear and holding it out to him. “You’ve been yelling and thrashing and wearing yourself out for who knows how long. You need sugar and calories.”
“Cal…uh, I guess I am a little hungry,” he said warily, slowly taking the pear from her. She felt a frisson of desire, her own and his, when their fingers brushed. “After…you’ll help me get out?”
“You definitely don’t want to try hiking through the Wild on an empty stomach,” she agreed.
“Thank you,” he said again, taking a bite for the pear. “Um… Oh, wow, that’s good.”
“Probably the best fruit you’ll ever taste!” she said cheerfully. “Oh! My name’s Juniper.”
“Juniper,” he said slowly, as if tasting it. “That’s pretty.”
“Hi, Marc,” she said, remembering what little she’d been told of their customs. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” he said gravely but with humor behind his eyes.
She leaned forward. “Would you like to make love?”
Marc choked on a bite of pear.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want to,” she went on, “I mean, you’re probably having kind of a stressful day. But you’re the first human I’ve ever met, and you’re so pretty.”
“Pretty,” he said numbly.
“Yeah!” She nodded enthusiastically. “Just…y’know, perfect. Like you were made to fit with me. In me,” she added, giving him a sultry look. He swallowed, hard. “So yes, I would really, really like to have sex with you, please.”
Marc gulped again as she crept forward on hands and knees, sliding her body over his, pressing down on him. She could feel his clothes, all woven plant fiber and treated animal skins, with here and there little bits of metal, wood and bone holding them together. They weren’t natural, but didn’t feel at all unpleasant against her skin. Even more pleasant was his body underneath.
“I, uh…” He gulped a third time. “Well. I wouldn’t want to disappoint a lady.”
“Good,” she purred, draping herself across him fully and pressing her mouth to his. She savored the taste of him, the warmth of his breath, the sweetness of the pear juice.
Then a low growl sounded deep in his throat and his arms wrapped around her, the fingers of one strong hand twining in her hair, and he rolled them over, pressing her down into the moss. She laughed in delight, tugging at his clothing, carelessly ripping where she couldn’t figure out how they were meant to open.
He didn’t seem to mind.
They were at it most of the day, pausing here and there to nap or eat fruit, but his energy didn’t really flag until dusk was falling. Juniper kept pace with him, matching herself to the desires she could taste in the air, and when he was finally too tired to continue, she lay draped across his warm body, just savoring the sensations while he dozed in utter relaxation.
The grotto smelled of them now, of sweat and sex and fruit juice. The moss beneath then was soaked with it, but they were both so damp with one thing and another that it didn’t bother them. Or at least, it didn’t bother her, and Marc certainly didn’t seem to mind. His sweat was saltier than hers; his seed had a bitter taste. She had tried a few things with that; the flavor wasn’t pleasant and she certainly didn’t choose to conceive his child, so what had gone into her at both ends was pretty much a loss, but she rather liked the way it felt on her skin. The proteins seemed to be good for her as she slowly absorbed it. Altogether, though, humans didn’t seem to taste very good.
At least not their fluids…or at least not what they released during sex. Juniper lifted her head, reaching up to caress his cheek; he smiled and leaned into her touch, but didn’t rise from his nap. She slowly dragged her fingertips down his neck, feeling the pulse there, adjusting her senses to smell the blood coursing in him. Blood didn’t do much for her by itself…but fresh blood was strongly associated with other things.
She lifted one of his unresisting hands, pressing a kiss to his palm. His fingers absently stroked her cheek. The smell of him was rather enticing, once she approached it the right way. Fresh fruit was well and good, but after an afternoon of exercise, she was rather peckish.
Juniper slowly slipped his thumb into her mouth, smiling around it at his pleased murmur, and sucked up and down it a couple of times. His eyelids fluttered dreamily open. Then she clamped down with her teeth, cleaving through meat and bone.
Marc was instantly awake and screaming, thrashing about. She held him down effortlessly with one hand on his neck and her own weight on top of his body, not paying much attention to his flailing or noise. He actually regained the presence of mind to punch her with his un-mangled hand after a few moments, but that of course had no effect. Juniper chewed thoughtfully, fully exploring the flavors and textures.
Not bad at all. Awfully crunchy, of course… She eyed him over critically. There really wasn’t a lot of meat on him for his body mass. Maybe this was why Mother forbade eating elves? They were even scrawnier.
“What are you doing?” Marc was screaming, still slapping fruitlessly at her.
“Eating,” she replied, accidentally spraying flecks of blood across him. “Oop, sorry.”
“My hand!” he wailed. “You crazy bitch!”
“Oh!” Juniper put a hand over her mouth. “Gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t think…”
“Sorry!? What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” she said testily. “Y’know, you really shouldn’t be so rude to someone you just had sex with. Here, let me fix that.” Taking his bleeding hand in her own, she drew up a current of her essence, pouring it into him as pure healing magic. The wound where his thumb had been scabbed over in seconds, the bloodflow stopping, and tender pink skin began to stretch over it. “There! All better.”
“Better?! My thumb! How am I supposed to—to—”
“Well, you really don’t need to worry about that,” Juniper said reasonably, tracing her fingers up and down his arm. “You’ll be dead soon, anyhow.”
Marc stared up at her, aghast. “Wh—why?”
“I’m hungry,” she replied.
“B-but, we…we just…”
“Yes, we did, and you were very good,” he said affectionately, tousling his hair. “But that was then. I’m not horny now.”
He stared at her for a stupefied moment, then began thrashing again. Juniper increased her weight, keeping him pinned down, and pulled his arm to her face. Marc began screeching, apparently having an inkling what she intended even before she took a bite out of his forearm.
“That’s kind of shrill,” she said, somewhat muffled by her mouthful, as she healed the wound over. “Do you mind?”
“Oh, gods, Juniper, please!”
“Just let me go, I won’t tell anyone or bother you again, I swear—”
“Well, no, that’s not going to happen,” she said.
“Gods, just don’t kill me!”
“I’m gonna try not to, right away,” she explained. “You’re my first human, like I said; I want to find out everything. But you’ve got lots of redundancy and bilateral symmetry. You know, things you’ve got two of. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you healed up; we could be here for days.”
The scream he let out at that made her wince.
“Ow, seriously. That is really shrill, and this is kind of an enclosed space, y’know?”
“Please, I’m begging you—”
“Could you not?” she said irritably. “I’m not letting you go, and the pleading makes me feel bad. Now, I wonder…”
He made a muffled sound of confusion when she lowered herself to cover his body with hers again, followed by a yowl as she bit off a chunk of his ear.
“Bleh,” Juniper said after a moment, spitting it out and almost absently applying some healing magic to the wound. “That’s all cartilage. Okay, that was kind of dumb of me; I know how ears work. Sorry.”
“Juniper, please! I’ll do anything!”
“I asked you to stop doing that,” she said severely. “You’re not being very considerate. Y’know, considering how you got into this situation, I’d think you’d have learned to show a little more respect. Now let’s see…”
She had to call on the spirits and their vines to hold him properly still as she reached for his left eye.
Some time later, Juniper sat morosely chewing on fingernails. She hadn’t much liked them at first—they seemed distracting and annoying, the texture neither crunchy or chewy. Just…in the way. But that improved when she increased the acidity of her saliva to break them down a bit, and she found the sensation actually rather pleasant.
Unfortunately, while she was focusing on that, she’d forgotten to keep applying healing spells to Marc, and he’d bled out. She heaved a sigh, the rapidly cooling blood-soaked moss beneath her squelching as she shifted her weight. Her first human, and she hadn’t managed to keep him alive for one day. Larch was never gonna let her live this down.
Caught up in her thoughts and out of attunement, she didn’t sense the approach of another dryad until Aspen was close enough to hear. Juniper cast her gaze around in panic, but fruitlessly; her sister was already too near. There was no way of hiding the evidence of her blunder.
“Hey!” Aspen said brightly, poking her head into the grotto. “How’s—oh, come on. Already?”
“Oh, shut up,” Juniper said crossly. “Someone could have told me they were so delicate.”
“Did you…good grief, look at this guy. Bites out of him everywhere. Did you nibble him to death?” She grinned. “You’re turning out as bad as Larch.”
“That isn’t called for,” Juniper snapped. “It was an accident! I wanted to keep him for a while longer, believe me.”
“All right, well, leave him for the scavengers, we’ve got something more interesting to see.” Aspen grinned broadly. “The Arachne’s here!”
“What?” Juniper sat bolt upright, her disappointment forgotten. “Really? Now? Why didn’t anybody see her coming?!”
“Anybody did,” Aspen teased. “You were a little distracted.”
“What’s she want?”
She shrugged. “Dunno, but she’s making for the Heart. If you want to see what’s going on, you’d better make tracks. She can navigate the Wild as well as us.”
“I’m coming!” Juniper scrambled upright, slipping on blood in her haste. “Uh…I better wash up a bit first.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Aspen said, ruffling her hair. “I’m going on ahead.”
“See you there!” She bounded off through the trees, leaving Juniper muttering irritably behind her.
Washing up took more than a couple of minutes—she had blood and other stuff absolutely everywhere—but she didn’t want to look less than her best. As soon as she was satisfied with her level of cleanliness, Juniper attuned to the Wild and directed herself to the meeting place.
The Heart of the Wild was a deep, ancient crater, long since blunted by the elements and completely overtaken by the forest. The ground was green with moss, shrubs and patches of grass, crawling vines extending over everything till the blasted stone was all but invisible. Trees rimmed its lip, many listing inward and providing shade far into the depression. At the center was another tree, twisted and ancient, dwarfed by the sentinels guarding the perimeter. On this one grew only a sparse handful of leaves, but there were always birds and butterflies fluttering in its thin branches.
Dryads were clustered around the old tree; Juniper was the last to arrive. There were only a dozen or so of them in the Wild at this time, but it seemed every one had shown up for this. How had they all gotten word before she had? Well, Aspen was right; she had been sort of preoccupied.
Juniper took a seat next to Willow, just in time for the Arachne to enter the Heart from above.
The assembled dryads watched in silence as she descended the slope. Juniper had seen elves before, of course, and aside from her glasses she really didn’t look at all unlike a typical wood elf. Same attire, same thin build and golden hair… Something about the way she moved, though. Elves seemed to flow with nature, every breath part of their environment. It was part of why they got on so well with dryads. The Arachne certainly didn’t lack grace, but her stride was aggressive. As if she were pushing against the world, as opposed to dancing with it.
Across from Juniper, Larch grinned maliciously at the approaching elf; her face and upper body were still smeared with drying blood, and she carried a very fresh femur with scraps of meat still attached to its end. She brandished this, snickering.
“What are you, a housecat?” the Arachne said curtly, brushing past her without so much as a glance. “Don’t play with your food.”
The look on Larch’s face was absolutely priceless.
The Arachne came to a stop just inside the ring of dryads and crossed her arms. She began to tap one foot impatiently, staring at the tree. The onlookers glanced uncertainly at each other. Juniper wasn’t the only one who had never met the Arachne before; she likely wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what to think. So far this elf really wasn’t behaving like an elf.
Then the Heart began to beat.
The soft pulse was in the wings of the birds and butterflies, in the wind over the grass, the trembling of the leaves, the songs of insects. The assembled dryads caught their breath as one, gazing avidly at the twisted little tree.
Her shape began with vines, coiling upward from the ground. They caught up and carried fallen branches, and were joined by fluttering butterflies. As the body coalesced, feathery grasses sprouted as hair, lichen spread across its surface, and innumerable forms of life took shape, adding to the impression until what stood before them might, at first glance, have been mistaken for a dryad. Only upon closer inspection did the moss, wood, vines and leaves betray their true nature. She stood silently, turning her head slowly to pan a smile across the dryads, before settling her gaze upon the Arachne.
“Welcome,” said Naiya. Her voice was the wind, the birds, the insects; it came from every living thing in the Heart, surrounding them. This was not her, of course; the goddess of nature was far too vast to be contained in one shell. This avatar was a rarely-used tool, and it was high praise to their guest that she used it now.
“My thanks,” the Arachne said in a clipped tone. “I hope you’ve given thought to my proposal. Time is growing short.”
“Time goes on as it always does,” Naiya replied. “You have seen enough of it pass to know.”
“I am not getting drawn into this debate again,” the Arachne said. “You know very well what is going on and what’s at stake. I’m sorry to rush you, Naiya, but the academic schedule is what it is. If you intend to accept my proposal, this is the time. If not, I’ll be on my way.”
“You ask a great deal,” said the goddess. “Not only the risk at which you would place one of my beloved children. You ask nature itself to change its ways.”
“I’m asking nature itself to survive. That, supposedly, is what it does best.”
“What’s all this about?” Maple demanded.
The Arachne gave her a considering look, then turned back to Naiya’s avatar. “You haven’t told them anything?”
“I have been thinking. There is no use in troubling them unless I must.”
“Hm.” The elf turned back to Maple. “I’m talking about humanity. They are evolving, faster ad faster. A time is quickly approaching when the balance of power, and of nature, is going to dramatically tip. I’m in favor of guiding this process so that it doesn’t end in disaster.”
“Evolution isn’t guided,” Beech scoffed. “It just happens.”
“Let the humans do what they do,” added Larch. “We’ll deal with them if we have to.”
“Oh, really,” the Arachne said grimly. “Have you seen the enchantments they wield now?”
“Pfft,” Larch waved the femur dismissively. “I’m not impressed.”
“I see. You’re an expert on arcane physics, then. Do you know what an atom is?”
The dryad blinked. “Uh…”
“Do you know what happens when you split one apart? Or mash two together?” The Arachne shook her head. “There are a bare handful of archmages in the world who do, and we all have better sense than to meddle with such things. What you consistently fail to understand about humans is that their capabilities are cumulative. Each generation adds to the pool of knowledge and skills the species as a whole commands; each grows more powerful, faster than any other race, even the other sentients. They are on the path to achieving the unthinkable. Within two hundred years, at my best estimate, the human race will have the capacity to kill. Absolutely. Everything.” She let that hang in the air for a silent moment, glaring at Larch. “At this rate, they’re a good millennium from being able to handle that power with anything resembling responsibility.”
“Are you sure about this?” Aspen asked quietly.
“The numbers may vary,” the Arachne replied, turning to her. “The realities do not. Humans must be dealt with, and before any of you suggests it, it’s already too late to just wipe them out. They’re too strong.”
“They’re not stronger than nature itself!” Rowan declared, tossing her hair.
“I’m no longer certain of that,” the Arachne said quietly.
Silence greeted this pronouncement. The avatar of Naiya remained motionless, watching; the dryads looked uncertainly at each other.
“So what are you suggesting?” Aspen asked finally.
“That the children of Naiya start dealing proactively with the human race,” said the Arachne, “beginning with the Tiraan Empire. The fact is, you girls do not grasp how they think…or vice versa. That needs to change. Humans need your influence; they need powerful, credible voices to help guide their development toward something more friendly to the natural order. If they don’t have that, they’re going to end up at war with the planet, and I’m very much afraid they might win. In which case they, along with the rest of us and everyone and everything else, will lose.”
“You’re talking about cultivation,” said Juniper. She shrank back as everyone turned to look at her.
“Watch your mouth,” Maple said caustically.
“No,” said the Arachne, staring at Juniper. “Go on. Finish your thought.”
Juniper swallowed, glancing at the avatar; Naiya smiled at her and nodded. She cleared her throat. “Well…it’s cultivation, right? What humans do to wild plants and animals, to turn them slowly into something they can use. You’re talking about us cultivating them.” She shrugged defensively. “It makes good sense to me. See how they like it for a change.”
“And which one are you?” the Arachne asked.
“I’m Juniper! It’s nice to meet you!”
“She’s new,” said Pine, rewarded by a chorus of snickers. Juniper stuck out her tongue at her elder sister.
The Arachne was ignoring the byplay, staring at the avatar. Naiya’s image drew in a deep breath and let it out as a slow sigh that filled the whole crater with a warm, sweet-smelling breeze.
“Yes, Arachne, I have long since seen the wisdom in what you ask. As you see, I have been making my own preparations.”
“Mm hm,” the Arachne said cryptically, turning her gaze back to Juniper. “Well, she’s certainly gorgeous enough according to the current ideal of Imperial society. That’ll help. I’m not sure I want to know how you kept abreast of the trends.”
“Um, thank you?” Juniper said uncertainly. “But…what’s going on? Mother?”
The goddess gave her a sad smile.
“Juniper, my daughter… I have a task for you.”