Deep within the earth, a narrow burrow housed a single occupant. There was no exit or light, trapping her inside the hole made by the Will O’Oak. Lané coiled in on herself after lying on her face prone since her descent. Whether it was from fear or pain was unclear. Her tears had ceased some time ago when the numbness finally settled into her chest.
“Rain...” Mother Nature’s voice sobbed from hopelessness, “... not you...”
A soft glow from an exposed root in the hole drew her attention. The pale lady reached to touch the first light source, smiling weakly at the warmth under her frail hand. She sniffled, gleaning some courage from the tree’s comfort.
“I wish I could hear your voice as clearly as she does,” Lané sighed with defeat. “You both speak the same language, it seems. I was envied Flora when she told me you spoke to her. All these years would have been bearable if Rain and I could have known you were listening to our heartache.”
There was a subtle tremor as the crystal woman gasped with surprise. Was the Will O’Oak worried for her? Never had she observed this much movement from it before. It had always been her constant, silent companion, despite the water sprite being with her just as long. Blinking sleepily, the mother rested her white head on the earth once again.
“It’s gone...” Lané muttered softly. “You found a place to hide it... didn’t you...?”
The glowing place grew brighter in response to her question. She smiled with relief even though she felt her strength begin to wane. At last, there was some hope.
“How long has this struggle drawn on...? It seems as though the twilight never fades... and I am always fearful of the night to come...” Her long fingers stroked the warm root gently. “Although... I cannot deny how beautiful the sky looks at that moment... If only he could see it with me... The firmament is quite different in the Rift...”
Lané paused as the glow faded and swelled, urgently. Was her old friend trying to communicate something to her? She had always been able to feel a presence from the Will O’Oak, either warning or just leaving an impression with her. For the first time, she sensed an emotion.
The great tree felt sorrowful, helpless even. Had it always been capable of feeling? She couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. Winter might have speculated a theory on it. Autumn would have tried to test it. Poor Summer most likely caught up in his beloved’s experiment. Spring alone would just sit with her and enjoy the scene play out.
Crawling closer to the root, Lané rested her head against the warm wood, wishing she could offer some comfort of her own. The mother had learned that communication did not require words, and that intimacy could be expressed between many types of lovers. Mates, family, friends, even elements in nature could share energy to feed one another in ways they could not for themselves. She sensed why her old friend was upset, but this was just another natural progression, wasn’t it? All she could do was ease it into this new transition.
“If you were Flora... I would say all would be well soon... It might never be the same... but it will be well again... The voices you recall so fondly will echo in your heart... even though your ear will never hear them again... The wilted will make way for new growth to sprout... leaving what remains of the old for the young to rebuild...
“The Sun will rise with the dawn... and the Moon will glow in the night...” She felt her own words easing her anxieties. Perhaps this goodbye was just as valuable for her to release something as well, and maybe her old friend could relay the message to her gift in her stead. “There will be a future worth seeing... after the storm is calm... Do not fear the twilight, love... for it is only in absence that we understand worth... as well as our own strength to fight for it...
“There will be new memories to create... and new happiness awaits you... Never give up the hope of rebirth from ruin... Though tears may fall... they are the echoes of our love for you that thrive in your core... We are ever a part of you... and will never be far away... growing along with you, my love...”
Rather than calm, the tree became more reactive. Lané quieted, trying to understand the message. There were never words from the Will O’Oak, barely even thoughts. Closing her crystalline orbs, Mother Nature focused on the warmth coming from the root. If the tree was changing, she had to listen to grasp its new communication.
A faint glow of a wisp floated away from the wood toward the lady’s face. Coming to the center of her forehead, it stopped, touching the pale brow. Within a brief moment, Lané gasped with shock. Tears fell from her gaping pools at the images that flowed into her mind. Turning up toward the earthen ceiling, her eyes trembled with fear and hope.
“Are you sure...? Skye... is here...” Her voice came with an innocence that her visage display guilty for daring to indulge. More wisps drifted into the burrow, nestling against the pale lady. The images that had flashed so suddenly smoothed to allow her to grasp what she was seeing.
Slumping against the root once more, Lané stared beyond her burrow at the tree’s proposed solution. It was happening right now, but this had been a plan set into motion long ago. The Will O’Oak hadn’t been able to act until now, but the Avatars’ appearance had rushed the process. It could still work, but only under the perfect chain of events.
“If that is the only way... then I agree...” She breathed lightly. One last tear dropped from her long lashes though. “Why must hope be so painful...? Does salvation deviate so greatly the only way to save us is to destroy us first...? Without our wisdom... how can they hope to stand to the end...? Flora... creation rests in your hands... Do not give in to despair... or this will truly be the end.”
After the Avatars fled, Winter dissipated as the will o’wisps drifted back into the air, leaving Jaime standing rigidly with icy trails down on her face blank face. Jake slowly rose to stand in front of her, reaching for her cold hands. Just like Leif, her eyes looked like she was slipping away somehow. Smothering his fears, the youth focused on pulling her back.
“Jay...” he whispered as his voice cracked, “...stay with me, okay?”
“Okay...” She answered with a tremulous voice. Whether it was the chill or her experience, she was obviously shaken. Gripping his hot hands seemed to encourage her though, ground her even. Taking a shuttering breath, she felt the stiffness release her as the warmth wash over her. Nodding, the usual Jaime returned to herself. “How’s Flora?”
“Chelsea’s got her,” Jake replied softly, but his chest still squeezed as he worried what could have just happened, “but you need to see this.”
The two knelt to join Chelsea and Leif as they comforted the plant girl. In Chelsea’s arms, it was clear Flora had evolved but not fully, much like Flare. Her clothes hadn’t grown with her, which begged to question if this evolution had been flawed. She had fallen asleep, but that only made the sobs in her slumber more heartbreaking.
Leif drew back her lengthened, dark brown waves, so Jaime could see what they had discovered. Flora was holding the broken necklace to her chest, as if she could absorb it into her heart. Following the line of sight up to her neck Jake directed with his finger, Jaime blinked at the sight of Flora’s choker. The lush green stone that once rested in the twisted vine setting was gone, and in its place was a starburst gem that looked like her mother’s crystal.
“What does this mean?” Leif’s voice was trapped in song still as he looked back at Jaime with feral irises. “Has something happened to Lady Lané?"
Jaime reached to touch the crystal, confirming with her senses what she was seeing. Jake observed her, hoping she was just thinking. Chelsea hummed softly to try calming Flora enough to rest peacefully. After several beats, Jaime withdrew her hand, drawing their eyes her way for an answer.
"I..." The distant teen's voice faltered as she wrapped her mind around the only answer that made sense. "I think... Flora is Mother Nature now."
"What about her mom?" Jake asked anxiously. "I thought beating the Avatars would let the Will O'Oak release her."
"That's not an option anymore," she answered sadly. Hanging her head, the teen furrowed her brow as she tried to grasp what emotions were swirling in her chest. "Her emblem has passed through the tree's roots to Flora. We can't give it back. The Pillar of Nature is Flora's now, but..."
"... but she's the daughter of Time as well," Chelsea finished for her. She suddenly felt drain from shock. "That's why her evolution was warped... The trees and earth reacted to her will, which means... Jaime... please tell me this doesn't mean what I think it does..."
"What?" Jake looked between Chelsea and Jaime nervously. Glancing up at Leif, the fey youth shrugged innocently. "What does that mean, Jay?"
"Flora carries the weight of all three Pillars," she grunted through clenched teeth. Anger, fear, sorrow, guilt, and frustration swarmed her thoughts. Up to this point, she'd felt connected to Flora and the Will O'Oak, grasping answers from the tree. Now, she didn't understand the knowledge she possessed. "Will, Creation, and Time were always within her potential, but using all three at once...! It's too much! How is she supposed to carry it all?!"
Jake leaned forward to hug her as she started to tremble. He could tell this was the onset of a fit, but there was no avoiding these feelings. To his surprise, she reached her arms around his trunk as she screamed. She needed to express her helplessness, so the least he could do was let her cling to him.
"I'm sorry, Jaime. I know how much nature means to you," the young man spoke softly as she wailed. He coiled down to pulled her as close as he could in his strong arms. "I don't get how any of this stuff works, but I know it's not your fault. Flora doesn't regret meeting you, even if the Avatars look like your folks. Doesn't Aunt Kris always say chaos holds potential? We'll figure this out after we get some rest. No more fighting today."
Unable to form words, her grip tightened in response to his encouragement. Nobody moved for a while, waiting for her to finish crying. Even the Elements remained prone where they'd come to rest. Everyone was exhausted, lying on the ground like a field of scattered leaves around the park...
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