Photo via VisualHunt.com
Phoibe carried Aurore along the path, reveling in the scent of the forest after the rain. The faint sunbeams that got through the canopy of the ancient trees cast pale spotlights onto the two dark skinned faces. Phoibe paused for a moment, letting the light soak into her skin. Faint tendrils of green extended from her hair and rose into the light, but Phoibe shook her head and they quickly withdrew.
“Mama needs sun,” Aurore said, snuggling up closer to her mother’s chest.
“I know, Ro. But Mama and Ro have something to do before mama can have some sun,” Phoibe said.
“Wiff daddy?” Aurore asked, tilting her head so her innocent eyes, the color of sunlit leaves, peered up into Phoibe’s.
Phoibe shook her head. “Daddy won’t be joining us today.” Aurore scowled. “I know, Ro. I’m disappointed too.” Phoibe continued along the mossy track, her bare feet leaving no marks in the soft soil.
She glanced over her shoulder but saw nothing on her trail. She didn’t relax. There were always too many watchers on her and Aurore. It had taken a great deal of effort to steal her little girl away alone like this. Someone might already be trying to find them.
“Mama, thirsty,” Aurore said, pointing to the tiny stream running alongside the path.
Phoibe stopped and knelt beside the trickle. She stuck the tips of two of her fingers in. The water was still pure. “Do not touch the bottom,” she said, setting Aurore next to it. The child stuck her hand in, careful not to stir up the mud. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Her hair, which was already showing signs of drooping, perked up a bit. There was more color in her dark cheeks and her eyes sparkled when she opened them again.
Phoibe helped Aurore dry off her hand, making sure they left no trace of their passing, and lifted her into her arms again. “Where we go?” Aurore asked.
“Some place special, Ro,” Phoibe said, kissing her on her forehead. She felt the tears coming. She blinked them away and moved on.
The sun was getting close to setting, and Phoibe’s strength was almost gone with it, when they reached the clearing. “Mama hard,” Aurore said, poking at her mother’s roughening shoulder. “Need water.”
“I know I do, Ro,” Phoibe said. Her voice was soft, almost all of her strength gone. “But it’s okay. I’m going to be fine.” She set her daughter down. “Do you see that tall tree down there? The one covered with all the vines?” Aurore nodded. Phoibe heard a faint howling. They’d found her trail. “I want you to run as fast as you can and try to touch it, Ro. See if you can get there before I do. Okay?”
Aurore giggled. She loved racing her mother. It was a game they played often, though only under the watchful eye of Phoibe’s husband and his men. “I ready.”
“Three, two, one, go,” Phoibe said. Aurore broke into a dead run, laughing all the way. Phoibe started down the path after her, knowing she would never reach the tree. But a part of her ached to try. She restrained herself, giving her daughter the one chance she had – the one Phoibe herself had thrown away so long ago.
“There’s the mother,” a harsh voice called. Phoibe turned and looked over her shoulder. The humans – strange in their mechanical suits – were at the edge of the clearing. None of them could enter, which meant that Phoibe’s husband and his men weren’t with them yet.
“Keep running, Ro,” Phoibe called.
“I run,” Aurore said.
Phoibe turned to face the interlopers. Veletheria had been a pure world of light, soil, and water until their arrival sixty years earlier. Now the sentient planet – and its children – were dying because of them. Phoibe tapped into the well of power she still had access to, something her people were rapidly losing their connection to, and raised a barrier between them and the heart of the sacred tree.
Phoibe glanced over her shoulder to see Aurore still running at full speed. As she turned she felt a sharp pain in her chest. She looked down. Several barbs poked out of her skin in the areas above and around her heart. She looked back to see her husband – a hideous hybrid of Veletherian and human – standing at the edge of the clearing.
“You can’t win, Bea,” he said, lowering his hand. “Whether you like it or not, Ro – and the others of her generation – are the future of this planet.”
Phoibe dropped to her knees, the poison flooding her already weakened body. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother in the same position, her own father standing over her. His hand was held out to Phoibe, calling her back. Phoibe’s husband moved up next to her, drawing that memory even closer to reality. “Ro, you need to come back,” her father yelled. “Mama’s sick.”
The laughter stopped. The footsteps faltered. “Keep running Ro,” Phoibe called, unable to bear the thought of her daughter’s fate being tied to the monster beside her. She pulled all the energy she dared out of the area and got back to her feet. Her husband’s shocked look made it worth the effort. “I just tripped. I’m coming for you, Ro. You’d better run or I’m going to beat you.”
The giggles and footsteps started again. Phoibe’s vision faded, but she was sure she saw her daughter headed towards the World Tree. She opened herself to the forest and let it swallow her, seeing everything for a split second. Smiling smugly at her body as it turned to ash, her husband held Aurore’s hand in his own. The tiny girl stared in horror at the incandescent figure her mother had become. Phoibe’s screams became wind in the trees as her spirit joined those of her ancestors.
Aurore looked up at her father. “Mama dead?”
The man nodded solemnly. “She got very sick. It made her mind go. That’s why she brought you here. Only bad things happen when you come here, Ro. Don’t you ever forget that. Never come here again, Ro.”
Aurore looked down at the tiny flowers that were growing where her mother had just been. She surreptitiously reached down and picked one. She tucked it in her pocket, smiling up at her father. “I won’t.”