Nandaave stood in silence as the clouds of dust began to settle. Sore from the battle but resolute, he closed his eyes, letting the soft breeze rustle his grasslike hair. The silence was his trophy, his badge of honor. The bruises on his green skin were marks of the fruits of his labor. He wore them proudly, for they symbolized the price of determination. And as with any price, he had obtained something in return.
It was possible. Where he’d had doubts before, Nandaave was now confident that it could be done. Humans could be extinguished. The threat of their misuse of Dryad magic could be eliminated, and the world could enjoy peace.
Nandaave took in a slow breath of the dusty air, letting his gaze wander over the former village as he slowly walked forward. Deep gouges in the earth, chunks of the clay buildings littered everywhere… it was an ugly mess. With a gesture, vines and moss began to carpet the area, crawling over the debris and ruins, spreading out in the deep crevasses that had been dug into the land. Where he walked, greenery spread, engulfing what was once a blight in the wilderness, reclaiming what belonged to the Mother, the earth.
As the dust settled, several large shapes caught Nandaave’s eye. Near the center of town, where the large building with its stone wall once stood, several Dryad constructs lay broken and unmoving in a ring around a solitary, bloody figure.
The human was crouched on the ground, his robes stirring in the gentle breeze. His white hair and thin beard contrasted sharply with his darker skin, and blood dripped from his face into a pool below him. A glimmer of recognition shone in the Dryad’s eyes. This was the man who had helped Keuryth and the blond human against Nandaave and Hamei. Nandaave tilted his head to the side, eyes wandering over the corpses of the constructs he and Hamei had built before settling on the human. The Dryad nodded with grudging admiration. The man had been quite skilled. But Nandaave knew that every being had its limits. This man on the ground had reached his.
The Dryad took a knee in front of the kneeling human.
“Peace,” Nandaave crooned, shaking his head. “Be still and rest. It is over. There is no need to fight any longer.”
The man coughed, and blood dripped from his mouth as he struggled to get his words out.
“Why?” He choked out. “Why us?”
Nandaave smiled, almost sympathetically. “It is not you, specifically. Our language, our power, was never meant to be yours. Your fate was sealed the moment Anashi revealed our secrets to your kind.”
The man opened his mouth to try to speak once more, but was stifled by the Dryad’s finger on his lips. Nandaave began to whisper in his language, and slowly, a sort of yellow mist began rising around the two of them. Spores. The man held his breath, his eyes darting around fervently, willing his muscles to move.
At a gesture from the Dryad, an ice crystal pressed against the back of the man’s neck, causing him to gasp in shock at the cold, inhaling the spores. The Dryad watched as the man’s eyes rolled up into his head, the eyelids fluttering as his body began to spasm. In seconds, he collapsed on his side, still and silent.
Nandaave stood, nodding in appreciation. He hadn’t thought humans were capable of this kind of determination. It was an intense persistence the Dryad respected. It was something he valued. If only the other Dryads were as determined as he.
“Nandaave,” a quiet voice called.
Threading her way between the corpses of the constructs, Hamei stepped into the clearing. Nandaave studied her intently as she approached. He noted the tension in her shoulders, how high and narrow she held them. He watched as her eyes flicked to the still, silent human body and suddenly away, as if refusing to acknowledge that it existed. Even her footfalls on the bare earth seemed hesitant.
“The cave,” she began in Dryad. “There is still an entrance. They hide underground.”
Slowly, Nandaave rose, studying her expression as she stood in front of him. She would not maintain eye contact, and her breathing was irregular, stressed.
“Show me,” he responded finally.
She met his eyes then, and he saw sympathy in them. Slowly, she turned away, leading him closer to the cliff face. Of course she was having second thoughts. She was not Arutheni like him. A coddled Dryad brought up in Etha Hayash was expected to have misgivings about killing. But he would show her how necessary it was. He would toughen her up, show her the Arutheni way.
“I sense your hesitation,” Nandaave said softly as they walked between the rubble of two dwellings. “I understand what you are feeling. But much of what you have been taught simply is not true. Not all life is beautiful, as most of our kind believe. For one life to go on, another often must be snuffed out.”
Hamei was silent, staring straight ahead as they crossed what was once the village’s main road.
“We are on the brink of extinction because of humanity,” the Arutheni continued. “For us and the mother to survive, they have to be stripped of our magic. And the easiest way to do that is…?”
He let the question hang in the air, watching her swallow and blink. Her breathing was shallow and rushed, her forehead marred by the crease of a worried frown. They passed by the ruins of a shattered stall with all manner of fabrics and human clothing strewn about on the ground around it.
Hamei stopped in front of a narrow opening in the rock wall that made up the cliff face. Nandaave recalled pulling the top of the cliff down to seal the entrance to the caverns below, but it seemed to have caused various cracks and stress fractures to open, revealing more pathways. If the humans were allowed to hide until the Dryads moved on, they would only surface again later and rebuild.
“To kill them,” Hamei responded finally, her words coming out in a tense whisper.
Nandaave nodded, a slight smile signaling his approval. Without another word, the two Dryads disappeared into the crevice.