The wind howled through the trees, carrying with it a scent that Theodora had never smelled before. After all, never before had fear been so tangible in the valley.
The small tree spirit lifted herself out of her Arbordornum Tree and glided above the dark, moonlit leaves, her ghost-like spirit drifting with the breeze. Soaring over the forest, Theodora ignored the whispers of the other trees in the valley. She knew what they were saying, she knew what they were planning to do.
Around her tall, dark oaks reached their massive limbs towards the sky, as if plucking down the stars. Icy water falls rumbled through the valley, reflected by the moon, and soft-footed creatures scurried through the underbrush. But the beauty seemed short-lived, liking a brief paradise that must soon end. And Theodora could feel the sense of dread already creeping through her roots.
“It’s not fair,” she thought bitterly, alighting on a rock overlooking a crystalline pond. “It’s not fair that we can’t just be left in peace.”
A small silver fish leapt out of the water and then quickly sank to the bottom, as if confirming her bitterness, and she let out a small sigh. She’d heard the thousands of stories that had been told about how centuries ago her people had been hunted by the barbaric humans. But it wasn’t fair that all the stories had to repeat themselves.
Deep in her thoughts, Theodora hardly noticed at first the small tug in her stomach, as her arbordornum called her back. It became more persistent until, quick as a fox, she leapt off the water coated rock and into the sky and soared towards the small, rough-barked oak tree that was calling her. Her abordornum was waiting. If the tree could have sighed, it would have.
“The Council picked us.” The arbordornum said, its voice as hard and as grave as stone. “The decision was unanimous.”
“Us?” Theodora asked, though not shocked. “But why us? We haven’t done anything.” Her voice sounded hurt, reproachful, and maybe even scared, though she tried not to show it. She hadn’t been listening to the connection for the past hour, and she could already think of so many irksome things the tree spirits may have said about her.
“It’s not a matter of whether we’ve done anything,” the arbordornum replied hastily. “They’ve heard our thoughts, they’ve read into our spirit. They know we’re the youngest ones here. They think we’re the one for the job.”
Cold fear seemed to run through Theodora’s branches, and she shuddered, as if trying to withdraw from The Connection.
“But no one’s ever returned before,” she said, her ghostly spirit wavering. “It would be a miracle if I returned again.”
“Miracle, no.” The arbordornum replied gently. “You will have been the first one to do this because of the council’s orders. The rest wanted to leave, where as you, most obviously, do not. I know you’ll be back before the lunar cycle is completed.”
Theodora felt her leaves quake and she tried to block the fear that was filling her roots. What was this world coming to? Since when did dryads hire assassins to get rid of the threats?
“But we’re not even sure that there is a threat from this…. DiCaprio. I mean, Hitler was a threat too, but we didn’t go send an assassin to get rid of him, did we?”
“Hitler didn’t have a hybrid… a hybrid dryad to lead him to us, now did he?” The arbordornum replied forcefully. “If we don’t get rid of this hybrid, we’ll find out DiCaprio has walked in to our valley with axes and saws without us even knowing it.”
Theodora could already imagine it; the smell of her family’s wood being sliced to pieces, the smoke of bonfires, the snap of The Connection, and the howl of dying spirits. Her leaves shuddered and cold dread seemed to seep into her sap. She would have to do this if she wanted the valley to continue to live on forever. They all depended on her.
“Will it hurt? Will it hurt to be split?” She asked, letting her sight wander through the green valley, trying to distract herself.
“Theodora, no one’s ever returned that’s done it before,” her arbordornum replied gently. “There’s no way I have of knowing.”
“But do you think it will? Do you think I’ll even be able to connect with you anymore?” She persisted.
There was a long pause, as if her arbordornum was considering this, before it finally continued, “I don’t know… legends say that when you split from your arbordornum, you won’t be able to communicate until you reconnect.”
Theodora didn’t reply. She’d been dreading this news for weeks now, as she’d watched with the other tree spirits through the connection as DiCaprio had become steadily stronger and stronger. It wasn’t right what she was being forced to do. It was like breaking the Oath of Withdrawal. It wasn’t something she should be allowed to do.
“So, all I have to do is find DiCaprio’s hybrid and kill him, right? Then I come back here?” She asked, as if it was so simple. “Then I won’t ever have to be sent on a mission again?”
“That’s right,” the arbordornum replied hesitantly. Then after a long pause, “You’ll stay safe, won’t you?”
It was like a private joke between the two of them, although heard by the whole connection. They both knew the consequences if either of them were harmed. They would both be defaced identically.
“Of course,” Theodora replied, trying to sound more confident than she felt, enjoying the last warm rays of sunlight across her leaves. “I won’t have a scratch.”
A long pause followed as both minds wove through the connection, watching the darkness completely envelop the quiet valley. Theodora tried to wrap her mind around what she was going to have to do. To split her soul from her arbordornum seemed unthinkable. Like cutting herself in half. And just thinking about becoming a physical body made her bark crawl. She imagined not having the firm bark wrapped around her soul, the reassuring Connection, the soft voices through the leaves, and the simple being that made up her life. It was only as the first stars began to reveal themselves over the valley’s two peaks that her abordornum spoke again.
“When do you want to do it?”
“When?” Theodora hadn’t considered having a choice in the matter, and the idea seemed slightly daunting. She brought her mind back to her arbordornum in an effort to recollect her thoughts.
“W-when?” She repeated, trying to keep her fear under control. “As soon as possible.”
She winced, as if she could already feel a cold blade separating her spirit from her arbordornum, and separating her from the valley she loved. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like outside the valley, which she had only seen glimpses of through the connection. Was it as chaotic as it looked? Were there really people as cruel as DiCaprio in the world?
“Right now, then.” Her arbordornum replied, its voice as steady as an oak. “We’ll make it as painless as possible.”
“Good,” Theodora replied, although it was exactly the opposite of what she felt. She could already feel her sap running cold with nervousness.
“Remember, through the connection, I will always be with you,” the Arbordornum said. “The animals and trees will watch over you.”
Theodora remained silent, not reassured.
“Are you ready?” The Arbordornum asked, its voice quavering too, its steady trunk suddenly seeming ungraspable.
“Yes.” She squeeked.
“Then let's do it together,” It replied. “One…. two… three…”
The whole world cracked in two.