It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Ruby had claimed that it would be easy. Ben could get them a car and they’d be gone before the first “bonding” activity began. “Ruby had been the one to sign them up for a leadership camp in the middle of a forest.” Fanny thought darkly, “It had been her scheme.” “We’ll be fine!” Ruby said, for the second time in five minutes. She was the only one of them still in a good mood. They were stranded in the middle of the long dirt road, their car suddenly breaking down after two hours of travel. But the car’s condition was nothing compared to the forest around them. The twisted trees were mere blackened husks, their gnarled branches broken and flaking. This section of the forest may have been beautiful once, but some forest fire had torn through it, burning all in its path and chasing away the animals. The night was coming and the warm glow of the sunset lit up the branches.

Fanny sighed, taking in the view as she leaned against the car. She fiddled nervously with the iron locket around her neck, a gift from Ruby. Ben was still trying to fix the car, his tools scattered around his feet. “Anything, Ben?” she asked again, still hopeful. His blond head popped up. “Nope,” Ben said, a frown creasing his brow. “This is strange. There’s no damage anywhere and we have more than enough gas.” “We’ll be fine.” Ruby said again, though this time, she sounded less sure. “We’re in the middle of a forest, and there’s bound some wildlife” “Speak for yourself.” Fanny muttered. “Look around. I don’t know what happened, but this whole area’s toast.” “You guys have heard the news.” she continued. “People have gone missing in the woods in the past few weeks. I don’t like the look of this place.” The forest was eerily quiet. Too quiet. Suddenly, Ruby jerked upright, looking around. “Did you hear that?” she whispered, eyes wide. “Heard what?” Fanny asked, looking around. “Birdsong.” Ruby replied, her voice still quiet. “Are you sure you’re alright, Ruby?” Ben said, sliding into the car. “I didn’t hear anything.” “I’m going out to check.” Ruby replied. “Ruby!” Fanny called, “It’s getting darker! I don’t think it’s —” But Ruby had already walked into the forest.

It had been ten minutes, with no sign of Ruby anywhere. “Where is she?” Fanny said, peering into the forest. It was much darker now, and she had to strain to see the trees. “I’ll try texting her.” Ben replied, pulling out his phone. He grimaced. “No signal. I’m going out to look for her.” “I’ll go with you.” Fanny offered, but he shook his head. “One of us needs to stay with the car and our provisions. She shouldn’t have gone far.” He pushed out the door, the flashlight on his phone casting a soft yellow glow.

As Ben made his way through the wreckage of the woods, an uneasy feeling stirred in Fanny’s stomach. Ruby was easily distracted, she thought, trying to convince herself. She played with her locket as watched Ben’s yellow orb bob through the shadows. Ruby had probably found the mystery bird and — The yellow orb winked out. Fanny’s eyes widened as she pressed her face against the cold glass. Ben’s flashlight had gone out. What had happened? Heart pounding, she pulled her jacket on and made her way towards the front of the car, flashlight in hand. If she was going into that strange forest, she’d rather be prepared. Fanny grabbed several of Ben’s tools, choosing ones that would do the most damage. Then, she turned towards the trees. Fanny took a cautious step, her boot landing on a twig. It was going to be hard to stay quiet. Whatever was happening, she didn’t want anyone to know she was coming. With a resigned grimace, she turned off her flashlight.

She was making good progress when her foot suddenly collided with something hard. Fanny lifted her foot higher to pass over the log, but froze. It was too high and broad to be a log. She reached forward cautiously and touched a rough, hard surface. Stone. With trembling fingers, Fanny opened her flashlight and shone it on the surface. The terrified, stony face of Ruby stared back. Fanny clamped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from screaming. She shone the light around wildly to see Ben a few paces away, one arm outstretched and with a similar look of horror. Both of them had been turned into stone.

With a horrified gasp, she closed the flashlight, just as a twig snapped to her right. “Who’s there?” a gravelly voice called behind her. Fanny forced herself not to spin around. Instead, she bolted towards the nearest tree, trying not to make a sound. She peeked around cautiously to see a small flame suddenly come to life on a charred tree branch. No, not a tree branch, but an arm. As the flame grew, the shapes of two figures came into focus. They were both definitely not human. Yes, they had some human-like features, but instead of hair, long slender branches curved around their faces. From the neck down, strips of bark covered their arms and body, while their legs were a collection of roots. They looked a lot like… dryads. That was impossible! Those creatures didn’t exist, except in her fantasy books. But there was no denying the resemblance. Fanny frowned. Instead of the ones she had seen in drawings and books, green and full of life, these nymphs looked like the trees around them. Burnt. The ends of their “hair” were charred and the bark on their skin was flaky and black. “I guess that was nothing.” The gravelly-voiced one said. “Ever since those cursed humans ruined our lands, I’ve been on high alert. Let’s bring these back to the Mother so we can give those humans a piece of our mind.” Fanny watched in horror as the nymphs easily picked up the statues and made their way deeper into the forest, their strange fire lighting their way. After a breath, she tiptoed after them. What were they going to do to her friends?

Following the dryads was much harder than Fanny had anticipated. They moved quickly and silently, their root-like legs sliding over the earth. Fanny, on the other hand, had to creep between trees, her heart lurching whenever a branch cracked beneath her feet. Night had fully fallen by now, the unnaturally quiet forest amplifying any noise she made. She was scared to even breathe properly and kept a car tool in each hand. After hours, or minutes, the dryads stopped suddenly before a row of trees. They waved one branch-like arm before passing straight through them, bodies disappearing from view. Fanny stayed where she was, hidden behind a large tree a few meters away, eyes wide. Her logical brain was screaming at her, saying that it was a terrible idea to follow them. She didn’t know what was on the other side, and who the “Mother” was. But Fanny knew that she was the only one who could save her friends. She walked forward, waving her arm, and stepped into a completely different world.

Five trees, trunks as thick as apartment buildings ringed a wide clearing. Hollows dotted each tree, and Fanny could see some tree people entering and leaving the spaces between the massive roots. The clearing could have been beautiful once, but it was in the same condition as the dryads themselves. Large strips of burnt bark littered the ground, seeming to have fallen from the tree buildings. Suddenly, a root snagged around her ankle. Fanny tripped, falling onto her side in the dirt. “What do we have here?” a soft, quiet voice said. Fanny looked up to see a slender dryad, the companion of the gravelly-voiced one, poke a branch into her chest. “Another human… And just in time too!” The other dryad came to her side, dropping Ben unceremoniously to kneel beside her. Fanny was looking into the dryad’s face now, and she could see that it was much older, the bark wrinkled around a pair of red eyes. Fanny’s heart was pounding now and she gripped tools in her hands. The older dryad pointed a finger at Fanny’s chest, beginning to chant. A spasm of fear gripped Fanny as a feeling of numbness started at her toes, slowly spreading up her calves. Looking down, she saw that her shoes and jeans had a grey tint. She was turning to stone.

With a strangled cry, Fanny thrust a wrench into the dryad’s face, while swinging a clipper at her branches. The rest of the tools jangled in her pockets. The dryad flinched away, hissing. “That’s right.” Fanny said, sounding much braver than she felt. She sat up, relieved that her feet were free again, the numbness gone. “Let my friends —”. A branch wrapped around her raised hand, wrenching her weapons away. More branches wrapped around her chest and legs, and she was lifted into the air by the younger dryad. “Shut your mouth, foul human.” she said, her voice laced with venom, before turning to her companion. “She still has the protection of the iron. We should take her straight to the Mother.” Fanny was carried high above the ground, as the dryads picked up Ruby and Ben and continued on their way. She struggled in vain as she was carried into one of the large trees.

The inside of the gigantic tree was wide and cavernous. As the dryads dragged her along, Fanny noted the finely carved imaging decorating the smooth wood. There were pictures of battles between dryads and other creatures, celebrations and competitions. After everything that had happened tonight, Fanny wouldn’t be surprised if other creatures were living out there. The pictures went on and on until the wall cut off abruptly, revealing a large round chamber full of dryads of all ages and conditions. Some were burnt worse than others, but they all cheered as Fanny’s procession made it through the center aisle. At the end of the room, seated on a crumbling throne, was an ancient dryad. Her branches were gnarled and flaking and her red eyes were full of centuries of experience. She looked majestic and terrifying at once. She must be the “Mother” the dryads had mentioned, Fanny thought, heart pounding.

The Mother stood up, wincing as some of her branches snapped. “Friends of the forest.” she said, her voice travelling through the now-quiet room. “We have gathered today to get revenge. Too long have we been content to dismiss humans as mere animals, weak and beneath our notice. No longer.” The crowd shouted in agreement. She continued over the roar of voices. “Mere weeks ago, a group of these creatures entered our land, cutting down our trees and chasing away our animal charges. Their vile machines set fire to our forest. And now, we will give them what they deserve!” The Mother raised her hands, a heart-shaped stone in her hands. “With the blessing of our life force, we begin tonight’s rites!” “Life force?” Fanny thought, an idea forming in her mind. But before she could think further, the Mother turned her red eyes on her. There was a jolt of pain and she felt numbness spreading once again.

No no no no!” Fanny thought desperately, as she watched the grey stone climb up her boots. But they had taken all her tools and she had nothing left. As the stone crept up her legs, Fanny was carried out of the tree and into the cold night. It was finished, she thought bleakly. She was going to die at the hand of a group of insane, mythical creatures. But then she felt the cold press of metal against her chest. Her locket! Fanny grabbed it, squeezing the iron locket as hard as she could. The stone was up to her waist now, but it was spreading slower than before. However, Fanny’s relief was short-lived. The parade had reached a bonfire in the middle of the clearing. They were going to throw them in there, Fanny realized. If Fanny didn’t do anything, they were doomed.

Her eyes latched onto the gravelly-voiced dryad before her. In one arm, she carried the stone form of Ben, and in the other, the heart-shaped stone. What had the Mother called it? The “life force”? At that moment, the branches around her released and she was dropped to the ground, Ruby and Ben beside her. The heart-shaped stone was placed before them, and the Mother was chanting, but Fanny couldn’t hear her anymore. The crackle of the flames filled her ears and the heat from the fire was almost unbearable. The stone had encased her right arm and was spreading up her left. It was now or never. With a vicious cry, Fanny used all her strength to drag herself forward, her left hand clamping on the heart-shaped stone. She threw it into the fire. There were shouts around her, but the world had gone hazy, the scent of smoke overwhelming her. Then the cool numbness of the stone spread over her throat and eyes, and Fanny fell into a void.

“Hey! What are you kids doing?” Fanny jerked upright. A man’s scowling face peered through the open car window. He wore a policeman’s cap, a walkie-talkie crackling on his belt. She looked around frantically. Beside her, Ben and Ruby, unharmed and no longer statues, stirred as well. The car was parked in the middle of the main road, and she could feel its rumble. When had it been fixed? And how did they get here? The forest loomed behind it, its trees rustling in the wind. It was daytime now, and the light hurt her eyes. What had happened? The last thing Fanny remembered with the blissful numbness of the stone and the blistering heat of the bonfire. Now they were on the main road, out of the woods and somehow unharmed. “I don’t get kids these days.” the policeman was muttering. “Car in the middle of the damn road, engine running and all the passengers asleep! Well, that wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened today.” “What do you mean?” Ruby asked, rubbing her eyes sleepily. “The patch of forest that was burned down by those loggers has somehow been regrown. All the trees somehow back to their original state. Nobody knows how!” Fanny froze. “Completely regrown?” she whispered. Could it mean that whatever she had done had healed the damage? Would the dryads no longer kidnap the people passing through their roads? Fanny hoped she never had to find out.