It was late in the day and the sun would be setting soon. The cold autumn air blew through Mika's long gray hair. She pulled her hood over her head andcontinued walking.Her withered spotted hand clutched her walking stick tightly as she letout a sigh. The journey had been longer than she remembered fromherchildhood but she would not be deterred. She was in the twilight of herlife and she knew that this was her last chance to return to the HiddenGroveshe remembered so vividly from her youth.

The memories of that day never left her. The beauty of the grove was likenothing she had ever seen before or since in all these long years. Thevividcolors, the lush green plants and the magic in the air.Everything there was just so much more alive. Perhaps it was that lifeMika sought to feel one lasttime driving her on this journey orperhaps it was just the young mischievous girl she once was wanting todefy her father just one last time.

Her Fathers warning was as strong and as firm of a memory as the beauty ofthe grove. She had never seen such a look on her fathers face beforethat daybut in all the days afterward it never quite faded. It wasas if the events of that day had changed him somehow. Her mother hid itbetter but Mika wouldcatch the look in her mothers eyes from time to time.That was the day that everything changed. Her parents neverventured back to the Hidden Grove and theynever spoke of theGuardians again. Each of the Guardians that Mika had known growing uphad gone their own separate way taking with them their acorns neverto be seen again. Her parents planted theirs and Mika watched it grow from seed to sapling and from sapling to a great tree over the course of her life.All these years Mika only had that tree to remind her of thebeauty she saw that day. She had obeyed her fathers wishes and neverreturned to the grove. This would be her only and last time toreturn. She didn't quite know why she waited so long or why the drive to go back was so strong now but she knew she had to go.

When Mika finally arrived at the grove she could not believe what she saw.The vibrant forest she remembered was gone. Where once stood great andmajestic trees there were nothing but dead rotting husks. The lushgrass was withered and yellowing and not a sign of wildlife could befound anywhere.

Despite all of this Mika knew she had gone too far and waited too long to turnback. Pressing forward deeper into the grove Mika could feel the airgrowingheaver. This was like no place she had seen before. It was as if this place was shunning the warmth and light from the sun. Mikadismissed this and thefeeling she was getting as her old mind playing tricks on her in the failing light of the setting sun.

The long dark shadows cast by the twisted decaying trees seemed to reachout to grab Mika as she approached the center of the grove. She did notknow whatto expect to see when she arrived. She remembered thegreat tree that once sat in the center of a beautiful grove but thegrove was no longer beautiful and she shook at the thought of what could have happened to the tree.

Mika felt her breath leave her when she set her eyes upon the tree. It wastwisted an rotting, crimson ichor oozed from its graying bark. What wasoncethe center of life was now the source of death in the grove. She felt the need to come closer perhaps to see if there was some sign ofthe cause of thissickness, perhaps because she had come to far toturn her back on the memory that had sustained her for the journey. Shedid not know why she was drawn to the tree but she knew she had to keep going forward.

She reached out and touched the tree, as someone would reach out to comfort a old friend in need. Like the tree, her best days were behind her andshefelt that perhaps her presence there would somehow show the treethat it wasn't alone. She laughed at her thoughts, it was silly to think that the treecould be comforted by her and it was much more likely that she sought comfort from the tree in the waning days of her life.

Surrounded by the death and decay of the grove Mika knew she should be terrified,she should want to leave as soon as possible, yet she didnt. She wasquite comfortable there. It was as if being this close to the tree soothedher and she began to grow tired. It was perfectly reasonable to her, she hadwalked so very far and the emotional drain of the day would have been enough to wear out anyone. Even the hard bark of the tree seemedto cradle her wearyback as she sat down against the tree to rest.

Mika was so content there resting she either did not notice or did not carewhen the ground began to crack and swell as something pushed its wayupwardsnext to her. She sat and remembered that day so long ago andhow this place was so full of life. She could see the lush trees and the vivid colors in herminds eye as something clawed its way through to the surface. There was no need for Mika to leave.

Like her the grove was old and dying, she belonged there in the grove,she was content to stay there forever. So content she did not turn tonoticethe cold dried earth crumbling off of the form emerging from the base of the tree.

Mika looked up at the sky and its golden hue as the sun slowly set on thehorizon. She smiled, knowing that even now there was still beauty to befound in this dead place and she closed her eyes, never to open them again.