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Stesha's brow furrowed as she watched the strange assemblage approaching the gate. Annabelle had talked about the Seed as well, she remembered. This was looking more and more like an attempt to get  this plant contagion, whatever it was, spreading beyond the boundaries of its own dimension. She might have argued against destroying the gate if it could've provided an escape route for people caught in the plant morass, but this sort of activity needed to be nipped in the bud. So to speak. But the doctor with them seemed different. She wondered what he was doing there.

 

When the two plant women split off from the group and began patrolling, Stesha looked to her teammates. The room wasn't so big that they wouldn't be spotted quickly by a thorough search. She could teleport them all away somewhere, but that wouldn't get them any answers, or safeguard Earth Prime. Maybe it was time to try and seize the advantage, even if it was merely the advantage of audacity. She checked her cowl and mask, grabbed a handful of seeds, then stepped out from behind the panel. 

 

"Who are you looking for, children?" Fleur asked, stepping directly into the path of the plant women. A quick flicker of her power had every plant in the room turning just a little greener, seeming a bit healthier. Even the plant women seemed affected by the rush of healing energy. "Did you know I've been searching for you? I've traveled quite a long way to find you." 

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The young man still barely appeared to be lucid, but something lit up in his eyes when he saw Fleur step out into the room, clad in the radiance of nature. The scientist had a much more vivid reaction - he fell to his knees, prostrate before the apparent coming of his goddess. "Oh great Gaia," he said, "I may have doubted thee, I may have questioned thee, but know that in my heart of hearts, I have always welcomed your blessings..."

 

The two dryads, however, traded glances while the scientist carried on in his reverent babble. "It's not Her," said one of them, her fingers reflexively twisted into barbed, wooden claws. Fleur could feel a tension running through the plants around her, as if there was some subtle tug-of-war for control. "Identify yourself, pretender, or face the wrath of the Great Mother." 

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"I'm Fleur de Joie," Fleur said simply, careful not to glance back towards her hidden companions. If she couldn't keep control of either the situation or the plants themselves, she was going to need quick backup, and the more surprising, the better! "A traveler from your world brought me a story of another mother of plants whose creations spread across the landscape. Naturally, I was very curious." She gave the plants an experimental tug, sliding a handful of thick vines across the floor in her direction. They were, perhaps, just slightly more reluctant than usual, but it still worked. That was encouraging. 

 

Two of the vines split off from the rest, snaking up behind Fleur. One spiraled itself into a neatly flat and round seat, while the other formed an ornately flowered backrest for an impromptu chair. It was a trick she'd learned from Gaian Knight, though hers were a bit less substantial. She took a seat, giving the plant women a casual look as the seat rose subtly to become something closer to a throne. "I'd very much like to meet your Great Mother and learn more about her. Where can I find her?" 

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The two dryads looked towards one another, not saying a word. At least, out loud; Fleur could pick up on the slight thickening of pheromones in the air, smoke signals by way of perfume. Willow, meanwhile, read it fluently...

Bloom so soon? - May be weed. How to...? - The Root wants to pollenate. Would we...? - Take her to see Root. Root will know... - Yes. If she is weed, he shall uproot.

The two turned towards her. "Carry on the work, Doctor," one said. "Make sure that the Blooming continues. And you. You have earned the honor of communing with the Great Mother, face to face. Come with us. You shall experience her glory."

Fleur walked out of the building - which was in somewhat good repair, despite the overgrowth - into the cracked and broken remains of UC Berkeley. Academic buildings had either been left to rot or torn down, with massive trees growing out of their remains. The brick and asphalt walks of the college were overgrown with weeds, all of which were flowering. Off in the distance, the San Francisco Bay loomed; the bridge connecting it to Berkeley was nothing but rusted and broken pylons. But something was drifting across the bay towards Berkeley...

"Our chariot awaits," said the dryads, as one.

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Gaian Knight waited as long as he dared, holding up a cautioning hand as he felt Fleur de Joie and her escorts move away...and, just as vitally, felt the doctor's presence on the other side of their hiding spot. Each step and shift of weight was a vibration that the earth, even overgrown as it was by the unnatural plant life, was more than happy to provide him.

When he could wait no longer he snapped his hand closed. Dirt and stone that should have been solid flowed upward like clay from between the broken tiles, encasing the doctor in a cocoon of solid rock that left him only enough of an opening to breathe...and nothing more.

"....well! That was...interesting," he mused, walking around to frown at their new prisoner. "So: anybody know enough about this thing to break it without a giant explosion or holes in spacetime or something?"

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"I am hole in space-time," said Comrade Frost with a reassuring wink Gaian Knight's way, putting his bare hands on the great machine again. "All will be fine." He thought for a moment, then gave Willow a serious look. "Best if you watch Fleur de Joie - or go with her as handmaiden or acolyte, if you can. She is powerful plant controller, but we are in uncharted waters." As he spoke, ice began crystallizing on the sides of the dimensional transporter, the air in the room growing noticeably colder as it did so. "Greatest hazard of those is ice. On the subject - I have reached below 200 degrees Kelvin in past but consequences have been...unpleasant. I believe even extraordinary machine will freeze at such temperatures." 

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Comrade Frost knew from past experience that it was a very bad idea to try and crack a miniature particle accelerator, but it looked like the actual gateway had been bootstrapped onto the synchrotron. But that had taken a good deal of work to avoid ripping any random holes in the fabric of the universe, so odds were it was going to be a while before the seeding operation got back online.

"What... what are you doing?" said the scientist, who was desperately casting his eyes about the room. The would-we worldjumper, meanwhile, had taken a few steps back from the demolition effort, but wasn't reacting much further. "You can't do this! The Great Mother is watching! She'll... she'll..." The scientist cast his eyes to the plants around the room, fear burning in them.

---

The dryads had led Fleur down to the shore of the bay. A large flower, a folded lily the size of a small ferry, was drifting towards the coast, but with much speed than Fleur might generally associate with a drifting plant. The leaves unfolded, and the dryads stepped aboard, easily supported by the great petal. Once Fleur stepped on board, the lily began to drift back towards San Francisco at great speed, the petals opening just enough to grant a view of the city, overgrown with green.

"See the wonders of Her works," one of the dryads said. "A city choked on steel and plastic, starved by oil and spark. With Her arrival, the city has seen life anew. The people want for not, and live at one with nature with no suffering or pain."

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Fleur risked one glance back as she left the atrium, but everyone else seemed to be standing pat for the moment. That was all right, she could always teleport back if things got too risky. She hoped, anyway. Keeping her shoulders back and her chin up, she followed the plant women with the air of someone accustomed to an entourage. Once aboard the lily, she tried to keep some idea of where they were going, but the unfamiliar scenery wasn't very helpful.

 

"She certainly has made a great many improvements," she responded to the dryads' enthusiasm, trying to sound impressed. "I hardly recognize the place. It used to be so very crowded with people and all their machines. Did a great many of them have to be resettled before the Mother could do her work?" 

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"She'll what?" the ancient guardian asked in a commanding voice as she stepped from behind the cover.  Thick vines were snaking around Willow then melding together to form a thick (though apparently still flexible) bark-like covering over the dryad.  The botanical covering shifted in hue as it sheathed the dryad, going from verdant green to a dark gray.  Willow's armoring up only took a moment, just a heartbeat really, but when it was finished only her amber eyes and wild mane of white hair were left uncovered.
 
Resting a clawed hand on her hip, Willow spoke again in a softer though no less authoritative tone, "To the root of things, and answer quickly and true; I do not suffer invasions of my world lightly."

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"I'd answer her, kid," Tiamat said, strolling over and throwing an arm around the doctor's stone-wrapped form, her voice nothing but friendly concern. "'cos oh, you have no idea what you've gotten yourself into. See, here's the thing: you kind of smacked the wrong beehive, Doc. Can I call you 'Doc'? Great. Here's a little perspective for you: I'm a dragon."

The amazonian woman's voice was no longer friendly, and as she spoke she leaned her head in until she was nearly cheek-to-cheek with the man, one unnaturally red eye looking sidelong at his as. A little puff of fire accompanied the word 'dragon'. "I don't mean that figuratively. I am a centuries-old giant flying death lizard. I have terrorized villages and burnt castles down - and this is the important part, you need to understand this bit: I am not the scariest thing in this room. See the nice guy in the coat, for example?"

Gaian Knight's instinct was to raise an eyebrow, but he'd been partnered up with Tiamat long enough to have learned to play along. With the cloth over his face obscuring most of his expression he looked impassive, neutral and unassuming...until his goggles lit up like they were hiding golden bulbs, great jagged stones pulling themselves up out of the ground. Tiles were shoved aside as solid pieces of earth twice the size of a man rose to hang nearly motionless around the hero, without him so much as moving a muscle.

"Yeah. What's a plant without any dirt? See, your Mother's not here, Doc. And the sooner you give us information, the sooner we won't be here either."

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Across the room, the rewired machine fell to the earth with a tinkle of shattering metal, the ground beneath it visibly frosting as the super-cold metal went skidding across the ground against everyone's feet. "Your pardon," said Frost, stepping away from the super-cooled stuff as he pulled his gloves back on. "Screws were more deca-yed than I believed." He hmmed as he studied the doctor, the way the plants around him withered slightly at his approach lending a particular aura of menace given where they were and what these people believed. "Listen," he said seriously, "I am man of ice and snow. I will not melt, I will not blow. These others are a dragon, as she indicated so kindly for you, knight of rock and stone, and one who wears forest as armor. We are mighty indeed, and you are not. What goes on here, hmm?" 

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The scientist looked chastened, and began to murmur. Tiamat, who could hear from a distance unmatched by others, could pick up what the man was saying.

"Be careful - the Great Mother has ears everywhere. I'm guessing you came through the gate. You have to understand, this wasn't my desire. They forced me into it, kept me around because I could try to breach the walls between dimensions. There was a great earthquake in 1995. It tore San Fran apart, and in the aftermath, She showed up. She never announced her presence directly, but the Champions started drinking her bathwater. They decided that we would abandon 'the ways of machines' - mind you, She started providing replacements pretty damn quickly. Soon, this place looked like a horticulturalist's dream. We drove the Army off when they came, and expanded to cover most of NorCal, but it wasn't enough for the Great Mother. She wanted to see about seeding other worlds..."

---

"They are still here," said the first dryad. "There was... a great disaster. The earth rent itself asunder, and the city suffered the worst of all. The pangs of Her rebirth. In the aftermath, She provided for her children, and made this city Eden anew."

"There were those outside who rejected Her bounty, however," said the second dryad. "They came with their metal birds and their rods of thunder and sulfur, but they could not stand against Her glory. There were those who saw Her mantle and embraced the ways of Eden... and those who turned and fled, humbled before Her might."

The chariot approached what once had been Fisherman's Wharf. The long, broken pier was now a water garden, strewn with lily pads that had somehow come to thrive in the brackish water. A small market was set up along the coastline; men and women in simple, spun clothes haggled for fruits, vegetables, and other goods. As the great lily approached, the vendors and customers turned their attention towards the two dryads - and the green-haired woman occupying a place of importance on the floral barque.

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The scene reminded Stesha of the tiny marketplace on Sanctuary, with the homespun clothing and the bartering over homemade and homegrown goods, but no one on Sanctuary would ever have that look of fear or reverence at her approach. It was more than a little unsettling, but she couldn't let the facade slip now. The more attention she kept on herself, the better for her friends. As the barque approached the pier, every lily pad in the brackish water burst into full bloom, filling the air with a nearly intoxicating floral scent. Vines rose up from the earth, smoothing the pier into a pathway and rising into stairs that allowed her to alight from the giant flower. 

 

She looked to the dryads and cocked her head, obviously expecting them to escort her down the path. "It's all very beautiful," she allowed. "I'm more eager than ever to meet the creator." 

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Gaian Knight frowned as Tiamat left the man's side to relay their new information, letting his hovering monoliths settle down to rest again. "It probably goes without saying that we shouldn't be eating or drinking anything around here," he said, idly casting his senses down into the ground to take a look at the vast root network of the expansive plant carpet. "Anyone else a little curious about how this is playing out? The strength to repel an army, and some super-heroes under your thumb, and in twenty years this is as far as you're able to go? Seems like the traditional path would be to take over most of the world - or the continent, even - and then start seeding other worlds from a position of power. Unless the Mother's concerned more with growing than actually controlling...."

He frowned again, turning his gaze back toward their unwilling informant. "How many people have already been sent out to seed other worlds?"

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The scientist gulped. "Just the one," he said. "A simple test. I would have waited for a response, but the Mother wished to send more out as soon as possible." He looked around again, as if he were still afraid that somewhere, somehow, the Mother's wrath would descend and turn him to mulch. "Don't think she hasn't tried to move beyond this little kingdom. She's been growing ever since She showed up. First it was just the city proper... then it was Marin, Oakland, and Berkeley... She would have worked into Oregon and Nevada if the military weren't stepping up their response. But all they can do is slash and burn; last time they invaded, it blew up in their faces."

---

"Then come with us," said the dryads. "We shall take you to the Mother."

They led Fleur straight on a march down Hyde Street. There was no fanfare, no great ceremony, but still, people stopped and paid attention. And Fleur paid attention as well, watching how the city had adapted to its new floral infrastructure. Large wagons made of hardened oak were dragged up hills by ropes of vines thick as steel, mimicking the cable cars that had once made the city famous. Large flowers that looked to be made of something like brass hung at street corners, with pedestrians stopping by speak into them - floral pay phones. And the pedestrians stopped by the trees that lined the street, simply picking at the grand, gorgeous fruits that hung from them.

"See the bounty of the Mother," said one dryad. "This city does not want for the loss of steel and smog. In many ways, it has improved."

A loud snap rang through the air. Atop the hill, one of the wagons had broken its cable, and was rushing at high speed down the street. Before Fleur could react, a behemoth in a tattered black-and-white morphic suit came rushing out of the alley, bracing against the trolley. He brought it to a stop within one block, averting disaster. Cheers went up all around.

"And this city is not without its heroes," said the other dryad. "The Champions still serve, and fight on behalf of the Mother. Stonewall is one of this city's most avid defenders."

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As the man spoke, Frost knelt down on the dirty floor, sketching a crude map of the region in colored ice on the floor. When the scientist was finished, Frost frowned, a dark look on his white-blue face .When he spoke, there was none of his usual near-playfulness - this was a soldier faced with a powerful enemy. "This is bad," he said. "We are dealing with intelligence great enough to swallow region of millions while same time plotting infestation of billions more. It must be destroyed here, at its root, before other worlds can be infected. While I am capable of generating sufficient cold to sterilize even so large a region, the human cost would be...unacceptable." He looked up at the others, a question on his face, before turning to the bound scientist. "Your heroes. The empowered defenders of this world. You said Champions joined Great Mother. What of others?" 

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Fleur joined the applause for the successful hero, even as she took in the scene all around them. The world was so bizarre, so different-yet-similar that it was hard to take it all in. She was sure she wouldn't understand what passed for technology here, so instead she concentrated on the people. On the surface they seemed surprisingly happy. Nearly everyone wore a smile, and there were frequent bursts of laughter and happy chatter from folks as they passed by. A couple of years ago Stesha might have accepted that at face value, but now something about the whole picture sent a slow chill up her spine. Many of the smiles were a little too wide, the laughter a little too loud and edged with something strange. All at once, she began to wonder at the composition of the heady floral fragrance that seemed to be everywhere. She knew firsthand how scents and pheremones could change peoples' minds, but she'd never seen it attempted on such a large scale. This could be even more of a problem than she'd thought. 

 

"It's always good to see heroes at work to protect their cities," she commented mildly, then began moving on. She wasn't sure how much longer she could maintain this facade, especially if her friends were having any success at breaking down the machine. 

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"San Francisco's always been one big community," said the scientist. "Most of the heroes joined up with the Champions. A few disappeared - Dreadnought, Maverick. The Mother didn't say anything about either of them; some of us thought they just left town the minute she made her decree, but others..." He shook his head. "It's only the Champions now. Heroes joined in with the military's last big push. Some of them have tried their own raids, now and again. A few have taken chunks out of Her, but She's always managed to regrow. Wherever She is, She's safe... and protected."

---

Their march came to an end in the midst of what had once been South of Market. Now, it was a forest in miniature, a vast web of banyans wedded together in a massive network. Some of the grand trees had windows carved into them, and huts resting atop them - nature's apartment buildings. People moved in and out of the vast network as if it were any other city block.

"Enter," said one dryad. "Follow the trail of red flowers. They shall lead you to Her abode."

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Frost snapped his fingers, then said, "Fleur de Joie cannot face monster alone. We have done what we can here - it is time to act." Gadfly though he was, the Russian thermovore was a veteran campaigner. "Gaian Knight, if plants are too thick to sort through, then perhaps villain can be found through earth, eh? San Francisco is earthquake country; there can only be so many places that creature can roost without triggering tectonic damage." He shook his head, still marveling at that particular scientific discovery. "This is not earth-spirit of which I know," he added darkly, gloved hands in his parka pockets. "She would not act secretly, she would be seen, and be seen, at all times. And this kind of deeds would be beyond her." 

He hmmed. "Willow, you should go to Fleur's side as her acolyte. Wait in plants if possible? See if she needs aid." 

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Stesha hesitated for a bare moment, but she'd come too far to stop now. Turning back didn't really seem to be an option. "Thank you," she told the dryads, doing her best to keep trepidation out of her voice. In some ways, the massive block didn't even seem real, it looked like an artist's conception of a giant treehouse city, or a facade covering real buildings, but every sense told her none of it was fake. Straightening her back and adjusting her cowl, she stepped into the maze of banyans and began walking, the movement of her thumbs as they rubbed the sides of her index fingers the only visible sign of her mounting unease. Surely it had been long enough by now, surely they'd stopped the dimensional incursions... 

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Fleur worked her way through the network of trees, past arboreal shops and tall, redwood-like apartment buildings. The maze of banyans began to thicken and twist, forming something of a semblance of back alleys and sloping inclines. Soon she became aware that she was being guided downwards, through passages most of the rest of the citizens likely never saw. After going down what she estimated to be two stories, the roots gave way under her feet - but slowly. She was descending as a thick, capillary structure contracted, going at a speed somewhere between a pitfall and an elevator. The roots slowed as they reached their destination, and a large cavern loomed before here.

 

Greenery was everywhere, and shone with phosphorescence. It was far from daylight, but it was bright enough to see - and certainly bright enough to see the figure that occupied the center. She was the size of a large statue, her skin supple as lania in some places, thick as bark in others. Her eyes shined with the same half-light, and her hair run in thick vines. She stepped forward, arms outstretched. 

 

"Welcome, child," the Mother said. "It is an honor to meet one such as myself. Tell me, what needs bring you to my door?" 

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"....yeah, okay," Gaian Knight said, slowly, as he took in the conversation. "Going to need a second, though."

He'd once told Fleur de Joie, jokingly, that the trick to finding things in the earth was to think small. It was a little more true than he could easily explain: only a few seconds after he sat down, cross-legged with his hands in his lap, the hero's eyes snapped open with a glow so powerful his goggles lit up like miniature soft spotlights and he just...wasn't there anymore. His body was exactly where it had been, sitting on the dirt and cracked tiles, but-

-it was infinitesimally tiny, a fleeting mite on an ancient being. The Earth Below was vast and old, a lithic plate riding an ocean of molten stone that it had been birthed from, and that it would one day return to in the great cycle. But this piece of The Earth had seen interesting times in the cycle; the animals had formed and reformed to walk upright, built surprisingly large above-ground caverns and dug deep into their giving host for metals and gems. And lately, in what was barely a fraction of a moment of the cycle, something had taken root; The Plants were sustained freely and happily by The Earth but this was more curious than most, roots large even on the plate's scale, drawing toward-

Gaian Knight frowned, shaking his head to clear it. "Got her," he announced, ground cracking sharply as a large piece of the floor broke free and rose up an inch or two, earth underneath it silently melting out of the way. The dirt in a circle around the hero had pulled itself into a curious pattern that was ruined by the motion, but he was either ignoring it, or ignorant of it. "All aboard the subterranean express. I can't guarantee this Mother won't notice our approach, with all the roots in the way, but we'll be less exposed to other heroes and I'll avoid what I can."

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"I can do that, yes," the white-haired guardian said with a nod to Comrade Frost, her armor peeling back slightly to show her face.  "The foliage here makes it easy for me to blend," she continued, "which should allow me to approach unseen.  I should reach Fleur's side easily enough."
 
"I do not like them," Willow added with a faint frown.  Glancing at the scientist, the dryad arched one snow white eyebrow.  "Who, or what, is Root?  I heard them talking about him."

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"Curiosity, Great Mother," Fleur said politely, stepping forward on feet that were sure despite the uncertain footing of vines and leaves. "A traveler came to my world from yours, bringing stories of your kingdom and its great beauty. This place is very different on my world, beautiful too, but without the great bounty of plant life you have created. The traveler said that you wished to extend your reach beyond the bounds of your world, perhaps even into my own. I thought it fitting that I should come and see what it is you have wrought, here where it all began." All around her, Stesha could get impressions from the plants, the feeling that here was a great tap root for the whole living city, but yet not. It was too confusing to pin down for the moment, especially when her attention had to be focused on her words. 

 

"I find myself wondering, Mother," she continued. "Why was the beginning here, in California? It's a beautiful area, yes, but it was full of cities and buildings and humans. Why not in the endangered rainforests, or in the remote corners of the wilderness, where you would've spread yourself effortlessly with so much less blocking your way?" 

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"The Root?" said the scientist, looking confused. "I... I imagine they would be talking about the Great Mother's body. Her earthly one, at least - her consciousness might be something separate, capable of existing in seed or pollen. I always thought she was able to travel along those dryads at will, or expand across them all at once - if she's got a core form..." The thought trailed off, like he wasn't quite sure where it might lead to. "I don't think we've ever seen her walk unclad. In her true might. There's always been a proxy..."

---

"Why here?" said the Mother, looking down at Fleur with practiced benevolence. "Because the people were crying out in pain. I could have appeared in the Amazon, or the veldt, or anywhere where my presence is felt. But... I could feel my suffering of my children. The children of flesh, and the children of bark. The earth was sundered, and the world they knew was broken. That was why I made my presence known here. To give them alms, and show them a way of perpetual splendor."

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