The mystery of the forest fell away around Danny like a veil dropping. It had remained virtually indestructible simply because Danny and the people of Circuit Runner had not been targeting the correct part of it. They had been attacking parts of a single, humongous tree – a magical one, to boot. Danny knew well enough that if you killed parts of a tree, you did not kill the whole thing.
It seemed so obvious to Danny now. The simplicity of the solution was almost ironic: kill the Heart to kill the entire forest.
The objective would be entirely too easy. Every piece of deadly technology in Circuit Runner was at her disposable – which included a dizzying selection of plasma, laser, nuclear, nano, and quantum weapons. Like an executioner rolling out her leather roll of tools, Danny laid the possibilities out in her mind and examined them with cool intensity.
Plasma. Plasma would do. Laser could slice through the trunk and topple the Heart like a piece of timber, but only if it could pierce all the way through the tree’s girth. Nuclear was too messy. Nano took too much creativity; there was an overwhelming variety of microscopic machines and functions they could perform (metabolize the tree from the inside out, dessicate it, interrupt individual cells’ chemical pathways). And quantum was just too confusing for Danny.
Danny conjured a handheld plasma canon and spent a moment studying her target. One blast to the top and one to the bottom would do it, she thought. One to destroy the roots, and the other to destroy the vast head of leaves.
It would be too easy. She raised the canon, targeted the base of the tree, and squeezed the trigger. A peal of thunder accompanied the fat gob of plasma that shot toward the tree and exploded at its base. Wet sparks splashed in every direction. That shot was followed rapidly by another, aimed at the tree’s top.
The moist green leaves and succulent living wood of the Heart went up in white flames and thick, black smoke. A loud sound of splitting, creaking wood accentuated the roar of the fire. The earth trembled, sending a shudder up the tree in which Danny perched.
In only moments, the flames had burned themselves out. The base of the tree was blasted black, but still whole. The burnt leaves of the tree’s top were merely char atop an otherwise healthy, green head. The tree should have been reduced to ashes. Instead, it was only burned around the edges.
Again, the ground shuddered, this time strongly enough to shake Danny from the tree. She allowed herself to drop to the ground, and landed easily on her feet. She looked up toward the Heart in time to see a huge shape appearing out of the smoke. Two hot, red embers of eyes appeared atop a narrow head. A great flap of wings quickly cleared the thickest smoke away, revealing the form of an immense black dragon. It regarded Danny with those ember eyes, framed by a crown of horns.
Something moved in the haze at its feet. The thick root there stretched and enlarged. Two legs reached forward, caught purchase on the ground. A barrel-chested horse stepped out of the wood and stood beneath the dragon, smooth and eerily steady. A silent, wooden knight sat atop it, lance resting at his hip.
Danny’s skin prickled. All three entities stared at her silently, and she stared back. Just as she steeled herself to act, the dragon’s eyes flared. It stretched its neck and opened its maw in a roar that made the leaves of the trees tremble. The horse reared and charged, and the rider leaned forward, bringing the lance to bear.