Gaem helped set up camp as well as he could in his ferret form. This mostly consisted of collecting firewood. When the others started assigning watches for the night he volunteered for the first watch, and if Dreekt didn’t show up in time he would take the second watch as well. He settled outside the warmth of the fire so he wouldn’t fall asleep, and transformed into his humanoid form. He waited to do this until the sound around the fire had settled down. He pulled the humanoid armor from his pack and put it on. Alongside this armor were plates that would go onto his back in his animal form. He stood for a while, a jagged, two handed katana strapped to his back. His skin was red and white patched just like his fur had been, and his hair had the same colors. It took him almost ten minutes to realize that he couldn’t hear his companions breathing by the fire. At the same time as he made this revelation Dreekt ran around a bend and came into sight.
“Dreekt!” Gaem yelled, not taking the time to change his form back. “Everyone else is missing!”
Dreekt paused for a moment as he took in the sight of this strange man. Then recognition came to his eyes. “Gaem, is that you?”
“Don’t stand around astonished, boy. I can tell you have something urgent to relay. Does it have something to do with our companions?”
“Mad Cedar is only a half mile to the west of the road at this point. We’re further along than we thought!” Dreekt looked towards the fire in the center of the camp. “They’ve been taken already! I’m too late!”
“I was keeping watch,” Gaem sounded angry, but only at himself. “I should have thought to watch them in this forest!”
Dreekt and Gaem looked at each other and decided that this wasn’t the time for blame. It was time to act.
“Let’s look for signs of how they were taken, and then set out to Mad Cedar in the direction you saw it.” Gaem took a torch from his pack, and lit it in the fire.
Dreekt grabbed another torch from Gaem’s pack, “I don’t have any torches, may I?”
“Go ahead. Our companions are worth more than a single torch.”
Gaem and Dreekt started scouring the ground where their companions had slept. They both noticed vines writhing around. Dreekt pointed at them and Gaem nodded. This was the sign that they were looking for. The two of them began to follow the vines back to the source.
They hadn’t taken more than two steps when the vines started to grab at their ankles. However, whatever was controlling the vines realized they were heading in the direction it was pulling. The vines quickly stopped grabbing at their ankles. They covered the half mile to Mad Cedar rather quickly after that, and the branches allowed them through. Laying next to the tree were Burner, Carla, and Julian; all of whom looked to still be sleeping. There was a pile of bones poking out from under a mass of vines beneath them, Gaem noticed. Dreekt wasn’t looking at his traveling companions, however, he was looking at the tree itself. It still housed the emaciated and dried up corpse of the plant mage that had created Mad Cedar.
“Look,” Dreekt motioned to the aperture in the side of the tree as he lifted up his torch for better illumination. “The body of the plant mage is still in the tree, not laid to rest. She was an elf, I think.”
“I agree, but why is she still in the tree?” Gaem started to approach the aperture and Mad Cedar seemed not to respond. “Maybe we can lay her to rest in the ground where her spirit can rejoin with the earth instead of being stuck in the tree.”
“Why would her spirit be stuck in the tree?” Dreekt asked, then understanding came to him. “She was using the tree as her avatar when she died. Her spirit is probably still inside the tree, and her body is too. She doesn’t know how to leave the tree, and her rage at the village is still festering in the heart of the tree.” He looked around at the roots of the tree that covered the ground. “We would have to take her away from the tree in order to bury her. The roots of the tree make it impossible to dig here.”
The tree seemed to hear this, and the branches drew in tight. The feeling that washed over Dreekt and Gaem was that of fear, and grief. Gaem felt that if they approached the trunk that the tree wouldn’t stop them, but that it would fear what came after.
“Well,” said Gaem, “shall I do it, or will you?”
“I’ll see that our companions are still living, and then help if you need me.” Dreekt started forward, reaching down to Burner first.
Gaem walked past Dreekt to the opening in the trunk. He reached inside and lifted up the light corpse. The tree started to shutter, swaying back and forth. Eventually the movement stopped, and the limbs of the tree parted to let Gaem through.
Burner, Carla, and Julian started to wake under the watch of Dreekt.
“Where are we?” Burner looked around and noticed the giant cedar behind her. “Oh, apparently we were closer than we thought.” Burner turned her head to glare at Carla. It was she who had given them the information that made them stop early.
“I thought we were still on the town side of the tree.” Carla looked to Julian for confirmation.
“I don’t know how far away things are in a forest. You’re the ranger.” Julian stood up and looked at the tree. The tear in bark was barely visible in the torch light. “There’s a gap in the tree. Was there anything there before?” He turned to Dreekt.
“The plant mage from the legend was. Gaem left with the corpse.”
“Did she have anything valuable on her?” Julian started walking towards the hole in the tree. In response the tree healed the hole. “What? Why can’t I look in the hole?” Julian looked angrily at the trunk. “Anything that she left here doesn’t belong to her! She’s dead!” The tree shifted the root that Julian was putting most of his weight on. Julian landed flat on his back. He pulled an axe out of his cloak and started toward the tree.
“What in the realm of Nevre do you think you are doing?” Burner jumped in front of Julian and grabbed his arm.
“Out of my way!” Julian ripped his arm out of her grip and started to swing it toward her head. A blade flashed in the torchlight and cut through his shoulder. His arm dropped to his side and he roared in pain.
Dreekt looked in the direction the metal had come from. Gaem walked through the branches and screamed at Julian. “So, you want to bring down the wrath of The Wanderer?! You want to kill the person who brought us on this adventure?!” He stabbed his torch into the ground and glared at Julian, brandishing more throwing knives. Julian and Carla both realized this must be Gaem, and Burner didn’t seem surprised to see him.
Carla grabbed Julian’s good wrist and pulled him away from Burner. “Let’s fix that arm up.”
Julian pulled away from her grasp and grabbed the axe from his bad arm and threw it at the tree. One of the tree branches knocked the axe out of the air and another branch impaled Julian through the chest.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that.” Burner walked over to Julian’s body and checked if he could have survived. Seeing that he was now missing his heart she started to search him for useful items. “Carla, come and help me with this. The two of you were close if I’m not mistaken. You can have any coin we find. No use burying him with things we can use. Anything of sentimental value you can have of course.”
Carla stared at the branch that had killed Julian, covered in blood and gore, and then bent down to help. “Right, I guess he doesn’t need it anymore.”
Dreekt glanced in Gaem’s direction. “Well, how did it go?”
Gaem walked up next to him, putting away his knives and grabbing an object from his armor. “As well as can be expected, I suppose. Just as I was laying her to rest, however, the corpse moved and gave me this.” Gaem extended his hand and in it was a strange black stone. “I’ve never seen a stone of the like and I feel some sort of power emanating from it. Can you feel it too?” Gaem put the stone in Dreekt’s outstretched hand.
Dreekt woke up in a strange place. No, Dreekt thought, I didn’t wake up, I became aware of this place. As he looked around everything appeared to be wrapped in mist.
“Hello, is anyone there?” The sound of his own voice was barely loud enough to reach his own ears. He looked around again and the mist seemed to coalesce into a scene in front of him.
A body was lying face down on the ground, and Burner was kneeling beside it. Dreekt could barely make out Burner’s voice through the mist.
“-and I’m just as surprised as you.” Burner said as Dreekt finally located the sound of her voice. “I didn’t think they were both selfish pricks. Oh well, come on Gaem. We need to find this Magnus fellow.”
Dreekt couldn’t see Gaem, but he also couldn’t see any scenery. Just Burner and what he realized was Carla’s corpse. Burner looked towards Dreekt almost like she knew he was there, shook her head as if to clear it, and walked out of the scene. As Dreekt tried to focus on the scene to get more information from it the scene broke back into mist, and he lost consciousness.
Dreekt started to wake up. Burner and Carla were walking on either side of Dreekt, and he suddenly realized the world was inverted. He tried to speak but could only groan.
“Ah, the sleeper awakes.” The sound came from above Dreekt’s head. Dreekt was coming back to himself slowly, like he didn’t know how to wake up anymore.
“Where am I?” He tried to ask, but it came out as a groan again.
“I think he may be wondering why he’s strapped down on his back. He might not remember fainting at all.” Carla commented as she and Burner stopped walking.
Dreekt wondered how Carla was still alive, as he had just seen her dead body. Then he thought he must have been dreaming and ignored the thought. He realized that he couldn’t move his arms or legs, and then another thought rose to his consciousness. I’m riding on Gaem’s back. Then he fell asleep again.