Early, the sun is just a muted glow in a familiar sky. It has been many years since I’ve been back to the Tree. Many years. Under all of the snow, the browning grass, the leafless shrubs, there is life, always life, even here. It struggles gainst the bitter, numbing, cold. It struggles beneath a constant crust of snow. But it is always there, always there except for where they want to go.
I pack my gear, taking just what I’ll need and pulling on the reindeer skin boots I’ve worn since the day I was bonded with Misha. She’s already up and around camp, probably hunting. She knows there’s a journey soon, she can sense it. A similar journey is what brought us together and now a group of outsiders wishes to undertake their own quest.
I head to their yurt, pulling back the door only briefly to keep the heat from escaping. The only one that seems to fit in here is the bear and he has the right idea – hibernation in the Siberian winter is a survival strategy, and it works. The rest are straight off the city streets, showed up here half drown led by a drunken spirit. Misha tells me they are weak with their magic – they offer no threat like Himmla. My gut tells me they are strong in their soul. I will take them where they wish to go and pray to the great spirits that they do not die.
I see the group is fed, we won’t stop often ont he trail, give them proper gear and we set out, early.
The day is quiet, all I can hope for. We make noise so that the great kodiak spirits are not surprised. The bear traveling with us is impressive, but the kodiaks of this land are even larger – and they are not the only dangers.
The slight girl named Anita worries me. If it is a matter of survival she is not made for this environment at all. Misha tells me that one is part spirit and she is from realms where fire and heat rule. Her and the Plant Watcher worry me most. She is friendly however and I keep her closeby. I have a need to protect her and begin to find her trustworthy just as a tribe member. Misha is nervous – she says my need to protect is because of the girl’s spirit.
The first night the deep winter spirits find us. It is a blue skinned ogre, drawn to us for reasons unknown. Misha tells me it smells the plant watcher and is disgusted by the scent. The lythe girl attacks, but with words. She seems to be making slow progress – the Ogres are dim, brutish. But the Plant Watcher has seems to also be able to speak to the plants. He restrains the beast while the silver tongued girl speaks. This seems to anger it. I load my rifle. We don’t fight these spirits, we run.
The beast starts to lunge and the shadows swallow him. Mustang has slashed it’s leg badly. The fight is bloody, brutal. The plants entangle, the bear, sleeps half the fight, finally only waking after one of the group strikes him hard. The skecthy one tosses fire at the ogre and it doesn’t flinch. Mustang falls back and side by side we empty round after round into the beast. The fire is extinguished, and the fight rages in the dark, muzzle flares and blur electric shocks. The magician has given up magic and is brawling as the bear tries to hold the beast along with the roots and trees of the forest. The one who speaks to the Great Spirit wields a razor thin blade which he employs with great precision.
Eventually the ogre dies. It lies still, I put a shot in the back of its head just to be sure.
I suggest urgently that we move on but the Plant Watcher wants to repair the trees that rose to help us. Equal parts noble and foolish. Anita puts wisdom before the plants and we move on – pressing on through the night. They are tired, frozen, and rest is necessary before we reach the Tree.
We look out at the valley of the Tree. Here the growth is recent, the old virgin forests left behind. Ther ein the middle stands the only thing left of the original forest. Our tree, stripped naked and bear, it’s skin burned and tortured. Misha whimpers softly, through her I feel it – Nothing. Nothing – magic dies here, life dies here, everything is empty.
The Plant Watcher is first, walking headlong into the valley, disappearing into the trees. Anita, Mustang, Bastion, Tylar all follow. They ask for no advice, I offer none. I can only observe for it is their quest, their vision, not mine. Lucian stares ahead with the eyes of the spirit world and fear grips him. He lets that fear defeat him right here on the ridge. There is no shame in it, for his friends may not return. If they do, they may never be the same.
Hours pass, Lucian stares into the valley still trying to comprehend what he saw. Against the odds, his friends return. In the eyes of each I can see they have changed. The Plant Watcher the most, even though he cradles the plant they came seeking. There is no elation, no joy in his face. Tylar too seems diminished. His sword still at the ready, his eyes deeply troubled and he clutches the cross around his neck. Mustang’s eyes flick about nervously, old wounds torn open. Anita, she has a look of stolen majesty; a princess who has lost her crown.
They returned, but will never be the same. They all met him, stared him down and if they survive it is up to them.