The last bit of life left his broken body, crushed beneath the earth which had served him earlier in battle, and his spirit retreated into that space-between-spaces which claimed the souls of others… But never his own. No. Though his most recent body was gone, reclaimed by the earth, death remained nothing more than a momentary inconvenience.
The strange druid opened his eyes in the most beautiful land he had yet seen, and knew that he was being called once again by the one who he called Lord, because no land in his plane of birth could have been so perfect. A bright, clear sky soared over wide plains dotted with small ponds and the occasional tree, one of which provided shade to the blue-tinged skin of his late body. From one of the lower branches hung a vibrant green serpent whose scales glinted in every color where the sun reflected off of them, and delicate ram’s horns curled back from above its brilliant blue eyes.
So soon? Your lord is displeased with this. You are too reckless. The ram-horned serpent whispered in his mind with its scales-over-leaves voice.
“I couldn’t agree more,” the reply came just as it had countless times before, “but I died in service of good men, and in the undertaking of my lord’s quest… I believe.” Here the memories came clearer, dozens of lifetimes threatening to overtake the druid, but he forced them down. “I will follow you, spirit, but do not think to lecture me.”
Slipping down from the branch, the serpent hung in the air like a swimmer, its sinuous length almost three times longer than Oshala’s height. Follow, then, one who would be a martyr. The serpent’s words were harsh, but a hint of wry humor colored the otherwise cool voice as it slid through the air with an easy, dreamlike grace. In fact, it sounded so much like Shesha for a second that the druid couldn’t contain a laugh as he trailed the serpent at an easy, ground-eating lope. With each step, the ground seemed to fly by faster and faster, and memories of past lives, better lives pushed themselves to the forefront, and for a time he forgot himself.
With the rest of the Circle, he stood before tree known as Dodana, bowing his head in supplication. “Your trial begins. Know that I have faith in you,” the Archdruid’s voice cut through his anxiety, giving him the strength to lift his gaze. The older man stepped out of his robes, bearing his tattoos like armor underneath the bright moon, and with a howl of challenge and exaltation, he flung himself into the change. Before the Archdruid hit ground, he had slipped into the skin of a great, white bear. The new initiate lifted his face to the sky and began to sing out praise to the forest, ignoring the burning of the marks that newly covered his skin, and the trees and grasses and vines heeded his call, lashing forward to bind the charging form. With almost casual effort, the white juggernaut pushed through the web of vegetation. But the storm of leaves wasn’t meant to stop something as powerful as one of the monarchs of the North. As a vine whipped in front of the Archdruid’s eyes, the nervous initiate’s form wavered like water, and in its place a raven shot towards the ferociously fast, but unagile opponent. Snapping his jaws, the Archdruid closed on the tip of a feather, but once again the initiate confounded him by shedding his feathers for scales, becoming a viper winding about the neck of the bear, fangs ready to strike. With a rumbling, basso chuckle, the bear and viper resolved into the two loinclothed, tattooed forms, the younger’s arm around the older’s throat and a dagger of bone poised to strike.
That memory, Oshala knew, was countless centuries ago, and the longest-kept memory he could count… bittersweet, as none from it except perhaps Dodana herself would be alive to remember… They had covered a great amount of ground since they began, but another memory came crashing forward, too powerful to overcome.
She sat beside a wolf, almost exactly a match for it in the feral beauty that each posessed, her dark hair cropped scandalously short for her kind, bearing the elegant tips of her ears, and the leather breeches and man’s chiton she wore would have been scandalous to any except the druids with which she made her home.
“We have to at least make the attempt,” she implored. “There will be no future, no progress if we cannot break past these thrice-dammed walls!” She was beautiful, true, but that was not the only reason he loved her, far from it. She was compassionate, as dedicated to healing and aiding those in need as a mortal could possibly be, but she also had so much power in her. When the need arose, she wielded her spear with more skill than any other in the circle… and she was his. She led the chanting of the Circle’s Elders, the spell they wove building in power until it surpassed even lightning in intensity, or and earthquake in power. With this energy, they lashed out against the walls, light as bright as the sun searing a crack in the wall, and those assembled cheered at the accomplishment, the first recorded damage to the confounding walls. He remembered the time they had spent together, honing their skills with fang and magic and blade, adding their own trees to the Circle’s grove, and setting to the peaceful tasks the Archdruid assigned to them The monster released from the crack bared down on her, as she was the final one left from that fateful, cursed casting, and breathed forth searing flames from where the mouth would have been on its face, black and featureless except for the stars which swam across its night-sky skin. She howled in pain and blood curdling fear as death came for her, her very soul burned away in endless torment .
When this last memory left him, Oshala found that the serpent had led him to the base of a monstrous oak tree, its trunk seemingly a league wide, and its branches more than a day’s walk straight up. Nearly as impressive as the oak was the feature cross-legged in front of it….