Randidly wandered North from where he had landed, struck by the strange feeling that he knew this area, this farm. There was no one around, which was slightly strange, but he supposed there had been some very physical repercussions to him dislodging the giant Aether construct that had hovered above the Village, and people had noticed.
Perhaps they had evacuated somewhere…? Fleeing from the fallout zone?
There were the sounds of birds in the air, but no people. No talking, no work, no toil, no monsters… just birds. Chipmunks, squirrels…. Randidly’s sharpened senses picked out the sound of a deer moving through the treeline around him.
Then he arrived at it, and it all came flooding back. The small cabin that Randidly had claimed for himself all those years ago, at the thin edge of the valley where Donnyton sat. It was immaculately preserved, the small field where he had began farming still sitting there, a line of corn springing up.
Of course, the big field that Randidly had expanded to…. He looked behind him and sighed, surveying the crater. Well, hopefully it is no longer really in use, and no one will mind his landing… But someone had to be here maintaining it…
...A problem for another time. Randidly turned his attention to the small path that lead away from his old area, deeper into the trees. Silently, almost against his will, he found his feet moving, carrying him deeper. Perhaps it was ironic, that this would be the first location that he would go after returning, cementing his status as someone who cared little about people, but Randidly didn’t mind so much.
Besides, Randidly could feel the subtle pull of them on his heart, his plants, and since they had joined together with his Soul Skill, he had precious little information on what was going on with them.
As Randidly approached the first bend in the path, be paused. Because instead of just a normal bend in the old trail, there was… something else. A stark shift in the landscape, that was very different than Randidly remembered.
There was a sharp line, at that bend, where the trees turned barren, and instead of leaves, the tops of trees were covered with thin grey silk. And the silk stretched from one tree to the other, covering it, enveloping the canopy, making the forest a thick, grey cotton candy.
At the shift, Randidly stopped, gazing slowly left and right, his senses extending outwards. Strangely, the silk was only opened at this point in the path, making a doorway simply due to its lack of draping fibers. Around, in either direction, the silk extended along the trees, which acted as pillars, making this outdoor area resemble a crypt more than a forest.
Randidly took a step forward, something slow and angry rising in his heart.
Surely, Donnyton hadn’t fallen so much in its clash with the Skeleton Knight that it would allow a monster infestation so close to the Village…. And also… upon the grove of Arbor?
But no other explanation seemed easy. Could Arbor itself have caused this…? That seemed incredibly unlikely. Arbor was a tree with flaming leaves. It just didn’t make sense for what seemed to be a vast amount of spiders to hang around a flaming tree. Unless it was being used for some nefarious purpose, syphoning energy…
Wouldn’t he feel that, however…?
Moving through the strange, silk ceiling’d forest was profoundly disturbing, even for Randidly. Although he could probably use Circle of Flame and wipe away most of it, he didn’t for now. Just on the off chance that this strange place was actually supposed to be here. Perhaps partially also, he left it alone because the surrounding area was so free, and filled with normal life.
This sudden aberration couldn’t be too dangerous, if a deer was meandering around nearby.
It wasn’t totally silent in this area, Randidly was surprised to find. He could pick up tiny movements in the silk, running to and fro, and numerous ones of those. Probably the spiders, which appeared to be following his progress through the strange tunnel. It amused, and disturbed Randidly, to imagine them all trying to attack him by mobbing him. Amused because of their size, disturbed because of their number.
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Randidly left the cool darkness of the silk forest and walked back into the light. And basically was forced to eat his words.
Because what he found struck him as a large, open air cathedral. And at its center, now reaching almost 15 meters in height, was Arbor, practically squirming, the excitement radiating off of it clear. It even seemed to lean forward, over the people who appeared to be performing some ritual at its base, but then thought better of it, perhaps realizing it was a tree, and therefore stuck.
Instead, it settled on gesturing frantically for Randidly to approach.
Honestly, the sight was rather intimidating. Not only had Arbor grown in height, but also in width, and his branches spread wide, his bark still ashy in most places, but in others there were flashes of gold showing through the cracked exterior. Although the sun was above, it was still the light from Arbor that seemed to dominate, as hundreds of leaves burned, twisting on his branches as it moved, reaching for Randidly.
This was the point that those partaking in the rituals, perhaps 30 individuals arrayed in three rows, realized that the tree above them was acting strange. They seemed to confer, and one individual towards the front seemed to step forward.
“Great Arbor… are these initiates to our order…. Unacceptable?”
An air of tension immediately started emanating from the middle row of people. Now that he was watching this small drama unfold, Randidly took care to sneak forward, and noticed that the middle row was in simple brown robes. The back row had maroon robes with a golden leaf stamped on the chest, and the front row had hoods up that were lined with embroidered golden leaves.
Randidly almost groaned audibly. Of course, while he was away, they would found a cult… Which he supposed he deserved. He had tasked that girl with caring for Arbor, and he supposed that a cult was one way to do it… he had just assumed that children would be easier, and they would accept the sentient tree more easily.
“Has… has that ever happened before….?” An individual from the back row spoke up uncertainty, and the man who had spoken first glared at him.
“No, but the loyalty and belief of those that came before is… unquestioned.” The man’s eyes scanned across the middle row, scrutinizing them. Then he noticed Randidly, who was walking up, albeit silently. His eyes burned even more brightly.
“What?! An interloper? Who let you through?!?”
The man in the third row who spoke earlier looked behind him at Randidly, and then scratched his head. “...well you called everyone up to watch the initiation. So there were no guards.”
“Well… I….” The man seemed flummoxed, then refocused on Randidly as a target, who continued to advance further. “Sir, I appreciate your reverence for the great Arbor, but we are currently involved in a very sacred ritual. Please depart. Or you will be forcibly-”
“Don’t be daft.”
A small figure, who had been sitting at the base of the tree to this point, stood and smacked the speaking man with a long, gnarled pole. The man seemed almost… embarrassed, as he rubbed the back of his head and stepped to the side. Taking their cue from their outspoken pseudo-leader, everyone else stepped to the side too, as Randidly approached, creating a path forward.
Standing in front of him, wearing a cloak that appeared to be made entirely of red and gold leave stitched together, Kiersty looked at him, a cocky smile on her face. She had aged, quite a bit, as far as Randidly could tell, but he supposed that she was at the age where girls age very quickly. She had shot up at least a 6 inches in the intervening time, and her hair was longer, hanging around her in beautiful curls.
Randidly frowned. Her hair had taken on a definite reddish tint that hadn’t been there in the past, and the edges… it seemed to glow somewhat. Like her hair was made up the very burning leaves that hung above them now.
As if punctuating this thought, Arbor shook itself, demanding Randidly’s attention, practically preening as it twisted this way and that. Randidly rolled his eyes, and passed through the strange cult people, barely sparing them a glance. They, on the other hand, were goggling at him, recognition dawning in some of their eyes, while others just seemed intimidated that Kiersty had acted.
“You started a… following?” Randidly asked Kiersty as he passed her.
Her grin at him was wide, but her voice was quiet, so only he could hear it. “No, you did. I’ve just been tending it in your absence. Welcome back, Mr. Ghosthound.”
Randidly stepped passed her, mulling this information over carefully. Well, it wasn’t really new information. He had done these things, and he knew that Arbor would be a big help to Donnyton. But at the time… he just wanted his little baby plant to be happy. The ways it could be useful were readily apparent. So useful, that perhaps something like this was necessary to prevent the forces that would like to abuse his power from driving him to depression. But still…
The branches came down for him, surrounding Randidly and picking him up, rubbing ash on him, but Randidly didn’t mind. The whole tree was vibrating, and he could feel in that small vibration the purest form of joy. Arbor might be a very intelligent plant, but he was still a child.
And his parent was finally home.
Randidly smiled, rubbing the bark. “I missed you too buddy.”