Hitchhiker's Guide to the Planes
The imposing old oak tree loomed over us all, robust against the high winds, as the hunched figure of the gnome took a few unsteady, hobbling steps towards it. Three feet from the trunk he stopped and his sticks fell to the floor before he too dropped to his knees. As he knelt, the words coming from his mouth became indecipherable, unrecognisable as any humanoid language. His breath whistled like the wind, chest groaned like creaking branches, tongue cracked like dry twigs – and all the while his hands buried themselves in the dirt and yellowed leaves, furrowing in the earth. A smile grew over his wizened features and when he opened his eyes they had become solid orbs of the deepest brown. He shuffled on his knees to the base of the tree, still speaking in bizarre tongues, his face softened with a nostalgic glow. He raised up to his full height – hunched no more – and slowly reached out in a friendly embrace. His tiny arms barely covered a quarter of the trunk’s full width, his knees shook slightly to support his weight, but he leant into the tree like an old friend and his features radiated a blissful warmth. Two light pats against the bark rung out across the still forest as he finally spoke in Common: “Quercus, my brother. It’s good to see you again.”
It was only then that the gnome began to… change. His wrinkled hands cracked and hardened, turning in on themselves until the lined skin seemed more like bark. His wispy hair ripened into a rich green, tangling and thickening until it fell from his very body as a heap of moss. His cloth rotted away in front of our eyes, his legs twisted and burrowed into the ground like roots… A deep groan rang out from the centre of the tree and it seemed to split open along it’s core, leaving a yawning, gaping maw in it’s place. What was left of the gnome entered the abyss. An overpowering earthy stink rippled over the clearing in a wave, leaving us retching and reeling, and by the time anyone thought to look up… He was gone. – One soldier’s recollection of the departure of Old Yaercsu, Keeper of the Inner Groves.
The strive to become closer to nature is not a new phenomenon: it is one that courses through every druid, young and old, novice and master. To the uneducated outsider, the ability to shapeshift from one animal to another is the mark of having succeeded in this goal – the most base way of gauging one’s capacity for channelling natural magic. However, as the experienced druid will tell you, being able to merge with the animal form is comparatively simple compared to merging with plant form. The simple mimicry and recreation of organic matter through spells like Barkskin is relatively simple, but to be able to phsically and mentally merge with an existing ecosystem is a taxing and dangerous activity. The consequences of failure are not to be taken lightly.
Entering the tree itself comes with enough risk as it is. During the conversion process the caster’s body will be broken down and transformed into wood for the tree, so a break in concentration at this moment puts the druid at the mercy of the tree it is entering. Most trees are free from evil sentiment and will allow the caster to leave with their body and belongings completely reconstructed; if they are not, the will of the druid is likely to be strong enough to regain his physical form by mental force. There is, however, the possibility that as the concentration breaks, the druid’s body parts that had been absorbed into the wood will become part of the plant matter, lost forever. Attempting to cast Tree Stride without committing yourself to the task is a good way to lose an arm. Not that a limb taken this way has to be lost – every druid knows the tale of Stubborn Stubby Stiles, who gained his unweildly nickname and unfortunate loss of height after losing two legs to the root of a poplar tree. Refusing to go down without a fight, he physically hacked his legs from the root structure with a hatchet and now wears his “poplar prostheses” with the aid of a custom-made braces.
Once the physical merge with the plant has been completed, the very body of the caster is destroyed and made indistinguishable from plant matter. From this point they have left the materialplane and become one with the tree soul itself, from where they can not only move from one tree to another but are also connected to the souls of every other tree in the area. This is one of the ways that this can be a very dangerous spell – if a druid accidentally links himself to a cursed or desecrated tree, he can open his mind up to poisonous influences. The most famous account is that of Olaf Nackle, a young gnome druid of the Ardeep forest. Through is reckless use of Tree Stride he passed through a tree that had been desecated as part of a ritual sacrifice, warping his mind and breaking his will. Driven to madness within seconds, he emerged using the pseudonym of D’Shala and made it his mission to perform a similar sacrifice at every tree in the forest, raising an army of blights and shamblers to capture his prey.
Do not underestimate trees. Trees are ancient, steadfast, wise lifeforms. Their kind has been rooted in this earth for millenia before we stepped upon it, and they shall remain long after we’re gone. They clense the air we breathe and enrich the soil from which we eat. We owe them our gratitude, our humility, our respect. To connect with their souls and pass through their bodies without first proffering our thanks is the height of boorish obscenity. When you happen upon a tree whose knots and bark appears almost twisted into a distorted face, you are not mistaken. You bear witness. You are warned. – the warning of Snowy Ceuamths of the Leafen Circle, a recognised expert of Tree Stride and Transport via Plants.
Tree Stride is one of the few verbal spells where there is no incantation required to cast: rather, what is being spoken is a courtesy. It is entirely possible to cast Tree Stride without speaking, but to merge mind and body with the conciousness of another being without requesting permission would profoundly offensive. As such for a druid to enter a particular tree, they must know it’s language and be able to speak it, and know it’s customs. This is the reason why being proficient with Tree Stride in a variety of situations is the mark of an experienced druid: it boasts a broad knowledge of plant life and an affinity for their culture.
The most common danger inherent to Tree Stride is not just from losing concentration as with other spells, but from losing the mental connection with the life you are attempting to inhabit. Frequently it comes from a breakdown in the relationship between man and plant: if the tree you are passing through loses respect for you, you risk becoming trapped forever. Many an arrogant young druid has tried to force entry into a tree without paying their dues and never been seen again. In fact, dark druids have used this knowledge to lure fools to their deaths in the past. A druid who is able to infuse Tree Stride in a ring or amulet is the weilder of a terrible power. If that artifact is bestowed upon someone untaught in the art of communing with plants, any attempt they make to use it will likely be fatal.