Ziaxe spent the rest of the slowly diminishing night walking east, trying to get as far away from Berania as possible. When he had first left the protection of the Great Walls he was almost overwhelmed with the freedom he felt. He looked around at the beautiful pure nature around him, half expecting an impenetrable wall to appear to block his path, but there were no walls here, only long, endless plains.
The stream that ran out of the culvert in the east Great Wall continued southward until it entered Lake Berania, the shining lake that Ziaxe had only seen paintings of. The lake was about a half a mile away from where Ziaxe stood, but he was easily able to see that the painting of the lake he had seen in Alavar's house did not capture the size and beauty of it. The lake spread for miles in each direction, making it difficult for Ziaxe to see the shores on the other sides. The slowly rising sun shined bright red and orange colors that reflected off the surface like a dancing fire. The new Nizain could have stayed staring at the beauty of the shining water for hours if he was not already on an important quest.
He was told to look for a man named Naje in Salras. It did not seem like a hard mission, but he had to find Salras first. He had never been outside of Berania, so his navigation skills had never been truly tested before. Alavar told him to go east, and he vaguely remembered the map from the professor's cottage that showed the city of Salras was almost exactly parallel to Berania. The other thing he remembered though was that there was a forest called the "Treemen Forest" that lay in between the two cities. It was his task to find a safe way through this possibly dangerous forest and find his way safely to Salras.
He was rather confident about his first ever adventure outside of Berania as he continued to walk towards the rising sun. He was the Nizain, after all. Though Alavar had warned him not to rely on the Power of the Nizain to save him, he was positive that if something truly hazardous came along he would be able to automatically summon Naz Zarak to help him….
But then again he remembered how he had passed out after using the powerful sword. That was not a result he would like to happen if he was attacked by some monstrous creature that could eat his unconscious body.
Brushing aside those ill thoughts, Ziaxe walked through long grass and soft earth. The air blew a slightly chilling breeze over him, and he felt the approach of winter slowly coming over the land. To his left and in front of him were long plains that seemed to go on forever. He knew that in the north there was the Ancient Sarbenian country of Zaria. He wondered how far away it was and if it was as glorious of a country as Alavar had always claimed it to be.
His thoughts returned to the events of the past few days. The creature Gurgan had been the strangest thing he had ever seen as of so far, but he remembered how Gurgan had spoken Javen's name when he was examining Ziaxe in his cell. The deformed Vidian had obviously known Javen somewhat personally if he was able to confirm that Ziaxe looked like his father.
The Witch Bellara was another oddity that Ziaxe was faced with. She was able to leave her cell easily, so he would have to keep his eyes open for her in case she ever decided to become an enemy like she had predicted. It seemed that Ziaxe had a growing group of enemies that he realized he would have to continually look out for.
Also, the cloaked girl he had passed earlier was an even stranger event. It seemed as if she was simply part of a dream, a part of the darkness and confusion that comes with nightmares. She had passed him while simply speaking the name of the Light of his life, and when she disappeared, it felt as if she was never there to begin with. She passed through the culvert easily; it appeared that that ability was a Vidian trick known by a variety of people.
When he thought back on the way he walked through the culvert, he realized that he had not been imagining when he had seen that figure walk through it so many nights before. He remembered that night when he sat on the boulders in the poor district with Kron beside him. He had seen a figure appear in the shadows by the culvert, but he had dismissed the idea as a foolish thought produced by his imagination. But thinking back now, he remembered that the figure was rather big and tall… like a giant….
Gilart! his thoughts screamed at him as he matched the figure's similarity with Virok's giant follower. He had not thought of Gilart as a true Vidian who controlled the Darkness, but he thought of the resemblances between the giant and the creature Gurgan. They were both unpleasant looking—though Gurgan may have excelled at that. Ziaxe continued to have revelations on the matter. He saw that Darkness was what caused the two to change. Gilart was not as devoured by the evil of it yet, but perhaps he may turn into what Gurgan has become later in his life. Gurgan must have been a human before he let Darkness take over him, though the aspects of humanity were vague in him, they were still there.
The mysteries continued to grow, and Ziaxe eventually grew hungry. He had not had a good meal in over two days, and he was not sure if this day would be any different. He stopped under a lone oak tree that was rooted on the plain as if it watched over the vast lowland like a tall guardian. It was a towering tree with branches that spread out around it to supply shade to weary travellers. Its leaves were slowly shedding as they fought against winter's hibernation.
Ziaxe sat on the ground, resting his back against the tree as he relieved himself of all of his burdens except for the chainmail which he kept on. He looked in the knapsack Alavar had supplied him with for food. There were supplies to make a fire, but the only firewood he had was from the tree and the tree's branches were too wide and strong to easily be pulled down. And the fact that the branches were up high on the tree, far above where Ziaxe was, made it hard to even reach them.
He decided to simply eat some of the bread and cheese that were in the pack. After finishing the meal, Ziaxe's weariness set over him, and he drifted off to sleep.
He awoke to find that he had been asleep for a few hours. He looked anxiously around to make sure his supplies were safe, and cursed himself for carelessly going to sleep without finding a way of protecting himself and his supplies. Even though he was outside of the protection of the Great Walls, there still appeared to be no danger where he was. He saw various birds fly around in the sky and small animals like squirrels scurry around the plain, but there was no threat. He was safe—for now at least.
It was about noon, but dark storm clouds appeared to have been slowy forming overhead while he slept. He knew that if he hadn't gone to sleep he could have been farther from the plain and most likely to some shelter from the incoming storm; but the sleep had regenerated his energy, so he was grateful for that.
And so, he continued his walk east. He had a somewhat leisurely speed since he didn't want to tire himself out quickly, but he remembered the urgency of his journey and sped up slightly. His shoulders had progressively been growing sore from the weight of his pack and his weapons, but he ignored the pain. He knew he had to find shelter before the inevitable rain squall began.
About a few hours before nightfall he heard a loud clash of thunder in the distance ahead of him. The storm was beginning, and he still had no shelter. He peered ahead, across the darkening plains, and to his surprise he could make out a forest about less than half a mile away. He increased his speed to an almost dead run. He was heading in the direction of the storm, hoping to make it to the shelter of the trees before the storm began.
By the time he felt raindrops begin to fall, he was already under the outer trees of the forest. He sat against a tree trunk to catch his breath. He looked around at the trees surrounding him. There were hundreds of trees in all directions, making him feel as if he had entered a sea of leaves and bark. Their branches blotted out the fading sunlight making it easy for one to get lost in this maze of trees and scrub. Most of the trees were pine trees with full, wide branches that rose up above the ground, casting shadows.
Ziaxe thought ahead and laid his sword on the ground with its sheathed blade pointing east. He hoped that this would remind him of the direction he needed to go if he completely loses sight of the sun. Nighttime was approaching, and he decided to stop for the night because it would be foolish to continue in the dark.
He realized he must have entered the Treemen Forest that was west of Salras, so he knew he was getting closer to his destination. Professor Alavar had never told him about the dangers of this forest though. For all Ziaxe knew, there could be terrible creatures lurking in the darkness, creatures that devoured weary travellers who lost their way in the shadows of the forest. The forest itself had a name that implied that someone—or something—lived in the forest. Ziaxe didn't know what a "Treeman" was, but he felt that he would find out soon enough.
Casting aside these outlandish thoughts, he took off his burdens and lay against the tree that was on the outskirts of the forest, searching for more sleep.
Ziaxe awoke to a sudden chill. Even while his mind was still hazy from his sleep, he felt something approaching through the trees and bushes. His head was drowsy and his body sore from sleeping against the tree, but he slowly became more alert. A bush shook slightly ahead of him as if something moved within it. He slowly reached for his sword and held it ready to unsheathe at any moment. As his body returned from the land of dreams, he pulled himself slowly off the ground, looking around himself for signs of the hidden threat. It was still dark around him with the moonlight shining down, casting only a few strands of light through the barrier of the tree branches.
The bush shook again, and a figure moved forward. It looked as if it wore a dark robe and moved as if one with the shadows around it. It walked with arms weakly extended forward as if it had no energy and was seeking something to help it survive. It was bent over and limped forward almost like a weak, dying man, but it came forward menacingly, looking for something it desperately needed. The creature seemed to be a simple floating shadow like a wraith of some sort with legs and claw-like hands formed from the shadows. When Ziaxe looked closer he realized that the creature wasn't wearing a robe; it was simply the creature's ethereal body.
The creature limped forward slowly towards Ziaxe through the strands of moonlight with its head lowered slightly, hiding whatever face it may have. Ziaxe unsheathed his blade and brandished it in front of him, wondering if his sword could even harm this ghostly creature.
The creature stopped then as if waiting and sensing something that Ziaxe could not. Out of the bushes behind came a creature exactly identical to the one that had been slowly approaching Ziaxe. When the new creature came to the other creature's side, they began to communicate through strange noises that sounded both guttural and like the hissing of a snake. They appeared to have decided something, and then, as if they were linked together mentally, they limped together towards Ziaxe, each step the same as the other's.
Ziaxe backed to the tree behind him, unsure of what to do. When the creatures were a few feet from Ziaxe's raised sword, they looked up together. Ziaxe gasped aloud as he saw the invisible faces of the creatures. There was nothing there but shadows except for the one feature that Ziaxe knew well. The creatures' red eyes stared in hunger at the Nizain as they continued forward as if unafraid of his raised weapon.
Then, before Ziaxe could even blink, another creature came out of the bushes. It was a four-legged creature with a furry body that reflected the light of the moon. It had a tall and mighty body with wide legs, and it looked elegant with a shining mane around a jaw filled with ferocious teeth. It roared a roar that shook the earth and caused the two other shadowy creatures to turn around. But before they could turn completely, the four-legged creature was on them. It pounced with its front paws brandishing sharp claws, and when the claws slashed through the creatures, they disappeared into a mist of dark smoke and let out a terrible screech of pain.
When the smoke completely vanished, the victorious creature stood in front of Ziaxe with twinkling, green eyes that examined him as if wondering if it should kill him too. Ziaxe also examined the creature with curious interest. It was a beautiful and magnificent creature that he would have never seen in Berania. It had a thin, furry tail that swayed around gently behind it, almost representing the creature's concentration and focus. Though Ziaxe should have felt fear and anxiety over this strange creature, he felt relief since this creature was his savior even if the creature had probably only saved him through random chance.
Something seemed to pass through the creature's mind, and it turned around and walked a few feet away from Ziaxe. When it stopped, something unexpected happened. Its body began to shimmer, and it began to change form. Its fur disappeared; its tail vanished; its paws turned into hands and feet. When the creature finished its strange transformation, it was standing on two feet facing the darkness of the forest. But it wasn't an it; it was a boy. The boy turned around to face Ziaxe.
Ziaxe looked at the boy—or creature—but after close examination, he saw it wasn't just a boy. It was a young man who had a few years into manhood but had a boyish appearance. Ziaxe noticed that there was a small dagger in the man's hand, so he kept his sword out just in case there was still a threat.
"Hello," said the young man as he slowly came towards Ziaxe. "Speak your business in the Treemen Forest, please."
The young man had the voice of a kind child who always tried to make friends with everyone. He had short, brown hair and bright, blue eyes. He was about as tall as Ziaxe, and he was a good-looking, young man with a lean figure. There was something different about the young man though—other than his strange ability to change into a creature. He had a smile on his face that gave him the appearance of someone who was always happy even when others were depressed. Even when he asked Ziaxe why he was there he did it politely with a "please."
"Hello," replied Ziaxe, hesitantly, still unsure what this new young man was. "I am on my way to Salras. I came from Berania, and I seek the one named Naje."
The young man raised an eyebrow in thought, but still had a small grin on his face. "Naje? Why would you want to see him?"
"I'm on an important mission," replied Ziaxe vaguely. He still didn't know if he could completely trust this stranger even if the man did save his life.
"All right then," said the man, returning to a happy expression. "So, you're a Sargenian, then? I'm from Salras myself. I'll lead you there if you want."
The man's trusting nature surprised Ziaxe. "Thank you," said Ziaxe, grateful for some help after seeing those strange shadow creatures. "Why are you in these forests, then, may I ask?"
"Saving your life apparently," replied the man with a wry grin. He laughed when he saw Ziaxe's confused expression. "It's a joke, friend. I'm here because I work with my mentor Orlen. He's a lumberjack, and I help him because he adopted me when my parents both died."
Ziaxe found that interesting. They just met, but he noticed some similarities with their ages and their pasts. "Oh, I'm sorry," said Ziaxe. "My parents are also dead. I live with my Uncle Alben."
"I guess we've got some things in common then, friend, and I don't even know your name yet."
Ziaxe chuckled in spite of himself. This new companion was an easygoing person who one could easily make friends with. "My name is Ziaxe. What's yours?"
"Nice to meet you, Ziaxe." The young man reached a hand forward and Ziaxe clasped it. "My name is Sastan. We should probably get moving now. You never know when any other of those creatures will come back."
And so, that was Ziaxe's first meeting with Sastan, the one who would become one of the greatest companions Ziaxe could ever ask for. Ziaxe would always reminisce on their strange meeting with a smile on his face.
The two both sheathed their weapons, and Ziaxe picked up his other supplies. They walked deeper into the forest, Sastan leading the way, standing tall, with a walk that showed a large amount of self-confidence. Ziaxe smiled as he thought of this mysterious yet friendly man.
"Did you happen to see that full moon a couple nights ago?" asked Sastan, starting a conversation in the silence of the forest.
Ziaxe remembered the strange occurrence of the full moon when he was running from Gilart in the Beranian Castle. It was strange for it was at the most random time of the month for a full moon. "Yes, I do," he replied.
"You know what they say about full moons, don't you? They say that a full moon is a sign of a new Nizain. They say that when the Power of the Nizain is passed to a new person, Great Sarben's Light shines brightest in the night."
"I didn't know that." That thought gave Ziaxe another understanding. The full moon must have been how Gurgan knew about Ziaxe, for he had asked Professor Alavar about the new Nizain almost the instant he came to the dungeons. He wondered if his new companion would already know about him being the new Nizain. He was not sure if he should keep that fact a secret even to Sastan who had already exposed so much freely.
As they walked along through the rough, root streaked ground of the forest, Ziaxe formed a question, trying to find more answers from Sastan. "What were those… creatures back there?"
"Those creatures?" said Sastan as if surprised at Ziaxe's cluelessness. "Those were Zauk-souls, don't you know? They're those creatures that are created when Darkness feeds off of Light and grows into a big shadowlike thing. Yes, that's all I can think of to describe them as: a big shadowlike thing. They're relatively harmless—unless they find some Light to feed off of. Some Zauk-souls grow to almost resemble humans, but most of the time they die because of their insubstantial bodies. They could probably fly away in a breeze if they aren't careful." Sastan chuckled to himself as if imagining the image of the shadowy creatures flying away involuntarily in a big sudden breeze.
"I've never seen one in my life until just then," replied Ziaxe.
"Well, you said you were from Berania, right? If you're stuck behind those Great Walls all the time I doubt you'd ever see one. They do have shadow powers like Vidians do, but they can't just walk through a giant wall."
Ziaxe understood that, but he remembered how he had gone through the eastern Great Wall through the culvert. It was possible to penetrate the Great Walls, he had realized. Then he remembered that cloaked girl he found when he exited Berania. She had gone the way he came through the culvert. Was she what Sastan called a "Zauk-soul?" He couldn't be sure, for the girl had spoken in his language, an ability that the Zauk-souls in the forest apparently didn't have.
He continued to ponder the thought, but then he remembered Sastan's other secrets. "Er… how did you… do what you did to save me?" His question came out slowly and hesitantly as he was still unsure what kind of creature Sastan himself was.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you all about that," replied Sastan sheepishly. "Well, I was just out here in the forest looking for food as Orlen stayed back to chop down some trees. I came across those two Zauk-souls, and I just naturally have an animosity to those things, strange enough. I followed them until I saw them attacking you. I thought for a moment that you had them all under control with that sword you got there, but I didn't want to take any chances. So I turned into a lion and killed them for you."
There was an awkward silence after Sastan's blunt statement. Ziaxe stared at the other with wide eyes of confusion and shock, waiting for the other to say more.
Sastan looked over to see Ziaxe's perplexed face and laughed cheerfully. "Relax, friend, it's a little joke I like to pull on people," he said with a grin. "You see, I'm a Sargen—you should know what those are, even if you were raised in Berania."
"A Sargen!" exclaimed Ziaxe as he jumped in his spot and instantly stopped. He was in the presence of one of the holy people of Sarben! He knew there was something different about the stranger, but he never expected something like this. He had heard of all the legends of Sarben's Chosen, the ones of great pureness that could control the Light. The Sargens were the ones who started the royal line of Ancient Sarbenia. Ziaxe could be standing in the presence of a king for all he knew! Acting on a natural instinct, he went down on both knees and bowed to Sastan as if he was the king of all Ancient Sarbenia.
Sastan looked down at Ziaxe with a wry look as if trying not to laugh. "Come on now, Ziaxe, none of that, please. I'm no king or anything like that."
Ziaxe's face flushed as he stood back up. "Sorry… it's just that I've heard so much about Sargens. Is that thing you did when you turned into a… 'lion,'—as you say—a Sargen ability?"
"Yes, it is. It's just a simple trick of the Light really. Truthfully, all I do is shift the Light around me so others see what I want them to see. I really don't become a lion; I just create the illusion of one. You see, people look through the Light and see the colors it gives and the shapes it shows. When I mess with the Light surrounding me, they can be easily mistaken for what they see and believe they see a lion. I was really just simply standing with my dagger out and attacking the Zauk-souls. What you saw was a lion striking though."
The explanation was confusing to Ziaxe, but he tried his hardest to understand. "So, you weren't a lion? It's kind of like a disguise?"
"Yes! That's a better way to put it. I just used the Light as a disguise. If I'm wearing a disguise of a lion people who trust their eyes will assume that a ravaging lion is trying to eat them while it's really just me running at them. The disguise doesn't make me any stronger or faster though some people may believe that."
Sastan's theory of this Sargen's ability was a bit insightful, Ziaxe thought. They continued in silence for a little while until Ziaxe thought of more questions.
"Why are you living as a lumberjack's apprentice if you are a Sargen?" asked Ziaxe, getting more comfortable around Sastan. "I thought the Sargens were either part of royalty or living in Paridon." Ziaxe had been taught of how a lot of the Sargens had once believed that the land of Sarbenia was becoming tainted with Darkness, and they left over the Eastern Sea for the pure island of Paridon.
"What does me being a Sargen have to do with anything though?" asked Sastan a little bitterly, seeming strangely out of character. He stopped walking and sighed deeply as his smile slowly disappeared. Ziaxe stopped as Sastan faced him. "I am what many consider to be a 'tainted Sargen.' I have grown up and lived among the simple people of Salras who have experienced Darkness in the world. The 'pure Sargens' are the ones that live on the paradise of Paridon where no Darkness can go…. I've heard so many wonderful things about Paridon in my lifetime. They say that the island itself radiates a shining Light that keeps all Darkness away. Only the pure Sargens can go there though."
Ziaxe noticed Sastan's undisguised longing to go to the island of Paridon. It was truly a place just for Sargens to go. A trip to Paridon should have been Sastan's birthright. "Maybe you'll be able to go someday," consoled Ziaxe.
"Maybe so," replied the Sargen, trying to regain his happy composure. "Anyways, we're almost there."
He continued on, leading Ziaxe, until they came to a small glade where the moonlight gleamed down on it giving it an appearance of some a strange bluish world. In the center was a small fire and outside of the circle of firelight, there was a cart filled with chopped down trees and a horse tied to it, grazing off the grass.
Next to the fire was a man who Ziaxe thought was as large and muscular as Gilart, but the man looked a lot more decent. He had broad shoulders and muscular arms—most likely produced from long years of chopping down and hauling trees. He had a neatly trimmed black beard and hair that framed his face. His clothing was a simple brown tunic with overalls covered in dirt and sweat. The sitting man looked up at the two approaching younger men.
"Welcome back, Sastan," said the man kindly with a deep voice that nearly rumbled the earth.
"Greetings, Orlen," replied Sastan, leading Ziaxe into the light of the fire. "We have a guest tonight. This is Ziaxe of Berania. He wishes to go to Salras, so I decided to help him along."
They sat down across from the big man, and Sastan recounted the tale of how he found Ziaxe being attacked by Zauk-souls. When the tale was finished the lumberjack Orlen spoke once more in his deep voice. "Oh Zauk-souls!" he said the word as if he was swearing. "Those things have never done anyone any good. They're more like annoying insects if anything." He took a moment of thought as if to regain his composure and spoke milder to Ziaxe, "Would you like something to eat, Ziaxe?"
Ziaxe nodded and said his thanks. The lumberjack gave him a plate of freshly cooked venison. He had never eaten or seen too many dear in his life, but he was always willing to eat something. On his dangerous mission, he realized he was constantly at risk of strange creatures he had never seen or General Virok and his followers. Any meal could be his last….
He pushed the paranoid thoughts out of his mind as he examined his new companions. They were truthfully very interesting characters. There was the Sargen and the lumberjack. Two things that seemed to be total opposites, but they were not like the others of their own kind. Sastan was a tainted Sargen, a Sargen who may never see the blessed island of Paridon because of where he was born and who he lives with.
Orlen was also a paradox. Ziaxe knew little of lumberjacks and their lifestyles, but his childhood image of one was an independent, mighty man who lived in solitude chopping down trees for a living. Orlen seemed to be an exception. He lived with Sastan and acted as a father for him—that much Ziaxe could tell. While other lumberjacks appeared to turn their backs on socialness, Orlen was obviously a nice and friendly man. He also was neatly groomed—despite the dirt on his clothes given to him from his hard work. He gave an approachable appearance that men his size and strength tend to lack. Ziaxe was confident that this kind giant would never intend to harm him in any way.
Sastan and Orlen discussed their business, talking about the number of trees they felled and how long it might take to deliver them to Salras. Ziaxe finished his meal and thanked the lumberjack once more.
When Orlen and his adopted son finished their discussion, Orlen turned to Ziaxe. "We have agreed to return back to Salras when sunrise comes," he said. "Do you think you have enough strength to continue walking? Sunrise is only about an hour away."
"I was asleep before the Zauk-souls woke me, so I already had rest for the night."
"Good, we will wait until sunrise when we'll be able to clearly see our path."
Orlen stood up, showing Ziaxe his full height of at least over six feet, and walked over to the cart with the felled trees. He checked on the straps that held the trunks and then gave the horse a bowl of water.
When sunrise approached, the three began readying themselves for the journey to Salras. Orlen put out the fire, and they began walking east.
Their walk was silent as they walked at a relaxing pace, but another unexpected event occurred after a few moments of walking. A group of figures jumped out of the trees and bushes ahead of them. Orlen was clearly surprised, and he brought out his large ax that he used for chopping down trees from the saddle bags on his horse. Sastan also reached for a bronze sword that was in the saddle bags and unsheathed it. Ziaxe was the last to react—mostly because he had grown adjusted to the Chill of Darkness warning him of approaching enemies. But it did not warn him this time. He reached for his bronze sword that was belted across his back, the weapon Kron had bought for him so many days ago. The three companions stood at the ready, Sastan and Orlen in front of Ziaxe as he held his weapon reluctantly.
But before any of them could strike, more figures appeared from the trees and bushes behind them until the three were surrounded. Orlen, the gentle giant, uncharacteristically swore under his breath, cursing his foolishness in not examining the environment more closely. But the ambushers were disguised in clothing fashioned from tree leaves and wood, so it would have been nearly impossible to identify them in the shadows of the trees.
The strangely dressed figures came closer with daggers and bows and arrows, approaching with menacing looks on their faces. They were all men with strange tattoo markings on their skin where the clothing did not cover.
One of the men came forward with a long curved knife. "Lay down your weapons," he ordered Ziaxe and his companions.
Ziaxe looked to Orlen and Sastan to see their reactions. Orlen nodded to Ziaxe and Sastan and hesitantly put his ax on the ground. Sastan looked angry, obviously not wanting to be captured without a fight, but he also laid down his sword. Ziaxe was the last to put down his sword, regretting doing it right when the weapon left his grip. He was being captured again! He had just escaped from General Virok, but he was once again being captured! The irony of it bit at him.
The ambushers went cautiously to their prisoners and tied their wrists together with tight rope. Then the three prisoners were tied together in a line. When the prisoners and their weapons were secure, the ambushers began to lead them deep into the Treemen Forest.
"What a strange event," said Sastan as if speaking his thoughts aloud. "The Treemen never gather like this, and they rarely ever attack travelers."
"No time to think about it, Sastan," said Orlen. He frowned as if thinking hard on how this could have happened. Surely, the lumberjack and the Sargen had gone through the Treemen Forest several times before. Why would the Treemen attack them this one time? Orlen continued to ponder these things as they walked along.
Ziaxe held his head down in dismay as he walked. Once more his old fear of being in a cage for the rest of his life was coming alive.