Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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XII

Ziaxe and his two companions continued into the darkness of the Treemen Forest, led by the Treemen who had captured them. They walked in a straight line tied together at the wrist by rope with Orlen in front, his head held down in shame as he still contemplated their unusual capture, Sastan behind, his anxious eyes peering around for a way to escape, and Ziaxe in the back, his mind clouded with the fearful thoughts of being put in another cage. Their weapons were taken away from them, but Sastan had continued to struggle, shaking his tied hands continuously as if searching for a way to untie himself.

"Who are these people?" asked Ziaxe in a whisper to Sastan.

Sastan looked over his shoulder and whispered back, "Well, Ziaxe, you must realize that these are the people the forest gets its name after by now. These are the Treemen."

"Why have they captured us?"

"I have no idea. The Treemen are not known for being hostile in any way. You see, the Treemen began a few centuries ago when a few… uh… 'freaks' of Salras got together." Sastan looked around, making sure none of the Treemen were listening. The Treemen walking beside them had the stern faces of well-trained soldiers, and they appeared to ignore the prisoners' conversation.

"What do you mean by 'freaks?'" asked Ziaxe.

"Well, you know how all societies have 'freaks,' right? I'm a freak for being a Sargen. But these were different kinds of freaks. Do you know anything about the Seers?"

Ziaxe shook his head.

Sastan looked around some more and kept his voice low. "Seers are different from most people. They, for one thing, claim they can see the future. They live their lives blindfolded, claiming that not seeing through their physical eyes helps strengthen their spiritual eyes—or some other nonsense like that. I'm not a follower of superstition, but the Seers say that the gods tell them of the future. A lot of people believe everything they say even if it's something totally unbelievable. There was a Seer who came to Salras once. He was a strange fellow."

The Sargen acted a little edgy as he talked. He started looking around at the shadowed environment constantly as if expecting some hideous monster to come out of the shadows. It could have been because of Sastan's apparent hatred to all Darkness since he was a Sargen, a being of Light, but Ziaxe wondered if there was something more.

"What do the Seers have to do with the Treemen?" asked Ziaxe as he still wondered about Sastan's nervousness.

"A few centuries ago, the Seers in Salras began to notice how they were treated as outcasts because of their strange abilities, so they all gathered in this forest with their followers. The people of Salras had no problem with this since the Seers stopped disturbing their city, but then something strange happened. This was back before the Great Walls of Berania were built, so Berania was fairly defenseless. A Seer came to the city and warned the people that the Yasson Harvorens in the west were going to attack them. Of course, the Seer claimed that Sarben had showed him the city's fate, so no one believed him. Then, guess what, the Yasson Harvorens attacked Berania and ransacked the place. The Seers and their followers came out from the Treemen Forest and stopped the Yassons with a clever counterattack. Some thought that it was all some elaborate plan to make the Seers look like they could really see the future, but the Seers and their followers had actually killed all of the Yassons with only a few survivors. If it was a plan, I don't think the Yassons would have wanted to die in the end.

"So, after that, the Seers were granted this forest as their own property. The forest got the name the 'Treemen Forest' because the people here did start to live like they were actually a part of the trees. Just look at these people." He gestured to the Treemen around him. "They're all dressed up like they came out of the ground alongside the trees."

Sastan was right about that. The Treemen had garb made from tightly tied strands of long grass with pieces of cloth, and their armor was made from tree bark. If a Treeman stood completely still by a tree, he may very well be mistaken as one. They also had tattoos that were made from some strange paint probably created from ingredients found in the forest. They were all purple colored, and they were in strange designs, some looking like creatures while others looked like the writing of a foreign language.

Sastan continued to jerk his head around the shadows of the forest.

"Is there something you’re not telling me, Sastan?" asked Ziaxe.

"Everything here is wrong, Ziaxe!" Sastan almost yelled, but he quickly returned to a harsh whisper. "This is not natural! The Treemen have tribes and stuff like that, but they never unite like this. You see those tattoos they have? Each design represents a different tribe, and there are several designs here! All the tribes worship one head chief—who is also a Seer—but that chief seems to only bring them together if something very urgent has happened."

Ziaxe remembered all of the events in the past few days; all the events that had started his adventure. There had been the complex events with the assassination of King Broniton and Ziaxe becoming the Nizain. But would these events affect the Treemen?

Sastan continued peering around the forest. "And also," he continued, "I don't like all that Seer superstition. Seeing into the future is an ability that only some Vidians can do. It's a power of Darkness to be able to see the future, because the future is always painful to see. Back before Light came to the world, Darkness hindered change, but it always knew its future."

Ziaxe thought that made some sense. Since Sastan was a Sargen, he naturally distrusted Vidians and other creatures of Darkness. Ziaxe wondered if Sastan would see him differently if he knew about him being the Nizain, the one who is both one of Light and Darkness, both a companion and an enemy.

Those thoughts were pushed aside when the leader of the ambushers—the one who had ordered Ziaxe and his companions to drop their weapons—was stopped by another group of Treemen who came from deeper in the forest. "Tell Chief Jajarath that I have come with the ones he foretold would come," ordered the Treemen leader to the other group of Treemen.

"Yes, Lord Najaran," replied a Treeman from the opposite group with a deep bow. He then departed back into the forest with his Treemen group to alert their chief.

Najaran and the Treemen who had ambushed Ziaxe and his companions continued forward into the shadows of the forest with their captives. In front of Ziaxe, Sastan was showing more anxious looks with hard eyes. "What does Jajarath want with us?" he muttered as if talking to himself.

"I don't know, Sastan," answered Orlen from the front of their line. The lumberjack still walked with his head lowered in shame and concentration. He seemed to have taken the whole responsibility for their capture—though Ziaxe thought it was each of their faults for not paying attention to the path.

"Who's Jajarath?" asked Ziaxe.

"Jajarath is the Head Chief of the Treemen," replied Sastan. "All Treemen tribes bow down to him. I've only heard stories about him though. People say that he is a Seer who looks as if he has lived several thousand years."

Ziaxe didn't find the description of Chief Jajarath very frightening, but Sastan had warned him about the Seers. The Seers appeared to be just as bad as the Vidians. Ziaxe had the idea that maybe the Seers were in league with the Vidians since they were both wielders of Darkness. Could the Treemen be delivering Ziaxe right back into the hands of the enemy?

Before he could think of an answer, the leader of the Treemen group walked back to him and began walking beside the prisoners.

"What do you want?" asked Sastan rudely, still infuriated about the ambush.

"Peace, friend," said the leader called Najaran. "I just wish to learn more about my prisoners."

Ziaxe examined the Treeman closely for the first time. Najaran had a lean figure and the muscular body of a born warrior. Living in the Treemen Forest, the Treeman probably had to struggle every day to survive consequently giving him his strong form. He also had long shoulder-length dark hair, even more in need of a trim than Ziaxe's. He wore the tree bark armor of the Treemen that consisted of a breastplate and armor for his legs, but he wore no armor for his arms or stomach. On his left arm was a purple tattoo of a thin dragon that swerved with its tail on his hand and its head breathing fire up to his shoulder. Ziaxe recognized it as a dragon from one of Professor Alavar's old stories about mythical creatures.

"Why should I tell you anything, you dirty Treeman!" yelled Sastan, fully enraged. The Sargen's hands transformed into large claws, like the ones on a hawk. He tried to extend the sharp claws at the Treeman, fully intent on slicing the man to pieces.

But Najaran continued to walk calmly beside the prisoners. "Enough of this, Sargen," he said as he pulled out a curved knife from the sheath at his waist and held it in front of Sastan. "Chief Jajarath has told us all about you and your illusions."

Sastan's hands turned back to normal as he scowled at Najaran.

"There you go," said Najaran with a slight smile. He idly felt the blade of his knife, testing its sharpness, as he purposely kept his weapon in plain view of the prisoners. "Now, Chief Jajarath has warned us of the three of you coming, and he has to tell each of you something important. So simply come along and do what he tells you."

The leader of the Treemen group turned to Ziaxe. For a moment their eyes met as the Treeman examined him, making Ziaxe feel that Najaran knew something that the others did not.

After a few more minutes of walking, they entered a clearing in the forest. In the very center was a large fire that burned ferociously like a wild beast. There were the figures of other Treemen in the shadows outside of the circle of firelight, and Ziaxe could feel the hundreds of eyes around him, watching him as if expecting him to do something abnormal. Across from where the prisoners entered, there was a visible throne made of wood on the edge of the firelight. Along the sides of the throne were designs that Ziaxe could not make out, and the throne itself was huge enough to fit a giant.

But on the throne was a small figure. The figure was an old man who wore the garb of the Treemen. He had white hair and a long white beard that reached down over the edge of the seat where his feet barely hung over. The man had a creased face that appeared shadowed in the firelight, a face of a man who has seen many years of both pain and happiness. He also looked unhealthily thin as if he hadn't had a decent meal in years, with his protruding ribs visible on his stick-like figure under his tree bark armor. On his left arm was the same dragon tattoo worn by Najaran, and over his eyes was a blindfold.

The Treemen who had brought Ziaxe and his companions into the clearing pushed the prisoners from behind, obviously trying to get them to bow. But since their hands were tied, each of the three prisoners fell flat onto the ground, and they had to work their way into a kneeling position.

Once the prisoners were on their knees in a line opposite of the throne, the Treemen around them all began to genuflect before the weak old man on the throne. Sastan was showing signs of restless anger as he was forced to bow to his captor, but Orlen simply had hard eyes on his now emotionless face. The lumberjack must have been starting to understand what was happening, and he was accepting whatever fate they were to receive.

The clearing grew a palpable silence that was only broken by the soft crackling of the fire. After a few moments of silence, Najaran came forward from behind Ziaxe. The Treeman walked past the fire and prostrated before the wooden throne. "All hail, Great Chief Jajarath the Ninth!" he yelled when he raised his head to the old man on the throne.

"ALL HAIL JAJARATH!" intoned the surrounding Treemen in a roar that shook the forest.

On the throne, the old man's bearded face stayed still like a statue for a moment until he raised one frail arm. "Rise, Najaran," he spoke in a weak, hollow voice. He took a long, deep breath that sounded like a man's dying breath.

Najaran rose from the ground and bowed to his chief. "My Lord, I have brought the ones thou hast foreseen would come."

"Yes…. Just as the Vision has shown me…." Jajarath stirred in his seat, moving weakly with the obvious intention of getting down from the throne. A few Treemen came from the shadows behind the throne and helped the small man down, almost like a man would help a child from a high place.

Ziaxe had never seen such a pathetic man in his life. Jajarath was shorter than Ziaxe and barely as tall as a normal child entering manhood. The chief's extreme age made Ziaxe feel uncomfortable in a way. Every struggled breath that came from the old man's mouth made him feel as if the man was on the verge of death at any moment.

When the chief had both fragile legs on the ground, a Treeman offered him a wooden staff. Jajarath took it without saying a word and leaned against it frailly as if he would fall over without it. Then, limping against the staff, he walked over to Najaran with his long white beard dragging on the ground by his feet. Jajarath simply raised one hand and pointed to Najaran's face, a few feet higher than his own short height. Despite his blindfold, he seemed to know where he was walking without anyone's help.

Najaran's face grew an expression of surprise and fear. He was expecting something that neither Ziaxe nor his friends could even guess at. Then, with shaking knees, Najaran hesitantly returned to his kneeling position. Once the Treeman had his head bowed to the short, old man, Jajarath placed his feeble hand upon it.

They became silent as if there was something passing between them that no one else could know or understand. And suddenly, Ziaxe felt the now-familiar sign of a Vidian: the Chill of Darkness. That showed that what Sastan had feared was true. Jajarath was the Seer of the Treemen, and he could be potentially dangerous since he controlled the Darkness. When the Chill left Ziaxe's body, the Seer raised his hand off of Najaran's head, and Najaran slowly raised his head to meet the other's blindfolded eyes. The Treeman's eyes were confused and terrified as they appeared on the verge of tears.

"I am sorry, Najaran," said Jajarath in his weak, cracking voice. He took another painful breath. "You, of all people, should know the truth…. You should… know the dangers the world faces."

"But it can't be true…." protested Najaran as he started to shake slightly.

"Fate has chosen you to be alive during these momentum times…. You must not fail the gods…."

Chief Jajarath walked past Najaran, leaving the Treeman in a state of mixed emotions and inner conflict as if Jajarath had showed him something he never wished to see. The Seer ignored the Treeman's pain though. Perhaps the chief was a cruel leader, or maybe he just saw his way as the only way to do anything.

Either way, Ziaxe did not trust this old man. He was the Seer that Sastan had acted so terrified of. Though Jajarath seemed only a weak old man, he probably possessed even stranger and mightier powers of Darkness. The Seer was as dangerous as any other Vidian could be.

Jajarath walked to the three prisoners who were still kneeling in a line. When he stopped in front of Orlen, Ziaxe saw Najaran turn around. Ziaxe met eyes with the Treeman's fearful expression. Najaran seemed to be examining him again, measuring all of his attributes and his faults. His examination caused Ziaxe to feel a little uncomfortable. It felt as if the Treeman was looking down at him, disdaining all of the negative things about him as if he expecting something greater. Could these Treemen know Ziaxe's secret?

"Orlen…" said Jajarath, the Seer of the Treemen. "Master Lumberjack… there will come a time… when you shall raise your ax… upon others, instead of trees… as you already do…."

Orlen listened with his face staying emotionless. He stared down at the ground, his eyes a mystery.

Jajarath continued with his dying voice. "There will come a time… where you shall protect a new generation… even as you protect young Sastan now…. When the time comes… you will do what's right… even if it endangers yourself."

The motionless lumberjack nodded slowly. Ziaxe would never know if Orlen actually understood what the Seer was saying though. The lumberjack himself was an enigma that no one could truly understand.

The Seer then walked down the line to Sastan, who was continuously frowning angrily and looking around sporadically for an escape. Ziaxe knew that the Sargen must have been feeling intense discomfort and pain in a place controlled by a man of Darkness. "Sastan…" said the Seer. "The Tainted Sargen…. There will come a time… when you will rediscover your destiny… a destiny that has been lost… among generations of your family…. And a time will come… when you must make decisions… that affect… millions…."

Sastan was looking up at the Seer with an expression of fear and confusion, and he began to shake slightly, almost similar to Najaran. The small speech Jajarath gave him was a bit intense, and since a part of Sastan did believe in the Seer's ability to see the future, the speech was viewed as an ultimate truth to him. According to these Visions of Jajarath, Orlen and Sastan—two ordinary citizens of Salras—were important people with destinies that would one day affect others. Ziaxe still didn't know if he could trust what the Seer said or not.

Finally, Jajarath came to Ziaxe. The young Nizain felt his heart begin to beat heavily as he waited for the Seer's words. He kept his eyes on the ground as he felt the Seer's sightless eyes peer down on the back of his head like a heavy weight. "Ziaxe… we have waited for you…."

Suddenly, Ziaxe felt the old man's hand grab the back of his head, and everything changed. The forest around him disappeared, and he was thrust into shadows. Once more he entered the Darkness and felt the chilling feeling, and, for a second, he felt the longing to join the Darkness, to embrace it and become one with it. The Darkness called to him, speaking lies of promises of joy and happiness.

But then he was somewhere else. A dim light turned everything hazy and grey. There was no ground or sky. Everything was simply a greyish color as Ziaxe floated amongst strange clouds of white smoke that flew around as if they had minds of their own. He felt a strange feeling of relief since he knew that if he had stayed in the Darkness any longer he would've been consumed forever.

Then he heard a voice—an old and weak voice. Ziaxe, we know who you are. The voice spoke into his mind like a thought of his own.

What's going on? asked Ziaxe through his thoughts.

This is your mind, Ziaxe…. Every thought; every memory… everything is in here. I have brought you here to show you things… others are not ready to hear….

The voice was the voice of the Seer Jajarath—that much Ziaxe knew. But he couldn't understand what was happening.

Jajarath heard Ziaxe's confused musings and spoke again, I have brought you into your mind to discuss certain things…. We all know you are the Nizain… but not everyone expected to see you so young…. In my Vision, I have seen everything about you… and your life… about what you must do… and how you must do it…. All you know right now is that you must see Naje…. Finish that task, but it will not be your last…. There will come a time… when you must be ready…. The Great Darkness is approaching… and you must guide all of the Kingdoms of Light.

What do you mean by that? asked Ziaxe, perplexed.

I cannot tell you much more… for if you know too much of your future… you will act differently than expected to…. I just had to tell you…. The Treemen all know of this Great Darkness approaching… and we know that only you can stop it…. I showed Najaran a part of my Vision including you…. That was what shook him so…. You have a power inside you… that can stop the Darkness from breaking the Balance.

How do I use that power though?

It is not my part to tell you…. I am here to give you my blessing…. I believe in you, Nizain Ziaxe…. I have seen what you will do… and seeing you now helps comfort me…. For I see all of the good things in you…. The Light is strong in you, despite what others may say….

The sudden amount of knowledge given to Ziaxe by Jajarath was almost overwhelming. This powerful Seer put his trust in Ziaxe, even when he had not proved himself worthy of it. But there was nothing he could do to prove himself except fulfill this destiny shown in Jajarath's Vision.

These times are momentous, and war is coming…. I have one piece of advice to give you though…. When you reach the land of the legendary knights… seek out the one who failed Sarbenia… seek the failed Nizain….

Now go forth, Nizain Ziaxe…. You must… nay, you shall be ready…. We are all a part of a game of the gods now…. May Sarben guide you….

And then it was over….

Ziaxe was back in the Treemen Forest as Jajarath removed his hand from Ziaxe's head.

"Now the details of my Vision are told…." whispered Jajarath. He turned his sightless eyes to the Treemen guards behind the prisoners. "Release them, and show them to the path to Salras."

The Treemen did what they were ordered and cut off the rope around the prisoners' wrists. Ziaxe rubbed his sore wrist where the uncomfortable rope had been and stood up with the other two prisoners. Jajarath looked sightlessly at Ziaxe and Sastan then. "You two…. Stay together…. Fate has plans for you…."

Ziaxe and Sastan looked inquiringly at each other, wishing to ask more questions of the Seer, but the Seer turned away and walked back to his throne.

A group of Treemen gathered around Ziaxe and his companions and gave them back their supplies and readied to lead them back to the path they were originally captured on. As they began to leave, Ziaxe looked back to see the Treemen in the shadows slowly gather in the firelight. The Treemen stared with expressions of astonishment and wonder at the departing prisoners. Then, to Ziaxe's surprise, they genuflected as they had to Jajarath, but this time it was aimed towards Ziaxe and his companions as if they were heroes or kings. As the Treemen silently bowed, Jajarath raised one hand in farewell from his giant throne.

Ziaxe waved back as he felt a strange feeling grow inside him. He felt the pressure of the hope the Treemen were placing in him. They believed in him to accomplish whatever Jajarath expected him to do, and he knew he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he failed them.

The long walk back to the road to Salras was silent but more comfortable now that Ziaxe, Sastan, and Orlen weren't tied together. When they reached the path, the Treemen returned Orlen's horse to them and then departed with a small farewell. Now that the trio could see the sun again, they were able to realize just how long they were captured. It was late morning now, and Orlen assumed that their overall walk to Jajarath's clearing, Jajarath's speech, and their walk back to their path had taken an hour or two altogether. He decided that they should stop for lunch before continuing to Salras since they were all fairly exhausted from the strange event that had occurred.

After a small meal of leftover venison, they made sure they had all of their supplies and began walking east once more. Ziaxe was glad he was reunited with his sword and supplies. He noticed how he had ignored the heavy chainmail he had been wearing through the whole affair; he smiled as he saw he was growing slowly adjusted to it.

An hour or so more passed as they walked east, Orlen in lead with the horse and cart and Sastan and Ziaxe walking behind. As evening approached, they finally exited the shadows of the forest and ahead of them Ziaxe saw a large, beautiful city with no Great Walls stretched on a plain before him.

Sastan walked ahead of Ziaxe and took a deep sigh, showing his gratefulness to be home. All of his early disturbances had disappeared now that he was out of the Darkness, and he returned to his normal cheerful self. "Ziaxe," he said with a broad smile, gesturing to the city, "welcome to Salras."


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