April 21, 2000
Having sighted The Preserve less than 2 hours before, the Aekethi had known that Medievia City was not far ahead. Trellorian maps showed the beaten route approaching the city from the north, so the Aekethi approached from the east. The map showed Medievia as large - enormous in comparison to Trellor, but nevertheless, when they finally crossed the mountain range and laid eyes upon the city, all were speechless.
The Aekethi were a group of nomads, not known for their high culture, but wanderers who had little technology, but great wisdom. At times they had numbered more than 100, but after this trek through the wilderness, less than 50 were to be seen.
While approaching the city, an endless stream of adventurers entering and leaving the eastern gates was visible, with the occasional shout of adventures to be had audible above the endless noise. Having approached through the forest, the first people to sight the Aekethi in 3 months were a group of novice mages on their way to the graveyard. The largest of these mages, a male, pulled the others to the side to let the Aekethi past, while a female stifled a giggle behind one hand. Althernon, the Aekethi chief, had seen it all before, and he was the first to approach the gates.
A guardsman handed a coin to a small urchin and then patted him on the head before turning to face the newcomers. With ten of his brethren in the vicinity, and his sword and armour in comparison to the Aekethi spears and loincloths, he decided to have some fun.
"We have no need for your type here," he said to Althernon, and, after letting a hero through the gates, closed them in his face.
Althernon was familiar with the biases of the non-nomadic and simply raised his right hand. "We have travelled the wilderness for months on end, and seek only food and shelter - a few days, no more."
The guardsman grinned inwardly, and said, "We have no food here, at least not the kind your type would enjoy, and no accommodation up to your undoubtedly high standards."
The Aekethi chief was perturbed. "We bring tradables, and gold. We wish to sell them to your people."
Shaking his head, and calling in two of his brethren close at hand, the guardsman said simply, "Be gone. You have nothing we could ever need, no knowledge we would wish to share. Take your business elsewhere."
After a night camped outside the gates, making their sentiments known, the Aekethi set off for Lyryanoth. They had not explored the south west of the continent, and decided to do so now.
Having to explain to the others what had happened to his four-year-old sister, Enliras, a boy not yet of eight years, sat quietly and composed himself for over a minute. It was three months after leaving Medievia that the Aekethi came across a river notable above others in that instead of the usual blue water, this river ran red. Being wise, but not overly knowledgeable, Althernon incorrectly guessed this as a harmless quirk of the southwest, and the river was crossed on a makeshift rope bridge without incident.
After a few sobs, Enliras began to speak. "We were going exploring, Amandeth said she dreamt there was a castle back on the other side of the river. People there would give us food, she said, so we snuck off during nap time."
This was met with a stern glare from Althernon, which was soon cut off by a similar glare directed at him by Enliras's mother. "The boy has just lost his sister," the glare said, "Give him time."
Oblivious to the looks, Enliras continued. "We got to the river, and the bridge was gone. I saw how the men made it, so I threw a rope across and I went across first. Amandeth never did it before, but she was happy to try, and I wasn't going to stop her. She got about halfway across…and then, she fell in." He broke off into sobs, and it was after about two minutes that Althernon decided to help the boy continue. It was done with the least of tact.
"So you let her drown?"
This was met with a wail from Enliras. "The river wasn't very deep there, and I thought she'd be fine. She started to swim but her legs weren't working. Then, then her arms stopped, and in the end she just floated away. She didn't even struggle, I don't know what happened."
Amandeth's corpse was located the next day, perfectly preserved despite the large amounts of flies that plagued even the living. Chakobsu, the tribe's scientist, or Witch Doctor as he was commonly called, was asked to study the corpse with Althernon present.
"Look at that!" he exclaimed almost immediately. Althernon had not noticed up to this point, but when compared to his own skin, Amandeth's had turned distinctly red. "It's like the river dyed her skin."
"But ordinary water doesn't do that."
"I think, from the nature of death, we can surmise this is no ordinary water. Something is polluting the water, something powerful."
They shared a worried glance, which was interrupted by a shout from outside. "Sire! We've found something!"
Gathered around the large tree, the whole tribe stared in wonder. This was the largest tree any of them had ever seen. Although this alone could cause wonder, this was evidently not alone.
The mage-scout who had interrupted them, Kiani, stood facing the group, between them and the tree. "I've used my right as a member of the council to call an emergency meeting. After conferring with Althernon as to possible causes of the loss of Amandeth, I believe that this tree, indirectly, is the cause. Watch this."
Accompanied by worried protests from those gathered, he walked up to the tree and placed a hand firmly on the trunk. The tree glowed, and a distinct moan was heard to be emanating from high in the branches. Kiani removed his hand, and with his palm facing downwards, turned to face the crowd.
"Are you alright, Kiani?" queried Althernon.
Turning his now bright-red palm towards the crowd, Kiani confided, "My palm isn't."
The wizard turned to face the men assembled before him. The rock walls glowed under the light provided by lanterns embedded in them, showing the dark circles under the wizard's eyes. Rising wearily from his bed, he began to speak.
"My men," he said, "it is soon that we shall strike. I want, I need that tree. You know you will be well-paid."
The lead mercenary, a full pace in front of the others, nodded happily. A big grin crossed his almost bovine face, and his full-body armour groaned as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "We will be well-paid. And, We will succeed. We will have our impenetrable armour as soon as you have your tree," a snigger came from a mercenary behind him. This did not please the wizard. With a flick of his fingers, a shockwave was channeled at the mercenary, who dropped to his knees in agony.
"Why do you find that funny? That I seek a tree?" bellowed the wizard.
"I do not! I don't see how you could need 15 mercenaries to... to fight a tree!"
"We are not fighting the tree. We a fighting for the tree. There is a village of people - "The Aekethi" they call themselves - who live around the tree, and have vowed to guard it from evil. I am that evil, but they will not guard it from me for long."
Tenona put it simply, "Sire, we've sensed disturbances in the forest. Someone there is using magic, and Chakobsu is convinced he is being spied upon."
"Tenona, you know you are my most trusted servant, but I simply cannot believe that an invasion force is waiting out there in the forest, totally undetected by our scouts!"
"But Enliras, um... Chief - our scouts are not perfect. Perhaps it is time that we moved on and left this place. We were once a nomadic tribe, after all."
"It was forty years ago that we settled here, and we settled here for a reason. Althernon was one of the wisest chiefs we have had, and he was first to comprehend how I lost Amandeth. He knew the cause of the pollution lay here. We cannot uproot now."
Tenona was studying a map created by the scouts, and Enliras looked his servant in the eyes, noting the red in place of white. The D'Nar - aptly named in Althernon's native tongue as "Death" - was known to be able to lengthen life. Many of the council's elders had taken advantage of this - consuming maybe a drop of sap, or drinking a handful of water from the river. Tenona was 40 years older than Enliras, but looked exactly the same age. Loss of clumps of hair, and red in the skin and eyes was the price, and with the power that Enliras had witnessed take his sister being the known cause, none could convince him to take it. He aged as the commoners.
Suddenly haunted by the memories of that fateful day, Enliras stormed out of the clearing, heading to Amandeth's treehouse. Situated in the tree from which the rope bridge had been thrown, the treehouse was a shrine to Amandeth's memory, and many claimed to have seen apparitions there. Enliras was always skeptical, however he paid frequent visits - often only to calm himself down after a trialing day.
This day he climbed the ladder, and instantly upon entering the treehouse was met with a sight. The furniture had been uprooted; much of it destroyed, and all in all the treehouse was defaced. This was not what caught Enliras's attention; instead he stood gaping at the sight of a four year old girl, sobbing in the corner of the room.
"Am... Amandeth?" he stuttered - a childhood problem brought on by the trauma of her death; brought back by this reminder.
"Yes, that's me," she sobbed. "They wrecked my treehouse. How could they?"
"Who... Who did this? I'll have them thrown out of the tribe. Did you know that I'm chief now?"
"I realise, and I am proud, but you have no power over these people. I don't know who they were, but they wore black armour, and one mentioned a wizard. They said they were going to 'scare those savages away from that tree, or kill them trying.' I'm not sure what that meant but... if it's you, you must flee this place. They are powerful, they..." She screamed as she began to fade away, her body perhaps reliving the trauma of her first departure from this earth.
"So Tenona was right. Amandeth it was wonderful to see you again, I'm sure you can still hear me. We won't let them have the D'Nar, but thanks to you we won't be slaughtered."
Enliras muttered to himself, climbing down the ladder, "We'll slaughter them."
In the throes of a guerilla battle, Enliras was organising matters from his secret lair, hidden below the table in the Council room.
"Is Chakobsu still training our youngsters as mages?"
Tenona nodded gravely.
"Will they be ready soon? We really do need their help."
Tenona shook his head gravely. "Chakobsu says 3 months. They have only just mastered frost shards, and the mercenaries have been seen to use shockwaves. Sending them in against that would be slaughter."
"We are down to our last 5 established mages. We did not flee the village and set up treehouse bases so that that 'wizard'," he spat as he said it, "could take the D'Nar. We will fight. Our numbers will overcome them. Thirty against fifteen. It is a gamble, but with good odds."
This gamble never had any wagers placed on it. There was never time. As it was said, the roof on the lair - the bottom of the table above - was lifted, and lantern light shined into the hole. A booming voice, interspersed with another's giggles, filled the room.
"Heehee we've got them now."
"Shut up. The wizard shouldn't have shockwaved you. I shouldn't have brought you along. You two, out here or we'll have your heads on stakes."
Tenona and Enliras climbed doggedly from the hole, accompanied by taunts from the mercenary.
"Heeheehee. Rats I tell you. Rats crouching together in a hole. Heehee their whole establishment is a sinking ship. They should have fled it. Heehee."
With a conspiratorial nod from Enliras, both he and Tenona ran for the door, but Enliras was tripped up by the mercenary, an accidental but effective trip coming from his having sat on the floor upon entering the room. Tenona escaped into the night, but Enliras was soon knocked on the back of the head by the lead mercenary, and lost consciousness.
The wizard grinned evilly, a frightening look despite his bedridden state.
"So, my dearest Enliras, you were no match for my forces. Chakobsu has been caught - a valiant fighter that - he took down three of my best men. Pity. Lucky I can resurrect, or he would have been killed instead of captured." The wizard shook his head, and then cackled with glee.
Enliras groaned from his position, tied up on the floor, and shook his head trying to clear it. "What... but what of my thirty novice magi?"
"They were captured without a fight. Three magic missiles are no match for a shockwave, my friend."
Shrugging off the terms of endearment, Enliras continued to probe - both at the ropes behind him and the wizard before him.
"Why do you want our tree? Do you know what it can do?"
"Quite frankly I do not care as to your motives for wanting the tree. Mine are more pleasing, my dearest friend."
"And what would they be, my friendliest friend?" Enliras mimicked.
"Why, my dearest friend, eternal life. Yes, I know your people managed to lengthen their life by crude methods, but only for 100 or 200 years at the most. I am talking of eternal life. And why do I care? Because I am dying." A timely coughing fit racked the wizard's body. "But, no longer."
He produced a vial of a red liquid from a drawer in the desk beside him. "This is a pure distillate of the tree's sap. Yes, the tree will now die. It has given its life so someone infinitely more important may continue. Me."
"But what if He who created the tree does not approve of your killing such a masterpiece?" Enliras was referring to Vryce, but the wizard interpreted this differently.
"My dear... friend. I created this tree! I planted it over thirty years ago when I first felt the symptoms of my disease."
Enliras could not believe this. "You planted the tree? YOU? YOU KILLED MY SISTER!!!"
The wizard paused in his consumption of the distillate. "Killed? I killed no one. I..." He choked off. It was a fitting end to this wizard. Enliras watched in sadistic pleasure as the wizard writhed with his heart attack. As his arms clawed at his chest, shockwaves flew around the room. With his chest glowing red even through his nightgown, first his arms ceased working - their clawing stopping abruptly, and then his head, and his brain ceased to work.
Even as he was - tied up before a corpse in a bed, Enliras could not help laughing. The Aekethi had unlocked the D'Nar's secret long before, although they had not worked out how it was created. An increase in life of just over two hundred and fifty years was the most possible. The D'Nar slowed the body - slowing the reproduction of cells where the smallest faults duplicated exponentially caused aging. The wizard had slowed himself to the point where he ceased to live. He had given his life so that the Aekethi could enjoy longevity. A most unlikely martyr.