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Zoltan the Treekeeper

by Hervé Musseau

Chapter 1: In Which Zoltan Meets the Shiye-Lawr Again.

A lonely shadow was silently moving in the untamed wilderness. Not afraid by wild animals or monsters, not slowed at all by thriving plants or by the coldness, it was going deeper and deeper into the heart of forest, away from the coast, away from the Great Bay.
It was days since he had left civilisation, but that was his personal choice. The forest was green, as it always is in this northern region, consisting mostly of evergreen-covered hills.
Surely, it was spring, but in cold Norwold that meant something very different from southern countries like Thyatis or Karameikos. Zoltan stopped and raised his head, sniffing the surrounding air. " No more than 35 degrees ", he thought to himself. Then he silently resumed his slow, determined pace, leaning on his walking staff.
Yes, there were unquestionable signs proving the return of spring in the region. Wild animals were to be seen lurking around, whereas the forest was silent and forsaken a few months ago, while most of them were either hibernating, or trying to escape the freezing cold in deep holes or caves. They were happy now that the winter was over, with its layer of vegetation-covering snow gone. Reindeers were grazing everywhere, hunted down by bands of hungry wolves. Nature. Humans call it wilderness, elves call it home.
Suddenly, Zoltan heard voices coming from the trees overhead, singing in an odd language. What marvellous voices they were! This was certainly not the song of humans, since no man on Mystara could sing in such a beautiful way. Only elves had such pure and clear voices that could mesmerise you so. They were elves of the Shiye-Lawr branch, singing in their own dialect a song honouring nature, life, the return of the spring, and how happy they were. It was years since Zoltan hadn't heard such a song, and he couldn't resist staying there for a moment, doing nothing but listening silently, barely even breathing. He remembered the Vyalia elves among whom he had lived for a few years, and how much he missed them. He was sure now he had taken the right decision.
He stayed there for a long time, spellbound by the elven song. Then finally he raised his hooded head, and said loudly, in the language of the elves: " May Ilsundal bless this song ".
The voices immediately stopped, and the forest suddenly became totally still. After a few seconds, a voice answered him from a tree: " Zoltan! Be welcome among us! " Five elves jumped to the ground. " Are you already tired of humans? " " Yes and no. May I join your party? I shall explain to the clan why I'm back here once we're in the Foresthome. " " Sure. Come with us, white man. "

Chapter 2: In Which Zoltan Is Accepted in a Foresthome but Makes Enemies Already.

They soon reached the elven Foresthome. The leader of the group whistled. He was answered by another whistle coming from the trees, and soon a rope was lowered. Four of the elves dexterously climbed it, then the remaining one asked Zoltan with a smile: " Can you climb it unassisted or do you need some help, wise man? " " I may walk with a staff, young elf, but this doesn't mean I am helpless. Do not always believe what your eyes tell you, for everything is not always what it looks like. Never underestimate your enemy, he may surprise you. " Zoltan grabbed the rope, and climbed it with an incredible agility. The smile disappeared from the face of the elf, and he went pale.
The rope led Zoltan to a platform set in the tree. This was definitely no human town, the latest being generally made of stone or wood. This village was entirely built high in the trees, hidden from the eyes of whoever would venture so deep in the forest. It consisted mostly of platforms, linked by ropes used as some kind of bridgeways, and roofs to protect the inhabitants from the harsh weather. But what was most amazing in these structures was that they were made of living wood, directly carved out of the branches of the trees.
An elf was waiting for Zoltan on the platform. " Welcome to our Foresthome. Lord Gilsangir has been informed of your arrival. The whole clan is already waiting for you on the meeting platform. Follow me. " Zoltan nodded. The two then walked along a maze of rope passageways set up between the trees, until they reached a huge, open air platform stretching over a vast area between the grandest trees. Many elves were gathered there, staring at the pale Zoltan. Lord Gilsangir was sitting on a living throne, with Lady Alandira at his side. Zoltan also noticed the presence of Calahas, cleric of Eiryndul, frowning at his sight, obviously not pleased by the event.
Zoltan, heavily wrapped in his jet black clothes, slowly walked through the crowd of assembled elves toward the royal throne, stopping seven feet from the king. He took off his black hood, revealing his white hair and skin, and bowed to him, saying: " My lord, may Ilsundal the Wise always watch over you and your people. " Although he couldn't see him, he felt Calahas frowning even more than before, if ever that was possible. Zoltan then regained his normal posture, and plunged his white eyes into Gilsangir's blue ones.
" I welcome you, Zoltan, high priest of Ilsundal the Wise. Judging by what you said to the group you encountered earlier en route to our Foresthome, I assume you didn't come here just to have some fun in our company. So, please state your business, my friend.
- Your Majesty, although I love to spend time with elves, it is indeed true that I came to you for an important reason. " Zoltan paused a few seconds, letting the attention of the crowd increase. " You certainly know that King Ericall claims the whole region of Norwold in the name of his mother, Empress Eriadna of mighty Alphatia.
- I do, but this is men's affairs. We elves shall remain free of human rule, as we've always been. And everybody knows Ericall doesn't control much of the land he claims. And why should Ericall's claim concern us by the way? No men would ever want to live in our dense forests - I mean, except for you of course.
- Well, this is the point. Maybe you know King Ericall has granted dominions during the last Spring Festival in his capital city of Alpha, thereby hoping to better control the farther areas. I am now Baron Zoltan, in charge of this very area you call home. " Whispers grew within the crowd, and Gilsangir frowned, while Zoltan grabbed a paper in his pocket. He held it out to the king. " This is written in Alphatian, but it says exactly what I just told you. "
Calahas intervened: " What does this mean? Do you think you can just come here with a paper written by mortal humans and take control of our lives? "
An elf showed up on an adjacent platform, pointing an accusing finger toward Zoltan. It was Aessalar, the assistant of Calahas. He shouted:
" Yes, you come here as a missionary of the humans and of your immortal. Do you think you can merely come with a paper and turn us into your slaves? We settled here centuries ago because we wanted to be ruled by nobody save ourselves. At that period we wanted to be free from the rule of the king of Shiye-Lawr in Alphatia. Today we shall fight against a coup such as yours. I shall never submit to your will, or to that of your human king and empress, or to that of your Immortal, and neither will any of my kin. Leave us in peace and return with your human friends. Leave the forest at once and go back to your so-called civilisation; you're not welcome here any more. "
Suddenly, a winged, one-foot tall creature appeared at a mere two inches from the nose of Aessalar, and shouted: " Boo " as loud as she could with her soft voice. The surprised elf lost his balance, and fell off the platform. The malicious sprite quickly cast a Featherfall spell on him, causing him to fall slowly to the ground, while she burst into laughter, rapidly imitated by the gathered elves.
The king said: " A member of the wee folk! Come closer to me, my little fellow, and tell me who the hell you are, and what you are doing here. " The fair sprite fled toward the elven lord, obviously very pleased by her impromptu entrance, and by her practical joke. She bowed deeply to the king, and said with her most respectful voice - but still with a large smile on her face:
" Your Majesty, my name is Maeva ap Lywell Van Gwernach, but my friends prefer to call me Tac. I have travelled to this place with my friend Zoltan the Wise. I hope you will pardon me for this little trick I played upon that elf, but I couldn't resist. He was flaming Zoltan before he even had given him half a chance to justify. You know, he's really a good fellow, and he certainly does not intend to enslave you nor anyone else, or do whatever other horrors mentioned by that elf that unexpectedly left us way too early - much to our regret.
- Yes, to our regret, " answered Gilsangir laughingly. " But I guess you're probably right, we haven't heard Zoltan's explanation yet - and nobody save himself can explain what he meant with his title granted by a king of men. So, Zoltan, we all listen to you now.
- Contrary to Aessalar's opinion, I do not come here with that title to enslave you. In fact, it is exactly the opposite: it will guarantee you that the humans claiming the surrounding areas will never try to oust you from your homeland. By recognising them, you are assured in return of being recognised by them as full owner of that land. This won't change anything regarding your way of life; this is only token fealty, just so that both races can live side by side without any misunderstanding. It will be my entire responsibility to deal with the humans, and I can promise you I'll never get you involved in their petty squabbles. The only noticeable change for you will be that you may more easily engage in peaceful trade with humans; for that matter, I'm sure Baroness Celia, who established a dominion near the coast south of here, will be more than happy to cooperate. And I should add that I'm not gonna steal any power from you, Lord Gilsangir, you shall continue to be the clan leader as before.
- I think this is going to be trouble " intervened Lady Alandira. " We don't need any more clerics within our clan, we already have far too many. If we let that cleric of Ilsundal settle among us, it will only cause many unwanted clashes with the clerics of Eiryndul we harbour. You just saw an example of what will happen all the time, and this may only worsen. We don't need yet another futile cult of a stupid Immortal, one is more than enough.
- My dear Alandira, everyone knows your opinion about faith. You're probably right on one point, however: This may be a source of tension with the older clergy dedicated to Eiryndul. Zoltan, although he is a short-lived human, is a powerful High Priest of Ilsundal, whereas Calahas has not yet achieved that level at Eiryndul's service. " Gilsangir paused a moment, pondering over the choice that was now his. " But as our little fellow of the wee folk pointed out, Zoltan is definitely an Elf-Friend, and as such I trust him when he says he does it to our benefit. Zoltan, I accept you become a clan member, and I allow you to become a vassal of the human king and represent us. Zoltan, albino priest of Ilsundal the Wise, you are now one of us, and you can settle among us with Tac, your malicious little companion.
- Thank you my Lord, this was a wise decision you shall never regret. I accept it with honour and modesty.
- You will probably need a home of sort, I'll do what's necessary to get a home in a tree prepared for you.
- I thank you for your gentle attention, but that won't be necessary. I shall grow my own tree. " said the enigmatic priest.
Zoltan slowly left the meeting room, with Tac sitting on his shoulder with a large smile on her face, leaving a startled king behind. The elves were happy with the decision, except for three of them. Alandira was not pleased, and Calahas had earned a powerful rival. Aessalar, who had just climbed back to the meeting platform in time to hear Gilsangir's decision, was plotting revenge.

Chapter 3: In Which a Tree Is Born and an Elf Finds His Vocation.

After the feast in his honour, Zoltan retired to a calmer area. There he meditated alone, with only the silent presence of Tac and the forest surrounding him. He grabbed a medallion that was hanging at his neck. The medallion started to glow with a strong aura in the priest's hand, for it was not a mere mundane one. This had been given to Zoltan by an old elven Treekeeper of the Vyalia clan some years ago, and inside the pure crystal, a root cut out of a Tree of Life was resting, still alive and imbued with the power of Ilsundal.
Zoltan had always considered it to be quite similar to the holy symbol clerics of all religions used to channel the magical energy they received from their Immortal patron. But now the true power of the root had become obvious to him. The ten Mother Trees Ilsundal created centuries ago as part of his path to Immortality were his ten avatars, and the Daughter Trees grow out of their limbs were a receptacle of his power, destined to protect his kin once he had completed his quest. The root itself was compelling Zoltan to plant it.
The priest dug a hole in the earth, and put the root, still enclosed in the medallion, in the hole. Tac stared at him, wondering what he was doing. Then Zoltan sat back, closed his eyes, and began mediating and praying, entering a state of deep trance, in complete communion with the tree to be. Tac waited a few minutes, wriggling about and growing impatient. She sighed, then grumbled, and finally yawned. Seeing nothing was about to happen, she decided to lie flat on a comfortable bed of mosses, and immediately fell asleep.
Tac awoke at dawn the following day, stretching herself deliciously, and suddenly found herself falling to the ground. " Whoa, if I didn't have wings_ Hey, wait a minute, where am I? I'm sure I didn't go to sleep on that tree. That's weird. And I never saw a tree like this one, except maybe_ No, that can't be_ " The sprite fluttered around, obviously very excited. " A Tree of Life! Can't believe it! Hey Zoltan, have you seen that? Zoltan? " The sprite suddenly realised she was alone up there in the highest reaches of the tree, and flew toward the ground. She spotted the priest sitting at the foot of the imposing tree. " Hey Zoltan, this is just great! How did you do that? " At that point she realised Zoltan was still in that same deep trance as the previous evening and so couldn't hear her. " Oops, the process's not over, I guess_ "
That day, the young Tsunamir had decided to wake up early, and go hunting alone. He rapidly got dressed, grabbed his longbow and arrows, and left his home. He had just left the Foresthome when he stumbled upon an unexpected obstacle: A tree was standing in front of him, where there was none the day before. And what a tree! Tsunamir was struck at the sight of the most dazzling tree he had ever seen. He felt mystically attracted to it, compelled to tend it; it was like he had discovered a meaning to his life. From that day on, his life would be linked to that tree.
Tac hailed the elf. " What's your name, young elf?
- I'm Tsunamir the Dashing. You are the little sprite that played a practical joke on Aessalar yesterday, aren't you?
- Yes, but sh! Zoltan is meditating, I don't think we shall disturb him right now. All that clerical stuff is serious, after all, and it amazes me how powerful it can prove to be. Ya see the results! A Tree of Life!
- This is a Tree of Life, really? I had already heard tales about them, but I had never actually seen one. We Shiye-Lawr have followed Eiryndul eastwards when King Mealiden Starwatcher led our people out of the Sylvan Realm via the magical rainbow, and we didn't bring any Tree of Life with us, although we kept memory of the grand trees. "
A patrol of elves guarding the village showed up.
" Hey, what happened here? I don't remember that tree - and what a tree_, though I know this forest quite well.
- Well, it grew overnight " answered Tsunamir.
" Overnight? Are you kidding? What kind of joke is that? Who is using illusion magics?
- This is plain real, buddy, " intervened Tac, " although I would have loved setting up a trick like that - thanks for giving me the idea. I think the wizard Arcadius knows about some spell called Phantasmal Terrain or something like that. I wonder if...
- But how could a tree grow in just one night? Any sane elf knows such things take years, or even centuries for a tree like this one.
- Oh, that's no normal tree, this one is a legendary Tree of Life. Zoltan's a cleric of Ilsundal, remember? And please, can you shush up, he's still meditating. And lower your bows, I'm no polymorphed orc!
- Sorry. Well, er... Salinor, go to the palace and fetch Lord Gilsangir. And Calahas, too, I think he will be very interested. "
The elf nodded, and left. He came back a few minutes later with the king, Calahas, and many elves curious to learn what was causing so much agitation.
The group stopped at the sight of the Tree. They stared at it, totally amazed.
" You certainly understand why I prompted you to come. The little sprite says it is a Tree of Life, and that Zoltan caused it to grow overnight.
- And what did Zoltan say?
- Well, he couldn't say much - he's still in a deep trance. In fact, I am quite preoccupied by his health. It seems he spent the whole night sitting there in the cold, and I don't think he's used to the rigours of our nights. " An elf child standing in the crowd asked loudly: " Is he dead, dad? He's completely white.
- No, he isn't, sonny. He's always that way, he's just an albino. Mother Nature forgot to paint him when he was born. This is his natural coloration. "
Calahas walked up to Zoltan, kneeled down, and looked at the human priest: " Yes, he seems to have suffered from the frost. I can barely feel his heart pulsing. I fear he will die if we don't help him. " He paused. " But if we take him back to the Foresthome and try to heal him, we will certainly break his meditation, and I don't know what effects this could have on the_ " He paused again. " _the Tree of Life. The decision is yours. "
The king weighed the different options, but he knew he had to make up his mind fast, for waiting could mean Zoltan's death. " Take him back to the Foresthome, we shall heal him there. Abandoning him here would commit him to a certain death.
- And what about the tree?
- Nothing. We shall wait until Zoltan recovers consciousness. Only he knows what he has to do regarding it. "
When Zoltan finally awoke, he realised he was not amid the trees any more. The voice of an elven maiden sounded: " At last you are back to this world. We feared nothing could bring you back to health. You remained unconscious for a full month. We tended you, but nothing improved your condition, neither well-known medicinal herbs nor Calahas' healing spells.
- Where am I? Where is the forest?
- Oh, we brought you to the Foresthome. Outside you would already have died of exposure. Hey, don't try to leave your bed yet, you're not strong enough to stand up.
- I know the process took a heavy toll on my constitution, but I have to go to the Tree. I really have to. "
Zoltan got up with great difficulty; his pain was obvious. He walked toward the door made out of living wood, pitifully leaning on his walking staff. He reached the door, grabbed the handle, and stayed there a few seconds, recovering from the mere effort. The next step was more difficult, however, for Zoltan now wanted to climb down to the ground. However, he had been seriously injured many times during previous adventures with his companions, with no more healing spells handy, and he had always managed to continue despite the suffering. Furthermore, the quest was of much more significance to him this time, and his low constitution just wouldn't stop him.
Zoltan firmly clenched the rope, and carefully climbed down. Once there, he set out for the place where he hoped a new tree was now standing. Although this was not that far, it seemed to him like it was miles away, both because of his temporary poor health and because of his longing for the sight of the mighty tree.
When he reached the spot he was aiming for, the tree was standing there, majestic. Zoltan felt the power of the Tree of Life permeate his entire body, and the pain was gone. A young elf approached, and spoke to him:
" I was waiting for you, Master. I knew you would come.
- Who are you, young elf?
- My name's Tsunamir, Master. When the Tree first appeared, I felt its call. I thank Thee Ilsundal for giving a meaning to my life. So I took care of the Tree while it was growing. Is the process over, Master?
- No, it isn't. It will take five more years before it gains its full range of powers, but it is already aware.
- I shall tend it through these five years, and afterward. Teach me the Way of the Tree, Master. Teach me the Way of Ilsundal and I shall serve you and Him faithfully. "
Zoltan stared at him, wondering if Ilsundal in His great wisdom had really chosen the young elf to enter in His priesthood. One thing was obvious, however: he would need an assistant when he would leave the forest to represent the elves before the human king, as he had promised, or when he would have to follow his old companions on an adventure.
" Tell me something, young elf: You said you knew I was coming. How is that?
- Oh yes, I almost forgot. Just before your arrival I found something lying at the foot of the Tree. I think this is yours. "
Tsunamir reached for something in his pocket, and held it out to the priest. It was a elven-designed medallion, with a well-cut crystal that reflected the morning sun in a dazzling rainbow of light. Inside the crystal stood a small, living root, strongly pulsing in the presence of the Tree of Life from which it was coming.
" Indeed it is, my son. "

Appendix: In Which the Main Characters Are Described.

Zoltan Hytaxius
Human Cleric of Ilsundal, level 10.
Strength 14, Intelligence 20, Wisdom 20, Dexterity 10, Constitution 13, Charisma 17.
Age: difficult to estimate, in fact only 27.
Skin: white, Eyes: white, Hair: white, Distinguishing mark: albino, 6'0", 168 lbs.
Born in a poor family of Thyatis City, Zoltan became the leader of a band of teenager bullies as a way of not being rejected as a monster because of his lack of skin coloration. When the girl he loved died of an overdose, he felt disgusted by the so-called civilisation and left for the west. In order to avoid contact with anyone he didn't follow the road, roaming aimlessly through fields and forests alike. One day he stumbled upon a group of elves of the Vyalia clan, between the countries of Thyatis and Karameikos. They treated him with respect, not giving any particular attention to his lack of coloration. The local Treekeeper, saying his patron Ilsundal had foreseen his fate would be very important to the Elves, taught to Zoltan the Way of Ilsundal in only a few years - an amazingly very short time from the elves' point of view. He also gave him a medallion with a root he had cut from the living Tree, telling him he would know what to do with it when the time came. Still with no real goal in life, but now a young cleric, he left the Vyalia. He met other young adventurers, and decided to go with them on various adventures all over the Known World.

Maeva ap Lywell Van Gwernach, or more simply Tac
Sprite Fairy Wizard, level 9.
Strength 6, Intelligence 17, Wisdom 9, Dexterity 18, Constitution 9, Charisma 15.
Age: unknown, Skin: white, Eyes: blue, Hair: blond, 11", a few lbs only.
Little is known of the small, spirited and mischievous sprite, except that she originates from the fairy world of Feywood; she decided to go with Zoltan, the friend of the forest- dwelling creatures, when he travelled to her world with his group. She loves to play harmless tricks, and has always her tiny backpack full of weird objects she collects to that end. She generally remains Invisible to Mortals in order to better surprise her victims. Although she's now a somewhat experienced spellcaster, her spell range is limited to nature-oriented ones, and she often uses them to play practical jokes rather than on more vital issues - much to the dismay of Zoltan's adventuring companions.

Elf Cleric of Eiryndul, level 7.
Strength 14, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 17, Constitution 14, Dexterity 17, Charisma 13.
Age: 520, Skin: pale, Eyes: green, Hair: blond, 5'2", 125 lbs.
Previous highest-ranking priest of the village. He opposes Zoltan both for personal power and on behalf of his patron immortal. He won't directly challenge his clan lord's authority but tries to influence him. Can temporarily rally Zoltan if the clan is seriously threatened.

Elf Cleric of Eiryndul, level 3.
Strength 16, Intelligence 14, Wisdom 14, Constitution 15, Dexterity 18, Charisma 10.
Age: 240, Skin: pale, Eyes: blue, Hair: golden blond, 5'4", 140 lbs.
Assistant to Calahas, he violently opposes Zoltan, even if it should lead to problems for the clan or himself. He will first try tricks - following his patron Immortal's teachings_, then become more dangerous if Zoltan gains power within the clan. He's not beyond trying to burn down the Tree of Life, or attacking Zoltan or his allies.

Lord Gilsangir
Elf Fighter/Wizard, level 12/8.
Strength 16, Intelligence 17, Wisdom 18, Constitution 12, Dexterity 11, Charisma 15.
Age: 880, Skin: pale, Eyes: blue, Hair: white, 5'4", 130 lbs.
Kind, benevolent, fair ruler of the Foresthome. Generally slow to make his decisions, because he always wants to listen to everybody's opinion and then decide what's better for his kin. His decisions are law, however, and no elf in the clan will challenge them.

Lady Alandira
Elf Wizard, level 12.
Strength 8, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 14, Constitution 10, Dexterity 17, Charisma 14.
Age: 830, Skin: pale, Eyes: violet, Hair: violet, 5'1", 110 lbs.
Alandira believes one should always try to achieve greater personal power - not a common attitude for an elf_, and that the best way to do this is by studying magic and mastering it. To her, following an Immortal doesn't help, you are just a pawn for him. So she opposes all clerics, but only if that's not too difficult, dangerous or time-consuming - she has better things to do. Influencing her husband is an easy way.

Elf Cleric of Ilsundal, level 1.
Strength 15, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 14, Constitution 14, Dexterity 18, Charisma 12.
Age: 150, Skin: pale, Eyes: green, Hair: golden blond, 5'3", 130 lbs.
Tsunamir is a very young, still turbulent elf, who does not much except singing, hunting, flirting, in short, having fun. When Zoltan's Tree of Life appears, its majesty and beauty strike him, and he embraces Ilsundal's way. He tries to be a good acolyte to Zoltan the Treekeeper, but he's still very young, naive and impulsive. He would give his life to save the Tree of Life.