On a faraway planet in the land of Zellnoid, a peaceful civilization built a fully functional city around the tree of life - the Ishka tree. This tree has the power to bring back the dead, and for centuries the Zellnots have thrived and worshiped the tree. A great stone palace was built around the Ishka tree centuries ago to showcase and protect its incredible power.
The Ishka tree stands proud and tall with its white bark and golden leaves spread across its thick twisting branches. A soft resplendent light pulsates in the center of the tree like a living breathing heartbeat. When someone is brought back from death they become one with the tree and remain connected in the ether of life. Multiple generations have been reborn from the Ishka tree, but not all is well. The Ishka tree is slowly dying and its everlasting light is growing dim.
The effects are felt far and wide among the Zellnots who have been reborn. Evil slowly seeps into their souls like a poisonous venom - transforming them into dark shadow creatures with bright glowing eyes. Stripped of their humanity, an army of shadow creatures wage war for their chance to destroy what’s left of the Ishka tree. With the tree destroyed the universe would witness an evil like no other.
To protect the Ishka tree, King Gerald assembled a massive army to combat the shadow creatures. He believed the Ishka tree was going through a bad cycle and would soon come back to prominence. He vowed to do everything in his power to destroy the shadow creatures and keep them away from the tree - thus giving birth to the shadow war.
With the war raging on, many Zellnots fled the safety of their homes and built small villages on the outer reaches of Zellnoid. Believing the Ishka tree and the war to be an abomination, they agreed to never go back…
On the banks of a mighty river, Zia sat solemnly staring at her reflection in the crystal-clear water. She parted her black hair and smiled warmly. She cupped her hand and gently reached down into the cool liquid. Small droplets of water fell from her hand as she drank.
There’s nothing like the taste of fresh water, it just revitalizes the senses, she thought.
Suddenly, Zia heard the thumping of footsteps quickly approaching, and her reflection disappeared as a dark silhouette rose above her. She instantly knew from the awkward sounds that it was Xan. He was trying to sneak up on her again.
Turning around to face him Zia said, “Nice try Xan, but you have to be quiet if you want to scare me again!”
Xan flapped his arms down to his sides, and then reached up to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead. His brown hair was dripping with perspiration, and his heart was beating a mile a minute. He reached down and placed his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath.
“Oh, come on Zia, I was just trying to have some fun,” he said.
Zia’s forehead creased. “Why are you sweating so much?”
Xan took a deep breath to collect himself. “There was another attack from the shadow creatures.” He held his hands up in a calming manner. “It’s ok though, we drove them off.”
Zia scrunched her face in anger and said, “They're getting more brazen by the day! There must be a way to stop this madness.”
Xan forced a smile, “King Gerald must be driving them away from the city. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.”
Zia strode towards him and slapped him on the head. “That’s a bad thing! He needs to do what he said and destroy those creatures!”
Xan nodded his head in agreement. “At least we’re safe. I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to you.” He looked deep into her soft green eyes and said, “I love you Zia.”
“I love you to Xan, but we can’t keep living like this. Something needs to be done to stop those creatures from coming here.” Her eyes started to tear up. “We can’t keep living in fear.”
Xan reached over and embraced Zia. “We could always join the King’s army. Help fight them head on.”
Zia kissed him lightly on the cheek and whispered, “We both know we wouldn’t last a day fighting in the army.” They both parted, as the sun was setting. “Let’s just go to bed ok?”
Xan took another deep breath and said, “Yeah... that’s a good idea. It’s not safe when the sun goes down.”
Hand in hand, Zia and Xan return to their hut. They hold each other close as they fall to sleep. Everyone knows that the shadow creatures roam openly in the darkness. The village is lit by torch lights that glow steady through the night and guards are strategically placed around the village for protection.
As the night drags on, Zia wakes up from a loud splashing sound coming from the river bank. She looks around the room letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Listening intently, she hears the sound again. Not wanting to wake Xan, she decides to investigate on her own.
She steps out from the hut wearing a white nightgown that stands out like a fire in the night. There’s no sign of the guards anywhere, so she reaches over to grab one of the torch lights. Holding it high above her head a soft orange glow encircles her body. She hears the splash again and starts to move towards the river bank.
Step by step she inches her way closer to the edge of the river. She could smell the algae covered rocks in the musty air. A cold chill shoots up her spine as she sees a shadow creature splashing in the water. It doesn’t notice her at first because it’s back is turned. Zia takes a step backwards and the creature hears her footsteps. It turns around, eyes glowing bright, and lunges for her.
Zia screams as she is tackled to the ground. She tries to kick herself free, but the shadow creature stares into her eyes, putting her into a dream like trance. With a massive crunch the creature plunges its hand deep within her chest. Gripping her heart, the shadow creature squeezes hard until it explodes - killing her instantly. The guards come running over to the scene, and the creature flees off into the night.
As the first rays of sunlight kiss the horizon, Xan wakes up from his slumber. He reaches over to Zia’s side of the bed to pull her close and feels nothing. She is gone. He hears screaming outside and a thunderous commotion. A sense of dread filled his thoughts. Fearing the worst, he quickly ran out and followed the crowd over to the river bank.
Making his way through the crowd Xan found Zia’s lifeless body lying on the ground. He fell to his knees and screamed. His whole body started to tremble, and tears streamed down his cheeks like a raging waterfall. The other villagers walked away to give him space to grieve.
Xan reached down and pulled her close. He kissed her cold lips and hugged her tightly in his arms. Just then he felt a warm hand press down on his shoulder. It was Jareth, the village elder. He was wearing his traditional brown robes and Xan could tell that he was trying his best not to weep.
“I am so sorry for your loss, Xan,” he said.
Xan gripped Zia closer, his lips were trembling. He looked up at Jareth with his jaw clenched. “How could this happen!” he shouted.
Jareth closed his eyes and said, “Sometimes the Gods work in mysterious ways. We don’t always know why things happen, but we must accept their will.”
Xan snarled, gnashing his teeth together. “I will not let her die, knowing that there’s still a way to save her!”
“You can’t take her to the Ishka tree!” shouted Jareth. “It is forbidden! You will never make it there alive with all the shadow creatures roaming the city. The tree is dying, and it will corrupt what’s left of her soul. Do not be so foolish to waste your life for hers!”
Xan gently placed Zia’s body back on the ground and stood up. He looked Jareth right in his hazel eyes and said, “You're right...I’m sorry I lashed out at you.”
Jareth closed his eyes and nodded. “It is alright my son, we all stray from time to time. We all loved Zia, she was such a gentle soul. We will have a glorious funeral for her-”
At that moment Jareth felt a powerful punch collide with his face - knocking him out cold. Xan yanked off Jareth’s brown tunic robes and covered Zia’s body. He knelt and picked her up. He glanced down at Jareth and said, “No one is going to stop me. Not you, not the shadow creatures, and certainly not the King’s army!”
The city was only a few miles to the east, so Xan placed Zia’s body on the back of his horse and rode off into the distance. The villagers watched on knowing what he was planning to do. They didn’t say anything to Xan because they knew it was no use trying to convince him otherwise.
With the sun now shining brightly in the blue sky, Xan rode along the old dirt path leading into the city. The surrounding forest was quiet. No bird whistles, no animal noises - the whole forest seemed to be dead. Normally this would bother Xan, but his mind was focused with fierce determination to reach the Ishka tree.
Zia must live.
After traveling for a few hours, the city was now in sight. Xan could see puffs of black smoke ascending to the Heavens. He could hear the quiver of arrows zing in the air, and the shouts of agony within the streets. The war was still in full swing. Approaching the city gates Xan noticed the gray cobblestone road was now stained blood red from fallen soldiers.
He got off the horse and decided that he would carry Zia to the Ishka tree. A horse would bring too much attention, and he wanted to be stealthy. He bobbed and weaved in the back alleys, and around the big stone buildings - inching his way closer to the prize. Along the way he witnessed horrors that will surely haunt his dreams for the rest of his days.
He saw a soldier’s head being ripped off by one of the shadow creatures, and another one eaten alive in the middle of the street. King Gerald’s army held a line pushing the creatures back with their shields. They were stabbing the creatures with pikes, but this did little to slow the onslaught of carnage.
Xan kept his head down trying to ignore the madness, and marched forward. His arms were starting to ache from holding Zia’s body. Lucky for him the Ishka tree was now in sight. The King’s army had formed a strong line to protect the dying tree. The shadow creatures were approaching from all sides. Like a plague, they rushed the soldiers - attacking with deadly force. Xan slung Zia up over his shoulder and waited for the right moment to approach.
The attack left a small opening just big enough for Xan to pass though. It’s now or never. The Ishka tree was barely glowing and looked like a dying candle. The golden leaves that were once so vibrant and full of life had all fallen off. There was a stone platform at the base of the tree where people would lay their loved ones to be reborn. Xan placed Zia’s body on it and knelt beside her.
At that moment King Gerald emerged from a group of soldiers fighting to hold the line. He was dressed in golden armor and his long white beard had blotches of blood scattered throughout. He saw Xan and dropped his big oval shield to the ground.
“Get her away from there! You don’t know what you're doing!” he cried.
Xan rose up and looked at the once mighty King with hatred in his eyes. “This is all your fault! You're the reason she’s dead!”
King Gerald gripped his golden sword tighter. “What are you talking about!”
With glassy eyes Xan replied, “Your stupid crusade to protect this tree has forced the shadow creatures to roam the outside lands. One of them killed my love, Zia!” He turned to look at Zia lying on the platform. “Now I’m here to bring her back!”
“I can’t let you do that!” King Gerald yelled.
Just then a shadow creature attacked the King from behind knocking him down. His golden sword slid over to Xan. He picked up the sword and felt the great weight pull on his arm. The shadow flung its sharp fingernails towards the King's face, but the King held his arms up to protect himself.
The King noticed Xan holding his sword and shouted, “Stab it in the eyes! It’s the only way to kill it!”
Xan’s eyes widened. He ran over to the shadow creature and raised the sword with both hands. He shouted, “Look at me you coward!” The creature looked up and Xan stabbed downward, piercing the creature through the eyes. The shadow creature exploded in a puff of smoke and was destroyed.
“Good work! Now help me up!” said the King.
At that moment Xan heard Zia’s voice call out from behind him. “Don’t help him anymore.”
Xan dropped the sword and quickly turned to see Zia slide off the stone platform. She was alive, but something wasn’t right. Her eyes were now glowing just like the shadow creatures. Xan didn’t care, he ran over to her and threw his arms around her.
Zia reached up to grab Xan’s face, so she could look into his eyes. “I’ve missed you my love,” said Xan.
They came together to kiss and just before their lips met, Zia snapped Xan’s neck, killing him. His body fell limp in her arms, and she lifted him up and placed him on the stone platform.
King Gerald was now on his feet with his sword in hand. His soldiers were still battling the other shadow creatures around him. Zia stared at him as she completely transformed into one of the creatures.
King Gerald screamed, “I will kill you!”
“NO! You will not harm her!”
It was Xan reborn as a shadow creature.
The King clenched his sword tightly and ran towards them. He stabbed wildly at their glowing eyes, but every swing missed its mark. Zia and Xan circled around the King until they were able to grab ahold of his arms. Together they pulled hard - ripping his arms off. King Gerald collapsed to the ground and was bleeding profusely.
Zia and Xan turned to the Ishka tree and started ripping the tree apart with their bare hands. The dim light that once shined so brightly had now burned out. The Ishka tree was dead. The ground started to rumble and shake creating a huge fiery pit. The dead Ishka tree fell in and was no more.
King Gerald watched in horror as his quest came to a bitter end. With the Ishka tree gone, an evil force like no other was now free to emerge. Zia and Xan stood back looking down into the endless void. The Kings army ran over to him, but it was too late. King Gerald had lost too much blood and was dead.
The ground started to rumble again, and the soldiers all turned to face the pit. A huge red hand emerged from the hole, squashing the soldiers where they stood. On the outskirts of the city, a terrifying laughter could be heard. The villagers all knew that doom was coming for them.
The bright blue sky now burned red as a great evil was born from the sacrifice of true love.
Daniel R. Hayes