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Chapter VII: THOSE WHO LURK IN THE DARK

 

                It was Teela’s turn to keep watch. Nights were cold in the grim woods, and she was wrapped up in a blanket, sitting in a log, her eyes open wide. With her knife, she was carving a wood walking stick, calmly, as if just to keep herself entertained. Every now and then she would look at Adam, wishing to be embraced by his strong arms and kept warm and safe. Not that she was afraid, but his courage, determination and willpower were an inspiration of security in these strange, hostile lands.

                Suddenly she heard a faint sound, like a small branch cracking. She stood up quickly, scanning around, but saw nothing strange. “Probably just a small animal.”, she thought, but then she heard another sound, like a voice talking in whispers.

                She went silently next to her father and touched his shoulder. Years of training made Duncan develop instincts sharper and quicker than those of most men. He opened his eyes, slowly, silently and without moving. As he saw Teela next to him, he looked around quietly, then he rose to a crouching position with great stealth.

                She signed at him, touching her ear and then pointing into the woods. He immediately understood she had heard something. She then pointed towards her lips and moved them without a sound, and with the palm of her hand facing the ground, she made two downward movements, and again she pointed to the tall trees. “Low voices”, he thought. “So much for the chance of being just an animal!”

                He slowly crawled next to Adam, and gently touched the young man’s arm, at the same time he placed a finger over his mouth, telling him to be quiet. However, Adam didn’t had Duncan’s survival instincts, and he awoke with a “huh?”. Duncan signed him once again to be quiet, now with an angry expression on his face. “Well, if they did not knew we were aware of them, or even if we were here, now they almost certainly know.”, he thought.

                The three companions rose, swords in hand, and started walking slowly towards the dense vegetation. The atmosphere was heavy and moist, and save for some dim starlight which managed to pass the barrier of treetops, all was surrounded in darkness.

                Suddenly, Duncan, who was in the lead, halted. Footsteps. Loud and fast footsteps, and right after he smelled a foul stench in the air. “This stench… cover me, quickly! I must build a fire!”

                The warrior crouched, taking two small stones out of his pocket, along with a piece of cloth and a small vial. He grabbed a nearby fallen branch, wrapped one of its tips with the cloth, and dropped a small quantity of the vial’s contents in it. Then, he rubbed the stones in one another quickly, causing small sparks which soon ignited his torch. He took the vial and the stones back to his pocket, and swiftly stood back up, a lit torch in his hands, revealing their surroundings. The Grim Woods seemed even more haunting and macabre in the dim firelight.

                Right after, they heard a load roar, followed by a scream of agony, which echoed throughout the woods. “Krygar!”, Adam cried – “With all our stress I completely forgot him!”

                Suddenly, silently, the beast came from within the bushes. After their first, defensive reaction to an eventual attack, they saw it was Adam’s pet tiger, carrying a green, blood dripping detached arm in his mouth, which was also full of the same black blood. Krygar’s true savage nature was finally coming to the surface, in the deep woods the giant tiger was truly home at last.

                Teela did not notice him leaving back in the camp, but he had silently crawled into the woods a while before she first heard a sound. None of them had sharp senses to match the tiger’s perception, even when he was sleeping.

                “I wasn’t mistaken by the stench… and nor was Krygar, who must have sensed it quite a while ago. This is the arm of an orc.” – said Duncan – “Be ready… They will probably strike soon.”

                But they heard no sound, not the slightest clue of an attack for quite a while. Krygar, however, got tired of waiting and dropped the orc arm, entering once again in the shadows. The rest of them followed, but soon lost him.

                “Now what?”, Adam whispered. “I cannot call him unless I give up our position, and if we continue, we might get lost in this dense vegetation.”

                “You’re right.”, Duncan replied. “We should go back to our camp, before they find it. Curse it, you two left your backpacks there!”

                “Well, we’re not far from there. We would have heard them if they had found it, wouldn’t we? At least we should hear the horses. They wouldn’t be shut if the orcs arrived there, would they?”

                “I guess not, Adam, but we better hurry!”, Duncan stated. “I’m getting old! What a damn stupid mistake!”, he muttered to himself.

                They walked into the wood, believing to be following the same way, backwards. However, the dense vegetation and the deep blackness proved to be tricky. They hadn’t seen the way they had came, and soon figured out they were lost.

                “Damn!” – Duncan stated, this time not caring to lower his voice – “Too much time in the palace! Too much time of soft life! How could I be such a fool?”

                “Calm down, father. Krygar will find us, and he will lead us back. This damned place can trick us, but not him.”

                “I shouldn’t have been tricked! I’ve been in worse places! This has never happened to me!” – saying this, he felt suddenly aged and tired. It was hard to admit he was not the same brave and young warrior he had been once.

                “Duncan, don’t blame yourself. We were all too stressed by the orcs… who might still be near, as far as I know.” – Adam whispered.

                “Yes, you’re right.” – Duncan answered, now also in whispers – “But while we’re here lost, waiting for Krygar, our horses and gear might be stolen by those cursed creatures!”

                Adam was, in fact, right. Right after Duncan’s last statement, they heard loud noises from the bushes around, leaves moving, branches cracking, and soon the pale light from Duncan’s torch revealed dark figures drawing nigh, and as they approached, their horrid features became distinguishable, their green skin, their dreadful faces with large and pointy, upwards fangs, their long ears, their large round yellow eyes… and the evil, sadistic expression on their ugly faces.

                They were quick, but not faster than the three adventurers. Although Duncan had lost part of his survival skills due to many years living in the royal palace of Eternos, he had never stopped training the art of war. And he trained Teela and Adam for years, since they were small children. No, the men from Eternos were far from helpless, and although ambushed and surprised, they were the ones to strike first. Teela dived her sword through an orc’s chest, piercing his heart, his black blood flying through the air, wetting the young woman’s weapon arm and face.

                Duncan stroke with his mace. One of the aggressors was violently hit by the heavy blow in his head, and his skull loudly cracked. He fell heavily on the ground, dropping his battle-axe beside him.

                Adam, exiled prince of Eternos, was however, the most skillful warrior. He had surpassed his master long ago, and as soon as the orcs revealed themselves, he jumped in their direction, and his sword stroke twice, fast as a lightning. One orc head rolled, while his dead body fell, creating a large, black fetid blood pool. His second attack, still made before his opponents could react, hit an enemy in his weapon arm, with such strength that the blade cut off his limb, and passed through, becoming struck in the creature’s ribs.

                Another orc seized the chance to strike the young warrior as he struggled to release his sword, but Adam dodged. The orc’s heavy double-bladed axe hit the stricken sword, breaking it. Taking advantage of his unbalance, Adam kicked him in the stomach, stunning him, and rolled away of the creature’s axe reach.

                Meanwhile, Duncan was struck from behind by another foe. The attack did not break through the man-at-arms armor, but the violence of the blow made him fall on his face.

                What happened next was very quick. The attacker raised his axe to strike the fallen man again, knowing he would now inflict lethal damage. Teela, however, saw this, and threw her sword through the air, hitting the orc’s neck. It hit him only slightly, but made him drop his weapon, which landed right on his own head, it’s blade downwards. The creature’s head was literally split in two instantly.

                However, in her reaction, Teela became defenseless against another foe, but Adam was also quicker. With the swiftness of a tiger, he grabbed the battle-axe of a fallen orc, and Teela’s aggressor felt the large blade trespassing his chest. With a thrust from his foot, he then freed the weapon from the dead orc’s bones.

                There were six surviving orcs. They started to back up, discouraged. They did not expect to meet such fierce opponents.

                That moment, silent, swift and deadly as an arrow, Krygar jumped from the darkness, landing over one of the night stalkers, and biting him deep into his flesh, ripping his muscles apart. The green creature cried in agony, his screams a horrid piercing shrill.

                Watching this, his surviving companions lost all their doubts. They panicked, and screaming in terror, ran into the forest, as fast as they had first arrived.

                Duncan rose to his feet, hurt and dizzy. The orc’s axe blow did not pass through his armor, but he certainly had deep bruises underneath it, and possibly, some broken ribs. He got up his fallen torch, still lit, and observed the corpses. “They are not armored, don’t carry any blazon… these are probably just a party of thieves, but there’s a small chance they might belong to a larger army.”

                The ground was wet, not only from it’s permanent moist, which prevented the fallen torch to lit up the woods, but also from many large black pools of orc blood. The dark fluid bubbled, besides of the stinky vapors that emerged from it.

                “We must clean ourselves from their blood quickly.” – Duncan stated – “Their cursed veins are filled with poison!”

                “I have towels in my backpack. We can wet them. Krygar will lead us back now.” – Teela replied.

                Before leaving, Adam stared back at the fallen corpses. He was disgusted by what he had done, even though he knew there was no other way. He beheld his broken sword, then looked at the orc battle-axe in his hands. All the fallen attackers carried battle-axes, war hammers and morning-stars, but there were no swords. “Well, I guess I will have to keep on with an axe.”, he thought.

                Krygar did manage to get back to camp quickly. The great tiger possessed natural sharp instincts and a remarkable direction sense, even after spending all his life away from his true environment. The horses were still there, as well as their gear. They sat on the floor, ate a light meal, and got back on the horses to continue their journey.

 

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