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                It had passed six days since they had entered the Grim Woods. The trek had become harder, for the thick vegetation and the dark environment of the place slowed them down. And, ever since the orc ambush, they became nervous, always inspecting their surroundings, as if waiting for some thing to come out of the bushes. However, they had no more surprises.

                They sometimes hunted in the woods. It was hard, but possible to catch a rabbit or two. That day, Krygar had caught a small deer. The feline passed the most part of the journey away from them, hunting and exploring, yet always close enough to be on their side if needed.

                The horses were tired of traveling through the woods, as it was hard for them to walk in such rough terrain. However, all the three mounts were resistant enough to endure the tough conditions.

                It had been an hour since they’d lunch, when suddenly, Teela pointed upwards, beyond the treetops, and exclaimed: “Adam, there it is! The obelisk the falcon told you about. It is it, isn’t it?”

                In fact, still away but now visible among the dense trees, there it was, a huge, pointy, yellow stone monument. It should be incredibly tall, for it reached for the sky far beyond the tallest trees of the wood. The party stopped, gazing at the obelisk.

                “Yes, it must be it.”, Adam replied. “We must be only at a day’s distance now. Soon we can leave this haunted forest.”

                “If we find no trouble along the way.” – Duncan replied in a bitter tone.

                Some hours later, at the end of the afternoon, they started to hear a choir, a song that mixed both grim and sad tunes. Dozens of voices blended themselves in unison, creating an eerie atmosphere. They kept on. The song came from the obelisk’s direction. Some minutes later, beneath the trees, they started to see, at first, smoke, and then, a small, very rustic village. The voices began to become distinguishable. Duncan frowned and turned his face, with his left ear in the sounds’ direction, trying to figure out what it meant.

                “Father, what is this about? I can’t understand their chants.”

                “I’m not sure, Teela.” – Duncan replied – “But it seems like some kind of ancient ritual. They speak of the gods. I’ve heard, at least, Karashev’s name. Few people in Eternia still worship the ancient gods.”

                “But the tune… It sounds mournful, and yet… I don’t know, macabre. What can be the motive of the ritual? It sounds too grim to be a funeral.” – Teela observed.

                “Maybe we should check it out from a safe distance… Anyway, they’re on the obelisk’s path.” – said Adam.

                “You’re right.” – Duncan stated – “We never know how much unfriendly they might be.”

                They got near the village and hid behind some tall bushes. Carefully, they lurked from beneath the leaves to see a strange ritual, even more creepy than the tune.

                At the village’s core, a multitude was gathered, encircling a bonfire. They wore long, pale green robes with tunics covering their faces. Above the fire, a man, a strange gray man with red feathers in his arms that changed to blue ones in his back was hanged upside down in a gallows-like wood construction. In his head, he wore a red hood.

                One of the men was carrying a large dagger, and he danced in front of the crowd that marched behind him, all of them carrying wood sticks that they threw, branch by branch, into the flaming pile, feeding the bonfire, and making it become ever closer to the winged man.

                Now they could fully understand the meaning of the song. It was in fact a ritual, but not exactly funereal, but much more like sacrificial.

                “Eternia’s core of all infinity
                Created by gods of supreme majesty
                To be ruled by man’s capable hand
                Not meant to be raped, this sacred land 

                “Karashev’s blood Eternia’s seed
                The only creation for which he did bleed
                Meant to be ruled by his supreme sons
                The masters of the universe, the chosen ones

                “The gods have traveled far, long ago
                Trusting their world to the guard of their spawn
                The universal order lies in Eternia’s hand
                Against alien invaders our people stand

                “For though they are also the great gods’ sons
                Only the wise Eternians were the chosen ones
                And the power shall be guarded with all effort
                For the chosen must prove their value and worth

                “Those who dare defy the gods’ almighty will
                Their powerful wrath they’re doomed to feel
                The order supreme shall not be disgraced
                With the purifying fire their souls must be faced.”

                 And then, the song started all over again.

                “Xenophobic lunatics!” – Duncan exclaimed.

                “I must go there… see what has that man done to deserve theirs… and the gods’ wrath.”

                “Adam, no!” – Duncan replied – “Those are fanatics down there. More than a dozen dozens. We don’t know what they might do to us if we question their rituals. It is too risky.”

                “I know. That is why it is not ‘us’. I will go there alone.”

                “No, you won’t. I haven’t followed you to let you face the dangers alone. If you go, I will follow.” – Teela interjected.

                “No. I might need you, and I have an advantage in your secrecy. You will wait here with Krygar and the horses.”

                “He’s got a point…” – Duncan observed – “But only in our secrecy. Adam, do not go down there. We have no chance of stopping them.”

                “I have made up my mind. And I will not know if I can stop them unless I try. And believe me, unless they prove me he committed some hideous crime – what does not seem to be their reason – I will try. But I cannot wait any longer. That man is in agony, and his time is short. Stay here.”

                “Adam, don’t…” – But it was too late. Adam had already signed Krygar to be still, and stood up, walking towards the ritualists, careful not to reveal his companions.

                At the sight of Adam, the ritualists halted. The one with the dagger went three steps forward, before asking: “Who are you and what do you want of Karashev’s village? You cannot be here. You’re trespassing our lands. Out. Out!”

                Adam observed the people, staring at them from underneath their hoods, before answering. “I am Adam from Eternos. I am here in a journey of my own concern, and I have arrived at your village by mere chance. However, I am intrigued by your ritual. What was the crime committed by this man?”

                His words arose a lot of whispers among the crowd. He could clearly hear some of them mention “Eternos” and “He comes from the great city”. The rite master, however, stood silent for a while. Then, when he spoke, all other voices faded.

                “How dare you question our actions in our own land? And how can we know if you are really from Eternos? You look more like a savage than an Eternos citizen.”

                “I am really from Eternos, despite my clothing. But the only proof I can give you is my word. And I am not questioning your actions, unless those same actions are breaking the laws of the royal accord. I believe, if I do recall accurately, Karashev’s affiliated with the accord, and also that there are laws forbidding death sentences unless concerning certain crimes.”

                The rite master made an expression both of surprise and concern, then he tried to change the subject. “Are you alone in this ‘journey’ of yours?”

                Adam understood immediately the purpose of the question. “No, I’m not. My companions are nearby. I travel with soldiers from Eternos.”

                Once again, astonishment invaded the crowd.

                Adam went on: “That man is suffering. Are you going to explain me his crime? You surely have an explanation for this ritual, don’t you?”

                The young man’s sarcasm deeply angered the rite master. “How dare you? Are you questioning us? We are the true believers of Karashev, the followers of the sacred laws. Eternos is a place of luxury, of weak men who do not understand our place in the prophecy of the gods. We do not wish your death, but you cannot come in here and challenge us! Go… or face the gods’ anger!”

                “Oh… I see. Krygar!”

                The moment Adam called his beast friend, he quickly drew his battle-axe from his belt and threw it, so fast that the men of Karashev had no time to react. However, the axe was not aimed at any of them; it’s target, hit with precision, was the pole in which the winged man was hung. It broke, making him fall to the ground heavily, but away from the flames.

                “How dare you? You shall pay for… for…”

                That very moment, Krygar revealed himself, walking slowly next to Adam. His threatening aspect made the rite master go back, clearly scared. The crowd once again originated a flow of whispers.

                “Once again, I ask you: What was the crime of this man? If none, than he shall be set free.”

                “No, he won’t!” - The rite master’s eyes were those of a madman. He raised his dagger and started to walk towards the fallen, unconscious, winged man. But, before he could even get close, Krygar leaped, landing with only one of his paws on the old man’s back, making him fall but not injuring him. He then laid his other front paw on the man’s right hand, stopping him from trying to use the dagger. No one in the crowd dared to approach the fierce tiger.

                Adam turned to the astonished multitude: “I believe this man has committed no crime, but I may be wrong. I do not wish to commit an error in setting him free, so if he did commit some crime, please tell me which was it.”

                For moments, the place was involved in silence. Then, suddenly, a voice, a woman’s voice, arose: “He does not belong in Eternia. He came here, obviously, with evil intentions. Folk from other worlds are always dangerous. If we let him live, soon others of his kind may follow. We have already been invaded by aliens before, we cannot risk a second time. Only Eternians deserve rulership of the epicenter of power!”

                Adam turned his head down in disgust. He then faced the crowd and spoke, his voice clearly full of anger: “You speak superstitiously and foolishly! Do you know, at least, that the invasion from Veymous, ages ago, was led by an Eternian? How can you execute a man for a crime he has not committed, simply because of your arrogant fear of strangers? How can you blame him for the crimes of another? You are killing a man that may probably never commit the crime you are already accusing him of. What guilt has he? You claim yourselves to be superior because you’re Eternians, yet you are the ones practicing evil, not this man!”

                He obtained no answer. The people just kept staring at him and whispering among themselves while he went to the winged man, cutting off the ropes and trying to awake him. Krygar kept his paw over the rite master.

                Right after, Duncan and Teela came out of the bushes, bringing the horses along. The crowd stared at them, even more astonished. Teela stepped forward and spoke to the multitude, in a slow, gentle voice: “We do not wish to bring you any harm. We came here for a specific purpose, and we will not be here for long. However, what you were doing to this man is not right, and we cannot allow it. He will come with us for now, and his actions will become our responsibility.”

                “You better watch him close!” – the rite master answered, from underneath Krygar – “That alien monster will soon stab all of you in the back… and you’ll be sorry you haven’t listened to our words!”

                “I hope you’re wrong, but even if you’re not, he will not be condemned before he commits a crime.”

                The three adventurers gathered around the fallen alien man. He was unconscious, but apparently unharmed. Meanwhile, sensing the rite master to be calmer, Krygar released him. He stood up, knowing that his people were too coward to risk attacking these brave, armed men from Eternos and their savage beast. He swallowed the affront, for they had won.

                “He will wake soon; he seems well. The fire did not reach him, but the heat exhausted him and the fall made him lose his senses. I guess he can leave with us soon.” – said Duncan.

                “Yes, I guess so.” – Adam replied – “But first there’s something I must do, the objective of our long journey.” He stared at the old rite master, and in a slow voice, he spoke: “I have come to take the obelisk’s stone to the sorceress of Grayskull.”

                The man was stunned. He had heard many people, year after year, speaking of how they wished and of how they would attempt to collect the obelisk’s heart. However, it was always due to its value as a precious stone; the reason this man claimed was something entirely new to him.



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