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Chapter XI: A MEETING WITH EVIL

 

                Adam, Teela, Duncan and Stratos were riding north for five days already; Whitemane and the other horses were showing the first signs of fatigue. Whitemane, the stronger mount, was now carrying Teela and Stratos, still too tired to fly, while Adam was riding Teela's horse, Skywave. The landscape was too rough and hard to travel by easily. But Krygar was the one who seemed more tired. He kept following his friends, at a slow pace, and hardly leaving their path to hunt and explore as he used to. All the life he always shown, the energies he had to spend, seemed now to be hiding far, deep inside the feline. His watchful eyes were now half shut, as if he was always sleepy and uninterested. Krygar was acting really, really oddly, and his fellows quickly began to worry seriously about the wild tiger.

                They couldn't, however, guess what was wrong with Adam's "pet", and so there was nothing they could do to help him. What sort of disease could have affected the animal in such a way to make him so weak and tired? Krygar had always been fierce and strong, and all his life no disease had ever caught him. It probably had to be something serious.

                Adam, although showing concern for his friend, had his mind clearly far away. He was quite different ever since he collected the strange heart gem at the top of the obelisk. The gem, a large, glowing purple and red oval translucent stone, was now being carried in a leather purse in Adam's shoulder. Its luminescence was so intense that it glowed through the leather bag, giving it a brown-reddish shine.

                The former prince of Eternos was notably changed. Most of the times he seemed to be in another place, and some times he addressed his friends as if they were somehow strange to him. And an aura... a strange, intense and strong, almost divine aura surrounded him now. However, his current reactions and attitudes did not seem to be a consequence of a newly earned arrogance or vanity; Adam seemed to be confused, as if a lot of new information had been injected in his mind the very moment he grabbed the stone. His companions, especially Duncan, understood this, and chose not to make any questions that could make him even more disturbed.

                They had already left the Grim Woods three days ago. They had once again entered the stone fields they've passed before, on its eastern side now, where the stalagmites were even taller and stranger. That had been the worst part of the trip, since the lack of vegetation also meant that there was few game for them to hunt, specially Krygar who had just eaten a couple of small lizards along the way. After passing this lifeless place, they started to see vegetation once more; small grass and bushes, but yet it was a pleasant sight after all those rock-fanged lands. These were the green fields of Eternos, on the eastern side of the kingdom, south from the Evergreen forest and southwest from the Purple Mountains.

                On and on they rode, until they met a small lake, where Duncan decided it was time for a halt. Adam agreed reluctantly. He knew they were tired and needed a rest. He knew the horses couldn't hold on that pace the entire trip without rest. And he also knew Krygar could not hold on as he was for long. However, Grayskull called at him, urged him forward, and attracted him almost to the point of insanity. His blood flowed madly and hot in his veins, as if he was about to explode from inside, and he felt that only in Grayskull would he cool down the frenzy inside of him.

                He sat by the lake, staring northwards and eating only a small piece of bread.

                His friends watched him with worry from afar. They had a light meal while Duncan tried to figure out what was wrong with Adam's tiger. He simply had a sip of water from the lake the moment they arrived and laid down resting, without even wanting to eat anything. And Krygar was usually always hungry.

                Teela was having a chat with Stratos, trying to know more about him, but with no success. He did not seem to remember anything to tell her. She also seized the chance to explain him better the reason of their presence there, and some topics about living in Eternia. During their conversation, Stratos noticed her constantly glancing at Adam, and the look of concern in her young beautiful face. Her usually flaming green eyes were now deprived of their shine.

                Night came. All of them were preparing to lie down to sleep, except Adam. He insisted on making the first watch, and told them not to worry for he would probably be awake all night long, so there was no need for them to make turns. Duncan and Teela did not oppose him, but settled between themselves to awake later and also make watch, even if Adam kept refusing to sleep.

                Rain started to fall, no more than a drizzle, yet an annoying one. Out in the open fields, the low grass and short bushes gave little protection, and the nights were getting colder each day. Rain would only make the weather more unbearable. All the adventurers were wrapped up in their blankets, except for Adam, covered only by his loincloth and leather boots, and still appearing to be the one with less cold.

                One hour later the rain began to pelt with more intensity. Larger, colder and more drops of water began to fall. Soon they would get unbearably wet, and risk a disease. Duncan awoke, angry because they should have chosen a better spot to camp, a shelter. Yet he knew that there were no signs of rain when they halted their voyage.

                He was about to say something when Adam gestured him to be silent. "Horse steps. Not far away." Duncan could still not hear a sound except the rain falling and the soft breeze running by, and Krygar did not even awake. He was surprised by his young fellow's acute hearing. Adam was indeed changed.

                Teela and Stratos awoke. Krygar was still asleep, and the horses were awake yet calm. They all started to look at where Adam was staring, westwards, and soon they too started to hear the horses' hooves Adam told them about coming from that direction. The sound seemed to be just near enough for them to see their opponents even through the dark rainy night when Krygar awoke. Strangely enough, the tiger did not gaze at where they were looking, but in the opposite direction. Teela noticed this, and curious tried to see where Krygar was looking at.

                She saw no horse, and the sound of hooves suddenly stopped. Before her was a cloaked man, riding a dark feline beast, followed by two other strange figures. She gasped. Krygar roared in rage with all his remaining strength.

                Adam, Duncan and Stratos looked at the strangers as soon as they heard Teela. This could not be. The sounds came from the opposite direction, everyone heard that clearly, yet now they stopped and figures appeared from the east. "Magic?" - Adam, thought.

                Mounted on the dark feline of yellow eyes was a tall, slim man under long dark vests. His facial features remained hidden, yet they could clearly see two shining red dots where his eyes were. The stranger said no words, yet he stopped, and was apparently gazing at the party as if studying them. Behind him, one of the other figures roared, a strange, peculiar, yet somehow familiar roar.

                That moment, a lightning bolt lashed the sky. For a second, all was clear, and they could distinguish the strangers' features. One was a blue, four eyed man with large fangs. The second one, a bestial simian creature of brownish-orange fur, which Adam immediately recognized as the one who attacked his sister some years ago. But the grimmer one off all was the man riding the black beast, for when the light struck him, they could see his hooded face. Yet it was no face.

                Only a skull was underneath the hood, with two shining red lights in its eye sockets, a grim, horrid, threatening skull, which looked dead yet seemed to be alive. Teela let away a squeak, and Stratos backed one step. Only Duncan and Adam did not show reaction to the sight, while Krygar tried to roar even louder.

                The man raised a staff, and muttering some words, it began to glow a dim light. Then, his staff held high above his head, he started to behold individually each of the adventurers, until finally he looked at Adam. He stopped there, watching the young warrior deep in the eyes, now seeming to be him the one who was surprised.

                His staff's light faded. He urged his mount forward, and the beast responded, almost trampling Adam and Duncan who had to dodge out of his way. The other two walked after their master, before anyone in the party could react. Not that there was something they could do, though. These men were surely sinister and probably dangerous, and the beast man was a known foe, but they had no reason to begin a conflict with them now. Although Adam felt impelled to do so.

                The strangers quickly got out of sight. This time, there was no sound, not even the hooves from horses that apparently did not exist. All was silent except for the sound of rain falling.

                "Who... who were they?" - Stratos asked.

                "I do not know, save for the simian man. I have seen him already years ago, at the palace of Eternos' entrance, attacking my sister. I fought him at the time, and with the aid of the royal guard, managed to make him flee without hurting Adora. I have never seen him again ever since. And now I meet him once again with two creatures even grimmer than him. I don't like this."

                "He was macabre, the skull-head man. What sort of creature could that be?" - Teela asked.

                "...A demon... or something alike. His aura was incredibly strong and dark. But strangest of all, there was something familiar in him. I don't know what, but there was something in him that made me feel that we've already met, although I have never seen his horrid face before." - Adam replied.

                "I felt the same. There is something deeply odd in him, something much more odd than his dead skull face. I believe this was just the first time we have seen that creature." - Duncan added.

                None of them could sleep gain that night, except for Krygar. The skull face wouldn't get out of their minds. Even the horses were awake and unquiet all night long. The party was nervous, sometimes muttering among themselves what they had seen, and constantly looking around for a skeleton's face peeking at them in the dark. Cold chills would frequently come up their spines, and the rain, although once again reduced to a drizzle, wouldn't stop, making the dark night even harder to pass.

 

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