by Philip-Todd Franklin
After I finished my meal, I was ushered to my own hut. Inside I stumbled around until I found a small cot, then quickly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
In the early morning hours, a young boy shook me violently awake. I’m normally a fairly light sleeper, but I must’ve been exhausted, because I was in such a deep sleep that I didn’t know where I was or who was shaking me. I just muttered, “Not now, Cliff, let me sleep.” Cliff, of course, is my son who lives back home in California, along with my wife Ellen and my daughter Maxine. After I spoke, he stopped shaking me and left the hut. Regaining my senses and remembering where I was, I climbed from the cot and got dressed.
I went back to the elder’s hut and, without waiting, walked inside. The elder was again sitting on his large chair, but he wasn’t alone. Two well-built young men, each dressed in a loincloth and carrying a wooden shield and spear, stood on either side of him.
The elder looked at me and said, “Since I saw you last, I’ve learned something that has hastened our timetable somewhat.” I could see a sense of urgency on his face as he spoke. “I wish I could give you the time needed to finish the text, but we no longer have the luxury of time. These young men…” He indicated first the man standing on his right and then on his left. “…are Ohzo and Zoha. They will try to answer any questions you may have. The trip should take no more than a few days of travel. May any deity that you follow be with you.” With those words, we were ushered outside of the hut, with no opportunity for questions or answers. After gathering up some needed supplies, we went on our way along an old trail.
The first day of our journey was quiet and uneventful, so I was able to ask Ohzo and Zoha a bunch of questions as we walked, since they seemed to know a lot about the unspeakable evil we were traveling to face. During that evening’s meal, as we sat around the campfire, I turned to Ohzo and asked him to tell me more.
“The evil has existed as long as man has walked the savannah,” he said, great sorrow in his voice. “It has been freed and captured many times, as the tribal legends go, but always at a high cost. Whole tribes have been lost in the outcome.”
Guessing there was more to his words than he was saying, I asked, “Ohzo, did you lose your tribe in the last confrontation?”
Fighting to hold back the tears that were unbecoming as a warrior, Ohzo just nodded his head and spoke no more.
Zoha picked that moment to step away from the fire, which I guessed was to show his friend respect rather than to acknowledge any great display of emotion. Ohzo then continued, his voice choked up terribly. “I was but a young boy when the evil was last freed, and that was many years ago. I am the last of my tribe, and when I die, so shall the tribe.” Dropping his head into his hands, he finally gave up the fight against his tears and silently sobbed.
I gave him a few moments of silence, waiting until he was able to pull himself together before I asked him, “Ohzo, what can you tell me about the last time this evil was freed?”
Zoha now returned to the campfire and, having heard my question, chose to answer so his friend wouldn’t have to. “The last time the great evil was freed…” he said, his voice strong and clear, and in nearly a perfect English accent, “…it was just an accident. The tribal shamans had always been the ones to capture this evil when it would get free, following the instructions left behind by the Stranger.”
I glanced at both Ohzo and Zoha and nodded, but tried to not interrupt his story.
“The tribes were neither ready, nor were they prepared, since the last time it had been free,” Zoha said, staring at the fire as it danced in the fire pit. “It killed many a brave warrior over three days of battle before the tribal shamans were able to converge on it and once again shackle it. And the price this time for its capture was more than anyone had ever expected. For, when it was done, all but one of the many shamans there were dead.”
I sat there, taking in all he’d said, even as I was aware of the sounds of wildlife all around us. After a few moments lost in my thoughts, I asked, “Where have they kept this evil trapped all these years?”
Ohzo and Zoha looked at each other, and after a few moments Ohzo turned to me and said, “The legends say it has been kept captive in a large gem that is supposed to be trapped within the Cave of the Stranger. Legends also have it that the Stranger was the first to confront and capture the evil before training the shamans how to keep it there.” That said, both men stood up and went to their own respected bedrolls, and I took that to mean the conversation was over.
Turning to me just before heading off to sleep, Ohzo added, “Go get sleep. We shall be at the Cave of the Stranger by midday tomorrow.”
I sat there for a few more moments by the fire before getting up myself and lying down in my own bedroll. That night I once again slept a deep, dreamless sleep.
In the morning, we awoke to the sounds of wildlife — they sounded terrified. “It’s the evil!” Ohzo said, fear causing his voice to shake just a little.
The alarm in his voice caused me to fully wake up, and for a moment I listened to the animals. It wasn’t that I could make out much — after all, I could never communicate with animals like Aquaman talks with fish — but I do have heightened empathy for animals, and I could tell that they were bothered by something.
Turning to my companions, I could see that they were both very shaken, and I realized that, despite their physical prowess, they probably weren’t going to be of much help once we reached our destination, but I decided to keep my thoughts about that to myself.
Quickly we gathered up our gear and, taking a moment to get our bearings, headed forth to the location of the Cave of the Stranger.
We walked for more than four hours when Zoha finally held up one hand to stop us in our tracks, and with the other pointed to the trees before us. “This is one of the many results of the great evil — the Two Arms Death,” he said, indicating the remains of a dead forest with a wave of his arm. All the trees were blackened as if having been in a raging fire just recently, yet they were still solid. The foliage was also gone from the trees; in fact, all life in the forest was just gone. What really got to me was how quiet it was. After all the noises from the panicked animals before, there was just deathly silence all around us now.
Then I saw it — the bleached white bones of what had been an elephant, and by the way it laid on the ground, I could tell that it was just recently dead, and had been running away from something when it died.
The shock of this sight was nearly more then I could handle. “Unreal,” I said, though I hadn’t meant to speak my thoughts aloud.
We continued searching the area for a few moments, and after seeing several other animal remains in the same state, we decided to press on, since we had to be close to the cave.
As we continued walking through this destroyed forest, I could tell we were all feeling the same way. Our morale, as low as it was already, had been shattered by the sight of death all around us.
After another hour’s walk since we first stepped into the dead zone, we located the mouth of a large cave. As I stood there with Ohzo and Zoha, I thought about how much I wished I had some of my old buddies from the Forgotten Heroes or the Conglomerate with me then. Cave Carson would have been really useful right about now. Heck, I would’ve even been glad to see Guy Gardner if he’d showed up then.
Moving as quietly as we could, we crept up to the mouth of the cave, listening for any out-of-place sounds. Above the cave mouth was a round carving that looked something like a medallion with an eight-pointed star, or an octagram. Although I remembered seeing a drawing of it in the book about the cave, I didn’t know if it had any symbolic meaning or anything like that. I just supposed it to be a hex sign or something, like the Seal of Solomon. Next to the cave mouth were two little pits, one at each side, and the remains some old torches.
I looked at my companions and motioned for them to join me to one side of the cave. When they arrived, I pointed at one of the holes in the ground and whispered, “What can you tell me about these?”
Ohzo looked at it, then said in a hushed tone, “The pit is supposed to hold a lit torch, and its twin across the mouth the same. Between the two a barrier would be erected, blocking access to the Cave of the Stranger.”
I nodded and took a better look at the pit, seeing what looked like a piece of a pole. Peering at it with the absorbed eyesight of an African hawk-eagle that had recently flown overhead, I could tell that it had been snapped in two, and from the prints on it, I also knew what had done it.
“I guess the barrier has been breached, and that means our problem is inside. You two can either wait here or join me,” I said, pointing into the dark cave.
Ohzo and Zoha each looked at the cave entrance and then back at me, before shaking their heads firmly and standing their ground.
It was just as I’d thought. I’d be heading in to face the unknown dangers alone. I gave them an understanding nod of my head and, taking a long look around, turned and slowly headed into the darkness of the cave. Just as I reached the point where the light from outside could no longer be seen, I reached out and was able to absorb the radar of a bat, using it to see my way through the cave. It seemed that there were still some living things here, even in the dead zone.
Though probably only twenty minutes or so passed, I walked for what honestly felt like an hour through the darkness of the cave before I noticed some light before me. That was also when I heard the sound of two angry apes heading my way.
Without a moment’s thought, I absorbed the strength of the apes and turned to look at them. Both of them were bigger than any simian I’d ever seen before. They both roared, beating their hairy chests aggressively, before moving quickly towards me.
Seeing them both charge at me, I moved back towards the cave wall, and in a panicked moment I thought of how useful it would be to blend in with my surroundings right then. I felt something happen, then watched in amazement as both of the apes stopped just a foot from me, looking utterly bewildered as they looked around at the cave wall but were no longer able to see me. At the time I didn’t realize it, but I must’ve unconsciously absorbed and used the camouflage ability of a nearby lizard or something to blend in seamlessly with the rock wall.
I didn’t waste any time getting away from the apes when I had a chance, instead silently skimming along the wall until I was past them both, and only then did I take a second to look back at them. Both of the apes were looking around everywhere in circles and sniffing the air. It was as if they’d totally lost me. So, using the same camouflaging ability I’d found, I silently left them to their search and headed deeper into the cave.
Keeping the strength I’d absorbed from the apes, I continued walking through the cave at a faster pace until I could hear someone chanting. Once I rounded the bend in the corridor, I got a glimpse of the back of a man’s head. He was wearing a long red cloak, and his hair was coal black except at his temples, which were gray.
Without thinking about it, I called out loudly towards him, “You’ve got to stop what you’re doing! It’s destroying everything!”
The man in red quickly spun around to face me and said, “I will stop nothing, you meddling nuisance! I know exactly what I’m doing.” And with those words, he lifted his arms and began to quietly chant, swaying as he did.
I charged forward, having forgotten his two playmates that I’d left behind. But I only reached about halfway there before a large, hairy hand shot out and grabbed hold of me. It was such a surprise that I actually yelped, “What the–?!” before I noticed it was the hand of an ape.
The large ape swung me around and tried to grab me with its other hand, until I pressed against it with my own, matching it strength for strength.
The man in red continued to chant his rhythm, slowly rising in midair as he went. I couldn’t understand any of his words, but I knew some serious mojo was happening here.
The second ape chose that moment to get a piece of me as well, so it lunged forward. At the last second I ducked, keeping pressure on the first ape until the last moment, when the second one crashed into the first, taking both of them to the ground. As the two apes started angrily tussling with each other on the ground, I took the opportunity to leap up and lunge at the man.
As I knocked him to the ground, I also broke his concentration. But as I tried to grab hold of him with the strength of an ape, he pointed his finger at me and said, “Buddy Baker, you’ve always been a pain in my neck, ever since we were kids! I should’ve gotten rid of you then, if I’d known what a nuisance you’d become!” And with that, he sent me flying back into the wall.
Hearing my name spoken by this madman in these strange surroundings, while I was in costume, no less, was quite a shock. If I hadn’t crashed against the cave wall a moment later, my jaw would’ve dropped from the bombshell. I knew that voice.
The violence of hitting the stone wall caused me to start blacking out, but I still managed to see a large gem embedded into the rock wall he’d been standing before, and it was glowing brightly.
“You’ve only postponed the inevitable, Buddy. I will have the power,” he said, once again waving his hands before me.
Just before the blackness finally claimed me, I managed to croak out, “But… but… didn’t I see you die?“