Chapter 1: Curse of the Download
Hannibal and his team followed Joshua and Doug down the mountain road from the cliff overlook where they received their first view of Arionath at its Gateway. An enormous four-legged shadow with ice-blue eyes lay crouched in the underbrush on the mountainside high above them, watching intently with a group of smaller wolf-like figures. The larger shadow rumbled softly, watching Joshua and Doug leading Hannibal and his team down into the valley. Just a few minutes previously, Joshua and Doug had led them out of the tunnel Gateway of Arionath onto the overlook. They stopped to give Hannibal and his team their first look at Arionath: a lush valley nestled in the mountains, rimmed on all sides by precipitous mountains. A lake sat at the base of the cliff almost four hundred feet below them fed by a small river. Forests and cultivated fields dotted the valley floor along with small houses with the road weaving around through the valley. Off in the distance at the far end of the valley where the road ended stood the ruins of a great city. A colossal fortress of greyish-white stone that seemed to be carved out of a mountain rose from the center of the city. It appeared to be intact, whereas nearly half the city around it was a toppled ruin. The giant fortress gleamed like a jewel in the light, rising like a fairy tale castle with great flying buttresses and lofty towers.
In addition to their first sight of Arionath, Hannibal and his team were greeted by the guardian of the valley; a creature none of them expected to see: huge reddish-gray draken fifty feet long with a seventy-five foot wingspan going by the name of Argus. The draken landed and welcomed Hannibal and his team, showing them through intelligent speech, telepathic contact, and by not being physically aggressive that he was friendly. What astounded Hannibal’s team even more than Argus being a draken was the fact he was incredibly intelligent and could carry on a conversation with humans in their own language. Joshua told Argus of their difficulties concerning the Emperor’s soldiers outside the caverns at Cariias and briefed the draken on the trap sprung by the Zarukar captain Zebek just a few hours earlier outside the Gateway of Arionath. The reports concerned Argus greatly, seeing the wounded status of many of those with Joshua, including Joshua and Hannibal. He saw the litters bearing the wounded forms David, Zachias, and Timothy and a worried look shined in Argus’ yellow eyes. It prompted him to fly back to the city with the news and to announce the arrival of Hannibal and his team.
As Hannibal and his team followed Joshua, Doug, and their teams down the grass-covered road to the valley floor, more of the valley became visible to them in the dimming daylight.
The lake’s size also became apparent: a small one about a half mile in extent. It backed up to a precipitous wall of the mountain they had just come through and emptied through a hole in the sheer wall of granite forty feet wide: an artificial spillway carved through the mountain. The fields became more apparent as they descended the side of the mountain too. Ten minutes after leaving the ledge, they reached the valley floor and the road widened to almost sixteen feet. Once on the valley floor, the group spread out across the entire road as they walked. Doug walked in the lead with Selina helping Hannibal to his left and Nathanael helping Joshua to his right. Harry walked to the left of Hannibal as Selina supported Hannibal. The rest of Hannibal’s team limped along a few steps behind with Doug and Joshua’s men helping to carry David, Zachias, and Timothy on the litters along with the supplies. Weariness and fatigue showed on every face, particularly Hannibal’s face. The vicious battle with the Zarukar a few hours previously had drained them physically and mentally.
The group moved away from the lake along the road, passing through forests and cultivated fields where small grain such as wheat and barley grew. The barley was nearing maturity and stood nearly chest high. They passed through orchards of all manner of fruit trees: apples, peaches, oranges, grapefruits, and several strange types of fruit, which Hannibal and his team didn’t recognize. Occasionally, they would see workers toiling in the fields, finishing the day’s work as they walked. The workers waved to the party and everyone would wave back as they passed by.
Forty minutes after entering the valley proper as twilight fell, Hannibal’s head began to buzz, and he became light-headed. It affected Selina at the same time in a similar manner. He pushed on as the buzzing became painful, futilely tried to hide it as his head began to pound and his eyes started to glaze. Nathanael noticed it first. They had been talking with those around them as they moved along. When both Hannibal and Selina suddenly became quiet, Nathanael started watching them closely, seeing the symptoms of the impending download slowly manifest in them.
The teams pushed on a little farther as Nathanael observed Hannibal and Selina with growing concern when he saw the obvious signs of a download attack. Oh, no! he thought, Not now!
Within minutes, Joshua began to notice something was amiss and asked Hannibal and Selina “Are you two all right? You look terrible.”
Hannibal answered weakly through the building pain, “I don’t know. I’m feeling…very… strange. My head’s…splitting.” At that, he stumbled and collapsed as the pain grew exponentially, making him shriek before passing out. Harry dropped everything, catching Hannibal as he fell like a tree. Selina passed out a few seconds afterwards. Doug saw her crumble out of the corner of his eye and pounced on her, catching and gently laying her down on the ground next to Hannibal.
“Shit!” Harry cursed. “They’ve had another download, haven’t they Nathanael.” Everyone gathered around them as Nathanael handed Joshua off to Vergil, going quickly to Selina. Kneeling down beside Selina while Harry cradled Hannibal, Nathanael gently picked her up and probed her mind telepathically for an instant. Searing pain filled his head as he encountered the oh-so-familiar maelstrom of knowledge swirling around in their heads. He crumbled from the hit and roughly dropped her, falling on top of her. The moment he broke contact, the pain lifted, leaving him with a terrible headache.
“This isn’t good,” Joshua stated with much concern. “What’s going on?”
Nathanael sat up and shook his head, gathering his wits. Then looking at Harry as he rubbed the side of his face, Nathanael declared, “That’s what it is. The download has them again. I began to realize there was a problem about ten minutes ago. The stress and fatigue of the battle must have triggered it, especially for Hannibal. His rage may be responsible for it this time.”
“Download?” Doug asked in a puzzled manner, voicing the question of all his people, including Joshua. “What’s a download?”
“It’s a long story that we’ll tell you about later,” Harry said. “For the time being, just know that he had an encounter with an ancient teaching machine at the place we came from. It zapped Hannibal and now he and Selina have these attacks. It’ll pass in a day or so.”
“I don’t understand,” Aragon said. “If he had the encounter, why is she acting like she had it?”
“Because they’re fused telepathically,” Nathanael stated. “The first time Hannibal had a download after being in the machine, Selina tried telepathically to bring him out of it. She became caught in it with him and as a result, their telepathic linkage was fused so it couldn’t be broken. She feels and experiences everything he does, including physical pain.”
“Wow!” Doug exclaimed. “That’s deep. Is there anything we can do?”
“No,” Nathanael stated. “They have to come out of it on their own. There’s nothing we can do for them except make them comfortable and pray.”
“Wait a minute,” one of Doug’s men interjected, “You mean she can read minds?”
“In a way,” Nathanael said, cradling his daughter in his arms. “Selina and I are telepathic. That’s how I know what’s happening here. I touched her mind with my own and found out. That’s why I dropped her. The sheer violence of what’s going on inside their heads is beyond comprehension. Even though I have a latent telepathic ability, it’s nowhere near the power or skill Selina has. She has been telepathic since she was born.”
“How can you do that?” the man demanded.
“Because I’m her biological father, I have a telepathic link with her,” Nathanael stated. “It’s true for every Lynxian who has offspring. The Lynxian parents have a telepathic connection to their children.”
“Curious,” Joshua murmured.
“Well, what’s to keep her or you from reading or controlling our minds?” the man asked pointedly.
Nathanael saw the point. “We cannot control minds, nor would we want to,” he declared. “Using telepathic ability in that manner is a gross misuse and abuse of that power. Besides, it takes a twisted, malevolent mind with great telepathic potential to do that. Neither she nor I have that kind of temperament, nor skill as a telepath. As for the reading of minds, neither she nor I can read your minds further than what you allow. Generally, what we do is sense your emotions and read body language. Like right now for instance. You’re greatly concerned that we might try and pick your brain for information. It scares you.”
The man’s mouth fell open with surprise. “Rightly so!” he replied bluntly; his fear reflected in his tone. “How did you know?”
Nathanael smiled warmly. “I didn’t have to read your mind,” he stated. “It’s written all over your face. But to make a point: reading of minds where information is shared is only done by consent. It is a great power that we take very seriously. The reason we have what’s going on here now is because Selina and Hannibal are linked with an unbreakable telepathic fusion.”
Nathanael’s words seemed to placate the man. “I’m sure you would never use that ability to do us any harm,” Joshua stated. “We do have some knowledge of telepathic abilities because some of our people are blessed with it too.”
Just then, they heard the noise of flapping wings above them. All eyes looked up and saw Argus. He circled, landing thirty feet away. “I was right to come back,” he said, lumbering forward. The crowd divided to let him in. “They’ve been smitten by the machine again,” he stated.
“How did you know?” Harry asked.
Argus looked down at them, saying, “I sensed it when they touched me earlier. I knew then that they’re mated and their telepathic linkage is fused by the power of the teaching machine at the Temple.”
“What?” Doug asked with astonishment. “You mean they are married?”
“Yes, they were married almost sixty days ago,” Argus replied. “When they touched me, I saw the beast building for another attack then. That’s why I came back. Trevor will be here shortly with horses for you. But these two must be tended to now.”
“What can we do?” Joshua asked the ancient draken.
“There’s nothing you can do. I will take them to Kaal Bek. Harry…you and Nathanael will come with me,” Argus ordered.
“Wait a minute,” Harry replied. “Only one of us needs go. I’ll stay with the group. Nathanael can go. He’s much better at dealing with this than I am, and he’s telepathic, whereas I’m not.”
“Very well,” Argus said. “You have a good heart, Harry Clint. Your concern is for the group more than your friends.”
“They are my friends, all of them,” Harry returned. “Besides, Hannibal would want it this way. I’ll stay with the team. We’ll meet you at the castle.”
“Very well…Nathanael, take Selina and climb on my back. You can ride while I carry Hannibal,” Argus ordered. Nathanael nodded and stood up, picking up Selina in the process. Argus settled down on the ground and Nathanael climbed on his back, sitting down just forward of Argus’ wings cradling Selina. Once Nathanael was in position, Argus rose and reared up slightly, balancing on his hind legs so he could pick up Hannibal. Harry handed Hannibal over to the ancient draken whose front feet resemble strange pair of hands so large that he was easily able to wrap them completely around Hannibal. Argus gently cradled Hannibal in his huge hands as a man would a chick. He looked over his shoulder and said to Nathanael, “Hang on. The take-off is going to be a little rough since I don’t have a precipice to launch off of.”
Nathanael held onto his daughter tightly with one arm and extended the claws of his other hand so he could grip Argus’ scaly back. Once firmly attached, Nathanael said, “Go!” Argus spread his wings and reared up fully on his hind legs. With a great leap, he jumped straight up into the air nearly forty feet. Argus flapped his wings and immediately began to gain altitude.
Harry looked up at Argus with his precious cargo and wondered at the strange fate that led him to see his best friends being carried away by a draken. Joshua put his hand on Harry’s shoulder and said, “They’re in good hands. Argus knows what to do. Come, let’s go.”
Harry nodded and everyone moved out, running into the reception committee led by Trevor within twenty minutes.
Argus steadily flapped his wings, gaining greater and greater altitude. The ride for Nathanael was a bit rough at first, but once they reached an altitude of a hundred feet, it smoothed out considerably as they rose into the twilight sky of the caverns. Hannibal lay unconscious in Argus’ great claws while Nathanael relaxed his grip on Argus’ back to hold on to Selina with both hands. “How’re you doing back there?” Argus asked as they reached a thousand feet above the valley.
“We’re all right!” Nathanael answered.
“Good,” Argus answered as he set into a glide. The city and fortress of Kaal Bek loomed ahead of them, roughly two miles distant; the city starting to light like a Christmas tree as darkness fell. Nathanael looked around at the view, knowing it was a view that most people would never get to see. Even in the diminishing light, Nathanael’s keen eyesight could still see everything. The mountains encircled the valley, crowned with eternal snows. Far to the east, he could see the upper portion of the Wall rising in the distance behind the closer mountain ranges. Two rivers spilled over cliffs that bordered the valley to the east with two small valleys stretching away into the distance following those rivers. Those rivers merged with the main river a couple miles from the lake. To the northwest and west, the mountains continued into the distance. On the north side, the mountains reached unto the very wall of the cavern itself. To Nathanael, the scene reminded him of his rural retreat in the mountains of Amm Sher on Kaitia. A sigh escaped his lips as a pang of homesickness hit him.
“Homesick are you?” Argus called out.
Nathanael remained silent for a few moments, and then replied, “I guess so. This place reminds me of my rural retreat on Kaitia.”
“I’m sure it was magnificent,” Argus stated. “See the fortress ahead; that is our destination: the great fortress of Kaal Bek. You can care for your family there.”
“Thank you,” Nathanael replied.
Argus glided in, slowly decreased his altitude as he headed for the fortress, particularly a large tower five hundred feet tall on the southwestern corner. “We’ll be there momentarily,” he announced as he glided toward the tower.
Nathanael latched on to Argus’ back again as they soared over the city, casting a shadow over the ruins. Nathanael looked down and saw people scurrying through the streets, some of them looking up and calling Argus’ name in friendly greetings.
“Hold on,” Argus ordered as he circled around the tower before coming in for a landing. A dozen armed men stood waiting on the tower as he touched down with his hind legs. His wings billowed and he stepped forward a few steps before settling down and folding them down by his side. The men instantly came forward and received Hannibal out of his hand. “Be careful with him. He’s not well,” Argus ordered. He then settled on his belly and Nathanael slid off his back with Selina in his arms. The moment Nathanael landed on the tower, the hands of the men went to their weapons as they gasped in astonishment at the two giant bipedal cats in their midst. Nathanael stood still for a moment, unsure whether their arrival was going to be a friendly one.
“Hold your peace,” Argus ordered. “They’re part of the Eleven and family of the One.” Their reaction softened as their hands backed off their weapons. “Take them inside,” Argus ordered. “Give them the King’s Chambers and then go get Nicodemus.” The man apparently in charge moved forward and bowed to the draken, and then held his arm out in the direction he wanted Nathanael to go, speaking in the Stone Language with a sober, yet non-hostile tone. Nathanael didn’t understand it, but knew by the body language that the man wanted him to follow. “Go with them,” Argus said to Nathanael. “They will take you to a room where you can watch over them.”
“Thank you,” Nathanael said gratefully.
“You’re welcome,” Argus replied. “Now go and make them comfortable.”
At that, Nathanael went with the men into the tower. He followed them deep into the fortress to a lavishly prepared room in the corner of the keep with windows and a balcony that looked out over the main courtyard of the fortress. The men who carried Hannibal gently removed his weapons, sitting them aside, and then laid him on a huge bed seven feet wide by twelve feet long. They offered to help Nathanael with Selina, but he said, “No thank you. I can manage.” With a bow, the men left the room, leaving Nathanael, Selina, and Hannibal alone.
Nathanael removed Selina’s weapons and pack, and then gently laid her next to Hannibal. A sigh rose from him as he looked at them. “When will this madness end?” he asked no one as he removed his sword and laid it next to the bed with Hannibal and Selina’s weapons. “There has to be some reason this thing keeps rearing its ugly head.” He shook his head as he looked around the room. The room was very large, nearly fifty feet across, and magnificently furnished...a room fitting of royalty. “This had to be a king’s bedchamber at one time,” he muttered, looking around.
On one side of the room stood transparent double doors with elaborate tapestries hanging around them, tied back like curtains. Elegant tapestries embroidered with a strange pictorial story hung around the walls of the room, drawing Nathanael’s attention. It depicted a compelling story of a cataclysmic event that included elements of a tremendous conflict. Beast-men armed with strange machines and weapons along with what appeared to be hordes of hideous alien monsters attacked human villages and cities, fighting with men and human-like giants, who defended those same towns and cities. Civilians fled the cities and towns with a myriad of drakens flying overhead covering their flight. The drakens fought in mortal combat with other strange flying creatures and flying machines piloted by beast-men and alien beings that spewed fire and lightning. On the left side of the tapestry, it showed the great city of Amacia with the Emperor standing on a huge floating fortress hovering over it. His hand and finger pointed forward as if he was sending his forces out.
On the right side of the tapestry, a strange man bearing a striking resemblance to Hannibal in bizarre platinum-colored armor wielding a mysterious sword nearly as big as he was stood in the front line, holding back the unholy hordes of the Emperor, giving the people being attacked a chance to flee. He stood on top of a huge boulder pointing back at the Emperor with the sword as if calling for a counter-attack. Moreover, this Hannibal-like figure wasn’t alone. He appeared to be backed by seven mighty warriors with strange weapons. Only one appeared to be human, even though he was gigantic, more than twice the leader’s height. The second warrior was a huge armored werewolf while the third looked to be a giant Lynxian. The fourth warrior backing the resistance leader was a reptilian creature that seemed to be an unknown type of veloci-raptor with very draken-like features. The tapestry depicted the fifth warrior as a huge cyborg werebear while the sixth warrior was a distinct hybrid of human and avian, with wings of a bird sprouting from the back of the warrior. The tapestry portrayed the seventh warrior as a giant bipedal feline with heavy white armor brandishing a massive blade. The cat looked to be a cross between tiger, lion, and human with strange hazel eyes tinted with green. This warrior cat was a giant among giants, standing head and shoulders over its colleagues as it held the line next to the resistance leader that looked like Hannibal. The tapestry showed the cat in the act of striking down a hideous tentacle demon nearly as large as it was while the others were shown in mortal combat with other alien monsters and beast-men. Backing these warriors was an army of their own that held the line against what appeared to be an endless horde of creatures and monsters. Behind the front line above the fleeing civilians, the tapestry showed a colossal golden draken with many other drakens guarding the retreat of the people.
High in the sky above the drakens and the battle blazed two suns: one yellow, and the second as a larger and blood red body surrounded by a great haze of debris around it that rained giant rocks, fire, and lightning down upon the world. The tapestry images showed the mountains and lands rending and splitting, the seas roaring, heaping up into mountain-size waves, seemingly ready to inundate the whole world.
Nathanael looked at the story woven into the fabric with wonder. His mind raced as he seemed to hear the screams of battle and smell the stench of blood. For a moment, he wondered whether these phantom sensations were coming from the tapestry or from his own memories of earlier battles he participated in. However, he couldn’t say for sure. His memory abruptly went to the secret cave Hannibal located in Khitia and the cave paintings there. Nathanael had paid close attention to the cave art in that secret grotto because of the bizarre and epic nature of it. A gasp escaped his lips as he suddenly realized the event on the tapestry before him and the cave paintings in the secret cave were of the same event. Finally, it clicked and Nathanael realized what he was seeing in both the cave art and the tapestry: a graphic representation of the fall of Amacia. “My Lord and my God!” Nathanael breathed as he stood there, transfixed by the amazing account hanging about him. “You sure do know how to make things known, Lord. Here’s the second witness to the fall of Amacia.” A smile crossed his lips as he turned his attention back to the clear doors.
Outside of the doors lay a great balcony. On the opposite wall stood twin doors of what appeared to be mahogany…the doors he had entered the room through initially. A giant chandelier made entirely of transparent crystal hung in the center of the room. Several ornate wooden chairs lay scattered around the room. Wardrobes and dressers lined the third wall and a small open door stood on the fourth wall. Upon seeing the open door, Nathanael’s curiosity peaked and he decided to investigate.
Upon passing through the door, he found himself in the most ornate bathroom he had ever seen. The room was oval with a cathedral ceiling, lined with many strange and beautiful types of tile of many different colors. A smaller chandelier similar to the one in the bedroom hung from the ceiling. It lit up immediately when he entered the room. An oval bathtub nearly eight feet long carved out of a deep lavender crystal rose out of the floor: obviously the centerpiece of the room. Two strange faucets for filling it sat on one end. He went to the tub and looked in, finding it nearly three-and-a-half feet deep, four feet wide with a drain beneath the faucets. “This tub is big enough for two people,” Nathanael said softly as he turned to the rest of the room. A large sink sat built into an ornate counter on one wall. A large ornate mirror hung on the wall above the sink. Beneath the sink sat what appeared to be some kind of trashcan. Next to the sink stood shelves stocked with towels, washcloths, strange-looking soaps, and toiletries. In the corner, he found an odd-looking toilet sitting inside a stall with a door. “Hmmm,” Nathanael murmured as he turned to the sink and looked into the mirror. His reflection showed an absolute mess: his face, mane, and clothes bloody, matted, and torn from the battles. Suddenly, he realized that he still had his pack on, so he removed it and looked at it. The pack was a wreck also: sliced and ripped with most of its contents ruined. The only the special portable first aid kit from the Temple appeared to have escaped damage.
He sighed, sitting the pack down before retrieving a washcloth from the shelves. Returning to the sink, he quickly figured out how to turn the water on and found both hot and cold running water…a discovery that intrigued him. He then proceeded to wash the blood off his face and hands. The warm water pleased him as he scrubbed and groomed himself until his face and hands were clean. Once cleaned up, he returned to the bedroom. He looked at Hannibal and Selina catatonic on the bed and sighed. Both of them were just as bloody as he was from the fight. His attention then turned to the balcony, which he immediately went to investigate. Pushing the doors open, he walked out on the balcony, which stretched eighty feet to the rail. Going to the rail, he looked out in the twilight darkness, seeing a huge thirty-acre courtyard one hundred and seventy feet below him and the colossal walls of the fortress beyond that. A giant gate one hundred feet in height stood in the wall of the fortress on the far side of the courtyard. In the middle of the stone-paved courtyard was a massive fountain spewing water. He looked up and around behind him, seeing the keep rising another three hundred and fifty feet. The soaring towers rose from the corners of the fortress and the city beyond the fortress lay in different stages of ruin. Nathanael leaned on the rail as he looked out. He could hear people, but couldn’t see them. “I wonder what kind of place this is?” he murmured while going back in the bedroom to Hannibal and Selina.
Nathanael gazed at them on the bed for a moment before returning to the bathroom, getting a damp washcloth. Within seconds, he sat on the bed gently cleaning Selina’s face and wounds with the washcloth. Once he finished with her, he turned his attention to Hannibal with a fresh washcloth. He gently cleaned Hannibal’s face and the terrible gash on the side of his head. He smiled slightly and shook his head sympathetically as he washed Hannibal’s wounded head. He suddenly realized that Hannibal’s hat was gone, obviously lost in the battle with the Zarukar.
“Too bad,” Nathanael murmured. “I liked that hat.” Just then, a noise came from the door and he turned toward it, ready for anything.
The door swung open, and an ancient-looking man dressed in trousers and a white tunic entered the room followed by several of the men who carried Hannibal in. Nathanael turned and immediately noticed one of the men had what appeared to be an open satchel with first-aid supplies in it. The elderly man had snow-white hair cut off just above the shoulders and a long snow-white beard. A sense of great authority and gentleness emanated from him. He saw Nathanael sitting on the bed beside Hannibal, tending to his wounds. The elderly man stopped a few steps away with the man carrying the first aid supplies while the other men stood near the door. He looked at Nathanael, and then Selina and Hannibal. “How are they?” the elderly man inquired while walking to the bed.
“Their wounds aren’t bad. They’ll live,” Nathanael replied as he continued to mop the dried blood off Hannibal’s face. “But their wounds still need to be taken care of before an infection sets in. As for the download, it’ll take time for it to pass. The attacks have never been lethal. I suspect that they’ll come out of it in a few hours.”
“Good,” the elderly man said as he sat on the bed with Nathanael, looking at Hannibal and Selina. “I was very concerned when I found out what happened, Nathanael. That’s why I had the doctor come with his kit to help treat their wounds, and yours. May we assist you?”
“Well, I guess so,” Nathanael replied. “Our doctor is still out there with the rest of our team and Hannibal needs these wounds tended to now. Come on. Let’s see what you can do.”
The elderly man motioned to the man with the first-aid supplies. “Doctor Drew, please come and assist Nathanael,” he ordered. Then to the others, he said, “The rest of you, wait outside.”
“Of course, Nicodemus,” the man with the first-aid supplies replied as the other men stepped out of the room, closing the door behind them. He walked around to the opposite side of the bed, crawling on it with the satchel while Nathanael moved out of the way. The doctor settled on his knees beside Hannibal, sitting the satchel down. He offered his hand to Nathanael, saying, “I’m Drew…the chief doctor here in Kaal Bek. Your name is Nathanael?”
“Yes, I’m Nathanael,” Nathanael replied, shaking Drew’s hand. “And lying here is my best friend and son-in-law Hannibal with his wife Selina.”
Drew’s eyes grew wide with surprise. “Oh, my,” he breathed, “the prophecies, Nicodemus.”
“Indeed,” the elderly man replied. “Go ahead and treat our guests, Doctor.”
“Of course,” Drew replied, beginning to look Hannibal over medically.
Nathanael turned to the old man with a quizzical look. “Am I correct in thinking that you’re the Nicodemus Joshua told us we were going to meet?” he asked.
“I am, my friend,” the elderly man, Nicodemus replied, offering his hand to Nathanael. “I am Nicodemus and we have been expecting you for some time, Nathanael.”
Nathanael shook Nicodemus’ hand with a raised eyebrow. “How did you know who I was?” he demanded in a gentle, yet surprised tone.
“Simple,” Nicodemus stated. “Argus informed me of everything, including who you and your companions are. I must say, you quite an imposing fellow. There haven’t been cats of your stature in these lands since the Kragonar that ended the 1st Age.”
“You mean there have Lynxians on this planet before us?” Nathanael asked, his tone betraying his amazement. “That’s the second time today I’ve heard something like that.”
Nicodemus smiled at Nathanael. “Many eons ago they were here,” Nicodemus declared. “The only way we know that they were here is because of the writings we found from that time. Many people consider them gods since all we have are a few statues bearing a resemblance to your kind. I hope my people didn’t startle you on the tower. They’ve never seen your kind before. As a matter of fact, no one has.”
“Only for a moment,” Nathanael answered as he finished cleaning Hannibal face off. “My daughter and I have to be careful because of who and what we are. Many people don’t understand who or what we are or what we’re doing here. Hannibal and his people are the only ones who have accepted and loved us just as we are.”
“Never fear, my friend. You and your daughter are welcome here as well as those who travel with you,” Nicodemus chimed. “I can still hardly believe that he has finally come to us just like the prophecy said. This is a cause for much happiness. But for now, let’s see to your family here. What’s the prognosis, Doctor?”
“This man is cut up and burned badly,” Drew reported. “But these temporary bandages seemed to have helped keep him from bleeding to death. We need to take these clothes off so we can get to the wounds and properly clean them.”
“I agree,” Nathanael replied. “Hannibal took a terrible beating in the battle with those beast-men you call Zarukars. It looks like even the armor we had didn’t protect him completely.”
“Then by all means proceed,” Nicodemus insisted.
Drew and Nathanael began stripping off Hannibal’s armor and clothes. When they removed Hannibal’s shirt revealing the armored shirt, Nicodemus’ eyebrows rose with surprise. “Where did he get that kind of armor?” Nicodemus asked.
“We all have that kind of armor,” Nathanael stated, helping Drew remove the armored shirt. “We found the armor and our weapons in the Armory of Bolthor Sai Keleb atop Skull Pass beyond the ruins where we entered the caverns. These weapons are a marvel of engineering because of their weight, strength, and the fact they have such a keen edge on them that never seems to dull. The metal they’re made of is unknown to us on the surface.”
“Is that so?” Nicodemus replied, greatly intrigued by Nathanael’s declaration. “This is of great importance. That means you found the weapons of the legendary first Emperor who deposed Thoth Caverias in the 1st Age. This is very important indeed. But first, see to your son-in-law’s wounds. We can speak of such things later.”
“Right,” Nathanael stated, tossing aside the armored shirt and seeing the griffin amulet hanging around his neck.
“Where did he find that amulet?” Nicodemus asked while Nathanael removed the amulet from Hannibal. “May I see it?”
“Sure,” Nathanael replied, handing Nicodemus the amulet. “He found that strange item in a secret cave where we came in.” Nathanael then recounted the incident at the secret cave while he and Drew finished stripping Hannibal to his shorts.
“Oh, my,” Nicodemus breathed. “He was correct in his saying that this is the Seal of Khitia. I’ve seen pictures of it in the ancient books, but never did I think I would actually hold it in my hand. It’s a tremendous sign that the Emperor’s days are numbered.”
“I don’t know of such things,” Nathanael admitted as he peeled Hannibal’s shirt off and Drew gently laid Hannibal down. “I’m just a visitor who knows nothing of your history or prophecies.”
When they saw the extent of Hannibal’s scars along with significant bruising on his chest, Drew breathed, “My god, Nicodemus…look at this man’s chest, arms, and legs! He’s been mangled and chewed on by some monster. How did this happen, Nathanael?”
A sigh escaped Nathanael’s lips. “Those scars are his reminders of where he came from. He’s been a warrior all his life, some of that time for the dark masters of the universe on the surface. What you see here as claw and bite marks were the penalty for betraying those demon hordes and turning to the Light and the Lord.”
“You suggest demons did that to him?” Drew asked.
“I don’t suggest,” Nathanael stated bluntly. “I’m telling you demons did that to him. He admitted it to me when he told me of his conversion from the Dark Powers to that of the Light.”
“He’s had an extremely hard life,” Nicodemus murmured. “And what we see here shows it. I’m sure he will explain it to us in his own good time. In the meantime, treat his present wounds before they get any worse.”
“Of course, Nicodemus,” Drew stated.
After a brief cursory examination of Hannibal’s wounds, Nathanael said, “It’s bad enough, but nearly as bad as it could have been. I see these wounds are starting to fester a bit, but it seems the armored shirt kept his core pretty much intact. The bruising around his ribs tells me he may have broken some ribs during the fight, or at the very least bruised them. Do you agree with my diagnosis, doctor?”
“You have a great deal of medical knowledge, Nathanael,” Drew replied. “I’m impressed. Yes, your diagnosis seems to be spot on. I suggest we start with the deep lacerations, and then go on to the minor cuts and these strange burns on him. How did that happen?”
As Drew pulled his tools and bandages out of his satchel, Nathanael replied, “I’m not sure if I entirely understand what happened myself, but Hannibal came under attack by a bunch of those beast people all at once at the end of the battle with them. As I lost sight of him, I heard his war cry and then there was this bright flash followed by a fiery explosion that killed everything within thirty feet of him and flattened everyone else with a potent concussion wave from the blast. It’s like a bomb went off. When the smoke cleared, the only one left standing was Hannibal. He was smoking and burned, but intact; however, the berserker rage he gets when he goes into mortal combat had completely taken him. He couldn’t distinguish friend from foe so I told everyone who survived the attack to throw their weapons down and not move. Selina managed to calm him down because she’s telepathically fused to Hannibal because of what the Teacher did to him at Tiamat. Joshua claims it was a potent elemental attack, whatever that is. All I know is when Hannibal came to his senses he didn’t remember anything after being swarmed until he heard Selina calling to him. I’m baffled at how he can do such things. He claims he used to do such things when he was a wizard for the Dark Powers many years ago. It truly worries him that he’s doing these things because he went through hell when he pulled away from the Dark Powers and turned to the Lord.”
“This is very important,” Nicodemus admitted. “The prophecies say the One would have such power but not know initially how to harness it. I will speak with Argus about this later and with Beowulf when he wakes.”
“He prefers to be called Hannibal,” Nathanael stated as he helped Drew clean Hannibal’s wounds.
“Then he shall be called Hannibal,” Nicodemus replied. “We shall endeavor to help him find his place here. He, you, your daughter, and your friends are welcome in Arionath, Nathanael.”
“I appreciate that,” Nathanael answered gratefully.
“No problem,” Nicodemus said with a smile. “I see his wounds are not bleeding out seriously. May I suggest a temporary binding on them until he comes out of his strange coma, at which time he should make use of the bath.”
“That’s an excellent suggestion, Nicodemus,” Drew chimed as he started binding Hannibal’s wounds. “The bath would definitely help him in his condition.”
“What do you mean?” Nathanael asked with puzzlement.
“The bath has healing properties,” Nicodemus replied. “We never really understood how it works, just that it does. It may have something to do with the mineral content of the water or with the crystal the tub is made out of. Regardless, it has healing, rejuvenating properties to it that would benefit his condition.”
“Oh,” Nathanael murmured as he wrapped and bound a large gash on Hannibal’s leg. “It must be something similar to the healing chambers at Tiamat.”
“I don’t know about such things,” Nicodemus admitted. “But I do know what we have here works for healing wounds quickly. It’s a blessing from the Ancient of Days.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Nathanael murmured as he and Drew finished binding Hannibal’s wounds. “There…that should do it. Don’t you agree, doctor?”
“Yes,” Drew replied. “It’ll do just fine. Now let’s wrap his ribs. Lift him up enough for me to get the wrap around him.” He pulled a long elastic bandage out of his satchel.
“Right,” Nathanael answered, gently lifting Hannibal’s shoulders and chest up just enough for Drew to wrap Hannibal’s bruised chest.
After wrapping Hannibal’s ribs with the elastic bandage, he fastened it and said, “There we go. That should hold those ribs for now. You can let him down.”
Nathanael gently laid Hannibal back down and sighed, saying, “Thank you for the help, Drew.”
“Not a problem,” Drew answered. “That’s why I’m here.” He reached into his satchel and pulled out a jar of ointment, opening it. “This ointment should help with the burns,” Drew reported as he dipped some of the white cream out of the jar, smearing it on Hannibal’s burned neck. “Take some and gently rub it on his face, Nathanael.”
Nathanael dipped some out and sniffed it…smelling aloe and some other herbs in it before applying it to Hannibal’s burned face where the bandages weren’t in the way. “This has aloe in it, doesn’t it?” Nathanael asked.
“Why yes,” Drew replied while he applied the cream to Hannibal’s red hands. “It does, and several other healing herbs that grow here in Arionath and nowhere else. Does aloe grow on the surface too?”
“It does,” Nathanael answered, finishing rubbing the ointment on Hannibal’s face. “It’s a fairly common plant that has healing properties. Hannibal pointed out the aloe’s unique properties to me shortly after he rescued us.”
“I bet that’s an interesting tale,” Drew stated.
“I’m sure it is,” Nicodemus intruded as Nathanael wiped his hands. “But let’s not worry him with telling that tale right now. His daughter needs medical attention as well.”
“Her wounds aren’t that severe,” Nathanael reported. “Selina is a skilled swordswoman and only took some minor wounds in the battles, unlike Hannibal. I can tend to her myself.”
“You’re a good man, Nathanael,” Drew stated. “I’ll leave my satchel here in case you need anything. Will that be okay?”
“Sure,” Nathanael replied. “I appreciate that. Our medical supplies are with the rest of the team.”
“I see,” Nicodemus stated as Drew got off the bed. “We’ll step out so you can treat your daughter’s wounds and then relax. I realize that you are all family so I will have your room be next door to this one. This will be their room if that’s all right with you.”
“You know they are married?” Nathanael asked him with surprise. “How?”
Nicodemus smiled pleasantly with a sparkle in his eye. “The Ancient of Days told me,” he answered. “Also, you told me when I first came in here with Dr. Drew. You must have forgotten you told me.”
“I guess I did,” Nathanael admitted. “I must be more fatigued than I thought.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nicodemus stated, smiling warmly. “It’s to be expected after everything you and your friends have endured. Besides, Argus came in earlier and confirmed it. Your companions will be here within an hour or so. I’ll give your companions this part of the keep for quarters. We shall have a feast celebrating your arrival when they wake. Would you like something to eat in the meantime?”
“No, sir; I’m all right for the time being,” Nathanael replied, smiling. “What we could use though is a change of clothes. The spare clothes I had in my pack were shredded in the battle. I’m sure Hannibal’s clothes were wrecked as well with the beating he took. But I’m actually surprised that we manage to keep our packs at all considering the viciousness and brutality of the beasts we fought. I haven’t seen creatures like that with such hate and viciousness since our encounters with the Zoarian Alliance.”
Nicodemus sighed. “The Zarukars are a fact of life here,” he stated. “And from what I understand, the attack they launched on you and your friends is a marked change in their tactics. But don’t worry about that right now. Treat your daughter and then rest and refresh yourself. I will have some clothes sent up to your room for you and some brought here for Hannibal and your daughter.”
“Could you bring a change of clothes here for me?” Nathanael asked. “I need to be here until the worst of the download has past.”
“Okay,” Nicodemus said. “I’ll send them here. I’ll also leave someone outside the room if you need anything. Doctor, send Bruce in and then procure some clothes for our guests here.”
“Yes, Nicodemus,” Drew replied, “right away.” Drew left the room and moments later, one of the soldiers at the door entered.
“Yes, Nicodemus?” the soldier asked, walking over to Nicodemus. “What do you need?”
“Bruce, I want you to find this fellow some clothes, and then stay with him in case he needs anything,” Nicodemus ordered.
“Sure thing, Nicodemus,” Bruce answered. Looking at Nathanael, he said, “Man, you’re big. But I think I know just what to get you.” He nodded to them and went out of the room on a mission.
“Bruce will get you whatever you want. If you get hungry, dinner is in three hours,” Nicodemus informed. “When your friends get here, I’ll send them right up.”
“Thank you, sir,” Nathanael replied gratefully. “It’s nice to feel welcome in a strange place.”
Nicodemus looked Nathanael in the eye. “You are welcome…you and all of your friends,” he replied. “If you need anything, we’re here for you.”
Nathanael smiled and Nicodemus walked out of the room, closing the door. Looking down at Selina, Nathanael began to remove her temporary bandages, followed by the armor and her shredded clothes down to her underwear: a sleek solid beige teddy with high-cut legs and a scalloped neckline that looked more like a bathing suit than underwear. Smiling at her choice of underwear, Nathanael carefully treated and bound the lacerations on her arms and legs. Her armored shirt had kept her core safe. Once he finished treating her wounds, he covered both her and Hannibal up to their necks with a blanket. “There…that should do it,” he murmured, standing up after covering them. “We were extremely fortunate today. Now all you need to do is wake up from the download.” Nathanael gathered the first-aid supplies into the satchel and picked it up, sitting it on the dresser. He then picked up Hannibal and Selina’s armor, putting the pieces with their weapons. Next, he collected their shredded clothes, piling them next to the dresser. Finally, he retrieved the bloody washcloths and bandages, taking them to the bathroom. The washcloths went into the sink and the old bandages went into a trashcan he found under the sink. Retrieving his pack from the counter next to the sink, he returned to the bedroom and sat in one of the chairs, sitting the ruined pack next to it as he tried to relax.
As he began to doze off, a knock came to the door. “Come in,” Nathanael called out.
Bruce entered the bedroom with a fresh change of clothes just Nathanael’s size. Nathanael rose from his seat as Bruce crossed the room. “I hope these are big enough,” he said.
Nathanael took the clothes and looked at them. “Yes, these should do nicely,” he said. “When will Hannibal and Selina’s clothes get here?”
“Doctor Drew and Nicodemus are personally getting the clothes for your friends. They’ll bring them shortly,” Bruce answered, noticing how weary Nathanael looked. “You look tired, sir. May I suggest a hot bath to relax you while you wait?”
Nathanael grinned slightly and asked, “Does it show that much?”
Bruce nodded. “I’m afraid it does,” he reported. “Go on and take a good hot bath. I’ll keep an eye on your friends here.”
“You’re a good man,” Nathanael replied. “I’m Nathanael.”
Bruce looked the great cat in the face with wonder in his eyes and said, “My name’s Bruce. If you need anything, just let me know.”
“That’s all right,” Nathanael said wearily. “I think I’ll take your advice. A good hot bath sounds very good right now. I haven’t had one in over a week.”
“I’ll keep watch on your friends. If you need anything, just call,” Bruce said as Nathanael went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Bruce walked to the bed and looked in wonder at Hannibal and Selina lying covered with a blanket up to their necks. The thing that stood out to him was how much alike Selina and Hannibal looked in their faces and body size. They seemed to mirror each other in a strange way Bruce could not understand. He pondered it as he sat down, gazing at them in fascination. A couple of minutes later he heard water running in the bathroom. It went on for five minutes, and then silence.
After watching Hannibal and Selina for a half hour, Bruce got up and paced the room as he waited for Nathanael to come out of the bathroom. Twenty minutes more he waited, and then he became concerned by the lack of activity in the bathroom so he went to the door and knocked. “Nathanael? Is everything all right?” he called as he slowly opened the door when the knock didn’t elicit a response. He pushed the door open and peeked into the room, seeing Nathanael sound asleep in the bathtub. “Nathanael?” Bruce called out quietly as he looked toward the tub. Nathanael’s ears twitched and he stirred, sloshing the water as his eyes opened. Nathanael yawned widely, showing his long canines, as a growl rumbled from deep in his chest. When Bruce saw Nathanael’s teeth and heard the growl, it finally dawned on him how alien Nathanael was compared to a human.
Nathanael rubbed the side of his face as he awoke. Bruce immediately hid behind the door. “Is everything all right, Nathanael?” he called out. “It’s been almost an hour without any noise coming from in here.”
Nathanael sat up with a yawn. “Gee whiz,” he murmured. “I must have fallen asleep. Yeah. Everything is all right. I’ll be out in a minute, Bruce. Thanks for checking up on me. I might have been in here all afternoon had you not looked in on me. I didn’t realize how tired I was.”
“That’s all right,” Bruce answered. “I’ll wait out here.” At that, he closed the door, giving Nathanael some privacy. He went to the crystal doors and opened them wide, walking out on the balcony where he waited for Nathanael. A few minutes later, Nathanael emerged from the bathroom clean and refreshed, dressed in the new clothes Bruce had provided. He looked the situation over and felt a soft breeze blowing in from the open doors, so he stepped out on to the balcony with Bruce. The coolness of the night air helped refresh Nathanael further. Bruce immediately noticed Nathanael’s appearance and asked, “How do you feel?”
“Much better,” Nathanael said as he shook his head, sending the remaining water flying out of his mane. “That hot bath and cat nap did wonders. I’m feeling pretty good now. And Nicodemus wasn’t kidding about that bath being able to heal wounds. It healed up my cuts in the short time I was in there.”
“That’s splendid,” Bruce said, pleased with Nathanael’s response. “May I ask you a question?”
Nathanael pushed his mane back with his hands, using his fingers and claws as a comb. “Sure,” he replied. “I’m sure you have many.”
“How old are you?” Bruce asked.
“I’m fifty-three years old,” Nathanael said. “My daughter is thirty-two.”
“Where do you come from?” Bruce asked.
Nathanael chuckled and said, “I can see where this is going. Selina and I are Lynxians and aren’t from this planet. We originally came from a planet very far away called Kaitia. Kaitia was the eighth planet in a fourteen planet solar system that had three suns.”
“I think I’ve heard enough,” Bruce said. “But how did you get here?”
“You see that man there?” Nathanael asked, pointing through the doors at Hannibal. Bruce nodded and Nathanael continued, “My home planet was destroyed when one of our suns exploded. You see, we were a space-faring civilization with great ships that we used to explore the universe. The sun exploded with no warning as Selina and I were leaving for a colony where strange alien ruins were found. We were heading there to oversee an archaeological exploration of those alien ruins when our ship was disabled by the first of a series of shockwaves set off by the exploding sun. Using a machine apparently made when this land was on the surface, that man there entered our ship when we were adrift and rescued Selina and I just as the ship was about to be disintegrated by the explosion. He rescued us from the very jaws of certain doom. That’s how we got here.”
Bruce stood there, fascinated by the account but not totally understanding what Nathanael was saying. “You’re speaking of things that I don’t quite grasp, but I believe you,” he replied. “Maybe later you could tell everyone about where you come from. It’s fascinating.”
Nathanael smiled and patted Bruce on the back. “You’re a good man, Bruce,” he answered. “Yes, I can tell it again later to everyone if they want to hear it. In the meantime, is there anything to eat around here? That bath made me hungry.”
“Yes, come with me,” Bruce said, turning to go back into the bedroom. Nathanael followed and stopped at the bed.
“Wait a second,” Nathanael called out as he climbed on the bed to look closely at Selina and Hannibal. Bruce stopped at the door and watched as Nathanael checked them closely. They were still out cold, but the signs of pain on their faces had diminished slightly. He kissed Selina on the forehead and got off the bed. “It looks like they’re going to be okay now. Let’s go. Is there any chance of someone coming in here while we’re gone?” he asked while approaching the door.
“No, sir; but if you feel it’s necessary, we can lock the door to be sure,” Bruce suggested, “however, I don’t think it’s necessary. This wing isn’t open to just anyone. Nicodemus has posted guards who only allow those in who have direct orders from him to come in here. It’s been that way for some time now.”
“All right then. That’ll be okay,” Nathanael replied as they walked out the door, closing it behind them. “Let’s go and get something to eat. I’m so hungry I could eat a whole cow.” Bruce smiled and led him away into the bowels of the keep to the kitchen to get a snack.