Chapter 16: "The Attack is On"
Meanwhile, back in the King’s chamber of the keep at Kaal Bek, Hannibal and Selina slept comfortably into the late afternoon. Five hours after falling asleep in the bathtub early that morning, they awoke and Nathanael and Arabella brought them dry clothes and bandages, which Drew had provided for them. They helped them dry off, change their wet bandages with dry replacements, and put clean pajamas on them before depositing Hannibal and Selina in their bed. The healing properties of the tub and the first-aid kit had worked wonders for their conditions, vastly improving it but not completely healing them. The pair remained incredibly groggy and somewhat incoherent as Nathanael and Arabella helped them. When Nathanael and Arabella changed the wraps about Hannibal’s and Selina’s chests and legs, they noticed a huge improvement in their condition. The bruising was not nearly as deep with much of it having vanished. Nathanael noticed the first-aid kit was still running when they changed the bandages, so he surmised that they needed more time on the machine. After depositing Hannibal and Selina into the bed, Nathanael and Arabella left. Before they reached the door, both Hannibal and Selina were fast asleep.
While Hannibal and Selina slept through the afternoon, the keep and city of Kaal Bek went into defensive mode. Nicodemus sent out scouts to determine whether the Zarukar were massing for an attack. He also sent forth scouts to see whether the Emperor was massing his troops for an assault. Argus sailed overhead, patrolling the perimeter of Arionath.
Hannibal finally woke around 5:00 pm that afternoon. He rubbed his eyes and groaned, still feeling some residual pain from the broken ribs. He looked around as he lay in the bed and sensed that something was amiss. Lifting the blankets, he saw his chest wrapped in a snug elastic bandage that didn’t inhibit his breathing. Farther down, he saw the splint on his right leg and an apparent ace bandage on his left ankle. A slight throbbing sensation pulsed in his right leg and his left ankle felt normal. When he wiggled his left ankle, it popped and crackled, sending a shot of pain up his leg and spine, making him groan. Once the pain let up, his ankle felt okay. A deep sigh escaped his lips. Upon looking closer at the right leg with the splint on it, he saw the first-aid disks on it with the crystal still glowing softly. Seeing that, he looked around, spotting the first-aid kit on the nightstand next to the bed. The crystal in its top pulsed and glowed softly. “Hmpt…it must not be done with us yet,” Hannibal murmured. Taking a chance, Hannibal tried to move his right leg, lifting it gently. The pain grew exponentially in that leg, forcing him to let it down. “Damn…it’s not healed up yet,” he muttered with disappointment. “Let’s see if I can sit up.” He slowly sat up, feeling his ribs moving slightly, sending flashes of pain through him. But the pain wasn’t excruciating like before. Once he sat up fully, the pain ebbed. “Whew…that’s still a bit sensitive too,” he whispered to no one. Hannibal looked around again as the feeling of impending doom slowly grew on him.
Looking down at Selina, Hannibal smiled as she lay motionless in her silky black nightgown, still asleep, and purring very softly. He reached out and stroked her hair gently, admiring the softness of it. Yet, the feeling of unease wouldn’t leave him. Finally, he shook her gently, saying softly, “Princess…wake up. Wake up, Selina.” She stirred and opened her eyes to see Hannibal sitting next to her with a concerned look on his face.
Immediately, Selina sensed his unease and asked, “What is it, Hannibal? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, but something’s wrong here. Something’s just not right,” Hannibal answered. “I think we’d better find out what’s going on because I’m sure that something’s not right. I feel it down in my bones. By the way, how are you feeling?”
“Much better,” Selina replied with a yawn that made her flinch, “but still not one hundred percent. My ribs and leg are still aching some.”
“Same here,” Hannibal agreed as he helped Selina sit up, causing her to gasp in pain.
“My ribs are still messed up some,” Selina murmured, briefly grasping her ribs, “but it’s nothing like what it was right after that damnable nightmare.” When she shifted closer to Hannibal, her left leg protested, making her groan. “Oh, damn…I definitely felt that,” she growled, grabbing her left leg. “It must still be broken. I vaguely remember Dad using the first-aid disks on us. Has it finished yet?”
“Not yet,” Hannibal said, slowly sliding closer to her. He jerked his thumb toward the first-aid kit on the nightstand, adding, “It’s still running and my leg is still out of action too. But I must say I’m astounded at how much better I’m feeling now because of that bath. The bath and the kit must have double-teamed us, accelerating the healing process in us. With internal injuries like we had, we shouldn’t have been able to sit up like this…not this quickly. The Lord truly is wonderful in His mercy.”
Selina wrapped an arm around Hannibal and pecked him on the cheek with a small kiss. As he wrapped his arm around her, she purred, “I must agree. Look at me, I’m sitting up without an inordinate amount of pain whereas right after it happened, I couldn’t move on my own at all. By the way, what time is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Hannibal admitted. “But I have a feeling it late afternoon, but I don’t know what day it is.”
As he spoke, a knock came to the door. “Hello,” Nathanael called out, having heard Hannibal and Selina talking when he approached to the door. “Are you awake in there?”
“Yeah,” Hannibal called out. “Come on in, Nathanael.”
Nathanael opened the door, letting Arabella and Drew in first before coming in and closing the door behind him. “We were beginning to wonder if you’d ever wake up,” Nathanael declared. “How’re you two feeling?”
“A hell of a lot better than before,” Hannibal admitted. “But we’re still not one hundred percent yet. My ribs are still a bit sensitive and the leg still bothers me some. I don’t think it’s healed all the way yet. Selina is the same way.”
“It’s a possibility,” Nathanael stated as he stood by the bed with Arabella and Drew. “This is the first time we’ve tried using the first-aid kit on two people at once. It’s obviously taking longer to do its work because of that.”
“I’d say that’s obvious,” Hannibal answered. “When we used it to heal Thomas’s broken leg, it fixed it overnight. By the way, what time is it?”
“It’s a little after five in the afternoon,” Arabella said, crawling on the bed with Drew to examine Hannibal and Selina after they uncovered their legs. “You were in the bath until eleven this morning. Nathanael and I helped you and Selina out, changed your wet bandages, and put you to bed. You were asleep before we could leave the room. That bath did wonders for you. We were just coming to check on you since you’ve slept most of the afternoon.”
“Thanks for checking on us,” Hannibal said gratefully.
“No problem,” Arabella chimed, settling beside Selina. “Now let’s take a look at you two. Drew…you take Hannibal while I take a look at Selina.”
Drew started probing Hannibal’s ribs, eliciting an occasional groan from Hannibal. “Those ribs are still a bit sensitive, aren’t they?” Drew asked.
“Yeah,” Hannibal murmured. “But they aren’t on fire anymore. I’m guessing when that kit is finished with us our ribs will be healed enough for us to function properly.”
“That’s what I’m figuring too,” Nathanael stated as he watched the examination.
“Does that hurt, Selina?” Arabella asked, gently probing Selina’s ribs, getting an occasional gasp and moan from her.
“Yes,” Selina wheezed as a surge of pain subsided. “But it’s tolerable now. If I don’t move too quickly, it doesn’t hurt too much.”
“Just as I thought,” Arabella stated. “The ribs are partially healed, but not completely. I wish I had an X-ray machine to make sure. Just don’t exert yourself too much…both of you. You need to give those ribs time to settle down and heal. Now, let’s check out your leg.” She started probing Selina’s broken left leg while Drew checked on Hannibal’s broken right leg.
When Drew pressed gently on the problem area of Hannibal’s right leg, Hannibal wheezed in pain. “Not so hard, doc,” he complained. “That one’s really sensitive.”
“Just checking,” Drew said, flashing a friendly smile. “But the trauma of the break is dissipating really well. I wouldn’t put any pressure on it yet...not until that little gadget finishes working on you.”
“Don’t worry,” Hannibal replied soberly. “I won’t. How about checking my ankle out? When I woke up, I saw it wrapped and when I tried to move it, it popped and crackled like popcorn. I hurt like hell too, but now it feels fine.”
“Let’s take a look,” Drew stated, unwrapping Hannibal’s left ankle and probing it gently with his fingers. “Does that hurt?” he asked, moving the ankle slowly.
“It feels a little tight, but doesn’t hurt,” Hannibal reported. “Not like it did when I moved it earlier.”
“Most of the swelling has gone down and it feels okay,” Drew reported, probing harder with his fingers. “The bones feel like they’re in the right position. Maybe your ankle was dislocated and when you moved it earlier, it popped back into place. That’s what I think.”
“Could be,” Hannibal answered, happy with the diagnosis. “Then I should be able to walk on that ankle shortly, right?”
“Yes,” Drew replied. “But don’t force it. Do it slowly. If you feel any discomfort when you stand on it, then back off it. Sprains and dislocations are notoriously slow in healing.”
“I’m well aware of that,” Hannibal stated. “How’s Selina’s leg, Arabella?”
“About the same as yours,” Arabella stated, kneeling down beside Selina with her hands resting in her lap. “It’s healing at a fantastic rate, but it’s not ready for any pressure yet. Just give it time to heal up properly and you both will be dancing on those broken legs before you know it.”
“Time is a luxury we do not have,” Hannibal declared; his face falling as the feeling of impending doom ramped up another notch. “Something’s dreadfully wrong. I can feel it. What’s going on?”
Arabella looked toward Nathanael with a crestfallen look while Drew’s face betrayed concern. “What is it?” Hannibal demanded.
“Your instincts are a marvel,” Nathanael stated with a sober, serious expression. “Much has happened since the Black Prince attacked you early this morning. I suggest you and Selina get dressed and come with us. Nicodemus has much to tell you.”
“It’s him…the Emperor, isn’t it?” Hannibal asked bluntly.
“Yes,” Nathanael stated. “Nicodemus and the elders have been in a war council all afternoon. Drew…do you have something like a wheelchair Hannibal and Selina can use until their injuries are completely healed?”
“As a matter of fact, we do,” Drew stated. “I’ll go get them. While I’m gone, I suggest you and Arabella help them get dressed.”
Nathanael smiled broadly. “Great minds think alike,” he declared. “Go and bring the wheelchairs. Arabella and I will help them get dressed.”
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Drew told Hannibal as he got off the bed and left the room.
Hannibal sighed as Nathanael procured a shirt, tan trousers, socks, and boots for Hannibal. On the way back to the bed, Nathanael also picked up the shimmering armor shirt. “Is it that serious that we need our armor, Nathanael?” Hannibal asked.
Nathanael put the clothes and armored shirt on the bed before opening his shirt slightly, showing Hannibal the armored shirt he had on. “The whole city is on high alert,” Nathanael explained. “We’re expecting an attack any time now. It’s best to be prepared.”
“I agree,” Hannibal replied.
“What do you want to wear?” Arabella asked Selina.
“A pair of trousers like Hannibal’s and the tan dress in the wardrobe,” Selina answered.
“Okay…I’ll get them for you,” Arabella stated, rising from the bed. As she pulled out various articles, she showed them to Selina, who made sure Arabella got what she wanted, including her armored shirt and the tan dress in the wardrobe along with a four-inch wide leather belt with a silver draken buckle.
In minutes, Nathanael and Arabella finished helping Hannibal and Selina get dressed. Nathanael made sure not to tie Hannibal’s boots too tightly because of his troubled ankle. Nathanael then retrieved their weapons and laid them on the bed. “We go armed, son,” Nathanael stated. “That’s what Nicodemus ordered.”
“Then armed we shall go,” Hannibal stated, belting on his dagger. He looked toward Selina, seeing her braiding her hair with Arabella’s help. “Why the dress, Selina?” he asked.
“I don’t want to offend anyone,” Selina replied as she finished the last twist in her ponytail. “I’ve noticed all the women wear dresses here and don’t want to create a problem. We must adapt to their culture. It’s only right since we’re guests in their land. Besides, this dress is very comfortable and leaves me with as much mobility as I had wearing my fatigues.”
“You’re right,” Hannibal agreed. “And that dress really suits you. It’s you.”
Selina flashed Hannibal a warm smile. “Thank you,” she purred as Arabella helped her belt on her two daggers.
A knock came to the door and Drew called out, “Is it all right to come in?”
“Yes,” Nathanael answered, opening the door.
Drew and Bruce rolled in two odd-looking wheelchairs that resembled a tricycle with one small wheel behind the two larger wheels on either side of the chair portion of the device. Both chairs had leg supports for broken legs. “I hope these will do,” Drew stated.
“Oh, they’ll do just fine,” Hannibal stated. “Before I sit down in that chair, please help me up, Nathanael. I need to see if I can stand. I have to try.”
“If you insist,” Nathanael replied. Drew immediate stepped up to assist. Both of them gently lifted Hannibal to his feet, holding him up.
Hannibal groaned as he felt the pressure from his healing ribs and leg flare. “Damn that hurts,” he hissed in pain. “Let me feel some weight on my feet.”
Nathanael and Drew let more of Hannibal’s weight fall on his feet. The ankle throbbed some, but remained solid. But his broken leg would not take the pressure, sending searing pain up his spine. “Enough…enough!” Hannibal bawled in pain.
They lifted him until his legs dangled with little pressure on his feet. A relieved sigh escaped Hannibal’s lips. “Okay,” Hannibal groaned. “You can sit me in the chair now.” Within seconds, Nathanael and Drew sat Hannibal in one of the wheelchairs, propping his broken leg up.
“Did you find out what you wanted to know?” Drew asked.
“Yes,” Hannibal stated, wiping the sweat from his brow. “My ankle is still throbbing a little, but is sound enough to take my weight. But the right leg is not ready yet. It cannot take any pressure right now. My goodness, this chair’s really comfortable.”
“It’s one of our best models,” Drew stated. “It glides along without hardly any effort and has hand brakes on each of the main wheels.”
“I see that,” Hannibal replied, seeing the wheel locks on the chair frame just within reach. “Nathanael…my sword please.”
“It’s right behind you,” Nathanael stated, placing the sword in a curious slot on the seatback. “It seems these chairs have places to carry weapons too.”
“Intriguing,” Hannibal stated, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
“Nathanael, could you come put Selina in her chair?” Arabella called out as she finished putting Selina’s shoes on.
Nathanael immediately walked over and gently picked Selina up with Arabella helping steady Selina’s fractured leg. Bruce immediate rolled the second wheelchair over and held it as Nathanael and Arabella gently sat Selina in the chair. Selina groaned as her ribs and leg flared in fiery pain from the movement. Once she settled into the chair, Nathanael asked, “Is that better, princess?”
“Yes,” Selina replied as her pain slowly subsided. “I am now. The pain is letting up now that I’m not being jostled. I must admit it’s eighty percent better than I felt early this morning. Just give me time.”
“Okay,” Nathanael stated, slipping Selina’s katana in the slot on the back of her chair. “We can do that.”
“Now that we can be moved, let’s go find out what’s going on,” Hannibal stated. “And after that, something to eat would be very nice. I’m starting to get hungry.”
“Me too,” Selina agreed.
“Just one moment,” Nathanael stated. “I need to pick up my weapon before we go. I’ll be right back.” Hannibal nodded and Nathanael darted out of the King’s Chamber.
As they waited, Selina asked, “Could I get a glass of water before we go, Arabella?”
“Of course,” Arabella stated. “I’ll get both of you a glass of water. I’m surprised you didn’t ask for it before now.” She sprinted into the bathroom and the sound of running water echoed from the bath. Arabella returned with two moderate-sized glasses of water, handing one to Hannibal and the other to Selina. Both of them slowly sipped on the water.
“Oh, man, that’s good,” Selina purred. “It’s cooling my chest from the inside.”
“Me too,” Hannibal agreed. “I didn’t realize I was that thirsty.”
“Just drink it slowly,” Arabella instructed. “Drinking it too fast may cause a muscle cramp you don’t need.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hannibal replied with a smile, sipping on his water.
Nathanael returned with his executioner’s blade strapped to his back. “Now we can go,” he declared.
“I’ll guide Hannibal,” Drew offered, grabbing on to the handles of Hannibal’s wheelchair.
“If you will permit me, Miss Selina, I’d like to push your chair,” Bruce asked politely.
“Of course you can guide my chair, Bruce,” Selina purred with a smile.
“Then let’s get moving,” Nathanael stated, stepping out of the way.
“One second, Nathanael,” Arabella intruded. “Should we carry the kit with us since it’s not done yet? I remember you saying that the kit needs to be in close proximity to those using the disks.”
“That’s right,” Nathanael replied. “Thank you for reminding me. Selina…would you mind holding on to the kit?”
“Of course…the sooner it finishes with us the better. I hate not being able to move around like I normally do,” Selina stated as Nathanael retrieved the first-aid kit, giving it to her. She cradled it securely in her lap
“I know you do,” Nathanael replied, patting her gently on the shoulder. “Now let’s go. Nicodemus is waiting on us.”
Arabella opened the door and went out first, followed by Bruce and Selina. Drew rolled Hannibal out of the room and Nathanael closed the door as he left, leading them to the throne room.
As they entered the throne room, Hannibal and Selina marveled at the splendor about them. Nicodemus and Joshua stood on the steps of the dais, speaking to a crowd of fifty men, which included the remainder of Hannibal’s team. Nicodemus’ eagle eye immediately noticed them and called out, “Glad you were able to join us, my friends.” He then said a few more words to the group and it dispersed, leaving only Nicodemus, Joshua, and Hannibal’s team there. Drew and Bruce rolled Hannibal and Selina towards the dais with Nathanael and Arabella just a few steps behind them. As they approached Nicodemus, Hannibal immediately noticed that everyone was armed, even Nicodemus. “What’s going on, Nicodemus?” Hannibal asked. “When I woke up a little while ago, I had his terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that something wasn’t right. And it is getting worse by the moment. Is the Emperor fixing to do something we’re going to regret?”
Nicodemus sighed and looked at Joshua, and then at Hannibal. “I’ll tell you in a moment,” Nicodemus stated. “First…how are you and Miss Selina feeling? You two certainly look better than when I saw you early this morning.”
“Much better, thank you,” Hannibal replied. “We aren’t completely over it, but as you see, we’re able to move around somewhat without being in blinding, agonizing pain.”
“Their legs are still very sensitive and can’t take any pressure,” Drew stated. “Apparently, the little healing kit Selina has in her lap is not completely finished with them yet.”
“But they are healing at a fantastic rate,” Arabella chimed in. “It seems using that little portable healing machine they brought with them from Tiamat in conjunction with the bath really helped them get over their injuries. From my experience, the injuries they received would take months to heal normally. But thanks to that little gadget and the seeming miraculous healing properties of your tub, they’re over eighty-five percent healed of those injuries. I still have a hard time believing what I’m seeing here.”
Nicodemus smiled warmly. “The tub and the waters it uses are our greatest asset when it comes to healing injuries and sickness,” he explained. “It’s an ancient technology that we utilize on a regular basis, but don’t have any idea of how or why it works. It just does. We consider it a blessing from the Ancient of Days and give him the credit for it.”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Hannibal admitted. “There’s much we do not understand about the ancient technologies, but it doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from it. I’m sure there’s some reason it works the way it does. Maybe it has something to do with the minerals of this region, or the properties of the apparatus. I don’t know, but I do know to give the Lord credit for allowing it to work is always a good idea. But this is really a sidebar on why I came down here in my present condition. Something bad is happening with the Emperor, isn’t it? I can feel something is dreadfully wrong down in my bones.”
“Your instinct isn’t wrong,” Joshua stated soberly. “Something is wrong…very wrong. We’re in grave danger.”
“Talk to me,” Hannibal replied. “What’s happening? If I know what’s going on, maybe I can help in some manner.”
“It appears we were correct in our speculation about what happened to you and Miss Selina early this morning,” Nicodemus stated solemnly. “The attack is on. Argus sensed the Emperor’s psychic assault meant to kill you last night. He confirmed that it was the initial stage of an attack on Arionath when I went to see him after leaving your room this morning. He strongly suggested I sent scouts out while he did some reconnaissance of his own. I agreed…sending out scouts right after the attack. Some of the scouts have reported back, most haven’t and for now, Argus is missing in action. Those scouts that did return were the only ones to escape. The Zarukar are massing in the south central portions of the forest of Kasa Bek and they’re not alone. The scouts reported that the Zarukar are being reinforced by battalions of some new creatures from the south that appear to be part machine.”
Hannibal’s face fell and his expression soured at the news. “What numbers are we looking at for the beast-men?” he queried.
For a moment, silence reigned. “Our estimates are at least twenty thousand,” Joshua reported after a lengthy pause. “That’s just the Zarukar. They’re being reinforced by these other creatures that seem to be coming from the Plains of Blood. We have no numbers on them yet. There’s also movement in the lands of Zin and Myria. The Eighth Division, which sacked Khitia is also massing along the Wall to the east of Arionath. There are fifteen thousand of them.”
“Shit!” Hannibal cursed. “This isn’t good.”
Just then, another man ran up and stopped in front of them, bowing. “Nicodemus!” he wheezed from the hard run. “Word from the south…two more scouts have returned and said the Fifth Division has moved into Myria and seems to be headed toward Frygia. The First and Second Divisions are moving up through the Plains of Blood from the Blister Fields, following these strange hybrid mechanical creatures. We believe they mean to link up with the Zarukar.”
“Slow down son and catch your breath. What’s your name?” Hannibal asked.
“I’m Cody, sir,” the man replied. “Nicodemus ordered me to bring any news from the scouts as soon as I heard anything. Two more scouts just reported in a few minutes ago from highlands between Myria and the Plains of Blood. The First and Second Divisions are pouring out of the Blister Fields into the Plains of Blood fully armed with new equipment following a day behind these new hybrid creatures. The Fifth Division split off from the First and Second Divisions, heading into Myria across the highland divide just west of Carthia. They seem to be heading toward the Frygian Gap where the river runs out of Frygia into Myria.”
“First thing’s first. Any idea of how many of these new so-called hybrid creatures have been seen?” Hannibal asked. “Is it Battalion or Division strength? All I want to know is a rough estimate, not exact numbers at this point.”
“No solid numbers yet, sir,” Cody replied. “But we’re seeing numbers approaching Division levels for these new monsters.”
Nicodemus’ expression sank and he sighed deeply. “How long before they breech the valley?” he asked.
“I don’t know sir,” Cody answered. “As of the moment, they’re not pressing toward the Gateway. They seem to be positioning themselves just north of the ruins of Kasa Bek in the forests there.”
“How far away is that?” Hannibal asked.
“The ruins of Kasa Bek are fifty leagues from here on the southern periphery of the forests,” Joshua said. “It’ll take them at least three to four days to cross the forests.”
“What about the others?” Hannibal queried.
“The Eighth Division is massing near Khmer Shek. It’ll take them some time to cross the Wall,” Joshua reported. “As you saw when we crossed it, Khmer Shek is a very treacherous pass…not the sort of place you’d want to bring a large contingent across with heavy weapons.”
“What about the Fifth Division?” Nathanael asked. “Any idea where they’re going once they get past this Frygian Gap?
“We think they may be heading for Draken Pass. Though, they’re still several of days away from it,” Cody reported.
Hannibal rubbed the side of his face with his hand and sighed. “This would be easier if I had a map,” he stated.
“Don’t we have a map in the war room?” Nicodemus asked.
Joshua nodded and said, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think it’s about time we made use of it again. War is upon us.”
“Indeed…let’s go to the war room and look at the map,” Nicodemus declared as he headed toward the doors. Joshua dropped in behind Nicodemus. Drew and Bruce brought Hannibal and Selina in their wheelchairs while the rest of Hannibal’s team followed closely. A few minutes later, everyone entered the war room. It was a small chamber compared to the throne room. It was forty feet long by thirty feet wide and had a twenty-foot ceiling. In the center of the room lay a large table with an intricate map of the caverns laid across it sitting only two feet off the floor. The map spanned nearly ten feet long by five feet wide with a high level of detail. Along the right wall, a small table sat with a number of books and batons. Everyone gathered around the main table and the map, with Nicodemus, Joshua, Hannibal, Selina, Harry, and Nathanael in the front. Hannibal looked intensely at the map from his chair.
“That’s an impressive map,” Hannibal crowed. “I haven’t seen a map this detailed in a long time. Is this a map of the entire cavern system?”
“It is,” Nicodemus stated. “It took over a thousand cycles of exploring while playing cat and mouse with the Emperor to make this map. Only in my lifetime has it we gotten it to this level of accuracy and completion. Though there are some places we can only guess about…places we know of only from the ancient writings.”
“I understand,” Hannibal replied. “Cartography tends to be a constantly evolving science. As unexplored realms become explored, the knowledge of lost places becomes known. Now show me where the Emperor’s forces are gathering.”
Joshua picked up a baton lying on the small table next to the wall with several books on it, and walked around to the opposite side of the table so Hannibal and his team could have a clear view. “This is where we are, Kaal Bek and Arionath,” Joshua said, pointing out Arionath on the map with the baton. “The only other major settlement we have in Arionath is Sharindar here on the eastern side of the country near the Wall. That’s where Turner, Cole, Kwahu, Rex, and Gilbert went when we parted at the eastern fringe of the Forest of Kasa Bek. But Sharindar isn’t the only settlement there. A great number of small, unmarked villages and hamlets lay scattered throughout the mountains between Sharindar and us here in Kaal Bek. Here is the Wall with the pass of Khmer Shek that we crossed coming to Arionath.” Joshua pointed to the main mountain chain at the eastern end of Arionath that continued to the south, separating Khitia from Kasa Bek and Arionath. “The Wall separates Khitia from Arionath and Kasa Bek here,” Joshua continued, pointing out the features. “Over here is Stygian’s Way where I brought you in. Just a couple leagues to the south sit the Fortress of Amm Su and Solomon’s Passage. As you remember, we crossed the plains of Khitia and passed through the city of Karac here before we reached the Watchtower of Xavier Singh on the western edge of the plains at the base of Khmer Shek.” Joshua traced their path with his baton as he explained the terrain. “From there,” he continued. “We crossed the pass of Khmer Shek and descended into the Forests of Kasa Bek here where our party split. Fortune favored us as we passed through most of that forest without incident. Here is where Zebek attacked us.” Joshua pointed to a spot next to the river two leagues south of the Gateway of Arionath.
“I think I can figure out where we went afterwards,” Hannibal stated. “Now you say the Eighth Division is moving on Khmer Shek over here in Khitia, right?”
“Do you want something to point with?” Drew asked Hannibal.
“Yeah, that would be nice since I can’t get out of this chair yet,” Hannibal agreed. Drew immediately procured Hannibal a baton from the small table and handed it to him. “Thanks,” Hannibal said gratefully. Drew nodded and Hannibal pointed to Khmer Shek with his baton. “Khmer Shek is right here, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Joshua replied. “That’s where the Eighth Division is going.”
“And we’re here,” Hannibal declared, pointing to Kaal Bek with his baton.
“Correct,” Joshua answered.
“Okay,” Hannibal stated. “I think I’m getting a feel for where I am on this map now. Please continue, Joshua.”
“Right,” Joshua answered. Waving his baton over the area just south of Arionath, he declared, “This is Kasa Bek and the forest extends down to here.” Joshua pointed with his baton to the middle of Kasa Bek where the two main rivers joined. “It’s here that we have word that the Zarukar and these new creatures are massing. They’re apparently using the ruined city of Kasa Bek as a staging ground. South of the forests of Kasa Bek is the plain of Kasa Bek that borders the Land of Kadishar on the east and the Plains of Blood to the south here.”
Hannibal rubbed his chin as he took in the layout of the land as Joshua explained and indicated their locations. “Kasa Bek covers a large area, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“It does,” Joshua answered in a professorial tone. “In the 1st Age, the writings say Kasa Bek was one of the richest lands in terms of mineral wealth in the world. It’s probably why the Emperor targeted it first when he rampaged out of Amacia after the coup.”
“Were the Plains of Blood once part of Kasa Bek?” Nathanael questioned.
“Long ago it was,” Nicodemus reported. “The Plains of Blood got their name from the horrendous battle that was fought there at the end of the 1st Age. The King of Kasa Bek met the Emperor and his infernal legions down at the edge of the Amacian Marshes in battle. The legends claim the battle raged for two weeks straight throughout the marshes and across the plains up to Carthia at the southern periphery of the plains of Kasa Bek. Tens of millions of people and creatures perished in that battle. The legends say the blood was knee deep over the whole plain and ever since then, that portion of Kasa Bek became known as the Plains of Blood. You can still see the bones of the fallen scattered across that infernal plain and bloody springs erupt out of the ground in various places. The battle didn’t just destroy people there, it decimated the land itself. Finding fresh, drinkable water in that place is impossible. The contamination of the land and water was permanent. Even the great animals that roam that area come out into the plains above Carthia to find fresh water.”
“Whoa,” Thomas breathed in astonishment. “That must have been the battle to end all battles.”
“I’m sure they thought that too,” Hannibal agreed. “Thank you for the history lesson about the Plains of Blood, Nicodemus. Joshua, please continue; show me where the 1st and 2nd Divisions are located right now.”
“The 1st and 2nd Divisions are coming out of the Blister Fields here on the other side of the marshes of Amacia,” Joshua declared, pointing to the highlands south of an enormous crack in the earth. “This is the heart of the Emperor’s domain down here. I remember you asking where the City of the Damned was when you first saw this land. It is here at the base of Mt. Ragnarok in the heart of the Blister Fields. To the west of the Blister Fields are Stygia and the River Styx where the Emperor and his Cadre construct many of his war machines. Over here beyond the Mts. of Fornax is the desolation of Tartarus and the infernal city of Kartoom…the heart of the Emperor’s Cadre and his main manufacturing facility. It’s rumored that the Cadre engage in the vilest, most abhorrent magic there, meshing the blackest magic with technology. It’s a habitation of heinous monsters and the most unspeakable horrors.”
“What’s that there at the edge of the Blister Fields?” Hannibal asked, pointing with his baton.
“That is the Chasm of the Malebolge,” Nicodemus stated, giving Joshua a breather. “It’s rumored to be a bottomless chasm that opened up when the Ancient of Days buried us in this grave. For thousands of cycles, it effectively bottled up the Emperor and his evil in the Blister Fields. But he’s managed to bridge the great crack and the Marshes of Amacia with his technology, allowing him direct access to this part of the caverns. Until he bridged those obstacles, there were only two ways he could get out of the Blister Fields. The first was to travel the treacherous waters of the River Styx into the Amacian Marshes and hope the marshes didn’t swallow up his minions, which it often did. His alternative was to go through Tartarus and cross either the Mts. of Fornax at the Pass of Kismet’s Shadow to get around the Amacian Marshes or the Crags of Shiar at the Pass of Tartarus if he wished to enter into Elar. The fact is Tartarus itself is worse than the Amacian Marshes is because it’s a waterless desolate waste filled with rapidly shifting dunes that are blown from the blistering winds blowing out of the Fornax. It’s also the habitation of giant beasts and monsters that defy description that will prey on anything they can capture, including the Emperor’s minions. It’s as about as close to the Abyss as you can get without being swallowed by it.”
“Sounds like a place to be avoided,” Selina commented with a sour tone, not liking what she heard about the place. “Your description reminds me of a desert on my home planet called the Crucible. Only the bravest or most foolhardy dared venture into the Kaitian Crucible, many times to their doom.”
“It sounds like your planet had its own Tartarus,” Nicodemus stated. “But I doubt it was infested with evil like our Tartarus.”
“Not that I can remember,” Selina stated, “Not even our vilest criminals or megalomaniacs dared to intrude into that savage land.”
“Interesting,” Hannibal murmured. “So the 1st and 2nd Divisions are moving out of the Blister Fields here, crossing both the Chasm and the Marshes here, and are moving north through the Plains of Blood towards Kasa Bek here. Is that right?” He traced the path with his baton as he spoke.
“That’s correct,” Joshua stated. “The Eighth Division is moving toward Khmer Shek over here on the Wall.”
Cody picked up a baton and pointed to the land of Myria. “Don’t forget that the 5th Division is moving into Myria from this direction,” he reminded everyone.
“So they are,” Joshua agreed. “Now over here, Hannibal, is the Land of Myria where the 5th Division has been spotted. We suspect they may be taking a westerly route through the Frygian Gap into Frygia so they can cross Draken Pass in the Draken’s Teeth to attack us from the west. Back down here, we have Elar with Myria bordering it on the east, Tartarus on the south and Calui on the west. I mention this because of this pass here.” He pointed to the one pass in the Crags of Shiar that allowed access to Tartarus by ground. “This is the Pass of Tartarus Nicodemus mentioned: one of three known ways to get in and out of Tartarus. If he wants, the Emperor can easily send his troops across this pass to sack everything west of Kasa Bek. It’s the key to the heartland of the caverns because the most fertile ground lies in Elar, Calui, Myria, and Zaraphath here, which butts up to the Avernian Mountains.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Hannibal replied stoically. “So now that I have an idea of where everything is located, what kind of numbers roughly are we looking at here in these divisions that are coming after us?”
Joshua released a troubled sigh before answering. “As a rough estimate from the intelligence we’ve been able to gather, between the Zarukar, these new creatures, and the various divisions, we are looking at approximately an army of close to one hundred thousand,” he declared grimly. “We cannot survive such an onslaught. They’ll breech our defenses in hours of the attack. We’ll be overrun and annihilated.”
Hannibal frowned deeply, knowing it was an impossible fight. He looked intensely at the map and suddenly asked, “Do we have any allies in any of these other areas?”
Nicodemus thought for a moment and said, “Yes, we have friends in all of these areas to the north of the Plains of Blood except for in Kasa Bek. There are about fifty clans scattered around these areas. We still have ties to most of them. Khitia was the last great loss we had. Most of those that survived that onslaught ended up here.”
Hannibal looked at the map again and declared, “It appears the Emperor is going to launch a three-pronged attack on Arionath. Look, he intends to strike from the west, east, and south, with the main attack coming from the south. He intends to use the beast-men as a battering ram in order to breech your defenses. What are your assets?”
“Assets?” Joshua asked in a puzzled manner.
“Yes, Joshua…assets,” Hannibal said. “What do you have on hand to repel such an attack? What are your numbers and what manner of hardware do we have to fight with?”
Joshua looked at Nicodemus and then at Hannibal and answered, “We have a fighting force of only two thousand with standard weapons that protects ten thousand civilians. We don’t have the advanced weaponry of the Emperor. Our main line of defense is the natural barriers of the mountains. The rest of our defenses lie here in the city.”
Hannibal’s face fell as he looked at Nathanael with a very concerned look. “Oh, boy,” Hannibal replied, his tone reflecting his dismay at the situation. “We need to get thinking.” They looked at the map in silence as Hannibal pondered what needed to be done.
Arabella stepped up to the table and asked, “What’s this place here? No one has said anything about it.” She pointed to a mountainous area on the map just west of Arionath.
“That’s Cimmeria, young lady. It’s a savage land of great mountains and terrible beasts. There were only two major cities ever built in that area that we know of. They were abandoned when Amacia fell in the 1st Age,” Nicodemus stated.
The statement perked Hannibal’s ears. “You mean these cities have been deserted since the Deluge?” he asked with great interest.
“Yes, they’ve been abandoned since the Kragonar over twelve thousand cycles ago,” Nicodemus reported. “They’re cities of the dead with not a single living person staying anywhere near them. This city here in western Cimmeria is the most remote city in the entire cavern we know of.”
Hannibal began to smile slightly as a plan began to take shape. “How is the approach to the city?” he asked.
“There’s only one relatively safe approach to the city. You must pass through a narrow gorge that this river flows through,” Nicodemus said, pointing to the city and the river.
“What is the name of the place?” Harry asked.
“It’s called Acheron,” Nicodemus replied. “For twelve millennia, that city and land were just fables, until the Ancient of Days led one of our scouts there.”
“How far is it?” Morrison asked.
“Acheron is fifty leagues by air. It is almost eighty leagues by ground.” Joshua stated. “The path to it is very treacherous and dangerous, filled with many hazards and pitfalls. The mountains of Cimmeria are much more rugged and dangerous than these in Arionath. The only mountains more dangerous than those of Cimmeria are those ringing the Blister Fields of Amacia.”
By now, Nicodemus was beginning to understand Hannibal’s line of questioning, and where he was going with it.
“What’s this over here in west all by itself?” Hannibal asked, pointing with his baton.
“That’s the Fortress of Srandi. It was there that we found the last intact records of the days before the Kragonar and the last known fragments of the prophecies that foretold your coming,” Nicodemus declared.
Hannibal looked intensely at the location as Nicodemus continued adding, “It is the second largest fortress in the entire cavern. The only one that surpasses its size is the Black Fortress of the Emperor in Amacia.”
“What are the conditions of that area?” Hannibal asked.
“The fortress is in the farthest reaches of an area we call the Wastes of Azrael,” Nicodemus reported. “It’s a desolate barren wilderness, full of burning sands, pits, and jagged rocks and peaks. We know this because only three people came back from there of a team of thirty. It’s surrounded by a jagged treacherous ridge known as the Avernian Mountains that separates it from the rest of the region, much like the mountains that surround the Emperor’s domain. From the Steppes of Zaraphath to the fortress of Srandi, one has to cross nearly eighty leagues of the most inhospitable, dangerous land we have. The only place that’s more dangerous than it is the area around the city of Amacia, which the Emperor controls.” Nicodemus pointed to the city of Amacia and began to describe the land around it. “Earlier, we didn’t give you an adequate description of the Emperor’s domain. Now I shall tell you of the hell that is Amacia. The City of the Damned sits in the midst of a great volcanic range of mountains. There’s one very large volcano rising near the city that’s continuously active. It spews molten rock continuously that flows in great rivers into the city. It’s called Mount Ragnarok. The molten rock is channeled around the city and in particular, around the Black Fortress. It is used as a moat for the fortress and a defensive measure for the city too.
“Just outside of the city is the area we call the Blister Fields. It’s a desolate waste filled with ash, fire, and noxious fumes from a number of smaller volcanic cones that spew ash and molten rock. The Blister Fields are a labyrinth of belching volcanoes with pools and rivers of molten rock. There are only two safe routes through the Blister Fields. The first is the road that brought you to us. The second is the highway the Emperor built that connects the City of the Damned with Stygia, Tartarus, and Kartoom. This road runs across the Pass of the Furnace just west of Stygia in the mountains of Fornax and is the only access to Tartarus from the Blister Fields.
“The next area is the Chasm of Malebolge. It’s a great fissure in the Earth that cuts off Amacia from the rest of the cavern. The Malebolge is a half a league wide and bottomless. As you heard earlier, we suspect that it was a result of the cataclysm that placed this land here. The Emperor has bridged it so he could extend his sphere of influence to this part of the caverns. It’s a vital link for him. We call this bridge the Bridge of Darkest Shadow since it rumored to have been built by demons under the control and direction of the Emperor.
“The next circle is the Plateau of Amacia. It’s a desolate waste that’s roamed by many vicious beasts…both natural and unnatural. The Plateau is notorious for it sulfuric acid lakes and bubbling tar pits. On the western end of the Plateau in the highlands of the Fornax, the river Styx has its source. Around the plateau is a great ring of mountains that are dotted with many active volcanoes. The only easy approach to the plateau is the Pass of Keleb, here in the ring of those mountains. The great Road of Perdition runs through it. Beyond those mountains to the north are the Marshes of Amacia and to the east, the Marshes of Zin with the Lake of Lost Souls. The Styx feeds the marshes and the Lake. The marshes are twenty leagues wide and surround the entirety of the land of Amacia to the north and east. As I mentioned earlier, those marshes as well as the Plains of Blood are where the last great battles took place before the Almighty Ancient of Days destroyed and buried us here. There are tens of millions of the ancient dead in the marshes and buried in the Plains of Blood. The only safe way through the marshes is the road. The road runs from the City of the Damned, through the Blister Fields, across the Malebolge and the plateau. It runs from there through the mountains and through the marches. Then it runs through the Plains of Blood, the lands of Zin, Kadishar, and Khitia where it enters Solomon’s Passage at the fortress of Amm Su. The people in Amacia have been poisoned by the Emperor’s evil and are just as dangerous as or more dangerous than the Zarukar. The whole of the area crawls with the agents of the Emperor. The Wastes of Azrael is the only other place comparable to it and is just as dangerous and lethal as Amacia.
“In the Wastes, there are beasts that defy explanation. The Dune Sea, which is the first area that has to be crossed once you get past the Avernian Mountains, is forty leagues of thousand cubit sand dunes. Great beasts roam those wilds that are specially adapted to survive in that environment. Once out of the Dune Sea, you have the Flats. It is a burning expanse of soda, salt, and sand flats forty more leagues wide that are full of hidden pits and hazards, not to mention some of the most lethal animals ever to walk the face of the Earth. The Fortress of Srandi is carved out of a mountain and overlooks the Flats to the southeast,” Nicodemus explained in detail.
Hannibal listened intently as Nicodemus explained the various regions. As he explained the details of the wasteland and the Fortress of Srandi, his spirit burned within him. He sat there for a few moments, and then came to a decision. “Nicodemus, we’re facing a foe that is beyond our capabilities at the moment. We cannot fight him on his terms. It has to be on ours. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Hannibal asked.
Nicodemus thought for a moment. “I think I do,” he replied. “If we try to defend ourselves here in the face of these numbers, it would be an exercise in futility, leading to our extinction.”
“Yes,” Hannibal replied with satisfaction at Nicodemus’ grasp of their situation. He looked Nicodemus straight in the eye and said, “We cannot be here when they come. If we are, we will surely die. Wars are inevitably won by those who successfully change the rules.”
“Where do we go?” Joshua asked. Nicodemus rubbed his chin and knew what Hannibal wanted to do.
“We move to Acheron, Joshua. We take what we can and flee to that fabled city while we have time,” Hannibal declared. “Maybe even to Srandi…but at the moment I cannot even conceive how we would get there. For now, we must look at Acheron because it is the logical choice in the face of the situation we are in.”
Joshua looked at Nicodemus and Hannibal with bewildered amazement. “You say we must move fourteen thousand plus people through the Cimmerian highlands to Acheron?” he asked in disbelief. “How can we do that? It’s impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible,” Nicodemus retorted. “Not when the Ancient of Days has His Hand on it.”
“I know,” Joshua admitted. “But I’m being a realist here. We’re just days away from a major invasion. How can we move that number of people through terrain that is almost as hostile as the Blister Fields? If we must die, wouldn’t it be better to die in our own homes?”
“Where’s your faith, Joshua?” Nicodemus scolded. “Is not the One the prophecies spoke of right here in our midst offering to help us in our hour of need? You must have faith, Joshua.”
“I really want to,” Joshua replied. “But we’re talking about a three-pronged attack with at least one hundred thousand troops armed with heavy weapons! I just want to know how we can dodge the hammer strike this time. I think we’ve run out of options.”
Nicodemus started to speak, but Hannibal spoke first. “I understand what you’re saying Joshua,” Hannibal stated. “I truly do and I feel just as responsible for this because I’m the one this lunatic wants. But we must not give up hope or faith. I’ve weaseled out of traps worse than this one. The Lord will provide a way. What that way is I just don’t know at this point. He hasn’t showed me yet. All I know is that I see the axe in the air and we need to get as many people out of its way as possible. Whether you realize it or not, I’ve become a part of this. The Emperor’s attack on Selina and me this morning is proof of that. But I promise you, Joshua…we will find a way out of this trap. The Lord’s not going to let us die here.”
Hannibal’s words smote Joshua’s heart and his face fell in repentance. “I’m sorry,” Joshua apologized. “I should’ve known the Ancient of Days wouldn’t abandon us right when He brought the Prophesied One into our midst. Forgive me. It was wrong to despair.”
“It’s okay, Joshua,” Hannibal replied, smiling soberly. “There’s nothing to forgive. I know this is an overwhelming situation. To be honest with you, I still don’t know if I’m the one your prophecies speak about. But regardless of whether I am or not, I’ll help you and your people to the best of my abilities. If we can save even a small remnant of these people, it will be worth it. Now let’s help save these people. What do you say, Joshua?”
Joshua smiled warmly. “You have a strange gift for words, my friend,” he replied. “What do you suggest we do?”
Hannibal shook his head and said, “I just don’t know at the moment. But the most immediate concern I have is warning the people of the imminent danger posed by the Emperor. Let them know that your time in this land is coming to an end. Go out into the valleys and hamlets and bring them into the city. Tell them to bring only what they can carry. While you are doing that, send couriers to the other clans who still have contact with you and inform them of our predicament. Also, we need a way to seal the Gateway. If we can seal the Gateway, they will have to go over the mountain instead of through it, which will slow their advance considerably.”
“Good idea,” Nathanael agreed. “The Gateway is their only way of getting in here easily. How treacherous is Draken Pass?”
“It’s as bad as or worse than Khmer Shek, even though it isn’t as high as Khmer Shek,” Joshua said. “It’ll take them some time to cross the pass. The pass itself is in the snow band and the approach is very steep and treacherous.”
“Good,” Hannibal said. “That’ll buy us some more time. What kind of time table are we looking at for the attack?”
“Well, from what we’ve seen so far, maybe a week if we’re lucky,” Joshua said. “It depends entirely on when the main force in Kasa Bek begins moving towards the Gateway.”
“How long will it take to reach Acheron?” Hannibal asked.
“About four days to a week,” Joshua answered. “A small team could reach it in three but the numbers you are talking about moving would take at least that long.”
“Is there anyone who knows the way to Acheron?” Nathanael asked.
“Yes,” Nicodemus answered. “Joshua, myself, and the elders know the way. There are a couple of ways to reach it. One is a secret way. Just to the west of here is the remnant of an ancient highway that winds through the mountains of Cimmeria. It is a treacherous path filled with many perils. But it is by far the safest path to take considering that the Fifth Division is making for Draken Pass. Under normal circumstances, I would send the people over Draken Pass and into Frygia. From there, I would send them to the Pass of Karacus here,” he said as he traced the path on the map. “Once over Karacus, I would send them through these mountains and into this valley to the city of Xaricar then north to Acheron. This is the path I mentioned earlier when you first asked about Acheron. But that course is compromised because of the Fifth Division moving toward Frygia. No doubt, they will have scouts ahead of the main force making sure the way is clear. We cannot risk being detected by the scouts.”
“I agree,” Hannibal stated. “The risk is too high to go that way. What about this other secret way?”
“The secret way is hidden in a deep chasm and cave just to the west of us near the peaks of Karizar,” Nicodemus stated. “It’s a way that hasn’t been attempted in over three thousand cycles. The hazards of that cursed path are much greater than the lower road. But now, it seems we have no choice but to take the cursed road since the Emperor is cutting off our southern route. On the cursed secret road, there will be perils from not just the landscape, but from great beasts. Many fabled beasts roam the wilds of the Cimmerian highlands. Moreover, there are tribes of savage mutated cannibals that are rumored to haunt the highlands, along with a several clans of violent barbarians that are very skittish of outsiders. Seldom do they show themselves and are nearly as violent as the cannibals, at whom they are at perpetual war with.”
“When was the last time that the clans there sent people out of the highlands?” Hannibal asked.