Chapter 18: Palaver on Acheron
Palaver on Acheron
A few minutes later, they reached the top of the southwestern tower. Argus was nowhere to be seen. Nicodemus scanned the horizon, and then shouted to the sky, “Argus!”
A few moments passed and a small dot appeared in the eastern sky. It quickly grew into Argus who, within minutes, circled the tower, preparing to land. Everyone backed to one side to give Argus plenty of area to land. He glided around the tower a couple of times, and then approached it. The draken reared up, using his wings as a parachute, and touched down with his hind legs first and then the front… coming down with a thud that shook the tower slightly. Argus folded his wings and stepped forward a couple of steps. “You call, Nicodemus?” he asked.
Nicodemus smiled and said, “Yes, my ancient friend. We called. I’d like to first thank you for bringing Xavier and his friends to us. That was a masterful deduction of our needs. We were just talking about his people when he walked in on us.”
Argus smiled and said, “You’re welcome. I knew that you were planning to flee into the highlands so I figured that it would be helpful to have an ally there that is familiar with the terrain.”
“Your immense knowledge and life experience is a great asset to us, Argus,” Hannibal commended. “You know and have seen things that most of us can’t even fathom.”
Argus nodded. “True, brother…so true,” he agreed. “And I see you and Miss Selina have not completely recovered from the psychic thrashing the Emperor gave you.”
“I’m afraid not,” Hannibal admitted. “But we are much better than earlier this morning. The healing kit is still working on our fractures. That’s why we’re confined to these chairs right now.”
“I can see that,” Argus replied. “Well now, my friends…what would you like to know?”
“We want to know what Acheron’s present condition is,” Nathanael spoke up. “We need to know how difficult it is going to be to make the place a sanctuary from the Emperor.”
Argus snorted, his draken face falling in dismay. “Acheron,” he hissed grimly, remembering when he was an early adolescent draken before the Kragonar. He remembered the day when Acheron was abandoned and destroyed. “You must be desperate to even consider fleeing to that terrible cursed necropolis,” Argus rumbled.
“We are desperate,” Hannibal admitted. “The Emperor is coming this way with an army of at least one hundred thousand. Nicodemus and his people just don’t have the assets to repel an attack of that magnitude. I chose Acheron because of its remoteness in the center of Cimmeria. We have to save these people, Argus, and Acheron seemed the logical choice to get them away from the Emperor.”
“It is indeed the logical choice,” Argus agreed. “It’s one of the most remote cities in all the caverns. But you must understand; Acheron is a cursed necropolis…literally a city of the ancient dead. Xavier and his people know this well.”
“We know this,” Selina stated. “Xavier has already given us some intelligence on Acheron as chief of the Cimmerian Clans. Since you know of this place, please enlighten us about it.”
“Your words are as eloquent as you are beautiful, Miss Selina,” Argus declared. “Yes, I can tell you about Acheron; about what was there and what is there now. I remember vividly when the Almighty wreaked His vengeance on that land and the rest of us. The thing you need to understand is that in those ancient days, Acheron was the Emperor’s most carefully guarded secret. It was a place where the Emperor’s Cadre of wizards perpetrated unspeakable horrors and evils. In that place, they successfully summoned the Old Ones from the infernal gates they constructed deep below the citadel. Blood ran in the streets of that city like a river. The Emperor placed his Cadre there to guard something too terrible to know. I was but a young draken when I last saw that place inhabited. But what I do remember about the city was that the people who lived there were prisoners and lived in perpetual fear of the Cadre. Sacrifices on an immense scale were performed in that place. Whole families, even clans would vanish in the night. Thousands perished every week, sacrificed to the Old Ones only to be replaced with new prisoners the Emperor sent to the city so the Cadre could continue with its heinous deeds. Endless columns of subjugated peoples endured brutal death marches as they were driven like cattle into the city. The inhumanity of Acheron became legendary even in my time. Being sent to Acheron was considered by the human prisoners of the Emperor to be a fate worse than death. It was hell on Earth with the shrieks and cries of the dying echoing continuously out of the city as blood flowed in rivers from the infernal city.
“Eventually, the Almighty Ancient of Days answered the prayers of those damned to Acheron. Three days before the Kragonar, the Almighty sent a dire pestilence into the city that wiped out every living thing in the city. Only a remnant of the sacrificial fodder sent there by the Emperor escaped into the mountains. It was a strange pestilence, which caused the people to mutate and go utterly and violently insane. The people killed each other in an orgy of slaughter that lasted until the Almighty buried us here in the bowels of the Earth,” Argus reported.
They all listened intently as Argus teased bits from his memories. A cool wind blew from northeast as the draken spoke. “The people literally ripped each other to pieces with whatever they had at hand, including their hands and teeth,” Argus declared. “It was from those that escaped that the warring factions of the Highlands sprung. Some of them that escaped were infected by the madness, but managed to keep from killing each other for a while. The pestilence that caused the madness also caused a riot in their genetic structure, causing them to mutate into a hideous creature by your standards. It took several cycles before they built up immunity to it. Because of the contamination, those people became the hated enemy of Xavier’s people. They developed a hunger for human flesh which cannot be satisfied.”
They all listened very closely, especially Xavier as Argus spoke of the genesis of his people. “My god,” Harry said. “It sounds like they were messing around with biological weapons, doesn’t it, Hannibal.”
“It sure does,” Hannibal replied.
“There was also another group of those who fled who were not inflected with the pestilence,” Argus reported. “Those people took to the highlands and became the Cimmerians: Xavier’s people. The others roamed about in bands as scavengers. They were reduced to almost a bestial nature. They took to the caves of the mountains in certain areas of the highlands.”
“Do they have a name?” Arabella blurted out. The idea of what Argus was reporting was completely repulsive to her personally. She deemed a name was needed to help her deal with it.
“We call them Murians,” Xavier said. “I spoke of them in the war room, Miss. They’re vicious and cunning, highly intelligent and quick. The Murians attack in packs like the Zarukar, but with much more speed and skill of the Zarukar. They set traps and ambushes and no one usually survives the attacks. When they attack, they leave no bodies…not their victims or their own if some of their number is killed. I remember only one poor maid who managed to escape from their stronghold some ten cycles ago. According to her, they eat everyone they capture or kill, leaving only bones. The heads are kept as a trophy to honor their gods. It is said there is a place in the farthest corners of Cimmeria where they routinely congregate and feast. Supposedly, there’s a statue of an ancient dark god there where they place the heads of their victims as an offering. The maid saw this place and what they did to their victims.”
“Oh, gross!” Jonathan replied with disgust. “And here I thought the Zinzera were bad. How could those people do such things?”
At that, Argus intruded into the conversation again. “You must remember, young master Jonathan, that the Murians are genetic mutations from ordinary people like you,” the draken explained. “In a way, they’re like the Zarukar. Only where the Zarukar were a deliberate and controlled manipulation of genetic structure, the Murians are an accident, an uncontrolled riotous change in their genetic structure by the pestilence. The people that became the Murians, as well as the Cimmerian people, were to be sacrifices…what you call guinea pigs for the experiments of the Cadre. These wizards made use of advanced science provided by the Emperor and directed by the Old Ones to create hybrids species in direct contradiction to the laws of the Almighty Ancient of Days. In fact, the first Zarukars were created in the great laboratories of Acheron. Once the procedure for creating the Zarukar was perfected, the Emperor moved its production from Acheron to Amacia so the Cadre could concentrate on more fiendish experiments. The Murians were completely unintended. The Murians are the direct result of the last experiment the Cadre was conducting. From what I remember, the Cadre actually created pestilence that ultimately killed them; a pestilence designed to create madness and mutation. It was made to create a blood thirst in the victim that would cause him to go completely mad and eat is fellow man. It would also trigger a riot in the genetic structure of the victim, causing them to mutate and become bestial in nature; almost a de-evolution of the human form. The ultimate goal was to use it against the enemies of the Emperor in an effort to eliminate them; however, something went terribly wrong that black day so long ago. They didn’t finish their diabolical manipulation of the pestilence and it escaped by the hand of the Ancient of Days. The result is that nearly the whole city of Acheron was infected in a matter of hours. Because the procedure of the genetic manipulation was interrupted, the germ developed the ability to mutate on its own and affect different people in different ways. Those in the city who were immediately infected went berserk and slaughtered everyone as they mutated physically. When the germ reached the slave pens of Acheron, it had already mutated slightly, causing a delay in the madness and mutation, allowing those who escaped to get into the mountains.”
“How was the germ passed?” Nathanael asked.
“The germ was spread by coughing and sneezing when the germ was in the incubation phase of its development,” Argus reported. “It would cause a person to seem like he had a bad case of the flu. Initially, there would be coughing, aches, and a moderate fever. Also, their eyes would also change to an almost red color, marking that they were infected. It was during this phase of the pestilence that it could be spread through the air. This phase would last only four to six hours after which, the thirst would hit them, and the madness would seize the brain as the germ would begin to mutate the body. At this point, the infected people would begin to act erratically with a great deal of confusion as the madness saturated their being. After the madness took them, they would begin to change physically and run about looking for fresh meat to eat in the form of other people. From the moment the madness begins to take them, the germ can only be spread by direct contact with the victim, usually by the victim biting and clawing his or her victim. I suspect the victim’s bodily fluids were the primary carrier at that point. When the madness took them, they lost all ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Ultimately, the germ would completely change the genetic structure of the host, killing the host. This is how the germ killed most of the city. But as I stated before, by time the pestilence reached the slave pens where the fodder for the experiments and sacrifices were kept, the germ had mutate in a way that was completely unintended by the Cadre. Nearly half of those in the slave pens died like the rest in the city. But through some feat of divine intervention, the other half escaped.
“However, of those who escaped, half were infected by the mutated germ while the other half managed to escape uninfected. It was the first people to escape the pens who were the ones to become the Cimmerians. The last of those who escaped didn’t get out before the pestilence infected them. The mutated pestilence lay dormant in those people for three days before manifesting symptoms of the madness. But, the sign of the red eyes showing infection remained. Many who were infected had friends or family in those who weren’t. They purposely separated from the uninfected people and went in a completely different direction in order to prevent from spreading the pestilence and killing their friends. I remember watching these people as the mutated pestilence slowly turned them into demons.” Argus paused with a solemn sigh.
“How is it that you know all these details?” Thomas asked.
Argus shook his head and said, “Because I watched it happen, Master Thomas, and because I talked with one of the wizards who managed to stem off the pestilence from taking him immediately. When he realized what had happened, he locked himself in a tower while the insanity progressed through the city like a fire through a dry field of grass. I circled the city with my father, and another draken who was the guardian of the highlands. His name was Eribus. It was his job to prevent the Cadre from spreading their evil throughout the land. Eribus was killed that day, as was my father by the Cadre just before the pestilence was unleashed. I was powerless to stop them. In fact, as I remember, it was the very moment that they attacked us that the pestilence was unleashed. They struck Eribus as he prepared to attack the citadel of Acheron. He swooped in and an energy bolt rose from the main tower guns and pierced him to the heart, burning right through him. However, he had so much momentum on his attack that his body continued and slammed into the main tower, destroying the weapon that had killed him. My father immediately went to his aid, only to be shot out of the sky by another weapon on an adjacent tower. My father’s body fell into the heart of the citadel and it was a couple of hours later as I circled trying to figure out what to do that the first signs of the pestilence showed. I was inexperienced and rained fire on every weapon I could find in Acheron. Their weapons burned me several times, but I wasn’t severely injured. When the madness really began to take hold, first thing I noticed was that there were great explosions from within the citadel. Then, I saw people pouring out of the citadel into the open like ants swarming out of a disturbed nest. They were in a great frenzy of killing. Every man and woman was against his brother and sister. They poured into the streets and onto the walls and towers of the citadel. It was a horrendous scene, which I have yet to see anything to compare to. It was as if Chaos itself had been unleashed on Acheron and its inhabitants. They literally tore each other to pieces. I swooped in and added to the destruction in a fit of revenge for the death of my father and friend Eribus. Then, I noticed a singular man on top of a tower by himself so I ceased fire and investigated, landing on the tower in front of him.
“He was on the verge of the madness taking him when I confronted him. When I landed, he fell to his knees and pleaded for me to kill him. I was more than willing to oblige him, but I was curious as to what was happening. He then told me about what he called the Chimera Virus. As he shook from the infection, he explained about what they were doing and how that with Eribus crashing into the main tower and my father falling into the heart of the citadel, they had lost control of the germ in their labs. He further explained how that the germ was engineered to affect only humans and specifically how it was supposed to affect them; however, he said that when my father crashed into the midst of their lab, the manipulations they were doing was interrupted and altered in unknown ways because of the disruption of the lab. Things were mixed and fused with the virus that incorporated the new elements into its structure, which was now causing violent insanity and mutation. I told him that they were getting what they deserved for messing around with the laws of the Almighty. At that, just as the madness was beginning to take him, he told me that he wasn’t going to die like the others and jumped off the tower to his death. It was at that point that I began to watch carefully to see if any would come out of the consummation of the city. Before it was over, the people had set the entire city on fire. The fire swept through every portion of the city, thoroughly cleansing it of the virus. One thing the wizard told me just before he dove off the tower was that the virus had a short lifespan. In order to stay alive, it needs a host. If it was without a host for more than twenty four hours, it would die.
“I watched for the three days as the people slaughtered each other, turning into hideous mutated man-eaters that were more demon than human. It was at the end of those three days that our world was changed forever. The great red planet Nibiru passed by and the Almighty Ancient of Days shook the entire planet with His wrath, sending this whole region into these nether regions of the world. I found out later from those of my kind that survived the great inundation and fall of Amacia that another great battle had taken place at the same time as the fall of Acheron. They told me that from the southern extremity of the plains of Kasa Bek, all the way to the city of Amacia and the Black Fortress, at the time of the Kragonar, a climactic battle raged between the Emperor and the last alliance of humans, drakens, and aliens against him and his infernal minions. This alliance including the kings of Kasa Bek, Myria, Cushar, Elar, Frygia, Zin, Arionath, and Khitia, along with many other peoples from all over the world. The draken guardians of those nations were supporting them, as were the Alkadian and Cythian off-worlders who held the line against the Emperor’s Draconian Alliance.” Hannibal’s eyebrow rose in surprise at the mention of the aliens being involved in the battle.
“It was one last desperate act to check the Emperor from his goal,” Argus continued. “There were armies of hundreds of millions on each side arrayed in that area locked in mortal combat for the soul of the planet when the Almighty interfered with His wrath. There were hundreds of discharges from the red planet in that area and a great hail of rock and ice fell from the sky in the same area. Only a very, very small remnant of the allied armies against the Emperor escaped the slaughter, each returning to their lands with the news of what had happened. The Earth itself rose up in violence against the Emperor. In a matter of twenty-four hours, the whole land of greater Amacia was buried here as the rest of the planet was inundated in a flood the likes of which had never been seen before. We were cut off down here in this grave. The individual lands were severed from one another. All of the cities of the world fell and billions perished in the wrath of the Almighty Ancient of Days. Nearly all of my kind was killed in the Kragonar. Before that terrible day, we drakens numbered in the tens of thousands around the world. Afterwards, there were only a few dozen of us left here with this land. As for the rest of them, I can only assume that they perished with the rest of the world.” Argus looked down sorrowfully at the floor of the tower and Hannibal noticed it.
Rolling his chair forward, Hannibal touched Argus on the side of the face with a caring hand. Selina did likewise. “I’m sorry.” Hannibal said to Argus. “I didn’t mean for you to bring up and share such a painful memory.”
“Yes,” Selina purred. “You didn’t have to go into such depth. I know what it’s like to have an old wound opened again.”
“Oh, it’s all right, my friends.” Argus replied with some composure. “I couldn’t tell you about Acheron without telling you about the events of its destruction and the fall.” Xavier looked on with amazement at how close Argus, Hannibal, and Selina appeared emotionally.
“Thank you for sharing with us about Acheron, my friend,” Hannibal said, patting him gently on the side of the face. “It’s good to know what used to be there. Now for one final question about the Murians. You said they were infected with a mutated strain of the Chimera Virus the Cadre was working on, right?” Argus nodded and Hannibal asked, “Since you are so familiar with the events of that time, can you tell us when the Murians became Murians?”
“Well, when those who escaped the city got out, the healthy ones and the infected ones immediately segregated into two groups,” Argus explained. “Only limited contact was made between the two groups and even then only at a distance to prevent the spread of the disease. For a little while, they stayed in contact with each other, but as the madness began to seize the infected ones, all contact was broken. The healthy ones left them behind to survive on their own. With the mutated strain, the pestilence acted differently than from those initially infected. The madness gripped them as well as the thirst and hunger for human flesh. But the madness was different. In their case, the madness wasn’t a complete insanity. As they mutated, their level of intelligence grew, as did their prowess of hunting and killing. The madness gave them additional speed and strength along with a desire to eat any living thing that moved; however, their preference was for human flesh. At first, they resisted the urge to kill and eat human flesh, but eventually the fever won and they began to fight and eat their own. As I remember, those infected with the mutated virus didn’t die when the virus had run its course like the others. Some died like the others, but not all. Those who survived the virus became the Murians, and once the mutation by the virus was completed, the virus became assimilated into their bodies and rendered docile. The virus that created them was no longer viral in nature, so it couldn’t be spread to anyone else. All of this happened within two weeks of the infection of those people. Now we are thousands of cycles later and their descendants run in their stead, just as the descendants of the original people who escaped from the city without the virus became the Cimmerians.”
“Good,” Hannibal replied with satisfaction. “Now we know about that. How do they feel about the Emperor?”
“The Murians are fiercely territorial, almost as much as the Yeti,” Xavier said. “They will eat the Emperor’s people as quickly as they will us. They hate anything to do with us or the Emperor.”
“Well, the Zarukar were that way too, once. Now they are back under the Emperor’s banner,” Joshua pointed out. “For thousands of cycles, they attacked anything that came within their sphere of influence. That was until here recently. If the Emperor has managed to get the Zarukar back under his control, what’s to say that he would be able to do the same with the Murians?”
“That’s a very good question,” Nicodemus agreed, “a very good one indeed. I think we must assume the worst in this situation. The Emperor may not have control of the Murians yet, but he may eventually in the not too distant future. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t have control of them when we make for Acheron.”
A few moments of silence passed as everyone considered the ramifications of the Murians becoming part of the Emperor’s forces. Finally, Hannibal spoke up. “I think our course of action is clear. We must vacate as soon as possible. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get the people away in time,” he said. Then with an air of authority, he said to Nicodemus, “Nicodemus...send your couriers to the other clans and inform them of what’s going on. Tell them to make for Acheron with all haste and if, God forbid, something happens making Acheron unviable, my instinct is they need to go to Srandi. We may end up there eventually. Next, we must gather your people together. Call the people of Arionath here for a meeting so we can tell them what is going on. They have a right to know. I would like a meeting with the people by this evening if possible. Argus, you can help to spread the word about the meeting. I remember that Arionath has another city to the east of here; Sharindar is the name, I think. Go and take word to them of what is going on.”
“Yes, Hannibal,” Argus said as he turned toward the edge of the tower. Everyone backed away to give him space to take off. “I’ll take word of the danger to all corners of Arionath,” Argus declared.
“Good,” Hannibal replied, “Aim for the meeting to be about eight this evening. I don’t expect everyone will respond. But if we can at least get the leaders of the families together for the meeting, we’ll be doing well.” Argus nodded, opening his wings. In a moment, he was gone. Hannibal turned to Xavier and said, “Go and bring your people in. I want to meet them.” A piercing surge of pain shot through Hannibal’s side and he groaned, flinching noticeably as he grasped his side while sitting in the wheelchair. Selina not only felt his pain, but hers as well as she groaned under the pain of the injuries inflicted by the Black Prince. She doubled over, holding her chest with her arms.
Xavier saw her double over and put a hand on her shoulder while squatting down. “What’s the matter, Miss?” he asked as he helped her sit up in her wheelchair.
Selina gritted her teeth as the pain slowly subsided. “My injuries from the attack early this morning aren’t completely healed yet,” she wheezed. “They just flared for both me and Hannibal. You do understand the spirit of the Emperor tried to kill us in our sleep last night. He tried to crush the both of us with the most savage psychic attack I’ve ever endured. But the Lord was merciful and he didn’t achieve his goal.”
“The healing properties of the tub and the portable healing kit have helped tremendously,” Hannibal growled as Drew rolled him up beside Selina. “But the injuries were severe and haven’t completely healed yet.”
“You know it was a psychic attack?” Xavier asked.
“Absolutely,” Hannibal growled as his ribs throbbed. “The bastard attacked us in our dreams when we were vulnerable. I’ll not let him do that again if I can help it.”
“It was the Emperor,” Nicodemus declared, “Argus confirmed it as the opening salvo in his attack on us. It’s why Argus came to you.”
“I know,” Xavier answered. “How bad was it?”
“Only by the grace of the Ancient of Days are we still breathing,” Hannibal hissed through a surge of pain in his ribs. “Drew, Arabella…tell him what you found when you examined us after the attack.” Drew rattled off the list of injuries and Arabella confirmed it.
“Whoa…you two got hit really hard to have those kinds of injuries,” Xavier replied.
“No shit,” Hannibal stated as his pain ebbed some. A relieved sigh escaped his lips as he added, “And it was no question that it was the Emperor himself that attacked us.”
“Oh, man. This is getting deeper by the minute,” Xavier said.
“It’s just starting,” Hannibal replied wearily. “But don’t worry about me and Selina. We’ll be all right. Come on, let’s get going. Nicodemus…send those couriers. Selina and I are going to the dining hall to get something to eat; that is if our ribs will allow us to eat anything.”
Nicodemus nodded and said to everyone, “Okay; it looks like we have a plan. Let’s get to it.” At that, they left the tower and separated to accomplish what needed to be done. Members of Hannibal’s team went with those Nicodemus sent out to gather the people for the meeting later in the day. Drew and Bruce pushed Hannibal and Selina to the dining hall where they got something to eat. Xavier left retrieved his people with Nathanael accompanying him.