Chapter 40: The Fortress of Cush
The Fortress of Cush
The scepter immediately shined with a blinding radiance and energy bolts sprang from its head, touching the pillars, which in turn redirected and enhanced the energy from the scepter between the pillars. Tremendous bolts of power arced up and down the pillars a few moments before converging in the middle between them. In a flash, a glowing sphere formed between the pillars, sending out a pulse of energy in every direction that quickly dissipated before reaching anyone. In seconds, the sphere became a twenty-foot tall ring of energy with a transparent center. Through the ring, they could see another square just like the one they were in; however, in the square on the other side of the portal, there were no people or activity at all. Hannibal looked through the portal with a deep feeling of apprehension and dread. “Something’s wrong here,” he said with some concern. “Nathanael, come here.”
Nathanael rushed forward and asked, “What do you need?”
“I need you to hold on to the staff and keep the portal open as long as possible,” Hannibal ordered. He immediately noticed that Nathanael was bare handed, saying intently, “You will need gloves to handle this thing. If you touch it barehanded, it will drain the strength and life right out of you. Does anyone have a pair of gauntlets that Nathanael could wear?”
Seras appeared out of the crowd and said, “I have a pair that he could wear.” Seras offered the gloves to Nathanael, who promptly put them on.
“Good man,” Hannibal congratulated Seras. “Come with us, Seras, son of Hrothgar.”
Seras looked him in the eye and said, “As you command, great one.”
“Nathanael, take hold of the staff and keep it on the pattern. If it is moved, the portal will close. Watch carefully and be ready. Something’s not right here. If you see anything hostile trying to come through, close it immediately,” Hannibal ordered as Corso let go of the scepter so Nathanael could grasp it.
“But how do we open it again if we have to close it before you return? How will you get back?” Nathanael asked.
Hannibal released the scepter into Nathanael’s hand, saying, “Look through the portal and remember what you see there. If the unthinkable should happen and you have to close it, to open it at this location again all you have to do is put the staff back in this spot and think of that square there and it will open for you. You have a latent telepathic ability, which will make it easier for you to use it. This scepter is much more than a scepter, it is a key and a weapon made for someone who has great power of body and mind. I still don’t grasp entirely what this thing is capable of. That’s why I’m leaving it in your hands. You’re the only one I trust with it. As for us getting back, if we do encounter hostility and you have to close it, we’ll not be coming back here anyhow. We’ll try and make our way to Acheron. If that happens, it’ll be up to you, Xavier, Nicodemus, and Joshua to get the people to safety.”
Nathanael shook his head in acknowledgment. “I understand,” he said. “The safety of these people is more important that your safety. May the Lord protect you, Hannibal. Come back to us, my friend.”
“Amen to that,” Hannibal said as he unslung his sword and buckled it around his waist.
By this time, Nicodemus and Joshua were standing there too, hearing what Hannibal was telling Nathanael. Nicodemus put his hand on Hannibal’s shoulder, saying, “Go with the blessing and protection of the Ancient of Days, great king. May He watch over and protect you wherever this path takes you.”
Hannibal shook Nicodemus’ hand, as if for the last time, saying, “We now embark on a new phase now. Live or die, we do it with honor, trying to save as many lives as we can. I will return. That’s a promise.”
Nicodemus looked deep into Hannibal’s eyes and saw the steeled warrior spirit of a great king in him. He nodded and Hannibal called to those who were to come with him, “All right people, let’s go save some lives.” Hannibal drew his sword and plunged through the portal with Selina at his side with her weapon drawn and her face covered.
Corso, Joel, and Liu hesitated at the gate. Amelia walked up behind them with her blades drawn and said to them, “Do not be afraid, Corso. It’s like stepping between two rooms.”
Hannibal looked back and waved for them to come on. One at a time, they passed through the portal into the square the great city of Cush. Seras and Amelia advanced without fear through the portal followed closely by Hannibal’s guard. Once through the portal, Corso could hardly believe that he was standing in the square of Cush…his home. Hannibal looked at his expression and said calmly, “It’s all right, Corso. It is just a machine.” Hannibal then ventured farther into the square, which was as big as the square of Kaal Bek. It was completely deserted. All around them the walls of the central castle of the city had been breached and the smell of smoke and burning flesh permeated everything.
Corso looked around in horror at the devastation. The keep itself was in ruins with the doors blown off and huge pieces of the walls and towers collapsed. “Oh, no!” Corso cried out. “We’re too late!” He rushed forward and Hannibal tried to restrain him futilely.
“Wait!” Hannibal called out as Corso rushed to the keep. “David,” Hannibal called out. “Go back and tell everyone the city has been sacked.” David rushed back through the portal to relay the news as Hannibal, Selina, and the rest of those with him chased after Corso heading into the keep.
“Corso!” Hannibal called out as they followed his footsteps into the demolished keep. It wasn’t long before they encountered many burned and mutilated bodies in the halls and corridors with blood splattered everywhere. On several occasions, they stopped and listened for Corso. They finally caught up to him in the throne room of Cushar. He stood in the doorway like a statue, looking on with numbed shock at the terrible scene before him. Hannibal pushed into the doorway and stopped cold with a grimace. The rest of the team pushed up around them to see. Timothy, Joel, and Zachias had to turn away from the carnage. Three hundred people lay hacked to pieces on the throne room floor. None were armed. Selina’s stomach turned at the gruesome sight and she finally had to turn away as well. There was blood and gore splattered all over the walls and pooling on the floor. The throne lay overturned and only a piece of ripped tapestry remained hanging on the wall. Corso uttered a curse on the Emperor as he dropped to his knees and began to weep and cry bitterly. Hannibal’s mouth hung open with disgust.
“Holy Ancient of Days,” Cole cried out. “What kind of fiend slaughters helpless women and children?”
Amelia pushed forward to see the carnage and a very grim look came over her face. “So it’s truly begun,” she said grimly.
“What’s begun?” Aragon asked.
“The culling,” Amelia returned coldly. “I have seen this kind of butchery before and it always has the Emperor’s fingerprints all over it.”
Hannibal placed a comforting hand on Corso’s shoulder as he howled in grief and anger. Liu looked on with anger. He too had seen that kind of carnage when the 7th Division overran Zin. Suddenly, a thought came to Hannibal and he gave voice to it, saying, “This can’t be everyone, Corso. You said that there were at least three thousand people here. Where are the rest?”
Corso looked at the floor with growing anger and hatred without any reply. Amelia looked over the dead and stated, “We need to be careful. These people haven’t been dead too long for the bodies aren’t stinking yet. The killers may be close by.” Her words hit Hannibal like a freight train. He grabbed onto Corso and pulled him to his feet.
“On your feet, Corso,” Hannibal ordered. “This is a very dangerous situation. Is there any place that someone might hide from the people that did this?”
Corso looked Hannibal in the face and the grief faded as hope rose in his heart. “Yes, there is,” he said with growing hope. “Follow me.” Corso rushed away from the slaughter, deep into the keep. Everywhere there were bodies of Cushites and soldiers of the 7th Division that had fallen in battle. Ten minutes later, Corso stopped at an apparent dead end corridor with no outlet other than the way they entered. He motioned for them to be quiet and put his ear to the wall. As they stood there, a very quiet and muffled sound of voices was heard echoing softly through the corridor like the wail of ghosts. He smiled with great relief and pushed on a certain spot on the wall. A grating arose from the wall as a hidden door began to swing back.
Hannibal motioned for the team to back off and flatten themselves against the wall. “Watch yourself, Corso,” he warned. “They may mistake you for the Emperor’s soldiers.”
As the door slowly opened, Corso stepped to one side and called out, “Is there anyone alive in there?” Immediately, arrows shot out of the widening gap. “Whoa! Hold you fire! It’s Corso!” he shouted.
The arrows stopped and a pair of eyes peered around the door, seeing Corso, Joel, Liu, Hannibal, and the rest of the team. A man slowly came around the door into the open, sword in hand with two others behind him, bows drawn, ready to shoot. The man, who was caked with blood and dirt, limped out of the door and looked upon Corso. His face lit up with absolute joy and he cried out, “Corso! You’ve returned! We thought you dead!” The man, who was nearly five foot six, threw his arms around Corso and wept.
Corso hugged him back, and then pushed him away, saying, “It’s good to see you too, Kale. What happened?”
Kale looked around at the rest of the group and recognized Joel and Liu, but not the others. “Who’re these people?” Kale demanded. “I don’t know them, especially this one that has her face covered.”
“They’re friends here to help,” Corso replied as the two bowmen lowered their long bows. “What happened here? The city and castle are in ruins. The throne room is a slaughterhouse. Tell me, what in name of the Ancient of Days happened?”
Kale looked down at the floor with a deeply troubled sigh, and then at Corso. “The Emperor is what happened,” Kale answered grimly. “His army swarmed the city less than twenty hours ago. Most were caught outside in the city and didn’t make it in. Only five hundred of us managed to make it in here. They came and attacked us with their new weapons, and then sacked the city, slaughtering nearly everyone they encountered. They took prisoner the leadership you left and killed everyone else.”
“What about my wife?” Corso asked insistently with fear growing in his heart.
Kale shook his head sadly and said, “What she and the council did for us was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. They held the army at bay while we escaped.”
Corso’s face fell, as did Joel’s face. “What happened to her?” Corso insisted.
“The last time I saw her, she and the council were surrounded by a hundred soldiers in the great hall. I can only assume that she was either killed or taken.”
Tears welled up in Corso’s eyes as he whispered, “Jennifer.”
Hannibal stepped forward and said, “Where is the great hall? We’ll find out if she is dead or not.”
Corso shook his head as Kale said to Hannibal, “Who’re you, sir? You look familiar.”
“My name is Hannibal,” Hannibal replied. “Do you know where the great hall is?”
Kale nodded and said, “Yes.”
“Do you know what she looks like?” Hannibal asked. Once again, Kale nodded and Hannibal suggested, “Corso. We have some live ones here. Let’s split up. I’ll take Amelia, Selina, Seras, and Aragon and follow Kale to the great hall to see if your wife is there or not. You can still get these people back through the portal to Arionath. We don’t have much time. The people that did this may still be close by. Keep your eyes open.”
Corso sighed heavily and nodded, knowing that Hannibal was right. “All right; let’s get these people out of here,” Hannibal ordered.