The Valley of the Zinzera
Approximately 8:00 am the next morning, the team had finished their breakfast. “So, where do we go now?” Jonathan asked.
Hannibal pulled out the map and laid it down so everyone could see it. Everyone gathered around the map as he spoke. “Today, we venture into cannibal country,” Hannibal declared. “Be alert and watchful. The road runs across this valley and crosses the river here before starting up the mountain on the other side. What we’re looking for is Skull Pass.” He pointed out Skull Pass on the map and continued, “It is a twin rock formation that resembles two enormous skulls. The road will run between them. From there, the road runs into a box canyon that will lead us to Solomon’s Passage: the entrance to the caverns that are supposed to house Amacia. But for now, let’s just see if we can make it to the pass before dark. I think we’ll be doing very well if we can do that.”
“Can we see the pass from here?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know,” Hannibal said. “Let’s see.” Hannibal rose, followed by Harry and Selina, and then everyone else. He went to his tent and retrieved his pack. Searching for a few moments through his pack, he found a pair of binoculars. Going to the brink of the cliff, Hannibal raised the binoculars to his eyes, and proceeded to scan the opposite ridge, looking for the pass. The mists were lifting as he searched and within three minutes, he exclaimed, “Ahh, there you are!” In the binoculars, he saw about twelve miles away on a spur ridge coming down off of Aconcagua two tremendous rock formations that appeared to be the top half of two colossal skulls. Two gaping eyes in each rocky skull gazed evilly over the valley, looking to the northeast. “The pass is over there about the third the way up Aconcagua on that spur ridge,” Hannibal said as he handed the binoculars to Harry and pointing in the direction of the pass.
Harry scanned for a few moments, and then cursed. “I’ll be damned. There it is. Man…that’s going to be one hell of a climb too,” he said as he passed the binoculars along.
“Looks like it,” Hannibal said as everyone took turns looking at the pass. Thomas, Jonathan, Sam, Ned, and Morrison cursed in amazement at the sight while Arabella, Selina, and Nathanael managed to express their amazement without swearing.
“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us today,” Nathanael said. “We’d better be on our way as quickly as possible. The farther we get from town, the safer we’ll be.”
“I’ll second that,” Ned agreed.
“All right,” Hannibal said. “Let’s break camp and be ready to move in fifteen minutes.” They all returned to the camp and proceeded to break camp. This day, Hannibal chose to don the leather trench coat Arabella had given him at the clinic, carefully storing his flight jacket in his backpack. He put his leather hat on and hung his whip at his side.
“That’s a good look for you, Hannibal,” Selina commented, smiling warmly.
“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “It makes you look like you belong here.”
“Thanks,” Hannibal replied, smiling humbly. “It’s actually a nice coat. Thanks for lending it to me, Arabella.”
“You’re welcome,” Arabella replied, smiling broadly. “Just think of it as a gift.”
“I will,” Hannibal stated, giving Arabella a brief hug. “Thanks.”
As they broke camp, Selina suddenly raised her head and looked around, sniffing the air. Nathanael did likewise, smelling what Selina did. “We’ve got company,” she said sternly. The team grabbed their weapons, more than ready for a fight. Hannibal looked at Selina and then Nathanael, nodding to them both. Selina and Nathanael suddenly raced to the forest as everyone stood ready. They watched with amazement at the speed and agility of the two giant cats as they took to the trees once reaching the forest.
“Where are they going?” Sam asked as he saw them race to the woods.
“They’re going to find out who’s paying us a visit way out here,” Hannibal said, leveling his HK-91 at the tree line.
“So, it was them I saw in the trees the other day before the General attacked you,” Ned said as he saw Selina and Nathanael take to the trees effortlessly. Hannibal smiled and said nothing. Silence reigned for a few tense moments, and then the bushes rustled. A man came forth from the undergrowth with his hands up. He was dressed entirely in black, armed with a katana strapped to his back by a harness. Several knives hung on a harness he wore. He also had a quiver of arrows lashed to his left hip and thigh of his leg with a compound bow slung over his shoulder. On his right hip sat a pistol. He wore a belt that carried ammunition and a few supplies buckled around his waist. Guns trained on him as Selina and Nathanael emerged from the undergrowth into the meadow. Selina had her Uzi pointed at him. They walked over to the group with their prisoner.
As he approached, Hannibal noticed the man was a native Indian of Argentina. He also noticed that his attire was that of a ninja. “Who are you, and why are you here?” Hannibal asked sternly.
The man looked around at the group. “My name’s Cracko,” he answered cautiously.
“So you’re the ninja who speaks the language of the Zinzera,” Hannibal said as he lowered his weapon. Then to Thomas, Ned, Jonathan, and Sam, he asked, “Is this the ninja you told me about the other day?”
“Yes, he is,” Thomas said. Then to Cracko, he said, “You have caused the General almost as much headache as Morrison…kudos to you.”
“Ahh…the deserters,” Cracko said carefully because they still had him covered with their weapons. “I’m glad to see that you finally wised up and managed to get away from that lunatic. I have some bad news though. He’s massing his elite troops from all over the province to come after you.” Then to Hannibal, he said with the utmost respect, “So you’re the valiant soul who defeated and captured him. I salute you, sir. But he’s coming for you too and your friends. You made an absolute monkey of him, arousing his hate and wrath. He’s coming to destroy you.”
Nathanael moved around in front of Cracko and stood next to Hannibal as he moved in close, looking Cracko in the eye. “How’d you find us, and why’re you here, ninja?” Hannibal asked coldly.
Hannibal’s icy gaze made Cracko uncomfortable. “I followed the General to the airfield when I heard that someone had wiped out his best recon unit,” Cracko reported. “I shadowed him and saw the battle; and what you and your friends did to him and his troops. I saw how you treated the General and how you buried the dead.” Gesturing to Thomas, Ned, Jonathan, he added, “I even saw the desertion of these four. When I saw how you treated them, I thought that you might be a friend that could help me get away from this place.”
Hannibal’s eyes began to flash with anger and he reached out, grabbed Cracko by the throat, and squeezed just enough to make it uncomfortable. “You’re dodging the question. Why did you follow us all the way out here?” Hannibal hissed sternly.
“I didn’t mean you any harm!” Cracko croaked. “I just wanted to join with you so I could get away from Gulez. I’m tired of him hunting me.”
“Let him go,” Arabella said, stepping forward, grabbing Hannibal’s arm. “He’s one of us. I know him. He’s as honest as the day is long.”
Hannibal looked her in the eye and saw her conviction. He relaxed his grip as the rest of the team lowered their weapons. “What did you do…follow us through the forest?” he asked.
Cracko nodded. “Yes. I’ve shadowed you since you beat the General,” he replied, rubbing his neck. “But I didn’t realize that you had giant alien cats as friends. I had heard the rumors from the soldiers, but didn’t quite believe the story until now. I’ve never been captured like this before. They knew exactly where I was.”
Hannibal smiled wryly. “They have a gift,” he stated. “Their sense of smell, hearing, and sight are much more developed than ours are. This is Nathanael and his daughter, Selina, who is my wife.”
“What? You have her as a mate? Incredible!” Cracko exclaimed. He looked at Selina and added, “If I may be so bold, you’re a very beautiful cat, milady. How did you and he become mates, milady?”
Selina smiled as she flanked Hannibal. “It’s a long story,” she purred.
“Yes, it is; one that will have to wait for now,” Hannibal said. “So you want to join with us. Do you have any idea of where we’re going?”
“No, sir,” Cracko replied respectfully, acknowledging Hannibal as the leader. “And it really doesn’t matter where you’re going. I’d like to come, if you’ll have me.”
Hannibal looked deeply into Cracko’s eyes and the Holy Spirit prodded him in the ribs, telling him to bring along Cracko. “You want to come with us?” Hannibal asked. “Come then. But I warn you now, we’re going there.” He turned and pointed toward Aconcagua and Skull Pass.
“You’re going through the valley to the forbidden lands?” Cracko asked in amazement.
“Yes,” Hannibal answered bluntly while the rest of his party readied themselves for the trek across the valley. “There’s no other way. We follow the Path of the Ancients to the lost lands of Amacia.”
“The Zinzera are vicious and cunning,” Cracko announced. “You must go quickly and quietly. No group that has penetrated this valley has ever returned. Let me help you cross this place. Maybe I can make a difference since I know some of the Zinzera and their ways.”
Hannibal looked at him sternly, and then a smile crept across his face. “I knew you’d be helpful the moment you friends told me about you. Welcome aboard,” he crowed.
Cracko saw the smile as they shook hands. “Thank you, sir,” he replied.
“Cracko’s your name then?” Hannibal asked. Cracko nodded and Hannibal said, “Well, my name is Hannibal.” He then introduced everyone to Cracko, who responded to each in a pleasant manner. “Now that we all know each other, let’s get moving. We have a lot of ground to cover,” Hannibal ordered as he put his pack on and slung his weapon. As he did, a rumble echoed through the forest and the ground trembled noticeably.
“What was that?” Sam asked. Hannibal looked at Nathanael and saw his countenance fall.
“The General must have penetrated the perimeter at the hangar and tripped the trap we left him,” Hannibal stated. “We need to get going right now.”
“Which way?” Thomas asked.
Hannibal smiled and said humorously, “Why, we follow the yellow brick road, of course.” Everyone laughed as Hannibal picked up the trail of the road, which led north along the edge of the cliff. They followed the road into the forest as it continued along the brow of the cliff. About sixty yards into the forest, the road narrowed to about four feet wide and began to descend in a very steep manner. As Hannibal started down the decline, he said in warning, “Watch your step along here. This path is very steep and treacherous. Follow me in a single file and take it easy. Don’t rush.” The party stretched out into a single file as they followed Hannibal down the path.
Meanwhile back at the airfield, the hangar was nothing but a smoldering hole. Thirty soldiers lay dead, strewn over the airfield like rag dolls by the massive explosion that flattened everything in a quarter mile radius. Sixty men emerged from the damaged, tangled forest onto the field with General Gulez leading them. He had a large gash on his head from the shrapnel of the explosion along with minor burns to his face and hands. He gazed with diabolical hate at the scene, but couldn’t help but to admire the sheer brutality of the tactic that had wiped out a third of his elite guard in one fell swoop. “This Beowulf is cunning and devious,” he hissed at a sergeant who stood beside him. “But it won’t save him or his friends. Vengeance will be mine. I’ll make him pay for destroying my stockpile of VX and my spiders….Sergeant!”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied promptly.
“Into the woods and find their trail. Concentrate your search to the west. Now move it, maggots!” Gulez barked. The sergeant took a squad of trackers into the forest to the west to find the trail, grateful to be away from the General. “I will have my day,” Gulez hissed to himself. “And I’ll have all their heads on my wall before the sun sets. No one does this to me and gets away with it!”
Hannibal led his party down the treacherous slope of the road on the side of the cliff. They slowly descended the path for almost a half a mile, at which time the road broadened as it approached the bottom and turned away from the cliff, heading into the dense undergrowth of the forest. “Man, am I glad to be off of that cliff,” Harry said with relief as he first scanned the forest, and then looked up the cliff where they had descended.
“Me too,” Arabella agreed and a rumble of approval rose from the group.
Hannibal briefly looked up to see puffy white cumulus clouds slowly gathering over the valley. He pushed into the dense undergrowth of the valley floor, following the road. Squirrels and birds chattered as they moved on. The air temperature increased with the humidity, making the forest air heavy and uncomfortably sticky. After going about a mile from the cliff, Hannibal suddenly stopped and held his hand up.
“What’s the matter?” Harry asked, stepping up next to Hannibal and Selina.
“The road’s gone,” Hannibal growled.
“How’d that happen?” Thomas asked.
“What do we do now?” Arabella asked too.
“We keep going in the general direction the road was heading before we lost it,” Hannibal replied after a sigh. “Selina…Nathanael, scout ahead and keep quiet. We don’t want to attract any attention to ourselves. Taking to the trees might be useful in reacquiring the road.” Selina and Nathanael nodded and disappeared into the forest, taking to the trees as they scouted ahead. They moved silently as ghosts through the trees. Then to the rest of the group, Hannibal ordered, “Let’s go. Keep in a single file and be quiet. Don’t disturb the brush.” They started in the general direction the road was heading before it disappeared. After about three hours of traversing the dense deciduous forest, they suddenly found themselves in a grove of giant fir trees reaching to the sky. Hannibal stopped them as they entered the grove and looked around with unease in his spirit.
“What is it?” Ned asked.
At first, Hannibal didn’t reply. Then he said, “There’s something strangely familiar about this place. It’s not a good feeling either. Be on your guard.” He pressed forward with his weapon up. Everyone else followed his lead, raising their weapons as Hannibal led them into the grove. They padded softly through the pine needles for almost thirty yards when Selina and Nathanael suddenly emerged from the trees, lighting just in front of Hannibal. It surprised everyone except Hannibal, scaring them considerably.
“Please, don’t do that again!” Arabella exclaimed softly after getting over the shock of their sudden appearance. The rest of the group agreed with her.
“Sorry, guys,” Selina apologized.
“What did you find?” Hannibal asked Nathanael and Selina.
“We must be careful,” Nathanael warned. “The Zinzera are all over these woods. They’ve been shadowing you for the last two and a half hours, but haven’t shown any aggression as of yet.”
Cracko heard Nathanael’s report and stated, “They’re studying us. We’d best keep moving.”
Hannibal acknowledged the input and asked, “Is there anything else? Have you seen the road yet?”
“We found the road just the other side of these firs,” Selina informed. “It’s not much more than a path though.”
“Good,” Hannibal said. “I want you two to take to the trees again and shadow us from above. If you see anything, let me know.”
Nathanael nodded and disappeared into the trees in an instant. Selina smiled. You can be sure I’ll let you know if we see anything, she replied telepathically. Selina quickly kissed Hannibal on the cheek and disappeared into the trees like a ghost.
“Come on,” Hannibal said quietly, waving for the team to proceed. They silently marched through the grove for three minutes when they reached a clear spot in the center of the grove. He stopped and motioned for the team to stop.
“What is it now?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know,” Thomas answered as Hannibal squatted down and looked at the clearing.
“What is it?” Harry asked.
“Something isn’t right here,” Hannibal replied. “Something’s amiss.”
Sam moved to the front to see what was happening. “Why’re we stopping? Surely, there’s nothing to fear here. It’s just a clear spot in the woods,” he said confidently. To prove his confidence, Sam started to step into the clearing. Hannibal bolted from his squatting position and his hand went out like a lightning bolt, snatching Sam by the back of his pack as the ground gave away when he stepped into the clearing. Hannibal yanked him back to solid ground as Sam instantly sank up to his knees. Sam lay on the solid ground with his feet still dangling in the quicksand trap. He broke into a cold sweat and swallowed hard, icy chills racing down his spine because of what he had just stepped into.
“I knew there was something wrong here,” Hannibal growled as he helped Sam stand up. “The clearing is quicksand. Next time I stop like this, please pay attention to what I tell you. It may save your life.”
“I sure will,” Sam said as the fear and adrenaline subsided, causing him to tremble. “Thanks for pulling me out of that.”
Hannibal patted him on the shoulder and helped him up. “You have a great deal of courage and confidence,” he commended Sam. “But don’t let it override your common sense. I’ve been doing this kind of work for thirty years. Trust me.”
“I do now,” Sam replied with great respect.
“We go around this,” Hannibal ordered as he broke a low-lying limb off a fir to use as a probe. He then slung his weapon and led them around the perimeter of the quicksand trap, using the limb to probe the ground in front of him.
As he led them away from the quicksand, Selina called to him telepathically, commenting, That was a close one. How did you know it was quicksand?
I didn’t, Hannibal replied telepathically. At least not until Sam foolishly stepped into it. I just felt that something wasn’t right there.
You’re truly blessed by the Lord with such insight, Selina stated telepathically as she and Nathanael shadowed them from the trees.
How far is it to the road? Hannibal asked Selina in his mind.
Three hundred yards, Selina responded. Just keep going in the direction you’re heading. I’ll meet you at there.
Thank you, princess, Hannibal replied telepathically. See you in a few minutes.
As Hannibal led them out of the fir grove and back into the hardwood forest, Harry complained, “Damn, it’s hot. I didn’t think it was supposed to be this hot here. I’d go for a swim if I knew where the river was.”
“We should be getting near some water soon. When we were up on the cliff I saw a river winding through the valley near here,” Morrison reported.
“Good,” Hannibal said. “Once we reach the river, we’ll stop for a break.”
“That sounds good to me,” Thomas said and the rest of the group agreed.
They moved on through the forest for another hundred yards until they saw Selina standing next to another obelisk like the one Sam had found near the hangar. She leaned on it with one arm nonchalantly as she waited. “It’s about time,” she chided as Hannibal arrived with the group. “Be very careful. The natives are definitely aware of your presence and are getting increasingly agitated the farther we go.”
As he looked around for the road, Hannibal replied, “We’ll keep in mind. Where’s the road?” Selina pointed into the growth just to their left and Hannibal went to investigate as the group took a brief reprieve from the march. “Ahh…here it is. Thank you so much, Selina,” Hannibal crowed. “Now, if you’d take to the trees, we’ll be pressing on now.”
Selina smiled and vanished into the trees as Hannibal motioned for the group to keep moving. “This road isn’t much bigger than a path,” Cracko commented as they followed Hannibal single file down the road through the dense underbrush of the forest. As they moved through the forest, several groups of Zinzera shadowed them on all sides, moving through the brush with as much agility and cunning as Selina and Nathanael. While the expedition moved on down the road, they began to see brief glimpses of the Zinzera flitting through the forest around them.
Harry noticed the Zinzera and approached Hannibal. “We’re being tracked,” Harry murmured.
“I know,” Hannibal replied as he led them on. “Be ready. Selina says there are about twenty of them that have been shadowing us for the last three hours. Just keep moving.”
“They’re like ghosts,” Harry commented as he glimpsed another native off through the trees. “They move like Selina and Nathanael.”
“Steady, bud,” Hannibal reassured him. “They could have attacked at any time but didn’t. They may be unsure of our reasons for being here, which will give us the advantage.” For another ten minutes, the group pressed on until Hannibal received a telepathic warning from Selina that a wild boar was near and aware of their presence. Hannibal raised his hand to halt the group as the bushes nearby suddenly began to shake. Everyone readied their weapons as the boar charged out of the bushes within seconds of Selina’s warning, not giving any of them a chance to take aim. It charged at Hannibal with the intention to gore him with its eight-inch tusks. The boar itself stood nearly four feet at the shoulders and weighed almost four hundred pounds. It snorted and waved its head wildly as everyone backed way, leaving Hannibal to deal with the wild pig. He jumped aside as it charged passed him, rolling to his feet while the pig turned for another attack. As it lunged at Hannibal, a high-pitched swoop echoed from the forest and the boar fell dead at Hannibal’s feet, sliding to a stop.
“What happened?” Arabella asked as she approached with Morrison, clamping on to his arm. Everyone gathered around the dead boar in shock. Hannibal and Morrison started to examine the pig.
As they did, Hannibal received another warning from Selina and he stood, gun ready. “On your guard, guys,” he ordered. “We aren’t alone.” Ned, Thomas, Jonathan, Sam, and Harry formed a perimeter around them and kept a close watch of the forest around them.
“Hey, look at this,” Morrison said as he found a clay dart stuck in the boar’s neck. Hannibal, Arabella, and Cracko came closer to look at it as Morrison started to reach out to pick it up.
“Don’t touch it!” Cracko shouted, grabbing Morrison’s hand before he could touch the dart.
“Why the hell not?” Morrison asked hotly, angered by Cracko interfering with his desire to remove the dart.
“That dart is full of an unknown poison used by the Zinzera,” Cracko explained. “It’s obviously potent enough to kill this wild boar instantly.”
Hannibal stooped down and carefully sniffed the dart without touching it. He grimaced at the stench of the pig, and then smelled a whiff of bitter almonds. “It’s cyanide. And it’s an especially toxic formula too,” he announced as he stood up and scanned the forest around them.
“I don’t like this,” Thomas declared with concern. “I think we’d better get the hell out of here.”
“I’m with Thomas,” Ned agreed. “I don’t relish being this close to those cannibals.”
“Thomas is right,” Cracko warned. “We need to go now.” As he spoke, Selina issued another telepathic warning to Hannibal for him to get moving because the natives were beginning to move toward them.
“Let’s go!” Hannibal ordered. “Harry…Ned, watch our backs. Thomas, Jonathan, watch our left flank. John, Cracko…cover our right flank. Arabella…stay close to me. Now move out.” He pushed hastily away from the boar, followed by the rest of the group. As he did, he called to Selina telepathically saying, You and Nathanael show yourselves to the natives. Maybe your presence will be enough to scare them off. And be careful. Their darts are full of cyanide. Don’t get hit.
We’ll see what we can do. Be very careful, Selina returned telepathically as Hannibal and his party raced through the forest following the road. Selina told Nathanael what Hannibal wanted them to do, and they moved into action. Within two minutes, an unearthly roar echoed through the forest. Hannibal smiled as they moved on.
“What in heaven’s name is that?” Arabella asked with fear rising in her.
“Yeah…What is that?” Thomas and Sam asked simultaneously.
“It doesn’t sound human,” Jonathan stated.
“That would be Selina and Nathanael trying to buy us some time,” Hannibal said while pushing through the underbrush like a juggernaut. “Maybe they’ll scare them away.” Unknown to them, one small group of six natives closed in on their position. Hannibal suddenly heard the same sound that he heard when the boar fell dead at his feet. “Everyone, scatter!” he barked. Everyone dove for cover as a hail of clay darts flew everywhere, accompanied by more howls and roars from the forest. But when everyone dove for cover, Arabella tripped on a rock. As she fell, a dart stuck in her arm. She stood up for a moment, pulling the dart from her arm, and then collapsed on the ground.
“Arabella!” Morrison cried out. He stood up and opened fire with his AK-47, spraying the bushes. Then he launched a grenade in the general direction the darts came from. Ned likewise opened fire with his M-60 machine gun, covering Morrison until he launched the grenade. After their onslaught, four natives lay mortally wounded and two sat frozen in a panic.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Hannibal shouted over the noise and Ned stopped shooting, but kept his weapon ready as smoke curled from the machine gun’s barrel.
Selina and Nathanael heard the commotion and investigated after they had scared the rest of the natives away. They found the two natives lying on the ground, frozen with fear. In an instant, Selina and Nathanael descended upon them. They looked up in abject terror as Selina and Nathanael reached down and picked them up, forcing them toward the group. The natives literally trembled as Selina and Nathanael pushed them forward.
The team stood around Arabella when they heard a rustling of the undergrowth. Everybody except Hannibal trained his or her weapons on the noise. Hannibal looked up from Arabella, saying, “Hold your fire. It’s Selina and Nathanael.” They kept their weapons up as two leather-clad natives were pushed out of the bushes followed closely by Selina and Nathanael. They breathed a sigh of relief and lowered their weapons.
“Look what we found,” Nathanael said as he and Selina pushed the natives before the group and Hannibal.
Hannibal stood as Selina went to Arabella. Harry took Selina’s place as a guard. “How is she?” Selina asked as she knelt down, pulling Arabella into her lap and checking her vitals.
“She’s out cold,” Hannibal reported. “They must not have used cyanide in that particular dart or she’d be dead.” As he spoke, the natives saw Hannibal was the leader. They fell to ground before him, prostrating themselves, and begging in their language to be spared. He looked down at them coldly. “You’re fortunate that she isn’t dead like that pig,” Hannibal hissed. The natives continued to babble in their language.
“Cracko…you know how to speak to these guys, don’t you?” Morrison asked.
Cracko nodded and Hannibal asked, “What’re they saying?”
Cracko listened to the natives as they begged repeatedly. “They think we’re gods, and are begging for you to spare their life,” he reported.
“We’re no gods,” Harry commented.
“That’s right,” Hannibal agreed.
“Ask them what kind of poison they used in the dart,” Morrison ordered.
“Also tell them that we’ll spare them if they tell us what the antidote to the dart is,” Hannibal added. Cracko understood and squatted down in front of the natives, explaining what Hannibal wanted. Selina and Jonathan cleaned Arabella’s wound as Cracko found out what they had used in the dart.
Cracko rose, turning to the group as Morrison asked impatiently, “Well?”
“The dart had a powerful tranquilizer in it,” Cracko reported. “Its effects will wear off in about twelve hours.”
“Twelve hours!” Morrison exploded. “God in heaven; what the hell did they use, two hundred percent concentration of knockout drops?”
“You could say that,” Cracko said.
Hannibal shook his head. “We don’t have time for this,” he growled. Just then, one of the natives rose to his knees and called out to Cracko, speaking at length to him. “What did he say?” Hannibal asked, noticing the exchange.
“He says he has the antidote,” Cracko said.
“Don’t trust him!” Ned barked. “He’s a cannibal.”
“Let’s see if his antidote is for real,” Hannibal said. “Tell him to give it to Arabella and warn him if she dies, so does he.”
Cracko informed the natives and they rose from their position, going to Arabella to treat her wound. Selina and Jonathan watched them like hawks as the natives talked to each other. One of the natives opened a small bag hanging on his belt and produced some ground up leaves. The native held it in the palm of his hand and spit on it. With the fingers of his other hand, the native worked the leaves and spit into a paste.
“Oh, gross!” Sam exclaimed. “You’re not going to let them put that on her, are you? It’s unsanitary!”
“Let them work!” Cracko snapped as everyone watched the native apply the paste to her wound. The native then reached in the bag again and pulled out a strange looking bandage, with which he wrapped the wound. Once they had finished, they backed away and sat on their knees before everyone.
“What was that stuff they put on the wound?” Hannibal asked Cracko, who referred the questions to the natives. The natives answered immediately.
“It’s the leaves of the Rocormaroe plant,” Cracko reported. “It’s the only known antidote to the tranquilizer they used, short of waiting twelve hours for her to wake up. Besides, the leaves can help to prevent infection, which can happen very easily in this steamy environment.”
“But did they have to spit on it?” Sam asked; revolted by what he had just witnessed.
“Yes,” Cracko answered. “The leaves are a natural antibiotic and neutralize any bacteria in the saliva that could cause a problem. The saliva is in fact the carrier for the antidote. Besides, these natives are healthier than anyone else in this area.”
“Why’s that?” Jonathan asked. “Is it because they eat people?”
“No,” Cracko replied. “It has something to do with the water they drink coming from the mountain. It has some special properties that help to keep them healthy. Furthermore, they don’t eat anything that comes from our modern world.”
Hannibal’s eyebrow rose at the answer. “Cracko…ask them if their people are still cannibals,” he ordered.
Cracko referred the question to them and they looked shocked as they answered. A surprised look came across Cracko’s face as he asked them a follow-up question, which the natives answered immediately. “Well, doesn’t that beat all,” Cracko commented, turning back to Hannibal. “It seems the natives of this valley have been pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone, including me, for several generations.”
“You mean they don’t really eat people?” Harry asked.
“No,” Cracko stated. “They haven’t participated in cannibalism since the Portuguese and Spanish first came here. But they kept the myth alive to keep intruders out.”
“So what happened to those who dared to enter their territory?” Sam asked. “I’m thinking of all those squads the General sent in here that never came back.”
“They killed them as a sacrifice to their gods,” Cracko stated bluntly. “They were roasted in their sacred place as an offering to appease their gods. They feared retaliation from the gods for allowing anyone to intrude on the forbidden ground. We must be very careful; otherwise we may meet the same fate.” As he spoke, Arabella came around.
“She’s waking up,” Selina announced.
“What happened?” Arabella asked, blinking several times as she woke. “The last thing I remember is tripping and seeing a dart stick into my arm as I fell.” The natives bowed before her and began to beg her forgiveness in their language. She immediately saw the natives and tried to move away but was unable to because of Selina holding her in her lap.
“It’s all right,” Selina said gently in her ear. “There’s nothing to fear now.” Arabella turned her head and saw Selina smiling at her.
“The dart was tipped with a tranquilizer,” Hannibal said as he squatted down in front of her. “Selina and Nathanael captured them and brought them here. They had the antidote with them, which they just administered to you. You’re very lucky they decided to use a tranquilizer and not the cyanide in the dart.”
Arabella looked at him groggily and grabbed onto Selina’s arm as she tried to sit up. “How can you trust them? They’re cannibals!” Arabella insisted.
“No, they aren’t,” Nathanael reported. “Apparently, that’s a myth they created to keep trespassers away. We just found out from these two about that.”
A deeply puzzled look crossed Arabella’s face. “Really?” she asked. “They’re not cannibals?”
“Apparently not,” Hannibal said softly. “But they’re still a ruthless tribe that has killed anyone who has dared to intrude on their domain in the past, which means they must be approached very carefully.”
“Oh,” Arabella murmured as she saw the natives bowed before her, continuing to beg in their language. Not understanding them, she asked, “What’re they saying?”
“Cracko…I think that’s your department,” Morrison said.
“They’re begging for your forgiveness and not to put them to death,” Cracko informed her.
As Arabella paused to consider what she heard, Hannibal added, “They did give you the antidote. I don’t think they need to die. Just look at them. They are scared out of their minds. They believe we’re gods, I suspect because of Selina and Nathanael.”
After a few moments of consideration, Arabella said to Cracko “Tell them that I forgive them and won’t have them killed.” Cracko relayed the message to the natives and they bowed with their face towards the ground, praising her in their native language. “Oh, be quiet!” Arabella snapped but the natives kept on praising her. “Cracko…tell them to shut up and stop whatever they’re doing,” she ordered.
“But they’re just thanking you for not putting them to death,” Cracko replied thoughtfully. Hannibal and Selina watched with just a hint of amusement at the event unfolding before them.
“Just tell them to be quiet, all right?” Arabella responded in a rather irritated tone.
“Okay, I’ll tell them,” Cracko said and he explained to the natives what she wanted.
As he spoke to the natives, Hannibal ordered, “Tell them also that we’re not gods but explorers heading for the mountain...that we don’t want to hurt them or cause them any grief.” Cracko explained what Hannibal had said to the natives, yet they continued to bow themselves before Hannibal and the group.
“What’s that about?” Harry asked as he, Ned, Jonathan, Sam, and Thomas kept an eye on the surrounding forest.
“They believe that if we’re not gods, then we’re sent by the gods and thus to be worshipped,” Cracko reported.
Hannibal began to be irritated slightly by this. “Tell them we’re men just like they are and not to worship us,” he snapped. “Also tell them to behave themselves if they want to live to a ripe old age.” Cracko informed them what Hannibal had said and they stood, replying in their tongue.
“They’ll behave,” Cracko announced. “Besides, even if you aren’t a god, they still believe Selina and Nathanael are gods and won’t do anything to bring their wrath down on them.”
“I guess that will have to do for now,” Hannibal said grumpily. “How did your little scare tactic work on the rest of the natives?” he asked Nathanael.
“I think it went very well,” Nathanael replied. “All of the rest of the natives fled in terror of us.”
“Good,” Hannibal answered coolly. Then to Arabella, he asked, “Can you stand yet?”
“I think so,” Arabella answered. “Help me up, Selina.” Selina and Morrison gently raised her to her feet and Morrison let go, leaving Selina holding her up. Her legs immediately buckled beneath her as she stood, leaving her clinging to Selina.
“How long will this last?” Harry asked.
“About an hour, according to the natives,” Cracko answered.
“All right,” Hannibal said. “Let’s take advantage of the native’s absence and get moving. Selina...you and John help Arabella. We need to try to make it to the river. We’ll stop there. Thomas, Ned, Harry: bring the natives. Okay, let’s get moving.” Hannibal took point again with Nathanael right behind him, followed by Selina and Morrison helping to carry Arabella. The natives came next, being guarded by Harry, Ned, and Thomas. Jonathan, Sam, and Cracko brought up the rear as they moved west through the forest following the road.