Hannibal led his team out of the marshes into a dense forest of fir trees as the sun began to fall behind the mountain. “We should make camp,” Morrison suggested as they walked through the forest.
“Not just yet,” Hannibal replied. “Let’s go just a little farther. I’d feel safer with just a bit more distance between me and the General.”
“How much farther?” Jonathan asked as his wounds began to pain him. “I’m just about done.”
“Me too,” Ned said as he limped along. “My leg is killing me.”
“Another ten minutes,” Hannibal suggested. “Can you go that much farther?”
“I think so,” Jonathan said in a defeated tone.
Selina noticed the weariness of the troupe and said to Hannibal “I think we should stop now. They’re completely exhausted from the battle with the General. Besides, it’s getting dark pretty quickly.”
“All right,” Hannibal announced after a deep sigh. “Since everyone is exhausted, we’ll make camp here.” A rumble of approval rose from his team as they stopped. Hannibal surveyed the scene, seeing the dense fir trees nearly obscuring the sky. He saw the relief on everyone’s face as they came to a stop. “Arabella, Nathanael, I want you to treat those who are wounded. You guys who took bullets...just relax. The rest of us will set up camp and make the fire.” Arabella came to Hannibal first with the first-aid kit and he said, “See to the others first.” She nodded and went to help Nathanael treat the wounded; waiting to do Hannibal’s wound last. Within minutes, the tents were raised, the fire built, and dinner was being prepared. Shadows encompassed the fir forest as they settled down to eat, greedily consuming their portions. “Cracko…do you know whether the Zinzera inhabit this side of the river?” Hannibal asked as he ate.
“Not that I know of,” Cracko replied. “They consider this side of the river sacred ground and dare not tread it because they believe it belongs to the gods. That’s why they are so protective of the other side of the river. They believe it is their job to prevent anyone from reaching this area and desecrating it. I still can’t believe we made it this far.”
“The Lord is good,” Nathanael commented as he finished his portion. “He has allowed us safe passage across the valley into this area.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Ned said. “It wasn’t safe at all. We were all nearly killed multiple times.”
“Ahh, but we weren’t,” Nathanael returned pleasantly. “He has kept us alive and relatively uninjured. The wounds you received aren’t life threatening, unlike what happened to those poor soldiers who attacked us. I pray for their souls.”
“The point is,” Hannibal declared, “We’re safe for the moment. We don’t have to worry about someone sneaking up on us tonight. Still, we should keep watch tonight. We’re deep in new territory. Who knows what new things we’ll encounter out here?”
“I think that would be wise,” Nathanael agreed. “Who knows what terrors roam these wilds. I’ll watch tonight.”
“I’ll watch too,” Selina stated.
“Me too,” Cracko offered. Deep darkness fell over the forest as they finished eating. The sound of frogs and crickets echoed softly through the woods. A feeling of peace fell over the camp as they talked.
Hannibal checked through his pack with Selina as the rest of the group made small talk amongst themselves. He removed his flight jacket, and then the Relic and the Artifact along with several small medallions and the Amulet, which had initially led him to this place, sitting them out for all to see and handle. The items were passed around to those who wanted a closer look. He then found his communicator with a bullet in it, pulling out the wreckage of it. Showing it to the team, he stated, “The Lord was watching my back more than I realized. The communicator kept me from taking a bullet.”
“Doesn’t look like you’re going to call home with that anymore,” Harry commented.
“Nope,” Hannibal agreed. “But it was useless this far from the airfield anyway. There’s something strange about this whole area that prevents portal contact. We’re truly on our own now.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m dead tired,” Ned said wearily. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Ned rose and went to his tent. “See you in the morning, Ned,” Hannibal called out as Ned went in his tent. “If anyone else is beat, don’t let me stop you from turning in. We’re going to need every ounce of strength tomorrow. We take Skull Pass in the morning.” The group split up, taking Hannibal’s suggestion about going to bed, leaving only Nathanael, Selina, Hannibal, and Cracko sitting around the fire.
“I’m sorry we don’t have a tent or sleeping bag for you, Cracko,” Hannibal apologized. “We didn’t know that you were going to be joining us.”
“That’s quite all right,” Cracko replied. “I’ve been sleeping in the bush for the last three months without any shelter anyway. I’m quite used to it.”
“I think we’ve got an extra blanket somewhere,” Selina said, rising from her position beside Hannibal and going to their tent. A few moments later, she emerged with a thick blanket and handed it to Cracko before sitting down next to Hannibal again.
“Thank you,” Cracko said gratefully as he removed his katana from his back and draped the blanket around his shoulders. “Please don’t be offended, but how did you become his wife?” Cracko asked Selina. Hannibal smiled warmly and proceeded to tell Cracko about the Temple, the portal, and how he rescued Selina and Nathanael from the supernova. Nathanael and Selina took turns with Hannibal telling pieces of the story. By 11:00 pm, Cracko finally received an understanding as to who and what Nathanael and Selina were, and how she became Hannibal’s wife. He listened intently the whole time and finally said, “Stranger things have been. It seems the gods have blessed you tremendously. You should be thankful.”
“We are,” Hannibal said. “We’re even thankful for Him bringing you to us. You proved yourself today in the firefight. The Lord has added you to our number. Welcome.”
“Thank you,” Cracko said as he lay down by the fire. “I hope to continue to be of help to you in any way I can. I know a good thing when I see it.”
“We shall see,” Hannibal said with a smile. “Sleep now. We’ll wake you when your watch comes.”
“Thank you,” Cracko said softly.
Hannibal then proceeded to pack up the Relic, the Artifact, Amulet, and other small pieces he had removed from his pack, using his flight jacket as padding for the items. Upon closing the pack, he asked Nathanael, “You want the first watch?” Nathanael nodded indicating that he would and Hannibal rose with his pack, retiring to his tent with Selina. Nathanael heard Hannibal and Selina praying quietly in their tent, repenting of the bloodshed that had occurred at their hand during the day.
Nathanael threw some more wood on the fire as Cracko called to him. “Take my katana in case something happens while I’m asleep,” he told Nathanael.
“Are you sure about that?” Nathanael asked as he received the katana from Cracko’s hand.
“Yes,” Cracko returned as he turned his back to the fire. Nathanael handled the sword in its sheath, getting the feel for it. He sat down opposite of Cracko and silently pulled it from its sheath, looking at its keen edge in the fire light. He eyed it from several different angles, and then sheathed it, sitting it down beside him while keeping watch. He looked into the inky blackness of the fir forest around him and sighed deeply. The forest became eerily silent as the darkness seemed to close in around them.
Meanwhile, deep beneath Aconcagua, Joshua came before Nicodemus in a small cave with a fire burning in the center bearing a report. Nicodemus sat looking into the fire, lost in thought. “What is it, Joshua?” Nicodemus asked.
“The Emperor has doubled the number of troops at Solomon’s Passage. He’s undoubtedly expecting an attack,” Joshua replied.
“The Emperor seeks to capture the Warrior and his people,” Nicodemus said. “He knows they’re close at hand.”
“But what’re we to do?” Joshua asked. “He now has at least six hundred troops guarding the Passage itself, not to mention the rest of the 8th Division securing Amm Su and the road. He’ll surely capture and kill them. We’re powerless against those kinds of numbers and their hardware. He’s also conducting an extensive search for our other brothers and sisters in hiding. It’s a seek-and-destroy mission. What shall we do?”
Nicodemus gazed into the fire without answering for a few moments. “Trust in the Ancient of Days,” Nicodemus said. “The Warrior is near at hand. Gather your best men and go to Solomon’s Passage. Keep yourself concealed and do not engage the Emperor’s troops until they have made contact with the Warrior and his people. Sweep in and spirit them away like a Caronadon, and bring them to me.”
“We may take some heavy casualties to do this,” Joshua said. “It’s going to be extremely dangerous to do that. I have word that the Emperor has ordered his troops to annihilate anyone who comes near Solomon’s Passage.”
“The Ancient of Days will deliver the Emperor’s troops into your hand,” Nicodemus said confidently. “You will smite them with a great slaughter and deliver the Warrior and his people out of their hand. Trust in the Ancient of Days, Joshua. He will make the way.”
“As the Ancient of Days wills,” Joshua said. “We’ll bring them to you.”
Nicodemus rose and grasped Joshua’s arms. “May the Ancient of Days go with you,” he prayed. “To get out without being seen, use Stygian’s Way.” Joshua grasped Nicodemus’ arms in response and nodded. He then left to gather his troops as Nicodemus had instructed.
At 1:30 am while on watch, Nathanael sat at the fire adding wood to it when he detected a strange scent in the air. “Hmmm…something’s out there,” he murmured, standing up and drawing Cracko’s katana from its sheath. His keen hearing heard movement in the forest around them, but he could only make out shadows flitting through the trees. As he looked around, twenty-seven shadowy figures surrounded the camp. “Everyone up!” Nathanael roared. “Incoming!”
Nathanael’s roar instantly woke the team and they poured out of their tents, gathering around the fire with what was left of their weapons. “What’s wrong?” Hannibal asked, seeing Nathanael’s hardened face.
“We have company,” Nathanael replied. “And I don’t think they’re friendly. They smell like Zinzera.”
“But I didn’t think they came on this side of the river,” Sam said with a worried look, holding his knife ready.
“I didn’t think they would,” Cracko answered with great puzzlement. “Obviously, I was wrong. But I can’t figure out why they would risk angering their gods by crossing the river. This is supposed to be forbidden territory owned by the gods like the pyramid.”
“Maybe we forced their hand by crossing the river,” Hannibal suggested.
“Could be,” Cracko admitted.
“How many are there?” Harry asked.
“It’s about twenty-seven of them,” Nathanael stated, scanning the perimeter. “We’re surrounded.”
“Oh, dear,” Hannibal growled, pulling his pistol. “This can’t be good.”
“They’re coming,” Selina declared. “But they don’t seem to be very agitated. I can sense it. Maybe they want to talk.”
“Or they want to roast us to their gods,” Thomas declared fearfully, pointing his loaded crossbow into the darkness.
Hannibal looked into the darkness and saw the shadows closing on the camp until they came into view eighty feet away at the edge of the light cast by the campfire, where they stopped. “They’re warriors…Zinzera special opts. Their markings suggest as much,” Hannibal stated, seeing the spears and blowguns in the hands of the leather-clad natives, who were painting like cats. They held their spears vertically with the points up as if they were standing at attention. Knives and strange-looking short swords hung on their belts along with leather satchels. The metal of the spear points, knives, and swords were unknown to Hannibal. “Were the Zinzera on the other side of the river painted in war paint, Nathanael?” Hannibal asked. “I remember the two you and Selina captured were not painted like that.”
“No, they weren’t,” Nathanael answered. “They were just scouts. This is a war party, no question. Their armaments and body paint suggests an elite unit, as you surmised, Hannibal.”
“Dad’s right,” Selina agreed. “I can sense it. They’re definitely an elite platoon charged with policing this side of the river.” She looked at the elite Zinzera warriors surrounding the camp closely and added, “They fear us, most likely because of me and Dad. They’ve never seen a Lynxian before and consider us cat gods.”
“You can sense that?” Harry asked.
“Yes, Harry,” Selina answered. “I can, but I must admit they have very disciplined minds, much more disciplined than most humans I’ve encountered beyond Hannibal. Their discipline is allowing them to hide their intentions from me.”
“That cannot be good,” Thomas commented fearfully.
“What do we do?” Arabella asked fearfully, hiding behind Morrison.
“I don’t know,” Morrison replied. “But I’ll not let them take you.”
The warriors stared at Hannibal and his team in stony silence, not making a move. “What do you want?” Hannibal called out, lowering his pistol. “We mean you no harm. We’re friends.”
The warriors began to chant, stomping their feet and banging their spears against the ground. “What’re they saying, Cracko?” Ned asked; fingering the handle of his large combat knife as it sat in its sheath on his belt.
Cracko listened to the chant for a moment and a puzzled look came across his face. “They’re chanting the name Beowulf,” he reported. “Why are they chanting that name? Isn’t Beowulf your codename, Hannibal?”
Hannibal paled at the news. “Yes,” he said softly, worry evident in his tone. “That’s true.”
Suddenly, the natives stopped chanting and two elderly natives approached from behind the line. The elderly native on the left wore a mountain lion headdress equipped with curved horns along with a necklace of mountain lion claws around his neck. The gray-eyed man wore a leather fur-lined loincloth, vest, and boots with gold wristbands etched in the Stone Language. His silver hair hung out from beneath his headdress in braids and his bare face, arms, and legs were painted in silver and black tiger stripes. He carried strange six-foot gnarled staff with a human skull attached to it that had large turquoise crystal eyes in the eye sockets. Archaic symbols written in gold decorated the skull. A long dagger hung on his waist. He emanated an aura of great power, nobility, and a sense of deep mystery.
The second elderly man who was unpainted and clad in fur-lined leather with cloak bore a golden headband etched with the Stone Language along with two gold wristbands and several ornate rings on his fingers. He held a strange spear in his hand with a long crystal spear point embedded in a metallic staff that was etched with the Stone Language. The spear had a pummel on the opposite end from the crystal head. On his waist, the second elderly Zinzera had a long, katana-style blade in a short sheath that left the lower two feet of the blade bare. He radiated an aura of great authority and power comparable to the first elderly Zinzera. The two elderly natives stopped ten feet from Hannibal and stared coldly at him and his troop. Hannibal instantly realized the leaders of the Zinzera were confronting him: the Zinzera chieftain wearing the gold headband and the Zinzera shaman with the mountain lion headdress.
“Look at the spear and headband, Hannibal,” Nathanael stated. “It’s engraved with the Stone Language.”
“So it is,” Hannibal acknowledged as Selina stood beside Hannibal with her hand on his shoulder. “And the metal of their weapons is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.” He looked the two elderly natives in the eye and slowly tossed his pistol on the ground, showing he was not a threat to them, bowing slightly to acknowledge them.
When the two elderly natives saw this and Selina’s hand on Hannibal’s shoulder in a friendly, almost protective manner, they softened their icy demeanor. The native with the headband spoke softly to the one with the mountain lion headdress briefly before turning back to Hannibal.
“What did he say?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know,” Cracko replied. “I couldn’t hear it.”
The native with the mountain lion headdress stepped up to Hannibal and Selina. When the rest of Hannibal’s troop saw this, they bristled. Nathanael started to move, but Hannibal held out his hand. “Don’t, Nathanael,” Hannibal ordered. “Just relax everyone. There’s no point in antagonizing them. I think these are the leaders of the Zinzera. Put your weapons down.” When the team hesitated, Hannibal snapped, “Do it! Our only chance is to talk our way out of this. We intruded on their territory. We must convince them that we’re not a threat to them. I don’t want their blood on our hands.” The team cautiously dropped their weapons, keeping an alert eye on the warriors surrounding them as Hannibal stepped forward to greet the native with the headdress.
The native with the headdress stopped in front of Hannibal and looked him in the eye. Hannibal stared into the eyes of the man and suddenly understood this was the shaman of the tribe. Hannibal smiled cautiously and acknowledged the man with a nod. The shaman pointed to Hannibal’s hand and Hannibal offered it to the man. The shaman grabbed Hannibal’s hand, looking at his palm closely. The shaman grunted with satisfaction and pointed to Hannibal’s chest, making a motion as if he was talking off the shirt.
“You want to see my chest?” Hannibal queried softly. The shaman nodded and Hannibal immediately realized the shaman understood him. In seconds, Hannibal unbuttoned his shirt and opened it, revealing his scarred chest to the shaman and everyone else. Gasps came from the new members of Hannibal’s team when they saw how badly scarred Hannibal was. The shaman touched the scars as if he were reading Hannibal’s history through them.
“What’s he doing?” Arabella asked fearfully.
“I suspect he’s the Zinzera shaman,” Hannibal reported. “He must be confirming who I am.”
“How can he do that?” Morrison asked. “He’s never seen you before.”
“Shamans are a strange lot,” Hannibal stated. “They have access to the spirit world most people don’t. He may be using that connection to divine who I am.”
The shaman noticed how closely Selina shadowed Hannibal and touched her on the hand, looking her in the eye. She stared into the shaman’s eyes and nodded, probing him telepathically. A look of shock came over the shaman and he back up to his companion, with whom he spoke extensively, their conversation become very animated at times.
“This can’t be good,” Thomas growled.
“Quiet,” Hannibal hissed. “What’re they saying, Cracko?”
Cracko listened intently for a few moments. “They seem to be talking about a prophecy of some kind. The shaman thinks you may be the one they’ve been waiting for. But the other one is not convinced.”
“Oh, dear,” Hannibal replied in a worried tone. “That doesn’t sound….”
Before Hannibal could finish his thought, the elderly native with the headband and spear snapped his fingers with a cold expression. Hannibal saw several of the warriors on the perimeter toss several small clay containers at the feet of his team before anyone could react. The containers shattered, releasing a potent cloud of odd-smelling gas that instantly enveloped Hannibal and his team. The gas promptly made Hannibal dizzy. Looking at the shaman and the elderly native with the headband, Hannibal asked with a puzzled expression on his face, “Why?” He dropped to his knees, coughing. Just before passing out, Hannibal saw members of his team collapse as the shaman and the man he now knew was the leader of the Zinzera covered their faces with strange masks.
An unknown time later, Hannibal awoke with a gasp, lying on a straw bed in a room hewn from solid rock. Torches lit the room, which had only one exit: a heavy wooden door that appeared to be barred from the outside. He sat up and moaned as his head throbbed. “Damn,” he murmured. “That was some potent shit. But why did they gas us?” Looking around and finding himself alone and unarmed, a pang of fear sent icy chills down his spine. “Selina…where are you?” he shouted.
I don’t know, Selina replied telepathically. I’m in a small room that is barred from the outside with no one else around. I should have been more careful when I read that shaman. I think he sensed me, and didn’t like it.
Maybe, do you know what happened to the others? Hannibal asked telepathically.
No, Selina stated. I don’t remember anything after they gassed us. I hope they don’t roast us.
Me neither, Hannibal answered telepathically. When he heard a noise at the door, he added, I think I’m about to find out what’s going on here. Someone’s coming.
Someone’s coming into my room too. Be careful, my prince, and don’t antagonize them, Selina urged.
Right, Hannibal replied telepathically as the door opened and four burly Zinzera guards armed with swords and spears entered with their spears pointed at Hannibal. They surrounded him as the shaman entered with his staff in hand. He beckoned Hannibal to come, so Hannibal followed him out of the room. The shaman led Hannibal down a passageway hewn from solid andesite granite with the guards following closely; their spears pointed at Hannibal as they walked. “What do you want?” Hannibal asked the shaman.
The shaman looked at Hannibal with a wry grin. “You will find out soon enough, outlander,” the shaman replied in English, stunning Hannibal.
“What…you can speak my language?” Hannibal asked as they walked. “How?”
“We’re not blind to the world around us, Beowulf,” the shaman declared. “We learned many languages from those who have transgressed our territory over the centuries, including yours.”
Hannibal paled as fear rose in his soul. “How is it that you know that name?” he asked intently.
The shaman stopped and turned to Hannibal, staring into his eyes. “I know many things, Beowulf; more than you can imagine,” he stated. “We’re not the primitive savages you believe us to be, despite our primitive appearance. Our culture has a history that extends back beyond the earliest days of the Pharaohs when the gods themselves walked our world.”
“What?” Hannibal replied, stunned by the revelation. “Your people have roots back to the time of Amacia?”
“We do indeed,” the shaman stated. “We and a several other tribes of Zinzera scattered around the planet have been guarding the secrets of the gods since the great Calamity that fell from the sky, turning our world upside down and imprisoning the demon overlord of Amacia in the underworld.”
“I had no idea,” Hannibal answered softly. “Had I known, I would have tried to learn more about your people before coming into your valley. It wasn’t my intention to violate your sacred traditions.”
“It would’ve made no difference,” the shaman stated bluntly. “We do not share our ways with outsiders. We have a sacred vow to protect the secrets the gods left to us with lethal force. Only those who are worthy may walk the Path.”
“Then why didn’t you kill us the moment we entered your valley?” Hannibal asked.
“We didn’t kill you because we have rules about outsiders,” the shaman said. “Intruders are first shadowed and then captured before they cross the river. If they resist capture, they’re killed and their bodies burned as an offering to the gods. Those we take alive are brought to the sacred temple where their intentions and worthiness are tested by the gods. If their intentions are evil and they’re not proven worthy to tread the Path, they’re roasted alive on the pyres until their flesh is consumed. Then their skulls are removed and placed as warnings around the valley. On the other hand, if the intruder’s intention is benign and pure, the intruder is given a choice: stay and live as a Zinzera for the rest of their natural lives or die on the pyres. No one who reaches the temple ever leaves this valley.”
“What about an innocent soul who has gotten lost and stumbles into your valley by accident?” Hannibal queried, being very worried by the shaman’s words. “Do you imprison or kill them too?”
“We’re not without compassion,” the shaman stated. “When we encounter the incredibly rare circumstance of someone being truly lost in our valley, we tranquilize them like we tried to do to your party on the other side of the river and take them just beyond our borders where we know someone will find them. But that hasn’t happened in many years. Everyone who has entered this valley in the last forty years has done so on purpose and not by accident with the vast majority of them being evil people set on defiling our sacred lands and pillaging our ancient secrets.”
“And what of those good people who stay rather than be burned alive?” Hannibal inquired. “What kind of life do they have? Are they slaves?”
“You know so little of our people, Beowulf,” the shaman chided. “Those individuals who choose life with us learn our ways and become happy in their new lives. Inevitably, these people come from a very sad background, and are looking for a place to start over. They abide by our laws and don’t try to escape the valley.”
“True…I don’t know much about your people,” Hannibal admitted. “But I cannot help but think that even these people who chose life are still prisoners here. Is that’s what’s going to happen with me and my team?”
“That’s entirely up to you, Beowulf,” the shaman stated. “Believe it or not, you and your people are a special case.”
“What do you mean?” Hannibal asked.
“You and the cat gods with you make it a special case,” the shaman stated, looking Hannibal in the eye. “We have known for centuries that you’d come, Beowulf. Prophecies passed down from the time of the Calamity say you would come with ten companions and would have a celestial mate with you. I’m familiar with these prophecies and believed the moment I saw you with the cat goddess on your arm. But there are those amongst us who do not believe you’re the one etched in our prophecies, despite the presence of the cat gods with you. They want to roast you and your friends. Only the Trials will convince them otherwise.”
“Prophecy…what prophecy?” Hannibal asked with great interest.
“You’ll see soon enough,” the shaman replied. “But for now, we must go to the sacred Temple where you’ll be tried by the gods to see if you and your companions are worthy to walk the sacred road to the forbidden land of the gods in the world beneath the mountain. It’s our tradition. Even though I may believe you’re the One, only through the Trials will the elders believe too. The gods and the elders must be satisfied before you can continue on your journey.”
“Very well,” Hannibal said softly, not wanting to antagonize the shaman or the guards further as they started moving again. His innate ability to sense danger ramped up to into the red as they moved through the corridor. “Lord, protect me and my friends,” he whispered.
The shaman led Hannibal out of the corridor into a central plaza of a cliff city hidden in a deep hidden gorge on the side of Aconcagua. The cliff dwellings lay nestled beneath several colossal ledges, rising eight hundred feet in height and wrapping around the terminus of the gorge, which was six hundred feet wide where Hannibal walked following the shaman. The city seemed abandoned for centuries. “Oh, my god,” Hannibal breathed. “What is this place?” The place reminded Hannibal of ancient Petra, only much larger and far more ancient.
“This is the last sacred refuge of the gods, Xabalba,” the shaman declared. “It’s where the gods will try your worthiness to walk the ancient path to their lands. None who have seen this place have ever lived, so prepare to prove yourself to the gods who still linger in this holy shrine.”
A deep chill raced down Hannibal’s spine at the shaman’s words. Yet, a strong feeling of déjà vu swept him. “I will honor your traditions, my friend,” Hannibal stated cautiously.
“We shall see,” the shaman returned tartly as he led Hannibal back into the cliff dwellings through a twenty-foot tall ten-foot wide doorway etched with the Stone Language on the posts and lentil of the aperture. “A word of warning…no one has ever passed the Trials, so prepare to meet whatever gods you worship. You’ll soon be meeting them along with the rest of your troop should you fail.”
Hannibal’s face grew cold with the threat. “We shall see,” he hissed icily as his anger grew. “But be warned, my friend. I’ll protect myself and my friends with brutal, even lethal force should you follow through on your threat. We’re not your enemy.”
The shaman stopped and turned to Hannibal with a stony expression, grabbing Hannibal by the shirt and pushing him against the doorpost they had just walked through. “All who walk the Path of the Ancients are enemies,” the shaman growled. “You have no concept of the evil that lurks at the end of that cursed highway. The Zinzera have guarded that road of the damned since the beginning when the gods walked among us and bade us to destroy anyone who dared to penetrate into the cursed world beneath the mountain. There’s an evil there that never sleeps and seeks entrance back into our world. Only someone from the outside can free it, so we make sure no one makes it to the world beneath alive. If the evil there ever escapes, the entire world is doomed. You can’t be expected to understand this. You’re an outsider. Our gods declared only one man and his companions are ever to be allowed to pass into the world beneath: the Caverias. Only he can stand against the demon overlord of the world beneath the mountain.”
“If that’s the case, then why are we not dead already?” Hannibal retorted.
“Don’t be stupid, Beowulf. You know why we didn’t kill you and your party,” the shaman declared. “No Zinzera has seen a real cat god since our ancestors were given the mandate. Only the Caverias was said to have cat gods as companions. When our scouts saw your cat companions, the elders insisted on a live capture. We mean to discover the truth about you and your companions. If you are what I suspect, then you should have no trouble in answering the challenges. You must prove to the elders who you are.”
“I assume there’s no way to talk my way out of this, is there?” Hannibal queried.
“Not if you or your companions wish to live,” the shaman stated bluntly. “You hold the lives of your comrades in your hands, including the lives of the two cat gods. Should you answer the challenges to the god’s satisfaction, we’ll allow your whole group to proceed to your destiny in the world beneath the mountain.”
A violent chill raced down Hannibal’s spine as he realized the dread peril he and his team faced. “Do I have your word that my team will not be harmed until I answer this challenge?” Hannibal asked.
“As the spiritual leader of the Zinzera, you have my solemn oath no harm will come to them before the challenge is answered,” the shaman replied sincerely, letting go of Hannibal’s shirt. “Should you prove to be the Caverias, all of you will be allowed to leave with everything you came with, including the sacred forbidden relics of the ancients we found with you. If you fail, every last one of you will be roasted alive until your flesh falls off and your heads placed as an offering to the great gods that protect this place.”
As the shaman spoke, Hannibal sensed Selina in distress as she was being chained to a rack. His face fell and he asked pointedly, “If they’re not going to be harmed, then why is Selina being chained to a rack as I speak? I can feel her distress.”
The shaman’s eyebrow rose as an intrigued look crossed his face. “How can you know that?” he demanded.
“Selina…the cat goddess as you call her is my wife,” Hannibal declared bluntly, “and we have a telepathic fusion that binds us together allowing me to know what’s happening to her and vice versa. She’s very upset and scared. If your people hurt her, you’ll answer to me.”
“Now that’s very interesting,” the shaman stated. “The cat goddess really is your mate, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Hannibal replied coldly. “And I will defend her and my friends to the death if need be. I suggest you let her go right now before I get angrier than I am now.”
The shaman moved in close, staring Hannibal down. “You’re in no position to demand anything, outlander,” the shaman retorted. “Only by surviving the Trials will you save your wife and friends. If I hear any more belligerence from you, they’ll burn while you watch so watch your tongue. I gave you my word they would not be harmed. I didn’t say they wouldn’t be restrained. It’s for their good and yours so they won’t interfere in the Trials. Their fate is in your hands, Beowulf.”
A deep sigh escaped Hannibal’s lips. “Okay,” he conceded. “You have me over a barrel. Let’s get this over with. Take me to this challenge.”
The shaman smiled knowingly, patting Hannibal on the shoulder. “You have courage, Beowulf,” he said. “Come and show us who you really are. I’m sure your god will protect you and your friends.”
“Lead the way,” Hannibal replied and the shaman took up the lead again. Hannibal followed with the four guards walking close behind, watching Hannibal like hawks with their spears pointed at his back.