Legends of Amacia: Path of the Ancients

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The Circle of Hammunaptra

Hannibal’s anger boiled like a pot of hot tar on a fire as the shaman escorted him on through the cavernous passage the same dimensions as the doorway they entered moments before. Minutes later, they entered a vast domed cavern a thousand yards in diameter and five hundred feet in height. Hannibal stared in numbed astonishment, forgetting his anger as he saw cyclopean architecture everywhere. The walls of the cave were lined with four layers of giant columns stacked one on top of the other with colossal lentil stones between the layers. These stacked columns and lentils seemed to be carved out of the solid andesitic granite walls of the cave. In the alcoves between the columns, Hannibal saw colossal statues of ancient gods and creatures. Above the fourth level of columns, mammoth flying buttresses rose the very top of the cave, encircling a colossal translucent white crystal fifty feet wide hanging down into the cave eighty feet. The crystal glowed, lighting the cavern so that torches and lights were not needed. In the exact center of the cave stood a Stonehenge-style circle of monolithic stone seventy feet tall and seven hundred feet across. The monoliths consisted of a strange fusion of andesitic diorite and crystal similar to the mammoth crystal in the ceiling of the cave. The largest of the monoliths measured twenty feet wide by ten feet thick by seventy feet in height. Archaic symbols mixed with the Stone Language lay carved into the stones with the symbols lined with the purest gold. “Oh, my god,” Hannibal breathed. “This is incredible.”

“Behold the sacred Temple of Xabalba, the last refuge of the gods and the most holy place…the Circle of Hammunaptra where the Trial will take place,” the shaman declared. “Look well for this may be the last place you ever see.”

Hannibal’s innate ability to sense danger pegged off the scale as he felt an eerily familiar darkness closing in on him. “Oh, there’s a deep darkness haunting this place,” he murmured. “I can feel its vile presence.”

The shaman nodded as he stepped back to walk beside Hannibal. “You have sensed truly, Beowulf,” he said. “There’s a curse on this place. The gods who haunt this place demand a blood tithe for the use of their sacred space. For eons, death and the dead have ruled this cursed place. Look there and see the past offerings to keep the gods’ appetite sated and their lusts appeased.” The shaman pointed to the left and Hannibal saw huge stacks of human skulls and piles of human bones just outside the stone circle.

“Do your people delight in this slaughter?” Hannibal asked.

“No,” the shaman replied. “But as guardians of the Sacred Path, it’s our responsibility to make sure the will of the gods are followed. We take no delight in killing all who trespass the sacred ground.”

“Maybe it’s time for a change,” Hannibal murmured as they approached the outside ring of the circle. He immediately noticed the stone Circle of Hammunaptra consisted of three concentric rings of standing stones with an open center one hundred fifty feet across. “This place feels so familiar,” Hannibal stated as they passed through the outer ring. Racks sitting over cold fire pits lay between the outer and second ring, many still having the scorched skeletal remains of victims on them. Some of the monoliths had shackles embedded in the stone, some of which had desiccated corpses hanging from the chains. Hannibal noticed many of those victims had their throats cut from ear to ear and their chests broken open. The frown on his face deepened as he sensed an ancient evil he’d never encountered before. It galvanized his resolve.

“You’ve lied to me,” Hannibal growled at the shaman. “You don’t just roast your victims. These guys have had their throats cut and their hearts removed ritually. I should know. I once did that sort of thing as an agent of Darkness before I came to the Light.”

The shaman looked wryly at Hannibal as they passed the second ring. “You’re cleverer than I anticipated, Beowulf,” the shaman replied with a wicked smile. “There’s more to you than meets the eye. That’s why you’re here in this place of darkness. Only when you face the darkness within you can your worthiness be gauged.”

“This is bullshit,” Hannibal growled as his anger started rising again. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

“And that’s why you’re here,” the shaman insisted. “We mean to know who you really are.”

Hannibal glanced at the gap between the second and innermost circles, seeing large stakes of metal rising out of cold fire pits. Some of the stakes had hapless victims long dead chained to them…their bodies burned to a cinder. Some of the bodies were headless. Hannibal began hearing the echoing screams of people being burned alive. His anger ramped up another notch. “You may regret learning who I am,” Hannibal stated frigidly. “Like I said, I know human sacrifice when I see it and this has the fingerprints of the Darkness all over it. You’re no better than the masters of the universe I turned against when I came out of the Darkness into the Light.”

“We shall see,” the shaman returned; his anger evident in his tone. “But it’s not my life that’s on the line here. It’s yours and your friends. You have one chance to prove to us that you’re worthy to walk the Path. Fail and you will die along with all your friends. Now to prove to you that I’m a man of my word, look there.” The shaman pointed right as they entered the center arena of the Circle of Hammunaptra.

Hannibal looked across the one hundred fifty feet to the opposite side of the sandy arena and saw his entire team chained to a set of metal racks that stood vertically inside the circle. Behind them, men painted like cats in strange leather clothes stoked the fire pits with wood. Hannibal could see the flames rising behind the racks. The racks were attached to a frame that would allow them to be lowered onto the fire by chains. He saw Selina chained up beside her father. Both of them had looks of extreme concern on their faces. Arabella’s race radiated terror and panic. Harry could not conceal his fear, but remained calm. The rest of Hannibal’s team displayed intense fear as they tried futilely to get loose.

“You bastard!” Hannibal snapped, turning to the shaman with his fist balled up. “Let them go right now or I’ll rip your head off!”

The guards instantly subdued Hannibal as the shaman shook his head sadly. “You still don’t get it, Beowulf,” he murmured. “The Trials have begun. It began the moment you walked into the Circle of Hammunaptra. Look around you and see the gods you must appease and the elders you must win.” Hannibal looked around and saw six giant statues of gods and goddesses forty feet tall. Two of them were very Lynxian in look and instantly reminded Hannibal of Selina and Nathanael. Two more looked like giant werewolves…a male and female. Another resembled a colossal human/bear hybrid with cybernetic implants grafted into its body. When Hannibal came to the sixth statue, his mouth dropped open in surprise while his anger melted away in astonishment. Before him stood a forty-foot tall statue that looked like him wearing some kind of alien armor with a huge sword in his hand. The symbol of a strange, unknown type of avian raptor sat on the breastplate of the statue’s armored chest. The sight of it sent violent chills down Hannibal’s spine. As Hannibal’s eyes followed the statue down to its base, he saw a plaque on the base written in the Stone Language and a strange hole in the pedestal just below the plaque. Just in front of the statue, ten elderly Zinzera stood waiting to judge him.

“What in the hell?” Hannibal breathed, not believing his eyes. “Why does that statue look like me?”

“That’s the Caverias,” the shaman declared as the guards forced Hannibal to the center of the arena. “And these others are his colleagues who came to us after the Calamity, bidding us to destroy every soul who dared to intrude on the sacred ground where the demon overlord lays imprisoned. It’s to them that you must prove your worthiness. They told our ancestors what to look for in the promised Caverias. You have already demonstrated some of the characteristics of the Caverias; however that doesn’t mean you’re the one our prophecies speak of. Now show us who you are, Beowulf. It’s time to embrace your destiny.”

Once at the center of the arena, the guards threw Hannibal roughly to the ground and quickly retreated beyond the arena. Hannibal rose with a scowl; his rage building like a tsunami approaching the shore. Turning to the Elders and the shaman standing at the base of the Caverias statue, he hissed, “Okay…have it your way, but you’ll regret this. I promise you.”

“Silence, outlander,” the Zinzera chief with the gold headband barked. “I am Hadeon, Lord of the Zinzera, and you will not threaten me. You’re here to prove yourself. The lives of your comrades, including the cats lie in your hands alone. You’re their leader and as their leader, you’re responsible for their fates. Answer the Trials to the satisfaction of the gods in this sacred Circle of Hammunaptra and we’ll instantly free them and you. Fail and you will watch them roast alive on the fires in front of these holy gods before you yourself are sacrificed. Our venerable shaman Okoto seems to believe you are the promised Caverias, but the rest of us are not convinced. Only by answering the challenges of the Trials will you convince us of who you are and your worthiness to tread the sacred Path of the Ancients. We will discover who you are in the presence of these great gods. Let the Trials begin.”

Looking over to his team, Hannibal called out, “Don’t worry…I won’t let you down.” Turning to the Zinzera chief, he growled, “Okay…let’s do this. What’s first, chief?” As he stared menacingly at Hadeon, Hannibal noticed a familiar darkness lurking behind his eyes, but he didn’t see it in the shaman Okoto’s eyes or among the other Elders.

Hadeon looked at the shaman Okoto and nodded. Okoto touched a spot on the Caverias statue pedestal. A bang echoed throughout the cavern as a hundred foot circular section of the arena started moving down as if it were on an elevator. It dropped fifty feet before coming to a rest. After the sandy floor stopped moving, a strange domed rock rose up from the center of the arena with a huge sword stuck in it that resembling the one in the hand of the Caverias statue. Hannibal looked around at the fifty-foot walls surrounding him and noticed one exit with a portcullis gate. The evil he felt tripled when his eye fell on the darkness beyond the gate. In an instant, he knew something very bad lurked behind the gate. Casting his eye up at the chief, shaman, and Elders as they gathered at the edge of the arena pit, Hannibal called out, “What’s this about, chief?”

“It’s a trial by combat, outlander,” Hadeon declared. “Beyond the gate is a monster of the ancient world so powerful and evil no man has ever defeated it. If you are the Caverias, draw the sacred sword of the ancients from the stone and slay the vile abomination that haunts this temple. Release the Dark Jagara.”

The portcullis rose and a deep growl rumbled from the darkness. Hannibal turned to face the unknown creature, moving slowly towards the sword. Heavy footsteps echoed from the darkness as Hannibal grasped the ancient blade in the stone. A deafening roar blasted from the hole as something white flashed out of the gate moving with the speed of a cheetah. Before Hannibal could blink, the thing struck him with the back of its clawed paws, sending Hannibal careening away from the sword. Hannibal landed thirty feet away, rolling to his knees. “What the hell is that?” he whispered as he looked around for the creature that had attacked him. Then he saw it. His mouth fell open and icy chills raced down his spine. “Oh, my god…it’s a Yeti!” he exclaimed as he saw a nine-foot shaggy white creature standing over the sword, glaring at Hannibal. Its clawed hands were balled into fists the size of cantaloupes. “I haven’t seen a Yeti in thirty years!” Hannibal declared with astonishment.

Standing up in a defensive stance, Hannibal eyed the creature that looked like a cross between a giant human and gorilla covered in shaggy white fur. It snarled at Hannibal, showing its four-inch fangs. Hannibal held up his hands in a peace gesture as he sensed the creature was not necessarily evil, but incredibly frightened and agitated. The vile evil he felt still emanated from the darkness beyond the portcullis. The Yeti crouched, ready to spring as Hannibal cautious edged around to the left. “Hold on, big fella. I’m not going to hurt you,” Hannibal said softly, holding his hands in a peace gesture as he remembering his encounter with the tiger outside of Tiamat. The Yeti growled viciously at Hannibal, who remained a discreet distance away. It suddenly turned, looking into the darkness beyond the gate as another deeper reptilian growl echoed from the hole. The growl sent icy chills racing down Hannibal’s spine as he quickly turned to the growl in the dark. “Oh, boy…here we go,” he murmured as he noticed a fearful expression on the Yeti’s face. It grabbed the sword and tugged on it frantically, trying to remove the sword from the stone without success. With that one act, Hannibal realized the Yeti was incredibly intelligent.

Hearing the new monster stalking closer, Hannibal edged closer to the Yeti, sensing it to be a potential ally against the new menace. Without warning, the new monster darted from the shadows, rushing the Yeti as it desperately tried to get the weapon free from the stone. Hannibal couldn’t believe his eyes as what appeared to be a nine-foot tall veloci-raptor with white scales and a crest of horns charged the Yeti. But it wasn’t a veloci-raptor. The Beast had six eyes in its skull, four arms with long clawed hands, two powerful legs with retractable seven-inch claws on its toes, and a deadly bony blade in its tail that writhed like a snake. It was the most alien creature Hannibal had ever encountered, reminding him of the demons that had tormented him in the past. Instinct took over and Hannibal charged in, shouting, “Look out!” The Beast jumped and knocked the Yeti down just as it saw the lizard coming. With a roll, the Yeti kicked off the monster, taking a deep laceration to its belly from the Beast’s long toe claws. The Yeti held its stomach as blood gushed. Smelling blood, the Beast jumped up and roared, pouncing at the Yeti.

Hannibal raced forward and drop kicked the monster while it was in mid-air, knocking it away from the Yeti. As it came down, the Yeti grabbed the Beast by the tail and roared while standing up. Spinning the reptilian monster around by the tail several times, the Yeti threw it against the arena wall forty feet away, briefly stunning it. Hannibal quickly stood up after the drop kick as the Beast gained its feet with a hiss. It charged Hannibal while the Yeti fell to its knees again. “Come on, you piece of lizard shit. Come get some,” Hannibal hissed, squatting down and grabbing two handfuls of sand. The berserker rages that had been the bane of Hannibal’s life, flared violently as the Beast pounced. Instead of running away, Hannibal charged the monster, throwing the sand into its eyes, blinding it. It shrieked while in mid-air. Hannibal skidded like a ball player on his back beneath the monstrosity and planted a harsh double kick into its belly, throwing it onto its back. However, its toe-claw ripped into Hannibal’s right leg, eliciting a shriek of pain from him and drawing blood. Quickly rising to his feet to face the reptilian menace, Hannibal saw it stand up and spit at him. He dodged the spit only to be smacked by the Beast’s tail from the side. It sent him flying against the stone holding the sword, winding him. The Beast snarled and charged in to finish Hannibal. As Hannibal regained his breath and wits, he saw the Yeti jump the Beast, grappling with it as they rolled around on the sandy floor of the arena.

“Enough of this shit,” Hannibal hissed. By instinct, he grabbed the sword and yanked it out of the stone to the utter surprise of the Zinzera elders. The five-foot sword glowed blue as it came out, the grating sound it made echoing loudly across the cavern. Rushing to the Yeti’s defense with his berserker rage at full power, Hannibal saw the thing pin the Yeti down and start to claw him. “Get off him, you fucking reptilian shit!” Hannibal roared, launching into a bum rush that plowed into the Beast, knocking it off the Yeti, who pounded the Beast in the chest with its fists at the same time. The Beast rolled away as Hannibal stood between the Yeti and the Beast. Hannibal’s eyes burned with fury as he pulled back into an attack stance. “Now you die, you dark son of a bitch,” Hannibal snarled. “Go back to the shadow that spawned your vile ass and trouble these people no more.” Deep-seated warrior instincts Hannibal had long forgotten blossomed in the presence of the Zinzera elders. They watched as a strange white aura briefly surrounded Hannibal as the Beast rose for one last attack. Before the Beast could move, Hannibal charged in so fast both the Zinzera elders and Hannibal’s team couldn’t believe their eyes. He became a blur of light and before they could blink, Hannibal plunged the sword first into the Beast’s neck and then struck with again with such force that it decapitated the monster with a single stroke, sending its head flying. Strange orange blood spewed from the severed neck of the monster, splattering on Hannibal. He stepped back after the lethal strike and lowered his blade as his rage subsided. “That demon shit didn’t know who the fuck it was messing with,” Hannibal growled as he turned back to the Yeti while it lay on the floor of the arena. A sigh escaped his lips as he walked back to the Yeti and knelt down beside it.

Laying the sword down, Hannibal grasped the Yeti’s hand, looking it in the eye. “It’s over, my friend,” he told the Yeti. “That monster’s dead. It won’t hurt you anymore.”

The Yeti coughed up blood, and then to Hannibal’s surprise, spoke intelligibly in English. “Thank you,” the Yeti whispered. “You save me from the Jagara. Forgive me for attacking you initially. I didn’t know who you were.”

“It’s okay,” Hannibal replied with a groan, grasping his ribs. “We save each other’s asses just now. I wish I could do something to help you.”

“You have,” the Yeti stated. “You have freed me from these terrible humans, and showed me not all humans are like the people who did this to us.”

“No, we’re not all like them,” Hannibal hissed venomously as he looked up at Hadeon. “I’ll make them pay for this, if I can. What they did here is wrong…very wrong.”

“What’s your name?” the Yeti asked as he started to fade.

“Hannibal Smith,” Hannibal replied. “But I’ve also been known by the name of Beowulf. What’s your name, my friend?”

“Sukar,” the Yeti replied. “Should you ever escape this death trap, I want you to find my wife and people and tell them of my end.”

“Where are they?” Hannibal asked, wincing in pain at his wounds.

“In the world under…the…mountain,” Sukar whispered, “Look…to…Cimmeria.” With that, Sukar the Yeti breathed his last and Hannibal wept.

“Good bye, my Yeti friend,” Hannibal whispered, closing the Yeti’s eyes.

“Finish the Yeti,” Hadeon ordered.

“I don’t have to,” Hannibal shouted back with grief-stricken rage. “You killed this gentle creature by putting him in here with that monster. Sukar was a gentle soul, and far more intelligent than you could ever be. I don’t know your gods, but I’m sure they would not condone the senseless slaughter of such a noble creature. He came from down there under the mountain, goddamn it! You should have treated him like a god instead of a monster! The Lord’s not going to let this atrocity go unanswered. I promise you!” Hannibal snatched up the sword and walked back to the stone, ramming it back into the rock. “Seems my first instincts were correct in that you’re tainted by the very evil you claim to be holding in check!” he shouted. “Now, if you’re quite finished, I and my companions must be on our way.”

“Not so fast, outlander,” Hadeon answered back coldly. “Killing the Dark Jagara was only the first challenge of the Trials. Now that we’ve seen your fighting prowess and power, you have two more challenges to pass.”

“So what’s next?” Hannibal spat venomously, “a whole army of fucking monsters?”

“No,” Hadeon answered frigidly, not liking Hannibal’s righteous indignation. “It’s a test of your mind, outlander. Look at the stone you just returned to the sword to, and tell us what is written on it. If you mispronounce even one syllable, you and your friends are dead. What does it say, outlander? And just so you’ll know, no one has been able to understand the writing on that stone for thousands of years, much less read and speak it.” Hadeon smiled wickedly, believing he’d gotten the best of Hannibal.

“Is that so?” Hannibal asked icily with a wry grin as he looked for the writing. “We shall see, you repugnant prick.” In moments, he found the Stone Language etched on the base of the stone and easily read it. “Oh, please,” he chided. “Give me a real challenge, won’t you?”

“What does it say, outlander?” Hadeon demanded.

Hannibal’s smile widened wickedly, and he spoke the inscription flawlessly in the Stone Language loudly so everyone heard it.

Hadeon’s eyes widened in shock as the Elders began to murmur amongst themselves. The Shaman Okoto smiled broadly. “Well done, Beowulf,” Okoto declared. “Now, what’s the translation?”

“‘Throughout all time does the Caverias resist the most Ancient Darkness and FATE in the power of the Almighty Ancient of Days.’ That’s what it says,” Hannibal declared confidently. “Now let us go!”

“Not so fast,” Hadeon retorted, his face twisting in growing anger and concern. “You still have one last test to pass. Okoto…raise the arena.” Okoto touched the same spot on the base of the Caverias statue and the arena rumbled again as the portcullis slammed shut. The stone with the sword in it sank into the arena floor from whence it came, and the arena floor rose up level with the rest of the arena floor where the chief and Elders stood.

Hannibal stood at the edge of the rising floor, waiting patiently. When the rising floor of the arena pit came within two feet of the surrounding floor, he stepped out of the pit and walked boldly up to the chief. As the guards came running with their spears, Hannibal hissed, “Call them off, chief. I’m no longer in a mood to play anymore of these sick twisted sadistic games of yours. Let’s finish this now.”

Hadeon held out his hand and the guards stopped. Hannibal walked up and stood nose to nose with Hadeon, but didn’t lay a hand on him. “You’re smarter than I gave you credit,” Hadeon admitted. “You know with a snap of my fingers my people will throw yours into the fires.”

“I do,” Hannibal growled, his eyes burning with controlled rage. “But I warn you now. You saw what I’m capable of when I’m angry. If you so much as singe a hair on my friends’ heads or scratch them, I will rip your goddamned heart out of your chest and shove it down your throat before you’re dead. Now, what’s this last test?”

Hadeon began to sweat as fear filled his face. “You wouldn’t dare,” he answered, futilely trying to hide his fear.

Hannibal looked into Hadeon’s eyes and definitely saw a familiar darkness lurking there. “Oh, I wouldn’t, would I?” Hannibal growled. Before Hadeon or Elders could blink, Hannibal’s hand shot out and snatched the sword from the chief’s side. Hannibal put the point of the ancient blade under his chin, forcing him to raise it. “I have seen and done things you cannot comprehend, chief,” Hannibal growled frigidly. “I’ve killed with every method known, but I don’t kill without cause, nor do I kill an unarmed opponent. Now to show you what kind of man I really am.” He slowly backed the point off from the chief’s throat, presenting the blade back to him. “We’re not your enemy,” Hannibal insisted. “If you truly want to lift the curse on this place, you must first drive the darkness from your own black hearts. And don’t try to deny it. I can see the pestilent darkness haunting this place in your eyes, chief. You can’t hide it from me; one who has known the taste of that same Darkness before being pulled into the Light. Now what’s this last test?”

Hadeon took the blade and glared at Hannibal while the other elders whispered. “You have doomed yourself with those words, outlander,” Hadeon hissed. “Guards; Roast the prisoners this instant.”

“Why you little…,” Hannibal snarled, balling up his fists.

“Stop; do not touch the prisoners,” Okoto shouted and the guards immediately stopped before touching the racks. Speaking to the chief, Okoto asked bluntly, “Would you defy our tradition in this most holy place after everything you’ve seen, Hadeon? You invite the god’s wrath down on us by killing those people before the Trial is finished. You know it’s forbidden to do that!”

“He’s not the Caverias!” Hadeon railed. “And I will prove it!” Before Okoto or the Elders could react, the chief slashed at Hannibal with his sword. Hannibal saw it coming and jumped back to avoid the strike. The chief charged with an overhead strike, bringing the sword down to split Hannibal’s skull. Hannibal slapped his hands together, catching and stopping the blade cold before it could strike his skull. Pivoting to the left, he pulled the sword from Hadeon’s hands and planted a devastating sidekick to the chief’s midsection, sending him hurtling back against the Caverias statue’s pedestal. Hadeon crumbled with a cry as the guards advanced on Hannibal.

“Hold your positions,” Okoto barked to the guards, who stepped back from Hannibal as he stalked towards Hadeon with the sword in hand. The Elders and guards watched in fear as Hannibal walked up to the chief and stared down coldly at him.

“Go on, freak…finish it!” Hadeon wheezed, lying on the ground next to the pedestal. “Kill me…strike me down and show everyone the monster you really are. Prove you are not the Caverias! Kill me in cold blood!”

“So be it. You’ve chosen your fate,” Hannibal answered icily, raising the sword up with the point down at the chief’s chest. Hadeon’s taunt stirred an incredibly bad memory of Hannibal’s childhood, making his face go cold as the stone monoliths and statues surrounding him. With a shout, Hannibal slammed the sword down beside the chief’s head with only a quarter of an inch between the keen blade and the chief’s face, sticking it into the arena floor six inches. When the chief opened his eyes and realized Hannibal had not killed him, he looked up with a puzzled fearful look. Hannibal leaned heavily against the Caverias statue pedestal, gazing down at the chief. “You wonder why I didn’t kill you, don’t you?” he asked the chief.

“I do,” Hadeon admitted. “I wouldn’t be giving you this mercy.”

“I didn’t kill your sorry ass because I only kill as a last resort to protect those I love,” Hannibal stated. “Moreover, I don’t kill without cause, as I already told you, even though you have given me plenty of reason to send your bum ass into the underworld. But I’m weary with the constant strife and bloodshed that has been my lot since I was fourteen. I’m trying to walk a new path…one of light and life. Yet, when you put me in these positions, it makes doing that very difficult. Now tell me, what this last test is so I may get it done and be on my way with my friends.”

Hadeon stared at Hannibal rebelliously, refusing to answer. “Well?” Hannibal snapped.

“It’s a test of faith and blood where the gods themselves determine your worthiness,” Okoto declared when Hadeon refused to answer. “All you have to do is put your hand and arm into the pedestal here. Do so, and the Caverias will tell us who you truly are, even though I know beyond any doubt now who you are.”

“Is that it?” Hannibal asked. “What’s in there?”

“Pain,” Okoto answered bluntly. “And gruesome bloody death should you fail this one last test. It’s the one sure way to prove to the Elders who you are. By the way, no one who has put his or her arm in that slot has ever survived. The Caverias struck them down; every last one of them.”

Hannibal looked at his arm and the hole sternly, his anger overriding his fear. “Let’s finish this,” he growled, ramming his right hand forcefully into the hole in the pedestal. He heard a crunch as something grabbed his arm. In moments, his arm and hand felt like it was on fire. Worse yet, Hannibal could not remove his hand and arm. The pain drove him to his knees as he beat on the pedestal with his free hand, howling in agony. The Caverias statue and pedestal rumbled deeply as the statue’s eyes lit up with an eerie red glow. A humming arose from the pedestal as the plaque on the pedestal lit up while Hannibal knelt before it. The plaque suddenly slid to the side, revealing an optical scanner unlike anything Hannibal had ever seen. A light flashed from the scanner, paralyzing Hannibal while it scanned his eyes and facial structure. Only then did Hannibal realize the statue was more than just a statue, but an elaborate ancient machine.

“Hannibal!” Selina shouted out in agonizing pain from her telepathic fusion with Hannibal. “Fight it, Hannibal!”

After thirty seconds of excruciating paralyzing pain, Hannibal heard a mechanized voice echo from the statue in the Stone Language, “Genetic scanning complete: Caverias gene sequence confirmed. Physical damage detected to the Caverias…activating healing beams.” The scanning beam turned green and enveloped Hannibal, pulsing musically as an alien tune suddenly sang out from the statue. Nathanael stared in wonder, realizing too that the statue was a sophisticated alien machine from the past that had healing capabilities.

“What’s happening?” Harry called out.

“It’s a machine,” Selina declared with a sigh as the pain she felt from her telepathic fusion with Hannibal subsided. “The statue’s an ancient machine designed to identify what it calls the Caverias gene sequence. It also has a healing mechanism like our healing chambers at Tiamat. I can feel it repairing the damage Hannibal took when he fought that monster in the pit.”

Hadeon stared in fearful disbelief, finally rising to his feet and slowly backing away from Hannibal as the green light surrounded him. “It’s impossible!” he breathed. “The Caverias is a myth! That line was broken eons ago!”

“Not impossible,” Okoto retorted emphatically. “That line has been remade as the gods foretold! This man is the Caverias the gods told us would come. Guards! Release the prisoners immediately! They’re his companions and are not to be harmed.” The guards immediately released Hannibal’s team from the racks, and sincerely apologizing to them for the rough treatment.

Hannibal slowly rose from his knees as the green light faded. “Physical damage repaired,” the mechanized voice rumbled from the statue. “Mental and spiritual scans confirm no contamination by the Darkness or FATE. Telepathic potency and fusion detected connected to Lynxian woman Selina Milineus; scanning for Selina Milineus to confirm identity.” A scanning beam shot from the eyes of the Caverias statue, sweeping the entire temple complex before settling on Selina, freezing her in place.

“Hannibal!” Selina called out in distress as the scanning beam scanned her to the genetic level.

“Relax, Selina,” Hannibal called out calmly, his pain gone but his arm remaining captured by the machine. “It’s just scanning you to confirm your identity. This statue is a security device unlike I’ve ever seen before.”

The beam from the Caverias statue suddenly vanished, releasing Selina. “Lynxian Selina Milineus located and identity confirmed…Caverias gene sequence located within the Lynxian female. Telepathic fusion by Teacher of Tiamat confirmed in both subjects. These two subjects are the Caverias.” The Elders murmured in astonishment as the pedestal of the Caverias statue rumbled, releasing Hannibal’s arm. Hannibal hesitantly pulled his arm out of the hole and stared in fascination at it. He thought it had been burned to the bone, but it was whole without a scratch on it.

Turning away from the statue as he flexed the fingers of the hand the pedestal had captured, Hannibal saw his team standing together well away from the racks with the Elders and guards on their knees before him. Okoto approached and smiled broadly. “I knew you were the one,” he stated. “Please forgive my deceptions, milord. We had to be sure.”

Sensing Okoto’s sincerity, Hannibal smiled softly. “It’s okay,” he stated. “I forgive you. But what about your people; are they satisfied now?”

Okoto and Hannibal looked over at the Elders and the guards kneeling. “I’d say so,” Okoto replied.

While their backs were turned, Hadeon slowly approached Hannibal from behind with a malevolent look on his face, pulling a dagger. Just as he was about to strike, Selina sensed the attack and shouted, “Look out, Hannibal; the Chief!”

Half a second later, the whole Circle of Hammunaptra rumbled. The eyes of every statue lit up and the statue of the cyborg bear lit up like a Christmas tree from top to bottom. “Danger to the Caverias detected…neutralizing threat,” the bear statue roared in a deep bass voice. A beam of blue light from the bear statue’s eyes hit Hadeon as he lunged at Hannibal meaning to bury the dagger in his back. Hannibal saw the attack out of the corner of his eye, and tackled Okoto out of the way as the beam struck and froze Hadeon. They looked up from the ground, seeing the Chief with a demoniac expression on his face while he stood paralyzed in the ray. A soul-crushing scream rose from the Chief as everyone watched the ray turn him to dust in seconds. Only his wail of pain remained echoing throughout the Temple. “Threat to the Caverias neutralized,” the bear statue rumbled. “No other threats detected. Caverias secured.” The light in the bear statue’s eyes and in the other statues’ eyes vanished as a loud murmur rose from the Elders.

The Elder next in line to be chief stepped forward as Hannibal helped Okoto up. “Sorry about tackling you,” Hannibal apologized. “I sensed you were in danger.”

“It’s quite all right,” Okoto replied, patting Hannibal on the shoulder. “I should have known Hadeon would try something stupid. He’s wanted to kill you from the moment we saw you in your camp.”

The new chief walked up to Hannibal and knelt on one knee, bowing his head. “You are the Caverias. There’s no longer any doubt. The gods themselves awoke and protected you. Please forgive us for our terrible treatment of you and your friends.”

Hannibal sighed. “These aren’t gods,” he declared, “but ancient machines. You don’t need to worship them. But you do need to respect them and their power. What’s your name?”

“I am Kalial, the next in line to be chief,” the new chief declared. “When the bear god destroyed Hadeon for attacking you, I became the new chief. I’m grieved it came to this, and on behalf of the Zinzera, I sincerely apologize for his action. Hadeon hasn’t been himself for a long time.”

“What do you mean?” Hannibal asked as his team approached with the other Elders and guards.

“Hadeon has been plagued by a foul spirit for many years we’ve been unable to exorcise,” Okoto stated. “When he first came to be our leader, Hadeon was a wise and noble Zinzera well-versed in our traditions and ruled justly with compassion. But some twenty-seven years ago, he foolishly went alone to the forbidden gorge where the sacred road enters the world beneath the mountain, ignoring my advice to stay out of that place. When he came back, he was not the same man. He became dark and brutally ruthless, securing his hold over the tribe through blood and violence. A dark spirit seemed to have taken him. He killed all who opposed him, and slew anyone who entered the valley. It’s my belief he came too close to the cursed underworld and was overwhelmed by a dark spirit from it. Shortly after he returned, he took a handful of warriors back to the forbidden gorge, and they returned with the same malevolent spirit on them. Also, they brought back a number of creatures never seen before by the Zinzera, including the Yeti that assisted you in the arena, and the Dark Jagara you slew. Before that, only I knew of such creatures from our writings. Hadeon has maintained a stranglehold on the Zinzera since then until now, using those creatures to execute his enemies.”

“Are there any more of those creatures imprisoned down there?” Hannibal asked bluntly.

“No,” Okoto stated. “The Yeti and the Dark Jagara were the last of them, being the strongest of the beasts Hadeon and his followers brought back from the world beneath the mountain.”

“That’s good,” Hannibal stated in a relieved tone. “It means we don’t have to worry about more of those creatures lurking about.”

As Hannibal spoke, one of the Elders approached and bowed to Okoto and Hannibal. “Master Okoto, Lord Kalial, milord Caverias…I have just been made aware that all of Lord Hadeon’s followers are dead, including every member of Hadeon’s family.”

“What?” Hannibal asked in a surprised tone. “How?”

“No one knows,” the Elder stated. “The news was brought to me by my nephew, who’s one of our elite warriors. Lord Hadeon’s followers and family suddenly screamed and dropped stone dead on the ground with their eyes melted out of their heads just five minutes ago. How is this possible, Master Okoto?”

“The dark spirits infesting Hadeon and his followers angered the gods,” Okoto stated. “They were punished for trying to prevent the Caverias from coming to this sacred temple and finishing the Trials. Now, they have been sent into the infernal regions of Tartarus for their blasphemy and desecration of our sacred ways.”

“That’s it,” Hannibal declared in epiphany as he suddenly realized what happened. “I saw it the moment I laid eyes on Hadeon. Please understand, long ago I used to be an agent of the Dark Powers, infested with many powerful dark spirits that gave me tremendous power, and with it pain and evil. However, the Powers of Light that drove those demon spirits from me and set my feet on the path of light and life rescued me from that Darkness. But because of all those years of being in Darkness, I can sense when a dark spirit is near me. When I looked into your old Chief’s eyes, I saw that same darkness that tormented me for decades. I saw the dark spirit infesting him. My presence drove that spirit into a frenzy to kill me. You see, because of my miraculous turn from the Dark Powers, they and their followers see me as a traitor and a threat to them. They want me dead and my soul chained back into the darkness forever. That’s why he tried to kill me. The dark spirit on him drove him to it. I’m truly sorry he didn’t see the light before these machines destroyed him, and now if what I hear is right, his followers and family too. How many followers did Hadeon have?”

“Hadeon had thirty warriors who were just as evil and polluted as he was; the same group of warriors he took into the forbidden gorge after he became infested by the evil there,” Okoto stated. “We have walked a tight rope for many years because of him. I was the biggest thorn in his side. However, because I knew the secrets of the ancients here and have access to the spiritual plane, Hadeon couldn’t just kill me. He needed me, but too many Zinzera and outsiders like you have died to sate his bloodlust. I marvel that you saw the dark spirit on him. You have a power normal men seldom receive. It’s one more indelible sign that you are the Caverias. Please don’t squander your gifts, my friend.”

“I don’t intend to,” Hannibal replied. “It seems Hadeon and his followers were a cancer eating your people alive. Now that the cancer has been removed, you can tread a new path if you choose. May I offer a suggestion?”

“Anything, milord,” Kalial replied.

“I understand your people have been guarding the secrets of the ancients for a very long time,” Hannibal declared as Selina walked up beside him, grasping his hand. “I suspect the tribe that lived in the destroyed village we encountered on our way to Tiamat may have been performing a similar function. But we’ll never know for sure because when we found the village, it was completely destroyed without a living soul there to explain what happened.”

Okoto’s eyebrows rose visibly with surprise and the Elders murmured at the news. Okoto’s face turned grim as he asked, “How do you know about the dark Temple of the Chaos Goddess? One of our sister tribes guarded that cursed edifice with as much fervor as we guard the Path of the Ancients. Please explain yourself?”

“Ahh; so that tribe was Zinzera,” Hannibal said solemnly. “And I can see from your reaction to my comments about it that your people fear Tiamat as much as they fear what’s at the end of the Path.”

“We do,” Okoto said grimly, “The Temple of the Chaos Goddess is another place the gods warned our ancestors about and told them to keep it safe at all costs. The machines of the gods and the Dark Gate lie within that evil edifice that mankind must never see until they’re capable of living in peace with themselves and the planet. There are terrors and creatures of the darkest Abyss lying inside that evil mountain that must never see the light of day. Please tell me why you speak of that cursed place with such familiarity?”

Seeing the terror in Okoto’s eyes and hearing it in his voice, Hannibal sighed, knowing he had to come clean to Okoto. “I speak of that place because my people now control it,” Hannibal admitted. “We found it over two years ago, and even now, continue to explore its secrets.”

“What have you done?” Okoto asked with great fearful agitation. “The secrets of Tiamat are not meant for this world!”

“And I must agree with you on that,” Hannibal replied soberly.

“What do you mean?” Okoto asked bluntly. “Explain yourself. By opening the Temple of the Chaos Goddess, you have set into motion a series of events that may well bring about the end of everything.”

“I understand,” Hannibal agreed in a soft tone. “Believe me; I do understand the dangers of Tiamat. We’ve encountered the machinery of the gods as you call them, the denizens of the dark there, and I’ve even have laid eyes on the legendary infernal gates to the Abyss deep inside the edifice that’s as close to Hell as I ever want to get. I have seen things in that place I’ve never encountered anywhere in my whole life; things that made me doubt my own sanity. Please, allow me to explain what we’ve done there before you pass judgment on me and my troop.” Hannibal then proceeded to give an abbreviated version of the events at Tiamat, starting with the finding of the destroyed village. He spent almost an hour telling the tale to Okoto and the Elders while everyone sat in the sand before the Caverias statue machine in the Circle of Hammunaptra. Hannibal even told them how Selina and Nathanael came to Earth when he rescued them with the portal. Okoto’s grim countenance softened as Hannibal explained what he’d done with the secrets of Tiamat.

After explaining everything, Hannibal declared, “What you said about the secrets of Tiamat not being for this world is very true. Most of what we found there is not meant for this evil world and thus will not be shared with them. Before I left there to come here, I left my most trusted associate in charge with orders to continue the research and to keep it secure from the masters of the universe, who would surely use Tiamat’s power to enslave the entire planet. Because of my accidental exposure to the Tiamat Teacher in the archives there, I came to know how to use the machines there. I engaged the energy shield and cloak around the Temple just to make sure the evil men of our world didn’t get their mitts on it. I can’t help but to think my finding Tiamat was part of a larger plan set into motion by the Lord; a plan that’s led me here. We have turned that dark edifice into a beacon of light. I hope this explains what you wanted to know. It was not my intention to use Tiamat as a means to enslave the planet. It has tremendous secrets that can benefit all humanity, and not just the elites. Only when the time is right and the people of the world are ready will I reveal it to all peoples everywhere so everyone can benefit from what the ancients taught us and not repeat the same mistakes they did.”

Okoto sighed deeply as everyone stood up. “You have surprised me, Beowulf,” Okoto stated. “That’s not an easy thing to do, and your words burn with truth. Furthermore, I now understand how the cat gods came to be with you. It’s now beyond any doubt. You are the Caverias of our prophecies. Our traditions tell us the Caverias would come to us with his celestial mate and ten companions after he conquered the darkness of the great Chaos Goddess’ heart, turning her from the darkness back to the light. I’m grieved that our sister tribe perished before you encountered them, but from your report we know they performed their duty admirably until the very end. Thank you for bringing the report of their fate to us.”

“You’re welcome,” Hannibal replied soberly. “I wish I could tell you more about those who lived in that village, but I can’t. They were gone by time we got there. I can only pray that some of them managed to escape whatever it was that demolished their village. My rational mind still has trouble believing the Tiamat colossus pulled off the cliff and rampaged through the jungle to destroy their village like that.”

“Of course you do,” Okoto stated. “It amazes me that you and your companions managed to keep your sanity in that place. The gods warned us Tiamat was a place of the grossest darkness that would drive men insane if they stayed too long there. But it seems you and your god have expunged the darkness from that place, and possibly lifted the dark curse from it. With our sister tribe gone and your people in control of the Temple, the responsibility for keeping its secrets safe now falls on you and your people. When you took control of the cursed Temple and drove the darkness from it, you became its protectors. You have a sacred obligation, just as we do, to keep the secrets of the ancients safe until said time the gods return, and the world is purified from the evil infesting it. Do you swear this in front of these gods, Beowulf?”

“I swear it,” Hannibal said, turning to the Caverias statue machine and placing his fist over his heart in a salute. “When I discovered what I had at Tiamat, I swore then to the Almighty to keep the evil hands of the masters of the universe off Tiamat, who have searched for such technology for hundreds of years. I knew what they’d do with it, and couldn’t in good conscience allow it. I now reaffirm that oath here in your presence, Okoto. Tiamat will be kept secure and safe from the world until it’s ready to receive its knowledge.”

Okoto shook Hannibal’s hand firmly with a sober smile. “Well said, my son,” Okoto stated. “The gods in this place and your own god will hold you to that oath. Welcome to the Brotherhood of Guardians, Beowulf. May you guard Tiamat’s secrets as vehemently as we guard our secrets about the Path and the world beneath the mountain.”

A chill raced down Hannibal’s spine at Okoto’s words as he patted Okoto on the shoulder. “I certainly will,” Hannibal assured, “and with deadly force, if necessary but only as a last resort. Besides, by engaging the shield and cloak around the Temple there, guarding it is the easy part. We’re more apt to find trouble from some unknown evil not yet encountered within the Temple than from the outside. As I said, we haven’t discovered the true extent of the facility yet.”

“And you may never find out its true extent,” Okoto stated. “Even the gods were unsure of its extent. They said it existed long before their time, and was created by a dark race that existed long before humanity existed on this planet.”

“Whoa,” Hannibal murmured. “Now there’s a vital clue to Tiamat’s origin. All we have right now on who built it is that some alien race constructed it long before humanity appeared on this planet, and it was retrofitted so humans could operate it. The only clue we have to who these aliens were is the Kaitian myth of the Amm Kar and the Etherians. What you just said helps to give some credence to our hypothesis that these Etherian marauders were the creators of the machines at Tiamat.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Okoto declared. “But in any case, you have a sacred obligation to keep those secrets and ours from the world until they have matured enough to use them properly.”

“Never fear,” Hannibal chimed. “You have my word and I’ve never gone back on my word. We’ll keep the Tiamat secrets safe along with yours. Besides, your dedication to keeping the ancient secrets secure is commendable. But now I’m thinking you should make a change in how you go about it. It’s not necessary to kill every person who invades your territory. It never was. You have been charged to turn away everyone except the Caverias and his friends. But it doesn’t mean you must kill them. Not every person who enters your territory wishes to pillage your secrets. I would suggest that now when someone intrudes on your domain, you should search out their intents without such brutal tactics. It’s not necessary to make them take the tests you forced me to endure. Talk to them in a civilized manner. I know you have other means than these Trials to determine their intentions. I suspect a great number of the people you’ve sacrificed here didn’t deserve it. Kill only when there’s no other option. You do have the right to defend yourself with lethal force. Just be sure that those you kill deserve it.”

“Good words, milord,” Kalial said. “But what should we do to those who transgress the ancient path? The gods bound us to protect it until they return.”

“I’d capture and warn those individuals not to do it again before banishing them from the valley,” Hannibal stated. “Make it clear if you see them again transgressing the sacred path and lands, you’ll kill them. If they return and trespass the road again in violation of your ultimatum, then execution is a viable alternative. They’ll have been warned. Also, those people who are confined here by force should be allowed to leave if they want. If they leave, you must let them know that they’re never to divulge what they’ve seen here under penalty of death.”

“You’re very wise, milord,” Kalial commended. “Many of us have wanted to do just what you suggested, but Hadeon refused to listen. His family has ruled the Zinzera for two hundred years and used the Trials and more recently, the monsters as a way to stay in power. Many of us feared him and his family. But now that the gods themselves have destroyed him and his family, we’re free to enact these changes.”

“I see,” Hannibal said softly. “He saw me as a threat to his control of the Zinzera, and thus tried to kill me with the Trials. However, it backfired when I was proven the one your prophecies spoke about. Therefore, he tried to kill me after these machines verified my identity. When he foolishly attacked me after the verification, the machines here saw the danger to me and vaporized him before he could hurt me or anyone else. I still don’t know if I’m truly the one your traditions speak about, but I do know that your people now stand at a crossroads. You can choose to follow your old chief’s example or you can blaze a new trail that doesn’t run red with blood. It’s your choice.”

“It’s a choice we’re now free to make,” Kalial declared. “Thank you for making the choice possible.” He held out his hand and Hannibal shook it. “We have longed for this day, and now it’s finally here,” Kalial said sincerely. “The curse on us has been lifted, as the prophecies foretold. Go with the blessing of the gods here and walk the Path to your destiny in the world beneath the mountain.”

“Thank you,” Hannibal replied. “I really appreciate your people not burning me and my friends to death.”

“You’re welcome,” Kalial answered. “You and your friends will be taken back to where we found you on the Path and given fresh food supplies to assist you. Will you truly march over the sacred pass and go into the world beneath the mountain?”

“Yes,” Hannibal stated. “It’s why I’m here. My god has shown me the way in and told me to go, so go I will. I know not what I will find there, but I’m driven to it as the wind drives a fire before it.”

“You have a mandate, don’t you?” Okoto asked.

“From my god, yes,” Hannibal stated. “Whatever’s there is calling to me, drawing me like a moth to a flame. I must obey my instincts. Something incredibly important to all men lies in that dark pit of evil. I do not deny that I’ve sensed the vile darkness lurking there, but there’s also something good being hid there by that darkness. It’s time for the light to shine in the darkness there.”

Okoto put his hand on Hannibal’s shoulder, looking him in the eye. “Then you must go, my son,” he ordered. “Follow your instincts and your god into the world beneath the mountain. I will pray to the gods that you find what you’re looking for.”

“You’re a hard man to read, Okoto,” Hannibal admitted. “It seems I may have been mistaken about your intentions. I’m sorry for that, and I’ll even accept your prayers. We need every prayer we can get where we’re going.”

“Don’t fret it,” Okoto replied. “It’s been many years since anyone has tried me like you did, milord. It was all part of the Trials. Now, I must ask one very important thing of you and your companions before you go.”

“What is it?” Hannibal asked.

“This temple and city are an ancient secret the Zinzera have kept for thousands of years,” Okoto stated. “No outsider must know where it is. Therefore, I must insist that you and your friends be unconscious when you leave here. We cannot let anyone from the outside know where this place is, even you. I dread to do it knowing you’re the Caverias, but we must if this place is to remain a secret.”

“I understand,” Hannibal stated. “There are security issues you have to deal with to keep this place safe. I have similar responsibilities where I come from at Tiamat.”

“Then you understand why this must happen,” Okoto stated.

“I do,” Hannibal replied. “But wouldn’t a blindfold be more efficient? That way you would not have to carry us.”

“I’m afraid not,” Okoto answered. “Even blindfolded, you may be able to trace the location by sound and smell. I know the cats can do this. Only when you and your friends are unconscious will our secret be safe.”

“Very well,” Hannibal conceded. “I understand your concerns and you’ve proven to be a man of your word, Okoto. May I have your word we’ll not be harmed while we’re unconscious and returned to our camp?”

“I swear it in the presence of the gods in this holy place,” Okoto said emphatically. “May the gods destroy us as they destroyed Hadeon and his followers if we do not return you unharmed to your camp on the Path.”

“So say we all,” Kalial agreed, with the other Elders and guards swearing the same oath.

“Very well then,” Hannibal said as he put his arm around Selina. “You may take us back to the road, Okoto. Maybe in the will of the Lord, we shall meet again someday.”

Okoto smiled wryly. “We shall see,” he chimed. “Now, follow me. We dare not use the sleeping gas here in the presence of the gods. They may take it as an attack on you.”

“After what happened to Hadeon, I would agree. There’s no reason to tempt fate and these machines,” Hannibal replied as he, Selina, and the rest of his team followed Okoto out of the Circle of Hammunaptra, heading for the exit. Chief Kalial, the elders, and guards followed behind Hannibal and his team.

Hannibal took one last look at the Circle of Hammunaptra before following Okoto into the passage out of the temple. “I must admit your temple is magnificent,” he said to Okoto. “I’ve never seen its equal.”

“And most likely you never will,” Okoto answered.

“May I ask one last thing,” Hannibal queried.

“Yes,” Okoto replied. “What is it?”

“The Yeti is not a monster,” Hannibal stated. “He was a noble soul. I would request that you give him a fit funeral according to your ways. He should be treated as if he were one of your elders. I’m grieved I could not save him from that creature.”

“It shall be done,” Okoto declared. “But you should know that we burn our dead on funeral pyres as the gods did in the old time. Is this a problem?”

“No,” Hannibal stated. “It’s a proper sendoff for a warrior, which he was. Make sure that what’s left after the fire is placed in a fit resting place and the place marked. His name was Sukar.”

“You’re indeed a warrior at heart, Beowulf,” Okoto replied. “And you know the ways of the warrior better than most of our people. Your request will be honored. The Yeti Sukar will have an honorable resting place. The Dark Jagara, on the other hand, will not. It was a creature of the purest evil and has tainted the temple for far too long.”

“I cannot argue that,” Hannibal admitted. “That creature was truly a demon monster. I’m not at all sure it’s of this world or even the world under the mountain. Its form is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.”

“You may be right,” Okoto stated. “But wherever it came from initially, Hadeon and his followers brought it out of the world beneath the mountain. I’ll pray for you as you seek your destiny there. May the gods protect you in your journey; farewell, Beowulf.” Just then, as the door to the outside came into view, Hannibal smelled the same gas they used on him and his team when they were captured. A heaviness came over Hannibal as he staggered, looking at Okoto sleepily seeing him donning the strange gas mask again. Turning around, Hannibal saw his team collapsing into the guards’ and Elders’ arms. The guards and Elders too had on gas masks amidst the cloud of gas.

“Aww damn it!” Hannibal cursed as the darkness swept him away. His last sight was Okoto’s masked face as he fell into Okoto’s arms.

“It has to be this way, Beowulf,” Okoto’s voice echoed in Hannibal’s ears. “Don’t be afraid. We Zinzera always honor our promises.”

An undetermined time later, Hannibal woke with a gasp, bolting to a sitting position. He looked around, finding himself in his encampment on the Path sitting outside his tent. The fire crackled in the night, casting a bubble of light about the camp. Around the fire, he saw his team laid on their backs with their heads near the fire but not close enough to burn them. Selina lay beside him, still unconscious. Hannibal checked Selina’s pulse, finding it strong and regular. As his equilibrium stabilized, Hannibal started checking his team. He found everyone accounted for with strong vitals. They were just deep asleep. When he heard a purr erupt from Selina, a smile crossed his face. “Okoto came through,” Hannibal murmured as he stood up. “We’re back at our camp just like he promised.”

Looking up through the firs, Hannibal noticed the crescent moon setting and the first signs of the twilight glow of dawn from the east. A noise from the forest caused him to look around. Out at the edge of the light cast by the fire, he saw the Zinzera warriors standing there at attention in the shadows as they did when he first saw them. As he scanned the perimeter, Hannibal saw Okoto in his shaman headdress with his skull staff. A sober smile decorated Okoto’s painted face as Hannibal nodded to him and waved. Okoto lifted his hand in greeting and nodded back. He then disappeared into the shadows. Hannibal watched as the rest of the Zinzera warriors first saluted, putting their fists over their hearts, and then vanished into the night like ghosts, leaving Hannibal and his team alone in the dark forest. A few moments later, moans arose from Hannibal’s team as they came to.

“Ugh…why’d they use the gas on us again?” Ned hissed.

“I don’t know,” Morrison replied. “Does anyone know where we are?”

“We’re back at our camp,” Hannibal stated, getting everyone’s attention. “The Lord was merciful. He had Okoto bring us back here as he promised.”

“What about our stuff?” Sam called out. “Did they bring it back too?”

“Good question,” Nathanael replied, rubbing his head as he stood slowly. “Maybe we should find out.”

“Check your supplies,” Hannibal ordered, becoming concerned that the artifacts he carried in his pack were missing. The team separated, going into their tents to check their supplies as Selina woke. Hannibal knelt and helped her sit up. “Are you all right, princess?” he asked.

“Just give me a minute,” Selina murmured. “I wish they had given us warning about when they were going to put us out with the gas. Man…my head is throbbing.”

“Mine too,” Hannibal agreed. “But that’s better than being torched.”

“Amen to that,” Selina replied as Hannibal helped her stand. “But what about our supplies; did they leave us anything?”

“We’re finding that out now,” Hannibal stated. “Come on. Let’s check our stuff. I want to be sure the artifacts I brought are still here.” Selina nodded and followed Hannibal into their tent.

Five minutes later, everyone except Selina gathered around the fire. “Is everything accounted for?” Hannibal asked. “Everything I came with is still here and there’s more food rations in Selina’s and my packs. What about you guys?”

One at a time, the team reported the same thing: nothing was missing and their food rations were added to. “I’d say we were very lucky,” Thomas stated. “I thought for sure they were going to roast us there for a minute.”

“Same here,” Jonathan agreed. “I’ve never been that scared in my entire life.”

“The Lord really save our asses this time,” Harry declared. “There’s no other answer. He literally pulled our asses out of the fire this time.”

“I’m forced to agree,” Hannibal stated soberly. “But there’s more going on here than you realize. The Zinzera aren’t necessarily evil, but they were compromised by it. The old chief and his followers were forcing the rest of them down a road I’m all too familiar with. Maybe that was why the Lord allowed us to be captured.”

“Are you suggesting that your god allowed the Zinzera to catch us so you could expose the treachery of the chief and his followers and get rid of it?” Ned asked bluntly. “I find that repulsive.”

“So do I,” Hannibal stated. “I hate it when I’m forced into situations like that. It brings out the worst in me. Nevertheless, the Lord turned what started out as evil to good. The Lord used us to free the Zinzera from a tyrant and a terrible evil. Moreover, we made an important discovery in the process.”

“And what was that?” Arabella asked in a trembling tone. “That we’re expendable?”

Hannibal walked to her, looking Arabella in the eye. “No,” he stated softly, gently taking her by the hands. “We discovered that Amacia is real and saw a place that dates from the 1st Age with ancient machines that still function like at Tiamat. It shows that we’re on the right trail. But I could’ve gone without that fight.”

“I was scared to death,” Arabella whimpered. “I’ve never been that scared before. What’re we getting ourselves into, Hannibal?”

Hannibal pulled Arabella into a gentle embrace she didn’t resist. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he murmured. “And you weren’t the only one who was scared out of his gourd. Something’s happening to me that I don’t understand. But I can say this.” He lifted Arabella’s chin with his fingers so he could look her in the eye. “Despite the great peril we faced in that temple, the Lord saved us, and now we have allies in the Zinzera: a savage ancient tribe that has kept the modern world at bay for thousands of years. We no longer need to fear them. They won’t hurt us now.”

Nathanael put his hand on Arabella’s shoulder for emotional support. “Hannibal is right,” he purred. “We had faith the Lord would protect us from the Zinzera, and He did. It means the Lord Himself ordains this journey; otherwise, we would have roasted on those grates. I’m so glad we got out of that without loss of life. And maybe the Zinzera will change their ways now that the cancerous evil infesting their old leader has been destroyed.”

Arabella hugged Nathanael and he returned the embrace, calming her shattered emotions with his purr. Turning back to Hannibal, Arabella said gratefully, “Thank you for saving us, Hannibal. I don’t understand what’s going on, but I now believe in you. Thank you.”

“So do all of us,” Morrison agreed. “Don’t we, fellas?” The rest of the team agreed.

“I apologize for putting you in that peril,” Hannibal said softly with regret. “It wasn’t my intention to attract the attention of the Zinzera like that. It should have never happened.”

“Nonsense,” Nathanael retorted. “The moment you stepped into this valley with me and Selina, you became the center of their attention. Did you not see the statue machines in the Circle that looked like Lynxians? The Zinzera knew of our people long ago and when they saw Selina and me, they made it their goal to capture and test you and us. Moreover, I know you noticed the statue they call the Caverias looked just like you. You can’t deny the Lord’s hand in this. We were supposed to go to the Circle of Hammunaptra and you were supposed to be tried. We all saw the Yeti and that other creature. We also saw how you befriended the Yeti in his dying moments. We saw you move so fast you were a blur. Hannibal, you’re far more special than any of us realize. Your destiny lies in Amacia. This much I am sure of now. The Lord will not abandon you or us in this. Just believe and you will see His wonders.”

Hannibal chuckled. “Not a truer word has been spoken,” he stated. “It’s been like this all my life. Thank you, Nathanael, for putting things in perspective for me.”

“Not a problem,” Nathanael replied. “Now if I may make a suggestion, we still have a few hours before sunrise. I strongly suggest we get some rest because if I remember our geography, the climb to Skull Pass is not going to be a nice one.”

“That’s sounds like a very good idea,” Hannibal stated. “Who wants to stand watch?”

“I will,” Cracko stated. “Now that the gas has worn off, I’m a bit wired. I’ll keep watch.”

“Good,” Hannibal answered.

“Does anyone know how long we were kept prisoner by the Zinzera?” Arabella asked. “I feel like I’ve lost a day somewhere along the line.”

“That’s because you did lose a day,” Selina called out as she came out of the tent. “I had the same thought, so I checked my watch. They had us thirty hours. It’s now 3:30 am on Thursday morning. They caught us last night around 1:30 am.”

“Well, let’s not relive that last thirty hours,” Arabella replied. “Let’s get some sleep and when day comes, get the heck out of this valley before anything else happens.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hannibal chimed with a bow. With that, everyone except Cracko returned to his or her tents. Cracko located his katana and sat down at the fire with the sword in his lap, watching the forest intently, not wanting to be caught off guard again.

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