Two hours after sunrise, Hannibal woke with a yawn. The events of the previous day involving the Zinzera felt like a nightmare he wasn’t sure was over. The face of Hadeon disintegrating in the blue light beam from the giant cyborg bear statue haunted him. The Yeti Sukar’s image flashed through his mind and a troubled sigh escaped his lips. Seeing Selina lay beside him still asleep, Hannibal turned on his side and looked at her with much admiration and love for her as she slept. An air of innocence and peace emanated from her as she purred in her sleep. It somewhat counteracted the feelings haunting him from the Circle of Hammunaptra. Hannibal then heard voices coming from outside the tent and the fire crackling with breakfast cooking on the fire. The smell cooking meat drifted throughout the camp, which intrigued him. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and sat up. Gently patting Selina on the head, Hannibal put his boots on before going out of the tent. As he emerged from the tent, the strong smell of roasting pork filled the air. He looked toward the fire, seeing a small boar on a makeshift spit being turned by Harry with everyone gathered around the fire waiting eagerly for the pig to finish cooking. “What’s this?” Hannibal asked as he approached the fire. “Where’d this come from?”
“A wild pig wandered into the camp early this morning,” Cracko informed. “Therefore, I killed it so we’d have a little more to eat. I hope I wasn’t out of line.”
Hannibal looked at the pig and the clever spit Cracko had set up to cook it, marveling at the workings of the Lord. “No,” he replied, “Not at all. It shows initiative and creativity. Any idea of how long it’ll be before it’s ready?”
“Should be ready any time,” Cracko answered as the rest of the group talked quietly. “It’s been cooking since 5:00 am.”
Harry turned the pig as Hannibal sat down at the fire by Nathanael. “Did you know about this?” Hannibal asked Nathanael.
“Not until I was awakened by the smell of it cooking an hour ago,” Nathanael answered.
“Were there any problems once the Zinzera left us?” Hannibal asked as his hunger grew with the odor of the cooking boar.
“No,” Cracko replied as he poked the coals in the fire with a stick. “It was quiet. The most exciting thing was me killing this boar.”
“I’m glad,” Hannibal said. “After what we went through with the Zinzera, we needed the rest.”
“That’s the truth,” Harry stated as he turned the boar again. “Being chained to a metal grate waiting to be roasted while we watched you fight for our lives was no picnic. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared. I prayed the whole time.”
“So did I,” Arabella chimed. “Let’s not get into that type of situation again. I don’t think I could take it. That incident’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“I know,” Hannibal stated softly. “It’s going to haunt me too.”
“But those prayers helped you overcome that evil,” Nathanael declared, “allowing you to save us all. The Lord was truly merciful.”
“That He was,” Hannibal agreed. “Still, I hope we don’t get into that sort of situation again.”
“Amen,” Arabella said emphatically.
They all talked for another half hour while the boar cooked, at which time the pig was done and ready to eat. Hannibal helped break out the plates and water while Harry carved the pig, giving everyone as much as they wanted. As he carved, Selina came out of the tent and stretched.
“Something smells really good,” Selina said while approaching and taking a seat next to Hannibal, seeing the boar on the spit. “Oh, roast pig…I hope it tastes as good as it smells,” she purred.
“It is,” Hannibal said after taking a bite. “Try some.” He handed her a small piece off his plate while Harry carved some for her.
Selina sniffed and then nibbled at it, letting the flavor spread throughout her mouth. She then snapped a larger chunk off and chewed. “Sure is. Who got the pig?” she asked as Harry handed her a plate with some meat and a glass of water to wash it down.
“Cracko bagged the pig early this morning when it came near the camp,” Ned said as he nibbled on his portion.
“My compliments to the chef,” Selina purred pleasantly as they ate. “It’s good to be able to eat in peace after what happened yesterday.”
“It sure is,” Sam agreed after washing down his food with some water. Thus, they ate their fill, reducing the boar to a wreckage of bones and gristle. Within forty minutes, they finished and cast the bones and wreckage of the pig into the fire.
“Man that was good,” Ned declared after finishing his portion. The team agreed as they sat around the fire conversing pleasantly with each other, not saying much about the events of the previous day. After a few minutes of conversation, Ned blurted out, “Can I ask you guys something?”
“Sure,” Hannibal replied. “What is it, Ned?”
“Did the Zinzera do something to us while we were knocked out?” Ned asked. “When I woke this morning, my wounds from the firefight with Gulez and his troops were all but healed. Moreover, the bandages were not the ones Miss Bishop used on us before the Zinzera caught us.”
“Really?” Hannibal asked. “I don’t know. I know the statue machine healed me, but I can’t say anything about the rest of you. Anyone care to share?”
“I thought I was going nuts,” Jonathan stated. “But my wounds are healed too. The bandages aren’t Arabella’s and mine had some strange herbs on the wound when I removed them this morning. The wounds are completely healed from the bottom up. They had to have done something while we were knocked out.”
In moments, everyone else who had wounds from the firefight with Gulez and his troops admitted their wounds were healed along with strange bandages and herbs being placed on the wounds. “They must have treated our wounds before bringing us back here,” Hannibal surmised. “I didn’t expect Okoto to do such a thing, but it’s now obvious he did, for which I’m grateful. Not having those wounds weighing you down will make the climb much easier for us.”
“True,” Nathanael stated. “Maybe Okoto and the Zinzera treated our wounds as a good-will gesture for fulfilling their Caverias prophecy.”
“It also shows they’re much more advanced than we thought,” Selina added. “Some of our wounds were pretty deep and for those to have healed like this so quickly shows a level of medical sophistication nearly on par with our healing machines at Tiamat. The Zinzera are definitely hiding their technological sophistication.”
“Could be,” Hannibal admitted. “I’m just happy they decided to help instead of killing us, which they could have done at any time.”
“Amen to that,” Arabella chimed. “Even though it looks like they helped us in the end, I’ll feel much safer when we’re away from here.” The rest of the team agreed.
The conversation shifted away from the Zinzera back to small talk where they laughed and joked with each other. Hannibal, Selina, and Nathanael sat back and watched the display of camaraderie and friendship amongst the new members of their troupe. After fifteen minutes of pleasant conversation, Hannibal announced, “I’m glad to see that you all are in such good spirits after the terrible time we had yesterday with the Zinzera. We’re going to need it. The climb to Skull Pass isn’t going to be nice. Let’s break camp and whip this mountain, all right? The sooner we make the climb, the sooner we can get away from the Zinzera and the General.”
“I’m all for that,” Arabella chimed. A chorus of agreement rose from the group and within ten minutes, they broke camp, making sure to put the fire completely out, concealing it along with the rest of their campsite. Hannibal surveyed his team, seeing them more than ready to move as he put on his trench coat and slung his backpack.
“All right,” Hannibal announced. “Let’s show this mountain who’s the boss.” He took the point as usual with Selina at his side. Harry followed them with Nathanael close behind Harry. Morrison and Arabella came next with Thomas, Cracko, Jonathan, and Sam following with Ned bringing up the rear.
They marched through the fir forest for a couple of hours, seeing a variety of wildlife as they moved on. The climate began shifting as the road started rising significantly toward the pass. The climb became more taxing as the fir forest changed to a thinning hardwood forest with ever-shorter trees and underbrush. The road reduced in size to the size of a driveway as they pushed on. The wind started blowing and the temperature dropped as they climbed out of the forest into a rocky alpine-type of terrain. The wind became cold as it whipped down off Aconcagua. They stopped briefly, donning their hats and coats to cut the wind. Hannibal put on his flight jacket beneath his trench coat for added protection and made sure everyone was properly attired before moving on. For three hours, they climbed the ever-steepening road through the rocky terrain and thinning forest. Toward the end of the three hours, the road became no more than a rocky path with the trees having long since been left behind. They trudged through a barren wasteland of rocks and moss. The road snaked around giant boulders and began to switchback up the ridge to the pass. The wind turned obnoxiously cold as the ascent became more treacherous with the road reducing to no more than seven feet across. On one side of the road, the granite massif of the ridge rose precipitously at an incline so steep it wasn’t climbable without ropes and grapples. On the other side, it dropped straight down for more than a thousand feet to the valley floor. Yet the view was breathtaking. They could see entire valley and farther off in the distance, the small town where Hannibal and Harry had met Arabella initially hung like a mirage.
As they climbed, Hannibal began to see and hear about the fatigue in his party so he kept an eye open for a sheltered spot out of the wind for them to stop. They followed the road another two miles and rose another fifteen hundred feet vertically before he spotted a small cave next to the road in the side of the ridge. “We’ll stop in that cave,” he announced to his troupe over the stiff icy wind howling off the peak above them. Within minutes, they took refuge in a small cave just big enough for them to get comfortably out of the wind. Hannibal removed his pack, sitting down with his back to the wall of the cave. Everyone else did likewise.
Arabella literally dropped to her knees inside the cave and said to everyone “I don’t think I could have climbed another step. My legs are Jell-O.” She sat down and watched her legs quiver.
“Me too,” Sam agreed. “This is way more difficult than it looks.”
“How’re you doing, princess?” Hannibal asked Selina as she sat down beside him.
“I’ve been better,” Selina replied, patting him on the knee. “This is one mean climb.”
“That it is,” Nathanael agreed. Everyone whole-heartedly agreed with that assessment.
“How much farther is it to the top?” Morrison asked as he fished through his pack to find something to eat.
“I’m not sure,” Hannibal answered. “Closest estimate is the pass is about three miles distant and above us about another three thousand feet or more. I could be wrong about that though. It could be farther and higher or closer. We won’t know for sure until we actually get there.”
“You know which one I’m hoping for,” Harry said as he sat next to Hannibal.
“I hope that I’m wrong on how far it is and we’re closer to it that we think,” Hannibal admitted.
“Here, here,” Morrison agreed, munching on some jerky from his personal supply of food.
Everyone saw him snacking and Hannibal said, “Good idea, John. Let’s eat some to boost our strength for the final assault on the Pass.” Within minutes, they were all eating modest portions of the food supply.
As they snacked on their rations, Jonathan walked out on to the road, looking out over the valley and land beyond. “Holy smokes!” Jonathan exclaimed. “That’s some view! You can see for miles!” Everyone stepped out of the cave briefly to look at the view.
“You’re right,” Arabella agreed. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.” They basked in the view as the wind subsided, letting the sun warm them.
“I wonder if we can see where the Zinzera took us from here,” Thomas queried.
“I rather doubt it,” Hannibal stated. “We don’t know where the canyon was since they knocked us out. I suspect it’s somewhere on the other side of the valley along one of those spur ridges over there.”
Suddenly, Morrison saw something gleaming in the valley below them, just across the river. “What’s that?” he asked as he pointed to the shining object in the forest below them. Everyone looked to where he pointed. The object gleamed like a lighthouse in the forest.
Hannibal retrieved his binoculars while everyone speculated what it was. He walked out to the edge of the road and scanned with the binoculars for a few moments. “It’s the pyramid,” he reported. “The crystal capstone is what we’re seeing. We must be looking at it at just the right angle to see it.” He lowered the binoculars and turned toward the cave, seeing that the side of the mountain just above them lit up as if someone was directing a beam of light with a mirror. He followed the light up the side of the mountain. Above him some two thousand feet, he saw a strange-looking rock formation that resembled a skull.
“I’ll be,” Hannibal breathed as he looked up. “We’re almost there.” Everyone looked up and uttered various exclamations and curses of amazement that the pass was so close. Hannibal returned to the cave and everyone followed. There they rested for about an hour while they finished the lunch ration and regained their strength. The sun began moving down behind the ridge by time everyone was ready to move on. Hannibal led them on with renewed vigor and hope of crossing the pass before dark. They cautiously ascended the side of the ridge with vigor. A half hour after leaving the cave, the road suddenly narrowed to where only one person at time could pass and Hannibal stopped them. He looked at the path that lay before him with a frown. It was about three and a half feet wide with a solid wall of andesitic granite on one side and a sheer four thousand foot drop-off to the valley below on the other side.
“We have to climb that?” Arabella asked with fear on her voice.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Hannibal stated, being well aware of her fear and the treacherousness of the trail. “Break out the ropes. We’ll tie ourselves together in a chain for safety.” They broke out the ropes and linked themselves together with them. “Now, stay close to the wall. Be very careful and for those of you afraid of heights please don’t look down. We’re close to the pass, I can feel it,” Hannibal ordered. “Now move out.” The group inched forward onto the narrow road, which now consisted of not much more than a ledge on a tremendous cliff. They moved on with extreme caution as the wind rose, buffeting them.
Arabella felt petrified with fear. “How did I get myself into this? First the General, then the Zinzera, and now this,” she muttered repeatedly, looking only at the granite wall beside her as she touched it firmly to reassure her.
Morrison walked right behind Arabella, gently pushing her along while keeping her close to the cliff’s face as they moved along, encouraging her.
Selina and Nathanael, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the climb with everyone else being somewhere between enjoyment and fear of falling to their deaths. They inched their way up the treacherous path, which switch backed a half a dozen times as it rose along the face of the cliff. Several times during the climb, members of the team slipped or lost their balance only to be saved by the others. An hour and a half elapsed as the road snaked around the ridge before the road began to widen to a safer width as they approached the top. In those ninety minutes, they traveled only a mile and a quarter and climbed over two thousand feet vertically.
“At last!” Hannibal sighed as the road widened back to as it was at the cave with the incline being not nearly as steep. A bitter icy wind swept down off Aconcagua briskly, chilling the team to the bone as they moved on. Within a half hour, the road widened significantly to nearly eight feet and the incline continued to diminish. The sheer wall of granite still towered above them and the drop off still remained precipitous, being nearly seven thousand feet to the base of the ridge.
“We’re getting close to the pass now, aren’t we?” Harry asked as they trudged on.
“Yes,” Hannibal said as the bitterly cold wind stung his face. “We’re real close.”
“Thank God!” Sam called out, miserably cold and tired from the climb.
They moved on for another fifteen minutes and the road turned, emptying into an open area nearly seventy feet across directly on top of the ridge. The road started to descend on the other side of the open area. On one side was a towering skull-like rock formation with a cave in its face about ten feet above the clear area. Opposite it, the ridge dropped off precipitously nearly four hundred feet before continuing down as a razor back ridge. The wind howled as they entered the area. Hannibal looked around as he led the group to the center of the area. “This is it!” he called out as he looked to the west, seeing the sun setting rapidly. “We’re on top!”
“We need to get out of this wind, Hannibal!” Nathanael shouted over the wind out as Hannibal looked around.
Hannibal turned and faced the rock formation, cursing, “Shit! Would you look at that?” Everyone looked at the formation and similar exclamations issued forth from them for before them sat the giant stone face of a skull, looming nearly a hundred feet in height and seventy feet across, glaring down at them with three great holes in its face, looking like eyes and nose. The nose hole lay up about ten feet on the formation at the top of a steep pile of rubble that resembled jagged teeth.
“You think that’s something…look there!” Jonathan said, pointing across a chasm at the far edge of the flat area. The chasm spanned almost a half a mile wide and appeared bottomless. On the other side of the chasm rose another peak with an even larger rock formation resembling a skull sitting on it.
Everyone stood gawking at the spectacle when Thomas asked, “Can we stop now and get out of this wind? I’m freezing and dead tired.”
Hannibal saw the sun drop behind a far ridge. “Yeah,” he replied. “Let’s take shelter in the cave there.” Hannibal untied himself, clambered up the slide to the cave’s entrance in the nose hole, and looked in through a narrow entrance just big enough for a man to enter. Seconds later, he disappeared into the hole as the rest of the group untied themselves so they could move around individually. Harry and Ned walked to the edge of the clearing and looked into the abyss.
“That’s one fucking deep hole,” Ned commented.
“No kidding,” Harry agreed. “I’d hate to fall in there. Fall in there and it’ll be tomorrow morning before you’d hit bottom.”
“No shit,” Ned agreed.
Just then, Hannibal emerged from the cave and shouted over the howling wind, “Come on up. There’s plenty of room!” He went back into the cave and everyone clambered up the slide, following him in. They followed him through a narrow passage for fifteen feet before it opened into a large room roughly thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. Their flashlights shined around in the darkness and the wind echoed in an eerie howl across the entrance of the cave. Hannibal looked around, seeing dry wood scattered throughout the chamber. “Let’s gather this wood and make a fire first,” Hannibal ordered. Within minutes, all the wood was gathered and a roaring fire crackled in the center of the chamber with the smoke drifting out of the entrance on the air currents.
They sat their packs off and gathered around the fire to warm up. As they gradually warmed up, Morrison said, “You weren’t kidding about that climb. That was worse than fighting the General and the Zinzera combined.”
“You’re not kidding about that,” Cracko agreed. “I’ve never had to make a climb like that. It’s a wonder the Zinzera protect this pass so ruthlessly. The approach itself is enough to dissuade most people.”
“Oh, why’re you complaining?” Nathanael rebuked. “You can’t tell me that at least for a moment you didn’t feel the exhilaration of making such a climb, and seeing views that not very many people get to see.”
“That’s true,” Sam agreed. “I really wasn’t afraid until we had to climb the cliff. I was terrified of falling from that lofty perch but at the same time, the adrenaline rush from being in such a perilous place and seeing that awesome view made it worth the risk. About halfway up that place, I actually began to enjoy it.”
“Me too,” Jonathan agreed. “We saw vistas that stagger the imagination. I’m glad I came.”
“You’re all crazy,” Arabella scolded. “I was terrified, but realized that I had to go on. Going back just wasn’t an option with the General and the Zinzera out there. I prayed all the way up that we wouldn’t fall, especially after we nearly lost Thomas and Sam. I just don’t like to tempt God like that.”
Hannibal smiled and shook his head. “Oh, you of little faith; you still don’t realize that the angels were guarding us and keeping our feet sure,” he chided softly. “Angels are all about us, guarding us, and keeping us safe from harm. They’ve helped us by saving us from the General and the Zinzera, not to mention securing our path and enabling us to make it this far. Trust in the Lord. He’ll watch over us. Our job is not done yet.”
“You have great faith,” Cracko said. “You’re leading us like you know exactly where we’re going. Yet, I know that you’ve never been here before. In fact, no one has ever reached this pass before, not in my lifetime. The Zinzera have stopped and killed all comers. We’re the first in several generations to come here.”
“Yet, someone has been here before us,” Harry said as he began to notice drawings on the walls.
“Why do you say that?” Morrison asked.
“Well, the wood for one,” Harry stated. “This wood just didn’t magically appear in this cave. Someone must have brought in here.”
“That’s possible,” Cracko admitted. “Maybe someone managed to reach this cave before my time.”
“If that’s not enough proof, then just look around you,” Harry said. “Look at the walls. There are pictures and writing all over it.”
Hannibal looked around the cave and exclaimed, “My God. You’re right.” He rose, taking a piece of wood from the fire and using as a torch. Hannibal went to the wall to examine the drawings and writings. Flashlights sprang to life as everyone spread out and examined the walls around the cave.
“Hey. There’s some Spanish over here,” Sam reported.
“What does it say?” Hannibal asked.
“It’s a name and a date,” Sam answered. “It’s Pietro and the date is 1830.”
“So no one has been here since 1830,” Ned said. “Maybe the wood was left by this Pietro?”
“It’s possible,” Hannibal replied. “I noticed the wood is pretty old when I picked it up.”
“Hey, there’s some of the Stone Language over here,” Harry called out and Hannibal immediately went to him to examine the writing.
“What does it say?” Arabella asked as Selina and Nathanael pushed up close to see the writing.
Hannibal gently brushed the dust and cobwebs off so he could read it. He let his finger trace the writing and said, “This is really strange. It’s some sort of prophecy.”
“Well don’t keep us in the dark. What does it say?” Thomas asked insistently.
“It says this,” Hannibal said after he finished reading what had not eroded beyond recognition. “‘In the end of days, the Dark Prince will shake from his slumber and many will despair. The great Dark Cat will roar, the world will shake, and darkness will come as the Cat stirs. The Draken Lord will arise in the east and rage in fury. A monster Chimera will sweep out of the northeast with vengeance and a Giant of immense power will arise with great power out of the northwest. In those late days will he come, the great Warrior guardian from the Outer World with his celestial mate and ten of his own and the great Ancient of Days guiding their way while being pursued by an old enemy out for vengeance and an enemy who isn’t his enemy. For in those days, the Ancient of Days’ anger shall be kindled against the Emperor and his kingdom will be plunged into darkness. Stars and fire shall fall on the Dark City of the Damned in divine fury. The moon shall be struck and bloodied; the sun and stars hammered and their light shall be withdrawn. For the righteous Wrath of the Divine God will fall on the kingdom. Indeed, the very Earth will stagger and sway as a drunkard, being pulverized by bolts….’ The rest of it is worn off. I can’t read it.”
As Hannibal read the writing out loud, Selina’s countenance fell and she became troubled. Hannibal sensed it immediately as she went back to the fire. “Strange is an understatement,” Ned commented.
“No, it’s more than strange,” Harry said. “It’s downright disconcerting. A lot of that sounds very familiar after what we just went through with the Zinzera. You did see the statues that looked like Selina and Nathanael in that Zinzera temple. And if Selina doesn’t fit the description of celestial mate, then I don’t know what does. After all, she is from the other side of the galaxy and is married to you, Hannibal.”
Hannibal paled as Harry pointed out the obvious, the revelation rattling his soul. “You’re right,” he murmured.
“We’re also ten in number, you know,” Arabella pointed out, “not counting Hannibal and Selina.”
“Yes, we are,” Hannibal agreed. “But that’s not what Harry is referring to.”
“Well, what is he talking about?” Jonathan asked plainly.
As Hannibal began to speak, Harry leaned against the wall of the cave and it suddenly gave way. He yelped in surprise as he tumbled down a flight of stairs for nearly thirty feet, landing in a heap at the bottom. “Harry!” Hannibal shouted in great concern. “Harry!”
They all shouted to him and Hannibal shushed them so he could hear a response. For a few moments, they heard no answer as Harry sat up. The only light he could see was the firelight shining down the stairs from the cave. When he heard Hannibal’s call, Harry called out, “Hey! I found Waldo!”
“He’s okay,” Hannibal replied in great relief. Then into the darkness, he called, “Are you all right?”
“Hell no!” Harry shot back angrily. “I fell through a wall and rolled down some god-damned stairs! Of course I’m not all right!”
Hannibal chuckled as he examined the partially opened camouflaged door Harry had unwittingly opened. “You all stay here for the moment,” Hannibal ordered. “Ned, come with me.” At that, he and Ned entered the secret staircase with his torch and descended the stairs, which spiraled slightly as it descended. They found Harry sitting on the landing, waiting for some light to come to him.
“You sure do have a way of stumbling into things,” Hannibal said as he extended his hand to help up Harry. Harry grabbed Hannibal’s hand and Hannibal heaved him up. “Where do you suppose this leads?” he asked Harry.
“Do I look like I know?” Harry chided.
“Is everything all right down there?” Thomas called out.
“Yeah,” Ned answered back up the stairs.
“Is it all right to come down?” Jonathan asked.
Ned looked at Hannibal for a sign and Hannibal said, “Yeah, come on down.” He looked around at the passage and noticed unlit torches on the wall, lighting the nearest one as the rest of the group came down. “Stay behind me,” Hannibal ordered as he slowly started down the passage.
The corridor spanned eight feet across and rose ten feet in height with torches on the walls at regular intervals. He lit the torches as he went past them with everyone hanging back a little. The passage stretched for fifty yards, descending slightly as it went. Hannibal kept an ever-aware eye out for traps, remembering the pyramid. Finally, they came to a giant oval-shaped metal door seven feet wide and nine feet tall with hieroglyphic letters of the Stone Language on it in two different places. Hannibal surveyed the door, immediately noticing it consisted of a metal unknown to him.
“That’s one weird door,” Sam commented.
“Indeed it is,” Hannibal replied as he continued to scan the door and the passage immediately around it. In seconds, he noticed several slots four inches apart on the roof of the passage coming out three feet from the door. His face fell when he saw it. “Damn…another trap I’m sure,” he hissed with displeasure.
“What makes you say that?” Thomas asked.
“Look up there at the ceiling,” Hannibal said, pointing up. “Do you see those slots?”
“Yeah,” Thomas replied.
“Remember the blade trap in the pyramid?” Hannibal asked.
Thomas’ face opened up as he suddenly understood. “You should be extra careful then,” he urged.
“I intend to,” Hannibal stated, pulling his knife. He tossed the knife against the door and it bounced off with a clunk that didn’t reverberate. When nothing happened, his eyebrow rose. “Hmm…seems it’s not booby trapped in that manner. Let’s try something different,” he murmured. Taking one of the burning torches, he put it out and started tapping on the floor directly in front of the door.
“What’re you doing?” Sam asked.
“Checking for pressure triggers that may engage whatever is in those slots,” Hannibal stated. After three minutes, Hannibal sighed and stood up. “Looks like the floor’s safe here; that leaves whatever’s locking the door as the trigger,” he stated, cautiously stepping up to the door and picking up his knife.
“Careful,” Selina warned.
“That’s not steel,” Morrison commented as Hannibal examined the door, brushing off the dust.
“What does that writing say?” Arabella asked.
“What kind of metal is that?” Sam queried.
“What’s do you think is in there?” Ned enquired.
“Whoa…slow down,” Hannibal replied, “one question at a time.”
“Sorry,” Ned apologized.
“It’s okay, Ned. To answer Sam’s question, it’s an alloy I’ve never seen before,” Hannibal answered as he tapped on the door lightly with the knife, hearing the knife ring and not the door. “Very strange.”
“But what does the writing say?” Arabella asked again.
Hannibal closely scrutinized the six-inch tall lines of hieroglyphs in the upper center of the door, declaring, “It says: ‘Armory of the Divine Bolthor Sai Keleb, first Lord of Amacia, Emperor of all Mankind.’” He looked closely at the door and around it, discovering a panel of more writing in much smaller sized letters. He wiped it off and deciphered it while keeping a wary eye to slots on the ceiling.
“Holy shit,” Harry replied. “Is that what it really says?”
Hannibal glanced at him and replied sarcastically, “No, this is actually the US President’s outhouse where he comes to take a dump in peace.” He cracked a wicked grin as Harry frowned and the other members of the team broke into laughter. Then in a sober tone, Hannibal admitted, “Yes, it’s as I read it. This is an ancient armory from the days before the Flood, Harry; another relic of the 1st Age like the Circle of Hammunaptra. I find it unsettling to find this here in light of everything we know. It means this Emperor mentioned by the Zinzera in their prophecies of me and in the cave above us may have actually existed. Moreover, it’s curious that this Emperor’s name is the same as that of a Frost Giant from the Old Norse myths.”
“Whoa, that’s deep,” Thomas chimed. “Can you get it open?”
“Well, let’s see,” Hannibal replied, returning to his examination of the writing on the door.
“Well?” Ned asked impatiently.
“It’s locked with a riddle,” Hannibal said as he read the writing. “Interesting…we’ve seen a variation of this riddle before.”
“Where?” Jonathan asked.
“Back at Tiamat where we found the Relic,” Hannibal stated. “It was part of the advanced security system that protected the room.”
“So what does this riddle say?” Arabella asked.
Hannibal smiled wryly at his team without answering for a few moments, leaving them in suspense.
“Don’t keep us in the dark, Hannibal,” Jonathan called out. “Please tell us what the riddle is.”
“Please, Hannibal,” Arabella begged softly. “Tell us what it says.”
“Okay, since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell you. It says, ‘None escape my power and all crumble to dust. Birds, beasts, peasants, Kings, and empires all fall before me. Mountains disintegrate and worlds dissolve into nothing; and stars are snuffed out by my breath. None can escape my touch; all begins and ends with me.’ Answer Bolthor’s riddle and the door will open,” Hannibal declared. “Ahh…here’s the key to the trap over my head. You see these icons here?” Hannibal pointed to a certain set of glyphs stating, “This says that if we answer wrong, death comes swiftly from above for the one who seeks to enter, so we have one shot to get in here. Anyone have any suggestions on an answer?”
“If you know the answer, why not just tell us?” Sam asked pointedly. “You did say that you encountered this riddle before.”
“I did,” Hannibal answered. “But I want to see how clever you are. You’re part of this expedition now, and deserve a chance to figure it out on your own. Go ahead…think about the riddle. I can tell you this about it. Its answer is so obvious it hides in plain sight as something that affects us all, but we as people seldom give any thought to.”
“Now, you’re talking in riddles,” Thomas chided.
“Indeed I am,” Hannibal stated with a wry grin. “I’m giving you a chance to test yourselves. Answer the riddle and I’ll unlock the door with your answer, giving whoever provides the correct answer all claim to whatever treasure lies beyond this door; a treasure I might remind you has not been seen since the 1st Age many thousands of years ago. Just think about the riddle and discuss it amongst yourselves for a little bit.”
“Okay,” Arabella replied. “That seems fair.” Hannibal, Selina, Harry, and Nathanael watched as the rest of the team discussed the riddle away from the trap zone in front of the door.
“You think they’ll figure it out?” Harry whispered to Hannibal.
“Yeah,” Hannibal replied, leaning against the wall six feet from the door. “They’re a highly intelligent group. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”
Five minutes later, Arabella blurted out, “It’s time, guys. Only time can do what the riddle suggests. It’s just like Hannibal told us in his riddle. It’s so obvious it hides in plain sight.” In seconds, they agreed with Arabella’s answer and gathered around Hannibal.
“So what’s your answer?” Hannibal queried.
“Time,” Arabella stated. “We all agreed time is the answer.”
“Bravo,” Hannibal crowed. “You’re correct. But we don’t know for sure if it’s the answer the ancient Bolthor Sai Keleb wants. Let’s find out.”
Hannibal picked up the unlit torch he used to check the floor in front of the door and stood just beyond the slots in the ceiling. “Since there’s no guarantee that a correct answer won’t trip whatever is up there, I’m going to use this torch to touch the appropriate glyphs on the door. All right, here goes nothing. Stand back,” he said, pressing the appropriate glyphs with the unlit torch in the proper sequence to open the door. Everyone moved back and held their breath as he keyed the sequence. As he finished the sequence, the sound of ancient locks chattered. The door and passage rumbled with four guillotine-style blades instantly falling from the slots in the ceiling. Hannibal’s eye went to the ceiling, seeing the blades emerge. He let go of the unlit torch, pulling his hand and arm out of the way a split second before the blades crashed to the floor, slicing the torch into five pieces as they slammed into the floor, raising a dust. Hannibal’s team stared in astonishment at the one-inch thick blades that spanned the whole passage from side to side and stood two feet tall as they stuck into the floor in front of the door.
“God damned,” Ned swore.
“I knew they booby-trapped the door,” Hannibal crowed. “They must have set it to kill anyone trying to enter regardless of who it was.”
The passage and door continued to rumble as the door abruptly cracked open, releasing a gust of stale air that kicked up a dust. Stepping forward over the blades that were blunt on the top, Hannibal pushed on the door, finding he couldn’t move it by himself. “Nathanael, Ned, Harry…help me,” he ordered and they came forward, helping him push the door open. It creaked and groaned as it opened for the first time in many millennia. “Bring a lit torch,” Hannibal added. Selina grabbed one of the torches on the wall, handing it to Hannibal after they opened the door enough to get through.
Hannibal took the torch and cautiously stepped into the vault with everyone else following. The stygian darkness of the chamber greeted them with the only light coming from Hannibal’s torch. He immediately found several torches on the wall and lit them. As he went around, lighting the torches, more and more of the darkness fled away, revealing the Armory of the Divine Bolthor Sai Keleb. Ten torches lined the perimeter of a chamber one hundred fifty feet across and thirty feet high. In the chamber sat every manner of ancient weaponry and armor one could imagine: swords of every shape and size with all manner of knives and daggers. Strange-looking armors lay scattered about. Axes and maces were as numerous as the swords with war hammers being present in sizable numbers. Ancient weaponry of every sort lay set up in a display form, waiting for someone to use them with everything being manufactured in exquisite detail. A broad smile crossed Hannibal’s lips. “Well done, everyone. Very well done,” he congratulated. “This is a magnificent find.”
“Holy shit,” Thomas exclaimed in amazement. “Would you look at this? Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
Sam shook his head in stupefaction and said softly, “No, this is truly awesome. And just think…it has been here all this time, waiting for us to find it.” As Sam spoke, the group dispersed into the chamber, looking with awe and fascination at the ancient weaponry.
Hannibal looked around at everything, suddenly realizing why they had been led there. Whistling to get everyone’s attention, Hannibal ordered, “Take what you want. We have just been given replacement weapons. We were meant to find this place; otherwise, Harry wouldn’t have found the secret door. Choose the weapon that you feel most comfortable with because I feel that we may need them eventually.”
At that, they went about choosing weapons for themselves. Hannibal walked through the swords and stopped at a particularly exquisite two-handed broadsword with a four and an half foot blade, retrieving it. He hefted the sword and to his surprise found it not nearly as heavy as he thought it should have been. He unsheathed it and to his amazement, he found that the blade was made of a strange alloy that looked like electronium but was not. He examined its keen edge and carefully touched the edge, which instantly cut him. He recoiled from the tiny cut and called to everyone. “Be careful of the cutting edges on these weapons. They’re extremely sharp,” he warned and everyone heeded his warning, being very careful of the cutting edges of the weapons. Hannibal made several practice swings with the sword and found that it matched him to the point that it was like an extension of his arm. He sheathed it and began to look at the knives and armor. He handled a shirt of mail that was made of a slightly different material than the blades of the weapons. Pulling out a knife, he tried to puncture it and found that the knife would not penetrate it. In addition, he found that it was very light and woven with such fineness that it shimmered like mercury. Seeing the potential benefits of having it, he grabbed it as well as some clasp-on arm and leg armor. He tried on the armor and felt that it left him with as much mobility as he had without it.
Meanwhile, Selina looked amongst the swords and found a moderate-size katana type of sword with a harness to strap it to the back of the bearer. She took a couple of smaller knives and some armor.
Nathanael searched through the weaponry and chose a large curved sword similar to a scimitar, only bigger. It resembled an executioner’s blade. In addition, he retrieved several daggers and some armor.
Cracko found a small crossbow that was mountable to a man’s forearm. He took it and a small arsenal of arrows for it.
Harry searched through the weaponry and a large war hammer with a four-foot handle attracted his attention. He hefted the hammer, expecting it to be extremely heavy and found it quite to the contrary. The hammer had a large head, nearly eight inches wide and sixteen inches long with a point on one end and a flat surface on the other end. The head was engraved in ancient runes, further engaging Harry’s interest in the hammer. “Strange,” he murmured as he handled the hammer easily. He then tried it out, pounding the floor with it and it shook the whole chamber, attracting the attention of everyone there with the crash and subsequent shaking of the floor.
“Whoa,” Hannibal said as everyone gathered around to see the weapon Harry had chosen. “That’s one big hammer. How did it do that?”
“I don’t know,” Harry answered with a pleased look on his face. “This hammer is the strangest weapon I believe I’ve ever encountered. For some strange reason, I suddenly thought of Thor’s Hammer when I saw this thing and the writing on it.”
“Mjolnir,” Hannibal replied with a raised eyebrow. “Wouldn’t that be something…Harry bearing the Hammer of the Thunder god, Thor? But I can see why you may have been reminded of Mjolnir when you saw the hammer shaking his whole place.”
“Did that thing shake this whole place?” Sam asked. “I’ll bet it’s heavy as a son of a bitch.”
“That’s one of the weird things about this hammer,” Harry said. “It’s not nearly as heavy as it looks. Here, see how heavy it is.”
Harry handed the hammer to Hannibal and he was astounded at how light it was, weighing about three pounds when it should have weighed about thirty. “Whoa, it’s incredibly light,” Hannibal agreed. He examined the head closely and added, “It’s the same metal that the armor is made of, whatever it is. This metal is extremely strong and light, very similar to titanium. And this writing is very strange. I don’t think I’ve seen this language yet. It looks Runic similar to the Nordic Runes, but isn’t, and I know it isn’t the Stone Language. This is really strange.”
Hannibal handed it back to Harry, who said as he looked at the hammer, “Is this me or what?”
Hannibal chuckled and patted Harry on the shoulder. “Yes, it is,” he chimed as the rest of the team went back to their choosing. “You’ve always been a demolition man and a bit of a Norse god at heart. It just took the right weapon to get you to let him out.”
“Oh, shut up,” Harry retorted, blushing slightly as he walked to the sword racks, retrieving a moderate-sized broadsword and some knives and armor. Hannibal followed to see his choice.
“Can I ask you something about that hammer?” Hannibal queried.
“Not if you’re going to make fun of me,” Harry replied bluntly.
“Not this time,” Hannibal said. “I promise.”
“What is it?” Harry asked, seeing Hannibal’s sincerity.
“Did this hammer call to you?” Hannibal asked. “I know from experience that some weapons seem to have a spirit associated with them and will only let a certain type of individual use them.”
Harry sighed as he looked at his hammer. “I thought I was just hallucinating or something,” he admitted. “But yeah…I could feel this strange hammer calling to me, biding me to wield its power. Is such a thing even possible? Can a weapon really choose its master?”
“I’m not sure,” Hannibal replied. “But I have seen rare instances when people are drawn to a particular weapon or object without knowing why. Because of that, I do believe that some weapons can have a spirit attached to them that enables them to choose their master. It’s been decades since I’ve seen this sort of thing happen. The last time I saw a weapon choose its master was when I was a wizard. You need to be very careful with that hammer. If you start getting dark thoughts that are against your nature, you should get rid of it immediately. No weapon is worth your soul.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Harry said gratefully. “At first, I thought I was losing my mind. But now, I’m not so sure. When I first touched this hammer, I felt energized in a good way. I feel strangely comfortable handling it, and somehow know it won’t hurt me. As corny as it may sound, this is a good hammer, not an evil one. I just know it.”
“Good,” Hannibal said in a relieved tone. “But just keep a wary eye on it and yourself.”
“I will,” Harry answered as Hannibal moved on, patting him on the shoulder.
Ned looked over the variety of weapons and chose a five-foot tall twin-bladed battle axe with sixteen-inch curved blades and an extra handle coming off the main handle about six inches like a scythe handle. He looked at it with curiosity and called to Hannibal as he walked by. “Hannibal…What do you suppose this extra handle is for?” Ned asked.
Hannibal sat his equipment down in a pile and said, “Let me see it.” Ned handed the axe to Hannibal and he looked at it for a moment. “It’s for spinning the axe like this,” Hannibal declared, stepping back. After making sure everyone was clear of the axe, Hannibal grabbed on to the strange handle firmly, spinning the axe vertically in front of him until it whistled.
Jonathan saw Hannibal spinning the axe and called out, “Look! It’s the new turbo Ginsu! It slices! It dices; and makes Julian and French fries in three different shapes!” Everyone laughed and continued their search for weapons and armor.
Hannibal slowed the weapon down and stopped it as Ned looked on with a very impressed look. Handing it back to Ned, Hannibal stated, “It’s a good weapon. It’s not very heavy or clumsy and has a good balance to it. Just don’t get in the way of that blade. It’s capable of cutting a man clean in two.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ned said as he hefted the axe. Ned also chose a moderate-size sword and several knives along with armor.
Hannibal gathered his goods and continued around, seeing what everyone was choosing. He stopped by Arabella, who stood just staring at the swords without a clue as to what she wanted or even if she wanted any at all. “What’s the matter?” Hannibal asked her. “Can’t decide what to get?”
“I’m a doctor, Hannibal, not some barbarian warrior. I have no idea how to use these or even if I should get one,” Arabella declared. “I’m just not the warrior you are. I’m way out of my league here.”
Hannibal patted her on the shoulder and reassured her. “Oh, but you are a warrior,” he said softly. “You’ve had the drive and stamina of a warrior in you all along. You just chose to push that drive into preserving life rather than destroying it. It’s an admirable quality in my book. You don’t have to get anything if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you,” Arabella murmured. “But I feel that I should take something, just for protection, but I just don’t know what to get.”
“I could choose for you if you like?” Hannibal suggested.
“Would you?” Arabella asked.
“Of course,” Hannibal said. “Let me see.” He sat his goods down and went into the collection of swords. Hannibal placed his hand on a very large broadsword with a five-foot blade and looked at her humorously with a smile. “Too big huh,” he quipped.
“Get real,” Arabella replied sarcastically, smiling.
Hannibal presented several other swords in a serious fashion, which didn’t suit Arabella. He finally came to a short sword that was not much bigger than a very large knife. He pulled it out and examined it. It was very light and had a two-foot blade on it with only one edge and a slight curve to it like a Japanese short sword. Beautiful scrollwork and icons lay engraved on the curved blade. It wasn’t a two-handed sword, but had enough room on the exquisitely crafted handle for someone with small hands to use both hands. He turned and presented the small sword to her, letting the blade sit flat in his hands. “I think we’ve found one for you. It’s small and light, yet big enough to do the job if necessary. I sincerely pray we don’t have to use any of these weapons,” he said as he presented the sword to Arabella. She hesitated to take it, and Hannibal urged her gently, “Go on. Take it. It may save your life someday.”
Arabella trembled as she took the ancient weapon, hefting it gently while looking at the blade, which shined and twinkled in the light of the torches. It settled into her hand and seemed bond to her as she looked at it with both fear and fascination. The sword felt like it belong with her, causing her to marvel at it.
“Each sword knows its master,” Hannibal explained, “and this blade knows you, Arabella. I can see it in your reaction. It calls to you, Arabella, to be your guard.”
“I can’t explain it,” Arabella answered in a humbled, shaky tone. “The moment I touched this thing, I felt a strange chill race down my spine. It’s like this knife has always been mine.”
“It’s like I was telling Harry a few minutes ago,” Hannibal stated. “Some weapons are special, forged with special intents for specific people and purposes. Some can even have some form of will associated with them: a spirit maybe that chooses who will wield it. I don’t know how or why this happens; just that it occasionally does, particularly with very old weapons. Does it feel comfortable in your hand…like it has always belonged to you?”
“Yes,” Arabella said softly, still puzzling over how the sword seemed to bond to her on an emotional level. “It does, but I have no idea how to use it. What do I do with it?”
Hannibal slid the scabbard on the blade while she held it. “Don’t worry about it,” he cooed. “When the time comes, you’ll know how to use it by instinct. That’s what happens when you wield a special sword like that. It helps you, teaching you how to use it to keep you safe.”
“You talk like it’s alive,” Arabella stated in puzzlement. “How can a sword be alive? It’s just a sword, isn’t it?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Hannibal admitted. “But I’ve seen and handled blades in the past that seem to have spirits associated with them. Sometimes the spirits can be helpful while others can be a real danger to you. From what I see here, whatever is making you feel this way about this particular blade is a good thing. Just trust the blade and it will protect you. Harry is feeling the same thing about the hammer he chose. He said it called to him, just like this sword has apparently called to you.”
“Really?” Arabella asked. “Harry said the hammer called to him?”
“Yup,” Hannibal answered. “Apparently, it did and Harry said it makes him feel safe.”
Arabella sighed. “I still don’t understand,” she said. “But if you think this sword likes me, then I’ll keep it. I must admit I do feel safer with it.”
“It’s okay,” Hannibal replied. “Even I don’t understand how this sort of thing happens. But in the meantime, when we have a little spare time, I’ll show you some basic moves that’ll help you stay alive.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Arabella said gratefully. “I know nothing about fighting with a blade. I’ve always used a blade to heal, not kill.”
“I know,” Hannibal replied. “Hopefully, you’ll not have to use it to kill. In the meantime, pick out a knife and take some of this armor.” Arabella nodded, choosing at random a small dagger before picking up some armor with Hannibal’s guidance. Hannibal gathered his goods and moved on to see what everyone else got from the armory.
Thomas found some more arrows for his crossbow and took them. He then chose a small sword and several small daggers along with some armor. Jonathan, on the other hand, took twin swords and two daggers in addition to armor. Sam searched and found a strange-looking saber, taking it along with a couple of daggers and various pieces of armor.
Morrison found himself a large mace with a spiked head and two razor sharp blades coming out of the round spiked head on opposite sides of the head. He then went to the collection of swords and chose an exquisite broadsword along with two daggers and some armor. In the armor, everyone helped themselves to the fine shirts of mail and the clasp-on shin and leg armor along with arm guards. The clasp-on armor was made of the same material the shirts were and they were extremely light. Hannibal helped everyone to customize their armor to their needs and once they had gotten what they wanted, he said, “Let’s go back to the cave. I don’t know about you, but I could eat a whole bear after that climb we just made.”
“You said it,” Harry agreed. “I’m starving.” Everyone followed Hannibal out of the Armory and went back to the cave with the weapons and armor in hand, but not put on. Once there, they sat their weapons and armor aside and broke out the food, at which point everyone had their ration for the evening. They conversed as they ate, talking about the weapons they had found and the strangeness of them. After the meal, they brought out the sleeping bags, but not the tents, being that they were in a cave.
As they began to settle down for the night, Thomas asked, “Doesn’t someone need to keep watch?”
“I don’t think so,” Hannibal said confidently. “Because of where we are, the chances of someone coming in here tonight are nil. We have the Zinzera between the General and us and since I passed their Trials, we’re now in good standing with them. They should keep the General away. Just relax and don’t worry. Besides, Nathanael, Selina, and I are notoriously light sleepers. It doesn’t take hardly anything to wake us.” Hannibal’s explanation satisfied Thomas as he settled in his sleeping bag.
“Let’s just hope the Zinzera don’t change their minds about us,” Sam commented.
“I don’t think that’s apt to happen with the statue machines killing Chief Hadeon and his followers,” Hannibal stated. “The Zinzera obviously worship those machines as gods and won’t do anything to upset them.”
“Let’s hope so,” Ned murmured, settling into his sleeping bag.
“Where do we go now, Hannibal?” Jonathan asked as he made himself comfortable.
“We continue to follow the road,” Hannibal said as he sat at the fire while Selina got in their sleeping bag. “Solomon’s Passage is not far, maybe three or four miles at the most. But don’t worry about that right now. Sleep and recoup from the climb today.” Everyone then settled down. Within a few minutes, the exhaustion from the climb had them. In fifteen minutes, everyone was fast asleep except for Hannibal and Selina. She laid in the sleeping bag, watching him sit at the fire, looking into it lost in thought.
What’s the matter, beloved? Selina asked him telepathically. Come to bed.
Hannibal looked around at her, his face etched with weariness and concern. I don’t know, he responded telepathically. I’m troubled by the prophecy on the wall. There are so many elements of it that are in the vision granted to me, Harry, Mary at his house before all of this began to transpire. You’ve seen the vision in my memories. This is very disconcerting, especially after what happened in the Circle of Hammunaptra.
Yes, I have, Selina replied in his mind. It bothers me too, especially where it speaks of the celestial mate to the warrior. Is it possible that the prophecy on the wall and the Zinzera prophecy are really speaking of us? I find that very troubling myself.
So do I, Hannibal returned telepathically. It’s as if someone saw us coming thousands of years ago and left us a message on this wall. Who would have known about us? You’re about as close to a celestial mate as a human could have. That’s what bothering me. If they got that right, then other parts of this prophecy may be true as well.
I don’t have an answer about that, Selina declared in his mind. But we must remember what Gabriel told you at the end of that vision. He said the Lord would be with us and understanding would be forthcoming. We must trust Him. He knows what He is doing. Now come to bed. You’re exhausted.
Hannibal conceded and went to her. He sat down and removed his shoes, coat, and hat before climbing in the two-man sleeping bag with her. She cuddled close and purred for him. “Relax…sleep,” she purred in his ear and within minutes, they too were asleep. The campfire warmed the cave nicely, adding to the comfort of their temporary shelter.