Descent into the Gorge
Three-and-a-half hours after Hannibal and Selina watched the sunrise over Skull Pass, Hannibal’s team finished their breakfast and started to put on their armor and new weapons. “I feel kind of silly wearing this stuff,” Arabella said, referring to the armor as she shouldered her pack. “I’m a doctor, not a soldier.”
“Don’t worry about it, Arabella,” Hannibal replied as he donned his trench coat and hat over his own armor, effectively concealing it. “It’s not silly to protect one’s self when provided with the tools to do so. Even medics go into war zones with Kevlar to protect themselves. This is no different. So is everyone ready to go?” A rumble of agreement rose from the group. Hannibal slung his sword over his pack, saying, “Okay then. Solomon’s Passage awaits us.” He led them out of the cave into the clearing beneath the skull formation. The dense icy fog Hannibal and Selina encountered before dawn had returned, reducing visibility to ten feet.
“Damn,” Hannibal cursed. “I hoped we wouldn’t have to deal with this soup.”
“Why do you say that?” Harry asked.
“Because Hannibal and I were out here at sunrise and the fog had lifted just in time for us to see it,” Selina explained. “It was a beautiful sunrise too.”
“Oh,” Harry replied.
“Let’s hook together again, just in case while we’re in a position to do it,” Hannibal ordered after everyone came out of the cave. “I don’t want anyone to get lost in this fog. They could walk right off a cliff without seeing it.” Hannibal procured the ropes from the supplies and tied everyone together as they had done for the last portion of the climb to the pass.
“I think this is a good idea,” Harry said as he tied himself into the chain. “Someone could get seriously turned around in this soup.”
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Hannibal explained. “This way no one gets lost.”
Within minutes, they were secured with the ropes and Hannibal said, “All right. Let’s move out. Be careful and watch your step. Stay close to the mountainside and away from the cliff’s edge.” He led them to where the road started down from the pass, heading to the west. The dim outline of the road appeared in the fog. It was about five feet wide and descended with noticeable pitch, but wasn’t very steep. They moved along the road, keeping close to the side of the mountain that rose precipitously above them. On the other side of the road, it was impossible to determine how steep the drop off was because of the fog. They plodded down the decline as it followed the face of the cliff. In several places, rockslides partially blocked the path. They clambered carefully over the slides and continued. For twenty minutes, they proceeded with little difficulty. Toward the end of the twenty-minute period, the decline became more and more treacherous as the road narrowed to four feet. It began dropping significantly as it switch-backed around several spur ridges jutting off from the main ridge.
Forty minutes after leaving the top, they emerged from the cloud as they descended. It was as if a curtain had been pulled. As they came out of the fog bank, they all found themselves with their legs in the clear and their torsos in the fog. “This is strange as shit,” Sam said in wonder as they walked out of the cloud. Thomas, Ned, and Jonathan agreed. Once completely out of the cloud, they immediately noticed a marked increase in the air temperature. The air now felt pleasantly warm and somewhat dry as opposed to the icy wetness of the fog that hung just over their heads. They also found themselves on a four-foot wide ledge on the side of a precipitous ridge with nearly vertical walls that rapidly descended into a narrow gorge a mere half mile wide and some three thousand feet below them. Pressing on, the team descended two thousand vertical feet and covering nearly two miles in an hour. The farther down they came, the less treacherous the descent became with the road widening to six feet. They also began seeing trees growing out of the sides of the cliff with the floor of the gorge covered with a thick growth of evergreens. Another mile and a half, the road reached the bottom of the gorge, turning away from the cliff into the thick evergreen forest of the gorge’s floor. The road significantly widened as it turned into the forest, widening to eight feet. Upon reaching the bottom, Hannibal signaled for them to stop and take a break. They untied themselves and returned the ropes to the packs.
“That wasn’t nearly as bad as the climb up,” Thomas commented as they rested at the base of the cliff.
“We didn’t come down nearly as far as we climbed, did we?” Nathanael asked Hannibal.
“No, we didn’t,” Hannibal said as he sipped some water from a special water bottle built into his pack. “We climbed nearly eight thousand feet from the river to the top of the pass by my estimate. We have dropped only about half that far coming down from what I can see. We are still four thousand feet above the valley of the Zinzera.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” Harry declared as he looked around at the forest. “Yet, there’s something strange about this place. Something doesn’t feel quite right here.”
“Harry’s right,” Morrison agreed. “Listen.” Everyone listened closely. It was absolutely quite with the exception of a faint gurgling coming from deep in the forest ahead of them. “There’s not a bird, squirrel, or insect making any noise of any kind,” Morrison added.
“You’re right,” Nathanael agreed. “There isn’t any noise from any kind of wildlife. The only thing I’m hearing is the sound of water running over rocks coming from the forest. This is strange indeed.”
Hannibal looked around with that uneasy feeling beginning to grow on him again. The warning from the ghostly Beowulf echoed through his mind. He also remembered Okoto telling him how a dark spirit plagued Chief Hadeon when he came to the gorge. Selina noticed it and clamped onto his arm, asking, “Are you all right?”
Hannibal shook his head. “I don’t know. Harry’s right about this place,” he stated. “Something’s just not kosher here. It might be wise to be ready when we move on.” Hannibal unslung his sword and buckled it around his waist. He continued scanning the forest and noticed not a breath of air moving. “Are you all ready to move on?” he asked everyone and they responded that they were. “All right…move in single file and keep quiet. If there’s something out here, I don’t want to attract any attention to ourselves. All right, let’s go,” Hannibal ordered, taking point, followed closely by Selina, Harry, Arabella, Morrison, Ned, Thomas, Sam, Jonathan, Cracko, and Nathanael brought up the rear with his great hand resting on the handle of his giant scimitar.