Battle of the Ruins
Hannibal’s team moved on for two hours without incident, flitting like a ghost band through the dense evergreen forest of the gorge. Shortly after leaving the base of the cliff, the road turned and ran beside a large stream, following it up the gorge. Huge trees, some of them nearly four and five feet across and almost a hundred feet in height blotted out the sky. They all looked at the old trees in wonder as they moved on. Two hours after leaving the cliff, Hannibal suddenly stopped their progress, holding up his fist in the customary stop signal. He looked ahead of them, and then around at the forest around them.
“What is it?” Harry asked softly, sliding cautiously up to Hannibal’s position.
Hannibal scanned at the road intensely. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Something’s not right here.” Everyone watched as he stepped off the road, retrieving a large rock. Returning to the road, he tossed the rock ahead of him onto the road and it landed with a plop, instantly disappearing from sight. “Just as I thought,” Hannibal growled, “another quicksand trap. Let’s go around.” Drawing his sword and using it as a probe, he led his team off the road and around the quicksand trap. Once back on the road, Hannibal sheathed his sword after cleaning it and looked at the seventy-five foot wide hazard. “The road must have disintegrated right here because of a spring beneath it undermining the road,” he commented.
“Maybe,” Harry replied. “This isn’t the first trap like this we’ve encountered on this road, you know.”
“I realize that,” Hannibal stated as he saw something out of the corner of his eye in the forest. Hannibal abruptly turned to see it, but it was gone. Looking around at the forest with growing apprehension, Hannibal continued to search the forest, seeing fleeting glimpses of figures moving around in the forest three more times. “Keep alert. We have company,” he said sternly.
“I know,” Nathanael said softly. “I just got wind of them a minute ago.”
“You don’t suppose it’s the General, do you?” Morrison asked.
“Or the Zinzera again?” Arabella added fearfully.
“No,” Nathanael replied confidently. “It’s neither the Zinzera, nor the General, or his people. It’s a scent I’ve never encountered before.”
“They may be natives of some kind inhabiting this valley,” Hannibal declared in a cool tone. “Just be ready. So far, they haven’t shown any inherent hostility. All right, let’s move out and keep quiet.” Hannibal resumed point, keeping a concerned eye on the forest as they moved on.
Within minutes, the road left the stream and they found themselves walking through tremendous ruins that the forest had overgrown. Colossal statues lay everywhere, broken in pieces, along with giant columns and ruined buildings. The team gazed in awe at the ruins, gradually seeing more and more movement in the surrounding forest. The figures moved so fast that it was impossible for anyone to get a good look at them. Hannibal began fingering one of the grenades he had left in his trench coat pocket as they moved through the ruins.
“Who are they?” Sam asked. “They move as fast as Selina and Nathanael.”
“I don’t know,” Hannibal replied. “But I’m getting a bit antsy about this situation. The farther we’ve come, the more brazen these folks are becoming about being seen. I have the distinct feeling we may be walking into a trap.”
“Then why do it?” Thomas asked.
“Because our goal is beyond these ruins,” Hannibal stated. “We have to try to slip by unnoticed if we can. I don’t want to get into a fight with these folks. They’ve done nothing to us.”
“Not yet, that is,” Harry added sternly. “We should definitely keep our guard up here. They could be part of the reason the Zinzera chief went bad.”
“That’s some good advice,” Hannibal stated as he walked along. “Everyone be ready for anything.” The team readied themselves for potential combat with the mysterious figures surrounding them.
The road rose gradually and peaked on top of a small hill. They all stopped at the top of the hill as the remains of an entire city laid before them with the forest growing densely amid the ruins. The road had become a great boulevard that ran up its center, nearly fifty feet wide. Giant blocks of building stone and enormous pieces of toppled statues lay scattered everywhere with many of the stones being seven and eight feet thick by twelve and fourteen feet long. Huge stone faces lay half buried in the debris. All that remained of the cyclopean buildings were toppled walls, broken and partially standing. Everyone looked at it in utter astonishment as quiet curses of amazement echoed from the team.
Nathanael put his feline hand on Hannibal’s shoulder. “Feels good to be vindicated, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes,” Hannibal replied, looking at Nathanael. “First the Circle of Hammunaptra, then the Armory, and now this: we’re definitely on the right path. But this isn’t Amacia. This is but an outpost that guarded the approach to the lands of Amacia. Solomon’s Passage is beyond it and beyond that, Amacia itself.” He gazed intensely at the ruined city and saw the route they had to take through the midst of it. His countenance fell as he saw a lot more activity amid the ruins. “Keep your guard up,” he reminded everyone. “We’re definitely not alone here. I’ve also noticed the farther we’ve come this way, the more agitated and active our visitors have become. So be very careful. I’m not so sure that they’re friendly at this point.”
Harry pulled his pistol with the last clip of ammunition in it. Arabella handed her pistol to Morrison. Hannibal pulled his pistol with only four shots in it and pressed forward into the ruins. They moved on silently down the boulevard with their guard up, dodging the giant blocks of andesite granite and fallen statues as they moved on. Figures flitting through the ruins became more and more numerous, to the point they were identifiable them as armored humans armed with edged weapons of every imaginable kind and shape. They flitted around the ruins like apparitions as Hannibal and his team moved on silently, watching the ghostly figures edging ever closer to their position as they progressed up the boulevard. “I don’t like this,” Harry growled as he watched the ghostly figures circle around them. “They’re surrounding us.”
“I noticed that,” Hannibal agreed.
For nearly twenty minutes, Hannibal watched the ruins with ever-growing concern as they slowly advanced amongst the ruins on the boulevard.
Then as they neared what appeared to be a large intersection of the boulevard with another road, Hannibal stopped the team as three men suddenly appeared from the ruins and approached them from the front. Hannibal, Morrison, and Harry pointed their pistols at the three men. Thomas and Cracko loaded their crossbows and trained their weapons on the men as well. Each of the three strangers stood roughly six feet in height with their color being a deep-bronzed red. They wore armor from head to foot, complete with strange-looking helmets. Two wielded Bo-staffs that appeared to have long broad blades attached to each end of the bow. The man that appeared to be in charge bore a large sword at his side with his hand sitting heavily on the hilt. The three soldiers stopped five paces away and looked at Hannibal and his band with disdain. They saw Nathanael and Selina, causing the leader raised an eyebrow. The trio stood there like statues and stared at Hannibal’s team.
Hannibal lowered his pistol and stepped forward a couple of paces. He immediately saw the leader’s face harden and his grip on his sword tighten so Hannibal stopped. Holding up his hands in a surrender gesture with his finger not on the trigger of the pistol, Hannibal looked the leader in the eye and said with a non-threatening tone in the Stone Language, “We come in peace, friend. We’re peaceful explorers. May we pass?”
The leader seemed surprised by Hannibal speaking to him in the Stone Language. “Who are you and what’re you doing in this forbidden place?” the leader asked harshly in the Stone Language.
“I’m Hannibal and these are my friends. We have come a long, long way to see...,” Hannibal replied, trailing off as he watched the leader’s demeanor change to one of murderous intent. A burning chill raced down Hannibal’s spine as his hair stood on end. “Oh, shit!” he cursed as he pointed the pistol at the man. The leader pulled his sword and moved forward with a speed that Hannibal had only seen in Lynxians, slicing the gun in two leaving only the handle and the breech in his hand.
Hannibal backed up and warned his team, “We’re going to have to fight!”
The leader smiled wickedly and signaled into the ruins. Within seconds, Hannibal and his team were surrounded by nearly fifty of the strange soldiers, all armed with all manner of ancient weaponry. Hannibal’s team pulled together, standing back to back as the soldiers surrounded them. The soldiers completely surrounded them and stopped advancing at ten paces.
The leader stepped forward, pointed at Hannibal with his sword, and barked, “Surrender, outlander dog. Drop your weapons. There’s no escape for you.”
Hannibal drew his sword with incredible speed as his anger rose. When the leader saw the sword, a hint of fear rose in his eye. “Who are you? We want no trouble. Let us pass!” Hannibal demanded bluntly in the Stone Language.
“We’re the 5th Regiment of the 8th Division of the Army of Amacia,” the leader returned coldly. “The Emperor has demanded your capture or your heads, and that’s what we mean to do. So surrender, outlanders! There’s no escape.”
Hannibal briefly glanced as his team as he let the point of his sword drop slightly. “So, it’s true,” he growled. “There really is an Emperor still in Amacia.” As Hannibal spoke, he reached into his pocket, grabbed the grenade, and slowly pulled it out. “In that case,” he hissed, “we will not surrender.” In an instant, he pulled the pin of the grenade with his teeth and lobbed it at the leader and the soldiers behind the leader, ducking in the process. Upon seeing Hannibal use his grenade, Sam threw his last grenade as well. The rest of Hannibal’s team ducked too, but kept in a defensive position as the grenades were thrown. Hannibal’s grenade landed among the soldiers behind the leader and exploded, sending soldiers and the leader flying through the air. Hannibal’s grenade killed three soldiers and slightly wounded two. The leader was stunned as he landed in a heap. Sam’s grenade landed inside the line of soldiers to the left of them and killed five of the soldiers. “Okay, guys!” Hannibal barked like a great general as he rose to his feet. “Let’s show them who they’re messing with! Remember the Zinzera!”
Harry and Morrison emptied their pistols and took up their new weapons, plunging into the advancing line. Selina and Nathanael uttered the Kaitian war cry and set upon the soldiers with an unrivaled savagery. The Nathanael pulled his executioner’s blade and began to cut down any who dared to confront him. None could stand before his power. Selina made use of her long katana and dagger, depending more on her agility and skill with a blade rather than the brute force that Nathanael used. In both of their cases, no one could stand before them. However, unlike Nathanael, Selina only incapacitated her adversaries, killing when there was no other option.
Arabella managed to find a somewhat safe place in a cavity between two fallen blocks and stayed down, defending herself when one of the soldiers would slip by Morrison, who guarded her with a passion.
Ned used his axe flawlessly, exploiting the spin handle to do much of the work for him. He cleaved skulls and took off heads and limbs with the great axe. In a couple of cases, he literally cut his adversary in two at the waist and chest in an explosion of blood and entrails.
Thomas and Cracko quickly exhausted their arrows and resorted to their blades as the soldiers pressed on them. Sam and Jonathan also managed to hold their own against the advancing horde.
In the meantime unbeknownst to the fighters on the ground, another group of fighters watched the fight from the trees above. “Sir,” one of the fighters said to his commander. “Are these the people Nicodemus was speaking about?”
“Yes, I believe so,” the commander answered. “They have to be. Look at the two who look like cats. Look how no one is able to stand before them.”
“Shouldn’t we help?” one of the fighters asked.
“No, not yet,” the commander replied. “Hold you position. Let’s not give away our position quite yet. Let them draw out the troops.”
Just then, another fighter approached and reported, “Sir, two more squads of fifty are rapidly approaching.”
“How far away are they?” the commander asked quickly.
“A matter of fifteen minutes, sir; if we don’t do something quick, the outlanders will be beyond our reach,” the fighter reported urgently.
The commander quickly considered the new development and ordered, “To your positions, men. Wait for my signal and then attack. Spare none of the Emperor’s soldiers.” The fighters readied themselves as the commander watched the battle below them. Hannibal’s team of eleven had slain or wounded thirty, but they were being pushed back by reinforcements that began to trickle in.
Hannibal suddenly found himself surrounded by four soldiers who began to press on him. “All right, who wants to die first,” he growled as they suddenly stopped and the leader stepped forward, having gotten over the stun of the grenade.
“This one’s mine,” the leader ordered and the four back off, going to find other targets. “You fight well in the old style,” the leader commented as they circled. Hannibal said nothing, letting his icy expression and demeanor speak for him. “Let’s see how deal with this,” the leader hissed venomously as he slashed. Hannibal easily caught it and batted it away with his sword. They clashed repeatedly. The leader could not find an opening because Hannibal was just as fast as he was and seemed to anticipate his every move.
They locked swords and Hannibal smiled wickedly. “Is that all you’ve got?” he asked sarcastically. This comment infuriated the leader and they broke loose and continued to parry and duel. Sparks flew from their blades as they clashed and clanged together repeatedly. They locked blades again, and as the leader’s hatred showed on his face, Hannibal said, “Enough of this shit. Leave now and I won’t kill you.”
“Not likely!” the leader snapped and he lunged at Hannibal with his dagger.
Hannibal caught his arm and kicked the leader away with a brutal sidekick. The knife only sliced Hannibal trench coat as the leader staggered back. Hannibal quickly advanced with a spinning move, removing the leader’s head with one swipe before he fell to the ground from the kick. The leader’s head rolled ten feet before coming to halt. “I warned you, god damn it,” Hannibal growled with grief as another two soldiers rushed him after seeing their commander cut down. He charged them, engaging the first. They clashed and Hannibal’s blade slipped under first soldier’s guard, disemboweling him. He met the second solider as he pulled his blade from the first. In single fluid motion, he swung up, shearing his attacker’s blade just above the hilt, then he came down and cleaved his skull in two all the way to the chin. With each kill, Hannibal’s grief and rage worked him into a berserker rage that was the bane of his existence; a rage that built up to the point he was killing with the first strike on a regular basis. He backed one soldier up to a tree and took his head with such a strong blow that the sword stuck into the tree to the point that he had to leave it. He snatched two smaller swords and continued on cutting everyone down that attacked him. Three men attacked at once, and Hannibal cut two down in a matter of seconds and blocked the third’s strike with an X-strike with the swords. Hannibal’s crossed blades stopped the soldier’s blade cold. Before the soldier could react, Hannibal pushed it back into the man’s face, splitting the man’s skull with his own blade. The soldier dropped his sword and staggered back as Hannibal used his two blades like a pair of scissors, hewing his opponent’s head off in an instant. A fountain of blood gushed from the severed neck of the soldier, splattering in Hannibal’s face.
Four more soldiers rushed Hannibal with battle cries. Hannibal welcomed their deadly advance with a burning fury in his eye. In the blink of an eye, Hannibal threw one sword with such force it penetrated the soldier’s armored chest up to the hilt, knocking him back until the sword impaled him to a tree.
As the other three soldiers charged, Hannibal felt a strange electrical surge rush down his spine, making every nerve tingle. Long-buried warrior instincts once again emerged as the strange white aura swirled briefly around him like it did in the arena at the Circle of Hammunaptra and Hannibal attacked with viciousness of a wolverine. He killed the first soldier to reach him with a single strike to the head. Snatching the sword from the fallen soldier’s hand before the soldier hit the ground as five more soldiers swarmed him Hannibal pirouetted, becoming a bladed tornado that shredded anyone who came near him. Those who saw the attack gawked in stupefaction at the maneuver. Hannibal moved so fast he seemed to vanish in a blur. The five attackers fell in three seconds, literally cut to pieces.
When Hannibal skidded to a halt, one soldier attacked him from behind, thinking to blindside him. Harry saw the pending sneak attack and shouted over the din of battle, “Hannibal…behind you!”
Hannibal turned and merely looked at the soldier with glowing white eyes. “Stupid shit,” Hannibal hissed, fully engulfed in his berserker rage, “don’t you know my enemies die?” The soldier suddenly choked, exploding before anyone could blink, splattering blood and chunks of flesh all over Hannibal. As soon as it happened, Hannibal stared in horror as the soldier’s head rolled up to his feet. “No, impossible!” Hannibal cried as his berserker rage subsided to a lower level, his eyes returning to normal. “I didn’t do that! I didn’t just explode that man with my mind like in the old days! I couldn’t! I didn’t!”
Selina felt his distress and turned after dispatching a soldier. The look of horror on Hannibal’s face combined with what he felt cause Selina to cry out, “Hannibal!” She sprinted to him, only to be instantly engaged with other duels that impeded her progress. As she fought her way to Hannibal, Selina noticed that when the soldiers in that area saw their comrade explode for no reason as he attacked Hannibal, they backed off, going after other less capable targets. Moreover, when Hannibal recovered from the shock of what happened and plunged back into the fight, Selina knew he was okay and focused on her own battles. Yet, she worried about Hannibal, seeing a side of him with the berserker fury on him that she hadn’t seen before. Still, he seemed to control it better after the incident where he apparently exploded an enemy just by looking at him. Hannibal used his rage to protect his team, and Selina saw it.
In the treetops, the commander of the fighters hiding in the trees saw the incident with his squad. “That one seems to have some kind of elemental ability, commander,” one of the fighters commented. “He has to be the Warrior of the prophecy to wield that kind of power. Only the Emperor and his Cadre can use elemental magic like that to kill.”
“He could very well be the one,” the commander replied in a stunned tone. “Stand ready, men…attack on my mark.”
Back down on the ground, Harry made excellent use of the war hammer. He crushed everyone who came against him. One time, he crushed his opponent’s skull. Another, he smacked in the chest, breaking their ribs and rupturing their heart. Very early on, he found that the hammer had a special feature; if he smacked the ground with all of his might, the hammer would generate a shockwave that would temporarily incapacitate anyone inside a ten-foot radius except him. Harry very quickly came to like the hammer’s abilities. In one case, he literally knocked a soldier’s head off with it.
The fight continued for ten more minutes until a noise arose from the trees above them. For a moment, all fighting stopped as everyone looked up to see a hail of arrows falling from the trees along with forty men dressed differently from the soldiers descending like squirrels from the treetops. Hannibal immediately noticed that the arrows were taking out the soldiers and not his team. The new arrivals immediately fell upon the soldiers and the battle was rejoined. In two minutes, the remnant of the soldiers fled and the commander of the new arrivals cautiously approached Hannibal with his sword drawn, blood still dripping from his blade. He stopped just out of Hannibal’s reach, sticking his sword point down into the dirt and sizing up Hannibal as he slowly calmed down…his berserker rage ebbing away. The remaining fighters created a perimeter around Hannibal and his team with their attention focused on the surrounding ruins. “If you wish to live to see another day, please come with us,” the commander urged in the Stone Language. “Enemy reinforcements are only minutes away. We must go now.” Hannibal’s team remained ready to engage, but didn’t when the new people did not attack them. The commander extended his bloody hand in a non-threatening way.
“Who are you?” Hannibal asked in the Stone Language as he panted from the fight.
“That’s not important now. All you need to know is Nicodemus sent us,” the commander replied urgently in his native tongue. “Please, we must leave now. Otherwise, we may be taken by the Emperor’s forces.”
“Nicodemus?” Hannibal asked, intrigued by this new development. The commander nodded, trying to be as honest and non-threatening as possible. “Nicodemus,” Hannibal said. Then to his team, he called out, “It’s all right. Put your weapons away. These guys are apparently friends.” Hannibal extended his bloody hand and shook the commander’s hand. “Lead on, my friend,” he said soberly. “But first, let me see if I’ve lost anyone.” As he spoke, members of his team approached. Hannibal dropped the swords he was using and retrieved the sword he picked up at Skull Pass from the tree it became stuck in earlier in the battle. After a few hard tugs, the sword came free. Everyone gathered on the boulevard amidst the hacked and dismembered corpses as Hannibal looked over his team. Everyone was present except for Arabella. “Where’s Arabella?” he asked with some concern. “Has anyone seen Arabella?”
Just then, Arabella came through the crowd, being escorted by one of their new friends from the trees. “Are you all right?” Hannibal asked Arabella insistently.
Arabella shook her head no with tears in her eyes. “No, I’m not,” she declared in a very shaky tone. “We just slaughtered these people with these swords. No, I’m not all right…not by any stretch of the imagination.” Selina put a comforting arm around Arabella, and consoled her.
Hannibal looked at Arabella with compassion as the commander said in the Stone Language, “Come, we must go now.”
“Okay, lead on,” Hannibal answered, turning to the commander.
The commander whistled to his fighters. “Let’s move out!” he barked in the Stone Language.
Hannibal and his team departed the scene with the commander and the forty of his men who surrounded them. They immediately left the road, going into the forest where they erased all traces of their escape route as they moved on. For forty minutes, they moved on in silence until they came to a narrow path leading up the side of a cliff.