Gateways of the Ancients: Solomon’s Passage and Stygian’s Way
The commander issued an order and started up the path along the cliff. “What did he say?” Harry asked as he winced in pain at the wounds he received during the fight.
“He says walk in single file and keep quiet,” Hannibal replied. Within minutes, they were walking up the side of the cliff in single file. Hannibal looked over the edge, seeing the bottom of the narrow canyon five hundred feet below them. As they moved on slowly rising on the cliff, more and more of the canyon came into view. After twenty minutes of traversing the path, the end of the canyon came into view one thousand feet below them and a half mile distant.
The commander stopped the column and pointed to the end of the canyon. “That’s Solomon’s Passage,” he declared in the Stone Language. “We’ll be going in a different way because the Emperor has seized control of it.” Hannibal and his team gazed at it in wonder with word passed through their ranks that they were looking at the fabled Solomon’s Passage. A sheer rock face rising vertically for two thousand feet defined the canyon’s terminus. Out of that rock face sat a great colonnade and building carved out of the living rock. The building soared nearly seven hundred feet in height, spanning four hundred feet of the one thousand foot wide canyon. Giant columns and crumbling statues lay scattered in front of the building as if some cataclysm had thrown them down. Pieces of the structure lay in a jumble, noting a collapse in several sectors of the building; however, the center seemed intact with the road entering the building in that area. On each side of the boulevard approaching the building sat two dozen crumbling sphinxes standing thirty feet tall and seventy feet long. Then they noticed ruins crawling with soldiers. The commander motioned for them to stay low in order not to be seen. With a silent gesture, the column began to move again. Quiet gasps and curses of amazement issued from Hannibal’s team as they moved on along the cliff path.
A few minutes later, just before the path entered a large fissure in the cliff, they noticed hundreds of troops pouring out of the gateway building into the canyon. Harry tapped Hannibal on the shoulder. “You know, this place reminds me of pictures of Petra that I’ve seen,” Harry murmured.
“Yes, it does,” Hannibal agreed. “But Petra doesn’t hold a candle to this. There are elements of Egyptian and Sumerian architecture mixed with together in this place. This is like when I found the Temple. It’s even bigger than Xabalba, and I suspect as old or older.”
“Vindication is sweet, isn’t it?” Nathanael called to Hannibal softly.
Hannibal turned and smiled while the commander led them on. “Yes, it is,” he agreed. “And I expect it is about to get much sweeter.”
As he spoke, they entered a massive fissure in the side of a cliff five feet across. The path went right into it. As they walked into the great crack, Hannibal looked up and saw the fissure rising two hundred feet above them and only a small slice of sky above it.
“Talk about your hole in the wall,” Thomas said as they entered the fissure.
The commander led them into the fissure for three hundred feet. The path continued up at a gradual incline. Toward the end of the three hundred feet, the light began to grow dim. Hannibal looked up, seeing the top of the fissure closing rapidly and the path before them entering a narrow passage that continued upward. Fifty feet farther, the commander and his people brought out strange-looking devices that were akin to flashlights and lanterns.
“Stay close, and don’t turn off the path,” the commander warned in the Stone Language. “It’s very easy to get lost in the darkness of Stygian’s Way.”
“What did he say?” Sam asked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
“He said to stay close and not to turn off the path. He doesn’t want us to get lost,” Hannibal reported as they moved into the stygian darkness of the caves as all light from the outside world vanished. Minutes later, the path began descending. Hannibal’s team broke out their undamaged flashlights, turning them on. For nearly two and a half hours, the commander led them through a labyrinth of tunnels and passages that steadily descended. Near the end of those two and a half hours, Hannibal noticed the commander humming a tune that seemed vaguely familiar so he joined in. His curiosity about the commander’s name began to overpower him, so he asked the commander in the Stone Language, “Now that we are safe, what’s your name, sir?”
The commander smiled, casting a friendly eye to Hannibal. Speaking in the Stone Language, he said, “I am called Joshua, my friend.”
Hannibal patted him on the shoulder, saying in the ancient tongue, “I’m Hannibal.”
“We know who you are, Beowulf,” Joshua stated as they entered a large cavern with twenty-five foot ceilings stretching seventy yards in length. Stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, and columns embedded with bizarre colored crystal formations lay everywhere. A small stream gushed from a nearby wall, falling into a pool that drained along the edge of the cave through a forest of stalagmites into a small hole in the wall near the far end of the cave. The crystal formations glowed softly from the lamp light, driving away the stygian darkness of the cave and giving it a surreal feel.
Hannibal felt an icy chill race down his spine. “How do you know that name?” he asked.
“We know many things, my friend,” Joshua stated. “But this isn’t the place for formal introductions. All will be explained when we reach Nicodemus in Arionath. For now, let’s take a break by the pool. The water coming from the wall is pure and drinkable.”
Arabella stared at the crystal formations embedded in the cave formations and walls with wonder. “Oh, my!” she crowed as Joshua led everyone to the waterfall and pool near the forest of stalagmites. “What a beautiful cave!” It made her briefly forget about the bloody battle she’d experienced a few hours before.
“Wow,” Harry breathed. “This is magnificent! Just look at those crystals glowing.”
“No kidding,” Ned agreed. “I’ve never been in a place like this before. It’s so beautiful, yet strange. It’s like being on another planet.” Thomas, Jonathan, Sam, and Cracko agreed.
“In a way, it is,” Nathanael stated as they stopped at the edge of the pool. “Caves like this are completely isolated from the surface. They’re part of a completely different eco-system from what we know.”
“Hannibal; tell your people that they may drink from the falls but not from the pool,” Joshua ordered. “The water from the falls is pure, but the pool is contaminated by the creatures inhabiting it.”
Before Hannibal could relay the message, Sam called out, “Look at that! Are those fish in the pool? I’ve never seen fish like that before.”
Hannibal looked into the pool as Joshua’s squad started drinking from the falls. “Well now,” he murmured, kneeling down at the edge of the pool where a school of eight-inch long dark gray fish with no eyes and strange antennae swam. The fish were shaped like odd catfish with a mouthful of needlelike teeth. “Isn’t this interesting; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen cave fish, but these guys are nothing like I’ve ever encountered. They look prehistoric and remind me of a catfish.”
Hannibal reached out to grab one of the fish and Joshua quickly restrained him. “Don’t touch the fish,” Joshua warned. “They’re carnivorous, highly aggressive, and poisonous to the touch. Touching them will make you very sick, and possibly kill you. That’s why I said not to drink from the pool.”
Hannibal paled and said, “Thanks for the warning. I didn’t know that.”
Joshua helped Hannibal stand up, ordering, “Please explain it to your people. I don’t want to see them killed by something we can easily avoid.”
“I understand completely. I’ll tell them right now,” Hannibal stated.
“Better yet, let me demonstrate,” Joshua added, pulling out a piece of dried jerky from his pocket. “Tell your people to watch and see why it’s not safe to mess with the fish.”
“Pay attention, everyone,” Hannibal ordered his team as Joshua ripped a small piece of jerky off and threw it into the pool with the fish. Hannibal and his team watched the piece of meat plop into the water, getting the attention of the fish. The fish instantly swarmed the piece of meat, consuming it in a feeding frenzy that churned the pool’s water same as a school of piranha in the Amazon in a feeding frenzy.
“Holy shit!” Thomas cursed as everyone stared in disbelief. “They act like piranha!”
“And they’re poisonous to the touch too, according to Joshua,” Hannibal told his team. “So let’s not disturb them or the pool. These fish have evolved to survive in this hostile environment and eat anything that strays into their pool. Look into the water now that the mud has settled. What do you see?”
They looked and saw all manner of bones in the pool, some of which were human. Hannibal noticed a skull and asked, “Is that a human skull, Joshua?”
“Yes,” Joshua replied. “I don’t know who he or she was, but whoever they were made a lethal mistake of trying to drink from this pool and the fish ate them alive. Now do you understand the danger posed by the fish?”
“Yes,” Hannibal stated. “We definitely understand the danger posed by these fish, don’t we, guys?” The rest of his team answered to the positive about understanding the hazard posed by the bizarre cavefish. They stayed back from pool, merely watched the fish in the pool without touching, getting their water from the falls like Joshua’s squad did in turn. Once their thirsts were quenched and canteens refilled, Arabella tended to everyone’s battle wounds, cleaning and dressing them. Selina and Nathanael assisted her since their wounds were minor. After treating everyone else at Hannibal’s order, Arabella and Selina came to Hannibal.
“It’s your turn, Hannibal,” Arabella stated, “and no guff this time.”
“Okay, doc,” Hannibal replied as Arabella and Selina cleaned his cuts and lacerations, binding them. In minutes, they’d finished with Hannibal and sat down near him. There was small talk amongst Hannibal’s team members, who tried to communicate with Joshua’s band. Hannibal watched as Joshua’s band tried to teach Hannibal’s team some basic tenants of the Stone Language by pointing to various items in the cave and on their person, giving the Stone Language names for the items. “It looks like your people are trying to teach my people some of your language,” Hannibal said to Joshua.
“That they are,” Joshua answered. “I told them to try to communicate with your people and teach your people our language.”
“That’s a good idea,” Hannibal stated. “If they can get a rudimentary understanding of your language, then they won’t be operating at as much of a handicap.”
“True,” Joshua stated. “That’s why I ordered it. Your people and mine will be able to understand each other before you know it.”
“I hope so,” Hannibal answered.
After a few moments of silence, Joshua said, “Let me show you something extraordinary. Tell your people to turn off their lights.”
“Okay,” Hannibal replied, ordering his team to dowse their lights as Joshua ordered his people to turn off their lights.
In moments, only Joshua’s lantern sat lit, casting eerie shadows in the cave as the crystal formations glowed softly. “Now, you will see the true magnificence of this cave,” Joshua stated, killing his light. The moment Joshua turned off his lantern the entire cave plunged into cave darkness so black no one could see anything.
“Man, it’s dark,” Thomas called out. “It’s right down eerie.”
“Please, someone turn the light back on,” Arabella said with a tint of fear in her tone. “It’s too dark.”
“Patience,” Joshua urged. “Just wait for a few more moments, and then you’ll see something few people ever see.”
The pitch-blackness of the cave gradually diminished as the crystals began to glow in the darkness, lighting the grotto. In two minutes, the crystals and cave formations glowed and twinkled like stars in the sky. “Oh, my,” Selina breathed in awe.
“What on earth is that?” Harry called out as the light level increased to the point they could see one another dimly as if they were outside during a clear moonless night. “What happened to the cave walls? I must be hallucinating. It looks like we’re looking at the night sky. I was just a hunk of rock a minute ago. What’s causing this?”
“Upon my word,” Nathanael purred in astonishment. “These crystals have some kind of phosphorescent luminescence where they generate light on their own. It’s beautiful.”
“It’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous!” Arabella cried with delight. “I’ve never seen anything this pretty in my entire life. It makes me forget about all that bloody business we endured before we came into this place. Yet, it feels so strange; right down alien.”
“That it does,” Hannibal agreed. “In all my explorations, I’ve never encountered a cave like this. It’s magnificent. Thank you for showing it to us, Joshua.”
“You’re welcome,” Joshua replied warmly. “After all you went through to get here, I thought seeing something of such profound beauty would lift your spirits.”
“You’re so right about that,” Hannibal agreed. “How far are we in, Joshua?”
“This grotto is approximately halfway between the surface and the Caverns,” Joshua stated. “We’re about a league underground here. There’s another league and a half before we reach the Caverns.” Joshua lit his lamp, prompting the rest of his squad to light their lamps as well. The glowing illusion of a night sky in the solid rock vanished with the additional light. “We should eat something before moving on. It’s still another three and a half hours to the end of Stygian’s Way and Khitia.”
Everyone snacked on their rations and drank from the falls to wash down their food. After about an hour of rest and small talk where Hannibal’s team slowly learned the Stone Language from Joshua’s band of soldiers, Joshua strapped on his pack and said, “All right, let’s go. We still have a fair distance to cover to get out of this labyrinth. Follow me and stay close.”
Joshua took the lead with Hannibal at his side and everyone else following close behind. They said little as Joshua led them out of the cavern with the pool into another series of small to moderate-sized irregularly shaped caves and passages. Hannibal’s team continued to communicate with Joshua’s squad, learning more of the Stone Language as they moved on.
Three hours later, the group entered a large cave with thirty-foot ceilings and stalagmites and stalactites everywhere and strangely enough, light emanated from the far end of the chamber where the path led. All manner of beautifully colored crystals lay encrusted in the columns, walls, and flowstone, which enhanced the lighting in the cavern. Hannibal and his team looked at it in wonder, especially those who had joined his band at the airfield. “Oh, it’s so beautiful!” Arabella cried softly as her voice echoed through the cave. “It’s like that cave where we stopped earlier.”
“Yes, it is,” Hannibal agreed, smiling warmly at her.
As they moved on through the cave, Joshua spoke to Hannibal and he replied with a question in the Stone Language. Joshua answered back and Jonathan asked, “What did he say?”
“He asked me if we wanted to take a break. I told him it depended on how far it was to where we were going,” Hannibal replied. “He then told me that we have a fair ways to go before we get to where he is taking us, so he said we could stop in about a half hour.”
“Good,” Cracko sighed. “I could really use a break. My legs are killing me.”
“Me too,” Ned agreed and within seconds, all of the team agreed with Cracko and Ned. Hannibal nodded and they kept moving. Hannibal noticed that Joshua’s men stayed quiet and only interacted with his team when they wished to point out some feature of the cave system they traversed, or to teach them more of the Stone Language. Reaching the far end of that chamber, the group moved through a small passage before entering another even larger cavern. This grotto had more light than the other and large crystals grew everywhere along with columns, stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone. The group weaved between the intricate beautiful cave formations, gazing at them in fascination and wonder. Minutes later, Joshua led them into a large natural tunnel. As they walked its three hundred yard distance, Hannibal noticed the level of light steadily increasing.
“What kind of tunnel is this?” Arabella asked.
Hannibal looked at the shape of the tunnel and the composition of the walls, pondering them for a moment. “I suspect this is an old lava tube,” he stated. “Aconcagua was a volcano at one time, very long ago.”
“Why is there light in here?” Thomas asked. “Are we going back outside or something?”
“I don’t know,” Hannibal replied. He put the question to Joshua, who answered only with a smile and a ‘wait and see.’
“He’s not saying,” Hannibal replied to his team. “I believe he wants it to be a surprise.” As he spoke, Joshua and his people put out their lights because the light shining down into the tunnel from its end was nearly as bright as the daytime on the surface.
“Prepare yourselves for the unfathomable,” Joshua said with a wry smile as they closed in on the end of the tunnel of Stygian’s Way. “No surface people have ever seen what you’re about to see and lived to tell the tale in my lifetime. You’re the first that we know of.”
“We shall see, my friend,” Hannibal stated, tingling with anticipation. “We shall see.”
In moments, they emerged from Stygian’s Way and faced the impossibility of the Caverns of Amacia.