Inside the Caverns: Khitia
Hannibal and his team of explorers gawked at the awesome, mind-numbing view confronting them after emerging from the darkness of Stygian’s Way onto an enormous ledge five hundred feet above the surrounding terrain. Joshua and his band of soldiers quickly stepped aside upon coming out of the tunnel, allowing Hannibal and his companions to take in the view. Before them lay the vast underground called the Caverns of Amacia…a land so vast its periphery could not be seen. The whole cavern was lit like daylight on the surface by some strange unknown electromagnetic phenomena. Moreover, the roof of the caverns could not be seen because of the clouds that drifted through the air. The sky itself had a dull blue tint to it as the clouds floated like giant cotton balls tens of thousands of feet above the cavern floor on the air currents. Green plains and hills stretched off into the distance with the road they followed running across it like a gash. Blemishes of ruined towns and cities dotted the road. Off in the distance to the west rose a snow-clad mountain range that butted into the cavern wall. Far to the southwest, a dark ominous cloud tinted with red hung like an evil mirage. Lightning occasionally flashed through the red cloud, adding to the ominous surreal look of it.
A violent icy chill raced down Hannibal’s spine as he stared in disbelief at the awe-inspiring scene lying before his eyes...a scene that silenced him, but didn’t silence his best friend, Harry. “Lord have mercy! Would you look at that?” Harry cried in astonishment. “I thought Tiamat’s core was impressive, but this…I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. This is impossible! It shouldn’t exist according to our understanding of the planet. It can’t exist, but it does; it’s a world within a world!”
“Holy shit; we’re outside again!” Sam exclaimed, interrupting Harry. “We went through the whole mountain and come out on the other side!”
“No, I don’t think so,” Nathanael stated. “We have been descending ever since we lost sight of the sky almost six hours ago. We’re definitely still underground, almost ten miles by my estimate. Somewhere above those clouds is a great granite vault with miles of solid rock above it. This is an apparently entirely separate eco-system from the surface. The light must be generated by some peculiar electromagnetic phenomena unique to the geology of this place.”
“The world beneath the mountain,” Thomas breathed. “The Zinzera shaman was right. It’s a whole world beneath the mountain!”
Arabella latched onto Morrison’s arm as she stared in numbed awe at a place her mind could not comprehend. “Oh, Lord,” she murmured. “This can’t be. No cave is this big. I feel like I’ve been sucked into a twisted episode of the Twilight Zone. How can this even be possible?”
“I don’t know,” Morrison whispered to her, shaken to his core by the sight. “But here it is staring us in the face. I haven’t felt this small since we first met Selina and Nathanael and found out we’re not alone in this universe.”
“Amen to that,” Arabella agreed. “I sure hope Hannibal knows what he’s doing.”
“Me too, Arabella,” Morrison replied. “Me too.”
Selina latched onto Hannibal’s arm while he scanned the horizon in stunned silence. She stared in wonder at the immense cavity lying miles beneath the surface of the planet, a cavern that defied all her training as a scientist. “Wow,” she whispered, truly awed by the spectacle. “You were right, Hannibal. It’s real. This place does exist. And Okoto was right too. It’s truly a world under the mountain. I didn’t really believe until now. I’m so sorry I doubted you.”
Hannibal half ignored her words as his eyes drank in everything around him. “I knew it. It’s real,” he whispered in utter astonishment. “Even the dreams and visions I kept having about it. It’s real…all of it!” After a few moments, a huge smile came over his face and he swept Selina up in a bear hug around her waist, lifting her off her feet and spinning her around as she latched onto him. “Yes!” he crowed triumphantly. “I was right! It’s real and truly exists!” Setting Selina down on her feet, he kissed her fiercely on the lips. “We did it, Selina,” he said with great excitement. “We did it! Look at it! Can you believe it? Before us lies the last true remnant from the 1st Age of Humanity. The myth is no longer a myth. It’s real as we are, and it’s truly a world beneath the mountain like Okoto said!”
“It sure is,” Selina replied with a beaming smile. “And it’s breath-taking. Even the air here smells clean.”
Nathanael patted Hannibal on the shoulder, smiling warmly. “Well done, son,” Nathanael crowed. “Well done indeed. Vindication is sweet isn’t it?”
“It is; very sweet,” Hannibal said, his tone reflecting his excitement. “All those decades of hard work have finally paid off.” He looked out over the plain again, seeing the road. Following the road from the plain back toward the wall of the cavern several miles away, Hannibal saw a great ruined castle. “Selina, could you get my binoculars please?” he asked and Selina opened his pack, which had taken many blows but was in surprisingly in good condition. She retrieved the binoculars, closed the pack, and handed them to Hannibal, who immediately looked toward the ruin near the base of the cavern wall in the distance: the ruins of a massive fortress larger than any medieval castle he’d ever encountered. It was crawling with soldiers. His mouth dropped open in wonder. “Wow,” he whispered. “What an enormous structure.”
“Welcome to Khitia, my friends,” Joshua announced, having enjoyed Hannibal’s brief moment of discovery and vindication.
“What’re those ruins there?” Hannibal asked Joshua, pointing to the fortress.
“That was the great fortress of Amm Su…the gateway of Solomon’s Passage from this side,” Joshua replied.
“Are those soldiers the same ones who attacked us in the ruins?” Hannibal queried.
“Yes,” Joshua stated grimly. “Those are soldiers of the Emperor’s 8th Division that sacked Khitia recently. Their primary target was the Fortress of Amm Su and Solomon’s Passage so the Emperor could secure a route out of the caverns to the surface.”
“Where’s Amacia?” Hannibal asked bluntly.
Joshua’s features fell and Hannibal noticed it. “The Dark City of the Damned and its Black Fortress are that way, far beyond the mountains and across the Plains of Blood many scores of leagues distant at the end of the Road of Perdition, which begins at Amm Su and strikes southwestward,” Joshua declared coldly, pointing to the southwest across the plain and mountains to where the ominous dark cloud hovered. “It’s a land of fire, ash, and the most heinous evil. It’s not a good place to see or go to. Enough questions for now. There will be time for questions later. Come, let’s go. Nicodemus awaits us in Arionath.”
Hannibal looked Joshua in the eye and nodded. “Very well, brother, lead on,” he said, handing the binoculars to Selina, who put it back in Hannibal’s pack.
“All right…everyone saddle up and follow me,” Joshua barked in the Stone Language. The order got everyone’s attention, even though Hannibal’s teammates didn’t understand what Joshua said. But from the way the men under Joshua’s command responded to the order, they understood and prepared to follow.
As they prepared to move on, Hannibal’s team gathered around him. “What did the commander call this place?” Thomas asked. “I heard him say something that sounded like a welcome, but I couldn’t understand it.”
“What you’re seeing here is a place he calls Khitia,” Hannibal stated. “Joshua was just welcoming us officially to the Caverns of Amacia.”
“Is that the name of the commander?” Thomas asked.
“Yeah,” Hannibal replied.
“Good…now we have names to go with our new guide and for this amazing place,” Jonathan murmured. “I feel like I’ve walked into another world here.”
“In a way, we have,” Nathanael commented. “As I said earlier, this colossal cave system has developed a completely separate eco-system from the surface. It’s hard to tell what kind of flora and fauna we may encounter here. If this place is truly a remnant from mankind’s 1st Age, we may see plants and animals that have not been seen on the surface in thousands or tens of thousands of years...creatures that may now be extinct on the surface. It’s a scientist’s dream come true; a treasure trove of knowledge and study that can last a lifetime.”
“Let’s hope that dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare,” Arabella quickly replied. “In a place this strange, anything can happen.”
“I tend to agree,” Hannibal intruded. “We’re so far off the map here it isn’t funny. We must be careful and stick together while here. This is a dangerous, savage land where I suspect things may not be what they seem.”
Joshua waved to Hannibal and his team. “Time to move on, my friends,” Joshua called out in the Stone Language.
Hannibal nodded and said to his team, “Okay guys, let’s go.”
They fell in with Joshua and his rebel band, following Joshua off to the right where the natural balcony ended and a cave passageway began in the face of the cliff. They lit their lights as they penetrated into the passage. It descended steeply, twisting and turning through a labyrinth of caves and tunnels. Nearly fifty minutes after penetrating the passage, they came out into the open at the base of the cavern wall in a grotto with a narrow stream running out of its mouth into canyons beyond. Five armed men occupied the cave, waiting for them with thirty very large horses that grazed just outside of the grotto along the stream bank. A smoldering campfire sat at the front of a large alcove in the cave just to the left of where the passage entered the grotto. The stream gurgled from a smaller adjacent cavity, flowing into the main cave running by the alcove. Joshua went forward with a call and met the man in charge of the horses. They greeted each other and hugged. He spoke with them for a moment as the five men stared at Hannibal and his team, eying Selina and Nathanael with extreme curiosity and just a bit of fear. “We’ll make camp here tonight,” Joshua stated, walking up to Hannibal. “The day is about spent and it’s not safe to cross the plains of Khitia at night. Many of the great beasts hunt at night on the plains.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hannibal replied. “We’ve had a very long day anyway.”
“That you have. Inform your people that we’ll be setting up camp over there beyond the campfire,” Joshua stated, pointing left to a large cavity within the cave beyond the smoldering campfire. “It’s a sheltered alcove of this cave that’s easily protected. The water in the stream is pure and drinkable.”
“Are there any of those poisonous fish in that stream?” Hannibal asked.
“No,” Joshua replied instantly. “Those fish are a product of the deep caves of Stygian’s Way. You won’t find them out this close to cave entrances. This water is good here.”
“Fair enough,” Hannibal stated, looking out the cave seeing one of the horses drinking from the stream outside the cave entrance. “Besides, I see the horses like the water so it must be okay.”
“Impressive,” Joshua replied. “You must have a keen knowledge of survival techniques to make such an observation.”
“I do,” Hannibal answered, patting Joshua on the shoulder. “It was part of my military training from my youth. It’s one of the few things from my youth that I’m glad I learned. I apply it every time I go into the field.”
“So I noticed,” Joshua murmured with a smile. “Go on and tell your people we’re camping here tonight. You can use the stream to clean up.”
Hannibal nodded and walked to his team as they stood as a group in the grotto. “Joshua says we’re going to camp here tonight. Apparently, these Caverns have night and day same as the surface, and night is almost upon us.”
“Thank God,” Arabella cried out in relief. “I don’t think I could go any farther. I’m so tired I can barely stand up.”
“Me too,” Thomas agreed.
“Same here,” Sam chimed. “That was one mean walk through those caves. My legs are sore as shit.”
“I hear you,” Hannibal replied. “Come on now. Let’s get our camp set up.”
“Where do we set up?” Harry asked.
“Over here,” Hannibal reported, walking to the alcove behind the smoldering fire, “and we can use this stream for drinking and cleaning up too. Joshua said the water is good.”
“I figured that when I saw the horses drinking from the stream,” Nathanael stated as he and the rest of the team followed Hannibal into the alcove. He noticed Joshua’s people setting up their own tents in the same area as the five men who were waiting for them in the cave set about rekindling the fire.
Within ten minutes, the camp was set up with a fire going and dinner being prepared as the apparent daylight of the cavern faded outside the cave.
After the camp was set up, Hannibal went to the stream and began to clean the dried blood from the battle outside of Solomon’s Passage off his hands and face. Within minutes, Selina and Nathanael joined him, who did the same. After cleaning up, they returned to the fire and sat down as the rest of his team went to do likewise. Wounds from the battle earlier in the day were tended to again.
“How do you feel?” Joshua asked as Hannibal sat down beside him after cleaning up.
Hannibal looked into the fire and sighed deeply. “Weary…I’m grieved by the battle this morning,” he admitted. “I didn’t want that fight. I came as an explorer to explore and search out, not to wage war, which I’m very capable of doing too. War was the last thing I wanted when I came here. First, there was that crazy general, then the Zinzera Trials at the Circle of Hammunaptra with the huge statue machines in Xabalba, and now this. It seems that violence and death follow me wherever I go.”
Joshua raised his eyebrow when Hannibal mentioned Xabalba and the Circle of Hammunaptra, but he kept his peace upon seeing that Hannibal was venting frustration with his situation. “You acted in the only appropriate manner when confronted with such a situation,” Joshua said to Hannibal, patting him on the shoulder. “They had orders to either kill you or take you to the Emperor or both. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone fight like you and your people did. I watched you fight with the captain. You seemed to know his every move and were just as fast as or faster than he was. You toyed with him. Why?”
“I really didn’t want to fight him,” Hannibal murmured wearily. “I tried to give him every opportunity to back off and when he didn’t, I had no choice. After that, I realized that they were there to kill us so the rest didn’t get any quarter, just as they weren’t giving any. It was a terrible waste of life and talent. That battle should have never occurred. When I get into fights like that, it brings the worst out in me. I do everything I can to avoid it, but sometimes I can’t escape it.”
“I understand,” Joshua replied. “But there’s something that troubles me about the battle at Cariias.”
“What’s that?” Hannibal asked.
“After you killed the captain, you kind of went berserk,” Joshua stated. “I also saw you use elemental power to slay several soldiers. Sometimes, you moved so fast I could hardly see you. However, when you merely looked at that one soldier and he exploded, I knew something was up. Only the Emperor and his Cadre of wizards wield that kind of power. How’d you do that, and where’d you learn it?”
Hannibal paled upon hearing the question. “Oh, boy,” he murmured. “You saw that?”
“Not just me, but my entire squad,” Joshua stated. “Only after you did that did I order my people into action. You exhibited a power only a select few have in this savage land. How is it that you know how to wield such power?”
“To be honest, I don’t know how I did that,” Hannibal admitted. “It was done by pure instinct. Only after I did it did I realize what had happened.”
“Are you a wizard?” Joshua asked bluntly.
“No,” Hannibal replied. “Not now; but a long time ago in my youth, I was a wizard of the Black Arts with incredible power and fury. No man or woman was my equal. I killed many times in the way you saw when that poor fellow exploded. But the Lord my God dragged me away from the dark life of a wizard and purged me of the demons that allowed me to wield that terrible power. Once free of the demons that infested me from my days as a wizard of the Black Arts, the Lord sent me on this quest. Now, I’m here and strange things are beginning to happen to me that I cannot explain or understand. How I killed that man just by looking at him really bothers me. It’s as if my dark past reached out and killed him. That soldier’s expression still haunts me. I never meant to kill like that.”
Joshua sat silently for a few moments, contemplating Hannibal’s words. “You don’t know how that happened?” he queried.
“Not a clue,” Hannibal stated tensely. “I do seem to have an innate telepathic potential that isn’t connected to my old powers as a wizard. That ability has become apparent and much more active recently. But I’d never use it for evil. I know all too well where that would lead. I don’t intend on ever going back to that kind of life, ever.”
“Okay, I think I can accept that,” Joshua replied as Hannibal unsheathed his sword to clean it. “But what about that rage we saw you in? Is that part of your past as well?”
Hannibal procured a cloth from his pack and started cleaning the sword. “Yes,” he answered coolly. “That’s the bane of my existence. When I get into mortal combat, a berserker rage comes over me. It’s one of the relics of my days as a wizard. It’s the one thing I was unable to get rid of when the Lord pulled me out of that dark pit. When I get into one of those rages, my strength, speed, and skill triples, and many times I have trouble separating friend from foe. But I’ve had years of practice learning to control that mad dog. As long as I don’t go completely bonkers in battle, I can use that rage to my benefit to protect the people I care about. You saw it in the battle. You also saw what happens when I lose control of that beast. I’m beginning to think that what happened is when I lost control of that beast, it apparently triggered some kind of dormant force or ability within me that I don’t completely understand or recognize to explode that man without touching him. Right after it happened, I realized what had occurred and the berserker rage dropped down to a much safer level where I couldn’t perform such feats. I really scared myself when it happened. It was so much like what I used to do as a wizard that it rattled my soul. I’d rather not let it get that out of hand again.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Joshua agreed. “After what I saw, I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of that rage. You were vicious as a saber cat.” As he spoke, Selina approached and sat down beside Hannibal while he cleaned his sword.
After a few moments of silence, Hannibal asked Joshua, “So what’s your story, Joshua? What’s going on down here? We didn’t expect to find much in the way of living people down here.”
“It’s a long story; one better told in the safety of Arionath,” Joshua replied. “But in brief, for tens of thousands of cycles, our people have been at war with the Emperor. All we wish is that he would just leave us alone to worship the Ancient of Days in peace, but he refuses to do so. So we are hunted and slaughtered like pests to satisfy some strange craving the Emperor has.” As he spoke, he noticed the blade Hannibal was cleaning and asked, “Where’d you get that blade? May I see it?”
“Sure,” Hannibal replied, handing it handle first to Joshua.
Joshua gingerly handled the blade, examining it. “This is an exquisite sword. Where did you get it?” Joshua asked, returning the blade to Hannibal.
“At the top of Skull Pass beyond the ruins where you rescued us, we literally stumbled upon a secret armory where we found all of our weapons and armor, including these shirts,” Hannibal reported as he opened his trench coat. Unbuttoning the top three buttons of his shirt, he pulled it back so Joshua could see the strange armor shirt. Joshua’s eyes lit up as he reached over to touch the strange shirt, finding it velvety soft. “The room was sealed by a giant metal door, locked with a riddle,” Hannibal said. “The door was labeled in what I call the Stone Language. It’s the language we are talking in now. It said on the door that it was the Armory of the Divine Bolthor Sai Keleb, first Lord of Amacia and Emperor of Mankind. The place was filled with all kinds of weapons and armor, most of which was made of metal I’ve never seen before.”
When Hannibal mentioned the Armory of Bolthor Sai Keleb, Joshua’s jaw fell open in astonishment. “You found these weapons in the Armory of Bolthor Sai Keleb?” he asked.
“That’s what was on the door,” Hannibal replied.
“This is really important,” Joshua replied, his eyes sparkling in the firelight. “I thought that Armory was just a fable. If what you say is true, then you and your people have the great weapons of the first Emperor from the 1st Age.”
“I have no reason to lie about it,” Hannibal said. “We used up our ammunition in the fight with the crazy general getting here. When we found the Armory, we had two pistols with one twenty round clip in each, a handful of arrows for Thomas’ crossbow and four grenades. We now only have one grenade left.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the last grenade, showing it to Joshua.
“What manner of strange device is this?” Joshua asked as he looked at the grenade in Hannibal’s hand.
“This is one of the weapons we have on the surface,” Hannibal explained. “This little metal thing is filled with explosives and pieces of jagged metal. You pull this pin here and throw it at an enemy. It’s designed to explode five seconds after you pull the pin and when it explodes, the shell and the metal pieces inside the grenade fly out in a lethal spray. Many times, just the force of the explosion alone is enough to kill.” He let Joshua hold it briefly before putting it back in his pocket. “When we found the Armory, we were in no position to deal with what we encountered this morning in the ruins,” Hannibal admitted. “It’s my belief that our finding the armory was no accident, but providential in origin, just like everything else that has happened during this quest so far.”
As he finished speaking, those preparing the dinner announced it was ready, so he sheathed his sword before getting something to eat. Their meal consisted of modest portions of biscuits, meat, and beans with water to drink.
As they ate, Hannibal asked Joshua in English, “Can you understand me when I speak like this?”
At first, Joshua didn’t answer, choosing instead to look at him sheepishly as he took a drink to wash the biscuits down. At length, he answered in English, “Yes, I can. What you call the Stone Language is our primary language; however, we’re fluent in many of the surface languages and can speak them whenever it suits us.” He then spoke a few sentences in Spanish, French, Arabic, German, Latin, Aramaic, and Russian to demonstrate.
Joshua’s ability to speak all those languages so fluently astounded Hannibal. “How do you know all these languages?” he asked Joshua before chewing on a piece of meat.
Joshua smiled wryly. “You found us, know our language, and not know how we know all these surface languages?” he asked.
Suddenly, Hannibal understood. “Of course,” he crowed. “The Stone Language is the root dialect of all the others. How could I have missed it?”
Joshua smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Your mind is as sharp as your skill with a blade, Hannibal,” he congratulated.
While Hannibal and Joshua talked, Selina listened intently to the conversation as everyone else around the fire ate and talked to each other. Hannibal’s team quickly found that the fighters with Joshua whom were trying to teach them the Stone Language could not only understand them, but also converse with them fluently in English same as Joshua. Even the five men guarding the horses spoke in English.
Joshua and Hannibal looked at those around them and saw how well they were getting along. “It seems that your people and my people are getting along very well now that we can understand each other,” Hannibal observed. “I’m guessing you and your people knew how to speak to us all along. Why didn’t you just talk to us like this from the beginning?”
“Simple,” Joshua stated. “We didn’t speak to you in your language initially because we didn’t know what your language was. We figured it out by listening to you and your comrades while we were in Stygian’s Way. That’s why I had my people trying to teach yours our language…the one you call the Stone Language. By teaching your friends our language, we figured out theirs.”
“That’s a good reason,” Hannibal replied. “I guess I’m fortunate having known how to speak your language before coming here. It helped us to initially understand each other and save us a lot of unnecessary problems.”
“Yes,” Joshua declared. “That’s so true. It also helped when you brought highly intelligent people who aren’t afraid to take a chance on peaceful communication with us. We had feared you and your people may be filled with anger and hate, bent on destruction like the Emperor.”
“Perish the thought,” Hannibal returned forcefully. “I’d never let anyone filled with anger and hate on this team. Too much is a stake to let a rotten apple like that into the team.”
“I didn’t mean to impugn your choices,” Joshua stated. “In fact, I’m congratulating it. We saw how you and your people fought in the battle to protect one another. That shows you made the right choices in your team. But they certainly are a strange team that you lead, especially these two that are not like us. Our legends tell us of feline gods from back at the beginning of time bearing a remarkable resemblance to them. Tell me; who and what are they? It’s obvious they aren’t human, but they walk and talk like people, and apparently are your friends. How’d this happen?”
Hannibal chuckled and put an arm around Selina, giving her a gentle squeeze. “That, my friend, is a long, long story. But I will say this: they’re an invaluable and absolutely essential part of my team,” he stated. He looked into Joshua’s eyes and saw Joshua’s sincere desire to know the truth, so Hannibal said, “This is Selina.” Selina extended her hand to shake Joshua’s hand. Joshua reached out, grasped her hand, and found her handshake solid. As Joshua let go of Selina’s hand, Hannibal said to Selina, “Why don’t you tell him a little about yourself, Selina.”
“Well…for one thing, as you have noticed, I’m not human. I’m a Lynxian as is my father there,” Selina said, pointing to Nathanael sitting between Arabella and Harry. He noticed Selina’s gesture and nodded to them as he continued a conversation he was having with those around him. “We’re from another planet on the far side of the galaxy called Kaitia. It no longer exists because it was completely destroyed when one of our suns exploded,” she explained. Joshua listened intently and she noticed that he understood exactly what she was saying.
“How’d you get to this planet, then?” Joshua asked.
Selina looked at Hannibal, who nodded and she said, “Hannibal rescued us from our ship as the sun went supernova. He stepped out of thin air and spirited us away as the shockwave from the explosion was about to destroy our ship.”
Joshua’s brows canted up as he pondered how such a feat could be achieved. He thought for a few moments on it. “You had some sort of device to do that, a machine, didn’t you?” Joshua surmised.
“You’re quite bright, Joshua,” Hannibal commended. “Yes, I did. But it wasn’t made by our people. It’s an ancient machine, apparent constructed when Amacia ruled the world, maybe even before that. In fact, we used it to get as close to here as we possibly could. If we could have used it to penetrate in here we would have, but there seems to be an electromagnetic dead zone all around here preventing contact, so the closest we could get with it was about twenty-five miles from Skull Pass.”
“The dead zone,” Joshua said grimly.
“I see you know about it,” Hannibal replied, noticing his reaction.
“Yes, I know of it,” Joshua replied. “Most of the fabled technology from the time when Amacia ruled the world has been lost to us. Something about the makeup of the Caverns prevents most of the ancient machinery from working. But I fear that is changing rapidly. For thousands of cycles, the technology was lost to all of us, but now the Emperor has apparently unlocked some of those secrets about the ancient machines. He’s using those things to advance his aim to subdue the planet again. It sounds like you have access to some of that technology on the surface. The only way you could have rescued her is by some kind of generator capable of opening doors anywhere you want, allowing you to travel without moving. I don’t even begin to understand these things but I do know about them because of what has been happening here in the last twenty cycles with the Emperor’s activity and because of our finding of the writings.” He then noticed the rings on Hannibal’s hand and on Selina’s hand. A look of puzzlement crossed his face. “Are they what I think they are?” he asked, referring to the rings.
Hannibal looked at his ring and chuckled. “I suppose it does if you’re thinking I’m married,” he replied.
“And you too?” Joshua asked Selina, not even considering that she and Hannibal were married. She nodded and he asked Hannibal, “Where is she? You surely didn’t bring her on such a perilous quest?”
“As a matter of fact, I did,” Hannibal admitted. “We’re two of a kind…kindred spirits and soul mates. I couldn’t leave her behind any more than I could cut off my own head. She sits here at the fire with us right now.” Joshua looked around and saw Arabella, pointing to her. “No, Arabella’s not my wife, but she’s a damned good doctor and friend,” Hannibal stated as he looked at Selina with a smile, and then back at Joshua, who immediately realized who Hannibal’s wife was.
“You’re kidding?” Joshua asked in amazement. Hannibal looked Joshua straight in the eye and shook his head no. “Great Ancient of Days!” Joshua exclaimed as a chill raced down his spine with the remembrance of the ancient prophecy. “I didn’t know such a thing was allowed.”
“Neither did I; but it was the Lord’s will that we be married. In fact, I was actually set up by my closest friend there, Harry,” Hannibal said with a smile, pointing to Harry. “I went to have a drink with him and ended up marrying Selina just two months ago. The Lord God of heaven joined us so I must believe He knows what He’s doing. She’s been the best thing ever to happen to me. We complete each other to the point that most of the time we act as one.”
“Well, who am I to say anything if your god put you together,” Joshua declared. “I can say this. You’re a very strange couple that love each other deeply and love the rest of your team like family. It showed tremendously in the battle today when you fought the Emperor’s troops. You were all willing to die for the other. That trait is in great need here. Our numbers are dwindling and our love for each other is fading because of recent events. The Emperor has, in recent days, moved boldly and savagely diminished our ranks and resources. That’s why we came in the way we did.”
“Exactly what did the Emperor do?” Hannibal asked.
Joshua looked at Hannibal grimly and sighed. “Up until ninety days ago, Khitia and Solomon’s Passage were held by us,” Joshua reported. “We’ve held it for nearly two thousand cycles because of its remoteness from the Emperor’s Black Fortress. We had a population of a little over ten thousand here guarding the entrance. Ninety days ago, one of our own betrayed our people. With the information the traitor provided, the Emperor and his 8th Division swept across this land like a scythe and slaughtered everything that moved, both man and beast. He spared no one. Of the ten thousand or so people who lived here and protected the Passage, less than a thousand escaped by fleeing into the deep caves in the mountains. He slaughtered our people as you would destroy a pest. They had no warning. When we found out what had occurred with the betrayal, the Emperor had already moved and we were powerless to stop it.” By this time, the conversation of everyone else had ceased and sat listening to the grim report.
“My God…what kind of fiend would do such a thing?” Arabella asked in astonishment, her stomach turning at the sheer volume of slaughter being reported.
“The Emperor isn’t a man,” one of the fighters said coldly. “He’s a demon king and has a hunger for human flesh and a thirst for human blood that can never be quenched.”
“You’re talking about genocide,” Harry commented.
“Yes, I am,” Joshua stated bluntly. “The Emperor has been performing genocide on our people since even before our country was destroyed by the Ancient of Days. He’s still doing it. Now, he’s apparently taking aim on the surface where you come from. I can tell you with certainty that if he manages to leave this domain, the whole world will fall and your people will be destroyed.”
“Isn’t that what the Zinzera shaman said, Hannibal?” Morrison asked.
“Yes, it is,” Hannibal agreed. “I find it very disturbing that they knew of this Emperor.”
“Are you speaking of the natives living beyond the pass?” Joshua queried.
“We are,” Hannibal stated. “The only reason we’re having this conversation is that I passed their Trials. They think I’m the Caverias.”
“The Caverias?” Joshua asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Hannibal stated. “They think I’m the Caverias because the statue machine that looks like me in the Circle of Hammunaptra said I was. Moreover, when the old chief tried to kill me after the machine identified me, the giant bear statue machine vaporized the old chief. I still don’t know if that really true, but it was sufficient proof to get them to let us go instead of roasting us alive.”
“And this happened in the fabled Circle of Hammunaptra?” Joshua asked intensely.
“It did,” Hannibal answered. “The Zinzera believe I’m the one in their prophecies.”
“Tell me everything,” Joshua ordered.
“Very well,” Hannibal replied. With that, Hannibal recounted to Joshua what happened with their capture by the Zinzera, going into detail about the Trials. After Hannibal finished sharing the account, Joshua’s face betrayed his surprise and shock.
Rubbing his chin as he pondered Hannibal’s words about the Zinzera Trials, Joshua declared after a lengthy pause, “This is very important indeed. We knew of the Zinzera natives, but we had no idea they had access to the sacred Circle of Hammunaptra and its ancient machines. I thank the Ancient of Days that you and your people were not sacrificed.”
“Were your people aware that the old Zinzera chief had been compromised by a dark spirit after coming down here?” Hannibal asked.
“No,” Joshua admitted. “In fact, I wasn’t aware that they’d even come into the Caverns. Our contact with them always consisted of us meeting them just the other side of the pass. They feared to cross the pass and intrude into our territory. But it’s obvious that some of them did and became a terrible problem out there.”
“Do you think Nicodemus would have known about them coming down into our lands, Joshua?” one of the fighters asked.
“He might,” Joshua admitted. “But after hearing this, the Emperor’s move on Khitia suddenly makes sense. It wasn’t just to secure the way to the surface. He wanted to take the Passage in order to be in place to kill the great warrior of the prophecies before he could destroy his chance to retake the world. I praise the Ancient of Days that allowed us to snatch Hannibal and his friends from the clutches of the Emperor before he could have them killed. It’s as Nicodemus foresaw. Now, the Emperor’s plans are upset and all those eons of planning compromised because we were at the right place at the right time.”
“Exactly how long as the Emperor been planning this?” Hannibal asked bluntly.
“Since this land was buried by the Ancient of Days,” Joshua declared, “at least that’s what the writings say.” Hannibal rubbed his chin as he pondered Joshua’s words.
“Can you tell us when that happened?” Arabella asked. “Do your writings tell that?”
“Yeah, I’d like to know too,” Harry chimed in.
“Yes, they do,” Joshua stated. “According to the ancient writings, the Ancient of Days raged in His wrath approximately twelve thousand cycles ago at the close of the 1st Age.”
Every mouth on Hannibal’s team dropped open in shock, especially Hannibal’s mouth. “Twelve thousand cycles,” Hannibal queried, not believing his ears. “That means my estimates on Amacia’s age are off by at least six thousand years! This is unbelievable! That puts Amacia at the time Plato said Atlantis fell.” He suddenly realized the implications, adding, “That means Plato’s account about Atlantis may have been true!”
“I don’t know about such things,” Joshua stated. “Nicodemus would be more likely to know about this Atlantis you’re speaking of. But to be sure, the writings are very clear. Approximately twelve thousand cycles ago, Amacia and the rest of the world fell in the Calamity from the Skies we call the Kragonar while in the midst of a war amongst the gods. The Emperor tried to conquer all that was at that time, and the Ancient of Days stopped him by overthrowing the entire planet in the cataclysm. We haven’t found the exact day and time when it happened, but the writings definitely tell us when it happened to within a couple of cycles of the exact date. Maybe we’ll eventually find that information. But to be sure, the Emperor didn’t die at that time, as our people didn’t die. So, he’s spent the last twelve thousand cycles trying to rebuild his war machine and escape this grave the Ancient of Days locked him in. Now, it appears he’s about to finally break out of his prison and kill all life on this planet again.”
“You have revealed a great truth of our past, Joshua,” Hannibal stated humbly. “I’m both thrilled and stunned at how far off I was on the timing. It means our history as a species is much longer and deeper than we ever believed. Thank you for enlightening our ignorance. I really appreciate it. It now gives me a better grasp of the time of the 1st Age.”
“You’re welcome,” Joshua replied, taken off guard by the compliment. “What I shared is what is commonly accepted in the Caverns as our history, as sordid as it is. You’d think the Emperor would have given up on his quest for universal domination millennia ago, but he hasn’t. He’s kept moving forward in his plan over the eons despite our exile here. If anything, it shows his tenacity.”
“You talk as if this Emperor is thousands of years old, Joshua,” Thomas said. “How can that be? What kind of life spans do you have down here?”
“We don’t live thousands of cycles here,” Joshua explained. “We actually have fairly short life spans. Most of us are lucky to live fifty cycles because of the Emperor and his minions. Some of us, however, have lived as many as a hundred and twenty cycles. But there aren’t many of them left. As for the Emperor, he’s different from us. Past Emperors have lived as much as two hundred cycles. But the thing about that is the Emperor has a spirit about him that defines who he is, and that spirit has inhabited every Emperor since the beginning. That’s why I speak of the Emperor as thousands of cycles old. Even though there have been different Emperors over the centuries and millennia, it has always been the same spirit. In fact, it’s said that he has a specific group who are groomed to replace him when the present Emperor’s body ceases to hold up. When the body passes, the spirit of the Emperor merely moves into the next one in line and everything the old Emperor was is instilled into the new Emperor, including his power and plans. We’ve had this present Emperor for almost a hundred and fifty cycles that I know of.”
“What do you mean by cycles?” Sam asked.
“A cycle is how long the Earth takes to make a complete circuit of the seasons. It is approximately three hundred and sixty-five days,” Joshua replied.
“Oh, you’re talking about a year,” Jonathan said. “Your people just call it something different.”
“Yes,” Joshua said. “If it’s what you call a year, then I will use that term from now on so there will be no confusion.”
“That would be helpful,” Arabella said.
“Has anyone ever directly confronted the Emperor?” Hannibal asked as he now seriously pondered his adversary.
Joshua looked at him with surprise. “Never,” he replied bluntly. “No one has ever dared to face the Emperor. Everyone who’s taken before him is killed by him.”
“So no one has directly confronted him,” Nathanael commented.
“No!” Joshua stated emphatically. “He’s considered to be far too powerful an adversary to confront man to man. He has strange powers, all of them bad. That’s why I asked you about the battle earlier. You seemed to be able to wield the same type of power the Emperor can and it worries me. Elemental power is something we’re wary of because the Emperor and his Cadre use it with impunity.”
“Believe me,” Hannibal insisted. “This Emperor and I are nothing alike. I value life where he apparently doesn’t.”
“Sounds like this Emperor is a pretty bad guy to deal with,” Ned said.
“That’s an understatement,” one of the fighters stated. “Take your worst nightmare and multiply it by thirty times or more and you won’t come anywhere near how bad the Emperor is. He’s a demon monster of the darkest magic and purest evil.”
“The Emperor sounds like a real charmer,” Hannibal stated coolly, keeping what he already knew about the Emperor to himself. “Let’s give him a wide berth for now. It’s obvious that this Emperor is our enemy. Before an enemy can be dealt with, one must know what his capabilities and his weaknesses are. He must have a weakness somewhere. We just have to find that chink in his armor and exploit it.”
“What’re you saying?” another fighter asked. “You’re not seriously considering contending with the Emperor, are you?”
“Not unless I absolutely have to,” Hannibal replied. “I came here in peace as an explorer and scientist, not as a warrior or a general. But since this Emperor is as bad as you say he is, it’s just wise for us to cover all our bases. A fight with the Emperor is the last thing I want. But if he insists, I’m more than capable of obliging him with a good scrap.”
“You’re either completely insane or are the most courageous and brave man I’ve ever seen,” a third fighter stated. “Only someone out of their mind would even consider taking the Emperor on toe to toe.”
Hannibal smiled at him wryly. “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see which it is, won’t we? Like I said, I didn’t come here to fight, but I’m more than capable of dishing it out if forced to,” he replied with a hint of menace in this tone. “You saw that in the battle earlier today.”
“Yes, we did,” Joshua said, “If the way you fought today is any gauge of your abilities, I would say that you’re a little of both. But that’s what’s needed here…someone who has the courage and strength to deal with the Emperor directly.”
Arabella turned to Morrison and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m turning in. I so tired I can hardly stay awake and I’m legs are terribly sore from that long walk through those caves. I’m going to take some aspirins and go to bed.” Then to the group she announced, “It’s been a long day for me. I’m going to turn in. I’m beat.”
“That’s a good idea,” Joshua said. “We have at least two days of hard riding to reach Nicodemus from here.”
“Good night, Arabella,” Hannibal said. “Sleep well.” She nodded and rose, going to her tent. Then to Joshua, he asked, “What’re we going to do about the watch tonight? Do you need any help with it because we can help stand guard if you want?”
Joshua shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary,” he replied. “You’re under our protection and charge. We’ll watch tonight. You’re honored guests. Besides, you’ve had a very taxing day, with the battle and all. Rest and refresh yourselves tonight for we will ride in the morning to Arionath.”
Hannibal looked at Joshua, and then his fighters, saying, “You’re good men; a rarity even on the surface. If you need us for anything, don’t hesitate to wake us.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Joshua said. “But if we do need something, we’ll certainly take you up on your offer. Now, if I may be so bold…go and rest, all of you. This portion of Khitia isn’t frequented by the Emperor’s troops so we are safe for the time being.”
Everyone rose and headed for their respective tents. Hannibal gave Joshua a friendly pat on the shoulder. “I’ll see you in the morning then, brother,” he said pleasantly, following Selina to their tent.
Joshua nodded and addressed his fighters as they gathered around with the five men guarding the horses. “These people are very important and we need to keep them safe until we reach Arionath and Nicodemus. Because of our proximity to Amm Su and the 8th Division, I want six people on guard for each watch: two just inside the cave here, two outside watching the horses, and two on the perimeter watching for trouble. No one is to go anywhere alone. I needn’t remind you of where we are. The beasts are just as big a threat as the Emperor’s soldiers. Stay awake and alert. David, Timothy, Vergil, Zachias, Aragon, and I will stand the first watch. Who wants the second and third watches?” Six men instantly volunteered for the second watch, followed by six more who volunteered for the third watch. “Good,” Joshua chimed. “Now the rest of you get some sleep. We’ll wake you when your watches are up.” The soldiers saluted and bedded down around the fire as Joshua and David stood watch at the alcove entrance while Timothy and Vergil stood guard over the horses. Zachias and Aragon went out into the canyon and took up position on a ledge overlooking the cave and the canyon exit.
Joshua looked back into the encampment to where Hannibal and Selina lay in their tent and smiled. “Sleep well, my friends,” he said softly as he stirred the fire with a stick.
Within minutes of the watch being posted, the entirety of Hannibal’s team was sound asleep because of their weariness from the long hard day. Hannibal and Selina laid down together and held hands, praying and repenting of the bloodshed that occurred at their hands before falling asleep together at almost the same moment.