The Secret Cave
At 2:00 am, Hannibal suddenly awoke with his heart hammering in his chest and sweat dripping from his brow. He looked around wildly, seeing the campfire illuminating the tent from the outside. Shadows danced on the tent as he heard a purr from beside him. Looking down, Hannibal saw Selina sound asleep with a soft purr rumbling out of her chest. “What is this?” he whispered as his heart continued to pound like a jackhammer against his chest. “Why’s my heart pounding?” Placing his hand on his chest, he could feel his heart thumping as if he’d run a marathon. “Something’s not right here,” he murmured as he tried to calm down. “But what is it?”
A dead silence came over the encampment so that even the crackling of the fire seemed distant. A deep icy chill raced down Hannibal’s spine as he sensed impending danger. “Ohhh,” Hannibal whispered, “Something’s coming; something dangerous, but what?”
A low rumbling moan echoed though the cave, barely loud enough for Hannibal to hear it. He looked around with growing concern at the tent, trying to figure out where the moan came from. In seconds, he donned his boots and stepped out of his tent with a flashlight and his sword. Looking around, Hannibal saw everyone dead asleep, even Joshua and David. “This is not good,” he murmured, scanning the alcove for intruders.
“Beowulf,” a ghostly voice echoed softly from the main cave. A cold sweat broke out on Hannibal’s forehead as his torso felt like it was freezing from the inside out.
“Where are you?” Hannibal called out softly, becoming increasingly agitated.
“Beowulf,” the voice whispered from the darkness near the stream. “Over here, Beowulf.”
Hannibal stepped out of the alcove into the main cave and saw a glowing orb of multi-colored light two feet across floating next to the stream where it disappeared into the darkness of the cave. He cautiously approached the orb and asked, “Who are you?”
The orb started pulsing as it floated from side to side. It suddenly retreated, following the stream into the depths of the cave. A voice murmured in his ear, “Follow the orb.” Hannibal hesitated, watching the orb go deeper into the cave. It suddenly stopped and floated back towards him, stopping just beyond his reach. It pulsed and shimmered like a portal aperture in an almost hypnotic manner.
Hannibal stared at the orb as it bobbed in front of him. His fear of the phenomenon slowly evaporated as the orb suddenly shot away from him following the stream. It stopped fifty feet away and waited. After a few more moments, it came back to Hannibal and circled him twice before going back to the stream as if it were an animal trying to lead him. Curiosity began building in Hannibal, prompting him to follow the strange orb. “Okay, I’m coming,” he called out to the ball of light, which pulsed brightly as if it were pleased.
The orb led Hannibal to where the stream came out from under the cave wall in what appeared to be a dead end. “Okay…what now?” he asked.
The orb drifted right and down, going into a crevice in the cave wall near the floor no one had seen before. The crevice was perfectly camouflaged, standing just shy of three feet in height by five feet wide. Hannibal squatted down, looking into the cavity. The orb disappeared for thirty seconds before returning, hovering in the crevice entrance. It flickered and slowly floated deeper into the crack. With a grunt, Hannibal dropped to his belly and crawled into the crack, dragging his sword along with one hand while holding his flashlight in the other hand. “I hope you know where you’re going,” Hannibal muttered to the light. The fissure in rock stretched for twenty yards and opened into a small irregularly shaped cave just ten feet in height, ten yards wide, and thirty yards in length. Hannibal stood up after climbing out of the crevice and stared in wonder as the orb lit the cave. The walls and ceiling of the cave were covered with exquisite cave paintings of extreme detail and skill.
“Oh, my lord,” Hannibal breathed as he looked at the cave paintings, which depicted a cataclysmic event where towns and cities burned and crumbled in a war between strange beast-men, humans, drakens, giants, colossal spiders, enormous machines, and a myriad of other alien monsters. In the heavens, a giant red planet with eight moons and a debris field hung there with the sun, unleashing hell on those below, ripping the world apart. The cave paintings were part of one giant story spread over the walls and ceiling of the cave. Hannibal stared at the painting as the orb abruptly circled him twice before heading towards the far end of the cave.
Slowly following the orb, Hannibal stared at the story told all around him in ancient pigments. The orb stopped near the end of the cavity, illuminating a portion of the story. Hannibal stopped and gawked at the incredibly detailed images. He saw a younger, more catlike version of himself in heavy platinum-colored armor wielding a huge sword. It was similar to his dream of Leila Karac. However, unlike the dream of Leila, the paintings showed him standing on top of a boulder pointing his enormous sword across the battlefield where an image of the Emperor stood on a flying machine pointing back as if he were sending forth his legions. Moreover, Hannibal wasn’t standing alone. Seven other mighty warriors of varying species wielding strange weapons stood with Hannibal, backing him up. Only one appeared to be human, even though he was gigantic, more than twice Hannibal’s height in the painting. The second warrior resembled a huge armored werewolf while the third looked to be a giant Lynxian. The fourth warrior was a reptilian creature that seemed to be an unknown type of veloci-raptor with very draken-like features. The cave paintings depicted the fifth warrior as a huge cyborg werebear while the sixth warrior showed a distinct hybrid of human and avian, with wings of a bird sprouting from the back of the warrior making him look like an angel. The paintings showed the seventh warrior as a giant bipedal feline with heavy white armor brandishing a massive blade larger than anyone else’s blades. The cat looked to be a cross between tiger, lion, and human with strange hazel eyes tinted with green. This great warrior cat was a giant among giants, standing head and shoulders over his colleagues as it held the line with his comrades and the strange version of Hannibal. The ancient image showed the great warrior cat in the act of striking down a hideous tentacle demon nearly as large as it was while the others were shown in mortal combat with other alien monsters, beast-men, and machines. These warriors were backed by an army of their own that held the line. Back behind the front line above the fleeing civilians, the painting showed a colossal golden draken with many other drakens guarding the retreat of the people as the Emperor’s forces attacked en-mass.
Hannibal stared at the image in disbelief. “What is this?” he murmured in deep puzzlement. “Why does this guy look like me?” Hannibal’s thoughts instantly went to the statue of the Caverias in the Circle of Hammunaptra and its uncanny resemblance to the figure on the wall. When his mind connected the pieces, Hannibal went pale. “Oh, my god,” he whispered. “It’s just like the statue of Caverias at the Circle. It’s him. He was real, but why does he look like me?”
The orb flickered and circled Hannibal twice again before moving towards the very end of the cave. Hannibal tore his attention from the images on the wall and followed the orb. It stopped at a small corner in the cave where no paintings decorated the walls and ceiling, hovering over what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a huge man twelve feet tall wearing corroded plate armor with several punctures in the chest area. In the giant’s left hand was a large sword broken off three feet from the hilt. The other skeletal hand lay clenched in a fist holding a golden amulet on a chain.
When Hannibal saw the orb of light illuminating the skeleton, he hesitated ten feet away, unsure if he should approach the fallen warrior. “Oh, my,” he murmured. “Who’re you buried so deep in this mountain with these amazing images?”
The orb drifted to the left several feet, and abruptly became a full-torso free-floating vaporous apparition of an oriental-looking man standing twelve feet in height wearing the same armor the skeleton wore. “Beowulf,” the ghost murmured. “Remember, Beowulf. Time grows short.”
“Remember what?” Hannibal asked softly, trembling at the appearance of the ghost. “Who are you, and what am I supposed to remember?”
The ghost warrior stared coldly at Hannibal, his presence slowly sapping Hannibal’s strength. “Look inside yourself for the answers you seek,” the ghost warrior ordered. “Remember who you are, my friend. The end is declared in the beginning. The Dark Gods stir and the most Ancient FATE has noticed you once again. Be very careful as you tread the cursed Path of the Ancients. You may not like where it leads you. Now take my seal and go. May it be a light for you when all other lights go out.” The ghost pointed to the skeleton clutching the golden seal in its hand. “Go, brother,” it ordered. The apparition then faded away, leaving only Hannibal’s flashlight illuminating the cave.
Hannibal looked at the skeleton clutching the golden amulet and knelt down, laying his sword aside. He shined his light on the skeletal hand holding the amulet, examining it closely seeing the chain attached to the amulet consisted of an alloy that resembled a mixture of gold, platinum, and titanium. A violent chill raced down his spine as he reached out and pulled the item from the skeletal hand. It slipped from the giant’s grasp and Hannibal examined it with the scrutiny of a jeweler. “Whoa,” he murmured, “what a strange amulet.” An electronium griffin armed with two swords lay emblazoned in the center of the solid gold disk with mysterious writing similar to that found on the Relic, Artifact, and Medallion encircling the electronium griffin. Hannibal suddenly became aware that the amulet made his hand tingle. “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” he murmured, looking at the strange amulet from all angles.
Without warning, the giant skeleton reached out and grabbed Hannibal by the neck, pulling him nose to nose with the giant. Hannibal gasped as he saw two red lights shining in the eye sockets of the giant. “Who takes the Seal of Khitia from her king?” the skeleton asked in a raspy menacing voice.
“Forgive me,” Hannibal replied instantly, shaking in fear. “I knew not it was the seal of Khitia’s King. I was told by a ghost to take it, and let it light my way when all other lights go out.”
The skeleton tightened its grip on Hannibal’s neck, demanding, “Who are you, naïve? Speak now before I rip the life from your rotting corpse.”
“I’m Hannibal,” Hannibal gasped, “from the surface world. My enemies know me as the Beowulf. Please, I meant no disrespect and will gladly return the seal if you spare my life.”
The skeletal warrior loosened its grip on Hannibal. “That will not be necessary,” the skeleton growled. “I knew you would come, milord. I had to be sure it was you. Take my seal and use it to bring peace to our war-torn lands. Now go…let it light your way when all other lights go out.” The skeletal arm dropped inert at the skeleton’s side as the red lights in its eye-sockets went out. Its empty eye sockets stared into Hannibal’s eyes as the skeleton crumbled into a jumble of bone fragments.
Hannibal’s heart thundered in his chest as he fell back onto his butt, staring in astonished terror. “Goddamn,” he murmured. “What in the blazes have I gotten myself into?” The flashlight suddenly flickered and went out, plunging Hannibal into intense cave darkness. He pushed the switch on the flashlight several times, not getting any response. A deep penetrating terror pushed its way into his mind and heart. “Oh, shit,” he whispered. “Now, I am in trouble.”
Sitting still trying to calm his rampaging heart and fears, Hannibal looked around in the darkness, seeing nothing. “Relax, Hannibal,” he murmured fearfully. “There’s nothing in the darkness; nothing at all. It’s just the dark; a deep heavy cave darkness.” He kept repeating those words, trying to override the fear of being lost without a light in the darkness of the cave. After five minutes, his eyes began to detect light coming from all directions. “What in the world?” he whispered as the crystals in the cave began to glow softly, illuminating the grotto. Sparkling lights and crystals embedded in the cave paintings shined eerily, lighting up the story told by the paintings in several places. Then Hannibal happened to look at the golden griffin amulet in his hand. The electronium griffin embedded in the gold disk flickered for a moment, and then flashed, becoming a lamp in the darkness of the cave. Hannibal’s eyes grew wide as the bright, but strange light from the amulet lit a bubble ten feet around him.
Closing his eyes briefly, Hannibal whispered, “Thank you, Lord.” As his eyes adapted to the light of the amulet, he saw the crumbled skeletal remains of the giant leaning against the wall. Scanning the perimeter of the light bubble created by the amulet, he felt the odd amulet become icy in his hand. “What the…,” he blurted out, dropping the amulet on the floor of the cave. It remained lit and Hannibal gently picked it up, feeling the icy coldness of the disk as he held it. A menacing rumble from the darkness beyond the light bubble created by the amulet caused his eyes to dart to the darkness. His eyes grew wide as a deep-seated terror returned with a long lost memory of his childhood; a memory he’d mercifully forgotten until now.
“Oh, no,” Hannibal whispered as he vividly remembered the cellar of an old house from his childhood rumored to be haunted. It had a dirt floor covered with dried blood and chains hanging from the floor joists that created the ceiling of the cellar. “Not again,” he moaned fearfully. “I have to get out of here.” The sound of rattling chains and a deep growling seeped into his conscious mind from the memory, along with the sensation of being in dire peril. It mixed with and enhanced the menacing rumble from the darkness beyond the bubble of light in the cave as it grew louder. The combination drove Hannibal to his feet with the amulet in one hand and his sword in the other. Looking around wildly, Hannibal didn’t know which way to go. Icy talons of fear raked his spine as his face paled. Panic started to set in, driven by a paralyzing fear of the unknown monsters lurking in the darkness that oozed out of his mind into reality.
“This way,” a strangely familiar voice echoed in his ear, coming from the far end of the cave where he’d entered. “Over here.”
Compelled by fear, Hannibal ran in the direction of the voice. “That’s right,” the voice whispered, “keep following my voice.”
Moments later, Hannibal reached a blank wall of solid rock. “No,” he breathed in terror. “Where is it? Where’s the way out?” Hannibal searched the entire end of the grotto without finding where he came in. His terror tripled, making him sweat in the gloom of the cave lit by the griffin amulet and the crystals. He abruptly collapsed next to the wall, tears flowing. “I’m lost,” he moaned. “There’s no way out of here. What am I going to do?”
“Don’t believe your eyes,” the voice murmured calmly in his ear. “Nothing is what it seems here.”
“Stop tormenting me with lies!” Hannibal shouted in fearful anger. “I should have never come in here. Now, I’m lost with no way out!”
“Oh, you of little faith,” the voice scolded. “You’re letting fear override your good sense. Let go of your fears and you’ll find the exit. Remember the cavern where you found the map and you’ll understand.”
“Shut up,” Hannibal balked, becoming irrational with fear. “You tricked me into the cavern so I could die of starvation.”
“So be it,” the voice replied coldly. “You doom yourself by not having faith. Perish in this darkness if it’s what you want.” The last words echoed softly in Hannibal’s ears as he dropped his sword and the griffin amulet, clenching his ears with his hands.
“Shut up!” Hannibal shrieked; his voice echoing throughout the cave as the crystals lit the grotto like twilight. When the voice didn’t respond, he curled into a fetal position next to the wall and sobbed softly, falling asleep a few minutes later as the crystals in the cave walls dimmed.
“Hannibal!” Selina’s voice called out in the darkness. “Hannibal, where are you?”
Hannibal heard Selina’s voice calling his name, followed by Nathanael’s voice. The darkness lightened as he rose into the twilight zone between being asleep and awake. Several other distinct voices echoed in his ears. A moan escaped his lips as he heard Joshua call out, “He’s over here.” The gurgle of water touched his ears.
“Hannibal,” Joshua said softly as he gently touched Hannibal on the shoulder. “Wake up, brother.”
Hannibal snapped awake with a gasp, thrashing violently for a second until he recognized Joshua standing back a few steps. Selina rushed in and restrained him. “Calm down, my prince,” she said with concern in her tone as she held his arms. “You’re safe.”
“Where am I?” Hannibal asked in confusion.
“You’re at the headwaters of the stream running through this cave,” Joshua stated. “What’re you doing in here? No one ever comes this deep into this cave. There’s nothing back here.”
Hannibal looked around, seeing torches and lamps lighting the cave where the stream came out from underneath the rock wall. “What the hell,” he murmured. “How’d I get out?”
“Get out of where?” Selina asked. “This is a dead end.”
Hannibal started looking around intently at his surroundings. “It’s not here,” he declared, seeing nothing but a solid rock wall. “There was a crevice right here that led to another cave with these amazing cave paintings and a giant skeleton. It’s why I’m so dirty.”
“Slow down,” Nathanael ordered softly, squatting down in front of Hannibal as Selina put her arm around him. “Tell us what happened.”
“I woke up in my tent with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Hannibal began. “Something didn’t feel right, so I came out of my tent to check it out.” He then went into a detailed description of the events, including the ghostly manifestations, the cave, the cave paintings, and the finding of the ancient warrior. When he finished, Hannibal added, “I’ve never been that scared in my life. I was trapped in that cave with no apparent way out.”
“Strange,” Joshua murmured, patting Hannibal on the shoulder. “I’d be scared too if I became lost in the underworld of Stygian’s Way.”
“But it was so real,” Hannibal insisted. “I took the griffin seal of the King of Khitia from that ancient warrior and it lit the cave. I felt it and it became icy cold when it lit up as I heard that growl from the darkness. It completely unnerved me. Am I going nuts by believing this actually happened?”
“I don’t know,” Joshua stated. “But there’s nothing beyond this wall that we can get to. The stream channel is not nearly big enough to allow a person through it.”
“But there’s nothing to say that there isn’t another cave beyond this wall,” Nathanael surmised. “What I’ve noticed in our trek into this place is that this place is honeycombed with passages and caves.”
“I agree,” Selina stated as she helped Hannibal to stand up. “There’s more to this place than it seems.”
When Hannibal stood, Nathanael saw a golden disk with an electronium griffin on it sitting pressed into the dirt where Hannibal had been sitting. “What’s this?” Nathanael asked, picking up the item. He examined it for a moment with a surprised look. “Upon my word, this is a strange-looking seal,” Nathanael commented. “Hannibal, is this the seal you found in that cave?”
Nathanael stood up and handed the griffin amulet to Hannibal. Hannibal’s eyes grew wide as his face paled. “Oh, my god,” Hannibal whispered. “It’s real. I wasn’t dreaming.”
“I take that as a yes,” Nathanael stated.
“A most emphatic yes,” Hannibal murmured, closing his fist around the amulet. “Something really strange is happening here I can’t explain. If this is real, then the cave and its paintings must be real. But where’s the opening?”
“I don’t know,” Nathanael stated. “But maybe a closer examination of this area may be useful. Everyone be quiet.” The cave became quiet as a tomb with only the gurgling water breaking the silence. Nathanael looked around intently, following his nose. “Hmmm,” he murmured, “Something strange here; I can smell your scent over this way, Hannibal, along with a strange musky scent I’ve never encountered before. The scents seem to be mingled.” Nathanael walked along the wall to the right moving away from the water pursuing Hannibal’s scent. “Both scents are getting stronger over here,” he declared as he dragged his hand along the cave wall. Forty feet from the stream, Nathanael stopped and squatted down. “They’re strongest over here,” he reported, scrutinizing the area closely. “I see scuff marks in the dirt here.” He noticed some odd tracks around the scuffmarks. “These are strange tracks,” Nathanael commented. “And they’re big too even though there’s two distinct sizes in the tracks. Both sets look feline.”
Everyone gathered around to see the tracks. The smaller set of prints showed a cat the size of a full-grown tiger while the larger set of tracks revealed a creature five times the size of the smaller cat. “Gods…they’re big, even the smaller set,” Joshua agreed, “and they look a lot like the tracks of a saber cat. But that’s impossible. The only way into this part of the cave is to come by our camp and nothing got by us. I swear it.”
Selina sniffed Hannibal closely and declared, “The musky scent is on you, Hannibal. I can smell it.” She began to examine him closer, following her nose. When she saw the back of his neck and shirt, she gasped. “Hannibal…something with large teeth picked you up by the neck and carried you like a kitten. I can see the teeth marks on your neck and your shirt is torn where whatever it was picked you up. But the teeth didn’t break your skin.”
Hannibal paled at the news. “Oh, man,” he murmured, staggering and leaning against the cave wall. “This is getting weirder and weirder.”
“I should take a look,” Nathanael stated. But as he started to rise, he felt a breeze coming out of the wall. “That’s weird,” he said, stopping and turning to the wall. “I feel air moving out of this wall. I wonder.” Nathanael felt the wall with his hand and suddenly gasped as his hand found a cavity unseen by the naked eye. “There’s a hole here,” he declared, quickly tracing out the gap in the wall. “I can feel air moving through here. Bring the lights.” They shined their lights on the wall, which appeared to be nothing but solid rock.
“Give me a torch,” Nathanael ordered as Hannibal stood there agape with stunned astonishment. Nathanael took the flaming torch and put it down close to the floor of the cave. The change in position of the light source illuminated the three foot by five-foot crevice.
“Call me fodder for the Cadre,” Joshua breathed. “I never saw that before. It’s just like Hannibal said.”
“Come on,” Nathanael stated, “let’s check it out. If Hannibal is right, there’s a major archaeological find on the other end of this passage. I’ll look at Hannibal after I check this out.”
“I’m going to stay here,” Hannibal stated with a hint of fear in his voice. “If you insist on going in there, I’d strongly suggest at least three or more go in so someone can stand by the exit. I absolutely could not find it.”
“That’s sounds prudent,” Nathanael stated. “Selina…you stay with Hannibal. Joshua, David…please come with me and bring along ample light.” Nathanael dropped to his belly and crawled into the cavity carrying the torch with Joshua and David close behind them carrying lamps.
“Are you all right?” Selina asked Hannibal as Vergil and Zachias walked up.
“I don’t know, Selina,” Hannibal admitted. “I’m really freaked out right now. I have no idea how I got out of there, and the thought of some big cat carrying me like a kitten while I was unconscious is very unsettling.”
“It’s okay,” Selina stated as she closely examined Hannibal’s neck. “Whatever brought you out of that hole must not be all that bad since it didn’t hurt you. The marks I see here are just minor abrasions.”
“True,” Hannibal replied. “But it really bothers me that I lost my cool in there. I haven’t been that scared since I was a kid.”
“Sounds like you had a panic attack,” Selina suggested as she put her arm around Hannibal for emotional support. “Don’t worry about it. It happens to everyone occasionally, even me. You must have faith and believe.”
“You’re right,” Hannibal said. “I guess I must have become really claustrophobic. I can’t figure out why that happened. Enclosed spaces don’t usually give me a problem.”
Selina put her finger to his lips. “Shhh…don’t say any more about it,” she ordered. “I know what you saw in there and how you felt. That’s why I came looking for you. I woke about half an hour ago feeling your panic and fear and traced it here, finding you.”
“Thanks for coming after me,” Hannibal whispered, kissing her on the cheek as he felt his fears ebb away with her words.
“Are you okay,” Vergil asked. “Looks like something really rattled your cage.”
“You could say that,” Hannibal admitted. “I should know better than to follow ghosts into secret caves.”
“You followed a ghost?” Zachias asked. “That took some guts. No one I know would ever follow a ghost into a cave or anywhere else for that matter.”
“In this case, it was a bad case of stupidity that caused my trouble,” Hannibal admitted. “I’ll be much more careful next time. No more following ghost lights into dark caves without a string to find my way out.”
Zachias smiled and patted Hannibal on the back. “Or just don’t follow them at all,” Zachias stated. “That’s what I’d do. It’s my philosophy to let such restless spirits alone.”
“Sounds like good advice,” Hannibal stated. “I should pay attention to it since there seems to be an overabundance of restless spirits in this place.”
“That’s an understatement,” Vergil stated. “Khitia is full of restless ghosts because of what the Emperor did recently.”
“I know,” Hannibal stated as his confidence slowly returned while standing with Selina.
Ten minutes later, they heard a shuffling from the crevice. Vergil and Zachias went on guard as the sound grew louder. “Relax fellas,” Selina assured them. “It’s just Dad, Joshua, and David. They went in there to check out Hannibal’s story.” Vergil and Zachias backed down as Nathanael crawled out of the hole with Hannibal’s sword and flashlight, followed closely by Joshua and David with their lamps.
Hannibal helped Nathanael up. “Well, you were in there all right,” Nathanael stated. “You left your sword in there along with your flashlight.” He handed the sword and flashlight to Hannibal as Selina helped Joshua up.
A look of great relief crossed Hannibal’s face as he took the sword and flashlight, which remained inoperative. “So, I wasn’t going mad then,” he stated.
“Not in the least,” Joshua stated, brushing the dirt off. “It’s was everything you said and more. The place is magnificent. I’ve seen cave paintings before, but not on that scale or of that detail. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.”
“And you weren’t kidding about not being able to find the exit,” David stated. “I stood right by it and couldn’t see it. Only by feeling for it could the exit be found.”
“But what troubles me is how you got out of there,” Joshua stated. “We found more of those tracks in there. Whatever it was dragged you out of that cave. We found not only its tracks, but also yours as it pulled you out of there. Your heels left two distinct marks as it dragged you.”
Hannibal paled. “You’re sure they’re the same tracks as out here?” Hannibal asked in a concerned tone.
“Yes, it was big, feline, and went on four feet,” Nathanael stated as he stepped behind Hannibal to examine his neck, “Now to take a look at your neck, Hannibal.” After looking closely at Hannibal’s neck, Nathanael declared, “Selina was right. The feline grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and pulled you out of there like a kitten. I’ve never seen this sort of thing happen before. Cats of your planet only carry their offspring like that. All other times when they go after the neck, it’s to kill their prey.”
“That is Mondo strange,” Hannibal replied. “If a big cat really did find me in there and drag me out, why didn’t it just eat me? I was at its mercy because I was asleep.”
“I don’t know,” Nathanael stated, patting Hannibal on the shoulder. “This is definitely a new one on me. Regardless, you should pay close attention to your body in case this mystery cat infected you with something. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m feeling okay now that I’m not so freaked out,” Hannibal stated. “But now that you mention it, my neck does feel a little sore.”
“It could be from the cat dragging you. Nevertheless, keep a close eye on it,” Nathanael stated. “And let us know if it gets worse.”
“I will,” Hannibal stated. “But what about the paintings; did you see the paintings?”
Nathanael smiled broadly. “You did your father proud, Hannibal,” Nathanael stated. “It’s magnificent, and one of the most stunning examples of cave art I’ve ever encountered. The whole place is covered in paintings that are woven together into a story of a single event. Joshua seems to think it depicts the event that destroyed Amacia.”
“Did you see the guy in the painting that looks like me?” Hannibal asked with a slight tremor in his tone.
“I did,” Nathanael answered. “The resemblance is uncanny, and it looks exactly like the Caverias statue machine in the Zinzera Temple. But I cannot fathom how it could be you. Those paintings are at least ten thousand years old, maybe older if they truly date from the end of the 1st Age. I just can’t be sure without further investigation. I wish we had the proper equipment to record and analyze those images. It’s a first-hand account of what happened when Amacia fell. A full analysis of the paint may give us a date on when the painting was made.”
“I hear you,” Hannibal agreed. “But I don’t think our camera equipment would be able to record it. The digital equipment just doesn’t work down here and there’s not enough light to make the film pick up the paintings properly. I can only hope we can find some way to come back with enough light to record those images.”
“That can be arranged,” Joshua stated. “Now that I know of this secret cave, it can be marked on our maps and a marker can be left here at its entrance. Our scholars will be very interested in these paintings.”
“How’re you going to mark the entrance?” Selina asked.
“Vergil, get a hammer and chisel,” Joshua stated.
“Right, Joshua,” Vergil replied, rushing back to the encampment.
“We’ll carve a symbol here above the entrance, marking its location,” Joshua stated.
“I trust it’s a symbol known only to your people,” Nathanael surmised.
“It is,” Joshua answered as Vergil returned with a hammer and chisel, handing it to Joshua. “Only our people know the symbol.” At that, he chiseled a strange mark six inches in length resembling Japanese kanji on the wall above the entrance. After two minutes of hammering on the andesite granite wall, Joshua wiped the sweat from his brow with this sleeve. “There,” he said, “now we know where this strange painted cave is. Even if someone finds this mark, they’ll have trouble seeing the entrance. There’s a strange illusory property about this cave wall that perfectly camouflages the entrance.”
“Indeed,” Hannibal agreed. “Does anyone have any idea what time it is?”
“It’s a couple hours before dawn,” David stated. “We were just changing the watch when we found you missing.”
“Oh,” Hannibal replied as he pocketed the griffin amulet.
“I suggest you go back to your tent and get some more sleep,” Joshua stated. “We have a long ride ahead of us.”
“I think I will,” Hannibal answered. “And this time, I’m not following any ghost lights. I learned my lesson about doing that.”
Joshua smiled and patted Hannibal on the shoulder. “Good,” he chimed, leading everyone back the camp. Hannibal and Selina went into their tent where Hannibal promptly fell asleep in Selina’s arms.