Legends of Amacia: Path of the Ancients

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The Plains of Khitia

Hannibal awoke to the smell of meat cooking on the campfire an hour after dawn. He yawned and stretched, finding himself alone in his tent. Sensing Selina nearby, he sighed and pondered the strange night that had so rattled him. The griffin amulet came to mind and he fished it out of his pocket. Looking at the four-inch wide gold amulet emblazoned with an electronium griffin, he immediately noticed it wasn’t cold, but pleasantly warm. “Hmmm,” he murmured while lying there examining the amulet. “You’re an interesting find. But I wonder why you got so cold when I was in that cave. Only the lucky amulet my dad gave me ever did that.” For nearly five minutes, he mulled over the strange amulet while lying there. When his belly growled from smelling the breakfast cooking on the fire, Hannibal pocketed the griffin amulet and sat up.

Selina stepped into the tent as Hannibal sat up. “Finally awake I see,” she purred. “Go on and get dressed. Breakfast will be ready by time you’re ready.”

“Okay, princess,” Hannibal replied with a smile.

Selina retrieved her knife and walked out, blowing Hannibal a kiss as she left. Hannibal caught the kiss with a smile and proceeded to get dressed, donning his armor in the process. As he finished putting on his armor, Hannibal retrieved the griffin amulet from his pocket and put it around his neck, hiding it under his shimmering armor shirt.

Five minutes later, Hannibal stepped out of the tent and walked to the fire where everyone sat while a small boar roasted on a spit over the fire. “Mmmm…that smells really good,” Hannibal called out as he found a seat next to Selina. “Why the big meal?”

“We have a long ride across the plains of Khitia,” Joshua declared as David and Nathanael carved the succulent boar, portioning out helpings to everyone. “So I thought it would be good for us to have a decent breakfast before starting out. We’ll not have the luxury of stopping to do such things while on the plain. It’s too dangerous. We’ll need to move quickly, like the ghosts that lured you into that cave last night. I wonder whom that really was sitting in the cave. He was enormous. Legends speak of such giants existing during the Days of Darkness in the 1st Age.”

“I don’t know,” Hannibal replied as Nathanael handed him a plate with ample cuts of meat and some fruit resembling oranges on it. “I’m not even sure that I wasn’t hallucinating when that skeleton grabbed me by the throat. It and the ghost said the amulet I took was the seal of the King of Khitia. I just not sure I wasn’t dreaming or something.”

“I guess we’ll never really know,” Joshua stated before he started eating his portions. “But go on and eat up, everyone. You’ll need it for the ride.”

As they ate, Selina noticed that a large number of Joshua’s men were missing. Only David, Vergil, Zachias, Aragon, Timothy, and the five men guarding the horses when they first arrived remained. She also noticed a number of horses were missing as well. “Joshua…where are the rest of your men?” Selina asked. “I noticed they’re gone along with some of the horses.”

“They left just before dawn this morning,” Joshua stated. “I sent them out in four small groups taking different paths from ours so we wouldn’t be as apt to draw attention to ourselves when we move out. The Emperor’s troops have patrolled this part of Khitia since they sacked Amm Su and Solomon’s Passage. I was just being prudent. We have a much better chance of getting by the patrols with smaller groups. We’ll meet up with them back at Arionath.”

“Oh,” Selina murmured after swallowing some of her roast boar. “That sounds like a logical thing to do since we seem to be behind enemy lines.”

“That we are, Miss Selina,” Vergil chimed. “Fortunately, the Emperor’s troops haven’t located Stygian’s Way or this grotto. If we take the northern route, we should be okay.”

“I pray you’re right, Vergil,” Joshua stated. “We have precious little intelligence on the patrols, so we’re going to have to be very careful and quiet. We don’t want to run into one of their patrols as we did in Cariias on the surface. It’s better to be like ghosts in the wind.”

“Then that’s what we’ll be,” Hannibal stated. “I don’t want to run into them either. I’m sure if we keep a weather eye out, we’ll be able to avoid any unpleasant encounters with the Emperor’s people.”

“Let’s hope so,” Joshua stated.

“How far is Arionath from here?” Harry asked.

“It’s a full two day’s journey from here,” David announced. “Are we going to camp at the watchtower this evening, Joshua?”

“That’s the plan,” Joshua replied. “By time we reach the watchtower, darkness will be falling and we’ll need cover from the beasts. Besides, Khmer Shek is not the sort of pass you want to tackle in the dark after a day of hard riding.”

“It sounds like you have planned this out ahead of time,” Nathanael stated.

“We have,” Joshua stated after swallowing another mouthful of meat. “This journey has been planned for months ahead of time. But the Emperor threw a huge wrench into our plans when he sacked Khitia. Now, we have to be very careful if we don’t want to be seen by the Emperor or his people.”

“We will be,” Hannibal stated. “How soon are we moving out?”

“After we finish eating and break camp,” Joshua replied. “But don’t rush yourself. It would be best to relieve yourselves before we move out.”

“Got it,” Hannibal said with a smile. “Just let us know when you want to go. You’re in charge here.”

“Finish your breakfast,” Joshua ordered. “It won’t take long for us to get under way.” With that, they continued with their breakfast of roast boar, fruits, and water from the stream. They made small talk and Joshua introduced the five men who were guarding the horses when they first arrived the night before as Turner, Cole, Kwahu, Gilbert, and Rex. The five men told Hannibal and his team about themselves as they finished eating their breakfast. Hannibal and Selina like all of them because of their honesty, which both he and Selina could sense telepathically. A half hour later, they finished breakfast and began breaking camp. Joshua and David dowsed the fire and concealed the wreckage of the boar in the rocks outside of the cave while Vergil, Timothy, and Aragon finished breaking down the campsite. At the same time, Turner, Kwahu, Cole, Gilbert, and Rex gathered the twenty horses milling around outside the cave.

By time Turner, Kwahu, Cole, Gilbert, and Rex had fully equipped the horses, the campsite had been cleared. Joshua, David, Vergil, Timothy, and Aragon immediately went to assist with the horses as Hannibal and his team waited at the mouth of the cave with their gear.

“Hannibal,” Arabella called out as they waited.

“What is it, Arabella?” Hannibal replied, walking to her.

“I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t know how to ride a horse,” Arabella said, blushing in embarrassment. “I’ve never even been on a horse before.”

Hannibal chuckled. “That’s quite all right,” he chimed. “Why don’t you ride with John?”

Morrison heard the exchange between Arabella and Hannibal. “Yeah, you can ride with me,” Morrison agreed as Kwahu brought a horse to Morrison. “It’s not that big a deal.”

Hannibal walked over to Joshua, who handed him the reins of a horse. “Be careful,” Joshua warned. “This one is very spirited. She’ll run away with you if you’re not careful.”

Hannibal smiled and stroked the mare on the side of the face gently. “You won’t be a problem; will you girl?” he asked the horse, looking the mare in the eye. The brown and white mare the size of a Belgian draft horse lowed and bobbed her head, butting Hannibal gently.

“My word,” Joshua chimed. “I’ve never seen her take to a stranger so quickly. You must have a gift with animals.”

Hannibal chuckled as he patted the mare on the neck. “Could be my animal magnetism,” he said humorously. “Or it could be Selina rubbing off on me. She knows how to talk to animals.”

“Is that so,” Joshua replied with a raised eyebrow. “I’d like to see that.”

“Looks like you won’t have to wait long to see it,” Hannibal stated, pointing to Turner and Rex trying to lead a pair of horses to Selina and Nathanael.

“Oh, what beautiful horses,” Selina purred, seeing the brown and black horses being brought to her and Nathanael. The horses noticed that Nathanael and Selina weren’t human and began to fidget and throw their heads fearfully, refusing to come any closer to the two Lynxians.

Nathanael motioned to Turner and Rex to stop trying to pull the horses forward. “It’s okay,” he purred. “Don’t force them to come. We can come to them. Just hold them still.” Turner and Rex looked at each other for a moment and then smiled, nodding to Nathanael while trying to hold the horses steady.

Nathanael cooed and purred softly to the horses, slowly approaching his horse as the men tried to keep them calm. With soothing calls and purrs, Nathanael managed to calm the horse as he took the reins from Turner. He stroked the horse, reassuring him that he was not a threat to him. “That’s it; easy,” Nathanael cooed. “Good boy…I’m not going to hurt you. Good boy.” Turner looked on in awe and wonder as the giant cat mounted the horse. It bucked a little when he settled in the saddle. Some more calming purrs and strokes from Nathanael mastered the horse.

Selina went through the same procedure with her horse. Once she mounted the horse, she leaned down and stroked the side of its head, purring, “That’s a good girl. I just need a ride, that’s all.” The horse lowed and snorted, shaking its head gently as it submitted to Selina. Everyone marveled at how quickly Selina and Nathanael calmed and mastered their horses. Selina looked down at Rex, seeing his amazement and puzzlement. She flashed a disarming smile. “It’s an animal thing, like Hannibal said,” she purred, answering his unasked question. “And thank you for the beautiful horse. She’s a fine mare.” Rex smiled warmly and nodded. Selina urged her horse forward and stopped next to Hannibal as he mounted his horse.

Morrison asked Cracko to carry his pack so Arabella could ride with him. Cracko consented, putting Morrison’s pack on before mounting his own horse. Morrison handed his mace to Thomas before mounting his horse. After settling in the saddle, he reached down and took Arabella by the hand. With Ned’s assistance, Arabella swung up behind Morrison and latched on to him. Thomas handed Morrison his mace and then got on his own horse. Within seconds, everyone else was on horseback and ready to go.

“Is everything concealed?” Joshua called out from his horse.

“Yes, sir,” David answered. “The campsite has been cleansed and hidden. We’re ready to ride.”

“All right then,” Joshua called out. “Let’s get moving. Daylight’s wasting.” Thus, Hannibal and his team set out for Arionath with Joshua and their escort.

Joshua led them away from the grotto following the stream into a maze of deep narrow canyons that formed part of the cavern wall. A large shadowy figure with fur and four legs crouched high on the canyon wall, growling softly while eyeing the group as they moved through the canyons. Its ice-blue eyes stared intently as several of its smaller four-legged companions lurked along the canyon’s brim, watching the humans ride through the labyrinth of razor sharp rock. A rock tumbled down the side of the canyon as Joshua led everyone on. Hannibal noticed it and glanced up, seeing shadows moving along the rim of the canyon.

“We’re being shadowed,” Hannibal informed everyone as he noticed his mare and the other horses becoming nervous, snorting and looking around urgently. “The horses are aware of them too.”

“I know,” Joshua stated ominously. “I noticed them right after we started moving.”

“Hannibal,” Nathanael called out. “I smell that musky scent from the cave out here. It’s coming from above us where I noticed several large animals moving about.”

“Can you identify them?” Harry asked.

“No,” Nathanael answered. “They’re staying back for now, but they’re definitely watching us.”

“How many can you see?” Hannibal queried.

“I see about a dozen of them,” Selina reported. “And one of them is much larger than the others.”

“Keep your eyes open and stay alert,” Joshua ordered everyone. “It’s possible a pack of the giant wolves are stalking us, so be ready to move if they attack.”

“Right,” Hannibal stated, keeping a wary eye to the canyon rim several hundred feet above them.

“I hope they don’t come down here,” Arabella murmured fearfully.

“Don’t worry,” Morrison stated. “I’m not going to let them hurt you if they do.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Arabella,” Nathanael called out, overhearing Arabella’s comments. “I know predatory behavior when I see it. Whatever is up there isn’t acting that way. It seems to me they’re more curious about us than wanting to have us as a snack.”

“That’s good to hear,” Arabella said, the relief evident in her tone.

“Just keep moving, people,” Joshua ordered. “We’ll be okay if we just keep moving.” He led them on following the stream through the maze of canyons. A half-hour into their journey, the stream turned south, flowing into a crevice so narrow no one could follow it. However, the path Joshua followed continued in a westerly direction through a connecting gorge. For nearly an hour more, they moved through the dry canyons before coming out onto a plain of knee high grass, their shadowy escort having disappeared into the background. The plain rolled on for as far as the eye could see as a warm breeze blew across the land, making the grass wave. Far in the distance to their west high in the air, Hannibal and his team noticed what they thought were birds gliding on thermals as they moved on across the plain at a brisk pace. To the north stood the cavern wall, rising out of sight with mountainous piles of debris at its base. To the south, the plain rolled on into the distance without any apparent end. In the direction they rode…west, a ridge rose out of the plain. It butted into the wall of the cavern and ran across their line of sight off into the distance to the south. The ridge was rocky and jagged; its peaks covered in eternal snows. Shortly after emerging from the maze of canyons at Stygian’s Way, Joshua led them onto an ancient road that cut westward across the plain like a scar. Hannibal instantly noticed the road because of its crowned nature and for the smaller growth on it compared to the grasses either side of it.

“Is this a road?” Thomas called out as they rode.

“It seems so,” Hannibal replied. Turning to Joshua as they rode on, he asked, “What do you know about this road we’re on, Joshua? It’s as big as a superhighway on the surface.”

“You noticed that this was a road?” Joshua queried.

“Yeah,” Hannibal stated. “I noticed it because of the way it’s shaped and how the growth on it is much shorter than that off to either side. What can you tell us about it? Are there roads like this everywhere?”

“According to legend, roads like this used to crisscross the lands of Amacia, linking the major cities and towns,” Joshua stated. “Now, only the largest of the roads, such as this one and the Road of Perdition leading to the Emperor’s domain remain visible. Though, as you can see, not much of it is left that can be seen, and the vestiges of it will periodically be swallowed by the terrain. You’ll notice this as we ride on.”

“I’m sure we will,” Hannibal stated. “The road we followed to Skull Pass and into the canyon where we met did the same thing. Occasionally, it would vanish only to reemerge some distance away. It made following it a challenge.”

“That’s true,” Joshua said as his horse snorted softly. “The Kragonar and the thousands of cycles of neglect have made the roads here very difficult to find and follow. Not many of us have the skills to see and follow them.”

“Do you know where this road leads?” Hannibal asked.

“This road runs across the northern portions of Khitia through the city of Karac and over the Wall at Khmer Shek,” Joshua reported. “We know it descends into the Forests of Kasa Bek from Khmer Shek, but it becomes lost in the undergrowth of the forest. You’ll see this when we enter Kasa Bek.”

“I’m sure it’s there,” Hannibal replied. “It’s probably no more than a path like the one that led us here. Forests have a nasty habit of doing that to roads. Out here in the open, there isn’t as much to disturb the road’s structure, making it easier to find.”

“That’s an interesting thought,” Joshua said with an impressed grunt. “I take it you have much experience in finding such things.”

“I have some,” Hannibal stated modestly. “As an archaeologist who studies the remnants of ancient cultures, I’ve become quite adept at noticing things such as this road.”

“I’m sure you have,” Joshua replied.

Turning to Thomas, Hannibal asked, “Does that answer your question, Thomas?”

“Quite,” Thomas answered, smiling.

For several hours they rode, approaching the ridge without seeing any appreciable wildlife. The only things they saw were strange solitary animals that resembled large prairie dogs standing almost four feet tall on their back legs watching the group move by at a distance. The group also noticed birds floating high up far to their west. Just as Joshua had told them, the road periodically disappeared into the terrain only to reappear farther on.

After three hours of travel, they entered the ruins of a huge city that had been deserted for tens of thousands of years. Most of the architecture had been destroyed; cast down in heaps and partially buried in the dirt of the plain. Partial walls of enormous buildings rose from some of the mounds surrounding them. Giant statues lay broken, eroded faces half buried in the plain. Hannibal looked at Selina as they moved slowly among the ruins with their horses. She smiled, saying telepathically to Hannibal, You’re a kid in a candy store, aren’t you?

Hannibal smiled warmly at her, and then rode up beside Joshua. “What was this place, Joshua?” Hannibal asked.

“According to the writings, this was the great city of Karac…the capital of Khitia,” Joshua reported. “It was once the flower of this whole region…a great center of learning and healing. Its gleaming towers shined like a jewels sparkling in the sunlight. This city was fabled to have learning and healing machines that were almost godlike in power. It was supposed to have been the seat of all knowledge in the world. The city was completely destroyed in the days just before the Kragonar by a great earthquake that legend says leveled it in an hour. I don’t know much more than that. Nicodemus knows much more about such things than I. He can tell you much more about it than I.”

“Kragonar…what’s that?” Hannibal queried Joshua. “This is the third time I’ve heard you mention it. I just want to be sure I understand what you’re saying.”

“It’s the event that ended the 1st Age and buried this land in this grave,” Joshua replied. “It’s apparently what’s depicted in that secret painted cave you were lured into last night. It is the Calamity from the Sky the writings speak of.”

“Oh, okay,” Hannibal murmured, pondering Joshua’s words.

They rode on through the ruins that stretched for twenty-five miles. “This place is eerie,” Arabella commented. “It’s like something out of a fairy tale.”

“I’m forced to agree with you on that,” Morrison stated. “This city is unlike any I’ve ever seen before. How on earth did they build with such huge blocks of stone?”

“I’d like to know that too,” Ned called out while riding beside Morrison and Arabella. “Some of these stones are the size of houses. What kind of technology allowed them to do such a thing?”

“It’s obviously something far beyond what we have available,” Thomas stated. “Just look at the precision the stones are cut with. They’re perfect and look like they were cut just yesterday. How can that be? What do you think, Nathanael? You’re the resident expert on high technology here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Nathanael answered as his horse trotted along beside Thomas. “Kaitians did have what you would consider advanced technology, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what I’m seeing here. Even my people didn’t have the ability to work stone on this magnitude. We fashioned much of our architecture from metals and artificial stone, much like the concrete you use on this planet. These stones are not artificially made. They were hewn from the living rock; cut with tools that barely left any kind of marks at all. Moreover, many of these stones are andesitic diorite…one of the hardest types of stone on your planet. The only thing harder is diamond, which I suspect may have been used to quarry and shape these colossal stones.”

“Whoa,” Jonathan murmured while riding beside Ned. “That’s really impressive. But there’s something about this place that doesn’t feel right. I feel like something has been watching us since we entered the city. It’s making me a little antsy.”

“I must agree,” Nathanael stated. “I’ve felt the same thing, but whatever it is doesn’t seem too concerned about us right now. Who knows? Maybe it’s one of those birds floating in the distance watching us?”

“Could be,” Sam stated; jumping into the conversation as his horse walked a few paces behind Thomas’ horse. “Then again, it could just be the size of this place playing tricks on us.”

“It’s possible,” Nathanael stated, “But we should always keep an eye out for trouble. We’re in uncharted territory here.”

“So true,” Hannibal called back to them, looking back at the group from his horse after hearing Nathanael’s comment. “We’re definitely off the map here deep in uncharted territory. Keeping an eye open for trouble is always a good idea.” Everyone agreed to keep an eye open as their chatter subsided while they rode on through the ancient megalithic city.

Two-and-a-half hours later, they rode past the crumbled outer wall of the megalithic city. Joshua immediately noticed some small scrub trees to the right just down a gentle hill. His eagle eye spied a pool and a small stream running out of the side of the hill at the trees. “Everyone this way,” Joshua called out, directing his horse towards the water.

“I smell water,” Nathanael declared.

“Me too,” Selina agreed. “It’s coming from those trees Joshua is heading towards.”

In two minutes, the party stopped by a small rock-lined pool with scrub trees growing around it. Water ran out of the pool and gurgled down the hill in a small stream two feet wide and three inches deep running in a crease in the hill. “We’ll take a break here for lunch,” Joshua ordered. “Let me check this water before we let the horses drink.” He dismounted his horse and cautiously approached the pool as Hannibal took the reins of Joshua’s horse to keep it under control.

Nathanael got off his horse and tied it up to one of the trees below the pool. He walked to the pool as Joshua leaned down to smell the water. “Is it okay?” Nathanael asked, squatting down beside what appeared to be a spring box six foot square and three feet deep. Looking into the clear water, Nathanael saw water bubbling up through the sand in the bottom in several places with enough pressure it stirred the pool’s surface.

“It smells okay,” Joshua stated. “And it was okay the last time we stopped here, but that may have changed. With the Emperor and his minions patrolling Khitia, we can’t be too careful.”

“I understand,” Nathanael stated. “You’re worried he may have poisoned this spring, aren’t you?”

“We have to be vigilant,” Joshua stated, dipping his finger in the water and tasting it. “The Emperor is notorious for destroying anything that could allow people to be independent of him.” After tasting it, he said, “It’s okay. Try some, Nathanael.”

Nathanael dipped his finger in the water and tasted it. “Mmmm,” he murmured. “It’s definitely clean. I don’t taste any impurities, only the abundant minerals dissolved in this water from the rock it’s running through. It’s good water everyone; very refreshing.”

“Let the horses drink from the stream,” Joshua ordered as everyone dismounted their horses.

“Don’t stray too far from the group. We’re far from safe here. We’ll move out in an hour.”

In moments, the group tied up their mounts to the trees next to the stream so the horses could drink from the gurgling brook. Hannibal stroked his mare’s neck as it drank from the stream. “That’s a good girl. Drink up. You’ve earned it,” he said softly. The horse lifted its head and gently lowed, butting Hannibal playfully. Hannibal rubbed its nose with a smile. “Joshua was right,” he chimed. “You are a spirited one, aren’t you?” The mare snorted and licked Hannibal on the face before returning to drinking.

Selina chuckled when she saw the horse kiss Hannibal. “She’s grown attached to you,” Selina stated as she walked up. “I hope she’s doesn’t get too jealous of me.”

Hannibal continued to stroke his mare’s neck and shoulder. “I hope not,” he said, smiling warmly. “She can’t compete with you.”

Selina stroked Hannibal’s mare gently, getting its attention. It lifted its head, looking Selina in the eye as she stood next to Hannibal. “You’re such a beautiful girl, too,” Selina murmured. “I hope you’re not jealous of me and Hannibal.” The mare blinked and snorted as Selina rubbed the horse under the chin. “Such a good girl you are,” Selina praised. “You take good care of Hannibal, okay?” The horse lowed and gently butted Selina before returning to drinking from the stream. “You have a real spirited mare here,” Selina declared. “She’s not threatened or jealous of me.”

“How can you tell?” Hannibal asked, unable to contain his amazement.

Selina smiled wryly and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s an animal thing,” she stated. “You should know that by now.”

“I guess I should,” Hannibal agreed as he and Selina walked to the pool where the others were gathered eating a portion of their rations. “This is such a beautiful place too. And as strange as it sounds, I’ve been here before.”

“So have I,” Selina whispered as the pair sat down with the rest of the group to eat lunch. She squeezed Hannibal’s hand as they sat down, flashing him a confident knowing smile.

For the next forty-five minutes, they ate a quick lunch while resting and keeping a weather eye on the surroundings for trouble. A cool, but pleasant breeze blew from the mountains to the west as they sat making small talk while eating.

Fifty minutes after sitting down to eat their lunch, the wind died and a cold chill raced down Hannibal’s spine, causing him to look around urgently. “What is it?” Selina asked, noticing his sudden change in temperament as the horses became restless.

“Something’s wrong,” Hannibal murmured as he stood up. “Something’s amiss. There’s a peculiar scent in the air that smells strangely familiar. I think we should get moving.”

“I smell it too,” Nathanael confirmed. “It’s a musky scent coming from the city and it does smell familiar. I think it’s the same scent we smelled at the secret cave you discovered and in the canyons. I think something is watching us, maybe even stalking us. Even the horses are sensing it. We should definitely get moving.”

“That’s enough reason for me,” Joshua stated. “Everyone, mount up.” In two minutes, they were galloping away from the spring following the road again.

Selina glanced back toward the walls of Karac as she rode, seeing something large on four legs stalking along the crumbled wall with two smaller companions. However, because of the distance, she couldn’t clearly make out what it was. “Yah,” Selina called out, urging her horse on.

Twenty minutes later, Hannibal asked, “Can you still smell it, Nathanael?”

“No,” Nathanael answered as they galloped. “It’s gone now. It’s okay to slow down now.” With that, Joshua slowed the group down to a brisk trot as they headed for the mountain ahead of them, which rose nearly fourteen thousand feet above the plain with its crown clad in eternal snows. Thirty minutes after leaving the spring, they encountered a partially collapsed bridge eight feet across spanning a two hundred foot wide river.

Joshua stopped the party and ordered, “Everyone get off your horses and lead them across the bridge one at a time.”

Hannibal dismounted, examining the bridge with more than casual scrutiny as the rest of the group got off their horses. “Hmm,” he murmured. “It’s seen its better days. How safe is the bridge, Joshua?”

“It’s crumbling,” Joshua reported. “Every time we come this way, more of it has fallen into the river. As long as we don’t put a lot of weight on it, it should hold. But keep your eyes open for soft spots that could give way. It’s a good thirty cubits to the water.”

“Why not just ford the river if it’s not safe?” Thomas asked.

Hannibal scanned the river channel, instantly seeing the riverbank consisted of sheer wall of colossal set stones laid to channel the river. The riverbank walls stretched to the horizon in both directions. “Because there’s no way to get across it, Thomas,” he declared. “This river has been channeled. The banks are solid rock with no way to get down to the water. How far does this channeling go, Joshua?”

“We’d have to go five leagues up or down the river before we encounter natural river banks,” Joshua reported. “That’s why we go this way. It’s the quickest and safest way to get to Arionath. If we go upstream, we get into the territory of the giant wolves and if we go south, we chance encountering the Emperor’s troops. This is the only way across that won’t cost of days of travel through hostile territory.”

“Oh, just asking,” Thomas answered.

“It’s quite all right,” Joshua stated. “Now, let’s get moving. I’ll go first. Wait for me to cross before anyone else comes.”

“Right,” Hannibal replied as Joshua started across the bridge.

A couple of minutes later, Joshua reached the other side and waved. “Looks like he got through all right,” Nathanael observed.

“Yeah,” Hannibal agreed, “but let’s do as he says and go across one at a time. Selina, you go next.”

Selina nodded and led her horse across the crumbling bridge without incident. Once she made it and waved, the rest of the party made the trek one at a time across the bridge to the west bank of the river. Forty minutes later, Rex followed Hannibal across as the last one across. He picked his way carefully across the bridge. Hannibal watched from the bank with a sinking feeling in his belly as Rex stepped lightly. When Rex came within fifty feet of the shore where everyone waited, a low groan echoed from every direction, followed by an ominous rumble. The horses became very antsy and agitated, making it difficult for their riders to control them. “Oh, shit,” Hannibal growled as the ground started trembling, shaking the bridge and everything for miles. “It’s an earthquake! Run Rex!” Rex’s horse panicked and bolted for the shore, leaving him behind.

Rex sprinted as the shaking became so violent the bridge broke in the center, collapsing behind him. Fifteen feet from the shore, the collapsing bridge caught up to him, forcing him to take a running leap for the shore. The jump came up short, leaving him dangling on the rock wall ten feet below the lip of the road.

“Rex!” Joshua cried in horror, seeing Rex falling.

Hannibal rushed to the lip of the bridge with Joshua, looking down. Rex hung there by his fingers on a spur of the broken bridge ten feet down the side. The quake ended just as they looked over the edge. “Help!” Rex screamed in fear.

“Someone get a rope!” Joshua ordered.

“Hold on, Rex,” Hannibal called out as Nathanael rushed up with a stout rope from his supplies. “Can you move?”

“No,” Rex answered in a panic. “If I move, I drop. I’m hanging on by my fingernails here and I’m starting to slip.”

“Where’s that rope?” Hannibal barked.

“Here,” Nathanael said, quickly unrolling the rope and handing the end to Hannibal.

“Wait,” Selina called out. “I’ve got this.” She took the rope and tied herself off. “Don’t drop me, okay?” she insisted.

“Not a chance,” Nathanael stated as he, Hannibal, Harry, and Joshua got on the rope and lowered Selina over the side. She clambered down the rock wall effortlessly, holding on with her claws. Rex stared in wonder as Selina scurried down to him as if she were a monkey in a tree.

Just as Rex started to slip, Selina pounced, grabbing him about the waist. “I got you,” she purred in his ear. “Okay dad, pull us up!”

Nathanael, Hannibal, Harry, and Joshua pulled on the rope, hauling Rex and Selina to safety.

Once they reached solid ground, Selina rolled off Rex and looked at him. “Are you okay?” she asked, sitting up.

“You saved my life,” Rex breathed, “Thank you, milady.”

“You’re very welcome,” Selina purred, helping him sit up. “I’m always happy to help out a friend in need.”

Rex looked Selina in the eye for a moment, and then offered his hand. “You have a friend in me forever, milady,” Rex declared. “If you ever need me, just call.”

Selina smiled and hugged Rex, to his surprise and delight. “I know,” she purred, patting him on the back. “Now shall we get moving again?”

“Let’s,” Rex chimed as Selina let go of him. In moments, both of them were on their feet.

Selina untied the rope around her waist and returned it to Nathanael. Hannibal patted her on the shoulder. “Nicely done, princess,” he congratulated. “You made a friend there.”

“I made many friends with this rescue,” Selina purred, looking at Joshua’s men who were smiling at her.

“I had no idea you were so strong and agile, milady,” Joshua declared. “You grabbed Rex like he was a child and kept him from falling.”

“It’s because I’m a Lynxian,” Selina replied, matter-of-fact. “The gravity of our planet is much higher than yours, so our strength is amplified by your low gravity.”

“I suspect there’s more to it than that,” David stated. “Your skills showed very well with this rescue.”

“True,” Selina answered. “But maybe we could speak of this when we’re in a safer place. Do you have quakes down here like this all the time?”

“Not as often as you think,” Joshua stated as the rest of the party gathered around with their horses. “In fact, this area is not frequented by quakes like the Blister Fields are. This is the first quake we’ve had in this area in twenty or more cycles.”

“Something is happening,” Hannibal said soberly, “something evil. I got that bad feeling in the pit of my stomach just before the quake. I think someone or something may be trying to get our attention.”

“It’s possible,” Joshua admitted. “I put nothing past the Cadre, but let’s not dwell on that now. We still have a long way to go yet. Come, let’s mount up and get moving.”

“I’m all for that,” Hannibal agreed. In minutes, they mounted their horses and headed west along the road away from the now completely collapsed bridge to Karac. Twenty minutes later, the party found themselves moving through a seemingly endless field of wildflowers of every conceivable color. The exotic beauty of the field of flowers stifled conversation as Hannibal and his team basked in the perfumed aroma of wildflowers not seen on the surface in thousands of years. Strange-looking wildlife began to show as they rode on. Giant hares nearly as big as bobcats looked on as they rode. Herds of enormous antelope the size of draft horses grazed on the plain as they rode by. Flocks of strange, exotic birds flew over the plain and, on occasion, what appeared to be giant birds of prey were spotted in the distance gliding high on thermals. The giant birds ranged in sizes from that of the South American condor up. Even pterodactyls and pteronadons glided on the thermals with the giant birds of prey. On one occasion, they saw a pact of giant wolves the size of Bengal tigers in the distance feeding on a kill of one of the strange antelopes.

Nathanael and Selina literally absorbed their new surroundings as they rode, taking note of everything they saw, felt, and smelt. Hannibal’s team pointed at the various animals with fearful fascination as they rode on. Within four hours of leaving the broken bridge on the outskirts of Karac, they approached another set of ruins sitting perched on a high bluff at the base of the ridge overlooking the plain. The ruins appeared to be what was left of a small fortress or tower that stood on the bluff seventy feet over the plain.

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