Hannibal tossed and turned in his sleep deep in the night. Strange dreams plagued his consciousness as he slept in his tent. Some were no more than images and events flashing briefly through his consciousness before melting away into the darkness. Strange figures and equations flashed through his head like ghosts, interrupting his rest. Fragmented memories of the Trials at the Circle of Hammunaptra intruded into his dreams along with images from the secret painted cave he found at Stygian’s Way. At 2:00 am, all the images, events, figures, and equations flashing through his sleeping mind coalesced into an eerie dream that bordered on nightmarish.
Hannibal heard a voice calling in the darkness as he slept. “Beowulf…Beowulf,” the voice called softly.
Opening his eyes when he heard the voice, Hannibal sat up, looking around in his tent. Without warning, he started floating upwards until he saw both himself and Selina asleep on the ground. “What the hell?” he whispered, floating like a ghost over his own body. Looking closely at his body, he saw it still breathing. “This is really strange,” he muttered. “Why am I looking down at my own body?”
“Beowulf,” the voice called again. “Beowulf.” The mysterious voice echoed softly in his ears.
“Who are you?” Hannibal called out, feeling the voice was familiar.
“Come, Beowulf,” the voice beckoned. “Come to me.”
In the blink of an eye, Hannibal found himself hovering above a massive ruined fortress on a butte in the middle of a vast sea of dunes. “What on earth?” he whispered, looking down on the ruined fortress…a fortress that seemed incredibly familiar, like the voice.
“Come to me,” the voice echoed softly in the wind.
Hannibal floated down to the fortress, landing in the courtyard where the ruined walls lay toppled and the keep had an enormous hole broken in its side. “What am I doing here?” he asked no one. “And why does this place seem so familiar?”
“Come,” the voice echoed in his ear. “Follow my voice to your answers.”
Hannibal walked toward the keep, following the familiar voice. As he approached the keep, his innate ability to sense danger pegged off the scale. Hannibal stopped outside the gaping hole in the side of the keep. “Something’s wrong here,” he murmured, “very wrong.”
“Come inside,” the voice said.
“No,” Hannibal answered bluntly with a hint of fear in his tone. “You come out. Show yourself. I’m not going a step farther until I know what I’m dealing with.”
A floating orb of light appeared in the darkness of the hole along with the clattering of armor. Hannibal backed away from the keep as the orb grew larger the closer it came. The noise of armor clanking increased in volume. A lump formed in Hannibal’s throat as his feet suddenly became frozen to the ground, making moving impossible. “What’s this?” he asked as an icy fear penetrated his mind. “Why can’t I move?” Chills raced down his spine as sweat beaded on his brow.
“Be calm, my son,” a familiar feminine voice called from the light. “It’s not us you should be worried about. Alien evils infest my resting place to make sure I never awaken.” In the same instant, the ghostly form of Leila Karac in armor appeared from the orb of light. A twelve-foot tall giant skeleton with samurai-style armor clattered into the opening beside Leila wielding a huge sword with a five and a half foot blade, two-foot long handle, and a dragon hilt and pummel. Strange glowing lights lit the eye sockets of the giant skeletal warrior as it held the sword with its point down toward the ground. Hannibal could see the dried blood splashed on the armor along with several large punctures in the armored chest-plate of the skeletal warrior.
“Oh, my god,” Hannibal breathed in astonished fear, unable to move. “I must be dreaming. Wake up, Hannibal. Wake up!”
“Relax, my friend,” Leila cooed. “You’re in no danger of us.”
“What do you want?” Hannibal asked tensely. “Why did you summon me here to this desolate place, Leila?”
“You must remember,” Leila replied. “Remember your promise to me, Hannibal.”
When Leila called Hannibal by his real name, she had his whole attention. “What promise?” he asked. “You keep haunting me and telling me to remember; remember what, Leila? What is it that I’m supposed to remember? Why is it that I know you, yet don’t remember ever seeing anyone remotely like you?”
“You truly don’t remember, do you?” Leila asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” Hannibal admitted. “All I have is an instinct about who you were. As God is my witness, I have no recollection of you at all.”
“Your mind is fragmented, Beowulf,” the giant skeletal warrior spoke in a raspy voice that also seemed familiar to Hannibal. “Heal your mind. Find the pieces and heal your mind. Remember the Black Anomaly, open its secrets, and you’ll remember your promise to us. When the pieces lead you back to this place, be wary for this fortress is a nest of alien horrors with a tentacled demon of ancient power guarding Leila’s resting place. Lo…the alien horrors come.” The skeletal warrior clattered out of the hole and pointed up the wall of the keep with its sword.
No sooner than the giant warrior had pointed, Hannibal first heard a familiar clicking of many legs and hissing, and then he saw a swarm of giant spiders same as those he encountered in Tiamat crawling down the side of the keep. “Oh, god no,” Hannibal whispered in horror as the spiders advanced, “not them again; anything but them!”
The giant skeletal warrior pointed his sword at Hannibal, its eyes glowing brightly. “Go, my friend, and remember your promises to us,” the skeletal warrior ordered.
“Remember us,” Leila urged, pointing at Hannibal with two fingers as one of the spiders jumped off the side of the keep with the intention of eating Hannibal.
All Hannibal could see was a giant red and black spider dropping on top of him when he heard a crackling sound with the ground giving way beneath him. The spider, the fortress, Leila, and the skeletal giant vanished in an instant as Hannibal fell into the darkness with a cry. Hannibal fell through the void for what seemed like an eternity.
A flash of light briefly chased away the darkness, revealing an enormous towering black basalt fortress surrounded by a moat of lava in a megalithic city. A colossal volcano rose behind the black tower in the distance, spewing ash and lava constantly. Flying draken-like creatures with long necks and riders clad in black glided around the enormous Black Fortress. The ghostly image of the Black Prince appeared in the side of the Black Fortress, taking up its entire face. “You cannot escape your destiny, Beowulf. Your soul is mine,” the Black Prince hissed as the volcano behind the Black Fortress flashed with an immense explosion, driving the horrid image of the Black Prince and his Fortress away. Hannibal cried out in fear, crossing his arms in front of his face to block the explosion as he continued to fall into the darkness.
A second flash illuminated the darkness as Hannibal fell through what appeared to be some kind of swirling portal in the dark. In an instant, Hannibal fell into blue sky just offshore of an unknown island with a mile-high tower of polished red granite crowned with spires and a crystal pyramid. The tower sat on the point of an island in a sea unknown to Hannibal as if it were a giant lighthouse. As he fell toward the rocks and sea at the base of the cliff beneath the tower, a beam of light sprang from the tower, swallowing Hannibal in a light so bright he was blinded.
Lost in the light as he continued to fall, Hannibal heard another strange voice…one he’d not heard before. “Beowulf,” the voice called. “You are not alone. We’re watching and waiting for you. Come to us.”
The light suddenly went out, plunging Hannibal into the dark again. The sense of falling increased as the void lightened enough for him to see that he was surrounded by a pack of giant wolves led by a saber-toothed tiger twice the size of a rhinoceros. Hannibal’s eyes grew wide with terror as the tiger pounced. Just before the cat reached Hannibal, a light flashed and Hannibal snapped awake in an instant with a gasp, bolting to a sitting position, and clenching his chest in fright. His heart pounded wildly as he looked around the tent in a panic. The camp fire outside cast just enough light to allow Hannibal to see dimly inside the tent. When he realized he was awake, he sobbed softly covering his eyes with his hands. In seconds, he felt someone embrace him from behind, purring softly.
“Bad dreams again?” Selina whispered in his ear from behind; her arms wrapped around him with her hands locked across his chest.
Hannibal calmed down and grasped her hands. “Yeah…very bad,” he whimpered. “It was Leila again. But it was different this time. I saw her in a fortress on top of a butte in a desert somewhere. I was also attacked by one of those giant spiders like we killed at Tiamat. I thought it had me when it jumped me, but the ground gave way before it could eat me. I was scared out of my mind. Then I saw the Black Fortress in a blistering volcanic waste surrounded by a megalithic city with the largest volcano I’ve ever encountered rising behind the fortress. The Black Prince’s face seemed to rise out of the side of the fortress as I fell, taunting me. The volcano exploded and I fell into the abyss again. There was a flash in the dark and I saw a beautiful emerald green island with an enormous tower of red granite on it. I fell past the tower and a light swallowed me. A voice from the light told me I wasn’t alone. Then I was surrounded by a pack of those giant wolves that was being led by a huge saber-toothed tiger. It pounced at me and I woke up. What in heaven’s name is going on here, Selina? I’m so scared I’m shaking.”
“I don’t know,” Selina replied solemnly, feeling him tremble as she held him. “Maybe you should go get some fresh air.”
“That sounds really good right now,” Hannibal murmured. Selina let go of him as he pulled his boots on. She slipped her boots on too as he stepped out of the tent. Hannibal breathed deeply of the cool clean air and sighed deeply. Stepping out of the keep and looking around, he saw Timothy, Vergil, Cole, and Rex at the fire, keeping watch.
They both noticed Hannibal come out. “Is something wrong, Hannibal?” Vergil asked. “You look a bit spooked.”
“No,” Hannibal said softly. “Only some bad dreams; I just need some air. That’s all.”
“Okay,” Vergil replied. “Just don’t wander off too far. Khitia is known for its predators, many of which happen to be nocturnal.”
“I won’t go far. I promise,” Hannibal stated, walking over to the edge of the ruined east battlements. He looked out over the darkened plain of Khitia and immediately noticed the dark sky sparkled with star-like points of light.
Selina walked up beside him held his hand. “Oh, my,” she purred. “Those look like stars, but they can’t be stars. We’re underground. I wonder what causes this strange phenomenon.”
“It’s hard to tell,” Hannibal said softly. “Maybe those stars are crystals glowing in the roof of the cavern. On the other hand, maybe it’s caused by the same phenomenon that creates daylight here. I can’t answer that. But whatever causes it, it’s beautiful and it’s calming me down.”
“That it is,” Selina agreed. “It makes me think everything will work out.”
“I hope so,” Hannibal murmured as he and Selina sat down on the battlements to look at the miracle of the night sky in the caverns. After ten minutes of looking at the glittering sky of the caverns, Hannibal said, “I need to take a leak. I’ll be right back.”
“Be careful,” Selina cautioned. “I feel like something is watching us.”
“Me too,” Hannibal agreed as he stood. “I’ll be right over there.” He pointed to the left in the shadows where a seven-foot thick piece of the toppled wall sat.
Selina nodded and watched as he walked into the shadows behind the piece of the wall. She kept her senses at high alert as the feeling of being watched grew on her. “What’s going on here?” she murmured. “Something’s amiss but what is it? What’s happening here, Lord?”
Once in the shadows behind the crumbled piece of wall, Hannibal relieved himself. As he zipped his pants after taking a leak, his ability to sense danger pegged off the scale as a strong musky scent assaulted his nostrils. A soft, rumbling growl filled his ears as he looked up, seeing an enormous saber-toothed tiger crouched on a block of stone six feet thick off to his left. The cat was twice the size of the largest rhinoceros on the planet. Hannibal’s eyes grew wide as a gasp escaped his lips, freezing. “Oh, my god,” he breathed as he stared into the cat’s ice-blue eyes set in a head forty inches across. Twin canine fangs eighteen inches long hung down from its upper jaw, dwarfing its other seven-inch long teeth. Its paws spanned sixteen inches with eight-inch retractable claws that sat extended, gripping the edge of the stone block it sat on.
At the same moment, Selina smelled the scent and bolted to her feet, crying, “Hannibal!” She rushed into the shadows and saw Hannibal standing nose to nose with a saber-toothed tiger twice the size of a rhinoceros. “Hannibal!” Selina shouted in great concern.
“Don’t move, Selina,” Hannibal ordered fearfully. “He’ll kill anyone that approaches us.”
Selina’s sudden urgent shout and move brought Timothy, Cole, Vergil, and Rex to her assistance. They stopped dead in their tracks beside Selina as they saw Hannibal and the big cat. “Oh, my god,” Rex breathed. “That’s the largest saber cat I’ve ever seen! What do we do?”
“Nobody move; it’ll kill anyone who approaches,” Hannibal ordered as his fear of the big cat waned when it didn’t attack. “Something strange is going on here. This is no ordinary cat. He’s highly intelligent.”
By now, the shouts had brought everyone out and they made a perimeter between Hannibal and the camp with their weapons drawn. “Are you okay, son?” Nathanael called out.
“For the moment, yes,” Hannibal stated, not taking his eyes off the giant saber-toothed cat. “He hasn’t eaten me yet, so that’s good. But I strongly suggest you put your weapons away. It’s making the cat nervous.”
“Do as he says everyone,” Nathanael ordered, throwing his executioner’s blade down. “He’s right. Brandishing our weapons is making the cat nervous and agitated. I can see that now.” Reluctantly, everyone threw their weapons down as the cat looked at them with a grimace and low, ominous growl.
Addressing the giant saber-toothed tiger, Hannibal said cautiously, “Relax…no one’s going to attack you. So what now, big boy; it’s your move. You got the drop on me. What do you want?”
The cat grimaced with a deep growl as it turned back to Hannibal, blowing its foul breath into his face. Hannibal held his breath to keep from gagging on the cat’s bad breath. “Oh, man,” Hannibal chided softly. “You really should chew on some mint or something after eating. Your breath is terrible.”
The cat raised its head and canted it slightly to the right as if intrigued by Hannibal’s declaration. This action showed Hannibal the cat understood him. “You understand me, don’t you?” he asked the cat.
The cat blinked and abruptly licked Hannibal in the face before darting over the wall as if it didn’t exist. Hannibal stared in amazement as the saber-toothed tiger stopped on top of the north wall and roared as if it were the King of Khitia. Its roar echoed across the plain and seconds later, dozens of wolf howls answered the roar from the distance around the ruined fortress from all directions. The giant saber-toothed tiger looked down at Hannibal with a growl and jumped off the wall to the outside.
A collective sigh of relief issued from everyone present, including Hannibal. Selina rushed to his side as he wiped the cat saliva off his face with his sleeve. “Are you okay, Hannibal?” she asked while everyone gathered around.
“Yeah,” Hannibal stated, numbed emotionally by the encounter. “I think so. He caught me completely by surprise. I didn’t even know he was there until I smelled him. I’ve never had anything sneak up on me like that before. It’s unsettling.”
“I’ll say,” Joshua agreed. “That’s easily the largest saber cat I’ve ever seen. He must be the granddaddy of all of them. It’s a wonder that cat didn’t eat you. Any idea of why he didn’t eat you?”
“Not a clue,” Hannibal admitted. “But I have the distinct impression that this cat may have been the one that had me dragged from the secret cave with the paintings.”
“It may be,” Nathanael stated. “That’s definitely the same scent we encountered in the cave, in the canyons, and outside Karac. This cat has been following you ever since we left the cave this morning. But I can’t figure out why for the life of me he didn’t kill you. He’s obviously the alpha predator of these parts just from his sheer size. Something really strange is going on here.”
“No arguments on that,” Hannibal agreed. “I don’t know what’s going on here. But I know I dreamed of that cat just before I came out here.”
“You’re kidding,” Arabella stated in amazement.
“No, I’m not,” Hannibal stated. “But in the dream, it led a pack of those giant wolves and pounced on me. I woke up just before it got me. It’s why I was out here to begin with. I needed some fresh air to calm down from the dream. Man…I wish this crazy shit would stop happening to me.”
Nathanael patted Hannibal on the shoulder. “There must be a reason for this,” he told Hannibal. “But right now, I can’t say for sure what it is. That cat wasn’t acting in a predatory manner. It was obviously checking you out.”
“But why?” David asked. “I know from experience that a saber cat always kills when it goes after something, whether it be animal or human.”
“I don’t have the answer,” Nathanael admitted. “But I’m sure we’ll find out eventually why this cat seemingly marked Hannibal like this.”
“I hope it’s not as his meal for later,” Arabella declared. “I don’t want to see Hannibal killed and eaten by that beast.”
“It’s not a beast,” Hannibal stated. “And I don’t think it ever meant to harm me. This cat is extremely intelligent and seemed to understand me when I spoke to it. That indicates there’s something else going on here other than hunting. It actually reminded me of the time outside Tiamat when we met that tiger. That tiger acted in a very similar way to what I just saw here. Maybe this saber cat was just checking me out to see if I were friend or foe. For now, I just don’t know. I was so scared that I couldn’t really use my telepathy to tell.”
“Regardless of that, we must be extra careful from now on,” Joshua stated grimly. “We now know for sure we’re being shadowed by a giant saber cat. Furthermore, we don’t know what its intentions are, so I suggest we be extra vigilant and keep our guard up at all times. No one is to go anywhere alone until we reach Arionath, and we should have our weapons at ready at all times, just in case.”
“That is a very good idea,” Hannibal agreed. “I must admit I let my guard down. It’ll not happen again.”
“Good,” Joshua replied, patting Hannibal on the shoulder as he smiled. “We can’t have you get eaten before you get to see Nicodemus, now can we?”
“Nope,” Hannibal chimed.
“I suggest we all get back to bed because Khmer Shek awaits us in the morning,” Turner said bluntly. “That’s going to be a treacherous ride no matter how we go about it. We’ll need all our strength to do it.”
“That’s right,” Joshua agreed. “Everyone get back to bed. We’ll get moving at the crack of dawn.” Everyone agreed and dispersed, picking up their weapons as they went. Timothy, Vergil, Cole, and Rex settled down to continue their watch, staying much more alert because of the incident with the saber cat.
“Selina and I are going to stay up a little longer,” Hannibal told Joshua as he started back to the keep. “I’m still a bit rattled by that cat sneaking up on me like that. I need to calm down a little more, and looking at that amazing sky seems to do that for me.”
“Okay,” Joshua stated, smiling warmly. “Just don’t stay up too long. You need your rest.”
Hannibal nodded as Joshua walked back to their camp inside the keep. Selina latched onto Hannibal’s arm and asked, “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah,” Hannibal replied softly. “I just need to calm down a little more before going back to bed.” He and Selina went back to the edge of the battlement and sat down to look at the night sky of the caverns again. Thirty minutes later, they returned to their tent, going back to sleep while something huge watched them intently from the shadows atop the north wall, growling softly.