The Mountain of Khmer Shek
A strange dawn broke over the watchtower of Xavier Singh on the frontier of Khitia, deep underground in the realm of Amacia. The bizarre night of the Caverns fled and the dawning of a new day occurred without the great solar orb. The light level steadily grew until it was like broad daylight on the surface. Everyone prepared to leave the ruins of the fortress as Hannibal stood in a gap of the wall looking off to the east, lost in the splendor of the view. The plain stretched into the distance without the far side of the plain being seen. He looked over the land and knew somewhere over the horizon to the east was where they first entered the great Caverns of Amacia. Off in the distance on the plain, a massive herd of prehistoric bison grazed. Strange birds and giant flying reptiles soared over the plain. As Hannibal watched the bison, he noticed what he thought was a great cat stalking the herd and it intrigued him, reminding him of his encounter with the giant saber cat the night before. Just then, Selina approached. “Time to go, my prince,” she said softly, her melodious voice echoing in his ears.
“This place is almost magical in its allure,” Hannibal replied, glancing at her. “And strange as it may seem, I have stood here before and looked over the plain there. I can’t explain it, but the déjà vu is extreme this morning.”
Selina smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “Yes, it is. I felt it too,” she replied.
“And that musky smell is back too,” Hannibal reported. “It’s faint, but there. The cat must still be close by.”
“I smell it too,” Selina stated. “It’s one more reason for us to get moving. Shouldn’t we tell the others?”
“No,” Hannibal stated. “There’s no point since we’re fixing to move out. Besides, the scent isn’t fresh, not like last night or when we smelled him at Karac or the secret cave.”
“If you say so,” Selina replied. “Do you think the cat will keep following you?”
“I don’t know,” Hannibal admitted. “But he might. He’s followed all the way across Khitia. There’s nothing saying he won’t follow us over the mountain.”
“Just as long as he keeps his distance,” Selina declared.
“I hear you,” Hannibal stated. “I don’t relish him sneaking up on me again like he did last night.”
“Hannibal, Selina…time to get moving. Nicodemus awaits us in Arionath,” Joshua called out. “We should make the pass of Khmer Shek in two and a half hours.”
Hannibal and Selina turned, retrieving their horses and supplies. “Okay, Joshua,” Hannibal stated once he had the reins of his horse. “We’re ready.”
“Follow me,” Joshua ordered, leading everyone down from the tower. Once off the bluff the tower sat on, everyone mounted their horses and Joshua led them west toward the ridge, which loomed ominously over the plain. They talked softly about the incident with the saber cat and Hannibal the night before as well as about what they saw around them as they rode. Within a half hour of riding, they left the plain and entered a hilly forest at the base of the ridge. The forest consisted of a combination of hardwoods and evergreens that wasn’t particularly dense. The forest tended to be thin initially and gradually thickened as they approached the ridge. They saw all manner of strange plants and animals in the forest: huge deer along with several strange varieties of squirrels and birds. Many types of extinct trees and plants grew in the forest. On several occasions, they caught glimpses of big cats and bears off in the distance, deep in the forest. Each time Hannibal saw a big cat, it reminded him of his encounter with the giant saber cat. For ninety minutes, they traversed the forest, ever watchful of the unexpected. Hannibal, Nathanael, and Selina kept a wary eye and nose open for the musky scent of the saber cat that had shadowed the team since they entered the Caverns. Hannibal remained on edge, sensing something watching him from the shadows other than the wildlife they saw in the forest while riding. The path consistently rose toward the ridge. Ninety minutes after entering the forest, they emerged from the forest into the bleak and forbidding landscape above the tree line.
The ridge rose dramatically in front of them, even though they were already nearly five thousand feet up the side of the ridge. All around them lay bare rock with moss and lichens growing on them. A mere fifteen hundred feet above them, the snows began. Joshua stopped the troop and said, “Bundle up and stay close. The pass is very cold and dangerous. One misstep can be lethal. Follow my lead and do not stray from the path.” Everyone dismounted their horses and donned their cold weather gear. Joshua and his team handed out some extra fur cloaks to Hannibal’s team as they prepared for the assault on the pass of Khmer Shek. A cold wind blew down off the mountain from the pass, biting at them.
“How high is the pass?” Hannibal asked Joshua.
“The pass is almost seven thousand cubits above the plain. The ridge itself either side of the pass tops nine thousand three hundred cubits,” Joshua replied.
Hannibal pondered for a moment what Joshua said when Harry asked, “What’s a cubit?”
Joshua held out his arm and used his hand to mark his elbow. “It’s this long,” he said, referring to his arm between the ends of his fingers to his elbow.
“Eighteen inches, Harry,” Hannibal said once he realized what kind of measurements Joshua was talking about. “They use the ancient ways of measure down here. That means the pass is ten and a half thousand feet and the rest of the ridge is at least fourteen thousand.” Then to Joshua, he said, “We’re not accustomed to your type of measurements. On the surface, the standard measure is the foot, or twelve inches when we deal with linear distances. It’s about this long.” Hannibal held his hands a foot apart and showed Joshua.
Joshua nodded. “All right,” he replied. “I’ll try to keep that in mind. Maybe what we need to do is when I use a term that is unfamiliar to your people you can tell them what I mean like you did just now.”
“I can do that,” Hannibal said as Joshua mounted his horse.
Everyone mounted up and Joshua said, “All right, let’s go. Stay close and keep moving; and above all, be careful. The pass is treacherous.”
“Well, I think we should be used to that by now,” Morrison said with a smile as he helped Arabella up behind him.
At that, they moved out in single file, following Joshua up the main body of the ridge. A narrow path snaked around the ridge through the boulder-strewn mountainside as it climbed. Within a half hour, they crossed into the snows and within another forty minutes, they stood in the pass itself. Joshua stopped them briefly. Before them to the west lay rolling hills covered by a great forest that stretched to the horizon. To the northwest, the rolling hills became rugged mountains with deep-forested valleys. Those mountains were not nearly as tall as the one they stood on. To the southwest, the rolling forestland stretched for nearly fifty miles before flattening out into a grassy plain that reached to the horizon. A river ran from the mountains to the northwest, through the forests and into the plain. The plain was featureless. It was bordered on the north by the forests and to the east by the massive ridge that separated Khitia from the rest of the cavern. Off in the distance at the horizon far to the southwest, a dark pall of cloud with a reddish tint hung menacingly. It churned and boiled with lightning occasionally flashing through its dark form. It seemed to attract Hannibal’s attention. He looked toward the cloud and a sour feeling formed in the pit of his stomach. Joshua pointed in the direction that Hannibal was looking and said, “Those are the Plains of Kasa Bek with the Plains of Blood beyond that. And that cloud there is where the land of the Emperor is.”
Hannibal glanced at Joshua and said, “Great evil lurks there. I can feel it from here.”
“No argument there,” Joshua agreed. “Come, let’s leave this place. Look there.” He pointed northwest toward the mountainous area, saying, “Arionath. We should be there by this evening.” Hannibal nodded as Joshua moved on, leading them down the west side of the mountain toward the forest.
“What’s this mountain called?” Hannibal asked Joshua.
“Khmer Shek,” Joshua answered. “This is the most treacherous pass on the Wall. Virtually no one uses this pass because of its extreme height and treacherous approach. Below you are the forests of Kasa Bek. It’s the most dangerous forest in all of the Caverns. People go in there and never return.”
“It’s a beautiful forest,” Selina commented as they trudged through the snows on their horses.
“Yes, it is,” Nathanael agreed.
“The forest has many perils,” Joshua said firmly. “When we enter it, stay close and quiet. It is one of few things that protect Arionath from the wrath of the Emperor.” Hannibal nodded as Joshua led them down from the pass, carefully picking their way through the snowy terrain.
Nathanael spied large feline and wolf prints in the snow as they moved on. “Seems our big cat friend has been this way with some of his companions,” he observed. “I’m seeing their prints in the snow.”
“I guess that answers the question about whether the cat will keep following me,” Hannibal replied soberly. “How old are the tracks, Nathanael?”
“Several hours old,” Nathanael replied. “The tracks are degrading now because of the wind.”
“Let’s keep our eyes open then,” Joshua stated. “We don’t want them to sneak up on us again.”
“Right,” Hannibal agreed. For an hour, they moved slowly down the mountain and toward the end of that hour, they left the snows and trekked through the barren wastes above the tree line heading for the edge of the forest.