Legends of Amacia: Path of the Ancients

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For nearly an hour and a half, the group moved on without incident at a fair pace. The river narrowed to thirty feet as it began to rise significantly with the terrain and the forest thinned slightly, allowing them to see farther into the forest. Suddenly, the forest grew quiet and Nathanael got wind of something he didn’t like so he spoke up. “I think we’ve got company,” he said softly after riding up beside Hannibal and Joshua. His hand lay heavily on his executioner’s blade as he looked around at the forest with some concern.

“What is it?” Hannibal asked as he let his hand rest on the hilt of his sword, feeling the griffin amulet become right down icy against his chest.

“Something’s out there in the forest about a hundred fifty yards. There’s a bunch of them too. I’ve never encountered a scent like it before. It’s like the smell of rotting meat,” Nathanael informed, keeping his eyes to the forest.

Joshua’s face fell as he said with great concern, “It’s the Zarukar. Our only chance is to get to the gateway. It’s only a league away.” Then to the group, he ordered, “Run and don’t look back!” He spurred his horse and took off in a gallop. Hannibal immediately followed suit and within seconds, everyone was galloping after Joshua. Joshua’s team urged Hannibal’s team on as strange cries started to echo through the woods. Wails and screeches began to come from all directions. Arabella began to fear greatly and clenched Morrison tightly, burying her face in his back so she wouldn’t have to see the evil descending on them. She prayed fervently as they sped on. The wails and screeching cries grew louder as they came within a mile of the gateway. Shadowy figures began to flit through the woods with the speed of a deer. Growls and hisses soon joined the chorus of wails and screeches.

Within three-quarters of a mile of the gateway, a horde of shadowy figures instantly descended upon them, surrounded them and stopping their flight. Everyone drew his or her weapon to face this new menace. The Zarukar looked exactly as Joshua had described them: between six and six-and-a-half feet in height, walking upright like a man and extremely muscular. Their ashen-colored faces were painted in all kinds of bizarre ways. Every one of the fifty Zarukar were heavily armed and armored with strange looking swords, clubs, and other odd weapons. They hissed and grimaced, showing their sharp fangs and teeth. The bestial Zarukar stayed off about forty feet from their prey, pressing forward a step or two, and then backing off the same distance.

Suddenly, from the forest behind the line of Zarukar came one that was larger than the rest, standing six foot eight inches in height. The beastly warrior smiled hideously as he pushed his way through the line, roughly throwing aside those who dared impeded his progress. He stepped into the circle with a huge sword drawn that reminded Hannibal of Orc blades used in fantasy movies, stopping just short of Joshua. The giant Zarukar looked over his prey and hissed, “I got you this time, Joshua. And it seems I have gotten a bonus this time. You have the outlanders with you.” He looked, saw Nathanael and Selina, and was intrigued, adding, “What have we here? Giant cats like these haven’t been seen in these woods for many millennia. Our master will be very pleased.”

“What do you want, Zebek?” Joshua hissed, sword ready. “Why have you attacked us?”

“Want?” Zebek snarled. “Surely you jest, Joshua. I mean to pick my teeth with your bones.”

Hannibal quickly sized up the situation, and immediately knew they were going to have to fight their way out of it. He looked at Zebek and said coldly, “There will be no feasting here except on your own stinking carcass if you insist on it.”

“You dare to challenge me, outlander?” Zebek growled. “I’ll suck the marrow from your bones, little man!” Then to the horde behind him, he roared and they began to advance. A hail of arrows rained from behind the Zarukar lines, taking out the horses and forcing everyone to the ground. David, Zachias, and Timothy took arrows as well. The wounds were serious, but not life threatening.

Morrison and Arabella managed to dodge the arrows by diving off their horse, using it as a shield. “You okay?” he asked Arabella. She nodded as he stood ready to defend her.

The group quickly made a circle, standing back to back. Hannibal glanced at Nathanael and Selina and nodded. The Kaitian war cry erupted from both of them, drowning out the cries of the Zarukar as the beast-men pressed in. Instantly, the battle commenced.

Seeing Zebek as the leader, Hannibal approached the beast-man captain, who attacked with great ferocity. Quickly sizing up his opponent, Hannibal launched a vicious counter attack. They parried and dueled fiercely. Sparks flew from the clashing blades. Several times, they locked blades, only to have Zebek push him off effortlessly. They clashed again, locking blades. Zebek grimaced, saying with a hiss, “Impressive, but futile. You cannot defeat me, human scum!”

Hannibal’s eyes blazed with growing fury as he countered, “Oh, on the contrary…I’m just getting warmed up!” With that, instinct took over and he broke free. Instantly without thinking, Hannibal jammed the sword hilt forward. The sword suddenly glowed as it hit Zebek in the chest. A flash of light erupted from the sword hilt forming a powerful concussive blast, throwing Zebek thirty feet. The move stunned Zebek briefly as he landed in a heap.

“Impossible!” Zebek shrieked as he jumped up. “No human has elemental powers!”

Hannibal stood there completely surprised by the impossible move he just made. “Damn…how did I do that?” he asked as the fury continued to build.

“I don’t know, but it will be your last one, you fucking human freak!” Zebek hissed as he rose and charged. “I’ll split you in two!”

The insult broke loose a violent, gruesome memory from Hannibal’s childhood past that galvanized his growing rage. He heard the voice of a bully named Jeff echoing in his mind, “I’m going to kill you…you little freak! No one defies me…least of all a freak like you!” Hannibal felt an icy chill race down his spine and his face flush with fury as Jeff’s ghostly face seemed to float in Zebek’s features.

“A freak am I?” Hannibal roared as he counterattacked, “You’re one to talk, you shit-faced fuck! I’ll show you just how freakish I can be!” They met with a deafening clash that rang over the battlefield, briefly getting the attention of all combatants. Fire rained from the blades, setting the dry grass and leaves on the ground ablaze around them. Hannibal and Zebek clashed three more times before Hannibal backed off, his eyes flaming with blood and fury. Deeply ingrained combat instinct took over again as Hannibal’s fury pegged well past the dangerous level into the lethal range.

Zebek saw the retreat as an opening and charged in with a roar. Hannibal drew back his blade and held it in a defensive position to this left pointed back away from him, waiting for Zebek to come to him. “This is your end, human freak!” Zebek shouted as he struck.

Hannibal grinned icily with great malevolence, welcoming the deadly advance of his enemy. He countered Zebek’s strike with all his might in an upward diagonal strike to the left, snapping Zebek’s blade off two inches above the hilt to the Zarukar captain’s absolute surprise.

In a split second, Hannibal reversed the direction of his cut and slashed back down diagonally to the right, cutting through Zebek’s armor to his chest, ripping a sizeable gash in it. Zebek’s blood spewed from the wound as Hannibal stepped back momentarily, and then lunged with all his might, ramming his sword into the chest of the beast-man captain until it protruded from his back. Zebek snarled and slugged Hannibal with the broken handle of his sword, laying open a sizeable gash on the side of his face and head. Hannibal crumbled before the blow, only to roll to his feet with his dagger ready as Zebek tried to remove Hannibal’s sword from his chest. Hannibal pounced like a cat with a shout and buried the dagger up to the hilt in Zebek’s neck, piercing the beast’s heart, and severing its aorta and jugular. Zebek roared and let go of the sword, clubbing Hannibal down with his fist again as his blood spewed like a fountain from the mortal wound in his neck.

Hannibal rolled to his feet and charged again as a strange white aura of light briefly swirled around him. By this time, Hannibal felt the full, unbridled fury of his berserker rage. The world once again seemed to slow down for Hannibal as he rushed in, striking with a powerful double punch square in the chest and belly that sent Zebek crashing against a tree, stunning the mortally wounded Zarukar captain. Before Zebek had time to slump, Hannibal charged in again, striking Zebek in the jaw with a vicious double uppercut that flashed a brilliant white light upon contact. The strike shattered Zebek’s jaw, after which Hannibal latched onto his sword, pulling it free. In less than a second, he spun around, laying the beast’s belly open as Zebek grabbed the dagger and began to pull it out. Hannibal sliced both of the beast’s arms off and then turned the blade on Zebek’s chest again. He spun around again and brought the blade down diagonally across its chest with such force that it cleaved the beast in two down to the lower chest. A sickening slurp came from the cut as the sword moved through armor, flesh and bone…sending blood and guts splattering everywhere. Instantly, he pulled back and with a spin that made his blade whistle, cleaved the beast’s head in two, sending two-thirds of it flying across the battlefield, leaving only the crushed jaw attached to the lower portion of his head. Half a second later, Hannibal rammed his left hand into Zebek’s open chest cavity, ripping out the beast captain’s heart. All of this happened before Zebek’s carcass fell. Hannibal roared triumphantly, raising his sword with his right hand and the bloody heart in his left. “Didn’t know who the fuck you were dealing with…did you, mother fucker!” he bellowed over the din. “My fucking enemies die! They always die!” He threw the heart down and crushed it underfoot as one last fury-enhanced victory dance.

Immediately turning from Zebek’s shredded carcass to see three Zarukars attacking Morrison and Arabella, Hannibal pounced on the beast warriors with the viciousness of an angry tiger on a rampage. They never saw him coming. Hannibal hewed their heads off before they knew they were being attacked from behind. Both Morrison and Arabella stared in disbelief at the utter maniacal rage and brutality of Hannibal’s attacks, worrying that they may be his next victims if not careful. Yet, Hannibal moved on to the next group of beast-men without giving Morrison or Arabella a second glance.

Meanwhile, Joshua, Ned, Harry, Thomas, Jonathan, Cracko, and Sam endeavored to protect David, Zachias, and Timothy, who had been seriously wounded by the arrows. Ned literally mowed down everything that came for them with his axe. He also took an arrow in the leg, but continued to fight, as did Jonathan, who was hit in the shoulder and Sam, who got an arrow in the back. In the cases of Sam and Jonathan, because of the special armor shirts they wore, the arrows only penetrated about half an inch, not causing serious damage. Cracko’s speed enabled him to dodge the arrows as he cut down six in three minutes of fighting.

Nathanael waded into the Zarukars with power and brutality that only Hannibal surpassed with his berserker rage, killing with every blow. Many times, Nathanael cleaved his opponent in two with a single stroke. As he mowed them down, Selina raced through the battlefield, taking out the archers with her speed and skill as an expert swordswoman, remembering her training and the Zoarian marauders that had mauled her many years before. Seeing a correlation between the behavior of the Zarukar warriors and the Zoarian marauders that nearly killed her as a teenager made it easy for Selina to dispatch them. Within minutes, all the archers lay dead and she concentrated on the others, killing any who dared to approach her or attack her friends. The battle was vicious and intense, lasting for more than twenty minutes at which time the residue of the Zarukar were set upon from behind by a scouting party of thirty men dressed like Joshua and his team.

Hannibal once again found himself separated from his friends and surrounded by enemies...twelve Zarukars swarming him from all directions with swords forward. Brutal killer instinct swept Hannibal as he saw them advance. Once again, mysterious long dormant abilities flared into action as an enigmatic red aura suddenly swirled briefly around Hannibal when the Zarukar warriors attacked. Selina saw Hannibal in the distance become swallowed in a mass of writhing Zarukars. “Hannibal…no!” she cried out, hearing Hannibal roar from within the mass of Zarukar warriors and the point of his sword briefly rise above the beasts. Before she could blink, the impossible occurred. A blinding flash emanated from Hannibal’s position, followed by a massive fiery explosion as the Zarukar warriors converged on his position. The blast incinerated and ripped to pieces every Zarukar warrior within thirty feet of Hannibal. Bodies and body parts flew everywhere as the concussion from the explosion knocked down every combatant beyond the immediate blast for three hundred feet. It also snapped off trees six inches in diameter, blowing them down like a hurricane gust.

“Oh, my god,” Nathanael breathed in horror, jumping up after being blown down by the concussion. He rushed towards the epicenter of the explosion, crying, “Hannibal!”

“Hannibal!” Selina cried with great fear and concern after she gathered her wits from being flattened by the concussion of the blast. She sprinted towards the blast center, seeing Nathanael approaching at the same time.

As the smoke cleared, a lone smoldering figure stood in the center of a field of charred, burned corpses and body parts with his sword point in the traditional fighting stance: point up at throat level. Nathanael and Selina stopped in their tracks as the panting figure looked up with burning red eyes. They recognized a smoldering Hannibal, but wasn’t sure if he recognized them. The remaining dozen Zarukar abruptly broke ranks and fled the field as Hannibal hissed, “No one seems to understand that my enemies die. They always die.” He looked at the fleeing Zarukar and lifted his sword to the sky, shouting, “Die already, you repugnant god damned slugs!” The sword glowed brightly, and each of the twelve fleeing Zarukar warriors exploded for no apparent reason. Once the remaining Zarukar perished, the sword ceased to glow. “Now…who’s next?” Hannibal growled, his eyes burning like coals of fire in a furnace as he lowered his blade.

“Oh, man,” Joshua cried with great concern. “I was afraid of this. His elemental power has exploded out of control. He’s been overwhelmed by it.”

“Everyone throw your weapons down and don’t move,” Nathanael called out urgently. “The Rage has him. He doesn’t recognize us. If you move, he will kill you. Selina…you’re the only one here who can reach him. Talk him down.”

“Right, Dad,” Selina replied as the team dropped their weapons. Selina slowly put her katana on the ground and called out to Hannibal. “Hannibal…can you hear me?” she asked, holding up her hands in a peace gesture. “It’s over, Hannibal. No one’s going to hurt you. I need you to calm down.” Hannibal glared at Selina, not appearing to recognize her as she edged cautiously toward him. “Hannibal…please, it’s me, Selina,” she pleaded. “Remember? I’m your wife. We’re fused telepathically. I can feel your blinding rage. It’s consuming your mind. Please, calm the beast within. You saved us. Now, it’s time to disperse the rage. I love you, Hannibal. Don’t let the beast destroy us and you.”

The glowing red tint in Hannibal’s eyes suddenly vanished and a blank expression came over his face. He abruptly collapsed to his hands and knees, dropping his sword with a deep trembling sigh. Selina continued to slowly approach as Hannibal looked at the ground around him in a daze. In seconds, she reached him and knelt down in front of him. Helping him sit upright on his knees and holding his hands, Selina asked, “Are you all right, Hannibal?”

Hannibal looked at her with weak eyes. “What happened, Selina?” he asked. “I remember being swarmed from all directions by these creatures, and then nothing until I heard your voice.”

“You killed them, Hannibal,” Selina said softly, holding his shaking hands. “But something happened here I cannot explain. There was an explosion that killed everything within thirty feet of you but not you, and knocked the rest of us down. Then you appeared to explode the remaining beast men as they fled like you did to that soldier outside the Caverns. Your sword glowed like it was red-hot when you said your enemies die and the rest of those beasts exploded without warning. How in heaven’s name did you do that?”

Hannibal’s face became ashen. “Oh, no, it happened again, didn’t it?” he asked in a shaky tone. “I killed like I did when I was a wizard, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Selina answered bluntly. “It must have been triggered by that Rage of yours.”

“Is it safe to approach now?” Nathanael called out.

“Yes,” Selina replied. “His Rage is spent. It’s safe now to approach.”

“But I don’t remember doing it,” Hannibal murmured, exhausted physically and mentally. “I blacked out. Please tell me I didn’t hurt you or any of our new friends.”

“No, you didn’t,” Selina said as the survivors of the battle gathered around Hannibal in the middle of what appeared to be a bomb blast. “But you almost did. I had to talk you down otherwise you may have done something all of us would have regretted.”

“Oh, no, it happened again,” Hannibal choked, embracing Selina with great gratitude. “Thank you for talking me down, Selina. I don’t know if I could have forgiven myself if I had killed any of you.”

Selina held him gently as he wept softly. “It’s okay, Hannibal,” she purred. “That’s why the Lord sent me with you…to help you keep that beast on its chain. Besides, you didn’t let it hurt us while it was off the leash.”

“That’s right,” Harry called out, getting Hannibal’s attention. Hannibal looked up at Harry from his knees and wiped the tears away as Harry added, “You didn’t hurt us, but you put a serious smack down on these beast people, whatever they are. Remind me never to get on your bad side. You went off like a bomb. I had no idea you could do something like that.”

Hannibal chuckled at Harry’s comment. “Neither did I,” Hannibal admitted as Selina helped him stand up. “Something very strange is happening to me here. The rages have never allowed me to do things like this before. I’m getting very concerned that I may become a real danger to everyone I care about. I could kill them without realizing it.”

“It’s not going to happen,” Nathanael declared. “Whatever’s causing this strange telekinetic phenomenon, we’ll get through it together and you’ll learn to control it eventually.”

“I truly hope so,” Hannibal agreed. “I don’t want to end up alone again now that I have a real family.” He looked at Joshua with a contrite expression as he approached with Vergil’s assistance. “I’m truly sorry I lost control like that, Joshua. Now you see why I call it the bane of my existence. It seems that the worse the peril I get into, the worse the rage becomes. And this new apparently magical or telekinetic power, whatever it is, that seems to be emerging in me has me tremendously worried. I’m doing these things by instinct without really knowing how it’s happening. It’s very troubling.”

“I can see that,” Joshua replied, leaning on Vergil for support. “If that wasn’t a devastating elemental attack, I don’t know what is. You have powers you’re completely unaware of. It’s becoming a danger to both you and those around you because you don’t understand what’s happening. I had become concerned you had been overwhelmed by the power within you.”

“I agree,” Hannibal stated as he wobbled on his feet. “I have to find some way to deal with this without hurting my friends.”

“Agreed,” Joshua answered. “With any luck, Nicodemus will be able to help you with this problem. But we mustn’t linger here too long. This battle will undoubtedly attract attention we don’t want.”

“So true,” Hannibal stated as he saw the worried look in both Morrison’s and Arabella’s eyes as they stood just out of reach. He scanned the crowd and saw equally concerned looks from the rest of them.

“For those of you who don’t know,” Hannibal called out weakly, “what you just witnessed is the worst berserker rage I’ve ever been in. These rages are the bane of my existence and a throwback from my dark past I have yet to purge. It happens whenever I get riled and extremely angry. It makes me into a wild animal, tripling my strength, speed, and fighting prowess. But now, it seems it’s unleashing some mysterious new ability within me I am unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, when it gets really bad like it did today, I can lose the ability to distinguish between friend and foe, killing whoever or whatever gets within my reach. I despise when it happens and do everything I can to keep from getting into that state. Most of the time, I can channel and control the rage so it doesn’t take me over completely. During most of this battle, I managed to control it. But something happened there at the end and I snapped, losing control of it. I don’t remember exactly what happened after being swarmed by these creatures in the last melee. Be warned now. If any of you see me in a state like you just saw after that explosion, please do not move or approach me. I’ll kill anything that does. The only one who can safely approach me in when I’m in that state is Selina because of our telepathic fusion. She’s the only one who can tame that beast when it breaks free. I’m truly sorry and apologize if I frightened you. I didn’t mean to scare you. But it’s just the way I am. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I don’t lose control like that ever again.”

Hearing Hannibal speak about the rage settled their fears somewhat. Hannibal’s legs suddenly collapsed on him, forcing Selina to catch him. Morrison and Arabella rushed forward when Hannibal collapsed.

“I got you,” Selina purred as Morrison stepped up to assist.

“Thanks, baby,” Hannibal returned weakly.

“Take it easy, Hannibal,” Morrison urged, helping Selina hold Hannibal up. The smell of the charred leather trench coat filled Morrison’s nostrils.

“Are you all right, Hannibal?” Arabella asked; still fearful of his violent tendencies, but more concerned about his present physical state. He was a burned bloody mess, with several deep gashes on his arms and legs along with several nasty cuts on his face and head. Moderate burns on his face, neck, and hands tinted his skin pinkish-red. His trench coat was shredded, charred, and bloody yet his charred backpack remarkably didn’t take many hits. Blood stained his burned clothes, hands, and face.

“Yeah, Arabella,” Hannibal replied, looking her in the eye. “Please forgive me for scaring you like I did. I didn’t mean to do it. Sometimes, I just have to let that rabid dog off the leash to save my friends.”

“I had no idea you could be so violent,” Arabella admitted as she first removed Hannibal’s backpack and charred trench coat so she could check his wounds. “It scared me seeing you running around like a raving lunatic killing every one of those things indiscriminately. And when you were swarmed by those monsters and that explosion happened, I thought you were dead.”

“I might as well have been dead,” Hannibal admitted. “I don’t remember a thing after it happened. Only when I heard Selina’s voice did I come out of it. It scared me to lose control so completely like that. If Selina hadn’t calmed me down, who knows what kind of damage I could have done.”

“That’s why I’m glad she could snap you out of that insanity,” Arabella replied as she continued to check his wounds. “She kept you from doing something very bad. Man…you’re cut up and burned pretty bad, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Hannibal murmured as Arabella started binding his lacerations with temporary bandages from her pack.

“This is just temporary until we can get to wherever Joshua is taking us,” Arabella declared as she tied a bandage tightly around one of the deep lacerations on Hannibal’s left leg.

“Okay,” Hannibal replied with a grunt as she finished tying the bandage with a strong pull.

The leader of the scouting party approached Joshua and patted him on the shoulder. “Looks like we came just in time,” he stated. “You had a real rambunctious party going on here when we arrived.”

“No kidding, Doug,” Joshua agreed. “I’m just happy you came along when you did. It gave us the edge we needed.”

“I don’t know,” Doug stated. “Looks like you were doing just fine when we showed up, especially the outlanders.”

“Well, it’s obvious they can take care of themselves,” Joshua replied as Doug’s team set out caring for the wounded, “especially this one.” Joshua pointed to Hannibal as he spoke while Arabella continued to treat him.

“Indeed,” Doug answered. “He’s formidable with very strange powers like the Emperor. I haven’t seen an elemental blast like that in twenty cycles.”

“Indeed,” Joshua agreed. “But he doesn’t know how he does it. That battle rage he gets is somehow the trigger to it. Nicodemus must know about it.”

“And so he will,” Doug stated. “But what the hell happened? I thought you were smart enough to not get caught like this by Zebek and his minions.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Joshua replied. “I think they set a trap for us, Doug. Somehow, they knew we were coming this way. They’re getting smarter by the day. If you hadn’t showed up when you did, we may not have made it.”

“I’m aware of that,” Doug said as he looked at Selina and Nathanael with wonder. “They certainly are outlanders, aren’t they?”

“That they are,” Joshua stated as one of Doug’s men bound his wounds. “They’re a marvel to behold.”

“No arguments there,” Doug agreed. “Regardless, we must leave here quickly before more Zarukar come. This battle will surely attract more of them if it hasn’t already.” As he spoke, Arabella finished with the triage treatment for Hannibal.

Looking Hannibal in the eye, Arabella asked, “Can you walk?”

A deep, shaky sigh escaped Hannibal’s lips as Selina and Morrison held him. “I think so, Arabella,” Hannibal replied. “I’m feeling just a little stronger now. Let’s find out. Selina…John, let me go.” Selina and Morrison let go of Hannibal, yet hovered close to him in case he collapsed again. Slowly, Hannibal started walking, stepping over the charred corpses and body parts of the slain Zarukars around him as Arabella moved on to treat the rest of the wounded. Only then did he notice the burned nature of everything around him. “Damn…you say I did this? It looks like a napalm bomb went off here.”

“Apparently, you did,” Selina stated categorically. “I still don’t understand how you could do such a thing.”

“Me neither,” Hannibal admitted. “I haven’t used magical fire since I was a wizard. It makes my blood run cold to think that I did this. This looks suspiciously like the Firewall or Inferno spell I used to use as a wizard.” The pain of his wounds flared, making him groan and stumble for a moment. “Ugh…I hate it when I get mangled and burnt like this,” he growled after the pain subsided. “It hurts like hell.”

“But you’re alive,” Selina declared, holding on to his arm until he was steady. “And so are the rest of us thanks to you. Even though you scared us shitless with that rage this time, it did save us. That has to account for something.”

“I hope so,” Hannibal replied, feeling his strength rise enough to make his walk stable. “But Doug is right. I think it’s time we depart this cemetery. I don’t want to have to fight those creeps again in my present state.”

“Well said,” Joshua stated. “You heard him. Let’s saddle up and get out of here.” With that, the team gathered their weapons and what was left of their supplies.

Sam cried out in pain as Arabella yanked the arrow from his back while Ned and Morrison held him. Hannibal glanced towards Sam as Arabella cleaned Sam’s wounds and bandaged them. Several other screams of pain rose from the wounded as Doug’s band treated the wounded alongside Arabella.

Hannibal sighed wearily and walked to his sword, kneeling to pick it up. Once he grasped it, he used the sword as a cane to push himself to his feet. Doug reached down and helped Hannibal to his feet since Selina had gone to retrieve her katana. “Thanks, friend,” Hannibal growled through the pain as Doug helped him stand. “I appreciate the help.”

“No problem,” Doug stated, eyeing Hannibal’s burned, lacerated condition. Sheathing his sword, Hannibal walked slowly to the hacked remains of Zebek, retrieving his dagger while Doug shadowed him. “I saw you fight,” Doug stated. “You’re quite a skilled warrior. I’m impressed.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed the show,” Hannibal murmured, stopping over Zebek’s hacked remains. “But I see it as both a blessing and a curse because of that berserker rage that gets on me.”

“Are you a wizard too?” Doug asked bluntly.

Hannibal leaned down and picked up his dagger as Doug asked the question. Straightening up, Hannibal looked Doug in the eye and shook his head. “No,” he said categorically. “Not anymore. Once upon a time long ago, I was a most powerful wizard assassin of the Black Arts. But that’s not the case anymore. I turned my back on those demons long ago. If you wonder how I did what I did in that last melee, I don’t know. It shakes my soul to think I can do such things now after I turned my back on the Dark Powers for such a long time. I don’t draw on their power any longer. If you know how it happened, I’d love to know. I’m all ears.”

Doug patted Hannibal on the shoulder gently while Hannibal sheathed his dagger. “I don’t know,” he answered. “But I can see this. You’re not driven by the dark power that infests the Emperor. I can sense it. Whatever this strange elemental ability is, I’m sure it’s not of the Darkness.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Hannibal said softly as they walked back to his charred coat and shredded backpack. “And if I didn’t say so before, thank you for the rescue. It was appreciated.”

“You’re welcome, brother,” Doug answered as Hannibal looked down at his pack and charred coat. “Don’t worry about your pack and coat, my friend. I’ll have one of my boys carry them for you.”

“Thanks,” Hannibal said gratefully as everyone gathered around, ready to leave the horrid battlefield. “I’m not sure I could carry it in my present condition. Just be sure that nothing falls out of it. I have some very important items in that pack.”

As he spoke, Harry walked up with his hammer in hand. “I’ll get your stuff, bud,” he told Hannibal as he picked up Hannibal’s pack and trench coat.

“Thanks, Harry,” Hannibal said after wincing from a surge of pain.

“Not a problem,” Harry chimed. “Besides, you’re in no condition to carry it.”

“Okay; since that’s settle, let’s leave this place quickly,” Doug insisted and he led the way. Selina shadowed Hannibal helping him walk while Nathanael assisted Joshua. Thomas and Jonathan assisted Ned. Members of the scouting team carried David, Zachias, and Timothy on quickly constructed stretchers. Sam, Vergil, Aragon, Cracko, Harry, Morrison, and Arabella helped the rest of the scouting team carry the remaining supplies.

As they walked, Joshua asked Doug, “How did you know we were in trouble?”

“We didn’t,” Doug answered, glancing at Joshua. “In fact, we were actually out on a hunt when we came across you getting your asses kicked.”

“Looks like the Lord was watching out for us again,” Harry commented.

“Yes, it does,” Hannibal replied and Joshua agreed.

“You’re certainly full of surprises, my friend,” Joshua declared, glancing at Hannibal. “No one has ever stood up to Zebek like that before. How did you know you could take him?”

“I didn’t,” Hannibal replied. “But I’ve dealt with things like that before and the only way to deal with them is to be more savage and brutal than they are. That’s the only thing creatures like that understand. It’s one of the reasons that rabid dog of mine got off the leash. I have to be more careful about that in the future.”

“How can this be so?” Doug asked. “You’re an outlander and Zarukars are only found here in the great Caverns. Certainly the outside world doesn’t have to deal with monsters such as these?”

“No, we don’t have creatures like these on the outside,” Hannibal agreed. “But there’s a spirit that encompasses every aspect of what we just encountered and I can say for a fact that I’ve had to deal with that spirit on every level out there. Many times, that spirit will take the people of the surface and great evil comes from it. I will say this, though. This is the first time I’ve seen that kind of spirit manifest physically and so boldly. These Zarukars are definitely part of the Emperor’s forces. I’m sure of it.”

“How do you know?” Aragon asked.

“Well,” Hannibal replied. “I knew it when Zebek, if that what his name was, knew that we were outlanders. The only way they could have known of our presence like that and set the trap is if they were receiving intelligence from the Emperor. He knew exactly who we were and where we were going. It’s my belief that you’re fixing to have a terrible problem here with these things.”

“How many of them are there anyway?” Thomas asked. “Does anyone know?”

“No,” Doug said. “There has been no real way to ascertain exactly how many of them there are. But one thing is for sure. They haven’t used this kind of cunning before nor have attacked in these kinds of numbers. Usually, they run in packs of about thirty or smaller. This is a very disturbing development. Nicodemus must know about it.”

“He will,” Joshua said. “I’ll tell him personally. Another thing is they have never attacked this close to the gateway before either. The Emperor is definitely up to something.”

Just then, a roar echoed from the nearby forest and Doug stopped in his tracks as everyone readied their weapons. He held his fist up and the group stopped. “Quick! Get down and hide,” Doug ordered urgently. “A tarok is close. If we stay down and hold still, it may not see us!” They promptly concealed themselves in some nearby underbrush. A guttural growl rumbled from the forest across the river and the ground shook as something of great size approached. Morrison physically restrained Arabella, who trembled with fear as the beast approached. Hannibal and his team watched from their hiding place in the underbrush with both fascination and terror as the tarok approached. Suddenly from the forest across the river, it appeared...an enormous gray reptile nearly twenty feet in height and thirty feet long weighing eight tons that looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Its six-foot head with six-inch razor sharp teeth lining its mouth was large enough to swallow a man.

Fear raced through the group as it approached the far shore of the river. Several of the scouting party wanted to flee but were restrained. The tarok heard the noise and looked across the river as it stopped at the shore. It waved its head from left to right, searching for prey. Another guttural growl rumbled from it as it acquired a scent downstream in the direction of the battle. It turned its head in that direction and roared so loudly many of the group had to hold their ears. The beast crashed down through the trees in the direction of the battle, following the scent of blood, apparently not detecting the group’s presence in the underbrush. Within three minutes, Doug gave the all clear and everyone emerged from hiding.

“Can you believe that?” Harry exclaimed, “That was a real live T-rex! I had no idea they were so big or that they still existed! Aren’t they supposed to be extinct?”

“Yes, it was, and yes, they are,” Hannibal replied. Then to Joshua and Doug, he asked, “Would that be one of the giant beasts you were talking about earlier?”

“Yes,” Joshua replied as Doug took up the lead again. “The tarok is just one of many such giant beasts roaming these forests. They’re a fact of life in these wilds.”

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