The Land of Arionath
Hannibal’s team talked about the beast as they moved on with Doug and Joshua’s teams…astounded at the prehistoric reptile they just witnessed. Hannibal silently pondered their existence since dinosaurs were not supposed to exist at the same time humans did. Within minutes, they arrived at the Gateway to Arionath, stopping briefly two hundred yards from it. “Behold: the Gateway to Arionath,” Joshua declared. “Our journey nears its end.” The talk of the tarok suddenly ceased as they stood before the gateway in the forest, dumbfounded at the scene before them. A sheer cliff rising nearly two thousand feet with a thousand foot tall image of a colossal draken carved directly into the face of the cliff loomed over them. The river emerged from a large cave in the cliff between its front legs. A road of some form lay on the right-hand side of the river as it came out of the cave. The road followed the river out twenty yards before disappearing into the forest.
Curses of amazement issued from many members of Hannibal’s team upon seeing the colossus. “Doesn’t this remind you of something, Hannibal?” Selina asked.
“Yes, it does,” Hannibal replied as Doug led them toward the cave. As they entered the cave following the strange road on the riverbank, most of Hannibal’s team looked up at the draken as they moved into the darkness. Doug and his team produced some lamps, lighting the stygian darkness of the cave. Hannibal looked around as Selina helped him along. He immediately noticed that the cave was no ordinary cave, but a tunnel hewn out of solid rock by the hands of man. The river followed an artificial channel lined with giant stones upon which they walked. The stones were fitted with such precision that a piece of paper could not fit between them. The water echoed and gurgled as it flowed by, lapping at the edge of the channel.
Hannibal heard a roaring coming from ahead of them. “What’s that?” he asked.
“That would be the falls,” Joshua answered as Nathanael helped him along. “It’s a marvel of ancient engineering that constantly reminds us of what we lost in the Kragonar. The technology used to build this aqueduct and passage has been lost to us since that time.” Hannibal pondered Joshua’s words as they moved on through the tunnel. The roaring of cascading water grew louder until they reached its source. Before them stood a solid wall of granite two hundred yards into the mountain with a mighty waterfall that cascaded down from a giant hole in the ceiling forty feet wide. In the solid granite wall to the right sat a narrower eight-foot passage that led upward…an obvious extension of the road they followed. Doug immediately led them into the passage, which went away from the river and started to rise dramatically in a spiral manner. They followed the passage as it spiraled upward for nearly ten minutes before it stopped rising and straightened out. Off in the distance, nearly seven hundred yards, a light shined in the darkness. “Not far now,” Joshua said as they moved on. Hannibal and Nathanael looked all around with curiosity at the construction of the passage: arched as if a tunneling machine had hewn the passage. As they approached the light at the end of the passage, it widened to nearly ten feet. Minutes later, they emerged from the tunnel onto a large ledge seventy feet across sitting on the brink of a cliff. The road went off to the right and started down the side of the mountain.
They stopped and Doug sighed. “It’s good to be home,” he chimed.
Hannibal and his team looked out from the natural balcony and saw a small valley, lush and green, rimmed on all sides by precipitous mountains. A lake sat at the base of the cliff almost four hundred feet below them. A small river fed the lake. Forests and cultivated fields dotted the valley floor along with small houses and a road, the same that they were following, weaving around through the valley. Off in the distance at the far end of the valley where the road ended stood the ruins of a great city. A colossal fortress of greyish-white stone that seemed to be carved out of a mountain rose from the center of the city. It appeared to be intact, whereas nearly half the city around it was a toppled ruin. The giant fortress gleamed like a jewel in the light, rising like a fairy tale castle with great flying buttresses and lofty towers. Hannibal and his team stared at the valley in awe. “Welcome to Arionath, Hannibal Smith,” Joshua announced. “Nicodemus awaits our arrival in the great fortress of Kaal Bek.”
Harry stood there with his mouth hanging open, as did most of Hannibal’s team. Spontaneously, gasps and curses of amazement issued forth from his team. Arabella walked up next to Hannibal and Selina as they looked out over the fairy tale valley and said, “I give up. I’m utterly lost in a fairy tale: ancient machines, headhunters, prehistoric cats, dinosaurs, beast-men, an evil Emperor. What’s next, fire-breathing drakens?”
Hannibal put an arm around her to reassure her. “Don’t let it get to you,” he said softly. “We’re witness to the truth. Everything we’ve encountered thus far has been incorporated into the fairy tales and myths we grew up with. The tales apparently were more than just flights of fancy. Our history is much richer and stranger than anyone ever expected.” He took his hand and gently touched her chin, turning her head so he could look her in the face. “You have shown remarkable strength and poise in the face of what we’ve encountered. Any normal person would have gone crazy long ago. Trust in the Lord. He’ll not abandon us,” he reassured her.
Just then, Sam cursed and pointed into the sky. “Son of a bitch! That’s not what I think it is, is it?” he asked in amazement. They all looked into the sky and saw a massive flying beast soaring over the valley. It was unlike anything any of them had ever seen before. The giant flying reptile had spotted the group and banked in their direction. It glided toward them with great speed, causing concern among Hannibal’s team, particularly Ned, Jonathan, Thomas, Sam, Morrison and Arabella.
Seeing Joshua, Doug, and their men reacting with mild indifference, Hannibal decided there wasn’t any danger. He and Selina looked on with curiosity. Joshua noticed the apprehension of Hannibal’s team and spoke. “There’s no need to fear,” he assured them, “That’s Argus. He’s a friend.” As he spoke, the beast, which was merely a spot in the sky when first spotted, closed in and buzzed the ledge, coming within one hundred forty feet of the ledge as he glided by, circling and causing a gust of wind as he flew by. At that distance, there was no mistaking what they were seeing.
“You shouldn’t have said anything,” Hannibal said to Arabella with a chuckle. “You asked whether drakens were next. I guess you were right for there’s your draken.”
Arabella and the rest of Hannibal’s team watched with a strange mix of fear and fascination as the beast circled over the lake and came back toward them. Hannibal, Selina, and Nathanael gazed at the beast in awe and curiosity. Flying in front of them was a real draken, right down to the leathern wings and crested head crowned with great ivory-colored horns. Its dull reddish-gray color clashed with burning yellow eyes while its body stretching nearly fifty feet head to tail with a wing span of seventy-five feet.
“Oh, my word,” Nathanael chimed as the draken glided towards them. “What a magnificent animal.”
“It’s more than an animal, Dad,” Selina declared. “It’s a highly intelligent creature. I can sense it.”
Doug and Joshua noticed its approach and Joshua warned, “You guys might want to step back a little. Argus means to land.” Everyone moved back toward the passage as the draken swooped in and lighted on the edge of the cliff. It landed with its back legs first and allowed its wings to billow like a parachute as it settled on all fours with a thud that shook the ledge. It looked over toward the people, particularly at Joshua, folded its wings, and then raised its head up, which was nearly five feet across and full of eight-inch razor sharp teeth. Snorting slightly, the draken lumbered forward four steps.
The beast terrified most of Hannibal’s team. Arabella, petrified with terror, hid behind Morrison. All of Hannibal’s team with the exception of Hannibal, Selina, and Nathanael kept their hands on their weapons, but made no threatening gestures. Argus saw the terror in them and lowered its head, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. Joshua limped forward with Doug and spoke to the beast. “It’s good to see you, Argus,” he said amiably. “Have you been watching for us?”
Argus’ eyes seemed to smile as it showed some of its teeth in a smile, shaking its head yes. It looked Hannibal directly in the eye and Hannibal knew this was no ordinary animal…that it possessed a tremendous intelligence.
“You’re right, Selina,” Hannibal murmured in awe. “This is no ordinary animal.” He remembered the incident with the tiger at the Temple and the incident with the giant saber cat, deciding to step forward. Sensing Hannibal’s intention, Selina joined him, helping Hannibal walk to the draken. They approached the draken and stopped next to Joshua and Doug…a mere six feet away from the great beast, well within a lethal range if it decided to attack. Argus looked Hannibal in the eye, and then Selina. The skin and scales above its eye raised with interest. It then looked at Joshua and, to the surprise and amazement to all of Hannibal’s team, spoke legibly. “So, you have succeeded in your mission,” Argus said in a deep alto voice reflecting his male attributes. “The prophecy is being fulfilled. The Warrior and his Eleven have finally come. This is cause for celebration and much happiness.”
“Yes, it is,” Joshua replied as Selina and Hannibal looked at each other in amazement.
“But you have been injured,” Argus commented with concern. “What happened?”
“We’ve had great difficulty in getting here, fighting two major battles in as many days. The first with the Emperor’s Fifth Regiment at Cariias just outside of Solomon’s Passage and the second an hour or so ago just outside of the gateway. The Zarukars set upon us. It was Zebek and he knew who they were,” Joshua said, referring to Hannibal and his team. “Doug here managed to rescue us from their foul clutches before we were overwhelmed.”
“How many were there?” Argus asked bluntly.
“There had to be at least fifty,” Joshua answered. “The Zarukar set a trap for us, which is a change in their tactics. Something fundamental has changed with them. We have to let Nicodemus know. They may become a problem.”
“Yes, this is a serious development,” Argus agreed. “Nicodemus must know about it. Did any Zarukars escape?”
“No,” Doug stated. “This man here who calls himself Hannibal made sure of that by using an elemental attack he called a Firewall or Inferno, though he doesn’t know how he did it.”
“Is that so?” Argus asked, his tone reflecting his interest in Hannibal. “This is an interesting development. I didn’t think surface dwellers had elemental powers. It’s an ability that’s been lost for many millennia to those who aren’t servants of the Darkness. But we can explore this mystery later. Let’s show our visitors some courtesy. We seldom get visitors from the surface in Arionath.” Argus turned to Hannibal and Selina. Looking them in the eye, Argus announced, “I am Argus…the guardian of Arionath. Your arrival has been greatly anticipated and yearned for.” Argus saw how Hannibal was fidgeting with his hands and saw the hesitancy in his eye. “Go on. Touch me, Beowulf. I won’t hurt you,” he said pleasantly. “Maybe then I can tell if you are what Joshua and Doug claim.”
Hannibal’s face lit up with astonishment. “Why did you call me that?” he asked Argus as he slowly stepped forward.
Argus lowered his head to look Hannibal directly in the face. “I’m a draken, Beowulf…the last of my kind that I know of, and have lived for over twelve millennia,” he replied. “When you live as long as I have, you learn how deal with the world and the people in it.”
Hannibal pressed forward and as he was about to touch Argus, Selina told Hannibal telepathically, He’s telepathic. That’s how he knew that your codename was Beowulf.
Hannibal touched the great beast’s face and a sense of relief flooded him. He felt the coarse, rough draken scale, finding it harder than anything he’d seen on any living animal. As he touched Argus, Argus proved his ability by touching Hannibal’s mind telepathically, confirming Selina’s statement. In that brief contact, Hannibal saw the gentleness of Argus and a small portion of his great and ancient intelligence. Selina promptly touched Argus after Hannibal, receiving a similar touch from Argus. After satisfying their curiosity, they stepped back from him and Hannibal called to his team saying, “It’s all right. He’s as gentle as a lamb. Come on over and see for yourself. He won’t hurt you.”
Argus chuckled softly. “Welcome to Arionath, my friends,” he called out pleasantly. “And I can see Joshua and Doug spoke the truth about you, Hannibal. You have a strange aura about you filled with elemental power you don’t understand. I offer my services to help you discover why you are haunted by these and other things.”
“Thank you, great Argus,” Hannibal replied with a formal bow. “You see something in me I don’t know or understand at this point. Please, help me to find out who and what I am.”
Argus smiled. “No need to be so formal with me, Hannibal,” he replied. “You and your troop have been the subject of a prophecy older than your recorded history on the surface. But let’s set that aside for now. It’s time to prove to your friends there that I’m not a mythic figure of the imagination. Come, my friends. Touch me and know that I am real as you are, and will in no way hurt you.” Argus’ smooth intelligent alto voice reached many of Hannibal’s team, drawing them forward.
Slowly, Hannibal’s team came forward, gathering around Argus. Arabella remained petrified with terror, but managed to quell her fear enough to follow Morrison to Argus, staying behind him at all times. Argus lowered his massive head below theirs to be as non-threatening as possible. One at a time, as their courage came to them and with the assurance of Hannibal, Selina, and Joshua, they briefly touched him. With each, Argus carefully touched them telepathically to quell their fears about him.
Sam stepped forward when his courage overpowered his fear. “I don’t believe this. I’m touching a real living draken. Do you breathe fire?” he asked Argus after touching him.
“Yes,” Argus answered as more of Hannibal’s team moved forward to touch him. “A demonstration is in order. But first, let with the young lady there come forward. She has seen much that troubles her mind, causing great fear and uncertainty in her. Come forward, child. I will not hurt you. I do not hurt my friends.” Morrison and Arabella were standing back about eight paces and she clamped on to Morrison’s arm, staying hidden behind his back. “Bring her here, young man,” Argus ordered gently. By this time, only Morrison and Arabella had not touched Argus. All of Hannibal’s team urged them to do so. Morrison stifled his own fear by this time and moved toward Argus slowly, trying to lead Arabella to Argus. Hannibal and Selina had seen this kind of fear before with Mary and Harry when they first encountered the portal. Both of them flanked Arabella, gently grabbing her by the arms and guiding her to Argus as Morrison walked over to touch him. Hannibal and Selina spoke softly in her ear, reassuring her. Finally, they managed to get her within arms-reach of Argus. He settled on his belly, laying his head on the ground and remaining motionless as Hannibal and Selina coaxed Arabella’s hand out. Hannibal placed his hand on Argus’ snout again briefly, and then moved her hand to touch the ancient draken. Just before touching him, Arabella’s fear overwhelmed her and she tried to flee, bawling in terror, but Hannibal, Selina, and Morrison restrained her gently.
“Do you trust me?” Hannibal asked her, looking her square in the face while holding her arms in a firm but gentle grip as Selina and Morrison restrained her from behind. Fear and terror covered her face, tears flowing as she trembled, nodding yes. “You know I’d never allow anything to hurt you,” Hannibal reassured her. “Trust me. You were complaining about being lost in a fairy tale. Embrace the fairy tale with me. He will not hurt you. He’s incapable of hurting you. Come, let’s touch him together.” She looked Hannibal in the face and saw his great confidence. A tiny flicker of courage flashed in her heart. With tears of terror streaming down her face as she trembled uncontrollably, she nodded, allowing Hannibal to push her hand down to touch the side of Argus’ head. At the moment of contact, Argus touched Arabella telepathically and she broke down in relief, bawling like a little girl. Argus smiled slightly and raised his head just enough so she could look him in the eye.
With tears of gratitude and relief, she threw her arms around his head and laid her head on the side of his face. “Thank you! Thank you! You are truly a gentle soul,” she cried.
Argus let her cry on him for a few moments. When she backed off, he said, “You are so welcome, child. I’m happy I was able to help you overcome your fears.” Then to Joshua, he said, “I will go to Kaal Bek and inform them of your impending arrival. I’ll send someone out to meet you so you don’t have to walk all the way to the city with your wounds.”
“Thank you, Argus,” Joshua said as he leaned on Doug’s shoulder. “We’ll see you at the keep.”
“Yes,” Argus said as he stood up. “Oh, I almost forgot. The demonstration Mr. Harrison asked for before I leave.” He turned away from the group and growled with an ear-piercing roar. Hannibal watched intensely as Argus opened his mouth in the roar. Hannibal saw something spray out of Argus’ mouth, igniting in a great fireball once it got past his teeth. The fireball raced across the balcony and struck the cliff near its edge, sending pieces of rock and debris showering everywhere.
Hannibal’s team cursed with astonishment. “Holy shit!” Harry exclaimed. “Better not get on his bad side.”
“Fascinating,” Nathanael commented, “He’s using a combination of glandular secretions to make his fire.”
Argus turned to them and smiled broadly. “I’ll be seeing you this evening,” he declared. Joshua and Doug waved along with Hannibal, Selina, and Nathanael as Argus turned to face the open air. He spread his wings as he leapt into the air, plunging thirty feet before his wings caught the air, buoying him up. He flapped his wings and quickly gained altitude. Within two minutes, he was a mere speck in the sky heading for the city of Kaal Bek.
“So, what do you think of our friend there?” Joshua asked Hannibal.
“He’s incredible. Drakens…real drakens like him are merely myth on the surface,” Hannibal replied. “I have seen fossil evidence that proves they were real but every time the bones of one are found, they’re locked away, much like the bones of the giants we found on the surface. Then a cover story is concocted in case someone leaks the information. The people who’re in charge up there have an agenda that precludes and prevents discoveries like that from being shared with the rest of the world.”
“Why do they do that?” Doug asked.
“Control, Doug,” Hannibal answered, “control of the masses. The masters of the universe on the surface are trying to unite the world as it was in the days of Amacia. In order to do that, they think they have to have absolute mastery of everything and everyone. Apparently, they don’t want anyone to know creatures like Argus or the giants ever existed. It’s a long story that I may be able to share later. How far is the city?”
“Two leagues,” Joshua said, pointing to the far end of the valley as it became obvious the day was drawing to a close. “We were extremely fortunate to have made it into Arionath before dark. The Ancient of Days was certainly watching out for us.”
“Amen to that,” Hannibal agreed.
“Come,” Joshua ordered, starting down the mountain road to the valley floor with Doug. “Let’s get moving. We’re now in a safe area so we can relax. We should be at the city in a few hours if we have to walk the entire way. We’ll get there sooner if Argus follows through and sends us a reception.” Everyone quickly fell in behind Joshua and Doug.
“I’m sure you know what I’m hoping for,” Hannibal replied as Selina helped him walk.
“Me too,” Joshua agreed. “That battle with Zebek and his minions kicked my ass.”
Hannibal and Selina chuckled at the comment. Pausing a moment, Hannibal suddenly looked up at the mountain above them, sensing something watching from above.
“What is it?” Selina asked.
“I have that feeling we’re being watched again,” Hannibal murmured, not seeing anything on the mountainside above them. “It may be that saber cat again, but I’m not sure.”
“I don’t think we have to worry about him,” Selina stated as they started moving again. “If that cat didn’t kill you at the Xavier Singh’s tower when he had you dead to rights, I don’t think he’s going to kill you now.”
“We’ll just have to wait and see about that,” Hannibal replied wearily, his wounds and fatigue beginning to wear on him. “So far, I don’t sense any hostility coming from whatever’s watching us. I hope it stays that way because there’s no way I can best that cat. He’s just too big and intelligent.”
Selina gave him a loving squeeze as she helped him walk. “I hope so too,” she agreed.
Hannibal slowly fell in beside Arabella, Morrison, Ned, and Harry as they walked. “Are you all right, Arabella?” Hannibal asked her.
“Yes, I am now,” Arabella replied gratefully. “Thank you for helping me to conquer my fear. When I touched Argus, all my fears dissolved. I don’t know how it happened. It’s as if I could see into his mind, and see what kind of creature he really is. Is that the sort of thing that happens between you and Selina?”
“Sort of,” Hannibal replied. “He touched both me and Selina like that when we made contact with him. Argus is gentle as a kitten with a good heart and soul. I could feel it. That’s why I insisted that you touch him. I knew he’d show you his soul the way he showed me.”
“It felt weird, but I’m glad you made me touch him,” Arabella admitted. “If I hadn’t touched him, I would have never known what a gentle soul he was. Thank you so much.” She hugged him briefly with one arm as they walked.
“You’re welcome,” Hannibal replied. “It’s the least I could do after what we’ve been through in the last week. I’m really glad that you’re all right. We’re apparently among friends here. Tonight we should have a good meal, a good soft place to sleep, and we’ll not have to fear someone or something coming to get us in the night.” He put an arm around her and gave her a friendly squeeze before going on to speak to the rest of his team individually.
Hannibal asked them how they were fairing and whether they regretted coming with him. In each case, they told him how tired they were and how much they hurt, but they all told him that they didn’t regret coming with him. What Thomas said summed up their feeling on coming with him. After asking him whether he regretted coming, Thomas told Hannibal this: “Are you kidding? Most people don’t ever get a chance to have an adventure like this. I don’t regret coming with you in the least. Thanks for letting me be part of this expedition.”
Hannibal smiled and patted Thomas on the back, saying, “You’re welcome, Thomas.”
Selina walked along side of Hannibal as they slowly followed Joshua and Doug down the winding road to the valley floor. She latched on to Hannibal’s arm and sighed as they looked over the valley in the slowly diminishing daylight. “Thus ends one phase of our journey and another begins,” she declared. “It’s such a beautiful place to end our travels too.”
“It is,” Hannibal agreed wearily. “But often beautiful places hide the most heinous evil. I know this from experience. I hate to say it, but I feel we’re fixing to walk into a world of shit here. Getting here was the easy part. Now, we’re going to find out why I was really led down here. We must be careful. Nothing is as it seems in this place.”
“And we will,” Selina reassured him. “I promise you that.”
Hannibal smiled warmly at Selina as they walked with their team following Joshua and Doug into the mysterious land of Arionath where shadowy ancient secrets lurk waiting to set Hannibal’s destiny in motion, putting the fate of humanity in the balance. As they moved on, a massive four-legged shadow with strange ice-blue eyes crouched in the underbrush far above them on the mountainside, watching intently as Hannibal and his team followed Joshua and Doug down into Arionath into the unknown. It growled softly before moving on and disappearing into the terrain.
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