Chapter Twenty-Three – An Unexpected Enemy
The last days of autumn arrived. Leaves were losing their green colour, turning various shades of brown, red and gold. The clouds above the valley took on a gunmetal appearance as ice crystals formed deep inside them. Soon the first snow of winter would cover the land. Akhen and the rescue team spent days preparing for the arduous overland journey that lay before them, north to the frozen tundra. Taking the Bentu up there was ruled out for two reasons. The first was the danger involved in flying over the mountains with winter almost here. Misakk stated the obvious, “Just fly above the clouds. A simple hop would cut weeks of the trip.” However, the second reason put paid to that idea. The tundra, despite being permafrost, was also marshy, which meant there was no safe landing place for anything as heavy as the Bentu.
The day for their departure arrived. As the crawler stood ready on the snow-covered ground outside the community lodge, Akhen and the team said their goodbyes. Apis slammed the crawler into gear and drove past the ships towards the foothills of the mountains. Nusaan accurately guided them through the valleys and high alpine pastures to a high mountain pass at the summit of the range. Below them, on either side of the range, the land was covered by a cotton wool blanket of cloud pierced by mountain peaks, like islands in a vast ocean.
Two weeks after they set out, the crawler had entered the no man’s land between solid ground and the tundra. After establishing a base camp on the insect infested marshy edge of the tundra, the team relaxed before going on. Akhen and Besal sat watching Seti prepare the evening meal. Nusaan and Apis spoke quietly together, illuminated by Seti’s cooking fire.
“Just how insane is Hoetep?” Apis asked.
Nusaan sat for a long time pushing glowing embers back into the fire with a twig before answering. “His madness is worse than when the Drana commandos act like wild animals so intent on killing, so juiced up with adrenalin they’re almost invincible in battle,” Nusaan explained. “And another thing, he’s developed powers I’ve never seen before!”
“You mean the powers all Nephile have like levitation, extrasensory perception and the like?” Apis asked.
“No, your powers are benign. His are malevolent. Yes, he still has the powers most Nephile possess, but now they have been transformed into deadly weapons. Shu is the one thing that keeps him relatively calm. So long as she’s with him, his insane anger burns slowly like flameless fire through damp wood. He’s obsessed with serving her and she uses that to try to control his outbursts. I suppose she feels guilty for letting him translate the scrolls unchecked – who knows?” he said, with a shrug of his powerful shoulders.
A thick fog covered the camp in the early dawn of the next day, chilling any exposed flesh through to the bone. Despite the warmth from the rekindled fire, Seti shivered as he prepared breakfast. Later, huddled together for warmth inside the crawler’s cab, the friends decided how best to deal with the now formidable Hoetep when they eventually came upon him.
“If we have to, we must kill him,” Akhen said, resigned to the fact that Hoetep was changed forever.
Besal and Seti looked at each other in astonishment. “Akhen, we can’t! We promised the others that no matter how dangerous the situation, we would bring him home!” Seti said forcefully. The others nodded in agreement. Killing Hoetep was out of the question.
“Alright then, explain to me how you overpower a possessed wild animal?” Akhen said, in a hushed voice, borrowing the word from Nusaan’s explanation the night before.
“Perhaps we can trap him,” Besal offered. “I could build a simple spring trap. All you have to do is lead him to it!”
“Who says he will even let us get close to him?” Apis thought out loud. The cab went quiet.
“Well – has anyone got any bright ideas?” Akhen asked, hastily clearing the condensation from the cab windows to ease his frustration.
“What about this!” Seti said, producing the latest inventive adaptation from the brilliant mind of Tosar. It was a small rectangular metal box, about the size of a man’s fist.
“What is it?” Besal asked, taking the strange looking device from Seti.
“It’s a containment forcefield,” Seti explained. “Tosar played around with the forcefield technology used by us and the Drana and came up with this. He reckoned that if we ever met up with anything dangerous in the future it might come in handy.”
“How good is it?” Apis asked.
“Come outside, everyone, and I’ll show you,” Seti replied, with a grin. He walked over to a dead tree trunk and placed the device at its base, then rejoined the group back at the crawler. Reaching inside his thick coat, he produced a small control device with a red light and two buttons. He pressed the first button and the light came on. “Now watch,” he said, as he pressed the second. An impenetrable dome, twenty meters in diameter, shimmered like a soap bubble in the weak sunlight, encasing the tree and the surrounding shrubs and marsh plants. “All right Akhen, take your best shot. Fire at it!” Seti said, grinning. Akhen brought his disrupter to his shoulder and aimed. The dome’s skin absorbed the lethal charge. “Everybody try. Only this time, do it together,” Seti said, from where he perched on the crawlers engine cover, enjoying the moment. For twenty minutes the dome’s skin absorbed fusillades of shots from all their weapons. In frustration, Apis drove the crawler at the dome in an attempt to ram his way through it with no success. “Well, what do you think?” Seti had that smug look of his on his face.
“Alright, we’ll give it a try, if only to shut you up!” Akhen said.
Nusaan led the way across the treacherous marsh, following narrow pathways that twisted and turned their way between bottomless black pools for the next three hours. They finally set foot on the relatively hard ground of an island in the middle of the tundra, underpinned by the impenetrable permafrost. Akhen’s senses told him Hoetep was nearby. He motioned to the team to stop and sat with his back to a tree stump in the middle of a glade. Concentrating on the mental picture of Hoetep, he attempted to pinpoint his whereabouts. In response, Hoetep’s mind penetrated his.
For the first time in his life, Akhen was scared. He sensed that Hoetep was more powerful than even Nusaan had imagined, and he was on his way to annihilate them. The containment device was quickly set up and the team hid as best they could and lay in wait. A ghostly silence descended on the glade, broken only by the sound of mosquito-like insects as they flew back and forth in the sunlight in search of prey.
For over an hour no one moved. The glade looked deserted. Then a spine chilling cry announced Hoetep’s arrival. He burst into the glade, naked except for a small loincloth suspended by a thin cord round his waist and a helmet on his head, brandishing an ancient sword in his bearlike right hand. Gone was the old Hoetep. In his place stood a formidable warrior. His eyes darted from side to side as he sniffed the air. The magnificent toned muscles of his body were taut, and despite the freezing temperature, he was bathed in sweat. The pyramid spun slowly above him. Saliva ran down his beard, and hung for a moment before dropping to his muscular chest. His eyes were like glowing jewels shining out from his helmet. Around his thick muscular neck he wore a gleaming torque inscribed with the ancient language of Shu’s people. Across his back hung an embossed circular shield made from an unknown metal, suspended by a strap across his shoulders. In his huge left hand, he held a staff. Its head was shaped like one of the birdlike creatures Mdjat had described. In the creature’s beak a crystal glowed with the same light that emanated from his eyes. “Come out, Akhen, it’s so good to see you again.” His cruel voice almost spat out the words. “Don’t be afraid. I know you are, but don’t be,” Hoetep hissed. An evil smile crept across his face as he slowly turned toward where Akhen lay hidden behind the tree stump where the device sat.
Akhen stood up. “Hoetep, old friend, I’ve come to take you home,” he said, as calmly as he could.
“Huh – you’re lying, you have something else in mind!” Hoetep’s altered voice replied. Twisting his head slightly to one side then back, he concentrated his powers on Akhen. In the grip of Hoetep’s powerfully cruel mind, Akhen’s very being was put through hell. Finished with torture for the moment, he discarded Akhen, sending him flying through the air like a rag doll. When Hoetep took a step forward, Seti triggered the device.
Apis helped Akhen to his feet as the men stood a short distance away from the dome, looking at Hoetep inside it. He sat with his back to the tree stump beside the device, studying it closely, taking no notice of his former friends. “What now,” Seti asked, in a trembling voice. “We can’t move him and the dome together. How do we overpower him?”
“We can’t,” Akhen said, nursing his aching head in his hands. “He’s too powerful. It won’t take him long to figure a way out of the dome. Our best move is to get out of here as quickly as we can!” Akhen replied as he started running back the way they had come. The others spun on their heels and followed.
Akhen’s prophecy proved true. Hoetep freed himself from the containment and began stalking them like a Selian shadow cat. As they approached the crawler, his trap was set. Apis leapt behind the controls of the crawler while the rest scrambled aboard. “Hang on to something,” he said, as he drove the crawler as fast as it would go.
“Not again!” Seti yelled, bouncing across the cab.
Fifty meters in front of them stood Hoetep with his staff aimed directly at them. “What now; where do we go?” screamed Apis, stamping his foot on the brake and bringing the crawler to a skidding stop a few meters in front of the warrior.
“Turn around quickly – take that track to the east,” Besal shouted.
The crawler lurched across the uneven ground in a desperate effort to get away. Once again, Hoetep stood in its path with his staff at the ready. The crawler reversed back the way it had come, throwing anyone not holding onto something to the floor. Again, Hoetep stood in its path. I’m running out of places to go, Akhen!” Apis yelled, trying to control the violent bouncing movement of the crawler. Then the decision was taken away from them. Growing tired of the amusement, Hoetep pointed the staff at the crawler, and lifted the vehicle bodily high into the air. From their lofty perch, they looked out the cab windows as the crawler drifted above Hoetep’s head. He walked back to the island, and beyond, to a low outcrop of rock surrounded by his drawings of the bird creatures. Lowering the crawler onto the outcrop, he released the staff’s hold. The crawler was powerless to move. Its tracks hung down on either side of the rock. Hoetep sat cross-legged, looking at the trapped vehicle and the men inside it for a long time. Then folding his arms he began chanting while his eyes glazed over as he entered a trance-like state.
“What’s he doing?” Seti whispered, while they watched his every move. The pyramid spun slowly, embracing Hoetep in its green glow. Dusk descended on the tundra. He was still deep in his trance. Pointing to the door on the other side of the vehicle Akhen motioned to Besal to open it. As quietly as he could, Besal began to turn the handle.
Hoetep’s eyes opened. “It’s time to take your place in hell!” he hissed softly. Lifting the staff from his lap, he pointed it at the base of the rock outcrop. The permafrost melted instantly, allowing the rock and its passengers to fall beneath the tundra surface. The rapid descent ended with a violent crash signalling journey’s end in total darkness below the permafrost.
Next time – Chapter Twenty-Four