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29- The Altar
Stone stepped off the path and headed for the center of the arena. All around, columns of mist converged on him, but he moved too fast for most of them to reach him before he flew on by. Occasionally, one would reach out with a foggy tendril, seeking to grab hold of him, but he leapt through them. Their touch chilled him to the bone, but he scarcely felt it, so concentrated was his will and so focused was he on his goal. Nothing could deter him, and he would not let the sinister magic of this place make him doubt himself again.
Up ahead, the mist began to clear, and he found himself standing before a ring of stone triptychs. For a brief instant, he wondered if he’d been transported to Stonehenge, but he quickly noticed that, unlike its European counterpart, this place was fully intact. Each stone was pristine, set firmly in its place, and cut with a precision worthy of the great pyramids of Egypt.
At the center of the ring, Samman stood behind a stone altar, his thickly muscled arms folded across his broad chest. Trinity lay writhing atop the altar. She wasn’t held down by ropes, but tendrils of mist.
Stone didn’t hesitate. He stopped, drew his Webley, and took aim. He was a crack shot and the distance would be no problem for him, familiar as he was with this weapon.
He squeezed the trigger.
“Your weapons do not work here,” Samman called. “You cannot even pick up a rock and strike me with it. The arena would turn your blow.”
Stone had no reason to doubt the man’s words. “I don’t need a weapon.” He continued to stride toward the altar.
Samman smirked. “We shall find out soon enough. You are swift, but you cannot outrun the mists inside the circle. They answer my call.”
So, Samman didn’t suspect that Stone could resist the power of the arena. He would have to use that to his favor.
“I just might be faster than you think.”
“Perhaps,” Samman said, “but can you outrun the mists while carrying your woman? I assure you she is in no condition to move on her own.”
“What do you want with her? She’s done nothing to you. I’m the one who brought her here.”
“It is not a question of blame. I hate all outsiders, as I hate all Ogygians who allow outsiders to enter our city. So, I must kill you.” Samman glanced down at Trinity. “All of you.”
“If you were going to kill her, you would have done it already.” Stone hoped that was true.
“I will see to her after she has watched me kill you. It seems you are a source of hope and resolve for her, and a defiant spirit will not increase my power. She must submit to my will before she dies. Only then, I may control her spirit in the arena.”
Stone narrowed his eyes. “You’ve killed in the arena before.”
“You are not as foolish as I thought. It is true. Many of the men who ventured here might have survived, but I made sure they did not. By breaking their spirits before death, I control them. It is the nature of the Arena of Souls. Soon my power will be so great that it will extend beyond the arena, and I can wield it in Ogygia. Then I shall bend them to my will.” He paused. “I dared not try to kill your friends during the battle as I had originally planned. They were armed and there were too many witnesses about. I will, instead, deal with them after you are dead. I assume you brought them into the arena with you?” He grinned.
Stone had heard enough. He had to get to Samman before the man realized that Stone could not be affected by the mist. Once he made that realization, Trinity would be the only leverage he had, and there was no telling what he might do. If his power in the arena was as great as he claimed, he might be able to kill her before Stone could do anything about it.
Stone charged forward. Immediately, Samman sent tendrils of mist whipping out at him. Stone cried out in feigned shock and surprise, and leapt to the side. As the tendrils flayed him, he staggered and whirled about, batting at them as if he could knock them away.
“You remain on your feet,” Samman said in the clinical tone of a zoologist discussing the behavior of a wild animal. “That is more than I expected, but this is only a fraction of my power.” He raised his hands above his head and the tendrils dissipated, as did those torturing Trinity. She sat up weakly on the altar, saw Stone, and cried out.
“Brock! Get out of here! Leave me!” Even in the face of terror and impending death, she remained courageous.
Samman swept his hands in a wide arc, and a dozen ghostly figures appeared behind him.
Despite their vaporous forms, Stone could tell they were natives. These must be the spirits of the men Samman had killed. He had only an instant to register this thought before the ghostly figures charged him.
Despite the utter control he held over his mind, he felt the spirits’ touch. Each seemed to burn his flesh as they collided with him. His grunts of pain were genuine, and it took all his strength to remain on his feet, staggering to and fro, each stumble bringing him closer to the altar.
Trinity continued to call his name, her cries causing him greater pain than the assaults by his ethereal attackers.
“Do not despair,” Samman said over the sounds of their voices. “You should take pride in how well he is doing. No man ever stood up to my attacks as long as he has. Of course, it must end soon.”
The icy streaks of pain that striped his flesh intensified. Stone brought his hands up to cover his face and began to thrash around. He reeled toward the sound of Trinity’s voice until he felt his foot strike the altar.
He opened his eyes to see Samman standing before him. Shock registered on Samman’s face as Stone struck him full force on the chin. The spirits faded into nothingness as Samman wobbled backward. Stone pursued him, lashing out with a series of kicks and punches that put him down on his hands and knees.
“Mercy,” he pleaded. “I am beaten.”
Stone hesitated. He knew he should finish it—end Samman’s life so he could never kill again, but to kill a surrendering enemy went against everything he believed in. He’d seen enough of that in the Great War.
“Kill him, Stone,” Alex said. He and Moses had made it to the arena. “Then get us out of here. Neither of us has much left.” Beside him, Moses leaned against a triptych, breathing heavily.
For an instant, Stone wondered if he could carry Samman back to Ogygia to face justice and still make it back in time to get his friends to safety, but he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them behind again.
He was spared the necessity of making a decision when Trinity stepped forward and smashed Samman’s temple with a stone the size of her head.
“I guess he was lying about the arena turning rocks aside.” She dropped the stone on the ground alongside Samman’s lifeless body and brushed her hands on her pant legs. “I thought you were a goner for sure, but you were faking, weren’t you? How did you manage?”
Stone quickly explained how he and the others had managed to stave off the worst effects of this valley of the dead.
Trinity swallowed hard. “I’ll try it. Now, how do we get out of here?”
“According to Akente, there’s one way off this island.” Stone scanned the horizon, but the cloud of mist obscured the skyline. He pictured his grandfather’s map in his mind and immediately identified a natural harbor at the island’s northwest corner. He didn’t need to see the sky to know which direction to go, and he led his friends in a straight line toward that spot.
Ten minutes later, the mist suddenly ended at a row of alien-looking trees. In the distance, the water of the harbor sparkled in the sunlight.
“Thank you, Lord.” Moses dropped to one knee and slumped over, gasping for breath. Beside him, Alex sank to the ground, similarly exhausted.
“What now?” Trinity rested her head against Stone’s chest, and he wrapped her in a tight embrace.
Before he could reply, Trinity shrieked. All around them, the trees had come to life. The closest one leaned toward them, its giant leaves opening up to reveal a blood-red mouth lined with green, teeth-like spikes. He had been mistaken. They weren’t trees at all.
“Venus flytraps!” He drew his hunting knife and sliced a clean gash through the mouth of the flytrap. The entire plant shuddered, and then attacked with fury. He leapt backward and felt an icy shock. They were pinned between the deadly mist and the carnivorous plants. “Follow me!” He took Trinity by the hand and ran along the line of writhing, hungry flora. Moses and Alex drew their machetes and hacked away at the plants as they ran.
At the end of the cluster of flytraps, they hit a sheer rock ledge that ran all the way to the water. It was the end of the line. Time for what Trinity would call an act of heroism though he considered it more an act of desperation. Stone sheathed his knife and turned to the others.
“Give me the machetes and get ready to run for the beach when I give the word.” Moses and Alex appeared too tired to argue. They surrendered the long blades with barely a word of protest.
“Whatever happens, don’t try to help me. I want you two to get Trinity home safely. The thing that matters most to me is that the three of you survive, and hopefully continue on the path my grandfather set for me.” He slid his rucksack off his shoulder and handed it to Trinity. “I wish I had time to explain, but what’s inside might be of more importance than any of us could imagine.”
“I understand.” Trinity’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. She kissed him gently and then stepped back. “Give ‘em hell, big boy.”
Stone grimaced and turned to face the last Venus flytrap. Its mouths opened and snapped closed again only feet from where he stood.
“Ready?” He tensed and then leapt forward, whirling the machetes in a blur of flashing steel. He slashed and parried, slicing through the gaping maws. He moved on instinct, his muscles flowing into the forms of the sword dances he had learned from the Tibetan monks. The attack slowed, and he called out to his friends, “Now!”
The flytrap sprang back to life and Stone moved like a caravan guard, putting his body and blades between the predator and his friends. The spikes scored his flesh as he fought with concentrated fury. Behind him, Trinity shrieked and Alex cursed loudly. Stone moved toward the sound, hacking away. One of the mouths snapped closed inches from his knee, and he dodged, slamming into the rock ledge. He wouldn’t last much longer.
“We’re through!” Moses shouted. “Come on!”
Stone dove forward toward the base of the deadly plant, rolled, and came up on the balls of his feet. He leapt toward the beach and the last remaining mouth snapped closed on empty air where his foot had been an instant before. He felt sand beneath him and cool salt air against his cheeks and he knew he was free.
Trinity ran to embrace him, but pushed him away.
“You’re all bloody,” she said. “Let me see.” He permitted her to inspect his wounds, and she soon proclaimed him fit for travel. “Nothing too serious.” Her countenance suddenly darkened. “Alex is another story.”
A few feet away, Alex lay on the sand while Moses bound Alex’s wrist with strips of cloth he’d torn from his shirt. Blood soaked the fabric. Stone’s heart fell at the sight.
“He’s gonna need a tourniquet,” Moses said. “That thing done bit his hand clean off.”
Stone knelt alongside his friend. “Alex, I’m so sorry. I don’t have the words.”
Dazed from the shock of his wound, Alex looked up at him through glassy eyes. “It’s all right,” he grunted. “I’ve always wanted a hook hand. Like the pirates we used to pretend to be down at the river when we were kids.”
Stone almost managed a smile.
“Just wrap me up and let me rest while you figure out our next move.”
“I think the next move is obvious,” Trinity said.
All around lay the wreckage of various ships, boats, and rafts. Stone recognized a Viking longboat, a Phoenician hippoi, even a Civil War-era ironclad—all victims of the Triangle, swept to this place by whatever mysterious forces controlled this part of the sea.
“I think that one will fit the bill.” He pointed to a wooden lifeboat that sat on the shore as if left there just for them. The craft appeared to be in immaculate condition: the rudder and oars were in place, and its white paint gleamed in the sun. A red flag with a white star was emblazoned on each side of the stern—the emblem of White Star Line, the oceanic navigation company. Above the flag on the port side was the word “Liverpool.” On the starboard side…
“SS Titanic,” Trinity whispered.
“Well, I’ll be John Brown,” Moses murmured.
Alex opened his eyes and squinted at the boat. “I hope that isn’t an omen.”
“The ship sank, but this boat made it all the way here,” Stone said. “I’ll take that as a good sign.”
An hour later, their boat, still anchored off the coast, appeared on the horizon.
“Almost there,” Alex murmured. He lay slumped against the gunwale while Trinity manned the rudder, and Stone and Moses hauled at the oars.
“Well, Mister Brock Stone,” Trinity began, “what are you going to do when we finally make it home? Going to disappear again?”
Stone shook his head. “Not exactly, but I have a feeling I’ll be doing a lot of traveling in the future.” He described what he had seen in the cave, finishing with his conclusion that some undiscovered…power, for lack of a better term, posed a threat to the world. “I don’t know what that threat is, or what it all means, but my grandfather clearly took it seriously, and he believed I could do something about it.” He turned to Trinity. “I guess this means you won’t be seeing much of me.”
“Not so fast.” She raised her index finger. “I’m in this now. Where you go, I go.”
“Same goes for me,” Moses said.
“I’ll lend a hand.” Alex raised his bandaged stump. “Wait, I don’t seem to have one to spare.”
Despite his reservations, Stone had to laugh. Whatever faced him in the future, it was good to know he wouldn’t be alone.