When Hanno returned to the stern, they drew close enough to the smoke-filled shore to see the flames.
The fires stretched all along the cliff-edged horizon. Trees burnt to cinders and glowing embers. Sparks and ruby-like coals fell into the sea, adding a sulfuric haze to the rising smoke. The flames spread up the hills, burning in great torrents that flowed to the cliffs and fell into the waves.
“Has Seer followed us?” Hanno asked.
“How would it have done that?” Bostar replied.
“It’s just a brush fire,” Liva countered. “People burn wide areas to help clear the grass and prepare next year’s growth.”
Distant shapes danced amidst the bonfires, as if confirming Liva’s hypothesis. But the shapes did not appear to be those of men. They had far too long hair, and some had wings, while some butted horns with each other while frolicking through the flames.
“Have you heard of people with such practices?” Hanno asked Liva.
The Lixitae shook her head.
“Hurry the oars. Let’s not spend any more time here than we have to,” Hanno ordered.
Jabnit swallowed her fear and played the tune. The king himself manned the sail while Bostar kept an arrow nocked and his eyes on the burning coast.
The fires never dimmed all through the day, and by the coming of the night their glow hid the stars. The land appeared to be melting, its liquefied surface flowing into the ocean to sizzle and boil.
So great was the heat that it churned even the winds. But this turned boon and bane to the trireme. The waves increased in size from the dry gusts, but with Artemisia’s expert hand at the rudders the trireme split the currents and kept the winds in the sails. With such light as the coast offered, and with the air to push them, they found no need to halt their progress. But even if they’d wanted to beach, the heat kept them from reaching the shore.
They never made land during that first day, nor the next. The rowers slept beneath the ship when they could, taking their posts in shifts, while the sails kept them steadily southward.
The next morning, the strange creatures reappeared at the fires’ edge. They stood atop the smoldering cliffs, immune to the flames, and waved their arms and wings and claws at the trireme.
Hanno tried to shake the image out of his eyes, thinking the dancers a phantom of his little sleep, but they remained.
“What do they want?” Hanno asked Liva.
She swallowed and shook her head.
“You know what I desire, Liva?” Hanno asked.
“What?” she replied.
“I desire all these things. All the things Seer showed. All the treasures and powers of the world. And Liva of the Lixitae by my side.”
“Do you truly?”
“Even if it burns your city?”
“That will not happen.”
“Seer showed us the future.”
“He showed us deceit,” Hanno countered, and placed Liva’s hands in his palms. “Nothing more.”
Liva shook her head. “And what of my greatest desires?” she asked.
“You wished for power, as far as I saw.”
“We both want impossible things.”
“And I am king of the impossible.”
“Then what will that make me? The impossible man’s queen?”
Liva pulled her hands away.
“I need to find a place to sleep,” she said.
“Liva,” Hanno pressed.
“Seer lied. I will rule Carthage, and I will make you my queen,” Hanno vowed.
Liva swallowed, the smoke hiding her tears.
All day they sailed along the burning coast. Birds followed them in strange flocks. The creatures landed on the coast and there spawned more dancing animals.
They found no spot to make land. The shipwrights worked all through the night to keep the timbers from soaking through. They sealed up leaks, daring lanterns below deck to monitor the hull at night. All the while the cliffs burned, lighting their journey and pushing the dry winds into their sails.
On the morning of the third day, haggard from his sparse rest, Hanno went to the railing where Bostar stood.
“The ship’s holding well. Artemisia knows how to handle a vessel,” the bowman said.
The helmsman slept at the stern, sitting upright with her back against the railing as if waiting for the need for her to awaken.
“Even she won’t hold this vigilance for long,” Hanno said.
“And Liva?” Bostar asked.
“She seems fine.”
“She’s not though.”
“She shouldn’t let Seer get to her.”
“And what am I to make of it, King?” Bostar asked.
“Seer was deceit.”
“And if not?”
“You see an image in a well and call it prophecy?”
“I don’t know what I call it,” Bostar admitted. “But it did show me dead.”
“It showed you winged as well, my friend.”
“How can such a thing happen?”
“How can a Lixitae woman become queen of Carthage?”
“You care for her. I see this,” Bostar continued.
“Any can see this,” Hanno agreed.
“She must know the honor she’ll receive by me.”
“She had honor. From her people at least. She fled it.”
“She need not flee me.”
“Seer gave her a reason to. What are her reasons for staying?”
Hanno stared at the low waves, hoping to see something more welcome in the deeper waters.
“I admit…” Bostar said. “Hanno, we have been friends our whole lives. We shared home and bed and joy and sorrow in equal measure. I consider myself your arm.”
“More than an arm, my friend,” Hanno replied.
Bostar held up his hand. “I do not wish to die.”
“You won’t. Don’t believe what Seer showed.”
“I must admit I’m failing to do so.”
Bostar placed his hands on the king’s shoulders and held his focus.
“You have been the strength of will I need. And I hope I have been the shield you need to cover your efforts,” said the bowman.
“You are, always,” said the king.
“And I need your will in this endeavor. I’m afraid, Hanno. Afraid to die for you.”
“I’d never ask it of you.”
“You never need ask.”
Hanno frowned. “It won’t happen,” he challenged.
“Give me this vow, Hanno. Be the will we need. Be the king I need. And I can swallow all fears,” Bostar said.
“Do you doubt me in this?”
“Just promise me, Hanno.”
Hanno placed his hands on the bowman’s, and eased them off his shoulders.
“You have my promise,” the king said.
Bostar bit his lip, and nodded.
“You are not convinced?” Hanno asked.
Bostar shook his head. “I am convinced,” he said, and leaned against the railing. “The crew… they may need more convincing. Liva too.”
Hanno leaned against the railing beside his friend, and spotted a platform of rock jutting out against the burning cliffs. Smoke curtained the platform so that it appeared to be floating above the flames. The creatures stood upon it, and looked down at the approaching platform.
Bostar readied his bow and Hanno drew his sword.
“Marines!” Hanno called out.
The groggy men roused to Jabnit’s piping alarm, hardening their resolve and hoisting their spears.
But the beast men never moved. Instead, they turned away from the trireme.
“Stay clear of them,” Hanno ordered the now awake Artemisia.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Liva asked. She ran to the railing and spotted the creatures.
A new sound echoed against the cliffs. Along with the never-ending crackle of the consuming flames and crashing waves came the chirps and squeals, the roars and shouts of the beast men.
It sounded like wild nonsense to the ears of the crew, but Liva frowned at the noise.
The beast men stopped their chanting, and fell on their knees.
A bird, larger than the others, landed in their midst, and rose to become a wild-haired man missing his left ear.
“It can’t be,” Liva gasped.
The one-eared man shouted down at the trireme.
“Gorillae,” Hanno said, recognizing the maimed foe.
“He says we must worship,” Liva translated.
“Worship whom?” Bostar asked.
“I shall worship no man or beast. Remind him of this, Liva,” Hanno demanded.
Before she could speak, though, the Gorillae fell to his knees. His skin trembled and a skin of shadows fell over his back, transforming him into a wolf the size of an elephant. It let out a tremendous howl, then laid down its snout in reverence.
The creatures around him resumed their chant, bowing and rising and bowing again to the southern horizon.
“They’re saying Chariot of the Gods,” Liva translated.
“This is the object they worship?” Hanno asked.
“That’s what they’re chanting.”
“I see no chariot.”
Bostar pulled back his arrow.
“They’re too far away,” he said.
“The rocks prevent our coming closer,” Hanno said, and pointed to the wave-striking boulders at the platform’s base, as well as the fires raging all around it.
“Perhaps they know this,” Liva guessed.
The great wolf howled down at the trireme, then returned to its human form. The Gorillae pointed to the crew and shouted louder than seemed capable for a man to speak.
“Foul beast. Chretes is dead! Tell him that, Liva,” Hanno said. “Tell him the source of his power is gone.”
Liva did so, and the beast master laughed. He roared back in his hateful tongue.
“He says their power comes from the Chariot of the Gods, not Chretes. They only siphoned immortality from the titan,” Liva translated.
“So you are mortal now,” Hanno mocked. “I will take you piece by piece or whole, but you will be destroyed!”
The Gorillae shouted back.
“He says he will forgive Chretes’s death as he has been commanded, and that if we worship the Chariot of the Gods we will be spared,” Liva translated. “He commands us to bow before the shadows and not challenge the darkness.”
“Tell him we have already defeated the shadows and him,” Hanno vowed. “Come face me and you will—”
The quaking ground silenced the king. Great rocks tumbled over each other to crash into the sea, and Artemisia had to turn the trireme further into the wave-kicked ocean to avoid their fall.
The platform, however, was unaffected, and the creatures there fell to their knees and resumed their chanting.
The earthquake grew stronger, and along the distant southern horizon, a red blaze blossomed through the clouds. It rose higher and higher, until smoke concealed it. But the creatures and the Gorillae continued their worship, bowing and singing to the spot where the fire had spawned.
The one-eared Gorillae shouted one last time before transforming into the dark, massive wolf, laying his snout at the ground before the cloud-hidden horizon.
“He repeats that if we worship Chariot we will be spared,” Liva translated.
“How far away was that?” Hanno asked.
“Its source falls below the curve of the earth,” Bostar answered.
“Far away then.”
“Would that be the Chariot of the Gods?”
“It didn’t look like any chariot I’ve ever seen.”
The trembling subsided, but the fires grew along the coast.
The ship passed beyond the rocky platform, the crackling flames and falling embers deafening the sound of the still-praising creatures.
“Hanno,” Artemisia said as she approached the king. “We’re running out of time to find a landing spot.”
“There doesn’t appear to be any,” Bostar noted. Though the bowman had returned his arrow to his quiver, he kept his weapon ready, and his eyes on the retreating platform.
“If these fires continue, we’ll spring enough leaks we’ll either have to swim home or burn on the coast,” the helmsman pressed.
Hanno frowned at the fearful expressions on his marines. They cowered away from the rail, and kept glancing at the unbroken wall of cliffs, sweat on their brows.
“I have full confidence in your abilities to keep this ship afloat, Helmsman,” Hanno reassured her.
“I don’t,” Artemisia grumbled.
“Are you suggesting we turn back?”
“I’m informing you that we’re in trouble.”
“We’ve already traveled three days without stopping. If we turn back, we’ll have three days more.”
“I can keep the trireme afloat that long. But much longer…”
“The coast of Africa has not defeated us yet.”
“It might. And I don’t know what that red thing those creatures were worshipping was, but I’m not thrilled about rowing toward it.”
“The Chariot of the Gods is what they called it,” Hanno shared. “Know its name, and fear it not.” The king nodded at Bostar. “We row south.”
Bostar returned the nod.
Artemisia frowned, and Liva bit her lip.
“You heard the king,” Bostar added. “We return to Carthage once we’ve found his treasure and not a moment before.”
Hanno locked eyes with Liva.
“Correct. Keep the men pushing, Artemisia. We’ll find a landing spot soon enough,” Hanno commanded.
All day long the fires raged. Had there not been cliffs to bar their landing, the flames would have been wall enough to keep the trireme far from shore. The stone heights reflected the heat and kept the ship deep into the dark waters.
Dead fish floated all along the shore, while schools fled to colder depths.
When night came, a red dot joined the stars of the southern horizon. It grew and grew, a flashing signpost leading them on.
Bio: I once snuck into a castle. It wasn’t a terribly good castle. In fact it was quite old and broken, but it had a shut door I wasn’t supposed to go through. Yet through it I went. I climbed an ancient wall I shouldn’t have climbed, wandered across borders without using the approved path, and was handed a silver trophy for a contest I wasn’t allowed to enter. From my time growing up in the Missouri Ozarks to my travels abroad, I couldn’t help going places and doing things I probably shouldn’t. Perhaps more of those doors needed 'Keep Out' signs, or if they did have signs they should have been locked, and if they had been locked they shouldn’t have hidden such amazing things that made going through them so worthwhile. I currently live in Springfield, Missouri, where I teach Marketing, study History, and, alongside my wonderful wife, make a valiant attempt at passing through the doorway of writing.