“What?” Artemisia asked.
“We just barely survived our first encounter, and you want to face the mountain again?” Bostar asked.
“Onward we could go, but one day we’ll have to go backward, Bostar,” Hanno noted. “We’ll have to return to this mountain if we want to return to Carthage, and I expect to be laden with treasure by then. Turn around.”
“You can’t fight a mountain, Hanno,” Liva warned.
“I am Hanno of Carthage. Have you forgotten?”
“I have faced titans and pillars and gods and subdued them all. I shall not call it a success to have simply run away.”
Hanno swung the port rudder long against the water and turned the trireme about.
Chariot of the Gods witnessed this, and let out a low rumble of approval.
“We shall strike at the heart of this colossus and fell it like the others,” Hanno urged, and drew his sword.
Bostar readied his bow without a second word.
Liva swallowed, but stood beside the king.
“What do you expect us to do?” Artemisia asked.
“Bostar, Liva, and I will seek a vulnerable spot to strike. Get us close, hit it hard as you can, then keep its focus on the trireme,” Hanno said. “Jabnit, play your pipe loud. Mapen, mock it if you have to. Keep it distracted and I will kill it.”
“Gods be with you, King Hanno,” Aba prayed.
“All will sing of Hanno to the end of time after this deed,” Mapen promised.
“Sing now. Draw the Chariot’s eye,” Hanno said.
The oarsmen struck the waves with Jabnit’s quickened beat.
Once more, Chariot of the Gods summoned a line of stone triremes from the depths.
“You face your doom, Hanno!” the mountain cried out.
“You don’t know me, Chariot of the Gods!” Hanno challenged. “But I give you this last chance to submit before I show you what happens to those who defy Hanno, King of Carthage!”
The mountain merely laughed, and plunged his stone arm into the water.
The summoned wave crested just before Hanno’s ship reached it, and only Artemisia’s expert tilling and the rowers’ strong arms kept the trireme from capsizing.
In the midst of the spray, the stone ships swept toward them. Hanno directed Artemisia with his sword, and pointed at the nearest stone trireme while leaning against the port-side rudder.
“Make to pass between the ships, Helmsman, then turn fast as if we’ll ram them,” he ordered.
“I’m not ramming another ship made of stone. We almost broke apart with the first one and it wasn’t even solid,” Artemisia countered.
“Don’t ram it. Make the mountain think you will. Just get us close then steer away.”
Hanno and Artemisia turned the trireme toward a gap between the speeding ships. A second wave propelled the stone vessels onward, limiting their ability to maneuver, so when Hanno’s trireme passed through, they struggled to turn back.
“Full starboard!” Hanno shouted.
Jabnit played the harsh note and the ship twisted perpendicular to one of the slowly turning stone hulls.
“Ram ahead full!” Hanno urged.
The king handed Barca the port rudder and raced to the bow with Bostar and Liva close behind.
Just before the royal trireme’s iron prow smashed against the stone trireme’s exposed side, Artemisia shouted, “Full port!”
Hanno climbed atop the bow horn and jumped, landing with a tumble onto the stone trireme’s deck.
Bostar loosed an arrow mid-leap, and toppled a stone soldier while Liva hit the black deck beside him at a full sprint.
The marines launched a volley of javelins to protect the king and his companions, throwing a second time while Artemisia turned their broadside away from the passing ships.
“Get to shore, quick!” Hanno ordered.
He ducked away from a stone soldier at the railing and climbed over the side.
The black ships had gathered so close in their glacial turns that they’d clustered together near Chariot of the Gods. In their confusion to avoid the surfacing boulders and to give chase to the zigzagging Carthaginians, the stone ships formed a bridge to the mountain.
Hanno climbed to the second of the three vessels between them and Chariot’s base, deflecting a swing from a stone pike and shoving the soldier over the side.
The earthen triremes smashed against each other in a landslide of shattering rock, allowing Hanno and his companions to climb over the crumbling decks and reach the Chariot of the Gods.
Just as Hanno had hoped, the mountain launched missiles of flame at his fleeing trireme, and paid no mind to the three at his fiery base.
Hanno panted, sweating through the heat. He looked around, searching for something akin to a beating, red heart. But all he saw was black stone and fire seeping from every crack.
“How do we kill it?” Liva asked.
“We find a weakness,” Hanno said.
With a wave of his sword, the king directed Liva and Bostar to follow him up the mountainside.
They climbed as fast as they could, finding easy footing on the gradual incline. The stone grew warm beneath their feet, and they raced around geysers of smoke, drawing ever closer to what stood for the mountain’s face.
Hanno intended to strike at Chariot’s eye, lacking other targets, when the clouds parted and a trio of eagles circled overhead. With a great cry, the eagles dove toward them.
One of them transformed into a rearing beast of a bear. The second became an enormous lion missing its left ear. The third Bostar felled with an arrow. It shifted into the form of a bleeding man wearing a tanned animal skin.
The lion roared.
“Gorillae shapeshifter,” Hanno said. “You come to challenge me again?”
The king twirled his sword and grinned at the crouching beast. It roared a second time and launched itself at Hanno.
A swing of his sword and a duck to the side sprouted a red gash in the lion’s chest. It took three quick-loosed arrows to keep the bear away from the king while Liva searched for a way of striking at the burning mountain.
The lion cried out in pain and rose on its haunches, shrinking to a man wearing a leather cloak who clutched at his bleeding middle.
Hanno rushed him, but swung his sword through empty air when the Gorillae took to the sky as an eagle. The bear followed, reshaping itself as a second bird.
“Come back, coward!” Hanno shouted.
The eagles shrieked, and the twin circles of flame that were the mountain’s eyes turned toward the intruders.
“Hanno,” rumbled Chariot of the Gods.
The ground collapsed beneath the king. It swallowed the injured shapeshifter, and only a quick leap saved Hanno from falling into a pit of melted stone.
Bostar helped the king back to his feet and they ran from the fire with Liva at their side.
Flames leapt all around them. The stone erupted a moment after each step, while Chariot blasted lances of liquid fire at their backs. Hanno felt the heat of their barely missed passing, when he found himself fleeing closer to the shore.
“We can’t run away now!” the king said at the water’s edge.
He turned back to face the mountain, when a wall of burning pikes flew at them.
Liva ducked out of the way, but Hanno was a second too slow. Bostar shoved him clear of the lances, and in so doing, failed to drop beneath them.
The volley of pikes pierced Bostar’s chest. The skewered bowman hung from the jagged stone while the cooling flames turned to rock, adding his blood to their crimson glow.
“Bostar!” Hanno cried out.
The Carthaginian made no reply.
“Bostar!” the king shouted, burning his hands against the still-hot spears as he struggled to remove his friend. But no amount of lamentations could revive the bowman.
The ground trembled, and the rocks gave way.
“No, no!” Hanno shouted.
“Hanno, jump!” Liva urged.
She pulled the king away as the rocks fell into the sea, taking Bostar with them.
Chariot of the Gods laughed his terrible laugh, booming smoke and flame.
“I’ll kill you!” Hanno cried. “I’ll slaughter every last pebble and lay your ashes at the bottom of the deepest pit of Hades!”
“I am deeper than Hades,” Chariot mocked, and launched another volley of burning pikes.
Hanno and Liva ducked beneath them, but with each wave they grew harder and harder to evade. Still the king ran, sword in hand, feet burning and tears steaming.
The two eagles landed behind the king, and Hanno delivered a roar so full of vengeful fury they backed away.
But when Hanno swung at the shapeshifters, they flew over his head and landed beside Liva, where they transformed into a pair of enormous griffons. The Gorillae dug their claws into Liva’s shoulders and lifted her into the air.
Liva screamed in pain and terror while the Gorillae roared in triumph.
“Liva!” Hanno shouted, and picked up a hot stone.
He threw it at the griffons, striking one in the wing and slowing its ascent.
The Gorillae struggled with their bleeding prey, but a geyser of hot air from the mountain’s side thrust them into the sky.
When they entered the clouds, Hanno witnessed one of the griffons transform into a man and place a leather cloak over Liva’s head. The woman disappeared.
“Gorillae scum!” Hanno roared.
“What now, Hanno?” mocked the Chariot of the Gods.
“Now I kill you with my bare hands!”
Hanno ducked beneath a burning scythe that cut the air and seared his scalp. He ran up and up the mountain, dodging geysers and gusts and endless volleys of flame.
Chariot roared in protest when the king drew further up his side.
The mountain closed his eyes and mouth. The smoke ceased its rising from Chariot’s top, and the ground shook so much Hanno struggled to remain upright.
A terrible fear froze Hanno’s legs. He found himself unable to move, and the urge to flee overwhelmed his mind.
He raced back down the mountain while the ground disappeared behind him. He nearly slipped while sheathing his sword, but kept his feet beneath him. Puffs of smoke heralded the collapse of huge blocks of stone, and when Hanno reached the shore, half the mountain exploded.
The blast lifted Hanno skyward, and only his quick leap off the cliff allowed him to hit the sea.
Cold replaced the heat. Pain blossomed all over his body.
Hanno wondered a moment if he’d fallen into the mountain’s base, crushed against the falling stone. But he felt only the press of the water, and the lingering blow of its sudden embrace.
Only his many years training aboard countless ships, and a terror of drowning shared by all sons of Carthage, allowed Hanno to move his arms and reach the surface.
Sulfuric air filled his lungs. Fires floated atop the rippling sea like weeds, and stones rained all around him from the subsiding collapse. Chariot of the Gods no longer roared, but swept his long stone arms to smother the fire-bleeding gap in his body.
Hanno searched for a less cragged part of the mountain’s wave-struck coast so he might resume his assault, when he spotted a Carthaginian trireme heading toward him.
He waved at it, but stopped when he saw an unbroken prow lacking the amber gifted to him by the trees of Solois.
A volley of javelins darkened the skies, and Hanno dove beneath the waves.
When he resurfaced a distance away, he swam from the ship as fast as he could.
Some of the debris from Chariot’s tremendous explosion was large enough to form tiny islands of steaming rock. Hanno made for one of these formations, and hid himself amidst the jagged stone.
“Hanno!” a voice called out over the din of wave and flame. “Hanno, King!”
The trireme halted out of javelin range from the tiny islands. Its helmsman didn’t seem willing or capable of rowing close enough to reach Hanno.
Near fully submerged to cloak himself in the water, Hanno peeked over the stone’s far side, and saw Suffete standing at the trireme’s bow.
Chariot of the Gods paid no mind to the ship that was so close he could have splintered it to pieces with a single swipe of his burning hand.
“Show yourself, Hanno. I don’t wish to harm such a useful king,” Suffete urged.
Hanno remained hidden.
“The ways of cowards are the ways of this dynasty, it seems,” Suffete mocked. “Have it your way, son of Hamilcar.”
“Even now you may worship me, Hanno, King,” Chariot of the Gods offered in a low rumble.
“No!” Suffete shouted. “Your deal is with me, mountain.”
Chariot grumbled. “You command me?”
“I worship you as you requested. And I give in equal measure to what I receive.”
The mountain let off a geyser of flame, but seemed to shrink upon its foundations.
“You see, Hanno, I have made a deal with the Horn of the West and the Chariot of the Gods,” Suffete continued. “Did you think I wouldn’t follow you? I lost half my crew to that perfuming stone mouth, and had to sacrifice a dozen more to the creatures you neglected. But where you ran, I negotiated.”
“Thirty thousand. That was the number,” Chariot of the Gods demanded.
“And it stands.”
Shadows gathered around the mountain’s top. Shadows familiar to Hanno’s eyes.
They were the dark creatures spawned by the Horn of the West. They swarmed the burning mountain, swelling his broken sides and darkening his glowing crags.
“I thank you, Hanno, for the property you’ve set up for exchange,” Suffete shouted. “I have traded the peoples of your colonies for the worship of Chariot of the Gods. Show me, great mountain, that we might reveal to this coward what he has paid for.”
The mountain lifted a stony hand and waved it over his base. Fire bubbled forth, forming and shaping and erupting sparks. When the flashes dimmed, a suit of armor remained. It glowed golden.
“For the one who delivers these souls,” Chariot said.
More fire rose, thicker than before. It solidified into the shape of three triremes, each made entirely of gold. They formed up with the rest of the black stone ships, and their pike-wielding stone soldiers.
“For our deal,” the mountain added.
“Look upon your loss, my king. Where you wanted to deposit worthless peoples onto a worthless continent, I’ve discovered something of value. These riches, this power, all in exchange for the destruction of the colonies you’ve founded. A fair trade, yes?”
The water seemed to boil around Hanno, and it took all his will to not leap atop the rock and shout all the curses he could summon at the councilman. The realization that this would lead to his capture or death, and the pain of his every limb, kept him hidden.
He saved the curses, then, for himself.
“Come, my king,” Suffete urged. “We shall oversea this renewed enrichment of Carthage. We shall have greater power than we could ever imagine. Enough to truly challenge Persia. Enough to claim the whole of the Mediterranean. Leave this coast for the savages, and take your place as the masthead of Carthage’s golden age.”
Hanno squeezed his eyes shut to suppress his fury.
“Or do you remain here? Coward like your father,” Suffete mocked.
The hilt of his sword pressed into Hanno’s side. He felt his hands slipping, felt his body sink further beneath the water, the weight of that chipped blade dragging him to the bottom.
“Don’t fear for your crew, Hanno,” Suffete added. “Chariot has already sent them his Gorillae messengers. They saw sense and laid down arms, and will therefore be spared. So will you, if you agree to my sovereignty. Or I can pay you in gold as I did your helmsman. I assure you, it will be a tempting offer.”
The closing shadows dimmed the mountain’s glow. Chariot’s ever-burning smoke concealed the sun.
Hanno embraced the darkness like a raft. He closed his eyes and ears to the mountain’s laughter, to Suffete’s temptations, and fled. He swam beneath and above the black waters as quick as his burning arms could travel.
Neither the councilman nor Chariot spotted him. He swam and swam, struggling against current and wind, never glancing behind to see if he’d escaped. Always swimming onward.
After what seemed an eternity of effort, Hanno reached the green island in the middle of the bay.
His arms felt liquefied, his legs rotted. He reached the wave-kissed sand and collapsed upon it, wishing it would swallow him, along with all he’d seen and heard.
Hanno saw it. He saw the deal Suffete had made. He saw the dead bodies littering the shores from Cerne to Thymiaterium. He saw the triumphs of Carthage, and himself paraded before the councilman’s gilded chariot like a pet. He felt the shame of this, a failure to dwarf the chipped blade his father had earned.
He felt shame that he could not die, had not drowned in his long swim, had not shown his heart to the burning spears that had killed Bostar.
Bostar, his friend. Hanno longed for the embrace of death to reunite him with his companion, but lacked the strength to draw his blade.
When he chanced a look back at the mountain, hoping this despair had been an illusion, he saw Suffete’s ship anchored against Chariot’s distant base. The crew made ready to load and prep the mountain’s offered gold.
Along the horizon, Hanno spotted his own ship. Artemisia, so far away he could only tell it was her by her wind-blown hair, stood against the stern railing while the ship sailed north.
Hanno laid his face upon the sand, and hoped for the tides to drown him.
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.