|OUR HEROES:||Tira Wolfsdaughter||Hank Woodman||Haiku Odsdottir||Gilead||Persia|
uch time is spent explaining the occurrences of the last few years. Hadrian tells how he and Mranda came to be among the bats. It seems that after Hadrian and Zachris were separated in the battle between the warring Kabekki Tribes, each supposed the other dead. Hadrian resolved to rescue Mranda from her bondage within Tronto. To this end, he overpowered a minor city soldier and took his uniform and armor. Once so attired, he sneaked to where she drudged as a slave and with cunning action, freed her from bondage. They were not entirely fortunate however, and were discovered upon leaving the city. They fled armed pursuit and Hadrian was wounded in the leg by an arrow.
They made it to a bridge above the falls, where they were attacked by bats. Mranda was toppled from the bridge and Hadrian dove in after her. The bats were impressed that a human would risk his life for a beast, so when by singular luck, the two managed to take hold of the spire of Stoneroost before going over the brink of the falls, the bats took pity on them and did not kill them outright. Their king instead held them to 36 months of servitude, at the end of which they would be freed, providing their service was good and faithful.
So they have been there for over 30 months, toiling in the nurseries and aeries of the bat females. The males apparently live elsewhere. In their surprisingly granted free time, they have studied the few existing artifacts of the demon King who lived here. Hadrian swears the King called himself Gitche-Manito.
Hadrian also confirms that Arthur was indeed a visitor of the bats. He, too claimed to have fallen in the river and pitched up upon the stone court by good fortune. He introduced himself as an escaped Saginaw slave and begged for sanctuary. The bats decided to call their king to judge the newcomer. Hadrian and Mranda showed him what they could of Stoneroost and explained that it had been a Demon King Court.
Sometime during the night, Arthur disappeared from the bats' lair. A search was held, but no one could remember him leaving. To the bats' alarm, a revered artifact was also missing: a silver circlet reputed to have graced the brow of Gitche-Manito. The bats exploded from the spire in outrage, circling and searching. A dim figure was perceived perched at the top of the falls. It was momentarily obscured by spray and was gone. The bats did not believe anyone could survive the fall, but they searched the base diligently. They had no success. Hadrian is then brought up to date about the deal the others made to secure his freedom. He swears the circlet must be returned in order to free Mranda and her daughter.
The expedition is deeply concerned about Arthur now. Could he be far more than he appeared? Could he really have dived from the top of Niagara and survived? Why did he want the circlet? Despite the nearness of the Saginaw, they decide to perform a detailed search. Tira and Hank go aloft in the Raven, while Gilead leads a ground party.
Against all odds, Tira sees a lone figure walking among the ruins upon their side of the river. As they get closer, she confirms that it is indeed Arthur. He looks up and waves at them, as if signalling. Hank, fearful of the psychic tricks Arthur seems to have been playing begins to chant a mantra to himself, "If he says anything suspicious, punch him." He says this over and over as the Raven dives, yet somehow, though Arthur's story is thinly plausible, no blow is ever aimed.
Arthur claims (and elaborates when re-united with Gilead and the others) that he decided to contact the bats himself, since Gilead had forbid himself to. He also cites an intense curiosity about Demon Kings, if they really were as the adepts and others have been describing. He claims to be a very strong swimmer and well used to rapids. He had full confidence he could make the island and once there contact the human and the cat. His story from then matches the account of Hadrian until the matter of the silver circlet comes up. He claims he never touched it and that it was stolen by the iron soldier of the Saginaw, the one who has identified himself as Viginti. He fled, fearing the iron thing. He claimed that it was invisible to his special senses.
In his flight, he discovered a tunnel in a back and presumably forbidden area of the ancient court. He says that if either Mranda or Hadrian had possessed spirit sight, it would have been obvious to them. As for himself, he squirmed through underground tunnels until he found himself free upon the far shore of the river. From then he began making his way towards Tronto, hoping to rejoin the company with his discovered knowledge. It is his opinion that it must have been Viginti that was seen upon the crest of the falls, since he could never have done anything like that.
By now, the entire expedition is regathered at their campsite. The party still does not trust Arthur, and seeks confirmation of his story. Char is sent over to take his scent and trace his path back to wherever he came from. He spends a good long time getting the odor right. He also confirms that Arthur has mud of a musty odor that could be from a damp subterranean passage. Gilead and a few other swift runners follow Char as he painstakingly follow the trail. It takes the rest of the day, but Char does indeed find traces of the same odor at the entrance to an underground tunnel. He also says that he can detect the barest whiff of Arthur. They return to camp willing to accept the bulk of Arthur's claims, but still feel in their hearts that he is lying to them somehow.
By this time, all are tired and the decision is made to stay another night while they ponder their next move. Councils are held until the wee hours of the morning. Gilead and several others keep a wary eye upon Arthur, who seems to sleep very little. He had inquired of the others what Arthur did while he as gone, and they all claim that he spoke in a friendly and garrulous manner with most of the expedition, though longest with Farallon and Hadrian. A bat contacts them and asks for progress, but they are able to offer nothing but supposition. The bats fear to attack the Saginaw outright, since they are too well entrenched in their bridge fortress. They would much prefer the humans did it for them.
Tira remains entirely unconvinced of Arthur's innocence and exasperated by the endless debate and planning and retires to record her experiences with the sunken stone. By the time the next morning comes a dozen plans have been made and rejected. The questions and problems are dizzying:
Who has the Circlet? Viginti? The Saginaw? Arthur? Hadrian?
Where is it? In the Saginaw Camp? On its way to the Hidden City of the Saginaw Masters? Wandering about with the iron warrior?
What can it do? Is it worthless? A key to power?
How important is it to recover? Can they postpone it to complete their primary mission? Should it replace their primary mission?
With the morning, nothing is settled. Gilead is nearly ready to re-approach Yuriko Hawkeye and her band when Char reports that he has found the tracks of one of the Saginaw party headed along the lake towards Tronto. By the separation of the tracks, he believes it to be the one the call the Quickfighter. No one else could have such a stride. Furthermore, the man must be running openly to the city, caring nothing for stealth or tracking. The party comes to the conclusion that he is most likely a messenger of some kind. This has big implications, for up until this point, they had no evidence the Saginaw knew anything of Tronto. Because of this, and the fact that the bat the previous night had reported no movements of humans in the other direction (towards Saginaw), the decision is finally made to proceed towards Tronto. The city obviously interests the imperial mind of the Saginaw, and perhaps answers might be found there while they discharge their mission to the Archon. It is difficult to leave the question of the circle for now, but they decide to conclude their business in Tronto as quickly as they may and return to Niagara when they have more time to search. And just maybe, the answers they seek lie in Tronto.
The party moves carefully through the lands Hadrian has identified as the Triangle. This is a wild and dangerous area between the lakes. It is rumored to be infested with Chimera. Sure enough, by the morning of the second day, they are savagely attacked. They are passing through one of the odd "whispering lands" they have encountered before, where ghost voices of bygone years echo mysteriously for those who have the ears to hear. It is this eerie soundless sound which masks the ambush until it is too late. Only the keen ears of Cinnamon save them from a massacre. She is able to raise an alarm just as the ruins spew forth a dozen hideous mutants. They are not chimeras, for they are all of a kind. Human torsos perched upon serpentine bodies, they are a sinuous and savage threat. They attack without warning with seemingly no other intent than to kill. Several of the party are wounded severely before enough of the creatures are killed to drive them away. Farallon is hard pressed to keep them alive, particularly Kamlak, whom he has already healed only days before.
The party limps wearily and painfully to a defensible shelter and spends the rest of the day making it into a secure fortress. Gilead takes stock of their reduced manpower and decides upon a small party that will actually approach Tronto. He chooses:
Himself as leader
Tira, because she will need to read the stones
Hank, so they can prove their claims of Tallonese stone teachings
Haiku and Exon, for extra muscle
and Slick, who will pose as Gilead's slave and bend every effort toward escape and summoning reinforcement should the party be captured.
Hadrian draws them a detailed map of the city and gives them as much knowledge as he has of the principals. He is less help than they might have hoped for since there was apparently a coup between his incarceration and return. Nevertheless, the others are to wait and to heal.