OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Haiku Odsdottir Gilead Persia


31.The Citadel

he party also brings up the subject of Arthur in a roundabout way. Cordova is obviously curious about their interest in such a person, but does not pursue the subject, not even when their quarry is briefly spotted near a food vender. Arthur sees them as well, but quickly melts into the crowd, something he accomplishes with distressing ease.

The last subject they speak of is the matter of the Sunken Stone. Cordova is surprised to hear that they know of it, and claims it was given up on many years ago. He says he would be surprised indeed if the Saginaw were investigating it, since Badax has said nothing. It would be embarrassing for Badax to be discovered in such a deception. If indeed there is an armed force just beyond the Triangle, this could have further political ramifications. He refuses to act on it, though. He has learned much from Badax, and won't act against him. He says that if they are determined to bring this up before the king, they should be sure they have proof.

The next morning they are visited by Cambel, to whom they reveal their knowledge of Saginaw activities. He himself has no love for Badax, but re-iterates the concerns of Cordova. They need some kind of proof. They say that a simple expedition across the lake and up the river should do it, but Cordova is unwilling to send men into danger based on the claims of six unproven strangers.

They respond that the trip could be made quickly and without danger, if Cambel has a light, trustworthy person. The war Leader is intrigued and agrees to send someone with a party member of choice. He stipulates only that it cannot be Tira or Hank, since his head could be forfeit if he allowed either of these to leave the city before Hugo's judgment is passed. That all their lives could be forfeit if the expedition fails to return or if the proof is not found is understood without speaking.

Gilead takes off with a trusted warrior of Cambel. Named Macenna. Together they travel on horseback through the night until they reach the Tallonite camp. There, Gilead turns him over to Farralon and the Raven, so that Macenna can witness the Saginaw camp. Before they leave, however, Farralon and the others have news of their own to impart. First, Arthur has disappeared. He left almost directly after Gilead’s crew. Soon after he left, they realized that they had been fooled again. Arthur did not spend hours in discussion with them while Char and the others tracked his trail. Instead, he was exhausted and had to rest. Furthermore, Char reports that he cannot be certain he really followed Arthur’s trail or just thought he had.

Beyond that, Hugin was dispatched to warn them and has not returned or been heard of since.

Gilead listens and exchanges his own information. All this is done in the presence of Macenna Gilead lays down to rest while the Tronto warrior and Farralon take off in the raven. Hours later they return. Macanna is convinced. They ride back to a nearby Tronto outpost for fresh horses.

Meanwhile, morning has its own surprises for those back in Tronto. Tira, Hank and the others receive a visit from Badax Evenhand, the adept from Saginaw. He affects a polite and diplomatic air, but the Tallonites are not fooled. They attempt to conceal that they are not a full complement, but of course, Badax can see through walls and inquires about Gilead. They reply he has gone about with Cambel, which is not too far from the truth. If Badax suspects anything, he makes no comment. Instead, he asks them about Tallon and Tallon’s stones and abilities. Information is carefully exchanged with neither side giving away too much. Surprisingly, Badax seems already knowledgeable about Tallon and her citizens. He does not reveal the source of his information, however. He keeps bringing the conversation back to their desire to read the stones. He cannot believe their stated purpose in coming to Tronto and presses quite firmly, pointing out the logical flaws in their arguments. Nevertheless, they stand by their declarations and refuse to give anything away. Eventually Badax leaves with a few veiled threats.

Gilead returns that evening and exchanges news with everyone. They have much to think about before the feast tomorrow.

The day of the feast dawns with much activity in the city below. Tables and pavilions and performance areas are being set up and the air is rich with the smell of food being prepared. There is also much activity outside of their door. The guards are apparently turning away many petitioners seeking to have a visit from the strange wooden man. Hank has made quite an impression on the local populace and many wish a visit from him during the festivities. The guards eventually increase the distance from which people may approach and the disturbances become less frequent.

The party is allowed to experience the festivities and in the early afternoon, they are allowed to go about under escort. Hank is remarked upon wherever they go and the Tallonites seek to use this to their advantage; it never hurts to be popular. Finally, when evening comes, they are summoned to the main feast hall and brought into the presence of King Hugo. Here they once again make their request. They are actively opposed by Badax, who questions their motives. Gilead counters by revealing the existence of the Saginaw fort only two days away. The party waits in nervous apprehension until Gilead’s claim is supported by Macenna. Macenna gives a full report, telling that not only is there a fort, it has been augmented to over seventy soldiers, plus a dozen or more at the bridge.

Badax responds calmly, asking how Macenna knows it to be a Saginaw fort. Despite Macenna’s responses, he deftly casts doubt upon them by bringing up similar forces that he could have seen, such at those of the A-kron or the Cinatti. These are presumably adept cities of which the Tallonites were unaware, but are known to the adepts of Tronto.

The debate is moved into private chambers before any state secrets or embarrassments are revealed and it becomes rather heated, with both sides throwing accusations. Eventually, the king reaches a decision. Regardless of whom the fort belongs to, they are too close to Tronto to go un-countered. He orders Cambel to retrieve the Tallonite party and to accompany an expedition of several hundred warriors set to oust the interlopers. As to the reading of the stones, he replies he is sick of the debate and means to end it immediately. They will read the stones directly, tonight. The whole group moves as a body to the stones, including Hugo, four guards, Hank, Tira, and Gilead, Cordova and Badax.

Hugo opens the massive gate to the open roofed Stone chamber and ushers all inside. Tira will have to make her reading openly. They are shocked upon entering to see two priests kneeling slack-jawed on the gravelly ground. In the center of the stones stands… Arthur. He is raising his hands in communion or evocation. He sees them enter and says, “Oh, buggerall!”

There is initial embarrassment and confusion. Arthur attempts to talk his way out of the situation, and were it not for the Tallonites, might actually have succeeded. Unfortunately for the mysterious adept, he is trying to flummox too many people with too many different motivations. Eventually the king orders Arthur taken to the dungeons. The Tallonites fear that he will simply be able to walk out of them and say so. The King is not inclined to believe them until it becomes apparent that the soldiers cannot move him. Try as the might, he is like a bronze statue for all the progress they make.

Arthur is still talking calmly and trying to salvage the situation, when Hugo orders him slain. To the horror of all assembled, the swords go into his body... and nothing happens. He is obviously a bit discomforted by the piercings, but he does not call out in pain nor fall to the ground. He simply looks the king in the eye and says, "I don't wanna do this the hard way," At this pronouncement, the doors slam shut. Hank is barely able to get inside before they close.

When it becomes apparent that they are trapped and that Arthur seems unharmable, the situation oddly calms a bit. Arthur is making no violent overtures and seems to want a peaceful way out of the city. As a gesture of good faith, he agrees to tell them what they want to hear; his true nature. He begins speaking, but something odd happens. Each person in the chamber hears a different opening speech. They can dimly hear that something else is being said to the others, but Arthur's words seem subjectively tailored for each person.

Gilead hears:

"All right then, let's assume I am an echoman. The Saginaw were looking for a spirit to call up from the past. See, they can call up folks from before the Last Days, that ain't no problem for them. It's the time from then on they can't do. It's a bloody roach motel in reverse, now. Souls check out, but they don't check back in. One way ticket, yeah.

"Well your Secret Masters did it finally. Me.

"I was an adept all right. Not a demon king, that was later. Still, I was one of the biggest baddest masters of the world. I held my own ley line; none of that nonsense. I set out on me own to find out what happened to the world since I knew it. Things have changed mate, and no mistake. Something big happened to your geography. I figure it was the war what done it. Someone probably had the bright idea to wipe the slate clean and try again. Only this time, they had enemies with the same weapons. Prometheus and his lot.

Hank hears:

Demon King, me? I ain't no Demon King, mate. There weren't any Demon Kings when I went to sleep. I wouldn't truck with any o’ that. Wouldn't serve in heaven or reign in hell, if you know your Milton. No? Then me whole name choice fell flat. Arthur. Almost went with Barbarossa or Tamerlane. Ask your historians when ye get home. Or maybe Daddy knows. He's got a lot of theories. Some of ‘em are even right.

Any way, long before the Spirit Kings became the Demon Kings, back when Prometheus was goin’ around proselytizing the whole lot, I ducked out. Bided me time, so to speak, and now… now the whole shooting match is bollixed up. Nothing works like it supposed to and these bloody things are the reason.

I'll tell you one thing, there's a plan in there. Bloody hopeless one, but a plan. Prometheus was such an idealist.

Tira hears:

Let's say I am. All right, I was created, like those bloody horrible Iron boys. By the way, they're a lot nastier than you think and you Time Lords got some hubris thinking you can hold onto them. They were made for one thing and that purpose is long gone. Just like me. The war is over, only the big boys didn't pick up all of their toys before they left the playground. Ages 12 and up mates, and you kiddygardeners don't make the grade. You'll put an eye out, to be sure.

I wouldn't mess with stuff you don't understand.

Just like the iron folk, I was asleep for a long time after the war. Until I got woke up. Adept woke me up, one of the Kabekki witches.

The narratives join after this and the odd effect ends. He continues:

"Anyway, those are my stories and I'm sticking to them. Any rate, pals and gals, I'm old. Older than the oldest person you ever met. Been asleep a long, long time."

In response to questions about the circlet, he replies:

"You can have that bloody thing. I'd tell you where it is, but then Time-boy here would tell his lot before you could get there. Oh yeah, he can report, but he can't get no message back. Yeah I know all about your little secret. Playing with toys again."

He writes to Tira the location of the file, so that the Saginaw Master cannot report it.

"I dropped the bloody useless thing back at Niagara. You'll find it along the river bank. About two hundred yards upstream from a Holiday Inn. You can still read some of the sign on a stone monolith. Threw the thing off into the trees. It's all stuff from before the war. And I wouldn't put it on if I was you."

He closes with:

"One more thing, The demon Kings ain't gone. Oh they can't come back easily, but they ain't gone. If you ever met one, a real one, you'd know it. Bloody awful nasty pieces of work, them. Probably waiting. Ain't no way back for them, though. No easy way. That's one of the thing Prometheus and his pals changed. It's a one way door now. That’s why the Saginaw can't call up anyone from after the Church days.

"Yeah, you Saginaw boys got that right, it's all the Church of Last Days what done it. They became the Spirit Kings and then I guess, the Demon Kings."

The king is vexed, and unwilling to let Arthur get away with invading his stronghold, but after some debate becomes aware that he might easily perish should Arthur resist. In the end, he gives his retroactive permission to Arthur, but also banishes him from Tronto. The mysterious adept is escorted to the gates. Before he leaves however, he seems to soften a bit and tells Tira that she could learn nothing of real use from the Stones of Tronto. He claims that the Stones come in different sets, and are specifically meant to not work together.

The king extends his banishing pronouncements to include the Tallonites. He blames them for bringing Arthur to the city. Oddly, he lets them go with their party, which arrives under guard in the morning. The entire party is there with the exception of Farallon and the Raven, whom they are told took to the air at the approach of the armed party. Macenna escorts the Tallonites back to Niagara. The large war party is not bothered by mutants or chimeras in the Triangle. Macenna bids them farewell upon the banks of the river and proceeds to join his warleader at the falls. The party camps upon the far side in some easily defended ruins. Farallon shortly joins them, apparently exhausted from a marathon flight.

The next day, Hank takes Tira and Slik across the river to look for the circlet. It takes them all day, and for a while they can hear the sounds of bloody combat, but they eventually discover it where Arthur said it was. They spend the night in a hole on the bank of the river. The next morning they return to camp and present the circlet to Hank. It is there intention to use some silver that Slik "liberated" in Tronto, to make a copy of the circlet and to give that to the bats. It takes nearly a week to accomplish, but they are extremely lucky in scrounging supplies from the ruins. Hank does a fantastic job considering the circumstances and only Tira and Farallon can tell the difference between the two bands.

The party decides to proceed cautiously to Niagara. It has been a week since the fighting started, and who knows what may have been the outcome?