OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Haiku Odsdottir Persia

46. City of Crystal

he Glass Ship rises through the air above the Theron inlet and turns toward the jungle of the east. The prisoners are stripped of weapons and armor and made to sit upon the deck. Rising to one's feet is punishable by death.

Thrace continues to coo over Bradley, telling him what marvels await him as her pampered pet in the great city. The commander of the Glass Ship, Dominator Reshial, appears at once amused and disgusted by her behavior. The crew waits for the explosion they know is coming when her ley line drops. That it has not dropped already is a comforting reminder that Zane still lives. However, after they have flown for some time and distance, Thrace seems a bit confused. Understanding spreads across her face, followed by rage. In her anger she grabs Bradley by the throat. Screaming that they have debased her with affection toward a dirt-eating worm, she is close to pitching him over the side when Gilead interrupts, reminding Reshial of his promise that none of them would be harmed. Reshial obviously bears no love for Thrace and orders her to put the prisoner back. There is a tense contest of wills before Bradley is roughly thrown back to the deck. Thrace spends the remainder of the voyage in burning silence. If she could roll the ship with a command and send them all to be dashed to pieces on the rocks, she would.

It is not long before they are nearing their destination. Ahead of them floats a great city of crystal, catching the light of the sun and throwing it back in scintillations of radiance and color. Reshial orders the human pilot of the ship to dock at one of the many piers and projections. As before, at the tribute barge, they hear the pilot call the ship, "Carina."

The glass vessel pulls up to an absurdly narrow gangplank. Over eight yards long, it is but a few inches in width. Astonishingly, the crew seems to have no hesitation about traversing this thin beam hundreds of meters above the jungle floor. A huge humanoid with dark leathery wings and armor-like skin directs them to leave the barge and gather on the deck. Some of the crew are able to muster the courage and skill to make the crossing. Others are reduced to crawling. They are placed in separate groups on the other side and given the title "Walker" or "Crawler." Those who walked across are considered superior and worthy of special attention or consideration. The crawlers are sent of to toil a loathsome or dangerous menial tasks. Interestingly, Hank is initially cast as a crawler. He lacks the ability to walk a narrow beam. He isn't built for it. Either the demonic one notices this or decides that Hank is just too novel, but he directs the animate to go with the walkers.

They are led through the city. Their handler is the huge demonic looking man, who is introduced to them as Lucaius. They are taken over ramps and bridges until they reach the heart. Hank does his best to estimate the size of the city, while Gilead tries to discern the location. The city is probably only 400 hundred meters wide and about half again as tall. Many of the buildings seem abandoned. Most of them are on a cyclopean scale. The few steps they encounter must be climbed rather than simply ascended. The architecture is on the scale of giants.

Gilead deduces that they are well over a hundred kliks from Tallon, between Kanimuriak Lake and the Kazan River. The area is extremely remote and difficult to approach. Any army would take weeks to get here.

The center of the city is a cluster of smaller towers surrounding a great pyramidal spire. The top of the spire is the highest point of the city and the only part not made of shining crystal. It is blackened, burned and melted, as if destroyed by a gargantuan blowtorch. Lucaius refers to it as the High Seat, and says that this is where the Celestial was defeated by the Prometheans.

From here they are taken into the Palace, and into the throne room of Helios, the Most High, Archangel of the Celestial City. He is grand by all accounts. Though vain, arrogant and cruel, he has a magnificent bearing and a powerful personality. He even manages to not be overshadowed by the huge man next to him, a demonic person even larger than Lucaius.

Helios listens as the prisoners are presented to him. He is slightly impressed despite himself. He is initially angry that his invisible spy Nevan was killed, but impressed that one of these Walkers could kill him. Hank is unusual, but the Most High has seen a lot of unusual things in his life and instead of seeing Hank as a novelty, sees him as a resource to be exploited. Soon he has interviewed all of them and delegates their actual disposition to a subordinate, making a few suggestions before losing interest. The subordinate's name is Ossa. He is a human Grandmaster from the group of cities that include Mingatok. He orders Lucaius to escort them to a holding area where they can be more deeply investigated.

One by one they are taken to Ossa. Some are probed while others merely interviewed. No one who is taken from the holding area returns, so their fate is a mystery to the others. Hank is assigned to the service of the Master Artificer of the city, a human named Erasto. Gilead is sent to the arena o become a gladiator, while Tira is taken into Ossa's own household, where she will serve as a household slave while she satisfies his curiosity about the foreign stones she has read.

Hank does a good enough job on his first assignment (building a set of human-proportioned stairs into one of the gigantic ones), that he is sent to work under Azrael, the High Priest. Azrael turns out to be the oldest living Seraph. He claims to have walked with the Celestial, before the war that changed the world. His talk is full of heresies and contradictions to Merikian ears. He claims that many of the Prometheans were Demon Kings themselves. He says that the Demon Kings were banished but not destroyed. He even speaks of prophecies from far off Gypta, that tell of the Dia Revenio, or Day of Returning. He claims the Demon Kings will break the bonds by which they are shackled and put the world to the torch. Then they will build a new world from the ashes and reward the faithful with dominion over the faithless. He seems fairly confident the day will come.

As the weeks pass, he speaks with Hank often. Sometimes he tells the wooden man things that actually interest him. He knows of the ones like Iron John, or as he calls them, "The Hundred", or the "Ferrum Centuria". He claims they were built by the Prometheans to aid them in their struggle against the Demon Kings. Hank doesn't know what to make of this. Is the Seraph deluded, insane or does he really possess insight?

Gilead is placed in a holding area. It is a simple room, seemingly only guarded by a single adept. There is a group of slaves standing inside of a painted circle. Gilead is directed to step inside the circle. No sooner has he done so than Lucaius gives an order to the adept. Suddenly, the floor room begins to descend, as if the circle marked the edge of an elevator. They are now hanging below the level of the city, with no visible support between themselves and the ground far below. Gilead decides it must be some kind of illusion. His fellow prisoners assure him he is probably right, but no one want to test it. The edge feels real enough and there is nothing but void beyond. What would happen if he fell? He decides not to find out. Instead he concentrates his energies into finding out about his fellow captives and perhaps seeing if they can be made to take a stand against their captors. They seem pretty beaten down, however. One of them takes enough of a liking to Gilead to explain a few things. He says they will be taken out to fight and die. He speaks darkly of dying however, hinting that it might not be a release from their imprisonment. He tells him no more details about the dying, but does reveal that there are multiple groups of fighters and they will be mixed and matched against them.

Tira is taken to Ossa's household, where she proves to have few useful skills. Charna, the keeper of the house, vows to teach them to her by use of repeated drudgery. Tira's only relief from endless cleaning is the few conversations she has with Ossa. He takes her presence for granted most of the time and always seems surprised to find himself talking with her about such things, as if a lamp suddenly wanted to discuss what book he was reading. Nevertheless, between the talks and the intermittent clerical duties she is given, she manages to piece together quite a bit to increase her knowledge of the workings of Standing Stones in different parts of the world.

Ossa provides yet more confirmation that different groupings produce different teachings and Major Devotions. He even has names for them. He is of the Ukon Group, while Tira is of the Merikian Group. There are masters from over half a dozen groups in the Celestial City. Tira asks how they can all work together. Don't their ley lines interfere? Ossa explains that the presence of foreign ley lines makes it difficult to impossible to lay down new ones, but exiting ley lines function quite well. Also, there is no interference between foreign masters within the confines of a Demon King court.

Ossa makes no salacious overtures to Tira, and Charna admits that the master seems to prefer other stimulation. Charna never tires of reminding her how fortunate she is to have Ossa for her master. One evening, Ossa has Tira dressed and cleaned. He is going to the games and feels that Tira adds an ornamental air. She will sit in his private box and watch with him.

Tira sees a large circular hall, with what must be half the populace of the city in attendance. In the center is a sandy circular floor surrounded by a two foot wall. Into this ring, gladiators are led. There are a number of short bouts, mostly demonstrations of weapon and fighting technique.

Oddly enough, Hank is there. He has been given the task of repairing the woodwork on Ossa's personal box. (This is before he starts work upon Azrael's temple). Together they see a startling event. Gilead is ushered onto the floor. He has no armor and is bearing a fair sized sword. Though he is standing only a few yards away at virtually the same height, he does not seem to recognize them.

Ossa explains. The audience is seeing the real arena. The arena has a glamour placed upon it so that those inside see a very different sight. Gilead perceives his arena as vast, with towering walls and ghostly distorted faces of the crowd floating above it. Though the wall is so low he could almost walk over it, he is effectively contained. Even if he realized the nature of the illusion, he is still trapped by its rules. He cannot escape or offer harm to any within the chamber. In this way, the spectators have an intimate view of the fight. Gilead's opponent is frightening. Though he looks to be a Chimera, Ossa assures them that the Leotaur is a member of a far-off race of human-animal crosses. Though he has the body of a lion, he has the torso of a man and a leonine countenance. The fight is savage; the leotaur is here to kill. Gilead proves to be more than its match, however. He slays the leotaur. To the amazement of the newcomers, though, that is not the end of it.

An adept rushes into the arena and works a devotion of some sort upon the leotaur. Wounds disappear, closing as if they were acting in reverse; blood actually flows back into the body. In moments, the leotaur springs to his feet, uninjured.

Again, the newcomers rely upon Ossa. The adept is a master from the Great Lakes group. That group specializes in altering the time of spirits. A skilled morphist of that land can reverse time on a subject's morphia and return them to the state they were in only minutes ago. Deaths and reversals are common in the arena. The real excitement and wagering are done over the rare fight with no reversals.

Gilead is led back to the glamour cell; Tira returns to Ossa's household, and Hank goes back to toiling on Azrael's temple. Months of captivity grind on and on...