OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Haiku Odsdottir Persia

47. Falling Sand

ack in the city of Tallon, the sieges have continued. They are no longer on the scale of the three-day retaliation strikes, but they are enough to keep the city demoralized. Even the Warlord's newfound popularity is beginning to erode.

Char approaches Persia and asks if she has heard anything from Tira. Tira told him she was going on a mission, but to keep it quiet. Haiku has been putting pressure on him, though and he can no longer maintain his silence. Persia agrees to seek out her contacts and sniff around. To her consternation, her normal sources have dried up. Martial law has taken a toll on the informers of the city. They are either out of the loop or have disappeared. She does hear rumors of a secret weapon, but little more than that. Months pass by. Eventually, in the middle of the night, she receives a visitor. It is Pershing, a Paladin of Ningan. She is being summoned to the palace. She eagerly complies, hoping to get some idea of what is going on.

She is taken into the presence of Ningan, who no longer seems vibrant and vital, but once again is the stooped and tired old man of the previous year. He welcomes her and after a few minutes of cordialities, asks her if she would like to help find her friend Tira. Persia naturally agrees and the Archon reveals to her the existence of a secret mission to conduct a raid upon the Celestial City. She is escorted along with a supply team to a remote location in the jungle. Several times she is led through underground passages of surprising length. She had no idea the wilds had such labyrinths. Her guides tell her of tunnel slugs and their by-products. The passages are the natural trail of a huge subterranean species. Eventually, after about a week of travel, she arrives at an underground base of operations. Here is where the Warlord has been. He, together with his Paladins some specialists and a sizable chunk of resources from the Tallon army, have out together a staging area for the raid.

She is quickly inducted into the team. Although no one outright shows her any resentment, she gets the definite feeling her presence is tolerated as a result of some sort of deal with or favor for Archon Ningan. She is told that the goal of the mission is to remove the glass ship from the control of the Celestial City. If they can capture it, fine, but if they have to kill it or destroy it somehow, that would work too.

To ascend to the flying city, they will utilize a chimerical creature dubbed, "the Dragon". The Dragon is the creature that Hank was to investigate. The Warlord and some hand-picked masters have worked for some time upon it. They have heaped enhancement after enhancement upon it. It is now one of the most terrifying creatures ever to fly the skies of the Savage Earth. It is strong enough to carry a dozen people at once; its skin is nearly impervious to normal arrow fire; it strikes faster than a cobra, and it obeys the commands of the Warlord and his agents.

But the actual mission is somewhat in the future. For the time being she trains with the raiding team, learning to fight alongside them. She also is instructed on the basic layout of the floating city, as well as what little intelligence is known of its inhabitants.

In the meantime, the captives above have been experiencing the drudgery of servitude. Hank has been using what little time he can steal here and there to put together a crude parachute out of stolen parts. Gilead has been through fight after fight and built up an impressive record. Out of ten fights, he has only been killed once. The experience was disconcerting. If there is any existence after death, he does not remember it. Tira has the easiest time of it. Though she does much that is menial, or at least below her capabilities, often she is allowed to organized notes or replace volumes. She begins to slowly add to her knowledge of foreign devotions.

One night, Tira is told that there is going to be a special event. Keeper Ossa wishes her to be dolled up since he needs an "ornamental" companion. She asks for a special favor, if Hank cold b allowed to accompany them. Ossa apparently thinks this an amusing idea, and arranges it with High Priest Azrael. They are escorted to the Arena, where Ossa tells them there will be a special fight. Tonight's main attraction will be a "Death match without reversals". He explains that this means the fight is to the permanent death. One champion will be permanently "retired" tonight. This sort of thing is done only while the city has a fresh influx of fighter slaves. When the Celestial City is traveling, such slaves are too valuable to waste.

Gilead has been informed of this as well. He is told just before entering the ring that if he dies, it will be forever. If this disturbs him, he doesn't show it. He enters the glamoured arena same as always. Here he is announced and his kill record recited. The crowd shows great enthusiasm. The opposing fighter is then named. To Gilead's shock, it is none other than Kamlak of the Shattered Isles! They are expected to try and kill one another.

Gilead will have none of it. He bares his breast to Kamlak and says, "Kamlak, you've saved my life several times. It's yours for the taking. I won't fight you."

Kamlak returns, "Gilead is Kamlak's friend. Kamlak does not slay his friends for the amusement of others." To the rage and jeers of the crowd, each of them lowers his weapon and refuses to fight.

The ghostly visage of Helios appears floating above them. "Fight, Slaves! Fight and kill or you will be voided!"

"Kamlak knows not what that means, Friend Gilead, but if they wish to take us, they shall pay dearly!" replies the blonde barbarian. The two friends stand back-to back facing outward. They await whatever the City has to throw at them. There is a low rumbling sound, followed by a strange movement of the sand at their feet. To their puzzlement, the sand is moving. Then it becomes clear. The sand is draining!

Tira and Hank watch in horror as Gilead and Kamlak stand in the easily vaulted circle, unable to see how tantalizingly close escape is. The sand is draining from the middle of the arena and it is dragging them with it. Eventually, they can no longer stand. The true bottom of the arena is revealed to be conical. They have no purchase. Tira and Hank can do nothing as Gilead and Kamlak disappear through the hole.

Ossa explains that by refusing to fight, they have both forfeited their lives and have been dropped to the rocky jungle below. Tira is shocked and Hank is understandably distraught. Ossa seems disgusted by their show of sentimentality at first. Then, when Hank explains that not only was Gilead their friend, but Kamlak as well, he relents a bit. He might even be... embarrassed? Nevertheless, he allows Hank to escort Tira back to his lodgings under guard of course. Eventually, Hank must leave her and return to Azrael.

Tira regrets the loss of Gilead, but she does not weep. Though she might appear cold to toward eyes, she has simply seen too much savagery to relate to death with anything but stoic acceptance. Nevertheless, she grieves in her own way. It is while her mind is thus occupied that she hears a voice. The voice has no physical component. It is in her mind alone. It asks her who she is. She converses with it and after a period of questioning realizes that she is talking to the Glass Ship. It says that she touched it deeply, months ago and that it has been searching for her ever since.

Tira asks if it can help her escape. The ship tells her that it must obey its masters. If she were present, it might make a difference, but with the masters around, it must do as told. Tira resolves to find a way. Before she loses contact, she confirms that the ship is indeed named Carina. After it has gone, she ponders the mystery deeply, but not so deeply that she forgets the tragic death of Gilead.

Gilead and Kamlak did not die, however. They fell from the bottom of the city. In the black night, they could not see how far below them the ground was.

They call to each other, bidding farewell. Suddenly, Gilead hears a third voice saying, "Take my hand if you want to live." Of course he grasps wildly, and his hand closes around a large forearm. He hears wings straining and the voicing saying, "Blimp! Do you have the other one?" There is a muffled affirmative and slowly they begin to ascend. Gilead cannot see his rescuer, but the voice is remarkably similar to Lucaius, their diabolical slave master.

The two are flown up to the city once more, and enter through a different portal. Once safely alighted, they lose consciousness almost immediately. They do not awaken for quite some time.