|OUR HEROES:||Tira Wolfsdaughter||Hank Woodman||Gilead||Haiku Odsdottir||Persia|
ira wants to visit the ship, but she is told that it is a dangerous area. She is to stay in the central cavern. She persists, and Hannon presses her into revealing that she is a Sympath. Thus demonstrating trust for the Warlord, she is allowed access. She also manages to convince Hannon that she can help to control the ship.
The Warlord is still predisposed to "kill" it, until Zane reports that they have found a tunnel slug in the lower passages. It is a huge one, possibly the originator of the tunnels they have made their base. He has spoken with Hank and the Corps of Engineers, and believes that he can control it enough to enlarge the tunnels to the point where the ship can be removed from another exit. The Warlord gives his consent to the plan.
Meanwhile, Gilead continues to recover at the hospital. The healers and many of the patients seem disturbed by the continual presence of Hadisia, the mysterious civilian who was on the raiding party. She eyes the ward with a hungry look, and in truth, she is looking unwell.
Outside, the Celestial City has established a beachhead at the collapsed cave entrance that keeps the ship from them. They have brought down some impervious substance from the ancient demon king court and erected a fairly secure fortress. There is much fighting outside and in. Outside, the seraphim forces manage to repel the Tallonites intent on dislodging them from the ledge upon which they are based. Inside, the Tallonite adepts wage a war of spirit disicplines. The enemy is weakening and reducing the blockage slightly faster than the defenders can strengthen and bolster it. It is only a matter of time before they break through.
To make matters worse, the attackers are using some foreign devotion to divert a stream uphill. It is emptying into the caverns and will eventually flood them out. They cannot endure a lengthy seige. Hank is tapped to help shore and divert the water course, and Gilead aids by surveying the tunnels and determining which will fill last.
During a particularly rough assault, Sgt. Bradley returns. The last time he was seen was as a prisoner in the Celestial City. He claims he was sent down with the ground forces to aid their enemy with whatever could be gleaned from his mind. He further reveals that when the psychist holding his ley line was killed in battle, he was suddenly free-willed once more. He made his way back through enemy lines and managed to convince the Tallonite army he had escaped.
He is treated with a little suspicion, but a psychic scan reveals that he is definitely Bradley, and not some shape-altered spy or glamoured illusion. He is nevertheless confined to the healer ward.
The assault gets worse. At one point, the central cavern is nearly emptied of every fighting man available. Only the wounded and civilians remain. Bradley begins to ask more questions than anyone is comfortable with. He is particularly interested in the location of Carina, the glass ship. He is directly challenged and one of the party makes to bind him. Suddenly, and against all expectations, Bradley takes a weapon and turns it upon himself. He stabs deeply into his own midsection, an apparent suicide.
Before their eyes, he shimmers and is replaced by Batilla, one of the assassins who fell in the assault upon Helios. Batilla immediately launches into an attack. She now bears arms and armor entirely different from Bradley's. She is intent on getting into the cavern where Carina is kept. All that stand in her way are Tira, Persia, Hank and the recovering Gilead. Fortunately, they have been in the caverns for about a week, so although Gilead is not in top shape, he is at least capable of fighting.
They manage to defeat Batilla, but as she takes what looks to be lethal damage, she shimmers again and is replaced by Po, another of the assassins. Although he looks and talks like the Po Gilead knew, he also will stop at nothing to get past them and into the caverns beyond. They defeat him as well, but just as he begins to shimmer yet again, they dogpile him and bind him. His form settle on that of Kamlak, but the big barbarian is securely tied. He feigns surprise at his location and ignorance of how he got there. They refuse to believe him and leave him secured.
Tira believes she understands the mystery. Ropan Masters can do odd things with their foreign spirit devotions. The Ropan Way is based on shunting, diverting, replacing spirits. This spy is what they call an Avatar. Somewhere nearby (likely the beachhead) lie all of their real friends. An Avatar was made from Bradley. Bradley's total spiritual aspect was switched from one person to another. The spy who came up to them looked and talked like Bradley, even down to a probe. But the real Bradley sat somewhere back at the beachhead.
At first the others think they understand: the real Bradley looked and talked like the spy - they were switched. Tira explains it was far more complex than that. The spy was switched with Kamlak, then switched with Po, then Batilla and finally with Bradley. As soon as one of the forms was killed or defeated, the ley line between the avatars would drop. Thus the spy entered looking like Bradley. When Bradley was "killed", the leyline dropped and the avatar took the next form down the line.
Whether this means that someone was droping the ley lines manually, or their freinds and allies are really dead, none can say.
After they have pieced this all out, one of them suddenly notices that Hadisia is missing. She has taken advanatge of the confusion to slip away and make off down the deeper corridors. They immediately suspect that the strange woman has gone to seek the Glass Ship. They recall the strange hungry gleam in her eye as she earlier pleaded with Zane to let her have the ship.
They set off in pursuit. Hank knows the tunnels well enough after helping to track the flooding. He leads them in the direction of Carina. The ship's distress cries are growing more frantic and fainter now. They are running as fast as they dare in the caves.
Eventually they get to the ship, just as it seems to go milky pale and silent (at least to Tira). Hadisa lies upon the deck, her skin oddly angular and mineral-like. They now understand what she is and why she is there. She is a vampire, one of those odd creatures from far Ukon that can steal another's spirit. She is killing the ship and taking its essence for her own. She rises, and faces them. Gilead and Persia leap to attack, but she does some incredible leaping of her own. Although vampires can assume all the powers, skills and memories of their victims, she is still early in the transformation. She cannot fly, but can make prodigious leaps. She can also cling to the ceiling with minimal effort. She evades them and leaps back along the corridor, seeking another exit.
The others set off in pursuit again. Persia is led astray by a false clue, and Hank's wooden legs cause him to fall behind, but Gilead and Tira discover her in a distant offshoot. The vampire had doubled back after being thwarted by a false exit. They fight. It is difficultin the extreme, but Tira's lumina keeps the vampire from regenerating, and the narrowness of the caverns at this point keeps her from flying away. Hadisia is slain and the ship soon recovers.
Shortly afterward, the latest attack is beaten off and the caverns refill with wounded. The defenders have held for now. Zane continues to work with the tunnel slug and Gilead again receives healing. During this interval, they are surprised to see the Diabolus Lucaius among the few prisoners. Apparently, he has defected from the city, his position compromised. He informs the Warlord that there is a sizable fifth column within the Celestial City. He can no longer be an active part, but he has numerous contacts and influence. A Psychic Probe indicates the mutant's sincerity and an arrangement is made. Tallon has access to spies and operatives within the floating citadel.
During this time, the lower cabins have been slowly filling. There is a back entrance, but there is a race now. Can the tunnel slug widen the tunnel enough for the ship to escape before the whole complex floods? The Warlord believes so, due to Hank and Gilead's reports.
At the end of several days, the exodus is planned. The dragon will be released for one last flight. It is made to attack the Celestial City beachhead with suicidal fury. While the forces are thus distracted, the glass ship, bearing the wounded and few civilians will shoot out of the back exit. The remainder of the forces will do their best to maintain cover in the deep jungle.
The plan works beautifully. The glass ship flies to Fort Lizard, where the wounded are given further treatment. There they await news that Hannon and his forces are nearing Tallon. Their return is timed so that the Warlord may enter the city in Triumph, upon the deck of the glass ship that so many have lost their lives to achieve.
Sure enough, they rendezvous. The heroes of the battle are allowed to ride along with Hannon. They are borne down the main streets to the adulation of cheering crowds until they get to Tallon Circle. There the Warlord makes an impassioned speech and distributes the city's highest awards and honors to the heroes.
Click to hear the speech (3.8 MB). Or read the Transcript below:
"Thank you all, citizens of the very Jewel of Merikia. The courage and support you have shown in this time of trouble has been worthy of the greatest people of the known world. Though not everyone has picked up sword, you have defied the enemy with unbreakable pride. You are all heroes!"
"Be aware, the enemy has many spies and tools. Some may even be within the walls of this very city. Until they have been cleared from the skies of Merikia, the war shall continue. We will not rest, we will not wait, we will not yield one inch until the flying threat is gone forever!"
"Though the war is far from over, the buzzards have been dealt a crippling blow. Their greatest weapon has been taken from them. Without it, their ability to send death and pain from a place of cowardly security has been removed. If they wish to continue to fight, they must do so like men!"
"We are gathered here to honor all those who fought and died to win this greatest of prizes. To those who humbled the 'most high' and returned in trimph, we present them with all the honor and glory we have in our power to bestow. I have already been granted the highest award my people can give me: Loyalty, confidence and the title of Warlord. For the others, I call them forth:"
"For my Paladins, I ask only a cheer for each. Paladins take no awards. For Bec, who fell in battle, there shall be a minute's silence, followed by his name."
"For those who escaped tyranny and oppression, at great risk of life and limb, I present the following:
"For Specialist Zane, whose wisdom and skill made allies and servants out of enemies, the Silver Order of Patha.
"For Student Tira, whose untrained mind proved that raw determination can succeed where advanced learning could fail, the Civilian Star.
"For Lt. Gilead, regiment of Oba, whose hand has struck down the Most High and his supporters, the Silver Sword.
"For Animate Hank Woodman, whose intelligence has given us invaluable information on the resources of our enemy, the Civilian Star.
"For Cat Persia, whose presence on the Strike Team returned to us Sons and Daughters of Tallon, the Shield of Military Service.