OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Persia Khaz

63. Ascensions and Infiltrations

errick," says the gator.

The adventurers stand momentarily dumbfounded. Why in the name of the Standing Stones would Jerrick, Paladin of Hannon, and Gilead's childhood friend be out here in deepest, darkest Nunavut? Does this mean the Warlord is nearby? They question Jerrick until they are satisfied it is no ruse. He is who he says he is, but he wears the form of a Gator. Obviously his morphia has been altered, but why?

Jerrick is stingy with details, but tells them that in this guise, he can move undetected among the groundling servants of the Celestial City. He cuts off further questions by telling them that in these times warfare must be conducted piecemeal. When dealing with enemies who can read the minds of captured prisoners, or subvert even the most loyal of followers, it is essential that no one person knows every part of a plan. Obviously they have a part to play just as he does. When they explain that they are there to gain entrance to the City, Jerrick sighs and says that he believes it can be done. He does not ask them their purpose there, and in fact cautions them not to tell him, for the aforementioned reasons.

Instead, he tells them that he will lead them to someone who can help, but it is a long march. The heroes realize that they must say something to the soldiers in the transport. After some deliberation, they convince the lineman to hold position for three days, further ordering them to return to Tallon if the scouting party is not heard from in that time. Acadia, the lineman (linewoman, actually) agrees reluctantly.

Jerrick leads the six of them (Gilead, Tira, Persia, Khaz, Quarra and Exon) through twisting and muddy jungle trails. Eventually, they reach a bumbershoot tree. These curious trees are often used for shelter by barbarian tribes. They form a natural clear spot in the midst of their roots, and their crown holds a reservoir of water. This tree holds a single occupant, a handsome, but slow-moving man who introduces himself as Nigel. Nigel tells them that he was once of the Celestial City, but is now dedicated to its fall. He is apparently one of Lucaius' revolutionaries. He appears most anxious to help, and continually asks jerrick when he will be allowed to come in from the jungle and be given leave to dwell in Tallon.

He gives them two potent gifts. The first is a number of sacks. He has used his Brethon mastery to put a glamour upon them so that no matter what is placed inside, the bags will appear to be filled with rice, even to spirit sight. There is also a carcass wrap that will have the same effect, making whatever it encircles appear to be a recent game kill. These will provide them with disguise.

The second gift is a weapon. He gives them ten small spheres, each about the size of a plum. Within each is a tiny creature they recognize with more than a little trepidation. They are nascent line-eaters, the unborn form of the creatures which so recently plagued Tallon. They are to use the Celestial City's own weapon against them. They are told of a number of targets that would be helpful, most notably the gladiatorial pens. Apparently, he was once the keeper of the glamours upon the illusory cages that held the arena fighters. Nigel assures them that line-eaters would be a far more effective weapon against the floating city than they were against Tallon. So much of the status quo of the Seraphim depends on the complex webs of enhancement and alteration that their masters have cast over the years.

There remains one decision to make. There are only enough disguises for five; one of the party will have to remain. The choice becomes simpler after Nigel reveals that any leyline within the bags, other than the ley line to the bags themselves, will destroy the glamour. Exon will need to stay behind. His hand does not technically bear a ley line, but it is close enough. The spirit hand will interfere with the illusion. Exon volunteers to stay behind with Nigel and accepts Gilead's spirit sword for safekeeping.

Nigel and Tira privately exchange ley lines for sword and bags. While in the bumbershoot tree, Tira asks Nigel what he conceals behind a glamour. She has deduced from his slow and painful movements that belie his strong healthful appearance, that something is amiss. He reveals to her that he was cast out from the Celestial City. He managed to survive the long fall, but just barely. By the time Tallonite agents found him and procured healing, he was nearly beyond saving. He is permanently crippled and scarred. He keeps the glamour for pure vanity.

Nigel gives the party one last useful piece of advice before bidding htem farewell. He says that if they get into trouble, there is a code phrase that will alert any revolutionaries in the vicinity that they are on the same side . They need merely work into their speech that their mother was a warrior. Likewise, anyone who gives them that phrase should be treated as a friend and ally.

Jerrick now takes them on a much longer trek, lasting many days. Finally they reach the valley over which the Celestial City floats. Still they trek on until they reach a worn path on the far side. Here Jerrick tells them they must don their guises and wait. They wait for quite some time before a bizarre caravan comes into view. A number of riven are pulling carts and barrows laden with tribute goods for the floating city. Apparently there is some kind of riven colony out here in the Wilds. They catch references to a place called "Monster Valley". Jerrick hails the misshapen creatures and tells them in an authoritative voice that the last caravan who passed this way failed to carry all their goods the full distance. He says that they must carry these goods as well if they "do not want to share the fate of their lazy brethren."

Grumbling, the riven do as directed, hoisting the heroes onto the carts, unable to see past the clever Brethon glamours. In a short time the tribute is delivered to a massive platform built underneath the city. Huge stone blocks and rudely carved steps form a staging area upon which goods and booty for the Celestial city are placed. The operation is overseen by gators and cruel humans. Over them all stands a stern and imposing statue of Helios, the Most High. Eventually, the treasure (and our heroes) are pulled up to the city by means of great winches and enhanced cable. The loss of the crystal ship has made the city adopt more prosaic means of transporting cargo.

Once they are pulled all the way up from this harrowing journey, they are carried and carted away to the kitchens, where they are placed in a rough heap, awaiting workers to put each item in proper storage. No sooner are they left alone than the infiltrators get out of their bags. Cleverly, they keep the glamour bags with them, using them to disguise their weaponry and to make them appear to be common laborers.

Khaz releases one of his two line-eaters at a set of doors that conceal a place that Tira assures him have numerous ley lines upon them. They then sneak off to explore the city, seeking places of sabotage. Additionally, they seek Kamlak, and Tira seeks the Silver Hellebore she hopes will restore her lost abilities.

They move about the city for hours, seeing the quarter inhabited by the keepers, the great temple to the Celestial, where much work is being done, and a large open recreation area for the elite of the City. It is here they are finally discovered. The one who spots them is none other than Dominator Thrace, the seraphim whom they once interrogated on their ill-fated voyage to Fort Lizard. She recognizes them and gives battle, raising the alarm as she does so. Unfortunately, her arrogance does her in and she underestimates their fighting skills. She is slain before our heroes must run or face certain capture.

They run past storage rooms and barracks, barely evading capture. They briefly pause while Tira tries to construct a disguise for Gilead. He curses himself for not realizing earlier that his face might be well-known (and hated) by the citizens of this floating metropolis. Eventually, they find themselves in one of the long curving corridors that leads to the arena. They slay a couple of guards and Khaz releases another line-eater. It scuttles away, just as they realized they are pinned in a dead end with the sound of many determined feet headed their way. It feels like a last stand...