It had been a grueling week, climbing to the summit of the Tower of the Sky, but despite that Anna knew they’d only passed the easiest of the trials that lay before them.
“For a world with as many bridges to Earth as this one has, you’d think someone would have imported the idea of elevators by now,” Val said, dusty her hands off and helping Aranea onto the summit top ledge they’d finally arrived at.
Anna had been the first to the top, but apart from her team who were completing the climb as she watched she had seen a hint of anyone else on the desolate peak.
“I expected more of a welcome party,” Aranea said, her wariness giving voice to Anna’s own concerns.
“They’re here,” Tam said, pulling herself up the last few feet with Val’s help.
“I thought they knew were coming?” Cynthia asked, turning as she reached the top to help their last member, Zoe, complete the climb.
“They do,” Anna said. She didn’t have any supernatural senses to draw on, the enchantments she carried for this mission were of a different nature entirely. Intuition was a sufficient substitute though.
“Yeah, no one puts the seat of their government on the top of a mountain at the edge of the world if entertaining visitors is high on their list of priorities,” Zoe said.
“I’m not really seeing a seat of government here,” Val said, gesturing the empty plane in front of them.
The Tower of the Sky was roughly the size of Olympus Mons, three times as tall as the tallest mountain on Earth, but where the Martian mountain rose in a broad incline, the Tower of the Sky jutted straight up from the mist shrouded lands below. Anna’s party had been lucky to find a doorway which lead them to a cave two thirds of the distance up the mountain, but from there it had been a grueling multi-day effort to scale from one shelter to another.
Once formal diplomatic arrangements were made, Anna hoped that a repeat of the trip would prove either unnecessary or significantly easier. She knew there were doorways which opened directly into the Grand Celestium, but those were barred to the uninvited.
“You’re not seeing anything because they don’t wish us to see anything yet,” Anna said. It was only partially a guess. Even without establishing a dialog or offering any overt information about their culture, The Preservers who claimed the Tower of the Sky as the center of their realm, communicated a tremendous amount of detail about themselves both in the warnings they gave and the things they chose not to say.
“They should keep their palace tidier then,” Aranea said, her eyes narrowing and her lips curling in a dangerous smile.
Anna wasn’t certain what the extents of the spider goddess’ powers were but seeing past whatever illusion the Preservers had woven over their palace was clearly within her purview.
“None are permitted to gaze upon the holy city,” the Preserver War Captain said, his veil of invisibility shredding as he spoke. Other Preservers followed suit, stepping out from behind their concealment spells to show that they had Anna’s team surrounded in a half circle which left only a fall from the cliff as a means of escape if Anna ordered an escape.
Tam had briefed them on the Preservers who rules the world dominated by the Tower of the Sky. They were another branch on the human family tree, albeit one native to a foreign world. With their world’s lighter gravity they grew to greater sizes than Earth natives typically achieved, but were otherwise similar to Earthlings in terms of physical capabilities and genetic diversity. The guard patrol, of course, were particularly large and imposing specimens, with the sort of overly large and muscled proportions one would more commonly find in animated characters or a comic book.
“We come as envoys,” Anna said. “If your city is to remain closed to us, then please send forth someone we may treat with over our mutual concerns.”
She didn’t like the weapons they were aiming at her team, it suggested the negotiations were going to take longer than she’d hoped, and while it was worth taking the time to handle the Preservers correctly, she didn’t have an unlimited window to deal with them before the next closest world’s alignment became a critical problem.
“Why should we care about your concerns?” the War Captain asked. He didn’t step forward to loom over Anna, or try to use his physical presence directly. If anything, the distance he kept suggested to her that he wished to avoid contaminating himself with her presence any more than required.
“Because our concerns involve people from your world crossing into ours,” Anna said.
“That is not possible,” the War Chief said, shaking his head and wrinkling his nose at the idea. “All of our people are pledged. No one would leave.”
“Then the person who wore this wasn’t one of yours?” Anna asked, producing a glittering grey metal disk. The pattern work etched onto the disk’s face caught the unfiltered sunlight of the mountaintop and glowed with a orange-yellow warmth.
“A Castigator’s Seal? Where did you get that?” the War Captain asked, leaning forward as though he intended to inhale the Seal.
“We found this in an abandoned home on our world,” Anna said. “There was evidence that someone had been living for for several months.”
“How?” the War Captain asked, his brows furrowed.
“It would have been a few days after our worlds came into a close enough alignment for transits to be practical,” Tam said.
“And they weren’t alone,” Val said. “This wasn’t a one off occurrence from the signs of habitation we found.”
“They were a prepared and practical group,” Zoe said. “We dropped in on them unannounced and they still managed to vanish before we could catch up to them. The only things which were left behind was objects like this which were stored in secure rooms.”
“So you can see why we have concerns,” Anna said, making direct eye contact with the War Captain. “A group of people with no claim on our realm, and the ability to apparently vanish at will? That seems like a potential problem for both of our worlds, don’t you agree?”
It made for a good cover story by virtue of being true. Anna was less concerned about the group of otherworldly ninjas though than she was able to military might of the Tower of the Sky which might follow them.
The Tower was the closest realm to Earth and would remain so for another turning of the moon. The Tower’s moon, fortunately, not the Earths, which meant another two weeks. If nothing significant happened to connect the two realms more strongly, then the Tower and Anna’s Earth would drift apart again. If, however, a military sorte was to take place, the separation would be reversed, and even more doorways between the two world would open up, bringing with them all manner of troubles.
“Come with me,” the Warp Captain said, signaling to the other soldiers to stow their weapons.
Without further preamble, he led Anna and her team through the veil that hid the Grand Celestium, revealing the vast crystalline structure that dominated the peak and soared another thousand meters in height.
The Warp Captain offered them no tour, moving directly up a long spiraling staircase to bring them to a garden that was festooned with flowers in every shade of yellow and blue.
“Wait here,” the War Captain said, addressing his soldiers and Anna’s team in the same breath.
“What curious apartments they’ve built here,” Aranae said, holding her hand close to one of the flowers and allowing a small translucent arachnid to wander across her fingers.
“This place must be fun in a storm,” Val said, taking a seat at the table in the center of the garden.
“Who do you think they’ll send to meet with us?” Cynthia asked.
“Someone expendable,” Zoe said, taking a seat at the table as well.
Anna remained standing. It was useful for Val to sit, because it showed her team wasn’t inclined towards violence, assuming the War Captain or his superiors could read the posture of the team correctly and identify who their primary fighter was. It was also useful for Zoe to start the conversation sitting because it showed a lack of deference which a sharp negotiator would pick up on. For as polite as Anna had been, her team hadn’t come to the negotiations to bow and scrape before the Preservers. The diplomatic mission was intended to run in both directions so that each party could leave with the feeling that no further contact was needed. If Anna gave into demands from the Preservers and accepted their authority as higher than her own, they would endlessly be looking for additional concessions, and that would inevitably lead to exactly the sort of situation she was trying to avoid.
To her relief, the diplomat who was escorted in by the War Captain looked shrewd enough to recognize the various factors in play and took a seat in the center of the table, opposite and empty one which Anna slid into.
“Please excuse the undignified welcome,” Ambassador Bram said. “We take the defense of our borders very seriously.”
“We understand, and as no harm was done, the matter can be ignored in favor of resolving the more pressing issue before us,” Anna said.
“Yes, the artifact you brought to us. Can you provide any proof as to your claims of how it was found?” Bram asked.
“We have a series of case notes we can share with you which document the steps which lead to its discovery,” Anna said. “We are also willing to escort a party of your choosing to inspect the location. It’s likely your people will know to look for things we are unaware of.”
“Good. War Captain, arrange a party for immediate departure,” Bram said.
“So you do consider this a serious matter?” Zoe asked. “Your War Captain didn’t seem to think we had anything to say worth listening to.”
It was a comment meant to bait out a hostile response, but Brams reacted to it coolly, to Anna’s surprise.
“The matter of a missing Castigator is what makes this a serious issue,” Bram said. “If he is not apprehended, the gates between our worlds will not close when the scheduled time has elapsed.”
“Good, you are aware of the danger we face as well then?” Anna asked. It didn’t mean that the Preservers wouldn’t move to an expansionist footing if an opportunity presented itself, but at the very least they didn’t seem to be on one already.
“Yes, and we appear to be of like minds on the subject,” Brams said. “Continued contact between your realm and ours can lead to nothing but chaos.”
“I can’t imagine chaos is all that desirable for people who live in a glass house on top of a mountain?” Zoe asked, playing the part Anna needed her to play perfectly.
“No one desires chaos,” Brams said. “Order is the goal of all life, from the smallest of bacteria to the grandest of divine powers.”
Aranea smirked at that but let the comment slide. Anna guessed Aranea didn’t agree with that assessment but saw no value in correcting Ambassador Brams’ views on what a divine entity might think.
“How soon will your team be assembled?” Val asked, leaning forward to join the conversation.
“They should be available in no more than a hundred breaths,” Brams said.
“Good,” Val said. “It took awhile to get here, but I’m glad we were able to work things out so quickly.”
“I’m afraid there is still much more to discuss,” Brams said. “I will have to ask that some of you remain behind when the investigation looks into this matter.”
Stay behind as hostages. Anna knew it was what he meant and had anticipated the eventuality. It was why she’d brought a larger than normal team.
“Zoe, would you escort the investigation team when they arrive?” she asked. “Perhaps you can take Aranea and Cynthia with you as well since the team may have several members and need to split up.”
Zoe narrowed her eyes, clearly seeing Anna’s move for what it was. Anna was maneuvering her original team’s loved ones back to Earth, and it’s relative safety after each of them, Zoe, Cynthia, and Aranea had insisted on coming along for the lengthy mission.
“I’d be delighted too,” Zoe said. “Just don’t stay here too long ok?”
“That won’t be a problem,” Anna said, knowing that Ambassador Brams had no intention of letting anyone who remained behind ever leave.