Ariane looked back at the others. DuQuesne's narrowed eyes and Sandrisson's widened ones showed they had heard the same thing. Impossibly, it seemed that the barely-seen beings down the corridor were conversing in English.
A deeper voice, with an undertone of exhaustion and defiance, answered. "If this is the end, then end it with less insult, for it should be beneath the Blessed To Serve. Unless your words come from the fear that we are alike, you and I, Sethrik?"
By now Ariane had moved to the end of her own corridor. Suppressing a nervous breath, she risked a look around the corner.
The intersecting corridor ended about forty meters away, in a smooth curve. A number of creatures were gathered there, most in a semicircle around a single other creature which stood against the far wall; a more clear scenario of a fugitive brought to bay couldn't be imagined. Both pursued and pursuers were indeed tall, perhaps almost the height of Dr. DuQuesne or, counting the twin crests that seemed to adorn each head, even taller. Green and black patterns spotted the chitin-shiny surface of the things, and what appeared to be beetle-like split wingcases were on their backs. A long tail, flexible despite the chitinous exterior, rippled behind each of the creatures, adorned with what appeared to be a stinger; several of these tails were currently held in an erect curve, reminding Ariane unpleasantly and forcibly of a scorpion.
The cornered individual was facing her, allowing her to make out the fact that it did, in fact, have something akin to a face, though the individual features had a size and spacing that was unsettlingly not quite human. The feet appeared to be encased in boots, but judging by the lack of clothing on any of the other parts of the body and the fact that the "boots" had a smoothly-blending color scheme, she suspected that those were indeed the creatures' feet. But now the first voice – Sethrik? – was speaking again:
"Alike?" A buzzing insectoid shriek, like an angered cicada, sounded out. "We are nothing alike. We understand what we are, and from where we come, and we are united. You are the last of your kind."
"So end it, and free your world of my abomination." Ariane almost got the impression of a fleeting smile. "But there is something more important than eliminating my obscenity, isn't there?"
"You will give us full entry, Mindkiller!"
"I will not. The Minds no longer have an interface, even if you were to bring me back. I burned it out and sealed it with dustswarm motes that will kill me if they ever try to touch me again." The lone alien seemed to crouch slightly, gathering himself.
"You believe your fragment-mind is enough to out-think one of the Great Masters?" Sethrik – judging by slight movements and gestures, the alien slightly to the right of the center of the surrounding semicircle – seemed to give the equivalent of a laugh. "We shall all bear witness, then. In any case, the Blessed shall know peace, for either you shall succeed in your madness, by dying first, or you shall fail, and die after." The semicircle began to close in.
Ariane was utterly astounded to realize that this was her voice. More, that she had rounded the corner and was standing in full view when she said it. Vaguely in her ear she heard DuQuesne's incredulous "What the living hell do you think you're doing?", but now that she had stepped forward…
Instantly three of the circling aliens, one of them Sethrik, spun. The remaining seven did not move, giving the fugitive no chance to escape. "Wait? Identify your Sphere and Designate, creature! Do you dare issue challenge to the Blessed?"
When she gave no immediate response, Sethrik and the other two moved forward a pace. "Your threat posture is unsure. A challenge would be a sure loss for you. What point to your interruption?"
"I don't know exactly what's going on here," she admitted, still completely at sea as to what had possessed her to step out, "but I'm not going to stand around and watch a lynching or a kidnapping." She sensed, rather than saw, both Sandrisson and DuQuesne step out, flanking her, slightly behind. They were probably even more confused than she was, but – thank God – they knew that they'd better back her up now and worry later.
Sethrik studied her with black-gleaming eyes that were subtly wrong in size and placement. "Weapons and threat analysis complete. All components concur. Minimal threat. There will be no combat." He turned away and looked at the first. "Probability of your escape or victory is now below threshold, Mindkiller. We all recognize it. Individual units you are superior to, but not sufficient to overcome order of magnitude numeric disadvantage."
The lone alien addressed as "Mindkiller" suddenly raised its – his? – voice. "But if they assist, probabilities may shift."
"They will not." Sethrik said confidently.
Ariane found that confidence – so matter-of-factly stated – galling. Even so, she was again startled by her reaction. "The hell I won't!"
That startled Sethrik – more, for some reason, than her initial intrusion, as near as she could tell. But he simply gave a quick open-shut gesture of his wings, and suddenly the two creatures still facing them lunged forward.
"Your diplomacy is unrivalled, Captain," muttered DuQuesne.
The green-black insectoids seemed to blur as they approached, moving at a pace she knew she couldn't match. No wonder Sethrik had been so confident. She and DuQuesne got off a single shot each; hers missed entirely, but DuQuesne managed a grazing hit. The searing plasma packet scorched a pure-black trail along the thing's side, but it didn't even flinch. Sandrisson ducked aside and was dealt a blow in passing that kicked him back down the corridor from which they'd come.
She dropped the gun and kicked her own physical enhancements into highest gear; the things suddenly seemed to slow to merely awfully bloody fast instead of impossibly quick. A wingcase whipped open, almost smashing into her face, but she managed to duck under it and kick out.
It felt like kicking a mahogany table leg, but it did throw the creature off a bit. It jumped backward to evade a followup blow, and then lunged forward just as she grasped the hilt of her sword.
Thousands of hours of practice in a dozen virtual realms – all emulated with deadly accurate combat that strained muscles to the utmost – coalesced in that moment. Her body moved in the perfectly coordinated arc-thrust of the ancient iai draw-and-cut.
Even the chitinous armor of the creature couldn't withstand that carbon-composite reinforced steel edge. Only literally inhumanly fast reflexes kept her from bisecting it from one side to the other; as it was, she actually cut off the lower edge of one wingcase as it whirled desperately aside, revealing a gossamer crystal shimmer that might be a furled wing.
But the stinger-tipped tail had whipped around and smashed the sword from her hands. In the next moment its hard, cold fingerlike talons grabbed her. The uniform responded instantly by hardening into almost unbreakable protection, but she knew that was only temporary. There was a very strong limit as to how much impact protection the suit could provide, and this thing could just beat her against a wall until she broke, even if the suit stayed intact.
The first impact rattled her teeth. She tried to twist with the next blow, and succeeded in cushioning the blow, but the thing's joints just didn't quite work like a humans', which meant that she wasn't having any luck in pulling free. The wingcases flared as it braced and lunged again, and she caught a flash of patterned pink and red. What…?
The impact put a blood-colored haze over her vision for a moment, then she was yanked away again. Whatever it is, it's different than the rest of him. With that as the feeble justification, she swung her body up and around as it drove her towards the wall once more, and just as her body was driven into the wall, hammered her heel down.
She felt the buzzing shriek of unmistakable agony through her leg, and the iron-hard grip fell away. Barely able to keep standing, she focused her will and staggered to her feet, slamming an armored elbow into the thing's face and then grabbing the wingcase as it made an ineffective swipe at her. With all her augmented strength she shoved upward and pulled.
A loud crack rewarded her, and the alien screamed again, this time weaker. Her vision cleared as she kicked the thing away from her.
DuQuesne, blood trickling from a cut on his forehead, had just managed to make his opponent attempt – unsuccessfully – to emulate a nail going into a board, with the corridor wall playing the board. The erstwhile nail did not look up to an immediate rematch with either opponent.
The remaining eight of Sethrik's group were trying to restrain their target, but they were apparently now aware that the humans were not cooperating. Abruptly the group – in a coordinated motion – drew back into a tight defensive formation. "This is unforgivable. We issue challenge!"
"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about." Ariane said, keeping a wary eye on the first two attackers.
That caused all of the aliens to freeze, utterly motionless. Sethrik's group finally leaned back, just as their prey suddenly generated a repetitive pulsing buzz which was overlaid, somehow, by laughter. "New players, Sethrik! First Emergents!" It laughed louder. "First is forgiven, Second should be, Third may be, Sethrik! You can't do anything!"
She did not like Sethrik's posture. Neither did DuQuesne, apparently, because he resumed a combat stance. Sethrik's words confirmed her forbodings.
"If none witness, there are none to question," he said softly.
"Indeed," the lone alien said. But he pointed as he did so.
Ariane felt a crawling sensation between her shoulderblades, and turned, in guard stance.
A hundred meters or so away, almost invisible in shadows thrown by incomprehensible machinery nearby, stood a figure. It was hard to distinguish, a black shape like a hooded and cloaked man. But whatever it was, it had a dramatic effect on Sethrik. "Shadeweaver," he hissed. He drew himself up, as did all his companions – in an eerily identical fashion. "So. First is forgiven. You knew not what you did, and we cannot act against you for that, and must yield." The entire group threw an unmistakably venomous glance at Mindkiller. "For your sake, you had best hope this abomination will explain your fortune, for the Blessed will not – nor do we ever forget."
The Blessed stalked past the humans, helping their wounded to walk with them. As they continued down the corridor, she saw the shadowy figure – Shadeweaver? – give an almost human nod, and then just… fade away into the shadows.
And once more, I'm officially creeped out by this place.
Yes, it's a bit... eerie and odd, isn't it?