Now let's find out what hit Ariane...
DuQuesne had also been studying Ghondas – and Orphan's reaction to her comments. He's definitely a Big Time Operator, Orphan is. Bigger than Ghondas. At the same time, I'm sure he's serious about needing our help – which tells me quite a bit about the mess we're in.
Orphan's tail suddenly rose halfway, his body and wingcases tightening, staring at a point just past DuQuesne's shoulder, where Ariane had just passed him.
As he turned, Ariane staggered back and fell, her black-blue hair pooling outward as she hit the smooth floor ungracefully. He spun fully around. "What the hell –"
The thing that he was suddenly confronting was a nightmare, taller than him, standing on seven claw-tipped, chitin-covered, jointed legs, a central body like a gorilla crossed with a praying mantis, the entire creature colored in violent splotches of red, black, and bluish-purple; it probably outweighed him by fifty kilos. Two more of the things stood just behind it and in flanking positions. It screech-hissed from a mouth that combined the worst features of a lobster and a lamprey, sounds translated into a rough, grating voice. "You stand in my way and speak unquietly. Unwise. Move."
Ariane was getting up, looking shaken and pale, a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth showing that she'd been hit harder than he thought. Now that's just torn it. "I move when you apologize for hitting my Captain. Not before."
Orphan hissed, a sound of dismay. "Molothos!"
In the moment before the creature reacted, DuQuesne had time to realize what a stupid mistake his antiquated instincts had driven him to. The Molothos were one of the most powerful factions, and by far the most dangerous – a race of xenophobic – no, xenomisosic, alien-hating – creatures who had managed to establish a power base large enough to challenge even groups like the Faith. Of all the lousy breaks…
The monster lashed out with jack-knife mantis claws, a stroke faster than anything DuQuesne had seen in fifty years. He barely moved aside in time, as the bladed forelimb ripped through the air where he'd been; the second stroke was just as close. This thing's a killer. Those aren't slaps like it gave Ariane; it's trying to rip my head off! He noticed the other two were moving forward and fanning out, legs moving in a stacatto crablike gait which was deceptively smooth and swift.
This is bad. Very bad. This wasn't one of the formal Challenges Orphan had talked about, it was a random gang attack, and it didn't look like anyone – even Orphan – was inclined to help out. No time to draw my gun, assuming these guys aren't armored enough to take a hit or two, and with the crowd around us I'd end up doing collateral damage. I've got to interrupt this guy's rhythm, throw him off. The next time the sharp-spined foreclaw stabbed outward, he moved.
The impact stung like catching a swung baseball bat, and he almost lost his grip. Thing's too fast, and I'm too slow and way out of practice. But he had the claw, and the hiss-screech was a gasp of startled anger. For a moment they stood motionless, the Molothos trying to pull its claw back, DuQuesne holding it locked in an iron grip. Jesus, the thing's strong. I don't know how long I can hold it.And if I shift enough to get my sword out, I'll hand it an opening and it'll be just too bad for me.
A gray shadow suddenly fell over both of them, and DuQuesne felt as though mired in thick oil. He turned his head – more slowly than he wanted.
A squat, armored figure stood to one side, pointing a flattened clublike weapon at both of them. "End this," it said in a hard, flat voice. "Initiating violence is prohibited outside of Challenge. You know this, Molothos Dajzail."
Dajzail's single eye – a crescent-shaped organ that extended around most of his head, like a wraparound visor – flickered with yellow light. It slowly relaxed the pressure, letting DuQuesne ease off and let go, but the entire body trembled, so much that the chitinous legs gave a slight rattling hum from their contact with the floor. And I'm sure that's rage, not fear. It's furious that it has to stop, has to accommodate this guy.
"This… creature refused to give ground, and insisted I… perform a service before it did so!" Dajzail snarled.
"Perform a… I insisted that you apologize for knocking over my friend and Captain!"
The armored figure – which appeared to be of a race similar to the toadlike creatures that had been accompanying First Guide Nyanthus – bobbed slightly; the replying voice, though still mostly dispassionate, seemed to have acquired a faint trace of wry humor. "A hard service indeed… for a Molothos. But an unwise service to demand, as well."
Orphan stepped forward. "Adjudicator, my friends are First Emergents. And Dajzail did strike their Captain without warning."
"I see that this is so. Then the fault is not theirs, but yours, Molothos. Not an uncommon situation. But let us simply set it aside; continue on with your business, remembering the prohibitions." As Dajzail and his two companions turned – without a word or glance – to continue onward, the Adjudicator raised its voice. "But be warned – if we see similar events repeated anytime in the next four weeks, we will be much less tolerant, Dajzail."
The hacking snarl was translated as an obscenity, but apparently any answer was considered acknowledgement. DuQuesne watched them leave with a combination of relief and disappointment. Get over it. Only your stupid hindbrain wants to fight the damn thing. Didn't you spend five decades trying to wash that poisonous crap out of your head? Get over it.
Instead, he turned on Orphan. "Thanks a lot for nothing. Were you going to take pictures of my dissection after they finished gutting me?"
Orphan was staring at him, still in his protective-threat pose. "You are insane. Insane!"
"What the hell's your problem? I didn't know exactly what they were, yeah, but once that started they weren't backing off."
"You confronted an unknown – and one so clearly formidable – for no reason!" Orphan said, the translated voice shaking. "There wasn't a chance in ten… in a hundred… that you'd survive it." Orphan shook himself. "And you wanted… no, you expected… me to enter combat." He glanced at the others, realized that they had been positioning themselves to intercept the other two Molothos. "I thought you had said that it was the Shadeweaver's interference that caused you to intervene on my behalf… yet this was even more of a risk."
Something about the whole situation's spooked him. Spooked him bad. DuQuesne shrugged. "Fine, drop it. You thought it'd be throwing good lives after bad, all right, your judgment to make. Who or what was that… Adjudicator?"
Clearly relieved to be away from the prior subject, Orphan answered in a much more normal tone. "Ah, the Adjudicators. They are the enforcers of the Arena, appointed by the major factions. They have to be evenhanded in their dealings, and the armor they wear – which, it is said, adapts to the wearer – has some connection with the Arena that allows them to intervene in any of the forbidden activities. There are not many such, but just a few Adjudicators has always been sufficient to keep people, shall we say, honest most of the time."
DuQuesne was now checking Ariane's injuries. The trickle of blood wasn't serious – he was rather surprised by the shock it had given him. He'd seen many fights before, and this had just shaken up the Captain a bit; why did he feel like fussing over her? "No real harm done, Captain. Banged your lip a little, I think."
"Thank you, Marc. But next time, please think before defending me. My pride – and even my lip – can take a few hits if necessary."
He wanted to protest, but she was perfectly right. "Understood, Captain."
Ariane nodded to Orphan. "Now what?"
"I think," Orphan said, "we should make our way towards my Embassy. I believe we will encounter a few more persons of interest along the way, and it will be a good safe haven to rest at; I suspect we will all want a good rest after all this walking, not to mention the excitement." He chuckled, a flapping motion of the wings. "And I'm looking forward to a decent meal."
As Ariane followed Orphan, Sandrisson fell in next to DuQuesne. "I must confess, I had not expected you to take the position of Sir Galahad."
"What? That two-bit thug just pissed me off."
"I was furious as well, but I was – I admit – rather intimidated by those creatures, and Ariane was petrified by them; I think they strike some rather unpleasant associations with her. But when you saw her go down, you didn't hesitate at all." Sandrisson smiled. "Don't worry, I shall say nothing. Honorable opposition and all that." He moved forward before DuQuesne could think of a reply, leaving him to stare after the elegant white-haired scientist.
What the hell did he mean by that?
It seems that aliens aren't the only danger here, Marc.