When we last left our intrepid adventurers, Marc had made a somewhat dramatic entrance.
It was, perhaps not surprisingly, the Molothos who moved first after DuQuesne's dramatic entrance. Dajzail and his squad bulled their way through the crowd, most creatures scrambling out of the Molothos' way in near-terror. The arachnoid alien screeched something so filled with rage and obscenity that it could not be translated as anything except a roar of fury. "You insult, and then you attack, the Molothos? Your head will ornament our Embassy, your bones be decorations of the True House!" The fighting claws of all four Molothos were flicking in and out like animated jackknives, unable to restrain the need to tear and rip.
"I just cleaned out a little infestation on our home Sphere. And you might want to think harder about that little fact before you make the same mistake that poor bastard did," DuQuesne retorted; Ariane heard a new tone in his voice, one hard and cold and utterly without fear. Far from retreating, he took a step forward, daring the Molothos to come closer.
Dajzail paused; Ariane guessed that, given what she and Simon had learned, Dajzail was reevaluating the odds against him. But the other Molothos spread out in an attack formation.
An invisible but irresistable force suddenly hammered the four Molothos and Marc to the ground; both sides strained to rise. "Results of Challenge do not justify conflict."
The voice was not loud, yet it was everywhere, thundering softly in Ariane's very bones, causing the aliens throughout Transition to flinch. "Rules are clear. Human Representatives DuQuesne and Edlund have successfully completed Type 2 Challenge. Molothos have lost Challenge. Forfeit claim on Sphere. Humanity's Sphere now fully active." DuQuesne was suddenly on his feet, no longer held down; not so Dajzail and his people. "Molothos will remember law of the Arena; in Nexus Arena, anger is permitted, vengeance is not. Restrict passions to Challenge, Embassies, or other Spheres."
A pause, during which the Molothos still struggled to get up – held, Ariane now realized, by the simple expedient of increasing local gravity until they couldn't move. "Adjudicator Vchanta Nom indicates this action possibly violates prior warning. Arena partially concurs; penalty is removal to Embassy, no emergence, four point seven hours."
And as simply as that, the Molothos were gone, the space where they had been empty.
"Well, well," Orphan murmured nearby. "A magnificent group of enemies you have made today, Ariane Austin. Few like the Molothos, and you have managed to both defeat and humiliate them in the same day. This will doubly elevate your standing in the Arena."
Dr. Rel was studying them apprehensively. The tone of his voice reflected his stance. "I find more significant, and perhaps… disturbing, that the Arena – which, when it speaks at all, speaks with utter precision – named two, and only two, of your people as having met and completed the Challenge."
Orphan stiffened, then turned slowly to gaze at DuQuesne as he approached, the crowds parting respectfully before the big man. "Indeed… a thought which had not yet struck me."
Simon was grinning widely. Ariane felt an answering grin on her own face, and suddenly she was running to meet DuQuesne. "Marc!" She grabbed him in a hug and lifted in a sudden impulse; she heard his faint grunt of surprise as she actually lifted him off the ground for a moment, then dropped him back down "Marc, you miracle-worker! We're in, Marc!"
"It's a start, Captain," he said, with a quiet smile behind the black beard. "Simon," he continued, accepting a firm handshake from the white-haired scientist.
"I add my own congratulations as well," Orphan said, catching up to them. "Might I ask how you managed it?"
"No," DuQuesne answered bluntly. "Or, you can ask, but I'm saying nothing, until after I've been able to discuss it with the Captain. In private. Which means in our Embassy, not yours."
Orphan looked rather miffed, but said nothing; Nyanthus swirled up and gave a flowering bow to DuQuesne. "The Faith congratulates you on what must have been a stunning and dangerous victory, Marc DuQuesne. Captain Austin, I know you must now speak with your people at some length, so I shall be brief; it was my purpose to invite you to a ceremony of the Faith – just to observe, as we discussed – which in point of fact has a connection with your people. The ceremony will be held in a few days hence, so please contact me, or one of my people, as soon as convenient, that we know whether you will be joining us in this celebration." He bowed again, symbiotic fliers symbolically enveloping all of them, and seemed to float off, accompanied as always by his silent bodyguards.
"Orphan… Dr. Relgof…" Ariane said, a bit distracted by the implications of Nyanthus' hurried invitation, "Um… how will we find our Embassy?"
"Nothing could be simpler," Orphan responded in his usual warm tones, prior annoyance either gone or hidden. "Once you have won through to your citizenship, the Arena naturally assigns you one. While I understand your need for privacy, might I at least travel with you and see where your Embassy is placed? I have some theories as to what basis the Arena uses for its decisions, and it amuses me to prove myself wrong time and again."
"Of course you may, Orphan. Dr. DuQuesne didn't mean any insult, and we hope that – once we have clarified the capabilities of our Embassy and decided on our next course of action – we can invite you to visit us and return your courtesy. And you as well, Dr. Rel."
"The Analytic and myself will be very pleased to visit you at your convenience. Come, let us go, for the crowd is becoming less intimidated and soon may seek to overwhelm your sensibilities with volume of questions and attentiveness."
Rel's observation was accurate; the crowds which had been respectfully or uneasily keeping their distance were now slowly moving closer – those who were not already leaving for the exits, the main "show" being over. Ariane caught a glimpse of Sethrik and the Blessed leaving – in a straight line that parted the crowd like water, swerving only to avoid the three black-clad figures that still stood almost motionless near the midline of Transition. As she gazed in that direction, the one almost humanoid figure seemed to meet her gaze and incline its head. Shadows coalesced from nowhere around the three Shadeweavers, and a moment later dissipated, leaving nothing but empty floor.
She noticed that even after their departure, it was some time before anyone else dared cross the space where the Shadeweavers had stood. By that point, she and the others had almost reached the exit from Transition. Turning her head again, she saw the elevators looming before them.
A group of moderate-sized aliens, blocky creatures with rhino-like hide and ridged, triangular beaked heads, approached the little party, clearly intending to intercept them and engage in conversation. DuQuesne merely moved slightly forward and looked at them, and they stopped as though they'd run into a wall. Looking at the ebony-haired power engineer, she realized there was something very different about him, especially now; the hard coldness of a glacier seemed to surround him, and something else, a supreme focus, confidence, something that made her almost afraid to talk to him.
It wasn't her imagination, either; the aliens felt it, and Simon's analytical gaze was mingled with concern. The crowds before the elevator hesitated as the doors opened; none made a move to enter before DuQuesne, and only one made a hesitant step forward to join them on the ride down after the five of them had entered the huge elevator – a single step that halted immediately as DuQuesne glanced in his direction.
The ride down in the elevator, short though it was, simply reinforced the impression. The five of them were virtually silent, and even after they'd emerged and gotten one of the silvery autocabs, little was said. He glanced at her at one point, and she could see the difference in his expression. There was no difference she could point to, nothing that a photograph would show clearly, but she knew, somehow, that this was at least partially not the Marc DuQuesne who had left them only a day or two ago.
She was distracted from this discovery by noticing they were approaching Orphan's Embassy… and then passing it, stopping a mere hundred meters farther on at a plain-fronted building similar in size to the other Embassies, but with – as yet – no markings of any kind to distinguish it. "Embassy of Humanity," the sourceless voice of the autocab announced.
"So we are neighbors!" Orphan said. "A bit of good fortune, perhaps an omen of sorts. I look forward to visiting you, then!"
Relgof looked curiously at Orphan. "And have you once more been proven wrong?"
"Surprisingly, no," responded the green-and-black alien. "One of my theories predicted that the human Embassy would be very near to mine; I am rather startled to find it is so. But gratified. If I find more evidence to support my little theory, I will of course share it with you."
"Such generosity would be appreciated." Dr. Rel stood aside to let the humans disembark, and gave his curtsey-bow. "Dr. Sandrission – Simon – call me as soon as your schedule permits. Now that you have proven yourselves in the Arena, much becomes possible that was not before, and we would surely wish to discuss these new opportunities immediately."
"Indeed so," agreed Orphan. "As your allies prior to the event, we would hope to find this to all of our advantages. But we shall delay you no longer."
"Thank you again, Orphan," Ariane said, and clasped his arm firmly; he returned the gesture after a very brief hesitation. "I know you have your own motives, but you've been a true help and I don't think we'd have gotten nearly this far without you. I count ourselves very lucky to have met you."
Orphan seemed somewhat touched by the words and gesture; he returned the favor with a full pushup-like bow. "Captain Austin, it has been a unique pleasure. I too feel we were exceedingly fortunate, and hope that a continued association will benefit both Humanity and the Liberated."
"Come on, Captain," DuQuesne said quietly. "The faster I get you brought up to speed, the faster we can decide which way to jump next."
As the autocab glided off, carrying Orphan and Relgof, the three humans turned and walked towards the blank-faced Embassy; the door rolled aside noiselessly as they approached.
Time for a bit of post-mortem on the last sequences of events, eh?