Beginning the weekly rather than thrice-weekly posting schedule, here's the next chapter of GCA for your viewing pleasure.
The Temple of the Faith was near the center of the Embassy level, one of five great buildings surrounding a sort of central square (which happened to be pentagonal). The Grand Arcade surrounded this central square, separated from it by a ring of other buildings, not quite so large and impressive as the central five.
The Temple of the Faith was also a striking building, in the shape of a many-armed spiral whose arms began as tiny beads and enlarged in to great spheres, coalescing in the center to a huge tower of spheres ranging from one nearly five hundred meters across at the very base to rice-grain sized dots composing the point of the highest spire, more than two kilometers above. It, like the uniforms of its adherents, was predominantly green-and-gold, patterns of geometric yet living complexity twining across the surface of the spheres in emerald and auric diversity.
It was a night-cycle within Nexus Arena, and above glowed only the faint hint of sparkles and reflections from the ceiling… or whatever night-like imagery the Arena had chosen to display. Whatever the case, the Temple was lit like a bastion of luminance against darkness, a blazing spire of belief and hope set against the backdrop of night.
"They don't lack in their showmanship, do they?" she murmured.
DuQuesne's ears caught her comment. "Not one little bit. Shaped like a galaxy of spheres, reaching upward to the sky, all that kind of symbolism works real good for me. I'd guess that kind of thing must work pretty good for a lot of species, since that's the design they chose." He glanced around. "Not that these other buildings are any slouches at design either."
"Indeed so, Dr. DuQuesne; I am sure that your people, as well, recognize the value of striking the right perceptual chord in your fellows." Orphan, who had accompanied them, surveyed the other buildings. "For public display, for recruitment in many cases, or merely a statement of presence; these are the Faction Houses. Not all factions have them, of course, but those that do use them to ensure that they are recognized outside of their Embassy, and to conduct business of a general nature for which they still would not wish to give access to their Embassy.
"And here, of course, the greatest of the Faction Houses, won only by direct Challenge, built to design of the one controlling them, mighty statements indeed of the power and influence of their owners. The Faith, of course, before which we stand. The Blessed, my former people. The Molothos, who recruit not at all but indeed wish it clear that they are second to none. The Analytic, masters of Knowledge. And the Vengeance, adversary to the Arena itself."
"Not to the Arena, Survivor," a knife-sharp voice snapped from the surrounding gloom. "Merely to those who created the Arena."
The speaker was of the species Orphan had called Milluk – a spherical body suspended on multiple slender legs that arched up above its back rather like those of a daddy longlegs, three eyes spaced equidistantly around the body, with some sort of manipulative arms or tendrils underneath. At this range, as it entered the light near them more fully, Ariane could see a glitter as of another eye or two underneath – which made sense, given the need to be able to see what one was manipulating. The creature was surrounded by a slight brownish haze and attended by a faint sharp smell. "You know better than to make such inaccurate pronouncements, Orphan."
The great black wingcases gave their swift shrug. "Who is to say whether opposing the creators of the arena is not itself opposition to the Arena?"
"I'm a little puzzled here," Ariane said. "I thought no one knew who or what made the Arena. You have some sort of name for them – Voidbuilders is the term I've heard – but that's about it."
"Oh, we know them – Captain Austin, is it not?" the creature said. "Selpa'A At, Swordmaster First of the Vengeance, greets you. In safety and in security, in peril and plague, in victory and vengeance, may your course be ever your own."
"Ariane Austin, Captain and – for the moment – leader of the faction of Humanity, greets you," she echoed and bowed. "May your course also be ever your own as well. So what do you mean, you know the Voidbuilders?"
"As well as any know their own fears and phantoms, the Vengeance know the Creators," the deep and mellifluous voice of Nyanthus answered from the direction of the Temple of the Faith. "Swordmaster First, I thought we had an agreement that you would not harangue my brethren and supplicants before the very doors of my Temple? Would you stray so far and invite – nay, provoke – Challenge for such offense?" The voice of the First Guide was as calm as ever, but Ariane noted that the movements of the symbiotic fliers were much more sharp and jerky.
"Be you so eager for the confrontation, First Guide of Delusion?" Selpa'A retorted, rocking back and forth on his suspending legs. "Orphan is not one of your poor misguided larvae, and these First Emergents, now their own true Faction, have hardly had time to become ensnared in your … quaint misunderstandings. And I stand a bit farther than 'before your doors', unless it is soon your intention to ban me also from the doors of my own headquarters and perhaps the Grand Arcade as well?" It was clear Selpa'A had intended to say something much more offensive, but decided not to – probably, Ariane thought, because he wants to have a reasonably good chance to talk with us in a friendly setting. Sure isn't because he wants to avoid offending Nyanthus.
The First Initiate Guide was clearly exceedingly unamused. "I see that you have selected your stalking point well, Selpa. Just a few meters beyond our agreed perimeter. Indeed, you are blameless in literal fact, though not so much in the spirit of the agreement. I – and my bethren – shall remember this is your way, and examine the other agreements that we have carefully; perhaps we would be also well advised to forget following the spirit of charity and generosity, and instead trace closely the letter of the agreements." Nyanthus whirled slowly aside and flower-bowed before Ariane. "Forgive this disturbing confrontation, Captain Ariane Austin. I have invited you here for a joyous and solemn ritual, as a witness, and would have hoped nothing would sour this evening."
Selpa'A buzzed from some unseen organ; the buzz was translated as a sigh. "My apologies to you, Captain Austin. As is obvious there is much between my people and the Faith, yet I would not have it said that I sought to ruin your freedom to see and choose. But, if you will, come yourself or send others of your people to speak with me and mine. For I assure you that no story of the Arena will be fully told if it excludes the truths of the Vengeance." He rose high, dropped low, and scuttled off into the night, towards the sharp-spired, blade-angled building that Orphan had named as the Vengeance' headquarters. Ariane got the impression that Nyanthus was following his adversary with a speculative gaze.
As the others began to disembark, Nyanthus interposed a long branchlike tendril. "Many apologies. But only one may be witness. The others must all be of the Faith."
Ariane glanced at DuQuesne and Orphan questioningly. Orphan seemed unconcerned, but DuQuesne was studying the First Guide narrowly. "No funny business?"
"I must only guess at the meaning of your metaphor, Dr. DuQuesne, but I offer you my personal word of honor that there shall be laid on your Captain no influences, blessings, geases, or other manifestations of our powers; only the sights and sounds she beholds shall influence her, as such things doubtless have always done throughout her life."
"And indeed the word of the First Guide is good. That much I confirm with no reservations whatsoever," Orphan said firmly. "Then we shall move on."
DuQuesne shrugged. "Take care, Captain."
Nyanthus led her up the curving gold-and-green ramp through the immense main doorway, which – unlike the standard Arena door design – were designed like huge scalloped shells on hinges, and opened dramatically outward as they approached. Strains of music reached her ears – music that followed strange chord progressions and rhythms, yet – somehow – beautiful and joyous as the crescendo of Beethoven's 9th, or Satterli's "Jovian Themes".
She followed the First Guide to a green and gold room which looked out upon an immense circular amphitheater, composing a great deal of the first central sphere – three hundred meters across, she guessed. Rank upon rank of the Faith stood below, all wearing something – whether it was a cloak, a shirt, engraved and inlaid into chitin, an ornamented crown – of green and gold, often with single or multiple spiralling circular patterns. In the center, a flat space with a spiralling pattern of flat-topped spheres like steps, these leading to a smaller flat space at the top of the spiral's central sphere. A single figure in a dull grey robe stood at that central point.
The figure looked almost human at this distance. Using electronic binoculars, she saw that it appeared to be of the same species as Dr. Relgof, though this individual had fluffy top plumage of a striking gold color, eyes of a clear and piercing blue-green, and the filter-beard was wider and tinged with red and pink. He also looked nervous; the filter flip-flopped frequently and he was clearly trying to restrain an impulse to move.
"I must join the ceremony very shortly, Ariane Austin, but allow me to explain the significance of this event. You see, our order is limited in numbers of Initiate Guides by the Creators; only so many may be so elevated at any given time, and so normally the Ceremony is performed only when a Guide dies or chooses to lay down his burden.
"But when a new species emerges into the Arena, the Creators recognize they, too, will need ministering to, guidance, and assistance from the Faith. Thus at that time they give us a blessing to elevate one or more of our bethren who are worthy to the exalted post of Initiate Guide. Mandallon, the candidate you see below, has asked to be given the honor of elevation in the name of your people. If the Creators are in accord, he will today become something much more than what he was… and will gain also terrible responsibilities that he never before imagined. Thus it is to him – and us – extremely important that one of your people, your best representative, witness his Elevation."
The eyes of Mandallon seemed to look up at her through the high-powered lenses. He blinked as though hoping to make her out better, but unless those eyes doubled as telescopes he could only see her as a small figure in the balcony with Nyanthus. "He looks pretty nervous. Is the ritual dangerous?"
The First Guide flowered briefly. "It can be, Ariane Austin. Infusing the power of the Gods into something mortal can be more than the mortal can bear, and indeed without some sort of control, the Elevation can be devastating. But we are here to support our newfound Guide, to contain the power he will suddenly hold, to show him how to control it and wield it when the time comes. I have done this seven times in the past forty-two years. Unless Mandallon has within his heart some hidden flaw, an uncertainty or failure of belief, he will be perfectly safe."
Nyanthus bowed like a waving anemone again. "Now I must go; the true Ritual of Elevation begins." He glided out, and a curtain-door came down behind him.
The singing and music continued, interspersed with chants. As she listened, she began to sort out some patterns to the song and ritual; what was most interesting was that there were occasional words interspersed in the ritual chant and song which simply weren't translated:
Hail the Creators, the Voidbuilders, the Makers!
Leinis mithid okee…
Blessings on the Arena, the Way to Heaven, the Test of Holy!
Illiamswon belkam dolgo…
And so on. She noticed that on those phrases the pronunciation became much more variable and ragged; some creatures probably couldn't even MAKE some of those noises normally, and as near as she could figure, this was something like having invocations in, oh, old Latin when most if not all of the worshippers didn't even know what the words meant.
The song reached a crescendo, building slowly over several minutes, and she felt chills going down her spine. It was beautiful, and alien, and solemn, and when the crescendo suddenly cut off, it was an impact as sharp and focusing as a slap. At the exact same moment, eight shimmers of green and gold light appeared in the central area, one at the beginning of each of the seven spiralling staircases of flat-topped spheres, and one at the very top, directly behind Mandallon. The gray-robed figure shivered but stayed very still; by his posture he knew that Nyanthus now stood behind him, blossomed into what appeared to be a sunburst, symbiotes hovering between the branches like flickering flames.
"Brethren of the Faith." Nyanthus' voice echoed throughout the room, though she could see no speakers, no amplification devices, and no such were detectable to her scanners. "Welcome in joy and hope and vision. Reskar vetula aen, in the words of the Creators: Behold you all a miracle! This day we are fortunate, blessed beyond those of these many hundreds of years past; this day, a new people has entered the Blessed Arena, and to them shall be given a Guide!"
So that's supposed to be the actual language of the Voidbuilders themselves? The language of the Gods? She shook her head with a slight smile as the assembled crowd – thousands of the Faith – answered with both ritual and enthusiasm. Even if it is, I have to wonder if after however many thousand years you could even recognize it. Or maybe they're pronouncing it right but have the meaning wrong. That might explain why it's not translated – the translation's only done if you actually know what you're saying. Otherwise I suppose all you'd have to do to translate some unknown text would be to try to read it aloud.
"Mandallon, long a disciple and student of the Faith, has asked for this great blessing." The crowd fell silent again. "He has meditated in the seven Gyres, and each time the light has remained clear. He has spoken with his seven teachers, and all have heard his plea. For us of the Faith, all that remains is to ask the Creators to Elevate him." Nyanthus drifted slowly in a complete circle around Mandallon, stopping as he returned to his first position. "Yet it is not only for ourselves this is to be done, but for others who are not of us, though it is of course to be hoped that one day they shall follow, or even lead, where we seek to go. Captain Ariane Austin, what say you?"
As abruptly as that, the entire attention of the chamber was focused upon her. "What say you, representative of Humanity? Will Mandallon be worthy as a guide? You know him not, yet in some wise you must judge him. Judge with your heart. Judge with your soul. Judge as one day we all shall be judged. What say you?"
Way to blindside your guest, Nyanthus. Or is it necessary by the ritual that I be totally clueless about my part in it until you hit me this way? I guess it is. She stood up and leaned slightly out, seeing the thousands of eyes and other sensing organs following her every move. Then she shouted down, and her own voice was amplified: "Mandallon, tell me why you would want to be Elevated in the name of Humanity. Not why you want to be Elevated as such, or what you could do for us, but why Humanity?"
There was a gasp and whisper throughout the gallery; she guessed that the general ritual didn't have a specific provision for the newcomers butting into the procedure that way.
Mandallon was clearly flustered and uncertain how to respond. She repeated the question, then added, to make it more formal yet to get across her point. "Answer me… answer me with your heart. Answer me with your soul. Answer me as you would answer a friend, if a friend to my people you're supposed to be."
The candidate for Elevation looked around at the staring eyes, and at the unmoving form of Nyanthus, and seemed almost ready to bolt from the stage. But somehow he got a grip on his panic, the filter-beard stopped vibrating, and he looked up at her again. "I hear and answer your question, Captain Ariane Austin, and my answer is simply this: any who dare to taunt the Molothos upon the third day of their arrival are in desperate need of a Guide!"
Ariane laughed. "Then I approve, because we'll probably get in a lot worse trouble soon enough!"
The laugh was echoed around the room. "A question and answer which has brought its own small joy and wisdom. The omens are good." Nyanthus said. "Then, Mandallon, stand and pray, for we begin. May next we speak as equals."
A new song-and-chant began, this one a clockwork tune that shifted tone each time the seven Initiate Guides took a step forward on their spiralling staircases. At each step, Nyanthus faded from view and reappeared at the top of the next staircase. She couldn't see any method to accomplish this, though at this distance of course a lot could be hidden.
Finally, in the midst of an intertwining, echoing melody, half dirge and half hymn, the seven Initiate Guides reached the high platform, whether by a scuttle, hop, step, or flow (as each was a different species). Immediately they began a rhythmic hammering chant in that untranslatable language: "Vensecor secutai peheli ix… Vensecor secutai pehili ix…"
A blue aura began to blossom around each of the Initiate Guides, and Ariane leaned forward, trying to understand. Her sensors said nothing, again, but the auras expanded, intertwined, formed a seven-pointed sapphire wall enclosing Mandallon and Nyanthus. Through that wall extended an arm, tendril, or other manipulative member of each of the Initiate Guides.
A sharp silver sparkle suddenly limned two of Nyanthus' branches; they were now edged, graceful bladed arches. One of his other branches coiled around a simple white bowl, a bowl that reflected like polished marble.
"As one of us you have studied, as one of us you have trained, as one of us you have believed. Now in ritual ancient on any world, you become one of us yet again." The arched branch-sword flicked out to each extended limb, and from each Ariane could see through her binoculars a few drops of blood (or whatever fluid passed for blood) drip into the extended bowl, which was turned with each cut so that in the end seven trails of droplets met in the center – red, green, brown, blue, varying shades of life intertwined.The blade cut Nyanthus, and she saw a vivid lemon-yellow droplet fall in the exact center of the bowl.
Nyanthus reverently dabbed Mandallon seven times with the mingled blood. "Now have you come to the finality of your training. Now have you come to the threshold of the Creators. Let them bless you. Let them heed you. Let them give to you their strength that you will serve us all," Nyanthus said, deep voice tense and focused. "Call upon them, Mandallon! Call in their tongue, and ask the blessing of the Creators upon you, and may you be blessed as we!"
Golden hair-feather plumage waving, Mandallon drew himself up and said: "Recardisea tinduk wesni; cotarey wademor tharus zatra; setsdensu kama threy!"
A blaze of blue-white fury detonated around Mandallon, kicking back even Nyanthus – who, the incredulous Ariane saw, was also surrounded by the blue aura. Mandallon, through her glasses, seemed in agony, yet transported, almost ecstatic, at the same time, giving vent to a wordless cry. A shockwave rippled out from the center, not quite damaging but palpable in its force, and still her sensors registered almost nothing. Oh, they sensed the passing shockwave, but not what would have been necessary to cause it. What the hell…?
It seemed forever the lights warred in the center of the amphitheatre, but in actuality it was only moments before the blue faded and Mandallon stood… garbed not in grey but in perfect green and gold, glittering and new.
Ooooo…kay. I'm not sure that's exactly my favorite word "creepy", but we've definitely hit a whole new level of WTF weird.
Boy, am I going to have some questions…
Yeah, I'd have some questions after that, too!